Sippican Cottage

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I Must Not Do It


From the forthcoming book: The Regular
By: Sippican Cottage

I couldn’t buy her a birthday present. I have no money. That is to say: there is no money. Money can’t be had.

I have seen money. Felt it in my hand. I have wasted it one day and built temples to my fellow man the next with money, with no good reason to do either. I have watched it slumber in a bank book with my name on it waiting for nothing more than a notion and a signature. All gone. Gone for good, I think but must not say. She hears everything I say. I utter the sounds but I don’t listen to what I’m saying. What is the line? I must remember the line. Strut and fret upon the stage, I think. Strut and fret his hour, it goes. Yes, that’s it. I strut and fret though my hour is long over. Oh, I’m full of sound and fury.

The fury is nothing, just like in the play. I say these extravagant things and they roll off my tongue but they signify nothing to me or the rest of the world, except for her. That is why I must not say them. I must not, I must not. She hears them and they burrow deep and make a nest in her heart. She takes them in like a stray cat or a rain dog and gives them the home they don’t deserve. Same as she did for me, I guess. But my words are born hunchbacked. They foul their new nest and they break her heart.

It’s her birthday and I needed to find something. I chant it in my heart like a monk murmuring over his beads. I know why the monks chant. They chant to keep themselves from thinking about the topic at hand. They say words they can’t bring themselves to believe, over and over again, to keep from thinking about what’s coming out of their mouths. They have committed the great sin of being born, and they can’t handle it. They whisper some dread god’s name time and again hoping it will ease the expected blow if they bow and scrape. They never learn that dread comes with earplugs. Deafness comes with the job description. Gods or devils, it makes no never mind. What difference does it make if they brain you with a scepter by accident or poke you with a trident with a purpose? Either way, we’re just the front pins in their game of skittles, whether we’re good or bad. Sorry, I had to install a pillar of salt somewhere, and you’re in the way. Nothing personal.

Nothing is ever personal anymore. A man with eyes like a rat in the starlight put us in the street and said it was nothing personal. Something about having the sheriff tagging along made me suspect he was worried that there might be something personal in it for me. Our little boys looked dazed, and they naturally fear a man in a uniform. My wife never says much of anything but I could read it in her eyes – do not do what I was thinking of doing. I would have made it very, very personal right up until someone brought in the cosh, and she knew it. I yielded to her eyes, like I always have, and I began my new life of living by my wits.

I wasn’t trained to live by my wits, because I am educated. There aren’t any wits required in an office. There’s just a steady drip of nothing personal written in the ledgers and you tend them like a gentleman farmer. In a ledger, people are like carrots in a field. There’s a little bit of green showing to keep track of, but it’s the part you don’t see, the part that’s hidden from view, that defines what you are. Our ledgers were the turnrows that looked down the long winding field of useless green that a man waves over his head to prove to the world that he’s still there. When you grab that green and pull it out of the ledger, when you pull that carrot of a man out of the ground, that’s when you see what he’s really made of. The green was nothing. The green is separated, chop, chop, and the part that’s always kept below stairs is consumed. That’s why it’s a rare man that can afford to be pulled from the ledger.

I farmed men in ledgers all the livelong day without a care in the world until the man I worked for said stop. It was all I was good for, to keep track of the little useless tuft of green that testified that there was a man under there. I was pulled from the ledger like any other man and set in the street where a man lives by his wits or perishes. I’m not allowed the luxury of perishing, not with three other faces arranged around my kitchen table, and I have no wits. That is a hard place to find yourself.

I told her not to worry, that I would reason it out. That’s what I’m good for, reasoning it out. I said it like I say everything. Only she heard it. What could I figure out? The clocks ran backwards now, the sun rose in the west, and there were no ledgers to lord over anymore. I might as well have told her not to worry because tomorrow I’d teach myself to be left-handed. I don’t know what to do. How can I learn how to do it?

I took our little all and squandered it on men that said they had the answer. They said they’d let me in on it for a few pennies. These were men that knew how to live by their wits, I thought. I thought correctly, as it turned out. The only way for a man to live by his wits in this world is to find other men that don’t have any. They found me.

She never complained. Never. Sometimes I’d see her linger over the dishes in the sink, her back turned, her head hung down. There was a pause. She’d lean on the sink for a long moment and perhaps you’d hear the plosh of a drop of water that didn’t come from the tap. Then it would pass and she’d wash the dishes again. I never tried to conjure what was passing by the window of her mind. I’m ashamed to admit it but it’s true. I was afraid to think about it. I sat stock still like a coward until the moment passed, every time. There are some fears a man cannot face.

It was her birthday and I had to find something. I had to. I picked over the winter field of our possibilities one more time like a crow. Could I pawn a present from years gone by, when money leapt into my pocket? No, they were pawned already. I couldn’t steal. I could steal for myself, commit murder, even, if not for money, then for spite at least. But I could not steal for her. It would be like taking the washing from the line behind an angel’s house. She must never touch a stolen thing. It was a disease she must not catch from me without knowing.

I laid in the bed like the undertaker put me there, and turned it over in my head. Tomorrow was the very day and I couldn’t pick the lock of my mind to find what I needed. She was on her side, facing the far wall, and I didn’t know if she was asleep or not. Out of nowhere, she spoke like a whisper in a confessional.

“I know your mind. You must not do it. You must not try it. I know what is in your heart. You will want to make a big show of it but I can’t have it. If you robbed a train and bought me a tiara I’d wear it like a crown of thorns. No matter what gimcrack you bought I would have to ooh and aah over it, and keep it where you could see it. The money buried in it would haunt me every day. It would be a shrine to one more meal that the children would never get to eat, shown to me daily like a penance for a sin I did not commit. You must not do it.”

Just like that, the whisper stopped, and I was left to examine the ceiling again.

I would take my own life, you know, put an end to it, and gladly. One big thing, finally, that was more than just talk. Linger below the chin while shaving. Nothing to it. But I can’t leave her alone in this world. I must not do it.

Copyright 2015 Sippican Cottage. All Rights Reserved 

[Update: Many thanks to Chasmatic for his generous contribution to our tip jar. It is much appreciated] 
[Update: Many thanks to Bill O from Tejas for his friendship and generous contribution to our tip jar. It is much appreciated] 
[Update: Thanks to Gerard, Bird Dog, the AVI , and the Execupundit for linking to this essay. It is much appreciated]

I Knew It All Along

“Charlie I been thinking. I shouldn’t but I do. I get to brooding on a thing and then it gets hold of me and worries me to no end until I think it all the way through. We put one foot in front of the other but we never arrive noplace. How can that be? The train, he runs from point A to point B and that’s that, unless the boiler gives out. There’s a bill on the wall in the depot, and it stakes its reputation about the comings and goings of the world and generally turns yellow before it misses. But we never arrive where we’re going even if we hop the train. It doesn’t seem possible but there it is.

“When we walk along the ties we fall into an easy rhythm, don’t we Charlie? There’s nothing else a man can do. You know I’m right in this, Charlie, it’s plain. You remember when you was just an angelina the ties would break your step and confound you and you’d try every kind of thing to beat them at their own game. You’d walk along the edges of the railbed and get poison ivy real good, or find a bramble, or step in a chuckhole, and pruddy soon you’d find yourself back on the ties and counting the anchor plates for amusement, now wouldn’t you? If we had minders we couldn’t be herded any closer. They cut the railbed through the wilderness and it’s the only way from here to there and a man knows it for a fact if he’s not a fool. But we never arrive at anywhere we need to go, do we, Charlie? The rail is laid for another man’s trip but that’s all there is.

“When I was little they took me to the church, Charlie. It was the plain church with no Romans, but I can’t remember the name. The only sign that it was a church, besides how hard the seat felt, was the cross marked on the wall as plainly as the chalk on the curb outside a kind lady’s house, the kind that talks religion and gives food. But they never gave me nothing. Then a feller that looked like reform school got up and took out his watch and set it on a little desk next to a book he never looked at once and started thundering about this and that. He looked me straight in the face and said in our occupations we spread our nets but God brings the fish. I don’t know why he looked at me like that when he said it but he did. He put that sentence on my mind like a mark on cattle and I never forgot it. I didn’t know what it means but it stayed with me.

“I think he meant to tell me that if you got fish in your net then God almighty himself put them there. And I guess that means if you haven’t got no fish that you don’t deserve any. I know upon reflection that was a hard thing to say to the face of boy that hadn’t seen breakfast. Having fish God gave you with his own hand seems to come mighty easy to those with nothing but ink from a bill of sale for the net on their bony fingers, don’t it?

“I’ve been turning it over and over in my mind, Charlie, and I think I had it all backwards. We live in a world where you never arrive no matter how many steps you take. Your destination is never posted in the depot and if you say you’ll go along to another then you find you’re in the wrong place every time, and have to start over again and again.

“I been looking at the nets and the fisherman and I’ve seen the fish on the plate through the window when I’m standing on the sidewalk, Charlie. I don’t know anything except that the fish is never on my plate, Charlie. And I’m beginning to think that the loud feller with the stern face was telling me the opposite of the truth, and doing it on purpose. That’s why he made it hurt. That’s why he left a mark. To keep me rubbing it over and over like a tender spot but not looking at it for fear of it. Like when your tooth is gone you put your tongue in the spot it where it belongs over and over but you never want to see it in the mirror because no man wants to know he’s ugly.

“I’m beginning to see that we’re walking in a world where fish on your plate is a sign that the Devil himself knitted your net. No one has nothing they deserve, Charlie. If you got it, you got it in some underhanded way. Money is the mark of the Devil in this world. What do you think of that, Charlie?”

“I never went to church so I knew it all along.”

That Boy Is The One

 He just sort of appeared there. I never saw any motion; any coming or going.

I must admit, he shook me a little. He was sitting in the pouting chair. That’s what we called the battered settle by the door where we’d sit and smoke and think a bit about what we were doing. Collect your thoughts.

“When in doubt, sweep the floor,” my boss would say. I didn’t understand that fully, then. I thought I was his inferior, and it was all I was good for. But I’d see him doing it, so that couldn’t be it. Even one as dumb as me understood after a while. He was up against it, somehow. Joint wouldn’t pull tight. Glue pot gone cold unexpectedly. A dull blade splintering an edge. Something. He’d sweep like an automaton, and I’d see him turning it over in his mind. Then I understood.

The boss was worms and forgotten. The pouting chair was my place to sort it out. The sun would sneak in the door, open a crack; the sheriff of a breeze would evict my smoke after a while; and I watched the motes of dust drifting through the beam like krill in the sea. The grain ran out. The board had a shake. The wane would rob two inches off the sound edge. Something. It would always come to you –what to do– in the chair.

God, that little round face there in the chair. He couldn’t be more than ten. Strike that. The little heathens in the street always looked years younger than they were. They might be a race of giants sent by our Creator to rule over us all, but who would know? They’d never eaten two meals in the same day.

He sat there all day and said nothing. He didn’t even sniffle. It was as if we had a bargain, unsaid; he didn’t move and I pretended not to notice him. I’d pull off a prodigious curl with jack plane, and wonder if he saw it. Can he pay attention at all? I couldn’t look at him, it would ruin it.

He sat there for four hours, and never moved or spoke. When I got there the next day, he was sitting there again. That boy. That boy is the one.

[Note: I wrote this seven years ago, and didn’t publish it for some very good reason, I’ll just bet]

I Get These Interesting Notions

The candle’s wearing a fishnet stocking and there’s this weird notched dish next to it smoking three cigarettes at a time and I’m drunk.

I get these interesting notions. I’m wondering if the bartender is rinsing out the really dirty glasses by pouring liquor in them and letting drunks slosh it around until they’re clean enough for a sober person. I wonder if naugahyde comes sticky from the factory, or do they install it aftermarket. I wonder why a deaf man loads the jukebox. Is there a floor on the planet — wood, wall-to-wall carpet, packed earth, whatever –where any table in this joint won’t wobble? Two more pony glasses and I’ll be wondering what the gum under there tastes like. I wonder if anyone else is getting the Morse Code S.O.S. in the flickering neon sign.  I wonder if the singer doesn’t like me. No, I know he doesn’t like me because I yelled at him and he yelled back.

There’s a girl at the next table and she’s Juliet just now. But she’s like me, and isn’t about to wait until the third act to start drinking poison. The trouble is, I’ve had five glasses of amber Cyrano de Bergerac and my tongue’s depressed and I’m in the wrong play. What difference does it make, really? I could reel on over and reel her in to empty my wallet and fill my ear, and where does it go? Back to her place to watch her wash off the warpaint and see her go from Juliet to Lady Macbeth quicker than a coffee break in a factory. 

They hate it when you tell them, just there, when you’ve figured out your mistake, that you forgot something in the car, and she points out you took the subway.

Traditional, Now

[Editor’s note: From 2007. Somewhat traditional.] 
{Author’s note: There is no editor. Merry Christmas}

Ginger Ale 

by: Sippican Cottage

I wish it would rain.

No; sleet. Sleet would finish the scene. Rain is cleansing. It washes away the dirt and corruption. No snow either; the fat, jolly flakes just hide it all. Snow can make a fire hydrant into a wedding cake. I want sleet.

I want to pull my collar up, and hunch my shoulders as if blows from an unseen and merciless god were raining down on me. I don’t want a Christmas card. I want the Old Testament.

Old, or new – I knew it. Father and mother would open the Bible to a random page and place an unseeing finger anywhere and use it for their answer to whatever question was at hand. They’d torture the found scripture to fit the problem a lot, but it was uncanny how often that old musty book would burp out something at least fit for a double-take. But any Ouija Board does that, doesn’t it?

It was just cold and bracing. No sleet. I didn’t need to be clear-minded right now. Paul’s tip of the hat to the season, a sort of syphilitic looking tree, hung over your head as you entered the bar like it was Damocle’s birthday, not the Redeemer’s. It was kinda funny to see it out there, because inside it was always the same day and always the same time. Open is a time.

People yield without thinking in these situations. It had been years since I had found anyone sitting on that stool, my place. It was just understood, like the needle in the compass always pointing the same way for everyone. Paul never even greeted me anymore, just put it wordlessly down in front of me as I hit the seat. Some men understand other men.

It was already kind of late. I could bang on those machines like a Fury until the sun winked out, but I didn’t feel like working on Christmas Eve until the clock struck midnight. That’s a bad time to be alone and sober.

“I’m closing early tonight,” Paul said, and he didn’t go back to his paper or his taps. He just stood there eying me. I took the drink.

“You’ve made a mess of this, Paul,” I stammered out, coughing a bit, “What the hell is this?”

“It’s Ginger Ale. You’re coming with me tonight.”

I could see it all rolled out in front of me. Pity. Kindness. Friendship.

“No.” I rose to leave.

“You’ll come, or you’ll never darken the doorstep here again.”

Now a man find himself in these spots from time to time. There are altogether too many kind souls in the world. They think they understand you. They want to help you. But what Paul will never understand is that he was helping me by taking my money and filling the glass and minding his own. It was the only help there was. A man standing in the broken shards of his life doesn’t have any use for people picking up each piece and wondering aloud if this bit wasn’t so bad. They never understand that the whole thing is worth something once but the pieces are nothing and you can never reassemble them again into anything.

I went. Worse than I imagined, really. Wife. Kids. Home. Happy. I sat in the corner chair, rock-hard sober, and then masticated like a farm animal at the table. Paul was smarter, perhaps, than I gave him credit for. He said nothing to me, or about me. His children nattered and his wife placed the food in front of me and they talked of everything and nothing as if I wasn’t there — no; as if I had always been there. As if the man with every bit of his life written right on his face had always sat in that seat.

I wasn’t prepared for it when he took out the Bible. Is he a madman like my own father was? It’s too much. The children sat by the tree, and he opened the Bible and placed his finger in there. I wanted to run screaming into the street. I wanted to murder them all and wait for the police. I wanted to lay down on the carpet and die.

“Ye are the salt of the earth; but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick, and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”He put the children to bed, to dream of the morning. His wife kissed him, said only “good night” to me, and went upstairs. We sat for a long moment by the fire, the soft gentle sucking sound of the logs being consumed audible now that the children were gone. The fire was reflected in the ornaments on the tree. The mantel clock banged through the seconds.

“Do you want something?” he asked.

“Ginger Ale.”

Last Night As I Lay On My Pillow

The man never notices anything because that’s his business — not
noticing. He gave me the key like a bribe. The yellow bulb was gone out
at the door that was my ration. I held a lighter up to the knob and
there were ten thousand stab wounds all around the lock. Thirty years and more of lemme in lemme
in lemme in. You could almost feel the weight of the heavy paper sack in all their other hands.

The clock is banging on the seconds like a railroad spike. I begin to wonder if a man doesn’t really die, just dissolves slowly in the rain. You try alcohol but it’s not a preservative.

There isn’t a floor crooked enough in the whole wide world to make that chair sit flat. You lean at the jalousies and watch the nobodies go nowhere, and smoke. A jalousie apparently only has two sides: dusty and dirty.

There’s people next door going at each other like strangers. They’ll wish they were strangers again soon enough. The other side is teevee teevee teevee.

The neon across the street flashes out of time with the clock and you’d like to meet that man, that neon man. You’d like to meet him like a train meets a cow out on the prairie.

There’s an odd number of pulls on the dresser. There’s an even number of tiles on the ceiling. There’s a smell like the laundry in a funeral home in the bedspread. You know why people smoke now. There’s nothing and nobody in this world but the faint orange spark at the end of your nose. 

Samhain Again

Roaring drunk and carrying salt and iron in the pockets of my cothamore inside-out. No dice. He’ll come again.The soul of the man murdered walks the earth on Samhain when the faerie mounds vomit their wards. I haunt the pubs, a guiser with a mask of bonhomie, but to no effect. He will find me.

You can kill a man every which way. That’s the trouble. You think there’ll be some shade feigning Ellen Terry and holding out a crown and dagger dripping, but murther usually sneaks up on you in this world and haunts you from the next. Did I do that? Is a pillow over a face, sleeping, less a murder than a stick-em-up roscoe to the temple? Are there degrees to it? I don’t think so. I never laid a finger on, but that’s the point. If you put your hand in your pocket when a man reaches for it in familiarity he’s done for. He died alone, but no rutabaga will ward him off me now.

You can starve a man out and say that he died of inanition and who’s fault’s that? I moved his stone in the Samhain ring without touching it. The smoke off the bones from a stranger’s fire could not save him. It had to be me. I offered a cold shoulder and a deaf ear to him and he went away, and now he walks at my elbow like an usher.

Do Nothing For Pity. Do Nothing For Love

I’ve had too much. Shivering by the dumpster. A little whiskey is the only cothamore we’re likely to get, pa always said. Too much is a hole in the roof.

My pa was always waiting on something or somebody under a big hole in his roof. Tugged his forelock and averted his bleary eyes like a peasant for ward heeler or bank teller alike. I thought I’d be a man of action. Not waiting on anything, or anybody. There’d be cannonfire and blood running hot and a furnace of action at all times. But here I am hanging at a dumpster at two AM like any rain dog.

Some men have to make up their minds and screw up their courage time and time again. I don’t get it. With me it was a switch you throw and that’s that. You decide to go this way or that and the road rambles off into the distance but you’ll never see that fork again. What’s the point in trying to back up and read the signs after you’ve blown through the red light in the first place? But the nervous nellies are my bosses, still. I would have stayed at the shipyard and blasted rust forever if I wanted that.

The car will come when my tallow is good and frozen and we’ll roll on over to Mehfeh and take out the trash. No courage needed.  Pa told me, “Do nothing for pity. Do nothing for love.” The bundle in the trunk has to go into the Mystic. Why wait?

Tango D’Amore

Sit and drink and sit and drink and sit.

If she doesn’t show up soon, I swear I’m going to wear this guy’s guts for suspenders. I’m going to take this place apart brick by brick. That’s not much of a boast. The bricks only have a passing relationship to each other anyway. The mortar looks like it was mixed from the stuff in funeral urns and mouthwash. The spiderwebs are structural, installed in the 17th century. The spiders have long since moved to a nicer place, like a sewer or the bottom of a shoe. Columbus’s dandruff is hanging in the stuff.

I grew up in the street and turned out as tough and smart as any hydrant, but around here I’m like a clockmaker. They come and go as they please, and setting a date or a time on something is like lighting candles in church. Might work; who knows? I like the churches here better, too. There’s guys on the walls eating people whole and stabbing them with pitchforks and cooking them in pots. I go in there when the monk’s off and sit among my own kind.

The waitress ain’t half bad –more like three-quarters — but all these dago women sure got some melons in their sacks. I swear they wear brassieres to hold them down, not up. They’d just as soon stab you as tell you to take out the garbage, but that’s half the fun in it, ain’t it? But sleeping with one eye on the door and one eye on the kitchen knives wears a man out after a while. I wish the Germans were still here so I could kill someone and not get yelled at.

When I’m Good And Ready

If I got to go get a roscoe I’ll get me a roscoe and then what? But I don’t need no roscoe for you. This place is nothing but a dunghill, but I’m the cock on top of it, brother. You don’t wanna come down here into my chicks. Ask anybody. You got a razor? I like it when they got a razor or some knuckles. Nothing but a minute’s work and then the Man don’t care what I done to you. But you don’t look like you could do nothing anyway.

You see that car out front? That’s me, brother. I go where I please and I do what I want and there’s no bud dee can tell me different. You cats always be measuring yourself to other peoples but I’m the only yardstick here and you better know it. You don’t know what you don’t know and that’s bad for your health if you get a notion. Why don’t you slide on down the rail and let me be. There’s high test and wimmins enough for everybody after I’m through and gone.

When I’m good and ready.

Tag: flash fiction

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