Category Archives: Prose

Gutsy

By John Banning

Our friend Daniel always comes out. He does not initiate outings, and in this was doubtless said something about his want to be wanted, and his want that we should not know that he wanted to see us.

I have known Daniel for some years now, and most of us have. So it surprises us no longer when at some early or late stage of the evening, dependent on his progress through the line of drinks he will consume (and which I too slip through with far too much ease, because it is far too much like that: progress, that a glass or a bottle should not be empty purely because that is no longer getting you anywhere, that the physical act of pressing the glass edge to your mouth must continue, that the pursuit must not stop because there is some something at the end of the line, some final miracle at the final drink that will make disquiet living come to an end, though this miracle will not be reached because before it is intestinal and mental sickness, and the dreaming blackout in which you meander through scenes to be unrecollected, mumbling sleepy incomprehensible things to others also in their alcohol dreams. I am old enough that I should not know inebriation with such a naive simpleness. What this miracle is at the finale of night and when the very last sap of spirit has been supped, I can have no idea, and will not ever. However, I can remain utterly induced with the conviction that other people reached the mystic zenith before going home or after. At my own finale, at the end of each night of outing, I will sit in a brown dim-lit bedroom with no other thought than this: that I have lost.), Daniel pulls up his ironed shirt to reveal the scar with which we are all familiar. It might once have been alarming, but it is no longer. He will pull apart the seam; the stitches will pull into the flesh. Some of us will keep on talking, keep on smiling, and he will too. And when the grin across his belly has been fully forced apart, our friend will pull out a pile of his intestines and deposit them on the table in front of him. The table, or the bar, or he will drape them over a chair, or he will stand there with them in his hands, looking like someone with too much to carry, or a doorman holding coats, if you were holding a party for people who did not wear coats, but wore necklaces of butchers’ things.

Now, as far as I have been told, and have pieced together, Daniel in his adolescence, without the aid of a procession of drinks, tore open his belly and withdrew his innards and would have them out most of the time; some years later this hole was stitched by parties unknown, and bled not at all, though shortly before our coming to know him he began picking at the wound, and has since then reopened it entirely, returning to his previous habits yet now aided by inadvisable inebriation.

Daniel will vary in the displays of his insides. Sometimes the guts will be released surreptitiously, not spoken of directly, but noticed by those around the place who choose to notice them. At other, rarer times (though not less rare when we first came to know him), Daniel will not take out any of his inner functioning and will converse jovially with the occasional rubbing or picking of his stomach. I have yet to decipher any correlations amongst Daniel’s behaviours, as there can be a lot of drinking and a lot of guts or a lot of drinking and no guts. There will tend to be a lot of drinking, whatever the case.

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More recently, there tends to be a lot of alcohol and a lot of Daniel’s insides all over the place. This past March, he removed his guts and made very many jokes about them. Everybody enjoyed them, and everybody laughed, and everybody got on with Daniel very well. Two weeks after this, he removed his guts but made no jokes about them at all and instead turned very poisonous, so much so that it was a surprise his guts were not themselves discoloured. The fleshy tubing lay in a great mess across more tables than our group occupied. He spoke very loudly about how it must be very horrible to have his innards all over the place and for everybody to have to look at them. Most agreed but did not find it helpful to say so, and instead, all became quite awkward and were less worried about Daniel than they were hoping he would soon go home. So, lamentably, there is no grace to his sadness. Nor is there to mine such as it comes upon me; I do not visualize these emotions as shining beacons begging great sympathies, but now as very muddy and unwarranting of condolence.

Perhaps this all would not have been so dire if the procession of drinks could not be obtained, but as I have said, I saw the need for the progression and could not damn my friend for it. It was not only the drinking that I saw tilted towards some imagined pinnacle, either; I needed the idea of the progression of everything else, of life towards some goal, of everything towards an impossible perfection; the progression of my body even, towards the ultimate betterment of it through the removal of calluses and invisible errant facial hairs and the correction of tooth order and colour and the resurrection of hair thickness. It was a good thing I looked selfishly inward in this way, as I knew that when I scrubbed this body to perfection, I would collapse in terror as I took on the world itself as an extension of this frame and never stopped grouting the walls of everywhere.

As such, I did pity Daniel as I saw a part of myself in him, though for this very reason, I could tire of him too, as I had very much tired of myself and all my parts.

Once the night degenerated into early morning drinking at a club where the music was obviously loud, and the people were obviously semi-conscious. The only thing that was not obvious was how terrible I felt. Daniel was wild that night and brought horror to us all, even if we knew his past eccentric theatrics. He pulled his scar open wide, he gave maniac laughs, and he jumped about the place spinning his guts in the air like a sickly lasso. He passed the point of smiles and got us all to frowns and scowls. I told him he might want to go home, but he would not. People from outside our group and within it jumped as their faces were suddenly slapped by liquid droplets flown off of the whipping entrails. Without a sign of stopping, the rodeo went on. Daniel shouted and laughed angrily. I could only imagine that he would hitch himself on to some crazed bull and that the pair of them would go surging off into a nightmare.

That has been the extremity of its outlandishness. It has not been the extremity of Daniel’s feeling. Four days ago, I squatted next to him outside a pub. A man at a right angle farther along was being sick. Our shadows did not occur in the strip of beer-coloured light that fell on us, came tumbling out of the awful nighttime in which the shade of cloud became the same as a streetlight on the pavement.

He looked up at me with a smile that surely ached.

‘More than anything else, it’s easy to get pity in this world. Might as well go all out.’


John Banning lives in London, England. His work has appeared in Maudlin HouseRejection LettersLigeiaDream Journal, the Bear Creek Gazette and The Daily Drunk. He is also J. F. Gleeson, and at some time, soon will appear under such in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Do take a look.

The Best Man’s Speech

By Anita Haas

Pam

Ping. Pam, hair wrapped cold and wet on her head, fumbled in her bag for the cell phone. It was not an easy task. She was sitting in the salon where she came to get her hair done every Wednesday before meeting Ted. 

It was a message and friend request from someone called “the best man.” 

Hi Pam. Stewart Wallace, here. You may remember me from one of Ted’s parties. I suppose you know he is marrying Noreen, our boss’s daughter. He asked me to be his best man. As Ted and I have not worked together long, I thought I’d ask some of his old friends for anecdotes or funny stories I could incorporate into my speech. It’s my first time as best man! I ask that you keep this a secret, as I want this to be a surprise for Ted. Thanks in advance for any assistance.

Shock waves washed through Pam’s body. Ted marrying Noreen? He hadn’t told her that. They met every Wednesday, and the whole time he had his own plans! 

Should she not go? Should she confront him?

“Pam …” the hairdresser’s sing-song voice called her back to the present. 

“Oh, sorry, Romi, Yeah, go ahead, do it the usual way. Looks great.”

Forty minutes later, Pam was in her white sports car, the one her husband Curtis had given her for her last birthday, just after she had started asking him about a certain woman named Rita. She checked her make-up in the mirror and drove off to the law firm where Ted worked. He never wanted to meet there, insisting on a restaurant or his place. Now she understood why; his fiancée Noreen worked there too. 

Shaking, she waited a moment. She imagined herself storming into his office. He would just laugh at her angry face. Maybe she should act cold and dignified. He would see through that, too. 

“What’s all this about?” he asked, irritated as she presented herself at his door. “I thought I told you not to come here. We were meeting at Clanetti’s for lunch.”

Pam felt her willpower failing, but she had to go on. “What’s this about you getting married?”

“Oh, you got the invitation already? Noreen just sent them out yesterday. That was quick.”

“You never mentioned it to me.”

He was reclining in his chair, his long, lean body stretched out, and chuckled, “Well, a man doesn’t talk about certain things when he’s … are you sure I never mentioned it?”

Pam collapsed on the chair opposite him. Her anger had lost its steam. How did other women do it? The ones who marched around demanding explanations? 

“It’s just that I thought maybe someday we’d ….”

“Come now. You’re perfectly fine married to Curtis. He’s too busy with work to notice. He buys you everything you want, and you have the time and money to stay beautiful. And you are beautiful.” He stood up and strode around the desk. He placed his hands on her shoulders, pulled her long tresses back and started kissing her neck. “We can go on as we are. I’m only marrying Noreen so that one day the company will be mine. Oliver Wendell likes me. He thinks his daughter is too naive to run the business, even though she is a lawyer too. He has her working here as a receptionist because he doesn’t trust her!” Ted chuckled. “That’s where yours truly comes in.”

Pam squirmed, making a timid show at pushing him away. He insisted. “Well, since you’re here now, we can get to the good stuff before lunch.”

This had happened before; in fact, every time, they disagreed. He just had to touch her, and she would give in.

She gasped as his hands slid down into her bra and cupped her breasts. He pulled her up gently and guided her towards the table. 

“Your colleagues?”

“Out for lunch.” She leaned forward over the table. He held her down with his left hand and undid his belt with his right. 

Pam was still furious, but she would think about that later. For the moment, she pushed her new lace thong down and arched her back.

He smacked her butt and groaned. “Knew you wouldn’t stay mad for long. Wish all women were so easy to tame.”

When they finished, he sent her off, saying he didn’t have time for lunch in the end, too much work. “I wonder if Curtis knows what a slut he has for a wife.”

Pam shivered. She pulled her sweater closed and turned her face away when he tried to kiss her goodbye. He smirked. “Okay. Go be dignified. See you next week.” 

That night Curtis came home late, as usual. He was surprised not to find Pam watching TV and keeping dinner warm. She was at her computer instead, clad in a tracksuit, no make-up, hair in a ponytail and glasses on. Her dog, Midgy, given to her when she started talking about kids, snoozed on her lap.

“What’s this?” he barked. “You look like crap.”

“Oh,” she removed her glasses and turned to him. “Sorry. What time is it?”

“Ten o’clock. Who’ve you been chatting to?”

“Just Romi. She’s having problems at work.”

“Well, tell her you to have to sign off. Your husband is home. God, next thing I know, you’ll be fat and wearing huge flowered house-dresses with your hair in a bun.”

Pam got up and slipped past him into the kitchen. She avoided his eyes but could not avoid the reek of whisky. She opened the fridge, “There’s some leftover chicken. Or a frozen pizza?”

“Should have picked something up somewhere. Yeah, okay, chicken.”

The kitchen chair creaked as Curtis sank into it and started leafing through the mail. 

“Hey, guess what? Ted’s getting married again.”

Pam, her back to him, opened the micro-wave and shoved in the chicken. “Oh?”

“Yeah, and what a guy! Didn’t even tell me himself. I got this weird message from … do you remember that dude we met at a party once? I think that’s him. Someone Ted works with named Stewart. Says he’s going to be the best man.”

“Strange he didn’t ask you again. You are his best friend.” 

“Naw, I don’t care about that stuff. Better this other guy.”

Pam heard the waver in his voice. Why did he have to put on the act? And for her?

“What does this Stewart guy want?”

The microwave dinged, and she withdrew the dish.

“Something about funny stories. You know how the best man has to make a funny speech.” He hooted too loud. “That’s probably why Ted doesn’t want me to be the best man again. Remember the last time?”

She did remember. It had been pathetic. Curtis had been so nervous he got pissed drunk beforehand and then embarked on a slew of dirty jokes and tall tales. 

She brought the steaming plate over to the table. “So, I guess he’s marrying that girl from the party too. What was her name?”

“Can’t remember. Not much to look at. Then again, neither was Paula. Ted sure has bad taste in women. Not like me.” He leaned forward and tweaked her cheek. “Hey, sorry about what I said before, kid. You will never get fat.”

Her plate was empty, as usual. She watched him eat dutifully.

Pam remembered how they used to laugh about Paula. Dark, short, tubby, with heavy eyebrows and a faint moustache, while Ted was so tall and attractive. Now, she wasn’t sure there was so much to laugh about. Paula had recovered from the divorce, she was a success in her job, and the last time Pam ran into her in the mall, she looked radiant. Maybe not tall, tanned and gym-toned like herself, but radiant.

“What are you going to tell him?”

“The truth, of course!” Curtis snorted, his mouth full. “Going to tell him what a bastard his new friend is!” He raised his beer glass to her, “Hey, aren’t you eating?”

“Not hungry.” She hadn’t eaten since breakfast. 

“Better. Nothing worse than a fat wife.”

What would you like me to tell you? she had asked Stewart on chat earlier that evening.

Tell me how you met.

Here at Somerleigh University. Ted and my husband were best friends. Well, best friends and worst enemies.

Oh?

You know, rivalry. Both are tall, good-looking, smart, competitive. Both are successful in their careers.

I see.

I’m younger than they are. They played basketball. My girlfriends and I would go and cheer them on. God, how silly that sounds now.

Before she knew it, Pam was telling Stewart intimate details she hadn’t even shared with her closest friend. She told him about her marriage and about her various failed attempts at developing her own interests; the shoe boutique, the design studio, even a stint at selling cosmetics. 

She was on the point of disclosing her affair with Ted when Curtis arrived. She was grateful for the interruption. It cooled her head. How could she possibly tell a perfect stranger about that? But when she heard Curtis snore, she felt drawn to the computer. Would Stewart still be there? There was something in his distant yet understanding way of “listening” to her … 

Curtis

The next night Curtis lingered at his desk. It was past quitting time, and he had had a gruelling day. He considered going for a drink but was too exhausted, and at home, he would have to chat with Pam. 

He thought about writing this Stewart guy to reminisce about the good old days. It was strange writing personal things to someone you didn’t know. It reminded him of something that had happened in his office a while back; he and a couple of other guys on the floor had played a joke on Russell, a shy, nerdy type, by inventing a girlfriend for him on Facebook. 

But this was different. This was a real person, and he’d actually met him at least once. But it seemed a bit unmasculine to hide behind a social media page. Couldn’t he just call? Or better yet, meet for a few beers?

He opened the chat. 

Hello Stewart? You wrote me yesterday about Ted.

Hi Curtis. Thanks for responding. Hate to bother you. It’s just, I’d like to know some odd things about Ted. Nothing too serious or personal. Maybe just tell me how you met.

Sure.

Curtis had poured himself a whiskey. 

We met during the first year of university. Both top of the class, good at sports, good with the girls. LOL.

LOL. I can believe that!

But I was better at that last one than he was.

Interesting! Tell me more!

Don’t get me started, LOL! My wife, for one. We both ogled her. He started going out with her, but she dropped him like a hat when she met me! LOL, That really pissed him off.

I’m sure it did!

Curtis took a sip of whiskey.

So, he started going out with this ugly chick named Paula. What a dog! Smart though, gotta hand it to her. Maybe too smart for Ted.

Oh?

Curtis took a swig this time.

You know. Both lawyers. She got better grades, got a job before he did. 

What happened to her?

They got married around the time we did.

Curtis reached for his glass, realized it was empty and poured some more.

But that isn’t funny anecdotes. Wait till I tell you about the camping trip!

Okay.

Curtis took another swig and paused as his eyes readjusted to the screen. He was feeling a bit foggy.

We used to go camping.

Yes?

LOL, you know how us guys are!

I’ve been on my share of camping trips, yes.

’Course you have. There was that time when …

Curtis paused. His face was red and sweating. 

Curtis, still there?

Yup, still here.

The camping trip?

There were these girls.

What girls?

Just some girls. Came along in a canoe. We were partying with some other guys.

Curtis paused again, glanced at his empty glass, and rubbed his eyes. He wondered if he should continue. It had been so long since he had thought about that trip. Maybe he had never really thought about it at all. Why was he telling this to some complete stranger when he had never confided it to anyone, not even his wife? In fact, he and Ted had never mentioned it again. Why hadn’t they? It would spoil the fun. He felt the sudden need to share it now. He looked at the whiskey bottle but didn’t pour himself another glass.

We were too drunk to think straight. Young. 19, 20, can’t remember.

Yes?

Yes? Yes? What are you, a psychiatrist? Didn’t you say you’d been on your share of camping trips? Can’t you imagine what happened?

You raped one of the girls.

Curtis stared at the screen. The words imprinted themselves on his retina.

Is that what happened, Curtis?

Curtis suddenly remembered he was chatting with a lawyer. How could he have been so stupid? What had come over him? He decided to change his tune. He poured more whiskey for assistance and forced a big belly laugh, all alone in his empty office.

Oh, now, I wouldn’t call it rape! Those girls came in their boat knowing what they were getting into. They were looking for a good time!

Were they drunk?

Drunk and high. We had a good supply with us.

Who went first?

Ted. It was his idea.

You held her arms and covered her mouth.

Ted covered her mouth. 

And, when it was your turn?

Curtis stared at the screen. He had done it again. Damn lawyers! Well, this one had no proof, no names, nothing.

Look, what are you fishing for? Do you plan to use this in your speech?

No, sorry. Didn’t mean to pry. Just seemed like you wanted to get it off your chest.

My chest is fine. And I have said enough!

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Gabriel

Gabriel headed to the ChitChat Café at 8a.m., as usual. Wendy and her mom arrived earlier to start baking and get the coffee perking. Some students would already be there. 

Lately, his role in the business was taking a backseat, although he had been the one who opened it years ago, barely out of university. 

Gabriel was a Spanish immigrant on a student visa then. It would have been difficult for him to start a business with no one to back him. Still, his friends, Ted and Nick, were geniuses in acquiring money and getting around the law. Both were too slimy for his liking, and now he was married to an honest, hard-working girl who would be shocked if she discovered the tricks he had been involved in. 

Ted and Nick needed Gabriel’s computer skills, creating an army of false identities to promote their businesses, cloning sites, hacking, email scams, industrial espionage and more. He had helped reluctantly but dutifully, knowing he owed them. Nick was already in jail, and he wouldn’t be surprised if Ted would soon be on his way. Gabriel wanted to have as little to do with either of these characters as possible.

When he opened the cyber-café, it was at the heyday of computer technology. Students came to write their essays and make long-distance calls. Now, everyone had tablets and called home using Skype, Messenger or FaceTime. The only customers he had lately were older people who came to his workshops in the backroom to learn how to use their devices. 

Thankfully, his resourceful wife had turned the place into one of the trendiest cafés in town. Soft music played, and coffee brewed as the warming smell of cookies, muffins, and squares wafted from the tiny kitchen. Patrons sat in comfy wicker chairs, either in the reading corner, surrounded by magazines racks and small potted trees, or out on the sidewalk, under the big awning which stretched all the way to the street. Sheers flitted in the breeze, and the walls were always decorated with the exhibitions of some local artist or other, who would celebrate their openings there. Every day of the week was booked; a writer’s group, a book club, language exchanges, children’s hour, even a knitting circle. 

He knew he was fortunate with his in-laws too. Wendy, being an only child, her well-off parents had accepted her marrying a dirt-poor foreign student, investing both time and money in the business. 

Gabriel’s duties were limited to the technical side. He had to ensure the phones, computers and photocopier were working, and give his classes.

He hadn’t thought about Nick or Ted in a while, but this morning on his way to work, he heard the Messenger ping on his phone. It was a message and friend request from someone named Stewart, explaining that he was going to be Ted’s best man. Gabriel shook his head. Ted getting married again after what he had done to that poor girl, Paula. Stewart said he wanted some funny stories to use in his speech. 

After several hours in the backroom doctoring a sick laptop, he wandered to the counter where Wendy and his mother-in-law, Joanne, were attending the regulars. 

“Can I help?” 

“No!” They answered in unison. Joanne stuffed a peanut butter cookie in his mouth and shooed him away, “This is woman’s work.” But he knew better. It was because he was a clutz; he kept dropping things, spilling coffee on customers … it was embarrassing. 

There were no workshops today, so he thought he’d busy himself by looking up some new programs, but he’d quickly check his email and social media accounts. He saw Stewart’s message again. Well, it wouldn’t be polite not to answer. May as well get it out of the way. But what funny anecdotes could he tell?

Stewart? Gabriel here. Got your message this morning. I don’t know how much of a help I can be.

Gabriel! Thanks for responding. Maybe just tell me how you and Ted met.

Well, I’m from Madrid. I came to study Computer Science here in Ontario. I met Ted and his friend Nick through some Spanish students here. Nick was going out with one of them.

And Ted?

Gabriel hesitated. There were so few good things he could say about Ted.

Ted was going out with a girl named Paula.

Yes, I know, but …

You know Ted better than you say you do! LOL Yes, he was seeing one … at least one … of the Spanish girls, too.

How had he let that loose? He could feel the anger well up again after all these years. A mixture of jealousy and protectiveness. He thought of Angeles. It’s not that he had wanted to go out with her exactly, but he envied the awe Ted inspired in women, especially because he knew how he treated them. 

LOL, Good ole Ted. I wouldn’t have expected any less of him☺ 

It was so long ago, and we haven’t kept in touch.

Ted mentioned you run an internet café.

Yes. With my wife.

You and Ted must have given each other a hand sometimes. Professionally, I mean.

This question seemed a bit impertinent to Gabriel. 

Occasionally. I thought you wanted anecdotes. Do you intend to talk about work stuff at the wedding?

You’re right. Sorry for prying. If you can think of anything else …

Suddenly Gabriel felt a rush of remorse. 

Ted helped me a lot. I am very grateful for what he and his contacts did when I needed help starting my business.

There. That was the manly thing to do, wasn’t it? Credit where credit was due, even if to a bastard.

Paula

“Mommy! Mommy!” Five-year-old Adéle hopped up and down to get Paula’s attention. “Remember you have to pick me up from ballet today!”

“Yes, sweetie. Don’t worry. And if I can’t, Daddy will be there.” Paula glanced up at Justin to be sure he was okay with it.

Justin smiled back at her. Everything was okay with him, but she liked him to know she wasn’t just taking it for granted.

“Okay, we gotta go now, princess.” he was saying, as Paula heard a ping in her phone, “Don’t wanna be late.”

Maybe it was Jan from the office. A bit early for messages. She would check after Justin took Adéle to school.

She kissed them both goodbye. Paula had some meetings today, so she was going into the office a bit later. She pulled out her phone. It was a message from Stewart. She remembered him. He worked with her ex-husband, Ted.

As she read, old emotions flooded back. Ted was getting married again. She couldn’t care less. The divorce was the best thing that had happened to her. She was a million times happier with Justin. How could two men be so different? She was so lucky not to have fallen into the same trap as so many others, repeating negative relationship patterns. It hadn’t been easy, of course. She had needed two years of therapy. 

Stewart wanted funny anecdotes to tell at the wedding! 

That poor girl he was marrying, so shy and naive. Ted would eat her alive!

She would think about it later. As she moved through her day, Paula’s mind kept pulling back to the request. That had always been her problem; putting other people’s needs first, never being able to say no. An unanswered email would nag at her until she sat down and answered it, even if it was only to say she would get back to them later.

So, by the time Adéle was in bed that evening, and Justin was busy grading papers, she sat at her computer and stared at the message. Snippets of memory had been snaking through her thoughts all day. 

She began typing. 

Hi Stewart! Nice to hear from you. Of course, I remember you. Love to help, but as you know, haha, Ted and I divorced. Not sure there are many funny things I can tell you. And I don’t want to be a bore and rant like a disgruntled ex-wife. LOL.

There was an immediate answer. 

Thanks for responding, Paula. I suppose it is strange to ask the ex-wife for info. LOL. But you know him better than anyone! Maybe just tell me how you met.

In kindergarten! We are both from a tiny farming village in Northern Ontario.

No! What was Ted like as a kid?

LOL, you won’t believe it. He was the shyest kid in the class.

What?

Yes! I felt sorry for him. I adopted him like a little brother. The other boys wouldn’t play with him, and he was really hurt by that.

I would never have imagined.

He doesn’t want anyone to know that, so please don’t mention it.

No, no. I’m glad you are showing me a different side of him. His family?

God, horrible! Father was a brute. Belonged to some weird sect. Super-strict. Mother left, but Ted stayed with dad and grandmother, who was just like the father. They turned him against his mother. When she tried to get him back, he wouldn’t go. Now he tells everyone she was a whore and abandoned him.

Yes, I think I heard him say something like that once.

Came to our house a lot. Better atmosphere.

Is he in touch with his family now?

The grandmother died, the father is in a home with Alzheimer’s, won’t talk about his mother. Flew into a rage if I mentioned her.

Wow. So, you were sweethearts as kids already!

Oh, no! I always took care of him, sure. But later, he got more confident. That loud, tyrannical confidence his father had. He grew tall, smart, good-looking. Soon, girls noticed him, and boys respected him. I was like a sister. In university, he was with pretty Pam. Don’t know if he was in love or if it was a status thing. All the guys envied him.

Pam? The woman married to his friend Curtis?

Right. Ted and Curtis met in first year. They became great friends, well, you know. Who said that “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”? That kind of friendship. LOL

So …

Suddenly Paula realized she was revealing a lot of personal information. She certainly didn’t owe Ted any loyalty, but what if he found out and retaliated? 

Stewart, I shouldn’t be telling you this.

No. Sorry. I just wanted to know how you met.

Paula felt terrible. It was true. He had only asked her that. What was it about this Stewart that made her feel she could trust him so? 

No, I’m sorry. You weren’t nosy. See, Ted was kind of the leader among his friends. They admired and hated him. Pam ended up with Curtis. I think that was the most courageous thing she has ever done because of abandoning Ted … but the poor thing went from the frying pan to the fire because Curtis is cut from the same cloth.

What is Pam like?

She’s changed. When I first met her, she was a typical empty-headed bimbo, only thinking about make-up, clothes and marrying money.

And now?

She still worries about those things, but I think she realizes she has missed out. But she’s not sure on what or how to find it. I saw her a while ago in the mall. She seemed drained. Beautiful, thin and perfectly made-up with great hair, but sad. I felt sorry for her for the first time.

So, how did you and Ted end up getting married?

I guess you could say I fell for it.

What?

I always loved Ted. Somehow, I always thought we would end up together. It would just take time. I kept him in line, helped him study, was the one he confided in. I even wrote his papers for him. God, what an idiot I was! Of course, I am not the kind of girl who attracts those kinds of guys. After Pam left him, he came to me. Told me he always loved me, how blind he had been, etc. Later I realized it was because I had a job, could help him, and also Curtis and Pam had announced their wedding. Imagine! Ted being upstaged like that! Of course, he acted like he didn’t care. He sang my praises to everyone, and I must admit, I loved it. He insisted we get married the week before they did. Just because. I was thrilled. I didn’t want to see reality. Tell you the truth, I think Curtis only snatched Pam away to show off. So, there we were, LOL, two happily married couples!

I’m sorry.

She had gone and done it again. Why was it that once you were on a roll, it was so hard to stop? Was that what confession was like? 

How long were you married?

Two years. I got him a job where I worked, but that backfired immediately.

Oh?

Ted has these underhanded ways. I told him I didn’t want trouble. My first job as a lawyer, and I wanted to make a good start. He got us both fired.

No!

But he had other deals going on. Wanted to get me involved, and at first, to avoid fights, I did.

Deals?

It’s complicated. Real estate gimmicks, false companies they got people to invest in. Terrible. And other things. Stopped telling me about them. I finally got a job in an NGO, the kind of thing I love. Still there. He laughed at me, called me a martyr, a goody-two-shoes, all that. Haha! Maybe you can use that in your speech! But he knew how to wiggle his way out. He and his friends Nick and Curtis. Then Curtis got a job in a company. Good for him. Pretty above-board now, more out of fear than honesty. Not as reckless as Ted. And Nick is in jail. Ted should be there with him. Now, he has this Wendell family fooled. I wish I could warn them. 

Thanks for writing. And sorry if it stirred up bad memories.

I am happy now. What bothers me is the memory of that vulnerable little boy. How I took care of him. Always did. Until we divorced. My question will always be; Was he a good little boy who turned bad because of his hurtful circumstances, or was he always a bad little boy, afraid to show it until he had the confidence to?

The Wedding

Oliver and Cecilia Wendell forced smiles as the guests’ cars meandered up their long driveway. Oliver glanced at his watch. “What the hell is going on?” he grumbled to his wife without losing his smile. 

“Don’t know.” Her smile was as stiff as her golden hair. 

“Well, I know she wanted a small wedding, but this is ridiculous!”

It was almost four o’clock, and so far, the dozen or so guests present were his employees and some friends of his daughter. Where were his business associates?  

He peered at his wife. “Did you send out all the invitations?” Cecilia had been known to show vengefulness over the years, but this would be going too far.

“Noreen insisted on sending them.” Cecilia waved to an incoming vehicle. “Look, here come the Wallaces. Jake! Fiona! Stewart! Hello!” Then, she murmured, “Fiona told me Stewart has been kind of depressed lately. Hope he gives a nice speech!”

“Send them herself? How could you trust her with a responsibility like that? It’s a good thing I found her a husband who will take care of things.” He was annoyed that his wife was taking this all too lightly. “Stewart depressed? He has been a bit quiet lately. To think that before Ted came along, I thought that he and Noreen might … well, thank God Ted came along!” He spotted his daughter greeting some musicians pulling instruments out of their trunk. 

His irritation softened at the sight of her. Tiny and thin with wispy light brown hair and pale, freckled skin, she was his nymph, his fairy. More like airy-fairy! She was wearing a satin wedding dress and a delicate wreathe of lilies. 

Although she had been a good student, he did not intend for her to work as a lawyer. She should be a lady, like her mother, taken care of by a strong man, while she occupied herself with things like home decoration and entertaining. Although she hadn’t done so well in that department this time around! His irritation returned, “Noreen!”

She waved to him, “Not now, Dad! I’m getting the musicians organized.” 

Oliver’s jaw set. Not now, Dad? Who did she think she was? 

Cecilia slipped her arm through his, “Come on, dear. It’s time.” No more cars snaked up the drive. They followed the flagstone path to the back garden with resigned smiles, where several rows of folding chairs had been set up near the swimming pool, facing a podium under Cecilia’s rose arbour. A violinist and solo singer squeezed in between the arbour and a hedge. 

Oliver and Cecilia looked around. Everything was lovely, but very small scale. Noreen skipped towards them with a young minister. “Mom, Dad. I know you must be surprised. But you’ll understand later. I really couldn’t have a big, showy wedding.”

“My little girl.” Oliver touched his daughter’s hair. He had lost the irritation again. “You know you are going to have to overcome this shyness of yours sometime. I was hoping that would be today.” How could she ever have considered being a lawyer if she couldn’t bear being the centre of attention? 

“Oh, Dad. Forgive me. Let me celebrate this day my way. Mom, Dad. This is Reverend Beasley.”

“But Reverend Carlson has always officiated at the services in this family!”

“I’m afraid he is not feeling well today.”

“We’ll see about that! I’m going to call him right ….”

“Oliver!” Cecilia took his arm. “Let’s not make a scene. Thank you for coming in his place, Reverend Beasley.”

Noreen flitted off to greet Ted, who had just arrived. Ted looked as perplexed at the attendance as Oliver, but Noreen ushered him to his place. “Quickly, now, Reverend Beasely has a funeral in an hour!”

The ceremony took exactly fifteen minutes, after which Noreen shooed everyone to the other side of the house, where some tables had been arranged around a make-shift dance floor. A three-piece band had just finished setting up.

Oliver felt faint and leaned on his wife for support, “A finger-food buffet!” he wheezed as he observed the table offering potato chips, olives and other scant snacks. 

“Come on, Dad!” Noreen bounced towards him as the band started up, “Let’s waltz!” She already had a champagne glass in her hand. Ted led Cecilia onto the floor to the cheers of the guests toasting glasses. No one had ever seen Noreen so lively. 

After two waltzes, the musicians fell silent, and the bridal couple took their places at the head table. The moment for speeches had arrived.

The guests took their seats and eyed each other nervously. Pam recognized Gabriel and Wendy, the couple from the cyber-café. She also recognized Rita Clanetti and her new husband, Eddie. And there was Paula and her husband! Did Noreen and Ted have no other friends?

Pam’s stomach twitched when Stewart got to his feet. What if he mentioned something she had said? What if he alluded to her? Curtis poured himself another glass of champagne and began clearing his throat. She knew he was nervous. She glanced over at Gabriel. He was shifting in his seat. Rita Clanetti stared fixedly at Stewart’s face, and Paula didn’t stop fanning herself and wiping her brow.

But Stewart’s speech was nothing more than a mundane list of office anecdotes – poking fun at Ted for little foibles like using the ladies’ room the first day at work and having mistaken his own future bride for a cleaning lady, followed by a tribute to Noreen’s virtues, “I will close now by congratulating my rival (haha), Ted, and by asking him to please care for her and honour her as she deserves. You are a lucky man!”

The guests burst into a round of applause and cheers, as much for the touching speech as for the great wave of relief that washed over them. As Oliver stood up to sing his son-in-law’s praises, Pam could feel the collective release of tension. 

Then Ted stood up to praise his father-in-law, and by the time Noreen opened her mouth, everyone was chatting and checking their cell phones. 

But people started paying attention when they heard their names mentioned. 

“I would like to say thank you to everyone here for helping me put my speech together.” She raised her champagne glass. “Pam, Curtis, Gabriel, Paula, Rita …” 

The chatter stopped, and the phones were put aside. What was she talking about?

Noreen

Noreen felt scared. Noreen almost always felt scared. When she met new people, she was afraid they would find her boring or stupid. Before some new challenge, she lay awake at night, fearing the worst. 

She had been scared in university, always feeling like an imposter. 

And at work, where colleagues waited for the boss’s daughter to screw up. 

And with men. Especially Ted. After he discovered she was not the cleaner, Ted’s attitude toward her took a dramatic turn. It acquired an intensity that both flattered and terrified her. 

The giggly airhead mask had served her as a child when a wide-eyed smile pacified an impatient father and from behind which, she could observe others, like Ted, in the moments when his own mask slipped. She often wished she could exchange it for another, but this was the one she believed she was stuck with. 

And today, Noreen was so spectacularly scared she felt giddy. Risking everything gave her a heady liberation. She found herself in that wonderful moment when you realize it is too late to stop what you have started, like jumping off a cliff. Just close your eyes and hope you land in a better place than where you jumped from. 

Noreen had always allowed herself to be pushed into corners. This time, she had literally smiled and giggled herself into one. It seemed easier to go along with things than to fight back, and there was always the chance that people would stop pushing. But the more she surrendered, the more was demanded until she feared for her own breath. This particular corner – marriage to Ted – was worse than being disowned, ridiculed, or left to fend for herself. 

But what could she do? Couldn’t just run away or stand at the altar and cry!

But crying was just what she had been doing that day not long ago, right here in this very garden, when her mother found her …

Noreen giggled at the surprised faces. “You see, I haven’t known my husband long, and I wanted to find out more about him before I took the plunge.” The group was silent. She had their attention. This had never happened before. It was seductive. 

And that day in the garden, Noreen confided her terror to Cecilia.

“My father wanted me to marry Ted because he was sure I wasn’t capable of running the firm.” She was sure of it too, but where had that certainty come from? Every day at the office, she was relieved when colleagues were entrusted with tasks she found overwhelming. And yet, they floundered too. Often, she would timidly point out a problem or offer a solution, but when she took Oliver or Ted aside to propose her ideas, they hardly listened. Now they all were! She spoke rapidly, so they wouldn’t lose interest and pull out their phones again.

And that day in the garden, she and her mother came up with a plan. Some daring ideas popped into Noreen’s head. And as Oliver well knew, his wife was known to be vengeful at times.

 “Well, Dad, I have done some investigating. You shall be the judge!”

Oliver stood up, “Noreen! You’ve had too much champagne!”

Ted tried to lead her into the house. The guests shifted and murmured. 

Curtis took a gulp of his drink and raised his hand. “Umm. Can I say something”

Noreen ignored him. “Our guests have obliged me well by confiding in our best man, Stewart.”

Stewart got to his feet, “What?”

“Thanks to Stewart’s emails, WhatsApp and chats, he discovered all sorts of fascinating information!”

“Noreen, I never … I don’t even like social media. How could I ….”

“Of course, you didn’t. I did! You don’t think they would tell me the truth, do you?” Stewart sat back down, his face a mix of admiration and fear. 

Noreen reached into her handbag for a roll of paper tied with a white ribbon and handed it to her father.

 Among other things, she had found Ted guilty of rape, wife abuse, and fraud. Once given the opportunity, everyone had spilled so much more information than she had hoped for, like they needed to cleanse themselves of everything Ted. 

“Thank you all.” Was this how the rest of the world experienced life? No worries about offending others or sounding pompous? Like a euphoric actress after a performance, she smiled and curtseyed. 

“I have found Theodore Falk to be guilty of a lot of things, but mainly just of being a jerk.” 

“Noreen! You’re drunk.” Ted shouted, white-faced. “Do something, Oliver!”

But Oliver was squinting at the pages. He raised an eyebrow at Ted.

“Let me see that!” Ted got up and tried to snatch the pages from him.

“Oh no, you don’t! Stewart, my boy, come take a look at this.”

The tension among the guests buzzed. Noreen, delicate fairy gone mad, reassured them, “This is, of course, a kangaroo court, the purpose of which was to show my father that he had made two mistakes.” She looked over at Oliver, expecting his wrath. He looked up from the pages, expectant.

“One, about my husband’s credibility, and two, about my professional abilities.”

Oliver chuckled and shook his head. “I sure underestimated my little girl.” He handed the pages to Stewart and gazed at Ted.

Ted glared at Oliver, then at Noreen. “If all of this was a farce to implicate me, why did you marry me?”

Noreen giggled. “I didn’t! Beasley is no reverend. He is an actor friend of mine. Thanks, Bease!” she waved. Everyone turned. No one had noticed Beasley behind them, now dressed as a waiter. Beasley had been her confidant since university when she had tried theatre to overcome her shyness. Beasley and his boyfriend, Sheldon, the violinist and caterer, had assisted with all the arrangements. 

Car doors slammed at the front of the house, and Bosco, the family dog, barked. Ted, Curtis, and several others tensed. “Oh!” Noreen trilled. “It’s five o’clock. That must be Reverend Carlson and the other wedding guests.” 

The guests gasped and murmured. 

Noreen had successfully shamed Ted. She had won the respect of her father. The last and most daring risk of the evening had arrived. If she screwed up here, all would be lost. But she had momentum on her side. That, and the encouraging smiles of Cecilia, Fiona, Beasley, Sheldon and Candy, her maid of honour. They had helped. With both weddings. The small one here in the side garden, and the larger one behind the pool. 

There was one more close friend whose face she sought out. 

Cecilia Wendell and Fiona Wallace had met in the ChitChat Café’s Thursday night book club. The two families soon became inseparable. They vacationed together, and Oliver had even given Stewart his first job. Noreen and Stewart acted like siblings. Although neither of them made a move, their parents wondered if the friendship might develop into romance. Of course, there had been one or two alcohol-induced indulgences the parents knew nothing about. Still, embarrassment caused the young people to feign forgetfulness.

All that changed when Ted appeared and blinded Oliver with his self-confidence. Who could compete with such charisma? 

And just about the time that Noreen confided in her mother, Stewart confided in his. And so, the final, most important touch was added to their plan.

 What a spectacular way to teach Oliver and Ted, those two puffed-up bull-frogs, a lesson!

Noreen took a deep breath, squeezed her eyes shut and blurted like a child on a dare, “Stewart Wallace, will you marry me?”


Anita Haas is a differently-abled Canadian writer and teacher based in Madrid, Spain. She has published books on film and music, two novelettes, a short story collection, articles, poems, and fiction in English and Spanish. Her fiction has appeared in some publications, including Falling Star Magazine, The Tulane Review, Literary Brushstrokes, The Zodiac Review, River Poets Journal, Scarlet Leaf Review, Terror House Magazine, Wink and Adelaide Magazine. She spends her free time watching films and enjoying tapas and flamenco with her writer husband and two cats.

Bon Appetit

By Gary Wosk

[In 1995, a prominent Los Angeles restauranteur disappeared. The following classified information was provided to the author of this story by a Los Angeles Police Department detective who requested to remain anonymous. To this day the case has remained unsolved. I have pieced together the following series of events. It is strictly conjecture on my part, but all signs point in this direction. I have also changed the names of the characters mentioned in the story to protect me from any possible lawsuits.]

“Undercooked!” blurted out Charles, the conceited owner of Restaurant Ombrelle, after spitting a half-chewed morsel of chicken onto his linen napkin at his employee’s home.

His host, Paul, a very well-known French chef who had served the dish, was stunned. He usually bit his lip when Charles complained, which was often, but he had crossed the red line this time. This was the ultimate insult as far as he was concerned.

Undercooked? Paul blared out incredulously. “What?”

“You heard me,” said Charles, a rotund man with an oily complexion and a bad comb-over. His nose became even upturned when his feathers were ruffled.

“This chicken is not completely cooked. Are you trying to make me sick?”

“C’este impossible. Comment tu m’unsult!” said Paul, a much slimmer man who wore a razor-thin mustache that rested just above his lip.

“Spare me zee French words,” said Charles mockingly.

“First, you impugn my reputation, and then you criticize my language,” said Paul accusingly. “How dare you.”

The ponytailed Paul wanted to slap his guest silly. Before he could raise his hand, however, he thought better of it. He didn’t want to spoil his new surprise dinner plans. Instead, he meekly asked for an apology even though rage simmered under his skin like a bowl of bouillabaisse.

“I believe you owe me an apology,” said Paul.

“Apologize. Ha. You should beg for my forgiveness for possibly infecting me with salmonella!”

The chef retorted, “For your information, the supermarket chicken is not undercooked. It has been cooked to perfection. And it cost only seven dollars and fifty-nine cents, plus tax, for a two-pound bird that looks like a small turkey. A bargain. There’s enough chicken to here to last a week, so you’re welcome to come back.”

“Supermarket chicken!” erupted Charles. “How dare you serve me this inferior poultry, you fool!” He worried that the ingredients that he had just regurgitated were impure and would cause permanent damage to his delicate gastrological system. “You idiot!”

“I wish you would not address me in that manner,” said Paul. He wanted to call him a gluttonous baboon but refrained; otherwise, the outburst could ruin everything.

“I’ll use any words I want. Remember, it was I who rescued you from the pancake house when you first came to America and only made minimum wage as a short-order cook. I put you through a French cooking school. I took a big chance on you. And this is how you repay me? With this rotgut? My God, I may have to go to urgent care.”

“Yes, my dear friend. I have never forgotten how you save me,” said Paul. He also hadn’t forgotten how Charles would make him work on his days off and dock his pay if diners were not one hundred percent satisfied with their meals or would go into a tirade if he served one morsel too much of food or if he was a few minutes late. And then there were the little digs. The slights that Paul that put up with.

“Obviously, you need a refresher course on how to thoroughly cook chicken,” Charles said in his typical condescending tone.

And back and forth, they went like a fencing match. One on offence, the other on defence. And this is how it usually went when Charles and Paul met before the order was restored by their level-headed wives. Fortunately, their spouses were out of town, thought Paul. Perfect timing. He had an axe to grind.

“Please, Charles. Calm down. Let’s stop the arguing,” said Paul, extending an insincere olive branch.

Instead of agreeing to a ceasefire, however, Charles lobbed another verbal grenade. “This is, how should I say, so bourgeoisie of you. I had expected your famous beef bourguignon, my favourite; however, you chose to serve me this commoner’s meal.”

“Remember, I told you I would be serving something different.”

“I did not expect this gamey abomination of a dish!”

“Everyone I know loves supermarket rotisserie chicken except you, it seems,” said Paul, infuriating his guest even more. You behave as if you are royalty, but you are not. And you know what I’m talking about.”

“Supermarket rotisserie chicken indeed! Was this prepared in a supermarket? Disgusting,” said Charles. You must be kidding. Wait to tell everyone I know about the great French chef who works at my restaurant. And how dare you threaten me.”

Paul decided not to back down.

“You expect to be treated like a gourmand, but you are not. You eat the pancake house, for God’s sake, on a regular basis. Wait, I tell everyone I know that your favourite meal is buttermilk pancakes drenched with butter and maple syrup. You are not the king of the finest cuisine. Touché.”

“Ah-ha, I see you are finally standing up to me,” said Charles, who was just as overly sensitive to criticism as Paul. “Perhaps you are not so meek after all. Good for you. Go ahead, get it all off your chest. It does not matter. You are finished. Or in your case, fini.”

Paul tried to dial it down a notch. He didn’t want Charles to storm out of the house, not now. He took a step back.

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“If you like, I can cook the chicken for another five minutes. And I will not ruin our reputation.”

“Five minutes? Try thirty minutes. One hour would even be better. Nice and crisp.” He proceeded to split open a leg with his knife and fork to reveal the pinkish meat. “You knew I prefer my chicken well done. You are an ignoramus.”

“I followed instructions on the plastic lid of the chicken,” insisted Paul. “Reheat for fifteen minutes.”

“I repeat. You are a fool. I meant it the first time, and I mean it now.”
Paul’s face turned red. “Absurd! How dare you come into my house and tell me the chicken I served is undercooked. You then tell me how long I should reheat it. And then this constant barrage of insults.”

“So, what are you going to do about it?” challenged Charles. “Unload on me again? Like I just said, you are finished. I must be on my way. I will mail you your final check.”

“I only said you were not the king of cuisine. Remember, we met at the pancake house. It wasn’t a royal house. You were eating there too and liking it.”

“Stop it already. You keep bringing that up.”

Paul realized the evening he had envisioned could suddenly end if he kept it up.

“I am very sorry that I offended your pallet,” he said. If you’d like, I can whip up a quick souffle.”

“That is quite all right. I have suddenly lost my appetite. Supermarket chicken!” Charles muttered as he stood up from the dinner table and walked toward the front door.

“Wait, Charles. Why don’t we retire to my wine cellar and talk this over? We’ll have a toast.”

“A toast to what?”

“The renewal of our friendship and working together,” said Paul in a fawning voice.

“I suppose now you’re about to cry.”

“Please, Charles. A drink. Let bygones be bygones. Like we always do.”

“I’m not sure about that. You nearly poisoned me and criticized and threatened me; however, if you insist, so be it. One last drink with a former friend and employee.”

“Ah, you have found some forgiveness in your heart,” said Paul, gently brushing his mustache with his thumb and index finger.

“Who said anything about forgiveness?” said the surely Charles.

“Now, if you please, follow me. In a while, you will forget about all of this senseless quibbling.”

“How, by numbing our senses with alcohol?”

“Something like that,” laughed Paul.
After descending the stairs, Paul flipped on the wall switch. Before them, in the middle of the wine cellar, was a long wooden table and benches surrounded by wooden wine casks and racks of bottled wine that reached nearly to the ceiling.

“Here, my friend,” said Paul. “Please, sit down and relax. I will find a rare, vintage wine, something suitable to your refined palate.”

“Perhaps I was too rash upstairs,” said Charles, rethinking what had seemed to be an unretractable stance. “How comical that we should argue over supermarket chicken.”

“But, Charles, everyone knows that you often fly off the handle. You have no filter, but that is quite all right; I am used to it. Again, all is forgotten, and I mean it.”

“Ah, again, taking a swipe at me, but maybe you are right.”

“I owe you an apology, my friend,” said Paul, in another gesture of goodwill. “The chicken was awful. I wouldn’t even feed it to my dog. He deserves better.”

Paul reached into the right-hand side pocket of his dinner jacket and delicately pulled out a small leather cigar holder. “I would like to offer you one of Cuba’s finest cigars. He opened the case. The Montecristo. Enjoy it.”

“I’m starting to like you again,” said Charles. “If you will do me the honour, please light my cigar.”

“I am honoured that you are beginning to like me again.”

Paul retrieved an old-fashioned silver lighter from the other pocket of his dinner jacket, pressed down on the lighter’s spark wheel. He then extended the tiny flame to the tip of Charles’ cigar.

“Ah, excellent,” said Charles after inhaling the tobacco. “Will you have one, too?”

“Yes, in a moment, but first, I will find the rare vintage wine that I keep locked away for special occasions like this.”

As Paul began walking down a long, dank corridor, he turned his head and smiled at his friend. “Oh, I see you have some company.” A humungous Swiss mountain dog weighing nearly one hundred forty pounds sat in front of Charles. Man and beast stared at one another.

“Charles, meet my friend, Geoffrey.”

The heavily built black, brown and red shaded dog whimpered and began to brush up against Charles, sniffing about and licked the shins that were not covered by socks.

“Damn it! Tell your dog to stop licking me,” demanded Charles as he wiped away at the thick layer of pasty slobber that was left behind by the drooling dog.

“That’s a sign that he likes you. Geoffrey, leave my friend alone. If you’re good, I’ll bring you a nice treat. I’ll be back soon.”

“Hurry,” grunted Charles.

After what seemed like an eternity to Charles because of the unwelcome attention he was receiving from the dog, Paul finally reappeared.

“I hope Geoffrey has been a good boy,” he said as he tossed an oversized milk bone to the dog. “Here’s your appetizer. I will feed you more soon. Don’t worry, my little baby.”

“Yeah, he’s been a good boy all right, passing his germs on to me. And his constant staring is quite unnerving.”

“He likes to stare. That means he’s sizing you up.”

“For what?”

“To decide if he wants seconds.”

“Seconds?”

“To taste more of you.”

“That is just preposterous,” rejoined Charles. “You and your dog are nuts.”

Paul looked at his dog and issued a command in a calm voice, and pointed. “Go sit over there and be a good boy. He began filling two crystal goblets with wine.

“Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux, 1962, only the best for you, Charles. There, please tell me what you think.”

Charles swished the dark liquid around his glass, placed his nose on the rim, then took a small professional sip. “This is exquisite. More please.”

“Yes, yes, as much as you’d like. Don’t be shy. We’re here to celebrate us.”

Charles and Paul lifted and clinked their glasses.

“Keep drinking, my friend,” Paul said encouragingly.

“Yes, fill my glass again.”

“I’m hungry. What’s for dinner?” said Charles in a slurred voice as inebriation and incoherency settled in. “Oh, yeah, we just ate. Supermarket rotisserie chicken. It was delicious. I love my meat raw now.”

“Have some more wine, Charles.”

“You’re the best friend and chef in the world. I’m going to give you a big raise.”

“Respect would have been good enough.”

“Respect. I respect you. Why would you say something like that?”

“You treat me like a greasy spoon fast-food cook.”

“Ah, you are so sensitive, my French cook. Okay. Okay. No more insults ever again. I promise,” said Charles before the glass slid from his hand and shattered on the concrete slab floor.

“Promises, promises,” said Paul to Charles, whose eyes were now completely closed.

“It’s too late.”

Just to make sure Charles stayed asleep permanently, Paul gave him a lethal injection he had concocted. When his body was completely limp, Paul laid him out on the table. He began removing Charles’ clothes so he could begin the process of marinating, which included such ingredients as the tomato-based Provencale sauce, garlic, shallot, butter, olive oil and dry white wine.

It took some doing, but Paul managed to lift Charles onto a gurney which he rolled toward his downstairs test kitchen. He turned to his dog. “Not yet, Geoffrey. Dinner will be served in about one hour. Braised short ribs, just the way you like it. Medium rare. Bon Appetit.”

{Paul bought Restaurant Ombrelle from Charles’ wife in 1998. He closed the restaurant in 2010 and turned it into an El Pollo Loco restaurant, where he occasionally helps out in the kitchen. As far as I know, no one has ever complained of undercooked chicken.}


Gary Wosk was raised in the Bronx and Los Angeles. Since graduating from California State University, Northridge, with a journalism degree, he has been a newspaper reporter, organization spokesperson and media relations manager. My Gym, They Are Here, Bezillgo Versus the Allerton Theatre, Bubbe to the Rescue, Flameout, On the Cover of the Rolling Stones, The Violation, Best Intentions, Sugar, Full Bladder, Typecast, Adrenalin Rush, Big Frank, Infirmary 909, Pearl, The Recliner, The Cabbie, Trini, The Raid, Executive Material, Tick-Tock, Scare Tactics and many of his other short stories have been featured in anthologies. Gary is a member of the California Writers Club. He lives in North Hills, California, with his wife, Mina, and an Australian Cattle Dog named Shelley. 

Our Kingdom Come

By David Leonard

Thankfully the privacy curtain blocked his daughter’s view of her hospital room’s doorway. Dave knew his wife had called her Priest; she was very active in the church and knew him well. Their daughter was not expected to live through the afternoon. In a fog of excruciating grief, he reluctantly arose from beside his only child’s bedside. He prevented the Priest from entering her hospital room. He knew the Priest was just doing his job offering prayers of salvation in their time of sorrow, but Dave didn’t share their faith, and he’d be damned if the Priest would administer Last Rites while she still breathed. No one was going to rob him of one minute of her life, which still remained. Just as the Priest was about to speak, Dave put his hand, open-palmed, directly in his concerned face. 

“Don’t say a single word, please. If you attempt to enter her room while she still breathes, I will throw you out and lock the door. It matters not to me that you are a Catholic Priest, for I do not believe you possess the only path to Heaven.” 

Both stared at each other for several agonizingly, long seconds before the Priest crossed himself, opened his Bible and softly prayed for them all.

Dave’s head was spinning from lack of sleep; why in the name of God was this happening to his beautiful teenage daughter, whom a mere three days ago was so full of life and energy she radiated happiness, lifting the spirits of everyone she came in contact with? This isn’t God’s will. God has nothing to do with life or death anymore. If he did, God would never allow children to be taken. Colleen called, snapping him back to the sorrow at hand. Heartbroken, he hurried back to his daughter, sliding his chair as close to her hospital bed as space allowed grasping her right hand in both of his. Her skin was cold, very cold, and though he briskly rubbed her hand and arm, it failed to warm in the least bit, as if life had already receded from her outer extremities.

         “Daddy, I’m scared,” his daughter cried, her eyes searching for help and hope in his.

         “Hey Dot,” he replied softly. It was the nickname he’d given her at birth from a big red spot pressed onto her forehead, the result of her trying to enter this world sideways in the birth canal. After 24 hours of labour, their doctor finally delivered her by “C” section. The operating room nurse quickly cleaned, then wrapped a small blanket around their daughter, showed her to Colleen, then handed him their tiny bundle of joy while the doctor finished with her mother. Dave gazed into his newly born daughter’s beautiful blue eyes as the nurse cut and tied her umbilical cord; without a whimper from the newborn child. Her little eyes locked on his for minute upon minute, as if in recognition. To Dave, she looked more like a miniature adult than a baby; her eyes conveyed intelligence and understanding. By then, the red spot on her head had faded, but the nickname stuck. “Dot, do you remember when we got Banjo, or more like when you picked Banjo out?” Banjo was the Golden Retriever puppy they took her to buy for her fifth birthday. “There were three puppies in a small pen. Two were jumping all-around your legs saying, pick me, pick me, and the third cowered in the corner of the pen, obviously scared and tormented by the other two. Of course, you picked him and didn’t let go until we got home. You two were inseparable from day one.”

She smiled at the thought; it was good to see his daughter smile again. “ I remember, Banjo was waiting for me. He needed me, Dad; Banjo was the best dog ever.” Dot said this with moist eyes; just the thought of her golden retriever filled their hearts with love. Her tears were drops of joyful memories.

“You know Dot, I’ll never forget the day your training wheels came off your bike,” Dave continued. “I watched as you rode down the driveway. I was also throwing the tennis ball to Banjo; big mistake. I threw the ball high so it would bounce high. You know how much he loved to jump up to catch the ball in the air. You came wobbling up the drive just as the ball came down right in front of your bike, when here comes Banjo flying through the air going straight for the tennis ball. BAMMM, you hit him as he flew by, throwing you over the handlebars into his side, and you both tumbled across the asphalt together. It was a miracle that neither one of you was seriously injured,” Dave said, smiling and shaking his head. Even though they had told and re-told this same story many times, they never tired of telling it or hearing it again. 

“I sure remember hitting Banjo and falling. I didn’t know it was you that set the collision in motion, Daaaad!” she replied. They both laughed. Only a story and memory of that loveable dog could make a dying child laugh, but it ended quickly.

“Why did Banjo have to die? Why Dad?” A tumour near his heart had killed Banjo last year, after eight wonderful years. 

“Why do I have to die, Dad? Why me? I don’t want to die. I’m scared, Dad,” Dot asked with the fear of fate returning to her eyes.

“Dot,” Dave asked his daughter. “What is ‘dog’ spelled backwards?”

It took her a few seconds, but she answered, “God, dog spelled backwards is God.”

“That’s right,” he said. “Banjo is waiting for us right now. And what’s our favourite thing to do together, you, me, and Banjo?” 

This she answered without hesitation. “Hike through Fatman’s Squeeze on our way up the bluff at Devil’s Lake State Park and eat lunch.”

“Well, we’re going there this afternoon. You just wait and see,” Dave said. “When the time comes, I’ll be there for you. We’re doing this together, Dot.” She laid there with her hair spread across the pillow, appearing angelic, in perfect peace. As they gazed into each other’s eyes, the room and everything in it seemed to disappear, their love radiating from each to the other. The sad thing was his daughter seemed to be growing more distant as if passing at this moment. “Mr. Lennon, can I have a word with you?” the Doctor interrupted as if time meant nothing. 

He hadn’t even heard the useless bastard enter, but at this moment, he never felt like hitting someone more, Dave disliked the Priest, but he hated the Doctor. It was only three days ago that they’d rushed their daughter into the hospital’s emergency room. She’d been running a very high fever that came out of nowhere, suddenly, in less than a day after returning from a free admission day at the Dell’s Best Waterpark. An immigrant from Liberia working in the Wisconsin Dells on a J-1 Visa, who was also an unwitting carrier of Meningitis, just happened to cough in his daughter’s face infecting her. But he blamed the doctor, who did almost nothing for the first, most critical 24 hours.

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“Mr. Lennon, you shouldn’t be filling her head with promises you can’t keep or fulfill,” he spoke softly as Dave walked up to him.

 Colleen came over as well; she had barely said a word to their daughter all day. For a mother, she didn’t handle pressure well. When their daughter needed her most, she couldn’t comfort her; there would be no tomorrow. 

“Listen, Doctor, I’m only going to tell you once, shut up and leave us alone, I mean it. When you have to watch your child die because some incompetent idiot did nothing but give her an IV of saline solution as a treatment for a serious contagious disease, you might have a far different opinion. If you so much as cough while standing here, I’m going to hit you so hard you’ll be opening the door to Heaven for my daughter, got it? After she passes, you and the other useless guy in the hallway can do what you wish; I’ll be puking in the bathroom.”

 Colleen grabbed his upper arm tightly to get his full attention. “Dave, control yourself, please, not here, not now, think of our daughter. They came to help,” she said, trying to diffuse the situation.

 Dave was upset with them all, the Priest, the doctor, and his wife. He felt betrayed by all three. He jabbed his finger at the inept Doctor and said, “He’s no help. When we needed him to be on his toes and play his best game, he failed miserably, doing as little as possible. No review of her symptoms, no testing, or even conferring with his colleagues. And the Priest is here to administer Last Rights. If he was truly here to help, he would be praying for a miracle cure.” Pointing at his wife, he said, “And if you DON’T agree with me, DON’T take sides, especially theirs.”  

With that said, he hurried back to his daughter’s side. What gives them the right to interfere negatively in someone else’s final moment? The useless doctor can replace a person’s heart but isn’t smart enough to know how not to injure one. The useless priest who can pray for and save your soul but can’t pray himself out of his own moral vacuum. The key to Heaven is this: The door’s not locked; it’s within reach of every one of us. You just need to know which way to turn. Of course, the entrance to Hell is also; they both use the same door; for one, you go in, the other out.

Colleen needs more comfort than their daughter Dave thought. She can’t handle their daughter dying so instead of giving her all the love she could, sharing their last minutes together, Colleen turned to the living for comfort, pathetic. 

Dave spoke softly to his daughter. He could see she was fading, her eyes were open wide, but she couldn’t see, her vision was looking in, Dot was moving on, glimpsing the afterlife. “Look for Banjo Dot. He’ll be there, darling, and wait for me.”

 Colleen cried in the doctor’s arms, not her family’s, but what did it matter. The smell of death permeated the room as Dot’s bladder released and tears trickled down both of her cheeks.

 “Daddy, where are you?” Dot cried softly as she slowly expelled her last breath. 

Dave hugged her body one last time, long and hard, as only a father could. He had to be strong now, stronger than he’d ever been before.

 “Hold on, Dot, wait for me and look for Banjo; he’ll be there,” Dave said, standing, his own tears streaked down his face as he looked at his wife for the last time. She stood there crying with her face cupped in her trembling hands. The Doctor closed Dot’s eyelids and shut her mouth; he also straightened her arms and legs so it would be easier to conduct an autopsy without having to break bones. The clueless moron could have at least waited until they were out of the room. The Priest had come into the room and stood on the opposite side of the bed from the doctor to give their daughter Last Rights. “I’m going to be sick,” Dave mumbled as he walked into the bathroom and gently shut the door behind him.

KERRR BAMMM!!!!! The gunshot sounded more like an explosion in the confines of the small, tiled bathroom as it echoed down the hospital’s hallways. Colleen screamed as the Doctor yanked open the bathroom door, and they both rushed in with the Priest close behind. Dave sat on the tiled, ceramic floor of the walk-in shower, his back rested against a plastic seat patients would use to sit on while washing. Behind his head, he had put towels to limit the gore and mess, then leaned his head back, put the gun in his mouth and blew the back of his skull and most of his brains against the shower wall. His blood and life slowly circled the drain between his legs on its final, dark descent.

“Why Dave, why?” Colleen cried, “We still had each other!” She was wracked in heaving, uncontrollable sobs and let the doctor lead her out of the bathroom. 

“Maybe we should move into the hall while I call for some orderlies,” the Doctor said softly, barely audible over the pious prayers of the Priest. Who spoke as if he had to say them quickly before Dave’s soul was dragged down the drain, beyond earshot, on his final descent to Hell.

Woof, woof, woof,” the excited bark of an extremely happy dog along with the click, click, click of nails on prancing paws could be heard coming down the hospital corridor towards Dot’s room.

 “What the Hell?” the Doctor said, looking about. “Dogs aren’t allowed in Intensive Care.”

 “Banjo,” Colleen sobbed in surprise. “That was Banjo, our daughter’s dog that passed away last year.” 

“OH MY GOD!” she cried out as she stared wide-eyed at her daughter, “Doctor, look!”

The doctor stared in disbelief as he slowly approached Dot’s bed, shaking his head back and forth. “This can’t be! I shut her eyes and mouth myself. She was dead; she is dead.” But there Dot lay, eyes wide open, crinkled at the corners with a large, full tooth grin upon her face.

Woof, woof, woof,” the dog barked again from inside their hospital room. The Priest hurried out of the bathroom where he had been giving Dave his Last Rights.

 “You shouldn’t have a dog in here; what’s going on?” he asked as he glanced around the room, not seeing one. His eyes then focussed on Dot laying in bed, and he crossed himself again. “Lord, why do you test my faith? Is not the door to Heaven opened by one’s belief in your only son Jesus Christ, not by the barking of some animal?” he questioned out loud.

 “No,” Colleen replied. “Just look at our daughter. It’s a miracle, oh my God, it’s a miracle!” There was genuine happiness in her voice, “Something wonderful is happening here, Father. “She stepped back into the bathroom to check out her husband’s expression and started to laugh through her tears. Dave’s eyes were wide open, and he was smiling broadly. If the back half of his head wasn’t missing, he could pass as someone who’d just won the lottery. Colleen couldn’t believe what was happening, something extraordinary. No, it really was a miracle if the priest believed it or not. She came back to her daughter’s bed wiping happy tears of love and fond memories from her cheek where the doctor was trying unsuccessfully to close their daughter’s eyes again. Colleen reached up and lightly touched his upper arm. “Please let her be Doctor. My daughter is most definitely in a better place. If you don’t think so, go look at her father in the bathroom, he couldn’t be happier.” 

“Hey,” Colleen cried, “Banjo just licked my hand. I knew he was here; that’s why Dot is smiling so broadly.” 

The Priest just couldn’t let that go. “That’s not possible; dogs don’t go to Heaven or return as Angels. The door to Heaven is opened through belief and faith in Jesus Christ. Your husband wouldn’t even let me pray for your daughter. Colleen looked closely at her Priest and saw a different man than the one she thought she knew. It was he who was having a question of faith.

 “Father,” Colleen said, “My husband DID NOT prevent you from praying for our daughter. He stopped you from giving her Last Rights while she still lived. He felt you should be praying for a miracle cure. You know Jesus can’t be the only key to Heaven’s door. What about the six billion non-Christians? Where do they go? And no animals in Heaven, I don’t believe it. God sent the only Angel a little girl would trust, her beloved dog. I think everybody deserving` go to their own Heaven; there are many doors, and love is the key, the Kingdom of God is within us all,” she scolded.

The Priest was muttering a silent prayer, but he answered Colleen quick enough. “Mrs. Lennon, they’re dead. They can’t go to Heaven on their terms; that’s out of the question,” he said. 

Today was tragic enough, but Colleen was convinced they were witnesses to a miracle. “Father, you can’t possibly mean that. Their smiling faces should tell you they are together with her dog Banjo. Who came today to accompany them to their Heaven. A Heaven they’ll share and be together in to do all their favourite activities. What’s happening here is special, something very special, and it’s happening before your very eyes,” she replied. 

The Priest seemed to think about what Colleen had just said, but he was just shaking his head slowly back and forth when he looked down at his hands. “What in the world?” he questioned, somewhat taken aback. “A dog just licked my palm; it’s actually wet.”

 “What did you just say?” the Doctor asked; his hand had been licked a moment before. 

 “Woof, woof, woof,” the dog barked again from just outside the hospital room door in the hall. The three of them just stared as the elevator button was pushed and its doors opened. 

“Woof, woof, woof,” as they closed, a dog barked one last time from inside the empty elevator.

 The priest mumbled: “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, as I am today. Whoever humbles himself will be exalted, as they just were.” 


David Leonard is a new, recently published author in Literary Yard with his story: Watchmen Of Perdition. He has written other short stories and a soon-to-be-completed novel.

Last Day on Earth

By Matthew Di Paoli

I realize at four AM that it will be my last day on earth. I sleep in. 

It isn’t just a feeling I have like when you’re about to lose something—your body prepares itself to be reduced, you brace. No, not that. It’s all over the news. The Service, they call themselves. They’re the ones who told me. I should never accept gifts from my parents. They’re always weird things like breadboxes and services that tell you when you’re going to die.

Cooper Adams will die at seven PM tonight. His family, who is vacationing in Italy, released a statement that they’re deeply disappointed in the news but added that it would, quote, not be in anyone’s best interest for them to fly back just for a few hours.

Mr. Adams could not be reached for comment.

My phone’s been ringing non-stop since the announcement.

A government-assigned therapist breaks through the crowd outside my door, shoved through by the Service officials. They slam the door behind him. He immediately sits down across from me. He digs himself into my couch that sits against the kitchen counter. I lean forward. He’s nodding, though he’s got this searching look like he’s trying to think of the name of an actor.

“What if I were to tell you this is the end? That The Service has never been wrong, and it’s really a gift. That you can do all the things, you’ve ever wanted to do today because really, there isn’t any tomorrow?”

I think about the concept that tomorrow doesn’t exist and how strange that is. Tomorrow has always existed. Maybe I took it for granted. “I guess I—”

“Tea Leone!” 

“What?”

“Sorry, that’s been bugging me all morning. Please continue,” he says with reassurance.

“Jesus, man. You’re a professional.”

“You know how it can be when you can’t think of an actor’s name.” He looks around as if someone else might hear him, and though bloggers and curious neighbours are banging on the door, there is no one else in the apartment. “You know how many of these I do a year, Cooper?”

I shake my head. “Seven?”

“Six. You’re the youngest yet. I mean, you think they’d give me a black hood or something.”

I don’t laugh. All I can think about is every second until tomorrow. The tomorrow that doesn’t exist. 

“Would you rather have a priest?” he whispers. “Some people prefer that.”

“What do most people do?”

The government therapist thinks for a moment. “This and that.”

“This and that? The fuck does that mean?”

“No need to take a tone, Cooper. We’re together on this. You and me.” 

He pauses for a moment, rethinking the question. He licks his parched lips with his dry, white tongue. I don’t offer him water. 

“Some of them spend the whole day with their families,” he says. “Some of them try heroin.”

“Do you have heroin?”

He clears his throat. “Anyway, you seem all set, so I’m gonna leave you to it.”

He stands up, and I stand up. I never realized how blue my apartment is. Blue curtains, blue walls, blue couch. I don’t even like blue. “Doctor, in case I don’t see you again—”

“You won’t.”

“I’m sorry about before.”

“We call it emotional Ebola in the business. All is forgiven.”

He opens my front door. The air behind the government therapist is electric. I can’t see past the flashes. Ten or fifteen people yell questions, held back by two Service officials. 

Do you feel any different than you did yesterday?

Will you wear a wire and tell us what God is like?

The government therapist does not face me. He stares out into the mob for dramatic effect, as he says this: 

“Whatever you do, don’t delve into the past.” He clicks the door shut behind him. 

I realize I’m the ideal celebrity. I’ll be gone tomorrow. 

I hear the ocean as I watch the blue curtains against the blue walls. I remember a young girl in an emerald dress leading me farther than I’d ever been. All we packed were root beer cans and cheese wheels with the red wrapper that peels away. I wonder now what would have happened if I kept following her. I remember the scent of seaweed on my ankles.

The thing about today is that you always assume it’s one today in a line of todays. 

I send out a Facebook message to all my exes.

As you may have heard, this is my last day on earth. Go figure 😉 I thought it might be nice to have a last supper with all the women who have ever loved me at 5. I realize it’s early for dinner. Perhaps you can tell some nice stories about me. Please hold back on any negativity, as you will have the rest of your lives to criticize me starting at 7 PM. I’ll be hosting at my apartment as the deatharazzi are out in full force. Please respond either way.

I feel that the winky face emoticon is important because you have to maintain some semblance of levity in situations such as these.

It’s 2 PM. I FaceTime with my parents. They’re the ones who signed me up with The Service in the first place. A thirty-fifth birthday present. My father said it was a financially prudent decision. Insurance companies love it. My mother and father struggle to fit their large faces into the frame. They look plumper than when they left. My mother is wearing a new scarf. It’s blue and gold with tiny red flowers.

“So, how’s Italy?” I ask.

“So beautiful, honey! We wish you could be here,” says my mother. 

“Yeah, well, you know.”

“You look a little wan,” says my mother. She’s loved using that word ever since she won an electronic Scrabble game with it. 

“Have you been drinking water?” asks my father.

“Not really,” I say.

“Well, when you’re about to die, they say it’s very important to drink water.”

“Your father’s right,” says my mother. That’s her mantra. I think she chants it before going to sleep. I think she writes it thousands and thousands of times in her journal like a serial killer. 

Your father’s right. Your father’s right. Today I will kill John F. Kennedy.

Her dyed, purplish hair is blowing in what looks like a warm Mediterranean breeze.

“What does it smell like there?” I ask.

My mother looks puzzled. She cedes to my father. 

“Bluish,” he says. “Like the ocean, sort of.”

My mother nods. She doesn’t need to say it. He is right.

“Well, honey, we wanted to catch you before the tour bus leaves,” she says.

“Thanks. Hey, listen—”

An older woman walks into view. “Is that your son? Oh, he’s darling. It’s really too bad. Hello!”

“Aren’t you scared?”

I wave into the black eye of the camera.

He looks a little wan, she says to my mother, thinking I can’t hear.

“Well, listen, Bucko, the bus is here,” says my father. He yawns in a way that always meant it was time to go. I remember fearing those yawns on Christmas Eve. One in the morning. There’s something magical about that time when you’re young, like how the air changes as you reach the summit of a mountain.

“Goodbye,” says my mother.

“Goodnight, kiddo,” says my father.

The screen goes blank. I shut my laptop. The only sounds are the shuffling of the deatharazzi’s feet outside my door. I almost want to let them in. Have them tear me apart limb from limb like some fallen god. 

Sorry folks, I’m saving my left kneecap for the funeral, but the rest is up for grabs.

We only really wanted the left kneecap, I can hear them say.

We always want the kneecap we can’t have.

I taste the passage of time on my lips like chlorine. There’s a sort of freedom to it. I think back to the sound of wind running through glass, sitting at a café somewhere in the south of France. It sounds romantic, but I remember being very cold. It had rained, and the cold water from the chair-back soaked through my shirt turned it dark. I didn’t say a word. I shivered, and later she dropped her green dress. We bathed together like mother and child.

She was older then. She’s younger than I am now. I feel the smooth beach glass on the soles of my bare feet, seaweed up to my knees. 

There is a strange man in my window. He’s holding a photograph of me. I’m not afraid. I’ve still got time. He’s standing on the fire escape, so I open up the window.

“Can I help you?”

He’s sweating, waving this glossy 5×11 of me. “Dude, it’s an honour to meet you.”

“How did you get up here?”

“You should see what it’s like out there. Haven’t you ever wanted to be a celebrity?”

I always wondered what it would be like to be one of those people you recognize but can’t place. You don’t know my name; I’m anonymous, but we have this connection. The sky behind the man on the fire escape is extremely blue. I can almost see past it. I trace the outlines of stars like paper cutouts. 

“Not really,” I lie.

“Would you sign this for me?”

I take the glossy photograph and the Sharpie he hands me. It’s strange staring at myself. I don’t remember ever taking that photograph. I look older. Maybe years older, like a projection of something I could have been. 

“Would you sign it ‘To Devin’?”

“Yeah, no problem, Devin.” I sign the photograph. 

To Devin,

Hang in there.

Yours,

Cooper

I hand it back to him.

“Oh, my name’s not Devin. Thanks, though.” The photograph flutters in the shaky wind as he shimmies back down the red fire escape and out of view. I shut the window and lock the little black brackets.

I thought the day would fly by, but it’s interminably slow. I’ve never really liked dinner parties, and I don’t know why I’m having one now. I always feel awkward eating in front of people. There’s an old Spanish film where the guests eat in the bathroom, and they shit at the dinner table—pants around their ankles, yucking it up. I always think about that every time I’m at a dinner party. There’s nothing social about eating. It’s a solitary act. I might as well just take a big dump in the middle of the table.

This is the part of the story where I get up in front of everyone and scream.

Haven’t you ever wanted to do that? A girl asked me that once. She asked me if I’d ever had the urge to get up in the middle of a crowded auditorium and scream at the top of my lungs?

I said, “All the time.” 

There’s something about a mass of whispering people that makes me want to shake the foundation of the building until it cracks. What keeps them all subdued? Does every single one of them have the exact same impulse? Maybe when I die at 7 PM tonight, everyone will stand up and scream, and I’ll miss it. It’s funny that my biggest regret hasn’t happened yet. Maybe funny isn’t the word.

Dani is the first to arrive. She’s early. It’s only 4:30. She’s holding a little red package wrapped in a gold bow. She has to fight through the deatharazzi, all snapping photographs of me as I open the door. I let The Service officials know it’s ok. 

“I’ll be expecting about six more of them,” I say.

“Yes, sir.”

As I close the door, I hear one Service guard say to the other, “What do you want to do after?”

I take the little red present and invite her in. “You didn’t have to. Really it’s a waste of money. I guess you should just take it home with you after.”

“You don’t even know what it is yet,” she says.

Her brown hair is short, shorter than I ever remember it being. She’s never had good skin, but there’s something about her that makes me want to lie down. 

“That’s true.” I untie the bow and tear open the red wrapping paper. It crinkles in my hand. All these little confetti candies inside sift to the floor like flour.

“They’re Indian. The second time we went out. Remember?”

I do remember. She took me to this gross little vegetarian Indian restaurant, and we ate tan sauces. Afterwards, they had these little spiced confetti candies that you could hardly hold in your hand. 

“Thanks,” I say. 

Afterwards, we drank wine on the fire escape. She introduced me to a band that became my favourite band. I wouldn’t make love with her because she had a boyfriend back in California who kept trying to call her. “You still with him?” I ask.

She holds up her hand. There is a tiny gold band on her finger. I remember the way she tasted, sweet and sunny.

“Why’d you come?”

“You asked me to, I guess.” She sits down on the blue couch. I sit next to her and watch the last of the sun through dirty, ice-burnt windows. I can tell it’s cold from the stilted way people walk and how the trees won’t bend.

The rest of my exes come in quick succession, almost exactly at five. It’s kind of disheartening to know they could have been on time all along. There’s Dasha. She was my first. She’s Russian and strawberry blonde, and though she’s put on some weight, maybe from a baby (I don’t ask), I can still see that high school girl in her plaid skirt. I remember how exciting it was, knowing I could reach under at any time. Knowing that, she knew it.

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It’s almost as if I’m not there when I open the door. I realize I’m doing exactly what the government therapist told me not to do. The deatharazzi scream. They’re vicious with anticipation. I feel their voices in my chest. The flashes render me paper-thin. There can’t be much left of me now. 

The two Kates come in next. They never knew each other or that I dated them successively. I’ve always been secretive about my previous relationships up until this very moment. They’re both blondes. Kate 1 is a bit mousy, petite. She has these incredibly small lips that make her look like she’s always just eaten a Sour Patch Kid. Kate 2 is taller, curvier, confident. She’s wearing the same short sequined dress she wore once on my birthday. The kind of dress for special occasions. She broke up with me the day after. We had this whole mystery about a bunch of deer tails at my grandfather’s house. Later I solved it without her. 

I’ll pay your family fifteen thousand dollars if I can advertise on your coffin.

Tell me everything when you come back.

They’re chanting now. It’s getting hard to tune out. I hand Dani my phone and ask her to put some music on. She chooses exactly what I thought she would. You’d think of all things I wouldn’t want predictability right now, but I do.

I remember sitting on a rock in Central Park with an actress. I can’t remember what color her hair was. And she’s here. She’s pale and brunette and wearing these tall Italian leather boots. She kisses me on the cheek. 

There are hundreds of people outside my apartment. On the metal stairs and holding candles. They’re just waiting. I try to sympathize with them. I try to say that I would do the same thing, but the truth of it is I wouldn’t. I think they’re monsters.

The Service security increases. They make way for the fire marshal. 

“This whole building is unsafe. Why, if I were to light this hallway on fire right now, you’d all melt here like a bunch of wax dolls,” says the marshal.

He lights a match, and the horde goes silent, observing the flame as if at the end of a fuse. 

“You Cooper Adams?” he asks. His chest is so broad I’m not sure how there’s room for the rest of him.

“Yes,” I say. I remember the girl in the green dress and the smell of burning hair in the sand. Behind the fire marshal, I see Yulia and Melanie. The Service is detaining them. “I know them,” I say, but the crowd is in an uproar now that the flame has extinguished.

“Do you realize that this is exactly how the Great Chicago Fire was started?” says the fire marshal.

I’m trying to see past him, but his massive body is pushed up against mine. 

“I thought a cow started that.”

“That’s what everybody thinks,” he snarls. “This—” He’s so beside himself it’s hard to form words. He’s spitting as he speaks. “This is a powder keg of flesh. This is a flesh powder keg!”

“Excuse me,” I say. I usher in Melanie and Yulia. Melanie is married now. She makes it very apparent in all of her Facebook photos and tweets, and emails. Her response to my message was:

Dear Coop,

I’m so sorry to hear about this, especially the way it was splashed all over the news. I know you like the hard things to be private. I’ll be there tonight, just like I always was. I remember when you carried sangria in the snow and how we found that garden filled with Faberge eggs in Rome. I remember how much it hurt the last time. You just handled it all so badly. See you at five 🙂

Condolences,

Mrs. Melanie Fisher-Lambert

I loved her the most. That’s why she’s hurting me. No one should be allowed to have two last names.

I’m about to close the door when the stripper-ex shows up. I always felt guilty for how I ended things. I bought this expensive bottle of perfume for her when I was in Rome. She always wore this sort of standard stripper strawberry body spray. Not that I didn’t like it, it just always reminded me that I was dating a stripper. I wonder now if people thought I paid for her. Let them.

I ended up giving the perfume to the actress. That was at the end and the beginning. I remember her name, of course, but in all my stories, I always referred to her as “the stripper.”

Russian, blonde, thin frame, beautiful. Beautiful smile. When we first met, she had this way of taking her tongue and moving it all around my mouth as if searching for something. It was as if she’d never kissed anyone before—a childlike exploration. 

“You look nice,” I say. 

The fire marshal is yelling at one of my neighbours and her dog, Josh.

“Your dog will be a pound of flesh!” he says.

The room fills with strawberries. 

“I want to see you go,” she says. Her English is a little better than the last time I saw her, but she’s still carrying a little pink translator disguised as a cell phone.

The girls all talk to one another. I wonder if they’re talking about me. It’s already getting a little crowded in my small blue apartment. There’s nowhere for me to sit. The Kates touch each other’s hands as if transferring memories.

The door swings open. It’s the actress. She kisses me briskly on the cheek. She’s wearing the perfume. The room is a potpourri of old affection. I can’t believe how living I feel.

The fire marshal directs traffic in the hallway. The Service keeps guard. The neighbours speculate.

Is he making pasta for a last meal?

How lazy.

Josh, the dog, sniffs women’s crotches in the hallway. I remember my own dog. I found him on a bus. He was a good dog. Not really a “good dog” by other people’s standards, but I liked him a lot. He loved chasing Ping-Pong balls around the apartment, but I had to stop because the neighbours complained. I never complained about their sounds. It seemed unfair.

Before The Service can close the door, the dancer shows up. The stripper, the dancer, and the actress. I acknowledge my clichés like a fairy tale. I hardly knew her. I’m touched that she remembers me. They’re piling in. There won’t be enough pasta for all of them. Will I have to choose between them? The thought is terrifying.

“Are you trying for some kind of Fellini thing here?” asks Yulia from the blue couch.

“I hadn’t thought about it,” I say.

“Yes, you have. I know you have,” she says.

“You did always love Fellini,” says Melanie, spinning the wedding ring on her finger. 

“Why didn’t we ever watch any Fellini,” asks Kate 1. She’s perched on the windowsill like a starling.

“I don’t remember,” I say. “I tried to do everything I could.”

Dani opens a bottle of wine and pours a glass for herself. 

The actress glares out of the peephole into the camera flashes like a kaleidoscope. “How many do you think are out there? I think I saw someone from The Daily News.”

Melanie is looking through an album she made of us when we were travelling abroad. She lingers on each photo. I can tell she remembers now. We never got it right. I see it in her eyes.

“Aren’t you scared?” she asks me, not looking up, knowing I was there as she always had.

“Doesn’t matter, I guess.”

“Yes. Not of this, though. Not of this.” The camera flashes wriggle under the door, further and further into the room. Metallic blue. I feel them inside my flesh.

“Do you remember that terrible Russell Crowe movie that you loved?” asks Melanie.

I remember it. Of course, I remember it. It had the greatest line I’d ever heard: “The lesser of two weevils.”

She laughs because it’s one of those things that’s only funny if you love someone.

“I don’t know what it’ll be like if you’re not there,” she says.

“I think I know what you mean.” I want to kneel down and touch her small dry hands, but I remember the ring. It’s glowing now. 

She looks around the room at the fluttering curtains. There is no breeze. “Has it always been this colour in here?”

“As long as I can remember,” I say.

There’s a knock at the door. It’s getting late. My exes all grow silent as if it might be someone to take me away—as if there is something supernatural in all of this, but I’m not that special.

I miss my life.

It’s the government therapist at the door. The pasta boils, salty foam leaking over the sides of the pot.

“I thought you said I’d never see you again.”

“I’ve been wrong before,” says the government therapist. “Time to go, everyone. Cooper needs his privacy for his final moments.” He directs all of my exes out of the room. They don’t protest. Melanie touches my hand. Yulia kisses my cheek. No one wants to watch it happen. They’re relieved they don’t have to.

I’d left them all before they could become real, or they left me. That’s their magic. What if we never saw fat, Elvis? They’re apparitions. Each one of them carries a fragment of my story as she leaves—something only she could know. 

The deatharazzi swarm around the women, the actress strikes a pose and smiles as she files out of my apartment. Her heels click as they flow down the metal staircase pretending to shield her face.

The stripper furiously translates what the deatharazzi shout at her on her phone.

How much for one night?

Can you ask him if he remembers the girl in the green dress?

Does he prefer Sting or Alice Cooper?

One by one. 

Yulia slips one of the deatharazzi her business card.

Melanie looks back.

Dani swirls her red wine in the air and screams all the way down the stairs. Sugary confetti trails her hair like a veil.

The Kates hold hands. They are united, finally, as one Kate.

One by one, they’re gone. 

The government therapist takes out a pack of Marlboro Reds, offers me one. I hesitate.

“I don’t smoke either,” he says.

I take one, and he lights it. The room fills up blue. I think of my mother trying to decide between the gnocchi and the fish.

Do you think it’s safe here?

Italian fish are known for their restorative powers.

You’re right. I’ll have the snapper.

I’m sharing a cigarette with a stranger, and I’m so happy he came back. It’s funny all the things you don’t do because you’re afraid they’ll kill you one day. Smoking, amphetamines, community theatre. I don’t want to be alone.

“It doesn’t seem right, does it?” It feels like the water’s up to my chest. It’s crushing me. I remember looking out over the ocean at night and wondering if anything could ever be darker. The surf on coffee waves. Yellow lights in the distance. Tomorrow never really existed in the first place. I wonder what would’ve happened if I followed her.

I taste smoke and saltwater. The sky is blue through the curtains. It’s morning everywhere but here.

“I’m not even sure why I’m here,” says the government therapist. “There was something you said that really stuck with me.

“What was it?”

He’s taking these really long desperate drags and spewing out corkscrew tails of gray smoke. “Doesn’t matter, I guess.”

The space underneath the apartment door floods with false light.

This is the part of the story where I die.

I feel like my story is disjointed. I grip the seaweed on my neck. I taste salt. The room is so blue I can’t stand it anymore. Blue floors and blue ceilings. I can still go back and change things. Tomorrow has never existed. This isn’t the end. 


Matthew Di Paoli has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times, including in 2020. He has won the Wilbur & Niso Smith Adventure Writing Prize, the Prism Review, 2 Elizabeth’s, and Momaya Review Short Story Contests. Matthew earned his MFA in Fiction at Columbia University. He has been published in Boulevard, Fjords, Post Road, and Cleaver, among others. He is the author of Killstanbul with El Balazo Press and teaches English to at-risk high school students in New York City. Find him on Twitter and Instagram.

How I Got Me Some Standards

By James Hanna

Hi there. My name is Toby Dawes, and I don’t make too good an impression. I live on a small farm in Putnam County, which is in the middle of Indiana, and I been working at the Hillsdale Hog Farm since flunking out of high school last year. Now I’m real good at snagging buffalo catfish and shooting brown rats at the county dump, but Ma says them skills ain’t enough to get me ahead in life. She said to me, “Toby, in a coupla months, you’re going to be twenty years old. If you expect to make something of yourself, you’re going to need higher standards.” 

Well, I thought my standards were pretty good when I asked Brandi to marry me last year. Brandi she’s the prettiest whore in this cathouse in Michigan City—that’s where Pa took me for my seventeenth birthday ’cause he was tired of me swiping his porn books. Pa was hopin’ I’d leave them books alone if I got some mud for my turtle, so he drove me all the way to Michigan City so I could pop my cherry. I never shot no load in Brandi—I came while she was washing my johnson—but Brandi she covered for me ’cause she thought I was a real sweet boy. She told Pa I was a helluva cocksmith and that I made her cum three times, and Pa he patted me on the back and said, “That’s my boy!” 

Now Brandi and I been texting each other, but that stopped ’bout a month ago. That’s ’cause I asked Brandi to marry me, and Brandi she lost her temper. She said she would give me a bargain rate if Pa wanted to buy me another hour, but she weren’t gonna marry no bumpkin who made a living slopping hogs. Well, my life is kinda lonely now ’cause I don’t have no pussy in it. All I do is work at the hog farm, slopping hogs and shoveling shit, and most nights I sit in our living room with Pa and watch Wrestlemania. I get paid pretty good at the hog farm—more ’an three hundred dollars a week—but most of the money I give to Ma to pay for my room and board. That don’t leave me much money to have no social life, but I do walk over to Flakey Jake’s when Saturday night rolls around. Flakey Jake’s is this dive bar that’s just half a mile from my home, and I go there every Saturday night and have me a Michelob draft.

“I ain’t used to that kind of floggin.”

Now that you know somethin’ about me, I’m gonna tell you this story. It’s about how I got me some standards so I could do better in life. One Saturday night, I was sittin’ in Flakey Jake’s drinking a Michelob draft, and this woman I never seen before came walkin’ into the bar. The woman she had on a tight black dress that rode real high on her legs, and she was wearing a pair of stiletto pumps that looked sharper than paring knives. Her hair was brown with lotsa white threads and her tits were as small as apples, and her face had so many pockmarks that it looked like she’d lost a fight with a cat. She hadda be about fifty years old—which made her older ’an Ma—but I felt my willie expanding ’cause my standards ain’t too high.  

Well, the woman came right up to the table where I was drinking my beer and she said, “Hon, is this seat taken?” and my heart it started thumpin’. Before I could answer, she sat down beside me and patted me on the wrist. She said, “Hon, my name is Eve and I could use some company. My boyfriend is on the road tonight and won’t be back until tomorrow morning.”

I told her I weren’t too good at making conversation, but that I was a hell of a cocksmith and a hooker could vouch for that. I told her that I’d made this whore in Michigan City cum three times.

The woman she just clucked her tongue. “Sure, you did,” she said. All the time she was talkin’ to me, she kept checking out the bar like maybe she was hoping Brad Pitt would come walking through the door. But there weren’t nobody else in the bar ’cept Flakey Jake himself, and Flakey Jake he’s a big greasy dude who don’t look sexy at all. 

The woman said, “Tell me more about yourself, hon,” and her eyes kept searching the bar.

I told her my name was Toby Dawes and I worked at the Hillsdale Hog Farm, and that I was fond of shooting brown rats at the Putnam County Dump. I told her I was a real good shot and hardly ever missed.

The woman she pursed her lips like I’d put a bad taste in her mouth. “Do you mind if I call you Jackson,” she said. “You look like a young Jackson Brown.”

I told her it didn’t make no sense for a dude to have two last names, but that I wouldn’t have no objection if she wanted to call me Jackson.

The woman she squeezed my hand, and her nails bit my knuckles like red ants. “Maybe you should object, honey,” she said, and her voice it got real testy.

I told her I don’t object to much because I don’t have very high standards, and the woman she got even testier and let go of my hand. She said, “In case you haven’t noticed, hon, I’m a pretty attractive chick.”

Well, the woman was starting to scare me some, and I felt myself starting to sweat. Whenever I get nervous, I sweat like a pig in a slaughterhouse. And it didn’t help matters none when the woman took an iPhone out of her purse. “Let’s pose for a selfie,” she said, and that creeped me out even more. 

But since I don’t object to much, I said that would be okay, and she put her chin on my shoulder and snapped a photo of us. “Honey, don’t look so shocked,” she said as she put her iPhone back into her purse. “If you like, I’ll make a copy for you. You can tuck it under your pillow. You look like the kind of boy who would like a racy photo under his pillow.”

When I told her I already had lotsa racy pictures under my pillow, the woman she just yawned like a catfish gulping a minnow. I thought she was gonna get bored with me quick since I weren’t makin’ much conversation, but the woman she leaned back in her chair and started talking nonstop. She told me she worked part-time at this funeral home where she made cadavers look sexy, and that she’d recently served two years in state prison for possessing powdered meth. She told me she’s now shacking up with a fella who cheats on her all the time—a dude who’s an interstate trucker with a woman in every state. She asked me if I wanted to know how she met him ’cause that’s a kinky story, and since I ain’t got no standards, I didn’t object to that neither. So she told me the dude contacted her on her website a coupla months ago ’cause he liked this selfie she’d posted where she was nude in a tub fulla Jell-O.

I said I was real fond of Jell-O when it’s covered with Readi Wip, and the woman she just snorted and said, “Hon, you’re missing the point.”

I said Readi Wip oughta be the point ’cause it tastes better ’an vanilla ice cream, and the woman she asked me to pay attention because she had something important to say.

“He’s the jealous type, hon,” she whispered. “You don’t want to mess with him. If I showed him that picture of us together, he’d punch you right in the nose. He’d hunt you down, wherever you are, and punch you right in the nose, then he’d beat me good and proper and take away my car.”

“You don’t gotta show him that photo,” I said. “That way you can keep your car.”

The woman she kinda blushed and said, “How about we bargain, hon? How about you come home with me and I won’t show him that photo?”

Well, that sounded like a real good bargain, so I didn’t express no objection. ’Cause gettin’ some mud for my turtle was better than gettin’ punched in the nose.

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The woman she held my hand while she walked me out to her car, and her fingernails dug into my palm and they were sharper than catfish spines. Her car was a Ford Fiesta, and it had some dents in it, and it took her a coupla minutes to dig her keys out of her purse. 

Once we was seated in the car, she put her hand on my knee. “Buckle up, Jackson,” she told me. “We’re in for a bumpy ride.”

The woman she drove with only one hand—her other one was grippin’ my knee—and the car it swayed like a drunk on skates as we rolled down Route 231. This Jackson Brown song called “The Great Pretender” was blarin’ from her CD, and the woman she kept singing along and she didn’t miss a word.   

Before the song was over, she pulled onto this narrow dirt road, and the road was fulla potholes and the woman musta hit every one. And every time I bounced in my seat, she gave my knee a squeeze, and her fingernails gripped me so hard that it felt like my leg was caught in a bear trap.

When we pulled up in front of this beat-up house, she let go of my knee. She said, “Keep the door shut once we’re inside, Jackson. I don’t want the cats to escape.” 

Well, I weren’t in no particular hurry to follow her into the house, but my johnson it kept expanding like it had a plan of its own. So I unbuckled my seat belt, got out of the car, and followed her into the house. The living room looked kinda cluttered ’cause there were cats all over the place, and the pissy smell of litter boxes hit me like a truck.

“Would you like something cold before we get started?” the woman said with a smile.

“Do you still got that Jell-O?” I asked her.

The woman she made a face and said, “Let’s try to stay focused, Jackson. Take off your clothes and lie down on the couch. I’m going to fetch the worms.”

The woman walked into this kitchenette and I heard her open a fridge, and since I don’t object to much, I shucked off my shirt and pants. “Don’t move a muscle,” the woman called out as I lay down on the couch. “I’m going to be very cross with you, hon, if you don’t stay as still as a statue.”

She was holding a carton of fishing worms when she returned to the living room, and she dumped a handful of ’em into her palm and sprinkled them on my chest. Well, I weren’t particularly partial to them wigglers on my chest, but since I don’t object to much I lay as still as a stump. 

“Don’t move a muscle,” the woman repeated. “I’m going to freshen up,” and she sashayed outta the room while I lay real stiff on the couch. Well, I wanted to brush them worms to the floor but that wouldn’t a been polite—Ma she always told me that you gotta show women respect. But I weren’t perturbed when some of them cats hopped up on the couch ’cause them cats they gobbled the worms offa me like I was a Bob Evans buffet.

When the woman returned to the living room, she looked like Frankenstein’s bride. Her hair was piled up on top of her head, her eyes were smeared with mascara, and she was wearing this long white dress that puddled at her feet. She was making this creepy, moaning sound as she hobbled in my direction—her voice was so deep that it seemed to be coming from the bottom of a well.

Well, I didn’t want to upset her ’cause she already looked wicked enough, so I lay as still as a road-killed buck as she ran her hands over my chest. After a while, she spoke to me and her voice sounded fulla gravel. “Act as though you’re asleep,” she said. “I don’t want you looking at me.”

Now I kinda wanted to leave the house and go back to Flakey Jake’s, but I didn’t have no permission to get off of the couch. But I opened my eyes when she suddenly told me she had a job for me. She said she needed some punishing before we got down to sex.

Well, next thing I knew she was standing above me with a cat of nine tails in her hand. “Flog me, Jackson, flog me,” she said, and her voice was still gravelly and low. “Flog me good and proper then I’ll cover you with dirt.”

“I ain’t used to that kind of floggin,” I said and I sat up on the couch, and I kinda hoped I could get out the door without letting no cats escape. I had pretty much decided that things couldn’t get no worse, but that weren’t a consolation for long ’cause things got a whole lot worse quick. I heard the sound of a truck pulling up outside front door then I heard this booming voice shout, “Baby, it’s Jell-O time!”

“It’s my boyfriend!” the woman cried, and she sounded more excited than scared. “He’s come home early, Jackson. He’s gonna kill us both”

“Maybe the dude had it coming to him…”

Since I still didn’t have no permission to get up from the couch, I just sat in my tighty whities while the woman opened the door. I could hear her talking with someone, and they was talking loud, then the biggest fella I ever seen came lumbering through the door. He looked kinda like Hulk Hogan but his face was sorta blank, and the dude he folded his beefcake arms and said, “How’s it hangin’, son?”

Well, my pecker was as slack as a bag of oats ’cause I weren’t feeling horny no more, but I didn’t think it would be good manners to mention something like that. So I told him my name was Toby Dawes and I worked at the Hillsdale Hog Farm, and that I’d be real partial to havin’ some Jell-O with him.

The fella he said, “Excuse me, sonny. I would like to talk with Eve.”

He took the woman by the arm and led her into what musta been the bedroom. She was panting as she followed behind him, but she didn’t look scared at all. 

After a coupla minutes, the woman came outta the bedroom. She had taken off her long white dress and was wearin’ just her panties and bra, and she sat on the couch beside me and whispered in my ear. 

“He wants to watch us, Jackson,” she said, and her voice was as husky as corn. “He said he won’t punch you in the nose if we’ll let him sit there and watch.”

“Does this mean we ain’t getting no Jell-O?” I said.

The woman squeezed my pecker so hard that one of her nails broke its skin. She said, “Jackson, please pay attention. I’m not going to let him join in. That louse has women all over the country, so he’s got this coming to him.”

Maybe the dude had it coming to him, but I weren’t in no shape to perform. My chub felt as poor as a drownded worm that was stuck on a fishing hook. And since there weren’t no sense in hanging around to collect me a punch in the nose, I snatched up my clothes and jumped off the couch then jerked the front door open.

“Now you’ve done it!” the woman cried as I stumbled out onto the porch, and she started to howl like a thievin’ dog that caught its paw in a trap. Well, I bolted as fast as a gut-shot stag, so I ain’t sure what got her upset, but I had real strong suspicion that some of them cats got out.

“I guess I shoulda paid for that beer steada standin’ there proud as a lord…”

I ran down Route 231 for a spell then I stopped and put on my clothes. There weren’t nobody chasin’ me, and I suspected that no one was gonna, so after I zipped my fly up and tucked my shirt back in, I strolled on over to Flakey Jake’s and ordered a draft beer at the bar. 

Flakey Jake he gave me a big thumbs-up ’cause he thought I had scored me some cooze, and I told him that woman was hurting so bad that I made her cum three times. Flakey Jake drew us both a beer and said mine was on the house, then he raised his mug above his head and offered me a toast. I guess I shoulda paid for that beer steada standin’ there proud as a lord, but at least I had me some standards now and I felt real good about that.


James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. His has been published in over thirty journals, including Crack the Spine, Sixfold, and The Literary Review. His books, four of which have won awards, are available on Amazon.

Voluntary Ineptitude

By Doug Van Hooser

Nick’s body gave him the cue. It was nicotine time. He turned off his workstation and headed for the side entrance. The cool evening air had its own intoxication, and he relished it almost as much as the cigarette. He leaned back against the wall, letting it support his bad habit. Someday he would have to quit, maybe if he met a girl who didn’t like it but liked him, an incentive to displace one pleasure for a better one. This part of the evening was relaxed, an exhale, the bustle of the daytime gone, the sounds of the city subdued, people at home letting the day drain. But it was also the best time for him to work, actually accomplish something other than going to meetings and reading emails.

Nick inhaled deeply and purveyed the windows of the building across the street. Would she be there? It had become an incentive to take his break after the dark had nestled around the buildings. Back-lit windows afforded a view of the interior of the apartments, the televisions and the occupants. Some closed their curtains, but many neglected to shut out the world until they prepared for sleep. He didn’t see her, but then a light came on. She was in the kitchen, headed for the refrigerator.

Debbie fumbled her keys, dropping them, clanging against her foot. She took a deep breath, another frustration to pile on her twelve-hour day. She should be happy. At least she had a job, and it paid well. But life as an attorney at the bottom of the pole left her with money and no time to enjoy it except for purchasing blouses, shoes, and swimsuits online. At least once a week, it allowed her to escape the office to deliver items for return to the UPS Store; half the blouses, most of the shoes, all but one too revealing bikini. She set the armload of work she would not look at down on the floor and picked the keys up so she wouldn’t fumble one-handed to find the right one. It was dark in the apartment. She missed the days when she left and arrived back home while the sun still shined. She turned on a light so she could find her way to the kitchen. She went to the refrigerator and got a Diet Coke. She popped the top and stepped over to the window, and looked down on the street. There was the glow of a cigarette and the outline of the smoker leaning against the building across the street. What a lousy habit, she thought, but it reminded her of her favourite films from the forties and fifties when cigarettes were cool: a prop, desirable men used. She could make out the man’s face when he inhaled. She watched him take another drag, then she turned and went to find the light switch. She opened the freezer, took out a frozen meal, put it in the oven, and set the temperature and timer. She looked again toward the window, but with the light on, she couldn’t see the man. She realized with the backlight he would now be able to see her, but she did not draw the blind. There was really nothing for him to see except an overworked, tired woman. At least someone saw her, noticed her.

She was getting her meal from the freezer as usual. Even from this distance, she looked tired. That stack of folders meant she didn’t leave work when she left work. She was probably an eight to eight-person. The only way he avoided twelve and fourteen-hour days was to come in after lunch. She should try that, but maybe she didn’t have a job that allowed it. She peered into the oven. Her eating habits were a step down from his, or maybe not? Eating at sub shops and fast-casual restaurants probably was less nutritious than frozen meals. He wondered if her place of employment, like his, had bowls of fruit?

She came to the window and peered out. Did she see him? Probably she could tell someone was there but wouldn’t be able to see him well enough to recognize him. Or point him out in a lineup if he was a criminal, someone who had assaulted her. Stolen that stack of folders as if they had some value. Then a sudden thought crossed Nick’s mind; could be standing on the street smoking a cigarette gazing through an apartment window make him a peeping Tom? Was he breaking some law?

Was it his imagination? Was she looking at him? She turned and sat at the table, shoved her work product out of the way and started punching her phone. Was she calling the police? There’s a strange man standing across the street smoking a cigarette? Nick threw his smoke to the sidewalk and crushed it. No, she wasn’t talking. She must be looking at email or some social media site. She had to have a better social life than he did.

Debbie gazed at her phone. It was like the phone had become her best friend, certainly a constant companion. How many times a day did she check it, hoping it would connect her with someone, something? But it was mostly banal. She was a voyeur. Looking at other people’s lives. At least they had things they wanted to relate even if they were just everyday occurrences. People found happiness in such mundane things. She had stopped “liking” things people posted. What did she have to post? A photo of the contract she hadn’t finished? Her five hundred calorie meal? The glowing cigarette of some man down on the street?

Debbie stood and looked out the window. Was he still there? She couldn’t see him. She brought her hand up to the top button of her blouse and idly ran her forefinger and thumb around it. Maybe she should change into her nightgown while her meal warmed up? She unbuttoned the top of her blouse and pressed her nose against the window. He was still there. She could feel it. There was an orange glow that brightened then faded. Her fingers found the next button and fondled it. She thought, I love the smell of burning tobacco, but it’s such a filthy habit. She turned and left the room.

Was she looking at him? Probably not, just idly looking out at the world, though God knows there was nothing to look at, just another building and a nearly empty street except for a guy with a bad habit. She had to be about his age. She looked attractive from this distance; he liked her hair, probably was intelligent judging from that stack of folders. But how do you meet someone like her? She had to enter and leave the building from the other side of the block. Go stand outside the building early in the morning and wait, try to catch her leaving for work? Coming home from work? That would be like stalking her. There was his second crime, the man charged with creepiness in the first degree, stalking and peeping.

What if he could take a photo of her? Maybe he could post it and tag it, and somehow, that would lead him to her social media? Get her name. But that would not get him her phone number. Try to friend her? No, that was really bizarre. Any woman with half a brain would run from that. She wasn’t a naïve fifteen-year-old. Even if he could meet her, what would he say? “Hey, I go out for a smoke every evening and see you eating frozen dinners and thought maybe you would rather go out and get a sub sandwich?” There was a word for that: loser. He pulled out another cigarette. He shouldn’t smoke another one, but he didn’t finish the first one. Maybe it would help him think of another way? There had to be some way of meeting her.

She went to the bedroom, drew the blind and loosened the cord holding the sheer curtains, and got her nightgown and housecoat from the closet. She kicked off her shoes and started to unbutton her blouse. What a ridiculous thought. Give the guy a cheap thrill? Stupid, ridiculous, not her. It was autopilot, privacy, close out the eyes of the world when you undress. She started to sway, twirled, bumped her hips, unbuttoned one button, then another, dancing; she pulled off her blouse and waved it overhead, spinning, kicking her leg in the air. She stopped. She stared at the blank movie screen the blind made. What was she doing? What kind of goofy fantasy was this? She took a deep breath, exhaled, mumbled, “screw it,” and started to dance again. She bumped and ground her way to the window and grabbed a curtain wrapping it around herself. With the blind down, no one could see. If he was still out there, she would just be a shadow. She unfurled the curtain and spun back and forth across the screen of the blind. She started to laugh and fell on the bed, trying to catch her breath, the laughter swelling. What a dumb way to act. After twelve hours of reading and writing boring contracts, come home and do a bad strip act in your bedroom for no one. She took a deep breath, got up off the bed and slipped out of her skirt. She reached around to unclasp her bra. She turned to the blinded window, then crossed the room to the light switch. She hesitated for a second, then threw the switch. In the dark, she wouldn’t be seen. She closed the bedroom door to make sure there was no light and went to the window, pulled the curtains back and let the blind up. She looked down and across to the other side of the street. A few seconds passed. Then there was a small, bright flash. He was lighting another cigarette. She shrugged and let the brassiere fall. She put her arms overhead and stuck out her chest. She held the pose and watched as the glow lit his face and then faded. She turned and struck another pose. The cigarette glowed again.

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The light in the bedroom came on. Nick fumbled with the cigarette, rolling it between his thumb and forefinger. Should he or should he not? It was tempting. He could just light it and not really smoke it. It would give him an excuse to be out here leaning against the building in case someone came by or out of the building. She closed the blinds and curtains. He could make out a faint shadow. What was she doing? Getting ready for bed to sleep off the grind of her day? What size was her bed? Queen, king? Maybe it wasn’t large enough to accommodate two? The shadow was moving, an apparition that was flowing, twisting, turning like a fantasy. Was there music he couldn’t hear? Rock and roll, hip-hop, an old Viennese waltz? He stood off the wall, his body rippling as he imagined dancing with her. Then the shadow disappeared, fell out of the light. His disappointment surprised him. How could he be disappointed? It was all in his head. There was no reality here. The light went out. He stared at the blankness, leaned back against the wall and stuck the unlit cigarette in his mouth. He deflated like a balloon. He flicked his lighter on but continued looking at the black hole of his fantasy.

He lit his cigarette. Did she open the blind? He took a drag, transfixed with his imagination. He inhaled again.

One pose, then another. She stuck her chin in the air, hands on her hips. She leaned over and gave a look only a camera could interpret. She threw her arms out to the side and smiled as if proud of her bosom’s display. She pivoted and bent over, mooning him. Then stood up and went to the window, sticking one fingertip in the side of her mouth, her tongue between her teeth. She took the other hand and cupped her breast like an offering. Then both breasts. A pose she had seen when she was twelve and found an old calendar hidden under underwear and t-shirts in her Grandfather’s clothes chest. She had wondered why anyone would find such a thing interesting to look at and why keep it hidden in a drawer? And now here she was, mimicking that lady. She was a lady, wasn’t she? A woman just trying to make a living, using the assets she had. But here she, Debbie the stripper attorney, was, in the dark, collecting her fee in an indulgent fantasy. She sighed, looked down at the street and the small orange glow, a hole in the dark.

She turned and put on her nightgown, started putting on her housecoat, stopped, picked up her clothes, and looked in the closet. She put the blouse and skirt on hangers, hanging them in the already been worn end of her closet. She looked back to the window; her eyes were adjusting to the dark. She put on her bra and panties and got blue jeans and an old sweater putting them on. How well did his eyes adjust after standing outside with the city’s ambient light and the flash of his cigarette lighter?

She returned to the kitchen. She came to the window. Was she looking at him? Could she see him? She must be looking at something, or did she enjoy the blankness of the dark? Maybe there was something romantic about the city at night, the sky reflecting the city’s light as if the moon was glowing behind thin clouds. She was contemplating something, thinking, not seeing. He dragged on the cigarette. Maybe he could use the cigarette to send an S O S? Save me. I don’t want to go back to work. I’m lonely. I need to meet you. She turned and walked back to the table, sat down and looked at her phone. Send me a message, Nick thought. My phone number is 312-822-9202. What is yours? My name is Nick, what is yours? Can I call you?

This was insane. If they were kids, he would find some pebbles, stand below her window and toss them against the glass. She would come to the window and smile as if she couldn’t contain herself. Her teenage prince had come. She would throw the window open and lean out. They’d start talking and lose track of the distance between them. Then start plotting how she could climb down from the window and into his waiting arms. Oh, my, lord, what a load of crap. He threw the cigarette on the sidewalk and scrubbed it out with his shoe, stuck his hands in his pockets.

He had coins. He pulled them out and looked at a penny, a nickel and a quarter. He looked back up at her window. She was peering in the oven. He crossed the street.

As Debbie peered in the oven, she thought, why did I inherit this habit? One thing she picked up from her Mother. Heat things in the oven, not the microwave. It heats more evenly. A microwave is about speed, and for her Mother, speed implied impatience. That’s what Debbie needed to do: take her life out of the oven and put it in the microwave. She turned, glancing out the window, seeing nothing and sat down at the table, picked up her phone. Email or Facebook? A decision she made every morning and evening. Even that was stale.

She had already checked her email, so she went to Facebook. Her Mother had downloaded new photos of her father. That’s where she had acquired her infatuation with the scent of tobacco. When she was growing up, he’d sit in his recliner reading and smoking until he turned on the television. Then one night, he came home and announced, “It’s time to throw out this bad habit.” And he quit, just like that. He made up his mind to change, and he did it. She needed a change. She could give up frozen dinners and start cooking. But that would never work. She didn’t have time to buy food and plan meals. Maybe she should switch to the microwave? No. That would be like switching brands of cigarettes. Quitting her job wasn’t an option. If she found a position at another law firm, it would be the same thing. Same old same old: her life’s mantra.

There was a ding at the window. Had a bird run into it? It was dark. Birds wouldn’t be flying around. Some big bug?

Nick took up position directly below her kitchen window. He looked at the small change in his hand, looked up and thought, what the hell. What was the worst thing that could happen? She could ignore it. Or, she could call the police. Was he breaking some law? Misdemeanour coin tossing? Felony: hey, what’s your name? Second degree: I couldn’t think of another way to meet you?

Nick took one step back and threw the penny at the window. It clanged against the glass, then two seconds later bounced off the sidewalk away from him. He looked up. Waiting. Wondering: what is she thinking? She didn’t appear. Well, that didn’t work. Maybe he should up the ante? Go with the nickel? He flipped the coin a foot in the air, caught it with his right hand, and turned it onto the back of his left hand. Tails. Give it a whirl. He threw the coin at the window. It made a louder noise than the penny. He looked up at the window, smiling.

There was another clunk. What the hell was going on? Debbie pushed back from the table and stared at the window. Something had definitely hit it. But whatever it was, was gone. That’s pretty spooky. This had never happened before. Never in all the nights, she sat there waiting on her dinner. Was it her imagination? Was it louder the second time? Was it some big beetle attracted by the light? Some life form that didn’t comprehend glass was a barrier. What was on the other side you could not touch? Debbie stood up and tried to peer out the window. But the darkness was blank. She couldn’t see a thing. If she went to the window, maybe she could get a better view?

Nick stood with his head tilted back, counting. He reached twenty. She had not appeared. So, this was a bad idea that had failed. They weren’t teenagers. Maybe the natural curiosity of youth had shrivelled, been overtaken by the caution of maturity. He stuck both hands in his front pant pockets. One coin left. He flipped the quarter between his thumb and forefinger over and over. Three’s a charm? He took his hand out of his pocket, kept his eyes on the window, and twisted the coin on its edge as if there was a message there his fingertip could read. He put his arm behind his head, hesitated, then fired the quarter at the window. It hit so hard he thought for a second he might have broken the glass.

Debbie jerked back when the coin hit. She saw it, but it was just a silver glint and then gone. She picked up her phone and dialled 911.

“911, what is your emergency.”

“Hi. I live at 908 West Jackson on the second floor, and something keeps hitting my kitchen window. It’s happened three times. I don’t know what to do?”

“908 West Jackson. I’ll dispatch a patrol car to check it out.”

“Thanks. Oh, the backside of my apartment faces Clinton.”

“I’ll have a squad car check the 900 blocks of Clinton. Please stay on the line.”

“OK.”

“You say you are on the second floor?”

“Yes, in an apartment. It’s an apartment building.”

“Do you have any windows or other access on the first floor?”

“Not on this side of the building.”

“You see anyone outside the window?”

Debbie hesitated. Why had she not looked? “I’ll look.” She could hear a siren. They were not close but on the way.

“That’s all right. Stay back from the window. The squad car should be there very quickly.”

Why had she not looked? The siren was getting louder. She crept up to the window and looked across the street. The man smoking was gone. She leaned closer to the window and looked down.

There she was. Nick waved, a large sweeping motion as if she were a hundred yards away, not twenty feet. She saw him. Gave him a timid wave back. Maybe she couldn’t see him clearly. Nick took out his lighter and flicked it on, held it by his face, and motioned with his thumb to the other side of the street.

Debbie could tell the man was waving. His lighter flared. It was the guy from across the street. She couldn’t be sure, but it had to be. He must have been watching her watching him. The siren was loud. What had she done?

“The car should be arriving, miss.”

“Ah… it is.” What should she do? She hung up the phone, pivoted and rushed to the door, opened it and hurried toward the elevator. She would have to go all the way around the building. Why was she waiting in the elevator? She headed for the stairs.

Nick saw the patrol car around the corner. Lights and sirens, was there an accident? Hopefully, no one was hurt. The car came to a stop right in front of him. Nick looked up at the window. She was gone.
Both officers got out of the car, each had a hand on their gun. What had he done? He raised his hands, palms open, up to his shoulders and mumbled, “Half guilty, your honour, of trying to get a women’s attention: voluntary ineptitude in the third degree.”


Doug Van Hooser writes and resides in the Chicago area and southern Wisconsin, where he cycles, sculls, and uses an alias when Baristas ask him his name. He’s a graduate of the University of Illinois, married with two children. His poetry and fiction can be found in over fifty literary publications in print and online. A number of his plays can be read on The New Play Exchange.

In the Church Library

By Zaqary Fekete

Bernelle was brushing away a grey hair when the women entered the church library on Tuesday night. There were three, and they always dragged their chairs to the same places no matter how the room was arranged. Ardys sat by the wall of children’s Bible drawings. Rose and Patricia sat on either side of the door, as if they were ready to leave.

No one else ever came. They had been meeting for 3 weeks.

 Before Bernelle could ask, Ardys was already complaining about the poem from last time. “He’s so vulgar,” Ardys clucked, “Look at this. Look at what he writes!” She gestured with the poem book while pointing with a long finger. 

“What don’t you like?” Bernelle asked. 

“It’s the whole thing,” Ardys was tapping the guilty page repeatedly as she spoke. She looked quickly at the other two women before dropping her eyes to the page and reading out loud, “This…’A shape with lion body and the head of a man…’ Filthy. …I could wring his neck!”

The hour dragged by in hitches and puffs. Ardys packed up her purse to leave and turned to Bernelle. “No more Yeats, please.” And she left. 

That evening at home Bernelle took out the poem book. She turned back to the poem. She still felt like she was new to the experience of reading these verses. 

Since last summer, in order to avoid certain thoughts, she had tried various things. First it had been gardening, but everything died. She had also tried stamps but the tired, tiny pictures left her exhausted. 

Father Haverstock had said that there were a fair many other women in the parish who were recently widowed. It might be nice to provide something. Some kind of outlet. He had finished this thought by reciting a Psalm. Something like, “The Lord knows the brokenhearted and sits by the crushed in spirit.” Bernelle couldn’t quite remember how it went. But she got the idea. 

“Wasn’t that poetry?” she had said.

“Yes, perhaps,” he smiled.

And so the idea for the weekly poetry club was hatched. Several women said that they would come, but, in the end, only Ardys, Rose, and Patricia showed up. Ardy’s husband had died last year. Rose and Patricia weren’t married, they were just lonely.

Bernelle put the Yeats book back on her bedside table, and she clicked off the light. It took her awhile to fall asleep. As she stared out at the dark room she remembered snatches and bits of the poems from the last three weeks. She also remembered what the women had said. She made a few mental notes.

Poets tried: Yeats, Pinsky, and Oliver.

Poems tried: “The Second Coming”, “Shirt”, and “The Lamb”. 

Poets rejected: All three.

Reasons given:

“The Second Coming” was vulgar. It sounded dangerous according to Ardys. (It is, thought Bernelle, with a small smile.)

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“Shirt” was confusing. Too many uses of seamstress language like “The presser, the cutter, the wringer, the mangle”…(to be sure, Bernelle didn’t understand all these words either, but she liked the way they sounded.) “The Lamb” was a temptress. Ardys had said, “High school children might get a hold of it and make out.” Bernelle thought this was very funny, but she knew what Ardys meant. It was kind of seductive. The lamb in the poem had chosen wrong. Bernelle recalled the pregnant line, “And not till I lay, swelled and cracked on the grass, did I guess what I had eaten.”

She really didn’t have a tremendously firm grasp on her intentions…she just knew that it might be meaningful to disrupt their schedules a bit. They sat church on Sundays. They had bridge on Thursdays. They hoped for visits from family on Saturdays. But much of the rest of the week was, frankly, empty.  

As Bernelle finally drifted off to sleep she decided to try one more poet with the women next week. If she got the same response maybe she would abandon the poetry club altogether.

The next Tuesday Bernelle was waiting in the church library with four pieces of paper in her hand. Ardys arrived first as usual and situated herself by the Bible verses. The two women made small talk until Rose and Patricia arrived and sat down like door guardians. 

Bernelle took a deep breath. She handed out the copies.

Ardys glanced at the paper and looked up, confused, “Where’s the name?”

Bernelle gave her a small smile, “Let’s just try it. Would anyone be willing to read it out loud for the rest of us?”

There was a pause while the three women glanced over the poem on the page. There was a pleasant silence that settled over the library. Ardys looked up, “I’ll read it.”

The women settled into place while Ardys flicked the paper straight. She adjusted her glasses and began to read.

Odd
There is a me that knew and a me that did not know
that in the doorway it was crouching
 a silky venom
in those dark gardens with people sewn into the trees
I was still young and left my family once to teach men
Day after day
I drank…I ate… wild honey from the cleft
broiled fish and forbidden wheat
There were grapes and figs
wine and a tearable flat bread
And finally when 
was on the tree
I knew the cup
Not until the ninth hour
Did I feel the fell weight of the world
I cried out just one time I couldn’t help it
He wasn’t there
strange

Ardys finished reading. Her eyes flicked back over the page a few times. “It’s very simple, isn’t it.”

Rose was sitting thoughtfully. Patricia had taken out her Bible and was fishing through it for something. She seemed to have found it, paused as she read something, and then sat back in silence.

Ardys gave Bernelle a look. “I like it,” she said, “Who wrote it?” 

“I did,” Bernelle said.


Zaqary Fekete has worked as a teacher in Romania, Moldova, China, and Cambodia. They currently live and work in Minneapolis. They have previously been published in 101 Words, Shady Grove Literary, and Warp10Lit.

pb + c

By Jules Vivid

I never understood how he could eat those peanut butter and carrot sandwiches. Always on pumpernickel rye, always with salted crunchy peanut butter. He joined me at the kitchen table after emerging from his art studio, his long salt and pepper hair tied back and shirt showing traces of clay.

Rolling up his damp sleeves while grabbing an apple, he said, “Hey, peach, how ‘bout a pb and c for your old pops?

It was just him and me now. Jim and Georgia. Dad and daughter. We were living in a house that was too big and empty for either of our willowy bodies and sad hazel eyes. And yet, here we were.

“Sure, Dad. One pb and c coming right up.” I got up from the table, my stomach six months large with a baby I didn’t want. Joe and I were just fuck buddies. We had been drinking and didn’t think anything would happen. I was forty and he pulled out in time — that should mean something, right?

I popped the bread into the toaster and washed the carrot, scrubbing its stained skin even though I knew I’d be shedding it soon. I held the carrot steady by its feathery top, its green hair tickling my hand as I began to swiftly pare off its dirty exterior peel by peel. I used a sharp knife to cut through the hard root, each small slice perfect and uniform and a quarter of an inch thick. I thought about stabbing my stomach but didn’t. Should I save the greens? Yes, tonight I’ll make a carrot top pesto.

Things weren’t the same after she died, but we made it seem so. In the beginning, I couldn’t do anything but cook for us each night, using the novelty of food, my mother’s legacy, as a stopgap. Dad continued to sculpt, his work moving from geometric patterns to forms that came to imitate an abstraction of my mother’s face. I wanted her here now, to have her arms around me, telling me everything would be okay. Tell me what to do with this baby, Mom.

Joe didn’t want anything to do with the child. He thought I intentionally got pregnant because I was in love with him. I told him to go fuck himself, that he was the last person I’d ever love.

“What’s the world without peanut butter,” Dad asked, or rather, said, as he bent over his plate and took another large bite of his pb and c. He grinned as he chewed like a kid eating pancakes on Christmas morning.

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It was now only a year since Mom passed but Dad seemed alright. At times, his eyes spoke otherwise, but he kept telling me how she was still with us. He’d say how he didn’t feel like she had really died, how it was more like he just couldn’t see or hear her anymore. He called the baby little peach and thought of her as a “sign from above.” Above? I wasn’t sure if this meant Mom or whether he had conceived of some new spiritual ontology.

I sat across watching him eat as a flag of nut brown, dark rye, and bright orange was brought up and down every minute or two. Crunch, crunch sounded the carrots. I always heard the crunch no matter how thin I sliced them. The worst of my nausea had passed but I was still depressed and exhausted, and now carrying an extra twenty-pounds of unsolicited complications. I kept calling her “she.” She’s crushing my organs. She’s incapacitating me. I hope she doesn’t look like him. Will she feel loved?

I remember when my mother and I were in the garden. It must have been twenty years ago. We kneeled together in the cool dark soil, picking red peppers and kale from the tilled earth she had labored over the previous spring. We gathered the vegetables into the belly of our old oversized shirts, bearing a simulated womb of lush green and vermillion. Smiling, Mom leaned forward and rubbed her veggie paunch against mine.

“One day you’ll understand.”

“Understand what?”

“How amazing it is to grow a little human inside of you.”

“I don’t know, Mom. I don’t think I could do it. I’d feel too colonized, like my body had been plundered.”

“You might. But you could also feel other things. Seeing the baby develop alongside your own changes — it’s a beautiful thing.”

Was it? Maybe it could be.

“One day you’ll understand.”

“Understand what?”

“How good these damn pb and cs are,” said Dad, picking a piece of carrot out of his teeth with his fingernail.

The sun was tender in that moment, its warmth dancing across the kitchen table in cheerful movements. I leaned back and closed my eyes. I envisioned the baby sitting with me and Dad. He’d be doing something silly to make her smile, and she’d be clapping her hands together, laughing with glee. There was a lot of love here. We looked happy. Just Jim, Georgia, and baby. Dad, me, and my baby.

Opening my eyes, I noticed a solitary slice of carrot on the crumbed plate and reached over, dipping the orange moon into a smear of peanut butter before popping it into my mouth. Definitely not what I expected, but also not bad. What should I name her?


Jules is a queer writer and multimedia artist. She lives and writes in Brooklyn, where she shares a tiny apartment with her husband and two cats. You can find her on her websiteInstagram, and Twitter.

The Docent

By Jennifer Springsteen

The Docent strode into the exhibit hall on soft-soled clogs. She had finished the last museum tour of the morning but had heard a stirring in this room earlier and returned to stand before La Confidence by Bouguereau. 

The composition portrayed two young girls with bare feet and a sensuality that held itself in their coloured lips, thin necks, and full hair. There was a painted whisper between them, and the Docent stepped forward to hear. The hall quieted; her shoulders relaxed. 

“Je vais t’attendre.”

Wait for you? Had she heard correctly?

There it was again.

The Docent stepped closer still. A kiss to the ear. First a whisper and then a kiss. 

It wasn’t the only time the Docent witnessed the movements of paintings. The fluff of a skirt. The rustling of arms in starched sleeves. A cur chewing his paw or scratching behind an ear before relaxing again by his master’s side. She’d grown used to them and their restlessness. It’s what invited her to look more closely, more deeply, more devoutly. 

The Docent hadn’t heard the patron enter the hall or the question she asked. But she felt her now at the south entrance. “Did you find a scarf?” The Docent kept her position with her hands holding one another, listening to the parting of the girl’s stained lips, the wetness in the kiss, the whisper. She didn’t turn from the painting. “No,” she said, and the woman clomped away. How many times would this flushed girl be kissed? How many times would she be told the other would wait for her? The curve of her lips, the calm of her face—she’d heard it a thousand times and would hear it a thousand more. Never would she tire.  

At home, the Docent’s own young daughter waited for her. Waited and itched her scabbed arms, wanting the allowance her mother stopped giving when she’d dropped out of college, and it became clear the allowance went to drugs. Meth or heroin. The mother wasn’t clear about what drugs her beautiful daughter had been taking. Only that by taking them, she’d spoiled her looks and ruined the education she was so lucky to have been offered. The father wouldn’t give her another chance. 

The daughter rose from the kitchen table when the mother came in. “Mom,” she said, “I still have my key.”

“I see.”

The daughter didn’t know where to put her hands. They hopped uneasily at her sides and waist. 

“Are you high right now?”

“No. A little, yeah.”

The mother’s heart pushed at her ribcage. A swelling that would break bones. “Look what’s happened to you—.” The mother pointed at her daughter’s sweet arms. Her arms had been flushed and puffy as a baby and slender white when she was a teen, reaching to play the piano.

“They’ll heal.”

“Not until you stop.” The mother had been reading on the internet. She knew about the ice bugs and the endless scratching. 

“I want to stop,” the daughter whispered. “I want to move back in with you and daddy.” She came around the table and touched the back of a chair. The mother recognized something familiar in that voice, the gesture. The child she knew occupied that body alongside the chemicals, underneath this portrait of an addict, the daughter sketched of herself. 

The mother put her purse on a chair and her jacket behind it. She noticed her daughter’s gaze fall on the purse. “We’ve tried that before,” the mother said. 

“I want to try again,” the daughter said, more desperate than before. “Please let me try.”

“I need to talk to your father. Where are you staying now?”

“You’ll talk to Dad?”

“Yes,” said the mother. She told her daughter there were apples in the bowl and yogurt in the fridge to eat something healthy, for Christ’s sake. She went to her bedroom to change from her museum clothes. 

When she returned, her daughter –and the cash from her wallet—were gone. 

“Je vais t’attendre,” the mother said. 

The museum the next day echoed with shouts and the scuffling noise children’s sneakers made on the polished floor. They sped walked from hall to hall, barely noticing what hung on the walls. The paintings held their breath until the whirl of activity left, school bus after school bus. 

The Docent found herself before a Hopper painting, Table for Ladies. How bright and ripe the fruit, the gold of the waitress’ hair, her delicate nose, her attention to the arrangement on the table. Beyond her, a man and woman sat together, comforted by the wood panelling, the crisp white table cloths. The Docent imagined herself stepping in. The hostess at the register looked up, which was a surprise since her downcast face had not until now revealed the largeness of her brown eyes when they gave one their full attention. Nor how they sparkled. 

She gave a brief look over the Docent’s shoulder. “One?” she asked.

The Docent hesitated. It was only three-thirty, past lunch and far from dinner. But she could take a little something. Cut fruit, a glass of champagne. “Yes,” she said and took another step forward.  

The wooden chair creaked as the Docent sat, causing the man with the mustache to glance her way. She avoided his eyes and instead spread her hands across the smooth white cloth. She placed her purse on the floor beside her chair and remembered her daughter had taken all her cash the day before. Would she be able to use her debit card here? It was an old wooden cash register. A flush rose from her throat to her cheeks. She couldn’t order and then be embarrassed for having no way to pay. She’d never be able to return. 

“Oh dear,” she said, lifting her finger to the hostess who had just turned from the table.

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“I’ve completely lost my head.” The Docent reached for her purse and pushed her chair back with a scrape. “I told my daughter we’d go to the museum this afternoon. How silly of me to forget.”

The hostess smiled pleasantly enough. 

“I look forward to coming back soon,” the Docent said, standing. “I’ve been meaning to dine here for some time.”

The Docent’s husband phoned early evening at home. “I’m still at the office,” he said.

“Okay.”

“Guess who just called?”

She could guess. “What did she want?”

“Bail.”

“Bail?” The mother stumbled backward to the arm of a living room chair, let her legs buckle.

“She was caught stealing again. Arrested.”

“What are we going to do?” the mother asked. 

Her husband huffed. “Leave her in jail.”

“She needs rehab, not jail.”

“Well, this will be a lesson.”

“She needs rehab.” This was a conversation they’d had before many times. The mother could say her lines and her husband’s. He’d say they tried it already, and she’d say it sometimes takes several tries, and he’d say he didn’t have money for several tries. Eventually, she’d conjure an image of the daughter as a youth, and the husband would be willing to try once more. 

“I’ll go to court,” the mother said, “I’ll ask to get her into rehab.”

The husband huffed again and said he’d bring pizza home for dinner. The mother knew he’d get pepperoni, and the mother didn’t like pepperoni. He and the daughter did. The mother liked plain cheese. 

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Seeing the daughter in court had been difficult. The daughter cried. The judge agreed to treatment, but the lockdown kind: one step removed from jail. Conditions. The mother and father wouldn’t be able to visit often. 

There had been days and weeks when the mother hadn’t heard from the daughter and thought the worst. In bed at night, anticipating a knock on the door, the police holding out an article of clothing. “Is this your daughter’s?” Eventually, the daughter surfaced. The mother struggled between wanting to slap her face or place her hands on the daughter’s cheeks and kiss her forehead over and over. 

The Docent arrived late. She hadn’t told her boss she’d been to court, only that she had family business. Several tours led by other Docents snaked through the museum. She wiped her eyes with a tissue and reapplied liner with the pencil she kept in her purse. She’d worried off her lipstick and redid that as well. Her hair looked fine. It always did—her best asset. Curly without being unruly or coarse, she wore it below her shoulders, a little girlish for her age, but why cut away a feature just because of one’s age?

She was to meet with the head of security about the upcoming fundraiser and then a tour at three-thirty. She had a little time to herself to gather her thoughts from the morning. The painting that called to her—Corot’s Rocks in the Forest at Fountainblue—hung on the second floor, so she stood quietly in the elevator with several chatty patrons. 

She loved to say the name aloud: Fountainblue with the accent she thought sounded sophisticated. The way a Docent should sound, not like some mother who allowed her daughter to become a drug addict and slip further and further away. 

Rarely did she sit at the museum. But the rocks in the painting looked as if they’d been sun-warmed; through the trees, it would be cool and shady at this time of day. The bank inclined. She felt the pull in her thighs as she climbed to the rocks and sat on the one that made the most pleasant-looking seat. After some repositioning, she found the right spot, leaned back on her hands, and closed her eyes. The sun shone in blue flecks between the green leaves. A breeze ran its fingers through her hair at the base of her neck. Birds called and changed branches. 

She let herself relax. 

In the quiet, she heard the distant bubble of river water. She checked her watch—ten minutes before her meeting. She rose and crested a small hill, then followed a deer trail to the source. The mossy banks snuggled right up close to the water, looking like velvet cushions in the light. How nice the water would feel on her bare feet. Regardless of the time, she removed her stockings and waded in, her sheer hose a ball in her hand. She steadied herself with the bough of a thin tree and then let go. 

The water came up to her calves, slow-moving, and while the larger rocks were mossed and slippery, the river bottom was finely broken stone. She lifted her skirt and walked downstream. The whistle of a red-tailed hawk turned her gaze up up up to where the river entered a wide canyon with tall smudged walls. 

Someone called her name. 

The water just outside the canyon rose to her knees; she lifted her skirt in her hands. There is was again, the calling. Oh God, the head of security. Her meeting. 

The trek upstream kept her off balance; her ankles ached with the effort. 

When she returned to the bank where she’d stepped in, and to the rocks at the forefront of the painting, and out of the painting itself, she’d lost her breath. Her stockings had twisted, they were heavy and wet, and she’d caught her fingernail at the back of the knee getting them on, causing a wide run down to her foot. It split again as she pulled at the waist to straighten them. Her clogs clung to moss and hummus from the forest floor, and the edges of her skirt darkened in a damp rim. 

She found the head of security in the exhibit hall off the lobby and watched his angry face change to shock at the look of her. “My word,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” the Docent said, “Rarely am I late for a meeting.”

“Where have you come from?” 

Her shoes, the pantyhose. She ran her hand through her hair and caught a piece of pine between her fingers. “The Corot,” she said. 

He shook his head, “I was just there,” he said, “Calling for you.”

“Yes,” the Docent replied. 

The walls tightened in colourful Steve McCurry photographs. Faces splashed with paint, finely dotted and decorated, bejewelled or smudged with the dirt and grime of poverty. The Docent heard the ripple of a Sri Lankan woman’s shift. Shells clank on a Nigerian man’s neck. A small child splashed in a washing bucket and cried from the chill. 

The Docent deepened her breath. There had always been such movement in this exhibit, such clattering and chaos. Hush, she wanted to tell them. Hush. 

“Where are we meeting?” she asked the head of security and slid her shoulders down her back, tilted up her chin to keep his gaze from the wreck of her shoes and stockings. (But ah! The cool of that river. The blue and white splattered sky. The tree leaves sponged by the broken bristles of Corot’s thoughtful brush!)

“The faculty office,” he said. She followed him there, tasting the wet of the canyon walls on her lips. Her feet stung from the nips the rocks took. She had almost gone too far. She had almost lost her way.

At home that night, she sat at the table with her husband and described the painting to him, best she could. 

Her husband poked his rice pilaf with the tips of his fork, meaning to fluff it, to give it rise, maybe. Meaning. “I don’t know that painting,” he told her.

“It’s in the new exhibit,” she said, “That’s why I’m describing it to you.”

“You get too much time,” he said.

“I must know the art,” she sniffed, “Or I wouldn’t be a good docent.”

They continued through dinner without much to say. As she cleaned the dishes, she said, “I called the treatment facility and arranged for a visit this weekend.”

The husband said, “Humm.” 

“Don’t you want to go?”

Her husband drank his wine and didn’t offer to help load the dishwasher like he used to. When had he stopped? “You enable her. Giving her money, letting her walk all over you.”

She ignored him, too tired to argue, and eventually, he left the kitchen and turned on the TV news. 

Her daughter’s skin had pinkened, the cheeks plump. A light back in her eyes. 

“Mom.” Her daughter ran to her in the visiting room. They embraced hard and clinging. The mother rubbed the daughter’s hair and her small back. A month before, the daughter would have shrugged her away. 

They sat at a small table under a crooked frame of the serenity prayer etched in purple thread. 

“It’s not bad,” the daughter answered the question the mother wanted to ask. “Food’s okay. I can’t have any caffeine.” 

“No coffee?”

The daughter laughed. “Nope.”

The mother took her daughter’s hand, rubbed her thumb along the chipped and bitten fingernails. 

The daughter said, “Sometimes I just want to escape. To disappear from everything.” There were tears on her cheeks.

“I know,” said the mother, “Me too.”

“What if I screw up again?” The daughter pulled her hand away.

The mother thought of the girls in the Bouguereau. The whisper. “If not this time, next time,” she said. “I’ll wait for you.”

The daughter nodded and wiped her tears with thin fingers. 

The museum would close in a half-hour, and the husband texted that he hadn’t been feeling well. He’d gone home early and would lay down. The thought of him being home when she got home— of not having that counted one hour without him—angered the Docent. She shouldn’t be angry at someone sick, but she was. 

She finished her paperwork, took her sweater from the break room, and headed straight for the Hopper. Once inside, she greeted the hostess. “Hello again.” Maybe too excitedly.

“Hello,” said the hostess pulling the hand-printed menu from beside the register. She smiled at the Docent and led her to the same table as before, where the chair moaned at her weight, and the same mustached man looked up at her as she adjusted herself. 

The hostess brought a glass of water and left the Docent to herself at the white-clothed table. When the blond-haired waitress arrived, the Docent said, “I’d love a champagne.”

The waitress nodded. “To eat?” she asked. The Docent detected an accent. Dutch perhaps. 

“Bread and butter.” The Docent pointed at her menu for reference, “And what is the soup?” Before the waitress could answer, she waved her hand through the air. “No matter. I’m sure it will be wonderful.”

When her champagne arrived, she sipped and watched the comings and goings of the brightly painted patrons. The Dutch waitress and the big-eyed hostess. How many years had she spent with them already in this familiar scene?

With her soup finished—a lovely clam chowder—the Docent checked her watch. The museum closed ten minutes ago. Security would walk through one last time. If she left now, she’d raise questions. If she waited until security left, she’d trip the alarm. 

“Anything else?” The waitress cleared the table of the empty bowl. The couple remained at their table, and the hostess showed no signs of breaking down her station. In fact, the restaurant remained in its mid-afternoon cheeriness. 

“Another champagne,” the Docent ordered. “And the cup of fresh fruit.”

“Certainly.”

The Docent finished her fruit, her champagne. She placed her money and a nice tip on the table and stood, collecting her belongings. This time, the mustached man nodded at the Docent, and she nodded in return. She looked out into the museum, but it was difficult to distinguish much with the lights shut off. She turned from the emptiness of the museum and entered the brush-stroked world beyond the painting’s yellow door. 


Jennifer Springsteen is a seminary student at Starr King School for the Ministry in Oakland. She is the co-founder of PDX Writers. Her writing has won several awards, including Regional Arts and Culture Council grants, an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, and two Pushcart Prize nominations. She is represented by Joanna MacKenzie of Nelson Literary Agency. She writes, teaches, and studies in Portland, OR.