July 3, 2011

Friendly to the People

This is a short story written by my nom de plume Bernadine Spitzsnogel, currently running on fictionique.com.  Yes, it is dark, but then again, so is life sometimes.  It is not based on any one person, nor is it true.  This is a story floating in Bernadine's head for a long time. Thanks to LC Neal for editing.

The rains came about 4:30 every day. Black and gray storms clouds rolled east from the Gulf. The skies opened and heavy raindrops assaulted the unpaved streets for ten or 15 minutes.

Victor stood at the screen door of his trailer to watch the storm. He saw the steam rise off the other trailers and the rain eroding the paint off the beat-up, yellow picnic table in the parking circle. Beyond the circle were the park office and two small ponds.

After the rains, the sun came out as brilliantly as if it were midday. Had the rains really come? The storm left bits of steam floating in the air, air so thick and humid one could almost grab a chunk.
Victor stepped out of his small home on Bird of Paradise Lane down three wobbly aluminum steps to hold court, as he’d done every evening for the last forty years.

He dragged his worn blue lawn chair out from under the trailer.

He carried his pen knife and a small block of wood. Victor carved crosses, birds, dolphins, and manatees out of blocks of random wood he picked up here and there. Many of the neighborhood children had an item that Victor created from his throne on the concrete slab next to his little home.

From his vantage point, Victor watched three generations of children grow up and move on, and sometimes come back with families of their own. Over the years, he watched the live oak on the far side of the circle grow more gnarly and unique.

Victor was from Kentucky, the Bluegrass State. He had injured his back in a coal mining accident in 1963 and left Prestonsburg for the Sunshine State.
On the day JFK was shot, Victor arrived in Florida. He bought an old Airstream trailer from the classifieds in the Tampa Tribune. He found a cheap rental spot at Twin Lakes Trailer Lodge. On the day JFK was buried, Victor and his brothers, Jack and Lew, anchored the trailer and added gray metal skirting around the bottom.

Victor stood back on the street and eyed his new home.

“Something’s missing,” he told Lew and Jack.

“You need a lawn chair so you can sit outside in this nice weather and be friendly to the people,” said Lew.

The three brothers went off to K-Mart and Victor bought his lawn chair.

The first evening after the brothers departed for Kentucky, the rains came and little tufts of steam rose all over the trailer park.
After the rains, Victor set up his chair in front of his trailer. In 1963, even a used Airstream shone like a diamond in the fading light of a warm autumn evening. Victor, with his empty Publix brand green bean can beside him for his tobacco, smiled and knew his life was good.

Over the years, Victor became an institution to the residents of Twin Lakes, and especially the children. Though Victor never married and had no children of his own, he was a father figure to the children of this small neighborhood. Victor knew much about Florida birds, and liked to watch the egrets and the blue herons on the two little ponds. Victor also knew everything about every child, who failed fourth grade math, who needed a new bicycle tire, who just got a new step-daddy.

An hour after the rains, the sun set and the street lights came up; the cool of evening released the adults from their homes. Neighbors dragged lawn chairs or stepstools over to the Airstream, chewed on the world’s problems, and the men enjoyed a chaw. The adults watched the children cavorting and made sure none got too close to the alligator that perennially came out of one pond or another to birddog an old, fat Muscovy duck that always eluded capture.

Sometimes, with the same knife he used to carve wood, Victor picked an orange right off the tree next to his lot and peeled it to share with whichever children lingered in the street. In December and January, evenings were too cold to sit out. Even on the coolest night when no one joined him, Victor sat in his Wrangler jeans and faded flannel shirt in his aluminum chair on Bird of Paradise Lane.

During the day, Victor puttered around doing little projects for his home, or the Odessa General Baptist Church where he was a member.

Over the years the rhythm of life in the little trailer court changed. The alligator that stalked the birds and ducks on the two ponds grew so big that when he crossed the road, he stopped cars. When the Fish and Wildlife people took Old Herman away on that hot summer day, they measured him at feisty 12-feet. All the children – and curious adults – watched the capture from afar. Old Herman put up quite a fight. That was a day Victor wouldn’t soon forget.

Antennas on trailer tops were replaced with cables and skateboards and scooters replaced bicycles. Victor’s hands became arthritic, and while he always brought his penknife and a block of wood outside, he couldn’t carve as precisely as before.

One of the familiar 5 p.m. Florida thunderstorms knocked down the orange tree between his mobile home and the neighbors. Victor replaced it with a small tree from the nursery, but it wasn’t the same.

Even the silver on the Silver Stream trailer was burnished to a dull gray with the passing of years.

The pain from his injury grew worse over time, and he stopped going to the Odessa church, ordered Meals on Wheels, and counted on his neighbors to bring Victor what he needed. Most days his old blue truck sat unused, as driving caused him too much pain.

Despite his pain, despite his struggle to climb down the rickety metal steps from his trailer, Victor never missed an evening outside.

Last week Victor’s brother Lew and his wife Rose Marie came down to celebrate Victor’s ninetieth birthday. They stayed at the Holiday Inn Express up on the highway, as Victor’s trailer was just too small for three people. Rose Marie brought Victor a chocolate mint cake from Carvel and the three of them sat around Victor’s pull down table and enjoyed the treat.

“Victor,” said Lew, eleven years his brother’s junior, “Rose Marie and I want to talk to you about something.

“You’re not getting any younger and we think you should consider moving into an assisted living facility. Rose Marie and I are so happy at The Village of Westwood, and we want you to come back to Kentucky and live near us and the rest of the family.”

Victor didn’t appreciate the suggestion, and his next bite of ice cream cake went down his gullet too quickly and gave him a biting headache.

“I’ll think about it,” he said, “But I don’t think I can leave my home.”

Lew and Rose Marie got in their rented van and went back to the Holiday Inn Express.

The next morning Victor got up early and pulled up the bedspread of his queen-sized bed, a specially-made bed that fit into the back curve of the trailer. He ate his usual breakfast of Raisin Bran with whole milk and a banana.

Still early morning, seagulls sought fish in the Bay, and called to each other in their special avian caws. As on other Florida mornings, the tropical air, light blue skies, and smell of bougainvillea taunted promise of a beautiful day to come.

He drove his old truck to a favorite spot near an old wooden gazebo that jutted out into Clearwater Bay. Victor reached into the pocket of his Wrangler jeans and unfolded a piece of paper which he placed carefully on the passenger seat, next to the gun.

A single, carved wooden cross dangled from the rearview mirror, swaying slightly in the light morning breeze.