The Shakes (Excerpt 1)

vehicle on road during sunset
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From Chapter One

Nobody really knows why my daddy did what he did. Some say it was a sickness of the heart. Others say it was a sickness of the mind. I think it was probably both. I was just a kid when it happened, so it probably didn’t matter what I thought, but it should have. Now he’s just a ghost.

I remember my momma screaming and crying like crazy when those men from the highway patrol came to the house and told us what happened. I thought her head was going to just up and explode the way she was carrying on. The patrolmen had to almost restrain her as they walked her to the couch to sit her down. Seemed my daddy had drove his truck a few miles down the road from where we lived to a wooded spot close to where the interstate runs through. As far as anyone of authority could tell, he just got out of the pickup, walked through the trees to the edge of the roadway, and just stepped out in front of a tractor-trailer going about 70 miles per hour. I think they said it was a chicken truck.

They said he probably didn’t suffer much because he most likely passed very quickly. Hell, I guess he would have, and I guess you could say he just disappeared from this world in the quickest blink of an eye there could ever be. The patrolmen tried to be decent and respectful about my daddy being killed. But how can you be decent and respectful about a man being run down by a chicken truck? The whole sad part for me was thinking about him all alone and in pieces out there on the road so I don’t believe them none when they said he didn’t suffer. I think that poor man suffered most of his life, and no one really stepped up to help him out or just listen to him, maybe not even once.

Just so you know, his name was John Shakes, but they called him Johnathon Shakes in his obituary in the local newspaper. I have it cut out and I stuck it in one of my reading books. They had a picture of him too, one where he was smiling and looking happy like he was saying to the world lastly this: “I had a good life.” I’m not too sure about that and I was around him all of mine, and even though I thought I knew him, he was still a mystery to me. I am his only son. My name is Dylan Shakes.

My momma liked the name so much she said I was going to be named Dylan no matter what, even if I came out a girl. Four years later they did have a girl, my little sister, Nola. Her birth name is Magnolia, but everyone calls her Nola. She was a good kid. She had that kind of messy blonde hair that always looked like she just got out of bed and her eyes were like big blue planets spinning in her head. She wasn’t a dirty or ugly kid or anything like that. People thought she was adorable, and some said she looked like a little Cinderella. Not the slaving away Cinderella, but the one all cleaned up and pretty looking. Most of the time she was quiet and acted sad, but she never did anyone wrong. She hardly ever made any trouble. After our daddy died, she curled up inside herself and kind of hid away there. I would have to go by her bedroom to get to mine and often the door would be open, and I would look inside without her knowing. Nola had a small round table in the middle with two little chairs and she would just be sitting there looking off into the sunlight streaming through the window like Heaven calling on her. I figured she was just thinking or praying or wishing for something. It weighed on my heart, but I just let her be. I think she had a lot of things going on in that little head that most people had no idea of. She wasn’t stupid, not one bit.

We lived in a small town west of the big river, about 50 miles from Memphis, but we weren’t in Tennessee, we were in a place called Arkansas. We had a decent old house that was green and white, two stories, trees in the yard, a covered front porch. My mom and daddy didn’t always get along too well and that’s why I was a bit confused when she carried on like she did when they brought the news of my daddy’s demise. I guess maybe people think they’ll never run out of time together and so they don’t talk much or appreciate each other like they maybe should. People spend too much time being angry and upset. Too much time spent on the fight and then people begin to drift apart. I think she loved him, maybe. But then, hell, sometimes it’s too late for love.

There was a funeral at a small white church on a hill overlooking a winding stream, and we had to dress up in fancy clothes my momma had to buy at the sad discount store that smelled like the past. They had to keep the casket closed because there was really nothing to look at. Everyone believed he was in there all sewed back together, but I knew better. I knew that they couldn’t do that, but a lot of people believe anything they’re told. They only have two eyes and they’re blind. I believe I may have three, and I know this because I’ve read about it, and I can feel it inside my head, opening and closing.

My momma put on a show with all her crying. It wasn’t crying like when she first got the news. It was more like crying to make people think she cared, but as time wore on, I got the feeling she really didn’t care that much, about a lot of things. Nola cried too, but it was real, and it hurt me inside. For some reason I didn’t cry. For some reason I held it in, I swallowed it. I nearly choked to death, but I kept it down. I figured my daddy wouldn’t have wanted me to cry because I was the man now.

A lot of folks came around the house after the gloomy funeral and brought us food and blessings and they hugged us. Some cried. Some didn’t. I think some folks might have been talking business or even quietly laughing about something completely different. It wasn’t their lives that had just been horribly shattered, so what the hell did they care.

At first momma seemed kind of broken, but it wasn’t but six months later that there was a new man sitting at our supper table eating our food and acting like he owned the place. His name was Eddie and he worked at one of the banks in town loaning people money and coming after them when they didn’t pay it back. I guess that’s how he met my momma. I guess he figured out a way to get her to pay something back.

I didn’t like him. He tried to talk to me like he was my daddy, but he wasn’t. No one else ever would be even if my old man checked out of life in a “coward’s way.” That’s what that god damn Eddie would say, even in front of me and my sister, and momma would just pretend like he didn’t. I couldn’t believe it. She changed, too. She didn’t spend as much time with me or Nola anymore. Momma and Eddie would be all up tight on each other on the couch watching movies in the dark and holding hands and kissing. She used to kiss my daddy, but not as much. Maybe having Eddie to cling to was just her way of not having to deal with reality.

He was meaner to Magnolia than he was me. She was just a little girl, but I was big for my age. My daddy used to say I was “country strong” and I guess I was. I was one of the toughest-looking kids in my class, but I wasn’t mean to people very much unless they made me mad. Anyways, I think Eddie was a little intimidated and didn’t push me around too much. He talked a lot, but I don’t think he’d do much in a fight if it came down to it. Maybe that’s why he liked to pick on my sister.

Nola liked to play with her dolls on the round rug in the living room while she watched the TV. When Eddie came over after work, he’d grab a can of beer from the refrigerator and sit in my daddy’s old chair and he’d just watch her. He’d ask her why she was wasting time playing with dolls instead of helping around the house. He didn’t like her dolls being scattered around in the living room and one evening he was in a bad mood and picked them all up and just threw them all over the place. Magnolia didn’t say anything. She just went and picked them up and went up to her bedroom. My momma poked her head in from the kitchen and told him to stop fussing with her. He told her he could do and say what he wanted to because he worked all day and paid for things and that she should just shut her mouth. I didn’t how my momma could have been okay with that.

It got to be Nola would get scared in the middle of the night and come into my room clutching a pillow and quietly crying because she missed our daddy, and now, she missed our momma too and didn’t want to be around Eddie. I’d let her stay in my room with me because believe it or not, I was scared and missed the way things used to be too and kind of needed her there. I wonder what my daddy would have thought of that. About being scared. I think he’d be okay with it. I’d let her fall asleep in the bed first and then I would. I never made her go back to her own room if she didn’t want to. I tried to be her protector as best I could because nobody else was really doing it.

I didn’t want Nola to be a messed-up kid so I tried to do my best to take care of her like my daddy would have. I was only 12, she was 8. Momma was too busy looking off into nothing and drinking her beer most mornings. She was always in a bad mood and yelling if we made too much noise.

I made sure Nola got up and had some sort of breakfast and I’d help her get ready for school. Most days we would ride the bus together because our schools were right next to each other. She was in the elementary and I was at the junior high. Some days Eddie would drive us on his way to work. We didn’t like those days. His car was dirty, and he smoked cigarettes. He would always try to be friends with us and try to be cool and funny, but I could see right through him. He was a phony for sure. I figured he was a stone-cold liar and cheat, too. I have a way with reading people and having a strong intuition about things. It’s something that has always come easy to me. It has something to do with that third eye I was talking about.

I didn’t have time for friends at school because I was always worried about things in real life and trying to take care of Magnolia. The other kids didn’t like me anyway because I had the “Crazy daddy who jumped in front of a chicken truck.” Kids could be cruel, and you have to wonder what the hell is wrong with their damn parents letting them voice such hateful things. I really didn’t care too much for school. I was the kid who sat by the windows and stared outside at the sky and the horizon below while the teacher was talking about some bullshit or another. That’s not the stuff I wanted to learn. I wanted to know about how to not get so damn hurt in this crazy world. They never teach you about reality, but they should.


Have you heard of not being summer?

Driving through hot ass western Wyoming approaching hot ass Utah with my hot ass wife in June 2021 / Aaron A. Cinder

I was born in Wisconsin in the middle of winter. It was cold and the waters of Lake Michigan closest to the shore were frozen over. The trees were stripped bare of all they wear. The snow was dirty white and deep. Human breath roared forth like dragon spit down on the sidewalks.

Winter is one of my happy places. I was literally born for it. Winter is cozy, fireplace warm, homeward bound for Christmas.

I hate summer. Summer is a battle for me. I am like opposite bear and want to hibernate May through August – in a cave of ice, with a frosty mug of A and W root beer, my laptop, and really good internet service. What should we call that? How about Fantasy Land answers Thornton Melon (played by Rodney Dangerfield) from the 1986 comedy film Back to School.

Technically, summer doesn’t even officially begin for about another week, but don’t tell that to Tennessee. Temperatures today are forecast to top out at 94 degrees with a heat index of 106.

As the guy on Office Space would say: Yeah, if you could just not be so hot today, that would be great. Thanks.

The bottom line is – I HATE HEAT. I hate to go outside in the summer. I don’t like to be hot. I don’t like to sweat. I don’t like to be uncomfortable beneath a blazing sun. I burn easily. I hate the bugs. I hate getting into my lava hot car and burning my palms on the steering wheel. Summer is not cozy. Summer is obnoxious. I spend most of summer indoors in the air conditioning and with fans roaring in our bedroom.

Then why did you move to Tennessee? Someone might ask with a crooked face of wonder.

Well, I do like some things hot. Like my wife. She’s the reason I live in Tennessee. So, I put up with the summers here, but still bitch about it. The other day I suggested to her that we get a summer home in Antarctica. She thought that was a bit much. Okay, how about Iceland? She was more receptive to that.

Now, I’ve lived in other hot places – Colorado, New Mexico, South Carolina, West Texas, Missouri. Colorado was the most seasonally diverse. New Mexico (the southeastern part) boasted an unbearable desert heat that would thrust one into agonizing days on end of temperatures well above 100. South Carolina was a wet, heavy heat that made everything, and everyone drip. Texas was a dry, windy, wildfire-like slap in the face. Missouri was like, eh, Missouri – there were good days and there were bad days.

I thought as I got older, I would become more adaptable to the heat, you know, on a purely biological level. I went into this current impending summer of doom hopeful that would be the case, but as the mercury climbs higher day by day, I’m like NOPE. It’s not working. I’m not built for it.

Just the other day in a hopeful trance, I was talking to my wife about Thanksgiving. She looked at me like I was crazy. I think I must be. But I truly wish I could erase the summer months from the calendar. Come on Mother Nature, can’t we just extend autumn and winter a couple of months more each? Please. If only I had a light-duty time machine.

On a societal level, summer is often portrayed as the fun time of the year. For example, people painfully smiling as they cruise in lipstick-red convertibles on their way to play with their balls at some beach in paradise – inflatable rainbow-colored beach balls are what I mean, but then again, I’m sure there are some weirdos who play with their balls at the beach. Okay, that was unnecessary but I’m going to leave it because Cereal After Sex is a playground for pushing the literary envelope off the swing. Literary? Maybe not always.

But I’ve gotten off track. Where was I? Oh yeah, summer. I have no desire to jump up and down on a beach in my skimpy swimsuit slapping around a volleyball. (No one would want to see that anyways.) I don’t want to wear shower shoes or shlippy shloppies (what us folks from up north call flip flops) down by the pool. I’m not a swimmer. I’m an always on the verge of drowning kind of guy. Pools don’t impress me. I like to look at the ocean and listen to the ocean, but I don’t necessarily enjoy putting my body in it. I’d rather play in the icy waters of one of the Great Lakes before heading back to my woodsy cabin. With the ocean, I’m afraid of getting stung by a jellyfish or eaten by a shark or being swept away by a giant wave. Do you remember what happened to Greg Brady in Hawaii? But then again, he was probably high.


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A Carnal Knowledge of Cereal

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Cereal. It’s the perfect companion to the afterglow of a carnal embrace. First, there’s the reaching into the refrigerator for the milk with an elevated heart rate. Then there’s the gathering of the bowl and spoon with a shaky hand. Next is the gallant tumble of the cereal itself from its slightly upturned box while one bead of love sweat runs down your skin beneath a rumpled shirt. And after that, there’s that reckless cascade of white liquid from the carton or jug as you try to catch your breath. And at last, there is that thrust of the silver tool that will eagerly deliver your very first bite.
I like to sit in a comfortable armchair situated near a big picture window that overlooks the square as I cradle the bowl and eat. I bask in lascivious thoughts as the cold milk and crunch repeatedly crosses the threshold of my mouth. I can hear the chewing in my own head, rhythmically tapping like the silver balls of a desktop Newton’s cradle.
As the dying sun collides with the birth of a new night of stars, the square below glows a faded purple. Car after car after car reverses from its diagonal space and goes off into the void, the people inside trying to find their places in the brutal world. A woman with tousled hair and an ass packed tight in zodiac leggings crosses before me and takes refuge in the other chair. She stares into the glow of her phone, beautiful and sticky and smelling of love.
“What kind of cereal are you having?” she asks without looking at me.
“Corn Pops.”
“Oh. Fancy.” She pauses. “That was hot.”
“What’s that?”
“Earlier. Baby.” She looks over at me and mimics a kiss.
“Yes, it was… Did you know that they used to call them Sugar Corn Pops.”
“What?”
“Corn Pops. They used to be called Sugar Corn Pops.”
“Your mind drifts to strange places. How do you go from sex to cereal and back again?” she wonders aloud.
“I suppose they figured the word ‘sugar’ had a negative connotation,” I say. “I suppose some marketing dildo who makes $200,000 a year came up with that one.”
“Why do you worry about that?”
“Worry about what?”
“Money, and what other people do and have.”
I think about it, then tilt my cereal bowl to drain the last of the milk and set it aside. “I guess I’m just hung up on perfection. Like a wet winter coat on a mudroom peg.”
“Baby. Perfection isn’t found in things or money. Perfection is found in the simple, meaningful moments.”
I look over at her there in the chair before the big window framing nightglow. “Like our love?”
“Like our beyond beyond love,” she says.
After a brief fissure of silence I ask her what time it is.
“11:02,” she answers with a yawn. “Are you ready for bed?”
“I’ll be there in a little bit.”
She rises from the chair, leans down and kisses me with purpose. Her lips are wet and scented from the grape-flavored water she always drinks.
“I love you,” she affirms. “Believe in that.”
“I love you, too. I really do.”
She looks down at me, smiles and presses her warm lips against my forehead. “I know you do,” she whispers.
I turn to watch her walk away, through the low glow of a long, narrow kitchen and into the darkness of the back bedroom that swallows her up.
I get up out of the chair and take my emptied bowl to the kitchen sink and rinse it out. I walk back over to the big window and look down upon the vacant square. The gray, cold stone of a courthouse reflects fear and loneliness. The empty and silent street reminds me of a dark corner in Heaven. And even with all that, I know if I am careful with her heart, I will never be alone again.