A Happy Poem or Two: (from A Scattered Shower of Poems, circa 1985)

As I was moving from PA, I literally found some of my old poetry in a shoe box I thought was long gone. The following poem is from the second of two collections I wrote back in 1985. One was called Assorted Absurdities, and the other, A Scattered Shower of Poems, hence, the image. Both volumes were a mixed bag, and seeing some of the poetry here on wordpress tonight, I got jealous (yes, jealous. Don’t judge me…well, go ahead, but it won’t matter…really, it won’t…ok stop, I can’t bear it)

I hope you enjoy one of the better efforts (imho, as they say…)

A thing I must more often do

Is write a happy poem or two,

To fashion words into a smile,

To while away a little while.

But then a word, a line

Not right,

And then I’ll stay up through the night

And curse and brood and BREAK MY PEN!

Oh goodness, there I go again…

A thing I must more often do

Is write a happy poem

Or two.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

A Scattered Shower of Poems

1985 All rights reserved

Of War and Breakfast

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Daylight was just breaking, but already Willie was at the bus stop across the street from the house.

He was nervous, excited and scared, dreading where they’d send him. It wasn’t that he was a coward, but he had his reasons. His uniform was starched and crisp and clean, except for the dust that stirred around the cuffs and over the insteps of his glossy black shoes.

There was a single light on in the house, and the faint sound of a gospel choir building carried on the cool early morning air. Through the window he could see a woman was at the stove, and she hummed along in time with the gospel choir, a good voice, steady and clear. With the sound of the choir came the smell of bacon and coffee, faint at that distance, but there.

A slender brown hand with a spatula deftly flipped a flapjack in the air. Putting the flapjacks in the oven to keep warm while the bacon browned, she poured herself some coffee from the percolator and disappeared from view. From what he could see, no one else seemed to be up, or perhaps no one else was there; she’d kept to herself since her husband died not too long ago.

The door opened, then the screen door squeaked, and the woman stepped out onto the porch into the coolness, and took a deep breath, running her free hand through her hair, the steam from the coffee cup rising like morning vespers. She still had her robe on. It was old and worn, like a well used Bible, and almost as sacred. Sipping coffee, she looked down the road awhile at first, and Willie said, “Good morning, Darlene.”

She jumped and gave a little cry, turned, and smiled at him. “Good morning, Willie. Didn’t see you there! Where you goin?” Then she saw the uniform, tinged with blue in the predawn light.

“Oh,” was all she said. She felt flashes of anger and sadness, but managed, somehow, to keep from saying more.

Willie’s green cap was in his hand, and he was twisting it. “Sorry ‘bout that, Darlene, didn’t mean to startle you.”

“Come on over here and get yourself something to eat; the bus ain’t due yet.”

“Don’t wanna be no trouble.” She smiled.

“I didn’t ask you to be no trouble, I told you to come get something to eat.”

“You sure?”She put her hands on her hips. “Willie, my bacon’s almost done. When this door is closed, it’s closed.”

Willie came over, the fine dust on the road made little coronas around his feet, as if he were a prophet traversing the dunes. Darlene went in ahead of him.

“Go on and sit down,” she told him. Willie sat and scooted his chair up to the table as she put a steaming plate in front of him, took out some syrup and butter, and poured his coffee and added a small glass of apple cider. Then she served herself; he got up to hold her chair, and sat back down.

Holding hands across the table, together they said grace.

***************** “

Don’t see why I got to go,” he said. “They treat us like dirt here, and want us to go help somebody else from being treated like dirt. Don’t make no sense.”

Darlene sat back and sighed.“No, it don’t.”

“They even separate us there; don’t want us next to them on the way over, and don’t care if we…”

He wasn’t looking at her. It seemed like he wanted to cry but didn’t dare. Seemed like he wanted to bolt and run down the road and never look back, but he couldn’t.

“Willie.” Something in the way she said his name got his attention. She took his hand. “It don’t matter what they do, you got to come back alive, whatever it takes. Don’t you let them break you, hear? You got to come back sane and whole. You got that baby coming, and it’s depending on daddy, right now, to come back.”

**********    

   Darlene’s father was nervous that morning, his hands fidgeting with his hat, and her mother kept adjusting things on him, putting off his leaving as long as possible, as he stood there and let her put it off. Her hands were busy adjusting from the inside out until there was nothing more: his tie his shirt collar, his jacket collar, the cuffs of his sleeves, the hem of his pants, hands brushing, tugging, tucking, when all she wanted to do was grab him and never let him go to that meeting about the coming protests.    

   Out of things to do, she looked at her husband, tears in her eyes, untouched by either of them, until he reached out and pulled her close, and looked down at the upturned faces of his little girls, not comprehending, but feeling the anxious charge in the air between their parents, his own eyes filling, his wife’s tears wetting his jacket, her lips by his ear.  

   “ I don’t care ‘bout what you got to do out there, David, to make things better for everybody else, you just make sure you come home. These girls need their daddy, and I need my husband, and I know you scared, but you got to come back, and that’s all there is to it.

   “You hear me, David?”

**********

“You hear me, Willie?” Willie nodded and got his breathing back under control. They finished breakfast in silence, though neither of them felt much like eating now; it was just sin to waste food. Darlene cleared the table, and Willie stood up; he held the door for her as they went outside, and saw the puff of dust down the road from the bus tires.

“Guess it’s time.”

“Let’s pray.”She took his hand again. They prayed for protection, his safe return, strength for Clara, and health for his new baby, in Jesus’ Name, amen.

The bus hissed to a stop.

“You comin, boy?”

“Yessir.”

“Say goodbye, then.”

Willie and Darlene embraced.

“I’m scared, Darlene.”

“I know,” she said against his ear, “I know that, Willie. And so is Clara, and so is your baby. You’ll probably be scared every day you spend over there.” Stepping out of his arms, her eyes searched his. “But you got to come back,” her eyes welled up, “and that’s all there is to it.”

He swallowed, nodded, wiped his own tears away with his mangled green cap. “Thank you for breakfast,” he said, though it wasn’t all he meant.

A cantankerous horn shattered the morning quiet.

“Ain’t got all day, boy!”

“Comin’, sir!”

“Weren’t no ‘trouble’,” she let her tears fall, and smiled through them, and Willie walked down the steps, over the road, into the bus. Finding an empty seat by the window, he looked out at her, and she kept the smile she didn’t feel on her face, and waved as the bus took him to his destiny.

And as the birds began to sing, all that remained of Willie were his footprints leading to and from her door, and the dust from the tires settling back down, and the paling light of the morning sun breaking over the horizon, as Darlene wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her robe, and went back inside, humming low with the radio choir.

Closing Spaces (Saadia’s Story)

The following story is for my cousin, Saadia, who passed away suddenly back in July. When we were kids, she had a library of children’s stories from around the world; for whatever reason, the Spanish tales were her favorite, though we’re not a Spanish family. I think she just liked the language, and the rhythm of the writing, but mostly, she liked hearing me read them.

We didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, so this is, in a way, a tribute tale for her, from my own imagination; my candle, if you will. I think she would’ve liked it.

I hope you do too. 

melissa-landres-Indio-toddler-baby-photographer-1

Maria sat on the steps of her home, her sweater folded into a cushion, her left leg curled beneath her. The setting sun lit her face and hair with a soft glow.
Autumn colors filled her eyes, and a bittersweet sadness twinged in her heart for the leaves that were dying.

But sometimes,
Maria,’ a voice said, ‘a leaf of green breaks off in the spring, and never experiences the joy of changing.’

Her journal sat open, untouched, beside her.

Manny, her older brother came out and sat beside her; they smiled at each other, but said nothing. He too, looked out at the fading day.
“Do you think about Noa?” Maria asked, finally.
“Every day,” he answered.
He tapped her journal. “Not writing today?”
She sighed. “Can’t think of anything.”
He placed an unfurled strand of dark hair back over her ear, gave her cheek a light kiss.
“Close your eyes; you’ll think of something.”

Maria did, and heard the door open and close as he went back inside.

A soft wind stirred, and the smell of the earth came to her, and the scent of maple, and Mama’s cooking, and her thoughts drifted back on the currents until she found Noa’s little face, who in her brief life had given her sister the brightest of smiles.

The last of the warmth of the sun cupped Maria’s glistening cheeks in its rays, setting them alight.
She wiped her eyes with her fingertips, took a deep breath, settled her heart, and let the memories come.

She wrote then: of singing young girls of her childhood who shadowed the swaying hips of their elders, picking herbs and gathering seeds in palm leaf baskets, of sharing bread and fruit and fresh water with friends, of watching the stars through her window, counting until she fell asleep, of the feel of cool river water on a hot day, of secret glances at secret crushes, who smiled shyly back.

Of dancing in the rain with muddy feet, ruined hair, a drenched sundress, and a full and joyful heart.
Of the addicting sweetness of candy and chocolate, and mama’s frown when they ate it all.

Of fishing with papa, watching the sun scatter hammered gold and diamonds of light on the rippling waves, and how the smacking snap of jumping fish sounded like applause, and his contagious excitement when a catch was good, and his tranquility reflecting the still water when nothing took the bait, and they returned home.

“Then Mama says ‘I guess we’ll catch the fish at the grocery store.’ Papa frowns at her, but we can tell he’s trying not to laugh, and then we all go out to eat.”

Of the sad songs she’d play on her guitar by candlelight in her room when it rained outside, songs she could not remember, and never played again.

Of how things were back to normal, but would never be the same.

*************
The evening star popped out like silver cufflink on a dark blue shirt.
Mama came to the door: “Dinnertime, bonita.”
“In a minute,” she said.
“All right. Don’t let it get cold.”
“I won’t.”

She went inside a few minutes later, and looked at the empty place that was always set for someone who was supposed to be there. She thought about the empty space they always left in the family photos, how they walked together with a space between them, something they had done at first that had now become habit, if not ritual.
And an idea came to Maria, one that she would tell them tonight after dinner.
*********************
In the car the following morning everyone was quiet, thinking about what they would do when they arrived. Her father had seen the merit of it, her mother was hesitant, but went along, and Manny had just nodded, unsure of what to say.

After dinner, she had given them empty pages in her journal to write what they wanted to say, and they would read it to Noa, each one, reading what they wrote.

“Nothing about sadness, or tears, or anger,” she told them.
Her mother wrote of the storybooks she’d collected that she’d wanted to read, and the wonders of a beautiful garden, and the hard work it took to keep it that way, but didn’t feel like work at all.

Her father wrote of how beautiful the water looked when he went fishing, and how the current made the hook drift, but you never knew if it was toward the fish, or away; the fun was in the excitement of the catch, but you learned more about yourself when you caught nothing.

Her brother wrote of how he would have taught her baseball, and how he loved the smell of the grass, of his first home run: the crack of the bat as the ball sailed, white and high and spinning over the fence, and the simple pleasure of oiling his favorite, most trusted glove after a game, smiling when he won, in contemplation of what he could have done better when they lost.

And soon, the cemetery gates were before them.

“If anyone thinks they can’t do this, now’s the time to say it,” Papa said.
No one spoke.
He drove down to where the child lay, and they all got out; the doors made a soft ‘thunk’ when they closed, and it echoed faintly in the morning stillness, broken only by random, inquisitive birdsong.

Slowly they approached Noa’s little white stone, her name patiently engraved over her suddenly erased life, waiting to fade away in its own time.

Maria stepped forward.

“We wrote you a letter, Noa. It’s kind of long, but we wanted to read it to you.”
Maria read first, then her mother, her father, and brother.
It took most of the morning, but they got through it, not without tears, and hitching breaths, and even smiling, their love for her like a swaddling blanket softening the hardening autumn ground.

************************
The journal back in her hands, Maria wrote the final page.
“Con el amor a tu familia, a mi hermenita Noa. Te queremos.
Te extrañamos.”

With love from your family, to my little sister Noa. We love you. We miss you.

Maria walked up, and placed the journal against the stone.

A gentle breeze stirred, and she closed her eyes again to feel it against her face, the smells of autumn sweeter, sharper than she’d ever sensed, like children you hugged close after jumping into a pile of leaves, their laughter mingling with the crackle and crunch of colors bursting around them.

This wind, soft as infants’ lips, kissed her tears away.

Maria turned to find her family waiting, and as they turned to go, they all joined hands, connected in a new way; the space they’d always left for Noa closed, because they now carried her, truly for the first time, in their hearts.

©Alfred W. Smith, Jr.
2014

Not Your Idiom

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I had a theater teacher in college who was a playwright . We did his plays with him, and I thought they were okay, but only okay.

I remember that he hated Neil Simon with a passion, and thought he was a hack, even though Neil Simon had his finger on the pulse of the American theater-going public for a while, (longer than my teacher did, but that’s another post).

We were having a class discussion about doing ethnic plays without the original ethnic group. He began a discussion on how the craze at the time was doing plays with multi-cultural casts that were not from the playwright’s country.
He gave the example of an all-black cast production of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” with Phylicia Rashad and some other well-known black actors / actresses, and said that doing it with an all-black cast just for the sake of doing it wasn’t theatrically valid, because they couldn’t bring to it what Russian actors could, who understood the subtlety of meaning and history behind the play that black actors could only emulate to some degree, but never really understand.

Being black myself, I figured he was probably right about that, though of course, some of my classmates (not just the black ones) bristled at the thought.
I personally thought it was a valid argument: it would be like Russians doing the play Fences, by August Wilson, or a Chinese cast doing Raisin in the Sun.
“It’s not their idiom,” he said. He was right.

I’ve seen writers attempt black dialogue, but it mostly misses the mark. That’s not to say it’s bad, it’s just off.
One of my favorite mystery writers, Robert B. Parker, of Spenser fame, failed at it over and over again with his character Hawk, and a lot of the black characters he wrote. To me, he never captured the nuances. I overlooked it, though I shook my head at some of his attempts, because I liked his stories. Ed McBain (Evan Hunter), the author of the 87th Precinct series, on the other hand, was fantastic at it, if a little repetitive.

And, truth be told, not every black character written is required to speak that way. It doesn’t make it any less ‘authentic’ to have a black character speak without being ‘urban’ (whatever that means).

Does that mean an author who isn’t black can’t write black characters? ‘Course not. Write whatever ethnicity / race / dialogue you can. Write all of it. But here is where the writer’s ear plays an important role; I’ve seen white comedians do dead-on impressions of black speech patterns, not just ‘ebonics’, but the inflections and rhythms as well.

There’s a music in it, a poetic flow that rises and falls, a pulse that’s hard to feel if you didn’t grow up listening to it. There are actually regional differences too, between northern and southern.

Capturing it successfully was primarily the reason for Eminem’s success in the predominantly black rap industry, because he’d steeped himself in the culture, and came away with it. It’s why (ahem) Vanilla Ice….melted away.
The comic from Africa, Trevor Noah, is a master at it, because it’s not even an idiom spoken by Africans. (Check out Trevor Noah: African American on Netflix to see what I mean.) Bill Burr and Anjelah Johnson are two others who do it well. Anjelah Johnson has a great ear for the voices that inform her comedy.

As for me, I was fortunate enough to read a wide variety of poetry and literature from around the world, from Dickens to Dosteovsky to Dumas, and see a lot of foreign movies, and watch a lot of medieval stuff, and see productions of the Elephant Man as well as Paul Robeson, both excellent, minimalist plays; the first with Bruce Davison, who wore no makeup and still managed to convey the pain of deformity, and James Earl Jones as Paul Robeson, who may be a reincarnation.

My dad was into Shakespeare, and opera, and James Baldwin, and Maya Angelou, and Khalil Gibran, among others; his library shelf provided my summer reading for a long time.
And my mom spoke French, because she wanted to go to Paris one day, but cancer didn’t let her.

In short, it was equipping me to write the way I do, though I had no idea at the time that I was absorbing all these cultural influences that transcended my own, and was certainly not aware at the time that I would ever use them.

And while I try not to consciously write to any specific ethnic / racial audience, because I want you to imagine as much as possible without my guidance, it’s because of that I can write Of War and Breakfast and Bring Me No Flowers, and be the same guy.

But even though I can understand both stories, the history of what had a bearing on the events that shaped me lies with only one of them, and when I write that story, it speaks to me a lot differently.

And that’s fine, because while one may be ‘my’ idiom, and the other one isn’t, all of it can be learned, and mastered, and conveyed, if you take the time to really hear it.

And keep writing.

On Matters of Themes (Blogging 101)

Thinker

 

Choices… CHOICES…  choices

“Scroll through our themes…”

It looks fun. Even inviting, but here’s the rub:

‘Tis knowledge too wonderful for me; I cannot attain it. It all comes down to the words you write. The great works of our times, and the great writers of our age, were not concerned with such things. and I’d just as soon not.

I know that in the digital age of presentation, image counts, but I can’t work up enough concern to care. Eventually, you’re either going to read the content or you’re not, and that’s where the rubber of your talent meets the road of durability.

If it LOOKS interesting, but is in fact NOT interesting, who’s paying attention to the theme?

Maybe that’s a lazy excuse; I don’t know. I’m not manipulated by such things: I click on introductory phrases that pique my interests. Maybe it’s ’cause I actually couldn’t care less.

That being said, I probably will pick one …eventually.

ChOiCeS …cHoIcEs….

To My Dream Reader

Big_Black_Warrior_by_Gauntlesword girl I’m late with this assignment, but now that I’ve done it….

I  like the world of fantasy: swords, magic, femme fatales that are great with weapons, that will bed you as soon as kill you, intrigue that you’re always a step ahead of, and the fate of a hostile, ungrateful world that eventually comes down to the final battle with your most lethal opponent, and it’s all on you.

Something in those stories resonated, struck a chord, sparked something deep within, whatever phrase you want to use, but after reading my first fantasy novel (The Once and Future King, by T.H White), it was a world I kept returning to over and over again. I guess you could call it the need to be needed. I’ve always liked to be the hero who came to save the day, even if it was just in the mundane things of life:

:”Could you pick up my kid after school?”

“I need help with this tire.”

“Got change for a buck?”

Not exactly high adventure like a journey to Mordor, but the concept is the same.

It was my escape, my entertainment, my chance to see the world in the mind that I couldn’t see in the natural.

The truth is, most of us would not likely survive in such a world, because as beautiful as it may be, it is also as deadly, and mercy is a foreign concept. It truly was survival not only of the fittest, but of the meanest, the slickest, the most ruthless, and the extremely cruel.

Children who lived to adulthood, much less old age, were a rare commodity.

That does not comprise the makeup of most people, generally speaking. Most of us are at least civil, if not loving, toward one another. And so, we have fantasy; a chance to be heroes / heroines without true danger, but we all imagine ourselves to some degree as the characters in these stories.

I believe it’s because in our hearts, we want to be heroes, we’d love to be needed, and to be able to come to someone’s rescue and say, “Don’t worry, I’m here.”

Never let that fire go out, Dream Reader.

You will one day be someone’s hero. I’ve seen it happen too many times for it not to be so.

In the meantime, we have our books, our cosplay, our nerdy, dorky fellowships that don’t fit in, but most of all, we have our writing; and the worlds we create within, with our abilities to set things right, becomes for a time, our reality.

In worlds where none of us can stay,  both real and imaginary, we manage to survive, and find joy in the doing and sharing of it, if only for a moment.

Keep writing, keep reading, and keep dreaming, and you’ll come to know that “Once upon a time, (your name here)…..”

Making Warr (Excerpt 1)

My name is Warren, an unassuming name, but you’d be wrong to make assumptions: They call me Warr, because it’s all I’m good at making. And I’m really, really good.

1: The room was stifling, rank with the scent of tangy sweat. Flies crawled through my blood, biting, sipping, itching, but I couldn’t scratch with my hands tied behind my back. My lips and nose were swollen from the blows, and it was hard to breathe around the stifling, stinking gag to get air through my mouth.

The goon had his fingernails pressing into a leg wound, and I snarled, muffling through the gag, tensing against the bonds. “Tell us.” The goon pressed harder. I couldn’t help it, and cried out in pain. He let up, and the relative relief was welcome. We all sat breathing for a time. Sweat trickled into the wounds they’d inflicted, burning.

Telling began to seem like a good idea, but if I did, my squad was all dead, and I was hard pressed to believe these guys would really let me go. Goon took the gag off, looked in my eyes, and grabbed me by the neck, not squeezing, just holding it in his meaty, sweaty hand like a set of keys. The thin man sitting in the chair behind him cleaned his glasses on his tie, looking at me.

“I will ask you one more time. Your life is forfeit if you remain silent, and we will find your squad and kill them all the same.” Somehow, I managed to find a bubble of saliva to help me speak.

“Then why do you need me to tell you?” My voice croaked from my dry throat.

“To save us the time of searching, of course.” “Go to hell.” “You first.” The goon looked in my eyes and head butted me. The stars were beautiful, but the room went dark and I saw them fade like a child’s innocence.

2: When I woke up, the goon and the mastermind were on the floor, surrounded by areolas of blood, and in the chair sat the most lethal, beautiful woman I ever met, trimming her nails, expertly, with the point of a really big knife. Lliya, at times my nemesis, at others, my lover, and sometimes both simultaneously. I had no idea which one was going to kill me, and sometimes, I didn’t think I’d care.

The gag was out, but I was still tied up.

“Good morning, handsome.”

“Is it?”

“Interesting. I thought you’d say ‘Thank you, gorgeous.’”

“Really?”

She stood, walked over to me; I actually felt a little sliver of fear. Looking into my eyes, she put her hand with cool fingers and light pressure, capable of anything, on my swollen cheek

“Say it.”

“Thank you, gorgeous.”

She slinked behind me, untied my wrists, knelt, untied my ankles, her mouth close to my crotch, with a small smile on her lips.

“Having fun?”

She smiled up at me, undoing the last of the knots. Her smile dazzled, her eyes sparkled with erotic mischief.

“My dear Warr, you know I only keep you alive so I can kill you myself. But not like this. Not sporting, and all that crap.” “I agree.” She rubbed my wrists, bringing the stinging tingle of circulation back, then I took care of my ankles.

“Get up, darling.”

I did.

She wrinkled her nose. “You stink.”

“Yes, but not at my job.”

She looked back at the dead goon and the mastermind, then back at me, the point of her knife slowly twirling at the corner of her smirking mouth.

“You sure?”

Ouch.

3: It took some time for the swelling to go down. Lliya tried to stay, but that was too volatile a situation. I still remember the kiss she gave me when she left.

Captain Kriley and some of the guys came to see me, debrief me over what the squad accomplished without me, and razzed me hard for getting caught, but praised me for not cracking under the beating I took.

“We’re gonna beat your ass for getting caught, but we’ll wait til you heal.”

“You had to go the bathroom again, didn’t you?”

“Your face still looks like a catcher’s mitt.”

And on it went. I tried not to laugh, because it hurt my ribs, but they had no mercy. Soon, Kriley dismissed them all, sat across from me all serious like.

“Lliya?”

I nodded.

“Yeah.” He sat back, steepled his hands, “I’m beginning to wonder if we should’ve recruited her instead.”

“Me too. She said I stunk at my job.”

“You did get caught.”

“First time, Captain.”

He unsteepled his hands, put them in his lap. “True, but sometimes, once is all you need. There’s guys don’t come back from once. You know that. So what should we do now?”

“Let me go after her.”

“What does she know, you need to go after her?”

“Nothing. I like the curve of her backside.”

“You can go all puppy-dog about it on your time. I’m not asking again.”

“She knows who’s behind the killing.”

“She does?”

“Yes.”

“And you know this how? She told you?”

“She set it up.”

“And you know this how?”

“The little man in the wide tie told me. Somehow, she knew we were here, tipped him. I was blindsided,” I touched the swelling behind my ear, “and they got me. The rest of the squad went on without me.”

“Your feelings hurt?”

“Captain, I’m just running the facts by you.”

“Sorry. No more busting your chops. But those aren’t facts. Yet.”

I nodded. “If she knew we were here, how come she didn’t know where we went? She could’ve followed us herself and taken care of it. We never would’ve saw her, or known she was there.”

“Part of the reason I want to go after her.”

“She’s long gone, and we got better things to do.”

He let that sink in, then got up to leave. “Leave it alone, Warr. She’ll mess you up in the head, if she hasn’t already.”

That ship had sailed a long time ago, but I didn’t bother telling him that.

“Feel better,” he said, and walked out.

Maybe I should start at the beginning.

4: Flash! I remember glass breaking and the sound of copters, keen and fast, flying low over the neighborhood, and the sound of rapid shooting. Flash! My wife ran to the window to see what was happening.

Flash! In an instant she became a pile of molten skin, boiling blood, and bone shards, her head plopping on the bed beside me, looking at me with a question in her bloody, sightless eyes.

Flash! Men in black uniforms and helmets with black visors hitting me with sticks and boots and fists.

Flash!    They carried me out, but as I was losing consciousness, I registered it all. People were screaming and running. The confusion was deliberate, and unnecessary. I would have gone quietly had they knocked. Women and children were lying prone in the streets, bleeding out, their husbands’ bodies vainly over them in a futile gesture of protection, family blood mingling in eternal rivulets of unison.

Flash! Tubes in and out, fluids flowing to and fro, in me, out of me, cycling through again, and men in white robes, outside of the plexiglass tank that contained me, talking in hushed tones about what I was to become. I heard them. Every word, but I never told them.

Flash! Tests, chemicals, more tests, more chemicals, straining against tight bonds, pushing, pushing, until they ripped free, and more men in black with sticks came for me. They say seven of them died before they found the tranquilizer that saw me behind thicker plexiglass. I had no idea where I was, or why. I had no clue why they wanted to turn me into a killing machine, but in the end now, it doesn’t matter. Now, they are the ones I hunt.

5: I’d lived in a quiet neighborhood, with good neighbors (mostly), and a good wife. We had no children, because I was mostly on the move, and never knew if I was coming home. I wouldn’t have liked it if Candace left, but I would have understood. She didn’t, and I loved her all the more for it.

We often went to the countryside on weekends, to a cabin I’d built there for us, our little hideaway, where we let ourselves air out the tensions of the week, and left our inhibitions in the car. I liked the mountains that took the sunset into their valleys, liked the silent, circling hawks, majestic in their flying, lethal in their descent. I liked the way the grass rippled like green water when the wind blew across it. I liked that Candace wanted to share it with me. I liked to think that we were happy, before she died.

And then, I didn’t think anymore, about anything that wasn’t my mission: find the insufferable bastards that blew her head off, or die trying.

*******************

Back on the job, still a little bruised up, but I was gonna hurt someone if I didn’t get out of that hospital bed. It was nothing a ballerina couldn’t endure. I was debriefed: we did not find what we were looking for, so we had to keep looking, except now it would involve traveling, which we all hated, so everyone was gonna have an attitude about finding it.

Kriley suspected that Llya tipped them off, but I knew it wasn’t the kind of thing she’d do, even though she lived to destroy us. Sometimes, even your enemies had codes of honor they wouldn’t break. And that meant that it was somewhere here, on the squad, working close, with access to plans and supplies, maps and computers, spy equipment, and weaponry.

It was shaping up to be a fun time.

I sighed, sipped coffee, looked at the clock, put the double frame pictures of Candice in the top drawer, sipped some more coffee, watched the clock some more, turning it over. Who could it be? Why would they do it? Money? Too simple, but simple may have been enough.

Revenge? Ambition? Jealousy? Too many questions would lead to me getting paranoid and shifty, and if someone else was thinking about this, I might be the one under scrutiny. I breathed deep to slow everything down, and reviewed what I knew of these guys in my head.

Kriley was by the book, and only by the book. His frustration with the job we did was mostly tied to the fact that everyone else, me included, was only loosely affiliated with the book. We cut corners and took shortcuts and risks, even when it came back to bite us. There wasn’t always time for the book, though Captain Kriley always insisted there was.

Colanto was stand-up too, but too eager to get home to his live-in girlfriend. If she was hoping for wife-hood, she’d be waiting forever. He tended to ditch overtime, and wouldn’t volunteer or take on extra if it wasn’t a direct order. He was a great shot though, and you could rely on him to take it when he needed to, and sometimes when he didn’t, just to expedite things. He was the obvious choice, and in this job, you never overlook the obvious, because very often, that’s what they wanted you to overlook.

Arlo was older, more settled, had seen his share of firefights, and knew what it took to survive. He was still rugged and broad, if a little more gray, but that only gave him more of an aura of authority, which he was not shy about wielding. I would be the most disappointed if it was Arlo who leaked.

Duncan, “Dark Horse” we called him, the quiet one, was the least likely. He never said much, didn’t seem to have a blink reflex, and had an unnerving intensity to be absolutely still, settling in like a big cat on the hunt, seemingly lifeless, blending in, until he was ready to strike.

The results were always lethal, and none of it fazed him. If it was him, he’d give me the most trouble, only because he was such an ex factor.

Lastly there was Eberdine, affectionately called Ed, the lone female on the squad.

She had cinnamon skin, sea-green eyes, and a body that promised heaven, and could send you there in a heartbeat with a blow, a blade, or a bullet to the temple.

She was the smallest, and perhaps, skill for skill, the most covert among us, hiding in places you wouldn’t think to look, coming back to you with information you swore was confidential, and knew there were no witnesses. She enjoyed it. “Keeps me sharp,” she always said. If she was the leak,

I was going to have a hard time catching her, and who knew how long that would take.

Tonight, He said, one of you will betray me. I learned that somewhere. It was heavy with foreshadow, simple and fearful, with a heartfelt agony of broken trust behind it, a sense of inevitability, and unmatched bravery in the way the victim stayed the course.  

6:  The conference room was big, manfully appointed, and too cold from the canned air that blew threw the inconspicuous vents overhead. The large monitor in the front of the room held the image of man with his face in deep shadow, track lighting glinting off the silver letters on the marbled black granite wall behind him:

STEELE INDUSTRIES       

“Were we compromised?” Shadow-face asked. “No sir,” Kriley answered. “Commander Warren didn’t break, but we didn’t find what we were looking for.”

He didn’t exactly throw me under the bus, he just kind of tossed me underhand. “Commander Warren. What have you to say for yourself?”

“I’m….sorry?” The squad chuckled, but Shadow-face wasn’t amused.

“Yes,” he said, “you are.”

That brought an even bigger chuckle; first Lliya, now Shadow-face. I had to learn not set myself up.

“The mission, sir?” Kriley said, mercifully switching the conversation back to its original purpose.

Shadow-face sat silently for a moment or two. “You will proceed to Nanjasi, sans Commander Warren.”

“Sir?”

“He is suspended, effective immediately. He compromised the safety of the squad, and has become a liability.”

“But sir,” said Kriley, “he’s one of our best all around tactics operatives; I could really use him in the field. Would you reconsider, sir?”

“I already have,” said Shadow-face. “I was going to fire him, effective immediately. Meeting adjourned, Captain. You and the rest of the squad will leave for Nanjasi first light. Sans Commander Warren. “Am I clear?”

Kriley’s jaw twitched with the unsaid.

“Crystal, sir.”

The monitor winked out. He looked at me. “You’re on vacation. Where will you go?”

“I’ve always wanted to see…Nanjasi.”

“You think this guy was born yesterday? He’s probably already got tails on you.” Kriley was right.

“And no,” he said, “you will not spot them, and no again, you will not shake them.” Right again.

“You done with your vote of confidence?”

“I am.”

I left, but I didn’t go home. Not right away. Not for awhile. I went to find Lliya, but I didn’t go after her. Not directly.

“Ed, where would a woman go if she didn’t want to be found?”

“Well, certainly not the bedroom.”

I flashed a phony smile, nodded. “Good. Now where?”

“Shopping, a chick flick, lesbo book store, feminist AA meeting. Why do you wanna know?”

“I’m looking for a woman.”

Ahem.”

“Not in that way.” “Well, now I’m insulted.”

“Hey, you said not the bedroom…”

She arched a playful eyebrow:  “It’s not the only room…”

“Come on, now.” I pleaded, chuckling.

“Okay, okay,” she was smiling herself. “She doesn’t want to be found?”

I nodded.

“Women don’t disappear not to be found; they wouldn’t go off to a cabin somewhere in East Loserville to get away from the Mister. They go somewhere to think, to calm down, to get past the emotions.”

“Where would that be?”

“A park, a coffee shop, somewhere public where she could be alone among people, because she’s afraid she’ll act out if she’s wrong upstairs. So there’s someone there to call for help.

“With me?”

“Yes. Learning.”

“Indeed,” she said. “Glad to hear it. Know where to start?”

I thought about it.“No.”

“Should I come with? I’ll ditch you when we’ve found her.”

“Sure. Thanks. Why’s your name so damn weird?”

“I changed it to Eberdine. It was actually weirder.”

She laughed at my expression. “Let’s go find your killer girlfriend.”

“Well, when you put it that way…”

We walked, arm in arm, off to start my vacation, looking for a woman that didn’t want to be found.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

March 3rd

2014 All rights reserved

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