The Line

The Line

The preacher stood just beyond the casket, ready to offer condolence and solace; he had already shown Toby the bobble-head Jesus suction-cupped to his dashboard in the hopes of allaying the young man’s stoic expression.

It didn’t work.

The line was short: Gerald, Jerry, Margie, Olivia. Toby stood behind his mother. He listened to each of “The Gang” bid their farewells to his grandfather: though he couldn’t quite make out the details, the three of them were convinced that Ollie would have been the last to go, and they made sure to let him know that. Toby watched each of them place something into the casket and wondered how they remembered his grandfather and if anything he remembered would match their rememberances.

The preacher extended an arm to Gerald; to Jerry; to Margie. Gerald complained about “that damn fountain” and asked the preacher where the bathroom was. The preacher pointed to the right and patted Gerald on the shoulder. Gerald, with Jerry in tow, rushed in the direction of the finger.

Olivia approached the casket. She looked down. She whispered. Toby wasn’t sure what she said, but whatever it was, it was the most she had said to Ollie in the year since she kicked him out of the house; in spite of the chasm opened by Ollie’s betrayal of trust, Olivia made sure that his last wishes were honored, including getting rid of “the asshole.”

The minister extended his arm to Olivia. She nodded and thanked him. They both turned to watch Toby.

Toby stepped up to the casket and looked down at his grandfather: the sunflower tie; the rumpled suit; the chips and cards from “The Gang”; the rusted and dinged decoder ring on Ollie’s pinky, turned to the last coded message they had sent through the laundry chute during their partnership. Toby leaned over the casket and pulled back, tiptoes. He reached inside his new suitcoat with the gold buttons that he hated and pulled out sheets of paper: a perfect reproduction of the Sentinel’s first appearance; every nuance of gritty line work, of action, of color; the stories of heroics and adventure that had been the light of his grandfather’s life, right there, reproduced exactly, in Toby’s hand. He wanted to make sure Billy wouldn’t kick Private Ollie’s ass; he made the pages exactly as his grandfather had wanted. They were partners, after all, and partners finish things. Toby placed the pages on his grandfather’s chest, kissed him on the forehead and whispered, whizbampow.

The End.

Chapter Eleven: Homecoming

Chapter Eleven: Homecoming

Ava plopped herself in Junior’s lap and stuck her tiny hands, triangles of string weaving in and out of her fingers, in his face. Junior let out a dramatic “oof.”

_ You’ve gotten bigger in just a coupla weeks!
– Mommy says I’m a weed. Look what I made.
– That right there is the best “Bow” I’ve ever seen. Don’t think these stubby old hands could do one that good.
– Yeah. Your sign’s still broke.
– It adds character.
– What’s character?
– You’re a character. Did you make that “Bow” yourself?
– Mommy showed me.
– Your mom’s a pretty good teacher, kiddo.

Lena slid into the seat across from Junior and Ava. She looked up at the thumbtacked article. Junior smiled.

Chapter Ten: …Her Fortunes Forever

Chapter Ten: …Her Fortunes Forever

Mrs. Adams walked to the front door, her slippers sliding across the linoleum that bubbled up in the kitchen, a cup of coffee–splash of cream, two sugars–in hand. She wore her favorite nightgown, the sky blue one that her dear departed Harold had purchased for her at the blue light special twenty-three years ago last month; a blue nightgown for his blue light, he always said.

She parted the lace curtains that had belonged to her grandmother and looked to the darkening skies; the weatherman on The Weather Channel, her constant screen-companion, had said that rain could be coming. She looked to the stoop: the morning paper, wrapped in its orange plastic bag, on time for once. She marked this down in the “on time” column of the small steno notepad she kept by the entryway; she wanted to document the timeliness of the paper delivery for her next subscription renewal negotiation, and recognized that unwavering honesty and verisimilitude in her final findings would go a long way towards securing an appropriate price point.

She opened the door and let the cold air in. Her back ached when she bent down to pick up the paper. It made her think that maybe she should put a place for the paper itself, for the paperboy to put it so she wouldn’t have to bend down; she knew that that ne’er-do-well would never use it. It would be a waste of her considerable time and energy. She decided to note this in her notepad under “other considerations”; she wasn’t happy, but it wasn’t a terrible affront.

She cut the too-tight knot at the top of the orange bag with the steel scissors, black paint flecking off to reveal the rusted metal underneath. The boy did this just to rile her, she knew it; another notebook-bound offense. But she loved her scissors.

She sat at the table and opened to the important section: the obituaries. None of her friends this week, though she thought she may stop by a funeral on her way home from the beauty parlor. Sports: no one was doing that well, but that was ok. She finally turned to the front page:

COMIC BOOK SAVES FAMILY
A waitress was suffocating under the weight of debt, but a superhero has changed her fortunes forever.

Mrs. Adams scanned the article, at the name: Lena Dodd. She looked out the kitchen window: that sign was gone. She had seen those nice-looking people in suits shake the woman’s hand and take away the sign the other day. What luck! Her property value wouldn’t go down and some ne’er do-well wouldn’t move in and steal her figurines. She had worried about that from the minute that sign went up, the very minute. Why, if a funny book could be worth that much, imagine the value of her figurines. Priceless! She had always liked that woman and her little girl. Maybe she would go visit them and offer her congratulations. After the beauty parlor, of course.

In a note left by a deceased patron at The Parlor Grille restaurant and addressed directly to her, waitress Lena Dodd, 29, was directed to a lock box in Mooreston. Inside, she found a copy of Whiz!Bam!Pow! Comics Issue Seven, August 1938. Featuring the first appearance of “The Sentinel,” widely considered the first superhero, the comic book is highly prized as one of rarest in the world, with only four copies known to exist.

The Parlor Grille opened for breakfast in twenty minutes, chairs were still up on tables and Piero stood behind the empty pastry case, the newspaper in his hands. He knew, just knew, that business was going to go through the roof. Such good fortune, in his restaurant, no less! He knew he would get his shot on Food Network, and though he hoped for Giada, he knew that he would get the strange man with spiky hair that would call his special specials “money.” But that was a-ok in his book. His restaurant! He beamed with pride for the success of his favorite employee and knew that soon, very soon, she would pay him back for the stamps she had stolen. The nerve. In that very moment, he decided: he would re-hire her. Yes. He would re-hire her and show her the power of forgiveness. The business would be amazing. Come see her, one and all. Come wish her congratulations. Come have the special specials, the million-dollar special specials amidst the display of forgiveness.

The deceased, one Tess Parker, was known throughout the small hamlet of Fredrickstown as an eccentric. She had no children. She was active in the local arts community and encouraged young artists in their craft. The only other donation she left was to the local art museum.

Junior cut around the article, the ink smudged and mixed with grease and butter and borscht, with his butcher knife, the same one he had watched his father use when he was a kid, sitting in that far booth with the string around his fingers and waiting on Tess to pass judgement on his progress. He made careful slices along each side of the newsprint, perfect and pristine. Beady leaned over the counter, and watched; while Beady was always quick to critique the cooking at ene’s iner for even a granule of over-or-under-salting, an honor that he felt his six-decades-plus of ertswhile patronage had earned him, he never critiqued the generation-spanning knife skills of the Genes; he was both intelligent and smart.

With a rusted metal thumbtack, Junior hung the clipping above the far booth in the back, right next to his favorite picture of his dad. Junior sat in the booth and leaned back; he admired the new addition, a homecoming, a testament:

“She came into the restaurant every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and ordered the same thing every time,” Ms. Dodd said. “We talked, but she mostly listened. I never learned much about her, but she ended up saving me–saving us. I still don’t know why.”

The bell dinged. Ava rushed to Junior, her fingers entwined in string.

– Rahr!

To be concluded.

Chapter Nine: These Pants Won’t Last Forever, You Know

Chapter Nine: These Pants Won’t Last Forever, You Know

Lena rushed down the stairs and cursed the world, the tzatziki and the packing tape. She had rehearsed what she would say to him, if he ever dared come back through that door, a million times, a million and a half, but now, confronted with the reality of the car in the driveway and Ava’s shouts of paternal ebullience, all she could do was concentrate on not falling ass over end down the stairs; she wasn’t going to break her neck and lie, crumpled and dead, against the godawful floral wallpaper, not on his account.

Daddy! Ava shouted again. Lena made it to the door in time to stop Ava from unlocking it and unleashing a tidal wave of Ava-bundance on a populace all-too-familiar with the particular abundance of Ava-bundance. Lena’s hand ached from stopping herself against the door; her tzatziki-shot tailbone shouted at her.

Chapter Eight: Cowboy Boot Prophet

Chapter Eight: Cowboy Boot Prophet

– Are you scared yet Mommy?
– Not yet.
– You will be.

Her body buried in stuffed animals and her face the only part visible, Lena laid motionless in Ava’s bed and stared at the whale in Ava’s ceiling, red and blotchy, a remnant of one of the more intense rainstorms, and knew that letting Rob show Ava the original Star Wars trilogy (he had gasped in horror when, on their first date, Lena admitted to having never seen the films, an affront he rectified in a six-hour marathon on their second date that should have been the first indication that she was embarking on a journey of class-five emotional whitewater) so young was a mistake: Ava’s first words had been an impression of scary, throaty Yoda that only got scarier, throatier and more context-appropriate as she got older.

Chapter Seven: Snarf ‘N Barf

Chapter Seven: Snarf ‘N Barf

Lena made sure to get the Windex into the tiny nooks of the car’s rear door handle recess and capture the remnants of pancakes and blueberry syrup that had been spewed between exits 263 and 262. She threw the soaked paper towel into the plastic bag that said “thank you for letting us serve you.” The roll empty, she spit on her hand and wiped the edges of Ava’s mouth.

– Ew, Mommy.
– You’ll live. Now, go to sleep; we’re almost home.

Lena tied the bag tight and threw it into the trash can in front of the Welcome Center. She leaned against the car and fan-dryed the comic book, still wet from Ava’s pancakeial over-indulgence. As cars whizzed past on the freeway and Ava peeked around the driver-side headrest, Lena composed herself and drowned out the self-cursing that swarmed around her brain like flies to a garbage bin: she had wasted an entire day for a fucking comic book.

She gave up the taming, got into the car, threw the comic on the seat next to her and, after silent prayers to the ignition gods, started the car.

Chapter Six: Leashing Lochiel’s Dogs

Chapter Six: Leashing Lochiel’s Dogs

When Junior looked up from the string, her string, and saw the little girl’s plastic Triceratops, they were already gone; he and Triceratops were alone together in the mismatched, multi-patched pleather booth, empty spots of white wall and loose nails above him, drywall plaster trickling to his shoulder and coating Triceratops’s middle horn.

Chapter Five: Rahr, Pancakes

Chapter Five: Rahr, Pancakes

From his perch atop the rusty, dented and fingerprint-besmirched napkin dispenser, Triceratops returned the stares of the patrons of ene’s iner, their mouths agape and stuffed with borscht or chicken or burgers; their stares weren’t for him, rather they were directed at the Avasaur’s brutal attack on her third plate of three-high, syrup-drenched blueberry pancakes.

Each vibration of the Avasaur’s metal fork to porcelain plate made drywall dust fall from the empty nailholes in the center of bright white squares, eight by ten, that Lena was certain once held more black and white rememberances of the boxer with the badass handlebar mustache that filled up the other walls of the diner. The smell of musk and sweat dripped from the booth and the broken plaster. Lena flicked plaster speckles from Ava’s hair and offered a nervous smile to the counter jockies.

– Maybe you should slow down. Keep up the snarfdom and we’re going to have a mess in the car.

The Avasaur rolled her eyes at the ignominy of Lena’s caution.

Chapter Four: Unleashing Lochiel’s Dogs

Chapter Four: Unleashing Lochiel’s Dogs

The man behind the diner counter with the perfectly-waxed handlebar mustache, the grease-smeared white apron and the batter-smattered string wrapped around his fingers could feel that she was gone when he couldn’t leash Lochiel’s Dogs. She had taught him, or tried to teach him, that figure the last night her saw her; before she left with that punk in the nice jacket; before she came back a few hours later with a rolled up comic book in her hand, blood on her shirt and a purple ring around her eye; before she disappeared for good and lived only in his dreams, forever frozen as the pretty waitress with curly hair who taught him string figures.

Chapter Three: Out Carousing With Bacon Duct Tape

Chapter Three: Out Carousing With Bacon Duct Tape

Lena kicked off her shoes, the oh-so-comfortable ones whose discovery during a President’s Day sale briefly made her the hero of the Fredrickstown service world, in a perfect arc; they landed with a silent thunk on the multi-colored throw rug that Lena had insisted be part of the purchase agreement on the house. A collection of outside-the-line, dot-connected (sort of),Pollock-in-waiting paper kid placemats jutted from the top of her purse, refrigerator-bound. Ava snored and drooled on her shoulder. Triceratops dangled from Ava’s fingers. Lena tip-toed up the stairs, hitting the wooden steps at just the right point to avoid creakage; she knew the house’s nuances: the noises beckoned by each footfall; the precise, to the quarter-milimeter, height of doorknob-lift for the side door to latch; the exact amount of turn on the reversed hot-and-cold faucet to reach optimal handwash temperature. The house was a part of her and she a part of a house, something she never anticipated on that first viewing a lifetime ago, the realtor’s eyes sparkling upon the first taste of sales blood as Lena and Rob fell in love with the unfinished attic that had “potential,” in spite of the ancient, combustable window fan that sort of pulled hot air from the four corners of the roof.

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