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Rick Zabel

Copyright © 2017 by Rick Zabel

Table of Contents




Miles Orrick could see it coming. He knew that it would happen sooner or later -- that he would be asked to resign as an art teacher at the high school he had been teaching for over forty years.

Teaching was Miles’ life; indeed, it was his passion. He loved his students; they were his children. Although he knew he could never make a living as an artist in Paris or Greenwich Village, he could certainly educate creative young people to the naked wonder of art.

But as he sat in the principal’s office, expecting him to arrive with the bad news that he would soon be expelled, Miles couldn’t help but wonder what the future held for him out in the world of blandness and boredom which he had struggled to avoid ever since he picked up his first paintbrush and dashed it over a blank canvas. And as he glanced around the office, he felt suppressed by its overwhelming aura of rigor mortis: fake bronze frame portraits of Washington, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt with stiff looks upon their faces, staring -- judging and condemning Miles for daring to be rebellious and that he should be tied to a stake and burned like a witch for having something called an imagination.

Miles goal in life was to spread his message to primitive areas of the earth, and when a position opened up for him at a small high school located out in the sticks in the farm and factory town of Strawman, Minnesota, he thought it would be the perfect fit. However, after several fruitless years of frustration and failure, he found it to be poetic justice for him to wind up in a whistle-stop junction with such a name, for that’s what he felt like -- a man made of straw, someone who had outlived his usefulness, unable to convince young people to pick up a paintbrush instead of a six-pack.

At least he wouldn’t have to wolf down the daily high school French cosine each day at the cafeteria: macaroni and mashed potatoes; macaroni and green beans; macaroni and scrambled eggs. Those godawful noodles stared up at him like yellow maggots, reminding him of the days when, as a young student fresh out of art school, how tired he was of eating TV dinners and dreamed of strolling casually about the colorful cafes of the quaint European countryside, sampling fine wine and delicate food. And now, forty years later, as he ran his fingers worriedly through thin, black-grey hair which receded halfway up his head, he could feel the dream fading away.

Miles left his seat and went to the window, where he looked out at a heavy snowfall through his thick-framed glasses to reflect upon his years at the school. Angry at the thought of being humiliated, he began to stalk out of the office, but was stopped when the principal, Louis Stone, enter the room through a door behind his large, old oak desk. A tall, seventyish man with thin shoulders and a finely-trimmed beard which ran along the top of his jaws, the man who hired Miles years ago was now getting set to fire him -- just like that.

“Where are you going, Miles?”

“I’m leaving. That’s what you want, isn’t it?”

“No one’s asking you to leave, Miles. Whatever gave you that idea?”

“Well then, why am I here?”

“Sit down, Miles.”

Miles sat, and then slammed his hand down on the desk, knocking over a wire mesh pencil cup. “Damnit, Lou, we’ve known each other for close to forty years. I thought we were friends. I’ve been teaching at this school longer than anyone here. I deserve better. Why am I getting the axe?”

“Who said you were getting the axe?”

Miles slowly sat back in his chair and furrowed his brow. “What’s this all about?”

“Miles, I asked you to come here because I wanted to give you some good news.”

“What good news?”

“I received a call from some teacher friends of mine at the University of Minnesota. There’s a position opening up in the art department, and they asked me to see if you might be interested.”

“Why me?”

“It seems as though they like your work: Impressionism; Surrealism; Dada- ism; Arabic-ism -- all those isms you’re so well known for when you put your paintings and sculptures on display each summer at the state art fair. I gave you a strong recommendation, of course.” He noted notes Miles’ stunned look. “You don’t seem very excited about it.”

“I don’t know. I have to think about it.”

“Don’t think too long. There are other candidates on the list.”

“No, no, no. I’ll take it, I’ll take it.” Miles removed his glasses and looked down as he wiped his eyes. “It’s just a big shock to me, that’s all. I never expected something like this would ever happen to me. I’m so used to teaching high school art for so long. I don’t know if I can handle it or not.”

“You’ll handle it just fine, I’m sure.” He rose to shake Miles’ hand. “You better get going now. A huge snowstorm is headed right this way. We’re going to have ten inches dumped on us tonight.”

* * *

Sherriff Jett Steele paced back and forth, needling a cigarette in one hand, and pinching the temples of his forehead with the other. “Damnit, Barbara, for the last time, no! I’m not going to grant you a divorce. God, what would people think? It’s bad enough that they wonder why a forty-year-old-man still hasn’t fathered any kids. Now you want to make it look like I can’t handle a marriage, too.”

Barbara sat before her husband upon the living room sofa, clutching a glass of hard Scotch whiskey between her fingers as she looked up at him with moist, drained eyes. “You know I can’t have a baby,” she said tiredly. “What’s so bad about adopting a child, anyway?”

“Because,” Jett snapped, “I want a real child -- one that’s born naturally out of a woman’s womb -- not out of a goddamn animal shelter.”

“It can’t happen,” the woman sighed, drawing her hand over her forehead. “I did a bad job the first time, and you never let me forget it.” Barbara closed her eyes tightly as she struggled to push herself up off of the couch and wandered over to a wet bar, where she poured another drink and wolfed it down. “Ever since I had that miscarriage, you treat me like I can’t do anything right.”

“Oh, I do not.” Jett dashed his cigarette into a tray. “Maybe if you didn’t drink so damn much.”

Barbara wiped her cracked orange lips. “I didn’t hit the bottle until after I lost the baby,” she said, reaching into the gulf between her sagging breasts to pick flecks of cat hairs caught in her satin blue sweater. “You know that.”

“I promise I won’t blame you if it happens again.”

“Like hell. I hear you say it all the time: ‘You should have tried harder, Barbara. You should have gone to a better doctor.’”

“I don’t care what you think,” Jett said, running his hand over the shortly- cropped hairs on his head as he continued to strut nervously about the room. I’m still not going to grant you a divorce.”

“Why not?” Barbara threw her hands on her hips. “Really, when was the last time you and I ever made love? When was the last time we sat close and made plans for the future? Hell, I can’t even remember the last time we went out of the house. And quit walking back and forth like that. You’re making me dizzy.”

Jett popped another cigarette out of its pack and lit it. “I don’t get it,” he said. “What are you so afraid of? You’re only thirty-five. There’s still time. What makes you think you can’t have another baby?”

Barbara turned away, and then looked down, crossing her spindly arms. “I should have told you this sooner, I guess,” she said, somberly, “but sometime after I had that miscarriage, I became pregnant again.”

Jett allowed his cigarette drop slowly down to his side and wrinkled his brow. “You what? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I couldn’t get up the nerve.”

“You couldn’t get up the nerve to tell me you were pregnant?”

“No, I couldn’t get up the nerve to tell you I had an abortion.”

Jett stepped toward Barbara, raising his fist. “I ought to belt your head off. Why in the name of God did you do an unholy thing like that?”

“Because I would have given birth to a deformed child, that’s why.”

Jett stopped just short of Barbara, and then slowly dropped his arm. “How do you know that?”

Barbara moved away from Jett and back to the bar. “I went to the doctor. He took a close look and told me that I would be giving birth to a brain-dead baby, one with a head the size of a watermelon, with arms and legs twisted all to hell. So I had an abortion and had my tubes tied.” She turned back to Jett. “There, are you satisfied?”

Jett wrinkled his brow; he was in a blind stupor. “I don’t know what to say.”

Barbara returned to the sofa and slipped on her black tennis shoes. “Say you’ll give me a divorce. Let me move someplace where no one knows who I am, maybe even get a job, and just start life all over again.” She started over to the front door.

“Where are you going?”

“Out,” she said, grabbing her thick corduroy coat out of the closet.

“Out where?”

Barbara pulled her coat around her. “Anywhere. Just out.”

“You can’t do that. You’re half drunk. And look at the snow -- it’s starting to come down hard. You’ll get lost.”

“Don’t worry,” Barbara said, starting out the door. “I’ll be back.”

* * *

Before returning home, Miles pulled his car -- an old dark orange Beetle Bug he bought back in 1968 -- into the parking lot of a Wal Mart just at the far edge of town. People were scraping light sheets of snow off of their car and truck windshields; snow plows were shoveling snow off of the parking lot into large mountains placed at the corners; salt was being whirled around by salt trucks; and flakes of snow were falling heavily and haphazardly down from the sky.

Miles was ecstatic. He felt silly comparing himself to all of the great painters throughout the many centuries of great art: Vincent Van Gogh; Rene’ Magritte; Frida Kahlo -- and now, he smiled -- Miles Orrick. Until he learned that he was receiving an offer to teach at a famous college, he had no idea how much his art was truly appreciated.

He had to get back to his apartment soon in time to take the medications his doctors had prescribed for his weak heart. It was dangerous for him to be out in extremely cold weather for a long period of time, as he could get hypothermia.

Miles grabbed his crotch. An overactive bladder made things worse for him, and rather than run across the football field length of the parking lot into the store bathroom to pee, he stepped behind a tall hill of snow to relieve his aching bowels with a long, heavy sigh before they would explode.

Once inside the store, Miles pushed his way through lines of people at the checkout lanes, all of whom were anxious to escape the oncoming winter storm, straight to an aisle stacked with shelves of liquor, where he pulled out a bottle of imitation cognac, labeled with an image of women with pulled-up dresses, stomping on a barrel of grapes. He then wandered over to the Christmas decoration section. The $200 trees were sold out, so he settled for a much smaller one which would fit upon his window sill, as well as strings of pearly gray wreaths and blue and red flashing lights. After all, Christmas wasn’t Christmas without holiday décor, and it made him feel less lonely.

It took Miles over twenty minutes before he was finally able to make it out of the store and back into the parking lot, where cars and trucks spun their wheels over inches of snow and slide haphazardly about in an effort to leave the lot and return to their homes, where they were warned to remain inside during the storm.

* * *

Tony Steele stared grimly out the window of his cheap apartment, watching the snow fall in wild droves down from the dark sky. He wolfed down a hard shot of Wild Tukey and, standing in his sleeveless white tee shirt and boxer shorts, ran his fingers through thick strands of jet-black hair as he reflected upon yet another empty day of work as a janitor at the Church of Christ.

The worst part of being Jett Steele’s younger brother was being looked upon by others as being someone who could do nothing more than wash windows and sweep floors, rather than slapping cuffs upon and beating the hell out of anyone who dared to break the law.

Then there was his eye -- that damn fake glass eye he had stuck in one of his sockets as the result of shards of windshield glass which flew into it in an auto accident which killed their parents as a young teenager. He was looked upon by others as a freak, turning him into a social leper, vain and reclusive. The last girl Tony took to bed was a seventeen-year-old black prostitute who didn’t care what he looked like so long as he gave her plenty of money.

Bermuda -- that’s where he belonged. He would lounge on the beach, soak up the sun, and waste his life away to his heart’s content on tangy margaritas, wild women, and sweet song.

Tony didn’t want to answer the sudden knock upon the door, and remained where he stood, hoping it would end, until the incessant pounding drove him to angrily flip it open, where Barbara stood drunkenly before him.

“Well, look what the wind blew in,” said Tony.

“Is it okay if I stay awhile?” Barbara asked.

“No, I don’t mind. Just don’t throw up on the rug; I’ve done enough cleaning for today. The last thing I want is for some lush to puke their guts out all over the floor.”

Barbara plopped down upon the sunken couch, pulling her shoes off, and then smothered her face in her hands as Tony went to pour himself another drink. “What are you doing out so late?” he asked. “Don’t you know it’s going to snow heavy tonight?”

“I had to get away.”

“Get away from what?”

“Jett. We had a fight.”

“Again? What was it over this time?”

“Look,” Barbara snapped. “It’s not easy living with Jett. He makes me nervous with his looking at me all the time, and I can’t stand to sleep in the same bedroom with him because he smokes so much that I can hardly breathe.” She started to stand up from the sofa. “Can I have a drink?”

“No. You’re already high as a kite.” Tony pushed Barbara back down upon the couch. “So why did you come to see me? What do you want?”

“I want you to talk Jett into granting me a divorce. I want him to let me go, but he won’t. He’s like a Gila monster.” Barbara stumbled toward Tony and kissed him hard upon his mouth as she reached for the glass in his hand. “Please, just one drink.”

Tony shoved Barbara harshly aside. “I said no.” He turned away from her and looked to the floor. “Look, I told you before there’s nothing between us anymore. Besides, Jett wouldn’t listen to me. He hates my guts, just like I hate his.”

“You don’t know what it’s like being around Jett,” said Barbara. “He scares the living hell out of me sometimes. Ever since he had that nervous breakdown, he gets worse and worse. You know how crazy he can get.”

“You don’t have to tell me how crazy he gets. I grew up with the guy, remember?”

“He stays out late until all hours of the night, looking for someone to rough up for any reason at all. He’s a workaholic. I keep telling him, ‘Jett, slow down. Take it easy.’ But he won’t listen. He acts like he owns the whole damn town.”

“Jett does own the whole damn town.”

“He makes me feel like a complete failure.” Barbara closed her eyes as she pinched the bridge of her nose. “When we was going together, he always had his hands on my tits or ass, like he was sizing up a hog. And after I lost my job at the Salvation Army store for taking money out of the cash register, he said he wouldn’t stick me in jail if I would be his wife and give him a little boy. He didn’t want me to work; just to stay at home and raise the kids. So when I had that miscarriage, he acted like it ruined his whole life.”

“Jett blames everyone for everything,” said Tony. “When our folks were killed in that car wreck, he blamed me. I was only fifteen years old then, sitting in the back seat when it slammed into that stalled truck, and he said it was my fault just for being there. He’s as reckless as they come. You ought to know that by now.” Tony looked out the window at the snowfall. “Jesus, it’s coming down hard. You better go home.”

“Can’t I stay here?”

“No, you can’t stay here. Jett will come looking for you, and he’ll kill us both.”

* * *

Miles parked his car that evening in front of an old brownstone apartment complex, located downtown, and trounced through the thick snow up to and inside the building. He was anxious to celebrate his newfound success as an artist extraordinaire, and once inside his apartment, quickly popped open his bottle of wine before turning his record player to listen to Chopin, which he listened to while he painted. Books perched upon built-in cases on his walls were like trophies to him.

Miles needed the heart control pills he had aligned upon the kitchen counter. It was important for him to be sure and take six different medications every day: carvedilol to lower his blood pressure; captopril to pump blood; losartan to stop him from coughing; digoxin to control his heart rhythm; furosemide to help him breathe easier; potassium to replace electrolytes he lost after urinating; and inotropes to stop him from coughing and stimulate his weak heart to pump blood. Without taking these, he would certainly die of heart failure; and he had to take them with him wherever he went.

Miles first stepped into his art studio, which was filled with sketches, easels, paintings, blank canvases, and pallets. A wire mesh of a pregnant woman with her hands clasped over her stomach stood in one of the corners.

As a lifelong coinsure of the fine arts, Miles prided himself as being open- minded to various styles and techniques of paintings, including masturbation. Marcel Duchamp did it. Why shouldn’t he? However, after several failed attempts to create a genuine masterpiece, Miles decided not to encourage his pupils to drop their pants in front of a sheet of canvas.

The studio was a reminder to Miles of his hippie days years ago during the summer of 1967 back in Haight- Ashbury in San Francisco, selling psychedelic artwork on the streets while getting high on rolls of pot, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and making love with his live-in girlfriend, Michelle. He felt free and alive. But the counterculture days were long gone, and he often had second thoughts about having joined the establishment to teach high school creative arts.

No one could hurt him here, not so long as he stayed in his studio and world of art. Just like Paul Simon would sing, “I touch no one and no one touches me.”

A thunkety-thunkety-thunk noise from outside his apartment caused Miles to run over to open his door and see a woman sprawled crookedly at the bottom of the stairwell. He rushed down the flight of steps to help her to feet and back up the steps leading to his apartment, and then took her inside and sat her down at the kitchen table.

Barbara covered her face with the palms of her hands. “What happened?”

“I was just going to ask you the same thing,” said Miles, kneeling down before Barbara. “What were you doing lying at the bottom of the stairwell?”

“I don’t know,” said Barbara, groggily. “I guess I just tripped and fell.”

“You weren’t planning on going out, I hope. Everyone is supposed to stay inside, you know.”

Barbara squeezed her fingers between her closed eyes. “No, I didn’t know.”

Miles ran his fingers over a dark blue bruise on Barbara’s forehead. “I’ve never seen you here before. Do you live in this building?”

“I don’t know where the hell I’m at.” She started to get off her chair. “Listen, I’ve got to go.”

Miles pushed Barbara down. “You’re not going anywhere for now,” he said. “You’ve got a mean blow on your head, and you need to take it easy for a while. Just stay where you’re at, and I’ll heat you up some coffee. You’ll feel better.”

Miles helped Barbara off with her coat and placed it upon her chair, and then left the woman to rest at the table to pour a cup of coffee out of a pot and stick it into a microwave. “What’s your name?” he asked.

It took Barbara several seconds before she could reply. “Barbara.”

“Barbara what?”

“Barbara Steele. “Say, where am?”

“You’re in my apartment,” said Miles. “Where did you come from just now?”

“Tony Steele’s. Do you know him?”

“We’re not exactly what you might call the best of friends. I don’t like the way he comes home every so often with those drunken forays of his and keeps me and others in the building up all hours of the night. But yes, I know Tony. Are you a good friend of his?”

“He’s my brother-in-law. Who are you, anyway -- where are my shoes?”

Miles placed a cup of coffee before Barbara and sat at the table next to her. “My name is Miles Orrick. I’m a teacher -- no, I’m an artist. That’s what I am, an artist. I’m an artist who teaches high school art. And what do you do?”

Barbara gripped the cup with both hands trembling and held it up to her mouth. “I don’t do anything,” she said. “I can’t do anything, so I don’t do anything. I just . . . don’t.”

Miles took the coffee cup from Barbara and set it on the table. “Where do you live? Your family must be awfully worried about you being out in this storm. Is there someone I can call?”

“Call my husband and tell him where I’m at,” said Barbara. “It’ll save him from having to check out all the bars.”

Miles stood up from the table. “Okay, I’ll do that. What’s the number?”

“I can’t remember. It doesn’t matter.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means he’s a policeman, and he can track me down. No matter where I go, no matter how far I get, he always tracks me down.”

Miles stood by the phone stand in the next room. “You’re lucky,” he said. “It must be nice to have a husband who’s a police officer.”

Barbara smirked. “Yeah, lucky me.” She began to get up, and knocked her cup over, spilling coffee on the table.

“Hey, take it easy,” said Miles.

“I’m going to throw up.”

Miles rushed over to Barbara. “No, please don’t do that. Here, let me help you into the bathroom.”

Miles quickly helped Barbara over to the bathroom and knelt her down to the toilet, just in time before she began to cough up violently. He left her to fend her sickness for herself, and waved his hand before his face as he closed the door behind him.

There was something about Barbara which fascinated Miles. When he saw her lying at the bottom of the staircase, with her arms and legs twisted about, she looked like a wild animal caught in a trap which was trying viciously to escape: exotic, sensual. And when he placed his hand upon her head to feel her bruise, it felt as if he were molding a face with clay for a divine Romanesque statue. He had to convince Barbara to stay long enough for him to capture and express her natural beauty before she left him forever.

Miles stepped quickly into his art room and grinned widely as he picked up a blank canvas and placed it on an easel. That woman throwing up vomit in the bathroom: so beautiful, a work of art, Lady Godiva. He just had to paint that wondrous figure on a sheet of canvas for others to see and admire. It would be known as his Mona Lisa and hung in galleries all over the world.

Miles couldn’t hear Barbara gagging, and he went to rap his hand lightly upon the door. “Mrs. Steele?”

There was no response, so Miles knocked more loudly. “Mrs. Steele. Barbara, are you all right?”

Still no answer.

After a brief hesitation, Miles boldly decided to take it upon himself to open the door and was startled to see that Barbara had passed out, hunched over the rim of the toilet like a thirsty cat with her head submerged just inches above the brownish whiskey-stained water. He yanked her head out and dragged her over to his bed, where he laid the woman flat on her back. “Mrs. Steel, come to,” Miles said, shaking her briskly, and then slapping her face. “Barbara, wake up. Please wake up.”

Miles took one of Barbara’s arms, and then dropped it limply at her side before leaning down to listen to see if her heart was beating. He rose slowly from the bed and looked down at the woman for several excruciating moments before finally admitting to himself that she was dead.

Miles marched anxiously, jig-jaggedly, from one end of his apartment to the next, cuffing his hands over his face. Christ, how did he get himself into this mess? What was he going to do?

Miles stared, transfixed, at the woman who lay sprawled out upon his bed, with her head cocked at her shoulder, and her limbs dangling at the side. Did anyone see him bring Barbara into his apartment? He had to do something, and went over to the phone to call 911 for an ambulance. He stopped, however, when he realized that he would have a lot of hard explaining to do, and set the receiver down.

Miles looked up to the clock on the wall. Eight PM. He went to the window. The snow was growing heavier, and he could hold her with him until it ended and the roads became passable before taking Barbara out of town and leaving her somewhere in a large wooded area where she could never be found. But he couldn’t wait that long, for it would be daylight, and he could easily be seen. Car tracks would be visible in the snow. To make things worse, Barbara’s husband was a sheriff who was out looking for his wife. He could be just down the block, for all he knew. There was no time to waste -- it was now or never.

Miles kneaded his hands together tightly. He gazed longingly at Barbara, stretched out gently upon his bed: so pure, gentle, and full of life. He had to get rid of her --- fast.

Miles grabbed hold of Barbara and then heave-hoed her with her coat and purse on off of his bed onto his shoulder and over to the door. He took a quick look down the hallway to see if anyone was around, and then quickly hefted Barbara over to and down the stairwell, holding her body with one hand, while steadying himself upon the rail with the other. He started to stumble upon the carpet, but caught himself just in time by grabbing the rail, and held his hand tightly upon it for several seconds before drawing a deep breath and descend to the bottom of the stairwell.

Miles had trouble opening the tightly closed door, jammed shut by the cold and ice, and then was startled to see a group of holiday partiers headed up the front walk toward the building, with Miles able to be seen in full sight. He frantically looked about and spotted a large dark cubby beneath the stairwell, where he crouched unseen with Barbara’s body until everyone had reached the top of the stairs.

Miles stepped out into the cold, dressed scantily in only his shoes, white work shirt, and thin gray flannel pants, as he didn’t have time to dress warmly. Barbara slid off of his shoulders, and as he reached down to pick her up, his glasses fell off of his nose, and he had to stick his hand through the snow to find them. He cupped his hands over Barbara’s breasts as he dragged her over to his car. If only he knew which one of the cars parked out front belonged to Barbara, he could stick her inside and leave her there, and no one would know the better.

All kinds of ugly thoughts were racing through Miles’ head. He could just leave her outside the building, or drag her out into the middle of the street and let people think she was hit by a car. But he couldn’t stand the thought of his Mona Lisa being crushed to death by a semi-truck or shoveled into a mountain of snow.

So where could he put her? If he stuck Barbara in the trunk, the police would surely take a look if he were stopped; and having a dead body in the seat behind him would make him nervous.

Miles decided the best place to put Barbara would be in the front seat next to him where he would be able to keep an eye on her, and make it look as if she were a passenger. He had to pull hard upon the door of the driver’s side several times before he was finally able to yank it open. He then lifted Barbara up and shoved her inside. There was only one road leading to the forest outside of town, and he needed to get out there fast and back to his apartment before the storm got any worse.

No one could ever possibly find Barbara in the forest. It was like the Appalachian Mountains or a Louisiana swamp: ghostly, haunting, and foreboding. Stories were often told of those who dared to venture inside and never return. It was the perfect place to bury a body.

Miles placed his head upon the steering wheel and wept as he coughed. What was happening? He couldn’t believe that he was treating his Mona Lisa like a piece of scrap metal. Teaching art at a prestigious college was becoming nothing more than a pipe dream to him now.

Christ, it was freezing. Miles pressed his knuckled hands tightly together, and then wiped his palms upon his pants.

Miles eyes popped: He forgot to take his pills. Miles had to take them quickly, and he had to have them with him wherever he went. He instantly reached over to open the dashboard and ran his fingers through candy bars, little boxes of Kleenex, and road maps, only to see that the pillbox, filled with medications of all sizes and colors, was empty.

He placed his hands over his glasses and shook his head. What the hell else could go wrong? Miles had to get those pills. If he didn’t, he would certainly have a stroke.

Barbara tilted over upon his lap, frightening Miles, and he sat her upright against the passenger side of the front seat, leaning her head at a cockeyed angle against the frost-covered window. He then immediately opened the door and left his Beetle Bug to tromp hurriedly through the slush and snow back toward the apartment building.

Miles stopped, however, when, through the swirling snow in the brisk wind, he saw Tony staring at him from behind his apartment window.

Miles couldn’t go back. No, he could never go back. The police would be waiting for him. He had to make it to the woods, and then to keep going -- but where to, how far, and for how long?

* * *

Jett sat at the side of the bedroom bed, talking on the phone.

“You haven’t seen Barbara either, huh? No, there’s nothing the matter. I’m just worried about her being out in the storm, that’s all. Let me know if you hear anything, okay? If you see Barbara, tell her I said for her to get the hell home. Thanks.”

Jett slammed the phone down and shook his head. Where the hell could she be? He had to get her back. He wasn’t about to have people know that he had a rotten marriage. Christ, what would people think of him? Why couldn’t Barbara just stay and do her drinking at home where she belonged, instead of making a fool of herself by prancing around at all the bars?

Was she at her favorite bar, The Silver Hammer? No, certainly not in this weather; it would be impossible to make it that far with practically all the roads in the county closed. Maybe if he checked out all the liquor stores, they could give him an idea of where she went.

Jett ran his hand over the cover of the bed. Whatever could Barbara possibly mean when she said she couldn’t remember the last time they made love? Didn’t he give her everything she always wanted? Hell, he thought he was doing her a favor in bed. What did she have to cry about?

Jett smiled as he pulled the gold-framed wedding photo of him and Barbara off of the bed stand and held it in his hands. He remembered standing at the altar, having second thoughts about whether or not he was doing the right thing as he watched Barbara walk down the church aisle like a ghost who would haunt him forever.

He remembered her tossing her bouquet of roses to a crowd of anxious women, and afterward stand before a row of his bosom buddies who gave Barbara a friendly peck on her cheek, wishing her luck.

Then he remembered seeing Tony give Barbara a long, lingering kiss on her mouth as he slid his hand up her side and wallow it around one of her tits.

Jett slowly dropped his smile and gazed ahead. He then grabbed his police coat and rushed out the front door over to his squad car.

* * *

Less than an hour after taking Barbara from his apartment, Miles found himself driving down a road with a dead body in his car which he intended to bury in a forest just minutes away. Only a few more miles to go, and he would be free.

Free of what, though? He could never be free of guilt. He could never be free to come and go as he pleased. He could never be free to call himself an artist, for it was the duty of an artist to create, not to destroy.

Up ahead, blue and red swirling, flashing lights could be seen at the head of a dead parade of vehicles -- a road block.

The first thought that struck Miles’ mind was that the police were looking for Barbara. But no, they couldn’t be, for it was too soon for anyone to know about. Or was it? He remembered seeing Tony watch him stuff Barbara in his car. Indeed, how much time had elapsed since this nightmare began?

Miles hands nervously gripped and fumbled the steering wheel. He was faced with a choice, and he had to act fast, before it was too late. Cars and trucks were beginning to pile up behind him in a tight string, and if he waited much longer, he would find it impossible to pull out and escape. He would have to spend the night and risk the possibility that the authorities would discover Barbara in the seat next to him.

He looked at his Mona Lisa. She should be adorning the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, not slouched against the car door window of a wannabe Michelangelo who was trying to stick her six feet under the ground. If only he had a coffin. He could bury her in the cold, and her teeth and bones could last as much as a hundred years.

Miles edged his car closer toward the roadblock. He told his psychologist of a recurring dream he had in which he would approach a dark area, such as a mountain pass or an alley, where he would sense great impending danger, and then try to fly over it to avoid harm. Each time, however, he would be pulled down by something like a monster or a gang of thugs. The psychologist would tell Miles that such a fear was common, for it was only natural to be afraid of the dark, to have a fear of the unknown.

Miles shook his legs and grasped his crotch tightly, knocking his legs together rapidly. His bowels were ready to explode wide open. He couldn’t take it any longer, and pulled his Beetle Bug over to the side of the road to relieve himself, closing his eyes as he drew a long sigh. The uncertainty was killing him. He was running out of chances, and he was running out of time.

Miles thought about Plan B. Every situation had to have more than one plan: Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, and so forth. In this case, Plan B would be to stick Barbara somewhere in a ditch, and then quickly drive away. However, he would be leaving her in open view, and he wouldn’t have much time to escape.

And escape to where? During all the excitement, after realizing that he could never go back, Miles hadn’t been able to take the time to think about where he could go.

That led him to take Plan C. He would approach the road block slowly and cautiously, just like the other vehicles; and then, once he got past the police, if he should be recognized and told to stop, hit the gas and gun his car past the woods and over to the state line, leading them on a high speed chase through the wild snowstorm. Chances are they would shoot his tires out and cause his car to crash into a tree, killing him instantly. His life would end dramatically. His name and face would be plastered all over the papers and the internet. He may not leave the world with immortal nobility like Michelangelo, but he could go out in a theatrical whirlwind like Joan of Arc or John Dillinger instead.

Miles wiggled his family jewels. By God, he was going to do it. To hell with being ignored, ridiculed, and talked about behind his back. If he was ever going to gain respect and notoriety, then now was the time. He would never be looked down upon or laughed at by others. He would be a hero instead.

Miles jammed the zipper of his large pants crookedly half shut and turned back to see Barbara leaning against the front seat passenger window of his Beetle Bug, waiting for him. He entered the car and slid behind the steering wheel. “We’re almost there, Barbara,” Miles said, sticking the keys into the ignition. “You and I are headed for fame. As Shakespeare would say, ‘it will be as boundless as the sea.’”

Miles turned the engine over and let it run for several moments of truth while he stared ahead at the far-flung stream of lights from slow-moving vehicles leading toward the roadblock before turning it back off. Who was he kidding? He wasn’t Homer or Hercules. His only historic legacy would be to wind up as a news item in the morning edition of the daily paper for people to start the day off with a good laugh.

Miles began to cough incessantly. He was finding it hard to breathe, and wheezed as he closed his eyes and rested his head upon the steering wheel.

Plan D . . . ?

* * *

Jett kicked the door down to Tony’s apartment, and it slammed against the wall, with the doorknob creating a crater, making several shards of plaster scatter about the thin rug. He looked quickly about the small flat, and then stormed over to where Tony was sprawled face down upon the bed in a damp pool of whiskey.

Jett flipped Tony over and slapped his face. “Where is she?”

Tony spoke blearily. “Where is who?”


“I haven’t seen her.”

“You’re lying. Her car is parked out front. And what are her shoes doing here?”

Tony drew his hand over his face as he sat up on the side of the bed. “Okay, so she was here. But I didn’t ask her to come, for Christ’s sake. Anyway, she’s gone.”

Jett grabbed Tony by his chest and pulled him up to his face. “Tell me where she is, or I’ll pull that stupid looking glass eye of yours right out.”

“Get your hands off of me.”

“You’re fucking her, aren’t you? You’re fucking my wife. You’re both fucking around right behind my back.”

“You’re crazy. There’s nothing going on between us.”

“So why was she here?”

“Ask her yourself. I told you nothing happened. I never laid a hand on her. She came and she left, that’s all.”

“If she was here, you must know where she went.”

“Look, Barbara was drunk. She was out of it when she got here, and after your dear, devoted wife left, she fell down the stairwell, and some fathead who lives in the last room down the hall took her into his apartment.”

Jett started out of the room, but stopped at Tony’s voice.

“She’s not there anymore,” said Tony. “I saw him stick her in the back seat of his car and take off.”

“Where did they go?”

“How the hell would I know? He probably took her home. That’s where you ought to be, you know -- at home, waiting for your wife, instead of making an ass of yourself driving all over the place in a damn snowstorm.”

Jett stepped back to face Tony. “Who is the guy -- what’s he look like?”

Tony was trapped between Jett and the bed. “His name is Miles.”

“Miles what?”

“I don’t know. He teaches out at the school. His belly hangs over his dick, and he has thick black glasses, bald on top of his head, talks like a fag, and coughs his guts out a lot. The guy’s a real playboy. Oh, and he drives a silly old Beetle Bug, so that shouldn’t be too hard for you to track down.”

“I’ll wait for him to come back.”

“Why wait? Maybe he’s taking Barbara someplace where you can’t hurt her.” Tony laughed. “Hey, maybe they’re hightailing it right now on their way to Mexico. If you hurry, you can catch them before they hit the border.”

Jett furrowed his brow tightly and stared angrily at Tony for several seconds before he threw the palm of his hand under his younger brother’s narrow jaw and shoved him back down upon the bed. Tony laughed uncontrollably as Jett marched out of his apartment and into the storm.

* * *

At ten o’clock that night, Miles held Barbara’s hand with one of his own as he tried hard to keep his car straight upon an icy blacktop road which he had never driven upon before and led into nothing but a wild flood of snow. “God, Barbara, what have I done? What are we going to do? Where are we going to go? If we ever get out of this mess, I’ll make it up to you someday, I promise. Can you ever forgive me?” He smiled softly. “Who knows? If only we had met at another time in another place, things would be different. You would be a famous model, and I would be a renowned artist. But right now I feel so guilty. I feel just like you said you did with your husband -- like I’m a nothing.”

Miles turned to face Barbara, and when he did, his Beetle Bug slammed into a small pothole in the road, jarring Barbara away from where she leaned against the side of the passenger door and cause her head to fall upon his lap. Miles struggled to keep the car upon the road as it skidded and veered from one side to the other until he was finally able to manage to bring it to a stop.

Miles sat with his eyes closed and pushed his hands against his chest. It hurt for him to breathe, and his heart stung. He took a long deep breath before he pulled Barbara’s head up and held it tightly against his chest. Christ, when would this horrible dream ever end? Hadn’t he been wrung through the emotional wringer enough already? First he lost his chance for a prestigious job; then he lost the only woman he ever loved since Michelle broke his heart; and now he damn near lost his own ruined life as well. What did he ever do to deserve such a godawful fate?

Miles set Barbara upright against the passenger door and reached under his side of the seat to pull out a small ice scraper before leaving the car to shovel ice off of the windshield.

Miles hunched over the windshield, pushing the scraper hard against the glass, and then stopped, for it occurred to him that there was indeed a way out, and that was by train. Somewhere in one of these old and small begotten cow towns was an Amtrak station which he and Barbara could board and slip away forever, never to be seen or heard from again.

* * *

Wilma Swanson pulled her leftover paper plate meal of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and green beans out of the microwave and set it down on the coffee table perched before the sofa facing her fat twenty-year-old old Zenith. Driving a school bus and standing at a cash register at Family Dollar all day left her beat to the bone, and after waking up from a long nap she took after falling asleep when she got home, decided to leave the dirty dishes in the sink to wash the next day, or whenever she could get to them.

Wilma flipped through TV Guide. What would it be -- a late night talk show, the news? It was always the same old shit, and she would be damned if she broke down and bought those whiny kids of hers a 55-inch flat screen like everyone else got when they came rushing through the store like madmen each Black Friday. Since when was bigger supposed to be better?

Wilma lifted her glass of milk up to her mouth and then winced. Fat free milk always curdled more quickly than Vitamin D whole, and she couldn’t remember the last time she made a decent cup of early morning coffee. All she had time for at six a.m. was that instant crap.

Drawing her hand across her mouth, Wilma went to dump her cup of sour milk in the sink when headlights from outside flashed into her small farm house. Who would be stupid enough to go driving out in the country on a night like this? Even her crazy ex-husband wouldn’t disobey that court order to stay away from her and the children to go harassing them in a blazing snowstorm.

Wilma stretched the torn belt of her bathrobe around the love handles of her plump waist and knotted it into a tight bow as she walked over to the front door, only to be knocked back by Jett when he broke into the house and grabbed her by the shoulders.

“Jesus Christ!”

“Wilma, I need your help.”

“Help with what? What are you doing out this late at night, busting into people’s homes?”

“Barbara is missing.”

“So what are you coming to me for? How would I know where she’s at?”

“You drive one of the school buses. You know a teacher there named Miles?”

“Miles Orrick?”

“Is that his last name?”

“Yeah, what about it? What’s he got to do with Barbara?”

“He kidnapped her.”


“It’s true. I just came from Tony. He said Barbara was with him earlier this evening, and later after she left, he saw this neighbor guy of his Orrick drag her outside into a car with his hand over her mouth. He’s probably armed and dangerous, so I’ve got to find them before it’s too late.”

“Tony’s feeding you a lot of bullshit. Miles wouldn’t hurt anyone. He’s one of the sweetest guys I know.”

“He’s probably raping her right now.”

“Jett, I don’t believe one word of what you’re saying. I think you and Barbara had a fight, and she’s off sitting in a bar somewhere, making you look like a fool. So why not just go home? She might have gone back there by now and is wondering where the hell you’re at.” She led Jett to the front door. “Go on, I got to get to work in the morning.”

“The school will be closed because of the snowstorm.”

“Yeah, but Family Dollar won’t. Now get out of here before you wake the kids. Take your marital problems someplace else.”

Jett placed his hand to the doorknob, dejected, but then turned back to Wilma. “When was the last time you talked to Barbara?” he asked.

“Why do you want to know?”

“Did she say anything about me?”

“Like what?”

“Did she say she wanted a divorce?”

“Only a hundred times.”

“You told her to ask me for a divorce, didn’t you, just like you told her to get an abortion, too, I bet.”

“I didn’t tell Barbara to do anything. You’re the one who’s always telling people what to do.”

“Who stuck the knife? I’ll throw his ass in jail.”

“It was legal and it was safe, Jett. It’s not something she wanted to do, for Christ’s sake, but she had to have it done. Just think of how miserable life would have been for that child if she gave birth, being looked upon as a freak. It sure as hell wasn’t an easy thing for Barbara to do, and she didn’t say anything because she was afraid you’d have beaten her up.”

Jett threw his hand across Wilma’s face, and she placed her palm over her cheek. “Get out of here,” she said in a low, gravelly voice. “Get the hell out of my house.”

* * *

Close to midnight, Miles was close to the brink of madness as he drove his little Beetle Bug straight into the storm. Waves of snow whisked across the thin black top road, making it hard for him to see whether it ran straight or curved, and he knew that at any moment his car could skid off the road and tumble over and over into a wide ditch or a deep gorge.

But Miles had to keep going. He had to find the Amtrak station; otherwise, he would lose his chance to escape the hell he was in. Somewhere beyond the darkness, amid the web of tangled country roads had to be his passport to freedom. There had to be a place where he could start life all over again.

And then he saw it: a light -- a shimmering, hexagonal-shaped night glow which flickered through the sea of whirling white flakes, as if it was the Star of David.

Maybe he was walking into a trap, another roadblock where the authorities were just waiting for him. The word must be out by now that the sheriff’s wife was missing, and for everyone to be on the lookout for her. Miles could nervously feel the wrath of an insanely jealous husband closing in on him, breathing down his neck, ready to pounce on him at any moment.

Then again, perhaps it was someplace nice and warm, such as a motel, where he could spend the night. But would he have enough money? In his furious haste to leave his apartment with Barbara, he didn’t stop to see how much cash he had on him. And even if he did -- even if he had enough money to pay for just one night -- he faced the very real possibility that he might not be able to move past the storm the next day. And how would he be able to pay for the gas he was running low on that he needed to get to the Amtrak station, wherever the hell it was? Worse still, how would he be able to pay for a ticket itself? That’s what life would be like for Miles from now on -- nothing but choices and chances.

But what would Miles do once he reached his Lost Horizon, his Shangri-La? His whole life depended upon pills he needed to take for his weak heart. Where would he get and how would he pay for them? Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, senior citizen assistance programs?

Miles got close enough to the building to see that it was a large cabin-like tavern, built with long brown oak logs and mortar in between, just like the Cartwright’s Ponderosa in Bonanza. Snow was shoveled into huge mounds in the parking lot, where cars and pickup trucks with bumper stickers supporting politicians and school sports teams were parked. The roof was caked with a thick layer of snow, and long strands of icicles dangled from the rooftop gutters and upon the windows. A steady stream of smoke smoldered from the chimney. A neon light ad for Budweiser flashed in the window, just beneath a sign advertising itself as The Silver Hammer, and he could vaguely see people moving about inside.

Miles pulled his car slowly into the empty back lot of the tavern, making sure to keep it away from the glare of the light poles, and turned to Barbara. “I’ll be right back, Barbara,” he said, covering her with a blanket, before he left to trudge through the snow at the side of the building up to the front entrance.

He paused before entering. He needed help, and time was running short. He could no longer think straight, and the ugly thought of asking for money or even swiping cash and coins off of the bar and sticking them into his pockets entered his mind. But Miles had to do it, and now was as good a time as any. Miles wiggled his way through the crowd and sat at the far end of the bar, so as not to be seen too clearly by others, and was approached by the bartender. “What can I get for you?”

“I need help.”

“What kind of help?”

“I need directions. Can you tell me how to get to the Amtrak station from here?”

“That’s in Granite City, over twenty miles down the interstate.

“How do I get to the interstate; where is it located?”

“It’s down the road about two miles. Why, do you have a train to catch?”


“Train won’t run for another hour. Why don’t you stay here a while and warm yourself up? Have a drink.”

“Thank you. Maybe I should.”

“What’ll you have?”



“Yes, just a glass of warm milk.”

“Sure you don’t want something a little stronger? You look like you could use a good shot of hard liquor. How about some Southern Comfort egg nog? It’s getting close to Christmas, you know.”

“No, just warm milk.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’ll be all right.”

The bartender left Miles to go to the kitchen, and Miles removed his glasses and set them upon the bar as closed his eyes while he pinched the bridge of his nose.

God, how he missed Michelle.

Miles affectionately called her “Choodessny,” from his favorite book, A Clockwork Orange, which was a word meaning “wonderful.” It was what she called the peace sign he had engrained on one of her upper forearms, and much of the vocabulary he used during those festive years of the late sixties came from that controversial, groundbreaking novel. They were hopelessly in love, meant to be together throughout eternity, and if it wasn’t for that damned Persian cat, or “koshka,” of hers, they’d still be together.

Its name was Taffy, and he hated it with a passion unlike anything on earth. With purple stripes and a fat belly, it had an annoying habit, like other felines, of licking its hair, or “voloss.” It would then crawl upon Miles and Choodessny whenever they were making love, or “lubbilubbing,” and throw up. He kept telling Choodessny that she had to make up her mind whether it was going to be him or Taffy. She refused, and finally, after Taffy puked all over his turquoise sweater, he grabbed her stupid koshka by its throat, or “gorlo,” and threw it out the window. He never saw his beloved Choodessny again.

Miles had to pee, and he stepped into the men’s room, where he released a long yellow jet stream of piss into the small toilet. Specks of dark urine bounced off of the rim onto his pants as he closed his eyes and began to weep uncontrollably. Everything he worked for and dreamed of was gone and lost forever. From now on, instead of being a well-known artist, he would be a fugitive from justice, crouching down in ditches to hide from the police and begging for food from poor farmers. Christ, if only he hadn’t thrown Taffy out the window.

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