Robert Penn Warren and Orange County Blue

A Short Story by Brian Michael Barbeito

We were old.

Wind came in with small threats and played games with the drapes, a print of orchids and some other green affair that looked to me like kiwis. Sadie was arranging some items on a desk and I noticed there was a cricket on the window. I was thinking of Jung’s scarab beetle.

Penny for your thoughts, Sadie said.

I wasn’t thinking of anything.

Did you ever imagine we would meet like this? With take-out coffee in Orange County?

No, I replied, I didn’t, and what’s more, I had archived us to an anachronistic appendix of the cosmos that nobody reads.

Too funny. Do you like Orange County?

Yup. Orange County. I like the drapes.

Sadie finished adjusting whatever she had been adjusting on the desk and sat down. Outside part of the sky that covered the distance had turned dark blue and was possibly pregnant with rain. I put my feet up on a third chair that sat between us. There was always something between us. Two things actually. One a connection and the second the thing blocking the connection.

Speaking of reading, said Sadie, Why did you bring that book back? Did you read it?

I don’t need it. Didn’t read it. Had it for twenty years and took good care of it. A couple times I opened it and read the cursive notes at the tops of the pages. All the way from The Baylor School Tennessee to me and now back to you. Amat victoria curam.

Don’t forget it, she said.

Nah. I hardly forget anything. You know that.

But still, Sadie replied pensively, that’s a curious way to handle a book.

I’m a curious cat. And books are books. They should have human rights. And nobody should write in cursive in them, but it was you…

Yeppers. Hey. It’s the book that was never read.

Ya. It is that.

Then I looked back out the window and the cricket was gone. Nobody had mentioned a cricket or a song or anything connective. The dark blue part of the sky had become even darker. Sadie and I had taken different paths and there was not a lot to say.

Sadie packed up the book and at the door. One more question, Hayden.

Shoot. Anything.

Did you keep a copy of the book you wrote about me?

Yeppers, I said, imitating her talk. It’ll be the second book that is never read.

Sadie grinned and left and I thought of how old we were and on all the funny things people sometimes do when they are young. There went the muse again, down hallways in Orange County so many years later and maybe, I thought, the wind played with orchid prints and odd kiwis in all of the rooms everywhere and in some way all of the time and for everyone all over the great grand hyperbolic earth.

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Elevators

A Short Work by Brian Barbeito

The elevator workers were a naturally hard working, alcoholic, racist, and misogynistic bunch. But what could one do?–He tried to keep a low profile. Dealing with generations of ill-kept thought, banal amusements, and misconceptions–even hatred–was not his thing. He only needed the pay-check–what was the harm in that?- isn’t that what everyone did? One could not fight the world and one’s own battles at the same time. Jacob climbed the scaffolding and began to take the hardware off the walls on what they called a ‘mod job’ because the elevator was being converted to one that would be lifted by hydraulics. When working on the higher floors, Jacob really thought that the workers should be wearing harnesses, but there were no safety measures in place. On a break, looking out at the city, there was only row upon row of buildings. A mishmash of things–the utter uncreative mind had shown itself–rectangular buildings in rows–some not with any sense at all–off to the side– like afterthoughts–a monkey could have managed the design of the city, its infrastructure, and the rest–better than the engineers and architects–so called–that had put the mess together. It was not for him to judge though–so he curtailed his thoughts–and tried to drink his pink grapefruit juice. He adjusted his pen–in his shirt–which was really not a shirt, but the top of blue standard issue industrial coveralls. He looked out again. Then at his watch- a glance. Tick Toc. Tic Toc. He was resigned as much as possible to whatever the fates had in store. Looking again… All those buildings had elevators at one time or another would surely need some repair if not complete modification and beyond this metropolis there was an entire world. Things were looking up.

Night Worlds and the Tropical Hope Bird

A short story by Brian Michael Barbeito

In the nights there was a sense of surrounding trouble, a trouble that had no name, but waited there and sometimes it seemed to whisper strange thoughts from the curtains and other times it waited in silence by the closets and corners. It never quite materialized, this vague and corrupt thing, and in a way this was worse than if it had. The boy had thoughts that raced and his heart was as if a propeller twirled in his chest. He had the feeling that something was wrong, and that he had been lost somewhere along a line, but he could not understand where or when or why. He felt placed in the world, the way a terrarium keeper might place a rock or watering dish or reptile into place. Something had happened, something cosmic, something to do with his origins, he did not know the specifics of, yet the results of this happening were these vague feelings and night terrors. Why was it so? Why. Why. Why. As his psyche struggled and the nights rolled out longer and longer, he would sweat and thirst, toss and turn, and try as he might for sleep, it was not forthcoming. Outside, but not twenty feet away, the angry wind banged the windows like waves against a tall ship in old pictures.

Some nights his mother would check in.
What is the matter? She inquired.
Not sure, but it feels as if there is something here.
There is nothing. Everything will be fine.
Ok.
And, she cautioned, don’t forget to pray.

Uncertainty.

Isolation.

Intensity.

Dread.

Misplacement.

There was a nightlight, and nightlights in the hallway, and though these lit up a few feet, it was not enough light to make the night worlds seem any less strange or threatening. In fact, the odd shadows these small lights cast around the floor and walls made peculiar phantom like shapes that seemed to live on their own. What was more, the boy had one year been visited by an actual spirit, the spirit of another boy who had become lost on the after death journey. These were all things outside of the boy, and on the inside there were more intense worlds. He heard a loud vibratory buzz in his ears almost all of the time and could hear people speaking to him, warning him of things. He could not make out what they were saying, and sometimes the voices sang songs, but they were lamented, sorrowful songs, such as a choir might let out if it were told to sing a song of remorse or pity. What were these noises? What. What. What. One thing that sometimes helped to assuage the fears and noises of the nights was the thought of a colorful bird, a bird that traveled through a tropical forest singing its own songs. The boy tried with utter simplicity to imagine this bird and the song it sang, and sometimes, though not always, this helped in some small way.

At times he would even talk to the bird and then to the unknown threat.
Are you ready bird? Yes, you say? All right then. Ghosts, if that is what you are, come as you may. I am ready and unafraid. Bird here is also ready and unafraid. I would like to see you. I would like to see you fight. Fight. Fight. Fight. I am here. And unafraid.

Through the years the image of the bird he had adopted in the mind’s eye remained a faithful ally. Like old friends, the boy and the bird together fought the vague fears of the nights. Eventually the boy grew and the old turbulence of those post-dusk hours was replaced by more realistic and orthodox concerns. Time itself had proven to be, if not a gracious host, at least reasonable and somewhat magnanimous in its true character. It had let those cosmic evening tides level out some and the way was now more swimmable.

Lighter.

Daylight is strong.

Breaks the webs of night.

Stands well.

Lighter.

Light.

Well in the day.

Wellness.

Light.

As for the bird, it was hardly remembered save for fleeting moments here or there. But when it was recalled, it was assigned the status of guardian angel or at the least a kind and dutiful guide.

The Ashen Fields

A Prose Piece by Brian Barbeito

The highway ended there and all that was left was a small road that meandered like a half plausible thing out to the adjoining countryside. We went and went and went until that road fused seamlessly into a dirt passageway that met with overgrown shrubs wild as they were and other nameless and forgotten trees meshed with them and tall grasses to create a large wall that said we were nowhere. Still the sun went there and we walked around it all to a field that once housed a smart and curt fence but that was now broken and strewn along the ground like some sort of carcass or part of the ruins of a town left to be bleached and parched and faded in the hard and difficult and unforgiving sun. I felt thirsty and it was not a real thing, but a psychosomatic thing or else a metaphysical thing there being not much there for the spirit or soul to love nevertheless like. The fields contained odd tires and pieces of metal and cheap yellow mason bricks from some decade prior and bits of the corners were broken or cracked and the ones that made right angles were still intact, but had no home or hearth, no wall or frame or identity or family or love. I remembered other places where the harvest was near and ripe black crows stood around or hawks hovered spry and sure and in their prime while if the environs were looked at closer, even small yellow birds busy in their hustle seemed to jump around through the air and about the world. I thought back to driving through places where an old couple walked along the shoulder hand in hand making talk about things that the dusk can absorb and house and like; the dusk amicable and the old church ahead with a bell and a sign and a purpose while the woman wore a spring or autumnal jacket and the man wore denim and plaid and had a comb in his pants pocket or a carpenter’s pencil in his shirt pocket and he and she and the masonry of the church and even the hunger and vehemence of the hunting birds looking for small and stray game made the cosmos make sense. But this place with the lonely bricks at the end of the world made no sense at all and the sun began to bend down on the sky like it wanted to take a drink of water and the angles of its light were antagonistic to the eyes and to everything like a last gunshot from space and I squinted and thought that the world is not a pretty painting, but a place full of astute trouble and I felt the sounds of clashing pans though there were no clashing pans. If the sky had sounded thunder or some cloud cover had ran in and if the entire place had opened with a storm first with big warm water drops and then creating a momentum and a veritable waterfall from above, the air would have been cleansed and the sun’s malevolence blocked out and things would have been different. But no such thing happened and only the broken road and the broken bricks and broken fences remained staring back at me in the unkind and ashen fields.

The Sans Volume Ghost

A Prose Piece by Brian Barbeito

Always there were spirits whispering in my ears. Well, almost always. Much of the time I would say. And the plural is important. It was like they were a chorus. I didn’t think about other people, and what they experienced, but if I had, it is probable I would have thought everyone heard them. But it’s a funny thing if it were thought through all the way because the night I saw one, I didn’t hear anything. I saw much though, or enough to have the proof of the other world. Things happen when they happen and as they are meant to happen. Que sera sera. The night it happened I was sleeping in my room, and it is possible that outside the winds meandered down bricks and through the adjacent purple plum trees, then beyond wrought iron gates held together by big welds. Or it could have been a silent night, where the air was as if dead.

Roused awake by some type of inner feeling, I looked at the foot of the bed. This was a natural enough place to look, and there it was, a white being, transparent. It was hovering back and forth but not on purpose, not like in a movie. It seemed like it was doing that out of some type of nervousness. I watched for a long time. I would say five or ten minutes. It was talking and moving its arms. I could not hear anything though. After some time, I had a chance to think about what I call “the enormity of the situation,” though I would not have known that word then. A ghost. I started to get up and move from the bed. My phantom friend became very distraught at this and started speaking faster, moving its arms as if to say, “…No, please…please do not get so scared, and please stay where you are…” But I bolted and ran to pound on the door of my parent’s bedroom.

My mother came out and cautioned me that it was just a dream. I told her that she should capture this ghost, and turned around exclaiming, “It is right there in the room!” At that moment, it came out of the room and flew down the stairs, which cut at a right angle a third of the way to the top. My friend from the other world followed this stairway and I watched, while yelling, “There it is! There it is! Can’t you see it?” Then it went right through the front door and I never saw it again.

The Good Ones in Bad Places

A Prose Piece by Brian Barbeito

We were in a seedy part of a city, and it was amazingly and sadly plain how low the vibrations seemed to be. I was talking with this lady, a trustworthy soul named Carlene, though I could never for some strange reason remember her name while I knew her. She was worrying about bills, and how, if she thought about it too much, the idea of her bills would get her down. Outside, beyond the house we were in, the subway had a part where it went outside and you could hear its rumble and sort of thunder when it went past. To me, the place, filled as it was with strange people walking around, seemed old and sinister, or else young and sinister, was kind of like a light living hell. In fact, the first time I ever met Carlene, she shook my hand- with a firm handshake, not the flimsy untrustworthy handshake of some women- and said, “Welcome to hell.” Sometimes we were down by the local 7-11, sometimes other places–and even the parks and regular places were seedy, spent, devoid of light. I also met this born-again Christian there, and he was fearless- and I asked him how it was that he was fearless–and he said God protected him–and that is the only thing he ever feared–God. I dropped him off near the subway once. Someone was throwing glass down from a building near us. Glass smashing right there near the car. He looked at me and said, “Hey, we should go up there and see what is going on. They could hurt someone.” But I felt it would be like walking into a field in the middle of an infantry war and lecturing the soldiers on the dangers of guns. I convinced him to head to the subway and get the hell out of there. Then I left, drove away from that wretched place–to other places less wretched but still wretched. I lost touch with Carlene, and with the Christian. I remember that I had liked them, and that they had also liked me. But it was a terrible way–those streets and corners, those houses and the people around them, everything giving a feeling of dread, and just when you were a bit panicked and shaky trying to survive through the day or night, the subway train would come crashing through the world along the tracks, shake and rumble like the heart of the devil waking up, getting ready to devour the world some more.

Parlay

A Prose Piece by Brian Barbeito

I saw him there, and he was giving away twenty dollar bills to his friends. He wasn’t rich, far from it, but if he had, he gave it out. He asked me if I wanted twenty dollars, but I said no, that I had money on me. We were with his friend and this woman, and I went up to the seated area and we tried to order drinks. Everything seemed fine, but they wouldn’t serve us. We didn’t cause a hassle, and just took it in stride, and left. You had to sort of walk through the parking lot to get back to the main area. The lot was getting fuller and fuller as the day progressed. We just sat and watched the people. Sometimes, inside, a man with a program would be scouring it like it was an important ancient text he just found. It seemed that there were mostly men around, but there were some women. One man got very excited and started yelling, close to the end one of the races, Come on you sunobitch go come on you SUNOBITCH RUN!!!!!!!! After he lost, he threw the program into a garbage can, said some other choice words and disappeared out the doors down the way. We sat there. The man with the twenty dollar bills came back and I asked him how he did. He said that he had skipped that race, and was working on an exactor that would bring him some big money–that if he won a few large races, he could keep parlaying his funds (he liked to use that word parlay a lot) so that he could go to Alaska. Why he wanted to go to Alaska, I never found out. Then he said we were going to go down and look at the horses. We went to this area and they were walking the horses around. I said it looked nice. He said it wasn’t about how nice it looked, but that we were to look for specific things. Apparently we were going to watch for tail movement, and alertness, for which one looked like a good combination of calm yet ready, relaxed yet agile and spry–in short, which one looked like it was going to have a good race. This, combined with statistics, and which horses a horse was up against, would show where to put the money. There was a third thing also–some intuitive feeling or nuance that could not really be named, but I got the feeling that this third thing was not really a real thing (though I thought it did exist on some level) at work there, but only a wishful thing used to combat the chaos of not really knowing what would happen out there. It turns out though, that the twenty dollar bill man won. And he won pretty big. We were supposed to pay some guy he owed money, but instead we walked right past the guy’s house on the way home and kept walking. Maybe, I thought, we were going to go to Alaska after all.