Picked Me a Plum by Ben Rader

The lady at the door takes one look at Cal and puffs out her body like a blowfish. She’s got on white leather pants; an earth colored blouse and a buttery scarf around her neck—over all of that is a royal blue robe, flowing, with little lines of white dashing down the front. As her body inflates, grows wider and wider, the little white lines grow into big, fat exclamation points without the points.

Her silk-covered shoulders begin to brush up against the jamb of the door. Cal rubs his eyes with his palms, the gray-dusting of hair on her head tickles the top of the jamb. He opens eyes: patches of pale slimy skin. The blowfish strikes again.

Thinking quickly he shuffles across the wooden porch, does the dance he's trained himself to do: a succession of ankle slaps, knee-highs, ups and downs, all the while smiling, maintaining his equanimity, until finally he stops in place out of breath and leans on the storm door. If she would only move to the side, or invite him in... He has every right; instead, she looks at him, up and down; smacks her creamy lips together. “Your teeth are becoming yellow,” she snorts. She flashes an elbow in his face and pulls some kind of plug behind her head. Duh Pfffffffft She deflates. “Wait!” he tries to say, but she floats backwards like a leaking balloon, catching the door with both of hands, slamming it shut.

He scratches at his beard with long, filed fingernails. Maybe she forgot the meeting; now, it’ll have to go a different way he wasn’t expecting and definitely didn’t want it to go. But that stuff in there is his by right. So he’s got no other choice. Yesterday Cal got hired as the in house guitar player at Chris’s Cafe in South Philly—his first actual job as a guitarist—and needed his guitar, amp, cables; for the gig. He was hired for the twelve o'clock slot, Tuesdays and Thursdays, right before the whole thing turned into an open mic night; he’d make something between fifty and a hundred dollars each day. He peels the foil from a new pack of cigarettes; lips one out, lights it. He leans down onto the last step before the stone walkway begins. The porch feels like composite, he’s pretty sure. Definitely not wood, now that he’s sitting down.

In front of him: a stone path that stretches fifteen feet from the porch to the driveway where two elephant-sized hedges sit. Behind them, two isles of rich, green ivy that run parallel to the walkway, back to this porch; and beyond that, a tarred driveway with little rises, dips, and cracks, at the top of which is a motorcycle with red flames and leather tassels, framed by the hedges. And beyond that, the road where the bus dropped him off and where, after this whole treasure fiasco, he’ll pick up again. The sucking sounds of its cars comes off in the wind.

But what about his copy of the key..?

…in the left pocket of his pants; he can stick it directly into the cylinder and open the door if he wants. But Cal knows that’s what she'll expect him to do, at first, so he’ll have to procrastinate. He pulls at his cigarette, lays down beneath the pillars of the porch, he doesn’t mind taking a breather.

The gray roof above him is held up on each side by four foot-wide pillars, and between the tops of them and the roof are bricks, stacked one on top of the other to keep out the birds; in all the pillars but one, where a spool of grass and branches spill over the edge. He holds his breath and listens for the sound of a bird but hears wind passing through the trees. He feels compelled to stub out his cigarette on the floor-mat; lifts himself up onto one of the benches. Dead leaves: he reaches out to feel: dampness and things paper thin, no nest. It’s probably better that way: the woman inside would crack open the eggs and slurp out the yolk.

So, a walk around it is: there might be an open window, a ladder or an underground tunnel. He takes a right from the porch to where the lawn begins, and walks round the length of the house which is four floors, each smaller than the last, and rising into one pitched roof, the right side covered by a see-through blue tarp with a company logo too far away for Cal to make out properly. Some of the siding looks new. Maybe aluminum. While all the rest is white paint, flaking and curling, and rich brown spots underneath. In the backyard, a children’s play set—mostly nails and rust—sits at the rim of the lawn, before the opening of a field.

He turns back towards the house, on the second floor he spots a window open a couple of inches, and lying below that window, a collapsed ladder behind a few bushes. This Coincidence is not lost on Cal:

He would pick up the ladder, prop it up against the house, his hands would reach the top rung, the ladder shaking below him, and he’d look down, thirty or forty feet up. He’d reach for the window and suddenly she would appear and retract her spikes. And he’d fall from the ladder and snap his back in half while she Blub-Blubbed aloft him.

Nice try, blowfish. So, the key it is he takes from his pocket, he throws open the storm door and gets down on his knees. It fits, with a slight click in the cylinder, then turns, but only about halfway. He tries it again; nothing. The key looks fine. Unless she’s changed the locks. Which is, overall, pretty unlikely. He probably bent the key when he sat down to smoke a cigarette.

So, a brick it is: this door has two horizontal rows, three panes each, of thin glass that would slither and snap quietly and without a big mess, and plus the bottom left pane is next to the deadbolt. He lifts himself onto the bench and again stands up on tiptoes and fumbles around for a brick, cool and dry to the touch.

The glass won't break until on the third swing.—When he raised the brick above his head and came down on the center, the glass shattered out towards him, the shards caught the sun and fell onto the back of his hood and into his hair. He shook them out and then he stood. He buried his arm up to the elbow inside the sash and squirreled around till the heavy bolt slid out of place.



Arpeggios from a guitar finger-pluck their way out of speakers and travel on the air over marble floor curving around a stainless steel island in the center of the kitchen, passing a broom, pan, cleaning supplies under the doorway; over the oriental blue and yellow rug in the living room, over which Cal now walks.

Willie Nelson’s voice fills the gaps: You crunch always crunch my mind. The acrid smells of bleach, cinnamon, curl up into Cal’s nose; his eyes begin to water for a moment as the room blurs into shapes of pink; walls, brown servers, tan drapes.

Cal consciously tautens his buttocks, aware that the lady is slithering somewhere, with poison fins to pierce him at any moment, and could be bubbling behind the mahogany table to his right, waiting to catch his ankles in her mouth under the wooden server on his left, maybe clinging to the walls. Leaving a resinous goo. But the joke would be on her as she’d have to clean the wall herself.

He moves to the kitchen; the music crisper, clearer and louder. Piles of dust on the floor warn him not to walk through, and at the small wooden hump where the living room becomes the kitchen, Cal pauses, espies an ashtray sparkling like a tooth after a visit from the dentist Ding. On the kitchen table, bottles of Fantastic, Windex, Bleach, Lysol; sponges and rags; buckets of water; a red candle. Thursday: cleaning day. Maybe I didn’t hold you all those lonely, lonely times... Cal dislikes that he knows these lyrics and can play the tune in his sleep. So much sentiment, an annoyance. All the magic sucked out and left Click. Cal faces about and the lady's there, squinting down the slick, fat barrel of a shotgun, one finger tickling the trigger and the stock jammed tightly, against her blue shoulder.

“The door was open,” she says.

Cal turns slowly and faces her; she looks deflated, hard, and cruel. And he can see now that she wasn’t wearing a scarf at all, that it was just a design on her blouse.

“You know why I’m here.”

“We told you you couldn’t come. It wasn’t your place.”
,
“You told me I couldn’t come?”

She doesn’t respond, she moves forward and spins Cal about. Pushes him by the side of his face into the wall, pinioning him against it. She drops the shotgun to her waist, nudges it into the small of his back, the tip of the barrel scuffs the black leather, a faint white line, and she presses harder.

“Ma,” he says, “Jesus.”

She presses harder, breathing now stertorous. Cal begins to feel the tremble in her hands: she drops the piece to her side and puts a hand atop her head.

“If you’re staying take your shoes off,” she says, and walks into the kitchen with her blue robe swishing, curving around her.

Cal hears the heavy thunk of the shotgun falling to the kitchen table. He'd had to swallow a little bile when he first felt the gun and can still taste it. He bends down on one knee and undoes the laces of his boots; he places the front of the dining room table, takes in a deep breath in. He walks into the kitchen, following the skinny lady in the silky blue robe. You were always on my mind.

“Should I even ask how you’re doing?” she says from the floor. She’s on her butt with her legs spread, a body length apart, scooping up the piles of dust with her hands and into a trash-bag; next, she’ll swipe her hands over the same portion of floor to feel the smooth, uninterrupted surface.

“Would you believe me if I told you?” he settles down onto the kitchen floor with her and finally, for the first time today, looks her in the face. Wrinkles and hoop earrings; shifting jaw muscles; pale, grey eyes; swarms of silver hair at the roots with blonde tips. She looks old and tired. Little things I should have said and done.

“I’m sorry for the door,” he says. “I bent the key all up. I’m only here for my share, I can be out of here in ten minutes.”

She looks up with wide eyes. “Your key? What key?”

“My copy.”

“The door was open,” she says and stands up on her feet.

“Give me the key.” She raises her hand out, palm up; Cal thinks about the brick: she might call the cops, then he'll never get his stuff so he stands up and reaches in his pocket. He puts the key on the table, watches her move forward and take the key in her hand and bring it up to her face and then, rubber purple cover and all, slide it in her mouth and begin to chew.

“I told you already,” she says, swallowing, “there’s nothing here for you.”

With her last words, the multi-disc switches over to Frank Sinatra’s “Best Is Yet to Come”: a minor third opens the tune; a melody; a key-sweep; the tats of the snare and Frank’s baritone: Out of the tree of life, I just picked me a plumb. A tenor-sax breathes on the down-beat. Cal starts to smile and laugh, taps his foot. He gets up and begins shaking his body in rhythm with the song. The corners of his jacket whip the air to the left and to the right of her head. Wait till the warm up is underway.

The kitchen becomes just a series of images: table, cabinets, doorway, and floor as they spin and laugh. The cd begins to catch and skip on the lines you aint seen it, you aint seen it, you ain’t seen it.

###

The sun’s beginning to set in front of Cal as the engines of cars hum by, the cars brushes of red over wide yellow streaks, purples and blues and pinks; black shapes floating up and down through the colors. He sees the bus approaching from the South. PHL, the orange letters at the front of the bus flash.

The bus slows, the shocks release their swoosh of air and the doors swing open. Cal boards, he flashes the driver his ticket and walks toward the back. The bus is crowded, almost full. People of all color going home from work. Some dirty, others in aprons; slow, tired eyes. Cal uses the toilet back of the bus, then settles in a window seat in the back. He leans his face against the glass, his breath fogs up the window for a second, and then clears; fogs, then clears. There’s a smell of fresh shit lingering.

When the bus nears his stop he pulls the cord. A murmur goes through the bus as he moves in between the isles of red seats: tucked into the back of his pants, five or six inches down from his jacket, a sleeve of soiled toilet paper trails him; there’s a dark smear on the outside. When he leaves someone says in a low voice that “She’d never seen anything like that in her entire life.” They all can’t help but laugh.



Ben is currently studying Literature and Creative Writing at Seton Hall University. His work has appeared in the online journals such as, BlazeVox and the Motley Press.