Barbara Taylor is a proud survivor of a southern boarding school for girls, a southern women's college where majoring in English required reciting Chaucer from memory, and driver's instructions administered by her father, a former Army drill sergeant. A Ph.D. dropout and winner of Flatiron Writers Short Fiction Competition, she lives and writes in North Carolina.
13 Bedlam Lane
Note on monogrammed stationery to Sylvia Grissel
The unusual (dyed?) electric blue carnations arrived today. I thought the delivery was a mistake until I found your name typed inside the gift card with an odd quote: It requires more courage to suffer than to die (Napoleon). Probably a mix-up at the florist. Anyway, thanks for the thought.
The closing on the investment property is tomorrow. Next, some quick, easy fixes. I’m almost a landlord.
As Always, Wini
Voicemail to Imogen, Leader of Poetry Coterie
“Hi, Imogen. Wini. So sorry to miss our meeting, but I’m up to my ears in rental house business. No time to work on my haiku. But I hear your poem was accepted by “Destroying Angels.” Kudos. I’d love nothing more than to see you all next week as usual at Caribou Coffee, but I make no promises. Cheers.” Click.
E-mail to Mr. Paint Man
Your business came highly recommended by my dear friend, Sylvia Grissel, who provided a number and e-mail address, but it seems your phone is no longer in service. I’m anxious to get an estimate on 13 Bedlam Lane.
Please let me know a convenient time to meet and tour what some might call my shabby chic cottage.
E-mail to Peccadillo Plumbing
Your voice mailbox is full again, so please give me a ring as soon as possible in regard to the clogged drain in the basement floor at 13 Bedlam Lane. The water level is steadily rising, and I’m worried about walking around down there with the old freezer plugged in.
Business letter to Heavenly Roofers
I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to your mother’s funeral, but I had to be at #13 to pay the plumber in cash. I got your messages about an ex-boyfriend stealing her Elvis gold record, cats trapped in the trailer for days, your wife’s breakdown, and your stolen truck. Glad the police located the vehicle with only minor damage and the ASPCA found the cats new homes—even the blind one with three legs. Fingers crossed your wife stays on her medication this time.
I haven’t seen hide nor hair of Cletus and Girard all week. Last time, they were lounging under a tree at #13 drinking what appeared to be Mountain Dew, but I couldn’t swear what was in those cans. I was scheduled to meet a representative from Mr. Paint Man, but no one showed up. By the time I left, Cletus and Girard were nowhere to be found. Now, I understand you’re in mourning, but I don’t think the blue plastic is an adequate solution with a weekend of rain predicted. We need to move along here, Larry.
Again, my condolences.
Sincerely, Winifred Tolliver
P.S. There is still the problem of the sink Mr. Peccadillo left on the porch. Girard dropped his hammer from the roof peak and smashed it to smithereens. We can discuss this later.
Voicemail to Ultimate Septic Pros
“Howard, you can’t find the septic tank? Call me back. It’s Winifred Tolliver.” Click.
E-mail to Sylvia
Syl, you’re sailing around somewhere in the Caribbean, but you’re never far from your laptop and must be dying for an update on the Bedlam Lane project.
Mr. Paint Man is recovering from open heart surgery. Obviously, he couldn’t handle #13, but he told me to tell you he’ll get busy on your dining room as soon as they unhook him from the I.V. The son who gave me the estimate checked into rehab, so he wasn’t available after all. I finally ran across Leo on Craigslist. He’s living in a camper in the driveway, so at least I know where to locate him.
There is a slim possibility the house will be ready to rent before the first blizzard of the season, but I doubt it. I need the name of a property manager. Know anybody?
Have fun, Win
Text to Howard
You still can’t find the septic tank? Even with the camera on the end of the tube?
“Howard, did you say ‘sinkhole’?” Click.
“Hi, Syl—it’s Wini. Thought you’d be back by now. Thanks a million for your postcard. The water really is turquoise down there. Sorry to hear your laptop went overboard. How did that happen? We’re in for an ice storm, so work has pretty much come to a standstill on Bedlam Lane. Not that it was moving faster than molasses before, but--“ Beep.
Note to Bedlam Lane Chairperson of the Road Maintenance Committee, Mrs. Coogan, scribbled on notebook paper with a workman’s pencil stub
I found your bill stuck in the door of #13. As you can see, I’m very busy fixing up the house and thereby raising your property values. No one explained private road fees or who to pay, so I apologize for the delay. I haven’t met anyone on the lane—not a soul has come by to introduce themselves or admire the improvements, I’m sorry to say. And I’m a little concerned about the house across the way with all the junk and a mattress out front. What are those orange wires—extension cords? Perhaps you can fill me in on the situation when at last we meet. I’ll drop a check in your box as soon as possible.
Feel free to e-mail or call as necessary with news of other neighborhood matters.
Happy Holidays to you and yours, Winifred Tolliver
I’m sorry you view me as ‘another absentee landlord,’ Mrs. Coogan, but thanks for filling me in on the squatter living in the sea of trash. As you suggest, I will give the property in question—and the pit bulls—a wide berth.
Happy New Year, Winifred Tolliver
“Imogen, believe it or not, it was a relief to hear your angry message about missing another meeting of Poetry Coterie. At least you weren’t asking for money. I have nothing useful to contribute as my mind is absorbed by the Bedlam Lane house. My haiku remains unresolved. But congrats on your poem in “Bloodfoot.” You’re on a roll. Maybe you should put me on the inactive list for now.” Click.
E-mail to Pixie Properties
To Whom It May Concern:
It is not my practice to hire people who hawk their wares door-to-door. Desperate as I am for property management assistance, please stop leaving leaflets at 13 Bedlam Lane. They are littering the yard I just raked.
E-mail to Charles Clifton, President, Pixie Properties
Charles, I’m so embarrassed. I had no idea my good friend, Sylvia Grissel, suggested you contact me. I haven’t heard from her in months and thought she was lost at sea. I would be delighted to meet your associate, Kimberly, at her earliest convenience.
13 Bedlam Lane is, at long last, almost complete. You have no idea how challenging painting paneling can be. The painter spent all winter at the task, living out of his camper in the driveway. But the backbreaking work was worth it. A molting brown cave has been transformed into a showplace by five coats of white (Martha Stewart) paint.
I look forward to turning the business of my rental into the capable hands of Pixie Properties.
Best, Winifred Tolliver
Thank you card (photo of a teapot)
Wow, Sylvia. Thanks for warning me about Kimberly’s hair. But let her take it from here, I say. I’m so ready to get out from under the rental. Also for Leo the painter to get his camper out of my driveway, not to mention out of my life. Do you know any good lawyers just in case?
More later, Win
“It’s me again, Syl. Don’t worry about my last request. Everyone looks at me as if I’ve lost my marbles when I ask for the name of a good lawyer. But, the positive news is, Leo and his camper are finally gone. He left a confusing note at #13, going on about Kimberly. Who knows what that’s about. And Kimberly just texted she’s showing the house to a ‘solvent couple’ this afternoon. So I’m over on Bedlam Lane, burning the last of my serenity candles. Ciao.” Click.
“Well. Kimberly. Winifred Tolliver. Charles Clifton informed me #13 has been rented and you are filling out paperwork as I speak. Aren’t you the speedy one. Do you have any idea what the tenants’ job descriptions are at the cemetery? I mean—just wondering. I understand they plan to move in right away, so I’ll get the new shower head over there. Okay. ‘Bye.” Click.
“Motorcycles, Kimberly? And what are those weird lights glowing in the basement? The ‘Born to Be Wild’ poster leaning against the freshly painted living room wall? Remind the tenants that nails in the paneling are verboten, as is speeding on the lane. Gravel was just put down---“ Beep.
No, I wasn’t specific with Kimberly about vetoing people with motorcycles, and, yes, I’m aware there is no law against them.
There aren’t enough hours in the day to list everything I have objections to, so my suggestion is to encourage Kimberly to keep the lines of communication open. If she had run the cemetery couple’s gory details by me before the lease was signed, I could have avoided the daily complaints I’m fielding from the Chairperson of the Bedlam Lane Road Maintenance Committee. I rue the day I ever gave her my contact information.
Thanks for letting me know about Kimberly’s vacation to Cancun. In the meantime, the tenants need to understand that they are responsible for replacing the batteries in the garage door opener. The charge for a technician to perform this simple task is outrageous and unacceptable.
Winifred G. Tolliver
Letter (typed) to sister, Alice
Sorry for stirring up painful memories. My “spell,” as you called it, was a brief moment of buyer’s remorse—a condition you’re familiar with. Who could forget your better half Woody bamboozling you into co-signing for that worthless swampland?
No need to remind me—in that know-it-all, I-told-you-so voice—that you had your doubts from the start about 13 Bedlam Lane. But I followed your suggestion to make a long overdue doctor’s appointment. I sacrificed my physical and mental health to transform a wreck into, as Keats wrote, a thing of beauty and a joy forever. I trust it’s not too late for the joy and regaining a semblance of my pre-landlord well-being.
Your little sister, Wini
“Syl, thanks for checking on #13 while I’m bedridden with a case of exhaustion and allergy to leaf mold. Agreed: the metal carport the tenants erected is an eyesore. But the garage is full of motorcycles with no space for the monster truck and SUV. The blot on the landscape goes with them when they leave. If they ever leave. I’ll be up and running again soon---“ Beep.
Imogen, how sweet of you to suggest the poets meet in my bedroom this week. I would give anything to say yes, prop myself up and listen to your latest (published in “Sulphur Tuft”—imagine), but the excitement might be too much. Sitting upright brings on a spinning sensation I try to avoid.
What has become of my creative juices, you ask? Landlording. No progress whatsoever on my haiku. Sure you don’t want to put me on the inactive list? The title certainly fits.
Best to all, Wini
It’s been a while, Leo.
Thanks for the photos of the Alamo and alerting me to Kimberly’s whereabouts. So—it’s westward-ho to the Grand Canyon. Charles Clifton is out of the office, too, according to the incompetent answering service at Pixie Properties. Is he traveling with you in the camper, by any chance?
Kimberly might be interested to know that a tree fell on #13 during her absence. Fortunately, not one of the big ones, but I had to cancel a long-standing doctor’s appointment to supervise.
E-mail to Kimberly in care of Leo
No sooner did the tacky metal carport go up at #13 than I got another call from the skeleton crew at Pixie Properties, informing me that squirrels were leaping from tree branches into the chimney and committing suicide on the basement floor below. A questionable scenario, in my opinion, but what could I do other than pay someone to fashion a chimney cover?
When do you plan to return from your honeymoon? And where on earth is Charles Clifton?
Your client, Winifred G. Tolliver
Sympathy card (two doves)
Sylvia, I was totally taken aback when you revealed in the throes of grief that you had been more than friends with Charles Clifton. Your comment that I had nothing to do with his stroke confused me a little. But, that aside, how tragic. He was too young to go.
When you’re feeling up to it, I’ll treat you to lunch at C’est La Vie. The cemetery (there’s the dreaded word again) couple is paying rent, at least. Sometime during the month.
With Love & Concern, Wini
Letter on monogrammed stationery
Dear Rev. Cadwallader,
My heart sank when you inquired after church if my rental property was available. I’d love nothing more than to have your nephew—a landscape architect!—and his wife—an interior designer!—as tenants. Sadly, I am under legal obligation to honor a lease arranged by Pixie Properties. You’ve no doubt heard PP is on its last legs. The assistance I’m receiving is slim to none, but I’m tied to their initial contract ‘til the end of the lease period. I’ve been so busy with #13 I had to relinquish my spot on the altar committee—a huge sacrifice, as only you can imagine. Be assured that I will alert you immediately when the house is vacant.
Your sermon, “Lepers Among Us,” was an inspiration. Keep up the good work.
Sincerely, Winifred Tolliver
Welcome back, Kimberly. Sorry to hear about your debilitating morning sickness, but isn’t it nice you can work from home—or, more accurately, out of the camper.
Thank you for the update on my investment property. Since the Boyfriend left with his motorcycles—hurray—I had hoped the Girlfriend could handle running into him at the cemetery. But she quit her job, you say. Good news about the alimony payments, though. I didn’t know she was divorced. There’s a story there, no doubt.
About the tenant’s list of issues.
“Kimberly, Winifred Tolliver here. She said she got poison ivy from a cat? What cat? I specified NO PETS. Get back to me immediately.” Click.
I was at massage therapy (the one thing that keeps me on an even keel) and missed your call, Kimberly.
A neighbor’s cat rubbed up against her and this is how she got a rash. And it’s my responsibility?
What a tangled web.
Don’t be naïve, Kimberly. If there’s a cat involved, it’s hers.
An inspection is in order. If you find any evidence of a feline, have a serious talk with the woman.
I don’t believe a word of it, Kimberly.
Just Because card (apple tree)
Sylvia, you say my tenant is a member of your Broken Hearts support group. Must not be a secret organization, then, since you brought it up. Let me know if she stops crying over Motorcycle Boy and mentions any pets.
Enclosed is a gift certificate for massage therapy. May you feel up to using it soon.
Sorry to hear about your missing lawn ornaments. A devastating loss given the gnomes sentimental value, not to mention handmade costumes your late husband created for various holidays. So rare for a man to be handy with a sewing machine. You must be lost without him.
Unfortunately, I have no light to shed on the gnomes’ mysterious disappearance or your suspicion that my tenant is the kidnapper. Although I’m confident this is not the case, I’ll look into it to set your mind at ease.
“Your message from #13 was garbled, Kimberly, but in between bouts of coughing I thought I heard the words stench and reek. I lost you after that. Get back to me.” Click.
Blank card (water lilies) to Gillian Greenberg, MSW
It’s been awhile since we’ve gotten together in a professional sense. Your vacation to a dude ranch is bad timing for me, as I’ve relapsed into hopelessness about the human race. We touched on that in sessions once or twice. The massage therapy you suggested isn’t cutting it anymore. My body is a tightly wound spring, and my brain won’t shut off at bedtime. Insurance policies (the charges—a crime) are inadequate to cover every possible disaster. I’m sure you’ve heard from our mutual friend, Sylvia—also in the center of a personal maelstrom— that I bought an investment property in a rare period of optimism that quickly went south. The tenant is an animal hoarder and one of the neighbors, a Mrs. Coogan, is harassing me. I know what you’re thinking, but ‘harass’ is not too strong a word, believe me. My property manager lives in a camper with my former painter and claims to have morning sickness twenty-four hours a day. She is no help at all. I’m trapped on a gerbil wheel, getting nowhere fast.
I’ll probably need a lawyer eventually, but who?
Thanks to our work together, Gillian, I recognize that I’m overwhelmed. I pulled out the dog-eared list of stress danger signs, and I have them all. Please check your schedule when you return and fit me in. You understand my history, so I won’t have to begin at square one.
This isn’t a good time for the visit you suggested. I could make up all manner of excuses, but the truth is our last phone conversation sent me rifling through the medicine cabinet for migraine medication. So, I lack the vision and backbone of a landlord, do I?
I’m not a quitter, and I resent you comparing this situation to discontinuing clarinet lessons in the sixth grade. I was pressured into them by our parents, if you recall. This is different. In business, bumps in the road are to be expected. I’m allowed my emotions, whatever they may be. Is a little encouragement too much to ask? A modicum of understanding for once?
When the plumber unclogged the drain in the basement (second attempt), the ceiling fan upstairs mysteriously started working again. If this isn’t a positive sign I don’t know what is. Perhaps we can plan something in three to six months if you promise to leave real estate tycoon Woody at home.
Your sister, Wini
“Gillian—Wini. There’s a support group for landlords? A 12-step program? I’m powerless? Isn’t that the truth. And it’s free, thank God. I’m sure you’re right—the cats will seem like nothing after I’ve gone a few times. Landlords are all in the same leaky boat, dehydrated, drifting out to sea, sharks circling. At least I’m not alone.” Click.
E-mail to Doyle, member of Landlords Anonymous
Thanks for your enthusiastic welcome to Landlords Anonymous and the invitation to ‘Pity Party’ night this coming Wednesday at the Jade Dragon Chinese buffet.
Let me get back to you on that.
“Good of you to check in from Boca Raton, Syl. Where am I calling from? A dank church basement, surrounded by broken people over-dosing on instant coffee and talking a blue streak about vermin and eviction. What was Gillian thinking?” Click.
Since Charles Clifton’s demise, your elopement, your extended honeymoon, and now your morning, afternoon, and night sickness, Pixie Properties might just as well close its doors. In fact, it has. PP is nothing but a post office box now, and you have left me holding the bag.
I am setting you free, Kimberly. Try ginger ale and saltines for the nausea.
Yours very truly,
Winifred G. Tolliver, Property Manager
Group E-mail to Poetry Coterie
The 24-hour Out Loud Poetry Jamboree sounds like great fun. Jeremy, so generous of you to sacrifice yourself as designated van driver while the rest of you poets enjoy a wine tasting and heavy hors d’oeuvres en route to a rollicking night and day of poetry, poetry, poetry.
Unfortunately, as you all know, I have abandoned my haiku, hoping to start fresh on another after recovering from my property management crisis. But let’s hear it for our fearless leader, Imogen, who will be reading her entire chapbook, “Devil’s Cigar,” (3:00 a.m. at the Main Tent). Go, Imogen. I’ll be there in spirit.
Note to Krishna—tenant—taped to the door at 13 Bedlam Lane
I am your landlord. You are not answering the door and your phone is dead.
We need to talk.
Kimberly is no longer available. My card is attached. Please be in touch right away.
Thank you, Winifred Tolliver
P.S.—Are those gnomes I see through the glass in the garage doors?
E-mail to Environmental Waste Solutions
I’ve noticed your truck parked on several occasions across the street from my Bedlam Lane house. Someone please put my troubled mind at ease.
Thanks, W. Tolliver
Voicemail to Elford Fink (irritated Bedlam Lane resident)
“Mrs. Coogan is correct. I own 13 Bedlam Lane. Sorry to hear you have been disturbed by my tenant’s musical renditions in the middle of the night. The truth is, I’m having a little trouble making contact with her, but, I will find a way to put a stop to the racket. By the way, do you know what the Environmental Waste Solutions truck is doing on the lane? They don’t respond to my inquiries---“ Beep.
Letter (typed) to brother-in-law Woody
I’m sure you mean well, but whatever Alice told you about my investment property “woes,” as you call them, is pure exaggeration. She’s prone to that. I’m doing fine here. In fact, I’ve simplified by cutting out the middle person. My motto is keep the lines of communication open in regard to my business and personal life.
No need to communicate any further advice from your vast stockpile of experience.
Blank card (kittens in a basket)
Gillian, thanks for the consultation (albeit brief) concerning my problematic tenant. You confirmed my hunch that Krishna could be suffering from agoraphobia and insomnia brought on by sudden trauma—in this case, the break-up with ‘Born To Be Wild’ and unemployment. Or, then again, she might be an operatic sociopath.
At the last meeting of Landlords Anonymous, it was suggested that I park outside the door of #13 and wait. A group member did this once, but her tenant called the police and the landlord was threatened with arrest. What is wrong with our society today?
Krishna must leave the house sometime. The cats need kibble and—please—supplies for the litter box. But I don’t want to go to jail. I’m flummoxed. Any thoughts?
Thanks again, Wini
Kimberly, I haven’t received a check for the security deposit Pixie Properties was holding for Krishna. She’s disappeared, leaving only the cat odor you discovered before we parted ways.
I have mixed feelings.
First, relief. Second, confusion. Third, anger. Something tells me this feeling will linger on long after the carpet cleaners have left the premises. Cat urine, experts tell me, is almost impossible to remove. Steam cleaning only makes it worse. The solution—a 50-50 shot at best—is complicated and expensive.
Which leads me back to the security deposit.
I’ve discussed the situation at length with my landlord support group. The members assure me that I’m entitled to the entire deposit, as cat urine is above and beyond normal wear and tear. It’s all your fault, Kimberly.
I’ll stop by the camper and pick up the money. Who can trust the postal service anymore.
Voicemail to Kimberly
“What do you mean, you refunded Krishna’s deposit before she left town? Without consulting me? I’ll be right there.” Click.
Voicemail to the office of Raymond Mooneyham, DDS
“Hello, this is Winifred Tolliver, and I have broken a tooth due to grinding. I know, I was warned to get fitted for a mouth guard when I became a landlord, but did I listen? No. You’ll x-ray me now and find all kinds of stress fractures. Nothing but bad news everywhere. Don’t bother to ask if I’m flossing regularly. Who has the time or the energy? Here it is Friday, and you’re no longer available on Fridays. How nice for you. I’ll suffer through the weekend. Call me Monday.” Click.
Voicemail to Dr. Mooneyham’s receptionist
“Winifred Tolliver, Gretchen. Mouth is still numb. I forgot to pick up the oral surgeon’s card at your desk. My wisdom teeth are ticking time bombs, but they’ll have to wait until the current nightmare is over with my rental house. I bent your ear about that. Okay, please mail me the card. I’ll get around to oral surgery after the smoke clears.” Click.
I got the birth announcement and information on the baby registry at Target, Leo. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t know where to send a gift, as the last time I tried to get hold of Kimberly I discovered you had moved the camper to parts unknown. Probably for the best, as I wasn’t in a good place at the time.
After severing ties with Kimberly, I received a three-page letter extolling her professional virtues despite all evidence to the contrary. Tell her I tacked the letter over my desk to remind me daily of my incredible stupidity.
Congratulations on the twins.
Doyle, your suggestion that I be the featured presenter at next week’s meeting moves me beyond words. I try to avoid public speaking, but if my story helps one shattered individual it will all be worth it.
Where to begin with this veil of tears? My first glimpse of 13 Bedlam Lane? It was raining buckets. A cracked, empty hummingbird feeder dangled from the porch. Once inside, I was gobsmacked by the smell of mildew and rust. Dumbstruck by ceiling tiles and a green toilet. But was I deterred? No. I saw #13 as a challenge. This was my first mistake.
I endured months of renovations, excuse after excuse from workmen, beer drinking and bonfires in the yard, floods, delay after delay, bill after bill. But I persevered.
In my weakened condition, I was easy prey for Pixie Properties propaganda. Professionals—ha. Kimberly saddled me with the tenants from hell, ran off with my painter, and got pregnant somewhere between the Alamo and the Grand Canyon. I found myself in the untenable position of paying her for throwing up.
Was I unrealistic to expect a little gratitude from Bedlam Lane residents for transforming #13 into a showplace? Well, not from the squatter, but from normal homeowners? Instead, I was shunned for renting out my property. Who is Mrs. Coogan to judge? It became her mission to make my life a misery. Did my tenant steal her gnomes? Yes, but kleptomania was just the tip of the iceberg with Krishna. I’m the one who suffered the most, no question.
But I’m rattling on, Doyle. I’ll pack as much into the hour as I can. I won’t disappoint you.
“The gnomes are back—dumped in the shrub bed in the dead of night, you said. No harm came to them, apparently. One of life’s little mysteries I guess.” Click.
Voicemail to Milton Tarwater, Bedlam Lane resident
“The manic quest has come to an end. Your drone is on the floor of #13 in a pile of broken glass. Just as I’m set to interview new tenants. Once we come to an agreement on reparations for my broken window, I’ll return your precious drone.” Click.
Alas, Syl, I can’t make it to brunch Saturday morning as I’ll be—where else?—at the Bedlam house to meet the window repair people in the wake of the drone incident. The metal scavengers might show up to collect the rusting, abandoned carport. Then again, they might not.
90% humidity has caused the return of the cat urine ordeal. I may be facing carpet replacement before it’s all over.
To answer your question, I’m not moved to interview any of the individuals with credit problems (their numbers are legion) who responded to my ad for #13. Same goes for ‘Pet Parents,’ ‘New Moon Commune,’ ‘Fraternity Guys,’ and ‘I refuse to leave a name.’ Is it legal to require psychological testing of potential renters? I should check with Gillian on that.
I envy your upcoming trip to Alaska. I’ve never considered a cruise, but I’d be willing to risk crashing into icebergs (are there any of those left what with global warming?) to escape my landlording responsibilities. I’m beginning to wonder if my days of fun and freedom are fini, but how wonderful you still have a life.
“Reverend, this is Winifred Tolliver. My rental house is now available, and I’m hoping against hope your nephew (the landscape architect) and his wife (the interior designer) will be interested. Tell them the carpeting is new. I look forward to hearing from them. Any time, day or night. Also, when you think about it, could you include me on the church prayer list? Thanks, and God bless you.” Click.
E-mail to Bluebird, member of Landlords Anonymous
I appreciate your generous offer to smudge my rental house with sage sticks. Cleansing the negative energy and making way for a new, healing cycle certainly wouldn’t hurt. The sooner the better.
I understand you’re gluten free, soy free, wheat free, nut free, egg free, and—needless to say, meatless—but if you’ll let me know something you can eat, I’d be happy to fix a casserole or perhaps my magical cauliflower scones (I never divulge the recipe, so don’t ask) as a token of my esteem.
Text to Bluebird
Lentils. Got it.
Little did I know you poets took a vote, concluded I’m suffering from writer’s block, and plotted to show up unannounced at 13 Bedlam Lane for an impromptu intervention in the middle of my smudging ceremony, spoiling the ambiance.
It was my choice not to follow-through with my haiku. Given current circumstances, the light-hearted tone I was going for is no longer relevant. Can we drop it now?
Thanks for the “Persevere” card and comprehensive description of your Alaska cruise. I almost feel I lived every delightful moment. The buffets. Popping over to shore. Vodka drinking games with the captain and crew. Your vacation is the closest thing to bliss I’ll experience for some time to come.
By the way, persevering is not what I had in mind when I purchased 13 Bedlam Lane. Now it’s my career. Perhaps you could hold off a bit on announcing another trip?
Must dash. Meeting the exterminator at 1:00.
“Sorry I wasn’t available when you and Woody dropped into town without warning, but I have pressing business with Bugs Be Gone at Bedlam Lane. As you probably know by now, there’s a Motel 6 within sight of the outlet mall and a Krispy Kreme if you get hungry. Enjoy your weekend. And alert me next time, for God’s sake.” Click.
Gillian, Landlords Anonymous is a Band-Aid on a gaping wound at this juncture. Who knew that fleas’ eggs could lie dormant and then hatch like that? I need medication, and a psychiatrist to write the prescription. Not the one with narcolepsy you told me about that time. No, I’m not feeling self-destructive, just in despair about the future.
Syl, can you pick me up for the appointment with the psychiatrist? My car is being recalled. The last thing I need is for the passenger air bag infiltrator to explode and riddle me with metal fragments.
I’m waiting for the lemon balm tincture to kick in, if it ever does.
Stunned to hear from you after all this time, Leo, and to learn Bluebird once drove your school bus. So, she leaked the information that 13 Bedlam Lane is for rent again (erasing the positive effects of sage cleansing)? I could list all the reasons why I must decline your offer to “do me a solid” and move the camper into the driveway of 13 Bedlam Lane (deja-vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once said), but my time is limited. I’m suffering from a horrid wisdom tooth infection that has come on the heels of an unresolved nervous condition. My “friend” Sylvia, the world traveler and bon vivant, forgot to pick me up for a crucial medical appointment.
Off to the oral surgeon.
Good luck finding a new—and free--place to park.
P.S.—Thanks for the photo of the twins. Their hair looks just like Kimberly’s. Little Flopsy and Mopsy.
Voicemail to Neville’s Bunny Breeders
“It makes no difference that the rabbits are a business, not pets. Goodbye.” Click.
Voicemail to Deirdre, owner of Deirdre’s Daycare
“What a coincidence that you are running an illegal daycare center on Bedlam Lane, which is conveniently located a few doors down from my vacant rental house. The one you would like to use as a toddler overflow location on Tuesday and Thursday mornings for a pittance. I must decline the opportunity as I very recently had the carpet replaced and toddlers are, to say the least, unpredictable.” Click.
“Of course the oral surgeon put me out, Alice. It was the best sleep I’ve had in months. Dreamless. A refreshing break from dealing with the rental. Only wish it could have gone on and on. Do not come here. That’s the last thing I need. I have plenty of gauze pads and pain killers. Yogurt in the fridge. Stay home with Woody.” Click.
This is to let you know I received—by registered mail—an official-looking, punitive document excommunicating me from the Coterie. You may recall that awhile back I asked nicely to be put on the inactive list as I was up to my neck in quicksand at 13 Bedlam Lane. Apparently we’re skipping the inactive step and going straight to non-member status without collecting $200.
Well, so be it. I was recovering from oral surgery, loss of blood, and screening a tide of unsuitable tenants when the document arrived, so you’ll understand why I was too weak to respond instantaneously as you obviously expected. You left a sarcastic follow-up phone message informing me that, wasting no time, my place in your esteemed group had been filled by Bluebird, the sage smudger. The very person who, via her big mouth, sent the latest batch of losers (otherwise known as would-be renters) my way. To think I took the time and trouble to make her a lentil crumble.
Whatever happened to appreciation and compassion?
Happy trails to you and the rest of the poetry aficionados.
P.S.—For your information, I haven’t “given up on the capacity for growth.” Just my haiku. I’m sure I’ll pick it up again when the current crisis passes. Literature is my life.
Just read your e-mail alerting me to the fact that my ginkgo tree has died and you are glad because you detested the vomit-like stink the berries exuded in fall.
Be that as it may, there is a larger issue you can help me with, Mrs. Coogan.
My tenant—now gone with the wind—complained about a “creepy” man with lopping shears, and I now know that he does more than lop the landscaping of others. He relieves himself on trees. Given your tenure as Chairperson of the Bedlam Lane Road Maintenance Committee, you must know who I am speaking of here.
I’ve caught sight of him—always in an undershirt and drooping drawers—many a disgusting time. Without a doubt, he is to blame for murdering my tree. Soon I will have a wasteland at #13. He must be stopped.
Who is this person? Contact me immediately with a name and any other information, please. I am in the process of seeking legal representation.
I didn’t know you had a son, Mrs. Coogan. Your rant on the phone (I was attempting a much needed nap when you called, by the way) left me confused. You never actually said this son Hartsell is the man I referred to before—the ginkgo killer—but only that I’m prejudiced against the mentally ill. Nothing could be further from the truth. Difficult as it is, I attempt to keep the lines of communication open with my sister—a real piece of work, believe me.
Has anyone ever told you it is rude to hang up on people? From this point on, I think it makes more sense (legal and otherwise) to communicate with each other in writing. I want a paper trail. And, just so you know, I plan to keep a very close eye on the plantings I have left at #13.
“Deirdre, this is Winifred Tolliver. I’ll have you know that #13 is private property—not a picnic location, not a public restroom or playground. My yard man brought to my attention that you and your little charges were caught red-handed trampling what’s left of my garden on Bedlam Lane. In case you wondered where the garbage bag on your doorstep came from--full of juice boxes and other debris including official Deirdre’s Daycare nametags for “Windy” and “Xavier”—now you know. Tres--- Beep.
“Trespassing will not be tolerated. I repeat: #13 is private property. Cease and desist or you’ll hear from my lawyer.” Click.
“I was flushing out my wounded mouth with antiseptic when you called, Syl. So your icemaker has stopped working. And just before your gala cocktail party that I’m unable to attend due to drooling and unsightly facial swelling. You shouldn’t have bought that computerized mega-fridge. Call Wally Underhill. He handled the oven explosion on Bedlam Lane. That was a close call. Expensive—I reeled at his bill—but at least the house is still standing. Time for a pain pill.” Click.
Reverend, you cannot imagine my joy at receiving your message that your nephew (the landscape architect!) and his wife (the interior designer!) are once again in the market for a rental. A shame their accommodations didn’t work out with the beastly landlord, but, I assure you, flexibility is my middle name. 13 Bedlam Lane has their name all over it. What is that name, by the way? You didn’t say. When can the dear couple move in?
I await your next communication like a child on Christmas Eve, too excited to close my eyes, counting the minutes ‘til morning. God bless you.
E-mail to Jasper and Annette Leake-Perlmutt
Jasper and Annette:
Excuse my delay in addressing your comprehensive list of “crucial” requirements prior to viewing 13 Bedlam Lane. Rev. Cadwallader may have shared that I’ve been overwhelmed of late by circumstances beyond my control. The congregation is praying for me in spite of the fact that I dropped out of the altar committee and, in fact, the church itself. My landlording experience has had a devastating effect on my spiritual life; so much so that my immortal soul may hang in the balance.
But I digress. Let me hit some of the high points of your communication to make sure I got it straight.
You say fostering “our feline friends” is your passion, as is hosting regular brass band practices. How nice that you are animal lovers. And music lovers, too. Unfortunately, I have come to despise felines (vehicles for fleas) after a band of them destroyed the flooring at Bedlam Lane. To be honest, I’m repelled by music, too--the result of constant complaints from one Mr. Fink who was driven mad by my then songstress, kleptomaniac, frozen in adolescence, irresponsible, animal hoarder tenant, Krishna.
It sounds as if Annette is allergic to water and air, so expensive filters are needed. Removing the new carpet would also be a must. Well, tough. Annette, you’re not really allergic. There are authentic allergies (such as mine to leaf mold) and the imaginary. It’s all in your mind, like people who out of the blue take a notion to swill apple cider vinegar by the gallon. And that carpeting isn’t going anywhere.
You would like permission to construct a skate board ramp for Jasper. Over my dead body—which, at the rate I’m going, might not take long.
You specified a six-month lease as you are currently house hunting. You could buy #13 from my estate, if I can ever find a decent lawyer.
Thank you (and Rev. Cadwallader) for your interest,
Winifred Tolliver, Owner
“Your cryptic memo didn’t sound like a man of God, Rev. Cadwallader. Be that as it may, the recent hurricane and subsequent flood deposited someone’s statues of the baby Jesus and Virgin Mary by the fence at 13 Bedlam Lane (the property Jasper and Annette will not be inhabiting with their cadre of cats and brass band instruments). If the church can use these religious artifacts—slightly the worse for wear—you’re welcome to them. Otherwise, I’ll contact St. Fergus’s.” Click.
“So, Syl. You’re off again—this time to a rapini festival in Spain to celebrate broccoli. How festive. May the excitement go on and on. In fact, don’t pause for a second to think, Wini must hear about this. No, she mustn’t. I will live in blissful ignorance of cruciferous vegetables and the bullfighters you are certain to meet on this latest junket. And I’m afraid you can’t borrow my cashmere shawl for the flight. Left by accident at #13, it was soaked with a toxic substance by Bugs Be Gone. Let this be a lesson.” Click.
Voicemail to Peccadillo Plumbing
“Mr. Peccadillo? Winifred Tolliver, 13 Bedlam Lane. My yard man forgot to lock the garage door and I suspect some toddlers and their keeper availed themselves of the downstairs toilet. Can I prove this? Probably not—that daycare woman will deny everything. I need you right away, please. This is an emergency.” Click.
E-mail to Horack Accountants, PA
See you soon, Winifred
Voicemail to Detective Vogel
“Detective, I heard on the news that members of some screwy nation that doesn’t believe laws apply to them are moving bag and baggage into vacant houses and refusing to leave. I pay my taxes and own a rental property that happens to be empty at the moment. 13 Bedlam Lane. Could you assign an officer—preferably around the clock—to guard the place? Not forever—just for the time being. Honestly, I don’t understand what is happening in the world today. I ask you, what next? Oh, my name is—“ Beep.
Generic birthday card (gray with black lettering)
I’m still processing your call, Alice—the most recent one in a frenzied series with Woody in the background, babbling incoherently.
The ramifications of your situation stagger me. There is still time to turn back. What exactly is the timetable with the foreclosure?
Many happy returns of the day, Wini
Thank you card (image of a long road stretching ahead) to the Landlords Anonymous support group in care of Doyle
After I monopolized the entire meeting and coffee hour last week, I found under my windshield wiper the sympathy card signed and filled with inspirational notes from each of you. You have all been where I am now—investment property hell. Who better to understand my current plight than you poor, fractured people—barely hanging on by a thread yourselves?
But the bitter came with the sweet. My supposed friend, Sylvia (I spoke of her blasted getaways at length) sent a postcard after I specifically asked her not to rub it in about the wonders of the broccoli festival. I can’t believe I didn’t see her passive-aggressive streak before now. Thank you all for being true friends, even if we don’t know each other’s last names.
Blank Postcard to Rev. Faust, St. Fergus Episcopal Church
Rev. Faust, you don’t know me, but I recently left two statues on the steps of St. Fergus’s in appreciation for the Landlords Anonymous support group that meets in your basement. Yes, I am a landlord and therefore in desperate need of divine help. The minister of my former church no longer speaks to me (his parting shot: Good luck finding a religion that agrees with YOU), so anything along spiritual lines would be appreciated. Please, Rev. Faust, pray for this poor wretch. God will know who you mean. Thanks.
You’re on sabbatical, Gillian, but not incommunicado when it comes to client crises, surely. If this doesn’t count as a crisis, I don’t know what does.
Bear with me here.
Need I remind you of the vestiges of my dysfunctional family of origin? My sister, Alice (outlet shopper), and her spouse, Woody (accumulator of worthless real estate)? You found twisted tales of them amusing, for some reason. They are finally going bankrupt, losing their house, and looking to me, of all people, for rescue.
In other words, they are making a case for moving into 13 Bedlam Lane.
Yes, it is still vacant. Yes, I’m having a little trouble finding just the right tenants. But they’re out there, Gillian. I’m sure of it.
I know what you’re thinking. This crisis represents an opportunity. Easy for you to say, as you did again and again like a broken record during my therapy. The ideal opportunity for more pain. There is no silver lining here, Gillian. In a wave of hysteria, they swore to pay rent on time, unlike Krishna. Ha. What a joke. This pair has the potential to suck me dry.
No, I haven’t found a lawyer yet. No one seems to be in the position to recommend one. What I wouldn’t give for a threatening letter of some kind. And no, sister and brother-in-law don’t own a cat. Theodore is a ferret with a skin disease, and he most recently shredded the drapes and wallpaper in his owners’ soon to be sacrificed home. Alice and Woody will never give him up.
Where are you, Gillian? Call me.
Jonathan Ferrini was born and raised in Southern California and lives in San Diego. He's a graduate of the MFA Program in Film and Television at UCLA.
The Four Friends Escort Agency
Wendy Kim worked up a good sweat at her Saturday morning Zumba class. She bought her favorite Boba drink, wrapped herself in stylish sweat gear, jumped into her red convertible Mercedes SL63, and rushed to a manicure and pedicure appointment at “Miss Vu’s Nail Emporium”. Wendy was excited because she had a first date tonight and wanted her “French” manicure and pedicure to be perfect and Miss Vu never failed to deliver the expert trim and veneer Wendy demanded. Wendy had everything a girl could want in life: a wardrobe of designer labels and shoes; expensive townhouse in a fashionable neighborhood; and expense account to wine and dine her clients. However, Wendy was lonely and her life felt incomplete because she wanted a husband and children. Even in a city the size of Los Angeles, it was difficult for Wendy to find a man who met her intellectual, physical, financial and romantic criteria. Wendy was thirty and knew that her desire to have a family was becoming elusive. She was pretty, fit and shapely. Her hair was long and kept in a bun while at work but she let it down on the weekends. It wasn’t difficult to attract men but Wendy wasn’t the sort to “settle” or engage in promiscuous sex. Wendy’s parents were proud of her academic and professional achievements but eagerly anticipated a wedding and grandchildren. Her date tonight was with another Caucasian man from a long list of men who were either divorced with children, harbored an “Asian fixation”, or simply didn’t meet her expectations. It was Saturday night and Wendy was likely to “kiss another frog” but she was persistent in her quest to find the man of her dreams.
Wendy was the only child of Korean immigrants who lived above the market they owned in the “Korea Town” neighborhood of Los Angeles. She was an excellent student, accomplished tennis player, excelled at the violin, and won a scholarship to both an Ivy League college and law school. Wendy was the editor of the law review which earned her a coveted partnership track position with a prestigious law firm which represented film, television, music, and sports figures. Although Wendy worked long hours and was paid very well, she felt that she hit the “glass ceiling”. Wendy worked in the highly competitive, white male dominated world of entertainment and sports law and she was the wrong gender and race to advance quickly. Wendy didn’t doubt that she would make partner because she was an Asian woman with impeccable legal credentials in a firm dominated by white men which needed diversity amongst its partner’s ranks. However, Wendy was delegated to drafting contracts behind the scenes and she longed for the opportunity to negotiate the contracts on behalf of the firm’s “A list” clients. In an effort to appease Wendy, the firm provided her with a stable of up and coming “B” list clients to represent. Wendy found a parking spot in front of Miss. Vu’s and entered the bristling establishment.
My name is Reg and your narrator. I’m one of those thirty something sandy haired athletic men who are native to Southern California and grow up surfing and staying fit. I’m the kind of guy men resent and women can’t resist. I’m 6’2”, 190 pounds, and my physique is described as being “ripped, lean and chiseled”. I played football in college and also played pro football. I met Sandy because her law firm represented me during my contract negotiations with the pro football team. I lasted only four years as a professional player before the rigors of the game wreaked havoc on my body and I couldn’t compete with younger players. Sandy told me to save my money and not worry about a career after football because my rugged good looks would be marketable as an actor or model. When I’m not auditioning, I take acting and dance classes while maintaining my physique. Sandy is a good lawyer and agent. She keeps me busy with bit parts in movies, TV, and modeling gigs which pay my bills but aren’t making me rich. Before you make any assumptions about me and Sandy, you should know that I choose to remain “in the closet” so as not to frustrate my goal of becoming a leading man one day. I’ll see you again later in the story.
Wendy entered the storefront nail salon which was filled with customers. The salon is small, cozy, and decorated in a tropical motif which is Fung Shui “correct”. Ceiling fans keep the place cool and aquariums create a Zen like atmosphere. There are a dozen reclining massage chairs with foot baths attended to by young, hard working Vietnamese manicurists. The clientele is diverse but mostly Asian women. The proprietor is a sixty something Vietnamese woman named Vivian Vu. Vivian is short and slightly built but all business. She has long silver hair which is braided. Vivian is one of those people who never forgets a face or a name and has a lively personality. She speaks fluent Vietnamese, Mandarin, and Cantonese in addition to having a working knowledge of Korean, Japanese, Tagalong, French, and Hindi. Vivian runs the salon like a general commanding her troops and the employees admire and respect her. Vivian owned a popular bar in Saigon called “V’v’s”. Vivian doesn’t talk about her life prior to opening “V’v’s” but rumors amongst the manicurists suggest Vivian toiled as a Saigon cocktail waitress while saving money to open to “V’v’s”. The rumor includes a love affair with a married French diplomat and “love child” resulting in Vivian’s near death at the hands of a back alley Saigon abortionist. When Saigon fell to the Viet Cong, Vivian married the first GI she met and moved to the United States. The marriage didn’t last long because her husband was abusive and a drunk. Vivian couldn’t have children and divorced. She moved to Southern California penniless and began working as a manicurist seven days a week and taking business and English language courses at night school. She worked hard, saved her money, and opened her own nail salon twenty years ago. In Southern California, nail salons are plentiful but Vivian’s vivacious personality, customer service skills, and business acumen make her salon a huge success and women book appointments weeks in advance. The many years of inhaling the fumes from nail products and the physical demands of her work took toll on her small body causing her to ponder selling the salon and pursuing an alternative business venture but Vivian was ambitious and retirement not an option.
Wendy found a massage chair and was quickly attended to by the manicurist who placed her feet in the warm water tub and began massaging her feet. Wendy took a deep breath, began to relax, and reviewed emails on her smart phone. Vivian approached, handed Wendy a cool, tall glass of cucumber water and said, “Hello Wendy, how are you darling?” Vivian placed her firm hands on Wendy’s shoulders and massaged them. She asked, “Big date tonight, honey?” Wendy replied, “I hope so, Vivian. He’s forty, a banker, divorced and has no kids”. Vivian was happy for Wendy and said, “I hope he is the one, darling. Will you have the usual?” Wendy leaned back into the massage chair, pushed the button for “Swedish Massage”, and replied, “Yes, Vivian. French pedicure and manicure”. Vivian commanded the manicurist to provide Wendy with the expert attention Wendy and other customers have come to expect from the popular salon.
Sitting in the chair next to Wendy was a beautiful East Indian woman in her forties. She was dark skinned, tall, thin, and was wearing an expensive gold silk sari. Wendy noticed the woman was wearing a silver Cartier tank watch, gold diamond encrusted bracelet, and magnificent pear shaped wedding ring dwarfing her long graceful finger. Wendy concluded she was from the “Brahmin” caste within India which is the equivalent of “blue bloods” in Europe and America. She was receiving a foot massage while typing into her tablet and wearing a headphone attached to her smart phone. The smart phone alerted the beautiful Indian woman to an incoming phone call and she adjusted the headphone speaker closer to her mouth and answered, “Dr. Pandit speaking”. Wendy couldn’t hear the other voice on the line but presumed it was an urgent medical call. “Repeat the Vasodilator regimen and call me immediately if there are any changes in vitals”, Dr Pandit ordered and completed the call. Dr. Pandit was disturbed by the phone call and began to weep covering her tears with the sleeve of the sari. Wendy was moved and leaned into the woman and whispered, “Are you alright, Doctor?” Dr. Pandit wiped away her tears and replied, “I apologize for the phone call. I know we’re all here to unwind”. Wendy held the doctor’s hand saying, “Please don’t apologize, I’m Wendy Kim”. The doctor gently gripped Wendy’s hand saying, “I’m Sandy Pandit, pleased to meet you Wendy. I’m a pediatric cardiologist and on call today. What type of work do you do, Wendy”? Wendy was impressed with Sandy and replied, “I’m a corporate attorney specializing in entertainment law”. Sandy was equally impressed replying, “You must find your work very stimulating, Wendy”. Wendy reached for a sip of cucumber water, sighed, and said, “I enjoy it Sandy but I must admit it’s just a lot of deal making and nothing as meaningful as your work”. Sandy wiped away the remaining tears, sat back into her massage chair, and pushed the “Shiatsu” button on the massage chair while remarking, “My work is very rewarding but filled with heartache because I can’t save all of the babies. The little one I was referring to on the phone call is suffering from Aortic Valve Stenosis and won’t survive. It breaks my heart and I suffer not only for the baby but the parents. Are you married, Wendy?” Wendy starred into the nearby aquarium which reminded her of the “fish bowl” she lived within as a successful, single, female Asian lawyer within the misogynistic entertainment business saying, “No, still looking and kissing a lot of frogs. You would think in a City the size of Los Angeles there would be at least one eligible man but I haven’t found him yet, Sandy”. Sandy shot back, “At least you have the opportunity to choose your husband. My marriage was arranged”. Wendy heard about the horrors of arranged marriages from her Korean parents and empathized asking, “How long have you been married, Sandy? Sandy took a deep breath, siged, and struggled to articulate, “Twenty years, Wendy. We married in India and moved to the States to earn our computer science degrees”. Wendy was curious about the challenges of balancing a professional career and family, asking “Do you have children, Sandy?” Sandy stared at the ceiling fan imagining it as a metaphor for her married life. She saw it whirling around and around but going nowhere. She mustered the courage to say, “We had a baby girl who died of SIDS”.
Wendy concluded that her single and childless existence was not so bad compared to Sandy’s life remarking, “I’m sorry to hear that, Sandy. Did you try to have another baby?” Wendy adjusted the Shiatsu button selecting “high intensity” and replied, “We tried, Wendy but couldn’t. My husband and I were software engineers and worked day and night shifts which permitted one of us to stay home with the baby. My husband was very ambitious and we invested our incomes into motel properties. Our first motel was also our home. Our financial plan was to purchase, live in, manage, and continue acquiring motels. I’m grateful for our motel investments because practicing medicine is a luxury not a necessity”. Wendy was a frustrated entrepreneur and knew that entering the legal profession would provide her with a comfortable lifestyle but never make her rich. Wendy was always interested in knowing how others created wealth and asked, “Why did you become a doctor, Sandy”? Sandy didn’t hesitate to answer as if getting a monkey off her back responding, “I blame my husband for our baby’s death since it happened while he was at home and I was working. My husband is very frugal and refused to hire a nanny despite my pleadings. In addition to watching the baby, he was managing our motel. He rushed to the front desk to check in a guest, forgot about the time, returned to the crib and our baby wasn’t breathing. It was too late when the paramedics arrived. I demanded a divorce but he begged me not to divorce as it would cause shame on our families. I had to channel my heartache and grief in a productive manner so I told him I wouldn’t divorce but would attend medical school and devote my life to pediatrics. He agreed and supported me throughout my medical education. I don’t want to be alone with my husband so I work long hours and devote my spare time to female physician’s professional societies. I’m fortunate because this large network of women provides me with the emotional support I can’t get from my husband. I must admit, Wendy, I’m not certain I can continue to tolerate the emotional pain medicine entails and I loathe the specter of a loveless marriage”. Wendy knew she hit a nerve with Sandy but was curious about the challenges of a loveless marriage, asking “Can you and your husband reconcile?” Sandy adjusted herself within the massage chair, reached for her glass of cucumber water, stared at the ceiling and said, “I haven’t forgiven him and no longer love him. We sleep in separate rooms. I consider him nothing more than a business partner and roommate”.
A car horn blared outside the salon interrupting the conversation and brought activity within the bristling salon to a halt. Vivian rushed to the front door, waved to the occupant in the back seat, and bowed. Vivian turned, faced her staff, and clapped her hands twice commanding them to stand at attention by their chairs in formation as if awaiting a general. Wendy and Sandy strained to catch a glimpse of a beautiful white Bentley double-parked with its Asian chauffer opening the door for his passenger. Vivian stood at attention just inside the door awaiting her VIP customer. An elegant, seventyish Asian woman gracefully entered the salon. Vivian bowed and in Mandarin said, “Welcome Mrs. Chang. It is my pleasure to serve you again”. The woman smiled and replied in English, “Hello Vivian. I’m happy to see you again as well”. Vivian led Mrs. Chang to the massage chair adjacent to Wendy and each of the manicurists bowed respectfully as they passed. Wendy represents VIP’s of the entertainment world but was impressed by the respect Mrs. Chang commanded and the way Mrs. Chang walked gracefully as if gliding on air. Vivian held Mrs. Chang’s hand as she began to sit within the massage chair and completing a partial pirouette as she sat. Vivian carefully removed each of Mrs. Chang’s exquisite black “Manolo Blahnik” shoes embroidered with gold and silver roses. She carefully placed Mrs. Chang’s feet into the warm bath. Within seconds, one of Vivian’s staff arrived with a glass of champagne in a Waterford flute atop a Reed & Barton silver serving tray. Wendy knows fashion and recognized Mrs. Chang was wearing couture Christian Dior satin crème dress with subtle images of blossoms. Mrs. Chang placed her black alligator Hermes handbag with solid gold hardware close to her massage chair. She sat back and selected “Thai” massage on the chair before reaching for the flute of champagne, taking a graceful sip, and saying in Mandarin, “Ah, Dom Perignon White Gold, my favorite! Your attention to detail is your virtue Vivian, my dear”. Vivian responded in Mandarin, “Only the best for my favorite client and friend, Ping”. Wendy knows jewelry and was impressed by Ping’s “Marquise” wedding ring which she estimated to be ten carats and her jade and diamond bracelet in the form of a coiled serpent, the trademark of Bulgari, Wendy was convinced the luster, size, and color of the pearl earrings and necklace Ping was wearing were “Akoya” pearls by Mikimoto. The driver of the Bentley positioned himself just outside the door to the salon implying he was not only a chauffeur but a body guard.
There was a commotion at the front door. The chauffer was demanding a “pat down” of a young parcel delivery driver dragging a dolly loaded with boxes of nail supplies. The delivery man was resisting and demanding entry. Wendy noticed Ping make eye contact with her driver, wave her hand and the chauffer permitted the delivery man to enter. Wendy was impressed with the soft, elegant power Ping commanded and wished she could exercise similar power within her law firm. The delivery man was the regular route driver, smiled and waved to the staff as he unloaded the packages at the checkout counter. Vivian looked up from massaging Ping’s feet, and motioned to one of her staff to take a step ladder and light bulb to the driver. The manicurist asked the driver if he would replace a burnt out bulb on the ceiling fan directly in front of Wendy, Sandy, Vivian, and Ping. The driver was happy to oblige. Each of the ladies in the salon watched intently as the driver placed the step ladder below the fan and carefully climbed each rung of the step ladder. As he reached the top step and stretched to reach the bulb, his brown uniform shirt rose out of his short pants, revealing a hairless six pack abdomen. His muscled calves and “bubble” butt tensed as he slowly and carefully screwed the new bulb into the socket. He gripped the bulb for one final tightening and the muscles of his forearm and bicep tensed. The light came to life casting a warm, sensual glow over Wendy, Sandy, Ping, and Vivian. A feminine sigh was uttered from somewhere within the salon. He carefully stepped off the latter and asked “may I help you with anything else”? Vivian didn’t miss a beat and said in English, “Not at this moment but I’m sure I’ll think of something”. The salon erupted with laughter. The clueless delivery man was handed a cool drink of cucumber water in a paper cup and Ping’s chauffer stuffed a large bill into the delivery man’s shirt pocket. As soon as the delivery man left and the salon returned to business, Ping said in English, “I wonder if he dances”? The salon erupted again in laughter. Vivian whispered to Ping, “You’re a naughty girl, Ping” as she massaged Ping’s feet. Ping turned to Wendy, extended her hand, and said, “Hello. I’m Ping Chang”. Wendy was smitten by the overture from Ping and replied, “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, Ping. I’m Wendy Kim”. Ping then turned to Sandy, introduced herself and Sandy reciprocated. Ping remarked, “You beautiful young women must be preparing for exciting plans this evening”? Wendy answered first saying, “First date, tonight, Ping”. Ping then turned to Sandy and asked, “How about you my dear”? Sandy disappointingly replied, “I’m on call at the hospital tonight”. Vivian knew that Ping was reserved with strangers because of her wealthy and powerful station in life and was happy to see each of her three successful clients beginning to bond.
Vivian wanted Ping to be comfortable with Wendy and Sandy interjecting, “Wendy is a corporate attorney and Sandy is a cardiologist, Ping.” Ping was impressed and commented, “You are both so fortunate to be young, beautiful and brilliant. I envy you both.” Wendy asked, “Ping, do you have plans tonight?” Ping seemed disappointed and answered, “I do, Wendy. I’m attending a Ball this evening”. Vivian noticed Ping was becoming melancholy and wanted to remind her friend of her lofty status remarking, “Ping is the wife of a Chinese diplomat and successful businessman”. Vivian lifted Ping’s spirits causing Ping to reach for Vivian’s hand and saying, “Vivian is too kind. My husband is Honorary Consul General of China in Los Angeles and is also the President of a real estate investment firm based in Shanghai”. Wendy was attracted to power, influence, and business. She was intrigued by Ping and eager to know more saying, “I’m certain you and Mr. Chang will have a wonderful time at the ball tonight. Where is it being held”? Ping reached for the flute, took a sip of the champagne, placed it on the silver tray, and replied, “At the Mayor’s mansion but my husband is in Shanghai on business so I’ll be going alone”. Vivian knew Ping was disappointed about attending the ball without her husband and said, “Ping is a professional dancer”. Wendy remarked, “I knew you were a dancer because you completed a partial pirouette as you sat, Ping”. Ping’s mood was improving and replied, “Vivian is too kind. I was with the Shanghai Ballet in my youth”. Vivian knew her friend was too modest and added, “Ping was the principal dancer with the National Ballet of China. Tell them how you got started, Ping”. Ping took another sip of champagne and said, “As a little girl growing up in China, I watched Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movies and dreamed of dancing in elegant ballrooms dressed in beautiful gowns but I was only a peasant girl living on a farm in the country. I practiced my dancing day and night at school, competed for and won a scholarship to the Beijing Dance Academy. Upon completing my dance studies, I auditioned for and won a position with the National Ballet but that was many years and memories ago. I miss dancing dearly. It’s so romantic. Do you ladies dance”? Wendy muttered, “The only men I meet who want to dance are gay, Ping”. Sandy was quick to follow saying, “I miss dancing with a man I love but my husband and I are estranged. I’d rather dance with a gorilla”. Ping reached down to brush Vivian’s cheek asking, “How about you my dear friend?” Vivian remembered her youth in Saigon, smiled and replied, “I could really cut the rug up as a young chick in Saigon but haven’t danced in years, Ping”. Wendy’s smart phone vibrated alerting her to an incoming call. She recognized the phone number and said, “Excuse me ladies, It’s my date. I have to take this call”. Wendy excitedly answered the phone saying, “Hi William, our dinner reservation is at seven”. Wendy paused to listen to the caller and became upset before continuing, “You should have thought it through before we made plans. I can’t help you with your ex and your mid life issues. Let’s say goodbye and leave it at that”! Wendy hung up and wiped a tear from her eye. Sandy reached for Wendy’s hand and said, “Are you all right Wendy”? Wendy took a deep breath and replied, “My date called to cancel. He said he still has feelings for his ex wife and isn’t certain about inter-racial dating. Can you believe it? Every man I meet is an asshole!” Sandy was disappointed for Wendy and became agitated replying, “Your right, Wendy. We wipe their asses as children and again as grown men”.
Vivian remembered her marriage to a drunk and wife abuser and was quick to agree saying, “Men are like dogs. They’re concerned only with food and fucking”. Ping knew Wendy was hurt and disappointed and attempted to cheer her up saying, “He’s not worthy of you, honey. You’re young and the right man will come along”. Wendy began to sob saying, “I’m thirty, Ping. I’m educated, well mannered, physically fit, and nobody wants me. My parents are pressuring me to marry and have children. I want a husband and children but I refuse to settle! I lay awake at night thinking I may be single forever and will have my baby through IVF”! Ping reached for the bottle of champagne, refilled Wendy’s flute, and said, “Listen to me, ladies. My life has taught me to never to give up. I was a penniless peasant but followed my dreams of becoming a dancer. As the principal dancer at the Beijing Ballet, I was courted by the most powerful and influential men in China. I danced for President Nixon and Chairman Mao. I had my pick of any man but waited for the right one who begged me to marry him. This peasant girl married a rising star within the Politburo. I was his dutiful wife and stood by his side as he rose through the Communist party and was rewarded with stewardship of a multibillion dollar investment fund. I rarely see my husband who is based in Shanghai and I’m told he has concubines throughout Asia. There is no longer love or romance in our marriage. We have no children and I no longer have living family members. I’m alone in America. Despite my situation, I have learned that women in America control their destinies and can have anything they want. If you’re unhappy, do something about it”! Ping’s words provided the necessary pep talk successful career women require from time to time and each of the four women formed an intimate bond and a shared destiny which would soon be revealed.
Sandy got up from her chair, grabbed the champagne bottle by the neck, took a long drink from the bottle and said, “Ping, you’re right. We don’t have to settle. We can be in control and determine our own destinies!” Wendy’s mind was racing. Wendy stared at her smart phone and the many app’s competing for a position on the small screen and whispered, “Wouldn’t it be nice if women could simply press an app and request the man of their dreams when they wanted him and for as long as they wanted him? I’m not talking about sex, ladies. We all know we can get sex anytime we want but I’m talking about romance, intellectual conversation, and adventure”! Wendy had the attention of each of her three friends and saw the yearning for romance in each of their eyes. Wendy knew she might be on to something but couldn’t make it out just yet. Vivian clapped twice and motioned for one of the manicurists to bring another bottle of champagne and telling her to purchase a dozen spring rolls at the corner Thai restaurant.
As the afternoon waned, the four new friends’ sipped champagne, nibbled on spring roles, and enjoyed their manicures, pedicures and conversation. The ‘buzz” from the expensive champagne loosened each of the women’s inhibitions and one by one each of the four ladies spoke about the men of their dreams. Ping talked about the movies she watched as a young woman in China with handsome leading men and dreamed of dancing with such a man while tightly held in his embrace. Wendy had a crush on Kung Fu fighters she saw in the movies as a teenager. Her ideal man would have their athleticism and good looks but would be a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Vivian spoke fondly of French Saigon and the handsome, sophisticated French men who frequented “V’v’s”. She was drawn to their savoir faire, elegant evening attire, and knowledge of wines, cognacs, and champagnes. She fantasized about being swept off her feet and taken to Paris with one of these dashing expatriates. Sandy was the last to speak and was reserved. She was still mourning the loss of her baby but the trust and tenderness of each of her three new friends enabled her to open up. She spoke of the handsome Sikh guards patrolling the wealthy neighborhood outside the gates of her family estate in India. She was attracted to their tall stature, manicured beards, tightly bound turbans, and manly good looks. One day she saw a Sikh guard remove his turban and his long hair fell to his shoulders and the way in which he carefully braided his hair and tied the turban with his strong hands turned her on. She fantasized of bathing, washing, and braiding his hair after love making. Her Sikh lover would be a UN official charged with the health, safety, and nourishment of children. Sandy took a deep breath and reached for another sip of the champagne.
It was late in the afternoon and the salon was empty except for the four friends and a few manicurists. Ping glanced at her diamond encrusted Chanel wrist watch and said, “Oh my, it’s later than I thought. I must return home and prepare for the ball.” Wendy spoke up, “Ping, you shouldn’t have to attend the ball alone. Is there anybody you can call to be your escort”? Ping replied, “I never thought of an escort, Wendy. I don’t know many people in Los Angeles and I’m a married woman which would make an escort awkward.” Wendy clarified by saying, “I’m referring to a gentleman who will accompany you to the ball, dance with you, and give you the beautiful evening you deserve”. Ping agreed and said, “That sounds wonderful but how do you find a gentleman escort?” Ping, Sandy, and Vivian stared at Wendy anticipating her reply. Wendy reached for her Smart phone, pushed the “Contacts” app, and thumbed through the many profiles of her handsome male acting, modeling, and athletic clients. She arrived at the profile of your narrator which included my photos. Wendy handed the smart phone to Ping and said, “Check out my client Reg, Ping. He also dances”! Ping was impressed by my good looks and shirtless pose which highlighted my chiseled physique. Ping sighed and muttered, “Oh my, Wendy. He is a God”, Ping handed the phone to Vivian and Sandy who swooned at my photos. Vivian giggled and said, “I want your job girlfriend”! Wendy was all business and determined to find an escort for her new friend remarking, “Ping, would you allow my client to accompany you to the ball if he is available”? Ping pondered for a moment, perked up, and said “I see nothing wrong with having an escort”. Vivian was happy for her friend saying, “Right on, Ping” and Sandy followed with “Bravo”! Wendy dialed my number. I had just finished showering and was admiring my physique in the floor to ceiling mirror when the phone rang. I recognized the caller as Wendy and answered. It was a curious phone call because I’m accustomed to Wendy’s no nonsense business voice but she was pensive and apologetic. Wendy said, “Hello Reg, I’m sorry to call you on Saturday. I have a gig for you. It’s short notice and not exactly a acting or modeling gig”. I was curious and asked her what it was? Wendy raised the volume on the speaker phone so the three ladies could hear but motioned to them to remain silent. Wendy told me, “I have a VIP client who is attending a black tie ball this evening and requires a chaperone, interested?” This was an unusual request from Wendy and it was Saturday. I’d have to cancel my bar hopping plans but was curious about the gig. I asked Wendy to elaborate and she replied, “You’ll be escorting a beautiful Chinese wife of a diplomat to a ball at the Mayor’s Mansion. You’ll be dashing in your tux and you’ll be able to put those dance lessons to work. Interested?” It sounded like an easy gig and I needed the money and wanted to make some contacts so I asked what time and how much was the pay? Wendy muted the phone and asked Ping what time I should arrive. Ping was excited and said; “Tell him to meet me at 7:30 just inside the lobby to the Mansion. His name will be on the guest list. I’ll be wearing my red John Galliano ball dress with red Christian Louboutin pumps”. Wendy told me to be prompt at 7:30 and to look for the beautiful Chinese woman dressed in red. I asked Wendy again about the pay and was told, “I don’t know, Reg, what do you require?” I assumed it would be a short evening and told her $500. Wendy held up her five fingers and mouthed the words “five hundred cash”. Ping nodded approvingly and whispered, “Tell him I’ll pay a $500 bonus if he is a good dancer!” Wendy came back on the line and told me, “You’re on, Reg. Heads up, buddy; there may be a bonus if you’re a good dancer”.
Wendy hung up the phone and Ping was radiant like a high school girl going to the Prom exclaiming, “I’m so excited. I have to rush home and get ready. I’ll wear my blood red ruby pendant with my outfit!” Ping motioned to her chauffer to retrieve the car and said, “Thank you, Wendy. I’m giddy! Girls, it’s been my pleasure meeting all of you. I’ll tell you all about the ball over tea. Schedule it with Vivian. Ciao!” Ping practically ran out of the salon and was driven away. Wendy’s disappointment with her cancelled date was replaced by the satisfaction in knowing she brought joy to Ping and the pieces began to fall in place as she noticed a “what about us?” look on Sandy and Vivian’s faces. Wendy thumbed through the hundreds of handsome male clients on her smart phone and her mind for business, legal training and stable of client’s screamed opportunity. Wendy knew there were legions of successful lonely women in Los Angeles who would pay for the company of her handsome clients. Ping, Vivian, and Sandy’s network of female friends, clients, and colleagues would provide the start of a professional escort business. Wendy looked up from her smart phone, placed an arm around Vivian and Sandy and said, “Ladies, I have an idea. Let’s talk.”
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).
Murray looked at the clue for seven across, Movie award, then looked back at the puzzle. Five letters. He silently spelled out O-S-C-A-R. It fit. Nevertheless, he used a pencil. He was almost one hundred percent certain but was always cautious. He never knew when some crazy letter combination would trip him up, especially early in the crossword.
He leaned forward, reaching for his coffee. It was a lazy Saturday morning. His wife was out running errands, so he had some time to indulge in his pleasure, the weekly puzzle. Leaning back into the couch, he propped his legs up on the coffee table and adjusted the folded newspaper against his left thigh. He searched out seven down when a slight movement caught his eye: a fly was walking along the upper-left edge of the newspaper. He flicked a hand at the insect and it flew away.
Seven down was defined as Furnace fuel, three letters. Since the O of Oscar was the starting letter, the answer seemed to be oil, but Murray checked the other definitions, just to make sure. As he read the other clues, something moved in his peripheral vision; he glanced up to find the fly walking along the upper-right edge of the paper. He stared for a moment before giving a half-hearted swipe. The fly dodged the gesture.
He leaned forward and took another sip of coffee, leisurely savoring the java. It was a wonderful morning: no work, no reason to rush off. He settled back into the cushions and studied the clue for fourteen across. Nothing obvious came to mind, so he looked at the puzzle grid. His brow furrowed when he saw the box labeled fourteen was already filled in, but he couldn’t recall having written anything. As he stared, confused, the black mark in box fourteen moved. His eyes widened as the fly stirred. Startled, he shook the paper before propping the paper back up against his leg and examining the crossword. Box fourteen was now empty.
As he was about to pencil in his answer, Murray stopped and looked around, suddenly wary. His eyes roamed over the upper edge of the newspaper, up and down the left and right sides, and across the middle, settling on the crossword. No fly. He half-smiled at his own foolishness and raised his pencil. Something zipped in front of his face. Ignoring it, he printed a capital I before moving to the next box. Once again something whizzed by; he printed the letter L. Lifting his pencil from the puzzle with a satisfied smile, he heard the plop of something landing on the page. The fly had touched down in the middle of the crossword. He pursed his lips: this creature seemed determined to ruin his leisure activity. It had to go.
Putting down the pencil and slowly bringing his hand back to the paper, he cocked his middle finger against his thumb and came up behind the fly. It moved; he froze. It took a few steps and became still. He waited a moment then flicked his finger, catching the insect and launching it into the middle of the room. He grinned triumphantly and took another sip of coffee.
The smartphone on the table rang. Murray pushed a button and held the device to his ear. “Hello?” He glanced at the clock in the kitchen. “Eleven would be great. Don’t forget, I’m taking you out for brunch today.”
He looked at the crossword as he listened. “My treat. I want to try Alfred’s Café. I’ve never been there and somebody at work said their eggs benedict is to die for.”
He glanced at fourteen across: a five-letter word, starting with I, for Ridiculous person.
“I’ll see you shortly. Love ya.”
He ended the call, lost in thought. What was a synonym for ridiculous person? Putting down the phone, he picked up his pencil.
As he contemplated the answer, he noticed the fly crawling around the upper corner of the grid and slammed his hand down. The sharp end of the pencil tore through the newspaper, stabbing his thigh. He yelped and jerked his leg as something ripped.
Rubbing his leg, Murray examined his pants for a hole. He couldn’t see anything, but continued to massage his thigh. “Geez. That hurt.” He took a sip of coffee and settled back into the couch, determined to finish his crossword. He positioned the paper on his thigh and looked down: the newspaper had a gash running down the middle of the page and right through the crossword. The puzzle had been ripped in two.
His eyes widened and he pursed his lips. “Why, you little ...” He twisted his head around, seeking the object of his displeasure. He spotted a black dot on the wall. He set down the newspaper and pencil and picked up a magazine. Holding it with two hands, he rolled it into a tube.
Cautiously, he approached the dot on the wall. At the last possible moment, he swung his arm: the magazine scraped along the wall, hitting a picture frame. The entire painting shifted, and the wire support slipped off the nail. As the frame fell, one end knocked into the arm of a straight-back chair, shattering the glass.
He glared at the shards of glass spread over the floor. A flush crept up his face, and he turned back to the room. His gaze darted back and forth, looking for the insect that had ruined his morning. He couldn’t see it. He revolved on one spot carefully examining the room until a movement caught his attention. Seeing the fly walking on the ceiling over the entertainment center, he rushed over and jumped. He flailed the magazine at the fly, but couldn’t quite reach the nuisance.
Placing a foot on the first shelf, Murray tested his weight. Reaching up to the top shelf for support, he took a step up and tilted his head up to look for the fly. It was still on the ceiling. He carefully raised the magazine, trying to maintain his balance, and swung at it. As it moved away, he felt something wasn’t right. Jerking his head to one side, he realized the bookcase was tipping and jumped out of the way as the entertainment center toppled over with a loud crash. The television set smashed as it met the hardwood, books and knick-knacks scattering across the floor.
Murray threw up his arms and yelled in frustration, rushing back and forth, looking at the mess from different angles. He glanced at the clock in the kitchen, then stared down at the fallen bookcase. Slapping his forehead, he looked again at the clock: he only had ten minutes. Something flew in front of his face, and he saw the fly flitting back and forth in a stream of sunlight coming through the kitchen window. Without taking his eyes off the insect, his hand tightened on the magazine.
He rushed into the kitchen, waving the rolled-up magazine like a club. Up. Down. Left. Right. The insect evaded his best efforts, though he struck enough times to kill a horde of locusts. The sound of his own panting buzzed in his ears. He bent over and put a hand on each knee, trying to catch his breath. Was it done? Had he extinguished the bane of his existence?
Something flew across his field of vision, and his eyes fell upon the fly as it landed on top of the refrigerator. He raised the magazine, strode three paces, and beat the top of the appliance. He grabbed the refrigerator handle as his foot slipped on the linoleum. The magazine again swept across the top of the fridge, pushing several containers against the wall. He finally lost his balance, and as he fell against the door the entire refrigerator shook. A flour container bounced against the wall, flipping onto its side. The top of the container flew off, flour pouring over the edge and onto his head. Sputtering in rage, he brushed a hand over his face.
Blinking, Murray looked down at his shirt. He was covered in white powder. Surveying the shambles his house was now in, he heard a key in the front door. A black dot was on the wall by the window. He took several stealthy steps toward his quarry as a voice from the front said, “Honey, I’m home.” He slammed the magazine into the wall, hitting the end of a decorative shelf and launching several pieces of pottery that flew through the glinting sunlight before smashing on the linoleum floor.
He looked at the end of the magazine. The oozing remains of the insect stuck to the page. He turned to see his wife standing in the middle of the living room, eyes wide, her jaw dropped. Murray half-spit, half-blew flour from his mouth and held up the magazine. “Look, sweetie. I killed a fly.”
Don Beukes has been published in six poetry anthologies and various literary journals and magazines. His poetry has also been translated into Albanian and he hopes to publish his debut poetry collection soon with Creative Talents Unleashed. He is originally from Cape Town, South Africa currently residing in France.
Here comes that red mist again. Lingering in the crevices of my failing being. I need to remember to control my breathing, if just for a fraction longer than the last time.
It's thickening now. Swirling around my head like a bubbling lava couldron, spitting fiery embers each time I attempt to escape through it – I cannot fail again. If I am ever going to get her out of my head, I will just have to get though this and stop doubting myself.
''Shut up, stop trying to read my empty thoughts. I will not let you in!''
Damn her, just as I was begining to gather the strength and willpower to bury her deeper than ever before, I allowed her serpent voice to make me question myself yet again. This is not good at all. No, something will have to change drastically if I am to leave this ivory fortress. The sudden crack in my head must be the voice again.
''Attention, all lights will be switched off sooner than you think. If anyone even as much as breathe discontent or vile revolutionary thoughts; you will spend the night in the oval.''
Not again. Not now. Not when I've worked so hard to convince my minder guarding my exit that he and his loved ones will not be safe unless I leave this hell-fest tonight. I can manage to fight off the two of them from last night but I have felt another brave tormentor wanting to break through the red dust scattered in my head. My defenses are weakening. I fear that lack of sleep will be the death of me this time but it is vital for me to keep her at bay tonight.
''Stop that grinding metallic croak of yours! I am willing to destroy you tonight. Your occupation of me is not welcome anymore – Get out, get out!''
This is not good. The liquid walls are bending inwards. This time I will surely drown in this abyss. How did I allow myself to disintegrate like this? This brittle vacuous shell is all that's left of my former self. Even my murky memories are splintered, warped – vacant.
I can hear a familiar tapping somewhere between the walls or is it eminating from the pipes underneath the floor? I need to lie down. My breathing is slowing down – But how can I? This will be my only chance. Even 'the oval' will be a generous end compared to where she will banish me to if I don't get out of here tonight. Wait, was that a key in the lock?
''No, I'm not ready. This is not what I've planned. I refuse!''
It's me, Em. I am engulfed by ruby cauliflowers pricking my every nerve. It took me a while to find you again but your calm echo found me. I'm so tired, too many layers to burn through. There's kindness here with you. No creatures to mock and sneer. I must admit, I miss you terribly; so much so that my tears burn deep scars down my face, missing your loving understanding embrace. I sometimes faintly hear you from your deep dungeon where she banished you to, weeping for us. How I long for the day we will be reunited once again, this time to ensure victory, the final slain.
I can see through the red mist but only briefly. Promise me you will find the key. Let us prepare for her final hour, her rotting reverie. I will meet you soon.
It's almost time…
With languishing love,
'' Welcome Mr and Mrs Lemarchel. Is this your daughter? I'm sure we can get her confidence back. My team does groundbreaking work in the oval. You will not regret this...''
I cannot remember the last time I was allowed out of this house. They tried to explain it all to me but it does not make any sense.
I might be just a normal looking ten year old girl but I know there is something about me; who I really am, who I am meant to be. For a long time my thoughts have not been my own. It all started with that wretched red mist clouding my vision; choking my thinking, questioning my very essence. I realised something was wrong when my foster parents burst into my locked room and found me strangling myself. They had to break a finger or two to prevent me from suffocating.
''Em, it's time to go darling. You don't want to keep her waiting.''
I guess I don't have a choice. I need answers too. Apparently the director of this facility has made special arrangements for me. Despite the uneasy silence in the car, my head was clogged with conflicting visions, contemplating my own personal mission.
As we drove through the main gates, I caught a glimpse of a small group of children being led on a curving path by a peculiar looking woman who stopped to greet us with a robotic smile.
The entrance hall smelled over-polished, with piercing self-portraits staring at us from every angle. Each step reverberated throughout, announcing our arrival. The heavy, ornate oak doors swung open, revealing a dishrevaled-looking lady stretching out her bony hand to welcome us.
''Welcome Mr and Mrs Lemarchel. Is this her? I'm sure we can get her confidence back. My team is doing ground-breaking work in The Oval. You will not regret this.''
As she turned to me, I could feel her black pearl-eyes burning right through me; trying to find me but I did not let her in, not yet. I still have my doubts if she will make my ruby cloud disappear. ''What is your name dear child?'' she asked inquisitively.
''My name is Em'' as I felt her grip tighten around my wrist.
The next time I saw her was on that winding path, leading down to a secure underground facility, along with four others about my age. I must have lost track of time after the welcome drink she gave me.
''Where are you taking us?'' I asked defiantly.
''Shut up!'' I will not tolerate any rebellious resistence in The Oval. You will be punished for this!''
I woke up to a peculiar tapping from within the walls. Luckily I studied Morse code at cadet school. ''Whatever happens, don't allow her into your head'' I found myself whisper.
Suddenly her voice cracked in my mind. ''Em, this is for the best. I can help you, if you let me. Do not resist me.''
As I drowned in the red mist engulfing me, I felt a sharp pain in my chest.
''I refuse to submit to you''!
''It's me, Em. Are you there?
My Name is Em
It’s dark in here. Even the ivory, liquid walls have become eerily translucent. The red mist is starting to disintegrate. I am more aware of my surroundings. It’s been so long since you’ve guided me. ‘Are you there?’
My nails are bare from scratching the days, months and years on these doomed walls in this backstreet maze of my mind. Each pathetic attempt to escape the oval since I arrived as a child has been futile. It took some time to realise that I have been kept at bay in a vacuum with six corners. Only her serpent voice could be heard insie my head; instructing me, mocking me, preparing me. Over time I realised that my prison world was suspended above the ground; held up by a powerful magnetic force.
I’ve given up trying to make sense of the peculiar tapping from within the far corner of my ivory prison. I’ve long suspected that I might not be the only one held captive here. All I could manage over the years was to use my cognitive abilities to try and reach the trapped mind beyond these walls. I’m positive that I’ve made a connection once; a long time ago, warning her to prevent the oracle from entering her consciousness. Even then, I sensed a strange familiarity with whoever is on the other side.
I’ve become immune to the excrutiating pain caused by the nano gamdroelas unleased upon my body each indigo night; entering through these walls to penetrate my brain, hoping to dim my inner light – The source of my mental power to connect to other minds. It is this ability which allowed me to find an imperfect version of me at the age of ten. I had no option but to make her end her life through self-strangulation. I am now confident that she did not succeed, as it is she who I sense through these walls.
Her existence fuels my persistence to eradicate the light within her, as she is the reason why I’m getting weaker. As long as she prevents the oracle from controlling her, I have a chance to end her and rejuvenate my core being.
I must have passed out again. They’ve come back to torment me. That wretched red mist engulfing me, allowing the gamdroelas to continue their sole objective; my permanent annihilation. Unfortunately for them, I have managed to harness their mercurial power to reignite my core. It’s time. This has to end here. Their power will allow me to penetrate these walls.
It happened in a split second. The red mist has cleared. I can see her clearly now after disintegrating the membrane seperating us.
‘Are you the voice in these walls? My eternal tormentor? But you are me!’
I had no sympathy for her, as I will live by ending her.
‘It will be painless. I’ve waited a lifetime for this. Don’t you recognise me?’
‘It’s me. My name is Em...’
Copyright © Don Beukes 2016
It's the love of stories that propels Leah Ranada to write. She moved to Vancouver from Manila in 2006 and graduated from The Writer's Studio at Simon Fraser University. Her stories have appeared in Room Magazine (2nd Place Winner, 2014 Short Fiction Contest) eastlit.com and emerge anthology. She is working on her first novel.
The workstation is tiny. There is hardly any space between the L-shaped counter and the wall, making Krista feel like she‘s in a rigid embrace with the desk, wide screen monitor, and swivel chair. Clint is somehow able to squeeze into the huddle, having pulled another chair beside her to show her the SuperFit members database. He is so close that Krista can see that the freckles sprinkled on his cheeks are pinkish-brown, not red. His muscles have started to soften in a few places, but only to an extent that makes him look less coarse. Princely.
With their heads practically conjoined and their bodies concealed by the booth, it may look as if, to the girl who has just walked in and waiting across the counter, that Krista and Clint are fooling around. During work hours.
He’s your boss! Krista sternly reminds herself.
The girl looks Filipina; Krista wonders if she speaks Tagalog. Her expression is of calm tolerance, confident that she will be assisted soon. Krista grins, gestures with a limp forefinger, pleading patience.
The girl bestows a thrifty smile.
“New Client sign-on.” Clint clicks on a bright, rectangular button on the screen, unravelling a window peppered with smaller buttons and grey fields. “This is where you create a new account.” The cursor slides out a menu: Monthly, 10-Day, Annual. “Once you select the plan, it will activate the rest of the form where you’ll enter the new member’s info. Name, phone number, stuff like that. Very straightforward, right?” His instructions resound with a deep, masculine urgency, as if he is a giving pep talk during a crucial junction of a gold medal game. “If you scroll down you’ll see the billing section for credit card details. Everything about the member is on one page so it’s pretty handy. Got it?”
“Got it,” Krista nods.
“The other window is for reports.” The empty form shrinks out of sight as Clint pulls up a section listing commands: Search Profiles, Print Passes, Generate Contracts. “Here’s where you retrieve existing accounts. When you have some free time, play around with it.” He notices the girl for the first time. “Two minutes, she’ll be right with you.”
Her smile to Clint is brighter. Krista turns to the screen. She will not roll her eyes over this.
Then Clint plants a delightfully heavy hand on her back and leans closer. Krista senses something she has not felt for some time. Kilig, that pleasant unease, that shiver of delight. For a moment, she is convinced that he is going to kiss her.
But instead, he whispers, “We told you about the 15 percent commission, right? That’s for every new member you sign up.” He tilts his head to one side, completing an enabling look. “You are helping them by encouraging a healthy lifestyle.”
“Right.” Krista lifts her eyebrows to convey that she is up to the task. It hasn’t been her dream to be an assistant at the downtown Vancouver’s newest fitness club, but the place makes her feel found. Salvaged. The past year has been rough, like she has been sailing on rough seas towards a hazy suggestion of a terrain until the winds finally sent her to the shores of a sanctuary.
Last week, when she came in for the interview, the machines, the weights, and the huge mirrors glistened like they sweat with accomplishments. Co-owners Clint and Marius practically hired her on the spot. On Monday, she put up photos of SuperFit’s premises on Facebook with the caption, First day at work. A fresh and healthy start. It has gotten 92 Likes, many congratulatory comments.
Clint starts to pull away his chair. “Is that your boy?” He nods to a framed photograph of Beau at the corner of the desk.
“He’s fourteen months.” A warm surge floods Krista’s chest, remembering her son’s milky scent. She has brought the photograph to work even though she shares the workstation with another assistant working the opening shift.
“Kumusta?” Krista smiles at the girl as she sidles out of the cubicle with a springing step. “Sorry for the wait, ha. Would you like to take a tour?”
* * *
She loves to dance. It has been her ticket out of homesickness and social isolation. Krista’s first friends in Canada were from the high school dance troupe.
The audition for the college’s dance program was held in a room with stark lighting and blank whiteboards giving off the phantom smell of dry-erase markers. After her routine, the jurors agreed that her repertoire was limited, her pointe work could be improved, but she possessed something extraordinary. It was beyond natural grace.
The news of her acceptance weeks later was met with bleak looks by her parents. It frustrated Krista that they had uprooted from an impoverished country only to carry with them the third world notion that one should choose a career out of practicality.
In college, she didn’t care much for the fancy terms and the punishing meal plans religiously followed by her friends. Her devotion was to the floor, whether onstage or in the studio, even if it rewarded her with searing floor burns and toe splits. Most of her classmates had years of rigorous dance training before attending the program. Girls with perfect turnouts. Guys who made confident ballroom leads. Krista rolled her shoulders and splayed her limbs, settling into deep stretches. Assured that she belonged.
The program, to her disappointment, didn’t have many good-looking men. The few ones she liked were already taken. Those who had asked her out were all too timid, hopelessly underwhelming.
But not Marco Regala.
At the beginning of her second year, the music and dance students hosted a fundraising social for the Philippine disaster relief fund. Krista and her friends elbowed each other, whispering about the handsome voice instructor who serenaded the attendees with a medley of Tagalog ballads. (It would only hit Krista later that they had been sitting too far from the stage to see Marco’s face—they had been magnetized by a figure hunched over a guitar, with a baritone that could fill an abyss.) As the singer left the stage, Krista decided to introduce herself.
“Galing mo.” She accompanied her compliment with a light tap on his forearm.
“What you were doing up there was more impressive,” he responded quickly.
“Really?” Krista belonged to group which had presented a sampler of folk dances, dressed like greying spinsters headed for the Sunday mass. She then remembered that Marco was the only faculty member who contributed a performance for the event. “Thank you for sharing your talent tonight.”
“I’m happy whenever I could sing. You probably feel the same when you dance.”
She found it hard to return to her friends after Marco offered a seat at his table. People passing by paid him compliments, but he redirected their attention to Krista. “Here with me is a beautiful dancer.” Krista grew giddy with his praises. A night full of kilig.
“Isn’t it great to be able to contribute to such a great cause?” She remarked in a rich voice.
Marco huffed. “Don’t kid yourself. A lot of the money will be pocketed by corrupt politicians.”
“Yes, of course. It’s so bad.”
She disguised her embarrassment by asking one frank question after another. This was how she learned that Marco had come to Vancouver to become a singer, leaving behind in Winnipeg a low-grade bank job, a wife who was more married to her career as a nurse, and two grown daughters.
When he explained that they had been too busy for the marriage, and now too busy to get divorced, Krista nodded with genuine sympathy. It was a sad sight: a man with a beautiful voice losing faith in the warm promises of home and family.
“But I’m here now.” Marco gestured toward the stage. “To live the life I want.”
Krista fell in love. The men she knew didn’t have that combination of drive and dreaminess. Marco was almost thirty years older, but he brimmed with the vitality of her classmates. When the course he taught, his main source of income, closed in the spring, he found private voice coaching and wedding singer gigs. She met his roommates, young men who revered him as a father figure. Marco would later confess during a tender moment that his age embarrassed him. But he was quick to shake this useless sentiment off. He needed to stay focussed.
When Beau was born, Marco was visibly stressed. Krista understood. Registration for his voice class had been slow and the term would open in less than a month. When he kicked the corner of his bed after the department failed to confirm his teaching load, a sense of triumph billowed within Krista. She had awakened in him a will to start anew as a family man. She glimpsed this will, flapping determinedly, as he handed her cash and the occasional groceries. These transactions happened in the campus; Marco had claimed he would be evicted if his landlady found out about the baby, while Krista’s parents had sworn they would claw Marco’s eyes out if he ever set foot at their home.
“Diapers next time, they run out quickly,” she told Marco once.
He gave her a look as if she spoke in tongues. It took him two weeks to bring her a box of diapers. Krista wanted to ask Marco for more—money and food, clothes and toys—anything that would sustain their son and redeem him in the eyes of her parents. It was becoming difficult to get him on the phone. She hit Redial many times while waiting at the music department. Her calls went unanswered. After days of stalking the hallways, a student told Krista that the Voice course had been cancelled—Marco had never set foot in the building that fall.
Krista braved a trip to his apartment where she learned that Marco had moved out weeks ago. The roommate, who knew her from the nights she spent there, had looked so sorry that it took every bit of Krista’s strength to draw up her shoulders, utter thanks and goodbye. A few days later Marco’s phone number was no longer in use.
* * *
The girl is tight-lipped but replies and nods enough to not come across as rude. As they saunter past a mirror, Krista makes a quick comparison of their bodies. The girl appears fit. She scans their midsections and Krista notes proudly that her own waist is smaller. Even after having Beau!
It was her idea to memorize SuperFit’s amenities to impress prospective members with an informative tour. The cardio room, Krista tells the girl, is equipped with eight treadmills, six elliptical machines, four StairMasters, and four stationary bikes. The weight room on the second floor has a spacious mat area where members can do their core workouts and stretching routines. Seeing Marius guide a lanky teenager with a barbell, Krista mentions that their personal training rates are the most reasonable downtown. There are shower and change rooms on each floor. By the time they reach the studio downstairs, where everything from Zumba to yoga classes are held, Krista has learned that the girl has just moved to the city to attend university. Her name is Mary Jane.
“I want to sign up for a trial period,” she tells Krista.
At the front counter, Krista prepares a waiver for Mary Jane to sign. When the form is completed, she asks for a credit card.
Mary Jane frowns. “But isn’t it a free trial?”
“Oh, it’s just in case you decide to sign up after two weeks.” Krista allows a sisterly smile.
“Okay.” She pulls out her card with a reluctant shrug that irks Krista a little. Without Clint beside her, the system looks complicated. She moves the mouse slowly. For Membership Type, she selects Two-Week Trial and notices that the billing portion of the form stays grey, unfillable. Heat gathers in her cheeks. The credit card is not needed after all. She turns to the completed waiver.
Mary Jane Regala
Her look leaps to the girl across the counter. The resemblance is so stark that Krista can’t believe she has only noticed it now.
Mary Jane Regala
Marco’s two daughters both have names starting with M to take after him. A sorry compensation for a son that never came.
Mary Jane Regala’s eyes have now wandered to the machines humming with activity behind her workstation. On the desk, her student Visa card glimmers with newness—it reminded Krista of friends in college whose parents took care of every expense, from cafeteria lattes to designer dancewear.
For many days after Marco left, it felt impossible to get out of bed. She sank into murky depths as the days drummed on above the surface. Grief wrecked her from the inside, like a wild sea creature worming its way through the decaying quarters of a sunken ship.
A storm is bristling in her chest. Krista steadies herself by gripping the mouse. As she clicks on Monthly, it becomes easier to breathe. Her fingers clatter on the keyboard, completing the form. It’s as simple as Clint explained. Just enter the required information. The billing information brightens, welcoming. Krista copies the numbers on Mary Jane’s credit card.
* * *
Her shift begins at two when the club is almost empty. Krista busies herself with sanitizing the machines. She collects the used towels from the change rooms. Class schedules and announcements go on the corkboards, with Krista making sure every bill is even and straight.
The place is at its busiest in the early evening when the nine-to-fivers arrive. The fresh sanitizer scent gives way to sour, fleshy odours. Krista leads more tours, watching out for those who look intimidated by the machines. She stops to explain the features, adjust the contraptions. Many of the members are friendly. By the following week, she knows some of them by name.
She doesn’t talk to Mary Jane, but Krista watches her from time to time, those solid shoulders and arms, the emerging contours of her shins as she trudges on the elevated deck of the treadmill. Once, Krista sees her using the shoulder press. As Mary Jane lowers the handle to her chest level, she catches herself thinking of Marco’s strong embrace. Krista averts her eyes, horrified at herself.
When they started going out, Krista kept Marco’s family in a box. His wife and daughters were faceless characters from another place and time. His life with Krista was becoming richer as his old life thinned into a sad history. Their relationship was the robust bud of a rare flower, precious and promising.
A few times she mustered the courage to ask about his family. Marco would turn mournful at the mention of his daughters. “I have a lot to make up for.”
“Every father will feel that way.” Krista’s chest expanded with selflessness as she said this.
They were lying on his twin bed with wooden slats that pressed through the mattress, felt by their bodies. Voices of Marco’s roommates travelled through the thin walls, but in that room, Krista envisioned the vast, rhythmic world they would roam together.
These days, thinking of him gives Krista the urge to climb onto a stationary bike and pedal off until every pore on her body is sweating out his memory.
* * *
Mary Jane is on a treadmill that is facing a window. Her reflection is a warrior’s mask bouncing on the twilight-shadowed glass. She is pushing herself hard.
There are days when Krista feels bad for her ignorance. She imagines them sitting down for coffee, spending hours going over Marco’s failed promises, venting to one another their own sides of the same betrayal. Mary Jane would adore Beau; she would pick him up from the stroller, with Krista guiding her unmotherly arms.
A class has cancelled that evening so the downstair studio is empty. The immaculate expanse of hardwood makes Krista pause in her work, inspired. She turns on her phone’s video camera and places the device on a chair, propped against a wall. It starts filming the centre of the room where she takes position, nodding to the hip-hop music streaming from the cardio room. Her body sways to the rhythm, hips loosening into a slow, sensual motion. She snaps her fingers as the song breaks into a livelier beat. Then she straightens abruptly, her whole body stiff, except for her arms, which alternates between graceful undulations and robotic chops. She whirls into a pirouette that feels clumsy because she’s wearing the wrong shoes, but who’s watching?
Clint, that’s who. He is standing by the door. “That’s amazing! Where did you learn that?”
“That was garbage.” Krista scoffs, masking her embarrassment. “I studied Dance.”
His laugh has a chivalrous ring to it, as if he senses her unease. “ You’re a pro! Let’s post it on our FB page.”
“Are you serious?” Krista giggles. But Clint is already reaching for her phone.
Back in the cardio room, Mary Jane has slowed down the pace. Now coming from the opposite direction, Krista sees her own exhilarated face on the window. She marches towards her desk amid the energetic symphony of working machines.
* * *
She is off at ten-thirty but gets the closing tasks done around ten. Clint is impressed. “You Wonder Woman or something?” He shows her SuperFit’s Facebook page on which her video has gotten 244 Likes in three days. The glow stays with Krista during the bus ride home. Her sleepy gaze drinks in graffiti and murals, gas stations and noodle houses.
Beau has long been put to sleep by her mother by the time she gets home. Krista always rises at dawn so she is his first sight when he opens his eyes. They spend the mornings together. He is growing up fast. Krista marvels at how both of them have gone through tremendous changes in a short span of time. A mystical bond. Clint is wrong. She is not Wonder Woman. Beau is the force behind her. His photo on her desk is an amulet.
* * *
The sound of her name is metallic, teaspoon clinking against teacup. Krista looks up to see Mary Jane across the counter.
“Can you check my account. My credit card was charged.”
Her throat clenches from the inside. “What do you mean?”
“I’m on a free trial, but my card was charged 150 dollars.”
“Let’s see.” Krista says this to herself as much as to Mary Jane. The mouse turns to deadweight in her hand. It is not so much the discovery but the swiftness of it that stuns her. The plan has been to alter Mary Jane’s record, but Krista has not received her commission yet. It has only been a week since she opened her account.
The system loads slowly. Please Wait. Mary Jane rests an arm on the counter, peering shrewdly from behind the monitor. Somewhere beyond the workstation, Clint is talking to someone about whey protein.
Sandali lang.” Krista shrugs to indicate her computer needs a moment. She hopes she will draw Mary Jane into speaking Tagalog to keep the matter just between them.
“It’s okay, I’ll wait,” she says, curtly.
The panic swells and thumps against her chest, a cyclone trapped in a tent. If she is quick enough, she can change Mary Jane’s membership type. Delete the billing details. Databases catch bugs all the time. She wonders if the girl from the morning shift knows the system.
“Are you sure it was us? Our club, I mean?” Krista thinks it’s a fair question to ask. Surely, the credit card has been used in other places.
Mary Jane’s face hardens. “See for yourself.” A sheet of paper is brusquely passed across the counter. “My mom’s thinking of cancelling my card.”
It’s a printed web page of a Visa statement. In Krista’s head, the box she has placed Marco’s family in has collapsed, and a furious woman is stepping out, loudly announcing herself. She peruses the paper, the bright yellow streak highlighting the SuperFit charge corkscrewing into her gut.
“I told you I’m only signing up for the free trial.”
“Is everything okay here?” Clint has approached them, his voice reverberating with the due concern of a business owner. Behind him, two burly, tank-topped men crane their sweaty necks to their direction.
“She charged me your monthly fee for the trial period.” Mary Jane gestures to the statement, shaking in Krista’s hands.
“There must be some kind of misunderstanding,” Clint says as he takes the paper from Krista. Mary Jane's information has appeared on the screen. “When did she start?” He sees the date on the system. “How come we have her credit card?”
“She said she needed it.” Mary Jane glances at Krista.
“Did you sign a contract?” Clint sounds cautious. Krista wanted to grab his arm. No, please, no.
“I remembered signing a waiver, not a membership.” Mary Jane looks even more like Marco when she’s irate.
“Okay, okay,” Clint is saying, “let’s figure this out.” Krista quickly withdraws her hand as he reaches for the mouse. He sees Mary Jane is on a monthly membership. Then he scrolls down and quietly mouths the credit card number. It is identical with the one on the statement. Clint shakes his head. Krista wants to cry.
“I can see you were started on a monthly membership.” He throws Mary Jane a sympathetic look.
Clint rubs the back of his neck. “We’ll have to do a refund. Krista, can you hit the administrator link. No, not there. Top right corner.”
It is difficult for Krista to follow Clint’s instructions, her mind being preoccupied with reading his tone. Is the approval still there, the trust? She is driving the cursor around a new window now, a part of the system she hasn’t been trained on. “Search for her name,” she hears him say, and he directs her to a few more buttons to click. Are You Sure You Want to Submit Refund? Krista hits Yes before Clint says to do so.
“It will take some time,” Clint turns to Mary Jane. “A couple of weeks or so.”
“It’s so quick to charge but so slow to refund.” Mary Jane’s eyes are shining sardonically.
“It’s the best we can do. I’m really sorry,” The weariness in Clint’s voice makes Krista feel protective. Not that she can do anything. She has drifted away, watching everything from a distance.
* * *
She is grateful that the place is huge. For the rest of the evening, Krista slips in and out of the rooms with cleaning tools and used towels. She overhears Clint and Marius talking in low, serious tones. She decides to clean the bathrooms.
The showers are disgusting at that time of the day, but she takes the time to scrub the soap-stained surfaces, pick up coiled strands of hair from the tiles. By the time she finishes, there are only a few members in the club. There is still an hour before closing, enough time to polish all the mirrors. She is that efficient.
In the supplies closet, Krista finds a spray bottle of glass cleaner and a stepladder, which she unfolds in the studio hall. She works fast, swirling and wiping with circular motions. Harsh, industrial odour stings her nostrils. Her shoulders are throbbing by the time she reaches the other end of the mirror. But she proceeds to carry the ladder to the weights room—no one is there now. The mirror weeps bluish tears as she sprays. Through the haze, she notices Clint approaching from behind.
“You okay there?” He asks.
“I’m fine.” Her voice lilts. She turns away from their warped images to face him. “I’m sorry for what happened.”
His expression is grave. “It’s all good. Hope you were not too shaken back there.”
“I’m all right. Thanks for checking.” She wants him to leave her alone.
“Some people will give you a hard time,” Clint says. “You have to be ready for those. I know it was an honest mistake. I mean, you’re still learning things around here. Just be careful going forward.”
“Thanks for your help.” Her voice sounds tiny and far.
Clint starts to leave but says something about the mirrors being too big before stepping out. Krista nods him away with a tired smile.
She drags the stepladder across a partition and squirts large, misty puddles on her reflection. Her arms are tired and the smell clawed at the walls of her head. But Krista scrubs hard, removing every fleck and blurry patch, determined to make everything spotless.
Matthew's previous fiction has appeared in Mulberry Fork Review, Down in the Dirt Magazine, Fiction on the Web, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Sobotka Literary Magazine. A short film he wrote and co-produced, I Would Kill for That, was recently named "short of the week" by The Script Lab. He currently lives in Los Angeles.
We Miss You, George
It was on an average Tuesday that forty-eight-year-old George Penderbrook decided to kill himself. It was as simple a decision for him as realizing he needed milk. Which, looking at the empty shelves of his fridge, he would need, had he not decided to end his life.
The morning of that fateful day there weren’t any notions in his head that it would be the last morning he would experience.
With the flannel of his pajama pants stretching off his gangly legs like thick, dripping honey, George sat at his small, round kitchen table, staring into the bowl of a silver spoon. As his chin contorted inside the reflection, he took inventory of the gray stubble that had begun to corrode his aging face. He sighed, plunged the spoon back into a large yogurt carton—cleansing it of the maturing images—and shoveled another vanilla-flavored mouthful down his throat. His gulp echoed in the solitude of the tidy but vacant one bedroom Astoria apartment he unwillingly called home. Each microwavable dinner, empty white space on the fridge, and fastidiously organized book, antique, and magazine were constant reminders he never married; he never had any kids.
It wasn’t always like this, rattled inside his mind. It was an unfortunate mantra he would tell himself every morning. Memories that reminded him of the elation he once felt made his present circumstance all the more oppressive.
He had been engaged to Mary. They had bought a house together just outside the city. She was putting her interior decorating passions to use making it the prettiest home possible. George held a prominent position at Connor, Christie & Associates as one of their top real estate agents. An improbable level of happiness had graciously ushered itself into his undeserving life.
As quickly as it came, it had all gone away. He tried everything he could to get over the losses; everything except moving on.
A picture of George and Mary rested in a frame, with edges worn by time, acting as the centerpiece of his scuffed kitchen table. Looking at the picture, his eyes dampened with reminiscence. “I’m sorry, Mary,” George mumbled to her still, smiling face. His morning ritual completed, George headed off to work.
“What do you think of those glasses?” a young couple asked George as he rung them up from behind Crate and Barrel’s cashier station.
Confused as to why anyone would want his opinion on such things, he paused briefly and ran a hand through his thinning hair. Looking at the small-stemmed wine glasses in front of him he said, “Um, these? Yes, these are popular. I ring these up all the time”.
The couple sighed with the relief of knowing they made the right decision. “I told you. They’ll be perfect for our housewarming,” the tall male said, smiling under his wire-rim glasses.
His female companion tugged on his sleeves. “Okay, I guess you were right,” she said, an adorable pout followed.
George wrapped the glasses in tissue paper, placed them in a white plastic bag, and handed them to the couple. They reminded him that he would go home alone, to no such promise of love, to no such hopeful thoughts of the future.
Their appreciative, youthful smiles lit up the entire store. Gripping their purchase, they traversed the sliding doors and vanished into the streets of Soho.
Four o’clock finally arrived, and George marched, with stooped shoulders, to the time clock in the break-room, the sole decoration on an otherwise empty slab of cement. He punched in his employee number to clock himself out for the day and waved goodbye to Chuck, the twenty-year-old college student who sat on the leather couch in the break-room during his ten-minute break.
Walking down Broadway, George pulled out his phone and checked his Facebook messages. There, companionless, remained a message he sent Mary last week: Mary… How are you? It’s been awhile, huh? This coming Tuesday, would you want to meet me at Café Reggio, where we had our second date (remember?) to say hi and talk about the old times? I don’t know if you still think about them at all. I do. I’ll be there at eight, either way. I hope to see you. Your “cowboy” from another life, George Penderbrook.
It was the first time in twelve years he’d reached out to her. Examining the message again caused his entire body to get warm with abashment in the chill of the early fall evening.
It wasn’t that he expected her to respond, but he wished she might. He wished there was still an ember of the ardor she used to enjoy. But Mary didn’t respond.
He’d attempted dating again, but the hard times that befell him were not the most alluring particulars to potential suitors. That’s what he told himself, at least. That’s how he talked himself out of situations where the other person was open to him.
He put the phone back into the pocket of his black dress pants and stood still, basking in his rejection. Glancing into the window of an H&M, George noticed the blank white faces of the female mannequins. They stood there without eyes, expressions, or feelings. George envied them; he wanted to escape the burden of feeling.
It was then, in the middle of Soho, surrounded by a cluster of pedestrian traffic, George tucked his chin into the collar of his dress shirt, studied the frayed laces of his shoes, and recognized he was living his final day.
Instantaneously, marvelously, George felt alive for the first time in over a decade. A new spring in his step, he ran back to Crate and Barrel and bought various sets of small-stemmed wine glasses for multiple couples who looked like they were in love, attempting to create a last-minute legacy.
Next on the fatal agenda was a proper meal. Hopping into a cab, he headed to the famed Ruth Christies. George loved steak and ordered a sumptuous rib-eye along with a bottle of the most expensive red wine the restaurant had to accompany it. The waiter nearly fainted from delight when he saw the tip George had left.
It was seven-thirty, a half hour before he could have reunited with Mary if he had had the good fortune of others. To thumb his nose at fate, George skipped down to Greenwich Village and headed to Café Reggio.
Peering in the window of the cafe, he saw couples that may have been on their second date like he once had been. It was a portal, a window into the past; he saw himself sitting at a rustic wooden table, a twenty-nine-year-old filled with optimism, sitting across from the girl of his dreams, asking her what a latte was. Happy to be living in that moment one last time, he smiled.
Returning home, he grabbed the picture that rested on his crumb-filled kitchen table and took it with him to his rented garage space behind the apartment.
Staring at his old Toyota Corolla, he finally knew the purpose of keeping it. A trip or two outside the city was the chief reason for ownership, but those were never taken, until that Tuesday when George finally left the city again.
With the garage door closed, George fatefully sat in the driver’s seat of his running Toyota. He waited for something to happen, anxious and hopeful for the great unknown. “All You Need is Love” played on the radio.
Clutching his photo, George smiled through tears as he helplessly drifted away from a life that plagued him.
Sitting in Café Reggio, Mary regretted being so impulsive. If one of her friends were to describe her, impulsive would only come up as an example of characteristics she did not possess. Sheepishly, she fiddled with her latte. Why did she have to be so cheesy and order a latte? George surely would not remember the drink she got on their second date. Why did she sit at the same table they sat on their second date? Foolish, she felt foolish.
Until two hours before her arrival at the café, she had brushed off his invitation as asinine. Life had become prosperous for her. It had given her what George promised, but stripped her of. Revisiting old wounds would only bring about new ones. It was for these reasons she could not reconcile the fact she stared at the door waiting for her old lover. Or the fact that she felt butterflies in her stomach akin to a first date.
With a careful tug at the hem, she smoothed out her green dress for the fifth time since sitting down. Wading out the seconds that felt like eternities until his arrival, she fidgeted with her gold necklace, slipped her wedding ring into her purse, took a sip of water to cool her drying throat, and crossed and uncrossed her hastily shaved legs.
So many questions traipsed into her mind. Questions she knew she would not have the courage to ask. The one that afflicted her most was: Why did you push me away?
After George lost his job, he became despondent, dark, and could not understand how Mary could still love him. He told her he knew she didn’t love him anymore. He knew she was unhappy with him. He knew he was no longer the man she thought he was. None of these were true. She loved George unconditionally, with prominence or defeat. He berated her with his self-professed inadequacies to the point she felt she was being ungrateful by not acknowledging them.
Leaving became her singular option. And so, she took it.
When anyone asked Mary if she had a one-who-got-away, she would smile fondly, think of George, and say no. He had invaded her thoughts less and less with each subsequent year, but had never disintegrated. She assumed with certainty, until the previous week, that she had forever escaped his mind.
There was a man standing in the street, gazing through the window with a full smile cemented on his familiar face. My God, that’s George, she said to herself, sitting up in preparation for a hopeful reconnection. Her palms started to sweat. She rubbed them back and forth on her dress. After using her cell phone camera to double check that her straight brown hair still fell gracefully over her right shoulder, she looked out the window again only to see the vastness of the West Village. Mary was confused; had he come in? The heels of her shoes created a staccato rhythm as she scurried to the glass door of the Café. Tiny gold bells above the door crashed together as she swung open the thick glass and peered into the street.
That familiar face had disappeared into a Yellow Cab across the street. “George! George! George!” she cried out seemingly to no one. After a moment, she slunk back to her table.
Staring out the window with astonished eyes, she reached into her purse and slipped her wedding ring back on. Her face still, tears jumped from her eyes, turning themselves into small puddles on the oak-stained wood of the table. If anyone noticed her crying, they made no mention of it.
She had gotten to watch him walk away this time. George was more vindictive than she ever thought. Satisfied with the fact she would still come after all these years, he left, feeling victorious over her. Mary felt her regret for having been so impulsive confirmed.
“How’s Kathy? Usual drama?” Stanley, Mary’s husband, said, greeting her with a kiss when she returned home.
“Usual drama.” A shaky smile followed her words.
“I feel inadequate as a parent. I can’t get Brian to understand division.”
“You’re probably explaining it at a CPA level, which a fourth grader might have trouble grasping.”
Stanley nodded that he was, in fact, guilty of lacking the ability for simplicity.
“He asleep?” she asked.
Stanley nodded again, indicating that he was. Mary saw that a Cabernet was open in the kitchen and went to indulge.
Remorsefully, she filled a wine glass and brought it to her lips. She sat at the white kitchen table Stanley insisted on buying, even though it blended in with the kitchen as if it was a chameleon hiding from a predator. I hate this table so fucking much!, she wanted to scream at Stanley. Instead, she took another lengthy sip, wiped her face with her hands, and crossed her arms.
“You look lovely. I love that dress on you. Go somewhere fancy?” Mary sighed. “Couldn’t get her to stop talking, huh?” Stanley said, leaning on the white counter.
Mary had walked around the West Village, alone, with George’s memory and her youth. Three hours had gone by before she returned to reality. “You know how she gets.”
Stanley acknowledged Kathy’s tendency for chatter with a sip of his wine.
Glancing at her Brooklyn Heights apartment, at her husband’s doting face, and at her life, she abruptly became sad. Did she arrive here because she wanted to or because she was lazy, hurting, and in desperate need of someone to accept her love?
The interior design company she was working toward while living with George was put on hold, with Stanley’s ardent encouragement, as she devoted the hours of her life to their son. She loved Brian more than anything, but didn’t see George’s eyes or his nose in her child like she once hoped she would. It was an abandoned want that unexpectedly leaped back into her thoughts.
As night fell into the early morning hours, Mary lay in bed under a beige comforter, replaying George’s cab’s departure. Stanley’s sleepy arm rose and fell over Mary, cuddling her.
It took a month. A whole month. A calendar page of innocence. Mary learned of what George had done through the glory of social media, which democratized the tragic news of people she once knew.
The tombstone was gray. It read: “George Penderbook 1968-2016. We miss you.” Fall leaves, painted with oranges and reds, danced onto Mary’s black boots. Her hands never left the pockets of her pea coat. They didn’t wipe away any of the tears that slid down her chilled cheeks. Her eyes never moved from his name, eternally carved into the granite.
“George…George. Jesus. I feel so foolish for being here. For talking to you. Well,” she chuckled to herself, “for talking to the air, really. For having any regrets. Why did you have to message me? I was happy. I was.” She licked her chapped lips. “And I was there. At the Café.”
The wind pushed her brown hair against the side of her face.
“So, a latte. It’s a common drink I sometimes order at coffee shops. It’s basically espresso and hot steamed milk,” she told him in as jocular a tone as she could muster.
Mary talked to George, unmoving, until the sun hid from the east, allowing the moonlight to keep her company. After once again beseeching his ghost to answer why he had reached out only to run away, she finally said, “Goodbye, George,” for the last time.
Key in the gold doorknob, she pushed the door of apartment 204 open.
“Mommy!” Brian called out as he launched himself at her, hugging her leg. “What’s six-hundred-and-seventy-two divided by twelve?”
She looked at her son’s beaming face and a perfunctory smile appeared on her lips. “I don’t know, honey, what is it?”
“Fifty-six!” Brian then ran to his room, chanting the number.
Stanley came over, took Mary’s coat, lovingly held her shoulders, and gave her a kiss. “So, how’s Kathy?”
“I did more of the talking this time.”
“I ordered from Dellarocco’s. Hope you’re hungry.”
She played with the red tie Stanley had hanging in front of his white dress shirt. “Yummy.”
Stanley was there, with all his imperfections, but he was there. And all Mary could think as she looked at him scurry around the kitchen as he set the table was, This should make me happy.
Matthew Thompson is a technical writer with over 20 years of mining electrical experience. He works for White Rock Quarries as the Electrical Superintendent, where he is responsible for writing electrical troubleshooting and safety guides, and Electrical Standard Operating Procedures. Matthew is also currently a Bachelors of Fine Arts student at Full Sail University.
Mike cracked open the drapes just enough to see the car parked in front of his house. A million raindrops littered the dark paint of the old Cadillac. He tried to see if there was anyone inside but the layer of dirt twenty years thick on his house windows obscured his view.
The old curmudgeon stomped down the 100-year-old staircase to the ground floor of the colonial home his parents once owned and burst through the kitchen door with the gracefulness of a wildebeest. He threw open the refrigerator door and grabbed the makings of a breakfast for six or seven people. He slapped down plates of eggs and bacon, a loaf of bread browned to golden perfection, and a pitcher of orange juice.
Mike made his way back to the living room window. The car was still sitting there. The sun had stolen its spot in the sky and he could finally see that the front seat was empty. “They must be walking up to the door,” he said to himself. He stood at the front door, his hand on the knob, waiting for the knock that never happened.
He stared at his hand on the door knob. His legs grew tired as the sweat from his hand made the knob slick. He released the aged piece of metal and meandered back to the kitchen, looking over his shoulder a few times to make sure he didn’t see anyone walking by the front window.
Mike ate his portion of the breakfast feast he had prepared and threw the remainder in the trash. He cleaned the dishes. “How dare they make me cook for them then never show up.” He threw a plate in the sink so hard it shattered. He picked up a shard and washed it as if he was going to eat off of it again. He repeated this for each piece of the dish then set them back in the pantry.
The car was empty, there wasn’t as much as a hair on the seat. Mike walked around the back of it and saw the tag was out of date by at least fifteen years. He tugged on the trunk lid and tried to open each door, nothing opened. Every minute or so he looked for someone ready to stop him, but no one ever came.
A noise came from across the street. Mike ran back to the side of the house and in through the back door. He ran to the front window and looked for who it was the caught him accosting the car. There was no one there.
Before he settled in for the night he took his watch off and laid it on the night stand, he then emptied his pockets. He did his nightly inventory of his personal belongings, one wallet, one watch, one pocket knife, and one set of car keys to a 1959 Cadillac. A Cadillac that his parents owned, and that was willed to him. A Cadillac that sat next to the curb, just outside his house.
Jerry Guarino is the author of four collections of short fiction and one novel (The Da Vinci Diamond); his stories have been published by literary magazines in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Great Britain. He has completed four screenplays, The Da Vinci Diamond, The Tightrope, The Sonoma Murder Mystery and Who Stole Asbury Park? More information on his website: http://cafestories.net
Dream a Little Dream
Have you ever had a great dream and were sad when you woke up because the dream was over? That happened to Joe last week. In the dream, Joe was back in high school and was very popular; this was very different from his real life high school experience. All the prettiest girls wanted to be around him; he found himself dating Connie, the prettiest girl in his class. They made out for hours in the backseat of his mustang convertible at the drive-in.
Why couldn’t he have this dream every night? If only he could start every day with this dream, the life he never had when he was 17. He would be so happy. Can you order up a dream?
Joe wished he could have Connie forever, if only in his dreams. He did some research. Apparently, there were studies that indicated you could increase your chances of having a specific, desirable dream. It’s called lucid dreaming. Some of the recommendations were:
Go to sleep an hour earlier
Control your diet
Have a relaxing bedtime routine
Put roses in your bedroom
Joe tried each one, even putting roses in his bedroom. But he was unable to recreate the dream with Connie. He wrote a long love letter to her and read it before sleeping. He put a picture of her from the yearbook on his nightstand. It was the one of her on the baton team. Her long blond hair framed her lovely face and beautiful smile. He thought about the one date he had with her, when he took her to the movies, but was too shy to do much more than an awkward kiss when he dropped her off. She was out of his league.
Joe had studied chemistry in college and worked in a pharmaceutical lab. He often wondered if they could create a pill that would allow people to have those lucid dreams. That would have to be a future discovery. We’re still waiting for those flying cars we saw on the Jetsons and in Back to the Future.
That’s where he met his wife Barbara; they had a boy and girl and in due course three grandchildren. Holidays and birthdays gave them many years of bliss. He realized that his family was his greatest source of happiness.
His family was also there for him when his wife passed away, naturally and peacefully in her sleep at the age of 60. She left him much too soon. He spent his retirement years fishing and reading. He remembered her packing a cooler for him to take on his small boat. When he returned with his catch, she would make it for dinner, as long as he cleaned it first. Now he would spend his nights reading by the fireplace, remembering the good times they had together.
He received an invitation to his high school reunion. At first, he didn’t want to go, but later decided it would be better to be with old friends than to stay home alone. He even wore his soccer letter sweater, and it still fit!
It was a warm night in May. Some of his classmates still drove cars from the 60s, a Pontiac GTO, a Dodge Charger and a few Mustangs. This jogged pleasant memories of cruising on a date. He saw his classmates entering the school gym, dressed like they did in high school. They wore bell-bottom jeans and tie-dye shirts; the girls had long straight hair with flowers. Several guys wore wigs.
The theme was “man on the moon” as this was the class of 1969. The gym was decorated in space memorabilia; there were pictures of the crew and video of that famous moon landing. Music completed the picture. Sly and the Family Stone, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Turtles and the Doors. It felt like 1969 again.
Then Joe saw her. The girl that got away. Connie’s eyes looked lovingly at Joe; he pulled her close to him. They kissed, like he wishes they had back in high school.
“Connie, I’ve wanted you my whole life.”
“Joe, I’ve wished for this too.”
After dancing with each other all night, they left the reunion together. They made love like they were eighteen again. Hours of bliss, mutual orgasms and carefree loving. It was the hottest sex he ever had. He had finally fulfilled his life goal, to have Connie forever. His only regret was that this happened so late in life. But it’s better to have your best love late, than not at all.
“Your father’s cremation is done. We just need a signature for his new columbarium. This plaque will honor his final resting place. May I ask a personal question for the service?”
“Did he have any final wishes?”
“Well, we found him in his chair by the fire holding an invitation to his high school reunion. I know he really wanted to go and reconnect with an old girlfriend.”
“Perhaps he was dreaming about it when he passed on.”
“Yes, that would be a nice way to go.”
“Thank you for choosing Clifford Scott Mortuary for his final home.”
Chika Onyenezi is a writer living in United States. Born in Owerri, Nigeria, he holds two degrees, including an MA from European Peace University. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming in Identity Theory, Litro Magazine, Ninth Letter Magazine, and elsewhere. He received Honorable Mention in the 2016 Glimmer Train Fiction Open. He spends most of his time daydreaming, and collecting wish trinket from sea waves.
A New Country
I am a moth, at the end of the world, flying, perching, and flying. Drawing semi-colons in cities I’ve visited, on a map that I bought from an antique shop in Vienna. Semi-colon is beautiful, the way it curves like a bow, and with a dot – they tell me that life isn’t straight, and sometimes I have to risk it all in one pitch.
I first arrived in Italy, they gave me to France, and France gave me to Germany, until I ran away, and found Austria. Now I am in Austria, and my map has a lot of semi-colons. God willing, I will add more.
Back home, I was training to be a pilot, but I didn’t finish. I was dismissed for flying too low, hitting the left wing against a roof, and crashing a plane. It wasn’t my fault; the wind was against me, and the weather forecast was wrong too. I was lucky to be alive, with only a broken rib that healed months after.
Well, the institute had only one plane, they asked me to pay for the damages, but I didn’t have the money, and neither did my parents. The rules were straight: break and pay. So I ran away from home, my country Nigeria. My thoughts are correct, if I go too far, they will not find me.
Well, what else could I have done? Thirty, unloved, without a job, and no future – I wouldn't mind sneaking into a rocket to Mars, provided there was a sign of hope out there. It’s not like I love it here in Europe, no, I have no other option. Europe is a land of opportunities, and I will work hard to make it.
Life is better this way, alone, figuring it out on my own. I live on the kindness of strangers, mostly. First, I make them believe that I am not crazy, and will not hack them to death. This is Europe, everyone is afraid of strangers, especially with the recent rise in suicide bombings, and a deepening Syrian crisis. If they are kind, they let me in for a cup of water, or a plate of food, or bath, which ever works, I am grateful. Then, I find my way again, slowly walking into the unknown, into a future, where there is no future.
I risk it all, like a strong man. I got to Europe on a turtle back. Anyone I tell how I arrived here thinks I am joking, or maybe I don’t explain it well to them. Well, it is easy; the boat that sailed me is called turtle back. It sailed from Somalia to the Island of Lampedusa. The sea is wild. The sea has no friend. The sea took five of us, and chewed them in rage. The sea has a belly that is never full. No matter what I become, I know I will never get off that ship, my soul is trapped there, forever sailing.
The Somali captain lied to us; he said it would only take two hours to get to Europe. But no, it took more than that, days, maybe two. But again, I would still have made the voyage irrespective of how long it would take —what I am running from is bigger than death.
I have been around for a while, taking life easy, and trying to make sense of everything around me. Now, I am a refugee, trying to survive, however I can, honest or not. In Italy, I told them the truth that my country doesn’t care about me. In case they ever come for me, I will be willing to go back. They said I wasn’t telling the truth, and refused my application for a refugee status.
I need love, but I am afraid that no one wants to love me. It is late at night. I put on a winter jacket, and walk into the frosty night. I wander into a night club in the middle of Vienna City. I sit down, alone, hoping that maybe someone will talk to me, or maybe I will meet people to talk to. I buy a glass of beer, the girls giggle past me as if I don’t exist. I am alone, and lonely inside. Maybe it’s because I am not trying. I look around and find a girl, sitting alone, dancing to herself, white. She wears a sleeveless red shirt, short jean pants, and a nice smile. She is a good dancer, the way she is moving her body.
“Hello,” I say.
“Hello,” she smiles at me.
“Can I buy you a drink?”
“Yes, sure, why not,” she says.
I walk over to the barman, and give him five euros for two glasses of beer. I take the drinks, and walk over to our table, and place the glass before her.
“Thank you,” she says, “So where are you from?”
“Nigeria,” I say. She sips her glass of beer, the foam forms on her upper lips, she licks it.
“I study African studies at the University of Vienna,” she says.
I know there is something exceptional about her; I can tell she is diverse with culture. Not everyone around here is jovial like her. Other times I have tried talking to people were met with a rude responds, sometimes even snubbing.
“My name is Charles, by the way,” I say.
“Oh Charles, I am Clara. Nice to meet you,” she says, “And why are you in Vienna?”
This is always the hard part, when people ask me why I am here; it’s like pouring dust into my mouth. It’s like telling me that irrespective of my circumstance that I cannot be here by design. Well, that is what I represent; an accidental thing in Austrian land.
“Well, I sailed on a turtle back,” I say. She laughs like any other person I’ve said the same thing to. It is an easy way to avoid answering her question.
“Wait, you mean, turtle back?”
“Well a boat with the name turtle back,” I say.
“I see. Not an actual turtle. So you are a refugee?”
Well, there isn’t any need to lie, or try to make myself sound better. First, I pretend as if I don't hear her properly. I nod to the sound of the music serenading the room, and it isn’t enough to hide me.
“Yes,” I say, with heaviness in my throat. I hate that word, refugee. I hate being referred to as that. I hate the fact that people want to see me as a refugee, even though I am a human being.
“Honestly, I have been looking for someone like you for my term paper,” she says.
I am shocked to hear that. I stand up, and walk into the night. My heart begins to ache. I didn’t say any word to her. She runs after me for a few blocks, explaining why she said it.
“Is alright, I am not angry, but I think I don’t want to know you,” I say.
“I respect that,” she says, and disappears into the night.
The night is calling my name; I am walking into it, like an astronaut in space, weightless. I feel empty, and unloved. I feel like I am just an experiment. The city spit me out each time I try to embrace it. The people see nothing else in me except a walking lab specimen. I amble towards Unterre Donaustrasse from Nestroyplatz. I want to see the water, I like the breeze there, and it makes me feel alive.
I think about other things I can do with my life to make money. I need money; I need to get my own place, my own life, and peace of mind. I know there is no way I can have that now, not now. I have no work papers.
I am a dove, I am kind. I wake up every morning to fly, to try my luck, and believe that God will provide for me like any other bird of the air. I live with a kind man from Senegal; he has helped me a lot since I arrived here, Andrew is his name. Andrew speaks the language of my fathers; he speaks like a wise man, like he has seen it all here, like he is not afraid of anything. He has mastered how to use proverbs and idioms so effectively that he never says most things straight. He has his own reasons for being here, but I know his childhood was rough, and he is ready to break out from the chains of poverty too. I help him run errands in the morning, like going to African stores, delivering parceled messages, looking after his mixed-race five year old boy whenever it is his turn for custody. I see him leave every night, and come back in the morning with so much money. I really want to make that kind of money. For the first time, tonight, I am following him to work.
If I get that money, I will save it. I will call my parents, and ask them what is going on. I will tell them I am alive and trying to make it out here. I will send some money to my brother so that he can go back to school, with luck he will find a job afterwards. I will send some money to my mother; the government hasn’t paid their pension for two years. It is their savings that they used to send me to pilot school. The disgrace I brought them is unbearable, that is why I never went back home. I know certainly that if the debt collectors can’t find me, they will not bother my parents. I will buy a car for my father at least; he has lived almost all his life without one. I will not forget Aunty Monica, she is sick, she has no child, no income, unpaid salaries, and the medical centers in Nigeria barely functions. I will at least make sure she dies with dignity, not in discomfort.
Whenever I wake, home crawls up to me and bite me. Homes squeeze my head under his armpit and knock me. Home keeps coming for me, throwing punches, and I cannot evade it. I can’t go back home empty handed too. Do you know what it is like to go home empty handed? It’s like you are worthless before man and God. Not just that, it is personal also. After waking in sea tempests, I will do anything for money, for my dignity, and the dignity of loved ones. Just show me what will give me money now, and I will do it. I feel depressed again.
Whenever I am depressed, I look at my map. I mark where I want to go next when I have money. America is beautiful they say. In America, I can have a big car, a big house, work in a car plant, get married and have children. I can see them running to my SUV like nightingales, calling me “daddy”. I want to be called “daddy” one day. These days, I daydream a lot; it is the only way to escape the reality that I am here, and that I am a refugee. No matter what, I try to keep my head above the water.
Andrew comes in with a bag in his hand. He throws the content on the bed, cocaine, wrapped in thick white plastics, with brown tapes around it. He looks meaner than ever, like a gangster in a movie, ready to pull his trigger. It is true, a man has many faces.
“Are you ready?” he asks.
“Yes, I am,” I say. I don’t know what he is thinking, maybe that I am not ready. I wasn’t afraid of a sea that can eat me whole, then why should I be afraid of a police that will keep me alive? No need for fear, indeed.
“Now, be on the lookout. From this point, right now, if we are arrested, you are going to jail as much as me. I will take you to your post; you will stand there with me for tonight and see how things are done. In the future, you will man this post,” he says.
“Thank you,” I answer.
He puts his hand into another bag lying on the bed, and pulls out a pistol.
“Now, this is a pistol, have you ever handled a firearm before?” he asks.
“You see, this is the difference between life and death. You can kill yourself with it; you can also kill someone with it. These are split second choices, or mistakes. There are other gangs operating within this area, and they are ready to gun you down too. So listen, pull the safety, point, and shoot. Hold with two hands,” he says and demonstrates. He hands it to me. I take the gun, point, and click the unloaded gun while holding onto it firmly, with both hands.
“Good, I will load it now. Remember, pull the gun, point, unclip safety and shoot. Don’t hit me by mistake. Never point a gun at something you don’t wish to target,” he says.
He shows me a few more tricks, about loading, and shooting. It is a crash course, but it’s enough to get me through the night.
The night is cold again. I have my jacket on, and a pistol tucked into my trouser. We walk to the train station, languidly, waiting for the night to get deeper. He says that the trick is to never look suspicious, be as normal as possible, even when you have kilos of cocaine tucked under your jacket. We sit in the train station; in front of me is an old lady. I don’t like how she is looking at me, so I turn the other way, facing the young lads. They are jollying, probably on their way to a night club.
We get off the train, and walk to the street corner. The street has its own eyes, and its own mind, to survive, you read them. I stand beside a two story unpainted building, with Andrew, watching. The buyers already know him. They walk up to him smartly, and tuck the Euros in his palm. He introduces me to them, and they walk away.
“If you see the police, walk this way,” he points between two apartments, “Never make the mistake of running in either direction of this street. I have seen too many bursts, believe me, you will be caught,” he says.
We stand there, like eagles, looking out, making money, watching the street. Sometimes the street watches us too; some men seem to be monitoring us.
“That is the Crackers, they are our enemies, and they can’t act now because we have a truce on how the streets of Vienna should be controlled. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to be careful, never let your guard down. If anyone comes for your head, smoke him out,” he says, points his fingers into the air like an actual gun, “I hope you understand?”
“Yes, I do,” I answer.
For everyone that I love that cannot help themselves, I will do anything for them. That is what I am doing now, taking euros all night through. Around five o’ clocks, with a bag full of money, we head back home.
For the first night, I made two thousand euros. I place them on the bed, for two hours, I keep looking at them. Two thousand euros can change my community. It can help a lot of people. I dance in the room, laugh, alone, but happy. I start to drink wine. I drink and drink until I can’t stand anymore. I fall down and sleep.
In my dream, everywhere is burning back home. The Igbos declared a nation again. A young man has risen to take the mantle of leadership, brushed through Northern Nigeria with a rag-tag army well skilled in guerilla warfare. A new government is instituted immediately in the eastern region of Nigeria. The Nigeria government starts fighting back, fiercely, and soon begins to gain ground. Their air support is so powerful, that for the Biafra state to survive, they need pilots to fly their newly acquired plans.
The newly appointed Ambassador of Biafra to Austria comes to my house, knocking, early in the morning.
“Ambassador Okwu,” he says, I shake his hand firmly, “Your country needs you Charles, will you fight for it?” he asks.
“Come in,” I say.
Okwu is a tall man, who speaks with a heavy baritone. He comes in and sits down.
“Yes, I saw the news three weeks ago, Biafra has been declared again,” I say, scratch my head and continues, “but how can I help, I am not a soldier?”
“Your name came up on the list of those training to be a pilot at Fly Die Institute. I took it upon myself to locate everyone. I must say that yours is difficult because there is no record of your present location. But, I am here, that means that it has taken me a lot to find you. This is a new country Okwu, not like the former one, Nigeria. In Biafra, we care about every one of us, all citizens are equal before the law, but we must all fight for it. We want you to fly a fighter jet for us, fly for your mother, for your father, for your sisters,” he says with a clinched fist.
“I will, there is no greater call than to help preserve one's fatherland,” I say, “But where do I go from here? I don’t even have a legal status to board an airplane back; I will be more trouble for you than a solution.”
“As long as you are with us, your country will do everything for you,” he says.
A few days after, we are at the airport, Okwu made all the arrangements. He puts me on handcuff as his prisoner; he says that is the only way to take me back home. Like that, they give us a free pass. We land in Akwa city, under a heavy fire that lasts for an hour.
Days after, I am flying a McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle for my country. My first raid is in Kaduna, I run over it twice, dropping bombs on military targets. Soon, I receive a promotion, to train other pilots.
Then I wake up. It’s all a dream. It’s all a fantasy playing in my mind. I checked my cash, it is still complete. I put it under my box. I walk to the restroom to ease myself. I stand before the mirror, looking at my face. The dream is so vivid that I can still see myself wearing all that military gear, and fighting for my country.
In the past, a man once asked me if I believed in Nigeria, and I said no. I feel nothing for Nigeria. I am Igbo, the son of Ogwu, Ogwu, the son Mgbali, and so my lineage goes on. I always dreamed of, everything new about Nigeria, and the leaders listening to the masses, but it’s just a dream. I don’t feel like I have anything to offer in Nigeria.
If the new country is born, and they ever come for me, I will do anything to build it. I will work my ass off for it, as long as it will know my name, as long as it will recognize my effort, and honour my bravery. In case I die, I want a grave with marbles, a headstone with my name on it. I want my country to strive for greatness; I want my leaders to reach out for greatness. I want them to inspire generations to come.
And if that country ever comes alive, tell them that I am here, in Austria, hiding during the day, and getting through the night. I am here trying to make friends, trying to get accepted, trying to find love. No one will love me, because they know I am a refugee.
I clean my face with a towel, dress up, and walk in the cold morning, the sun is shining, bright. This is my life, and I am getting used to it.
Nels Johnson is an lawyer, lobbyist writer living in Portland, Oregon with his wife and dog. His work has been published in local and regional publications. You can usually find him writing in darkly lit bars and coffee shops around Portland. Follow him on Twitter @mnelsjohnson.
Sitting in a bar
The guy sits there, staring at his blank phone screen. The dim lights above the row of shabby bar stools reveal an outline of his hulking frame. He periodically looks up and takes a swig of beer and looks around the room, like he’s waiting for someone. He knows no one is coming, but that doesn’t stop him from pretending. He restlessly continues checking his phone: picking it up from the bar, flicking it on and off to check for messages that aren’t there. Finally, he sets the phone down. He is both unsettled and alone.
The periodic pale hue of the phone’s backlighting interrupts the anonymity of the bar’s dull hue. Every time he checks for messages the florescence illuminates his drawn and tired face. The bags under his eyes, along with the messy, unkempt salt-and-pepper mane underneath his old beat-up white Titleist baseball cap, expose a deep tiredness that simply can’t be alleviated with a good night’s sleep. The exhaustion has burrowed a cavernous hole inside of him. Years have etched the wrinkles and lines across his haggard face and sagging brow. It’s unlikely that he’s had a peaceful night of sleep in over a decade. The extra pounds cling to various places on his large frame, betraying what years ago must have been an in-shape, sharp, and athletic frame. His faded blue polo shirt can’t hide a body that has fallen apart through years of hard living.
As he quaffs his first two beers, his shoulder and back muscles relax. Beer seems to take away the stress and anxiety of life better than a massage or any form of exercise could. Every sip is like a baptism—slowly washing his sins away, one at a time from the inside on out.
The guy is watching the ballgame on the old television above the bar. The picture isn’t great, but he can tell the game is still in the second inning. His mind is in another place anyhow, as it is most nights. Looking away from the television, he stares at his phone again. The screen is still blank, no matter how powerful his gaze. Eventually, his attention drifts from the phone and moves to his hands; his gaze follows the deep lines and calluses crisscrossing his big, meaty palms, leading him nowhere. He’s spent years living a life not as he’d imagined it. His eyes trace every indentation and tributary from where his wrists give way into the fleshy part of his hands, all the way to the tips of his thumbs and pinky fingers. Still nothing, still the same.
Without an answer, or even a resting place, his mind and eyes wander from the contours of his hands upward to the stained and fading ceiling tiles, soon descending all the way down to the dingy, soiled carpet. An ordinary bar—there must be thousands like it all across the country.
Here, most everyone knows each other, but folks keep to themselves; this is a place for contemplation, a cathedral memorializing long-forgotten dreams. It’s the sort of place where the lights only get turned up full once in a while, maybe a couple of times of year. The faded wood paneling has seen scores of parishioners pass through the clunky old doors, each seeking individual salvation but instead finding collective worship, night after night, repentance and preservation. When it’s closing time, the bartender dims the lights, chases out the drunks, and then locks up. Every morning the bartender approaches her pre-opening chores with the same somber, repetitive, and serious nature as a priest preparing for daily morning mass. She’s run this humble and decaying parish for many years now, hearing thousands of confessions and always dispensing liquid penance in turn.
The guy holds up his empty glass and says to the bartender, her back to him, “I’m empty. Can I have another?” His voice always sounds hollow to him—muted and sterile, like rapping your knuckles on a wall.
“Sure, sugar, no problem.”
He looks at her with a rueful smile. “Thank you, darlin’. You’re sweeter’n my own mother and even better looking.” His mind fixated on an old memory.
“Oh, stop! I’m old enough to be your mother. You know flattery won’t get you anywhere ’round this place.”
It’s a call to worship; it’s a call and response that will continue for the rest of the night, as it does most nights.
There’s a young couple sitting two tables over from the bar, just to the left of the guy’s line of sight. She looks to be in her late twenties, long brown hair, beautiful curves, clean and bright skin, dressed in tight pants and a loose top that accentuate her figure in all the right places. When she laughs, she throws her head back, with the most beautiful look of ecstasy across her face, almost orgasmic. He looks like a dipshit with his backward baseball cap, big muscles, and a face that looks so fresh there’s no way he’s ever done a real hard day’s work before. We used to call guys like this “Kappas,” after those goddamned fraternity brothers you see in the stupid comedies. Kappa is probably a total asshole and destined to run a company someday, or at least be in a position to fire people.
Judging by their constant state of flirtation, they must be on a date. Every so often she drops her head slightly and tucks her chin, letting down her defense system and inviting Kappa in. Kappa is too stupid to see her innocence and virtue and instead acts confidently, focusing on her plunging neckline, like he’s going to score tonight anyway.
The guy hears her joyous laughter and turns left in her direction. He looks at the gorgeous young woman with a familiar longing; years ago he knew a girl like her. She was tender and alluring, but the sixty pounds of despair that he’s put on over the years is a major reason why he’s spent the last fifteen alone. He lost a couple of jobs in a row, after that simply living each day had made him tired and hard to be around. The stress and exhaustion of unpaid bills, feeling useless and watching the world leave him behind was more than he could handle. His marriage crumbled after a solid decade together. Even for someone so wholesome and understanding, ten years together was too much. All that remains is a hollowed-out soul in a decomposing body.
His fingers shuffle timidly across the screen of his phone, clumsily searching for the right profession. Finally:
The woman doesn’t see his increasingly lengthy glances in her direction; she’s too busy flirting with Kappa. The guy looks at her from the bar with an intimate and carnal longing, and one that says he knows he can’t ever find or touch what he’s after. He looks at her like someone on the other side of a lych-gate, longing to get to the beauty inside. He knows it’s there, but the barrier too much. The lock can’t be picked; the walls are too high to scale. All he can do is hope that his longing somehow connects with the young woman and she comes over and lets him in.
Just wanted to say hi. Hope you’re doing ok.
The screen goes dark again from inactivity, no response.
A little while later an old gentleman wearing khaki shorts and a crisp new polo pulls up a stool next to the guy. The guy looks relieved to finally have someone to talk with. He momentarily forgets about the young woman and instead focuses his attention on the older gentleman. They start talking loudly about baseball, both wanting to get past the small talk but unable to do so. Instead, they unintentionally talk past each other, remaining unfulfilled and unconnected.
The old gentleman looks to be in his seventies; his white hair—just a little thinner than it was thirty years ago—is perfectly parted. The old gentleman’s hands are tan, leathery, and strong. His Yale class ring adorns his right ring finger. The focus of the ornament is a bright-blue aquamarine in the center surrounded by diamonds all around it. Lux et Veritas. The old gentleman carries himself with an air of old aristocracy, power and privilege. When he speaks to the guy, he leans in close, squaring his shoulders and taking control of the conversation.
The old gentleman is in surprising shape for someone who is roughly the same age as the guy’s father. His arms are firm under his sleeves; his stomach is flat and toned; his calves are the size of grapefruits. He looks like he could run a marathon tomorrow.
The guy slowly starts to disengage as the conversation drags on. The old gentleman’s way of leaning in and punctuating his point by wagging his finger in the guy’s face is starting to get on his nerves. He reminds him too much of his own father in the need to always be right, even if it’s just a stupid and meaningless conversation about the Padres. Every time he makes a point, it’s like he’s directing his argument right past the guy’s head. The old gentleman doesn’t even seem to notice.
While the guy and the old gentleman are talking, Kappa leans over and kisses the young woman; she tilts her head back and lets out a small flirty laugh and kisses him back. She gently reaches across the table and ever so lightly strokes the top of his hand. The guy glances over and sees Kappa lean in closer to the woman. The guy quickly drains another beer to douse the flaming wound inside.
He checks his phone again.
The old gentleman is beginning to morph from his father into the man who put him on the unemployment line. The guy used to make eighteen dollars an hour packing cans of tuna at one of the local fish canneries. But some old prick from La Jolla brought in a machine that did the work of twenty people and then cut the entire night shift. A couple years later, the old prick closed down the fishing cannery for good, claiming that new environmental regulations forced him to.
Now, who knows? The guy does what he has to in order to get by. Construction, working on fishing boat, it doesn’t matter—it really doesn’t. He knows he’ll never earn eighteen dollars again at his age. That old prick from La Jolla was a real asshole, in a world increasingly filling with assholes.
The old gentleman is adamant that the Padres are going to miss the playoffs, even though it’s only July. It doesn’t matter what the guy says, like that the Padres have the best starting pitching in the league and play in the weakest division in baseball. The old gentleman just keeps on talking at the guy, acknowledging but simultaneously dismissing what the guys says.
The guy wonders why the old gentleman picked this bland bethel to frequent when he could have gone to any one of hundreds of others in a city this big. The old gentleman probably drives a nice car, maybe a sports car, a convertible. Maybe he’s one of those rich pricks who races along the Pacific Coast Highway on the weekends with the top down. Rich pricks are always overcompensating for something.
After three shots of whiskey and four pints, the guy’s most recent glass sits empty on the cracked and water-stained Formica bar. The tension in his face and back that eased after the first couple of beers is starting to crop up again. He looks restlessly toward the bartender, hoping to get her attention. He finally makes eye contact with her and holds up his empty glass again.
She nods and pours him another beer. As she sets it down, she softy pets his hand before turning her attention to another patron.
Again he glances to his left at the young woman. He pulls away with a painful jerk, like he’s been looking at the sun too long. The woman carries herself with a virginal beauty and a refined fire. Despite her stunning figure and perfectly tight-fitting clothes, she looks longingly at Kappa with a pure and simple exuberance. In the last fifteen years, he’s only received looks like that from his dutiful and decent dog, Benjy. It’s unclear if the woman will remain innocent after tonight. Innocence is beautiful after all, but never lasts forever.
As the bartender slides another beer over to the guy, Kappa and the young woman get up to leave. The guy notices that her breasts are much bigger when she is standing up than when she’s sitting down. Kappa gently leads her out the door. She glances at him with her mix of purity and longing; he looks her full figure up and down, his gaze stopping at her bust for an uncomfortably long time. The guy just stares at the floor after watching them leave through the clunky old doors. He hopes she’s happy.
The man picks up his phone while the old gentleman intently watches the sixth inning of the ballgame on the television. The booze serves as a conduit between the guy’s fingers and emotions.
How are you?
I miss you.
Can I see you?
Finally, one of the old gentleman’s friends arrives and joins him and the guy at the bar. The new person is also dressed like a golfer, and he and the old gentleman start talking about the Masters. The new person has a beer belly, flabby arms, and a penchant for raising his voice and accentuating his point by emphatically waving his hands, as if doing so somehow makes the story about how he birdied five holes earlier in the afternoon truer. The new person reminds him of a sales executive—a man who is so confident in what he’s saying that he’s unable to comprehend the fact that he’s utterly full of shit. The guy nods along, his smile forced, just another anonymous rich asshole. Oh well, he just bought everyone another round so the guy doesn’t take too much offense to the boasting. Besides, this newest round has allowed him to already forget about the young woman and the buried memories of purity and virtue exhumed from deep inside.
The table where Kappa and the young woman were sitting has been overtaken by a group of three young women, all blond, slender, curvy, and dressed to the nines. They must be going to party or something later. The women are all smiling and excited to see each other; they all lean in to listen when one of them talks and then all appropriately laugh in time when one of them tells a joke. Their gorgeous bodies and expensive clothes power them with confidence. The guy glances over from the ballgame on television long enough to see the outline of a black thong pushing tight against the white dress of one of the women as she leans into the conversation. Women like these are everywhere, and the guy doesn’t mind. Where he grew up, women didn’t dress or act like this, and they certainly never projected so much confidence. But that’s OK—he doesn’t mind—and he’s stored the image of the woman’s thong in his head for future fantasies.
The night is getting on. Soon the old gentleman drains the last of his beer, says his goodbyes, and noisily files out of the bar, making sure his exit is apparent to all. The new person shortly follows suit but not before handing the guy his business card and making the obligatory promise that they “need to get together soon” and that the new person “will call” him. It’s the most blatant of lies. They both know that the new person has no intention of calling him and that it is unlikely that they will ever see each other again.
Pretty soon the guy goes back to mindlessly playing with his phone. His mind has wandered off again, though by this point the booze has obscured the destination. The ballgame is over, the late broadcast of SportsCenter is gently murmuring in the background. Willie Nelson’s mournful croon emanates from the old jukebox in the corner, gently drifting in between the few remaining souls in the bar.
“If I made you feel second best…girl, I’m sorry I was blind…Little things I should have said and done…I just never took the time…”
He did the best he could. He hopes that someday she’ll realize that.
It’s getting really late—the bartender yells out to the few stragglers for last call. Most are looking around for anyone to latch on to, anything to prolong the protection the bar offers from the changing outside world.
The guy slowly slides himself off of the bar stool where he’s been perched for the last four hours. He slowly makes his way to the door, dragging his feet in an attempt to savor the safe universe that he’s built inside. Here, he can forget and embrace his own futility, if only for a few hours.
He stumbles outside and decides to walk to the beach and watch the moon slowly crouch down to the other side of the world, eventually to be hidden from his sight by the ocean. No matter how many nights over the years he’s gone down to the beach to watch the moon, it never changes—it always disappears and gives way to the sun.