Greetings, fellow indie writers and readers! I am Beem Weeks, author of the historical fiction/coming-of-age novel JAZZ BABY and SLIVERS OF LIFE: A COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES. My goal in life is to promote the indie movement to the world. I can be found on Twitter @VoiceOfIndie and @BeemWeeks. I enjoy indie films, loud music, and a well told story. Lansing, Michigan, USA.
Slivers Of Life
It starts with that gnawing feeling, like a rat trying to chew its way through my stomach, making a meal of my guts as it escapes. I can always tell when a moment is about to turn dark and sordid. Usually, though, it has to do with too much drink, a word said in jest, feelings getting hurt, and a punch is thrown to alleviate said wounded feelings.
A fight? I can handle that.
Todd Colvin’s the one who pulled me off the line, putting Kenny Grimes in my place, telling me only that Mr.Tripp needed to see me in the front office.
The front office.
Personal request from Norman Tripp himself.
I expected a reprimand for some dereliction of duty, maybe even a layoff notice—which seemed likely, with the downturn in the economy. People just weren’t buying boats the way they once did.
But this had nothing to do with duties being overlooked or fat getting trimmed by way of a layoff.
Tripp’s eye drooped in a way suggesting avoidance. “You need to call your mother,” he said.
Surreal, I guess I’d call it, being in the big boss’s office, being told to call my mother.
I skipped formalities, said, “What for?”
Tripp just nodded toward the phone on the oversized desk meant to match an oversized ego. That’s why nobody in the plant liked this guy.
“There’s been a death,” he said, refusing to make eye contact.
That gnawing, it just wouldn’t let up. The rat proved determined to flee the scene as quickly as possible.
“Death?” I said, tasting those acrid letters on my tongue. “Who died?” Stalling tactics, sure; but I really didn’t want to make the call.
Tripp, coward that he is, just flinched a shrug. He knew already; knew it before I did.
For that, I wanted to punch him in the mouth.
The phone came heavy to my hand, like just maybe this was all a well-played joke, the receiver having been filled with lead or some other weighty substance. There’d even be a hidden camera capturing my surprised response.
If I’m the one who dialed the number, I don’t recall the act.
Mom’s voice trembled. “Danny died, Richie. Danny’s gone.”
My legs buckled; the floor raced up and kissed the side of my head.
My baby brother is no more.
* * *
Five years later, that day, that pain, still persists.
It’s a hole that can never be filled, leaving an open space where you just know something belongs, a thing that somehow escaped when I wasn’t paying attention.
A thing that will never return.
I don’t mean my brother as the thing, either. It goes deeper than that. I mean that place in life, of being a brother—that’s missing. I’m a son now, a father, an ex-husband, a friend, but never again will I be a brother. That’s gone, carried away by some force that answers to no man.
Carbon monoxide poisoning. That’s the official cause of death. A faulty furnace; a furnace he’d meant to have checked out before fall set in with its cooler nights.
I’d just turned eight when my parents divorced; Danny had been a month shy of four. Neither of us understood this idea of ending a marriage, of splintering a family. Who does that?
Danny became my shadow; he latched on, hoped that the rest of us wouldn’t drift too far from him, the way our father vanished. I think that’s why I carried around a need to watch over Danny, to protect him, keep him safe from bad things.
I failed, though.
* * *
I didn’t recognize the woman at the front door. Her type didn’t reside in my neighborhood. By type I mean classy, well-dressed, perfect hair, manicured nails—the kind who’s married to money and wouldn’t do anything stupid enough to jeopardize her good fortune.
“Richard Metzger?” She said it as if she couldn’t believe a mother might actually call her child by such a name.
I tipped a nod, shot a glance beyond her, searched the street for her vehicle, for signs of trouble. It’s that gnawing feeling that had me on edge. It always portends to something dark, some ominous piece of bad news, a thing I’m never quite expecting.
Her features called to mind a woman who grew up needy—emotionally and physically. Soft, yet jaded; unsure of herself or her place in the world.
“How long have you lived here?” she asked, brushing loose strands of blond hair from her cheek. Thirty, I’d guess; petite; certainly not a drinker or a smoker. She tacked on an afterthought. “If you don’t mind my asking, I mean.”
“I don’t own the place,” I explained, “so whatever you’re selling, you’ll have to take it up with the landlord.”
A shake of her head sent us down another road. “My son, he’s, well, I don’t know how to explain this without sounding crazy.” Her laugh came tight, stiff, the sort of laugh that reads forced.
A longer scan of her face found nothing familiar, no recollections of a possible previous encounter, of a night that might have produced another life.
“I can’t help you.” They were the first words I found in my mouth. “I mean, are you looking for something specific? What is it you expect from me? Child support?”
If I’d had three heads she couldn’t have looked at me with greater surprise. “Are you out of your mind?” she hissed. She backed off my front porch, set her black flats onto the cement walk, and eyed me like maybe she’d entertained notions of killing me there on the spot. “My son has memories, of things he’s never done, of instances from long before he came into this world. Things you might very well verify. But if you’re so arrogant as to think…”
She never did finish her tirade that day.
A week later, though, that’s when the rat began eating at my guts again.
* * *
“He’s got stories,” she explained, seated in my kitchen. “These aren’t the simple tales of a child, either” She set her elbows on the table, leaned closer, as if the two of us had agreed on some sort of conspiracy. “He tells of how you and him used to pin towels around your necks, how you’d be Batman and he’d always have to be Robin—since he’s the younger.”
I pulled a sip from my coffee cup. “Kids have been doing that since the first comic books came out. Maybe he saw other boys playing and wanted to be part of it.”
The woman would not be denied. “How would he know your name, your address, or that you’ve lived here for ten years?”
That didn’t mean a thing, I told myself. “Anything about me or anybody else can probably be found on the internet.” I think I said it as much for me as her.
“He’s five years old, Mr.Metzger. He can’t even read yet.”
“Then maybe you’re the one feeding him stories.”
“Why? Why would I do that?”
My shoulders sloughed off a shrug. “Why do Nigerians practice their scams on the internet?” I answered the question myself. “Because they’re driven by greed. Same as you. I’m not giving you one dime, lady.”
“You cut your head open when you were twelve. The doctor had to shave the area to get the stitches in—seven stitches—and your brother took to calling you Patch.” She said it as if she’d been there, had maybe lived in the neighborhood back then.
“Do you know me?” I asked. “Did you live on my street? What’s your angle? I mean, do I have to call the police?” Emotion sparked angry fires inside my chest, had me sifting for better things to say. “Why would you pick at that scab? My brother’s gone, lady!”
Her defense came hurried, frantic almost. “I’m just trying to find answers for my son.”
My fingers gripped her arm. It didn’t take much force to eject her from my home. “Find another victim, lady,” I said, slamming the door on the very idea.
* * *
“Go to the police,” my mother said, “get one of those restraining orders, keep her away from you.”
I dropped onto the sofa in her new apartment, pondered a thought or two. I asked, “Do you remember when I cut my head open?”
Mom said, “Seven stitches, if I recollect.”
“Do you remember what Danny started calling me?”
A smile played on her lips, as if a long-neglected memory suddenly showed itself alive and well. “Patch,” she said, nearly whispering the word. “And you’d get so angry—but you were always so quick to forgive him.”
“She knew about Patch and the seven stitches—her son knew, I mean.” I shifted on the sofa, stared blankly at the photograph of me and Danny, aged eighteen and fourteen, taken during the summer of 1985. “Maybe I should meet this boy, at least hear him out.”
Mom grew adamant. “There is no such thing as reincarnation, Richie. That’s not Christian!”
I never mentioned that word myself—though the concept did lurk just outside the periphery of my mind. I could feel it there, staring, stalking, daring me to take hold and examine such a notion.
“I know, Mom,” I said, gaining my feet. “It’s not Christian.”
* * *
“Suppose you tell me a few things,” I said, eyeing the blond-headed boy with suspicion. I shifted in my seat, uncomfortable with this whole notion his mother intended to drop in my lap. It had to be the mother’s idea; boys his age aren’t capable of such scams. “Tell me something nobody but Danny and I know about.”
We sat in a corner booth at Pelligrino’s Diner—a place Danny never visited. Danny hated Itailian food. Tomatoes made him sick; didn’t matter if they were raw, stewed, or turned into sauce. Weird kid—wouldn’t even eat pizza!
Blue eyes gawked at me, as if the kid meant to memorize every line in my face; his shy stare gave away nothing showing familiarity.
The woman, the ringleader in this charade, gave her charge a nudge, whispered a thing in his ear.
His voice came low, hushed, as if afraid of being heard. “I don’t like it here,” he said.
I seized the moment, meaning to intimidate him into folding, to copping to the lie they sought to conceal. “Why don’t you like it here? What’s wrong with this place? They’ve got great food.” That’s when I pulled out the ace. “Are you hungry? You want a plate of spaghetti? The sauce is the best in town.”
The boy’s head tipped a nod.
Ten minutes. That’s all the time it took for that plate to be put in front of him, for this little boy to shovel noodles and tomato sauce into his mouth—a thing Danny would be mortified to do.
I said nothing, though; kept the facts to myself, I did.
“What’s your name, son,” I asked, watching the tiny kid make short work of Pelligrino’s best.
Sauce dripped from his chin, spotted his clean white shirt. “Toby,” he said, glancing at his mother, as if searching for the correct answer.
“Your mom says you’re Danny.”
He dispensed a smile, allowed the woman to wipe his face, said, “I used to be Danny—until that day.”
I don’t know why but the kid made me uncomfortable. “What day are you talking about?” I asked.
“The day the poison made me die.”
“Poison? What poison is that, Toby.”
“The kind from the heater.”
It was in the newspaper. The local TV news ran a story on Danny’s misfortune, a warning to get your furnace checked each year.
“But now I’m just Toby,” he explained. “That’s how come I like tomatoes now.”
* * *
“Who’s that?” My finger pointed toward the framed photo of a young girl occupying space on my living room wall.
Toby gave up a childish shrug.
“Don’t know?” I said it with a harshness I’d never imagined using against a little boy. “You should know her name without any hesitation.”
He moved in closer, studied the grainy black and white image as if seeing it for the very first time. “I don’t remember her,” is what he said.
The mother spoke up, asked, “Who is she?”
I refused to give that away, though. It’s something I possessed and he didn’t. We knew all about our great-grandmother, Danny and I did. She’d been a famous jazz singer way back in the twenties and thirties. We even stayed with her, back when she lived on Park Avenue in New York City. Spent a whole month with her in 1975 while our parents fought over who’d get what in the divorce.
“Danny would remember her,” I told nobody in particular. “It was the greatest summer of our childhood.”
Toby’s head bobbled a nod; the words fell from his mouth in rushed excitement. “That big apartment with all those things from the olden days!”
He got that part right, but I still wasn’t convinced. “Who is she then?” I asked again.
Another shy shrug, is all the boy managed. He knew nothing of her name, her relationship to me, or of her once-high station in this world. He had bits and pieces—certainly not enough to be Danny.
But still, facts came to light:
Toby had been born on May 3, 2008, the same day Danny died.
Toby recalled the name of Danny’s kindergarten teacher without hesitation.
Toby described the stuffed giraffe Danny clung to every night until sixth grade.
And yet he didn’t know the name of the street we lived on before the divorce, couldn’t recall my daughter’s cat’s name—a cat Danny bought for her, and had no recollection of Angie Beckham, our babysitter from 1976 until 1978, a teenage girl who, on more than one occasion, showed us her breasts.
Who forgets a memory like that?
“You’ve done your homework,” I said to the mother. “But it’s not enough to convince me of anything.”
I meant to angle them toward the door, to send them on their way; but the boy, this kid Toby, the one claiming to be my baby brother come back from the dead, pulled away, broke for the corner like he’d been sent there for punishment, and closed his eyes as if in prayer.
“Mr. Morgan,” he said, his voice strong and sure. “Remember what I told you about Mr. Morgan?”
* * *
Toby referred to that slipping of memory as “the distance.” He sounded more a man than child. It just happens, he claimed, that forgetfulness that creeps in as he grows older. Things remembered yesterday are lost fragments today; tomorrow, they’d be dust.
I don’t believe in reincarnation—even after the details Toby presented concerning Danny’s mid-afternoon stumble into our parents room just before our father moved out. He knew all about seeing Mr. Morgan, the manager from the bank where my mother worked, in bed with mom. He told me about it the day it happened. But I didn’t want to hear it. I swore Danny to secrecy, made him promise he’d never tell another soul.
Danny’s word held fast.
There were only two people outside of the guilty couple who knew about my mother’s indiscretion from all those years ago. One is dead and buried in Mount Carmel Cemetery.
As I said, I don’t believe in souls changing bodies. But I can’t deny this kid, either. He’s got Danny’s memories—though they fade in content with each passing day.
I promised the boy I’d be here for him, ready to listen as he recalls this moment or that one, recollects some generic summer day I’d long forgotten. He’d lost interest in sharing, though. Maybe he just wanted to get it all out before settling into a childhood of his own.
Is there something to this reincarnation idea, or has my chain just been yanked? I can’t say for sure either way. The only notion I am certain of is this: we’ll all find out for ourselves one day. As Jim Morrison once sang: No one here gets out alive.
** END **
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