like war orphans

OIL IN WATER

Pam Lazos

Chapter Twenty-Four

On the eve of Robbie’s departure, the party at the Tirabis’ had been seven days in the making and it showed. There were kids everywhere, the youngest, a ten-year old girl named Arianna who lived across the street, and had snuck out of her bedroom window to see Gil, her secret crush. They’d been palling around all night, hanging together on the tire swing and talking about “stuff.” Gil tolerated her attentions with more than the modicum of interest he reserved for family members and appeared to be enjoying himself until Arianna tried to hold his hand. Rattled, he mumbled something about forgetting to feed the fish, ran inside and locked himself in his room for the duration of the evening. Robbie checked on him around 10 o’clock, picking the lock with a dexterity indigenous to burglars and jewel thieves, and found him lying on his bed, fully clothed and dead asleep. No amount of nudging would rouse him so Robbie removed Gil’s shoes and turned off the light.

For her part, Aunt Stella sat in the kitchen like a sentry on her watch, guarding the troops, restocking and rearranging the platters of food, and looking for signs of unruly visitors. When the cops came, drawn by complaining neighbors, Aunt Stella sent them packing, a meatball sandwich in one hand and a baggie full of her homemade goodies in the other.  She and Avery had spent every day after school huddled together in her kitchen, churning out cookies by the hundreds, along with appetizers, salads and sides, tireless kitchen warriors armed only with whisks, spatulas and carving knives.

But now, at 11 o’clock, Aunt Stella was feeling the pull as she wearily collected the night’s refuse.

Robbie burst in as if escaping. “All this talking and hugging and girls crying. I’m starving. Anything left?” He peered under the lids of the various crock pots lining the counter, savoring the aromas in each. “I haven’t eaten a thing since lunchtime,” he said, spearing a meatball with a plastic fork. He popped it in his mouth and slumped against the counter, eyes closed, chewing.

“What do you want? Pork, chicken, or meatball sandwich?” Aunt Stella asked.

“One of each,” he said. He grabbed her around her substantial mid-section, picked her up and squeezed her.

Aunt Stella blushed, at a loss for words. “Oh my.”

Robbie set her down and kissed her on both cheeks.

“You’re the best, Aunt Stella. Thanks,” he said, waving a hand over the mounds of food still crowding the counter. He grabbed a plate and made a sandwich. “For everything.”

“What about this plastic ware?” she asked, holding up a grimy spoon. “Shall I wash it?”

“Nah. What for?”

“I was thinking of your mother and how that would probably be something that would happen in Ruth’s kitchen,” Stella answered.

Robbie’s face changed, but he kept chewing. “Fair enough,” he said, mouth full to capacity. “In honor of Ruth.” He stuck a used plastic fork in the dishwasher.

Aunt Stella loaded the cache of utensils awaiting dispensation from the sink into the dishwasher. “In honor of Ruth,” she said. She closed it, turning her attention to the disarray of the dessert tray on the table, less to restore order than to avert her watery eyes from Robbie’s careful gaze. When she had regained her composure, she said. “This is your two-hour warning. At one o’clock, the entire lot of them in the backyard are going to turn into pumpkins. That means I want to see them getting in their cars and heading home. Those that can’t drive can sleep down there,” she said, indicating the basement. “And if anyone thinks there’s going to be any funny business, they better think again. Cause Aunt Stella’s on patrol.”

She smacked Robbie’s arm and shuffled off to the living room to catch the 11 o’clock news and a catnap before her next shift began.

➣➣➣

The next morning, Robbie rose at four so he could shower and collect his thoughts before his ride arrived. At six a.m., a car horn beeped. They were all sitting in the kitchen again, drinking warm beverages to fight the chill of the coming loss. Robbie gathered his brothers and sisters to him, one by one, enveloping them in his large, bear-like arms before collecting his things.

He climbed in the back seat, rolled down the window and patted his heart twice while the rest of the Tirabi’s stood on the front porch, waving, holding each other like war orphans. Robbie watched them watching him as the view diminished and the space between them stretched out into infinity.

copyright 2012

to be continued. . .

to read what came before jump here

alarming the barn

Oil in Water

Pam Lazos

Chapter Twenty-Three

Robbie’s breath snaked out in white tendrils as he raked the earth’s palette of bronzes, golds, reds and browns. Tiny veins shot through the herbaceous musculoskeletal structure, now transparent with the dying of them. Leaves. There were a million of them. He raked giant piles together, stopping on occasion to glance at the ones that glowed. He would shuttle the piles back to the woods later with the tractor. For now, he maintained a steady rhythm, grunting on occasion, but with a single-mindedness that showed him to be lost in deep thought.

The previous night’s fog had lifted, replaced by rows of cumulo-stratus clouds broken intermittently by the brazen morning sun. Where dawn broke through the empty spaces, patches of orange and gold hurtled across the landscape and scattered the ground with a brilliant luminosity. Robbie stopped to watch the effervescent and mutable light show, evolving before his eyes. He inhaled its beauty with a peace that comes only in the small moments before returning to the task before him.

Avery stepped out on the back deck wrapped in a blanket and wearing bedroom slippers.

“What are you doing, fool?” he whispered. “It’s 6:30 in the morning?”

Robbie smiled and nodded, but didn’t answer, so Avery went back inside. Ten minutes later he returned, rake in hand and dressed for the day.

“Is this what basic training has done to you?” He thrust a coffee cup into Robbie’s hand. Robbie gulped it down in four swallows.

“Damn, didn’t that hurt?” Avery asked, stunned.

“I was doing my Gil impersonation,” Robbie responded. He flashed a set of picture perfect teeth. At 5’11”, Robbie would never achieve Avery’s height, but an additional fifty pounds and the build of a linebacker left Avery with no advantage. Where Avery’s lithe, wistful frame reminded one of a willow tree, Robbie’s solid, massive build was more akin to an oak.

“You couldn’t have gotten more than a few hours sleep. Go crawl back in.” Robbie rolled his coffee mug across the freshly raked ground. It halted at the nearest leaf pile.

Avery shook his head. “I’m up now. I’ll hang.” Avery took a sip, set his steaming cup down and threw himself into the task. They worked in silence for several minutes before Avery spoke, his eyebrows furrowed in thought.

“Robbie?”

“Hmmm?”

“Tell me about Mom and Dad.”

A shadow crossed Robbie’s face, passing like a cloud over the moon.

“What do you want to know?” he didn’t look at his brother.

“Did you talk to them before…” Avery’s voice trailed off and ended in silence. “Well, I know that, I mean, you said…but, did you…?” He coughed to clear his throat. Robbie searched Avery’s face before laying down his rake.

“Go get me another cup of coffee and I’ll tell you,” Robbie said. Avery turned and walked inside, retrieving Robbie’s mug along the way.

➣➣➣

Avery returned with two mugs and Robbie joined him on the step. They sipped in silence, allowing the last streaks of oranges, purples and blues to bombard their retinas before Robbie spoke.

“It was pretty bad.”

“I can handle it.”

“I know you can handle it,” Robbie said. “I just don’t know if I want to plant that visual in your overactive imagination.”

“That’s Gil.”

“It runs in the family.”

“If I have nightmares, I promise I won’t call you.” Avery said.

“You can always call me.”

“Really?” Avery said.

“Whaddya’ think?”

“Well…” Avery cleared his throat. “what’s it like to sleep with a girl?”

“Oh.” Robbie ran his hands through his hair. The rhythmic who-who, who, who of a Great Horned Owl broke the tension. “You know how all the body parts work?”

“I’m sixteen. Give me some credit,” Avery said, toeing the step with his sneaker. “I was looking for something more…subtle. You know. Maybe something I could use….” He ended his sentence with a little fake cough, covering his mouth.

“Truth be told, if you weren’t a novice, I might have a thing or two to say about it. You’re still pretty young.”

“Well? Can you give me something useful anyway? For later.”

The corner of Robbie’s mouth twisted up in a grin. “At first it’s a lot like hunting, all adrenaline pumping and going in for the kill. And you’ll feel half-dead afterward, like somebody gutted you, but you’re light as a feather because of it. After, you’ve done it a few times and gotten the hang of it – I say that because you never really get used to it enough to take for granted, at least not if you’re doing it right – then it becomes more like fishing. You’ve got plenty of time. You may as well relax and enjoy the boat ride.”

Avery waited, but Robbie said nothing more. “That’s it?” he asked incredulously. “That’s your brotherly advice?”

“What do you want from me? I can only deal with one eye-popping topic at a time. You choose.”

Avery hesitated. “Mom and Dad then,” he said, obviously torn. “But promise you’ll tell me about the other one before you go back.”

“Alright,” Robbie replied. The smile faded from his eyes.

“After I left, I headed to Philadelphia. I knew they’d take the I-95 home. I was looking for accidents. It was a busy night for the cops. Three accidents that night.” Robbie shuddered and wrapped his hands around his coffee cup for warmth. “I stopped at every one. I had to cross I-95 on foot – don’t try that at night – and hop the median to get a look since the emergency vehicles were the only thing you could see from the other side.” Robbie grimaced and shook his head.  “I won’t tell you what the first two looked like. You wouldn’t sleep for a week. I held my breath every time, praying it wasn’t Mom and Dad, and every time I said a little prayer of thanks. I was feeling lucky.” At that, Robbie’s eyes watered and he squished his eyelids against them.

“And then, that third time, my luck was done cause there they were. It was so dark. It seemed like the whole world had gone grey. Maybe the street light was out, I don’t know. Everything had this muted quality.” Robbie’s face was a mask of calm, betraying none of the raging vortex of emotions hovering just below the surface.

“Were they conscious? Did they know you were there?” Avery asked.

Robbie shook his head. “I don’t know. The paramedics had already strapped them onto gurneys. I saw them load Mom into the ambulance. Her eyes were closed and her mouth was open. I called her, first Mom, and then by her full name. She mumbled something, but I was too far away to hear. I think I startled the hell out of the paramedics, coming from the middle of the road and all. I told the guy they were my parents, but he just kept at it. Told me to drive to the hospital.” Robbie shrugged. “Bastard..” He took a deep, jagged breath.

“What about Dad? Did you see him?”

Robbie’s throat constricted, but he squeezed the words out. “He was already in the ambulance with a sheet pulled over his head.” Robbie held his coffee cup in a death grip, his knuckles white with the strain. “I talked to the sole cop at the scene.”

The boys sat shoulder to shoulder, so intent on their conversation that neither heard the door open behind them.

“He hadn’t seen the accident,” Robbie continued, “but surmised based on the positioning, that they were forced off the road by a second car.”

“What second car?” Both Robbie and Avery jumped at Gil’s query.

“When the heck did you get here?” Robbie asked, agitated.

“Just when you said ‘forced off the road by the second car,’” Gil said.

“Yeah, well, go back inside. Avery and I are talking.”

“I want to know what happened, too,” Gil pleaded. Robbie and Avery exchanged glances. “I’m not a baby.” Avery shrugged and Robbie relented.

“Alright, come sit down.” Gil sat down next to Robbie with Max at his feet, the three brothers seated shoulder to shoulder.

“There was a man passed out in the front seat. The air bag had exploded and the car reeked of alcohol, like a bottle spilled. I have a different theory now.” Robbie cast a strange look in Avery’s direction, but Avery didn’t follow.

“I stuck my head in the back seat and the freaking,…” Robbie looked at Gil and blushed, “the smell of alcohol permeated the whole interior of the car. Like a frat house at 2 a.m.”

“The cop came over and I asked him why the guy was still lying in the car. He said the paramedics checked him over and there was nothing wrong with him other than being drunk. They were short of ambulances so the guy was still waiting for a ride. Judging from the cop’s reaction, I think he was happy to leave him there to rot.”

“Did he ever wake up? Gil asked. He stared wide-eyed at Robbie as he continued with the story. Max thumped his tail twice on the wooden step when Gil spoke.

“Actually, he did.”

“Did you talk to him?” Avery asked. Robbie stared off into the distance, the scene replaying before his eyes. He shook his head trying to dispel the memory.

“There was just a minute where the cop was in his squad car, talking on the radio, and it was just me and this guy. He reached out his hand for me so I took it. He smelled awful. Like he took a bath in a bottle of Mad Dog. I almost puked.”

“Was he hurt? Did you to get him out?” Gil asked. Robbie drank the rest of his coffee and set the mug down at his feet.

“He didn’t ask for help. He just looked at me and said he didn’t want to do it.”

“Didn’t want to do it or didn’t mean to do it?” Avery asked.

“I’m not sure,” Robbie replied. Several pots with hardy mums adorned the sides of the steps. Robbie plucked the head off one, sniffed it and tossed the scentless flower to the ground. “And the weirdest thing is, I could swear the guy was faking it. I mean, he talked like a drunk, but his eyes were lucid. I had the strangest feeling like….”

“Like what?” Gil asked.

“Like he had drunk the alcohol after the accident. Drunk people stink from inside not outside. It smelled like he poured it on himself instead of down his throat,” Robbie said. Gil’s eyebrows shot up as he pondered this new information. Avery responded more cynically.

“That doesn’t sound right. The guy’s in prison for the next three to five years for involuntary manslaughter,” Avery said. “Why would he do it on purpose?”

Robbie shrugged. “I can only call it like I saw it.”

“But why would anyone want to hurt Mom and Dad?” Avery asked. “They didn’t have any enemies.”

“Well maybe they didn’t, but what if someone they worked for did?”

“The Governor?” Avery asked. “You’re not serious.”

“I don’t know. None of it makes any sense.” Robbie rubbed his temples and said, “Who’d want to hurt Mom and Dad?”

“Well, Dad didn’t have any enemies. He was too nice a guy. All his students loved him,” Avery said. He polished off the rest of his own coffee, a tawny mixture of three quarters milk and one quarter coffee, and set the mug in the crook of his arm. Gil tapped his foot nervously in syncopated rhythm.

“What about all the stuff Mom was doing, trying to get the landfill shut down. Maybe someone didn’t want her meddling,” Robbie said.

Gil tapped his foot more loudly, bopping his head to his own internal rhythm, his whole body following a trajectory back and forth. “Can we eat breakfast now. I’m starving.” Gil jumped up and ran into the kitchen without waiting for a response. Avery shrugged, following.

“I’ll be there in a minute,” Robbie said. He sat, staring at the landfill in the distance.

“Hey, Robbie?”

“Yeah?”

“Since you’re leaving soon and we don’t know when you’ll be back, I was thinking…”

“Yeah?”

“I was thinking that we should have a big back yard party. Bonfire, food, fireworks, the whole enchilada.”

“Sounds like a plan, brother,” he said. He rose wearily and followed Gil inside.

➣➣➣

The sun was low in the late October sky and Robbie judged by the dwindling light that it was soon dinner time. He turned on his flashlight and circled the perimeter of the barn, checking the foundation, the walls, the roof line, looking for any breaches in the exterior. He completed his circle and banged on the barn door.

“All tight. Not even a mouse could get in here.”

“What’s that?” Jack emerged from the barn, wiping his hands on rag.

“How’d it go?” Robbie asked. Gil followed Jack out of the barn, pounding his fist in his open palm over and over again.

“All finished,” Jack said. “He’s safer out here than in the house.” Gil walked over, still punching, and stood beside Robbie who grabbed both Gil’s hand in his one, silencing them.

“We should have done this before,” Robbie said. “Now I’ll sleep better.” Gil smiled and removed his hands from Robbie’s grasp.

“Let’s show him how it works,” Jack said. He went inside, Robbie and Gil following.

“There’s a couple different ways it can go. But the most important is, when the alarm goes off, it sends a signal directly to the police station. So if you’re in here and you’re armed, be sure you know where the call buttons are. You don’t want to be sending signals to the police all the time and have them show up looking for bad guys who aren’t here.” Jack cocked an eyebrow at Gil who wiggled his shoulders, his excitement growing.

“The call buttons are here, here, and…here,” Jack said indicating the places. Gil sat down on the swivel stool at his drafting table and spun around once.

“As soon as you’re in, you turn the key for the deadbolt,” Jack closed the barn door and turned the key, “and that will automatically activate the alarm. You can override it by pressing this button here,” Jack said, indicating a yellow button on the alarm panel. “That red light up there,” he continued, pointing to a spot above the door, “will let you know if the alarm is working. If the light’s on, you’re armed.”

Gil squirmed in his seat, beaming. “Gilliam William Tirabi!” Robbie said. “I cannot stress enough the significance of this item. It is not, I repeat, not, a toy. And this is not a movie.” He looked at Gil for emphasis. “If you trip the alarm too many times – either by accident or on purpose,” Robbie raised his eyebrows and stared intently at his brother, “the cops won’t come when you do need them. Do you understand?”

A wide smile revealed most of Gil’s teeth. He spun around again and nodded. “Yes.”

“Good.” Robbie looked at Jack for him to continue.

“If you want to bring the whole system down, you hit this button.” Jack indicated another switch, this one in blue. “And finally, if you’re under attack, I mean full on, no holds barred, take no prisoners, all out assault, you hit this button.” Jack pointed to a red triangular button that sat alone on the alarm panel.” This one is hard-wired to call not only the local cops, but the state police. And it wails. An eardrum bleeding screech of an alarm system that will wake Kori, Avery, and every neighbor within a three-block radius. But your ears are super sensitive, so I’m tellin’ you, man, don’t use this one unless you really, really need it.”

“Okay, okay, I get it.” Gil said, unable to suppress a smile.

“Alright,” Robbie said. “Our work here is done.”

“Oh, one more thing,” Jack said, picking up a pack of earplugs off the shelf. “If you do activate the alarm of death….” he smirked and grabbed Gil’s arm. “Make sure you use these. I don’t want you having an episode because of my alarm system.”

Gil opened his hand and Jack placed a pair of earplugs in it. Gil rubbed them between his fingers, scrunched them down to nothing and stuck them in his ears where they expanded.

“Okay, gentlemen,” Robbie said. Jack deactivated the alarm and Robbie locked the barn up for the night, handing Gil the key.

“I’m giving Avery a spare key. He’ll know how the alarm works,” Robbie said to Gil.

Gil smiled.  The bright green neon earplugs sticking out of his ears made him look like Dumbo.

copyright 2012

to be continued. . .

to read what came before jump here

meet me at the bodega

Journal THAT

a guide to writing

Cynthia Gregory

Journal writing got you down? Does the pen weight fifteen pounds, the paper cut you to ribbons? Does the shifting light hurt your eyes? Are you feeling totally uninspired, pooky? I have good news for you.

This may be the best ever secret weapon nearly guaranteed to make your journaling a pleasurable and inspiring experience. This information is so good it could be considered cheating – except it isn’t. It’s so good it should almost be illegal or sold with a special license. Nevertheless, here it is for you, the solid gold journaling tip of the year: pick up your journal and walk. Directly to the busiest coffee shop you can find. The kind of coffee shop is entirely up to you.

The place itself can be a youthful hipster java cave where a black tee shirt is very nearly the required uniform and where you are soo out of touch with the music, the cultural references, the technology. It can be a very groovy in a retro kind of place where the waitresses wear those polyester pseudo nurse outfits, with crisp white aprons tied in bow in the back and where the donut case is always stocked with powdered sugar sprinkled old fashioneds.  Doesn’t matter.

Once you select your target, enter the writing zone with all the necessary tools and secure a table. So much is negotiable about this drill, but this part is not: you must order enough beverage and/or food to ensure a dependable cover. Your passage on this part of the journaler’s journey requires that you honor your host – the one who provides you with the context of all this rich material – with an offering that reflects appreciation for all the trouble he or she has gone to in order for you have a nice, clean, well-lit writing surface, a place to rest your iced tea, a den peopled with characters to sketch, a platform upon which to balance a snack while you go about your journaling duty.

Here is the question: how can you not find something to write about here? My goodness, there is so much material in this fabulous den it’s almost immoral to shrink from the duty to write. Did you know that in the archetypal studies of fiction, the coffee house, the bar, the watering hole is one of the most holy places in which a plots twist, where complications arise, transactions occur?  The Mos Eisley Cantina, the bar in Star Wars, the Whistle Stop Café in Fried Green Tomatoes, the Tropicana where Ricky Ricardo occasionally allowed Lucy to perform as an outlet for her outrageous talent?  The watering hole is where information is exchanged, a place that urges the hero to fulfill her next mission in the quest. In this context, the watering hole is wherever you choose it to be and the hero is you.

The bodega is like the telegraph office, where lessons are imparted, instructions delivered. By placing yourself squarely in the heart of your local cantina, you are putting yourself smack in the middle of the most strategically magnetic place in which to attract writing material. (I recommend against writing in an actual bar where alcohol is the beverage of choice, for the obvious reason that while it might make good fiction, it makes lousy writing practice).

So here you are in your café; look around. There are so many topics to bounce into and fill all those crisp empty pages. There is food. Check out that menu! There are customers you couldn’t make up on your best, most fecund day. The décor is an encyclopedia of material. The foot traffic going by outside the window is a screenplay waiting to happen. Maybe you’ve got a host of memories stirred up by the smell of grease, fantasies ignited by the sound of a steamer frothing up milk in a pitcher.  Did you waitress your way through college and learn how to balance eight plates on your arms? What is your favorite café experience? Your worst? What about that woman you saw that firm morning in Paris when you finally made it there after so many years of promises to yourself, and found that café in the St. Germain de Pres just blocks away from the Pont Neuf? There she was, sitting in that sidewalk café looking like something out of central casting, with her black sleeveless dress, black, wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, perfect blond chignon, sipping a glass of chardonnay at nine o’clock in the morning, sharing a table with a man who was maybe her nephew, her grandson, her lover? You savored your own cappuccino and croissant with a fabulous mysterious cheese and felt as if in that moment, you were somehow bigger than life.

You see where you can go with this?

So on those days when you know you should be journaling but just can’t find it in you to examine your own life? Get thee to a coffee shop. Let that java jolt seep into your blood and see where it carries you. This may just be the best tip ever. Use it, and then use it again.