Author is a retired attorney having practiced for 35 years in Illinois who now lives in Texas and started writing stories about a year and a half ago.
The Princess, The Prince and Elvis
“What’s Nana doing Emmie?”
“Oh she’s reading stories to my baby brother trying to to let him to go to sleep,” answered the six year old granddaughter. “I’m too big for stories aren’t I Papa. I get to stay up late don’t I?”
“You can stay up a little late but not real late because we have a lot to do tomorrow. And no you’re not too big for stories. All kids love stories no matter how old they are. I bet you’d like to hear the story of what Nana and I were doing thirty five years ago today.”
“Okay Papa just as long as I don’t have to go to bed now. I want to stay up and have fun.”
“Well this story is pretty long and it is a fairy tale.”
“I thought you said it was about you and Nana?”
“It is. It’s a fairy tale about us silly,” he laughed and tickled his granddaughter in her ribs. “Today is our thirty fifth wedding anniversary and it’s a fairy tale come true since we lived happily ever after and got such good little grandchildren like you and your brother Noah.” He tickled her again and while she was squirming and giggling said, “Now calm down. You’re getting all worked up. Don’t you want to hear the story of our wedding.”
“Okay Papa. Tell me,” she giggled. Then furrowing her brow, squinting her eyes and in deep thought recalling something said, “Yes I want to hear the story about how you and Nana got married. My mom and dad always laugh about it every time when they talk about it. They think it’s funny. But they won’t tell me anything because they say I’m too little. They promise to tell me when I’m bigger but they won’t say when that is. I’m not too little am I Papa?”
“Nooooo you’re not and I’m going to tell you, so here goes.”
“Once upon a time there was this charming handsome young lawyer prince, that’s me, and there was this beautiful charming young real estate agent princess, that’s Nana. Well they met at this real estate closing and the whole time the the princess kept batting her eyes, flirting and smiling at the young prince. So much so that he couldn’t concentrate on the closing. He was so entranced by her beauty that a couple of times he forgot what he was doing and had to start over and then kept repeating himself. Finally the closing was over and the young princess approached the young lawyer prince and asked him, “Kind Sir I have a problem with an upcoming closing and I need a white knight in shining armor to save this real estate sale for me from falling through as I should stand to lose a fortune in commissions if it should so happen.”
“I am your knight fair damsel and at your service. What beeth your problem?”
“The beautiful princess explained her problem to which the young prince answered. Fear not fair maiden for I can save the deal for you and thus your commission.”
“My hero!, she sighed.”
“After the young lawyer prince saved the princess’s deal, he began to call upon the princess at her apartment castle and soon they fell in love and became engaged.”
“Let us fly away to enchanted Lake Tahoe and be wed, he proposed.”
“Yes let us, swooned the princess.”
“But the people were upset. Such a scandal, these two unmarried youth flying off to marry in a foreign land. To be married at a chapel in Tahoe and not married before God in a church. The people were outraged. But the real reason was that the people felt cheated out of a royal wedding feast, wine and song.”
“Nevertheless the young couple were in love and had made their plans accordingly. They were adults and could make their own decisions and they flew into the sunset to beautiful Lake Tahoe. There they took a dinner cruise on the lake, the pictures taken thereon which the princess cherishes to this day.”
“Finally it came time for the wedding. The princess, trying to accommodate the wishes of her king and queen parents, who wanted them to have a church wedding, tried to find a minister to wed them. But alas none could be found. Oh what would she do. She would have to be married in one of those cheap and cheesy wedding chapels after all.”
“The first wedding chapel they came to advertised: When In Tahoe Actor Mickey Rooney Weds Here. Oh dear thought the couple we can not be married here. This place is cursed. Mickey Rooney has been married at least an unlucky seven times.”
“The second wedding chapel was a drive through chapel, just like driving through McDonald’s. Oh no they thought, this is too fast just like fast food. Order a number four, pay at the window, get married by the cashier-minister and drive away married. It took longer to read the ten menu options than to get married. No this wasn’t for them.”
“The third wedding chapel they came to was called the Viva Las Tahoe. Sounds like Viva Las Vegas that Elvis song, said the princess. Ooh let’s get married here. I just love Elvis.”
“It was an actual real Elvis chapel. The room was decorated with posters and nostalgia everywhere to commemorate Elvis. It was garish and gaudy just like Elvis and Elvis music continually played softly in the background. The princess loved it.”
“Oh let’s get married here, repeated the princess, for the princess had been a big Elvis fan when she was a young maiden. She had many of his records and had seen all his movies and had a big crush on him as a teenager. So the prince in order to please the wishes of his bride to be agreed that this is the place at which they would wed. So they paid their fees and got in line.”
“Many were ahead of them. One wedding party came in full tuxedos for the groom and groomsmen and the bride came in a white flowing beautiful wedding dress with the maids of honor in pink matching chiffon gowns. And all their family was present along with many friends. One party was just the two of them, he wearing a business suit and she a fashionable nice dress. Another couple both wore shorts. The groom wore a tee-shirt. The bride wore a tank top. Both wore sandals. The prince and princess were just dressed in casual clothes.”
“Their turn came. At the front of the chapel was the minister, the Elvis impersonator. The prince and the princess had to walk down a long aisle to reach the minister. On each side of the aisle were Shirelle type Nubian beauties wrapped in mini skirts that were as tightly fitted as the wrappings of a mummy. All the while they were singing and swaying to the music, ‘Going to the chapel and we’re going to get married.’ Their black shiny hair piled a foot high in beehive fashion upon their heads.”
“Finally now it was their turn. The Elvis minister in his Elvis voice sang phrases of all the Elvis songs into the wedding vows, Love Me Tender, Don’t Be Cruel, Teddy Bear, etc. etc., all but ‘In The Ghetto’ that is. When he finished and pronounced them man and wife the minister burst into his Elvis finale song. Guess what it was?”
“I don’t know Papa.”
“Hunk A Hunk Of Burnin Love. And they lived happily ever after.”
“That story is not funny Papa.”
“It is when your Papa tells the adult version to grownups sweetie,” smirked Nana standing behind the two of them as they sat on the couch.
“How long have you been there?”
“Long enough,” she snickered. “Come on Emmie time for bed.”
“Awh,” the granddaughter whined.
“We’ve got a busy day tomorrow you need your rest. Come on now.”
“Good night sweetie,” said Papa giving her a kiss.
“Nana put Emmie to bed, tucked her in and gave her a kiss too.”
“What’s an elfis Nana?” asked the grandchild. “Is it like an elf?”
If She Were There
As his feet slush against the flow of the river, he hears birds chirping like that melody his wife used to hum. Where is she? No longer there with him. But if she were there, she'd say that the water is much too cold to be in, and walk along the bank at his side, softly kicking the lighter pebbles while avoiding the darker ones, a game she used to play. He used to wonder why she did this, but now realizes that it stemmed from the time her father told her, not now, not now, as he hurled a shovel into the back of his truck without a glance toward her searching eyes that made their way to him, watching from the window of his tree house which seemed to sway even though the air was still and he was frozen with a feeling much like the cold of the water tingling through his feet.
If she were there, she’d ask him why he’s stepping out of the river. He did say it was the most refreshing feeling—the current washing between his toes—didn’t he? It’s just not the same without her there, jesting to push him in, like the rising breeze, testing his balance which has not been the same since she passed. He wonders, if he slips and falls, will it bring him that joy he felt when she pushed him in? He almost wishes the wind would thrust him in just so he can see, but instead it’s softening, nestling against his chest the way she used to hug him after a day apart, strumming through his hair the way her fingers would.
There are only a few clouds above, yet a raindrop has fallen onto his check. Perhaps that’s enough to shed a tear. He wonders if those memories still haunt her, if she’s unable to forget her father’s stumbling footsteps, late at night, how her mother would sigh and sip from the bottle of wine hidden inside that box of letters, and if she still remembers the first time she ran away from them to cry in his arms.
Where will his mind wander tonight, when the hush of stillness streams into their bedroom? If only she were there, then his worries would depart. He’d ask her to hum that melody he loves so much, the one that reminds him of summer, and the birds would join in from a place above, a place he can't see but feel, like the heaven they created before she passed. If she were there, they'd share the sunlight that’s smiling at him through the thinning branches like the first time he ever saw her.
Alisha Mughal has had stories appear in Sediments Literary-Arts Journal, Eunoia Review, and Noble / Gas Qtrly. She has a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from the University of Toronto. She currently resides and writes in Markham, Ontario.
“She’ll come today,” thought Bette Shivers as she placed her tall glass of lemonade, filled to the brim with more ice than ade, onto the seat of the porch swing, then eased herself down next to it, slow so as to not rock the swing, so as to not tip the glass over. Then, as soon as she had settled down with her back straight against the back of the swing, she remembered the napkin. She slowly took out from one of the two large square pockets on her oversized knit cardigan a white square of napkin and placed it under the glass, on top of the dark ring the glass had already sweated off onto the wooden seat. Pleased with herself finally, she looked out before her through squinting eyes onto the sprawling green of the yard beyond the veranda, drowned in and almost snuffed out by the white light of the blazing afternoon sun. The walkway etched into the lush green lawn and filled with white gravel, which she had always thought was a bad idea, was simply scintillating. Shadows there were few, save for those that lay pooled at the bases of the dogwood trees like extravagant, billowing gowns made of the night sky just shrugged off, and save for the one in which she sat sheltered – the white light streaming through the railing did not reach her where she sat poised as a sepulchre, leaving her alone and feeling cool, even in her knit cardigan – on the veranda. She felt breezy and clean and strong enough to weather the wait. The wait for her sister.
“She’ll come today,” thought Bette with a confident nod. “Joan absolutely will come today.”
When Joan had first showed up at Bette’s door that cold Monday morning in November – Nick had just left for work and Bette was busy clearing up the breakfast things – with her arms full of a brown and white Borzoi puppy, Bette was unsurprised. Taking one look at Joan, Bette knew exactly why she had come.
“Hi sis, you’re looking lovely” Joan said, her small eyes open wide and her lips parted in a broad I-love-you-so-much-will-you-help-me? grin. She shrugged a shrug that proffered up the yawning puppy at her bosom. “I just adopted him yesterday,” she said, the hyenic grin still plastered on her face, her eyes still widened as if her own act of acquisition surprised her.
Bette looked down at the puppy, at his deep almond eyes that looked like lychee seeds. He blinked once, twice, then yawned violently, exerting himself so much he made a little cry, then nestled his face into the interstice between Joan’s left arm and breast. Bette looked up at Joan’s face, at her eyes frozen in a look of pathetic supplication by that sycophantic grin.
“Listen,” Joan said, taking a step toward Bette, “I don’t have anyone to take care of him today and I can’t miss work. You know how my boss gets,” she said with a laugh. Bette crossed her arms and waited for it to come. “I was wondering,” Joan continued in a voice that had become slightly higher than before, had slipped so swiftly into that familiar solicitous lilt that Bette loathed. “Could you take care of him today?” She paused, then quickly added, “I promise it’ll just be for today – or,” she paused again, thinking, and then continued, “at least until I find some place that will take care of him.”
Bette looked down at the puppy again and knew that he would be hell to take care of. He would probably hate her, he would bite, and she would never be able to raise her voice high enough to catch his attention, or summon it confidently from the anxious uncertainty that had already begun to churn deep inside of her, like molten lava, at the prospect of taking care of something that was silent – those judgemental eyes! She knew she lacked the sternness to make him really listen to her commands. But she also knew that she had no choice but to acquiesce. Bette knew that Joan did not have anyone else she could leave the puppy with, and Joan of course could not leave work. Bette, looking at the puppy’s lively brown eyes, knew that she could not allow Joan to leave him in a cage all day. And so, having never before in her life taken care of a dog, she took the soft, warm creature into her arms. He smelled sweet and reminded her of warm milk. She took him inside while Joan brought all his things in; his toys, treats, blankets, poop bags.
“His name is Marx,” Joan said with her hands on her hips, standing above him lying on a cushion Bette had placed for him on the ground.
“As in Karl?” Bette asked, non-nonplussed. Joan had always accrued great pleasure from irritating the conservative sensibilities of the folk who made up their community – people striving to live out their lives in as quiet and frictionless a manner as possible, people for whom whatever was loud and strange was anathema. And so Joan loved to be loud and strange; she loved to puncture the poor folk’s facile and oftentimes myopic ideas of what is with tiny pins. Most all Bette’s neighbours would hear the name Marx and think of a raging, fiery monster.
Joan nodded egregiously with a mischievous shadow playing in her eyes. Bette asked her if she wanted some coffee, but Joan declined, saying she would pick some up on her way to the office. After giving Bette instructions for Marx’s care, instructions that she herself had received from the animal shelter, and handing her an abbreviated version on the shelter’s letterhead, Joan left Bette panicking internally with the sleeping Borzoi puppy at her feet. Bette sat down on the floor across from the puppy and waited.
And so it went on for two years: Joan would bring Marx over every weekday morning and leave him with Bette on her way to work. And Bette really had no choice but to take care of Marx all this time without a word of protest, for she had realized early on that this deed fell under an agreement that had been established tacitly between Joan and herself long ago. Bette would take care of Marx for as long as Joan needed her to; Bette would do whatever it was that Joan needed her to do for as long as Joan needed her to do it, for if Bette declined, if Bette complained, she would be punished by Joan, and Bette thought herself no longer capable of surviving Joan’s punishment: the silent treatment.
As they grew older, Bette found that she couldn’t do without speaking to Joan at least once a week. Joan knew her best, and would help her think through any problem, big or small. Bette needed to speak to Joan, and she had found that the best way to ensure that she could was to make herself as amenable as possible; she must never disagree with Joan. Of course Bette noticed right away when Joan’s appeals for assistance started to become more frequent and increasingly demanding of her. But Bette didn’t know what she would do now if confronted by Joan’s silence. So Bette always acquiesced.
Besides, this time Bette found that it wasn’t all that bad. She assimilated puppy care swiftly into her daily schedule. Nick would leave for work, she would clean up, then Joan would arrive with Marx. Bette mostly just left Marx on his own, except for when he needed to do his business, then she would let him out into the backyard, or, when he got a bit older, she would take him on walks. All other times Marx slept or played with his toys, and Bette found that she just needed to make sure he didn’t tear up her various cushions, or chew on the wooden legs of tables and chairs. She could get a decent amount of reading done in between maniacally screaming NO every time Marx began to squat in preparation of a poop and hauling him outside, and pulling him away from furniture legs he decided he wanted to consume. Bette had always been a very slow and obsessive reader, but because she now had less time for herself and had to keep one eye on Marx at all times, she found that she no longer lingered on every word. She was slightly relieved that she could no longer indulge her fear of having misread or skipped over a word by re-reading single sentences again and again.
And it wasn’t all chasing Marx around with breaks for reading in between. There would be times, right before Marx fell into a nap filled with gleeful dreams of running after balls and barking at birds, that would be precious. He would lie languidly on his back or side and dreamily lick whatever was nearest him – cushions, the carpet beneath him, a table’s or chair’s leg, or even Bette’s socked foot if she was sitting near enough to him, which she liked to do when he was sleepy. She would watch his tongue, thin and veiny as a leaf and pink as a camellia japonica, moving fervently and smoothly over surfaces with a certain fluidity, moulding itself to the contours of whatever it touched. She was mesmerised by his beautiful tongue whose quick movements she found melodic.
And Bette was deliriously happy to find that Marx, even though he seldom obeyed her, didn’t absolutely despise her, as she had expected he would. “After all,” she had thought, “he isn’t my dog.” But when she sat down on the floor, Marx would come into her lap and settle down for a nap between her legs. And these silent, warm moments she looked forward to with the rapture of a convict just granted pardon.
But there was a thought gnawing at this equanimity that Bette had wrought for herself during this time. She often found herself in a bad mood on the mornings before Joan showed up with Marx, a mood that she soon determined was a deep hatred toward Joan. Joan was not looking for a place that would take care of Marx, Bette figured this out after the first year. Joan simply expected that Bette would take care of Marx indefinitely. Bette sometimes thought with vitriolic sarcasm that she had gotten a free dog out of Joan. She hated her sister for taking her for granted and for leaving her uncertain as to when Marx would be taken away from her. But, of course, she couldn’t say anything, even if she sometimes wondered derisively why Joan got a dog if she didn’t have the time for him, and often muttered with a shake of her head that Joan didn’t deserve a dog.
Bette hated Joan moreover because of the way Marx would run away from her as soon as Joan rang the doorbell in the evenings. After taking care of Marx all day, he would run away from her as if she had never been there, as if he didn’t know her, and to Joan, whom he hardly saw. All day, every day with Bette, Marx would look forward to Joan. This all made Bette livid. This hatred that Bette felt toward Joan would come to her in waves, hot waves that washed over her like an arid wind on a scorching day that leaves one with nothing but dust-filled eyes and a sense of absolute desolation. She would stagnate in her hatred when it came over her. But when she would see Marx, when Marx would crawl into her lap for a nap, the hatred would ebb and she would feel blooming in her a brilliant love, a kind of love she had never before felt toward a living thing. But the hatred was ineradicable; like the sea it was always there, always ready to flow, even while she loved.
And so Bette wondered at her hatred and her love and how it could be that she could feel both so purely and intensely and almost simultaneously. This hatred that she felt alongside her glowing love made her feel dirty. She felt that her hatred sullied her love, stultified it. Bette felt the force of her hatred, she knew the nasty thoughts it drove her to, and all this made her love seem a travesty. “How can I love if I hate so ferociously?” wondered Bette. And so it was that, to make herself clean again, Bette struggled with herself every day to think only of Marx, she dove with the whole of her being into loving Marx and tried not to think too much of her sister.
And it started to work, this not thinking about her sister. Bette focused her energy on taking care of Marx and she began to feel herself getting her equanimity back. That is, until Joan stopped bringing Marx over. She called Bette one Saturday morning to tell her that she had moved in with a boyfriend and had found a doggy daycare that was closer to her and less out of the way for her than Bette’s home. Joan would not need Bette’s help anymore. And Bette was okay with this – that Joan had found someone else to look after Marx during the day was absolutely fine. Bette was glad to have her days to herself again. What did not sit well with Bette, however, was that Joan had not thanked her. For two years Bette had done the right thing for Joan, but then, when she didn’t need Bette anymore, she took Marx away, without even thanking Bette. Bette just wanted Joan to come over and say “Thank you.”
“And she will come,” Bette said to herself with a doleful nod, taking a sip of lemonade and squinting into the distance. “She’ll come today. She’ll come and she’ll thank me.”
When they were kids, Bette would sometimes disagree with Joan. The intricacies of a game, certain rules, were hotly debated. Every time that Bette disagreed with Joan, or told Joan that she was wrong about something, Joan would stop talking to Bette. In the beginning, the silent treatment would last until dinnertime, but then it got to be that Joan would spend whole days not talking to Bette. Then, when Joan was thirteen and Bette fourteen, Bette found Joan with cigarettes. Joan had implored Bette to not tell their parents, whom they both knew would deliver a punishment whose severity would unfairly outweigh Joan’s crime’s badness. Bette did not agree, she told Joan straight away that she couldn’t keep such a grievous secret. Joan didn’t speak to Bette then, she didn’t speak to Bette for two months, two long months that Bette knew Joan spent with bated breath waiting for the punishment to befall her, and two interminable months that Bette spent in agony without her sister to talk to.
But Bette didn’t end up telling. She couldn’t find the courage in herself to go to her parents, whom her imagination conjured up as two darkly-cloaked figures looming above her with their arms behind their backs, mouths turned down at the corners, brows furrowed, and eyes staring at her dry and forbidding as the Sahara.
Then one night, lying in her bed teetering precariously on that unbearable precipice above the calm blackness of sleep, she heard bare feet slapping on the asphalt outside, running, then creeping through the house and up toward her room. Joan peaked her head in, whispered Bette’s name, then came into the room, closing the door noiselessly behind her.
“I just wanted to thank you for not telling on me, and to tell you that you were right about the cigarettes. I knew you were right, but I just didn’t want to listen to you. But now I know, and I’m never going to touch them again.” Joan, sweating and out of breath, her face streaked with dirt and tears, had come to thank Bette. Joan had come of herself, of her own volition, to thank Bette for this right thing that Bette had done for her.
Bette did not ask Joan what had happened, she was just glad that Joan was speaking to her again and that Joan had thanked her. That night Bette slept better than a freshly-bathed baby wrapped in clean linen, sleeping a milky sleep in the embrace of her mother sat next to a crackling fire on a snowy, silent night.
Joan had taken two months but she had, in the end, eventually, thanked Bette. And Bette was certain that now, too, Joan would realize that she had done right by her for two long years, and would come to thank her for taking care of Marx.
Bette downed the remainder of her watery lemonade and placed the clinking glass on the now translucent napkin next to her on the porch swing. Her gaze was focused on the far end of the gravel path, on the hazy figure slowly growing, coming forward with something colourful in its hands. As the figure drew closer it coalesced into the shape of a woman, and Bette saw that what she carried was a bouquet of pink and white lilies – Bette’s favourite flower.
“Joan, is that you?” mumbled Bette. Her throat was dry and she was swallowing hard against the sob that threatened to break through and bring with it the inevitable deluge of tears. But it couldn’t be Joan. This woman approaching had red hair. Joan had always had black hair. “Maybe she had it coloured?” wondered Bette. Then she shook her head. It wasn’t Joan, saw Bette. It wasn’t Joan at all. As the woman climbed the steps to the veranda and smiled at her, Bette looked away, fixing her eyes back onto the far end of the white shimmering pathway, waiting for Joan to come.
As Zara Diaz came out the front door and onto the veranda of Pleasant Pastures Home for Seniors, she looked to her right and saw that Mrs. Shivers was still sitting on the porch swing with her glass of melting ice cubes and her eyes fixed onto some point in the distance straight before her. Her mouth twitched every now and then, and she desultorily let out a grumble or a hum, nodded or shook her head.
Zara smiled at Mrs. Shivers but again received no response. She looked down and left the old woman in what she had learned from her mother was Mrs. Shivers’s usual spot. Zara’s mother was Mrs. Shivers’s neighbour at Pleasant Pastures and had told Zara her story, which she had learned through an acquaintance formed when Mrs. Shivers first arrived at the home. But the acquaintance dissolved gradually as Mrs. Shivers crept further into her mind and seemed more and more preoccupied with some thought, seemed always, sitting in a corner with a tall glass of ice and lemonade, to be trying to figure something out or to remember something with eyebrows furrowed. Sometimes at the end of the day and after a long while of thinking she seemed, slapping her hand onto her thigh, triumphant, grinning with a new-found and arduously-earned conviction in a certain idea, in the way a detective might after discovering the piece of evidence that would connect the frayed elements of the crime.
“The poor old woman,” Zara thought every time she saw Mrs. Shivers. Her husband had died of a heart attack about ten years ago and they had had no children. When she had become so ill she couldn’t take care of herself, her sister had taken her into custody and had devoted her life to caring for her. Mrs. Shivers had been left at the home by her sister about three years ago. It had only been a temporary thing, just until the sister and her husband returned from their summer tour of Europe. But their plane crashed and they did not survive, and Mrs. Shivers was left at the home – she had nowhere else to go. Zara’s mother said that Mrs. Shivers hardly ever spoke coherently anymore, and when she did it would always be about Marx. Most all the other residents left her alone, fearing her on account of her communism.
Based off what her mother had told her, Zara felt deeply sorry for Mrs. Shivers, left all alone in the world. As she made the laborious journey down the gravel walkway that she hated no end, her eyes watering in the luminous, sizzling light of the white afternoon, she resolved that the next time she came to visit her mother she would bring some flowers for Mrs. Shivers, too. And this idea made Zara feel proud of herself.
“I bet Mrs. Shivers would like that very much,” she mused, her mind already moving on to the prospect of getting back home and to her dog Theo. “Theo would be itching for a walk,” she thought. “He’d have so much fun playing in this bright afternoon.”
Rod K Rogers is the owner and principle consultant for AMI Church Consulting, a church fundraising firm. A former pastor, he has a Doctor of Ministry degree and has published three non-fiction books. This is his first fictional story.
ISIS GOES TO STARBUCKS
On a Saturday morning in August, Ali Nasar, ISIS terrorist, and Jessica Reed each drove to Starbucks carrying a concealed handgun. Ali’s lay hidden under a Hustler magazine on the passenger seat of his Jeep. Jessica’s rested in the bottom of her purse, along with her Zoloft and Xanax, and her Kindle. Jessica carried her pistol for self-defense. Ali did not.
Jessica arrived first at 9:00 a.m. She was a skinny thirty-something with limp, brown hair and a nose too long for her face. She ordered her daily decaf latte without making eye contact, then settled into the armchair near the front of the store, to the right of the entrance. She kept her favorite bag on her lap—the zipper had jammed open—and sipped her coffee.
Out of the corner of her eye she watched two bulked up football players from the local college strut through the front entrance. They wore jeans and identical T-shirts with Eagles printed on the back. One shaved his head bald. The other had curly red hair. They glanced at Jessica on their way to the bar. Bald murmured something and Red snickered.
Jessica’s face flushed. She shrank inside her baggy green blouse and denim shorts and hunched deeper into her seat. Jessica accessed The Pirate’s Bride on her Kindle and began to read. The smell of coffee, the whine of the bean grinder, and the chatter of customers soothed her.
At 9:12 a.m., Ali Nasar burst through the door wearing a black balaclava, white hoodie, jeans, and hiking boots. He shouted “Allahu Akbar” and fired two deafening shots into the ceiling with a Glock 21.
Terrified patrons and baristas dropped to the floor and covered their heads. Bald and Red, who had settled at a table to the left of the entrance, dove for the floor as if practicing a loose ball drill.
The smell of burnt gunpowder mixed with the aroma of fresh coffee. Norah Jones sang about lies. A woman, curled like a fetus near the bathroom at the back of the store, whimpered.
While the others scrambled to protect themselves, Jessica froze like an antelope at the roar of a lion. Every muscle in her body clenched tight. In her paralysis, she was the only customer left upright, her coffee cup suspended at chest level.
Ali Nasar could not resist lecturing his pathetic victims. He shouted in accented English, “You infidels are soft. Your society is corrupt.” He pointed at a scrawny woman’s bare legs with his gun, “Your women are whores. The followers of Mohammed will conquer America. Today Allah will roast your stomachs in hell.”
Jessica had been seconds away from total collapse, but when the gunman insulted her, she felt something shift inside. Enough! She had spent her life cowering in the presence of bullies, and now she was about to be murdered by one. In Starbucks.
Her stomach began to burn and heat spread through her body. Her muscles unlocked and flooded with strength. She felt a foreign emotion. Anger. For the first time in her life she was ready to fight back. And she had a gun.
But, she held her latte in her shooting hand. If she set it down and reached for her revolver, he would see the movement and shoot her. She had to find a way to get to her gun without alarming him.
Jessica’s heart pounded in her chest and sweat beaded on her forehead. Would her last thoughts be of a terrorist and coffee?
Jessica moaned, dropped the cup into her purse, and plunged her hand in after it.
Ali heard the moan and snapped his head around in time to see the coffee and the woman’s hand disappear into the bag. He snorted, glanced around, and turned to start the slaughter with her.
But Jessica had a head start. She yanked out her coffee-slick Lady Smith .357 Magnum, pointed it at him, and began jerking the trigger.
Ali’s eyes widened and he froze. Gun! He hadn’t expected…
Jessica’s first two bullets flew over his head, blowing out the glass wall behind him.
Her third shot struck him in the left shoulder.
Her fourth bullet shattered his left collar bone and a red stain blossomed on his hoodie. Ali crumpled to his knees.
Jessica’s last shot flew above the falling man and out the store.
It was over in six seconds. When the firing pin clicked repeatedly on empty rounds, Jessica shrieked and hurled the gun across the room.
Now the Eagles joined the battle. Bald jumped to wrench the pistol from the kneeling gunman’s hand. Red tackled him from behind, knocking him flat, and twisted his arms behind his back.
A lone wolf of ISIS lay writhing belly down on the floor, bleeding, crying, grinding his teeth in pain and rage. Beaten in a gunfight by a woman.
ISIS was finished at Starbucks for the day, but Jessica Reed was not. Twenty years of cowering in fear of bullies, of repressing a thousand slights and humiliations, had created in her a pressurized cauldron of emotional lava. Now the rage erupted in a powerful flow and Jessica threw a long-suppressed tantrum. While smooth jazz played in the background, and shocked customers cowered on the floor, Jessica screamed, jumped up and down, and stomped around Starbucks pulling down racks, smashing mugs, and kicking over chairs.
Finally, she slumped to the floor by the entrance and began to sob quietly.
The others slowly picked themselves up, some crying, some talking softly. Police sirens wailed in the distance. Gun smoke clouded the room.
Jessica stopped crying, crossed her legs, and slowly straightened up.
Deeper in the store Bald stood next to Red, who was kneeling on Ali, and stared at Jessica’s frail form. His customary smirk was gone. Bald bent over, murmured something to Red who nodded, then walked around and squatted in front of Jessica.
Jessica Reed tilted her head back and looked him in the eye.
An artist as well as a writer, Kurt Cole Eidsvig received an MFA from the Creative Writing Program at the University of Montana and has been published in journals like Slipstream, Hanging Loose, Borderlands, Main Street Rag and The Southeast Review. A featured columnist on BigRedandShiny.com, and a regular contributor to sites like Examiner.com and ArtAmerica.org, his work won a Warhol Foundation / Creative Capital Fellowship, a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship, the Edmund Freeman Award, and a University of Montana Teaching Fellowship. Eidsvig's writing has earned semi-finalist awards from The Sawtooth Poetry Prize and Zone 3 Books, as well as finalist recognition from the Elizabeth George Foundation. Media outlets such as The Boston Globe, The Improper Bostonian, Boston Neighborhood News, and The Weekly Dig have featured Kurt and his work. He lives an works in Key West, Florida and maintains a website at Www.EidsvigArt.com.
MARIGOLD IN WINTER
After Ramona left I couldn’t afford any more emotional lacerations. So I sweat, I kissed, I heaved and kissed some more. With any new girl I met, I insisted on being the answer to questions they never knew they had. My sex life was basically a series of infomercials. For the blonde at Whiskey’s who drank vodka crans, I offered one product; for the redhead bartender at Sola’s with the extra-thin eyebrows, it was something else.
In and out of bars, up and down the black asphalt of Boylston Street, I premiered my over-produced paid television spots. And in room-mated apartments in the Back Bay, in Fenway, in Southie, in the 3 a.m. glow of the city, on sheets that smelled like girl, I’d present my one-time-only offers. Act now with no money down:
My dick is a Mighty Light, I’d think.
My dick is a Stretch Buddy.
My dick is an Insta Hang.
My dick is a Lint Lizard.
My dick is a Sobakawa Cloud Pillow.
My dick is a Grout Bully.
My dick is a Micro Touch Max.
My dick is a Brazilian Butt Lift.
My dick is a My Lil Pie Maker.
My dick is a Chord Buddy Guitar Learning System.
My dick is a Comfy Control Harness.
My dick is an Easy Reach.
Clearly I wasn’t out at the bars every night, but I definitely wasn’t sleeping. It was either limited time offers to unsuspecting bedroom sequels, or lying on one of the couches in me and Campbell’s garden level apartment, watching television do its thing until the sun came up.
While Soupy and I looked different, we were in identical poses on the twin couches while a big biceps bleached-blonde ponytail guy jogged around the studio, squatted down next to Sears catalog-looking models, and indicated how their choice in footwear could change anyone’s life. The sound was off.
“Campbell,” I said. “What’s your favorite?”
He rattled the pack of Marlboros, lit another, exhaled a ring. “My favorite is when you bought the Ab Roller.”
One of those water bug/nightcrawler/centipede/creepy-crawly things moved around on the far wall behind the light of the television screen. I looked down at my prominent gut.
“You know what mine is? My favorite was when Ray Jay the realtor told us this was a ‘garden level’ apartment,” I said. “Tied for second with when you told me the name for those suckers was ‘water bugs.’”
“Aren’t you supposed to be out, fucking your way past Ramona right now?” he said. He exhaled more smoke. And his cigarette gave me the advantage when the phone in the kitchen rang.
“Not it,” I said. My finger pressed convincingly on my nose.
“It’s almost three o’clock in the morning. It’s not for me,” he said.
“Not it,” I said. I reminded myself it couldn’t be Ramona.
The phone rang again.
“Not it,” I said.
“It’s definitely for you,” he said. He was almost at the phone though. We both knew he wanted to claim the loophole that it wasn’t his fault I’d dropped my cell phone in the toilet, and I should be the one to get up off the couch. But the rules of Not It were clear, so why argue?
The phone was absolutely for me though.
“Some girl. Says she’s looking for the Egg Genie,” he said.
I took the cordless to my bedroom.
I know now that Marigold was planning a series of robberies on the front stoop of my crappy apartment building while she waited for me to come outside. Her tangled brown hair, cast into strands from the light of the lobby, reminded me of her one bedroom apartment above the convenience store in the North End. It made her different. She was a moaner, and I spent some time the night we met watching the neon reflect against her teeth. Her bottom row looked like a deck of cards in mid-shuffle.
“How did you find me?” I whispered in the direction of the ember at the end of her cigarette. I had the feeling she could have dialed every buzzer on the door while she’d waited for me.
There are many things to steal on the side streets of Boston at three in the morning. In that, Marigold was ingenious. She and I ripped the license plate off a Dodge after a decent amount of grunting. We pulled unclaimed mail from boxes, and she seemed intent on finding something good. I mimed knowing what I was looking for. There was a framed print in an open lobby Marigold pulled down. I was encouraged to remove the small clay pot from a windowsill. I set it down a few paces away.
After a bit of our meandering and heightened borrowing, two green bottles of Rolling Rock emerged from Marigold’s extra-large purse. She handed me one and it was oddly cold.
She pushed her hair out of the way, tipped back, and drank half. Then she kissed me beneath a street lamp before reaching down and taking a stack of free Phoenix newspapers from the display box next to my shaky legs. We distributed escort ads and massage parlor classifieds beneath the windshield wipers of every car down the block.
As it started to rain, I watched the bad color and newsprint black melt into smudges against all that glass.
“Why don’t you have a real phone?” she said. She was going through another mailbox.
“I dropped mine in the toilet.”
“Taking a picture of your junk?” She put the circulars back in the box and slugged down the other half of her beer.
I considered the growing exhibition of naked penis photography springing up around the city. If my sex life was a series of infomercials, my genitalia self-portraits were print advertisements. Marigold was either psychic, comic, or tragic.
“When I figure out how to get a new phone, I’ll take one for you,” I said.
Of course I was hurt.
“I have some hash,” she said. “If you want to smoke it.”
Soupy was in bed by the time we came in from the rain.
“Google,” she said. “You told me you used to work for the cable company.”
I never had much food, but Marigold and I were eating Saltines and peanut butter. Each swallow made my throat confused.
“It’s a lot easier to find a land line,” she said. And if a peanut butter moustache was something possible to get, Marigold had one. I tried not to imagine the fiasco in the bottom row of her teeth.
She insisted on candles, and portions of her face wobbled in the light. Empty coffee cups, Ding Dong wrappers, and other random trash from the city collected in the window wells outside. The apartment held the sound of refuse getting battered as it combined with insistent raindrops. Flames from the candles bent and moved to this music.
“You guys watch a lot of late night commercials?” she said.
I chewed in light from the television that was always on. Between moving pictures and the candles, and Marigold’s curly hair, there was plenty of curvy color in the room.
“It’s kind of sad, don’t you think—all these things that no one will ever need?”
“Do you hear the toilet running? Like someone needs to jiggle the handle or something?” I said.
“Go ahead,” she said. “Go sit on the toilet and take pictures when things are starting to get good.”
After I locked the door to the bathroom, I heard Marigold get up and leave.
The next night Soupy was pissed. Marigold stole the remote. Of course I didn’t have her phone number to call and make demands. I couldn’t even remember the location of her apartment above all that teeth-glowing neon.
“You could go walk around the North End with me until I find the place,” I said.
“You’re answering the phone for a week,” he said.
Campbell shook his head, no, when he looked over and my finger was on my nose. I had pushed the boundaries of Not It.
“Not it to letting some crazy bitch in our house at three a.m. so she can gank the remote control,” he said.
“All we watch is infomercials anyway,” I said.
“I like to flip between them,” he said. “And why does it smell like salt and vinegar chips in here? And feet?”
“Me and Marigold ate your crackers,” I said. Even though he raised his hands in disgust, I knew he was just joking.
“Marigold?” he said.
“She knows I take pictures of my dick,” I said.
“It’s called sexting dill-weed. George Foreman knows about sexting, and he named all his kids the exact same thing. Billy Banks knows about sexting. It helped him invent Tae Bo. The Video Professor? The Stop the Insanity lady? The two of them actually did an infomercial about sexting together. It won an Infomercial Emmy.”
“I thought sexting was just dirty talk,” I said.
“You should have watched the two of them sexting, instead of going out and stealing shit with your new girlfriend last night,” he said.
“Her bottom teeth are all confused. Some of them are going this way, and some of them are going the other,” I said.
“If she doesn’t bring the remote back, I’m tacking it on to the rent this month,” he said. “But besides that… she seems like a real keeper.”
Campbell relented a few nights later when I was on an especially tricky level of Sword Masters IV. The phone rang just as I pulled the jewel from the carved lion’s paw. I only had a few seconds to throw it down the waterfall before the cave collapsed.
“So the first part says, ‘Will you accept a collect call from Station Six of the Boston Police Department?” he said.
The cave collapsed.
“From ‘The Showtime Rotisserie,’” he said.
“Did she really say that?” I said.
“It’s a recording, I have to press one if you’re going to accept the charges.”
The video game flashed CONTINUE? And 9 – 8 – 7, etc.
“Press one, press one,” I said.
He did and handed over the phone. If I’d crossed to the waterfall with the jewel as fast as I made it to the kitchen, we wouldn’t have to go all the way back to the parachute drop on top of Everest in Sword Masters.
“You know what I miss most about the remote?” he said. “Was when we used to flip-flop between HBO and HBO Latino and hear the difference in the voices. Remember the guy who dubbed Clooney in Ocean’s 11?”
“Hello?” I said into the receiver. Campbell was starting over in the living room. “Hello? Hello?” I said.
“I was going to send you one of those things with cut-up letters from different magazines and newspapers,” she said.
“A ransom note?”
“Don’t tell me you didn’t notice your TV clicker is missing,” she said.
“Our remote is missing?”
Soupy laughed insincerely. “You sound like high-pitched Mexican Clooney,” he said.
He powered-up twice and jumped over a rabid wolverine before finding the revolver behind the roadmap and shooting the minute hand on the clock tower.
“Isn’t it time you asked me on our second date?” Marigold said.
The background noise of her geography was as bizarre as mine.
“You mean, third,” I said.
“The time at my apartment doesn’t count because all we did was copulate.” Before she gave me dial tone, Marigold finished with “I’m at the station behind Northeastern University. Bring two hundred bucks.”
What I hated most about entering the huge police station down near the Ruggles T stop was that Soupy and I were both wearing flannel shirts. They weren’t the same pattern, or colors, but how different can two grungy checkerboards be? His was tucked into a leather belt and khaki pants, mine was unbuttoned above a Cypress Hill t-shirt. The idea was still the same.
“I think that’s what you were wearing the last time I bailed you out of jail,” he said.
“Thanks for doing this,” I said. “I had no idea she was my type.”
“’Criminal’ is your type now?” he said.
“You said it yourself, just now.”
“Do you think she has our remote control on her?”
We headed up toward the receptionist in the cop uniform.
And maybe we both saw it at the same time, but Campbell was the first to say, “Ramona?” My blonde ex-girlfriend was right there, smart-phoning on one of the waiting room chairs. Probably more crap about Justin Beiber, or Do You Think You Can Dance?
“Soupy?” she said.
He had his index finger pressed to the tip of his nose.
I said, “Hi, Ramona.”
Even with the bright police house lights, I could make out some stars above the city when the three of us exited the station.
“Don’t you think it’s a little ironic?” Marigold said.
Campbell said, “That you stole our remote and went to jail for shoplifting on Newbury Street? Not really. It does remind me of the old Alanis Morisette song though, where nothing is ironic.”
She said, “I mean your roommate’s ex-girlfriend. She’s dating a cop, he’s dating a criminal? And what’s with his 90s drug dealer outfit? Is that a Cypress Hill shirt?”
“Who said we were dating?” I said.
“Like every time that bitch sings, ‘isn’t it ironic?’” Campbell said, “I yell ‘no’ at the radio.”
“Third date,” she said. “You said it yourself.”
Marigold took Soupy and me on each arm. She gave us both a peck on the cheek.
“I wish I was wearing flannel,” she said.
“That’s ironic,” Campbell said.
I was definitely the first to see her the second time. In the parking lot, in a cruiser, Ramona’s blonde hair whipped and twirled in front of someone else’s face. It was clearly her under the police station lights. My hesitation and confusion made our little chain of three stagger, stop, and break.
“Is that your whore ex-girlfriend?” Ramona said.
“You kiss your mother with that mouth?” Soupy said.
Whatever you wanted to say about Ramona and her love for the Kardashian’s, the girl had perfect timing. She stopped sucking face with the sergeant, who was presumably my replacement, and straightened her hair before giving the three of us a fingertip wave.
“You dated Playtime Barbie?” Marigold said.
We watched Ramona whisper in the ear of the living action figure beside her in the cruiser. He was a bit ruffled from Ramona’s heavy makeout technique, and had lipstick on too. But he looked exactly like the POLICEMAN in coloring books.
“See what happens when we leave the apartment?” Soupy said.
The three of us made our way toward the street. Inside the cruiser, Ramona flicked on the flashers and the blue lights swirled.
It’s hard to say which of us was more surprised by our post-bailout sleepover. But Marigold was definitely more comfortable with toothbrush sharing the next morning, and the morning after that. And while our living room started to have the luster of a Honda Accord with stolen rims, spoiler, and decals, Marigold hadn’t bothered to steal herself a toothbrush yet.
“Can you believe that most inventions aren’t successful?” This was Marigold on my old couch, laying in the position of Soupy on the other. I’d just returned home from my new job at American Apparel. She exhaled some sort of smoke. It was hard to tell which kind anymore.
The living room was the same basically dingy room in the same basically dingy basement apartment. Only it was more decorative and elaborate now, with floor lamps, textiles, and small rugs—even a glass vase filled with marbles on a table in the corner. This was our version of a busted-up car made beautiful by the accessories one can steal.
There was also a permanent smoke haze: a mix of Marlboros, Parliaments, hash, pot, and Hungry Man TV dinners fresh from the microwave. A pair of these trays sat empty and devoured on the new coffee table.
“How was folding, dear?” Campbell said. At least he made a show of trying to sit up. Marigold was relaxing.
“Who measures these ideas?” she said. “Today I decided to do a series of artworks using old cell phones for paintbrushes. You know how Hemingway always said write what you hear? Well, why can’t anyone paint what they hear?”
Campbell lay back down. “I think they mean things like the hula hoop, or the Ab Roller.”
“There’s nothing left in the freezer,” I said.
“What about gravity? Donuts? Dog leashes?” she said. “Most inventions are unsuccessful? No, I don’t believe that, Mr. Bad Hair.”
Picasso should have had such witnesses. My first response was to fix my hairdo, but the rest of the room was invisible to poor Marigold and her marching orders from inspiration. While me and Soupy and the insensitive commercial pitch man were all there for the start of Marigold’s greatest series, none of us could see something bubbling inside her, cooking in the cast light particles and super-strings bursting from the flat screen.
Weeks later, Soupy said to me, “After that invention infomercial moment meltdown, your girl Marigold’s life was summed up best by Track One of the Beastie Boys multi-platinum debut album: The song, Rhymin’ and Stealin’.”
“Except Marigold’s poetry didn’t rhyme,” I said.
“And poetry isn’t really the same as a series of ransom notes to no one,” he said.
“But, of course, the Beastie Boys never recorded a song called ‘Repetition and Stealing,’” I said.
“Isn’t that what you two had in common?” he said.
I thought of all the things I’d ever stolen, all the nights of same-toothbrush French kissing Marigold and I did in the privacy of my bedroom. I thought of Rolling Rock and jail cells.
I guess Soupy knew I was at a loss. “Repetition,” he said. “How many sexual infomercials did you produce after Ramona? How many pictures of your dick did you take for the cell phone exhibition titled ‘Please Text Me Back?’”
How many? How many are there?
He said, all those weeks later: “Repetition. That’s how I knew the two of you were in love. You and the girl with the crazy hair.”
Campbell was right. Marigold and I, if nothing else, shared repetition. We were predictable criminals.
I invented the pain of nostalgia.
Back on the couch that night, Marigold exhaled a blue cloud, forcefully.
"I invented the death penalty. I invented suburbia. I invented two-party politics,” she said.
She sat up and started to put her shoes on.
“I invented nine to five, I invented cubicles. I invented weapons of mass destruction,” she said.
“Do either of you have a pen?” she said.
I was at the refrigerator still, Soupy was at a cigarette. Marigold located a Sharpie and a stack of index cards, told us, “never mind.”
Before Marigold walked out of the apartment she said, “I invented racism. I invented dishonesty. I invented syphilis.”
The door closed behind her. After I took her warm spot on the couch I looked at the empty Hungry Man trays on the table, and then back at the television.
“Want to order a pizza?” I said.
“I don’t care what you say,” I looked at his nametag again. “Rob,” I said. “These stupid squares don’t make folding that much easier.”
We were in the back of the store. I hated Rob least out of all the douches I had to work with, even if I could never remember his name. In my new job, I was a folding machine, assisted by this plastic square Rob kept encouraging me to use.
“Like this,” he said. “Like this.”
This was after my backroom watching of a series of training DVDs on a crummy laptop. I had tried to appropriately rename each title in the collection as I watched along. One was “Don’t Climb A Ladder Like a Drunken Imbecile or Your Manager Yells.” Another was “Your Coworker Doesn’t Want to Do the Humpty Dance in The Stockroom—Even if She Dresses Like an Eager Background Dancer—So Keep Your Hands Off Her Titties,” which was admittedly, a little long. My favorite was, “If You Wash Your Face With Cleaning Products, Expect Trouble,” or “This Stuff Is For The Toilet, Not To Clean Your Contact Lenses.”
But Rob? Rob was an infomercial for the plastic square. “Seriously, look how much easier it is.”
“Look how much easier it is,” I said, after he walked to the front of a door to assist two girls find size zero. In that, the store was a physics lesson. The clients were collections of particles bouncing off one another, bouncing off the extents of new products, the lasting qualities of homemade fabric dyes and the finest blended cotton. Our store was the start of the universe; our store was the end of the universe. And because of the infinity of in-store music loops and daily shipments of new and improved sizes; because of the complexities of size zero and the fact that my work shifts were never bearable, I was certain of this theorem:
There is no such thing as nothing.
“Easier,” I whined. The clearance table was misshapen balls of purple and green, wrinkles and discards. In the world of retail, I was a junk collector. I was the Asian woman collecting bottles in a shopping cart all over Boston at night, a doctor’s mask across her face and rubber gloves on, the reek of remnant beer and soda combusting in the air above the cart’s wobbly left-front wheel. I was caring for things other people never wanted. Fold, and fold, and fold.
Pinned to the back of a pair of Silver and Asphalt Polka-Dotted High-Waist Hot Shorts, wrinkled in a way no plastic square could possible revise, was an index card.
I INVENTED FAKE LAUGHTER, it said. It was written in black marker.
I scanned the store and was sure there was less of everything: less striped woven shorts, less three-tone zipped hoodies. There were even less piles of make-up bags and bottled nail polish.
There were the same amount of security cameras though. Then there was Rob flirting with the high school girls. The eyeglasses remaining in the case still had no lenses in them.
“Rob,” I said. What worse place to interrupt than when he was discussing leggings? But what could I do?
Who would I talk to from corporate to explain that the training seminar had left off the movie, “Retail Rerun Romance,” or its steamy sequel, “Klepto-Nympho-Maniacs and The Men They Love.”
The girls giggled at Rob’s unmistakable power as I held up the shorts for his inspection.
Soupy and I saw less of Marigold. At least I did. When I got home from folding every night, she was out in the city. She snuck in to fondle me half-heartedly in the pre-dawn dark most nights, and was still snoring—a light whistle emitting from a nostril—when I showered before noon. But beyond the living room accessories, and the new set of stainless steel pots and pans, the shoe tree and the steam mop, Marigold was everywhere.
There was a box with what I am sure was a stolen ribbon wrapped around it waiting for me on the coffee table when I got home one night. Soupy watched a home shopping network segment on HP printers.
The lady spokesperson said, “This is really more of a computer than a printer. It has a dedicated email address and can print out coupons for you!” So much perk.
The box on the table, covered in brilliant pink and black writing and graphics, held similar promises.
“Looks like you finally got a new phone,” Campbell said from the couch.
“Not many girlfriends would get a guy a burner phone,” I said. I untied the ribbon and noticed the box had been opened.
Lifting the phone from the convenient packaging, I saw by its glowing face, the item was already powered on. There was a text message waiting. I INVENTED PICTURES, it read.
Figuring out how to open up the photo album was almost beyond me, but as a skilled employee of a retail chain, and someone who had completed DVD training in computerized sales transactions—something I called using the cash register—I eventually rose to the task
Photo one was a Barbie doll wearing a bikini, on what looked like, our kitchen table. Photo two had a GI Joe—I guessed Recondo—who was significantly smaller than Barbie, applying tanning oil, or giving a karate chop, to her back.
Photo 3: Barbie was naked.
Photo 4: A feigned blowjob.
Photo 5, and 6, and 7: And on and on and on.
“This gives new meaning to action figure,” I said.
Campbell didn’t pay any attention. The last of the Barbie and G.I. Joe images had the two of them melted together in a smush of colored plastic. Faces had moved, clothes bore scars from burning. They were a disfigured mess of fornication and violence.
The next photo was even worse.
I must have gasped or gagged or made some sound, because Campbell was laughing from the couch. “What do you think?” he said.
I scrolled and found image after image of penises: Black, white, shaved, curly-pubed penises. And then another. And another.
“She hooked it up for you,” he said.
“Marigold’s been busy,” I said.
“They aren’t new boyfriends. Your beautiful felon stole a stack of gay porn mags from a shop in the Combat Zone,” he said.
At the bottom of the box, below where the phone had been cradled by molded plastic, a pair of crumpled up index cards were smashed in the hole. Each had the Sharpie lines and sudden swoops of Marigold’s signature notes.
One read, I INVENTED PRE-LOADED CELL PHONES.
And the other: I INVENTED MELTING.
As summer moved into autumn moved into wintertime, I could never figure out if Marigold was Jesus or Santa Claus. Even if I knew which she preferred.
“She steals toys?” Soupy said. There was a pile of boxes Marigold had stacked up to make the shape of a minimalist Christmas tree. She’d even tied tiny flashing lights around some items, but wrapping paper had escaped her.
“Is that a Millennium Falcon?” he said.
It was. And that was a Barbie Dream house. That there was an iPad protector. There were accessories to products we didn’t have the originals of. Of course, there was an index card taped to the top of the consumerist sculpture. If the boxes were boughs and branches, Marigold’s ransom note poetry was the star.
Campbell said, “I was on Boylston the other day, and there was one of Marigold’s index cards taped to the front window of Anthropologie. You know that kid, Booberman, used to play in Mime Field? He told me he saw one on the Dorr’s Liquor’s wall of shame, next to the confiscated fake ID’s.”
“Every time I fold a shirt at Urban Outfitters, there’s another one. At first I thought they were love notes to me, to lost things, to stolen things, to America. Now, I don’t know anymore.”
“I haven’t seen a Cabbage Patch Kid since ’84,” Campbell said. The tree was, in fact, beautiful.
He said, “She left one in my shoe this morning. It said, ‘I INVENTED WALKING.’”
I pulled the card from the top of the tree. It read:
I INVENTED KEEP THE RECEIPT.
When the phone in the kitchen rang, both of us walked toward the kitchen to answer it first.
At Station Six, they weren’t as pleased with Marigold. Snow wandered around outside, looking for motivation to make it all the way to the ground. She was in handcuffs next to the booking desk.
“Can you ask Soupy if this is ironic?” she said.
“What’s that,” I said.
“Well, I would guess you used handcuffs on your blonde whore ex-girlfriend from time to time. And now her boyfriend is using handcuffs on me.” There was a female policewoman talking to Brian at the reception table across the room, supposedly about bail. But, as with all late-night police station conversations, their words sounded more like a weather report.
“I don’t think that’s her boyfriend,” I said. The woman was black and weighed nearly three hundred pounds. I INVENTED EXTRA LARGE UNIFORMS, I thought.
Marigold hissed, “There is only one policeman in every city. He just wears different disguises.” Her hair looked like the inferior product from the steam mop infomercial.
“I know I made you steal all those things. You were trying to impress me,” I said. Marigold didn’t answer. She only spoke in index cards anymore.
“I invented the death of Marilyn Monroe,” she said.
On the walk back toward the subway, the illusion of white flecks breaking from the sky and falling soundlessly made everything seem quiet.
“We had to leave her there,” Soupy said. I was certain Marigold would have somehow invented escape.
“People don’t want solutions to their problems,” I said. “They want reasons they can’t be solved.”
Soupy said, “Plus…” He exhaled smoke at everything beyond us. “If you want to be their answer, you have to take the blame.”
Sam Redding is a young adult fiction and freelance writer. She is a resident of Atlanta, Georgia, in a home with which she shares with her three dogs, two cats, and plants. In school, she is heavily involved in the writing programs as well as the marching band and the local volunteer group for mistreated animals. Fall of 2017 she plans to enroll in Georgia State University to begin her major in music teaching and her minor in creative writing
The Lonely One
“What the fuck?!”
That’s what I hear as I run as fast as my battered legs would carry me. That and some shouting, of course.
I’m Holly. I’m twenty-seven and people call me crazy. I don’t think I am, just different. For about two years now, the place I call “home”, has been a large, bland, crowded mansion. There were so many people that lived inside of this place, that I don’t even know how they had even the slightest of energy left to care for us with. There were never enough beds. Many of us were forced to sleep on the cold, hard floors. Sharing bed was never allowed. I suppose they wanted to keep up from having skin to skin contact with any other living, breathing human- and I never knew why. Hell, I don’t know why I’m here, or where I am. Doubt I ever will. Many of the nurses and doctors here have long since lost their patience with us. There were plenty of rowdy ones that needed far too much care for only one caretaker to take them on. Many of them talked of their lives before they were thrown in this hole, to be forgotten about. Several talked of how they had just bore children before being whisked away. I always felt a pang of sorrow for those who had perfect lives before. Some were married to men, some were married to women. I used to be married to a man named Ken. He and I had a wonderful relationship, excluding the times that he used his words to touch me without ever having to lay a finger on me. Surprisingly, I’ve never stopped for longer than moments to ponder on why. I guess I was too wild for him to control; too spontaneous. After being trapped inside of this big beige, cement box for years, you’ll become almost like a friend to yourself. It’s odd, the way you can become friends with your consciousness and have endless conversations with the entity trapped inside of you. I always get caught up in those conversations with the being—or even person inside of my head. He always tells me how hellish it is being trapped inside of somewhere that you don’t belong. On the especially bad nights, he’ll feed me horrible thoughts. Things I am ashamed to have once been in my brain. He can keep me company when I’m lonely which can often causes me to be walking for hours and not realize it. It happened all the time when I was younger. I don’t even remember properly marrying Ken, which leads me to believe that I had the same thing happen then. When I was in school, I would always get caught up in those conversations walking down the halls. I feel a raindrop splatter on my nose when I snap back and by the racing of my heart I assume that I’ve been rotating between running and jogging for quite some time. My mind lingers to Ken. I remember how he yelled at me, and then apologized with sweet kisses. I remember how he’d tower over me and squeeze my shoulders until there were big spots of black and blue on my arms, reaching down towards my fingertips. Of course, later on he’d make up for his behavior with forceful kisses. But even so, they were still sweet—or at least that’s what I would think. If I remembered correctly, Ken still lives in Baltimore, and not far from where we used to live. I could still find him.
No, not could—would.
The only thing I remember from before two years ago is him throwing me back up against a wall, screaming “don’t come back! You are crazy! Don’t you dare come back here!” Not long after that I ended up in this big old cement block. But—he couldn’t mean it, could he? I’m sure he still loves me. It’s not like he would have any reason not to. I mean, our vows bound us together. “Until death do us part”. He didn’t mean it. He couldn’t mean it. I’ve never understood why people call me “crazy”. No one’s ever explained it to me. I’ve always felt different.
Sure, my brown hair might be a little more frazzled than the other girls’. My eyes might dart to and fro more than the other girls’. My brain speaks to me more than the other girls’. But that doesn’t make me crazy... does it? My mama always told me that people stare because they’ve never seen someone quite like me. That they stared because they were jealous of me having a more interesting mind than them. I’d always ask her what she meant by that, but she always seemed to dance around the idea of the statement. I’ve always just assumed that she means it in a good way. I mean—why would a mother insult or judge her own daughter in such a way?
Walking, then jogging, then running. I know where I’m going, but I don’t know what I’m doing when I get there. Will he even let me in? Will he even answer the door for me? All of the inevitable what if’s come flooding in all at once and I’m starting to feel more out of control of my mind. My actions, my words, my feelings. I only remember getting like this once before and it didn’t turn out so well. At all. It landed me in rehab for six months, and a therapist for two. Every time I saw the therapist; I told her all that goes on in my mind and she would look… shocked. I don’t know why. I was just voicing my thoughts. It’s not my fault it’s a mad house up there, it always has been. It gets especially bad at night. Oh God, it’s bad at night. They talk to me. Like actual voices. Not just that inner monologue, either, even though it does pitch in every once in a while. It cheers them on. It roots for them. It’s supposed to be rooting for me. It stands on the sidelines and yells “go team!” while these monsters tear me up from the inside out. It always ends with me drowning in an inevitable puddle of tears and dragging my short, stubby nails down my salt-soaked face. What do they say to me? Oh honey, they ask me why I couldn’t do it. Why I couldn’t be like everyone else. Why I think I’m normal. They ask me the questions I can’t answer, because honestly, I don’t know. I never have, and I don’t think I ever will. I wish I could talk to people without them running. But I can’t. So I keep it inside, and hope for the best. Some call it self-destruction. I call it protection.
I notice my breathing has become jagged and forced. My chest is heaving and I can almost feel my heart in my throat. It’s almost choking me from forcing itself up into my trachea. My head starts to scream. The voices are yelling over each other, squabbling with one another. Why are they all talking at once? Oh God- please, stop it… please, please…
“Why’d they do it?” one asks.
“It’s your fault!” another retorts.
“I’m sorry…” I mumble, out loud without noticing. All I wanted was to find him. I wanted to find Ken and give him back what he deserves. What he gave to me ever so long ago. Of course; I can’t quite recall where he might be, but I’ll figure it out. I just need to see him.
I felt every muscle in my body tense up. I heard the ever so familiar feedback and statically altered voices that could only be from that hell that I so gravely escaped.
“I think we might have something, Barnes.”
“Good. Keep me updated.”
How did they track me down so quickly? I don’t remember leaving any tracks behind… I don’t think they could’ve found me from how I broke out of there. It was pretty clever, I thought. But then again, I think a lot of things.
My mind is racing again. Stop it, stop it, please. Pictures of the past going and going, flickering across my closed eyelids. Having my eyes closed doesn’t help either. It just solidifies what’s already there. It’s in moments like this I feel like the circus freak that no one can love. Do others see me like this? God, I hope not. I’d hate for people to see me as the monster I see myself. Wouldn’t that be terrifying? I think it would. It’s not like this world needs anymore monsters and I would be adding to the toxins by being one. I don’t know if I could live with the weight of poisoning the rest of the world further.
I snap back to my senses and here I am, in the middle of Baltimore, on a drizzly, humid night, trying to find my ex, or maybe-not-ex-husband. The smell of liquor and cigarettes wafts through the air until it reaches my nose. That scent alone is enough to send me back to when we were happy, or at least I was happy. It makes me remember how homey our little house was. It was light blue with a little porch out front that contained a few rocking chairs and our white front door. Inside of that white front door, two newlyweds who barely knew the outside world would live. Their names were Ken and Holly and aside from occasional arguing, they had a pretty good life. They had planned many adventures together; one of which they had already been on. It was a short adventure, but it was one they would never forget. Sure; the police got involved, but where’s the fun without someone getting scared? That was our first adventure that we genuinely enjoyed each other’s presence and felt connected. All after that was just downhill. Ken began to despise my love for destruction and need to cause havoc. I never understood why. I always tried to tell him that “It’s not illegal unless you get caught,” but he would always scoff and get even more furious.
One night, not long after we had fully settled into our new home, he came home drunk.
My mind had already been bouncing off the walls and I was near manic when he stumbled in the door, slurring his words and stumbling about. He swung the door open, cigar in mouth and both hands firmly grasping the door frame as if the whole world was spinning at a million miles an hour. Once he made it inside, he leaned against the wall and took a long drag of his cigar. He blew the smoke out in a huff of relief. I can remember him cuffing his face with his hands and mumbling,“Fuck”. I could tell he was out of his mind hammered by the way his eyes drooped and how he reeked of liquor from what seemed to be a mile away. I noticed that his hair was scruffier than it was when he had left. His shirt had obviously been unbuttoned and re-buttoned incorrectly. Even through his mask of alcohol, he wore cologne made of guilt. I can remember easing myself off the couch as calmly as possible, because I knew exactly what was coming for me.
“Where the fuck were you?” I said, crossing my arms. I can almost see the panic rise in his eyes, his cheeks flush and his knees start shaking all at once.
“I-I was out with the guys. Things got a bit intense. You know how they are,”
“Oh, I’m sure the guys were unbuttoning and re-buttoning your shirt like that, and not to mention running their fingers through your hair,” I retort. His hands creep up to his hair to try and smooth what evidence is left over. “I should’ve fucking known. I should’ve known that I can’t trust a guy like you out for more than two seconds or else you’ll go and fuck some other girl. I get it. It’s what guys do. They’re animals.” I scoff, turning my back to him. My cheeks flushed with rage and my fingertips tingling with the need for revenge.
He looks at his feet. Then off to the side. I can see him tensing up but nothing would prepare me for what would happen next. He clamped his hands around my throat and pushed me up against the wall and held me there until I was almost certain that my face was as purple as a plum and I was croaking for air. He unlatched one hand from around my throat and curled it into a fist and punched me right where my nose meets my face, but at an angle so I was almost certain that he broke it. I screamed in pain but he clamped his free hand over my mouth and brought his mouth close to my ear so that only I could hear him say, “tell anyone about this and you’re dead,” I remember every muscle in my body tensing up with fear. He lingered so that I could feel his hot breath reaching from the back of my neck to what seemed like the small of my back. It sent shivers down my spine. He loosens his grip around my neck but not before he plants one heavy punch right on my left eye. He let go almost as quickly as he grabbed me and spun around. I sunk to the ground and buried my head in my hands and shook as the moment replayed over and over again in my head. I remember vaguely blacking out and coming to later in the night, when all of the lights had been shut off and the doors had been locked, and the curtains were drawn. I heard a distant rumbling from upstairs, which I assumed was snoring. I shakily got to my feet and wandered into the kitchen, where the knives were kept. I picked up my favorite one, and glanced towards the staircase. I thought to myself, “I could… I could give him what he deserves…” And just like that, the entity that encased my body had me at the top of the stairs, glaring into our bedroom where he slept, with the door open and completely exposed for me to prey on.
Inside the room is filled with his constant breaths. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. My fingers tightened around the handle of the knife. I carefully make my way over to him and lean down so I am almost face to face with him. I trace his lips with the knife. Then I work my way down to his esophagus and trachea, then again back up to his lips. I mumble to myself, “What a shame it would be… if I were to... slip,” and as those quiet words leave my mouth, I slashed wound about an inch and a half across his bottom lip. He jolts awake and I throw myself on top of him so that he can see me. I positioned the knife so I could make sure that he saw it. He yelled in fear, something I’ve wanted to hear for a very long time now. We wrestled for what seemed like forever when he flipped me over and ripped the knife out of my hand by grabbing it from the blade. His hand and lip were dripping blood onto me as he shouted “you listen to ME. Get out. Don’t you dare come back here.” He reached for the phone on the bedside table and dialed 911. “Officer? Hello, my wife tried to kill me.” I thrashed around underneath him as I listened to him give them our address. The last thing I remember from that night is him hanging up the phone and raising his hand as high as possible and hitting me. Then everything went black.
P.T. Stone (@ptstoneofficial) is a senior English major at Clemson University. His work has appeared in The Moth, The Chronicle, and Poetry Quarterly. He runs two blogs, The Near and Far (thenearandfar.wordpress.com) and A Book of One's Own (bookofonesown.wordpress.com). He is also a blogger and reader for Spry Literary Magazine.
Jeremy got in his car to drive home after his midnight-to-six-a.m. shift at the on-campus dormitory, the summer job he had all but stumbled into because of his friend’s job as a resident assistant for the university and his accidental affinity for staying in the quiet college town during the summer months. After a bit, he came to a stop at a yellow light and he might have taken the turn anyway if it hadn’t been for the campus police car opposite him at the light in the left turning lane, turning onto the street on which he would be turning.
Given his recent time in jail because of the tardiness on paying a speeding ticket and its resulting suspension of his license and the subsequent driving while under suspension charge that manifested, Jeremy had formed an even more irrational fear and even stronger disgust for the police—because, of course, he still maintained that the slight oversight of not paying a speeding ticket was all-too-little to warrant a punishment of even a single night in jail, which he had spent sleeping after first attempting to reconcile his relationship with Jesus Christ by reading the provided Bible in his cell, but he couldn’t get past the list of different translations before calling it quits on renewing that broken relationship—broken simultaneously by the onslaught of collegial knowledge maintained by his philosophy minor, which he had completed early in his junior year, and the mere thought of his ex-girlfriend, who by this point had gladly moved on and found a new boy to torture (“pray with”) about her problems in the campus ministry which she now headed, likely given her because of her senior status at the university and the tenure she had put in since their very first semester with the ministry.
On the radio was the soft but ardent lilts of cello music, a Bach piece he remembered from its announcement, echoing from the instrument played by a professor with three degrees in music and a teaching position at a small mountain college in Appalachia, all of which somehow had good music programs and Jeremy wondered if that was somehow related to the idea that mountain ranges in the classical poetic sense encouraged beautiful reverberation or echo for the audio art or because given the mountains’ majesty and nearly mystical presence, those who attend these universities or desire to attend them fall into the trap of inspiration that renders them both capable and insistent on creating critically good music.
The cop car’s red break lights reflected and seemed to even dance on the glass of the abandoned sub sandwich shop that Jeremy had not visited since his sophomore year, the same year it closed and was abandoned after the owner had failed to pay rent and was subsequently evicted, though Jeremy had stopped going to the sub sandwich shop a few months before that had even happened because his ex had gotten a job there and despite the sub sandwiches being slightly above average and priced slightly lower than average, something for which any college student would be thankful, Jeremy had opted to never go into the place again so as to avoid her and he only ever peered inside to see if she were working the counter on days when he walked past the shop to the small pizza joint beyond it.
Jeremy’s hands were rough and would likely make a sound when he rubbed his fingers against each other as if he were sprinkling salt or some other spice, a nervous tick he had inherited from his father, but the Bach cello piece on the radio was too loud and the windows were halfway down in the car, which made the air flickering in and out of the car shatter and cackle as he drove down the uneven road, still behind the cop car but maintaining enough distance so as not to alert the badged driver that his rearview-mirror road companion might be breaking any laws behind him.
Jeremy’s fingers looked lanky up against the black steering wheel (at ten-and-two) but they were not very long and he often felt like his thumbs were too fat in comparison to the rest of his fingers and that his index fingers had oddly shaped fingernails—too thin in comparison to the others, especially given their close proximity to the fatter thumb, which as too plump thus also had too wide fingernails. His fingernails were in need of a trim, though recently Jeremy had forgotten to maintain their short length like he did during the school year. He often felt self-conscious about the length of his fingernails because his mother had once told him women didn’t like men with long fingernails because it resembled something trashy or slightly effeminate about them and though Jeremy was very much not trashy and very much ‘in touch with his feminine side’ as the saying went, having been raised chiefly by the women in his family and having a slightly above average ability to both talk at length about the way he felt and cry if need be to reconcile the distress that putting all one’s feelings out there for the world to know causes for a man raised in the part of the south he was, where the only thing just as emasculating as getting one’s prostate checked was crying about one’s feelings, he still somehow let that memory of his mother talking about his long nails cause the anxiety that self-consciousness creates whenever he thought his nails had reached a length that were indeed “too long.” He also, though he hoped this were less the reason than the self-consciousness, kept his nails at a reputable length in hopes that one day he would again have a woman share his double bed and perhaps that woman might want him to use his fingers, nails at a short enough length as not to cause her discomfort (or worse, and more much embarrassing, harm), to please here while they kissed so that she might also get aroused enough to ask him if he had protection, which he always had of course kept in his bedside table drawer. However, this had not happened in many months and certainly not at all during the summer and instead of getting accustomed to meeting and having women over to his apartment and in his double bed with the prepared box of condoms in the bedside table drawer, he had become much more accustomed (to the point of nearly loathing) to masturbating daily and, less frequently, changing out those boxes of condoms for new ones for fear of their expiration prior to their prescribed expiration date and his subsequent use of one of those hypothetically faulty condoms and impregnation of his hopefully beautiful bedfellow by his apparently potent sperm, for another self-consciousness-ridden tidbit that his mother had shared with Jeremy was that his father was a very potent man and that both he and his younger brother were accidental pregnancies—of course not in the sense that they were unwanted, she had assured him, just in the sense that she had not before the nights of conception planned to become pregnant but did in fact become pregnant not once but twice, she had said with emphasis, and that it was the fault of Jeremy’s father’s “potency,” the specific word she had chosen and which had always stuck to that memory like the very subject of the potency itself, his father’s ejaculate, because for the layman the word potent itself was much more akin to poison in relational terms and now the negative connotation of both poison and potent had stuck itself to the very idea of ejaculate, which Jeremy had of course formed an aversion to after that and every conversation his mother had with him about reproduction and the intimate acts that made it happen.
The cop car in front of Jeremy finally turned left off the road they were sharing at a normally busy intersection, which was not busy partly because of the early time but also because most of the residents of the small college town were gone for the summer months and because it was July fifth and the patriotic parties the night before rendered those who were still in the small college town comatose at a time before the sun had even risen very much. Jeremy drove forward at the intersection where the cop car turned left in front of him and at the next intersection took a left, arriving in the apartment complex he now called home on his taxes and to his family when he visited them, something to which his mother would take offense whenever she heard him say because, as she said with a wet kiss of lipstick that she tried to wipe off with her licked thumb that only smudged it and enflamed his skin to the point where the spot appeared only to be a blemish rather than the stain she created, “Your HomeTM will always be Here®, son.”
The speed bumps in the apartment complex parking lot were a darker black asphalt than the rest of the road and they didn’t glimmer like the granite pieces in the other either, but the yellow diagonal lines that went across them coupled with the contrast created by their darker shade made up for it, rendering them impossible to miss. Though, becoming accustomed to slowing down at a fixed interval (given the speed bumps’ equidistance from one another) did make them seemingly blended into the wider landscape that Jeremy called home, being both connected to the aura of the space itself and the way in which he inhabited and traveled in that space. There were usually cars parked along the side of the road opposite the apartment buildings but weren’t on July fifth most likely also due to the holiday weekend.
A car passed by Jeremy as he opened his car door to step out of the small white Honda Civic and with it blew a gust of wet air that kissed at Jeremy’s face as he stood up, moist with the humidity of the morning dew and the sticky summer weather, which was as essentially southern as the accent and numbing religiosity of the locals. At the concrete stairs that led down to Jeremy’s apartment door, a spider web formed a miniature glistening trapeze wire across the rail so he went walked down the grassy hill with patches of orange clay peaking out in stark splotches like rosacea on the face of the verdant landscape. The key to unlock Jeremy’s apartment’s door was a copper color and had an engraved F for front door, an addition to the key he had requested before moving into the apartment so that he could tell the difference between the front door key and the key to his bedroom in the apartment. He wrestled with the jingling wad in his hands until he found the engraved key and unlocked the door.
The apartment smelled like soured flowers and he knew upon smelling it that this was because instead of taking out the putrid bag of trash in the kitchen, his roommate had thought spraying air freshener would disguise the smell enough. Though this lazy oversight by his roommate did slightly annoy Jeremy, it didn’t infuriate him, for the apartment often smelled much worse—like gamey deer meat that his roommate had hunted and stored in the freezer in plastic bags but which stained not only the plastic countertops and the inside of the freezer, in which he would never again store his own ice-cream after the last time had rendered his pint inedible because of its tainted metallic flavor, but which had also somehow soaked into the carpet and furniture in the apartment so that with every step and sit in the apartment, a poof of meat air was wafted into one’s nostrils. Jeremy tied up the bag of foul smelling trash and carried it out the door and to the large green trash bin that had been rolled to the back of the apartment building after his upstairs neighbors had complained that the sight of it at the bottom of the stairwell leading up to their apartment prompted smelling it and that just wouldn’t do.
Jeremy reentered the apartment and saw that the bad of trash had also apparently had a leak and had left a trail of spots along the carpet from the kitchen to the door. He ignored them and avoided stepping on them so as not to even taint the bottom of his shoes. He re-bagged the trash bin and cleaned up the tiny puddles that speckled the kitchen floor with a paper towel and threw it away. Jeremy walked into his bedroom for the first time in almost seven hours and without brushing his teeth or removing his uniform, took off his shoes and got into bed, thinking how aptly named the comforter was and he slept.
William Quincy Belle is just a guy. Nobody famous; nobody rich; just some guy who likes to periodically add his two cents worth with the hope, accounting for inflation, that $0.02 is not over-evaluating his contribution. He claims that at the heart of the writing process is some sort of (psychotic) urge to put it down on paper and likes to recite the following which so far he hasn't been able to attribute to anyone: "A writer is an egomaniac with low self-esteem." You will find Mr. Belle's unbridled stream of consciousness here (http://wqebelle.blogspot.ca) or @here (https://twitter.com/wqbelle).
Killing Some Time
There went four hours of his life. Read a book, page through a magazine, nap, do whatever necessary to occupy himself in one of those times where there was nothing else to do but wait. Charles carried his overnight bag down the length of the bus and climbed down the steps. The driver was busy removing luggage from the undercarriage hold and several passengers waited for their bags. Travelling light had its rewards and Charles walked away having everything he needed. The smell of diesel was everywhere. It would be nice to exit the terminal and breathe air with a few less fumes.
First, a quick stop at the lockers. He fished a key out of his pocket and looked at the number on it; number fourteen. He glanced at the tags of several doors before he located the locker and opened it. Inside, he found a little bag like a shaving kit. He unzipped it and examined the contents item by item. After taking out a plastic access card and stuffing it in his pocket, he zipped up the kit and put it in his overnight bag.
He walked out the front door of the terminal and stood on the sidewalk taking deep breaths. The air was welcome after all that exhaust. There were a fair number of people going about. The traffic was thick and there was the general din of honking horns, conversations and other assorted noises of the big city. The city always had a certain energy to it. Unfortunately, he was only staying overnight for a business trip, so he wouldn't be able to take advantage of his visit to see much. Maybe next time. He headed off down the sidewalk toward his hotel.
At a small grocery store in the middle of the block, he stopped in front of several tables displaying a variety of fruits and vegetables. Under a small hand-written sign showing the word Macintosh, he turned over several apples before selecting one and stepping into the store. He held onto his bag and the apple with one hand while he dug around his pocket and pulled out a bill. The older woman behind the counter took it and made change. He put the coins in his pocket, unzipped the bag and put the apple in it. He walked out and blended into the stream of people on the sidewalk.
When Charles walked into the hotel, he scanned the lobby before spotting the elevators off to one side. He walked to them and punched a wall button. He rode up to the fourth floor and used his plastic pass card to gain entrance to room number 434. It was clean and fresh. Nothing fancy, but it had a sense of cleanliness. He took off his shoes and left them at the door. He put his bag on a luggage stand beside the television and went into the bathroom to wash his hands. After taking a hand towel from a stack of clean linen, he dried his hands and hooked it over the linen bar.
He went back into the room and he looked at the clock. It showed ten forty-five. He opened his overnight bag and hung up a clean shirt and pants, then stripped off his clothes and hung them up.
He looked around the room at the bed, the dresser, and the heating unit by the window. Taking a pillow from the bed, he arranged it by the window on the floor, then sat down on it and hooked his feet under the edge of the heating unit. After thirty sit-ups, he paused looking up at the ceiling. He rolled over and did twenty-five push-ups then stood up and did some stretching exercises. He touched his toes and bent left and right at the waist, alternating between these two movements several times. Next he got back down on the pillow and did another set of thirty sit-ups, rolled over and did another twenty-five push-ups. He stood up and touched his toes again then bent backward at the waist and moved left and right. Straightening up, he rubbed his lower back before putting the pillow back on the bed.
Charles went to the bathroom and showered. After slipping on a hotel bathrobe and slippers, he went back to the main room and turned on the television set. He dug his apple out of his bag and washed it in the bathroom. He moved a pillow to the headboard, and he propped himself up in bed using the channel changer to hunt for the eleven o'clock news. As he bit into his apple with one hand, he clicked the remote with the other.
After ten minutes of headlines and international news, the show turned to local news. He turned off the television set and got up. Throwing the apple core into the wastebasket, he picked up the menu card and read over the breakfast selection for room service. He filled out the card for coffee, cereal plus milk and toast with a delivery time of 6:30am. After hanging it on the outside door handle of his room, he sat on the edge of the bed and set the alarm on the clock radio to 6:25am. He phoned the front desk and asked for a wake-up call for the same time.
He pulled the small bag out of his luggage and set it on the writing desk. Turning on the lamp, he moved the bag into the light and unzipped it. He used his hand to shift the contents around and inspected each item. He leaned back in the chair and stared at a framed print of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. The heating unit clicked on and the fan made a whirring noise. Closing the bag, he put it back in his luggage.
He brushed his teeth and urinated. He checked the thermostat, turned out the lights and climbed into bed. Staring at the ceiling in the semi-darkness, he listened to the muted din of the city. It was late but there was the occasional car horn. Voices passed by in the hall.
The phone rang. Charles picked up the receiver and put it back in its cradle. He pulled back the covers and rolled over to sit on the side of the bed. He paused looking into the semi-darkness. The time read 6:24am. He punched the off button for the radio clock.
Putting on his robe and slippers, he got out a two one-dollar bills and put them on the corner of the writing desk. He picked up his overnight bag and took it into the bathroom. Coming back out, he glanced at the clock. It said 6:29am. He pulled the door handle to release the lock and left the door propped open. He went back to the bathroom leaving the door open a crack and turned on the shower. With the water running, he stood at the sink so he could better hear somebody knock. He brushed his teeth.
The knock was audible even over the sound of the running water. Going to the crack in the door, he barked, “Come on in.” He heard a muffled response. “Leave the tray on the desk, please. There's a tip for you.”
A voice said, “Thank you, sir.” He kept his ear to the crack listening as the waiter walked to the writing desk then came back, went out the door and shut it. Once he heard the click of the lock, he shut off the water and came out. He put his overnight bag back on the luggage stand and walked over to the breakfast tray. He poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down. Holding the cup to his lips, he sipped occasionally shutting his eyes. For the moment, all was quiet.
He poured a second cup, stood up and walked to the window. Pulling back the edge of the drapes, he looked out onto the street below. He followed various people while he finished his coffee.
He returned to the desk and unfolded the complimentary newspaper. After pouring milk over his cereal, he placed the bowl on the paper itself and hunched over eating and scanning the headlines. He had a third cup of coffee while looking at the editorial page of the newspaper. Buttered toast with jam left a trail of crumbs over the newsprint.
Charles finished his coffee and had to take care of his daily business. He shaved and got dressed. Taking out a fresh change of underwear and socks, he put on the extra shirt and pants he had brought. He folded the previous day’s clothing and put it in the overnight bag. The time was seven thirty.
He lifted the lid on the pot and looked inside. Pouring out the rest of the coffee, he went to the window. He sipped and stared at the urban landscape.
He snapped out of his reverie. The clock now showed seven forty. He brushed his teeth then picked up a towel and went around the room and the bathroom wiping anything he may have touched: the TV remote, the breakfast menu card, the clock radio, the sink and taps, the furniture, plus the room service tray and its items. He walked around making sure he hadn’t left anything. Satisfied that everything was in order, he picked up his bag and left.
Taking the stairs down to the main floor, he avoided the lobby and exited through a side door. He turned right and walked a block to the subway. Using a token from the zipped bag, he took the eastbound train and rode three stops. He walked out of the station and went to the corner. Setting his bag down, he removed a blue windbreaker and a baseball cap without an insignia. He went down four doors and arrived at a condo-apartment building, number 2843. He pulled open the door and entered the foyer. At that moment, a woman was coming out pulling a little shopping cart. He turned away as if he was studying the list of names but before the door shut, he grabbed it and walked into the building keeping his head down.
The elevator was straight ahead, but he went to the left to take the stairs. He walked up to the third floor and pulled open the door. He looked to the right and the left. The hallway was deserted. He let the door close and put down his bag. Reaching into it, he took out a pair of latex gloves. He pulled them over each hand and stretched the ends over the cuffs of his jacket. He unzipped the kit bag and retrieved a gun and suppressor then fixed the silencer into place. Glancing one last time at the gun, he opened the door and strode down the hall to apartment 32. He knocked on the door while holding the gun out of sight. On the other side of the door, a voice said, “Yes?”
He knocked again. There was the distinct sound of the chain being removed. He brought the gun up and held it out with both hands. The door opened to reveal a woman in a bathrobe. He squeezed the trigger and there was a quiet pop. A dark red circle appeared in the middle of the woman's forehead and she collapsed on the floor. He pushed the door open and stepped into the apartment. Somewhere there was a radio playing soft music. He shut the door.
“Honey? Who's at the door?” A man's voice came from down the hall. Charles tiptoed toward the voice holding the gun out with both hands. As he arrived at a bedroom, a man came through the door. “Who could be coming around at this hour?”
The man stopped and looked at Charles. He glanced down at the gun and sighed, his shoulders slumped. Charles squeezed the trigger and once again, there was a quiet pop. A dark red circle formed in the middle of the forehead and the man folded up in a heap on the floor. Charles put the gun in a pocket then half hoisted the man and dragged him into the bedroom. He returned to the hall and carried the woman back. He opened the closet and removed a shoe stand and several boxes. Getting down on his knees, he seized both sides of a wooden cover and lifted it to one side. He leaned in the closet and studied the mini-vault.
He pulled both bodies to the closet and arranged them side by side. Extending the right arm of each of them, he brought the hands to the front of the vault. Grasping the thumb of each hand, he placed first the man’s then the woman’s on the fingerprint reader. There was an audible click. He moved the arms out of the way and opened the door. He reached in and removed three trays then took them to the dresser. Spacing them out one after one, he tugged at a leather handle to lift the cover of each drawer. Laid out on black velvet were dozens of diamonds.
He pulled a small cloth bag out of a pocket and emptied the contents of each drawer into it. He pulled a draw string and put the bag back in one pocket. Glancing around one last time, he went back to the door of the apartment and opened the door. He stepped into the hall and shut the door listening for the telltale click of the lock. Striding back down the hall, he returned to the stairwell. He took the suppressor off the gun and put the pieces back in the kit bag. Pulling the cloth bag out of his pocket, he stuffed it into the kit and zipped it up. He stripped off the gloves and put everything in his overnight bag.
Once outside the building, he walked to the corner and put his windbreaker and baseball cap back in his luggage. He threw away the latex gloves and took the subway downtown. At the bus depot, he used his key to open the same locker. He used a tissue to wipe the kit bag including the zipper handle and stored everything away. A wall clock showed nine thirty. At the restaurant counter, he ordered a coffee and a toasted bagel then found a vacant seat where somebody had left a copy of the morning newspaper. He crossed his legs and laid the paper out in his lap as he ate his bagel and sipped his coffee.
The P.A. system announced his departure. He folded the paper and left it on the chair, stood up and tossed his coffee cup in a garbage container. He pulled out his return ticket and walked out to the bus. The driver stood by the front door looking at passenger tickets.
The bus was half empty. He walked all the way to the back, put his bag on the aisle seat, and slid over to the window. After looking up to the front of the bus, he unzipped his bag and took out a pocket book. He thumbed the pages to a bookmark then stopped, squeezed his eyes shut and yawned. He set the book down and settled back in his seat. Turning his head, he looked out the window as the bus moved. It was a four-hour ride home and there was plenty of time to kill.
Tim Cyphers is a writer and professional from Baltimore, MD, United States, currently studying writing at Johns Hopkins University. On free days, he enjoys spending time with family, friends, and nature. From the beach or in the mountains, he contemplates the human condition and the beauty of manifested art in all its true forms.
A white girl in workout clothes is walking down a city street, age twenty-five. Her pink tank-top is tight and neon beneath the late afternoon sun. It has computer-drawn black patterns of trapezoid rows across the front below the recently-founded company logo, an outline of the female form frozen in a warrior yoga pose. She skips off the curb and crosses a busy roadway where three lanes of cars in rush hour sit waiting at the red light.
At brisk pace, her high-set birch ponytail sways in the soft breeze and at least three motorists watch the movement of her lower body in gray capris compression pants as she makes her way home. The girl is looking up at her surroundings, then down scrolling her iPhone. Up again, down, up, down, up, her head in a constant bob, a practiced rhythm—needed in today’s world—of unique multi-tasking; combining watching where one is going in the physical, bustling city with keeping in nonstop touch with the needy universe of digital community.
She checks in on reactions from online profiles to her latest salacious photo-upload to the latest hip sharing website, and allows a small smile to cross her glossed lips seeing the number of likes and upbeat comments from friends and strangers alike. The picture, taken twenty minutes earlier inside the gym, depicts her in front of the full-length mirror, standing with feet together pointed forward. Her phone is held with both hands below her upright chest, head angled, dangling the ponytail to one side, and lips pursed with gaze strangely focused on the pink-cased electronic device serving as a camera.
A friend she used to sit with at one of the two popular lunch tables in middle school, who she hasn’t seen since the send-off dance when school districting diverged their paths, despite un-kept promises on both sides—made with reciprocated yearbook inscriptions—to hang out next fall, has commented that she looks great and “Keep at it girl!” From a creepy stranger she’s been told he’d love nothing more than some time alone with her someday. “A stroll on the beach, or better yet, between the sheets, any lesson, you want my dear!” Username MasterChefster45 is insisting with his typed praises. The likes are pouring in. Her friend count will surely be increasing. She knows at least one ex is watching and feeling the gnaw of jealousy, and raises her head a bit higher as the light turns green and the cars sit patient, letting the shapely pedestrian complete her cross.
The girl is happy with the now-ness of the spreading photo. She does not think about how her mentality will evolve, how in twenty years when she might not look as trim and bouncy she’ll require a different approach to being accepted, to being part of something, a welcoming group currently made of tepid past friendships and internet sex fiends. It’s all about posting the picture, finding joy, however indulgent, in the reaction, and basking in the glow of popularity. A tech-savvy procedural embrace, different but similar in method to how she became a star back in middle school.
In two blocks, more like three blocks, about two and a half to be inexact, the elevated gentrified neighborhood—sleek steel blue apartment buildings with balconies and opaque glass walls and restored brick warehouses with exposed black pipes and unused smokestacks and fresh painted block lettering made to look retro-industry reading defunct American business, such as Atlantic Coast Company—starts to make its gradual then fast shift from re-constructed and clean to littered and falling down. The shift occurs as the distance from the riverside waterfront increases.
The border areas between these two worlds are where the cultures get to mingle just a bit. Bus routes fume down the avenues, spitting exhaust, and the speculation of developers allocating resources to rehab projects is evident in the real estate prices and the arrayed view of gutted homes—windowless and dumpsters parked on the street—next to finished shiny projects marked by “For Sale” signs, and, more commonly, the beat-up brick houses for which the last heyday occurred in the 1950s.
It’s in this border zone that the girl lives, affordable for her and her two like-minded roommates, and with her scraping salary from her job as assistant buyer in menswear at one of the international conglomerate, financially failing, high-end apparel companies, where, as the grapevine insists, the quality of craftsmanship is dropping quicker than quarterly sales.
In synch with getting closer to home—as much as one would call a home the remaining four months on a year-long townhouse lease—the white girl, embracing everything she’s been told by her parents and friends about navigating dangerous cities, and considering the recent string of muggings and the sexual assault case from last fall, gets her phone in her pocket, her head on a swivel, and now monitors her surroundings with fervor.
Ahead, she’ll pass a bus stop, uncrowded in the late afternoon, save for a dingy guy sleeping on the bench between the translucent glass walls. A jogger whips by, here and then gone, and she stops for a beat, presses her hand below her throat and gasps with surprise fear. She never likes this part, even in the day time. She would never venture this walk at night. She uses a phone-app for a mobile ride-service to get home from the gym when it’s dark in the winter.
She wishes her salary would get bumped by more than it has so she could live down by the water, wishes the male population of this country with abysmal economic opportunity would see the importance of owning expensive threads from Saks Fifth Avenue. Wishes, wishes, wishes, she never had to live with this clammy fear—a fear she’d never admit to her parents, who are wary of her living here in the first place—on a simple pre-broiled-salmon-dinner-walk home from the gym. Also, she wishes someone from the male population would sweep her off her feet and pay for her to have a more expensive life.
Arriving with the fear, the early dusk foreshadowing nightfall, a black man is walking down Lake Street in the same direction as the girl. He is behind her right shoulder on the other side of the street trailing by a hundred feet, quickens his pace and is closing the distance. He wears a tank top too. Not pink with digital pattern but all navy blue. It presses tight around his jutting chest muscles, leaving his ripped arms exposed, and coming down just below his waist, exposing a view of gray boxer shorts before the start of his baggy jeans that drop in crumpled cylinders around his shins and ankles, mostly covering his new, dirt-free basketball shoes that sport the logo of the latest perennial all-star, who many on the other side of the border zone hold up as a model for escaping the despair of the crime-ridden neighborhood.
The girl sees him from the corner of her eye since she’s watching everything, looks back without trying to make it obvious. She notes there is no one else on the sidewalk on either side of the street between the two of them. The glisten and tempo from her workout returns, not just the abstract fear she felt before, but the heat of a critical situation that could mean life or death.
She’s read all about the recent string of muggings. First-hand accounts on social media too, not just un-relatable news reports, but her peers testifying to the callousness of these men, these thugs who will stop at nothing to enrich themselves of the most minuscule items—phones, small bills, watches, old bikes cut with bolt-cutters from underneath porches—no matter the innocence and undeserving nature of the victim. Heartless.
She’s even heard that many times the muggings and hold-ups and break-ins and robberies, and oh god, probably even last fall’s assault, are undertaken as part of sick gang initiation rituals, meaning the crimes are destined, are intentionally orchestrated, to happen to someone, to anyone, walking down the street, and there is nothing a lone person can do to stop it. Their only misstep is being in the wrong place at the wrong time. She touches her phone inside her pants pocket next to her key fob for the gym, her ID and credit card.
Her pulse kicks up another notch when she sees, like a flash of blue shadow, after the Doppler-whiz of a passing Mazda, the black man crossing the street. His pace has picked up, or is she just imagining things? He definitely has a certain kind of saunter, self-assured and decisive. He did not bother to wait for an intersection to make the move legally. This is when she notices his hair, styled in corn-rows, and she knows she is in trouble as he falls in step behind her. The distance is about fifty feet, maybe forty.
Passing the bus stop and the nose-hold stench of urine and the passed out bearded guy in dirty clothes on the bench inside, she wonders if she can wake him, just to get another person involved. Maybe pretend that she knows him, that she was coming to meet this guy here all along. Eww, the pee-smell is so strong. The guy is out cold, might not even be alive. She would never know anyone like this, could not even convince the tail that she did. He would probably laugh like a menace and rob them both, though there is nothing he could get from the bench guy who is likely homeless. She still has another two blocks to go until home, to 321 Lake Street, a three person apartment on the second and third floors of a restored townhouse.
On the next block, a Hispanic grocery store is next to a mid-grade Italian restaurant, next to a Chinese carry-out. If she gets there, she knows a crowd will be inside, watching out the front windows, perhaps some milling on the sidewalk. She could mingle around there, hang out, make it look like she is waiting to meet someone. The guy won’t try anything in front of witnesses, though that’s just it! Many of these crimes do have witnesses and still take place, still go unsolved. Indifferent customers and employees would probably watch a robbery, just sit there and watch it chewing like cows on cud, so commonplace as they are these days, and not even bat an eye much less rush outside to lend aid.
She takes a quick look behind her. The man is still back there. She walks faster. He has made sure to keep a consistent distance. When she speeds up, he still follows, by thirty feet now. He does not close the gap or make a move to pass her. He has to be following. There is no sense doubting. There are no fellow pedestrians in sight. Cars are driving down Lake in each direction, a yellow cab, a Toyota SUV, a white dented pick-up, a box delivery truck. Should she flag down a motorist and tell them the problem, maybe catch a ride home, the last block and a half? What stranger would stop? What would she tell them? I think I’m being followed and I’m scared and it’s that guy and I don’t know why I stopped you but can you just wait with me until he goes someplace else? Wouldn’t they just call her a paranoid bigot and drive away if they even slowed down at all?
She thinks of her phone, touches it again. She does not want to take it out and have it vulnerably in her hand, but maybe she could take a picture of the rearview and post it, get help from her digital friends. Not sure what they could really do, but at least there’d be a record of his face, if something were to happen…
The mix of fragrances—sesame and fried wantons, the marinara, boiling garlic—emit an appetizing waft across the light breeze. Normally, her post-workout hunger would be hitting by now, but fear has overtaken it, shoved to the back-burner. For a Thursday late-afternoon, the restaurants and the grocery are not crowded. She catches a glimpse of the bored cashier inside the carry-out, leaning her head against her hand on her elbow. There won’t be any help from these folks.
Checks behind again. Still there, not gaining, just walking behind, and following. Another block until home. She debates if she should walk past her house so the guy cannot force his way inside. Kim is working an evening nursing shift and Molly she knows is going out to dinner and won’t be home until later. To stop and work the key in the door seems like a careless, time-consuming risk. She looks around at all the windows of the houses. Everyone is inside for the evening watching television. She knows so many are in there glued to the screen. No one is looking out the window like they might be in the old days. Has this not made the world less safe? Should she simply reach from the bottom of her lungs and scream? THERE IS A MAN FOLLOWING ME!! WHY DOESN’T ANYBODY CARE?!
She is one hundred yards from the three white marble steps that lead to her front door. She’ll have to stop and check for the mail prior to unlocking, before taking the time to remove the key from her pocket, leaving her standing up there on the top step alone with her back turned, vulnerable to every approaching threat. She pictures the horror and cringes. Her body is clammy and damp and full of terror. The door always sticks and she’ll have to use both hands, one finagling the key, the other gripping the round brass knob and pulling forward to spring the lock.
Reaching near-panic on the home stretch, trying to figure if there’s any conceivable way out of this jam. The man is following. There is no one around. Should she call the police? Remembering as best she can all the safety tips she has been told over the years. None of them matter, of course, when you willfully violate the number one tenant of single city life for a young woman in a crime-ridden town: Never walk alone on deserted streets.
She’ll never make this mistake again. This is horrible. Cab from the gym it is, from now on every time. No sense risking it. She turns and looks and now the man is closer. There are no cars or people in sight. She has a view of a big grin planted on the black man’s face—glowing bright teeth—and she knows it must be the sly smile a predator wears when he believes the capture of sought prey is imminent. She can’t go to her house. It’d be insane to. She has to take off and run, round the block and head back to the water where the nice buildings are, where the police protect the citizens and are not afraid to patrol. She knows it. She has to run. Facts are the facts and no sense denying. She is in real danger.
At the instant when she is about to sprint, like hearing the starting gun in Olympic track, a white man, taking form from nowhere, crosses the street on a diagonal in a similar way the black man did, and settles into a pace between the white girl and the black man. He is dressed in casual clothes, khaki salmon shorts and a light gray collared shirt with the Polo horse stitched above the left chest. Sperry boat shoes with no socks complete the outfit along with square-framed Ray-ban shades. He flicks his collar-reaching auburn hair away from his eyes with a nonchalant head-tick once he has found his new walking lane on the sidewalk. He is new to the scene. Where did he even appear from? And whether he’s noticed the perilous scenario in which he has now been inserted, his care-free demeanor gives no indication that he feels anything resembling tension. Though his face is stern, yet soft.
Relief is unjust describing what the girl feels. She has no idea where this savior came from. Her last survey after passing the restaurants showed nothing but deserted streets and a menacing tail. She was resigned to running from the threat, and now, well now everything has changed. The safety of another stranger’s presence has lifted her from the depths of spiraling despair. Who knows where this guy came from, who cares really? Is there ever a purpose investigating the origins of salvation? He is here now, someone else, not her alone with the dangerous-looking gang-type with the half-limp saunter. And that is all that matters.
Nearing the house, coming toward the marble steps, her body is weightless. A new spirit puts a bounce in her step. Unafraid, she turns her head, and the white man in the preppy dress and haircut gives her a tiny smile. A knowing look of reassurance that says with confidence that he knows how scary the black guy is and how serious these situations can be, and with last fall’s assault and the recent spike in street crimes, his arrival is bringing a cloak of prevention to put a stop to all this nonsense and make the neighborhood a pleasant place to live once and for all again like it used to be before the demise of America’s cities.
Crazy as it sounds, the white guy, with the black guy behind him, does not look afraid at all. He looks upstanding, handsome, empathetic, understanding and kind, and not the kind of guy to be messed with by petty thieves. He holds his shoulders back and his head high. He probably works out at the same gym as the girl.
Behind the white guy—and she makes no pretense about looking over his shoulder—she sees that the smile, that sinister sleuthing grin—the bright white teeth—is no longer smacked across his face. Surmising, she promises herself she knows why. His little sick plans for an evening of crime have been thwarted, and there is nothing he can do about it. She almost sticks her tongue out, but reasons against taunting. She certainly does not want to piss the guy off.
At the house, she skips up the steps, stops to remove the mail from the silver box on the left side of the oak door. She watches the two men from the corner of her eye, curious to see how any potential interaction might play out. The black man has closed the distance between he and the slowing white guy. They exchange a glance, and the black guy whooshes past, sails by the marble steps, and is walking up the sidewalk no differently than any point in the last twenty minutes. His new basketball shoes glow in the fading light of approaching dusk. Destined for home, he’ll be there in another two blocks.
As the white girl sorts the mail, mostly junk—three credit card offers, an advertisement from a rival gym, her roommate’s car loan statement—she cannot help but notice the white guy still standing just off the base of the steps. She feels his eyes burning a hole, the heat on the back of her pink tank-top.
Reaching the key to the lock, she turns and meets his eyes, noting that he has removed his sunglasses. The late-day sun has fallen to an orange ball just over the building line. Its remaining rays form a geometric shape that angles across the sidewalk and shines in the man’s eyes. He is squinting at her, raises a hand to his forehead, fending off the brightness.
She laughs, somewhat nervously. “Umm, I’m sorry. Can I help you?”
Like breaking from a trance, he may not have realized he’d been standing there with such present distracted absence. He is all stumbles and apologies, taking his hand from his forehead and jingling keys or change in his pocket, turning the toe of his right Sperry against the concrete.
“Oh geez. I’m sorry. Really sorry, if you’ll excuse me. I didn’t mean to freak you out or anything.”
“No problem. I wasn’t really freaked out.”
“It’s just, uhh, and again please excuse the intrusion. But I couldn’t help noticing you from a few blocks away, and I thought that guy, kind of scary looking guy, might have been following you. I wanted to make sure everything was okay.”
“Oh my God! So I’m not crazy.” She full-turns to the man and doubles over, hands above her knees, her face in a huge grin. Obligatorily, for this to go the eventual way the man wants, he keeps his eyes, difficult as it is, from peering down the pink tank-top where the fleshy shape and youth of her breasts abound.
“I could have sworn he was too, and like smiling at me some of the time. Made me think I was in big trouble. I’ve got to admit, I was really really scared.” She stands upright, presses her knuckles against her left hip, striking a pose whose posted picture would generate a huge reaction from online profiles on the web. Still wearing the glisten of the workout, beneath the waning sun spilling over the roof-line, the photo could very well bring in her most likes of all time.
He shows a quick smile of just lips, exposing no teeth, not willing to take the situation too lightheartedly. None of this is really a joke after all. He rubs a soft layer of whisker-growth on his chin.
“That’s what it looked like to me. I couldn’t see his face or anything, but it was like he was kind of gaining on you. Can’t say for sure, I don’t want to be biased or anything.”
“Of course not. Nothing biased about it. I noticed it too.” She stands waiting and looking at him. She finds attractive his big brown eyes, high cheek bones and hint of baby fat injecting his face.
“And I just wanted to make sure you got in okay. There’s been a lot of muggings in this area recently, and that assault last fall, and I just...” He trails off.
“Oh, wow, that’s very nice. I appreciate that. I really do.”
“So that’s why I’m standing here like a dummy. Again, apologies. I grew up around here, and, well, it can be kind of a crazy place.” Here he breaks into a little giggle and smile, which the girl returns. A mutual understanding that, yes, this city, this nation, the world is a crazy place. All kinds of strange, dangerous, life-altering happenings can occur at any given time, most of which are out of our control.
“Oh, really? I went to college at Eastern, and stayed in town after. Actually from Long Island.”
“I got you. So you know about the mean streets then. Don’t have to tell you.”
“Well, Huntington, so not really.” She laughs. “This place is wild. Fun, but scary. If I could make a little more money, I wouldn’t live up this far.” She gives a panoramic glance from the top marble step, then back to the guy. The approaching dusk has re-contorted the sun-shape on the sidewalk.
“There’s some cool stuff in this neighborhood. Just gotta sift through some of the noise.”
“Sure, don’t get me wrong. It is cool. I’m just not always sure where to go. When the roommates are out.” She nods toward the front door.
“I’d be more than happy to give you a tour sometime. Great Hispanic food up the way I could show you. My favorite barbeque place is walking distance from here, TJs. Live blues every Thursday at Maestro’s is the place to be. I know all the spots.” He winks.
She rolls her eyes but wants to take the offer. “Really? Have not been there. Sure I’d take you up on that. You know, for saving me and everything.” She winks back.
“Cool, I’m Trevor.”
They shake hands across their disparate elevations, Jackie on the step, Trevor reaching from the sidewalk. They exchange numbers, the first of all the communicative exchanges, then set a potential date for the coming weekend.
As he’s turning to leave, the white man hears one more question.
“Byeee… oh and Trevor, one last thing.” He stops. She puts a hand to her forehead this time, blocking sunlight that is now bouncing off a parked car’s windshield from across the street. “Were you really just gonna watch me go inside and then leave without saying anything?”
He looks at her like she just threw his grandmother down an escalator at the mall, a practiced combination of hurt and confused. A moment later the twisted expression is gone and he shows her his “upstanding, handsome, empathetic, understanding and kind.” He steps forward and places a hand on the iron railing of the stairs, an action more gentle than anything they’ve shared thus far, including the handshake.
“Of course, Jackie. You feeling safe is my number one concern.” Pauses, then a smile creeps across his lips. “You’re the one that spoke up, and brought on the intros. I’m more the quiet type…and tall.” He raises his eyebrows in two quick ticks, brown eyes shining, and starts to turn to go.
The white girl blushes, knowing he might not be lying, accepting the observation of what has been perceived as her forwardness. An interaction altogether uncommon in the age of friendship from a phone screen. “Well, thank you. I do appreciate your concern.” And she goes inside.
Thirty minutes later the black man and white man sit next to one another at a neighborhood bar, engaged in the kind of debate that could only take place between a pair who have been in each other’s lives since kindergarten.
“I’m telling you, man, that’s gotta be the last time. I’m done doing that shit.” James is emphatic but smiling, slaps his palms on the bar top to either side of his sweating pint glass.
“With this one, maybe it will be. She could be the one.” Through a smirk, Trevor takes a gulp of beer. He sits with one elbow on the bar, the other on the back of his stool, facing his oldest friend. They’re in their favorite dive, Shipley’s, a place with overhead off-track horseracing screens and a set of three stairs at the end of the bar leading to a little room with fresh-smelling drywall, indoor/outdoor carpet and a shuffleboard table.
“Get out of here with that shit. That’s what you said the last time. Mandy or something, wasn’t it?”
“Would’ve been but she was moving to California! I’m not in this maliciously. I need a mate.” Smirking again, he presses both hands to his chest, then gestures toward his buddy. “I don’t have a great girl like you.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He waves him off. “I will say there was nothing wrong with the view I had. Kept looking back, though. One of these times, I swear it’ll be a call to the cops and then I’m locked up.”
“For walking down the street?! If they make that illegal, than we’ve lost this war.”
“Well, I don’t know, whatever you want to call it.”
“And if she went to take a pic I’d have to run!” James shakes his head. “Telling you man, last time.”
Leslie, the bartender, a take-no-shit gal with a towel draped over her shoulder, bored from another conversation at the other end, heads their way to join the discussion.
“What’s all the commotion boys? What’re you gentlemen up to this fine evening?”
“Nothing much,” James is quick to respond. “Just setting back race relations by a few decades, possibly centuries.”
“You mean improving the safety and awareness of the community,” Trevor adds, signaling his glass for a refill.
“To get laid?” Asks Leslie.
“Yeah, to get laid.”
“Fear is the ultimate icebreaker.”
“Get out of here with that philosophy garbage. There’s a special place waiting for people like you.”
Laughing. “Hey man, you know you’ll be thinking about that view.”
James shuts his eyes and shakes his head again. “Ooh, lordy-me, nothing wrong with that view. I will tell you that.”
Trevor reaches and pats his friend on the shoulder with his left hand. “Amen.”
“So wrong, man.”
Leslie refills both beers, asks the pair if they’re interested in ordering any food. On Thursdays, it’s half-priced build-your-own burger night, and James and Trevor nod yes. They are each pretty hungry.
Gary Hewitt is a raconteur who lives in a quaint little village in Kent. He has had over 90 short stories and poems published and has performed to several live audiences.
He enjoys writing prose and poetry. His style of writing tends to feature edgy characters . Some of his influences are James Herbert, Stephen King, Bulgakov, Tolkein to name but a few
He is also a proud member of the Hazlitt Arts Centre Writers group in Maidstone which features an eclectic group of very talented writers.
He has a website featuring his published works here:
He will also be bringing out his novel Shadowfruit in 2016. More details can be found here :
Danny rips out a Glock 17. He aims the gun to the street below.
“Put that thing away.”
Danny hurls himself into an armchair.
“Are you serious? We just scammed a hundred grand off, Marco.”
Tony tosses his partner a bag of powder.
“He doesn’t suspect us.”
Danny vanishes into the bathroom.
“Yeah, sorry for being a jerk.”
Their false calm is shattered by the chime of a doorbell. Danny seizes his gun.
Tony dabs his forehead.
“I’ll check it out. For God’s sake, put the piece away.”
Tony pads to the door. He peers through the spyhole. A wizened old man in a dusty trilby smiles back.
“What do you want? We’re kind of busy.”
“Most folks are Mister. I’m from Trinity Church. We’re raising money for those without a home. Would you care to donate?”
Danny urges Tony to walk away. Tony opens the door and offers the guest ten bucks.
“Why that’s really generous, Mister. You’re a good soul. Now let me give you a present from the Lord.”
The man reaches into his jacket and in one swift movement draws out a pair of twin silver pistols. Four silenced shots take flight. Danny and Tony’s faces stare back with two perfect circles etched into their foreheads.
“Boys, Marco says Mr. Eyebrows, make sure they don’t see you coming. I say boss, they’ll be expecting some slick smart hit-man not a man like me. Guess I was right again.”
Mr. Eyebrows places four silver coins on the two pairs of eyes. He says a prayer for them both before he leaves. Tonight, he will make a donation to the church.