"Erected by City of Cook City....As a tribute to those who gave their lives to preserve a free nation...A.D. 1967. Mayor Raymond G. Harrison," hand curled tightly around a cup of genuine Heather's Donut Shop cocoa, smile of joy painfully stubborn on my stupid face, I turned to him, "any relation?"
He gave me that world-weary glare of sarcasm, but somewhere in the translation I detected that a hint of soulful connection crept in. He was wearing his glasses. Maybe that had distorted the whole intended effect. I could only smile back like a lunatic, balancing on the edge of the dedication plaque that sat in front of the Cook City War Memorial Park monument.
I remember when The Cook City War Memorial Park was little more than a glorified swamp sitting incongruously in the middle of the waterfront suburban district of our town. Little by little, over the course of a few years, it became a very presentable place. The monument had always been there, but for the better half of the last twenty years it had been covered with lush vegetation and not-so-lush mildew and dust. There had also been rumors of alligators living in the lake. But now the grass was green, the monument was surrounded by a bleached-cement rotunda, and there was not a trace of amphibious life in the surrounding water. A little bayou ran through the park, circling the awkwardly-shaped clearing on which the war monument proudly stood. It looked like a moat.
"The Cook City War Memorial Park," I replied almost immediately when he asked me if I knew of a place he could go to sit and think. I had meant it as a personal recommendation, some place he could go on a quiet Saturday and sit alone, possibly to get some work done and re-evaluate his life. If he happened to run into me on those quiet Saturdays, all the better. But he insisted on seeing the place in my company and I wasn't about to argue. He had been driving me home for three weeks. It had been a horrendous wait, and admittedly I had been looking for a chance to extend our afternoons. "Yeah, you know the place. Up on Thatcher Court, near the Bay."
"Eww, that place? Last time I went it looked like shit...pardon my French."
"No prob. They've spruced it up. So you think a girl like me would be seen in a shithole on a regular basis, Harrison?"
"You do live in Cook City, Helen," he mumbled. Clever bastard. There was a pause as he looked for an opening in traffic. As his hands gracefully turned the wheel, he continued, "besides, didn't a lady get mauled by an alligator down there a few years ago?"
"Where the hell did you hear that?" He had made me laugh this time. Clever fucking bastard.
"I don't know, the news or something. Which way?"
"To the park or to my house? You didn't hear shit on the news. That's all a rumor, and from what I've heard, an alligator was only sighted."
"To the park. Just promise me I won't get mauled."
"Why are you taking me to the park? Turn right up here. I promise you will not get mauled. Why are you taking me to the park?"
"Right here, or at that light? I'm taking you because I need to know how to get there, first of all, and second of all, I hate to go to a new place alone."
"Right at the light, fool. Um...all right, but it really isn't much. A bunch of old people walking and a lot of grass. There's a little monument on this island-thing they have in the middle of the park. They basically built a bayou around it. Looks like a moat."
"All right then, I still want you to justify why you like it so much. Consider it payback for all these rides home."
"I'm still making an ‘A', that's payment enough."
We stopped the conversation with a mutual grin and a stunted laugh. I didn't want to spoil the casual mood by ripping his clothes off at that very moment. I was starting to feel sorry for the poor beautiful thing, so I would have to find an excuse to energize our relationship very soon. For the moment, however, I would settle for things as they were.
Which brought us nearly every ensuing afternoon to the park. Me teetering on the edge of the dedication plaque, spouting inane witticisms, and Harrison grading papers as he sat on one of the seven benches that circled the monument. That day, I think he was sitting on the bench with the Air Force emblem chiseled crudely onto its surface. Each of the benches represented a different branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, and the chiseler had done an extraordinarily half-assed job. Most likely a Cook City native who didn't give a fuck about the military. But I'd never know. Really, I didn't care. The sun was setting earlier in the evening and I had to be home before dark.
"We should go soon." I said to Franklin Harrison, hopping off of the plaque and gulping down the last of my cocoa.
He looked up and nodded slowly. "You are very right," he seemed distracted. For a moment my heart leapt as I realized that he was leering, critically and ponderously, at me. Caught in a frozen beat of time, I tried to read his thoughts. And suddenly he pointed at the cup in my hand, "did you drink all that cocoa just now?"
"Um...yeah." I held the cup upside-down.
~*A CHOICE OF HORN AND IVORY*~
And the foolish dance in sacred places.
What was I doing, you can ask me now, now that I see that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Science was right all along. But I am an English man, not a Science man, and I still don't believe the reaction counts when the trap was set for you all along. Then again, when I met Helen, I still believed that friendship in this world could come without passion, and shortly after that passion could come without strings. Once upon a time I also believed in the Tooth Fairy. All moot. I'm aiming a gun at Helen Bartness' face and I'm wondering how are the mighty fallen?
What was I doing?
I was sitting on the rugged bench with the Marines emblem. Helen was laying down on the bleached-white cement of the rotunda below me, running her fingers over her exposed midriff as she sang a tune I didn't recognize right away.
"When the deep purple falls, over sleepy garden walls...."
"Helen, what is with high school girls?"
"And the stars begin to–huh?"
I pushed at the bench with the palms of my hands, so that my shoulders were in a permanent shrug. "You know, high school girls. You have to know what I'm talking about, you wrote that short story a few weeks ago about how much you hate being an outcast."
"Oh, excuse me," stern, loveless Helen, "that was a fictional story, mister, and just because it happened to be in first person doesn't mean I was talking about me."
Pause. Knit eyebrows. Do not look at her stomach. "Were you?"
"Okay, yeah, fine, I was. So what's it to you?"
"It was a good story," unwilling to lose my subject, I jumped back into it like hopping a runaway train, "anyway! Are high school girls as terrifying as they seem to a naive old man?"
A smile appeared on her face for an instant, like the subliminal messages they program into movies that say ‘buy popcorn' and ‘consume mass quantities of Goobers', and then disappeared. I didn't even have time to worry about it. "They're more so. At least to me."
A scoffing laugh from my lips made her pull herself up into a sitting position. It was our fourth Thursday at the park and I was actually learning how to relax. Watching Helen and learning from her, I became keenly aware that the world of high school I knew was a complete disgrace of what it meant to be young. In fact, we had concluded after a poignant discussion about school clubs and organizations, some children were just meant to be adults before their time, and some adults were meant to remain children forever. The only problem is that some children can't be adults, destiny or not. But it never takes much effort to remain a child. And now Helen, who would just as soon recite the laws of nuclear physics as run off and climb a tree, was making me rethink age as an indicator of maturity.
"So do you also get this feeling, every now and then, that you're just doing everything wrong in their eyes?"
Her voice had a way of taking on this sinister sarcastic chirp when she became suspicious. "Harrison, why would you want to impress high school girls?"
"You know I don't mean it that way," I was comfortable talking with her at this point. Comfortable enough to rightly assume that she was only baiting me. I stood up and walked over to the monument, keeping my hands in my pockets so that I retained that permanent shrug, "I mean, people are supposed to like me, right? I'm the young, easy-going, non-threatening teacher, right?"
"You're a loser, Harrison." She mumbled.
Creeping bemusement in her lips as those magmous eyes set rifle sight on mine. "You, sir, are a loser. A dweeb. A dork. You're a babbling, high-strung dupe. We constantly take advantage of you. If you want to know what your problem is, it's right there. You're non-threatening, yes, but way too non-threatening. You're going to lose your job if anyone finds out."
She looked at me as if I had confused my ass with a hole in the ground. "Any of your teaching tactics. Your magnanimous grading curve, for starters....your lackadaisical attendance policies, your way of backing down at the slightest complaint....you let the students control the classroom, and, while it's pretty damn cool for us, I'm sure the administration wouldn't be jazzed about the idea. That's also why the girls...not to mention the boys, who wouldn't even plot to egg your car on Halloween because they were afraid it would hurt your feelings...laugh at you and think you're positively the most adorable thing in the world. There's a fine line between a cat who looks unthreatening and a cat who's been declawed, dear. Hence, your failing. What you need is some balls, Harrison."
What had Helen just said to me?
"Wait, wait, wait, you're getting carried away."
She was sitting cross-legged, leaning over her lap and more or less mumbling at me. "Get used to it. I just call ‘em as I see ‘em."
"Are you saying I'm....wait. I can't believe you. I don't need to have this conversation with you."
"You asked me if I find high school girls frightening. I said yes. I tried to explain why you feel the same way. And now you're attacking me for it. I don't–"
"Okay, wiseass, why are you afraid of your peers?"
"Because they are so unthreatening it clears my skin to be around them.....compared with myself, of course."
"You're threatening." I said flatly, incredulously, still mentally digesting her attack at my manhood.
A philosophe in a blue tank top nodded at me.
"How are you threatening, Helen?"
"Stand right there." She said, and in a moment she was on her feet, wiping the sand from her bottom and walking toward me. I looked away for a time, trying hard to maintain a certain level of ennui. Until I could feel her next to me, and smell the light fragrance of her perfume, I didn't say a word or look in her direction. "Okay, okay, look at me."
I found myself in a staring contest with the queen Banshee herself. I knew what she was doing, and I tried to keep my poker face as those eyes burned through me, laser-locked, her eyebrows falling like scythes over the curve of her gently sloping forehead. Her thin pink lips, tightly drawn together as her eyes demanded my surrender. They pounded the order into my brain: submit, submit, submit....until finally I got her point.
"Jesus Christ." I looked away and laughed.
It was the first time I felt the haunting pang which was a precursor to the gnawing storm of anger that would eventually grow inside my stomach. It was the determined force which was trying desperately to deny what I had just considered. The thoughts in my head were being negated by my digestive system for some reason, and it hurt.
What was I doing? What was I doing facing away from Helen and suddenly wanting to tell her how beautiful she was? The innocent intent of such a comment would have been moot; the mootness of intention seemed to increase exponentially with every year of age difference. My brain steamed ahead, and my sensible side took control again, realizing that rumors of lecherous men had been borne out of far less conspicuous situations. My heart beat faster. My mind raced and my smile faded. What was I doing? What had I been doing for the last month, thinking that being chaffeur for one of the most beautiful, albeit antisocial, girls at Cook High School wouldn't get me noticed?
I wheeled around nervously when I felt Helen's hand on my shoulder, squeezing lightly with a familiar touch that should not have existed. Her skin was hot through the thin fabric of my shirt, and my train of thought, formerly focused and right on time, suddenly jumped the track.
"Going psycho, Harrison?" she asked with a deep giggle that was, if nothing else, intimidating.
"You're going home, Helen."
She shrugged, as if she had been expecting her sudden expulsion. "Told you." she said cryptically as she began to walk the long trail back to the small sandy parking lot. I took a moment to collect my bearings and my things, and watched her slim, shapely body slinking away. She lifted her muscular arms over her head and twined them, in an odd fashion reminiscent of a Moroccan belly dancer. She swayed her head calmly back and forth, and I knew that she was either laughing or humming, her eyes probably closed, her balance as intuitive and blind as ever. The enchantress was walking away from me, casting a spell in her wake, and I could only begin to fathom what the damn thing would do to me.
It began to work before I even reached the car, and her siren song drifted in the wind and met my ears, calling me forward...
"...through the mist of a memory, you wander on back to me...breathing my name, with a si-ii-yii-hii-yi-iigh, ooo-oo...in the still of the night, once again I hold you tight....though you're gone your love lives on, when moonlight beams....and as long as my heart will beat, my lover we'll always meet....here in my deep purple dreams....oh-wooah-oh....oh-wooah-oh...."
The sound gently fading along with my grasp on the situation, which was already as weak as a newborn kitten.
~*~The next week I thought of nothing else but trying not to think about Helen.
I dialed a number without thinking, without even really knowing who I was calling, just to talk to someone, just to get my mind off the vile temptress in the plaid pants. As the ringing came through on the other end, I suddenly wondered who would pick up. It was almost like some great neurotic escapist lottery.
The voice took no time to place. Of course it was the first number I had dialed, it was the only number I needed to remember. The lightly sarcastic, inexplicably enigmatic voice I was said to have inherited a bit. It was my financial backup. It was the person with whom I would eventually be splitting my parents' estate. It was my brother.
"Floyd. It's Frank."
Floyd. Neither of us had ever understood what the parental units had been thinking. It was either a reference to psychedelic rock or a television barber, and either way it had made for an unfortunate social situation with young Floyd Avery Harrison. He had come along seven years before me, and by the time I was born there was little doubt that all the aggression the little son of a bitch had for his first name would be directed at me. After all, I'd gotten off lucky. Franklin Allen. The same initials, but fortunately for me a more conventional name.
"Frank! To what do I owe the honor?"
Details are vague for the first ten years. I remember that once he hit me with an aluminum baseball bat, and, there being no witnesses, we were never able to determine whether it was an accident. I learned everything from Floyd, most especially pain.
"I don't quite know, I was just calling to check up on things. How's the wife?"
As a morbidly ironic twist, Floyd had been on the baseball team during high school. Floyd was awarded a car on his sixteenth birthday. Floyd lost his virginity two weeks later. When I was eleven, he bet one of his girlfriends (she was a redhead. I remember that much) to pretend she was in love with me. It was a very cruel joke. It may explain my current condition or it may not. I spent the first half of my life hating Floyd.
"Gayle, she's fine. The kids are back in school so of course things are a little easier. Hey–are we still on for January?"
He got some souped-up athletic scholarship, went to Duke, and ended up a systems analyst at some big deal digital communications company. I stopped hating him a little when I realized he hated his job. He married a skinny, lifeless southern belle from Charleston and moved there shortly after. She blessed him with four kids, one right after the other, until finally medical steps were taken to ensure population control and Floyd's sanity. Three girls, the youngest a boy. He was one of those guys who carried a ‘World's Greatest Dad' mug to work and developed a nervous twitch from repressed aggression. I wouldn't hand him an aluminum baseball bat now if my life depended on it.
"Oh, yeah, yeah! January 17th, right, on your way to Detroit?"
A business trip kind of guy. And I didn't even need to cross-analyze the situation to know beyond the shadow of a doubt that he had never laid a hand on another woman in all these years. While I was ashamed to say I had been without pussy in a year, I shuddered to think of Floyd's predicament and considered myself lucky. Gayle was a blue-blood who may have been lovely in high school. The kind of woman who was made to look beautiful in a wedding gown and go downhill from there. So in a way, talking to Floyd made me feel much better. He was a man in his prime, stuck in bedlam with four snot-nosed hellions, his only outlet for passion being a woman who appeared to be doing a non-stop bad impression of an anorexic Blanche Dubois, and he was a Harrison. On the inside he was screaming bloodiest murder. I saw his eyes going from loving, serene, and unassuming to the most frighening fucking glare you've ever seen. I call it the married man switch. It was all over him.
"Yes, yes. Hey–how's the teaching biz, bro, any prospects?"
The son of a bitch talked about ‘prospects' every time we spoke, as if nothing was ever good enough. Like a salesman. I would never be able to say ‘well, I'm just fine where I am,' either, because there was some irrepressible urge in my heart to constantly prove him wrong, to constantly be better than him, and to constantly make him sorry he had asked.
"Actually, there's an opening at the Community College so I hope my name will crop up," all lies, but I had stopped giving a damn ten years ago, "but you know as well as I do that dynasties begat dynasties out there, and they probably won't want to take their chances on a guy with a bachelor's degree."
Staring, dead-eyed, drawn into a kind of angry trance, I mouthed his response as he spoke it.
"Well, hate to say I told you so, but that's what you get for not finishing college." He was eating something as he talked to me. Something crunchy, but not crunchy enough to be an outright annoyance. It was the noise of your car when you just go ahead and assume ‘it'll be okay', the noise that just lingers in the background, which you disregard even though you know eventually, one day when you least expect it, it will drive you insane.
I wisely neglected the college discussion and, in my best mock-innocent voice, addressed the situation. "Say, did I interrupt dinner or something?"
"Oh! Oh, Frank, I'm sorry, I'm just grabbing a quick snack. Kinda rude, I know, but that's just me," a pause during which I rolled my eyes and threw up my left arm in disgust, gesturing ‘what a bastard!' to any invisible stalkers who may have been lounging in my dining room, "but anyway, getting back to it, the digital business is absolutely on fire these days....if you want in at the ground floor I can offer you a sweet little deal. I've got benefits coming out of my ass with this company, I swear–"
"Floyd, I want you to tell me I'm doing well right now."
Wow. Sudden decision to be blunt, and it felt tremendous.
Of course, he took a few seconds to digest it, but he could have been choking on his quick snack and I probably wouldn't have noticed.
"Say what, Frank?"
I took a deep breath so that he could hear my frustration. "Floyd, I'm in a really weird emotional position down here. I need you to just...you know....be a brother for a few minutes. Don't be dad."
I heard him switch hands with the phone. "Whoa, whoa, whoa–I'm being dad? Why the sudden tension, Frank?"
"Floyd, are you listening?"
"Of course I am. What's going on? What, did some girl break your heart? Chrissake, you didn't get fired, did you, Frank?"
So he mentioned the word ‘girl' and suddenly my brain was full of Helen, whose name I only now realized was so close to being ‘Heaven.' I only now imagined that smooth, deep voice of hers telling me to hang up the phone, maybe to call her, because it was the only way I would stop thinking about her. My hand flew to my forehead and I started to pace wildly, dizzy like I would fall any second, but just collected enough to realize that all of this was happening.
"No, no, I'm just–confused. About everything."
"Frank, you just need to–oh, hey, I reeea-lly hate to do this to you, but I have another call coming through, and I have a sneaking suspicion that it might be Gayle. I really need to take this, if you don't mind." I wouldn't have minded if he had been about to tell me the meaning of life. One more second listening to that vaguely contented, undeniably masculine voice, and I would have been ready to do Helen's every bidding, just to shut him the fuck up.
"Oh, I'm not stopping you."
"Well...I'll call you back, okay?"
I hung up on my own brother and dragged my feet to the kitchen, where I pulled out a bottle of vodka and dedicated my Friday night to passing out on my own couch while watching ‘Star Trek' reruns. To be on the safe side, I disconnected the phone. To be on the even safer side, I put a thick black mark over Helen's phone number where it was written in my contacts book, ‘just in case of emergency.'