Forgetting Your Name

My biological father left my mother and brother when I was around four, and I haven’t had contact with him since. I’ve looked for him off and on since I was eighteen with no luck, but now I think it’s best that I haven’t located him. I’m still early in sobriety, and I’m not prepared for what I might find. My father could be a man who wants nothing to do with me, and I don’t know how I would handle that rejection. If we meet, we do, and if we don’t, that’s fine. I’ve forgiven my father for leaving us, and that’s the most important. 

Still, it was quite strange the other night when, for a few seconds, I couldn’t recall my father’s name.

Last night, I couldn’t remember your name —
neither the first nor the last, both were gone,
a former paradise turned instant desert.

I searched for a moment amid the ruin,
turning over scorched rocks and kicking
down pitiful stubs of brittle trees

until I realized there was no need.
Names pass like air through clouds
with no regard to the shifts below,

so I was content to let yours vanish,
content to fortify myself with water
and wander the sands as long I wished.

Blood and Sugar

I’m not a dark person…well, let me amend that. I’m a person given to all manner of thoughts and feelings, some of which could be taken as dark. A lot of the darker thoughts simmer under the surface, I suppose, brewing away in the stew of my unconscious. Invariably, my characters play out these thoughts, urges, and words against a gloomy tableau. I’m not worried by what comes out of a writing session, though it be hairy, scary, and full of venom and vengeance (conversely, I’d be terrified if characters skipped across the screen and blew rainbows out of their asses while singing mindlessly about how happy they were).

Thus we come to tonight’s short installment I call Blood and Sugar.

“So what are we celebrating tonight?” Claire asked, cutting into the cake and licking icing from the knife. The blade sliced sweetly into her tongue. Blood and sugar turned out to be a kick-ass combination.

Bey sighed. He wanted to share everything with Claire, but he didn’t trust her completely yet. He trusted her enough to fall asleep beside her without fear he’d wake up with his throat slit or a bullet lodged in his brain (if he woke up at all), but he couldn’t tell her the real reason for the cake and the candles and the tidied-up apartment. Instead, he told her a half-truth:, “I’m celebrating a promotion at work. I got salesman of the quarter.”

“Oh, very good,” Claire said and applauded lightly. “Enough bullshit, Bey. You don’t care about your work anymore than I do.”

It’s true, he didn’t. At least, he would have cared if his cover job was real: copy machine salesman. Everyone else bought, but Bey would have actually been disappointed if Claire had continued believing his story. He doubted she ever believed it, but she played the game.

They ate cake in silence for a while before Claire said, “So you’re not going to tell me what you really do?”

Bey shook his head. “No. But I didn’t get a promotion at work. At least, of a sort, and that calls for a celebration.”

“Okay, I get that. But you don’t strike me as a I’m-going-to-celebrate-with-cake kind of guy.”

“No? Then what kind?”

Claire took a delicate bite. “You seem more the have-a-few-drinks-then-fuck-a-girl’s-brains-out kind of guy. But I don’t see any drinks around.”

“And you won’t. I’m in recovery.”

Claire laughed. Bey loved her laugh; it was rich and pure and didn’t contain a trace of the malice that ran like an icy current through his blood. “I’m serious,” he said. “I’ve been clean for five years. That’s why you’ve never seen me drink or use.”

“God, I hate the term ‘use,’” Claire groaned. “It’s all that AA and NA speak. My brother was a drug-addict. He’d stop periodically, but it was a losing battle. He ended up jumping off a bridge.”

An image of Claire’s brother–tall, thin, smiling radiantly, head full of dark, Byronic curls–flashed through her mind, but she quickly extinguished it. What good did it do to think about Kurt? Not one fucking bit of good, her father would have said. Her father, who died less than a year after Kurt. Massive heart-attack, his body fueled and primed from years of bad eating and high stress. Her mother was still around, somewhere.

Claire refocused on the present. Bey was saying something about a poet who had jumped off a bridge. “What?” she asked. She looked down at the cake. It might as well have been maggot-infested road kill.

“John Berryman threw himself off bridge in Minneapolis because he couldn’t stay sober,” Bey said.

“I’m sure there was more to it than that,” Claire replied and moved her chair back. “I’m sorry, but I need to leave. I hate to ruin your celebration, whatever it’s for.”

Bey stood, too. “I understand, and it’s okay. I have some stuff to take care of, anyway.”

Claire studied the man before her. He was undeniably handsome and was certainly mysterious, but he was just too inaccessible. “Just to be clear,” she said, “with or without the drink, are you the fuck-a-girls-brains-out kind of guy?”

Bey smiled. “Not really, no.”

“I suspected as much.” Bey was good in bed, but that was it: just good. There weren’t any sparks, no animal-level need. Claire needed that, at least sometimes.

“It’s turns out I may have misjudged you, as well,” Bey said, shrugging.

“So is this it, then?” Claire asked. She felt a void open inside her and she knew she wouldn’t be able to close it until someone else stumbled into her path. Maybe somebody with a little less mystery than–

That was the last coherent thought she had. She looked down and saw the cake knife sticking out her chest, and she felt warm blood coarse down her body. She looked at Bey, but he shrank away from her view. Soon, he was a speck on a darkening horizon, and then he wasn’t even that. And neither was she.

Bey withdrew the knife and licked it. Blood and sugar combined to form a not unpleasant combination, he thought. He’d have to try it again.

Character Sketch of Charles “Booty” McManus

This is almost a story, though I think of it more as a character sketch from the POV of another character. Either way, it was fun (and a little depressing) to write. Please forgive any typos:

Charles “Booty” McManus probably isn’t anyone you’ve ever heard of. I say probably because everything the did that was noteworthy went down way before the Internet or smartphones or anything like that. I searched his name once and didn’t find anything except a link to the Wilson Dispatch (the link was as dead as the newspaper) and a list of men on death row in Alabama. I’m sure I could go to the Wilson library and fiddle and curse at the microfiche machine until I found a copy of the edition which had Booty McManus on the front page, wild-eyed and nearly naked, the picture freezing him forever in a tableau of insanity, of late-stage alcoholism and its consequences, of good intentions long-since dried up and replaced with what Booty surely thought were schemes that would not only exact vengeance on those who’d wronged him but would somehow free him in the process.

Things didn’t go according to Booty’s plan, and I can’t help but feel sorry for him. He’s been on death row now for nearly twenty years, and his lawyer’s still filing appeals, trying to get his sentence reduced to life without parole. There may be a judge out there who’d consider that, but I’m willing to stake my life that there’s no sitting judge in the world that would let Booty walk out on parole, let alone grant him his freedom.

And yet that’s what Booty tells me in the letters we exchange. He maintains a vibrant hope that somehow DNA evidence will exonerate him, despite the fact that his lawyer has said time and again that it’s undeniable that Booty killed Carl Simmons and Rita King in 1973. Booty’s prints were all over the gun, the bodies, and the apartment; blood from a gash on his arm was found on both victims. A neighbor in the complex testified that she’d seen Booty dashing away from the scene, heard his labored breath as he took two and three stairs at a time down the staircase and into the parking lot. She followed him and identified his car. When police tracked him down at a seedy motel two towns over, he came out with his hands held up and burst into tears, confessing he’d committed both murders.

I wasn’t thinking right at the time, Booty wrote to me once. I was high as fuck on pills and booze. I went over to Rita’s place that night, but I didn’t kill her or Carl. They were on the sofa watching TV, and they looked happy. In love. I started having an asthma attack and I ran to my car to get my damn inhaler. That’s what happened.

When I wrote back and asked why he’d confessed to the crime then and why all evidence pointed to him, Booty wrote back, I told you, I was high. I thought for a half-second that maybe I did that horrible thing, and I figured better safe than sorry.

Better safe than sorry. It was something Booty would say, for example, if he suspected his house had a termite problem and the only logical solution was to blow the thing up with dynamite. Better safe than sorry, Cliff. Now I know those fuckers are gone.

I’ve known Booty since kindergarten. Back then, he was a chubby kid, but he was still quite a few years away from earning his nickname due to his gigantic ass. When Booty was in middle school, that was the only thing that seemed to grow on him. He was shorter than everyone else in our class, but his ass outstretched everyone. Well, not everyone. Our vice principal, Mr. Jeffrey, weighed nearly 400 pounds. His ass was definitely bigger. By the time Booty went to prison for the double homicide, he weighed 295 pounds and stood at five feet four inches. Obese? Yes. Did his ass still look outrageously large, even given his relative size? Also yes.

Yet that hadn’t prevented Rita King from falling in love with him. She wouldn’t have anything to do with him in school, and not because Booty was black. She dated Manuel Waters our junior year, and Manuel was the black as night. She dated him to piss off her father, which worked, and they broke up a month later. When she was twenty-three, working in town at a flower shop, Booty came in and bought a nice bouquet of flowers. Rita thought nothing of it until Booty walked out and then came back in a few seconds later and gave the flowers to her.

I pulled her aside one night when we were all out drinking and Booty had stumbled his way toward the bathroom. Like all nights, Booty not only outpaced our group’s drinking, but pretty much the entire bar. Periodically, he’d challenge folks to drinking contests and he won every single time. “So what gives?” I asked her. “I mean, you and Booty.”

“He’s sweet,” Rita said, sipping her margarita. She was a two-drink girl and she made those drinks last as long as we were out.

“That’s it? There are plenty of sweet guys in town that aren’t…”

“As fat as Booty?” Rita snapped.

Well, sure, that was part of it, but I said, “That aren’t as much of a drunk as Booty, and maybe not as likely to end up dead before thirty.” It never occurred to me that he’d be violent to anyone, let alone Rita. Booty had a temper, but that generally contained itself to tantrums and rants about how life was unfair. And let’s be honest, Booty didn’t have the greatest deck coming into the card game of life. His father left when he was four or five, and though his mother had stopped turning tricks, she was a heavy drinker just like her son. She was sad when Booty got locked up, but not heart-broken. “Better him than me,” she told me once. Within two months of Booty’s first trial, she had a stroke. The next month, she had died from a massive heart attack.

“I can’t even go to the funeral,” Booty sobbed to me. He was still in the county jail, waiting to be sent to the state prison, and I visited him at least twice a week. “I’ve been behaving. Shit, I haven’t had a drink since I’ve been in here.”

That wasn’t entirely true. Later, he confessed that he’d been shaking so bad from withdrawal that drank some jail hooch that turned his stomach inside out and he swore rendered him blind for two days.

“Booty, you’re in jail for killing Rita and Carl,” I said bluntly, not feeling especially generous that day. “You’re probably going to get the chair. Do you blame them for not letting you go to the funeral?”

Booty’s tears dried up and his expression into something I’d never seen before, something that might have looked like what Rita and Carl saw before Booty pulled the trigger twice. “She’s my goddamn mother, Cliff. Yeah, I blame them. And I didn’t kill Rita and Carl.” Unsaid seemed to be the words But I’d shoot these guards and anyone else here in their fucking heads if I got the chance.

Booty finally got sober in prison (on death row, nonetheless) but like I said earlier, he refused to admit he’d shot his ex-girlfriend and her boyfriend of less than a month. Carl Simmons wasn’t part of our group, and maybe that was part of his appeal to Rita. After dating so many of us (not me, though), Carl represented unchartered territory and new possibilities. Maybe it would have worked out. Carl struck me as a genuinely nice guy; he was hard-working, didn’t drink or smoke, and even went to church. He was the polar-opposite of Booty and the near-opposite of the rest of us.

I’ve long since stopped confronting Booty about his delusions. Maybe he’s truly convinced himself that someone else actually committed after he dropped by Rita’s place, found her all cozy with Carl on the sofa, and panicked and had an asthma attack that drove him to his car and his inhaler. Or maybe he’s playing everyone, figuring his best defense at this point is sticking to story, now matter how outlandish it is, but secretly knowing the truth. Maybe he’ll come clean with preacher or with me before his execution date, which keeps getting moved around.

I used to support the death penalty until it came down on Booty. He made a horrible, tragic mistake, I know, but the solution shouldn’t be to lock him away for the rest of his life with death hanging over his head and then not even delivering on that awful promise. I can’t believe he’s maintained his sanity this long. Of course, some would argue that he’s not sane now, but it could be worse. Booty’s told me how much worse it can be for the guys on death row when they lose it.

I can’t help but think that the kid I knew in school is still in Booty, and the same sweet man who bought Rita flowers is in there, too. I just wish I knew if I’ll ever see him again.

Unforgivable

Unforgivable

The breath you thought was your own–
simple, untainted, sweet as flowers
opening to the sun that first day–
was just a miserable sham,

a trick played on you by the cruel
doctor behind the plexiglass curtain
who spins the dials and speaks
certain words into his megaphone,

the mouthpiece larger than God’s
(any impressive feat by itself),
the mechanics of false wiring
drafted and crafted into oily perfection.

“Fuck this,” you said and kicked
your new bulk off the table, shocking
not only Herr Doktor but Sylvia herself,
glaring from behind a potted plant,

a fake, giving off green glimmers
of a photosynthetic display meant
to beguile all of the patients,
but you, fresh-fleshed and narrow-eyed

saw everything for what it was,
pronounced it unforgivable,
and so escaped from us all,
dooming us eternal wonder about your fate.

The Only Beach Boy Who Could Surf (Part 2)

This is just a sad story. But I finished it, and that’s something. I thought there might be more, but this is where Geri ended it.

“Well, this is your show,” Marjory said, “I’m just an audience member.” She put her plate and coffee mug in the sink and went back to the guest room.

I stayed at the table, thinking. All 24 year hadn’t been bad. I’d exaggerated that, like most wives married to shiftless men like Walter. Because he hadn’t always been shiftless, and we’d been in love once. I remember how handsome he looked when he got out of basic training. I thought I was the luckiest girl on Earth as we walked through town, my arm in his. I lost my virginity to him before he shipped out and I promised to wait for him. And that’s what I did. It all sounds like a story now, doesn’t it?

We got married when he returned, and before long, Nate was born. I had a hysterectomy in 1976, so no more kids for us. That was fine with Walter, who never wanted kids anyway.

I could almost forgive Walter for losing interest in me, for letting himself go and drinking so much, but I had a harder time forgiving what he did to Nate. He didn’t rough him up or anything like that. He just never showed any interest in him. Nate was a weird kid, I’ll admit it, but every boy needs his father to support him. Hell, to at least take him fishing or show him how to shoot a gun or work on a car. Nate hung around Walter like a lost puppy, and Walter never paid him any mind, When I confronted him about it, Walter would just shake his head and say, “Everything’s fine between us. Leave it alone.”

Well, if everything had been fine, I don’t think they wouldn’t have talked for the last five years. I looked over at the phone. I knew I should call Nate and the police. I glanced at the clock and noticed it wasn’t even nine o’clock yet. For all the police knew, I slept every day until eleven. Nate knew better, though. He knew I still got up around six, after so many years of doing so and making Walter’s breakfast.

I walked back out to the pool and looked in the water, suddenly convinced that Walter would no longer be there. But there he was in the same position: face down, arms spread out. He was wearing his work jeans and a flannel shirt, tucked in as always. His graying hair spread out like a halo.

“Oh, no, you don’t,” I told myself when I felt tears prick my eyes. But I couldn’t help it. My husband was dead. He’d broken my heart more times than I could count, but he was mine and now he was gone.

Before I knew it, I was in the water. I waded over toward the middle of the pool where Walter was and peered down. The image of him swirled and for a moment, I could pretend that he’d just dived down to the bottom for fun. Not that he was down there because he was a drunk and he’d drowned, just like that Beach Boy Marjory talked about.

What was that Beach Boys song I always liked? Lord, I couldn’t remember anything anymore.

“Walter,” I said, and my voice scared me. It didn’t sound like me at all. I tried to say his name again, but nothing came out. I dipped my head under water. the Walter looked peaceful, his body not completely touching the bottom of the pool. Like he was trying to float but just couldn’t pull it off.

“God Only Knows.” That was the name of the song. I took my head out of the water and tried to sing it: I may not always love you, but long as there are stars above you

That’s as far as I could get.

The Only Beach Boy Who Could Surf (Part 1)

“If I wanted to get a close-up of crazy, I’d just look in the mirror.”

This line popped in my head as I walked out of the grocery store earlier in the week, and I laughed out loud. I don’t know if it’s about me or not (I don’t think I look that crazy, except first thing in a morning, especially when it’s been a while since a haircut). That line led me to write the following. It’s incomplete, but I actually see myself finishing this one. Forgive the typos. 

The Only Beach Boy Who Could Surf

I found him at the bottom of the pool, deader than dead. I sat in a chair and smoked a cigarette, thinking about all the years I wasted with his sorry ass. 24 years. We were only a few months away from our 25th anniversary. He couldn’t have waited a little longer before he died? 25 is a nicer number, and it says more about my long-suffering. Yep, 25 years I spent with Walter, I could say. 25 years of his drinking, womanizing, lying, stealing, and all the other shit he got up to. It just sounds better than 24 years of his drinking, womanizing, and so on.

Marjory wandered out from the house, sleep still in her eyes, wearing one of my extra bathrobes. I had four or five, all gifts from Walter. He thought I liked them when the truth is, I couldnt give a rat’s hairy ballsack about bathrobes. I’m always hot after a shower or bath and I liked to parade around naked. Walter used to like that, way back at the start of everything.

Marjory bummed a smoke from me and stared in the pool. “That Walter?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Huh. He’s not floating.”

“Bodies don’t float for long.”

“And just how do you know that?”

“Saw it on a Law & Order or something. Or maybe I read it sometime. Does it matter?”

“No, I reckon not.” Marjory plopped her fat self in the chair beside me. She still had her rollers in but she’d put on lipstick. The filter of her cigarette looked bloody. “Well, now what?”

I flicked my cigarette in the pool. It hissed when it hit the water. God knows the last time we’d had the thing cleaned. Walter had died in some nasty water, for sure. “I guess we could call the police,” I said.

“You kill him?”

“No. I came out here and found him at the bottom of the pool. My guess is that he got drunk and tumbled in.”

“Like that Beach Boy.”

Lord, what was Marjory yapping about? I knew better than to ignore her. Just like my son, Nate, when he was four and he asked one of his endless questions. After what felt like the hundredth question, I’d ignore him, and he’d hitch his voice up a couple of octaves and say “Mama!” until I thought my damn head would burst.

I lit another cigarette. “What Beach Boy would that be?”

“The only good-looking one, Dennis. Remember, the drummer? He got drunk and fell off a boat and drowned. Did you know he was the only one who surfed?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“True. Not even the leader, that crazy one Brian, could surf. That always rubbed me the wrong way. I mean, how can you call yourselves The Beach Boys when only one of you guys can even surf? That song ‘Surfin’ Safari’ is nothing but a pack of lies.”

I often imagined finding Walter dead–dead in his chair, dead in the driveway from a heart attack, and even dead where he slept all those years right beside me. But I didn’t ever imagine sitting here with my best friend talking about how The Beach Boys betrayed the public’s trust while Walter’s body got about the business of decaying at the bottom of the pool.

“Well, I guess I’ll make a little breakfast and put the rest of my face on,” Marjory said, groaning as she lifted herself out of the chair. “Let me know what you decide to do.”

“Okay,” I said. “You’ll put on a pot of coffee?”

“You know it.”

“Sounds good.”

I sat by the pool for a little longer before going back in to get a cup of coffee. Marjory made it extra-strong, which I liked. She’d been staying with us for about a week by that point. I remember Walter pulling me aside after two days and hissing, “Now just when is she gonna be on her merry little way?”

“Whenever the mood strikes her, I guess,” I said. “You know Majory. Free like the wind.”

“She’s not living here.”

“Lord, who said anything about her living here? She’s got a nice place of her own, you know that.”

“Well, I know women like Marjory and you don’t,” Walter said, ignoring the obvious problem with his statement. Walter fancied himself knowledgeable about many things when in fact he knew about air conditioners, cheap beer, and chasing ass. So-called “women like Marjory” scared the pants off him because they didn’t rely on a man and they mostly did what they well pleased. Like taking off on a whim and coming to visit me without a specific end date in mind. It was those kinds of things that really curdled Water’s milk.

Marjory was thumbing through the newspaper and eating a bagel when I sat down at the kitchen table with my coffee. She hadn’t put the rest of her face on; she was still just wearing lipstick, her curlers, and a bathrobe. Well, what was the hurry? It’s not like we had a dead body in the pool or anything. Ha ha.

“You think you’ll run an obituary on Walter?” she asked.

I sipped my coffee and thought. “I don’t know. Do I have to?”

“You’re the expert on death, not me.”

“What if you can’t bury the body unless you run an obit?”

Marjory narrowed her eyes at me. “What in the hell kind of sense does that make?”

“I don’t know. There are rules, aren’t there?”

“Your worthless husband is laying dead at the bottom of your pool and no one knows but me. You don’t seem like someone who’s real worried about rules right now.”

She had a point. I figured I could call Nate later and ask him, and he could look it up on the Internet. He was always bugging me to get one of those smart phones so we could text back and forth. I asked him what use I would have for that? If I needed him, I could just call him. He said he wasn’t always able to take a call, but I could text him. I asked if he could get a text, why couldn’t he take my phone call? He just sighed and told me to forget it.

Well, I didn’t forget it. It made me mad the more I thought about it. Like he was superior because he had the Internet on his phone and I was still using my phone. Excuse me, my land line.”

“Geri, you zoned out. Come on back.”

I blinked. “Sorry,” I said, “I was thinking about Nate.”

“Oh. Huh. I guess you’d better call him.”

“No, the thing about the obituary can wait.”

“What?”

“About whether you have to run an obituary in the paper. I’ll ask him later.”

Marjory leaned over the table. “I meant telling him that his father died,” she said slowly.

“Oh, that. Well, that can wait, too. Nate and Walter haven’t talked in nearly five years. No reason to dump this on him so early in the morning. Maybe after lunch. Bad news can keep.”

Marjory shook her head and her curlers did a little dance. I was always envious of her hair. I could do something with mine, but I never saw the point. I sure as hell wouldn’t put rollers in at night, but I suppose it wouldn’t kill me to use a brush every now and then. I caught my reflection in the mirror the other day and thought I look like someone children should be frightened of.

I Might Miss You

I Might Miss You

Some tomb-dark night,
when the stars seem perilously close
and the moon hangs like blame,

I might miss you.

But then, I’ve roamed
the gaps in the constellations
and found the cold delightful.

I’ve set foot on our fickle satellite
and planted my own fucking flag
which I kissed before soaring back home.

For that matter, I won a staring contest
against the sun with retinas in-tact,
and the sun flared and glared for days.

I might miss you.

But, my erstwhile dear,
don’t count on it.