Molly’s Ghost

NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge: 100 words or less in 24 hours

Genre: Ghost Story Action: Braiding

99 words

Molly’s Ghost

I half-woke to the sensation of Molly’s fingers gently drawing my locks. Electric.

            “I always loved your hair,” she mooned.

I was bleary.

            “I thought you were driving to Peoria today.“

            “There was an accident on the highway. I didn’t make it.”

            “So, you came here to be with me?”

I raised my head to kiss her but she was behind me, out of reach, plaiting my hair without touching my scalp, like magic.

            “What happened?”

            “Guy on a bike came through my windshield” Her voice vibrated in my head. “So here I am with you my love.”

A few words were changed after kind and most excellent feedback from three judges.

Conspiracy

Old Dogs

            We have this virus to deal with, still, mysterious and terrible. The media, our culture, sound like they are trying to make it seem like this is something that we are fighting as a species when they say “We’re in this together,” but it’s an Easter bunny, a beard, toadeatery, to make it seem like humans are somehow in control because we’re a team. The most we’re doing together is enduring a lockdown, separately. We’re only together in the sense that we live on the same fouled planet and we are threatened by the same natural process of selection which we admire and love as if we invented it ourselves while ignoring the fact that we constantly, scientifically, defy what it does to not extinct us. It’s in our brains.

Felix thinks the media is a reflection of what it’s collective, corporate leadership wants the culture to become. He tells me that it’s like the rear tire is trying to turn the engine, that none of what you see and hear is free and unfettered anymore. He is convinced that the auto manufacturers control the colors of the cars we drive by subliminal conditioning through TV commercials. From his point of view, Ford, Chevrolet and Chrysler are trying to cause consumers to conform to a limited color palette so they can save millions of dollars by not offering new cars in expensive colors like reds, yellows, greens and blues. We talk about that often.

Sometimes, he asks me if he can come to my place to get away from ‘old girl.’ That’s because his wife, Choana, has a lot of stress and she isn’t always able to not share the strain of it with Felix in the moment, which she does by sniping at him before he has a chance to do anything wrong or forget to do something right. She works in an office at home. He’s always there. Underfoot. She’s calm most of the time when I’m around. But she worries about him having enough freedom to get into trouble without having enough presence of mind to avoid it. So, he only rides his bagger when he’s with me. The last time was about six months ago.

He rides to my house, skinny as a rail, wasting. When he gets here, he looks like a little kid on a giant Big Wheel. He pulls up the grade of my driveway from the street. The front wheel wobbles a little because he’s moving too slow and because the bike is almost too heavy. He focuses, leans and gooses it just enough to smooth it out and glides to a stop midway between my house and garage, trapped. I understand in that moment why he usually parks in the street and that he had forgot to do that until it was too late.

I had the Dyna out and ready to go. I bought the bike from him three years ago. He had installed ornate aftermarket covers and mirrors, dice valve stem caps, and the loudest pipes he could find. I replaced all that with plain covers and reasonable baffles in the pipes. I also added thirty-inch leather streamers to the handle grips. I left the ape hangars and the bell on it.

He admires the bike and tells me he bought a Dyna brand-new. It was the first new vehicle he ever bought. I just say that I’m happy with this one. He stares at it, vaguely, like he knows he has forgotten something about it and tells me he misses that bike.  I ask to sit on his Bagger and three-point-turn it to face the street. I feel the weight of it, ponderous. I’m amazed that he can rock it off the kickstand by himself.

The weather was so perfect we didn’t even notice it was there, like having good tires or fresh fuel. We rode to Leroy Oaks Forest Preserve, where Felix used to deal and party long before we met. I had to lead. We walked to the usual spot at the edge of Ferson Creek and sat on the grass bank with our legs dangling above our shadows on the creek’s stony bottom.

“I used to come here when nobody came here,” he says, “It became a constant party, like a free swap meet. You could find anything, parts, cars, girls, mushrooms, acid, weed, anything you wanted.”

“Yeah.”

“I sold my Beezer and all of my British parts to a guy from Canada.”

“A guy you met here.”

“Yeah.”

Felix tosses a stone into the water. The ripples fade out before they get to shore as they pass downstream He tosses another stone further upstream. It bounces off a log and lands in the grass, an instant lost forever. We sit for a long time. There are families and little kids around. The slow water in the creek seems to make everyone mellow. The children play joyfully, peacefully, skipping stones. So many ripples floating and colliding, disappearing.

“You know,” he says, “my memory hasn’t been very good lately.”

“Yeah, It’s okay, mine isn’t either.”

“My mom didn’t know who I was when she died. I walked in the house one day and she said ‘Who are you?’”

I say, “That must have been tough.”

“Yeah. I should go the cemetery and pay my respects. I’m not sure I can remember where the hell it is.” We laugh a little for different reasons.

We used to visit the cemetery every Mothers Day. He had his Iron Head and I had my Bonneville. So long ago. I went along because it was as good an excuse to ride as any. We just stood there and stared at the flowers he laid on the grave of the woman who bore him into the world, gave him a name and didn’t know who he was when she faded out. He’d say a few unsentimental compliments about her, like she was good at math and knew how to play chess, liked Irish whiskey. Then we’d take off and ride all day. After his Dad went to join her, we stopped the Mother’s Day ride. He had met Choana by then. She had a kid. There were other things for them to do on Sundays.

A boy wearing camouflage pants and a Harley Davidson t-shirt with an American flag stitched to the shoulder stomps in a puddle on the mud beach upstream, “Bam,” he yells in his most explosive little voice. A cloud of mud-smoke narrows at it passes us.

Felix says “I was born on Flag Day.”

“Yeah.”

Under better circumstances we would have had a discussion about the flag. Felix was a fountain of American semiotic knowledge. He’d share a little history about our flag or tell me about an obscure flag rule, like you can’t let it touch the ground in battle unless you’re wounded. Felix has always taken pride in his birthday. It gives him a sense of dignity and responsibility to something greater than himself, as if it is an honor bestowed on him, born on the day of the flag. We both used to fly the flag all day every day.

I’ve taken my flag down but I don’t mention it to Felix because I’m afraid it would set his memory on fire trying to remember why he knows he should question me about it. I don’t want to hurt him. Not that he would filter his thoughts for me. When my girl, Gloria’s brain was being strangled by a tumor, he made stupid comments that were meant to be jokes.

I’d say, “Gloria didn’t seem to know who I was when I got to the home yesterday.”

He’d say, “Well, then she won’t miss you if you go riding all day today.”

To Felix, the slow death of the brain and soft disappearance of the person I loved in it were just things I needed to get through with humor and pluck, like a bad hangover or divorce or jail time. Easy. I didn’t talk to him after that conversation until six months later at Gloria’s wake. He was all there back then, but useless to me.

On the way to Leroy Oaks, he road with me like he meant it, wheel-to-wheel, hard and free like we did during the shrinking window of years he can clearly remember, back when we would have called everything about that day “tits.” The weather was tits. The roads were tits. The ride. It was a tits day until we left the preserve to go home.

Tired, riding back on Route Sixty-Four, the way we came, the Bagger probably heavier than ever, Felix began to hang too-far back as if he wasn’t sure where we were going–or maybe who I was. I slowed to catch him up at every stop light. He tried to tell me where to turn a couple of times like he used to do, but I kept telling him we were going to somewhere he wasn’t likely to remember, like Pumper’s house or the barn. He said “I’ll follow you.” I led him to his house and Choana.

Felix invited me to watch the Bears game a few weeks before last Christmas. It was about thirty degrees outside and cloudy. Choana spoke loud and fast from the moment I stepped in out of the cold, asking questions about my job and my mom and my dog, my ex. Then she switched to telling me things about her kid and her grandbaby, then she talked about nothing I can remember in a long string of words, the way she might talk to an Uber driver or the dog groomer while digging in her purse for a credit card or tip money she knew wasn’t there. Pent up energy, stress, worry, anger, duty, loss. She’s trapped.

            Felix sat on the couch, knees splayed under his hands, leaning slightly, ready to get up or sit back as soon as he could pick up a que, looking at the TV, then me, back to the TV. Listening for key words from Choana. Each time I began to turn away from her, Choana asked a new set of questions, her highly pressured voice was shrill and hard and the sound of it bounced off the large front window and the hardwood floors mixed with sounds of television commercials compressing the living room’s sonic saturation to a high temperature. My ears began to hurt. My cheeks burned a little.

            I thought it would be best for me to just listen to Choana, so I stood facing her, ears cupped away from the TV, advancing slowly toward her. Choana continued to talked with a softened voice as she retreated to the kitchen. I followed. When the pizza was ready, she scissored it, announced to Felix that the pizza was ready, picked up her purse, said she was going to Target, and instructed Felix, through the air of the kitchen and living room, over the sound of football, to offer me things to drink and to be a good host.

Three times she says, “Felix, did you hear me?”

She looked at me, raised her eyybrows and left, slipping into her coat as she closed the door behind her, an escapee.

He says, “Okay Honey.”

I sit in the recliner. Felix sits back on the couch and surveys the food and bottles on the coffee table. He blinks and looks at the TV.

“Did she leave?”

“Went to Target.”

Felix asks me if I want anything to drink and unscrews the lid off a square plastic jar full of Peanut M&Ms. He offers them to me enough times that I take a handful and eat them just to satisfy him. He screws the lid back on the jar every time. About every five minutes after that, as if he had just remembered Choana’s last instruction or read a hidden note, he unscrews the lid and tells me to have some M&Ms. Whether I take M&Ms or tell him I already had them doesn’t alter his rhythm or change the pattern. I realize that if I told him I already had some M&Ms it might trigger I-have-Alzhiemer’s anxiety in him. So, I eat way too many M&Ms.

The football game was terrible. The two worst teams in the division were out to prove what they were worth, and they did. Detroit scored more points, but I thought it was a suck-tie. The game was so bad that the Muppet-voiced announcers couldn’t find anything good to say about it. Tony Romo would have been stumped for something interesting to say, and he’s about the best there is. So, Bert and Earnie focused on the second most popular American sport, speculative gossip. They rattled on about what each player thought, what his wants and needs were, where his dad went to school and who with, all the trivial shit that is meaningless but more entertaining than a shitty football game. But they still had to try to talk about the game.

‘Well, Dale,’ says they guy who sounds like Burt, ‘they have a dilemma here, the Bears do, uh, if they want to make the, uh, playoffs because, unless they can convert on this down they’ll have to give the ball back to, uh, the, uh, Lions and with five minutes left on the, uh, clock, well they really want to win this game, the, uh, Bears do. I talked to Coach Hildebrand and he told his guys that they want to win every game they play this year and I think he meant it, Coach Hildebrand did…’

I bitched constantly at the TV, telling the not-Tonys to shut the fuck up through most of the game. Felix focused on what was happening on the screen, ignoring my Choana-sounds. He only talked when he saw something important happen on TV. In that game only the personal fouls were interesting. Felix enjoyed the replays but he never missed the events as they happened. Focus. It was like he didn’t even hear the Muppet-men in their fine suits, standing in an empty broadcast box at a stadium with empty seats pretending the crowd noise that was recorded live at a game in the past was part of reality. I envied his ability to tune the bullshit out. He saw what was there, only that. In that moment, he couldn’t process the oddness of M&Ms on my plate next to a slice of pizza, but if one of them moved, he would have seen it.

“Have some M&Ms!”

            At halftime, He says: “I think I may be getting what my mother died of,” which he has.

He tells me they retired him early from work, because things weren’t getting done, which they did. I know this but I don’t want to tell him that I know it. Noting a car commercial on TV, he points out that in the last four years he has noticed that almost all the cars on the road are either black, white or gray, a discussion he has started with increasing frequency over the last three years. It seems like a new revelation to Felix every time he brings it up. He usually tells me they stopped making cars in colors because they want us all to be the same, like robots.

A Lexus commercial shows a family of bright red Lexus models with silver bows on a paver driveway admired by beautiful, happy people. He doesn’t see the red.

 “Big government, big business, the Jews and the Chinese are all in it together, controlling us all,” he says.

A rant from so many years ago I’d nearly forgotten the idea. He mentions that he has a copy of the Anarchist’s Cookbook, matter of fact, reaching back to something he knew once.

He says, “They’re coming for our guns” as he screws the top off the M&Ms.

“Well,” I tell him as I swallow more chocolaty peanut goodness, “They don’t have them yet, do they?”

He tells me that it’s sad that the world has come to this. I agree with him.

LUCK

Cate, Jesse’s widow, laid the gremlin bell off Jesse’s bike on top of his coffin before they lowered it into the hole.

“Better luck in the next life, baby,” she said, crying.

As the top of the casket got to ground level, one of the cylinders on the lowering mechanism slipped. One side of Jesse’s box dropped about half an inch and the bell inched toward the edge of the lid, tracing little crescents with its lip, like a starling feather falling through still air. I tried to grab it but I lost my balance. Fat Leon got hold of my jacket at the collar from behind and held me back but I missed the bell. When it hit the bottom of the vault, I heard a tinkling sound. I thought, Jesse got his wings!

As far as I know, gremlin bells don’t work in the after-life. Cate should have had Jesse anointed with holy oil to protect him from whatever but she didn’t because Jesse was a devout agnostic. Plus, he didn’t have a forehead to anoint. Jesse had no idea how lucky he had been to live long enough to die when he did. But he didn’t believe in luck either. He figured he deserved the credit for everything that went right for him. Jesse thought he was the headlight and everything that came at him was bugs.

An hour before he bugged himself head-on into Big John Brown’s cement truck, I offered Jesse a ride home in my pick-up. Partly because it was starting to rain, but also Jesse wasn’t walking straight; he was slurring his words a little and calling everybody at the bar Brother like it meant something. He got on his bike to leave and almost dropped it as he was mounting up. Fat Leon grabbed the handlebar and held the bike straight. Fucking Leon is always in the right place at the right time.

“Maybe you wanta ride Jesse,“ I said.

“I’ll be fine once I get rolling.”

“You know it’s rainin, right brother? Kind of a gamble.” said Leon.

“Let go, man.”

“You sure? No shame in takin a ride. How you gonna ride shit-faced, in shit weather? And you got shit for tires?”

Shit for brains. I thought to myself.

“Don’t make me fuck you up Leon”

“Okay Jess. It’s your shit. I jus–”

Jesse fired his scoot up, Leon let go and that was that.

“Ahright, Jesse. Good luck on them tires,” I said.

He stomped his bike into first gear. I was hoping he would think twice. But he was an invincible drunk. He tipped the shifter up into neutral and leaned toward me. He liked to preach when someone put an idea in his head. Over the potato-potato-potato of his idling engine he spoke to me in his most sincere voice.

“Brother,” he said, “Luck is the prayer of atheists. There is no such thing as luck. There is only skill and good judgement. That’s all I need, brother. Luck has nothing to do with it.”

And that was the last time any of us saw Jesse tits-forward. He didn’t believe in luck, but it was the very thing that let Jesse live long enough to die when he did. Fat Leon was right. Jesse was gambling with his life, riding drunk on shit tires in the rain.  But that didn’t make him a gambler any more than putting out my flaming bacon on the stove made me a fireman.

Unlike Jesse, gamblers seem to believe that luck, despite terrible odds, will cause them to win. It’s like a religion where Luck is the Savior, like losing money isn’t even part of gambling for a gambler. Every time the gamblers I know win a substantial amount of money they forget the thousands of dollars they spent to win a hundred.  Every loss is a step closer to the next win.

I’ve been known to take chances, more than some people, but less than others. I gamble sometimes, not with my life, not the way Jesse did. I use good judgement when it comes to rain and bad tires. I know my limitations. I gamble more with my time than anything else. That’s how I met Malory.

Malory works at the TRU STOP convenience store where I used to buy my morning coffee.  She has shiny, straight, black hair and deep, dark almond-shaped, Asian eyes that sometimes look like they’re half closed when she’s talking to you. She’s curvy and she’s very friendly, a combination which always disarms me. There have been times when, looking at her, I almost forgot why I went into the store. One November morning she wore a black t-shirt with a gold Chinese symbol that seemed to stand out on the front of her shirt. When I brought my coffee to the counter, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I wanted to say something nice that wasn’t weather related.

“Cool shirt! I don’t know what that means, but I like the way it looks.” I figured she could take that more than one way and ignore any meaning she didn’t like. I know. Smooth.

“That’s FU!,” she said with a smile, “It means good luck.” She spotted my grease-stained hands and asked if I fell down on the playground, then laughed a little as she rang up my coffee.

“No, I didn’t fall down. I’m a mechanic at ARF and ARF Specialties.”
“I need a mechanic,” she said, “My check engine light is on and my emissions test is due. ARF wanted a hundred twenty just to look at it. Do you work on the side?”

I was between squeezes and she looked warm and sexy, which clouded my judgement.

“Well, I don’t do much side work in winter as a rule, but depending on what the problem is I might be able to help you out. What kind of car is it?”

She pointed at a white 2003 Sebring Convertible parked under the rusty Play Lottery Here sign attached to the light pole with muffler clamps and what looks like a coat hanger.

“The engine light came on the same day my license sticker expired. A guy was going to look at it, but he’s been too busy.”

Fucking Chrysler I thought. Why didn’t I look at the parking lot before I opened my mouth? I didn’t want to make her feel bad about a car she was probably stuck with but I hate working on Chryslers, even when I’m getting paid. I thought If I blow her off, I won’t want to come back here for coffee and I won’t get to see her. One of my favorite recurring fantasies began to fade away.

I set my coffee on the counter and moseyed over to the donuts and stared at them like I couldn’t decide. If I promise to look at it, I knew I would most likely get sucked into a vortex of hard-to-reach sensors, insane diagnostic puzzles and a nest of brittle, leaking plastic vacuum lines. And I wouldn’t charge her for it because the car is not worth fixing. But she looked beautiful that morning and the idea that I could cause her to smile gave me goose bumps of anticipated rewards. I took a deep breath and grabbed a donut twisted into a figure eight.

“Sure. I can take a look at it for you. How does it run?”

“Fine.”

“Has anybody worked on it?”

“Not yet. My brother’s friend was supposed to fix it, but he hasn’t been around.”

Usually, a boyfriend, father or uncle who shouldn’t be allowed to open the hood, has been pulling wires, replacing sensors and filling the driver’s head with nonsense like: You need a flux capacitor. That’s a dealer item, which is code for I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.

“Okay. I’ll check it out and see what I can do.”

After work I gave the Sebring’s gas cap a twist, then opened the hood and looked for obvious problems. I checked the air filter and as many vacuum hoses and lines as I could reach. Everything looked okay on the surface. I gritted my teeth, plugged my scanner into the data port, turned the key on and hit the button to pull the trouble codes. The scanner read COMMUNICATING WITH VEHICLE, then NO CODES FOUND. I started the engine and waited for the dash lights to clear. The MIL wasn’t on. I drove the car around for about ten minutes. It was fine. Sometimes I get lucky. I went back into the store and handed Malory the keys.

“The light’s off”

“What was the problem?”

“I don’t know. I checked it out and the car is okay.”

She smiled. Her eyes fluttered. She leaned forward with her palms on the low counter and her back arched. Her breasts pushed the FU symbol out like it was a sign from luck-heaven.

“That’s great! How much do I owe you?”

“Well, nothing. I didn’t actually fix it. I don’t charge for no results. Drive the car for a couple of days to make sure the light doesn’t come back on, then get the emissions test. It’ll pass if the check engine light isn’t on.”

“Can I get you anything? Would you like coffee? Water?”

I was so relieved that I didn’t have to crawl around on the monkey-puzzle that her car should have been, that all I could think about was getting out of there while I was ahead.

“No thanks. Maybe one of these mornings you can buy me coffee.”

“Deal. Thanks! How about a couple of lottery tickets?”

She handed me two one-dollar scratch off cards and a quick-pick for Mega Millions. I didn’t win shit.

When I saw a new sticker on her license plate, I stopped in for a free cup of coffee. The store was empty except for Malory and me. She came from behind the counter and gave me a big hug.

“You’re a miracle worker,” she said.

I smiled, thinking it was worth the risk of working on that car just for the hug. I drank my coffee as we talked.

“Let me make you dinner,” she said, as she rang up a customer who bought a handful of scratch-off tickets.

“That will be a hundred and twenty even, Fred” she said to the old man.

Fred’s gnarled hand shook a little as her handed her a wad of small bills, a handful of change and three wining cards. Malory scanned the cards and counted the money. Then handed him a combination of tickets without asking which ones he wanted.

“Good luck Fred!”

“Thanks Mal. I’ll cut you in when I win big.”

The old boy shuffled out to a waiting Uber parked next to my pick-up. It was Cate, Jesse’s widow. She was driving people around to make ends meet. I would have waved but Cate-the-widow was staring down at her lap. I turned to Malory and watched her slide the bills into her cash drawer, double-check Fred’s winners and put the tickets in a box under the counter. She grinned when she looked up.

“Fred is my best customer. He always wins. How about spaghetti?”

“Sure! Let me know when you’re ready.”

Weeks later, Malory came to my place and cooked spaghetti. She brought meatballs and sauce too. I supplied the beer. We ate in near silence. The spaghetti was good. I just kept eating to avoid the risk of saying the wrong thing too soon, which is something I seem to have a knack for. After dinner we sat around and had a few beers. I turned on the TV and heard Robert Di Nero’s voice, “That’s the truth about Las Vegas. We’re the only winners. The players don’t stand a chance.” The scene was the busy, flashy floor of a big casino full of people and color. I told her that Casino was one of my favorite movies. I wasn’t sure she heard me. She sat back, staring at the TV. Her dark, almond eyes were fixed.

“I go to the casino in Aurora every New Year’s Eve on my birthday. I usually go with my friends, but they’re in Las Vegas. If you want, you can be my date next week.”

I had never been to a casino. I’d seen them in the movies and on TV. That was close enough. I have cousins who go to Las Vegas and talk about how much fun they have playing the slots and they rave about the free buffets. They’re happy, mostly, but broke. And fat. Malory was cute, plus, she said “date!”

“That sounds great!”

“I’ll come to your house New Year’s Eve and we can go from here.”

She showed up on December thirty-first and we were off. As we walked into the casino it became clear that Malory knew all of the employees, the guys standing next to the turnstile at the entrance greeted her with smiles, two guys dressed in suits with gold colored casino name tags hugged her like she was a sister. The guy running around the floor with a computer strapped to his arm wearing a headset like a football coach greeted her by name with a grin and a soft-touch, one-handed hug, like they were both  happy to see each other, but afraid something might rub off, or on, if they got too close.

Malory opened her purse. It smelled like cinnamon. She whipped a hundred-dollar bill out and held it up to the narrow mouth of a dollar slot machine. It sucked in the C-note and lit up. Malory swiped what looked like a credit card. An information screen greeted her by name, WELCOME BACK MALORY. It displayed some numbers next to the word ELITE.

She pushed buttons the size of Halloween candy bars that were spread across the playing surface of the big-faced bandit like she was playing high-speed Whack-A-Mole. Lights flashed and brightly colored symbols morphed in a constant barrage of hope and good fortune on the screen. Carnival music blared and beeped while she pushed the play buttons. Bells rang in perfect rhythm until the display read 0 POINTS, about ten minutes later.

The screen blinked and the symbols fluttered, then floated up and down, waiting. The music was a subdued elevator version of the happy sounds it had been making, like there was something missing. Feed me. I was stunned. I had never spent a hundred dollars and got less than an hour’s entertainment and a smile, or a part from the Harley dealer. Malory looked around the room.

“I don’t usually play this machine. Let’s go over there.”

We made our way through a crowd of old and middle-aged people, some wearing ratty shoes and old coats, sitting on chairs with their folded walkers leaning like kickstands against their machines mixed with others dressed in tuxedos and evening dresses. The casino seemed like a great equalizer.

I noticed a guy on a tiny stage off to the side of the room. He was sitting at a portable keyboard playing a Gerry Garcia song, singing:

“…it costs a lot to win and even more to lose…”

People looked at him as if the sound coming from his amplifier might be a new way to dispose of their money. It wasn’t. They moved along looking disappointed. I felt bad for the guy. He got paid to sing and play as a prop so the pigeons could tell themselves they are there for the entertainment, not just to gamble. Like the thought-provoking stories and essays are filler between photo spreads in Playboy, that sad singer is in the casino to let people feel less desperate as they steadily lighten their wallets and empty their bank accounts.

After watching Malory lose another hundred-dollar bill in a few minutes to the chirping penny slot machine, I felt bad. That was a lot of money to lose in less than thirty minutes. I wanted to break the tension I felt creeping up my back.

“Looks like I’m bad luck.”

“No! There’s no bad luck! We don’t say that! Ever! There is only Luck!”

Malory looked frantic. I felt my chances of a good time drift away like Jesse’s bell rolling off the casket. Malory shoved in a twenty. The machine came back to life. I stepped behind to watch over her shoulder, out of sight. I felt like I not only caused her to lose, but stepped on my dick when I tried to apologize. Like I actually affected something in the outcome by uttering a few words. Then, I remembered that this whole thing was her idea. Jesse’s words haunted me for a moment “…There’s no such thing as luck.”

“Here. You play,” Malory said abruptly.

It was an order. I grabbed an empty chair and sat next to her.

“Okay, push that button.”

Then, she pointed at different buttons in what I assumed was a special order as if skill and good judgement were involved.

“This one, then that one. Again. Again.”

She pointed and I hit the buttons. I couldn’t tell who was playing. I felt like an accomplice to robbery. I kept playing as instructed until the balance hit $.05. Malory took over. She loaded another hundred-dollar bill and started over. After a few minutes her total got up to a hundred-twenty-five. I was impressed for a minute. Then, the balance came back down to seventy-eight dollars after three or four more button mashes.

Malory stopped for a moment and stared at the machine, possibly thinking, which by then didn’t seem to be part of the game to me. She took a breath and like Liberace at a piano, hit a sequence of buttons which produced a paper voucher for seventy-eight dollars. She put the voucher in her cinnamon-scented purse, pulled out two twenties and slid them into the slot. She rested her hand on the sloped playing surface of the six-button bandit with her finger on the play button ready to scrub my mention of bad luck from the machine. A minute later, forty dollars was gone like wash water down the sink.

She kept shoving in money and pushing that fucking button again and again. Apparently, the trick to gambling with a slot machine is to ignore the losses and convince yourself that the result might be different each time you hit the button. I wanted to be sociable. So, I played with some of my own money on the next machine over while she shredded another hundred dollars. I couldn’t get the hang of it. No matter which finger I used or how much I tried to believe I’d win, I didn’t. Forty bucks was gone in a matter of minutes like I never had it, like I left work early one day that week and my check was short.

After that I just watched. I felt like a gawker at a bad accident on the highway. I imagined white sheets spread over dead gamblers trapped in shredded wallets and purses, paper vouchers scattered and dancing in the slip stream behind slot machines the size of cement trucks lumbering down the highway leaving cheap tiaras, mangled walkers and old gym shoes in their wakes, beeping, popping and playing Chinese carnival songs.

“Excuse me,” A shrill voice hollered behind me, “Can I get through please?”

I stepped aside. An old woman in a faded green cardigan wearing a blonde wig more like it was a hat than hair, was leaning over a walker with her purse in a basket clamped to the handlebars. She scuff-shuffled past me like rolling downhill with no brakes in a beeline to an idle penny slot machine with a chair propped against the front. I looked at Malory and shrugged, palms up.

“Bathroom break,” she said, “The tilted chair holds the machine if you have to walk away from it, but the floor manager will only leave the chair up for so long, then you lose the machine.”

Malory fed another twenty into the slot like it was her first, pushed the buttons and watched as the numbers turned to zeros, again. She wasn’t surprised or disappointed. Just twenty dollars poorer.

“That’s it,” She announced, “We’re done. I hit my limit. We can go now.”

It was only ten PM. I thought good, we’ll go back to my place and bring in the new year there, hopefully with a warm hug, a kiss and who knows what else if I play my cards right.

When we got back to my house, I smelled cinnamon again when Malory opened her purse to get her keys. She leaned toward me, gave me a half-hug and was out of the car before I could think or say a word. Better luck in the next life. She got in her Sebring and headed west, probably back to the casino to give that seventy-eight-dollar voucher back to the slot machine. I think it was unfinished business that she didn’t want me around for, like I had done enough damage for the evening.

I brought in the new year with my dog. I turned on the TV and looked for anything that wasn’t a commercial. Casino was on, again. I heard De Niro “This is the end-result of all the bright lights, and the comp trips, and the champagne, and free hotel suites, and all the broads and all the booze. It’s all been arranged for us to get your money.” I Remembered Jesse’s last words to me “Luck has nothing to do with it.”

Small Parts: APRIL FLOWERS

By KNR

Llu created my second life. It started when I met her in a chain deli near a mall not far from Chicago. It ended two and a half years later when she was killed by a tumor. Her cremains rest beneath the sod above her father’s coffin in the stone-walled graveyard that beaches against the ancient walls of St. Peter’s Church in Maesllan near Lampeter, Wales. It’s where she wanted them. That was my best life. Including the long year it took for the thing to end it. So brave.

She took me to Wales to meet her mother, brother, nephews, aunts, her Uncle Divvy, her resting father, John Henry. It’s a beautiful place. The best part of my best life was that week. We strolled on perfect, narrow roads and visited castles that sat amid rolling hills of green grass dotted with sheep, cloven by clear streams and laced with white fences that surround placid cattle under the Simsonian sky. It was like a dream. She never saw the photos.

During our first spring together, Llu planted beautiful, bright yellow daffodils in my back yard–our garden. They bloom every year in early April near the anniversary of when we met. The flowers endure frost, snow and freezing rain, the death rattles of winter. Her daffodils are tenacious, indestructible for two and a half weeks after they yellow. As the sun breathes life into the rest of the world, the blooms wither and fall to the ground.

An act of joyous love. A time of beauty. A short sentence. Fuck me. Gone.

for Lluella Stephanie Davies

Starlings

I killed a starling.

Starlings are not a native species in North America. I looked it up. They were brought here from England in the late 19th century and released in New York’s Central Park by a man who apparently wanted to have the birds named in Shakepear’s works to be nearby, including the squawky, inedible, insatiable, unsightly starling, which Hotspur wanted to use to mess with Henry IV by teaching it to say “Mortimer.” Even in fiction the Starling is annoying. Since then, they have spread from coast to coast in North America and are considered an invasive species. Nobody likes invaders.

A murmur of starlings had been attacking the suet at my bird feeding station for a month. Five or six at a time squabbled and squawked, pushing each other out of the way to get at the greasy white suet cake while the woodpeckers, nuthatches, finches, flickers and I watched, helpless and intimidated.

The only predators to birds in my neighborhood are the Cooper’s hawks. I’ve found the remains of sparrows and mourning doves, usually little more than a pile of feathers and sometimes the feet. Once I found the head of a hairy woodpecker on the sidewalk. That’s nature being natural. A quick death to feed a hungry mouth. Like eating an apple picked off a tree. A Cooper’s hawk will kill one of its own, the weakest, to reduce competition for food. But it won’t eat a starling. Nothing will eat a Starling.

I have a relationship with the birds. I keep the feeders full. The birds fly to my yard and act the way birds do, mostly like brothers and sisters. I see them squabble sometimes. Other times they feed each other. I watch and snap photos. They thrive and I feel like I’m doing something nice, like a good Boy Scout. Bird-word gets out that there’s suet to be had at my place and the starlings descend on my yard like there’s free beer and a wet t-shirt contest at Freeman Farm.

On a hot, muggy Saturday in July, one of the local clubs, the Middlemen Motorcycle Association, hosted a field meet at Freeman Farm in Wood County. The Middlemen are not one-percenters exactly, but they are definitely not AMA members either. You join by invitation only. You are a guest by invitation as well. I’m not a member, but I have  skills.

They charged a twenty-five-dollar entry fee per bike. That included beer, the band, the bike show entry fee, ribs and the wet t-shirt contest. There was a waiver for anybody who wanted to participate in the skilled riding events which offered cash prizes. Music and entertainment were provided by a band that only plays biker bars, club events, and occasional private parties, always under a different name. That day they were called Boogers in Your Soup. They also put on the wet t-shirt contest. A couple of them are Middlemen.

A murmur of Road Hellions showed up from Greensburg, Indiana, which used to be a Sundown Town. After a five-hour ride in the sun, they crowded the beer keg like animals at a desert oasis. The rest of us waited until they got drunk enough to stop pushing people away and fighting amongst themselves. The problem was they didn’t pay. So, Lonny “Glover” Freeman, an ex-boxer, enforcer for the Middlemen, Tuskegee Institute dropout and owner of the farm, had to help the Hellions understand that the beer wasn’t free until after they paid.

There were quite a few slightly drunk club members and friends of the Middlemen standing with Lonny: Big John Brown, Woody, Our Pig, and a Christian bunch called the “Redeemed Witnesses” who looked more beat up and grungy than most of the rest of us. Lonny explained that the Hellions had to pay like everybody else. They didn’t have to return the beer they already drank, but no more until they paid and if they didn’t pay, they couldn’t stay. The Hellions backed down and walked back to their bikes, tossing side-eyes to anybody that was watching.

One of the Hellions, a nasty thing named Pig, two braids in his greasy brown hair, jeans shiny with dirt so that they almost looked like chaps and a snarled, crumb-littered beard that draped from his chin to the shelf formed by his belly, shoved his way back to the bar and grabbed a beer from the counter. He smelled like Fritos as he brushed past me. Lonny walked up to the six-foot-two bully and punched Hellion Pig hard. The pig landed on his back. Lonny plunged his fist in the ice surrounding the keg.

“I said no beer until you pay.”

Hellion Pig looked around confused. He held a filthy dew-rag to his bloody nose as his crew picked him up and walked him back to his ratty, one-bag Electra Glide. Some of them wanted to pay and stay, but the others out-shouted them. They mounted up and a group of the rest of us followed the Hellions to the county line as clouds thickened in the sky. Things like that happen when there’s cheap beer, little or no law enforcement around, and women in wet t-shirts.

Not long after they left, the field events began. Woody and his girl, Wren, won the two-up slow race. On their first attempt at the weenie bite, a thunderclap caused Woody to tap the brake too hard as Wren was standing on the rear pegs to bite the hot dog. She lost her balance and fell backward after bouncing off Woody’s back. Her head sounded like a dropped coconut when it hit the asphalt.

Reaper, an ex-Army medic was called over. He listened to Wren’s heart and took her pulse. A trickle of blood appeared in her left ear. He seemed to recognize what was happening to Wren but didn’t let on. She lay there for a few minutes, out cold, then she began to have convulsions.

“Call an ambulance! Somebody hold her legs,” Reaper barked, “Try to keep her still. Put your knees on her shoulders if you have to. Hold her head. Bring ice.” He took the bandana off Wren’s head, folded it a few times, then gently worked it into her mouth and held it in place so she didn’t bite her tongue or choke.

“It’s okay,” he said to Wren almost whispering, “Stay here. It’s going to be okay. Stay here. It’s going to be okay.” Then “Shhhh. Stay here. It’s going to be okay.” Like a mantra. Woody held her shoulders. I held her legs. The shaking gradually slowed to occasional mild tremors. It was like Reaper’s mantra worked. Like he had some connection the rest of us didn’t know about. I could barely hear a siren in the distance. I started to relax. Woody eased up on her shoulders. The convulsions stopped. Wren blinked a couple of times. I thought she was coming out of it. Then her eyes closed and she began to take rapid, shallow snorting breaths, like she was asleep and having a bad dream.

“Wren baby, wake up. C’mon little bird. Wake up. Wake up baby. Wake up.” Woody frantically repeated a mantra of his own. He looked at Reaper, but Reaper wouldn’t look up at Woody.

As suddenly as she fell off the back of the bike, Wren stopped snorting. There was silence. Her breathing was quiet, barely noticeable. Then she took a deep breath. As she exhaled, her entire body seemed to relax, her head dropped back and her eyes opened halfway. She was dead. I felt the warmth in her legs seep into my hands. It felt wrong, like I was stealing something. I let go.

“God’s will?” Woody said. “What the fuck do you know about Gods will? Fuck you!”

One of the “Witnesses” called Owl, a name he probably made up for himself, said, “God’s will, man. God’s will,” Casually, as if he broke a chain on the way to church or his kid got the fucking measles on Easter Sunday. Pompous bastard, I thought. Asshole. A flood of terrible things attributed to God’s will rushed through my mind. Woody looked up, red-faced, tears on his cheeks and grabbed Owl by the hair with one hand, balls with the other and lifted him.

Woody’s mother was killed by a drunk driver. The nuns at school tried to comfort him by telling Woody that God wouldn’t take his mother away unless he needed her in Heaven, that it was an act of God and he had to accept it, that someday God would put someone special back in his life. Woody thought it was Wren. So did I.

Lonny appeared and managed to break the two apart without hurting anybody or ruffling any more feathers. Owl said something that sounded like an apology and I thought he was going to try to convince everybody that he was telling the Truth, but he was smart enough to keep his mouth shut. He limped away with a crucifix in his fist, like he was rearming himself.

I loaded a pellet into my .22 caliber air rifle, pumped it three times, opened the bedroom window and nosed the barrel out. Most of the birds flew away at the sound of the old steel casement window creaking open. Only a few finches and sparrows stayed in place, chirping, shelling seeds and eating them like it was lunchtime and nobody was going to interrupt them.

I was about to put the gun down when a lone starling landed at the suet cake and began to tear into it, greedily swallowing chunks of the greasy white fat as fast as it could fill its beak. I leveled the gun and took aim, not knowing how accurate the rifle might be, or how good a shot I was. It didn’t occur to me that I would miss. I aimed for it’s head.

I told myself as I lined up the sights that I would regret it, that I would feel guilty. But I was still trying to un-remember a bad dream. Wren was trying to talk to me but I couldn’t hear her. I was trying to read her lips, but none of the words looked familiar. The squawking at the feeder woke me. I hated the starlings for chasing Wren away before I could figure out what she was trying to tell me. I pushed the guilt aside and pulled the trigger.

The starling fell, flapping one wing on his way to the ground, where he landed upright, but not on his legs. For a second I wondered what the chances were that a dead starling would fall and land on its belly. Then I saw his beak open and close. I could see blood on it. Guilt rushed in. I wished I could take the shot back.

I watched, expecting the see the starling stop moving and slump over dead. But the mute beak kept moving as if to cry out, or to ask what happened: “Why did it happen to me?” Then he started to move about clumsily. One wing was all he could move. He wanted to fly away or do something, anything but die.

I imagined the terror I would have felt if, without any reason, I suddenly became impaired in some unnatural way, in pain, and not understanding why I couldn’t just fly away. I was so happy. There was food. I was eating suet. I heard a noise. I want to fly to safety, but it doesn’t happen. I don’t fly. I can barely move. I can’t feel my legs. My beak is full of blood. Why does it hurt so much? I felt horrible—evil.

I loaded another pellet to finish him off and pumped the rifle. But I decided that I might only injure him worse if I missed the mark again and didn’t kill him. I put my pants on to go out and bludgeon him to end his suffering.

Outside, when I looked at the ground below the feeder, he was gone. I stared for a moment, wondering where he went, thinking, almost hoping, that a Cooper’s hawk had seen him and took him for a meal, which would have eased my guilt, or that he just needed a minute to recover and flew away. But then I saw him flop around on the asphalt just in front of the garage door. He was on his belly, just like under the feeder, still not on his feet. There was a shiny puddle of blood next to him. His pointy, blood-stained yellow beak was turned toward the sky and his posture seemed twisted so that his shape no longer resembled a bird. His black shiny eyes searched for a reason. I thought What have I done? I walked toward him to have a closer look, hoping he was dead. As I approached, he didn’t move except for the weak plaintive opening and closing of his bloodied yellow beak. “Why? Why?”

I grabbed a pipe from the garage and stood over the voiceless, agonized bird and drew back to whack him in the head like I was hitting a golf ball. I swung and missed completely. I could see a feather on his head twitch from the wind off the end of the pipe. I swung again and again and missed again and again. I felt worse each time I missed for prolonging the poor bird’s suffering by my own incompetence. I could have stomped on him, but that seemed too violent and would have felt malicious, vengeful. I don’t like to think of myself that way, especially when I already feel guilty for having done something terrible.

His beak continued to move as he bled on the driveway. I finally hit the bird which caused him to slide and roll a few feet away where, to my amazement and distress, he continued to struggle, now twitching one wing as if to fly to safety, trying to be whole again, to find the suet, still opening and closing his beak “Why? Why?”

I moved closer, gripped the pipe tighter and swung. This time I connected. The starling skittered across the driveway. He lay on his back, wings spread like he was soaring, beak part-way open and motionless. He was dead. I got a work glove and picked him up with my left hand, the hand that had not pulled the trigger or guided the pipe. The innocent hand.

Because the accident happened at an uninsured event and because it happened as the result of a motor vehicle being operated off the road and in a manner that was not consistent with the way the vehicle was designed to be used—and because the accident was caused by thunder, which is, like lightening, an act of God, there was no insurance money to pay for a proper funeral.

Wren’s family couldn’t afford much. We, her friends and Woody’s, kicked in and with a little help from the Middlemen, who are affiliated with Engram and Son’s Funeral Home, the largest dead drop in Wood County, gave Wren a nicer funeral than most of us get. Woody, Wren’s mother, Dusty, and her brother, Bran, witnessed the cremation and took possession of Wren’s cremains the next day. Woody wears a heart-shaped locket around his neck with a pinch of Wren’s ashes inside it.

I realized when I picked the starling up that the body in my hand was the warmest it will ever be. It was the warmth that dissipates into the air, into a bed, into the asphalt, into my leather work glove, after death. The last sign that there was any life in him. I felt terrible. I didn’t kill him in self-defense or to protect anyone I love, or because I was hungry. I killed him because a few of his murmur mates pissed me off nd he happened to be the first one back to the suet.

I tossed the starling into the garbage can, sorry for having done him in and sorry for causing the suffering of an innocent creature. I threw the glove in after him. For no good reason, I ended a life that was innocent because I had the power to do it. Becasue I decided it was time for this life to end. I dwelled on that thought for a minute. Then, I had what the nuns in school called an epiphany. I am no better than God.

The rest of the starlings had returned. They picked away at the suet and scolded and thrust their beaks at each other like before. Maybe the one I killed was part of a different group, I thought. Maybe he won’t be missed.

Of the hundreds of bikers gathered at that party, there were only a few of us who missed Wren. After the ambulance took her body away, the rest of them, including the Christians, stayed until the beer ran out.

The suet was almost gone. I heard the thump and lug of a bike coming up my driveway. It was Woody. He rolled up next to me and killed the motor as he flicked the side stand out. He sat in the saddle and looked at me quietly for a moment.

“Looks like you just rolled out a bed, Jethro” he said.

A Gypsy girl I met called me Jethro. I made the mistake of telling Woody about it and the name stuck. It’s better than “Short-Barrel,” which became “Short-Pipe,” and worse after that, which is what happened to Stubby. Nobody wants to be called “Stubby.” All he did to earn that name was run sixteen-inch drag pipes on his Sportster.

“You could say that,” I said. “You’re up early. You know it’s Sunday, right?”

“Yeah. Couldn’t sleep. It’s a year today, Jethro. Believe that?”

I didn’t realize it was a year to the day since Wren died until Woody said that. I wondered if that’s why I had that dream. I wondered if Woody had the same dream. I wanted to tell him about it, but I thought that if he did have the same dream I wouldn’t want to know it. And if he didn’t have that dream, bringing it up wouldn’t help his state of mind, which at that moment was probably fragile if he couldn’t sleep. I wanted to tell him about the starling. But he already had death on his mind. I didn’t need to make it worse.

I said, “No shit, Woody. A year already? That’s something, huh? Seems like—”

“Yesterday.”

“Yeah. Yesterday. C’mon I was just gonna make coffee.”

Woody followed me into the house and sat at the kitchen table. I could see he wasn’t high. He fiddled with the locket. I wasn’t sure what to say. I focused on the coffee, wishing I had a percolator so I could kill more time and fill the silence with some noise. Woody stared at the floor like he was focused on something. I washed two mugs and put one under the pod holder and hit the button to brew. I was about to ask if he wanted a shot in his coffee. My grandpa used to do that after Granny died.

“I had the most fucked up dream this morning,” Woody said.

I put a cup of coffee in front of him, poured two shots and wondered what kind of dream I might have next year.

Kissing sparrows

Gravity

By Jethro

About two years after my fiancé, Llu, died, my friend Woody and I were on a run to Dekalb, bringing a little bag of joy to his younger cousin who was in college there. We rode along the Fox River to Route 38 then headed west. The moon was right in the middle of the road ahead, big as a planet and bright as a headlight. Stunning is what it was. We parked our bikes on the shoulder and sat cross-legged in the grass at the edge of the corn field. We stared at the moon like we had never seen it before.

Woody started spewing lunar facts, as if I asked.

“It doesn’t have much gravity,” he said, “and the only reason it don’t just spin off into space is because the gravity of the Earth holds it in place. The same gravity that makes it hard for Fat Leon to climb stairs holds the moon in orbit.” We both chuckled. We love Fat Leon. Last year he was drunk and fell backwards on the steps of the courthouse and knocked his attorney and two civilians down.

“And the moon is just heavy enough to stay away from the Earth because it’s spinning around Earth like rainwater off a tire.” Woody went on like Cliffy at Cheers, “but it’s not heavy enough to break gravity and fly off into unknown space the way rainwater flies into your face ’cause you are too stubborn to buy a front fender.”

“I like my bike with no front fender,” I said, “one less thing to rattle.”

He fell silent for a few minutes. I was hypnotized by the brilliance and the imperfectness of the moon. It reminded me of something. Llu went to Wales to visit family. We hadn’t spent a night apart in a year and a half. We talked on the phone, in the evening on my end in Illinois and early morning on her end in Lampeter. As we talked, we realized that we could both see the moon. That made it like we were almost touching. Since we could both see the moon it made us feel less far away. Woody leaned into my shoulder and held out the joint we started to smoke before we left the tavern.

“Here,” he said. “This will make the moment perfect.”

I looked at him as he spoke and thought I saw his teeth trying to escape from his jaw. I pushed his hand away and looked back at the moon. I wanted to un-see the image of gravity pulling teeth out of Woody’s mouth. I tried to refocus and remember that moment with Llu, hearing her voice and seeing the moon. I began to feel pressure in my throat and behind my eyes.

“So, it’s just the perfect size to stay where it is?” I asked him.

“Yeah, just the perfect size, and the path it takes would make a perfect circle, like a wheel, except that the Earth is spinning too, like a baseball, which throws the moon off balance a little, like when you don’t put the white spot on your new tire next to the valve stem. The moon wants to go further away and closer again as it rotates with the Earth and they both spin around the sun. It wobbles, but it’s perfect”

I didn’t know if he was right or full of shit. I had that happen with a new tire before so the wobble made sense. We stared at the moon as it rose in the sky. It stayed bright as hell, but seemed to get smaller as it got higher, like it was moving away from us. I realized that Woody might be right. That freaked me out a little, partly because I didn’t think he actually paid attention to anything, but also because it seemed like everything he said was happening as we watched it.

I wondered to myself how he could smoke so much weed. It was like he just kept getting higher and higher. There was no force of gravity or sense of fear or loss of control that brought him back down. I imagined him floating away, into the moon. He held the roach out to me again. I took a hit without thinking, then saw that checkerboard smile of his and it gave me the willies.

“Fuck, Woody! Put that shit away before you float off,” I said. He grinned.

“Good shit ain’t it, Jay?”

The moon looked like a perfect circle that had paint or dirt smeared across it. That reminded me of the time I met this girl named Lela who claimed she was a Gypsy. Lela had a round, perfect face except she had a sort of rash of freckles that didn’t cover her evenly. In dim light her face looked a little dirty, which is how the moon looks. It wasn’t ugly or anything, just something I noticed when I looked at her. She had dark auburn hair that looked black at night and sparked with red in the sunlight. She was hard to stop looking at and impossible to forget.

I was out on a test ride after replacing the front tire, clutch lever and gremlin bell on my DWG. I took a spill on Route 83 a week earlier. At the Canard truck stop, I ate one of the painkillers Woody gave me, then I went inside to pay and buy a couple of cigars to celebrate the new tire.

A young woman of about thirty stood next to the map stand by the door, looking toward the gas pumps with a coke in her hand. She had a small brown leather purse hanging from what looked like a shoelace slung over her shoulder. Her long shiny hair fell halfway to her waist. I was looking at her while Shakes counted the handfull of quarters I put on the counter to pay for the gas. She looked straight at me.

“What happened?” she asked. She pointed at my left hand which was not quite healed of road rash and partly covered with what was once a white bandage. I looked at my hand as if I had forgot about the way it still burned when I touched it or flexed my last two fingers or looked at it.

“Took a little spill.”

She made a pain face, then looked out toward the gas pump.

“On that?”

“Yeah. Just got it back on the street. I’m out for a test ride.” I held up my wounded hand. “Can’t work for a few more days, but I can still ride.” I flexed my index and middle fingers like I was pulling the clutch lever in.

“Hurt?”

“Just enough to stay away from the job,” I said.

My eyes felt a little glazed and I felt noticeably warmer. I thought the instant she smiled that we were going for a ride together, like she was sending me a message with her eyes. It could have been the codeine kicking in. Either way, it felt good to look at her.

“Nice,” she said. “I love Harleys. All of my brothers have them. So does my ex-boyfriend.”

“Ex?”

“Yeah,” she said, “he sort of skipped town and left me on my own.”

“Sort of skipped?”

Lela, then went on to tell the story of her very short relationship with a local guy named Rick. What I remember of the story is that a guy she hooked up with had to leave town in a hurry and wouldn’t tell her where he was going or when he’d be back. “Just took off in a ratty old truck.” She was hanging around the truck stop hoping she could get a ride to Springfield to catch up with the carnival she left after falling in love with him.

I figured the guy was probably Dicky Catania because about that time Dicky’s wife had left him, plus his house is only a block from the truck stop and he drives a nasty old Chevy shit-can pick up. Also, he runs spur-of-the-moment special errands for his Uncle Dominic from Cicero. Dicky owns a Western Star tractor and a fifty-three-foot dry goods trailer free and clear. He calls himself the Notell Express.

Runs for “Uncle Dominic” usually take him away for days, sometimes weeks. When Dickie gets that call, he leaves right away no matter what he’s doing. “Three can keep a secret if two are dead,” he says, when anybody asks what he’s up to. Like he’s Sonny-fucking-Barger or something.

Lela is hot, sexy-hot, but in kind of a plain way. She has nice curves. Whatever she lacks in natural beauty, she makes up for in the way she carries herself. She’s pretty, but not perfect, accessible.

I didn’t feel like doing the things I should have been doing, like ball joints on my truck, cutting the grass and washing things at home. I didn’t want to sit around watching my hand heal either. So, I offered her a ride to Springfield on the back of my scooter.

It felt like we were one person rolling down the road on the bike, joined together. Lela knew how to ride on the back of a bike, when to hang on tight and when to relax. I was glad I didn’t have a backrest as she wrapped her arms around me. I had to teach Llu everything about riding.

When I needed gas, Lela pointed us toward an old Phillips 66 station a few miles from the interstate near Pontiac. I glided up to the single pump near a metal-sided building. Half the garage was converted into a store, the other half was still a repair shop. She got off the bike and walked toward the mini mart.

“I’ll be back in a minute,” she said. As I looked up, she spun her head away. Her hair lifted and sparkled ten shades of red in the sunlight as it swung around.

I filled the bike up, then went inside to pay. Lela was talking to the clerk like they were old friends. She had a twelve pack of Old Style on the counter. I walked to the register.

“Thirsty?” Lela asked.

I wasn’t especially thirsty at that moment, but I liked the idea of drinking beer with Lela.

So, I said, “Yeah, but—”

“I know a place where we can go to hang out and crash if we want to. I’m in no hurry to get to Springfield. Unless you’re in a hurry to get back home” she said, “we could just make an evening of it.”

I wasn’t in a hurry to get home. I still didn’t want to do chores or work on the truck, and I didn’t have go to work for two days. The idea of a possible overnighter with Lela filled me with warmth. My hand started to throb a little. I ignored it.

“No hurry,” I said.

“Great! Pay the lady, Jethro. I’ll stuff this in the saddle bag.”

The girl with red, blue and pink hair behind the counter flashed a smile and held up a pack of condoms and asked if I wanted to buy a lottery ticket while I was on a roll. I felt my face flush and we both laughed. I folded the lottery tickets into my wallet and stuffed the condoms in the pistol pocket of my jacket on my way out.

“Have a nice day. And good luck, handsome,” she said as the door closed behind me.

Lela guided us along the outskirts of Pontiac to a narrow stream she called the Little River on a smooth, two-lane road for a mile or so, then wound away in a rhythmic undulating course, twisting left, right, left over slight rises and dips. There wasn’t a straight section of road that was more than fifty feet long. The road skirted around rocks, then back along the stream until we turned off and climbed a roughly paved hill through woods along a bluff that rose above the river. She pointed to a driveway.

“Turn there and watch out for the gravel,” she said, “I don’t want my ass to look like your hand.”

I turned off and began to climb a right-hand curve into the trees. The drive widened as we came to a clearing which was half in the shadow of a large house.

“Park it anywhere, Jethro,” she said, “We’re home for the night.”

I flung out the kickstand and got off, then reached into my pocket for a pain killer with my throbbing left hand and opened the saddlebag with my right hand to grab a beer. The bike dinked and popped as it cooled. The beer-burn in my throat as I swallowed the tablet took my attention away from the pain in my hand.

The house looked gray, but I suppose it was originally white. It had huge windows on either side of the front door. The porch ran the width of the house and sagged in the middle like a big smile.

The paint was faded where the shade of the trees fell off during the day. There were blooms of mold that looked like battle scars. It seemed like I had been there before, but I get that feeling a lot. I’m never sure where it comes from. I felt like I was with an old friend. Odd how that happens.

Lela opened the house. There was no air conditioning but when I flipped the main breaker on, there was electricity for the one light that worked in the dining room and well water to wash up and flush the toilets. We were camping in style. We each took a cold shower. It was refreshing and quick. Lela found some bandages in a closet and put a fresh dressing on my hand. I took another pain pill and the throbbing narrowed to the deepest parts of the wound and almost felt like it tickled.

It was hot and humid that evening and we were a little drunk. We began to half-dance, half-stumble on the grassy side yard amid a galaxy of fireflies. She pulled away and I pulled her back as we spun around under the stars. We laughed and got dizzy then we hugged and collapsed on the ground and caught our breath, sweating, holding hands and staring up at the night sky full of stars that can’t be seen within fifty miles of Chicago. We started making out. We undressed to the sound of crickets and tree frogs under a blanket of stars.

When I woke the next morning, there was an old blanket over me and my jacket was rolled up under my head. I felt foggy. I got up and went into the house. The windows were shut and the light was turned off. I called Lela and heard my voice bouncing off the hardwood floor and the empty walls. It was a harsh, hollow echo.

There was a note wedged between the seat and gas tank of my bike. Jethro, sorry I couldn’t stick around. Thanks for the ride. Maybe I’ll see you sometime. Lock up before you leave. L.

I washed up and shut the main breaker off at the electrical box. I took a pain killer and fired up my bike. Potato-potato-potato echoed around the clearing as I idled out to the road.

Woody, rustled in his jacket, mumbling to himself. I was zoned out. The moon looked like Lela’s face, then Llu’s. Woody hit me on the shoulder with a fresh joint between his fingers and held it up to me. The moon was still bright, but distant, less a part of reality than it was when we stopped. I snaped out of it and took the joint.

“Where’ve you been?” he asked.

“Pontiac,” I said.

“What’s in Pontiac?”

“Do I look like a Jethro to you?”

“Jethro? What do you mean, man? Like the band or the hillbilly?”

“Never mind. What was it you said about rainwater off a tire?”

Spare Change

By Jethro

I put quarters in a jar with a top that has a counter in the lid. The display is stuck at $193.37. A blue, fist-sized rubber pig I got free at my bank is stuffed nearly full of dimes. Nickels and pennies are mixed together in a clear plastic jug.

I have these things in my kitchen, the second-most used room in my house, partly because I get a level of comfort from knowing that, as long as there are coins in those containers, I am not broke. I glance at them when I pass by. Sometimes, I move them around to feel the weight of money.

A few months ago, I took all of my coins to the bank when I needed a new rear tire. A teller poured my coins into the hopper of the coin-counting machine. I stood there with my hands in my otherwise empty pockets, wondering if I’d have enough for a Metzler ME 888. I was optimistic. I imagined what it would be like to have traction when the streets are cool or wet. The machine clattered for five minutes then stopped. The teller announced that I had twenty-six dollars and forty-two cents coming, then asked, “How do you want that?”

My optimism vanished. I couldn’t answer. My first impulse was to ask for my change back. I sensed the other customers snickering, like they knew I had unreal expectations. I looked through the glass wall at my bike in the parking lot with the cords peeking out of the rear tire. “Make it a twenty and a five,” I said.

I’d had this feeling before. Life was good and I had things figured out. Then I didn’t. Like I screwed myself and was left stupid and empty handed. I thought about that as I mounted up and rode slowly to the liquor store, then home. I never got past third gear. I felt pathetic. I should have walked to the bank to save myself the embarrassment of riding at parade speed all the way home.

I put a six pack of Old Style in the refrigerator and set a bottle of Old Crow on the counter. I emptied my pockets and dropped what change I had left into the banks. Three quarters snapped past the counter into the bell jar and clunked on the bottom like slugs in a parking meter. The display taunted me at $193.37. Three pennies and a nickel echoed against the bottom of the nut jar like rocks in a tin bucket. The empty pig stared at me past his big blue nose waiting for dimes that were no closer to the slot in his back than a new tire was to my scooter. I felt hollow every time I looked at the empty containers on the counter.

I missed the feeling those coins gave me. There was no weight to feel or bulky pocket-worn copper to see. I focused on the bottle of bourbon. That was my spare change, most of it, all in one bottle with a mouth too small to swallow a nickel. I had a lingering feeling of loss when I looked at the banks on the counter with too few coins to cover the bottom. Like the feeling I get when I smell the air freshener Doreen hung on the rear-view mirror in my truck. She left me without explanation or warning, like she woke up from a dream and suddenly I was a toad, or that she wasn’t.

Sometimes you think you have something valuable, like a girlfriend, and you get kind of bored once in a while. You get used to her and she seems to be used to you and it’s comfortable, like your old engineer’s boots. You can’t imagine that you’ll ever get rid of them. They’re a little beat up, but broke in and comfortable. Doreen was kind of like that. But women are not like old boots. A pair of good boots is always there for you.

A woman doesn’t have time for you because her sister has a serious outbreak of some kind and needs help, then her cousin gets out of jail, so she has to let him stay with her for a while. She doesn’t trust him so she has to stay close to home. When she answers your texts, it’s only one word and there’s no smileys or turd piles at the end of the messages, no hearts or rosy-cheeked devil heads, just “K” or “Gr8” or “U2.” She stops texting and never picks up. And eventually you just stop reaching out and she never tries to find out why you stopped calling.

That’s how it went with Doreen. I was suddenly a ghost, a toad-ghost, to her. I missed the smell of her hair and her smile and other things that made her nice to look at and be close to. But I didn’t feel tempted to try to hang on or get her back. I just let her go, which at the time seemed like it should have been harder to do. A feeling of loneliness crept in which I guessed was because I was alone, but never because I was missing Doreen.

I wrestled with why I didn’t miss Doreen. We had some good times and she did tell me she loves me and I told her I love her, but that was all probably because we both knew we should be in love to make love and live together. Nobody wants to admit that they are with someone all the time just for sex or to share expenses. Like it’s better to think you have what you think everybody else has, than it is to show that you don’t.

About halfway through the bottle of Old Crow I looked at the jars where all of my spare change used to be and I realized that I didn’t really miss the spare change, I missed what it represented. There was a sense of security and worth that came with those coins. But it was all in my head. They weren’t worth much more than a twelve pack and a bottle of cheap whiskey and I guess I knew that deep down. Still, I liked having them around.

A few weeks later, I took my uncle Lester’s fat bob tank off the shelf in my living room and poured his ashes into his old Army canteen, then sold the tank for two hundred bucks. I bought a new Metzler ME 888 rear tire and had enough change to buy another bottle of Crow. And since I paid with paper money for the tire and the bottle at different stores, I had some coins to drop in the banks when I got home including four dimes for the blue pig.

Since then, I’ve slowly built up my collection of spare change to a comfortable level. With the new tire on the bike, I don’t have to crawl around corners anymore and I never slide unless I want to. it feels good.

I saw Doreen the other day, walking alone. She waved. I pulled over. She was on her way to the bank with a purse full of coin.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey. New tire I see.”

“Yeah. I got the ME 888.”

“Nice.”

“What’re you up to?”

She shook her purse. “Cashing in to pay for some new ink, a dragon on my thigh.”

“Want a ride?”

Metzler ME 888