Friday, August 7, 1998

Captain Jacob Bish Barbour

Jake walked along the street and remembered how the neighborhood had been when he and Molly, just married, had moved into their small house there.  "How long ago was it?" he wondered.  "Seems like only a handful of years, but must have been at least fifty.  Now everyone's gone, dead like my sweet Molly, or moved to some place fancier.  About the only decent ones left around here are that busybody Clarence next door, and his missus, and that pest Flora up the street.  Well, I'll stay here 'til they carry me out feet-first!"

It wasn't that he couldn't move to a better place if he had a mind to.  He was no pauper.  The River Transport Company had left him with a comfortable pension, but what good was it to him now that he had to live each day alone?

He passed by the old abandoned Greek Orthodox Church.  Now at dusk, on the low, crumbling brick wall surrounding the burial yard, sat a lone man.  The other drunks of the town who usually congregated there of a summer evening, had probably already scattered to find a spot to curl up in for the night.  This one was a youngish drunk, no more than thirty, with a dirty stubble of beard.  Jake saw a string of saliva dribble from his lips, and it disgusted him.  He never could stand so much as the thought of saliva without gagging.  "Even Molly in the hospital," he remembered now, "and she couldn't help it, poor thing, half gone already as she was..."  He used to have to turn his head away.

The young man mumbled something to himself, sniffed, and wiped his nose along his sleeve.  Jake wanted to haul off and smack him one.  "You damn idiot!" he said.  "That's a filthy thing to do!  Use a handkerchief!"

The bum, looking up in surprise, eyes watery, blubbered to himself, then resumed his inspection of the sidewalk, head bent so that it was almost between his knees.

Jake stooped low and peered at the cement at the young man's feet, but seeing nothing, said, "What the hell you staring at, anyway?"  

The man was silent.

"Answer me when I talk to you!" Jake said.  The man showed no sign of  being aware that Jake was even there.  Jake grabbed him by the shoulders and gave him a shaking, but still he said nothing.  "Don't fool with me!" Jake said, walking away.  "Nobody fools with me!"

Nobody ever had.  No nonsense about Jake Barbour.  Ask anyone.  Then he remembered there was no one left to ask....except Clarence, the busybody, and Clarence's missus, just like him...and that Flora.

He thought about the young drunk and was sorry he had called him an idiot.  It reminded him of something too painful to remember.  "Sometimes it's best that newborns like your son do not live," the doctor had said, trying to console Molly and him.  "It's nature's way of taking care of misfits."

"You mean it's God's way," Jake had said, and from that moment on, to Molly's sorrow, he had stopped going to church.  They never had another child, and it only served to make the two of them closer. 

Outside of Molly, the ferry had been his whole life.  The two of them, Molly and Queen of the River Ferryboat were tied in together.  But for the ferry, he would never have met Molly at all.  He wasn't its captain then, just one of the deck hands, and he was no more than twenty.  She had just started at Adbury's Department Store, where she worked the switchboard, and she traveled the Queen of the River to and from her job.  She was mighty pretty in those days.  Later she put on a little weight, but Jake never minded.  Sometimes, looking at herself in the long mirror on their bedroom door, she would say, "Do I look fat to you, Jake?"

He would put his arms around her then and call her his pudgy little Molly.

"Oh, Jake!" she would say, and giggle. "My big, bad, handsome Captain!"

She had been so proud of him in his captain's uniform.  To others, always, she referred to him as The Captain, never as Jake Barbour.  "I would like you to meet my husband," she would say, "Captain Jacob Bish Barbour."  Soon all but their closest friends began calling him "Captain Barbour".  At first, hearing his full name and dubious title (after all, he was just a ferryboat captain) so pretentiously heralded, embarrassed him, but soon he came to preen in her pride of him.  He missed it terribly when she was gone.

Back in the days when they were courting, Molly wore those then-fashionable narrow skirts that came to the ankles.  When she would lift her foot to climb aboard the ferry, Jake made sure he saw everything to be seen -- which wasn't much.  Women knew how to be ladies then.  Winter or summer, she wore long-sleeved blouses with high collars and lace at the wrists.  She always smelled faintly of lilacs.  Even now, if he concentrated on it hard enough, he got a whiff of lilacs.  Maybe it had been that, or the little white sweater, the way she wore it on cool 

days, thrown carefree across her shoulders.  It swung behind her as she ran up the plank at the ferry's last warning toot.  She was always just a shade under being too late to catch the ferry...just a shade.  Whatever it had been, she had him hooked from the start, and he had never been sorry.

Jake walked slowly down the small hill now to the river's shore, and, squinting, tried to imagine that the Queenof the River was moored there still.  It had been some ten years since they had shut down the ferry.  Folks didn't use it much anymore, so just like that, they shut it down.  The bigwigs sat on their tails in their offices in town and decided it wasn't making enough money, so they erased it, like writing from a chalkboard.  Oh, there was a nice pension in it for him, it's true, and pretty speeches all around.  They held the ceremonies on almost the very spot where he now stood.  It had been a bright sunny Saturday, and many of the townspeople came to watch.  Jake remembered how the feeling of carnival, almost of celebration, had infuriated him.

Oh sure, the ceremonies had been grand that day ....a grand bunch of nothing.  Mr. Pendleton, President of River Transport Company, had presented Jake with a silver plaque:





1922 - 1964



Jake had thanked him, handed back the plaque, and told him right out what he could do with it.  Poor Molly, seated on the speakers' platform (Jake had to smile now, thinking of it,) was mortified.  She had been embarrassed plenty by him in their lifetime together.  Still, it had been a good marriage.  Pity that she hadn't had a little longer to enjoy his retirement and pension with him.

He turned his back to the river now and retraced his way up the hill.  He saw no use in wallowing in memories all evening.  His stomach told him it was time to go home.

Reaching his street, he noticed, as he did every time, how shabby it had become.  The houses, once proudly kept, huddled together like decrepit old men, seeming to lean on each other for support.  His own house, he knew, was as bad as the rest.

Clarence called to him from his porch.  "Ho!  Jake!"

Jake raised his hand in salute without looking up.  He was in no mood for Clarence's small talk, but Clarence ventured out to the top step.  "Coming up a spell?" he asked.

"No.  Got things to do.  Ain't had my dinner yet, and it's pretty near nine o'clock."

Clarence came down to the sidewalk to meet him.  "Where you been all evening, Jake?  Looked for you down by the fire hall.  No one to play checkers with.  Just some young folks standing around.  You been up to somethin' special?"

"Walking," Jake said, and tried to move on around him, but Clarence barred the way.

"Well gee whiz, Jake.  You know we always have a game or two on Tuesday evenings.  I hunted all over for you."

"So?" Jake said.  He patted Clarence's middle, where it bulged above and below the belt.  "You should do more walking yourself, Clar.  You're getting a regular beer belly.  No good for an old man to sit around all day doing nothing' but drink beer."

Clarence looked hurt.  "I wasn't.  I was lookin' for play me a game."

"Makes him fat and lazy," Jake said, as though Clarence hadn't spoken. "like you.  You should keep in shape more.  Look at me.  Why, would you believe it, just a few minutes ago, I stood up to a man musta been forty years younger than me!  Just take a look, Clar.  Do I look close to seventy-five?  Admit it now."

"You look eighty!" Clarence said, still sore.  "What'd you stand up to him for?"

"He insulted me."

"What'd he say?"

"Wouldn't answer me," Jake said, "and what's it any business of yours anyway?  Trouble with you, Clar, is you're too damn nosy!  I don't appreciate folks hounding me all the time!"

Clarence grinned then, and Jake felt like shaking him, as he had shaken the drunk.  But if he made Clarence really mad at him, then there'd be no one.

"Hounding you, Jake?" Clarence said.  "You mean like Flora?  Priscella says she sees her running over your place two, three times a day."  He chuckled, and Jake wanted to smack him.

"Your old woman Priscella sees too damn much!" Jake said.  "Nothing but a busybody, that's her!  Just like you!  Got nothing better to do than peer out from behind her curtains all day.  You and her sure make a good pair!"

"All the same," Clarence said, "Flora's not a bad-lookin' woman."

"Ha!" Jake said.  "Crazy, that's what she is.  Even though she and Molly were good friends, she never bothered me more than hello and good-bye when her husband Will was alive.  Now she's bouncing in and out of my kitchen like some goddam rubber ball!"

"Maybe she has her cap set for you.  You being such a lovable old man and all!  Ever think of that, Jake?"

"You know what I DO think about, Clarence?  I think about how stupid you are!  And you know something; else?  You make me sick, with your old-woman gossiping and snickering around and grinning.  You're nothing but a toothless old fool!"

Clarence put his hands in the pockets of his trousers and turned to go back up the steps.  "Okay, Jake.  Another night, maybe, when you're in a better mood.  Only God knows when that'll be!  You're meaner every day.  You go around insulting your old friends...."

"I got no friends!"

"Keep it up, Jake.  Keep it up.  And you won't!"

Jake walked away, but Clarence wasn't finished.  "Anyhow," he paused on the top step and shouted after him, "I don't believe you really stood up to that man forty years younger 'n you!  You're so damn old and skinny, you'd keep over just swatting a fly!"

Jake heard his dry chuckle and thought it would sure be a cold day in hell before he'd ever play him another game of checkers.

He had just settled himself at the kitchen table with a bottle of beer, a knife, some cheese, and a loaf of bread, when he heard the tap of her heels on the walk.  He had his back to the screen door, but he knew without looking that it was the pest.

"Yoo-hoo, Jake!"  Flora knocked on the frame of the screen.

He didn't turn around, but cut a piece of cheese and popped it from the knife to his mouth.  "He's not home," he said.

She laughed, opened the door, and came in.  "May I come in?"

He pulled a piece of bread away from the loaf and bit into it.  "Looks like you're in already!  Someday I'll remember to use the latch on that screen door!"

He went on eating.  She came around the table, and, pulling out a chair facing him, sat down.  "May I sit down?" she said.

"Ha!  Why bother to ask?"

"Jake Barbour, do you mean to sit there and tell me that's all you plan to have for dinner?"

"I don't mean to sit here and tell you a damn thing, Flora.  What the hell is it any of your business what I eat?"

"Molly made me promise, before she died, that I would look out for you.  You know that!  Here, I brought you a bunch of flowers.  Get a vase and some water.  They'll brighten up your table."

"Hey!" he said.  "Goddam it, woman, those are MY flowers!  You picked my marigolds!  Right out of my garden!  Who gave you leave to pick my marigolds?  If I had wanted them in here instead of out there, I'd of got them myself!  You keep your hands out of my garden, or I'll call the police!"
The front door bell sounded.  "Your door bell," she said.

"Forget the damn bell!  Too many pests in here as it is!  Who told you could pick...."

"Oh, for heaven sakes," she said.  "Be quiet!  And don't you know that too much cheese makes you constipated?  Is that all you have for dinner?  You want to get your bowels all out of whack?"

He banged the table with his fist.  "My bowels are none of your business!" he said.  "And get something straight...I don't need any help from you.  Been taking care of myself for near ten years, thank you!  And I don't like a certain nosy neighbor popping in and out of here whenever she feels like it.  If I ever send you an engraved invitation, then you can come.  Otherwise, stay away.  And don't ever lay a finger on my garden again, or I mean it, I'll get the police!

A uniformed man knocked at the screen door.  "I rang out front," he said, "but I guess with all the arguing, you didn't hear."

"See?  Police.  What'd I tell you?" Jake said. 

Flora laughed.  "Oh, Jake!  For heaven sakes!  What can we do for you, officer?"

Jake mimicked her under his breath.  "You'd think it was HER house!" he muttered.

The policeman removed his hat and leaned the palm of his hand against the door jamb.  "I'm collecting for the Benevolent Order of Police, mamma.  It's for the Widows' Fund."

"You're not collecting here!" Jake said.  "I'm tired of everyone's hand in my pocket!  every time I round a corner, there's some woman standing' on it, shaking her can, the one behind and the one in her hand, asking for a donation for some damn thing or other.  Now you!  Where were you police the other night when I called about that gang of young hoodlums under the streetlight out front?  They could've broke all my windows, or murdered me in my bed for all you cared!"

The young man's mouth twitched.  "So you're the one who phoned," he said.  "Those kids don't mean no harm.  Why don't you ease up on them?"

"'Course I'm the one!" Jake shouted.  "I always give you imbeciles my name when I call....Captain Jacob Bish Barbour!  And nobody gives me a damn bit of attention!"

Flora stood up and walked to the door.  "Pay him no mind, " she said.  "He's crotchety as an old hen, but he's harmless.  I live a few houses up.  I'll put a little something in the mail tomorrow for the Widows' Fund.  Just leave me an envelope and run along, officer."

The policeman put his hat back on and tipped it to her.  "Thank you, mam."  He slipped an envelope under the screen door.  "And thank you, too, Captain Jacob Fish Barbour."

"Bish!" Jake shouted.  "Bish!"  But the officer was already half-way down the path.

Flora came back to the table.  "You didn't have to be so nasty to that nice young man," she said.

Jake kept his head down.  "You still here?  Thought you left with him.  Go bother someone else for a change."

"There isn't anyone else, Jake.  Just you and me.  Two lonely old people.  Left with no one.  Why can't we be nice to each other?  Molly would have wanted it.

Jake scrapped back his chair and stood up and walked over to her.  "Listen 

here, Flora!"  He came close enough to get a whiff of her perfume.  The smell of 

lilacs came at him, and for a moment, he forgot what he was going to say.  She looked up at him expectantly, and for the first time he noticed that her red curls had faded to gray.  Still, as Clarence (the busybody!) had said, she was not a bad-looking woman.  Dumpy maybe, shifted in the wrong places, sort of built low to the ground, but her face wasn't bad.

He cleared his throat.  "Listen, Flora," he said.  "I know exactly what you're driving at, and I'm not interested.  You're looking at me for another waltz down the aisle, so you can tell me what to eat, what not to eat, and how to keep my bowels regular..."

She reached up and slapped him across the face, and it surprised him.  "Why, you old goat!" she said.  "You old billy goat!  So that's what you think, is it?  Well, who in her right mind would want the likes of you?  You're nothing but an old grizzly bear!  How poor Molly put up with you all those years is a mystery to me!"

"She loved me," he said quietly.

Flora put her hand on his arm and said softly, "I know she did.  And you loved her.  You two had something really wonderful together...something some people never have.  Even Will and I....Well, he was a good man, but we didn't have what you and Molly obviously did.  I know that only makes it harder for you now that she's gone, but Jake, be thankful for what you had!"

She looked at him for some kind of comment, but he made none.  "I didn't mean to make a nuisance of myself, Jake.  Really, I didn't.  But somebody has to do something about you.  You get worse by the day.  Now take those kids the policeman was talking about..."

"Damn it, woman!  You take them!" Jake said.  "And what do you mean by 'old billy goat?'  You could do a damn site worse than get me!  I keep myself in shape, have my own hair, get a nice pension..."

"Are you selling yourself to me now, Jake?"  She moved a step closer and looked up, and he realized she came no higher than the top button on his shirt.  He thought for a moment he could hear the ferryboat's old warning bell.

"Did I ever tell you," he said, stepping back two paces, "that insanity runs in my family?  That a great uncle of mine died of it?"

"You don't die of insanity!"

"You do if you go berserk and strangle someone.  They gave him the death penalty for it."

She laughed.  "You're utterly ridiculous!  Honestly, Jake, you don't scare me or anyone else for that matter.  Molly made me promise to look out for you, and I don't care what you say, I'm going to do it.  Now, I'll just put these flowers in water and then I'll go.  And tomorrow morning I'm coming over here with some homemade date-and-nut bread.  Nothing like dates to keep you regular."

"Woman!  You do, and so help me....."

Flora paid no attention, and picking up the flowers, looked around for something to put them in.  "You have a vase or a bowl, or something?" she asked.

"...and so help me, woman, I'll...I'll call the police!"

"Yes, Jake, you do that.  You just do that.  There, I"ll take this glass and put the flowers in it.  Change the water every now and then, and they should last you a week.  They weren't doing you any good out back where no one sees them.  Now you have coffee on tomorrow morning, and I'll be over about eight-thirty, and we'll have breakfast together.  It's not good for you to eat alone all the time.  Your table manners are becoming ferocious!"

"I hate date-and-nut bread!" he said.

"Nobody asked you," she said.  "Good night, Jake."

The screen door slammed, and he heard her heels tap-tapping down the walk.  It was dark now and the crickets were at it.  He picked up his beer and finished it, then rinsed the bottle at the sink.

"I'd have preferred banana-nut bread," he said.

Tuesday, August 4, 1998

Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?

On a certain moonlit night, when most creatures, with the exception of  the owl in a tree outside Mike Kelly's house, were fast asleep, it came to pass that a  wondrously strange, circular craft appeared in the sky.  It hovered for eighteen-and-one-half seconds before landing.  A stately being, wearing a luxurious red velvet robe, alit.

"Whooo?" said the owl.

"I am Archangelus," said the being, "heavenly messenger.  I seek one by the name of Kelly."

"Whooo?" said the owl.

"Never mind," said Archangelus.  "I know where he abides.  I was given good directions."

Mike Kelly, asleep in his bed, stirred at the owl's hooting.  After several minutes, he opened his eyes, and wondered who the devil was standing at the foot of his bed.  He sat upright.

"Who the devil are you standing at the foot of my bed?" he asked.

"Silence, mortal!" said Archangelus, for that is who it was.  "Do not shout so, lest you waken the apparition that lies by your side."

"That's no apparition," Kelly said.  "That's Nellie, my wife.  She always sleeps in them pink foam hair rollers, and with that white creamy paste all over her face.  That's why you didn't recognize her as human."

Archangelus looked upon her and shuddered.  "What manner of  strap is that that encircles her each ear and comes down around her several chins, holding them high and firm, like the breasts of Athena?"

"She says it's to get rid of double chin," Mike said, "but it ain't working.  Least, not as far as I can tell.  But, hey!  Let's get back to the business at hand.  What do you want?  My wallet?  Look, just take it and go.  I don't want any trouble.  Don't hurt us!  Please!  It's on my dresser over there.  It's all I got in the whole apartment.  I swear!  Honest to God, I swear!"

"DO NOT SWEAR!"  Archangelus's voice filled the room, yet Nellie did not stir.  "That is precisely why I have come!  You swear too much!  You forever invoke The Maker's name, no matter how trivial the reason!  It has become a travesty!"

"Huh?  How's that again?" Mike asked.

"You curse with senseless abandon!"  Archangelus said.  "I have been sent to warn you that henceforth, whatsoever you utter, whatsoever you ask or speak, shall be taken in its most literal sense.  So be it!"

Without further word, he was gone.

Mike shook his head to clear it.  "I better start laying off the booze," he thought.  "That's the wildest hallucination I ever had!  Oh well, I'll worry about all that tomorrow."  He turned on his side and fell back to sleep.

The next morning he awoke with a sense of foreboding.  Looking to the other half of his bed, he saw that Nellie still slept, her mouth open, saliva trickling onto the pillow.  "Nell?" he said.  His voice trembled.  Her bulk, even after six years of marriage intimidated him.  "Do you by any chance think you might maybe want to get me some breakfast this morning, Sweetie?  I had a helluva weird dream last night, and I'm not feeling so good."  

Nellie awakened with a snort.  "You crazy or somethin', Stupid?" she said.  "Get it yourself!"  She settled back under the blanket.

Mike sighed and went into the bathroom to shave.  When he came out, she was out of bed and stretching, her mouth open in a cavernous yawn.  He watched as she waddled past him to the bathroom.  "You ugly old bitch!" he said inaudibly, just mouthing the words behind her back.  "Drop dead!"

Nellie stopped, quivered, became rigid, and dropped, face-smack-forward, onto the floor.

Mike spent a good three hours or so, listening for heart beats, repeatedly calling her name, phoning the doctor, then the mortician, then waiting for them to haul her away.  It was after eleven when he finally sat down to breakfast.  Still, the day augured well.  He and the mortician were going to meet later to work out funeral details.  "I want to get it all over with quick," he had said, "none of this three-day stuff!"

He hadn't thought about it when she had keeled over like that, but now he remembered her insurance money, plus the little nest egg he had hidden from her over the years.  "Soon as I can get all the loose ends tied up," he thought, "I'm flying down to Rio!"  He had always wanted to see Rio, ever since that song, The Girl from Ipanima.  

On the way to the funeral parlor, Mike decided to stop in for a quick one at Dobrinski's Bar.  As luck would have it, he had been paid Friday, and as things were working out, it looked like he'd never have to return to that mill job of his again.

Stan Dobrinski was happy to see him.  There were no other customers so early on a Monday.  "What'll it be, Mike?" he said, wiping the bar with a greyish rag. "Hit me with a VO and water," Mike said.

Stan poured whiskey into one glass and a little water into another.  He took a glass in either hand and threw the contents in Mike's face.  Mike's look of surprise was no greater than Stan's. "Hey!" Mike said.  "Why the hell did you do that for?"  He grabbed the rag from the bar and sponged his face.  "Holy frickin' Moses, Stan!"

A bearded man in sandals and a long vestment, appeared for an instant, flickered briefly, and was gone.

"Did you see what I just seen?" Stan asked.  With trembling hand, he splashed VO into two tumblers and he and Mike downed them.  He refilled the glasses, and they gulped them down again.

Mike denied having seen it.  "I didn't see nothing."  Sweat beaded his forehead.

"Me neither," said Stan, and poured them each another drink.

As Mike's stomach began to warm with the whiskey, he felt better.  "Aw," he thought, "it ain't nothing.  We imagined it.  Too many drinks for me last night.  That's the problem.  Then there was that business with Nellie this morning..."

He told Stan about Nell.  "Just dropped clean over," he said, snapping his fingers, "just like that!"

Stan put on a sad face.  "Here today, gone tomorrow," he said.  He passed the rag over the bar and refilled Mike's glass.  "By the way, Mike," he said, "that dame

was in here again last Saturday asking for you, right after you left.  Is there anything going on between you two?  Or shouldn't I ask?"

"Better you don't ask," Mike said, and turned as he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder.  It was the dame.

"Hi, doll!" she said, cracking her chewing gum.  "I've been trying to track you down all weekend!  You sure made yourself scarce after last Thursday night, didn'tcha, Honey?"

Mike looked at her and wondered what he had ever seen in her Thursday night.  She was actually even bigger than Nellie, and at least Nell never chewed gum.  Well, she never cracked her gum, anyway.

The dame draped her arm around his shoulder, but Mike pushed her away.  "Leave me alone!" he said.  "It's over!  Just dry up and blow away!"

The dame's hair stuck straight out, turned to powder and fell in a heap at her heels.  Her face puckered, folded together like a Cabbage Patch Doll and fell into the same heap.  Her neck, shoulders, arms, and torso followed.  Her toes were the last to go, their powdery remains didn't have far to fall.  Transfixed, Mike and Stan watched agape as a miniature twister blew in, swirling the powder ceiling-ward before whirling with it out the door.

With one leap, knocking Mike down in his frenzy, Stan cleared the bar and ran out into the street, screeming.

"Well I'll be damned!" Mike muttered.  "I'll be goddamned!"

And he was.