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“Dear God. Jesus Lord. Jah…Great Yogi Spirit in the Sky,” I pleaded aloud to all humanity from atop Coyote Mountain, a short hike that terminates at the locked gates of an abandoned Molybdenum mine not far from my house. I was down on my knees, as piously posed as one can be. You know the look: hands pressed together, elbows bent and tucked rib-ward, back straight, my head tilted precisely at 45 degrees, eyes closed to the world but opened inwardly to the possibility of random salvation.

“I. Need. A. Job. Any job…. Work.” I continued, really working up a spiritual lather. I felt my voice subconsciously morph into the staccato pattern (strangely, including an effective high-ceilinged echo) of a Baptist Minister who was reciting a particularly meaty passage of The Good Book.

“I need this work badly, you see. Any paid sort of regular activity will suffice, so long as I am able to pay my goddamned bills.”  I paused for effect.

It was in the pause that I first felt an eyebrow lift uncontrollably towards the heavens – a peculiar reaction. I am generally not prone to facial spasms, and so I took this as some sort of sign.

“Oh Jesus. Was that you? Controlling my brow?” I asked aloud without my typical trepidation for public oratory. What the hell. There was nobody around the old mine that could hear my prayer but me, the dog (who was off wallowing in irradiated mud), a few haggard marmots and The Big Guy Upstairs.

It occurred to me why my brow had twitched. Heavenly disapproval seemed the likely culprit. “Uh. Sorry about the “goddamned” thing.” My brain pinged.

“Whoops! Sorry again. I’ll stop with the goddamn stuff. Er. Yeah. OK. That was the last one. I swear. OK. Well, not anymore. With the swearing. I promise. Semantics…”

The other brow lifted to match its partner. “Whoa. So it IS you, right? With the brow tick thing?” I asked excitedly. I hadn’t officially prayed since 1993, and that was only to see if He might allow me to make out with Jenny Dorrance, a total hottie who otherwise ignored me with all of her pigtailed, freckled glory, on the church-sponsored 7th grade ski trip.

“OK. Well, hell..,” I continued. Looking around to make sure that I was truly alone. Of course I was alone. Nobody else EVER hiked this trail. They were worried about contamination. They read the signs and accepted their warnings as law. HA! I knew better. And because I knew better, I had my own private mountain to hike on whenever I wanted.

“OK. Brass tacks, sir. So, this job deal…I need one. Again. I know, I know. I am really sorry about that last one. I seriously tried to make that work, Dear Lord God. I Gave It My All.

“Unfortunately, my all was too much, apparently. It appears in retrospect, God Sir, that in fact, I gave too much. They said that I was “Over The Top” and that I was ‘Scaring the Customers’ with my ‘Antics.’

“Well, fuck em’, Lord. I am sure that you will agree that the Right Dishonorable Senator Teabagger was laughing just as hard as I was when I “accidentally” spilled that decanter on his lap. I mean….You were there. You tell me!?”

“So. Lordy Lord Lord. God of all G’s. Yahweh the Almighty. Can you help me? I won’t go so far as to say that I am in a pickle because I fuckin’ hate pickles. Too bitter. And all those seeds! Yuck! Why cant they make pickles out of carrots, anyways? See if you can look into that…”

“Anywho…,” I prayed with every ounce of spirit-loving hopeyness that I could muster. “I won’t go that far, but I did have to sell my left kidney to science this week to pay for my weekly massage. Priorities, right? We’ve all got ‘em. I’m sure that you do to. Like this job thing. If you can see to it that this little favor gets shuffled up there on your List above all of those prayers from the goddamned mute Jesus freaks down at the monastery that would be really helpful. Maybe if they did a little less silent prayin’ and spent their time making more beer they’d have something to really talk about ,” I added for good measure.

Have you ever had both eyebrows and your ears twitch at the same time? Well, neither had I, until then. It was as if my entire bedraggled face decided to lift itself without provocation or expensive surgery. But that is exactly what happened to me right then and there in front of the old rusty skull and crossbones sign at the shuttered entrance to the Coyote Mountain Molybdenum Mine. This new, enhanced tick was a sure-as-shit sign that my prayers were working. Allah himself was shining down his ever-loving Light of Destined Employment upon my jobless ass. I could almost feel the heat and smell the smoke of providential change singing my back hair. The facial quivering eased up. I could feel my dog at my side. (He dropped a slobbery rock on my exposed calf.)

Slowly, I opened my eyes. A new heavenly dawn was upon me, but it was dusk as hell, and Coyote Mountain is no place to be after dark. I collected the sacraments that I had spread around me in my prayer circle – old corporation name badges, a half bottle of lukewarm Schlitz, some Redman chewing tobacco, and a pack of saltines – and began the winding walk back down the trail to my truck.

I could feel The Spirit lifting my every step and was eager to get home to see what new job God had assigned me. My mind raced at the possibilities, and I found myself smiling as broadly as I had ever even attempted to smile. As I verily skipped down the path, I looked up at the darkened sky and yelled “THANK YOU LORD GOD THE JESUS!”

“You’re welcome.” My answer came in an echoing crackle that filled the hillside. My heart leapt out of my skull while my stomach rocketed right out of my ass simultaneously. It was He. The Great Employer.

“Is that really YOU?” I asked aloud, my feet no longer touching the dirt. I felt myself floating down the hill like some hillbilly Moses hot-rodding around in an invisible Segway.

“Yes. Come here. I am at the bottom of the hill.” The voice commanded. It sounded like God had gotten himself one of those fancy megaphones. I was not surprised in the least. I’d always heard that he works in mysterious ways, but secretly I had always taken The Lord for a man of practicality.

The dog was going nuts by now and had sprinted ahead. It was clear that he too was Called Forth.

Disbelief crept briefly into my psyche, but was quickly dashed by an incredibly bright light that was now shining up the trail from down below. There was no time for pondering the reasons behind my sudden anointment. I had done the hard work of prayer, even Tebowing on my way down to my prayer position, and this was the result. I had to go with it.

“Do you have a JOB for me!?” I sang aloud in a gravelly voice that I’d only heard Jimmy Stewart use before.
“Yes, Mister Anderson, actually I do have a job for you.” The voice said. I was astonished. HE knew my NAME!

Running now around the last corner of the trail, I prepared myself to meet The Creator. The voice talked me into the blinding light.

“Tell me, Big Guy. What job do you have lined up for me?! What am I going to do? Er…Is there, by chance, health insurance involved? Maybe a few weeks of vacation… without having to wait a year to cash in?” I asked, thrilled at the possibilities, trusting my footing in the white wash of heavenly illumination.

Then my world went dark again. My pupils rioted against the sudden change, clamping down on my spiritualized cones and rods with bank vault alacrity. It took a disorienting moment, but I was finally able to see the slim human form of God emerge in the spotty blackness. Hmm, I thought to myself. He’s skinnier than in the paintings.

“Your job, Mister Anderson, if you choose to accept it…” the voice answered from mere feet away. I steeled myself to receive my Ultimate Destiny, delivered by an Eternal Being. My eyes continued adjusting until I could make out the rig that God stood next to. It was a Chevy Blazer with a Pitkin County Sheriff emblem emblazoned on the side. “…is to move your goddamned truck. It’s blocking my way, and I’ve got to get up that hill to investigate reports of someone trespassing at the old mine site.”

“And leash this fuggin’ mutt, he took a piss on my tire.”

(This story was originally published in the literary website, flipcollective.com in August, 2012)

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The Tuesday Pool and the Moon Eaters – a short story

By Corby Anderson

At midnight plus two minutes, the bartendress had seen enough. It was time for her to go home and feed her cat. Time too, for the news and for buttered popcorn in a microwave bag. She would give her cat small pieces of these treats if he asked, but he never asked, so the bartendress always ate it all herself.

The two men, loon squawking buffoons prancing around table number twelve, jamming dollar after dollar into the tired old jukebox, they were not done with the night. Soon their companions would go home, leaving the two to their own devices, left to wander in wonder, and to wonder what happened.

“Hey chica! Howsabout you get some Dylan on here!? Every time I play Dylan Rob fucking Thomas rears his ugly head!” one shouts from across the room. “Well, cabron, you shoulda knowed by now, eh cabron? Bob stinking Dylan has not just walked into my bar and say down behind that jukebox since the last time that you tried to play him! Eh cabron?” she chuckled as her wet rag swept across the slate bartop. Five more minutes, and that was it. This happened every time the two men came to play pool. One of them once told her, in a whisper, that they were poets. This had made her laugh a loud high laugh. She had never heard such a thing in her bar. Poets….The nerve. In her bar, even!

One of the women that the men were with got up to take her turn at the table. The bartendress watched from behind the bar as the comely latina arched her back to reach across the green table for a long shot. “I once had legs like that.” She thought to herself. “And an ass BETTER than that.” She shook her head and counted up the tally for the two men. They each shared a portion of twelve beers, a mixture of Bud Light and Guiness from her tap. The Guiness was always better to serve, she thought. It gave her more to do on Tuesdays like this, when the only patrons were tired tourists and late arriving resort workers.

A flash went off from over by table number twelve. One of the men was taking a photograph of the taller Latina chica. She posed easily, hair piled up over her far ear, raven dark and thick with salt water from the days sea kayak trip. Her golden cross swung freely down by her neckline, like a foot bridge across the deep misty canyons below. She knew that the men would notice, but she arched her back just a little more to be sure. Her hamstrings flexed with taunt hesitance. The office job at the tractor store was starting to make her feel like an old lady.

The older man went off to the bathroom for one last hit before the bar closed. It was the only ventilated bar bathroom in town, and also the only one that bolted with a dead bolt. The three at the pool table thought that they would play a joke on him, and when he opened the door, more glassy eyed and pleasant that before he had entered, he found the other three locked into a three way grope session. “Lucky bastard.” He thought. The three flicked tounges at one another, and rubbed each others backs and legs with a previously unseen desperation. The girls squealed with delight. He moved in closer to inspect this new development.

As the older man came closer, his three friends burst out of their embrace with a large, drunken, “SURPRISE!”. He laughed along with them, but stored the image away for later. Who knew what these women were here for. Who knew what they were capable of. They were mystery women from the planet of the lost angels.

“Enough! Enough of your shenanigans! I have to go home! Romero is going to be pissed! He needs his insolation, you know. He is a diabolic, you know!” The barkeep yelled. “Come get your tickets. Time to pay the beetch” She added.

“Diabetic.” The bald one said, as he came bounding across the room. “Wha?” the woman asked. “Romero. I assume that is your cat. He is diabetic, no?” he added. Her face lit up. She loved Romero with every ounce of her being, and had since the very first second that she had seen him. Her aunt Felicia had given her Romero when the INS came and took Felicia back to Juarez. IT made her so sad that Romero was sick. But the medicine helped. The medicine fixed Romero and she would not have to worry about all of the nonsense medical terminology that the veterinarian had gone into. As long as she had the Medicine, Romero was safe and sound. Nothing could break up her love for this cat. They were connected by the heart. Romero’s collar even said it. It said “Chupa’s Romero, two hearts beat as one”, right on the collar. She had had this specially engraved in Salinas last Christmas, and gave it to Romero on Christmas eve, along with half of a Wendy’s hamburger. Romero loved cheese the most, but she did not get a cheeseburger that day, for some reason. It had been years, and much had happened since, but for some reason she always regretted not getting Romero a cheeseburger that day.

The bald man paid his tab and so did the older man. The two women hugged them both and strutted out of the bar and down the street to where their car was parked. It was a normal night, and the moon was but half full. The men stared up at it and made small talk until the women has passed into the darkness around the corner, and then they started walking up Alvarado Street. The night was young, and their energy was up. But where to go in the stale, unfulfilled din of a Tuesday night?

The barkeep locked the door to the pool hall behind her, amusing herself with thoughts of two poets drinking beer at her bar. The nerve of them, she thought. Poets! Ha! She watched as they sauntered off up the road. “I wonder how they will write about me?”, she thought to herself. The night was perfectly calm, and the moon was half full and tipping towards the great black sea that always looked to her like it would swallow Monterey. Out in the blackness, a small blue light flickered on and off, faint and reassuring. “If it cannot eat the light, then it cannot eat me”, she thought, before turning towards home.

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The Story That Will Never Be Told (Until Now)

By Corby Anderson

It was another soggy Friday in December. I was preparing to leave town in a whisking rush to see a holiday concert in San Francisco when I fielded a call from my editor at the Monterey County Weekly, the effervescent, speed-talking food critic Mark Anderson. We chatted briefly about the paper and my undulating employment status. Being broke at the holidays for the second year in a row had me scrambling for any work that I could drum up, and I had sent an email earlier in the week requesting to be “sicked” on any story that Mark might have for me to work on.

For much of 2010, right up until being laid off at Thanksgiving (specifically, the day after the holiday, and more specifically, the first minute of the first working day after the holiday) I had been locked down and unavailable for reportage due to the demanding hours that were required for my job as a video producer for a small marketing firm in the Central Valley mission town of San Juan Bautista.

But now, after the craptastic excising of my salaried position a few weeks earlier – a situation that left me with just the years accumulated vacation hours (which weren’t much, really, being in my virginal year there) as a razor-thin buffer separating my normal  check-to-check existence from the screeching, thrashing approach of the specter of total financial oblivion – I was literally desperate with want and worry to find any form of income that I could summon up legally, and even that was a questionable standard when studied through the lens of a particularly brain-torching arrangement of potential economic pressures facing me going into the New Year.

After some pat discussion of the upcoming holidays, business was gotten to and I was assigned a vaguely defined personality piece for the coming weeks paper, due Monday. “Go out to Spreckles by the post office and find the store with the cranky old German lady. Write something interesting about her.  I’m told that she’s something else – like the Soup Nazi of Salinas.” Anderson directed, using an unfortunate, but possibly intentionally placed association that made me somewhat nervous.

It was almost four by the time that he called, and with no time left in the day to do the proper research and scouting mission on a Friday (in hindsight, to be fair, I could have easily done a few Google inquiries to find where out the Spreckles Post Office was, made a call there and ask whether there were any angry Nazi’s with stores next door – and if so, to tell me what it was called so that I could look it up and call there to see if the Fraulein there would speak to me, which is what I eventually did anyways), I set my sights on the following day, when I would be returning from San Francisco sometime in the afternoon.

Of course, Saturday got chewed up by our hung over getaway from the City after a rather spectacular, late night of booze and semi-fine cuisine, a powerful, sweet brand of California rock and roll, and the requisitely messy post-festivity festivities. And of course then there was the slow, rain soaked drive home to the Monterey Bay through a persistently oppressive storm, followed by the hurried preparations for the Redhead’s work holiday party that evening. Out of necessity, I punted the Weekly story to Sunday, the Christian day of repentance, home improvement projects, football (or if in a ski town, TiVo and a full day’s ripping) and rest.

On Sunday, I took an afternoon drive out to the old sugar company town of Spreckles. I drove slowly from my still inundated home through the muddy dunes of Marina, flattened and paved over by the Army as if it was one big, twenty square mile wide depot (which it was). But any sand dune worth its shifty weight in fine china has a funny way of imposing itself, even when seemingly smothered by progress, and Marina sand is some of the finest in the world for glass-blowing. From every exposed inch of sandy roadside shoulder or sagebrush-studded bike trail that was spared the pavers whimsy, a fountain of molten dune poured onto the road, spreading in lumpy beige rivulets across the cracked grey skin of Reservation Road, the country road that splits what is left of the natural elevation of the dunes, skirting the old Army base as it leads eastward, and spilling down and out onto the strawberry and lettuce fields of Southern Salinas, and Spreckles, it’s semi-famous, nearly defunct sub-hamlet.

…………….

Spreckles is hardly a town at all, at least not in the hearts and minds of the mapmakers at the Garmin corporation, makers of the fine navigational device that sits atop the dashboard of my Land Cruiser, affixed to a plastic hip bone-like swivel that sticks up above a fancy sandbag, and which somehow pinpoints my exact location, speed of travel, the nearest bank machine, and my expected date of ultimate demise by beaming an invisible laser down to me and back up to a network of orbiting space birds.

To those guys, Spreckles is but a tree-lined backwater vegetable patch outside of Salinas, and any mention of the existence of the place has been summarily expunged from their official version of navigational reality.

But to local historians, and about 500 or so hearty Sprecklites, it is a very real, very important place. It is the once-bustling home of the aptly named Spreckles Sugar Company –  a town named after it’s founder Claus Spreckles, and built – even trucked in a half-home at a time by rail and steam-tractor –  specifically to house the many confectionaries that milled the sugar beets into sweet dust at what was, upon its erection, the biggest sugar plant in the world. It’s glory lasted for almost a hundred years.

A third of the way through its millennia, John Steinbeck’ s father, John Sr., worked as a plant manager there, and arranged for summer jobs for his son working there as a handyman and as a bench chemist. It was during his time living and working in Spreckles that Steinbeck gleaned many of the quirky characters that populated his wonderfully illustrative novel Tortilla Flats. A few decades later, the town is also where the film version of his more famous tome, East of Eden was filmed.

The massive sugar factory officially ceased its operations in 1982 after a series of corporate maneuvers that refocused American sugar beet operations in Hawaii, and appropriately, to Sugar Land, Texas. The hulking silos still soar over the surrounding croplands, their white paint now doused with a drizzling coat of rust and moss.

Now the town has a distinctly ghostly feel to it. I drove around looking for the post office, which was not too hard to find. Its one of about five businesses on the main strip. I parked and scouted the store next door. After a minute of so studying its exterior charm, I decided that it must be the home of my assignment.

As it happened, the store was closed. Probably because it was Sunday, though there was no sign that listed operating hours posted. I walked it’s vintage Americana, time stuck exterior, relishing the flaking white chunks of paint on the Coke mural (“Better with Coke!” it exclaimed) that covered a dozen yards in either direction of weathered bricks. I gandered at the two-bladed steel fan that hung ominously above entryway, eyeballed the unusual hoop steelwork of the stanchions that supported the overhanging eaves and took note of the multiple pieces of paper stuck to the wall by the door, all of them proclaiming this or that to be illegal on the premises.

Skateboards, hats, bare chests, naked feet, food or drink from outside sources, masks (?!) – all banned, and judging by the inflection ingrained in their handwriting, and the haphazard arrangement of the rules, vigorously so. I peered in the windows but could not make out much through the haze of their dusty patina, other than what looked to be the interior of a lunch counter that looked to be straight out of the late 1940’s.

Gathering as detailed an impression as I could without the aide of an actual camera (smashed to pieces in an errant handoff to the wife), or an iPhone with onboard camera (stolen from the sullied depths of my smelly left basketball sneaker at the Monterey Sports Center), or even a voice recorder, which I normally kept with me for verbal notes, when I wasn’t busy habitually losing them in the aftermath of drunken bike wrecks or sunset beach hikes – I left, planning to return on Monday, when the working world renewed itself.

…………….

With an expectant email from my editor glaring at me when I awoke on Monday morning, I set about to do some research. There was no sense in driving all of the way out there if the store was closed again. So, I fired up the Google machine, did a little digital snooping, and found out that the place is called the Spreckles Emporium. I turned up a number and gave it a call.

Holding true to her predicted mean streak, I was hung up on by a very Germanic sounding lady quite abruptly, twice. The second hang up occurred when I was trying to explain that I just wanted to see if she was open, to which she blurted “I WOULDN’T ANSWER THE PHONE IF I WASN’T OPEN!” click.

Fair enough. Warming to the challenge, I drove the dozen miles through varying plats of winter-dormant agricultural lands at lunchtime. On the way, I texted Anderson. That is 1 miserable, wicked bitchshes already hung up on me 2x, I typed. He responded almost immediately, with a curious enthusiasm that made me wonder if I was not being set up. The old Send-the-freelancer-out-to-spar-with-the-Wicked-Witch-of-the-Lettuce-Patch routine. Awesome! Sure. Why not? Describe away, he continued.

I pulled up to the store and found a spot that was not flooded by an overwhelmed gutter. It was miserably cold and raining in a weird, fine mist, but I decided to have a look around outside again, before going inside.

It just so happens that I had chosen that day to start smoking for the first time in my life. And by that I mean to really start a new habit, a conscious decision to make the act of smoking a regular occurrence in my daily menu of vices. Sure, I’d had cigarettes before, but for whatever reason, and probably relating to some very stern, deeply felt direction to never smoke that I’d received from my brother at about age 12, when he was a veteran smoker with a terrific aptitude for the job at the age of 15, I’d never actually committed to the practice. Over the years at one time or the other, I’d tried all manner of pipes, cigars, cigarillos, and cloves before, but nothing ever stuck, and his fierce words spoken in the backyard of our parents house in the suburbs of the East Bay of Northern California had their way of cropping up in a timely fashion and extinguishing any pleasure that I might take from any of those acts of tobacco.

So, perhaps as a convenient loophole to circumnavigating the actual wording of my brothers law, for most of 24 years, my thing has been chewing tobacco – either Skoal or Copenhagen. But now, with the quarter century mark of lip bound imbibement approaching – and all of the guilt and worry associated with reaching that sort of landmark along with it, I felt more than ready to kick the proverbial (and literal) can to the curb. So, there on the corner of Spreckles and Halton Avenues, on a Monday afternoon near the end of my 38th human year, I drew my Djeep lighter, peeled off the protective plastic covering, snaked a fresh stogie out of the fresh pack, and sparked up a Salem.

Just then I got another text from Mark Anderson. Call me, it read. I hit send and the phone connected itself to his own. “Look,” he said. “I don’t want to give you the wrong impression about this story. All of that crankiness that she’s displayed is a good thing. It’s what makes her interesting. It’s her thing. Find out what makes her that way. It’ll be fun,” he added. “But don’t go in there and announce that you are doing a story on her for the paper. Strike up a random conversation and get her to open up to you,” he added, further instructing me to go in, order up something to eat, and observe.

“Get anything you want, within reason. Bill the paper,” he concluded.

I conscientiously extinguished the gross-tasting cigarette, and not seeing an ash can on the street, I pocketed the crumpled remnants of the butt and pulled on the rusty bronze handle of the green wood and mesh screened front door of the Spreckles Emporium. The rusty spring emitted a great sproinging groan that filled the silence of the empty street.

…………….

Inside, a stooped woman of about 70 stood at  eye level with the counter that she manned. Her colorful face was compact and stern, like a small granite gravestone. A pair of impressively thick, salt and pepper eyebrows dissected her forehead, and set themselves at an angle that seemed in opposition to my presence. I said a casual hello as I walked between the aging clerk and another woman, this one younger by perhaps a dozen years. She stood leaning with her back to an unpolished chrome railing that separated the check out are from a series of shelves that had nothing on them. They each nodded slightly, but mostly just stared at me as I passed. I could feel the intensity of their glares through the back of my otherwise impervious raincoat.

I slowly strolled the aisles of the store, soaking in the museum like atmosphere. Its layout was that of a small country grocery, with maybe four or five short aisles and a perimeter of upright cold storage containers. On the walls were a fascinating collection of vintage product signs. There were Hamms beer signs, obsolete diet soda signs and the like encircling the perimeter walls. At first glance, it was difficult to ascertain whether the signs were purposefully placed as a vintage theme, or whether they were simply left hanging because they were what advertising had been provided and there had been no new signs to replace them over the past 30 years.

I continued my stroll around the store when I became mindful of Anderson’s instructions to order something to eat. But as best that I could tell, there was no actual food in the grocery store, at least none that looked unexpired. Glancing over at the counter that the German stood behind, I could see that there was no sandwich making operation, and the coolers were all either empty or held a few plastic, modern bottles of various sodas and a few containers of beer.

For the most part, the shelves along the aisles were almost entirely vacant save for a few randomly dispersed cans of dusty marshmallow spread, a mostly vacant rack of ancient packages of buttons for sewing, an aged rack of obligatory steel-lidded jars of Clabber Girl baking soda, some very old one pound packages of sugar, which I thought fitting. Though, on closer inspection none bore the name of the towns founder.

The whole joint was a marvel of curiosity, lost in time, as if a bomb had gone off and left the place standing, only to be stripped of anything really edible by bandits and vandals, and then left alone to gather dust for a half century. I was stricken with the notion that with all of the vintage coolers, shelving units, sofa fountain and deli machinery that the place would make for a perfect movie location, and shameful at not having seen the film that most represents my home turf in a long time, made a note to ask the proprietress whether East of Eden had actually filmed in the store

Along the rails were some more random items, remarkably few in number, hardly enough product at all to qualify as an actual store. Ironic, I thought, reflecting on the name of the place: Spreckles Emporium. The definition of “emporium” is that of a large retail store with many, varying items. Yet here I was, standing in an emporium that was not, set in a town that was no more.

But every time that the notion entered my mind that I was walking through a museum, I would feel a stinging sensation digging at the back of my head, reminding me of the owners glare, and of the fact that she wasn’t selling novelty tickets, and judging by her lack of wares and her rotten disposition, really didn’t seem to want anyone in her space.

…………….

As I rounded the corner of the last remaining aisle, I pondered the questions roaring through my mind. Why were there no product on the shelves? Why is the store even open? Who shops here?

There was nothing left to study. I would have to approach the birds, who were by now speaking rather animatedly with each other, albeit in the hushed, secretive tones known only these days to older generations. It was a sound that I cling to – an auditory relic that never fails to instantly connect me back to the summer kitchen of my grandmother and all of her sisters, gossiping, relating, whispering the secrets that have fallen from my fruitful family tree like so many soft peaches.

The banter between the two ladies seemed to focus on the larger of two admirably prodigious sailfish that hung on the far wall, and the story of how the Emporium’s owner had caught the fish in Mexico years back.

I approached. The two eyed me conspicuously, so I walked over to introduce myself, mindful of the editors suggestion that I chat the owner up without pegging myself as a journalist wanting to do a story about her for the paper. Remembering to make unrelenting eye contact until a greeting had been properly made, a trick that I was taught by a writer who was renowned for the quality of his reportage, but also for being a drug addled recluse, I went to shake the hand of the woman who was not my story target. But interestingly, as I moved towards her, she recoiled from my outstretched hand, nodding meekly towards the owner. I could see that the taller one who I was trying to introduce myself to was nibbling on some candy, so in recovering from the odd rejection, I mentioned the candy. “I see you’ve got your hands full,” was all that I could think of.

I spun slowly to face the Emporiums owner, steeling myself for yet more weird vibrations, and just before my eyes caught her own, a loud bleating rang out from my pocket. Damn! My cell phone. I’d forgotten to turn it off after my call from Anderson the editor.

The timing could not have been worse. The two women looked at each other with startled, widening eyes. Everything in the room jolted into a slow freeze. The effect was almost sacrilegious. A foreign sound in an old world. It was as if I’d suddenly entered the OK Corral wielding a light saber. The phone rang it’s awkward chime once more, and now my mind drifted. The electronic chime echoed out of my pocket, up into the old rafters, off of the steel beer signs, down each malnourished aisle of food stuffs, and back to my brain in an instant. I wondered if perhaps somehow my phone was the first cell phone to ever sully the hallowed halls of the Emporium? Surely there would have been a sign preventing their presence if the owner had even an inkling of an idea how annoying the devices had become to modern society.

My apoplectic spell snapped on the fourth ring. Time whipped back into normal operating speed. Trying to maintain eye contact while not look panicked, I pounded my left front pocket like a man whose pants were on fire, smacking myself about the hip until the noise ceased to exist. The German’s dark brow pinched in towards the bridge of her nose, and a frown spread through the creases of her face like wall of wind through a field of wheat. “Sorry about that…They don’t let me turn it off. Regulations, you see…” I managed to blurt.

“Zere are no phones allowed in ziss store,” she replied, pointing towards the door. I followed her finger towards the green door.

“Oh? I didn’t see the sign,” I replied, attempting to hold my ground, while remaining cordial.

“ZERE IS NO SIGN!”

“Well, how was I to know, then? Apologies…Here, I’ll turn it off. They wont miss me for a little while,” I said, fishing the blasted thing out of my pocket and hammering on the red on/off button until it emitted the pleasantly blittering knell of its forced demise. The screen went blank, and I showed it to the owner. “See, its off. Again, apologies.”

“Do you live here in Spreckles?” asked the younger woman. I recognized a sizable portion of sarcasm in her voice.

“No. I live over the dune, in Marina.”

“What are you doing here then?” she replied, almost instantaneously.

…………….

My mind flashed back to Mark Anderson’s instructions to not just come out and reveal that I am a reporter working on a story. But then it overshot that quick mental signpost and barreled forth, ever inward. What was I doing there? The answers rushed in on my synapses like a mental meteor shower:

Plenty: I was on assignment, writing a story. Pretending to know what I was doing. Impersonating a reporter. Trying to earn a hundred and eight dollars, fifty cents to put towards my wife’s Christmas gift. Researching. Wishing that I knew more about vintage signs. Washed out of Aspen, Colorado. Recouping my mo jo. Plotting my comeback. Readying myself for the unknown. Keeping my mind off of the terrors of the season. Trying to learn about this funky store. Enduring an almost unbearable dose of ruditee.  All of it at once.

“I’m interested in history,” I replied, figuring that it might stand up better than the litany that my mind had conjured on her prompting. “I was told that your store held quite a bit of it in its beams.” The two nodded at my answer. It seemed to me like this conversation had occurred before, only without me in it. How I knew that, I do not know or understand, for it was not a premonition, just a sense that I was subconsciously following some sort of predestined script.

My words had a calming effect in some regards. For a second I thought that I could see the hackles on their backs ease a tad. I was pleased that some of the tension had been dissolved. It had been nearly too much for me to bear. These had been, after all, not the type of hostile working conditions that I was perfectly situated for.

But then my pride and sense of purpose betrayed me. “And I’m a writer…” I felt myself groaning internally, but I was unable to stop.

“…I write for the Monterey County Weekly. In Monterey. It’s a newspaper. A weekly. I write for it. That’s what I do.” The two women looked at me disgustedly, as if I was a drunken pauper digging my own grave; a worthless waste of worm habitat. I stopped there, pinching off the rest of my spiel before it poured out of my head.

Her German face turned a bitter red. Her eyes narrowed and a palpable, fierce resistance overcame her being. “Well, don’t you go and write no story ‘bout zis store!”

My cover was blown. I had a sudden, itching urge for a cigarette. And a chew. “Well, that’s not why I’m here,” I lied.

She persisted, gathering steam now. “…cause zen zere’ll be people reading it and coming in here all zee time and I don’t nee dat!”

My curiousity was peaking now. Why would she not want business? I asked as much.

“Look around! Are you blind? I ‘ave nozing to zell!”

“So, you don’t sell sandwiches? Or soup? I’d heard that you did,”

“No! Not for a long time.” she spat.

“Well, why not then?”

“Becauze zere are no more wholezellers to zell to little stores like zis one. I can’t get anything to zell in ‘ere.”

“But what about Costco, in Seaside? Can’t you get good deals there?” I asked. Was not that what the original purpose of the big box bulk item-pushers was? Surely it wasn’t to sell coffins and eyeglasses, tires and $1 hot dogs. That had to have just come as an opportune byproduct of its first purpose: to outfit mom and pop stores exactly like the Emporium with cartons and crates of bric a brac that they could then turn a tidy profit on.

“Zat iz exactly right!” she exclaimed loudly, confusing me. “We little people ‘ave been pushed out! So, I don’t ‘ave nottin to zell.”

“So you are saying that you have a store, but nothing to sell? Why do you bother? Surely there is something else that you’d rather be doing with your time,” I braved.

“I already told you! Becauze zis is my store!” the proprietor exclaimed with a practiced ire. I half expected her to fly over the counter and snatch me up by the earlobe to lead me out.

When she stopped talking, there was an uncomfortable pause. I looked around again. Clearly the woman was a relic in her own right. I could see now that she was elementally just the same as the old cans that sat lonely on her shelves. They weren’t her products, they were her friends. They were her comfort and her countenance. She was but another beam in the rafters, another fixture on the gables, another sailfish on the wall. They’d have to pry the mean bitch out of the Emporium if they wanted her to quit coming. Or carry her out, which was more likely.

“Alright. I get it,” I said to nobody, looking around with new eyes.

“And don’t you dare go write any newspaper stories about Gerte. Like she told you,” the woman behind me said pointedly. “I mean it. We’ve got a small town here, but we are loyal to her, she’s been through a lot over the years.”

…………….

I took a deep breath. I could feel my breath shortening. Maybe it was all the dust. “Well, obviously I won’t do that,” I said after gathering myself. “But I’ve gotta say. Your hospitality could use a little work. But, I appreciate your time. Interesting place you’ve got here. It would make a great movie set. Or a museum…Good luck to the both of you,” I said, taking my leave.

I paused just beyond the threshold of the old, creaking swing door. I could hear a low grumbling noise behind me. I watched briefly the runoff that was pouring from the face of the awning on the sidewalk. I looked down the street, first to my left, the west, and then to the east. Nothing moved but the drizzling rain and the barely perceptible, grey mini-clouds that hustled about within the mother cloud that crowded the dark afternoon sky. The great white and chestnut colored towers of the abandoned sugar mill across the street glistened mutedly in their rusting state. Two birds sang an old song behind me in the distance.

I looked down at my hand and saw that I was holding a pack of cigarettes in my left. I hadn’t even realized that I’d reached for the pack in my pocket. My, how our habits come at us so. I was reaching into the pack when an object down on the concrete caught my eye. It was a penny. I bent over, mindful of the needling pain that had been jabbing at my right patella for a few months now, and picked the penny up. I am profoundly superstitious. The coin was old and worn almost flat of profile, with hardly a speck of shine left on either of its surfaces. Abe Lincoln sat there, perpetually unperturbed by his fate, staring perpetually to the right. To his left a single word: Liberty. Above him, the old national motto: In God We Trust, (but whose, I’ve wondered.) And then, down below the Great Emancipator, and shifted slightly to the right, a number, a year engraved in its marrow:

1955.

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Branding Day
By Corby Anderson
2010

The Mead corral sang with activity on the early January afternoon. It’s rusted steel rails were lined with men merrily taunting the riders, jabbing in drawl more Texan than Californian. Set into a crease of hills that ripple from the flanks of Santa Ana Peak, a proud two-story barn sat bared open, it’s heavy pine doors swung to the sides and tethered in place by straps made of frayed leather which were looped smartly around homemade nails.

Parked around the corral in anarchistic fashion were at least a dozen large pickups, some affixed to long horse trailers. Several Dodges, Chevy’s, Ford’s, and one conspicuous Jap model, all scattered here and there, placed in inconsistent intervals. The mechanical clatter of idling diesel accompanied the wafting black smoke that roiled from several of their tailpipes. Personal space seemed to concern their parkers, as no two trucks occupied the same square block of the others.

In the corral are nearly a hundred head of young cattle. Today is branding day, and the ranch is clamorous with activity, dust and noise. Cowboys and girls circle the corral atop their horses, working in two teams of two riders each. Their ropes are thin, hard cords of hemp fiber that have a rigidity to their structure, so much so that they feel alive, more like sinewy strands of muscle than limp, dead things. As the riders stalk their herd, they single out a dance partner without speaking. Instead they nod and point and whistle, working together like family (which, for the most part they are) so attune to each others thoughts that even complex physical interaction can go successfully unsaid. The cattle bay and snort, and rush about in scared packs. Their beaming white eyes protrude in fear. Fear of the horse. Fear of the rope. Fear of the human attention. Fear of the dire things that they see happening to their brethren. They gallop and sprint in short, frantic bursts, always moving, even when cornered.

On one large caramel-colored horse is a woman named Jamie. She grips her steed with strong thighs that are painted into a pair of muddy jeans as she works her rope with gloved hands. Her long sleeved shirt is bright red, with firm collars and white snaps at the pockets. She wears a white Stetson and a wry grin. She is a picture – an athletic, healthy vision of the West, a dream for a million country men. Her partner purses his lips and shoots a stream of brown juice off to his left, and then blows his lungs out in a shrill whistle, which signals his own horse to tarry in a clockwise swing. A small black calf is cut off from it’s mates, and gives a shiver left, and then right, but the riders have it now in between them. Jamie swings her right arm to her side and gives her rope a quick shake, and then sends it out ten feet in front of her, towards the rich dirt and the calf’s hooves, catching the rear left in a snare, which she cinches with a quick yank. The calf bleats a horrendous alarm, stumbling on three legs. Her partner grins through his winter beard and launches his own rope out in an effortless flick, now capturing the head. Quickly, a team of men gathered on the rails leap over and run to the tethered calf, now being pulled in opposite directions.

One man, a stone-jawed man with black hat named Len, sweeps the feet of the calf, and the other, his brother Frank, topples the calf to the soil with a shoulder tackle. Jamie and her partner holler encouragement amidst hoots from the gathered that line the fencing. Quickly they subdue the stunned beast, whose bug eyes and snorting snout belie that he cannot seem to fathom his pinning. He is two hundred-fifty pounds of dumb, and the last thing he expected was to be sat on by a man named Frank.

From the rails comes Jim Mead, a shock of white hair squirting out of each side of his long hat the only real indicator of his sixty years of age. He carries low and purposefully a red hot iron tipped with a custom interlocking character set of MM’s in his hands. He is followed by his eight-year-old grandson, a perfect miniature of himself, from the soiled white hat to the hay-colored Carhart jacket, wrangler jeans and scruffy boots. Young Jim holds a large syringe with a steel plunger. He seems uncertain but enthusiastic, and looks to his elders for guidance. As Mead lowers the brand to the thick black coat of the calf, white smoke pours off of the burnt hair, enveloping the older man and his young grandson.

“Go right ahead Jimmy. He’s down. We’ve got ‘em. Do your thing buddy,” says the older man.
“In the ear?” the kid asks, his eyes flashing, alive.
“Yep, right in the earhole,” says Jamie from her horse. Jim Jr. is her boy, and she is Jim Senior’s girl.

The cloud of sickly smoke wafts up and away as the calf protests in a number of languages. A crouching cowboy drops a red bucket next to the calf’s stomach and reaches down at it’s groin. Frank pins the calf in a recumbent position, and holds it’s front leg back at the knee. Len sits on the back quarters with his foot under the bottom hock.

The day is bright and the sky a maze of drifting clouds which seem to dodge the sun but fill up the rest of the sky, and it’s rays catch a glint off of the jack blade in the cowboys hand. He makes two quick incisions on the calf’s scrotum, applies a crimping tool, a simple scissoring device appropriately called an emasculator, and removes the stark white organs in one swift motion, dropping the testes in the bucket. Meanwhile, young Jim shoots the tincture of medicine in the calf’s ear, and then with the aide of his father, a barrel-shaped man named Trevor, punches a hole in it’s ear, officially christening the ten –week-old calf. Strong smelling dung piles up at calf # 765’s rear. He’s lost his faculties, but then again, who wouldn’t?

Backed up to the fence is a silver Ford F-250. On it’s tailgate, arrayed on the front page (“Bowling Center has License Revoked”, “Immigration Official Admits Forging Documents,” and others) and back (a full sheet ad – “Rosso’s No Tax 60% Off Furniture Sale!”) page of the days Hollister Freelance is a spread of summer sausage slices, warm hunks of cheese, and crackers. In a square blue cooler with rugged plastic wheels and a white lid and lever arm next to it are an assortment of iced down beers and sodas, and a few colorful juice boxes for the kids. A nervous looking tri-color Farm Collie named Skoal lies atop a stamped aluminum truck box, overseeing the buffet, and the branding of “his” herd, with wary eyes and quivering, drooping jowls.

Jade Mead runs the snack station. She is tall and raven haired and has beautifully symmetrical creases running south on her cheeks that make her look more Indian than Caucasian. As a young woman, amongst the tight knit community, she was the talk of the county – a heralded student, and a beauty queen who owned the prized title of Miss Haybaler 1968, and the oldest daughter of a wealthy apricot farmer who had no sons but instead, to his eternal pride and solitudical curses, managed to produce a stable of eight gorgeous, black haired, blue eyed daughters.

When young Jim completes his tasks, he runs over to her and nonchalantly slides right through the rails of the log fence, which other than his diminutive size is the only action that marks him as a young man. Len and Frank step on the lower rail and lever themselves up on top of the fence, where they sit and wait for the next calf to tackle.

Gathered along the rail are various family members and ranch workers, some there to provide moral support in the form of witty comments about the riders abilities to rope properly. They make many jokes about testicles, which seems appropriate. Cowboys know how to laugh, and they know how to jab each other with perfectly timed comedic quips. Each gift comes embedded in their DNA at birth, helically arrayed right above the blue genes.

The rail-side talk on this day, shared between swills of Coors and Coke, and braced by uproarious and irregular laughter, is of politics, particularly of the former Alaskan Governor’s debut the night prior as a pundit on one of the right-leaning news outlets. “I figure she’ll be alright. She’ll make a ton-a-money, wont she?” one asks. “Hell, she’d make more in Playboy, and save us the time hearing her blabber on!” another answers, setting off a chain wave of laughter.

The remaining cattle in the pen squeal and whiny as one by one, they are chased and trapped. A curious buzzard ditches his orbit above the land fill and drifts by blotting out the sun above for a second. Skoal sniffs the air and looks sideways at the plate of cheese and beef stick. Another dense puff of white smoke fills the corral temporarily. The brand goes into the course black coat, burns its way to skin, and singes the hide with a double M.

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The moon is full, but no longer blue. The decade that preceded this night has crashed and burned in the ashes from which it began. The moon came and went all the while, unfazed by the human detritus below, the mass-killings, the plane bombs, the fatuous greed and global scourge of religious carnage. The moon cares not for the little lives on Earth nor wastes a tear on their grand dramas. It only wants to fly and hover, rise and fall, rotate anew.

Even when new to this world, The Fogtown was never a classy kind of joint. Never the kind of place to bring a date worth calling home about. If a building consisted of genetic DNA, like saw grass, elephant seals, and possibly even Arnold Schwartzenegger, then Fogtown was birthed by a runaway hoochie mama and a rapscallion bastard of a father. Now, in its dilapidated capacity, it is the last bar standing in a once-proud Army town that not too long ago was littered with decent drinking holes.

With the exception of the ugly hours – that bitter time between too late to drink legally and too early for most human work – the Fogtown’s front door is always open, even in the winter time. Inside, a yellow (not blond, and definitely non-flaxen) haired woman of indeterminate age or racial origin bobs badly out of sync to the amplified country of David Allen Coe on the high barstool at the far end of the bar, nearest the large TV and the dart board.

She is playing in her Bloody Mary, dredging it for garden variatals. Digging in the tall, narrow glass with her mannish fingers, she produces a pitiful strip of celery. Using the wide chasm that sprawls in her upper jaw between her central incisors, she rakes the pale celery stalk, peeling it down to nothing, one thin membranous fiber at a time. Using her bar napkin, she collects these strips for future use. Because she is staring at me, I ask her if she is enjoying her drink, and she tries to hand me the mauled stalk. She wants to share.

“No thanks. It looks like you’ve got that one spanked,” I say, hoping that she will remove her prize from under my nose. She reaches out with her other hand, tells me her name but I cannot understand it, and asks my name.
“Bill,” I say. “My name is Bill Monthly.” My head is a shamble of aches and pains, which are all exasperated by her beaming, weird visage.

She extends her arm until I am left with no choice to shake her outstretched hand. I glance down to make sure that she isn’t holding any fruit or vegetable bits in her palm, and then reach out to shake, but when I do she meets mine with a dead fish grip that sends chills down my already compromised spine. She puts zero effort into shaking my hand. Harmon, the taller of the two Texan’s, makes a gesture towards me that I cant understand at first. He laughs and raises his eyebrows in rapid succession while simulating a motion of reaching out over his drink, and then twisting the top of his ring finger, which he then upturns and shakes into this drink, all the while nodding at the woman next to me. “What is that?” I ask. He does it again. Both Texans fold over onto the bar in laughter. I stare on.
“What?” I whisper.
“Roooofy!” he manages to stammer out of his fit.
“The spider pounces!,” Tex, his childhood pal, also from (you guessed it!) Texas says, laughing uncontrollably.

On the other side of the amused Texan’s who have dragged me out of my post New Years couch-land to “cure” my hangover, Houston-style, is a belligerent man whose voice pierces my gray matter. He is leaning out of his stool, over the bar, bellowing something about his employers to the recoiling bar maid.
“I’m the best tandem guide those dick’s have ever had! I ain’t no friggen chute jockey, I’m an American eagle, a human bird!” he yells. Veins as thick as elevator cables bulge on either side of his neck, and a smaller version divides his overhanging forehead into two non-symmetrical, apish lobes.

On the TV, a man named Tebow is running rampant over a poor excuse for a football team from Cincinnati. His cheeks are emblazoned with some obscure religious code, which sets off a spirited discussion between the two slick-haired pool players at the far end of the seamy bar. I try to drown out the sound of the belligerent man three stools over, and make a mental note to never allow myself, or anyone that I know, to parachute anywhere in a 100 mile radius of Marina, California.

Tebow makes another outlandish sprint through a porous, overmatched defense, and I take that as a cue for me to return to the sane world of couch vegetation. Tex and Harmon are just getting riled up. The pool table is about to become their private domain. They wont miss me. And neither will the lady to my right, who is now sizing up the guy to her right, who I overhear tell her that he “could have any woman I want, and tonight, baby, I want you.”

“Thanks for the beers. I’m cratered. Time for bed,” I say apologetically, before turning and walking out the door. At the threshold, I instinctively check both ways before I exit for sketchy characters who tend to lay in wait just outside of Fogtown. Seeing none, I cross the road between Fogtown and its sister establishment, Mortimer’s, which technically might be considered a bar, but serves a more of a halfway card house for a hardcore class of gambling degenerates deeply preoccupied with criminal intent.

Outside, the air is cool, somewhere in the 40’s, it feels. Far above, the moon falls towards the sea in a relentless carom, waning away, unconcerned.

Corby Anderson
Marina, CA
Jan, 1, 2010

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Shooting Swan
By Corby Anderson

“What is it?” asked Sam. Both of their heads were tilted upwards, watching the strange object buzz towards them.
“It’s a drone. Be still Sami,” replied Tariq. To Sam, his older brother looked much older than his twelve years when cast against the loam of the sideways sun. He was nearly a man. His beard was ready to grow.

The brothers watched the plane flying in high, banking turns around the valley. The white wings of the plane flashed brilliantly when it made a turn to the west. The mountains rose up in triumphant ridges, lining both sides of the Swat. The ridges seemed to hold the plane within their confines, like a silver fish unknowingly caught in deep net.

“Will they shoot it?” asked Sam.
“Shh. I don’t know. They may not want to give away their positions. Be still, I said.”
The older boy put his arm across the bony shoulders of his brother. The gesture calmed down Sam, and he barely noticed when Tariq put his scratchy palm across his mouth. The plane turned its wings hard towards the fading sun and started to make a long turn back towards the steep mountains that lay ahead of the young boys. They watched from behind a scrape of black rocks which sat above their father’s farm as the traffic below scattered from their pocked ribbon of dirt that paralleled the river.

Sam fidgeted, now aware of his brother’s hold on his mouth. He had more questions to ask, but Tariq’s grip was firm and insistent. “Sami, settle down. Listen to me. Do you want to get blown up by a missile?” said Tariq. His brother’s intense face had just enough fear etched across it that Sam decided to swallow his questions. He hoped that he would remember them later, and that Tariq would be amenable to answering them. They were good questions. The buzz that came from the engines on the place rattled around the walls of the canyon before them. It sounded like two rattlesnakes fighting over the fore and aft of a field mouse. Still, it was more peaceful sounding than the helicopters that came in waves from time to time. Tariq’s nerves could handle the uncertainty of a single plane much better than squadrons of the American copters and their gunship escorts.

Sam watched as the plane continued to curl in its pink-hued arc. It would be dark in minutes. There would be no bird for dinner tonight. The plane had stolen their hunt. Sam thought of the meal that his grandmother would be making down in the valley and his stomach began to groan with excitement. No bird, but it did not matter – she could cook a royal meal with no meat, no rice, no flour or spices. The magic of her cooking had sustained most of his young life.

The older brother wasn’t thinking of dinner. He was thinking of darkness. As soon as it was dark enough, he would tell Sami to run down the mountain, across the bridge, and to the house. The drone would still work in the dark, but he had heard that it could only see the flickering barrels of a night gun, not two dark-clad boys running in the shadows. He kept his arm around his brother, his hand still covering his mouth, but now only loosely. With his left hand he thumbed the trigger of the old Russian hunting rifle. Its stock was scratched and dented, its emaciated wood barely holding the old iron screws that kept the barrel attached.

The plane banked to the east now, heading upriver. “What is it looking for?” Tariq asked rhetorically under his breath. He scanned the road and could see no cars or bikes. The Taliban were around, but they would be in hiding deep in the cellars and caves if they heard the drone come into the valley. The sun continued to sink to their left, down river. In a dramatic display, it showed its very last tip in a fiery spot above Malaam Jabba Peak, where the ski resort once was. Sami thought of his grandmother. My, she would have loved to have a bird to roast tonight. He felt shamed for not being able to bring home the duck he had so boastfully promised her. Together, they had harvested a basket of eggplants and a large melon, and she had explained to Sami in salivating detail how she would prepare his duck alongside their bounty in the night’s meal.

The plane slowly buzzed down the valley, menacing the evening calm. Tariq watched intently, and pointed immediately when he saw the truck bolt across the road from the apple orchard towards the center of his village. Sami watched for a moment with his brother as the truck lurched along through the field. About halfway across the hay-lined double track, the truck seemed to get stuck. It shimmied back and forth for at least a minute. Its gears grinded loud enough for Tariq to hear that its driver did not understand the fineries of a manual transmission. Finally the men inside the truck jumped out. They tried rocking the truck back and forth, but the tires just spun freely against the fine river sand that lined the field. The drone swooped back once more, reversing course in a sweeping turn.

Tariq was sure by its attitude that the drone had seen the truck and it’s former occupants, who were now running in every direction away from the stuck vehicle. He watched with an increasing anxiety as one of the men ran in the direction of their home. He could see the man’s white turban bobbing quietly as he ran through the gardens that were just two blocks from their house.

“Why don’t they shoot it?” Sam asked. Tariq’s hand had fallen away completely now, and he forgot that he was being shushed. Tariq looked down at his little brother, surprised. “I don’t know. They can, I know that. Maybe they are cowards. Afraid to give up their positions. See?” he asked, now pointing down the road. “Those men are running. The drone sees them, but I don’t think that it will do anything unless one makes it to a house. I am nervous that this one directly ahead may run to our house. That is my worry.” he said.

Sam never thought much of the fighting and religious doctrine that seemed to overwhelm his village. He was one for play. When the sun rose he met it with a net. And when it went down, he resigned himself to the allowed indoor games with his siblings, and when they were made to retire, to the American stories that he had wiled away under his mat. Seeing the concern mounting on his brother’s angled brow, Sam decided to lighten things up. He knew one sure way to make his brother laugh. Both spent most of their day’s time making jokes about their unreasonably mean sister. However, on this day she had fallen ill, and the regular fare seemed inappropriate. Sam thought for a moment. He toed the pebbles that were gathered at his feet with the worn leather of his father’s old sandals. Quietly Sam slipped his right arm out of the sleeve of his shirt, keeping it inside next to his body and letting the sleeve flop loosely by his side. He watched Tariq for a moment, and then started to swing the loose sleeve at him. “Look at me,” he said with perfect comic intonation, “I’m an arm-ey of one!” His brother looked at him out of the corner of his eye with disdain. His glare warned that danger was still present, but Sam knew it had passed. Besides, they were just boys out tending to their flocks. The Americans knew what to shoot at. Their bullets were expensive. They were smart, he had heard, and they only worked on the Taliban, who were not from his town anyways. Most of them were jerks and arrogant and ripe with hatred. He swatted at his brother a few more times with his empty sleeve, and then put his hidden hand up into his armpit. The year prior, when school still met, he had learned from a boy during a quiet moment of outside study how to make a beat-box noise, like that on a hip-hop song, with his underarm.

Starting softly, Sam began to chant the lyrics to a favorite shepherding song. As he reached the first chorus, he began to drive his elbow back and forth with varying degrees of vigor. He kept his little hand cupped against the joint underneath his shoulder, and pushed air through the openings of his fingers. The result was a rambunctious aural display of pops, poots, squirts, and deep, bassy blorts. The young boy gathered steam, creating a steady beat of underarm rhythms timed perfectly to his mocking lyrical tone. His soft, blue eyes focused directly on the almost identical pair that belonged to his nervous brother, and laughing now between almost ever word, Sam imitated their sister Mela, she of the shrill screech of a dying parrot – and doing a fine job of it, with backing music to boot.

Irritated at first, Tariq could not help but fall prey to his brother’s comic talents. His face had been like a dam, smooth and unflinching. Now, with each new line of the old familiar song, with each farting noise of accompaniment, cracks began to form in his stern visage. Small cracks led to the formation of larger seams along his sharp cheeks, then entire folds of skin were laid back in a rippling grin. Soon he was laughing in uncontrolled snorts alongside Sam, pitifully singing along. He is so talented, he thought, this brother of his. But so young and foolish, he thought too. God help him, he thought finally, for he makes me laugh so much. Sam ended the song in an arm-pumping flourish and the two sat laughing from the gut, trying to stifle their noise by both burying their faces in their chests. Tariq did this first, and Sam watched him, as always, and then copied his brother, as he did most always.

Tariq gradually composed himself. His cautionary tone returned with renewed urgency. “Sami, you have to promise me that you will stop singing like that. Do you want them to find out? Do you not recall what they did to Jola and his horn?”

Sam thought for a minute. Before they conscripted him, the Taliban had poured candle wax into his older cousin’s ears, and ran over his prized French horn with the tires of their trucks. It had all been a big show, out in the open for everyone and God to see. “No.”
“Then you must stop.”

Sam considered his brothers warning, looked him squarely in the eyes, and said sincerely that he promised. He offered out his arm to shake on his promise, and when Tariq took it, Sam jerked his right arm forward, bleating out one last sharp underarm fart. This earned him a hard wallop to the back of the neck and a hushed string of choice words from his brother, but Sam thought that the timing was unavoidably perfect, and that it was worth it. After a moment of squabble, they both turned their attention back to the valley below and the plane that was hunting along its banks.

After a few minutes, Sam could see that the men from the truck had all separated and were making their way into the village. “Riq, I am ready to go down the mountain. The plane is not going to shoot a single man,” offered Sam, breaking the silence. “Its bullets are too expensive for that.” His stomach now quaked with hunger. He was thinking of the eggplant that he had watched his grandmother pull from the garden early that morning. Its skin was a perfect purple hue, like shiny velvet. The squash was so ripe that it smelled good enough to eat raw, without the curry. He imagined it cubed and steaming on a bowl, with her famous sauce for dipping filling the bowl that he had made her from a tortoise shell.
“Maybe, but two people?” Tariq asked.
“Well they are all going in different directions. Two will not go to the same house. They have houses everywhere. There is no need to bunch up,” reasoned Sami.
Tariq turned towards his brother. His face was red with irritation. “Well what about our grandmother? What if they run in on her? Is that not two people? Are we not two people? Sometimes you don’t think at all, Sami. Have you already forgotten Samir? Jedah? You will get killed like them if you don’t start to think better about things such as these,” scolded Tariq.

The plane flew quickly above over the abandoned truck, this time much lower than any of its previous passes through the valley.
“I wish they would just shoot it,” said Sam. “It is a stupid plane.”
Tariq settled back against the rocks. He tapped the barrel of his rifle lightly against a pile of volcanic rocks in front of him. He was quiet for a few minutes, and then he started to smile a bit. Sam watched his brother’s face now. Still he heard the buzzing of the thing, but it seemed to be down towards Malaam Jabba once again. “Maqmoud told me that they know how to see what it sees,” he said finally.
“How do they do that?” asked Sam.
“I don’t know. It is a computer. They have a code.”
“A code? Really?” Sam smiled. Other than soccer, or his family, the only thing in the world that Sam loved as much was a computer. There were two – one called Dell, and a To-shiba in his school, and whenever he had the chance to use them he would sit transfixed by the array of electronics. His mind ached to understand the machines His teacher had teased him for kissing the screen of the monitor the last time that he had been allowed on the machine, but he didn’t care. He loved it almost the same as he loved his own brother.

“Yes. They say an engineer figured out the frequencies that the planes broadcast the pictures with. They can look into the camera that is onboard and see what the robot camera sees. Maqmoud says that soon they will be able to take control of the planes and crash them into the rocks,” Tariq said. The drone echoed lightly. It was now out of sight. Tariq studied the mountain below and stood up to walk the two miles back to their house.
Sam sat staring at the rocks where they had sat in hiding. An expression of giddy excitement was cast on his brown face. “Riq! I hope they smash one! I want to see its computer. I want to learn how to make a plane like this one.”
“Don’t be silly. You cannot make one of those planes. Especially if they smash it. Where do you get these silly ideas? Are you sure that your father is Houshman Krita?”
Sam looked up at his brother disappointedly. He thought that his idea was a good one. He thought that Riq just liked to make fun of him because his own ideas were not as modern.
“Come on little goat. Lets go. It is almost too dark to see our way down.”

The path down from the high steppes where the flock normally waters for the night is treacherously steep and littered with sharp rocks. Old men don’t use the trail anymore. They say that it is too dangerous. Only young boys moving herds or fighting men used the trail. The bright grey granite was perfectly mixed, as if in some enormous ice cream blender, with the course black basalt rock. Small cactus and dead looking wire brush filled every crack in the rocks, and where there was room for a mound of dirt, sweet sage sprouted up. Peppering the hills along the trail are bright green cedars – their branches straight like the arms of a straw man. Occasionally an old, weathered pinon pine snaked its way grotesquely towards the sky from the fertile soil. But those were mostly gone now. The people needed their heat more than their beauty.

The brothers made their way down the hill slowly. Tariq shouldered his bird gun, and Sam carried their rucksacks, but wished that he could carry the gun. His mind was alternating between visions of his grandmothers cooking and the computer that sat waiting for his attention at school. He could not wait for school to reopen. It had been too long. He enjoyed moving the sheep and goats. But more than work, Sam looked forward to those days of hunting and the football games; the days spent staring at cloud heads and rainbows. And even more than the freedom of the open air, Sam loved the learning of languages and math and music and laboratory and computers – it was what made him wake up running. He missed his classmates and his teachers.

Tariq did not miss school at all. Since the soldiers had made it off limits, he had taken over Jalil’s herd in addition to his own, and after a summer of learning to move and protect twice the head, he had grown proficient at the job, and was proud of the responsibility of it. And Tariq liked much better the new religious studies that had taken their old schools place. They made more sense to him. He felt empowered by the teachings of his elders, connected much more so to the teachings of the prophet than the unprovable lessons of the old textbooks and the young teachers who used to push them on him.

As they walked Sam could hear the buzzing of the plane off in the distance. Occasionally it sounded like it sputtered and was going to crash. He held his breath each time, thinking what bounty it would be to bring back to Maqmoud and his friends the computer that lives inside it’s nose. Tariq listened for the sounds of town as they descended further and further down the steep ravine. It was very quiet in town. Not a single car moved. Everyone was still staying hidden from the roving plane. It was still dusk, and thought the sun was down there was enough light to see clearly for another 15 minutes.

Tariq walked ahead of Sam. Sam watched as the sling on Tariq’s rifle slid off of his shoulder with every other step. His arm was too tired to hold the gun, he thought. It had been a very long day, and together they had walked many miles since the dawn prayers. More than most days, and most days saw them go twice around their world, it seemed to Sam.

Tariq felt sluggish and weak. The hill was so steep. Downhill seemed to take more out of him than uphill had. His nerves had been pierced by the plane. When his brother tapped lightly on his shoulder, he turned slowly to see what he wanted. Sam motioned to Tariq that he would shoulder the rifle with a loving smile. Tariq let the rifle slide down his arm. He had to dip slightly to let the gun slip over the knobby protrusion of bone that was his left shoulder. Sam gingerly held the frayed old nylon strap and considered the gun. It was a Russian single-shot rifle with a bolt lever – originally for military use, converted to a sporting gun long before. The name Mosin-Nagent was etched in Russian letters into the rusting steel barrel. Their father had hunted game with the rifle before handing it down to Tariq four years prior. The rotting barrel was nearly ringed with crude hash marks. It had come to their family almost encircled by these marks, and they had simply continued to add to it. Tariq had a feeling that not all of the marks had been made after shooting a pig or duck, and he recalls easily the strange ecstasy of carving his first notch on the stock, when he was only eight. The knife was covered in the steaming blood of a young deer taken in the early winter. His hand had shaken so.

Sam thought about hanging the rifle over his chest, perpendicular to his body, which was a much easier was to carry a gun with such length as the Russian. He thought better of that idea when he looked at the sky. The day’s sun was dead to its world, but in its wake it had left a vibrant, bloody swath that was pooling out over the entire valley. The sky vibrated in electric hues. The display energized the clouds, which in turn began to rumble to life.

Though the night was beating back the day, it was not too late to see their prey silhouetted against the breaking sky.This much light left in the day made it possible to see the birds if the brothers were to come across any who were fishing in the marsh below. He kept the gun on his shoulder in case they did.

As Tariq and Sam picked their way down the darkened path – Tariq always in front, the air began to fill with the resounding din of chattering insects. Down out of the drainage and now on the lower flanks of the exposed ridge that swept down like a ramp from the mountain above, the brothers could see the grove of trees where the truck had been abandoned. Through the thickening chorus of cicada, Tariq thought that he could still hear the Toyota’s engine idling. Sam watched the marsh and thought of his grandmothers cooking. He knew his ill-mannered, ill-in-general sister would chide them for coming home without protein for the curry. With her, there was no trick to calm her or deflect her ire. She was a force of nature unto herself, impervious and wicked. Were she ever to marry, both her brothers would both dance for joy and weep for the fate of their new brother.

A movement below them stopped Tariq in mid-step at the crux of a switchback. Below, at the base of the hill that they were descending, a tall man stood up and looked over his shoulder at the brothers. In the dim light, Tariq could see the sleek tip of a grenade and its long launch tube cast in black against the reflected sunset that had overwhelmed the marsh. The man stood for a moment studying the brothers above him, seemed to motion in some indecipherable way, and then took off in a half crouching run. When he reached the edge of the water, another figure appeared behind him, and then another. Each had the minarets of war slung over their shoulders. Tariq held his arm out against Sam’s chest, physically stopping his progress downhill. “Soldiers. Be still,” he said briskly. The sound of the awakening locusts nearly drowned out all sound now. The buzz was omnipresent, the orchestra whipped into a frenzied pitch.

One of the fleeing men broke off from the other two who took a route that skirted around the edge of the marsh. The third man went a more direct route, aiming directly for Tariq and Sam’s fathers house, which stood set back, fronting a pasture that separated it from a group of other houses. In doing so, he committed to sloshing through a hundred meters of knee-deep water. The going was more difficult, but his route was quicker by half, and ran him under the relative cover of some scattered marsh cedars.
“Is he going to our house?” asked Sam.
“I think so. Do you hear anything?”
Sam listened. “No, just these stupid bugs.”
“I think that the plane is back,” said Tariq.
“No. I don’t. It is just the bugs. The men are coming out now that it is dark.”
“Well, walk fast. I hope that man is gone when we get there.”

The soldier splashed through the center of the pond, creating a small red wake in his path. He moved quickly and directly, and as he neared the other side of the marsh he hit dry ground in full stride, running right through a clutch of large whooper swans, who flailed their wings and danced in sudden panic at the mans intrusion. The long necks of the birds craned and bobbed in unison as the fighter tore through their ranks, kicking at their blockade of white wings as he ran. Tariq watched as first one swan, and then another ran after the soldier in furious charges. He saw too when the man leapt over the back of one of the birds and tripped on its neck when it swung around to peck him, landing on another bird in a rolling heap of dark fabric and bright feathers. The commotion sparked a movement. All at once, the flock, minus one, ran into the water, stepped high on its surface with their webbed feel, and then together rose up on the strength of their powerful wings.

The swans exploded out of the marsh and climbed quickly towards the hillside before them. Their wings pounded the air. This both Tariq and Sam could hear very clearly above the now raging song of the cicada. Tariq watched the man struggle to stand up on the banks of the marsh. The remaining swan appeared entangled in the strap of his rocket and was giving him fits.

Sam followed the flight of the swans, his eyes locking onto their beautiful wings, now drenched orange and purple, pink and red by the strange hues of the last light, which was transmitted downward, echoed from the reflective clouds that were steaming above. Instinctually, Sam slid the rifle off of his shoulder, fumbled with the safety briefly, but quickly overcame the lever and rose the barrel to the murky sky where the birds would be making their pass within just a few heartbeats.

Just downhill from Sam, Tariq was biting his forearm. doubled over with muted laughter at the antics of the man who appeared to be losing an embittered wrestling match with the incensed swan. The swan was on top of the soldier now, pecking at his head, tearing off his burqa, pulling huge chunks of hair from his beard. The man could do nothing but fend off the swan as he desperately grasped for his knife from its sheath below him. Tariq laughed and laughed. He had never seen a funnier sight. After a moment, he thought it a bit strange that Sam was not pounding heartily on his back in agreement, since he was one to never miss a chance to make fun of someone. The roar of the cicadas thickened impossibly, drowning out all sound. Tariq turned back uphill to point out the incredible scene to his oblivious younger brother. Of all people, his brother Sami the Senseless would die to see such humor.

Sam steadied the long barrel as he lifted it to the sky. Excitement coursed through his small body. Adrenaline fired through him like a string of a hundred spark plugs. In his excitement, he forgot to snug the butt of the gun into his underarm. Instead, Sam held the gun directly out in front of his face, a position that offered him a direct line of sight down the barrel. He watched through the sight as the nine swans climbed into view. He would have a bird for grandmother’s curry after all, and not just a common duck, but a bird fit for kings!

As the lead swan rose up on the thermals suddenly, it raced out ahead of Sam’s sight. Sam gave up on tracking it, and drifted the barrel back towards the larger group of birds that trailed the lead. One by one, Sam danced his sight from bird to bird. Time seemed to stop just long enough for Sam to choose his prey from the flock. He did not hear Tariq yelling, though it was at the top of his normally restrained voice, nor did he feel Tariq’s desperate tugs upon his the thin blouse of his hand-me-down shirt sleeve, though his older brother yanked with all of his twelve-year-old might.

The hunter saw only birds flocking across his sights in a sustained, slow climb. He counted again with the tip of the rifle. One, but that one is gone already. Two – smaller. Three and four are smaller still. Five was out on the wing, further away than the rest. Six was a nice hen, a fat mother. Sam liked the looks of the sixth bird. But to be sure he checked the rest. Seven and eight were smaller than six and further out on the fringes, and the ninth looked to be gaining speed, separating from the flock, too fast for Sam’s liking. He started to settle back towards the middle, where the largest bird flew, when he saw out of the corner of his eye a much larger bird rising out of the marsh, moving far quicker than the rest.

Keeping one eye on the fat hen, he glanced back to his right where the monster was racing towards its flock. He turned to swing the barrel towards this new bird and nearly ran right into his older brother Tariq, who was running frantically past him. The noise was incredible. The air turned violent. The birds banked away in instinctive group fright, flying suddenly to the east. All but one.

12-18-09
Los Angeles, California

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Stories by:
Corby Anderson

The Fire

It was a little past midnight on a moonless, foggy Tuesday when Stuttering Sheila and her “bbbenefffactor” Antonio paid their tab and warbled from the barstools where they had perched since lunchtime.

Their departure left only the sad eyed owner of the Otter Limits, Marina’s last pub, and the banker who cooked loans next door at Peoples Trust. At 12:17, a plan was formed. By 1 am, the alarm was disabled, the vault penetrated.

Downing double Chivas’, they toasted the days when Fort Ord thrived as they watched the tangerine flames engulf the wall that separated their adjoined places of employment.

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To Die Ironically is No Death At All

How ironic, he thought, his mind reeling wildly as his glottis spasmed and clamped vice-like on the spiny obstruction which was now lodged horizontally, buried deep in the ribbed tubing of his esophagus.

An apologetic fist wailed fruitlessly on his upper back. He assumed by the force being applied that it was the waiters knuckles that were breaking his ribs accidentally, and not those of his panicked wife.

With no breath coming, his eyes fixed in a shocked gaze on the small dish of lemon aioli and its delicious, thistly consort, the local fare. “My name is Arthur, and I’ve choked.”

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The Return

“By god, they’re back!” yelled Edmondo.

Over and over he ranted this refrain, but only the gulls and the cormorants could agree, for he was alone in his boat. Before the vengeance took her, his wife had cruelly called the vessel his “smelly, steel casket.”

But the fisherman did not like to remember Angelina in this way, for she was the light and the ardor, and other than the salmon and his few friends at the marina, she had been the whole of his existence, and so he had re-named his small dory in honor of her when she passed.

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