Sold a story today to an anthology called Best New Werewolf Tales, published by the same great folks who published my story earlier this year in their Best New Vampire Tales. This one is called “Three Dog Night.” Should be out sometime this fall.
Monthly Archives: May 2011
And I feel fine.
Besides, everyone knows that it’s really my birthday, Dec. 21, 2012, that’s the end of the world.
Still working on the novel, which the three of you who actually read this blog will hear for the next six to eight months. So, trying to find little things I can post for you to read. Here’s another short piece.
By John F.D. Taff
“Help me,” the note reads, and Gerald holds it gently, unfolded in his palm like a stricken bird. He stares at it for a full minute, taking in the torn edges of the piece of paper, obviously ripped from a larger sheet. The handwriting is in ink, the letters large and loopy, with an obviously feminine flair. The letter “p” in “help” is blurry, as if smeared by some liquid.
Gerald closes his hand, looks up. He is standing beside his mailbox, a smooth, plump box of green plastic that looks as if it has been extruded from the earth. His house sits behind him, and those of his neighbors stretch to the left and right, across the street and into the distance. There is a comforting, enveloping sameness to them, as if they were dropped by an exacting baker like pre-measured cookies on a sheet.
His house is in a relatively new development just outside Gethsemane proper. It is a modest subdivision by today’s standards, with four models each with three elevations—just enough to prevent two similar houses sitting side by side. But still not enough to prevent a feeling of déjà vu as you walk the streets, like a cartoon where the same three or four background items are endlessly looped.
It is a modest neighborhood, but fine for Gerald. At 79 years old, it might seem unusual for him to have bought a new house in a new subdivision, but it is exactly what Gerald wanted. He wanted something known, something not challenging, something calmly ordinary.
Gerald, you see, is dying.
Not merely because he is 79, though this certainly doesn’t help in any way, but because he has inoperable liver cancer. The disease is in what his doctors euphemistically call its terminal phase, with perhaps no more than six months until it runs its final course and terminates his—and its own—existence.
Only 18 months or so ago, Gerald decided to take some of his remaining money from various investments and retirement plans and spend it on a house in which he could be comfortable during his last days. He’d decorated it minimally but tastefully, had it professionally landscaped and even added a swing set, a wooden jungle gym and fort to the backyard for his grandkids off in Oregon.
Well, not entirely for his grandkids, to be truthful. They haven’t visited in years, since before he was diagnosed with cancer. And they have most probably grown outside that narrow window where children find such things entertaining. No, Gerald wants, deep in his heart, to attract the neighborhood kids to his backyard, in much the same way that he might have set out a birdbath to attract the birds or feeder to entice the squirrels.
You see, in his final days, Gerald doesn’t just want to be comfortable. He wants to be alive; around life, around youth. He wants to see the kids go off to school, the housewives sun themselves in the backyards and sweep the front porches. He wants to see dads mowing the yards and washing the cars and grilling out on the weekends.
This is, to him, so much more to be preferred than living in a skilled nursing facility or a retirement village or whatever other test-marketed, flim-flam name they give old folks homes these days. Much more preferable than sitting across a laminated wooden table watching women named Agnes and Ethel and June gum their grey mashed potatoes or play Canasta or churn out ridiculous crafts meant to vie for shelf space with distressingly similar items being made by these people’s grade-school-age grandchildren.
He doesn’t want to watch others of his generation slowly dying. He doesn’t want to be any more reminded of his own impending departure than is absolutely necessary.
He wants to know, wants to see that life does go on, that life will go on, even without him.
That simply isn’t possible in a place where every room has call buttons and oxygen connections and the smell of antiseptics and slow, creeping death. No, in the end—his end—he wants the smell of cut grass, the sounds of shouting, noisy kids cutting through his yard, the sizzle of pork steaks or brats on a grill, the procession of cars and school buses leaving in the mornings, and the quiet, stealthy way twilight creeps up on the houses, with their front lights dimmed and the TVs inside flaring blue like fallen stars that have somehow managed to continue twinkling.
In choosing this end to his life, though, he makes himself a target of gossip and discussion from neighbors who look at him with curious suspicion.
What’s a 79-year-old man doing in a neighborhood of new homes, of people with kids and minivans and mortgages? his neighbors ask.
He’s a skinflint millionaire. We should invite him over for dinner some night.
He’s a lonely widower. We should invite him over for dinner some night.
He’s a child molester. Why else would he have kids’ toys in the backyard? Google his name, honey.
He’s someone well-known, living out his final days in seclusion. Google his name, honey.
Gerald helps little by not speaking much to his neighbors. He is here more as an observer, not a participant. The fact is that most days he is too weak, too sick to go outside and chit-chat. A lawn service handles the outside of his house, and a cleaning service handles the inside. A home health nurse visits twice weekly, but her visits, as welcome as they are, are more perfunctory these days, more preparatory.
Often, the only time he’s able to get outside, the only time his neighbors are likely to see him outside, is to get the mail. It isn’t much, but he insists on going out every day to collect his own mail, which, these days, is little more than credit card offers, coupon mailings and the very occasional bill. And, ironically, the occasional mailer from a mortuary or cemetery.
So, he tells himself still standing there at the mailbox, the person who left this note knows enough about me to know that I get my own mail.
Who left this note in my mailbox?
Who needs my help?
There, at its heart, that was it.
For a moment, a sharp flash that makes his tired heart lurch a bit, he feels a twinge of guilt at his mood being lifted by someone’s expression of need.
But it makes him feel useful for the first time in many a year.
The question is who needs his help?
And what do they need?
Gerald scans the houses nearest his, first left then right, then across the street.
In the house directly across from his, there is a young couple with two children, a boy of eight and another of about six, if memory served. The wife works part time at a bakery in a nearby strip shopping center, while the husband is some sort of creative type. Gerald surmises this, rather than knows this, because the man leaves for work each morning in a golf shirt and jeans. Times may have changed since Gerald was last in the work force, but he doubted if a banker would leave the house dressed this way even today.
They seem quiet, friendly. Gerald has seen him kiss his wife in the mornings, embrace her on their evening walks.
Holding the crumpled note, he turns slowly to his left. The house next door is a mess. The lawn is a little too long, bikes are sprawled in the front yard as if there has been a massive motocross accident. Trashcans, empty now, still stand by the curb from Wednesday’s trash pick up, and here it is Friday. The screen door at the front of the house hangs askew on its hinges, giving the house the slightly comical appearance of a person with a single crooked tooth in its mouth.
Any other neighbor would be silently shaking his head at this suburban disarray, but Gerald loves it. It represents everything he wants; the disarray, the untidiness, the high and low tide of kids.
His brow furrows as he calls to mind the parents, a couple who are both divorcees, each with children who float in and out of the house as their particular visitation schedules dictate. The man is a thin whip of a thing, calm and cool to the point of meekness, while the woman wears a perpetual air of slightly bemused confusion. She seems an unlikely candidate to be calling out for help.
Gerald brings his weathered hand to his chin, rubs it and thinks absently of shaving.
To his right, then, is a house in which a new couple has recently moved. They aren’t married, and Gerald knows them even less than he knows some of the other neighbors.
He’s seen them a few times. The woman is dark and furtive, nervous as a bird. The man is large and moves with aggression, his face shadowed and stormy.
Could she need help; help to get away from him?
Gerald considers this as he surveys the quiet house.
Perhaps she is in there now, hiding, cowering, thinking of how she might escape him, his words, his anger…his fists.
Unfolding his hand, he stares at the little slip of paper and suddenly, the entire weight of his 79 years falls onto him.
Thirty years ago, even 20 years ago, he might have been able to provide the kind of help this woman apparently needs.
But now? Nearing eight decades of life, with a poisonous liver, bad knees, flabby muscles, poor reflexes and a disconcertingly bad sense of balance, what help could he provide?
His mind drifts for a bit as he tries to recall something, something small, something packed away in a plastic tub somewhere in his basement…
It comes to him eventually, standing there holding someone’s cry for help in the palm of his hand, and he thinks that, yes, perhaps there is something he can do.
He closes his hand tightly, crumpling the note.
Raindrops fall around him as he hobbles back into the house, makes the long, arduous journey down the basement steps.
The tubs are moved carefully, slowly.
He finds it nestled in a tub marked “Christmas,” enfolded in old stockings.
It gleams darkly at him, invites him to lift it, hold it.
Upstairs, he sits at the kitchen table, several fingers of bourbon poured into an orange juice glass.
He winces at each flash of lightning, imagines a large, calloused hand clenching into a fist, striking the cowering thing beneath it with each crash of thunder.
The bourbon is fire in his mouth, falling down his throat, but it gives some heat, some life to his frail legs, his arms.
It almost steadies his shaking hand.
He doesn’t think to wonder if the note is real, if it is directed at him, if it is from the neighbor woman.
He doesn’t think to wonder why anyone would chose him to come to their rescue; what aid they might reasonably expect to get from a dying 79-year-old man.
He doesn’t think to wonder what might happen to him when he opens the front door to his house and lurches out into the rain.
He thinks of how this part of his life has been about doing nothing but waiting; waiting for visits from his family, waiting for the drugs to kick in, waiting for the results of the next test.
Waiting to die.
He’s tired of waiting.
He wants to do something.
He wants to help.
So, he stands, feeling the weather in his knees, his hips.
Outside, he is soaked by the relentless rain before he reaches the end of his own driveway.
And the gun gleams dark and oiled with each flash, as if a photographer were capturing every moment, searing it into the slowly unraveling fabric of Gerald’s life with each hot sizzle.
Each flash of lightning is another memory, a burst of life, a benediction.
And Gerald is alive…
Here’s a little tease of part of the first chapter for the new novel I’m working on, a science fiction story called “Home.” Enjoy!
She has no name, yet her name is Toby.
She has no gender, though she is a girl.
She has no age, though she is 14 years old.
She has no home, though…
She has no home.
She’s wrapped in an old, pea green army surplus jacket, two or three sizes too big. It’s cold outside, grey and wet in a way that penetrates even the six or so layers of clothes she’s got on…everything she owns.
She pushes against the wind, wraps the crocheted scarf that one or another of her many, many grandmothers knitted for her in the days where she had one or another family of sorts, a home of sorts. She presses the material closer to her face, her nose, inhales through it, and, for a moment, she smells home…the smell of cooking food and family. Of clean clothes and crisp bed sheets and pets and…
Toby, not her name but the name she has given herself, pushes that all from her mind. There is no home now, just wandering, wandering. Home was an isolated time in her life, perhaps never to come again.
The smell of her dirty scarf is all that she has left, all that she needs.
It will have to make do.
Besides, there could be no home for her anymore.
Because, you see, Toby is going crazy…
She’d known that for a few days now, and the thought made her giggle every time it flashed through her brain.