Stories 3 Winter 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Can Be Anything You Want To Be

 

      by Raud Kennedy

 

 

I was napping underneath Tina’s dangling feet—she was the smallest of my two-legger family—while she sat on the old red leather couch between her dad and granddad. Every now and then she brushed her toes against the fur on the top of my head. It woke me with a tickle, but I didn’t mind. Tina was my favorite being in the whole world and could do nothing that would bother me. I just lay there dozing and listening to what the old men had to say. When Tina’s dad took her to the park to play with the other two-leggers her size, he was always the oldest dad there, but the other dads seemed to look up to him as if he’d been through this many times before and was full of wisdom, as if he was the dad they’d always wanted. But he’d just gotten a late start and was in the same boat as they were, though he never mentioned this. He did look more like a granddad than a dad, and with Tina sitting between him and her mother’s father, the two men looked like brothers. She sat there and giggled at the silly things they said while her feet rubbed the top of my head.

 

“What do you want to be when you grow up, Tina?” Granddad asked.

 

She pointed at me, lying on the floor. “I wanna be Charlie.”

 

Her dad smiled at her. He was a lawyer who had wanted to be a doctor when he was young, but the chemistry classes that first year in college didn’t quite take. “You want to be the dog? But you can be anything you want to be when you grow up, a doctor, a lawyer.”

 

She shook her head. “No, Charlie.”

 

Granddad rolled his eyes at his son-in-law. “Dan, she’s six years old. What six-year-old wants to be a lawyer?”

 

“It’s never too soon to plant the idea. I think she’ll make a great lawyer.”

 

They often went back and forth like this, not agreeing, but not really disagreeing, but letting the tension build, each finding confirmations in their opinion of the other like two old men on a park bench enjoying the possibility of a fight without running the risk of actually having it. I could sense the tension in their voices rise and every time it got too high, there would be a long silence, and then the build up would begin again. I didn’t like fighting, myself, or even the chance of it. Sniff the butt, sniff the face, and then move on. They called me a people dog and they were right. Not once had another dog given me a biscuit. Tina always shared. Sometimes unintentionally, like when she left her bowl of ice cream unattended.

 

They never said I could be anything I wanted when I grew up. I was the family dog and nothing more was expected of me. Don’t chew Tina’s socks. Carrying them around the house during times of excitement, like when the family returned home, was okay, but don’t put any holes in them, and definitely don’t swallow them. That was bad. Not only did they get pissed when I did it, they’d get pissed all over again when they found the sock in the yard. They dressed Tina in bright oranges and yellows like she was their sunflower and it made her socks easy to find. They stood out amongst all the green of the back lawn, and even passing through me couldn’t fade their colors.

 

I was to move when told to move, be quiet when shouted at, pretty much just do what I was told. Tina had two older brothers who were old enough to speak almost as well as their parents and they were sort of in the same boat as me. They were often told what to do and shouted at when they didn’t do it. Parental barking was effective, at least in the short term. The two-leggers must’ve learned it from us. Her brothers were frequently told they could be anything they wanted to be when they grew up, but it was followed with subtly toned phrases like, if you applied yourself, or, if you could just focus, or, if you stopped hanging out with that crowd. I didn’t understand the last bit because I never saw them hanging out with any crowd, but there was a lot I didn’t get, like how they could be anything they wanted in the first place. Could they metamorphose like a butterfly? If I’d wanted to be a German shepherd, I couldn’t because I was born a golden retriever and it was my lot in life to feel the need to always have a bone, a ball, or one of Tina’s socks in my mouth. Not that I’d want to be a German shepherd. They were too stressed from being on the job all the time, alert to any two-leggers who didn’t belong, and in the eyes of a German shepherd very few did, and even those who did were often suspect.

 

Tina’s dad cocked his head at her and glanced at her granddad. “You never know. With all the lawyer shows on television, she might want to be a lawyer.”

 

“She’s six, for Christ’s sake,” Granddad said. “Don’t you remember what it was like to be six?”

 

Her dad turned his hands over in his lap and pondered their wrinkled maps of time. “I don’t think I was ever six. I was on the professional track from day one. My parents made sure of that. Never waste a moment. Even the games they let me play had a purpose.”

 

Granddad chuckled. “I bet Monopoly was one of them.”

 

Dad nodded. “Yep, sure was.”

 

“And I bet they always told you that you could be anything you wanted to be when you grew up.”

 

“Yeah, they did. If I set my mind to it.”

 

I closed my eyes with a long sigh. Just give me a ball or a sock to carry in my mouth, I thought as Tina’s feet rubbed the top of my head, and all is well.

 

 

Bio:Raud Kennedy is a writer and dog trainer in Portland, Oregon. To learn about his most recent work, Portland, a collection of short stories, please visit www.raudkennedy.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Promise of Pottersville

by Tracy Koretsky


            It was easy for him to see over their heads, the closely cropped hair, the scrubbed, slightly pink necks.  They stood in groups swaying from foot to foot in shiny, unfamiliar, shoes, ties loosed, jackets abandoned.  The girls in their party heels swayed as well, but to the music.  Laughter tossed between the groups like a beachball, faltering, drifting, never permitted to drop.


            Somehow this surprised him, the way they looked.  So … adult.  Nearly adult.  When had this happened?  He had known them all his life.   But this night they felt like strangers, with their beers and polite tones.  Well, they would be strangers soon enough.  He turned to leave.


            "Bill!  Where you been hiding?"  Marylou batted her painted eyes as she pressed a cold bottle into his hand.  The coldness shocked him.  He hadn't asked for this, or for Marylou either.  Actually, it had been a long time since he'd asked for anything.  Things just came.


            "Hey, Bill!  Great speech there, bud," said a young man's voice.


            "Seriously.  Almost made graduation worth going to!" said another's.


            Bill raised his hand, opened his mouth, but before he could speak, someone said, "But that thing you said about being raised from the same stalk of corn?  What was that?  A crack about my old man?"


            Bill laughed, opened his mouth, but Marylou spoke first.  "That's not what he said and you know it, Lionel Peters.  Bill said that we were all raised from the same good earth and that we shall return to it someday, too.  Like in the Bible."


            That is not what he'd said, but his mother was quite fond of Marylou and besides, what did it matter?


            "Well, I'm just glad my sentence is over," said Lionel.


            A chorus of  "Amen to that!" and "You got that right" backed him up.


            Lionel, Bill knew, would work in his father's lumberyard.  Marylou got herself a job in the pet shop.  And they would laugh and spend all their money, tomorrows as wide as the country sky.  He threw back the rest of his beer.


            Tom Couters slapped his back a little too vigorously.  "Not for Bill, here," Tom said.  "He couldn't get enough."


            "Think you'll survive college, Bill?"  asked Jenny Walker.


            "Course he will," said Marylou.  "He didn't work so hard to become valedictorian just to slop pigs!"


            But Bill hadn't worked hard to become valedictorian, and the way he saw it, Tom Couters's Pa had a nice, profitable, concern.


            Tom's face was red.  "I suppose you think that being a corn man like your daddy's fancier?"


            At last Bill broke in. "Marylou, how 'bout a dance?"


            "Why, I'd be honored, sir."  She giggled.


            He wasn't much for dancing, but he didn't mind the smell of her perfume or the blonde down bristling the nape of her neck.  What was she doing anyway?   More looking around than dancing.  She was making good and certain that everybody in the room noticed them.


            "Hey, Marylou?"  He stepped back a little so they could talk.


            She moved closer, head tipped back.  He could see a pure white crescent beneath the pastel blue of her irises.  The gentle curves of her cheek rolled smoothly away from her upturned nose like a valentine.  It was work for her to look at him this way, real strain.  Why doesn't she step back, he wondered. 


            "You know, maybe another beer would help me relax."


            "Your wish is my command, master."  She giggled and hurried off.


             When he could no longer see her, he stretched his arms, stashed a couple of beers from the sideboard into his jacket, zigzagged through the crowded parlor, down the quiet hall, and back out to the creaking boards of the sagging porch. 


             What a night!  A warm breeze, a crescent moon, crickets sending up a symphony.  Bill drank the two beers one after another while admiring the stars.  Then, gripping the rail in both strong hands, he bucked like a young colt, and landed neatly beside Marylou's mother's early summer strawberries.


***


            The black metal fire escape rang beneath his feet.  He took the steps two at a time ignoring the handrails, leaping the landings, twisting and winding his way to the top.  By the uppermost landing, he was feeling his beer. Despite the darkening evening he could make out the jungle gym and swing set rising above the flatness to the north.  Beyond them, the farmlands, and beyond them, the beyond.  To the south, the forest.  The forest of his boyhood where he had rolled his first cigarette of corn silk and pipe tobacco, where he'd first had the courage to kiss Marylou.  She had tried to back away, but she hadn't tried hard, and he had won.


            Just as he had won time after time in the booming gymnasium.  The court was his kingdom and he was a natural.  And for this – for what came to him indifferently – he was envied. 


            It was bewildering.  About school too, he felt a similar dismay.  Here was the competition for which he hungered, bound in those pages, all those unanswered questions.  Yet no one he knew – not even the teachers – shared his passion.  He loved history, the spiral of tradition, the DNA of society, and for science his curiosity was like hunger.  Above all, literature was his favorite, the lives of people far away and so much wider.  Folks here in Pottersville always found that difficult to believe.  So he would restate it with simple declarative directness and they would hoot and guffaw and run off to tell their friends.  He had stopped saying it.  People don't like paradoxes and Bill hated to disappoint.


            He hated most to disappoint his mother.  Hadn't she been so terribly disappointed already? For her he had to be good – better.  For her Bill needed to be best. 


            Though he tried to stuff it down and push it away, it came back, just as it always did, ver batim, visceral.  He was five again and it was well past bedtime. He just wanted to sleep.  Daddy had been there all day. They had done so much.  But now Daddy kept tickling him, whispering "Hey, Tiger; Hey, Sport." 


Finally he sat bolt upright.  "Daddy, it's very late," he scolded crossly.


            "Is that so?  Well then, I'd better make it short.  But see, I really need to talk to you.  I need your advice."


            Billy slipped his thumb in his mouth.  No one had ever asked him for advice before.  He wasn't even sure what it was.


            "Think you could help me out?"


            Billy nodded his head emphatically.


            "See, I got a problem, Sport.  I got to say good-bye to someone.  Someone I love so much, I..."


            Billy was frightened by the look on Daddy's face, frightened by the way he walked in long narrow ovals.  Billy tried to remember.  Had he done something bad?


            "I want you to be good, son.  For me.  Very good."


            "I will, Daddy." His voice had squeaked meekly.


            "The best."


            "I'll try, Daddy."


            "I'm counting on you.  I need you to be very good and take care of your mother."


            "Who'll take care of me?"


            "Mama will, oh, Mama will, of course.  You and your Mama, you're going to take care of each other."


            "What about you?"


            "Well Sport, see, I'm gonna leave."


            "You just got back."


            "I know, but I have to leave."


            "When you coming back?"


            "That's the thing, Tiger.  See, well … I have to leave."


            First there was numbness, then doubt, then, hard as hail, rage. Great gulps of air shook his little frame.


            He screamed as Daddy rose to leave, not words, just a single shrill alarm rending the air: a baby's tantrum. Daddy clapped his hand over his baby mouth.


            "I need you to promise me, boy.  Come on now.  Promise." Daddy made the promise cross of heart with his hand and waited for Billy to mimic it.


            At first he could not, then, though it took all the strength in his body, he could.  And with that, Daddy was gone.


            Billy vowed to keep his promise until Daddy came back.   He was sure Daddy would come back.  Why else would he care if Billy were good?  So Billy would be good and he would wait and then Daddy would come back and Mama would sing in the morning and Billy would start first grade in the autumn.  Then Daddy would rake a big pile of leaves and throw Billy in.  They would laugh and laugh.  Billy could wait.  He waited all fall, and then all winter.


            He waited one year, then two, and finally the decade, and when, at last, he stopped waiting, that was when Bill became a man.  And with it the knowledge, sickening, dizzying, that this town was too small, too nowhere, to be the kind of man he was.  Oh, if only he could be his mother's little man, very good, the best, but, Lord help him, he was his father's son, oh, so much more than he wanted to be.  He was his father's son and he had to leave.


            Bill let his head fall back against the fire door of old Pottersville Central.  It loomed over him.  Thirteen years of his life – kindergarten through senior year – and he was almost on top of it.  Not so hard to climb.  Not hard at all.


             Gripping the knob he pulled himself to standing.  Then he wedged his foot behind it and boosted himself.  His fingers could almost touch the eaves.  Pressing his tongue against his teeth, he stretched, his fingers brushing the edge.  He swung to the roof like a cat burglar – in it just for the thrill.  He was there.  He was on top.  On top of Pottersville Central, thirteen darned years of his life.  Only the city hall was higher.  Only the church steeple.  And there he was, hovering, close to the edge, drinking in the cold night and the stars, hugging himself in his drunken glee. 


             Oh, what it would be to fall!  The wind whipping through his hair.  Nothing beneath him, nothing but speed and eventuality, and then, then, sweet nothing – nothing at all.


And just one step away.  Just over the edge.  Not so hard to do.  Not hard at all.


            Bill craned his head back, the diver's salutation, lifted to his toes in preparation, when … He had not meant to say them, was not even sure he had.  From a voice deep within his chest, a voice not even his, came the words, "My God, Mama."


            His body folded beneath him.  Then, rolling his head over the rough stone edge of his school, Bill vomited the last of his beers.


***


             Pink lined the morning clouds.  Already a cooling mist hovered above the dewy grass.  Soon it would melt into the day and the breeze would be heavy with it.  It would cling to the skin: a thick, humid, Illinois day, deep in the heart of corn country.  The farms formed their patchwork: gold and green and good solid earth, their fields vibrating with glowing sunflowers, and soothing clover; fat country robins rejoicing together in the miracle of morning.  To the east, the houses, neat and square, washed rosy by sun.  Main Street and the shops, the church with its willow grove of cemetery, Gerber's Grocery, the forest, that old, old forest – it took his breath away.  He had to rub his eyes twice before believing it.  It was Pottersville and it was glorious.


            He remembered his Whitman, "The Child That Went Forth, and Always Goes Forth, Forever and Forever," and he understood.  Before he had comprehended, but now he understood.  This was where he had come from and who he would always be   And he saw over the farmlands, and he saw beyond.  It shimmered upon the horizon, a bubble not yet burst.  He squinted to sharpen its image, but this is never possible

 

 

Bio: Tracy Koretsky is the author or three novels: Ropeless, (Present Tense Press: 2005) a 15-time award-winning family drama that will change your thinking about people with disabilities; The Body Of Helen, inspired by modern dancer, Martha Graham; and The Novel Of The Century, a romantic comedy about the importance of love, books, and choosing both.  Her memoir in poems, Even Before My Own Name,  (Raggedbottom: 2009) has earned 18 prizes ranging from haiku to prose poem. You will find audio poems, reviews, and interviews at www.TracyKoretsky.com.  A former editor of the online journal, Triplopia, Koretsky’s short fiction, critical essays and poems are widely-published and awarded.  Work published in 2011 has been nominated for both The Best of the Net and Pushcart anthologies.  Currently Koretsky writes the “Critique Corner” series for the monthly WinningWriters.com newsletter.

 

 

 

 

Replacing The Empire

  by Sally Jenkins

 

 

“How can a woman be a whole empire to a man?” Wallis fingered the neck of her silk blouse. “I can’t go ahead with it.”

            She sat down on the window seat and stared out at the sweeping drive.

            “But you’re dressed and ready. We’re all ready...” Emerald’s voice was agitated. “Edward will be waiting for you. Surely this is just last minute jitters.”

            “Emerald darling, this is the third time we’ve done this. You know I don’t suffer nerves when I’m sure what I’m doing is right.”

            “But how can this be wrong when Edward has publicly declared and demonstrated such a deep love for you?”

            “I feel suffocated by his expectations. He has given up his whole life for me – what can I possibly give him in return? I will have to spend the rest of my life trying to please him.”

            Emerald began to wring her hands. “He made me swear, as your matron of honour, to look after you this morning and deliver you safely to him. He called you his Empress.”

            A flush penetrated Wallis’ wedding make-up.

            “That’s his pet name for me.” She dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. “But now it sounds kind of hollow. It’s just another expectation that I can never fulfil.”

            It was Emerald’s turn to stare desolately out of the window over the lawns of the French country house towards the sweeping driveway.

            “The cars are arriving. We must go downstairs.”

            “No, I need more time. Edward received a letter last night from the King and it upset him greatly. Although he’s no longer entitled to it, George is going to allow him to keep his ‘Royal Highness’ title.”

            “That’s good news isn’t it?”

            “George’s generosity never comes without a condition. And this time it is that I am not to share the title and in the unlikely event that we produce children, they won’t be entitled to it either.”

            “That’s hardly a great surprise is it?”

            “No, but Edward has taken it as a personal insult to his future wife and heirs. You see how much pain he continuously bears on my behalf? I can’t carry on being a millstone around his neck.”

            “Pull yourself together, Wallis!” There was a new determination in Emerald’s voice as she picked up her gloves and checked her hat in the mirror.  “There’s no going back. The abdication is signed and sealed and George is King. If you back out now then it will all have been for nothing.”

            A sharp knock at the door made both women jump.

            “They’re coming for me!” declared Wallis like a woman about to be executed. “Tell them I need a few more minutes.”

            The door opened before Emerald had a chance to reach it.

            “I need to do the pre-ceremony photographs, Mrs Simpson.”

            “Yes, of course. Do come in, Mr Beaton.” It was as though a veil of composure had passed instantaneously over Wallis’ previously fraught and tense face.

            As Cecil Beaton set up cameras and lights, Emerald arranged the simple silken rose headdress in her friend’s dark hair and pinned the antique brooch at the high neck of Wallis’ fitted blouse.

            “I expect most of the weddings you attend are grander than this, Mr Beaton,” remarked Wallis as she posed on a red velvet chair, her hands in her lap. “Proper society weddings have shoals of pastel bridesmaids and kilted pageboys and acres of veil for the innocent bride to hide behind.”

            “I find the simple weddings are often the most enjoyable,” said the photographer quietly as he expertly packed away. “Now, I’ll leave you two ladies to your preparations. I have to catch His Royal Highness as he arrives downstairs for the ceremony.”

            “If Edward hasn’t yet arrived that gives us about fifteen minutes,” said Emerald. “Let me clip that headdress on a little more securely. It’s breezy outside.”

            “But Edward is never late. He must have decided I’m not worth it!”

            Wallis slumped on the chaise-longue, her shoulders heaving and soft sobs falling into her handkerchief. Eight months ago she had wanted to marry the King of England more than she’d ever wanted anything in her entire life. But the roller-coaster ride of his abdication had cooled her enthusiasm. She had felt powerless as he had ignored her pleas to remain as monarch and since then she had felt attached to him with a ball and chain. But now he was rejecting her! The tears came unchecked and she felt like a knife was tearing at her self-worth. Rejection was a new experience.

            The telephone on the side table gave a loud ring and Wallis sat up. Emerald grabbed the receiver from its cradle.

            “Thank you. I’ll let her know.” She said into the handset and then turned to Wallis. “He’s arrived! That was his valet and Edward wants you to know that today is the start of the happiest days of his life.”

            Wallis stared at her friend, the drying tears leaving her make-up streaked. Her eyes registered relief but a frown began to crease her forehead and thin painted red lips.

            “You see – his expectations of this marriage are huge! How will he survive without the family and country to which he was born? How will I survive without the society and parties that drew me to him? He loves me too much but without his royal status I can’t love him enough. I fell in love with the King of England not a disgraced minor royal.”

            “Things will get easier when recent events have been forgotten. King George will forgive and forget – after all he’s reached an office that he always thought out of reach.”

            “Queen Elizabeth will never forgive us.”

            “Time is a great healer. Now, let me repair your make-up.”     

            “No need. I’m not getting married. I shall write Edward a letter and then disappear back to America.”

            Wallis shrugged off Emerald’s attentions and sat down at the writing bureau. She picked up a silver fountain pen and a sheet of heavy headed notepaper. She wrote with a fluent and confident flourish, aware of Emerald hovering but not quite daring to read the emerging letter over her shoulder. Now that she had made the decision Wallis felt in control of her life again and she felt her shoulders relax and the lump in her throat disappeared.

            “What shall I tell them all?” Emerald’s voice had become small and nervous.

            “You tell them nothing,” said Wallis firmly. “Just hand this letter to Edward and he will deal with it. Cancelling a wedding shouldn’t be difficult for someone who was supposed to rule the British Empire.”

            She signed the letter and carefully blotted the notepaper without rereading her words. Then she folded it to fit the thick cream envelope.

            “HRH Duke of Windsor,” she muttered to herself as she addressed it. “My feelings shouldn’t come as a surprise to him. I explained I couldn’t live up to his expectations before he renounced the throne.”

            When Emerald had left to deliver the letter Wallis removed her headdress and shook her hair free. Edward was handsome, generous and fun – everything she looked for in a society playmate. If pressed on the point she would even admit to loving him, which hadn’t been true of her previous two husbands. But her shoulders weren’t strong enough to cope with the pressure of replacing everything that he had given up for her.

            The bang on the door made Wallis jump to her feet. Edward strode in and slammed the door behind him. His eyes blazed and his mouth was set in a tight line.

            “I have no expectations of you, Wallis Simpson.” The harsh but quiet tone of his voice did not invite conversation. “None at all. I decide my fate just as you are free to choose yours. I agree that a woman cannot be a whole empire to a man. However; few men have an empire bigger than their own back garden and they are content with that. Why should I be any different?”

            “Because you had a taste of that empire.” Wallis touched his hand to try and diffuse the anger within him.      

            “All marriages are a journey into the unknown, as you should know.” Wallis thought she caught a twinkle in his eye as he said these last words. “I know your track record and I’m willing to take that gamble. Without the burdens of state my shoulders are light and I have no expectations of you other than the occasional kiss.”

            Wallis felt his arms go around her slim waist and she raised her mouth hungrily to his.

            “But you do know that you can’t abdicate and eat it, don’t you,” she whispered as they pulled apart.

            He laughed, pinched her bottom and left the room before she could slap him.

            “Shall I redo your make-up?” asked Emerald, coming back in through the still open door.

            “Yes, please.”  Wallis smiled at the thought of her true English gentleman.

 

Bio: Sally Jenkins is a UK based writer of short stories and articles. Her fiction has been published in women's magazines and her articles have appeared in Writing Magazine and Writers' Forum amongst others. Sally blogs about writing and related topics at www.sallyjenkins.wordpress.com