What the hell’s going on?

If you’re wondering what’s going on, why I haven’t posted in a while…

Well, school’s back in, so that’s taking up some time. More importantly, though, I’m about to get a guide dog. I have a related blog, If It Ain’t Ruff…, which will detail my upcoming training. I wanted something stand-alone and kid-friendly so I could share info with more people. I’ll be back here at some point, though. Until then, check out the other page.

Posted in best-laid plans | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Bradleysburg (10)

At the age of 17, Max Cassidy dropped out of high school. He liked drinking and dirt-bikes and could give two shits about what king conquered whom or how many laws Newton made up. Life was short–everyone told him so–too short for riding a bus forty-five minutes to Union City and doing math problems. This is what he would say later, anyway, at the Supper Bell Bar as he played pool with the guys.

It could not be said that young Max was an outcast, but he didn’t exactly fit in, either. He wore faded blue jeans and flannel shirts, steel-toed boots scuffed up and caked with mud. He carried an empty Pepsi can at all times, spitting tobacco juice into it when his teachers were distracted, which was often. He kept to himself. The first time most of his classmates heard him speak was that last day, in typing class.

It was 1993, but Union City Area High School still taught typing on Smith-Corona typewriters from the early seventies. In fact, Miss Berdanski had taught Max’s mom twenty years earlier on these same machines, not that it made a bit of difference in Kay Cassidy’s life. She waited tables at a truck stop, where she wrote orders by hand.

Miss Berdanski may have taught his father, too, but Max didn’t know. The old man had never been around. Max wasn’t even sure who his father was, or even if his mother knew. Sometimes, she came home with men he’d never seen before. She took them into her bedroom and they grunted on the old springs of her mattress for a little while. The next day, she always went shopping in town–which meant Union City, not Bradleysburg–shopping at Foodland instead of the B. W. Superette. The men never came back. Max never blamed her for it; she did what she had to do.

Miss Berdanski, on the other hand, had probably given up on life decades ago. She dressed like an extra from The Brady Bunch, polyester slacks that flared at the ankle and white blouses dingy with age. Short gray hair lay limp on her scalp, as if it too had stopped trying. An air of burnt menthol trailed her around the room as she monitored the students. If everything looked good, she liked to duck across the hall to the faculty room and smoke two or three Kools and then come back just in time for class to end.

Max usually typed one-handed, his other gripping the spit-can like a talisman. He did not know what his future held, but it would not involve what UCAHS officially called Keyboarding. Berdanski was known for giving everyone a B just for being there. (Pretty girls usually got an A.) That was fine by Max. He just wanted the bell to ring.

She took a smoke break early on Max’s last day. It was mid-April, and she may have been thinking about taxes or Easter dinner alone with her cats. Whatever the case, she bolted five minutes into Keyboarding. The click-click-click of student work ended when the door shut behind her.

A skinny blonde cheerleader stood on a chair and turned on the television mounted in the corner of the room. No regular programming, just an ABC Special Report–a news anchor discussing the standoff in Waco between the Feds and the Branch Davidian cult. Around him, students rolled their cheap office chairs into small clusters and started chatting about prom or the Pirates or some other useless shit, but Max watched the TV. It was just a plain white building, but the FBI and the ATF stood like an army outside. Bland on the outside, but evil within. They were molesting kids in there, apparently, and they’d shot some cops at the start of this thing. Fucking nut jobs.

The tall black kid who sat across from him smirked.

“Shit,” he said to Max, “when’s the last time you saw the government this mad at some white folks?”

Max shrugged and spit into the can. Bad enough he had to sit next to this project nigger. He sure wasn’t going to talk to him,

The kid–Kareem? Raekwon? Some other stupid-ass Black Power name?–kept talking. “They start rounding up rednecks, you better watch out. ATF come kickin’ down your door, son. Probably shoot your favorite deer head off the damn wall. BLAU!

“Shut your fucking mouth, boy,” Max muttered. The aluminum in his hand crinkled as he squeezed.

“Man,” Kareem laughed. “Where do you think you are? We ain’t up in the mountains doin’ some Grizzly Adams shit. Calling me boy? You’re in my neighborhood, bitch!”

Kareem stood suddenly and leaned across his typewriter toward Max. “Why you even got beef with me? If you could take a joke as well as your mama can take a dick–“

Max flicked his left wrist, sending a stream of tobacco spit into Kareem’s face, and then he leapt onto the table and onto him, grabbing him by the ears and using his momentum to take them both to the floor. Kareem wrapped his hands around Max’s neck, squeezing as Max tried to smash his head onto the linoleum tiles.

It wasn’t long before some of Kareem’s friends moved in, their Air Jordans landing in Max’s ribs, their fists falling on his skull. It might have degenerated into a full-blown race riot if Max had friends of his own. Instead, the other students kept their distance. One thoughtful girl ran to get Miss Berdanski, startling the teacher so much that she forgot to take the cigarette out of her mouth. She ran in, huffing (and puffing), shrieking at the sight of Max unconscious, blood pouring from his nose and what looked like part of a tooth on the floor. Kareem and three others ran past her, down the stairs and out into the street.

Max had two broken ribs, a fractured orbital bone, a broken nose, and a tooth that was two-thirds gone. His face hurt like hell, but that wasn’t why he wouldn’t talk to the authorities about the incident. Not that they needed his testimony–a class full of kids had seen the fight–but he refused to help, in fact refused to come back at all.

His mother didn’t press him on it. She had never felt well-served by her diploma. Instead, she offered to get Max a job driving truck–she had a few strings she could pull. He turned that down, too. Mostly, he wanted to watch TV until he figured out what he wanted to do.

The week after his beating, he sat on the couch in his living room drinking a Carnation Instant Breakfast and watched the Branch Davidian compound burn. Billows of black smoke rose into the air, riding dark orange flames toward the sun. Child molesters and killers removed from Earth by purifying fire. The apocalypse they’d planned for had come. They died choking on smoke, Hell closing in. Sometimes, Max thought, people got what they deserved.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Bradleysburg (9)

Donna needed coffee. Black coffee, and a lot of it. She felt groggy, could barely stand. The morning sun poked through the trees in sharp bursts of gold. In other circumstances, it would be beautiful.

Her Toyota Avalon–the car she loved, had driven for over a decade–jutted awkwardly out of the ditch, its left rear tire not touching the ground. The airbags hung used and deflated in the windshield. She could smell the airbag powder still; that acrid, burning stench had driven her out of the car and wouldn’t leave her nose. Her face hurt from the quick smack of fabric blasting out of her steering column. She wanted to throw up.

She hoped her son Frank would get here before the police. He could take her home and maybe this would be no big deal. She could get that coffee, eat some greasy food. Take a cold shower. Sober up.

She had only had a few, honestly. Enough to make her hangover go away. A little Absolut poured into her breakfast orange juice because she liked the way the alcohol fumes burned her nostrils when she exhaled. It made the morning news easier to take, muted her fear that the world around her was disintegrating.

Dwayne didn’t talk to her much these days. He got out of bed without a good morning, put on jeans and a t-shirt, and went to Frank’s Diner to sit and talk to the other old men about cars and politics and how colored men couldn’t keep their hands off white women. Then he sat at the antique shop until dinner, which he ate with her in silence before going back to Frank’s for a piece of pie. When he finally came home, he watched ESPN at a volume so high you couldn’t speak over it and went to sleep on the couch. She spent her day alone, watching television judges yell at small-claims plaintiffs. Of course she had a drink or two.

When she was sixteen and Dwayne was twenty-two, he talked to her about everything. They would climb into his ’62 Impala and race down dirt roads as he told her stories about how the Indian chief Nemacolin cut a trail through these very same woods 200 years ago, or how the man who shot General Braddock during the French and Indian War lived on that very farm. They would park back in the woods and get naked and use every inch of the Impala’s back seat. When she found out she was pregnant with Frank, she quit high school and married Dwayne. Not long after that, he stopped telling her stories, and their bed–much more comfortable than a Chevy seat–didn’t see nearly as much use.

She tried a few odd jobs–cutting hair, running a cash register–but Dwayne wanted a clean home and a hot dinner, so none of them lasted. His job at the mine paid well enough. He put in thirty-four years before retiring on his fifty-fifth birthday, and they had enough money saved by then–the college fund Frank never used–to buy the antique shop. For fifty years now, she had been a supporting character in his life, the trusted sidekick who handled the food and the money while he had adventures.

This morning, she decided to drive into Maryland to the Amish market. Fresh vegetables for dinner. Maybe even some fresh beef for a roast. The road to the market curved wildly, so much so that her parents’ generation had named it after Mae West, although this joke was lost on most current travelers. She’d driven it hundreds of times, maybe even thousands.

And today she’d misjudged. Hadn’t turned the wheel hard enough and had plowed into a ditch. Her body was sore. An airbag rugburn smoldered on her right cheek. Where was Frank? She needed a coffee.

Before Donna made it out of the car, a woman had been there to ask if she was okay. Long stretches of Mae West Road were strictly forest or fields, but she had managed to crash her car in front of someone’s house.

“I called for help,” the woman said. “Are you okay?”

“Coffee. Get me coffee.”

“Come sit down on my porch. I’ll get you coffee.” The woman frowned in concern. Donna staggered to the porch but refused to sit. The woman went inside, presumably to brew a pot of joe.

The police arrived before her coffee did. She watched them pull up, lights flashing. Maryland State Troopers. And then she knew she was in trouble. The emergency dispatchers would not send Frank or his fire crew to an accident in Maryland.

The field sobriety test was easy, she thought. Say the alphabet backwards, stand on one leg while touching your nose, walk in a straight line. Simple. Nailed it. But she found herself with her hands on the police cruiser, the policeman’s hands on her. Then he helped her into the back seat and closed the door.

She never did get that coffee.

Posted in Bradleysburg, Fiction | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Bradleysburg (8)

Tina sat on her bed, the sage green sheets pushed aside for her comfort, listening to her mother berate her father in the next room. She wished she could go to work, but Mel’s was closed for the funerals.

“I ask and I beg and I plead with you,” her mother hissed, “but you just sit there, you lazy, lazy piece of shit!”

“Oh, fuck off, Doris,” her father grumbled.

Tina reached for her iPhone and slipped the earbuds in, hitting Shuffle and letting Beyoncé drown out her parents. She closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around her knees.

She hadn’t seen Ray since stealing his four-wheeler. He hadn’t called her or stopped in the Pizzeria. She had not been to church for weeks. She wasn’t going to the memorial service today because Ray would be there, watching his dad speak. Fuck Ray.

The first time he hit her, they had just had sex for the first time. He hadn’t expected to lose his virginity when they went to her room and started playing cards on her floor. She had tricked him into it, he said, had offered herself to him, had taken advantage of his naïveté. She laughed, then, thinking about how eagerly he’d squeezed her breasts and how quickly he’d come, even with the condom she’d taken from her nightstand drawer and rolled onto him. He finished so fast that she hoped he might be eager to help her climax afterward, but his accusations began almost as soon as he withdrew. Her laugh enraged him, and he slapped her.

None of her boyfriends had ever hit her before. Some had yelled, called her bitch or slut, but never that. She was naked and suddenly scared.

Her fear startled him, she thought. He recognized what he’d done. His turnaround had been immediate, tearful and sincere, words of scripture flowing forth as he asked her to pray with him. They held hands, kneeling by her bed, and he begged the Heavenly Father for strength and love. They were both still nude, the condom hanging loosely from his limp penis as he spoke tearfully of Christ and forgiveness.

And she had forgiven him, thinking of how he held doors open and pulled chairs out and wrote her letters that came in the mail complete with bad teenaged poetry. She thought of the Reverend Morris, his warm smile and trusting words. Taking this sweet boy, full of innocence and God, and offering him her body… She felt ashamed then, and she prayed, too, asking the Lord for the strength to be virtuous, to keep Ray in her life.

They played their parts in the months to come. He, the chivalrous man saving the damaged girl; she, the eager pupil learning the Scripture at his feet. They did not have intercourse again, she having decided to avoid future confrontations by offering only blowjobs and handies, which he accepted without complaint. He struck her again, of course–when he caught her smoking weed, when she blasphemed–but she convinced herself that such suffering was penance, that Ray was helping her.

The attempted rape changed that. His violence stemmed not from a desire to bring her to salvation, but something selfish, something condescending. She saw her true self reflected in his eyes then–as a slut. As someone he could fuck and punch and violate in whatever way he wanted because she was less than a person.

He’d heard the rumors, like everyone else. He pursued her anyway, because he wanted to see how close he could get to the edge of lust and still pull back. And he hadn’t pulled back. Desire got the better of him, and he loathed her for it. Loathed her, so he used her.

Tina saw the last several months for the cruel joke they were. As much as Ray hated her, she hated herself for being fooled, for chasing respectability. More rumors would start, if they hadn’t already. What would the next man expect from her?

She took out her earbuds and let her parents’ rage wash over her until she thought she would drown.

Posted in Bradleysburg, Fiction | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Bradleysburg (7)

Pudge had never seen his dad cry before. Frank Hayes was a tough bastard, even by the hyper-masculine standards of rural southwestern Pennsylvania. The boy had seen Frank forcibly eject angry men twice his size from the diner, and he’d been to enough volunteer firemen’s banquets to understand why other men instinctively respected his father. The man possessed an almost clinical detachment in times of crisis, an unwillingness to succumb to any emotion, be it fear, anger, sadness. But that night–after the coroner pronounced death, after the bodies were bagged, after the scene was cleared–Frank returned home and wept in his wife’s arms on their old green couch. Pudge fled in embarrassment from his father’s humanity.

When he’d limped home from the pavilion that afternoon in August, his father asked only where it hurt and how much, and then he’d lifted Pudge into the back seat of his Jeep Cherokee and driven him to the emergency room in silence. A full half an hour to Union City, just the purr of the engine and searing pain for company.

The hospital staff made Frank leave the room so they could question the boy about his injuries. Andy, how did this happen. You can be honest with us…. They did not believe the story he and Jared had agreed upon–about wrestling on the hay bales and him falling off, but they put a cast on him, gave him a walking boot, and said nothing else.

“Who punched you?,” Frank asked him as they made the drive back up into the mountains.

“I fell, and–“

“Bullshit, Andy. You didn’t fall face-first into somebody’s fists.”

The boy said nothing, just sat staring at the back of his father’s head rest.

“We’re gonna work on this, so the next time you get in a fight, the other guy will end up with puffy eyes and the only way you’ll hurt your ankle is kicking his ass.”

Pudge entered fourth grade to pitying looks from Mrs. Meeder, who spoke extra gently to him and offered him a cookie while the other kids took recess. Like the nurses, she suspected something. He stayed quiet and enjoyed the snack.

Adults were driven by motivations beyond his comprehension. He understood his father’s tears only in a theoretical sense. Five people died; death was sad. No one in Pudge’s life had ever died. Forever remained abstract.

He knew some of these dead men. Mayor Jenkins was Sammy’s dad, who roamed the annual Bradleysburg carnival passing out tickets to random children. Mr. Neville took care of the church camp. Bernie Wallace didn’t have a car; he could be seen walking around town, carrying his mail or a freshly purchased half-gallon of milk. None of them knew Pudge as more than Frank’s boy, but he still could not fathom a world without them.

Through the thin wall that separated his bedroom from the living room, he could only make out pieces of his parents’ conversation–screaming and stench and dental records. He tried and failed to form an image of the accident. He’d seen people electrocuted in cartoons, the poof of smoke and the hair standing up above the suddenly sooty face. Where did death come in? How were dentists involved?

Two days after taking him to the hospital, Frank brought Pudge into the backyard.

“Hit me, Andy.”

“Huh?”

“Punch me.”

“Where?”

“Anywhere.”

Pudge hesitated, but seeing that his dad really did want to be punched, he threw a wide, looping right at the man’s stomach. Frank knocked it aside easily with his left hand and slapped the boy across the face with his right.

The blow stung. Pudge could feel the outline of his father’s fingers on his jaw. He cried out in surprise and pain.

“The first thing you have to understand,” Frank said, ” is that the other person in a fight wants to hurt you. You have to protect yourself. Hit me again.”

He punched again, but this time he kept brought his left hand up to block his father’s shot. It worked, kind of.

“Good, son. That’s a start.” Frank knelt down to be at the boy’s level. “I don’t want you to start fights, but I don’t want you coming home all fucked up, either. Guard yourself. But if the kid just won’t leave you alone, the best thing you can do, the best way to end it, is to grab him by the balls and squeeze as hard as you can. Don’t let go until he’s on the ground. He won’t bother you again.”

This lesson was the only one Pudge received. Frank was gritty, tough, but he’d experienced something new at the borough building, something mean. Pudge was suddenly fearful.

Posted in Bradleysburg, family, fear | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Bradleysburg (6)

For Ike Randall, time slowed down considerably the moment the pole hit the line. He saw the current arc, a brilliant white flash, and the involuntary muscular contortions on the faces of the victims. The pole leaned heavily on the power line, which sagged but did not snap. He wanted to look away, but could not even blink. Had Cindy Jenkins not run toward her husband and the other men, he might have stayed there much longer.

The sound Cindy made–primal, almost inhuman–rose above even the cracking and sizzling of the electrocution. She darted from her porch, moving for the accident, heedless of the live wire. Ike dropped his beer and intercepted her, practically tackling her in the street. She flailed and kicked as he moved her back to the side of the road. Her son had gone back inside; Ike could see him collapsed in the foyer, shaking. Ike looked around for help, but he could see only screams and tears. Only Tina Novak had her cell phone out. He hoped she was calling 911.

When she realized he was too strong for her, Cindy went slack in his arms, her words not as loud but still incomprehensible. He pulled her into her house, stepping gingerly around her crying boy and sitting her on a chair in her dining room, on the other side of the house. Then he closed the curtains in the front parlor. She didn’t need to watch her husband’s corpse burn. Finally, he helped Sammy to his mother, who clutched the child with white knuckle despair. When he was sure the desire to run to the scene had left her, Ike stepped outside and closed the door.

No emergency crews yet. How many minutes had it been? Too many, yet not enough. Dusk had arrived. The streetlights were on. The fallen bodies were fully engulfed in flame now, acrid black smoke rising from charred, blistering skin. They were dead, had been since the voltage passed through them, but death was apparently not indignity enough.

The first ambulance arrived a few minutes later, followed by one of the Brad-Web Volunteer fire trucks. Men in rubber boots and reflective gear blocked off the road. Then everyone waited for the power company to cut the juice as the air grew foul. There were no police on scene yet; the state police barracks was at least twenty minutes away.

Restlessness gnawed at Ike. He could do nothing to help the firemen, did not want to go home to sit with this outside his door. And he definitely did not want to hear Cindy Jenkins wail again. He turned south on Main Street and began walking.

There were dozens of people arriving, some from curiosity, some to help, a few wondering anxiously if one of their relatives had just died. He passed them, moving on the uneven and ill-kept sidewalk past the B.W. Superette and the post office. He climbed the small hill that led out of town, noticing as he reached the sidewalk’s end that the streetlights had finally shut off. The process of extracting the bodies could begin.

At the top of the hill, he left the road and moved down a path into the woods. About a hundred yards off the road sat a small triangular stone obelisk, long ago painted white, though that paint now peeled off in strips. The marker denoted the intersection of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, but few came to see it. He sat down on the grass and leaned his back against the side inscribed WV. The burnt men, their hysterical widows, the humming current–none of that was here with him in West Virginia. Only the smell and the sound of sirens dared cross state lines.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Bradleysburg (5)

The second Tuesday of every month, Sammy’s parents went to the Borough Council meeting. He stayed home, because he was 12 and who cared about zoning and stuff like that?

For three years, Ron Jenkins had been the mayor, a position earned by winning a majority of the borough’s 164 eligible voters, of which only 103 came out on Election Day. The position meant nothing to anyone but Ron and his wife, Cindy, who also served as the Council’s Treasurer. It was an unpaid position, and Ron had run unopposed in last year’s election. Even Sammy knew well enough not to brag about it at school.

Very little of Sammy’s life merited bragging. He was terrible at sports and not much better in school. He had failed the fifth grade–held back, his mother said, as if that made a difference. Any friendships he’d made in the previous six years ended when summer vacation did. His new classmates remained distant; they were a little afraid of him, like Stupid was contagious. But yeah, his dad was the mayor. Great.

And he’d screwed Tina Novak. Or so he’d told a few kids. Small town people talk, and no one in Bradleysburg believed Tina was a virgin. Her sexuality became her identity for those who didn’t know her, and the impulse toward moral superiority drove these same ill-informed gossips to relate her supposed misadventures to anyone who hadn’t heard them. It was a good way to get attention, even if your story bordered on ridiculous. And Sammy’s story was ridiculous, but a few of the younger kids bought it.

Sammy’s parents were devout members of the First Church of God. (They would never attend the Church of the Brethren! Can you believe the pastor there lets his son date her?) They did not discuss sex with him, other than to say it belonged to marriage. What he knew of it came from the magazines he’d found buried deep in his father’s large tool cabinet. Pictures of women with breasts the size of their heads, their mouths open and tongues extended, dog-like, to lick the hairless penises of out-of-shape men. There was no context for this imagery; the captions read Hungry Slut or Take That, Bitch! but nothing else.

Sometimes he dreamed about those women–their bleached and permed hair, their tanning bed complexion, the stretched skin of their breasts–and woke up feeling like every bit of blood in his body had flowed to his crotch. All he could do was wait for the sensation to die out, not that he really wanted it to. Council Meeting nights provided his best chance to examine his father’s secret magazines without fear of being caught.

He was in the garage when his mother came home unexpectedly. She called from the front door, interrupting his attempt to decode the gymnastic complexities of a pic labelled Her First Gangbang. Sammy shoved the magazine back into place and made his way towards his mother’s voice, adjusting the bulge in his pants so she wouldn’t notice.

“Where were you, hon?” Cindy Jenkins stood in the front hallway, her right foot still propping open the door. “I’ve been yelling for you.”

“I was looking for a screwdriver,” he lied. “My doorknob is a little loose, and…”

“Dad can fix that later. I thought you might want to see something.” She waved him onto their front porch and pointed across Main Street to the borough building. A group of men stood gathered around the rusted old town flagpole, engrossed in discussion. His father was there, and a few men from the Council.

“They’re going to take the flagpole down,” his mother explained. “It needs to be sanded and painted because we just ordered this huge new flag, and we want io be ready for Veterans’ Day.”

The pole rose thirty feet into the air, screwed into a pyramid-like concrete base. It stood ten feet from the borough building, right in the center of town.

“Hey, Ron,” Cindy yelled. “I brought Sammy out so he can see you drop the pole on the borough’s roof!” She laughed.

“Cindy, we don’t need to hire someone. Stop worrying!” Ron smiled and went back to talking with the other men.

“Your father is so hard-headed! I’m the treasurer and I know we have the money to get a professional to do this. But he wants to save the money. I said, ‘What if it falls into Main Street or into those power lines or on top of you, Ron?’ But he just says it won’t. He’s probably right. You know him–always right.”

A few neighbors had come out of their homes to watch the flagpole come down. Ike Randall was on his porch, sipping a beer. Sammy could see Tina Novak standing outside of Mel’s, and his minded flashes a vision of her posed like the magazine women. He felt himself stiffen, and then he remembered his mother standing next to him. He tried desperately–unsuccessfully–to think of something else.

The men began turning the flagpole, which wobbled in the slight September wind. Ron stood, holding the pole at shower height, his thick hands tightly gripping the rusty iron. The metal rose slowly and the men held tighter, careful to keep control. Soon it was out of the base, and for a moment everything looked good.

And then the pole began to tip. Even with five men holding onto it, it was top-heavy. The men strained against it as it slipped, which made it even worse when the iron touched the high voltage power line.

Sammy saw the men thrown to the ground, the pole still touching the wire. The men were fastened to the metal by the strong current, and their bodies quivered, and smoke rose from their backs. Their hair caught fire and a sound came from Cindy’s mouth that Sammy would never forget.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment