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GRNW Secret Story Event > Crossroads by Lou Sylvre

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message 1: by ttg (last edited Sep 01, 2013 06:39PM) (new)

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This is part of GRNW’s Secret Story Event. Between August 1 through 31, stories by authors attending GRNW in Seattle on September 14 will be posted to our GoodReads group...but posted anonymously.

On September 1, 2013, all authors will be revealed!

Important Note: The content for these stories belong solely to the authors that wrote them.


CROSSROADS

by Lou Sylvre


Word Count: 4,329


The store still stands at the crossroads, but the sign has disappeared, the one Bill and the other cousins and I made on a baked afternoon in the summer of 1952. That was six years before Uncle Eddie died and the store finally closed. More than forty years ago now, but the sign is the first thing I think of when I lay eyes on the place, and I’m driven to find it before the tag end of daylight fails, as if I believe its words might tell me something new about old times.

The five of us kids had nailed the marquee together using a sheet of plywood and some two-by-fours, and then we’d painted it that waxy mint green that was so popular back then. We’d stenciled LESTER’S GROCERY, neat and bold in dark red and even shadowed them black the way Mrs. Jung, the art teacher, had taught us. Down below, smaller: Staples, Sundries, Fresh Meat and Produce.. I’d added Welcome in diagonal across the upper left corner, but Bill had glared at me, dead mean. “Stupid, Tommy,” he’d said, and then he’d scrubbed the word out with a dirty brush.

Now, I walk around the pot-holed gravel lot, stepping through long shadows and shredded October light, and find the sign leaning face-in against the wall of the shed. I close my hand over the wood, but the rough scar marking the site of Bill’s long ago assault on hospitality reminds me of my own scars, the old ones that have never quite healed over, and the neater, more recent ones that only marked my flesh.

I touch the wood again.

The board is half buried in wind-blown dust and shrouded in a tangle of horsemint, and when I try to pull it away from the wall it resists. I’m swamped by the weed’s pungent smell, and it draws me like a strong ebb tide out and down into the past. I glance up at the small outbuilding—where some important pieces of that past were made—and I’m not sure if the sign is leaning on the shed, or if the shed is leaning on the sign. I judge it safest to let the relic lie in its grave.

I’m surprised to see the main store building remains in fair shape, standing straight, corners square, though its luster has gone dull. The front door is still locked up tight but the layers of paint on it—the top one green like the sign—are peeling down like shaggy bark, and the wood is weathered grey where it shows bare. What’s left of the storm door keeps screeching open and slamming shut in the wind, having lost in fifty years of lonely weather all its paint, its glass, its latch hook and a hinge pin. Still, it hangs on.

I used to wash the two big windows up front every week inside and out so they’d shine, and there was always light inside. When you’d come across the lot of an evening, you’d see through the glass squares like giant peepholes. Shelves filled with everything a hand-me-down boy could want, and between them narrow aisles sluicing shoppers along while they checked lists and counted change. At the back, old men huddled close to the Franklin stove and chugged black coffee, jawing about rifles and bird dogs and plows.

Now, I see shadows, ghostly imprints, where the shutters used to rest open against the wall come summer. I feel a bit like I’m in one of those games people play, where every clue leads to another clue and you follow each one until the mystery ends. I don’t know what I think the mystery is, but the ghost-print shutters make me wonder why they were ever taken down, and that makes me wonder if they’re still around. Oddly it feels important. I take a deep breath and venture into the crooked shed, trusting fate and thick, sweet memories to hold it up while I’m inside. I find finish nails, a rusty, thin-bladed saw, a drum of gasoline, but not a trace of those shutters—which seems wrong. They’d been fashioned of heavy, slatted wood with black iron hardware. Solid things like that—and like wonderful and painful memories—would never simply fade to dust.

Come autumn and windstorms, Uncle Eddie used to climb up a ladder to hook the shutters closed and bar them at the top.

“Keep the glass from gettin’ broke,” he used to say.

But probably decades have crept by with them gone. The glass has stayed whole, not even cracked, not even pitted, through twoscore seasons of bitter wind.

The panes don’t shine, though, not bright and clear the way they did after I’d cleaned them in my youth. They’ve clouded over with thick filmy shapes like memories, like cataracts. I stare at those ghost-filled windows for a long, long time, and I begin to see.

The old store—a skeleton now—had been alive, as surely as if that Franklin stove had pumped warm blood rather than heat. I'd grown up in her arms, an orphaned child taken in for the sake of duty but never quite belonging to anyone save this warm, busy building with her open doors and glass eyes and wonder-filled shelves hinting at the possible. She’d sheltered me, given me refuge, stood as friend and companion at all the crossroads of my adolescence.

My aunt and uncle had cared for me, and the store had shielded me, but only one boy had loved me. Corwin. He was like me, a taken-in orphan, not a blood cousin, and he was an outsider among Eddie and Jean’s kids, too. His name, Corwin; beautiful like his whole person—I’ve since learned it means heart’s companion. I always called him by his given name, and I wish I had known the meaning back then, because he was my companion in every way—like Lester’s Grocery, only more. And he should have been with me all through life.

At school people called him Cory. Uncle Eddie called him Winnie intending no harm at all, but Bill and his siblings called him that too, adding horse snorts and offering him carrots and oats. They treated him almost as badly as they treated me, making sure he knew he wasn’t welcome by them, no matter what Eddie and Jean said. I say almost as badly because Corwin was a strapping young man, and even bully Bill wouldn’t push him too far. They even treated me better if Corwin was around. But their nasty picking and pushing cost me Corwin in the end, cost me the one beautiful song in my charity-boy heart.


Uncle Eddie died the summer I turned eighteen, about two weeks after I graduated high school alongside Eddie and Jean’s youngest natural child. A month later Aunt Jean passed too, and on her death certificate, old Doctor Crowder certified the cause as “broken heart.”

At first, my grief over losing the closest thing I had to parents—and security—ran parallel to the overwhelming joy I shared with Corwin that summer, the two emotions running by each other and never touching, like a divided highway. We walked together by the creek and the lake, holding hands—though we always had to keep an eye out if we did that. We ducked into the trees for kissing sessions that left our lips raw, and then for touches that were far beyond forbidden but impossible to resist.

And then once, my sweet boyfriend went to his knees in a crush of willow limbs and hazelnut and took me into his mouth, kissed and licked at my cock until I thought for sure I’d die. I begged him to stop—I really did! But he said, “Please, Tommy, let me give you this,” and a few seconds later, “Let me taste you, Tommy.” And, oh God, my orgasm came on like thundering hooves.

Later that day, I tasted him for the first time, filled my mouth with cock and balls, ran my tongue through coarse, tight-curled hair and into creases. It was the domed crown—wide and flared and so different from my own—that fascinated my lips the most. And his taste was instant addiction, like a heavy drug that I’d been addicted to before birth and just now found. When he came, I ate his seed, every bit, and wanted more.

We stayed in the woods for a long time that day; dark had nearly fallen by the time we walked back into the gravel lot, not touching. Probably the lateness was good luck, because Bill stood in the yard, and in the twilight he couldn’t see our swollen, sated faces.

Once that summer I thought Corwin wanted to say he loved me. He didn’t, but he showed me, I thought, and let me show him in return. Turned out that shed that now lists precariously under the weight of it’s roof was a favorite place at night. Corwin and I called each other “boyfriend” between ourselves. Of course this was the 1950s; we didn’t say it anywhere else, certainly not around Bill and the other cousins.

One night I couldn’t handle the atmosphere in the front room, with Bill picking at everybody and two or three arguments going on at all times, so I went to lay down on my cot and read. My cot was in my closet—that’s what I called it. It was a narrow space walled off behind the pantry with vents but no windows. I think it really did have a history as a closet or cellar of some sort, but Jean had painted it for me and put a worn but comfy rug on the linoleum, and I’d called it mine for the last three years. I got into my striped passed-down flannel pajamas, lit my tiny lamp, and got a library book.

When Corwin slipped quietly into my tiny room, I’d been surprised only for a moment. When he kissed me, I felt something in that kiss that hadn’t been there in all our kisses before—and there had been quite a few. This kiss had heat, felt urgent somehow, yet a much deeper longing seemed to run beneath it like a slow river.

“Tommy,” he said. He’d broken the kiss and for an instant stepped away, but by the time he’d finished saying my name, he had me clenched tight up against his body. I felt him, his hardness, his heat, the slight tremble in his thighs. And my body lit up like wildfire.

“Oh!” The word was more breath than sound, but I added, “Corwin… you!”

Some men might have thought I sounded a little crazy, but Corwin said, “Us, Tommy. And then, “I want you. I didn’t want to do this, because…but I’ve wanted you for so long, and I think… maybe I love you, Tommy. Please.”

I went still and pulled back so I could look into his eyes. “Not here,” I said.

“I don’t have any money.”

“The shed,” I whispered. “Put on extra coats.”

Corwin’s look was a question.

“To lie on,” I explained, “together.” He smiled and squeezed my hand. We went out through the mud porch, grabbing coats off the hook, getting nobody’s attention at all. They’d started a game of hearts and were busy arguing whose fault it was that Bill had successfully shot the moon, pulling all the hearts and the black Queen. I was glad to be getting out of the house—the cousins’ arguments could get so bitter they polluted the air.

Outside, the air was fresh and cool with moisture, and the dirt-and-gravel lot sparkled, moonshine hitting smooth rocks and small pools. Corwin swept me up into his arms like a bride at the threshold, and I couldn’t help but laugh.


message 2: by ttg (new)

ttg | 571 comments Mod
In the shed, we stripped the coats, and Corwin stood by, touching my back, while I laid the thick garments down, stirring up the scents of horsemint and Russian tea. He tugged at me, turned me around when I’d finished the make shift bed, and held me close but with enough room that he could lean my head back an look down from his height into my eyes. He kissed me once, and then pulled back as if he wanted to speak.

After a moment I couldn’t bear the burgeoning silence. I breathed, “Corwin?”

“It’s alright, Tommy,” he said. “I’m just having trouble saying some things. You see, I want you. That’s the first thing. I mean I want us to … make love.”

I knew exactly what he meant. He was older and freer than I, and he knew more about many things, including sex. He’d told me about the things men could do with each other, including fucking—not to put too fine a point on it. But that night in the shed, he’d stopped speaking again, so once more I filled the silence.

“Corwin, I want that too. Yes. If you’re waiting for my answer, it’s yes, please.”

“I know, Tommy.” Corwin’s eyes had taken a shine, and his voice seemed a bit strangled. “I can feel you wanting me just like I want you. I can feel… I think I can feel…”

His voice faded, but this time I held off before moving to fill the silence, because I needed to be sure of what I said. When I knew it was right, I filled in what he couldn’t say. “Me loving you, right, Corwin? You said you think you love me, and you can feel that I love you too. You’re right. And if we fuck—” I giggled, because that was the first time I’d said that word out loud. Corwin smiled too. “If we fuck we’ll be making love. And yes, I want that. Please.”

“Whoa, baby, slow down. It’s so sweet to hear you say you love me, and want me. I do love you, Tommy, and that’s why we can’t make love just yet. Tonight, maybe, but not yet, because I have to tell you something… Tommy, I’m leaving. Tonight.”

I felt my face go hot, then cold, and I shook my head.

“I can’t stay, Tommy! For one thing I don’t think I could stand that asshole Bill another day, but it’s out of my hands anyway, because he told me I have to leave.”

“He can’t!”

“Yeah, he can. The place is his now for all intents and purposes—the others will never fight him on it. And there’s nothing around here for me!”

He seemed a little desperate for my approval. I nodded. I couldn’t muster more than that.

“I joined the Navy.” He chuckled. “Can you believe that?”

It was unlikely enough that I wanted to laugh, too. I didn’t, but I did say, “Corwin, you’ve never even seen the ocean.”

“I know! Seems strange doesn’t it?”

“Where will you be?”

“Long Beach, California, at the Naval Base there, at least until I’m through training and get orders. But Tommy, the point is—I’ll be leaving you. I want to come back for you, if you’ll let me. When my time is done in the service, I’ll have some savings and severance money, and we… well, I know men like us have to hide. But maybe we can find a way to have a life together anyway. We’ll just keep our private business to ourselves. Would you want to do that, Tommy? Would you want me? Will you wait?”

There was no question. I would have waited for Corwin until the sky turned green. “Yes, I will,” I said, and in my heart of hearts, it was a wedding vow.


By Christmas, Bill and the other cousins had thrown out the stuff that would rot, locked the store up, and showed the lady their backs.

“Come back and see us,” Bill had said to me, sinking into his Oldsmobile, clearly none too sorry to leave me behind.

The rest of the cousins had pooled some money to buy me a bus ride to the city where, they said, I'd have a job in no time. They'd reassured me with kisses on my cheeks and quick, bruising hugs that they would stay in touch. For a year, they had followed through on that promise with cards at Christmas and my birthday. But the cards stopped, and of course I'd never heard a single word from Bill.

I did hear from Corwin. I’d written him about what happened, and from his letters he would have done some harm to Bill for cutting me adrift, if he’d been around. But he couldn’t get leave for months yet, an even when he did he might not be able to come all the way out to the Colorado mountains. We’d bide our time, he told me, but we would be together.

I believed him. I felt so certain I would see him again, and soon, that I didn’t really feel lonely. Not until he stopped writing. But after six months had gone by without a word, the truth hit me hard. He was gone. I cried myself to sleep three nights running, but then I didn’t cry anymore.

I had found the prophesied job in the city, but it didn't suit—or more likely I didn’t suit. I took my pay and hit the road via Greyhound, and ultimately landed in a small, slow-moving town where snow on the street stays white, and people all know each other but carefully, not too well. I’d landed a job at the bank, where I learned that I was good at helping other people make money. And I did have friends and even lovers. Sex is a marvelous salve to momentarily soothe the itch and ache of longing. But that’s all it was, sex, usually with married men that wanted something tight and spicy for the hour I’d give them.

I’d long had a habit of walking to Lettie's Café for a patty melt and fries on Thursday afternoon—the end of my workweek in younger days—and never worry about what anybody thought or wanted or needed. It was no more than chance or boredom that led me to pick up the local Weekly News off the end of the counter, on my way back to my customary booth, which had been jig-sawed into a dim corner all by itself. The paper was open to page three, .and there it was. Two column inches about that store at the crossroads, my old companion, and the headline: “Corner Store to be Opened, Untouched 40 Years.”

From what I knew, what little the article told me, and a little research, I pieced together what must have happened. The cousins had never been able to agree on what to do with Lester's Grocery, so they'd done nothing—leaving her to die a slow and lonely death. Their lives had led them away and apart, and likely they'd all but forgotten Lester's, But then like dominoes the four of them had died their various early deaths, leaving Lester’s as unfinished business. Now, it seemed, a colony of kids and grandkids wanted whatever small gilt they could scrape from her bones.

Tomorrow, Saturday, a locksmith has been scheduled to trip the tumblers and open the door. Some press is slated to come—and even local TV news—to photograph the tinned meat, laundry soap, and cigarettes still on the shelves, inspiration for a spot of upbeat prose. Collectors will appear with pocket books open. An auctioneer may already be loosening his tongue.

Strangers will swarm over her like ants on a dead finch.

“Flood ‘em out.”

That’s what Ben Johnson, one of the grey-headed men that used to gather in a ring around the Franklin’s heat on a day of rain and stuttering wind, back in 1952. It was bait, the start of an argument they’d all enjoyed before.

Uncle Eddie had smiled, taken old Ben's hook and spat it back. “Fire always works.”

Now, here in the cool evening, back at Lester’s Grocery after so many years have passed, I blink at the memory of Uncle Eddie’s pronouncement, and step back inside the shed, needing someplace dark and quiet to think. The light squeezing through the shrunken boards has gone so dim I can’t see my feet, but in the corner of the shed, the gasoline drum seems to sing out, bright and red.

"Fire always works."

Surprised by my own thoughts, I laugh a little as I pick up the gas can and tilt it back and forth so the fumes seep through metal seams and liquid sloshes inside. There’s enough. It's an idea, but of the tricky, tempting sort that I'd long since learned not to act on before giving it time. I set the red drum down on the shed's packed-earth floor, turn on my heel and walk away, back outside and half way across the gravel lot.

Time for a long, hard look at Lester’s Grocery.

We have even more in common now, she and I, than we did when we shared my youth. She's gone old and squat and low-slung, sinking down slow into her long log bones. White chinking has crumbled away and lost itself in the dust of earth. I feel the same—riddled with tiny wounds, robbed of mass and density, fallen from the grace of youth. Our varnish is worn and gone. We’re left with no shine at all.

But the sky has gone bright; I hadn't noticed. A pearl-pendant moon, huge, already hangs in the trees. In comparison the store and I shrink, almost disappear.

The red gas drum calls me, tiny metallic sounds somehow loud in my ears from all this distance, so I go back once more to the shed and sit on the impudent can. I don't want it to move until—unless—I decide it should. My blue nylon jacket swishes as I reach into the pockets, looking for matches. I find a flat plastic lighter; why I have it I no longer remember. In the same pocket I find my cell phone. I bring them both out and balance them on my knees.

I test the lighter. It seems a little risky while sitting on a gas can, but I laugh at myself. I haven't felt this way for so long I can't recall. I'm alive, my body a joint effort of a million parts, all of them in motion and I feel every dance. My mind open, strong and stretching past the stars, capable of anything, everything. I'm the god of this moment.

This choice, my companion's fate and mine, is my domain.


message 3: by ttg (last edited Sep 01, 2013 06:41PM) (new)

ttg | 571 comments Mod
I don't spend time thinking those things, of course, but they're sitting there in the back of my mind, and dimly I'm aware.

The lighter works. On the other hand, so does my cell. It's not polite, I know, to call your doctor at home after hours, but I know her well, call her Marie, and she won't mind.

"Yes," she says, answering my question. "The results are back, and there's no sign of recurrence. You're in the pink.” She actually sounds glad I called.

"Thanks.” I mean it, it's good news to say the least, but it complicates the decision.

Holding on to the lighter, I cross my ankle over my knee, and dial another number.

"Jim," I say, "I hate to bother you at this time, but I need some numbers."

"Sure, Tommy, that's what we accountants do, isn't it? Come up with numbers on a Saturday night?"

I remind myself that he's only sarcastic to people he likes. "What have I got that I can cash out right away?"

"Can I just say lots and leave it at that?"

I don't answer because I know he's already checking records. When he gives me the real answer, I begin to smile. That gas can has gone quiet, and I know it's not going anywhere at all, so I go outside, drop down to sit amidst the weeds, and lean back against that old green sign—my sign.

It isn't until I close my eyes that I hear it. A crunch on the gravel, a foot step, then another, and more—nearing the shed, picking up speed.... I know the pattern of that step instantly, intimately, so perfect and unchanged that I’m sure it’s hallucination. But I rise and step out once more into the path of the pearl moon’s light, and he’s there.

“Tommy,” he says.

I can’t respond.

“I always meant to love you, Tommy, never meant to lose you, to leave you behind for good.”

I began to cry, and they were the first tears that had fallen from my eyes in almost four decades. “Corwin,” I finally manage, my voice shaking. “Is it too late?” Some part of me has decided he’s a ghost, or a memory, for in the distance and under the moon his skin looks pale and smooth.

He answers, “No, baby.” He walks toward me, his long loose stride telling tales of years spent on rolling seas. When he’s close, I begin to see small blemishes and scars, wrinkles and an evening stubble that I remember as softer than it looks. I reach out my hand toward him, stop just before contact, then lay my hand against his chest and feel his heart beat, strong, big enough to fill every nook and cranny of my world.

We turn together, hand in hand, and walk slowly along the path of light that stretches across the gravel lot, heading, one might think, for the moon. But we stop and face Lester’s Grocery, her window-eyes opaque, painted with night. I squeeze my companion’s hand and say, “Corwin, I bought the store.”

Corwin laughs, hearty and genuine, and I know I’ve found the sound I’ve been missing, music for our next ten thousand nights.


THE END


About the Author

Lou Sylvre hails from southern California but now lives and writes on the rainy side of Washington State. When she’s not writing, she’s reading fiction from nearly every genre, romance in all its tints and shades, and the occasional book about history, physics, or police procedure. Not zombies, though. Her personal assistant is Boudreau, a large cat who never outgrew his kitten meow. She plays guitar (mostly where people can’t hear her) and she loves to sing. She’s usually smiling and laughs too much, some say. She also loves her family, her friends, the aforementioned Boudreau, a Chihuahua named Joe, and (in random order) coffee, chocolate, sunshine, and wild roses.

Find her books at http://www.sylvre.com or contact her at lou.sylvre@gmail.com, or find her on goodreads under Lou Sylvre or on Twitter at @sylvre.


message 4: by ttg (last edited Sep 01, 2013 06:42PM) (new)

ttg | 571 comments Mod
Thank you to Lou Sylvre for submitting a Secret Story for the GRNW group! Please feel free to leave comments below. :)


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