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Friday, February 21, 2014

Heart Chants by Randy Attwood


By Randy Attwood

In the beginning was the wind. And when the earth came, the wind cared for it. And when the darkness came, the wind breezed across it beautifully. And when the dawn came and laid its lightness over the darkness, We, the People, were created. And the wind kissed our faces.

"You do have a hell of a view from here, Phil. The Kaw valley to the north and these surrounding hills," Roger said as he stood at the glass door that opened east to the second floor balcony off the bedroom. "The last glacier of the Pleistocene era, called the Kansan, by the way, about 600,000 years ago, carved all this out of northeast Kansas. Not good flat wheat country," he said, twisting his torso to look at me. There was a concern obvious on that fat-cheeked bearded face of his.
I was laying flat on my back, both feet elevated on pillows, but by turning my head, I could see the view Roger mentioned. I didn't comment about the Kansan glacier because I wanted to pretend I already knew all about it when, really, I hadn't. Roger knew so much about so many things that you didn't—then he told you about them in such an off-hand way—well, it made you kind of perpetually pissed off at him.
The setting sun caused the shadows from the hills to the west to creep up the slopes to the east. Some good things had happened since I moved into the house in early March. The University of Kansas basketball team, led by Coach Larry Brown and All-American Danny Manning, had won the 1988 national title. It seemed in celebration, early warm weather in late March made the redbuds and wild plums pop their flowers: daubs of reddish pink and white against the brown tangle of trees yet to leaf. Later, in April and May, I would stand on the deck every morning, cup of coffee in hand, looking east as the rising sun hit my face, watching, daily, as the increase of the green leaves covered the wooded hills across the way. I was happy to be out of journalism. I was happy I’d bought a bar in my old college town. I was happy the bar made me enough money to buy this land and build this house. But I wasn’t happy.
Instead of admitting to Roger I didn't know about the glacier being responsible for the hill upon which I perched, I admitted that someone else, lately near and dear to me, also had known more about other things than had I. "Deb was right about this one. She talked me into putting that small porch on this side of the house with the double-wide doors so I could see the view while lying in bed. At the time, I thought it was just one more of her extravagant design ideas. I appreciate it now."
"I told you Deb knew her stuff. I still don't understand why you two split up."
He turned to view the scene again and I spoke to his pot-bellied profile.
"Surely you've heard that designing and building a house is the ultimate test of any relationship. I encountered the corollary: when your house designer becomes your girlfriend, she'll become your hated enemy after you occupy it."
"Must be your fault. Deb's too sweet for it to be hers. Did I tell you my joke for these times?"
He was right about Deb, but I didn't want to tell him the details.
"Please, no. It hurts like hell when I laugh."
"Cracked ribs?"
"Two of them. So, please, no."
"Guy sees a beautiful girl walking down the street, walks up to her and asks, 'Wanna screw?'"
Even without the punch line it hurt. Not because of the ribs, but because Deb had been one of the few women I asked to go to bed with me on the same night I met her; and she had been one of the ever rarer ones who said yes. Roger arranged that blind date. I had been looking for a house designer, so that's all Deb and I talked about over dinner. I liked her ideas and approaches to things. I liked her body, too. Small, compact and as efficient as the designs she talked about. I sort of suspected, at the time, she let me sleep with her to get my business. But then I'm a cynical former newspaperman.
Roger continued the joke: "Girl replies: 'My place or yours?' He says: 'Hell, if you're going to argue about it, just forget it.'"
I kept it to a chuckle, but even that brought tears to my eyes. Pain from cracked ribs produce a long-term debilitating hurt, accompanied by short, sharp knife stabs. Every time you breathe. A lot like being in love. And I’d failed at that more times than I cared to remember.
"And they stomped on both your ankles?"
I pointed to my feet wrapped in ace bandages, surrounded by ice bags, resting on pillows. It also hurt when I raised my arm.
"Didn't break 'em, though. I'm tough."
"Can you walk?"
"I crawl fine. Humbles one. Would be good for you, Roger, Mr. Know-it-All."
"Get you a beer?"
"Makes me crawl to the bathroom too much. Scotch. The Glenfiddich. And on the rocks, Mr. Purity-You're Supposed-to-Drink-it-Straight. A double. Admire my new bar for me. I did all the work myself."
I listened to Roger walk down the stairs, reach the large, vaulted-ceiling sitting room and open cupboards in the bar area. If I couldn't enjoy my new house, I could at least learn the sounds it made as people walked within it. I heard a creak and that surprised me. The floors were solid over a joist system that was supposed to be soundless. I wondered where he had stepped. When I could walk again, I'd have to find that creak, find what was causing it.
I started to yell at him to forget the ice in my Scotch, that I would drink it the way he said I was supposed to; since the ice would water it down and that would increase my fluid intake and thus the need for me to crawl to the bathroom. But when I breathed deep to make the yell, the sharp pain made me shut my mouth.
Had I not gotten into a royal, pissed-off-for-good, stomp-away-I'll-never-see-you-again fight with Deb, that compact efficient body would have been here to look after me. I could have used the sympathy, too. Roger didn't do sympathy well at all.
He came back in the room holding two glasses of scotch in one hand. His fat thumb dipped into the glass with ice—mine—and his index and middle finger dipped in the other glass—his. Under one arm he carried a big firm pillow from the downstairs sofa.
"Want to try and sit up to drink this?" He handed me the glass of Glenfiddich and sucked on the thumb he pulled out of the scotch. "I couldn't find a straw."
I did the painful sidewise roll and used an elbow to start the agonizing process of lifting my torso. He put the pillow behind me. Sweat popped out on my forehead.
"I think I'm about to become a three-time loser," Roger said, then sipped from his glass, turning blacker the tips of his uneven mustache as they, too, soaked up a bit of scotch.
So that was the cause of the look of concern on his face.
"Oh, shit, Roger, I'm sorry. I thought you and Barbara were solid."
"I thought so, too. But I can tell it's coming. Christ, I've had enough experience. My fault. I'm too critical. I know that. I try to change, but I can't."
"Roger, you're not too critical. You're just a pain-in-the-ass, know-it-all. High IQ, well-read people with amazing memories are like that."
"Yeah. It's hard to learn to shut up when you know the answer. Especially when you see people messing up because they don't understand the truth about things and especially about themselves. Like your bar downstairs. I'll bet Deb told you to run it the other way. But, no, probably the one thing you thought you really understood was bars because you are a bar owner."
Pain-in-the-ass know-it-all, he didn't know when to shut up. Deb did tell me that if I ran the bar in the opposite 90 degree direction, it would provide a welcome break for the flow of the long space between the kitchen and the sitting room. I had argued it would interrupt the flow of the room. After it was built, I realized I was talking about flow of people, not space. And there wouldn't be that many people. The way I did it meant visitors standing at the bar or whoever was making drinks, namely me, couldn't enjoy either the view of the sitting room and the hills beyond, nor watch what was going on in the kitchen.
"Screw you, know-it-all," was all that I would admit to Roger.
"Did you get any licks in at all?" he asked me, sitting in the reading chair by the bed and resting his drink on one of its wide wooden arms.
"Maybe one. They were like Kung Fu gnats swarming around me."
"With a hell of a sting. Tell me about it one more time."
I took a drink through puffy lips. My right eye was black.
"Last night, after I closed up the bar, I went to the Jazz House like I do on Saturdays to listen to Johnny and his group. Did you know they got a gig in New York? Lawrence, Kansas, won't get to hear them much more, I'm afraid. Anyway, when I left, I used the back steps down to the alley next to the municipal parking lot. I'm coming down the steps and I hear someone running."
I paused to take another drink, the cracked-rib pain from swallowing adding a new dimension to the glorious tang of the scotch smell-taste.
"Out of the darkness of the alley and into the streetlight, I see this Chinese girl come running. What a sight! I mean she was gorgeous. Terrified, but gorgeous. Long hair flying behind her and she sees me. 'Please, can you help me, please,' she says. Then I hear other running footsteps and three Chinese guys show up. So, of course, Mr. Hero steps in front of them and she moves to the other side of me. She runs. Smart girl. The three started to bolt after her, but I put my body in front of them and we all go to the ground.
"I think that pissed them off. They sprang up and made those Bruce Lee noises and pretty soon I'm getting bitch-slapped by hands and feet I never saw coming. One of them swept my feet and others stomped on my ankles as I rolled around and then they went on their merry way. It wasn't elegant, like you see in the movies, but it sure as hell was effective." I paused to sip at the blessed alcohol.
"Somebody else finally left the jazz house and found me. Ambulance, hospital, x-ray, cops, police report and pain pills; couple of which I could use right now. Open that damn child-proof bottle for me, will you?"
He obliged and I took two of the capsules with the next swallow of scotch.
He studied the label on the bottle and frowned. "Should have been just one and no more alcohol for you."
"So Johnny sticks with me at the emergency room and when I'm finally released and the police are done with me, it's 5 a.m. He gives me a ride home."
"No clue what it was all about? If they're students at the University, shouldn't be too hard to find them. How many Chinese are there?"
"Quite a few, actually. I did do some calling around today. About 200 from the People's Republic, more than 100 from Taiwan and about 20 from Hong Kong. And it's just my assumption they were Chinese. Could be elsewhere. The language was Chinese, but I couldn't identify the dialect.
Roger rose from the chair to pace the room. He stood a little straighter and that told me how disturbed he was. More disturbed than knowing his wife was about to leave him. He could understand, predict his wife leaving him. But I recognized that strange taut silence that inhabited his body when he didn't know the answer to a thing or couldn't predict the flow of the future. And he sincerely cared about people, so you forgave him his superior intellect. For a second, I thought maybe my condition caused his concern, inexplicable as the attack had been, but I was wrong.
"Another Indian girl's missing, Phil."
"That's two now, isn't it."
"In two months. No bodies found. Yet. Officially, it's another missing person's case. The police still take the attitude that Indian students from Haskell run off all the time. But Navajo aren't solo runaways. Being in a group is too important to them, especially girls."
"Both have been Navajo. Could just be the odds. Highest percentage of students at Haskell are Navajo. Both had friends, left behind too many personal possessions to be runaways. Got to be kidnappings. When I was in law school, I did a summer internship in a law office in Gallup. Did a lot of reading into Navajo culture and Native American sovereignty rights. Word gets around. I began to represent Native Americans around here. Some of them came to me asking if I could help make the police investigate more. But, hell, there's not much they can do unless a body turns up. Shitty thing, isn't it, hoping a body will turn up? They're all upset and angry. Not a good combination. The Navajo believe in this cause and effect deal. They don't like having these ugly effects without understanding or knowing the cause. I'm afraid it could be a serial killer with a thing for Indian girls. And one of my clients has a daughter whose Navajo girlfriend is really spooked. I've talked to her and I've got a favor to ask."
"What's that?"
"I'd like to hide her out here."
"Out here?"
"Sure. The kidnapper must be prowling the Haskell area. He wouldn't be prowling around here. And she's really shaken. Something going on she won't tell me about. And you could use the help now that you're laid up. How about it?"
"Well, sure. If that's what you want," I said as I watched him walk to the window on the other side of the room that looked out over the drive up to the house.
"That Chinese girl. You said she had really long hair?"
"Down to her butt. And we're talking a tall girl here."
"Really beautiful?"
"Stunning. Even features. Sexy mouth. Full lips. High brow. Why?"
"She's walking up to your front door."

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