A speech-language pathologist by training and private consultant by passion, Christina Perry works primarily with Aboriginal students with special needs in northern Manitoba fly-in communities, and still finds time to write when she can.
As he slept he dreamt.
The father sits at the kitchen table. His rough, bruised hands cradled in his lap. The boy and his mother huddle together in a sobbing heap on the floor. There is stillness in the air. The coolness of the cement floor soothes the boy’s skin. He dares not look up as he hears his father stand and shove the chair under the table. Rough hands rifle through his mother’s handbag groping for her purse. His father turns; his hulking frame is silhouetted in the doorway. The purse on the floor by his feet stirs. It stands up on four feline limbs and follows as his father leaves the room. Moments later the front door slams.
Felix woke to the usual foggy confusion and smacked the alarm clock quiet as he hauled himself out of bed. Half-memories of his father weighed down on him. He coughed and spluttered his way into the bathroom. Bloodshot eyes and a wan face stared back from the mirror. Felix attempted a shave. The worn blade nicked his stubbled chin. He reached over for the toilet roll, stumbling on the cat in his way. The cat purred a greeting as it weaved against his bare legs.
“Bloody thing.” Felix spat. Felix’s left boot kicked out, flinging her into the side panel of the bath. Shaking herself, the cat scurried from the bathroom. Felix lurched down the stairs into the kitchen. He built himself a four-decker sandwich for his lunch and placed them into an old shortbread biscuit tin that served as a lunch box. He filled the thermos with hot water before forcing down two cups of strong instant coffee. The cat vibrated like an engine as it massaged its length against the legs of the kitchen table. A bottle of Powers Whiskey and a single tin of Meaty Chunks sat on top of the kitchen table. Felix glanced at the cat’s empty dish and then looked at the cat. The cat dared not meet his gaze. It slunk behind the chair as Felix passed. His rough hands grabbed the door handle and wrenched it open. He stepped out into a bright summer morning.
The foreman Frankie Johnston surveyed the building site. Big day today. The concrete was coming this afternoon and a team of roofers would start on Phase 1 in the top corner. He snuffed out his cigarette butt with his size 14 workboot as he watched Felix O’Hare slinking through the gates. Big Frankie checked his digital watch display: 07:29:57. Just making it as usual.
“Jesus Christ Felix! Are ye late fa school again? Let’s go boy! Get a batch o’ mud out ta tha lads on tha piers first. And shake yerself, thar’s a big concrete load coming this affernoon.”
Felix pulled out the choke and cranked the ancient cement mixer. After a few attempts the powerful two-stroke engine coughed and sputtered awake. The workday began. After wetting the mixer and splashing in some detergent, Felix split bag after bag of cement with the shovel’s blade, turfing rationed shovelful after shovelful of cement and sand into the mixing drum. Looking for the consistency of fresh cow-shit. Not too fresh though. ‘Soup’ the bricklayers would call it, before sending it back with a jeering ‘we’ve had lunch already’. Get the mortar tubs filled and an extra batch in the drum then load out the next lift of scaffold from the night before. “Put…Put…Put” orders the two-stroke. There will be concrete loads in the afternoon. The concrete world and its liquid birth. But that was hours away. Don’t think about the time. It will come. And then pints. Sturdy and dark. Clear and golden whiskies. Anonymous clouds of cigarette smoke.
“Hai Felix, whar tha hell’s the block. Thar’s nathin’ over on thon pier,” barked Frankie pointing.
“Alright. Two seconds. I’ll just throw…”
“What’s wrong wit ya’, get a bale out ta Gordon now!” snapped Frankie. “Are ya hurtin’ a bit today wee lamb?” he mocked before turning and marching back down the site.
Felix pulled out three four-inch blocks from a bale and placed them face-to-face-to-face. He stood them on their headers on the ground. Grasping the top outside corners in his right hand he used his left to flip the blocks up onto his left shoulder. In this fashion he fed out the forty-four block bale into the skeleton of an unbuilt house.
A black cat pulls itself out through the open awning window in the bedroom. Its black fur shining in the afternoon sun. A blue-black cat on the roof of an empty house. Its gleaming eyes scouring the garden below.
It was 12:26 in the afternoon. Felix lit up his last lunchtime cigarette and sucked on it heavily. A red spear of burning tobacco lit up the interior of the lorry container where the men sat on bags of cement. But for Felix's biscuit tin, Tupperware lunchboxes housed the remains of their lunch. For those who had wives, the litter of cling-film or tinfoil had held thick chunks of loaf that had concealed deli ham and cheese topped with lettuce and tomato. Little paper cases that had carried fresh-baked buns from the bakery or even the home oven. Men poured the dregs from their flasks and knocked them back. The spears darkened and cooled to ash, falling to the dust covered floor.
The cat slinks along the boundary wall. Its body stretched low against the coping stones, its ears pulled back. It looks like a furry torpedo. It spies its prey. It slinks forward before shifting its weight to its hind legs. Then it pounces on the black bird below. Today it does not play with its food. It is much too hungry for that.
Felix puffed and strained under the hot afternoon sun. With the other labourers he hauled and grunted. As usual Mooney had grabbed the lorry’s concrete chute and was swinging it out over the parked wheelbarrows filling them to the brim. Each man heaved his barrow up by the worn wooden handles, driving his boot-clad feet into the ground, shoving his load forward on a single rickety wheel. Chunky concrete soup slopped out onto the rutted ground. The men manhandled the mix up planks and around bales of blocks before tipping them into shuttered pits where waiting spades scraped and screeds tamped and leveled. Wheels cleaved a path as load after load harried the line to the pits. A grey juice of water, cement and aggregate slopped from overflowing barrows. The soles of boots clogged in the muddy stew and coarse voices rose in frustration.
Felix trudged through the hours. Shoulders pulled back and arms stretched taut he shoved load after load into the pit. You had to be careful with the concreting. When you got to just the right distance from the pit you had to put the wheelbarrow on its legs and squat down to place the heels of your palms under the handles. If you pushed up with a fluid, balanced motion you would tip the lot smoothly and evenly into the pit. You had to consider distance though. If you parked the wheel too far away some would slop out onto the ground. Not good. Waste. Too close and the wheel could knock out a section of shuttering. Felix whipped the empty barrow around. A splinter dug into his finger. Felix cursed and switched off.
He had been two years old and still in nappies, his mother tells him. He had managed to slip out of his cot and use a stool to open the front door. It was an early winter’s morning. “It was a good job your father hadn’t come home that night” his mother says each time she tells him the tale. “He woulda flailed you alive, ye cheeky monkey” her half-cocked smile tempered with a knowing look. “You were wearing nothing but a nappy, but thank God it was clean. The ground was covered in frost. I never even heard ya going out. It was when I came down for a cup of tea I saw the door open. I was half afraid to go to the door. I didn’t know what’d happened –did your father come back or what. You were in the flowerbed your father’d made at the foot of the garden. You were down on your hands and knees trying to stab the end of a crow’s feather into the hard ground. You were getting frustrated and you’d cut your hands on the hard ground but you kept going. I asked you what you were doing and you told me ‘I want to grow a bird’.” His mother looks at him silently with her hazy eyes. After a time she laughs.
Blood stains the cat’s snowy throat fur. It stretches itself out in the tepid evening sun.
“Much left?” asked Felix. It was the final lorry load. When they got through this it was just a matter of setting up the next lift of scaffolding, stacking some block and redding out the mixer. Then, the pub.
“Still a couple of yards yet Felix”, Mooney answered leaning lazily on the chute. Felix jostled another barrowful up the planks. His shoulder muscles throbbed and his legs ached. The barrow wobbled on its stiff axis. He rounded the bales of blocks and headed for the edge of the pit. The barrow came to a brief rest.
“Just horse her in Felix”, shouted Frankie, supervising operations at the edge of the pit. Felix pulled the barrow around and pointed it into the corner of the pit where the men waited with spades, rakes and screeds. He ran while hunkering down under the barrow, his palms pressed against the underside of the handles. He pushed up hard. The left handle snapped off abruptly and a shard of wood pierced the edge of his hand, drawing blood. The wheelbarrow pivoted on its remaining handle hurling the muddy mix over the ground before careening into the corner of the shuttering. The joint gave way and the barrow flipped into the pit.
“Christ’s sake what ar’ ya at?” roared Frankie. Felix sunk back cradling his hand, looking warily at Frankie.
“Well tha’s what I get hirin’ on an oul drunken bastard. Are ya stupid? Are ya just gonna stand lookin’ at it?” Felix reddened. He could feel all eyes on him. Even the roofers on their perches above seemed to have downed tools to enjoy the spectacle.
“It wouldn’t have happened if you’d have forked out for decent wheelbarrows.” Felix said.
“What did ya bloody say?” challenged Frankie, walking towards him.
“I said you’re a cheap bastard.” replied Felix. He did not see the punch. Just the white flash behind his left eye. He stumbled backwards against a bale of blocks and slumped to the ground.
“Get the hell off my site, ya waster.” He heard Frankie’s booming voice above him. He blinked repeatedly into the sun but could only make out the silhouette of a man looming above him. Rough hands fingered a roll of cash pulling off a few bills and flinging them at him. He pulled himself onto all fours. He touched his temple; he was bleeding. The viscous liquid plopped onto the dusty ground. An industrial blood-brown pudding. He could see the bills now and he snatched them up and stuffed them into his pocket. Head down, Felix scuttled off the site.
Felix opens the gate. Bloody feathers litter the pathway to the front door of his home. He goes inside and puts on the kettle. He stuffs his hand into his pocket retrieving a handful of crumpled and soiled notes. They unravel in his palm. Felix flings them onto the kitchen table. He feels the pressure of his mother’s cat rubbing her sleek body against his calf. He reaches past the bottle of whiskey and lifts the tin of Meaty Chunks from the table and spoons it into Cleo’s dish. Felix huddles down on the cool cement floor and cradles his cat in his rough, bruised hands.
copyright © 2014
When not engaged in torturing blank pages, Shane Mac Donnchaidh converts empty calories into intense bouts of prolonged procrastination.
Bill Black’s Bass
Bill Black’s bass was hot,
but not as hot as the young man with the big beat
who sang and swivelled his way across the stage
feeling the rhythm and blues through every fibre
of his body.
Lean and mean
Sensual devil music!
Lock up your daughters they said
protect them from this evil that has crawled into
the hearts and minds of our young
along with their identity
and a right to belong.
silence would follow
the old ways would be maintained.
His voice opened the door
closed to their generation
and just as Pandora discovered
it can never again be closed.
copyright © 2014
Joan Opie is a teacher and writer who lives quietly with her family in northeast England, currently working on her first children's novel.
Just as I reached for my make-up case I remembered that I forgot to replace the red blood cake that I needed for Act III. I turned to Milton, the youngest actor after myself, who had appointed himself my mentor when I first joined the company.
"Milt. Can I borrow some red cake?"
He shook his head in mild rebuke.
"Will you ever learn to always take care of your basics? How do you expect to succeed on stage if you're not prepared?"
I suppressed a laugh of derision. I knew the future of the company was doubtful at best, even if the old timers refused to admit it. Milton, in his mid-fifties, was still considered a youngster by the rest of the company, all of whom were in their sixties. But he had been helpful from the beginning, following my audition six years ago, at the age of thirty-five. So I listened politely to his usual lecture, then thanked him for lending me his make-up.
It wasn't his fault that I had made a disastrous choice of working in live theater, instead of film or tv, which every practical actor was doing. How was I to know that live performing arts would disappear almost overnight. At first I didn't notice when opera went because of diminishing audiences and rising production costs. I didn't like ballet which was next, followed by classical music. I wondered if all those longhairs would be playing rock or country. It was no surprise that Broadway musical theater producers held out the longest. After all, musicals were the most accessible of the performing arts. The producers blamed the unions for their failure, claiming extravagant salaries and benefits that made production impossible. But nobody believed them. It wasn't labor's fault, or even greedy producers. The audiences were gone.
I still found it hard to believe that an aging population, with reduced incomes, preferred to watch large screen tv, rather than performances, even though they couldn't compete with film's sophisticated technology. Theater's more primitive efforts in trying to be hi-tech couldn't compare to dazzling cinema computer effects, and audiences were no longer very excited by new musicals, many of which sounded alike. I guess the only reason museums survived was that visitors could zip through quickly, take some photos, then be on their way after a short, painless dose of culture.
So why didn't I have my head examined before I chose live theater? Because I loved it and I was too dumb to recognize that its day was over. As my company's audiences got smaller and smaller, their unenthusiastic heads got greyer and greyer. I had started a lottery to guess the age of the youngest member of the audience by the color of their hair. This outraged the sensibilities of my fellow performers, whose original hair color was long past its heyday. But we were doing it a few weeks later and Milton was the first winner, picking a full crop of black hair on a well-preserved 50 year-old.
Our biggest problem, besides our looming demise, was play selection that our dwindling subscription audience would accept. They were adamantly opposed to young love, romantic comedy, high tragedy, social issues or anything emotionally disturbing. This eliminated most of the classics, so we did a lot of Moliere, Restoration comedy and this season we were daringly presenting Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, our current production. As the youngest male, I was type cast as Marc Anthony and I had actually noticed a few nods that might have been approval for my performance among the dozing heads. I didn't expect much more. We were not getting the love from our audience that actors crave.
I don't know what I'll do when the company folds. Gretchen, the venerable artistic director, who always babbled about the struggles of Stanislavski during the Russian Revolution, promised us one more season. I doubt that. For the last two weeks we had very small houses at every performance, even Saturday nights, less than half a house, once the height of choice of theater goer's excursions. I'm probably too old, at 41, to break into any meaningful tv roles. I don't even have an agent. I don't have any marketable skills, not even bartending. My only shot at making a living on tv would be doing commercials, if I had an agent. If I got jobs.
I'll probably spend the rest of my life as a waiter, as long as there are half decent restaurants, and I'm fit enough to carry a tray. I can't blame anyone for my poor career choice, so I'll do the best I can to survive. And I must confess, even though I don't dare say it to the rest of the company, I still get a thrill going on stage, even if the audience doesn't.
copyright © 2014
Beck came, Beck saw, Beck wrote.
The crack of the bat was not as crisp as it once had been. The hitter's hand-eye coordination, the pitcher's velocity, the right fielder's hearing: all had diminished to the point that the fielder, Blaine Crockett, heard only a soft 'plunk' as the ball was lifted skyward almost gently off the bat to trace a lazy parabola against the slow drift of the low gray clouds. Blaine could feel the creaking in his knees as he began to give laborious chase toward the first base foul line. What would have been a routine pop fly to anyone under fifty became for Blaine a treacherous athletic endeavor, arthritis and shortness of breath conspiring against his will. But no way was Blaine Crockett going to let this ball drop in for a hit. He'd be damned if that son of a bitch Harold Sonnenfeld was going to reach base on his watch. When the pain in six different joints had subsided, Blaine looked down at the off-white, grass-stained ball in his glove.
As what passed for a sprint turned to a jog, then finally to a few slow steps before stopping completely, Harold Sonnenfeld stared in disbelief and disgust. Blaine Crockett, that bum, had caught what rightfully should have been good for at least two bases. As Harold, amid a smattering of applause, good-natured cat calls, and laughter headed back to the bench along the first base line, he shot another glance back out toward right field at that smug, arrogant bastard. Enjoy it while you can, thought Harold, your turn is coming. Harold plotted his vengeance as the next hitter, Sam Castledown, his self-deprecating grin as big as his swing, struck out to end the inning. Grabbing his glove and trotting out to third base, Harold decided against his first idea, which was to try and talk pitcher Herb Pehrlmann into sticking a fastball in the fat jackass' ear. No, Harold thought, much better to keep one's own counsel in these matters. Maybe slash a couple of Crockett's tires. Throw a mess of chicken bones over the fence to his dogs. Turnabout being fair play, Harold was suddenly sorry that Crockett's wife had passed away the previous year. He doubted his own ex would be brazen enough to make an appearance today. The old saying 'sweating like a whore in church' popped into his mind. He looked at fat, sweaty Blaine Crockett jogging in from right field, and seethed.
Herb Pehrlmann could never be sure when his body might at last betray him. The likelihood of rain had been secretly revealed to him that morning by way of a dull throb in his right shoulder, well before the more threatening clouds began to move in. Of course, a rain-shortened game meant he might be able to go the distance and avoid the embarrassment of having to take himself off the mound. This is a serious consideration when you are married to an attractive woman half your age long enough for the initial stages of passion to have burned out. For her at least. He sneaked a peak into the stands along the third base line. Giao Pehrlmann was indeed a fine figure of a woman, seated perfectly erect beneath a large white floppy hat, her finely chiseled features accentuated by the large, impenetrable sunglasses that rendered her already neutral expression all the more inscrutable. Her long, delicate hands lay folded and still in her lap, below which her sundress revealed, from the knees down, a pair of smooth, unblemished legs. Herb turned back and stared in toward the plate. Blaine Crockett was stepping into the batter's box, digging in with his back foot and tapping the plate with his bat. As he began his windup, Herb recalled the twenty year old rumors about Blaine Crockett and Harold Sonnenfeld's ex-wife. In a complex series of associations that crashed through his mind in less time than it took to deliver a pitch, Herb Pehrlmann suddenly, if only momentarily, saw Blaine Crockett as a threat. Every domestic insecurity of his own helped shape his moral uncertainties regarding Blaine and Harold into a fine, unappeasable outrage at the very notion of infidelity. As soon as the ball left his hand, a look of shock and surprise crossed Herb's face, for he now realized what he had unwittingly done. He watched helplessly, as if events were unfolding in slow motion, as his most ferocious fastball shot plate-ward, directly at the head of Blaine Crockett.
When he awoke in the hospital the next day, Sam Castledown's first thought was that he owed a debt of gratitude to the man who had invented the batting helmet. He looked out the window of his room onto a steady downpour, the occasional clap of thunder the day's only syncopation to accompany the regular beat of the rain against his window. If the rain could have only started earlier.
Everything had happened so quickly and without warning, as Sam, as absent-minded as he was affable, so still wearing his batting helmet, stood at first base lazily kicking at the dirt and, from an angle available only to him, looking directly up the dress of Giao Pehrlmann. He turned back just in time to see Blaine Crockett fall back flat on his butt as Herb Pehrlmann's errant pitch floated harmlessly overhead toward the backstop.
"Son of a bitch!” screamed Blaine, leaping to his feet and charging, not as Sam would have expected, toward the mound, but instead down the third base line. Sam looked toward third and saw Harold Sonnenfeld slam his glove to the ground.
“Fucking bastard!” Harold shrieked, red-faced with a rage of which Sam had thought him incapable. As they collided like a pair of geriatric bulls halfway down the line, Herb Pehrlmann joined the fray, though on which side Sam was at that point unclear. As fists, feet, and curses flew, Sam noticed that somehow Herb had obtained Blaine's bat. Momentarily stunned by the unexpected eruption of violence, members of both teams finally began trotting, hobbling, limping, and strolling toward the combatants. Sam, who wished only to get in a friendly ball game before the rain and socializing started, rushed forward, hoping to restore peace and, if possible, continue playing. He was quite unprepared, when he reached them, for wild-eyed Herb Pehrlmann to wheel around suddenly and, without apparent reason, forethought, or even awareness, bring the bat squarely down on his head, ending his day in the field, and ending for everyone else there the dream of innocent afternoons spent playing beneath a lazy sun.
copyright © 2014