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Mister Margaret (A Story)

Mister Margaret (A Story)

His name was Mister Margaret. Everyone called him that. He was around sixty, the indeterminate kind of sixty, and in fantastic shape. He walked around town often. How he stayed in shape was a mystery. He never wore a hat and also was never quite clean-shaven. You could tell he was observant. No matter where his head was turned, you could see that his eyes followed everything.

Away from prying ears, people speculated how the name came to be his. Not me. I had been initially curious, that’s true. Unlike my fellow townspeople, though, I just asked Mister Margaret one early morning. I’ve learned that life is too short to avoid a momentary bit of possible awkwardness. He was outside the diner, sitting on the uncomfortable curb along the street, holding a coffee cup. I learned that if it wasn’t raining, he always took his third cup of coffee outside to drink it. “Ain’t no reason to be indoors all the time. I want to see the world, and I imagine the world might want to see me a bit, too,” he’d told Joshua, the diner owner.

I sat down a few feet away from Mister Margaret, awkwardly folding my legs against the pavement. I wasn’t as fit as him, and my knees and hips reminded me to do everything with caution.

“Can I ask you a question, Mister Margaret? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to. How’d you get the name?” I smiled, hoping he would forgive my directness.

He laughed. “Yeah, I’ll tell you. I know people want to know. I hear whispers. And because it is a terrible story, one you probably can’t guess, you can’t regret knowing. That’s what knowledge does to us. It opens us and we can’t go back once we know something.” He paused. I nodded. As if we’d shaken hands and swore an oath, Mister Margaret started talking.

“My wife died about a year earlier. I had a great business along Main Street in my hometown. I killed a young woman one Saturday afternoon.” He paused, knowing that he’d thrown me a curveball. “She ran across the street without looking. I hit her, going forty-five miles an hour. The impact broke her all over and flung her body further than you’d believe. After the County Sheriff ruled it to be an accident, a lot of the girl’s family got anger and grief mixed up in their hearts. A month after I killed her, I walked out of the grocery store to find myself facing her father, a man everyone called Mister. He had a knife and told me he was going to kill me. I didn’t doubt him. He lunged at me in front of several witnesses. I sidestepped him and hit him in the side of the head as hard as I could. Two things, though. I didn’t really sidestep him as much I thought. He stuck that knife five inches up into my belly. I struck him so hard he fell. His head hit one of those concrete carstops in front of the store. He never woke up. His daughter’s name? Margaret. After three weeks in the hospital, I got discharged, and I sold everything I had and moved here for a fresh start. It seemed right to take both of their names as a reminder. You can look it up, if you’re inclined to do so. And that’s the story of my name.”

He looked at me intensely, waiting to see what I might say.

“It’s a good thing you didn’t run over someone named Turd,” I said. I was a bit horrified I’d said the words out loud. I was trying to be funny.

To my surprise, Mister Margaret began to laugh like I’d told the best joke in the world. He threw his head back, and he began to shake and cough with laughter. Tears streamed down his face, and I grinned as I watched.

“I haven’t laughed like that in ten years!” he said. “I guess that means we’re going to be friends. By the way, friend, what is your name? It better not be Asshat.”

We both laughed. We finished our respective cups of coffee, watching the town around us.

That’s how our lifelong friendship started.

With a laugh.

The Last Hug

It was a beautiful moment, one whose aura has not been extinguished, despite the hurt. It was a moment of bliss. He had no way of knowing it would be the last time that he would touch her. Thanks to the picture, he now measured all pleasures and memories by that standard: was it a great movie, especially if it were his last? Would the knowledge of its numeracy trace an additional groove of recognition in his brain? Because he practiced this often, he learned that knowing one’s time to pass would render all moments useless. Nothing could be enjoyed in and of itself. The approaching darkness of a loss would cloak everything in its shadow. If you knew that your next cup of coffee would be your last, he guessed that you might never take a sip of it all.

But he sometimes looks at the picture and can’t help but get trapped in a labyrinth of what might have been. It’s a quintessential human emotion. Not regret precisely. It’s impossible to slice away the happiness that envelops the memory, just as it’s difficult not to take a moment to consider the pain that resulted from it. It’s an endless war with neither side of the emotional scale winning. He nevertheless gets comfortable and takes a minute to think back while looking at the picture. At times, he’s left with a light buoyancy, one derived from lingering happiness that he had the experience at all. At other times, he feels as if someone punched him while he was napping. “We always take away something from our moments,” he thought. “Why must we insist on a polarizing method to evaluate our experiences and memories?” Of course, he didn’t have an answer, so he did what we all do and came up with a temporary distraction, one which would occupy him until the next time he visited the memory.

He could only hope that time might continue to help him clear his mind.

He sat on the couch, his legs folded under him, the picture held between his curled fingers.

It wouldn’t matter if he slipped the picture back inside the book on the discolored end table. The image was graphed in his brain, now complexly tied to the emotions he felt during and after the hug and the picture.

When he dreamed, the picture became fragmented, polychromatic, and elusive. While he could no longer see the picture, he could feel it, like the hug itself, one radiating presence and acceptance. He put the picture aside and laid down on the couch, welcoming the dreams that might come.

A Small Story

The woman sat by the long window of the coffee shop, making ridiculous and exaggerated faces at her laptop screen. I sat at least ten feet away, studiously not looking directly at her. Her hair was dyed a deep jade hue and tied into a ponytail, one which seemed to be centered on nothing except perhaps imagination. She wore a red shirt and had a long blue tie loosely around her neck. The tie was thrown over her left shoulder.

My coffee was too hot and as a result, I found myself furiously blowing on it. I realized that this was largely ineffective, given that the lid was still on the cup. I laughed. As I did, I looked briefly toward the green-haired woman. She was looking directly at me. I quickly looked away. And then back. She was still looking in my direction.

She motioned with her hand for me to join her at her table.

Not sure about what might happen next, I took my laptop and coffee and walked to the window, pulled the chair away from the table, and sat down.

“Hi, I’m Sue,” the woman said, smiling. “You must be John,” she said.

I hesitated. “No, I’m not John at all. I’m Kirk.”

“You look like a John. Are you sure your name isn’t John? Take a moment and think about it.” She continued to smile.

“Uh… No. I’m Kirk,” I said. I knew I sounded a bit stupid.

She reached her left hand across the table, presumably to shake mine. I thought about putting a sugar pack in her hand. Instead, I grabbed her hand as she shook it.

Sue turned her laptop around and showed me the screen. On it, a picture of me from a few years ago was displayed. My mind went blank for a second as I tried to bridge the gap of just meeting her and seeing my picture on her laptop.

Sue laughed. “Relax, Kirk. This is something I do.”

“For a living?” I asked.

“No, as a hobby. I write freelance to pay the bills. That and buy and sell nonsense on the internet.” She turned her laptop back in her direction.

“What kind of writing do you do?” Writers always fascinate me.

“All kinds. I even write dialog for screenwriters. That’s fun. Want to hear an example?” She quizzically titled her head, knowing I was going to say yes.

“Okay. A couple of years ago, a writer for an ABC sitcom needed an excuse to get someone to a cemetery. So I had the character say, ‘Anytime I need to cry a lot, I go to the cemetery, because no one questions someone crying there.’ That’s pretty good, huh?”

I was already nodding my head in agreement.

“Another one? I had the idea that the character should put a greenscreen inside his car, so that everyone would think he was at home, instead of driving to Dallas.” She laughed. “But that’s been done six hundred and two times now, thanks to the pandemic.”

“What’s your secret?” I asked.

“I accidentally burned down the neighbor’s house when I was 14,” Sue said.

When I looked at her face to gauge her sincerity, she winked.

“That is some secret, yes,” I told her.

“It’s not a secret now, though, is it?”

“No, but I also meant what’s your secret for success?” I smiled.

“I have no clue. It’s mostly been luck and being in right place at the wrong time and sometimes vice versa. But you know that.” She smiled.

“Well, I guess I’m in the right place at the right time now, aren’t I?” I laughed.

“Touché! Ha! But yes. We have a lot to talk about, don’t we?”

I leaned back in my chair, not questioning her assumption. It turned out she was right.

Two hours later, I knew both nothing and everything about her. It seemed like the best start possible.

Dilemma

Her birth name was Dilemma. No one called her that except for me. Everyone else called her “Lemma.” Dilemma told people she had no idea where her birth mother came up with the name. That wasn’t true, though, as I learned one late Friday night. We had separately exited our studio apartments to find a quiet place outside. The other two or three tenants preferred to sit in the patio area. I preferred being alone.

We were both sitting cross-legged on the plank porch, holding bottles of tequila and gin, swapping sips from each other’s bottles. We’d have splinters tomorrow. Tomorrow was a year away when I was with her. Dilemma occasionally pretended to spit into whichever bottle she was about to hand to me. I responded by licking around the rim of the bottle and laughing.

Over the last few weeks, we began to seek each other’s company in the evenings. Most of the time, we sat in silence. Some nights, Dilemma wanted to talk. She was well-educated, though she wouldn’t divulge any specifics. I knew she could speak two other languages and at times I suspected she might have a photographic memory.

Dilemma leaned towards me, a little unbalanced. She pretended to whisper as I leaned toward her. She then shouted, “My Dad told my Mom he’d kill her if she insisted on giving birth to me. That was the dilemma.”

I nodded, waiting for her to continue. Dilemma always had a follow-up or footnote. Sometimes she waited a week to connect details to something she mentioned.

“Needless to say, Dad woke up the next morning with a gun stuck in his crotch. Mom had it cocked, too, no pun intended. ‘You have until 9 a.m. to get out of this house and out of my life. If you don’t, well…’ and pushed the gun painfully into his boxers. He just nodded. That’s what my Aunt Dill told me, anyway. I like that story.” Dilemma nodded as if to punctuate it was my turn to say something. I made a mental note to ask about Aunt Dill later.

Just as I was about to utter something hilarious, Dilemma shouted, “Hey, I wasn’t done talking!”

“Okay, fire away,” I told her.

“I was going to say, it’s your turn to talk now.” She grinned.

“Did you know that your nickname Lemma means several different things? Like part of a plant, or a Greek word for ‘assumption?'” I nodded, to pass the conversation back to her.

“Well, you’re a stalker, aren’t you, Dane? Ha!” She took an excessively long drink of tequila.

“Are you making a play on the words ‘plant’ and ‘stalker?'” I asked her. “If you are, you can do better.” I laughed.

“No, better is for jerks. Can I ask you a favor? Would you lean over and kiss me? I know we’ve never kissed. That’s okay. Just get it over with.” She winked at me.

I should have known better. As I leaned in to peck her on the lips, she kissed me and wrapped her hand around my head, stuck her tongue between my lips, then surprised me by spewing a surprising amount of tequila in my mouth. She howled with laughter as I coughed and sputtered. As my eyes burned, Dilemma laughed harder.

As I regained my breath, I asked her, “What did you do that for?”

Dilemma leaned in and kissed me on the mouth.

“I wanted you to know that if you go forward with me, life is going to have a lot of tequila-in-the-mouth moments.” She smiled and took another drink. She winked again and asked me, “Do you trust me?”

I laughed, leaned over, and kissed her again. Whether there would be more tequila was anyone’s guess.

She certainly was a dilemma.

Plans Change

Trevor stopped a few miles back. As he filled the gas tank on his dad’s 1985 Plymouth Gran Fury, his next move came to him. For a month, his mind nibbled at the idea of changing his life completely. His girlfriend moved to Texas at the beginning of summer. She settled into a routine as the fall semester started. Last week, she casually mentioned that it might be an excellent place for him to visit. Or live. Trevor had planned to start classes at the community college in Georgia, where his uncle owned a shop. He also had a loft above the garage that was Trevor’s for as long as he wanted it.

He went back inside the convenience store and bought a large black coffee. He sat in the passenger seat with the door open, sipping at the coffee. It was the first cup of black coffee in his life. The taste was bitter to him, but the heat was welcome. By the time he reached the bottom of the cup, Trevor knew he wasn’t going to college, at least not in Georgia, and he certainly wasn’t returning here. Texas seemed like a great place to start a new life.

As he pulled away from the store, he pressed the accelerator hard. The money his dad spent on this car made its presence known in the engine as it roared. Trevor felt like he might be driving a rocket. He put the driver and passenger windows down as the wind howled through the car’s interior. By the time Trevor reached Highway 103, he had forgotten that he was traveling at over eighty mph. As the wind whipped his hair across his face, he was thinking of seeing Becky in Texas. He didn’t know he was smiling. He definitely didn’t notice the partially-obscured stop sign.

The truck hauling the cattle trailer behind it hit Trevor’s car on the passenger side, caving it into the steering wheel, breaking Trevor’s neck instantly, as well as shattering a variety of bones throughout his body. He didn’t know what hit him.

A few seconds later, the driver of the cattle hauler emerged from his truck, dazed but with only a broken wrist and a few minor injuries. He knew the boy driving the Gran Fury was dead. He looked inside the car anyway, hoping for a miracle he knew wouldn’t greet him. Hopefully, his CB radio would still work so he could radio in for a state trooper or local police. On the way back to his cab, he kneeled to pick up the license plate that had been knocked off his truck in the crash. He noticed that his blue sticker was going to expire at the end of this month. Texas was no place to be driving around with expired tags, especially in 1993.

In a few minutes, the driver heard a siren, followed by flashing lights approaching. The driver waited, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. The Arkansas State Trooper looked inside the mangled Gran Fury and then asked the driver if he could have one of his cigarettes.

There was no hurry. Only time.

A Bridge Close To Home

Jane stood by the bridge railing, peering down to the surface of the river below. It didn’t seem so far down now. Every year on May 5th, she drove a county over and illegally parked on the bridge, got out, and peered down at the river. It was a ritual to mark her survival. Until this year, she made a point to drive over around the time of the original accident. For no discernible reason, she waited until five in the afternoon to drive over today.

Eleven years ago, she had plummeted over the railing and landed in the river. She had no idea who rescued her. The man who witnesses saw leaving didn’t come forward afterward. Some thought that the man was the driver who clipped her from behind and spun her out of control, sending her car over the railing. While it was possible, Jane didn’t believe it. She knew that whoever saved her had a darned good motive to stay out of the spotlight.

Jane returned to her car, turned off the emergency hazard lights, and pulled away from the railing. She slowly rolled the length of the bridge. As her car reached the end, she noticed an older yellow Chevy Cheyenne pickup on the side of the road past the bridge. A man wearing blue jeans and a white t-shirt stood in front of the truck, looking down toward the river.

Not knowing why she did so, Jane pulled a little further along and parked on the grass. She didn’t bother with her emergency lights this time. She reached into the passenger floorboard and picked up her flask of whiskey. Exiting the car, she walked along the far side of the Cheyenne pickup and stopped a few feet from the man in the white t-shirt.

She stood silently, staring at the river. She took a pull from the flask. As she wiped the side of her mouth with her hand, the man turned to look at her. Without a word, he took a step and reached for the flask. Jane didn’t hesitate. She handed him the flask and watched as he took a long sip.

His eyes widened in surprise, as he probably expected something of lesser quality. Jane never skimped on whiskey and she certainly wouldn’t have thought to do so during her yearly visit over to the bridge that changed her life.

“What are you watching?” Jane asked. “My name’s Jane, by the way.”

The man made eye contact with her and smiled. “The name’s Mark. Just thinking about a day a long time ago.”

“Oh? Me too. This bridge changed my life. It woke me up, if that makes sense.” Jane didn’t know what propelled her to speak honestly.

“I know exactly what you mean. This bridge saved my life. I used to come here every year, thinking I might find what I was missing. This is my first visit in five. It’s still beautiful.” Mark stopped talking and seemed wistful.

Jane took another pull from her flask and handed it back to Mark.

“This is great whiskey, Jane. Thanks!” They looked at each other and held eye contact for a second longer than normal. “I saved someone’s life here once. On a beautiful day exactly like today. It went from sunshine to hell in three seconds that day.”

Jane held her breath, calculating the odds of such a coincidence.

“I had my life saved her on a day exactly like today, Mark. One minute I was driving and the next, I was waking up on the riverbank right there.” She pointed below as she spoke.

They each took another sip of whiskey and let the silence accumulate between them.

Mark turned to face Jane directly. He seemed to struggle to say something. He shrugged and said, “Can I hug you?”

Jane stepped toward him and allowed Mark to wrap his arms around her, holding her against him. The sun beat down upon them and they held their pose. A vehicle passed slowly. Neither looked up to see who it was or whether they noticed the odd couple hugging on the side of the road and bridge.

Mark pulled away. “Would you be interested in going to eat, Jane? There’s a pretty spot up the road a couple of miles.”

“Are you kidding? I’d love to.” Jane smiled.

Mark smiled, showing his teeth. Jane watched the smile travel to his eyes.

“I might have a few questions for you, though, if that’s okay.” Jane watched Mark’s smile grow larger.

“I figured you might. Let’s eat and see what comes next.”

And so it began.

Be My Zest

The bowl of lemons remained on the end of the kitchen counter, taunting him. Darel continued to refill the basket in a mindless and intermittent ritual. He wasted a minute, lost in his thoughts, wondering how inanimate objects often contained invisible power. Before thinking too hard about it, he grabbed the wooden bowl of lemons, opened the back door, and stepped outside. He placed the bowl on the railing of his deck. One by one, he grabbed the lemons and hurled them across the yard and into his neighbor’s yard. Within seconds, he had thrown all of them.

“Hey, Darel? Is everything okay over there?” Darel looked up to see his neighbor John standing about twenty feet from the rear of his own house. John must have been standing outside when the barrage of lemons started pummeling his yard.

Darel surprised himself by shouting, “No!” to John.

John walked toward Darel. Darel, for his part, struggled to control the urge to turn and run back inside and barricade the door.

“It’s okay, Darel. It was just lemons this time. You must really be angry at lemons!” Even Darel smiled at John’s joke.

John now leaned against the chain-link fence separating their back yards. Darel walked over to the fence and stopped a few feet away from John, who now stood silently, waiting for Darel to speak.

“John, I don’t know what to say. Looking at the lemons in the kitchen just made me sad. I’ll be okay, I imagine.” Darel looked up at John as he nodded.

“I know what you mean. This pandemic has ruined us all a little. You’ve had it harder than most, Darel. My offer still stands: if you need an ear, a beer, or a meal, or maybe just someone to sit in the room and not talk to you, come on over. Anytime, okay?” John looked directly at Darel, who nodded and then smiled. Darel instinctively reached toward John to shake his hand. John took it and gripped it over the chain-link. “I mean it,” he said. “We can sit in my living room or on the back porch and ignore each other.”

*

The following day, Darel slept in late, until about 6:30 a.m. He made a pot of coffee out of habit, without thinking that he’d be the only one there to drink it. When he poured his first cup and noticed he made a whole pot, he decided that since it was Sunday, he might finish it off. He stood at the counter, sipping his first cup until he finished it. He poured a second cup and peered through the blinds and into the backyard.

“What the eff?” he asked, looking outside. It looked like one hundred tennis balls were scattered around his yard.

Darel took his second cup of coffee and went outside to his desk, peering at the ground. It took him several seconds to realize that the tennis balls were lemons. He jerked his head up and looked at the back of John’s house, which was still dark.

Darel walked out in the wet grass barefooted. He had the idea that John might be watching him from a darkened window, so he flipped a high bird in his direction. And then he laughed, his head thrown back in genuine amusement, as he imagined John out in his yard last night, tossing dozens of lemons into his yard.

“I need some vodka to go with all these lemons,” Darel said to himself as he sipped his coffee and shuffled his toes through the wet grass.

He decided he’d take John up on his offer. It was about time to stop looking into the rearview mirror. The pandemic had stolen enough from him.

He laughed again as he looked at all the lemons scattered in his yard. After he sipped the last gulp of his morning coffee, he went inside.

A Pandemic Romance Story With A Twist

It was love at first sight. He stood between the well-stocked aisles, mouth agape, shocked at the beauty in front of him. He had successfully ignored the growl of hunger inside himself for what seemed like days. A woman stood to the side, wearing blue jeans and a long-sleeved blouse, a smile as big as Christmas on her face. She wore simple casual white shoes. More importantly, a wall of chips stood behind her, a collection of colors and flavors as diverse as any he’d witnessed. He couldn’t wait to get his hands on those chips, his fingers covered with a variety of flavorings. If only the woman would get the hell out of the way so he could get started.

Shattered Afternoon Muse

Jeff sat near the large bank of windows at the front of the diner. In front of him, he held a cup of coffee between his hands. His eyes followed the passersby as they hurried by him. Few looked inside the diner as they marched past. The glass dissuaded most people from peering too closely if they did glance in his direction.

Jeff tipped well, so the small group of potential waitresses didn’t object to him lingering there until he drank five or six cups of coffee. Only one asked him why he enjoyed people watching there. Jeff smiled. “Watching people gives me an endless number of stories to tell. Each one who passes is his or her own universe, one which I get to populate in whatever way comes to me as my muse.” The waitress in question, Shirley, nodded, probably a little surprised by his unexpected answer. She’d seen a lot in twenty-two years of working at the diner.

This afternoon, Jeff had a couple of interesting stories. One older man who had walked past briefly opened his overcoat, revealing a silver pistol shoved into his waistband. A beautiful middle-aged woman had stopped nearby and surprised Jeff by lighting a cigarette. She dropped several things from her small purse. As she bent to retrieve them, her dress rose up, revealing lovely legs. When she stood back up, she looked directly at Jeff and winked. He winked back and nodded. She laughed and walked out of his view.

As Jeff sipped from his cup, a small blue Honda pulled up. The driver, a small man wearing an expensive suit, exited his car, leaving the driver’s door open. In his right hand, he held a small brick. Before Jeff could notice more details, the man swung the brick on the glass on the window about six feet from where Jeff sat. The glass cracked, making an odd popping sound. The man stepped back three or four paces and hurled the brick at the window. As the brick hit the window, it imploded, sending glass cascading inside.

The five or six customers inside turned their heads toward the window in surprise. The glass didn’t go far. Neither did the brick. It fell across the table in the next booth and then skidded to the floor.

Jeff stared at the man who threw the brick. Behind him, he heard Shirley say, “Damn it, Jim, not again!” The tone of her voice conveyed the accusation that he’d done it before. Shirley walked over to where the brick lay on the floor. She picked it up and threw it back out the window. It went further than Jeff anticipated. The man who threw the brick, presumably Jim, picked up the brick, cocked a finger at Shirley, and laughed. He turned, got into his Honda, and drove away.

Shirley turned to the register, where Jinny stood, a bemused look on her face. “Jinny, call Joe, and tell him Jim broke another window!” Shirley turned to Jeff and said, “Refill, hon?” Jeff nodded, unsure of what he had witnessed.

When Shirley came back over to refill his cup, Jeff exclaimed, “Are you going to tell me what that is all about?”

Shirley said, “Well, you’re always looking for stories. Jim is the brother of Joe who owns this diner. Jim breaks a window every year on March 22nd. So Joe takes the day off every year.” She smiled, knowing that although she answered his question, she hadn’t really.

“Okay…” Jeff stammered. “But why? And if he does it every year, why doesn’t someone stop him? Or warn us? Or close? Or whatever?” Jeff realized he sounded a bit foolish as he asked.

“Joe won’t say. He doesn’t call the police, and he won’t file insurance. It’s a big secret.” Shirley laughed. “Not the answer you expected, was it? Now it’s going to drive you crazy like it does the rest of us.”

“Well, I know where I’m going to be next year on March 22nd, Shirley. Right outside, waiting to ask him.” Jeff smiled, knowing that he would.

“Gotta have something to live for, Jeff. I guess I better clean up some of this glass before Joe gets here.” Shirley walked away, presumably to get a broom.

Jeff finished his cup of coffee and watched people look at the broken window as they walked. Curiosity filled everyone’s eyes as they looked. One younger man looked at Jeff as if to say, “What happened?” Jeff shrugged, pretending he didn’t know.

As Jeff stood up to leave, Joe came through the kitchen and around the long counter. To Jeff’s surprise, he was smiling as he looked at the damage.

Jeff laughed as he left. “Truth is stranger than fiction,” he told himself.