Folks heading to the train perk up when I play "It's a Wonderful World". I strum it faster than usual; keep up with their busy commuting feet.
Lydia hates coming with me, hates bringing the boy. I don't enjoy having them spend time here either, but that is the way it goes. I tell her that she and the boy can stay at the shelter any day it is hot, or raining. They can't stay home during the Taste of Chicago. Too much money from folks heading to the Taste.
When the boy comes, we bring along a Sponge Bob chair and a little red suitcase with some toys and books in there. He fiddles with the toys at first, looks at the pictures in the books, but then he gears up to wander around. Lydia is anxious about him wandering. She misses the high notes when he goes too far or gets closer to the rows of tracks. Still singing beside me, she looks around for the boy, motions to him with her eyes to get back to the chair. When he is sitting still in the chair she seems to relax, taps her hand on her thigh like she feels the rhythm. Between songs she pushes his corn silk hair away from his eyes. There, she says, presenting our boy to the world.
It pains me to see him in that chair; his skinny legs crossed at the ankles, holding tight to that suitcase as if someone might take it. No kid should be sitting in a chair in the train station on the Fourth of July. I put the chair far away from the port-o-potties; drunk teenagers in and out of there, stumbling around that child. Lydia does a good job keeping the chair away from the trashcans too.
When I am alone, my case is never full of money. There are usually a few bills, but generally coins.
When the boy is with me, there are sometimes fives. You know why folks throw in this particular money; it is not my music. The money buys him shoes and books; it adds up.
One time a lady threw in a pack of cards and a few square-shaped Hubba Bubbas. I remind him of this when he gets real upset; it could happen again, a treasure in the case. Doesn't work. No kid wants to be in the train station on the Fourth of July. Lydia pinched me when I told him he would see the city fireworks display over the scaffolding. Not good enough, she said through her teeth. Then she grinned at the boy, we'll get you to some fireworks.
Won't be long, he will be embarrassed of his chair, and of me. Girls his age will board the train, will yell at me to stop playing "Under the Boardwalk". For now he doesn't understand all of this, doesn't grasp that we are not on a stage, he just sits still and waits.
But here is the thing, and I haven't told Lydia yet. In time I will write a new song, a fresh sound that we have never experienced. That song will play nice and clear and when he hears it, the boy will know it is time to go, his time to wander. It will be that song that orchestrates in his head as the conductor hollers all aboard. One step up and he will be gone, headed out on a train to a new life, a life that follows a soundtrack that moves him forward; no more sitting. He won't be looking in cases any more; his treasure will be somewhere along the tracks, away from the station. I'll play the song to empty that chair.
Jill Barth lives just outside Chicago in a house built before the Civil War. She means to infer nothing when she says that she lives in the house with her husband and three children under the age of five. She has been a recent contributor to Writers Post Journal and Virtual Writer.
When Melanie grasped his hand tighter on the print-smirched subway pole and half-whispered "I love you," Tim Raines answered, "You're drunk."
She pulled back a notch and grinned her usual stroke-victim-like grin, wiping the words she'd spoken out of the air with casual long fingers. "Yeah. Sorry." The blearing in Tim's own eyes prevented him from reading hers, to see if a flash of pain or humor crossed there behind her anachronistic spectacles. It almost didn't matter whether she'd meant it or not; he would not have believed her.
Maybe she'd been seized by the familiarity of their circumstance, the same during which he had first kissed her back in February: then, too, they had both been soused and riding the northbound red line. It might have been between the same stops they traveled between now. Perhaps the same balding man, frowzy in a trenchcoat and high socks, had leered at them then.
Melanie straightened her spectacles, somehow managing to poke herself in the eye in the process. "Thumb wound. Ow." Tim kissed the weapon. It was unpainted and trimmed and seemed longer than his ring or index. Though he hated the word, found it gross, Tim conceded that in the marriage of Melanie and Tamah, Melanie was the butch. The only pencil her face ever knew was the graphite one that smudged her cheeks at the lab. She cut her hair herself. She was beautiful.
They exited the subway at Davis and walked hand in hand into the square, Melanie stumbling and squeezing him with each stumble, Tim noting as if for the first time how her hand seemed to eclipse his own. The night was cool but held the promise of not-yet summer; foot and wheel traffic still busied the square. Melanie wanted to stop at an organic food shop, open at an incongruous hour, to look at the cheeses. As she was the butch in this relationship too, Tim acquiesced. I kissed her, though, he thought.
On the shop door, Tim saw a sticker featuring interlocked hands with rings on their ring fingers, Rights For All's emblem. RFA had defended Massachusetts's same-sex marriage law last year from a phony petition circulated by conservative interest groups, which was how the booth that Tim manned at the Columbus Day Parade became swamped with new supporters. Among them was a young lesbian couple wed after a six-week courtship. The better-dressed of the two, Tamah, with her perfumy ink-black curls and glistening olive skin, garnered the longer looks from most, but the woman at her side drew Tim's attention, staring at him through a pair of round spectacles more suited to the face of Sigmund Freud. Her speech was odd and loud, as if she hadn't lived among humans for a while. She made Tim laugh with dry jokes about Republicans.
A greasy camembert caught Melanie's eye, then a brick of Belgian white chocolate. She was more susceptible to impulse food buys when drunk, which was often. These days, at least. Tim could not account for her life before he'd known her, the Pre-Tim Era (the Tamah Era, he thought, or was that epoch still happening, in tandem with his?). His stomach did a little lollop. They left the shop and walked up College Avenue, Melanie's hand conquering Tim's once more, her purchases swinging from the other.
"You're going to get jealous," she said. "When I'm eating this. You're going to want some."
"I'll have to contain myself," he said.
She swung her bag of chocolate and cheese in a lazy arc toward his face, and he flinched, and suddenly Tim was back on that train, saluting ghosts, flinching from the belligerent rider and the plastic grocery bag flailed out with a Watch-it-man. How could he not have remembered the exact time of the kiss. They had left the bar long after her MIT friends did, stumbling onto the platform toward Alewife, though Melanie lived in the opposite direction. The short ride to Tim's stop had felt like longer in the thrall of her grey eyes, and before he lurched to the doors he imprinted his lips on hers, left his seal, left her as she rode on to the wrong terminus of the red line.
He believed in karmic tally even as other elemental truths fell away. What was one brick broken when you were building a church? They uncapped fresh beers in his apartment and Tim made her choose between the cheese and his embrace. Her foot kicked the camembert to the floor.
A cheater will cheat again, he'd think not two months from now, while he waited for her beneath the turning lights of the theatre or walked alongside her as Charles wind harried all bridge-crossers. But he'd count her mention of a call from Tamah as the actual froster of his heart. The half-hearted mending that'd follow could not be called cheating, not precisely, for how could she cheat on him with her own wife? Still, it would leave him raw, because he'd know that fleeting wife and wife had no more future than adulterer and adulator. He and Tamah were both fated to recede.
Melanie had to see that epilogue, even now without her spectacles. He could hear it in her cries, feel it in her wrist. No reason, then, for her to say she loved him. He curled around her, mute in the dark, bitter-breathed.
Jeff Deck is a writer living in the Boston area. He will pursue an MFA sometime in the near future. In his fleeting free time, he enjoys competitive skeeball and trivia, as well as eradicating typos. He has also had work published in The Furnace Review.
I was in the dining room hammering up the wainscoting. I was doing it because Charles just won't and he knows the party is this weekend, too. I hit every finger on my left hand at least once.
It had been out there sixty minutes, barking, barking for sixty minutes straight when I decided to go out on the back porch, grab a rock, and throw it.
Some shot; the dog went right down.
It fell into the petunias and twitched a hind leg.
I began to feel guilty and unsure of myself. Had the dog really been barking for sixty minutes, for one hour? Was it hurt real bad?
I climbed the fence and checked for a pulse.
No pulse. I slid the dog off of the petunias and onto the zinnias. I never liked zinnias or that dog, but I felt that some action was necessary.
I took my two hands, cupped them, and tried re-fluffing the petunias.
After managing to resurrect a few petunias I got up and stood there. With my right hand I pulled my bathrobe together tight at the throat and stood there slowly opening and closing the left hand, thinking, feeling the dull ache in each finger tip, each finger that I hammered.
I felt that the right thing to do was to go knock on Tom's door and tell him that I just killed Sadie. I stood there on his porch for ten minutes. Keeping my robe shut tight, this time using the left hand, I knocked on his door with my right.
"Hi, Jane," Tom said.
"Hi, Tom," I said.
"What brings you out so early? Did I hear Charles hammering a little while ago?" Tom asked.
"That was me," I said. "Tom, I killed Sadie with a rock."
Tom is solid, sturdy, and wears in his hair enough palm-ade that even at seven-thirty in the morning his part was a straight white line. His hair is combed down so fastidiously, so forcefully that it must keep blood from circulating through that bone white part. Nevertheless, Tom is a calm man, a thinking man. He stood there looking at me through the screen door.
"Better come inside so that we can sort this out," Tom said. "I just made some tea."
"Well, alright," I said.
Charles and Tom used to be good friends, used to get together at least once a week for beers and cards, or just beers, or to head into town to drink beers and "tear shit up" as Charles would say. He'd also say "don't wait up."
I would wait up anyway, if for no other reason than to give him a quiet Tuesday or Wednesday night squint that would direct his own gaze towards the kitchen clock. He'd say, "Aw, Jane, it isn't that late. Besides, you like the peace and quiet." I'd put a pot of coffee on and we'd sit together and smoke cigarettes until the coffee was gone.
One night Charles came home and he didn't say anything, just brushed right on past me and grabbed a beer from the fridge.
"What's the matter dear?" I asked.
"That sonofabitch Tom…that's all I gotta say," he said. "Got some nerve, that man, some nerve."
"What happened, Charles?"
"What happened was this," he continued. "We'd had about three beers apiece when he goes and tells me that he's in love with you. Says you aren't happy with me and that he knows you love him, too."
"What else did he say?"
"Ain't that enough?! I balled up my hand and gave him a toot right in the nose. He still has my hedge clippers, dammit, and I need them, too, but I ain't gonna apologize just to get them back. No, sir, he can go to hell with my hedge clippers and I'll let those damn hedges go to hell with him and grow and grow until I can't see his house no more." He went to the fridge for another beer but there weren't any left so he sat down at the table and cried.
I stood there, pulling my robe together at the collar because he left the kitchen door open, and I smoked a cigarette. I smoked it way down to the filter in what seemed like a breath and stood there listening; there was an eternity in that kitchen, measured in the loudest ticks from the innards of that cat shaped wall clock. The tail moved in the opposite direction of those disapproving eyes, ticking like crazy, a metronome to which Charles' tin-eared sobs desperately tried to keep tune. Through the smoke I could see his shoulders shake as he cried at the table.
Outside I could hear a dog barking.
I crumbled the spent filter and gently closed the kitchen door.
At some point the fumbling in the kitchen stopped and I felt all alone amid someone else's memories. Walking into the kitchen I noticed that Tom wasn't there. On the counter top I saw strewn sugar, spilt milk, and dry tea bags while outside I saw Tom, kneeling, rocking Sadie in his arms.
Charles knelt beside him, offering words of sympathy.