Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 The Butcher Hope

 

Greg Reynolds' friend Bobby Zale had lived in Creekside his whole life, so he could talk for months without repeating one of his local color stories.  Once upon a time, before his wife had gotten sick, Reynolds thought of carrying a tiny tape recorder with him when he was with Bobby, letting him accidentally dictate the makings of a best-selling novel that would make both of them rich. If he still thought like that, this would be one of those times because Bobby had asked him to ride along to the Greenwood Cemetery, where his wife and Bobby's parents were buried, in order to see something "that will get you riled as long as you're a man who still has breath in him.”

"Look at this," Bobby said, winding down his window and sticking his head outside as if the glass restricted his view.  "I wanted you to see this bullshit with your own eyes."

Reynolds had a hard time making out what he was seeing in the full daylight of mid-November, but even the general idea was discouraging.  Christmas lights had gone up, not just strings of tasteful white or blue bulbs looped through tree limbs and waiting for winter to signal they should be lit, but shapes constructed of lights woven through frames of wire, some of which Reynolds began to recognize as displays that would surely shine in garish colors:  Santa Claus, reindeer, what looked to be elves but might just as well have been the seven dwarves because he thought he could make out Mickey Mouse standing beside a cross-shaped monument large enough for crucifixion.

"What do you think of this?" Bobby said, pulling his head back in as he stopped beside what Reynolds was sure would suggest Frosty the Snowman when the lights came on.  "My parents' graves are right there behind this goddamned snowman.  Right there.  See?  And your wife so recent here and not far."

Reynolds wanted to say this reminded him of an enormous department store window display, but he kept it to himself.  "It certainly sucks," he said.

"Sucks isn't the word I'm thinking of.  They say they're going to turn on all these lights on November 15th.  That’s tomorrow.  For charity or something.  This is my property here.  And yours, right?  I should be able to decide whether I want a fat-ass snowman casting a shadow across those graves.  Christ knows what you might have to put up with.  I didn’t check, but we can go there if you want.”

Reynolds looked ahead to where he thought he might be seeing a Christmas tree and light-formed, oversized square and rectangular presents.  He imagined the rainbows of colors that would highlight these displays and remembered that Bobby Zale's mother had died fourteen months earlier, collapsing in church on her way to receive communion.  Back in September, when he’d watched his wife’s coffin lowered, there hadn’t been one light bulb hanging in the entire cemetery.  Bobby had told him how much his mother loved the view from her plot, and he’d said there was consolation in knowing she was as pleased as the dead could be. 

“I’m not going to tell you how your wife might be feeling, but how pissed you think my mother is right now?” Bobby said.  He waved his right hand toward both sides of the narrow lane and grunted.  “It’s a good thing my old man’s been dead going on nine years.  He’s probably too far gone to notice.”

Reynolds remembered how Bobby’s father had worked in the butcher shop and offered opinions until the last week of his life.  If there was a way to let Bobby know how pissed he was, the old man would manage, but now Bobby opened the car door, and for a moment Reynolds thought he was about to pull the snowman down with his hands.  "There's a limit to what we can be expected to take," Bobby said, not swinging his legs outside.  "This comes close."

Reynolds nodded, but Bobby wasn’t through.  "It’s been up for two weeks already,” he said.  “The Kiwanis or whatever had a song and dance about how they wanted to put this up when they were sure to have good weather and plenty of volunteers.  You wait until right about now and you might get weather that keeps people to themselves." 

The bare limbs and thinned brown of a nearby stand of oak suggested Halloween was weeks over.  Reynolds imagined the shapes of skeletons and ghosts glowing throughout the cemetery, crowds of teenagers being ferried in hay wagons while they groped each other under blankets.  Finally, Bobby pushed himself out of the car, and Reynolds joined him, following him past the snowman to his parents' graves.  "You know what my mother did when my Dad died?  She had this tombstone carved all the way to the last number.  Look.  See those dates?"

Reynolds read the numbers: 1926-2000, it said below Richard Zale.  1921-2008, it said under Margaret Zale.  "I don't get it," he said.

"When my Dad died, she had 1921-200_ carved under her name.  She was older than he was.  You don't see much of that from back then, but you can see for yourself here, and she was surprised to be the last one standing.  She said she couldn't imagine living another ten years, not the way she felt every morning, noon, and night.”

"Well," Reynolds said, "it all turned out, didn’t it.” 

"I have to tell you she admitted to me when last year turned into its home stretch that she was starting to wonder whether she'd made a mistake about this, whether she was going to have to die in 2009 or else have her dates go rotten as old meat."  Bobby ran his right hand over the top of the stone and turned to look back at the snowman.  “You can’t print over something like this,” he said.  “This here zero would show right through.  My mother knew that no matter how old she lived to she wasn’t going to get credit for anything past 2009.”

Reynolds had talked to Bobby’s mother in the butcher shop last June.  She’d wrapped him a pork loin and an eye of round roast, chattering on about how it looked like there might be a black President. “Can you imagine?” she’d said, like someone who, at eighty-seven, was certain to live into her nineties.  "You know," Bobby said, "if I drive through here at Christmas, I won't even be able to see this stone from my car what with the lights and all.  It'll be Disneyland.  Kids getting out of cars and having their pictures taken with Santa Claus over there."  He patted the stone and exhaled.  "Ok," he said, "I've said my piece.  I'll be getting you back to your own business."

"It’s just TV football, Bobby," Reynolds said.  “I have to be ready for the rest of my probation time at Wellington.”

Bobby smiled.  "You’ll be fine, Greg.  You and work have always got along.  You’d still have the pizza shop if God hadn’t wanted your Sheila.  It’s no picnic starting over, but staying busy helps, for sure it does.”

"I hope so."

"Hope isn’t always good enough.  You ever buy those steaks that come pre-wrapped in a stack?  Don't tell me if you do, but that's what I’m talking about. You'd be a fool not to know there's a surprise in there where you can't see it.  Hoping doesn’t change what’s buried.  A butcher shows you the meat, cut by cut; a stock boy shows you where the packages are.  You want to go take a look where your wife is?"

“No.”

Before they exited, they passed what Reynolds was sure would light up as a toy train.  It even looped around a monument.  Bobby snorted as they left it behind.  "These pricks," he said.  "They think that raising money makes the rest of the world ready to clap their hands for shit.  We'll run by the shop right now.  I'll carve you a strip steak like you've never seen to grill.”

“You’ll make that a sirloin if I tell you what I’m getting by the hour at the school.”

“It’s on sale,” Bobby said.  “One hour only.”

 

Two weeks into his new job, Reynolds had learned to keep an eye open for Alex, the supervisor, who seemed to stop by once a day to see if Reynolds was getting the hang of maintaining a grade school building.  “It’s a breeze,” Frank Funovitz, the retiring janitor, had said ten days ago when Reynolds showed up for his first day on the job a week after he’d closed his pizza shop for good.  “I got thirty-eight years says I know how this here ought to go.”  It was three-forty, and Reynolds was finished for the day except for setting the blinds in every room at exactly half way and dumping a few wastebaskets he’d left beside the portable dumpster so Alex had something to see him doing if he showed up by 3:55.  Next week was short for Thanksgiving, then Alex was off for a week of vacation days he took for deer hunting.  Reynolds would have a week without supervision, Alex had said, and he wanted to be sure he’d made the right choice when he got back. 

At 3:50 Reynolds saw Alex’s blue truck at the stoplight a block away. He leveled the blinds and moved into the next room to do the same.  By the third room Alex reached the top of the stairs.  As soon as Alex reached the landing, Reynolds pushed the portable dumpster down to the last room where the blinds weren’t in line.

Alex called his name.  When Reynolds stepped through the door, he started right in: “I know it’s hard what’s happened to you lately—the pizza shop, your wife—but I’m gone in three days.  You got all this in your head?”

“No problem,” Reynolds said.

“You sure?”

“Yeah.” Reynolds wondered what Alex had on his mind.  Funovitz had made him do most of the work during his first trial week, and there weren’t any items that took much doing. 

“You’re behind here today.  It was 3:53 when I pulled up, and the blinds were all raggedy looking.”

“It’s a couple of minutes to check the blinds downstairs on my way out.  It’s a minute to empty the trash.” 

“There’s no overtime on this job.  You piss around, you stay until things are shipshape.  That ok with you?”

Reynolds glanced at the dumpster, which suddenly seemed swollen and heavy with garbage.  “It’ll get done,” he said.

“I need to believe that.  I need to think you can handle the work on your own.”

“Guaranteed.”

“Maybe I should check in with your principal here. You know, make sure?”

“It’s up to you,” Reynolds said. 

“That’s right.  It’s up to me.”

There was nothing for Reynolds to say then.  It looked to Reynolds that if he wanted this job he needed to act like he was back in third grade, sitting in one of those small desks on which Bobby Zale’s wife Christine had taped pictures of each of her students.   “Ok,” Alex said.  “I’ve got to trust you on this one, and all I have is Frank telling me last week he thinks you can handle this.  He says something like that, and I’ve got to believe him enough to trust you when you say this building will stay shiny and bright.”

Reynolds stood at the window at the top of the stairs and watched Alex pull the van into the street.  It felt like a vacation to walk out of the school at 4:07, a few minutes late because of wasting time with Alex instead of telling him about how he used to twirl two pizza doughs into smooth, round pies simultaneously, his left and right hands equally adept, and then laid out pepperoni or mushrooms or green peppers so perfectly the extras on his pizzas looked as if they’d been placed by a machine, even after eleven hours on his feet. 

 

 

While Sheila was alive, shopping for food—produce and meat, at least—was one chore Reynolds didn’t detest, and he’d always been willing to drive a few miles to purchase produce at the specialty grocery outside of town, followed by another four miles to Bobby Zale’s, where he bought meat when he got tired of what Sheila brought home from the local super market.

Now, on the Saturday after he’d toured the cemetery with Bobby, he’d driven through the first snow of the season to order some fresh ground beef and a roasting chicken that he could be sure had been raised locally instead of on some factory farm.  Bobby frowned.  "For Thanksgiving?  It will look pathetic sitting there.”

“There’s just me.”

Bobby shook his head and ran his hand along the counter above the upscale cuts of beef.  “That’s why you have to get the turkey.  To make it seem like there’s others at the table.

“I’ll have turkey for a week.”

“Leftovers are part of Thanksgiving.  Listen, I’ll throw in a New York strip for half off.  What do you say?  You liked that other, right?”

“Yeah.”

Bobby laid a strip steak on a swath of butcher paper and waited while Reynolds stepped sideways to look into the case full of deli meat.  "I’ll have the turkey without gravy.  You know, with rice."

"No gravy?  No filling?  You forget how to eat?”

Reynolds marveled the way he always did at how thin Bobby Zale stayed.  As if Bobby just talked about meat and didn’t eat it, somebody like his mother had been.  He thought Bobby might be surprised to hear him say this, but Reynolds had never mentioned it.  There were connections among people that were better served by not saying things aloud.  You couldn’t let someone know too much of what you believed about them for fear of upsetting whatever balance kept you close.

“Wrap up the chicken, Bobby,” Reynolds said.  “I’ll pay full price for the strip steak.”

 

 

At 3:50 on Monday, Reynolds was surprised to see Bobby’s wife Christine still in her room.  School was over at three; the teachers could leave at 3:30, and they did, the stragglers gone by quarter to four at the latest.  “Hey there,” he said, and she smiled. 

“Have you looked at my darlings while you clean up in here?” she said.

“I noticed you’re the only one with pictures.”

Christine walked half way up a row between desks, her eyes on the pictures as if she’d never seen them.  “That old janitor Frank, he hated these,” she said.  “All he saw was tape marks, but this tape hasn’t marred in three years now.  When I take them all off and store them, you won’t even know they were here.”

He remembered Funovitz showing him these pictures.   “Zale and her big ideas about changing these kids somehow,” Funovitz had said, but right now Reynolds thought it was a wonderful thing to do. 

“I have thirty-two years of pictures in my files,” she said, and he wanted to ask her which of those eight-year-olds were in college now, which were happy in their work.

“Frank spent more time complaining about how the kids were going to hell than he did about the tape marks.”

“Some of them are going to fail,” she said.  “Crotchety old Frank’s not all wrong, but he hated the kids, so don’t pay him any mind.”

“He said they didn’t know how to behave.  ‘Welfare,’ he predicted.  ‘Prison.’  He always said it started with boogers and chewing gum under the desks.”

Christine lifted a desk, and tilted it.  Reynolds heard books sliding inside, but she kept the underside exposed so he could take a look at how clean it was.  “Something else starts them in here, Greg.  Old Frank was just lazy.”

When she put the desk down, Reynolds looked at the picture on it—Gordon Paultz.  In front of Gordon sat Cindi Welover, both of them smiling.  “Can you tell which ones Funovitz is right about?” he said.

“Yes,” she said.  “Isn’t that a horrible thing to say when you have eight-year-olds?”

Reynolds hesitated.  He’d expected her to deny knowing, to claim every child had beauty and promise.  He glanced at Gordon Paultz again, his shaggy brown hair and the spaces waiting for new teeth to grow into.  “You can’t help what’s true,” he said at last.

“I see their stories in the paper sometimes.  The drugs.  The stealing.  The assaults on their wives or kids.  I’m never surprised, but Bobby always has to remind me it’s not my fault.”

“There’s plenty that turn out.”

“You sound like Bobby when he tells me his customers don’t all go to the Wal-Mart for the bulk sales.”

“Here you are, though.  And there he is.”

She pressed her hands over his right wrist.  “And you, too.”

 

On Wednesday, Alex found Reynolds straightening up in the principal’s office when he came at 3:35, the school immediately deserted for the Thanksgiving weekend, every one of the teachers promising to level their blinds as a sort of holiday gift.  “I got a story for you before I’m ready for some turkey and football and a week in the woods.” Alex spent five minutes telling Reynolds how hard it had been shoveling dirt to get to his neighbor’s clogged septic tank the summer before while Reynolds wondered what the point was.  “So there we were,” he finally said, “looking into this shit hole, and can you believe it, there were thousands of used rubbers stuffing everything up.  The guy’s only been living next door for five years.  How many loads you think somebody can get off in five years?”

Reynolds said a thousand right away, just because the round number popped into his head, but it made Alex stop and calculate what he had to do to reach that kind of record.  “You know, you can screw anything,” he said after he’d counted for a while.  “Just give yourself three or four days and you get hot enough to go after even one of these cold-tit teachers.”  Reynolds waited.  He knew Alex wanted to keep going.  “You’ve seen Miss Stern,” he said.  “Second grade.  Or Miss Gempel, fourth grade.  You can’t even imagine them fucking.”

Reynolds held his breath, but Alex didn’t add Christine Zale to the list before he said, “I’ll be eating venison till Christmas, just you wait and see,” and left.  Now there was nothing to do but walk around examining the office.  He tried file drawers, all of them locked but one that was stuffed with medical records.

Maybe the secretary had meant it to lock it, too.  Maybe she’d meant to check all the drawers before her four-day vacation started, but her husband had been honking the horn outside and flustered her into forgetting one.  There were a lot of possibilities, but after Reynolds had read a few folders, none of them mattered much.  He wasn’t going to report to anybody that Bobby Rhoads had a bee-sting allergy or Betty Kerpewski might tumble into a diabetic coma if she got careless.  None of these records listed alcoholism or manic-depression.  These kids were doing ok, so far, weaving through heredity and chance.

What Reynolds wanted to read were the records that told how these kids measured up, whether they had enough IQ points to have a shot at getting out of Creekside if they wanted to, whether they had the As and Bs it took to get smiles from everybody who could change your life instead of serving slices of pizza with extra cheese as if a few bites of something made the way it was supposed to be made could fix the problems a customer walked in the door with.

Everybody loves pizza, Reynolds had told Sheila twenty-six years ago when they’d married, and he had the advantage of being willing to work twelve-hour shifts, six days a week.   She’d given him a book with the title One of a Kind when the shop had opened.  “Here” she’d said, “anybody willing to do what you do by yourself will love this.”

Reynolds had smiled, thumbing through the examples of people who had done strange things, even walking backwards around the world, and his cost cutting that worked for fifteen years until Pizza Hut moved in a quarter mile away, and it took eleven years and his wife dying to sell everything and take up cleaning school rooms.

Right off when he’d found out Reynolds’ old job that first week, Funovitz had said he loved Pizza Hut.  He thought it was a treat to split a meat lover’s pizza with his wife once a week and wash it down with a pitcher of soda.  After hearing Funovitz run on with praise for even the bread sticks, Reynolds had just nodded. 

“They know how to please there,” he’d said.

“It’s all that meat,” Funovitz had said.  “A pizza has to be loaded.”

 “I have a friend who’s a butcher.”

“At the Super Wal-Mart?”

“His own place.”

“That’s like being a shoemaker these days.”

“He has business.”

Funovitz had grinned. “Or a blacksmith,” he’d said. 

 

 

The Sunday after Thanksgiving, all four days with chicken on his dinner table, Reynolds found One of a Kind lying by itself on a shelf in the spare room.  He’d never finished reading it, but now he dusted it off and carried it to the school on Monday, thumbing through it while he sat at Miss Gempel’s desk at four o’clock, Alex eighty miles away and nobody else caring whether he locked up half an hour late if he wanted to.  For a moment, when he saw there was a heading for “the human body,” he half expected to find his wife’s rare disease among the entries.

PML—it was so rare, Sheila had said, only people with something like AIDS are supposed to get it, people with no immune system.

“What can be done?” Reynolds had asked the day she was diagnosed.

“Nothing,” she’d said.  “Not a thing.”

“There’s always something,” he’d said, but she’d shaken her head.

“And it goes fast.”

Reynolds had thought fast meant a year or two, maybe more, the way people with cancer faded away, sometimes lasting longer, even if it was called hopeless.  “A couple of months,” she’d said, “and none of them pretty.”

For once, he’d done some reading.  Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy—it sounded like the worst possible thing to get.  Your eyesight went bad, your speech, just about everything until you were paralyzed and went into a coma.  For a few weeks Sheila had read out loud to him, sitting up in bed while he lay there and listened because, she thought, the reading might slow down the way her speech was turning slurred. 

“During the Middle Ages,” Sheila had read from a book about folk medicine, “people used honey as an antidote for snake bites and rabies.”

“That doesn’t sound like it would work,” Reynolds had said, and she’d tapped the book against his chest.

“Of course not,” she’d said, “but it gave them hope.”

Two weeks later, his wife had stopped reading because she couldn’t form words and was having trouble holding a book.  Her eyes were going.  She was stumbling.  Another month and she was paralyzed, so when, two weeks after that, she lapsed into the promised coma, Reynolds was thankful.

Reynolds opened Miss Gempel’s desk.  He didn’t find anything personal except appointment books, a lot of entries like “Bob’s for party” and “Carol’s for dinner.”  Nobody had anything suggestive written down.  Not Miss Stern when he opened her desk a minute later.  Not Christine Zale either.

 

Saturday afternoon, Alex set to return some time on Monday, Reynolds drove out to Bobby Zale’s.  “Christine says you two are getting along,” Bobby said.

“We looked at her pictures,” Reynolds said, but Bobby didn’t say anything else.  While Bobby waited for him to place an order, Reynolds evaluated pork roasts and veal slices as if he were expecting company.  No one else came into the shop.  Reynolds settled on a pound of fresh ground beef and a sirloin.  “Quiet day,” he said, but Bobby just nodded.

When he stepped back outside, Reynolds saw that the parking lot for the strip mall where Bobby’s shop was located had only three cars besides his, and all of them were parked near other businesses.  He paused on the sidewalk, looking up where the sun had broken through the clouds, and Bobby stepped out beside him.  “I went back to the cemetery last night,” he said.  “I had to see Disneyland with the lights on.”

Reynolds buttoned his coat, willing to let Bobby talk.  "I went early and parked my car in the lot by that bank they have there so close you think it makes its business cashing checks for heaven.  I wasn’t of a mind to donate, let me tell you, but I walked inside, Greg.  I had to see what it all looked like."

Bobby wore just a plaid flannel shirt, but he didn’t seem uncomfortable.  "There’s no fence or anything once you get up the hill a ways,” he said.  “I didn’t even have to sneak in like some boy at an R-rated movie.  But I have to tell you I expected to end up in no end of pissed off, maybe rip old Frosty right down or slam those happy little kids that he’s supposed to be following home.”

Bobby scuffed the toe of his shoe through the dusting of snow that had fallen while Reynolds had driven toward the shop, and for a moment, just before the double curve he was making trailed off into a straight line that ended under the sole of his shoe, Reynolds believed he was about to print his name.  “Greg,” Bobby said, “for the life of me, I’m standing here to tell you there was something beautiful in that graveyard.  It took me by surprise.  All those lights and such.  I got choked up and all."

Reynolds fixed on the other businesses in the small strip mall.  Dollar General, a Chinese buffet, a tattoo parlor, and two empty storefronts, both of which had been freshly painted as if new tenants were expected.  “Sometimes things shake you up some,” Bobby said.  “I was standing there in amongst all those tombstones and wishing I could wake my mother up and tell her about all those lights right there where she’s sleeping.”

Two of the other three cars were parked by Dollar General.  One was nosed up to the tattoo parlor.  Employees, Reynolds thought.  “I won’t tell you how to feel about it, but go at night and decide for yourself.” 

He wanted to ask Bobby to add five strip steaks to his order, empty his wallet as a way to show he wasn’t angry, but all he managed was, “I’m glad it worked out for you.”

“You see where they painted those vacant stores?” Bobby said.  “Somebody’s dreaming there, putting paint on a bad situation the way the church does.  Those reindeer and that Santa cheered me up, though.  I think I would have been upset if all the lights were for wise men and shepherds.  You know, a manger and sheep and everything like it was two coats where one might do, enough to make you think everything's fine and dandy."

Bobby kept his eyes on the painted store fronts, and Reynolds knew he was sizing up how irretrievable they were.  There wasn't much question, Reynolds thought, that the store fronts, even if they suddenly showed activity, could get anything but more unattractive.  It made him think about the school that would be his if Alex approved him next week, how it would appear to strangers, none of whom would know any of the details he dealt with.  It would be his, but for those others, they’d go on thinking anybody could be a janitor.

 “You wait here,” Bobby said.  “I’ll be right back.  Reynolds waited until Bobby returned with a package in his hand.  “You’re done tomorrow with this practice stuff, right?  You’re going to pass their test, right?  Filet is for that.”

“Filet was Sheila’s favorite.  She ordered it out for anniversary.”

“Well, then, enjoy,” Bobby said.  Bobby shuffled and looked down at his shoes as if he was trying them on for the first time.  When he looked down again, Reynolds thought the sidewalk was beginning to soften, that if he didn’t move he’d begin to sink. 

“There’s not much that’s anything like fun, Bobby.”

Bobby looked at Reynolds.  “There’s four in there, Greg.  For when you’re ready.  I cut them special.  They have a good marble.  They were lean, and I made them leaner.”

 “What’s that. Bobby?  The butcher hope?  You trim and you trim and things start looking up?”

“You get yourself some beer to go with them.  You have yourself a little party each time.”

Reynolds watched the road carefully as he drove home, paying attention to the details of the highway.  The Amish families who owned most of the farms to the left were more visible than usual, their buggies riding the shoulder, two clusters of children walking with their backs to him as if they trusted every driver to be alert and steady. The sunlight striking the children reflected off the darkness of their clothing in a way that made them seem costumed rather than dressed.  Reynolds felt disappointed in himself for a moment.  Years and years of living here, yet a slant of light made him see like a tourist.  He was as naïve as the developer who had built that small strip mall just beyond the Amish farms, believing they would give up and move as the highway widened, that motels and franchise businesses would arrive as soon as four lanes declared the end of a way of life that relied on things as foreign as thrift and horses.

Reynolds put three steaks in the freezer and one in the refrigerator to begin thawing.  He had two days left before Alex returned and saw that he was a janitor he didn’t have to worry about.  Monday night he could try to enjoy that red meat. 

 

Alex, when he walked in at 3:50 on Monday, found Reynolds swinging the buffer in small arcs, polishing the last ten feet of the hallway to the front door.  Reynolds snapped the switch and waited for him to look things over.  “You don’t need to do that,” Alex said.  “That’s for over the holidays.”

“I had half an hour and thought I’d make it sparkle.”  He knew Alex, if he checked, would see he was done with everything.  Nobody would be buffing by the front door if there was work somewhere else.

“You go ahead and finish up,” Alex said.  “I saw the blinds all in a row just now, but I’ll just look around for a few minutes.”

Reynolds flipped the switch and Alex tiptoed down the side of the hall, going right for the basement like Reynolds knew he would.  The old-fashioned bathrooms were down there.  Funovitz had told Reynolds he only worked in them over Christmas, leaving the worst part of that job for whoever got sent as summer help .  “The boys piss on the wall.  The girls wipe themselves and drop the wet paper on the floor.  They think it’s a big joke that the shitters stink,” he’d said, but they’d been just an hour’s work to get up to speed.

Reynolds had the buffer put away and was waiting by the door when Alex reappeared.  “Looks pretty good,” Alex said.  “I guess we’re under control here.”  Reynolds noticed that Alex had made it down the hall without leaving a mark.  He thought about telling Alex that, but he let it go because he knew Alex had been careful on account of he’d seen Reynolds had finished a job that didn’t need to be done over.

“Those downstairs johns are nasty, I bet.”

“Not so bad.”

“Really?”

“Not so good either.”

Alex laughed and shook his hand.  “Welcome aboard,” he said, already half out the door.  Reynolds raised his hand in a kind of salute he figured Alex would appreciate.  He wondered who else Alex had in mind for this job if he’d screwed up.

Reynolds walked back to his supply closet, picked up One of a Kind and carried it to Christine Zale’s room.  “Your third-graders might get a kick out of this,” he wrote on a post-it note and stuck it on the book.  Reynolds wanted to think of Christine smiling tomorrow morning, and there was a good chance that would happen if Bobby’s wife read about those one-of-a-kinds he pointed out on the note to get her started:

“The only seventh grader to design a state flag: In 1927—Benny Benson, 13, a 7th grader, designed the Alaska state flag, the Big Dipper and the North Star on a field of blue—and won a contest.  The only town in the United States named after a game show: Truth or Consequences, NM.”  Reynolds loved the Benny Benson story and so would Bobby’s wife, he was sure.  Her third graders could think up a game show name for Creekside better than Truth or Consequences; they could design a flag for their newly named town, something to make people passing through think it was a better place than it looked like.

He dog-eared those pages and the one for the entry about honey as a cure-all.  Maybe Christine would read them to Bobby, who didn’t have to worry about Reynolds tearing down Santa Claus and his reindeer.  Those displays would disappear in a few weeks; they’d reappear next November and by then Bobby would be looking forward to it, and maybe Reynolds would, too, with a year between death and the present.

He thought of his wife saying, “This PML is so rare—it’s as if I’ve won the lottery for disease.”  One in ten million, something like that, so it wasn’t quite one of a kind, but it sounded to him like the odds of finding God after death.  Yet nothing was impossible—all of the children in Christine Zale’s pictures were smiling; every one of them could grow up to be happy.

 

 

Gary Fincke’s newest collection of poems, The History of Permanence, won the Stephen F. Austin University Press Poetry Prize and will be published in September.  His memoir, The Canals of Mars, was published in 2010 by Michigan State.  Sorry I Worried You, his fourth short story collection, won the Flannery O’Connor Prize and was published by the University of Georgia Press.  He is the Charles Degenstein Professor of Creative Writing at Susquehanna University