Fiction: Selections from Thomas Elson
By Thomas Elson
What’s Left to Hear
At this stage of my life I’m unable to walk down steps without pain; so, after my Saturday confession, the priest suggested I leave through the sacristy - but not to linger. There were other penitents, and the exact nature of another’s wrongs must remain private.
I hurried through the sacristy, down the ramp, past the kitchen, across the fellowship hall, into the vestibule, then sat in the back of the church. What are they going to say that I haven’t heard?
Once you’ve heard someone tell you that he smothered his lover because the man was dying of AIDS; once you’ve been told about a toddler dropped into a fire because he had urinated on his father’s boots, you’ve already heard everything.
“Just drive over to where the boathouse used to be,”
the man said clutching a plastic cup of bourbon,
his eyes not quite as bloodshot as
they’d be in a few more hours.
People have always kept me warm.
You’ve seen me. Or those like me. Sturdy, offering protection – whether to dock or launch. You may even have been inside my cool comfort sheltered from wind and sun, rain and snow.
When I was younger, I hosted scores of folks who wanted to congregate inside my second floor meeting room, use my storage areas, my launching platforms. When I grew older, the socializing lessened, and people came to me for seclusion - a hideout.
Many have secreted themselves here, but none like you with your warm eyes, your softness of being so missing from this place, your elegance so unlike this area with its big hair and big watches and big feet that displace things.
That evening when you approached, it hurt to see him with you. When he trailed behind, when he entered you, when you cowered. Cringed. Crumpled while your sounds reverberated within me. He was someone better illuminated by florescent lights than moonlight. But moonlight was all you had – moonlight and me. As he tried to leave, part of me collapsed upon him, forced him under until he ceased to breathe.
I remembered how you stayed, then how we visited and grew close. You told me stories about the department store, the four-room- red-brick grade school you attended - run by nuns who brooked not one iota of misbehavior and demanded discipline and scholarly pursuit enforced with prayers before school, a student daily Mass at 8:20, the Angelus at noon, prayers before dismissal at 3:30.
You described the Fish Hatchery on the east side past the lake, the activity of the beavers with their lodges, their branch dams, and their flat-tail paths you followed as a young girl. The banker’s house and his son’s permanently hoarse voice you thought was from his trying to get his parents’ attention. A little farther south, the hidden house, you said you were forced inside once.
I comforted you with the slim rays of sunlight crawling through tiny breaks between the slats. The musical echoing. The splashing and lapping of water that sound as if a heart is beating.
Two years after I ended his brutality, he was found and hauled away. He deserved it, but I could not allow that to happen to you. You were safe with me here - contained and sheltered. In my element.
I thought you would be protected by my pitched roof rising sixteen feet high above the interior walkway. The dock jutting ever so slightly outside the structure, past the shore and into the water. I was reassured by familiar mold and confluence of algae with fish carcasses. I told you they were going to renovate, to rehab, to repair, to paint my sides, replace weathered and torn shingles, reinforce my moorings. Instead those men came with their eyes to the ground as if avoiding the sting of recognition. They chopped, destroyed, then they removed me one section at a time, until they discovered you.
You comforted me during winter months when I was abandoned. You kept me warm, and I sheltered you as long as I could.
And I’ve always loved you.
He sees butterflies.
He is no longer the seventy-eight year old with high blood pressure, cold hands, and a perpetually sore right shoulder picking up a prescription refill as he walks through the pharmacy section of Safeway.
It has been decades, nevertheless, today he is a nine-year-old fourth grader in Sacred Heart school, who fell out of a tree and onto the exposed barbs at the top of a playground chain link fence. He is walking home with a shred of skin flapping against his knee as blood stains his ripped Levi 501 jeans - the ones with the buttons he hated, the only ones sold at Jett’s Department store in this little post-war town with not enough housing for families of men freshly discharged after World War II and Korea.
He limps from fence to sidewalk to trek the five blocks home without mentioning the blood and pain from the gash, when on his left he sees his mother’s face on the driver’s side as their two-tone green 1953 Oldsmobile Super ’88 pulls to the curb. The car stops. His mother exits the car, opens the rear passenger door, and he, without hesitation, hops in. No words spoken. It’s as if she knows - what, where, when, and how.
He recalls nothing until they arrive home. She tells him to stand in the bathtub. He struggles to remove his jeans. She allows the blood to drip. Then, as if by magic, and with a surgeon’s grace, she lifts the flap of skin from the knee with the little finger of her left hand. Cleans the wound with her right hand, applies mercurochrome, then removes a Band-Aid from its tin container, fashioning a butterfly shape, pulling the cover from the adhesive, placing it over his knee. He hears muttering about a tetanus shot.
Decades later, the school is still there. As is the fence with its twisted links – now covered with protective tubing. Sometimes the image of that butterfly recurs –
when picking up a prescription refill,
when not in a hurry,
when he reads the Band-Aid labels –
the rounded butterfly –
he remembers his mother’s magical powers.
Thomas Elson’s stories appear in numerous venues, including Mad Swirl, Blink-Ink, Ellipsis, Scapegoat, Bull, Cabinet of Heed, Flash Frontier, Ginosko, Short Édition, Litro, Journal of Expressive Writing, Dead Mule School, Selkie, New Ulster, Lampeter, and Adelaide. He divides his time between Northern California and Western Kansas.