(To Jessie Julien: For teaching me to look within the words for the pictures)
The last day of the month crawled by. It crawled like the afternoon sun crawled, a sun unseen but for its subtle siblings, an army of fleeting images, forming and fleeing along the tier of windshields in the cars parked in front of Taylor’s small store. Bright, far too bright, these beacons winked on and off, glaring at Taylor as he walked here and there in his store, going about his business, going about his attempts to avoid his business, going about his efforts to try and ignore the fact that there was no business.
One of the last remaining constants of Taylor’s job was the slow but sure approach, every afternoon, of the blinding reflections sired by the sun in the cars huddled across the no-parking zone. Now and again Taylor would stare at those refracted spotlights for as long as he could stand it, then turn his head, close his eyes and watch the ghosts of those spotty lights play across the insides of his eyelids. Playing, like tiny wounded and confused birds, circling, unsure where to go.
And the children come and go, don’t you know.
Suddenly the door swung open. There had once been an electronic bell on the door that would burble and chime its welcome to each new customer, but that chime had burned itself out in the glory days, those days when it would sing out hundreds of times each week, heralding hoards of descending shoppers. Of that bell there now remained only a very subtle electronic buzzing, something that only Taylor could still hear. He had been in this store far too long. Hours of dulling ritual and rote conditioning caused him to lift his head, almost subconsciously, to gaze toward the front door.
Taylor regrouped, re-entering real (real?) life. He inwardly moaned as he focused upon an image — walking up the aisle was an old man, dressed in a barely baggy blue suit (“natty,” Taylor thought, wondering if that was the right word), wearing (sporting?) a perfectly tilted pork-pie hat on his white hair. Full beard, thick eyebrows, large-rimmed glasses which magnified bright and alert eyes. Taylor was reminded of a retired life insurance salesman, copious with canned wit and less-than-captivating anecdotes. He was half-right.
The old man stopped just inside the door, looking over the first bank of shelves, silently reinforcing Taylor’s initial impression — here was one more jerk just wasting his time, killing time, marking time. He was half-right.
As the gentleman sidled up the aisle and closed on the counter, Taylor got up and turned off the loud and violent movie he was watching, rotating the switch on the amp over to the tuner selection, filling the building with classical music. He sat back down.
Taylor looked very intently at absolutely nothing, waiting for the old guy to launch into whatever it was that made these browsers feel the need to take totally helpless strangers into their confidence, waiting for whatever it was that caused them to spew forth a fountain of banality.
This time, though, Taylor was dead wrong. The old man began.
“Howya doin, young fellah? I’m waitin fuh th’ wife over in the store, there, and waitin here, cause it’s much cooler in here, donchaknow, yes, that air condition sure does feel so much bettah, donchaknow?”
Taylor, perpetually the retail host, slipped on a mildly Southernized accent, like a debutante might slide into an appropriate outfit. “Well, you just make yourself right at home, there,” he said, watching the old guy sink slowly into the deeps of the little couch lining the left wall.
“You know, that reminds me,” the old man puttered, “there was this song that the kids use-ta sing there in the Apistopal Church, donchaknow, actually, it, uh, sorta started out as a, well, a, sorta black-sounding thing, and the chorus went…
‘Sit down, children, and close the door
And you’ll hear Bible stories like you never heard before.
We come to Sunday School each week from our home,
So sit down, children, and make yourself at home…’ “
Taylor slung a glance toward the ceiling, that universal gesture that means, “Oh, Jeez…”
“Well, and then,” the dapper little man continued, slipping into second gear, “there was the first verse, about, uh, about Cain hitting Abel on his head and Abel fell down dead, donchaknow, then, well, the second verse came along next, donchaknow, which went on something about Jonah catching a ride on the whale…no, on the trans-Alanic whale, and the one about David, and a Moses one, and it went on and on, donchaknow, but, you work here full-time?”
Taylor blinked. From Moses to full-time retail, huh? From ‘Let my people go’ to ‘Let my people go shopping?’ Well, okay. He sighed. “Yessir, I do.”
The old man nodded. “My son got in this business, back when it was still a new thing, donchaknow, and, and, well I doan think he did real well at it, but it’s, uh, you work here full-time?”
And the children come and go, don’t you know.
“Yes, Sir.” clarified Taylor. “I still do.” Catching Taylor’s general drift, the natty dresser moved on.
“Do you go to college, young man?”
“No, Sir, I’m through. I finished.”
“When did you finish?”
Taylor looked up at the ceiling and squinted a bit, as though hunting through hazes of obscure time. “Uh, 19…81.”
“No, come away!” the old man grinned. “You look to be about 21 years old!”
“Thirty-one,” Taylor grinned back.
The old man’s head made one quick jerk to the side, almost qualifying as a nervous tic, and looked up. “Make that music turn up, wouldja?”
Without knowing it, the verbose and spark-eyed man had hit a warm spot with that request, stoking the deep-banked fires of Taylor’s love for music. “I sure will,” Taylor smiled. “I’ll be glad to.”
This guy’s head works like a damn pinball machine, Taylor thought. It’s like, every thirty seconds, he’s slap-happy and running, off on some tangent, every bouncing thought as exotic as the vitamin-charged shouting that the announcers at South Florida dog tracks spout over the track microphone before each race, clarions thumping the crowd into rushes of excitement…”AND THEY’RE OFF!!”
The old man’s head, still slightly canted to one side, tuned in to the duck prints on the wall behind the couch, and BOOM went the pinball machine inside his head. He rolled on.
“You know, these ducks here remind me of those old clay pigeons, ones the hunters shoot down, donchaknow, ones they call, what they use-ta, they call ‘skeet,’ you know what skeet is, young man?”
Taylor smiled distantly as he looked at the wizened little man on the couch. Taylor had suddenly remembered times when his dad had taken him out to the open South Carolina fields, father and son armed with loaded shot-guns. They would stand on a mark, aim and yell “PULL!” Cued by that command, from either of two square silos flanking the “hunters,” a mechanical arm would sling a small round disc skyward, a sculpted and suicidal clay plate, which the armed Americans would try to eliminate from the planet.
This helped to build a real man.
The memory clicked into place and then Taylor’s mind reeled, skidding back to this very real last day of the month. “Sure, I know what skeet are.”
“Clay pigeons,” the ancient man continued. “They use-ta be called, ayuh, but they use-ta use real pigeons, donchaknow.”
“Yeah, they use-ta use real pigeons, they would cage ’em from the cities, donchaknow, when they started putting up the skyscrapers, they use-ta capture those live pigeons and bring ’em out to the shootin ranges, donchaknow. They even, I believe they even had these trappers, that would, they’d pay these trappers to cage the pigeons, the building owners, they would, since the pigeons would, you know how they would mess up the owner’s buildings.
“So they’d pay these trappers, and they’d bring the pigeons down to the shootin ranges. Course, they would clip one of the wings so the pigeons couldn’t… they would clip just a bit off one wing, they couldn’t clip too much, or the pigeons couldn’t fly ‘tal, I think, I think if you clip off, say, more than ’bout, say, one-fiff of the wing, they couldn’t…but just enough to make, so the pigeons just flew some erratic, donchaknow.”
“Tsat right,” Taylor mumbled. He’d had another flash of memory during his guest’s last outburst.
He recalled other times when his dad would take him out to other fields, where Taylor would see a phalanx of pick-up trucks (meaning a dog trainer, or maybe a policeman), station wagons (meaning a hardware salesman, or maybe a fledgling RealEstateGuy), the occasional Mercedes (doctor, lawyer, or maybe a career RealEstateGuy). Cars and trucks, all parked in a line.
After a little milling about and gratuitous hand-shaking, the group would grab their shotguns and march out into the field. The field was always the same — a cleared circle of bare ground, wrapped around a wooded area which stood in the middle, a great green Christmas bow on a present for someone very special. Stakes had been driven into the ground at regular intervals like numbers on a watch-face, around the circular copse of thick green woods. These stakes served as stations for the “Hunters.”
Completely hidden inside the great green Christmas bow (and completely unknown to Taylor his first time out) was a guy with a flat-bed truck. This guy was the commander of a clutch of small cages, each petite cell imprisoning a live pheasant, a beautiful and graceful bird.
Taylor now found himself wondering if those pheasants had had, say, just about one-fifth of their wings clipped.
All the brave woodsmen would eventually take their place at one or another of the stakes, bellying up to the gene pool bar, testosterone-and-tonics, on the house. Before the festivities would commence, the good ol’ boys would toss around jokes and insults, deer-hunting lies and woman-conquering myths…
“Yeah, man, I sure do love that South Florida. I got me more butt than a toilet seat.”
“Aw, fool, you couldn’t get laid if you was cheap carpet!”
“…and then, well I swear fo’ God, that blasted deer just walked right into the back of my truck!”
“Shucks, that durn Jimmy, I swear, he’d rather climb a tree an’ tell a lie than stay on the ground an’ tell the truth.”
And the children come and go, don’t you know.
At some specified cue which Taylor could never figure out, the guy in the truck inside the great green Christmas bow would open one of the prison cells, releasing one of the doomed (crippled?) pheasants. The pheasant would tear up and out of the great green Christmas bow of death, probably amazed at its instant parole, only to be splatted out of the sky by whichever of the Hunters was closest to its erratic flight path. Sometimes three or four of the Hunters would take a shot, turning the surprised pheasant into attic dust.
Boy, that’s some fun. Boy, that’s some hunting prowess.
The old man’s pinball machine clinked and buzzed, pulling Taylor back, back to this little man, here on the last day of the month.
“Yessir, real pigeons,” Mr. Pinball continued, “with their wings just clipped enough so they’d fly, just erratic some, donchaknow. Me and these other fellahs one time…” (again, Taylor could hear that track announcer…”AND THEY’RE OFF!!”) “…went down to…took a private car to…son, do you know what a private car is?”
“You mean on a train, a sleeper car?”
“Yes, a sleeper ca…well, it was really a chartered car, at the back of the train, and you could charter the whole car, for a trip, donchaknow, and me and these fellahs were going down to Florida for a hunting party. These fellahs were some real gamblers, loved to bet on just about anything ‘tal, donchaknow, fact is, we…” He paused, as though his throat had suddenly dried, as though he as stepped on a valuable icon. As though he had opened a door better left shut.
“Well, we were going down to shoot at some of those real pigeons. This was back in, I think, in 1937, and I was just about to get marr…back in 1938, I think…before I met my wife, this was the 23rd of July in 1938, I had gone to Europe…you ever been to Europe?”
Taylor set out to say that he had not. “No, I haven’t, but everyone in my family ha–“
The old man began firing away again. “And the best thing happened, as I met a young girl, there in Europe, but she just stayed there an’ I came on back home to Charleston, so she had…you married, young man?”
The pinball machine was sho’ nuff hummin’ now.
“No, Sir, I’m not.”
The pork-pie hat stood up. “Well, that’s another reason you ought to go to Europe!” he said with a wide yellow-toothed grin.
Proud of his humour, he left the couch and walked over to confront Taylor at the counter. He took off his glasses and began to wipe them with a light blue handkerchief from his inside coat pocket.
Natty, natty, natty.
“Met the most wonderful kind of girl, but she stayed there in Europe, donchaknow. Well, came to find out that she had gotten a job in St. Thomas, donchaknow, down in the Virgin Islands there, and I was sittin down to 2:00 dinner at my…do you know what ‘2:00 dinner’ is, young man?”
Taylor had begun to get increasingly captivated by whatever relentless, stream-of-consciousness Demon it was that ejected this furious and relentless barrage of stories from within the old guy’s arsenal, and he now found himself completely hooked. This, his mind told him, should be fascinating.
What an idiot.
“2:00 dinner?” Taylor replied. “No, I don’t believe I know what that is.”
“Well,” the pinball arsenal continued, “that’s when you sit down to eat at 2:00!”
Taylor’s smile, interest, patience, all began to fade as he realized what an idiot he’d been for asking into the mystery of the “2:00 dinner.” He decided to drop back and punt. “Well, I’ve really got a lot of work t–“
“See,” the old man interrupted, gripping the counter, tilting his head and leaning back, “everybody use-ta sit down to dinner here at 2:00 here in Charleston, donchaknow, and they, everybody use-ta have servants back then, donchaknow, before World War One, after World War One nobody could afford servants any more, after that, uh…”
The old man paused, his face clouded as if entangled in some mental overload. Taylor’s own face screwed up in confusion. “I really don’t see the connec–“
“But this young thing had moved to St. Thomas to work, that’s down in the Virgin Islands, donchaknow.”
Taylor sighed. “Is it?”
“So then,” the old man went on, “I, we were sitting down to dinner and I asked my mother if I might invite this young girl to come to visit, come up from St. Thomas, dow–“
“Which is down in the Virgin Islands?” Taylor offered.
And the children come and go, don’t you know.
“Well, I musta done something right,” the old man smiled, “cause she ended up staying for eleven weeks!”
“And she ended up staying for about eleven weeks, and went to, she had ten sets of aunts and uncles to visit here in the States, which she went to visit.”
Taylor, at a loss to keep up with this random story-telling pattern, countered, more to stall than to understand. “Went to see her aunts and uncles, did she?”
“Well, she had ten sets here in the States, then we, so then we decided to get married, donchaknow, and we moved out to Oregon, and then about fourteen years later…”
WHOA!! Taylor’s mind objected. AUNTS? UNCLES? MARRIED? OREGON?? FOURTEEN FREAKIN’ YEARS LATER?!? AM I BEING BRIEFED BY OLIVER NORTH’S ATTORNEY???
“And they’re off!!!”
“Step right up, ladies and gentlemen…”
“Make it go real fast…”
“For my next trick…”
“Hey, wait for me, guys, wait for me!”
Which the old geezer (geyser) failed to pick up on…
“I said to her that we, I decided we ought to go back to Europe…have you ever been to Europe, young man?”
MY GOD!!! Taylor thought manically. YOU JUST ASKED ME THAT!!!
“Yes,” Taylor stated flatly. “Six times. Four times as a military advisor for President Coolidge, once on the lam from Federal agents for smuggling cheap wines into France, and the last ti–“
“Well,” the old man countered, “we thought as how we might take the car with us, with the family, cause the wife had said what will we do with the kids, donchaknow, an’ I said well, we take them on with us, and the wife agreed, back when we went to Europe, donchaknow.”
Taylor still seemed to see this ‘donchaknow’ as some kind of carrot on a stick, inviting commentary.
“How many kids did you ha–“
“Well, we found out that we could take the car with us to Europe, it was a seven-passenger Cadillac, and we decided to take it with us and the family to Europe, donchaknow, and we took it with us for $565, which was…” he paused, then found his place, “…was, us, which was cheaper than renting one, donchaknow.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a seven-person Cadilla–,” the Idiot began, before cutting himself off in a flash of instant intellect.
“Eighty-five hundred dollars,” the white-lidded museum caromed away, “which wasn’t bad for a bunch, that’s all we spent, the five of us to travel around Europe for four months in a seven-passenger Cadillac, donchaknow, and they would ask me in Europe, they would say, ‘Was fur auto ist das?’ and I would say, ‘Diese ist ein Amerikanische Volkswagen,’ heh-heh, donchaknow, and they got a big kick out of that. Heh-heh.”
The gentleman smiled as he remembered telling and telling and telling, Taylor supposed, his little joke to his new German friends. Taylor could visualize the raised eyebrow, the upturned lip of the old man’s German victims, entirely unamused. He could imagine German villagers rushing around, calling emergency town meetings to demand the end of NATO.
All the while, the old man’s white eyebrows danced up and down in one of those Don’t-you-get-it expressions.
Taylor got it. And ran with it. “American Volkswagen, huh? That was a good one, probably got you a good kick, or two, out of that?”
Suddenly, Taylor’s jaw dropped, realizing that he, without warning, had managed to finish a complete sentence.
The old man seemed to realize this as well. His expression changed. He looked over his shoulder at the door, his shoulders bunching, and then, uncertainty suddenly clutching him in a clamp of confusion, he spoke.
“Well,” the old man said through grim lips, “I told my wife I’d meet her in fifteen minutes, an’ it’s been a few longer than that, ayuh, but she’s not come in here yet, so maybe I’ll just sit a bit longer, donchaknow, take off this jacket, if you don’t mind, son.”
Taylor was subdued by his guest’s sudden discomfort. “Certainly, Sir, just make yourself right at ho…”
He stopped and looked at the old man. Their eyes met.
The old man had one sleeve of his jacket off his shoulder already, and then he clicked slightly to a stop, just a dim but pointed pause, before quickly pulling the jacket back up and on. He looked at Taylor, then his eyes began to glisten with tears of embarrassment. He saw Taylor’s eyes, over-wide with unbelieving horror, Taylor’s eyes riveted to the aged skin just below the short sleeve of the old man’s shirt.
In a bolt of frightening clarity, Taylor realized why this hoary old man had seemed to flit around and about these stories of his, why the old man hadn’t seemed completely fettered to the confines of the ground but able to circle in and out of his tales, with just a slight bit of the erratic. Say, oh
OH GOD, PLEASE NO
just about one-fifth of the erratic.
Taylor’s mind danced backwards as if his jaw had been shattered. Surely he had not seen (“they would clip just a bit off one wing”) what his eyes told him he had seen (“they couldn’t clip too much”) just below the old man’s shirt sleeve.
The seasoned old man’s head drooped toward the floor. His mouth moved, opening and closing, as if inspecting his words before they flew out in some (“just slightly erratic”) remark.
“Just a little scar I picked up,” he muttered, just audibly enough for Taylor to hear, just loud enough to turn Taylor’s spine to ice. “A bet I lost once, donchaknow, in a chartered…private car on a train, doncha–“
Taylor’s mouth snapped shut to curtain his clamping teeth, grinding his upper jaw into his lower to contain the scream. The shudder got away though, got clean away, and he shivered all to visibly in front of the old (crippled?) man. Taylor saw the clip, the horribly precise clip of flesh missing from above the man’s elbow. Taylor could see a triangle of his store’s carpet showing through at an obscenely untrue angle, peering from a place where no light should have been able to pass.
The neatly surgical reality of the sight sent sparks splaying through Taylor’s skull, as two armies in his brain fought to deny, or worse, to confirm the horrid thoughts that skittered back and forth.
In a flash, Taylor saw pigeons and pheasants, flying erratically over the lagoons and the darker areas of St. Thomas (“which is down in the Virgin Is-lands, donchaknow?”), abruptly changing course, changing, changing, changing…
…he saw course and far too drunk men in a private train car, hooting and howling at the perverse wager they had just made…
…he saw a verbose and spark-eyed man in a barely baggy blue suit, too drunk to aim at the pigeons, the live pigeons in Florida…
…he saw a group of men, more like a coven than a hunting party (“they would bet on just about anything ‘tal, donchaknow”), silently carrying out the terms of their hellish wager…
…he saw a natty, confused, wounded aging man, ellipsing through the unpaved and less-traveled streets of St. Thomas…
Taylor knew he was going to scream.
A buzzer seemed to explode in Taylor’s head, scattering legions of intentionally wounded birds and gamblers around a great green Christmas bow inside his bruised mind.
The buzzer sounded very familiar, but much too loud. Then his eyes were slapped by a shrill searching diamond of reflected sunlight, drilling towards him at sunlight’s relentless pace. He blinked hard, opened his eyes and looked up. The front door of his store, here on the last day of the month, had opened (so that was the loud buzzer). A car windshield was reflecting sunlight directly into his eyes (so that was the diamond drill). Silhouetted in the door of Taylor’s store was a woman he had never seen.
But, crazily, Taylor immediately knew who she was…
She spoke. “Winton, are you in here? I’m ready to go…Winton?”
The old man, bright and ancient eyes watering, so very tired, touched his hat with his hand and looked at Taylor, looked straight through him. He spoke.”Coming, dear.”
He turned to go, slightly erratic, just so very slightly erratic, winding down the aisle to meet with the brown woman looming at the door.
The waves and oceans, they ebb and flow
Birds here are circling, unsure where to go
For the fathers have clipped their wings just so
And the children come and go, don’t you know.