The Dark Bird of the Midway

The Dark Bird of the Midway – Photo by Christopher Woods.

Christopher Woods is a writer, teacher and photographer who lives in Texas.

http://christopherwoods.zenfolio.com/

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Buying and Selling

– By John MacKenna 

Was that precisely what he’d said, Thaddeus wondered? He’d said so many things over the years they’d travelled together, that much of it was becoming a confusion.

Sometimes, Thaddeus read the books that had been written about those years and the man and the philosophy and he wondered where the journalists and biographers and critics were coming from, where they’d unearthed their so-called information, how they’d reached the conclusions they had. Very little of what he read bore any resemblance to the things he remembered. He didn’t remember there ever being a philosophy as such. Ways of doing things had emerged over the weeks and months; they had learned from experience and often the suggestions had come from one or other of the group members but, by no stretch of the imagination, would Thaddeus call it a philosophy.

Could two and a half decades have bewildered his memory to that extent? He doubted it. He didn’t forget important things. He could walk into his office now and lay his hand on the exact key to any of the forty cars in the sales yard without even checking the registration numbers on the plastic ties. And he still had an eagle eye for the occasional opportunity, but the opportunities were becoming fewer and farther between. That’s why there were forty cars in the yard. He’d never had this many before, even in the eighties, never been caught carrying so much immovable stock,

It’s not what you achieve but what you believe.

Yes, that was what he’d said. Not at one of the rallies but over a meal on a summer night. Afterwards, Thaddeus and Al had stayed on for a last, late drink. Al was flying off somewhere the next morning, off in search of another story that might make a book. Those were the days before any of Al’s books had seen the light of day. Thaddeus had admired the younger man’s energy but doubted his story chasing would ever amount to anything. Ideas were one thing but opportunities were the real thing.

“Sounds like he’s getting us ready for a change,” Al had said.

“In what way?”

“Don’t know. Just does. He talked about belief not achievement. There’s a difference.”

“Believe to achieve,” Thaddeus laughed. “It’s a good motto.”

“Is it? Seems to me it’s just a motto and, anyway, that’s not what he’s saying.”

Thaddeus remembered shrugging.

“You’re over-analysing, man. You read too much. Stay rooted.”

“Maybe.”

“For sure. We’re on the right track here. You should stick around.”

“I’ll be back in a couple of weeks.”

“The books can wait.”

“I don’t know if they can,” Al had said. “But I’ll get there, wherever there is. Maybe that’s the problem with me: I don’t really know where there is.”

Looking back, Thaddeus remembers his young friend as a man waiting for magic to find him, believing in the sunlight, filled with a genuine expectation that someone would come, a white witch, a wizard casting a spell, bringing him the gifts of joy and certainty, offerings in which he hardly dared believe.

And then he looks at himself. A man standing on a garage forecourt, stock list in hand, amid all the shining, unsold second-hand cars. Not that they’re advertised as such. They’re pre-owned now, as though Thaddeus has been keeping them warm, running them in for whichever lucky punter it is who may walk through the gate on this spring afternoon.

His dog ambles from behind one of the cars and comes to him. Together they sit on the office step, the soft sunlight painting their bodies. Thaddeus leaves the stock list on the concrete tread and rubs the dog’s warm coat and then his ears until the animal moans softly, singing a song of pleasure and companionship.

“We all have stories and reasons not to tell them,” Thaddeus says out loud and the dog looks up at him, listening for familiar words like walk or dinner, but they don’t come.

Thaddeus rubs the dog’s ears again and lowers his own head, sinking his face into the dog’s coat, breathing the smell of animal life and freedom, each deeply drawn breath a point of recollection and reconciliation. He is aware of two hearts beating, his own and the dog’s. He listens, trying to match the rhythms to each other but the patterns are not the same. One is uncertain, more an erratic throb than a beat, the other is calm and measured, loyal and trusting.

He especially loves the smell of the dog’s coat, drying in the sunshine after rain. That deep, dark smell drawn from a thousand scents unknown to humans, that smell which catches some inkling of the sniffing that dogs do when they become aware of the depths of senses we will never know.

A shadow falls across his face and he looks up.

A young woman is standing in front of him, her features masked by the aura of sunlight about her.

“You sell cars?” she asks.

“Yes. I certainly do.”

“I’d like to look at one or two.”

“Of course.”

He stands up, shielding his eyes.

“I like your dog,” the young woman says.

“He’s not for sale,” Thaddeus laughs.

“I should hope not.”

They walk across the sales yard.

“What did you have in mind? Cheap and cheerful or something more solid.”

“I’m not sure. Let’s look.”

He walks and talks her through the lines of cars. He’s in no rush; there’s no one else about, he has all afternoon and so, it seems, does she. He explains the benefits of one above another, checking prices against his stock list as if he didn’t already know the cost of every car and the amount by which he is prepared to reduce it. And, each time he mentions a lower figure, she moves to the next vehicle and asks about colours or upholstery or wheel trims.

“You’re not here to buy a car, are you?” Thaddeus asks finally.

“No.” Her reply is definite.

“Just passing an afternoon?”

“No. I wanted to talk to you.”

“About?”

“Him. Then. About what really happened.”

“I don’t talk about him or then. And everybody knows what happened.”

“Bullshit,” the young woman laughs. “Those who don’t really care assume they know; those who care realise they don’t know.”

“And you care?”

“That’s why I’m here.”

“Oh come on,” Thaddeus barks a sharp cackle. “You’re here for a story. You’re a journalist. You smell a story, an old one but a story nevertheless.”

“Is that a crime?”

“Not at all and I wish you well with it. It’s just that the story isn’t here.”

“I’d write it sympathetically.”

“I have no doubt but that you would,” he says sarcastically.

“You don’t believe me?”

“Belief doesn’t come into it. There is no story here. Trust me. Not the one you’re looking for; I don’t think it exists. It’s a figment of your editor’s imagination. Let me guess. He’s in his fifties, one-time student activist, imagines himself a freethinker. He’s a conservative dressed in liberal clothing, trying to get you to recreate some element of the dream he thinks he missed out on. You do realise that sending you here is that middle-aged man’s surrogate fantasy.”

“You’ve thought about all this.”

“You’re not the first journalist to come around here. Some of them bring money, some come in short skirts, some are aggressive, some have that extra button open on their blouses – I’ve seen all the tacks they take. Sorry, that you take, trust me.”

“Trust doesn’t come into it,” the young woman smiles. “Believe me. There is a story.”

“Well, if there is, it’s not here,” Thaddeus says again.

“How’s business?”

“Fantastic! You’re the millionth customer we’ve had this month. That’s something about which I’ll happily give you a story – cars that won’t sell, I can ladle out heartbreaking stuff about a staff of four reduced to one. I can even give you an idea for a headline. The soundless silence. And the first line, if you want. Forty gleaming, driverless cars form a silent traffic jam, an image of the new republic. See, I’ve done half the work for you already. Or I can give you an angle. Look, down there, seven four-wheel drives, not one of them more than two years old, each of them an aspiration that crashed in metaphorical flames. Actually, maybe that’s not a good analogy. Each a dream that withered on the vine of illusory success.”

The young woman laughs.

“You’re impressed, I can see,” Thaddeus smiles. “In return for your listening, you get a free key ring.”

Rummaging in his jacket pocket, he produces a fob and hands it to the woman.

“Thank you,” she says. “But you don’t like me, do you?”

“Actually I do.”

She seems surprised.

“I don’t like what you’re doing or how you tried to do it but I do like you. Something you said.”

“What did I say?”

“You said ‘I should hope not’ about my dog not being for sale.”

She nods.

“You can have a cup of coffee if you want,” Thaddeus says. “But no story.”

The woman nods again and they walk towards the office. Thaddeus draws up a chair and motions her to sit down. The dog settles at her feet. Thaddeus pours two coffees, clears a space on his desk, pushes sachets of milk and sugar towards the young woman, takes a packet of biscuits from a drawer and sits opposite her.

The woman sips her coffee.

“What was he like?” she asks, as nonchalantly as though she were asking about a set of seat covers.

Thaddeus allows himself a smile and a raised eyebrow but says nothing.

“It’s just a story at this stage,” the woman says.

“Then you could make it up, give your imagined version. Others have.”

“That’s not how I work.”

“Good for you.”

Thaddeus stares through the plate glass window that frames five miles of countryside. Across the distant fields, the haze gives way to memory. He looks back through the mists of spring to a remembered evening and sees his father in a garden.

“I’ll tell you a story,” he says.

The woman looks up but doesn’t reach for her recorder.

“It had been raining all that afternoon,” Thaddeus says quietly. “But the late light and the evening breeze were sucking the dampness out of the raised drills. My father bent and dug out one last sod near the headland of the garden. ‘Now,’ he called. Called to me. ‘Bring him out.’ I was a young boy then, ten or eleven, used to doing as I was told, but I hesitated. ‘Bring him on,’ my father said again. ‘The sooner we get this done, the better; you’re only prolonging his misery.’

“I turned and opened a shed door. From the darkness, an old dog hobbled into the garden. It seemed to me that it was suddenly twilight and that the warmth had gone out of the sun.

“Bring him over,’ my father called. ‘It’ll save us carrying him.’

“I put my hand on the dog’s shoulder and he looked up at me.

“Come on,’ I said quietly. I was hoping the animal wouldn’t hear or would disobey but, instead, he wagged his tired tail, his eyes brightened momentarily and he struggled in my wake, along the narrow path to where my father stood, crowbar in hand.

“‘See,’ my father said. ‘He can hardly walk. We’re doing him the best turn anyone ever done him.’

“The dog didn’t look up to the place from which my father’s voice had come. Instead he held my gaze, I know it was because he trusted me. The breeze was lifting his long coat and then it seemed to me that his head exploded. My father had brought the crowbar down heavily, the point crashed through the dog’s skull. For a moment, the animal went on embracing me with that unquestioning look and his eyes filled up with blood and slowly they begin to drip, then gush. Blood was bulging from his sockets and suddenly it spouted out. And, just as abruptly, the dog’s legs buckled and he fell on his side, away from the open grave. There was no sound. I had heard nothing, no splitting skull, no breaking bone, no whimper, no bark.

“My father put his boot on the animal’s side, jerking the crowbar from his skull.

“‘Never felt it,’ he said.

“I was mesmerised by the tears of blood drip, drip, dripping on the evening clay. My father heaved the dog’s carcass with the toe of his boot and rolled it awkwardly into the hole he had dug. There was nothing left only the dark blots of drying blood on the clay.”

The young woman is silent.

“There’s your story,” Thaddeus says quietly.

“Thank you.”

For a long time they sit in silence. Finally, the young woman takes her bag from the floor and stands up.

“Thank you again.”

Thaddeus drains his coffee cup and walks her to the door.

“I hope I didn’t waste your afternoon,” she says.

“Millionth customer, glad to see you,” he smiles. “You’ve got your free key ring?”

She opens her palm; the key ring rests in it.

“You should have been a writer,” she says.

“No, that was someone else’s job, but we won’t go there. And now it’s your job. Good luck with it.”

Bending, the young woman pats the dog, then walks towards the road.

“If you know of anyone looking for a good car, tell them about us,” Thaddeus calls after her.

The woman waves without turning and disappears around the yard gate. Thaddeus sits again on the office step and buries his face in the warm hair of this dog, the dog whose smell reminds him of the smell of that other dog on long ago, far away shining days. And he thinks of a summer evening after rain in another garden, not the one in which the dog was killed and not the overgrown patch at the back of this car showroom. He’s there with a girl, dark-haired, like the young woman who has just left. The girl is saying, “It’s the most beautiful evening of my life.” They’re standing in the shadow of a tree and an hour has passed since she agreed to marry him.

As they watch, a dunnock flies into the paws of a skulking cat and from there into the cat’s jaws. He wonders what the dunnock was thinking to be so easily caught. Was it thinking only of food or was it not thinking at all? Was it celebrating the summer day that was ending, yet another summer day on top of all the other summer days stretching back across the weeks?

“It seemed to be filled with joy when it flew into the cat’s paws, the cat’s claws, the cat’s jaws,” Thaddeus says. “It was singing.”

“Birds are addicted to singing,” she says. “It’s not a conscious choice. It truly is an addiction.”

And he knows, in that instant, that they will never marry.

Even now, thirty-five years later, sitting on the sunlit step of this failing second-hand car business, he has no idea how or why he knew, intuitively, that what had just been agreed would never happen. He has never been able to fathom why, suddenly, they were losing one another, why something in her tone, rather than what she had said, told him everything he didn’t want to know.

“Gardens are not always good places,” Thaddeus says.

The dog looks up at him, then rolls on its back, wanting its belly rubbed.

Thaddeus obliges, laughing as he does so.

John MacKenna is the author of fifteen books – novels, short-stories, memoir, biography and most recently, a collection of poems Where Sadness Begins (Salmon Poetry). He is a winner of the Irish Times Fiction Award; the Hennessy Award and the Cecil Day Lewis Award. Email John at ub15@eircom.net

House In Shadows – Photo by Christopher Woods.

The Chrysalis

 – By Wes Henricksen

There was an ant. The ant was running along one day, nimbly dodging around pebbles and sticks, when he caught sight of a chrysalis hanging from the side of a log. He’d never seen a chrysalis before. It looked like some kind of strange upside down mushroom. Or maybe a fungus. Whatever it was, it was funny-looking.

The ant, uninterested in the strange-looking thing, ran along, foraging for bits and pieces of this and that to carry back to its nest.

The next day, the ant saw the chrysalis there again. He looked a little closer, wondering what in the world it was. It didn’t look like part of the tree, exactly. But it didn’t move either. He went up to it and bit it. Nothing. A droplet of clear liquid seeped from the puncture he’d made but the thing stayed rigid. He ran along.

A couple days later the chrysalis caught his attention in a big way. It was moving! He ran up to it as it swung back and forth. Back and forth, back and forth. It was the saddest thing he’d ever seen. The damned thing was alive! He couldn’t believe it. What a miserable way to live, he thought. It’s stuck in place—it can’t go anywhere! He watched it a little while, feeling sorry for it.

Then he got bored and went on foraging.

The next morning the ant hurried to the chrysalis, anxious to see the pitiful, squirming thing. Maybe bite it again. But it wasn’t there. All he found was an empty shell. He walked very close to it and looked inside. Nothing. He bit the shell but it was hard and crusty. A small flake fell from it.

The thing was gone.

He imagined that finger-shaped bug bouncing and squirming along somewhere close by. No legs. No wings. No eyes or ears or antennae. It would be the easiest prey ever, and it would be a prize if he brought it back to the nest. It would be a feast. But he didn’t have time to go looking for it. He had foraging to do.

Wes Henricksen is a former ice hockey player who now practices law.  When he can, he writes.  His writing has appeared in various media, including the New York Times and the Chicken Soup for the Soul book series, and he is the author of the popular law student guidebook Making Law Review.  He is currently working on his first novel. His Twitter handle is @henricksen.

 

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