CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

S&R Fiction: “Henry’s Suicide” by Jennifer Ryan

8:20pm London

All four of them got the summons at the same time. Annabel was working an art event in Chelsea, waiting for Sebastian to whisk her away. Elliot claimed to be at work, but no one believed him. And Izzy? She was in Sebastian’s bed.

A flurry of messages swept around London and before long a freshly-showered Sebastian picked up Annabel and made the Wickham-Holbury train. Izzy went home, changed into jeans, and canceled the date she had lined up. She missed the train, as intended—she wasn’t in the mood for Annabel’s self-satisfied wisdom. Instead she caught a fast train to Oxford, taking a cab through the drenching rain to the manor. She met Elliot on the train, who proceeded to talk manically for the whole journey about trades, his job in the city, and, inevitably, drugs.

The storm was in full pelt as she reached Henry’s manor. He’d inherited it four years ago, in his mid-twenties, when his parents were killed in a private jet crash off the Bahamas. It remained unchanged, the decaying grandeur of his forebears, Henry animating it with parties and dogs and hunts and hedonism. Tonight it looked familiar yet shadowy and distant in the churn of the wind, an owl screeching from an outhouse, the shutters battering with intent. Continue reading

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

Scholars and Rogues Fiction: “Return to Me,” by Mark Sumioka

There is a capability within.  Knowing how to stop.  I know how to stop.  In fact, it’s very few and far between when I need to, because I know how to gauge my line.  I can drink a glass of water instead, and then another.  There is a span of time that wavers before it passes.  It is self-loathing.  But pride stops it in its tracks, and before it has a chance to progress it is wiped from the mind.

There.

It has disappeared, that thing, and it’s neither wonderful nor painful because it is numbness.  It is gone.  Yet while I toil thinking about trivialities like food and warmth and where I am and for how long, it silently creeps back, staying just out of sight, waiting in the closet where the door is ajar and I can feel the desperate eyes on me like those of a starving child.

I am glad it is under control.  It isn’t a matter.  It is fine. Continue reading

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

Scholars and Rogues Fiction: “The Shirt,” by Patty Somlo

Ji-li stood in the small dark room, studying her reflection in the cloudy mirror. Barely blinking, she watched herself fold a worn shirt and slip it into her large, right pants pocket. Then she pulled the shirt out and practiced sliding it in again.

Moments later, she stepped outside and walked her bike to the front of the house. Fog blended with soot, causing flat gray clouds to swallow the sky.

A crowd of bike riders passed Ji-li, headed for the factory. Ji-li steered her bicycle onto the street and joined the throng. Unlike mornings when she passed the ride imagining the day her son Liu would make his fortune in America, she kept her thoughts focused on the steps needed to pull the plan off.

Anxious one moment, brimming with hope the next, Ji-li arrived at the factory, without realizing she had ridden that far. Continue reading

Scholars and Rogues Fiction: “That Little Kick Boxer Within,” by Samuel Vargo

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction“Anything to make a buck.” That’s what Mom always says about Dad.

And there’s a lot of wisdom in her words. Mamma knows best and Mamma knows her man. That’s “man” as in my old man or more appropriately, her old man.

Anyhow, the old man — what an entrepreneur!

First, it was having us all pick strawberries on weekends. Then it was potato picking and later, baling hay. Continue reading

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

Scholars and Rogues fiction: Slick by Alan Swyer

The first time Slick Taylor told me I’d been sent to him by God, I should have known enough to bolt.  But instead, seated with a musician who was legendary for all the wrong reasons, plus his abrasive manager, in an only-in-LA-setting, a Westside Mexican restaurant helmed by a French chef and catering to an upscale, almost entirely gringo crowd, I continued to speak — or should I say pontificate — about what could, or should, be done to rehabilitate a shattered image and thereby increase the ability to bring in revenue. Continue reading

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

Scholars and Rogues Fiction: “That Night,” by Mark Sumioka

It had been a torrential night.  The drinking had gotten out of hand to where our buzzes were delightful and we talked over nonsensical matters with luster and humor.  But there was that chemistry of ours, the one that changed when we drank together.  And it spun out of control that night.

Gale found a button to push, and exploited it.  I argued over it with flaring pride.  She egged me on, needling me – even physically with her fingernail – until we burst and our fight was intense, though never loud.  And she persisted like no other woman I’d ever known; she knew how to lead me to the gaping trap where I would fall into the hole in the ground and sting with assaulted pride.  She knew me well.  Then I grabbed her forearm and held it tightly.  I could feel my fingers pressing so that the bruises would come in a days.  She grabbed my hair but it was too short, so then my ear.  Suddenly I released her, realizing my foolishness.  But she kept her hold on me until I raised my forearm like a karate block and moved away with headiness that said you are a man and dangerous now. Continue reading

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

S&R Fiction: “The Space Between,” By David Landrum

Martin Rollins thought he had performed well as the opening act for Nickel Creek, but a local journalist cut him to shreds in a review the next day. He called his music notable for technical proficiency but for nothing else. “No tone, no dynamic, no melodic qualities,” he had written, “just a lot of speedy runs and dexterous strumming, which grows dull after five minutes. Thank God Rollins was only opening the show and was not the feature performer”—that despite the fact that the audience had liked him, Nickel Creek had lavishly praised him afterwards and wanted to check their concert itinerary to see if he could open for them again. But when he got an email from Talia Metzger, it erased all the consternation from his mind. He read it over and over, unable to believe what he saw on the small screen of his iPhone.

“Martin, this in Talia. Remember me? Just kidding. I wonder if we can see each other. I’m in town for a friend’s wedding. Repost. I’d love to see you.”

Sitting at an outdoor table at Starbucks, feeling the cool breezes blow on him, he quickly replied.

“Talia! How could I forget you? Let me know where we can get together. Martin.”

The reply came instantaneously.

“How about Wealthy Bakery at 3:00? By the way, I thought that guy who did the review in The Press was a real asshole.”

He texted a reply:  “So did I. 3:00 at WB is good. I’ll see you there.”

She wrote back:  “OK.”

He sat back in the wrought iron chair. Noticing his coffee, he took a sip. He had not seen Talia Metzger in ten years. They had dated and been lovers in high school. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever known. Their physical relationship was at once the oddest and the sweetest he had ever experienced. Talia was deaf.

His thoughts went back. They had sat next to each other in chemistry class and were lab partners. Despite her disability, her parents had mainstreamed her in regular school. She did well as a student. She was beautiful and accomplished. And she had taken a fancy to him.

Her mother was Israeli, her father American. Martin had been on the tennis team with her brother. She had a grown sister who lived in Tel Aviv and worked for the Israeli government.

He finished his coffee. He had a performance scheduled tonight and had to practice. He went back to his motel room, got out his guitar, and began to play. He had a lot of trouble concentrating on the pieces he needed to work on as memories of the two years they had been together flooded his mind.

At first their communications were smiles and looks. He was uncomfortable around because he did not know how to relate to her because she could not hear him. He did not want to be condescending, wanted to treat her as he would treat anyone else, but she was not like anyone else he had met. She could speak, but her speech was imperfect because she could not hear what she was saying. She did not talk a lot to him, he noticed, even when they were working on an experiment in class as lab partners. Gesture and facial expressions conveyed what she wanted to say to him (though he noticed she talked quite a bit to the instructor and the other students). The two of them developed a whole vocabulary of non-verbal markers. Occasionally she scribbled notes, but mostly they used their bodies to talk rather than using their voices.

Sometimes he reflected on a quote he had heard—he thought it might have been Isaac Stern who said it. “It’s not the black notes on the page that are the most important thing. It’s the white space in between them.” This was usually interpreted to mean timing is everything in music performance, and this was probably what the author of the statement meant. But for Martin, the quote underscored the recognition of silence as important—in music and communication, and particularly in the way he spoke with Talia. They spoke with silence, at least with silence of words. Their sharing, like the white spaces in music, created a beauty more than the precision of sound could ever manufacture.

Her parents were not enthused about their friendship. Martin came from a religiously mixed home. His father was a non-practicing Jew. His mother was a communicant of the Orthodox Church. To eliminate the chance of religious conflict, they had kept a religiously neutral home. He smiled to remember how they celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah—his family would be festive for a whole month. He went to his mother’s church on Orthodox Easter (a week later than Protestant and Catholics celebrated it) and occasionally went to synagogue on Holy Days. Religion did not become an issue in their home until his older brother and younger sister opted for Judaism and became regular worshippers and Sabbath-keepers.

This bothered his mother, who said she did not want him going to synagogue anymore and exerted low-level pressure on him to be baptized Orthodox. He responded by refusing to attend services at either house of worship. Word of his lack of faith got back to Talia’s parents through his brother and sister, who attended their synagogue.

The first time she invited him over he sensed her parents’ iciness. He watched Talia as she and her mother and father spoke in sign language and realized they were in a heated argument over him. Her folks realized after a while that he could read their daughter’s expressions, backed off, and were cordial. At school the next day her face told him she was mortified and afraid he might close up to her. He assured her—non-verbally—that this would not be. She passed him a note. “Come to my place tonight. OK?” He nodded to tell her he would.

That was the night he first made love to her.

He turned his concentration to his guitar and used all his self-discipline to think only of his music. After a fruitful practice, he checked the time, showered, and changed clothes. He got in his car and headed for Wealthy Bakery, a bakery and coffee bar. It had not been open when the two of them were in high school.

He had come to her house that night so many years ago with a bouquet of flowers for her—and partially as a peace offering to her parents, whom he thought might apologize to him for their behavior yesterday. They were not there. She met him at the door. She had on a white long-sleeved blouse and shorts. Her eyes widened with pleasure when he gave her the flowers. She laid them on the table and threw her arms around him. He felt her strength, warmth, and softness and hazarded a kiss. She did not push him away but responded. She led him over to the sofa. They sat down and made out.

Talia Metzger won the prize of the most beautiful woman he had ever known. Tall and lithe, she combined the strength of an athlete (she ran track) and the gentle shape of a beautiful seventeen year-old. He had seen her run and had marveled at her body—the very way her body was put together and moved suggested grace. She could not hear the starting gun but could feel its vibration. Martin would marvel as she sprinted off the starting line with the grace of a gazelle and the ferocity of a jaguar. She excelled as one of the school’s top women runners. When she wore miniskirts or shorts to class he had trouble keeping his eyes off her legs. As they kissed, she touched him gently. It was then that he first realized the dynamic of silence in their relationship.

He turned into the Wealthy Bakery parking lot. He had realized back then she was not merely touching him but expressing herself—her touch told him her passion, her emotion, the outpouring of love she felt him. He also realized how much sound and speech went into passion. Talia gasped as they kissed, but no words, no sound, no groans or languid noises that expressed arousal, came from her throat. Her expressions of these things came from her fingers, her lips, her tongue, and her cheeks as she rubbed them against his.

His hands went to her breasts—too quickly, he thought. He took them away but she took his wrists and guided them back. He unbuttoned two buttons on her blouse then stopped, again thinking he was going too quickly. She reached down, unbuttoned the rest of them, and pulled her tucked-in shirt out of her shorts. He reached back and unhooked her bra. She had the loveliest breasts he had ever looked on or touched. Pear-shaped, not large but not small, delicate but full (like the rest of her body), sweet, exquisite melons with small, pale nipples, they compelled his touch. He caressed and squeezed them. The feel of her hands on him grew more intense. She did not nod but he could read her large brown eyes. They stood. She cocked her head toward the stairs.

Martin had started early with women. Sometimes he wondered if he really had got laid by a randy older cousin at age fifteen (she was eighteen). He had never lacked since then. Talia was a virgin. He remembered her shedding the shorts, dark blue panties, unbuttoning the long sleeves of her cotton blouse and throwing that and her unhooked orange bra to the floor. He marveled at how her slender thighs joined her upper body and her pubic mound rose from her opening and curved through a light tuft of hair to her flat stomach. She told him by her gaze that she was a virgin and he made sure he was gentle with her. She gasped when he pushed into her and bled a little, but he felt her quickly leave her pain and respond to him. The peculiar beauty of loving her was birthed.

As with kissing—much more than with kissing—sex was verbal. He had not thought about this much before his first time with Talia. You talked in the lead-up. The woman said yes. You commented all the way through. How many discourses had he heard in bed (or elsewhere) locked together with the different women he had loved? O my God, O that feels good, Slowly, slowly, Let it go—and the groans, squeals, the articulations of pleasure? When his lovers got their joy, they shouted and moaned. When an orgasm came, God and Jesus were frequently evoked. One girl he slept with would yell, Sweetness! A Muslim girl from India had shouted, Name of the Prophet! And women cooed, murmured and spoke softly in the afterglow.

Talia, of course, could not speak. This in itself would make loving her unique enough. What pierced him to the core, however, was the way she did the same things other women did but did it without voice.

She touched him. She rubbed her face against him and licked his neck and chin. She raised and lowered her body, not just in the way women did to maximize pleasure, but to speak, to respond, to communicate her ecstasy. It startled him that he could understand what she said without words, with the word of her body and the vocabulary of her movements.

Her orgasm came silently—at least as far as words went. She stiffened, of course, arched and shook as the spasm ran through her. No shout or declaration came, but her expression vividly enunciated the joy that tore through her. She seized two handfuls of flesh on his back and held them, then sank down when the surge of pleasure had passed through her and ended.

When this happened, it startled Martin so much he stopped for a moment but then went on, holding her tightly, thrusting deep and hard, finally coming to his own pleasure. She would not hear him shout, he thought, though she might feel the vibration of his voice. But she would feel his body. She would read and understand all that his physical frame said in a way no one else could—the language of the body, the language she primarily knew.

He locked his car and went inside. He saw her at the table, reading a book, looking lovelier in her maturity than she had looked at seventeen and eighteen, the years the two of them had dated.

She stood when she saw him. He gazed just a moment. Talia had lost the youthful, girlish lines but retained the graceful strength he remembered. Her eyes shone with love, her face radiating not just emotion but the silence that spoke to him and that he realized, with a surge of poignancy, he could still understand.

He put his arms around her. Recollection flooded his heart as he felt her strength, her softness, the communicating energy flowing out of her. Since they were in a public place neither wanted to make a show of affection. They pulled apart. She leaned forward and gave him a sisterly kiss on the lips. He sat down and took her hands. She pushed a yellow pad of paper toward him. In her even handwriting he saw, “So happy” and a heart drawn next to it.

The natural thing would be to talk, but Martin did not return her written greeting. He squeezed her hands. At least for a while, he thought, it would be like it was before. They would speak with silences and with their surfaces and motions of their bodies.

Talia understood. They went over and ordered drinks. She did talk to the barista. Martin noted how much her speech had improved since they were together. She spoke as articulately as anyone who could hear. A tiny bit of slurring punctuated a word now and then, but he doubted the clerk suspected Talia might be deaf. When the barista asked her if she wanted room for cream in her coffee, she could read his lips enough to tell him no. Back at their table, they drank and shared, though neither of them spoke.

Through his travels as a musician, he had occasionally heard about Talia. Magazines ran articles on her. She had a webpage and was on Facebook. She went to Brandeis and then earned a business degree at the London School of Economics. While there she began dating a Brit she married two years after graduating. They had two children. Talia ran a small investment firm and managed a chain of charter schools in Indiana and Ohio. She was active in organizations that provided support and education for deaf children and their families in the United States, Canada, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. More than once he had seen profiles in magazines by journalists presenting her in the incessantly attractive role of a woman who had overcome a handicap and succeeded admirably. Besides that, she was pretty (he noted how good she looked in the short blue dress she had on). He rejoiced at how well she had done. Such journalistic affirmations annoyed him because they focused on what she lacked and how she had not allowed this to hinder her. He had known what she did have—on how her lack of hearing had birthed in her an ability that, when he entered it, seemed nothing short of miraculous. It was the ability to communicate and to express herself without words. No one knew of it because they did not assume it even existed. Now he was entering it once again.

As they drank, the melding of their spirits took place once more. In high school he had tried to explain to a buddy of his how they communicated. “Oh, the Vulcan mind meld, like Mr. Spock does on Star Trek,” his friend had quipped. Martin dropped him as a friend. When he and Talia had been dating a year, her father had said one evening at their home when Talia went inside to change to a bathing suit (they had a pool), “Do you enjoying fucking my youngest child, Mr. Rollins?” Martin reacted with appropriate shock. Talia’s father laughed. “Don’t be afraid. I’m not going to beat you up or cut off your balls. In fact, I’m glad she started out with someone who is considerate and seems to be a gentleman. I do wish, though, you were a little bit more like David or like Leah.”

David and Leah were his brother and sister. Martin felt she should answer.

“If we’re being frank,” he said, “yes, sir, I do like fucking her. I like it a lot. I am a blessed man. I may become more like my sister, but David seems to be transforming to a fanatic.”

“Can I tell him you said that?”

“I’ve told him as much myself.”

“I admire him for his zeal.”

That was the only time they discussed the matter. Talia returned with her mother at that moment, both of them decked out in next-to-nothing bikinis, her mother looking very good even with her forty-eight years and three children. Martin, Talia and her father and mother swam, ate by the poolside, and talked cordially until past midnight.

As Martin sat in Wealthy Bakery, he sensed the difference in her now that she was a married woman and had children. The energy she exuded felt different. It was not singular. He experienced it now as a mixture, more complex and mysterious, like blended wine, with nuances he had not known in her before. He knew, too, as they sat close and held hands, she was pleased at the progress of his career as a musician. For an hour, as people came and went, as the baristas prepared drinks and people bought coffee and talked, the two of them remembered. They understood. Finally, she stroked his wrist in a way that said she had to go. He nodded and kissed her. She pressed a small envelope in his hand. When she had gone out the door he opened the letter that looked like a thank you card you get from giving a gift at a wedding or graduation.

“I’m staying at City Flats Hotel. If you come at eleven tonight after your concert, it will be okay. We can be together again. Love, Talia.”

Martin folded the note and placed it in his pocket.

Their senior year, their relationship began to waver. It was not family pressure and not the question of Martin’s religious commitments. It was something he had never imagined, when they first met, would cause trouble and ultimately split them apart. A simple condition undid them:  Talia could not hear his music.

The realization that this was a problem came gradually. It came silently as well, as all their understandings of one another did. Martin had begun to play guitar at age eleven. He never particularly enjoyed classical style but continued taking lessons until he was in high school. His sophomore year, he discovered fingerstyle guitar:  guitar playing that used classical technique on a steel-string folk guitar. He listened to John Fahey, Chris Proctor, Pat Donahue, and a host of other artists who played that style. He began to learn it himself. In a year he had mastered open tunings and the fast techniques of the artists he admired. Martin found himself in demand at receptions and outdoor weddings. He played supper clubs and coffee bars that wanted ambiance music. He did blues and played venues that promoted music in that style. As he played and practiced, as his skill developed to a high level, he entertained thoughts of trying to make it as a professional musician.

Talia, of course, could not hear what he played.

She was puzzled at what to do about this. He knew there were ways the deaf enjoyed music—people stood and signed the lyrics to songs while colored lights represented the cadence and harmonies of a composition. Talia did not seem interested in this. Genuine to herself, she simply excluded music from her life and found beauty in areas of art she could see or touch. As the conviction that he would pursue a career as a guitarist grew stronger, he felt the strain of it on their relationship. It was, simply, an area they could not share. That they could not share it raised debate and the necessity of Talia talking to him or typing out messages as they attempted to reconcile the issue. They failed to reconcile and ended up splitting. One day they both simply understood it would not work. They agreed on this, their silent mode of understanding one another coming into play again. They made love one last time in her room when her family had gone away. She nodded good-bye to him. He kissed her on the forehead and drove away into the night.

A few days later he was sitting in the Kava House in East Town when Talia’s father burst in. Martin thought for a moment he meant to start a fight because he had seduced and then dumped his daughter, but he sat down, a worried look on his face, and said he wanted to talk. His manner and tone of voice were conciliatory. He said Talia had told them they had split. She was heartbroken.

“I hope,” he said, brushing his hair back with one hand, “it was not something I said or Tzipora said. I know I might have been a little hard on you at times, but we both like you, Martin, and we were very disappointed that you and Talia broke up.”

For the sake of their parents, he and Talia had dinner at her home with them. Martin remembered how difficult it was and how being with Talia again only confirmed it was over. She went to Brandeis; he went on the road to establish himself as a musician. He reflected upon it as one of those things in life that wrench your soul but you have to endure. Now she wanted to see him again.

He felt waves of deep emotion but had a show that night. He again summoned his discipline to get ready. Starting out as a musician had been tough and lean. Now he had a reputation as one of the top guitarists in fingerstyle, attracted good crowds for concerts, and had solid sales of his CDs and teaching tapes.

And the performance went well. The auditorium sold out. He did his standard numbers, some vocals, and some new compositions. It was hard to get Talia off his mind, but he drew on the ability he had developed over the years to blot out distractions and let the music take him. He felt the adulation of the audience and felt the creative flow that must be released for a successful performance. At the end, he did two encores, talked with fans, signed CDs, and then drove downtown to City Flats. He found a parking place on Ionia Street and walked to the hotel. She had left word for the people at the front desk to admit him. He rode the elevator up to the fourth floor and knocked. The door opened immediately. He knew she had not heard his knocking but knew the time and knew his habit of punctuality (“Musicians are always on time,” he had often quipped to her). He came inside. She closed the door and threw her arms around him. She had on a light blue robe.

He had not kissed her with a lover’s kiss in ten years. The innocent eagerness of her lips took him back. Nothing had changed—their bodies, yes, were older, but that was not a limiting factor. She kissed him with hunger and abandon. The silence (he did her faint gasping) made him exclaim his—exclaim it with speech that did not use verbal utterance.

Talia pulled him into a luxurious bedroom filled with a plush bed, the curtains closed tight. He undid the rope of her kimono-style robe, pulled it off her shoulders, and let it fall to the floor. Once more he saw her beauty of her body, still trim from athletics (he had read that she still ran and played sports). Once more he marveled at how she was put together—how her body fit, how graceful and complimentary were the proportions of her physical frame. He saw her beautiful breasts, the strong shoulders and flat stomach, powerful thighs and graceful intimate parts, the long legs. Apportioned like a statue of Artemis or Daphne, her physical frame communicated strength, elegance, and femininity. He felt her arms, her breasts against him, her hands quick and adroit to remove his clothing.

No words—like where the Bible said heaven heavens declared the glory of God but without speech or language. Once again, he heard the utterances of her body, the elocution of her touch, her nakedness the tone of what she said, her touch the sentences and phrases. After so many years, he knew the magic, the miracle of it once again.

They sank into the bed. Their lovemaking was quiet and full, enveloping them in its rapture, in the work of grace only the two of them knew. He gripped her and felt the writhing, smelled the scents, knew the little movements, the touch of fingers and of her face that spoke.

She was a married now. He was violating the seventh commandment. He knew, though—she told him—her husband loved her but did not understand her. She loved him but he could not reach one spot in her heart. It sat like an empty room, sending tiny impulses of discord into her soul. Only he could fill that empty space. Only the love he offered to her could complete and make her spirit whole. She told him this. She told him with her body.

When they were finished they lay side by side—silence, but no silence as their selves interchanged, as the sorcery of their relationship worked its spell.

Martin realized something else. She understood his music now. Though she could not hear, she knew it. Before she had not known it, and this was the thing that had split them up.

She ran her left hand over his shoulders to say “Yes” to the thought that had just passed through his mind. In their high school days, when they became lovers, when they fell in love and established their bond, he had just begun his endeavor to make it as a musician. He had only played as a performer for a year or so. The passion for music had not yet taken full root in him and he had not at that point fully committed himself to becoming an artist who lived by his music. She could feel and sense it now. It possessed him to the degree that she could know it. The thing that had pulled them apart no longer existed. They could be together again. No barriers interdicted their love.

All the same, he knew it would be a liaison, an affair. He would see her now and then. She would be able to get his performance schedule from his website. She would notify him when they could rendezvous. She could not sacrifice her marriage, her career, or her reputation for him. He could not interrupt his career for the emotional turmoil that marrying her would bring. It would be a different sort of beauty, and all the more so for its secrecy.

They lay in bed together, arms around each other, speaking with silence, their words more sure than any he had known before.

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

S&R Fiction: “The Trouble With Kids,” by Mark Sumioka

In this heat little was possible.  I sat on my couch with all the windows and doors open so that the houseflies could do as they pleased.  They wandered here and there.  My skin was sticky, even after I went and rinsed off at the sink.  Here at the beach this heat was unfathomable, though every year in August or September it returned, that humidity, the stale hovering oven heat that told us by the beach that we weren’t special like we assumed.  It would come from God knows where, then crawl all the way to the coast, hardly a breeze, with me on the couch breathing like I’d just walked up a steep hill.

It would be better at dusk.  I looked out my screen door again to check on the level of the sun.  It worked its way down in an arrogant fashion, like a guy who had what you wanted and made you wait on purpose.  It was like that – the heat – and I wanted so badly for it to be over.  But evening would bring us happiness.  We would fill it with a good meal, with drinks, with relaxation through light conversation and laughter.  It would be a fine night.

Footsteps stomped up the stairs, and suddenly as if she’d leaped the last three steps Gale was at the warped screen door, pulling it open in a huff.

“Hank!  You’ve got to come help.”

“For what?” I said.

“A boy.  He’s passed out.”

“Where?”

“In the alley.  Over by the trash cans,” she said and thumped down the stairs.

I knew it was serious because Gale hadn’t waited for a response.  I slipped barefoot into my tennis shoes and instantly was regretful.  I could already feel the hot moistness between my toes.  I stumbled down the stairs, holding the dirty railing as I went, and it made me think of the gook on a car’s engine.  The low sun was directly in my eyes, blocking my way.  I managed down the steps without bothering my knees, and hurried to the alley.

“Hank!” she called after me.

When I got to them there was a boy, maybe twelve, lying on his side near a row of trashcans.  His face was wet with sweat, his mid-length hair stuck to his face.

“Is he breathing?” I said.

“Yes, I checked.”  Gale was kneeling at his side.  She looked up at me for guidance.  I shrugged for response.  Then she got frenzied.  “Well, c’mon Hank!  What do we do?”

She stood up and we switched positions, me kneeling so that my joints popped and it was a mixture of relief and fear of the unknown.  There were Gale’s eyes, searching, waiting.  Then I realized.  It was up to me.  Gale was a sharp person, better than most I knew, but she looked to me in times of danger.  I wasn’t sure why.  Maybe it was because I was a man.  Maybe it was because we were a team.  I’d never thought to ask.

“Give us some space,” I said warily, touching the boy’s shoulder and turning him to me.

“Careful, his neck might be injured,” she said.

I gave her an annoyed look because she shouldn’t have thrown me in the driver’s seat if she still wanted to drive.  It frazzled me and I lost my place.

“I’m being careful,” I said sternly.  I let go of the boy’s shoulder and leaned in closer.  “He’s breathing.”

“I know, I already checked.”

My hand felt his forehead.  He was hot as hell.  That was when I turned and looked up to the sky, as though in question.  We were all sweating.  My shirt was a peel on my torso, and when I turned it caught, so I twisted my body until it gave with a slither.

“Get on the phone.  Call 9-1-1,” I said instinctively.  “Wait.  His eyes are open.”

“I’ll go,” Gale said as she went.

The boy moaned.  Then from far down the alley there was the sound of youthful voices.  I looked up and there were four boys running toward us shouting, “Dane!  Dane!”

“Son, are you okay?” I said to the boy.

“Me?” he said curiously.

Now the noise of the boys’ shouting was booming, low and high voices shrieking.  Suddenly, they were upon us, the boys panting and huffing with their hands on their knees.

“Is he okay?” one boy said to me.

“Is he?” another said.

“I’m not sure,” I said.  They looked at me curiously, as though I were a fraud.  Then I put some gusto into my voice, “He needs a doctor.  My gal is on the phone calling 9-1-1.  Is this your friend?”

“That’s Dane,” a third boy said.

“This happened to him once after a soccer game,” the final boy said, and his tone seemed to imply that he was desperate to be heard, not so much by me, but the other boys.  “I saw it happen.  But he was okay.  He just got exhausted because he was so hot.”  He looked at the other boys with growing confidence.  “He was overheated.”

“Makes sense,” I said.  Then I looked upstairs, listening for the sound of Gale.  I heard nothing so I shouted, “Gale!  Bring some water for the kid to drink!”

“Okay!” she answered.

Dane turned on his back and stared up at us, his eyeballs moving, though his head stayed still.  And then, strangely, as if a switch had flipped, his face changed with the slightest narrowing of his eyes.  His cheekbones rose so that his mouth became a smile.  The boys exhaled as though Dane had pulled one over on them.  They guffawed, “Dang, Dane!” and shuffled around the perimeter, returning to conversation about the game they had been playing.

“What were you kids doing outside in the heat anyhow?” I asked.

“We were playing a game.  We were chasing him,” the kid who liked to talk said.  “Dane’s out of bounds.”  And then accusingly to Dane, “You lose.”

“Forget your damn game!” I shouted, and they snickered and looked at each other.

Gale came with the water and I sat Dane up to let him drink.  He sipped tentatively at first, and then realizing it was fine, began gulping the water.  When he was finished I took the glass and handed it back to Gale.  The talkative boy stepped forward to inspect his friend’s condition.  Dane cocked his head back and scowled at the intrusion so that the boy flinched and backed away.

“You call 9-1-1?” I said to Gale.

“They should be on their way,” she said, and then with familiarity, “You know how they are.”

I nodded then looked Dane over again.

“How do you feel?” I said.

“Okay,” Dane said.

“He’s okay,” a boy said.

I jerked my face to the four of them.  I said, “This isn’t normal when a person passes out. You get that?”

They nodded silently, some shrugging.

“I wasn’t passed out,” Dane said.

“What do you mean?” I said, and then to Gale, “I thought you said he was passed out!”  And then back to Dane, “You were awake the whole time?”

“I had to stop and rest.”

“How come?”

“Because I was tired.”

I looked at the boys and they were quiet, awaiting my response.  I exhaled a heavy puff of air.

“Mister, he don’t need to go to the hospital,” a kid said.  “If you want, we can take him home.”

“C’mon, Dane,” another said, “Let’s go to your house.”

“There’s Gatorade at my house,” a third boy said, and the fourth’s eyes widened with temptation.

I looked to Gale just as she had looked to me before.  There was that silent exchange.  I thought she might cry.  What the hell was eating her?

“Stupid cops.  They’ve got no business taking their candy ass time,” I said and the boys snickered again.

I got Dane to his feet and he seemed fine.  Kids were a miracle.  I was envious at their youthfulness.  I was envious of many things that they wouldn’t understand until much later.

“Brush it off,” a kid said like they were in a baseball game.

“Yeah, Dane.  You’re all right.”

“Enough with the cheerleader crap,” I said to the lot of them.  “Give Dane room to walk.  Now you get him on one side and you get him on the other, and you boys make sure he can walk.  If he gets shaky you grab his arms and hold him up.”

I gave a last look up the alley.  Then Gale walked to the street.  We all waited for her to get there.  She looked up and down then shook her head at me.

“Okay, now be careful.  You’re sure you weren’t unconscious at all?”

“No.  I was just catching my breath,” Dane said with assurance.  He brushed himself off and led his pals toward the street.  As they walked he said suddenly, “And I’m not out of bounds!” bursting to a sprint.

They chased after him, cackling, and were gone in an instant.  Gale looked at me and shrugged.  I put up my hands and did the same.  She walked sideways with her eyes still hovering where they had turned and gone.  So I moved toward her until we met halfway.

“I thought he’d passed out,” Gale said somewhat apologetically, walking to the spot near the trashcans where she had found Dane.  She inspected it thoroughly, as though there might be some explanation waiting to be found.

“It’s kids messing around,” I said to her.  “I’m sure we were the same way.”

Gale lingered there for a spell, the worry on her face eventually calming to neutrality.  She came back to me and we stood face to face in the alley.  A long silence passed, that mute conversation flowing through us like a short wave.  And then she said, “Maybe the police are busy with the heat.”

“Hell, I’d damn near forgotten about the heat,” I said and chuckled, feeling the texture of my wilted collar.

“Such a scorcher,” Gale said and her eyes rose to the sky where an orange flame was now burning and beautiful.

I looked to the place where the kids had turned and gone out of sight.  Gale followed suit, then gave a distinct sigh.  We were quiet again, and this time the muted communication between us was awkward.  I knew she was thinking about children.

“You think it’ll be as hot tomorrow?” I said, at a loss.  Whenever we got on the subject of kids, and the fact that she couldn’t have them, I got awkward with nothing to say.

“That’s a dumb question,” she said dismissively.

When she turned to me, her eyes were listless, and I could feel her mind light years away from mine.  There would be no meshing this time, so I nodded and put my hands in my pockets.

Gale made her way toward the stairs like time was of no importance.  I stayed put, watching as she made her way up them.

I looked again to where the kids had disappeared, and then to the place in the alley where Dane had lain in exhaustion.  I was irritated.  Those kids had derailed my night.

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

S&R Fiction: “Out in the Far Hills,” by Thomas Healy

One at a time the server at the Hookah Lounge placed three smoldering charcoals on top of the perforated foil that covered the bowl of the water pipe which was filled with mint-flavored tobacco.  Carefully, then, he took several long draws on the pipe to get it started then put on a clean mouthpiece.

“Enjoy, gentlemen,” he said, with a slight bow, after setting the mouthpiece in a glass bowl in the middle of the small brass table occupied by the three tire salesmen.

“Who wants to go first?” Arnett asked, leaning forward in his cushioned chair.

Norville winked at Gartland, knowing Arnett liked to go first in just about everything.

“After you, Robb.”

“You sure?”

He nodded along with Gartland.

After taking a sip of water, Arnett set the mouthpiece between his soup-cooler lips and inhaled slowly, savoring every bit of the tangy smoke.  Then, aware from his previous visit to the lounge that it was considered impolite to pass the pipe to another person, he set it back in the bowl when he was through and leaned back and crossed his arms.  As he did before, listening to the seductive Arabic music playing through the speaker above the front door, he imagined he was in Beirut or Damascus, somewhere far removed from the familiar shopping mall that was only a few blocks from the store where he and his friends worked.

“Oh, look,” Norville said, staring at the television attached to the wall behind the espresso bar, “there’s been another sighting of that coyote.”

Gartland groaned audibly as he reached for the water pipe.  “There seems to be a sighting reported every few hours.”

Arnett looked up at the television whose sound was off so it didn’t interfere with the music.  “I bet there’s more than one of them.”

“Not according to the sheriff,” Norville said quickly.

He disagreed.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a couple at least.”

“If that’s so, no wonder they are having so much trouble getting this thing taken care of.”

“The folks they hire these days in the sheriff’s office are lucky to find their way home at night, let alone some wild animal on the loose,” Gartland cracked.

“Oh, I don’t believe that’s why they haven’t killed the coyote yet,” Norville remarked after returning the pipe to the glass bowl.

“You don’t?”

“It’s just not a priority for the sheriff,” he contended.  “I have no doubt if the coyote was loose in the Emerald District, say, it would have been killed by now.  But he really isn’t that much concerned about what goes on in the east corridor of town.”

Gartland smiled, aware that the Emerald District was one of the areas where the sheriff garnered a great deal of support in the last election.

“So what you’re implying is that it’s up to us to kill the coyote,” Arnett said, sitting up in his chair.  “Is that right?”

“I suppose we can wait for the sheriff to get around to it but by then a lot of damage probably will have occurred.”

“I understand a number of cats and dogs already have been attacked.”

“Lord knows, this critter has to be killed before it goes after some person because, if I’m not mistaken, coyotes sometimes carry rabies.”

Gartland exhaled a faint ribbon of smoke.  “Remember last year, just before Thanksgiving, when that drug dealer released those pitbulls in the Emerald?  The sheriff rounded them up in a couple of days.”

“More like a couple of hours, if memory serves,” Norville remarked.

“That’s not going to happen here.  That’s for sure.  He’ll take his own sweet time just as he always does when it involves something at this end of town.”

“We all have a rifle or two in our closets,” Arnett interjected.  “I suppose we could go after it ourselves.”

“I wasn’t suggesting we do it,” Norville said hastily.  “I just pointed out that it’s more likely someone in this end of town is going to kill it before the sheriff does.”

“Then why not us?”

Norville, frowning, glared at Arnett.  “Because the only thing we’ve ever shot are jack rabbits and birds.  That’s why.”

“We could do it, though,” he insisted.

“Maybe you could, Robb, but not me.”

“Or me,” Gartland added before he inhaled another mouthful of smoke.

*

“About ten o’clock last night a man walking in Cedar Hills claimed he saw the coyote race across a footbridge,” the reporter on the radio announced.  “Deputies were dispatched at once but the animal was not found.”

Arnett, relieved, leaned back from the kitchen table, smiling to himself.  It’s still out there, he thought, still waiting for him to come and kill it.

After the weather report, which called for rain all weekend, he turned down the volume on the radio and resumed cleaning his father’s hunting rifle.  Scattered across the table were a roll of paper towels, some cotton patches, a bore brush, a cleaning rod, and a can of Remington oil.  A stub of a cigar burned in the ashtray on a corner of the table.

As expected, his friends didn’t waver from what they said the other night at the lounge so he would have to go after the coyote on his own.  He didn’t mind, though, almost preferred it because he wouldn’t have to share any of the accolades that were bound to come after he killed the animal.  Maybe, for once in his life, he would be seen as someone who could accomplish something significant instead of one of those people who only wished he could do such a thing.

Seemingly, ever since his younger sister died six years ago, he had lost the trust of many members of his family, particularly his father, who no longer acted as if he could rely on him.  As her only brother, it was his responsibility to look after Jenny, and he believed he always did the three summers they worked together as grooms at a riding stable across the river where a friend of their father’s was a longtime trainer.  But then early one morning that third summer, shortly after they arrived at the stable, a stallion broke out of its stall, and as it charged through the barn, Jenny tried to stop it and got kicked in the face.  She died in a matter of minutes from the severe trauma she suffered to her head.  He was only a step or two from her when the accident occurred so some in their family felt he should have protected her.  He didn’t know what he could have done, really, the horse stormed by so quickly, but that sentiment was shared by a lot of people who believed he had let her down.  That was preposterous, he knew, absolutely preposterous.  No one at the stable that morning thought he was in anyway responsible for her death.

At times, he almost wished he had been the one kicked by the horse but he wasn’t and would just have to accept that some people never would think he did enough for his sister.  They were wrong, dead wrong, but he doubted if he could ever change their minds.  But maybe, just maybe, if he shot the coyote, they would have a better opinion of him.

*

It was so early it was pitch dark out but Arnett wanted to get started as soon as possible so he was surprised to see Ignatius, who lived in the apartment below his, already in the parking lot.

“You’re up bright and early this morning,” he said as he unlocked the back door of his panel truck.

“A little too early,” he admitted.  “I’m still half asleep.”

“Quail season hasn’t opened yet, has it?” he asked, noticing the rifle tucked under his arm.

“Not that I know of.”

“You going to a shooting range then?”

He shook his head.  “I thought I’d see if I could find that coyote that’s causing all the ruckus around here.”

“You and plenty of others, I gather, from a report I heard on the news last night.”

Arnett opened his trunk.  “I reckon one of us ought to get it this weekend then.”

“Where are you going?”

“Cedar Hills.”

“Yeah, that’s the last place where I heard it was seen,” he said.  “Well, I wish you luck.”

“Thanks.  I’ll need it.”

Because of the earliness of the hour he scarcely encountered any traffic on the drive out to the large stretch of wilderness in the east corridor of town that was owned by the county.  For as long as he could remember, people in and out of government had discussed developing Cedar Hills into an eighteen hole golf course, maybe even a football stadium, but nothing ever came of the discussions so a couple of years ago it was designated by the county as a migratory bird sanctuary.  He parked near the footbridge at the north end of the refuge because that was where the person was walking who spotted the coyote the other evening.  A few other vehicles also were parked there so he assumed he would not be the only one looking for the creature this morning.

Occasionally in the summer, when the temperature rose into the nineties, his family would seek refuge in the shade of all the trees in the sanctuary and have a picnic beside one of the ponds.  He and his sister would often skip rocks across the linoleum smooth water, always competing to see whose rock went the farthest before sinking, but most of all he remembered the games of hide and seek they played with friends their parents let them bring along on the outings.  She always found the best hiding places, managing to blend in wherever she was, and seldom lost a game.  The few times he beat her, he suspected she let him win because she didn’t want him to get too dejected.  Since her death, he had visited the sanctuary only a few times, and whenever he did, he imagined she was still hiding there somewhere, refusing to show herself until he spotted her.

The day was every bit as dreary as forecast.  It rained steadily throughout the drive to the sanctuary but, almost as soon as he got out of his car, it intensified, the drops noisily pelting him like pellets of ice.  He had on an orange felt hunting hat so he would not be mistaken for the coyote but quickly realized that the hat would not keep its shape very long in the heavy downpour so he took it off and put on a dark blue baseball cap that was waterproof.

Not really having any idea where the coyote might be, if it was even still here, he decided to follow the narrow creek that passed under the footbridge and headed west, the rifle cradled in the crook of his left elbow.  He moved cautiously, not wanting to step on anything that might alert the animal of his presence.  “Walk as if you’re in a house full of people sound asleep and you don’t want to wake them,” his father told him the first time he took him quail hunting.  The ground was flat for nearly a mile then began to rise, and soon he could feel the strain in the back of his legs but he trudged on, knowing it was too soon to take a break.  He passed through a field of Scotch broom, through prickly hedges that were needle sharp.  He passed a boulder the size of his car and another the size of a tractor.  Above him herons circled, even a falcon appeared briefly between the limbs of a towering tree.

He proceeded at such a deliberate pace that he almost felt as if he were half asleep.  So, before he started up another rise, he removed his cap and lifted his face to the rain.  It stung like a dozen slaps but it jolted him awake and he continued on, one step at a time through the muddy ground.

*

Suddenly, off to his right somewhere, he heard what sounded like a rifle shot.

“Oh, Lord,” he sighed, halting at once.

Intently he listened for another shot, a voice, but all he heard was the pelting rain.  Perhaps what he heard before wasn’t a shot at all but only a branch snapped by the wind.  Lord, he hoped so, because he didn’t want anyone else to kill the coyote.  It was his prey, he believed, and his alone.

*

“Jesus, man,” a voice above Arnett snarled as he approached a blackberry vine, “I almost plugged you.”

Startled, he looked up and saw a grizzled figure in a camouflage jacket and hat perched in the neck of an oak tree.  A rifle rested on the top of his left shoulder.  “Thank God you didn’t.”

“Don’t thank Him,” he snorted.  “Thank me.  I might have more yesterdays in my life than tomorrows but my vision is still good.”

“I didn’t even see you.”

The hunter grinned, revealing a badly chipped front tooth.  “That’s the point, isn’t it?  Otherwise why would I have my bony butt up in this tree?”

“You here for the coyote?”

He nodded.  “There’s nothing else worth shooting in this goddamn swamp.”

“Have you seen any sign of it?”

“Nah, and I’m beginning to wonder if it’s even still around here.  I figure I’ll stay up in this tree another hour or two then call it a day.”

“I’d wish you luck but I want to shoot it myself.”

“Believe me, if it comes by here, I have no doubt I’ll kill it.  As I said, my eyes are sharp as ever.  Otherwise it’s all yours, friend.”

*

Breathing hard, Arnett slumped against the side of a tree and looked at his wrist watch.  It was nearly ten o’clock, and still he had not come across the coyote.  He wondered if it wasn’t here any longer, as the guy in the tree speculated, if maybe it was never here at all and the person who claimed to have seen it was mistaken.

“Damn,” he groaned to himself, as he fished a cigarette out of his pocket.

He started to reach for a match when he saw the pair of pale yellow eyes staring at him from behind a manzanita shrub.  Immediately his pulse quickened, and the cigarette dropped out of his mouth.

There it is, he realized, not more than fifteen feet away from him.

His heart was in his throat.  And for nearly a minute he didn’t budge a muscle, afraid if he did he might spook the animal.  But he knew he had to retrieve his rifle, which he had set across a stump beside his left foot, if he hoped to get off a decent shot.  He almost wished the coyote would start to move away but it remained as still as he was, its eyes as lifeless as tacks.  Ever so slowly, while still staring at the lemon-colored eyes, he reached for his rifle and, just as he was about to pick it up, the animal darted out from behind the shrub and raced past him and disappeared in some fireweed.

“Goddamn!” he shrieked.

To his amazement, it wasn’t the coyote but a reddish brown fox and, in frustration, he fired a shot at it and missed.

*

Minutes later, maneuvering down a narrow slope, he stumbled on a tree root and fell to his knees.  His pants were caked in mud, his hands too, and as he got up he suspected he must have looked like someone who had fallen through a chimney and was covered in soot.  He smiled.  Certainly he didn’t look like a person others were likely to embrace in celebration.  Not at all, he thought, continuing down the slope.  But he knew his appearance really didn’t matter if he killed the coyote.  He could look like a scarecrow and people would still want to shake his hand and have their pictures taken with him.  And maybe his perceived failure to protect his sister would finally be forgiven by those who still held him partly responsible for her death, if not forgotten.

He truly hoped so, mindful of the convicted arsonist last spring who rescued an elderly man and woman from an overturned car.  Many in the neighborhood who remembered that, as a youngster, Metheny set an abandoned warehouse on fire congratulated him for saving the couple, including Arnett who had gone to high school with one of his younger brothers.

“You must feel as if you’re back,” he remembered asking him one evening.

“Back?”

“In the good graces of the community?”

He shrugged.  “Some folks will never forgive me for what I did but a few might after they see I am really not such an awful person.  I don’t know.  I wish I could say I don’t care but I do very much.”

So did he, Arnett thought, climbing over a cracked tree.

*

Around half past one, when Arnett returned to his car, his hands were shaking he was so cold and he had to steady one hand with another in order to insert the key into the lock to open the door.  Immediately he turned on the heater, full blast, and toweled off his face and hair.  He was soaked down to his socks and decided to warm up a little before he headed back to his apartment.

He had not found the coyote, hadn’t come across any trace of it, and was terribly discouraged.  He wasn’t really sure if it was in the sanctuary, but if it was, he realized he wasn’t going to find it.  Not today, anyway, because it was just too miserable out so he decided to stop looking before he caught pneumonia.  Tomorrow, though, he would be back, maybe with some cold cuts from the butcher shop to use as bait.  He didn’t intend to sit up in some tree but he might set up a blind near the creek and wait for the animal to come after the meat.

“Seduction is every bit as important as marksmanship,” his father told him time and again when they hunted.

He had never killed anything larger than a jack rabbit but was confident he wouldn’t have a problem killing the coyote after all the trouble it had caused.  Briefly he looked at his drenched face in the rearview mirror, remembering when one of the trainers at the stable asked if he wanted to shoot the horse that killed his sister.  He did, certainly, but he knew Jenny wouldn’t have wanted him to because she hated to see any harm come to the horses at the riding stable.  She was the sort of considerate person who would stop whenever she saw a dead squirrel in the road and bury it.  So he declined and asked that the horse not be killed.  It was a decision that disappointed the trainer who he was sure thought less of him because of it, probably considered him weak and irresponsible.  And it was a decision that he came to regret five months later when the horse kicked another groom, severely fracturing her hip, and was put down at once.  The trainer didn’t ask for his approval then, didn’t say anything, just looked at him with what almost seemed contempt.  His attitude would be much different, Arnett believed, after he took down the coyote, much, much different.  He would see he wasn’t the weakling he thought he was but someone capable of doing something important and necessary.

His hands still shivering a little, he turned on the ignition, put the car in gear, and got back on the road.

*

Ignatius, removing a small crate from the back of his panel truck, smiled when Arnett pulled into the parking lot of the apartment complex.  “You get it?” he asked as soon as Arnett climbed out of his car.

Wearily he shook his head.  “Didn’t even see it.”

“Well, someone did, and I thought it might be you.”

“The coyote’s dead?”

“That’s what was reported on the radio not more than half an hour ago.”

His shoulders slumped in disappointment.  “I’ll be damned.  I thought for sure I was going to be the one to get it.”

“It’s too bad you weren’t.”

“Where was it shot?”

“Somewhere at this end of town.”

“Out in Cedar Hills?” he pressed him.

“I don’t recall but I don’t believe so.”

“There must be more than one loose because I’m sure one’s in the hills.”

“I thought you didn’t see any sign of it.”

“I didn’t but I just have a feeling it’s there somewhere.”

His eyes narrowed.  “You do?”

“I do.  I definitely do.”

Despite the skepticism of his neighbor, he went to the butcher shop that evening and purchased three pounds of ground beef.  Still convinced the coyote he was after remained at large, he returned to Cedar Hills early the next morning and hiked deep into the sanctuary.  The rain wasn’t as intense as it was yesterday but it was just as cold and blustery.  After he found a place that provided some cover, he set out the meat and waited for the elusive coyote to appear.  It didn’t, though, but he wasn’t discouraged and planned to return to the hills next weekend, and, if necessary, the following weekend and however many after that until he found the animal.  He was so confident he would kill it he could almost see the smiles on the faces of the people in his part of town and hear the compliments they surely would extend to him for his accomplishment.

CATEGORY: SRLitJournal

S&R Fiction: “House With a Black Door,” by Nicholas Wisseman

At first, I thought Dan’s death would blow through the house like a storm: a day’s worth of rage and tears—two at most—and then the grief would be gone. Lots of things rolled off my tough old bunch; why not this?

But I sold them short. You’d think I’d know not to by now.

Stacy was mad for weeks. She’d shake her small white head and say, “I guess that’s it,” screw her face up in a pout, and look at big Paula, who—on cue—would say the same thing. Paula would pout then too.

Julia wept all the time. “I mith Dan tho much,” she told me most days, her blurred face red and wet.  “I loved him.”

“I know,” I’d say, shocked that she still knew who he was…and who he’d been. “He loved you too.”

Carter said much the same thing each night. “Dan—was—a—dear…Dan—was—a—dear—friend—to—us—all,” he’d start and stop at least twice. “And—he—liked—us—a—whole—lot…I—liked…I—liked—him—a—whole—lot—too.”

“That’s nice of you to say,” I’d note as I passed Carter his meds. “I’m sure he knows that.”

Keith just sat and stared, more out of it than I’d seen him since he came. No jumps; no fits. Just blank eyes and a fierce need to sit in the same spot on the couch.

Lisa made the most noise, but I’d planned for that: I taught her to hug Julia when the sobs came, so that they both had a friend’s touch to turn to. Of course, Lisa would have liked my touch, but Julia seemed pleased to stand in for me.

And Kate…Kate lost her spark. It was hard to watch. She still bossed us—up and down and left and right and back and forth—but there was no grit in it. Dan—when his head was clear—had been her Dan. “Old Dan,” she’d called him, “old Dan, my old Dan. He’s my Dan, Charles. Where’s my Dan?” She’d wait for him to come home, just like she had when we could still trust him to leave the house. “I knew you’d be back!” she’d yell when you came through the door, hope etched across her face…and then she’d see who it was, fall back into her hunch, and give you a task. “The trash stinks, Charles. Take it out, why don’t ya?”

I did my best to help them through it. When Stacy’s face set in a pout, or Julia broke down, or Kate had her hopes dashed once more, I donned my mask and found the right words: “He’s with his dad, now; he’ll like that,” or, “You’re a good friend. He’ll miss you too.” Most times it worked for them.

But not for me.

It hit me worst at night, when the house was still and my shift was close to done. The job was…calm now. No one called me Fuck (in place of Chuck); no one talked up the Cubs; no one threw their pills in my face; no one asked me to watch John Wayne films with them; no one told the cops I was a “Jap spy up to no good;” no one asked me if I liked birds; no one told me they would “do for me” if they got the chance.

So yeah…I missed him too. We all did. Our door—the door to the street, the door whose hue marked us as “that house”—was still blue…but for months it felt black.

And that was our gift to him.

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

S&R Fiction: “A Rough Translation,” by Norman Waksler

CATEGORY: LitJournalFictionMr. Massicot was not pleased when they tore down the old woodshop next door, even though it had been unoccupied the last four years. The woodshop stood, had stood, on a double sized lot of which it occupied about a third, the rest covered by low shrubs, tall grasses and the occasional slender tree, not exactly an English ornamental garden, but green and peaceful to the eyes.

A retired private school history teacher – American to the Civil war, Ancient to the fall of Rome, European to the fall of Napoleon – Mr. Massicot believed that what had gone before inevitably presaged what was to come, and every time a large lot was cleared in Carbury townhouses followed. And as he said to his wife, Illona, not only did this mean months of construction dust and disturbance, a minimum of four sets of neighbors where previously there had been none plus a minimum of four additional cars, but, “You never know what kind of people are going to move in.”

Tall, slump shouldered, liver spots on his bald head, Mr. Massicot had been a second string first baseman in college and still carried an athlete’s bulk, though not his athlete’s grace of movement. Illona Massicot, on the other hand, once willowy, had thinned out with age so that in her short sleeved top and summer shorts she seemed all elbows, knees and shins. They had married rather late for children, and she had continued over the years as a university librarian, which was just as well with Mr. Massicot given what teachers’ salaries were. She said, “People who can afford to buy townhouses in Carbury these days are likely to meet your standards of respectability, Alexander.”

Mr. Massicot thought Illona had been a little tart with him lately and he didn’t like it one bit. “Money is no guarantee of respectability, Illona. Look at your drunken, adulterous cousin Claudia.”

“Well,” she said. “Poor Claudia.”

Since Carbury, a comfortable college town, was a desirable alternative to its even more expensive neighbor Cambridge, Mr. Massicot had the sour satisfaction of being right about the fate of the double lot. Soon after the debris of the woodshop was carted off bulldozers cleared the shrubbery and trees, foundation digging commenced, and the irritation of  noisy construction got under way. By summer this resulted in a pair of paired townhouses with noxious green siding, senseless gables, random porches and decks – the two sets separated by a wide blacktopped driveway to garages and front doors. From their living room and his study upstairs Mr. Massicot could look straight along the drive and into the small yards behind each townhouse, so that when they all sold out and the new people moved in, he had a perfect perch from which to assess them.

Four couples, all in their late twenties to early thirties, all white, middle class, nothing wrong with that of course, yet they all annoyed Mr. Massicot to one degree or another. “What do you think of the new people?” he asked his wife.

“They seem nice enough. They mind their own business, certainly.”

“They’re completely self-involved. No sense of neighborhood at all. They don’t even talk to one another.”

“They don’t seem to be doing any harm.”

“They don’t do any good.”

“That’s —-.”

“That’s what?”

“I guess that’s true of any number of people.”

Mr. Massicot didn’t know the names of the new neighbors so after a few weeks, he named them himself:

The Lawn People, a thin, mousey pair with a baby in arms and a toddler that squawked like a hungry grackle. They seemed to spend all their time watering the lawn, mowing the lawn, edging the lawn, planting flowers, pulling up weeds, rolling balls on the lawn for the toddler, and otherwise frolicking as if they thought they were fauns and nymphs

The Boozers, a chunky woman and a big bellied man who were always on their little porch in wicker chairs drinking alone or with friends so that their white wicker table ended the night loaded with empty bottles and the porch looked like a cheap barroom.

The TV People. Mr. Massicot didn’t in fact know what these individuals looked like because all he could ever see was their shadowy forms and beyond them the continually shifting colors and shapes on their gigantic TV which, ridiculously, was on at all hours of the night and day.

But the ones who annoyed Mr. Massicot the most were The Shoppers. Another pair around thirty, he was thick legged in those multi-pocket shorts that came down below his knees, square headed with a buzz cut; she was athletically built with short cut hair and muscular calves and they always seemed to be indulging in one sort of sport or another, the two of  them on bicycles, or attaching their bikes to their SUV or tying two kayaks to the top of it, or loading it with coolers and duffle bags and driving off and disappearing for days on end.

“Don’t they work? How can they afford their mortgage?”

“Maybe they work from home, Alexander. Or even from wherever they go off to. Not everyone has to go into an office these days. It’s called computer commuting.”

“Yes, I’ve heard of it. The perfect method to promote irresponsibility and laziness.”

Yet what really disgusted Mr. Massicot  was that every day – every day they were home, that is – he saw them carrying cartons or handle bags with the logos of pricey stores from their SUV to the house, or a large delivery truck stopped at the sidewalk and men wheeled obviously heavy cartons down the driveway on a dolly, or the UPS or Fed Ex driver, or even the mailman, left a box on their front stoop.

“Look at them,” he’d say seeing the couple coming home. “Three bags and two boxes this time. How extravagant can you get?”

“Well,” Illona would say, “They’re in a new home. There are things they must need.”

“Need. Nobody needs so much stuff that they get deliveries every day. They’re just indulging themselves. They must be up to their eyeballs in debt and their credit cards must be full up.”

“We’ve always bought what we needed.”

“Yes, but wisely and with moderation. That’s why we’re enjoying a comfortable retirement.”

Mr. Massicot didn’t spend all his time disapproving of the neighbors. If Illona in retirement had her gardening, her daily walk with a woman friend, her gourmet cooking and her 18th century English novels, Mr. Massicot had his project. He greatly admired the Roman historian Sallust and the way he used his two great works – War With Catiline (a conspiracy to take over Rome), and Jugurthan War (Romans against Numidians) –  to deplore the moral and political decline of  Rome (even though Sallust himself had accumulated his wealth by oppression and extortion as  governor of a Roman province). However, Mr. Massicot had never found what he considered a satisfactory translation of  the historian, and despite his rusty Latin had set out to do one that truly captured the compressed, pithy style that made him so effective.

The project had sputtered through his last years of teaching, an unhappy and disappointing period for Mr. Massicot who knew that he failed to reach his students, all of them totally uninterested in history, disrespectful, always playing with their phones, writing nearly illiterate papers, giving incoherent oral reports, simply not caring if they flunked. It was with relief that he finally retired, taking his silver goodbye bowl and his pension and settling in to a regular schedule of translation, which he entered on a computer connected to a printer, but not to the internet.

For ideas he could have used the Loeb Library edition of Sallust with its translation on the facing page, but then it wouldn’t really be his own work, a form of cheating actually. Instead he stayed strictly with the Latin text, a classic grammar, and a giant dictionary, methodically conning definitions, conjugations, declensions, idiomatic expressions. At times he’d read over finished sections and polish a phrase or a sentence. He found himself tiring more easily than he liked, age threatening his ability to finish, but despite slow progress, these were the most satisfying hours of his present life.

When he was having difficulty with a passage, struggling to find the trenchant English to match the concise Latin, he would get up from his six drawer teacher’s desk and shuffle about the office in his slippers, touching a book on the built-in bookcase, sliding a file cabinet drawer open and closed, flipping the printed pages of what he’d so far completed, stopping to look out one window and the other, then he’d shuffle back to the desk and enter what he’d finally worked out.

This particular day, Illona out shopping somewhere, Mr. Massicot was laboring over the half sentence “quin defessis et exsanguibus qui plus posset imperium atque libertatem extorqueret.”

His first rough translation read, “but when they’d been worn out and exhausted someone more powerful would take the power away from them and also their liberty.”

Of course “worn out and exhausted” was redundant as was powerful and power, and “power” was of course really more specific than just command, more like rule or dominion in this case. And “take away” was rather a weak expression of  extorqueret. Altogether unsatisfactory.

He leaned himself out of his desk chair and made his contemplative circuit of the study, ending up at the window overlooking the townhouses, where in front of the one owned by the shoppers, he saw a white van with  the side door open and three men in blue coveralls and baseball caps, rather warms outfits for late summer, one putting a computer in though the open door, one stepping to the side to let the third, coming out of the townhouse with a CD player, get by him.

At first Mr. Massicot thought the couple was moving out, but nobody used such a small truck to move a house, and besides, the shoppers had been gone all week; he’d seen them set their kayaks on top of the SUV and load their bikes inside, so wouldn’t they be there to supervise the move? No, the likelihood was that just as he’d said, they’d overspent their credit cards and couldn’t pay what they owed, and these men were repossessing everything they were in default of.  It would be a hard lesson learned.

Two of the men came out with a flat screen TV which they slid into the van, and Mr. Massicot, losing interest was about to get back to his translation, when the third man came out of the townhouse holding a dark suit on a hanger against his body as if to demonstrate that it fit him. The taller of the other two said something to him, perhaps disapproving, because the third flung the suit into the van with what Mr. Massicot saw as an angry gesture, spun around and went back into the townhouse, emerging shortly with a small speaker under each arm, and Mr. Massicot finally understood that the men were in fact stealing all the easily moved, costly contents of the townhouse, which apparently wasn’t meant to include that suit.

He’d never seen the like, though of course he’d read about it and seen television reports. The men were remarkably businesslike: both unhurried seeming and swift, much more efficient than any moving men he’d ever encountered. Mr. Massicot wondered how they’d gained entry – he supposed one of them must also have lock picking skills. It occurred to him that he should dial 911. However, he deliberately didn’t have a phone in the study, nor was there one in the bedroom. Illona had a smart phone that she put by her bedside at night, and he himself had what they called a flip phone that was very convenient when he was out, if otherwise uninteresting. But that was downstairs as was the house phone, and he almost had the phrase he was looking for. Anyway, the shoppers shouldn’t have gone away and left their precious purchases unattended so often. Obviously the thieves hadn’t been fooled by their house lights on timers. Mr. Massicot  went back to his desk to try the phase, but it had slipped away while he let himself be distracted.

The next couple of days Mr. Massicot couldn’t help glancing out the window now and then as if expecting to see the same white van and the same thieves, perhaps at another of the townhouses. What he saw was the quiet strip of blacktop in the sun, the green yards, anywhere from one to five parked cars, the woman with the baby strapped to her chest pushing the toddler filled carriage toward the sidewalk, the mailman, normality.

But on the third day he saw the couple, their SUV with the kayaks on top, and two uniformed police officers, one talking to the pair, the other taking notes. Obviously the two had returned from their outdoor adventures and found their townhouse stripped of every electrical toy, and a suit as well, though possibly they didn’t know that yet. The athletic looking wife was the one talking, upset, gesturing with her hand as if counting off each stolen object. The square headed husband was tight lipped, his balled fists by his thighs, slowly and repeatedly shaking his head. For a moment Mr. Massicot felt a kind of non-specific discomfort, the rough equivalent to almost remembering something from an uncongenial dream. Then the couple and the police went into the townhouse, and Mr. Massicot went back to his translation.

Mid-afternoon that same day, Mr. Massicot in the kitchen after his daily nap cutting a piece of chocolate cake to go with his coffee, when Illona came into the room saying, “Oh, Alexander, what an awful thing. The Kerns’ house was broken into, all their valuable things were stolen. Their TV, stereo, everything, even their microwave oven.”

“The Kerns?”

“Terry and Amber. Our new next door neighbors.”

“Oh, yes. I saw.”

“What do you mean, you saw?”

“They were like superior moving men, except the only things they were moving were electrical.”

“You mean you saw them while they were doing it?”

“That’s what I said, isn’t it?”

“Did you call the police? Wait, no, you didn’t, did you?”

“It was none of my business, and I was busy.”

“But that’s totally irresponsible. How could you do that?”

“Well, there’s no law that you have to report a crime, you know. Anyway, it serves them right.”

“Serves them right for what? My god, Alexander, that’s mean. You’re mean. You’ve always been mean.”

“I beg your pardon.”

“No. No. I mean it. What you call running a tight ship is just being mean. What you call feeling irritable is just being mean. What you call always making the hard decisions is just being mean. You’re a mean old man, Alexander, and you’ve always been mean.”

“Illona, you’re just getting hysterical over nothing.”

“I’m not hysterical, and it’s not nothing. You’ll see.”

Mr. Massicot wasn’t pleased. Illona had on occasion gotten mad at him, more lately to be sure, but that was normal, husbands and wives couldn’t always agree. But this was extreme and unpleasant. As well, he was offended by the threat in her voice, but before he could make her calm her down and explain what “you’ll see” meant, she turned her back on him and left the kitchen. He refused to pursue her.

About an hour later, Mr. Massicot was in the living room reading Our Mutual Friend. Generally he read history, rarely fiction, but he made an exception for Dickens whose oeuvre he went through chronologically from Boz to Drood. Liking them for their complicated plots, rich descriptions, Dickens’s touching affection for his strange and warped characters; and of course for the historical element, which was a kind of vivid companion to Mayhew’s London Labor and London Poor.

Illona, for her part, was presently going through Richardson’s Clarissa, 1500 pages, a million words, some infinite number of volumes. As a rule, they sat together there on matching wing chairs across the faded blue Tabirz rug, every now and then one reading a  passage aloud for the other’s enjoyment, but Mr. Massicot noted that the volume Illona had reached was absent from the little drum table beside her chair. She’d probably taken herself off in her huff and retreated with the book to the bedroom. She’d get over it, she always did, especially when she was making a mountain out of a mole hill. After all, if he was so mean why had she married him and stayed with him all these years. Surely she’d understood all along that he only wanted to see things done right.

The doorbell surprised him. He couldn’t imagine who would be stopping by unannounced at this hour; friends always called first, and the days when a paperboy rang to collect and be tipped were long gone. He hoped it wasn’t some religious fanatic; he wasn’t in the mood although at other times he never minded twitting them for a few minutes before they gave up and went away. He looked up at the ceiling in the direction of the bedroom, waited another while, but when the doorbell rang again, he bookmarked his page and set the book on the drum table beside his chair.

Through the sidelight he saw a uniformed police officer, someone obviously a veteran of the force, tall with a pot belly, grey sideburns below his cap, and glasses sitting on a pointed, investigatory nose. He had a small notebook in one hand, a pen in the other. “Blast!” said Mr. Massicot, then opened the door. “Good afternoon, officer. Though it’s nearly evening isn’t it?”

“Are you Alexander Massicot?”

“Yes. Yes I am. What can I do for you, officer?”

“It’s about the robbery next door, Mr. Massicot. Your wife called the station and said you’d seen it while it was taking place. Can you tell me exactly what you saw?” He clicked the ball point pen and raised his notebook ready to write.

For a minute Mr. Massicot could hardly breathe, as though the weight of his wife’s betrayal was crushing his lungs. He put a hand against the door jamb to steady himself, at the same time trying to look as if he was being casual. The officer was staring at him with that particular, just waiting non-expression that all policemen must have learned as part of their academy training. Finally Mr. Massicot was able to speak. “I’m afraid my wife exaggerates, officer. I might have seen someone leaving. A white van pulling out of the driveway,”

“Your wife said you saw individuals taking electronics out of the building.” Flat voiced, un-accusatory, factual, hard as a police baton to the chest.

“I don’t know where she got that idea, officer. Perhaps she confused what the neighbors said with what I said later. A white van. Leaving the driveway. That’s what I saw. I didn’t even know there was robbery.”

“I see. You didn’t happen to catch the plate number, did you?”

Mr. Massicot shook his head. “It might have been a Massachusetts plate. I think.”

“You mean to say that’s all you can tell me?”

“That’s all I know.”

The officer lowered his head a little and stared at Mr. Massicot. He frowned. “I see. Well then.” He unclicked the ball point. “I guess that’s it. Thanks for your help.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t be more help. But I could only tell you what I saw.”

“Uh huh. Well. Have a good day now.”

“You too.”

Mr. Massicot was almost dizzy with indignation and disbelief at Illona’s disloyalty. When he turned to go upstairs and confront her, the hallway going past the living room and dining room along to the kitchen had the gray porous look of an underground tunnel he’d seen years ago in the Roman Coliseum, an illusion that passed when he started up the stairs, slowly as always given the chronic ache in his knees and ankles.

Illona was on the bed, propped up against two pillows, her rolling reading tray across her lap with the Richardson tome aslant on the ledge at the bottom. Mr. Massicot said, “How could you do that to me?”

Illona took off her reading glasses and just turned her head to look at him. “Do what, Alexander?”

“Do what, Illona! Call the police and put me on the spot like that. I just had a police officer here interrogating me. It was very unpleasant.”

“Well, you did see the robbery, didn’t you? Did you tell the officer what you saw?”

“Yes, I told him, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is that wives don’t betray their husbands. They don’t make trouble for them. It’s criminal.”

Illona laughed. “Well, as Al Jolson, I think it was, used to say, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet.’ From now on, any time you do something untoward, Alexander, I’m going to do my best to thwart you. Any time you say something gratuitously mean, I’m going to set you straight. Whatever it takes. You brought this on yourself, so just be warned and watch your step because I’ll be watching you.”

Mr. Massicot stood there immobilized and breathless. That his wife would conspire with the police was bad enough, but that she would be overtly planning to fight him at every turn was something for which he was completely unprepared. This just wasn’t the way things were supposed to be. There was simply no precedent for it.

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

S&R Fiction: “The Treehouse,” by Aimee Stahlberg

I was nine the first time Tommy gave me butterflies. Mother had just made welts so big on my sister Jackie’s and my behinds that I thought neither of us would be able to wear a bathing suit the whole rest of summer. Her face turned pink as a pomegranate when she saw our soggy, wet crescent moons of mud scattered across her freshly washed kitchen floor–our footprints–from a sneak-attack water war launched on us by the boys.

My hair didn’t even have time to unclump out of the earthwormy tendrils before I started rolling clothes inside of my Barbie pink sleeping bag. I was ready to stomp down the street to what would be my new home.

By the time I got to Tommy’s house, I expected the battle scene to seem like a distant memory. The balloons that had popped on our bodies and left their skins flailed across the ground would have been scooped into a pile, ready to be placed into a big, black trash bag and tossed out with the rest of Thursday’s refuse. Instead, as I climbed the slats nailed crookedly into the trunk of the tree–something surprising to know was the craftsmanship of Mr. Alamonti–I could see pieces of exploded rubber hanging everywhere. And the floorboards of the treehouse were still so soaked that they were swollen. It was as though they should have squished with every step that I took like a cushiony sponge.

Still, I sprawled my sleeping bag wide over the floor, keeping my clothes on top, neatly piled into the corner. I ran my hands quickly over the fabric, causing ripples and waves in it until it was a perfect rectangle. I knew I had to stay there; it was the only place I felt safe.

The moment it became straight and even, I heard creaking coming from just below the trap door. It had to be Tommy. He was never quiet when he approached, whether he was sniggering, or hiccuping, or chewing on some candy that he’d stolen from a neighbor kid; he’d never learned to be sneaky.

He stopped two rungs from the top, his messy tuft of sun-bleached hair peeking just above the floorboards.

“Who goes there!?”

I didn’t realize I’d made the floorboards squeak when I moved to set my rump on the balls of my feet, squatting so he couldn’t see the handprint that I knew was sticking out the bottom of my shorts.

“Get up here, you nimrod!” I whispered so loudly the whole neighborhood should have heard, but lucky for me, the birds were tweeting wildly that day.

“Whitney!?” His naked feet finished climbing fast, and he pulled himself fully into the treehouse.

He was only in his blue swim trunks, his stomach and legs stained green and brown from sliding into puddles the boys had created in the grass. His cheeks were kissed pink by the sun, and so was the tip of his nose. His eyes were sparkly and green, contrasting intensely with his newly reddening skin.

“What’re you doing here?” He slanted his body, pressing his back against the window-frame of the treehouse, leaning and folding his arms across his chest as he smiled at me. He was starting to realize that his quickly growing, nine-year-old body was becoming too tall for the ceiling so he always adjusted his position accordingly.

I pulled my feet forward and out from under my butt and tucked them under my knees to sit Indian style, then interlaced my fingers in my lap.

“I’m moving in to the treehouse,” I told him.

He hugged his stomach, pinching his own skin, hunching himself forward, and laughed.

“I. Am. Not. Joking.” I said this slowly, wanting to make sure that he got every word, but he continued to laugh. “I am moving in whether you like it or not.” I unfolded my hands and put them on my hips. “You can come in here if you want, but I’m gonna make one thing clear: I’m the boss of this house now, and nothing’s gonna happen in this place, or even in this yard, if I don’t want it to, even if that means not growing up.” I kept watching his face; it didn’t seem like he understood the level of trust that I was putting in him, the level of protection I felt when I was with him.

He stuck his tongue in his cheek and swelled it up like a Blow-Pop.

“Whatever you say, Whit. Whatever you say.” He let me stay.

I should have made him pinky promise that day that nothing would ever be forced upon me in the treehouse, but I didn’t. The fact that he let me stay until my mom called all of the parents in the neighborhood and then marched door to door searching for me gave me enough faith that I should just be able to trust him. Sometimes, it’s easy to confuse protection for love, the kind that gives you butterflies.

And that wasn’t the last time he protected me either. Growing up, he would tell people to leave me alone on those days that girls would qualify as “bad” when there’s nothing more wrong than a hair out of place or a slip of the mascara wand. He protected me when we’d walk home from football games and it was rainy and I didn’t have my umbrella, sheltering me under his sweatshirt, taking the brunt of the wind and hail for me.

Then, there was the time when I dated one of his friends, Zack. Our relationship lasted for the first three years of high school. Even though Tommy had always been around–and don’t get me wrong, was something special–we’d always said, even during Zack’s and my relationship, that we were too good of friends to ever try dating.

By the time Zack and I fell apart, though, Tommy found me huddled in the corner of his treehouse, a bruise shadowing the left side of my jaw. I’d told Zack at a party that I didn’t like the way he acted when he drank, the way he pushed me up against walls, the way he shoved his tongue into my mouth, the way he didn’t want to use a condom, the way he always thought he was sober enough to drive.

Tommy sided with me and stopped talking to Zack; he helped me to break all ties with him, freeing me from the situation. He helped to make me stronger.

We sat in his treehouse on New Years Eve just before we both turned 19 while our parents were in his house watching the ball drop. We were both listing all the things we were looking for in a potential mate.

“I want someone who can make me laugh,” I said, watching him pull the hairs that hung over his forehead forward over and over again, as if his fingers were a flat-iron.

“And I want someone who knows what she wants, who knows how to stand up for herself.” He was still staring at the hair between his fingers.

“And I want someone who is understanding that you don’t push someone into something they don’t want to do.”

“I’d never do that.” He let go of his hair and gazed at me, smiling. He was rocking back and forth on his knees.

“If we ever dated, you’d have to understand that we couldn’t get physical until both of us are ready,” I started.

“Of course,” he responded before I even finished.

“I mean it,” I continued. “We’d both have to be ready to do anything before we did it, even things we’ve done before. If not, we’ll ruin everything we have.”

“Of course.” He was scooting closer to me, as if he was about to kiss me.

I pressed my hand to his chest, keeping him at an arm’s distance. “So, we’ll discuss things before taking things to another level physically, you know, like sex?”

“Of course,” he said, again. His understanding made the butterflies flap their wings even harder.

A year later, when we celebrated our anniversary, he told me that he had big plans for Valentine’s Day. He told me not to even try planning anything because he wanted to make it magical.

My heels clip-clopped to his house between patches of ice that hadn’t melted off of the sidewalk yet. I wrapped my thin, leather jacket tightly around my waist, hugging myself, trying to shield my body from the cold. Thank God he only lives five houses down, I thought.

But as soon as I got to the driveway and saw a bobbing glow reflecting off the trees and house coming from the backyard, I knew I was severely underdressed for the occasion. Heels and a cocktail dress with a fashion jacket are by no means the right attire for a bonfire. I didn’t realize that a night at home was what he had in mind when he told me to wear my sexiest outfit, something he could show me off in at a dance club.

As soon as I realized there was a fire on my boyfriend’s patio, I froze in my tracks. I let go of my jacket, feeling my hands begin to tremble as I thought about my sister, Jackie, and how her friend, Brian, had committed suicide by lighting himself on fire a few weeks back. Seeing the flickering light, I wondered if I was in the wrong place, if I should have been with my sister instead. The typically level-headed girl had been doing things that were so out of character for her, I’d started growing afraid that she might do something crazy on a whim to try to ease her pain, maybe something irreversible. Seeing that fire made me paranoid that I never do really know what’s going on in other people’s heads.

But if I’ve learned anything from the relationships I’ve been in, you take care of your “personal” business on your own time. If a man is expecting you, it’s best not to keep him waiting.

So, I took a deep breath, letting the bitter February air sting my lungs, and ran my ever-shaking hands over my clothes to smooth them out one last time before heading for the stone walkway that snaked between the pine trees hugging the sides of the two-story house.

Rock salt glittered and crunched beneath my feet, and for a moment, I was reminded of all the little gestures he’d done that would be so telling of how well he knew me: leaving a straw by my cup when we would sip lemonade because sugar hurt my teeth, though he never asked why; always leaving a flashlight in the treehouse for those times when I needed a place just to get away. And now, he knew that in seeing that glow, I wouldn’t even bother with walking to the front door; there wasn’t any salt leading that way.

By the time I got to the back of the house, the bright orange firelight was pulsing, leaving the lawn furniture, the treehouse, Tommy, and everything else in the backyard as nothing more than a negative, their images just shadows on the shivering background.

My feet scraped against the patio, and Tommy whipped his head around, and jolted, as if he’d been caught in the middle of some act I wasn’t supposed to see, his hair sticking up awkwardly in all directions. The only other time I’d seen him behave like this was when he was drawing on a make-your-own puzzle kit to ask me to senior prom, right after Zack and I broke up. He peeked over the back of the love-seat, letting only his squinted eyes pop above the top as he hid a huge grin behind the wicker.

I ran my shaking hands over my outfit again, tugging at the fabric, hoping I could get it to lie flatter. And as I saw Tommy leaping over the lawn furniture like a track runner’s hurdles, I suddenly felt lucky that it was so cold. I knew the minute that our bodies embraced he would feel my shaking and want to know the reason for it; I didn’t have any excuse good enough for him. Since Brian’s death, he’d become clingy and needy, always wanting proof that I loved him. It wasn’t like him; it scared me. But telling him that he’d been worrying me lately would leave him less than thrilled.

He strutted toward me with his arms outstretched and called my name slowly, dreamily, as though we hadn’t seen each other in years. In reality, we hadn’t seen each other in maybe twenty-four hours. His fingers were splayed wide, which could have seemed magical, like maybe an ice skater gliding to their partner, ready to pick them up and twirl them in the air, but with everything else that was surrounding us, he appeared more like a scarecrow.

My eyes darted all around him as I smiled, patting my hair.

“You’re beautiful!” he said and wrapped his arms lightly around my waist before pulling me close to kiss me, gently, a peck. It was almost romantic. He even blushed, and his eyes glittered when he pulled away. It was the face of someone in love. For a second, I believed that maybe I actually was beautiful.

I pushed his body off of mine, though, thinking about the way my bones must feel pressing against his body, or whether I’d brushed my teeth well enough to get the smell of regurgitated food off my breath. I’d hid it for this long, but still, you couldn’t ever be too careful. And those kinds of things always make me nervous.

“What’s all this?” I asked him, quickly. I used my arm to reach underneath his and lift it off my body, then shoved it farther away.

I swept my arm in a broad arc, and as if my hand had the ability to paint things technicolor, I noticed how the backyard was actually arranged for the evening. The love-seat was scooted close to the fire, with the outdoor coffee table right in front of it, a bottle of champagne chilling in a recycled margarine container sitting on its top. The shrubs that sat in ceramic pots on either side of the fire pit were wrapped in flickering, white Christmas lights. And the fire was so bright, glowing hot with a stack of logs piled way too high to burn out even within the next couple of hours.

“What do you mean?” He stepped to my side, turning around to admire what he perceived to be a masterpiece. He again set his hand on my body and slid it down until it rested at the small of my back. “Don’t you like it?”

“Well, it’s a little much, dontchya think? I mean, all of this really wasn’t necessary.” I rolled my shoulders back, realizing that for the first time since I’d known him, practically my entire life, I was uncomfortable with him touching me.

“Nothing’s too much for my girl.” I didn’t even have to look at him to know that he was staring at me with that dopey, crooked grin that he always wore when he said something that he thought was going to make me blush.

I couldn’t take my eyes off of the champagne bottle, though. Did he even think about the memories alcohol and a man might bring back for me?

He pushed gently on my back, nudging me toward the love-seat and the fire pit, giving me less than a choice but to sit down.

“Don’t you like it?” he asked as he cozied up next to me.

I patted my hair, feeling the blond locks still tethered neatly into the braid, and smiled, avoiding eye contact. I really didn’t like any of it, so I didn’t answer the question. Instead, I changed the subject.

“I guess I just don’t understand what you think we’re going to be doing right here for several hours.” I used both of my hands to point at the ground, as if he wouldn’t understand which “here” I was talking about. But I regretted it the very instant that I saw both hands trembling in mid-air, their shadows bouncing helplessly against my body.

He assumed I was cold and scooted his body closer to mine, so close that our hips touched. He stroked his hand up and down my side and pulled my head onto his shoulder.

“You leave that to me,” he said. He ran his tongue over his chapping lips. “I’ve got the whole night planned.” He leaned us both back in the seat, the way we would’ve sat when we were cuddling up to watch a movie. He ran his tongue over his lips again and sucked his teeth. “Listen, we’re gonna start the night off by sitting down here, enjoying the fire–us, the stars, a little champagne, and a toast to a relationship that knowns no boundaries.” His arm was moving in small circles, slowly, like a fortune teller.

The champagne bottle was burning itself into my eyes, its round head throbbing in the glowing background, taunting me, laughing at me.

“Then,” he went on, “once we’re nice and toasty down here, I thought you might spend the night.” He squeezed me tighter to him, raising his eyebrows. “I’ve cleaned the treehouse and made it more private. Do you see the paper-towel I stapled in the window?” His fingertips touched the back of my head, and I gazed upward, seeing a flowered sheet blowing in the wind. “I even zipped my G.I. Joe and Transformers sleeping bags together, so if you get cold–which with me here I don’t see how you’d even have an excuse–we could lie together in them.” I swallowed hard, realizing that since we started dating I rarely even came to his house when his parents weren’t home; I didn’t know what gave him the idea that I’d spend the night.

His hand was making mini pirouettes in my hair, and I knew he had that glassy, glittery, magical look in his eyes that he would get when he imagined something big. I realized that my butterflies were flapping so hard that I was getting nauseous now; the idea that sometimes people confuse lust for love frightened me.

“But why do all of this now? What if I’m not ready to do all of this now?” And the roar of the fire seemed to quiet into nothing more than pops as little sparks shot off of the pieces of golden, glowing wood. My voice seemed way too loud for this backyard.

He laughed as he spoke, but found nothing about what I said funny. “It’s Valentine’s Day, Whit. And my parents are out of town. That’s why we are going to do this now.”

I lifted my head off of his shoulder. He wasn’t understanding what I was saying, just like he didn’t understand that I didn’t appreciate being compared to movie stars, or how he didn’t understand that having my waist squeezed and prodded at in his attempt at tickling wasn’t something that I found funny. He didn’t understand that sex in a backyard wasn’t something I found romantic and wanted to do. He didn’t understand that I was still struggling with being physical with him because it really would change the friendship that we’d had before we got romantic.

“But why start with the champagne and the fires and the sleepovers now?” I turned my body to face him without even realizing it. “Why not when we’re both ready?”

He straightened his back to sit up tall. His eyebrows crawled toward each other, leaving his forehead wrinkly and his eyes squinty, but instead of keeping his eyes on me, he glanced down at the sleeves of his shirt and started rolling them to the center of his forearms. He shook his head hard, his hair fluttering back and forth.

“You never can seem to make up your mind. You tell me you want a romantic date, so I deliver and you’re not happy with it. Every time you tell me you want something and I try to give you it, you just can’t be happy.” He kept shaking his head. His tone dropped as he spoke again. “And I shouldn’t even need to mention that it’s not like it’s your first time.” Sometimes it’s easy to confuse a person’s present relationship with their past ones.

I opened and closed my mouth repeatedly as I reached for his arm, noticing that for the first time all night it was his hands that were shaking instead of mine, so instead I pulled mine back. I scooted away from him and rested my elbows on my knees, allowing the heat of the fire to lick my face, the pops happening in quick succession as the sparks shot off of the wood like fireflies. But when I rubbed my hands over my face, frustrated, I couldn’t tell if the heat on my skin was from the fire or my face flushing from the irritation I was feeling.

I couldn’t help letting out an audible sigh before I spoke. “I don’t know what to say. I mean, this isn’t what I asked for, Tom.” I held my hands out in front of my face as if I was holding a platter. “I mean, come on, we’re twenty years old. We’re not thirty trying to rekindle some dying relationship. We’ve been together a year. We don’t need to rush things and spoil them; we don’t need to grow up this quickly. Our relationship has plenty of life ahead of it and lots of time to develop. There is absolutely no reason to do things before both of us are ready and destroy it in the process.”

He ran his fingers through his hair, making the roots a shade darker than the rest of his ashy, blond hair. It was standing on end even more now than it had been before. The strands were sticking up every which way.

Tommy scooted toward me, our knees knocking against one another so hard that I expected them to clink. He wrapped his hands around my wrists, forcing my elbows up off of my knees and my whole body back into the armrest. Bits of foam sprayed from between clenched teeth as he began to talk.

“I don’t get what you don’t see about how I was trying to do something nice for you, that I was just trying to show you that maybe I could see us being together forever. I was hoping you could show me that you really feel the same way back tonight. Instead, you have to make tonight miserable, just like always.” His grip tightened around me, and I could feel fingerprint bruises starting to form, dotting up my arm. I tried to push back against his weight, but he kept pushing, kept squeezing. “Who are you to talk about growing up too fast when you’ve already done all this before? Who are you to talk about growing up too fast when none of us know how much time we’ve got left? Who are you to push me away when all I’ve ever tried to do is make you happy?” Veins bulged in his neck, and his eyes flickered like the lights that were wrapped so tightly around the potted shrubs.

My hands balled into bony fists, partially from the pain of his squeezing and partially from anger at him for hiding that he’d been this miserable; we’d never fought like this before and he’d never brought up wanting more, physically. Tears welled in my eyes.

“I don’t know what kind of world you live in, but in my world, hurting someone doesn’t make them happy,” I said. And like that, his grip on my wrists suddenly loosened, his fingers spread apart, his hands still shaking. He surveyed them incredulously. The nails had been chewed away so far that they were red.

He swallowed so hard that his Adam’s apple bounced before he tried to speak.

“Whit…” he said.

But I stood up. “I need to go.” My ankles wobbled from the unevenness of the salt sticking to the soles of my shoes. I watched the way he stared at his hands. We shared the disbelief that he was capable of doing that with those normally beautiful hands, the ones that always seemed to be protecting. “I really ought to be with my sister right now,” I said. “She’s taking this whole Brian thing really hard.”

And as I started to walk away, I could hear my shoes and the wind and the fire popping and the sound of my breath as I hyperventilated. Tommy mumbled something that I wished I would have heard that night, that he was taking Brian’s death hard, too. I think most of us on the block were, but I knew I had to bottle it up for the sake of my sister; I needed her to feel some sense of normalcy somewhere.

The last loud thing that Tommy said to me was that he had something for me. He ran toward me again, and it was as though we’d rewound to the beginning of the evening. He wrapped his arm around the small of my back again and pulled a sloppily made valentine out of his shirt pocket–crayon, glitter, and an uneven heart all under the words “I love you!”

I held it between two fingers as I let my hand fall to my side. I stared into his eyes, searching for the person that I’d thought I’d known all that time. I realized then that this wasn’t the first time I’d been in his backyard with angry handprints on my skin from someone that I thought I could trust, that I loved and thought should love me enough not to hurt me.

The day I claimed the treehouse as my new home after mother punished Jackie and me, and the night I stood up to Zack at the party, sure Tommy had been sweet to me, but I still ended up in the same position I was in now, hugging myself for comfort. And now, I was running away from this yard with handprints.

I swallowed hard, still searching his eyes for the right words to say. The only ones that could come out of my mouth were, “I really hope this card isn’t the last good thing I can remember about you.”

I dragged my feet toward the stone walkway, wanting the salt off my shoes, and sad that this place no longer felt safe. Tommy stared at me, not moving anymore than to shift his arms to hug himself.

I felt the valentine vibrating as the wind blew against it, but this time I didn’t feel cold. I didn’t feel like wrapping my jacket around my waist. There weren’t butterflies knocking against my insides anymore. Instead, I felt as if I had actually done something right, and, maybe, this time I knew better than to run back to that treehouse.

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

S&R Fiction: “Lord and Taylor,” by Gary Marmorstein

“Chanel Number Five?” said Jerry. He and his brother, David, had entered the store at Fifth Avenue and were making their way toward the center of the ground floor. They had expected to find one perfume station in the department store; instead there were half a dozen, each with its own sales people, each designed and lighted differently. Jerry recited what was in front of them. “Lancôme. Estee Lauder. Elizabeth Arden. Bobbi Brown. Who he? Or she?”

“You’re the one who lives here,” David said. To Jerry’s ears it sounded like an accusation. “Remember Catherine Deneuve selling Chanel Number Five on television? ’He knows what you want.’” The commercial had been shown more than thirty years earlier, before David had leaned happily into European exile.

“Chanel isn’t Mom’s style,” Jerry said. “She’d never open it.”

“You don’t know Mom very well, do you?” said David. “Somehow I still see her more than you do.” Jerry knew it was true. Arlene lived in Los Angeles with her third husband; Jerry lived with his family some thirty miles north of New York City, in Westchester, and visited Los Angeles as infrequently as possible. Whenever David came back to the States, he took the trouble to go to both coasts. “Let’s try over here,” David said, leading Jerry to an amber-lighted L’Oreal counter.

The sales clerk behind the counter had cinnamon-colored skin, her black hair tied back with a violet ribbon, and large eyes so dark they were almost black, too. The eyes tracked the brothers as they approached the counter, then professionally looked away. The clerk seemed to be busying herself with flowers in a vase behind her.

“Stop leering,” said Jerry.

“Leering is good,” David said. “If we weren’t leering, she wouldn’t be doing her job.”

I’m not leering.”

The brothers stood over the counter.

“Hello, gentlemen,” David said, playing ventriloquist to the clerk’s dummy. “Would you like to sample some perfume?”

“You’re makin’ my job easy,” the clerk said. Brooklyn or Bronx, Jerry thought. “You’re brothers, I can tell,” the clerk said.

“Cousins,” David half-sang, “Identical cousins!”

“Cousins? Are you serious?”

“It’s the theme song to The Patty Duke Show,” Jerry said.

“I’m not familiar with that show,” the clerk said.

David and Jerry looked at each other. With each passing year, they felt increasingly ancient, superfluous.

“The show was on when we were kids,” Jerry said. “Patty Duke was an actress.”

“Isn’t she still?” said David. He turned to the clerk almost apologetically. “I’m not up on American obituaries. I’m based abroad,” David said.

“He’s in Lapland,” Jerry said. “Where reindeer come from.”

“Oh, like there’s such a thing as reindeer!” the clerk said, smiling prettily.

You’re confusing reindeer with Santa Claus, Jerry thought, but he didn’t say it.

“I live in Norway,” David said. “It’s where the Liberal party is reactionary, and the Conservative party is relatively liberal.”

“Are you in politics?”

“Politics? No no. Music. I’m the manager of Oslo Filharmonien, a very old orchestra. Maybe it’s just a different kind of politics.”

“You were correct earlier,” Jerry said to the clerk. “This is my younger, taller, handsomer brother.”

“Aw, I’m sure you have good qualities, too,” the clerk said, holding two tiny bottles, each tweezed between thumb and forefinger. “Would you like to sample some perfume? For your wives?” Each brother wore a wedding band; the clerk was glancing at David’s left hand, Jerry noticed, though not at his.

“For our mother’s birthday,” David said.

“She must be a great lady,” the clerk said, her eyes flashing at David.

“Oh, she is,” David said. “Even if my brother here doesn’t think so.”

“Of course she’s great,” Jerry said. “I just don’t necessarily have the same relationship you have with her.”

“Aren’t you the guy who refers to her as Miss Passive-Aggressive of Nineteen Fifty-eight?”

“I said that once.”

“Why don’t I show you a couple of things she might like,” said the clerk, unscrewing the brass-colored cap to one of the bottles.

David said to Jerry, “You shouldn’t talk about Mom that way.”

Jerry said, “You’re behaving like that Marine in Hail the Conquering Hero, the self-appointed defender of mothers everywhere.”

“No. I’m defending my mother,” David said. “And the character’s name was Bugsy. He was fixated on mothers because he wasn’t lucky enough to have one himself. You’re the film professor. You should know these things.”

“Bugsy was a little off,” Jerry said.

“No, he wasn’t.”

“See the movie again. He was wacked out. He kept threatening Eddie Bracken.”

“Sir?” said the clerk, offering her antelope wrist to David. “Shall I tell you about this one?”

David leaned over the counter and sniffed her wrist. “Mmm, yes! This is fantastic!”

“Lanvin. Our very best.” The clerk glanced at Jerry. “Would you like to try, sir?”

Jerry could remember the first time someone called him sir without irony. He had the window seat on a Peter Pan bus traveling from the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York to the bus station in Springfield, Massachusetts. A soldier stopped in the aisle, poised to stow his gear in the overhead rack. “Is this seat taken, sir?” said the soldier. Jerry was twenty-four and felt, for the first time, middle-aged. And that had been decades ago. “I must defer to my brother and his taste,” Jerry said. “Or do I mean sensibility?”

“Mom always liked you best!” said David.

“You guys don’t need perfume,” the clerk said, retracting her wrist, “you need a referee.”

“He’s doing Tom Smothers,” Jerry said.

“Tom’s mothers?” the clerk said. “Should I know who they are?”

“Please. One more sample?” said David, who reached across the counter for her wrist and tugged. Her resistance surprised him, and so it surprised Jerry—that’s how he would remember it later, anyway—and the push-pull tension caused the open perfume bottle to topple from the countertop and crack on the floor.

“Wow, that is strong!” said Jerry, the fumes rising to his nostrils.

The clerk muttered, “Fuck,” and strained to press something on the underside of the counter. She came around the display case and knelt to examine the mess, one knee emerging from beneath her skirt.

“Let me help you,” David said, hovering over her.

“Hold it there, sir!”

The brothers froze. An enormous man in a gray suit approached them. The suit itself looked like it was on steroids. The man’s skin was as coppery as the clerk’s, but shiny on his shaved head. His eyes were so unrevealing that he might as well have been wearing sunglasses. An earpiece was clipped to his ear, a plastic nametag pinned to the breast pocket of the suit. He held his arms slightly away from his body—a gunslinger without a gunbelt.

“There’s glass all over the floor,” David said, his elegant hands displaying the glittery, aromatic puddle.

“Just back away from her, sir!”

David stood up straight and took an exaggerated, giant step back. Jerry noticed that they had drawn a group of onlookers who were pretending, New York-style, not to look, tacitly implying that confrontations like this were merely part of the cityscape. Up close, Jerry could read the gray-suited man’s nametag: Arroyo. Satisfied the brothers would not move, the man turned his broad back on them. David shrugged quizzically at Jerry. After half a minute, Mr. Arroyo put a finger to his earpiece. He seemed to be speaking to the air.

“This is Arroyo, Loss Prevention.”

Jerry turned to David. “He’s in Loss Prevention.”

“Can he tell us how to prevent loss of testosterone?”

“Loss of face, maybe.”

“We’re in Fragrance and headed upstairs,” Mr. Arroyo said.

“Think he has handcuffs?” David whispered.

“Sidney Poitier cuffed to Tony Curtis! The Defiant Ones!”

“Come with me, please,” Mr. Arroyo said. It took Jerry a moment to realize that he was speaking to the brothers and not to someone in his earpiece. Jerry threw an apologetic glance to the perfume clerk, who looked up at him neutrally, neither pleased nor upset. Mr. Arroyo led the brothers to an unmarked elevator at the western end of the store that was separated from the passenger elevators. Following him down the aisle was like a perp walk with mood lighting and no catcalls, just some curious faces and the sound of Muzak. Mr. Arroyo pressed the button for the elevator without ever taking his eyes off his detainees. Jerry could hear the rumble of the old elevator descending from a floor or two above.

“Are we in trouble?”

“Hoo, boy, are we in trouble!”

“Gentlemen,” Mr. Arroyo said when the elevator door opened. Jerry went in, followed by David, then by Mr. Arroyo, who let the door close behind him. The elevator began to lift. Mr. Arroyo did not turn around to face front but kept his eyes on the brothers.

“Wasn’t this a Candid Camera episode?” said David.

“We saw that episode at Grandma Elsie’s, didn’t we? On her black and white TV.”

“The show was in black and white, Einstein,” said David. “Elsie had a color TV.”

The elevator cables hummed. As he often did while riding in an elevator, Jerry imagined the cables snapping, the car dropping suddenly.

“Are you staring at my feet?” said David.

“I’m not, I swear,” Jerry said.

“Yes you are! You’re staring at my goddam feet!”

“Gentlemen,” Mr Arroyo warned.

“Salinger,” Jerry explained. “‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish.’ After that scene, he goes into his hotel room and blows his brains out.”

The Loss Prevention officer narrowed his eyes. The elevator stopped; the door opened; Mr. Arroyo stepped aside so the brothers could exit. They found themselves in a long, narrow room, painted in a color somewhere between gunmetal gray and boys’ nursery blue, given over to security. At the moment a techno-rock version of “The Shadow of Your Smile” was piped in from somewhere near the ceiling. Braced against one wall was a large rack with shelves tipped slightly down, as if to display invisible shoes. The opposite wall space was empty, except for two paintings that must have been made more than a century earlier. One was of a man with slicked-down hair, ice-blue eyes and thin lips. The other was of a man with wispy hair and muttonchops and a monocle. Against a third wall stood a console of monitors showing various parts of the store.

“I had an apartment like this once,” Jerry said.

“Your identification, please, gentlemen.”

Jerry reached for his New York State driver’s license.

“I only have a passport,” David said.

“That’s acceptable,” Mr. Arroyo said. He took Jerry’s license and David’s passport and looked at them. After a few seconds he glanced up at their owners, from one to the other, as if confirming their identities. “Wait here,” he said. He stepped back into the elevator, which closed again. The brothers could hear it move.

“He didn’t say please that time.”

“He’ll be sorry,” David said.

They looked around the room. “Man, they got everything bolted down!”

“They don’t want you stealing anything.”

With only the techno-rock playing above them, the brothers’ paranoia wafted about the room like cigarette smoke in search of a vent.

“You ought to film this,” David said.

“Those days are over,” Jerry said. “I’ve become just another parasite of the arts.”

“Then what am I? I spend all my time making reservations, procuring music stands and folding chairs in Prague, arranging for a piano to be tuned in Seoul.”

“But you’re a real composer.”

“Because once every five years I write down a few notes? At least you still pick up a camera.”

“Eh, they’re home movies. And teaching film at a community college does not make me a filmmaker.” Jerry glanced at the video console. “All that stuff is being recorded for security.”

The brothers took a few steps closer. One screen showed two women fingering dresses, one of them lifting the hem of each dress to find a price tag. Another screen showed the escalators, patrons going up past patrons coming down. Jerry’s cell phone rang. He looked at the readout.

“It’s Helen.”

“Take it,” David said. There was nowhere to go to give Jerry privacy, so David bent farther over the monitors, as if to pay closer attention to each screen.

“Yeah, honey, we did find one. But we’re being detained. . . . David was a bad boy. . . . We were both bad, I guess. Call it a mishap. . . . No, I don’t think so.” Out of habit, Jerry put the phone to his chest and said to David, “She wants to know if we need a lawyer.”

“I can always use a lawyer,” David said.

“Christ, I’m already in the doghouse, now she thinks we’re going to jail.” Jerry put the phone back to his mouth and said to Helen, “No, don’t call him yet. If we get taken to Riker’s, you can visit us tomorrow.”

“Tell her to bring an iron file,” David said.

“David sends his love,” Jerry said to Helen and clicked off.

“Trouble in paradise?” said David.

“Helen sends love back.”

“Well, she’s a nice woman.”

“Uh oh, Here we go.”

“What? Didn’t I just say she was nice?”

“Davey, it’s no secret you don’t like my wife.” For years Jerry had experienced it as part of David’s superiority, and it kept him off balance. Jerry liked David’s wife, Astrid, well enough. Astrid designed sleek furniture, was dazzling to look at, and didn’t seem to care one way or another how Jerry perceived her.

“Not true. I figure Helen doesn’t have much interest in me. I don’t take it personally. You once said yourself she became a children’s librarian because she’s more interested in children than in grownups.”

“I said she was more interested in children’s books.”

“Okay, I guess that’s what you said. So why are you in the doghouse?”

“Last weekend I said something I shouldn’t have about Girls.

“Maybe because you called them girls instead of women,” David said.

“Come into the twenty-first century. Girls is a television program, created by and starring Lena Dunham.”

“I’ve never heard of Lena Dunham. Lena Olin? Oh, yeah!” David glanced again at a monitor. “Jer, you’ve really got to take a look at this.”

Jerry went to his brother’s side. A camera was fixed on a bench—it seemed to be outside a ladies’ room—where a woman of pale complexion and stringy hair sat breastfeeding a baby.

“That kid is slurping away!” said David. “That’s right out of the London street scenes of Hogarth, you know, where the breastfeeding mothers all look drunk.”

“I’m thinking Fouquet’s Virgin and Child,” Jerry said. “Now that’s a painting!”

“Except the Virgin isn’t actually breastfeeding. Look over here.” David pointed to another monitor. “This guy’s wearing half the store.”

“And he’s walking right out! Jesus! Should we tell Mr. Arroyo?”

As if on cue, the elevator door opened again. The brothers hopped away from the console as if they’d been caught looking at pornography.

“Anything interesting?” Mr. Arroyo asked.

“Nothing out of the ordinary, Mr. Arroyo,” Jerry said. “Not that I know what the ordinary would be.” He could feel his brother throwing him a look, though he wasn’t sure why. Should he have told the Loss Prevention officer about the shirt thief? A line came to him from his all-time favorite movie—I don’t eat cheese for no cops—but he wasn’t about to say it right now.

Mr. Arroyo produced Jerry’s New York State driver’s license and David’s American passport. “I am returning these to you, gentlemen. Ms. Perez has made no complaint against you.”

The brothers looked at each other. “I’m sorry I made her so nervous,” David said.

“The store would like you to pay for the breakage, however.”

“Of course. How much is it?”

“They’ll have to tell you downstairs. Please come with me.”

They followed Mr. Arroyo back to the elevator. “The fellows on the wall?” said David as they entered. “Founders of the store?”

“Honestly, I have no idea,” Mr. Arroyo said.

Jerry said, “The hairy brother was preferred by the father. The other one pretended to be the hairy one so he could get the old man’s blessing.” The elevator door closed on them. The three men descended. “Used an animal skin. The hairy brother sold his birthright to the unhairy brother.”

“What’s a birthright?” said David. Mr. Arroyo smirked. “What? I never knew!”

“I can’t tell if you’re mocking Genesis or you’re both just uneducated,” Mr. Arroyo said.

“Oh, the latter,” Jerry said. “I often don’t know what I’m talking about.”

The elevator stopped on the ground floor. Mr. Arroyo led them out by placing one meaty hand in the middle of Jerry’s back. Yet it was a light touch: Jerry could barely feel it. “You get a lot of shoplifters, Mr. Arroyo?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Some of them get away?”

“Yes.”

“I guess shoplifters aren’t the most violent types.”

“You could say that. Except for the ones who hit you with a ball-peen hammer or try to slash you with a box cutter or a switchblade.”

“Jesus!” said Jerry. “How do you handle it?”

“He’s a security expert,” David said. “He can handle anybody.”

“I have some training,” Mr. Arroyo said. “We’re walking this way, gentlemen.”
Several steps ahead of the brothers, Mr. Arroyo navigated the narrow center aisle. Passing the L’Oreal counter, Jerry did not see Ms. Perez; the broken glass had been cleaned up, but the powerful fragrance remained. David turned to Jerry and whispered, “You keep insisting on using the man’s name. Is that an American thing?”

“Is what an American thing?” whispered Jerry. “He’s wearing a name tag.”

“Do you refuse to consider the name tag a badge of class identity?  Security guards. Waitresses.  Bank tellers. They’re all there to serve you. And they don’t call you by name.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Jerry moaned. “Many of them already know my name. And yours.”

“Gentlemen, say hello to Ms. Bostic,” Mr. Arroyo said, stopping to present a woman who appeared on the other side of a counter. She seemed a beguiling mix of African-American, red-hair and freckles.

“Hello,” Jerry said.

David put up his hand close to, but not quite touching, the Prevention Loss officer and said, “One quick question, if you don’t mind.” Then he added, “Mr. Arroyo.”  Almost imperceptibly, Mr. Arroyo nodded his shaved head. “Did Ms. Perez say anything? About us, I mean?”

Mr. Arroyo did not smile with his mouth, but he did with his eyes. “She said, “Son hombres suaves antiguas.”

“Suave?” said David. “What’s that again?”

“If it’s not in Norwegian, French, or English,” Jerry said, “my brother won’t understand.”

“She said you’re a couple of harmless old geezers,” Mr. Arroyo translated.

“Well, that puts it in perspective, doesn’t it?” said Jerry.

“These are the gentlemen making restitution,” Mr. Arroyo said to Ms. Bostic. He retreated from the counter and was soon moving toward the store’s entrance.

“With tax, the perfume’s cost is one hundred and thirty-seven dollars and forty-six cents,” Ms. Bostic, all business, said.

Jerry extracted a wallet from his inside jacket pocket. “I have a Diners Club card here somewhere.”

David pulled a tiny Scandinavian purse from his outside jacket pocket and unzipped it. “Forget that! I’ve got Mastercharge!”

“We accept VISA, Mastercard, and American Express,” Ms. Bostic said.

David snapped a card on the counter in front of her. “It’s VISA, as you can see.” Annoyed, Ms. Bostic inspected the card, then swiped it through her machine.

“Why couldn’t you just hand her the card?” said Jerry.

“I’m paying, aren’t I?”

“Well, thank you, Mr. Rockefeller!”

“Marjorie Main! She played a bag lady in some movie that takes place in New York.”

“It was Bette Davis. We saw the movie with Dad, summer of sixty-three or -four.”

“But you can’t remember the title.”

“You’re thinking of A Pocketful of Miracles,” Ms. Bostic said, handing David’s credit card back to him, along with a receipt for the perfume.

“Hey, a cinephile hiding in plain sight!” said Jerry.

“Don’t tell anyone,” Ms. Bostic said, focusing on her computerized cash register.

Lacking an invitation to linger, the brothers headed for the exit. Jerry got a glimpse of Mr. Arroyo, one hand clasping his opposing wrist; although Mr. Arroyo seemed to be looking right back at him, there was no recognition. Jerry was aware they were passing through the merchandise detectors, and he half-expected an alarm to go off, even though neither brother was taking anything away from the store. They stepped onto Fifth Avenue but, for the moment, stood back from the swarm of pedestrians.

“Well, that was fun,” Jerry said. “Should we try Saks?”

“Anyplace that doesn’t have fifty American flags hanging over the door,” David said.

Jerry looked up. “Funny, I never noticed those.”

“Of course you wouldn’t. You take them for granted.”

The brothers began to walk south on the avenue, neither of them certain where they were going.

“I am famished,” David said.

“There’re a couple of Irish bars, one on Madison, one right off it.”

“I’m Irish bar’d out this trip. What else?”

Jerry said, “There’s also pretty good Korean a few blocks down. We could order oyster pancakes and have ‘em shipped to California, never mind the overpriced perfume.”

“Mom told me the best birthday present she could have is for us to get along.”

“Yeah, well, maybe next year,” Jerry said. “Speaking of The Defiant Ones, remember the ending?  Sidney Poitier cradling Tony Curtis and singing the blues?”

“Bowlin’ gree-een!” sang David.

“Sewin’ machine!”

***

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

S&R Fiction: “To Each His Own,” by Mark Sumioka

What I liked about the very early morning, during the gray misty fog, was the fragility of the newborn day.  There was daintiness in the air.  I stepped over the moist welcome mat with the feeling that something was about to be broken, or that something had just happened, not so much a calamity but the calm after complete disappointment.  They were out there, waking and finding their morning routines.  For them it was the same as every other day.  They crept out of bed slowly, realizing what was happening.  They shuffled across the wood floor, opened the door, walked on the icy tile, ran the water, brushed, started the shower, their feet squeaking on the porcelain tub as the streaming hot water woke them and reminded them it was necessary.  This was what they had to do.  This was their side of things.  My side was different.  The silence lingered each morning in my neighborhood.  Most of my neighbors were retired, many still asleep.  Even those awake went quietly about their morning chores as if it were Christmas morning and no one should be bothered or awakened from that sweet blissful sleep that gave many the feeling of calm and peace.  But soon enough the mist would dissipate and the light of day would show and before long the blanket of morning would give me the signal that it was time.

I began hearing the sounds of everyday life, the sound of a dog’s leash, cars accelerating, voices, and the bass of a television.  I made a fried egg, mashed the soft yolk and dipped my toast into it.  I drank a large glass of water, every drop, and it was a struggle.  Then I walked along the wood floor, to the icy tile, rinsed my face, brushed and spit, tapped the brush twice on the side of the sink, disrobed and got into bed, holding on to the daintiness and remembering the images of the peaceful morning which had just passed.

When I awoke it was late afternoon, and the sun was already turning a golden hue.  I had slept through the high sun and the warmth.  The coolness of the ocean breeze picked up the more the sun tanned.  I wanted to go outside, to sit somewhere and have a conversation with a friend.  It was an urge that arose on occasion, and when it did I generally called the same person.  But he was in a different place now and I knew better.  Though I hated to premeditate matters, I knew what would happen, that we would meet over a drink and proceed to talk about our very different lives.  He would get tired after a few cocktails and tell me he had to work in the morning.  I would tell him I was just getting started, and of course, he would laugh.  He always laughed at me.  I knew it wasn’t mockery.  It was our humorous clashing of personalities.

“At this age and you’re still a night owl,” Noble said, touching a lip to his glass before sipping the scotch carefully.

“It’s worse lately,” I said.

“Oh?  How so?”

“It’s later now.  Now, it gets bright before I sleep.”

“But why?  You aren’t tired?” he said with the same understanding that hadn’t changed in twenty years.

“I’m usually drunk.”

“You shouldn’t joke.  It’ll mess up your life,” he said and tapped his sternum.

I sat back with a sigh.  It was still no use.  But I tried every time we met.  It was funny to me.  The recent years, Noble didn’t wait for my explanations, though truthfully I had few.  He just made a dismissive comment like “It’ll mess up your life” and let the subject go.  We were grown men, Noble with a wife and a child already in high school.  I was alone, with no children.

“How’s that nice house of yours?” I said.

“Oh, Hank…”

“What is it?  You getting foreclosed on?” I said with a mixture of worry and twisted elation.

“No.  That’s not it,” Noble said and downed the rest of his scotch.  Then he pointed at me with two fingers.  He knew I hated that.  He said, “You don’t get it, do you?”

“Don’t patronize me.  I’m not your damn daughter.”

“I’m sorry.  I don’t mean to patronize you,” he said as if he had a history with the word.  “I’m saying it’s just a house.”

“Oh really?” I said and lifted my eyebrows.  “Well okay.”  I knew he didn’t want to be flattered.  I knew he wanted to feel so high and mighty that something so nice as a two million dollar house couldn’t be something to be proud of.  It was just another worry added to the pile.  It was just a possession.

But there was something in his eyes that told me he wouldn’t leave even though he set his credit card on the table.

“What else?” I said and confronted his eyes with mine.

“Oh, Hank…” he said with an exhale of total frustration.  “I screwed up.”

“The wife?”

“Is it that obvious?”

“That is the face of a man who’s screwed up on his wife.”

“I did,” Noble said and nodded his head like a man on the guilty stand.  And then I’d thought about it.  I’d never actually seen a man on the stand nod his head.  I’d only seen it in the movies.  I hadn’t experienced many things first hand.

There was a pause when Noble couldn’t look at me.  His eyes were listless, downcast at something on the floor, and then at a woman on the other side of the restaurant.  His mouth smacked of dryness.  With a somber lift of his chin he looked toward the bar where the waiter was chatting with a customer.

Jimmy!” Noble shouted as though he were aching.

I was roused in a strange way.  I’d never see Noble so deflated.  Sure, I’d seen him distressed.  I’d even seen him cry once after his mother died.  But this time in the restaurant he was different.  He ripped off a piece of the cold, hard bread Jimmy had left in case we got hungry for a tidbit.  As he chewed, his eyes found me with a face of sudden disgust.

“The bread that bad?” I joked.

Jimmy rushed to the table and said, “Sorry guys,” motioning back to the bar, “but that one is on my jock.”  We all looked at the bar where a forty-something woman drank a martini, her hair died platinum blonde, her skin tanned and leathery.

Noble’s eyes lit up, but not with excitement.  They were taken aback.

“Give us another round,” I said and Jimmy left.

We watched him pass her with a trailing hand to caress her back.  She turned and ate it up.  Noble turned his entire upper body and watched.

“What’s the matter, your wife holding out on you?  You look like a sixteen year old at the pool.”

“I screwed up, Hank,” Noble said and turned to me.  Now he was fiddling with the bread crust.

And then I knew.  Jimmy brought back the drinks and Noble wouldn’t look at him.

“You want me to run the card?” Jimmy asked.

“Just leave it and give us some time, for Christ’s sake,” Noble said at his bread crust.

Jimmy chuckled at the outburst.  I nodded and smiled so that he would leave.

“When did it happen?” I asked with a gentle tone.

“Oh for Christ’s sake, who cares?” Noble said and slapped the white tablecloth as if a fly weren’t dead yet.

“Okay.  So what now?  You going to tell her?”

He looked at me, worried.

“You don’t think I should, do you?”

“Well…” I said and downed half my drink with a gulp.

“Jesus, you haven’t lost a step,” he said and smiled minutely as that was all he could muster.

“Don’t tell her.”

“I know, right?” he said and sat back, exhaling relief, assured for the time being.  “If I don’t say anything, before long it’ll be gone and I won’t think about it any more.”

“That’s one way to look at it.  Or, you’ll never stop thinking about it, and sooner or later you’ll cave and tell her.”

“Why do you think that?”

“I don’t.  I’m just saying what a lot of men do.”

“Like who?”

“Let’s not get into that,” I said like he’d brought up the score to the Chargers game.  “Look, how are you right now?  Can you deal?”

“I think so.”  And then the change came, “Yes, absolutely.”

“Then let it go.”  I got firmer, “You want to mess up all those years of marriage, a daughter in high school, a two million dollar house?  Not to mention however much you’ve got in your portfolio.  You want a gigantic headache?  Well okay.  Go on and tell her,” I said and suddenly something occurred to me.  “Say, you aren’t still carrying on with the other one?”

Noble paused and looked away, then at his drink.  He slowly picked it up and brought it to his lips.  He didn’t drink.  It stayed at his bottom lip a while until he put it down.  I watched the beads of moisture on his cocktail glass.

“You should’ve gotten it neat,” I said motioning to his scotch.  “At your pace you’re going to water it down to filtered water with a scotch garnish.”

“Who cares?” Noble said, and moved closer with both elbows on the table.

“Relax,” I said.  “Sit back and drink your single malt Kool-Aid.”

“So you think it’s okay that I don’t tell her?”

“About what?  About the one timer or about the fact that you’re still at it?”

“Is it that obvious?”

I shook my head.  Then I downed the rest of my drink.  Jimmy saw me do it and came over.

“Another one, Hank?” he said.

“No.  Not this time.  Run his card,” I said and handed it to him.

Jimmy came back promptly and set the checkbook in front of Noble who was far off in his land of infidelity.

“I’m going now,” I said and got on my jacket.  “You stay here and think about it.  And stay away from the bar.”

Noble continued staring at his bread crust, while fingering his sweating glass.  I stood up with a bit of a struggle.  Damn joints.  I went back to the truck and drove home slowly so that cars passed me and I could see their ominous figures condescend me as they picked up speed, whooshing in front of me.  My mind was calm, and glad.  I would go home and start up the real drinking.  I felt badly for my friend.  It was a harsh time.  If he wanted to meet again for drinks I would do it.  I sat at the small table in my kitchen and set my whiskey glass atop the newspaper I used for a placemat.  After a while I glanced out the window.  The lights of my neighbors’ apartments were going out.  A fireplace nearby had extinguished so that the smell of charred wood crept in through the crack of my window.  They were all retiring for the night.  Conversely, I was just beginning to feel the alertness, that light-headed perk that told me I was at midday.  In my unlit apartment, the television flashed its varying colors at the white wall and I watched the flashing exchange rather than the television itself.

My telephone rang.  I answered it knowing it would be him.  I listened carefully and nodded accordingly as though he were in the room.  I waited when he paused, and then he went on telling me what he wanted me to tell him.  Another anxious pause arrived.

“It’ll mess up your life,” I said, and though it may have sounded like I was being cute, mimicking him, it was quite the opposite.  And there was really no more to say, so I hung up.

As expected, the telephone rang again.

He had to do it alone just as I was doing it now.  He had to search deep and either admit or deny it.  We were far apart in that regard.  I knew, and had known for some time.  It had been painful at first, but now it was acceptance and numbness most of the time.  Occasionally it was like a lonely dog staring at me with the eyes of hope.  The phone wouldn’t stop ringing.  So I bent over and carefully unhitched it from the socket.

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

S&R Fiction: “Polished,” by Teresa Milbrodt

“Don’t do anything until you hear from me,” Jeremy says, kissing me hard on the lips before he gets on the bus.  There are two hundred bottles of very expensive nail polish in his black wheeled briefcase, and we’re praying this works.  My stomach hurts already.

It’s a hot afternoon in Pittsburgh, and humid because it’s always humid.  There’s nothing for me to do but slog back to Frankie’s apartment, sit in front of the AC window unit, take some antacids, and hope Frankie doesn’t come home early.

If he never comes home that would be okay, but I’ve never believed in miracles.  At least ones that happen when you need them.  I like being able to count on things and Jeremy is usually like that, predictable, until just a few days ago.  That’s when he took all our furniture back to the Salvation Army and said we were splitting town.

Jeremy loves being a manicurist, a career you wouldn’t expect of him since he’s a bit ratty.  He wears button-down shirts we buy at Goodwill and has a black mustache that looks like a dead caterpillar taped above his upper lip.  Jeremy thinks it makes him distinguished, but that’s another one of the dreams I’m too polite to shatter.  Protecting dreams should be part of everyone’s marriage vows.  His first wife was so honest that it left him a nervous wreck, but we were both married to control freaks in our previous lives.

I stayed with my husband long enough to make him seven years’ worth of dinners and listen to seven years’ worth of work gripes.  He paid my cosmetology school tuition in return, then I grabbed the suitcase I’d packed three years earlier.  If I’d learned anything from my mother it was to have a suitcase ready to go.  At the same time, I can put up with a lot discomfort in return for certainty, which explains why I’ve stayed at the nail salon for this long.

Jeremy has more of a problem with our boss than me.  She doesn’t like much of anybody, but she hates his guts, yells at him for doing sloppy work even when a client’s nails are perfect.

“Those cuticles were not up to par,” she said last week, towering over him in her flat-foot orthopedic shoes and Kewpie doll makeup.  Our boss bitches about everyone, so the rest of us manicurists crowded Jeremy during lunch and reminded him that she’s a tyrant.

“Don’t you worry, honey,” said Clara, the oldest and calmest nail technician.  “She’s blowing off steam.  Your work is so good it could be framed.”

Jeremy strangled a smile.  I beamed at Clara because my husband needs support from people other than me.  I’m not exactly tired of propping up his weak ego, but I worry he doesn’t believe my hugs.

When Frankie comes home early from his job at the copy shop, I’m not happy and not surprised.  He’s more Jeremy’s friend than mine, and I think he has eyes for me.  Frankie is a big guy, Jeremy says he used to wrestle in high school, but that muscle has turned to fat.

“Want a beer?” Frankie says, patting me on the shoulder.  I swear he looks for any excuse to get close to me, and can break a sweat by walking five paces to the refrigerator.  Frankie gets two beers and opens both of them.  Maybe I’m imagining his advances, but I like to be on the safe side, which means away from him.

“I’m going to the store,” I say, grabbing my purse and cell phone and vaulting out the door.  I need to walk off nervous energy.

Don’t do anything until you hear from me, Jeremy said, but how long will that take?  It’s been five hours.  I’m worried the police found him and he’s at the station in one of those interrogation rooms with his wheeled briefcase and a few hundred bottles of nail polish and a bright light shining in his face as a burly cop with a Brooklyn accent asks him to explain The Meaning of This.

It was a dumb risk.  I wanted to tell him we should grab our stuff and the nail polish and split.  We both have a suitcase full of clothes to our names, because Jeremy says in our new life we’ll buy new things.  I should have sold the polish instead of him.  I look more put-together, but I have his self-esteem to consider, and it was stomped on by his ex too many times.  I couldn’t stand to brush him aside and see that look on his face like he’s going to cry.  He never cries in front of me, but his eyebrows crinkle pathetically and he gets an expression that says Why can’t I do anything right?

Everyone asks why Jeremy started doing nails, wondering if he’s a pervert with a foot fetish, but his mom had him give her pedicures when he was a kid.  His dad had split, and she never remarried.  I told Jeremy that was a good decision on her part.  He shrugged.  His mom was a bank teller and wanted her hands and feet to look good because she wore a lot of sandals.  Jeremy had a knack for fine work, and those years of training made him a precise nail artist and a good listener.  That’s what his clients tell me.

To them, nail technicians only exist in the salon, a space outside their world.  We don’t know the people they’re talking about, so we take our client’s side whether she’s discussing marital problems or kid problems or co-worker problems.  We give her that sympathetic smile suggesting she’s right.  We learn a hell of a lot about our clients’ personal lives, too much at times, but we get better tips for offering that sympathetic ear.  A manicure is like therapy, except my clients emerge with great-looking hands.

Jeremy gets better tips than anyone at the salon, but after our last paycheck bounced he said that was it.

“We’re getting away from that bitch,” he said a week ago after we racked up one hundred dollars in late fees for bounced checks.  Our boss said it was our fault for not having enough money in our accounts.  I would have waited for a third check not to clear before I skipped town, but I can’t think about just me anymore.

I wish I knew what Clara and the other nail technicians said when they walked into the salon today and found Jeremy and I cleaned out our booths last night.  I don’t know how long it’ll take my boss to discover we took three boxes of nail polish.  We just got in a new shipment, and it could be a month before she notices the bottles are gone.  Or she might have called the police this morning.

“We can sell it for a lot to the right people,” Jeremy said last night when we loaded the boxes in the back of his car.  He knows how to sound like a nail polish spokesman since so many of them come into the shop.  Jeremy even made up business cards on his computer and had them printed on card stock at the local copy shop at three in the morning.

But there must have been a snag.  The cops are on to him.  Why the hell did I let him talk me into this?  I love him, of course I love him, though he falls to panic at the word “no,” like it’s a bad flashback from his first marriage.  But what do I risk to keep him smiling?

I walk to the food co-op, want to buy cookies that are allegedly healthy, but before I skirt in the door I see a fat guy in a blue button-down shirt and straw hat sitting behind a card table.  He wags a finger in my direction.

“C’mere,” he says.

I do because I’m curious.  He grabs my hand.  I pull it away.

“What the hell?” I say.

“I’m going to read your palm,” he says.

“I don’t believe in that stuff,” I say.

“I didn’t say I was going to tell you something you should believe,” he says.

“How much?” I say.  Panhandlers can get aggressive, give a service then demand money.

“Free,” he says, “unless you want to get me a coffee.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“When did we start the interview?  Can’t a man do what he wants in retirement?”

I hold out my hand.  It’s half the size of his.  He touches the back of my palm, brings it close to his face, and wrinkles his nose.

“Relationship troubles,” he says.

I roll my eyes.  “You could say that to anyone.”

“I’m saying it to you.  And money problems.”

“And I had a dog I loved when I was six,” I say.

“No you didn’t, you had a cat.”

I look at him with my head cocked.

“I’m reading your palm,” he says.  “See?”

I relax my hand a little.

“You’ve never been in trouble with the law but you’re worried about it,” he says.  “There will be a career change in the future.  A career change and a move.  But not the move you expect.”

“What kind of move?” I say.

“An unexpected one.  Your palm doesn’t reveal too much.  Kind of like you.”  He lets go of my hand.

“That’s it?” I say.

“What else do you want for free?” he says.

I walk to the coffee shop next door and order two cups of the house blend to go.

“Thanks,” he says when I hand him the coffee.

“Don’t mention it,” I say.

“I knew you were going to say that,” he says.

I pace back to Frankie’s apartment and mutter a mantra for nail polish sales success.

This will work.  This will work.  This will work. 

We have a shoebox full of thank-you notes from our clients, transcripts and certificates from cosmetology school, and copies of our bounced checks for anyone who wants to know why we had to leave the old salon.

            This will work.  This will work.  This will work.

We can sit down and give someone a demo manicure.  Jeremy is especially good at detail work, painting little hearts and flowers.

            Thiswillwork.  Thiswillwork.  Thiswillwork.

There are no messages on my cell phone.  I can’t call him.  He said if something went wrong, that might be best…  Dammit.

Jeremy said our boss owed us those three boxes of nail polish for grief and harassment and late fees.  At eleven o’clock last night that seemed like a logical idea.  She never apologized for the bounced checks, either.

Thiswillwork. 

I reach the steps to Frankie’s apartment but can’t go up.  That’s why I march back to the card table and say to the old guy, “What else can you tell me?”

“So you believe me.”  He smiles.

“Not really.  I want another reading so I can come back and say you were wrong.”

“And if you don’t come back, I was right,” he says.

“Maybe.”  I hold out my hand.  “What’s there?”

“Daisies,” he says.

“Daisies?” I say.

He nods.

“I hate daisies.”

“They’re a perfectly respectable flower,” he says.  “But later you can return and tell me how wrong daises were.”

“I thought you were never wrong,” I say.

“That’s right,” he says.

I buy another cup of coffee, walk back outside, stand next to the guy at his card table, and take out my cell phone.  No messages.

“Waiting for a call?” he says.

“I want to hear what you tell other people,” I say.

“There will be children, voyages, and mysterious strangers.”

My phone rings.  I stare at it.  My phone rings again.  It sounds like a normal phone ringing.  I don’t like anything fancy.

“Are you going to get that?” says the palm reader.

“I don’t know,” I say.  “I might let it go to voice mail.”

“Daisies,” he says.  “It’s all daisies.”

My mother brought me daisies in the hospital after I broke my leg falling out of a tree.  She said my stepfather picked out the flowers.  I’ve hated daisies ever since.  I knew she was lying because my stepfather never spoke to me, just yelled at her.

He was as predictable as a summer storm, sometimes loving, but other times hard and volatile.  He broke dishes and vases and my mother’s finger while I stayed in my bedroom and plotted my escape.   I got out of the house as quickly as possible, found a crappy job and married a crappy guy (though it took me a couple years to figure that out).  While my husband was controlling, he was predictably so.  Every night he wanted to have dinner and bitch about work and get the laundry list of what I’d done all day and see the receipts from the money I’d spent.  But he gave me money, which made me a willing prisoner for seven years until I built enough of my own life to say, “Screw you.”

And now my future is locked in a suitcase of nail polish.

My phone rings a third time.  A fourth.  A fifth.  Then it’s silent.

“Know why I read palms?” the guy says.  “People want to know the future.  If I tell them a future, they’re happier.”

“What if you tell them the future is going to suck?”

“Then they can get ready for that,” he says.  “Life isn’t daisies all the time.”

“Guess not,” I say.  My phone rings again.

I turn it off and walk back down the sidewalk, but I’m not going to Frankie’s.  I’m going to the salon to explain the whole sordid story.  How Jeremy went off the deep end last night and convinced me to come to the store with him and clean out our work stations.  He spent all day today trying to convince me to move to Louisville, while I tried to convince him to go back to our jobs.  He left without me and we’re officially broken up and he can go to hell.

My boss will believe any story about Jeremy, no matter how pathetic, because she hates his guts.  She’ll be glad to have me back because she needs good nail technicians and knows I’m one of the best, even if she won’t admit it.  She’ll spend all week badmouthing Jeremy, because she loves a good target.

I’ll stay with Clara because she has couch space, room for every niece or nephew or cousin who passes through town, so I doubt she’ll object to putting up a co-worker.  Maybe I’ll tell her parts of the real story eventually, but I want to hear from Jeremy, know that he sold the nail polish and found a new job and an apartment and a few other things we can count on.  When all that’s over, I’ll find the palm reader again and give him some answers.

CATEGORY: ArtsWeek

S&R Fiction: “God’s Privates,” by David Comfort

On his twenty-ninth birthday, Clifford threw moderation to the wind and tied the knot with his Skagway High sweetheart, Linda Marie. The daughter of a Ketchikan gillnetter, Linda Marie was studying to become a marine biologist. After the honeymoon — a road trip to the Whitehorse Moosehide Gala – Colt .45 shut her old man’s liver down and she inherited his boat and permit.

Husband-and-wife gillnetting partners are not uncommon in Southeast Alaska and the experience customarily becomes a matrimonial trial by fire: the couple either emerges forged in steel, or one tests the amphibious Mammalian Instinct of the other. During their second summer, Linda Marie used the pike on Cliff in the Taku Inlet and waited a full minute before tossing him the life preserver. Her husband’s transformation into Captain Ahab on the high sea may have had something to do with this and, though he never called his wife Stubb or Bucky while at command, his “wench,” as he called her, left him for another woman and filed for divorce on the grounds of irreconcilably irreconcilable differences. The other woman was Sharon, the washboard player in their off-season Skiffle trio which dissolved before they had an opportunity to do the Prairie Home Companion. Linda Marie and Sharon became fishing partners and moved to Petersburg.

The second irreconcilable difference was Clifford’s father, Ole Kilmer, Juneau’s self-proclaimed liquor baron and city council chair.

A monolithic, hyperkenetic Swede, Ole had cut his teeth as a Minnesota door-to-door salesman for a silk-stocking company who motto was, “We sock the men and hose the women.” After the war, he had emigrated north to seek his fortune, and soon became an Alaskan renaissance man: a logger, a big game guide, and seat-of-his-pants bush pilot. He ran into his better half, Dorothy, a Juneau elementary school teacher, at a potlatch. Their love child, Clifford, was born exactly seven months later in their cabin. By this time, Ole had a Smirnoff monkey on his back, was prone to palpitations and tachycardia when lubed and, after crashing his Piper Cub on the bay one last time, he bought the Stag Saloon – aka The Stagger Inn — with his insurance pay-off to keep his Elk’s Club and the Indians shitfaced and frisky for the next three decades.

Ole, to the right of Hitler politically, was never bashful about airing his views around his excitable daughter-in-law. Finally, for Linda Marie’s birthday – though he had never before acknowledged it – Cliff’s old man installed a hood ornament on her PETA-stickered VW: the head of the trophy bull moose he had just bagged.

But this wasn’t the final straw on her marriage’s back. That, the third and most insurmountable irreconcilable difference, was Clifford’s first disastrous off-season business launched with Linda Marie’s grubstake.

The revolutionary enterprise was called: “Love Gaiters, Inc.” Love Gaiters were skinless skin Korean Kimono condoms with a buckskin box of Cliff’s own design. Inspired by his father’s own youthful silk stocking line for socking men and hosing women, Cliff distributed samples to outfitter and auto parts stores.

Even after her husband received orders from a Pep Boys in Anchorage and an Army & Navy in Fairbanks, Linda Marie remained unconvinced that this was truly where the rubber-met-the-road,” as he insisted, and their ticket out of the purgatory of gillnetting. Nor did Cliff succeed in persuading her to invest her inheritance in his brainstorm with his evangelist arguments. In the history of male contraception dominated by macho Ramses, Sheiks, and Trojans, he told her, the Gaiter was truly the first softer, tenderer rubber for the sensitive modern man such as himself. It galled him no end that Linda Marie, who refused to take the pill, insisted he use Gaiters, seeming horrified at the prospect of giving the Kilmer clan offspring it so desperately needed.

It galled him even more when his best friend and Sancho Panza – Victor Bell, the great American novelist, currently marooned fifteen hundred miles south in Sodom and Gomorrah, aka The City of Angels — also refused to invest seed capital in his commercial juggernaut.

“Where’s your fuckin faith? Your vision?” Cliff demanded of Victor who himself was fruitlessly looking for investors in his own nearly completed masterpiece at the time. “My cock mocs are gonna revolutionize dickwear, Jack.” The entrepreneur and fisher of men called everybody “Jack,” including his wife.

“It’s just a fucking name, Jack,” corrected Victor, who himself had never used latex except after first wife’s first abortion. “And it sucks.”

“It’s a concept!” insisted Clifford who was offering him the first IPO charter membership for a mere ten grand, though Vic was about to sell a kidney to support his own carnivorous creative monkey. “Jesus fuck. I’m throwing deep on this. Don’t you get it? What’s the biggest problem on the planet? Population control. It’s concepts that fucking drive society!”

“Right,” conceded Vic. “Model T, the steam engine, E=mc2…. Gaitors.”

“Fucking philistine,” said Cliff. “Just don’t come crying to me when Larry and Hef throw in on this.”

“Righto, Iffy.” Vic called Cliff “Iffy” because everything in Cliff’s world was subjunctive, conditional, dependent on grace, if not direct divine intervention. In short, Iffy. Except to him.

Cliff received no Ifs Ands or Buts from Playboy or Hustler headquarters. But, even after being shot down by his old man, Ole, as well, Clifford remained “bullish,” as he called it, about his invention. “The light at the end of the tunnel is small but intense,” he wrote Vic in one of his regular updates from the northern front.

Finally, when Pep Boys threatened to cancel their order due to Gaiter production delays, Iffy did what any bullish entrepreneur would do: he wrote his Korean rubber packagers a $30,000 check – Linda Marie’s inheritance. Miraculously, the couple had a joint account and no prenup. Ever the optimist in spite of his history of Hindenburgs, Iffy, expecting a Gaiter feeding frenzy, was confident he would soon deposit three hundred grand before his better half was any the wiser.

Meantime, hedging his bets, he continued to lobby visionary investors. Finally he landed the big cahoona: the chief of the Sitka fire department himself, one of Ole’s old drinking buddies. But just when the fireman was about to wire Clifford the Gaiter funds at a mafia rate, he got busted for arson. His picturesque seaport hamlet had been suffering a rash of blazes, the chief had always been Johnny on the spot, and when the police had arrived at the last burn they’d stumbled on him with gas cans. In drag. The next day, the Juneau Herald reported that the Sitka fire chief was being blackmailed by one of his gay deputies, a transvestite himself, who was trying to raise capital for a sex change.

Linda Marie filed for divorce, demanding a $30,000 balloon alimony, plus interest. Clifford made a generous counter-offer: the 49,950 Love Gaiters he had left, plus 200 promotional LG tee shirts, plus a 51% share in his latex empire. Declining the rubbers, tees, and shares, Linda Marie secured a court order, garnishing her ex’s nonexistent wages.

***

Clifford blamed the LG debacle on Little Raven and her avenging shaman forefathers. Raven, otherwise known to white men as Bernice, was a full-blooded Tlinket. And she’d been Clifford’s first wife. Bernice descended from a long-line of holy men, or so she had told Cliff. Initially, he had taken the claim for yet another example of her impressive line of bullshit.

He’d met her at the Stagger. Clifford was 25 and still a virgin though, by then, he’d been the bar band frontman for two years. Bernie, 18, had been around the block more than once, and was tearing up the dance floor solo to Cliff’s unbridled version of “Wild Thing.” During the band break, the liquor baron’s son found himself at a corner table with the shamans’ daughter, knocking down Everclear screwdrivers. They retired to his Isuzu camper at the KOA campground: here Clifford lost his cherry and, very nearly, all his vertebrae, to his first groupie.

Raven told him they were “made to be.” Clifford couldn’t disagree. As coincidence would have it, he had recently been adopted by her tribe at the Alaskan Native Brotherhood Hall in Auke Bay. Ole – as head of the town council and of the school board too – had hired the ANB council chief, Joseph, as head coach of the high school basketball team and, in gratitude, Coach Joe, had insisted on adopting his son into the tribe. The liquor baron had supplied the firewater for his son’s adoption ceremony, the ANB supplied everything else. The all-night initiation climaxed at 4 a.m. when Coach Joe – in a grizzly mask and raven blanket over his Adidas jogging sit – rubbed a William McKinley on Clifford’s forehead while chanting his new tribal name: S’ugeidée. In Tlinkit, it meant “little beaver.” Joe told his new adoptive son that the money message plus the handle would afford him boundless riches and good luck. With that, the initiate, who had consumed more than a fifth of his real father’s Wild Turkey, puked and passed out.

So Little Raven felt she and S’ugeidée Jr. were meant to be not only because he sang “Wild Thing” and “Satisfaction” like a warrior on Amanita Muscaria, but because they were brother and sister. Then, when she got pregnant, she was sure she’d found her soulmate.

But Clifford wasn’t so sure. First, because Bernice was the size of an Seahawks lineman, so it would be impossible to know if she were knocked up even in the third trimester. And, second, because Bernice scared him. They’d only been an item for several months and she’d already threatened to kill several other Totem groupies who had eyed her man during his Saturday night stage apotheosis. Clifford became somewhat more concerned when Raven, an old-fashioned girl in spite of her excesses, told him she couldn’t bear his child out of wedlock.

Then one sunny summer night after another round of Everclear courage and two bowls of his better half’s killer pot, Cliff found himself at the foot of Mendenhall glacier with Best Man Vic at his left, the Raven at his right, and Coach Joe again presiding. The wedding party donned Chilkat blankets accessorized with animal parts. Joe, in his bear bonnet, flung seeds in the four directions as he wailed what sounded like a Leonard Cohen tune in Arabic, the ice floe harmonizing with its subterranean drums and apocalyptical cellos.

The next morning, the groom awakened with a skull-shrinking hangover in the shell of his Izuzu 4 x 4, on the blow-up queen beside his bride. Vic, who was firefighting on Baranof that summer, was in narcolepsy in the North Face beside the honeymoon suite. The groom had promised Raven that he would secure their white man’s marriage license and drum up a justice of the peace bright and early. So, without waking her, he slipped out of his truck and rousted the Best Man inside his tent. An hour later, the groom and Best Man, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, were on the ferry south.

Vic disembarked north of Bolivia, in Petersburg, and returned to Dante’s inferno on the fireline.

Clifford sailed on to Seattle where he hoped to get plastic surgery and new fingerprints.

The inventor had not secured either one by the time his Juneau scouts reported that his native bride had blown town with a North Slope steamfitter. He returned north incognito and, after a brief recon, determined that the mother of his child-to-be had indeed blown Dodge. The coast was clear. Except his Isuzu had four flats and new bodywork that seemed to have been done by a Kodiak on cocaine. But she still fired up. So he drove her over to the post office to collect his back mail. He had only one letter waiting for him. It bore no return addresses and began: “You fucking yellow-bellied cocksucker…”

His former better half informed him that she had had an abortion.

Her Dear John concluded: “You’re gonna fucking wish your mother had one too!”

All’s fair in love and war, thought Cliff.

Except his ex’s tone disturbed him. He couldn’t get it out of his head that her parting line was not an idle threat, but a Raven curse. He became all the more concerned when his adoptive father, Coach Joe himself, refused to even make eye contact with him when they crossed paths. He felt that the riches and good fortune the basketball coach had promised him had been rescinded, if not completely reversed, by the Tlingit gods. After all, he had been an accessory in the murder of their unborn child, and his too.

“When the gun is loaded, somebody always gets hurt,” Vic told him when returning from the fire lines. “I told you you should have used latex. Besides, she probably wasn’t even pregnant.”

“But what if she was,” moaned Clifford. “What if she…” He couldn’t even get it out.

“Chummed your kid – little Cliff?” his Best Man finished for him. “It probably made a Killer out in Gastineau happy.”

Rumor had it that Planned Parenthood dumped directly into the orca feeding ground.

“May God strike you down,” said Cliff.

“Because He’s a lifer?” said Vic. Then he broke into his favorite Dylan: “God said to Abraham, go kill me a son. Abe said, What? God said, You can do what you want to But, the next time you see Me you better run — out on Highway 61.”

“Yeah, but He was just fucking bluffing,” protested Iffy.

Bluffing ? How about the Flood? Sodom? Jericho? He abort any kids there?” demanded Victor, a biblical scholar in his own right.

“How can you think the way you do, and not shoot yourself?”

“It’s not always easy,” conceded Vic.

“Well, I’m getting a vasectomy,” concluded Cliff.

“You’re the last of your line,” Vic reminded him. “What would your old man say? Besides, you wouldn’t be able to testify.”

“’Testify’?”

“Swear by your balls. Your testes. Abe, Moses, Jacob – all the old patriarchs and prophets – they grabbed the family jewels and pledged on their honor and their next seven generations. “Test,” “testify,” “testament” – truth all goes back to your gonads. Get a vasectomy, God’ll never fucking trust you again.”

“Where’s that leave bitches, for Chrissakes?”

“With kids instead of balls obviously.”

“You make up all this crazy shit as you go along, Jack?”

Though he was on the phone from Sodom, the writer – who at that time was writing what he called “The New Old Testament” – put his right hand on his balls, and solemnly swore, “As God is my witness.”

***

So, instead of de-testifying and pre-empting another generation of the damned, Clifford invented the Love Gaiter. And he blamed its failure on the Raven curse.

In order to repay his second wife her thirty grand, he tended bar at Ole’s watering hole for $12 an hour, plus tips. Otherwise, he gigged on weekends. Singing Dylan and Pearls Before Swine covers, he passed the hat to shitfaced Tlingits, and off-the-wagon Jesus freaks and Bahai’s of whom there were not a few in the capital of Alaska when Arctic hysteria set in around Thanksgiving.

Meanwhile, convincing himself that there was a statute of limitations on his curses by both ex’s, Clifford doubled-down on his other creative extravaganzas. Far from discouraging him, the Gaiter debacle stoked his fires in bold new directions.

Hardly had his rubbers gone belly-up, than he patented two brainstorms in quick succession: The Magic Orb and the Tenz Tuner. The first was a neon holographic glo-globe capable, theoretically, of transmitting live NASA satellite photos of earth to a homeowner’s living room. Cliff sent prototypes to several Apollo astronauts, plus the Guggenheim Foundation.

Waiting for R&D capital to roll in, he turned his attention to his Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Tuner. The pocket size, battery-operated unit shot ionic impulses into ailing acupuncture points, rejuvenating them while at the same time, as he explained to Victor, “musically tuning them into harmonic conversion.” Since he still had just a few bugs to work out on the Tenz, he was offering his Sancho a 50-50 arrangement for providing all the seed capital.

“Seek professional help, If,” said Vic who had just inherited enough stock from his tycoon grandfather to avoid selling plasma and to finish yet another War and Peace in LA.

“This could cut Western medicine a completely new asshole,” declared Cliff. He’d made a transition from the hedonistic (rubbers) to the humanitarian (sonic dildos), and even his partner in improbability didn’t appreciate it. “We’re talking Nobel shit here!”

“I wouldn’t pack your bags for Stockholm, yet,” Vic told him. “Go back to the Wizard.”

The Wizard was Clifford’s Seattle shiatsu-man, Yatsu Nambu. For more than a decade, the doctor had been chasing and defusing what he called his patient’s physical and metaphysical “weather systems” – his tornadoes, his hurricanes, his squalls. The eye of Cliff’s storm was what Yatsu called Bamboo Spine, otherwise known to rheumatologists as Ankylosing Spondylitis. An arthritic condition that froze up the pelvis and backbone, AS ran in Cliff’s mother, Dorothy’s, side of the family. He’d started freezing and contracting at age twelve. Dorothy had taken him to scores of specialists in the Lower 48, with little luck. By the time he turned 30, he’d grown three inches shorter – to 5’6” – and he walked with a crooked, crablike scuttle. By this time, having abandoned conventional treatment, he was going alternative. Thus Yatsu. And thus Cliff’s Tenz invention based on the Wizard’s acupressure therapy targeting not so much his patient’s congealed camel spine as those weather systems that beat against it, much like the icy, relentless rains of Juneau.

Yatsu had long recommended that his patient move to a less paralyzing climate below the 47th parallel. But Cliff couldn’t cut the umbilicus to his place of nativity much as he loathed it. Instead, he began taking annual “Lourdes pilgrimages,” as he called them, to L.A. to thaw out his vertebrae while crashing with Victor. According to the novelist’s own diagnosis, his friend’s AS had originally been triggered by penis envy of his priapic father, Ole — after all, he’d been diagnosed at puberty, when his gonads supposedly dropped – and all he required for remission was a simple affirmation of his manhood. In short, he just needed to get laid. But If found consummation impossible, even in Sodom and Gomorrah.

At last, Victor drove the cripple to the Chicken Ranch in Vegas, a junket that turned out to be both business and pleasure. In a last gasp effort to unload his 49,950 Love Gaiters, Cliff tried to interest the Chicken CFO in a package deal. Seeing a man in need, the CFO relieved Cliff of the 100-brick sampler he came with, and knocked fifty-percent off a teenage runaway from Sparks by the name of Nikki. She quite nearly broke Clifford’s spine. He proposed matrimony to her right there. But Nikki told him she wasn’t ready to sacrifice her career for family just yet.

On the next pilgrimage south, the minstrel inventor met his guru: the 92- year-old matriarch of the Alexander Technique, Marj Barstow. Marj was the successor of Alexander himself, the 19th century Shakespearean orator who conquered stage fright and free-range anxiety by loosening his “Primary Control Point” – the eureka joint where spine met skull, and body married soul. During a week in Malibu, the old lady taught an SRO crowd of thespian spine and headcases how to undo their killer HEPDOGS — Habitual Patterns of Directive Guidance – by means of PCP tweaking. After a successful session, Cliff and his fellow students experienced what Alexandrians called “Global Expansion.” Which translated, If told Vic, in supernatural bowel movements.

In an attempt to galvanize his gains and expand yet further, Cliff became a dabbler in every New Age panacea available in the Lower 48. He tried Pilates, he tried Primal, he tried Alive Polarity. But not all of it released his PCP.  The Orcas Island Forest rangers rescued him from hypothermia 24 hours into a shaman vision quest. His acid and opium weekend with his Texas AS penpal was cut short with a visit to the Austin Memorial ER for a Thorazine rescue due to what he called “my hair-trigger head.”

At last, Clifford discovered his Bible: Norman Cousins’ Anatomy of an Illness. In it, the activist author, also an AS sufferer, described his remission from the disease by means of a unique self-therapy: laughs. Belly laughs. Sphincter-puckering, lung-busting screamers. Hearing only hopeless words from his doctors, Cousins sat himself down to the Marx Brothers on TV; after a year of “Duck Feathers” and “Animal Crackers” reruns, he was symptom-free. Clifford became a Cousins’ laughter evangelist. Only he had no use for the Marx brothers, Abbot and Costello, the Three Stooges or any of the other banana peel vaudevillians. In fact, there weren’t too many comedians he cottoned to, except Pryor and Kinison.

The only person who really depressurized Cliff’s coccyx was Victor. Not because the writer was particularly amusing, but God’s golden showers on his own Promethean ambitions seemed even more gratuitous and unrelenting than what befell Iffy and invariably delivered him to hysteria. So he phoned Victor regularly for therapeutic reasons – to hear about his most recent humiliations in Gomorrah. And, coincidentally, the novelist called the inventor for much the same reason in Galilee. In fact, each might have cut his loses and shot himself years before if not for the vicarious buzz and spiritual relief each got from the other’s Job-like hardships.

As for their professional purgatories and romantic waterloos, neither was inclined to entertain the outrageous notion that they were in any way self-inflicted. “God only tortures His favorites,” Vic told Cliff after the Love Gaiter debacle and divorce.

“There better be a goddamn a good reason!” said Cliff who didn’t understand that the observation didn’t apply to him.

“Just look what He did to His own son,” asserted Vic pointed.

“That was for salvation, Jack.”

“Salvation? From what?”

“Fuck if I know. But it sounds good. Jesus Christ. We gotta have something to look forward to.”

Vic didn’t hear from Cliff again until that Christmas. From Seattle. General. A team of specialists had just bored out his esophagus with balloons. “I had hoses stuck 3 feet up and down my nose, a scope shoved down my throat,” he wrote in his holiday missive. “My E was bloated 3X the diameter but barely letting any food down. And my nurse was a dead ringer for Raven!”

On a diet of Gerber’s baby food and protein shakes, If went down to his Buchenwald bikini weight of 108 in the hospital. Returning to Juneau from his deep throating, he followed up with Victor on his Clifford Unlimited stationary: “I may be in for a spell of travail unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.” He spoke of “my Quixotic endeavors,” and how his “mother of invention” was no longer “aglow.” As for his future prospects, “I’m girding myself for a letdown,” he concluded.

Then he signed off with his usual “Yers in Vitro.”

***

At this point, If still owed his ex the thirty G’s, the IRS five times that, plus untold sums to every financial kamikaze who had invested in his schemes. He continued to work at the Stagger as what he called “my old man’s field nigger”; his only other income was his state oil royalty check – given annually to every Alaskan, man, woman, and child – of $2,300. All of which was instantly swallowed up by his creditors.

But, worst of all, his “mojo,” as he called it – his muse – had run dry.

Not just his invention mojo but, most devastatingly, his musical mojo. His rock and roll mojo. More than an entrepreneur and inventor, Clifford, above all, considered himself a rock and roller. Like his trinity – Lennon, Morrison, and Hendrix – he had been obsessive about his discipline from an early age. He considered it the only true freedom in human life otherwise governed by robotic routine and soul-shriveling conformity.

“Glorious anarchy,” he called it.

Indeed, rock and roll was the only lubricant, besides laughter, which released the tourniquet on Cliff’s spine and delivered him to true Global Expansion.  A brief but full-throttle Voodoo Child thrash on his Strat was usually enough to carry him to Jimi’s outskirts of infinity. “Stand up next to a mountain and chop it down with the edge of my hand,” was still enough to stand what was left of the hoary hairs on his neck. He was fond of salting his rap with the Erotic Politician’s “The men don’t know, but the little girls understand.” But his greatest liturgy was from the Eggman: “Yellow mellow custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye.”

Clifford was also fond of quoting Bono, “All I got is three chords, a red guitar, and the truth,” adding “two outta three ain’t bad.” After more than three decades on the planet, he was the first to admit that he was the still working on the last item, and that Bono was a wanker and a fraud. But, after his mojo ran dry, he seemed to lose interest even in that item. Or maybe he felt like he’d had too much truth. Or maybe he felt like his other hero, Tom Rapp of Pearls Before Swine: “I don’t want to escape from reality, I want reality to escape from me.” Anyway, he stopped working on his White Album which he had been threatening for years, he stopped playing open mic at the Stagger, and he told Victor that he would throw his guitars into the sea.

The novelist, no stranger to mojo loss himself, told If he had only two alternatives now: to perform ceremonial Seppuku or to be reborn. The first was a non-starter since of course Clifford had no self-discipline, not to mention gonads. Which left him with the second.

And, proving that there was indeed divine providence, even for a devout agnostic such as Clifford, he met his immaculate rebirth mother soon after his global Linda Lovelace esophagus expansion.

***

Gloria was sixty-one years of age. She could not keep her dog – a diesel mechanic at the mill — on the porch. So she came into The Stagger unchaperoned one night with the purpose of playing somebody-done-somebody-wrong songs on the jukebox while doing Cuervo shooters. By the end of the evening, to the accompaniment of Waylon and Willie, Clifford was pouring Gloria doubles on the house while she told him about her scum-of-the-earth lesser half and he told her about his Rocky Mountain oyster eating ex in Petersburg. Cliff had taken a monastic vow of poverty, celibacy, and obedience since the split; Gloria had joined the Juneau “Women Aglow” group which, according to their mission statement, “served Jesus as His bride.” Clifford told her this made the Savior a polygamist and, by extension, his Father an accessory. After serial tequilas that night, Gloria saw the reason of this and began casting moon eyes on Jesus’ unlikely pinch hitter.

In fact, Clifford looked more like one of the Lord’s outpatients. In a letter to Victor, he had once described himself as “somewhere between a leper and Charles Atlas.” He had cavernous cheeks, a chiseled jaw, a voluptuous Jagger mouth, jumpy sky blue eyes, and patchy gray wisps at his temple. His wire-rim spectacles lent him a professorial look and, due to his seized neck bone, he peered at you either above the rims, out of the corner of his eye, or with his head cocked like an arthritic gull. Tenderly fingering the purple gulleys on either side of his forehead, Gloria asked about them. He told her that they were from the forceps. Having resisted being born, Cliff had forced the pediatrician to drag him out of his exhausted mother with a stainless lobster claw on either side of his gelatinous skull.

“I think you’re cute,” Gloria told him. She was a retired beautician. It was closing time. She and the inventor had the bar all to themselves now, except for the two narcoleptic Indians under it.

“Wanna see my etchings,” inquired Clifford. Back at his crib he had a full portfolio of the blueprints for his magical Orb and the rest of his oeuvre, not to mention surrealist Dada studies for his debut album cover.

“I knew you were an artist,” said Gloria. Then she retired to the Ladies to freshen up. The beautician looked like Dolly Parton, except more well endowed. She weighed in at about two-twenty.

If’s crib was located next door to the Stagger. Victor, who had crashed there on his sojourns north, called it “The Burrow,” after Kafka’s story about the habitation of a mole-man. Cliff had converted the backroom of his old man’s booze warehouse into the suite. It was a labyrinth of tunnels between teetering piles old rock lps, Popular Mechanics, Hustlers, Rolling Stones, guitars, dead amps, prototypes for his countless inventions, plus his laundry. On one wall stood Hendrix in his eyeball vest and electric tangerine fur scarf; on another, Einstein, freak flag flying, rode his Schwinn in the Princeton parking lot; on a third, Little Boy lit up Hiroshima. And, in the epicenter of the Burrow, was a queen-sized bed that looked like it had been salvaged from a Calcutta Motel 6.

A normal mortal wouldn’t enter Clifford’s suite in a Three-Mile island suit. But Gloria just took it all in with the sweep of an eye, threw off of her anorak, and said: “Wow.”

It was then that Iffy, after his romantic Hindenburgs of the past, realized he had found his sweet mother of mercy. His Beatrice.

He dropped a dime on Victor the very next morning, describing in detail how he and the beautician had consummated in the Burrow; how, together, they had experienced true Alexandrian Global Expansion; and how, by dawn, Clifford awoke reborn “babbling and weeping.”

Like to tell you ‘bout my baby,” he sang. “You know she comes around just about midnight. G-L-O-R-I-A!”

“How old is she?” demanded Victor, already suspicious.

“She’s a mature woman,” allowed Cliff. “First I’ve ever met.”

Though nothing about him ever came as a surprise anymore, Victor had no idea his friend was boinking somebody’s dirigible grandmother. Clifford called her “Rubenesque.”

“You mean she’s fucking fat?” Victor pressed on.

“Nothing like a little meat on the bone,” said Cliff. Linda Marie had been bulimic. “Oughta try it with a real woman sometime, Jack.”

The inventor and his beautician had a two-year “thrash,” as he referred to it. Gloria was the only woman he had ever been with who didn’t fake orgasms, even on the rare occasion when she was sober. He didn’t have to use Gaiters either because his old lady had long ago reached menopause. “I don’t know why they call it men-o-pause,” he told Victor. “She’s a card-carrying nymphomaniac.”

Gloria was also supportive. She attended every one of Cliff’s renewed open-mic gigs. For his birthday, she bought him a Gibson Hummingbird with her husband, Otis’s, mechanic money. And she also helped resurrect his invention career with the launch his latest business extravaganza: The Chocolate Totem.

The shop, located just down the street from the Stagger, sold handcrafted Belgian bars stamped with spirit animals– — the otter, the eagle, the killer whale. Clifford was determined to see the enterprise through hell or highwater. Both arrived at the shop one day in the person of Gloria’s eldest son, Westley. The twenty-five-year-old logger told the entrepreneur that if he didn’t break if off with his mother and refund her seed capital, he was going to find his nuts in the chocolate molds.

As coincidence would have it, by that time Clifford’s old man was also meddling in his affairs. Months before, Ole had told his son to break off with Gloria, before he dishonored himself and the Kilmer name itself. His prodigal son agreed. But then he had opened the Totem with her. So Ole fired him from the Stagger. When his only boy still refused to dissolve his partnership with the retired beautician, Ole threatened to have him shut down for health code violations. Clifford remained unmoved. At that, Ole – an AA charter member – fell off the wagon. Days later, he showed up at the Burrow bleeding from his eyes. And crying. In all his life, Cliff had never seen his father cry. Ole told him he’d had fling with Gloria himself and that when he’d broken it off, she’d threatened to blow the whistle on him to his wife and go after his son. Cliff knew his father to be many things – but a liar he was not, even after a seventy-two hour bender.

“I’m a Revenge Fuck!” he told his best friend that night over the phone, almost in tears himself.

“It’ better than a Pity,” Vic reminded him helpfully.

The bachelors had long since IDed the Four Fundamental Fucks. They were, from the Y perspective (in order of X preference): the Guilty, the Pity, the Revenge, and the Necro. How can you tell if your wife is dead? The sex is the same but the dishes pile up. The Necro referred to this conjugal truism. Both chaste gentlemen were Necro vets.

“Maybe I’d have better luck if I were gay,” said Cliff.

“Doubtful, Iffy,” said Vic. “Why don’t you just cut Mr. Happy off?”

Desire is the root of all suffering, said the Buddha. But If, a lapsed Congregationalist, still clung to the freeloader idea of a no-downpayment deliverance on layaway. So Victor regularly reminded him how Jesus had recommended his disciples become “eunuchs for the Kingdom of heaven.”

***

Keeping his crank all the same, Clifford fled the Last Frontier, Gloria, and the Totem, again seeking succor in the Lower 48. But this time the junket was on his father’s dime. Ole set his son up with an apartment in Seattle, a dating allowance, plus a shrink to undue whatever Gloria had done. Then, body and mind restored, Clifford would return home to gillnet with his father and bartend on the weekends as he had been doing for years.

Cliff’s Seattle shrink came recommended by his parents’ pastor at the Northern Light United Church. His name was Weinstein and he used an eclectic I’m OK, You’re OK / Purpose Driven Life approach to wellness. He got right down to brass tacks with his new patient at their first sit-down.

“What makes Clifford Clifford, Cliff?”

“… Huh?”

“How do you feel about yourself? You like yourself?”

“Yeah… Sorta. I guess. You know… I mean, shit. It varies.”

“OK, but generally. Does Clifford like Clifford? On a scale of 1 to 10.”

The inventor drew a long sigh. “Fuck. Jesus Christ. Lately?… 2 and a half. Maybe 3.”

His shrink smiled benevolently. “That’s honest. Good. Now, what do you think it would take to goose that up to maybe a 6 or 7?”

“Keira Knightley. The Nobel. Cyanide,” replied the patient matter-of-factly.

“Humor. Great medicine,” allowed the doctor. “Funny, though, comedians are some of the most miserable people. Why? Because they don’t like themselves.”

“Let’s hope they don’t fuckin start,” muttered the patient.

“You’re going to be a tough nut to crack – this’ll be fun! ” continued Weinstein. “You may not like it, but we’re going to have you up to a 10. How’s that sound?”

If rolled his eyes, pleading the 5th, then looked at his watch again.

“See – you like 3,” concluded the doctor. “You like feeling bad. It’s all you think you deserve. It’s your security blanket of helplessness and inadequacy. For next time, I want you to think about that.”

At the next appointment, the patient had no answers but, as he had feared, his shrink had more questions. “What have you ever done for another human being, Clifford?”

The entrepreneur, at a loss initially, managed to wrest a few humble examples from the days before his marriages. But, with each example, Weinstein would cut him off, “No, that was for you, my friend. I want to know what you’ve done for others.” Then he went into a rap about how a narcissist could only stop thinking about his small problems by thinking about the bigger ones of others. In short, that he could only help himself by helping others. And, in so doing, start feeling better about himself.

“Does he serve hip boots with that kumbaya bullshit?” Victor asked during the next long-distance debriefing. “What the fuck has he ever done for anybody for under three hundred bucks an hour?”

“Spoken like a true narcissist, Your Grace,” said Clifford, already a humanitarian convert. He called Victor Your Grace, Your Highness, and Your Lordship, due to the writer’s incorrigible misanthropy and megalomania. But as far as his Grace was concerned, Iffy’s life was just a series of petty disasters followed by cloud-partings, and this was just the latest.

“What the fuck have you done for anybody other than yourself, Your Lordship?” Cliff demanded.

“Not shoot them,” replied Victor.

“You call that philanthropy?”

“I call it euthanasia.”

As far as Victor was concerned, doing unto others was the most thankless job on the planet. Not to mention hazardous to your health. “Just look at Christ, for chrissakes – if he came back, you think he’d re-up for Calvary?” he demanded. “Martin Luther King –march back to Memphis? Mother Teresa – another cakewalk in Calcutta?”

“You are the fucking anti-Christ,” Clifford told him, not for the first time. “Why the hell do I even associate with you?”

His shrink hooked Clifford up with the Washington Youth Initiative. As an “activity therapist,” the inventor was paid $7.75 hourly to take WYI wards out to malls and movies for “respite and socialization.” His first kid was Charlie, 17, known to his parents as Chugger due to his habit of locomoting on all fours while thundering like a train engine. Chugger had CP. Moreover, according to Clifford, all his “circuits” were fried. For six months, he took Chugger out for two-legged constitutionals around Pioneer Square. With a delirious grin, the young man advanced with a Forrest Gump determination, forcing his arthritic consort to run interference, throwing himself in his path lest Chugger collide with other pedestrians, telephone poles, and shop fronts. After bi-weekly practice, Chugger had become a power walker and his mentor had sustained a fractured rib, a sprained ankle, and a knee hematoma.

Clifford did not fare so well with his second WYI ward, Howard the Hugger, code-named “Viper.” Howard — a 250-pound Haida with fetal alcohol syndrome — was known as Hugger due to his habit of embracing others, especially strangers, especially those who made the mistake of trying to flee him. He also had a potty mouth and was inclined to pleasure himself in public. In spite of his sunny, even ebullient, disposition, he had once tried to strangle his mother when she had attempted to interfere with his favorite pastime.

But Clifford’s mentorship of the Hugger went without misadventure. At first. Then one afternoon at the Northgate Mall, after an X-Men movie, Howard affectionately tackled a black usherette. Momentarily, the couple was on the floor in what appeared to be a WWF smackdown. Unaware that her suitor was a lover, not a fighter, the usherette flogged the Hugger with her mag flashlight, while doing a full-throated Aretha Franklin aria. Joining the fray, Clifford jumped on his back and proceeded to rodeo the hunk of burning love. Then the Hugger cried, “Viper!” The WYI chief of staff had warned Cliff about the code red word, saying that if Howard uttered it, all bets were off.

Tossing the arthritic off his back and into popcorn dispenser, the Hugger staggered into the mall, bowling down shoppers, as he continued to shrill, “Viper!”

His chaperone, pursued by a group of curiosity seekers, caught up with the young man out in the mall parking lot. Here, the Hugger had locked himself inside the Chrysler Cordoba which Ole had lent Clifford for his Seattle sabbatical, and was busy redecorating the interior. As his ward tore off the turn signal lever, then the windshield visors, Cliff implored,

“Howard, open up! It’s OK. Fuck. Open UP. Easy, buddy. Jesus FUCK!”

The town car was Ole’s pride and joy. The Hugger was now kicking in the dash and the Bose quad system, while tooling its Corinthian leather with the jagged edge of the turn signal.

***

Retiring from humanitarian work in the untamed lower 48, Clifford limped Ole’s customized Cordoba up the Alaska Highway, back to civilization.

He found the town of his nativity much the same as he had left it almost a year before. Only his chocolate emporium was shuttered. And his Beatrice was gone.

According to Ole, soon after Clifford’s departure, Gloria had divorced Otis and moved south to the village of Kake. Here she had opened a tattoo parlor and a new chapter of Women Aglow. What Ole didn’t mention were the many letters she had written to his son which he had not forwarded, but burned.

Clifford’s Seattle sabbatical and his mano-a-manos with Chugger and the Hugger had done nothing for his psyche, and less for his bamboo spine or his narrowing throat. Had it not been for the weekly ministrations of Yatsu the Wizard, and his pursuit of his patient’s merciless weather systems, Cliff might have been in an iron lung, or in full gravitational collapse.

But, miraculously, he had returned north with new purpose. He was now determined to cast off his former worldly distractions and quixotic schemes. Like Jonah, he had emerged from the whale undigested, faith restored, and with a mission. After two decades in the belly of the beast, he’d paid his dues and was ready to play the blues. Here at home, under the celestial spots of St. Elmo’s Fire, he would at last fully embrace his true cure, his true muse, his first and true wild mistress: rock and roll.

“We got something to fucking sing about. Not like these punks today,” he told Victor, back in the Burrow and caressing his guitars longing to savagely weep.

In Seattle he had seen the Melvins, the Pixies, and Nirvana’s last gigs. Kurt had just euthanized himself in his greenhouse with or without a hand from his better half, the omnivorous Ms. Love.

“Twenty-seven,” continued Cliff, “– what the fuck did Cobain know? Rinky dink God for putting me on this earth, being very privileged. Death in mind. Nurse!’ Please. Teenage angst paid off well, is all that whiney fucker got right!”

“You’re just jealous, Iffy,” Victor told him. But he agreed of course. Even before the punk revolution, the friends had concluded that rock and roll had become a wasteland inhabited by two non-evolving species: dinosaurs who were filthy rich and on creative life support, and X’ers who were also filthy rich but hadn’t done any living, and tried to pass of wailing, thrashing, and the destruction of perfectly good musical equipment as intensity.

“Nobody’s fucking dangerous anymore!” continued Clifford. He never tired of quoting “Like a Rolling Stone” re the essence of a dangerous man: When you ain’t got nothin, you got nothin to lose. “Everybody’s got a jingle, but nobody’s got a song – much less a message!” he wept.

Victor had never argued that with him either. The greatest cultural force of postmodern times was in real need of a transfusion from new but seasoned blood. “So what’s your message, If?” he inquired, not for the first time.

“Life, Your Highness. Motherfucking in-your-face-up-your-ass real life.”

“Punchy. That’ll cut Zimmerman a new asshole.”

“You wanna bust my balls, or you wanna grow some, get your ass up here, and we make history?”

There were no halfway measures for Clifford: either you picked yourself up, dusted yourself off, and threw the Hail Mary and made history, or you went down trying. Actually, Vic, a psychedelic guitar auteur no less than master of post-modern literature, was of the same mind.

“OK, say we start a band,” he allowed. “Hypothetically. What about bread – before we hit the charts?”

Cliff was already one step ahead. “Fishing. I got a line on another gillneter. It’s a steal. They’re making 80K a season out there — three days a week!”

They would become fishers of men and of mermaids. They would sing tales of brave Ulysses, naked ears tortured. To Victor, this actually sounded better than embarking on another Under the Volcano or Finnegan’s Wake.

“So, what would we call ourselves?” the writer went on. “Hypothetically.”

The inventor took a moment to ponder it, then said: “I’ve got just the name.”

His partner in madness had been afraid of that. “What?”

“I’m channeling it from the universe,” said Cliff, as if just now experiencing true Global Expansion. Actually, it had occurred to him after rodeoing the Hugger and during his last debriefing with his shrink about The Purpose Driven Life.

“Channeling — like Joan of Arc?” inquired Vic.

“Without the stake,” said Cliff.

Then he whispered the name like a prayer. A benediction.

Suddenly, after these many years in the penitential fires, both impossible men at last knew who they were on this their low road, slouching to the lost Jerusalem.

CATEGORY: SRLitJournal

S&R Fiction: “Exquisite Hoax,” by Bill Carr

In retirement, you’re supposed to do those things you’ve always wanted to do.  Whether I like it or not, money, at least for me, is no longer a factor.  Even with money out of the picture, it’s not that easy.  Just yesterday my agent said to me, “I always knew I was destined to accomplish great things.  When I’m able to get you gigs, I know I’ve accomplished the impossible.”  Then, in what’s become a ritual for us, he screws up his face and says, “Philosophy?”

I start to explain that what I lecture on is not just philosophy, but the confluence of philosophy, religion, and science; however, with his desk calendar already out, he’s telling me to write down the date, time and location of my next lecture, and how much compensation, which is generally rather meager, he’s been able to cajole from my newest employer.

He does not fit the stereotype I had of a booking agent.  I pictured her as female, maternal, twenty years younger than I, with incredible attention to detail.  My agent is male, brusque, condescending in a bantering way, and incredibly short on assignment details.

He does manage to get me bookings, however, something I’ve been entirely inept at doing myself.  He finds me lecture slots at philosophical societies, education retreats, churches, synagogues, community centers, and some universities.  When he can’t find gigs for me, and even when he can, he does not hesitate to point out that my subject area is not exactly in demand, and my background in the corporate world actually casts suspicion on my expertise in this academic area.

Mostly, my audiences are appreciative.  Occasionally, after a lecture, some express disdain masquerading as surprise that I don’t have a doctorate.  During the question and answer period, others try to poke holes in my scientific theories.  So far, no one has hurled rotten fruit.

My most popular lecture is one I call Correlations.  I draw connections between ancient beliefs and modern scientific thought.  For example, there is a correlation between the ancient Judaic belief in monotheism and the modern scientific tenet that the laws of nature are constant throughout the universe.  Scientists did not really accept the universality of nature’s laws until the early 20th century.  True, the ancients were superstitious.  Those in authority had a predilection for harassing or disposing of those who claimed established beliefs were all screwed up.  But the ancients were not dumb.

Another correlation is between the biblical Genesis account and the current scientific relationship between the illogical quantum world and the logical macro world.  God created the universe from chaos.  Living beings convert quantum mechanics into logical determinism.  Most of the attendees at my lectures don’t buy into quantum mechanics.  They believe in the time-honored wisdom that my tush can’t be in two places at the same time.  Well, if I went on a crash diet, and reduced my tush to the size of an electron, it could be in two places at the same time.

My most unpopular talk is one I call Comparative Realities.  I’m afraid that in this one I come off as a demotivational speaker.  What we adjudge to be reality is an exquisite hoax. We regard it as reality because it’s head and shoulders in believability above other sensory images we experience, such as dreams, hallucinations, and visions.  I suppose you can throw in theories like parallel universes.  Closer to home are entities that we don’t see clearly – institutions that start out with their purpose in life being serving the public good, then replace this goal with one of staying alive and growing more powerful.  They subsequently imprison and exploit the very cells that created the institution.  Complicating this whole picture is that valid philosophical beliefs such as solipsism and nihilism are treated with disdain because they are just too depressing.  The problem with what we perceive as reality, confirmed by our own adaption and the verification by others with DNA similar to our own, is that reality does not exist the way we experience it.  Our technology provides quite a different picture.  Seemingly impermeable structures such as steel walls are mostly space.  The atom has been compared to a football stadium, with the nucleus resting on the 50-yard-line and the electron cloud revolving at the level of the outer rim of the stadium.  You see a red car coming down the street; if your vision were much more acute, it would not be a red car at all.  It would be all different colors, a melange of various frequencies of light, bouncing off waves of energy in motion.  We abstract out a red car.

Then we have the whole area of quantum weirdness.  The religious belief is that God created the universe from chaos.  In our prime reality, man creates a world of macro logic from quantum weirdness.  Man creates the universe in his mind.

*  *  *

I met her at a meeting of the American Society for Contemporary Philosophy at the Wintergreen Resort, near Charlottesville, Virginia.  This is not the society founded by Benjamin Franklin.  It’s a smaller organization, slightly more offbeat.  I saw her standing at the side of the room.  The lecturer preferred this small, downstairs meeting room to the auditorium in which I spoke.  “A more intimate setting,” he told me.  “Militates against violent ideological clashes.”  This was the evening lecture.  Someone left the door to the patio open.  You could hear the crickets outside.

She’s a good-looking woman, perhaps in her mid-fifties.  About 5 foot 7, trim figure, dark hair.  Glasses with thin frames the color of champagne.  She’s dressed completely in white, which was unusual for this audience:  white blouse, and white shorts.  It reminds me of summer camp, where all-white was the formal dress code.  In the question and answer period, she posed a very perceptive question.

My Comparative Realities lecture was the following morning.  After my talk, she waited patiently in front of the lectern while a woman berated me for my agnosticism.  “Actually,” I said, “I’m a little to the right of agnosticism.  It’s these 20 or so constants, like the outcroppings of a mathematical model.  If any one of them is altered, the universe doesn’t work.  I have to wonder where those constants came from.”

The woman was not assuaged, but looked up and saw someone else waiting.  “Just wanted to let you know my thoughts,” she said, as she walked away.

The next questioner approaches.  The name badge says Linda Melton, Washington, D.C.

“Thanks for rescuing me,” I say

She’s dressed more formally than the evening before:  black pants suit, and green silk blouse.

“It’s not much of a rescue,” she says.  “I wanted to tell you that I disagreed with virtually everything you said, but liked the way you said it.”

“Do you teach philosophy?”

“Not even close,” she replies.  “I run an abused women’s shelter in D.C.  But I majored in philosophy in college.”

Afterwards, I get her email address from the attendance roster.  One week later I send her a note saying that I’m giving my Correlations talk in Alexandria next week, and was wondering if she’d like to attend.  I feel confident she’ll like this talk better than the last one.  She responds saying she will try to be there.

The Holiday Inn in Alexandria is not as upscale as most of my venues in hotels.  I’ve always liked it, however, because it doesn’t look like other Holiday Inns.  Either by sound business acumen or uncompromising standards from the city’s planners, the chain built a hotel that really blends in with the red-brick motif of the surrounding area.

I have the 7:30 P.M lecture.  It seems to go well.  After the last question, there’s a smattering of applause.

I’m hunched over, detaching my laptop from the video projector.

“You were right,” she says, standing in front of me.  “I liked this talk a lot better than the previous one.

She’s wearing a light blue dress, straps over the shoulders, perfect for an evening lecture and perhaps dinner afterwards in Alexandria.  No glasses this time.  A light tinge of lipstick.

“I’m famished,” I tell her.  “Would you like to join me for a bite to eat.  I know a very nice place on King St.”

She hesitates.  “Well, just for dessert for me.  I ate before I came here.”

I’ve eaten at the Grecian Gardens before.  The food is very good, the atmosphere quiet, and the tables aren’t all scrunched together.  I particularly like the gleaming white archways that separate the two main dining areas, and the dining areas from the kitchen.  There are plenty of customers tonight, but you don’t have to strain to hear what your companion is saying.

I order the vegetarian moussaka and she chooses the large Greek salad.  We decide on saganaki as the appetizer.  As usual, the flaming saganaki draws oohs and aahs, along with cries of “Opa” from the other customers.

“Does your wife ever attend your lectures?” she asks quietly.

“Well, she used to.  The problem is I have a very limited repertoire.”

“And your sons?”

“Same situation.  We’re a geographically dispersed family.  They have their own lives and families now.”

“You know a lot about my family,” I say.

She smiles.  “A girl has to do her homework before she goes to dinner with someone who’s a solipsist and a nihilist.”

“But I told you,” I exclaim.  “I’m neither of those.”  She looks around and puts a finger to her lips.  I lower my voice.  “I’m not even an existentialist.”

I have the feeling she’s putting me on, and I reacted clumsily.  “I have to admit,” I say, “that I didn’t do my homework on you.”

“It’s nothing spectacular.  I’m the director of an abused women’s shelter, which is why I’m in D.C.  I majored in philosophy in college, which is why I attend these lectures.  And I’m divorced, with two grown children.”

She seems anxious to change the subject.  “You mentioned your limited repertoire.  But there have to be more than two subjects.”

“Unfortunately not.  But I’m working on a third.  My agent feels I need something more sociologically relevant.”  I realize I don’t like the direction in which this is going.

“What’s it on?”

“Fidelity.  Or, more precisely, infidelity.”

Her expression brightens.  “I get it,” she says.  “I’m a research subject.”

“Oh, no, not at all.”

She leans forward and looks me in the eye.  “Then why did you ask me out to dinner?”

“You ask very perceptive questions.”

She frowns, turning her attention to her salad.

“And how far along are you on this new lecture?” she asks.

“It’s still in the embryonic stage.”

“Does it have a title?”

“I was thinking of ‘Semper Infidelis’”

“I like it.  And have you established the criteria for infidelity?”

“Penetration.”

“No!” she exclaims, pounding her fist on the table.  She looks to see if any heads have turned our way.  None have.  The customers at the Grecian Corner are more interested in flaming saganaki than in conversational outbursts.

“If you talked to the women I counsel,” she says, with quiet determination, “I think you’d have a different opinion.”

“It’s not my opinion.  It’s a cultural standard.”

“In which country?”

“That’s a very good question,” I say.  “It’s a cultural standard in the U.S.  France, for example, has a very different standard.  Cultural relativism.  Spouses, mostly men, can have affairs as long as the media doesn’t stir up indignation.  In the U.S., Arnold has a penchant for groping, but Maria can live with that.  However, when penetration, and the results of penetration become known, acceptance grinds to a halt.”

“I still don’t agree with that,” she says firmly.  “Is that as far as you’ve gotten?”

“I’ve established some conditions conducive to infidelity.  So far I’ve got seven, and the list is still growing.  The ones I have are power, opportunity, attraction, need for a relief-valve, pervasiveness of the practice, delusions of concealment, and the prophecies of mothers of teenage sons.”

She laughs.  “I’m interested in all of those, but you’ve got to explain the last one to me.”

“Well, in its most common occurrence, the teenage son is miserable because the high-school cheerleader he likes won’t go out with him.  She’s interested only in the quarterback on the football team.  His mother tries to console him by saying someday the girls will all be running after him.”

She’s still smiling.  “But my prediction to my son came true,” she asserts.  “When he got to college, the girls wouldn’t leave him alone.”

I shrug my shoulders.  “Well, that could cause later problems.  Or waiting for it to happen could cause later problems.”

“And you?” she asks.  “I’ll bet you were quite the catch in college.”

“Never happened,” I reply.  Sorry, Mom.

How many years ago?  Twenty-five?  I’m on assignment at the Centrex subsidiary in Paris.  There is some degree of power.  The compensation is great.  It’s an American company.  Practically all of the software development is done in the U.S.  The Europeans are anxious for technical expertise, and are willing to pay for it.

Among our closest friends are the Anderssons.  He’s Danish, and she’s from the Netherlands.  His real name is Torben, but he likes to be called Tommy.  He’s big, smart, and athletic.  They have four beautiful, blond kids.  He loves everything about the U.S. – the expanse, music, jeans, language.  They live near us, and we socialize quite a bit.

There’s a small cafeteria on the ground floor of the building in which we work.  The food is quite good.   Almost everyone in our industry center goes there for lunch.  Tommy and I place our trays on the silver tubing that leads past the glass-enclosed food displays.  I don’t like one of the servers.  She’s tall, willowy, and grumpy.  Attractive, though.  Anyone who looks good in a hairnet has to be attractive.

“What do you want?” she asks curtly, in clipped English, as I study the offerings.  “Hurry up, there are people waiting.”

I make my selection, and start toward the register.

“Tommy, how are you!”  I look back.  Her whole face brightens.  She’s smiling broadly.

“What was that all about?” I ask, as we make our way toward an empty table.

“It’s nothing,” Tommy says.  “I took her skiing last weekend.”

That evening we get together with the Anderssons.  They have a huge home in the so-called American section.  When we visited them during our househunting trip, my first reaction was one of envy.  I’ve got to find a rental that at least is close to this – even if we have to strain our international service budget a bit.  If my wife Marilyn felt the same, she didn’t let on.

Tommy’s wife Annika and I are sitting on a billowy, green sofa at the end of their combination living and dining room.  It’s a huge room, running the full length of the house, with a white marble floor.  If you pushed all the furniture against the walls and near the large picture window overlooking the back yard, you could use the room as a dance floor.  Tommy is in the kitchen fixing drinks.  The kids are supposedly playing downstairs.  It’s a little too quiet down there, so Marilyn is checking on them.

Annika is soft-spoken with a pleasant smile.

“He’s strayed, you know,” she says, placing her hand on my arm.  It’s as if she’s not sure whether I know, but it’s best to get it out in the open.  “But,” she adds, “he came back to the fold.”

Well, not completely.  But I say nothing.  Power?  Yes, at least relative to our jobs in the States.  With the International Service Allowance and the other perks, our salaries are quadruple what we made in the States.  We’re making decisions that are usually made at much higher managerial levels back home.  Opportunity – definitely.  Attraction?  She’s more physically appealing than Annika.  Need for a relief valve?  Absolutely.  It’s a glamorous life – we’re forever traveling all over Europe for different meetings, but we do work hard.  Pervasiveness of the practice?  It’s all over the place.  While the husbands lead this glamorous, fast-paced life, the wives get stuck with the nitty-gritty of the cultural transition:  getting the kids in school, running the household, shopping for groceries in a foreign language.  Separations, even divorces, are common.  Wife takes the kids and returns to the states, while the husband carries on – both with the job and the affair.  Delusions of concealment?  Probably not.  She found out once.  Prophecies of mothers with teenage sons?  Never asked Tommy about that.

There’s a job category here we don’t have in the States:  International Assignment Representative.  For our industry center, these roles are filled by three local French women, all in their early twenties, and members of the human resources department.  They act as surrogate secretaries/wives.  They handle medical reimbursement, arranging for car registration, making airline reservations, assisting in shopping for appliances, and overseeing reimbursement under the light-fixtures compensation plan.  This plan came into being when one assignee managed to convince human resources that the company should reimburse for the purchase of new light fixtures for the home.  These young women are very competent in what they do.

I get the sexy one.  Her name is Gabrielle.  She’s also my mixed doubles tennis partner.  We’re playing a match against another industry center on beautiful, Har-Tru courts.  Everyone here still wears all white at a tennis match.  Gabrielle and I lose the first set, and are down a break in the second.  I hit a ball that’s close but called out.  “You called that out?” I ask the male opponent.  He just looks at me.  “Could you check the mark?” I ask.  It seems that’s just not done here in a mixed doubles match.  He studies me.  His partner eyes me with disdain.  Gabrielle looks at me with surprise.  “You thought that was in?” he finally asks.  “I did,” I reply.  “Why don’t you just check the mark?”  “Play it good,” he says to his partner, turning and throwing a ball to her.  Gabrielle and I go on to win the match.

When Gabrielle wears a miniskirt, heads turn.  Even when she walks by with a mid-length skirt, heads turn.  At work there’s a Christmas party in the break room.  All the chairs are up against the walls.  They’re all occupied.  Some people, holding their drinks, are talking in the center of the room.  Everyone is feeling pretty convivial.  Gabrielle enters, wearing a miniskirt.  She sees me and smiles hello.   I don’t get up.  “Hi,” I say, nodding my head.  I look around.  Not an empty chair in sight.  “Why don’t you sit on my lap?”  She does, putting her arms around my neck and resting her head on my shoulder.  Some heads turn and smile, but others pay no attention.  This is a festive occasion.  I can feel Gabrielle’s breath and hair on my neck.  “You don’t want to get involved, do you?” she whispers.  The directness of the question takes me by surprise.  Can’t I have a little time to think it over?  I can feel my face reddening.  “No,” I reply.  “I guess not.”

Power?  Yes.  Opportunity ?  Yes.  Attraction?  That’s a tough one.  Definitely a sexual attraction.  If it’s not a total attraction, does it count as fidelity?  Overall I’m more attracted to our French secretary.  She’s pretty, flirtatious, married, loves things American, and draws a distinct line against anything more than flirtation.  Need for a relief valve?  Absolutely.  Pervasiveness of the practice?  It’s all over the place.  Delusions of concealment?  None.  Not a chance of concealment.  Prophecies of mothers with teenage sons?  Sorry again, Mom.  Not enough volume.

I pay the bill, and Linda and I leave the restaurant.  The night air has gotten chillier.  I help Linda on with her sweater.

“Did you drive here?” I ask.

“I’m not that masochistic.  I took a cab.”

“There are always taxis in front of the Holiday Inn,” I say.  “I’d like to take you home, but I have the early lecture slot tomorrow morning.”

We walk in silence toward the Holiday Inn.

“I’d like to see you again,” I say quietly.

She stops and looks me in the eye.

“I mean,” I tell her, “when, if ever, I finish this next lecture.”

“I don’t understand you,” she says firmly.  “Do you have an open marriage?”

“No.  I believe it’s quite closed.”

“But your problem is your wife doesn’t really understand you.”

“I think she understands me quite well.”

“Tell me this.  Does she invite individual men out to dinner?”

“Actually, she does.  She’s a vice president of a public relations firm.”

We continue walking, neither of us saying a word.

“You know,” I say quietly, “I don’t see what the problem is with our just being friends.  It doesn’t mean we have to leap into bed together.”

She stops again.  This time she’s angry.

“You may be surprised to know,” she says, “that some of my clients are quite sophisticated.  I warn them against situations exactly like this.”

We reach the Holiday Inn.  There’s a taxi waiting by the entrance.  I open the door to the back seat and watch her get in.

“I don’t suppose I’ll see you again,” I say.

The summary should probably be applied in all cases.  Power?  I suppose so.  It could be the teacher/student relationship.  Opportunity ?  Yes.  Attraction?  Definitely – a total attraction.   Need for a relief valve?  I don’t think so.  Not any more.  Pervasiveness of the practice?  No idea.  You can’t make a judgment based on Philip Roth novels.  Delusions of concealment?  Maybe a few.  I could be better at that than I used to be.   Prophecies of mothers with teenage sons?  Unfulfilled, and going backwards.

“That’s not necessarily true,” she says, closing the car door.

CATEGORY: SRLitJournal

S&R Fiction: “The Couple at the Corner Table,” by Mark Sumioka

I didn’t pay much attention to the little things:  strangers, antics, and matters of triviality.  I saw straight ahead.  I saw whatever was necessary.  Expending further energy would require a matter of significance.  And that was what kept me safe each time I walked home from work with a load of cash in my pockets.  Tips varied by the shift, but one thing stayed constant, my wariness when carrying hundreds of dollars in my pockets.  It wasn’t that my neighborhood was unsafe; in actuality it was fairly laid back with little thievery.  But I was no longer as young and strong.  It was a growing concern.  I was able to come to terms with that much.  There was the thought of carrying a knife, but I had decided against it, and eventually, regretted it.

As I had mentioned, I was usually focused on my destination – home – and didn’t gawk at pointless matters.  But I’d had a particularly good night at work, the boost in money exhilarating me, shrinking a host financial worries and clearing the mind with optimism.  An out of state businessman had left me a hundred dollar tip.  I’d relished in the bill’s newness, its crispy shine like contemporary art in a museum.  It was so fine I hated to fold it.  And I refused to put it in my wallet.  It felt smooth and lovely between my fingers.  Sure, it was only a hundred dollars, but it wasn’t about the amount.  There was something wonderful about new money, its odor, crispness, and detail.  I looked at new clothes in the same manner, hard-edged, smooth, unsoiled and rigid, far from wrinkled and worn.

With winter’s cold ocean breeze blowing at my side I walked briskly, my hands stuffed in my pockets massaging the c-note with my left hand, and my wallet with my right, my habitual thumb pressing at the center of it.  The wind at my right cheek was icy, and a thin tube of cold air flowed into my ear canal causing the stir and then the ache.  I kept my head down and walked with purpose, the crunching of runaway sand under my shoes.

A speeding car screeched the corner ahead, stopping me abruptly.  I slid and took a knee to the concrete.  My lower back hitched; it was a close call, but strangely no pain this time.  As I regained balance, my focus shifted to embarrassment and whether anyone had seen me.  But there was no one except for a woman far ahead.  She was busy scurrying to her destination.  I took a moment to watch.  Her hurried pace made her buttocks shake and jiggle and I rejoiced in our differences, man and woman.  Her walk was intense.  I suppose that’s why I never saw it coming.

The thump came dramatically, like a hammer at the side of my neck.  It was like a power outage when the lights and television and appliances all fail with one click, and then darkness.  I was stunned.  My first reaction was to close my eyes and go down to a squat.  What had it been?  The violent crash was echoing, my neck throbbing, as the pain was a crawling explosion, like molten lava that oozes patiently in its torment.  I held my neck, eyes still closed, waiting for whatever the unknown might bring.  Would there be more?  A shot of this magnitude formed paralysis.  While I was a bold man, this action had floored me, and expecting another blow I tightened up, hunching over and turning my back in a cowering fashion.  But nothing came.  Then a hand pushed me at the side of the head, like my brother used to do when we were young, my body keeling over like a statue, with my hand searching for pavement and the other fumbling at my pocket grasping in desperation.  My brain said act fast.  It said this is trouble.

It was one man.  My eyes were open now, staring at the grainy concrete, waiting.  I hated that – the waiting.  But I couldn’t stop it.  I did absolutely nothing to retaliate.  My daze was steady, debilitated.  I felt a wormy hand wriggle in my front pocket, first the left at my keys, and then the right with success.  The lump that was my wallet slipped away, and the sound of quiet became deafening.  There was his breathing, the crunching of the sand under his shuffling shoes, and his fingers mangling the wallet, probing, until the crinkle of cash was in his hand.  I reached for his ankle, my fingers moving up his pants as I dug my nails into him the best I could.  Then came the kick to my gut so that I fell back.  He kicked again, and once more harder than before and I knew he’d meant to break me.

Then he fled, with my wallet still in hand.  He ran like the kids we used to ridicule in grade school that lacked athleticism.  He ran like the fearful.  I lay on my side for a spell, and then eased up to a seat, holding my ribs, the warped burn of my neck throbbing.  I sat comatose, filled with stunned reflection.

After I’d gotten home and made the necessary calls to cancel credit cards, my mind settled for a moment, and then it began to whir in shock.  I poured the whiskey and sat back, staring at the television.  There was jazz on the stereo competing with the television, and eventually I listened to neither.  The scenario repeated in my head, the sight of the woman, and the mugger getting his hands inside my pockets.  He’d knocked me good in the neck.  It was swollen, blotched red.  My ribs hurt like hell.  I gently prodded and poked and was fairly sure none were broken.  I took a swallow of whiskey and felt the burn coat my throat.  And my neck and ribs called out to my throat in camaraderie.  I shook my head at them all.

The mugger had gotten my wallet, but I had held the hundred-dollar bill tightly in my left hand during the assault.  Once he had struck me my left hand instinctively clutched the bill, crumbling it tightly into my palm with slight of hand the same as when there were two of us working the bar and a patron secretly handed me a tip for just me to keep.  I could hold a bill crumpled in my palm for an hour if need be.  I could pour drinks and go on with my business just the same.

Sadly, the hundred meant nothing to me now.  It was just money.  Worse, it was a memento, and every time I looked at it the memory stung me.

There was no way I could work the next day.  As much as it pained me to give away my shift, I did, with sourness filling me.  I sat on my deck and watched the sunset.  I’d been living near the sea for years, so the actual sun setting no longer carried a magical hypnosis the same as years past, when I was as green as the tourists that flocked to San Diego.  Instead I was transfixed on the aftermath, the color scheme of the sky and clouds when the sun was below sea level.  Tonight it was layered like feathers, fuzzy strips of pink and blue reminding me of sherbet ice cream or a young bruise, with palm trees blotted like ink over the sky.  This was the time when I found meditation.  Crisp quiet hovered over my neighborhood save the occasional passing car.

The night moved quickly after darkness set in, as I was face first into a bottle of whiskey.  I had gone to the grocery store and spent the hundred dollars as though it were stolen, like I had skimmed it over the bar and stuffed it criminally into my pocket.  It felt like that, tainted, and I wanted nothing to do with it.  So I bought as much whiskey as possible.  With the remainder I bought beef jerky, a nutritional consolation as my appetite was still meager, a lingering aftermath of the sting.  The evening ended early and suddenly, from a hundred miles an hour to a complete halt.

After lying in pain the next morning, I bucked up and went to work.  The restaurant staff was buzzing when I got there.  I fought off the barrage of inquiries over the welt on my neck and the way I cringed over my aching ribs when bending over to wash a glass.  Initially, they’d asked and I’d answered politely, later, more matter of fact, and toward the end, rudely so they’d finally leave it alone.  It didn’t help matters that my lower back was aching as well.  But this was a career injury; I’d suffered through the long years bending over to scoop ice and picking up bottles from the speed rack.  It was a slight motion, like bending to fill out a form at a low counter, but I didn’t have the luxury of leaning on my forearm as I wrote.  Here, my hands were always preoccupied:  holding the cup while scooping ice into it, pouring a shot from the bottle while filling with tonic and soda or whatever the customer needed to water down their drink, holding and passing the drink while I placed a straw or garnish in it.  My hands were busy; as a result there was no place to lean.  The only consolation was below my knees where I’d installed foam padding over the hard steel speed rack at my shins.  Here I could lean minimally.  But it still wreaked havoc on my lower back, as I would keep erect while working.

“What you need is a big, sharp buck knife!  That’s what you need,” Bob, a regular, shouted.

“Easy there,” I said, my hands motioning downward.

“Oh?” he said and turned around in his stool, giving the restaurant a once over.  “There’s hardly anyone here!”

“For Christ’s sake, keep your voice down…pathetic lush,” Al said, and Bob stuck his tongue out.  They were pals.  I’d never seen one in the restaurant without the other.

“I don’t need a knife,” I said in order to calm them.  “What I need is a night in the sack with a beautiful rich woman.”

“A cougar!” Bob shouted, and the two tables in the dining room turned to look.

“For Christ’s sake,” Al said.  “He didn’t say a middle-aged girl.  He just said a girl.”

“That’s the spirit!  What you need…is to get your knob shined.”

This made Al break with laughter and soon we were all laughing.  Wanda, a waitress, walked by and gave me the stink eye.  But she was always bent out of shape so I ignored her.

Then a couple entered the restaurant.  The man was short, with a vague familiarity to him.  And then I saw the woman, gorgeous, with big eyes and flowing hair.  The man glanced at us, but not enough to make eye contact.  He spoke lowly to the hostess and she led them to their table.  They walked past the length of the bar, and as the woman passed there was something about her, that beautiful figure, my mind searching, and then they were almost at the table and I knew it was the woman from the other night when I got mugged.

“That’s got nothing to do with it!  It’s about how you react to the situation,” Bob said and motioned to me.  “He needs to be ready next time.  Get a big buck knife and gut the son of a bitch before he gets his wallet!”

“Bob, really,” Al said.

“No!  This is my friend.  I’m going to look out for him.  I’m not going to…think when he has to go and get hit again…” and Bob’s eyes closed as his head bowed forward in a momentary lapse of focus, “that it’ll happen to my friend.”

“Bob, you’re drunk,” I said, but my attention was on the couple sitting at the corner table.  Was it her?  Same lengthy brown hair, and wonderful body frame.  Then she got up and hurried to the bathroom.  Her rear shook and shivered and I was sure.  The images came back at me with a flurry and I was mesmerized by the memory, ignoring the chatter of Bob and Al behind me.  Then she returned to the table.

Wanda approached them and the man spoke sourly.  She went to the POS system and put in the order.  The paper ticket came up on my bar printer and it read: Ketel One Martini Up, Glenfiddich rocks DOUBLE.  I thought about it, though nothing came to memory, and then made the drinks.

“You recognize them?” I said to Wanda.

“They’ve been in before.  Not often.  The woman’s nice, but the guy’s a prick.”

“How come?”

“Tips for shit.  Can’t hold his liquor to save his life.  I wouldn’t have known him if it wasn’t for those crazy thick eyebrows and the rude way he ordered.  If I were smart I’d put cleaning solution in his scotch,” she said and chuckled.  But Wanda was a gutless threat, always bluffing.  She placed the drinks on the tray carefully and balanced it with a lift.  She was young, maybe late twenties, and very jaded.  Like me, she had been in the industry too long.

“Easy now,” I said.  “Give them a chance.  It’s a whole new day.”

“Give me a break,” she said and walked away.

It was deep into the dinner hour and the dining room was slow.  There were only four tables aside from the couple at the corner table.  But my bar was steady.  Bob and Al were still there.  Another couple, much older was fawning over one another at the far end.

At the stools nearest the entrance were four college girls, out of their element, asking the price of every drink, and whining at each other over the inadequacies of their boyfriends and their cell phones.

“And where are your boyfriends?” Bob said over the cackling of the girls.  Fortunately the girls paid no attention, and eventually, Al calmed him down.  Al told him he recognized them, knew two of their fathers, big lawyer types.  I added that their college educations were hardly a measuring stick for their actual intelligence, or lack thereof.

But they were having fun.  In fact everyone in the bar and restaurant seemed to be fairing well except for the couple at the corner table.  The man was on his fifth double, the woman her fourth drink.  I couldn’t hear them speak but watched their facial expressions and gesticulations with a sharp eye.  It translated to indiscretions and unease in my opinion.  Her face often narrowed to incredulousness, as though she couldn’t grasp what he was saying.  And the man threw his hands out in two ways:  like he was tossing water out of a sinking boat, and chopping lettuce on a cutting board.

“Hank, give us a round!” Bob called over.

Wanda gave me a look that told me to cut Bob off.  I gave Wanda a look that told her she didn’t know shit about how to hook a big tip out of a rich fish.

“Be right there,” I said, still facing Wanda, and eyeing the corner table.  “How about them?” I said regarding the couple.  “Getting out of hand?”

“They’re just fighting.  I stay away and wait until he motions me over.  Did you hear the guy snap his fingers at me?” she said and shook her head.  “I swear one of these days…”

“Pays the bills,” I said and walked the other way.

Soon after, the old couple left quietly, leaving me more money than I had expected.  But I reasoned it was because of love, the newness of it, and his wanting to show her he wasn’t cheap.  Men were like that; first dates early in the relationship they often over-tipped in order to prove money was a menial thing, that it could be thrown around here and there, even as a generous tip to a bartender who had poured them only two glasses of wine.  As for the four college girls, they were quite the opposite.  They’d run separate charges on their credit cards, all of which averaged five percent tips.  But they’d pleased the hell out of Bob and Al who normally wouldn’t have stayed so late.  It had been a nice outside-the-candy-store-window experience for them.  The girls left laughing over their hurried lives and youthful common ground.  It had been a fine time.  And I smiled and bid them well with a lying face that was thankful.

It was near closing time.  Now it was Bob, Al, myself, and the couple at the corner table.  Wanda said she was done waiting for the couple and wanted to transfer them to me.  I told her to ask them to pay.  She declined and quickly finished her side work, tipping me out, and waving a lifeless hand as she passed us at the bar and went out the door with an unlit cigarette ready in her hand.

“Set us up again,” Bob said with a drawl, his head sinking backward so that the lights above irked him every time he blinked.

“Not me,” Al said, fingering his ear canal.  “Got a full load tomorrow.”

“You’re a goddamn dentist!  All you gotta do is…All you gotta do is clean!

“Easy now,” I said.  “It’s tedious work.”

“I’ll say,” Al said and his face froze stunned as though he’d been slapped.

“You want to close out?” I said to Bob, hoping to feed a subliminal message to his drowning brain.

They were good and drunk, and I didn’t have the energy to baby-sit them.  My body was sore as hell.  It needed a couch and a gallon of booze.

“Close us out,” Al said, coming to life again, and reaching into his back pocket.

“Leave it!” Bob said and tossed his credit card on the bar.  “Save it for a goddamn…tooth whitening seminar.”

As I ran his card, there was a flicker of commotion at the corner table so that the woman got up in a huff and yanked her handbag out of the grasp of the man.  She clacked her awkward heels to the bathroom where the door shut violently.  The man got up as if to chase her but saw me and sat down.  With the credit card and receipt in my hand I watched the man wallow in his seat, pushing a hand through his hair like he might pull it out.  He was too drunk and self-pitying to notice me any more.  Then he seemed to remember something and slammed the table with both hands.  The silverware jumped and the martini glass, fortunately empty, fell on its side.

I gave Bob the charge receipt.  He was surprisingly quick in signing.  Al got him by the shoulder and they were merry as they stumbled off the stools, the wooden legs squealing against the floor.  Al waved a hand in thanks as they made their way out.  It was ten o’clock and the restaurant was now closed.  I got the check for the couple at the corner table, placed it in a checkbook, and approached the man with pain flaring at my lower back.

“Closing up shop,” I said, and the man wavered his head upward, his eyes trying to find recognition.  After a moment, he made an impish lift of his thick eyebrows.

“One more,” he said.

“No more.  Sorry.  We’re closed.”

The table had been Wanda’s in the first place, so it was bonus.  I didn’t care how much or how little this man was going to tip me.  I just wanted them out.

“Fine,” he said and got out his wallet with a deep search of his coat pocket.

He pulled out a fine brown wallet, worn, but exceptional in quality.  My eyes narrowed and focused intently.  There was a dark blotch in the center from the grease of a finger that had forgotten its oiliness.  And there was a deep scuff on the tip, a yellowed gash from a thumbnail that had grown too long.  Both markings had come as a result of drunken nights, in my home.

I swiped the wallet from his hand and took a step back, frantically searching its contents.  And I kept moving backward, with my head bent down as though there might be a blow coming.  It was reflex, as the memory of being swatted in the neck flashed at me and I was fearful.  Neither my identification nor my credit cards were there.  But there deep in the side pocket was a folded ticket stub from a movie I’d seen months ago.  And then the adrenaline shot came.

“What the hell is this?” I said.  There was little cash and I wondered how much of it was mine, grabbing it and stuffing it into my pocket.

“Gimme that,” the man said, annoyed, though not yet realizing what was happening.

“Where’d you get this?” I said.

“That’s mine.  Gimme it.”

“This isn’t your damn wallet.  This is my wallet.”

Now I was taking out his credit cards and tossing them to the ground.

“What kind of moron takes a guy’s wallet and then uses it as his own?” I said.  Then realizing, I bent over and picked up his credit cards.  “I’ll be right back.”

“Hey.  Come back’ere with my…wallet.”

I ran a credit card for the amount of the bill.  Then I got my pen, and with shaking hand wrote $500 in the tip column.  I used Frederick’s swipe card in order to approve the large tip.  Then I closed the check to be sure the amount would clear, and it did.  Instantly, vindication budded.  I went to the man at the corner table and placed the checkbook in front of him.

“Sign it,” I said.

“What’ta hell is this?” he said.

“Sign it,” I said sternly.

“Where’s…wallet?”

“After you sign.”

And he scratched his name in a wild motion, not looking at the tip or total.  When he was done he held the pen up to me like I was his daddy.

The woman returned while diddling with her cell phone.  She grew wary of my presence, standing stiff at the table’s edge.

“Honey, what’s going on?”  She clutched her handbag closely.

“I knew I recognized him,” I said to her.  “You were walking down the street last night.  This street out front.  I saw you.  Someone bashed me on the neck and stole my wallet.”  Then I held up the wallet.

“That’s mine,” the man said, snatching at the air with a lethargic hand.

“You shut your mouth before I crack your goddamn skull,” I said with intense focus, staring him down like a dog.  “You sit there and pray I don’t call the cops.”

Frederick appeared from the kitchen.  He was concerned.

“Go lock the front door,” I told him.  “I’m serious, Fred.”

He went and locked it.

“So you’re saying my boyfriend stole your wallet?  Are you serious?  Why would he steal your wallet?” she said to me like I was a poor peasant.

“Your boyfriend jumped out of the bushes and bashed me.  How else would he have my wallet?”

“Maybe you have the same type of wallet!” she said as the intensity of the matter was now absorbed.  She was anxious and complaining, “Just because you have the same type of wallet doesn’t mean–”

“Stop!”  I cut in.  “It’s the same wallet.  It’s my wallet.  You see this?  An oil stain from me sticking my damn thumb on it.  That’s what this is.  You see that scuff here?  That’s from my thumbnail, same thumb.  I did this.  You don’t believe me?  Then I’ll call the cops.”

This backed her up.  She sat down on the chair in contemplation.  Then she looked at her boyfriend who was wilting in his seat.

“How can you be sure it was him that did it?  Maybe he found the wallet on the sidewalk where you got mugged?”

“I recognize him,” I said dead-eyeing her.

“Well, sure, now you do.”

“I don’t care what you think.  I’ll bet you two went out the other night and tied one on like tonight.  I’ll bet you fought then too.  I’ll bet he doesn’t even remember most of it.  Maybe he does.”

“So what are you saying?  Are you waiting for the cops?  Is that why you locked us in?”

My body was still trembling.  Half of me was glad the man was so drunk he was incapacitated, but the other half of me wished it were only the two of us, and not his woman there, so I could take him in the back and bash his head properly.  But that was irrational thinking.  It was how the naïve reacted.  I wasn’t a kid any more.  I knew better than to stir a pot that would only catch up to me later.  Now I believed it was more appropriate to take the sting of unfortunate circumstances and move forward in spite of them.

“I’ve run his credit card for the amount of the check.  I put in five hundred dollars for a tip.”

She took a breath inward.

“That’s mine to keep.  He stole my wallet with hundreds of dollars in it.  Those were my tips from the other night.  I worked for those goddamn tips.  But he took them.  So I’ll take five hundred and when his credit card company calls, if they call, he’ll say it’s fine.  He’ll do that because I’ve got all this on him.  And whenever I want, I can call the cops and turn him in.”

“No you can’t,” she said.  “You have no proof it was my boyfriend that hit you and stole your money.”  She was petting his hair now, standing over him and holding him like a child.

“Oh really?” I said and smiled so that my cheeks quivered with nervousness.  “Check his ankle.  Lift up his pants and under his sock look at his ankle.”

“Which ankle?”

“I have no idea.  Just look.”

“I have no idea…” she repeated, shaking her head as she lifted his right pant leg and lowered the sock.  There was a gash, dried with dark blood, and two smaller gashes near it.

“My fingernails,” I said, and went to her and put my fingers in her face so that she pulled her head back to focus.  “Blood.  See that underneath the nails?  I couldn’t get it all out.  Now I’m glad I didn’t.”

She looked down, and after a reflective moment, at me in concession.

“Now what?” she said.

“I already closed the charge receipt.  I take the five hundred and put it in my pocket.  I keep my wallet.  And I’ll keep his I.D.  You can have the credit cards and such.  Because I’m no thief.”

I knew the whole blood under the nails thing was a stretch.  There were no witnesses to the mugging, and no sane cop was going to spend time and energy trying to prove an old bartender in stinking rich La Jolla had gotten jumped.  But I’d watched enough television, as I knew she had.  We were a society of duped television lovers.  We believed what we saw, and we were lesser for it.

The man was passed out, face down on the tabletop, his pant leg still up over his knee and the sock down at his ankle.

“Fred, call a cab,” I said to him at the kitchen door.  He nodded and disappeared behind it.  Then he came back and said, “I’ll just hail one.  It’ll be faster.”  He unlocked the door and went outside.

“I’m sorry,” she said listlessly.  “I had no idea.”

“We’ll forget this ever happened,” I said.  “I’ve got my wallet back, and the money he owes me.  The extra money is for my injuries.”  I bent over to show her my neck, and then pulled my shirt out so she could see my bruised ribs.  “See this?  And this?  He did this.  People get drunk and fight and do stupid things.  If you want to do stupid things you should do them to each other, not a guy minding his business watching a beautiful girl walk up the street.”

“What?” she said.

“Never you mind.”

Frederick came in and motioned that the cab had arrived.  The woman tried to wake her boyfriend.  Frederick tried to help.  So I cocked back and slapped the man violently across the back of the head so that he wobbled it in confusion.  Frederick was young and strong and I was glad.  He lifted the man and carried him out while the woman walked along the other side with the tip of his elbow in her hand in support.  Within minutes, the taxi sped off down the street.

“What the hell was that all about?” Frederick asked.

I stood at the register, my back to him, while doing my cash out.

“Never you mind.”

“But Hank.  The owners…”

“It’s all right here,” I said, pointing to the video surveillance cameras, “And here,” and I held up my hand, the fingernails of dried blood out for him to see.

“I don’t get it,” he said.

“They don’t pay you enough to be a chef and manager at the same time, Fred,” I said.  And then my lower back started and I cringed and held the counter so that the sharp pain would pass.  “And they don’t pay me enough to wreck my goddamn back.”

“So what do we do?” he said and I could hear him lighting a cigarette.  “What do we do, Hank?”

“Go pour yourself one,” I said and finally turned, motioning to the bottles on the bar.  “I need you to open the safe.  I’ve got a cash-due.  There isn’t enough in my register to pull out this tip.”

I smiled big and ridiculously.

Afterward, when the lights were down and the place grew cold I apologized to Frederick for the rude way had I ordered him around.  He patted me on the shoulder, still marveling over the coincidence of my recent events.  I poured the tequila into our glasses.  We sat at the same corner table where the couple had been, drinking until our heads began to swivel and sag.  The aches in my neck and ribs were gone.  It was only the soreness in my back that lingered.  But that was the job.  I expected this.  Though every now and again there were deep concerns, where I would go and what I would do when real old age set in and my body was no longer capable.  But they passed, as did the night.

S&R Fiction: "A Few Words With God" by Teresa Milbrodt

I eat a cherry pop-tart and try not to get crumbs on yesterday’s New York Times. My girlfriend gives me her copies because she says it’s good for me to know more about the world since I don’t watch TV. I’ve never been a reader so I’m happy when the phone rings, but it’s my brother. His voice is choked and staccato like he’s been crying.

He says, God told me you were going to die.

God told you I was going to die? I say.

Sometimes I have to repeat things to my brother to make sure I understand him. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia ten years ago when he was twenty.

You’re going to die, he says. You’re going to die.

Everyone dies eventually, I say, but my heart beats a little faster. My brother hears voices all the time, even God, but those voice usually don’t say anything about me or make him cry.

He says you’re going to die soon, very soon, my brother wails. Continue reading

S&R Fiction: "Mile 127" by Joseph Lambach

So, they’re all just sitting there. Looking into the camera. She – Lisa – has that smile I know so well.

But that’s only because we have history.

Not to be too pragmatic, or over-zealous, or somehow say that there was real-life no-shit chemistry, because there wasn’t. To say that wouldn’t be the truth.

But that’s kind of a lie too.

Because boys and girls, men and women, we all can’t be just friends. Those relationships just can’t be platonic.

But that’s just one of those points I think I need to point out. Just because. You know, it sort of defines who I am.

To a certain extent.

But, that’s irrelevant I guess. Continue reading