“Keeping Time” by Erik Svehaug

When Diskus hoisted his case and stepped outside, he felt late.  And Green Bay was out of Super Bowl contention already. Shake it off.

Nancy probably wouldn’t talk to him for a week. Shake that off, too. His sobriety? He’d already shaken that off. The street was filled with black grit and slush. Snow lay like old manna on strips and patches of grass. Up the street, pitch and run. Sell. Tune in. Make it.

“Look, just bear with me a minute,” he told the short, shiny man, wiping the snow from a parked car. “How many ways do you know to boil an egg? One. How many ways to chew it? One. You sleep, you wake up, you chew your eggs the same way every time.”

The little man was listening. He was buying, Diskus knew.

“Break your wife out of the ordinary. Surprise her. No occasion. It’ll mean a lot to her. The gold chain is worth $15.00 by itself.” Diskus proffered a delicate pendant set.

The man’s twenty bucks made almost half of seventy, his goal for this morning. Diskus pocketed his money and headed down the street. He fished for rhythm, pitch, swagger.  He imagined himself at the next door.

You sing when you’re by yourself, lady? You used to. What’s it going to take to get that back? Time’s eating you up. Look at yourself. Maybe you don’t feel the teeth yet. Sing or you die like a bug. You used to sing all the goddam time. Couldn’t shut you up.

Nancy had sung a lot.  Before they were married, they’d sung together.  Mamas and Papas.  Yardbirds.  Belafonte.  All kinds of things.  She even knew some Sinatra and Patsy Cline.  But she’d closed up as his luck turned; when he lost his shirt and then the storefront on Wabash.

He picked the next door because of the curtains in it, the newish Beamer out front, the frosty but manicured garden.  He knew, as he knocked, that he was stuck in his head; he should have waited; should have gotten his pitch back first.

When the door opened, he said:  “If you have a moment, ma’am, I want to say change is the main thing.

Quick change.  Newness and speed.  Absolutely central in a livable life.  Curiosity, surprise, variety, excitement, discovery.  You’ve got to keep the human eye moving or it won’t last a week.”

His audience was a fragrant woman of about forty.  Either a young grandmother or an old mom, he thought, after glimpsing a basket of Legos through the door.

“What’s that?”  she said.  “I’m sorry, keep going,” she said, with a small smile.

A radio in the background said:  “In high school hoops, Independence High meets Roosevelt tonight, it’s Madison at Winona.”

“I mean that Hollywood and television and newspapers don’t just help pass the time.  They are time.  If it weren’t for them, every minute would be just like every other minute and time would stop.  Aging wouldn’t be a problem; people would be too bored to notice.  You’d die as old as you were born, for all you’d care or know. Fashions, advertising, reporters; they’re all beating their brains out to keep you alive.”

“I don’t think I quite get it.”  She said.  Her smile was tentative.  She had wrinkles around her eyes, freckles in the usual places.  Her eyebrows crowded down.  “Really, what do you want?  I’m freezing with this door open.”

He took her money.  She went for hoop earrings.  Ten bucks was ten bucks.

Sure, he was attracted to her.  But he had seen himself in the mirror this morning.  Guts in a sack.  Sloping shoulders.  He had a white sickle-shaped scar on his ribs from a Korean bayonet and hard gravel lumps of tissue from sloppy shrapnel repair.  Does anyone even know what a sickle is anymore?  Shake that off, too.

He and Nancy had an arrangement. He would try to be gone by 7:30 A.M.  After that, she’d get made up for her day at her beauty salon, four chairs, with nails.  Before last night, he’d been on the wagon for thirteen months. She used to say things to him occasionally when he walked through the bedroom.

He’d gotten married seventeen years ago, at fifty, when he was still skinny and strong, like a wise-but-wired, stud-looking paperboy.  So what’s seventeen years in dog years?  An eternity.  Nancy had her friends and the shop.  He ate his own cooking, washed his own dishes, bought his own toothpaste.  And he almost used to drink.

He had his case by its big double handles.  Shake it off, he told himself.  Pick it up.  Tune in, here and now.  He headed south.

His feet slapped pavement and he hummed a razzy tune.  Big flappy feet and the tune was 20’s, 20’s, 20’s, no, by God, 1931.  Green and pink tweed jacket, rubble nose, baggy pants and humming 1931.  He stopped at the tail of his dirty green Rambler wagon.  “So there you are,” he said to the car.

He had drunk hard last night.  He had nursed a cranberry and soda and swapped a few stories at the Vets’ Hall, until the TV 4 News Anchor said:  “Seventy-one year-old Korean War veteran Frank Cole died today.  He was one of only a handful of remaining GI’s who were captured at the fall of Taejeon, almost fifty years ago.”

Diskus hadn’t known the soldier’s name, but he and some of the others knew some guys in the 24th Infantry and Diskus had seen nearby Osan go down, himself.  That is, at seventeen years old, he had been trucked out on his back, bleeding, as it fell.  The white office buildings, homes and warehouses billowed black smoke into the sky in the distance.  He remembered the grenade blast that got him.  No idea about the bayonet though.

That must have come after.

They shared a round for Frank Cole and, then, another for other fallen brothers.  As the rounds came and went, his head filled with the whiskey fog.  Somehow, he knew that the Timberwolves lost to the Panthers 98 to 108.  Before long, he cupped his heavy chin in one hand and propped it on the bar.  Bright thoughts gleamed and rolled by him, like pinballs out of reach of the flippers.

Determined to leave, his bar-world whirling, Diskus heaved himself to his feet, hands flat on the counter.  He reminded himself to try to remember in the morning to think about where he’d left the station wagon.

“Spring Training is only 58 days away,” said the Ten O’clock News.

Somehow, he had made it home on foot.

From under the front seat of the Rambler, he pulled yesterday’s dented steel thermos of coffee, poured the contents into the shiny top.  All the time, pitch and run.  He opened the passenger door and sat down.  Better get out there.  Two cold swallows of coffee.  The sun was working its way up and light covered his lap and made him sad.  Tired of being an odd-looking joke.  From under his feet, he pulled a blanket onto his lap.

To them, I’m always just a peddler.  He was already drowsy.  He scrunched so his ear was down onto the soft, worn backrest.

Selling jewelry was relaxing at first.  But now even the cheap plated junk was getting to him.

Before that, he’d sold Bibles energetically, but he quit when the verses, the heavy scary lines, had started lacing his dreams.  God’s angry voice began to voice-over his private life.  He felt like a punk teenager getting chewed out by a grownup.  Anger, disapproval, guilt.

He decided faith wasn’t slack thinking.  It was a grab at hope, set against the pain-hot real impossibility of being loved.  That was Hell.  Buy my Bible, baby.

He used to drink part-time to keep any sales pitch from taking over his mind full-time.

God, for some whiskey to steady him.  He longed to be solid and happy, slow dancing in place with his hands on the hips of some straight, thick tree.  Some room above the street, away from everybody, watching night traffic; slowly breathing booze.

He snarled now, asleep.  He watched himself, a boy, watching back.  Not a care.  The blue sky spread out above thirteen year-old summertime him.  The farm and the smell of cows and weeds and wheat dust and the caws of crows.  As a boy, he had hunted crows, their calls fresh in the air.  Boom!  The signal from the house that they had company.  Ten minutes later, he had a visitor, a family friend: a girl.  He showed her how to hunt. They sat on the edge of the field, under the trees, to wait and whittle and watch.  They held hands then and kissed; small tight little mouths.  He let her hold the shotgun.  They would swim for a little.  Through the trees, along the stream, in mushing sod, onto the cracking dry logs at the edge of the pond.  A pile of clothes by the tree.  He swam in his skivvies.  She quietly pulled over her shirt.  Forever in a day.

Diskus sat up slowly, looked at the Texaco station across the street, rusty pumps, a heap of scuffed bald tires. 

Where am I going?  How long have I got?  The sun had disappeared and rain spattered the windshield.

Windshield wipers clacking, the road shining and splashing, he drove the Business route down between the warehouses.  A lighted reader board said:  07-03.  Which inning?  Had the White Sox won?  The Business Route crossed the Burns Bridge toward the liquor store and its shopping center.

On the sidewalk, near the middle of the windy bridge, a woman in a black-and-white cape and wide brim hat stooped over two dress boxes, snatched them up, threw them over the side toward the river.  Then, both hands on the railing, she sank to her knees.

It was still raining.  He stopped.  The woman looked up angrily, swiped him away with her hand.  He got out and sat on the hood, ignoring the splash of the raindrops, felt the engine idling under his wet seat.

“I’ve got plenty of room, if you’d care to ride, Miss,” he said.

She looked away through the railing.  “Go away.”

He sat for a moment, then got back in his car.  His butt was cold and wet and tried to stick to the seat, as he slid in.  He drove the rest of the bridge and parked on a side street.  He dug a dirty white Bible out from under the back seat.  He wiped it on his sleeve as he walked back.

The woman hadn’t moved.  He watched her as he approached.  Her hands and cheeks and chin and arms were puffy with fat.  But she did have a good-natured comely look.

“I want you to have this,” he said, holding out the Bible.  “It’s dirty, but it is vinyl covered, so it should clean up.  It’s got a concordance and finger-tabbing, a zipper, a place in the middle for a family history…” He paused for her to comment.

She didn’t.

“They say it contains words of strength for those who contemplate the river,” he said.  “Not that I’ve read it,” he added.  He just held out the Bible and smiled.

“Don’t smile at me like that, you old clown, patting yourself on the back.  I’ve got business here, so shove off and take your sermons with you.”

“Alright,” he said.  He dropped the Bible over the edge of the bridge like he was tossing it onto a shelf.  She jumped up and yelled and leaned over the railing and together they watched it fall for a long time and make a tiny splash.

“You’re a fool,” she said, but she grinned.  “Why are you trying to do me this big favor?” she asked.

He kept trying to face her now, but like a gyroscope, his head kept turning away, his eyes to the river.

“Beats working,” he said.  They both gave a short laugh, sobered and were silent.  Somehow she’d bought it. 

Bought what? he thought.  They started walking.  He maneuvered to be by the railing.

He liked her strutting, overweight walk.  They kept the same pace.  She was taller than he was, her shoulder swayed level with his ear.  She looked morose.  He felt the tension in her. Her eyes were steady.  The safest people he knew had mobile eyes.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Diskus,” he said.

“First or last?”

“Last.  It’s what I go by.”

“I’m Ruth.”  She paused.  “My husband ran off.”

My god, he thought, is that all?

“He lost his job two months ago.  He just waited until we ran up our line of credit and then took off.  And what are we supposed to do for food?”  She only half looked at him. 

“I’m step mom to his three kids.  Three!  And I don’t want any of them, by myself!  Before you came, I was up on the rail.  Couldn’t say goodbye, somehow.  I don’t know.  I’m so stupid.  I just came from buying more dresses on another store account!  Every other night a guy calls from the bank and tries to give me lip.  I was going to jump with those dresses, but I pictured myself hugging them and falling and saw everything soaking in the water and I hated them for meaning so much to me.  So I threw them over the side.  And then I hated myself for being so touchy and stupid and wasteful.”  She glared at him and took his arm like it was a rope. 

“At least you’re going to treat us to a meal before you disappear.”

And he followed.  “I know a good little Samaritan restaurant…”

She smiled at him and held a twenty-dollar bill at arm’s length in front of his face.  He grabbed into his front pocket, but the twenty was gone.  “That’s pretty lousy,” he said,  “and it was already a lousy day.”

“Look, sweetie, you can leave when you want, but I’m keeping your money.  I’m lucky to see this much in a week anymore.  Eat with us if you want.”

He stopped outside Jerry’s tavern.

She looked at the tavern door, surprised, then smiled and nodded.

He held the door from well inside.

The TV at the bar was talking Sports:  “the San Jose Sharks are in town tonight to take on the …”

He let her lead the way to a small plywood booth in the dark of the back.

He ordered a pitcher and they talked, mostly about her husband.  After the second pitcher came, he took her hands, fat with short fingers, in his leathery, baggy-skinned hands.  They would both soar into speech at times.  She talked about being twenty-one and only 12 pounds too heavy to be a flight attendant and reading biographies of jockeys for weight-loss tips.  She told him about the weed she had dreamed she was, that lived in a path and thrived on the crush of hooves and heels and wheels.  And he amazed himself by telling her of his dead marriage and his loneliness, of almost dying in Korea and never being sure of the next dollar.

Diskus’ veins pumped with a new pudding.

He blushed in the dark for being of all things out of words.  She would look down seeming unable to look at him.  He talked about his doll collection. She sought his eyes then, to see if he was serious.  He laughed at her.  She laughed back and hugged him to his feet.

He held out his hand.  They got two pizzas, the largest at the bar, and a carton of Coke and left.  One block and across the street, they went up to a cluster of apartments, up worn wooden stairs.

The kids were famished and got both pizzas if they ate in front of the TV in the common room down the hall.

Slumped in front of the apartment’s main window, behind the sofa, they watched first, then clutched arms, then kissed big, old, fat, sloppy lips and wet and strained.  Then sideways on the floor in a snarl of legs and an open dress and he eased her breasts out.  Her fingers undid his shirt and found the sickle shape on his ribs and followed it gently.

Such breasts she had; they were fat and white and heavy.

Yet he stroked her and she liked him and they were beautiful.

He kissed each one tenderly.

She sensed him pulling back into himself a bit and said:  What’s the matter?  The kids?”

“No; I was just thinking we should slow down, that’s all.”

“That usually means ‘Goodbye.’  Are you getting ready to leave?”

“You know, you are not the failure here; he is.” He said.  “He is.”

She leaned back against the couch and closed her eyes. “Don’t go there,” she said.

“I know him.  I am him,” Diskus said.  “Impatient.  Full of expectations.  Waiting for the next burst of feeling. 

Lots of disappointments that take even more activity to avoid.  A workaholic to fill the spaces between bursts of extra intensity.  Always some crisis at work.  Crises that are good for his adrenaline.    And then he lost his job.  He’s spinning now.  Add on desertion and theft.”  Diskus paused.  “I’ll bet he’s a baseball fan.”

“The Reds,” she said dully.

“With me it’s the White Sox.  To this very minute.”  He was excited now.  “Look: when you’re dying inside, time is agony.  Like dog whistle pain torture that won’t stop.  You try to blot it out.  You focus on things that don’t hurt as much.”

She had opened her eyes and was watching his face.

“Take the White Sox. Every game, every score, is like the rung of a ladder.  After a while, every trade, every mention on a talk show was another rung of my ladder that led me through time, passed the time.  It’s a Pass Time!”  He almost shouted.  “That’s it!”  He was really pleased and smiled at her.

She couldn’t help smiling.  “Like shopping?” she asked.

“Probably,” he said.  “And it’s exhausting, trying to climb every minute of the day and night.  So some people jump.”

They were both quiet a minute.

“I think I do have to go,” he said.

“It’s past time,” she said.

He missed her joke until he was behind the wheel of the Rambler again.  He snorted appreciation.

He got to the Salon, “Nancy’s”, as the streetlights still flickered on.  The shop had closed twenty minutes ago, so there was parking in front.

As he pulled up, a radio announcer introduced a panel of experts.  The British anticipated a scaled-back Olympics with small crowds and big debts.  An American caller challenged them.  “The sports public is counting on the international diversity and suspense of the games…”

He snapped off the radio. “I’ve got a life,” he said.

He let himself in with his key, rather than pull Nancy away from whatever she was doing.

There was music.  Kenny G.?

She was cleaning the mirror at her own station, up on a short stool.  She stopped with her rag arm on the glass above her head.  “Hello, John,” She pretended a lack of surprise.

“It looks real nice in here, Nance.  Feels comfortable,” he said.

“Everybody keeps it up,” she said.  “It’s easy with a little teamwork.”

“How’s business?  I mean,” he waited because he felt that had come out too cold and too abrupt.  “Does it still make you happy?”

She finished spraying and wiping the mirror and got down.  She faced him.

“Yes, still.  I guess I’d like helping people look good whether they paid me or not.  And we’ve got 20-30 regulars.”

She waited for him now.  He had come to her.

“Why didn’t you ever leave me?”  Diskus asked, suddenly.  “I was a beached whale.  I wasn’t going anywhere.  I had nothing.  But you…”

“John.”  She said.  “When I make a choice, I stick with it.  Better or worse.”

He just hung there.  Like a watched pot, the next moment just wouldn’t boil.  Slowly, he reached an arm out around her shoulder and she shifted gently into his embrace.  They hugged for some time.

He had time.  For once, he didn’t need to be anywhere else.


Erik Svehaug lives and writes in Santa Cruz, California, a vacation town he created as a child. He has been in Static Movement, Bartleby-Snopes, Linnet’s Wing, and Meta-Zen. His story, Tempeche, is in the Outlaws Chapbook at Bannock Street Books. He will be in the next issue of Ampersand. Flashes he wrote were mentioned honorably in Binnacle UltraShorts competitions in 2008 and 2009.