Category: Postcard Stories

Postcard Story: One Day

[Sometimes, I write a story in an hour based on an image.]

piddleton

They met, as they did every morning, at the ridge overlooking the train tracks in the far corner of Nat Henderson’s farm. Nat rested his hands on the fence while Dwight glanced over his shoulder to check once more on the cattle. As always, they were perfect.

“How’s the morning treating you, Dwight?” Nat squinted up at the sky. “Looks like another beautiful one.”

“Yeah, it does, don’t it?” Dwight nudged his horse Charlene and she turned them both toward town. “Another perfect day.”

“Mmm hmm,” said Nat.

“You ever wonder why there’s never been a murder over there in Piddleton?”

“What’s that again, Dwight?”

“There’s never been a murder in Piddleton. Did you know that? Nobody’s ever caught his wife with another man and strangled them both, nobody’s ever shot a teenaged couple in the backs of their heads at the lover’s lane, nobody’s ever snapped a pool cue off in someone’s skull at Victor’s Tavern.”

“I ain’t aheard of none, anyways,” Nat said. “From where I’m standing, that’s a good thing.”

“Well, yeah. But it’s a little too MUCH of a good thing, isn’t it? The only troubles we get around here are the occasional train derailment and that fire at Old Man Jenkins’s place they’ve been trying to put out since, well, since I can remember.”

“They’ll get it one of these days. They’ve kept it from spreading, at least.”

“Yeah, spreading,” said Dwight, adjusting his hat. “Spreading to a town with exactly one perfect white church with a steeple, one general store, one school with a bell, one firehouse, one police station, two train depots, and a half dozen houses.”

“I’m sure there’s more than that.”

“There aren’t. I’ve counted.”

Nat chewed that over in the side of his cheek. “Well, if you say so.”

“And these cattle I’ve been tending. They’re all perfectly brown and white, not a one of them with fleas or flies or mange or nothing. They’re perfect. You could eat them off the hoof if you wanted.”

“Now, Dwight, you don’t want to go gnawing at your livelihood!” said Nat.

“And another thing–”

A train whistle rolled up from the tracks below like a warm wind.

“Oh, look, here’s the 8:13.”

“Yes, again,” Dwight said. “8:13. And there’s the spotless passenger train and the spotless freight and that one over there with the old-fashioned engine. What’s that about?”

“No need to hang up a tool just because it’s old,” Nat said.

“You know what I think?” Dwight sidled the horse a little closer to be heard over the gentle clack-clack of the wheels below. “I think that if I rode ol’ Charlene here as far as I could along those tracks, they’d come right back around in a loop.”

Nat smiled. “That’s silly. What would be the point?”

“You tell me. What would be the point? We wake up, we do the same thing every day, we see the same things every day — the same kids kicking that ball in the field, the same old ladies with their green frock coats and black pocketbooks downtown, the same Studebakers parked across from Jim’s Hardware. What is the point?”

Nat shook his head. “You been sitting out on that horse in the sun a little too long, Dwight. That’s the kind of stuff that Commies think.”

“I feel like I’ve been sitting on this horse forever, to tell you the truth. Sometimes late at night, I swear I hear footsteps across the stars. Right up there. You ever hear that? I don’t figure so. But sometimes I hear footsteps and other times I hear voices and laughter. Because somewhere, I tell you, there are tracks that don’t go around in a circle.”

“These don’t go around in a circle, Dwight,” Nat said patiently. “I know it can get lonely out here–”

“I think I’m going to ride to town and kill somebody, just to see if it can be done. I’ll bet it can’t.”

“I hope not,” Nat said. “‘Cause I sure like talkin’ to you.”

“I’ll leave the herd here because, hey, where the hell are they going? Nowhere. I’ll just ride into town and hitch Charlene to a mailbox, and then I’ll go into one of those houses and cut up a family with my Bowie knife.”

Nat nodded. “Well, it’s a pretty day for it, anyway.”

“I’ll bet you I’ll be right back here tomorrow,” Dwight said.

“I know I will,” Nat said.

“Yeah,” Dwight said.

“Yeah,” Nat replied.

“Well, I suppose I’ll see you tomorrow again, if nothing changes.”

“It won’t,” Nat said.

Dwight nudged Charlene into her usual grudging town-ward motion, and as always they got as far as the edge of the grazing fields before stopping. Nat watched Dwight looking over the town as he always did.

“Maybe one of these days,” Nat muttered to his friend’s long-distant back. “Maybe one.”

Postcard Story: Symbiosis

[From time to time, I write a story based on an image in an hour or your next one’s free.]

Courtesy of Shorpy.com

Courtesy of Shorpy.com

Paul swept his arm against my chest suddenly in the darkness and cried, “Stop!”

It was the middle of nowhere. Once, it had been somewhere – the site of one of those old-school shopping malls that had a roof over the whole place unlike the town centers of today. It had gone out of business about ten years ago when I was little and now it had been torn down. All that was left was a huge concrete puzzle piece with weeds growing through the cracks, not that we could see it that clearly.

“This is the spot,” Paul said. “Right here.”

“What spot?” I asked.

Paul scanned the old asphalt with his flashlight, not really looking up to talk to me. “Where Hatchet Harry learned how to hunt.”

“Hatchet Harry? That was the guy’s name? Was that supposed to be scary? Because a hatchet is like two feet long.”

“That’s what’s scary about it. You can swing it real fast because it’s small and light. When a killer swings an axe, he gets maybe one shot before it gets stuck in the victim’s skull.”

“That sounds like enough.”

“Yeah, if all you want is one victim. But Hatchet Harry could split one head and then go on to the next. You know why?”

“Because a hatchet didn’t get stuck, fine.” I pulled the sleeves of my hoodie over my hands and hugged my arms close in the chill.

“So the year is 1957. Billy Joe Hargett and Norma Bea Valentine were parking out here in his – “

“Why do victims always have two names? Nobody with one name ever gets killed by a psychopathic killer.”

“You mean like Cher?”

“No, I mean like…Dave. Or Harriet. It’s always Billy Joe and Norma Bea.”

“I can’t help their names, okay?” Paul motioned back to the pavement. “Now help me out here. Imagine a 1955 Buick Century parked right about here, the windows steamed—“

“Is that a car? Because I was, like, negative forty years old when it was built. Was it pulled by horses?”

“No,” he sighed. “The windows are steamed because, well, Billie Joe has his hand under Norma Bea’s blouse and she has her hand in—“

“And Hatchet Harry comes and chops them up, the end. I get it. Creepy. Now let’s go back to the car, okay?”

“You don’t know anything. First, she sees something in the distance, a shape moving out of the trees. He tells her it’s probably a deer. Then it comes closer, but now it’s waddling close to the ground and she knows it isn’t a damned deer. It keeps coming closer, kind of duck-walking, which would be silly if it wasn’t for how determined the thing seemed to be. Straight line, right from the trees to the car, a weird shape because silhouetted in the faint light, she can see—“

“A hatchet,” I said. Goddamn, the Goth boys could be boring even if they had the cool leather dusters.

“No, it’s a fucking claw. And she sees that the thing has two of them, like a crab. A land crab. Like one of those creatures from the Pleistocene.”

“Wait. She was a paleontologist?”

Paul wasn’t stopping. In fact, he was getting excited by the story, which could actually be cute because that’s when he dropped the fake British accent and his speech impediment came out. Some of the other kids made fun of him for it, the way his vowels all sounded like they took his whole mouth to say, but you know…it made him different. Good different.

“So she’s awwll pounding on Billie Joe’s showwlder, telling him to look, but by then it’s too late: the creature is right by the backseat of the car on the passenger side, peeling it open like a can of sardines.” He held up his hands and pinched the fingers together like claws. “There was this screeching noise and that thing ripped it right open. Then it clicked two chitinous blades on the back of Norma Bea’s neck and pulled her screaming from the–”

“Wait. What happened to Hatchet Harry?”

“Well, that’s the thing. Hatchet Harry, he’s this escaped mentaw patient living in a shanty in the woods, sleeping on a cot under a blanket of sewn together human pelts. And he knows what that clicking means: it means the crab-thing from the swamp is gypping him two perfectly good human victims.”

“Hey—“

“He can say ‘gypping’ because he’s a mentaw patient and it’s 1957.” Paul finally took a breath. “So he goes running toward the crab-thing because, fuck, there are only so many people who come out to the lover’s lane. But when he gets there, the crab-thing has already torn them awwsunder and all Hatchet Harry can do is sputter and stamp his feet as it drags them back into the swamp.”

“And?”

“And what?”

“The story ends with Hatchet Harry jumping up and down like Yosemite Sam?”

“No,” Paul said calmly, regaining his accent. “It never ends. Because Hatchet Harry learned a valuable lesson that night: to work in total silence and speed.”

I heard a click seemingly echo from the woods. It made me roll my eyes. I couldn’t help it.

“Apparently not total,” I said.

The clicking noise came again and Paul turned quickly.

“Quit it,” I said.

“It was the beginning of an unholy symbiosis. Now all Harry has to do is wait for the crab-thing to come from the swamp and then he can come in and finish the job. They’ve been in competition ever since, and nobody to this day knows who has more victims.”

A branch snapped and so did something else. No, it didn’t snap. It clacked together hollowly.

“They work together,” Paul said quietly. “The hunter and his faithful dog. But which—“

I shoved him to the pavement and ran headlong to the car.

Postcard Story: Shaking The Boxes

[From time to time, I write a story in an hour based on a stock photo or other image.]

Mail Room

Detective Beeler leaped atop one of the mail conveyors and held up his hands to get our attention. It was cold on the floor so late at night and the heaters hadn’t yet kicked on so I could see his breath.

“Men, we appreciate you taking time from your families to help the NYPD so close to Christmas, but when we explain why, we think you’ll more than understand.”

I understood. My supervisor Eugene, who actually had children of his own, didn’t seem to; he stood off to the side with his sleeves rolled up and his arms folded, frowning at the cosmic inconvenience of it all. Some of the other guys didn’t look too happy either.

But for me, hey, what was I doing? Sitting around in my boarding house listening to the radio? Leaning out on the fire escape to watch the snow gather on the heaps of garbage below? When the police called us back to the distribution center, that was fine with me.

“If you’ve been following the papers the last few months, you know all about the Brooklyn Butcher. If you haven’t, well, maybe you’re better off not knowing that some sicko has been killing women and children and mailing their body parts to newspapers and the police. We don’t know who he is, only that the packages are postmarked 11256.”

I knew something about it, sure. I’d been reading the papers just like everybody else, wondering what the Butcher would send next. One week it had been a woman’s pale, lithe arm still with the silver bracelet on the wrist. Another, it was a child’s foot in a Buster Brown shoe. Then there were the ten days in a row when fingers arrived one after the other, boom boom boom. They weren’t all from the same person.

“This time, though, we’ve got a problem. When a cop or a newspaper man gets an ear in the mail, it sure isn’t fun, but at least he can handle it. I mean, we’ve all been in the War. But kids…shit.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “This year, the fucker is sending Christmas presents to kids. That’s what he calls them, ‘presents.’”

I remembered that letter now, the scary one sent to the Post with the untraceable typewriter letters. ON THIS MERRY YULE, I SHAL SEND THE CHURLDREN OF THE CITY SOME NISE FLESHY TOISE TO PLAY WIT. THE BEST TOISE ARE PEEPLE.

Beeler nodded. “Yeah, presents. So somewhere in this heap of Christmas packages there are some scary fucking things and we have to find them.”

I raised my hand. “How will we know which are the scary things?”

Beeler pointed to me. “I’m glad you asked. I’m guessing you guys aren’t too used to listening to the packages you deliver, but that’s the key here. You’re going to have to shake each one gently and listen for how it thumps.”

“How it thumps?” Eugene was always slow.

“Yeah. So you pick up each package and shake it gently. Most things, your toys and your candy, they’ll make something like a rattle, a little hollow. But something like, say, a hand makes this rasping sound as the flesh rubs against the cardboard. It’s a lot more solid-sounding, too. Kind of a ‘ssss-thump.’”

I made the sound with my tongue against my teeth and lips. Ssss-thump. Ssssssss-thuuumppp.

“Don’t be surprised if you come across any Leakers, either. That’s what we call the packages that have a little bit of blood pooling in one of the corners. Try not to handle the blood directly of course, and just put it in this bin. This is the Leaker bin.”

I raised my hand again.

“You’re full of questions, aren’t you?” Beeler said.

Eugene folded his arms. “He usually is.”

“What do we get for each thing we find?”

Beeler hunched his shoulders a little to peer down at me. “What do you get? You get the satisfaction of keeping a child from finding a severed penis on Christmas morning, that’s what you get.”

I nodded. “Okay, sure. I completely understand. Absolutely. I just thought we might make it…fun. You know, because it’s Christmas.”

“I’m not sure this should be fun,” Beeler said, “but whatever you need to do to find these things…well, we’d greatly appreciate it.”

Eugene pulled the big green button and the conveyors creaked to life. Beeler jumped down, made sure his revolver was secure, and then reached into the boxes like an old pro.

I began to whistle “Sleigh Ride.” Then I picked up the first box from my favorite pile and listened for the ssss-thump of a lucky child’s best present ever.

Postcard Story: First Contact

[From time to time, I write a story in an hour or so based on an image. Sometimes I’ll reprint my favorites.]

There’s only so much you can do when the Nazis bomb your boy’s house, especially when you’re trying so hard to resemble a stuffed elephant and not entirely succeeding.

You just have to kind of go quiet and let the human clutch at you while his people do their best to clear the rubble and find his parents. You can’t say anything, that’s for sure, certainly not about how the Nazis will be hiding or hanging from the gallows or foaming at the lips from self-inflicted cyanide in just a few years.

You also absolutely cannot mention that humans will be standing on their Moon in one quarter century or connected all over their planet in two or shaking hands with creatures like you not long after that. And you can’t let it slip that there will be a lot more rubble between now and then.

Here’s what you can do.

You can stick close to your human, not letting anyone dunk you in a washtub to get the dust off of you and find out what you really are.

You can make sure they find his science fiction magazines and the book about dinosaurs.

You can tumble out of his arms at just the moment when the air raid wardens start talking about how they wish the bloody Huns, all of them, the women and children too, would get marched into their own goddamned gas chambers.

You can keep him away from the torn iron bars and bent nails.

You can nudge him toward the charred engine of a V-2 so he can ask what it is and be told by Warden George McAllister that it’s an “awful waste of a rocket, that’s what it is.”

You can remind him to look up, look up from the windows of his train from London just as the black night goes its blackest, and when he whisper-asks you if all of those suns have wars going on around them, you can somehow tell him that some do, yes, but not all.

You can sit with him on the window seat of a country home while all the other children play outside and read The Time Machine together.

You can resist the box, the sack, the closet shelf as he grows older, reminding him by your presence that yes, he survived and yes, it was for a reason.

You can make him wonder how neat it would be to get a degree in physics. You can help him decide that another in linguistics at the same time might be handy in ways he’ll never expect.

You can do your best to keep him away from hate and from war and from disappointment at his species, human though he is, and even when he can’t, you can help him try again.

You can hint, ever subtly, whenever he’s alone, that we’re on our way.

Postcard Story: Love in the Balance

[From time to time, I write a story in an hour based on a stock image.]

Photo courtesy of Shorpy.com.

Photo courtesy of Shorpy.com.

Ever since he first saw Wanda Lee behind the counter of her father’s pharmacy, Chuck knew that one day he’d ask her to marry him.

He even had the line picked out: “What would it take to get you behind the wheel of a Chuck Timpless Chevrolet…for the rest of your life?”

But Chuck knew you couldn’t rush a deal. That was the difference between him and the other salesmen at the car lot, guys like Johnny Earl who’d make whipping noises behind the backs of buyers who said they’d have to ask their wives. Chuck focused on the long game, and if he didn’t sell a particular car to a particular customer today, well, that was okay; Detroit was always making more cars and God was always making more customers.

The key to a sale was not needing a sale.

So his courtship of Wanda Lee largely involved sauntering over to the pharmacy after his bachelor’s dinner at Woolworth’s, mounting the Wate and Fate machine, dropping in a dime, and tipping his hat to Wanda while the gears clicked out the little card. The weight number — a trim buck sixty five, thank you very much — never changed, but the fortunes did. GOOD NEWS IS COMING FROM AFAR it might say one day, and SAVE TODAY FOR TROUBLE TOMORROW the next.

He didn’t read them closely because he was reading Wanda closely, watching her reaction through the glass. She seemed to be a nervous sort, her shoulders tensing and her eyes going narrow when she saw him in what Chuck thought of as a coquettish wince. Or maybe a flirtacious grimace.

But that was okay. It’s what buyers did, begged you to sell them the dreams they didn’t know they had. Chuck had a pocket full of dimes for that machine, long enough to wait out his fate with Wanda Lee.

One evening in October, though, he received a different kind of fortune. The only reason he looked at it twice was because he noticed the word LOVE.

LOVE IS THE LIE OUR BODIES TELL OUR SOULS, it said.

He blinked at it a moment but then shrugged. He’d always imagined that wizened crones somewhere in the Chinese countryside typed the messages for the Wate and Fate company, maybe throwing coins or yarrow sticks with that holy book like he’d seen in the war. Sometimes a weird one would have to come through. That’s how you knew they were true, right? They were supposed to be a little vague to give you room from interpretation.

The next day, the message was OUR HEARTS MAKE WISHES AND CALL THEM FEARS.

“Huh,” he said to himself, glancing up at Wanda who was watching from behind a display of medicated powders. She made no sign of guessing what the fortune said, but then, she seldom made a sign of anything in his direction, furtively returning to work or to one of those notebooks where she was always writing.

“That girl’s a weirdo, you know,” Johnny Earl told him more than once. “Reading those books all the time. You don’t need that.”

The third evening, the card told him YOU WILL BE KILLED BY A CAR, which seemed a very specific metaphor, uncanny even. But it was a big world and there were cars all over, and if you weren’t literally killed by a car, you might be killed by the press of mechanical civlization it represented. That’s what Mrs. Childers in high school English might have told him once.

Chuck looked up and once again, Wanda looked away.

On the fourth evening, it said YOU WILL BE KILLED BY A 1957 CHEVROLET BEL AIR.

“Sedan or coupe?” he asked aloud to the machine, though he knew it couldn’t hear him. And even if it could, surely the spools of fortune cards were shipped from their Chinese temples in armored trucks, delivered across the sea in guarded cargo holds, shipped to little drug stores all across America in sealed boxes. Who would dare tamper with the Wate and Fate machine?

He glanced up. A cloud smeared something like a beard across the blue. The sky knew him. It was watching.

He swallowed and inserted another dime.

THERE WILL BE GLASS IN YOUR EYE AND STEEL THROUGH YOUR HEART.

He shook the machine, not sure why, and then he tried another.

WILL YOU SELL OR WILL YOU LIVE?

Chuck Timpless stumbled back from the machine. Would he sell or would he live? What kind of question was that? Couldn’t he do both? Couldn’t he sell cars and own a house and marry Wanda Lee and eat the meat loaf she made for dinner in a baby blue apron and still live? Couldn’t he do that?

The Wate and Fate machine said no. The Wate and Fate machine, cold white metal, did not love him or hate him. It merely weighed him, his body and his soul, and it told him what was.

Chuck slipped in another dime. The next message had to be happy, right? It had to be.

THE WORLD WILL END IN FIRE.

Somewhere down Main Street, a door opened and Chuck recognized the din from Sammy’s Bar. From the television inside, he heard a familiar voice that didn’t quite break through the haze of his thoughts. “It shall be the policy of this nation…” came the words, but they didn’t find their way to meaning in his brain.

He put in his last dime, his last hope for a message that made sense, that made it better. Down the sidewalk, he heard the quickened patter of running footsteps and just behind them, the huffing voice of Johnny Earl.

“Jesus, Chuck! You gotta come listen. That goddamned fish-eating mick is about to nuke the Russkies!”

THE WORLD WILL END IN FIRE.

The Wate and Fate machine clicked its wheels and calculated his destiny, but Chuck Timpless didn’t wait to read it. He loped off to Sammy’s Bar with Johnny Earl to see that message instead, the one shimmering in black and white on the TV above the liquor bottles.

The last card fell with no one to catch it, no one to read it, and to no one it said COME IN AND ASK ME.

Wanda Lee shouldered past her father to the back room of the pharmacy, crying.

Postcard Story: Riding the Rails

[From time to time, I write a story in an hour based on some stock image.]

Image courtesy of Shorpy.com

Image courtesy of Shorpy.com

As runaway companions go, Jimmy wasn’t bad. He could read fifty different kinds of hobo sign, knew the difference between poison ivy and Virginia creeper, and always gave you at least half a tin of potted meat if he had it. He could hold his own in a conversation about Dick Tracy or Brick Bradford, too.

In fact, the only thing that complicated traveling with old Jimmy Day was that he had to carry his brother around in that milk can.

The thing looked heavy, and though he’d fashioned canvas straps to hang it off his back, Jimmy wasn’t always able to leap into a boxcar as easily as I could. There was also the care and feeding to worry about, and when we’d set up camp off in the woods by a railroad yard, he’d always have to pour water or chunks of hot dog inside.

Colin was his name, the brother in the milk can.

I figured there were just a couple of possibilities for what was going on with Colin. Maybe there had been a real Colin who’d died young, maybe as a baby, maybe in his mama’s womb, and Jimmy had just taken on this milk can as a symbol of his dead brother’s spirit. Maybe there’d never been a Colin at all and Jimmy just made him up, adopted him as an imaginary traveling companion who would never leave him like his parents probably had. Or, hell, maybe Jimmy was just pulling my leg with the most persistent practical joke I’d ever seen.

But as much as I mulled over those possibilities on the hoof with Jimmy, walking the railroad trestle ties or crashing through the woods, none of them ever seemed quite right.

When Jimmy talked about Colin at all, it was about something he needed.

“We’re gonna need to pour off Colin’s pee in the next couple of miles,” he’d say, breaking the beautiful silence of a sunrise. Or he’d knock on the side of the can, saying, “Quit squirming, you little shit.”

Look. Though there were a few kids back then who ran away from home because their folks just couldn’t afford to feed them anymore, a lot more of us left because our families were full of monsters. There was only so long I could last with my old man before he either killed me or I started getting used to the belt and the fists, before I started thinking that was the way the world worked and it was good. So when Jimmy came walking with me, I just figured he’d put all of his scared into that can and called it Colin.

It’s funny to think now that Jimmy and I were only together about six weeks total, and funnier still to think that everything he needed to know about me and I needed to know about him could get transmitted between us in about a third of that time. He liked the Cubs and I liked the Indians. He’d read the Count of Monte Cristo and I hadn’t. He thought that if a guy could learn how a radio worked, he could pretty much write his own paycheck. I thought if a guy could get into the woods, he wouldn’t need a paycheck.

I lost Jimmy near Glenmont.

We woke up that day from our lean-to in the far corner of a farmer’s field — Jimmy was a genius at lean-tos — and we crouched our way through the corn to the water pump. We cleaned ourselves up as much as boys like to do and Jimmy tipped a little in for his brother and sloshed it around.

“These locals ain’t gonna do it for us,” Jimmy said finally.

We’d been hopping the short trains all the way from Pennsylvania because they went slower. When they creaked through an intersection, you could jog alongside a flatcar and leap onboard even with a milk can strapped to your back.

“What we need is some thunder. A big one, heading all the way out West. I’m not even talking Texas or Oklahoma. I’m talking California.”

I wouldn’t have admitted it then, but Jimmy was pretty much in charge of my own running away. I’d planned to build a placein the mountains somewhere and be a modern Daniel Boone, but California sounded good to me if Jimmy was going there.

“It’s like the whole goddamned country in one state. They’ve got mountains. They’ve got deserts. They’ve got snow. They’ve got an ocean. They’ve got Marlene Dietrich, for God’s sake.”

“You don’t gotta sell me on it,” I said. “Let’s go.”

“Colin wants to be in the movies,” he said. “I told him he doesn’t have a face for it, but he’s got a dream and we’re going to Hollywood.”

“Okay,” I said. There was no stronger way to agree between guys like us.

He clapped me on the shoulder. “They’ve got woods there, too.”

We followed the tracks to somewhere near Cleveland where all we could do was wait for the right train and the right cargo. Hoppers and gondolas weren’t good, full as they usually were with coal or gravel. Flatbeds weren’t fun, either, with the wind liable to blow you off. Boxcars were best, even if they were a cliche. They’re like rolling hotels. You can keep your Pullman cars; Jimmy and Colin and me slept best on packing straw.

While we camped and waited two days for just the right freight, a question came to me that might be gentle enough to get at the truth about Jimmy and that milk can.

“You think your mama ever worries about Colin?” I asked.

Jimmy, smothering what would be our last fire with sand, paused to think that over.

“Maybe every now and then, I figure,” he said, finally. “More him than me. There’s folks that go and folks that stay, and they don’t like much to think about the other in case they’re wrong.”

I don’t know what expression crossed my face, but it made Jimmy say, “And sometimes there are folks who can do both and know when, folks like us who are going to find somewhere we’re supposed to stay.”

We heard the rumble along the tracks before we saw the locomotive, and then the whistle sang out and we knew our ride had come, carrying our future with it.

We backed away in awe at the sleek new engine, and I’ll admit I was nervous that we’d ever latch on. It had slowed for the turn, sure, but it would take heroic leaps from both of us to make it. Our best bet would be a flat car with plenty of room for error, but all we saw were boxcars.

“We gonna do this or not?’ Jimmy said, bouncing on his toes with Colin on his back.

I watched. I counted. I took the best estimate I could and pointed to a car with an open door. Jimmy grinned and nodded, and then we started to run. With the biggest leap of luck in my life, I rolled inside.

Then a half dozen things happened at once but I only saw three: Jimmy reaching for the car, one of Colin’s straps breaking, and Jimmy’s ankle getting caught between the rail and the tie. He cried out quickly, still cheerful I guess, and Colin’s milk can bounced into the car and then back out again. Jimmy reached but didn’t make it, but the strap was caught and the pulling began. He had just enough time to unhook Colin and not enough time to unhook himself.

Jimmy was ripped, that’s the only word for it. He was stretched to the limits of his body before the two halves split somewhere in the middle of his torso where all the squiggling organs lived. I screamed, not that he heard it, and I swear that the last thing I saw before the cloud of blood was his eyes right on me and a peaceful smile on his face.

Then he was gone and the milk can was rolling down the gravel embankment to the stream.

I jumped off, leaving my bindle behind. I screamed all the way down those tracks to where he’d been, the wheels of every empty boxcar squealing with me, but there was nothing left where he’d been but a lot of red rocks.

It hadn’t been my fault. It hadn’t been his. It had been Colin’s, that’s what I decided. That’s what made me run shrieking down toward the water, and that’s what made me kick that milk can a hundred times until my toes went numb. I called it names. I told it to fuck itself. I fell down beside it as the rapids washed over us and I screamed into the hole that I hoped it would die.

The stream was freezing but I didn’t feel it. I splashed in the shallows, lifted the can, and tipped it so the lid fell open. I shook and shook, knowing nothing would come out.

But then it did. Then Colin came out.

Or slithered might be better to say. Or oozed.

There came this hollow sucking noise like when you’re pouring cold beans out of a can. A bulge of peachy flesh bubbled out at first, and it grew longer and longer like a dollop of pancake batter. I kept shaking, both myself and the can, until Colin fell into the stream with a splash.

What Colin was, I couldn’t say. What he looked like — he looked like dough. He looked like clay. He looked like a streak of smeared paint. He looked, Jesus help me, like a fried egg with that single panicked eye of his swirling in every direction, searching for Jimmy, not sure why he was so cold and so wet. What he had instead of arms and legs were nubs, and they groped for stability on the smooth rocks.

It was the eye, that eye looking at me, pleading with me, at least as human as mine. It was that bubbling cry from a hole in the flesh, something like the cooing of a pigeon.

I stomped in huge strides back to Colin, slipping on a stone and gouging my knee on another. My blood raced downstream but I didn’t cry out. I crawled to Colin, told him to hold on, told him I was sorry.

Colin. Jesus Christ, there was an actual Colin.

I held the can as best I could for Colin to get back inside, but he’d grown weak. His flesh was turning blue, almost black at the edges, and he needed my help. He took my hand with the last strength he had, and I guided him slowly back into his home, into his shell. It wasn’t a pleasant sensation, no, his body, but there was a strange comfort to him, too.

I had to curl his sides a little to get him inside. I had to gently fold his head. I had to tilt the can to let gravity do its work, and I had to carry Colin out of the cold and build a fire to warm him.

I’ve never said I was sorry so much in my life. It was my chant. If Colin heard, he didn’t say. There just came a time long after dark when I knew I could stop, when I knew it would never be enough.

I guess I could have been a lot of things if it hadn’t been for Colin. Maybe I’d have gone to college after we got to California. Maybe I’d have written a book or bought a ranch or built myself that cabin in the woods.

But Colin wanted to be in the movies, and by fucking God, he was going to be in the goddamned movies.

You’ve probably seen the movies he’s been in. You might remember a little-known art film called Citizen Kane where he played a milk can in Charles Foster Kane’s childhood home. You might remember him from the backroom at Rick’s in Casablanca, too. It was after that that he got a reputation for being something of a good luck charm, and that got him roles later on in Gunsmoke and Little House on the Prairie and pretty much every Western you can think of. He’s one of those eccentric artsy little things that Hollywood likes to indulge to feel bohemian, I guess.

One thing I’ll tell you is that Colin didn’t work for free. Though he wasn’t much of a materialist — the only vice he developed was a fondness for coffee ice cream — he needed an assistant to take him to the studio on time, to help him get clean, to buy him the ice cream and spoon it gently into the can. And that assistant really only needs a roof and a bed and a place to read books.

Colin’s last role was in Unforgiven. We’ve got a picture of him with Clint Eastwood at the retirement party that Clint’s agent has promised to sue us for if it ever goes public. There was talk of an honorary Oscar, too.

I think Colin’s getting sick. One of the ways I know this is that he isn’t asking for ice cream as much. Another way I know it is that I’m starting to have dreams, dreams about Jimmy, dreams about the railroads, dreams about the open spaces and lonely creeks between here and those tracks near Cleveland. I’ve been testing out the weight of that milk can these days, wondering if I can carry it. I’m not as strong as I used to be and never as strong as Jimmy, but Colin doesn’t weigh as much anymore either.

Last night I dreamed of the cabin Colin wants to give me. I dreamed of where he wants to die and where he wants me to live.

Postcard Story: Four Squares a Day

foursquares

Dharma missed the pot smoke and the bongos.

The pot smoke didn’t do much for him — he was already a fairly chill soul, as The Man with the Long-Tailed Typewriter and his friends used to say — but it made them more like cats. They slept more, they lolled more on the furniture, they ate less politely, and they contemplated the subtle vibrations of the universe.

The bongos just kind of reminded him of the soft patter of his own feet on rooftops.

It was not Dharma’s choice to be taken in by the Wilsons, and it definitely was not his choice to be renamed “Mittens.” He had no mittens, not even white dabs on his paws, but Juney always wanted a cat named Mittens and here he was.

Here he was, listening to Juney’s soft cooing, to the rasp and squeak of Mrs. Wilson’s needle through fabric, to the crackle of Mr. Wilson’s newspaper and the sizzle of his ulcer, and to the yowling of the radio box as Junior turned the dial.

While wearing a tie. A fucking tie. That made him the worst of all.

Though Dharma was aware that yes, all life was suffering if we chose to think it so, the Wilsons were a unique and trying form of it. Were they as natural as the wind and the lightning, they could be endured as signs that all things were in their order. But they were not natural: they built their mediocrity, cultivated it, gave away all their spirit to other people on the other sides of TVs and radios.

The Wilsons, to Dharma’s knowledge, had never spray-painted an old school bus and rode across the country in it. They had never thrown beer bottles at the cops. They had never given a ride to an old hobo on his way to the Capitol. They had never spread open their arms at the edge of the Grand Canyon. They had never run naked into the surf, and the only sex the elder Wilsons had was arranged with all the clanking majesty of someone jumping on garbage cans.

There really was no way of getting around the fact that the Wilsons were complete squares.

For the last three months, Dharma had been quietly measuring each Wilson in his mind. Three of them disappeared every day, perhaps on a hunt though they never returned with much, and the fourth — Mrs. Wilson — stayed in the house. She did a lot of whistling while the record player turned and her hands were often in water.

What was different about her was that she cried. Often around one in the afternoon, she’d sit on the couch with her hands on her knees, staring at the clock. About five minutes would pass, and then she would sob. Sometimes she was quiet but others she really let it out, almost a primal scream. Almost a poem, a wordless poem.

When Mrs. Wilson would write her thank you letters, Dharma would pace across the paper with his tail in her face, trying to tell her to write something else.

That was Dharma’s only sign that someone in the Wilson house had even the glimmer of a soul, and it changed his plans from simple escape to an escape-and-rescue. He had slowly built her trust over the last three months by following her through the house and curling up on her lap at the crying time, and he was pretty sure that if he ran, she’d come after him.

True, Dharma had no real idea where The Man With the Long-Tailed Typewriter had gone; it was his disappearance on another bus trip that left Dharma vulnerable to Animal Control, after all. In the end, it didn’t matter because Dharma would simply keep running, slow enough that she could still follow even in heels.

They could find the old cottage easy. And if the bus wasn’t back, Dharma supposed they could always find one of their own, along with a Long-Tailed Typewriter for Mrs. Wilson.

Tomorrow, he thought, his paws flexing on Juney’s lap with impatience. Tomorrow this bullshit was over.

Tomorrow they were gone.

[Image “Family Night: 1957” courtesy of Shorpy.com]

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