Thursday, January 28, 2010

Taking a Shot at Life

It couldn't have been more than forty-five degrees outside. It had been raining the better part of the last week, as it was liable to do 'round this time of year. Floyd Dougherty had spent the youngest hours of the evening slumped over the bar counter at Meyer's, looking in a bottle for a friend, as he was liable to do most any night. Meyer's was just up the block from the Hedgefield Apartments, which meant 'ol Murray wouldn't have to come from behind the bar and fight him for his keys. Nobody was going to have to worry about Floyd driving home. Walking was going to be trial enough.

The muddy gravel pathway that led from the sidewalk up the hill to the apartment complex was treacherous with rain, and Floyd could feel his high coming down as he forced himself to concentrate. Left foot. Right foot. Couldn't fall again, couldn't afford to miss any more work. Not after the last go-round with a sidewalk 'bout got his drunk ass canned. Concrete always wins. It was bad enough that most everyone in the office called him Still because of the alcohol that poured off of him like sweat used to. Bad enough he still had headaches from the last time he fell. A concussion and, on top of that, broke his jaw in two places. Mouth wired shut for a month. Could't eat anything that hadn't been tossed in a blender first. Thank God you don't have to chew bourbon.

What made it worse was that Tammy had finally had enough of his falling down and whiskey sweat and took a Greyhound to her mother's in Charleston. Floyd always figured that one day she would stop talking about doing it and really leave. Doesn't mean he wasn't shocked when she actually did it. Doesn't mean it didn't hurt like a punch in the kidney. He was well on his way to being drunk for an entire weekend when she came back. Tossed her suitcase on the bed and started putting all her sexy under-things back in the drawers and hanging the other things back up in the closet. Said she wasn't going to leave. Said she was going to stay. Suprised the hell out of him. Surprised him even more when she said that he was going to be the one to get the hell out. He was too drunk to put up much of a fight, she was probably right anyway. Left foot. Right foot.

He was most of the way up the hill when he saw her. Normally he wouldn't have noticed; normally he couldn't have. Things usually got pretty blurry, but coffee has nothing on being freezing cold and wet on top of it to sober you up, even for a professional alcoholic. She was skinny, with worn jeans and a raggedy sweat shirt with the sleeves rolled up clinging to her coat hanger frame. She had a backpack on her back and another backpack slung around her neck, like she hadn't bothered to take the time to put it on regular. Her ponytail had mostly wriggled out of her hair tie and was now matted against her skin by the rain. She was taking her time, just like Floyd, but not because she was drunk. She was burdened with two small kids; a little boy and a little girl. Even if his vision was wobbly, Floyd could see that the two tykes were dressed in T-shirts. Didn't look like much else. THe woman was carrying th little girl on one hip and half carrying, half dragging the little boy. The little fella was fighting her, didn't want to stand on his own two feet. The tug of war had turned her around so that the little group was facing back down the hill.

The rain and the cold and the concentration on left fot, right foot meant Floyd was sobering up fast, which meant that he was getting ornery.Ornery because he wasn't that drunk anymore mainly, but also because the woman was hauling around two little kids, at three in the morning, in the rain, wearing t-shirts irritated the hell out of him for some reason. Floyd was drunk, but hell, six in ten drunks could tell you that you aren't supposed to have little kids out in the rainy cold in t-shirts. The little boy had started to worm his way out of the woman's grasp and she had stopped her climb to get a better grip on his wrist. The pause let Floyd catch up to them. Let him get a better look. She was still skinny up close, real skinny, hair still wild and tangled from the rain, but her eyes were pretty clear. Pretty period, actually. But there was a fear and a determination that was messing up the pretty in those eyes.

She had to have noticed Floyd standing there, because he had stopped walking too. Couldn't concentrate on left foot, right footwhile he was looking at the pretty and the fear and the determination all mixed up in her eyes. She figured out a way to notice him without actually looking at him.

"Come on honey, just a little further to the new house", she coaxed, trying to get the little boy to stand on his own two feet. "Mommy needs you to stand up and walk like a big boy, ok?"

Floyd could see the goose bumps all over the little boy's arms, which matched the goose bumps on his sister's and mother's arms.

The little boy wasn't buying the whole "big boy" bit and curled his legs under him. Four year old dead weight. The little girl was starting to complain too.

"Mommy, I am cold and I don't wike it. I feel sad. I wanna get down Mommy."

The little girl squirmed in her mother's arms and the woman started to lose her grip on the child. The girl began to slide down her mother's bony hip and the straps of the woman's backpack were getting tangled with the child, pulling the whole little family toward the muddy ground. Floyd was losing his buzz and forgetting his irritation with the woman's parenting and stepped forward in time to catch the woman's shoulder and help her keep her balance.

"Thanks." She still wasn't looking at him when she spoke, kind of like the way people at the office turned their eyes away when they talked to him. The smell probably.

"Reckon you was 'bout to drop the 'lil lady." Floyd wasn't sure what else to say. Hard to know what to say to people when they don't really look at you.

"Need sum help? I kin hep ya make it tuh yur place", Floyd could feel the words slur. He knew they were because he could feel his tongue, thick and uncoordinated, flopping around his mouth like a catfish out of water.

The woman glanced up at him. The fear in her eyes was fighting with the determination now. She was afraid to tell him yes, but more afraid to tell him no. He felt that pang that lepers must feel when people recognize the leprosy. The woman looked up the hill, then back over her shoulder.

"Can you carry this?" She unwound the smaller backpack from around her neck. Didn't have much in it. Floyd couln't see inside, but the weight of it told him that it was about half full.

"Sure, reckon I kin manange."

"Come on babies, the nice man is going to help us get to the new house. What do you say?"

Perched safely back on her mother's hip, the little girl buried her face in her mother's neck and said nothing, but the little boy managed a "Thank you mister" before moving to the safer space behind his mother's leg.

The thoroughly soaked group braved the last of the dstance to te apartments. His high was getting close to ground level, but when the mother turned up the flight of stairs headed toward the second floor, Floyd felt a sudden wave of nausea.

"Awh hell", he thought, "Can't go loosing my lunch in front of these little kids." He held it in, except for a tiny bit that he gagged back down.

Thankfully the apartment as only on the second floor, and the skinny woman pushed her way inside the front door and deposited the little girl on the floor. The two little ones stood shivering just inside the doorway.

"Don't you two move, Mommy will be right back."

The woman began removing her soaked sweatshirt as she moved toward the rear of the apartment. Even skinnier without the sweatshirt. Floyd felt a twinge of dissappointment. Then he felt like a piece of garbage for even thinking that way. She walked into the bathroom of the apartment and emerged with three large white bath towels. One she wrapped around the soaked t-shirt that she had had on under her sweatshirt and with the others, she began drying off the two little ones. She didn't offer Floyd a towel.

The apartment was small but nice. Real nice in fact. Nothing like Floyd's. The furniture all matched, as did the lamps on the end tables on either end of the large sofa. A large book shelf held several hardback books, but little else. Nice coffee table in the center of the living room, seperating two club chairs. Floyd had a coffee table, but his had little brown circles all over it from always leaving beer bottles or fifths of Jack Daniels on it. The rugs were white, no stains, no dirt. Matter of fact, from what Floyd could see, the whole place looked super clean. Maybe this woman was a better housekeeper than mother, Floyd thought. House was spotless, but the kids were out at three in the morning in t-shirts. Enough thinking, nausea was coming back for round two.

The kids were dryer and now complaining of hunger.

"Mister, hand me that pack, will you?"

"Uh, mah name is Floyd, Floyd Dough...."

"Don't worry about it", the woman dismissed his attempt at introduction with a wave of her hand and gestured toward the backpack that Floyd was still holding. He handed it over. The woman produced several packs of crackers and opened them for the children. While they munched contentedly, sitting on the carpet, wrapped in the bath towels, the woman peaked out fo the slats of the blinds before coing back to join her children on the floor. She sat between them, an arm around each one, pulling them as close as she could without smothering them. Floyd had been leaning against the wall, more for balance than anything else, and now slid down to a sitting position. He figured he looke less threatening seated. He didn't feel threatening, but the way the woman watched him so closely made him feel uncomfortable. Like some kind of invited intruder.

"So what brings you out this time of night?" she asked, as if she wasn't out herself, and with two little kids to boot.

Floyd wante to say that his woman left him, he drank too much and stumbling around in the rain in the wee hours of the morning was old hat for him. But all that sounded too much like an old country song. All he needed was for someone to run over his dog with an old pickup truck. Still the truth took less thinking than some clever alibi and his head was starting to hurt.

"Drinkin', mostly." Maybe should have given the alibi a whirl. The familar disgust in the woman's nod said that she had already figured as much. Didn't take that much figuring.

The little boy took a bite of a cracker and raised it to his mother's lips.

"Wanna have some of my cracker Mommy?" he asked.

"No baby", she answered, a slight smile breaking through the grimness of her face. "You eat it for Mommy ok?"

"Ok. Do you want some of my cracker Mister?" The little fella sure was generous with his half eaten cracker. Floyd passed.

"That was sweet of you, what a good boy!" said the woman, ruffling her benevolent son's soggy hair, "Try not to get crumbs on the carpet ok babe?"

The little boy glowed as if he had just been voted into sainthood.

A twenty minute patch of silence passed before it hit Floyd like a ton of bricks. She was leaving him, whoever he was. Shoot, had already left him. Just like Tammy had left; finally packed some muscle behind her promises, threw some crackers in a backpack and left. Some poor sap just like him, probably too drunk to realize just what was walking out the door. Or maybe he did realize and just didn't care. Or maybe he was a different kind of animal, the kind that swings and breaks things when its been sloshing around inside a bottle for too long. The kind of animal that breaks glass windows and dinner plates. Breaks teeth. Breaks bones. That kind of animal. Now she was finally striking out for that new life, the one that didn't include broken glass and falling down and brown water stains on coffee tables. Floyd's head started to spin and he had to remember not to close his eyes. Makes it worse they say, closing your eyes when you're mostly drunk. The room only spins faster. The rain was starting to slack off some.

Below them in the parking lot, a car's tires crunched in the muddy gravel. The woman sprang to her feet, nearly knocking both children over. She nsatched up the backpack, rummaged inside for a second. A click, then a metallic flash. Floyd had never seen a derringer in anything other than an old Western He had never seen one in the hands of a woman in any case, come to think of it. The thing was big, well, as big as derringers go. The two over-under barrels looked big as shotguns, probably a .357 Mag. A purse sized cannon. She moved closer to the window and looked out.

"Hey you", she half whispered, half screamed, "cut those lights out!"

The urgency in her voice made the hair on the back of Floyd's neck stand up. Made him stand up too, and slap the light switches so that their heads bowed and the little apartment went black. The darkness started the kids to crying.

"PSSSST!" hissed the woman, "You two be quiet, shut up that crying right now. I mean it! Be quiet!"

Floyd figured she was just talking to the kids, he wasn't crying.

" Miss, I can just scoot on out the door here and be out of your way...." The coward in him made the statement come out sounding like a question.

"You sit your ass down!" She punctuated the statement with a flourish of her derringer. "And get my kids away from that door." She who has the gun with the two barrels makes the rules. FLoyd pulled the two children away from the door and huddled beside the couch with them. The couch smelled brand new. The new smell made Floyd feel sick all over again.

A car door slammed somewhere in the parking lot. Then footsteps on the wooden staircase, footsteps coming hard. They made the sound that someone who knows exactly where they are going makes. Hard steps. Certain steps. The woman flattened against the wall just besides the window. The lamp outside the apartment was pouring light in through the slits in the blinds, and Floyd could see the barrels of the woman's pistol glint every few seconds. Her hands were shaking.

A shadow blocked out the light coming through the blinds.

"Hey in there!" A man's voice boomed, "I know you're in there, damn it. Come on out right now!" Sounded like whoever that skinny woman had left wasn't going to take the exodous lying down. Maybe she had a head start, but he sure caught up fast. Tracked them to this nice apartment. Or maybe he hadn't even cared where she or the kids were until he found out that it was his money that was paying for it. Either way, somebody sure wasn't too happy about the arrangement.

The little girl whimpered and Floyd clapped his hand over her mouth to muffle her fear.

"I ain't playin', ya 'll get your tails out here!" the man thundered. A pregnant pause followed. A glint out of the corner of his eye told Floyd that the woman had raised the derringer.

"Alright, fine, that's how ya'll wanna play ball" growled the voice outside, "I am gonna come in there and drag ya'll out! I ain't standin' for this no more, no way!"

A metallic click in the darkness meant that the hammer of the derringer had been thumbed back. The handle of the door clicked once, then the door burst in, crashing into the wall, blasted off two of its three hinges. A woman's scream ripped the air, then two deafening thunderclaps. A grunt, followed by a resounding crash, as whoever came through the door slammed backward into a wall, then pitched forward with a meaty thud onto the carpet.

Ears ringing, Floyd rolled to one side, pulling the two little ones with him. Both were now crying hysterically and Floyd felt the distinct urge to join in. The man who had come through the door was down but still moving. Floyd untangled himself from the crying kids and stood on two wobbly legs.

"Get a light on." The woman ws still leaning against the wall, more for support now than anything.

Thankful for some direction, Floyd flipped the light switch near the ruined threshold.

A gasp, and the woman dropped the derringer, and sank to her knees besides the fallen intruder, who had rolled over onto his back. The man looked to be about mid forties, with a heavy-set build and a jagged hole ripped through one side of his coverall uniform, just below the patch that read "Superintendent":
Red life was running out of that hole and dying the once-stainless carpet crimson. The man coughed, a sound that was more wheeze than cough, his tongue trying to clear the blood from his lips enough to speak.

"Damn squatters, ya done killed me" he hacked.

Squatters? Floyd jerked upright.

"This your husband or boyfriend, or whoever you're dodgin'?"

The woman stared off into space, tears pooling in her eyes.

"No. It ain't."

Floyd was suddenly feeling very cold. He stood and turned toward where the door was dangling from the frame by its one good hinge. The bile surged upward in his throat as he read the plate on the door, just over the peep hole. The plate that should have had an apartment number on it, like the plate that read "143" on the door of Floyd's apartment. Except there was no number. No number at all. Just two words. Two awful words. Words that meant something worse had happened than a runaway woman shooting whoever was chasing her.

"Model Apartment"

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Short End of Being Tall

After the first several months of my second season of basketball in Italy, there was nothing that I looked forward to more than going home for the mid-season Christmas break. I could not wait to see my city, my family and friends, eat American food, understand entire conversations, and so on and so forth. However, I looked forward to the 10-hour plane ride with about as much joy as I looked forward to my Dad getting home after work the day I got suspended from school in seventh grade; I knew it was going to be, well, "uncomfortable" to say the least. I landed in my hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina safe and sound and thankfully all went smoothly with no multiple hour delays or lost luggage. But the plane ride over was about as bad as I feared it would be. Let's take it from the top, shall we?

My journey started off with the whole song and dance of meticulously packing only the most necessary items to be sure that my bags were as light as possible, dragging that luggage from the parking lot to the ticket counter, and then weighing it only to find that it was just heavy enough to be over the limit and qualify me for a glorious $150.00-excess weight fee. Which in turn now meant that I had to go through the process of opening my suitcases to decide on what items that I could either cram into my carry-on or leave behind. I then had to re-weigh the luggage, and smile just sweetly enough for the lady behind the counter to say that she would let my few excess kilos slide and give me my boarding passes. With that obstacle cleared, I made it to my gate just as my flight was beginning to board.

I firmly believe that plane boarding is really an opportunity for grown, educated, normally well-behaved adults to revert back to the days of pre-school and lining up for recess. You remember those days; nobody is paying the teacher any attention while elbowing and shoving in order to maintain one's place in line. Even if EVERYONE is definitely going to make it to the playground, being the very, very first person to touch butt-to-swing set-seat is a matter of life and death. Toes are stepped on, personal space is violated and oh-please-believe someone's delicate feelings are going to get hurt. No one ever listens to the airline attendants who repeatedly ask people with tickets in certain zones to board in a certain order, and when told that their zone is not yet boarding, these over-eager passengers huff and puff enough to blow down the cottage of the Three Little Pigs.

As much as I didn't like the ordeal of just getting on the plane, I particularly despised walking past First Class on my way back to my Economy (a.k.a. "you had just enough money to get on this flying umbrella") seat. I think the green look of jealousy that colors the face of everyone taking the Bataan Death March to the rear bowels of the plane must be half the fun of actually being in First Class ; everyone wants what you got. You can see it on the First Classers’ smug faces as you file past. They had boarded the plane in a nice single-file line some twenty minutes before, and are now sipping some drink that won't cost them anything extra, resting their affluent elbows on armrests that they will not have to share with anyone else, and stretching their legs out to the furthest extension and wiggling their toes, just to show that they can do it and still have leg room to spare. Blast you and the horse that brung ya, First Class, because yes, I AM jealous.

The physical attribute of height is a great advantage to have should one desire to pursue a sport like basketball or maybe Olympic top-shelf reaching. It is not, however, a desired physical characteristic on an international flight in the cheap seats. Upon reaching my seat, I found that my seat assignment was a nightmare; the middle seat... in the middle row of the middle of the airplane. Shoot me now. I had maybe a centimeter of space between the front of my knees and the back of the seat in front of me and this is while all seats are in an upright position in preparation for takeoff. In front of me was a elderly man who felt it was his God-given right to recline his seat as far back as it would go, as if it wouldn't bother me a bit that his entire seat now rested in my lap. He was also stunned that I would have the sheer audacity to ask him to tilt his seat up just enough so that his headrest no longer was chafing my belly button. Young people these days, yes sir, I know, I know. Who would think that they would like to freakin' breathe too? The nerve. To my left was a rather “healthy” (see morbidly obese) man who had piled into his seat with the grace of an avalanche, beads of sweat dribbling through the front of his comb-over. I grabbed my shovel and started digging trenches for the war that I knew would soon ensue over the current no-man's-land of the armrests. To my right, an attractive middle aged German woman slid into her seat and I had about a two-second pause before the wave of perfume hit me like the sandstorm that almost runs down Brendan Fraser in the movie The Mummy. Things were off to a blazing start and we weren't even off the runway .

This seat assignment from Hell was far worse than a stocking full of coal as far as I was concerned; I suppose ‘Ol Saint Nick didn’t get my email that had started with the “Dear Santa, let me try to explain……” line. Oh well. It looked like I was going to have to bite the bullet and hope that my legs didn’t loose all motor function after being cramped in a pretzel-esque position for ten hours. About ten minutes after takeoff, and just as I was waving a fond farewell to the sense of feeling in my lower extremities, the patron saint of all six-foot-four athletes crammed into too-tight spaces on planes threw me a bone. The husband ( or boyfriend, whatever) of the afore mentioned perfumed chemical weapon sitting to my right suggested that I change places with him in the aisle seat of the opposite row, all in the name of being closer to his dearly beloved. Far be it from me to stand in the way of chivalry, and the prospect of an aisle seat that would allow me to move my legs was an added bonus. As I rose from my middle seat in the middle row of the middle of the airplane, I distinctly heard the voice of Martin Luther King Jr. intonating “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last”. I tried to keep the jubilation of my emancipation off my face as I nonchalantly accepted his seemingly generous offer and traded seats with my liberator. It took me exactly two minutes, or inhaling and exhaling several times to realize that I had been had.

If you have ever taken misstep into some dog mess, then you know there is that period of time where you keep catching a whiff of some God-awful smell that seems to stay in close proximity to you no matter where you go before you realize that smell is coming from the bottom of your shoe. The whole time, you are quite certain of your own sanitation grade; you have bathed regularly, deodorant is a go, a breath mint wedged between your teeth and cheek. And yet that smell…..Such was my situation. My eyes began to burn and well-up with tears as I tried to figure out where this terrible odor was coming from. As I struggled to maintain consciousness, arms flailing about trying to figure out how to get my oxygen mask to drop from above my head, I realized that the smell was in fact coming from the man sitting next to me. He had the window seat, and the putrid smell that was coming off of him was bouncing off the side of the plane, redoubling its potency by passing him again, and then hitting me like a Mike Tyson jab to the nostrils. “AND THERE GOES THE MOUTHPIECE!” The man smelled like a truck stop McDonald’s bathroom and the juice at the bottom of a county fairground garbage can in mid-July, or a mixture of a dirty gerbil cage and old hot dog water. It was the kind of smell that has its own set of hands and will latch on and cling to anything near car upholstery, or bed sheets, or new hoodie pullovers like the one I was wearing. Right before I passed out and as the world turned to flickering shadows, I caught a glimpse of the man beside me gnawing his fingernails and watching “Harry Potter: The Blood Prince” on the personal movie screen that is located in the back of the headrest of the seat in front of us. When I came to, we were landing in Charlotte. Ok, so maybe the smell didn’t knock me out that hard, actually it was the fact that I purposefully didn’t go to sleep for the previous two days in order to black out for the plane ride. The smell just helped me get to a comatose state that much faster. I am a veteran at this now I do believe, and being utterly exhausted before getting on the plane means sleep…which means the time goes by quicker.

I survived. Which is really all that matters when it’s all said and done. My baggage all arrived safe and sound, my family was at the airport with open arms and hand-made signs proclaiming how much I was loved. We took pictures and hugged and laughed and it seemed like I had never left. It was the kind of reunion scene that takes up the first five minutes of the film "Love Actually". I collected my luggage from the baggage claim and headed out into the crisp Charlotte evening air. Ah, home sweet home. And just as we entered the parking deck, my brother Matthias turned, and with his nostrils flared, asked "Hey, does anyone else SMELL that?"...