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Vol. 4, No. 2

Bliss
by Dale Peck

~

That night I dreamed about Shenandoah Manson. I dreamed I measured every single part of his body with a tailor's tape, chest and waist, wrists and ankles, fingers and toes even, and then I sewed him a new suit of skin, this one fresh and white, clean of tattoos and history. He'd grinned sheepishly when I asked about the tattoos. They used to steal his glasses, he said, and they wouldn't give them back until he submitted one more time. Dumb asses could draw okay but they sure couldn't spell. He held out his arm: Jezus.
    In the morning I knocked on the door to the maid's room before pushing it open. Shen slept through my knock, facedown on the little twin I'd bought a few weeks before he was paroled. He'd managed to undress before falling atop the sheets, and on his uncovered skin I could see more tattoos: a vine-wrapped cross on his calf, a snake's rattle-tail curled around his waist, and, on each shoulder blade, a little flightless wing. The rest of his skin was as pale and new as I'd dreamed it, save for a thin patch of hair above the label of his inside-out underwear (I could see him, glasses off, blurrily pulling them on at the sound of yesterday's reveille bell). The wings on Shen's shoulder blades flapped as he rubbed the hairs on the part of his back I was looking at, and then some prison sense must have told him he was being watched because his hand froze and his eyes sprang open. For a moment they were filled with fear and confusion, and even as he felt for his glasses on the floor I saw the two faded indentations high on his nose, and then his glasses were on his face and the confusion left his eyes, but not, immediately, the fear. He tried to smile, but it came off as a grimace, the grimace of a teenaged boy who looked incapable of killing a fly, let alone a woman.
    "Aw, man. What'd you put in my drink?"
    "You're out of practice. You'll get used to it."
    Shen grimaced again. "Maybe I should quit while I'm ahead."
    "I'm going to work. I thought you might like to go."
    "Go?"
    "To work. With me. I talked to my supervisor, he said he could probably get you something in the warehouse. You don't have anything else lined up, do you?"
    "Well, as a matter of fact, no."
    "Good. You can drive me. Better get a move on, we'll be late."
    In the car he was a kid again, a cocky seventeen-year-old whose rap sheet was filled with nothing more serious than a string of B-and-E's. He tilted the seat back, rolled up his sleeve before letting his tattooed arm hang out the open window; if he could have seen the front of the car without them, I'm sure he would have taken off his glasses. "Damn," he said. "Wish I still smoked. Car like this deserves a cigarette." He gunned it, and the speedometer's upward surge was matched by the gas gauge's downward spiral. "Fuck you, OPEC." He looked at me. "Goddamn camel jockeys took the fun outta everything." Ten hours later we were back at the kitchen table. Empty plates were pushed to one side, drinks sat between us, just pop this time, cold cans perspiring in the warm air. The workday had lasted two decades: Shen's five-o'clock shadow was tinged with gray, and the hand he ran over his lined forehead revealed a receding hairline. His prison burden weighed heavy on his back tonight, and he slouched in his chair, occasionally stealing glances at me from the corner of his eye.
    Finally I said, "Shoot."
    Shen jumped. "Huh?"
    "What's on your mind, Shen? You haven't said two words since we left work."
    "Oh. It's just you said--" He pointed his finger at me, pulled the trigger, and then he looked a little shocked and he put his hand on his chair, under his leg. He was silent for another moment and then he said, "It's just--the house, the car, the job. It's a little much, especially on my first full day out. Don't get me wrong, man. It's not that I ain't grateful."
    "One of the things they say in Group--"
    I stopped because he was rolling his eyes.
    "Hear me out, okay? One of the things they say in Group is that people spend their grief. They buy a bronze casket or a silver urn, they arrange to have roses put on the grave every month, every week even, every day. Okay? But other people invest it. My dad's one of those. He dropped the sixty-five grand he made off my mom's house into mutual funds. He made a couple of good guesses along the way, got lucky a few times, and here we are."
    Shen just shrugged. "Whatever."
    "What I'm trying to say, Shen, is that I can afford it. I'm saying it's worth it to me, whatever it costs."
    "But what're you buying, man? Are you trying to buy me?"
    I tried to laugh his fears away, but what could I say. The truth was I recognized his questions: I'd asked the same questions when I first went to Group, until I realized there was no answer to them: you had to learn to stop asking. I tried to explain it to him, told him I'd been doubtful too. I told him how I'd sat there dumbfounded as Raylene Cummings recounted the night Raymond Church had driven a knife into the meat of her right shoulder and then, with the knife still lodged in place, had raped her. Now, I told Shen, Raylene Cummings paid visits out to the penitentiary once a week. She baked Raymond Church a cake on his birthday and he knitted her loose cardigans with big wooden buttons which were easier for her to fasten with just her left hand: nerve damage had left her right arm numb and immobile, and it hung from her shoulder like a wet flag on a windless day. I told Shen how Karl Grable had come home and found his wife and son like that. Nearly twenty years afterward he still couldn't say what like that meant, but every other Sunday he took services out to the penitentiary with Brian Dawes, the one who'd left Karl Grable's wife and son like that, and he'd even bought Brian Dawes a white button-down shirt and tie so he wouldn't have to sit in the Lord's cinder-block chapel in his working clothes. And then I told Shen about Lucy Ames. Like me, Lucy Ames had lost a parent. Unlike me, nine-year-old Lucy had sat in a chair and watched as George Ferguson pistol-whipped her father in an attempt to beat the location of his wife's jewelry box out of him. Seven times he popped him, until on the seventh time the gun went off as it struck Mr. Ames's face and the back of his head sprayed across the living room wall in a wide arc like a rainbow where all the colors are red. Now Lucy Ames was married to George Ferguson and thanks to the grace of God and monthly nuptial visits out to the penitentiary she was expecting their second child.
    And, I told Shen, it wasn't like these stories convinced me of anything, but curiosity outweighed skepticism. At first I told myself I was going back because I wanted to hear more of these fascinating tales, but eventually I realized I was curious about him. I realized I wanted to meet him.
    I wanted to meet the man who killed my mother.
    At some point while I spoke I'd picked up my empty pop can and used my dinner knife to cut it in half, lengthwise. I didn't really register the awful squeaking the dull blade made as it sawed through five inches of aluminum until the sound was gone, and then I looked up at Shen, who stared at the cut-open can in my hands with the look of a rabbit transfixed by a pair of oncoming headlights. I tried to grin, but even as my lips curved I was bringing one half of the can to my mouth, my nostrils flared at the long-ago scent, and then I stuck my tongue against the can's exposed inner surface. The taste was obscured by memory--rain, pearls, the fleeing genie of my mother's last, forced breath--and the only way I could share that with Shen was by holding the other half out to him. I waited to see what he would do, and after a long pause he pulled the twisted metal open like a halved fruit and raised it to his mouth. I watched his tongue flicker out and lick up the last few drops of pop. I think I was hoping he'd understand what I was trying to do because I needed him to explain it to me, but he was just as lost as I was, and just as caught up. Neither of us knew what we were working toward, but in the thin clink of metal against tabletop was the certainty that Shen would stick around, until I'd done it.

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