LAUREN DENNIS - SNIPPY
Lauren Dennis is a mother of two, violently fighting against the confinement that may or may not come with that title. She writes because she has to and will be published this month for the first time. She has received formal critique and feedback from the Lighthouse Writer's Workshop in Denver, Colorado, where she resides.
She seemed put out. I thought I would be her ideal client, willing to go short or long. The hair didn't matter to me. Being cool did. Maybe that was the part that bugged her. People can see through that shit.
"So what are we doing today?," she said, fingering my hair and squinting in disgust. “I would like a pixie cut,” I said, applauding myself on my willingness to go short on a whim. "What's that?" she said. I laughed. I thought she was joking. "I'm not really sure what it is."
Things weren’t going well. I wanted to appear chill, unencumbered, light and easy. It wasn’t natural for me. I wasn’t that way: light. I was intense, encumbered with two kids, and I had to fight for every minute to myself. Rosie the Riveter wading through married life, hatchet in hand, scowl, permanent. " A pixie cut...it's like a little fairy cut, " I said, defining the word 'pixie' for her.
She looked at herself in the mirror for too long, playing with her own orange hair.
I wanted to tell her it looked like Rainbow Brite gone wrong. She continued looking in the mirror. I would have forgiven her if it appeared she was assessing its validity as a color choice, but she appeared satisfied. "I have some pictures if you want," I offered.
"Yeah, that might be better, although (she stopped to look at herself again in the mirror) I can't make it look exactly like the picture," she said schooling me on the wily ways of reality and haircuts and the cross-section thereof. Sometimes it didn’t look like the picture, how deep. How like life that way.
I flipped through my phone, finger shaking, to show her images of “pixie cuts”.
She grabbed my small phone and pulled it closer to her face. She smelled like hair chemical and generic lotion. "These are all different. What do you like about them?"
I swallowed the lump in my throat. I had escaped for a much needed haircut, a mom of 2 on a rare adventure, and now I was holding back tears. "I like that it's (swallow) short." "Okay," she sighed, "take off your glasses."
Without them on, I couldn't see. I felt vulnerable, a small mole blinking toward scattered sunlight. “How's this?" She grabbed some hair between her index and middle fingers and held it at an unseen level on my forehead.
"Sure!" I agreed. I wanted it to be over as soon as possible. On the way home, at each stoplight, I looked in the rearview mirror and smiled at myself. It was the perfect haircut; light, easy, edgy, anti-Mom.
When I get home, the girls squint in disgust. “Ew, Mom, you look like a boy.” I think about using this as a teachable moment about gender norms. Instead I smile and say, “Well, girls, you can’t please all of the ladies all of the time.”
Ruth Z. Deming, winner of a Leeway Grant for Women Artists, has had her work published in lit mags including Hektoen International, Creative Nonfiction, Haggard and Halloo, and Literary Yard. A psychotherapist and mental health advocate, she runs New Directions Support Group for people with depression, bipolar disorder, and their loved ones. Viewwww.newdirectionssupport.org. She runs a weekly writers' group in the comfy home of one of our talented writers. She lives in Willow Grove, a suburb of Philadelphia. Her blog is www.ruthzdeming.blogspot.com.
THE SCHMITT TURKEY FARM
The week before Thanksgiving Day, the Schmitt Turkey Farm near Pennsylvania Amish country was in a dither. Everyone from Mama and Papa Schmitt, the fourth generation who owned this most profitable and bloody of enterprises, down to their three children knew exactly what was expected of them.
The cheerful sun entered their large clapboard house at six in the morning, but by then, Mama had their breakfast spread out on the white linen table cloth.
“Sure is good, Mama,” said her husband in his blue overalls, as he sopped up the blueberry flapjacks with cornbread. “Ida May, you’re gonna make sure the milk machines is workin’ all right.”
“Yes, Papa,” said the blond pigtailed little girl.
“What you doing there?” Mama said to Richie.
He looked up at her guiltily, with a sly look at his father.
“Uh, Carolyn doesn’t like blueberries, so I’m pulling them, uh, out of her flapjacks.”
“And wasting them!” cried Mama.
“Oh, no,” he said. “I’m gonna feed them to our fish in the aquarium.”
“My land!” cried Mama. “Now I’ve heard everything.
The seventy turkeys had been shooed from the pasture where their low contented sounds – they were talkier than Aunt Martha - could be heard in the house. The whole family would gaze lovingly upon them – the children loved their wobbling wattles beneath their chins – as the birds ate just about everything the pasture had to offer: the smooth green tips of grass, insects, baby birds, and the gravel the Schmitts had sprinkled over the grass to make sure their gizzards could digest the food.
Mama refused to eat any of the turkeys or make turkey soup, complete with gizzards and livers, until Thanksgiving was over and all the hired hands had been paid and fed.
The turkeys made quite a procession to their new outdoor enclosure. The family always wondered what they knew. They were pretty damn sure they sensed trouble as they were especially talkative and collected in small groups, like gossipy women, though these were all male. The females looked over from the pasture. Not to put too human a perspective on the little ladies, they did seem rather sad.
Richie would brag to his friends at the one-room school house that his father had hired “cowboys” to help out. The other children begged Richie to come over and see them. Richie was sorry to inform them his father had so “no.”
“And when Papa says ‘no’ he won’t change his mind, no matter how much I promise that I’ll work harder than ever and give him my second tooth when it falls out, saving him a quarter from The Tooth Fairy.”
The turkeys walked carefully into their new enclosure, like women in high heels. Though automatic feeders and watering machines were now all the rage, The Schmitts kept to their old-fashioned methods – hand-feeding an bowls of fresh water – and had people coming from miles around for their famous fowl. The Action News Channel had interviewed the family several times over the years and proclaimed the product “Second to none. Tender, flavorful, and juicy.”
All the children, with one exception, loved the traditional turkey dinner. They were joined by some customers they befriended over the years.
Carolyn had celebrated her fourth birthday. She loved nothing more than Mama to read to her at night. She loved animal stories. Life on the Farm. The Little Moo-Cow. Poky the Puppy. An obedient little girl, she hated when Papa got mad. His face looked like a red-faced dragon to her, so she never disobeyed. Or rarely did.
The night before the turkey sale would begin, Carolyn peeked out her upstairs window. All was quiet as if the snow had recently fallen. Autumn leaves were shaking on the trees and then whirling to the ground. She walked slowly down the stairs so as not to waken the others and went outside. She shivered in the evening chill.
The turkeys were asleep. She had no idea what she was going to do but found herself opening up the gate. At first the turkeys did nothing. Then with a great burst of noise, they began running from the pen. Freedom! They had no leader so they ran in different directions. Some headed for the house, where the family would feed them table scraps. Others ran for the pasture where the females made a joyful noise and raced toward the doomed birds.
In all the chaos, little Carolyn, in her blue flannel nightgown, had been knocked down by the turkey stampede, and lay on the cold ground.
By now, the household was roused.
“Good God almighty!” shouted Mr Schmitt. “Our lives are ruined. What are we gonna do?”
“Hush up,” said his wife. “We’re gonna round them all up, that’s what we’re gonna do.”
They phoned the hired hands who drove right over from their hotel rooms. The turkeys were loaded onto cars, Jeeps, backhoes, every type of vehicle on the farm. One or two could fit into outstretched arms. Carolyn was lifted up, hugged, and carried a fat one back to the pen.
At 10 am when the Schmitt Turkey Farm unlocked the front gates, Mr. Schmitt, in his overalls and straw hat, was waving in the customers. Each turkey had been slaughtered in the barn, the Kosher way, causing the less stress possible, making for the tenderest and juiciest turkeys this side of Ohio.
T H E E N D
SUNIL SHARMA - POEMS
Mumbai-based, Sunil Sharma, senior academic, has published five collections of poetry, two collection of short fiction, one novel and co-edited five books of poetry, short fiction and literary criticism. Recipient of the UK-based Destiny Poets’ inaugural Poet of the Year award---2012. Another notable achievement is his select poems were published in the prestigious UN project: Happiness: The Delight-Tree-2015.
He edits English section of the monthly Setu, a bilingual journal from Pittsburgh, USA:
On the mudflats of Mumbai
a few scattered here-there
like the wind-driven clothes
of the ‘illegal’ occupants
living in tarpaulin huts
on the dirty beach,
the skeletal hands search
for the sea shells under the
mud and rocks for hours,
eyes blank and hollow-faced
surviving on the bounty of sea;
a collection of shells fetches few
rupees, hooch and stale bread-n-fish,
while fair-plump youngsters as couples
savour the rains and the waves
adding adventure to a staid romance
frowned upon by the parents and police!
It is a dangerous territory where ghosts
Those enshrined in remembering hearts
can never die
daily worshipped by someone
that converts absence into a presence, lingering;
they get resurrected every night, when mind
wakes up the longing heart and fused thus,
rustles up memories grey-n-dull and brings back
the dead to life, in rooms full of walking moonlight!
Better it is to be recalled from the underworld
by a loving guy or a friend or a brother who is very much Keats-like
rather than be completely forgotten,
becoming another Gregor Samsa,
and then finally erased
while still alive, in a dead place.
of its master
behind the gold-rimmed specs
a stern visage
a bit redeemed
by a curve on lips
burnt by smoking
in a house
on the edge of a suburban river
with toxic fumes.
ANNIE PERCIK - TAKE YOUR LUMPS
Annie Percik lives in London, where she is revising her first novel, whilst working as a University Complaints Officer. She writes a blog about writing and posts short fiction on her website (www.alobear.co.uk). She likes to run away from zombies in her spare time.
Take Your Lumps
“The universe doesn’t care about you, Hallie.” Darren shovels a mouthful of sticky rice into his mouth.
“Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying,” I reply, trying to catch his eye so I can lock gazes with him earnestly. He evades me, focusing on his lunch. “It’s been one thing after another all week, like all the crap has been piling up in a chute somewhere above me and the universe has just decided to flip the release catch.”
Darren shakes his head emphatically. “No, that’s not what I meant. There isn’t some cosmic tally, counting up how much good and bad you’ve experienced, and deciding when you need an infusion of suffering. The universe doesn’t care about you - it can’t because it doesn’t have a consciousness.” He grins wolfishly around half a spring roll. “And besides, even if it did, don’t you think it would have better things to worry about than how your life is going?”
Of course I know he’s right (and dammit, why does he always have to be right?), but it sure feels like someone or something has it in for me at the moment.
Up until a week ago, this year was going really well. Work was good, my relationship was starting to look long-term viable, I was running three times a week and feeling good about myself generally. For three whole months, I avoided eating too much, and even made significant progress on the great knitting project of doom. I was on a roll.
“How do you do it?” Darren said at our last monthly lunch, admiration clear in his voice. “I’m lucky if I can force myself to stagger once round the block when I get in of an evening, let alone running 3km before work and still finding time to bring your other half breakfast in bed. You’re a marvel, and I hate you.”
I just smiled smugly at him until he stuck his tongue out at me, and then poured another cup of green jasmine tea.
I should have known it wasn’t going to last. And, in fact, I did. I remember telling my mum on the phone one day that I was just waiting for the bubble to burst. She told me not to be ridiculous; that it was stupid to borrow trouble unnecessarily and that I should just appreciate what I had while I had it. Good advice, as it goes, but I was right, too.
It all started with the drip in the bathroom. My girlfriend, Shalamar (and yes, our friends do refer to us as “Hallie and Shallie”, in spite, or perhaps because of our vehemence in telling them not to), had moved into my flat that weekend, and I woke up on Monday morning to a post-it note on the bathroom door that read: “Leak in ceiling.”
Mary (it’s a pet name, so it’s not meant to make sense to anyone but me and her, okay?) tends to go to bed a lot later than me, and had evidently discovered said leak when she went to brush her teeth. To her credit, she had bunched up a towel under the drip, to prevent a puddle, but it was now my responsibility to effect a more robust solution.
Worryingly, the water was actually coming through the light fitting, so the first thing I did was flip the fuse that controlled all the mains lighting in the flat. The last thing I wanted was for one of us to get electrocuted, and it wouldn’t hurt us to live with plug-in lamps for a couple of days. I then retrieved the bucket from the cupboard under the microwave (one of the things I’d have to tell Mary about for future reference) and positioned it under the drip. I spread the towel out more widely beneath the bucket, just in case.
It was pretty early, but the damp patch around the light fitting was already spreading, so I bit the bullet and went upstairs to knock on the door of the flat above us. No response. So, I dashed off a quick email to Mary, asking her to try the neighbours on her way out, and another one to the managing agent of the building to let them know about the leak, and went off to work.
Mary said there was no reply when she tried upstairs, either, but the managing agent reported back that the landlord was now aware and would get a plumber in as soon as possible. Mary put her DIY hat on briefly and unscrewed the light fitting from the ceiling, to give the water an easier path through, while I watched in admiration from the bottom of the step ladder. I’ve never been much good with a screwdriver, so it’s great to have someone around the place who can tackle such tasks with confidence. She laughed at my anxious expression, kissed me on the nose, and told me not to worry.
So, I went to bed that night, after emptying the bucket down the sink, safe in the knowledge that no water-related disaster would befall us before morning. This was a state of mind that was summarily shattered by the sound of a dismayed exclamation, which woke me at 3am. I opened my eyes blearily to see Mary standing at the foot of the bed, shining a torch up the ceiling.
“What is it?” I asked.
She glanced over at me. “Sorry to wake you, but I think you’d better take a look at this.”
Heart sinking, I pushed myself up out of bed and followed her round the flat like a lost puppy, as she used the torch to illuminate her discoveries. It was almost raining in the bathroom. The visible damp patch had spread across the entire ceiling, there was water dripping from both the light fitting and the heater, and droplets were collecting in a neat, regimented line between them.
“And that’s not all,” Mary said, leading me back through to the bedroom.
She pointed the torch upwards and I saw that the damp had spread through to that ceiling as well, and a small drip had started at the edge and was sliding gently down the wall. As I struggled to understand the enormity of the problem, the light was already retreating, and I looked round to see Mary disappearing into the en suite bathroom. I followed with great trepidation, and saw it was the same story in there. A soft plinking sound drew my eye to where water was intermittently bouncing off the tiles around the sink. Mary looked at me, her expression grim.
“Well, shit,” I said.
We scurried around for a few minutes, lining all the carpets with folded towels where the water was likely to spread, and positioning whatever receptacles we could find under the actual drips. The washing up bowl, mixing bowl, and pyrex pie dish were all called into service, joining the faithful bucket in the battle against the leak. It didn’t take long before our defences were arrayed as best they could be, and we both fell into bed.
Mary was snoring in seconds, but I lay awake, straining to hear the various drips, and imagining the bathroom ceiling collapsing altogether. At 4am, I gave up on getting back to sleep, and wandered through to the kitchen to make some tea. When I can’t sleep, I knit. Knitting is a fantastic pastime because it makes watching TV feel productive, and I spent a fairly happy three hours feeling very productive until it was time to get ready for work.
Having to get through the work day on four hours’ sleep is not my favourite way to spend a Tuesday. I managed to focus enough to get through my email during the morning, but was seriously flagging by the time I got back to my desk after lunch. So, I wasn’t exactly at my best when I got a phone call from Mary at three o’clock.
“It’s my dad,” she said, her voice tight with suppressed emotion. “He’s had a heart attack.”
“Oh god,” I replied, nausea instantly roiling in my stomach. “What else do you know?”
“Nothing,” she said, and I could hear how much effort it was taking for her not to cry. “Can you meet me at King’s Cross as soon as you can get there? I want to get the next train to Leeds.”
My mind was reeling and the stupidest things started bypassing the filter to my mouth without consulting me.
“But I haven’t packed anything, and I’ve got a meeting in twenty minutes.”
“There are shops in Leeds, Hals.” Mary sounded incredulous. “And can’t you miss one meeting? Please.”
The desperation in her tone completely failed to register and my thoughts still insisted on being ridiculous.
“But how long are we going to be up there? I’ve got a hair appointment after work tomorrow.”
“If you don’t want to come, just say so! I’ll go on my own.”
The level of selfishness I was apparently demonstrating finally penetrated the fog in my brain and I snapped into the right frame of mind at last.
“No, of course I’ll come,” I said hurriedly. “Sorry, I don’t know what I was thinking. I’ll leave right now and meet you at the station in twenty minutes. Hang in there, I’m sure it’ll all be fine.”
“Okay,” Mary said in a small voice that was totally at odds with her usual calm confidence.
There’s nothing like the illness of a parent to transform you straight back into a frightened child. I wanted to erase the last few minutes of total block-headedness and just hold her, but that would have to wait.
My boss is awesome. She listened to my garbled explanation as I shut down my computer and struggled into my coat.
Then she just said, “Go. We’ll cover things here.”
“Thanks!” I called over my shoulder on the way out the door. “I’ll keep an eye on my email.”
And then I was running down the stairs and out into the street, my bag banging against my side. It’s actually quicker to walk to King’s Cross from my office than it would be to get the tube, so that’s what I did. Mary texted me partway there to say she’d booked us tickets on the 3:35pm train, so I picked up my pace a bit to make sure I’d be there on time. She was waiting for me by the ticket barrier, her face tense and pinched. I threw my arms around her and gave her a fierce hug.
“Sorry about earlier,” I said. “Of course I want to go up with you.”
She sniffled a bit but held it together. “Okay,” she said. “We’d better get a move on.”
We made it to the train with a few minutes to spare and managed to find two unreserved seats in the last carriage. Mary was very quiet on the journey up. She told me she’d had a call from her mother just after it had happened. Denise was understandably very shaken and knew nothing other than that Mary’s father, Osmond, had collapsed at work and been rushed to hospital. She was on her way to join him, and hopefully find out more, and asked Mary to get there as soon as she could.
After that, Mary retreated into whatever nightmare scenarios she was presumably imagining, and didn’t really respond when I tried to be reassuring. Eventually, I just held her hand, and shared the silence.
When we got to the hospital, Denise was in the waiting room. She stood up as we entered and Mary ran into her arms.
“Darling, it’s okay,” Denise said, just loud enough for me to hear her. “They think he’s going to be okay. I would have called you, but I left my mobile at the house.”
Mary huffed a watery laugh. “Typical,” she said. “One day, I’m going to tie it round your neck.”
Denise gave her a squeeze and released her. Then, she turned to me.
“Hello, Hallie,” she said. “Thanks for coming.”
I get on reasonably well with Mary’s parents. I’ve only met them a few times, but they’ve been unfailingly civil towards me so far. I have the distinct impression they don’t really approve of me, though they’ve never come out and said so. It’s not my gender, or even the colour of my skin (they’re remarkably accepting of that kind of thing); I think it’s just that, in their eyes, I’ve reduced their beautiful and exotic Shalamar to plain old Mary, and they simply don’t like it. They evidently don’t appreciate irony.
Denise told us what the doctors had said. Apparently, there was a blockage restricting the blood flow to Osmond’s heart, which caused the attack. He arrived at the hospital in good time and they quickly inserted a stent that fixed the problem, and the prognosis was good. In fact, they said, it should prevent similar problems in future and would likely result in him being considerably healthier than he had been for some time.
Visiting hours were over for the day, and thankfully the situation with Mary’s dad wasn’t serious enough to allow us access after hours, so the three of us made our way briefly round the still-open shops so Mary and I could stock up on some essentials for our stay. Then, we hailed a cab and headed back to Mary’s parent’s place, on the outskirts of the city.
As Mary and I curled together in her childhood room, after a tasty takeaway, Mary held me close.
“I’m glad you’re here,” she murmured against my hair. “I can’t imagine what it would have been like taking that train journey on my own. You really helped me keep it together. Thanks.”
“I didn’t do anything,” I demurred. “Except act like a idiot, and then fail to think of anything useful to say for hours on end.”
Mary snuggled closer. “You were there for me. That means a lot.”
Osmond was on fine form when we all trooped in to see him the following morning.
“I feel ten years younger!” he boomed in his big voice, holding out his hands and taking his wife and daughter into his embrace.
I stood awkwardly at the foot of the bed, and nodded when he included me in his wide smile.
“That’s as may be,” Denise said sternly, “but you won’t be acting like it for some time. The doctors may say you’ll be fine, but you still need to take it easy for a while, and make sure you follow whatever instructions they give you.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Osmond said with mock gravity, staring down his wife’s steely glare. Then he turned to Mary. “Sorry for giving you such a scare, sweetheart. You needn’t have come all this way.”
“Don’t be silly, Dad,” Mary said, squeezing his hand. “Of course we came. I’m just glad you’re okay.”
I headed back to the house and spent the afternoon catching up on my work email, while Denise and Mary returned to the hospital for afternoon visiting hours. We all went out to dinner at the Italian round the corner in the evening, and Mary said we would be able to travel home the following day.
“I’ll pop back to see Dad first thing,” she told me, “and then we can get the train back to London late morning.”
“As long as that’s okay with you,” I said, twirling my fork in my pasta. “We can stay longer if you want.”
“No, it’s fine,” she said, smiling. “I’ll probably come back on Saturday, but there’s no need for either of us to miss more work, since Dad seems okay.”
I woke up on Thursday morning, looking forward to life getting back to normal again. I emailed my boss to let her know I’d be back at work the next day, then made my way to the bathroom to get dressed. And that’s when I discovered the lump in my right breast. My first thought was that the universe was really laying it on thick, and that the last thing I needed was to be worrying about this when I was supposed to be supporting Mary. I finished getting dressed, managing to reach a kind of zen detached state whereby I refused to let anxiety consume me unnecessarily. Oddly, the internet actually helped quite a bit. Usually, looking up symptoms online leads to ridiculous panic about impending death but, actually, in this instance, it calmly informed me that 90% of breast lumps turn out to be something entirely benign, but that it’s always best to get them checked out as soon as possible anyway, just in case.
I made it through breakfast without mentioning anything, deciding that Mary, and especially Denise, didn’t need to be burdened with something that would most likely turn out to be nothing. We all travelled to the hospital together, and Mary and I bid farewell to Osmond, who was still remarkably chipper, given the circumstances.
By the time we arrived back at the flat, though, the worst case scenarios for my health had started going round and round in my brain, to the extent that I was finding it difficult to focus on anything else. As I opened the mailbox and dug out the accumulated post, I cracked.
“I’m going to be really selfish for a minute,” I said to Mary, who stopped dead in her tracks and stared at me in concern. “I need to tell you about something that’s really worrying me, even though it probably doesn’t need to be worried about, and then you’ll have to worry about it too, and I’m really sorry.”
“What?” she demanded. “What is it?”
“This morning, I found a lump in one of my breasts,” I said in a rush, “but the internet says there’s a 90% chance it’ll turn out to be nothing and I’ll get an emergency appointment with the doctor tomorrow to get it checked.”
Mary shrugged. “Okay.”
I goggled at her. “Okay?” I spluttered. “Is that it?”
“Well, you just said it wasn’t something either of us should worry about, so I’m not going to worry about it. Obviously, I want to know what the doctor says tomorrow, but don’t be surprised if I’ve forgotten about it by then.”
I just continued to stare at her in dismay, until she closed the distance between us and gave me a quick hug.
“I’m sorry you’re worrying but, as you say, you’ll find out tomorrow, and there’s no point getting stressed about it in the meantime.”
Her total unconcern and bald practicality surprisingly made me feel tremendously better. My calm, confident Mary was back, and her refusal to be worried unnecessarily filtered through to my brain more effectively than my own protestations of the same thing could do.
The lump was thrown straight out of my mind when we entered the flat to discover the drips in the bathroom had moved about a foot further along the ceiling in our absence and all the towels I had lain down on the floor were soaked through. We both leapt to action stations, collecting up the sodden towels, replacing them with fresh ones, and moving the bucket and washing up bowl into new positions to catch the still dripping leaks.
It was only mid-afternoon, so I went straight over to the managing agent’s office over the road and asked to speak to our contact, Jenny. She came out to speak to me almost immediately.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, when I explained the situation. “I spoke to the landlord of the upstairs flat on Monday and he assured me he’d get the problem fixed as soon as possible.”
“Well, he clearly hasn’t,” I replied, reminding myself that it wasn’t Jenny’s fault and that I needed her on side to get things sorted out.
“Leave it with me,” she said, briskly. “I’ll call him right now and get him to arrange for a plumber to come out before the end of the day.”
“Thanks,” I said. “We’ll be in the rest of the afternoon, so tell him the plumber should come down to speak to us before he leaves.”
“Will do,” Jenny said, and I headed back to the flat.
I spent the afternoon triaging my work email and listening to the water dripping in the bathroom, bedroom and en suite. Mary got sick of me twitching about it and actually went into the office for a while, but I didn’t want to risk missing the plumber, and nobody was expecting me in until the next day, anyway.
At about six o’clock, I heard banging noises from upstairs and, for a while, my anxiety about the bathroom ceiling falling in ratcheted up a notch. Eventually, I couldn’t take it any more and went upstairs to find out what was going on.
In hindsight, it wasn’t the best introduction to our neighbours, since I leapt straight in with, “Is the leak being fixed?”
The elderly gentleman who had answered the door looked at me in startlement, until another, younger man popped his head round from the bathroom and gave me a wide smile.
“You’re from downstairs, right?” He didn’t wait for me to answer. “Don’t worry. I’ve found the leak and I’m just about done. The dripping should stop in a little while.”
“Thank you!” I beamed at him, nodded to my neighbour and fled back down to my own flat.
True to the plumber’s word, the dripping had all but stopped by the time Mary came home. She was carrying a bag from which the delicious smell of curry emanated.
“I figured you wouldn’t have been able to leave the flat to get anything in for dinner,” she said.
“What a star you are!” I enthused, taking the bag from her and bustling into the kitchen with it. “The leak’s fixed!”
“Well, that’s a relief,” Mary called through from the bedroom, where she was taking her shoes off. “At least you’ll stop worrying about imminent collapse now.”
Her mention of worrying reminded me of the lump, and my anxiety about that instantly took up residence in my brain again. I didn’t say anything about it, though, instead focusing on dishing up the takeaway. I would really have to make time for a run at the weekend, since I hadn’t had much exercise all week, and had been over-eating quite considerably. The curry was great, though, and well worth not having to think about cooking.
I slept better than I thought I would, but got up early to have a shower. At eight o’clock on the dot, I phoned my doctor’s surgery and listened to the familiar recorded message about opening hours and how to get repeat prescriptions online. Then, it rang once and cut off. I tried again and the same thing happened. Now, I know from past experience that several emergency appointment slots are made available every day for people who ring in first thing, and that it can be difficult to get through, which was why I had called immediately the surgery opened. Was it possible the receptionist was hanging up on people because she didn’t want to take calls yet? I gritted my teeth and dialled again. This time, after the recorded message, it rang three times and someone actually answered.
“Can I get an appointment for as soon as possible this morning, please?” I asked, trying not to let my frustration and desperation leak through into my tone.
“Certainly,” the receptionist said. “Let me have a look. I can give you 9:40am.”
Foolishly, I wasted valuable time with a completely pointless question. “You haven’t got one earlier?”
“I’m afraid not,” she said, “and now that one’s just gone. The next available slot is at 10am.”
“I’ll take it!” I cried frantically, imagining all the appointment times disappearing one by one as I dithered, until there were none left.
The receptionist took my details and booked me in, leaving me with nearly two hours to kill. I emailed my boss to apologise profusely and let her know I wouldn’t actually be in until nearly lunchtime, and then called Jenny at the managing agent’s office to let her know the leak was fixed.
“Oh, good!” she said. “I assume you’ll be wanting to make an insurance claim to repair the damage?”
I hadn’t actually thought about it, but there was significant discolouration on the ceilings of three separate rooms, and some of the plaster had come down. Jenny gave me the details of the insurer, along with the number for a builder who would be able to give us an estimate for the repairs. He was my next call, and it turned out he was happy to come round the next day to take a look, even though it was Saturday.
I ended up leaving far too early for my doctor’s appointment, just because I was too impatient to hang around the flat, waiting for it to be time to go. So, instead, I had to sit in the waiting room for ages, until my name was finally called.
I was pleased to see that the duty doctor was a woman, though it wouldn’t really have put me off if it had been one of the male doctors. She gave me a welcoming smile and gestured for me to sit down.
“Hi, I’m Dr Henderson. How can I help you today?”
I told her, and her demeanour immediately shifted to be very concerned and focused.
“Now, I understand this can be quite worrying, and I’m glad you came in right away.” Her gaze was intent, presumably to demonstrate that I had her full attention. “If you’d like to step behind the curtain and remove your shirt and bra, I’ll take a look and try to figure out what we’ve got.”
I did as instructed, and let her know when I was ready. She joined me behind the curtain, her eyes instantly drawn to the patch of discoloured skin on the side of my right breast. Her body language relaxed, and she smiled.
“Is that it?” she asked, pointing at the spot, and sounding quite contemptuous.
“Um, yes,” I said, suddenly feeling a bit foolish.
“Oh, that’s fine, then. That’s just a skin lump. Nothing to worry about at all. If it was anywhere else on your body, I’d just tell you to go home, but you might as well book a follow-up appointment in a couple of weeks, just in case. It’ll probably be gone by then, though.” She waved at me, dismissively. “You can put your clothes back on.”
Her complete shift in attitude was a little disconcerting, but also rather comforting, much like Mary’s reaction had been the day before. It was good to know the doctor was so sure my lump was nothing to worry about, and I felt considerably lighter. I made another appointment with the receptionist on my way out, and then set off for work.
It was actually quite a relief to get to the office and just have mundane work things to deal with for the rest of the day. After all the ups and downs of the week, I was feeling a bit discombobulated and rather drained. I stayed a bit late to catch up on everything, and then it was the weekend. Hurrah!
Mary and I had a quiet night in, snuggled up on the sofa, watching The Hunger Games. I had totally forgotten to let her know what happened at the doctor’s, but she had scored quite a few brownie points by texting me late morning to find out. She agreed that the doctor could have been a bit less dismissive, since her attitude might make me less likely to go and get things checked out in future, but was glad to hear I had been reassured.
Saturday morning brought the builder, who turned out to be a cheery Kiwi called Stu, with a big beard and a bigger belly. He stomped round the flat, inspecting the damage and muttering about skimming and how difficult it might be to match the existing dappled effect on the bedroom ceiling.
Mary was about to leave to catch her train back up to Leeds, but she followed him around quite eagerly, listening intently to everything he said.
“We don’t really care about it matching exactly, do we, Hals?” she said, glancing over her shoulder at me.
I shrugged and shook my head.
“While you’re here, though,” she continued, “could you give us a separate quote for getting some other repairs done? Some of the tiles in the bathroom are cracked and all the skirting boards could do with repainting. And there’s some damage in the kitchen that it would be great to get sorted.”
Stu went through every room, clearly totting up all the potential work in his head, then eventually joined us in the living room.
“To redecorate the whole place,” he said, “would be about a grand.”
Mary looked at my brightly. “That’s not too bad. And it would be nice to tidy the place up a bit and fix some of the problems.” Her eyes shined hopefully.
Stu looked back and forth between us, then said, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Your excess on the insurance will be £250, so I’ll add that onto the estimate anyway, and give it back to you after I’m paid. Then, I’ll push the estimate as close to the thousand as I can get, and whatever’s left over from the water damage repairs can go towards the other stuff.”
This made me a bit uncomfortable, but Mary just beamed at him.
“That would be awesome - thanks!” she said. “Now, I’ve got to run. I’ll see you late tomorrow, Hals.”
I bade her farewell, a bit dazed, and then was left alone with the clearly dodgy builder. Still, he seemed to be tipping things in our favour, rather than not, so I just went along with it. I gave him my email address to send the estimate through, then got ready to go out myself, since it was time for my monthly lunch date with Darren.
Darren regards me speculatively.
“So, what you’re saying is - the leak is fixed and you’re going to get some free building work done, Shallie’s dad is fine and feels better than he has in years, and it turns out you don’t have cancer, after all?”
He snorts. “Then what are you complaining about? It sounds to me as if the universe likes you just fine!”
Which is not an unreasonable point, as it goes.
DEBARSHI MITRA - POEMS
Debarshi Mitra is a 21 year old poet from New Delhi , India. His debut book of poems ' Eternal Migrant' was published in May 2016 by Writers Workshop. His works have previously appeared or are forthcoming in anthologies like' Kaafiyana' and to literary magazines like 'Typewrite', 'Thumbprint', 'The PoetCommunity' , 'Leaves of Ink' and 'The Lake'. He is currently enrolled in an 'Integrated PhD' program in Physics.
Today no one dies,
nobody is born.
The women they huddle around
the fire in their eyes.
Nothing escapes this room
not even time or light
only the sky tilts a little,
only the constellations move
along the fate- lines
from one forehead
bent in surrender
its underside bare,
out of breath
wave after wave
along the shorelines
in an instant.
‘pin- pointed’ stab
which lies inarticulate
underneath the waters,
I used to wear it on my head like a crown
when we went to my father’s ancestral home
on some Sundays, the railways leaping in time
taking us away from the city and to that other world
where concrete was sparse and the pale yellow of disease
left its unrelenting trace everywhere. Growing up in the city
there was little congruence I could find there.
Inside the house, surrounded by other relatives, sometimes
my ( now dead) diabetic aunt would drag her body across
the hall to pick up a fruit kept on the table,
her eyes gleaming while she looked directly
at me and asked, “ What do you call this
April , 2000
When dawn breaks
I know I'll have to move away.
Outside the spring has ever so gently
come upon us unnoticed
and the fragrance
of those flowers withering with memory
on my mother's grave
never seem to drift away.
I wander between faces,
between rooms and decades
like bees drawing nectar
at the cusp of dreams.
To you too, I make no promises of fidelity,
leave no creases under your sheets,
and yet something in you stirs
but stays silent,
something in you absorbs the night,
content for now,
with only the moonlight between us.
RUTH Z. DEMING - THE DUSTER
Ruth Z. Deming, winner of a Leeway Grant for Women Artists, has had her work published in lit mags including Hektoen International, Creative Nonfiction, Haggard and Halloo, and Literary Yard. A psychotherapist and mental health advocate, she runs New Directions Support Group for people with depression, bipolar disorder, and their loved ones. Viewwww.newdirectionssupport.org. She runs a weekly writers' group in the comfy home of one of our talented writers. She lives in Willow Grove, a suburb of Philadelphia. Her blog is www.ruthzdeming.blogspot.com.
He was invisible. He made a point of arriving at his job an hour before the museum opened. They trusted him with the keys. A small, bent-over black man with a bad back, he carried the cleaning supplies in a huge crinkly bag that read “Target” on the front. He would let himself into the high-ceiling rooms, and take out the cleaning supplies from the bag. Groaning with pain, he checked the entire museum to make sure nothing had been disturbed during the night.
Sometimes while he dusted he thought about his life as a child growing up in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Most of the southern family were as dead as boll weevils in a sack of cornmeal. A smattering of relatives found the means to migrate to Philadelphia, as racist a town as any in the south.
Mostly, though, he concentrated on removing the dust and grime from the city of brotherly love from beneath the tiny cracks and crevices of the one hundred and eighty figures designed by the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. He didn’t much care for the The Gates of Hell right there on the front door, put him in a bad mood to see what became of sinners in Hell – who knew where he and his late wife would end up? They were quick to argue. Why didn’t you meet me in church? You seeing that hussy again you claim is your niece from Clarksdale? Yet he dusted The Gates of Hell with love and care.
Balzac was his favorite. The towering Balzac wore the cloak in which he composed his thousand and one characters, most of them mischief-makers. It cast a spell over him. The Duster hadn’t much money but at home he fashioned, piece by piece, a black cotton cloak like Balzac’s. With his wife’s sewing needle and small spools of thread, the cloak grew bigger day by day. He would hold it up to the light and smile. Patience, he’d counsel himself. The Lord hadn’t made the world in a day.
As the buds appeared on the trees in the spring, he slipped the long, flowing cloak over his stooped-over body and rode the bus to work. Stares greeted him as he boarded the bus. He jingled the keys as The Gates of Hell grinned at him as he unlocked the door of the museum
Wearing the cumbersome cloak, he checked to make sure everything was in order for the hundreds of visitors – many of them foreigners – who would visit today.
When the director walked in, he strode over to The Duster and bowed before him.
“Why Balzac!” he said with incredulity. “You’re alive!”
The Duster nodded his head and smiled. The biggest smile since he’d eaten sweet potato pie with whipped cream back in Clarksdale.
Mehdi Razavi is a cardiologist in where he specializes in treatment heart rhythm disorders and directs the innovations laboratory for new medical devices at the Texas Heart Institute. Writing has been a lifelong passion and source of creativity. He lives with his wife, Joanna.
Ten Thousand Breaths
The ordinariness of Troy's thirty-six years of life ended when Bobbie Rae walked into the main branch of the Annapolis public library on a steamy August evening. The boy -- for despite his age there was no mistake that he was a child at heart -- was smitten. It was past supper but the sun was still out, albeit flirting with the horizon, casting long shadows on just about everyone that walked through the arcing doorway into the musky library. The library was like a humidor with its stagnant air. Ceiling fans sputtered overhead with the intermittent sound of insects' fatal collisions providing an element of unpredictability to the repetitive rattling.
The library was one of the oldest buildings in the city: Benjamin Franklin had christened it. It had been his belief that those who inhabit the confines of a house of books are as close to the Almighty as those who kneel at the altar. He had asked the architect to make the building resemble a cathedral. Towering windows adorned it all angles save for its northwestern aspect. This had allowed for the library to stay open for most of the daylight hours in those early years.
Troy's father still toiled in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, rising up well before sunrise to fetch his harvest of the best crabs nature had to offer. He would sell his catch to any of a number of establishments dotting the Bay's inlet on the southern tip of the United States Naval Academy. The summer months were the busiest in terms of both supply and demand. It was more than a mild embarrassment to both father and son that Troy had been afflicted with a skin malady that caused him to break out in red itchy splotches once it came in contact with the Bay's waters. It was not the salt or the water, but what it was was not known.
Better to have him work in a setting with at least some intellectual reward. The mother was well ahead of her time, having completed two years of schooling after graduating from high school, and had insisted that he be not far removed from books. He, too, had obtained his Associates degree from Anne Arundel Community College but had foregone further schooling in favor of a job as the copy editor of the Daily Annapolitan. He had planned to pen his masterpiece within a couple of years and thought the exposure he would get by working in the prestigious daily would offer benefits that would far outweigh formal schooling.
That had been eleven years ago. More than once he had thought of moving to Baltimore, D.C., or even Philadelphia to work at the more established newspapers in those markets. But fate had intervened on each occasion. He had found it easier to be subservient to inertia than to generate it.
He had met the daughter of one of his Mother's friends at a crab feast organized by the one of his Father's customers. All had thought it a splendid idea for them to marry. And so they were planning to do so.
His fiancee never knew the excitement of being proposed to, and he never the anticipation of a response while on bended knees. They lived a monotonous life, more colleagues in the journey than lovers or partners. They were the victims of their need to satisfy their parents, to seek validation in others' eyes. In their innocence they maintained the belief that their parents knew best, never recognizing that life's most important decisions can only be made by those who have to live with the consequences of those decisions.
Now by no means was their relationship devoid of happiness. To the contrary, they were the closest of friends. But while most successful marriages evolve to such a relationship, they invariably do so after having passed through a more raw phase. Troy and his fiancee had never experienced this. Like many other aspects of his life, he simply followed the path of least resistance unaware that the end of that path rarely leads to happiness.
* * *
Troy had been working at the library for the last year and had achieved the rank of Assistant Head Librarian, managing its day to day operations. It fulfilled his needs as he kept close to the books, made a decent living, and interacted with a calmer crowd. He was good at his job. Rarely was a patron's question or concern not fully addressed. He found pleasure in being a problem solver. It gave him a sense of authority and confidence that life had otherwise refused him.
He could help find the back copy of the most arcane journal or a copy of a text which had been out of print for years. He knew the procedures required for inter-library loans and was aware that his proximity to the three Big Cities gave him great power to utilize their resources. He was pleasant but firm with those repeat offenders who did not make it a priority to return their books on time.
Confidence had been something that had alluded him. Its absence contributed to a number of maladies, none more severe than the fear of creating his own path. Lack of self-confidence was the genesis of his need to satisfy others. This invariably meant he never achieved self-satisfaction and in turn led to general unhappiness.
So it was that the library served a critical role for this delicate young man: It offered an island in which he felt some degree of authority, to which he owed some sense of commitment, and for which he had developed a sense of responsibility.
* * *
Bobbie Rae had come in search of the back issue of the National Geographic. It was the eleventh day of August, Troy's Mother's birthday.
His heart skipped a beat the moment she walked through the main entrance. It was not the unpleasant, nervous skip which had dogged him for most of his life.
This was different: It was pleasing. It was not the frightening rush that overwhelmed him when in the company of strangers. It was a sensation that made him feel, for the first time in his life, excited to be alive. As if going down a roller coaster while listening to Ode to Joy but more personal and private and with a greater element of happiness. He had never experienced anything like it before. The sound of the insects hitting the fans above became musical. The smell of the library's old wood became that of a rose garden.
Though the sun was setting behind her, and though the lighting was poor at best, he saw every feature of hers as clearly as a crisp painting with exuberant colors and all its shades of detail.
Her light brown hair was pulled straight back magnifying deep, curious light green eyes that sparkled even in the library's cavernous lighting. Her face was milky smooth.
Her lashes were long and curved, almost tickling her eyebrows as she gazed intensely around. Her cheekbones were high but not in an obtrusive or distracting way. Her lips were red and full as if she had just eaten a cherry Popsicle. Her cheeks had a feverish hue to them.
Her eyes were now scanning the library. She was looking for help.
It had taken Troy almost a year to gain a sense of confidence, something he had struggled with all his life. The library had become his refuge. It was the one place where he was comfortable in his own skin.
Now that confidence, so delicate and fragile, was being severely tested.
She approached him gracefully, as if she were an angel, not really touching the ground as much as floating over it.
His heartbeat continued to accelerate.
This was worse than the first time he had shown a bouncer a fake ID.
He felt that unwelcome wave of warmth encapsulating his drenching palms and armpits, putting beads of sweat on his forehead.
"Hi," she said cheerfully. "I'm Bobbie Rae." She extended her right hand.
He discreetly wiped his hand on the side of his jeans before shaking hers.
"Can I help you?" He sounded like a frog choking on a bumble bee.
"I need last April's copy of the National Geographic," she said matter of factly. Her eyes were staring at his. He could see the green spokes of her irises contracting as her pupils were adjusting to the relative darkness of the library.
"Better get yourself together boy," he thought to himself.
"Why is that?" he asked, recognizing that the question was too probing as the words came out of his mouth.
She kept her gaze on him.
"It's part of my job."
He was beginning to wonder if she ever blinked.
"Oh..." he responded, sounding somewhat less intelligent than a complete buffoon. He realized it, and this only intensified the sense of panic which was beginning to overtake the initial pleasant feelings.
Finally she blinked. To Troy's great relief there was nothing odd about it. No bizarre tics.
"So... You think you can help me?" she felt the need to redirect the conversation.
"Uh-huh," he replied.
"Two strikes, young man, and you're half way through your third swing on a pitch in the dirt," he thought to himself.
He tried his best to gather himself.
"It's in the Natural Sciences section, under N," he pointed her in the right direction.
She blinked again, their frequency now normal.
And then she did something that would be ingrained in his psyche for the rest of his life.
As she turned to walk away, ever so briefly and ever so mysteriously, and not necessarily in Troy's direction, she smiled.
* * *
After she left to find the back issue of interest Troy bolted for the bathroom where he splashed water on his face and managed to calm himself down.
When he came out he found her at the counter, magazine in hand, ready to check out.
He asked her for her name.
"Bobbie Rae..." she started.
He couldn't control the quizzical look on his face.
"It's short for Roberta..." she began to explain.
"Sure...Sure..." he nodded understandingly as he took down the information.
She must have been from Southern Maryland. Somewhere in St. Mary's county he guessed.
She proceeded to give him her address. She lived in Annapolis. So maybe she had moved. He did not have it in him to ask any more questions. He had done enough damage for one day.
Still, he needed an opening line and fast.
"You know, I used to be a copy writer for the Annapolitan..." He thought it a clever line.
She smiled broadly. "Really? Did you have any bylines?"
"Nah, never quite made it that far..." he was quickly deflated.
She picked up on it. "Doesn't mean that much anyway. Look at all the good ones: Faulkner, Poe, Hemingway... They started at the newspapers but never made big it until they left. Consider yourself lucky." She looked at him.
There was something about this young man.
A pregnant pause followed.
"Well, maybe I'll see you around," she said as she walked away. "Thanks for the help."
As he looked at her leave Troy felt a pang of guilt and shame.
He had never experienced the same sense of exhilaration and bewilderment for his fiancee.
* * *
Bobbie Rae's had not been an easy life. The oil of joy had eluded her of late. It seemed that the eye of envy had taken its toll on her. The God given physical beauty had extracted a difficult and painful price. She did not let it show to the casual observer. But it lurked under the surface: The occasional loss of focus when she would fail to blink as the past flashed before her.
The first and only man she had ever loved had been taken from her by strangers in a war far away, in a land whose spelling she did not learn until after his death.
She was twenty-two. He was a year younger. The day after Thanksgiving she had received a call from his parents. He had been killed in the line of duty.
He had written his parents telling them that he had composed a poem for her.
For three months the sound of the postman's steps triggered a sense of anxiety and trepidation that this erstwhile carefree girl had never experienced.
She had never received her poem.
She cried herself to sleep every night through the Holiday season. Her parents became concerned about her health and had her move in with her friend for a few months.
The friend was more of a comfortable acquaintance than anything real. They had known each other since grade school in St. Mary's City. But that was the extent of their bond. She was not someone Bobbie Rae could count on.
She got a job with an agency headquartered in New York City. The frequent trips to the Big Apple were relaxing. But in her heart she continued to feel a void. The emptiness drove her to cry often and for no apparent reason.
Work was therapeutic. Reading helped her escape to worlds far away from the one in which she felt trapped. A world in which there was no hurt or difficult situations. A world in which if there was hurt or difficult situations there was always an easy solution.
One week after her visit to the library Bobbie Rae's roommate informed her that money was very tight. She told Bobbie Rae she was increasing the rent.
Bobbie Rae was forced to move out in the third week of August when the ad for a new roommate was answered by a girl who was engaged to be married the follosprinter
* * *
So now he had her name and address and he knew exactly what he was going to do with the information.
He was going to write her a short story: One every few weeks and mail it to her.
Since they were for her, inspired by her, in essence of her, he would mail her the originals, not keeping any copies for himself.
She could do as she willed: Burn them or save them.
Three weeks after their first meeting he started penning the first story. It was about a young man who was learning to play the guitar. He was gifted, able to pick up the tune of a piece simply by listening to it. He had heard Bach's "Jesus, Ode to Man's Desiring", aka the Wedding Song, at a his older cousin's wedding and thought it the most beautiful piece of music.
He would sit at the street cafe, next to the train station, strumming his guitar to its heavenly tune. But he could never quite make the transition into the final stanza. It was the transition which lent the piece its divine inspiration.
There was a girl who would walk by on her way to school and who, day after day, would listen to his failed attempts.
But the music nevertheless touched her. She loved how he leaned over his guitar, back slouched, head bent down, as if caressing a lover. Nothing else existed in his world.
Though she attracted many glances she never captured his. She would slow down as she approached the cafe and there he would be, always in the same table, with a half empty cup of cappuccino and a small hour glass next to it.
She found his persistence irresistible and though she had yet to make out the full profile of his face she was beginning to feel attracted to this boy who was so passionate about his music.
As the days went by she would make sure to pass by, always slowing down as she approached him. Always throwing a furtive glance in his direction. Always noticing his inability to achieve the masterpiece's climactic transition. He never looking up to acknowledge her. Never noticing her. Never distracted from his devotion to his guitar.
Slowly her curiosity turned to anticipation which turned into intrigue which turned into attraction which turned into desire. Oh that she would be his musical instrument, that he would caress her the way he caressed his. And yet, she had not seen his full face, much less said a word to him.
When the first rain of autumn was sneezed by the Almighty above she figured he would be inside. She could have taken a different route, bypassing the cafe, but desire harnessed her in her familiar path.
Sure enough, he was there. She reflexively slowed down and was actually starting to walk away from him when he looked up. She stopped in her tracks.
As he looked her straight in the eyes he unlocked the musical tune to her heart, completing the piece perfectly.
He had, he told her over a cup of coffee a few minutes later, noticed her the first day she had walked by. Her image was reflected from his hour glass to his eyes to his brain to his heart to his soul. He had kept the hour glass in its same position everyday, looking forward to the brief encounters. But he had promised himself not to look up until he mastered the music.
So it was that at the precise moment on that wet September day that she walked by, the circuit between his heart, brain, and fingers was completed.
Only then had he looked into her eyes.
Troy thought Bobbie Rae would like that story. He wished that Bobbie Rae would feel the same for him as his heroine did for the hero.
He meticulously hand wrote it, placed it in the envelope, wrote her address, stamped the envelope and dropped it in the mailbox.
It was the seventh day of September.
* * *
It would not be until five weeks after their first meeting, one week after he had mailed his first story, that Bobbie Rae would return to the library. It was another sweltering day, giving nary an acknowledgement to imminent Fall.
Her hair was down this time. Golden moisture-soaked locks poured down the sides of her face, their thick curls a halo around her sun tanned complexion. They added an inch to her already above-average height but also accentuated her thin, nearly frail, physique.
She sought out Troy and handed him the National Geographic.
He noted that she did not drop it in the drop-off box and that it was one week late.
He could not be sure if the tardiness was the reason she had returned it personally.
She gave him a soft half-smile, the right side of her mouth gently arcing upward as her right cheek slightly rose up. She was gazing at him and not without blinking.
"Thanks," she said simply as she handed over the magazine.
He had now rehearsed this moment many times and was better prepared than their initial encounter.
"Was it helpful?" he asked, matter of factly.
"It was great," she answered, the half-smile still on her face.
It calmed him and gave him a bit more confidence.
"Yeah, National Geographic is the best. Their pictures, I think, are even better than their articles."
"Agree, although you can't beat their articles, either. I actually ended up using one of the articles as a reference."
"Oh, are you writing a term paper or something?" he asked, sensing an opening.
"No, nothing like that. I was just doing some fact checking."
"Are you a teacher?" he asked.
"No, nothing like that," she repeated.
"Cool," he said. It was his favorite term when he was stalling to think of other things to say. In this case, however, it was not for lack of things he could think to speak of, but for time to process his many thoughts appropriately.
He looked into her eyes gingerly.
Had she received his story?
"Are you from around here?" he asked.
"I grew up in St. Mary's City," she replied, vindicating his instincts.
She would not take her eyes off him. "You?" she asked, the half-smile metamorphosing into a full one.
That small move, the simple act of lifting up the left corners of her lovely lips, was enough to make Troy overjoyed.
"Born and bred in Annapolis. We live off Cape St. Claire," he answered, trying his best to hide his delight.
"That's nice. I moved up here a few months ago."
"For school or work?" Troy asked. Though he thought it a benign question her face immediately clouded. The smile disappeared and with it his confidence. He was not sure how to react.
"Neither, really," she said. She was not rude or brusque, but it was apparent that the conversation had strayed in a direction she did not feel comfortable with.
He sensed this.
"Cool," he said again.
"Well, it was nice to see you again. I'm gonna head out," she said. She extended her hand.
He shook it. Much to his surprise his was not drenched in sweat this time. Her hand was beautiful and felt as smooth as it looked.
The handshake took just a split second longer than average.
She let go first.
As he watched Bobbie Rae walk away Troy thought that she had either not received his story or that she would make the best poker player in the world.
* * *
TO BE CONTINUED
BRYCE MARSHALL - THE HITCHHIKER
Bryce Marshall studies creative writing at Full Sail University. He moved from New Braunfels, Texas, to Orlando, Florida for school. In his free time, he likes to paint and watch films. You can follow him on twitter at @JeffTallGrass
The frigid air seemed to bite at Roy’s exposed skin. His lightweight, hooded sweatshirt and worn out jeans were no match for the North Dakota wind. He opened his wallet to see the picture of his kids. This only made him want get east faster. He continued walking with his thumb out.
“I told you I’d be home for Christmas and God knows I’ll be home for Christmas, sweeties,” He said to himself.
Before Roy could finish his thought aloud, a car pulled alongside him. The vehicle was a dark colored Ford Focus. From what Roy could see the car was slightly rusted by the tire well, as well as having numerous dents along the visible right side.
“Get in,” said the driver as he turned down the radio.
“Thank you so much, sir,” said Roy. He opened the door and placed his backpack on his lap.
“Where you headed?”
“East, I need to get to Bemidji, Minnesota. My babies need their father on Christmas.”
“Oh boy, I know that’s true. Let’s see...” The driver took a moment to look up a map on his phone. “That should only take about two hours. I’ll Get you to those kids of yours.”
“Thank you so much, sir.”
The inside of the car was immaculate. Roy looked around warily as to not arouse suspicion. About that time Roy finally noticed his nose had begun to run because of the outside air.
“Do you have a tissue or napkin I could use?”
“I might, let me check the console. Nope, none here, check the back I got a bag with some stuff back there. You might find something.”
Roy leaned over to the back seats looking for a new home for his snot. The bag was full of what seemed like camping equipment, ropes, tape, flashlight. No tissues, he checked another pocket. Only fire starting supplies. Nothing could be found.
“Looks like nothing in here,” said Roy.
“Check your door, I could have sworn I had something in here you could use,” said the driver.
He resumed his seat and began searching new territory. As Roy was looking in the slot of the passenger door, he noticed a small red stain in the crack between the door and window. Upon further inspection, it was realized to be blood. Roy immediately began to panic, trying hard not to show it.
“So you camp a lot?” Roy said nervously as he continued to search the door.
“Eh, when I can. Not much I can do with weather this bad.”
“Yeah, sure sucks out there.” Nothing is found in the door, Roy sits upright. “Well nothing here, I’ll just check the glove compartment,” said Roy.
“No, don’t do that!” said the driver, swerving slightly as he spoke.
“I’m serious don’t–”
At that moment Roy opened the compartment to find ID’s, wallets, passports and a dull black handgun. Roy knew nothing about guns, all he could tell was, it was quite old due to the weathered paint job.
This is when he noticed the driver’s unmoving glare. The driver was quiet. Roy was quiet. Neither wanted to break this silence because they knew nothing good would come of it.
The driver pulls over to the side of the road. It was still dark and cold, Roy had a bad feeling about this. Both occupants of the car sat silent for what seemed like ten minutes. The driver finally broke the silence.
“I think, maybe, it’s time for you to go.”
“That’s a good idea. I’ll just be on my way.”
Roy tried but the door was locked. He became flustered as he tried unlocking the door. This is when Roy noticed, the lock did not function on his side, only the drivers.
“Hey, man, let me out. I’m going to leave.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that… You’ve seen too much.”
As Roy spoke the driver swiftly reached into the glove compartment, pulled out the mysterious gun.
“No, please I won’t say anything man, I don’t even know your name who would I tell—”
The driver fired at Roy’s skull.
A thick, crimson liquid coated the window and door behind Roy. His lifeless body slid, slowly, down into a fetal like position. The driver went through Roy’s pockets, and shoved what belongings he took back in the glove compartment, along with the gun. The driver also removed Roy’s shirt, as to wipe off some of the blood from the window and door.
He unlocked the passenger door, from the switch on his side, and reached over to open Roy’s door. He promptly pushed Roy out of the car. The driver hit the gas then immediately the brake, as to close the passenger door.
He took a moment to find the country music station on the radio, and calmly drove on.
Jonathan Ferrini was born and raised in Southern California and lives in San Diego. He's a graduate of the MFA Program in Film and Television at UCLA.
The Unlikely Protégé
It’s the first day of the fall term and I’m sprinting across the faculty parking lot on my way to teach another class of wide eyed college physics freshman. Every year, the entering class is getting smarter and I know that one day, I will be unable to answer their questions or keep up with them because they are brilliant and have a love for science that I never had. Nonetheless, I can’t be late because I’m their professor! Just as I’m about to clear the parking lot and race across the quad to the lecture hall named in honor of my mentor, I spot Dick Drummond in the corner of my eye attempting to replace a flat tire on the old beat up Peugeot I’ve always despised because of its ugly chocolate brown color! The old distinguished professor of chemistry is struggling with the lug wrench. I’d like to stop and help him but I can’t be late for class. Screw Drummond, I say to myself. He can call the auto club. I hear the lug wrench slip and fall to the ground. Drummond shouts “God Damn it” and sounds distressed. What the hell, I think to myself. The students can wait in suspense for a lecture in particle physics. As I approach Drummond, the old man is sweating and breathing heavily. “Oh, hello Professor Stein, this lug bolt is as stubborn as me and just won’t give”. Let me help you, Drummond, I assure him. I place the lug wrench on the lug bolt and give it my best pull. The rusted bolt just won’t budge. Then I recall the principles of “torque” and “leverage” which I utilized about thirty years ago at this very spot and set me on the path to my unlikely career. I was reminded again of my contribution to Dick Feinberg’s theory that the universe, space, and time may be elliptical and this phenomenon which we all experience has returned me to where I started my career many years before. It would be no coincidence that evidence of space time ecliptics would be discovered in such an unglamorous fashion. That’s science. I find a metal rod to which a plant has been tethered and pull it from the ground. This will do, I assure Drummond and I place the thin metal rod within the open end of the lug wrench and with one firm pull, loosen the lug bolt. Drummond exclaims “well done”. I hand the lug wrench to Drummond and say you can finish the job chemist and race to class.
My name is Mickey Stein and I was born on November 27, 1958 at a Catholic hospital in Pasadena California to Rose and Ira Stein who owned a struggling piano bar in town. I’ve often speculated that my parent’s choice of hospital was the root cause of the academic malaise I exhibited in my youth. It didn’t matter because my parents weren’t religious. The fact that I was born on Thanksgiving Day never resulted in much to be “thankful” for but this was going to change as my journey along the “paperclip” and “motorcycle trail” of the universe began in 1958. My earliest moments of life were spent atop the piano bar in my bassinet because my parents couldn’t afford a baby sitter. Much of my childhood was also spent sitting alone in a restaurant booth with my coloring books, pillow, blanket, expensive dinner house food and exotic kid drinks until closing time when I was fast asleep and my parents would take me home. One evening on our way home from the bar, we passed the prestigious California Institute of Technology and my parents pointed and remarked “that’s where the geniuses go to college”. This made a lasting impression on me and I knew even as a child that I didn’t belong there.
I grew up in a small town situated at the foot of the Angeles National Forest about forty minutes outside of Los Angeles. I spent my teenage years riding my motorcycle in the foothills above our neighborhood which enabled me to escape the chaos of our tumultuous family life. My parents were alcoholics and the alcohol fueled horrendous arguments between my parents. I preferred to ride alone and have remained alone most of my entire life with the exception of one special girl. In less than ten minutes from our house, I would be deep into the forest traversing the dirt roads lined with ancient Oak trees. I rode to the top of the hill which afforded a panoramic view of the San Gabriel Valley below me. I’d turn off the motor, remove my helmet, and take in the natural beauty around me. A gentle breeze would release the fragrances of the forest and cause the trees and chaparral to dance. I often saw coyote, deer, and black bear that never bothered me. I always wondered how this beauty came together and what it all meant. During these moments, I was able to forget the tumult at home and these times alone in the forest were “Zen like” for me and I have never been able to replicate them. My return home would involve a drive down Gold Hills Road which was our equivalent of famous Lombard Street in San Francisco. As I reached the bottom of the twisting road and stopped at the intersection, my eyes made contact with a beautiful teenage girl pushing her bike up the twisting road. Her black hair was long, wavy, and she was graceful and elegant. Our eyes made contact for a split second in time before we each resumed our journeys along Dick Feinberg’s space/time ellipse. Neither of us realized that we would soon meet again becoming high school sweethearts and fall in love.
My time in the forest provided the inspiration for the creative writing papers I excelled at in high school. My papers were always returned with a large red letter “A” with a highly complementary comment from the teacher. It never occurred to me that I had a vivid imagination and knack for observation of the world around me which fueled my writing. I lacked the mentors who could influence me to pursue writing as a career and avoid the unnecessary anguish and dishonest life I would soon embark upon. I wouldn’t have listened to them anyways. My father and mother wanted me to become a doctor or lawyer. I was never good with numbers. Mathematics didn’t come easy for me and I was too lazy to buckle down and devote the necessary study to master the subject which was the foundation for other science courses required to gain admittance to the colleges of my dreams. Medicine required the study of science and was too hard so I became determined to become a lawyer and deal maker just like the characters in the old movies I watched on weekends in the privacy of my bedroom. I marveled at the Park Avenue lifestyle of these people and wanted to emulate them but was never told how. My father was a high school graduate and my mother never finished high school.
While more fortunate classmates were instructed in the art of study and college preparation by their college educated parents, I was simply told to get “good marks”.
My parents met in the 1950’s while working in a Pasadena dinner house where my father was the bartender and my mother was the hostess. My mother was about twenty and a former beauty pageant contestant. My dad was in his forties, single, and lived a carefree life before meeting and marrying my mother. Mom had many successful suitors but each soon discovered her profound unhappiness and chose to abandon a future with her. Although my mother never confided in me about her past, I speculated that my mother’s unhappiness was related to emotional or physical abuse she experienced as a child. My parents married and saved enough money to open a piano bar they named “Guys and Dolls” after the fifties musical. It was a success and favorite “watering hole” of the Pasadena elite which included politicians, doctors, lawyers, and fellow restaurateurs. It was my father’s lively personality and my mother’s charm which made the bar a success. As the bar flourished financially, the income enabled my parents to travel, blow through their savings, and spend less time at the bar. I was born soon after. Business dropped quickly without my parents to greet their customers and it wasn’t long before the bar was closed and my parents declared bankruptcy. Because of their previous restaurant experience and many former restaurateur clients, they quickly found employment as bartender and hostess at a flourishing local dinner house.
I never wanted for food or material possessions because it was important to my parents that they provide me with the best possible home life they could afford. I believe my parents compensated for their business failures and drinking with material possessions they bestowed upon me. My mother was an excellent cook and we ate well from the many high quality restaurant provisions my parents took home from the restaurant. We lived above our means in a beautiful ranch home in the suburbs at the foot of the Angeles National Forest. A series of bicycles preceded a series of motorcycles which afforded me independence and freedom the kids in my neighborhood couldn’t dream of. I was a capable baseball player and brought great pride to my parents. I often saw one or both of my parents out of the corner of my eye cheering as I made a great catch or hit but they would quickly disappear from view choosing to leave the game and return home or to work.
I was bored in school and always looked for a short cut to complete my assignments quickly so I could goof off. The material wasn’t difficult for me just laborious. I was assessed at a reading level above my grade level and expected to perform well in school. My boredom led to becoming a disruption in class and on several occasions was sent to the Principal’s office for counseling. My grades were average and the reports from the Principal disappointed my parents. I was never punished by my parents but told to get “better marks”. They never understood that their alcoholic arguments were undermining my performance and couldn’t understand that I was a candidate for therapeutic intervention in order to maximize my potential.
Throughout elementary school, my mother was a functioning alcoholic like my father. The fights between my parents were ugly and although I didn’t witness physical violence, the language was vile and made me insecure about my future. In junior high school, I was befriended by both the physical education coach and my mathematics teacher. The PE coach just returned from Vietnam and was a former Army officer settling down to civilian life. He was a tough Brooklyn Jewish kid who learned many life lessons on the streets of Brooklyn. He took a liking to me because he worked part time in the evenings as a novice bartender and was always inquiring if my father was “hiring”. He allowed me to spend the PE class in his office watching TV while my classmates ran laps and did pushups to his cadences barked like a drill instructor. He told me that I could become whatever I wanted to be in life and “never quit”! The mathematics teacher offered me “tough love” often exclaiming “think, Mickey, think”. He was Italian American and a World War II veteran. One day he saw my history report on Italy lying on my classroom table. He picked it up, glanced through the pages, and said “I landed at Anzio”. Both of these teachers saw my promise and did their best to motivate me.
As Junior High ended and I started high school, I knew it was time to get serious about my school work if I was to make my parents proud and fulfill their college dreams for me. As a freshman, I enrolled in the most rigorous college preparatory courses my public high school offered. I excelled in English and history but struggled in mathematics. My sophomore year would include physics, chemistry, advanced algebra and geometry all of which would be extremely difficult for me. I managed to maintain a “B” average my freshman year but I didn’t want to attend an average college. I wanted to attend Harvard or Yale just like the characters in the old movies I watched. I worried about my academic performance the following year.
My mother’s drinking caused her to be fired as a hostess and she remained at home as my father worked double shifts to make ends meet. My mom’s alcoholism reached the point that she was often drunk by Noon and comatose for the remainder of the day. She would often emerge from the shower drunk and fall into bed still wet. She contracted pneumonia at the commencement of my sophomore year and was hospitalized. I never visited her at the hospital despite her falling into a coma. I was angry with her for embarrassing the family and afraid to see her in a comatose state. I was awoken one morning at 3am by the telephone ringing. I answered the phone on the night stand adjacent to my bed just as my father was answering. I remained silent and heard the doctor inform my father that his wife and my mother died from complications relating to her pneumonia. The doctor reported that she could have survived but “lacked the will to fight”. My father calmly thanked the doctor for the call and hung up the phone without any emotion as if he had been expecting the call for many years. I cried myself to sleep but was awoken later in the morning by my father saying “time to get ready for school”. My father had already “moved on” with his life but couldn’t comprehend his son’s need to grieve and expected me to “move on” as well. All that I remember of the school day was looking up at the clock on the classroom wall which read Noon and feeling emotionally numb inside. I guess that I had “moved on” like my father. I’m convinced that I have carried the emotional numbness throughout my life which sabotaged relationships with women who loved me.
In the summer before my sophomore year, I would accompany my father to the restaurant in the morning where he would order the spirits and wines for the day. The mornings were warm, the birds sang and the dew on the grass created a fragrance I will never forget as we left home for the restaurant. We often stopped at the corner donut stand and took hot coffee and freshly baked cinnamon rolls with us to the restaurant. My father would enter a closet size office just off the kitchen, stand behind a podium, pick up the telephone and dial the alcohol distributors and place the orders of the day. He offered no greetings or salutations to the person on the other end of the phone line, just a staccato of various brands and quantities of booze. My father was like a General commanding his troops and I was impressed by his knowledge of the many brands of wine and spirits he intimately knew by heart. The chefs, waiters, and bus boys respected and loved my father who always proudly introduced his boy Mickey as the “baseball player” who wants to be a corporate lawyer. I wanted to make my father proud of me and live up to his expectations but I knew that my science grades would keep my grade point average and test scores out of reach of the top colleges I would have to attend to become the big shot my father expected.
One morning after my father completed his orders at the restaurant; we headed home and passed the impressive Caltech campus. I remembered driving by the campus with my parents earlier in my life and their remarks about Caltech. It angered me that Caltech students excelled at science and I didn’t. I was also jealous that Caltech students had their pick of any college or university because of their brilliance manifesting itself in top grades and College Board scores. My father hired hitting coaches who helped me improve my swing as a baseball player. It was at that moment that I understood that if I could have baseball tutors, why not hire science tutors and where better to find the best science tutors than at Caltech? When we arrived home, I made a phone call to Caltech and said I wanted to hire a tutor. I was told to visit the student employment office and place my inquiry on the bulletin board and expect replies closer to the start of the fall term as it was summer break. The next day, I walked on to the Caltech campus for the first time. There was an intellectual energy on campus which I have never forgotten or experienced on another elite college campus. As the students and faculty passed me, I sensed they were highly focused and engrossed in their pursuit of science. It felt like I was amongst the intellectual equivalent of royalty or Hollywood stars. I found the student employment office and I placed a 4”x 6” card reading “Tutor Wanted by High School Student. All Science Subjects Required. Great Hourly Cash Pay” along with my phone number on the job board. As I left the student employment office, I found the bookstore and browsed the many science textbooks with titles I couldn’t understand. There was an entire section of the bookstore dedicated to various styles of graph paper and mechanical pens. This wasn’t a typical college bookstore with mascot’s and memorabilia but I managed to find a lone rack of sweaters emblazoned with “Caltech” and purchased one.
I spent the summer riding my motorcycle and watching old movies. The summers of my youth passed slowly and were care free. I was earning good tip money working as a part time waiter at a coffee shop and my mother’s monthly social security death benefit enabled me to offer top pay to a tutor. As summer was nearing an end, my phone began to ring and I met several tutors. They were all brilliant Caltech undergraduate or graduate students. I marveled at their grasp of the scientific material I struggled with but came so easy to them. As the fall high school semester commenced and the physics, chemistry, geometry, and advanced algebra assignments were piling up, I hired two tutors so as not to overwhelm a single tutor. To their credit, they wanted to help me learn the material but I simply wanted the homework assignments completed quickly so I could hand them in and get top grades on the assignments. They would capitulate and complete the assignment for me believing they were teaching me the material. The high hourly pay was definitely an incentive to the tutors to give me what I wanted. I was able to maintain an “A” average in all of my science courses due to the perfect marks I was receiving on the homework papers. Unfortunately, both of my tutors’ schedules prevented further employment with me and quit. I panicked and quickly posted my 4”x 6” card again at the student employment office.
I was contacted by another tutor and we made an appointment to meet at his home. I arrived at an old Pasadena mansion and knocked on the door. I was impressed that my tutor lived in such an opulent home. An old lady answered the door and invited me inside. The interior of the mansion smelled musty and hadn’t been upgraded for a half a century or more. She introduced herself as Mildred and said “I’m so happy Klark has a visitor. He is lonely and works so hard”. She led me to Klark’s bedroom announcing “Klark, your visitor is here”. Klark was no more than twenty and there was something dark and brooding about him. His room was Spartan except for a metal desk with a draftsman’s lamp and a single bed. His text books, calculator, rulers, and assortment of pencils, pens, and erasers were neatly placed on top of the desk. Klark told me he was an undergraduate physics major from Chicago and could assist me with any of my science courses. Klark was smart, quick, and serious. He was able to speed through the homework making occasional comments about the concepts but Klark wanted his money fast and I wanted the work completed quickly without explanation so we were a good match. I paid in cash which Klark appreciated. My assignments were always returned with an “A” and sometimes a remark from the teacher reading “nice solution to this problem” or “thanks for showing me another method“.
It never dawned on my teachers that somebody who had a greater understanding of the material than themselves was completing my assignments for me.
Klark didn’t talk much. I could tell Klark was a serious student and I wondered how many hours of the day he spent inside the bedroom at that desk. The drapes were always closed and it was difficult to discern whether it was night or day outside. It was creepy visiting the old mansion and I couldn’t wait to leave. I was reminded of Gloria Swanson in the movie “Sunset Boulevard”. Mildred always greeted me at the door muttering about her long deceased surgeon husband and she smelled of booze. She was lonely and waiting to die inside the brick and mortar testament to her marriage to a doctor. I’m certain Mildred was grateful to have Klark living with her but I often speculated about their rental “arrangements”.
Klark and I were meeting once weekly and he appeared more tense and anxious with each meeting. I speculated he was worried about his own school work. At the conclusion of one of our sessions, Klark leaned back in his chair and asked me about my plans for college. This was uncharacteristic of Klark to ask me a personal question. I told him I wanted to get into one of the prestigious Ivy League colleges. Klark asked “have you taken the SAT’s and Achievement tests yet?” I said no but planned to take them in my junior year. “You’ll need at least a 90th percentile in order to get into those schools. Do you think you can do well enough on the tests”? Klark asked. I knew the answer was “no” but speculated that high grades might balance out lousy College Board results. Klark stared at me without blinking and asked “did you take the PSAT?” and I said no. The PSAT was the precursor or “warm up” to the SAT and a reliable predictor of one’s performance on the SAT. Klark made a proposal which would change my life forever and said “I can take the tests for you but it will cost you”. I was flabbergasted by the proposition and the more I thought about it, the better it sounded not considering for a moment the ramifications of getting caught. How would we do it, Klark? “Since you haven’t taken the PSAT, there is no baseline from which to compare your SAT and Achievement test scores and arouse suspicion within the College Board or your high school. The only challenge is convincing the examination proctor that I’m you”. How do we do that, Klark? “Find one of those “Free Press” newspapers. In the classified section of the paper, you’ll find ads for fake ID’s. Pick one in downtown LA who caters to illegal immigrants and won’t ask questions. Tell them you need a California Driver license and your high school ID replaced with my photograph”. Klark reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a sheet of his high school yearbook photo and handed them to me. “They can use one of these photographs. I’ll charge you $500 for the SAT and three Achievement tests. I recommend you take the Mathematics II, Physics, and the Chemistry Achievement tests in addition to the SAT. When I took the tests, I earned a 98th percentile on all of the examinations and won a National Merit Scholarship which means I likely missed just one or two questions on each examination. In your case, I recommend we shoot for a score closer to the 90th percentile so as not to trigger any scrutiny. After the scores are reported, the colleges you dream about will contact you!”
I raced to the nearest “Free Press” newspaper rack, removed a paper, and found “Cal’s-ID’s Discretion Assured”. Cal’s was located on Grand Avenue in the skid row section of downtown Los Angeles. It was a single room office with a vintage ceiling fan on the second floor of an old building. Cal was sixtyish, arms covered with tattoos, and a cigarette dangled out of the corner of his mouth. “One hundred bucks kid”, Cal exclaimed and I handed him the money, my Driver’s license and high school ID. Cal opened a closet door revealing a small draftsman table, assortment of precision pen knives, magnification lens, and a high quality stationary camera. Despite his gruff appearance and demeanor, he approached the cutting and photography like a surgeon working quickly and silently. Within an hour, Cal handed me back a California driver license and high school ID exactly similar to my own but with Klark’s photograph. “You’re as good as gold, kid. Good luck”, Cal exclaimed as I left with my new identity.
The SAT and achievement tests were offered throughout the year on Saturdays but I wanted to complete them as early as possible. I selected October 11th for the SAT and November 1st for the three Achievement tests, confirmed the dates with Klark, and paid him in advance as an incentive because I trusted him. Klark was appreciative and assured me he would be ready. I finished my chemistry, physics, geometry, and algebra courses with A’s thanks to the high scores on the homework assignments Klark completed for me. It always puzzled me why the teachers never connected the high scores I was achieving on the homework assignments with my lousy test performance. I suspect they were too busy to notice or simply didn’t care.
It was a hot and lazy summer. I was enrolled in a summer archaeology class which met five mornings per week and was dismissed at noon. It was an easy “A” and I impressed the teacher to such a degree she made me her teaching assistant. It was in this class that I met the beautiful girl with the bike. It wouldn’t be long before I discovered this type of occurrence isn’t luck or déjà vu but simply my travel along the elliptical plane of the universe. Like most high school boys, I was shy and couldn’t work up the nerve to introduce myself. Our class would take field trips to local archaeological dig sites. It was on one fateful field trip that I was introduced to Rene. I was assigned to a pit with Rene and our job was to use a spade to carefully remove what looked to be artifacts and make notations within our journals of where inside the pit we found the artifact. Rene and I remembered our meeting on the street earlier but we were both shy and diligently worked the pit without speaking. During the dig, Rene found an artifact but her spade wouldn’t penetrate the earth to extract it. I knew the gentlemanly thing to do was to assist her and I said “let me help you”, and beautiful Rene said, “thank you, Mickey”. She knew my name and never in my life did my name sound so beautiful! I showed ingenuity and grabbed my hammer and gently tapped the handle of her spade which quickly penetrated the earth. I handed the spade back to Rene who was hot, dusty, and tired. I reached into my back pack and removed a Coke, opened it, and handed it to Rene who said “thank you” as she took the bottle and gracefully sipped on the Coke handing it back to me. I raised the Coke to my lips, drank, and handed it back to Rene suggesting she finish it. We shared our DNA that hot afternoon, fell in love, and exchanged phone numbers.
Throughout the summer, I laid in bed at night thinking about Rene and how great it would be to get those high scores and get into the colleges of my dreams. I often awoke in the middle of the night frightened that I made a “Faustian Bargain”. What if Klark got caught? He would certainly “rat me out” and my scores would be invalidated, or he could be barred from the examination center if the proctor questioned his identification. Either way, I would be expelled from school and never admitted to any college! The conclusion I always reached before drifting back to sleep was that it was too late. Klark was paid and could “rat me out” regardless. On the other hand, Klark could be expelled if Caltech found out. Klark had “skin in the game”.
The summer passed and the test dates were quickly upon us. I sweated both Saturday’s examination dates. The exams began at 9:00 am and would finish by early afternoon. Klark was taking the SAT examination on October 11th and the three Achievement examinations on November 1st. On both Saturdays, I anxiously awaited Klark’s phone call. A friend or two would call me and I would angrily tell them to call back later because I needed the phone line free. The phone rang around 3:00 pm on both Saturdays, and Klark pronounced “All done. I deliberately missed a couple of the hardest questions on each examination but you’ll be at least 90% on all of them. Let me know the results when you get them”. Klark hung up and I pondered the future. It didn’t occur to me until later what Klark did with the fake ID’s?
Rene and I were speaking nightly by telephone and dating regularly. I was her first boyfriend and I could already sense that I was quickly becoming the most important man in her young life. Rene was of mixed heritage, half Dutch and half Indonesian. Aside from her beautiful black hair, she looked European. She was of average height, thin, and wore no makeup. Rene didn’t require any makeup. Rene was soft spoken, a very good student, played the violin, and her parents were cordial but very strict. Between my mom’s monthly Social Security death benefit and my tips at the coffee shop, I could afford to take Rene to fine restaurants, museums, and concerts. It also helped that I owned a Ford Mustang in addition to the motorcycle. The Mustang was one of the final gifts from my mother before she died. I earned the trust of Rene’s strict Indonesian father by bringing an expensive bottle of German white wine provided by my father to a Sunday dinner with Rene’s family. Her father loved the wine and often asked for more bottles. I was often invited to spend the night on their living room couch and Rene would sneak into the living room after everyone was asleep to engage in foreplay with me. It was glorious to probe, feel, and taste her young body. When my father was away from home, Rene would visit my bedroom and we consummated our relationship. We never practiced “safe sex” and eventually statistics would catch up with us.
The College Board examination results came in the mail just before the Christmas holiday break. My hands trembled as I hurriedly opened the letter with the official results. The reported percentile scores included *SAT 94%, Math II 95%, Physics 95%, and Chemistry 94%! An asterisk next to the SAT score indicated that I achieved National Merit Scholarship qualification and would expect notification through subsequent communication. My heart raced, and I screamed at the top of my lungs with happiness. I felt like the smartest guy on the planet. Within a few weeks, my mail box began to fill with invitations to visit the most prestigious colleges in the United States including Harvard and Yale! Each letter suggested that my admission was assured and congratulated me on my test performance. I was faced with a conundrum, however. I didn’t have the money to visit either of these colleges and the visit was a prerequisite for admission. Both offered a stipend towards travel costs but the out of pocket was too much. To make matters worse, I had never flown in an airplane before and I was frightened to fly and beginning to feel the specter of being homesick. Our family never travelled and the furthest I had ever been away from home was a three hour drive from home!
I was summoned to my guidance counselor’s office shortly before the end of my junior year. I trembled suspecting that the truth about my College Board exam results had been revealed. I waited outside her office. A number of administrative staff greeted me and congratulated me on my test performance. The door to the guidance counselor’s office opened, and she motioned me inside. A suited gentleman rose from a chair, extended his hand, and introduced himself as Associate Dean of Admissions at the California Institute of Technology, Dr. Brown. I shook the man’s hand and we all sat. The guidance counselor spoke up and said “Mickey, you’ve brought great honor to your high school by achieving extraordinary performance on the College Board’s. Dr. Brown spoke up and said “we’re impressed with your abilities, Mickey. I’m here to offer you early admission to Caltech. Between your National Merit Scholarship and our scholarship sources, you will receive a full scholarship and monthly living stipend. Essentially, Mickey, Caltech will pay you to attend and graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree. This is my first stop of the day and I have several high schools to visit and extend the same offer of early admission but only one seat is available and it’s yours if you want it”. My mind raced. Caltech is close to home, it won’t cost me anything, I don’t have to fly, and I don’t even have to apply, but Caltech? I’m not a scientist! How can I become a corporate deal making lawyer by graduating from Caltech? I could sense that my hesitation was beginning to wear on Dr. Brown so I seized the moment, thought “what the hell” to myself, and said, I accept! Dr. Brown rose from his chair, extended his hand, and appeared thankful that I shortened his day. “Welcome to Caltech, Mickey. You’ve made a fine decision. The admissions packet will be mailed to your home in a few days”.
It was a glorious summer. I dated Rene and we made beautiful love. My future was set. Rene was proud of me as was my father. As the senior year unfolded, word spread throughout high school that I had already been accepted to Caltech. The smartest kids in my class were miffed which gave me great pleasure. I was “walking on air” but the possibility of being caught always caused me concern and it would be uncomfortable to attend the same college as Klark who shared my secret.
I arrived home from school one afternoon to find an unmarked police car parked outside. I entered the house and found a suited detective sitting with my father. He was about my father’s age with gray hair and the two of them were discussing Pasadena restaurants which had come and gone over the years. They appeared to know each other. The detective had a beer in his hand because my father was no fool. I prepared for the worst case scenario. I was caught and might be arrested in front of my father. The detective introduced himself as Detective Jack Sullivan from the Pasadena Police Department. My father sat silently as Detective Sullivan spoke and my father gazed at me disapprovingly. “Mickey, I understand you know a Klark Kalman at Caltech”? That’s funny I thought to myself, I never knew Klark’s last name. Yes, detective, Klark was my science tutor. “So Klark was your tutor and not your buddy?” Yes, sir. “His landlady Mrs. Mildred Krieger said you were friends”. So the old lady’s last name was Krieger, I thought to myself. I never bothered to ask. No detective, I paid Klark to tutor me in science courses. We never hung out, Sir. The detective rose and said, “thank you, Mickey and Mr. Stein. I won’t take up any more of your time.” The detective headed for the door and I asked what the reason was for the visit. “Klark committed suicide by jumping off a bridge in Chicago and we’re following up on any additional explanation for the suicide but it appears the motive for the suicide was his was flunking out of Caltech and expulsion. By the way, Mr. Stein, I was sorry to see your piano bar go out of business”. I was stunned but not surprised by Klark’s suicide. If Klark couldn’t handle the intense competition at Caltech, how could I? I was still cocky enough to conclude that if I could figure out how to get into Caltech, I certainly could figure out a way to graduate from Caltech. Most of all, I breathed a sigh of relief that my “secret” died with Klark but I remained anxious about the whereabouts of the forged ID’s.
This summer raced by and it was the first summer which wasn’t carefree and easy. Something was bothering me and it was Caltech. An invitation from Caltech marked “Caltech Orientation 1976” arrived in the mail and my attendance was mandatory. I knew my first term at Caltech was rapidly approaching and the “rubber would meet the road”. I made the best of it by working hard at the coffee shop and making love to Rene who tried her best to cheer me up and feel grateful for the opportunity to attend Caltech. I was thankful to have her love, affection, understanding, and I relied heavily upon her to give me the courage to attend Caltech as I seriously considered withdrawing before classes began.
The day long Caltech orientation consisted of a tour of the beautiful campus and sophisticated research laboratories. As I met new classmates, I knew that I had made a mistake by choosing Caltech because I didn’t belong here. My classmates were the academic elite from throughout the world who were fulfilling the dream of their lives to pursue a scientific education at the world’s top institution. Many hailed from university towns throughout the United States and were the offspring of academics. They were an interesting mix of intense intellectuals, Autistic savants and a smattering of scholar athletes. The common denominator of each of my classmates was an intellectual intensity and competitive spirit. I knew that my courses would be difficult but I was now convinced that my classmates wouldn’t be comrades but fierce competitors. I didn’t stand a chance of completing my courses with passing grades let alone graduating from Caltech. Throughout the day, we attended introductory lectures by distinguished faculty and the final lecture of the Orientation was from a member of the Physics Department who approached the podium hesitantly. I heard whispers from my classmates that the speaker was a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. I couldn’t wait to hear what this professor would tell us. The Professor introduced himself as Richard Feinberg and reached into his pocket fumbling for the misplaced notes for the speech he had prepared. It was an uncomfortable moment and the lecture hall remained silent awaiting the professor’s speech. The professor chuckled, and said “what the hell, I don’t need any notes to tell you what you need to know about Caltech”. The lecture hall burst into laughter but grew silent as the Professor grasped both sides of the podium and faced the audience. “Keep your ears, eyes, and heart open while you’re here at Caltech. You’ll never know what you may discover about the world around you but more importantly, what you may learn about yourself”. That was it. The entire speech. Richard Feinberg left the podium to a standing ovation. I left orientation at Caltech with a sense of doom and waited out the remainder of summer and commencement of classes at Caltech like a prisoner awaits his death sentence.
My father moved us into a comfortable apartment which was across the street from the restaurant where he worked and a block from the Caltech campus. Just after the start of classes, I slept in one morning and was certain to be late for my “Introduction to Mechanics” physics class. I ran down San Pasqual Street and into the professor’s parking lot and tripped over a stack of iron rebar being used for the construction of a wall. As I regained my composure, dusted myself off, and resumed my trek, I noticed a professor attempting to change a tire on a beat up Saab automobile. He had the rear driver side of the car hoisted by a jack and was struggling to remove the lug nuts from the wheel with an L shaped jack handle. He strained and cursed but couldn’t get the lug bolts to loosen. He was in his sixties, tall, thin, and looked very intellectual and familiar. His hair was uncombed, clothes rumpled and sported a plastic pocket protector filled with pens, pencils, and a miniature slide rule. It appeared to me that the jack handle didn’t afford enough torque and leverage to loosen the lug nuts but at the end of the jack handle there was an opening of about ½”. I had just tripped over a stack of ¼” rebar which was cut into 4’ strips. I grabbed one of the bars and approached the professor. “God damn tire”, he exclaimed and I inserted the rebar into the hole at the end of the jack handle which provided the increased torque and leverage to easily loosen the lug nuts with one swift pull. The professor remained quiet and watched with interest and bemusement as I quickly loosened each of the lug nuts, replaced the tire with the spare, tightened the lug nuts and placed the flat tire in the trunk.
My hands were greasy from the tire change and the professor grabbed me by the arm and said “it’s amazing how difficult it is to find ingenuity in this place. You can wash up in my office. I’m Dick Feinberg”. I’m Mickey Stein, Professor. “You look young enough to be an undergraduate, Mickey”. Yes sir, I’m a freshman. “What’s your major field of study, Mickey?” I haven’t declared yet, Professor. “Smart decision, Mickey. Drink in and get drunk on everything this place has to offer then decide on a major. You can consult me anytime”. My life changed forever at that moment. Dick Feinberg was a theoretical physicist but I had never heard of him. He walked quickly through the campus and towards his office explaining quantum mechanics to me as if I was capable of comprehending it. Dick was greeted by professors and students alike as we hurriedly made our way to his office and I could tell that he was a “big shot” professor on campus.
Dick’s office was in the physics building. It was about the size of a bedroom with a large window looking out onto the quad. Bookcases lined each of the walls and papers and periodicals were stacked throughout the office. Dick wasn’t into neatness but instinctively knew where to find anything. He motioned to his private bathroom, saying “you can wash up in there, Mickey”. He sat as three doctoral candidates entered the office and sat. I could hear Dick tear apart each of the theories and conclusions the brilliant doctoral students put forward and they were nervous when answering. Dick cross examined each of them like a trial attorney and I could tell he was unimpressed with their work. I cleaned up and left the bathroom. As I was leaving the office, Dick said “You’re welcome to stay, Mickey. Feel free to jump in” and he motioned towards a chair alongside his. I couldn’t believe that I was sitting with Dick Feinberg and his doctoral candidates but was grateful to miss my class. The door to Dick’s office was open and I could catch passer by’s peek into the office as if watching a Hollywood star in their dressing room. On the desk was a gold circular emblem emblazoned with the image of “Alfred Nobel” being used as a paperweight! Dick rose from his chair and exclaimed “none of you can see the forest from the trees and have failed to proffer a single original thought! I’ll rely on Mickey the freshman to make the big connections for the three of you! I suggest you hop to it if you expect to earn a doctorate from Caltech. Now get out of my sight”. The three doctoral students hurriedly left the room and I could tell they were uncertain about their futures. “Do you think I was too tough on them, Mickey?” Imagine a Nobel Laureate asking me such a question, I thought to myself. Before I could answer, Dick said “Call me Dick, Mickey. What’s your father’s name?” Ira Stein, Dick. “Did he own the “Guys and Dolls” piano bar on Foothill?” Yes, he did, Dick. “It’s a shame it closed, Mickey. I did some of my best work there over a whiskey sour and my note pad”. Your parents must be very proud of your accomplishments, Mickey. How are you doing in your coursework?” I’m struggling Dick and frankly I don’t think I belong at Caltech. Dick Feinberg was a brilliant theoretical physicist and from the first moment he met me in the parking lot, he sized me up as being cut from a different cord of wood than the rest of the freshman class but my ingenuity and piano bar “pedigree” impressed Dick. “I want you to come by my office each Friday at 4pm. We’ll discuss your assignments for an hour. Agreed?” I was flabbergasted. A Nobel Prize winner was offering to be my mentor, tutor, and friend. “Now get out of here, I have to work to do. See you Friday. By the way, say hello to your father from Dickey. He’ll know who you’re referring to”. As I exited the office and entered the hallway, I heard Dick pick up the phone and request my class schedule from the registrar.
I looked forward to weekends with Rene. She was a senior in high school and was accepted to USC in order to be close to me and home. She wanted to be a physician. We enjoyed visiting Lacy Park which was nestled amongst the mansions of San Marino not far from campus. As we drove past the pristine San Marino mansions, we pointed to those we each liked and fantasized about raising our family in one of them. We spent our days walking through the park or laying under a favorite tree and sneaking a kiss. Since I lived at home and not far from campus, my bedroom and fathers work scheduled provided us ample opportunity to enjoy a healthy sexual relationship. I long for the days of my youth which provided me the stamina and rapid recovery to engage in intercourse with Rene for hours.
A “Santa Ana” weather condition unique to Southern California created a particularly summer like November. Rene packed a picnic lunch and suggested we visit Lacy Park and eat under our favorite tree. After laying out the table cloth and removing the flatware and silverware she carefully packed, we enjoyed the cheese, crackers, fried chicken, potato salad, and fruit Rene lovingly prepared. After our fill, I held her close and whispered I love you in her ear. At that moment, Rene began to cry. I looked deep into her eyes and asked what’s the matter baby? “Mickey, I think I’m pregnant”. My heart skipped a beat and fear overcame me. I rose and began to pace knowing that my future would be derailed if she had a baby. How do you know, I exclaimed. Rene wiped the tears from her eyes and summoned the composure to say “I’ve missed two of my periods, Mickey”. How do you know for sure, Rene? “We need to find a doctor to check my urine, Mickey but I can’t tell my parents and don’t know a doctor and can’t afford to pay for one”. I knew that we had to be certain before jumping to any conclusions and also knew that her parents would be furious and likely demand that we marry and have the baby which would screw up my career plans. Don’t worry, Rene. I have a plan. We gathered the picnic supplies and headed back to my apartment. We were scared.
I remembered the name of my mother’s ob/gyn physician who delivered me and was surprised to see that Dr. Lass was still practicing medicine in Pasadena. I phoned and was told by the receptionist that we could make an appointment for the urine test and the results would be available within a couple of days. The receptionist confirmed that the results would remain confidential. Thanks to my mother’s social security death benefit and generous scholarship funds, the cost of the medical appointment was of no concern. Later in the week, Rene and I entered the plush office of Dr. Lass. I sat in the comfortable waiting room while Rene was examined. The Doctor asked me to join Rene and him in the examination room. Rene was weeping. “Mickey, although we won’t have the urine tests for a couple of days, my examination of Rene confirms she is about ten weeks pregnant. Your options are to have the baby or an abortion”. We were faced with the most important decision either of us was forced to make in our lives and stark reality was staring each of us directly in the face. “If you choose to have the child, I’m pleased to be your physician but if you choose an abortion, I’ll have to refer you to a clinic as I don’t perform abortions.” Rene began crying harder but Dr. Lass spoke calmly and soothingly. “Take some time to think, it over. There is no hurry but if you choose an abortion, it’s better to complete it sooner rather than later. The receptionist will provide you with the closest clinic which provides abortions”. I placed my arm around Rene as we walked to my car. I opened her door and held her hand as she sat. As I reached for the ignition, Rene grabbed my hand and said, “Mickey, I want the abortion”. Even though I was only eighteen years old, I know it was a difficult decision for Rene and she unselfishly had arrived at the decision so as not to interrupt my career. Rene also believed we would eventually be married with opportunities for children when we were settled later in life.
We arrived at the abortion clinic on a Saturday morning. It was located in an industrial neighborhood and was a far cry from the plush medical office building of Dr. Lass. I could feel Rene’s fear as I escorted her into the crowded waiting room filled to capacity with women of all races and many much further along than Rene. I was taken aback at how calm each of these women were suggesting they had abortions previously. I registered Rene and wrote a check for the procedure which apparently impressed many of the other patients who were indigent. The receptionist quietly told me “I’ll see that she gets right in young man”. Within minutes, a nurse came for Rene and led her into the procedure room. Our eyes locked and my eyes began to fill with tears just like Rene’s. “You can wait here young man or I’ll bring her to your car”. I thanked the kind nurse and hurriedly left the terrible reception room. Within an hour, Rene was wheeled to the Mustang by the nurse and carefully lifted from the wheel chair and placed within the front seat. She was ashen gray and shivering. I had never seen Rene so exhausted and emotionally drained. “Young man, there may be some minor bleeding but if it increases in severity, take her to the nearest ER.” The nurse handed me a post procedure instruction paper and a tiny envelope with pain pills. “Good luck to both of you”. As I drove out of the parking lot, the nurse gazed at my Mustang with the Caltech insignia proudly displayed within the back window. I drove Rene home and her plan was to tell her parents she had the flu and needed to stay off her feet for a few days. I sweated the next few days realizing that a trip to the ER would reveal the abortion. Three days came and went and life resumed its normal hue but I knew that Rene would carry the experience like baggage for the rest of her life. At eighteen, I couldn’t possibly have fully understood the range of emotions Rene must have undergone and the humiliation and disappointment which accompanied her abortion. Rene and I continued to date but it was never the same. Our conversations were strained and Rene had a faraway look in her eyes. Our dating became less frequent and within a few months, I received the “Dear John” letter. Rene told me that she needed to devote all of her energy to her school work and that I should do the same. She wished me luck. Today, I can appreciate her pain and harbor guilt and misgivings that I wasn’t emotionally available to her in that awful time of need. At times, I also regret the fateful decision we made together and wonder about the family we never had. I will never forget Rene as long as I live.
I was flunking out of Caltech. My fellow freshmen divided themselves into study groups and I bounced from one to another finding myself woefully unprepared for the rigor of Caltech and its curriculum. More importantly, I lacked the passion for science that my fellow freshman demonstrated. Despite my earnest attempts to prepare for the examinations, the examinations were written by the best scientific minds in the world and designed to test the classroom curriculum in real world everyday applications. It’s the only way the professors at Caltech can test the best scientific minds in the world. Some of my classmates would finish the exam early, and I could hear them discuss their answers in the hallway while I struggled to put something of an answer down on the paper.
Friday afternoon’s with Dick were well intentioned but resulted in a lot of BS and goofing off. Dick never discussed his personal life nor did he invite me to his home. Despite our close association, Dick kept our relationship professional with a healthy dose of laughter, mutual respect and friendship. Dick’s approach to tutoring me was to make generalizations about the subject matter of each of my classes and I believe he was attempting to fuel my inquisitiveness and self discovery. It wasn’t helpful to me. After all, Dick’s approach to explaining my courses was that of a genius and Nobel Laureate to a student who cheated to gain admission. The old rotary phone in Dick’s office rang one day and I could hear the voice on the other end. Dick motioned for me to remain silent. “Richard, this is Dave Goodman, how are you?” I knew Dave Goodman was also an eminent professor of physics and one of the physics departments Vice Chairman. “What do you want, David, I’m busy at the moment” Dick curtly mumbled into the phone while scribbling equations on his yellow pad. “I know you have taken a liking to one of our students, Mickey Stein but I have to make a decision to give him the boot”. I knew this day was coming and was humiliated that it happened in front of my friend and mentor. I felt a wave of sadness overcome me but also a sense of relief that I would no longer have to pretend to be somebody that I wasn’t. To my surprise, Dick shouted into the phone “leave him alone, he’s a good kid and working hard at his subjects”. “So you vouch for him, Richard” Goodman asked. “Yes, David, I do. He’ll get his grades up”. Dick hung up the phone, finished his scribbling, leaned back in his chair and looked at me like a disappointed father. “Mickey, I just received a call from the head of the Physics Department. They don’t think you’re cutting the mustard and want your ass. You need to get your grades up to get them off our backs. Finals are coming up and I spoke with Professor Simon and got some inside information on his final for you”.
Professor Simon’s physics course was tough and I was certain to fail it. I couldn’t believe that Dick was going to give me the answers or likely a copy of the test? “Focus on a bicycle wheel and a baseball both moving through space and time simultaneously. Imagine the physics involved and you’ll be fine”. This was a typical Dick Feinberg tutorial session and I left it more confused than when I arrived! I knew that I had “dodged a bullet” with Dr. Goodman but sooner rather than later he would pay me another visit and perhaps Dick couldn’t protect me.
During one of our Friday tutorial sessions, we were discussing motorcycles. I told Dick about a trail head with two entrances and two exits in the mountains where I rode. I told him that regardless of which of the two entrances I choose, a second rider would arrive at the exit of the trail at the same time as me despite the trails being completely dissimilar including length. Dick scoffed at the idea suggesting that the trails although different, may be longer or shorter in length and that the ability of the rider and capability of his motorcycle must be accounted for. He brushed the phenomenon off as coincidence and suggested we were naively validating our hoped for conclusions with sloppy testing. Although I had ridden these two trails many times before with a variety of second riders of varying skill, I knew instinctively that I was correct because we had measured the distance on many occasions but I couldn’t explain it scientifically. Furthermore, I wasn’t about to question Dick Feinberg’s conclusion. Dick sat there and stared at me silently waiting for a well reasoned reply. He had become my friend and like an uncle to me and I couldn’t disappoint him because he was intellectually challenging me in the traditional scientific way of things. I was going to give Dick an answer even if it was full of BS. I was a capable writer and always borrowed from my surroundings for the subject matter of my fiction. I hurriedly glanced about the room looking for inspiration, my heart racing, and my palms growing moist with perspiration. Dick was twirling a paperclip with his fingers which was distracting me. My life was about to change forever. There was something about the paperclip which fascinated me and drew me to a closer examination. I looked for another paperclip that I could use to spin my fiction and provide Dick with an answer. On the floor beneath my chair was the most beautiful specimen of a paperclip you can ever imagine. I have carried the same paperclip in my shirt pocket every day of my life since then. I held the paperclip in front of Dick’s face and said my riding experience is “elliptical” like this paperclip. Dick took notice when I said elliptical and the expression on his face was unfamiliar to me. He had the inquisitiveness of a student again and I realized that he had studied ellipses at sometime in his career. I felt like a “snake oil” salesman attempting to sell a line of BS to a Nobel Laureate but I owed Dick something of an explanation so I continued. At that moment, I heard the reassuring voices of my Junior High PE and mathematics teachers encouraging me to take my best shot. “Think, Mickey, Think”. “Don’t give up, never quit”. Notice that the clip has two pointed ends which are alongside each other. Dick stared intently at my paperclip. Notice that regardless of which pointed end you choose, you will continue along an elliptical path which leads you out the end of the other point and this will always be the case regardless of which pointed end of the clip you embark upon. I knew Dick well enough to know that I had his attention but hadn’t “sold him” on anything yet. My mind gravitated to my last lovemaking session with Rene. It was intense and exhausted both of us. In particular, I remembered the mattress on my bed wasn’t firm. When we were on top of one another, we made a significant depression within the soft mattress which rose up around us as if enveloping us. When we left the bed, the mattress regained its original flat composure. I enjoyed the softness of the mattress because it permitted me greater agility and maneuverability during intercourse with Rene. I was inspired and continued to sell my snake oil. What the hell, I could only embarrass myself and be wrong. I continued. I pulled the paperclip apart and said this is the universe as a flat plain, Dick. Notice the two pointed ends of the clip are now at opposite ends and one can only enter and exit at one point. Imagine Dick a depression on this flat plane which bends the paperclip back into its original manufactured state with both ends of the pointed clip alongside each other. You see, Dick, it’s like a mattress which is soft and becomes depressed when one lies atop it. The paperclip may explain Déjà vu because we always come back again. At that point, Dick rose from his chair and I witnessed intensity about him I had never seen before. I was frightened and expected him to throw me out of the office. “It’s not a mattress, Mickey. It’s the plane of the universe and the depression which occurs upon it is often a dying star growing so small that it ultimately becomes a black hole. The mass of the star doesn’t disappear but becomes concentrated as it shrinks and creates a depression within the plane or fabric of the universe”. Dick picked up his old rotary phone, dialed and waited for an answer. I could hear a woman’s voice on the other end state, “Chief Librarian, how may I help you”. Dick was scribbling feverishly on a yellow notepad. “This is Dick Feinberg. I’m sending my Research Assistant over to the library with instructions to wait for you to pull the following publications”. To this day, I can’t recall which specific publications he wanted except that they were scholarly publications, textbooks, and research papers concerning ellipses which Dick said over and over. He hung up the phone and his passion for intellectual pursuit engulfed him. I had never seen Dick like this before. He was hungry for knowledge and excited to pursue it. “Mickey, get over to the library and tell them Dick Feinberg sent you with orders to wait. Bring everything back to the office. Here’s a key to the door if I’m not here. Put the stack of publications behind my desk and out of sight”. There is a great deal of competition at Caltech. Despite the genius of the professors and student body, original, innovative, world changing ideas are difficult to come by and everybody is looking for an edge and the opportunity to discover the next big thing. David Goodman was an example of such competition. He was a brilliant physicist but lost his edge with each graying hair over time. He seemed angry about it. Instead of retiring with honor, he chose to stay on and assume the administrative duties of Vice Chairman of the Physics Department. In David’s mind, it was better to be part of the action then not at all. He developed a reputation of being nosey and always eves dropping on others conversations within the department as he was seeking his edge! Although David was no longer a research scientist, David had great power within Caltech.
Word spread about my work with Feinberg and my professors cut me slack on classroom attendance and my final grades. In addition, Dick sponsored me in several independent study courses and awarded me with top grades which bolstered my GPA. For Dick Feinberg, my observation about the entry and exit points of a motorcycle trail or paperclip were the foundations about the emergence, disappearance, and return of light, matter, and energy in the form of subatomic particles. It was Dick Feinberg’s unique ability and passion to describe this phenomenon in the language of his peers, mathematics and physics which brought my hunch to life. Dick began to calculate, postulate, and theorize in mathematical and physics terms the phenomenon I developed. I was expected to assist Dick in the collection of publications to bolster his theories and critique his mathematical and physics conclusions regardless of the fact that I couldn’t understand any of it. I will never forget the graciousness of Dick’s invitation to assist him and was humbled when he awarded me a co-author credit on all of the publications which changed my life forever. I was watching a genius at work from a front row seat!
I was summoned to David Goodman’s office one afternoon. I was ushered into the large, well appointed office David occupied as Vice Chair of the Physics Department and was in stark contrast to the bedroom size cluttered office Dick maintained. I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t the size of the office which made the reputation of its occupant but the volume and quality of the physics produced inside the office. Testaments to David’s former illustrious career in Physics adorned the walls with many awards, citations, and photographs with important scientists and politicians. David was close to Dick’s age but lacked the child like sense of wonder and curiosity about the world around him. David’s demeanor was cold, aloof, distant, and calculating. I sat in a leather chair with the legs cut off so the chairs occupant was at a lower eye level than David’s. David kept me waiting while he finished a scientific journal and sipped his afternoon tea from a tea cup with saucer. David placed the journal down on the desk, sighed, and said “Mr. Stein you’re failing at Caltech”. He picked up a folder with my name on it, opened the dossier which contained by Caltech and high school records and began to read from it. “Mr. Stein, I see that you graduated from an undistinguished local public high school without a history of sending any students to Caltech. I further see that neither your parents were college graduates. I must congratulate you on your stellar performance on the College Boards. You defeated the odds which were stacked against you”! I sat motionless and was growing angry by David’s suggestion that I might not be good enough to be at Caltech due to the high school I attended, and most importantly, my parentage. David placed the dossier down on his desk, took a sip of tea, carefully placed the tea cup within the saucer and said “even more remarkable is your association with one of Caltech’s preeminent professors. Tell me, Mr. Stein, what are you and Dick Feinberg up to concerning ellipticals?” David stared at me coldly like a shark staring at its prey just before devouring it. I hesitated but David’s peering eyes penetrated me and he was determined to wait as long as necessary to get his answer. I don’t know what you mean by “up to”, Dean Goodman. I’m Professor Feinberg’s research assistant and Professor Feinberg tutors me once per week. I could see that my answer irritated David who sat up in his leather chair. He leaned in so close to me I could smell the tea on his breath. “Listen to me, Mr. Stein. Your grades at Caltech are well below academic probation levels and with one stroke of my pen, I can have you dismissed from Caltech and there is nothing Dick Feinberg can do about it. You see Mr. Stein, Dick Feinberg is a warm hearted and generous man but at the end of the day, I control the budget for the Physics Department and I’m charged with allocating a generous amount of federal and private monies to the faculty. Dick Feinberg is a pragmatist and he wouldn’t jeopardize his funding over the likes of you. Now, once more, what are the two of you up to in your research concerning ellipticals?” For the second time in my life, I faced a decision with life changing consequences. I had both everything to gain and everything to lose depending upon my answer. I could divulge the results of Dick’s research and possibly remain in school or honor my friendship and fidelity to Dick and keep his work confidential. I reached down deep into my soul and without hesitation told Dean Goodman I had nothing further to say about the matter and I was willing to accept the consequences. David Goodman was noticeably upset, red faced, and had his bluff called by a nineteen year old kid who was his intellectual inferior. David picked up the journal and raised it to his face saying “that’s all for now, Mr. Stein. I’ll take your predicament here at Caltech under advisement”. I left the office certain that I would find a notice of dismissal from Caltech arrive in the mail but I also felt a new found belief in myself that for the first time in my life, I had made the correct moral decision. I faced down a more powerful foe than myself with the ability to terminate my career in favor of defending one of the kindest and most thoughtful men I had ever met, Dick Feinberg. I had made the correct decision and was ready to accept the consequences.
Dean Goodman never contacted me. Dick and I worked together on a daily basis throughout my undergraduate career. I would graduate from Caltech with a BS degree in Physics barely squeaking by with a C- average. On a beautiful spring day, I graduated much to the joy of my father who was joined by my PE and mathematics Junior High School teachers and Rene who was attending medical school. Rene moved on with her life but chose to attend my graduation as a friend. All during the commencement ceremony, I heard the voice of my mother in better times and I felt her loving presence. In non-mathematical and physics terms, I knew my paperclip and motorcycle trail theory had merit and it was possible for everyone to return again at some time just like my mom, mentors, and former girlfriend. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t explain the phenomenon with physics or math. What matters is that I knew it’s real. I cried like a baby behind my gown pulled up to cover my face.
Despite four years of intensive study, Dick’s work wasn’t completed. By this time, the physics world was abuzz with Dick’s theory of an elliptical universe. It wasn’t uncommon to release the theory and begin accepting criticism from the best physics minds throughout the world. Dick and I travelled thorough the world and I was able to go places and meet people which would have never been possible but for my meeting Dick Feinberg in the faculty parking lot. I was able to fly with the aid of valium prescribed by the campus medical office. To my surprise, the worldwide physics community associated me closely with Dick Feinberg’s theory and I was courted to complete graduate studies in Physics by the most prestigious universities in the world. Dick arranged for my admission to the doctoral program in Physics at Caltech with a full scholarship. It would result in my being awarded both a MS in Science and a PhD within 5 years. I accepted without hesitation. It was ironic that Dean Goodman approved my admission to the graduate program in Physics because even the Vice Chairman of the Physics Department at Caltech wouldn’t stand in the way of a second Nobel Prize awarded to Dick Feinberg and the resulting funding and international prestige which would accompany the Prize. In later years, David Goodman was asked to accept early retirement by the President of Caltech when it came to the President’s attention that rumors of plagiarism surrounded David’s recent scientific research. To the day David Goodman retired from Caltech and despite my appointment to the faculty, he would never speak a word to me. As David traversed the path of the paperclip and motorcycle trail, he chose to create divots and conflict upon an otherwise smooth plane of space and time. Like all of us, David’s past was also traversing the paperclip and motorcycle trail simultaneously and wasn’t far behind him. David’s past caught up with him and David was ejected out the end of the paperclip and trail ungracefully. I always muttered the phrase “what goes around, comes around” after encountering David Goodman.
That was the toughest first lecture to the freshman physics class I ever experienced. The eager young student’s questions are becoming harder for me to answer. I find it hard to believe that the office I now occupy was formerly the office of the late, great Dick Feinberg who died about a decade ago. Dick didn’t win a second Nobel Prize but our theory remains intact and the subject of continuous exploration by the world’s greatest physicists. I’m unable to make the mathematical and physics contributions necessary for the furtherance of Dick’s work but I’m happy to remain on the sidelines and watch those more capable of advancing the theory. Dick remained my friend and colleague up until the last days of his life which had become ravaged by cancer. I was introduced to Dick’s personal life when I met his two former wives and grown children at his funeral. I was touched when they said in unison “we’re so happy to finally meet the student Dick so often talked about”. It doesn’t surprise me that I often feel his presence and cajoling to do my very best. Richard Feinberg and Mickey Stein’s friendship was forged by a mutual appreciation of the world around us and a sense of awe and wonder as to how and why it was put together. Richard chose mathematics and physics to share his wonder. I chose words. We each use a “toolkit” the universe bestows upon us and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a slide rule, lug wrench, or chainsaw. What matters is that you use the tools given to you as you move along the paperclip and motorcycle trail of Dick’s the ellipse. I’ve learned over time that people like Richard Feinberg make the choice to move through space and time with grace and humility and end up leaving the largest footprint on the fabric of the universe. Their spirit continues to motivate and inspire long after they pass. We all have that choice. My father’s death from Alzheimer’s complications followed shortly after Dick’s death and I remain proud of both my father and mother for choosing the same loving and inspiring path along the ellipse that Dick choose. Both my parents and Richard Feinberg shaped my life and I will remain forever grateful to them. I never saw Rene again after graduation. I presume she is a physician and I hope she is happy. I was fortunate to have known her love, kindness, and inspiration. I’ve dated many fine women, had good and bad relationships, but remain alone. Perhaps one day, I’ll discover the answer to this puzzle. Like those warm summer nights of my youth, I often find myself laying awake in bed and pondering my fate. My College Board scores gained my admission to the colleges of my dreams and I could have easily accepted their offers of admission and embarked upon a career as a corporate deal making lawyer. But why did I choose Caltech and the more difficult path it entailed? I’ll never know the answer but my late night conclusion is always the same. It’s the path I was destined to take as I moved along the paperclip and motorcycle trail of Richard’s space time ellipse. It was Mickey Stein’s destiny to cheat his way into Caltech, meet Richard Feinberg, and set in motion a theory of the universe which may someday change the way mankind sees their role in the universe. If I’m lucky, it may change the way mankind chooses to move through space and time. I hope so, roll over, and fall asleep.
I see a large envelope arrived with my other mail with the return address of a Dr. Klark Kalman, Sr., PhD, Evanston, Illinois. My heart skips a beat. Was this my Klark returning from the grave? Did he fake his suicide? Could this be the end of my career? I take a deep breath and regain my composure when I see “Sr.” and conclude it might be Klark’s father. I tear open the large envelope which contains a weathered sealed envelope with 1970’s postage and addressed to me at my high school home. The return address is that of Klark Kalman at the old Pasadena mansion. A handwritten note is “paper clipped” to the old sealed envelope and reads:
“Dear Dr. Stein: I came across this envelope amongst my son’s belongings recently and it appears to have never been mailed. (Better late than never). My son spoke of your friendship and was impressed by your enterprising nature. I am also impressed with your career, Dr. Stein and wished the same for Klark. Best wishes, Dr. Klark Kalman, Sr. PhD. Dept. of Physics.
I open the weathered envelope which includes the fake ID’s Klark had used to take my tests. I sit back in my chair and feel an overwhelming sense of relief and melancholy. I didn’t know Klark and frankly didn’t care about him other than what he could accomplish for me. I was touched that despite his own genius, he was impressed by my “enterprise” and I was saddened to hear that he considered me his friend. I can now appreciate the profound sadness, loneliness, and the despair he must have felt failing his subjects and not living up to his professor father’s expectations while entombed within the old lady’s mansion. Klark made his journey along the paperclip and motorcycle trail and returned to say hello to me. My hunch born during a Friday afternoon tutorial which later became Dicks attempt at a second Nobel Prize in Physics was vindicated again!
My opening lecture to the freshman physics students is always the same: “Remember my motorcycle trail and paperclip theories which became the foundation of Dick’s elliptical universe postulate. Tread lightly as you progress through life and always try and leave a positive impression upon the fabric of space and time because you never know who may return to greet you along the way. Most of all be careful of what you wish for. It may come true.”
RONALD J. PELIAS - POEMS
Ronald J. Pelias's work has appeared in a number of journals, including Midwest Poetry Review, Coal City Review, Poetry East,and Negative Capability. My most recent books, Leaning: A Poetics of Personal Relations (Left Coast Press/Routledge), Performance: An Alphabet of Performative Writing (Left Coast Press/Routledge), and If the Truth Be Told (Sense Publications), call upon the poetic as a research strategy.
your final hour,
dragging a fool’s
glass, trying to
day, you utter
as if desire,
that sliver of
sun, might soon melt
your frozen heart.
Others walk around him
as if his age can’t be
Others sit, fidgeting,
wondering when enough time
has gone by
Others speak, leaning in,
loud and slow, as if to a child
who won’t listen
Others attend, checking,
covering every word
Others drive, after buckling
him in, as if care equals
Others show photographs
he can hardly see, believing
his life is memory
Others forget, as if stopping
for a moment
is the same as regret
What the Skeleton Resents
Being an object lesson, labels
pointing to all its parts, gathering dust
in doctor offices and school rooms,
or hanging from a limb on Halloween nights,
standing sentry at tombs of the unknown
being dependent upon the hinges,
the connecting links, how together
the parts would move, each twist calling
for another part’s turn, each reach carrying
the weight below, without asking for consent
being bound to protect the heart, the brain
knowing how they could suffer a blow, a crack,
to keep all safe, how all the other parts get
the body’s credit while its marrow does the labor
of replenishing cells and healing the sick
being placed in plaster when broken, made
to suffer written rubbish above its wound,
or dropped in the ground, dirt thrown
in its face or burned into bits and pieces
knowing that once it was more than itself
being structures that let lives live, being
abandoned, left like fallen bricks.