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The Future of Zero Tolerance: The Collected Short Stories of Neil Baker

The Future of Zero Tolerance: The Collected Short Stories of Neil Baker

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The Future of Zero Tolerance: The Collected Short Stories of Neil Baker

Lunghezza:
643 pagine
9 ore
Editore:
Pubblicato:
Feb 13, 2014
ISBN:
9781491807491
Formato:
Libro

Descrizione

Absurdity, social realism, and the indepth examination of the human condition are but a few of the themes that comprise the contents of the seventythree short stories breathing menacingly between the covers of this book. Humor attacks surrealism on a landscape sun-saturated with saintly thought and intense clarity creations first simple act of pure effervescence getting drowned.
Editore:
Pubblicato:
Feb 13, 2014
ISBN:
9781491807491
Formato:
Libro

Informazioni sull'autore

Neil Baker is a novelist, short story writer, poet, artist, and a world renowned psychic. Neil also holds a degree in Psychology and has been a psychodramatist for a private psychiatric hospital. Neil has also managed a theater, candy store, golf store, All Night 7-11 and a motel. He has been a Child’s Activities Director, Senior Director, gravedigger and Big Foot tracker and has accomplished this variety of roles while maintaing a somewhat questionable existence within the severe, physical contours of the earth.

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The Future of Zero Tolerance - Neil Baker

birdies.

1969

The Man Who Watched TV

H AROLD SAT IN his maroon-green cushion chair with a beer in one hand and a bag of family pack potato chips in the other. His donkey-brown hair was chopped off around his ears, and the little bit that was allowed to grow was combed straight down over his forehead. His left arm was buried up to the elbow in the potato chip bag, and his right hand clutched the beer can at his side like a statue clutches a spear. He was looking straight ahead with a pair of bulldog eyes that puffed out of their sockets at a black and white blinking television set. His hand slowly emerged form out of the bag with a burnt chip in it, and without shifting his eyes from the television, Harold popped the crunchy morsel into his mouth.

Aren’t cha gonna look for a job today, Harold? his wife asked, slouching over him, wiping off a wet stoneware plate.

I dunno. Maybe, Harold said.

Well don’t cha think you oughta? I mean, after all Harold. You’ve been outta work for a month. I mean, after all, Harold.

I dunno. Maybe I will later.

Why don’t cha call up Mr. Clemenko at the employment office and see what he has for you today?

Yeah. Maybe I’ll do that. Harold brought the can of beer up to his thick, dry lips and sharply flung his head back. The fat on the back of his neck rolled into blubbery ripples that left red marks in his skin after he straightened out. Ya got the time, hon?

It’s five to 2, Mrs. Howley said from the kitchen. My gosh, time flies. It’s been four hours since Jeffery called from Phoenix. You think that cough of his is very serious, Harold?

Nah, Harold said between the crunching of another potato chip. Jeffery was his son, and now that he was twenty-nine and had a business of his own up in Phoenix, Harold didn’t worry about him too much. He set the can down on the table and dug out the TV Guide from underneath his leg. It was all crumbled up.

Harold was wearing a pair of checkerboard Bermuda shorts and a purple tank top that did a poor job of holding in his stomach. Where the short t-shirt ended, Harold’s bottomless belly button began. He searched in the TV guide for Tuesday, August 27th and scanned over the black and white reruns under 2 PM.

PRICE IS RIGHT

LEAVE IT TO BEAVER

GALE STORM

A Movie: THE CLIMAX

Harold hated game shows, liked situation comedies, but loved old movies. This sounded like a good one:

A mad doctor (Boris Karloff) gives the Svengali treatment to a young, gorgeous dancer because she looks like his old flame whom he had murdered years ago by poisoning and drowning in the L.A. River.

Without so much as a smile, Harold lifted himself up off his maroon-green cushion chair and turned to channel 13. The movie was just beginning, a jumpy, scratchy, black and white RKO production.

Harold, his wife sang from the kitchen. Aren’t cha gonna call up Mr. Clemenko?

In a minute, Harold answered.

At 3:20 the television was blinking too rapidly to see the picture, and Harold was snoring with his bare feet propped up on the couch. Mrs. Howley had just finished waxing the bathroom floor and was wringing out the mop into a bluewater toilet. After hanging the mop up to dry, she went and stood over by the kitchen window and gazed out into her small backyard, a small face in a small frame, wondering what will happen now? With her husband out of work and no money coming in, what will happen now?

A man with a bald head was holding a black object in his hand. He was running along a rocky cliff. Two hundred feet beneath him was the ocean, crashing against the jagged stones. It was nighttime. The man was running, panting, chasing somebody rather than being chased. The bald headed man retreated into the darkness. A light flickered. A woman was now running along the cliff, stumbling against the stones. Her long dress was torn across her collarbone and down her hip. She had wavy, blond hair, and she was very beautiful. Every time she stumbled she groaned and whined. Finally, she twisted her ankle and could go no further. She lay on her back, her expression contorted with fear. The bald headed man was now visible in the moonlight. He drew upon the helpless woman.

His lip was curled upward, revealing a row of pointed teeth. He shook with laughter, pointing the black object to her head. A shot rang out in the night. The bald headed man looked as though he’d just swallowed a bug. For a second all was still. Then, very slowly, the bald headed man tumbled over the cliff to his rocky, wet death below. Somewhere in the night, violins cried out for joy. A trumpet sounded its high, shrilling call of victory into the starry sky. A tall, dark, handsome man emerged from the bushes holding a pistol that was still smoking. He dropped it in the grass. The woman’s ankle was better. She got up and ran into his arms. They embraced as a big white "The End" fell across their faces.

It was 5:00 in the morning. Harold was awake, sitting up in his maroon-green cushion chair chewing a carrot. The living room was glowing in the television light. The only movie on at this early hour was in black and white.

EARLY TO BEDA sleepwalking husband is first suspected of jewelry robbery, then murder.

Harold laughed at the TV Guide. That sounded like a good one.

He got up and switched the channels over to 5. But for some reason the movie wasn’t on. A man with a black patch over his left eye looked out of the glass frame into Harold’s glowing living room instead. He was smiling at Harold, just as though he could see him, and he was in living color. Out of curiosity, Harold decided to leave the channel on.

The man was speaking, but it took a few seconds for Harold to focus in on his words. He sat back down in his maroon-green cushion chair with the carrot in one hand and the TV Guide in the other and stared into the man’s smiling face. His lips were working rapidly, and his one blue eye gleamed like fire. Harold had begun to pick up a few words like fair, morning fog, seventy-one degrees, and he gathered that the smiling one-eyed man in his television set was a weather newscaster.

After making this somewhat bland discovery, Harold’s eyes wandered back down into his television guide at the listings for the new summer day:

OZZIE AND HARRIETHairs stand on end when David takes up motorcycle racing.

LEAVE IT TO BEAVERWard and June pull every string to get Beaver to take a bath.

Later on in the afternoon, Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, and Kirk Douglas starred in the THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS and immediately following that, Rod Steiger starred in THE PAWNBROKER. And then on into the evening there would be all the situation comedies and detective shows for Harold to catch followed by dinner, a long doze, and more black and white 1940 flicks.

Harold’s vision went back to the television, and his weary bulldog eyes showed nothing but boredom for the one-eyed weatherman in the tube. He was pointing with a long stick to a chart showing the highs and lows for Burbank, San Fernando Valley, Hollywood, Long Beach, and his smile continued to gleam as though he were auditioning for a part in a toothpaste commercial. Harold leaned forward and the base of his stomach dropped out from underneath his tank top. He scratched at the black, wiry hairs sprouting around the cave of his belly button, lifted himself up, and shuffled over to the refrigerator.

The cold light from inside the refrigerator illuminated his face, shining him up like a fat ghost, his bulging eyes slowly and carefully scanning through the racks and trays of his treasure chest. Cold roast beef left over from last night. Cold scalloped potatoes. Cold peas with the butter frozen on top like paste. Beer. Fruit. A half of a Milky Way candy bar. Harold gobbled down everything straight out of the box, his greasy fingers sliding in and out of his mouth. He gurgled down a can of beer, and his Adam’s apple twitched and squirmed like a little animal caught in his throat. Harold set the empty can down on top of the sink and barked out such a belch that the television started to blink. He stomped his foot to the floor, and instantly the flapping picture steadied to a halt.

The one-eyed weatherman was now sitting behind a long desk, reading from a sheet of paper. But something seemed to be wrong. Something was different about the man. He was no longer smiling. His lips were tight—his hands were trembling—the expression in his one blue eye was like the blue color in a lighted match, a little dancing flame. Harold didn’t think too much about it. He went over and looked out of the small frame of the kitchen window into the cold hour of the morning.

It wasn’t at all quiet outside. A plane roared overhead. A dog howled in a nearby yard. A siren screamed down a boulevard. It was never quiet in the city. For every person who slept, there was always someone awake to take their place; for people who had already found their destinations, there were those still flying in search of theirs; for tired travelers who parked their cars and slipped their weary selves into lighted motels, there was always that one still driving in the dark, still looking for another lonely silhouette to talk to, another cold body to lay with.

The neon lights from the bars and the restaurants, and the bowling alleys and the theatres and the bright streetlamps stole away the natural dark blue of the sky and the thousands of stars, and left it instead with a milky-white film of dust, with the exhaust of cars and the smoke of factories and the steam arising from a billion existing bodies fighting for survival in a limited amount of space.

And then there was Harold—leaning in his lonely kitchen, his puffy face filling up the frame, his refrigerator door ajar, and the light from inside bursting to get out, his television glowing, his wife silently sleeping in the darkened bedroom on the other side of the wall. All so comprehendible and yet all so meaningless. The siren passed, the dog stopped barking, and Harold turned around and faced his lighted TV.

The one-eyed man looked as though he had aged ten years since Harold last glimpsed his lively face. His lips now sagged at the corners, his forehead wrinkled, and the blue flame that had once been in his eyes was now gone, washed out.

Harold fell back in his cushion chair digging out a string of roast beef from between his teeth with the ball of his tongue. The man was speaking of things other than the weather. Harold turned his ears off and on at random as he looked to see what was on at 6 o’clock.

… we are living in the years of first-run, live, on-the-spot news—man taking his first step on the moon—the assassination of a presidential candidate—riots from Watts—bombings from Ireland …

Harold read through the listing for 7:00—CAPTAIN KANGAROO. ROMPER ROOM. FLINSTONES.

… we have seen more things happen in the past five years than we saw all during the forties and fifties and sixties …

8:00 PM—LUCY SHOW. YOGI BEAR. HAZEL.

"… and so, in accordance with this new trend of on the spot happenings …"

9:30 PMDENNIS THE MENACE. JACK LALANNE. MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY.

… ladies and gentlemen, here is another first for your viewing pleasure …

Harold turned the page of his TV Guide:

12:00 PMFLIGHT TO NOWHERE. 1946. With Alan Curtis and Jack Holt.

Harold looked up just in time to see the one-eyed man point a black object to his head and heard a sharp bang. A spurt of red splattered on the screen, and the one-eyed man lunged forward. Men were shouting off-camera, Oh my God! Get that damn picture off the screen! And for one long second, Harold watched in shock the moistening head and the bloodstained shoulders of the one-eyed man leaning across his desk.

Someone knocked the camera and the lens turned to the sound stage, a jungle of microphones and wires, and one man running into the picture yanking off his earphones, and the clamor of men’s frightened screams.

The picture transferred to static—thousands of swirling black dots racing across the screen like so many frightened ants.

Harold sat stunned in his maroon-green chair. It had to have been a mistake, he thought. A mistake … a mistake … he couldn’t have … Harold couldn’t swallow. His Adam’s apple had swelled and filled the whole of his throat. He let the TV Guide fall to the rug. The static on the television grew louder and louder. The dots swirled faster and faster. Harold couldn’t get up. He couldn’t move. He just sat there.

An hour later, Harold’s wife came into the living room, wrapping her bathrobe around her. She found her husband sitting in his chair with his bulldog eyes staring listlessly at the television screen as it blinked … blinked … blinked …

1970

Open Black Well

H OV LOOKED UP at the sun and thought about Pa’s house, the silver wood and yellow paint, the crumbled bricks on the chimney, the upstairs and the downstairs and the carpeted staircase, Pa’s smelly room, and how the smell was carried into his room when ever Pa’s door was left open. It made him mad to think of it, very mad because he was forced to remain at home.

Ya needs a bath, Hov. Pa say ya needs a bath right now.

I don’t needs no bath.

Pa says ya do and I say so too. Ya beginnin’ to smell like dog shit.

Then stuff your nose with your fingers, Job, because I ain’t takin’ no bath. Now or no time.

I’ll tell Pa ya says that. Soon as he comes outta his room. I tell him just what ya says.

Hov looked up at the sun and back again at Job.

Someday I’ll cut your tongue out, boy, and throw it down that black well. That’s just what I’m aimin’ to do someday. Job stepped to the edge of the porch. He made a gesture to stick his tongue out at Hov but instead closed his mouth and looked down at his bare foot.

Ick!

Hov turned around and saw Job dancing like a coyote caught in a snare. He looked down at Job’s foot and saw the biggest, blackest cockroach he’d ever seen. Hang on you measly critter. Ride him! Ride him! Job jumped off the front porch and kicked his foot into the dust. In a few seconds, it was all over.

I hate them bugs, Job said. Last time I’ll see that one.

Hov plotted himself down on the two front steps and poked his finger down a large round hole. Too bad that couldn’t have been a rattler. I might have seen you dance a little longer. Not everyday I get to see little Job dance.

Hov Miller, ya go take ya bath. Pa ain’t havin’ nobody sit at his table smellin’ like dog shit.

Hov watched Job go into the house and then studied his own hands and arms. Don’t look dirty. He sailed his tongue around his lips. Don’t taste dirty. He stuffed his nose under his arms. Don’t smell dirty, neither.

Hov Miller. Get in here and take ya bath, or I’ll smart your bottom clear down to the bone! That was Pa’s voice. Hov dashed through the front door and conquered the ten steps in just three bounces. The need for a bath was now freshly upon him.

*     *     *

Night comes with the fog out in the Alabama wood. Night comes with the cricket, toad, snake, and coyote. For Hov and Job, night comes when Pa drives fifteen miles and doesn’t return until way after sunup. Hov remembered the feel of the town. When Ma was alive, she used to take him there.

Hov and Job slept in the same room. There were three bedrooms in the house, and Pa left orders for each to sleep in their own bedroom, but Job always got scared when Pa left for town. Hov felt sorry for Job and remembered how Ma used to baby Job before she died.

When we wake up, Job said, I sure hope we don’t find Pa lyin’ on the kitchen floor and smellin’ fierce. Job cuddled under the covers and lay close to Hov. Hov faced the lantern, the only thing that was keeping the room from turning total darkness.

Someday I’ll follow him into town and smash every liquor bottle I see.

Hov Miller, you better not go into town. Remember what Pa said about the zombie man, and how he’ll eat ya up but good if ya try to leave.

Zombie man. Zombie man. Zombie man. There ain’t no zombie man. You never see Pa getting’ eaten up by no zombie man whenever he leaves, do you?

But Pa say zombie man eats only boys and girls.

Funny diet for a zombie man. We’re the only boys round these wood parts, and we ain’t been eaten up yet. This here zombie man must be starved to death.

Job turned around and faced the back of Hov’ s head. Ya never go off and leave me, will ya, Hov?

Not if ya done come with me.

I can’t. Pa needs me here to cook for him. And I couldn’t leave. That zombie man would get me, sure enough.

Good night, Job.

Ya tired?

Tired of talkin’ to a sissy, I am.

Hov, before ya go asleep, tell me ’bout the time ya came to the well.

I told ya a dozen times already.

I know.

Hov turned away from the lantern and faced Job. It was funny, he thought, that Job would want to keep hearing the story over and over again when he was so much against Hov ever leaving sight of the house. Like I said before. It was a night when Pa was gone and you was asleep, and I just crept out of the house with the lantern. Hov cut off the lantern’s light and the room was black. He vividly remembered the well. I started walking for a long time, crossed a river ‘til I come to some bricks that went round in a circle. I knew that it was a well ’cause Ma told me ’bout them and how if you throw a penny down it, you get to make a wish.

But Pa say the zombie man lives in the well.

The zombie man don’t live in the well but I know there’s something down’er. Something …

Job quickly jumped out of bed and ran to the window.

Pa’s home! Job said.

Hov! Hov Miller. Y’all come down here. Ya hear me? Pa’s voice came from downstairs. Hov, wearing only white underwear, rose from the bed.

Ya hear me, boy? Come on down here. Now!

Hov grabbed his stomach. Pa’s been drinkin’ again.

Hov Miller, his father screamed, Ya bastard. I’s comin’ up to get ya. I’m gonna kill ya. I’m gonna kill ya.

Hov lighted up the lantern and started to put on his white overalls. Pa will kill me, Job. He really will. He’s always hated me. Never knew why, but he does and that’s for certain. He slipped on his tennis shoes and pulled the zipper of his jacket to his chin. Where’s the rope? Where’s the rope I made?

What ya want the rope for? Job asked.

I need it now. Where is it?

Job crawled under the bed and handed Hov a rope curled twenty times around. Hov could hear Pa struggling up the steps, cussing feverishly.

I’ll have to jump from the window, Hov said. Hurry, Job. Lean against the door. Pa’ll be up any second.

Where ya going?

Gotta leave. Pa will kill me.

But where?

Hov picked up the lantern. He put the rope around his shoulder. The knife? Where’s my huntin’ knife?

There was a loud rumbling. Hov put his ear against the door. Sounds like Pa fell down the steps. Hov placed his hands tightly upon Job’ s elbows. You listen here boy, Hov said. Pa won’t hurt you. It’s me he wants. Hov caught sight of the hunting knife on the wooden dresser.

Job watched Hov as he started to climb out the window. Hov Miller—where ya going’? Ya not goin’ down’er …

At that moment, the door burst open and Job, along with the bedroom door, went crashing to the floor. Pa’s silhouette hunched over the entrance with a sawed off shotgun in his hands.

Where’s the bastard? Pa yelled. Where’s the bastard?

Job crawled to the corner of the room and looked at the open window. The cold, Alabama air hit his cheeks He’s gone, Pa. He’s gone out the window.

*     *     *

Hov ran for what seemed like hours. The rope was curled around his shoulders, and he held the knife and lantern in his hands. It was dark and it wasn’t long before Hov’s troubled mind distorted all sense of direction. Right from left? North from South? The path is cut off here; it is continued over there. To help clear his senses, Hov tried to remember a song his ma sang to him when he was a little boy.

Zombie man

Zombie man

Pick-a-me-a-day.

Make me a wish

When I come-a-your-a-way.

Hov repeated the song over and over again in his mind. He found that it made him less tense, and he was able to concentrate more on traveling.

It was difficult for Hov to hold the large hunting knife and lantern in his hands.

The air was cold and the weight of the rope, knife, and lantern pained his muscles. He stopped to rest under an oak tree and thought about Pa. Pa’s too crazy to walk straight through the dense wood, but he’s also crazy enough to try it. Hov stood up and with the aid of the lantern found the path that jetted into the blackness.

Ahh! Hov screamed and looked down to see that he had just stepped on a coppertail encoiled around a forest rat. The rat’s brown eyes stared blankly at Hov’s heart. Hov blew an air of relief and walked long way around the coppertail. He then cut through the tall brush with his hunting knife, minding to keep a safe distance from the snake.

Hov attempted to relocate himself. He looked up at a full moon and detected a face on its surface. The wet Alabama ground and the loose mud soaked his tennis shoes to a murky black. He tried to brush the mud off but only got his hands dirtier in the process. Moments went by before he decided to follow in the direction of the moon.

The trail dropped quickly and Hov heard the gushing of running water. He started down a small hill, gained speed, tripped, and stumbled the rest of the way down.

Before him was a large river, current strong, but not strong enough that he couldn’t cross it. Hov suddenly stood up and looked about the river. This was the same body of water he had crossed to get to the well. He was heading in the right direction! Hov was so happy that he glanced up at the moon and tried to say something fitting to that old face, but all he could do was howl.

It was a miracle that the mad run down the hill did not destroy the lantern’s light. The rope was still hanging around his shoulder, but he had misplaced his knife. There was no time now to look for it. The hill was high and long, and the knife could be anywhere. He would have to leave it behind.

But wait! Up at the top of the hill, caught in the moon’s glow, Hov saw a tall, lumbering form silhouetted abstractedly against the sky. It was Pa!

Hov Miller. I see down’er! I know where ya goin’ and I’m gonna kill ya when I get ya.

Hov adjusted the rope around his shoulder. Pa was striding down the hill in long, sloppy steps. Hov panicked and jumped into the river. The water was freezing, and he lost grip of the lantern. He watched as it was carried downstream until it abruptly disappeared. Pa was almost at the water’s edge now, and he had his shotgun with him and was firing away. Hov swam with all his might to the other side of the river. He thought he felt something whiz past the top of his head, but he figured it was only the force of the strong current.

There were long weeds growing along the bank, and Hov was able to pull himself up on solid ground. He gagged and spit up some of the river. His clothes were heavy with water, and he was forced to crawl into the underbrush.

There was no time to rest. Hov had to get to the well. He knew that Pa couldn’t get him there and that he would be safe once he was at the bottom of it.

Hov cursed at the idea of having been born in the first place as he half-crawled through the Alabama wood. Thirteen years he had to live in that house. He felt sorry for Job and wondered what he would do when he grew to be thirteen years old. He sure hoped that Job wouldn’t have to leave home the way he did.

The moon was crawling too, and Hov knew that the darkest part of the evening was yet to come. His pants were ripped down the left leg, and there was dried blood on the arm of his jacket. The moon had gone behind the trees now, and it took a while before Hov’s eyes adjusted to the new blackness. He fingered his greasy black hair and tried to squeeze the throbbing out of his head. He put his fingers to his face and saw bits of fresh blood. Hov looked back in what he thought was the direction of home and started crying, but he didn’t know what he was crying for.

Hov walked for what seemed like hours, occasionally turning around to make sure Pa wasn’t close behind. He wondered if Pa had ever crossed that river and decided that if he had come this far, he probably had. He quickened his pace until his mind could not keep up with his feet. There was a rustle in the underbrush. He looked up and tripped over a large rock. His body went crashing to the ground, and he lay on his back, arms and legs kicking in the air.

Hunger and fatigue tore at Hov’s stomach like it tore at every creature’s stomach in the Alabama wood. There was no time to look for food now, but Hov knew that his hunger would be satisfied once he was at the bottom of the well. He tried to keep his mind preoccupied with thoughts and found for some strange reason that he had forgotten his name. An owl, perched upon an overhanging branch, hooted down at him. Then he remembered. Hov was his name. Hov Miller.

The wood was quiet when Hov finally reached the well. Even the wind had stopped breathing on Hov’s neck. Every living thing around him seemed as if they had all been picked off the face of the earth by a giant hand. Hov thought of Pa and the zombie man—and if that zombie man really existed, How was sure he would see him now.

Now, upon reaching his destination, Hov crawled up to the well. It looked like a mushroom chopped off at the top with but the stem remaining. The bricks were cold and dry, and when Hov looked down into the hole with the aid of the lantern, he could see no bottom, only the blackness, and more black.

Off in the distance, Hov could now hear Pa grunting and growling like a bloodthirsty animal. How had to make it down that well. He knew he’d be safe once he was at the bottom.

Hov looked around for a strong branch. He would have to break the branch off of a tree with a rock. He found a rock large enough and a branch strong enough, and started pounding the rock against the base of the branch. His fingers got in the way once and were crushed between the rock and tree. Tears welled up in his eyes, and he bit down on his lip, giving the branch three good whacks until it snapped under his blows. He leaned against the branch with all the weight of his body until both he and the branch snapped to the ground.

The branch was at least six feet long. Long enough to place against the mouth of the well and strong enough to hold him. Hov picked the rope up off the ground, which had fallen off his shoulder when he slammed his body against the tree. He tied the end of the rope around the middle of the branch and secured it in a knot; then he carried the branch over to the well and set it across its circumference. The rope must have dropped at least twenty feet into the blackness of the well. It would be long enough, Hov thought.

About two hundred yards down the path, Hov could hear Pa’s heavy movements. He was happy that he could hear Pa; total silence was too much to bear.

The black in the well lay still and quiet, waiting, patiently waiting. Hov thought how stupid it was for Job to believe the zombie man really existed. Pa’s fault, he thought. Pa’s the one that done it to him.

Hov held on to the middle of the branch and let his tiny feet fall into the well. His movement disturbed the blackness so that it swam about his feet and tucked at his pants. He was glad he picked such a strong branch, for the black sucked at him like a tornado. Hov let his shoes fall off his feet and listened for the end of their fall.

A few seconds passed and he still hadn’t heard anything. They’re rubber, he thought. Rubber don’t make much noise.

The sky was hazel brown. It was the time when both the moon and the sun had disappeared from the sky, and it was hard to distinguish whether it was going to be another night or a new day. Hov coiled the rope around his body and slowly descended into the well. Hand over hand, legs bent, then spread straight downward. Hov Miller took the climb slow and easy.

Hov looked up and could still detect the mouth of the well and the dimly lit sky. Pa can do nothing now, he thought. Hov swung back and forth on the rope. He hit the sides of the well and it felt strangely like solid, natural earth. He looked up—all he saw was black now, all around him total blackness.

Hov held on to the rope and remained very still. It was warm inside the well. Hov felt welcomed. Finally, he had come to the end of his rope. He closed his eyes but discovered it did not make much difference. He let the blackness bathe his temples and strip him of his soul. He held on longer. Then quietly and gently, Hov Miller let go of the rope.

His body collided against the sides of the well. He nearly did a complete somersault in the black, liquid space. And when at last he hit the bottom, his head and body curled up into a ball. Hov Miller didn’t even make a sound.

Have You Heard About Bobby?

O NE MORE TIME and I’m going to whack your head off! Mrs. Romney hovered over Michael, magazine rolled up in her hand. Michael’s head was tucked into his shoulders, expecting to feel it fly off at any second. He had hit his little play-friend Barbara again when she wouldn’t give him back his crayons, and now Barbara was crying, and Mrs. Romney’s face was flushed like a devil. Mrs. Seeton, Barbara’s mother, was leaning in from the kitchen, her face contorted in sympathy.

Oh, don’t hit him, Cathy. I’m sure he’s sorry. Aren’t you sorry, Michael?

Michael could barely nod his head it was tucked down so far.

Oh, he’s always hurting something, Mrs. Romney said. What he needs is to get hurt back and see what it feels like. Michael! I ought to really whack your head off! Now, you play nicely with Barbara, or you can just go to your room. You hear me?

Michael’s bottom lip was curled out, and his eyes were looking off to the side. He managed to say yes, but he was still too humiliated and embarrassed to make any big movements in front of his audience.

O.K. Cathy. He won’t do it again. Come on. Your coffee is getting cold.

Mrs. Romney gave one last look of threat to Michael and set the rolled up magazine down on the table within Michael’s view.

If I have to come back again, you’re going to be chasing your head, Michael Romney!

Oh, Cathy. Come here. There’s the most adorable outfit in Harper’s, and it’s only one hundred and twenty-five dollars.

Oh, let me see. Why, that’s gorgeous. Mrs. Romney bit the skin on her second finger. Art would never let me buy it.

Why? You haven’t bought an outfit in months. Mrs. Seeton began to thumb through the magazine, apparently more interested in the pictures than in what Mrs. Romney had to say.

Because after my last outfit, he told me not another one for a year.

Oh, look. Isn’t that cute? Mrs. Seeton had found another picture to her liking. Beneath the model was a little girl in matching white dress and bonnet. Oh, wouldn’t that look absolutely marvelous on Barbara?

Mrs. Romney tilted her head to the picture. Mm-hmm.

Oh and it’s only sixty dollars! That’s awfully inexpensive for a dress like that.

Mrs. Romney leaned back into her chair and glanced into the living room. Michael and Barbara were each drawing quietly in their coloring books. Michael’s lip was tucked back into his mouth, but now his tongue was out, sliding all around his upper lip as he concentrated on his drawing. Barbara’s little hand was freely running across her coloring book, completely ignoring the black boundary lines on the page. Michael glanced over and looked as though Barbara had the crayon he wanted. Mrs. Romney interpreted the expression and said, Michael, you pay attention to your own drawing and leave Barbara’s alone.

Oh Cathy. Isn’t this stunning? Mrs. Romney looked back to the Harper’s at a tall brunette being escorted out of a Rolls Royce in a long evening gown. It was purple with sparkles, and the picture was taken amidst the bright lights of the city. The woman’s teeth were perfectly white and straight, her hair lavishly curled, her skin tanned, and the gown fitted her like a glove.

Eight hundred dollars? Now who in the world could afford that?

How ’bout Elizabeth Taylor? Mrs. Romney said, picking up a nail file off the table.

Oh, now she’s gorgeous. I’ve never seen her look bad.

Confidentially, Mrs. Romney said, I’ve never seen her look good.

Mrs. Seeton closed the magazine, crossed her legs, and lit a cigarette. From where she was positioned she could see Michael and Barbara coloring. Look, isn’t that cute?

Mrs. Romney leaned back. I’m shocked they’ve gotten along together this long. I’m expecting to hear poor Barbara cry any minute.

Oh Cathy! Did you hear what happened to Dorothy’s boy?

Mrs. Romney sat up in her chair. The way Joan had said that made it sound like something worse than the usual gossip. She stopped filing her nails and gave Joan her undivided attention.

You know Bobby, don’t you? Mrs. Seeton asked.

Yes. I think so.

Well, Dorothy’s been having problems with him that I wouldn’t wish on anybody.

Barbara gave out a sudden cry from the next room, and Cathy’s face immediately snapped up, her expression cruel and frightening. Barbara’s hands were pressed close to her chest and Michael was trying to bore through them.

Michael! Cathy screamed. You want to go to your room?

Barbara, give him the crayon, Mrs. Seeton pleaded.

No, Joan. He’s got to learn to share. Michael! Take your hands away from her! Right now!

But she has my crayon! Michael said.

I don’t care.

But she doesn’t know how to color.

Michael! What did I say?

To let her have the crayon.

Well?

When can I have it back?

When she’s finished.

Michael released his grip.

Four year olds! Mrs. Romney said to Mrs. Seeton. I can hardly wait until he’s five and in school.

Mrs. Seeton seemed eager to get on with her story. She took a long drag of her cigarette and held it poised in her hand, smoke blowing out of her mouth.

‘I’m sorry. Mrs. Romney said. What were you saying?"

Bobby.

Oh yes. What about Bobby?

Well, you know he is eight years old now.

No. I didn’t know that. Is he eight years old already?

Yes. He’s in the third grade.

Mrs. Romney reached into the pack of cigarettes on the table and fingered one out. She lit it and puffed while waving the match out. Mrs. Romney was still in her bathrobe and slippers and didn’t feel a bit odd that Mrs. Seeton had come over in a light summer dress. Mrs. Seeton was more clothes-conscious than herself and so it really didn’t matter. Mrs. Romney listened while squinting her eyes and puffing.

He’s been doing odd things at school.

Oh yeah? Like what?

Well, on the playground, right in the middle of the playground, he urinated.

Mrs. Romney sat up, holding her chest. He what?

He urinated on a tree in the middle of the playground.

Were there other children around?

Yes. It was recess. All the children were out.

My God! So what happened?

So, the teacher who was out there happened to see him and told him to zip up his pants immediately, and I guess she said they were going to go to the principals office.

You’re kidding? Did the other children see?

The whole school saw, according to Dorothy. Oh, she tells it with tears in her eyes. It’s really pathetic. That poor woman.

Yeah, so what happened?

Well, brace yourself. He still had some left, I guess, and he aimed it at the teacher.

You have to be kidding me!

No.

Oh, that poor Dorothy. Why would he do a thing like that? Dorothy is very strict with her children from what I’ve seen

Well, Mrs. Seeton slowly blinked her eyes. You haven’t heard the half of it. Bobby has a friend at school, and he apparently told him to do the same thing.

Mrs. Romney grabbed her chest again and gave a sort of gasp out of pure shock. What did this other little boy do?

He started to do the same thing. To the teacher.

Mrs. Romney shook her head in disgust. Mrs. Seeton took another drag of her cigarette. I’m telling you Cathy, some of these little children will do anything. Did you know a boy at that school was expelled for selling drugs on the playground?

A bang sounded form the living room, and Cathy looked to see Barbara on her back, screaming. Michael was now holding the crayon. Mrs. Seeton dashed in and picked Barbara up, kissing her and feeling her head. Quiet now, baby, she said, somewhat shaken up by all the screaming Barbara was letting out. Mrs. Romney was over Michael, whopping him with the magazine, and when that had lost its effect, she used her hand. Now Michael was screaming along with Barbara. Crayons were sprawled out all over the floor, and Mrs. Romney kept slipping on them every time she went to hit Michael.

It’s all right, baby. Shh, baby, Mrs. Seeton cooed in her daughter’s ear.

Michael, get the hell in your room. Right now! She whacked him on the bottom as he ran past her. He wailed, blocking the blow with his hands, and dashed into his room. Mrs. Seeton was going in circles, trying her hardest to quiet Barbara.

Is she all right? Mrs. Romney asked, her voice shaking from the excitement.

I think so. She cries whenever I touch her head, though.

That Michael! I’m going to go in and give it to him, but good!

No Cathy. We’ve all had enough. I better take Barb home and put her to bed. She’s had a bad day.

Oh, are you sure? Michael will stay in his room. She can rest here on the couch.

Well, are you sure it will be all right?

Of course. What do you think? Here, she can have all the crayons she wants, and she can sit right here on the floor. Here Barbara, look at all these crayons.

Barbara’s wailing subsided, nearly to a halt, when she saw the crayons. A few sobs continued to leak out though as she watched Mrs. Romney setting a place for her on the floor.

Do you want to play down there? Mrs. Seeton asked her daughter.

Barbara put a finger in her mouth, looked sorrowful, but didn’t speak. Do you want to color? Color. Come on. We’ll color. Mrs. Seeton set Barbara down on the floor and handed her a crayon, patting her on the head. Barbara. There’s my good girl.

Here, Barbara. Mrs. Romney came in from the kitchen with a piece of chocolate.

Oh, look what Cathy has, Barbara! A piece of candy.

Barbara’s eyes lit up, sparkling from the aftermath of tears. Mrs. Romney handed her the chocolate, and Barbara silently examined it in her fingers before popping it in her mouth. She chewed and chewed, and Mrs. Romney said there was caramel inside.

Michael peeked in from around the corner. Can I come out now?

Get back in that room, Michael Romney, until I say to come out!

Michael silently stepped back and was gone. Mrs. Romney listened until the door shut.

She’s all right now, Cathy. I think we can go back to our smokes.

Mrs. Romney looked down at Barbara, who had already picked up a red crayon and was scribbling on the page.

They went back to their cigarettes and started puffing again, trying to remember exactly where Joan had left off in her story.

I think the other boy was going on the teacher. My God! Did this actually happen?

Mrs. Seeton looked over to Barbara and seemed content that things were back to normal. Well yes, it happened, and Dorothy is absolutely sick over it.

I can imagine how that teacher must have felt.

From what I understand, Mrs. Seeton said, blowing smoke profusely out of her mouth, the teacher managed to keep her cool. She got them both by the collar and dragged them to the principal’s office with their zippers still open.

I could never be a teacher, Mrs. Romney said. I think I would have whaled on both those children if they went to the bathroom on me. My God! Why would they do such a thing? I can’t imagine what provokes their minds. I’m telling ya. Kids are worse now than they ever were. They all have some nerve inside them that we never had as children.

Well, let me tell you what happened. She took them right into the principal’s office with their zippers down and told Mr. Johnson, the principal there, just exactly what happened. The principal, I think, told her to leave so he could talk with these kids. From what Dorothy said, he was very stern with them. She thinks too much so. I don’t know. Maybe that’s what they needed.

Well, he didn’t hit them or anything?

Oh, of course not. But his tone of voice was, you know, stern.

Yeah.

And he said … I mean, according to Dorothy he said, ‘What do you young men have to say for yourselves?’ Oh! He set them down first and everything before he said it, but he told them he was disgusted, appalled, and demanded an explanation. Bobby, now, he said they did it because another boy that was in the sixth grade told them to, which they later found out was a lie.

Then what was the explanation? Mrs. Romney squashed her cigarette into the ashtray.

I don’t know. She never said.

Were they sure he was lying?

According to the other child he was. Now, the other child said it was all Bobby’s idea.

I don’t recall Bobby having done anything bad like that before.

Oh Cathy, Mrs. Seeton said, closing her eyes and shaking her head like she had it all wrong. Bobby has always been a mischief. He threw rocks in the windows, he spits on the little girls, he stole something form the store once—a water pistol.

But Dorothy never told me.

Dorothy never told anyone but me since I live right next door, and I’ve seen it go on.

You’ve seen what?

Bobby being nasty to other children.

You know … I read in the paper of a fourteen year old who’s in juvenile hall now for beating up kids for no reason at all. These kids go crazy … I’m telling ya. It’s not the parents’ fault. It’s the kids, and the TV blasting all the time, and all this violence in the streets.

I don’t know … maybe … but you see, you’ve got to keep it hush-hush. Dorothy told me not to tell anyone.

Oh, I understand. Do you want another cup of coffee?

Oh, no thanks, Cathy. I really better get home and put Barbara to bed. She’s ruining Michael’s whole crayon book.

Don’t worry about Michael. That child has got to learn.

Well, Cath, I’ll give you a call later on. Mrs. Seeton got up and went over to Barbara. Come on, babe. Time to go home.

Barbara wiped her hands on her pants. Mommy look, she said, holding up a mass of colors to Mrs. Seeton. Look what I draw.

Mrs. Seeton looked somewhat perplexed at the drawing. Oh, that’s lovely, darling, and off to the side she said to Mrs. Romney, A ‘Rembrandt’ my daughter’s not.

Mrs. Romney laughed. She’s only three years old. Give the poor girl credit. If you’ve ever seen the new stuff the artists are drawing now, this ‘modern art,’ it’s called, your little daughter could be something.

I know. I’ve seen it. Isn’t it terrible.

I think it’s disgusting.

Mrs. Seeton bent down and picked Barbara up. OK, Cathy. I’ll give you a buzz.

Do that. I’ll be home all day today.

After they had gone, Mrs. Romney went back in the kitchen and began to clear off the table. Michael crept into the room like a little lost fawn, his finger in his mouth.

I’m sorry, Mommy.

What are you doing out of your room?

I’m tired of it in there.

Well, you just march back in there and be tired of it, because that’s where you’re staying today.

No, Mommy. I don’t want to.

Michael! Are you arguing with me?

No.

Weren’t you bad today? Didn’t you hit Barbara when I told you not to? Didn’t you make her cry?

Michael looked down at the floor and didn’t answer.

Now you’re punished, and you’re to stay in your room. If you want to color, you can, but you have to stay in your room.

Michael silently went into the living room and picked up his coloring book and crayons. Can I go out tomorrow? he asked.

Mrs. Romney had her hands in the sink, washing the ashtray. We’ll see about tomorrow when tomorrow comes.

Tears quietly fell from Michael’s eyes. He dragged himself into the bedroom.

Michael, Mrs. Romney yelled. You can play out in the living room if you like.

The bedroom door shut, but Michael didn’t come out.

Mrs. Romney wiped her hands on a towel, pushed a chair up to the phone, and sat down. She picked up the receiver and dialed.

Hello Betty. Hi. How are you? That’s good. And how is Dick? Really? Congratulations … well of course … listen … Betty … you know Dorothy, don’t you? She lives right up the street. She keeps to herself a lot … yeah, in the orange house … well … you’ve seen her son, Bobby? I think he’s got blond hair … combs it down … that’s right … well, have you heard about him from Tommy at school? I think they’re in the same grade … you haven’t? Well, brace yourself …

The Headhunters’ Trophy

I T WAS A crisp morning. Green pine needles scented the air. Mist rose from the meadow and hovered in between the trees. The brightness of the sun was piercing through the horizon. Two men lay waiting in the bush, dressed in green fatigues, tightly grasping rifles in their hands.

God, it’s cold.

Yeah.

Do you think they’ll come back?

The enemy always returns.

God, I can’t wait to shoot ’em down. We could get twenty in one sweep—maybe more, maybe … hey man, I’m talking to you.

I know. I can hear you. The whole fucking world can hear you. You’re going to let them know just where we are, and it will be too late.

Ah, keep your shirt on. I’m not talking all that loud. Hey, what about texting your wife now? You forgot to do it last night. You got time now. Go on. I’ll keep watch.

"Are you crazy, man? Are you out of your mind? I’m

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