Thursday, October 31, 2013

Ambrose

On Wednesdays I ride the number 24 with Ambrose.  I stay on til the end of the line, I live a block from the bus station.  The boy gets off at the downtown exchange.

The first time I met him, I was reading a Newsweek and casually chewing the pen I kept in my purse.

"Can I have that?" a small clear voice behind me, I craned my neck back and saw a little brown face, red and blue Spiderman hat pulled down over his ears.  His hand darted over the seat between us to point, "Your pen, can I?"

"Sure" I answered without thinking, hastily wiping the cap on my coat sleeve and handing it back to him.  He slipped it into his pocket and moved into the seat next to me.

"What are you reading?", he asked jovially, "I'm going to the park, I'm Ambrose Sherman"

I looked around for the boys parents but on this chilly day we were the lone riders.  I folded my Newsweek and tucked it back in my bag.

It has never been my habit to talk to strange children but the boy seemed determined to make conversation.  He held his small hands out and tapped his fingers together one by one, pinkie to thumb and repeating, staring up at me sideways with one eyebrow raised.  His expectant expression made me laugh.  I had the impression that I was being interviewed for an important position.

"Well I was reading Newsweek, an article about Twitter, are you meeting your friends at the park, Ambrose?"

He suddenly rose solemnly and stepped past me to stare out the window, leaning against my knee for support and clutching his jacket over his heart as the bus lurched along.  "All of my friends are dead." he declared.  "Every one of them.  We were on a field trip to the art museum, the bus caught fire and everyone perished except for me, even my teacher and the bus driver.  I can still see them melting when I close my eyes.  This is my first time riding on a bus since it happened"

He paused to look at me sadly, his expressive eyebrows a caricature of agony, a single tear made its way down his porcelain baby cheek.  "Do you have any gum?"

I handed him the pack of Big Red from my purse.  Ambrose pocketed it and sat back down.

I didn't know quite what to say to that, "I'm so sorry that happened, I don't remember reading about it, the whole thing sounds awful"  I put my arm around his shoulder, squeezing it gently, "Well that's not going to happen on this bus, you're safe now, sweetie"

He smiled up at me angelically, his velvety brown eyes gleaming "You remind me of my grandma," Ambrose leaned against me, tucking his head under my arm, "She was so good, every Sunday she cooked a big dinner just for me with desserts and everything.  She died last year, I tried to save her life with cpr but the doctors said I was too late, do you have a quarter?"  I handed him a dollar.  He pulled out a gray velcro wallet and deposited the dollar inside, tucking it back into his pants pocket.

"My grandmas last words were "I want you to be the first in our family to go to college" so I have to go to college, I got a scholarship already"

"Wow that's great!  I'm sure your grandma would be very proud of you, I'm sure she is proud of you.  I think when the people we love leave us, they don't go far, I bet she's watching over you and your family right now"

Ambrose let out a small strangled cry, "I don't have any other family, my grandma was raising me.  My mom and dad drowned in a cruise ship accident, they won a vacation from a game show and I was supposed to go but I got chicken pox and couldn't.  My grandma was taking care of me and the police came and told us my parents were gone.  Now I live in an orphanage, is that hot chocolate?"

I handed him my thermos of mint mochaccino and watched him remove the top to sip gingerly, his eyes widened and he smiled appreciatively, offering me a thumbs up.  "Mmmm!"  I smiled back, patted his head, and got out a tissue to wipe my eyes.

The bus shrugged to a halt next to the downtown exchange.  "Well, this is my stop"  said Ambrose morosely before wrapping his thin arms around me.  "There there, there there, I'll see you again" I offered, unsure what to do or say, I was moved by the boys sincerity.  I tucked a twenty dollar bill into his jacket pocket and smudged his tears across his soft cheeks with my thumbs.  "You take care and I'll see you again, I promise"

I stood to watch little Ambrose climbing down the bus steps and onto the curb, turning to wave at me once before stepping onto the number 30 uptown express.

The next Wednesday, Ambrose had forgotten about his parents dying in a cruise ship accident and explained to me that they'd both been detectives.  The police force usually didn't let husband and wife teams work together, Ambrose explained, because their emotions could get in the way.  His parents had been murdered by the serial killing cannibal they were tracking.  When I reminded him that he'd told me something different the previous week, Ambrose collapsed inconsolably in a sobbing heap until I admitted my memory may have failed me.  I gave him five dollars.

I've ridden with Ambrose twenty or more times since that day.  If there's another lonely woman on the bus, Ambrose will sit with her and keep her company.  On a good day he will swing at least ten dollars by the time the ride is over, though I'm not sure the boy is in it for the money.  If there isn't anyone else on the bus, he sits with me and we talk and I share my mochaccino with him.

I prefer it when there isn't anyone else riding along.

Dumbass

I called him Dumbass because that's what Rollo called him, because I wanted to be Rollo.  We all did.  Rollo had breezed into Lima Ohio from Detroit in a fog of Camel smoke and dust and oil, James Dean in a pinto, with only his father and Dumbass in tow.

I was part of the burgeoning punk scene, or the dying punk scene.  It always seemed to be one or the other, sometimes simultaneously.  A few shows here and there at the all ages club, everyone would get together to talk about how we needed to "do something" or else punk would die.

Nobody knew quite what Rollo was but everyone wanted to claim him. 


Dumbass was in the seventh grade of our combined McKinley High, I was a junior.  Although the seventh and eighth graders were released a half hour before the older kids, Rollo wouldn't show to pick up his brother until four, sometimes later.  Because I lived one block away from the school and was a latch key kid, I'd wait there with Dumbass.  And so every day I said goodbye to my envious friends and shared my moms cigarettes and the remnants of my packed lunch with him in the hopes that I'd get to ride along with them when Rollo peeled into the schools gravel cul de sac.  When we reached Dumbass and Rollo's place, a little yellow bungalow about eight miles past the three story Tudor I lived in with my mom, dad, and baby sister, I'd thank them for the ride and walk home.

Nobody bothered Dumbass even though he broke every social rule of junior high and high school.  He had B cup tits and girl hips and greasy hair, the beginnings of what would be terrible skin in just a few years poked out of his pale cheekbones and chin.  Dumbass's pants gathered between his meaty thighs and crept up into his ass crack as he walked.  He'd stop every now and then and shake one leg out like a dog with a paw tick to dislodge them before shambling on.  The boy was a mess.  And he was quiet.  Very quiet.

I could never predict what Rollo would be wearing when he showed up.  I've never been highly fashion conscious.  Like most teenagers, I showcased my individuality by dressing in whatever the current uniform of rebellion was at the time.  Even with my feigned love of anarchy and chaos and my rejection of what I understood of the status quo, I knew that his style repertoire bordered on the bizarre.  One day Rollo might be in cut off shorts, combat boots, and a ripped tshirt, the next he was just as likely to show up in a Nike track suit and flip flops, or a maroon tuxedo.  Rollo didn't so much put on clothes as try on lives.

His music was even more eclectic.  Rollo stole tapes from parked cars and everything he stole had at least one rotation in the little orange Pinto's ever ticking cassette player.  Isaac Hayes, The Moody Blues, Wham, N.W.A., Rollo kept a basket between the front two seats filled with this pilfered collection.  When a tape finished that he liked, he pitched it into the back seat.  When Rollo didn't like something, it went out the window.

One Friday Rollo pulled up with The Police blaring from the ticking gritty speakers.

"You wanna stay over"  Dumbass hadn't asked it like a question but he hadn't said it like a statement either, hadn't even directed it towards me but I was the only one around to hear him.

"Sure," I said trying to hide my glee, "I just have to leave a note for my mom"

Rollo looked at me with a bemused expression as we pulled up to my house.  "This is my mom's, I usually go to my dad's after school, his place is by yours" I offered quickly though nobody had asked and got out of the car blushing furiously.  Rollo and Dumbass got out with me, Rollo whistled softly as his gaze went from front door to roof and back down again.  "We can get some food or whatever too while we're here, my mom won't care"

I let them in and headed up to my room to pack for the evening.  I could hear Dumbass lurching up the steps after me, the space between stomps punctuated by heavy deep breaths.  After a moment or two I could also hear Rollo playing Chopsticks on the piano my parents had gotten for me when I was a baby, before they learned that Mozart pumped into the womb is not a sure fire prodigy recipe.

"Can you play"  Dumbass's face was about six inches from the nape of my neck, I could feel his damp bologna scented breath fluttering the tiny blond hairs there, he was looking at my guitar.  I turned around quickly and brushed a few lit embers from my shirt, he'd startled me into dropping the cigarette i'd just lit.  From below I could hear Rollo now picking out the notes to Hotel California on the high end of the piano and howling along.  "Hey shut the door would ya, my mom knows I smoke but she doesn't like me smoking in the house", I lied, Dumbass picked up and lit one of the cigarette butts in the dirty tinfoil ashtray I kept tucked in the window.  I walked around him and shut the door.  "Nah, my dad got that for me a few years ago but my guitar teacher was a total prick so you know" I turned to find Dumbass immediately behind me again.

"Jesus for a big guy you're fucking sneaky," I laughed, Dumbass didn't.  "I'm about ready to go, let me just write a note"

The two of us clomped down the stairs in time to see Rollo packing a few of the brown paper grocery bags my mom favored into the back of the Pinto, the clanking noises told me he'd found the beer and possibly a few bottles of my parents wine.  We got new bottles with every charity function my parents hosted, I wasn't worried that anything would be missed, and if it was, ah well that weekend I'd be getting drunk with Rollo at his place.  I didn't care.  I started to scribble "staying with Dumbass" and realized with a sheepish grin that I didn't know his real name.  Besides, a note like that wasn't likely to reassure my mom.

I threw that paper away and wrote "staying with Rollo be home tomorrow love you" on a fresh sheet.

I knew the way to their little yellow bungalow blindfolded, I'd walked home from their place enough, but when we left my driveway the little Pinto turned south.  The bottles clanked away on the floor between Dumbass's feet among the cassette debris.  Rollo pitched the Police tape into the back where it narrowly missed Dumbass and immediately replaced it with what would turn out to be Chicago's Greatest Hits.  "So where we going?"  I asked finally, as the little car carried us further and further from the city and Dumbass sat silently in the back.  "I'm gonna get my friend", Rollo shouted over the music, "we're having a fucking party, you like parties?"  I started to answer yes but Rollo's head was already out the window, shouting nothings and waving a half full wine bottle in the empty country wind.  My first real party.

When we came to a stop we were in the overgrown lot of an abandoned bar.  Sloppy cracked boards and an obviously hand painted sign reading "Daffy's Libations" clung to rusted nails on the front of the badly tilting building.  Rollo put his hand to his mouth and shouted Indian style, his shout was matched by a happy yell coming from the rear of the building.  He bounded ahead, pausing to jump and slap the Daffy's sign on his way around back.  Dumbass and I began unpacking the liquor.  "So, you been out here before?"  I asked, but Dumbass only looked at me and the leaning building creaked above, I slid out of its lengthening shadow and carried my clanking load to the back.

Rollo and another guy were sitting on a log next to a fire, each of them drinking from a freshly opened bottle of wine.  I saw now that Rollo had also brought a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, and a box of Cap'n Crunch from my pantry.  The new guy was in that limbo of years after high school where it's difficult to pinpoint age, for a kid anyways, he was anywhere from 20-30yrs old.  In my childs eyes, he was categorized as "grown", a little older than Rollo and certainly much older than Dumbass and myself.  Just old, camp counselor old, gym teacher old.  He smiled at me showing a mouth full of tinfoil, "Wassup"

Rollo clapped him on the back and he spat the foil into the fire pit, "You cost me a grill, asshole" he smiled good naturedly at us, "get these little motherfuckers some wine, we fancy as hell now"

"Hey man" I smiled as I reached for one of the bottles of wine.

"Whoa little man, what the fuck are you doing?  You think you can come into my house and grab my shit?  Rollo you better get this scrawny bitch before I do"

"But I brought it, and you just said I could have some" I asked quizzically, looking at Rollo in a panic and finally at Dumbass when Rollo failed to respond.

"I'm just fucking with you, God damn you're easy, Rollo where'd you find this pussy?"

"He's  just Dumbass's friend" Rollo said as he wound up to throw his empty bottle into the fire near my feet, sending a shower of sparks up towards the peeling back of Daffy's and me flailing with my arm over my face.  I lit another cigarette to hide my embarrassment, both for flinching and at Rollo's matter of fact dismissal of me.

"Well get him a bottle of wine.  Never let it be said that I'm a shitty hostess", he stood to bow, "Howard at your service, so where did you score all this shit?  Your place?  Your folks won't miss it?"

I opened the bottle quickly with the corkscrew in my pocket knife, I had served at plenty of events, while I'd never been much of a drinker I had been a skilled bartender for years thanks to my liberal parents and their awareness galas.

"They won't miss it, my mom and dad have a thousand parties a year, stupid hippie fundraisers, everyone brings bottles for their cellar in the basement as gifts and my parents barely even drink"  I coughed back a swig and cut my eyes to Rollo to see if he'd remembered my earlier story about my parents separation, he looked at me as he lit a cigarette but I couldn't tell if there was any awareness of me in there.  I was beginning to get the impression that he was as interested in my life story as I might be in the life story of a gold fish.  Howards eyes though, his eyes were shining on me.

A half hour and a bottle of wine and a lot of questions later I staggered out of the dancing circle of light from the fire to take a leak.  Rollo and Howard hurled jeers at me through the dark about breaking the seal.  Dumbass crept up next to me in that surprisingly quiet way of his that was starting to get on my nerves, he rested his hand on my shoulder as I unzipped, "God damn Dumbass I almost pissed on your fucking shoe we needa put a bell on your neck!"  I shouted, very loud, I was drunk for the first time in my life, behind me I heard Rollo and Howard laugh.  "Dumbass is creeping up on people put a bell on his neck that kid is golden!"  Howard shouted.

"I'm Jamie" he said quietly.  I looked at him stunned.  "Fucking Jamie?  Jamie?  Who's Jamie?  Dude don't even think about touching my dick!  This fuckhead is trying to touch my dick!"  This last hurled over my shoulder towards the firelight, Dumbass simply looked at me.  His empty eyes were no different than they'd been a moment before when he'd told me his name.  When my tantrum failed to get the attention I expected, I turned back towards the fire.  Rollo and Howard were gone, I heard the Pinto doors slamming and the peel of tires on gravel and then they were on the street fifty yards away, Chicago fading quickly as the taillights disappeared in the distance.

"You should eat" Dumbass said matter of factly.  "My dad is always a little better after drinking if he eats right away.  They want you to keep drinking, I'm not sure you should"

I stared at him harder now, my eyes at half mast and my head tilted forward "Wha' you mean they want me to keep drinking like a party?" I leaned forward and he caught me, "I don't know, that's what Howard said, to make sure you keep drinking"

I realized then that Dumbass hadn't had a drop, he must have been too chicken, or too much of a baby, but I opted to save my taunts until after Rollo and Howard got back.  I had plenty of time to wait.  They didn't get back until the early dawn hours, by then Dumbass and I were curled up next to the dying fire, shivering in the now frigid air and covered in dew.  Howard kicked the sole of my shoe and Rollo shook his brother awake.  "How come you two morons stayed outside all night?" he asked, kicking in the back door to Daffy's and gesturing into the dusty gloom, "Come on, breakfast, on me"

Rollo asked Dumbass to help him unload supplies from the car and I followed Howard into the gloom, nervously looking up once my eyes adjusted, the ceiling hung and bowed in but looked sound for the most part.  What were the chances it would cave in this moment when it hadn't yet?  This wasn't as bad as it had seemed in the waning light last night.

Howard stepped behind me and gripped my earlobe with rubber gloved thumb and forefinger.  As I shouted "Hey" through a smile he wrapped the inside of his opposite elbow around my neck and sliced my ear off from bottom to top with a hunting knife in one deft move.  I hung there in his grasp for a moment before sucking in the air to scream, he held my ear in his fist and clapped his gloved wrist into my open mouth.  We stood like that until I stopped struggling.

"Hey, I like you ok, but don't try me" he whispered, releasing me with a shove forward into a dusty ancient booth.  My ear burned, a lot people don't know this but an open cut feels a lot like a burn.  Your nerves can't tell the difference, they scream and warn you with pain, often when it's already too late, but nerves are not specific.  Agony is agony.  Eventually both a burn and an open wound will itch, one of natures many cruelties.  I didn't try to scream again as Howard quickly spritzed my head with Bactine, put a headband on me and slid a bandage underneath to cover my wound.

Dumbass and Rollo came in then with a few grocery bags.  Dumbass didn't seem surprised but looked... maybe?  Could he have been?  Yes, Dumbass appeared a little saddened.  Rollo pulled Howard roughly outside for what looked like a heated exchange of whispers and shoves.  Dumbass handed me a bottle of wine and I drank gratefully, wincing as my head tilted and the bandage shifted.  Through the open door I could see Howard thrusting my ear into Rollo's hand, Rollo screamed and tossed it into the dying fire, the small pink crescent spinning end over end.  Howard dug it out of the embers quickly, tossing it from hand to hand and blowing.  A silent macabre movie playing out in the early morning light, I took another drink and winced again.

I looked at Dumbass.  "Why?"  was all I managed to release from my closed throat, it came up like a lurching balloon filled with staples.  I'd been asleep fifteen  minutes before.  Just fifteen minutes past, I was shivering in the cold but my world was different.  Then the dam broke.  "My parents know I'm with you guys, this isn't going to work, I'll tell them you helped me, I'll tell them it wasn't you guys" I kept going, the words were spilling out around my swollen tongue, I made promises and offered rewards and accolades, I spoke of how my grandparents would pay to have me hunted down, how they'd forgive anyone who brought me home safely, I claimed I was the only donor for the bone marrow my baby sister needed to survive, there was no end to my desperate gurgling and conniving, and still, Dumbass only stared.  Then he slowly removed a note from his pocket, smoothed it out on the table, and patted the good side of my head while my shoulders heaved, the sobs I'd been holding down rose like bubbling bile.

"staying with Rollo be home tomorrow love you"

Three weeks and a pinky finger later.  This time it had been Rollo, though I wished it had been Howard.  Rollo cut and bent my pinky while Howard and Dumbass held my legs and other arm.  The sound of my skin tearing had sent me retching more than the pain, I vomited wine on all three of them before the deed was done.  Maybe it was the feel of the tear, the texture of it, sometimes pain itself can make a sound.  Dumbass handed me another open bottle and I drank.

I was in the bar with Howard most days, Dumbass had to go to school and Rollo had to pick him up and drop him off, all of this was part of "the big plan", as I'd taken to calling it, when I was sober enough to be understood.  "The big fucking plan", "The fugging masterbator plan", "The God damn plan from the man", I wasn't sober very often.  There was nothing to tie them to my disappearance.  Rollo and Howard had left the first night in order to secure alibis.  They had made sure they were seen by every security camera in the city, even going so far as to start a fight at the bowling alley to cement their whereabouts.

It was during one of my drunken chats with Howard that I learned that Dumbass himself had nabbed my moms note right after I'd left it.

I waved a bloodied bandaged hand in the air and pulled a slug of wine with the other hand "Hold on, you mean Dumbass took the fucking note for no reason?"

"Yeah, what a stroke of luck, right?" Howard took a large crunching bite of the peanut butter Cap'n Crunch sandwich  he'd made for us to split, " We had no idea, Rollo was panicking, and Dumbass pulls it out all sheepish, the thing was worn down like he'd been worrying it with his thumb in his pocket all night, if I didn't know better I'd swear that kid has a crush on you"

"Well crush or no, he screwed me and didn't bother giving me a reach around"  Howard laughed and handed me the rest of the sandwich.

"So how much longer am I gonna be out here?" I ventured.  I didn't like to ask too much because I knew the answer, but I didn't want them to know I knew.  When you've had a guy in an abandoned building for a month or so and you've been clipping off his parts to send to his family for ransom, and this guy goes to school with one of you and knows all your names, you don't let him go.  You can't let him go.  I knew that.  I knew.  I've been a lying little pussy, I've been arrogant and ignorant, but I've never been stupid.

"Well we'll see, hopefully your grandparents come through with that ransom, we had that setback last week and Rollo almost got pinched"  I looked down at my foot appreciatively, I was short two toes since this began.  Thank God for wine.  "Yeah I know",  I held up my bandaged foot, "sorry about that, they just miss me"

"Hey man it's not your fault, you've been doing your part.  Hey spring break is next week so your little girlfriend Dumbass will be able to hang out with you"

Dumbass and I played a lot of Gin Rummy, drank a lot of wine, well I did all of the drinking, and I was able to strangle from him some semblance of the reason he had kept the note.  Dumbass lived with Rollo and his father.  His nickname was Dumbass.  He was ugly and midway between fat and very fat, criminally stupid, and humorless.  Is it surprising he had kept a trophy of his first friendship?  I was living in a shack with a fast growing alcohol problem and my extremities were being hacked from me by surly assholes about once a week in between card games and Cap'n Crunch sandwiches.  I wish I could say that Dumbass and I built a bond out of our sorrows, but I just felt sorry for him.  If I got out of here I'd be a hero, a survivor, and he'd be in even shittier shape than he was in now.  My pity for him kept my mind busy.  I wished I'd known to write "Jamie" on the note rather than Rollo.

On the last weekend before Dumbass's spring break was over he brained Howard with a full bottle of wine as he slept, when the bottle smashed open, he slashed and stabbed Howard until he was dead and his blood mixed with the wine, splashing against my sleeping face to wake me up.  Dumbass poured the lighter fluid we'd used to start the charcoal grill outback onto Howard and lit him, the sudden flame blinded and warmed me, I closed my eyes again.  "fi-mor minish, mom"  He carried me out to Rollo's pinto, where we rode back to town and the two of them deposited me outside of the hospital with one last bottle of wine.  I drank it all down before crawling inside.

It was over as quickly as it began, the whims of boys.

I told the cops that Howard had been the only person involved, and that I'd killed him, set fire to the bar where he'd held me, and hitchhiked into town.  I was a God Damned hero.  I'd been gone for three months, the ransom was never paid.  I don't regret not rolling on Rollo and Dumbass, and I don't regret Howard's pitiful ending.  State of the art prosthetics have been donated to compensate for my missing puzzle pieces, both pinkies and an ear, I don't mind the toes now that they've healed over.  I've never been a fan of sandals.  My parents have to lock the wine cellar now.

Dumbass transferred to a different school, I guess maybe Rollo thought if I saw him every day it may tempt me to open my mouth, I wouldn't have, but it's just as well.  Seeing that kid get sadder would have broken my heart.  We do what we can with what we're given.  He ground a man he knew into pulp for me, stood over him grunting and stabbing, sweating, lit him on fire, saved my life in a moment of pure redemption that he has to hold silent forever.  What can you say to that?  What can you do in the face of that?  Forget that he'd invited me, forget that.  Pettiness.  Wine and blood under the bridge when a man's face has been caved in.

What can I say and do about being different?  I'm not the lying desperate conniving little bastard I was a few months ago.  I'm a hero, a survivor, a drunk, a 16yr old and now a writer.  What do you say to the people who taught you to shut up and feel?  The people who slapped you hard like an hysterical woman in an old time movie, and then held your shoulders still?  Nothing, you take advantage of what you've been taught, and you shut the fuck up. 

That's how you say thank you.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

james and ella

the lock never opened on the first try, this was normal, it wasn't meant to open at all.  james was a genius with locks and in no time he was in the warm barn amid the cooing and rustling of a horse, several cows, and a wild goose.  the goose was an accidental guest, a broken wing a few years back had resulted in permanent quarters.  james crept towards the furthest stall to settle in for the evening.

he'd been hiding out in this barn for a week or so, furtively creeping in at dusk and sneaking away as soon as the alarm sounded on his watch.  he'd oiled the old pump to make sure the squeak didn't arouse anyone as he rinsed his face and mouth with cool well water.  james was a better guest than the goose, who was prone to bothering the two milk cows. 

this wasn't a working farm, understand, it was a holdover from the previous century.  in the sixties one of the first factory hog farms had cropped up nearby and the runoff had killed most of the local farms.  developers had moved in and snapped up most of the remaining properties for a song, and the hog farm had gone belly up in 69 due to an outbreak of hoof and mouth.  only five of the original 200 acres remained of this property, and they were surrounded by a dim residential area.  there were a few small farms like this dotting the land, a welcome if unexpected break in the scenery of cheap one story houses and corner liquor stores. 

a surprise was waiting for james in his usual stall.  a small cot, army style, a woolen blanket, and a clean if worn sheet set, white with delicate corn flowers laced into the edges.  on top of all of this was a wax papered sandwich and a note that looked to have been scrawled with an unsteady hand: "water bingo and the cows"

 james sat on the cot, ate the sandwich, and stared at the note.  he knew who it was from, everyone knew who ella gerald was.  the 900yr old bitch had been living on this farm since being born in the living room to an indian and a jew, she ordered her groceries over the phone and was said to have sued the hog farm in the sixties and gotten rich from it.  some people thought she was a dyke, and some thought she was knocked up by her new york lawyer, lost the baby, and had gone batshit.  james didn't think it mattered when you were 900yrs old.  he got up to water bingo the horse and the two cows, pausing to flick his sandwich crusts to the appreciative goose.  then he lay down to sleep on the first clean sheets he'd felt since being born in alamay central hospital 11yrs earlier.

the next day james got up and watered them all again, just because, folded his blanket and sheet and crept out.  so bingo was that horses name.  the horse was ancient, as were the cows. they spent the day outside and wandered in on their own every evening before being locked up.  the place was more like a hospice than a farm.  james figured the hospice air was all around that place, not just the barn, but despite that he was grateful for the sandwich and kindness and wondered if it would extend itself again that evening.

you see a thief, even a young one, has usually by necessity learned to rely on himself.  it takes the wind out of a sail to find that an intrusion was welcome, and being expected is a blow to the ego and a dangerous thing to get used to.  james was a baby, but he was a hard thieving baby and he knew what it took to survive. 

one of the things it took was avoiding his brother roger, and his mother, missy.  roger spent his days tormenting james into breaking in back doors and garages, and missy spent her days complaining about their fathers and demanding they both provide for her in ways that their missing sperm donors could not.  rogers father was in prison, james father was "unknown".  james always got the impression that rogers cross was greater, missy was constantly reminding him not to become like his father while at the same time complaining that he was already like him.  roger couldn't win, so neither could james.  shit rolls downhill.

so james avoided them both, and for the last week he'd been highly successful.  rog had only seen him in school, james was a few years behind so he left the grounds earlier.  aside from a few notes from rog demanding he come home and take care of business like a man, nobody had noticed he'd been sleeping in a barn for a week.  besides ella gerald, that is.  she had noticed.  would she make trouble?  maybe not. 

when james picked the lock that night he found it particularly difficult, but only because it was already unlocked.  bingo neighed winningly at him, the cows lowed, the goose squawked.  you can't please everyone.  james watered bingo and the cows before heading to his stall, almost afraid of what he'd find there.  he should have been afraid, it was going to change him. 

where his stall had been bare with only the cot and hay, that hay had been removed and book shelves had been placed there instead.  just a couple, but they were filled with books.  james wasn't much of a reader, hadn't had the time.  he'd always associated reading with leisure and that was something that didn't make money and therefor didn't equal survival.  on his bed was an old fashioned lunch pail, metal with two apples, two sandwiches, and a thermos of tomato soup.  under the pail was a note: "please water and feed bingo and the cows, two scoops feed each"

james ate a sandwich and apple, watered and fed bingo and the cows, flicked his crusts to the goose, and examined the books.  "the lion, the witch, and the wardrobe" had just come out at the local movie theater, he settled on that one and read until dozing off. 

the next morning he was a little tired when rog slipped him the first note.  "i'm working on something" he'd vehemently whispered back in between pages, while the lunch guard made her rounds ensuring nobody was doing anything so subversive as talking.  james figured it was ok to take the book to school as long as he brought it back. 

he arrived at the barn a little before sunset but found it satisfactorily deserted as usual.  without trying the lock, he wandered in unchecked, and fed and watered bingo and the cows before heading back to his stall.  there he found his lunch bucket contained one foil wrapped piece of pie, two bananas, one apple, two sandwiches, and one thermos of tomato soup.  in the corner was his bookshelf, but also one lamp that had been plugged into an extension cord running from the back of the main house.  the note under the lunch bucket read "please water and feed bingo and the cows", james smiled.

the next morning james went to school and came home without incident, he was prepared for whatever met him as he swung open the barn door. 

there was an old lady there, ella gerald, he presumed.  his brother roger was there as well.  knife to ella's throat, she was shaking lightly, and rog looked on top of the world. 

"let's run this bitch" he said, james felt his brothers words more than heard them.  felt them like they'd been left under a pail, felt them like fresh sheets or a sandwich in his hands and on his lips. 

ella wasn't anything like james thought, she was tough but not that old looking.  she didn't look 900yrs old or like a dyke, whatever that meant, or like she was batshit.  she looked regular.  she looked like someone who would wrap a sandwich in wax paper for a thief.  and rog, well rog looked like a son of a bitch.

james grabbed a hammer and walked towards his grinning brother. 

james felt a chunk of himself fly away from rog as he hit him, he felt the weight of ella falling before them both, felt her hands reaching for purchase on the barn floor.  felt her looking up at him, horror and relief. 

roger didn't look so tough laying there with a piece of his head missing, he looked like a baby himself.  that's what james thought, and what ella thought, as they examined his small hands and still smiling chubby face.  james thought "why was i afraid of him?" and ella thought "he's just a baby", which is something she already knew.

it's much sadder when you already know.  missy never saw her boys again, but she lived.  james lived too.

Sweet Jane

I was twenty five when i first laid eyes on Jane Doe 914, a dusky brunette, multiple gunshot wounds.  Poor thing hadn't stood a chance, declared dead at 7:15 on a Saturday evening and on my table by midnight.  Not a very romantic beginning, I'll admit, but I've seen sadder stories since.  I didn't notice anything spectacular about Jane right away, though to be sure she was lovely, but that sort of admission is discouraged in my profession as macabre and disrespectful.  I took my pictures and readied my tools.

Jane Doe 914, entry wound one, upper right torso, exit wound one, lower left hip, entry wound two, right shoulder, exit wound two, lower left back, entry wound three, forehead above right eye, exit wound three, cranial base.

Subject Jane Doe 914 appears to have been either shot from above, note fire escape or high window possibility, or while laying down.

Our department had been the recent beneficiary of a 30% cut in funding and the savings had been passed to the customer, this was my tenth Jane Doe of October and we were only six days in.  I knew the detectives were backed up, they knew I was backed up, we didn't bother each other.  We worked until we were done and then we went home to drink.  That was my routine and it worked well.  We were paid to chronicle deaths, crimes, murders, robberies, rapes, not solve them.  It was all we could do to keep up with that.

It wasn't until after I'd cut into Jane Doe 914's chest that I heard what sounded like a small solar fan, the kind I'd seen fat old women dangling from cords around their necks on hot days.  The noise came between gurgles, whirr click gurgle, whirr click gurgle.  Something in this Jane Doe hadn't quite given up yet.  When I'd peeled back the skin and swabbed the congealed blood away I was met with a spectacular sight.  Jane Doe 914 had an aluminum heart, sternum, three aluminum ribs, and one large rubberized lung that filled up most of her chest.  It was from this rubber lung that the whirring came, from a hole corresponding to the bullet path from shoulder to lower back.

I lowered a hand over the hole and was taken aback by the breeze that met my damp palm, this lung was working even now to keep Jane Doe 914's body supplied with fresh oxygen.  I snapped a few pictures and did the unthinkable, I called the case detective down to the morgue.

"Hey man, my kids birthday is tomorrow, I hope you solved the case" Jacobs laughed as he sidled into the room.  Jacobs was an alright guy, we'd been out for drinks a few times after late nights, and this job was full of late nights, for both of us.  Not a go getter and not a brain, but you didn't have to be these days.  You just had to show up, and Jacobs showed up like a son of a bitch.

"Where did you pull Jane Doe 914?  She's got a few reworked organs that are like nothing I've ever seen,"  I bumped into the table on my way to the other side, jerking Jane clumsily along after me "Look at these, have you ever seen anything like this?  Even with the uptowns, this sort of work is something nobody in the city could afford, I'm not even sure this is approved yet"

Jacobs looked at me with an expression midway between exasperated and bemused.  "Am I gonna get to sleep before my kids party?  Help me out here, Fawley, I'm only allowed to see them on weekends as it is and in case you hadn't noticed, tomorrow is Sunday"

"Today is Sunday" I corrected, pulling his hand towards the whirring lung and holding it over the bullet sized hole.

"Yeah no shit asshole," Jacobs moved his hand back and forth over the small hole in the smooth rubbery lung surface, eventually lowering his eye down for a peek, coming up blinking furiously, "Look if you get me the name of a manufacturer for one of those gizmo's I'll see what I can do, ok?  I'm backed up as it is, so no promises, but I'll see if I can't get you a name for your girlfriend"  I grimaced as Jacobs laughed and mimed jerking off.

"Yeah I'll send that up when I have it, prick, tell your boy I said happy birthday and tell his mom I'll be over to blow her candles out later"

Jacobs left chuckling, I knew he wouldn't follow up if I didn't, but I was intrigued by this new woman.  Jane Doe 914 stared at the ceiling, her unblinking eyes frozen in wonder.  I'd find out shortly that their clear and clean expression was due to her shiny silver heart slowly pressing blood through her veins even now.

When something is a wonder, and that something is a someone, you get attached first to the ingenuity and then to the beauty, and if that someone is a mystery, you become attached to the ambiguity.

Each Jane and John Doe is chronicled, dated, evidence collected if there is evidence to collect, photographed, and incinerated.  Is it any wonder that I kept her parts?  And in keeping her parts, is it any wonder I kept her pictures?

There were no serial numbers, no manufacturer, no product code or key, no symbols, nothing at all marred her stunning metal heart, lung, sternum, and ribs.  Jacobs, to his credit, asked after my Jane, and I had nothing to give him.  I did, however, ask for her file.  He was more than happy to give it over to me on the grounds that I finish filling out her paperwork and hand it in.  I gladly agreed.

I couldn't find out who my Jane was, she didn't exist in any database I'd ever seen.  I shifted my focus instead to finding out how she had died, by whose hand, and hoped that by discovering her end I might discover her beginnings.

3rd and Nixon, the alley there is where her rubber lung lost pressure and caused her to expire.  Through my autopsy I had discovered that if her lung hadn't been punctured she'd still have been alive, technically, though brain dead from the bullet wound through her head.  Her metal heart had held up wonderfully, and the mechanism of her lung had kept whirring, despite the loss of pressure from twin holes.

The area is terrible.  Fully half of our Mr. and Mrs. Doe's spring from near and around 3rd and Nixon, radiating out in waves of lessening crime the further away one travels.  This was going to be tough.  I did have the bullets that had gone through my Jane, I knew they were from a 38 and had been shot at fairly close range, and could ascertain that she'd been shot from above and not while laying down crawling towards her assassin.  This last was a relief.  The bullets exhibited the distress typical of having barreled into concrete with little but the small body of a woman to slow them.  Oh sweet Jane.

I was on one of my lurking excursions through the alley, taking measurements of the fading brown stain on the asphalt and more pictures, always more pictures, as though a million photos of that sad spot of shrinking rust could make up for having none of Jane's life.  The officer caught me off guard, "There have been complaints, as you know this a high crime area, some of the neighbors are concerned"  I looked up to see a few alley curtains quickly closing under my glare.

I flashed my department badge, "Is this an active investigation?"  his quizzical expression wasn't a surprise, Jacobs had been after me for months for failing to hold up my end of our agreement.  Not a huge inconvenience, but misfiled or missing paperwork was a minor punishable offense.  I'd kept everything.

This wasn't an open case, it was a closed cold case, technically.  It was missing paperwork, lots of time off for me, and unbeknownst to the station it was missing mass as well.  I'd kept the heart, lung, and ribs, after all.  I'm not a macabre person, and I've never been given to sentiment in the past.  There is a first time for everything.

The officer let me go, for all I know he'd been sent by Jacobs himself.  I hadn't exactly been a social juggernaut before meeting Jane Doe 914, and now I was becoming a willful pariah.  People don't appreciate it when someone is more enthusiastic about a job than they are, the bare minimum precedent had been set long before I joined the force and I flew in the face of that.  And for what, a woman I didn't know.  A woman I couldn't know.  A cold closed case, no less, it was unsettling.  Jacobs hadn't asked me out for drinks in weeks, nor had anyone else in the station.  I didn't care.

I spent my days cross referencing addresses in that alley with criminal databases, checking known acquaintances and accomplices against aggressive criminals, fruitlessly searching gun registries, visiting the local pawn shop.  I researched internal prosthetics, read up on funding for new surgical techniques, studied more than I had for the duration of medical school.

In the end, the case was solved by Jacobs accidentally.  A perp was brought in and in exchange for consideration of leniency he agreed to confess to a few other murder/robberies, my Jane Doe 914 among them.  He had confessed to my Jane's murder because she knew nobody and nobody knew her, and so she was seen as less likely to cause an uproar during sentencing.  His name was Joseph Lee, a completely unremarkable criminal, and a completely unremarkable man.  Still it was a bonus for our department, and although Jacobs kindly clapped me on the shoulder and offered a wink and a smile, I was not invited out for celebratory drinks.

I bought a bottle of Jameson's and drank it alone, two fingers at a time, pictures of Jane Doe 914 scattered across my kitchen table and the dusty clockwork heart, lung, and ribs in a bowl in the center.  Her shiny sternum rested in my desk at work.  My fingers fit perfectly between the sculpted ridges and its weight was a comfort to me as I puzzled over the countless men, women, and children who made their way to my table.  Mysteries all, some simple but many never solved, and none as intriguing as my Sweet Jane.

All of this was 70yrs ago or more, and we've had some good times since then Sweet Jane.  Though I didn't solve your murder, I've solved my share.  I've had an alright life, devoted to work, even dated a little, not much, a few blind set ups from well meaning coworkers.  Jacobs has been gone these twenty years past, massive heart attack, we didn't have efficient metal hearts in time to save him, but I think he was happy.  He had remarried and was blessed with a brood of towheaded grandchildren.

I myself have never married, one woman is enough for me.

I'm dying now, and I've just seen my Jane Doe 914.  She's only a girl of ten, and she is in the room next to mine with a new heart, lung, sternum, and three shiny metal ribs.  When she's much older, she will travel back in time to be killed by a petty dime store thug for no reason at all.  Or maybe not, her future isn't certain, yet.

I've tried writing her a note.  What would you do, if you were dying and your one love lay living near by but wasn't due to meet you until after her life  had ended?  With every word I wrote, my memory grew shadier, when I told her where to look for me in the past I found my memories of her waving at me from a boat quickly drifting from shore.  Worse still, when I changed just a few words, the past didn't shift at all and left her coming to rest in that dirty alley between 3rd and Nixon again and again.  When I crumpled the note and threw it away, instead suggesting on fresh paper that she bring me forward with her through time, my memory offered me a miserable glimpse of what that could bring, a fish out of water and a clock out of time, my life out of sync for years and years, and always I'm at the end of things.  No matter what I do or have done, I'm dying in this moment.  I'm finished.

And so I'm not writing the note.  I've recorded this to relive it one last time, and even as I make the decision to do nothing I can feel my past shifting, decisions I've made reorganizing themselves.  I'm done, yes, I'm done, but what would you do if you could change what you'd done already?  Change your choice and look back at something new?  Grandchildren I've never met are crowding around my bed, children I can't remember raising are gazing at me lovingly.  I know as I crumple and pitch the last note I'll lose any recollection of the lonely road I've traveled with Jane Doe 914 locked in my pocket, my talisman and my darling.  My life as it would have been without her will emerge from the fog, clear and strong.

I can hear one door over a young girl laughing as I slip away, and I hear her being told to hush, an old man is dying in the next room.