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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Saturday, July 17, 2010

"Still Waters" Chapter Eight

Floyd Vargus liked to go by the name of “Var” — liked it so much he tattooed V-A-r on his right shoulder while passing time in prison.

With a sewing needle and a bottle of Indian ink, he did the work as best he could without a mirror. The last letter was to be a capital “R,” but on the day he was doing it in his cell, he dropped the needle and it fell deep into the crack between the floor and the wall. He was thankful that it had not happened when the half-finished “R” looked like a “P”. He could not have lived with that, but as it was, he decided to consider it a large lower-case “r” until he could trade some smokes for another needle. He never did. A few weeks later he was paroled, and the unfinished “r” became a joke with the few friends he had on the outside. The strange unfinished tat was a trademark of sorts, and it suited him.

He was now twenty-eight. The crime for which he had served was no crime at all in his mind. He had done it so often for so long and with so many that when he finally got arrested and prosecuted for it, the process struck him as a gross injustice.

“If you was to put everybody away just for this. Everybody I know'd be in jail. This ain't right." Var told the public defender. "That girl’s father is crazy—I mean craZy with a capital Z. She looked at least seventeen. How’s I supposed to know she was sixteen?"

"Fifteen," corrected his attorney.

"Whatever. That pip-squeak tramp is no ‘daddy’s little girl.’ She started it every time and  was fine with it ‘til she saw me with her cousin. Then she told her pa, and I’m tellin’ you that man is crazy with a capital Z.”

Against Var’s advice, the defender did not attempt to twist the “insanity plea” and somehow apply it to the victim’s father. He did, however, manage to make a case that the girl was allowed by said father to spend many nights in the company of unsavory strangers simply because her cousin was there to look out for her. The cousin's testimony was little help to the prosecution. She was a wild twenty-something girl whose once-pretty face had been swallowed by her darkened eyes. Every man in the jury wondered how any thinking father could leave a fifteen-year-old in such a woman's care—on a trip to a cabin with men and booze, as Var's attorney pointed out more than once. He also managed to raise significant doubt that the incidents (which happened more than once on said weekend) were not consensual. But statutory is statutory the prosecution reminded, and the jury seemed to agree.

Var never took the stand, but his presence in the courtroom was palpable. The cheap suit they made him wear hung like a paper sack on his lanky frame and did nothing to upstage his sideburns and rockabilly, slicked-back hair. Wrong as it is to judge on appearance, he was the archetype of the kind of man who preys on needy girls with no sense of self-preservation, the kind who at thirteen try to look twenty; and at thirty try to look sixteen. His nervous habit of cleaning his front teeth with his tongue while mumbling "yeah, right" to himself made his defender eager to wrap up the trial.

The jury took less than an hour. Var looked shocked when he heard the verdict, but the suit beside him smiled and considered the sentence of five to ten years a direct result of his good work. In his mind, after all the things he had learned about Var behind closed doors, the man assigned to him deserved life. But his job was to focus only on the facts of the case and to raise as much doubt as possible about the present charge. Still, he secretly hoped that the full sentence would be given.

After just four years, however, Var was released on probation—not for good behavior but because of a shrinking budget for the state prison system. He and twenty others were released at the same time.

The fact that he was now floating down a river less than one hundred miles from that prison was not a violation of parole. What was a violation of parole was the fact that he was in the company of minor females coupled with the fact that he had already downed three beers from the cooler in the extra inner tube beside him.

There were nine in the group. Four men in their mid-twenties and five young women of varied and undeterminable ages. They all looked fit for each other's company. None of the girls knew of Var’s past—they barely knew his present, but it was their habit to hook up with strangers and hope for the best each weekend.

Their laughter and coarse language was the same faint sound James had heard some time before, but now he could see the group just off to the side of wide stretch of river. They were fifty feet ahead of Anna who was at least one hundred feet ahead of her father. Even from fifty yards, he could hear the vulgar banter and see glimmer of silver and blue cans in their hands. Louder than the other voices was the lanky one standing beside his tube in a pair of cut-off shorts. As Anna approached, her tube began veering in the same direction of the others. Clair and Kenzie were further to her left and well in the streams flow.

“Anna, get back in the current,” Clair whispered loudly.

“I’m trying,” she said.

Because she did not want to make eye contact with the group, Anna kept them to her back, but this position meant she had to dog-paddle forward with her hands which was simply not strong enough to correct her course. She began to laugh nervously.

Shouting ahead, James told her to turn around and back stroke. Kenzie relayed the message ahead, and Anna turned toward the group that was now watching her and laughing. Var was wading out in the waste-deep water toward her.

“Well ain’tchoo a pretty little thing,” said Var, reaching for her foot.

Anna laughed nervously. “I’m fine. We’re just passing through.”

“James…” Clair called, trying to sound calm.

Kenzie was speechless. James turned his back toward Anna and back stroked hard in her direction.

“Yer way to pretty to be floatin’ alone,” Var said pulling her by her foot toward him. “Toss me a beer. She looks thirsty,” he said over his shoulder. Anna kicked her foot from his hand.

“Oooooh, and you’re a feisty thing, too. I like that. Don’t be scared.” He grabbed both of her feet and tried to spread them. “We’re just havin’ fun. Stay a while and meet up with them at the bus.”

“Let her go,” yelled Clair.

“Let her go,” whined one of the girls. She was not so much interested in Anna’s predicament as she was indignant that Var was trying to add another female to the mix.

“Here ya go, Var,” said a stocky young man behind him, and he threw a can of beer that splashed behind him and sank to his feet.

“Wait ‘til I’m lookin’, sloshface!” Var yelled. “Here hold this while I find yours.” He squatted down, keeping his head above water and feeling around for the sunken can.

“I don’t drink. I don’t want a beer, and I don’t want to hold yours.” Anna said, and she opened the thumb and forefinger that had been holding the can like some contaminated thing. It plopped into the water, but being half empty it bobbed back to the surface just as Var came up with the unopened can.

“You’re a lucky little snot,” he said grabbing the floating can. “If that would have sunk, I’da sunk you.”

His smile was gone. Anna saw that her father was now only ten yards away and closing. When Var turned toward James, Anna saw the tattoo on his shoulder.

“Well, listen, Var—or whatever your name is. If you touch me again, I’ll kick more than your hand. That’s my father there, and I suggest you get back to your scum-bag friends before he gets here.”

James was trying to remain calm. He had not seen or heard the conversation. For all he knew the man posed no threat at all, but his gut told him otherwise. He knew he looked foolish atop the inner tube, arms working like a machine, and his tennis-shoed feet splashing for whatever assistance they gave. But when he heard his wife say, “James do something,” he sprang from the tube ready to pounce.

Had he looked around him before jumping, he might have noticed the dark water below him and the calm surface above; he might have noticed that that spot of the river was, in fact, over his head. Rather than pounce into action, he dropped out of sight. When his feet hit the bottom, he pushed off in his daughter’s direction, coming up face-first to the surface with his hand holding his glasses on. With a couple breast-strokes, he was out of the deep water and walking toward Var.

“Nice breast-stroke. I think that’s my favorite of all the strokes,” Var sneered.

James did not hear the remark. He was winded, and the water dripping from his gray hair and the clinging drops on his glasses made it difficult to see. After a few deep breaths, he spoke in short sentences, sneaking long breaths between them.

“What’s goin' on here?” he said, wiping his mouth.

“Nothin’ for you to worry about, Ol’ man,” said Var. “I seen she needed some help that’s all. Offered her a beer. No harm done.”

“Are you alright?” he asked his daughter.

“I’m fine, Dad. Let’s just go.”

“See? She’s fine, Daddy,” mocked Var, patting Anna's ankle. “Daddy’s little girl is just fine.”

Anna pulled her foot away from Var's hand as if to kick hard in return, but she set her jaw and glared at him instead. James pulled Anna’s tube away and gave it a firm push toward the center of the river where Clair and Kenzie stood beside their tubes.

"You raised a feisty one. I like that." Var smiled.

James felt his fists double then deliberately relaxed his hands and arms, knowing they would be on call without telegraphing his intentions. In the same split second, he sized up Var's buddies and wagered they were not the kind that would help out a friend in a scuffle. He also considered the six silent eyes behind him as he reminded himself that the best fight is the one you can avoid. Even so, the deliberation of his eyes made Var take a slight step backwards.

The truth is, he was not the least bit afraid of James. He had plenty of testosterone in his veins to fight, but he intended to save it for his highest calling in life. He hadn't decided which girl he wanted, but it was that thought and that alone that prompted the backward step.

“You look like you could use this,” Var said, offering him the can.

“And you look like you’ve had too many,” James said without a smile.

“I ain’t halfway to too many—not halfway. I don’t do nothing halfway.”

“Looks to me like you're halfway to hell," James said with stern eyes.

"Oh, now that's true. I'm past halfway. Got plenty of friends there, too. Hopefully, they got a cold one waitin' for me."

"Don't count on it," James said. "What you do between now and when you find out is your business, but keep your mitts off my daughter and stay away of my family.”

With that, James turned and began walking toward his wife and girls who had retrieved his abandoned tube. Var started cussing but stayed where he stood. The further James walked away, the more bold the vulgarity became. The string of curses and the rhythms of his profanity were the result of years of practice. It was clearly an art form that impressed his laughing friends. James pretended not to hear, but by the time his wife and daughters could see his face, they knew that he was seething.

“Just ignore him, James.” Clair said.

“I thought you were going to get in a fight,” whispered Anna. "What did you say?"

"Let's not talk right now," James mumbled.

“Sometimes creeps like that come into the shop," said Anna softly. "We just give ‘em their coffee in a ‘to go’ cup and ignore them.  I told him I was going to kick him, and then you came. I was so glad to see you coming."

"Let's not talk here. We should have stuck together," James sighed.

"What did you say to him?" Asked Anna.

"I'm not sure," her father smiled. "It's kind of a blur."

James did not get back on his tube. That idiotic perch was a pose he did not want to assume until they rounded the next bend. Instead, he came up through the center hole, told his family to pull together, and he pushed against the rocky river bottom with his tennis-shoed feet. The four tubes moved downstream double-time. Once out of earshot, they began to speak again in whispers.

"Dad... Wanna know something funny?"

"What's that..."

"I almost laughed when you went under water. I mean... I pretty much said, ‘Look out, Scumbag. Here comes my dad. That was your cue, and then it was like…’Hey, where’d Dad go?"

"I know. That was not quite the dramatic entrance I had planned. Then when I was walkin’ up to him, I could hardly see through my glasses. The weird thing is even while I was standing there ready for anything to happen, even while I was talking, I could imagine how stupid I must have looked."

"I thought you looked brave," Kenzie said. It was the first time she had spoken. "He backed down then acted tough when you walked away."

“That’s the way guys like that are,” her father explained.

“Let’s try to catch the five o’clock bus,” said Clair, and the girls agreed

“I’m not going to let one jerk ruin this day,” James said, still pushing hard. “I just want to get way ahead of them that’s all.”

Around the bend, James lifted the tube over his head, put it against the small of his back and jumped backwards with his rear end plopping in the center hole like a cork. The girls laughed at the splash and the way the four tubes, now joined in their grips like a raft, undulated in the wake of the disturbance.


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