Enjoy an excerpt from Kenneth C. Goldman’s “The Last Days of Leonard Cross” featured in our new anthology ON TIME.
“Swing and a miss. Strike three.” These were maybe the shittiest words any eleven-year-old boy holding a bat could hear.
During the summer of ‘79 following his third time striking out in full view of every important person in his world, Lenny Cross turned to his older brother, seeking the wisdom only a fifteen year old could bestow. Always a Yankees fan, Sidney offered an old Yogi Berra malapropism to his younger sibling, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over, kid.” Although the comment made only twisted sense, his brother’s counsel sufficed.
As it turned out, Sid and Yogi were right on the money. Next time at the plate, Lenny smashed the cowhide into orbit to win the Weymouth Wanderers their game. It was the kind of day that didn’t come often, the kind your brain replayed during those moments when you fell far short of slamming the ball over the fence. Because those lesser moments, the God-awful ones you wished would disappear from your life entirely, those fuckers just kept coming.
June 30th, 1980, proved one of those terrible days. Inside the dimly lit parlor belonging to the Staemans & Sons Funeral Directors, Lenny again considered Berra’s tangled quotation, his personal nightmare nowhere close to being over. The way he felt today, it might never be. This nightmare wouldn’t let go, the continuing torment folding in on itself like a poorly sprocketed film. To quote his brother quoting Berra, Sid’s funeral was like deja vu all over again, another episode of Lenny’s world gone crackers. But the only person with whom Lenny might have shared his bewilderment lay inside that silk lined casket.
“I’m at bat again, Sid… One more time at the plate.”
In death, Sidney looked better than Lenny had ever remembered, no easy accomplishment for a kid who had taken a flying leap off the roof a week before his seventeenth birthday. Mr. Elliott Staemans and his sons had even fixed the split lip Sid had received two weeks earlier in a brawl with Jackie Spector, some walking dog turd who had made the mistake of shoving in front of Sid at the fairgrounds’ Wild Mouse ride. His blunder earned Jackie a bloody nose and two loose teeth.
That punk would receive the full measure of what was coming to him. During the summer of ‘85, some codger counting his night receipts at the Gulf Station in Weymouth County would decide he was in no mood to hand over his day’s profits to a pimpled hooligan carrying a bean shooter. Reaching under the counter, the old attendant would put a slug into Spector’s left eyeball before that jeering fuckstick could squeeze off one shot.
Standing alongside Sid’s casket, Lenny regretted his brother couldn’t be around to hear about Jackie Spector’s demise. Of course, that happy event was still a few years coming. Lenny felt strange remembering something that hadn’t happened yet.
It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.
But that wasn’t quite right, was it? Nope and nuh huh.
It ain’t over…not even when it’s over.
Half expecting Sid might spring from his casket shouting, “Gotcha!” just to scare the bejeezus out of him, Lenny wished this whole thing were another of Sidney’s bad jokes. He certainly would never have told anyone that, not on this afternoon of his brother’s funeral. An older part of his brain remembered having this same thought the day Sid had died. That morning took place several months ago when he was thirteen like today, although Lenny’s marriage to Jennifer came the very next day, and by then, he was twenty-seven.
Maybe this was a bad joke after all, and whoever it was that arranged that haphazard thing called time, maybe he was the one laughing his ass off.
Like deja vu all over and over again ‘til it’s over…again.
It got pretty confusing with time out of synch. But having lived through enough days that popped up like twenty-four-hour non-sequiturs, Lenny tried his damnedest to put the scattered pieces of his life together. What happened at Sid’s grave site proved a case in point. He knew today his mother would faint and break her wrist as she fell, at least that’s what he heard from some distant aunt on some other day while she talked about that awful moment following Sid’s funeral. But from Lenny’s perspective, that aunt’s recollections were of an occurrence Lenny had yet to experience until now.
When the day of his brother’s burial finally arrived, he prepared himself and stood by his mother’s side most of that afternoon, hoping his aunt had been accurate so that he might catch her as she collapsed, hoping maybe to prevent her from hurting herself too badly.
Swing and a miss.
He could do nothing about stopping his mother from passing out, no more than he could breathe life back into his dead brother. And when she toppled, she fell hard enough to break her wrist just like fat Aunt Florence had said. Lenny didn’t even succeed in breaking her fall.
Batter out. Hit the showers, kid.
But the old Yankee team manager knew better, Yogi did.
Because the game wasn’t really over ‘til it was really over.
“You’re too good looking to be a therapist, Doctor. I expected someone bald and pudgy, maybe with a beard.”
The psychiatrist almost smiled but took it back.
“And a Viennese accent? Sorry to disappoint you.”
“Don’t worry. I’m not gay or anything like that. Straight as an arrow with a beautiful young wife, at least as of this morning. That might not be true tomorrow.”
“Maybe if we start at the beginning,” Dr. Strauss said. Leonard smirked at the therapist’s unintended irony.
“That would seem a very good idea, Doctor, if there were a beginning. But, see, there’s no real prologue here. No end or postscript either. Just a middle. A whole lot of middle.”
Strauss remained impressively aloof, considering he must have thought he was privy to the ravings of a mad man. Maybe that was exactly the case.
“Then, let’s start with yesterday, or about something recent you remember.”
“I remember mostly everything. It’s not hard remembering when every fucking day is yesterday.”
The therapist took in his patient’s remark as if agreeing about the weather.
“My brother died recently. Sid was almost seventeen when it happened, but he fell into a bad crowd at fifteen. He had this drug problem he couldn’t kick, so he just climbed up to the roof, deciding he’d had enough. His death was a shock to my mother, of course, but I wasn’t really surprised. See, I knew he was going to die, and I wanted to stop him, but that would have been impossible. I could try a thousand times, and he would have still flown off that damned roof on the day he was supposed to.”
Strauss didn’t register any hint of bewilderment. He was good at this.
“I’m sorry to hear that. But you don’t seem especially—”
“—upset? Oh, but you see, I am upset. I’m damned upset. I was only thirteen when he died.” Leonard paused to allow for the inconsistency of his story to register. It didn’t take long.
“You said he died recently.”
Recently. The term didn’t have much significance when recently could mean ten years from now.
“I’m thirty-five. And I know what I said, Doctor. That’s why I’m here. Maybe I should have come to you sooner, although sooner doesn’t mean much anymore. See, yesterday when I woke up, I was thirteen and already late dressing for my brother’s funeral. My mother managed to pull me from bed. She raised Sid and me since our father left, but a stroke took her in ‘95. Or during the last month, if you want me to be precise, because that’s when I saw her die. But at Sid’s funeral, I felt glad to be with her again. I’d forgotten how beautiful she looked as a young woman. Of course, I also felt sad to see her so upset, considering the circumstances…and considering my circumstances. Is any of this making sense to you?”
Professional detachment, wasn’t that what shrinks called it? A patient could drop a ticking grenade under the nose of a psychotherapist, and he wouldn’t bat an eye even while he shit his pants. Hell, if it got you through the day, maybe there was something to that brand of dispassion. Leonard wished it worked that way for himself. He didn’t understand much of his own story, but he remembered the pain because time remained a real thing even when it had gone off its tracks. Listening to the therapist recount his story showed him just how crazy he must have seemed.
“You’re saying you’re reliving certain key events of your life? Experiencing some kind of deja vu?”
“At first, I thought so, but that’s not it exactly. I’m experiencing incidents only once although I can tie fragments of my life together in a rough timeline. But the episodes are out of sync, like someone has taken film snips from my life and tossed them into the air, then somehow re-edited everything and spliced them together in random order. Tomorrow, I could be a Cub Scout sneaking down the stairs to watch Sid feel up Arlene Bachman on my parents’ couch. Sidney used to chase me around the house, really pissed off when he caught me doing that. A few weeks ago, he flushed all my merit badges down the toilet. Christ, just about anything becomes sad when you see it in perspective. Last I heard, Arlene was on her third marriage. I’m rambling like an idiot, aren’t I?”
“Rambling is okay, Leonard. Something triggered your turmoil. The memory of one significant day might provide an answer for all the others. Feel free to ramble.”
“And what kind of psychology is that, Doctor? Freudian? Dr. Phil? Are we looking for a cosmic explanation here? An example of God’s plan to make this insanity seem sane? Maybe I’m some medical experiment, a disembodied brain floating inside a labeled jar inside some mad scientist’s laboratory. Hell, maybe we all are.”
“There’s nothing mystical about cause and effect. Things happen for a reason, Leonard, and something happened to you, some emotional or physical jolt causing you to believe your life has spun out of your control. Hopefully, we will discover what it was. Did you experience a personal loss? A death? Perhaps an accident?”
“You’re asking me to put together the pieces of a smashed kaleidoscope to locate one missing piece.”
Strauss jotted something into his note pad, but judging from the man’s expression, it could have been a reminder to pick up his dry cleaning. He looked his patient in the eyes. This wasn’t the guy to challenge to a hand of Poker.
“I remember feeling pretty upset when Simon split from Garfunkel.”
“Go a little deeper.”
Was there a point trying to understand any of this? Tomorrow might find him years removed from this moment, either dribbling soup down his chin at the senior center or getting his first hard-on for Judy Squires. Strauss’ file on him would be either long forgotten or yet to be.
“You realize you may be asking me to remember something that hasn’t happened yet?”
“How’s this for a start, Doctor? ‘If you come to a fork in the road, take it.’ The Gospel according to Yogi Berra. You might want to write that down, too.”
Strauss did, then leaned forward. “It’s clever, but you know, it makes no sense.”
Leonard managed a smile. Cleaning the debris of the human psyche was like tidying up the Aegean Stables with a tooth brush. But what choice remained but to try?
“Just tell me about some times that seemed important to you. Anything that comes to mind.”
“Free association, you mean? You say ‘black,’ I say ‘white’? You say ‘tomayto,’ I say ‘tomahto’?”
“Something like that. Maybe something about your wife? You mentioned her earlier. Was your marriage in some kind of trouble?”
Jennifer…squeaky clean from the shower…
“I once told her ‘You’re my reason for living.’ And she was… is.”
“And you’re my reason for living, too…”
“…but trouble? Yes, there was some trouble. A year or two from now, that is.”
Strauss leaned forward. His eyes remained locked with his patient’s. “It’s a start. Relax, Leonard, just relax and tell me something you remember about your marriage.”
“It was good, then it was bad. Tomayto, tomahto.”
“I once told Jennifer I like my sex dirty.”
Leonard closed his eyes.
They had been late for an expensive dinner at Camponelli’s to celebrate his landing the Arnoff Pharmaceutical account. Married only a few months, Jennifer had just come from the shower still toweling off. Something about the slippery smoothness of her skin suddenly made food a low priority, and Leonard impulsively pulled her to him, kissed her. Her towel dropped to the floor, and that provided all the incentive he needed. He kissed her again, long and hard, remembering the divorce she would be filing for in a few short years. But there seemed no reason to mention that.
She looked at him not certain what had happened. Sudden ardor wasn’t Leonard’s usual style.
“That was sex, right? Or did you just develop a taste for soap?”
“Fuck the soap. I like my sex dirty.”
Leonard spent the next hour proving it. He and Jennifer had to settle for a very late dinner.
A wet towel on the floor…Jennifer squeaky clean and naked…
“I love you,” she said for the thousandth time, but he never tired of hearing her say it. Of course, given his unique circumstances, it might have been the hundredth time. Or maybe even the first.
No. Not the first. He would have remembered the first time, wouldn’t he?
Wouldn’t he? He tried, but there was nothing to remember. He couldn’t remember that first time because it hadn’t occurred yet.
All right, then. He remembered his marriage had been good, and that was something, at least. And it remained good…
…until it went bad. Blame it on the sameness following the sterile routine of sex by the numbers and stone silence at the dinner table, late nights at the office stressing over actuary tables, not to mention one long-legged secretary, all the symptoms of marital dry rot. He loved his wife. Hell, he worshipped Jennifer, but that wasn’t the problem. The carnal wiring between body and brain seemed to disconnect sometime during his thirties.
Except for this one time when the connection was there; oh yes, it was there in fucking spades for the first time in a long time, because…
Because Jennifer, bless her percolating estrogen, was an intuitive woman.
“Let’s try something different,” she had suggested. That night, his wife smiled like a cheerleader turned porn star, implying the idea had been on the fire for some time.
She rifled through her closet, pulling out something tucked away inside her travel bag, some sort of costume, a black leathery thing Leonard didn’t know she owned. Its golden chains clinked as she slipped into it. The material clung to Jennifer like a second skin.
“You said you liked your sex dirty. You know what to do.” She didn’t smile, but she was clearly making the effort not to, as if this were a game.
Leonard had to think. “No. I don’t know what to do.”
Her eyes caught fire. “The words, Leonard. Say them, the way you used to.”
Nothing. A total blank. “I swear to Christ, I don’t know—”
She hit him, a hard and open palmed slap across his face. “Damn you, Leonard. You’re ruining this. Remember, damn you. This is important.”
Before he could speak, she hit him again, harder.
The words came to him, he couldn’t say from where. “You’re my reason for living.”
“That’s right, Leonard. And you’re my reason for living, too.”
He laughed. “Damned romantic words from a woman in a leather outfit and chains.”
The outfit soon lay on the floor, and Jennifer was naked. And for this night, at least, they made love the way they used to.
“—but I’m not really sure it happened that way. Jennifer was never into that kinky stuff at all. Her outfit that night, the weird shit we did—it was more of a gag, is all.”
“Maybe, you’re remembering her that way for a reason, reawakening something inside. Like the kid who, in the morning, swears he remembers the monster under his bed when he was only afraid of the dark the night before.”
There were quite a few monsters under his bed.
Ken Goldman, former Philadelphia teacher of English and Film Studies, is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association. He has homes on the Main Line in Pennsylvania and at the Jersey shore. His stories have appeared in over 900 independent press publications in the U.S., Canada, the UK, and Australia with over thirty due for publication in 2020. Since 1993 Ken’s tales have received seven honorable mentions in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror. He has written six books: three anthologies of short stories, YOU HAD ME AT ARRGH!! (Sam’s Dot Publishers), DONNY DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (A/A Productions) and STAR-CROSSED (Vampires 2); and a novella, DESIREE, (Damnation Books, and on Kindle by eXcessica Publishing). His first novel OF A FEATHER (Horrific Tales Publishing) was released in January 2014. SINKHOLE, his second novel, was published by Bloodshot Books August 2017. Many of Ken’s stories can be found online. Stop by and scream hello.