Saturday, January 15, 2011

Gladys and Guns

Gladys stood in the very window from which he shot a man in cold blood. At least that is what the sign said. As she looked down at the neatly poured gravel, her skin crawled and her soul pulled back from the evil. It was evil.

The window was in a courtroom, the one she stood in at that very moment. It was the courtroom where he had been pulled into, she imagined, with a defiant look on his face—the face of evil. It was the courtroom where he had been convicted of killing again, just before he killed again. Multiple murders—some say twenty-one, others nine—but all in all a disturbing amount of guilty and innocent people who had been shot by a ruthless young man who considered their souls and their families worth nothing more than bills and coins. They were the bills and coins that might get him a plate of beans and beef and beer and perhaps a quick lay with a whore whose body was even cheaper still. Or perhaps it was for a new saddle or enough to feed his Regulators a good steak dinner before they went on yet another rampage-for-hire.

The courthouse—of the courtroom and the window where Gladys stood—had its porch steps on the lip of a two-lane paved road that curved solemnly through this tiny town. A few buildings were stacked on its right and on its left, and a few more were huddled across the street. It was a quiet and desolate town—nearly dead. But it was not nearly as dead as the former residents, whose blood had stained the soil through many bitter battles. Bitter, bloody, fiery, and tenacious battles had been fought here by the gunmen of the cowardly merchants.

This quiet, nearly dead burgh had once been labeled the most violent street in America. The year was 1881. Billy the Kid and his crew had been hired here. One stubborn, willful merchant had hired one gang, while the other stubborn, willful merchant had engaged another.

Gladys was struck by the bronze plaques placed around town: a family had been burned out of their home here and never rebuilt; a shoot-out took place on this empty lot; men holed up in this brick structure for hours until the raiders had finally left. Tiny bronzed monuments told story after story of death and guns, and guns, and guns. Here is where the gunman had a post office box. Here is where the gunman used to sleep. Here and here and here and here.

Some might call this a colorful history. Gladys saw only one color: blood-red. She had to get out of that courtroom quickly. As she drove away, away, and away she determined she would never come back.

Gladys arrived at home, relieved to be there, relieved to be away from the violent history she had explored just hours earlier. At least she seemed safe here. At least.

She sat down on the couch, petted her docile, non-violent cat and picked up some light reading. Perhaps that would shift her mood.

She felt a slight vibration in the floors then a muted blue flashed on the walls. A light bulb must have gone out. She arrested herself from the duty of reading just long enough to check the lighting. It was fine.

Then Gladys smelled the rain. Ah, one plus one plus one is three. Thunderstorms in the mountains fairly run up behind you.

She went to the screen door and was greeted by the sweet smell of rain and its cooling touch on the air. She loved these moments. Gently downward, downward came the rain. Closing her eyes, Gladys let her compensatory skills heighten the sense of smell and touch. Tender sweetness. She took one long deep breath, inviting her lungs to fully experience this event with her. They appreciated it, she thought. What set of lungs would not welcome a mountain monsoon?

As she returned to reading, she left the door to her olfactory senses open, not wanting to completely dismiss the soft and gentle conversation between the raindrops and trees.

After Gladys finished her nightly reading, she picked up other evening duties, obliged to finish them. There would be other storms to enjoy. Occasionally, the various housekeeping noises would drown out the rain. Most significantly it was the other waters being forced unnaturally through the pipes, upward, upward to her apartment faucet. It sounded like the voice of her boss shoving tasks down her throat as if she were a mechanical wood chipper. She put that out of her mind immediately. She would not permit that world to lay siege to her tower. The drawbridge was raised, no further access was permitted.

At various times, the distant thunder would remind Gladys that it had something more to say. By the time she finished home tasks, she discovered she was weary and ready for the comfort of her bed. She brushed her teeth, checked her alarm, and lay down, feeling her guts fall against her spine. Gladys pulled the covers up to her chin as if they were a great shield which bullets could not penetrate. This was one of her favorite times of the day: when all was done and her muscles no longer had to work their magic of suspension and exertion. The light was put out by her hand and darkness was charged to take its post for the night watch.

My soul waits for Thee, oh Lord. My soul waits for Thee more than the watchmen for the morning, more than the watchmen for the morning.

As her eyelids began to descend for the final time, Gladys saw the muted blue flash through her bedroom window. Her eyes closed as she listened to the gently falling rain.

Sleep had nearly covered her completely when the impact of gunpowder in barrel exploded outside her window and she jolted up in bed. Several more explosions ripped through the still night air in rapid succession. Primitive flight reflex shot through her entire body. Her thoughts went directly to a night one year earlier. On that dark and still night, her slumber had been arrested when she heard a wild thumping below her window. This had been followed by one sharp crack.

Fervent, angry voices were echoed by gasps. It amazed her how quickly violence could fill so much space. Within seconds she came to realize that men were beating each other outside her window; that a shot had been fired outside her window; that blood was being spilled outside her window. It was terrifying to hear, and yet how much more terrifying to experience?

Voices of neighbors sliced through the thick, violent air yelling for calls to be made to 9-1-1. Men leveled roaring threats from their balconies as they looked down and saw their neighborhood being robbed of its peace. She heard the abrupt and heavy thumping in the sod of running feet as sirens circled closer and closer.

Hearing the voices of authority as police filled the courtyard Gladys cautiously got out of bed and edged close to her window. Sensing that the immediate danger had fled their domain, many neighbors leaned over their precipices observing the police investigation. She could see dark patches of fluid on the concrete and realized it was blood. The smell of violence was everywhere. This is the instance that lunged from her memory when she heard the sharp crack in the rain.

It took Gladys several seconds not to hear beating, gasping, or running. And then she realized the truth of the matter. She lay back on her bed and laughed out loud. No longer distant and now ripping its words just over their heads, the thunder had something more to say: Datta, dayadhvam, damyata. She knew what it was saying: God is in charge! God is in charge! God is in charge!

Gladys hadn’t felt such absolute delight and peace for a very long time. He was still in charge—the thunder said so!

Copyright M.R.HYDE 2010

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Gladys and Age

Gladys did not recognize the woman in the photograph. The woman was Germanic. The white skin was in crisp contrast to the mountain and the lake around and behind her. The pants rolled up above the knees revealed the stark Caucasian skin, which seemed to have been rarely touched by the sun. The woman’s arms were striped like a farmer’s. The short sleeves of the shirt betrayed the confidence of usual modesty, revealing the difference between under and overexposure. But the arms still seemed strong. It’s just that the skin looked a wee bit tattered.

This was definitely a woman over middle-age, so there was forgiveness for the corpulent torso sustained by thick legs. She must have had several grandchildren by now. How delightful. She seemed to be enjoying the small child splashing in the water next to her, while completely ignoring the fact that she was quite unfit.

Of nearly equal hue to her legs was her hair, almost as white as snow. It kind of tumbled around her forehead and cheeks with a whisper of coverage for what some might call a “sturdy” neck. Definitely Germanic.

After a few brief seconds of perusing the photo, Gladys was struck by the realization that she knew that child! It was her niece. If that was her niece who then was the woman? That question did not hang in the air for long.

She was the woman in the photograph! Gladys had been looking at herself with the kind of bland curiosity that comes when you are the visitor and your host pulls out a photo album. The shock of this self-revelation was like a lightning bolt that might strike when, just before you begin to yawn and reach for your sweet tea, you realize that this stranger has pictures of you they really should not have.

But here there was no stranger, no home visit, and no voyeurism. Gladys was looking at herself. This kind of self-awareness was rarely welcome or sought after. Yet she felt a certain sense of relief that her thoughts had not been repeats of the nasty comments of beauty pageant judges. That was a consolation.

But then some recrimination did begin. Though not bitter, it pressed like a dull paring knife. She really needed to lose weight. If only her skin were not so blazing white. She really should not wear those pants again. Familiar recriminations. Practiced patterns. But here was a new one: She was older!

Gladys had not fully realized she was quite so middle-aged. The gallons of lotion needed for her sagging skin spoke volumes about this, but she had been ignoring that. The diminished endurance had also been whispering behind her back. But this photo! Well, it just sealed the deal. No matter how many times her elderly friend with Alzheimer’s had admonished her not to get old, she could not avoid it. What would another twenty years do to her?

Yet something else drew Gladys back into the photograph. She took a good hard look at herself this time and at the child. Captured on her niece’s face was a look of pure hilarity and joy as her aunt chased her in the shallow water. And on her own face real happiness danced.

All the years of fretting about how she looked—or did not look—really were not worth any of that effort. Gladys was now content to be where she was, middle-aged and happy.

Yes, there were still the desires of youth and fortune, but those were familiar chimes on the great broad porch of her life. The breeze would continue to waft by and there was plenty of room for friends and family. Iced tea was always easy to share with visitors. And she would cross the seventy-year-old bridge when she got to it.