The Comfort of Secrets

 

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Introduction

The Comfort of Secrets is a breakthrough collection of  short stories, each one carrying readers to a dark place where every anguished soul, regardless of strengths and convictions, questions the real world as well as the surreal one. Here you'll find "Fragile Boundaries," the tale of a father's death wish come-true for his daughter's abusive boyfriend; "Preserving A Country Life," a southern fiction short introducing Riley and Will, mischievous, naïve young brothers who cross paths with the reality and harshness of life and death while at their grandparents' farm; and "Green Bananas and Death," a tragicomic piece in which a young husband encounters Death—the Grim Reaper himself. These stories are a provocative vision of how we live in a world quite often disturbing and mysterious, sometimes dangerous and unforgiving. There's no doubt the characters in them will guide you to that dark place that's a well-kept secret.

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Fragile Boundaries

The sun's been up only an hour, and I've just finished painting the outside of our backyard fence when my wife, LeAnn, steps off the deck and onto our lawn.

   Ours is a large, flat two-acre lot, deeper than it is wide, and I'm a good distance back from where she stands. She’s holding her hand up in the fashion of a salute, trying to keep the rising sun out of her eyes while searching for me among the Georgia pines bordering the rear of our property.

   “Are you finished?” she yells. “Beth just called. She needs us to come over now.”

   I look at the can of white paint and then at the raw wood fence, shaking my head in disbelief. For just once, I want to answer with Are you color-blind? If her feelings wouldn’t be hurt, I think I'd shout it to the high heavens. The reality is I can be an ass at times, but being deliberately rude to my wife is something I’ve never done in our twenty five years together, and I’m not about to start. Another reality is I’ve failed to notice LeAnn isn't wearing her goofy-looking glasses, the ones with lenses thick enough to sight some distant galaxy. Without them, she’s got about as much visual acuity as I have tolerance for Paul, our daughter’s live-in boyfriend.

   “No, I’m not done. Tell her I’ll come over later,” I yell back. I climb the fence back into our yard and begin painting the other side.

   Leaving the house this early in the day is something I hadn't planned on or even want to do. When I don’t hear the screened door snap shut, I know her eyes are still on me, watching me. Thinking she didn't hear me, I turn and wave to get her attention. “Go on. I’ll meet up with you later.” We’ve been invited to an afternoon cookout at Beth’s house, actually my house, given I bought it for her and still hold the bank note to be paid off.

   As much as we love Beth, she isn’t quite the responsible adult we hoped for. LeAnn and I know it’ll be awhile before she’s ready for marriage, motherhood, a mortgage, all the personal and financial rigors of domesticity that await her. And I’m not about to let her go off to live somewhere distant with Paul. There’s never been a day I didn’t like or trust him, even when he gave me the news he wanted to marry my daughter. I showed my disapproval in an underhanded and selfish way by buying the house, only five miles from us, for Beth. I want to keep my daughter close. Unfortunately, the house also keeps Paul close.

   LeAnn walks across the yard toward me, pointing back at our house. "Go call her now, Jack," she says, grabbing the brush from my hand and dropping it in the can. "I told you she needs you.” Besides being winded, LeAnn seems agitated, and I'm dumbfounded, if not aggravated at her insistence. After all, she said Beth had called for us to come over now, not for me to call her back.

   “For what?” I ask, hoping the cookout has been cancelled and not feeling guilty about wishing so. I have work to finish, and besides, casual conversation with Paul isn’t something I enjoy. “What does Beth need with me?”

   “I just got off the phone with her. She was crying. They’re arguing again.”

   “Big deal. Beth and her lazy boyfriend are always fussing with each other. It's probably over money since his sorry ass can’t hold a job.”

   “Go call her.”

   “Why should I? I’ve got a good mind to not go at all if they’re not getting along again.”

   “Please, Jack. Call her.”

   “I’ve told you before, I’m not getting involved in her relationship troubles.”

   "For God's sake, you bought her a house. Don't give me that 'I'm-not-getting-involved' excuse."

   What I’m telling LeAnn is true and not a stubborn counter to her request. On general principle, I never butt into my daughter’s personal life, even if her choice of men is far from who I would approve of. Any father who thinks he will ever understand the dynamic that drives his children to make the choices they do is a fool, especially when the best advice he’s given is tossed out like yesterday’s newspaper.

   I truly believe LeAnn will drop the matter and not have me call Beth, but her actions make it clear I’m wasting my breath and losing this argument. Arms crossed, she stands glaring at me, not saying a word, still refusing to answer my question as to why I should call our daughter. The sour look on my face, I’m sure, shows her I'm just as aggravated. But I know my wife, and it’s obvious to me she’s bothered by something other than my less-than-caring attitude. Her silence is her way of trying to find the right way to say whatever's on her mind.

   “You’ve got my attention, LeAnn. What is it?”

   She takes my hand in hers and tugs me toward the garage. “If you're not going to call, then we need to go to Beth’s, right now.”

   Halfway across the yard, I stop and pull my hand from her’s. “LeAnn, what the hell's going on?”

    A tear falls from the corner of her eye as she looks down. “Beth said . . . Paul hit her. She needs us.”

    “And he needs a good ass kicking,” I say. “She should have called the police.”

   Autumn is in the air. A cool breeze caresses the back of my neck, but I'm hot and sweaty—and angry. If something horrible happened to Paul, it’d be no fault but his own. If a policeman arrested him for hurting our only child, pulled his gun and then shot him dead, I’d consider it a blessing. I’d think he’d done us a favor by ending the boy’s life. He would’ve saved me a lot of trouble. I'd be grateful.

   “No, you need to get him out of her house,” LeAnn says. “She’s called the police before, and they were no help.”

   She’s right, of course. As much as I’d love to see Paul arrested and kept away from Beth, it will only be temporary and then he’ll come right back, begging to be let back in her life again. If we don’t go over there right at this moment and take a stand against him, Beth’s life will eventually end up a mess. Right now, it’s just short of an out-of-control spin, a dangerous whirling caused by a man who refuses to act like one, sucking up what good is left in Beth, like a tornado.

   “Let’s go,” I say, handing LeAnn my car keys. “I'm too pissed to be behind the wheel.”

   The drive to Beth’s is a short one, but enough time for me to reconsider my intent, to maybe have LeAnn maybe turn the car around to the sanity of our home and call the police ourselves. I don’t though. I know if I don’t go over there now, I’ll surely regret it later, and later will only become harder and always will be until Paul is finally gone. I want this over as soon as possible. I want it to end.

   “I should say a prayer before we get there,” LeAnn says, just before turning into Beth’s subdivision.

   “As long as you don’t say a prayer for him, especially him,” I say. Wishing anything good for Paul isn’t in my contract with God. I truly believe it’s not enough to assume just because a person is here and alive because of Him that they’re deserving of staying that way. As far as I’m concerned, Paul is here only by default, the egg that didn't wash away in his mother’s blood. He’s an oversight, an overlooked mistake that needs correcting to shift the odds in the favor of humanity. I wish Paul was different. I wish Beth could handle him without our help, but she can't. I wish I knew what exactly to do, but I don't.

   From a distance, Beth’s house is indistinguishable from the others in her community. All lie close—too close in my opinion—to one another, on lots so small knowing all about your neighbors would be unavoidable. This is exactly why LeAnn and I bought our lot, plus the adjoining two, and live away from the city; we might be able to see our neighbors, but it’s from a distance where all their troubles are not within hearing range.

   Up close, though, Beth's half-painted house and shaggy yard look nothing like the surrounding well-manicured homes and lawns. The front lawn is large patches of uncut grass and even larger patches of bare earth. Off to the side of the house there’s a pile of bricks delivered six months ago, now covered in weeds, a yet-to-be backyard barbeque.

   These are all reminders I have again wasted a great deal of money waiting for Paul to complete something, to do something to make my daughter's life happy with something as simple as yard work, or lifting one brick after the other. I want nothing more than to pick one up and bash his damn brains in.

   But this is not my house. It's my daughter’s. It's the one she chose. It's mine only on paper and knowing this still doesn’t give me the assurance I have the legal right to kick Paul out. He is sitting in a lawn chair in the open garage as LeAnn pulls the car into the drive.

   She's no more than handed me the keys when she bolts from the car toward Paul, her hand raised as if to slap him. And she does. Hard. Paul tumbles backwards over the chair, his open beer can and lit cigarette following him.

   Paul quickly stands up, and I'm there beside LeAnn holding her back. It takes every bit of my willpower to not release her and let her have another go at him, maybe even follow up with my fist to the boy’s teeth. Instead, I look past Paul to the back of the garage where Beth's standing at the top of doorway steps watching us. I walk LeAnn around Paul, my arm wrapped around her waist, hoping she'll follow me without too much protest. She does, but calls out to Paul, “You don’t have the right. I want your sorry ass out of my daughter’s life. Forever!”

   I have no idea what to say when I see Beth crying. She smiles weakly through tears rolling down a swollen cheek. Her right eye, swollen as well, sports a dark ring. Then, suddenly, she's in her mother’s arm, crying uncontrollably. She's trying to speak, but her voice is muffled by a gurgling sound like someone drowning.

   Beth lets go of LeAnn, steps back and puts a tissue to her eyes. “I want him to pack his things and leave. He refuses to do either.”

  “You’re absolutely sure this time?” I ask.

   LeAnn snaps her head around and glares at me. “Damn it, Jack. She wouldn’t ask if she really didn’t want our help. Of course she does.”

   “Dad, I know I’ve asked for your help before—“

   “But you mean it this time,” I say, finishing for her. Beth nods her head. “Then both of you go inside and don’t come back out. Understand?”

   Beth nods, wipes her eyes once more, and blows her nose. She steps back to close the door, but LeAnn hesitates to join her. She wants to know how I'm going to get rid of Paul. I turn to look at Paul, sure he has heard every word the three of us have spoken. He is back in his chair, staring at us over his shoulder. I step inside, gently push LeAnn toward Beth and close the door behind us.

   “Do you still have the gun I bought for you?” I ask Beth.

   She blinks and says nothing. Her face is wooden.

   "Beth?"

   “Yes,” she says. "I still have it."

   “Then bring it to me.”

   "Jack—" Leann starts.

   But I'm not about to be thwarted by my wife's fear of firearms. "Relax, I'm not going to shoot the guy," I say.

   Beth pulls the gun from the hallway closet and brings it to me. LeAnn gives me a strange look as I take the gun from Beth's hand. Her shocked expression says she's not an ally to my request. “This is insane, Jack. When did you buy Beth a gun? Does she even know how to use it?”

   “After the first time Paul hit her, and yes, she does. I taught her myself.” It’s obvious from the tone in LeAnn’s voice the presence of a firearm has upset the balance in our conflict with Paul. “Don’t worry,” I say. “Like I said, I’m not going to shoot him . . . unless you want me to.”

   The .38 is fully loaded. I push the cylinder release and drop the five bullets into my open hand. I put them in my jacket pocket and then hand the empty gun back to Beth. “Hide it well. Paul nor I need to know where you’ve hidden it. Ever. I’ll give the bullets back when I’m done with Paul.”

   “This is getting out of hand,” LeAnn says. I can’t think of anything other than to agree with her, so I do. She looks like she can’t decide whether to cry or scream at me in anger, and to my surprise she does neither. “Hopefully, your father will take care of this once and for all,” I hear her say to Beth as they make their way to the kitchen.

   I step back inside the garage, staring at Paul for just a moment, before closing and locking the door behind me. He's wearing biker boots and jeans, a black t-shirt. Oddly enough, he doesn’t seem bothered by my presence and doesn’t get up when I step down and walk toward him.

   “So, Jack” he says, “I guess you’re here to set me straight.” He says this, without as much as a glance at me, staring instead at the beer can he's turning in his hand.

   “Paul,” I say, “I want you out of my daughter’s life. I want you to go someplace far away from her and never come back.”

   “And I guess you want me to do this willingly?” he says, still not looking up, carefully inspecting his fingernails.

   “I hope you will.”

   “And if I don’t?”

   “Stand up, Paul,” I say, flipping the light on before pulling the garage door down. I do not want the neighbors across the street, the ones sitting on their front porch staring at us, to see or hear anymore.

   Paul looks up at me with a raised eyebrow. It’s finally apparent to him that my presence in my daughter's garage at 9 o'clock in the morning is not merely a show of false bravado or some half-ass support for her. The closed garage door trapping him inside with me is bona fide evidence of my intent, that I mean business, that I am here on a mission, duly authorized and committed, to set things straight once and for all with Paul.

   “I told you to stand up.”

   “Alright,” he says, standing, towering over me and staring down with a glint of fury in his eyes. “Now, old man, what are you gonna do? Maybe jump me and whip my ass?” He looks at me like he wants to hit me and then tells me so. "One pop to that old bald head of yours and LeAnn's an instant widow."

   "Well," I say, after pausing momentarily, sure he's finally through threatening me, "I hope you feel better."

   I have called Paul out and he has responded as I expected. For just a moment, I’m at a loss for further words until I remember the bullets in my jacket pocket. I reach in and pull them out, show them to him. “The gun for these bullets is somewhere in the house, its exact location not known to you or me.”

   “Bullshit. I know exactly where it's at.”

   "No you don't. Not any more. And you never will."

   "What the hell do you mean by that?"

   “I mean I'm going to tell Beth to blow your brains out with one of these—or all of them—if necessary, if you ever come back and bother her. And like I said, you don't know where the gun's at, Paul. You only know where it used to be.”

   “You’re bluffing. You can’t be serious. Beth won't shoot me.”

   “I’m not, and I am," I say. "Do these bullets look fake to you? Beth will do as I tell her and put one in you. ”

   “And if I don’t leave, you gonna try and hurt me? Huh, tough guy?”

   “No, Paul, but I know somebody that will. I’ll call him, and you’ll never see it coming when he opens up your skull with a hammer.”

   “Don’t you dare threaten me, you sorry old bastard.”

   “I’m not a threat to you, Paul,” I say. “But a guy by the last name of Logan is. I think your late friends who didn't pay him back called him ‘Mr. Nasty’ but never to his face, I’m sure. Either name ring a bell? Maybe somebody you owe a lot of money to?”

   Paul’s face drops and turns ashen, as if he has come to the realization that a father’s conviction and love for his daughter is something he can’t hope to equal and that I have the power to turn his life into a nightmare. He turns his head and looks at the Harley parked alongside the lawnmower and weed eater, neither of which he has never laid a hand to. “I can’t carry all my stuff on the bike.”

   I’m relieved Paul has got my message loud and clear. “You can take what you can today, and I’ll pack the rest and send it to your parents’ house.”

   “My parents’ house? You can't be serious.”

   “Yes, I’m serious, Paul.” I’m not going to budge on this part of his departure. “I don’t want Beth to have your address and you’re not to write her, call or text her, even send her an e-mail.”

   “I can give you my address. I already know where I'll go.”

   “Nope,” I say, shaking my head. “If I know it and Beth asks for it, I either have to lie or refuse to give it to her. I’m not going to have the appearance of knowing anything about the whereabouts of your sorry ass.”

   “She’ll get curious and find out on her own.”

   “Well, when she does, I’ll make sure Mr. Logan knows as well. How about that?”

 

 

 

Standing before Paul, I see myself as I was in my mid-twenties when Beth was born; the quintessential father: strong, determined, unafraid of hard work and sacrifice, the true guardian willing to put his life on the line and sacrifice it if needed.

   But more than anything, seeing Paul at a vulnerable moment has made me aware of how transparent he is, how easily I see through him and understand him: his weakness, his fear, his dubious attraction for my daughter, his less-than-honorable desire for a life without reservation, responsibility, or direction.

   I point down the hallway toward Beth’s bedroom. “You need to get packing,” I say.

   Like an errant schoolboy dismissed from the classroom, Paul does as he’s told and walks past me without protest, to gather his belongings and leave, hopefully take his disruptions elsewhere.

  I’m pleasantly surprised when he starts emptying the closet and dresser. I’m hopeful he is truly leaving for good and without giving me a hard time about my role in his departure. I imagine his exit as uneventful, sparing me from having to call the police or my old friend Cass Logan.

   “You’ve been doing some snooping,” he says a few minutes later, carrying out a shaving bag and what I assume is the last handful of clothing he has room for. The Harley’s saddlebags are filled to almost overflowing. “Why drop Logan’s name now? You could’ve mentioned him earlier,” he says. “Maybe this wouldn’t have happened if you had.”

   I’m not at all surprised how at ease, how unrepentant Paul seems blaming me for his irreverent behavior.

   “I’ve never let my desire to see you gone ever take precedence over Beth’s to keep you around,“ I say. “As of today, that’s changed. Beth wants the same thing I do—for you to leave and never return.”

   “Look at me, Jack,” he says, standing over me again, staring down at me. His breath smells of beer and cigarettes. His eyes are unblinking and fixed on mine. But unlike before, there is no anger in them. Only an air of defeat in his voice. “I simply couldn’t match wits with you, old man. You’re a meddlesome and cunning competitor, the best I’ve ever come across. Beth thought I was supposed to turn out like you. Told me so. Never even knew me for who I really was. She wasted a year of my life. That’s why I hit her.”

   “Well, she knows who you really are now—the guy who put his hurtful hands on her.”

   “You’re a sorry person, Jack, for not letting her—or us—live life to its own conclusion. Things would’ve got better for us, I’m sure. Instead, you imposed your own selfish view of it and she fell for it. Again, our failure is your fault.”

   I think about this for a few seconds. I say nothing at first, thinking everything to this point is Paul’s fault. All this, I tell myself, is not your fault. I pull the lawn chair over and sit in it. Paul, I think to myself, after you leave, I might call Cass Logan anyway.

   “I did what any good father would’ve done for their daughter."

   “No good father I know of buys his daughter a house,” he says. "That’s what I was supposed to do—buy her first house for her—for us. How could I ever top that? You blind-sided us, Jack.”

   “I’m sorry you feel that way, Paul.”

  “Well, I’m not, and don’t look for me to apologize for hitting Beth.”

   “I don’t intend to because I don’t expect one.”

   Paul climbs on top of his motorcycle and sits quietly. I suspect he’s got more to tell me, as if he’s trying to figure out how to get the last word in before he leaves. He looks my way as I glance at my watch. I want to get back home and finish painting.

   “Time for you to go,” I say.

   “You know what’s strange?” he says to me as I stand to open the garage door.

   “Please stop, Paul,” I beg. “I’m not an attentive audience. I’m done listening to you. Just go.”

   “What’s strange is . . . I’m glad to be going.”

   “Then go.”

   “Not yet,” he says. “Not until you let me have my say.”

   I keep quiet, sensing he’s just stalling, hoping Beth will change her mind before he leaves, ask him to stay, and maybe send LeAnn and me up the road instead. Reluctantly, knowing he will not leave until he’s had the last word, I give in. “Five minutes,” I say. "That's all you get and then I want you gone."

   “Won’t take but two,” he says, and then adds, “I feel bad, real bad, about hitting Beth, but I'm still not apologizing for slapping her because it’s her as well as your fault, Jack.” He looks outside to the nosy neighbors and then back to me. “You raised a brat, Jack. And I’m glad to be giving her back to you. You both deserve each other.”

   “She’s always been mine and always will be. You never took her from me,” I say.

   “She told me she wanted to marry a man like her father. Do you know how both flattered and discouraged that made me feel, Jack? Do you have any idea? Or, are you so goddamned self-righteous, so selfish, when it comes to Beth, you’re absolutely clueless?”

   For the first time since I’ve known Paul, I’m glad to hear him take up for himself—and Beth—even if I don't agree with his rationale. Maybe if he had taken a stand like this earlier, the two of us could’ve come to a meeting of the minds and got along. I quickly extinguish that possibility when Beth’s swollen face pops into my mind.

   “Maybe things would’ve turned out differently if you hadn’t been an ass and hit her. LeAnn and I simply can’t tolerate abuse of our daughter—mental or physical.”

   Paul gives a half-hearted laugh, then turns somber. “I’m leaving because I can’t see punishing Beth—or myselffor our failure of recognizing reality and keeping you out of our lives. I’ll not come back. Trust me. I promise you, Beth will never hear from me again. Ever. You have my word.”

   I know better than to believe him. I wish I could jump for joy and rely on Paul’s word in that moment, but I have every reason not to. In the year I’ve known him, he has never kept a promise to me or to my daughter. I consider him no more than a pathological liar, incapable of appreciating the virtue of honesty in life.

   There’s a good chance he may not leave town. Or maybe he will, and then return, only to come full circle and finally ruin our lives. No, I intend to see Paul leave town for good. After that, if he wants to ruin his or somebody else’s life, it’s none of my damn business.

   “I don’t need your take on what’s wrong with Beth, or why everything in her life went from right to wrong," I say. "It would be in your best interest to not come back." What I don’t say is, Because if you do, I’ll call Cass Logan and let him cut your balls off and watch as you bleed to death. I don’t say, You’ve been drinking. I hope you ride out of here, wreck your motorcycle, and end up a brain-dead donor—or in a morgue.

   No, I don’t say those things, but I’m thinking them as Paul starts the Harley, gives me the finger, and then roars off. I step outside and watch him until he’s no more than a speck at the end of the subdivision road. I turn around when I hear LeAnn’s voice distantly behind me.

   “He didn’t put his helmet on.” She’s standing beside Beth, both of them staring at me from the open garage. “You should have insisted he wear a helmet.”

   I raise an eyebrow. “Like he’d have listened to me?”

   “Do you think he’s coming back?”

   “He won’t be coming back,” I say. “I’m sure of it.” I look to Beth. “Why don’t you come and stay with us tonight.”

   “I need some time alone,” she says, crossing her arms and looking away. “Here, in my own house.”

   I smile. As much as I’d like for Beth to stay the night with us, I’m happy to hear her last words. Hearing them gives me hope that my one and only child is beginning to take on the emotional responsibility of being on her own.

   “You sure?” LeAnn asks. Beth nods. “Don’t hesitate to call if you need us.”

   We return home. I finish painting the fence, eat dinner, and read the newspaper. Bed will come early for both LeAnn and me. We are exhausted.

   I lay in bed thinking how easy and simple a task it was to rid our life of Paul. In truth, it really shouldn’t have been. After all, he could’ve simply said no, not moved a muscle, and what could I have done? Nothing, that’s what. Only a combination of Paul's fear of Cass Logan and his accepting he wasn’t the man Beth really wanted, maybe explain why he didn’t put up a fight. I'm sure Paul never had any real fear of me. And I’m sure wherever he is right now is better than where he’s been. My head is heavy in the pillow with that thought when I drift off to sleep.

   It’s after three o’clock in the morning when our phone rings. LeAnn answers and it’s Beth. She is crying hysterically yet I can hear every word she is saying.

   “Paul is in the hospital,” she sobs to her mother. “He wrecked his motorcycle. His parents just called me. He’s at St. Joseph Memorial.”

   “Oh, Beth, we’re so sorry. What can we do?”

   “Marty and Peg want us to go to the hospital for them. They’re still two hours away.”

   “How injured is he?”

   “He’s in intensive care. I’m leaving now. You and dad meet me there.”

   “Us?” I ask LeAnn after she hangs up. “His parents want us to go to the hospital? Seriously? Do they know what kind of day we’ve had?”

   “Get up and get dressed, Jack. And you’re driving this time.”

 

 It’s five o’clock in the morning by the time LeAnn and I reach the hospital. We meet Beth in the emergency room and then ride the elevator to the fourth floor where Paul has been transferred from intensive care. We’re told he's breathing on his own but is in a coma. Welcome to the world of the living dead, is the only thought on my mind as we step into the brightly lit corridor of the brain injury ward. A nurse guides us to Paul’s room. She takes Beth in first. Then LeAnn. Then me.

   The three of us stand together and take a somber look at the young man before us, frozen in time, hovering somewhere between sleep and death. Paul's body is pale and rigid, his face broken and swollen beyond recognition, the right side of his head crushed in, missing an ear. Beeping, flashing monitors surround us, connected to a tangle of wires and multi-colored tubes hooked to Paul.

   The nurse lifts and adjusts the sheet covering Paul's bruised body, momentarily exposing the blood-filled tubes sticking out from his chest and abdomen. I stare at all of them, paying particular attention to the one tube filling with urine. I’m mortified by the sight of the catheter protruding from his penis, but there’s a dark, unforgiving part of me, an evil muse whispering in my ear that if Paul hadn’t hit my daughter he wouldn’t have a piece of plastic shoved up his dick.

   LeAnn tries to talk to the earnest, twenty-something doctor, but he is too busy attending to Paul to answer right away. He brushes Paul’s brown locks back from his face and moves a penlight back and forth over his unblinking, half-open eyes. He rolls up the eyelid to each. They’re glazed and watery, staring up at the ceiling, looking nowhere in particular. The doctor tells us a few minutes later Paul probably won’t survive his injuries, will not likely see the light of morning, and he doesn’t want us to leave him alone.

   Half an hour later Paul is laboring to breathe. Each breath reverses itself only to break from his chest, erratic and ragged. The quiet periods between breaths are longer, giving the illusion that his horrible struggle is relaxing its muscle, giving way to relief, but nothing could be further from the truth because the only relief is death itself. I'm sure Paul is only a few gasps away from Heaven.

   The three of us and a nurse are in Paul’s hospital room when the end finally comes. Beth and LeAnn sit at his bedside while I stand nearby. Less than an hour into our visit, Paul takes his last breath, lets it out in a rush, and is still. Death has both come and gone.

  The doctor is called back to the room. He checks for a pulse at both Paul's wrist and neck and then holds a stethoscope to his chest, moving it often and pausing to listen, as if to make sure he won’t start breathing again after he’s left the room. The blue-white color slowly creeping its way into Paul’s face and hands assures me this will not happen. He is pronounced dead at 5:44 a.m.

   After the doctor and nurse leave, Beth reaches out and hugs Paul. She presses her face close to his and cries softly. She stays that way, even when the nurse returns a few minutes later. It’s only when LeAnn and I lift her off Paul that the nurse is able to turn off the myriad of monitors over the bed and along the walls. I accidently brush against Paul’s cheek and feel his cooling skin as his body continues to die.

   Another nurse enters the room and leans over Paul’s body and untapes the tubes from his nose and mouth, slides them out with one hand while she pulls his eyelids down with the other. She looks up at the wall clock high and then at us. “Folks, I’m sorry, but we need a few minutes to clean him up. We’ll let you see him when we’re done.”

   I follow behind LeAnn and Beth as they leave Paul’s room, holding one another, crying. We sit together in the nearby waiting area until the urge to use the bathroom overpowers me. I’m halfway down the hallway when a young man, dressed in dark blue scrubs and wearing black gloves, wheels a squeaky gurney past me and turns into Paul’s room.

   Beth is up and back in Paul’s room before Leann or I can get to her.

   “Sir, we were told we could see him when the nurse was done,” LeAnn says calmly, pulling Beth back and toward me. "You're not moving him, are you?"

   I try to hold Beth’s hand but she pulls away and grabs Paul’s instead. “For Christ sake, his mom and dad haven’t even got here, yet,” she says through teary eyes.

   “It’s just hospital policy, ma’am. I’m taking him to another room, a private one, to be with family,” the young man says. He says this without looking up at us, and in a soft tone that implies he both feels and understands personal agony and anguish, as if it's more than just his job to assuage the reality of what has just happened. “Please, ma’am, I’m just doing my job and I’m truly sorry for your loss. I’ll come back in a few minutes.”

   The young man leaves but does not return. Another man, older and dressed in similar dark blue scrubs, comes into the room and politely tells us there’s no more time and that Paul's body has to be removed. He's a big man, well-muscled enough that he lifts Paul’s lifeless body onto the gurney, seemingly without effort or strain, and covers him afterward in a blue sheet. He rolls Paul past us and out into the hallway, as if it’s a perfectly routine thing to do, not something life altering or terrifying to those still alive.

   The three of us sit in the room afterward, watching each passerby calmly walk by, half gazing into the room, the other half too caught up in what to them is an outwardly normal day. I leave to relieve myself and get a bite to eat.

   A few minutes later, Beth and LeAnn ride the elevator down to the cafeteria and join me. We all sit together in silence until LeAnn tells me to go home without her. "Beth will give me a ride later after we meet with Paul’s parents," she says. It’s obvious in her tone and her icy stare, she doesn't want me here when Marty and Peg arrive.

   The sun is up by the time I reach our house. I sit on the back porch thinking about Paul. I will never have to worry about him in our life ever again. I also think about Beth, LeAnn, all the people I love, and how at any time of the day or night they could be taken from me. I think about the fence I have painted. I'm thinking too much at eight in the morning and without coffee.

   I climb back into my bed, wrap the comforter over me, and wish only for sleep and the relief it gives.

 

 

 

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The Wrong Side of a Dark Woman's Bed

Rita had a husband once. She never mentioned him or the accident, and you never asked.

   It happened at the grocery store he worked every other night stocking shelves and mopping floors. The same one your mother now refuses to shop. The combination of a loose, low wire, hot with high voltage that shouldn’t have been and a misstep on a soaked floor cooked that man alive. A local deputy said his bones split clean to the marrow, clothes in flames by the time a cashier called for help.

   According to who you’d listened to, he died quick, felt nothing. You didn't think so then and still don't.

   And you didn't think Rita deserved to be the target of local gossip. You overheard a visiting neighbor tell your mother, “That woman wasn’t exactly the grieving widow at her husband’s funeral. Don’t dare let your son around her.” Your mother didn’t say a word.

   Maybe she didn’t because she trusted you then. You’re sure she doesn’t now. Because she knows you were seeing Rita.

 

Rita liked to say she was “Southern,” but you knew she was an outlander, a Spanish-Cherokee west Texan—a “Mestizo”. She taught dance at the Peninsula Pines Country Club; Tango, Cha-Cha, Rumba, Samba, Paso Doble.

   Your dad signed up the entire family for lessons, and it was on the dance room floor you saw Rita for the first time

   She danced with your dad first, followed by your mom.

   And then with you.

   The crush was instant the moment you wrapped your arms around the tight waist of that dark-eyed beauty with the raven hair. You couldn't take your eyes from hers. The two of you danced the evening together, long after your parents left. She told you during the last dance she was grateful for the way you held her gaze because other men never looked her in the eye. Anytime they looked at her they stared down. At her chest. Her big chest.

   You were just twenty-one then and willing to be held hostage by her. She was thirty-two, tall and leggy, lips pouty and red, a woman unlike any you'd ever seen and absolutely sure of what she wanted from a man. And it was you she said she wanted in her bed that night.

   Her full name was Marguerita Escalante Bertrand and she was sitting in your car outside of her apartment and told you she had simple expectations. “If I like you, you can come back, but only when I want. I can keep you as long as I like, or I can give you your freedom immediately. If you don’t like my rules or break them, I’ll gladly show you the door. And when I do, don’t take your time hitting it.”

   “Just this once, Ted,” she said to you that first night with her, “and then I'll see if you’re worth keeping around.” You were elated when she invited you back for the weekend. “And none of that ‘love’ stuff or burning up my phone or stalking me at work,” she warned. “And your parents are to never know."

   Every visit to Rita's one-room apartment afterward left you wanting more. It was your first relationship with a woman who was a hard hitter, a demanding lover who had zero tolerance for not getting what she wanted and took zero shit from any man.

   The two of you were in bed watching a movie when you asked if she'd ever consider marrying again.

  She looked away from the TV and at you as you rubbed your carpet-burned knees. She smiled at first, eyes wide and chin down, but her smile dropped away as she rolled on her side and edged closer to you. She ran a finger across your lips and down your chin.

   “You need to remember what I told you the night we met,” she whispered in your ear before climbing on top of you. She pinned your wrists to the headboard and began grinding herself against your thighs in a slow circular motion. Her hair brushed your face. Eyes dark and narrow stared into yours without as much as a blink. “Don’t you dare fuck this up," she said, still not smiling, "or it'll be over. I mean it.”

 

“You have a lot to learn, lover, when it comes to love,” Rita said. It was your last night together. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, staring through an open window as a light rain fell. "You need to put all that 'looove' stuff back where you found it, Ted, or I'm going to be an unhappy lady."

   Your gut was telling you this relationship could become something special. Or maybe become nothing at all. But you were willing to take the chance so you told her again you loved her.

   "You're not listening," she said, sighing. "Please, stop telling me you love me."

   "Don't you miss having a man in your life?" you asked, reaching out to touch her.

   She pulled away out of your reach and stood, her back to you.

   "Miss having a man?" She laughed, then spun on her heel and faced you, pointed a finger at herself. "This girl? Are you serious? I prefer to want a man rather than ever feel I have to have one. No, no I don't."

   "Not even by one who truly loves you, like me?"

   "Stop it."

   "What's so wrong with me telling you I love you?"

   “Damn it, I'll tell you what's wrong. This love stuff of yours is suffocating me,” she said through clinched teeth. “To me, love is like an avalanche roaring down the side of a tall mountain, and I'm at the bottom with no way out."

   "I don't see it that way," you remember saying. "Love simply happens. I say we go with it."

   “It’s nothing but hormones,” she said back to you in a voice that sounded tired and edgy, "and I've had enough of yours." She crossed her arms tight in that defensive way.

   "Rita, I really do love—"

   "Shut up," she said, interrupting, "and get your clothes on."

   She stood naked at the front door, arms still crossed, and watched as you dressed. “Aren’t you going to put your clothes on, too?” you asked her, slipping into your shoes.

   “Don’t need to. I’m not leaving . . . you are.”

   You walked toward her to hug her, to kiss her, but she stopped you with her hand held palm out.

   “Don’t you dare,” she said in a low growl, “touch me.” She pointed at the door. “Just leave.”

   “Rita, I don’t know what I've"

   “You broke the rules, baby, that's what, and you know you did so don’t give me that ‘I-don’t-know’ crap. Get out. And I mean now.”

   She was beyond talking with and you screwed up and you knew it so you left quietly, the only sounds you heard behind you the slamming of her door and the lock being turned in it.

 

Later that night, you sat alone on your parents’ living room couch, holding your cell phone in your lap and sipping your beer. You wanted to hear Rita's voice, to be back in her bed, in her, but held off on phoning again.

   An hour passed before you pushed through your fear and punched in her number to a place that was a twenty-minute car ride away. Earlier in the day, it rang and rang. That night, you didn't even get that. Not even a busy signal. Just silence. Nothing.

   “It’s late, Ted,” your mother said, her voice startling you. “I saw your phone light up. Who'd be calling you at this hour? I’ll bet it’s her, right?” You sensed she wasn't angry. And neither were you. How could you have been? She was just standing there, giving you that look. She eyed you in a way only a mother could, while pulling her robe tight around her, as if she was trying to hold the fabric of the universe together for you. “Well?”

   You shook your head. You did that a lot with your parents when they questioned you about Rita.

   “No?”

   “No, she didn't call. I tried to call her.”

   “For goodness sake, that woman's husband's been in the ground not even a month, and here you are carrying a crush like some lovesick teenager.”

   “She didn’t answer, mom.”

   “Good,” your mother said, “and good night.” She turned the light off and went to bed.

   You turned the TV on and sat in the dark, flipping channels. You kept flipping, never content long enough to become absorbed in some fictional character’s problems. You had enough of your own.

   You turned the TV off and tried to call again. Just as before, nothing but silence.

   The anxiety of not hearing Rita's voice, of not knowing where she was, came slowly at first. The pain of it all crawled over you inch by inch, eating its way through your heart and bowels, to the point you felt sick, before overwhelming you entirely. You soon fell asleep and dreamed of nothing.

   The sunlight peeking around the curtain edges woke you. Your back hurt like hell from sleeping on the couch as you rolled from it and headed for the shower. You came back and saw your phone’s message light blinking. The number’s one you didn't recognize, but you were sure of who sent the text:

    You left something. Be here in an hour or it gets trashed. R.

   You decided not to call back as you reached quickly for your car keys.

 

Her front door was standing open when you arrived and the apartment had been emptied, as if readied for its next occupant. You stepped inside. A woman, maybe forty, barefoot and mopping the kitchen floor, looked up as you took a step back.

   “You a bill collector?” she asked. She had a small face, green eyes suspicious and fixed on you, gray hair piled high on her head reminding you of cotton candy.

  “No, just a friend.”

   She put the mop aside and a hand on her hip. “Friend, huh,” she snorted, shaking her head. “Well, that friend of yours skipped out on paying me this month’s rent. Neighbor said her friends came in the night and packed her out. Then she left out with that doctor friend of hers in his BMW.”

   “Sorry about that. Maybe she'll pay you later.”

   “I doubt it, but maybe I can get my money from him, the doctor. I heard she’s living the high-and-mighty life now in that big house of his up on the lake.” She told you all this without knowing who you really were, as if she had the right. "She's set now, that Rita. Money. An educated man. Nice home. Nice car. She'll never have to work another day of her life. What more could the girl want?"

   It definitely won't be love, you thought. You looked past the woman and through an open window. That's when you saw the lone pair of your undies, still clipped and flapping on the clothesline.

   You smiled at the sight of it all, then laughed as you walked out the door.

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A Dark Place in the Night

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Preserving A Country Life

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If I Want Your Opinion, I'll . . . .

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I Did This Thing To Myself

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Green Bananas and Death

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