Small Wonders

A little more than 30 pounds
Gets you all this
Most of a decade
Days filled with joy and concern
House clown, house ray of sunlight
Fragile and stocky
Expensive but worth much more
A bargain I couldn’t pass up.
Still finding your hair
In my bras,
Sweaters, sweatshirts, rugs, slippers.
No matter what the steel
Trap of my mind finds,
The tricks it plays to make
Me cry in the middle of the night,
How many wishes it makes,
Or my skin and hands that
Still feel every inch,
How often we sit on the couch
Leaving a seat for you
I still know moment to moment
We were meant to be.

The Brennans

by C.W. Bigelow

     During breakfast at the Red Circle Inn Ben paged to the obituaries, a custom of his when he traveled close to the town in which he was raised.  Morbid as it was, he convinced himself it was just one way to keep abreast with the neighbors and friends he left behind so many years before.  Though business brought him to the vicinity on a regular basis, he had not been back to Helmsdale for five years and that had been to attend his mother’s funeral.  

     “More coffee?” the waitress asked, pouring his cup full without waiting for his response.

     Her interruption caused him to divert attention from the newspaper and notice the unusually bright morning.  He had a 10:00 AM appointment across town and had been deep in thought about his process for the call when he paged to the obituaries

     “Beautiful morning isn’t it?” the waitress sighed as she lifted the pot away from his cup.  

     He smiled politely, trying not to show her how offended he was by her interruption.  He preferred to be left alone.  “Yes,” he sighed absentmindedly.  “I guess it is.”

     “I’ve noticed you in here before,” she continued as she lifted his plate.

     He sighed obviously, but nodded.  “Every month or so I stay here.”

     “Salesman?”

     “Printing supplies.”

     “Travel a lot?”

     He nodded, bored with the conversation and wished she’d move on to other customers.  

     “Your family must love that,” she smiled sarcastically.

     “No family.”

     “Must get lonely.  I don’t know what I’d do without my kids.”

     He nodded, glancing back down at the paper as he took a sip of coffee, hoping she would take the hint.

     “I look at the obituaries too,” she said gleefully, delighted to find a common bond.

     “I only pay attention to them when I’m around here.  I grew up in Helmsdale.  Seems to be the way I keep up with the people I used to know.”

     “Don’t you visit?”

     “My parents are dead.  There’s no one left.”

     Another patron finally called her away, giving him a chance to return to the paper. He spotted it with a mouthful of coffee and almost gagged.

BRENNAN

June 8, 1994, Caitlin M. Brennan, devoted mother of Tommy, deceased.  Her funeral services will be held at twelve, noon Wednesday, June 10, at Grace Church, 13 Union Rd. in Helmsdale.

     Coughing, he smoothed the page and reread it with watering eyes.  The services were that day.

     “Are you okay?” the waitress asked as she leaned over him with a napkin.

     He gazed down at the name until his eyes burned and the letters blurred.

     “Someone you know?”

     He folded the paper neatly and stood up slowly, sticking it under his arm.  He took his check and gazed outside.  “Someone I knew a long time ago.”

 

     The sun burned through the haze in the October sky.  Birds chattered as the two boys crouched beneath the Lumen’s back porch.  They heard the cars speeding by the For Sale sign in the front yard on Garfield Street.

     Tommy’s excitement connected his freckles, igniting a pink blush.  Blue eyes darting like water bugs under his shock of fiery red hair, he struggled to swallow over the dryness in his throat.  Mischief always brought on the same tightness in his stomach, the same expression on his face, which happened to be an open window to his heart.  His thin, wiry body stood no chance against this devilry. The awesome high was contrary to the burdensome low he experienced after the frivolity passed.  As of yet, though, the payback had not been enough to deter his antics.

     Ben, on the other hand, was an even mixture of excitement and fear, with the latter often tugging down the first emotion.  He repeatedly weighed the risk versus the gain hoping the equation would come out in his favor. 

     Ben experienced guilt upfront. Tommy wrestled with it after the fact.  

     Gazing helplessly around the yard, he watched Tommy scale the porch.  He had seconds to escape.  He could be sitting at home completely innocent, but then he would have to incur Tommy’s ribbing.  Sitting on the fence was a painful posture.

     The basement door squeaked open and Tommy appeared flashing a wide grin.  Ben couldn’t resist and they were soon standing in the dank basement, curiously surveying its contents.  Storm windows stacked beneath wooden stairs and cans of paint in a pile next to a coil of thick rope were visible in the morning sun that seeped through the small ground level windows.  A sour scent of mildew filled the room. 

     The echoes of their footsteps on the stairs resounded like gunshots through the empty house before they opened the kitchen door.

     Neither had been in a vacated house and wandered in amazement through room after room of empty space.  The hardwood floors met their steps with groans. The boys smoked cigarettes. The barrenness was eerily exciting.  

     “This place is perfect,” Tommy sighed before he jettisoned a string of smoke rings into the air.

     “For smoking and hiding out,” Ben said as he sat on the stairs and gazed out onto the traffic on Garfield Street.  The anonymous spying gave him a thrill.  He took a drag and sighed, “No parents looking over our shoulders checking on every move.”

     “Except for one thing.”

     Ben cringed.  He recognized the edge in Tommy’s tone.  “We can stretch this for a while.  We’ve never had such a large hideout.”

     “All you ever want is to hideout.  The potential is endless.”

     Ben blushed.  The contention of whether to risk or not gave him a headache.

     “The first possibility is Mary Bender.”  He didn’t bother to look at Ben. He knew what was coming.

     Coughing on his smoke, he followed Tommy into the kitchen where they extinguished their cigarettes under the faucet in the sink.  “Seriously

     “I’ve been talking to her in class and think the time is ripe.”  Tommy held out his arms and twirled around once.  “It’s a perfect place.”

     “No bed.”

     “From what I understand, a bed isn’t necessary.”

 

     Catie Brennan tapped her fingers on the kitchen table in cadence with the grandfather clock.  Her attention was on the phone, growing more irritated with each passing moment.  She finally looked at the loaf of bread atop bologna in white deli paper on the counter. Tommy was due.  He’d want lunch. 

     The emptiness of the house was like a blanket.  Difficult to ignore, she sat in the chair, exhausted for no reason as she waited for her son.  Without a vehicle she was chained to the house. 

     “Hey, Mom!” Tommy greeted as he and Ben burst through the door.  

     “Hey you two!” Catie forced a tone of excitement.  His presence had become one of her few joys, but each day she found it more difficult to respond positively.  Energy sapped, she struggled to stand and lope to the counter.  “Hungry?”

     “Always!” Tommy cried as he grabbed a bag of cookies from the cupboard.  “Grab the milk Ben,” he instructed as he pulled out a chair and sat at the table.

     “How about a sandwich first.”

     It was obvious she was Tommy’s mother, though her curly hair was lighter and the freckles across her nose were more subtle than her son’s.  They served to highlight her blue eyes.  

     Her youthful energy always amazed Ben.  Her appearance was always fresh, dressed in tight jeans and slight blouses.  As much as he loved being around her, he felt self-conscious. He feared Tommy would ostracize him if he discovered his feelings for Mrs. Brennan... 

     He’d recently noticed a change.  He couldn’t pinpoint it.  Her looks weren’t really any different, but her aura was flat.  Her energy was missing.   

     “Dad call?” 

     When Tommy asked his mother a question Ben could take full advantage and aim all his attention on her beautiful face without any embarrassment.  It would have been disrespectful not to give his full consideration to anything she might say.  Tommy, on the other hand, kept his attention on his glass of milk and missed the empty expression that crossed her face like a shadow.  

     “Not today.”  Her tone was lifeless.

     “Isn’t he supposed to get home tonight?”

     She shrugged.  Lately, she never knew when to expect him.  He traveled all over the region and took his business very seriously.  “I think he said today.”

                          

     His father’s voice drilled into his dream, barely evident at first, but growing like a banging drum until he woke in a sweat midst the echoes of the baritone growl.  Once a soothing instrument, sure to bring a sense of safety, it had become an irritant – a sound to be feared, always accompanied by an impatient edge.

     Tommy rolled over and buried his head beneath his pillow in a futile attempt to block the sound.  Then his mother’s soprano cries cut through and he realized it wasn’t going to cease.

     “What the hell do you care, Jack?  You’re never here!” she cried, arms wrapped like a protective vest around her blue bathrobe.  She couldn’t recall the last time she spoke to him in a normal tone.

     Jack shook his head, his wiry red hair piercing the air. Clenched fists at his sides, he looked like a prizefighter assuming a defensive position.  “I drove all damn night to get home!”

     Catie threw her head back and snorted.  “To leave at what?”  She checked her watch.  “Six thirty.  Christ, the sun’s hardly up and you’re off again.  Where do I come in?  Where does your son enter into the picture?”  Her face was beet red and her heart pounded like a jackhammer, but she was right.  This was no marriage.  She was a housekeeper and a mother of a child who no longer needed her.  She felt no love from either of them when she got right down to it.  She couldn’t remember if there ever had been love from Jack.

     “I do this so you can live here!”

     “Alone….”

     “To feed you both…”

     “Well I’m not in the mood lately to eat much.  It’s not much fun eating alone night after night.”

     “Great!” he screamed.  His own blood pressure pounding in his ears, he was tempted to race across the room and shut her up.  He didn’t need this.  She had no idea of the pressure he’d faced this week, that if he’d lost the business at his largest account, Draegers Hardware, he may be home full time.  Unemployment might suit her but he’d be damned if he’d face into that dark tunnel.  “Why don’t you go to the garage, get a damn shovel and bury me in guilt!”

     She wrenched her mouth in mock astonishment and held her arms out in a sarcastic pose.  “I said nothing about guilt.  Must be some reason you feel guilty, Jack!  I can’t imagine what that might be.”

     “What the hell are you babbling about?  I don’t understand you anymore,” he growled.  

     “Maybe you’d understand me better if you were around more.”

     “Dad!” Tommy’s voice was firm, but it wasn’t a scream.  It arrived at the correct moment, with just the right inflection of pain filling the break in the action.  His face was flushed, eyes swollen from tears, lip quivering, yet he didn’t appear defenseless.  If he had to he would rush to his mother’s defense.  Unsure why his father had to be on the road as much as he was and didn’t pretend to understand the babble he was fed whenever he asked the question. He knew it wasn’t good for the family and didn’t understand why his father refused to recognize or address it.

     Catie, who was coiled and ready to dash from danger, suddenly let down her guard.  Tommy’s presence was enough to protect her.  Jack wasn’t that stupid.  “Say hello and goodbye to your father.  He arrived in the middle of the night and just announced he must be on his way again.  What’s new?  How long is this trip, Jack?  Five more days?”

     Tommy drew a deep breath and sniffled.  “Can’t you stay for a day or two?”  Another thing he couldn’t understand was his father’s refusal to find a job that would keep him at home.  He shared his mother’s loneliness and frustration.

     Aware of the damage he might cause and what havoc he could create if he continued to rant and rave, he grabbed his suitcase and stomped out the backdoor, making sure it slammed with a brazen clap in the quiet morning.

     His stride was heavy and slow, evidence of the confusion. Sorrow and guilt replaced the sharp anger on his way to the garage. Suddenly his world had become more complicated than he wanted and he felt out of place with little making any sense to him.  His own father had been on the road as a salesman all his life and never once did he hear his mother complain.  He’d never asked him to find another job so he could be home every night.  He understood his responsibility as a son and took it seriously, accepting the surrogate role and doing it with pride.  Lifting the garage door with an angry jolt he turned slowly and gazed back at the house.  His parents would be envious of such a house.  Had they still been alive, they would have been proud of his accomplishments.  Travel was in his blood.  Selling was what he did best, and it provided his family with what they needed.  At least that’s what he thought.

     Ben appeared from behind the garage to meet Tommy so they could walk to school.  Jack backed the car out of the garage.  Normally he would stop and talk to Ben.  He’d relate an antidote about his recent travels which lit up the boy’s eyes.

     “Hey, Mr. Brennan!” Ben cried, waving and smiling as he stepped up his pace in hopes of talking with him.

     Jack never noticed Ben as he pulled out of the driveway and sped off. 

     Ben stood with his hands in mid air. Confused by the rejection, he shook his head in wonder.  Jack was the exact opposite of his own father – who walked to the train station each morning to travel into Chicago where he worked in a bank.  He then returned home at the same time each evening on the train with the evening Daily News folded under his arm.  Ben’s parents were older than the Brennans.  He’d heard his mother refer to him as a pleasant surprise, which as he grew older became a slight – realizing he hadn’t been wanted at all.  The Brennans were young, vibrant, someone he could relate to and look up to.  Whenever he had the chance, he hung out with his best friend Tommy – vicariously becoming a member of their family.

     Mimicking his father, Tommy slammed the door. Pale as he huffed past Ben to close the garage door, his irritation seeped from every pore.  His angst was so obvious an aura of gray hovered around him. The fact Tommy was taking some of Jack’s responsibilities, willing to cover for him, impressed Ben.

     Tommy recognized Ben’s naïveté, which, already in a foul mood, irritated him more.  A little brother could be a pain, and at times like this he wished he wasn’t such a leech.  But he knew he had to take the good with the bad.  He had learned that observing his parents.

     “You okay?” Ben asked.

     “Not really,” he grunted as he walked up the driveway.

     “I see your Dad’s off on another trip.” Ben was gleeful as he stepped up his pace to catch up.  Jack’s travels filled his imagination – the excitement of new scenes – different people each and every day.

     Tommy stopped suddenly and turned to him, his patience with the whole situation totally spent.  Chin raised, eyes slanted with anger.  “What of it?”

     He was taken aback.  “I wish my Dad had that kind of a job.”

     “Well, I wish my Dad had a job like your Dad.  What do you think about that?”

 

     “Hello, Benjamin Blake,” greeted Mary Bender as he entered the kitchen of the Lumen house the next afternoon.

     Seeing her atop the counter was like a stop sign and he could walk no further.  Catching his breath, wishing he could hide his excitement and not seem so obvious, he forced a slanted smile.  Her black skirt was hiked high on her thigh, revealing territory he’d only dreamed of, and her white blouse was opened to the waist exposing her white bra.  Tipping her head back while she dragged deeply on a cigarette, her blonde hair cascaded across her shoulders. She said, “I was very happy to hear you were joining us.”

     He focused on the very.

     He could only gulp and nod.  Watching with fascination, as Tommy’s hand disappeared into the large white cup; he fought to control his breathing and adjusted his pants.

     Though Mary was their age, she hovered on the periphery of their class, floating in a world of her own. More physically and mentally advanced than the rest of her class, she focused on high school students to feed her curiosity and appetite. So mysteriously transcendent was she that her existence had become legendary. Tommy and Ben had known her since kindergarten and Tommy had developed a relationship that up until then had been fed on flirtatious innuendo only. It had never been acted upon, relegated to hushed whispers in the school hallways.

     She continued to ignore Tommy’s rough, inexperienced assault on her breast while focusing on Ben.  Never averting her gaze, she leaned to the right and hiked her skirt high enough to reveal her white panties.  “Hey!” she finally complained, wincing with pain as she slapped Tommy’s hand away beforejumping to the floor, her long, muscular legs spread at shoulder width.  Towering over the boys by at least four inches, she shook her head, patiently amused with her role, and sighed.  “I guess I’ll have to be the instructor here.”

 

     Deeply enveloped in thoughts on their way to school the next morning, they missed the resonant garbles of robins greeting the morning, missed the constant flow of traffic.  Their experience was the same, their reactions unique because their levels of investment were different.  

     The draftsman of the plan over many months; Tommy encountered levels of euphoria before diving to deep depression, struggling with a wrenching guilt, having committed a sin and tried to justify it by convincing himself that the act was one of revenge to get back at his father for the pain he was causing the family - an act to defend his mother.  But he tossed and turned throughout the night, recalling Father John’s Sunday sermons, panicked by what his mother’s reaction would be if she were to discover his actions.  In the end he could come up with no defense.  It was simply evil and to make matters worse as he leaned over the toilet puking until he could no longer puke, the images of Mary caused a raging erection.

     Ben, on the other hand, went home in a state of ecstasy.  As had become the rule, his guilt and hesitation preceded the mischievous act and once he hurdled that fence he immersed himself wholeheartedly – never believing heaven existed – and felt any punishment that may result if caught would be well worth it and certainly not at the hand of God.  

     A concerned frown creased his brow.  “I couldn’t look Mom in the eye last night.  I kept thinking of church and her and Dad.”

     “Hey, come on.  It’s not like we’re the first to do this,” Ben argued.  He surprised himself in this new role, the little brother offering up advice and reason. But it was the first time Tommy had reacted with that much guilt.  

     He spun about; glared at Ben, eyes squinting, and mouth in a scowl.  “We aren’t supposed to do this at all until we’re married.  Course you wouldn’t know that, since you don’t go to church, you don’t read the Bible.”

     “Sex is good!” Ben said dreamily, still recalling the excitement, already yearning to repeat the experience.

     “Out of wedlock, it’s a sin.”

     “Oh, Christ!  Why didn’t you think of this before you invited her?  You’ve been building up to this for months. Why didn’t you think about this result?”  He couldn’t believe he was expressing anger aimed at Tommy.  “You really know how to put a damper on a good thing!”

     “You’re right.  I should have.  Now, since I didn’t, I’m going to have to confess it in hopes of relieving this guilt.  I can’t stand it.  My stomach is in knots.  If I’m not puking, I have diarrhea. My parents, even my Dad, don’t deserve this.  If they found out it would kill them.”

     Ben whined, “Nawww!  Let’s not get into that.  I’ll get caught again.”

     “Priests can’t rat on you.”

     Ben stopped in his tracks.  “Then what the hell are you worried about?”

     “The way the priest looks at you when he sees you after the confession. The way my mother and father are getting along right now, the reason I think I did it to begin with.”  He stopped and looked at Ben seriously.  “Should I continue?”

     Ben waved his hand at him.  “I’ve had enough.  Next time figure this shit out before we go so far, okay?  That way I’m not living in your guilt trip. I was happy to smoke cigarettes and watch the traffic fly by on Garfield Street.”

     Tommy nodded, but said nothing.  He never reached so deeply for redemption. His previous bouts with guilt quickly dispersed, enabling him to move onto other adventures, but never before had the sin been one actually stated in the Bible. And never before had he been immersed in such an ill, angry environment, where feelings were icy and pleas for help and attention were ignored.  

 

     They were in the kitchen of the Lumen house for the first time since that night with Mary so Tommy could face his evil deed.  Only moments passed before a car door slammed.  Racing to the window, careful not be seen, they observed a man climb from a large black sedan parked in the driveway.

     “Shit!” Tommy spurted.

     “Who is it?”

     “That’s Mr. Gray.  Real Estate agent and a deacon in the church.  Let’s get the hell outta here.”

     It was the first time someone had arrived to show the property while they were there.  Giggling uncontrollably, they flew down the basement stairs and raced into the backyard unnoticed.

 

     Another week passed and the subject of Mary Bender continued to be off limits.  Tommy attended confession, refusing to share anything that went on behind the curtain, but Ben could tell that it lightened his shame because Tommy’s constant frown had lifted, and though not quite replaced by a smile, at least the features no longer were as dark.  He couldn’t help being impressed with the obvious healing power.  Maybe the Catholic Church knew what it was doing.  Do wrong, confess and feel good.  Didn’t seem like a huge price to pay for wrongdoing.

     They stayed away from the house. Ben figured it was best, since Tommy’s recovery was still tenuous, fraught with fluctuations of mood and outbursts of anger and regret.  Also, the fewer times they entered the house the less chance of getting caught by Mr. Gray.  He had even begun hoping it was history – a memory that one-day would provide comical relief.

     Then on the way home from school, Tommy announced, “Hitting the house today.”  It came out of the blue. “If I spend some time there, I can get a picture of it in my mind without Mary.  That whole episode still haunts me and we didn’t get a chance to spend time that day before Mr. Gray showed up.”

     His father had been gone since the morning of the fight and Tommy blamed his tryst with Mary. God was punishing him and, in turn, his mother.  He had been to church every morning before school and prayed for forgiveness.  Ben waited faithfully outside.

     Just as they entered the basement, a car door slammed.  They stopped cold.  Ben immediately turned to exit, but Tommy grabbed his arm and held him there.  The gleam in his eye was that familiar mischievous expression and Ben knew better than to try and resist. Tommy was back.  The risk was worth it, if he was healed from the wounds Mary had inflicted.  

     The front door squeaked and then slammed shut.  Footsteps marked their way across the entryway into the kitchen. Small puffs of dust drifted from wooden joists below the kitchen floor into the gloomy basement air. Soon the person was pacing impatiently, back and forth from the sink to the basement door.  The faucet ran for a moment, and then shut off with a bang in the pipes.  They softly giggled.

     Tommy put a finger to his lips and tried to frown seriously, in an attempt to stop their snickering, which only caused Ben to break into a pained grimace, biting his lip to keep from guffawing.  Tommy, in turn, when he saw his contorted scowl, had to race up the stairs to keep from bursting into raucous laughter.  Halfway up, he stopped and signaled for Ben to stop laughing, motioning with a finger across his throat.  Ben moved to the bottom landing and crouched, waiting for Tommy’s next move.  

     Driving him was the subconscious need for discovery, as if discovery for trespassing might be accepted as a replacement penalty by God in lieu of the deserved punishment for the more severe crime he had committed and gotten away with.  

     Ben had no guilt from the act, still a splendid memory; but was mostly conflicted because he was experiencing the Tommy’s heavy culpability.  Realizing what was happening; he tried to survey the basement for a good hiding place if they were prevented from escaping.

     The back door to the kitchen squeaked as it opened then shut. Both wondered if the visitor had left, until they heard two sets of footsteps marching toward each other.  Curiosity danced on their faces as they imagined the scene above.  No voices, or any greetings of any sort, which meant it wasn’t a real estate deal.  Within moments, there was rustling, and then low amorous groans.  

     Wide eyes met in the darkness on the stairs, before Tommy slowly began his ascent.  Ben motioned for him to stop, before the familiar tightness he’d experienced with Mary returned, and he couldn’t keep himself from trying to watch.  

     Turning and whispering, “Mary and her senior, I bet.  She’s using our hideaway,” Tommy smiled.  Being a voyeur was far less incriminating than actually participating in the sinful act.

   Ben nodded and chuckled silently.  The excitement was overwhelming.  The urgent, gut-wrenching pressure he felt quickly erased any worry of being caught.

     Tommy turned the door handle quietly, especially muted against the growing echoes of the couple’s passion, which was escalating toward a zenith.  Tommy carefully stuck his head around the door jam. Ben followed at a higher level to gain a view of his own.  Both had to muffle their laughter at the sight of Mary’s legs locked around the naked buttocks of the senior, from her prone position on the island counter.

     “God!” she screamed.

     The word echoed, attacking the boys’ sensibilities. The familiar voice, sounding alien in these surroundings, stunned both of them.  Tommy turned to stone. Ben tried desperately to catch a closer glimpse, knowing full well he shouldn’t.  Tommy slithered underneath him and disappeared silently into the darkness of the basement.  Ben didn’t move.  He couldn’t swallow.  

     Drawn like a magnet to the window on the porch outside the kitchen, Tommy stood, mouth agape, tears flowing steadily, his hands crawling up the glass, as though there was something he could do to stop the coupling of his mother and Mr. Gray.  Then he was gone.

     Outside, Ben spun in a circle, surveying the yard; he didn’t dare call out for Tommy for fear of giving away their presence and ended up marching home in a daze.  Shocked as he wandered through fields haunted by the vision of what he’d just witnessed.

 

     Silent through dinner, he escaped to his room immediately afterwards.  Unable to sit still, he paced past midnight.  He finally understood the angst that Tommy had been wrestling with the previous weeks.  After all it was his family too.  He passed out on the bed, still in his clothes.

     Dreams of Mrs. Brennan making love to Mr. Gray dominated his sleep. In the other corner, Tommy was crouched in a ball, alternately screaming for them to stop and calling for his father, pleading for forgiveness.

     “Benjamin!”

     The voice smashed his dream.  For a quick moment he caught a glimpse of his mother standing in the entryway to the kitchen in the Lumen house.  She, too, was stark naked and he buried his face in his hands to avoid the vision.

     “Wake up, Benjamin!”

     Prying his eyes open, he focused slowly on her hovering over him.  She clenched her pink housecoat together at the waist.  “Mrs. Brennan is on the phone.”

     He stiffened.

     “Tommy isn’t in his bed.  Do you know where he is?”

     “What time is it?”

     “Six A.M.  Do you know where he is?”  She frowned when she realized he was still in his clothes.  “Did you leave this house last night?”

     “Not in his bed?”  He was groggy.  Rubbing his eyes, he tried desperately to focus visually and mentally.  His mother was visibly shaken.

     “Did he sleep there at all?”

     “How do I know if he slept there?  What do you know?”  

     Pushing past her, he paused at the door to get his bearings.  “I don’t know a thing.”  For a moment it felt good to tell the truth, but the worry took over quickly.

     “What’re you doing?  Where are you going?”

     “To look for him.”

     “Where?”

     “I don’t know.”  He shot her an angry look.  She suddenly appeared so helpless, so naive.  After what he’d experienced in the previous couple of weeks he had grown past her.

     “Was he upset the last time you saw him?” she called as he rushed down the stairs and out the front door.

     What could he say?  Upset hardly described the emotion that exploded in Tommy the previous afternoon.  The embarrassment was almost too much for Ben to handle.  How must Tommy have dealt with it?  Fear gripped him as he dashed through dew-drenched cattails in the field.  He should have tried to find him right away, but he wouldn’t have been able to face him.  Wouldn’t have known what to say to him.

 

     He spotted the basement door ajar when he stepped into the Lumen yard.  He remembered closing it tight the night before, so Tommy might be inside.  Maybe it had blown open.  

     Ben couldn’t imagine Tommy’s state of mind. If fooling around with Mary had bought the reaction it had, what demons would yesterday’s action bring forth.  He slipped inside the damp basement and made sure the door stayed shut.  The morning shadows were light gray as he walked to the stairs and paused.  Maybe it wasn’t Tommy who had used the door.  Someone else might be upstairs.  He could always say he found the door open and wanted to make sure someone locked it.  “Hello?” he called tentatively as he took the stairs slowly.  Carefully shoving the door open he found an empty kitchen.  He half-expected Tommy to be leaning against the counter smoking a cigarette.  The island grabbed his attention like a magnet and held it for a moment.  He replayed the scene, heard the cries.  

     “Hey!” he called out.  It echoed three times in the empty house.  “Your Mom’s worried.  Let’s go see her.”  He was surprised at how simply the words had emerged.  He could deal with the truth.  He could help Tommy get over it.  “At least give me a smoke,” he cried as he stepped into the foyer.  Streaming sunlight through the tall ceiling to floor windows was so bright it blinded him and he paused to rub his eyes dry.  He felt Tommy’s presence but couldn’t see him, couldn’t find him. 

 

     The coolness of dusk rocked him as he lay in the field behind the Lumen house.  Earlier as Ben dashed by he almost called out, but knew he couldn’t face him. In fact he wonderedif he could ever face him again.

     Stomach churning and mind flipping between images of his father driving out of the driveway and his mother with Mr. Gray, he stopped and clenched his eyes as tight as he could, but could not stop replaying the scene.  

     Darkness finally descended over the field and he walked onto Garfield Avenue.  He barely heard the cars driving by as if they were part of a fog that had dropped over his life.

     With no destination in mind – he knew he had to get as far away from his house and his mother as he could.  He kept snapping his head, as if he were ducking a left hook, each time he recalled her cry.

     As he turned down Walnut Street he stopped just outside of the circle of light cascading to the ground from the street lamp.  Across the street a tall angular boy stood at Mary’s front door.  She was on her toes hugging and kissing him.  Tommy glided across the street and crouched at the end of the drive behind a red pickup.  

     “You had better behave when you’re down there,” Mary chuckled.  “How long will it take you to get there?”

     “Since I’m missing the traffic by leaving now, about six hours.”

     She mentioned to Tommy her senior was visiting the campus of Illinois and in that moment he thought about his father talking about making sales calls in Champaign.  His destination suddenly became obvious.  He could sneak a ride in the back of the pickup.  By dawn he’d be down there and would figure out how to get in touch with his father.  He knew his mother would worry when he didn’t come home, but that was what she deserved.  He knew he couldn’t deal with her now.

     “I love you, Bud,” she purred as he walked noisily down the steps toward the truck.  

     He grunted as he heaved something heavy into the back of the pickup landing right next to Tommy.

 

     “Benjy, you have to know what he was doing! Why he didn’t come home!” she pleaded the day after, kneeling in front of him in his living room.

     His mother sobbed in the chair across the room.  He couldn’t bear to look at either of them.  His own torment ripped violently through him and he missed Tommy too much to delve into reasons at that point.

     He just shook his head.  Tears rolled continually. His shirt was wet.  He didn’t know where he was though he knew why he was missing.

 

     Catie Brennan’s coffin was made of pine, hardly what he would’ve expected from the vibrant woman he knew as a boy, but appropriate for the maiden who had spent the last half of her life mourning her son.

     The church was almost empty.  The hollow echoes of his footsteps accompanied him to one of the pews near the back.  A group of elderly ladies sat in the first pew, church members who didn’t know Catie, but found it shameful to let a fellow parishioner be buried alone.

     She remained alone. Only Ben understood her grief and confusion, but she never had the wherewithal to even recognize the pain he experienced that afternoon at his house. The loss of a friend as a youngster might be overcome, the anguish lessening as time invokes its Novocain, but the loss of a big brother, the loss of a revered father, and most of all the betrayal of a mother stops one in his tracks and prevents growth and change from that point forward.

     He glanced wistfully from one stained glass window to another, each depicting figures in the throes of painful sacrifice. The sunrays cascading through those tormented figures engulfed the barren church in a red hue. 

     As he exited the church he decided to drive down Garfield Avenue, past the Brennan house, past the Lumen home.  He had been successful avoiding these two structures since Tommy’s disappearance. Getting to school was a matter of going one block north and using Washington Avenue.  He also made it clear to his parents that they were never to drive by those houses when he was in the car.

     Sweat beaded across his brow as he drove slowly over the tracks his father had taken into the city daily for over thirty five years.  

     His destination sat atop the hill one long block above the tracks. The driver of the car behind him tailgated because Ben was barely moving as he struggled to figure an escape route in case he changed his mind.

     Irritated by the car, he went past the Brennan’s corner, spending more time staring in his rear view mirror than looking at the houses. Angry and confused, he drove up to Walnut Street and turned at a traffic signal in front of Mary’s bungalow. He held his breath as he turned around in a driveway and crept up to the traffic signal which was green and while turning left onto Garfield.

     Halfway up the block an ornate sign read Windsor Apartments in front of a stretch of red brick buildings that extended all the way to the corner. Lights from window after window seeped into the darkness and he felt people staring down on him just as he and Tommy watched the traffic while smoking a cigarette on their first afternoon in the Lumen house. Evidence of the past had been demolished and replaced by these apartments that offered new beginnings. The honk of another vehicle behind him urged him to speed up and move on.

 

 

 

About the Author: After receiving his B.A. in English from Colorado State University, C.W. Bigelow lived in nine northern states, both east and west, before moving south to the Charlotte NC area, . His short stories and poems have most recently appeared in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Potluck, Dirty Chai,The Flexible Persona, Literally Stories and Compass Magazine, FishFood Magazine, Poydras Review, Five2One, Yellow Chair Review, Shoe Music Press, Crack the Spine, Sick Lit Magazine and Brief Wilderness.

Substitute Teacher Takes a Break from Jane Austen

by Adam Matson

Mr. Larson, as he had not yet grown accustomed to being called, had earned a modicum of respect from his fourth period senior English class. They would usually stop talking if he stood up from his desk. 

But today everyone gazed and laughed eagerly at Ryan Frechette, whose planetary guffaw was the center of their social universe.

“Normally I can totally handle my shit after three beers,” Ryan boasted. “But that telephone pole just snuck up on me. Guess my dad needs a new Lexus.”

Mr. Larson was only twelve years older than his students, and understood that there was a perverse dynamic of stupidity-worship in high school. Ryan Frechette had totaled his father’s car, drunk driving, after a party over the weekend, and this made him the class hero. A wave of high-fives swept over him like a cheer at a baseball game. 

Mr. Larson stepped forward, and now a few students in the front rows turned to him, grinning sheepishly but ready to begin class. After four weeks of substituting for Mrs. Hens, their regular English teacher, who was on leave for arthroscopic surgery, he had finally been accepted as one of them, a teacher who could be in on the fun. Mr. Larson knew he had encouraged this, breaking through their jocular banter with a barrage of mock-stern teasing that had won them over. Now Ryan Frechette nodded at him, clearly expecting an approving smile, the way every child of this ripe, self-obsessed generation expected encouragement and congratulations for absolutely everything they did.

“Ryan, I suppose you think you’re some kind of stud,” said Mr. Larson, allowing the grin to linger on the kid’s face. “To me you’re a goddamn moron.”

It took the students a moment to realize he was not kidding. A few of the girls lowered their eyes, and more than one set of shoulders slumped inward.

“Mr. Larson,” Ryan said, slouching at his desk. “You know how it is, right?”

“I know how you are. I was like you, not long ago. Like you I was eighteen, and I knew nothing. Like you my head was full of shit.”

He had been substitute teaching for about four months, since he’d been laid off from his tech job, but not until this moment had he experienced a thrill of pure joy. The innocence had evaporated from their faces. Ryan Frechette looked like he had been slapped, and was waiting for his mommy to punish his aggressor.

“I want you all to shut up for a moment,” Mr. Larson said, not angrily. “I think today we’re going to give Jane Austen a break. We’re going to talk about life. Ryan is our inspiration.”

The boy half-smiled.

“Sense and sensibility are two virtues he lacks.”

Someone in the class snickered. Slam dunk.

“I’m going to tell you a few things about the world that is out there waiting for you,” said Mr. Larson. “We’ll focus on your immediate futures, since I know what smart phones and ADHD have done to your attention spans. You all are seniors. You graduate in two months. Many of you are eighteen, and legally adults, and it’s time someone treated you like adults, because, frankly, you’ve been coddled and sheltered all your lives to the point where I’m concerned that the first rainy day you encounter will dissolve you like strands of toilet paper. So today I will take your questions, about life, the universe, and everything, and I’ll tell you the straight truth. This will likely be the only time a teacher ever speaks to you like this.” They were staring at him as if he had just started sprouting tentacles. “Who has a question?”

No one raised their hand. Usually they talked as if the cameras were rolling, prattling on long after making their points. 

“No questions,” said Mr. Larson. “You don’t even know what to ask.”

They looked nervous now. Good.

“Let’s start with college then. Who’s going to college?” 

Everyone in the class raised their hand.

“Who knows how they will be paying for college?”

Awkward silence.

“My parents?” someone asked after a moment.

“Your parents. Are they covering the whole cost, or just part of it?”

“I don’t know….”

“How many people don’t know how they are going to pay for college?”

A series of half-hands quivered in the air. Mr. Larson knew all of these kids were going to college. They lived in an affluent community. The life course of college/job/fulfillment had been injected into them from birth like antibiotics.

“College for you is going to cost about two hundred thousand dollars,” said Mr. Larson. “Who has that much money right now?”

He certainly did not.

“What is the point of college?” he continued, knowing none of them had two hundred grand.

“To get a job,” someone said. Obvious.

“What kind of job are you going to get, Brendan?”

“I dunno, something in sports.”

“You going to pitch for the Red Sox?”

“No.”

“No. You’re not. Here’s something no one will tell you in college. The entry-level job you get when you get out, if you’re lucky enough to get one, will not pay enough to cover both your rent and your student loans. It might cover one or the other, but not both.”

They frowned at him. Student loans?

“Oops.” Mr. Larson frowned. “Most of you will finish college with debt. Some of you will double-down and go to grad school, increasing your debt. A good number of you will be living at home after you graduate. Many of you will work two jobs, for years, likely one of which will be in either the food service industry, or retail. Both food service and retail suck. They take your soul and step on it. Like a fat kid crushing a beetle.”

A girl in the front row, Laura Something, scrunched up her face in a pout. “Why are you telling us this?” she asked.

“Because you have the right to know.”

“Didn’t you say you got laid off?” another kid asked.

“Take a good look, ladies and gentlemen. This is what a Master’s Degree in English is worth.”

There was a short chuckle.

“Let’s talk more about college,” said Mr. Larson. His stomach was beginning to feel warm, like when he floored the accelerator on the highway. “College can be great, and you have four years where you have no bills to pay, no health insurance to worry about, and more free time than you’ll ever have again. It is also four years of extraordinary pressures, many of them academic, most of them social. You will be surrounded by drugs and alcohol. Ryan,” Mr. Larson extended a hand toward the class hero. “Sounds like you’ve already got a jump on the drinking culture.”

Several students snickered.

“Think you know something about drinking?”

“Yeah, man,” said Ryan Frechette. “I know a thing or two.”

He accepted another high-five.

“You know shit,” said Mr. Larson.

Again the class fell silent. Mr. Larson began pacing in front of his desk. “The first weekend of college there will be parties all over campus. Many of you will make the first significant alcohol-related mistakes of your lives at these parties. You will be encouraged to do so, egged on by other idiots. I couldn’t wait to get drunk for the first time. Got wasted my first night at college. Had my first hang-over the next day. Felt like I was a man that day. But I was just a dipshit. Here’s another thing they don’t tell you: that first weekend party? You don’t have to go. The pressure will tell you otherwise, and all your brand-new best friends will tell you you have to go, but you don’t have to go. Take my word for it. There will be a thousand parties, all of them exactly the same. Approach them at your own pace. If you don’t want to go, that’s cool.”

A shy girl in the front row smiled minutely. Mr. Larson bent his head and continued. “All the ladies in the class please stand up.”

They hesitated, as they always did when told to do something physical, then as a nervous group they all stood. He gave them a moment to breathe, grin, relax their shoulders. Then he stopped pacing. “Many of you, ladies, will be sexually assaulted at some point during college.”

Together all of their shoulders seemed to slump at once. One or two looked like they might cry.

“Take a look at each other,” said Mr. Larson. “Several of you are going to get raped.”

The girls exchanged furtive glances, but mostly they stood stone still. The boys did not look at anyone.

“Sit down,” said Mr. Larson, and the girls obeyed. “Your turn, gentlemen. Up.”

Warily the boys left their seats. Ryan Frechette and his high-fiving friends were the last to oblige.

Mr. Larson pointed a finger generally at the boys. “Some of you will commit sexual assault during college. You’ll get drunk, you’ll start to feel good, you’ll take someone back to your room, and you’ll make a mistake that ruins her life, and never gets easier for either of you to bear, no matter what you do.”

“That’s messed up, Mr. Larson,” said Ryan Frechette.

“Yeah, I don’t think you should be talking about this,” said one of the girls.

“Nobody’s going to talk to you about it at college either,” said Mr. Larson. “Sit down, gentlemen.”

The boys sat back down, shaking their heads. Mr. Larson glanced at the clock on the wall. There were twenty minutes left in the class. Not a single student looked happy. Good. He thought of his other classes, his underclassmen, bright-eyed freshmen and sophomores. Smart, wealthy kids from good families who expected everything to work out for them. Misfortune could be swapped out like a broken iPhone, problem solved. 

“Bad things happen to good people sometimes,” Mr. Larson said. “And sometimes good people do bad things. I’ll give you an example.”

He sat down on the desk. Everyone was watching him now, their expressions lost between discomfort and fear.

“This happened when I was in college,” he said. “There was a girl I was friends with. We’ll call her Kendra, which was not her real name. She was a cute girl, funny, smart. We had a bunch of classes together, and she lived in my dorm junior year. Now junior year is when almost everybody turns twenty-one, and as I’m sure Ryan has already figured out, like generations of idiots before him, your twenty-first birthday is often an occasion for epic and raucous drinking.”

“Hell yeah,” said Ryan Frechette, drawing a few laughs. “I can’t wait to turn twenty-one. You can come out with us, Mr. Larson.”

Mr. Larson nodded. “So a bunch of us went out for Kendra’s twenty-first birthday, to a bar called… Jesus, you’d think I would remember. Doesn’t matter. So we’re at the bar, maybe ten or twelve of us, most of us already twenty-one. Everyone each ordered a round of drinks, and every time there was a new round, we made the birthday girl take a shot. That was tradition.”

Several of the students perked up. Mr. Larson could see the word COLLEGE!, with a big exclamation point, dancing in their eyes.

“By the end of the night we were all totally wasted, especially Kendra. Those of us who were left took a cab back to campus, and staggered back to our dorms. Kendra and I lived on the same floor, so we walked each other home. Leaning on each other. Trying not to fall. Reeking of alcohol.”

“Mr. Larson, I knew you were cool,” said Ryan Frechette.

Mr. Larson stuck his hands in his pockets, began fidgeting with his car keys.

“I don’t remember if she invited me into her room, or if we just sort of lurched in there,” he said. “I remember some things about that night, but not everything. I remember we started making out on her bed. We started getting undressed. I thought it was the greatest birthday party ever. Then, right as she got her bra off-“ and he could see several of the girls squirm in their desk chairs “-she passed out.”

Someone in the back row said “Aww.” 

“The next thing I remember I was on top of her,” said Mr. Larson. “And we were having sex.”

Now the class fell silent.

“And I guess I thought she was awake, and knew what was going on, but I don’t know. She came to at some point, suddenly, and started resisting. Wanted me to stop. Started pushing me away.”

He felt pain in his hand, withdrew his hand from his pocket, saw that the keys had been pressed so hard they’d drawn blood.

“I did not stop,” Mr. Larson said. He stared at the floor. “Because in my mind, I guess, we were having fun. I even told her: ‘This is fun, right? It’s your birthday, you have to celebrate.’”

He shuddered as he recalled what he’d really said. In his drunken confusion he had told “Kendra” it was his own birthday, and he wanted to celebrate it right. “It’s my birthday,” he told her, over and over.

Everyone in the class was staring at him. 

“I woke up in my own bed the next morning,” said Mr. Larson. “I have no idea how I got there.”

A girl in the second row had tears in her eyes. Another girl gaped at him, open-mouthed.

“After that Kendra never spoke to me,” Mr. Larson said. “I’d see her around campus, and she’d look away. At the time I just sort of thought we had made a drunken mistake, that it was just some awkward college hook-up. Happens to everyone. Took me years to realize what had actually happened. What I’d actually done. And I feel sick about it.”

He slid off the desk and sat down in his chair, his body dropping like a sandbag, and he did not say anything for a while. Eventually he glanced at the clock, saw there were a few minutes left before the bell.

“Listen,” he said. “I want you all to look around at each other. Next year you aren’t going to see each other anymore, you’ll be off on your own. If I can give you one piece of advice, one thing that’s more important than any books you’ve read over the last four years, or any theorems they made you memorize, it’s this: take care of each other. Look after each other. Be the person who takes care of the group. Not the person the group takes care of. Gentlemen; even if she says ‘yes’ at the party, or at the bar, make sure she still says ‘yes’ when you get back to your room. And if she says ‘no’ back at the room, you better back off. And ladies; it’s okay to say ‘yes’ at the party and then ‘no’ back at the room. You have the right to change your mind. You all don’t think about these things right now, but in a few months, you’ll have nobody to hold your hand when you get into trouble. Except each other. That’s all I have to say.”

A hush settled over the room, and the bell rang a couple of minutes later. Slowly the students got up from their seats and filtered out of the classroom. In the hallway Mr. Larson heard the buzz of conversation and laughter, and knew that some of them were already forgetting what he’d told them, perhaps on purpose.

 

That night when he got home he opened a bottle of wine half an hour early. Usually he waited for his fiancée, Catharine, to arrive home from work before they started drinking. Mr. Larson sat at the kitchen table drinking and staring at his cell phone, waiting for the inevitable call from the school.

It came while he was cooking dinner, while Catherine was watching TV in the living room. It was the high school principal, on speaker-phone, with the superintendent.

“I understand,” Mr. Larson said, before hanging up.

He sighed. Catherine had never heard the story about “Kendra.” Now she would hear it tonight.

“Are you teaching tomorrow?” she called over the television.

“No,” said Mr. Larson, and he brought a fresh bottle of wine into the living room.

 

 

About the Author: Adam Matson's fiction has appeared internationally in over a dozen magazines, including The Poydras Review, as well as Straylight, Soundings East, The Bryant Literary Review, The Berkeley Fiction Review, Morpheus Tales, Infernal Ink Magazine, Crack the Spine, and The Indiana Voice Journal. He is the author of a collection of short stories, Sometimes Things Go Horribly Wrong (Outskirts Press).

Cryptography

I thought I heard someone
say I was a cryptographer.
What came to mind
was mapmaker.

Two misapprehensions
made a kind of sense. I’d drawn
site plans for our land,
the house we envisioned.

Our pond, the path
a gravel road would follow
to our door. I’d made maps
for permits, for engineers,

to communicate
details of the land,
its relationship to us,
our dreams and our intentions.

But the land encodes more
than I know. Slope and rise,
soil, water, grass, weed and tree.
Kingfisher, heron, rabbit, deer.

What keys the mind employs
to read one meaning as another
—field as dream, land as plan,
space as home—I have no idea.

With hand-drawn maps
I decrypt a cyphered text,
trying like a spy
to get the message right.

 

 

About the Author: Devon Marsh’s poems have appeared in Poydras Review, Muddy River Poetry Review, Dark Matter, The Lake, The Penmen Review, The Tower Journal, the Kakalak Anthology, and http://devonmarsh.com/poetry/