The Plaza

Echoing off of the once proud buildings, the overture bounced off the dumpsters, cutting through the buses as it zoomed past the discount stores before finally reaching the abandoned movie theater.  Once the hub of the fine plaza, the theater stood still and lifeless, its windows boarded shut and covered with misspelled expletives.

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The speakers, installed at each corner of the library, acted as cost-effective sentries in the wake of the disrepair, showering the symphony over the littered parking lot, greeting the men smoking outside with triumphant cymbals and victorious clashes.

Once home to the latest trends in fashion, The Plaza’s bustling commerce helped trigger the exodus from the city’s downtown shopping district many moons ago.  As the years passed, the traffic slowed and the rust set in, its aging structures were left behind, and now stood haggard and worn, like a heavyweight boxer leaning on the ropes late in the fight, as they swayed in the wind.

The scenic mountains, untouched by time or commerce, remained loyally behind the empty buildings, lending a majestic view to the dormant square with its breathless sunsets on warm summer evenings.  Below, cigarette butts and candy wrappers climbed the curbs of the deserted sidewalks, as large weeds flourished in the neglect, as if driven by the symphony that played ceremoniously in the solemn afternoon.

 

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The Teacher

The fresh snow was perfect.  Full of magic and beauty, it’s flakes fell to the ground in muted blankets, a feeling of innocence accompanying its arrival.  Like children, they gathered at the window, holding drinks, taking pictures with phones.  A few of them shouted out in excitement, raising their glasses before a hushed giddiness fell over them.   After the initial uproar the snowfall seemed to have a calming effect, a brief hypnotic attribute that left them gazing out the window with wonderment.

The scene reminded John of his pupils watching the snow fall from the windows of the classroom, the empty branches of the trees in the schoolyard collecting the snowfall as it quietly fell from the sky. Even in the dark bar, he was still in the classroom.

He took a sip from his glass, feeling the warm bourbon trickle down his chest as he set down the glass on the warped coaster, continuing his thoughts of the kids, in a frenzy as they watched the snow cover the streets and sidewalks leading to up to the entrance of the school.  As the sky grew darker and the overhead lights brighter, he knew that lessons were over for the day.  The buoyancy in the room made trivial matters such as reading or writing unbearable as they awaited the principal’s announcement stating that–due to the weather–school was closing early.

At the window, the assembly slowly broke apart to both sides, like a curtain parting, allowing the street light to enter once again as the patrons went for their drinks with wide grins and agreeable faces and John wondered if he had in fact, taught any of them.  It was hard to tell from their faces, worn and haggard behind the façade of inebriated their merriment. The innocence of childhood had long since vanished and he wondered what they had been like before the first and second divorces, the layoffs, the bills, and the disappointments of life had changed them.

Just like the snow, as children they had once been pristine and angelic before being had been tainted by their environment, mixed with the dirt and grime until they were shoved to the side like the gray slush on the streets.

John ordered another bourbon and laughed at his thoughts, depressing and gloomy; sitting in a bar alone was not how he had envisioned retirement.  But life’s disappointments had found him as well, wearing him down as it had chipped and chisseled each wrinkle as the years passed, marking his face like the rings of a tree.  The deep grooves and scars each carried its own significance.  A son lost in the war, a wife who couldn’t live with the pain, the lines were carved deep and without regard to vanity or appearance.

Another sip, outside the snow continued to fall, the door opened, a man wiped the wet flakes from his coat and hat, a puddle forming at his feet.  He looked around as he is welcomed by the partakers, having another round for the snow.  Spotting John, he walked towards the bar, sliding into the stool beside him, right on time.

“Hey John.”

John offered no response but the younger man was unfazed, nodding at the bartender while rubbing his hands together for warmth.  John stared ahead, his face unchanged in the presence of company.

“So uh, Amy and I were hoping you would join us for dinner tonight.”

John took a long pull of his bourbon, finding strength in its familiar burn.  The bartender set a beer on the bar and Eric took an obligatory sip, waiting patiently for the man to acknowledge him.

“Eric, why do you teach?”

Eric took a moment as if to put together the short complex question, he smacked his lips and looked down at the beer, as if he wasn’t quite sure what he was drinking.

“I uh, I’ve always wanted to teach, since I was a child.”

“Not the question.  Why?”  Still staring straight ahead, his silver and white whiskers intertwined with the wrinkles in his face, lending him an unrefined yet well versed look of distinction.

Eric finally shrugged.  “I don’t know, I guess I relate to kids better than adults.”

The old man nodded his head in agreement, savoring the last sip of bourbon that tangled with the cubes of ice in his glass.

“Today’s his birthday you know.”

“I know, Amy would really like to see you.”

“She said that?”

Eric nodded, studying his beer. The windows had gone black as the storm revelers were staring up at the tv, watching the weather forecast on the news.

“I spent too many years in the classroom to be taken for a sucker kid.  She doesn’t want to see me, she probably still blames me for her mother’s—“

“She’s pregnant John.  We’re having a baby, and I would like for the two of you to put this thing to rest.”

He turned towards Eric, slowly, the wrinkles softening, branching out at the corners of the eyes as the astonishment spread across his face.

“A baby?”

“Yes, a boy.”

A fresh start, just like the snow, free of all the pain and disappointment.  A baby!  John felt awake, as if he had just woke from a long hibernation.  He thought back to bringing Amy home from the hospital, the joy he felt as he became a father.  And now…a grandfather.  He motioned for the bartender, this round was on him.

“You know what son, you’re right.  I should see her, if she’ll let me.  She’s just so stubborn you know?”

Eric smiled.  “I have no idea where she gets it from.”

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The Heart And The Soul State Their Cases

As the flames roared, there was little time before the old structure collapsed. The body was in trouble, smoke was wreaking havoc on the lungs while making breathing difficult. As the fire raged inside the building, a fiery discussion took place within the body.

At this crucial juncture in life, the heart and soul were involved in a heated debate. As always, the two do not see eye to eye and had begun to voice their opinions about what the body should do. As they presented their cases, the mind listened impartially, as it was the mind who would ultimately make the decision in the end.

The heart passionately argued that doing the right thing in this time of crisis was what should be, no, what must be done. What separated us from other species, the heart pleaded, was our goodwill towards others.

The soul wanted to do what was best for the mind and the heart at the moment, survive. Of main concern, the soul argued, was the well being of the host. If it’s fight or flight the soul was squarely in the corner of the latter.

The heart chimed in and repeated the plea for compassion, helping others and doing what’s right when no one is looking. The soul asked the heart to please spare everyone the sappy drivel, it’s a tired routine and everyone was sick of it. After being reprimanded by the mind, the soul begrudgingly offered a less than soulful apology.

The tension was building, and each side was acutely aware of the circumstance. They could all agree that a resolution needed to be reached rather quickly as the situation was worsening. The mind was having a terrible time with this case, and time was of the essence in this proceeding.

The soul decided that it was time for drastic measures. Bringing up past decisions to support his argument, the soul asked what good could be done if the host didn’t escape, how could future good deeds be performed if the host were to perish? It was a great point, one that obviously scored some points with the mind.

The heart knew this, and countered immediately, emotions running high. “Do what is right! What good is saving ourselves if we cannot be trusted to do the right thing?”

The mind had listened to both; each had made a compelling case. The mind was trusted to be fair and reasonable during these discussions, but in the end usually found for the soul. But they had better hurry, or the smoke would make the choice for them. After a quick deliberation the mind had reached a decision.

“Both of you have made excellent points here today, but we do not have the luxury of time to pursue this any further. As both of you know, the single most important function is to preserve the body.”

With that the decision had been made, from start to finish the debate was over in a flash, only seconds had elapsed. Court was adjourned and with a weary heart, the three worked in unison to safely escape the burning building.

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Happy Hour…

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The song on the radio pulled and tugged, transporting Nathan Helms, if only briefly, back to an era of careless excursions, a time when decisions were made on a whim and there was little responsibility or stress.  The summer after college, while the world awaited his endeavors, Nathan had spent a month Europe, another at the beach, and spent the remaining weeks travelling up and down the east coast.  This had been a time when there were options; endless opportunities awaited, filling him with hopes and dreams that were attainable through hoping and dreaming.  The carefree days of college had come to an epic conclusion and now it was time to join the ranks of the workforce.

The youthfulness of college had long since faded in the subsequent 15 years, as a job turned into a career, dating into an engagement, and marriage had gradually morphed into a working relationship of compromises and practical decisions.   He tried to remember the early days of marriage, when he and Cori would head out with friends, drinking and dancing on weeknights, while discussing future endeavors with drunken enthusiasm.

These days however, Nathan spent his time looking forward to the two hour outing at Hoppy’s every other Friday after work.  There–with Mitch, a coworker in his late twenties, and Art, a drinking buddy that he could not remember how he met–he would enjoy 3-5 beers as he slipped back into his youthful ways.  If only for a couple precious hours, he forgot about deadlines and meetings, weekend projects and errands of the mind numbing boring insurance company who employed him.  He quickly discarded the mundane thoughts of work that occupied his everyday life and sipped his Guinness, savoring each bitter mouthful, enjoying the careless chatter around him.

While he sat in his chair, letting the alcohol find its way through his bloodstream, the cruel apparatus on the wall relentlessly counted the minutes with ruthless efficiency.  Its sole purpose of being built was to push time forward, the seconds became minutes, as it captured the first hour at a merciless rate.  He checked his phone for accuracy, only to find that it too was counting, as if it were a ground soldier in the war against free time.

As the second hour passed–perhaps even faster than the first–Nathan asked for his tab, actually, one more beer and my tab.   Mitch was droning on and on about his latest project at work, while Art was involved in a spirited debate with another man about the offensive woes of his favorite football team.

“Nate, you heard about Jim didn’t you?”

Mitch had asked, his face flushed from the Makers Mark.  Nathan shrugged, feeling the warmth of his last Guinness.  He only wanted to enjoy his last beer without talk about work, or kids, or anything for that matter.  There were times when he had even thought about going to a different bar, alone before quickly discarding such anti-social thoughts from his head.

“Yeah, crazy.” He answered in response to the question about Jim Foyers.  Jim was a senior claims analyst who was recently fired after sending inappropriate pictures to a female intern.  According to Mitch, who was unable to suppress the sly smile parting from his lips, his wife had left him, taking with her their three young children.

“What an idiot…” Mitch concluded while finishing the last of his drink, setting it down while immediately looking for a waitress.

Nathan lifted his pint glass, pulling in the bitter concoction, as if to savor the taste, trying to savor the concluding moments of his barroom surroundings.  Standing up, he had resisted the temptations of one last round, as Mitch had become loud and jolly, pleading with him to have just one more drink.

A car horn coincided with the green light, and Nathan started off, adjusting his rearview mirror as he slowly crept under the green light.  The dated Honda behind him honked again, as a teenager, no more than 20 anyway, jerked the car into the other lane, while gunning the engine.  The loud muffler screamed as the engine strained, and the punk flashed long, skinny middle finger as he passed.

For a fleeting moment Nathan thought about giving chase, he imagined himself pulling up next to the car and motioning for the pimpled and pierced kid to pull over.  There he would out, ready for a rumble, and begin to teach the kid a lesson, saying something witty like, class is in session.

In his mind he fought like a mixed martial arts fighter.  Quick and fluid in his motions, a few short punches and the kid would fall to the ground, stunned and repenting.  Nathan’s button down work shirt was unbuttoned, revealing a tight t-shirt, clinging to his sculpted torso as he hovered over the young punk in a victorious yet compassionate stance, his tie waiving in the wind as he offered to help the kid get up and find his way in the world.  He needed guidance.  After a good ass whipping of course.

The screaming Honda shot up the road, as Nathan watched it weave in and out of traffic as it ascended, taking with it the loud winding muffler.  Nathan relaxed his knuckles on the steering wheel, knuckles that had never been in a fight, had never been trained in mixed martial arts, and had never pointed an instructive finger at young punks on the ground after a lightning barrage of punches.  As a matter of fact, they didn’t do much of anything these days.

Pulling in the empty driveway, Nathan checked his phone, guessing Cori had made a trip to the grocery store.  He stared at the dark and depressing house, with the high grass she had been after him to cut.  Why she hadn’t called him to stop on his way home?  Walking inside, he tried to remember the last time he had even spoken to Cori about something other than household chores.  He turned on the lamp in the living room, feeling an emptiness coming over him just before he noticed the note beside the remote on the table.  He walked over, slowly picking it up, taking a moment before opening the piece of paper bearing his name.

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A Killer’s Thoughts…

I used to think people lived forever.   They reached a certain age and joined grandma and the others someplace up in the clouds. That’s what my mother used to say. I was young, maybe 7 or 8 when I learned any different. Nothing lasts forever, the sun goes down and the day comes to an end. The sun is setting for me; my end is near.

As a child, I spent a lot of time alone with only the passing thoughts in my head. Some would vanish before they could be further analyzed. Others would linger, spending the afternoon in my soul, refusing to vacate despite how hard I tried to rid myself of their presence. The more I tried to shake them, the stronger they became.

Most of us consider ourselves good people no matter what the evidence to the contrary. We tell ourselves lies so that we want so we can put up with ourselves and continue to   commit heinous crimes against others. Not me, I tell myself the truth.  I learned long ago what I am.

I remember the day I realized I was not like others. It was on a warm spring morning and I had grown tired of sitting in the house watching television. I opened the front door quietly, as not to wake my sleeping mother.  Outside, I could feel the wet blades of grass on my dirty bare feet as I hummed softly while inspecting an ant hill beside the walkway.

I could watch the ants for hours. Working together, they would move pieces of fruit or bread one after another. They’re tireless workers, each with a role and a task to complete. I would leave crumbs out on the sidewalk to see how quickly they could move it.

At some point I spotted a frog over near the dogwood tree in front yard. I ran over in pursuit, chasing him into the boxwood bushes in front of the house before snatching him into my small hands.

I held the toad firmly, examining the warts on his back as it expanded and contracted in my hands. There was the faint sound of a lawn mower in the distance, the sun was out and the birds were singing when the urge took hold of my young and impressionable mind. My grip loosened as I fought with the stubborn notion, and part of me hoped he would jump to freedom from my soft hands.

The first blow to the pavement rendered the frog useless; it landed with a dull thud in the middle of the street. Picking the harmless creature up, I continued to throw it to the pavement again and again, as if I obeyed the thought it would go away. With each throw I wished it would stop, but it only became stronger. Finally a car approached and I dropped the lifeless toad on the street and ran towards the door.

Looking up, I saw my mother standing on the porch watching me, unable to speak. I’ll never forget the look on her face. After that things were different between us.

Others in my position blame their parents. Perhaps their upbringing or some emotional trauma. I have no one to blame, just the thoughts in my head. That and the curiosity. People want to know what happened to me, what made me this way. To them I would say that I was made this way, nothing happened to change it.

Am I a monster? I don’t know, somewhere inside of me is a 7 year old boy looking for his mother, a mother who was scared of her own child. I’ve thought about what might have happened if that frog had escaped. Would things have turned out different for me? I don’t think so, if it hadn’t been that frog it would have been a dog or cat, and so on.

I’m not scared of dying, I welcome it. It’s time for the thoughts to end. As for the victims, what good does it do if I apologize? They’re still dead, just like that frog. Just like me.

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At The End Of Day…

The games sometimes lasted until dark. In the field behind the Saunder’s house, Jack and his three buddies, Willie, Robert, and Tommy, defended their makeshift diamond against familiar challengers from other streets in the neighborhood. As Summer came to a close, tomorrow’s game would be the finale.

At the house John hopped in the shower as he had big plans for the evening. He had promised Rose he would pick her up at seven for dinner in his father’s convertible Buick Roadmaster. He was quite nervous, it was his first real date with a girl. Adjusting his tie, he glanced one last time in the mirror, his freshly shaved fuzz revealed his 17 year old face, he wiped his palms on his jacket and turned the light off behind him..

The party was memorable to say the least. After a day of cheering, drinking, and cheering some more in the student section, the football team had won its first bowl game in twenty years. The campus was electric as coeds mingled, laughed, and danced into the night. Jack had revelled in the madness with the guys until his eyes met Catherine’s at a party in the cellar of an old fraternity house. She was gorgeous, and Jack found that suddenly the football game, the beer, and his raucous friends were of little importance to him.

On the way home she had complained of cramps, and by the time her water had broken, he was driving fast but safely, not wanting to harm his two passengers sitting beside him. He was scared but tried to remain calm for Catherine, although she seemed to be the one in control. Jack remembered getting to the hospital but the rest was a blur of waiting, pushing, waiting more, screaming, almost fainting, and feeling helpless until suddenly they were alone and he was holding a 6 pound, 3 ounce bundle of life that he loved more than words could explain. They named her Susan.

Letting go of the bike, he watched it wobble clumsily but stay on course, ten feet, then twenty, then thirty. Jack jogged behind the small bike, ready to catch it should Susie lose control. He beamed with pride yet felt a tinge of regret watching his daughter remain steady on her own. The huge smile on her face made it all worthwile, she had finally done it. She didn’t need him to hold on anymore.

As usual, the arguments were over financial matters. The bills had continued to pile up as the money had become scarce. They would have to make sacrifices, as there were two kids, one going off to college in the fall. The stock portfolio had taken a hit, jobs had been downsized and cutbacks had been necessary. The house would not be sold, he was adamant about that. They would get by as they always did. He changed careers and continued, because it was what he had to do.

As he walked down the aisle, arm in arm with his beautiful baby girl, Jack wished the walk was farther. Just like the bike, he didn’t want to let her go. Reaching the altar he graciously kissed Susan on the cheek, slowly letting her hand slip away. Once again he was haunted with regret as he took his seat, he wasn’t needed any longer. Catherine put her hand on his knee, her moist eyes confessing gratitude.

A black dress, complete with the beautiful necklace that he had picked out himself only emphasized what Jack already knew, he had been a fortunate man. As he sipped champagne over a candlelight dinner, he had plenty to be thankful for; the past 30 years had been full of ups and downs but having the woman sitting across from him had gotten him through it all. Remember the cellar? They both laughed. Best night of my life…

Jack’s job at the home improvement box store had its moments, but for the most part kept him feeling useful. His hearing wasn’t what had once been, but that didn’t make him any less capable. He showed up every day eager to help, he needed to stay productive. The job kept him active, although the doctor had advised no more than twenty hours a week. He had thought he would enjoy retirement. But how could he without his wife?

From what he could understand, the house had to be sold. He was told that he would enjoy the home, or the community as it was called. The cemetery was nearby, where he would go to visit Catherine a few nights a week. He knew his memory was fading, but complained little. He played poker on Friday nights and watched war movies on Saturdays, but he could feel it slipping away. He had become frail and he sometimes forgot to eat. He had trouble with names, and at times even faces. His biggest fear was forgetting her.

Jack rested his head on the pillow before reaching to turn off his bedside lamp. He looked over at the picture on the night stand and wondered just who was the family in the frame. There was a young couple with two little girls happily smiling at the beach, along with other pictures of children and babies, but try as he might he couldn’t remember who they were. Giving up, he turned off the light and stared at the ceiling, thinking of how quickly the summer had come to an end. Tomorrow he and the guys would play one last time before summer was over.

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If These Shoes Could Talk

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We used to run. Every morning, rain or shine we were together, trudging along. I felt your hands, full of life as they lifted me from the closet before nimble toes found their way past my tongue, filling me with energy. I could feel the tendons, as tight as the laces that held us together.

Walking outside as the sun was rising, the world quiet and full of hope as we welcomed the new day. A quick stretch, a few deep breaths of the morning air and we were on our way, heading out for an early dawn journey. Where to today?

We were alive! The splash of the dew drops on a cool summer mornings, the slippery blades of grass clung to my toe and hung on my heel, everything felt new and fresh. Through muddy puddles and wet roads we plunged ahead, steadfast and sure. I slapped the asphalt with confidence and pride as the warming sun grew stronger with each mile.

In the fall, as the weather became cool and the grass turned a yellowish brown, we stayed on course, running through the damp leaves that had collected on the street, the chimneys releasing a steady plume of smoke into the brisk autumn air. I felt the muscles, reactively flexing with each strident step, rhythmic and powerful in their fluid motions.

Winter arrived and we didn’t flinch. Socks, wet from a mixture of sweat and ice, soggy as we ran, the sting of the salt throbbed with each invigorating step as together we slogged through the ice and the chilly waters on the street. Our pace unrelenting as traffic sent slush splashing to the curb, drenching me in the frozen concoction of dirt and grime and chemicals. Oh the rush; running through the elements, stepping over and through any obstacles awaiting us. We were strong! Until we arrived home.

Something changed. Our runs became less frequent and our time less productive. The early morning sun would pass quietly over as you slept. A grief settled over the house like a fog in the trees, lingering…looming. No schedule, no alarms, and no structure. Movements were different, there was no direction, less confidence, with a heavy pain in our gait. My laces became dirty, frayed and mangled as they flopped along clumsily untied. Your feet slithered into my sole, slowly, like slugs sliding under a rock.

We travelled without hope, into dirty bathrooms, unfamiliar floors that were stained with filth and grime. Tap tap tap, I bounced anxiously in dark rooms with strange faces, threatening. Darkness subsided, my soles were creased and bent from the strain, hunched over as tears fell onto my surface like drops of springtime rain. Our hours were erratic, often leaving the house in the moonlight instead of the sun. Our steps steered with sadness, barely lifting my sole while dragging the heel. I sensed the depression in your pulse, the balls of your feet signaling the defeat in your mind.

Wake up! My outsoles faced upwards, the feet inside of me cold and lifeless. The night was dark and quiet, the pain dulled and numb. Finally the sun found us, there was movement. Bright lights, grim faces discussed the fate of the miserable soul who lay slouched on the gurney. I dangled lifelessly, my toes pointing downward as limp ankles had neither the strength nor the will to support the legs connected to them. Weak, in mind and spirit, ready to die from the abuse. Fade to black…

Slow. Our steps were unsteady and shaky. Like a toddler learning to walk, timid feet negotiating cautiously, one in foot in front of the other, again and again, until a comfortable hobble was agreed upon. Over time, the steps slowly became steady. Shuffling underneath the walker, the fluorescent lights bouncing off of the polished floors as machines hummed diligently in the background. Step, slide, step…

We rise with the sun, breathing in the healing powers of morning. We start our journey, our path becoming more familiar each day. We walk, sometimes working up to a gentle jog on good days. There is still a hurt in our steps, baggage that is carried but now it is managed. With each step the confidence returns, slowly. We walk towards a goal, instead of running away from the pain. One step at a time.

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