From his folding chair in Patron’s Hall, at Saint Ambrose’s Cathedral, Egan vaguely watched the audience assemble. He hummed the tune to “Truckin’ Like the Do-Dah Man” to keep his thoughts at bay. He held this personal axiom that when he was in a public place, such as boarding an airplane or entering a theater, and he had even a disparaging thought, not to mention a reckless comment, about a person in the crowd he didn’t like the looks of, that person would sit next to him. Despite coincidence and the indomitable dominion of chance, it was Egan’s Law because it was empirically proven. It had happened more than twice. It seemed, in fact, to happen frequently.
When he saw a mother swat her squalling toddler over by the dairy section at the Shoprite, he leaned into his wife, Sarah, and whispered, “Mommy Beer-est.” As Egan stood in the check-out line, the mother with her screaming daughter in tow pressed up behind him, the little girl’s sticky, slurpy paws tugging on his pant leg. It’s the Law, he had muttered, and vowed to never think unkindly again.
Seated in the Hall, next to his wife, on one side, and his friend, Sam and Sam’s wife, Madeline, on the other, Egan felt safe to watch the crowd gather to hear the Manfred Salisbury lecture. He spotted a tall, stooped, rail-thin guy, with spiky black hair and a sparse goatee. The sleeves on his wrinkled long-sleeve white shirt were buttoned, and the shirt half-tucked into shiny black jeans. He had his black, quilted, down vest zipped to the throat. In the throng, the guy swiveled his head and pinballed off people, looking surly and out of place. All you need, Ichabod, is a pumpkin in your hands, Egan thought. No, no. Egan’s Law.
“What’s s funny?” Sarah said.
“No, I’m just noticing all the purples and pinks, and all the gray ponytails. I think I even saw a tie-dye. Looks like an explosion at a Grateful Dead concert.”
“Careful. Instant karma will get you,” Sarah whispered.
Egan watched Ichabod approach several empty chairs toward the front. He leaned over the seats, while the people sitting on either side looked up and leaned away, shaking their heads and gently sending him off.
To divert himself, Egan surveyed the podium. The great man himself, Manfred Salisbury, wearing a crisp charcoal business suit and cordovan tasseled loafers, sat beside an Asian monk in maroon and yellow robes, both in overstuffed leather chairs, surrounded by vast bouquets of colorful flowers.
A young woman with a rosy face and short blonde hair stepped to the rostrum and spoke into the microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight we have the privilege and pleasure of hearing Buddhist scholar and former monk, Manfred Salisbury, speak on the Buddha’s Brahma-Viharas, the four sublime states of mind.”
Egan gave his attention to Salisbury, as the revered teacher stepped to the mike and talked about what he termed the four heavenly abodes: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. We are to assume these four attitudes, Salisbury explained, and radiate them out to all beings in all directions.
Salisbury told a story about a time when he was a young man in England. He had a good friend, whom he referred to as Clive. Clive betrayed him, by seducing Salisbury’s wife, Rosemary. Clive offered to leave, if Salisbury loaned him eight hundred pounds. Clive left with Salisbury’s money, and Rosemary. Salisbury said he hated Clive, with every fiber of his being. He wished the worst things he could imagine for his former friend. He even visualized Clive getting hit and dragged by a car, having his arm severed by an airplane propeller, living homeless, with AIDS, on the streets of London. He spent so much psychic energy hating Clive, he said, he made himself physically sick. Then he heard that Clive had died of a brain aneurysm.
Salisbury said that the event brought an epiphany. He might or might not have had anything to do with Clive’s demise on a physical level, but it wasn’t even about Clive and his aneurysm. It was about how hating Clive, no matter what the personal reasons, had darkened his own life, and the power of all that psychic energy that he had generated. Creating, holding and pushing that power through his own mind, body and spirit, and then out into his universe. It is energy, and energy, Salisbury pointed out, has its own laws. Once created, energy never dies. It changes into another kind of energy, which affected Salisbury’s immediate world and the people in it. Certainly, psychic energy, as it is transformed, leaves residue in the physical and spiritual bodies. When energy is produced, some of it is wasted or it degrades. So, for all that concentrated, high-level hatred that Salisbury said he produced, so very little, if any of it, was useful as a weapon against Clive.
While Salisbury paused to sip water from a tumbler at the podium, Egan looked at Sarah. She had her head bowed and eyes closed, a tiny gold cross swinging from a fine chain necklace at her throat. Past his wife, across the room, Egan saw the thin, spiky guy, staring back at him. I fought the Law and the Law won, Egan thought.
Salisbury spoke and Egan sat back in his chair. Don’t believe a single word I have said, the great man advised. A titter moved through the audience. Instead, he continued, jump in. Commit. Just do it, as the saying goes. Change the contraction and ill-will in your heart into the four heavenly abodes. Try it. See what it means, starting today, starting this very moment.
And remember, Salisbury concluded, keep trying. If you get caught up in your own paranoia and pettiness, come back to the four attitudes. Come back, over, and over, and over again.
When Salisbury finished, he put his palms together, fingertips at the tip of his ample, hooked nose, and bowed. Members of the audience applauded politely, many returning the bow. Salisbury turned and bowed to the monk. The two of them left the podium and mingled and chatted with people who approached them. Egan stood and looked around. The beatific expressions on people’s faces, the unhooded eyes, the open body language. It was as if the herbal fumes from a Dead concert had wafted through space and time into the hall.
Egan felt a sense of well-being and resolve. From the present moment forward, he was a new man. He hugged his wife long and hard. She hugged Sam and Madeline. He looked around the room, and spotted the thin, spiky-haired guy, talking to Manfred Salisbury, about half-way to the exit. Salisbury leaned back as the guy gesticulated vigorously with his hands. The two bowed to each other and went in opposite directions. Egan watched “he-whom-he-would-not-think-ill-of” go through the doors to the outside.
Egan shook his head and smiled. The four heavenly abodes, indeed, he thought. You pretty much have to live in heaven to pull it off. He walked through the expansive hall, toward the exit with Sarah. He could see the back of Sam’s head at the door. Egan didn’t see Madeline.
“What did you think”? Sarah asked, holding on to his bicep.
“It’s the antidote to Egan’s Law.”
“It certainly seems like something to aspire to.”
“What could it hurt?”
Egan stepped with this wife out through the doors, into the crowd of people loading into cars at the curb. It seemed as busy as an airport loading zone. Egan looked for Sam and Madeline. Sam walked up and said he was going to get the car and pull it up. Maddie was waiting on the curb by a pillar. He headed to the garage.
Egan took Sarah’s hand and cut through the crowd toward Maddie, who stood next to the pillar, her mouth and hands moving, as she talked to someone on the other side of the thick concrete column.
Egan craned his neck to see whom Maddie was standing with. He saw a white sleeve in a black vest and a leg in black jeans. He caught the black spiky hair on the back of a man’s head. He veered to his side to look around the pillar. “No way,” he said. The man he called Ichabod stood with his back to the street, the heels of his black Converses hanging over the edge of the curb. He had his arms folded on his chest, as he faced Maddie. Egan considered changing directions and walking away, maybe trying to short-hop Sam, but Sarah had already reached Maddie.
“Hey, you guys,” Maddie said. “This is Jeffrey. Jeffrey, these are my friends, Sarah, and here comes her husband, Egan.”
“People,” Jeffrey said, with a chop wave.
“Pleased to meet you,” Sarah glided up next to Maddie, beaming.
Egan stood to the side, between the man and the two women.
Maddie said she had offered Jeffrey a ride, to a bus stop up on Twenty-eighth Street. “I thought it would be nice to help him out, since we’re going that direction,” Maddie explained.
Egan looked at Jeffrey, whose head tilted and trembled slightly, as he watched Maddie. Egan noticed that the man’s brown eyes were small and slightly crossed. He had a florid complexion and a long thin nose. He seemed to have a tic of wrinkling his nose, exposing his front teeth. Egan could not imagine why Maddie would invite the guy along, a total stranger, an obviously odd character. But he needed to keep away the negative, hostile thoughts. Egan’s Law was the very reason the man was along for the ride. Back to Salisbury’s compassion. Kind and loving thoughts to turn things around.
Sam appeared at the curb in his red Volvo wagon. Egan opened the back passenger-side door for Sarah, and followed her in. Jeffrey got in on the street side. Sam looked in the back, as Maddie leaned across her seat. She told her husband that the stranger needed a ride. “Just up to Twenty-eighth,” she said, closing her door and clicking her seat belt.
Sam hesitated, “What?”
His wife told him to go. “Just go!”
Stopped at the traffic light, Egan watched Jeffrey, on the other side of his wife. Egan kept one hand on Sarah’s forearm and the other on the door handle. Who is this guy? What does he want? We have no idea if he’s dangerous. He must have asked Maddie for a ride. Why else would she have offered? What if he has a weapon?
Sam looked at Jeffrey in the windshield mirror and asked him where he wanted out.
“Up ahead. Got to find a bus stop,” Jeffrey said.
Egan scoured the curb up the street for a stop. He wanted to help the guy, but he wanted him out of the car. Egan announced that he saw an MTS stop. “By that green awning. There,” he called.
Jeffrey said that that line didn’t take him where he needed to go. He shook his spiky head and wrinkled his nose.
Where do you need to go?” Maddie said, twisting her head to look in back.
Jeffrey said he was fine, not to worry. He would let her know.
Sam drove, head forward, neck rigid as rebar. Maddie kept looking back over the seat, as if she was concerned about Jeffrey’s well-being.
Sarah leaned into Egan and glanced at him, apparently as uncomfortable as he was about riding next to the obvious serial killer in their midst. Egan saw a yellow plastic handle sticking out of the guy’s front pocket. Was it a screwdriver?
Jeffrey asked where they were headed.
“We’re going to dinner,” Maddie said, looking over the seat.
“Where?” Jeffrey leaned forward.
Maddie told him Mitchell’s, on Grape Street.
Sam pounded the heels of his palms on the steering wheel.
“I could eat,” Jeffrey said.
How far do we take this? Egan thought. Do we give up our lives to being loving and kind? Salisbury said whatever the circumstance. This is a circumstance. We need to get rid of this guy.
“Up there, by the CVS, there’s a bus stop,” Sarah cried. She pointed with her outstretched arm, her index finger between Maddie and Sam
Jeffrey said, with some heat, that the buses that ran on Market did not go out to Golden Hill. He turned his body to face Sarah. “Just keep going.” His sanguine face seemed to throb crimson.
Egan felt the tension move between himself, his wife, Maddie and Sam, as if they were connected by a hot wire. Except for the road noise, the inside of the car was bound tight as a tomb.
Maddie turned her head once more. She asked Jeffrey how he knew Manfred Salisbury. “I saw you talking to him,” she said.
Jeffrey said he didn’t know Salisbury. He just went up to him. “He was a jerk,” Jeffrey spat. “He said he didn’t have time. He had to talk to some important people. It was like I had dengue fever and he wanted to get away from me.” Jeffrey said he was tempted to plant one on the guy.
Maddie suggested that maybe Salisbury did have to meet somebody.
Jeffrey smacked his lips. “Maybe he could have been a little kinder. All he talks about is being kinder.”
Egan watched Jeffrey chew on his thumb nail and glare at Maddie. Sarah leaned into Egan so hard, his ribs hurt. This guy is a bomb, he thought. Screw the Heavenly Abodes. This guy is out. He glanced at Sam’s eyes in the mirror.
Sam squinted back at him. Sam turned his head and said that they were turning up ahead on Twenty-eighth.
Jeffrey said that was fine with him. He bent forward, between the front seats, leaning over Sarah.
Sam told him that they had dinner reservations.
“I don’t mind tagging along,” Jeffrey said, his head nearly between Sam’s and Maddie’s.
Sam swerved the car to the curb, nearly clipping another car that was entering traffic. The other car honked, came around, and sped off. Sam put his arm along the back of the seat to turn and face Jeffrey. He told him it was the end of the line. He said, “There’s a bus stop on the corner right there. It’s the best we can offer you.”
Egan gripped the door handle. He guessed that the best thing would be to open the door, pull his wife out with him, tuck and roll. He watched Jeffrey, who scooted to the edge of the seat, turning his head to look out all windows. He twitched his nose, showing his front teeth.
Sam and Maddie both looked in the back. Maddie said she was sorry.
“Okay,” Jeffrey said. “If that’s the way you want it to go down.” He sat up straight and put his hands on his knees, elbows locked.
Egan worked to clear his mind. He pictured Manfred Salisbury’s tanned, smooth face. Think only good thoughts, he told himself. He didn’t want to cause this to get worse.
Jeffrey opened his door and got out. He stepped behind the car and knuckle rapped the back window twice. Sam accelerated from the curb.
“Whew!” Sarah said. “That man was strange. He smelled like rotted apples.”
Egan said that he didn’t know if Jeffrey would kill them or kiss them. He stretched his legs, as his wife slid to the opposite side of the back seat.
Maddie said that Jeffrey had asked if they could give him a ride. “I wanted to be nice,” she sighed.
Sam drove without speaking, head straight and deliberate as a hood ornament. Maddie leaned and patted his forearm. “Say something, Sammy.”
He said he didn’t think it was the best time for him to talk.
Egan suggested that they all wanted to hear what Sam thought. He said. “I think we’re all feeling it.”
Sam turned to his wife asked how she could invite a stranger like that into the car.
Maddie said that she was trying to be loving and kind. “Isn’t that what this whole evening is about?” she asked. “He seemed a little off but harmless.”
Sam asked what would have happened if the intruder had been truly deranged and dangerous, instead of just off, as she put it.
“Do we act compassionately only to people we like or approve of?” Maddie said.
Sam drove down Twenty-eighth, past the entrance to Interstate 94. The thoroughfare was fronted block after block by low-rise condos and multi-unit apartment buildings, with parked cars crowding the curbs.
Sarah spoke up and said that it would have helped if Maddie had checked with them first.
“Yes. But he was standing right there when you walked up,” Maddie said.
Egan pointed out that that was after she told him he could get in the car.
Sam said when he drove up to pick everybody up, this guy jumped in the back seat. ‘I had no idea who he was or if he was actually with us,” he said.
Maddie asked why nobody objected, if they were that concerned. She said she could tell her husband was upset, but he didn’t say anything.
Sam said he felt trapped and blindsided. The guy was already inside the car.
“Let me ask you guys.” Maddie turned to Sarah and Egan.
“Would you have said no if I had asked you when you walked up? In front of him?”
Sarah said she was not sure. But she or Egan might have given her a signal that they were nervous about it. Maybe Egan would have said something. Made an excuse, or just plain said no, sorry, try someone else. She looked at her husband.
“As it was, we were the ones trapped in the back seat, with this bizarre guy about whom we knew nothing,” Egan said.
The neighborhood along the road changed to big, rambling older two-story homes, across from a park. As far down as Egan could see through the windshield, the road ran between two rows of towering palm trees.
Maddie admitted that she should have checked with everybody first. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I put us all in a ticklish situation.”
Sam said that he wished it had tickled. “But, thank you,” he added. “I appreciate you taking responsibility.” He turned the corner on to Grape Street.
Maddie turned half around in her seat and said that she was still left with the question that she thought they had not answered. “Do we only offer our love and kindness, as Salisbury said, in situations where we feel comfortable and safe, where we are not put out and made to feel uneasy?”
Sarah responded that maybe they had to decide for themselves in each situation. “You decided and it wasn’t popular, but that doesn’t make you wrong,” she said.
Sam pulled into a parking space and turned off the car. He suggested they continue the discussion over dinner. “Or maybe we can let it go and enjoy ourselves. I don’t think the Reverend Manfred Salisbury would mind that. Do you?”
As Egan walked toward the restaurant, he spotted a very large man, with wide shoulders and a narrow waist, strutting in the parking lot. The guy wore a cheap toupee that listed left. He had on navy blue sweats, trimmed in red, and teal running shoes. With him walked a small portly woman holding an infant in her arms and leading three little kids. The man looked at Egan, who nodded his head in greeting. Probably a very good dad, Egan thought. Looks light on his feet, quick as a cat. Struggles like we all do to find a little peace and satisfaction in life. “Good evening, Sir,” Egan said and held the door open for the family to enter.
Kiss or Kill
Egan lives by his own life axiom, which he calls Egan's Law. If he thinks or speaks disparagingly about a person he sees in public, he will find that person sharing his personal space. While attending a lecture by a renowned spiritual teacher, Egan spots a disheveled, surly man whom he dubs Ichabod. The reverberations of transgressing Egan's Law bring harrowing results.
I heard that Picky wasn’t deaf, but I found myself pointing to the name tag on my chest and mouthing "Alan."
Picky lifted a small whiteboard and orange marker off his hospital bed and wrote "hi alan."
I asked him how he was doing.
He erased, wrote, and showed me "fine."
I asked him if he had much pain.
He looked at me with eyes black and dense as onyx, then at his board. He pointed at "fine."
I could smell the marker stink from ten feet away.
Picky was my first one-on-one, live patient, after I spent six months on the volunteer telephone hotline at Oregon Cancer Support Network. Picky had requested OCSN help. He lived alone and had no family.
“Are they treating you okay?” I said.
While Picky kept his head down, squeaking his pen across the board, I inspected the top of his scalp. It was the color of sawdust and covered with baby chick fuzz.
"ain't the ritz," he wrote. His smile showed brownish toothless gums.
I stepped closer to his bed. I wanted to pull the blanket up to cover Picky’s hairless scrawny thighs, sticking out of his hospital gown, but I just met the man.
I asked him if there was anything I could get him.
I could not imagine what I could do for this guy. He had lost part of his tongue to cancer. He didn’t have a soul in the world who cared enough to be there. And he didn’t seem to have any needs.
I turned down Picky’s offer of a chair and stayed standing, leaning toward the door. All the questions I thought of required more than a three-word answer, such as “How do you feel about dying? and “Why are you lying here alone?”
I said, loudly enunciating, “I just wanted to stop by and introduce myself. I will call you so I can set up a home visit, probably next week.”
Picky nodded his head and mouthed, “Thank you.” He grinned at me, in what I assumed was appreciation, but I didn’t get much warmth. His mouth had turned down too quickly. The eyes kept hooded and wary as a horned toad’s. I vowed to myself to break through, to befriend and enliven this helpless little man. As I had vowed to my sister’s memory, after she died of leukemia, to make a difference.
I patted a bump at the bottom of Picky’s bed, where I imagined his feet were, and left the room, feeling loathsome by the bleakness of the man’s life. When I pushed the button on the elevator, I thought, “Call him. Really?”
A week later, I drove into Eastmoreland, the government-assisted-housing neighborhood where Picky lived. I relayed the message that I was coming through my supervisor at OCSN and Picky’s social worker. Rolling through Eastmoreland, I watched every movement. I had read about a gang shooting in the newspaper just a week before. I parked in front of the single-story, ochre-colored duplex with Picky’s address on it. I sat, breathing deep to keep my stomach down. Maybe it was too soon. Maybe I wasn’t ready for this. I could drive away and tell them to send another volunteer. I needed more training, or maybe a client with less to deal with. This guy didn’t seem to care if he got help or not. What was I going to add to his hopeless life? My heartbeat thumped in my throat. I put my shoulder into the car door and pushed it open. Half the battle, they told us in training, is to show up.
As I stepped up the walk to Picky’s, a guy sitting on the steps of the building across the street returned my stare from behind a gray hoody. I knew I should have brought my wife’s old Toyota instead of my BWM. Ten feet from Picky’s, I heard his television. I rapped on the aluminum frame of the screen door with my knuckle. Through the mesh, I saw Picky rise from a couch and head my way.
“Hey, man, it’s Alan. How you doing?” I called.
Picky pushed on the door to let me enter.
I offered my hand for him to shake and said, “It’s good to see you, my man.”
I looked down at least a foot to the top of his head. He shook my hand, loose, moist, and quick, and spun off toward his seat. I passed a small kitchen, clean white appliances and bare counters. I sat on the couch, next to Picky. On the TV screen, Tom Selleck in a dark blue, red, and fuchsia Hawaiian shirt, jumped into a red Ferrari.
I smelled cigarette smoke, imagining that it came from the apartment next door. There was no way Picky would be smoking with part of his throat, palate and tongue gone to cancer. On an end table, next to a bulbous lime-green ceramic lamp, sat an ashtray, brimming with a smoldering pile of butts. What the hell. Was he suicidal? I should have stood, said, “Sorry, I got to go,” and walked out. The sooner, the better, for everyone. No more worrying about my car out front or what to say to this wreck of a human life. But I sat and stared at the television show. I thought about my sister. Picky didn’t need me to judge him. I could offer the slightest bit of company and consolation.
“So, how you been feeling?” I said, turning my head toward Picky and raising my voice over the volume of a commercial for a technical college.
He reached around the arm of the couch and pulled up his white board and marker. I watched him scribble "sick."
He nodded his head.
“Radiation?” I asked, looking at his thin, leathery lips as if that’s where the answer would come.
He mouthed “and chemo.” The breathy, blunted voice that came out sounded as if he were a deaf speaker.
“Brutal,” I replied.
He laid his board on his lap and went back to the television. I joined, wondering if I could sneak a look at my watch. If I lifted my arm, Picky would know what I was up to. I glanced for a clock, around the living room and small empty dinette, opposite the kitchen. The couch, two tables, lamp and TV were the only furnishings in the house. The off-white walls lay bare.
I didn’t see any point in asking Picky any more questions. When the show ended, I would excuse myself and leave. I sat on a cheap cloth sofa, in one of the worst parts of Portland, next to a small, odd man about whom I knew nothing and with whom I had nothing in common. A stranded dying stranger. My presence seemed to be enough. We were one, he and I, in space and time. A moment of truth.
As the end credits for Magnum rolled on the screen, I slid forward on the couch. It seemed too soon to get up and leave. Another episode of the same program came on. I could watch it, put in the time, and exit. I rested my back against the cushion. I thought the actors’ antics were funny, but neither Picky nor I laughed aloud. We sat three feet apart without talking. It seemed to suit him, but I felt that if I didn’t say something, I wasn’t doing my job.
During the next commercial break, I asked him how long he had lived there.
Picky turned his head and said two months, Section Eight. He could barely form the words. When the show reappeared, he picked up his white board, then laid it on the coffee table. He didn’t offer me anything to eat or drink or ask if I was comfortable.
At the end of the program, I stood and told him I would see him soon. “Take care of yourself,” I said.
I pushed through the screen door. Air entered my body and I yelped with relief. I hurried toward my car. Inside, I put the key in the ignition and thought about Picky sitting in that empty place, alone. How long was it reasonable for me to sit there with him? I held my head up, narrowed my vision, and drove away.
Two weeks later, I stood on Picky’s porch, rocking on my heels. I saw him walk toward me on the sidewalk.
“There he is now,” I said.
He looked better than the last time I saw him, but he was still stick thin and alabaster pale. He walked with a funny sort of hunched swagger. As always, I was knocked back by the flint in his eyes.
“Missed the bus,” he said, when he reached the door.
I asked if he had treatment.
“Radiation.” His speech was much clearer than before.
He went in his apartment and let the screen slam shut behind him. I pulled it open to enter. Picky stood at the kitchen counter, opening a can of Ensure. He carried it to the living room, aimed the remote at the television, and eased himself on to his couch.
Don Johnson, as Sonny Crockett, wearing a powder blue tee and silver sports jacket, stood, talking in a phone booth.
I asked how long he had been doing treatment.
“Sucks. Harder than chemo,” Picky said, glancing at me. “Saps my strength.” He sported a full set of false teeth, which made his s’s whistle.
I asked how his doctors said things were going.
He stared at me.
“Do they say when your treatment will end? Are you making progress? Do they think you can beat the cancer?”
Picky shot me an irritated look. He said no one told him anything. “Six weeks and we’ll see,” he mumbled.
I knew I would not sit on that couch for another month and a half, watching reruns, asking inane questions and dying to escape. I thought about how uncharitable I truly was.
I asked if Picky had family. It was the first personal question I had dared to ask.
He lowered the volume of the television. He told me he had a son, whom he hadn’t seen in years. He said he had spent most of his life locked up. “I drove everybody away,” he concluded.
I told him I was sorry.
“It’s not on you. I made my bed.”
I considered the new turn. Hardened ex-con, who seemed harmless, even pathetic, at the end of his road. Could I trust him? Could he trust me?
The end of Miami Vice played, and I recited my exit line. “Picky, probably time for me to get going.”
“Please stay a little longer,” he said. The first thing he had asked of me. “Please.”
I searched for an excuse but stayed seated.
During the next episode of Miami Vice, I asked him if his name, Picky, had to do with his past.
He smiled and shook his head. He said his parents named him Pickworth Z. Walker.
“Oh, my God,” I said. “I’m not even going to ask what the Z stands for.”
“Zigfried,” Picky said. “Picky Ziggy.”
We laughed hard together. He barked like a seal. I felt relaxed for the first time in that room. I could breathe, but still found it hard to sit still.
When the program ended, I rose to my feet. Picky stood with me. He asked if I could take him to the store. “Real quick.” he said.
I told him I had to go.
He looked at me and waited. I felt resentment rise. Here it goes, I thought, he’s playing me. “Real quick,” I said, leading him out the door.
Seated next to him in my car, I told Picky that he had to use the seat belt. Otherwise, I could get a ticket. He barely reached the head rest. He snapped his belt. “Nice wheels,” he said, looking around and breathing deep, as if he just walked into the Bellagio.
I felt nervous that he knew any details about my life. I lied and said it was my wife’s car.
Picky told me to go right out of his driveway and turn left at the signal. He said the store was at the top of the hill.
I pulled into the lot of the Ore-WA gas station and up to the entrance of the Quikie Shop. Picky opened his door and tried to get out without undoing his harness. He leaned back in and I pushed the button next to his seat. “There you go,” I told him. “Easier that way.”
Picky laughed and left the car.
As he pushed into the store, I thought that it might be a familiar scenario for him. Short, skinny, unassuming guy comes in for a soda and Hershey bar and pulls a gun. He never said why he was in prison, but he did say for most of his life. It had to be serious. Was I the wheel man?
Picky pushed back out the door with a small paper bag tucked in his arm. He climbed in and buckled up. “Okay. Good,” he said.
I asked him what he bought.
Picky looked over at me and said a diet coke and two packs of Salems.
I felt my face burn. If he didn’t care, why should I? I did not speak all the way back down the hill and into the projects. Picky looked out the window as ferns, pink and white rhododendrons, and scrub alders passed by on the hillside. I dropped him off in front of his place.
“Thanks,” Picky said, and slammed the car door. He never glanced back.
“Right,” I said, accelerating out of there.
A week later, as I walked up to Picky’s door, after I had a discussion with my OCSN supervisor, I vowed to be honest with how I felt. If I didn’t agree with what Picky asked of me, I said no, I’m sorry. I can’t do that. I needed boundaries.
Picky slouched on his couch and said he was not feeling so good.
Tom Selleck dropped into the blue churning ocean from a helicopter. I told Picky that I was sorry to hear it. “The radiation?” I asked.
He said he was back on chemo, with radiation. Both now.
I asked what his doctor told him.
“She says we need one more strong push.”
Picky watched the action on the screen for a full minute. I studied the side of his face. It was hard to tell how old he was. His skin was sallow and crinkled, but he held his jaw line. I guessed fifties. His sparse yellow-gray hair spiked around the edges, over his ears and neckline. I searched his bare arms for prison tatts but saw none.
I asked if he was up for it.
“Don’t see lot of options, Alan.” Picky shot me a dark, flinty glance.
“So, you have hope for the future?” I didn’t see how I could keep it light. The man was fighting for his life, and I was sitting beside him. Those were my options. I could stay or bail. As often as I glanced toward the door, I stayed on the couch.
Picky said he had been running on hope long as he could remember. For things to get better. When he was locked up, what kept him going was picturing some normal civilian life. A place to live, job, car, maybe even a little traveling. He got out and got sick. “I just keep moving down the line, best I can. Always have,” he said.
I told him to let me know if there was anything I could do. Even as I said it, I wasn’t sure how much I meant it. I felt his bleak need cover me like a viscous liquid.
The TV showed a close-up of Magnum’s hazel eyes and mustachioed, dimpled smile.
“Would you mind grabbing me a can of Ensure there on the sink?” Picky said.
“Not a problem.” I walked the few steps to the kitchen and returned with his meal.
As one detective show flicked into another, Picky asked what my wife did for a living.
Alicia had nothing to do with me sitting in that room. I did not want to bring her into it. Did he know he was pushing me?
I told him that she worked as a fundraiser for a foundation.
He asked where we lived.
“Steel Bridge. By the river.”
He said he had never been to that part of the city. He said he was pretty sure that he had a brother who lived somewhere near there. “Besides going to the hospital on the bus, I don’t get out much,” he added.
I kept my eyes on the flickering movement on the television screen. I wasn’t sure what he wanted. He said he had a brother nearby. Did he want me to contact him? Drive him by there? I wondered if his son lived in town. Maybe they could help him out. Maybe they would want to know. Maybe he was their responsibility. I excused myself to the bathroom.
As I walked back into the room, I told Picky that I had to get going.
He asked if I could please stay for one more show.
“Picky. I have to go. When I say I have to go, I have to go.”
“Right. Get back to your fundraising wife and big house by the river.”
I took long strides to the door. When I looked back, Picky kept his eyes straight ahead, sipping his lunch from a can.
I took two weeks off and avoided checking in at OCSN. I did hear that another service volunteer went to visit Picky. When I was away from him, I recommitted myself to being there for him, as I wished I had for my sister. I assumed on a Saturday morning I would find him home. He told me that he didn’t leave except to go to the hospital, and I doubted he would have treatment over the weekend.
Going into Eastmoreland, I passed three empty police cars along the curb, idling, drivers’ doors open, blue lights pulsing, and no one in sight. As I walked up to Picky’s, I saw his door stood wide open. When I reached the porch, I heard the whir of a vacuum cleaner, coming from his bedroom. I stepped into the empty living room and called, “Hello? Picky?”
The noise continued, so I followed it back. A stout, middle aged Latina, wearing a long denim skirt and cerise short-sleeve sweater, clicked off her machine, as I waved my arm.
“Mr. Walker?” I said. I glanced at the stripped twin bed, head against the middle of the unadorned wall. I backed out of the doorway, as she asked if I was a relative.
I told her I was a friend.
“I’m sorry, but the gentleman died. Right here.” She pointed at the bed. “A week ago.”
I was out of the hall when she called, “I can give you a phone number.” As I passed through the front door, the vacuum cleaner whirred again.
I called my supervisor and she confirmed that Pickworth Z. Walker died, alone, in his bed. The apartment manager found him.
“I wasn’t there,” I mumbled into the phone.
My supervisor told me not to go there. As volunteers, we do the best we can. We weren’t there to save anybody or change any lives for the better. That was not our job. “We provide some small amount of support and comfort,” she said. “That is all.”
The man died alone. In the middle of the dark, cold, conniving night. Not one living soul in the relative, connected universe cared enough to be there when he passed. His last vision was one of shadow and nothingness.
I sat in the leather seat of my BMW, in front of Picky’s door. I bowed my head and mourned the passing of a man, one miserable, malevolent, wasted human life, as I had for that of my young, gifted, vibrant sister. I didn’t look up for a long time, to see who might be lurking around.
Soft jazzy vocal music carried across the parking lot. I remembered we played Sade at my sister’s memorial. I got out of my car and walked back to Picky’s. I stepped in the doorway. The vacuum still whirred in the bedroom. From the coffee table in the living room, I picked up the remote and aimed it at the television. Magnum spun out in the dirt in his red Ferrari, fishtailing and racing down the highway. I left the television on and walked out the door.
Alan volunteers to attend to a mute old man with tongue cancer. Inspired by the loss of his sister to leukemia, Alan vows to give Picky Walker comfort and consolation. Discouraged by the bleakness of Picky's life and alarmed by the news that Picky is an ex-con, Alan struggles to find compassion. His ambivalence leads to devastating feelings of failing to be there for Picky.
Published in character i Literary Magazine
I noticed I had left the driver’s side rear window of my mother’s Lexus halfway open. I used one hand to click the remote to unlock the door and the other to hold my silver trophy. Sunlight reflected off the trophy into the back seat. Something flew around the inside of the car. I jumped and then leaned back in, squinting, trying to see through the glass at what looked to be a bat or a small bird. It must have come from the vacant field where I parked, across from the high school gate.
I scanned the front seat and saw the creature sitting on the dashboard, on the passenger side. It wasn’t a winged animal, but an insect, a huge grasshopper. I hadn’t seen one that big since I was a kid, and they hopped in and out of my back yard in Southern California. I was always repulsed by them, and fascinated. They were the most alien looking creatures I ever saw.
I was so mystified by locusts that I wrote a paper for my eighth-grade biology class. Arthropoda Orthoptera Acrididae. The one in my mom’s car was monstrous, the size of a kielbasa, with six legs and female, because of its size and straight abdomen. Usually, an Acrididae has antennae shorter than its body but hers looked about half a foot long. Her compound eyes, capturing light, distance and motion, looked like glossy almonds. Her sleek, latte-colored body, bent stick legs, and long, streamlined gossamer wings, lying on her back and covered with black spots, were still.
I knew from my middle school research that locusts are grasshoppers with a bent to swarm. I read an article about a locust swarm on the Great Plains in 1875 that was eighteen hundred miles long and one hundred ten miles wide, from Canada to Texas. It said some farmer ran into the swarm to scare them away and the grasshoppers ate the clothes off his body. They skinned the bark off trees, bit harnesses off horses, chewed the wood off farm tools, and consumed fence posts and railings, not to mention every speck of vegetation in their path.
In my backyard, I always expected to see a dark, seething cloud descend, but came across only occasional stragglers, standing in the grass or hopping, bush to bush. I knew from watching them that locusts are explosive. They can jump ten feet in the air and twenty feet sideways. They snap their wings when they fly and seem to fly blindly. Away from you or right into your face. Many times, as a kid, I ran, screaming “Momma!” when a locust struck the air.
I also grew up believing the legend that locusts spit tobacco juice. Whether the liquid is actually juice from tobacco or their own brown, caustic body fluid, the legend didn’t say. I never saw a locust do that, but I believed it. They earned the acrid in their name somehow. I had to believe it, as if it were true. I never saw a black widow bite anyone, but I had strong faith in their reputation for biting, and I firmly believed that it would hurt.
I couldn’t wait for the locust to act on her own. I had to get home. My parents were waiting to find out how I did at the tournament. There was no way I was driving with that grisly creature ready to launch itself off the dash. All I could think to do was open the driver’s side doors and hope she picked up the scent from the empty field and left on her own. I pulled the doors open and watched her for half a minute. “I can’t stand around all day,” I said to the bug.
I went around the back of the car, opened the passenger’s side rear door, and watched again. The sun beat on my neck and sweat trickled down my spine. The locust stayed as still as the hot air.
I heard a car pull up and a voice. “Kevin, are you okay?” My forensics teacher, Mr. Abbott, lowered his window. He asked what was going on. He poked his big pink chubby head out the window, his metal frame glasses sliding halfway down his stubby nose.
I was surprised that he knew my first name. He always called me Carlson and told me what to do. He never asked me anything. I earned a second place at the forensics meet because he assigned me a speech to perform in the Oral Interpretation competition called Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, written by an eighteenth century, hell and brimstone Evangelical preacher, named Jonathan Edwards. After I got my runner-up trophy, a judge told me that my performance was very good, and I might have won had I picked something a bit more “contemporary and palatable” to present. Maybe a piece more suited to my personality.
I looked at Mr. Abbott’s bloated, red face. I knew he would not get out of his car. He had difficulty moving around with his weight and lack of fitness. And it was unreasonably hot outside.
“There’s a bee in my car,” I called to him. “No problem. I’ll just wait until it leaves.” I felt embarrassed to say it was a grasshopper. And everyone knows that bee stings kill people.
Mr. Abbott stared at me. “Good job today, Kevin,” he said. “You gave it all you got. I knew you would do that piece justice.” He raised his window as he drove along the dirt and on to the road.
“Justice?” I said, into his rising dust.
I had to leave, too. I couldn’t spend the rest of my life, waiting for a bug to make a move. My mom and dad would worry. My mom would, at least.
“Time for action,” I said aloud. I opened the front passenger’s side door. The locust sat at the end of the dashboard, two feet away. The sunshine beat on her through the window. One of her wings, lying on her back, trembled. Now, all four doors stood open. There had to be some way to prompt the creature. I looked on the ground around me. A straight, thin two-foot-long twig rested against the front tire. I picked it up, brought it to the car, and leaned in the door. Keeping my eye on the monstrous insect, I moved the stick closer and closer, my breath shortening, and my muscles tensing, ready to bolt if she leapt. Within half an inch, I waved the stick. She ignored my urging. Her antenna didn’t move. I stared at her steely, mute mask, and jabbed her in the back, once. She took the blow, without flinching. I lowered the stick and leaned in closer. She flew straight up in the air. I screamed, turned, and ran for my life. Throwing away the stick, I made it five yards into the field. I spun and waved my hands around my head, to make sure she wasn’t hovering or attacking. I stood and caught my breath, looking up and down the school’s vacant frontage road for spectators.
I walked back to the car. The locust wasn’t in the front seat. I closed the passenger’s side door in case she was outside and wanted back in. I moved to the back door and looked in. She sat in the middle of the back seat, facing forward, still, unruffled, her hind legs bent, ready to bounce.
I wasn’t any closer to getting her out, and no closer to home. If I decided to drive and she went off again, I could lose control, crash and wreck my mother’s car. The only thing I could think to do was to cover her with something and get her out when I got to my house. The inside of the car and the trunk were clean, thanks to my dad. All I had was the shirt on my back. I slipped it off and leaned in again, close enough to spread the shirt over the locust. Covered, she didn’t stir.
I slid into the driver’s seat, the hair rising on the back of my neck and my back sticking to the seat. I eased the gas pedal and drove into the road. Cars passed me. At every intersection, I slowed to a crawl, turning my head constantly to check the back seat. At one intersection, a car turned in front of me and I had to step on the brakes. I lurched forward and clenched. I twisted around to see that my shirt was still in place.
I did six miles in about half an hour. I rolled to the curb in front of my house and waited a few minutes. I needed to figure out what to do about the insect. I could not imagine lifting my shirt off and having her fly in my face. I could never pick her up, with or without the shirt. The thought of touching her vibrating, brittle body, even through cloth, made me retch. I opened the car door and got out, leaving the locust where she lay. I went around, opened the rear door on the curbside and went into the house.
I tried to sneak past the doorway to the family room, where my father sat sprawled in his recliner, watching football on television.
“Kev,” my dad shouted, above the volume, as I whisked by. I stepped back into the doorway.
He asked me why I wasn’t wearing a shirt.
I told him it was a long story and part of my problem.
I said I needed find my mother.
My father raised his voice. “What is your problem?”
I should have mumbled something and left the room, but he was talking to me during one of his football games. I didn’t want to bother my mother, anyway, so I told him there was a grasshopper in the back seat of my mother’s car.
“A grasshopper. A locust. Gargantuan. A monster!”
“And that is why you are standing here shirtless, interrupting my playoff game.”
I told him I was sorry, but I didn’t know what to do.
He said to go get it out.
I told him I couldn’t.
He turned toward me in his chair and took his eyes off his game. He asked me what I meant when I said that I couldn’t.
“I can’t. I can’t stand them. I can’t touch them.” I stood in front of him, half naked and shaking. “Where’s Mom?” I said.
“What do you mean, you can’t stand them?”
He asked me what I thought would happen when I walked into the house, with my puny, hairless chest showing, and told him that I couldn’t get an insect out of the car.
“I wasn’t thinking. I’m desperate.”
He asked if I thought the grasshopper would fly off on its own, because, obviously, I had left the windows open for it to do just that.
I told him that was where my shirt went. “It can’t fly away.”
“That was a chivalrous touch,” my father chuckled, now sitting forward in his chair.
I said that I couldn’t have it careening around in the car while I was driving. It was dangerous.
“Of course,” he said, sitting back and facing the television. He clicked up the sound.
I asked him if Mom was home.
He ignored me.
I turned and walked toward the door.
“Deal with it,” my father shouted.
I told him I couldn’t.
He sat up and moved forward, putting his feet on the floor. He watched me, with a dark expression.
“Please,” I cried. “I can’t. I can’t stand those things. I’ll have a panic attack.”
He said I was acting like a sissy.
“I know I am. But, please. Help me!”
He pushed himself up, fell back in his chair, and pushed again. He stomped toward me. I stepped out of his way. He went out of the family room, down the hall, through the front door, toward the car at the curb. I followed, at a distance, to see how he handled the insect.
“Where is it?” he yelled, over his shoulder.
I didn’t say anything. I moved along the front of the house, well behind him.
He walked to the car and leaned through the open door into the back seat. In one motion, he ripped my shirt off the locust, grabbed her in his bare hand, backed out of the car, and flung her in the air.
The grasshopper sailed, wings retracted, like a trim short dagger, in a straight line, past me, and landed with a thud in the flower bed, ten feet away. I glanced at her. She didn’t move, either stunned, smothering, or expired.
I watched my father take two steps in her direction. A line came to my mind from my recitation of Jonathan Edwards’s speech: Never was there so great danger of such persons being given up to hardness of heart, and blindness of mind.
I sidestepped to block my father.
He stopped and put his hands on his hips. “Now you are defying me.” He glared.
I told him to please not touch the grasshopper.
He yelled that he was missing his game for his cowardly son and some stupid bug. He turned, slipped on the grass, and fell to his knees. He got up and headed to the house. “You have ruined my pants,” he roared.
I didn’t dare laugh but I remembered Pastor Edwards’s words: Their foot shall slide in due time.
I went to the flower bed and took another look at the locust. The name Serena came to my mind. Serena’s head was buried in the dirt, up to her front wings. Her back wings trembled. She was alive. I dropped to my knees, put my fingers around Serena’s body, and pulled her out of the ground. She felt light and still as a twig. I imagined that she took me into her all-encompassing eyes and rudimentary consciousness. I heard someone coming.
I told her to leave. Now awake and fly from the Wrath to come. I waved my fingers to encourage her to hop off.
I met my mother in the middle of the front lawn. She handed me a shirt. “Your father said you needed this. “What’s going on? What happened between you two?”
I told her about the grasshopper in the car.
“That’s why he’s mad?”
I said he got mad because he thought I was being weak for not getting it out. Then he fell on the grass.
She asked why I couldn’t do it.
I led her to the flower bed to show her the insect’s preternatural size. I pointed at the spot in the dirt. “See!”
“Serena?” She was gone.
I twirled on the grass. “Haste and escape for your life, look not behind you,” I recited.
My mother asked if that was from my speech. She remembered me rehearsing. She asked how I did in the competition.
I walked her to the car to show her my trophy.
My mother hugged me and said that she was very proud of me. My father was too. He just didn’t know how to show it.
I told her to let him know that the door of mercy was wide open.
Kevin returns to his car after a high school forensics meet to find a giant locust sitting on the dashboard. After attempts to get the bug out, Kevin drives home. He tells his father that he can't remove the insect. His father is not impressed by Kevin's cowardice. Irate, Kevin's father removes the intruder. When his father moves menacingly toward the grasshopper, Kevin steps up.
Coup de Grace
Miranda drives to meet her deadbeat ex-husband after eight years of no word. She plans to tell him all that she has felt about his betrayal. When she faces him across the coffeeshop table, he stops her in her tracks by what he tells her.
Published in Studio Journal
He Shot Himself in the Foot
Michael goes with his friend, Danny, on a daybreak mission. They are going to pick up Danny's rifle from Phillip Pfeiffer. On their way back, Danny aims the gun at Michael but shoots himself in the foot instead. It is the start of Michael's decision to end the friendship and take his destiny into his own hands.
Trick or Treat
Angela's odd cousin, Kurt, puts the trick in Trick or Treat by taking her to collect candy in July. As she goes from house to house, without disguise, she dances, hops and mugs her way into a bag of candy. When she wants to go home, Kurt refuses. He insists that she finish the block. When he abandons her, Angela finds her way home and a new self.
Lie Like a Dog
Sandy breaks a neighbor's window with a water balloon. He lies to his mother and tells her that he heard the neighborhood bully outside his window. The bully threatens to lie Sandy down like a dog. Friendly intervention saves Sandy, but not from his mother's disappointment.
Answer to Dimka
Hosting a family reunion of sorts, Lucas confronts his abusive Uncle Dimka and Aunt Rosa. Lucas, his priest brother, Alex, and Dimka and Rosa's son, Danilo, join in the fracas. The proceedings go off track when Danilo pulls a gun and orders Lucas and Alex to leave.
Ride to the Rat Hole
Ferris and his friend, Earl, hitch a ride outside of Mesquite, Nevada to Las Vegas. The driver, Tryg, and his girlfriend, Labelle, are looking for some fun on their way to L.A., and they choose Ferris and Earl. Ferris sits next to Labelle on the front seat and fantasizes while Tryg talks smack. On the Strip in Vegas, Ferris and Earl asked to be dropped off and that's where the fun begins.
Short Short Story
Leave a Message
After the Beep
A woman leaves a message on Kurt's answer machine, sobbing that he pursued her on the phone, made a date to come over to her place for a drink, and took off the second he saw her.
Spirit of Tabasco
Precocious teen, Julian, helps his mother retrieve a mysterious and possessed ancient Mayan mirror from the hands of his greedy estranged father.
What is Right
Kevin Milan tries to do what is right when his father has an affair with Kevin's best friend's neighbor. Kevin goes straight at the woman to drive her out. His strategy backfires, leaving him the one looking in.
Short Moon Poems
Short moon poems celebrating the moment
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