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Just Joe: Baseball's Natural
     Just Joe: Baseball's Natural
     By Thomas Perry

Understanding Mr. and Mrs. Joe Jackson isn’t easy, but if you’re going to try, start in 1939. Joe always said his greatest sorrow was not that he was thrown out of baseball, but that we did not have any kids. Mine, too, because it accounts for a lot of this silence around the house just now. All swept, dusted and tidied up, and open windows let in the breeze of an early spring morning. But it’s empty except for the footsteps of an old woman echoing off hardwood floors.

McDavid Jackson was Joe’s favorite nephew, and years before there had been talk among the family about us adopting the boy as our own. I felt barren. And selfish, wanting my man for myself even when I knew this would make him happy. “He won’t be ours by blood, but he can be the son I couldn’t give you, Joe.”

“You’re always first in my heart, Missy,” I heard him say, and was even more ashamed of myself. I remember looking up at him and smiling through my tears.

“I know, I know,” was all I managed, and pressed tight against him. Thinking all the while, ‘But he’s what I couldn’t give to you, and I hate myself for it!’ My sobs were lost in the white cotton shirt he wore.

Can’t remember what stopped it all, but it never happened. He was a good boy, stayed close to his Uncle Joe, and the two of them were a sight together, walking the downtown streets on a Saturday evening, sharing a bag of lemon drops and quiet conversation.

Anyway, McDavid finds him a nice girl in Miss Lila Hunt, and the two of them were married in ‘39. Like I said, you have to understand all this if you’re going to understand my man Joe. October of next year, they’re expecting a baby, and Uncle Joe is running around town buying this and that for the child’s nursery.

Seeing Lila grow big with that child, and McDavid with a smile brighter than a harvest moon, made me think again, and bitterly, of what Joe and I never got to feel. Wasn’t very becoming at all, especially when my man was so genuinely happy for them. But sometimes we get lucky enough to realize how wrong we’ve been, and have a chance to set things right.

Joe was at their house one day, putting a coat of primer on the nursery wall. His favorite stop was Breazeale Hardware, couple of doors down from our store in West Greenville, where he and Mr. B. had already mixed up two cans of paint, one light blue and the other of course light pink. He bought stencils of lambs he was planning to color in white after he painted the walls. At lunch, I picked up two BLT’s and vanilla shakes and drove over to share a meal with that hardworking loveable man. Not long after I drove up, here comes the happy couple.

“Uncle Joe! Aunt Katie!” McDavid yelled, spun me around and hugged me, then grabbed Joe in a bear hug. Lila stood smiling at us, walked over, held my hands and kissed me on the cheek. She was always so sweet that way. Like I said, it was me that needed changing, not that lovely little girl whose face was framed by rings of black hair. The men had gone back to the kitchen for something, and Lila spoke to me.

“Katie, would you like to feel the baby? He’s moving and kicking to beat it all, raring to go!” I wanted to offer a short ‘no, thank you’, but couldn’t do it, couldn’t turn away from her dark eyes filled with so much kindness.

“Yes, yes I would,” and was more than shocked at my willingness. Still, I drew back when my fingers were only an inch or two from her belly.

Afraid of what?

Of touching what I could never offer my own husband?

No, more than that. Of having to knock down the wall, open up and share their joy. Give up my self- pity and really mean it when I said how happy I was for the both of them. Not faked, like so many times before.

“It’s okay, Aunt Katie,” and she smiled when I looked up at her. First time she ever called me that.

“Won’t hurt him a bit.” She took my hand and laid it on her belly. Think my heart about beat out of my chest when I felt the child kick hard. Lila gasped and bent over a little, those bright eyes closing a bit as she winced.

“No doubt he’s a boy,” she laughed. “Little girls couldn’t kick that hard.”

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The Last of One
     The Last of One
     By Stephan Solberg


…The old man is dreaming again.

It is a dream from long ago that he’d had many times over the years, more years than most people live to remember. Each time it is a little different, but each time he thinks it is exactly the same. He is sixteen years old and lying in the middle of a field of tall, green wheat. It is June, and the seed on the wheat is full and ripening, the sun is high, and the air is thick with the smell of life. Lying next to him is a woman he has always and only loved. Her name is Helen, and her dark eyes look lovingly into his as he touches her hair that reminds him of the color of prairie grass in autumn. They’d just made love, and he now caresses her stomach as they laugh and talk and imagine a life together. He picks a red poppy that is growing in the wheat and tenderly places it behind her ear. It echoes the color in her cheeks and lips. She smiles and kisses him. They look out towards the lake named after the Indian word for ‘big water.’ This is in their hometown in Wisconsin on the shore of Lake Michigan, and, on a day such as this, the sky and water become one. A rumbling sound is now heard in the distance, like an approaching storm. As he looks across the field, he sees four horses running straight at them. Though the field looks the same, he isn’t back home anymore but is now in France, in the Marne Valley. The year is 1918. The horses are wearing masks that cover their eyes like big bubbles and their mouths and noses with dark canvas bags. They are terrified because they can’t breathe, and they run in fear as it’s the only thing they know to do. He sees them and tells Helen to be still and stay with him as the horses will run around instead of over them, but she panics and starts to run away through the tall wheat towards the woods in the distance. He yells for her to stop, but she doesn’t hear, and the field has gotten bigger and never seems to end as she keeps running. The horses pass him, but he watches in horror as they come upon Helen and quickly trample her. He screams and runs to her; tears begin to blur his vision and panic stifles his breath. Before she dies, she looks at him in confused sadness, as if she doesn’t recognize him, says she is sorry, and then closes her eyes forever. He clutches her to his face, but he is unable to kiss her. He’s wearing a mask, too, and he struggles to remove it but can’t. It’s a gas mask, and he chokes and screams inside of it as the field fills with a deathly fog. The horses have continued running toward the tree line when gun fire erupts from the dark wood. They crash to the ground and writhe in death throes as machine guns open up from every direction. Men crawl out of the dead horses’ bellies and continue on toward the forest. They are masked soldiers just like him so he runs to join them as they all disappear into the tangled growth.

Suddenly he is in a trench with seven other men. They are identical, but he knows they are his men, his squad, and they fire their machine guns, but instead of bullets, a bright beam of light blazes forth and makes the enemies put down their weapons, turn around and walk back home. He can see the backs of hundreds of men in dark grey uniforms just walking away like nothing happened. When he turns around, and to tell his men this, they are all gone, and he is left alone. He stands up out of the trench and looks in all directions, but no one is there. The land is grey, torn, and deathly quiet. An icy wind begins to blow. He walks down a dirt road that seems to go on forever. The sky is dark and purple, and the silhouettes of dead trees desperately reaching are the only things that break the barren landscape. A column of soldiers is approaching, and, as they pass him, he sees that people he knows are marching with them, family, friends, but no one looks at or recognizes him as they pass and continue over the hill. It’s as if he didn’t exist, and he is puzzled by this.

He sees a baseball on the ground and stoops to pick it up, and when he stands again he’s back in more recent times at the city park where he’s worked so many years. He knows it’s his park, though it looks different, and he doesn’t recognize anyone until he gets to a monument. Sitting on a bench and looking up at the war monument is his old friend Ernie, whom he’d met during the war. Ernie’s still young and handsome like he was then, and now he sits and writes and doesn’t see the man (who is now an old man) approach him. Next to Ernie, leaning against the bench is a shot gun. He sits down next to the gun, and Ernie says, “’Bout time you got here. I was ready to leave without you.” He doesn’t know what that means. Just then a pigeon flies above them as both watch. It dives and turns and finally lands on the statue of the soldier atop the stone pedestal. They gaze in wonder at the bird which they know to be the last of its kind. As it flies away, Ernie takes his gun, aims carefully, and blows it out of the sky. “Why did you do that?” the old man asks, horrified. “Nothing lasts forever,” his friend explains.

A young boy in the park finds and picks up the remains of the dead bird. He wordlessly cries and walks away. The old man sees this and tries to run to the boy to console him, but he can’t move. He recognizes this boy, but the boy doesn’t see the old man. “Tommy!” he calls in his sleep.

Then the old man awakes...

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Unusual Circumstances
     Unusual Circumstances
     By Various

Dead Aim

Bryan Steven Follins

Jesse Green had begun his nightly check of e-mail. There were 26 new messages in the mailbox. One message had an attachment. The title of the message read: One Hundred Different Ways to Cheat On Your Spouse. A mile-wide grin spread across Green's face, as he rapidly scrolled down to the e-mail. Cynthia, his wife, would not be in for another hour, so he was going to enjoy reading THIS MESSAGE. Green opened the e-mail.

It read: "Here are some foolproof methods to help you establish an airtight plan on how to cheat on your spouse. This demo is free, so you do not have to worry about pulling out your credit card. Feel free to click on the attachment."

A wider grin crossed Jesse's face.

He clicked on the attachment.

The screen turned black.

Next, a pulsating white circle appeared in the middle of the monitor. The circle became larger and larger.

Then a voice said: "The first step to cheating on your spouse is to blind them."

At this point the light pulse flashed ten times brighter than the sun, and Green was blinded.

Then the voice said: "The second step is to make them deaf."

Now, a high-pitched whistling sound erupted from the file. Green grabbed his ears. The whistling became louder and louder, and then, silence.

Jesse realized he could no longer see or hear. He panicked and tried to stand up, and he tripped on his chair. He fell to the floor, and lay there in a state of total shock.

Then the voice said: "Now that they can neither see nor hear, there is nothing they can do to stop you."

Now there was a grinding noise on the computer. A message flashed across the screen saying: "System hardware failure." The screen went blank, and Jesse was blank.

While all of this was going on, Cynthia had entered the room. She was feeling proud. Her newly developed e-mail virus had worked.

She had to get changed, for she had a date an hour later.

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A Collection of Friends
     A Collection of Friends
     By Thomas Sheehan

Parkie, Tanker, Tiger of Tobruk

Hardly with a hop, skip and a jump did Frank Parkinson come home from Tobruk, Egypt, North Africa, madness, World War II in general. A lot of pit stops were made along the way where delicate-handed surgeons and associates did their very best to get him back into working order. From practically every vantage thereafter we never saw, facially or bodily, any scar, bunching of flesh, major or minor skin disturbance. There was no permanent redness, no welts as part of his features, no thin and faintly visible testaments to a doctor's faulty hand or to the enemy's angry fragmentation. For sure, it was as if he were the ultimate and perfect patient, the great recovery, the risen Lazarus.

But he was different, it was easy to see, by a whole long shot.

Parkie. Tanker. Tiger of Tobruk.

It was the end of some trying times for my friend. One lazy afternoon we sat looking over the sun looking over Lily Pond, and I noted some things about him for the first time. A redness glared on the pond's face as bright as an ache. This was the pond face we had skated on for almost twenty years. Here we had whipped the long hand-held whip line of us and our friends screaming and wind-blown toward the frosted shore on countless coffee and cider evenings. That afternoon I realized Parkie had come home to die.

The September sun was on for a short stay. We had bagged a dozen bottles of beer and laid them easily down in the pond, watching a flotilla of pickerel poking slowly about when the sediment settled. Their shadowy thinness pointed, like inert submarines or torpedoes, at the bags.

Our differences were obvious, though we did not speak of them. The sands of North Africa had clutched at him and almost taken him. Off a mountain in Korea I had come with my feet nearly frozen. Under skin they often felt like graceless pieces of marble, thinking they might have been blown off the same quarry where unknown sculptors had once farmed torsos.

I had kept no souvenirs, especially none of Korea and its craggy mountains, and had seen nothing of his memento scenery. But once I saw a pair of tanker goggles hanging like an outsize Rosary on the post of his bed at Dutch Siciliano's garage. That's where he roomed on the second floor, in three small rooms, dusty and cluttered and strongly odored. You could smell oil and grease from below. You’d swear along with them you could smell acid-like cosmoline and spent gunpowder. It was like the residue of a convoy's passing still hanging in the air, telling of itself at the nostrils with sharp reminders, rising right through the floorboards.

Most of us left our wars behind us. As much as we could. But with Parkie it was different…pieces of it hung on as if they were on for the long ride. I don't mean that he was a flag waver or mufti hero, now that he was out of uniform. But the whole war kept coming back to him in ways he had no control over. There are people to whom such things befall. They don't choose them, that's for sure, but it's as if they somehow get appointed for all the attendant crap life gets filled with.

And Parkie had no control over the visitations.

I don't know how many times we had been sitting in the Angels' Club, hanging out, the big booms long down the tubes, when someone from Parkie's old outfit would show up out of the blue. It was like Lamont Cranston appearing from the shadows. There'd be a guy standing at the door looking in and we'd all notice him, and then his eyes and Parkie's eyes'd lock. Recognition was instant; reaction was slower, as if neither one believed what he was seeing. There would be a quiet acceptance of the other's presence. They'd draw their heads together and have a beer in a corner. Parkie, as sort of an announcement, would speak to no one in particular and the whole room in general, "This guy was with me in North Africa."

He never gave a name. All of them were odd lots, all of them. They were thin like Parkie, drawn in the face, little shoulders and long arms, nervous, itchy, wearing that same darkness in the eyes. A sum of darkness you'd think was too much for one man to carry. They would hang on for days at a time, holing up some place, sometimes at Parkie's and sometimes elsewhere. They'd drink up a storm, carouse, and one morning the stranger would be gone and never seen again. Some guys said a ritual had taken place. A solemn ritual. Apparitions almost from the slippery darkness! Dark-eyed. The nameless out of North Africa and whatever other place they had been to and come from. Noble wanderers, it seemed, but nameless, rankless, placeless, itinerants.

Parkie never got a card or a letter from any one of them. Never a phone call. Nothing. He never mentioned them after they were gone. That, to me, was notice he knew they would never be back. It was like a date had been kept, a vow paid off. It wasn't at all like "We'll meet at Trafalgar Square after the war, or Times Square, or under the clock at The Ritz." Not at all. The sadness of it hit me solidly, frontally. I had had some good buddies, guy's I'd be tickled to death to see again if they walked in just like his pals did, and I knew that I'd never see them again. Things were like that, cut and dried like adobe, a place and a job in the world and you couldn't cry about it. Part of the fine-tuned fatalism that grows in your bones, becomes part of you, core deep, gut deep.

The sun's redness shivered under the breeze. Pickerel nosed at the bags. The beer cooled. Parkie sipped at a bottle, his eyes dark and locked on the pond, seeing something I hadn't seen, I guess. The long hatchet- like face, the full-blown Indian complexion he owed great allegiance to, made his dark visage darker than it might have been. With parted lips his teeth showed long and off-white or slightly yellowed, real incisors in a deep- red gum line. On a smooth gray rock he sat with his heels jammed up under his butt, the redness still locked in his eyes. Like some long-gone Chief, I thought, locked in meditation of the spirits.

For a long while he was distant, who knows where, in what guise and in what act, out of touch. This really wasn't that unusual with him before, and surely wasn't now, since his return. Actually it was a little eerie, this sudden transport, but a lot of things had become eerie with Parkie around. He didn't like being indoors for too long a stretch. He craved fresh air and walked a lot, and must have worn his own path around the pond. It went through the alders, then through the clump of birch that some nights looked like ghosts at attention. It coursed down along the edge where all the kids fished for kibby and sunfish, then over the knoll at the end of the pond. There you'd go out of sight for maybe five minutes of a walk, and then it went down along the near shore and came up to the Angels' where we hung out.

Most of the guys said when you couldn't locate Parkie, you knew where to find him.

He talked to me from his crouch, the bottle in his hand catching the sun, his eyes as dark as ever in their deep contrast.

"Remember that Kirby kid, Ellen Kirby. When we pulled her out of the channel on Christmas vacation in her snowsuit and she kept skating around for a couple of hours, afraid to go home? We saved her for nothing, it seems, but for another try at it. I heard she drowned in a lake in Maine January of the year I went away. Like she never learned anything at all."

Parkie hadn't taken his eyes off the pond. Stillness still trying to take hold of him. He sipped and sipped and finally drank off the bottle and reached into the water for another. The pickerel force moved away as quickly as minnows.

Their quickness seemed to make fun of our inertia. If there was a clock handy, I knew its hands would be moving, the ticking going on, but I seriously wouldn't bet on it. We seemed to be holding our collected breath. The sun froze itself on the water's face, the slightest breath of wind held itself off. There was no ticking, no bells, no alarms, no sudden disturbances in the air, no more war, and no passage of time. For a moment at least we hung at breathlessness and eternity. We were, as Parkie had said on more than one occasion, "Down-in deep counting the bones in ourselves, trying to get literate."

"We just got her ready to die at another time." The church key opener in his hand pried at the bottle cap as slow as a crowbar and permitted a slight "pop." He palmed the cap in his hand and shook it like half a dice set and skipped it across the redness. The deliberate things he did came off as code transmissions. I had spent hours trying to read what kind of message was being carried along by them. They did not clamor for attention, but if you were only barely alert you knew something was cooking in him.

"You might not believe it," I said, "but I thought of her when I was in Korea and swore my ass was ice. I remember how she skated around after we pulled her out with that gray-green snowsuit on and the old pilot's cap on her head. She had the flaps down over her ears and the goggles against her eyes and the ice was like a clear, fine lacquer all over her clothes. I thought she was going to freeze standing up right on the pond."

Parkie said, "I used to think about the pond a lot when I was in the desert. At Tobruk. At Al Shar-Efan. At The Sod Oasis. At all the dry holes along the way. But it was always summer and fishing and swimming and going bare ass off the rock at midnight or two or three in the morning on some hot-ass August night. Those nights we couldn't sleep and sneaked out of the house. Remember how Gracie slipped into the pond that night and slipped out of her bathing suit and hung it up on a spike on the raft? Remember how she told us she was going to teach us everything we'd ever need to know?"

His head nodded two or three times, accenting its own movement, making a grand pronouncement. The recall was just as tender and just as complete as that long-ago compelling night. He sipped at the bottle again, and tried to look through its amber passage, dark eyes meeting dark obstacles of more than one sort. As much a fortuneteller he looked, peeking into life.

All across the pond a stillness made itself known, a stillness as pure as any I've known. I don't know what he saw in the amber fluid, but it couldn't have been anything he hadn't seen before.

I just got the feeling it was nothing different.

When I called him Frank he looked at me squarely. His thick black brows lifted like chunks of punctuation, his mouth formed an Oh of more punctuation, both of us suddenly serious. It had always been that way with us, the reliance on the more proper name to pull a halt to what was about us, or explain what was about us. He drank off a heavy draught of beer, his Adam's apple flopping on his thin neck. The picture of a turkey wattle came uneasily to mind, making me feel slightly ridiculous, and slightly embarrassed. Frank was an announcement of sorts, a declaration that a change, no matter subtle or not, was being introduced into our conversation. It was not as serious as Francis but it was serious enough.

His comrades from North Africa, as always, had intrigued me. On a number of instances I had searched in imagination's land for stories that might lie there waiting to get plowed up. Nothing I had turned over had come anywhere close to reality, or the terrors I had known in my own stead. No rubble. No chaff. No field residue.

Perhaps Parkie had seen something in that last bottle, something swimming about in the amber liquid, or something just on the other side of it. He turned to me and said, "I think you want to know about my friends who visit, my friends from North Africa, from my tank outfit. I never told you their names because their names are not important. Where they come from or where they are going is not important either. That information would mean nothing to you."

For the moment the silence was accepted by both of us.

Across the stretch of water the sun was making its last retreat of the day. A quick grasp of reflection hung for a bare second on the face of the pond. It leaped off somewhere as if shot, past the worm-curled roots, a minute but energized flash darting into the trees. Then it was gone, absolutely gone. None of it yet curled round a branch or root. And no evidence of it lay about... except for the life it had given sustenance to, had maintained at all levels. It was like the shutter of a camera had opened and closed at its own speed. Parkie acknowledged that disappearance with a slight nod of his head. An additional twist was there. It was obvious he saw the darkness coming on even before it gathered itself to call on us. I thought another kind of clock ticked for him, a clock of a far different dimension. He was still chipping away at what had been his old self. That came home clean as a desert bone; but where he was taking it all was as much mystery as ever.

The beer, though, was making sly headway, the beer and stillness, and the companionship we had shared over the years. The mystery of the sun's quick disappearance played with what we knew of the horizon, the thin edge of warmth it left behind. And it played with all those strange comrades of his. They had stood in the doorway of the Angel's Club, framed as they were by the nowhere they had come from, almost purposeless in their missions. They too had been of dark visage. They too were lank and thin and narrow in the shoulder. They too were scored by that same pit of infinity locked deeply in their eyes. They were not haggard, but they were deep. I knew twin brothers who were not as close to their own core the same way these men were. These men had obviously leaned their souls entirely on some common element in their lives. I did not find it as intense even with reconnected battle brothers who had lain in the same hole with me while the Chinese used old German 76'ers. Not even when the shells screamed and slammed overhead and all around us, the shrapnel routed in the awful trajectories.

The flotilla of pickerel nosed against the bags of beer. Parkie's Adam's apple bobbed on his thin neck. He began slowly, all that long reserve suddenly beginning to fall away.

"We were behind German lines, but had no idea how we got there. We ran out of gas in a low crater and threw some canvas against the sides of the three tanks that had been left after our last battle. If we could keep out of sight, sort of camouflaged, we might have a chance. It got cold that night. We had little food, little water, little ammo, and no gas. It was best, we thought, to wait out our chances. If we didn't know where we were, perhaps the Jerries wouldn't know either. Sixteen of us were there. We had lost a lot of tanks, had our butts kicked."

He wasn't dramatizing anything, you could tell. It was coming as straight as he could make it. Whatever was coming, though, had to be pretty wild, or exorbitant, or eerie or, indeed, inhuman. The last option came home pretty cold to me. The hair on the back of my neck told me so.

"We woke up in the false dawn and they were all around us. Fish in the bottom of the tank is what we were. No two ways about it. Plain, all-out fish lying there, as flat as those pickerel. They took us without a shot being fired. Took us like babies in the pram."

"All day they questioned us. One guy was an SS guy. A real mean son of a bitch if you ever met one. Once I spit at him and he jammed me with a rifle barrel I swear six inches deep. Ten times he must have kicked me in the guts. Ten times! I couldn't get to his throat, I'd've taken him with me. They stripped our tanks, what was left in them. That night they pushed us into our tanks. I saw the flash of a torch through one of the gun holes. You could hear a generator working nearby. Something was crackling and blistering on the hull or the turret top. Blue light jumped every which way through the gun holes. It was getting hot. Then I realized the sounds and smells and weird lights were welding rods being burned. The sons of bitches were welding us inside our own tanks. A hell of a lot of arguing and screaming was going on outside us. The light went flashing on and off, like a strobe light, if you know what I mean. Blue and white. Blue and white. Off and on. Off and on. But no real terror yet. Not until we heard the roar of a huge diesel engine. And the sound of it getting louder. And then came scraping and brushing against the sides of our tanks. Sand began to seep through the gun holes and peep sights. The sons of bitches were burying us in our own tanks! All I could see was that rotten SS bastard smiling down at us. I saw his little mustache and his pale green eyes and his red nose and a smile the devil must have created. And his shining crow-black boots."

I couldn't talk. I couldn't ask him a question. A stunned sensation swept clean through me. First, disbelief, a surging block of disbelief, as if my veins had frozen in place. The dark pit in his eyes could be read; the darkness inside the tank, the utter, inhuman darkness that had become part of Parkie and part of his comrades. The imagined sense of it hit me slowly. It crept within me. I knew a sudden likeness to that feeling. It was peering over the edge of a high place. The ground would rush up to meet me and then fall away. The long descent, the torturous fall, would become part of me... in the veins, in the mind. A shiver ran through every part of my body. And then hate welled in me, stark, naked, unadorned hate, hate of the vilest kind.

Parkie put his hand on my knee. His grip was hard.

"I never wanted to tell you, none of you. We all had our thing. You had yours. I had mine. I'm so sorry your feet are screwed up. I wish nothing had happened to you. But a lot of guys've had worse."

"What happened?" I said, letting his hand carry most of his message, letting my own small miseries fall away as if they did not exist. Not by comparison anyway. My feet had iced up practically in my sleep. I knew the ignoble difference.

"The sand was almost over all the tank, and the noise inside the tank started. Screaming and cursing and crying. Cries like you never heard in your life. Godawful cries. I know I never heard anything like them. And coming out of guys I'd known a long time, tough guys, valiant guys, guys with balls who had gone on the line for me. I heard some of them call for their mothers. There was screaming, and then whimpering and then screaming again. And curses! My God, curses that would raise the friggin' dead. The most unholy of curses. Everything dead and unholy and illegitimate raised from wherever they were being brought against the Germans and that little SS bastard. He was castrated and ripped and damned and denounced to the fires of hell. You have not heard profanity and terror and utter and absolute hatred all in one voice at the same time. The volume was turned way up. It filled the tank. It filled that makeshift and permanent vault. And it filled our useless and agonized banging barehanded against the hull of the tank. Knuckles and fists and back-handers against the steel. And the outside noise drowning all of it out."

I was still reeling, kept shaking my head, kept feeling the old glacier-like ice in my veins. And the heat of hatred coexisted with that ice. I was a mass of contradictions. Parkie kept squeezing my knee. The pickerel kept nosing the bags, hung up in their own world of silence. Silence extended itself to the whole of Earth. The quiet out there, the final and eventual quiet out there, after the war, was all around us.

"Suddenly," he continued, "there was nothing. The sand stopped its brushing and grating against the steel of the tank. Then the diesel noise grew louder, as if it was coming right through us. And powerful thrusts came banging at the tank. I didn't know what it was. And then we were being shoved and shaken, the whole structure. And I heard curses from outside and a lot of German on the air, and we seemed to be moving away from our hole in the ground. Whatever it was was pushing at us. And then it went away and we heard the same banging and grinding and grunting of the engine nearby. Then the blue and white light again as a torch burned around us and the tank heated up, and lots of screaming but all of it German. And there were more engine noises and more banging and smashing of big bodies of steel. Finally the turret was opened and we were hauled out and canteens shoved in our faces and the other tanks were being opened up and guys scrambling out, some of them still crying and screaming and cursing everything around them."

He reached for the last bottle in one of the bags. The bag began to drift slowly away in wavy pieces. The pickerel had gone. The bottle cap snapped off in his hand. I thought of the tank's turret top being snapped open, the rush of clean air filling his lungs, a new light in his eyes.

"Then I saw him," Parkie said. "The minute I saw him I knew who he was. General Rommel. He was looking at us. He looked me right in the eye, straight and true and bone-steady and no shit at all in it. I didn't think he was breathing, he was so still. But I read him right off the bat. The whole being of that man was right in his eyes. He shook his head and uttered a cry I can't repeat. Then he took a pistol from another guy, maybe his driver, a skinny itchy little guy, and just shot that miserable SS son of a bitch right between the eyes as he stood in front of him. Shot him like he was the high executioner himself; no deliberation, no second thought, no pause in his movement. Bang! One shot heard round the world if you really think about it. He screamed something in German as if it were at the whole German army itself, each and every man of it. Perhaps it was lifted to whatever God he might have believed in because it was so loud, so unearthly. Then he just walked off toward a personnel carrier, not looking at us anymore or the SS guy on the ground, a nice- sized hole in his forehead."

He drained off the last bottle. He mouthed the taste of it for a while and wet his lips a few times. I thought he was remembering the dry sands, the heat, the embarrassed German general walking away on the desert. Or this parched earth being an ultimate graveyard for so many men, for so many dreams.

"They gave us water and food, the Germans did. One of them brought up one of our own jeeps. It was beat to hell, but it was working. One German major, keeping his head down, his eyes on the sand, not looking at us, pointed off across the sand. We started out, the sixteen of us, some walking, some riding, some still crying or whimpering. Some still cursing. The next day we met some Brits. They brought us to their headquarters company. We were returned to our outfit. Some guys, of course, didn't get to go back on line, but were sent home as head cases. Can't blame them for that. I kept thinking about General Rommel, kept seeing his eyes in my mind. I can see the Germans now, the look on their faces, the shame that was in them. It was absolute, that shame, and he knew we knew. It was something he couldn't talk about, I bet. If he could have talked to us, we might have been taken to one of their prison camps. But he knew he couldn't do that to us. Make amends is what he had to do. He had to give us another chance. Just like we gave Ellen Kirby another chance at drowning."

In his short flight he had circled all the way back to the Kirby circumstance and all that played with it. Frankie Parkinson, tanker, survivor of Tobruk and other places in the northern horrors of Africa, who walked away from death in the sand on more than one occasion. Parkie, who might be called Rommel's last known foe, who rolled over three cars on U.S. Route 1 and waged six major and distinct bouts with John Barleycorn thereafter in his time. He was a man who got to know the insidious trek of cancer in his slight frame. I loved him more than any comrade that had shared a hole with me. He hurt practically every day of his life after his return from Africa, and hung on for twenty-five more torturous and tumultuous and mind-driven years. They found him one night at the far end of the pond when nobody knew where he was for two days. A handful of damp earth was squeezed into one fist, and the metal crypt, perhaps, was long gone, just as perhaps were the days of Africa.

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| Pocol Press |
...in God's Flower Garden
     ...in God's Flower Garden
     By Colin Pip Dixon

The Fall of a Sparrow

"Thank you for seeing me," Steven said, entering the young priest's office. Father John wasn't very fatherly yet. He was in his mid-thirties with short, red hair, and a fresh, clean face. He was tall and athletic and had been a priest for only two years. His office was modest. There was a simple, wooden desk with a plain, wooden cross on it. On the wall, behind the desk, Andrei Rublev's famous icon of the Trinity. A bookshelf filled with well-worn books. A photocopy machine. And not much else.

"Sit down, sit down Steven. I'm always happy to see you." Steven sat down at the desk, folding his hands and leaning forward tensely. His face was intense and beautiful. Very intelligent. Sandy, straight hair. He was small and in his early twenties. On the left side of his neck there was a large red mark, from hours he spent each day with his violin.

"I wanted to do a confession with you," he began, smiling.

"I know, you told me."

"And I have a rather long..." "Yes, that's why I suggested we do it here." Father John was open, natural, very likeable, with an inner light shining from him.

"Thank you," Steven said nervously.

"Shall we begin then?"

Steven nodded.

"In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. Lord, we kneel before you, and your child, Steven comes before you in honest desire to be reconciled with you. Before we continue I affirm that you, Lord, denied your forgiveness and your love to no one." Steven opened his eyes discretely and watched Father John for a minute. He appeared so sincere in his prayers. "Nothing can separate us from your love, no matter how terrible it may seem to us. May your voice speak through your child, Steven now, to bring to his conscience all that you would have him speak here. In the name of Christ, your Son. Amen." "It is a rather long story, I hope you don't mind," Steven began, eyes lowered.

"Take your time."

"You’ve heard me play at church, so you know a little, but I don't know what... what I mean to say is that I've felt for several years that... I feel funny saying it, but that God had given me a gift, with the violin, I mean." Steven blushed and the young priest laughed.

"You don't need to tell me that," Father John assured, "Everyone in the church feels that." Steven looked down bashfully.

"It's true that since I went on that pilgrimage to Lourdes I feel that something more comes through me when I play."

"I understand. It's beautiful to hear your testimony. It's important."

"No. No. But it's not enough!" Steven suddenly slapped his hand uncharacteristically against the desk.

"Excuse me?" the priest said, surprised.

"I'm sorry. I mean to say – why would God give me a gift, to communicate with music, to transcend, but not the gift of, well, of virtuosity? The gift to be able to technically realize what my musical heart does so easily?"

"What do you mean exactly?" Father John wanted to understand.

"I mean that in the profession there are certain things you need to be able to do with the instrument, and a certain repertoire you should be able to play. There is a technical level, a consistency and an ease you have to attain as a violinist if you want to be taken seriously. Artistically I am there, even above. But not the rest, not the rest. And..." he trailed off, looking up at the ceiling.

"But you're being hard on yourself, aren’t you? Can't you work on that?" "Yes, yes. I can. I did. I searched for the right teacher. I thought, if I find the right teacher who understands me, it will fall into place." Steven spoke distractedly.

"And did you find...? Is that your current teacher?" Father John asked.

"Yes. I found her. Here, in New York. And it was perfect. The first week, I remember, I was able to do things I never did before on the violin, with ease now. She took me aside once and said, 'You are very special. You are very spiritually developed, that's why you were led to me. I can hear what you will be capable of doing in the future.'"

Father John shook his head, "Spiritually developed?"

"Yeah, she's slightly New Agey."

"I see." Father John laughed.

"But I was glad, so happy to have a teacher who recognized that God had given me a gift, who saw that it was more than just ordinary talent. Steven sniffled and pulled a used tissue out of his pocket.

"Yes, I can see how that could be important, very important."

"And she believed in me. And I believed in her system."

"Her system?"

"Yes, her method of teaching, her technique, it made sense to me. For the fist time in my life I enjoyed working on scales and exercises. It was something... I was constructing something now, a framework. Pure technique became something artistic, really, in the sense that I was creating a hand that moved beautifully, like a dancer's body does. It was artistic because now I sought perfect intonation – perfect intonation not just to please musician's ears, but to find a perfect vibration, something celestial which resonated more fully. I was creating sound."

"I think I understand," Father John said, furrowing his young brow, which resisted furrowing.

"And she was going to make a great violinist of me. She understood me. She loved me," Steven continued, a little nervously.

"I take it this changed, from the way you're talking?" "There was a French violinist in her class: Serge. He was younger than me and I didn't think too much of him at first. He was shy and withdrawn." Steven slammed his hand again on the desk, as if he couldn't help it. Father John jumped but tried to look calm.

"What is it?" he asked kindly.

"I don't know why, or how it happened," Steven continued as if Father John hadn't said anything. "But Serge started improving at an incredible rate. He took off. Soon he was playing Brahms Concerto and it was..." he stammered, "it was good. I mean," his voice became low, "it was really, really good." He became silent. Father John felt that something was seriously the matter now. He couldn"t tell where this was leading, but there was some-thing dark in the air.

"Lord, help me to be your instrument here for Steven," he prayed quietly in his mind as he continued to listen, "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is..."

"And I became paralyzed. I was stuck in the same place. Serge became the genius of the class. He played... it wasn't just that it was good, but – oh, God, I hate, I hate to admit it – it moved me too. And he was funny too. Everyone in the class loved him. He even made me laugh! It wasn't even his own language he was speaking. Here I was speaking my own language and I couldn't make anyone laugh at all and he just had to say one word with a funny gesture or movement and the whole group was on the floor. And it was natural and wasn't annoying, though it annoyed me twice as much because of it! And when he played – God, it was passionate, alive and perfect, so perfect. And my teacher would have long private talks with him about international competitions that she wanted him to apply for and..."

"Are you interested in doing international competitions?" Father John asked, leaning foreword.

"No. Yes. I don't know. It's not the point. I want to at least be asked, you know. But it was many things, tête à tête conversations with him about music, about... anyway, it's not important." Steven became disturbingly silent and seemed to withdraw deep, deep into himself. Father John continued his silent prayers.

"What are you leading to, Steven?" He tried to say in a fatherly voice, but he felt too young. He felt intimidated. "Where do you feel that you've strayed from God." He envied Steven's passion, but didn't quite understand it either, or his whole world of music. Partly, he longed to be his friend. They were close in age and he often felt alone. Here was someone who had a strong faith, like him. He would have liked to be able to confess to him, to confide in him his own fears and weaknesses – to simply talk. But God asked something else of him. God asked him to sacrifice personal desire in order to be something more. But how his heart pounded at the thought of talking – just talking – with Steven in a coffee shop, about everything. It was necessary, however, to maintain a separation, a distance.

"What am I getting at? Hum . . . Yeah. Well. Well. It's rather a theological question in the end. Does God choose people?" He said with a slight smirk.

"How do you mean?"

"Did God choose you for the priesthood, for example?"

"Yes," the young priest answered peacefully. Steven was annoyed by his calm assuredness. It was perfectly unaffected, but it bothered him all the same.

"I felt the same way for me. But why would he choose me, give me a certain gift, lead me to the one person who could help me to fulfill this gift and then – sorry, shift, too bad, you're not the one anymore! Serge took my place and yet he wasn't chosen as I was. I was cheated out of something."

"Well, I don't..."

"Yes! Don't deny it. And I felt that God had played a twisted game with me. But I continued to pray. I shouldn't leave it there, I thought. What is it that's getting in my way of fulfilling God's plan for me?" Steven coughed. "And the more I looked, it became clear that there was only one thing. I needed my teacher to believe in me. I needed that support to push me ahead. Since Serge had arrived, I lost her belief in me. So..." He smiled a strange smile, the corners of his mouth lifted, but his eyes remained dead, without the slightest smile in them.

"So?" Father John felt involved now. He wanted to know where this was going even though he felt frightened.

"So, I killed him," Steven said flatly.

"What?" Father John smiled back and began to laugh.

"I killed him."

Father John laughed nervously. "You? You mean – What?" Steven looked back at him silently and Father John stopped abruptly. They stared at each other eye to eye, wordlessly, for a long, long moment.

"What are you trying to say to me here?" Father John spoke finally, his voice dropping to a deeper place, all social mannerisms completely extinguished. "Are you..." he swallowed, "speaking metaphorically? I hope... I..." He knew he was supposed to be the instrument of God's love, of his pardon, but he didn't know how to speak, what to say, it was all too strange.

Steven cracked his knuckles. "Of course not! What do you think? I was just kidding, what I want to..." "God!" the young priest sighed deeply, not even listening to the rest of Steven's sentence.

"But I wanted to kill him," Steven cracked his knuckles again. "Didn’t Jesus say that if you so much as think about killing someone, you’ve killed them several times over in your heart?"

"Yes. But there's a difference. He wasn't – there's a difference." "But I really wanted to kill him. And I thought – yeah, I actually thought – perhaps God wants me to do it. Isn't that funny?" Steven smiled bashfully, as if he revealed something very personal.

"Ah, I don't think it's very funny at all Steven. I find it kind of upsetting." He felt false, like an automated priest. But he couldn't feel natural, he could only fall back on easy clichés.

"No, but seriously. Maybe God brought me to this point, he gave me everything, the talent, the teacher, then – you get it? And then, well, a block. A wall. But he gave us our will as well. Maybe it was part of his plan that I...?"

"What on earth are you saying? What kind of twisted..." Father John burst out vehemently.

"But Judas! Judas! He had to betray Christ. It had to happen. There would be no Christianity if it hadn't!" He bolted up out of his chair.

"That's not necessarily true."

"Yes it is. If there were no death? No resurrection? No horrible suffering and betrayal?"

"And if they had all just accepted and followed his teachings?" The young priest said earnestly, like a child.

"That’s heresy. You can't say that. If he hadn't gone through the entire human condition, if he hadn't known the worst – in any case, if God hadn't willed it, if it wasn't the will of God, then, in fact, in reality, God did abandon his son, leaving him prone to another will. You yourself said in a sermon – you said – I remember it well, it was an impressive idea – you said that Judas' great sin wasn't the betrayal of Christ, but his suicide. In doing that, and I quote from the great Father John now," Steven laughed, "In doing that, Judas rejected completely the possibility of Christ's love."

"I know what I said."

"What if he hadn't killed himself? He may have ended up as one of the greatest apostles. After all, Peter denied Christ three times and Paul persecuted him."

"It's not the same."

"There is a special providence in the falling of a sparrow, don't you believe that?"

"Yes, I do."

"Perhaps God really wanted me to kill Serge." The young priest became very silent. "I really believe it was the right thing to do."

"But," Father John said very quietly and deliberately, "but you said that..."

"I said what?" Steven leaned foreword. The young priest stared at him intensely, into his eyes, trying to understand.

"You said that you had wanted to, but that..." the priest spoke extremely quietly now, he felt his heart thumping so loudly he was sure that Steven could hear it. He felt a perverse, irrational desire arise in him, a desire to cry out 'I forgive you, Steven, I forgive you, let us be friends, forget whatever has happened', but he couldn't.

"Aren't you required to keep my confession secret?" Steven asked, fiddling with something in his jacket pocket.

"Yes, I... of course. I... Steven," the priest felt his mouth getting dry and his voice cracked like an adolescent's. Then, slowly, taking all of his effort:

"Did you kill him?"


"Oh my God." Father John tried to collect himself. I am here as the instrument of God's love... he repeated over and over in his head. But his knees started trembling.

"It was like out of one of those old movies," Steven began to laugh, "I slipped something in his coffee – yes, his coffee." He suddenly became animated. "I really had a great time doing the research, in fact, learning about the different types of poisons, their effects, which ones could pass undetected, and so on, it's fascinating."

Father John stared at him. He felt paralyzed. Strangely he felt closer to Steven than ever before. He wanted more than anything to be his friend. Yet, at the same time, he knew in his head that he should be horrified, but he didn't feel much of anything. Only an intense weakness throughout his body.

"Don't worry. I know that it was wrong, evil, whatever you want, I know. But I think God also wanted it. It was his time to die and my time to excel – and I repent, and now I am asking forgiveness. But..."

"What arrogance!" The priest burst out. Steven stopped his words and all movement. "I can not give you absolution just like that. You must have true repentance and..." He suddenly cried out, "Ah! God! What are we saying! You didn't? This isn't true. You killed him, Steven?"

"You are the arrogant one! To think that you can deny me the forgiveness of Christ! Are you Christ? He who welcomed the thief into paradise and protected the adulteress as others were stoning her? You..." his face contorted with vehemence.

"I can't... this is serious. I need... No! No more theology, Steven, you are not well." Father John stood up now. "We must pray for... "

"Then God must stop me if he doesn't want it. You must give me your absolution and..."

"Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be... " the young priest began praying loudly, in a firm voice.

"You're so freakin' pious and good," Steven shouted over him. "All the women in the church are in love with you and your wisdom and – I pray at least as much as you do, I am more intelligent than you and God is just as – Stop praying and listen to me!" Steven shouted. The priest opened his eyes and saw that Steven held a small gun in his hand and he was pointing it at the priest. Father John stared at him pleadingly, silently. Lost.

"God wants me to kill you too," Steven muttered.

"No... " the young priest was barely able to say.

"He will stop me if He doesn't want it. He will certainly stop me. He wouldn't let me kill such a devoted, beautiful servant of His if He didn't want it. Don't you believe? Don't you believe that He will protect you, Father?" He said 'Father' bitingly. "Where's your faith, young priest?"

"Steven, I..." He was trembling.

"Don't worry. He will stop me. And if He doesn’t, it's either that He wants it or that..." and then Steven whispered, "He doesn’t exist."

"Steven, He... I... love... "

Steven pulled the trigger. A loud shot. The priest thrown to the ground, his head cracked open, blood sprayed against the back wall and streaming along the floor next to his body. Steven let out a big sigh. He stared at the picture before him in disbelief. He couldn't believe that the young priest, whom he admired and envied and despised, lay shattered on the floor in front of him. It had been so easy. He felt filled with energy, exhilarated. He felt free, as if all his inner barriers had been broken down and he could finally breathe freely, deeply. He put the gun back into his jacket pocket, and, without looking again, opened the door to the office and left standing tall.

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Shadow Play
     Shadow Play
     By Jeffrey B. Burton

Entitlement Cuts

Goddamned Styrofoam cup. Granger had set the cup, steaming with coffee, between his thighs as he made a right turn onto 3rd street. Hot sugared coffee had sloshed up through the mouth flap and splashed onto Granger's inner thighs. He choked back a profanity and steered the agency's car to the side of the road. A lady in a Ford Bronco gave him an impatient tap of her horn just as Granger edged off the blacktop and onto the gravel. What the...! Granger whipped his head sideways; shot her both a stern glare and the one finger salute as she sped by. This jerking movement caused more steamy coffee to splash up and spill out onto Granger's lap.

How much longer did he have to put up with this endless shit? Although Granger was on time for his ten o'clock appointment, he felt like bagging it and heading home. But then he would miss the incentive bonus, and he was so close to completing the next level. Granger's interim performance appraisal had been, well, satisfactory. You will never soar with the eagles if you attain a mere "meets requirements" performance rating. And that damned Renke! That goddamned Renke? Here they have Granger driving all over backass creation for out state appointments while Renke gets the posh metro accounts. And the fartskull overseers blindly wonder why Granger only "meets requirements." Renke will win the Hawaiian quota package, hands down, while Granger gets to drive through endless armpit country. Granger gets to wreck his eyesight squinting at the connect-a-dot lines on the county map that constitute the pot hole filled roads in the grim grid that represents his territory.

And now these very same government bureaucrats have lowered the quota demographics to eighty. That meant a mountain of more work stacked high atop of Granger's currently uncompleted pile. Granger's anger had grown during the quota meeting last week. He had gently informed his superiors that his plate was full, and that his current client load kept him jumping. But then Renke had interrupted, cutting him off at the knees, by telling the bean counters that he didn't foresee any difficulties in attaining the new goals set by the regional management. Granger sat and burned as the overseers smiled and patted Renke on the back. He wanted to wipe that smug look off Renke's face right then and there. Give me the metro run, Granger thought, and I'll take the Maui package every goddamned year. One of these days, in the not too distant future, a team of proctologists would have to surgically remove his size thirteen from Renke's ass. Granger pulled into the parking lot. He glanced through the overdue O'Reilly account. Granger put on his hat and walked quickly into the complex. He didn't stop by the receptionist's station as O'Reilly’s file gave Granger the correct suite number. Granger took the steps up to the third floor and stood outside room 314. He looked down the hallway in both directions. Not much activity going on today. He paused for a second and peeked into the room. An elderly man in a robe and pajamas sat on a bed propped up by numerous pillows. The television was on with the volume set annoyingly high.

"Are you O'Reilly?" Granger entered the room.

"What?" asked the elderly gentleman.

"Are you Eugene O'Reilly, born December 12th, 1909?" Granger had to shout above the roar of the TV.

"Yes, I'm Gene. Who are you?"

"Could you please turn the television down?" Granger shut the door.

"Sure will young man." O’Reilly dug about his bedspread for what seemed to Granger like an eternity. Upon finding the remote buried under one of his many pillows it took a lesser eternity for him to find the volume control and turn the television down to a whisper.

"Thank you," Granger said as he stooped by the door as if to tie his shoe. "I'm the regional account representative from the Social Security Office. You're one of my cases."

"What?" O'Reilly asked again, "Who are you?"

"I'm the regional account rep from the United States Social Security Office." Granger crossed the room and sat in the visitor's chair across from O'Reilly. "We’ve been wondering just how long you thought you'd be able to pull it off?"

"What?" O'Reilly sneezed into the sleeve of his robe.

"How long did you think you were going to be able to pull all this off?" "Pull what off, Sonny?" A puzzled O'Reilly shook his head, "My social security is taken care of by Mrs. Johnson in administration. You need to see Mrs. Johnson in administration."

"You know, Eugene, I've had a bad day. I almost got lost finding my way here, and then I spilled hot coffee all over my lap. Any future kids of mine are gonna need skin grafts."

"Ouch," O’Reilly gritted his dentures.

"Look Eugene," discussions like these were not part of Granger's job, actually they went directly against agency policy, but he felt a certain bedside manner was called for, "The Wright brothers were at Kitty Hawk when you were born. You retired in 1972. You've been in this nursing home since 1988. Enough is enough, Eugene. Just how long did you think you were going to get away with it?"

"I'm not sure I know what you mean young man," O’Reilly was becoming irritable, "but I'm going to call for..."

Granger grabbed the bed frame and wheeled it, O'Reilly included, away from the assistance cord. "Frankly, Eugene, every time you fart Medicare gets a bill for five K. You had to suspect it wouldn’t last forever."

"Listen," O'Reilly was now enraged, "I have no idea what you’re talking about. I paid into social security. That’s my money."

"You never paid into Medicare, Eugene. And your piddly contribution to Social Security dried up at the teat when peanut farmer ran the circus. Hell Eugene," Granger chuckled, "You’ve been living off welfare for over twenty years now. You're like one of them teenage moms."

"I want Mrs. Johnson in here immediately. She takes care of rude young men like you. I'll make sure Mrs. Johnson files a complaint with your office regarding your insolence."

"You know, Eugene, I look at my pay stubs and see how much they deduct in social security. I know full well that I'm never going to see any of it," Granger mused. "Yet my generation is forced into indentured servitude in order to support a bunch of fossils like you. Honestly, Eugene, how long did you think it'd be before we found you out?"

"But it's my money, Sonny-boy. Roosevelt made us a promise," O'Reilly protested, "Roosevelt promised."

"Well, at least FDR was thoughtful enough to check out before he turned into a blood-sucking leech on the nation's economy. Hmmm, blood-sucking leech, that sound like anyone we know, Eugene? What'd you expect, that about fifty of us would continue to whistle while we worked overtime just so you can sit here on your hemorrhoids watching 'The Price is Right' into the next millennium?"

"I've earned everything I've gotten, you rotten little bastard," O'Reilly's face had turned beet red. "I served in the military. I fought in the big war."

"I've read your silly ass file, Eugene. You were too old for combat so they put you in the mess hall. I bet they called you Cookie. You probably spent World War II drinking after-shave and screwing Filipino girls." Granger glanced down at his watch. "That was probably the best time of your life."

"That's not true!" O'Reilly wheezed and reached for his cane, "I'm going to get Mrs. Johnson and she's going to call the police. I don't know who you think you are, but I'm...” "Oh no, Eugene, no," Granger shook his head mournfully, "I'm sorry. I know it's not your fault. It's them D.C. bastards, always raccooning into crap that'd be better off left alone. Geez, Eugene, you’re one of my few lucid clients. I was hoping to sit, rest my dogs awhile, and chew the cud, but here I go again ruining it. It's pretty much the same reason the missus left me. Well," Granger walked over and took the cane out of O'Reilly’s liver-stained hands, "I really must be going. Unfortunately you're not my only appointment today. I've got a one o’clock in some other Podunk down the road a stretch."

"From now on you do all your business through Mrs. Johnson." O'Reilly coughed and leaned back in his bed. "I don't care to ever see you again."

"Can't say as I blame you, Eugene. It's just crazy how much cost is involved," Granger reflected, "Absolutely mind-boggling. It finally reached the crisis point for them D.C. bastards I was telling you about. You see I'm from a sister branch of the Social Security Office, Eugene, one that never makes the headlines or TV. And I'm afraid to inform you that your account is past due. Sorry 'bout all this buddy. Time for the old glue factory."

"What?" O'Reilly caught his breath, "What do you want from me?"

"Your ghost.” “My ghost?"

Granger shrugged, "As an account rep from the United States Social Security Office, I've come to help facilitate you in the giving up of it." "What?" O'Reilly's eyes grew wide. Realization sank in as he stared into Granger's un-budging grin. Granger grabbed a pillow with both hands and pressed it against O’Reilly's face. Granger glanced at the door to double-check the wedge he had set in place denying access to any potential meddlers. He pressed O'Reilly down to the bed and waited. O'Reilly put up a slight struggle, but it was useless against the force of Granger's full body weight.

Granger felt the familiar stirring in the front of his trousers. And, in a moment of almost spiritual clarity, Granger realized that it was the job, the goddamned job, which kept him coming back day after miserable day. It was the rush he always felt; the pride and gratification that came from doing the job, and doing it right, that allowed him to put up with the endless driving, ridiculous work quotas, bogus incentive plans, smug co-workers, and the mediocre evaluations.

It was the job...

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Best Bet in Beantown
     Best Bet in Beantown
     By G.S. Rowe

Prologue: Game Day

He stands there, naked, holding his brown, leather-tough hands out before him, palms down, examining his fingers, a craftsman critically assessing the tools of his trade. League records list him as 5' 9" and 160 pounds. If he is, it is only when he is wearing his kangaroo leather playing shoes with their steel plates at toe and heel, and at the beginning of the season. Now, early in June, in the third month of the National League schedule, his weight is closer to 150. And, naked here, he looks like he'd have to rock up on his toes to reach 5' 8". His skin where the sun has not roasted him nut-brown is doughy-white and his hair, which he wears short, is fair. His broad face, more open and accepting than handsome, sports a half dozen thin, pale scars, reminders of fielding errors or quirkily-bouncing balls. There is something about his compact and muscular physique and his quick, fluid motions, that proclaim him an athlete. His eyes, faded blue, almost gray, but alert and confident, convey the same message. And why not? Hell, he is an athlete. A very good one. And, he's proud of that.

He lets his eyes drift to the heavy wool uniform hanging in his cubicle. He's worn the white blouse with its gothic scarlet B of the National League's Boston Beaneaters for seven years now. And the Boston nine has been pennant winners in three of those seasons. They're in contention again this year. To play professional base ball in 1897 is a remarkable accomplishment; to play shortstop as he does on a championship caliber National League squad is, well, even more remarkable, he thinks. People in Boston know Herman Long. Cheer him. Cranks around the League roast him, but concede he is a formidable opponent, sure-handed in the field, swift on the base paths, surprisingly powerful at bat. Not bad for a son of struggling German immigrants. Few of his chums from his old neighborhood have come as far.

He examines his uniform. Unlaundered for several games, it is more dirt-brown and sweat-gray than white. The shirt collar, so useful in keeping the sun from his neck, is rimmed black with sweat and grime. Yet, he knows that once he pulls it on later that afternoon and trots onto the grass of the South End Grounds under sunny skies, it will seem to him as brilliantly white as the first time he'd worn it. It is a thrill he experiences each game.

Herman Long—mates and opponents alike call him "Germany"—returns to his study of his fingers. They are battered and crooked, two nails swollen dark blue and purple and clotted with blood. He turns his left hand over, his glove hand, and examines the puffy yellow-purple knuckles. He probes the knuckle of his index finger and winces at the soreness there. He works his left thumb, discovering again what he already knows: he can't flex the joint. Quickly losing interest in his thumb—hell, he hasn't been able to bend the little finger on this throwing hand either for four years now; it hasn't stopped him—he continues his medical inventory. He studies his pins. The oil-colored bruises covering his ankles and shins don't bother him any more than the large contusion on his thigh where recently he was hit by a pitch. Of greater concern is the angry cut below his right knee that hasn't fully healed. He was spiked during a double play attempt more than two weeks ago and the wound hasn't closed completely. Fifteen stitches and it still leaks puss. And pains him. He'll have to watch that rascal, watch that the redness doesn't spread in thin lines up his leg. But of even greater importance to him at the moment is his right ankle that has ballooned. He rolled it badly the previous day and knows that without treatment he'll have trouble playing today.

And playing today is critical. The team is finally doing better, largely because of his play, and that of his infield chums. In past weeks they've thrown up a stone wall against opposing batters. His absence from the lineup could kill the team's momentum. He pushes at the swollen ankle and feels the dull ache there creep up and meld with the sharper pain from his knee wound. He realizes he's clenching his teeth hard enough to make his jaw throb.

Five minutes later, he completes his tally of wounds and afflictions, and sighs deeply. Just another day in the life of a professional base baller. He pulls a tub holding a block of ice noisily across the planked floor, and begins to stab at the ice with a pick, shattering the block into hundreds of glistening shards. Satisfied that the tub is ready for his ankle, he puts down the pick and wipes his hands on a towel. He is an efficient man, on and off the field. Concluding that it will be a waste of time doing nothing but nursing a bad wheel, he hobbles toward a shelf holding a half dozen books that provide escape for players.

He's barely pulled a well-thumbed copy from the shelf and turned toward the tub when he senses movement behind him. He twists to see who's joined him for pre-game medical treatment. Before he can greet—or even focus on— the newcomer—what feels to him like a sledge hammer crashes into the side of his skull, bringing with it searing pain and the rush of muddied colors: dirty-yellows, varigated blues, purple-oranges. It is as if all of his bruises have become one and have sucked him in, enveloping him in pain. Then, blissfully, there is nothing but blackness for Germany Long of the Bostons, jewel of League short stops.

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Head Full of Traffic
     Head Full of Traffic
     By Brian Ames


"There he is, kids."

They strain against their seat belts, craning to see out the rear window. "Spooky Tree!" they squeal, simultaneously, with delight. "Spooky Tree!"

The tree, or what's left of it, is an old oak in the center of a pasture. It's been topped so many times, and the bark fallen away, it looks like the hoary figure of a headless giant whose trunk might, at any moment, split and rise to walk the earth. Torso, neck, arms — all chopped off.

"Tell us how he got his name," my boy demands from the back. "Yeah, tell us," my daughter agrees.

"Someday," I promise. "When you're older."

More than a hundred years had passed and the valley looked very much the same. The sun still rose over a near ridge and cast light down on morning fog. The stand of trees to the north had grown up and the solitary oak in the center of the field was twice as large. No indication remained that a battle had taken place here except that the surrounding acreage was listed on the National Historic Register and, once in a while, developers nearby would find lead balls in the soil. Bones of soldiers rested in graves beneath the valley, forgotten.

Hiram and Mike sprinted through high grass toward the old oak that nestled their tree fort. Hiram was black, Mike was white. Because of this, they weren't supposed to play together. They did, though, and the fort they had built together beckoned. No other pair of boys Hiram or Mike knew had anything to compare with it.

The construct was reached by ascending a ladder of small crosspieces nailed directly to the oak's stout trunk. Mike climbed the ladder quickly; it was harder for Hiram, who weighed about thirty pounds more. But once they were up, inside, they both were equally at ease. After all, the fort was the most significant thing either of them had accomplished – their domain, over which they had total control. This was especially important to Hiram, whose daddy was always drunk-punching on his mama's face, who got hassled all the time by cops or truant officers for swiping smokes from Bandy's or skipping school. Hiram thought most of his teachers were pricks because they made no secret they thought he was unresponsive and slow. Sometimes Hiram was jealous of Mike, a kid who brought home great report cards to happy parents with no effort at all. Mike always seemed to have the upper hand on things that mattered. And he was the most fantastic smoker Hiram had met since he moved out from Charleston.

When the boys reached the top, the ground looked a lot further down than the fort had looked up in the tree. Articles that would be impossible for a boy of twelve to carry up the ladder could be transferred from ground to tree with a rope hanging from a small hatch in the fort's floor. They’d pulled diverse items up into their nest: two old chairs from a dinette, a length of mildewed carpet, a stolen boom box.

"Hey, here's the surprise I promised ya," Mike shouted. He reached in the pocket of his jeans and produced a pack of non-filter Camels.

"Lemme see 'em," Hiram demanded. "No filters!" You tryin' to kill me?"

"You pussy!" Mike laughed. "You gonna tell me you're not smoking with me, your best buddy, just cuzza no filters?"

"Uh-uh." Hiram liked to sneak smokes, and he was not a pussy.

The pair sat in opposite chairs and exchanged looks across a busted table. The pack of Camels sat open in front of them and Mike reached for the pack to withdraw two smokes. Rolling one to Hiram, he struck a match to his own, then held it out for Hiram to get a light.

They puffed deeply, inhaling. Hiram hadn't used to inhale because it gave him huge headaches, but he had learned to after Mike explained that only pussies didn't inhale. Mike had a number of cool smoking tricks, including smoke rings and inhaling through his nose. Hiram could almost blow rings but whenever he tried to inhale through his nose it hurt so much he’d usually just about puke from coughing so hard. "Pussy!" Mike would laugh.

"Look!" Hiram said, "I did it!" A perfect ring of smoke floated over to Mike, slowly turning out on itself.

"Not too shabby, Hi. That was as cool a ring as I ever seen." "Well, now for my surprise," Hiram announced, reaching down below the table. He pulled his pants-leg back over his calve and withdrew a dirty magazine from his tube sock.

Mike grabbed the mag from Hiram's hands and immediately turned to the foldout. "Hmmm. Looks pretty neat." He thumbed through the rest of the magazine, tossed it back over to Hiram, who had already seen it. Hiram scooted over and added it to a stack of skin mags growing in the corner.

"Ya know, I think we should rip off some old mattresses or something for this place," Mike said. He secretly hoped that Hiram would soon agree to lift the ban on bringing girls to the fort.

"What the hell for?" Hiram misunderstood Mike's suggestion as an idea for a sleepover in the fort. Since he wasn't allowed to play with Mike, he couldn't imagine the reaction of his parents if he were to ask whether he could sleep out with "that white boy."

"T'bring up chicks, ya dipshit!" Mike answered, as if the intent was obvious.

"Yeah, buy ain't no chicks comin' up in our fort," Hiram vowed, closing the issue.

The Hiram remembered what he was going to show Mike, something truly amazing and un-pussy enough to impress him. "Hey, check this out what my cousin showed me." He crawled over to the hatch for the rope transporter, cleared it. Hauling up the rope was hard, since it was thick and long. "Gimme a hand, ya wimp," he demanded. Mike crawled over and started pulling too. In a few seconds, the entire coil lay at their knees. Hiram found the end and held it up in front of their faces. "This is how to make a hangman's noose," he announced.

Hiram began to work the thick rope in his hands, doubling the rope back on itself, wrapping the knot once, twice... thirteen times. Then he fed the loose end through the smaller loop and pulled taut, his arms outstretched. The knot was complete.

"Well, shit. That's the coolest thing I ever saw," Mike adjudged. "Show me how."


"Aw come on. Don't be a prick, Hi."

"I just did it in front of your face — can't you even see?"

"Just show me again. Come on."

"All right," Hiram capitulated. "Just don't show anybody else." He undid the noose and began again. "Now ya take the rope and make a loop, and when you done that, ya wrap it real tight thirteen times, because that's the unluckiest number. If ya don't wrap it thirteen times, the person ya hang will come back as a ghost and..."

"Oh bullshit, Hiram, you think I'm a pussy? Believin' in ghosts?"

"Don't matter whether you believe or not, that's just why there's thirteen loops — OK, then you take this loose end, feed it through the little hole and pull tight. Then when you put it on the person's neck, you take up the slack on this part here, see? It slides through the loops and the rope goes tight. And then you hang 'im."


"Anybody you wanna."

"OK, lemme try now."

"Here ya go," Hiram conceded, tossing the noose at Mike's eager hands. He undid the noose, made his loop, began to wrap it and was on the ninth twist when Hiram first sensed something odd. Mike finished the thirteenth loop, fed the loose end through and pulled taut. "First try," he bragged as Hiram caught another flash kill him from an unknown source.

"Hey. You OK, Hi?" You look like you just seen the ghost you was talkin' about."

"Yeah. I'm all right. I just felt kinda weird for a second, like someone was tryin' to talk at me but it wasn't you. It was here though..."


kill him

"In the fort." Hiram was tuned into something urgent, confusing.

"Whatever," Mike shrugged, pulling the loop around his own head. "Hey, look at this — it fits."

"Hold the knot and pull up on the rope," Hiram advised.

Kill him

Mike complied and fully received the noose. He stood, as best could be managed with the low ceiling, now proud at his achievement. "Whaddaya think?"


Kill Him...

Hiram was stunned. It was too much for him to comprehend. He wanted badly to understand, but could only kneel agape.

It was the goddamned tree! He felt himself start to get dizzy, barely managed to croak, "Hey Mike... no shit, somethin's happening, somethin's wrong with me I think..."

KILL Him... like it had more to say.

"What's wrong, Hi. You look like crap. Let's get down OK? OK?"


Hiram understood.

"What the fuck's wrong with you Hiram? Why you lookin' at me like that. What'd I say?"

But Hiram didn't answer. Instead, he exploded from the crouch and thrust his hundred and twenty pounds against Mike's smaller frame. Mike flew backwards into the wall, which failed, exploding outward with the sickening crunch of splintering wood, and the plywood burst like cracking eggshell followed by Mike, noose wrapped.

He arced out in a sort of whirlwind of wood chips and plywood glue and rope, and the rope uncoiled and grew long like a copperhead, then struck, and its fangs buried themselves in his neck. He dangled there, swinging.

It was a long time before Hiram descended. When he did, he stood in front of Mike, who had long stopped swinging. Hiram lit one of the Camels, looked at Mike's popped tongue, blue lips, eyes like marbles.

"Pussy," he spat. Tears coursed his cheeks.

"See kids, Spooky Tree comes after children who have misbehaved. You can be laying there in your beds at night, thinking you've gotten away with something, that maybe me and Mommy don't know about it."

I was just kidding them, watching them wide-eyed in the rear-view mirror. My boy six, my daughter ten. Some sense of humor.

"You might hear a little tap against the window, or some scratching outside, like a mouse trying to get in."

"Sure, Dad," my daughter pips. She's old enough to know bullshit when she hears it.

"Sure enough," I nod. "Step over to the window and see what it is. If you don't mind those slimy, rotten, woody limbs crashing through the glass and pulling you out, carrying you off to wherever haunted trees hang out..."

My wife will kick my ass if they tell her I've been teasing them like this. They already have trouble staying in their beds all night, always coming in our room in the early hours.

The day following the skirmish dawned like most others: gray dew and mist blanketed the valley's trough. The only difference, really, was the stench and the bodies. Birds and small animals started making their morning sounds, and shafts of sunlight filtered through lean spots in the fog. Dewdrops sparkled like little jewels. A pack of wild dogs rooted around some of the bodies, taking exploratory bites.

The footsoldier woke unharmed. His ears rang; he’d been knocked unconscious by the concussion generated when a Rebel shell exploded on the other side of a horse next to him. The horse had borne a sergeant. The footsoldier had been lucky, just sprayed with horse and sergeant guts when the shell hit. He knew it was just as likely that it could be he who could be in a state of anatomical disarray like that of his fellows. The falling of a shell had a cold sort of randomness to it.

He rose, aching, surveyed his surroundings. Every few yards lay another soldier wrapped around torn canvas strips, under cots, bedrolling. Broken muskets and swords. The horses were grazing over to his left; they had moved away from two that had been hit by errant fire.

As the silver fog cleared, he was better able to appreciate the full extent of the skirmish. It must have been huge, he thought. There were hundreds of corpses and pieces of abandoned artillery littering the valley floor. Lasted for hours. But he could only remember the first few minutes. He thought about this a moment, then sank to his knees and bowed, offered a prayer.

When he rose and re-examined his surroundings, he realized most of the corpses were dressed in blue. The North had lost this engagement. His stomach dropped at the realization; there might be Confederate troops patrolling the area right now.

"Best be gettin' the hell outta here, I guess," he muttered to those fallen around him. He offered a mock salute. "Be seein' ya," he said, then turned for a copse of trees to the west, beyond a large, solitary oak. This direction took him away from where the Rebels had harried his regiment on the east. As he neared the big tree, his fears of being discovered by a Southern patrol multiplied. Being black, he knew they would kill him, or at least torture him before sending him south.

He stepped over a gray-clad soldier, noticed a yellow glint in the morning halflight, a firefly of color in his peripheral vision. He looked again, square on.

A gold tooth shown from the soldier's mouth, and he weighed his fears of detection against the monetary possibilities. Finding that the potential for money won out, he stooped to excise the gold. The foot soldier drew his knife, cut into the gums adjacent to the prize. He peeled the gums back, revealing the root and jawbone. His fingers worked the tooth, wiggling it back and forth, but it wouldn't dislodge. He rose and stood over the corpse, slammed a rifle butt down onto the jaw, and the dead soldier watched him through stupid eyes. The tooth came loose; he bent to retrieve it, then held it in his hand, smiling. Then he heard a voice say, "Hey, what you doin' there, boy?"

The gold tooth dropped from the footsoldier's hand, spinning slowly, from a great height.

He started to turn.

"Turn slowly, I got rifles all over you. Raise your arms."

The footsoldier complied, turned, saw a dozen Confederate cavalry. He pissed himself.

Laughter broke out among the men. "Ha! He's pissed hisself!" The group roared. "Nigger, y'all smell awful this morning," spoke one, their captain, he presumed.

He was conscious that he had begun to sweat through his blue uniform. The fabric, of which he had once been so proud, was soaking through at the armpits, at the small of the back. A dark, circular stain had spread on the front of his trousers. Now, this morning, the uniform was a symbol of his own demise. Either way, he wasn't getting out of this one: He knew they would never let him go. And he knew he would never return to work the Southern farms. The wool clutched his skin like talons and its weight pulled him down in the grass, next to the dead soldier, the wreckage of its mouth. In rejoinder, the footsoldier's mind weighed the likelihood of escape against the cost he knew he must now forfeit for the terrible conduct he'd visited on the Rebel soldier's body. He glanced over and a fly lit, walking in the sticky pulp that had once been lips.

A shot wracked his body, spun him over and down. Lying on the ground, he realized he'd taken a wound in the shoulder. The Rebel patrol dismounted its horses, towered over him.

"Get up, dead man," their captain demanded. He struggled to rise, his back in agony, left arm dangling, half covered in mud. His breath came in gasps.

"Let's give you a ride on the captain's mount, huh?" They pulled him to his feet, threw a rope over a low-hanging limb. "Get on the horse," the captain commanded.

The black man was no longer afraid, only sad. He thought of making love to his wife, of holding his baby child, of the embrace of his mother when he was a small plantation boy. He thought of sun and springtime and honeycomb as he slid his foot in the stirrup, mounted the animal. He held his chin high and fully received the hastily tied noose, one wrapped a couple of times around a slip knot. The horse whickered; the sound comforted him. He whispered a Sweet Jesus prayer and felt the horse move under him.

They thought the black Union footsoldier was dead when they pulled him down. Truth is, he was probably close. But he moaned, so they brutalized him and desecrated his body like savages.

Then they began to dig graves for the fallen Confederates. But they let the Union soldiers lay out in the sun, and it shown down like justice, and a lone crow watched from the branches of the oak. The putrefaction rose in septic layers, and the crow stared out at it, and cawed a long reprimand.

"Mommy, we can't sleep," croak our little ones through dry throats. They have collaborated in their unease, come down the hall to disturb our sleep. There is strength in numbers. How one of them summoned the courage to rise from his or her bed, alone, out of the nest of covers, out from the sacristy of blankets pulled overhead, is a mystery.

"Why honey?" my wife inquires through half-sleep, of the eldest, our daughter. "What's wrong?"

"It's Spooky Tree," my son says.

"He's outside," agrees my daughter.

Their eyes are as large and wide as silver dollars.

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