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Pushing a Dead lawnmower – a sound Sleeper – Cabbages & Storks –

Pushing a dead lawnmower along the verge of a rolling field of dying grass an older man in a charcoal-stripe three-piece suit unbuttoned over a sunken bare chest, his head quite bald, the skin of him dark with old grime. The only sound the rustle of the grass and the squeak of the lawnmower’s wheels. Up ahead in the darkness a cul de sac, a crumbling concrete pad under a broad flat gas station awning, a big roadside sign whose unbroken panel says Leathers Fuels. An old maroon sedan on four flat tires.

He stops pushing the lawnmower, steps around it, minces carefully toward that sedan arms out hands a-dangle, his last few steps a sudden waddling rush until he’s squatting by the trunk. The maroon of the sedan is scaled with rust, orange and white and grey, mottled with moss and lichen, grey and green. The windows dark where they aren’t streaked with green and blackish red. His back to it he scoots along careful with his bare feet toenails long and jagged sharp, clicking absently against the gravel. The handle of the passenger door is clean and almost gleaming, but he’s looking past it at the knob of the door lock just visible through the smeared glass. He lifts a hand to brush aside his collar and touch the polished silver torc that’s clamped about his knobby neck.

He stares at that lock.

He stares at it wide eyes buckling under his heavy brow, his jaw and throat, his shoulders trembling, his whole frame quivering with some motionless effort, staring at it until with a click the door lock pops up and he catches himself, doesn’t fall, one hand on concrete, one hand on the door. He pounds the concrete once and lifts his hand closed about the handle of a push dagger, the wide stubby blade of it sprouting from his curled fingers. He gently, gently pulls the door open.

Inside both front seats laid back as far as they might go. A man asleep in the passenger seat wrapped in a blue tarp and a felt furniture pad over a grimy blue windbreaker. A woman in the driver’s seat asleep on her side naked, her flesh a chilly bluish white but for splashes of some dried mud in tannish, beigeish streaks that flake over the cracked vinyl seat. Gleaming about her neck a polished silver torc.

The man in the suit lifts his push dagger to his lips but frowns before he kisses the tip of the blade. He looks down. Grunts in surprise. There’s a hand wrapped around his ankle, a small pale hand, knuckles rough and dark. The hand tightens, pulls, he topples forward foot yanked under and twisting scrabbling on the concrete he’s trying to pull himself free, whining then shrieking as slavering gnawing sounds erupt and he’s jerked and pulled inch by scraping inch deeper under the belly of the sedan. “Christ,” the man in the passenger seat’s saying, “fucking hell, oh, fuck,” tangled in the tarp and the thick felt pad. “Linesse,” he’s saying. “Linesse!” The sedan shakes as the driver’s door’s wrenched open.

Planting his free foot against a tire the man in the suit’s pushing himself back out and with a gasp and a roar of frustration he pops free rolling away from the sedan dragging the one foot behind him a mangled wreck, shining wet and twisted, the leg of his pants in shreds, holding his dagger up before him pointed at the thing crawling out from under the sedan, a little man with small, rough-knuckled hands, his wet smile full of very long teeth that snag the dim light about them. “I advise you,” says the man in the suit voice ragged with pain and effort, “to restrain your advances,” and the little man opens that mouth much too wide around those teeth and leaps.

With a sound like an axe in oak the woman’s pale bare foot hits the little man’s head knocking him out of the air pinwheeling across the concrete pad. “Stay put,” she snarls at the man in the suit, in her hand a short sword pointed at him, short and broad, a battered round guard rattling loosely about the hilt. She’s striding toward the little man who’s up on his hands and knees now, shaking his head, dazed. “Cearb,” she says, “I told you. Keep away.”

“Assassins,” pants Cearb, “come in the middle of the night,” he coughs, “and who keeps safe the Gallowglas?”

“Dear Linesse,” says the man in the suit, his voice stretched taut, “you must be wrung out, emotionally, morally, from the effort of keeping that mortal thing in meat and drink. I find in general it is better to beg forgiveness than ask permission, but if I must, I shall – please, please permit me the signal honor of putting you out of its misery. For all our sakes.”

“Chazz,” she starts to say, looking back along her sword at the man in the suit, and then she shakes her head. “Frankie!” she calls. “Frankie, step out of the car.”

“You sure?” says the man still tangled in the blue tarp in the passenger seat of the sedan.

“Frankie, set foot upon the field,” she says, and then as he fights his way out of the sedan, “gentlemen, in a half-minute’s time I intend to lay about with my blade. If either of you remains in reach, so be it.”

Cearb’s already scrambling off the concrete pad. Chazz begins to drag himself away toward his lawnmower. “What holy justice have I wronged?” cries Cearb. “Shut up,” says Linesse, watching them both go. Cearb calls out, his voice falling away in the night, “In our wretchedness, why should we still look up to the stars? Which one am I to invoke, when my reverence is so easily disabused?”

Chazz is pulling himself upright on the lawnmower his foot dangling, a useless wreck. “I’ll be some little time,” he says, “recovering from this indignity. Use it wisely – as I hope I might – consider carefully what you would gain, by granting my request.” And he hops away, leaning on the lawnmower, wheels squeaking in the darkness.

“You can’t stay,” says Linesse to Frankie, half in and half out of the sedan, and she starts walking away, off the concrete pad, out into the cul de sac, her bare feet heedless of the gravel.

“I can’t,” says Frankie, “I don’t want to stay, I never,” turning, stuffing the tarp and the pad into a couple of shopping bags on the floorboard that say Thriftway and Trader Joe’s. “Linesse, hey, wait up! Some clothes? Maybe? This time?” Half-running as he leaves the sedan, shopping bags in either hand bouncing against his legs. “Linesse! Who was that? What the fuck was that about?”

She stops and turns to look back, at him, the sedan, the abandoned gas station, the big broken sign. “Once,” she says, “before? He was the Devil.”

“Seriously,” says Frankie, catching up with her. “Seriously?”

Threads of smoke drift up from the cigarette by Ysabel’s knee, a half-inch of ash dangling from its tip. She’s sitting in a cleared spot on the floor by the windows in an oversized sweatshirt that says Brigadoon! The wrack of torn and shredded clothing has been mostly pooled before the bulky blond armoire in the corner. The glass-topped café table now upright. In the stir of blankets on the futon Jo lies back in the ruins of her red dress eyes closed, mouth open in a gentle snore. Her cheeks criss-crossed with welts, a bruise darkening a temple. Curled against her side a young boy maybe two, maybe three, swaddled in a Spongebob Squarepants towel, his head a tangled thicket of mud-brown curls. One short arm’s flopped over her chest. In his chubby fist a tatter from her dress.

Ysabel sighs and taps the ash into a butt-filled saucer at her feet. “She sleeps pretty soundly, you know,” she says, and she takes one last drag, then stubs out the cigarette. “So we can talk.” Standing, stretching. “Assuming you can do more than shriek.” Jo still lightly snoring. The red tatter still clenched in the boy’s fist. “You worked us over pretty well,” says Ysabel, rubbing her face. The walls over the futon still stained were something dark and wet’s been scrubbed away. “But she’s asleep for now, and we both know I know you aren’t what you are.” Jo’s breath hitches, she turns her head to one side then the other, settling back into her snore. The little fist on her chest doesn’t move.

“Okay,” says Ysabel.

Fluorescent lights flicker to life in the little hallway kitchen and careful of the cardboard box filled with swept-up debris Ysabel’s opening drawers, cabinets, rattling dishes and utensils. “Coffee,” she says to herself. Opens the refrigerator, closes it. Opens it again. Opens the freezer.

She lays an awkward armload of stuff on the glass-topped table, a bowl with an egg in it, a coffee cup half-filled with water, a box of matches, a couple of spoons, some tongs, a red can that says Hills Bros. Coffee with a drawing of a man in a turban and yellow robes. Kicking through the pile of clothes she comes up with a short red crumpled candle. Sitting in one of the spindly wrought-iron chairs, hands hovering indecisively over all these various things.

She lights the candle with a match.

She plucks the egg from the bowl and then timidly taps it against the table. Looks at it. Taps it again. Tries tapping the narrow end lightly against the table. “Shit,” she says, bringing the egg up higher hand trembling then slamming it down and the egg’s smashed, splattering yolk and albumen and bits of shell along the glass, her hand, her sweatshirt. “Shit,” she says again.

She sits back down with some paper towels and two more eggs and mops up the slime and shell. She takes one of the eggs and holding it carefully between thumb and forefinger taps it gently against the edge of the table, and a again, a little harder. It cracks.

She holds it gingerly over the bowl, eyeing the clear slug oozing down its side, and pries it open, wincing as it cracks apart and the yolk plops out. She shakes out the last of it, then sets the smaller-butt end down and picks up the tongs. She clamps them carefully on the jagged rim of the longer narrow half of shell, then scoops up some water from the coffee cup and holds it over the candle flame. When the water starts to bubble, she pours it back into the coffee cup. She scoops up some more, holds it over the flame again. And again. And again.

“What are you doing,” says a small and piping voice.

Ysabel smiles, watching the water in the eggshell as it starts to bubble. She pours it into the coffee cup, scoops up some more. “I’m making coffee for Mommy.” She looks over at him sitting up on the futon, big eyes blinking, his little hands on Jo’s hip. “Want to be a big boy and help?”

“Hey.” Ysabel sitting on the futon by Jo stroking her scratched cheek with the back of her hand. “Hey, wake up.” Smoothing the flaps of the torn red dress. “Wake up, Jo.”

“Boobies,” says the boy. He’s standing naked on a spindly wrought-iron chair, using the tongs to hold an eggshell full of water over the candle flame.

“Coffee ready yet?” says Ysabel, pulling a blanket up over Jo’s breasts.

“Toil! Trouble!” says the boy, pouring water into the cup, peering at it. “No damn bubble.” Scooping more out to hold over the flame.

“Come on, Jo,” says Ysabel, and she starts to lean down, then does, over Jo, closing her eyes, softly kissing Jo’s cheek. “Kissy kissy Mommy kissy,” sniggers the boy. “Wake up,” says Ysabel in Jo’s ear, and Jo opens her eyes. “Ysabel?”

Ysabel sits up.

“He’s still here, isn’t he,” says Jo.

Ysabel nods.

“I have a kid,” says Jo.

“I wouldn’t put it – ”

“Make out!” yells the boy. The water in the eggshell’s starting to bubble. Jo starts to sit up but Ysabel pushes her gently back down, lying down next to her, “It’s busy,” she says. “It’s okay. Just – ”

“Get me a shirt,” says Jo, wrestling with the ruins of her dress.

“It’s okay,” says Ysabel, trying to still Jo’s hands. “We need to take a – ”

“Just get me a damn shirt?” says Jo.

Ysabel rolls over to crawl down the futon, and “London! France! Underpants!” cries the boy.

“What?” says Jo, twisting her dress around to get at the zipper. It’s stuck. “Shut up, you little troll.” Yanking the zipper apart until it rips loose, then working the red rags over her head and off. “Mommy’s naked, Mommy’s naked,” sing-songs the boy. “Shut up,” snaps Jo.

“Don’t egg it on,” says Ysabel, rummaging through the clothing heaped around the blond wood crates under the dark flat-screen television. One corner of the screen’s now webbed with cracks, a crooked line jagging all the way up to the top. She sniffs a black T-shirt, drops it, sniffs another one, tosses that one at Jo.

“The fuck is he doing?” says Jo, working the shirt over her head. A wide-eyed anime girl with pink hair drawn upside-down across it, surrounded by bits of armor cracking open like a carapace.

“Making coffee,” says Ysabel.

“Mommy likes stupid coffee,” says the boy. “Stupid stupid coffee.”

“It’s not breaking anything.” Ysabel scoots back up the futon. “It’s not smearing shit and snot all over the place. It’s not kicking the hell out of you. Or me. Let’s take what we can get.” Jo’s shaking out a cigarette, then hands the pack to Ysabel. “We need to figure out how it got here.”

“Cabbages in the celery patch!” cries the boy. “A stork’s as good in a pinch through the window.”

“It’s obvious,” says Jo, striking a match, lighting her cigarette. “The Duke.” Shaking out the match she hands the matchbook to Ysabel, who shakes her head, taking Jo’s hand in hers, her cigarette in her mouth. She leans forward to light it from the coal at the end of Jo’s. “Kissy kissy!” chirps the boy, and Jo scowls. Ysabel takes a drag, shakes her head, “Too weird,” she says. “The Duke prefers his vengeance raw and right away, or very, very, very well-done.”

“Vengeance?” says Jo. “First of all, anybody gets to be pissed in this situation, it’s me. At him.”

“Jo,” says Ysabel, “I tried to explain, it’s – ” and then she stops. “Never mind,” she says. “Number two.”

“Number two?”

“You said first of all.” Ysabel lies back on the futon. “I assumed you had a second point?” Blowing smoke at the ceiling.

“Yeah,” says Jo. “Right.” Lying back next to Ysabel. “Well. We had sex.”

“So I gathered,” says Ysabel. “I’m doing it! I’m doing it!” The boy’s dumping another eggshell of bubbling water into the cup, scooping up more.

“Not tonight,” says Jo. “I mean, yes, tonight, but what I mean is, last week. When we were at the teahouse? When we were,” and her hands come up, searching in the wisps of smoke above them for the right word, “there,” she says, “we, well, him and me, we – ”

“Had sex,” says Ysabel.

“A lot of sex,” says Jo. “I think. It was, like a dream. You know?” The boy’s chanting “The worm goes in, the worm goes out, the worm goes in and out and in and out!” and Jo says, “Jesus. Anyway.” Looking over at Ysabel beside her. “If we, I mean because we did it there, could he have – ”

“It,” says Ysabel, “and no, I don’t think that’s how it works – ”

“Billy!” says the boy, and Jo sits bolt upright. “What about him,” she says.

“Billy Billy Billy Billy Billy,” says the boy.

“Who’s Billy?” says Ysabel, sitting up on her elbows next to Jo.

“That’s my name,” says the boy. “Billy Billy Billy Bill.”

“The hell it is,” says Jo, not looking away from the boy as he pours another eggshell of water into the cup.

“Jo,” says Ysabel. “Listen to me. Jo.” Her hand on Jo’s shoulder. “This, thing, was sent to us. By somebody. Has nothing to do with you and the Duke. We really should start trying to figure out who, and why.”

“Billy Billy Billy,” says the boy.

“We gotta do that to get rid of it?” says Jo.

After a moment, Ysabel says, “No.”

“Then fuck it,” says Jo.

“I’m Billy,” says the boy.

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M.E. Traylor    27 July 2011    #

I am so pleased with myself for remembering the boiling water in eggshells bit from Brothers Grimm. It took me a while to remember who Linesse was. I may or may not go reread archives. Chazz + lawnmower imagery = priceless.

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