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
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
© Alfred W. Smith Jr.
A Scattered Shower of Poems
1985 All rights reserved
(HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY).
“I will bring thee flowers,” said he, “to prove my love.”
“Doest thou so,” said she, “and that wilt but prove thou lovest me not.”
“Sayest thou so? But they are beautiful: they are surpassing colorful, fragrant beyond compare! Add but a little water, a little light, and long will they last for thee.
“Arranged to please the eye, the nose, the fingertip, with petals bright to tickle at thy dimpled cheek, I would gather them for thy pleasure.”
“Dear love,” said she, her fingers laced through his own, “all thy words are truth, and yet…”
His hand she kissed, and filled his eyes with hers.
“And yet they will fade and die: the petals grow dull in brilliance and fragrance, the leaf curl in upon itself, and black death, like a creeper worm, shall decay all of a once vibrant bloom; I would not have it so for love.
“Nay, my heart, bring me no flowers. If thou wouldst prove thy love, take me far a-field to where they grow wild and bounteous:
“For in the soil are they rooted, their tender beginnings delicately intertwined, to help, nurture, assist, and lift the first tender shoots of love upwards, even as they descend to take what is needed to live, and to grow, and then, to grow strong.
“There is no anchor for them in water alone. All the more are they rooted in the very essence of Creation, and from there, do grow to full height, despite the sorrow of storms, the plucking and plundering of bird, bee, bug and butterfly, the high heat of a sometimes overbearing sun, and the random whip and toss of whimsical, tempestuous winds.
“There, in the field, their colors fade not until the proper time, in the fullness of their season, where they expire together in their full glory.
“There, they take what they need, and in the taking, give freely and with purpose to bless and increase the stock and store of all who need them.
“There, in the wild and verdant field, their perfumed prayers of fragrance fill the world and heaven both night and day without ceasing, and in the turning season, they press, with gentle touch, the essence of their scented offering into the seeds to come after.
“That, dearest, is how our love, like flowers, should be as nature; and be they gathered into any hand, let it be only the tender fist of their Creator, there to scatter them across the spans of seas to all who love.
“If thou wouldst bless our love with blossoms so, let us to the fields now go.”
“My love, thy fields await.”
© Alfred W. Smith, Jr.
All rights reserved
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?”
“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!”
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)…..”
We found a vacant flyer, white with red stripes. It looked like a flying candy cane.
“Me? Why me?”
“But you guys call me Ed.”
“It’s just a nickname.”
“I’ll change it officially before I ride in this; it’s ugly,” she said. “We’ll attract attention we don’t want, and people will make fun of us. Well, you.”
We waited until another one came in, dark blue, clean lines, driven by a bureaucratic drone, who looked us over as if we were beetles on a pincushion before wiping his travel program from the hologram key map.
She programmed the key with our map, and the flyer whirred to life.
“How’d you two meet?” Ed asked.
“Candace? I met her in high school.”
“I didn’t mean Candace.”
“If you don’t want to tell me, it’s okay.”
“I don’t. Not now.”
“You miss her, don’t you?”
“Now we’re talking about Candace?”
“Just making sure. Every day, Ed. They didn’t have to shoot up the neighborhood to find me.”
“They were sending you a message.”
“They killed my neighbors, innocent people. Children died. What was the message in that?”
She was quiet a moment, then she said “They’d do anything to anyone to get to you.”
“I didn’t consider myself that important.”
“Well, you were wrong.”
“No,” I said, struggling against the rise in my voice, “I wasn’t. They made me that important. It wasn’t the worth the show of violence and power. I’m going to find out who did it, and why, and then I’ll take care of it.”
“And after that?”
“I don’t expect to live ‘after that.’
“So how does Lliya fit in?”
“I’m going to ask for her help; the squad will be in Nanjasi looking for Steele’s key; it might be related, it might not. I don’t know what part I play; it seems pointless for them to go through all that and then summarily suspend me.
“Something’s going on, and since I don’t have the squad’s resources, I’m going to need Lliya.”
“Can you trust her?”
I chuckled with a grim humor. “In this context, I don’t know; I guess I’ll find out.”
What I’d loved about Candace was that she wasn’t part of any of this; there were times I wanted to include her, and sometimes I’d start to, but she’d put her finger to my lips to stop me; and she was right, because if she ever became a part of it, we were both in danger, and she was my refuge.
If I defiled her with my knowledge of the world’s maggot- filled underbelly, I’d have no place to go to get clean and sane again.
It was a quiet Sunday afternoon, and she was rubbing my shoulders, humming softly to herself.
“What’s that song?” I asked.
“I don’t know; I remember my mother humming it sometimes when she was in the kitchen.”
“She never told you what it was?”
“I never asked. Why?”
“I don’t know; just seemed to me you would know something about it.”
She stopped rubbing. “Why is it so important to you that I know about it?”
I shook my head, “It’s not, babe. Forget I said anything.”
She resumed. “It’s that mind of yours.” Her voice deepened, mocking me. ’All data must be analyzed and re-analyzed.’ Really Warren, it’s a pain in the anal-ize.”
“Ha, you have jokes.”
She sighed, “No, just one; a big one, right between my hands.”
I reached back and pulled her into my lap as she squealed and laughed.
“I’ll put a big one between your hands.”
She wriggled her rump on my lap, and her voice grew husky as she drew close.
“Oh, yeah? Big talk, big man. Back it up.”
“I think that’s your part,” I said, slipping my hand inside her blouse.
And then she kissed me, and time went away.
“Warr, you listening?”
“Put the shields on; it’s starting to rain.”
I put the shields on, and the rain slipped off around them, keeping thing visible.
The afternoon was turning into evening.
“You’re going to have to go pack for Nanjasi soon, right?”
“Not taking much. I’m a girl, but not a girly- girl, otherwise I would’ve flown in that candy cane and talked your ear off about how pretty it looked.”
“You thought it looked like a candy cane too?”
“Yep.” She pointed. “There’s her place,” she said. “No lights on.”
“You know her haunts.” Again, not a question.
“I doubt I know them all, but we’ll try what I know first.”
We split up; Ed walked one side of the street, and I walked the other.
It was dark when we finally found Lliya; she was in an aging bistro, peeling, spotted paint, dank upholstery, long past its prime, which made it great for clandestine meetings, and hiding. She was sipping something fancy and expensive from what looked like a ceramic thimble.
I signaled Ed, and she waved goodbye, mouthed the words, ‘Be careful,’ opened her coat like a flasher and smiled.
I returned it, shaking my head.
She closed the coat, turned up the collar against the drizzle, and started walking back.
I slid into the seat across from Lliya. She never looked up.
“Want a cup of this?”
“Does it come in a larger size?”
She shrugged. “What are you doing here?”
“Came to ask you a few questions.”
She sighed, looked up then. “I’ll save you the trouble: I didn’t set you up; you were happy with Candace, you were out of the life, you were out of mine, and I missed you, but not enough to do that.
“I don’t know why they took you, but if I had to guess, it was because out of all your squad, you’d worked everything. I don’t think sometimes you realize how long you’ve been at this.
“Surveillance, tech, infantry, sniper, impalement, martial arts; you’re a government agency wet dream. You’re not just a jack of all trades; you’re actually good at all of them.”
Kriley did say I was the best all around; still didn’t explain how I got caught.
“Any ideas who?”
“I know you’re thinking inside job; could be my people too. They didn’t send me after your squad. I came after you.”
“Why risk it, Lliya?”
“You’re an ass, Warr. Why do you think?”
“May I take your order sir?”
I’d been so focused on Lliya I didn’t see the waitress walk up.
“Is the food still good here?”
“They still have waitresses.”
“Something strong, with something broiled.”
The waitress smiled, her menu for savages at the ready: “Bourbon and steak?”
“I like you.”
“How do you want the steak?”
“Like a satisfied woman: well-done.”
Lliya sputtered out some of her droplet, and went into a coughing fit.
The waitress blushed and flounced away.
“My god, how did you ever get Candace to marry you with lines like that?”
“I didn’t use lines like that on Candace.”
She sobered. “I’m sorry, Warr. I didn’t mean…”
“S’okay, Lliya. Drop it. We’re good.”
She gave us a minute to make sure I meant it. I did.
“Listen to me, okay? She can’t be a distraction, and it’s my fault for bringing her up. You know how I feel about you, but we’re on opposite sides here. You had a choice to make, and you did, and I stayed away.
“It seems that circumstances are putting us back together, and I don’t know what’s going to happen. If it comes down to it, Warr, you know I’ll kill you, and I know you’ll kill me. We’ll hate it, and we’ll mourn inside, and move on, but there’s no question whether or not we’d carry it out.”
Her voice took on a note of wistfulness.
“That’s what would’ve made us great, but it’s also what makes us impossible.”
“Our devotion. It’s misdirected: it could’ve been for each other, but now it’s for what we do.”
“You didn’t have to be on the opposite side.”
“I didn’t choose it; I needed a job. We had history, and Kriley didn’t like it.”
“Sometimes I wish I had; he would’ve left us alone.”
I looked at her.
“No, he never made a pass. Seriously, could you imagine?”
“Anyway,” she finished the liquid in her thimble, “it doesn’t matter now, does it? What do you need from me?”
I sat back, breaking the intangible tension.
“Well you’re right; I’m thinking it was inside, I just don’t know if it’s mine or yours. If it’s mine, I need someone from the outside looking in. I want you to shadow me, see if anything looks out of the ordinary, anybody I can’t see.
“Steele Industries has their own trackers on me; they’re good, but not as good as you, and they’ll be gone with nothing to report in a few days.”
“Wouldn’t Ed be better for this?”
“Don’t know, because I can’t use her. And if it’s on my side that would tip them off that I knew, though Ed is hard to track, and I think she’d do it. Anyway, they’re going to Nanjasi without me. I’ve been suspended for getting caught; the suits at Steele say I’m a liability.”
“The suits at Steele are wrong.”
“Kriley tried to say that, but they weren’t interested. Will you do it?”
The waitress came back with the bourbon.
“Should you be drinking?”
“Question is, shouldn’t you?”
She considered it.
“What the hell.” With that, she answered both questions.
I poured some into her thimble, but she took the glass from my hand.
“On the rocks ruins it,” she said.
“I didn’t want you taking advantage of me.”
She smiled. “We both know I can do that whenever I want.”
I reached over and brushed a strand from her eyes, my thumb brushing her temple, and she wanted to lean into my hand, and I saw the effort not to; I put my hand back on the table, and it was a little colder where her cheek would’ve touched.
“That’s what would’ve made us great, but it’s also what makes us impossible.”
She lifted the glass in a silent toast, and I lifted the thimble, and we drank.
© Alfred W. Smith Jr.
March 3rd 2014
All rights reserved
I called this blog Beyond Panic, which is not a cheerful name, and may not be something that on the surface people would want to read; I understand that, but such a title is not chosen at random, nor with the intent of discouraging people with a woe-is-me story. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Why am I beyond panic?
The story is long and messy, but not boring. Suffice it to say that Murphy’s Law as applied to my life in PA was Murphy’s Law squared, and sometimes cubed, but it taught me some things about myself that I would not have known otherwise: I’m tougher than I ever thought I could be. I can show emotions. When people change, and especially when they betray you, they grow cold to justify their actions. Blood does not equal family. Death is closer than we know, but so is happiness.
And more often than not, things even out with time, just by necessity if nothing else. The ups, you see, do in fact, follow the downs.
Now here in my mid-50’s, having lost everything and having to start over, I’ve never felt more free. Things are a hindrance, and when you have the wrong people added to the wrong things, you’re not just running in place, not getting anywhere, you are sprinting in oil: You fall, and slip backward, and slide forward, your arms are windmilling, and you’re out of control.
THAT is what my life in PA was like. I don’t know why; I tried everything I knew, worked jobs where everyone involved KNEW I was out of my calling, but I had mouths to feed. I can’t tell you how many times I heard the question I so often asked myself: “What are you doing here?”
Don’t get me wrong, PA was a pretty state: fresh air, open space, lots of festivals, good food, good beers, and for the most part, good people. (that’s another post). My children thrived, and grew big and strong, the way kids should grow. The first five years were wonderful: family vacations, learning to fish, summer camps, bike trips, pictures, picnics, swim lessons, music lessons, dance lessons, garage bands, and of course, sports (I was even a T-ball coach; that was an experience!) and then a crucial decision was made on a career choice my wife had to make; the stakes were high, and it was a gamble, and we lost, and then the downward spiral began, and for me, at least, it never stopped until I left. We never really fully recovered, at least not together.
I had to go back to work, but I had no idea what PA had in store. There was no internet then to job search; I knew no one who could really help, or would if they could, and we were getting dangerously close to losing all we had built, and then, one day, we did. I went into the temp service circus because it was the fastest way to find a job without applying. I tried my hardest.
It was years of wasted effort: dead-end jobs, minimum wage service jobs, lost music equipment, lost apartments, broken cars, ruined credit, and finally, never being able to get ahead anymore, which nailed the marriage coffin shut.
Getting ahead of myself:
So into the wringer I go, and… Wrong color (yes, they actually said that), overqualified (have a college degree: ‘you’re not going to stay.’ they were probably right), too slow (we need at least 300 of these an hour) incapable of learning (my trainer was flirting with the girls, and I tried to learn on my own, since they didn’t get me a new one when I asked) sleeping on the job (I was working two full time ones with an hour break in between; how I didn’t kill myself or someone else driving back and forth remains a mystery; I consider that divine interference), all of them stamped on my forehead before I was shown the door. With the first one, I never even got in.
I was not good at office politics either. I never seemed to genuflect fast enough. (That would fall under ‘too slow,’ in more ways than one). See, my resources were in my head, not my hands. I was not an electronics assembler, machine operator, fork lift driver, janitor, line worker, shipping packer, truck loader, messenger, call center salesman, etc.
I was a teacher. (say it with me: Those who can’t DO… Oh, yeah? Why don’t you teach a new poetry unit to this eighth grade class two weeks into May, buddy… can you DO that?)
Well, I’ll share with you what I learned when people hear about what you ‘was.’ ‘WAS’ is the echo of fading glory.
“Who cares? Why all this? Why didn’t you just become a teacher again?” In a word, favoritism, nepotism, sexism (a new male principal who wanted all female teachers), ageism (he wanted his fresh out of college) and politics, and in one instance, PTA involvement. Pick a word. Any word, and one or more of them will probably apply as well. In short, the reasons had nothing to do with being qualified. My reviews in NY had been good, and in my last year, it had been raised to exceptional.
Stay with me.
As the place developed, and the farmland disappeared, new people with young families began to move in, and none of them worked in PA. They kept their jobs in NY and NJ and put up with the hell of commuting because there was simply no money to be made in PA that would allow them to support their family.
I was circling the drain financially, spiritually, emotionally, maritally, and fill-in-the-ly, when this company threw me a lifeline, and I grabbed it, and began, for the umpteenth time, to pull myself back to shore. When the line was cut again in PA by the company we were contracted to, I looked around for another one to grab.
“Do you want to look at the severance package?” (I wasn’t on the job a year, and it was based on time with the company. I might’ve gotten a Happy Meal out of it).
“No, I don’t. I want to work.”
“We have something in New Jersey.”
“It’s kinda far.”
They told me.
“Go check it out for a couple of days, and if you want to take the severance we’ll go over it with you.” I went out the first day; the second day I took the job. I was so used to doing what was necessary, and I had lost so much that there was literally nothing holding me in PA anymore. I jettisoned stuff, got out of the lease, and came to Jersey.
So I left, and now I’m here, and now that i have the time, the discipline, and the equipment, I’m pursuing a lifelong dream: to become a published author, and have people spend time with my imagination, and see the images I see in their own way, and relate to my characters, fantasy though they may be, because every fantasy is anchored in some way to a reality.
I’d like them to find that reality in one of my works, as I’ve found some of mine in the works of others: like when the hero is on the verge of defeat, and can’t lift the sword one more time…, but he digs, and it’s slow and painful and everything in him wants to scream: yeah, I’ve been there. Our swords might be different, but that feeling…yeah, I know it now. Or when the woman he’s with says just the right thing at the right time, and he gets that charge…yeah, been there. Or better yet, when he can’t go on, and the giant’s in front of him, and the point of a blade pops out of the giant’s big gut, and he falls, and the hero’s girl is standing back there, looking like Halloween on a bad hair day? Man, are you kidding me? You better go to Jared…and if he’s not there, send out a search party.
Pretentious? Self-aggrandizing? Delusional? I don’t know. I hope one day you’ll read my work and see what you experience…
So, I’m beyond panic because I know this is a stop, not a destination. I no longer feel like I’m being blocked, but incubated. I feel like that Eagles tune where the line says: “So much has happened, that nothing has changed.” In many ways it’s true, but in one very real way it’s not: I’ve changed, and I have the crucible of PA to thank for it.
So much has happened, that nothing happens to me now that I cannot deal with, literally, on every level. If I can’t accomplish it, it’s because I’m the one who gave up, and if PA taught me anything, it was to NEVER give up.
I’ve told people the long, messy, not-boring story, and the usual response is: “Wow. You should write a book about your experiences there.” I don’t know. I’d like to leave it there in the dust, where it properly belongs; time is growing short, and I have other things I want to say.
But if I ever do, this would (will?) definitely be the title.
Hey, thanks for taking the time.