Pressure Part One

image

(This short story is rated R)

 

Pressure

           “It’s like this, Five Hundred. You’re approaching one hundred eight miles per hour, maybe one o nine. You’re on these long fucken boards. And they’re wobbling all over the place totally out of control, and then finally they smooth out at about one fucken twelve when you get off the ground, and suddenly everything is velvety and you’re riding cushion of air, like snarly lotion, man,” Gary Stafford, your new boss says.

           He’s crouching low, bending over, arms extended as if he is in his downhill racer’s tuck, one hand holding a can of beer. His skin is ruddy, freckled and prematurely wrinkled from many years of sun and wind of skiing. Otherwise, he looks angular, almost teenage from certain angles with sharp, lean features.

           You can’t believe you’ve had to take this job. You’re a victim of corporate downsizing at Digital Communications and there isn’t a damned job around in telecommunications, even as a code monkey. They’re outsourcing those to Indians and Pakistanis now, and your buddies who are still “lucky” to be working at Digital Communications complain about the sixty to seventy-hour weeks they have to work since everyone is gone now. DC is getting good press these days because of it’s increased productivity, emerging strongly from the recession. 

Screw “increased productivity,” you think, it’s a euphemism for working your employees to the bone. You’ve got bills to pay. The pressure is on to bring home the bacon for your beautiful little girl who is epileptic and needs expensive meds. Your wife is working a few hours at a fabric store, but it hardly makes sense when childcare costs more than she brings in. She’s frayed with everything so uncertain. The COBRA health insurance is expensive as hell and it’s going to run out in three months, now that you’ve been looking for a real job for fifteen months.  Maybe Obamacare will help if the idiots who want to take it away get their way.   And it would be really nice if you could keep the Beemer, but those payments are eating into the food budget big time now, and if something doesn’t break soon, you’re going to have to just give in.

           Gary takes a deep breath.  He takes a big swig of beer now that it’s five o’clock. He sits down on one of the five large, unopened containers of white latex paint near the open service door of Persian Rug Emporium, not far from Waweeta Street in the upscale warehouse district downtown.  

           “So fucken what,” Frank says. He is Gary’s senior employee, with him now for two months.  He has been sanding drywall seams in the north gallery addition, which the “Persian” owner has hired this Gary dude to paint. “It don’t mean you actually flew. And even if you did, what the fuck makes you crazy enuf to waste your fucken time and fucken money chasing nothing but your own big fucken assed ego?” Frank grins crookedly and winks at you. He needles Gary all the time. He peels a banana left over from lunch. He’s wearing an Iron Maiden tee shirt and he’s powdery white, head to toe, as if a sack of flour has fallen on him, a ghost revealed. He has been recently released from the county jail—some ninety days ago.  He has also spent four years in the State Penitentiary.

           “Because, Frank, you want to make it to at least one hundred and forty-three miles per hour, asshole. At least!” Gary says through his teeth.  “And because, this fucken arrogant old fucker, Claude Zufferey, this forty-five year old surgeon from Switzerland, set the speed record at one forty two point five in fucken Chile last year and broke my fucken record, and I got to take it back.  And two, because the sissies on the fucken prissy Olympic Downhill squad pee their pants thinking of that kind of speed, so fuck them for cutting me.  And, C, because of the hill, Jesus, it’s a fucken thing of beauty down by Silverton. A perfect parabolic surface. Velocity Peak. Way above tree line. Speed skiing, man. Because it’s speed skiing…in which you fly.”

           “Because it’s speed skiing,” Frank says in a mocking falsetto voice. “In which you fly.”  He grins his crooked grin again and flaps his arms. He circles Gary once like a buzzard, which he looks remarkably like. Then he swoops around the case of beer and snags his third. He shakes it hard and pops the top, aiming it out the service doors and sprays a thick stream of beer into the alley. He shakes off the foam, gulps the rest down and tosses the can toward the dumpsters by the back of the building. “Are we having fun yet?” he yells.

           “Fuck you, Frank,” Gary says.  He shakes his head. Then he turns back you like you understand.  He likes you because you’re intelligent and educated.  “So like it’s hard to describe, Five Hundred. It’s like, like everything is metallic blue as you drop. You got your speed suit on, stuffed in it.  You’re a fat lady in pantyhose. The air pressure is unbelievable, clamping down on your face like this big fucking vice, and you’re just barely holding on.” Gary says. He’s jittery now. All stirred up.  “You’re shoving your chin into your knees to reduce the pressure any way you can, just going after speed, but your muscles feel like they’re piano wire and you’re constantly thinking that you’re going to smear down the track, micro-sliced by the corn.” Gary says as he  barely sits on the paint container. He bends over again, puts the beer on the concrete floor and assumes the tuck position again:

           “And you think smaller. You want to disappear.  You start seeing things like, like numbers from the table of periodic elements appearing, just materializing out of nowhere, like dragonflies on some highway in Texas—at sunset—coming at your windshield.  But they’re not dragonflies and you’re not in a car. You’re just flying, centimeters off the snow.  The track is glaring in bright sun, and you want to become like a hydrogen electron, cruising light speed down the face of your orbit, like a satellite ripping a red seam across the evening sky,” Gary says. He’s shaking now, like a little electrical current is running over his skin. He sits straight up on the five gallon paint container, bouncing his knees.  He reaches in his pants pocket and pulls out a Tic Tac box with a torn label and pops one in his mouth. Frank says, “Hey, give me one a them too, Speedy.”

           Gary he shakes his head and flips him off. He looks at the ground and says after a long pause, “And then, and then when you hit the speed trap at one forty, you’re seeing your fucken old lady, Ms. Sally Rippy, the Sally Rippy of the Revlon shampoo commercials who won bronze in the bumps two years ago, the bitch who you were really skiing for the last three seasons, and she’s in bed with Paul Parker, rich daddy’s boy FIS silver medalist, that goddamned sonofabitch. He pauses and quickly shakes this out of his mind. He blinks several times and he’s pumping his legs nervously again.

           “But then you realize you’re on the fucken hill and you’re a fucken scream half way out your throat. You’re a bullet with gunpowder packed up your ass with the hammer coming down.” He starts to laugh. Hysterically. “You’re a trouthead, with fins on your calves, shooting down the falls,” Gary Stafford says. He leans back like an outlaw and chugs the rest of his beer. “Fuck you, Paul Parker!”

           He throws the can across the long, dark cement expanse of the receiving area of the Persian Rug Emporium, over the fork lift, past the huge bay doors that are open to the warm summer air, and the beer can crashes perfectly into one of the fifty-five gallon barrels that serve as trash containers.

          This guy interviewed you in a tiny studio apartment on the north side of town, this guy who likes to push limits.  He has a lot of energy and a certain charm. He actually has accomplished something, a member of the Olympic team, it seems, if he’s telling the truth.

           On the morning you “interviewed” for the “position” that you saw on Craig’s List, there was a gleaming candy apple red Chevy Impala on tiny tires parked on the street outside his apartment complex, with tuck and rolled white vinyl seats and a blue fuzz dash.  There were a couple big trucks with Mexican plates and fringe hanging in the windshield.  Finally, you saw a little white Ford truck with a magnetic sign of his painting company stuck cockeyed on the door, SpeedPainting.

(To Be Continued…)

Kind Hearted

_DSC0248-FWDcopy

Kind Hearted

Bailey’s mother had been gone again for five days. Her name was Luna Bianca, and like the moon, she lived the nightlife, going out to bars, or wherever, staying out for days on end. He never knew where she was or what she did or when she would call.

He lived with his Aunt Lily who was older and kept to herself, reading in her room. She kept the apartment clean and made sure he had clean clothes, but she was a little difficult to talk with, and when she was not working at Johan’s fashion boutique, she was playing bridge or mahjong. Aunt Lily would never discuss his mother, or where she was. She just said, “She loves you. That’s all you need to know.”

He loved his mother with all his heart and worried for her, fretting and pacing as he made himself another package of macaroni and cheese for dinner. The middle of his back got to itching as it did when she was gone and he scratched it on the corner of the doorway into the kitchen. He fretted that she might never come back, that she would die in a car wreck, be kidnapped by some crazy, or actually climb a ladder to the moon and disappear forever as she once said she had been tempted to do.

His mother was so attentive and sweet when she finally wold return home. Her short-cropped hair, brunette and blond and black, with maroon highlights, like a crazy calico cat, would be all wild. Sometimes she smelled of cigarette smoke. Sometimes she smelled of woodsmoke. And sometimes she smelled of fresh air, like cotton. Sometimes she smelled of exotic spices or perfume and she would stroke his blond hair and rub his strong, large forearms, curious about his teachers and his school assignments.

They would talk late into the night at the wooden table in the kitchen overlooking the alley. He told her about school and his dreams, which she would analyze. She always found a way to make his nightmares about her disappearing better, pointing out the positive meanings of his nightlife, that the dreams were multiple reflections of his psyche as he continued to grow into a fine young man who was in charge of his own life. This always made him feel better and proud for dreaming so creatively, instead of so psychotically as he often feared.

She laughed riotously as she told him fabulously detailed stories of places she might have been on her latest outing, and though he could never get a straight story from her, he was so happy to see her that he forgot his torment and fretting. Someday, she explained with a broad smile, she would reveal where she would disappear to, but it was not time yet, and she drifted off to another topic such as the secrets of the quantum physics of love. She would explain how he could create a prom date with the popular high school beauty, Jessica Livingston by just imagining her saying yes. Bailey told her that he couldn’t imagine himself actually asking her out because she was too beautiful. Luna hunched her shoulders and said, “Don’t limit yourself, Bailey, my beautiful, kind-hearted and too shy boy,” she said getting up to warm up a can of Spaghetti O’s.
In their small apartment, Bailey now sorted through a peach crate filled with his mother’s old cassette tapes. He had homework to do for his advanced writing class at high school– a short autobiographical sketch.

He flipped through the cassettes, clicking through them one by one for inspiration – Aretha Franklin, Janet Jackson. He stopped at Run DMC. It was her first cassette, bought when she was eleven, only four years before she delivered him into the world like a magical mackerel, slick, shimmering and glistening.

He had grown into a towering, stocky, freckled-faced young man. He had no idea who his father was, but she described him as a big-boned Swede, a pensive Viking, who was a foreign exchange student for one semester at the university where she would go to listen to classes that she sneaked into.

Bailey was thinking of writing his essay about that lonely night when he emerged in his unbroken birthsack – “You are a special, spiritual boy, so kind-hearted,” she always said. According to one of the hundreds stories of his birth, this one told last year on Christmas eve: When her contractions began, she was sipping Bailey’s Irish Cream (that was how he got his name) at Mickey’s tavern. The bartender allowed her to sneak in because she looked and acted old enough. The bartender’s girlfriend who was leaning back agianst the pool table, said, “You’re going to have a baby, girl!” She placed the cue stick in the rack and took her by the hand, driving her to St. Joseph’s Hospital in a Camaro that blew thick streams of oil smoke. He had no idea if the story was true. She had also told him he was born in a dirt floor cabin during a blizzard in Leadville, delivered by a Mexican mid-wife who had given her herbs that made the birth painless. She also said she delivered him at Smiley’s Laundromat in a basket of satin bedsheets. Always, in any story, she would say that he was born in his unbroken birthsack, so that much, he figured, was true.

Bessie Smith, Whitney Houston, Beyonce, Celone Dion. He pulled a cassette by Aretha from the crate and slid it into the boom box with his meaty fingers. He moved around the apartment, bobbing his head to the music. He looked at the alarm clock on his mother’s nightstand. He patted her bed and soft white bedspread that was always made neatly before she disappeared again, before he came home from school.

He looked at the perfume bottles aligned on her dresser. He looked at a photo of him and her at the aquarium where she took him every Sunday when he was younger. In the photo, he was two years old in a backpack with his chubby, smiling face peering around her shoulder, smiling through her hair that was long and black at the time. She was only seventeen, the same age as he was now.

He looked at her alarm clock. It was only five o’clock, and he thought he would take the bus to the aquarium to watch the fish. Maybe he would get inspiration for the essay there, he thought. He didn’t feel like writing anything. He was sure his mother would not show up that evening. He wanted to cry. He closed his eyes and moaned, “Mother, where are you?”
He grabbed his hooded sweatshirt. He only had a B+ in Mrs. McMillan’s writing class. She was tough and he was determined to write an essay that would finally impress her. It would somehow collapse upon itself when it ended. He loved the idea of self-referential writing, stumbling across old writers from the 60s in the library.

The baseball, basketball, and even the football coaches had encouraged him to go out for sports since he was a natural athlete with giant, powerful forearms, but he shook his head. He was determined to get into college with straight A’s, and to become a marine biologist, adventuring around the world, diving for big bucks. He had finally concluded that he was going to have to leave his mother. He was going to have to stop worrying about her. He put an MC Hammer tape in his pocket. He pulled the Aretha cassette from the boombox and put it in his pocket too. He didn’t have an iPod like everyone else, or even a CD player, only a cassette Walkman. He put on the headphones, grabbed his skateboard, and walked out the door and down the dim hallway to the elevator, thinking of how to do it.

At the aquarium, he stood in the great underwater gallery, gazing at the schools of fish. Small colorful fish flickered by. Jellyfish hovered like diaphanous parachutes. Stingrays flew past like great birds and he kept thinking of the stories of his birth, looking for the mackerels. The fish swirled like liquid diamonds to the music, now that he was high, and he could not imagine where his mother could possibly be and what her life was like.
He pulled out his spiral notebook and began scribbling, “His mother’s name was Luna, and like the moon, she lived the nightlife….” As he wrote, he became vaguely aware of a crying child.

He looked up and there was a little boy walking in circles, looking completely lost. Bailey folded his notebook and approached the boy, who looked up at him tentatively. The boy tugged at Bailey’s shirtsleeve, and whispered, “I don’t know where my mom is,” gulping air, trying to be brave. The boy looked toward the dark opening of the nocturnal fish exhibit and started to sob quietly and hopelessly, just shaking, holding it in, squeezing his eyes closed. Bailey swallowed. He knew what it was like to be away from your mother, the life-giver not to know where your lifeline is, your history.
“Hey, kid, I’ll help you find your mom.” The boy put out his hand and nodded. “Hold my hand.” He placed his headphones over the boy’s ears, Aretha booming it out. That’s how he got along, listening to her cassettes. He grinned looking at the boy smiling. He looked out the huge atrium window, as if he were one of the fish in the aquarium.

For a second, he thought he saw his own mother outside by the fountain. It was only for a second. She was walking arm-in-arm with a dashing man wearing a white fedora and using a walking cane…just another hallucination he had frequently. He shook his head, and gazed at the rising moon, wondering where his mother really was, holding the hand of a boy who, like him, didn’t know where is mother was, which is where he figured he would end his autobiographical sketch, the first chapter of his first novel, in third person, for Ms. McMillan.

Yusef Kommunyakaa’s “Prisoners”

Yusef Komunyakaa’s Poem, “Prisoners.”

Here is my audio interpretation of Komunyakaa’s important poem about prisioners of war, way back during Vietnam, but applies to any soldier who works to keep his or her humanity under the moral ambiguity of war.

Click to listen:

Prisoners 1

Prisoners
By Yusef Komunyakaa

Usually at the helipad
I see them stumble-dance
across the hot asphalt
with crokersacks over their heads,
moving toward the interrogation huts,
thin-framed as box kites
of sticks & black silk
anticipating a hard wind
that’ll tug & snatch them
out into space. I think
some must be laughing
under their dust-colored hoods,
knowing rockets are aimed
at Chu Lai–that the water’s
evaporating & soon the nail
will make contact with metal.
How can anyone anywhere love
these half-broken figures
bent under the sky’s brightness?
The weight they carry
is the soil we tread night & day.
Who can cry for them?
I’ve heard the old ones
are the hardest to break.
An arm twist, a combat boot
against the skull, a .45
jabbed into the mouth, nothing
works. When they start talking
with ancestors faint as camphor
smoke in pagodas, you know
you’ll have to kill them
to get an answer.
Sunlight throws
scythes against the afternoon.
Everything’s a heat mirage; a river
tugs at their slow feet.
I stand alone & amazed,
with a pill-happy door gunner
signaling for me to board the Cobra.
I remember how one day
I almost bowed to such figures
walking toward me, under
a corporal’s ironclad stare.
I can’t say why.
From a half-mile away
trees huddle together,
& the prisoners look like
marionettes hooked to strings of light

Yusef Komunyakaa’s Poem, “Prisoners.”

Here is my audio interpretation of Komunyakaa’s important poem about prisioners of war, way back during Vietnam, but applies to any soldier who works to keep his or her humanity under the moral ambiguity of war.

Click to listen:

Prisoners 1

Prisoners
By Yusef Komunyakaa

Usually at the helipad
I see them stumble-dance
across the hot asphalt
with crokersacks over their heads,
moving toward the interrogation huts,
thin-framed as box kites
of sticks & black silk
anticipating a hard wind
that’ll tug & snatch them
out into space. I think
some must be laughing
under their dust-colored hoods,
knowing rockets are aimed
at Chu Lai–that the water’s
evaporating & soon the nail
will make contact with metal.
How can anyone anywhere love
these half-broken figures
bent under the sky’s brightness?
The weight they carry
is the soil we tread night & day.
Who can cry for them?
I’ve heard the old ones
are the hardest to break.
An arm twist, a combat boot
against the skull, a .45
jabbed into the mouth, nothing
works. When they start talking
with ancestors faint as camphor
smoke in pagodas, you know
you’ll have to kill them
to get an answer.
Sunlight throws
scythes against the afternoon.
Everything’s a heat mirage; a river
tugs at their slow feet.
I stand alone & amazed,
with a pill-happy door gunner
signaling for me to board the Cobra.
I remember how one day
I almost bowed to such figures
walking toward me, under
a corporal’s ironclad stare.
I can’t say why.
From a half-mile away
trees huddle together,
& the prisoners look like
marionettes hooked to strings of light