- Robert L. Giron
Issue 86 — Mitchell Bergeron, Demond Blake, Gonzalinho da Costa, Rose Nelson, Domenic Scopa
Robert Gellemchin on a Park Bench, Downtown
When I was younger I went to
A McDonald’s that has since been torn down.
I was a fat kid, chubby to say the least.
One day as my mom went to get me my breakfast sandwich
I overheard two regulars talking,
You know there’s a lot of protein in bugs.
The first one took a bite from his
sausage, egg Mcmuffin,
His glasses’ rusted frame left indents on his nose.
His hair jet black, he had an olive completion.
He was portly, in a green drab button down
with short sleeves.
The second man was long, lean, tall.
His glasses slid down his face like flats on ice.
He sipped his soda and swallowed hard.
His hair was black and grey,
he was older than the other man.
I wondered if someday I would join them,
in that McDonald’s.
Copyright © 2016 by Mitchell Bergeron.
Luke With His Muffins
It was tough to cut the English muffins
with the one clean, butter knife.
I had to put the muffins in the fridge
so they wouldn’t mold.
I bought them last week assuming
Jim would have some of them with me,
turns out he hates English muffins.
I tried my best to spread the Jif Extra Crunchy
across my first muffin.
Tried is the key word.
The second one was too hot to handle,
and one half got stuck in the toaster.
Do I smell something burning?
Jim asked from the other room.
No it’s some piece of bread stuck in the bottom of the toaster.
If you say so.
I took a big bite into my muffin,
the peanut butter globed to my gums.
Copyright © 2016 by Mitchell Bergeron.
A Man’s Hope Is His Castle
Labor Now!! opened at 5:30a m. I got there at a little after ten. People like to say the early bird gets the worm but I’m usually asleep so I’ve seen an early bird catch shit. When I walked in along the wall with all the stupid safety signs and government wage stuff were no smoking signs. Most good things only come around once and forever after seem like aberrations. I signed in and sat next to the vending machine. There was a guy sitting next to me who kept putting toothpicks in his mouth breaking them in half then spitting them on the floor. He kept trying to spit them farther and farther. Most of them only landed inches from the guy’s outstretched legs. Each time one landed short he’d curse and mutter insults to himself.
I took my notebook out and started drawing spirals with stick figures going around in them. I had been doing this since I was little boy. I never drew anything else. It made me wonder if I was a little slow. I asked my grandmother about it once. She told me that I’d always been slower than the other kids but not to let it bother me none.
It don’t take no brains to be a garbage man Jimmy Granny said. Besides they make good money. I’d be proud of you if you became a garbage man. My first born grandchild a garbage man! Thank Jesus! You’d always be welcomed at your Gran-grans with a job like that!
I never became a garbage man so now granny has one less thing to be proud of me for. I’m still welcomed at her house though as long as it’s a holiday and I don’t ask for any money. I was still drawing stick men and spirals when someone behind the counter asked me if I wanted to work.
Yeah I said without looking up.
Then I looked towards the counter. It lowered slowly and a man with curly greasy hair
pulled back into a long pony tail called me up. His face was round, fat and covered with a week old beard. His round glasses were crooked and kept sliding off his face. Sometimes they fell completely off. He’d pick them up put them back on and they’d start sliding off again. He looked annoyed. He probably spent his whole day trying to keep his glasses on his face. Jesus that’s enough to make a person murder themselves or save money and get some new glasses. I walked up to the counter. I wanted to know how he made the counter lower.
Hey how’d you do that?
Make the counter come down. Yesterday it was so high no one could see over it. And just now you made it lower.
I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Of course you don’t.
My name’s John. He said extending his hand.
And you are?
Jim I answered shaking it. His hand was smooth, soft like he just lotioned it or had just finished jerking off.
As in James?
No just Jim.
All right Jim you ready to work?
Good you’re in luck we just got a call. Some construction work. You ever worked construction?
Hell that doesn’t matter. Do you need a ride?
Okay let me get the directions draw up your paper work then we’ll be on our way.
Another guy was standing at the counter talking to the Mexican girl from yesterday. He looked desperate. He talked with his hands but his hands shook. He wiped sweat off his brow with his sleeve. He stumbled over his words. This kid needed work. I needed work. Everyone in here needed work except those behind the counter. They were lucky and for a minute I was envious. One of the 7 deadly sins. Maybe God would understand.
The phone rang. The girl answered it. Some company needed a kid for some office work. She got on the mic and asked Does anyone here have any office experience?
Most everyone groaned. One guy belched. I held in a fart. The guy standing at the counter chimed in.
I have office experience.
Do you know Word, Excel, Power Point?
Yes and I have a degree from the University of Washington.
Damn you’re exactly what they’re looking for. They called earlier saying they needed someone first thing in the morning. It’s too late now but damn . . . What are you doing tomorrow?
I don’t know?
If you come back in the morning around 7 am I’ll have a job for you.
John stood up, looked at me. Got the directions, you ready to go?
All righty, hey kid you wanna work today or wait for the job tomorrow.
I could really use some money today.
You’re in luck, come with me. Leticia get the paperwork ready for this kid. What’s your name?
We followed John to a storage area in the back. There were shovels, hard hats, gloves all kinds of shit in there.
You’re going to need shovels for this job.
What’s the job?
You’ll be digging trenches, that’s all I know. You guys ever dug a trench.
I’ve never even seen it done on TV I said.
Well it’s back breaking work but at least it won’t bother the brain none. Now you have to sign out for these shovels. You need to bring them back before closing tonight at 7 or it’s 12 bucks out of your paycheck.
Okay We said.
You’re going to need gloves too. We’ll give you those to keep.
How nice I said. Is this coming out of my paycheck?
No, no this are freebies.
John found some plastic bags and some strings and tied them around the shovels.
Leti you got that paper work ready! John yelled.
Yeah! She yelled back.
John went and got the paper work showed us what we had to do. There were two pieces of paper stuck together. One copy for whoever we worked for that day and the other we were supposed to bring back to the office signed as proof that we worked. That’s how we get paid. On the paper also was the address of the job site and whatever equipment we signed out to use. It was all very organized.
We got our shovels and our papers then followed John out back to the alley where his car was parked. It was a beat to hell red 2-door Honda. He had a Jesus fish on the trunk and a Bible propped up in his back window. How cute. Every older guy I knew with a shitty car either had religious shit on it, democrat stuff or green party decals. On the luxury cars people either had nothing or pseudo clever shit on their license plates. It was all the same.
Don’t laugh at my car John said. My wife’s car’s in the shop so I let her use mine and now I’ve got to drive my old college scrap heap until her’s is fixed.
As long as it gets us there, I said.
Oh the shocks are finished on this thing so whoever’s the lightest needs to ride in the back.
Reuben and I looked each other over. He was taller but we had similar skinny builds. I got in the back. Someone told me that was the safest place to be in a car accident. That never made sense to me but I always rode in the back whenever possible anyway. After a couple of tries the car started and we were off. Once out of the alley and onto the street the car hit a bump and scraped.
That’s what happens when your shocks are shot John said.
Don’t get us killed I mumbled.
You guys like music? John asked.
I don’t know Said Reuben.
I didn’t answer.
I can’t stop listening to Dream Theater man. Their playing is so intricate and so intoxicating to listen to. Ah they’re so talented. How does anyone learn to do anything that well?
Me and Reuben didn’t answer.
Can’t be on the road without some sounds man. John turned on the his radio and then started blasting what I guess was Dream Theater. His speakers were shitty and the music sounded cracked and distorted. That could’ve been Dream Theater though. The car scraped again. I smelled rubber burning.
Jesus you guys smell that? This is what I deal with every time I’ve got to drive this bucket around. Is there anything that smells worse than burning rubber?
Burning plastic Reuben said.
Burning Styrofoam. I answered.
You’re both right John laughed.
I sat in the back worrying about a tire exploding. John started to ask us questions about ourselves. He wanted to know where we were from, what schooling we had and what went wrong in our lives for us to end up at Labor Now!! For fuck’s sake couldn’t folks just understand that sometimes no matter who you are or what piece of fucking paper you spent years getting that sometimes everything around you ends up crumbling and there is no one to help. Where do you turn? Where do you go? Shit a person’s gotta do something to survive so you end up at shit holes like Labor Now!! slaving away just so you can keep your fucking lights on. People like to think because you’re young that shit just falls into your lap. Nothing falls into your lap. It’s war all the time. Nothing is ever simple.
We got on the freeway headed towards the job and the car scraped more and more. The stink of burning rubber filled the car and I waited for something bad to happen.
John rambled on about Dream Theater and Reuben talked about his degree but didn’t really know why he couldn’t stand having a job in his field. Finally we got to the job site.
John dropped us off and before he left warned us again about leaving the shovels. I made good note of it since I wasn’t going to make shit today and if I didn’t return the shovel in time I really wasn’t going to make shit.
We were at a pretty house out in the hills. It had a reddish color to it and the yard was full of orange trees. The house was towards the back. The garage was out in front along with the guest house where we were free to clean up and piss. We met the guy Reuben and I would be working for. His name was Gilbert. He looked like the dad from Alf aged ten years with a slight paunch, bifocals and an unlit cig hanging from his mouth. Gil’s graying hair uncombed and running all over the place. A little of it hung over his forehead and stopped just short of his glasses. When he brushed it back so it hung on the side of his glasses. Gil had a nervy air about him. He would turn out to be one of those people who always knows what he wants in his head but it’s damn near impossible to get him to explain what he wants. A person like that needs to work with clones of himself so they’ll inherently hopefully know what the fuck is wanted w/o explanation. Oh well, we shook hands gave Gil our papers and he told us that he wanted me and Reuben to do. Dig a 18 inch trench near the gate around the orange trees so the lady of the house could put 8 foot lights up in her yard facing the street. Why she wanted this done I would never know. We had to dig eighteen inches because that was city regulation. The eighteen inch trench was for the pipe and wires that were going to run through the yard. Where the lights were going to go a three foot hole was going to need to be dug. We had to dig eighteen inches because that was city regulation. The eighteen inch trench was for the pipe and wires that were going to run through the yard. Where the lights were going to go a three foot hole was going to need to be dug. That could wait though, Gil told us, the main thing today was to get the trench dug before nightfall. If we did there was going to be a ten dollar tip for the both of us. We sat our back packs down in the garage got our shovels and went to work. It was spring in Cali so it was good day to be outside doing anything except spending the day digging trenches. Money, it’s the answer to every other question. I think I heard that in a movie. Ben Affleck was probably in it. I shouldn’t be quoting Ben Affleck movies.
Reuben took one side of the yard and I took the other. While we were digging trenches Gil went inside the house and didn’t come out for hours. I didn’t know how the fuck he expected us to know how deep 18 inches were but Reuben knew that from your wrist to the end of your forearm was a foot so after we got that deep we’d measure halfway up the forearm for the rest of the length. It was ridiculous, we should’ve had a yard stick or something to measure with.
We were in charge of our own breaks and since I hadn’t seen Gil in about 3 hours I decided after every hour of work a good 30 min or so break was needed. Me and Reuben spent our breaks either raiding Gil’s truck where we found all manner of pills, Vicodin, Codeine, Valium, (which we stole five or so from pills from each bottle) or in the guest house watching cable. Despite all this the trench was getting dug and after five hours or so most of it was 18 inches (give or take). We next started on the three foot holes for the light posts on opposite ends of the gate. We hadn’t seen Gilbert in hours. I decided it was time for another break. There was a basketball hoop in the driveway. I looked around the garage and found a ball. Even though Gil’s truck was in the driveway there was still room to shoot some hoops. I took a couple of shots, both air balls. Shit I used to be good. Twenty-three and already washed up as a ballplayer. I looked at Reuben; he was digging away making the 3 ft. hole. I got the ball again and kicked it towards the hoop. It went over the backboard and into the neighbor’s yard. While we were digging trenches Gil went inside the house and didn’t come out for hours. I didn’t know how the fuck he expected us to know how deep 18 inches were but Reuben knew that from your wrist to the end of your forearm was a foot so after we got that deep we’d measure halfway up the forearm for the rest of the length. It was ridiculous, we should’ve had a yard stick or something to measure with. We were in charge of our own breaks and since I hadn’t seen Gil in about 3 hours I decided after every hour of work a good 30 min or so break was needed. Me and Reuben spent our breaks either raiding Gil’s truck where we found all manner of pills, Vicodin, Codeine, Valium, (which we stole five or so from pills from each bottle) or in the guest house watching cable. Despite all this the trench was getting dug and after five hours or so most of it was 18 inches (give or take). We next started on the three foot holes for the light posts on opposite ends of the gate. We hadn’t seen Gilbert in hours. I decided it was time for another break. There was a basketball hoop in the driveway. I looked around the garage and found a ball. Even though Gil’s truck was in the driveway there was still room to shoot some hoops. I took a couple of shots, both air balls. Shit I used to be good. Twenty-three and already washed up as a ballplayer. I looked at Reuben; he was digging away making the 3 ft. hole. I got the ball again and kicked it towards the hoop. It went over the backboard and into the neighbor’s yard. I sat next to my bag opened it up got my crackers out and started munching. Reuben was still digging away.
Hey why don’t you take a break?
I don’t want to be fired! Reuben yelled.
Shit the boss hadn’t been around for days, we’ve lounged around in the guest house raided his portable pharmacy, who cares about getting fired now?
I ate some more crackers. Gil came out a few minutes later. His t-shirt was half tucked, only one of his shoes were tied, his fly was open and he had an unlit cig dangling from his mouth. I wondered if it was the same one. Gil’s eyes were kinda glazed over. I thought about the pills in his truck. I figured he had popped a few Valiums.
So how’s it coming boys?
It’s great I said I think we’re done with the trenches.
So where have you been?
Doing some work in the back of the house.
Of course, of course.
You guys sure the trench is 18 inches?
It’s hard to say since we didn’t have anything to measure with.
You could’ve looked in my truck and found something.
Reuben thought that would’ve been rude.
What’s going to be rude is if we don’t get that trench dug tonight Gilbert said.
Then he went to his truck and got a yard stick and started measuring the trench. What a dumbfuck. He’s in the house fucking the owner and we’re out here slaving away and he’s got the nerve to try to give us shit. Did he forget that we could leave right now and he would still have to pay us. Whether the job gets done or not means shit to me. I couldn’t speak for Reuben. He had a 6-figure education he was busy wasting.
It turns out our way of measuring the hole was right for most of the trench and all we needed to do was even out. What Gil didn’t like was that we smashed bushes when they got in our way, shattered the roots of the orange trees and stole oranges.
Liza’s going to throw a fit when she sees what you’ve done to her yard Gil whimpered.
Shit wait till she sees the mess we’ve made in the guest house. I forgot to take my shoes off and tracked mud all over the bathroom. I tried to wipe it up but only ended up streaking it across the tile and probably ruining a bath towel. I didn’t feel great about that. The guest house was nicer and bigger than my place at the yellow. This was how the other half lived. Fuck I don’t blame them.
I went back to the trench and started evening it out while Reuben started digging another 3 ft. hole for the other light post. It was starting to get dark now so Gil set up some lights in the trees. The lights were bright but hot. If you stood under them for longer than a minute you’d start to sweat. Here it was nightfall and I’m sweating like it’s a summer afternoon.
Good lights huh? Gil asked.
Yeah it’s like working near a blast furnace.
Keeps you warm though.
I’m in So Cal in the springtime, it doesn’t get cold.
Gil simply laughed and helped me and Reuben even out the rest of the trench till Liza
came out. She came out in the yard groping around in the part that wasn’t lit looking for Gilbert.
Gilly! She kept saying, Gilly!
Shit what’s that bitch want! He said trying to sound irritated while a smile crossed his lips.
He went over to her. Liza was an older woman yet tall with a long neck but her face
seemed all sunken in. Her eyes sunk into her skull, her lips sunk into her mouth. Her whole being seemed to be receding. When Gilbert got to Liza she backed away before embracing him, then backed away again. She asked him for a cigarette and he gave her the unlit one in his mouth.
I don’t want that one you’ve been playing with all day She bitched. Give me a fresh one!
Gilbert took out his pack gave her one and lit it for her. She took a few frantic hits then threw it on the ground.
I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t smoke. You know it’s bad for you right? It’s bad, bad! You know that right?
I know Gil said.
Why are these boys still out here Gilly? It’s nighttime, send them home.
But I wanted to get the trench done tonight.
Can’t you get them to come back tomorrow?
I guess I should ask them.
He walked over to Reuben.
Hey you wanna come back tomorrow?
I don’t know Reuben said. I have to find out about this office job tomorrow.
Gil came over to ask the same question.
Everything inside me said no but when my mouth opened I said ’Sure.’ I have no idea why.
Then be back tomorrow at 9am. Don’t worry about bringing a shovel, you can use mine.
Oh and here’s five bucks a piece. You guys didn’t quite finish the trench but you worked good and deserve a little something.
We took the cash, looked it over and stuffed it in our pockets. Give a dog a bone. Hope it’s not a chicken bone or we’ll choke.
Liza walked over.
So are the boys coming back?
Which one’s that?
He pointed at me.
Oh nice of you to come back tomorrow Liza said.
How are you getting home?
I’ll catch a bus heading to the subway take that back to Labor Now!!.
The bus, the subway no, no that won’t do at all. I’ll go phone a taxi.
How nice a taxi. I guess when you slave for the rich they take care of you...sort of. Reuben and I got our stuff together and waited around while Gil put up his lights and gathered his tools. He brought us our papers signed then gave us each ten bucks.
You boys did good work Gilbert said as he walked towards the house.
I took out a couple of codeine drank it down with some bottled water I found in the guest house. Liza came back out.
The taxi will be here in ten minutes. You want a snack while you wait?
What would you like?
Grilled cheese sandwich.
That sounds good. I think I’ll have one made for me too.
Liza stood in front of us staring at nothing then gave Reuben a weird look.
Why are you still here?
I’m waiting for the taxi.
Are you coming back tomorrow?
I don’t think so.
Then the taxi is not for you, it’s for...what’s your name?
It’s for Jim. Now please get off my property.
Reuben looked confused for a moment. I thought he was going to say something to Liza. Instead he picked up his bag, his shovel and left.
Who the hell does he think he is?, Liza asked.
He thinks he’s Reuben.
Do you have a cigarette?
No but I’m sure Gilly does.
Oh now don’t talk like that. He works for me and keeps me company when I need him too.
He’s a good man . . . .
Your sandwich should be ready before the taxi gets here.
What do you . . . do?
Dig trenches in your yard.
And when you’re not doing that?
Sleep in a walk-in closet.
Oh . . . that makes sense . . . .
Liza walked back to her house. I sat on the ground waited for my sandwich. The maid brought it out just as the cab showed up. I asked him to pop the trunk and I put my shovel back there. I got in the back and asked the driver if he knew where to take me (which was Back to Labor Now!!). He knew. I opened up my sandwich it was cut in half and steaming hot. I picked up one half took a bite. As we left the neighborhood I looked around hoping to spot Reuben. I didn’t see him anywhere.
Copyright ©2016 by Demond Blake.
Demond Blake’s poems, stories and excerpts of his novel Slackass have recently been published in Inlandia Literary Journal, Diverse Arts Project Poetry Magazine, Symmetry Pebbles, Gloom Cupboard, Forge and The Commonline Journal.
Gonzalinho da Costa
To my father
Grappling for smallest advantage,
Shifting weight left, right,
He tugs, pulls, jostles,
Poised to hurl, fling, explode . . .
Hidden in grass, wildcat
Eyeing prey, he waits . . .
Sliver-sized opening, door—
Sudden soundless bolt,
Swift glider in descent,
Juggernaut runaway truck,
He throws his opponent,
Alarm bells yelling,
Pins him down
Binds his arms
Struggling like water
To hold its shape.
Copyright © 2016 by Gonzalinho da Costa.
Chalk white moon, a disc of pooling light.
Round old pond, stillness unruffled,
Bird tucked inward. Behind
Embankment of clouds, a frog leaps—
Touchdown in water!
Black sky bursts, broken,
Beatific placid mirror shattered
By splash of a big blast,
Subatomic particles scattering,
Tsunami unleashing gamma waves, X-rays,
70,000 instantly dead . . .
Genbaku Dome, UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Copyright © 2016 by Gonzalinho da Costa.
Gonzalinho da Costa is the pen name of Joseph I. B. Gonzales, Ph.D. He teaches Methods of Research in Management, and Managerial Statistics at the Ateneo Graduate School of Business, Makati City, Philippines. He is a management research and communication consultant, and Managing Director of Technikos Consulting, Inc. A lover of world literature, he has completed three humanities degrees and writes poetry as a hobby.
As soon as the youth pastor and his wife left, Christi rushed to the living room and collapsed on the couch. She couldn’t shake the image of that scar out of her mind. From the corner of her eye she saw Keith come in and snatch the last guacamole wrap off the plastic food tray.
Great couple, huh, honey? he said, sliding into the beige recliner across from his wife.
Christi listened to the buzz of the remote as the ottoman pulled out. She had closed her eyes so she saw her husband’s muscular legs stretched out only in her mind.
Amber loved the chicken enchiladas you made—did she ask you for the recipe? Keith said.
Uh, no, I mean yes, Christi said. She wrapped her arms around her waist to stem her uncontrollable trembling.
Did you see Mike outside playing ball with the boys? He’s amazing with kids. I think he’ll be Oro Valley Church’s best youth leader ever. He can totally relate to them. I think the church committee was right on the mark offering him the position.
Christi frowned and opened her eyes just enough to view her thin, veiny hands clasped in her lap. She was only half-listening to Keith as she stared at her silver wedding band. How could he have become a youth pastor? And had he recognized her? Christi wouldn’t have identified him except for the scar.
Oh, I told Zach and Connor they could hang out with their friends at Pizza Place until nine, Keith said, yawning. I let Zach take the Pilot.
Christi sat up straight, took in a long breath and exhaled slowly. She could taste refried beans creeping up her esophagus.
That’s okay with you, honey, right? Keith said, louder.
Christi studied her husband. She liked how fair and round and childlike his face was with no hint of stubble because his hair was so light. She liked the crinkly lines around his eyes that made him look kind and trustworthy. His eyes opened and he looked at her with deep blue irises. Christi? Did you hear me? The boys are out with their friends.
Yes, Christi said.
What’s wrong? Didn’t you get along with Amber? he asked.
She’s lovely. Much younger than he is.
Maybe a few years. She’s a former teacher like you, Keith said. She told me this is her first time seeing the Southwest. She grew up on the east coast same as Mike.
Mike . . . Mike Miller. That’s not his name.
Mike’s not his name? It’s probably Michael.
No, Keith, she said, her tone suddenly agitated, it’s Jerry—Jerry Houseman. She tried to stop the tears she had been fighting back, but she couldn’t. The terror from that suffocating night started to replay in her mind. Jerry had slammed her down in the bed of his pickup, tearing the loveliness from her gown, her body, her mind, and her soul.
She heard the electric buzz again and then Keith was kneeling on the carpet at her feet.
Mike reminds you of, of Jerry Houseman?
No, he is Jerry! Christi said, salty water gushing down her cheeks and onto her neck and collar bone.
Keith wrapped his arms around his wife, but she didn’t feel comforted.
Mike is tall and thin and has black hair like you described Jerry . . . , he said.
And the scar. Seeing the skeptical tilt of Keith’s eyebrows, Christi felt her body flush with heat. Didn’t you see the scar? On his wrist, Keith? It juts up, up his arm; it’s an inch long and faded—it was darker before, rawer. When he shook hands, when he shook your hand, you had to have seen it.
Didn’t you see it, Keith? She bored her eyes into his.
When Keith shook his head, Christi wanted to slap his face. It’s jagged, a bit, white almost, it looks like a cross or the letter T, Christi said, her volume rising.
That’s what you said Jerry’s scar looked like.
Christi’s frown deepened the lines already embedded in her forehead. She pulled Keith’s hands off her. How can you be so blind? He shook your hand. Your hand. That’s when I saw it. Didn’t you see it? When he shook your hand? His sleeve pulled up—you had to have noticed the scar.
Honey, I’m sorry he resembles that beast that damaged you, but you’ve got to get a grip. This man is a youth pastor—has been for 20 years. He’s from North Carolina, not anywhere in Arizona.
Christi stood up. Keith had been so compassionate and supportive years ago when she first told him what Jerry had done to her teenaged life. He hadn’t accused her of being stupid, na—ve, sleazy, careless, immoral, anything, except a victim. He had embraced her in strong if impotent arms, shaking, almost convulsing in sympathy. And he had cried. Real tears. Tears that wet his whole face and dried on it leaving the skin a blotched red. Afterwards he told her, for the first time, that he loved her. Where was his compassion now? Christi wanted to know. Wasn’t she the same woman whom he claimed to love? She plodded to the front window and looked outside. The evening sun had begun to descend behind the purple Catalina Mountains, making the sky blush in pinkish orange shades. Christi could appreciate the beauty in the deep, restful hues, but ever since that May night when she was sixteen, she had viewed dusk with distrust.
Honey, come on, Keith was saying, Mike Miller has been background checked several times; his character recommendations go back to his high school days.
He obviously lied and somehow forged the recommendations, Christi said.
That’s highly unlikely. And if he had a criminal record, that can’t be erased. Christi heard her husband’s words, but the sounds produced no meaning. Her mind was a spinning scrapbook of scenes from her life. She was every age at the same time—pouty, parochial school girl in plaid pleats; beaming new mother coddling an infant; anxious sophomore learning to drive in wedges; boastful fourth-time spelling bee winner; eager first year teacher; mock-cheerful McDonald’s cashier. Baseball mom. Finance professor’s wife. PTA President. Rape victim.
Through the bay window, Christi could see the Martinez girls jumping rope at the end of their driveway. They kept tripping and giggling. Christi didn’t like how close they were to the prickly pear bed. Zach had gotten cut at eight when he fell onto a cactus trying to catch a football. Nine years later, he still had scars on his calves and back.
Suddenly Keith was behind her and Christi felt his firm, tender grip on her shoulders. The gesture seemed superficial and unreal, though, and she shrugged him off.
I’ll clean up the kitchen, he said.
Still at the window, Christi noticed a teenager from the next block riding his skateboard down the paved road. She couldn’t remember his name, but she thought he was the kid Zach and Connor often grumbled about, the kid who bullied younger children. She watched as he zoomed into the cul de sac and did a flip, landing near the little girls.
Go away! Christi heard the children shout. She couldn’t hear what the bully was saying. He was pointing to his skateboard like he was trying to get them to ride it. On instinct, Christi rushed through the hallway and out the front door. When she reached the yard, she could hear the Martinez girls still shouting at the boy to go away. He was holding out his hand to the older girl.
Christi raced across the street, crumbling the pebbled asphalt with her sandals.
Leave these girls alone! she yelled. All three kids turned to look at her.
Go on home, Christi said, eyeing the teenager. She didn’t like how he much he looked like Jerry, with the black sprouts of a mustache growing under his long, pimply nose and the ragged mass of sweat-soaked hair screening his face. She wasn’t close enough to smell him, but she imagined a phantom musk that made her nauseous.
I was just showing them my new skateboard, the boy said, his dark eyes widening.
We don’t want to ride your dumb old skateboard, the taller girl said, planting her hands on her hips.
Yeah, roller skating is funner anyway! the little one said.
Her voice like a growl, Christi said, I told you to leave.
Whatever, the boy mumbled, thought this was a free country! He stepped onto the skateboard and started off, bumping into Christi’s left arm.
Excuse me! Christi shouted after him, Come back here again and I’ll get the police on your back!
The boy kept moving back up the inclined road. Christi followed him until he disappeared down the intersecting road, heading into the silhouette of the now blue-tinted mountains.
Christi walked back home, breathing hard and relieved she had the downward slope. The sky had turned violet by the time Christi reentered the circular street end. She felt a graze of comfort viewing the familiar setting, her house set as the center of five, red-roof tiled, stucco homes. For over a decade Christi had lived behind the prickly protection of three, green-branched palo verde trees and the sturdy barricade of barrel cactus. Passing the Martinez property, Christi saw Jose helping his daughters collect jump ropes, balls and Frisbees off the palm-lined driveway.
Good evening Christi! he called. My girls told me you chased that Thompson boy off.
Christi nodded his way but didn’t answer.
He’s a little off, harmless though. I think my ninas were taunting him.
Christi gave him a tiny wave and increased her pace, half-jogging to her house. She inhaled the comforting scent of the pink-flowered bougainvillea that edged the walkway. This home was supposed to be her Eden, the paradise that protected her from her past. But now Jerry had defiled it by his presence. How could this have happened? That her rapist had penetrated her life again? She teetered a bit as she began a slow ascent up the steps, catching herself on the adobe wall. She saw Keith flick on the porch lights. Go for a little walk? he said, holding the screen door open for her.
No, I was chasing that bully away from the Martinez babies. Christi leaned against the door and scanned the foyer as if Jerry might be lying in wait for her.
Christi stepped into the house and made her way to the kitchen. She sat down at her computer in the corner nook. Keith followed her and stood at the desk. What bully, Christi?
I don’t know his name. Jose Martinez said his last name is Thomas or Thompson, something like that.
You mean that poor kid down the road with Asperger’s?
Christi shook her head and began typing. I don’t know. The bully kid that Zach and Connor talk about.
He’s not a bully, Christi; he has autism.
She didn’t look at Keith because she couldn’t tolerate seeing his judgmental grimace right now. I didn’t know he had autism, she mumbled. The Federal Bureau of Investigation homepage appeared on the computer screen and Christi began to study the search options.
What are you doing, Christi? He’s just a kid. She could hear the exasperation in Keith’s voice.
Keith, please, just leave me alone. This is something I have to do.
I told you the kid isn’t a threat to anyone.
I’m not worried about the kid! Christi screeched. She began beating the keyboard with her fists. She felt Keith grab her arms from behind and pull her up. Twirling her around to face him, he held her hands in a vise-like grip. Christi, I’ve never seen you like this.
Let go of me! Struggling to free her hands, she felt Keith relax his hold.
What is going on? Who are you looking up? Mike? Is this about the new youth pastor? he asked.
Christi stared into her husband’s wide, blue eyes. You won’t believe me, but I’ll prove it, Keith. I know he’s Jerry and I’m going to prove it. She flopped back down on the vinyl chair and laid her head on the desktop.
Keith rubbed her back. Christi, you’re jumping to conclusions and getting yourself all riled up, he said.
She sat up and looked him in the eye. What does it hurt if I investigate him? You always hear about horrific things happening because people don’t believe it when someone recognizes a criminal. If it’s him he could rape the girls in the youth group. Like Anjelica. Do you want to risk your son’s girlfriend getting violated or murdered?
Keith didn’t answer.
I mean it, Keith. I don’t want this hanging over me. That I knew he was someone else, a rapist, but I said nothing because I didn’t trust my memory. Or I didn’t speak out because my husband wouldn’t believe me.
Keith watched her husband’s face flush red, then white. After a minute, he said,
Okay, Christi. How about this? I’ll get a hold of Tim Freed since he headed up the pastor search committee. I’ll ask to look over the background reports the committee collected on Mike Miller.
And what would that prove? Christi said. Obviously nobody found anything or they wouldn’t have recommended Jerry to be our youth pastor. Keith, we have to start a fresh investigation.
You need to start with the information that’s already been gathered. Maybe the committee overlooked something. It’ll just waste time reinventing the wheel.
All right, Christi said, good idea. But she had suddenly changed her mind about investigating Mike Miller.
At Keith’s suggestion, Christi took a warm bubble bath. It didn’t calm her, though, and she couldn’t fall asleep until after 2:00 in the morning. Even then her sleep was sporadic as she suffered a continuous stream of nightmares about Jerry Houseman. Christi watched in horror as Jerry climbed into her open bedroom window, bragging about having locked Keith in the pool. She tried to slam the window onto his hands, but she couldn’t stop him. He got in and jumped on the bed and tried to lure her to him with promises of being her bodyguard. She ran downstairs and outside in her bare feet, singing them on the pavement that had caught on fire.
Christi limped toward the Martinez house under a dark, starless sky, trying to scream for help but then realizing she had laryngitis. She tripped over two children who were asleep on the driveway, resting their heads on rubber balls that substituted for pillows. Then Jerry was behind Christi. He bound her arms with a jump rope and dragged her to his car where Amber sat in the front passenger seat. Jerry ordered Amber into the trunk so Christi could sit up front. He started backing up the car and hit something—the autistic boy on his skateboard. Jerry ran right over the kid but he got up and started skateboarding on top of the car. The boy peered into the windshield and right into Christi’s eyes. She mouthed, Help me! to him, but he said he was going away like she wanted. Then he flipped off of the car and seemed to vaporize. A few moments later, the car slammed into a mountain and Christi rolled out the side door. A hot dust devil blew her clothes off. Jerry climbed on her . . . Christi woke up screaming. Keith took her in his arms. He rocked her for hours until she fell into a dreamless slumber.
The next morning, Christi yelled at her two sons when they missed the bus. They hadn’t been late to their stop all year, and now, the day she had the most important mission of her life, the bus left them behind. Christi speeded home after dropping them off at school. Then, shaky and nauseous, she made the call to the church office.
Fifteen minutes later, as she dressed, she felt sweat forming under her arms even though she had just showered. She dabbed under her arms with a tissue several times before she gave up and pulled on a white blouse and a navy pencil skirt. She sprayed antiperspirant under her arms through the cotton sleeves and then a quarter bottle of cologne.
Christi could feel her heart palpitating in her left arm as she made her way downstairs. Grabbing her purse, she headed into the garage, tripping on the brick steps in her high-heeled pumps. Sitting at the wheel of her suv, she saw that her hands were quivering. She took a deep breath. I’ve got to do this, she said aloud.
Outside the church, Christi slammed the car door shut and forced herself to stand straight and tall. She jutted her chin in the air and flung her medium-length hair behind her. Entering the office, she greeted Ann Waters, the soon to retire secretary, in a cool and collected manner.
Ann gave Christi a curious look. Are you interviewing for a job today, Christi? When Christi shook her head, Ann said in her usual, lively tone, You can go right in. Pastor Mike’s door is open.
Good morning, Christi! Mike greeted her. He stood up and motioned for her to take a seat on the leather chair across the desk from him. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you again for your hospitality and the delicious meal last evening. Amber and I really enjoyed ourselves.
Christi nodded, feeling like she might vomit.
Our boys had a lot of fun with your Zach and Connor, he continued. They felt so special having the big guys shoot hoops with them. Your boys are great with kids.
Thank you, Christi said. She glanced toward the open door, an involuntary safety check, and clutched her purse tighter. She could hear Ann answering the office phone.
Pastor Mike settled down in his swivel chair. Would you like some coffee, Christi? Ann just brewed a fresh pot.
The mention of coffee made Christi’s already nervous stomach churn acid.
No, thank you.
Water? A can of soda?
Christi shook her head. Nothing, thank you.
So, what’s on your mind, Christi? Mike said, leaning on the desk with both elbows supporting his chin.
Christi felt perspiration forming under her arms again. She wondered if her face was red. She studied Mike’s face. His eyes were such a dark blue she suspected he was wearing colored contacts. Jerry’s eyes had been almost black. The man across from her was clean-shaven, with only the outline of a five o’clock shadow, and his graying brown hair was cut military style. Christi tried to imagine the thin, creased face plumper and unwrinkled with red pimples and a starter mustache, the forehead hidden behind greasy cords of hair. She wondered if he’d had a nose job too—she thought she remembered that Jerry’s nose had been slightly bent. Sitting up straight, Christi took a deep breath. Look, I don’t know how to say this, um, especially because it looks like you have your life in order now.
She watched as Pastor Mike’s eyebrows bent inwards. He crossed his arms that were thick with black hair, exactly like Jerry’s.
Look, Christi repeated, I don’t know how to say this this. She paused and then blurted out, I know who you are or were, what your real name is. Please don’t try to deny it; I recognized your scar.
He held out his right arm, palm up and pointed with his left hand. This?
Pastor Mike chuckled. Ah, my red badge of courage so to speak. I thought I was being a hero. The goliath of new kids was picking on my little brother and I just knew I had to be his David. This fifth grader was teasing my second grade brother every day. Well, one day this kid pushed my brother into a ditch and I lost it. I jumped him and the fight was on. Only it wasn’t much of a fight since he had a hundred or more pounds on me. And he pulled a knife. It was just a Swiss Army gadget, but that thing slashed my flesh but good. Fortunately two male teachers got on us before he hit a vein. Mike stopped talking and Christi saw him eyeing her.
Christi’s brow furrowed inward and an automated voice came out of her throat. How you got your scar isn’t why I’m here. I know your name is Jerry Houseman. We met at my high school, Phoenix Central, sophomore year, 1982.
I’m afraid you have me confused with someone else.
Christ felt her body temperature surge. No. You were visiting your cousin, Trevor Hansen, over the prom weekend. You met me and some of my friends at the dance. You were attending Casa Grande High at the time.
Sorry, Christi, I’m not Jerry Houser or whoever you said and I have no cousin named Trevor.
I don’t know how long you’ve gone by Mike Miller but that doesn’t erase who you once were.
Pastor Mike stood up. Okay, Christi. I can’t make you believe me, but I am not this Jerry man.
Christi stood up too. This isn’t going away. You raped me and I’m not going to remain silent now that I caught up with you.
Rape? Pastor Mike’s face turned bleach-white and Christi thought he might pass out.
Yes, Christi said, I’m not here to reminisce. I’m talking about a crime you committed. Against me.
This is outrageous! You, you can’t just accuse somebody of, of a horrendous crime without any proof! Pastor Mike screeched. After a moment’s pause he added, calmer, I may look like the man who raped you, but that doesn’t mean I’m the same person. Christi was looking at his arms and shoulders, noticing how rigid the muscles in them had become.
She tossed the hair out of her face and raised her chin. I suppose I should have known you wouldn’t admit it. I guess I thought you had been born again and would be able to admit the truth. You know you can’t hide under the cloth, Pastor Mike, she hissed. God sees right through it. And I’ll make sure His people do too.
Christi didn’t like how Pastor Mike was looking at her with eyes filled half with panic, half with concern. Christi, I am so sorry to hear you were raped. If you haven’t had it, I can find faith-based counseling for you.
Pretending to do your pastorly duty won’t save your hide. I came to you first instead of Pastor Mark and the elders to give you a chance to confess. I was fully prepared to forgive you, especially for your wife and children’s sakes. If you admit your guilt now you can save yourself and your family a lot of unwanted embarrassment and pain.
Christi, I don’t know why you refuse to believe I’m not Jerry . . . .
Mouths can lie but scars can’t. She turned and marched out of the office, ignoring Ann who sat at the desk her mouth agape.
. . .
How could you have done such a wicked thing? Keith yelled. He and Christi stood outside on the deck where she had escaped when he confronted her. She had just finished changing into shorts and a t-shirt when he arrived home furious.
Listen to me, Christi! Keith said, pulling her hands off her ears. Mike called me as soon as you left his office. You’ve got an innocent man fearing for his future and his family’s future, all because you’ve gone psycho over another psycho. What is wrong with you? I told you I was handling it. Today. I already got the information from Tim Freed. But that wasn’t good enough for you. You had to take matters into your own hands and screw with a poor man’s life.
Christi refused to answer. She leaned against the wooden railing letting the heat from it sear her folded arms. Her eyes looked out over the sand and scrub yard to the half-empty pool. She saw that dozens of prickly palo verde branches were floating along the scummy surface and wondered if swimming among them would hurt like being raped. You need to get the pool cleaned. It’s almost May.
I don’t know what to do with you, Christi, Keith said. Maybe you should get some help again. Dr. Martin from church is an expert in trauma recovery.
Christi turned and narrowed her eyes at her husband. She noticed that beads of sweat had formed on his upper lip. Oh, so now you’re on the rapist’s side,
she said. That’s what he suggested, that I get counseling. For your information, Keith, I don’t need psychological help. I need justice and closure. My rapist has been running loose for decades—it’s time for . . . .
You don’t know if he’s loose, Keith said. He could have been arrested and convicted on other charges or he may have died in prison . . . .
I always thought you were so reasonable, Christi said. We don’t need to speculate about Jerry Houseman any more. We know he’s free and living a phony life as a youth pastor named Mike Miller.
For God’s sake! Keith muttered. He went back inside the house, slamming the sliding glass door behind him.
After she heard Keith drive off, Christi went back inside the house. She grabbed the manila folders Keith had left on the kitchen counter and retreated with them to her desk. A couple hours into reviewing the documents, she had found nothing suspicious. She heard the school bus squealing to a halt out front and looked at the clock on the computer. Feeling like an about to be caught burglar, Christi grabbed her purse and rushed outdoors to greet her sons. She had pulled out a twenty dollar bill and the car keys by the time the teens reached her in the carport.
Hi, guys! she said. Listen, I’m working on something important right now. Can you go hang out at the Family Fun Stop? Grab some tacos, play some games for a couple hours?
Zach grabbed the money before Connor could. She took their backpacks from them and moved onto the walkway so Zach could back the car out. Squinting in the blinding afternoon light, Christi waved to them, shouting at Zach to slow down. She turned back to the house. She didn’t hear the vehicle as it followed her up the driveway. She was about to enter the carport when a truck door slammed. She felt her heart turn over.
It was Jerry’s voice, low, husky.
She turned around to face Pastor Mike. You have a lot of nerve coming here, Christi said, trying to steady the quiver in her voice. She felt her underarms moistening.
Standing in place, he held out a legal-sized envelope. You need to see this information.
Christi shook her head. I’ve already seen all the fake references you compiled. Keith got everything from Tim Freed.
Nothing in here is about me, Pastor Mike said. Christi noticed that his face was ashen and that his eyes had become slits inside swollen, red flesh. She fought off the urge to push him into the saguaro.
For your own peace, I urge you to look at what I have here. He took a step towards her, still holding out the envelope. Christi’s eyes sought out the cross-shaped scar on Mike’s wrist. In the hot light it looked blood red—his scarlet letter Christi thought. T for tormentor.