Good news!

Congratulations to Jeff Esterholm whose story “Flaming Chevy Lodestar” (published in RE:AL 39.1) received an honorable mention for the Zona Gale Award for Short Fiction by the Council for Wisconsin Writers!

http://wiswriters.org/wisconsin-writers-awards-announced/

You can read Jeff’s story below and/or check out the full issue, here.

 

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Flaming Chevy Lodestar – Jeff Esterholm

Flaming Chevy Lodestar

This negative self-talk of yours. Never bring this or that up again. You are resolute. Any of this, just don’t bring any of this up. And then you do. Again.

You were driving south at night on the back roads of Minnesota because your speedometer was shot and you didn’t want to risk being pulled over on the interstate. The self-talk bubbling up over the poor AM/FM reception, and who needed the polka of Fat Bennie and His Bouncing Boys or New Country 24/7 anyway, while you drove at some indeterminate speed, on your way to a trade show related tangentially to the career you had rebounded back into. You despised the work, had quit it once but returned, abashed after a failed bid to become a private contractor. If you were going to be in graphic design, you wanted to be your own boss. Your true vocation? Painting, influenced, some would say too heavily, by Edward Hopper.

You were driving alone through the night, headlights illumining the way, when you glanced in your rearview mirror: orange and yellow flames licking out from the rear of the car. You uttered an oath – remember these coming freer and freer from your lips, having grown up in your father’s house and nourished on the films of Martin Scorsese – and thought the gray Chevy travelling through the moonless Minnesota night must look like a wayward NASA creation, blindly streaking at ground level.

Pulling to the side of the road, you briefly considered what to do, then, oh, yes, your laptop, the suitcase in the trunk with the materials for the vendor’s booth you were to man at the trade show. You got these out without blistering your hands too badly and then you stood a safe distance from the Chevy. What to do? The firelight picked out a deer path up a hill and into the woods. Shit job, in the middle of nowhere, a burning car. You wanted to be a painter. You just wanted to disappear.

Another Man’s Wife

You slept with the wife of another man. Never bring that up again, you said, as if it were the biggest mistake of your life. With Jen, it was not just the one time and she wasn’t the only wife of another man.

Since you were a boy you have had a weakness for people and things that were not yours: your father’s spare change, stolen from the ashtray on top of the dresser in his and your mother’s bedroom; your brother’s worn copies of men’s magazines hidden under his mattress which you sold out of your middle school locker; falling for girls in middle school and high school – for example, Jill and Darcy – who were already dating others, they already had boyfriends, which you merely took as a challenge, like you were some klepto of love.

Jen waited on tables at a downtown restaurant. You also worked there, at a low point after graduating from college and moving into the bad economy of the late 1970s, trying to gain admittance to the art institute with too much on your mind. This was in Minneapolis, where the only other people you knew at the time were your two stoner friends, Johnson and Handy, who shared rent with you on an apartment across the street from the art institute.

Don’t bring up the fact that she began your petite affaire, calling you at work on a day that she had off, asking you to meet her down the street at the Poodle Lounge, a doggery that hadn’t changed in nearly twenty years, with semicircular booths and red leather banquettes that were blistered and patched. Pop Art poodles were up on the walls. Jen was direct. She had found her husband in bed with another woman and wanted payback, with you.

Never bring up again that it took you three and a half weeks to consider whether any of this was questionable: you and a married woman, sexual congress that could pop the bark from an oak tree, and afterward, Jen, standing nude in the middle of your living room, singing along with the Stones on “Wild Horses”. She had country-western ambitions. Perhaps that led you to the consult with Handy over a doobie and the latest by The Clash.

He was fairly succinct, after letting a sinsemilla fog bank swirl from between his lips. “Don’t fuck around with married women. Their husbands always have long, sharp knives.”

As much as you don’t care to admit it, you are affected by your peer group. You told Jen that it was over the next afternoon as she backed you into the bedroom.

“I can’t do this anymore. Are you listening to me?”

She nodded in the affirmative, while keeping a steady gaze aimed just below your belt.

“Jen?”

“Yes, I’m listening. I understand. But do you want that to go to waste?”

Months later you were driving with the woman who would be your future, though temporary wife. The old neighborhood. You were shocked to see a very pregnant Jen walking down the street. You hoped that the car made you invisible.

Your future, though temporary wife said, “Look at that poor woman,” it was about ninety degrees outside with no shade, “She’s about ready to drop.”

The First in a Series of Misreads

What did you say about negative self-talk? Never bring this up again. These women you used to know and what had gone wrong, what had simply gone. Two that you go back to, though you know that you shouldn’t, two that you thought you had loved when you were a young man. You don’t want to bring these women up. But you do.

You should admit that the year with Valerie was a series of misreads from the very beginning.

The very beginning: Valerie had invited you over to her apartment for dinner, a first date after stealing her away from her date, a drunken loser from Fridley, during a 4th of July party in Loring Park – remember that predisposition of yours. She invited you over for dinner. While the marinara sauce bubbled in the sauce pan on the stove and the Creamette spaghetti remained boxed, waiting for the water to boil, she took you into her bedroom where she kept her Raleigh ten-speed with its flat tire. Valerie wanted to show you the tire patch kit that she’d been having difficulty with. You – why are you bringing this up, you ask yourself – you took the walk into the bedroom as an invitation and pulled down her blue running shorts with the white trim and pushed her to her bed. She looked off impassively at a spot on the bedroom wall above the bicycle resting against her cluttered dresser.

You were a twenty-three-year-old and coming, only realizing your mistake during the subsequent days and months that you spent with her, realizing only later that, viewed from Valerie’s side, the first time that the two of you had sex together could very well have been rape.

You remember this as the very beginning of a series of misreads that you don’t need to bring up again.

Nineteen

You tell yourself to never bring this last one up again – this last that was first – but the demand is really not so harsh. You are near wistful, aren’t you? About Karen?

She lived with her great-aunt in South End while going to school. You would drive her home from campus after the life drawing class.

The two of you had circled and then gravitated toward each other. Simpatico, you were both nineteen and committed to pleasing one another on the front seat of a Buick LeSabre. You were so passionate at nineteen, weren’t you? Then again, you both made false moves, moves that threw the other off balance.

You recall the crushingly mundane, the lines that led to this first love’s collapse. How could it have ended that way? At first, you both could have sworn that at nineteen no one else could have ever felt the same way. And then left it, just left it. Those lines.

“Would you like to go out to my parents’ cabin this weekend?” she asked.

“Have you ever slept with anyone before?” she asked.

“Don’t worry. I always leave with who I came with,” she said.

“We have to talk,” she said.

“I think we should see other people,” she said.

You said, “Okay, give this some time.”

You said, “A few weeks.”

You said, “Months.”

You said, “Years.”

She took you to see a Shawn Phillips concert for your twentieth birthday and that line came up about seeing other people. “You can drop me off here,” you said.

“But your apartment’s five miles away.”

“You can drop me off here.”

Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. Neil Young’s Zuma. These record albums became your theme music. Until she transferred out of state, there were the awkward moments for you, parties where you would run into Karen who was beautiful and fine and could handle anything, and all you could see fit to do was get drunk and high. The pathetic painter.

Graduating, you took a road trip with Handy and Johnson to the American Southwest, but Karen never vanished from your mind. Sleeping in the desert, saguaros like bogeymen, you woke yourself with a weary dream: Karen going up an escalator and you, watching her, going down.

Flaming Chevy Lodestar Reprise

You are hunkered down in a jog of the deer path. The smoke from the burning car stings, planting damaging seeds in your lungs, but you don’t move on. Where does the negative self-talk come from? You have always been too ready to disregard even the little that you might have found to be positive. Why? Due to its impermanence is your response.

You never include anything in your self-talk about the woman who was your temporary wife, perhaps because that period of your life was for the most part good. No, don’t bring up the bad, because that was you, all you, and you admit that and let it go. Let it go. She is with your twenty-five-year-old daughter in Portland, Oregon, and your daughter is, of all the wonders, an artist, a lithographer.

You also never include this. The uncle who was a master sergeant in the U.S. Army. He was in Europe during World War II and later in Korea. He saw things that would make others blanch. It wasn’t masculine posturing, you only heard one allusion to the stench of the battlefield, and that was thirdhand. Uncle Henry also had the misfortune to have his wife die during childbirth. When he retired at forty from the army, he tended bar and soaked up Black Velvet for forty more years before he died.

Henry’s life was riven with pathos.

You saw him a week before he died, and what did he tell you? That he didn’t think he’d ever be ready for the end. Life was too good.

“It’s too good, isn’t it?” But he wasn’t really asking.

Memory Lane Monday

Memory Lane Monday

Welcome to one of our new weekly features! Memory Lane Monday is just that—A trip down memory lane.  Every week we will feature a poem, story, or essay from a previous issue of RE:AL. Some pieces will be direct copy from the issue it was featured in, and other weeks we may stroll down memory lane and catch a fresh reading of an older piece from the author themselves.

This week, we find ourselves in the Fall 2000, 25.2 issue of RE:AL with Nancy Ryan Keeling’s : “The Tank in Leona”.

The Tank in Leona

Mark closed his eyes and groaned.  He hated the thoughts that filled his mind.  When he was younger, he had played the gladiator for his mother, but today his head was pounding with thoughts coming in bitter waves. He knew she deserved his respect and attention, but as he entered her door, he felt he was meeting with a declared enemy.

The air in the room was stale and close. Tight-lipped she sat in a wheelchair sifting

rosary beads between her fingers.

“You’re late.”

Mark’s stomach knotted when he saw her packed suitcase.

Damn. She thinks I’m here to take her home.

Mark cleared his throat. “Ready for your ride?”

She made the sign of the cross over her massive bosom.

He turned and gave her a pasty kiss and held his breath against the Este Lauder she wore to disguise the rank odor of her flesh. Frowning, he hefted the suitcase and piloted her wheelchair down the corridor past a man in a khaki one-piece jumpsuit.  There was a pitiful brainless momentum to the old ma’s walk. The emptiness o it all came to Mark as a buzzer resonated off the tile walls of the bleak nurses’ station.

He cleared his throat again. “Where to?”

“Want to see my little boys?”

“What little boys, Mother?”

“Well, I call ’em Mark and Matthew.”

Mark punched the button for the elevator and squatted in front of his mother.  He gazed down at her ankles which were crisscrossed with lump, varicose veins then locked eyes with her.

“I’m Mark, Mother.”

Her face was gentle almost like a kid’s as she whispered. “I know that.”

“Mother, how old am I?”

She stared straight ahead for a moment. “Forty-seven.”

“Right.” Mark expelled a deep breath.  He noted the purple marks on her arm as he patted her hand.  He was used to seeing her with bruises no one could explain.

Her voice cracked. “I must be losin’ my mind.”

Her hand went slack.  He patted it again. “you’re all right Mother; You’ll be all right.”

As Mark rose, the elevator doors opened.  He hated himself and the lie.

Still brooding, he stood in the elevator gripping the handle of the suitcase, reviewing his sister’s earlier words. Why couldn’t she have died last Christmas?

Mark didn’t blame Liz for her less-than-saintl-sentiments.  He thought of all the holidays he and his siblings had gathered around their mother’s bed in a vigil as her seizing cough wore them all out–as she spat mucus, gulped for air, and lived.

Mark propelled his mother’s wheelchair through the lobby and out the automated glass door.  He almost welcomed the pungent smell of burnt coffee grounds that came from a chemical factory close by.  His mother opened her purse, stretching it into a yarning cavity with both hands. “Now, where did I put my car keys?”

A moment later rosary beads, Kleenex, lipstick, compact, bingo markers and dominoes cascaded onto the asphalt.  Mark clenched his fists, counted to three, then stooped to retrieve her belongings.

“Oh, no. No. No.” His mother fretted.

He assisted her into the passenger seat of his Lexus, letting her talk on about finding her little boys.  Mark stowed the suitcase and her wheelchair then bent to fasten her seat belt.  After his fourth attempt, he longed to kick the woman’s puffed stomach as he had a cantankerous mare they’d once owned.

Accepting there was no way to cinch his mother’s girth, he slammed the door and slid behind the wheel.  He was not surprised by the sudden lucidity of his mother’s words as she simply instructed, “Take me to the tank in Leona.”

He groaned. How could he tell her, now?

On the ride he and his mother were silent except for her coughing spasms when she hacked phlegm into a wad of Kleenex.

When he turned off the interstate and saw the orange surveyor flags, ragged feelings assaulted him.  Thinking annoyed thoughts about the $600,000 they’d accepted for the land, Mark wondered if she remembered Daddy had been pulling stumps at the edge of the pasture on the day he died thirty-five years ago.

Mark drove as gently as he could, snatching glances at his mother.  The dips and ruts in the pasture were as hard as they had always been.  It was only his mother that was different.  Did she even realize she would never come to the home place again?  He didn’t want to share this experience.  He wanted her to face it alone and be able to fight it.

Then Mark thought of the first fish he’d caught.  A four pound catfish.  He thought of the day uncle Dean taught him and Matthew to shoot the .410.  He smiled as he recalled how a few years later he’d lost his virginity under the live oak at the edge of this tank.

He parked the car and got out.  In the distance Bootsie Hightower waved to them from the porch of her shotgun house.  He returned her greeting.  Avoiding hills of fire ants, they moved in fits and starts to the swing Mark had welded as a Mother’s Day gift back in high school.  The rust-scabbed metal frame creaked as she lowered her bulk.

“I’ve never seen chickens that could fly.”

“What?”

He knew she hallucinated on the medications, so when he gazed at Bootsie Hightower’s pigeons, he didn’t correct his mother.  Instead, his eyes swept the horizon.

He wanted to cry.

This was no longer his mother.  His real mother was a memory.  A woman on the shoreline of this tank, one hand on her hip, the other up like a visor over her eyes as she counted four heads bobbing in the water.  A woman in a bathing suit who still had her figure.  A woman he had gawked at when he’d caught his parents at it in the bedroom once in the middle of the day.  His face warmed with the remembered shame as he tried not to envision it.  Even now, among the many memories, he kept returning to that moment.

“Be back in a minute, Mother.”

Grasshoppers lit on his trousers as he wandered in the knee-high weeds.  Along the waters edge he gathered stones, listening to her as she coughed and spat.  He hoped she would let him relax for maybe a half hour without demanding his attention.

He tossed a stone that skipped three times before it landed on the other side. Then another.

“Mark.”

He ignored her.

“Mark?”

This time his mother’s voice held that tight-scared quaver it had when as a child he and his twin sometimes hid out under grandma’s porch.

He turned.

“Take me to town.”

“Mother, we just got here.”

“I’ve got to find my little boys.”

Her face looked serious as her eyes sought his with an anxiety to know what had happened to her small children.

Mark raised the stone high above his head. Fuck it, he thought and hurled it into the tank breaking the skin of the water.

When they returned to the nursing home, an uneasy guilt rose in Mark as through the glass doors he caught sight of Liz and Matthew.  He retreated ten paces along the sidewalk to a bench.  He lingered there deciding what to do, as he watched the melodrama of his family unfold.

Matthew and their sister stood eyeing each other.  Matthew, dressed in a charcoal suit, his chin thrust out, arms folded, waited as Liz spoke, her feet planted far apart, her face a stormy mask of distress.

Mark watched a ripple of tension pass from Matthew’s temple down along his jawline.  Watched Matthew uncross his arms, adjust his bold red tie and talk rapid fire.  Matthew’s words seemed to deepen Liz’s rage.

Recalling the faint downy mustache on his sister’s upper lip they had teased her about growing up, Mark thought, Watch it, bub, she’s got bigger balls than both of us.

Mark rose and wheeled his mother through the automated door.

Liz whirled fixing him with a ray-like glare.

“Have you lost it totally?”

Mark replied with a massive shrug; then he whispered, “I couldn’t tell her.”

“Mother, let’s get you into bed.”

Liz hustled her inside closing the door behind them.

A few moments later they entered their mother’s room where Liz went on bustling about.  Mark sat down at length on the chair by his mother’s bed and studied Matthew who sat leaning forward, head cocked, eyes narrowed, working his jaw, still scheming.

“Liz.”

“What now, Mother?”

“You sold the tank at Leona, didn’t you?”
The expression on Liz’s face when she uttered “yes” was dreadful.

In a choked voice, Liz said, “I was just trying to find a solution-something simple and acceptable to everyone.”

Biting her lip, she looked away, but not before Mark spied a single tear rolling down her face.  They were not a family comfortable with tears.

His mother looked at each of her children and suddenly seemed content.

“Liz?’

His mother stretched out her hand and Liz came up and took it.

“Well, I suppose it’s for the best.”

His mother shifted in her bed.  Then a dark faraway expression crossed her face.

“Matthew, does your daddy know I’m here?”

Mark watched his twin struggle with it as he sat cracking his knuckles.

“Yes, Mother. Daddy knows.”

“Good. Because when he gets here, I have to go find my little boys.”

—Nancy Ryan Keeling