Beate Sigriddaughter, www.sigriddaughter.com, lives and writes in New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment.
A DAY IN LOVE IN SAN FRANCISCO
By Beate Sigriddaughter
Joanne woke up early on the last Saturday of her vacation. The only trouble was she had told Kathleen that the best time to call her on the landline of the folks where she was staying would be between nine and ten in the morning. Or between five and six at night. She hadn't brought a cell phone this time. Now she didn’t dare leave the house before ten o’clock. She wanted to go to the ocean. The ocean would have to wait.
With a sigh and a book of short stories, Joanne settled down in the rocking chair by the window. Only to find she couldn’t concentrate on any of the stories. What long-forgotten luxury to be unable to concentrate! She kept looking at her watch. Minute after minute passed, as though time had become animated. At ten o’clock, even regret felt sweet.
At the ocean, sun and wind and water were too exciting for her restless condition. She boarded another bus and headed back into the city. Passing through Kathleen’s neighborhood filled Joanne with so much fresh yearning that she surprised herself at not bursting in some manner. A young man sat down next to her, clutching a broom between his knees.
“You should have flown and saved yourself the bus fare,” Joanne said.
“I have too many parcels,” the young man explained. “I don’t think I could have balanced them all flying.”
Joanne went into a music store to look for the impossible. The day before she had hunted through a number of stores for her favorite version of Vivaldi’s Gloria to give to Kathleen. In vain. Now Joanne played an on-the-spot gamble with life: if I find the album here and now, then I will see her again. Risky, of course, to approach fate on those terms.
Inside the store, lovely music played, haunting melodies of synthesized flutes. And there, dear life, was the album she had been looking for. Joanne bought it at once, lest it, and her private commitment from fate, should vanish if she did not immediately claim it. Her mind, however, was already floating on the new music around her. The clerk at the sales desk, not at all surprised at her instant enchantment, invited her to stay in the store a while to listen. Joanne wandered around the aisles slowly, from time to time absent-mindedly touching a CD sleeve. Her mind was captured in the music. After a long time, reluctantly, she left.
She bought a bag of fortune cookies to bring back home for colleagues at the office, and black unembroidered Chinese slippers for a friend who liked to wear them all summer. She saw a very old lady at a street corner, looking down the steep hill ahead of her.
“Are you going down that way?” the lady asked.
“No,” Joanne said. “Why?”
“I’m afraid of that hill,” the lady explained. “If you were going that way, I would ask you to let me hold on to your arm.”
“I’m going that way now." Joanne held out her arm.
At the bottom of the long hill they simply kept on walking arm in arm until they reached the lady’s destination, a restaurant. Joanne liked the grip of the gloved hand on her own.
“I’ve lived in this city for a hundred years,” the woman said.
Joanne laughed. Eighty or ninety perhaps, she thought. Joanne loved the stories her companion told her. Marriage. Children. Grandchildren. Now lunch with friends. There was the restaurant. Good-bye.
Joanne ate a taco salad at a far less elegant restaurant and wrote a postcard to a friend who had some years ago dedicated his first book to her in sublimation of other things. At first the young man had been worried Joanne might think he was gay, only to find out in the effort of clarifying this that she was gay instead, so that nothing could be done except establish a friendship and dedicate a book. Joanne mailed the postcard and bought the largest bottle of Kahlua she could find for the couple who had give her their spare room for two weeks, and with her day’s booty she went back to her temporary home.
The phone woke Joanne from a nap. It wasn’t for her.
She began working on a play about Callisto and Artemis, which she had hoped to write during her vacation and which was not anywhere near completion. Three hours later, she was exhausted and exhilarated, wanting to race out into the sunny remnant of the day. It was a quarter to five, though, and perhaps Kathleen would call her between five and six. Kathleen had said she would call today. Luckily Kathleen had no phone, either landline or cell phone, otherwise Joanne might have been tempted to call her, when it was only fair that Kathleen should have the privilege of nervousness and deliberation about calling. Or not calling. Joanne started reading again.
At six o’clock, Joanne closed her book and put on her jacket. It might get windy and cold at the beach. She went out to catch the sunset and then felt as though the sunset were catching her instead.
She walked down on the sand and watched the scintillating play of light and water.
How life loves us, she thought. The light on water always comes to us.
Never before had she made it conscious to herself that the stream of rays that came down from the low sun and touched the water in its brilliance like a beam of liquid, quivering light would actually follow her along every step of her walk. In fact, her eyes and the sun and the water were in love with each other, communicating by some sacred trick of light. Good to know that the light followed the other beach walkers the same way, like a holy interaction of matter and mind. And then there was a garland of birds, dark with distance, flying, eight, nine, ten in a row across the crest of the waves. It was too much. Joanne took off her shoes and socks, rolled up her jeans to her knees, and ran out into the chilly water.
Sometimes a capricious wave surprised her and she jumped. Too late to keep the seat of her jeans dry altogether. For a while then Joanne would walk closer to the rim of the water where the largest waves barely touched the sand. A little while later, though, it would happen all over. She would wade deeper, and the mischief of another wave would catch her once again, half evaded, half invited, and exactly on target.
This is like me and Kathleen, she told herself. This is like making love. Going closer. Then being surprised. Then withdrawing and cautiously tiptoeing the border again for a while. The unpredictable waves, according to inscrutable patterns of their own, came closer, higher or lower, reached not at all or splashed wildly.
Now Joanne was thoroughly wet. Now everything would be all right. The waves played their own pattern. Like Kathleen, like Joanne, played each their own. The liquid light of the sinking sun was more predictable. It kept following Joanne around, loyal like a puppy.
Joanne began singing in the safe roar of wind and water. She remembered a tall black woman in the choir years ago, warbling her haunting soprano high up. To be able to do that, Joanne had thought at the time, would mean being saved from melancholy for the rest of one's life. All you’d have to do in times of danger would be to sing, just like that. But at the ocean, and alone, far less skill was necessary.
Joanne remembered Kathleen at the bar when they had just met, striking up a fencing game of erudition. Henry James, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Flannery O’Connor. Etc. Joanne unearthed bits and pieces of almost forgotten knowledge for the occasion. Once I too was an intellectual, she wanted to say, but suppressed the futile boasting. And then Joanne remembered the moment when she had looked at Kathleen’s beautiful lips, forming words, and together with her eyes, forming Kathleen’s marvelous smile and the soft flame that spread through Joanne’s chest. As sort of, my God, I would like to touch her and kiss her and hold her. The flash of surprise at the bright feeling after two years of distance, two years of coming to terms with being alone and learning not to be lonely, of wanting to be with a woman but finding none to kindle a flame beyond friendship. Then suddenly the magic, Kathleen.
Later, listening to music, it had been Kathleen who took the first awkward risk by asking, “May I touch your shoulder?”
“Oh, please do,” Joanne had mumbled, then, mending her ways, repeated more loudly.
The hand on her shoulder, the fingers on her neck, in her hair. The utter sweetness of being touched.
And now the water at her feet, at her knees, and higher, cold, delicious, making her smile.
The sun at last set. The last of the orange fire was swallowed up in mist a little ways above the horizon. Someone at the stone wall behind Joanne clapped hands in applause.
I should do that too, Kathleen thought, but didn’t. She hummed a song to the sun instead. Until tomorrow, she finally whispered. She walked up to the wall and the pavement behind it and found a bench to sit on while cleaning the salt sand from her feet. She made it all the way back to her room without stopping to speak to anyone.
At 9:30 p.m. the telephone rang. A surge of feeling suddenly. Kathleen? So late?
Someone else answered the phone. And it wasn’t Kathleen. I’m sorry it wasn’t you, Kathleen, Joanne whispered to her pillow later on. In two days she would leave. This was the last night they cold have, might have, spent together in peace.
Joanne hugged her pillow and tried to define emotions. Regret? A little. Sorrow? Not much. Joy? Oh yes. And respect. If Kathleen hadn’t called, she had a reason not to. If Kathleen hadn’t been, Joanne wouldn’t have felt the gentle splendor of this day, wouldn’t have broken out of the formidable circle of being, more often than not, in love one way or another, while wondering if she would ever again feel free enough to touch. Kathleen had given her a sign.
May life bless you, Kathleen, Joanne whispered. May the cats hissing at each other outside the window pick up the message and carry it across the roofs.
Joanne fell asleep to dreams of orange flames licking up shapes like tall flowers.
Bill Pieper, who lives and writes in Northern California, is a voyeur and exhibitionist, key attributes for making fiction. He is also a member of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and has studied both creative writing and philosophy at Sacramento State University.
Stories by Bill have appeared in the Blue Lake Review, Red Fez, Farallon Review, Primal Urge and elsewhere. Links to his 2014 collection Forgive Me, Father and other published work can be found at:http://www.authorsden.com/billpieper
BY BILL PIEPER
CAMPUS PLAZA ARMS, the sign said. RESTORED AND REMODELED. He was in Berkeley, on the way to his car from an afternoon tennis match, where his nephew had played for the visiting team. Stepping into the subdued, Maybeck-style lobby, he let his eyes adjust and noticed a young woman at the desk. “Got a restroom I could use?”
“Only if you’re touring our model condos.” Her smile and tone implied a wink. She had arresting eyes, an indescribable blue-green, with clear, pale skin and a flowing head of dark blonde hair.
“Great, I love tours,” he said, deadpan, holding up crossed fingers.
She laughed and pointed down the hall. “No one’ll be here when you come out. I have another job to get to.”
Minutes later, cutting through a parking lot behind the building, he heard the clatter of women’s heels over his shoulder. It was her. “Long time, no see,” he joked.
She now had an oversize Prada bag and a filmy lavender scarf draped at her neck. In a waft of citrus perfume, she nodded and eased by, stopping at a baby-blue Jaguar convertible that gleamed in the April sunlight.
“On a receptionist’s salary,” he said, figuring her father must own the place, “that’s quite the car.”
“Just bought it…used, and I have two other jobs.” She fished around in the purse and got out her keys and sunglasses.
“Oh, the big bucks.” He was trying for light irony.
“Yeah, in a way.” She smiled again, more with her face than her mouth, pinning her eyes on him. “Sometimes men pay me to go out. Men I like, that is.”
He didn’t avoid her glance and didn’t sense he was blushing, but his voice momentarily failed and an odd tingling crept up his torso. When he did speak, the tinny sound seemed supplied by a ventriloquist. “You suppose I could be one of them?”
“Possible,” she said, as if reading his mind. “Let’s have coffee sometime and find out.”
In thirty-five years with Mary, Tom had never engaged in such a thing, yet he knew other men did, although in his set they only dropped hints. And what he felt right now wasn’t about Mary. It was about him. He loved Mary, was proud of her, in fact, as a wife, a mom and as a person. But at his age, would a chance like this come again? Not one last fling. One fling, with a lovely creature, and pay-to-play meant no entanglements. “OK,” he said, “where?”
“Four to eight, I’m at Essencia, the fragrance boutique on Union Square. Just drop in. I get breaks.” She took a quick glance at the Cartier watch on her wrist. “Yikes! Got to run!” Grabbing the car door, she climbed in, her hair swirling at the base of her neck.
Initially, her frankness had shocked him, but as Tom thought about it, he must represent her ideal demographic: the vigorous older man, hair gone silver, but body still showing the benefit of workouts at his club, and obviously not impoverished.
Part of a package, he realized, that put him among the lucky few. How else to explain the callow English major with a few undergrad writing prizes who’d had just enough tech savvy to catch on early at Didactic, in the North Bay, now the US leader in tax prep software. The writing he did there, documentation for the most part, wasn’t the glam sort, but he’d amassed a wall of industry awards, stock options, a tasty salary and a nice house outside San Raphael.
But she was younger than his daughter, for God’s sake, and the whole thing was risky and absurd. Still, within days, testosterone beat back his doubts and he headed to Essencia, where she flicked her eyes at him, smiled and found an excuse to have her boss take the other waiting customer. She looked smashing, too, with the scarf now wound into her hair. Making a fuss over some samples on glossy display cards, she glanced at his ring and said, “Take this one, your wife will love it,” on the back of which she’d written, “Starbucks, Maiden Lane.”
Her arrival there, after ten minutes, led to his giving the borrowed name he’d already decided to use, Jack Mars, plus a further borrowing of Jack’s occupation, novelist, an alter-ego Tom had fantasized about. The name she gave was Lily, which he assumed equally false. She also swooned at wanting one of his books, whispered in his ear the “gift” she expected, and wrote her cell number on a napkin, with the underlined words “Text Only.” During the rest of their banter over lattes, she said she’d been a “wild child” growing up.
Back at the office he checked his calendar to find room for an invented evening meeting and texted her to set their first date the following week. As for the real Jack Mars, Tom knew the guy had three crime novels out, was so averse to being photographed that Google couldn’t find one, and lived in an undisclosed corner of the Bay Area, with some kind of day job under a different name. His bio, in fact, was why Tom wanted to impersonate him, as though Jack’s hybrid success called Tom’s own into question. And to round things out, Tom had a copy of Backwater, Jack’s earliest title, cradled in his arm when Lily and the Jag, right on time, rolled up to the Cliff House, the place he’d suggested for dinner.
She was a Pinot Grigio girl he soon learned, and to make her feel knowledgeable, he ordered the same, and with the surf churning and sloshing beneath their window, did again when she chose scallops from the menu. The book, meanwhile, was a hit, pioneering a series of little items—chocolate truffles or artsy costume jewelry tucked into tiny decorative boxes from Chinatown—that he brought whenever they were together.
“So Jack’s your real name?” she had teased, thumbing the pages.
“No, Jack’s real name isn’t public. Lots of writers do it.”
“Yeah, Nora Roberts has a bunch of them. Will I like this?”
“Tell me next time.”
“Not unless I get an autograph.” That caused him a gulp, but there was a thrill in signing the flyleaf, “To Lily – Jack.”
The sex, in a water-view room at a hotel some blocks away, had been near euphoric. Not as inventive or spontaneous as he remembered from college or from when he and Mary were dating, but nothing like mechanical.
So from his standpoint, God bless Viagra! And when he moaned an exhausted offer of praise, her smile came with a blithe, “I’m good at what I do.” Nonetheless, condoms were mandatory— “no bareback,” as she put it—and her purse always held a supply of the most deluxe kind. He also noticed on future dates that everything became more natural for both of them, including kissing. “It’s the G.F.E.,” she told him. “Girlfriend experience.”
But sex wasn’t his only memory from that night. Before they’d left the restaurant, while the waves outside continued to slosh and churn, Jack’s book received a further appreciative glance as it disappeared into her purse. “I guess that’s Prada too,” Tom had said.
“No, no,” she laughed, extending her wrist. “My bags and shoes are all knock-offs. So’s this watch.”
“They’re damn realistic,” he added, embarrassed.
“Raj brings them from Hong Kong.”
“My steady guy.”
Like a clumsy poker player, Tom must have shown a tell, because she prodded his arm and again laughed, a giggle, actually. “I’m not allowed to have one?”
“Sure, but it surprised me, and…”
“Because of my night job,” she interrupted. “Like he doesn’t know?”
“Sorry, none of my business.” He lifted both palms in supplication.
“Well, he travels a lot, really a lot, so it’s not a problem.”
And in the Jag, during a top-down ride she’d given him from the Cliff House to the hotel along Ocean Beach, he handed her $500 in a plain envelope. She didn’t bother to open or count it, just a polite nod as the envelope also went in her purse, setting another pattern. From then on, no direct mention of money arose between them, as if both wanted the same illusion.
Tom eventually learned, through a business journalist he knew, that Raj’s father owned Campus Plaza Arms and a worldwide portfolio of other properties. The father and son were known to have sharp elbows and to move in Mumbai mafia circles, but had no proven ties. For his part, Raj managed several of the properties, which explained how Lily’s part-time job included a rent-free unit. She even joked with Tom, over one of their dinners, that since both she and Raj were entrepreneurs, she should have a career goal, and had decided on “trophy wife.” Her own father was from Serbia, she said, with strong Old World attitudes, and he worked as a stationary engineer somewhere out past Richmond.
Additional dates, at six-to-eight week intervals, took them to a number of shore-side venues, plus an afternoon escape at the Claremont Hotel and another in Tilden Park, when they’d cruised Grizzly Peak Boulevard in the Jag to an isolated grove for champagne and outdoor sex. This couldn’t possibly be happening to a sixty-three-year-old, yet it was, paid for with a credit card linked to the mutual fund his black-sheep uncle had left him years ago. The old dog would probably approve, for that matter, and Tom only felt guilty about how little guilt he did feel, as if Mary, their married son, Mark, and Tina, their grown daughter, were in some separate compartment, where his happy, normal life simply went on as before.
But on his fourth outing with Lily, she introduced a new topic. “I have a story for you… one Jack should write.”
He already knew she liked Jack’s hardboiled characters and plots, and had given her a second autographed book, but his internal alarm went off. “What kind of story?”
“My story,” she said, “about my family and my wild years and how my mother got shot.”
“Sounds pretty heavy.”
“Yeah, it is, but I know you get me, and I think you can handle it.”
“Was she killed?”
“Yes, that’s the biggest thing. A drive-by, at home in Vallejo when I was fifteen.”
“My God, Lily, that’s terrible.”
And it was, in every way. Her younger brother had been out front working on his new bike when two thugs showed up and tried to steal it. He said no and yelled for his mom. Lily, then an honor student, was in the back bedroom studying and her dad was at work. She heard nothing until shots went off, by which time her mother had gone out just as a car roared by, filled with muzzle flashes. Her brother was wounded and her mother, dead.
The brother recovered, but Lily and her father were devastated. Grief, survivor’s guilt and depression, the whole load. The brother rallied to take care of their dad, emotionally at least, and later moved to Benicia with him. But by then, Lily had run away, lived in homeless camps, inevitably got into drugs, mainly pills, plus downscale prostitution and a smattering of arrests, punctuated by respites with her disapproving family, a sequence lasted until she was twenty. The killers themselves were never caught, since no one would risk pointing a finger. Finally, her father offered to pay for rehab at a place in Napa, and she accepted.
Yet somehow, the vivacious, charming Lily that Tom knew had emerged from those horrors, and to an amazing extent, seemed free of shame. “I took a long time,” she told him, “to realize it was easier for my brother because he got shot too. For my dad and me, there was only guilt.” Since getting clean, she’d visited her family now and then, but more recently, had been cut off by her father because to him, Raj was black, and just as bad, not Christian.
“But I’m still not a throw-away person,” she said.
"No, of course not,” Tom replied, “and it’s a hell of a story. I don’t have a clue on approaching it.”
“Oh, Jack will find a way,” she said, with a certainty that made him feel he’d just shrunk by half a foot. “And promise you’ll let me read it first. You can publish, I won’t ask for any changes, but I read it first.”
“OK, deal,” he assured her. What else could he do?
So, out of the blue, his fantasy job became an assignment, a messy, intricate one, and his first tactic was to stall. She kept bringing it up when they met or when he texted her for a date, but he explained that Jack had a contract for a new book and was overdue on getting it to his agent. Or should he have said publisher? Either way, the notion that he had an agent made her more eager than ever.
And he ultimately did start writing, with his wife’s encouragement, no less. Thinking ahead to Tom’s retirement, Mary liked the idea that he would pursue something he’d openly dreamed about, which then led her to plan a girls-only visit with their daughter in Portland, giving him a whole weekend to have at it. All Mary knew was that he suddenly had a concept and there was a murder involved, which was apparently all she wanted to know.
With the house to himself, a seemingly endless hour of facing his keyboard and a nearly blank screen left Tom texting Lily an invitation to Tahoe, but she’d been unavailable because Raj was in town. Meaning that Tom, trapped at his desk and steering by the seat of his pants, fortified with Lagunitas pilsner and a bottle of good Pinot Noir, had no choice but to spin out words. A big f-ing struggle too, one part exhilaration and two parts, a pervasive fear that he’d get nowhere. Worse yet, reading the thing could freak Lily out and wreck their arrangement.
He pounded his skull over that, and after three false starts finally hit on making her the hero, who he named Kari, with the action a series of flashbacks to the killing and to her time as a runaway, told from inside Kari’s head while she’s in rehab. Basically, Kari cures herself and never cooperates with the counselors or staff. Her sole focus is cleaning up and getting out of there on her own terms, and at the end, she does. All of which amounted to the first honest-to-God fiction he’d written since college, and with Lily as muse.
Tom did several more evenings of work on it after Mary returned, and within two weeks had a 5,500-word draft. He’d warned Lily that Jack was a slow writer, but had already used all his slack and owed her a copy. No luck on coming up with a title either, so he finally sent a message about meeting at a hotel in the Berkeley marina. “Yes, C U then,” she texted back, which, like its predecessors, he used an app to delete, erasing any discoverable trail.
On the agreed night, Tom hid a stapled manuscript under his napkin at the dockside restaurant. Sunset and an adjoining forest of sailboat masts provided the main décor as he nursed a glass of Pinot Gri, and he’d just re-checked the time before Lily swept in, smiling and confident. A pair of designer sunglasses tipped into her hair accented a burgundy-toned summer skirt that turned more heads than just his.
“Sorry I’m late.” She settled next to him and stowed an apparently new oversized bag on a vacant chair. “The Jag’s down and out. I had to get a cab.”
He half-stood as a welcome and projected his voice. “Well, look at my winsome niece, all grown up.” It was their agreed cover, and given the stir she had just caused, he figured a reminder couldn’t hurt.
She twinkled her eyes. “But my uncle needs to drive me back.”
“No problem,” he said.
Once she got her wine and they’d ordered, he asked about the Jag. “Engine quit,” she answered. “Smoke and a big grinding noise.”
“The Ashby off-ramp.” She sipped from her glass. “Lost bearings, they said. “Bad.” She tried to recover her smile, but failed.
“How long till it’s ready?”
“I had the bank take it. No way could I afford the fix.”
“God, I’ll miss the thing,” Tom said, remembering the joy of their Tilden Park picnic.
“Me too. A super thrill, but BART’s outside my door and I save big on living costs.”
“That’s something,” he said, and lifted his napkin. “This might cheer you up too.” He held out the manuscript.
Suddenly beaming, she sat forward. “Wow! And by Jack Mars!”
“Untitled draft, like the cover says.”
“Can I peek?”
“Of course, it’s for you.”
She paged ahead, skimming, but clearly not reading. Behind her the sky had dimmed, with lights starting to flare on the beacon marking the jetty. Tom waited nervously, keeping silent as long as he could. “Hope it doesn’t crush you with bad memories,” he said.
“No, I’ll be OK,” though her eyes seemed larger now, and sad. “In rehab, they made me relive the details over and over. I won’t really plow into this till later, but I’m so happy you wrote it.” Drawing a breath, she brightened again. “My best surprise ever, and upstairs, I have one for you.”
Out on their little balcony, he wrapped her in his arms, pressing against her back and kissing her neck, the darkened bay forming a stage-set beyond them. She then led him to the bed and produced a wrinkled little joint. “I’ll take a hit if you do,” she said, and this version of her smile held a dare. He hesitated, then said, “OK,” and she gave a cooing laugh. “First time in years,” he shrugged. “It’s not real strong,” she added, handing him a lighter.
As they tumbled together under the sheets, skin-to-skin, she was notably hungry and responsive. Only later did he realize that he hadn’t taken his Viagra, but it didn’t matter. He was instantly hard and stayed hard, and once she’d teased him to his limit, allowing only brief thrusts, she wildly wrapped around him he came like a hydrant. He felt transported. Sure, it was partly the dope, yet he was still on-task enough when they were done to drive his Audi sport coupe up University Avenue, even if the proportions of the crosswalk lines and traffic light stanchions took on a shifting, Escher-like quality.
Unexpectedly, half a block from Campus Plaza, she had him pull to the curb. “Let’s say goodbye here and not start rumors.” Leaning over, she kissed him as sweetly as he could remember being kissed and pushed into his hand the envelope he’d given her in the elevator to their room. “I really had fun tonight, so it’s my treat.”
He was stunned. “No, keep that. It’s yours.”
“I don’t need it right now. Besides, I have this.” She tilted her purse so he could see the white of the paper. “Proof that I’m not just a toy…that you take me seriously.” Close to his ear she whispered, “Another thing, my real name is Sofia Volkovic and my mother was Ilana. There’s lots of details in the online Chronicle that might help Jack’s next draft.” She lightly pecked his cheek, opened the door and slid out.
Back in Marin, Mary was asleep when he tiptoed into their bedroom. Tom had already showered and could put on his PJs and crawl in, but he was too conflicted. His head still held the vision of a much younger woman, golden-pink in the mirror, happily humming as she reached in her bag for clean panties and re-primped from the steamy rinse she always took before it was his turn. He reversed into the hall, the sound of Mary’s steady breathing a string of accusations that followed him to his darkened office, a room that for years had sheltered their daughter’s innocence. Not reaching for the switch, he sat in silent moonlight broken by grotesque tree shadows from the yard.
At some point, though, he booted his computer, went to SFGate, and the Ilana Volkovic of a previous decade came right up—an obituary photo plus dozens of other mentions. Sofia, still wearing braces, was shown among the surviving family, along with a bandaged Petro, her brother, and their father, Ivo, in shell-shocked grief. As he scrolled around, everything tracked with what Lily/Sofia—he no longer knew how to think of her—had told him.
And later, as he struggled toward a guilty sleep in the aura of Mary’s warmth, could it be that Lily—he forced himself to block out poor, damaged Sophia—was at that same moment huddled under a lamp reading the faux Jack Mars take on the whole tragic business?
Anxious, he waited through the next day and finally left messages asking for feedback, but from her reaction at the restaurant, his main worry wasn’t that she’d be traumatized. What was at stake was their balance of pretense, that both their aliases always seem real. Except she, at least temporarily, had vacated hers, and by now his writing might have tipped her that his Jack persona was a fraud too.
“My God, Tom,” Mary said at dinner later that week, “what’s eating you?” She’d always kept in shape, and recently had her hair re-died its natural brown and cut into a longish bob, surprising him with how much younger she looked.
“Oh, sorry,” he said. “Big project at work and lots of killer deadlines.”
“Don’t you have people to help with that?”
“Not the right people,” he said. And he did love her. It’s just that he wanted this life and that other life too—a beautiful companion, the Jag, sex, a sense of youth.
“Hope it doesn’t mess up our trip to Hawaii with the kids.”
“I won’t let it,” he promised. Except that was a month away, and not nearly as much on his mind as it ought to be.
Lily had simply not responded, not to his texts or to the subsequent voicemails he left, virtually in desperation. If Jack had been unmasked, wouldn’t she at least challenge him on it? Or did his deception amount to some final insult, something to push her over the brink? But really, why would she doubt Jack? Tom had faithfully copied the guy’s style.
More likely Raj was in town again, and she’d gone somewhere with him, or perhaps with another, well, client. She’d told him that all the girls she knew in high-end retail had sugar daddies. Otherwise, it was impossible to live decently on what those stores paid. Suddenly, though, both those ideas troubled him, when they never did before.
The following Friday he left work early and drove to Essencia, on the assumption she’d be there. But she wasn’t, nor was the store itself. Only empty windows papered with banners saying FOR LEASE. He went to the Starbucks where they’d talked, and the goateed barrista told him Essencia had closed suddenly the prior week and he didn’t know any of the former employees. That meant Lily had been cut loose just after their last date.
He tried calling again in the hope that she’d pick up, and was shocked to hear a beeping announcement: “We’re sorry, this number is no longer in service.” To be certain, he held on, letting the mechanical voice repeat and repeat in his ear.
By mid-morning Saturday he was winging it even more with Mary, again by leaning on the big project he’d made up as an excuse. He pushed the Audi hard across the San Raphael Bridge, staying alert for the CHP, with Berkeley in his sights. On her normal schedule Lily would be at the lobby desk from 10 till 2, and he absolutely had to know what happened. Was she all right? Did she hate him? Was it the manuscript? Did that make him responsible?
With parking, at least, he had luck, and found a vacant meter almost in front of Campus Plaza. It was another bright California day, and the lobby’s Tiffany lamps were dim as ever, so his eyes needed to adjust. But as they did, she was there, blonde and glamorous, a lavender scarf draped at her neck.
“Hi,” he called. “It’s great to see you.”
“Sorry,” she answered, and in the wrong voice. “Do we know each other?”
It wasn’t Lily, and when he drew closer, the chin, the eyes and the forehead were wrong too. “Oh, you’re not…not…Sophia,” he said.
“She doesn’t live or work here anymore.” Her tone was cool and smooth.
Tom felt his ribcage compress. “What about Raj? Can I talk to him?”
“He’s not in.” She now had a pitying smile.
“Then I’ll leave a message.” Tom reached for the notepad on the desk.
“No need to bother. You’re one of her gentlemen, right? Raj won’t talk to you.”
“What do you mean, he won’t talk to me?” Tom looked down at her, and sitting in a partially open desk drawer to her left was a shiny, new Prada bag to go with the delicate watch on her wrist.
“Trust me,” she said. “He won’t.”
Heading back to the freeway on University Avenue, Tom was determined to find her, even if the obvious leads had produced nothing. But all he could come up with was tracking down her father, and that could backfire. He didn’t know the man, he had no connection to Sophia that Ivo Volkovic could possibly accept, which would make things worse if she did contact her family. Shit! Because of the manuscript, maybe he was responsible.
No. How could he be? The timing was terrible, but Essencia and Raj were pursuing their own ends and she got caught in the gears. He reached the freeway’s entry lane, about to head home, when a fresh thought hit. Veering left, he stayed on University through the overpass and into the marina, remembering the big parking area near the pier. A bit to the north stood the hotel where he’d last seen her—where they’d last made love. He stopped opposite one of the bayside walking paths to wake up his phone.
A quick search told him that Essencia’s other local presence had a Palo Alto address. He knew it was common in retail to absorb trained staff from closed locations, and after several rings, someone picked up. “Can I speak to the manager, please?
“That would be me,” a female voice said.
“I have a question. Did any of the displaced Union Square people end up at your store?”
“Yes, we hired two.”
“Is one of them Sophia Volkovic by chance.”
“I remember the name. She had no way to get here for the shifts available and her background was a bit checkered.”
“Do you know how to reach her?”
“No, I didn’t keep any of that. But I couldn’t tell you even if I had.”
“Yes, of course,” Tom said. Silly question.”
As the call ended, he stared at his phone and kept staring. The plain fact was, he’d been lucky. The manuscript was his to submit for publication regardless, and with that thought, he even had a title: Lost Bearings, like she’d said about the Jag. And what the hell would he be letting himself in for if he did find her?
She wasn’t his sexy Lily. She was Sophia, with no car, no job, no place to live and no family to fall back on. Thank God he was doubly hidden behind Jack. All he’d get from her would be desperation, unending pleas for money, and probably blackmail. Think of the dodgy characters she was used to hanging out with.
Unless she’d secretly read his name from a credit card slip, a remote but still dangerous possibility, this phone was their only remaining link. Palming it, he walked rapidly out on the pier. Amid a whipping breeze and rows of whitecaps, the Golden Gate Bridge stood graceful against a distant fog bank. He’d tell Mary, and everyone else, that the phone had been stolen from his car through a window left carelessly rolled down. Changing his number would be a pain, but not a big deal. When he reached deep water, some fifty yards short of the fishermen clustered at the pier’s end, he dropped the phone on the decking, crushed it with his heel and threw it out sidearm as far as he could, as though he was skipping a stone.
Michael Marrotti is an author from Pittsburgh using words instead of violence to mitigate the suffering of life in a callous world of redundancy. His primary goal is to help other people. He considers poetry to be a form of philanthropy. When he's not writing, he's volunteering at the Light Of Life homeless shelter on a weekly basis. If you appreciate the man's work, please check out his blog:
www.thoughtsofapoeticmind.blogspot.com for his latest poetry and short stories.
PRAYING TO A GOD WHO ISN’T LISTENING
BY MICHAEL MARROTTI
I started off small, selling dime bags of weed. I slowly climbed up the capitalist ladder to eighths, then halves, ounces to pound's. My eyes were color of money. Greed and materialism got the best of me.
I was meeting new people, occasionally getting laid and working my own hours. I didn't have to answer to some asshole boss anymore or put up with stupid customers that brought the establishment all the profit, as I was awarded mere peanuts for the amount of time I had to serve.
No backstabbing co-workers to contend with. No more headache. The bottle of Tylenol, smeared with my fingerprints, is collecting dust. Life is better when you live it your way.
My entire life changed profoundly once I met Braden. He was nothing more than an acquaintance at first. We met through word of mouth. He had a freshly cashed paycheck, I was a dealer. One of my so called friends referred him to me. Everybody is your friend if you have something for them. Anyways, we met up, made an exchange and smoked a joint.
Braden told me how lucrative the heroin market is in the south hills area of Pittsburgh. He said he's clearing over a thousand dollars a week. Then, he made me a proposition. I accepted.
After a month of pushing a new product on my existing customers, they pretty much handed me their paychecks. I became wealthy for the first time in my life. I was making a fortune.
Selling grass is one thing. You can do it, and not worry too much about the repercussions. If you get caught, usually it's no big deal the first couple of times around, depending on how Jewish your lawyer is. The income is a little more than modest, depending on how greedy you are, and also depending on if you get high on your own supply.
You're not going to lose sleep over selling grass to people who smoke bongs, lock doors and order pizza. Grass in my book is considered a benign drug. Pot head's are easy to deal with and laid back. Robbery never even crossed my mind.
I prospered at the expense of my customers physical and mental health. The wardrobe I acquired was excessive to say the least. I had more shoes than any female I knew.
All the latest iPhones and video game systems were at my disposal. The nicest used car on the block belonged to me. Women knew of my wealth, so they flocked to me for a taste. By the end of the night all they tasted was cum. I'd use and abuse them until the next one came along. Bills were never late, and I felt satisfied.
Months later, almost all of my customers started looking like the walking dead. Who the fuck were these people, and what have I done? Zits and sores appeared on their bodies, they would shake as I served them stamp bags. These once funny and vibrant characters have turned into pathetic pieces of shit, and it's all my fault.
Guilt is a new feeling for me, and I must say it's a feeling I despise.
One day I'm walking down Pioneer Avenue on my way to get an energy drink, thinking about how callous and greedy I've become, all in the name of money. I cross over Fordham street, no more than a few blocks away from my destination, only to get jumped and robbed by three junkies. Cocksuckers got my iPhone and four hundred bucks. I didn't even bother fighting back. After all the lives I destroyed, I felt as though I had it coming.
Kicks to ribs, a stolen iPhone, empty pockets and a black eye, triggered the epiphany I was, inevitably, going to experience. I sold my product at a remarkable speed as I lost sleep dwelling on the lives I personally ruined.
I prayed to God for forgiveness every night. Having a guilty conscious was devastating, and I was coming close to the point of a nervous breakdown.
My goal at this point was to flip as much product as possible, stay out of jail, and save up a substantial amount of money. I figured I could take a year off if need be, until something better manifested.
Capitalism has no feelings, no qualms, no compassion. Here I am endorsing this deplorable system. It's all about the arithmetic in America. We're all judged by our wealth, and I reached a point where I can clearly look down.
I've climbed the financial ladder, and I hate myself because of it. These feelings of self loathing only intensified after I received a new package of dope labeled 'Dormont Beat down.'
Junkies were overdosing left and right. One particular death came from my hands. Unbelievable!! I made a hundred bucks and she lost her life.
The girl who perished because of me hates my fucking guts. Dead souls never forgive. I loathe myself for what I have done, and God obviously despises me. All I do anymore is cry and pray. He has yet to answer my prayers, show me mercy or guide my way to a positive place: free of sin. Redemption is an elusive road.
Furious, and in a state of despair, I call Braden to discuss the latest calamity. My voice of concern is met with indifference. Braden tells me it's the name of the dope game. Junkies die, life goes on and nobody cares. I protest against his callous disregard for humanity, as we argue continuously until I hang up.
This ends here. The label "snitch" is a label free of charm. I think of Jesus dying for our sins, as I make an anonymous phone call to the police. Everything they needed to know about Braden was brought into light.
I'm not gonna stand by while some greedy capitalistic fuck prospers from the death of others. Braden isn't the type to get a real job, then again, neither am I. Now neither of us has a choice.
Turning in my supplier and shutting down shop, did nothing to appease the guilt that inflicted my life. I read the bible obsessively hoping to find an answer somewhere in all these words. After a week I came to a couple conclusions: it's time to join the congregation, accept thing's the way they are, and turn my life over to Christ.
The Catholic church, in recent years, has been tarnished due to abstinence. I turn the other cheek towards the left side of the street, down Pioneer Avenue to the Baptist church. This'll do. Let's see what the Baptist's are all about.
It's Sunday morning, bright and early, here I am ready to worship with my fellow Christian brethren. As I walk through the door I'm greeted by a couple superficial people, who hand me a pamphlet. They say "God bless", and I take a seat.
The Baptist's are ultra conservative. My attire is inappropriate. I can feel the judgmental looks by the congregation.
God doesn't care about looks, he cares about devotion, faith, and love. I'm surrounded by pseudo-Christians. After I'm done absorbing the dirty looks, I take in the sights. From the looks of this place, I take it that humility play's a big factor in their beliefs. It's understandable, but does humility have to be so hideous? This place is an eye sore when compared to the Catholic church. I'm already having second thoughts about being here.
The pastor approaches a break in his sermon after ten uncomfortable minutes. He tells us to greet each other. These fine Christians reluctantly shake my hand. I hope they all burn in a lake of fire.
Finally, he starts his sermon again. Humility is the first thing on his holy list.
His rhetoric is good. He's an eloquent speaker. No wonder this place is packed with people pushing themselves off as Christians. He goes on and on about humility. Ok. We get it. All we gotta do is take a look around. This place is the manifestation of humility.
Irony and hypocrisy is next on his list. This pastor has the gull to boast about how he's personally responsible for the increase in membership. To top it off, all his fellow hypocrites are applauding him! I can't believe my eyes. Churches are closing down all over Allegheny county, people are walking away from the teachings of Christ, and it's all making sense.
The money basket is being passed around. I watch as people dig in their pockets, and purses. They aren't being very modest with their donations. All I see is twenty dollars bills being dropped in from every member of this blessed congregation.
Now it's my turn to donate. I can feel the heat radiating off of the others. I can feel their contempt for me. This place is fucked, and should be burned down. I take the basket, and throw it at the guy claiming to be a pastor. People are in shock. They're speechless.
I take it upon myself to say what needs to be said: "This place is a breeding ground for the devil, and should be burned to the fucking ground!" I turn my back on God as I walk out the door.
Her name was Sara Platt. She had a itch that needed to be scratched, and I was the one who assisted her. If I would've known death was to follow, I would've told her no.
She haunts my dreams almost every night. It's always the same. I'm walking in a foot of snow in what appears to be Mt Lebanon. Bloody foot prints are everywhere, and I can hear her screaming my name. I pick up the pace, but I can hear her getting closer screaming about how I killed her. By the time she catches me, and goes to stick her bloody syringe in me, I awake.
I beg God to make it stop.
He's not listening.
Out of loneliness I purchase a tiny, black kitty.
All it took was a little persuasion to turn my so called friends into junkies. I've always had a way with words. This talent awarded me a solitary existence. My state of mental health is prohibiting me from having a relationship, so the cat will have to do for now. It's nice having a hyper little furball running around the apartment, keeping me company in my time of need.
I went to scratch my balls the other day, and the little shit thought it was some kind of game. Fucker attacked my unit. I got a well deserved laugh out of that. Laughing is scarce anymore.
My most recent endeavor has been walking around downtown, finding bums to give c notes to. Some are shocked, others are indifferent. I've only been doing this for a week, but I feel as though I'm making a difference.
That's what it's all about. We're all here to help other people.
I've also been visiting Sara Platt's grave once a week. I sit there for twenty minutes, and beg for forgiveness. I tell her how sorry I am. When I leave, I make sure she's left with a dozen red roses.
God still ignores me.
All these selfish years meant nothing. Time passed as I carried on in my hedonistic ways. Little was learned, besides the ability to become engrossed in a relentless system that takes no prisoners. America will turn you into a piece of shit if you let it. Keeping up with the Jones, embracing materialism, sacrificing time (which is precious) all in the name of success, is the ploy capitalism uses to enslave us. We go out of our way to destroy our neighbors, if need be, just to get ahead. I thought we were supposed to love our neighbors.
The next endeavor I pursued was one that incorporated dialogue. They say you can't change people, but you can influence them. I took it to the streets, talking to anyone who was open minded enough to listen.
I explained how capitalism is destroying social relations, and how we need to start giving back. Lead by example, I say. Be kind, do things for the moral incentive.
I blew my nose in public with a twenty dollar bill, then I threw it on the ground. Emancipation is that easy, I said. Within seconds some green eyed fool took the snot filled bill. He walked away smiling.
People weren't susceptible to my dialogue. The indoctrination is in, and I'm labeled as a crazy fool by everyone I came into contact with besides this cute blonde named Trisha.
Trisha has doubled d implants, a cross on her neck, a trashy apartment and mouth that wouldn't quit. I knew her whole boring life story within twenty minutes. I showed little interest in anything besides her tits. She caught on after awhile, and confessed with tears in her eyes of how inauthentic her breasts are.
I eased her burden by explaining how God never answered my prayers after the deplorable thing I was involved in, so I find it hard to believe he's concerned with your mild transgression. Then, I told her I never felt an artificial titty. Next thing I know I'm covered in fake d cups, and she's soon to be drenched in my seed.
We fucked like atheists with nothing to lose throughout her trashy apartment. We became a thing.
She told me of the volunteer opportunities available at the Light Of Life, over in the North Side. I thanked her immensely for everything, and told her I'd see her later. I'm on a mission.
I stopped back at my place, smoked the last joint I was holding onto for a special occasion, (fucking a cute girl with fake d cups constitutes a special occasion) and got all the information I needed to apply at the Light Of Life. The following week I was a part time volunteer.
At first I found it hard to wake up early, and travel to the north side via trolley to help strangers. It didn't take long for me to get into the swing of things.
Giving back is a feeling few people in Pittsburgh experience. I know first hand how beautiful that feeling is. My fellow co-workers and I are in solidarity. You're not gonna feel the pleasure of solidarity working some 9-5 job for the material incentive.
All that breeds is competition, and competition can breed animosity, contempt, and jealousy. Those feelings don't exist here. That alone is a beautiful thing.
Having to clean rancid piss filled bathrooms at my job with a paycheck, would've had me flipping shit. Now, it brings me great joy to scrub away the piss of homeless people. It's a sacrifice to benefit the all.
Here I am leading by example, engulfed in the stench of urine, and the cleaning power of 409. Other times I'm frying up enough bologna to serve a hundred people. Yesterday, I was one of the lucky few who served their plates, up close and personal. Afterwards, I swept and mopped. I've never felt this beneficial to mankind before in my life.
All my resentment for God vanished once I realized how expedient Christianity is to humanity. I don't see anyone else giving a fuck about the poor or homeless people in Pittsburgh. I sure as fuck don't see any atheist food banks.
All I perceive is indifference by the general public. Be that as it may, I'm still steadfast in my belief system. I happen to be the only non-believer amongst my co-workers. I've told all of them why numerous times, but they still insist on God talk every once in awhile.
I'm not offended. I live to learn, so I listen. I've also come to the conclusion that without God, the majority of my co-workers would still be complete pieces of shit. I'm not saying I'm better than anyone, but I don't need God to be a good person. I can do that myself. Well, until I met Jane that is.
Jane is a good hearted Christian woman who likes to fuck. I started spending more and more time sticking my dick in her at the Light Of Life, instead of doing what I originally came here to do: help other people.
Jane never asked any questions about significant others or anything else. Our relationship is still only a work based relationship, now with extra benefits.
Trisha and I have been a thing for two months. She's a nice woman with fake tits, she doesn't deserve this. On the other hand, I feel as though I deserve two women in my life, because I'm that damn special. In other words, Jane and I have a secret to keep.
I continued my hectic schedule of fucking two women, lying to one, and volunteering at the homeless shelter. I talked to higher ups about getting some extra hours to make up for my most recent transgression, (like I can work off my infidelity) but I was told I wasn't needed. I can kiss that noble concept goodbye. I'm still making a difference though, so in a way it makes up for the lie I'm living.
The end of summer is approaching. On my way to the Light Of Life I decided to enjoy the weather. Instead of taking the red line to north side, I got off at station square. Better get it while I can.
I took in the sights of the Allegheny river as I walked across the Smithfield Street bridge. It's early in the morning, people are everywhere trying to clock into their lives of servitude. Up ahead I see a herd of pigeons pecking away like the bottom feeders they are, and then he appeared.
I honestly haven't thought about Braden since I made that call. He symbolizes all that's wrong with the system. Anything for a buck, regardless of who it harms.
Green eyed greed. His God is the dollar. His God is the color of money. I did society a favor by making that phone call, and here I am yet again, faced with all that's wrong with capitalism. He looks furious. It's a mutual feeling.
No room for words, Braden swings full force at my face. I move before it connects, and some older woman ended up taking that blow. She's out cold. It's a good thing I moved.
I retaliate with a flurry of hooks. I caught him right in his mouth with two of them. Fucking coward spits blood in my eyes, and hits me a couple of times in the face. I'm barely stunned, he hits like a bitch.
I maneuvered around the coward at the right moment to get a hold of him. This scumbag is going down. We're wrestling back and forth until I throw him off me. Horns are going off, people are screaming bloody murder. Fuck my life! I threw him into the mornings commute. A fucking bus ran him over!
I'm surrounded by assholes on smartphones, video recording the entire thing. Sirens are going off and getting closer. A group of people on my left are demanding I stay put, and answer for my crime. All I wanted to do was help other people, but I can't seem to stop killing them.
Rohit is a 27 year old writer from India. He is a thinker by nature and believes that words have an extremely specific purpose - to impact lives. He writes in multiple genres and likes to experiment with his writing style frequently. Works of Fraz Kafka, Cormac Mccarthy and George Orwell have always inspired him. He has written his first fiction novel and it will be published in India this year.
Beneath the Shadows of Stars
“You’ve got to choose a side, mate.”
“I choose the side of this world.”
“That’s no choice.”
“No. I think that was the original choice. Before any of it, any of this shit, happened. Before all the self-righteous choice-makers pushed one of their choices down my throat. I think it is still the choice most people crave, only to be suppressed. You know what? I think there should be a country with people like me, all those who want to choose the side of this world; a country with no religion, no race, only people.”
“Yeah? And what would that country be called?”
“Simple. It will be called the Earth.” I paused. “At least till someone divides it.”
I think I understood that day for the first time in my life why Azhar never talked to any of us for days each time Al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Indian Mujahideen, or any other Muslim terrorist organization bombed any part of the world. He didn’t feel scared for himself or his people; he didn’t support them but he didn’t feel shamed by their actions; he simply felt divided, disconnected from this world and its atrocities and barbarism. I understood it because I was feeling the same that day.
The war, as they called it, those who fought and died in it, was not something I wanted to be a part of. It wasn’t my choice and it wasn’t what I needed to protect my rights, not that day at least. And yet, wanting it or not, I was being made a part of it, forced by the leaders of my world, who every day came out in public calling for support, calling their people to come out, to pressurize governments and citizens, to come back, to shell out money, lives, families, to shell out freedom of choice.
It wasn’t the first time this world was seeing a world war, when more than just a handful of countries were fighting for the fate of all, but maybe it was still unique, because never before had every square foot of land been so diverse and yet so similar. There was a part of each country in every country; all living in all.
It was in 2006 that I moved from India to the European Union, what is now, thirty three years later, the European Alliance for Protection and Sovereignty. I moved to that part of it still known as France, to be precise; it sounds strange now but the countries of the Alliance were known by their individual names. I went there as a young man in search of money, reputation and growth for someone with my skills. The country was smaller than I had imagined, stranger as well, but the people were nicer too. They accepted me with much more ease than I would’ve accepted any of them had they travelled to my home.
The world was still recovering from the recession. Recession is bad for economies but it had been good for souls, for it had done an amazing job in creating a unifying disparity in the world. There were those who had it easy, even during the toughest days, and there were those who were trying to hang on to whatever they could get, but everyone appeared to feel compassion for their own people. The race to defeat the rest and climb to the top was still prevalent, but those who succeeded in getting on the ladder now respected the groundsmen more. They were more helpful and a little less forgetful. I was one of them, I believe, for I had accepted that if not for a lucky night with my friends in a bar close to my college, I would have, I must have, ended up in the category of those people trying hard to get anything.
In 2003, exactly six months before I landed my first job, four of us, drunk to our throats in our favourite bar, had decided to enrol for the French classes on offer during the final semester of our engineering degree studies. German and French had suddenly become the new trend in India, for reasons that are still unknown to me. People who could speak them, even a little, had suddenly started considering themselves a notch above anyone who could only speak their native tongue and English. But our reason for joining the classes was not professional or social; it was rather hormonal I would say. The instructor was hot, very beautiful and in her twenties. Almost the entire college had been talking about her for two years.
Just for the record, now that I reflect on it, I find that an extremely crass reason to join a class. But it was after joining the French classes that I found the language actually interested me much more than the sleek, fair-haired instructor. I picked it up faster than anyone else in the class and never gave up on it. I didn’t know that two and a half years down the line not only I would be better with French than with English, but it would keep me in work and provide me with options which hardly anyone would dream of during that dreadful three year recession.
My company sent me to France for only a year at first, but my relationship with Europe was destined to be a long and stable one. I had gone there with a plan and stuck to it no matter how hard my manager, or his manager, or any other manager, tried to break through. I made myself indispensable.
Less than a month after my return our prestigious clients in France started missing me and my expertise. They had no one capable of replacing me; they needed me, and they made that very clear to my managers. Soon after, I was sent back to France and that time I did not return.
After staying in France for three years and working on two different projects, I finally decided to pull the plug on my now not-so-lucrative job. The world had started recovering from the recession and businesses were forecasted, at least on paper, to perform better. I knew it was the right time to start something of my own, because when buildings drown, billboards drown with them. Industries and markets were, more than ever, looking for value, which meant opportunities for newcomers to bring extras to the table. That’s what I did. I removed the fancy jargon from my presentations and talked the language my clients understood better — the language of money.
I don’t really remember why but I chose not to start my company in the beautiful city that had shaped me; I decided to move to England. At that time, I didn’t know I would fall in love with that country. I was just moving with the wind, enjoying every second of my ride, but as it turned out England suited me as much I suited it; we both found comfort in each other. That comfort lasted for a long, long time, almost twenty three years. Just when I had started to think that I would peacefully see my days end in the closed boundaries of a Hindu crematorium there on the loving, caring - but once despised by all Indians - soil of England, life proved yet again that someday all luxuries end and all loves die. The war broke out.
Everything was fine at first, as India did not become a part of it, but for some godforsaken reason, just a few months back, they decided to fight against the United Kingdom - actually against the European Alliance for Protection and Sovereignty if I go verbatim by India’s declaration - and extended their support, though merely on paper, to the alliances of Russia, Japan and South Korea. Maybe their decision wasn’t going to change the course of the war but it was going to change my world for sure. I knew it.
When the war first broke out I didn’t think it would affect me much. An unfortunate characteristic of wars and riots, though, is that they spread, and when they spread they touch even those who are not remotely interested in them. This war, though originally started between the USA and Russia, spread throughout the world. I don’t even remember how England, or any part of Europe for that matter, became a part of it. Someone attacked someone for hideous reasons and suddenly all that the morning news hours carried were speculations of a world war.
In the early days, people rejected the idea of a world war for many reasons: almost every country had nuclear power, the world was a global workplace, human rights, NATO. Needless to say, they all turned out to be nothing more than optimistic theories. Then there were the intellectuals who argued that the war would end in less than a month because some government or other would resort to nuclear weapons; that would force all countries to do the same and suddenly - bang, we had doomsday. I have to say that this particular theory was much more believable and lasted on people’s lips, if I can recount properly, for at least three years. Every common man, politician and General was living each day like his last, in the fear of nuclear war. I gave up on this notion sometime before the end of the second year; a few others worried for longer and a very few others, like my wife, still live with it five years into the war.
Though most of the people were awestruck by the gore and the violence, I wasn’t much since I had seen a lot in my native town. I do not say that the two could be compared in any degree or manner but it’s just that I never differentiated between two murders. For me, blood is blood, no matter why someone is bathing in it. I cannot recall a single day of my life when I wanted to murder someone and maybe that’s why the war had a different level of impact on me than on anyone else. It hadn’t broken me but it had left me disappointed and disheartened.
I despised it, for many reasons; one of them - not the strongest but definitely the most intriguing one - was the economy. While news of fresh bombings and old fires kept rolling across the TV screens, the world fighting blindly on, trade continued apace. I found it a little hypocritical. Goods were being exchanged, business was being done, as though there was nothing wrong with the smell of blood in air.
Every country knew that they needed each other. The interdependency of economies had increased to such a level that an economic war could only bring the entire world down. Technology had made it possible for people to exchange information and conduct business across borders without really affecting the flow of the war. It amused me to know that men were more afraid of losing money than of losing their lives. The only way they could find to settle their scores was to kill each other, for they knew that a gentleman’s battle, one settled on the business front, would kill them all. I laughed at it sometimes.
The biggest impact of the war on my life was that it had changed the outlook of people around me. It was an impact no one could have understood, no one but Azhar maybe.
Azhar wasn’t a good friend of mine. He could never be; there was no possibility of it, ever. I remember the days when Jack and I used to sit at a table in the east corner of the Sunlight Cafe. Steven liked the music to play incessantly in his small coffee house, so we always chose that corner where the music was the lowest and the most soothing. I’d been best friends with Jack for years and we enjoyed discussing all the large and trivial matters of life, those which affected us and those which didn’t: the economy, politics, crime, police, industries, philosophy and many others. Often the centre of our passionate but mostly professional discussions was terrorism, especially on those days when Azhar occupied a seat right across from us.
Azhar had shifted from his native Iran to my neighbourhood a few years after me. He was a technical architect and used to work in a US-based company’s UK office; globalization at its peak. How did I know so much about him? Well, he was my neighbour and we used to talk occasionally. At first I thought we would gel well, and was even thinking of inviting him to the cafe with me and Jack, but then, just a few days later, a series of bombs rocked London and everything changed.
Azhar was a devout Muslim, one who refused to let go of a few things he believed in for reasons that were beyond people like me. Jack and I didn’t see him outside his house for days after those blasts and when we did he was still the same, with his long beard, scarf and Jubbah. That was the first time Jack and I discussed Islamic terrorists spotting him, and soon it became a ritual I am ashamed of now. We used to discuss how Islam made people zealots, how keeping a beard and wearing a Jubbah was a sign of that, and how no other religion produced fanatics of the same level. I had, by then, or during those conversations at least, forgotten about the Indians who wore Chandan Tilak on their foreheads or hung lockets round their necks. Jack had forgotten about his friends who invariably carried bibles in their briefcases wherever they went. We had forgotten because there was no need for us to remember; life was good and I had never thought I would soon be made to realise my mistakes. I had never thought I would ever have a conversation like the one I had a few months back with Jack but, as I said, things were changing around me.
It all started with that stupid decision by the Indian government to choose a side in the war.
Suddenly the UK and India had become enemies, at least if one went by the newspapers. Pretty soon the internet was filled with gossiping about it and someone, some intellectual writer from south London, wrote a piece in the Metro; it was about how the large number of Indians living in England could give India an advantage in the war against them. It’s not like he had made a discovery or written something people hadn’t thought of, but as you know, the land remains barren till people think about farming it. He had said something which was in every mind and now they all had a reason to make it public, to discuss it.
Everywhere, British and Indian friends were discussing the implications. Jack and I were no different, but what had started as a general discussion turned ugly within days. I was trying my best not to take any particular country’s side, trying to remain a neutral, but he was continually trying to force me to choose between England and India. How could I do that?
It’s a classic, age-old problem that people have been facing ever since the dawn of societies; if you had to choose between your mother and your partner, who would it be? India is my mother, the country I was born in, studied in, which nurtured me, but eventually I left her to find a better life with someone else. England is the love of my life, my fiancee, my wife. England had given me a new life, or rather, reshaped it. She had accepted me during my struggle for success, had taught me new things and now supported me as I grew old. How was I supposed to make a choice between the two?
I didn’t want this war. I wanted India and England to be together, at least until I died.
Many of the Indians living in England, especially those who had flown in for short assignments, were returning home in flocks. Their communities, stronger than ever, were holding everyone close, trying to keep everyone safe. The move was welcomed by the English. But there were quite a number of us who decided to not leave our land. Then everything changed, and it all happened so quickly that I didn’t get the chance to realise what had happened to the world I was living in.
It was a Saturday, if I am recollecting it correctly. I am not sure because I usually talked to my family in India on Sundays. My dad had died three years earlier, but my blood ties to my mother, my brother and the rest of my family were important; the Sunday phone calls had become a tradition we had been following for years. It’s not like I didn’t want them to come to England - I have always been a family man - but they loved India far too much to be lured by the charms of any other country.
My brother ran an NGO and often asked me to come back home and serve mother India. I think he considered me a traitor, even though I frequently sent home considerable amounts of money, donations for him to continue his patriotic work back home. That day it didn’t suffice. They didn’t blackmail me or call me a traitor, but they didn’t leave any stone unturned either. My mother asked me to come back home - she didn’t know I was at home already - and my brother reminded me why India needed its children, all of them, more than ever. She was more concerned about my safety in England, since the two countries were now enemies; he was more concerned about my allegiance, since I was on the wrong side of the border. He said I should be in my motherland, giving away my life for it.
I won’t say I was affected by their prodding much; I am a strong person on the emotional front and besides, I was expecting a conversation like that with them. I gave them arguments that day which varied from my being indebted to England to my lack of belief in the reasons for the war. Also, I was a British citizen; there was no way the Indian government would renew my Indian citizenship during the war. For all I knew, or pretended to know, they would see me as an English spy and keep me under long hours of surveillance, or just ship me back to England as early as possible.
They were finally persuaded, and I was saved. But only for a day.
Call it coincidence, or a test by the Almighty, but the very next day something happened which shook me to my heart. I realised immediately it was the first instance of what would become a routine. On my way back from the grocery store two blocks from my house, a youngish man noticed the paper bag in my hands and changed his route to walk over to me. I don’t know why, but that day I’d kept my eye on him as well, since I first spotted him on the road.
“Hey,” he called.
I chose to ignore him.
“Hey, Indian, I’m talking to you,” he shouted, his voice filled with contempt.
The rest of the conversation, his questions about my business with his country, is neither relevant nor a strong part of my memory. The relevant part was I being seen as an Indian, not a citizen. Many people would ask me the same question in the ensuing days and each time I would answer with the same zeal, “This is my place, my country, too.”
To be honest, there are days, though very few, when I feel that they are right; not only those who call me Indian, but those who are fighting this war. I think that maybe God did want us all to fight; what other reason could there have been to make each race look different? I mean, I have lived in England for twenty three years and I don't look even half English. But given a choice would I want to look like them? No.
There were days when I did wish for that but they didn’t last long. I don’t think I need to look a certain way to prove my love for someone. I am what I am and I can’t change it; I don’t want to, especially not because someone’s doubts are based purely on the colour of my skin and hair. That was when I realised why Azhar had refused to let go of the beard and Jubbah. They were a part of who he was and he simply didn’t want to change. He couldn’t change it without losing part of himself and he shouldn’t need to.
On 14th September 2039, almost three months after the grocery store incident, I started questioning my stand seriously. It was then that I first really evaluated my options. I decided to sleep on the terrace of my office that night. I lay with my head resting on my cupped hands, listening to the melancholic voice of nature, feeling the chill of its breath in my bones.
I saw the clouds hiking across the sky and thousands of stars staring deep down from behind them at me. I tried to see how our Earth might look to them. Would they see a neighbour? Maybe a distant one, just like the Indians to the English.
I saw an entire universe, one huge home created for us by the Almighty. Does He truly know everything or is He, too, unaware that humans haven’t learnt to live like that? We divide our world into countries, states and provinces; this is my place, that is yours. There are races, castes, religions, languages, professions, wealth and poverty, men and women.
I wondered if the stars thought all humans were one family, sharing one home. Earth, a home with many rooms indeed, and each room separate. And you enter a room to find it, too, is a home, and that home has many rooms, and so the divisions continue, for division is in the nature of humans.
You know what the saddest part of my story is? That it’s been three months since I returned to India and so far I have only been heralded as a hero in my town. People from all over the world are returning to India; suddenly the government is accepting them all with open arms. Back here, people from far - my friends, relatives, their friends and relatives - they all say that I have come back to pay my dues to my country. Now that’s not a truth I want to accept because that would simply mean I do not love the UK, but unfortunately that doesn’t matter to the rest of the world. People say I am an Indian again and I realize what Azhar must have felt every time someone reminded him he was a Muslim.
I envy the birds right now. I envy the stars shining high above our heads. They don’t belong to a place, society or man; they are of all, to all. I often think of a time in the future when the war will be over; everyone left alive could start the country of my dreams. But then I feel we would soon divide it again. I know that is true because I would be the first one trying to secure a place in it called England.
Rizwan Saleem is a Banker based in Dubai UAE. The thoughts and expressions detailed in his works are of his various escapades suffered through life, and of the profound surprise of having survived long enough to pen them into words. His poems have appeared in anthologies Twenty Seven Signs by Lady Chaos Press and Self Portrait Poetry Collection by Silver Birch Press.
By Rizwan Saleem
The weather, as per the norm in this country, was hot. As if the sun itself had come down to partake in this spectacle about to take place. The landscape was arid, dusty and desolate of any greenery, had I not seen it before in its purity, the teeming masses now joining to expand the congregation would have disallowed such recollections. Human bodies were everywhere, black shiny skin glistening in sweat, their eyes blood shot but alert. Chanting war cries that epitomized their struggles against oppression. The general himself was at the helm of the mob. Dressed in his full regalia, he brandished a sword pointing it sky wards like a holy warrior, behind him, his men followed in religious fervor. Dedication like this is dangerous. My host for so many days and I walked at a leisurely pace , I soaking in the sights of this ritual, my host was almost a man resigned to some fate only he knew. The mob was in its hundreds now. All armed to the teeth. Sporadic firing filled the air, bullets hummed by closely. I had come to learn by now that regardless of the direction of fire, a stray bullet meant for you was going to find you, no matter what evasive maneuvers you took. “this is an impressive turn out”. I said to the doctor. “Hmm” he said. For an educated man he was a one for few words. In the cacophony of the noise our silence was awkward. It put me at unease.
“How often does this sort of gathering happen?’ I asked the doctor.
“At any given opportunity,” he replied, “unfortunately these days they have been happening a lot”.
I thought about his reply for a moment, perhaps it was the regime’s way of bolstering morale.
“It must mean a lot to the soldiers, these war parades,” I asked.
He turned to look at me, and once again it was in his eyes, Bright white with small jet black pupils. The kind of eyes that have seen too much. His forehead wrinkled in a kind of stress.
“Alas sir, this is not a war parade," he replied.
“Then what is it”?
Public executions were not uncommon here, but it intrigued me as to whom the victims would be.
“Whose”? I asked.
The doctor turned to me; I could not fathom the look in his eyes this time. This time they gave nothing away.
There is serenity in summary executions. A fait accompli if you will. No sooner were the words spoken by the doctor, I was surrounded by troops. If they expected resistance from my part, they were wrong. I did not kick or scream or yell indignation. I was simply too stunned to react.
One soldier came around me and simply locked my hands together with his, and led me to the front; the mob opened up and let us pass to the front. By this point I had overcome my shock at the events unfolding around me. I knew that in this job, one day my number would be up, so why not now? I just wished I would die in cooler climes, and some grass underneath instead of an African waste land. But alas very few of us have a choice in the matter of termination. I tried to recite some holy words, but my mind was a jumble of emotions and memories. I was scared, but I was more worried. I had left behind so many in completed things. I suppose they would take care of themselves now.
Now that I was a condemned man, the mob focused its undivided attention on me. I was being spit upon. Rifle butts were being slammed into my body. One blow hit me at the back of my head and I fell to the ground, my vision turned green then black and pain shot up my temples. A familiar warmth started to flow downwards and I knew that I was bleeding. No problem, I thought. I wont need much blood now. Finally we reached the front where the general was in audience with his minions and paid scant regard to my arrival. Just another Ferengi being shot. Most people, being in this situation would cry, sob or break down in hysterics. But as my very adverse sense of humor would have it I managed a wry smile of all the things, this being due to a flash back. I recalled how my class mates predicted that I would be a go getter and the most successful of the lot. Oh if they could see me now! Bound and bloodied and being led to execution. I wonder if any of them would want to trade places.
The general finally gave me his time. I was bleeding copiously now. “tsk Tsk, they have dirtied your shirt, I was hoping that we could have been more civil”.
“That’s ok, General” I replied.
“You can keep the shirt after you’re done with me.”
The general let out a huge guffaw hearing this.
“Glad to see man dying with good spirits, it’s a rare quality.”
“Thank you sir, but do keep in mind that this is my first time.”
Charles Hayes, a Pushcart Prize Nominee, is an American who lives part time in the Philippines and part time in Seattle with his wife. A product of the Appalachian Mountains, his writing has appeared in Ky Story’s Anthology Collection, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Fable Online, Unbroken Journal, CC&D Magazine, Random Sample Review, The Zodiac Review, eFiction Magazine, Saturday Night Reader, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and others.
By Charles Hayes
I was newly discharged from the military and wanted nothing to do with society at large. Any ambition that I may have had before had died in the military, along with most of my empathy. But I had to eat. After my separation benefits ran out I gave up my rented room and started to drift in and out of the hill country, picking up jobs where I could find them. And with jobs came parts of society. Eventually I came to work for a large farm in the Appalachian foothills where a local girl worked part time. Mostly I worked in the field while she worked in the packing shed. But at our noon meals we sat next to each other. That was the beginning as our eyes talked with our mouths full.
Olivia was a nice small town girl with exceptional looks and an openness, trust, and unchallenged confidence that fit my closed heart and smartly healed scars like a tongue and groove. A couple of years out of high school, she hadn’t been around much and didn’t seem to care. She just couldn’t place herself in the populace of most of her peers, had no desire for a “higher” education, and was reluctant to follow just any beat or hop any wagon just because most others did. In a word she was different. But she was a good person and, though different, held no animosity for the mainstream. She simply chose discriminately when or when not to enter it. And when it came to romance, for one reason or another, I guess she chose to stand at the edge. Perhaps it was her place for further study. However she was more than ready. She came my way easy enough to tell that she was no big fan of the local selection when it came to dating. I considered myself lucky to be around.
In my small cottage that came with the job, Olivia would poke fun at my seeming shyness, not seeing it for the hard edge that it was. Maybe we all see in others those things that make us tick. She liked ‘bringing me all the way out,’ as she put it. It made her feel the primal power of herself, a heady awakening for her young years, I suppose. It was easy to not look for broken things about one another. She couldn’t see the loner in me. She simply wrote off my standoffishness to rebellion. That, along with the few years that I held on her, put her at ease. For a young woman who was tired of being alone I was an easy pick. But she simply missed the real aloofness of my nature, wishfully ascribing it to things that would work out over time and become dependably steady. Though I advised her that I was not that sort of guy, I went at our relationship like no pain could ever come of it. I played into her needs for the most part and allowed them to grow….until she became pregnant.
Near the end of the harvest with the steep hardwoods turning brilliant colors around us, our evening let downs in my cottage subsided a bit. Sensing that my ardor had been sobered some and literally beginning to feel the consequences of our naked romps, Olivia often decided to return to her little studio over the drugstore in the nearby town of Thornton. We still enjoyed being together but the sense of fun and freedom that we had previously enjoyed was absent. And the working season, along with our income, was about to end. I had always planned on simply moving on at that point.
Olivia did not make the usual demands of a mother to be. She thought that was for ‘old’ people. Her lack of bitterness surprised me some, but I thanked my stars just the same. She came from a well off family not far away and, while they were pissed to the gills at me, they did not intend to let her go it alone. She could return home and have the baby. And I could go on being who I was….with just another son of a bitch tag flapping in my wake.
The last time that we were together, clearing out my cottage after getting paid, Olivia was not showing yet…..except when she removed her clothes. Then, the slightest little rise of tummy could be seen….and felt. Her smooth skin under my calloused hand and her bold expression holding mine all seemed part of an erotica that enhanced our coupling, our good bye. The deeper sensations that ran to the new look in Olivia’s eyes, as if she were seeing me in another way, were the things that I was too coarse to see.
Buoyed by our sex and thinking that I should oil this departure with some optimism I looked to Olivia as she lay on the bed staring afar.
“Hey darling, that was great. Your always great. You’re going to make some lucky guy very happy.”
Continuing to stare and in a voice that was eerily remote, Olivia replied, “You think so, Peter?”
Sensing that this was not about to go where I wanted, I tried again.
“I know so babe. I’ll never forget the times we’ve had. You’re a special lady no doubt.”
Sitting up on the edge of the bed, Olivia started putting her clothes on as if she were somewhere else.
“I suppose I should thank you for saying that, Peter. It seems that you would know, but I just can’t get it out right now.”
“No problem Olivia, my pleasure,” I said with a grin. “I’m sure you already know how nice you are and don’t need me telling you.”
“Why is that, Peter?”
“Because you’ve obviously heard it before.”
Standing to button her blouse, Olivia seemed to inventory the walls of the little cottage.
“I see,” she said.
A little put off and confused by the detached way that Olivia was responding to our split or maybe just plain insulted by her reflection of an attitude that was usually reserved for me, I went on.
“Do you? You act as if I was your first.”
Not moved an iota, Olivia picked up her hand bag, went to the door and opened it. While I sat naked on the bed watching, she looked through me one more time and said, “You were my first. Good bye, Peter.”
Watching the door close and feeling the sudden vacuum, I was at a loss to grasp what had just happened. Or maybe I just pretended ignorance. But I smiled anyway.
I left Thornton on a Greyhound out of the Appalachians to Cleveland and transferred to another bus for Seattle and the emerald glitter of Puget Sound. Through the many hours of passing through the broad expanses of the West and the rugged climbs of mountain ranges so new and high compared to my ancient Appalachians, I sometimes thought of Olivia and the way that she had retreaded me. For this I felt a spark of luck and hoped for her the same.
Jobs were not hard to find in Seattle. A lot of the tech industry was coming north out of California and that was bringing all the side work that usually surrounded it, mostly construction. I got in the laborer’s union and that kept me in work and allowed me to set up with my own little place near the waterfront. It was more expensive than most of the other areas but I was making good money and the supply of nice legs and tight buns was good. All the cruise ships for the inter-island passage up to Alaska would dock near my place and that brought tourists from all over. Many were skirts just looking for a brief hook-up. Hell I lived there, part of the well known waterfront Public Market you might say. But that got old after a few seasons. I was no longer busting the first years of adulthood and I yearned for something a little more. Something more placid and permanent. For the first time I realized that I was going to break thirty and that it wouldn’t hurt to break that barrier with someone to scout the new lay of the land with. As luck, or more likely karma, would have it, that was about the time I met Anna.
Anna, a quiet, unobtrusive 27 year old Pilates instructor, could have been a model. Tall and slender, with the form and definition of an aerobic athlete, she had immigrated from St. Petersburg, Russia when she was 20 along with her husband, a wealthy Russian entrepreneur who was later killed in an auto accident. Anna taught classes at the gym just down the street from my apartment. It kept her grounded and got her out of her skyline digs atop one of the nicer buildings near mine. Other than that Anna led a pretty normal existence, dating occasionally but not often, and shopping daily with the rest of the crowd at the Public Markets nearby. She particularly liked the Fisherman’s Market where huge salmon were literally slung like javelins from one worker to another so the tourists could get a picture. Some of the best seafood in the world was to be had there…for a price. But that was no matter to Anna. Often, afterwards, she would spend time in the bayside park watching the activity on Elliot Bay and nearby Harbor Island with its many piers.
The air was crisp and clean as I stood by the tall American Native totem watching two or three tugs push a huge container ship toward its slip for unlading. The scene reminded me of how ants worked a big piece of food toward a better place to eat. All things hustling to get by. I was tired of it. I needed a break. The city, while it gave me good money, was starting to rub.
Just killing some off time, I looked South for the familiar behemoth of a clear day, Mt. Rainer. That’s when I saw her, groceries at her side, as she sat on a bench and watched the same things as I. Her long blonde locks were tied back in more of a mane than a tail. She was nice! Her color, the hair, the way the light came off them, it was all real, no dye, no pancake. As she stood up, she tipped over one of her grocery bags, spilling a load of fruit over the walk. On the spot in a heartbeat, I began picking up the fruit. Locked by the luster of her pale blue eyes over an amused twist of full lips, I missed the bag a couple of times, sending the fruit back to the sidewalk. She laughed and helped me to finally get things resituated. It was almost slapstick but maybe it broke the melancholy for both of us. I know it did for me. I couldn’t help it, my controlling self seemed to dissolve. I simply spoke.
Continuing to smile while she did a quick appraisal, Anna spoke in a voice that had an edge of the colder regions of the earth. Her English was as good as my hill twang, and a perfect match for her cool beauty.
“Thank you,” she said. “I have seen you before, no? What is your name?”
Rarely did I follow in new encounters but somehow Anna’s pale blues held me there. They said it was her place to lead.
“Peter,’ I replied. “I come here all the time. I live just down the block.”
Looking pleased, Anna quickly went on as if there was a clock ticking somewhere, though her manner was calm.
“Ahhh, you live around here,” she said. “What is your last name, Peter?”
“Sinovich. What’s your name?”
As a couple of gulls settled on the grass near us, sensing that more fruit may appear, Anna actually did a quick toe stand, brought her eyes level to mine, reached out, and pressed her palm to my chest. Literally holding my gaze, she said, “Perfect, how wonderful. My name is Anna Katerina, from a spark of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. You know them?”
Feeling her warm hand and straight on with her gaze, I watched her pupils expand as she dropped her arm and came back to her heels. Certainly taken, I simply stared at her smile. As her head tilted aside the least bit and the gulls began to call, I finally answered.
“I have heard of them.”
“How nice,” she said, as she turned to her groceries, went into one of the bags and came out with a badly bruised apple that had gotten stepped on during the spill. Holding it toward me she said, “Here Peter Sinovich, break this up for the gulls.”
“I’ll do better than that,” I replied. Going into my pocket for a small buck knife, I cubed up the fruit nicely on the park bench.
As more gulls began to swoop and hover Anna giggled with pleasure.
“Oh my Peter. You are one that is prepared aren’t you? Does that come from living alone?”
Starting to feel the excitement of the drift, I took a piece of the apple, answered in the affirmative, and pitched it high. As it reached its zenith a gull dived and snatched it.
Anna, suddenly a little girl, did a little hop and clapped her hands.
“Good pitch Peter, that’s really humming them,” she said, as if she were at a Mariner’s baseball game. “Is that correct?”
“You got it right, Anna. You do the rest.”
Tickled with awe Anna pitched the rest of the apple pieces to the swooping gulls while I marveled at her grace and fluid movement. It was as close to perfection as I had ever seen.
Our last piece of apple gone, we looked at each other and smiled. After a moment Anna dusted her hands and turned to face me squarely.
“Peter Sinovich, please take that other bag and walk me home. I live in that glass building just across the square. There is an elevator.”
Bending down to pick up the sack, I looked up at Anna.
Holding the other sack to her breast, she was watching me like a character study that she would be tested on later. I gathered the sack but continued to look up at her. She quickly looked to the hovering gulls, shivered with a little giggle and dropped her eyes back to mine. As her cheeks slightly rouged to a small patch of warmth under those cool pools of blue, she smiled and said, “Come Peter, I will give you a tour. I hope you will like it.”
That best of all seasons in Seattle was spent with Anna: Mariner’s games at Safeco Field, fast boats to the San Juan Islands and Victoria, Canada, or simple walks along the waterfront. Anna turned the city for me. I cut back on my job and spent much of that time with her up in her apartment that overlooked the bay and the broader Puget Sound. On a clear day the view through the glass walls from her bed held a backdrop of the snow capped Olympics as they stretched up from the edge of the Pacific Ocean. The kitchen was big enough to serve 100 people and Anna took particular pleasure in cooking up her Beef Stroganoff there. Cleaning was no problem. She had both a Russian cook and maid on call but she rarely used them. There was also a quite expansive exercise studio for her Pilates. With her help and instruction I was amazed at what such exercises could do for the body and spirit. And when Anna brought moves of the bedroom to the studio, Nirvana definitely became more than just a name for a band. To say that my horizons grew fit would be an understatement. But as with all else, the glorious Seattle summer had to come to an end.
It was that time in late September when Seattle seemed hung on an edge. Dry and comfortable, no big change as fall fell, but the marine air could again be sensed. All those who were denizens knew that an adieu to the best there was would soon be due.
With the shades fully pulled back and nothing but sky, water and snow capped mountains peaking in, Anna and I lay against the headboard and watched the island ferries come and go. While she finger danced along my inner thigh Anna said in a rather offhanded way, “I’m really going to miss you Peter Sinovich, what will I ever do without you?”
Whenever Anna used both my names I knew something was going on. Something that usually would not be subject to my approval.
“What do you mean,” I said. “Are you going somewhere?”
“Yes,” Anna replied. “I am going to Russia.”
My languid repose suddenly a thing of the past, I bolted upright and stared at her.
“Russia! When? For how long?”
Anna lithely hopped from the bed and moved to the glass, her back turned as the sun washed her. Just the thought of such flesh and grace being gone broke my heart. I pushed for an answer.
Anna turned and faced me, her look one of study that I had learned to easily recognize. Only this time there was an edge to it that scared me.
“Well, day after tomorrow,” she said. “And for a long time. Maybe for ever.”
“But why? What about us?” I asked.
Anna waved my questions off for a moment but decided to answer.
“I am Russian, Peter Sinovich. Somewhere in your lineage there is a small part of Russia. Good enough for a while. But you are American. There is no us. There never could be. We had a very good season. Now it is time for me to have a Russian. To be a Russian.”
Feeling my first loss like this, I denied what was happening to me.
“You can’t be serious. I can’t believe this.”
“Believe it. You were very good Peter Sinovich. Lucky girls await you, no doubt.”
Being crushed didn’t feel like I thought it did. It was worse.
“Anna,” I said, “I thought that you loved me. Was I a fool?”
Anna seemed to soften a little. That high color came to her cheeks as she replied.
“There are no fools, Peter. Only people who wish to share. I watched you before. I saw that you were good. In the Market, I saw that the women knew. I wanted you too. It was glorious fun. There will be others. They will not waste you. But for us it is over.”
“Really dumped topsy turvy, I was at a big loss of what to say, what to do. It hurt. Maybe I loved Anna. Tragedy struck so quick.
“Anna,” I said, “how could you?”
Anna hiked her hands to her waist, cocked a hip and said, “Oh come on Peter Sinovich, how could you? You’d do it again if you could. Leave it. I have to make arrangements and will be gone tonight. This place is sold and my shipping people will take it over as soon as I’m gone. Please be gone when I get back. And good luck dear heart. You’ll be fine.”
While I stared naked from the bed after her, Anna went into her dressing room. I heard her shower running as I tried to gather my things without winching to inability. A half hour later she appeared dressed to the tens, went to the entry door, and opened it. Looking back and waving with a smile she said, “You were good. Bye Peter Sinovich.”
Watching the door close this time, of all the times, try as I might, I could not smile.
My job gone because I did not pay my union dues, I had to let my nice apartment go. Suddenly I was right back to where I had been when I first came to Seattle. Hanging around the waterfront with no money was not the way to go. After the way Anna ditched me I just didn’t feel like tickling the skirts that cruised the market area. Besides I was starting to get a little long in the tooth and there were younger men who had taken up the spot that I had vacated when Anna came along. Seattle had been nice but I really owed it nothing. I thought of my Appalachians and the land where I was born.
While working maintenance among the many shipyards to get by and surfing the internet at my boarding house, I discovered a job for a class A rough carpenter. Development construction work near my old haunts in the Appalachian foothills. I applied for it online and my experience in the many construction jobs during the Seattle boom must of got me in. They gave me two weeks to get there and said that my tools would be provided. I would be building houses for a big outfit out of the D.C. area. D.C. was beginning to stretch further out toward the beautiful Shenandoah area of Virginia and the rolling humps of the Appalachian region. The site was a stone's throw from Thornton, my last area of work in that region. Olivia began to play on my mind as I prepared to head back to that area. Knowing now how she must of felt when I left, I squirmed a little at the thought of running into her, not to mention the child.
With my last bit of money I flew cross-country to D.C. and caught a Greyhound over the Blue Ridge Mountains to Harrisonburg, Virginia and the Happy Homes personnel office. They provided a small advance and transportation the last 20 miles east to the job site, along with adequate housing.
Riding to the site through a few small towns, including Thornton, I wondered if Olivia and my kid were still around there. It had been more than 6 years, closer to seven, since I had left. The towns were a little bigger, more high neon and fast food places. But the green, clean air, and feeling of security among the walls of high land was still there. While it still hurt some, Seattle was beginning to ebb a bit.
Most of the crew was already there when I arrived, even my assistant, a younger guy named Chuck. He was inexperienced but lived around there and was able to start an apprenticeship under me. I guess all those years of pounding nails for the union in Seattle stood for something after all. Me, a teacher, fancy that. Chuck was a nice guy, eager to help, and good at conversation without being nosy. We got along well which was a relief for me. Women aside, I was still working my way toward some kind of societal norm when it came to relationships. And even my attitudes toward women had shifted. I knew that what you wished for could come true awfully fast. I didn’t chase like before. Despite the pain, Anna had booted some smarts into my head along those lines. Everyone deserved a fair shake when it came to their souls.
With the delivery of a new supply of siding board held up, Chuck and I had opted for a roofing crew rather than watch the clock. I was a little heavier and had figured that roofing would help check it some. Chuck was just a ‘whatever’ young man who liked my conversation. The day was clear and cool. Chuck was laying the tiles and going on about the schools of the area while I followed and shot. We were well ahead of the projected square feet for the day so the pace was toned to leisurely. Such times on a roof were good places in beautiful country. I looked around at the lumps of land running to hazy blue and enjoyed the fresh air. The thought that we were knocking it down both in pay and productivity lifted me as I ran out of nails. I reloaded and looked down to the parking area to rest my eyes. My sight has always been far better than normal but at that moment I thought I must be seeing things. There at the edge of the lot stood a young woman holding the hand of a little boy. The woman was Olivia and the boy was plainly mine. Stunned completely, I dropped my gun and looked to Chuck who was staring at me and grinning like a Cheshire.
“Take a break,” he said. “I can finish this one. It’s almost time to punch out anyway.”
But I couldn’t move. I just stood there looking at them until the boy waved. That brought me to in a way that I had never experienced. I slowly lifted my hand and watched him smile and jump about. Olivia simply observed the boy, looked back, and shrugged her shoulders. Slowly, I climbed down the ladder and approached them. Thoughts and feelings ran through me in a way that I had no grasp of. Like a ricochet among haphazard steel, they flew around without rhyme or reason. Covering the distance to Olivia and the boy seemed to take the longest time but eventually I got there.
“Hi.,” I said, feeling lucky to get it out.
Olivia looked better than ever. She held a certain poise that must have begun maturing after I had left. The confidence in her eyes no longer looked unchallenged but it was obviously stronger. Time and again my eyes came back to the boy as I stood there dumbfounded. It was like looking at myself when I was a kid. Suddenly I went weak in the knees and dropped to my knee pads. I looked at the boy and for the first time knew that I was looking at a miracle.
“Mark,” Olivia said, “this is your father. His name is Peter.”
Squirming a little bit, Mark looked up at Olivia.
“I already know that Mommy.”
Turning back to me, Mark offered his hand and continued, “I’m in first grade and I can do my ABCs.”
My eyes flooded and it became difficult to speak but I managed to reply, “That’s very good, Mark. Your mommy must be very proud of you.”
That was it. I had to rise while I still could. I looked to the sky for help while Olivia simply looked on.
Finally, beginning to gather myself, I suggested that we have a seat at a nearby picnic table. As we moved in that direction we passed Chuck as he headed toward the clock.
“Don’t worry Peter,” he said. “I’ll punch your ticket. See you tomorrow.”
“You bet you will,” I replied.
Seated at the picnic table, Olivia and Mark on one side and me on the other, I noticed that Olivia had no ring on her finger but didn’t say anything. Mark couldn’t sit still so Olivia said that he could go off a ways and play as long as he stayed within sight. For a minute we just looked across the table at one another and listened to Mark sing some cowboy ditty a little ways off. We must have known that the thread of that ditty was ours as well. Finally I found my voice.
“How are you Olivia? You look super.”
Taking a deep breath and looking down, Olivia just shook her head and inspected her hands before she replied.
“It’s been rough Peter. I went back to school, doubled up on class load, got my degree in elementary education. I teach in Harrisonburg.”
Olivia paused to gather her words before continuing.
“I still live in Thornton but spend a lot of time at the family place. I couldn’t have made it without them. Mark is like my little brother to them. But we’re here and thankful for that. What about you? There’s something different about you other than just a few years.”
A little relieved to see that Olivia didn’t peg me for the ass hole that I had been, I shrugged.
“I’ve been in Seattle the whole time, did the hustle for a while. Had to grow up some in the end. I’m sorry for the way we ended but I guess that’s cold comfort now.”
“Some, Peter. But not like you think. You’re my boy’s father. It’s nice to hear….and see that you're not the same. You always could walk the work. Maybe your character has caught up.”
“And you were always big hearted, Olivia. Bringing Mark to see me shows a grace that has grown to match your heart. I’m surprised that any partner would allow it.”
Smiling ruefully, Olivia said, “There is no partner. There was and you're right, he wouldn’t have allowed it. I married another teacher while in school. A real bastard, worse than you could ever be. He really tried to turn the screw on Mark because he wasn’t his own. And he would slap me if I even looked at another man. I divorced him three years ago.”
“I guess the road has been no expressway for either of us,” I said. “Maybe if we took it slow the bumps wouldn’t hurt as much. We could just shrug them off. I’d like to see you again sometime. All of us together. Think that is possible.”
Searching my eyes for a moment, Olivia shrugged.
“It’s possible. The Big Show is coming to the area this weekend It’s a kind of circus carnival combined into one. Mark has been going on about it ever since his friends started bragging about how their dads are going to take them.”
Olivia paused a moment, searched my eyes again, and went into her shoulder bag. She came out with a card and slid it across the table.
“It’s where I live, Olivia Spencer now. The numbers on there. Saturday evening, 6pm. Call if you going to be late. It’ll be a surprise for Mark.”
Olivia stood as I looked at her card and touched my shoulder as she went by.
“I have to go now,” she said.
I watched her walk away, gather Mark, and get in her car. As she drove by to exit the lot I jumped to the top of the table, held the card high, and screamed, “I’ll be there.”
In the rearview mirror, as she held her hand up, I fancied that I could see her smile.
Along an old airstrip just out of Thornton the night sky was aglow with the lights of the Big Show. Multicolored rocket capsules spun high before they swooped to the earth and shot up again. Riders young and old screamed in merriment as they flashed by just feet from the ground. Bumper car drivers careened around a platform, jolting and spinning one another as flashing lights morphed their faces into surreal expressions. Out near the edge of the strip, facing the highway and next to the huge tent, was the Big Wheel. Waves of colored lights ran from its hub to its rim, collapsed, and ran again.
Olivia, Mark and I opted for the Big Wheel right off. Clamped in, we excitedly spun into the darkness above. From atop each of its circles we could see all the lights of Thornton and the dark Virginia countryside beyond. Laughing and getting to know my boy and his mother as we looked out over the lights into the dark beyond gave me a real special feeling. It was like Thornton was our planet and the Big Show was our moon.
I looked over Mark to Olivia on the other side of the carriage to see if I could guess how she was feeling. She was not tuned to the lights and the beyond. She was watching me. She smiled and looked to our son and his happiness before lifting her eyes back to me.
“This really brings you all the way out, huh?” she said.
I smiled. She was right. And I knew that my heart must have found a home near my sleeve when Mark looked up and spoke.
“Don’t cry scaredy cat. This is fun!”
Olivia choked a laugh as I reached over and took her hand.
“I’m not scared, Mark,” I said. “Are you scared Olivia?”
Olivia turned serious and her eyes suddenly pooled as well.
“I’m not scared,” Olivia replied. “Sometimes it’s not good to be scared.”
As the wheel brought us down for the last time, Mark added his hand to ours with a laugh. And like travelers from the beyond, stepping back to home, we went to see the Big Show anew, all us three.
David Bassano is a History professor at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey. He is a human rights activist, an author of academic and literary works, and an avid hiker and cyclist. Trevelyan’s Wager, published by Harvard Square Editions, is his first novel. You may learn more about him and his work at www.davidbassano.com.
By David Bassano
I watched Bill trying to lure out a green belt. It was easier to beat someone confident because they would come at you. Once they fought Bill, they were less confident, and at least remembered to keep their hands up when they kicked. The green belt turtled up and planted his feet. Bill attacked tepidly, dropping his hands and backpedalling when the green belt attacked. Bill kept working him until the green belt must’ve figured he could get Bill if he could just get close enough, because he lunged with a punch but leaned forward to make it reach, exactly as he’d been told not to. It’s hard not to do it when you’re excited. Bill grabbed his wrist and gave a little tug as he twisted his body. The green belt pulled his fist back, but while he was trying to keep his balance, Bill pulled a punch to his head, slowly to make his point, and that ended our sparring for the night. The eight of us lined up at the front of the dojo and bowed to the photographs of the school’s ancestors on the wall above the mirrors, then took out the brooms and mops and cleaned the dojo.
The dojo was an old dance studio on a wooded lot off a state highway. The building was long and low with white siding and a leaky roof that forced us to put out buckets when it rained, and we had to be careful of tripping over them when we sparred. It had a hardwood floor, fluorescent lights, and full-length mirrors along one wall, as well as dressing rooms. We had only to take down the balance bars and put up a pegboard for the weapons. There was no air conditioning and no windows. Even with the door open, the only breeze you felt in the summer was when the sensei walked past you, and your cotton gi was soaked like you’d worn it in the rain. The heating wasn’t good in the winter but we didn’t mind that so much. It’s just that the floor was cold on bare feet.
It was a small and very traditional school. Our sensei had learned karate on Okinawa when he was stationed there in his Navy days, then stayed on after his tour to train intensively. He didn’t talk about his time on Okinawa very much but, given the way Okinawans view Americans, he must have gone through hell to get them to take him seriously. But then he was a serious man. He was about fifty, balding and soft-spoken with an intense gaze. He was a teacher in a local elementary school. He was fiercely intellectual and an atheist and I think karate replaced religion for him. He was disciplined, professionally polite, curt, thoroughly uncompromising, and rather harsh. I didn’t always like him, but I knew I could always trust him.
He was also an outstanding fighter and I couldn’t have hit him with a handful of buckshot. One of the things he’d told us about his years on Okinawa was that, in his school, the black belts did nothing but spar. They didn’t even need to warm up; everybody warmed up before class, usually by jogging to the dojo, he said, so they just spent the whole class fighting. Four hours of sparring a day, four days a week. He made it look like nothing until you tried to fight him. He’d throw his punches so they somehow snaked around your block, or else changed direction like a breaking ball and slipped under your guard. It was confounding to fight him because it took so long to figure out what he was doing. He’d teach by fighting you, not through explanation. He rarely explained anything, so you had to give it your full attention to learn from it. He’d just hit you and then back off a bit to let get ready again, then he’d keep doing it until you understood what was happening and learned to defend yourself. Then he might say something about how to attack and let you figure out the rest. It was all body-teaching.
As we cleaned the dojo, Sensei sat in the tiny visitor area, reading the local paper.
“Hey, Bill,” he said.
Bill trotted over to him. “Yes?”
“Ever fight in an open tournament?”
The older man tore something from the paper and handed it to him. “Colbretti is holding one at his dojo. Go sign up for it.”
Afterward, Bill and I went to the Driftwood for beers. We hung out a lot together in those days. He was twenty-three and a black belt and I was twenty-one and a brown belt. Like Bill, I’d been training in the dojo for several years, but Sensei wouldn’t advance anyone to black belt until they were at least twenty-one years old. Bill and I had been through the same high school although two years apart. Most of our friends from high school had gone off to college and few chose to return our little farming town in New Jersey when they finished.
Bill was my closest friend but he was also a mystery to me. He was friendly, polite, and forgiving. It just felt good to be around him. On the rare occasions he got angry it was because someone else had been hurt. He’d help you out with anything, a lift, place to stay for a couple of days, whatever. What confused me was that he seemed to care about almost nothing, just the most important things. His friends and karate were about it. He didn’t own a TV because he never liked what was on, he said, and people would try to talk to him about popular shows and he didn’t know what they were talking about. I guess people thought he was a snob or an inscrutable intellectual until they learned he was an electrician. They didn’t mind him, because he was good company, but I think they thought he was a little odd, and the last thing he cared about was what people thought of him. I couldn’t understand how someone could be so friendly and so detached at the same time.
He was the dojo’s top student and everyone pegged him to take over from Sensei someday. It seemed that the sensei was grooming him for this, letting him teach beginners’ classes that we nicknamed “Bill’s Boot Camp.” Eventually, though, he felt that the practice wasn’t taking him where he wanted to go. Like anything worthwhile, the deeper you go into it, the more it requires from you. It was supposed to be a lifelong commitment at our school, like it is in Japan. But we weren’t Japanese and Bill went on to find other things in life worthy of the same attention. He wouldn’t keep going simply to save face because he felt the only really unforgivable sin is dishonesty. It was an ugly break with our sensei when it came.
We didn’t know all that yet. We shared our practice and our experiences in the dojo and we were good friends in a lifeless little bedroom town where we had no other friends. We worked our jobs and trained together and hung out together and our lives were simple, so simple.
“Pretty strange for Sensei to tell you to sign up for that tourney,” I told Bill as we drank at the bar.
“Yeah,” he said. “He hates ‘em.”
“Ever been to one?”
“Once, in Philly. It was one of the big nationals.”
“What was it like?”
“Huge. Five hundred fighters, about two thousand people in the audience. There was a thousand-dollar purse and people were beating the hell outta each other for it. It was a bloodbath.”
“Sounds great. Sorry I missed it. Watching, I mean.”
“Yeah, you can have ‘em.”
“So what’s Sensei sending you to Colbretti’s tourney for?”
“Who knows? He never says why. He’s probably just trying to put me in an unusual situation. But this tourney won’t be bad. There’s nothing to win but a trophy.”
“Didn’t you go to school with Colbretti’s son?” I asked.
“I think so. Joe Jr., right? I never met him but I think he was in my class.”
“He’s pretty good. I’ve seen him in demonstrations.”
Joe Colbretti Sr. owned the largest and most popular dojo in the county. The dojo gave demonstrations at the county fair or at the mall or on a float in parades. The demos were flashy, featuring katas, sparring, and of course board-breaking. The students at the demos were sharp. Colbretti Sr. emceed the largest ones. He was a natural showman and directed the demos with relish as his students circulated through the crowd in their gis, distributing the school’s promotional flyers.
Joseph Colbretti Sr. was a tall man, rotund in middle age, with thinning brown hair, a thick beard, and a ruddy complexion. He had a broad smile and a loud voice. His son was tall, like his father, with short brown hair. He was a good-looking guy, about Bill’s age. He was a black belt in his father’s dojo and ran most of the demonstrations. Back in school everyone knew who he was and he always had people around him, mostly students from his dojo and a girl on his arm.
I spoke with him only once, when we were both in high school. Rob’s parents were on vacation for a week the April of my junior year, and Rob threw a big party at his place while they were gone. I went with a friend named Wayne.
I came out of the house with a beer in my hand and at the bottom of the steps were Joe Colbretti Jr. and his entourage. Wayne was talking with them about various karate teachers in the area.
“Hey, Matt knows karate,” said Wayne, gesturing at me with his beer. I gave him a look to shut him up.
“What dojo?” asked Colbretti.
“Okinawan Goju,” I said.
“Never heard of it.”
“Most folks haven’t.”
“Who’s your teacher?”
I told him.
“Funny I don’t know him,” he said quietly without looking at me. “I know all the karate teachers around here.”
“Matt’s a great fighter,” said Wayne.
“Put a lid on it,” I told him.
“Hey, I’m just sayin’.”
“What tournaments you fight in?” asked one of Colbretti’s entourage. I could see where it was going and there was nothing I could do about it. The alpha male had already passed judgment. I turned and went back in the house and heard the snickers behind me and “He don’t know karate” and Wayne trying to protest. It’s hard as hell to walk away from something like that when you’re sixteen but I knew nothing good could come from it. I didn’t think Colbretti would have mixed it up with anyone in an argument. I thought all the provocations were part of the white middle-class posturing I saw in school, and that none of it had any consequences. That’s why I was so surprised years later to read in the paper that Joe had been convicted of manslaughter stemming from an altercation and sent to Leesburg Prison.
That was several years in the future. What I knew that night at the Driftwood was that Joe Colbretti Jr. was a great fighter, that was clear from the demos, and that Bill was a great fighter, and I knew that first-hand, and that it was likely they would end up fighting each other at the tournament. I didn’t tell Bill why I wanted to see him beat Colbretti in his own dojo. He wouldn’t have cared anyway.
I drove Bill to Colbretti’s dojo the evening of the tournament. It was a beautiful building, modeled after a Japanese temple, on a few acres of land about five miles from the center of town. The building was surrounded by rock gardens, and poplars lined the driveway and surrounded the parking lot. There were a few inches of snow on the ground and the poplars looked like they were dusted with powdered sugar. The lot was starting to fill up.
It was a large dojo with a high ceiling and brightly-polished wood floor. Over the mirrors were trophies won by the school’s students at tournaments. The spectator area was wide and decorated with signed photographs of Colbretti Sr. with national karate personalities. Bill paid his entrance fee at the registrar’s desk and went into the dressing room with his old Everlast bag.
The spectator area was already full so I took off my shoes, bowed onto the floor, and joined those who were already sitting cross-legged along the wall. On the floor were students from, I guessed, all the dojos in the county, warming up and stretching. Their gis were of various styles and colors and looked exotic to me. Some of Colbretti’s black belts were marking the boundaries of the tournament area on the floor with masking tape. As more people arrived it got louder and warmer. A photographer from the local paper was there with two cameras and a press pass around his neck. After Bill changed into his gi we sat together along the wall to watch the beginning of the tournament. The black belts always go last. Bill kept stretching and didn’t say much.
About fifteen minutes late, Joe Colbretti Sr. strolled onto the floor without bowing and, with a big smile, announced the beginning of the tournament and the rules. Everyone had to wear armor, shin pads, and gloves. The first contestant to reach two points wins the bout. Clear hits in the armor worth half a point, decisive hits or intended takedowns worth a full point, with the head judge, Colbretti Sr., making the final call. Forcing your opponent outside the boundary worth half a point. Black belts only can make light contact to the head. Nothing below the belt.
The young kids went first. It was fun to watch them. They flailed away at each other and only landed a blow by accident. Next came the older students, all ranks below black belt grouped together. They were much more proficient, and sometimes you’d see a green or blue belt beat a brown belt. It took an hour and a half for all the ranks below black belt to spar. The photographer shot a few of the kids with their trophies, which Colbretti presented to the winners with jokes and anecdotes for the benefit of the crowd. Many of the parents took their kids home at this point, but the place was still crowded with constant movement and noise as the boys joked and laughed and the adults fanned themselves with the school’s promotional flyers and complained of the heat. The door was open, but it didn’t seem to cool the place. Finally, Colbretti Sr. announced in a booming voice, “And now for the grand finale!” and called out the names of the contestants in the first elimination of adult black belts, including his son.
“Isn’t that a conflict of interest?” I whispered to Bill.
“It’s against national tournament standards. But nobody said we were following them.”
I was surprised at how hard the black belts fought. Light contact to the head, in the heat of a fight, sometimes turned into full contact. Their friends, families, and students were in the room, and I guess they figured they weren’t going down easily. Americans think it’s a big deal to be a black belt. Our teacher told us that it’s nothing in Japan or Okinawa. In Japan, they say that a black belt means you’re ready to become a real student, and even then you might still be a fly-by-night. Before you’re a black belt in Japan, the teachers look right through you, and even new black belts are nobody. But that night, the black belts were fighting like they had a lot to lose.
Joe Colbretti Jr. had shiny, bright red armor with matching gloves and shin guards. The mouth protector he wore distorted his face. He was extremely fast, with a wicked side kick. He dispensed with his first opponent in under a minute.
“Bill Hudson and Marty Baumgarten,” said Colbretti Sr..
Bill stood up and I tied the old padded rattan armor from our dojo behind him as he held it to his chest. “The judges need to see a clear hit,” I mumbled over his shoulder. “Don’t go easy like you do in the dojo. Pound ‘em.”
I helped him put on the shin guards and fingerless gloves, all borrowed from friends. The armor was black, the shin guards blue, and the gloves red, all against the white of his fraying gi. He looked down at himself, then grinned at me.
“Good luck,” I said, slapping him in the armor.
It seemed he took my advice to heart. He was far more aggressive than I’d seen him before and poor Baumgarten looked like Bill had him surrounded and outnumbered. After that, it was just a matter of waiting for Bill and Joe to fight each other. Bill sat next to me during the other bouts with the armor on but said nothing, responding to my comments with nods and grunts. There were a few black belts who gave Joe and Bill trouble, but the outcomes were never in doubt. Bill was having fun with the boundaries of the tournament area, which we never used when we sparred in our dojo. He’d force his opponents outside the boundary with a lunge, or hip throw them over the tape, and the boys sitting along the wall would scramble to dodge the falling body. He kept it all very simple, with short, tight techniques and nothing flashy. Finally, there were only two contestants remaining.
“Hudson and Colbretti.”
They stood face-to-face in the middle of the floor with Colbretti Sr. between them. Joe Jr. was slightly taller than Bill and looked down his nose at him. I knew the very last thing he wanted was to lose to someone he’d never heard of in his own dojo in front of his father, his friends, and his own students.
Colbretti Sr. tucked a black silk handkerchief in the back of Bill’s belt to designate him the black fighter. Bill and Joe bowed to each other, then to the older man. The three black belt judges formed a wide circle around them.
“Fighting stance,” said Colbretti Sr.. They put their fists up and the crowd leaned forward and so did I, and it was completely silent in the room. Over the years, the thing I’ve remembered most clearly about that night is the single image of two fighters with their hands up, perfectly still, staring at each other.
“Fight!” The boys roared for Joe and Joe went straight at Bill like a freight train.
Bill let him come, giving ground slowly, always keeping himself safe from Joe’s attacks, and Joe was throwing them like he meant it. There are no points for effort in a karate tournament the way there are in boxing; you can throw a hundred punches and kicks but the only one that matters is the one that goes home. Joe tried a spinning back kick. I saw it as soon as he started to turn his hips, and so did Bill, who stepped aside and punched the moment that Joe’s foot cut through the air where Bill had just been, and Joe on one foot and Bill got his hips behind it and put the punch in the armor over the ribs and BANG and the crowd’s reaction and all the judges’ hands going up with a shout as Joe went down.
Joe got to his feet; the punch couldn’t hurt him through the armor but had knocked him off balance. His father pointed to each judge in turn to receive the call.
“Half point black.”
“Full point black.”
“Full point black.”
“Full point black,” said Colbretti Sr.. “Fighting stance…fight!”
The next few minutes were like a course in sparring. Joe, like a centurion in his bright red armor, fast and aggressive, with a wide stance and side kick that could beat your forearms raw; Bill with a relaxed stance, standing tall, never wasting a movement, appearing unhurried. Even the most inexperienced in the crowd could see that these were the best fighters of the evening. Joe tied it with a full point, then Bill got a half point, and then Joe tied it again at a point and a half each.
“Next score wins the tournament,” said Colbretti Sr.. “Fighting stance.”
Joe bounced lightly on the balls of his feet like a boxer, leaning slightly forward, glaring at Bill. Bill stood calmly, shoulders relaxed, and maybe it was my angle but he seemed to have a slight smile on his face. I had a pit in the bottom of my stomach.
Joe again went on the offensive and again Bill let him come. Bill countered with a quick combination of kicks and punches but then Joe went right back on the attack. Joe tried stepping on Bill’s leading foot to pin it but Bill was too quick, picked up the foot and almost got Joe with the kick. Joe went in again with a whirlwind of punches that were so fast I couldn’t see them all, but among them was a pop.
“Point!” They came back to the center.
“Half point white.”
“Half point white.”
“Half point white,” said Colbretti Sr.. “White wins.” The crowd loved it.
The two fighters bowed to each other, pulled off their gloves, and shook hands. With teary eyes and a big red-faced smile, Colbretti Sr. awarded his son the trophy for first place; then he politely awarded Bill the medal for second. Bill came over to me and I helped him take off the armor.
“That was great fighting,” I said.
“Thanks. He’s awful fast. I didn’t even see the punch that got me.”
“Let’s go for a beer.”
“I need a shower.”
“Let’s go for a beer.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
People were congratulating Joe, who was still in his armor. I could barely see him through the crowd. He had taken out his mouth guard so he could talk. People were slapping him on the back and lining up to shake his hand. A few of the fighters, the older black belts in particular, came over to quietly compliment Bill and ask about his teacher.
The photojournalist made the crowd form a semicircle behind Joe, who looked sweaty, disheveled, and profoundly relieved. He held up his trophy, the crowd cheered, and the white flash lit their faces.
Bill watched as he removed his shin guards and smiled sadly as he turned for the dressing room.
“Poor Joe,” he said.
J. Carol Goodman was born in a manse in Rahway, N.J. Growing up in the ethnic community was a big influence. She went on to small boarding school in Vermont and graduated from Bennington College, and married with a babe in arms. Her summers were spent in Vermont and winters in Morristown, N.J.
She raised three more children while continuing to write, sometimes with a baby asleep in her lap. She published many short stories in literary journals. One of which was chosen for the Best American Short Stories. She received three grants from New Jersey and fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell, Virginia Center was the Creative arts, and Banff Centre for the Arts. She has published two novels.
She lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts and is working on a collection of stories and has just finished another a novel.
By J.Carol Goodman
Okay, okay, so he couldn’t keep up with June as she ran on the dark New York City Street. His old injuries. The War, crawling through mud and rubble, spraining his ankle and tearing cartilage in both knees and now the uneven sidewalks. She was frantic to get to the box office where the theater tickets were being held only until twenty minutes before the show. Roger could hardly see her, just the blur of her blue coat. He didn’t remember the name of the theater. June was always dragging him to some off Broadway play he didn’t care about.
She insisted on parking on that dismal street way over on the west side just to save a dime. Cheap and stubborn she was. And she wouldn’t let him cough up the money although he wanted to support her. After all that’s what a man did. That’s what made a man a man.
He squinted to see the last of her blue coat blowing in the sharp January wind, hurrying on her short but well-turned legs. Okay, so she was mad at him. He had complained that he wasn’t exactly ecstatic over rushing to see her acquaintance’s debut. As he walked gingerly along the unlit icy sidewalk he thought how he hated New York, actually was afraid of it. The same sulfuric brew, the stinking clouds of gunfire blistering Alsace, in World War Two. The acid smell of burning flesh, more than twenty years ago, was here and now in this gray, dirty city.
Fall 1944: the village shambled, Germans retreating but a few still slithering behind shutters and doorways. Roger lurched back and forth, separated from his squadron. Lost. The memory surfaced more often lately. Simple things, dark streets, the whistle of a tea kettle, a flashing light and most of all the smell of burning leaves, became the stink of burning flesh Then would come the dreaded memory of that night with the family in the farm house and forcing him into panic.
June had been number eight in the personal ads list two years ago and what an array of dummkopfs answered him. He himself was long divorced with no kids. June had no kids either. Her husband died five years ago and she too was lonely. He fell for her quick, humorous sarcastic mind, the nimble curiosity in her squinting ginger eyes and even the way she stuck out her behind as she pounded back on her heels, branding her territory.
“World War Two,” she had said with one of her dismissive gestures, “I was too young. Only thing I remember is Daddy had to save gas coupons all year just to get us to the shore for vacations and instead of butter we squished disgusting yellow coloring into a bag of fat.”
“You’re right. I guess I should forget the war.”
That was their first date and she had suggested they go to her house. He was a little shocked, well, more than a little, at her immediate invitation but he couldn’t wait to undo the fake buffoonery of her hair and bury his lips into its dyed ebony abundance. Her childish unkemptness aroused his protective instincts. Yet her sexy self–assured expression was not that of some vulnerable widow at thirty-three, nearly twenty years younger than he. She dazzled him as if he were blinking at the sun.
He pulled his scarf tighter. His heart was beating fast as the splintering dread took his thoughts, a new worry about her so far ahead on the lonely street. Bad people, the enemy in recessed doorways and alleys, guns cocked. “June,” he called into the wind, into nothing. He should have brought his gun.
When the smoke subsided the French village that had no signposts left standing at their pocked streets, he stumbled around, searching for his buddies, his squad. It was almost dark when he found the farmhouse.
June’s body didn’t seem to have signposts either. Sometimes he lost his way in lovemaking, rusty, creaky. Couldn’t always figure out his tactics. He tried to take command but she seemed more confident, creative. He became confused and was the one who surrendered. He felt a little humiliated.
He paused to rest a minute against an iron fence. He mulled over again that there was something wrong, down in his gut, something not equal, something missing between them. Yet he had never been in love like this. When he came home from the war he was desperate for love and married his old high school girlfriend and soon realized he didn’t love her. Sitting on the beach at the Jersey shore, brushing the sand from between his toes, on their honeymoon, he told her he wanted a divorce. She screamed. People looked at them. He felt guilty, the ultimate sin of a soldier… betrayal. He had betrayed her.
This summer he would take June back to the Alsatian farmhouse. He would carry the present the family had given him. Roger had hidden the present in the cellar all these years. June had never seen it. Didn’t know about it. He was ashamed, devastated by the present. But he hadn’t thrown it away. He didn’t know why.
When he came home and people asked him what he did now and he answered, “stockbroker, “ his voice sank. Nothing matched or would match that night in their house.
When he came to the Avenue, his eyes squinting to see where the hell June had gone? Hardly anything was open. Don’t panic. He swung around. Breathless, his legs rubbery. Find her, find her. Where am I? What danger is around the corner?
“June,” he hollered and rushed half a block to a bar, the only place open. Inside he demanded, “My wife, is she here? Blue coat.”
The bartender turned to him. “I haven’t seen her.”
“She has got to be here.”
“Haven’t seen her.”
“There is no other place.” His voice was raised. The several people at the bar looked at him.
“Maybe she’s in the lady’s room,” a woman said. “I’ll look for you.” She slid off the stool and went into the lady’s room past the end of the bar. When she came out she was shaking her head. “Not there.”
He ran to the men’s room. He flung open the booths. A brawny man, zipping himself turned on him, “what the hell?”
“Wife! You touch me and I’ll yank your dick off.” He stormed out, Roger behind him.
Now everyone had swiveled toward Roger. He spotted a cop at the bar. He grabbed the cop’s arm. “My wife has been abducted, missing. “
“Where? Did you see the perpetrators?” The cop stood up.
“How long ago?”
“A few minutes. A blue coat.”
“Nope. I’ve been here a while.”
Roger went up to his ear. “Don’t desert me. You want to get court marshaled?”
The cop looked at him funny. “You sure your wife came in here?”
“Don’t you understand that something terrible has happened to her?”
The bar tender touched his own head and winked at the cop.
He can wink all he wants, Roger thought, but he was positive June was here.
Alone in the field, no sign of his buddies, exhausted he carefully sneaked across the field to the stucco farmhouse. No sound. Had the people been killed and the Germans had occupied it and he would be killed? The back door was open. The place was dark. He waited and listened. No sound. He went in, his gun leading. The kitchen was empty. The living room. He slung his head from side to side, holding his breath.
What was that? Crying from below. Momentarily he was mesmerized. He listened awhile before he braved it down the steep cellar steps, stooping so his head wouldn’t graze the ceiling, his gun before him. “Hands up. Up. Up,” praying they understood English.
He found the four knotted in a corner. Only the seventeen-year-old French boy knew English. “You American?” the boy asked.
They all threw their arms around him, the boy, the mother, father and older sister. They huddled again and waited until dark to climb the stairs. After their meager supper of watered down cabbage soup they fixed the couch for Roger, begging him to spend the night. He told them he would stay the rest of the next day to be sure the Germans were not coming after them, and then he would try and find his buddies. He believed the war was almost over. The next day he stood guard at the window. He could see all the way across the deserted field.
“That door,” Roger said.
“What door?” the bar tender asked. “The trap door?’
“Don’t try and stop me.”
“There is nothing there except the freezer and liquor bottles for the bar.”
“Sir?” the cop asked, “Have you a relative, a daughter or son, or a friend we could call?”
Why the fuck was he changing the subject? Roger was half way down the narrow steps when he realized the cop was behind him. Let him find out. This cop was too young to know a god-dammed thing about the horror of battle.
The next day was foggy. He and the seventeen-year-old named Hugo stayed at the window. About 10 in the morning they saw a shadow in the field, a dog? Or lose sheep? No, a person, slow and determined. What color was his uniform? German. Why was a lone German walking toward the farmhouse? Roger had never seen a soldier who was alone. Troops were like packs of dogs in a bog of gun-mist.
“Where was your wife going?” The cop asked.
“To pick up tickets at the theater.”
“What are you talking about? You now perfectly well, the European theater.” He drew in panic stricken gulps of air. The corner of the cellar was piled with cardboard boxes. Along the walls were racks of wine bottles. On the far wall was a long horizontal freezer. He tore at the boxes.
“Wait a minute, go slow.” The cop grabbed Roger’s arm again. “Try and tell me the name of the theater where your wife was headed.”
Roger was feeling those spines of fear rise between his shoulder and the back of his skull. She wouldn’t leave him. Something terrible had happened.
“Lie down on the floor,” he whispered to the family. Was the German truly alone? Yes. He was striding straight across the field toward them, his luger at his side, his helmet on. He hesitated, looked around, wasn’t running, just walking. He was closer than Roger thought, small. One more step and Roger would pull the trigger.
“In there. That’s where she is.” Roger rushed to the freezer and tried to open the lid before the cop could stop him. “Help me open it.”
“Sir, I told you that is a freezer. She couldn’t be…” his voice was sterner now.
“It doesn’t matter what you think.” Roger wrenched himself free and lifted the lid. Oh my god! Packages of all shapes. Limbs, arms, hands, feet. Heads.
“See she isn’t there, just hamburger meat and chicken,” the cop said. He took Roger’s’ arm. “We’ll look for the playhouse, okay?”
“Those were just hamburger?”
“And pork and Chicken?”
“No body parts?”
Roger raised his gun. He closed one eye and looked through the sight. He fired through the open window. The bullet tore through the soldier’s helmet. The soldier paused, as if to think about it. His forehead slowly fell back skyward. Then he jolted forward. His spine let go, his knees buckled. He knelt, his shoulders and head falling down. The boy soldier’s legs splayed and twitched like a run over squirrel and lay still. Hugo ran out the door to be sure.
Roger watched as Hugo kicked the dead boy, who was no more than thirteen, in his head and mouth and groin. Roger didn’t rush out and grab Hugo away or shout, “Stop it.” But his shame and repulsion lasted all these years.
He tried saying to himself, that‘s what war is like, but what festered is what Hugo did. As he was about to leave that night, to find his squadron and discover the war was over, Hugo gave him something. Roger just wanted to get out of there so without protesting he took it. It was wrapped in brown paper with many strings tying it. Some kind of ball? He didn’t open it until he got back in the U.S. He drew back. Was it a skull, the young soldier’s skull? Roger dropped it, seeing it was the helmet the boy soldier had worn. Roger hid it behind the furnace. He kept it so he would never forget the soldier. He never told June.
Now he ran up the steps and out the door of the bar remembering which direction he saw June running and with his knees cramping he hobbled as fast as he could. He had cleared his head, the way he did in battle, concentrate and run, run like hell. He shouted, “June, June.” But he hadn’t needed to, she was running toward him.
“Where were you?”
“Where were you? You knew I couldn’t be late picking up the tickets,” she said, irritated.
“These deserted streets. There could have been anything. Landmines, grenades.”
“You were lost.” He held her. He was shaking.
“No. It was you who were lost. And look at you, all shook up. Why?”
“I had lost you.”
“Let’s just go home,” she said. “We could come see the play another night.”
When they reached the car, he looked at June. Yes, something was not right between them. He hadn’t quite captured her. He had figured there was a reason they had not been as one, not melted into each other the way couples were to do. The reason came to him, she had not lived his history and until she did they would never be together as one.
“June,” he said, as she started the car, “I want to take you to Alsace this summer, to the farmhouse where I spent that night in the war.”
“I want you to meet Hugo. He still lives in the house alone. ‘Come visit anytime,’ he said.’”
As June drove home, Roger planned what he would do. He would ask Hugo if he minded putting on the helmet that Roger would have brought with him. Then he would ask him if he would go out in the field to reenact that day and when he reached just the right spot, Roger would yell, “Perfect. Stop.”
June would be beside Roger in the house at the open window. He would ask Hugo to borrow his gun that he brought bullets for and Roger would look down the gun site and not hesitate. He would pull the trigger. He hoped, his hands wouldn’t shake, which they had been doing lately.
The bullet would wiz toward him and straight into the helmet. Hugo would look up at the sky, his spine would give way and he would plummet, yank and gasp for air, knees buckling, face down in the corn stubble. His body would twitch like a run-over squirrel.
June would then understand what Roger had gone through. She would have lived all the guilt and horror of his history and their lives would be one and the same and she would finally be his.
“Back to Alsace, sure,” she said.
NT Franklin - I write after my real job hoping one day to have it be my real job. When I’m not reading or writing short stories, you might find me fishing or solving crossword puzzles.
By NT Franklin
The drug deal complete, Robert drove off. Still high, he never saw the girl walking along the side of the dark deserted road. That is, until he sent her airborne a good fifty feet. He slammed on the brakes, nearly causing his dealer’s car behind him to rear end his fancy truck. Robert exited his truck and went running back to look for the person he struck. He found the mangled body of a young girl impaled on a short tree branch. She probably never felt the tree, but will never feel anything again.
The driver and one passenger of the vehicle trailing him appeared as soon as Robert looked up from the dead girl. They recorded the scene on video with their smartphones. The third occupant of the vehicle recorded the truck’s front, targeting the push bars on the passenger side of his truck, the VIN number and Maine license plate. The push bars maybe looked a little off kilter, but other than that, there was nothing on his truck to show he was in an accident.
“She’s dead, man. You killed her, man,” said Mario.
“I never saw her. She came out of nowhere. I didn’t mean to hit her. It was an accident. You saw it.”
“Gross. She’s dead,” said Ayden, now joining the others at the body.
Lorenzo conducted the drug transaction; Mario and Ayden were muscle. Members of the Red Side Guerilla Brims New Haven street gang, they were up and comers. The gang activities included drug trafficking and racketeering. Lorenzo had shown keen insight in new markets and was rapidly moving up the ranks. His childhood buddies, Mario and Ayden, were happy Lorenzo was the boss.
“Ditch the coke, we have to call the cops,” said Mario.
“Robert, I’ll take your brick and we’ll get out of here,” said Ayden.
“No. Robert, you keep your brick. The girl’s dead. Nothing is going to change that. It looks like your flash truck is fine–get in it and drive your rich-boy ass back to Yale. We have lots of video of the scene. I’ll call and tell you what you are going to do for me,” said Lorenzo.
“Crap, Lorenzo, are you sure?” Asked Ayden.
“Everyone get back in your ride and go home. Now!” Lorenzo ordered.
Back in the car, Lorenzo asked, “Ayden, did you get him confessing about how it was an accident and he didn’t mean to hit her?”
“You bet, Boss.”
“Phones.” Lorenzo said, holding his hand out.
“Aw come on, Lo,” said Mario, keeping his eyes on the road.
Both Mario and Ayden passed Lorenzo their phones.
“You’ll have these back by lunch tomorrow. I’ll keep track of all the copies of the video from tonight. That way you two won’t get into trouble or do something stupid.”
Robert Austin Kane III was a rich kid. Robert Austin Kane II was a successful artist in Clam Harbor, Maine and owned Reed Gallery, the most prominent gallery in the area. Clam Harbor, while sleepy, was a rapidly growing artist community. A successful gallery kept cash rolling in. Lots of cash. Granddaddy Robert Austin Kane was a blue-collar worker and helped build many of the stately buildings in Clam Harbor, buying and selling area buildings at the right time. He didn’t understand the artist scene and thought Robert II was not tough enough on his philandering grandson.
In his junior year at Yale, Robert was majoring in finance, at least this semester. More like a minor because his major was partying. This was his second year of doing coke. He started supplying his roommates and one or two others, but that was it. Kane did not need the money from distributing; he wanted the company getting high. He met up with Lorenzo at the student union, or more precisely, he was targeted by Lorenzo who passed himself off a well-to-do local kid attending Yale. Robert was now a regular customer.
Robert made it back to his apartment.
“Did you get the stuff?” One of his roommates asked.
Robert dropped the bundle on the table and walked to his room.
“What happened? You got the stuff, but you’re drenched in sweat and shaking.”
No answer. Robert kept his eyes down and headed to his room.
“Look–he’s already into it. That’s why he’s so pale,” another roommate said.
Robert shut the door to his room. He lay in bed shaking and whimpering. Not sure whether to fear the police or Lorenzo more, he decided it didn’t make any difference.
The hit-and-run fatality off the Derby Avenue was big news. The daughter of the chair of the Board of Alders was a member of the National Honor Society and well liked. The newspaper account had the fifteen-year-old girl walking home from a gathering, leaving as soon as she realized it was an underage drinking party.
A reward for information was offered. Nothing came of it. The reward was increased, but still nothing ever came from it. The girl’s parents appeared on Channel 3 and pleaded for community help in identifying the driver. A powerful plea, but no new information surfaced. A small white cross at the place of the hit-and-run accident was the only visible reminder of her death.
Finals were over and Robert managed to pass all his classes this time. Daddy would not have to make another donation to keep him at Yale. “Wow, something to be proud of,” he thought. He had reduced his drug use and stopped supplying, so he gave the remainder of the brick from the accident night to his roommates. Not having heard from Lorenzo, Robert thought he was in the clear, or at least in as good a position as could be.
Robert packed up his belongings from the apartment into his truck and headed north to Maine. Maybe I won’t go back to Yale and Lorenzo will not be able to find me. Humming with the radio, the five-hour ride seemed less than two hours. “Blowing off the summer pretending to work dusting pieces in the gallery, there would be lots of time for swimming at Berry Park,” thought Robert.
The tourist season had started in Clam Harbor and the roads were filled with cars with out-of-state plates. Robert eased into the Reed Gallery lot and parked in one of the “reserved for owner” slots. Dad will be glad to see me.
As Robert walked into the gallery, that thought, and all thoughts, vaporized when he saw his father discussing a piece of art with Lorenzo.
“Robert, come meet Lorenzo. He is a buyer from Connecticut and has traveled specifically to expand his collection of mixed-media decoupages. In fact, why don’t we all go into my office.”
“I’d like that, Mr. Kane,” said Lorenzo. Robert looked like he was going to be sick.
As they sat down, Lorenzo pulled out his phone, punched a few buttons and handed to Mr. Kane. “Please watch this video; it is part of my collection.”
Doing as asked, Mr. Kane became whiter and whiter until he matched Robert’s pallor.
“Robert, you killed that girl. What did your lawyer say?”
“Dad, I didn’t need a lawyer. No one knows about it. It is an unsolved cold case.”
“Well, you need one now.”
“Now hold on. Do you really want your boy to go to prison?” Lorenzo asked.
“I have the only copies of the video from the accident. I don’t want to see your boy go to prison.”
“Dad, he’s a drug dealer, don’t listen to him.”
“Is that true?”
“True, Mr. Kane, but I’m your son’s drug dealer. And I have evidence of him, high on drugs, confessing to vehicular homicide, and leaving the scene of the accident. That makes me more than a drug dealer, don’t you think.”
“I don’t know what you want.”
“I want to buy art. That’s why I’m here.”
“I doubt that,” said Mr. Kane.
“Oh, I do, but not just any art,” said Lorenzo.
“Sign says you ship anywhere, is that true?”
“You are going to start shipping art I buy. I like the mixed-media decoupages. In particular, I like that they are big and look like a shadow box in reverse covered with a gooped-up canvas. The one I was looking at should have no problem fitting a two-by-twenty-by-twenty-inch brick of cocaine behind the brown paper covering the back.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Sure you can. Robert here is going to start making the canvases or whatever you call them. Make them the size we were looking at and put a price of $3000 on them. No one will pay that price for them. List them online and put them in the gallery. Sell them if you can. I will buy at least a decoupage a month.”
“Dad, I can do them. They look like a seventh-grade art project.”
“Well, Lorenzo, it looks like you are going to be buying some art after all,” said Mr. Kane. Robert was surprised at the quick reversal by his father; too calm in his decision.
“That’s not all,” said Lorenzo
“I knew there would be more,” said Mr. Kane.
“You have a nice gallery here.”
“You can’t have the gallery, I’ve built this from nothing!”
“I don’t want the gallery, I want you to keep running the gallery like you always have. I like the fact that it backs up to the harbor. I will have deliveries made here by boat. The deliveries will be put into the decoupages. The first delivery will be in thirteen days. High tide is at 12 AM so it should be low enough to get a boat under the footbridge across the bay by 3 AM but not so low as to restrict access. My associates will meet the boat and hand deliver six items to young Robert here. He will have the decoupages ready to accept them. Do you see any problem with that, Mr. Kane?”
“It’s all settled then. Robert, I suggest you get started on your career as a decoupage artist,” said Lorenzo.
Lorenzo opened the passenger door and slid onto the seat. “How’d it go, Boss?” Ayden asked from the driver’s seat.
“Perfect. You boys will be making some trips up here. Make a reservation for next weekend at the hotel we passed, I think it was called Brown’s Seaside. Drive up Friday, walk around, shop and go to dinner. Bring your ladies, but stay out of trouble. Figure out how to blend in, be a tourist.”
“Rebekya will love it,” said Ayden.
“Rose, too,” said Mario.
“Dad, they’ve stolen my life.”
“Yes they have. What are you going to do about it?”
“I don’t know.”
“You better figure something out soon or you might as well join their gang.”
The next day, Robert went to task making mixed-media decoupages. He had finished two pieces that day and four more in the next two days, so his six were completed. They look like crap, but so do the others. Maybe this won’t be all that bad.
Ayden and Mario arrived at Clam Harbor the next Friday.
“Oh look at that sign, it’s First Friday Art Walk. That’ll be fun Mario. Let’s do it,” said Rose. Mario wasn’t sure.
The foursome checked into Brown’s Seaside and Rose, Mario’s girlfriend, asked about the Art Walk. Brochure in hand, she led the party on the rounds of the galleries.
Even stoic Ayden had to admit the paintings were nice. Well, at least some of them. Mario liked the munchies and wine at every stop. He started to loosen up with a comfortable buzz and actually enjoyed the paintings of the coastal scenes. The ladies were thrilled with all the culture surrounding the art. They did not have to work to blend in with the tourists, but Ayden, and especially Mario, needed improvement; with a couple glasses of wine at each gallery, Mario was past a comfortable buzz. As his inhibitions lessened, he became louder and his comments less than polite.
The Bay Gallery of Modern Art was a stretch for Rose and Rebekya, and way too much for Mario and Ayden. Mario started to make a rude comment and Rose turned and herded them all out of the gallery.
The final stop on Rose’s list was the Reed Gallery. Mario and Ayden knew of the arrangement with the gallery, but not the details. “Rose, get a load of this crap for three thousand dollars. What is it, papier-mâché, window screen, and blobs of paint?” Mario blurted.
“Mario, for the last time, keep your voice down. That’s a mixed-media decoupage. The screen are lobster traps on the boat and there a multiple layers of paint and sealer to hold everything together,” said Rose.
“Dude, let’s bounce,” said Mario to no one in particular.
Other patrons smiled. One who did not smile was Detective Jed Calhoun. He usually wandered into the galleries on Friday Art Walk. Not because the galleries needed police protection, but because it was Friday, he was off duty, and he grew up with some of the artists. Besides, he liked paintings that looked like paintings.
Okay, Jed smiled at the comment, but only a little. He figured he was not ‘evolved’ enough to get some of the paintings that didn’t look like paintings. But he knew better than to blurt out what Mario did. And ‘Dude, let’s bounce,’ perked his ears up.
Word in the law enforcement circles was the New Haven street gang, the Red Side Guerilla Brims, were looking to expand operations into Maine. The cities of Lewiston/Auburn and Bangor were the targets, but the drugs needed to enter Maine somewhere. The Maine coast was as logical place as anywhere.
Detective Calhoun had been briefed by the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency about the impending threat. These two couples may not look like gang bangers, but they had a Connecticut twang to their voice and the men, in particular, stuck out. Jed made a mental note of the couples as not fitting in.
At the end of the next week, the first shipment was motored in at 3 AM under the cover of darkness. The engine was so quiet the group didn’t hear the boat until it was almost to the retaining wall at the back of the Reed gallery property. Unloaded in less than one minute, the boat was back on its way out of the bay.
“Okay, Robert, let’s see the paintings,” said Mario.
“Mixed-media decoupages,” said Robert, correcting Mario.
Robert finished securing the brick inside the frame and glued the backing paper onto the frame, successfully hiding the brick. He flipped frame over all to see.
“I’m paying three grand for this?” It looks like crap,” said Lorenzo.
“That’s what I told you, Boss,” said Ayden.
Three days later, there was an online sale of one of Robert’s decoupages with a PO Box delivery address in Lewiston. Understandably, Robert was not super excited about his first art sale.
In each of the next four weeks, there was an online sale of one of Robert’s art pieces. Only one piece was left from the first shipment. “The drugs were moving a lot faster than Lorenzo had indicated, but he’s a criminal,” thought Robert. And so am I.
The following Wednesday afternoon was a slow day and Beth, a local painter, was running the gallery alone when an online sale of Robert’s work came through to a buyer in Bangor.
“Robert, you sold one of your mixed-media decoupages online to a Bangor buyer. Isn’t that exciting?” Beth asked as she telephoned him with the news.
“Sure,” replied Robert. Not the response Beth expected on a three thousand dollar art sale, especially from someone that had just started producing art. She had been painting for years and would have been over the moon with a three thousand dollar sale. That bothered her. As it was a slow afternoon, she looked into the gallery sales.
“Oh, my,” Beth said. That was the sixth sale–all online–of Robert’s decoupages in a little over than one month. What a start for an artist’s first month.
When Mr. Kane stopped in hour later, Beth said “Robert is having phenomenal success his first month as an artist.”
“Sure,” was his indifferent reply.
Again, not the response Beth expected from a proud Papa with a son following Dad’s footsteps.
“Beth, please don’t look into my son’s sales again. It is a family matter.”
She thought he would be proud of any art sales by his son. Curious.
More shipments came by boat and sales continued. Robert was not happy, but what was he supposed to do? His decoupages kept selling and being shipped.
Beth arrived a bit early for her noon shift the next Wednesday; she stopped to peruse the outgoing shipments of art. There is another shipment to Bangor of a decoupage-sized box. It’s to the same PO box as the first one I saw! Beth knew better than to mention it to Mr. Kane.
Jed attended a daylong meeting put on by the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency in response to the increasing cocaine use in the larger inland towns. Two overdose deaths had occurred in the past week alone and still, there was no public information on the source and distribution of the coke.
When Jed returned to the office from the meeting, the Chief asked “Jed, anything new on the cocaine invasion?”
“Not really. Still no clue about the distribution network. The MDEA boys think there are new players in the game.”
“How is it getting into Maine–Interstate 95?”
“Chief, they don’t think so. They’ve been tracking tolls and there is no correlation on license plates and new flushes of coke on the street.”
“How about multiple vehicles?”
“Some UMaine math prof did some sort of analysis and says no. They are convinced that it is not coming over the roads.
“Did you ask them about water access–we have lots.”
“I did, and they said they would get back to me. I don’t think they thought of it. I’ll let you know if they contact me. I gave them my card.”
“Jed, get a jump on it. Start asking around the docks about suspicious behavior, different boats, you know the drill.”
“Got it, Chief.”
The inquiries around the docks proved to be a dead end. Summer was winding down, so Jed didn’t mind lingering over his coffee at the Java Cup; by now, there were no lines of tourists trying to get into the poplar café. Intently reading the second section of the weekly Register, he didn’t see Beth come in before she sat down at his table.
“Morning, Ms. Dobson.”
“Morning, Detective Calhoun. And it’s Beth. I need to talk with you about something going on.”
Jed nodded silently. He interviewed her in a previous case and knew given a brief pause, she would talk and talk.
“Detective, something is wrong at the gallery. Robert is selling decoupage pieces and neither he nor his father seemed pleased about it. I was so happy with the first pieces I sold through the gallery I cried. Mr. Kane even wrote a lovely note to me on my sale. It meant a lot to me. I have only sold one painting since that time.”
“Isn’t the gallery supposed to sell pieces?” ask Jed, redirecting the conversation.
“Yes. But Robert has only started producing art this summer and has sold many pieces. And they are all are online sales where they haven’t been inspected close up. I think the pieces lack artistic depth but they are selling. I am wondering if I should start making decoupages, too. They are still selling even this time of year. Two sold last week and they were the only sales we had. Robert’s father told me not to look into his son’s sales. He wasn’t proud of him.”
“Take a breath, Beth. So what’s wrong, he’s selling things or his father isn’t proud of him?”
“Detective, they are all online sales and the go to the same PO Box in Bangor or the same PO Box in Lewiston.”
Now, she had Jed’s full attention.
“Tonight is the last Friday Art Walk of the season. If I stop in, can you point out Robert’s work to me?”
“Of course, Detective. You’re welcome in the gallery anytime.”
The crowd was sparse and the cheese platter was small, but still, it was a decent crowd for the final Art Walk of the season. Beth showed Jed her paintings, some photography, and finally some mixed-media decoupages.
“These have been very popular this summer. Can I interest you in one Detective? It is a good chance to get some pieces of an up-and-coming artist before his prices go up,” said Beth.
“He sold another one today to the same Bangor PO Box. There is a courier pick up scheduled at 10 am tomorrow. Does that help?” Beth said under her breath.
“I’m not in the market for mixed-media decoupages right now, Beth. But thanks for the insight.”
Jed signed out the unmarked car Saturday morning and parked on the street with a clear view of the Reed Gallery. At 10 AM sharp, a Chevy with Connecticut plates pulled up in front the gallery and the driver went in. Minutes later, he exited with a package under his arm and drove off.
Jed hit the blue lights once the vehicle had left Main Street. Driver’s side brake light was out, so it was just another traffic stop.
“Driver’s license and registration, please.”
“Officer, what was I doing wrong?” asked the driver as he shifted in his seat.
“Driver’s license and registration, please.”
“This your car, Roberto Gonzalez?” asked Jed holding his license.
“No, it belongs to my friend, Mario Gutierrez.”
Jed ran the Connecticut driver’s license and an outstanding warrant for failure to appear in court popped up. A wry smile crossed Jed’s face. He called for backup.
“Out of the car please,” Jed ordered.
The driver did as ordered, including putting his hands on the hood of the car. The driver was frisked and then handcuffed.
“You have an outstanding warrant for failing to appear in court in Connecticut. You’re going to Connecticut.”
Backup arrived and stayed with the Chevy until a tow truck arrived. The Chevy was towed to an impound lot where Jed was waiting. He took the package out of the vehicle and back to the station. MDEA officers were already there with video equipment rolling. Carefully, they unwrapped the package and unsealed the Kraft-paper backing on the art piece. A brick of cocaine was securely attached to the frame.
“Was the Judge unhappy you interrupted his golf game to get the warrant?” asked Jed.
“Naw, I think his fifth stroke on the 9th hole was more aggravating,” a MDEA officer replied. The lead Drug Enforcement officer put a small GPS tracker between the canvas and the frame from the back. The entire package was resealed and returned to the towed car.
The trap was set.
Jed didn’t pick Robert up, but rather went for a walk in Berry Park, where Robert spent Saturday afternoons.
“Detective,” acknowledged Robert.
“MDEA and I opened up one your art pieces this morning. You’re in world of hurt. You have a couple of choices; only one of them is a smart move. I need to know how you are getting the coke and who the big supplier is. For that, there will be generous consideration in sentencing.”
Robert took on a green tinge and nearly threw up.
“MDEA is at the station now. They will be right here in 10 minutes if you and I aren’t at the station before that. What’s your decision?”
“What kind of consideration?”
“Robert, I can’t say, it’s not up to me. I will speak to the DA on your behalf. How much consideration depends on how much help you are. Clock is ticking.”
“Okay,” said a defeated Robert.
“Drive to the station and park in the public lot across the street. I will follow behind far enough that it doesn’t look like you are being taken in. Can you do that?”
MDEA officers were waiting the hallway. Robert shuffled through the opened door to an interrogation room. Jed joined them after a couple of minutes.
Robert spilled all he knew about the drug shipments. The MDEA officers knew they hit the mother lode. With the next shipment due to arrive Wednesday in the predawn hours, the drug ring would be paralyzed within a week.
Monday morning, Mario Gutierrez, registered owner of the towed Chevy came to the police station and Jed escorted him to his towed car.
“Sorry about the trouble, but you should be careful who you let use your car. Here is a repair order for the driver’s side brake light, that’s why the car was stopped. You have 30 days to submit proof of repair.” Jed used his best, ah shucks, small-town cop voice and hoped it worked. Mario gave a quick glance to the package in the passenger seat and drove off.
“Lorenzo, ‘Barney Fife’ gave me a ticket for a brake light and said sorry. What a chump. The fools left the package alone. All’s good,” said Mario into the phone.
“Good job, Mario. I’ll be up Wednesday. This is the biggest shipment yet. It is all set for 2 AM. Don’t be late,” said Lorenzo confidently.
The gallery was closed on Mondays and Robert laid low. He spent Tuesday making mixed-media decoupages. The officers told him to go through his regular routine so as not to draw suspicion. Besides, Robert knew it would help pass the time.
By 12 AM, MDEA SWAT teams were set up in Clam Harbor and Lewiston. Robert showed up at the Reed Gallery water access at 1:45 AM. Lorenzo and three others were waiting for him.
“Yo, college boy, you look nervous,” said Lorenzo.
“No, just tired. Worked all day making decoupages.”
“Here comes the boat,” whispered Lorenzo.
Fifteen bricks were unloaded and five remained in the boat when the lights came on. Light came from everywhere.
“You …” Lorenzo was stopped in midsentence.
“Police. Lower you weapon or it will be taken as a threat.” A dozen men dressed in SWAT combat gear brings even the nastiest mid-level drug dealer to his knees.
Lorenzo, Mario, Ayden, and three others were apprehended.
The coordinated bust in Lewiston netted five others and a huge stash of drugs, guns, and cash. The drug ring was smashed. The alert action of Detective Jed Calhoun was noted with a well-deserved commendation. With the scale of the bust and the number of arrests involved, the DA was considering recommending a five-year probation sentence for Robert on the drug charges. While most agreed, something bothered Jed.
“Chief, I’d like to look at the phones captured in the bust.”
“Jed, the MDEA boys have been through them and pulled numbers and text messages off. They’ve done all that. Why do you want them?”
“Chief, I’ve got this feeling. We know the what, but I don’t think we know why. Can you arrange to have the phones delivered here?”
“I can. But don’t embarrass me, Jed.”
A week later, the phones from the Lewiston and Clam Harbor bust arrived. Nothing to note on the phones from the Lewiston bust. Jed saw enough drunken selfies to last a lifetime. The phones from the Clam Harbor bust were equally as riveting. But one phone had two videos saved in an unusual directory. Jed tapped the file and the video started to play. He had to look away at the first playing of the video. After watching both videos several times, Jed went online. It wasn’t hard to find accounts of hit-and-run fatality in Connecticut around the date stamp of the video file.
“Chief, you need to see these videos.” He tapped the first file, handed the phone over, and watched the Chief lose some color. Same reaction with the second video file. Jed handed him printouts of the hit-and-run fatality just outside of New Haven, where Robert Austin Kane III went to school.
“Whose phone is this?”
“Tag says it belongs to Lorenzo Garcia. He was the brains behind the operation here,” said Jed.
“Now you know the why–blackmail. Bring young Robert in. I’ll have the DA here.” Jed called Robert and asked him to come to the station, as the DA was ready to discuss his sentence.
Robert, his father, and his lawyer sat at the table.
“By the looks on their faces, they have no idea what is coming,” Jed said to the Chief as they watched through the one-way glass.
Robert looked relieved and a little smug when the DA told him they didn’t expect to charge him with drug trafficking at this time.
The smugness lessened when the DA said we have something else.
The smugness disappeared when the DA played the video of aftermath of his hit-and-run accident that killed a young girl.
“My life is stolen,” murmured Robert.
Robert Austin Kane II put his hand on his lawyer’s arm, and only said “No.” He was looking into his son’s soulless eyes when he said “No. Your stole that young girl’s life. You must atone. My lawyer and I are leaving. Make the best deal you can. Goodbye, son.”
Ben Bales is an engineer at a small optics company living in Dallas, Texas. He writes many short stories, some of which he doesn't shred.
by Ben Bales
Four. And he was only a couple of minutes late. If he had gotten there a little earlier he would have beaten the fire department, and maybe it would be less. Now the men in yellow were swarming the scene and keeping everyone back. Paul stood in the street watching the burning building and couldn’t help thinking that his four could have been in there. He sighed and walked away. There would always be more opportunities. More ways to get his four.
He climbed into his old beat-up Buick parked a few blocks away. From here he could barely see the distant glow of the flames. He wouldn’t be adding any blue names in his notebook tonight.
“I was too late,” he said to an empty car.
He tore his eyes off the far away fire and began rummaging around the trashy interior of his vehicle. All of his possessions lay somewhere on the cracked, purple leather. Piles of clothes, both clean and dirty, filled the backseat. Papers littered the dashboard, with a swaying hula dancer stuck to the center.
“So, where to next?” Paul said aloud, as he fished a map out from the pile of junk in the passenger seat. The car was silent and still, save for the gentle movement of the hula dancer. Paul studied the map for a few minutes. Without a word, he folded the map and put the keys in the ignition.
“So now you know,” Paul said. A simple statement carrying heavy meaning.
Jessie just sat at the small kitchen table, staring at the small notebook between them.
“Please say something, Jessie.”
“I … I don’t know what to say.”
An audible silence filled the room. Paul looked at Jessie. She lowered her head, causing a lock of brown hair to slide across her forehead. Paul leaned across the table to gently sweep it out of the way, but she pulled back before he could.
“I think you should go,” she said.
Paul stopped, his mouth open. He regained composure and said, “Please don’t. Please.”
“You can’t be here. I don’t want you here, knowing what you did. Knowing what you do.”
“I don’t do that anymore though,” Paul said, standing abruptly. He noticed Jessie’s slight flinch, and said quietly, “I’m done. I’ve quit.”
“That doesn’t erase what you’ve already done. How many people’s lives have you destroyed?” Jessie’s voice quivered and threatened to break.
Paul looked at the floor and whispered, “A lot.”
“How can I be okay with that?” Jessie stood up, putting more room between the two of them. “You’ve done so much,” she scrunched up her face as she searched for the right word. “...evil. You’ve done too many bad things, and not enough good things.”
“Hey buddy,” a guy from down the bar said, “Long day?”
Paul just stared at the glass in front of him.
The stranger got up and sat on the stool next to Paul. This unwelcome guest gestured at the mug in front of Paul. “You gonna finish that?”
Paul slid the full beer over to the man, hoping that would end the interaction.
“Are you too good to talk to me or something?”
Paul shook his head, but still didn’t say anything. He looked up, wanting the barkeeper to do something about it, but the barkeeper must have gone into the back room. It was just Paul and the man pestering him.
“Oh I get it.” The man was standing now; “You’re one of those retards, right? Can’t form full sentences.” He laughed at this.
Paul’s hand was in his pocket, holding the small switchblade he kept there. “Leave me alone.”
The man gasped. “So it can speak,” He was talking loudly, as if he was putting on a show for the whole room, except he and Paul were the only two customers. “Let’s go idiot, say something else!”
Paul slid his hand out of his pocket.
“Look at how many names are in this book!” Jessie said, grabbing the notebook from the table. She turned page after page filled with black names.
“It was my job. It’s what I did for Dom,” Paul said, hanging his head, no longer able to meet her eyes.
Jessie looked like she was about to say something else, then dropped the book back onto the table and turned away.
Five. Paul sat in the driver’s seat, slowly cleaning his knife. He opened the notebook that he kept on his dash. After flipping past pages and pages of names, he added the name he had found in the stranger’s wallet to the end of his list. It had been a long time since his number had gone up, but going from four to five wasn’t a huge setback. After all, he had started at so much higher a year and a half ago, the number of black names in his notebook would attest to that. Throughout that time the number of blue names had slowly grown, and was now close to equaling the black names.
“Don’t give me that look,” Paul said to the wobbling dancer, “you weren’t there. You don’t know what he was like.”
It was hours later and many miles from the bar, but Paul still couldn’t shake the feeling of regret. “I don’t care what you say,” he said, continuing his one sided argument. “That guy was worth having five. Now can we drop it?” The car fell silent, except for the occasional crackle of news from the police scanner.
Paul was just starting to doze off when he heard what he had been waiting for. There was a fire. He tore through his map, desperately searching for the location stated over the police scanner. He found it and peeled away. It was close, he could make it there in time.
The dancer swayed as the street lights flashed by.
“I’m done, I’m out. I’m not going to do those things anymore.”
“But what will you do, Paul? Can you do anything to make up for…that?” she gestured towards the book on the table.
“What do you mean?”
“I guess I’m asking, when’s the last time that you’ve helped someone?”
“You want me to go help people? I can help people,” Paul said.
“Paul,” Jessie said, looking off into nowhere, “I want you to be someone who has helped more people than you’ve hurt.”
“You’re a hero,” said the EMT wrapping Paul’s hand.
“He’s an idiot, that’s what he is,” said a nearby fireman. “What were you thinking, running into a burning building like that?”
“I don’t know,” said Paul, trying his best to hide his smile.
The scene was very similar to the one from the night before. An apartment building was smoking heavily, and flames flickered through various windows. People stood outside staring. Some were talking and pointing, others were just crying.
“He saved that family over there.” The EMT nodded towards four people with oxygen masks sitting on the curb.
The fireman shrugged his shoulders, and then went back to his truck.
“Are you sure you won’t go to the hospital? Even with minor burns like that, it’s better to play it safe.”
Paul shook his head.
“Alright,” the EMT said. “Just keep that hand wrapped and it should be good in a few days.”
Paul stood, and again walked the few blocks to his car. Unlike the previous night, though, he was bringing the hula dancer good news.
“I can do that Jessie. I can be that person.” Paul paused. “For you.”
Jessie looked up and held his gaze. She gave him a small smile.
Paul smiled back and held his hand out to her. “Come on. We can do this. We can make this work.”
She stared at his outstretched palm, not saying anything. Paul stood frozen in that position, hoping for the best. She reached out and took his hand.
One. Four more names were inked in blue in Paul’s notebook. Paul’s elation would have been perfect had it not been for the nagging thought that he would be at zero if it hadn’t been for the man from the bar. He did his best to force this thought to the back of his mind and focus on how close he was. One. Only one. He had never dropped four numbers at once, and now he was unexpectedly so close to zero. He was so close to not being a negative force in the world.
His old car was pointed toward his hometown, toward Jessie, and he was already in the outskirts. He knew he could get at least one here somehow. Then he would find Jessie. He pulled into a motel parking lot, and thought about the possibility that he would find his one tomorrow. That was his last thought before falling asleep.
Paul awoke in a better mood than he had ever been in, at least for the past year and a half. He grabbed his coat and headed out, planning to get breakfast before he checked out.
The diner was everything you would expect from a mid-western suburb. Old people lining their usual booths, truckers laughing loudly in the corner, and waitresses tending to everyone in their mustard yellow uniforms. This atmosphere that had irritated him so much now washed over him as a warm sensation that he was back home. He slid into a booth and opened his menu.
Paul closed his eyes. He willed with all his might for the voice to not be connected to the person that he recognized it was coming from.
“It is you, Paul. Hey fellas, look who I found.”
“Hello Dom,” Paul said, opening his eyes to see the short, greasy balding man he had so feared to see.
“Long time no see, Paul. Where ya been?” Dom was soon flanked by two men that dwarfed him, each the very epitome of what it was to be a goon.
“That’s my Paul, never did like talking. Traveling, huh? Strangest thing, I can’t remember giving you no vacation.” Dom scratched his head in an exaggerated motion. “Did I give you a vacation Paul?”
“No bo-” Paul barely stopped himself from slipping into his old routine of saying ‘boss’. “No, Dom, you didn’t.”
Dom’s lip curled at the specific emphasis Paul had put on his name. “Yeah, I didn’t think so. You of all people should know how much I dislike it when my employees take vacations without my knowing.”
A waitress interrupted, “Should I set out three more plates for you folks?”
“No,” Dom said, “we were just leaving.”
Paul was pushed out of the diner without too much commotion, and was soon behind the diner.
“Well, Paul, are you coming back to the family?” Dom asked.
Paul shook his head.
“I didn’t think so,” said Dom, and he motioned to the two large men beside him.
Paul shoved his hand into his pocket.
“No. I can’t,” Jessie said, ripping her hand from Paul’s after only a moment. “You aren’t the person I thought you were.”
Paul ran his hand through his hair and tried to think of how to put his thoughts into words. “Jessie,” Paul said, “ever since I met you I’ve wanted to be better, to be everything you want me to be. However many names are in that book I’ll match with people I’ve helped. I’ll be equal.”
Four. It was hours later and Paul’s entire body still felt numb. Four. Again. He sat on the floor of the dirty motel shower cleaning the blood off of his knife and himself. Three more black names in his book and he was back to four. He had been so close, so close to zero. His hands started to shake, and the knife clanged to the porcelain. He raised his eyes to the ceiling and began to weep. His sobs echoed out through his empty motel room. It would take him so much longer now. So much more time before he could be back at zero. So much longer before he could be equal. Paul looked back down at the water, now almost completely devoid of red blood, flowing into the drain.
“I’ll get there. I will.”
“And how long will that take Paul?” Jessie asked, turning towards the window once more. Paul had never felt further from her.
“I’ll make this right, I swear,” Paul said, “I won’t be a negative force on the world anymore.” He turned and hurried out of the apartment, not stopping to close the door.
“It’s not about being equal, Paul; it’s about what you’ve done. I could never be with you after what you’ve done,” Jessie said, turning around. But Paul was already gone.