Authors: K M Cholewa
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons living or dead, is entirely coin-cidental and beyond the intent of either the author or the publisher.
The Story Plant
Studio Digital CT, LLC
PO Box 4331
Stamford, CT 06907
Copyright Â© 2014 by K.C. Cholewa
Jacket design by Barbara Aronica-Buck
Print ISBN-13: 978-1-61188-143-1
E-book ISBN-13: 978-1-61188-144-8
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All rights reserved, which includes the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever except as provided by US Copyright Law. For information, address The Story Plant.
First Story Plant printing: June 2014
Printed in the United States of America
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For Sarah and Isa, my goddaughters
Thanks to the many friends and enablers who provided editorial assistance, moral support, a sounding board, and hope. Thanks first to my editor, Lou Aronica, whose input and assistance made Shaking Out the Dead a better book, and me a better writer. Thanks, too, to Terri Hamilton, the Naked Words Reading series, Caroline Patterson, Tom Harpole, Chris Dorsi, Dave Ames, Edwin Dobb, Judy Klein, Cindy Palmer, Sandy Oitzinger, Hugh Ambrose, Margaret Regan, Ann Regan, Leah Joki, Dennis Small, Robin Rutkowski, Terry Kendrick, Sally Mullen, Kate Mrgudic, the morning crowd at the General Merc, and my parents, Joseph and Joan Cholewa. Thanks to the many books of fiction and nonfiction that instructed and inspired me along the way.
Paris was a Montanan without a myth. He didn't ride horses, hunt, fish, or ski. He had never worn a cowboy hat or squinted across the range. Paris was blue-collar bred, and his body was strong â built not by gyms and barbells, but by physical work and car-less, pedestrian life. Behind his eyes there were no big skies, just a duty-bound psyche. His destiny, his purpose, he thought, was to notice. The pretty and the bad. The ugly and the good. See it and let it be. He decided long ago he would not want. He would lighten the burden of the world. Be one less pair of sticky hands.
He pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his head and tugged the sleeves over his hands. He had gotten off from work at 5:00 a.m. and, despite the chill, wasn't in a hurry. As he walked, his eyes slipped through the landscape. He was intimate with the details. The sidewalk cracks, small graffiti, and low-lit doorways. In the hours before light, the street's subtle decay was not erosion, but the peeling back of veneer to reveal a spirit. Paris worried for this place. He knew, as with all places with souls, there would be those who would come to feed. Their coming caused a prickling in the air, made the molecules quiver.
With a sweatshirt-covered knuckle, he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. He was six feet tall, weighed in at one seventy, and his feet sweated in his boots as he walked through the clean, timeless in-between when night and morning still locked hands, prudently, in a private space beneath the horizon. It was a city in a valley, the mountains in the distance slouching, black silhouettes against the blue-black curve of space. Paris acknowledged creation's glory though it was, in fact, colored sprays of broken glass in an alley, the underpasses, deserted railroad yards, and cars with three flat tires curbed for months that called to him as he made his way home. The mountains didn't need his love. The litter reached to him.
Turning down a dark side street, the earliest of risers still barely stirring behind their dark windows, he headed for Tatum and Geneva's duplex to perform his house-sitting duties. Geneva was in Europe. Tatum was in Chicago because her sister was sick. Four days ago, Tatum had come into the Deluxe, the diner where Paris worked, to tell him she was leaving.
Other than Tatum and Paris, the diner had been empty, an un-bussed table the only sign of recent life. Business would pick up later around eight and then spike again when the bars let out. Then, briefly, the Deluxe would buzz. Paris would serve fried eggs and tuna melts. Customers would toss crumpled napkins onto ketchup-smeared plates. The Deluxe was one of only two choices in the valley for after-hours food. The Deluxe or the Pie House. That was it. All knew in which they belonged. The more criminal the element, the better the bet they chose the Deluxe. Even dangerous people need places to feel safe, and Paris deftly served this demographic. He understood their needs. Being feared is a double-edged sword: you are left alone, but you are watched.
Which is why purple-haired young adults, innocently pierced, patronized the Deluxe, as did aging men with neither wives, children, nor the means nor understanding to purchase the appropriate camouflage that enabled one to blend with the calculable citizenry. The Deluxe gave them a break from being an affront to society. It was a place to be ordinary, simply eating without being perceived as doing so in rebellion against or in contrast to the status quo.
Only rarely did Paris get one of those preening, dark angels â all aggression, looking for fights, and flanked by boy lieutenants. He was glad such types largely hunted elsewhere, but it was not because he feared them. Predatory males had always passed Paris by. He'd heard the stories of other men and boys being chosen, antagonized, beat up, or scared shitless. But Paris was never plucked from the herd and fed to the pack. He liked to think it was because he was an artist. He believed his place outside the social order allowed him to serve his purpose of bearing witness and metabolizing the whole while humbly serving it soup.
But that was not the reason.
Paris was left to his own because he could not be gauged. Was too calm. In control, but not competing for it. Not computing rank. He could have been a simple man who stood for peace, a bodhisattva, a holy man. But just as likely, he could be a motherfucker with a knife in his boot, willing to beat you with a bat 'til your skull broke, if that's what it took.
He wasn't left alone because he was one or the other. He was left alone because other men couldn't tell.
Paris had been surprised to see Tatum coming through the lurid lighting of the bar, through the orange-green flash of keno machines, toward the restaurant in the rear. It was rare for him to see her there, her presence usually just a figment of his imagination. She had slid onto a round stool and slipped a short strand of dark hair behind her ear. The fluorescent lights glared, flattering nobody. Paris stood behind the dulled, but clean, counter in his whites, his demeanor, as usual, disguising his size. Bottles of ketchup, mustard, and Tabasco cluttered the space between them. Paris balanced one bottle of ketchup on another, merging them into one. He did the same with the mustards. The Tabasco, he simply wiped clean.
“My sister's sick,” Tatum had said, “maybe dying. I'm not sure.”
Paris removed a near empty ketchup from its balance.
“I have to leave,” she said. “Warp speed. I'm not sure how long I'll be gone. It's hard to tell what the situation is.” She reached into her coat pocket and started pulling keys off a ring. “I'm watching Geneva's apartment. She should be back Thursday night. Could you check in on her cat? Feed him, scoop his box?”
“Yeah,” Paris said, “sure.” He wiped the rim of the bottle filled with the sludge from others. He shook out his rag and hung it beneath the counter.
“Here's the key to my apartment,” Tatum said, sliding a second key toward him. “If I'm gone overly long, maybe you can water the plants?”
Paris looked at the key. Guilt and excitement made his chest and face softly buzz.
“Or you could ask Geneva to do it,” Tatum said, “after she gets back.”
Paris lifted the keys off the counter.
“I can do it,” he said. “You okay?”
Tatum forced a smile, one meant to reassure him.
Paris pocketed the keys, grabbed a bus tub, and walked around the end of the counter. He stepped to the dirty table behind Tatum. She spun on her stool, following him with her eyes. The dining room was worn and beaten with time, but not dirt. Paris made sure of that. He paused while loading the tub. He had a question for Tatum but wasn't sure what it was. He turned to face her.
“Yes, Margaret hates me,” Tatum said, finding the question for him, “but that doesn't mean we're not close.”
Paris flinched inwardly.
“Gotta go,” she mouthed.
Paris watched Tatum leave, watched her cross the line between the diner and the bar, the line where the linoleum met the worn, red, cigarette-scarred carpeting. Her coat flared around her, reaching mid-thigh. She turned into a shadow as she opened the door, and the glow of dusk briefly illuminated the space around her, the space she was so adroit at cultivating.
Paris thought about her driving through the night. He thought about the key in his pocket and that he could be alone, again, in Tatum's apartment. He would not snoop, he told himself. Not again.
But first, there was tonight. Near nine, the high school degenerates would arrive, brash and boisterous, throwing food, and paying in piles of change. Around one, after the bars closed, hungry loners would speckle the room eating their solitary meals and delaying going home as best they could. Then, around two, two thirty, the women would begin to arrive, taking extra effort to be natural and not speed through the casino as the bartender, Blair, finished closing up. Maybe just one of the women would come. Sometimes, there were as many as five. Paris knew the Deluxe was a secret among the women of the street. The homeless. The hiding. The shipwrecked. In the wee hours, he doled out soup from the day's vat and served it with the cornbread he made himself when he came on shift. No one ever ordered. No one ever paid. Blair probably knew what was going on, but none of it was ever discussed. Paris knew that to retain the beauty of some things, they must never be named.
Tatum approached the casket from the back of the room, aware that she was The Sister, the Black Sheep. She didn't know Margaret's friends, but they knew her. Tatum felt their eyes slip from her head to her toes and back up again, their calculators clicking away, adding up details of shoe quality and unpolished nails, trying to penetrate the reality to find the reputation. But reputation is a flat lens. Tatum was there in 3-D. At the front of the room, Tatum sank to the kneeler, folded her hands, and bowed her head.
Piety, even the false kind, works like a repellent. She was left alone.
Tatum had a knack for getting people to leave her alone.
Kneeling, she let her eyes rest on Margaret's face. To Tatum, Margaret's expression from life had carried over smoothly into death: the look of someone who got everything she wanted and resented that it wasn't good enough because it could never include Tatum never being born.
It was that kind of sister-hate.
Tatum was certain that Margaret hated her no less in death than she had in life. In fact, she probably hated her more, and if strong emotions â hate, for example â were powerful enough to wake the dead, Margaret might rise at any moment. As it turned out, single parenthood was not part of the plan for Margaret's grieving husband, Lee. He had sentenced his daughter, Margaret's precious Rachael, to return to Montana with Tatum.
The thought of Margaret's fury with such an arrangement gave Tatum a twinge of discomfort with the corpse. She rose and made her way down the aisle toward the rear of the room, passing between rows of chairs arranged, rather bluntly, for a viewing. She had not packed for a funeral, and so she wore Margaret's black, wool skirt that was cut on the bias and stuck out from Tatum's slim hips like fins.
It did not surprise Tatum that Lee would pawn off his eight-year-old daughter on a woman whom the child was raised to hold in contempt and do so before the child's mother had a chance to
her grave, much less cool in it. Lee was not someone who made sense to her. She didn't know if he was an idiot, but she did believe him to be a liar. Liars' behavior often doesn't make sense and makes them seem like idiots, fake idiots. That's how Lee seemed to Tatum, like a fake idiot.
Tatum didn't know if Margaret's crew of scary friends thought Lee was a fake idiot, but she did know this turning over of the child had been met with wide-scale disapproval, all done in whispers. The disapproval part made sense to Tatum too. She shared their sentiment. But she didn't understand why they seemed to act like it was her fault.
She didn't meet their eyes as she walked between the rows of chairs. She kept her own olive-colored eyes focused on the double doors ahead.
In the hall, mourners from other wakes loitered in twos and threes and moved in and out of restrooms. Tatum made her way toward the front doors and stepped outside to stand in the wet November night.
Humidity. Chicago humidity. November humidity. Her skin loved it, and her hair thickened and curled in it. It was home, yet so different from home in Montana where the dry air chapped hands and left the hair brittle. Tatum hugged herself and watched the flows of traffic pulling away from each other in opposite directions â busy, orderly, all keeping to their side of the yellow lines.
Tatum stepped from beneath the funeral home's awning and looked across the four lanes. She remembered Geneva four years ago dragging her into the empty street in front of their duplex. Geneva had taken hold of Tatum's hand and instructed Tatum to close her eyes.
First, they walked against the flow of traffic. Tatum, with eyes closed, had to admit that she could feel it, the energy resisting them, flowing in the direction traffic moved even though the street was empty. Then, they turned and walked with the traffic's flow, rode its invisible current. It was as though traffic had dug a groove and trained the energy. It ran like a river in its bed.
Tatum considered how much more forceful the flow might be here in the city where the traffic steadily pushed on without rest. So much activity, so many worlds. It made the old couple across the street seem lives away as opposed to feet and yards. Tatum watched them through cracks between passing cars as the old man held both the restaurant door and the umbrella as the bent woman in a rain cap maneuvered her walker inside.
The restaurant's name was Cardella's. It was square and somber, catering, no doubt, to the hungry bereaved. Tatum wished her friend, Paris, were here with her. He'd see it in paint. He'd entitle it
Tatum looked up into the haze of light that pooled in the city sky. The mist around her broke a sweat, releasing quick slivers of rain that seemed to step out from the fog and fall. Because she was thinking of Paris, she didn't move for cover. She let the rain slap against her skin the way Paris would. It felt good to do what Paris would do.
But thoughts of one man turned to thoughts of another, and Tatum opened her eyes and stepped back beneath the awning. Loss. Her own didn't rank among such heavy hitters as Margaret losing her life or Rachael losing her mother and home. Tatum had lost a boyfriend. A love. Vincent had dumped her two years ago and then disappeared. She hadn't heard a word from him since. Nothing. She tried to let it go and move on, as they say. She had even thought she was doing it, moving on, but then Vincent would ride in on another thought.
She had talked about it once with Geneva, wrapped in blankets on the patio on a September night. She told Geneva of the way Vincent would swoop into her thoughts. In the moment, Geneva hadn't said much. But the next morning, Tatum found a folded up piece of paper slid under her front door.
“Unrequited love is very stable,” it said. It was signed
The next day, graveside, mourners huddled in the crisp, clean cold. The sky was shockingly bright as Margaret was buried in a grove of oaks on her and her husband's six acres west of the city. It was not Tatum's first funeral. Not her first coffin. Cancer had taken her father fairly young and then her mother six years back when Rachael was only two. Wanting to maintain family ties, Tatum had made a point of driving back to Illinois once a year. Margaret would receive her, duty-bound. But by the time Rachael reached kindergarten, she had realized that within the clan she outranked her prodigal aunt. Despite her young years, her snub was most accomplished.
Tatum stood in the inner circle, closest to the coffin, as prayers were offered and roses were placed on the polished mahogany. The minister asked those congregated to join hands. As there was no one to Tatum's right, her hand hung empty at her side. Her left hand, too, hung empty as Rachael had turned away from her toward her father, the fingers of both of her hands curled into his coat pocket.
Tatum wondered what this day might be to Rachael somewhere off in the future, on a late night, years away, when Rachael was grown and lying in a lover's bed, touched and open. In a faraway voice, would she tell him her tale of that first love lost? Would the day still be vivid to her, right down to the feel of the wool of her father's coat beneath her fingers, the cloudless sky, and the notes of the violin turning to her with open hands, about to say something, before dissolving into grace? Or would her story be of cold motherlessness, slippery shadows, and photographs divorced from touch?
Tatum reached toward Rachael's long brown hair but then let her hand fall. Rachael looked over her shoulder as though she had felt the hand creeping toward her. Tatum noticed no flash of hate from Rachael when their eyes met as she had in the past. Just a sweet blank face with a shard of anger cut deep in the back of the eye.
The violinist stretched the final note. It hung in the air, seeming to hold up the mourners, as if when the note ended they would all collapse at once onto the cold autumn ground. But as the note faded and vanished, only hands dropped. Rachael looked away from Tatum, and they stood in new silence.
Lee broke the trance with an escaped sob. Tatum looked to him. He was handsome without character, mid-thirties. He was tall and lean. Though more attractive than a Q-tip, he reminded Tatum of one nonetheless.
The casket was cradled in a sling and lowered by six men holding the sides. When it reached its resting place, the group murmured an
. Tatum didn't bother to mouth along. She was listening to Vincent's voice in her head
Vincent, her lost love, grumbling about the cost of the casket and the resources wasted in sending the dead into the earth.
The prayer ended. The minister closed with canned funeral rhetoric and a vague tribute. Too many adjectives, Tatum thought, not enough verbs. She wanted to raise her hand. “How so?” she wanted to say to the minister's assertions about Margaret's goodness. “Give me an example.”
There was a collective “amen.” Quietly, the group dispersed, hugging separate hugs, sniffling, and moving toward the house for somber conversation and solemn hors d'oeuvres. All very respectful, Tatum supposed. But given how difficult it is to let go of lovers, favorite coats, and old letters, she thought, how in God's name can a spirit break free from its precious body without stomping feet, clapping hands, wailing and raging?
Go, go, go.
We holler and wave and encourage the marathon runner to make it those final yards, to push harder from a strength not physical. Then, at death, we mumble a civil hymn and talk white noise. How's the soul to know in which direction to fly?
At the house, despite being Margaret's closest blood relative other than Rachael, Tatum felt distinctly like an outsider, a slightly unwelcome guest. She ladled herself a glass of punch and plucked a stuffed olive hors d'oeuvre from the buffet spread, a mix of catered food and homemade offerings. She stepped among the people clustered in small groups having quiet conversations. Tatum tried to blend without actually interacting but thought that she might be drawing attention to herself with her persistent pace. So, she sidled up where Lee was talking to one of Margaret's more frightening-looking friends, a step or two back from the conversation. Lee was describing the chosen headstone with its inscription,
Wife and Mot
Wife and Mother
, Tatum thought, a generic tribute. But critiquing the epitaph, she imagined, would be poor form, so she focused on the stuffed olive she was holding, calculating how to bite it in half without making a mess, until she detected an awkward silence. She looked up. Lee was gone and Margaret's friend was looking at her.
“She deserved to see Rachael grow up,” the woman said, obviously repeating herself. What was her name? Marley? She looked like a recipe for pretty gone awry. Every strand of blonde hair was the exact same color. She had blue eyes and symmetrical features. All the right ingredients, and yet, they added up to something else.
“Yes,” Tatum stuttered. “But I'm not so sure people get what they deserve, good or bad.”
Marley stared at her. Tatum bit her hors d'oeuvre, needing something to do. The half left behind on the toothpick broke and fell toward the floor, Tatum catching most of it in the palm of her hand while still chewing on the half in her mouth. Marley fake smiled at her, said “Excuse me,” and walked away.
Tatum found her way to the kitchen to dispose of the olive bits that had fallen to the floor. She washed her hands and slipped away from the gathering to Lee's den. She would rummage through the phone books to keep herself occupied. She'd done this here before and found the phone books in a pile under the same side table she had in the past. In Montana, six or seven books covered the whole state. Here, it took that many to cover the Chicago suburbs.
She flipped through the phone books, looking through the
's for Vincent's name and number. Vincent Goes Ahead. Though a big family name on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana, “Goes Ahead” would not be a common name in the Midwest. There would not be a list of right name but wrong numbers to call and interview. Tatum looked for Vincent's number whenever she left town, wherever she went. Losing a person to death may not be a cakewalk, but losing one to his life was considerably more complicated. In his final message to her, left on her answering machine, he said he was confused, but she knew better. The confused stay put. It is clarity that provokes us to action.
Tatum sank into the soft leather of the wingback as she turned phone book pages. Clarity and confusion. She knew the difference. With confusion the mind mulls, chews, and frets. It trips and tangles on its own so-called logic. Lots of activity. No movement. With clarity, on the other hand, the thinking is done. It was clarity Tatum felt before ingesting a fistful of pills in a Nebraska motel room ten years back. Clarity she felt before playing chicken with a bullet.
Ah, the drama of youth, she thought, smiling to herself. Her death fantasies had become considerably more tame with age. Her current one featured her dying not by her own hand but of a terminal disease that while not pleasant, of course, would not debilitate her completely until the very end. She would have a party before the fat lady sang, she had decided, a pre-wake kind of thing. Guests would receive a string of raffle tickets as they came through the front door, and at the high point of the evening, she would raffle off her stuff. From her sickbed, she would draw the numbers from a hat. The sofa: 3-6-2. The coffee table: 1-7. Books. Household appliances. The big-ticket items would provide the night's highlight. The car. The boom box. The guests would see the raffle as a perversity, a peverse request but a request of the dying, not to be denied. Secretly, they'd cross their fingers and hope their numbers were lucky.