In desperate times desperate people head here – an online journal of Apocalyptic-themed fiction and commentary.

A Triptych

Copyright © 2006 by Stephen MacKinnon. All rights reserved.

A Triptych (Selling George, Clint’s Final Departure, How a Good Man’s Heart Was Broken)

Selling George

Everything had to go — furniture, dishes, and various other odds and ends too numerous to name. It was all spread out on the lawn of my childhood home. My mother’s Medicaid application was being held up due to a hideous mound of recently discovered debt incurred by my late father under several aliases. Drastic measures were needed and I was taking them.

It was mid-afternoon and I was punchy from the July heat, so whatever people offered me, if it was reasonable, I took. Fifty for the mahogany dining room set, sixty for the china, a dollar for my sister’s old Walton’s lunchbox (with Thermos) that I knew could get appraised on Antiques Roadshow for a hundred. I just wanted to get it over with.

An elderly lady pulled in and offered me twenty five for George the gargoyle that was bolted to the front stone wall. She was driving a rusted old Buick.

“Forty. He’s hand-made. And Welsh.”

“Does it ward off ghosts?” she asked.

“I suppose.”

“Good. You’re offering free delivery, I see. I only live down the road.” She gave me an address, and handed me three wrinkled tens, a five, four ones, and four quarters.

“I’ll need help getting him off my truck.”

“That’s okay. My neighbors will be there.”

I wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. My worst fear? That she would change her mind and I’d lose the forty bucks.

     As I loosened up the bolts that held George onto the wall, I told him he was going to a new home and better be good at warding off ghosts, which I think was the original purpose of gargoyles in medieval times. Why she wanted him, though, was beyond me. I felt bad for her. I felt bad period.

     My father had gotten George from the trash heap at the municipal water company twenty, twenty five years ago, and given it to my sister as one of our Christmas gifts. We named him George after St. George, slayer of dragons. My father used to tell people that George was a specially commissioned piece, comparing him to the many fine examples of turn-of-the-century English iron work around town, such as door coverings, gates, and miles of spear-head fence. They never doubted him; nobody ever doubted him, which is part of the reason I feel so ashamed about having to sell all of my mother’s earthly belongings just so she will have a dignified modicum of care.

I found the lady’s house easily, and backed my truck in. I hadn’t had room to bring with me the engine hoist I’d used to get him on the truck, so I hoped there would be somebody there to help me lift his 150-pound girth off the truck. It was a simple white colonial, not the tarot card reading den I had been imagining, which made me uneasy.

When I turned the ignition off, a skinny guy about my age came around my side of the truck and said, “Give her money back.” He wore dirty jeans and smelled like Skoal.

“And you are?”

“Never mind. Just give the money back and get out of here.”

“I’m expected,” I said.

I saw the lady on the front stairs with a small group of people roughly her age. “Anybody got an engine hoist?” I asked. Nobody answered.

As the guy went over under a sprawling oak tree and dialed his cell phone, I took out of the barn two heavy planks suitable for sliding George off the truck bed. Setting the planks on the edge of the tailgate, I said, “George, hold tight, old boy. You might come down hard.” As I struggled, pebbles of sweat dripped from my forehead and rolled down and off my neck onto George’s back. When I got him onto the ground, I wiped him clean with Windex.

Then I heard a tractor pull up and stop right in front of my truck.

“That your magic potion?” It was an older, raspy male voice. I looked up. “This it?” he asked the skinny guy, who nodded. The older man said, “Give Mrs. White her money back.” He put a big hand on my right shoulder like he was going to bounce me. I shrugged it off. He pulled out a gun, a .22 pistol — a squirrel gun, which in hindsight shouldn’t have intimidated me the way it did, but it made everything around me, including my voice, freeze instantly.

“I said, Give her the money, and then get that piece-of-shit whatever you call it back on that shit box of yours and beat it. I only warn once.”

“Can — can we talk?”

“Sure, let’s start with why you said this’d ward off ghosts. This lady’s husband died. He keeps her up at night, wandering, wailing. Terrible tractor accident.”

“I never said it warded off ghosts.”

“Yes you did,” said the woman, as she re-appeared on the stoop with her neighbors. “You said just that.”

“You said that. I just said ‘I suppose.'”

“You said, ‘It will.'”

The farmer cocked his pistol. I walked over and gave the money back to the lady. I repeated that I had not said “will” and was not lying, but it was no use. Nobody made eye contact with me, and I had every reason to fear being shot.

I went over to George and crouched down. I slid my hands under his rump. When I lifted, something snapped in my lower back. George thudded to the ground. His tail broke into a million pieces, and everyone applauded.

Clint’s Final Departure

     Whenever he hears a piece of glass break, Clint opens the notebook that lies on MY living room table and enters the exact time and place it broke. The title is Shattered Glass: Remains of A Shattered Utopia.

     Against my better judgment, I brought him to a spiritual healer, but all she gave us were cheap beads and false hope.

“You’ve got a week, Clint,” I said afterward the session. “One week.”

“I thank you, White. So does the future of music.”

This afternoon, I walked in and he was still here. I put my actuarial study guide on the foyer table and squatted in front of his perch on the couch. It appeared he hadn’t moved all day.

“It’s – it’s coming to me, White.” He had on the same sweats he’d been wearing all week.

“You okay?”

“I’m hatching.”

“Seriously, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing, I’m fine. Grab your guitar, hombre, and let’s strum down.”

“You’re supposed to be gone.”

“I’ve been thinking about something.”

“What?”

He closed his eyes and mumbled one of his unintelligible chants.

“Clint, just say what it is.”

He grinned boyishly. “This, White, has been the best week of my life. I feel re-born. New lease on life, richer purpose. Life is short, White. God-given talent is rare. I don’t want us turning fifty thinking could’ve, should’ve, would’ve.”

I threw his notebook out the open window.

He ran to the sill and stuck his head out. “Fucking crazy? What’d you do that for?”

“Go get it.”

It had landed in the gutter, opened to Smashed Windshield, 9:14.

“You realize what this means.”

“I don’t care, Clint.”

“This is an omen-type thing. Smashed windshield, gas guzzlers, Screw Fat Detroit. How’s that for a grunge title? Da-da-bump-bump. Come on, grab your guitar and strum it out, old boy. Back me up. White?”

“It’s over, Clint. O-ver. Done. Finished. We don’t play anymore.”

I turned to walk back inside.

“Oh, Jesus, White, come on. White? You’re not serious. What about my clothes? My pills?”

“I’ll throw them down.”

“Where am I going to go?”

“I don’t care, Clint.”

“And you don’t feel anything?”

“I’m not saying it again.”

How A Good Man’s Heart Was Broken

     When my divorced mother was carrying my little brother Louis, she was convinced the walls were on fire. Every night, she sent me across the meadow to get Ernie Foster.

     I hated to bother the man at night, but without hesitation he’d pull on his firefighting coat and next be holding his infra-red scanner against the suspect wall. You see, the depressing peeling paint, rattling plumbing, drafty floor boards served as a coarse reminder of the life my father, a surgeon, had stolen away and given to a younger woman from a land-owning Boston family. My mother, I think, simply wanted to pass on the hurt that was scorching her heart.

“No fire in any of these walls, Rose.”

“Sure?”

“Positive.”

“Please keep looking.”

Like an indentured servant, he dutifully checked every room, even the basement. I held the flashlight as he knelt and felt underneath the furnace for whatever — a loose fitting, a leak. I liked his easy, non-judgmental nature.

“Now I think I smell gas,” my mother would say from the top of the stairs.

“Just the test valve, Rose.”

“Yeah, just the test valve, Ma.”

“Well, okay, you’re here. Let me at least give you a cup of coffee.”

From their conversations, it was clear he liked my mother — a young, pretty nurse, once mistaken for Jackie Kennedy during the President’s back surgery in Boston — but his repetitious comments about the weather obviously bored her.

It was something minor he had said that flipped her expression from faux affection to flaming outrage — something like “I know it’s been a little rough for you, but this too shall pass.”

“Rough? Did you just say rough?”

He nodded.

“What — what a rude, absolutely childish thing to say. I’ll have you know, Mr. Foster, there is nothing rough about my life.”

“Pardon?”

“I believe an apology is most in order.”

Puzzled, maybe shocked, he demanded one. That only fanned the flames.

As I walked him home, he begged for a way — any way — to make it right, but maintained it wasn’t his fault. I may have blamed fatigue, not a lie. Later, out of compassion for all involved, maybe out of confusion about the complexity of adult emotions, I did nothing to try to patch things up, except wave when I saw him, which he always did back.

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