Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and two plump cats (his in-house critics). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, poems, and novels. Since 2005, his short stories have been accepted more than 370 times by commercial and academic journals, magazines, and anthologies including The Potomac Review, The Bryant Literary Review, and Shenandoah. He was nominated twice for Pushcart Prizes and once for inclusion in Best of the Net anthology. Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist – who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.
Billy pushed the dust mop across the checkerboard floor tiles, near the lunch counter where the sales girls sipped their afternoon coffees and pasted their chewing gum to the counter’s underside. They probably think nobody notices. Billy noticed, since he had to scrape it off. At ten minutes to closing, the Woolworth’s five-and-dime had emptied, the popcorn machine turned off, the Spanish peanut roaster cooling. Myra, the floor manager, counted the cash drawer and closed out the last register while humming to the sound of The First Noel playing in the background. From the photo booth in the corner came a loud moan then a giggle. Myra looked up from her counting and glared at Billy. “Get them outta there, will ya,” she ordered. “Really?” Billy muttered. “Yes, really. I ain’t stayin’ late just so some kids can get all lovey-dovey in my photo booth.” “All right, all right. I should get paid extra for this.” Billy crept toward the wood-sided booth with its curved corners, its felt curtain pulled shut, hiding everything from the knees up. He leaned his mop against a glass case filled with porcelain knickknacks. Bending over, he stared at the two sets of legs: the boy sat on the stool with his feet pointing outward; the girl’s feet rested on top of his, her legs flexing. Billy waved at Myra and thrust his hips forward and backward, putting Elvis Presley’s scandalous stage antics to shame. Myra grinned. “I don’ care what the hell they’re doing. Just get ’em out.” He stepped forward and knocked on the doorframe. “Hey guys, we’re closing. You’ve got to…got to finish up.” The couple quieted for a few moments before the girl broke into giggles. A rustle of her dress, the slide of a zipper and the boy pulled the curtain back, red-faced, not looking at Billy. Hand-in-hand, they hurried from the store. “I think you saved her from getting knocked up,” Myra called and laughed. Billy nodded. While only six months out of high school, he’d worked at Woolworth’s for three years and had seen plenty of hanky-panky going on in the photo booth. Discarded snapshots littered its floor. The last couple had left their prints behind, a series of four poses, all of them a tease. The brunette girl with big boobs revealed just enough to excite any boy. He collected all the discarded images and dumped them into the paper bag he kept in his locker in the storeroom. He laid his clip-on tie on the shelf, tossed his apron into the laundry bin and rejoined Myra at the cash register. “Are you closing again tomorrow?” he asked. “Yeah, should be one crazy Friday. Say, why don’t ya wait for me and we’ll go get somethin’ to eat, my treat.” She drew herself up to her full height, her figure impressive even covered by the apron. Her grin added parentheses to her mouth. “Thanks, but I got stuff to do.” “Stuff. What stuff? You live in a crappy room at the Alexandrian. What grand plans can you be cookin’ up in that dump?” She glared at him with dark eyes bordered by squint lines. “How about tomorrow night, Myra? We can maybe, ya know, catch a movie.” “Now you’re just bein’ kind to an old broad.” Her face flushed. But Billy could tell she felt pleased. “So, I’ll see ya tomorrow…and it’s a date.” He clutched the paper bag and pushed through the heavy glass doors onto the deserted sidewalk. The boulevard seemed quiet, even though the holiday season normally attracted loads of window shoppers. The tall Christmas trees with their festive lights marched up and down the center of Santa Barbara’s State Street. They seemed forlorn in the cold night wind. He moved swiftly past brightly-lit display windows toward Lower State with its pawnshops, billiard parlors, bars, liquor stores, and fleabag hotels. At the Alexandrian, he entered through Spanish arches, nodded at the already-drunk night clerk, and climbed the stairs to his fifth floor room. Once inside, he snapped on the radio. A station played the latest from Chubby Checker, Etta James, and the Ventures. Billy lit a Kool and sucked in menthol smoke. Maybe I should have gone out with Myra. I hate eating alone and I don’t feel like working. He silenced the radio, clicked on the television and adjusted its rabbit ears, stared at James Arness in a fuzzy rerun of Gunsmoke. From his tiny refrigerator he grabbed a soda and the remains of a Sara Lee and sat on the ratty sofa bed, forking cheesecake into his mouth. I’ll go out later, but for now I gotta work. He turned off the TV’s sound and watched the actors pantomime their roles. In his mind, Billy made up dialog for the characters, which made him laugh. “Why Miss Kitty, you look so fetching tonight.” “Well why don’ ya do something with it. I been waiting around for years for you to take me for a ride on that big…big horse of yours.” “Now, Miss Kitty, you know I’m a upstanding pillar of Dodge City.” “Matt, I’m more interested in that pillar between your legs. Now you gonna come upstairs with me or not?” “Nah, it’ll just give the Longbranch a bad name.” “Marshall Dillon, you’re such a prude.” Billy smiled and turned off the TV. He could go all night, writing lines for any number of characters, good practice for his own stories. He leaned back and closed his eyes. But the pulsating light from the hotel sign across the boulevard burned through his eyelids. Groaning, he moved to his closet. From its shelf he took down a shoebox, returned to the sofa and opened it. Discarded images of people from Woolworth’s photo booth stared back. He emptied that day’s collection from the bag into the box. The girl with the big boobs gazed at him, with her shy boyfriend barely caught by the camera in one of the frames. Billy pulled his black journal from a bookshelf then plucked the couple’s photo from the unorganized pile. With scotch tape, he pasted it onto a blank page. He moved to the window, opened it and sat on the sill, smoking, staring down State Street toward Stern’s Wharf and the black Pacific. After a few minutes he began to write, and didn’t stop until all the traffic lights on the boulevard blinked amber.
*** At seven the next morning, the telephone on his nightstand rang nine times before going quiet. Billy dragged himself from bed, picked up the receiver, asked the day clerk for an outside line, then dialed. After only one ring his mother answered. “Are you up? Did you get enough sleep? You’re working today, aren’t you? You don’t want to be late.” “Yes, Mother.” “I still don’t like you living in that flophouse…and the food from the diner is terrible. Have you thought any more about coming home?” “I haven’t changed my mind, Mom. This is what I got to do.” “Got to do? That’s ridiculous. You’ve been accepted by three wonderful Universities. Your father and I are more than willing to pay and all you want to do is waste your time–” “Enough, Mom. I got to get ready. Thanks for the wakeup call.” He hung up before hearing her response. But he knew her speech by heart, like the opening narration to the TV program Dragnet when “…only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” Walking up State Street toward Woolworth’s, he passed the Copper Coffee Pot. Myra gave a holler and waved him to her window table. She had curled her auburn hair and wore crimson lipstick, eyeliner, and makeup that hid the dark circles under her eyes. “You look nice,” Billy said. He turned the upside-down coffee cup over. A waitress filled it immediately. Billy took a gulp then fanned his mouth. “You look worried,” Myra said. “What’s wrong, your Mama call again?” “Yeah, every morning like clockwork.” “I can’t really blame her…a young fella like you having his morning cup of joe with the likes of me.” She laughed and stared into his eyes, as if waiting for the denial and objection. Billy grinned. “It’s not you. It’s the winos and whores that are my neighbors. She’s afraid I’m gonna wake up some morning with my throat slit.” “There’s no wakin’ up from that.” Myra laid her fork down, her plate smeared yellow from the eggs-over-easy she always gobbled before work. “Do ya know what movie you wanna see?” she asked. Billy pushed his chair back. “I was thinking about Spartacus. It has lots of action and I know you like Kirk Douglas. It’s playing at the Granada and we could make the 7 o’clock show.” “That sounds great. Gives me somethin’ to look forward to. But what do you look forward to, Billy? You’re such a…a strange beanpole of a boy, still can’t figure you out.” “Not much to figure. I’m drinking burnt coffee, stocking shelves and sweeping up for a buck twenty-five an hour.” Myra shook her head. “Yeah, but you seem too smart to settle for that.” “Now you’re sounding like my Mother.” Myra glared at him. “I don’ wanna be your Mother. But if we’re to be friends, you…you gotta talk to me. What the hell are you doin’?” “You know I want to be a writer, write stories for the magazines.” “You mean like made-up stuff?” “Yes, but I also like real stories. I could maybe become a stringer for the News Press, write human interest pieces, then novels, like Hemingway did.” “Don’t they teach that stuff in college?” “They teach English and journalism. But from what I can tell, good writers borrow pieces from what they’ve experienced. I’ve experienced squat, and I won’t get that in school. I’m tired of going to classes…just want to live on my own for awhile and write what I want.” “So workin’ in a five-and-dime is gonna give you that? Am I one of your experiences?” Billy ducked his head, his face warming. “You’re probably the best part.” It was Myra’s turn to blush. She glanced at her watch. “Damn, the store opens in twenty. We’ve gotta haul ass or get chewed out by Mr. Landry.” “We can talk some more after the movie tonight.” He laid a hand on Myra’s. She pulled hers away, but slowly. “You’re such a lost boy, Billy.” “A lot of that’s going around…people just don’t realize it.” “Huh.” *** After the movie, they piled into her ancient Studebaker and drove to the Jolly Tiger on Chapala Street. Myra had seemed excited all day, even though the Christmas shopping crowds had kept Woolworth’s employees running. They sat in a tuck-and-roll upholstered booth and watched the parade of cars filled with high schoolers fly up Chapala Street before turning onto Victoria then cruising down State, a circuit they’d repeat for hours. “Do ya wish you were out there with ’em?” Myra asked in between bites of cherry pie ala mode. “Nah, it’s a waste of time and gas.” “You never tried picking up chicks on State?” Billy smiled. “They travel in packs, and besides, Petersen’s Drive-in has all the action. I’m just too…too shy to go there…even if I had a car.” “Yeah, I can see that. So…so what do you do with all those pictures you take from the photo booth?” “I stare at them a lot, then–” “That sounds creepy. Why do you–” “Let me finish. I stare at them, let my mind imagine their lives, their stories, then I write it down, whatever comes into my head.” “You’ve never showed me any of your stories.” “I’ve never shown anyone. I keep them in a journal in my room.” “Well, why doncha show me…tonight.” Myra smiled, reached across the table and touched Billy’s cheek. “I…I guess we can do that. Do you really want to read my stuff?” “Sure, Billy, sure. And I’m sure those fine folks at the Alexandrian won’t mind you bringing a lady friend up to your room.” Billy grinned. “Not at that place.” Myra frowned and changed the subject. “Is that all you want, tiny little pictures of kids foolin’ around, or sailors on shore leave?” “Nah. If I want to be some kind of reporter I need to get my own camera. I’ve been saving up, but it’s slow going.” “Tell you what, I’ve got this old Rolleiflex that my ex-husband left behind when he escaped my clutches. He brought it home from Germany after the war. I never use the thing, don’t even know how.” “Jeez, that would be great.” “Will you take some pictures of me?” “Sure, Myra, sure. And I’d…I’d love to write your story.” “It’s more like a novel, kid. But thanks for the offer.” Myra parked the Studebaker on a side street and they entered the Alexandrian through its front arches. The night clerk sat with his head tilted back, snoring. They hurried across the carpeted lobby and climbed the stairs, the sound of Myra’s heels echoing in the stairwell. The hotel smelled of body odor, rotting food, and worse. Most of the lights had been busted out. Myra clamped onto Billy’s arm as they moved quickly through the darkness. At the fifth floor landing they paused to catch their breath then turned left down the hall. Billy fumbled with his keys and the lock, then pushed inside his room. “Sorry about the mess.” “Hey, my ex was a slob. But I loved ’im anyway...until he traded me in on a younger model.” “Sorry.” “Don’t be. We had some good times in the beginning…but you don’t want to hear about that.” “A story for another time?” “Sure. So show me this journal of yours.” Myra collected the newspapers off the sofa and flounced onto its cushions. “I don’ suppose you got anything to drink?” “I’ve got Coca Cola. I can go ask my neighbor for a bottle. She’s pretty accommodating.” “I’ll bet she is. I’ve gotta pint in my purse. Just bring the Coke and some ice.” They sat on the sofa sipping highballs. Billy paged through his journal and read short excerpts. “Oh yeah, I remember that couple,” Myra said and pointed. “That broad gave me a hard time at the register, wanted new bills for change, not dirty old ones.” Billy made a note in his journal. “Thanks for the tidbit. Dirty cash can be a strong symbol for–” “Yeah, I think your neighbor friend knows all about it.” From next door came various thumps and moans that Billy tried to ignore; Myra seemed to think they were funny. But as she finished her drink, then another, she started to talk about her life, as if confessing to Father O’Hara, the parish priest that Billy had avoided for the past year. Billy scribbled notes in his journal. “I left Omaha at sixteen. My boyfriend had knocked me up and my parents didn’t want me around…ya know those Bible-thumping types. I lost the kid anyway…and the docs said I couldn’t have any more. Spent the next months in LA…modeling.” “Modeling?” “Well, that’s what they told me at first. But after a year of partying and going to bed with strangers I wised up. By then I had the biggest damn monkey on my back.” “Monkey?” “Heroin, you dope. Don’tcha know anything?” “No, not really.” “Oh yeah, I forgot. Maybe I can teach ya somethin’.” Myra leaned over and slid her lips onto Billy’s and held them there, mouth open, tongue exploring. She caressed his pale cheeks. Billy held his breath and closed his eyes. Now this is real, this is what everybody talks about. They kept drinking, talking, and kissing. Sometime during the night they unfolded the sofa bed, undressed and slipped between the wrinkled sheets. They made love, slowly, gently, as if respecting her hard loveless years and his youthful ignorance. When Billy’s mother phoned the next morning, he woke with a start, alone in an empty bed, his head pounding. He grabbed his journal and stared at the almost indecipherable scrawl, the seed of a story growing in his booze-addled brain. *** They became part of Woolworth’s gossip mill. The stock boys flashed Billy broad grins and wanted to know details. The women looked at him differently. He didn’t understand, had never been close to any of the girls in his class, much less to a mature woman in her early forties. He felt like he could tell Myra anything. And she responded with stories that made Billy feel, for the first time, like an adult who could be trusted. “I live over on the West Side,” she told him over morning coffee at the cafe, “in a little bungalow off Chino Street.” “Maybe we could, you know, go to your place after work.” Myra shook her head. “I rent a room from a Mexican family. They’ve got three kids and need the money. But they don’t want any sleepovers.” “Well why don’t you stay at my place?” “Are you kiddin’? That room’s barely big enough for you. Besides, waking up and seeing me first thing in the mornin’ could…could scare ya off.” “What are you talking about? You’re beautiful.” “Thanks, but all of this takes more effort than you know.” She waved her hands over her face and down her front.” “So it’s an illusion?” “Most folks only show their good sides. You really have to…to love somebody to accept the bad stuff.” Billy scribbled a note on the napkin, something to add to her story. Myra sighed. “I may be rough around the edges, but I know about people, ’specially the lonely ones. They can pull at your heart strings, or smother you when their self pity explodes in your face.” Billy sipped his coffee and thought about himself as one of those lonely souls.
*** On a blown-out Sunday afternoon in March, Myra met Billy outside the Alexandrian and they walked down State Street toward East Beach and the pier. At the foot of Stern’s Wharf they stopped to buy a bag of popcorn from Everett, the Popcorn Man. The pinwheels fastened to the top of his ancient truck spun madly and rattled in the breeze. On a nearby bench a bearded man sat on yellowed newspapers, tossing birdseed to a flock of cooing pigeons at his feet. He wore an Army field jacket with three stripes on its shoulder. A battered felt hat held down scraggly hair that hung below his collar. Billy reached for his camera that he now carried everywhere, and moved forward. The man scrubbed at his face with filthy hands. “Do you mind if I take your picture?” Billy asked while trying to focus the Rolleiflex and set the shudder speed and f-stop. “Beat it, kid,” the man muttered, “and take your mother with you.” Myra stepped toward the man. “Hey bud, who the hell do you think you’re–” Billy put a hand on her shoulder. “So you were in the Army?” “What’s it to ya.” “My father was with the 82nd Airborne in Sicily during World War II.” “Yeah, well I’m fuckin’ happy for ’im. Nobody remembers Korea.” “So what are you doing out here?” “What’s it look like…feedin’ the damn birds.” “No, I mean, out here?” Billy waved his arm at the sea, the beach, and the hoards of Sunday strollers. “I’m jus’ livin’ the good life while sleepin’ in the jungle.” “Jungle? What’s that about?” Billy stared down into the camera’s viewfinder held at waist level and moved around the tramp, snapping shots from various angles. “You don’ know shit, kid. The jungle, man, it’s where I’ve been livin’.” The tramp stared right through him with a far-away, withdrawn gaze. “Come on, Billy.” Myra tugged at his arm. “You’ve got enough for a story.” Billy stumbled over the rough planks as she pulled him along the boardwalk toward the Harbor Restaurant at the end of the pier. He repacked his camera in its carrying case and they walked hand-in-hand, silent, his mind racing. A litany of questions bounced around his brain. He turned and searched for the tramp. But the man had already melted into the crowd. “Do you know what that jungle thing is all about?” he asked Myra. “Yeah. When I first came to town I stayed there for a few nights. It’s a hobo camp along the railroad near East Beach.” She pointed along the palm-lined boulevard. “It’s just a few shacks. I hear they’ve built showers and toilets.” “You lived there?” “Yeah. I’d ridden a freight up from LA and one of the drifters clued me in. It’s not a place ya wanna stay. People get beat up. A lot of drunks, broken men and a few women…” “Sounds like it would make a good story. Santa Barbara’s hidden secret.” “Oh the cops know all about it. They sweep the camp every so often, lookin’ for the dopers and criminals.” “Can we drive by the place and you can show me where it is?” “You’re not thinkin’ about going there, are you?” “A reporter’s got to follow the story.” “You’re nuts. You could get hurt. Ya know, dreamin’ up stories while starin’ at photo booth pictures is a lot different than dealin’ with the likes of that guy.” Billy scowled. “I know, I know, but–” “Some of those folks aren’t nice.” He smiled. “But you turned out nice, better than nice.” Myra hooked an arm around his neck, planted a kiss on his lips. “Let’s go back to the beach and find a cool spot where we can do more of this.” They returned to the shoreline, slid under the pier and made out. But they got so excited that they hustled back to his hotel room for an afternoon of sex that left them sweat-covered and exhausted. As Myra dozed, Billy slipped from bed and retrieved his journal, sat naked on the windowsill and scribbled ideas onto the blank pages, trying to empty his mind of all the possibilities about the Korean War vet and his jungle home. *** The heat hit Santa Barbara hard in July. Woolworth’s lunch counter did a brisk business selling snow cones to kids roaming State Street in their bathing suits, on their way to the beach and the municipal pool, The Plunge. Myra and Billy took their lunch break together, and walked the boulevard, window-shopping, talking about crazy customers, stockroom romances, plans for their day off. Myra wore a thin summer dress, its neckline showing cleavage that attracted stares from Navy sailors on leave from the cruiser anchored offshore. On their return trip to Woolworth’s, Billy held Myra close, an arm wrapped around her slender waist. He glanced across the street and froze. His parents stood on the steps leading into the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. They didn’t look happy. “Shit,” Billy muttered. “What’s wrong, hon?” “My folks are staring at us from across the street.” Myra started to twist around. “Don’t look, don’t look.” “Why not? They know about us, don’t they?” “Not exactly.” “What the hell’s that supposed ta mean?” “All right, no, I haven’t told them. But my Mother suspects. Come on, let’s get inside.” In the privacy of the stockroom they donned their aprons, not speaking. Finally, Billy sucked in a deep breath. “I…I….” “What is it Billy, you ashamed of your girlfriend? Still tied to Mama’s apron strings?” “God no. But…but this is new to me. I know they’ll get all weird and the longer things have gone on, the harder it is to tell them.” “Yeah, yeah, I know. If I was in your spot, I’d probably do the same, or maybe get the hell outta Dodge.” “I’m not going anywhere. I…I love you.” Myra came into his arms. “That’s so sweet. I love you too, but I don’t know where this is goin’.” “What’s going?” “Us, you idiot.” She kissed him just as Mr. Landry pushed through the swinging door. “Alright kids, save that for after work. Myra, when you’re back from lunch help at the registers. Stay there until they clear then show the new girl the ropes.” “Yes, sir.” The store manager left. Myra and Billy sat on the bench next to the time clock and the posters that explained the minimum wage laws. Their silence became excruciating. Finally, Myra stood and turned to stare at Billy. “Look, hon. We’ve gotta talk, but not here, not now. And I can’t do it without a few belts first.” Billy felt the back of his neck go cold. “Yeah, I get it. You’re going to dump me.” “We’ll talk after work.” She stuck her card into the time clock then hurried out into the loud world of afternoon Woolworth’s shoppers. Billy sat staring at the clock. Maybe it’s time…but we’re so good together…and all of this seems useless without her. She is the story. On the bench next to him lay a fresh copy of the News Press. Billy picked it up and paged through the sections, searching for the prize. A month before he had dropped off an article with photographs at the newsroom, neatly hand written, five thousand words, that featured the plight of the Korean War veteran. Myra had given him a tour of what the local hobos called “Jungleville”, introduced him to John Craver, its mayor, an old guy who had lived there for decades. Billy had interviewed the dozen or so transients who lived in shanties, took six rolls of photos and spent nights writing and rewriting his human interest story while Myra drank rum and cokes and watched TV. Billy continued his paging until coming to the end of the newspaper’s local section. He froze. There were his photographs, his words. And they’d even given him a byline! The article looked about half as long as what he’d submitted. He didn’t care…he was published. He wanted to run to Myra and show her, to take her in his arms and thank her for everything. But he held out. When they climbed into her car after work, he unfolded the paper on his lap. Myra stared at the article. “Wow, is that yours? That’s that so damn fantastic…and they used your name.” “I couldn’t have done it without you, Myra.” “Oh yes you could. I just gave ya a shove.” “You can give me more than that.” He leaned over and planted a wet kiss on her lips. “Hey, hey, wait till we get to your place. And I gotta stop at the liquor store. We need some booze to celebrate.” She seemed relieved that they would have something to talk about besides their uncertain future. Billy waited in the car while Myra bought the booze. The sun hung two inches above the horizon, casting a golden glow over Santa Barbara. Crowds mobbed the evening cafés and restaurants and happy hours at the bars were well underway. Once at the hotel they hurried from the car and almost skipped across the lobby. The night clerk turned away from his muttering TV and grinned. “Saw your article in the paper. Good goin’, kid.” Billy smiled and wondered if this is what it would be like if he became a writer. Climbing the stairs, he had to stop several times to let Myra catch up. “Slow the hell down, will ya. I’ve been runnin’ all day and my dogs are barkin’ loud.” “I feel like barking loud.” They moved to his door and he keyed the lock and let Myra enter. She opened the window wide to air the place out, mixed them highballs, then slumped onto the sofa. “You’re on your way, kid, on your way.” Billy sipped his drink and read over the edited article. “Yeah, they ditched a whole bunch of background stuff but kept the interview quotes from the hobos. And they tightened it up. It reads really smooth.” “Congrats, Billy. Ya got your name up in lights.” Myra took a deep gulp of her drink and laid her head back. “But we still gotta talk…about us.” “I know, I know, I just don’t–” With a splintering crash, the hotel room door flew open. Myra screamed. They jumped up from the sofa. A scruffy figure stood in the opening, felt hat pulled down over his eyes, the Army field jacket opened to expose a bare beer gut. The Korean War vet staggered into the room. “I’ve been waitin’ for ya, mother fucker.” Billy backed away. “What do you want? You need to leave.” “What I want is to slit your fuckin’ throat. That’ll shut your yap. Who told you to write that…that damn story ’bout me?” The drifter edged closer to Billy, reached in his jacket pocket and pulled out a shiv, a sharpened piece of metal with one end taped over to form its handle. Myra backed against the sidewall, her eyes huge and staring, but her mouth drawn into a tight line. The drifter took another step and stopped, swaying, his mouth open, eyes trying to focus. “Why are you so mad?” Billy asked. “That article makes you look like a good guy.” The hobo seemed to consider Billy’s statement, but continued to shuffle toward him. Billy felt the window frame at his back, the cool ocean air, heard the sound of laughter drifting up from the crowded sidewalk. “You think you’re so fuckin’ smart. Did ya ever think that I might not want my mug pasted in a newspaper for every cop to see?” “So you’re wanted by the law? You’ve got warrants?” “You just couldn’t mind your own damn business, couldja?” “You want to kill me for that?” “Yeah, pretty fuckin’ crazy, huh?” The man stood in front of Billy, swaying. His smell filled the room, a mixture of booze, urine, and weeks without a shower. He drew the shiv up in front of his face to inspect the blade, then dropped his knife hand and lunged. With a yell, Myra slammed into the drifter’s back and pushed, giving him the bum’s rush. Billy dodged sideways. The drifter hit the opened window; his head took out the upper panel of glass and the wood sash. In a mist of glass fragments, he fell through the opening, screaming, twisting his body, trying to grab onto thin air. He continued to shriek until he landed head first on a Taxi parked at the curb, five floors down. Billy bent at the waist and vomited. He stared at Myra, her chest rising and falling calmly, but her cheeks flushed, eyes blazing. “You better get outta here before the cops come,” Billy croaked. She nodded slowly. “I told ya, Billy. This is what the world’s all about. Is this what ya want to write about?” Before he could answer she grabbed her purse and the bottle and ran from the room. In the distance sirens wailed. The whore from next door peeked around the doorframe. She held a kitchen knife in her hand. The thunder of feet on the stairs filled his head. Billy shut his eyes as Lower State and all its grit closed in. *** William sat at his oak desk and stared at the bookshelves. Outside his two-story home, the red leaves of autumn cast dancing shadows across the carpet in his study. He glanced at the photos of his grown children and their families and smiled. They would visit for Thanksgiving, the grandkids excited about exploring their grandparents’ Vermont farm. Sharon would mother everyone to death. His recent retirement from teaching had been easy. I’ll finally have a chance to write, to practice what I’ve been preaching all these years. He’d come east from Santa Barbara, earned advanced degrees in English and journalism from Columbia, worked as an editor for a New York City imprint, wrote two novels that proved moderately successful, and like many, settled into teaching at a small liberal arts college. But on snowy days when the wind howled and it felt painful to venture outside, he longed for his summer beach town days, and mostly for the fire he once had as a young man, for writing. After playing editor and teacher for decades, he found it hard to find the joy in it. But he still searched for those gems of ideas among the scree of his life. He continued to scan the bookshelves, hoping to find some author he admired that would provide inspiration, something that would move him forward, challenge him. But nothing reached out. With elbows resting on knees and head in his hands, William stared at the woven images in the Persian rug and let his mind drift. A mental glimpse of a banker’s box filled with old books and papers came into focus. Sharon had stored it somewhere in the study for him to inventory and dispose of the junk. He rose and moved across the room and rifled through two cabinets. In the corner closet he found the box, carried it to his desk, and removed its lid. The stench of moldy papers filled his head, the box full of spotted and yellowed typewritten pages: his old college work; failed grant applications for study abroad; drafts of stories that he’d never finished; the start of his autobiography. But near its bottom he found a black book, a journal of some sort. He opened its cover and gasped. Inside were page after page of faded photo booth pictures, mostly young people dressed in late fifties styles. Below each were scrawled paragraphs from his youth. The memories came flooding back. The last entries in the journal included black-and-white images of a middle-aged woman, wearing ordinary clothes, thick high heels and seamed stockings, but with a figure that would still stop traffic. The scribbled sentences next to her photos were almost illegible after nearly sixty years. But they brought it all back, that stabbing pleasure and pain of first love, the chest-stomping ache of first loss. He lay the journal on his desk and opened his laptop. After creating a new file, he stared at the woman in the photos, squinted his eyes, and began to write. He didn’t stop until all the traffic lights in his memory blinked amber.