--originally published in CRYSTAL DRUM 23
A little bell jingled as I opened the diner door.
I entered. The air was just as stuffy and oppressive in here as it had been outside. I walked up to the counter, selected a stool, and sat down.
I ordered. Cheeseburger, dill pickle, chips and fries to mop up the grease. Coffee. Ancient encrustations of ketchup and mustard adorned the counter-top.
Along the stool sat a few dull solos, men and women alone. One elderly couple sat there silently. Three fat schoolgirls sat in a booth by a window, quiet and motionless. A young man wearing a neck-tie sat alone at a table, a black briefcase on the floor beside him. The ceiling fan revolved slowly. A fly dozed on the salt shaker in front of me. Another fly buzzed dully through the heavy air, tumbled into a napkin dispenser, and fell to the counter-top; it landed on its back, wriggled its legs apathetically, then lay still.
The counter-girl looked almost asleep. Her eyes were half-closed, her mouth half-open. Her stare was in the direction of the window, lonely and unfocused.
I put a quarter in the tiny counter juke box, punched in my selection. The thing emitted a few garbled sounds, coughed, then whirred down through a bleary and crumbling decrescendo into silence. Not a sound.
The counter-girl, wiping her greasy hands on her apron, began to yawn. Her mouth opened wide, sucking in air; her eyes closed--and then suddenly opened. From her open mouth, between her parted lips, sounds emerged. She began to sing.
Slow and sweet came the words; a head or two popped up along the counter. The juke box suddenly clanked back into life: low violins swept forth from its tiny speakers.
The counter-girl stood up straight, her eyes focusing. Her voice rose in strength and purpose. The fat schoolgirls stood up beside their booth and formed a chorus.
The music rose, turned sharp and brassy. The faces of the elderly couple crinkled with merriment.
Flinging her apron aside, the counter-girl leaped on top of the counter. Her dress was short and white and tight. She spread her arms and sang out, heels clicking, legs pumping. The young man in the neck tie scrambled to the top of his table. He answered the counter-girl in song. Other voices rose. The fly wriggled its legs.
The young man back-flipped down to the floor, landing on his feet. He went to his knees, wringing his hands, pleading pleading with the counter-girl, who glared down at him, hands on hips.
The beat was quick and snappy.
Customers were spinning on their stools.
The young man turned and snapped open his briefcase. He pulled forth a big bunch of bright flowers, and showed them to the counter-girl, whose face softened into a smile.
Cymbals crashing, the young man sprang to the top of the counter. Down on one knee, pleading, he extended to the girl the flowers.
She approached slowly, her white dress screaming. The fat schoolgirl chorus sang, kicking their legs in unison. Everyone at the counter sang background.
The young man smiled with fierce hope: the girl's eyes sparkled. Drums rolled and rattled as the two approached, inch by inch drawing nearer, their faces and bodies alive and young and strong and urging powerfully towards each other-- the song and dance of healthy life. Their faces drew nearer; their mouths opened. The customers clinked spoons against coffee mugs, tossing shredded napkins into the air like confetti or rice at a wedding. The girl's tongue darted in her mouth. Their eyes were just inches apart, burning and gleaming. They extended their arms to embrace--
A little bell jingled as the Diner door opened. A customer entered, selected a stool, and sat down.
The counter-girl completed her yawn
I finished my burger, squeegeed up the grease with my fries, bolted down my coffee, paid the bill, left a tip, and left that hot, oppressive stifling place, passing through the doorway into the bald street of the blank day.
--originally published in CRYSTAL DRUM 70
by Verma Grego
It had been my habit for several years to spend my vacation with Indian friends in the state of Nayarit, Mexico, whenever possible. I was living in South Gate, California, in the year 1960, working long hours in a plant that made freezers to ship to the U.S. Military. One of my duties was to termite-proof the lumber that went into the freezers with creosote spray. I did special carpentering jobs that cropped up and, because I was of Mexican descent and bilingual, I was quickly advanced to the position of supervisor over some thirty Mexican employees, an unending responsibility since they shifted jobs frequently, were more inexperienced than experienced, unskilled, reticent, and spoke little or no English.
Two years without a vacation was pressing hard on me. I knew I must get away. The thought of the Nayaritas, my easy going friends in Nayarit, the outdoor life, the simplicity, the plodding, sloe-eyed Sofia, made each day at the plant an eternity.
I always took gifts. Cartons of chewing gum, perfumed soap, ball-point pens, ribbons, lipstick, jawbreakers, and costume jewelry.
I asked for three weeks vacation, reluctantly granted by my boss, and set about in a delirium of shopping. Two days later, loaded to the chin, I caught a bus to Mexicali, across the borderline from Mexico, took a second bus to La Penita, Nayarit, then a third bus to El Venada, Nayarit.
Excitement heightened as I neared my destination. Stately palms, the serene landscape began to feed my starved soul. Away from high rise buildings, endless pavement and rushing traffic gave me a mental calm.
After bumpy miles of travel, I reached El Venada at 11 AM. My arrival brought the Nayaritas running to meet me, screeching in recognition. Men, women, and children greeted me, shaking hands, touching my clothing, speaking in broken Spanish, "You've been away too long, amigo."
They accepted the gifts, chattering with delight, chewing gum, candy, admiring the toys. Fruit was brought to me on hand-decorated wooden trays, golden red mangos, big purple prunes, bananas and honey. That night a splendid supper was served: deer meat, turtle, river shrimp, tortillas and beans.
A bed was built especially for me in one of the huts. I looked on lazily while two of the young, energetic bucks cut four V-shaped stakes from a pine tree and hammered them into the ground, about cot-size apart. Two six-foot pine poles were then laid length-wise, and fitted into the stakes. Next came bamboo poles, cut skillfully with a machete, and placed side by side across the pine poles to form a platform. Twelve-inch needles, threaded with thick cord, were used to weave the bamboo poles securely together. Next deer skins were thrown over the bamboo poles and on top of them colorful, hand woven blankets. A masterpiece! I slept that night as one dead.
While there, we went duck hunting on the San Francisco River. We watched for deer, spending twilight hours in a tree near the river where they cane to drink. The Nayaritas kill only to satisfy hunger. The catch is dragged home, cleaned and gutted, then portioned out to the villagers.
Fishing was done with small sticks of dynamite carried by hand. When a school of fish was spotted, the dynamite was lit and hurled into the river. On explosion, several young braves dived into the water and tossed the floating fish out onto the bank. This must be done quickly and with precision, or the swift current will carry the fish downstream. The fish are gutted and shared by all.
I lingered several days, eating, resting, sleeping. Then I said, "Tomorrow I must go to Los Planes to see Ignacio. And," I added, "Sofia."
"Si, amigo," they nodded, grinning. "Ah, that Sofia."
Los Planes was another small, isolated Indian village, consisting of some thirty huts, mostly palm huts, a few bamboo and mud, six adobe, about seven hours away on slow donkey back. There were no real roads leading to Los Planes, mostly narrow paths, therefore no buses.
My friends loaned me two donkeys, one to ride, the other carried my belongings and gifts. We left at sun up, clumping over wildly beautiful meadows, splashing through shallow streams, winding under towering pines and giant palms. Blue blue sky overhead, only one steady sound, the cop, clop of hooves. And me-- singing at the top of my lungs!
Los Planes is surrounded by trees plush with guayabas. Red, yellow hanging beauties, so large I could barely hold on in my hand. I thought about two years ago, when I last visited Ignacio-- first rising at dawn, sauntering to the creek to wash up in the clear crystal stream, then stuffing my mouth with guayabas. I couldn't wait!
I found Ignacio near his palm house on the hill. We clasped hands, sizing each other up with locked gaze.
Pleasure squeezed my heart. The little village below was a setting of delight, walled by rolling green hills. A stream gushed from higher up, flowing under trees, past the village, flashing bands of silver as it caught the late afternoon sun. I sucked in my breath. Ignacio waited.
After a while I asked, "Sofia?"
"She's gone for the day. She'll show up in the morning for her corn. You timed your coming right, amigo. We are in need of fresh meat."
By now, the natives had wind of my presence. They came up the hill, children on the run, followed by parents and slower grandparents. Three lovely maidens welcomed me with trays of fruit, nuts, and tortillas. They were ecstatic over the simple gifts I passed around, thanking me over and over, "gracias, amigo, gracias."
I don't know when I fell asleep. The hammock I was sitting in became my bed. The world passed away.
A tinkle in the distance awakened me the next morning at barely dawn. Sofia. She was coming for the ears of corn Ignacio laid out for her in the lean-to at the side of his hut. Ignacio had raised Sofia from birth. As she grew, he placed a collar with a bell around her neck, so she could be heard all over the countryside, protecting her from the same fate her mother had suffered. Sofia came and went at will, nuzzling Ignacio, impatient for her corn. Corn was her weakness.
Often, in the early morning hours, when she appeared for her treat, a fine buck tagged along at her heels. Untamed and fearful, the buck would wait at a distance for her return. Ignacio's window faced the path that Sofia trod. He could easily make out if Sofia had a swain waiting below. If in need of meat, he would pick off the puck with ease. After the kill, Ignacio would blow a bullhorn three times to announce fresh venison, to be shared by all.
Sofia was never perturbed. She was petted and adored by everyone. She had no reason to fear the pop of a gun.
"Venir, amigo!" Ignacio was standing over me.
"Si, amigo!" The hammock swayed under me as I raised up. What a night of sleep! I still had my shoes on. I leaped off and followed Ignacio. The tinkle was closer. But this time Sofia was alone. I exclaimed, "Sofia's getting fat!"
"She's ready to have a baby," Ignacio said.
Sofia did not come for her corn the next morning. When she did appear, she was lean and hungry. "Ha!" Ignacio said, patting her, giving her extra corn. "You're skinny again."
"I wonder where the baby is," I mused.
"Hiding in the bushes somewhere," Ignacio said.
As soon as Sofia ate her fill, she started down the path. I followed. I had to see her young! About a mile away, behind heavy brush, Sofia stopped. I edged closer, awed by the sight of two satin mouths pumping her teats with force. Twins! Impulsively, I dashed forward, yearning to touch them. Instantly they disappeared.
Sofia was unruffled. I laughed, rubbing her ears. "You knew I was following you all the time, didn't you? All right, I'll leave you alone to round up your babies-- on one condition. Bring us a big, fine buck tomorrow. Promise?"
It was scarcely dawn the next morning when we heard the tinkle of Sofia's bell drawing closer, a companion at her heels.
"Oh, that Sofia," I said, shaking my head in disbelief, "she's a jewel."
That night, fresh deer meat was included in our evening meal.
copyright 1999, 2000 by Verma Grego. Originally appeared in Crystal Drum 69
"I think she likes me, " Keith whispers, hand shielding the lower half of his face as if to deter any lip readers who might be present at the Body Shoppe, tonight.
On stage, Raven subtly wipes the center pole with a sheer black scarf before humping her pussy against it. She's a small, hard-bodied Latina with hair down to her ass like a silk curtain, and a perversely plump pussy three sizes too big for her. From behind it almost looks like a set of balls hanging down. Her breasts are small and taut, stiletto nipples are dark like her blood puddle eyes. She watches me watch her as she shimmies down the pole.
"You hear me?"
"Yeah, I hear you, Keith, and I think you're full of shit. Now shut up."
The spell is broken. Looking back at the stage, Raven has turned her attention to an old bastard sitting opposite me. An old bastard with much more money than I have. Raven bends down to rub her tits in his face, and I get an eyeful of ass.
A Marilyn Manson tune roars from the army of speakers positioned around the club. Dimly, I can hear Keith rambling on beside me. "You didn't see Passion talking to me? She was over here for quite a while."
See, this is why I hate bringing Keith with me to the strip joints. He invariably finds a heavy-breasted blonde to obsess upon, dropping all his money in a feeble attempt to convince said stripper that he's groovy enough to be her man for the night. Granted, I've made a few of these ladies car payments, but, at least, I've always maintained an air of reality.
"I saw you talking to that blonde, Keith. And I also saw you buy her a few drinks."
And this is how beaver shacks make the real money. Separating desperately lonely guys like Keith from their hard-earned dollars by taking advantage of their pathetic desire for intimate conversation with beautiful women who would ordinarily ignore them. So Passion clocks Keith salivating over her speed-bag sized tits and her pubic hair trimmed to the shape of a heart and right away she knows a private dance won't be enough. She approaches, all smiles, pushing her knockers in his face and almost knocking him into my chair. "How ya doin', baby?" She says.
Before Keith can even tell her he's got a hard-on as big as her head, a waitress hustles over and asks if he would like to buy the lady a drink. Of course, Keith can't convince Passion to come home with him if he can't talkto her so he opts to buy her a large "drink". Now, you or I plunk down four bucks per glass of piss-warm watered-down beer. For a large glass of water, which undoubtedly comprises her "drink", Keith parts ways with twenty bucks. It roughly equals ten minutes of Passion's half-naked tolerance.
"Yeah, I bought her a few drinks. So what? She was all over me."
When the song ends, Raven climbs down from the stage with her leather bra and panties in her hand. She makes a beeline for the old bastard with all the cash. I bet he doesn't give a shit about Raven's conversational skills, either. He wants a closer look at that plump pussy. I tidy up the stack of dollar bills in front of me as the deejay reminds the Saturday night crowd that cruelty to animals will not be tolerated. No choking chickens or spanking monkeys in the bathroom. I feel oddly disappointed though I fully intended to wait until I got home for the old five knuckle festivities.
"Are you listening to me, Tommy?"
"I'm trying not to."
"She gave me her phone number."
"Another one for your disconnected collection, huh?"
"Keith... All I'm saying is that she's a corvette. You follow?"
"And you've never driven anything better than a Pinto. And you never will. You don't even have any business at the dealership. You dig?"
"You're a real asshole. You know that?"
How could I forget. Keith reminds me every time we come here. I'm the asshole every time he believes he can sweet talk his desperate way into a stripper's luscious life only to be cruelly rebuffed. With every fake, disconnected number given, I'm the asshole. Every twenty spot dropped. I'm the asshole for not supporting his fantasy.
Then, the deejay introduces Rage, and I no longer have any time to worry about Keith's trip. I compulsively tidy up the stack of bills in front of me. Take another cringing gulp of warm, skunky beer. Light a cigarette, coolly, as if to show I'm not some punk to trifle with. I'm a real man.
Rage makes her entrance with a little Metallica. A softer number from one of their more recent albums. Rage wears a silky, sinister red robe with a hood that obscures most of her face. Only a puff of flaming hair escapes from the cloak. And legs. Nothing but legs. Smooth, creamy white, beautifully sculpted calves.
She begins collecting dollars immediately. She ain't getting shit from me until the cloak comes off. I don't give a fuck how god damn gorgeous those legs are.
"Why are you always putting me down, man," Keith mewls from somewhere out of my line of vision. "You think she'd sit here and talk to me for thirty minutes just because she wanted my money?"
I gotta look at Keith, now. Glassy eyes, quivering lip. A little too much ass and booze, I guess. I reckon I'm gonna have to hear about how much he hates his life for the rest of the night.
"It was more like twenty minutes, Keith. And if you think Passion or any other stripper in this fucking building wants anything more than all your money, you don't need to be here."
"Excuse me, gentlemen. Am I interrupting anything?"
Rage ... towering over me. Cloak sprawled on the floor behind her. Legs spread defiantly. Legs like three miles of pristine highway converging at a bubblegum pink inverted camel toe fringed with a fiery shock of pubic hair trimmed to a Hitler mustache above her lips. My eyes travel up her flat navel. Tits like two generous scoops of French Vanilla ice cream topped with cherries. Ocean eyes. Pouting oxblood lips...
I smile sheepishly. She does not return it. Instead she sits down in front of me, puts her legs on either side of my head and inches her ass forward until my cheeks are massaging her thighs and my nose is only an inch away from her strawberry scented cooter.
"Do I have your attention, now?" Rage asks.
I nod my head slowly. If my tongue were a centimeter longer I could probably lick her lips. Carefully, I slide my wallet out of my back pocket. I really think this one likes me.
by Nathan Graziano
Kevin hovered over her with his elbows locked. Her breath steamed a palpable mixture of lust and anxiety. He planted hard, rapid pecks on her lips with a closed mouth hoping that somewhere in the succession he would find the restraint to make the right decision. He knew in his mind what was right. He knew he'd already crossed too many lines.
"I want you. I want to do this," she said reaching her hands around his back and pulling him in towards her.
Kevin knew if they weren't naked, if the room had a little more lighting, if her warm flesh against his own didn't make him twitch and tingle, he could've stopped. The knowledge of that fact made him feel somewhat better as he pushed his hips slowly forward sliding inside of her. She moaned. He did it. There was no going back now.
A few moments later that feeling started to build in him. He panicked. They had only been forty-five seconds, and his only hope was to hold out the full minute. He tried distracting himself with thoughts of his mother, the Boston Red Sox batting order, walking bare foot over a pile on hot coals. It was no use. He gritted his teeth and exploded inside the condom. His hips relaxed and his body fell limp on top of her.
She ran her fingers through his hair and kissed his earlobes. "That was the best I've ever had, Mr. Cohen," she whispered.
The comment hit Kevin like a brick across the nose. There was no denying it. She was, for a fact, sixteen years old.
After dropping Gina off two blocks down from her parent's house, Kevin decided to drive around rather than going straight back to his apartment. He'd lived in Deny, New Hampshire for four years. He accepted a position teaching high school English right after finishing college and enjoyed his job and somewhat comfortable life. It wasn't until his ex-girlfriend, Julie, left him and moved to Boston with the drummer of an Aerosmith cover band called Sweet Emotion that things started to come slowly apart. He took it hard, spending long nights drinking Heinekens in the dark. Gina showed up at the wrong time. He was still rebounding. She was aggressive, showing up after school for extra help, flaunting her nubile parts in tight shirts and short dresses. She taunted, begged Kevin to see her outside of school to "talk." Finally his resistance, along with his good sense, dissolved.
Kevin reached into his glove compartment and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He placed one between his lips and pushed in the car lighter. He bought a pack of Marlboros before he picked up Gina earlier that night. He'd quit for two years and seven months. He inhaled.
Kevin drove past the coffee shop that he and Julie used to go to when they needed to get out of the apartment and didn't have the money for beer. He remembered how she used to place ice cubes in her coffee and drink it down fast ignoring the taste and craving the caffeine. It was before she started using amphetamines and before she started going out with her musician friend and fucking him for coke.
Kevin parked his old pick-up truck in a side street next to the cafe. He contemplated stopping for a cup of coffee, but kept driving instead. He weaved through the streets barely conscious of the road. Gina's naked body spread out on the couch remained etched in his mind. The way she took off her bra and that first glimpse of her young breasts aroused him as he drove. He saw her picking up her clothes, giggling and carrying the bundle into the bathroom to change after the sex. It produced a sick, yet illicit churning in his stomach. Then a feeling, his first real comprehension of the severity of what he'd done passed over him. Dread and panic. The school board, the police, jail. He slammed on the breaks just before rear-ending a white Mercedes. He looked at the clock on the dashboard. It was already 11:32, and he had to teach in the morning.
A familiar silence filled the classroom. Kevin removed his glasses, wiped them on his tie and repeated the question.
"So why do you think George killed Lenny at the end?"
He looked around at the students. Four or five of them had their heads down cradled between their arms. A few of them flipped through the pages of their battered copies of Of Mice and Men pretending to search for an answer. He saw a note being passed in the back of the room from a notorious pot dealer with long red hair, a "Kill 'Em All" Metallica T-shirt and a face full of acne to one of the more popular cheerleaders. He walked towards the back of the room and intercepted it before she could read it. He opened the folded paper and perused the contents. "Meet me under the bleachers after school," it said. He crumpled it up, reprimanded them with a stem look and tossed it in the garbage can.
"Anyone? Why would George shoot his best friend? Does this indicate that they weren't friends at all? Why did George shoot Lenny?" A hand went up. He looked over at Gina sitting upright and smiling.
"Yes... Gina," Kevin said. Her name felt thick rolling off his tongue. His heart began to race, pattering in his chest. He took off his glasses and wiped them with his tie again.
"Because he loved Lenny," Gina said, fidgeting in her seat. Kevin became dizzy and sat down on the top of an empty desk on the other side of the room. His mouth dried up and a thin layer film covered his tongue. "Good." Kevin said weakly, "Explain what you mean by that?"
Gina stuck out her chest as she composed what she was going to say. The picture of her body naked on his couch crept into his thoughts. He placed his hand over his face and wiped the sweat off his forehead before looking back at her.
"Well... George, like, loved Lenny. He knew Curley wanted to kill him because Lenny, like, killed his wife, but didn't really mean it. So George started telling Lenny about the rabbits and stuff, so Lenny would be happy before he died. He did it because he really was his friend. When you really love somebody, you'll do anything for them, you know? You care about them more than you care about yourself. Even if it means doing things that you know are, like, wrong?" Gina stared at him with a cool gaze that burned through his skin.
There was another long, onerous silence and a couple of sleepers lifted their heads to see what was going on. Kevin's heart continued pounding. He looked around the classroom and all eyes seemed to be focused on him. He coughed nervously and tried to put his book down on the desk he was sitting on, but it fell to the floor. He leaned over to pick it up as the bell rang.
Kevin looked up at the class like a helpless animal frightened by the bell. The students began gathering their books and made their way to the door. Frazzled, he fought to get one last word in above the chatter and noise of the moving bodies. "Ummm... very good, Gina. If you haven't finished reading Of Mice and Men, make sure you have it finished by tomorrow," Kevin said in a loud voice hoping to get the attention of the students who were still straggling out of class. He put his head between his hands and took a couple of deep breaths. He felt a finger tap his shoulder.
Gina stood in front of him with her books covering her chest. She smiled shyly at Kevin and reached into her books pulling out a folded piece of loose leaf.
"See you tomorrow, Mr. Cohen," she said handing him the note. Kevin forced a weak smile back at her. She leaned over to kiss him on the cheek as Kevin jumped from the desk and walked quickly towards the chalkboard. "Yes, see you tomorrow, Gina," he said over his shoulder. As Gina left the classroom, Kevin sat down on the chair behind his desk and tried compose himself for the class coming in. He unfolded the note and laid it down flat on his desk.
Can I see you tomorrow night? Let me know. Love, Gina. The handwriting was in neat cursive with small hearts dotting the I's.
Kevin tore the note into small pieces and stuffed it in his pocket. A few students from his next class began to sit down.
"I fucked up, man. I mean, I really fucked up." Kevin reached for his pack of cigarettes and lit one blowing a cloud of smoke in Dan's face.
"What'd ya mean? Did you kill Julie's new boyfriend? Cut him up in little pieces, bag him and stuff him in your freezer?" Dan smiled and took a sip from his beer.
"No! I didn't kill anyone. But I really fucked up, man. This one may be the end of me," Kevin said.
"What'd ya fuck a student or something?"
Kevin looked solemnly up at Dan, then turned his head blowing another mouth full of smoke in the opposite direction.
Dan's eyes grew wide. "You didn't!? You're kidding me, right? You would never... no way, man! You got to be bullshitting me." Dan reached over and grabbed Kevin by the shirt collar pulling Kevin close enough to feel his breath on his face. It smelled a stale beer and mint chewing tobacco.
"I'm serious, man. I fucked up! I mean, really, really fucked up. I don't know what to do." Kevin flinched, bracing himself for a punch he knew wouldn't come. In the thirteen years Dan and Kevin had been friends, Dan had never hit him. He was considerably larger and brawnier than Kevin. Dan had excelled in football and womanizing in high school. However, his grades were too low to get into any four-year college, and his football talents couldn't quite secure him a scholarship. He considered the military but went to work landscaping for the town right after graduation instead. He met his wife at a New England Patriot's game the next year and married her six months later. After getting married, Dan settled down and become somewhat of a moral activist-- swearing off womanizing and misogyny and verbally battering those who behaved like what Dan called "his old self " His wife was a Bom-again Christian, and although Dan never bought into it himself, her Bible preaching had still somewhat changed Dan.
"How old is she? She's at least eighteen, right?" Dan released Kevin's shirt and pushed him back into his chair.
"No, man. She's only sixteen," Kevin said as his voice began to crack and his legs went numb.
"You shithead," Dan said in an angry voice only a decimal above a whisper. "You realize you can go to jail for that, right? What were you thinking? What the fuck were you thinking when you stuck it in a sixteen year old?"
Kevin didn't have an answer. He reached into his pocket and felt the torn note Gina had given him class. He let the ink bleed on his sweaty palms, clutching it tight, balling his fingers into a tight fist and punching his own thigh. He felt tears starting to well in the corners of his eyes.
"What are you going to do? Do you think she's going to tell anybody?" Dan took another slug off his beer- his eyes never leaving Kevin's face. He slammed the bottle down on the table and waited for a response.
"I don't think so. But she wants to see me again... tomorrow night," Kevin said.
"You stupid, Buttafucco motherfucker. What are going to do? Are you going to see her?"
"I think I better. I mean, I think I should probably talk to her. She's a nice girl, Dan. Not the kind of girl that would screw her teacher to brag to her friends or to get a grade. She's a decent student. But I think she's fallen for me." Saying those words sent another surge of fear through Kevin. She had fallen for him.
"You're right... you really fucked up," Dan said shaking his head like he'd just been slapped across the cheek.
Kevin lit another cigarette off the end of his last one and ordered another double-scotch on the rocks. He inhaled deeply. He could hardly believe he quit smoking for two years.
She waited on the same comer, two blocks from her house. Kevin watched her shadow in the streetlights drop on the pavement like black silk. He watched her as he hid behind a car parked on the side of the road. His own car parked another block down. He told her as she was leaving class on Friday to wait for him at 7:30. Gina smiled and blew a kiss over her shoulder as she was walking out the room.
Gina removed some lipstick and a mirror from her pocket book and applied an extra layer to make her thin lips took fuller. Her long brown hair was down and softly caressing the mid-section of her back. She wore a tight black dress and pair of black pumps. From a passing glance, Kevin thought, you'd guess she's at least eighteen, if not older.
Gina kept looking around, waiting. Her brown eyes scared that she might get caught standing alone on the street on a Friday night. Or even worse, he might not show up. Kevin felt his stomach drop and a heavy sullenness overcame him. She was only a girl-- young, impressionable, desperately trying to shed the skin of her own adolescence for a more desired womanhood. He wanted to go over to her and take her in his arms and assure her that everything would be all right. He wanted to hear from her that she'd get over it and remember him as her teacher, not some stiff cock who abandoned her after a quickie. He remembered Dan in high school, and the girls who approached him in the hallway throwing fists at him with their eyes splotched red from long nights of crying. Kevin never wanted to this to happen. He was lonely, heart-broken, vulnerable and careless. He never meant to do it to Gina. She was only a girl. A girl waiting on a cold street corner for headlights to appear and a warm car to carry her away-- way from what was in front her-- a silk shadow.
Kevin turned the corner and began walking back to his car. He was going back to his apartment, and Gina would keep waiting. He wondered just how long she'd wait before reaching for someone to talk to. Someone to tell.
Kevin sat behind his desk organizing papers, pens, files and glancing at the door as the students began filtering into the classroom. He kept waiting for her. Friday night after returning to his apartment he sat down and began composing a long letter. An incriminating document, but it was his last hope at saving his conscience and career. He pleaded for Gina's understanding and profusely apologized. He kept the letter neatly folded in his pocket. He was going to give to her with a verbal apology after class. All weekend he prayed. Kevin prayed to some higher power that Gina wouldn't open her mouth, and the letter would clarify things between them. Gina walked into the class. Kevin looked up. They caught eyes for a second, then they both looked down at the floor. Gina shuffled across the room to her desk, sat down and folded her hands. Her face hinted nothing; not giving a Kevin a small clue to work off.
"Okay, will everyone take out their homework from Friday," Kevin said standing up from his desk and Approaching the center of class. "Please pass it to the front."
Gina reached back and grabbed a small stack of papers, She handed them to Kevin with her head turned and her arm outstretched. She didn't look at him.
"Thank you, Gina," Kevin said softly.
She ignored him.
The period passed slowly. Each word out of Kevin's mouth seemed to stick to his lips for a short eternity before finally finding sound. He kept glancing over at Gina while other students took turns reading aloud from a handout of "The Chrysanthemums" Kevin had passed out. He felt himself shiver when Elisa Allen found her pot broken on the side of the road after being used and conned by the wily traveler. He looked over at Gina who kept her head down and listlessly flipped through pages in her notebook.
The bell finally rang.
"Gina, can I see you for a second?" He put his hand in his pocket and clenched his fist around the letter.
Gina stood in front of him restlessly looking around the room. Breathing heavy. She had her books wrapped in her arms in front of her chest.
Kevin sat down on a desk, removed his glasses and wished for the right words to arrive. "Gina, we need to talk."
"About what?" Gina said playing dumb.
Kevin took a deep breath as he kept the letter in his hand. "About what happened between us," he said.
"Gina? You coming?" A voice came from the doorway. A young man stood there with his books tucked under his arms like a football. "Oh, hey, Mr. Cohen. How's it going?"
Kevin paused for a moment, stunned. "Not too bad, David. What are you doing here?" Kevin had David in class when he was freshman. David was one of the more popular students-- a football player and conventionally handsome, although not the exactly the scholarly type.
"I'm waiting for Gina," David said smiling and hopping from one foot to the another like he was warming up for a fight.
Kevin looked at Gina who kept her head down. "I think that's great," Kevin said to David with feigned enthusiasm. "That's great, Gina." as voice dropped to a whisper.
"I gotta go, Mr. Cohen," she said, "I have to get to biology." She pushed her way past Kevin and met David in the doorway with a long, open-mouthed kiss. Kevin watched for a second and turned back to his desk. His hand still clutching the letter. He let it fall back into his pocket and wiped his sweaty hand on the leg of his pants.
"See ya later, Mr. Cohen," David said as he and Gina disappeared in the noisy hallway.
Kevin reached back in his pocket, took out the letter and tore it into pieces. He looked at the scraps laying in his palm, then put them back in his pocket. He felt the torn paper slipping through his fingers. He tried to smile at the first student who walked into class, but it felt wrong. Forced. He needed a cigarette. He could hardly believe he had quit for two and a half years.
(copyright 2000 by Nathan Graziano. Originally published in Crystal Drum 74)
A DAY AT THE BRICK WORKS
Of all the places that we were told in no uncertain terms not to play near, our favorite was the abandoned brick works. It was located just outside of town-- you had to cross the railroad trestle foot bridge 60 feet above the Peckman River, you had to follow a path that skirted the edge of the quarry, and you had to pick your way through a junk yard full of mildewed sofas and Chevy suspension systems to reach it, and then you had to hop the fence to get inside the grounds. Unlike most of the places our parents warned us to avoid, the brick works was legitimately dangerous; there were large, unstable stacks of bricks all over the place, and large cooling towers, and piles of unidentifiable waste material, and strange, perfectly round pits of varying depth; the place was an obvious death trap, and there were signs all over the place spelling this out in detail, warning against trespassing and listing all sorts of fines and punishments for unauthorized people caught on the grounds. We used to go there for picnics.
Sometimes it would be just Calvano, Picarillo, and me, and other times Calvano's brother Duff would come, and from time to time we would encounter picnickers from the nearby towns of Cedar Grove and Montclair and Caldwell. Sometimes there was a watchman on duty, but he always parked his car in the shade of the biggest cooling tower, where it was visible from the junk yard, and when we caught sight of it, we would find a likely looking decayed sofa, jump up and down on it a little bit to scare off the bugs and eat our lunch right there. But lunch always tasted better inside the brick works.
One afternoon, after we had finished our lunch and dumped our refuse in the deep pit which was, by common consent, used as the garbage hole, we were skulking around the brick works and took a path we'd never taken before; it lead down hill, past some small buildings that looked vaguely like industrial versions of beach cabanas, and terminated in a tailings pond. Actually it was more like a puddle than a pond, and the water was remarkably foul-looking and foul-smelling. We circled it. "I gotta feeling something's IN there," said Calvano. Undoubtedly, something was-- mostly, whatever refuse you could rinse out of the big kilns after a busy day of brick manufacturing-- but we knew what Calvano meant-- he meant something ALIVE. Something MUTATED. Something probably not unlike the hideous, flesh-eating Mud Beast in the most recent issue of Tales From the Tomb. "I think I see a b-bubble," said Picarillo. We began to back up the path. I thought I saw a b-bubble, too. But we were tough, gutsy kids, and we waited till we were a good 20 or 30 feet from the pond before we broke into a run.
We were all at that awkward age when you know there's no such thing as a mutant Mud Beast, and yet you wish there could be; when you know better than to mention to anyone that you saw the air bubbles of a creature rising to the surface of the pond because it sensed the presence of fresh meat, yet you can't stop yourself because it's far and away the most interesting thing that's ever happened to you, even though, of course, it didn't.
"You're all morons," said Calvano's brother Duff. "Everybody knows about the pond. It's a tailings pond, it's just the place they dumped their garbage. It's only like three feet deep. We go without rain for a couple weeks, and it dries up till it rains again. You know what's under there, when it's dried up? Scuzz."
"What kind of scuzz?" said Calvano suspiciously.
"Gloppy scuzz at first, then crusty scuzz. Smelly scuzz at first, then not-so-smelly scuzz when it's been dried out for a while."
Picarillo was sitting on the edge of the bed, playing with Calvano's rubber deluxe werewolf mask. "I saw this boat in the mud, down by the Peckman, when we were crossing the trestle the other day. One of those little boats? With the flat ends?"
"A punt," said Duff. "So?"
"I'm just thinking. Suppose we got that boat and stuck it in the pond, right? We charged kids like 50 cents or something to float out into the middle of the pond. Told them there was a monster in the pond. Had 'em sitting there for five minutes with
"Five minutes is a long time to go with nothing happening," said Duff.
"Yeah. And they'd all be complaining, wanting their money back and stuff."
"And then--" Picarillo stuck his fist in side the werewolf head and pumped it into the air. "--this MONSTER HEAD comes boiling up through the water!"
"Man!" said Duff, "That is a great idea! I gotta tell you, Picarillo, I didn't think you had it in you! I thought you were maybe slightly SLOW and all, you know? You got those like squinty eyes and you're kind of big and clumsy like the kids in special class, and you wear those shirts with the tail hanging out, but that is a great idea!"
"Thank you," said Picarillo miserably.
The hardest part of the job was transporting the punt to the brick works. The punt had been pretty beat up to start with, and dragging it up the hill, past the quarry and over the fence did not improve its condition noticeably. Duff brought a roll of duct tape to repair the bigger holes in the hull. "This won't hold too long," he said. "Next time we come, we'll have to bring some of that card board that comes when you buy a new t-shirt. We'll tape a couple sheets of that over the holes, for like added strength."
Lackadaisical as he was about the punt, Duff had put a great deal of thought and work into getting the wold head to hit the surface on cue. Basically, he turned it into a low-powered rocket, with packets of baking soda and vinegar in the carefully sealed head, and an egg timer which would go off after a few minutes and rupture the vinegar bag. It took nearly 7 tries to get this to work at all, and when it did, the head bobbed to the surface upside down. "Okay," he said. "I need to weigh down the bottom of the head a little, and I need a stronger fuel. And thicker gloves, because this water is making my hands all scaly and gross."
For a couple of weeks, Duff set his not inconsiderable brain power to working out this problem. And he succeeded beyond anyone's wildest hopes.
"It's going to go in two stages," he said. "Stage one, a small charge-- no more of this baking soda and vinegar crap, either, we're talking HIGH GRADE COMBUSTIBLES-- will send all these bubbles churning to the surface. That charge, in turn, will detonate the MAIN charge, and the head will break the surface. They'll be about 5 seconds between the explosions, so everyone will be staring at the exact spot where the head will pop out. And we set off the first charge--" he held up a walkie- talkie-- "by radio! Just like bomb guys in the movies!"
"Or," said Calvano, "like when you wanted to get into the equipment shed by the football field last summer, an'--"
Duff whacked his younger brother in the head several times with the walkie talkie, the universally acknowledged signal for 'shut up.'
We crept out to the brick works very early one Saturday morning to try it out. All of us crammed into the punt, and floated to the middle of the pond. Duff carefully lowered the doctored wolf head into the water. "We don't want to be too close to this," he said, "in case something goes wrong."
What could possibly go wrong?
"HEY! YOU BOYS! WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?" It was the watchman, who, we now realized, did not show up for work until well after 9 AM. "I WANT ALL YOUR NAMES AND ADDRESSES! YOU BOYS ARE TRESPASSING! I'M GONNA PHONE ALL YOUR PARENTS!"
"My dad's name is Lawrence Talbot, The Wolf Man," yelled Duff. "He's taking a dip." He pressed the button on the walkie talkie. "HEY, DAD! SOME RUM BUCKET WANTS TO TALK TO YOU!"
The wolf head broke the surface; three quarters of the head was visible.
"Waauughh!" said the guard.
"Oops," said Duff, "A tad too much fuel. That was just the first--"
The second charge went off. The head shot out of the water and sailed a good 40 feet through the air. It was burning. The flaming head slammed into the ground and rolled back down the hill towards the pond. Before it reached us, it blew apart like a hairy rubber bomb. A chunk of burning wolf-rubber landed in the punt with us. "Oh, Christ," wailed Picarillo, "The boat's on fire! Swim for it!"
"Don't touch the water!" screamed Duff, "It'll give you crocodile skin!" He tried to stomp out the burning rubber; his foot went right through the bottom of the punt. Picarillo and I unshipped the broken pool cues we had brought along in case of an emergency and began to push the punt towards land. "My shoe is on fire," said Duff, though his foot had now been submerged for almost a full minute.
"You're gonna have a crocodile foot," said Calvano, with perhaps a trace of envy in his voice.
The guard just stared at us as we beached the punt and trudged, now headless, homeward, to watch Duff's foot mutate.
(copyright 1994, 1999, 2000 by Jeff Grimshaw. originally appeared--in slightly different form-- in The Delaware Valley News. This version from Crystal Drum 59. Audio version on the "History of Torture" cassette)
THE DEAD AIR MAN
by Jeff Grimshaw
One morning on the way to school you would notice the dead airman. What is that? And your friends would say: What? Oh, haven't you ever seen that before? It's the dead airman.
His parachute was caught in the struts of the railroad bridge, where it crosses Main Street. He was all tangled in his lines; sometimes he was wrapped up tight, flush to the bridge, like a deer tied to the hood of the car, and at other times a leg or an arm might have worked itself loose and would dangle free, swaying in the wind or bouncing crazily as a train roared across the tracks.
He wore a jump suit and jump boots and a helmet with a visor and you couldn't see his face. There was a crack in the visor. The helmet was originally white, but when they painted the railroad bridge every three years, they painted the dead airman, too. Sometimes they painted him the same color as the bridge, and you had to really look for him; and sometimes they would paint him the color of the trim, or another contrasting color, and you couldn't help but notice him.
We were in the third grade and we all wanted to be the dead airman when we grew up. Well, not the girls. The girls said they were sure he was very handsome under that visor. They would argue about whether he probably looked more like Tab Hunter or Tony Curtis. This was a long time ago.
Sometimes the dead airman would manage to get untangled and then he would wander around town for a while. He would go to the diner on Fishmeal Road and have an omelet and toast and a cup of coffee, no matter what time of day it was. He would buy a transistor radio and sit on a bench in the park and listen to a ball game. Once he went to the matinee at the Oxford Theater, where they were showing Bob Hope in "Call Me Bwana." The people who were there said the dead airman thought it was a riot. He laughed all the way through it. One girl in my class was at the matinee and the other girls were jealous. They asked her what his laugh was like. She said it was just dreamy. Though Mr. Rubin, the manager of the Oxford, told me many years later that the dead airman laughed "...like a goddamn dog barking, if you know what I mean. Ha! Ha! Ha! Arf! Arf! Arf!"
The dead airman would stroll around, covered head to toe in white paint or dark blue paint (only the front; his back, which was against the bridge when it was painted, was always orange, the original color of his jump suit) and then the next day he would be back up on the bridge. We took him for granted and were always a little surprised when kids from out of town-- visiting cousins, for instance-- said there was no dead airman in their town. Some towns did not even have a railroad bridge.
I was 11 when they cut the dead airman out of his harness and buried him. Some of the organizations in town-- the Masons, the Little League, the VFW-- had held a series of bake sales, carnivals, and bingo nights, and raised enough money to purchase a cemetery plot and a modest head stone. They asked the dead airman his name. In fact, the mayor himself (at that time it was Bill Hannigan) did the questioning: "We need a name, bub," he said. "Cavelli's gonna carve it on the stone."
He couldn't remember. He just shook his head. We all felt bad for him. The Eastern Star had kicked in enough money to have him embalmed; there was a viewing at Carpenter's Funeral Home. The dead airman wore a pinstripe suit and had his hair combed very neatly. His jump suit was folded up on a chair next to the coffin, with the helmet right on top. He sat on another chair. He was not bad looking at all. Of course, there wasn't the slightest resemblance to either Tony Curtis or Tab Hunter. He chatted with some of the mourners, and Bobby Flannagan ran to the diner to get him a chocolate soda. The dead airman gave him a dollar and told him to keep the change. He said the embalming fluid stung a little at first, but he got used to it. Mr. Carpenter said confidentially that the dead airman had been getting a little gamy and probably should have been embalmed a long time ago. Then it was time for the burial. He rode up front with Mr. Carpenter and didn't get into the coffin until everyone got to the cemetery. While he waited for things to get underway, he smoked a cigarette. This bitterly disappointed Betty Jerasco (8th grade), who maintained that only 'hoods and whores' smoked. He stepped on the smoldering butt and climbed into the coffin and the top was screwed down, and then he was lowered into the grave. A couple of weeks later they painted his spot on the bridge. Sky blue, like the rest of the bridge that year.
Within a couple of weeks, we already had a new dead airman, fastened to the bridge with shock cords. The new dead airman was wearing the old dead airman's flight suit, which had been cleaned up-- insofar as it's possible to clean up a flight suit that's been painted with half a dozen coats of exterior latex. The new dead airman had previously been a mannequin, which the Jay Cees had snapped up for a song when Fuller's Department Store went belly up that spring. There was no doubt that the town had needed a new dead airman, but this was a female mannequin. Most of the time it didn't make any difference, except when the wind blew a certain way and you could make out the hard little plaster breasts under the flight suit. Some people were amused by this, some outraged. A lot of guys started hanging out on the corner of Main and Orchard, waiting for the wind to blow. The girls told us how pathetic we were. Then one night that summer after a beer blast, a bunch of boys from the Gamma Epsilon house gathered up rocks from the vacant lot next to Fiegleson's and threw them at the new dead airman. The mannequin body was broken to pieces inside the flight suit. A few days later one of the plaster arms slipped out of the sleeve of the flight suit when a train went over the bridge. Dented the hood of Ricky Porter's Buick. If he had been there a fraction of second earlier it would have gone right through is windshield. So they removed the chunks of the mannequin and just left the flight suit strapped to the bridge. That was how it was for perhaps about 18 months.
Then Michael Garrison was the dead airman, and after that Mr. O'Brien from the lumberyard. For a couple of months during my senior year, I was the dead airman. The two hardest things about it were 1) being an airman, which required a lot more math than you would think, and 2) being dead. When you signed up to be the dead airman, you had the option of being embalmed or not being embalmed. I went for it, because I was going to be the dead airman during prom season. I took Cindy Genero. She was a knockout back then. The sad fact is, she would never have agreed to go with me if I hadn't been the dead airman. Another sad fact: I didn't care. I got to third base.
After I was the dead airman, John Fong was the dead airman. He was the first dead airman of Asian descent. In those days, the dead airman was no longer strapped to the bridge all the time. I didn't spend more than ten hours up there the whole time I served, and never more than 40 consecutive minutes. I attended all my classes, but was ineligible, I learned too late, for the track team. Still, on the whole I would have to say it was worth it.
Often, former dead airmen can be found in the back room at Hannigan's, watching Jeopardy or the Phillies on Hannigan's crummy little 13-inch TV. We like to kid around about how easy it is to tell who was embalmed and who wasn't (and it is). There have been close to 90 dead airmen now, including three females (not, of course, including the mannequin). Even the first dead airman shows up every now and then, his fingernails splintered and his pinstripe suit caked with dirt. We tell him he was the best. And it's absolutely true. Believe me, his money is no good at Hannigan's.
(copyright 1999, 2000 by Jeff Grimshaw. originally appeared in GEORGE & MERTIE'S PLACE. Reprinted in Crystal Drum 69)