Metropolitan Homesick Blues

Southampton Stories & Other Stuff

Posts Tagged ‘Writing

Penny For Your Thoughts

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Something about our last conversation bothered me. Something in your voice – the way it trailed off – those long pauses – your vagueness. You sounded uncertain. And I need to talk to you again. I try to call, just to be sure, but now my cell is showing No Service.

The Northlander is two hours late leaving North Bay. This I know because I kept telling Siri to hit their Info Line every 10 minutes on the drive down from the lake. Your train isn’t arriving until 2:00 AM and it’s just gone past midnight. Where do you go with two hours to kill in Temagami at this ridiculous time of the morning?

A few cars and trucks are in the station lot. It looks like people are trying to get some sleep until the train arrives. Me? Im just standing here watching 18-wheelers rumbling south leaving dust, infused with the stench of diesel, swirling waist high above Highway 11. One after another they race through town with impunity. Toronto bound. So much for the speed limit. All they care about is hitting the 401 before the morning rush so they can make their destinations without penalties. The OPP could be making a fortune right now. Too early in the morning or too late at night for them, I guess.

I know the Legion stays open late on Friday nights. They’re supposed to close at 1:00 AM. But no one in this town pays much attention to things like that since the Ministry has fire-fighting crews in the county. Besides, the guys need a place to let off some steam. And the locals are not above earning some extra cash.

There’s probably a pay phone there. A landline will me get through to you. If we talked again before you get here, you might tell me what’s on your mind. Then I would be ready. I could prepare myself for whatever is coming.

I wait for a gap in traffic and race across the highway. It’s kind of like playing chicken. These big rigs don’t slow down. All these guys do is lean on their air horns and smirk as they blast pass you.

Walking down to the Legion I’m a little concerned because the building is dark. The front door is locked. I make my way around back. There are a few pickups in the parking lot so I figure they can’t be closed. One solitary light bulb is burning above the back door. Inside, on the wall, an arrow with the words Blue Room stenciled on it points me in the right direction. When I walk in the stench of cigarettes and stale beer hits me hard.

Five guys are sitting at a table next to the bar laughing and loudly talking over each other. They all need a shave. Their unkempt hair sticks out of their truckers caps. Pitchers of beer, empty chip bags, butt–filled ashtrays and crushed, empty cigarette packages tell me they’ve been here a while.

When they see me they raise their glasses and call me over. They have no idea who I am. But, single guy in a bar, late at night…kindred spirits. A newbie to buy the next pitcher and retell all their stories too. Why not. 

One guy starts to pour me a beer. I look around and spot the pay phone on the wall beside the bulletin board. I give them the universal thumb-and-baby-finger-phone-sign. They all give me that look that says, hey, right, go make your call –  join us when you’re done

I call your apartment. No answer. So you have to be on the train. You never could read on anything moving. Upsets your stomach you said. So, fine, you’re probably sleeping away a boring couple of hours on a not very comfortable seat in a run down coach. I’ve taken the Northlander before. I can accept that. 

You’re not leaving me much choice though.  You have to understand how I feel when I can’t get through. Why isn’t your cell on? Not being able to reach you is starting to bother me. If you’re not on the train, where could you be this time of night?

There was no point wasting any more quarters. It is late. There isn’t much else I can do. I can’t imagine you not coming. You and I alone on the island; the perfect place for us to talk about us, as you so mysteriously put it. That was the plan. We agreed on it yesterday. 

I sure don’t like this feeling. Strange isn’t it, what with cell phones, e-mail and texting, how we panic when we can’t reach someone? 

Maybe a few beers will calm me down. It will do me good to just sit and forget about you and this notion that is gradually moving from the back of my mind to an uncomfortable place of prominence. These guys are a welcome distraction. At least for a couple of hours. 

We talk about sports, work, women and what it is like to be out of touch and away from everything familiar. Fighting forest fires keeps these boys on crazy shifts 24/7. They’re missing their girl friends and family. They’re tired of wasting their off-time drinking in The Blue Room. When I tell them I’m meeting you at the train station they all smile that smile guys get when girls are involved…the one you hate so much. 

They are jealous. I can understand that. Each one of them wishes they were in my shoes. Little do they know. When I get up to leave they give me the kind of advice a guy about to meet his girl friend that he hasn’t seen in a while doesn’t really need. I won’t tell you what they said.

Back at the railway station people are leaving their vehicles; stretching out the kinks from sitting too long in a cramped space. Moving to the platform they arrange themselves in haphazard little clusters along the tracks. People like to try and guess where the railway car carrying the person they’re meeting will stop. Blind anticipation. It’s an emotion that keeps you from knowing whether or not you’ll be happy until the last moment. 

Tonight it is really playing with my head. 

As I walk down the tracks away from the station I turn my cell on.  Searching for Network lights up the screen. When the bars finally jump to full I hit your number and hold my breath. Still no answer. What gives with you? 

I feel kind of good that the train is only about 10 minutes out so I don’t bother trying again. A young boy is placing pennies on the track against his parents’ wishes. I remember how, as a kid, my friends and I used to do that. Once the train ran over them you ended up with pennies flatter than communion wafers. Now and then, depending on the engine’s speed, the pennies flew off in every direction. Sometimes you had to search between the railway ties and gravel to find them.

A blast of the Northlander’s horn announces your arrival. Bells clang and barriers fall across the road. A beam of light coming around a curve slashes across the station house. The sound of grinding steel on steel slowly brings the train to a halt. 

Finally. 

Anticipation is making me crazy…I’m singing to myself as I watch the conductor unfold his portable stairs. The few sleepy passengers drag their bags and themselves across the platform. Those haphazard clusters now swallow up their loved ones. Hugs all around. Smiles. Kisses. Hand shaking. Arms around shoulders. Small units of happiness making their way back to their cars.

But there is no you.

I don’t know how long I stood there after the train crept out of the station and disappeared into the darkness. You’re doing the same, aren’t you? Creeping out of my life and leaving me in darkness? 

I’m not sure if I’m angry or upset. Confused? Yes. Puzzled? Yeah. Anxious? How else should I be feeling? Really. The worst of it all is that you’ve done whatever it is you’re doing without saying a word. No explanation. Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye. I hear Leonard Cohen singing that song in my head. And you know what its like when you can’t get a song out of your head.

Damn you!

I’m barreling down Highway 11 in the slipstream of 18-wheeler hauling a full load of granite; probably for landscaping some monster home in North Toronto. Remember the truck stop just north of North Bay? That’s where I met Al the driver. He wanted to know which rig in the parking lot was mine.  I laughed. Bought him a coffee and told him my sad story.

He’s got a CB, so he knows where the O.P.P. are. We’re making good time. I’ll be in Toronto by morning.

I’ve stopped calling because I know you’re avoiding me. But, I still don’t know why. Which is the reason I’m coming into town. You owe me…something. 

Before I left I found one of those flattened pennies on the platform. The kid never came back to pick them up. His parents wouldn’t let him. Probably not really that important to him anyway.

I thought it would be a good idea to give it to you when, and if, we talk. You know. A penny for your thoughts?

This story won third prize in The Alice Monroe Literary Festival Short Story Contest in May of 2008. I earned $50.00 for it. The money wasn’t a big deal. I was happy to be among the winners of a Festival bearing Alice Munro’s name. But I realized that writing for a living wasn’t really realistic – for me. I’ve written a lot more since then and entered a lot more contests. You win some. You lose some. Enjoy.

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

March 22, 2020 at 1:25 PM

SLEEPLESSNESS

with 3 comments

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At 4:00 AM – when sleep won’t come – I sense a stirring in the darkness.

The night begins to weaken – loses its grip – and allows hints of grey to appear.

The change of light awakens the crows and they begin to call to each other as if to welcome – or at least encourage the sun to appear.

Come 5:00 AM night is almost gone.

By 6:00 AM the light brightens.

And I begin to understand

How slowly up the darkness daybreak climbs.

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Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

January 17, 2019 at 4:10 PM

THE OLD JACKKNIFE

with 5 comments

 

Memories sometimes fade.

The events that spawned those memories become vague

as years grow on you. One ember of memory rekindled itself

when I found his jackknife at the back of a drawer.

 

My father was a bricklayer.

He was the only one of his crew allowed to raise the corners. As he crafted a perfect pyramid of bricks, he sang “As Time Goes By,” under his breath thinking himself Humphrey Bogart. The others watched and waited.

With line and level he laid out precise right angles as a guide for each course to come, a leads for the others to follow. When done he would stand back and throw down his trowel, the point thunking into the mortarboard. The other bricklayers took this as their cue to raise the wall to the exactness of his corners.

After a brief moment he would smile, spit in his hands, grab the hockey-taped handle of his trowel, and with one smooth, powerful motion scoop up mortar, spread it straight, and slice a crevice down the center of the cement with the point of his trowel. At the same time he grabbed a brick with his free hand, tossed it into the air so that it turned to the right surface, caught it and placed it deftly at the start of another course.

“Ragazzi,” he would shout, “Guardi un vero muratore al lavoro.” Hey boys, watch a real bricklayer at work. The exchange of good-natured insults kept coming until he was ready to raise the next corner.

Sometimes he hockey-taped his hands and fingers. Mostly when he was handling solid sixteen-inch blocks, laying the foundation of some larger building. The black tape protected the calluses that had grown thick over the years. As a child I could feel their roughness when he grabbed my wrist when I misbehaved. His vice like grip was unbreakable. Although he was a small man, he had the arms of a bodybuilder.

Over the years arthritis stiffened his fingers. His health began to fail. His skill followed. Even though he taped his hands, he took to wearing leather gloves to keep the calluses from tearing with the coarseness of the brick

All the bricklayers he worked with realized what was happening. When he began letting others raise the corners they knew he was done, as did he.

One night he came home, dropped his tool bag on the landing at the top of the cellar stairs, and left it there.

“Non ne ho piu bisogno,” he said. I don’t need these anymore.

I bring him fresh peaches from the corner fruit market. We sit at the kitchen table, his jackknife in front of him. He takes the peaches out of the bag, one by one, weighing each in his trembling hand, gauging their firmness. Those that are too ripe he sets aside.

“I like to slice them and dip them in wine,” he says. The anticipation brings a smile to his face.

As he tries to pull the blade open, the knife falls to the table. He can’t control the spasms in his hands. Transparent skin is drawn tight making the tendons prominent. There is a slight shaking in his movement. But he clasps his fingers together and raises his hands to his chin as if he’s praying and it disappears.

His frustration quickly changes to anger as he stares at the knife as if it too has betrayed him. Staring out of the kitchen window he lets out a small sigh.

Magenta veins bulge on the back of the hand that pushes the knife toward me. “Lo prendi,” he says. You take it.

“It was my father’s knife.” He places his hand on mine. “Now I give it to you.”

The jackknife’s stag horn handle is worn thin from use. On one side, a slim silver plate is engraved with a barely visible name. Each blade unfolds easily. One must have broken some time ago. It is less than half the length of the main blade. You can see where it was ground down to a sharp point. The cutting edge has a deep half-moon curve in it from constant sharpening. Along the back, a corkscrew fits snugly in an indentation in the bone. Beside it rests a needle-like awl. Between them, running the length of the knife is a steel shaft that hooks over the end. Its purpose is still a mystery to me. Two grooves, one on each side, are cut into the bone end. They are empty. I can only guess that they held removable needles or picks that were lost over the years. With the blade fully extended the weight of its steel forged decades ago gives way to a delicate balance.

As I slice the peach cleanly, the knife has never lost its edge.

I still have it. I’ve never used it since that day.

Joe Nanni

Remembering you on Father’s day, Peppino.

 

 

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

June 18, 2017 at 6:00 AM