By Barry Badsen
I dreamt about my dad again last night, him standing in the doorway with his Navy kit bag and me begging him not to go.
"It's been weeks," said Mum. "They've sent an official letter. He'll not be coming back."
He might, I thought. I pulled on my sweater and walked through the fields to where I could see ships come up the Channel. He might be on one of them.
I lay in the grass near the dropoff. Past the seafront rooftops, out beyond the breakwater, sat a flotilla of about a dozen ships. As I watched, black puffs of smoke suddenly blossomed over the harbour, then the sound of guns. Water spouts erupted and a ship exploded in a huge fireball. Moments later the shock of it pounded the shore and smacked against my ears. Bloody hell.
Behind me, I heard powerful engines. Three Spitfires in formation. I recognized them from the RAF's silhouette handouts. They fired short, rapid bursts and bright cartridges tumbled into the air beneath them, twinkling in the sunlight. The planes climbed away in a steep arc to join others circling above the ships.
A twisting dogfight raged across the sky for I don't know how long, dozens of planes caught up in it, snarling, looping, firing. Time seemed to stop. Then, as if a bell had rung, they broke apart and scattered, most of them toward the opposite shore. Plumes of smoke rose from two ships. A lone Spitfire skimmed across the water, looking like it would slam into the face of the cliff. But it struggled up, wobbled a bit, and just cleared the edge, its tail chewed, its fuselage full of holes. The pilot surprised me with a salute. I waved back and watched until he was out of sight.
I ran all the way home. Mum turned off the wireless and let me tell her everything I'd seen. Afterward, she hugged me and I inhaled her complex smell--bath powder, cooking grease, and something else, something hers alone. When the clock struck the hour, she put on the kettle, set out biscuits and the familiar cups. At the kitchen table we sipped hot tea. The world seemed larger, a more dangerous place. In the stillness Mum reached across the table for my hand. My dad was never going to come back. I knew that now and began to think about another way forward.
Barry Basden lives in the Texas hill country with his wife and two yellow Labs. His writing has appeared in many fine places. He is coauthor of CRACK! AND THUMP: WITH A COMBAT INFANTRY OFFICER IN WORLD WAR II and edits Camroc Press Review.
* * *
Every Day She Wrote the Book
By Allie Marini Batts
She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door.
Josephine took a last look at the living room, making sure everything was neat, because she
hated to leave a messy house. She left the book on the side table near her cushioned reading chair
and turned off the light; no need to waste electricity while she was gone. She carried her teacup
into the kitchen and washed it, placing it on the draining rack to dry. She threw the teabag into
the wastebin, though she usually could get two cups out of it. Today there would not be time for
a second cup, because she was finally ready to leave the house. Miss Muffet rubbed her silky
white back against the paper-thin skin of Josephine’s ankles, meowing to let her know it was
breakfast time, and the dry kibble in her dish was merely for snacking. Josephine reached into
the cupboard for one of the many small tins of Fancy Feast, stacked neatly in rows, arranged by
flavor, though she knew these things made no difference to the cat. Every Wednesday afternoon,
she took the bus down to the Hannaford and used meticulously clipped coupons to replenish the
stacks of cat food, savoring the weekly excursion as a celebration of her own independence, no
matter how mundane grocery shopping might seem. When you get to be my age, she thought, it’s
an accomplishment just to wake up in your own bed, so why not take joy where you can?
She took down one of the smaller dishes from the cupboard, a plain white china bowl that
she’d bought specifically for Muffet’s meals, and used a clean fork to break up the solid mass of
cat food from the can. Again, it was an action of no consequence to the cat, but that Josephine
felt made the day pass by just a little better than it might have had she not taken the extra steps to
do it. She washed the fork and set it alongside her teacup in the draining rack, and rinsed out the
empty can before putting it in the bin for recycling. She set down Muffet’s plate and stroked her
back, feeling the soft vibrato of her purring under her fingertips. “That’s a good girl,” she
praised, and walked towards the door where she’d hung her sweater and rested her cane. Now
that the living room was tidy, there were no dirty dishes in the kitchen and the cat was fed, it was
time to leave. They’re waiting for me, after all, she thought, and tried to hurry, though her hip
hurt from the tumble she took back in October and she’d still not gotten used to walking with the
cane. She pulled on her favorite sweater, the one her sister Lillian had lovingly knitted her for
Christmas back in 1983, whose acrylic, which had been scratchy when it was new, was now soft
from almost thirty years worth of laundry cycles. Once she walked through the door, the hardest
part was over, because the driver was there on time. She rolled down the window and breathed in
the spring air, noticing the warmer temperature didn’t make her hip hurt as much as it had in the
winter. When she reached the maternity ward, she was eager to greet her family and to see the
new baby. The child was perfect. Josephine blinked her eyes, forgot everything she’d read in the
book by the table, and let out a wail to let the world know that she was alive.
Allie Marini Batts is an alumna of New College of Florida, meaning she can explain deconstructionism, but cannot perform simple math. Her work has appeared in over 100 literary publications that her parents haven't heard of. Her chapbook, "With This Ring" was a 2012 finalist for the Casey Shay Press annual Mary Ballard award. Her short story, "Two Pounds, Two Ounces" was recognized as a Story of Distinction in the 2012 E.M. Koppel Short Fiction Awards and she is a 2012 poetry nominee for the Sundress Press "Best of the Net" Award. Allie lives in Tallahassee with her husband, where she feeds and befriends opossums and treefrogs. She is a research writer and is pursuing her MFA degree in Creative Writing through Antioch University Los Angeles. Allie's publications can be found on her author's blog, here, or to read her book reviews and literary blogging, visit Bookshelf Bombshells at here.
* * *
By Robert Boucheron
In gym shorts and gray T-shirt, dark with patches of wet, Quayle attacks the herb garden with his bare hands. He tears at weeds and crab grass. He snaps stems of rosemary, which has grown from a sprig to a shrub, crowding the sage and thyme. He yanks stems of oregano which sprawl yellow and brown. They come up roots and all.
Rich, black soil appears, damp from rain. A white edging emerges from the green tangle, a miniature fence of wire hoops to separate herbs from lawn, somewhat the worse for wear. Quayle ran over it with the mower one blinding sunny afternoon. Some green oregano stems bear little white flowers. A begonia smiles, flowering pink under long daylily leaves like bangs of hair on a forehead.
Sweat runs into Quayle’s eyes, and his arms are dusted with powder and small dry leaves. The lace on one of his sneakers works loose. His T-shirt hangs lopsided.
The sun rides low in the west, just over the neighbor’s board fence. Young Adam, with his wife Evelyn and two little boys, are away for Labor Day weekend at her parents’ beach house. Adam’s peach and plum trees overhang the fence. The season is past, and fruit rots where it has fallen in Quayle’s yard.
“There you are,” calls a voice from the back porch. Olivia, his wife of countless years. “Did you go to the gym?”
“Yes. Then I wandered back here. I was already soaked from exercise, so I figured what the hell. Summer was so hot for so long. The herb garden was a mess.”
“How long have you been out there?”
“I don’t know. What time is it?”
“Going on five. Come in and shower. The picnic’s already started.”
“Don’t give me that. The annual picnic at Rackham Farm. I made potato salad. You’re taking a six pack of Yeungling.”
“What’s the menu?”
“Ham and baked beans.”
“It never changes.”
“Why should it? You can’t improve on perfection.”
“I’m not going.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Anne Rackham is expecting us. This is her big event of the year. If we don’t show, I’ll never hear the end of it. Everyone will be there.”
“Everyone?” Quayle sounds sarcastic. Sweat stings his eyes and he grimaces.
“Yes, everyone. The Mathews, the Richardsons, the Seales, the Deavers. Maybe not the Vandevers—she was in the hospital, the last I heard. A broken hip. Stephen Rackham is visiting this weekend, their youngest son, the one who works for NASA. He always puts on a fireworks display. You remember.”
Quayle remembers. He helped one year. It was dry, like this year, and Vernon Rackham was worried about igniting the hayfield. They set up the fireworks on the far side of the pond, which was to serve as a reflecting pool. The Pfaltz dog jumped in the pond, paddled across and ran amok, wrecking Stephen’s carefully timed launching sequence. Quayle dropped his flashlight and scrabbled for it in the pollen-laden field. Some low-flying rockets went straight in the water and fizzled. One shot across the pond and into the crowd on folding chairs and blankets. No one was hurt, but it was a royal fiasco.
“It looks much better. The herb garden.”
“It couldn’t look worse. If you want some fresh-picked herbs, there’s plenty.” He points to a heap of stems and weeds. He did not separate them, made no attempt to save the good ones. Exhausted, he walks up the yard to the back porch.
The herb garden is a bed the length of the back fence. The soil is exceptional—crumbly, waxy, the color of coffee grounds. Humus, worth its weight in gold. Unlike the hard clay and sterile sand everywhere else. A hundred years ago, maybe someone had a garden where they dumped kitchen scraps and horse manure. Compost, except they would have called it something else—a midden. Or maybe topsoil washed downhill and accumulated.
Quayle planted at random, herbs and bulbs, whatever took his fancy. The bed is fragrant and unconventional, a mix of small flowers and subdued colors. An English garden? What is the difference between a flower and a herb, anyway?
He mounts the steps of the porch and stands near Olivia. With sandy gray hair, bushy eyebrows and broad shoulders, he is still a handsome man.
“You smell heavenly,” she says. “The rosemary oil got on your arms. And lavender and lemon balm. You’re a walking bouquet, a nosegay.”
“It’s almost a shame to wash it off.”
“I’m not going,” he says quietly. “Not everyone.”
Olivia looks at him as a wife of countless years can. She is calm, thoughtful.
Pollard will not be at the picnic. They both know, but as if under a taboo, neither can say his name. The taboo that forbids speaking of the dead.
Pollard was Quayle’s friend, as close as one could be to a man who does not make friends easily. Buddies, they said, like a joke. They went fishing, canoed on the river. One week they hiked a section of the Appalachian Trial and came back lean, sunburned, suffering from beer deprivation. They had both dropped ten pounds and couldn’t stop grinning.
What did they talk about during those hours and days in the wild outdoors? Nothing much. Men can do that.
“All right,” she said at last. “I’ll make up an excuse for you. Do you mind?”
“No. You had better go. If not, you’ll never hear the end of it.”
“The Rackhams are getting old. How much longer can Anne put on this affair?”
“As long as she wants, I suppose.”
“Let me get another whiff.”
Before he can protest, she moves in for a squeeze and kisses him on the lips.
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia, website boucheronarch.com. He writes articles and fiction on housing, cities, gardens, communities, electric motorcycles, and love gone wrong. His work appears in Blue Lake Review, Cerise Press, Cossack Review, Dark Matter, Mouse Tales Press, Niche, Northern Virginia, Piedmont Virginian, Prime Number, Rider, Streetlight, Talking Writing, 34th Parallel, Virginia Business, and Zodiac Review.
* * *
The Slow Burn
By Richard Crowley
Fredo rested on an old wooden chair waiting to spring upon the slightest sign of life that might manifest itself on the still, tranquil face. Adelfo struggled to breathe
A nurse had been in and out all night long with new bandages and a tub of soapy water to clean the ulcer. Adelfo convulsed in agony each time she spread the thin sheet over his chest. The white woman was fast and rarely smiled. Her voice was painful in Fredo’s ears.
In the morning, Fredo held one corner of Adelfo’s linen blanket and whispered softly, “Adelfo, are you there?”
Adelfo blinked and struggled to turn toward him. His eyes had become clouded with growing cataracts that blotted out all things that once were familiar to him “Freddie? Where are you? Talk to me.”
Fredo grasped his hand and stroked it. “I’m here. Talk about it,” he said.
“,Freddie…,” Adelfo whispered, “I want you to stay.”
Fredo shook his head and smiled. A short, thin woman appeared briefly at the door holding a plastic bag.
“Um, I have his bag bath,” she , “Uh, maybe you want to—“
“Oh, Thanks!” he said as he grabbed the bag and set it on the table. Pulling the striped curtain around the bed, he opened the packet. Using long lateral strokes, he caressed Adelfo’s body with the warm cloth towels. The room was bathed with the smell of lavender and lilac. Adelfo managed to smile but Fredo was dying inside as his friend slipped quietly away.
Adelfo was resting nicely and Fredo’s eyes were like those of a concerned angel as he watched him. He was a hawk at Adelfo’s side and sleep never came between them. The hours of night passed like heavy clouds and the chaos of pain and restlessness made them seem to last forever.
Before the peaceful blackness of 3AM could reach his private room, Adelfo convulsed uncontrollably. Arms and legs thrashed against the metal bedrails. Fredo The nurse was the first to rush to his side.
“Hold him, please mister,” she said while emptying a syringe of tranquilizer into his IV. Within moments, the convulsions quieted and Adelfo shivered against the cold. Fredo helped the nurse pull the linen sheets back over his body. Fredo placed his hand on Adelfo forehead and kissed him. Rising again, he turned away. His eyes filled with large heavy tears and he hid from the nurse.
By morning, he was gone from the room and Fredo looked in vain to find him.
Adelfo lay in a desolate room breathing painfully through a soft plastic mask. He no longer reacted to the world around him and besides the constant wheezing of the pulmonary monitor, he made no sound. Fredo sat in a chair that was close to him.
“It’s Okay, Adelfo,” he said, “It’s me. You know little Freddie…Don’t you see it’s me?” Adelfo’s eyes were glazed and he didn’t blink as Fredo bent over him. “Are you gone already? Already consumed in flames? I’m crying, here. Don’t you see I’m crying?” A solitary tear rolled down his cheek and kissed the top of Adelfo’s right hand.
“Papouli!,” he cried, “Please Don’t die. Don’t leave. Don’t die ‘til later.” His eyes swam with tears and the room grew by degrees darker until he believed he was in the very night of hell. Fredo bent low over Adelfo’s sleeping form and embraced him.
The nurse, doing hourly bed checks, saw them together and set her lips in a disapproving frown.
“Get Outta here,” She said, “You don’t know the harm you are doing. I’m glad you have… feelings— but you must let us do our job!” Fredo’s face darkened and his upper lip trembled. His fingers twitched with rage.
“But you can’t!” he said thickly, “You can’t know. How can you possibly know?”
“Listen, honey,” the woman said, “I know.”
Fredo blushed with anger and his hands tightened into fists. “Look,” he pleaded, “I hate it here. I hate this slow death. You’re killing him. He’s all I have.”
“Mr. Vlachos,” she said matter-of-factly, “Adelfo needs to be here. With a stroke on top of his other stuff, I’m afraid we’re his best chance. You must leave here or I will remove you.”
“Now I understand ,” Fredo mumbled, “I’m really very sorry.”
“That right’,” the white woman said calmly, “Now clear out.”
Fredo looked at the white woman and then at Adelfo, “It’s all right, my love, ” he mumbled. As soon as the white woman was satisfied and continued her deliveries, Fredo crept back into the room. Tracing his fingers over the silent, still face, he searched for the smart funny smile and sagacious eyes that made his heart beat and whose absence made him want to die. Seeing only deathly yellow, he frowned. The lips were cold and the blushing pink that had been so much a part of their love had given way to a grayish pallor.
Fredo reached behind Adelfo’s head and pulled the cord that powered the pulmonary monitor and then drew the soft plastic mask from his face. He gingerly took the breathing tubes from Adelfo’s nose. Adelfo coughed on a bubble of saliva. His once placid eyes grew wide and he whispered, “God of love, why now? Why?” Fredo placed his index finger across Adelfo’s lips to prevent him from talking and whispered, “Good night. I love you more.” Adelfo’s eyes grew still and his body trembled one last time. Freddie bent and kissed the cold pale lips, turned and walked into the hallway. The woman was waiting for him.
“I killed him,” Fredo said quietly, “He loved me and I killed him.”
“I know,” the white woman said, “But you have to let him go.”
“God-bearing mother, it hurts. It hurts me to love him.” Fredo pounded hands bear-like on the edge of the nurse’s station. His heavy frame trembled; the mighty shoulders forgot their strength and hot heavy drops flowed freely from his eyes. The woman held him tightly and they cried for each other.
Richard Crowley is a college student studying accounting.
* * *
By John Dominichini
One Sunday when I was 11, I walked to church with Mother. I was dressed the way Mother dressed me, like the most proper of proper 11-year old girls. We were walking by the Barasconi house when Angela Barasconi walked out onto the porch.
Angela was in her twenties. Her father had died the year before and her mother hadn’t recovered from it emotionally. I’d seen Angela plenty of times before, but I’d never really noticed her. Of course, I’d never seen her dressed the way she was now, or I’d have taken notice.
Mother and I walked by as Angela just stood on the porch. She was wearing a red dress and white high-heeled shoes and holding a white clutch purse, and somehow, she looked real busy doing it. She stood out against the sad, gray house and the unkempt lawn.
Mother didn’t even look at Angela, but I was mesmerized by her. Mother pulled me along by the hand. “Look straight ahead,” she whispered.
Her voice was stern, so I looked straight ahead. I didn’t understand why, but I knew that voice.
When we were several houses away, Mother said, “That Angela is trash. Imagine dressing like that. Ever. But on Sunday? With her mother still in mourning? Trash. Pure trash.”
I didn’t say a word. I knew better. I also knew right then that I wanted to look like trash when I got older. I’d never seen anybody so beautiful. And if plain-Jane Angela could transform herself, so could I. Her dark hair was curled and layered. She had on bright red lipstick and otherwise a gentle application of makeup. Her nails seemed to be two-toned, white and red.
I had been too far away to see her nails clearly and I only got a glance at them, anyway. It took everything I had not to run from Mother to go take a look at Angela’s nails to study the technique. I wanted to try to duplicate it. I wanted to experiment with nail polish as soon as possible, which would be never if Mother had anything to do with it.
Yes, trash was what I wanted to look like when I grew up. It clearly took a lot of effort to look like trash. A woman couldn’t just throw on any old red dress and slap on some makeup. No, to look the way Angela did on that particular Sunday, it took attention to detail, and patience.
But I was determined. I’d put in the effort by studying magazines, television shows, movies. Whatever it took. I’d study Angela herself, whenever I got the chance. If any other women came along that looked like trash, I’d study them, too.
As Mother and I walked on to church, I started working out a plan in my mind. For sure, when I grew up, I was going to look like trash and nobody was going to stop me. And unfortunately, nobody did.
John Domenichini is a technical writer living in Monte Sereno, California. His work has appeared in Bartleby Snopes and Mysterical-E.
* * *
By Jeffrey Dupuis
The oldest chimpanzee known to science is a retiree named Jiggs who lives in Palm Springs and spends his days lying by a pool, never daring to go in because he lacks the body fat to make himself buoyant. He doesn't smoke or have tea parties, wear suits, or do most of that stupid stuff humans make trained chimps do—although he did dabble in karate as his film career went the way of the jungle where he'd come from.
He had given up plucking the leaves off plants and inserting their stems into anthills for sucking bugs to make it big in pictures. Everyone was doing that back in the day—throwing a suitcase in the trunk of their car or hopping on a bus and heading for the Hollywood hills. Jiggs got his start in the role of Cheeta in the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies. There were a lot of white men saving Africa from itself back then: Tarzan, The Phantom, Congo Bill. Plenty of work for Jiggs too. But things had changed and he wasn't even wanted in the space program anymore.
A fly lands in the half-coconut Jiggs is sipping the water out of and he can't bring himself to make a play for the delicious, fat morsel. Jiggs just stares lazily at the fly as it shoots its straw-tongue out and dabs up drops of the chimp's drink. The glass door slides open and Burke comes out wearing a bathrobe and aviator sunglasses.
“Doctor's coming to see you today, pal,” he says. “You boys are gonna have a great little chat.”
Jiggs knows what that means. This day had to come sooner or later. He'd hear a car door slam out front, then the gate would open and a skinny man—the type who was too weak for leadership so he developed his cunning—would enter, with a black case at his side. Inside the case would be just enough poison to send Jiggs far, far away. He used to fear this day, but Jiggs has come to realize that he's been dead for years, dead since that fake, that hack, Tongo beat him out of the lead in Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp. This is how they all died, Old Yeller, all the Lassies; the skinny man came for them all, sooner or later. Even that pretender Tongo.
Burke walks over to the patio table where there is a cocktail shaker coated with moisture and a bar towel with a knife and some fresh fruit laid across it. He pours the contents of the shaker while singing “Luck Be A Lady” into a martini glass. He slices up an orange rind and drops it in his glass, carrying the glass and the naked orange over to Jiggs.
“One for you,” he says, handing over the orange, “and one for me.” He takes a long sip of his cocktail.
“Breakfast of champions, right, Jiggs?”
Jiggs stares at the orange with the same lackluster look as he gave the fly. He looks over at Burke, sees the anticipation slathered on his face like sunblock, and stuffs the orange in his mouth. Burke smiles and raises his glass. Burke is Jiggs' only friend left on planet earth, or anywhere else, and all Jiggs really cares about is keeping him happy.
Burke had an uncle named Fen who was an animal trainer in the so-called golden age of Hollywood. He worked, however indirectly, with the biggest stars and once saw Natalie Wood making out with director Nicholas Ray on the set of Rebel Without A Cause. He left everything he had, even his animals, to his only sister's only son, Burke.
Burke was doing matinee shows at The Magic Castle when his uncle died. Uncle Fen had one son, but he died before Fen did, being caught in an explosion on the set of Rambo: First Blood Part II.
There was a time, a couple of years back, when the telephone rang and Jiggs' agent was on the line.
This is the project we've been waiting for. I hope you're ready to hit the comeback trail, kid. They're making a Planet of the Apes prequel. I know, everything's a remake or reboot or prequel these days, but this one calls for a real chimpanzee, not a human in a rubber suit.
What? Yeah, it'll be huge, a blockbuster. James Franco is already attached. He's got a James Dean thing going for him and the director's trying to court Frieda Pinto for the romantic lead. I know, she sounds like a car from the seventies, she was in Slum Dog. No, no, that was Air Bud. Slum Dog Millionaire was that Oscar fave from a few years back, the Danny Boyle picture.
Well, she's a spicy dish, and I'd like to sink my teeth into that butter chicken. I'll arrange a screen test, but I know this one is yours, I feel it in my bones. I'll get in touch with a guy I know over at Fox and hook it up, then we'll go out and celebrate. See if we can find you a nice female to hit the monkey bars with, you know what I'm saying?
Jiggs went outside and swung around the bars in the backyard with a vigor Burke hadn't seen since the last Tarzan movie. He couldn't tell if it was genuine excitement or if Jiggs was trying to get back into shape. Living in Palm Springs had been good for Jiggs, who had all his teeth and maintained a thick coat of fur. But this exuberance, like all energy, had its limits. The phone rang again.
Sorry, kid. The director is using a human. Yeah, I know, but he doesn't see it that way. Yes, it is racist, like Amos and Andy, but, you see, they got these computers that can make him look like you. It's a raw deal. But hell, we'll still hit the town, maybe do some networking, I'm serious. Let me give you a call back when I have a better handle on my schedule.
That was the last Jiggs heard from Martin, his agent.
One day, when Burke was looking at two girls swimming in the pool next door through the binoculars he had bought himself for his birthday, Jiggs hobbled to the end of the diving board and threw himself into the water. As the water sealed up over his brow ridge he could swear he heard the Austrian yodel that Johnny Weissmuller had used as his Tarzan call. Jiggs was back on set, with Fen, waiting for the director’s signal. He wasn't afraid. Then he heard another sound and felt arms clasp around his chest. He could breathe again and feel the sun warm his face.
“I got you, Jiggs, stay with me,” Burke said, “You're all I got.”
So Jiggs decided he could wait. The pathetic man—the one with more brains than muscle, the one with the low-breeding-success-rate—would come when Burke was ready for Jiggs to go. And Jiggs was happy to be there for Burke until then, even if everything else made him unhappy.
Jiggs hears the car door, then a high, effeminate voice call over the fence. The gate squeals open. The man with the case comes to the pool. He looks at Burke, says hello, then looks over at Jiggs.
“How are we doing today, movie star?”
This is said without any sarcasm. Jiggs watches the case that is rigidly still against the man's leg. Burke, however, was wrong. The man with the case is not a doctor, but a graduate student working on his thesis detailing chimpanzee behavior. He walks around the pool and approaches Jiggs.
“It's all right,” Burke says, “he's pretty sedated these days.”
“Is he sick?”
“Not that I can tell, it's more like depression.”
“This is a new phenomenon?”
“I'd say so, I've known him for years and I've never seen him like this. He tried to off himself a while ago, but only once. He's been a zombie ever since.”
“Then maybe it's the perfect time.”
He pats Jiggs on the arm, then kneels down. Unzipping the case, he removes a small digital camcorder. Jiggs immediately comes to life. He shoots out of his chair and races to the monkey bars, climbing to the top then pausing there to look over his shoulder into the camera. The grad student is temporarily stunned. He doesn't hit the record button.
“That's it, Jiggs! Good profile,” Burke says. “Show us your lovely teeth, now climb down and get the ball...”
Jeff Dupuis writes poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. His work has appeared in Bare Hands, The River Journal, The Acta Victoriana, Rolling Thunder Quarterly, Blood Lotus Journal, the University College Review, Turbulence, Driftwood Poetry and The Healthy Ninja among others. Jeff currently lives and works in Toronto, Canada.
* * *
Maybe I Only Love the Unattainable
By Alejandra Guerra
I only love the unattainable. And I don’t mean that in a we-want-what-we-can’t-have kind of way. I just love the unattainable. I hope you understand that. Please do not be surprised if one day I become distant. I am trying to recollect my thoughts and realize that you are the one good thing that has happened to me so far. But I can’t love you.
I dream of touching your face and kissing you in the morning on a Sunday after we have fallen asleep with all of our clothes off. But in the afternoon I’ll drive away listening to the mix tape you gave me last December and I’ll feel more lethargic than ever. I like you but I think you need to disappear for a while. Let me breathe on my own until I can’t stand the sound of my own breath in hushed monotones; fleeting and relentlessly lonely. In the mornings I’ll take my tea slightly sweeter than usual and I’ll miss the way your fingertips felt on my spine.
Some days I might even use the record player that you got me and some days I’ll write poems in the dark of how much I miss you. Most nights I try to avoid our favorite restaurant and how much I wanted to kiss you at that party two years back. One of my friends will run into you in town and tell you that I haven’t been doing well. You’ll call me two weeks later but I won’t pick up.
I love you when you’re not looking but if I look too fast you might disappear. I love you discreetly, quietly, timidly. I love the frail part of love when frail love is all you have left. I love the unattainable and the unbearable and the ceaseless despair when despair is all you have left.
Maybe I only love the unattainable because you can’t lose what is never really yours. Maybe in a different universe where people were not latched onto each other like dead bodies tied with strings, where falling in and out of love was as simple as exchanging a silver necklace at the thrift store. Maybe then I would not love the unattainable and I would love you instead. But all I have is my heart exposed on a cable cord and your words to dismantle me in the end.
Alejandra Guerra is a sophomore studying multimedia journalism at Lynn University. With an incessant passion for writing and photography, Guerra aims to pursue a career in the field of communication. She was photo editor and staff writer for her college newspaper last semester and continues to write for the newspaper today. She has won numerous awards for her photography and original poetry and one of her pieces was featured in an art gallery in Maryland. Guerra is ambitious to pursue her passion of being a renowned worldwide journalist in New York City. She also hopes to publish a book at some point in her life.
* * *
Don't Be Sorry
By Joey Hale
He popped open beer number eleven and cranked up the stereo a little more. Earlier that afternoon he’d been informed that Nola had moved in with some cable guy from Haruf. It wasn’t like he was hoping to get back with her. In fact lately he had been celebrating his freedom. But for some reason, something about the news of Nola living happily without him made him a very thirsty man.
He stood in the middle of the living room as he often did, staring at the TV with the sound muted and the stereo blasting. Drinking beer and reminiscing of various girls he’d known - Diane - Amy - Peggy - Karen - Christina - Margaret - Another Amy - subconsciously comparing them all to Nola.
He found himself thinking about one in particular, Monica from Mowequa, Illinois whom he’d met when they were seniors during the 1984-85 school year. He had been the Regional President for the American Industrial Arts Student Association and she was the State Vice President of the Future Homemakers of America.
The Wabash City A.I.A.S.A. Club had sent him to a leadership training conference in Springfield, Illinois to mingle with several different student organization officers from various schools from all around the state. Besides his club and the FFA and FHA there were clubs about health and clubs about computers and a club for just about everything else he could imagine. He still remembered thinking how odd it was that some upstate schools had computer clubs while Wabash City High owned only one computer and the students weren’t allowed to touch it. Once everyone had checked into the Hotel/Conference Center the clubs’ officers were divided into teams and he lucked out and got stuck in the same group as Monica for the entire week. Even now he remembered how good she looked, how her long brown hair smelled like green apple shampoo.
So during those dull and redundant seminars he focused his attention on Monica. Beginning with breakfast at 8:00 and ending with the after-dinner group discussion the days were crammed with meeting after meeting. One night they sat through a talk on etiquette, then had to practice all the rules during dinner - scoop your soup to the opposite side of the bowl - don’t use your bread as a shovel. The next day brought a surprise visit from Zig Ziglar.
He’d been stuck in a room with three FFA officers who had mocked his old Black Sabbath t-shirt but later that night when he and Monica unlocked his motel room the Future Farmers were nowhere to be seen. He found an old Marx Brothers movie on the television and the couple snuggled up on the bed furthest from the door and he contemplated Zig’s quote, “A goal properly set is halfway reached.”
The two remained as close to each other as possible for the rest of the leadership conference and after breakfast that last morning the advisors dimmed the lights and screened a slideshow - highlights of the past week’s activities - still photos of meals and meetings and pool-side fun - and when the lights returned to illuminate the room he and Monica kissed goodbye - a movie-ending kiss right there in the center of the banquet room in front of God and all the state advisors and everyone else, including his own club advisor, Mr. LeBrace, who’d driven up from Wabash City to take him home. As he and Monica kissed the boys applauded like circus monkeys in blazers and ties as the girls looked on jealously though still elated that at least someone had found love - generic teenagers gathering around Monica and him like the supporting cast of yet another unbelievable Brat Pack adventure. Of course the movie would have ended perfectly with that kiss whereas real life moved on and unfortunately the promise to keep in touch faded away.
Now he killed his beer and opened another and before he knew it he was turning down the music and calling Information for Monica Whitney’s number. The operator couldn’t find her number though she did have a Mowequa listing for a Mrs. Whitney. She said for a small charge she could connect him with that number and he said, “Do it to it.”
On the fifth ring a woman answered and he asked if she knew Monica.
“She’s my daughter.”
“Well - this is a little weird but - ” and he proceeded with a quick rendition of how he met Monica, leaving out the Marx Brothers and a few other details. “We wrote each other a couple times but - ya know.”
“Well, Hon,” she said. “Monica doesn’t live here anymore.”
“Well - don’t suppose you’d give me her number, would ya?”
“I could - but she just got married last month so - ”
“Oh - well - sorry I bothered you. I just - I was just wondering how she was doing.”
“Well, don’t be sorry. She’s doing pretty well. They live over in Assumption.”
“Oh yeah,” he said, figuring their conversation was over. He cradled the phone between his cheek and his shoulder while unscrewing the cap from a bottle of bourbon that had been sitting on the coffee table, one of the large bottles with the handle made into the glass.
But Mrs. Whitney said, “So, you were in Industrial Arts. I guess now you’re probably an architect or something of that nature.”
“No, not really - I just - work - I don’t know.” He took a long slug off the whiskey and stared out the window though it was dark outside and he could see only his own reflection. “Actually, I quit the Industrial Arts Club when I got back home from that leadership thing.”
“Oh - that’s a shame.”
His dog Jasper woke up on the couch and yawned and then stood up and stretched. He hopped down and casually strolled over and stared at the knob on the front door.
“That last day - when we said goodbye - I kissed her.” He stepped over, stretching the phone cord as far as possible, and let Jasper outside.
“Oh really?” There was a slight chuckle in Mrs. Whitney’s voice.
“Yeah - it was - ” He wanted to describe the entire scene but skipped ahead. “So on the car ride home - my advisor - who was just the main shop teacher at our school - got all weird.”
“About you guys kissing?”
“Said it looked tacky - making out in front of people like that - which we wasn’t really making out - we was just - ”
“Well, it sounds innocent enough to me,” Mrs. Whitney said.
“Yeah, I worked for him too and he was always bitching about something. Had a rich wife and they was building this ridiculous house. So it ended up - I just quit the job and the club. LeBrace - that was his name - Mr. LeBrace - he gave me the old ‘You’re ruining your future'. And really see, I was supposed to get this scholarship that he ended up giving to this other kid.” He pounded his beer and stepped into the kitchen for another, again stretching out the phone cord. “You know how it is.”
“Well, that’s too bad.”
“Aw - it was no big deal, really. I don’t even know why I’m telling you all this. I just - I don’t know - I just got to thinking about Monica and thought I’d see if I could get a hold of her - I mean - you know - talk to her - see how she’s doing.”
“Well, I’m sorry you didn’t get to speak with her.”
“No now, don’t you be sorry.” He opened the cold beer. “You’re not gonna tell her I called, are ya?”
“Do you want me to?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “There’s no need to bother her now, I don’t guess.”
“Oh, I don’t think she’d be bothered.”
He wanted to tell Mrs. Whitney about how it was like an 80’s movie when he kissed her daughter - and how the other kids stood around them in a circle and the room spun and how he could see the whole scene even though his eyes were closed - but he couldn’t find the right place to begin. Suddenly he felt like driving over to Mr. LeBrace’s mansion after all these years and kicking his ass.
“Guess I better get off here,” he said. “Thanks for talking to me.”
“Well - I’m glad you called.”
“I doubt that.” He squinted out the window, trying to spot Jasper.
“Yes - I mean it,” she said. “I was just sitting around here with nobody to talk to.”
“Yeah well,” he said. “That’s the same thing I was doing.”
Joey Dean Hale is a musician and writer in the St. Louis area. He received his MFA from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and has published stories in several magazines, including Temporary Infinity Press, Marco Polo Arts Mag, and Octave Magazine, which also has his song “High Noon” posted online. In September 2012 he was the featured writer in Penduline Press - Issue 6 “WTF” - which included four flash fiction pieces and an interview with the author. He has stories forthcoming in The Dying Goose and Fried Chicken and Coffee.
* * *
By Steve Karas
George Pittman would never forget where he was when The Voice, as it came to be known, revealed itself. It was similar, although of certainly far greater magnitude, to the 9/11 attacks and the assassination of JFK. It was a Sunday morning in June and the heat of the day was just beginning to rise. He was rocking on his front porch, thumbing through the Times, one eye on his great grandson racing back and forth across the burndt lawn. Sweat was climbing up the roots of the boy's blonde hair. The street was quiet, but for the trill of song sparrows and the chirping of crickets.
The Voice came suddenly and without warning and blanketed the Earth like a net trap. George carefully stepped off the porch and looked up to the pale sky. The boy wrapped his arms around George’s bad leg and did the same. Neighbors peered through window blinds and then began spilling out and onto the street. At first, George thought it must have been a local hoax. A loudspeaker, perhaps. But the sound was all-encompassing, no less than the air's embrace. Then neighbors who had checked their televisions and phones began spreading word that The Voice could be heard, not only in their city, not even just through the country, but across the globe. There was one broadcast for all. It awakened New Zealanders at 1:30 A.M.; it stirred Russians preparing for supper at 5:30. The voice was decipherable in every language. In Tokyo, they heard Japanese; in Nigeria, The Voice sounded in over 500 tongues.
The Voice began by announcing it had indeed created the Universe. It created Man too, and given him the breath of Life and dominion over the Earth. Among George’s neighbors who now filled the street, there was a cacophony of triumphant cries and applause because at that moment there was a collective agreement The Voice was that of God. George’s age-spotted hands shook. He shut his eyes and whispered, Hallelujah. By then, his great-grandson was running around again, repeating things. It’s a miracle, he said. It’s glorious!
But just as strangers were throwing themselves into each other’s arms, The Voice continued that, despite being dynamic and powerful as a whole, human beings as individuals were insignificant. The Voice said once we died, our journeys ended. Once we died, we no longer continued on in any form at all.
George struggled to breathe, the Hand of God strangling his lungs. It couldn’t be; his whole life, after all, had been built on the premise of resurrection. It was like being told he wasn’t really George Pittman. Or that Bloomington, Illinois, his life-long home, didn’t exist on any map. His thoughts rushed to Ellen. He then stared through the boy.
The Voice said, Now go back to your live. And then it was gone. The birds and crickets could again be heard. No one moved or spoke until Mrs. Wurthington, George’s neighbor, fell to her knees and cried.
George Pittman had always been a Man of God. For over forty years, he had served as senior pastor at The First Christian Church; his father was pastor before him. George had been witness to countless miracles: the healing of Sergeant Samuel Hayes who was told he would never walk again after being struck by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan; Baby Mabel who was found unharmed in a cornfield, a tornado having ripped her home from the ground; Jennifer and Kathy Bender, twin sisters separated at birth who discovered each other fifty-five years later living only three miles apart.
For George, there had always been signs his late wife, Ellen, was near too. A week after she passed, he heard music coming from somewhere in the house. He finally pinpointed it to the attic where he dug through old boxes and Christmas decorations until he came upon a music box given to them on their wedding day. And not long ago, his great-grandson was having a conversation, alone in the basement. When George asked him who he was talking to, he said his mama (who had died of cancer at only thirty), Grandma Ellen, and a handful of other deceased relatives the boy couldn’t possibly have known.
George had waited fifteen years to see Ellen again. For a long time, he wondered if she would be waiting for him, fearing she may have instead chosen to reunite with her first love who died in World War II. Now did he have to fear she wasn’t out there at all? He knew The Voice couldn’t have been God’s, that there had to be some other explanation, but he still found himself wondering, What if?
George thought about his great-grandson, the family member he had grown closest to after the boy’s mother passed. He couldn’t bear the thought of not watching him from above, maturing into a fine young man, finding a nice wife, a good job, having a family of his own.
He desperately wished his death had preceded The Voice. In eighty-five years, he never had questioned his life beyond. Never had any doubt about it. He was infested with guilt for having even such fleeting thoughts now. He opened the Holy Bible for strength, but had difficulty keeping his mind focused. He listened to songs he and Ellen would dance to – Wake Up Little Susie, Yakety Yak. He longed for a sign from her that she was there with him. Maybe a skip of the record. He waited.
After The Voice revealed itself, the world descended into a universal depression. Of course, there were those who reacted in anger, using it as an opportunity to ignite cars on fire and shatter storefront windows. Others stockpiled water bottles and canned goods and hid in storm cellars. George just stayed indoors. Each morning, neighbors gathered outside their homes expecting The Voice to return and share more, but the skies were silent. What could the purpose of such a dreadful message have been? No one could make sense of it. Within days, speculation began to grow, through city streets and on television news programs and radio talk shows, casting doubt that The Voice was really God after all. And even if so, was He merely testing mankind to see how easily its faith could be shaken? It couldn’t possibly be of human invention. Was The Voice an alien life form playing with the shared Earthling psyche? Or worse, Satan attempting to deceive Man and crush his frail spirit?
The morning headaches and nausea George had been experiencing just weeks before The Voice, had by now become intolerable. But it wasn’t until he suffered a seizure that he finally went to see a doctor at St. Joe’s. He underwent a battery of tests.
We found a lesion in your left temporal lobe, the doctor said. George didn’t speak. He went numb.
A second MRI a month later showed that the lesion had grown. Glioblastoma Multiforme Grade IV tumor was what they called it. The doctor recommended radiation and chemotherapy. He said, George, I’m going to be honest with you – the average length of life for someone with a tumor like this is ten months.
George had always told himself, long ago, well before The Voice, that he would decline treatment if circumstances such as those ever arose. That he would pray and let the Lord’s will be done.
Can I please have some time to consider my options, George said.
George couldn’t sleep for days. He read Scripture. He walked around with a black-and-white photograph of Ellen in his hand, as yellow-stained as his old teeth. In it, she stood against a rail overlooking the Niagara Falls. She had smooth skin, big brown curls, and a smirk, as if she feared nothing and would always remain young.
Days later, George called his doctor. Nothing? the doctor said. Are you one-hundred percent sure? George was sure. He would pray.
The Voice hadn’t returned in months. Maybe it never would. Folks stopped listening for it in the mornings and, slowly, life went back to the way it was before. George figured people born after The Voice would likely never perceive it as a real event. It would be as foreign to them as Neil Armstrong walking the moon to Generation Y. They would know of it only from the special television events on its anniversary. Man was resilient, after all, and knew how to suppress discomfort. And fear was an emotion that couldn’t sustain its intensity for long.
George wanted to live normally for as much time as he could. He pushed himself to keep up with the church choir, even though he couldn’t remember the words to hymns anymore or even read them for that matter. They sang Jesus My Lord My God My All and there were enough voices that George felt he could still follow along okay without being a distraction. He was tired all the time. Bruises covered his body like leopard spots. He was losing his speech. They were all symptoms of the illness.
To George’s surprise, hallucinations were symptomatic of it too, particularly auditory ones, and he became convinced The Voice and even the conversations he had about it with his family and neighbors were all just fantasies of his diseased mind.
The Voice wasn’t God’s. It wasn’t Satan’s. It hadn’t been the game of an extraterrestrial being. That’s what George would tell himself whenever fear would grip him. Whenever he would reconsider clamoring back to the doctors for medications and miracles, he would tell himself The Voice never really happened. That it was no more real than Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds which caused widespread panic of its own. He told himself that soon he would be at peace.
Ellen came to George on his deathbed. He was sure of it.
While Death tugged at his ankles, his fingers instinctually clawed for solid ground. He was nine-years-old, building forts and foxholes with his older brother, Jack. Then he was twelve, sitting on the living room floor in front of the Zenith console radio listening to The Shadow with mom and dad. At last, he was a young man being introduced to Ellen for the first time, when he and his family had gone to Chicago to visit long-time friends. Even though she was far more worldly and educated than he would ever be, George knew immediately that he would marry her. The feelings from that moment were still as real and alive as the pain he was enduring that day.
George longed to be with everyone again, to let go, to be at peace with the Lord like he always imagined he would be. But would they be out there? Would their existence continue beyond the threshold? That’s when Ellen came to reassure him. She appeared as a deer peering through his bedroom window. George tried to get the attention of his family, of the nurse, but he couldn’t speak anymore and couldn’t lift his arm to point. He looked at the deer and knew it was her. The deer nodded and turned as if inviting him to come along.
In his final memories, George saw the brilliant white light so many described. He could see his relatives crying over his body and his great-grandson touching his cold foot. The boy looked up at George departing and he waved. George’s daughter said, Don’t leave yet, Dad, don’t go. And he considered holding on longer. But then he saw Ellen walking towards him, her hand extended until it reached his. Of course I’ve been waiting for you, she said. Of course I’ve been right here.
Hers was the only voice he heard.
Steve Karas lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter. His short stories have appeared in several print and online publications, including Foliate Oak. He also writes reviews for The Review Review. You can visit his website and follow him on Twitter @Steve_Karas.
* * *
By Kate LaDew
“You must be very, very quiet here, people are reading,” said the old woman to the little boy.
But the little boy’s shoes squeaked and everyone in the library turned to look at him. And all the words in all the heads of all the people reading jumped into the air, and the pictures the words had drawn lit up the room, flashing them like blinking Christmas lights on the walls and the ceiling and all the pictures moved and lived and breathed together and became a giant world tumbling around itself, spinning faster and faster. 10 times faster than the earth and in no time at all the little boy was an old man and all alone in the library. 100 years had passed before he blinked his eyes and finally stopped all the Christmas lights, freezing them mid-breath on the walls and ceiling.
And a young woman walked into the library with a little girl by her side. And the old man who had once been a little boy put a finger to his lips and kneeled down on his creaky knees next to the little girl and said, “You must be very, very quiet here, though no one is reading. The words that used to live are waiting for you to dream them back to breathing. Take off your shoes and follow me.”
And the little girl put her hand in his and they walked to the bookshelves and picked up the first book they found and when the first sentence of the first page entered the little girl’s mind it walked down to the edges of her heart and its beating flung the words up onto the walls and the ceiling and the old man who once was a little boy said, “Don’t forget. Tell everyone who opens that door.”
And the little girl nodded in her bare feet and said, “I promise.”
Kate LaDew is a graduate from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a BA in Studio Art.
* * *
Tall Coffee, Black
By Leonard Owens III
Today is the day I do it.
I will say something to Tall Coffee, Black.
I will tell him something. That he's cute. That I like his choice. That he smells like home.
Something to start a dialogue. To show him I exist. To make myself an option for him.
It will happen today.
Okay, he's walking up. Do this, do this, do this, he's only one man, one guy is all he is, one guy with divine brown hair expertly parted to one side and held by just a touch of gel, one male with a voice smoother than vanilla ice cream on your throat in summer, one man with the smile I see every restless night when I can't sleep, he's only that man, the one.
“Morning. Tall coffee, black, please.”
“Yes sir, coming right up.”
I get his coffee, look at his face while he looks somewhere else, hand him the cup, and, again, for the 56th day in a row, I am silent, saying nothing of note.
“Thanks, have a nice day.”
I couldn't even muster up a You, too.
I was wrong.
Today is the day I do it.
Yesterday was a false start, like in football.
I'm going to look Tall Coffee, Black right in the eyes, those hazel confections tucked close to his perfectly pointed nose, I'm going to look at him and say You're a loyal customer.
What? NO. I'm not going to say that. What the hell am I thinking? I am going to stare him down, make him shiver, and I'm going to say Nice shoulder bag.
Okay, let's get it together here. No way that line is going to work. Screw it, no more thinking, I'm going to wing it, I'm going to let it fly, make it up, I took an improv class in college, and so what if I only got a D, I can do this, look him in that sexy kisser and say something right.
“Hey there, tall coffee, black, please.”
No wonder I got a D in that class.
“Um, yeah, I'm back, again, for my morning coffee.”
Even being sarcastic, he sounds like McCartney muttering sweet nothings in my ear.
“Sure thing, be right back.”
I did it! I said something! Something completely stupid and I looked like a moron, but I said something. I can't wait until my break so I can go to the bathroom, look in the mirror, and do a happy dance while I silently scream with joy!
Today is the day after all.
“Here's your coffee, sir. Hope you enjoy it.”
Where did that come from? I said more! I'm a freakin' powerhouse of conversation, my flower has finally bloomed, smell my words Tall Coffee, Black!
“Thanks, have a good one.”
“You, too. Have a good one, heck, have a great one. Have a great day!”
He looked at me. He smiled.
Yesterday was the day.
The first day. The day I'll look back on as The Beginning.
I slept well last night, the first good night of sleep in months. His smile was tucked under my pillow, like a gun protecting me from nightmares and bad thoughts. With that smile, I won't need Lunesta or my Dream Catcher anymore. No more visits to the doctor, bleary eyed with coffee cup in hand, I found sleep in his smile, the one he gave me.
Today is the day I ask him his name.
And hopefully he asks for mine.
If he asks for mine then I know he likes me. If he asks my name today, tomorrow I ask him out on a date, maybe meet for coffee, not here, somewhere else, a little all-night diner downtown, and it would go so well that by the time one of us looked at the clock it would be midnight, we'd have spend the whole day talking. He'd tell me his childhood dog's name: Feline, he mastered irony at an early age. I'd tell him my favorite cartoon: Superfriends, and I rooted for the Legion of Doom. We'd laugh and smirk and when he walked me home he wouldn't ask to come inside, he'd just touch my shoulder and say Goodnight, and I'd be overtaken with emotion, and I'd lunge, yes, lunge at him, and we'd kiss.
I have a good feeling about today.
There he is, he just walked in, he's in line now. He looks good.
Oh, crap. He just looked at me, and I didn't look away, and he smiled again, at me.
I'm right! He likes me. It's going to be a good day.
Here he is, looking handsome, a small crinkle in his cheeks that wasn't there the other days, I know it's for me, it's all for me, he's all for me.
“Good morning, can I have a tall coffee, black and also an iced coffee with milk.”
“Hot and cold today, eh? Trying something different. I dig it.”
I can't be stopped. Today is destiny.
“Well, actually, my girlfriend just got back from Europe after being gone for three months. The iced coffee is for her. We agree on a lot of things, but not coffee.” He chuckles, expecting me to join in on his joke. “Anyhow, she was at Oxford...”
Three months. I had all this time, every morning, any morning, to make a move. Any move. He has a girlfriend, but she was gone. So gone she didn’t even exist. The iced coffee could be for me. Not for her.
It could still be for me. I mean, how strong can their relationship be? Who leaves Tall, Coffee Black all alone for three months?
I would never do that. Not to him. Never.
Today could still be our day.
“So, what's your name?”
Leonard Owens III is a humble student at Daytona State College who likes sleep, but gets very little, so he stays up and writes instead. Poems of his can be found at Daily Love, Dead Flowers: A Poetry Rag, and Downer Magazine, and short stories of his can be read at Fiction365, Every Day Fiction, and Free Flash Fiction. Hopefully, more of his stuff will be accepted by various journals of awesomeness soon. If not, he’ll just keep writing anyway.
* * *
By Heather McDonald
Sonny just stands there, slouching in the middle of my room with his hands in his pockets and his mouth half open at the T.V. He’s big. You’d think he’d be a real man by now with his mustache and slick hair.
I start telling him how they gave a baby doll to Hattie across the hall. Every morning they roll her wheelchair into her doorway, and she stares into my room with the baby tucked under her arm.
“She’s out there all day with that thing, except for when they change her,” I say.
He doesn’t seem to hear me, or notice me walking back and forth to hang sweaters in my closet. I always show him how good I get around.
“Mama, how about I bring you a nice big chair? Something that reclines, so you can watch yourself some T.V. and relax,” he says.
“I don’t need a chair. I’m going home.”
I have to remind Sonny each visit. He brought me here with pneumonia right before Thanksgiving, and promised I only had to stay until I could breathe right again. I got better, and then he said through winter at the most. It was cold and nasty out, and he was worried sick that I might fall and break a hip. He said he only wished he could take good care of me like the nursing home. I reminded him that he hadn’t held a job more than a month, so it wasn’t like he was busy. He didn’t mention hips again, but it’s been spring for a while now. The dogwood tree outside my window bloomed, and the day nurse can’t stop bragging about her kid’s Easter dress. The staff decorated our doors with wreaths of plastic pink tulips.
“I got to get home and get some beans in the ground if I want to see anything this summer,” I say.
Sonny drops his head, crosses his arms, and sways from one foot to the other. All the sudden he looks like he’s 11-years-old and about to get the switch.
“Mama, I’m sorry. I hate to tell you this, but you got robbed,” says Sonny.
“What are you talking about?” I ask.
“Somebody broke into the house,” he says.
I sit on the edge of my bed.
“There’s been a bunch of break-ins all over the county. They think people are coming out from Lexington looking for drug money. There’s all kinds of crazy people out there. I’m just glad you were here, safe.”
“Somebody broke in?” I ask.
“They broke a window. Once I walked in and saw everything gone, it just broke my heart. I’m so sorry, Mama. I know you loved that house.”
“Which window? I can fix a window.”
“There’s nothing left, Mama. They took everything. They got the T.V., every bit of furniture, all the pots and pans, even the microwave.”
“I don’t cook,” I say.
Richard had always fixed me something to eat, up until he got sick last year. I would have tried harder when we got married, but he said he liked chopping and messing with the stove. He never cared much that I’d rather be outside than in the kitchen.
Sonny starts breathing heavy with his mouth open.
“What are you going to eat? You’re spoiled here. Nobody’s at home making you breakfast, lunch, dinner, and all those snacks you get,” he says.
“I’ll make do.”
I did fine for myself after Richard died. I made sandwiches and read by the window all day. From there I could see the old dog pens. The barn was just a few feet away. I’d left its door open so I could see the tractor parked inside. Richard’s yellow rag bucket was still on the seat. He always seemed to be cleaning the thing for a church hayride. Squirrels had moved in, and spent all day scrambling up and down the tires.
“Nothing’s there, Mama. Your comfy chair’s gone, bed’s gone. And you don’t know if those robbers will come back. They just might. Drug people are crazy.”
“I got a shotgun,” I say.
“I’m telling you Mama, there’s nothing left. Everything’s gone.”
I ask if they got Richard’s books, or his Bible.
“His paintings? The one of Wilson’s pond? The fishing boy?”
“They must have figured they could get a lot of money for art,” he says.
“Did they get his fife?”
“Yeah, Mama. I’m telling you, they took everything.”
Richard’s granddaddy marched in the Civil War with that fife. I’d rolled the thing up in old newspapers and hid it in the attic behind a stack of Guideposts.
“People on drugs are just crazy and mean hearted. All they wanted to do was clean you right out so they can get more dope.”
“I’ll come home with you, then, until we get me some things,” I say.
“I’d love to have you, Mama, but I just got that little place above the hardware store. Remember? There’s not much room, and you’d have to climb about 50 stairs.”
“Doesn’t look like you’ve been climbing much,” I say.
Sonny hangs his head again. Two oily wisps of hair fall sideways, showing more of his bald spot.
“What’d Sheriff Pitwick say when you filed the report? He said he’d keep an eye out on the house. They must have been there a while with a big truck to take everything.”
Sonny steps over to my window.
“You know, Mama, this place is nice,” he says. “You got a view, and good food. The nurses are sweet. I’d be loving this.”
“I’m going to call Pitwick. Tell him he best get to the bottom of this. I don’t let him fish my pond for nothing,” I say.
“Mama, I’ll call him. I’ll set him straight. It’s about time you let me take care of you a little. Don’t you worry about a thing.”
Sonny took a couple heavy steps and plopped his hand on my shoulder. His face is slick with sweat.
“Now you just take care of yourself, Mama. I think those hair dresser ladies are here this afternoon. You can get yourself fixed up, for free. You got it awfully nice here.”
His breath is mouthwash and cigarettes.
I follow him into the hall. He stoops down and waves at Hattie.
“Hey there, how are you doing?” Sonny asks, loud.
Hattie’s nodding off. She’s got one hand clutched around the doll’s leg. The rest of the baby hangs upside down off her lap. The arms fling out, stiff, by her feet. The neck bends funny, and the bald head sits on the linoleum floor.
Sonny grins and squeezes my shoulder again before turning down the hall. He waddles with his arms out away from him. I try to remember him as a boy, when he must have been something sweet. Richard would have plopped him on his lap to explain thieving. He’d pull out his handkerchief and wipe his glasses as he explained to Sonny that someone must have needed our things more than us. Someone must have been so desperate they’d turned to stealing to solve their problems. He would have talked about forgiveness, then pat Sonny on the head and give him a dollar. But here, the walls are yellow and pink, everything smells like piss and toilet cleaner, and I think God punishes you when you do bad things.
Heather McDonald grew up in North Carolina and has her MFA in writing from the University of San Francisco. Her fiction can be found in The Big Ugly Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Wordstock Ten, Opium Magazine, and This Great Society. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, Derek, and their four bikes.
* * *
The Brave Mare
By Tami Nadeau
Always vigilant, the horses stared at the land beyond the fence. Creeping over the horizon was a dismal fog. Dancing as it neared, the low lying, gloomy cloud teased them with every step. A slight quiver racked the mare's body as she had a distant memory. Ears perked and nostrils flared, the mare seemed mesmerized by the fog. Out in the distance, came an eerie wailing sound. Perfectly still, as her legs wanted to flee, she stood. The young colt, with nose extended and tail in the air, seemed ready to run. Jumping back, he shook his head and pawed the ground. The mare nudged him to stay behind her. Lowering his head to her tail, he obeyed.
As the fog neared, she could smell the damp coat, and the familiar pungent odor of the scraggly-haired wolf that lay veiled within the fog. She darted back and forth through the pasture as the hungry wolf approached. With no escape, her head shaking up and down, she huffed air out of her nostrils.
Roaming freely over the countryside, the silent, damp fog engulfed them; bringing the mangy, blood-thirsty wolf into the paddock with the horses. Shivering in his skin, the young horse tried to crawl under the mare like in his weanling days. The brave mare stood taut, then both horses shivered and pranced in place. Out of the fog the wolf swaggered toward them, with saliva dripping and eyes glowing he bared his yellowed fangs. Rearing, with her front legs kicking out, the ferocious mare screamed into the night. Hesitating, the wolf cringed toward the ground, as his eyes darted back and forth. He sprang threw the air towards the horses. As he did, his jaw met a hard kicking hoof. The wolf dropped to the ground with a hard thud. Dazed and whimpering, he could only watch as his prey escaped through the fog.
With explosive energy, instinctively the horses ran. Yearning for the safety of wide open pastures, both mother and son soared over the fence that held them. Galloping into lands unknown, they disappeared over the horizon, with manes flowing and muscles rippling in their effortless, elegant dash.
Tami Nadeau is currently an undergraduate at Bristol Community College, Fall River, Mass. Upon graduation I will transfer to The University of Massachusetts, for a degree in Writing, Rhetoric and Communications.
* * *
Trash Day is Tuesday
By Greg Riley
Biff Condor checks his reflection in the rearview mirror. It’s perfect, of course. His hair is too. It has to be. He’s a secret agent. It’s in the job description. The same job description that states “be ready at a moment’s notice to protect the country from the evilest of people”. So is the car he is in. Convertible, Italian, fast. The day? Gorgeous. He was relaxed and enjoying it. That was the problem. The rub. The downfall. He was enjoying it too much. He was especially enjoying the flirting from blonde in the next car. She had his full attention. Why wouldn’t she? It was a detriment. He missed the drop. What was the drop? A paper airplane floated over his head. He was supposed to grab it. Simple. A paper airplane with classified information written on it? It seemed like a good idea at the time. A gust of wind, a lackadaisical agent, and a pretty blonde ruined a perfectly planned mission. Lesson learned.
Alex Rand banged the dashboard repeatedly. Nothing but static on the radio, worked last time. Static was more than he was getting out of his air conditioner. It was starting to get warm. Roll down the window. The only viable option. Just in time for a cool breeze. The soothing gust brought relief and a surprise. A paper airplane. Surprise. It gently lands on the passenger seat. “Peculiar,” thought Alex picking it up. Turning it over in his hands, the new toy brought with it a faint chemical smell. Alex unfolded the paper with unusual tenderness. A paper airplane no more. Words. Words are what the open sheet revealed. Typed words. The key strikes were readily evident. Indentations. The document Alex cradled started to get warm, and then it rapidly turned hot. A flash, a fireball, a whiff of smoke, a paper gone. Singed hair where Alex’s eyebrows once laid, the only evidence of the brief fireworks show in his car. Dazed. Confused.
Teeth and hair, both perfect, appearing in the driver’s side window, bring Alex back into the world. Panic accompanied the teeth and hair. A perfect panic.
“The airplane, do you have the airplane?” Secret agent training kept the anxiety at bay.
“Your hair is flawless.” Admiration in its purest form.
“Why, thank you.” Humility lacking. “Did you read it?”
“The paper airplane, man. What did it say?”
“Didn’t know I was gonna be quizzed. I would have paid more attention.”
Biff studied the face that was mere inches from his. Plain, nondescript. Nothing special. Poster child for ordinary. A hard face to read. “At least I have eyebrows.” The only thought he came away with. A thought he was truly grateful for. Eyebrows really are essential to the symmetry of the face. Biff backed up enough to get his head out of the car. His hair was touching the ceiling. Not good.
“Think, man, think. This is important!”
“I am thinking.”
“Don’t pressure me! You’re just making it harder!”
Biff taps his forehead with his fist. “Was it words,” he spoke slowly hoping it would sink in, “or numbers, or maybe a picture of some kind?”
Last week’s torture in Turkmenistan was easier than this. Biff reached for his pistol, and then thought better. “Yes to which one,” Biff exhaled slowly.
“Yes, it was not a picture.”
“It was folded very well. Crisp. Does that help?”
“You a cop?”
“Don’t change the subject.”
“I’m trying to help. I just don’t remember.”
Alex seemed sincere. Biff was at an impasse. New tactic.
“Chocolate? I’ll follow you.”
The café, quaint. The ice cream, rich. The conversation, spirited. The two were actually quite similar. Except one was perfect, the other unremarkable. Minor. The ice cream gone, the discussion continued. Friendship emerging? Possibly. Plans made. “Let’s meet next week at the gym, then do lunch.” At a pub of course, it was manly. Sated from ice cream and lively banter, the two now head to the parking lot.
“Biff, it was great to get to know you. Sorry I couldn’t be of more help.”
“I enjoyed it too. I wished you could have remembered.”
Biff leaned on his car. The fast one. Alex leaned on his. It creaked in protest. The cars side by side sat in testament to the two men facing each other.
“You see, you saw something you should not have seen.”
“With all that fuss, I guessed as much.”
“Something has to be done.”
“I was thinking the same thing.”
“I am sorry it turned out this way.”
The bullet hit where it was aimed. Middle of the forehead, perfect shot. The folded newspaper muffled the report of the pistol. A quick check. No one noticed. Body placed in the driver’s seat. A few hours bought before anyone would notice. A back street. Continual looks in the rear view mirror for anyone following. Clear behind. A phone call received.
“Privet, Alexander. Do you have the information?”
“Da, da, da. The message was, ‘Trash day is Tuesday.’ Do not worry, I will be there to intercept the drop.”
“Any problems, my friend?”
“Harasho. Well done comrade. Well done.”
Greg Riley sells bubble wrap to eat, and writes for fun.
* * *
By Charles Rafferty
This morning it rained in broad daylight. A father was headed to the bus stop, a daughter on either side of him, down the maple-lined suburban road it was getting hard to live on. They walked down the center of it because they could. The only neighbor who drove too fast was already gone, his red pickup missing from the tire-worn patch of lawn where he parks it.
"It's raining," said the daughter to his left. The soft rope of her ponytail swung back and forth as her gaze flicked from one side of the street to the other.
And it was. Though the sky was a clear September blue, the trees were shedding a little storm. They heard it on both sides of the street — the pattering of drops as they leapt from leaf to leaf to lawn. But they could see it only to the left of them — where the sun had play and could ignite the falling drops like dust motes clapped from a window-side couch.
"It's just the dew," he said, regretting, as he said it, the way he'd reduced it to a fact.
"Why is it falling?" said the daughter to his right. She adjusted the strap of her backpack and looked into his eyes, expecting nothing more than the perfect answer — one that made sense, one she could understand.
For this he was less quick. The air was breezeless — even the air high above them seemed still. A single contrail failed to lose any of its distinctness as they moved up the middle of that tiny storm. It made him think of a hurricane's eye — that clarity when people come out to sightsee and get killed, because they forget the rest is coming.
"I don't know," he said. "Maybe it is the rain. Maybe the drops have been hiding in the leaves from the last time. Maybe the sunlight chased them out." He was happy to hear at least a hint of something in his own voice that showed the world didn't always turn out to be the way it looked. He followed the contrail until it disappeared in the glare of the sun caught in the vines of bittersweet that rise like a tangled cloud in the crown of their neighbor's cherry tree.
His daughters weren't listening though. They were opening the umbrellas they carried in their backpacks. They were marching under the sugar maples just starting to bloody themselves with autumn. They were laughing and twirling the umbrellas at their friends, who stood at the treeless bus stop in bright light and shirt sleeves — not getting the joke, not understanding rain can fall from even cerulean skies.
Right now, his daughters' mother was headed south, possibly forever. When they asked about her missing car, their father told them it was in the shop. Later, he told them that their mother had gone on a trip, that the plane was the kind that left in the night to save on gasoline, that she would call when she landed. Lying to them was easy. Their ability to believe him unconditionally was one thing he hadn't squandered.
Two blue jays dove through the trees screaming, zigzagging so abruptly he thought they'd have to be connected to follow so well. They did it without hitting a branch, not even a leaf. Higher up, a buzzard wheeled over the street and flapped its sails twice, searching for an updraft so it could find the pets and half-domesticated possums that had been impulsive in the night.
His daughters were running now. At the same time, they were struggling to close up their umbrellas and stow them for when they would really need them — somewhere among the books and lunchbox, the extra house key, the list of emergency numbers, the family picture where they're all waving from the lip of a hotel balcony. They could hear the bus's bad engine climbing the hill. And then the yellow lights, the squeal of brakes, the mechanical stop sign that pops out like a toy.
The cars backed up in both directions — everyone smoking or angry or bored. And then the father waved to his daughters as he always did, and as often happened, they weren't looking — because their friends were happy and hearing the joke about the spinning umbrellas, the sunny rain.
He turned. He walked home in what was falling for reasons he couldn't understand. He sat down at the kitchen table with the phone in front of him. He was waiting for the call he knew would come — the call that would answer nothing, but that would have to be heard, ridden out, repeated.
Charles Rafferty's poems have appeared in The New Yorker and The Southern Review, and his stories have appeared in Sonora Review and Cortland Review. His most recent chapbook of poems is Appetites (Clemson University Press). Currently, he directs the MFA program at Albertus Magnus College.
* * *
She Wakes Up
By Douglas Rudoff
She wakes up, unsure of where she is, feeling like she’s in a place she shouldn’t be. Her eyes are still closed. She tries to remember going to bed, and then hears the familiar breathing next to her. She opens her eyes and sees the red digits of the clock radio on the nightstand staring back at her. It's 3:07 am. He lies next to her, his back to hers, not touching, and she can’t help but feel it’s an appropriate position for them to be in. It’s time for her to berate herself, wondering what the hell she's doing here – again.
She knows last night was supposed to be a good-bye. Yet, she’s here again in his bed. Damn it! He continues to breathe quietly, inhale ... exhale ... inhale ... exhale. Inhale: she remembers their first meeting at the gym by the water fountain. Exhale: she remembers their first breakup over something petty that she can't even recall now. Inhale: she remembers their first kiss in the elevator of her apartment building. Exhale: she remembers their last fight about his vehement insistence that she shouldn't buy a red car because red cars stand out and are more likely to get ticketed. With anger building up at him she thinks of elbowing him in the head; then the anger quickly fades as she realizes the idiocy of the thought. Especially since she doesn’t want him to know she’s awake.
She does not want to get out of bed. All she wants to do is sleep. She looks at the clock again: 3:09 am. Her left leg shifts and she feels the wetness of the sheets beneath her thigh and she’s relieved that she hasn’t stopped taking the pill. But then all the warnings of the possible side effects come to mind. Blood clots: she notices a slight tingling in her leg. Stroke: her head does hurt a little. Increased risk of breast cancer: she reflexively brings her hand up to a breast, wondering if there are any lumps. And if there are, were they there before?
She tells herself to stop it, and quickly pulls her hand from her breast. She again notices the clamminess of the sheet against her thigh and wonders how she could be so tired, so disconnected from the world, that she doesn’t move her leg from the wet spot. She moves her leg and feels triumphant about taking control of the situation. She’s in command now. In command now? If she was in command of anything she knows she wouldn’t be here now. She’d be at home, in her own bed, still asleep, and not regretful. And her cat would be purring at her feet. The cat! He must be starving. And meowing non-stop. She hopes no one in a neighboring apartment hears the cat. They must think she’s a neglectful pet owner and an awful person. That’s a reason to get up; the cat is depending on her. But she doesn’t want to get up, the bed is too comfortable. The cat can skip a meal. He’s overweight anyway. She needs more sleep.
But no! She needs to get out of here. End things for good. She could leave a note on the pillow saying good-bye for good, this is it, you’re too self-involved, and I always hated the furniture in your apartment, your taste in music and the stray hairs on your back, and ... and last night was great. No it wasn’t! Well, it was. Sort of. There is something intense about breakup sex. Intense enough that she’ll remember last night. But she has to forget about last night if she’s going to move on. But then, maybe things could work out. She can’t believe she thought that. Work out? How long do you keep on trying? It’s unhealthy for both of us. Yet it’s great sometimes. Stop it! Why did God make us to forget the miserable times and remember the good times and why did he make breakup sex so good.
She decides that she’ll force herself out of bed no later than 3:15 am. She’ll get up quietly, put her clothes back on, and slip out the door. She could be back home, asleep in her own bed by 3:45 am. And she’ll leave his key here. Right on the dining room table. With no note. He’ll know it’s over for good. Or maybe she'll leave a note saying, “It’s over for good!” She likes the subtlety of no note, but he always said he liked the subtlety in her comments. And since she needs to avoid doing what he likes, she won't be subtle. She’ll definitely have to leave a note.
But then she thinks about everything of hers here. She has some clothes in the closet, a couple of CDs and books, and things she knows are hers but can’t remember right now. She can’t dig them up tonight. She’ll have to come back later. But then she couldn’t leave the message of leaving the key. Damn it! She’ll have to keep the key for now and come back later, and then leave the key. She knows he’ll be at work all day, so she should be able to return when he's gone and get all her things. But she wants him to wake up with her gone and she wants to feel the pleasure of sliding his key from her key ring. She'll have to be sure she doesn't accidentally leave the key to her parent's house which looks exactly the same as his key except for the bump in the middle. Then she realizes she doesn’t have to leave his key. She can leave her parents' key and he'd think it was his key. She can always get another key from her parents. Then she’ll come back during the day, take her stuff, and then leave his key.
She’s happy. She knows what’s she’s going to do. She’s committed. And she falls asleep briefly, then wakes up. She sees the clock showing 3:14 am in its red digits, red just like her new Honda Civic. Red, because it's her favorite color. Red, because he didn't want her to buy a red car. Red, because it stands out ... Damn it! He's probably right about red cars more likely to get tickets. But if she gets a speeding ticket, he'll tell her, "I told you so," and she'd just have another good reason to leave him.
Fuck! What is she doing here? She should just get up and leave. Now. Definitely, now. If she wasn't so tired. If she didn't need the sleep. She can leave him anytime, it doesn’t have to be right now, so dramatic. Tomorrow she’s sure she'll remember everything that she thought tonight. But maybe not. These thoughts at 3 am could disappear forever and she’ll have another night like this again. And at 3 am on that future night she'll think the same thoughts, then forget them once more. Has she gone though this before? If one doesn't remember, is it the same thing as it never happened?
And now she has to pee, which is uncomfortable, but she's glad it distracts her from further ponderings on the existential nature of memory. But she doesn't want to get up to pee, because she knows she'll have trouble getting back to sleep after returning from the bathroom. And all she wants to do is sleep. She knows she can hold it in; she doesn't really have to pee right now. She'll be fine until morning. But the pressure is building up in her bladder, but then she thinks she's just imagining that. She really doesn't have to pee that badly. She can hold it until morning. And she realizes that if she doesn't submit to her urge, she'll be laying awake the rest of the night pondering if she can wait to pee. She gently slides out of bed, being careful not to wake him. He doesn't move.
She walks across the dark bedroom to the bathroom, nearly tripping over a shoe on the floor. She silently closes the bathroom door. She doesn't turn the light on. It will only make it harder to go back to sleep. And without the light she can avoid seeing her naked body in the mirror. But she knows she should accept her body just the way it is. So she reaches for the light switch to prove her acceptance of her body. But she hesitates. She can look at her body anytime. The light will wake her further, and she doesn't want that. But maybe she's saying that just to refrain from seeing her reflection. So she decides to turn on the light. But she knows she really needs to get back to sleep. She takes her hand off the switch and promises to herself she'll look at her naked body in the mirror when she returns to her apartment.
By feel she makes her way to the toilet, trying to remember if she was the last one to use it so she'll be sure that the seat is down. She knows she was the last one to use it before she went to sleep. But maybe he used the toilet when she was sleeping. And that fucker never puts the seat down. But she supposes that it is his apartment and he can leave the seat up if he wants, even if it makes him a bad host. She'll have to add "bad host" to the list of reasons why she shouldn't be with him anymore.
The seat is down. She sits and relieves herself. She creeps back to the bed and slowly slides in under the sheets. Then he moves, and she freezes. He throws the sheets off and pulls himself out of bed. Through the open bathroom door she can see his silhouette as he turns on the bathroom light. She closes her eyes tight to avoid the brightness. Why does he always turn on the light? Can't he sit down in the dark so he wouldn't have to aim?
Through her shut eyelids she sees the light turned off. He gets back in bed and shifts his body towards her ... and wraps his arm over her. He's trying to spoon. His penis lies against her thigh and she feels its wet tip brushing her skin. He whispers "I love," then a hesitation, then "you." What was that hesitation? Did he start to say "I love you" out of force of habit, but caught himself, then realized he had to finish or otherwise he'd come across as insensitive jerk? Or did he still really mean it? Or does he still really mean it but because they're supposedly broken up, he knows he's not supposed to say it anymore, but he couldn't stop once he started because he really is an insensitive jerk.
Before she can stop herself, she reflexively says, "I love you, too." God damn it! Why did that come out? Why didn't she at least say it with the same hesitation so at least he'd also be left wondering what exactly the hesitation meant. She tries again: "I love you," she hesitates a bit, then as she says "too" she realizes that she hesitated before the "too" not the "you," and she's not even sure how that could be interpreted. She wants to try again to say it, this time with the proper hesitation, but she can't try again because she'd just feel stupid doing so.
He reacts by lifting the arm wrapped around her and scratches his head. Is that really an itch, or is it just an excuse to take his arm off her body and pretend he never said "I love you"? He turns to his other side, his back to hers, not touching.
The clock show 3:19. She closes her eyes and tries to let sleep come to her. To stop thinking about the effort of getting to sleep. To just clear her mind. To not worry about a thing. To relax and blank out into slumber. To ... and then he starts snoring. Lightly, but it's enough to disrupt her newly reached calmness. She's annoyed at him, herself, and ... there must be something else she's annoyed at. It'll come to her in the morning.
She falls asleep.
Douglas Rudoff lives in Seattle with his wife Margaret and his seven-year-old son Liam. In his long career as a software engineer, you may have unwittingly directly or indirectly used his work if you ever analyzed Tass articles during the Cold War, requested a taxi online in Paris, had your cell phone account suspended, had your power restored after Hurricane Katrina, or just wasted time on the internet.
* * *
By Wayne Scheer
An angel came to me in a dream after a bachelor party that included tequila shooters. Rather than a smiling, golden-haired beauty, this apparition looked like Woody Allen in leotards.
"You deserve a reward," he said, in an accent as distinctly New York as a thin-crust pizza. "You don't cheat on your wife, you treat others with respect and your cholesterol is down to 179."
So, he gave me God's personal telephone number.
"Write it down. I'm not coming back. These tights chafe." He pulled at himself like a twelve-year-old boy watching a Britney Spears video.
I wrote it on the back of my hand.
He did a pirouette, tripped, apologized for his fallen arches, and disappeared.
The number looked long distance, so I used my cell since I have unlimited free minutes on weekends. My hands shook as I punched the numbers. Was this fear and trembling? Or delirium tremens?
To my surprise, there was a pick up on the third ring.
"Thank you for calling God," a reassuring female voice said. "The King of the Universe is busy right now, but your call is important to Him."
"Damn," I said aloud, regretting my language immediately.
"Please listen to the following message as our options have changed."
I wondered what changing options might mean in the cosmic sense.
"If this is an emergency, please press one."
I let that one go. I didn't want to jump ahead of a Haitian praying for the safety of her family.
"If you'd like God to save the life of a child or other family member, please press two."
I continued listening.
"If you're worried about a hurricane, earthquake, tornado or other natural disaster, please press three."
I can watch the Weather Channel.
"If you're calling about a personal crisis, please press four."
I figured my hangover or whether to go with a Roth IRA didn't qualify, so I listened to some more options. However, none included, "If you just want to chat with the Big Guy about what He's been up to, maybe get his take on the Superbowl, hold on and He'll get with you."
I knew I might regret this, but I hung up. Except for the hangover, my life was going well. Other people needed Him more than I did.
My wife stirred and I thanked her as I checked the back of my hand.
Wayne Scheer has locked himself in a room with his computer and turtle since his retirement. (Wayne's, not the turtle's.) To keep from going back to work, he's published short stories, essays and poems, including Revealing Moments, a collection of flash stories available here. He's been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net. Wayne lives in Atlanta with his wife and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* * *
The Old Ghost
By Zachary Solomon
There’s an old ghost who roams around the fifth floor of the library sometimes, weaving in and out of the stacks, picking up a book here and there and skimming through it, hoping for something wonderful he hasn’t read before. The library used to have motion sensors in each aisle, so when someone would walk past they would sense their movement and switch the lights on, illuminating the darkened leather-backed books for a few moments. That’s how I found out about the ghost; I was standing in an aisle, scanning the titles, when suddenly the light in the next row turned on. I peeked into the hallway and watched the overhead bulbs turn on, one by one, all the way down the floor, but I couldn’t see what triggered them. Soon after that, the library replaced the sensors with timing systems you had to set yourself. They must have thought the sensors weren’t working right or something. Being in the library when the old ghost was there, it seemed like the sensors would suddenly detect themselves and turn on. It was as if they scared of themselves.
When I finally met the old ghost, he was sitting on the floor in a row, his milky back pressed up against a stack, reading The Little Prince in French and giggling like a kid. I guess he could turn invisible whenever he wanted, and maybe he got careless and forgot that time. If I were a ghost, I would never want to be invisible; I think I would miss everybody too much, being so close with them not even knowing you’re there. So when I saw him, I introduced myself, thinking he might be lonely. He put out a frosty hand for me to shake. When I touched it, it felt cold and difficult to hold on to, like trying to squeeze one of those rubbery gelatin desserts mom used to make for us. For some reason, holding his hand made me feel kind of sad. The old ghost didn’t speak, but he opened his mouth and smiled. You could see right through it to the books on the other side.
The library found out about him somehow and one day confronted him about staying after closing time and not having a membership. I guess they got suspicious of me coming in every day to visit someone they couldn’t see. But they could see him fine that day. Just because you’re a ghost doesn’t mean you get special privileges, they said. I was listening in the corner from behind a leather mountain of books that piled high, towering over my head. The old ghost sort of shrugged his ghost shoulders and looked really sad. The Little Prince was tucked under his arm but they took it away from him and placed it on the stack of books to be put back in their proper places. Then they pointed to the door. He looked over at me hiding in the corner and then walked out of the building, drifting through the glass as if there wasn’t any. I ran out after him. We walked next to each other, the both of us feeling down. Why wouldn’t they let him stay?
After a while I had to go home, so I said goodbye. The old ghost smiled at me and I knew that I probably would never see him again. He turned down the street and slowly faded into nothing until he was gone. I knew it was late but I stood and watched him go. Once he disappeared I started to feel a little better about things, but I can’t help but think that he needed the library to live, that without it, he had nowhere to go. They kicked him out without even thinking about it. It’s not that the people at the library are bad people or anything. Maybe they just follow the rules too much. Would it have been so much trouble to let an old ghost roam around on the fifth floor after hours, picking up the books and skimming through them? Maybe it would be too much work. Maybe it would mean they would need to hire more people to clean up the mess or to stay to watch over the building while he was there. But so what? But wouldn’t it be worth it?
Zachary Solomon is a freelance writer based out of Cambridge, Mass. At the moment, he writes for a nonprofit in the city and is applying to graduate programs in creative writing. His work has most recently appeared the Crack the Spine Summer 2012 anthology.
* * *
By Mark Tarallo
"D-man!" cried Troy when I entered his office. "What have you got?"
"Not much man," I said. "What have you got?
"Oh, man,” Troy said. “I got crushed last night, D-Man. Totally crushed.” He was reclined low in his swivel chair, his long legs crossed jauntily at the ankles and propped up on his desk.
"I haven’t seen my bed before two for the past three nights. But last night got really ugly, eating spaghetti at some shithole diner in Wheaton at 3:30 am." He lifted an invisible fork to his mouth and then blew out air, as one might do stone drunk and half-asleep.
"Don't know how you can still do that. College is over, man.” A small guilty smile crept on my face. "Any interesting developments?"
He glanced at the office door behind me, which I hastily closed. "Yeah, we had some good things going on last night," he said. "Some real good things.”
"Really?" My voice rose a bit higher than I wanted it to, so I tried to regain control with a nonchalant “Ah.”
"Yeah, I mean, I didn't crush it or anything, but there's some definite potential there."
I shook my head, not disapprovingly. "The doubleheader last week, now this...you're tearing up the city. What happened to the other ones?"
"Welllll, one of those was purely a one-night affair, after getting totally, totally crushed. And I gave her no indication it was anything but that. Now the other one...” He took his legs off his desk and sat upright, lowering his voice. "I don't know, she might be little pissed at me. I think she expected a call by now. I don't know. I still may call her. It could happen."
"But the new one, from last night. What's her story?"
“Egyptian, getting a Ph.D. at Georgetown. Her father’s a diplomat, some shit like that. Her name’s Ahadi. I might bring her to Coop’s party.” He leaned back and put his legs up. “So what have you got? Anything?”
“Not much,” I said. “Quiet weekend.”
The universe of Troy Luttman conquests could usually be reduced to two types. The first is a sexy tippler in New York shoes who smokes slow cigarettes in high-truths-in-low-quarters kind of bars. The second is a sexy Capitol Hill intern in professional dress with matching pearls and teeth, who possesses an unshakable sense of entitlement and ambitions wildly disproportionate to her talents.
I hear of Troy’s exploits every Monday, when I stop in his small office at the National Association of Suburban Planners (NASP) here in Washington, where we both hold jobs as entry-level program administrators. (He once noticed I use my middle initial -- Ralph D. Stallo -- on work-related documents, and has called me “D-man” ever since). I must admit I am drawn to his stories of pursuits, captures, and subsequent retreats, despite my embarrassment over having so little to share in return. I know how to listen: when to ask questions, when to flash a “you-bastard-you” grin, when to interject with a "No way!" or an "Oh, man." But underneath these rote gestures, I am usually clinging to a platitude that goes something like: looks and style I will concede you, Troy, but anyone really worth knowing will soon realize there is precious little upstairs.
Yet there are occasional Mondays when, for reasons unknown, I find myself in a more generous frame of mind. I let go of the platitude and, feeling free, climb into his story as an invisible camerado, forgiving his transgressions and cheering his successes. In the most sordid of situations, I still remain a silent sympathizer: if you are ridiculous, Troy, then I am ridiculous too.
Either way, Troy fascinates me. Envy, pity, admiration, contempt -- I feel it all toward him, often at the same time. Trying to figure him out is a thousand times more interesting than my job, and it is where I put my best energies when I am here in the office.
But on that particular Monday, I wasn’t feeling very generous. Ahadi, in description, sounded like a sophisticated citizen-of-the-world, genuinely interesting. She didn’t sound like she belonged in either category of the Troy conquest universe; she sounded like someone worth knowing. That got under my skin.
That Monday, like most Mondays, Karen, my girlfriend, called me at work late in the afternoon. After the usual exchanges, her voice turned mischievous.
“So...did you see Troy today?"
Karen loved the sanitized versions of Troy's stories I sometimes offered her. Inexperienced as a boyfriend, I came to a theory that girlfriends loved stories about the travails of the unattached. I enjoyed these brief commissions as Troy's portraitist because I liked having the power to paint him as a frivolous figure. Occasionally I even dabbed a few pointillist drops of contempt onto the canvas, but since this entailed a certain degree of guilt I never went hog-wild and made him look completely pathetic.
"Yeah, he's chasing a new one now."
"A new one? What happened to the other two last week?"
I decided to blacken him. "They were one-night stands, basically. Though I don't know if they understood that. It was classic Troy -- he told me he hadn’t slept with two different women on consecutive nights since college, to make it clear that that was, like, par for the course in college.”
Immediately after saying this I was flooded with embarrassment, as if I had told too much and betrayed Troy.
“That sounds pretty obnoxious,” Karen said.
“Well, yeah, I mean, I could be wrong. Maybe he is letting them know up front that these things are casual, and they
“Oh!” she said. “Sorry to interrupt, but I forget to tell you. I remembered that Oscar Wilde said ‘crushed.’ I forgot which play it was, but a character says, ‘I got crushed at a party.’ Maybe that’s where Troy got it,” she said. “But he uses it in different ways, right? To get drunk, have sex”
I could picture her smile broadening and the color in her pale face rising a little. Our relationship had its origins in long phone calls such as these. We had known each other through a mutual friend, and one night Karen gave me a quick call for some trivial reason and we chatted away an hour. Her voice was like rare music: half Susan Sontag, half Ricki Lee Jones. Every weekend, I willingly let her drag me through a series of museums, teahouses, and flea markets. She contains an astonishing amount of humanity for someone barely five feet tall. I think of her as a walking civilization.
In person, however, our physical chemistry leaves something to be desired. But she seems to like me, so at age 28 I have decided to make a concession to maturity and enjoy a relationship based on compatibility, with hopes that the rest will come in time. So far that time has not yet arrived.
I wanted to get the conversation off Troy. “Did I disturb you last night, with my tossing and turning?” I said. “I just couldn’t
Through the doorway of the supply room across the hall, I could see the arms of Licia Lupino, braceleted and bare, adjusting a document on the copy machine.
“What?” Karen said. “You couldn’t what?”
“Um, hey, listen, I’ve gotta go. One quick thing: A guy here, Paul Cooperman, is having a party Friday. Do you wanna go?”
"I can't,” she said. “That's the night my sister’s in town."
"Oh right, yeah," I said. "Okay. Talk to you later. Bye."
My eyes were fixed greedily on the supply room doorway, waiting for Licia to pass through.
Her face, per usual, had something more than prettiness, some ethereal quality. The best I could come up with is that it exuded serenity -- the graceful slope of her nose, the lightness with which her lips rested against one another. Nose and lips harmonize with my favorite feature: the shadowy half circles under each of her eyes, endearing signs of fatigue darker on some mornings than others. These circles represent, according to a theory of mine, an inner life so active it disturbs her sleep. All interesting people have trouble sleeping.
I barely know her. In her three months here at NASP (she works in the public information office), I have yet to get past polite conversational banalities. What little information I have of her, I have solicited from Desiree, another co-worker of mine, a true friend. Licia, Desiree tells me, works assiduously during the evenings on a master’s degree in art history. She views the world of NASP as merely a way station--made tolerable by the money--until she can pursue her grander passion.
All of a sudden, Licia was in front of me, pointing down to the middle column feature on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, lying on my desk.
"Did you read this story?" she said. "I couldn't believe it."
"Oh, yeah, I read that this morning," I said. "It was funny." I actually hadn't read it, so I snuck a glance at the headline. Something about a forger painter making a mint.
"I mean, if the guy is such a brilliant copier, why doesn't he paint his own work?" she said, rising to the topic. "A little sick, to want to fool people that much, you know?"
"Yeah, really." I regained my composure enough to realize this was an opening. "Hey, speaking of painting, are you going to see the Vermeer show? I saw some of his stuff at the Rilks Museum in Amsterdam a few years ago. He's amazing. I can't wait."
"God, I've been so busy, I haven't even seen the Homer Winslow show yet." She shook her head and smiled. "And speaking of busy, I've got a mountain of work on my desk that keeps getting bigger," she said, starting a slow turn toward the door.
“I hear ya," I said, desperate to stop her momentum. "Hey, are you going to Coop’s party Friday?"
She stopped turning. "I think so. I have a friend in town so I might come late, after my friend leaves. But I told him I'd try to stop by. Are you going?"
"Yeah, I'm gonna go. It should be fun. You should check it out if you get a chance."
"I think I will," she nodded. "Well, back to work. Have a good day."
A short visit, but long enough to propel me into a Licia reverie, heightened by my lack of sleep the night before and cup after cup of wretched office coffee, which sometimes makes tiredness feel like love.
"Man, this humidity keeps making my shorts ride up," Troy said to me as he stiffened his walk down 17th Street. "I might have to go for the mega pick."
We were headed to Potomac Park and our first Friday softball game. At the corner I saw Coop walking toward us. My heart sunk. Coop, the office clown, was thought to be hilarious. But his jokes could be viciously pointed, and I always got the feeling he smelled blood when he was around me.
"Coop!" Troy said as he came near. "So, is your party going to rock tonight or what?"
"It depends on how much of the work crowd shows up," he said. "I don't know if people are gonna feel uptight, partying with their co-workers. Which is lame.”
"Don't sell the work crowd short, Coop," Troy said. "There's a couple of honeys in our office. It might be worth getting them loosened up a little."
I saw Coop looking at me. "I didn't know you were playing this year, Stallo."
Something was coming.
"Sure, we got everybody this year," Troy said. His large hand grabbed the back of my neck. Warm. I felt like a protected son. "I even tried to get David Slaughter, but he never got back to me."
"Oh, man, not Slaughter," Coop said. "I don't want to go near that guy. Everytime I go into the eighth-floor bathroom, he's in one of the stalls, blasting away. He's gonna blow himself through the ceiling! I mean, I drink a lot of water and I'm in there a lot, and every fucking time I'm in there I see his big clunky shoes under the door."
I thought the insult pretty low, but my disgust was half a teardrop compared to the sea of relief I felt at not being Coop's target. But I was also anxious to hear Troy's reaction. Usually Troy was brilliant at staking out the cool position in a group bull session. But he also didn't take cheap shots at easy prey like Slaughter, who was considered the office eccentric.
"Yeah, I was in there this morning," Troy said, shaking his head, "and I got totally Slaughtered."
"Oh, man," Coop said.
"Yeah, I had just gotten in there and opened the paper, and I heard someone coming in. I saw the shoes and I just go ‘uh-oh, uh-oh, this could get ugly,’” Troy said. He grimaced. "It was hideous."
I was disappointed, but not confident enough to buck the crowd. "Yeah, Slaughter came into my office yesterday," I said. "Someone put a magazine that was for me in his mailbox, and he just walked into my office holding out the magazine, not saying anything but just making these sounds like ‘uh,uh,uh.’”
Coop chortled. "That's what he does," he said. "He comes into my office sometimes to look at a map I have on my wall, and he just makes those sounds and his head jerks a little when he makes them, like a fuckin’ retard."
Everyone was silent for a few seconds. We crossed the street.
"Hey, but don't sell Slaughter too short," Troy said. "I see him sometimes in Desiree's office, shooting the breeze. He might be a covert operator."
"With Dezzy Dyke?" Coop said, sneering. "C'mon, even Slaughter has standards. She looks like Dennis the Menace. Hey, I’m gonna go buy a water. I'll meet you guys at the field."
Troy and I kept walking and soon we reached the park. It felt good walking next to him through the quiet green, two warriors in sloppy athletic clothes, ready for our contest.
About 50 yards in, Troy started fishing around in his backpack. He took out a rolled-up baggie and a small pipe, four inches long.
"So D-man, care to join me in a brief pre-game celebration?" he said casually. "I'm a man of substance."
Even in the middle of a wide-open field, the pipe created some intimacy between us, which I liked. And the unfashionable, dirtbaggy connotations of smoking pot in the 1990s, especially for those out of college, momentarily deflated Troy's image a little in my eyes. I liked that too.
I gave a ridiculously long "Ummmmmmm..." followed by, "I think I'm okay right now."
He had loaded up and was flicking the lighter. As he inhaled, the lump inside the small bowl flared orange like a misshapen firefly.
"I've got a story about Desiree, D-man, that absolutely cannot be repeated," he said.
"Absolutely," I replied, high on anticipation.
"A few years ago I was crushed one night in Samantha's, I mean, I was completely..." his face contorted grimly..."fucked up, totally crushed, and I made out with Desiree at the bar."
"No way," I said.
"I mean, I was so crushed I actually made a date with her for the next night. And then when I went to pick her up and saw what she looked like sober, I was HORR-ified."
I immediately had feelings so contradictory I could have been two or three separate people. I resented Troy for his comments about Desiree, one of the few office people I actually liked, but in almost equal measure I felt sorry for him, that he would actually say something so crude and so cruel.
But I also felt dizzy, like I was seeing the world from a new plane. When we hung out, the roles had always seemed clear -- he was Hamlet, and I Horatio. Yet walking next to me now was a pot-smoking derelict who embraced women even I wouldn't embrace (I hated to say it, but it was true). I stared at him while we walked: goofy cap, razor stubble, torn shirt, dingy socks. Inside my chest welled a great cascading feeling, like I'd swallowed a waterfall.
I walked up the long stone stairs of Coop's house, zigzagging my way around the drinkers and talkers and kissers sitting in groups of twos and threes. I felt heady with self-image reevaluation. The idea of Troy as a boorish derelict was fixed in my mind. I knew Karen wouldn’t be coming, and I was looking forward to seeing Licia in a social setting.
Music blasted from the top of the stairway. The bass line seeped through my skin and started pounding the inside of my rib cage.
Coop stood at the door with a beer.
"Stallo! You made it." He stood there looking at me. I got the sense he was looking for something to mock. I needed a distraction.
“What's this playing?" I said, pointing vaguely upward.
"Sugar, man, Sugar," he said. He looked drunk, or at least very buzzed. "File Under Easy Listening. FUEL. It kicks."
I walked past him and took in the room. It was full, and vaguely threatening. This wasn't the work crowd; too young, college-young, younger than me. I didn't recognize a soul. A few faces turned toward me and I stared back. At best, their expressions were indifferent. In a few seconds I went from feeling mildly out of place to immensely self-conscious, verging on panic. I slipped through the throng toward the kitchen and made myself a triple vodka tonic.
"Hey." I heard a small voice behind me, straining to be heard while I was pouring. I wheeled around. Desiree.
"Hey!" I said.
She poked my stomach lightly with her index finger. "I'm glad you made it. How are you? Where's Karen?"
For the next half hour I clung to Desiree's company, jump-starting the conversation when it faded by introducing new topics with great avidity so she wouldn't walk away. Two of her friends, both attractive, joined us, and I became almost relaxed, chatting and laughing and passing my empty glass from hand to hand. Someone switched CDs on the stereo and a new song came on, with two guitars ringing out in unison, pushing to the sky. They reached a majestic pitch and I felt elated, like my heart was expanding.
I looked around and the room had changed. Clothes clung to bodies with a grace I hadn't noticed before. Gestures seemed enchanted. In the corner someone lifted his glass and took a sip. I wanted to congratulate him on a job well done.
I felt a large hand slap the back of my shoulder. I turned abruptly and saw Troy, with an enormous crooked grin on his face. His right hand clutched a half-empty bottle of Tequila. His left hand was still on my shoulder, heavy, as if he needed some support.
"D-man!" he cried. He was still smiling, relishing the lush, blurry comfort of his drunkenness. Next to him stood a woman so beautiful I almost laughed. She had long black corkscrew curls and a snug top that stopped short of her waistline, exposing two inches of taut olive-toned flesh. She had her hand hooked on one of the back loops of Troy's jeans.
He motioned toward her with the Tequila bottle. "D-man, this is Ahadi," he said. "Ahadi, this is Ralph D. Stallo. D-man. A fine man."
He leaned toward me. I felt his long hair tickle my neck. "I am so fucking crushed right now, D-man," he whispered, his breath warm on my ear. "So fucking crushed."
At 9:15 a.m. Monday, I walked into the office kitchen, desperate for coffee. Coop, who was peering into the refrigerator, looked up. I felt obligated to say something.
"So, was your house okay after the blowout?" I said.
"Pfffffffft," he blew out air, contemptuously. "The whole thing was pretty tame, if you ask me. Why'd you leave so early? Past your bedtime?"
"Yeah, I guess." I smiled weakly.
Troy cruised in, moving quicker than usual. "Yo, gentlemen," he said.
"Luttman," Coop said, "how you doin? You recovered from Friday yet?"
"Ah, that was nothing," he said, pouring himself coffee. "I was fine the next day. I'm crushing on deadline now, though," he said, filling his coffee cup. "D-man, stop by later, after I'm finished with this goddamn grant proposal."
"Yeah, I will," I said to his back as he walked out.
"Now that's a guy who knows how to party," Coop said after Troy was gone. "Comes with a babe and a bottle of Tequila, kills the bottle, and leaves with another babe."
"Yeah? Someone else?" I said, my voice way too high. "When I left, he was still with Ahadi."
"That's what happens when you leave a party at fucking ten-thirty, " Coop said. "That Iranian one, or whatever the hell she was, took off, but Troy stayed. Then Licia came by late and they left together. She said she was giving him a ride home because he was drunk, but c'mon."
Nauseous and dizzy, I buried my face inside my mug and took a huge gulp of coffee. It scalded my tongue and I was glad for the pain.
Back in my office, I had the uncontrollable urge to paint Troy for Karen again. I wanted to be a crazed Jack-the-Dripper, scooping up huge handfuls of paint and splashing furious swirls of contempt all over the canvas. I called her and made a lunch date.
On my way out to meet Karen, I broke down and wandered down to Troy’s office. I had to know.
I peeked in, nervous as hell.
"D-man!" he said. "Sit down man, I'm off deadline."
"Hey," I replied, staying in the doorway. "I was just in the kitchen talking to Licia," I said, startling myself with the lie and at a complete loss as to what to say next.
“Oh really,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. "Yeah, um...pretty tall, isn't she?"
It was such an absurd thing to say that I prayed he would answer quickly and not let the words hang in the air for long.
"Yep," he said, looking at me poker-faced while he leaned back and put his feet up on the desk. "One long drink of water."
The bottom fell out of my stomach. I didn't have the heart to continue.
"Actually, I gotta run," I said. "I'm meeting Karen for lunch." I felt like a cringing mass of instability.
His face turned puzzled.
"Alright D-man, whatever," he said. "Go crush it."
"So, how was the party Friday?" Karen said to me as we waited in the lunchtime crowd on the corner of K Street and Connecticut Avenue.
I was half-focused on the conversation, at most. Everything felt oppressive -- the heat and the humidity and the sidewalk beaten by purposeful strides and the blades of sun that danced on the chrome of the turning cars. As the sweat began to form, I started arranging phrases of maximum degradation in my mind, readying a picture of Troy so dark that Karen would disdain him forever. Her opinions were always so worthy; she had the power to right the cosmic balance between Troy and I.
The signal had just changed and the cars on Connecticut Avenue, set back about 20 yards from the corner, were just starting to accelerate toward the intersection.
“Oh, my God, you should have seen Troy,” I said. “He showed up”
“Hey,” Karen said, pointing. “Isn’t that him?”
It was Troy. He had broken from the crowd of pedestrians waiting on the far corner, and was crossing the street in a near dead sprint in front of the approaching cars. He looked so vigorous -- knees pumping high, tie blown back like a rudder -- that I imagined his body radiating concentric circles of energy that would sweep through all of downtown, changing the rhythm of the streets from a joyless military march to a delirious, beer-soaked swing.
I've crossed that corner at least twice a day for the last two years and never once did I see someone try to beat the light. No one would want to. A few people on the sidewalk glared; they thought he was an idiot. Troy couldn’t care less.
As he came closer he slowed a little, looked me in the eye, and grinned. Then he drew back his head and laughed -- a triumphant laugh, a who-else-has-the-balls-to-do-this-but-me laugh -- and slapped me on the back as he ran by.
Mark Tarallo is a D.C.-based journalist. His fiction and poetry have been published in Abbey, Asphodel, Angelface, Beltway, Innisfree Poetry Journal, Red Mountain Review, Vine Leaves, and the anthology Cold Shoulders. He has received an Artist Fellowship Award from the D.C. Commission on Arts and Humanities, and has won the Washington Writing Prize.
* * *
The Drunk in the Bus Stop
By Matthew Whalan
As I was approaching the bus stop—fumbling money to pay for my fare—I could see the outline of someone sitting inside of it and the closer I got, the better I could smell the scent of alcohol wafting from his jacket. I looked at him for a moment as I leaned against the side wall that divided the two of us. He slightly resembled a bent paperclip. He was thin, frail, wrinkly, and short, and was an oddly intimidating presence. I stayed for a few seconds until I heard him speak, curling his head around the wall to do so.
“You can sit down man—if you want to,” he said.
“Excuse me?” I replied.
"I said, you can sit down man,” he repeated.
Not wanting to be impolite, I sat down. He was wearing a ripped jean jacket over a Yankees sweatshirt and a Red Sox winter hat. His eyelids kept creeping over his pupils like window shades that would not close all the way as he stared at me, trying to say something but unable to find his voice. Finally, he said, “I ain’t a rapist or anything.” I laughed a little at his comment. He repeated to himself, “I ain’t a rapist.”
“Good,” I said. He looked away. I thought he may have forgotten that I was there until he turned back to me and said, “Are you a rapist?”
“No, I’m not a rapist,” I said.
“Good, good, then we should be able to sit next to each other,” said the man. “Man, it’s fuckin cold out. Where’s dat goddamn bus?!”
“Yeah, it’s getting cold,” I said.
“I’m goin all da way up to Pittsfield.”
“Oh, yeah. I’m heading over to Housatonic. That’s where I live.”
“Oh, ah, oh, Housatonic. Yeah, I grew up over in Housatonic,” he said.
At this moment, two elderly women walked by and he greeted them, but they did not respond. They only muttered to each other, probably some degrading comments about him. After they passed he turned back to me.
“Yeah, I grew up down there in Housatonic. I grew up with Bobby Bonnex.”
“Bobby Bonnex. He shot him—took a—one day—you know, just blew his own brains out. Just took a pistol, and said ‘Enough!’ and blew his own brains out,” said the man.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” I said.
“Just some things you can’t do nothin about,” he said. “But I would never go like that. I would never blow my own brains out. Might get—might—I mean—somebody else might blow my brains out, but I would never blow my own brains out. Never.”
"Why?” I said, immediately not knowing why I asked. He looked at me, fumbling for an answer in his fuzzy head, and finally said, looking down at his feet.
“Because I polish my boots! E’ery day I polish em. Because I like em ta be clean man. I jes ain’t gon walk around in some dirty ass boots! E’ry day I wash em, I wax em, I shine em, and I polish em!” He shouted.
“I see,” I said.
“And that’s why I can’t jes go n’ blow my own brains out! Because I polish my boots!” he shouted, “and I—” at this moment he stopped talking and stood up from the bench, staring out at an oncoming Mack Truck. “Aw yeah, that’s da bus right there,” he said, pointing.
I looked at the Mack truck and said, “No man, I think that’s just—”
“Nah, yeah,” he said, waving down the Mack truck. “Yeah, that’s da bus—oh, no it ain’t. Never mind. So anyway, I was tellin you about Bobby. You know, I wasn’t mad about him goin out like dat. I unnastand and e’rything. But I was upset. I was like ‘come on man,’ but I unnastand, but I just can’t go out like dat,” and then looking at his feet, he said, “look at em shinin man!”
I nodded my head in agreement.
He turned to me and said, “I spent all my money. All I got is seven dollars left, and I gotta spend five goin ta Pittsfield, but I got nothin else.”
“Why’s that?” I asked, again, regretting my question.
“I lost 200 dollars on the Super Bowl last night.”
The bus approached with the sound of its tires on the wet pavement audible with a hiss. When we got on the bus, he felt around in all of his pockets and could not find his money. “Jes one second,” he said to the bus driver. He ran back to the bus stop and looked around on the ground and around the bench. I did not have enough money to pay for his fare. Getting back on the bus, he tried to plea with the bus driver, who turned him down. Hysterically, he turned all of his pockets inside out and looked at me with reaching eyes. I looked at him the same way and I continued to watch him through the rain drops on the window as the bus rolled toward his hometown and my hometown, where Bobby Bonnex blew his own brains out.
Matthew Whalan is a writer from Great Barrington, MA. He is seventeen years old and devoted to his craft. He has been published the The Red Crow News, Aberration Labyrinth, soon in The Rusty Nail, and others. He is wrapping up a book on a Death Row inmate in Alabama, and for more information on that you can look online, many articles are available. He is also currently at work on a novel.