Rake

My thanks to the editors of Stockholm Review of Literature, Ted Greijer, Sofia Capel and Sarvat Hasin, who just published my short story, “Rake,” in Issue 14 (15 May 2016). I include here the introduction to the piece along with a link to the magazine.

The man who unfurled his legs from an old green pickup with Michigan license plates was tall and he walked with a pronounced limp. He was in his seventies, and his once black hair, now tied into a ponytail, had turned as white as a snowdrift. It looked to Nils Dagerman, seated on a wicker chair in his screened porch, that his friend of some sixty years had let his beard grow out more. The man ducked under a ragged arbor and walked up the crumbling concrete path to the house.

“I’d say it looked like Santa Claus himself was coming to see me if you weren’t so damned skinny, Eddie,” said Nils. His voice abraded the evening air.

Eddie Simczak opened the screen door, which cried on its hinges. “Squeak’s gotten worse,” he said as he sat on a scuffed cedar swing hanging from the porch ceiling. He rocked back and forth. “They got oil for things like that.”

“You had something on, today, didn’t you?” asked Nils, after a few minutes of silence. The two friends often did this—sat for a quarter hour, maybe longer, saying nothing, watching people go by on the sidewalk or drive on Church Street, which was cobblestoned and narrow and lined with ancient Dutch elms that had somehow escaped the disease that led other cities to chop them down. The two men had been friends as long as the trees had been there. They weren’t exactly like an old married couple—completing each other’s sentences or speaking in meaning-laden silences—but almost.

“Yep,” said Eddie.

“And?” said Nils, who pulled a pack of cigarettes from the breast pocket of his faded blue corduroy shirt. He lit up with a chromed lighter bearing the words Zippo, the name in flame in a black ellipse. He extended the pack to Eddie.

“You know I quit years ago,” said Eddie, irritated.

“Just testing you.”

“You test me every time I see you.”

“Got to keep you on your toes.”

“Meantime, you kill yourself with…what? You backed off of two packs a day yet, like you said you would?”

Nils coughed, and Eddie couldn’t tell if it was genuine or if Nils wanted to make him even more irritated than he already was. If the latter, then he was doing a damned good job of it.

“I’ve cut down,” said Nils, drawing deeply on his Marlboro and exhaling a languid rivulet of smoke.

“So what did you have going today?” asked Nils, watching smoke rise. There were ancient water stains in the ceiling, stains Nils had repainted many times, only to have them return after a year or two. He’d given up on them now, and the ceiling was a paisley of brown and rust-colored teardrops.

“A funeral. Norbert Husting, you remember him.”

Nils shook his head No. It annoyed him Eddie always assumed that he, Nils, knew all his coworkers. They’d worked in different jobs their entire adult lives, Eddie on the line at Allied Can, Nils as a tool and die man at Warnke Metals. Yet Eddie spoke about his acquaintances as if Nils had worked on the same line and done the same job day after day, month after month, year after endless year.

“Oh,” said Eddie looking surprised. “He worked with me for, I don’t know, must have been thirty years. He was out fishing on Round Lake with his grandson and just kinda’ fell asleep in the boat, according to how they tell it. His grandson tried to wake him, said ‘hey, grandpa, get up.’ But he didn’t wake up.”

“A nice way to go,” said Nils thoughtfully. “With his grandson and all. Peaceful.”

“Upsetting for the boy, though, I hear.”

“Sure, I can see that.”

“Nice funeral it was. All his kids—he had three boys, three girls—and they’ve all got families, so there were lots of grandkids, from the oldest, the twelve-year-old in the boat, down to several toddlers. I looked around and thought how it was like Norby had sent all these messengers out into the world, and now they’ve created their own messengers, who go out into the world. An endless chain of messengers and messages.”

Nils stubbed out his Marlboro. “You’re poetic tonight, Eddie. How ‘bout a beer? A drink or two gets words flowing right. I bought a six-pack today. We could polish it off in no time.”

“No thanks, I was just going to stay for a few minutes anyway.”

“You got plans for the evening, Eddie? Hot date?”

“You know better than that,” snapped Eddie.

“Whoa, pal,” said Nils, raising his hands. “You got a short fuse tonight.”

Eddie bit his lower lip and took a long breath. “Seeing the man’s family and all got me to thinking about Charlene and Dahlia. And even Genevieve, though kids with her would’ve been like rolling Satan’s dice. But with the other two, well, maybe.”

“Everyone gets divorced these days. It’s the new national pastime. Replaced baseball, I hear.”

“But three times, Nils? Three strikeouts?”

Nils shrugged. “At least you played the game, buddy. Hell, I sat on the bench my whole life, and I guess I wanted it that way anyway. If you don’t play, you don’t risk losing.”

They sat in silence for a few more minutes, Nils looking out at Church Street from his wicker chair, Eddie rocking back and forth, back and forth, in the swing. “I had something I wanted to show you,” said Eddie after a while. “Just wanted to come around and show you something.”

“Sure, Eddie, show away.” Nils coughed again, but this time his coughs rose into a crescendo of jagged, phlegmy explosions that made his whole body writhe. After the onslaught, he took several wrenching gasps of air, pulled a stained blue handkerchief from the pocket of his khakis, and blew his nose in a series of sharp bursts that made his fine gray hair bounce on his long head. He then pulled the Marlboros from his pocket, used his trembling left hand to shake a cigarette free of the pack, and lit up again. “Gotta cut down sooner or later,” he said. “When the health club membership kicks in.”

Eddie looked at his friend and shook his head in disgust. “I’ve been thinking about what roads you and I might have taken.”

“Sounds like you been doin’ a lot of thinking.”

“And how neither one of us is going to send any messengers into the world.”

Nils dragged on his cigarette. The silence was glutinous. He looked at Eddie, who appeared to be daydreaming. Or he was lost in the way an old man gets lost in a forest of events and people lining the twisted path of his memory. “That kind of thinking will get you nowhere, Eddie. You’re feeling gnarly because you went to the funeral of a buddy. Someone your age. Our age. It’s bound to get a man thinking. And get ready for more of it. We’re all going to be kicking the bucket before too long. The funerals will be coming hot and heavy. You and I are racing to the finish, and my guess is I’ll beat you there. Hell, I’ll be the winner in the race of life. Or death, I guess. Don’t know if I’ll be happy about that, but at least I’ll be a winner. At something.”

Eddie pulled a long strip of thick paper from the pocket of his denim jacket and laid it next to him on the swing. It was over seven inches in length and a little more than two inches wide. Through a smoky haze, Nils squinted as he looked at the strip of paper. It was a bookmark bearing a stylized black-white-red sketch of a salmon in the manner of Pacific Northwest Native American art.

“Now why’d you bring that thing around, Eddie?” asked Nils, his voice rasping like a coarsely grained file on metal.

To read more, see here.

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