Mary Elizabeth Leach Raines

Mary Elizabeth Leach Raines
The Laughing Cherub

Sunday, May 22, 2016

THE TENDER HARVEST



THE TENDER HARVEST
by MARY ELIZABETH LEACH RAINES
© 2016, M. E. Raines

“Gabe, you’ve got to get your teeth fixed,” said Louise, addressing something that had been on her mind since she’d first hired him the week before. She hoped his feelings wouldn’t be hurt. “It will make a huge difference in your life. You’ll be able to get more work,” she said encouragingly.
Gabe grimaced at her words as though he’d just sucked on an unsweetened rhubarb stalk, and turned back to his task with vigorous determination. He was digging a deep pit in the yard behind her house. A pear tree stood next to him in its black plastic greenhouse container, waiting to be planted.
Stopping his work momentarily, he leaned down and picked a thick piece of bone up out of the hole, looking at it curiously.
“Oh dear,” said Louise, her forehead furrowing in dismay. “Frisky must have buried that. She was my collie. She’s been dead for a long time now. Poor Frisky.”
Gabe nodded respectfully and resumed digging. “You’re gonna get some good pears,” he said, pointing his chin towards the tree. “The soil’s real fertile.”
He was her new yard man. Louise went through laborers quickly; they seemed to disappear almost fast as she could hire them. She liked Gabe more than most of the workers who’d come to her. He had a miraculous touch with plants, and boundless energy. Some of his ideas were peculiar, but that could be overlooked, for his fees were low. Because he spent most of his days working outdoors, digging and hauling, his wiry tanned body was exceptionally strong; he could take on nearly any task she needed to have done. And, except for his reaction to her suggestion that he get dental work, he smiled almost constantly. A smile worked itself back onto his face now.
Therein lay the problem. Not only was his hair long and stringy, like that of a hippie from the early 70s; he was missing three teeth from the front of his mouth, two on the top and one on the bottom. While he was in truth a very nice and honest man, his sparsely toothed smile and messy hair made him look like a deranged psychopath.
Before she’d hired him, Louise had quizzed him cautiously, for she was particular about her laborers: “Do you do drugs? Do you drink? Do you smoke?”
“Never touch any of that stuff,” he had replied with his usual grin. “It ain’t healthy.”
No, instead Gabe drank organic kale smoothies and snacked—using his back teeth—on rice cakes while he worked. He was adamantly adverse to junk food. He stated that he never ate sugar, declaring that it was evil. She’d asked him curiously how he had lost so many of his teeth, because it obviously wasn’t due to cavities. He had told her that they’d been knocked out when he was helping someone to move a refrigerator up some stairs. He was holding the back end when the guy lifting the front end tripped.
“Really, Gabe,” persisted Louise, who herself was always impeccably groomed. “Fix your teeth.”
Gabe narrowed his eyes and, exhaling loudly, stopped digging for a moment. “Nope,” he said, leaning on the handle of the shovel. “You ain’t gonna get me into no dentist’s chair.”
“How come?”
“Because of what happens when you go to the dentist. I read about it. They tell you they have to put you out, and then, when you’re anesthetized, they harvest your body parts. They take out your organs and eyes, and sell them on the black market.”
Louise laughed and looked him up and down. “Oh Gabe, you’re 45 years old. Trust me. Nobody wants your body parts!”
He shook his head stubbornly. “I’ve got the body of a 30-year-old. My organs are prime.” He patted his lean abdomen proudly. “My left eye ain’t so good, but my right eye is perfect: 20/20 vision. What 45-year-old do you know who can say that?”
He resumed preparing the hole for the tree. Louise sighed and went into the house. When she came back out, she handed Gabe a business card.
“This is my dentist,” she said. “Go to my dentist. I’ll even help pay for it. I’ve sent lots of my workers to him. Gabe, it’s time. You’ve got to fix those teeth.”
Gabe reluctantly put the card in his pocket. It took a few weeks, but finally he confided in Louise that he had made an appointment. She beamed with approval.

When Gabe came to, he expected to find himself stretched out in the dentist’s chair. Instead, he awakened to freezing cold and enormous pain. Squinting with his only remaining eye, he saw through the door that he was in a cheap motel room. His body had been jammed into a bathtub filled with ice. Bloody ice. Ragged stitches zig-zagged across his body.
At that very moment, Louise, her dentist, and several parts of Gabe himself were already in the air, flying to an unnamed Caribbean island. They hadn’t planned on leaving quite this soon. Their sudden departure meant that she would never get to harvest any pears from her new tree, but they had no choice, for although they’d ruthlessly removed both of his kidneys, Louise had insisted that they leave Gabe with his heart intact, plus one eye (the bad one) and half of his liver. A person can live with half a liver. It was she who was responsible for packing what was left of him into the icy bathtub instead of burying him in the back yard with the other men who had worked for her. The dentist had scolded her for being so tender-hearted.
“I don't know why. I just like him,” she had explained as they dumped the last bit of ice around the comatose man before fleeing the country.
Despite failing to reap the complete set of organs from him that they had obtained from her other laborers, their sale of Gabe’s single eye, two kidneys, and half a liver fetched an obscenely high price on the black market.

Deliriously, Gabe lifted his head and looked at his hazy reflection in the full-length mirror on the bathroom wall. He opened his sore mouth and saw to his amazement that he now, thanks to Louise’s generosity, had a full set of teeth. His smile looked fantastic. His hair had also been nicely cut. After he got a patch over his missing eye, the nurses on the dialysis unit all found him quite attractive.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

TRIPLETS

TRIPLETS
by MARY ELIZABETH (LEACH) RAINES
© 2011, M. E. Raines


THE TWO NEWBORN babies, a girl and a boy, are diapered and placed side by side. One of them is me, Kevin. It is the beginning of my new life, and I am sound asleep.
The other baby, whom I shall call Muffy, startles in surprise as she becomes aware of me lying next to her.
We are, of course, unable to speak to one another in words. There is, however, a psychic connection that we babies have that is as powerful as spoken language, and our silent thought projections are exactly like dialogue.
“Kevin,” Muffy cries out. “Kevin? Is that you?! Oh, I can't believe this!
I awaken reluctantly, and open my eyes. “Huh? Where am I?” I say. “Who are you? What’s happening?”
I am upset. I cry, because that’s what we babies do when we are upset.
“Kevin! It's me, Muffy,” she says. “Your wife.”
My sobs subside. “Muffy?” I ask, confused.
“Is this freaky, or what? I know it's definitely you, Kevin, but you look just like a newborn baby!”
I find that with great effort I am able to turn my head in her direction. I gaze at her. Our eyesight is still pretty blurry, and colors are not yet concrete. All I can make out is a tiny creature in a diaper next to me…a tiny creature, but one with Muffy’s vibe.
“You seem to be a baby, too,” I say in bewilderment. “This is weird, man! I don’t like it. I’m getting up. I’ve gotta see what the hell is going on here!”
I try to move. I find that I am unable even to lift my own head, much less get up. I tentatively attempt to raise one of my little arms. All I can do is flail. I hit myself in the forehead. Next, I try to lift my legs. It’s impossible to move them in the direction I intend. They just kick out randomly. No matter how much effort I put into it, I am unable to coordinate my movements.
“Geez, it’s so hard to move my body! Nothing goes where I want it to,” I say in frustration. “That’s just not right. I mean, hell, I'm an athlete!”
“An athlete? Watching golf on TV suddenly makes you an athlete?” says the other baby. The biting tone of her thought projection confirms that it is indeed Muffy lying next to me.
“Hey, I played on Saturdays,” I retort, “and I’ll have you know I had a good swing. The golf pro even told me so once.” I sigh. “Man, this sucks!”
I cry some more. Then we lie there in silence, Muffy and I, trying to absorb it all.
Muffy had been my showpiece wife, a would-be actress without a lot of talent. She had been blonde (thanks to an excellent hairdresser), blue-eyed (thanks to contact lenses), thin (thanks to the latest fad diets and more than a touch of bulimia), busty (thanks to a good plastic surgeon), and rich (thanks to me, a successful investment broker). Before we met, she’d landed a gig on a sitcom that had lasted for one season. Her role had consisted mostly of prancing around wordlessly in a very small bikini. This brought her a little bit of fame, and aroused a decided taste for a life of privilege and partying. She married me and got the life she’d wished for. My needs were less complex. I simply wanted a stacked blonde on my arm. We both had our desires fulfilled. Our marriage was not a good one.
I am trying to piece things together.
“Hey, Muffy, what's the last thing you remember? Before us being babies?”
She thinks for a moment, and then gurgles happily, projecting a place with bright golden light, tremendous love, wisdom, warmth, and a peace that is beyond description.
“You remember that, don’t you Kevin?” she says. “The Light? All that unconditional love? Do you think it was heaven?”
I strain to think. Nope, no peace. No love. No heaven. All I can remember is zooming headlong through a tunnel. She picks up my thought. She remembers the tunnel as well.
I struggle to recall what occurred before the tunnel. I have a nagging feeling that something really important happened, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Which is a funny expression for me to be using, seeing as I can’t put my fingers anyplace…well, except for sticking my thumb into my mouth. That seems to be my one achievable task, although it takes considerable conscious effort. I decide to jam it into my mouth now, and hit the bullseye. It feels curiously soothing to suck on my thumb.
In answer to my unspoken question about what happened before the tunnel, Muffy projects a thought. Apparently we had been attending a very nice function. At least in her mind it was a very nice fuction. In our current state, our faces have pretty limited expressions: being awake, being asleep, and crying. We are not yet mature enough to smile, unless it happens accidentally when we pass gas. But if she could have smiled, she would have. It had been a party.
“Whoa! Stop! Back up,” I say. “Prior to entering the tunnel, we were at a party?”
Her would-be smile fades as her remembrance expands.
“Damn it, Kevin, I told you not to drink so much! I told you to let me drive! I told you not to get behind the wheel!”
I start to remember bits and pieces. The party had been at Arthur’s house. Arthur was my boss from the brokerage. Muffy projects a tingly glow when she thinks about Arthur, but it evaporates as soon as she turns her thoughts to me.
“You were drinking too much, Kevin. Totally sloshed as usual,” she says accusingly, “and when I tried to stop you, you called me a whore—in front of everyone, I might add—and I tried to take the car keys away, but you pushed me onto the front seat, and I couldn't go back in the house to call a cab because you had humiliated me so badly, and besides, Arthur lives out in the boonies where there are no taxis…”
She lets out a sob. Memories of that night are slowly trickling in, but they’re still pretty fuzzy.
“And then you crashed us head-on into a truck! A very big truck…”
I don’t pay attention. There is something about the kitchen that is important here. I’m trying to bring it into focus.
“…and we died,” continues Muffy bitterly. “We DIED! All because you didn't know when to stop drinking. Thank you so very much, Kevin, for killing me.”
She scrunches up her face, preparing to cry. If she could have crossed her arms and frowned at me in disapproval, she would be doing that. Muffy used to cross her arms and frown at me a lot when she was my wife…or at least she’d tried to. It’s hard to frown when your face is full of Botox.
I’m still stuck on the kitchen. There is something important that I need to remember about the kitchen. What is it?
Suddenly it hits me. Muffy had been in the kitchen. With Arthur. Embracing him.
“That’s what it was,” I gasp, as a clearer image suddenly pops into my brain. “You were in the kitchen…kissing Arthur—my boss, Arthur!”
I turn my head to the side and stare darkly at Muffy. Muffy squirms, trying to dodge my accusation.
“How can you say that?” Her thoughts reek of evasion.  “I’ll bet Arthur was kissing…um…his wife. Yeah, that's it. He was probably kissing his wife. She and I were both wearing blue. You couldn’t tell. By that time, Kevin, you were so drunk, you couldn’t see your own nose.”
“Whaddya mean I couldn't see my own nose?” I say.
She glances sideways at me to see if I have swallowed her story. I have not. I’m still stuck on that see-your-own-nose bit. I pull my thumb out of my mouth.
“Muffy, nobody can see their own nose. Unless they're cross-eyed.”
“Well, you certainly had enough martinis to accomplish that,” she crows triumphantly. A little drool spills out of the side of her mouth.
“Look, I did not even start to drink until after I saw you in the kitchen. Kissing my boss,” I counter. With mounting satisfaction. “And that's why I shoved you into the car seat, Muffy. Now I remember!”
“Kevin, I simply can't imagine how you could possibly believe that I would be kissing your boss in the kitchen,” she mumbles.
My response is vehement. “Liar! Do you deny it? Your tongue was so deep inside Arthur's mouth, I'm surprised it didn't come out his asshole!”
I project a picture.
“Don’t be so crude, Kevin,” says Muffy indignantly.
“Oh, I'm the crude one? I am not the one who was kissing Arthur in the kitchen. I've been one-hundred percent faithful to you throughout our marriage, Muffy, and, believe me, it wasn't easy. You know my clientele. I had numerous—numerous—opportunities to cheat. But I turned them all down,” I say self-righteously.
“Oh, I’m aware of all the bimbos who hit on you. But let’s be clear. You weren’t faithful because you’re noble. You would have cheated at the drop of a dime if you could have, but honey, you drank too much for certain parts of your anatomy to function. Anyway, by the end of the day, you were just too plastered to do anything but come home and pass out,” she retorted.
“Muffy, I have remained completely and absolutely loyal to you by choice,” I insist. “So tell me. What else did you and Arthur do together with your tongues, or any other appendages and orifices?”
“Would you please stop? You’re disgusting, “ she says. “This entire situation is so typical.”
“Typical?” I kick my legs helplessly. “My wife cheats on me with my boss, in my extreme distress I drink a little too much, a truck hits us—that's A TRUCK HITS US, not KEVIN HITS A TRUCK—and we die, we go through this tunnel thing, we get reborn as babies. And you’re saying that’s typical?”
“Yes. It’s typical of you, Kevin. It really is.” She clenches her little fist. “Here we are in this extraordinarily bizarre circumstance. We appear to be newborn babies. We have no idea how we got here, we are bewildered as to what's going on, but instead of calmly assessing our situation and trying to understand what's happening, you launch an attack on me! You always do this! It always winds up the same way. You twist it around so that I'm at fault. Nothing else matters except what Muffy did to poor Kevin. Let's all get angry at Muffy.
“Welcome to our marriage, day in and day out,” she continues. “Whether we’re on our honeymoon in Mexico and circumstances beyond our control force us to leave early, or whether a defective curling iron starts a fire in the bathroom, or…or…or whether we're trapped some place in a blizzard, every single time, you manage to turn it around so that it’s my fault. You’re always making me look like the bad one!”
She emits an audible sputter.
“Hey, Baby, it wasn’t me who lost a contact lens and demanded that we cut our honeymoon short because somebody we won't name balked at the idea of going to a Mexican eye doctor for a replacement,” I retort.
“Don’t call me Baby,” she says in a huff. Which is pretty amusing, considering our circumstances.
I continue my defense. “It wasn’t me who left a curling iron on high for 48 hours straight. It wasn’t me who…wait. Blizzard? What blizzard?”
Even though my memory is dim just now, I am positive that we were never trapped in a blizzard. That’s Muffy for you. Always exaggerating wildly in hopes of getting pity and attention.
Naturally Muffy picks up my thought. “And you wonder, Kevin, why  I was attracted to Arthur,” she says.
“Ah-HAH,” I cry. “So you don't deny it?”
There is a sound from around the corner.
“Shhh. Shhh. Someone's coming,” says Muffy.
A woman dressed in odd clothing enters and places another baby next to us. After chucking each of us under the chin—which, surprisingly, feels quite delightful—she scurries out, leaving us alone.
Oh, my God,” says Muffy after the woman exits.
“What now?”
“This baby lying next to us. I think I know who it is,” she says.
Our new companion opens his eyes and blinks sleepily. “Where am I?”
Muffy lies in the center of our trio. She turns her head toward the new baby. “Arthur? Is that you?” she asks.
Arthur thrashes uncomfortably. His little hands brush against the fabric of a diaper. Startled, he says in a demanding way, “What the hell is going on here? What is this on my ass? Is this a diaper?! And who are you people?”
I think it’s hilarious. Even as a newborn infant, Arthur can’t stop being the executive.
Muffy gets all mushy. “Oh, Arthur, dear, it's me…your darling Muffy.
“Who’s the other kid?
I try to wave hello, and wind up hitting myself in the forehead again.
“It’s only Kevin,” she says, screwing up her mouth as though she had just tasted something sour. “I’m afraid Kevin's present with us as well.”
“Muffy?…Kevin?” says Arthur, bewildered. “I don’t get it.”
“That’s okay, buddy,” I say consolingly. “I don’t get it  either.”
We lie there for a few minutes, adjusting to our new bodies.
Then Muffy turns her thoughts to Arthur. “So Arthur, what's the very last thing you remember?” she asks.
He thinks for a moment.
“There was a tunnel,” he says finally. “And there was this big angel-type person saying stuff like, ‘You have to return. You have important lessons to learn.’
“What about before the tunnel?” persists Muffy. “What do you remember happening before you went into the tunnel? Think!”
Pondering for a few seconds, Arthur remembers. If his face could have registered it, he would look shocked.
“Oh, God! The phone call!” he cries. “I got a phone call saying that the two of you had just been killed in a car crash. They said that Kevin hit a truck…”
“The truck hit me,” I sigh.
“…and then I got this terrible crushing pain in my chest and…oh my Lord, I must have had a heart attack!”
Arthur tries unsuccessfully to rub his chest with his little wrinkled hands. Then he screws up his eyes and cries for a while. Muffy and I join him. Why not?
When our sobfest subsides, he takes on the role of the boss again.
“All right, we need to figure this out. What’s going on? Where are we?”
“Beats the hell outta me,” I say with a shrug.
“The picture is pretty obvious. All three of us are little babies,” says Muffy.
You would have thought recognizing that he was in a diaper would have made the situation clear, but apparently our new forms hadn’t completely impressed themselves on Arthur before this point.
“Good God. We’re babies?” he exclaims, aghast. He thinks for a minute. “We've been reincarnated, then? As babies?”
“That’s what it looks like,” says Muffy.
Then I start getting a vibe. “Hey, you two,” I say, “I’m picking up a strong possibility that the three of us are related. Don’t ask me how I know this. It just feels like we are.”
“Brothers and a sister?” says Arthur. “You've gotta be kidding me! You think we've been reborn as brothers and a sister?”
“Kevin, I feel the same thing,” Muffy chimes in. “Do you know what I'm sensing? Call it women's intuition, but I am certain that we’ve come back as triplets.”
For once she and I agree on something. “Yup. We're triplets all right. How about that!” I chortle. A new thought strikes me. “Say, Muffy,” I ask slowly, “are you a girl or a boy?”
She tenses with apprehension. “I’m sure I’m a girl,” she says nervously. “I would have to come back as a girl, wouldn’t I? People don't come back as different sexes. Do they?”
“You’re asking me?” I say. “Nobody gave me the manual on reincarnation.” I burp.
“I've got to be a girl,” continues Muffy. But, oh gee, I don't know. I can't tell. How can we find out with these diapers on?”
Then Arthur pipes up and says, “Pee. We should all take a pee. Then we’ll know.” He goes for it, and with scarcely any effort at all, manages to wet his diaper.
“Huh. That’s very interesting. Seems like I've come back as a girl,” he says. He is not displeased.
“You’re saying I should pee? In a diaper? How gross!” cries Muffy. Despite her distaste, after a bit of straining, she completes the act. “Ew, I have a thingy,” she cries. “I'm a boy!”
As for me, I find out to my dismay that I’m a girl.
Can you believe it?” I grumble. “Me, a girl? Aw, man! This is not the way it’s supposed to be!”
Muffy glances sideways at me. “A-hah. You see! Look at you, Kevin. I knew it! I knew it!”
“Knew what?” I protest. “Hey, I didn’t hit the truck! The truck hit ME.”
“I always knew you were a sexist pig,” Muffy crows. “A male chauvinist sexist pig, that's what. You used to deny it, but I always suspected.”
“Wait, me? What about you? What’s with, ‘Ew, I have a thingy…’?”
She ignores me. “You regard women as inferior, don't you? You can't stand the thought of not coming back as a guy, can you?!”
Arthur chimes in. “Well, maybe Kevin doesn’t like being a girl, but not me. Personally, I find it fascinating! Just think about it, Kevin. You and I are gonna grow…” He stops and steals a look at Muffy. Then he makes an attempt to cup his hands in front of his chest. He is unsuccessful, but of course his thoughts are easy for us to translate. “Well, you know what we’re going to grow!”
This does not inspire me. I am bummed out about this uninvited sex change. Muffy is actually not wrong on that point.
“Is that all we've got to look forward to, Arthur?” I reply disconsolately. “Training bras?”
Muffy, meanwhile, is absorbed in her own sensations. “This is completely weird. I, um, have my own pair to contend with…but a lot lower this time. It feels so strange down there.”
“I don’t see why,” I retort dryly. “It’s not like having balls is going to be a new experience for you, Muffy.”
Muffy attempts to stare me down, but all she can do is emit little hiccups.
“Hey, c'mon you guys,” says Arthur. “Cut out the bickering. Let’s work on what's happening here and figure out a course of action. Obviously we've been reincarnated. Do either of you know anything about reincarnation?”
“Isn’t it like the Golden Rule in reverse: that whatever stuff you did to other people is going to happen to you?” says Muffy.
“Yeah, yeah,” he replies. “One of my clients produced a TV special about that. If you do something lousy to someone, or if you don't like each other, you keep on getting reborn with them, over and over, until you get it right.”
“Karma,” I say. “It's called karma, kids.”
Muffy tries her best to toss her head self-righteously, the way she used to when she was my wife. “Well, I'm certainly glad I'm not in your shoes, Kevin.”
I do not understand.
“God knows what your karma will be for drinking so much!” She flaps her hands in the air for emphasis.
“Excuse me, Ms. High-and-Mighty Muffin,” I say. “On the topic of karmic payback, were you or were you not cheating on me with Arthur?”
Muffy stiffens. “Our affair was an entirely different matter, Kevin. I was going to tell you, but, as you know,” she continues bitterly, “we seem to have died before I had the chance. You ran into a truck.”
If I had possessed any teeth, I would be clenching them. “A truck ran into ME!” I say.
“Anyway, Arthur and I are in love,” continues Muffy. “He was going to leave his wife for me, and as soon as he did that, I was going to get a divorce from you. Isn’t that so, Arthur?”
Arthur wiggles uncomfortably and wets his diaper a little bit more.
“You actually told her that?” I say gleefully. “Oh man, that is precious! Hah hah hah! Arthur, you sly devil, you!”
“What in the world are you talking about?” asks Muffy warily.
It is my turn to be smug. “Muffy. Dearest Muffy,” I say, “Arthur was never going to leave his wife. Not for you, not for anyone.”
“That's not true! Arthur, tell him about us. Go ahead!” she cries.
Arthur remains awkwardly silent.
Arthur?” she repeats weakly, her heart sinking.
I don’t feel sorry for her. “Now that we're dead, Arthur, and I am no longer in your employ, I can reveal this without fear of retribution. Muffy, to be blunt, my former boss, Arthur, was the kind of man who chased anything and anyone with two legs, and even then, I might be limiting him. Arthur, a successful executive, to be sure, had a teeny little failing. One of his organs was hyperactive, and it wasn’t his brain. You see, your dearest lover and my former boss nailed just about every single person in the office.”
I want to smile triumphantly. All that happens, though, is that a little bubble of saliva escapes my mouth.
Muffy turns to look fiercely at Arthur. Arthur, is that right? You had an affair with every woman in the office?”
“Listen to me carefully, Muffy,” I say, slowing down my transmission of thoughts so that she will pay careful attention. “I didn’t say every woman. I said every person.”
“I don’t understand. What do you mean, every person?”
“Tell her, Arthur,” I prompt. “Go ahead.”
Arthur tightens his lips. He is actually able to do that somewhat. I am impressed. No wonder he was the boss.
“Kevin, you're fired,” he says.
He turns to face Muffy.
“Listen, Muffy. You were great in the sack. We had some fine times together. But you were the one who started talking about getting divorces and running away together. I never promised that.”
“What do you mean, every person?” she repeats.
“You might as well know the whole truth, Muffy,” says Arthur. “I'm bi. You know. Bisexual.”
Finally! It’s out! I succeed in kicking both my arms and my legs joyously.
“What exactly do you mean?” says Muffy sternly.
“I mean that I’ve always been attracted to men just as much as women,” shrugs Arthur. “So sue me.”
“But you were married,” exclaims Muffy.
I point out to her that she was married, too. She ignores me and continues.
“And I thought it was only me you were with. How could you cheat with so many people when you were married!”
“My wife and I had an understanding,” he replies. “I made a lot of money, and she enjoyed spending it. We got along well.”
 “How could you do this to me, Arthur?” whimpers Muffy. “You were sleeping with other people? At the same time as me?”
“Feels great to have the person you love cheat on you, doesn't it, Muffy?” I crow.
Muffy continues to ignore me. As usual. “You're saying you slept with men? Men and women, both? But the promises…the lies,” she sputters. A new thought strikes her. “And the diseases! You could have caught something! You could've given it to me!”
“I don't suppose it matters what you might have given to me,” I mutter.
“First of all, Muffy,” says Arthur, “I always used protection. Secondly, anybody can have a disease. Thirdly, who cares any more? We're dead!”
“I'm really upset,” wails Muffy.
“You think you’re upset,” I say. “I just did something super disgusting in my diaper.”
Through her tears, Muffy continues her inquisition of Arthur: “You slept with everyone in the firm?”
“And then some,” I say happily.
“Well, not everyone,” responds Arthur slowly, projecting his thoughts with sudden emotion. “There was one person I could never reach…one person I loved more than anybody else. Maybe I was promiscuous because I knew I could never have that person. For him, I would have left my wife. With him, there might have been a chance to make a life together. But knowing he would never return my love, well, nothing mattered any more.”
Arthur turns and, looking across Muffy, stares longingly at me.
Oh, hey, no! No, no, no, no, no, no, no,” I say.
“Kevin,” says Arthur, still staring, “I can speak freely now. Finally. I've always loved you! I married my wife only after you married Muffy. I wanted to be accepted by you. All those affairs I had? They were meaningless.”
“Even me?!” bawls Muffy in dismay.
“Muffy, quite frankly, you were simply a way of getting closer to Kevin. If I couldn't be with him, well then, at least I could be with someone near to him.”
Her face red, crying hard, Muffy shouts, “I hate you! Both of you!”
Meanwhile, in an attempt to avoid eye contact with Arthur, I am glancing around, taking in our immediate environment.
“Hey, siblings, I don't want to bring you down from your current state of euphoria,” I say, “but have you taken a good look at our surroundings?”
“What surroundings,” sniffles Muffy. “We're in a hospital, right? I mean, we've just been born. I WANT MY MOMMY!”
Unlike Muffy, Arthur gets it. “This isn't like any hospital I've ever seen,” he says slowly. “Hospitals don’t have thatched roofs.”
“And have you noticed how hot and muggy it is?” I say.
“What are you suggesting, Kevin?” asks Muffy.
“I'm saying that I don't think we've been born into your typical upscale circumstances,” I answer. “This isn't exactly Cedars Sinai. I don't even think we're in the United States.”
“Oh, no,” gasps Muffy as a sobering thought hits her. “Kevin, what color are we? Why can't I tell? Oh boy, we'd better be Caucasian. Please, please, God! Let me be white!”
“Why, Muffy, you little bigot,” I sneer, “do you care that much what color your skin is?”
“Why of course not,” she responds indignantly. “I am not prejudiced, Kevin. Not one bit. Only, I just really, really, really, really want to be white. I need to be white! I mean, why should I have to be the socially disadvantaged one? Please, God, can't I be white?!?”
She whiffles her hands in the air and stares hard at them. Then she lets them fall back down.
“We're not white,” she moans. She stuffs one of her hands into her mouth and sucks noisily on the knuckles.
“Whatever our race, by the look of things, we've been born into extreme poverty,” says Arthur. “This is not good, kids.”
“Oh, no. We're poor, too? We're dark-skinned and we're poor? But that's so unfair!” cries Muffy. “We're just BABIES!”
“So this is how karma works,” I muse. “We three lived lives of luxury and power, and we come back as disadvantaged third-world triplets.”
“And as triplets, we’re stuck with each other,” whimpers Muffy, catching on. “I’m tied to you, Kevin. I can’t leave you and you can’t leave me. You can’t avoid facing Arthur, either; you’re stuck with him, too. And Arthur, you can't go to bed with either one of us!”
“But I can take a nap,” says Arthur with a huge yawn. “Which I’m going to do right now. I'm so tired, my eyes can’t stay open…g'night.” He closes his eyes and falls sound asleep.
And Muffy and I? We begin to cry.

***

Friday, April 1, 2016

LOVE ON THE SUBWAY

 

LOVE ON THE SUBWAY
by MARY ELIZABETH LEACH RAINES

IT IS AN ordinary night on the subway. Rush hour has long since passed. Next to the center door sits a young man wearing a knit cap, a baggy sweatshirt with the logo of a basketball team on it, and sagging jeans.
He takes up a lot of space, arms extended over the backs of the empty bench on either side of him, and his gaze is focused upward, eyes fixed blankly on the illuminated ads for lawyers and dental offices and technical schools that rim the curving top edge of the subway car. The expression on his face is one of boredom, but that is only because people are supposed to look bored in public places. It is his feet that give him away. They are jiggling wildly, dancing nearly out of control. Periodically his face cracks, erupting helplessly into a huge grin, while a silent laugh seizes him. 
There are only three other people scattered on the scratched blue plastic benches of the car: a weary, nondescript, middle-aged woman wearing a beige coat, a tough-looking guy with multiple tattoos crawling up over his collar, and an ancient woman with missing teeth who wears a yellow polka-dotted scarf around her neck. These three passengers are more successful in their disguises than the young man near the door, wearing the bland, unsmiling, impassive faces that human beings tend to wear in places like elevators, lines at the bank…and subways.
The monotonous screech of the brakes pierces through the car as the train slows, getting ready to come to a stop. Jumping up prematurely, the young man lurches and grabs onto a metal pole next to the door for balance, his feet still dancing. The smile that has been struggling to burst forth finally wins, dominating his face. He is clearly excited. The others in the car fasten their eyes on him dully, noticing, but only half-seeing him. As the doors begin to slide open, he can’t stand it any longer. His grin widens even more, making little apricots out of his cheeks. Just before exiting, he shouts gleefully to the other three, “I’m in love! For the first time in my life, I’m in love!”
Then he is gone, and with a little dutiful moan, the car begins to move again, rocking gently from side to side as it picks up speed as if shaking its head in wonder at the young man’s audacity. The car feels strangely empty with him gone, but his words have penetrated into the hearts of the three expressionless people left behind. Each of them turn their thoughts to love—to the first time they they were ever in love.

THE NONDESCRIPT WOMAN in the beige coat, whose name is Katy, was 24 when she first fell in love. Except for a few pimply-faced boys in her church youth group who’d dared to kiss her when she was a teenager, she had never dated much. She was easy to overlook.
After high school, she’d gotten a job with a large insurance company. She worked complacently as a clerk, and lived alone in an apartment above a garage owned by her landlady, Mrs. Naginsky. The occasional bits of color that had once been in her life were gradually seeping out, year by tedious year, but she didn’t notice. Katy made few demands on the world, and had, in turn, few expectations.
Color, however, was destined to return, and it all happened because bossy Mrs. Naginsky suggested that she should go to a local carnival.
“It’s up on the hill at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Grace,” said Mrs. Naginsky, standing at Katy’s front door, huffing and wheezing after climbing the stairs. “Me, I can’t go. I’d never make it up that damned hill alive. But you should go. They only put it on once a year, and it’s very popular. Go!” She gave Katy a little shove in the shoulder. The effort made her cough. “You need to get out. You’re young. They have food, and rides, and an art show. You’ll have a good time.”
The landlady was both insistent and pushy, and Katy didn’t have the energy to resist, so she put on a little makeup, grabbed her pocketbook, and drove to the carnival. Why not? Parking her car at the base of the hill, she picked up a small red feather that was lying on the ground next to her car door. Looking around first to see if anyone was watching, in an uncharacteristic gesture she stuck it in her hair. Then, squaring her shoulders, she walked up the steep road to the grounds of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Grace, where she saw that an assortment of rides and booths had been set up in a large field.
The day was pleasantly warm, with a turquoise sky and sweet air that smelled like newly-mown grass. Katy had never particularly liked carnival rides, and, in any case, she wasn’t about to go on one of them alone. This carnival was mostly rides, so that didn’t leave much for her to do. Even so, she felt glad that she had gotten outdoors for a little bit. As obnoxious as Mrs. Naginsky could be, the landlady was sometimes right on the mark. Katy strolled about looking at the booths and checking out the paintings in the art show. Periodically she reached up to touch the feather. She wondered if there could be bird lice that might crawl into her hair, but, feeling strangely defiant, kept the feather there anyway.
It was close to noon, and Katy realized that she was hungry. She decided that it would kill a little time if she got something to eat. After that, she would go home, with the satisfaction of having pleased Mrs. Naginsky. There was a big food tent full of long folding tables and metal chairs. She went in, bought a hot dog, and sat down at a table to eat it. 
And then her world changed.
He sat down across the table from her. With a slice of pizza. The instant her eyes met his, she felt as though she had been zapped with an electric shock. The sensation practically threw her out of her seat. His eyes were blue, and so luminous they positively glittered. They looked to her like spinning pinwheels. She was hypnotized, and at the same time, she felt shy and awkward, because it seemed as though he could see right through her.
He spoke to her, grinning. “Every time I've seen you today, I can’t help but stare at that red feather in your hair. Where did you get it? Did you mug a cardinal or something?”
She flushed, unable to respond.
“I’m going to have to call you Our Lady of the Red Feather,” he teased, still staring into her eyes.
She did not go home after she finished her hot dog, as she had originally planned to do. Instead, they spent the rest of the day together. At first, they just walked around the carnival grounds, talking. It turned out that he was quite easy to talk to, which amazed her. She wasn’t usually comfortable with men.
As time passed and her awkwardness faded, she began to loosen up. He made her laugh, and lots of little things suddenly struck her as silly—like the blue balloon a little boy was trying to hold that got tugged right out of his hand by the wind. She watched in giggling delight as it rose higher and higher, finally becoming almost invisible. Or like the huge pillow-sized pink cotton candy he bought her that tumbled out of its cone onto the ground the moment she stuck out her tongue to taste it. This struck her as terribly funny. It became a private joke between them. They would burst out in howling laughter whenever they passed anyone eating cotton candy. As they laughed, they swayed, their shoulders and hips bumping into one another.
After a while, he reached for her hand. They walked around all over the fairgrounds, holding hands and laughing, for what felt like hours.
He finally managed to talk her into going on some of the carnival rides. He was quite insistent. She reflected, with a silent laugh, that in some ways he was a lot like Mrs. Naginsky: pushy, but far easier on the eyes. He even convinced her to get on the roller coaster. Normally, Katy would have cringed at the thought. She hated roller coasters. But with him sitting there next to her,—his arm around her, and those blue eyes piercing into her,—she felt safe. Even so, she shrieked loudly with every turn and jostle and swoop. He liked it. He thought it was funny, the way she screamed, which of course made her scream even more loudly.
The ride they both liked the best, though, was the merry-go-round. They became obsessed with it. As soon as one merry-go-round ride would end, they would race, giggling, to squeeze back in line with all the children so that they could board the carousel again. After they climbed onto their colored horses, he would make up wonderful games. He would pretend to be an Arabian prince running away with the princess—her. Or he'd be Robin Hood and she’d be Maid Marian. The little kids stared at them as if they were crazy.
“We were,” she thinks with a wistful sigh.
Just before the carnival closed for the night, he brought her back to the merry-go-round for a final ride. He picked the biggest, whitest horse they had, with its head reared high and its eyes rolled back. Katy stroked its smooth resin mane and started to put her foot into the golden stirrup. He held up his hand, stopping her.
“My Lady of the Red Feather,” he said, bowing. “Allow me.”
Then he lifted her onto the horse, and climbed up behind her. It made her feel graceful. She wasn’t used to feeling graceful. The merry-go-round music started with a gentle oom-pah-pah, oom-pah-pah, the horse began to rise, and the air surrounding them was suffused with the sugary smell of cotton candy and the salty scent of popcorn. On the slanted canopy above the horses shone row upon row of colored lights that sparkled as they spun, and there were painted murals in the center of the ride depicting clouds and make-believe castles.
And as they rode on the white stallion in that fairytale setting, he put his warm arms around her from behind, leaning in closely—and he kissed her. It was the most magical moment of her entire life.
She lingers for a bit on her remembrance of the kiss, reluctant to think about what happened next.
The two dated eagerly for a few months. Then, little by little, they got used to one another and the glamor wore off. She realized that he drank too much, which led to arguing and, eventually, fierce battles. Katy wasn’t the battling type. It didn't work out.
The next year, when the carnival came back to town, she went again. Perhaps she was hoping for a repeat of what had happened the year before.
It wasn’t the same, though. The weather was uncomfortably muggy, and the fairgrounds were filthy, smelling of cigarette smoke and outdoor toilets. Music blared miserably through loudspeakers: squealing, pounding, over-amplified songs with strained voices screaming about how unhappy they were. The music hurt Katy’s ears and made her feel as though someone was beating her up. It was crowded, people were rude, and the ground was littered with trash. All the rides that had been so enchanting the year before looked cheap and rusted, with splinters of paint flaking off them.
And the merry-go-round? The merry-go-round was broken. Covered with a big piece of patched, dusty canvas.
Sitting on the subway, as she takes a stick of gum out of her purse and unwraps it, Katy wonders if it was the carnival that was different that second time…or if it was her. Shifting in her seat, her thoughts return to the kiss.

THE TOUGH-LOOKING GUY, whose name is Josh, sits slumped, staring out a window, even though there is nothing to see except the blackness of the subway tunnel and an occasional dim light flashing past. Spilling over the top of his chest is a multi-colored brocade of tattoos; they spread thickly onto his neck and rise behind his ears. He zips up his stained jacket and, crossing his arms over his chest, lets his face fall into a scowl. The cuffs of his jacket ride up a little when he does that, revealing more tattoos that spiral madly from his wrists, covering every bit of available flesh.
And Josh, just like beige Katy, is thinking about the first time he fell in love.
That night he had entered a seamy-looking tattoo parlor, its red neon sign buzzing loudly in suspicious welcome. Those were the days when hardly anyone except sailors or social deviants got tattoos. Josh had just turned 19. While he may have been moving somewhat swiftly into the ranks of social deviance, that was not what was prompting him to get a tattoo. Nor was he a sailor. His favorite uncle, however, had served in the Navy. Josh wanted both to emulate and to impress this uncle, and it occurred to him that a wonderful way to do that would be to get a huge eagle tattooed on his chest. He thought that this would look very cool, and he secretly hoped that it might possibly make his chest muscles look bigger as well.
In his mind’s eye, he had an exact picture of what he wanted. The eagle would have its wings spread out wide across his pecs, with razor-like claws extended below, and sharp accusing eyes that no one could escape. He enjoyed the fantasy of making love to a woman—a busty woman—with his shirt off, embracing her with fierce eagle wings as she surrendered, smitten.
Inside the tattoo parlor, he lowered himself onto a cheap plastic recliner and waited for the tattoo artist, who finally emerged from behind a curtain. To his astonishment, it was a woman. He was taken aback. In his world, women simply didn’t do these sorts of things.
She was older than he was, and the vibes she gave off were not warm and fuzzy ones. Her attitude meter was set on high. He could tell that she had spent heavy-duty time with gang-bangers and bikers, and that she probably had some acquaintance with jail cells as well. She was definitely the type of woman who would know where to score drugs, and it would more than likely be in her own back room.
Before Josh could speak, she glared at him and said in a harsh, cigarette-creased voice, ‘Don’t ask me to put a snake or nothing else on your you-know-what. I ain’t goin’ there.’
Now, at 19, women were constantly on Josh’s mind. Without intending to consciously, he automatically checked out every single female of any size or age who happened to cross his line of vision. Although he’d been known to settle more times than not, the women he preferred were what he called “lookers.” To Josh, a looker was a lady who had both glitz and cleavage—the more cleavage, the better. In those days, big hair was fashionable, and he was turned on by big hair, especially if it was accompanied by lots of eye make-up, low-cut tops, and tight jeans.
‘This one,’ thought Josh to himself as he scrutinized the tattoo lady, ‘ain’t gonna make no man hot.’
First of all, she had nothing up on top, which was generally a deal-breaker for him. Then there was her hair. Far from being big, it was both thin and greasy, pulled back unstylishly in a pony tail. She wore no makeup, there were bags under her eyes, and her teeth were crooked.
Actually, her appearance made it easier to get the tattoo. She had to straddle Josh a few times to work on the center of the eagle, and if she had been even slightly attractive to him, he might have embarrassed himself.
The woman certainly seemed to know her stuff, though. She worked away on his eagle for a long time, and she did a good job. It hurt like crazy, but Josh clenched his jaw and manned up, determined to take it.
Finally she stood, stretching, and said to him, “You got the toughest skin I ever worked on. Your skin is like leather. I gotta take a break.”
She disappeared behind the curtain for a while. When she came back into the room, she was holding two icy bottles of beer. She handed him one. He took a few noisy gulps, and the sound of his own swallowing made him self-conscious, so he decided to strike up a conversation with her.
“You got any tattoos?” Josh asked.
She said, “You’re kiddin’, right?”
Then, to his astonishment, she turned around and began, with a degree of modesty that surprised him, to pull up the back of her shirt so that he could take a look. She wasn’t wearing a bra. Josh expected to see something feminine, like a butterfly on her shoulder. Not many girls he knew had tattoos. The few he’d seen had butterflies. This woman possessed a very hard edge, though, so it wouldn’t have surprised him to see tattoos of spiders or devils or skulls—or maybe even a knife dripping blood.
What he saw was completely unexpected. It shocked him. Covering her back, from top to bottom, were tattoos of flowers! They were spectacular. She had a whole huge bouquet of them—all different kinds and colors of flowers. In the very center was a frilly heart, like a valentine. And written in the middle of that heart, in big curly letters, was the word Dad.
That’s when he fell in love with her. They hooked up that night, and remained together ever since.
Even today, years later, Josh is still wildly in love with her. He leans his head back and closes his eyes, the scowl across his face having long since faded.

ACROSS THE CAR from him, the old woman, whose name is Eunice, her face folded in wrinkles and her tongue darting out now and then through the many spaces where she is missing teeth, fingers the scarf around her neck. She is also lost in thought, remembering the first time she ever fell in love. It is one of her fondest memories.
“The world has changed a lot since that time,” she thinks.
It happened many, many years ago. She was six years old, playing by herself under the crooked apple tree in the front yard. There were only a few farmhouses on the dusty road back then.
Eunice was wearing a little ruffled dress full of yellow polka dots that had a pinafore over it—a kind of apron meant to keep her clothes clean. The evening before, her doting mother had washed her hair and wound the wet strands around rags. After her hair dried overnight on the rags, it formed long, spiraling curls they called banana curls.
Eunice was playing with her favorite dolly, a baby doll. She was pretending to feed her bits of the bruised apples that had dropped onto the ground. It was a beautiful, crisp September morning. Sunlight streamed down on her, and there were pretty puffs of clouds in the sky. The air smelled fragrant with the scent of the fallen apples.
A small boy, about her age, appeared at a little distance down the road, kicking at the dirt as he approached her. He wore knickers and had a great big newsboy’s cap over his wispy brown hair. Eunice had never seen him before. He was holding something in his hand. As he drew closer, she saw that it was a sticky lemon drop. How she used to love lemon drops, which were sour and tangy and sweet all at the same time!
Coming opposite Eunice, the boy stopped, looking silently at her, his palm still open. She stared very hard at his piece of candy. It was bright yellow, like the polka dots on her dress.
He stuck his hand out further, proffering the candy, and said, “If I give you this lemon drop, will you pull down your bloomers?”
 Eunice frowned. “Certainly not,” she replied haughtily, disguising her longing for the candy. “Would you? Would you pull your knickers down if I gave you a lemon drop?”
Sure I would,” he replied.
So she held out her hand and, in a sly way, said, “Well, then, will ya’ lend me your lemon drop?”
He gave it to her.
Then, pursing her lips, she squinted at him and said slowly, “If I give you this piece of candy, will you pull down your knickers?
Sure I will,” he said.
And he did.
That wasn’t, of course, what made her fall in love with him. After all, he was only six years old. No, it's what happened afterwards.
He pulled his pants up, and then he handed her back the lemon drop and said, “Here. This is for you.”

IT IS STILL an ordinary night on the subway. Yet, in this particular car, something has changed. The air has become lighter in texture. Through it floats a current of something that can only be described as…love. There is love on the subway. And all three of the passengers are smiling.

***

© 2016, M. E. Raines and Laughing Cherub
All rights reserved. Duplicating, copying, or recording in part or in whole in any format is prohibited, with the exception of brief excerpts for reviews.
Please feel free, however, to link with this blog and this story.