What Ever Became of the Squareaway Children?
Colloquia Grindel Cheyenne
Fiction by Reid Dickie
GRINDEL’S RIDE HOME
An icy-blue glow fell over the elongated rectangle of light that shone through the lace-curtained window of 1924 Meow Street, Kitty’s home and hearth. The snow, that only hours before had swirled in blinding spirals, now lay peaceful and serene in the suddenly harsh moonlight, special tonight, for it was Teedymas Eve.
Grindel stood in the icy-blue glow, her striped socks wet to her knees with cold slush. Clicking! Clicking! Clicking! The street was alive with clicking! She turned to see two black steeds pulling a navy blue curtained carriage speed by her, sparks flying from their hooves.
“Where’s my map?” She frantically searched her bags and her suitcase. “Where’s my map? If I’ve lost my map I’ll never find my way to S-S-S-S-S-Slooha Badooha.”
(In a small valley near the very heartland of Slooha Badooha a hen drank in her odd chickenesque way, her gullet pulsed as the cool water trickled into her belly. Overhead a flock of green-blustered rickspammers did an aerial formation that imitated the shifting pattern of the earth below.)
“S-S-S-S-S-Small s-s-s-s-stinking map. Too s-s-s-s-s-small to lose. Lost my map. And it’s Teedymas Eve.” Grindel resigned herself to a path without a map. “Have to make up my own map, find my own p-p-p-p-p-patterns, crazy-quilt it!” That was the modern version of riding the rails.
She heard the lethargic honk of the locomotive as it slowed in Walla Hebaha and knew it summoned her to ride. The purchase slips in her luggage were going to get the ride of a lifetime; a small menagerie of toy figurines comprised the rest of Grindel’s personal effects. But, never mind.
“That’s why they call them ‘p-p-p-p-p-personal’” she admonished a hobo just the other week.
A block over from Meow Street ran the railroad tracks. The train rumble, the clattering of horses and the noteworthy harmonizing on the Teedymas Eve hymn by three inebriated scuffbums lined up along the corrugated wine track all filtered through to Grindel. She opted to board away from the ruffians. Today was special. She would make her getaway to Slooha Badooha and no one’d be the wiser. That was her plan.
A woof of the engine, an irritated brake and the train stopped. She yanked back the handle, slid the boxcar door open three feet and peered inside. It was empty as far as she could tell. She tossed in her three plastics bags and her beat-up old suitcase and climbed in after them.
“This is the train to S-S-S-S-S-Slooha Badooha. I know it is. My cold feet know it. And my cranky knee is s-s-s-s-s-saying it better be.”
Grindel piled her bags into one corner of the car, leaving the door open for a bit of light and air. She plopped down, took a deep breath and relaxed. The boxcar was empty and full of shadows. The train shuddered into motion. Soon the clickety clacking of wheel and rail song lulled Grindel into a deep sleep.
Smidgens of cotton were getting up her nose. Floating seeds from the big cottonwood tree tickled her face and brought her to the street where she grew up. That’s where Grindel awoke.
“Clark the Clerk got a Click in his Clue
Who Knew? Who Knew? His Clue!
Who knew what Clark’s Canoe
Who knew? Who knew? His Click! His Clue!”
Grindel recognized that singsongy voice – it was her sister Colloquia singing a silly song they’d sung when they were kids. Grindel blinked and her sister’s face appeared before her surrounded by the sun, her mouth moving to the song, her lithe body swaying on the sidewalk on Aspradresia Street where they lived.
It wasn’t a memory.
Grindel began harmonizing with Colloquia; the sisters linked arms and did their funny shuffle down the street, singing as loud as they could. Behind them, an angelic swirl of cotton outlined their wake. The air was thick with floating seeds from the old tree, a trillion beads of hope.
Aspradresia Street was lined with elegant old maple trees that drooped lazily in the summer heat. The big cottonwood tree stood in the large front yard of the Shooshins family. They were circus folk, trapezers. They packed up their kids and stuff each spring and took off with the show, returning tanned, pumped and flush each autumn. Grindel and her siblings never spent a summer with the Shooshins children. There were no other children on their block so the three Squareaway children – Grindel, Colloquia and their brother, Cheyenne whom everyone called Chey – had to entertain each other all summer.
Their parents, Angel and Harvey, owned and operated Hotel Yesterday, its motto was “Let’s get tomorrow!” Both parents spent most of the day running the hotel, leaving the children with a nanny.
The sisters collapsed in a laughing heap of frilly skirts and pigtails as always-rambunctious Chey ran past them.
Grindel’s right eye flickered open briefly.
Plink! Grindel’s right eye opened, staring. The left followed shortly, staring in the dark.
She knew she wasn’t alone in the boxcar any longer.
The darkness cleared a little and she saw someone, rocking with the motion of the train, steel wheels harmonizing below.
Plink! Plink! Plinkity Plink Plank!
“Chey?” Her voice was a clothesline hung with drying question marks. “Is that you Chey?”
It was the sound a pick makes running over tight mandolin strings just below the tuning pegs.
Plinkity Plink Plank! Grindel began to make out a moving figure in the dim car, a lean shadow dancing to its own disembodied music, dancing as if the floor kept dropping two inches every few seconds.
“It is you! Cheyenne! Cheyenne!” Excited, Grindel rose to her feet with some difficulty and, arms open wide, ran toward her brother. Her face lit with impossible bliss, she threw her arms around…absolutely nothing.
This startled Grindel from her sleep. The rails crooned as the train slowed. It was morning, the sun was warm, the snow melting to skiffs and the sign said “Welcome to Slooha Badooha. You can dance here.”
“G-G-G-G-Good old train,” said Grindel, patting the rough wooden wall of the boxcar. She jumped carefully to the ground and stood among her bags, peering into the dark boxcar.
“Thanks for waking me up, Chey. Meet you by the big cottonwood,” she said. Gathering her bits and pieces, she shambled away toward Aspradresia Street.
CHEY AND MANDY
Grey waves lapped lethargically against the earthen dyke as Cheyenne grinned with delight at what he saw before him. All lined up along the edge of the levee were an unlikely trio: an electric kettle, a pyramid of cookie boxes and a mandolin. Carefully setting his paper bag-shrouded bottles on the ground, he immediately reached for the mandolin and plucked the strings. It was perfectly in tune.
It had been decades since he’d touched a mandy, as his father called them. In their three-child household, his father, Harvey Squareaway, did all the naming: of children in order of appearance (Colloquia, Grindl, Cheyenne), pets (Cluster, Fleabag, Syphil), nicknames (Grumpy, Chunk, Wendy, Madame Roo), automobiles (Oater, Brother Buick, Tart), musical instruments (mandys, guitys and banjys). Anything that required recognition with naming fell into Harvey’s purview including the family band – the Spoon-fed Springalong String Band.
Despite decades of a serious ether addiction, Cheyenne’s fingers remembered the steps to their dance across the mandolin strings for “Kittens in the Cat,” an old bluegrass tune. The sliding and climbing notes wafted across the open water of the bay, grey and dead from the sewage and effluence of the city.
As the melody swept across the water, its drab, dangerous colour began to change to a slightly blue hue, as if part of the sky was being blended in. By the second chorus, there was a definite blueness spreading in all directions from Chey. The murkiness cleared, replaced with a luxurious turquoise colour. Blue-greens and emeralds washed against the levee, each small wave whispering along with the melody.
Just like when he was a boy Chey began having lucid thoughts, ideas flooded into his mind as the mandy chimed – their message, always and ever, be joyful. An almost unbearable effervescence of joy welled up in Chey, numinous feelings of gratitude and love pervaded his being. He felt the secret joy embedded in the music.
It was for this reason Harvey told his son, “You and mandy are symbiotic. You create each other. You inspire each other. The mandy is a perfect way for you to express all the sweetness that lives inside of you, your guileless ease as you hold the instrument, the bit of white froth that forms at the edges of your mouth after you have played her for a time. Beautiful. A perfect union.” Harvey was always frank with his son.
Cheyenne gamboled along the dyke, his fingers a blur against the almond-shape of the mandolin, the blue bay echoing with his music. A flock of inert-white terns cast reflections against the sun, their sharp cries crisp over the azure water. Chey squinted and smiled across the sky.
Ether addiction was hobo code for unrelenting reliance on one or two dreadful bottled elixirs that fall vaguely into the category of “wine.” Chey’s gullet was familiar like family with Cisco, MD (Mogen David) 20/20, Wild Irish Rose and Thunderbird and his mind on muttering terms with their deleterious effects. Chey’s current favourite got him on the train every day and took him away swiftly, directly and assuredly. All aboard the Night Train Express. A ticket costs $2.79 for 32 ounces.
Let your palate imagine the delights of a combination of cherry Kool-Aid and Clorox and you will begin to approximate the unforgettable taste experience of Night Train Express.
While its palate is barely palatable and its bouquet grimace inducing, its effect is guaranteed. It will get you to the click. And what a click it is! A weariness that feels like it is about to overtake you turns to drowsiness, detachment and eventual sleep. Don’t let the peaceful sound of this lull you into thinking it is pleasant. This sleep offers the polar opposite of rest. The dreams that erupt in Night Train Express-induced sleep are long, horrific and exhausting. The nightmares are often prolonged because the “wine” shrouds you in an immobile condition from which awakening is extremely difficult.
As you boil in the heat of the terrorizing dreams and your body tries to deal with the poisonous sway of the brew, reeking sweat pours out of you. You have rapid hot and cold flashes from the perspiration evaporating so quickly. Your bowels loosen and nervous facial tics develop, often taking days to disappear. All this in Night Train sleep.
When you do awaken, usually 12 to 15 hours after draining the bottle, your body feels utterly dried out, every cell parched and painful as it cries out for fluid. Your stomach is a tumult. At the very thought of drinking water, nausea rages though your meat and your mind. Someone is pounding nails into the back of your head. That’s just the brutal hangover headache, another of the Train’s less than desirous consequences.
Ultimately and obviously, the cure is always and only more Night Train Express. Once he stabilizes himself enough to function adequate to his needs, the cycle and Chey’s day begins anew.
Every day everything succumbs to the dreary faithfulness of Chey’s pursuit of enough panhandled cash or petty crime to score a quart of Train. Today was different. It had come together easily through luck and chance, no fuss, no bother, no crime. He found a five-dollar bill at a bus stop and a lady gave him a dollar. By ten that morning Chey had enough cash in hand to buy two Train tickets to the end of the line, which he did immediately then proceeded toward the dyke to get aboard.
Finding the mandy overwhelmed Chey’s attention and for a few moments replaced his cellular craving with a faded memory made fresh again by music. In the Spoon-fed Springalong String Band, the mandy had been his instrument, his baby. Colloquia on guity, Grindl on banjy and Chey on mandy. Just eighteen strings between them but what a glorious twang they could produce!
Add in three vocals. They all sang. Colloquia’s voice was like the old folk veteran Elizabeth Cotten, a little reedy but convincingly painful. Grindl’s range spanned four octaves in a truly undisciplined fashion that always bordered on improvisation. Yma Sumac was her inspiration. Chey wailed in his rich baritone, infilling and grounding the aural ballet of his sisters. Their harmonies often made the hair along the spine of Syphil, the family cat, stand on end.
The repertoire of the Spoon-fed Springalong String Band consisted mainly of original material written by one of the children or their parents. Their songs sounded like ancient folk songs, field hollers or old blues numbers but in fact had recently been conjured from the imagination of one or another family member.
Chey stepped lightly, almost soberly, along the grassy edge of the dyke, dancing to his own music. Every time he plucked the strings of the mandy, a ripple shivered away from him in all directions. In the distance, he heard a train share two echoey, mournful whistles, overhead the shrill shrieks of gulls.
Tiny orange fishes kissed the surface of the glistening blue water, their bulging eyes like bright red pills. In a flash, they were gone, replaced by a school of electric green leaves or so it seemed to Chey. He smiled out across the newly blue lagoon.
The train whistle was suddenly distinct and nearing rapidly, overwhelming the mandy’s suddenly puny strings. Chey looked around for the tracks but there were none, just the lapping blue water and the turning gulls. In a headlong gust of wind, the train whistle breezed past him, lifting his long hair and loose jacket to flutter like a flag around his thin frame. For a moment he experienced himself as a mere shimmer, a vertical thought manifest as water through which the roaring train passed. Silent mandolin drooping from his chest, he stood and stared in the direction the train whistle went. There was nothing there.
The sky was a grey smudge over the skyline. The water around Chey suddenly turned the colour of bilge, sickly and foul smelling. He felt a wrenching loss, something once accessible and comforting now permanently gone. He wavered at the edge of the dyke, rebuked by his inner life for wasting away in vomit-stained clothes.
The Train coursing through his veins began to gain on Chey again. Woozy and faltering, stretching his neck and crooking his head as if listening for some distant train song, Chey took on the birdlike qualities of the ether addict. With his gaunt frame weaving against the grey sky and his legs melting beneath him, Chey slowly became a drowsy, disheveled pile of humanity.
The water was silent. Gulls gone. The mandy became a grocery bag full of fortunes from fortune cookies. Chey picked a thin strip of paper from the bag. It read,
“You can never go home again.”
COLLOQUIA RENTS A ROOM
The peeling sign over the otherwise anonymous, pee-stained doorway on Clerk Street said HOTEL YESTERDAY. Underneath it read, “Our motto: Let’s get tomor.”
The few patrons Hotel Yesterday managed to attract were oblivious to the motto. Today was different.
“What’s with the sign? Let’s get a tumor?” the well-dressed young man asked jovially.
Colloquia was perched on a stool behind the hotel’s front counter, her wildly coiffed auburn hair barely an inch away from her smoldering Camel.
“The row fell off,” she replied without looking up. Muffled, like a dog barking through a wall, she heard a train whistle.
“Sorry?” he said indicating lack of understanding.
“Don’t be sorry. What do you want?”
“I’d like a room.”
“To sleep in, of course. Isn’t that why people rent rooms?”
Colloquia looked up from her magazine and scanned the handsome man before her. “Sometimes,” she said. “Will you be sleeping alone?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so.”
“Don’t be afraid,” Colloquia said. “However, unluckily for you, we are full up.”
If you counted the imaginary people she had written in the hotel registry herself that day then, technically, they were full up. Since all but one of those people was an illusion, there was plenty of room at the inn.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
The acrid smell of burning hair wafted through the small, dark lobby as Colloquia inadvertently touched her hair with her cigarette. She casually pinched away the ember as if it happened every few minutes. She looked into the young man’s rich brown eyes, smiled and licked her lips.
He was young. His skin was clear and clean, his eyelashes long and curved, his eyes tucked under thick black eyebrows. His lips always remembered to return to their soft sensual swoop after he spoke.
“Am I sure?” Colloquia quizzed herself. She pursed her lips and looked off into the corner of the room like some old movie star, her eyes remembering the shape and sheen of the last man she had seen naked. When she turned back to look at him, he was naked, the grimy door behind him framing his firm flesh. She blinked and he was clothed again.
Increasingly nervous under the gaze of the enigmatic woman behind the counter, the young man rocked nervously from foot to foot.
“We’ve just had a cancellation.”
His body relaxed and a smile cracked his fine-boned features. “Oh, good,” his voice full of relief.
With a deft movement of her garishly manicured fingers Colloquia spun a registration card toward the young man. “Why is it so important you stay here?”
He muttered the way people do when they are writing, especially writing personal information they want to get correct, or not. He wrote Clark as his first name.
“My father always stayed here when he traveled to the city on business about 20 years back. He often talked about Hotel Yesterday.”
“Really!” Colloquia was surprised. “What did he say about Hotel Yesterday?”
She watched closely as he wrote his last name. Chambers.
“He would tell me about the luxurious rooms and the lavish meals in your dining room. About the celebrities that he hobnobbed with in your elegant bar and…”
As he spoke, he realized there was none of this in Hotel Yesterday and, by its sheer sagginess, there never had been anything even remotely close to luxury here. His voice dwindled into uncertainty and his handsome face twisted into confusion.
Chambers! Chambers! Chambers! In disbelief, Colloquia tumbled the name over and over in her mind. She butted her Camel into an overflowing ashtray and immediately lit another to dangle precariously close to her hair.
“What was his first name?” she asked.
“Huh? Oh, Roy. Roy Chambers. Best damn fly fisherman in ten counties. Or so he’d tell you. He’d say to Mom, “Going to do a little angling honey” and off he’d go with all his fishing gear to satisfy his urges.”
Colloquia had been familiar with Roy Chambers’ urges.
Registration card filled out, wallet in hand, Clark asked, “How much for one night?”
“Twenty.” She folded his money into her palm and held it there for a long silent moment, her eyes half-shut, trying to divine what she could from the residue of the man’s energy left on his money. This made Clark increasingly uncomfortable.
He jumped when she suddenly asked, “Is Roy Chambers your blood father?”
“My blood father?”
“Your biological father?”
“Yes, as far as I know he was. Dad passed away a few years ago. Why?” He was thinking now she’s getting more than a little creepy.
“I knew your father. He never caught a fish in his life. He meant a different kind of fly. Fly-fishing was his euphemism for getting plenty of sex. And this is where he brought his women.”
“What?” The look of astonishment on Clark’s face could not have been more complete or sincere.
“Did he ever bring home any of the fish he caught?”
The question burned a hole in Clark’s soul. “He said he always threw them back, that he didn’t fish to eat, he fished to…” Again, his words died in mid-sentence.
“And how come he never brought back any fishing equipment?”
“Dad always said he kept it at the lodge.”
“The lodge! The lodge! Hah! Come with me,” said Colloquia.
She carefully stepped off the stool and, with a few feeble, difficult leverages, straightened herself, making Clark wonder how old she was.
In fact, the stool had been her perch for the last sixty-five years. Colloquia started to help at the hotel when Harvey got sick and had to stay home. She was fresh out of high school. Her and her mother Angel ran the place spick and span. Then Angel suddenly died, leaving her to care for an ailing father and a rundown hotel. Harvey didn’t live long after Angel died. That’s when Colloquia ascended the stool behind the front desk and presided over the slow deterioration of Hotel Yesterday.
Her advanced age apparent in her slow gait, Colloquia shuffled down a hallway leading to the back of the hotel. The carpet was worn bare in patches and the lights made either a low ominous hum or sporadic crackling noises as they flickered.
“Where are we going?” Clark asked, unsure if he should follow the old woman any further. “Can I just get my room?”
“I’m taking you to your room,” she said a little impatiently.
At a brown door with an old brass number 9 hanging by one nail, Colloquia stopped and fished a large key out of her pocket. She opened the door and reached inside to flick the switch. The room filled with a wowing sound and the overhead light burst into a blinding flash that receded into a pulsating glow covering the entire ceiling.
“Welcome to the lodge,” she said waving her thin arm in a gracious welcoming gesture as she bowed ever so slightly. Clark stepped into the room. With sudden and surprising agility Colloquia moved quickly past him, loudly clicked her long fingernails on the wooden door and said, “Ring if you need anything.”
Scanning his room, Clark Chambers blinked in amazement. The décor, if that was the proper word, consisted of every conceivable kind of fly-fishing gear. Stacked in piles in corners, covering the top of the bureau and the table, leaning against the chair was enough fishing gear to fill a dozen catalogues. Tackle, fishing line, rods, reels, hip waders, rattan creels, every tool needed to outsmart a fish cluttered the room. The bed was an impenetrable thicket of rods and reels, twisted together with tangled fishing line everywhere. He stood astonished and confused.
Clark picked up one of the rod and reels leaning against the back of the chair. On its handle was a small brass plaque, elegantly engraved. It read, “To Roy with Love from Erma. Fish On!” He remembered the Christmas his mother gave this one to his dad. She gave him fishing gear every year but this year was special. It was the year of the promotion when Roy got to travel most all the time. A thick tear rolled over the apple of Clark’s cheek.
Colloquia slowly remounted her stool in the dank lobby of Hotel Yesterday, arranged her arthritic knees as comfortably as possible on its rungs and lit a Camel. She clicked her nails on the counter, turned the page of her magazine and hummed the old Elizabeth Cotten tune Freight Train.