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Doing Time, Part 1 by Craig Rodgers - Twist in Time Literary Magazine
1. He is a salesman, he tells people, and it’s more or less true. He tells them his name is Gray, when they ask, which it isn’t, and they rarely do. He says the past doesn’t matter and he leaves it at that, but it does, it matters, and it is always there, some shred poking out, a thread waiting to be pulled and its haunted treasures unfurled for all. In the front hall, in a closet, behind the coats and things, boxes containing unimportant memories, there is a bag filled with money. Bundled bills in mostly large denominations. A case like a doctor might have in some bygone era, the kind that might be dragged from house to house as such an archaic medical practitioner checks mending bones or as he might listen to strained, tubercular lungs. The tools of this trade are gone, replaced with those bills in small stacks, the bag clasped and hidden, tucked behind the mildewed baubles of life. The house is a dry, quiet thing tucked in among other houses of its antique epoch. These few square blocks of yesteryear rest in a sea of suburban boredom, houses and homes born fully formed in long rows, each cast from the same horrific mold, not like these creaking husks that were here before and will be here, reticent and stoic, long after the others have spun drunken and canting to dust. He rents the house with cash for almost nothing. Its rooms are furnished with musty flea market finds and a hodgepodge of kitschy relics. Lamps crafted by bored geriatrics in community classes, tables cobbled from foraged refuse by aspiring or failed artists. And a painting. The painting, he calls it, because it has no name, or if there is a name it is not written or saved, is lost to existence and its fickle memory. A field of tall grass, bent in the hand of wind, each brushstroke there to tell its story. In the middle distance is a figure, a dark line with a hat pulled low, the suggestion of a man there among waving stalks. A fixed touch of structured lines at the horizon could perhaps be a farmhouse, remote and inconsequential. He sits looking into the painting some nights, those nights when he can’t sleep, when he knows the stranger is coming. He is a salesman, and the boon he peddles to those who ask is the smiling lie of his own persona. 2. The fire in the east is a new day’s start. Mowers start early, big industrial monstrosities that rattle windows in distant frames and stink of gasoline for two blocks, three blocks. Sprinklers will be on in a half hour, automatic spritzes mimicking a light morning rain, but for now there is nothing. Later there will be crowds, kids playing on playground swings, jungle gyms. Nannies will read paperbacks off to the side, some talking with each other, sharing pedestrian tidbits about their lives, their employers, others only sitting with vacuous stare, waiting for something else. Old men will sit at tables, wooden park tables or cut stone slabs, cheap cardboard games set out, chess or other finds. The old men smoke, tipping burnt ends in the grass or just letting lengths of dead ash hang from the end wedged between bent, gnarled fingers as they contemplate moves. People will eat lunches, accountants and lawyers. Scorekeepers with paper bags. Sandwiches wrapped in plastic, white bread and a single piece of lettuce with cheap meats between. Meals for the frugal or the dieting. Sometimes a single piece of fruit. This will be the world, but it isn’t the world yet. Gray sits with eyes closed. The bench at his back is damp from morning dew. Hands rest on the thinning knees of once fine slacks. The seams of his aging three-piece are loose, fraying or frayed from countless years of faithful service. Dapper in a past life. Lines in his flesh tell the story of years. Eyes move behind lids, free roaming an unknowable world. Lips slightly parted, he breathes in morning scents, fresh cut grass and wind and sun, earthy fragrances both sweet and bitter. He sits in this fashion as all around the chaos swirls. The brazen roar of the mowers progresses inward, their bulks moving first in stripes and then in chaotic swirls unrecognizable to logical minds, blades chopping grasses to nothing in a mad dance as the vibrating behemoths abandon their coordinated march and lunge with greedy intent at the naked remains of uncut pasture. Their chorus rises and nears until all else has vanished and only the unremitting tumult exists in the world, is the world entire, the tremble of ground and pulsing air replacing all that had once existed. Soon they too are gone. Gray opens his eyes to find a lifting blue tone in the sky. The fire has subsided, appeased. A woman in muted sweats jogs along a sidewalk that rims the park. She sings every third or fourth word from a song playing in her head. She turns a fleeting smile to Gray as she passes his perch. He returns the kindness, but she is already gone. _____ Diner noise makes background music. The pleasing chime of silverware on glassware, the idle chatter of people and lives, cars somewhere in the distance. Gray sits at the counter, always at the counter, a glass of water in a chilled glass placed atop a folded napkin. The water is complimentary, handed out to anyone who wants, but he pays a dollar whenever he orders. “It’s only fair,” he tells whoever is working the counter; the fat man with the spacey glaze in his eyes, the young woman who used to manage a bank, who knows how she ended up here, the geriatric miscreant with the sly look, sometimes others. There is a turnover rate, a come and go of crew to man this ship, but Gray is there, always there at his post. He holds the paper folded at the crease, eyes moving with meticulous care over article after article, no hurry in their appetite to devour the world and all its secrets one blurred line of ink at a time. Others tap keys, look with deep longing into glowing screens of phones, play games clutched in bent hands. All around patrons are enveloped in media, a bottomless bombardment of the instant update. The only newspaper is the one in front of Gray. The man across the way leans forward, hands on counter. He squints. Eyes move side to side, up and down, minute spins and turns as he examines from his distant seat the crossword that lies opposite whatever day old intrigue has Gray bewitched. Gray’s eyes continue their steady march across the page as a terse, measured query finds its way from his lips. “Help you with something?” The man across the way points one finger at the paper. “I see that when you’re done?” Seconds go by, maybe a dozen, not many more, and the droning march of eyes on page ceases. “You can see it now.” Gray folds the paper over again, hands it off to a passing waitress with a point and a nod and she turns, not pausing, only setting the paper in front of the man across the way before she moves on, lost in a sea of eggs and pancakes, orders and checks. The man across the way looks over the crossword, flips to the front, goes back to the crossword. He meanders, a man unsure of his place, taking in bits of stories but never staying for the full show. Gray watches, sipping water. “How would you know?” The man looks up. “What?” “If I was done. How would you know?” “With the paper?” Gray doesn’t respond. “You’d get to the end.” Gray handles the man’s response, tasting its intricacies in his mind while his face remains placid. Eventually he speaks. “That’s fair.” The man waits for there to be more, but no more comes and he goes back to mercurial perusing of yesterday’s news. Eyes widen by something they find. Gray sets down his half empty glass as he watches the man read. A waitress stops by the man, asks a question. “Anything else, Chester?” Words go unheard as the man reads. Chester. His clothes are sharp, the pressed attire of a man who should be somewhere right now but isn’t. Dark shirt, collar buttoned, no tie or coat. A thick neck protrudes from that collar. When he speaks there drifts an accent afloat somewhere just behind the words, the faint touch of somewhere else. It is the sound of a city on the coast, some hard place that has exiled this wayfarer, doesn’t want him back. He watches the room even as he reads, but he doesn’t take notice of Gray, and he does not see Gray watching. A waitress stops by the place where Gray sits on most days, maybe a waitress that has served him a hundred times before. She smiles, pleasant but distant, and pours from a pitcher to fill his glass just as many others have, as they always do. No one remembers a time before Gray came to this place. _____ The air in the room is thick with must. Mildew, dust, older things permeate the stillness, rings of barely visible miasma wandering the ether. Gray sinks low between the arms of the chair. The painting presides unprejudiced over stark drama not yet played out, that aged canvas waiting for something more. Gray looks into that unchanging image, the unwaving grains and beyond that a world unknown. He longs for sleep that doesn’t come, not believing it will but still wanting, unable to give up on the possibility of something more. A knock comes at the door. A long breath in and a slow breath out and he answers with the same feigned lack of feeling he’s practiced for years. “Hello, Gray,” says the stranger. 3. A woman sits in a sun-filled diner with pen clutched hard in slender fingers. The pen moves at a determined crawl across a bent page of lined paper. Care is taken with each word, the plot unfolding for her as she goes along. A note or letter, maybe a list of items to pick up on the way home. The mystery of the mundane. Gray watches the pen’s movements from where he sits, his newspaper folded over and forgotten in hand. “She somebody you know?” Gray turns. Chester sits across the island from him, a vaguely interested look on his face as he waits for Gray to answer the question. Gray holds up the paper, offering this solemn token as reply. “No, thanks,” says Chester with an unwarranted shake of his head. He looks first at the paper still hanging in awkward expectation and then at Gray whose face gives nothing away. “Can I ask you something?” Gray gives only the slightest shrug as he puts down the paper. “How old are you?” Gray doesn’t blink or look away, doesn’t move at all. He breathes in and holds, breathes out and speaks. “How old do I look?” “Upper forties, maybe a spry fifties. Like that.” Quick nod from Gray. “Okay,” he says. Chester sits a moment, a thought not quite ready to come loose. And then it does. “You know anybody who died?” “Everybody does.” Chester looks away, considering the point or just waiting. “Yeah.” Noncommittal. He focuses on the paper in front of Gray, letting his eyes have someplace to be. Gray looks back, but Chester has receded and whatever thought was there is now obscured by too much time. Gray turns to the woman, who has folded the piece of paper and stuffed it into an envelope. An address is written there and covered by a torn wedge of masking tape. A new address is written on top, but the letters from the old show through as ghosts of another place. She asks a man working at the counter if they sell stamps here, but she knows they do not. Gray watches as she walks out the door, stuffing the envelope into a hip pocket as she goes. “A friend of mine died and no one called. I had to find out about it in the paper.” “Don’t read the obituaries. They’re only ever depressing.” “I don’t,” says Chester. A moment becomes a minute as such utter pause holds the room in thrall, as if all the chats and all the...