February 1, 2012 by Ray Yanek
Flash Fiction Friday-Cycle 65
Prompt: Well it’s time for one of our most unsung holidays: Groundhog’s Day. So this weeks challenge is to write a story that takes place on or around Feb. 2nd. Will it climax with a happy ending and the oncoming of spring or will it plunge into the bleak despair of six more weeks of winter? And just to make it a little more interesting, you have to include the word “salad” in your story…
Four Out of Five
I knew Larry Daltry. Knew him better than I ever knew myself. When you shared grief, it was easier to focus on the pain of a partner, I supposed. To focus on yourself meant you had to accept that you hurt too.
But none of that mattered. I knew Larry, and my instinct told me he would be on that hill overlooking the pavilion in Centennial Park, both places far too thawed for early February.
He was there, on his belly in the mud, behind a sickly shrub, covered with sicklier branches attached to his back and legs with wads of duct tape. Strands of leaves too green for the season wove around his head, making him look like he shambled drunk out of a bargain-basement nursery to pass out face first in the salad bar of the Pizza Hut next store.
But then there was the rifle with the high-powered scope.
Somehow, I knew he would have that too.
“Hey, Larry,” I said.
One of the branches, this one holding the only natural leaf, dislodged from its binding and fell to his side. “Hey, Jack.”
“Brought you some coffee,” I said, holding up one of the two cups I held.
He stayed quiet, thinking.
“How many creamers?”
I shook my head, knowing better than to fall for that.
“Set it down then,” he said.
Larry was a good man. A round-faced farmer with loose jowls and a black, handle-bar mustache that hung to his chin. He worked hard, loved his family, his God, his country and, on Friday nights, his Budweiser. But only on Fridays. Never Saturdays. Definitely not Sundays.
A good man.
I set the coffee down on the ground next to the arm steadying the rifle, stood and leaned against a tree. Steam rose from the tiny hole in the top of my coffee cup and wafted towards a slate gray sky that could go either way. I looked back to the rifle.
“The groundhog?” I asked. Hoped.
“If they ever get it here.”
My chest relaxed. “And if this don’t turn out the way you want it too?”
“I put a bullet square in his furry little ass.”
I nodded. No sense in asking whether a shadow or no shadow would give the groundhog another day. Larry wouldn’t tell me. Just like he hadn’t told me if he wanted heads or tails as he sat white-knuckling the arm chair and waiting for the coin toss to start the AFC championship game. And then at the start of the NFC game right after. He hadn’t told me, either, the amount of snow he wanted the first time I heard him call the channel 9 weather man a ‘dumb sum bitch’ after the New Year’s Day storm.
“Little extreme, isn’t it?” I said.
“You running with them PETA people now or something?”
I shrugged. “I do kinda like those ads they run with the naked celebrities.”
Larry pulled his eye back from the scope, twisted a nob. “You think they’re really naked?”
“Don’t know. Never saw the full pictures. Just the top shots.”
Larry stopped fiddling with the nob, pulled a tuft of dead grass from beside the gun and tossed it in the air. When it dropped straight down, he fit his eye back into the sight. “I bet they ain’t really naked.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” I said. “Sometimes just a glimpse is enough, though. Like with a woman’s cleavage.”
He turned his head, rested his saggy cheek on the stock and looked at me with narrow eyes. “You ever seen a full set of naked breasts?”
I couldn’t help but smile. “Once or twice.”
His squint-eyed inspection of me continued until he finally shook his head—at least as much as he could in that position. He went back to his rifle, twisted the nob again then took his finger off the trigger, wetted it with his mouth, and pointed it at the sky to check the wind one more time.
I followed his finger to the clouds that had shifted to the color of wet concrete. As soon as my eyes settled on the sky though, the deeper shades came hustling back.
“Bullshit,” Larry said.
“That cleavage is just as good.” His eyes dug into me and I didn’t like that, didn’t like how it stirred the fight deep inside me.
“Tell me what happens,” he said. “when you do finally see them in all their glory? What if they weren’t as beautiful as you thought they’d be? What if the damn females in the gorilla house at the zoo had firmer boobs? What if nothing turns out the way you thought it would? Everything kind of goes to hell then, doesn’t Jack?”
His eyes went tighter and it felt like my chest was between those lids. He had backed me down with that stare a thousand times before. Not this time. I couldn’t let that happen this time. “Then just live with the illusion and the hope. Quit trying to get that woman out of that shirt and accept it for what it is.”
“Nope,” he said. “Don’t work like that. Once the urge is there. You got to know. You got to know if that woman is going to be alright.”
I would not look away.
“That’s why it’s best to find out right away. Either way, good or bad, you know. At least you know. And man’s got to know, Jack.” He turned back to the scope, fiddled with the nob, adjusted his hips, planted his elbow deeper.
I wanted to tell him he was wrong. A man didn’t have to know. A man could be patient and in that patience something else, something more, might be revealed than just a pair of breasts. Something larger that you couldn’t see or understand when you were only focused on the curves. Just coming to understand that you had the chance to meet that woman at all should be enough.
But I didn’t say anything. The argument seemed so foolish, the topic so odd coming from a man who only drank beer on Fridays. Never Saturdays. Definitely not Sundays.
Larry still fidgeted, still tried to find just the right angle, the right grip, the correct bend of his elbow. Fighting. Fighting everything. Then he stopped. Just stopped and rested his forehead on the stock.
“We ain’t really talking about tits here, are we Jack?”
“No,” I said, looking at the clouds that now seemed as thin as the steam from my coffee. “I suppose not.”
Below, I heard the crowd. I didn’t know when the quick chatter of people excited to be up that early and out in the morning chill had begun. People gave directions. Things were moved and shuffled about. Metal shook and clanged and I imagined it came from the cage that brought the guest-of-honor.
“I lived here my whole life,” Larry said “and I’ve never came to see this stupid shit.”
I hadn’t either. Despite all the build-up, the posters and flyers, the news ads and radio announcements, I never came to see the groundhog look for his shadow and predict the future.
“You know how they go about doing this?”
“He’s got to come up out of a hole, right? They can’t just keep him in that cage. That ain’t natural.”
I wanted to have the answer for him. I really did.
But as I didn’t, Larry looked up over the top of the scope for a second, wiped something from his eyes then draped his forearm over the top of the scope as he stared off into the gray distance.
“They’re going to put him in a hole, aren’t they?” he said.
I couldn’t look at him anymore. I didn’t want to.
“Goddamn it, Jack. Is that what’s going to happen?” his voice was thicker now, scratched as if the branch he had stuck to his back raked each word. “They’re going to put him down in a hole?”
I felt his gaze on me, imploring. “I don’t know, Larry.”
“I need to know, Jack.”
I just nodded. Really wasn’t much else to do.
His gaze fell off me, like it plummeted off my shoulder and dropped into the with an impact I could feel. When I looked up, his face lay on top of the forearm draped over the scope.
I exhaled without meaning too and suddenly found myself too tired to stand. I sat down cross-legged next to him, my back to the party and foreign laughter down below. The gray above had lightened to a thick off-white, but I figured the granite lid would close over the top of us once again. If it did, I was going to watch it happen. I put a hand on Larry’s back, in the spot left vacant by the branch that earlier fallen.
“Come on, Larry,” I said. “Let’s just drink some coffee.”