Stories No. 86 – John Francis Istel

green pine trees covered with fogs under white sky during daytime

Forked Roads

by John Francis Istel

“How many candles do you see? Mother? How many? Can you see how many? Sit up. It’s your daughter Eve. Count, Mother. There are 69.”

I remember ’69. Hell, I remember the burning bush. I remember I could knock a woman flat.

“Come on, Mother. You’re still strong, look at your biceps. Oh, let’s clap everyone. Caroline, show your grandma your pretty card. See! A purple heart, Mother. Caroline’s learned all about military decorations this week in social studies.”

I was in Taos in 1969 when Janis Joplin sang ‘Piece of My Heart’ but I already lost my heart to Wesley Sloan. I loved everything about his Jesus hair, his red flannel shirt, his grandma quilt patches on his jeans—even though I found out his old girlfriend sewed them on.

“Let’s all get a shot with your grandmother. Get little Tina in the picture. Tina just learned to whistle. Will you whistle ‘Yankee Doodle’ for your grandma?”

When Wesley whistled, I listened. I’m not ashamed or anything. He knew how to whistle with two fingers louder than a train. Index and middle in his mouth, all brown and taupe, lips like Mick’s but hidden under a walnut-colored mustache. And when it was time for an encore he shouted, ‘Summertime’ so loud Janis just waved to him like he’s her lost friend and she saluted, blew him a kiss. Living was so damn easy.

“Ok, let’s get the grandkids to help Mother blow out the candles. She played the harmonica you know. You remember that kids? I bet she can muster the wind to whip these little things. Sean, can you count to 69? Let’s count together.”

I fantasize so hard about Wesley putting a piece of wedding cake in my mouth it almost makes me come. Then look at this raggedy thing: this cake’s already covered in candy-colored wax and snot.

“Put down that knife, Sean. Tina—smile. Caroline… Caroline? Get ready Caroline; get closer to your grandmother. That’s it. Look at the candles. Smile.”

Wesley couldn’t stand to have his picture took. He had an extra-large smile from a knife fight in Tupelo and when he blushed, his scar purpled. He had two dachshunds and an old basset hound named Orbison who could howl like a siren at the moon. He left them in the Haight when he went on the road. He carried pictures of them, though, and showed them to every man, woman, and child he met. Wes and I met doing summer stock in New Hampshire in 1968. He was a rope guy, backstage counter-weighting the scenery and hauling the curtains. He’d run lights, too, all elbows and arms moving the levers like a spider. I was the stage manager. He’d call me Stage Ma for short. I knew he needed a mother since he’d never had one. Foster raised by a rich Long Island family. Took care of their young boys. Then he dropped out of automotive school to deal weed and speed. He was laying low in North Conway, waiting to score something or other in Canada, when we both got hired on at the White Mountain Festival Players. September came fast and I was supposed to head back to my crummy railroad flat on the Lower East Side.

“Oh, Mother, are you happy? Kids, she’s only crying because she must be so happy. The best birthday ever!”

If you all want to see weeping and bawling you should have taken a Polaroid of me after the curtain came down on our last show. The Pajama Game, was it? Or maybe Cactus Flower. This is a trickle and a sniffle compared to that time when I had to lock myself in the closet with the slop sink, crying till my eyes felt like they were bleeding. About an hour later, Wesley pulled his blue Chevy Nova around the back barn door after we’ve just loaded out the last of the flats. It was the first Tuesday in September. Late morning. Wesley motioned me over and asked me to ride with him. Normal person asks, where we riding? I just said, give me three minutes. We trucked all around the Southwest in that Nova. Must have thousands of miles on it. Dashboard clutch. H-shaped. Thousands and thousands of miles. More than the stars in the Mojave sky.

“Bet mother wants some ice cream cake. Let’s go kids. Here Tina, hold Sean’s hand. Sean? Sean, get your hands out of your underpants. Hold hands and blow. That’s right. On three. Here we go. Oh, wait, Eliza, honey. Go get forks. No, I have the plates. Forks!”

One day we’re heading back to San Fran to spend the winter at his friend’s commune. We’re a couple hours outside Taos when up ahead we saw the road split in three directions like an upside-down peace sign or a pitchfork. That’s when his Nova decided to conk out. Its radiator started pissing and snarling and rolled to a stop. We’re nowhere. Hadn’t eaten anything but a few little white pills. We sat on the shoulder cross-legged and smoked a doobie, squinting at the endless space over each other’s shoulders. Wesley said, let’s walk. We got to that three-way in about a minute. No signs about which leads where. Sun’s setting to our left. Our choices were due north, northwest, or northeast. We knew back the way we came there’s nothing but New Mexico. It’s Wesley’s idea to split up, double the chance of finding help. Our plan was to find a tow, double back to meet at the peace sign.

“Wait, Sean. Wait. Mother has to make a wish before we cut the cake.”

 I wish I never left him. We walked and waved to each other for a while. Then there was a dip and his road lowers or mine goes up a bluff and I couldn’t see him. Like he was gone into the ground, some hippie Orpheus. I thumbed a ride about 25 minutes later. I know it was 25 because I counted the seconds, we were apart, going 57, 58, 59 and then the new minute and I made it to 25. Twenty-six is the number of lovers I’ve had in my life, not counting nice old Edward my last husband, and it was how old I would have been that next December 8th which is what you get when you add two and six. Our birthdays are 26 days apart. An Indian woman, Arapaho, maybe, or Apache, driving an old Ford pickup, stopped and gave me a ride. Wes and I never realized we were on a reservation. She dropped me at the tribal police station. I made a mess of calls, all collect. I am a mess. An officer figured he should call my parents before I passed out with grief or fury. I was on fumes.

“Sean! Be patient and civilized or your grandmother will think you’re a little savage. And watch your hands. Keep them out of your sister’s underpants too.”

I thought I’d rather jump from the Golden Gate Bridge than miss out on a life with Wes. So when Wes said you go northeast and I’ll go northwest, my mind must been half-baked to agree. That decision pains me more than these bedsores that won’t heal. It’s one of life’s cuts that re-opens, pusses, crusts over, re-opens. 

“Mother gets to make the first cut. You can do it, right Birthday Girl? Hold the knife, here. Girls put your hand on the knife, too. And wait for the flash. Wait! Ooh. That blinded me.”

The night was so dark at 2 AM I couldn’t see my sandals or where the tips of my toes were bleeding. I’d been waiting so long. Waiting since noon. Waiting almost 14 hours so I jumped when I spotted headlamps bouncing in the distance and yet it was still almost an hour until my mom and dad got there. All the way from Phoenix. I hadn’t slept in more than four days. Not since San Antonio. I was fueled by speed. Two days earlier, we’d started popping as well as snorting. Of course, I was fueled by Wes, too, for he’s better than sleep. I was fueled by freedom, the freedom from endless tech meetings and fight rehearsals and ten-minute calls before “Places, please.” Calling cues for ten weeks straight and cold stone sober, too. The fact I shouldered all that responsibility made my parents believe my rehab that spring would be my last. I thought so too. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” The night they came to get me, my mom held me in the back seat while I screamed at Daddy to drive me back.

“Open, Mother. Open. Look at what strong teeth grandma has. She has all her teeth and her canines are as strong as a wolf’s, isn’t that right?”

The next morning, I bit down so hard something splintered. I was in a hospital gown and worm wires snaked out of my head. Then I slept, slept through the four months at Demarest—until I started to fake swallow their pills. When they released me I went back home and Mummy showed me to my childhood room still filled with erector sets and my dinosaur collection. The next night I snuck out to the Greyhound station.

“Oh, you’re not scared are you, Tina? Caroline? Here, you two share these big pieces. Sean, you have to sit and wait your turn.”

I waited about 30 minutes for the next bus to San Francisco. I could smell Wesley in the air as I walked up Market Street. In the Haight, I ran into Miriam and she said I should ask around at Jack’s Flop Palace. Ed, the manager, knew Wesley and me. He said he hadn’t seen him since one night the last week when he came into the office puking and sweating. I felt nauseous and the hairs on my arms tingled. It was New Year’s Eve and cold. Ed says Wes was hanging around with Bill Mack and so I hiked over to his place and knocked. He was pretty strung out, so it took him a few minutes of beard scratching to figure out who I was and who I’d come for. He led me to the window box seat, and we watched a trolley go by. I remember Gracie Slick and the Great Society sang “Somebody to Love” on the hi-fi. Bill held my hand like he wanted to play “This little piggy…” and looked into my eyes and he’s fogging his bifocals with his dewy eyelashes. That’s when I knew he’s about to tell me Wesley’s dead before he whispered the words.

“Mother? Come on now and chew, Mother. You can’t let that cake melt in your mouth and dribble out. Swallow, now. You’re right, Caroline. Your grandma is lonely. Very lonely since your Granddaddy died last summer. But we’re here now. Mother?”

I remember that moment like it’s happening now, all over again. I feel paralyzed. I can’t move, speak. Can’t breathe or swallow. I don’t cry. I break Bill’s pretty plate glass window with my forehead, and it gives me a crown of blood. Bill walks me over to the Sunoco station where he says he buried Wesley. It’s in the back, in a little fenced off dirt area by a propane tank. Wes OD’d in Bill’s living room. What was I to do, says Bill? What day was that, I ask. Day after Christmas, he says, his eyes dripping again and he tries to snuffle up the snot. I punch him. The fuckin’ 26th. It’s Wesley’s birthday in three days. I’m overcome and have a manic episode. Yell and get hysterical. Choke on my own hair. Bill talks me down, tells me Wesley kept asking about me. Where’s Mona, he’d mumble, I need Mona. And that calms me some. Bill knew I was all the family Wes had.

“Mother’s drifting. All the excitement. Don’t cry, Caroline. It’s natural that strokes make folks tired. I miss your granddaddy, too, darling. Don’t you wish Daddy were here, Mom? Caroline says she misses him.” 

I remembered the address of that Sunoco—1910 Montrose Avenue—all my life. I committed it to memory in secret. When I was in the Bay Area on my honeymoon with Edward a year later, with itty-bitty Eve in my arms, I walk out of our friends’ house and find wildflowers—snapdragons and tiger lilies—and sneak off to the Sunoco and lay them on his grave. Bill had made a little cross from two old pieces of bamboo someone in the house was using for bongs, some twine, and those roach clips like little crocodile jaws. When I visited a year later with Eve not six months old, it’s covered in mud and ragweed. Overgrown. Wes would like wild and overgrown, I suspect. He’d be proud to be buried back of the Sunoco. It’s just badass enough for him. 

“No, Tina. Not you boo-hooing too. Grandma’s okay—see, she’s smiling. Mother, here, hold the spoon. Here. The spoon, Mother. No your other hand. Put that hand down.”

Ed never knew or figured out. He raised Eve like a normal daughter. She’s so damn normal Wes wouldn’t recognize her as his own.  I’ve wanted to tell Eve all about her real dad, how she’s named after the day I found out Wesley died, but I never did get it out. That’s the mistake of my life. But I figured I had to wait till Ed passed but now my body’s as foreign as a pterodactyl fossil.

“No, no, she’s not waving at anyone, girls, her fingers are just dancing… kind of. Muscles do crazy things after a stroke. Maybe she’s showing us she’s happy.”

Wesley visits me at odd times. But it’s always got to do with 26, like 26 days after the vernal equinox or 26 days after his baby girl’s birthday. He’s fierce in the summer and I understand his anger. I understand he is mad with himself. I know he wants me to come this time and I see the three forks ahead rising out of the mirage my mind has become. He’s waiting. I want to yell to him. But damn, I can’t move my mouth. Due north, I’m trying to scream. This time, due north.


JOHN FRANCIS ISTEL’s stories and poems have appeared in many literary journals. In 2021, his story “The Metaphor Game” won the “Stories Out of School” flash fiction contest, judged by Jonathan Lethem, and was published by A Public Space. His theater writing may be found in back issues of Atlantic, Elle, and the Village Voice among others. He lives in Brooklyn and teaches English at New Design High School on the Lower East Side.


JOHN FRANCIS ISTEL’s chapbook, Voices in the Room, was a semifinalist in our Fall 2020 Digging Press Chapbook Competition.


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