Mike Bates, 12/28/2015

Current Occupation: Retired

Former Occupation: Corporate Attorney

Contact Information: Mike Bates is a corporate attorney, recently retired to retrieve his purpose in life. He lives in the high desert of central Arizona with his wife and daughter.  His work has appeared in Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, Scholars & Rogues, and the Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review.

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The Retirement Challenge

“I met Rich Little,” I said to my wife.

We were staying at one of those first generation hotels that have graced Las Vegas Boulevard since the days when mom and dad stopped the family caravan on the Strip for a night out with the Rat Pack on the way to Disneyland.  I usually avoid them if I can, but I’m boycotting Donald Trump, Sheldon Anderson, and Steve Wynn, Caesars and the Bellagio are overrated, and the themed resorts cater to a younger demographic.

This one had been purchased and renovated by one of those international hotel chains.  While the location is less than ideal and they haven’t succeeded in removing the 50s and 60s kitsch from the common areas, the rooms promised all the charm of your average business hotel.  The prices were reasonable, as they are everywhere in Vegas in August, and I’m a Diamond Platinum member, so I didn’t mind the two mile hike through the shimmering heat of the Mojave Desert for dinner and a show.

“I ran into him on the elevator, when you were getting ready.”

“No,” she replied in a tone I interpreted as astonishment.

I was on my way down to the Casino from the executive level when the car stopped on the twelfth floor and this guy stepped in carrying his dry-cleaning.  To say that I looked at him, I guess, would be an overstatement.  My senses were in their usual state of suspended animation, a condition worsened by the blitz of sights and sounds that is Vegas.  Let’s just say I noticed him, as I would any individual among the thousands of strangers one passes on the Strip, the difference being we were together in the cloistered environment of an elevator.

“It was kind of funny the way it happened,” I said.

His greeting was innocuous enough, something like, “good afternoon,” unusual perhaps due to its formality.  I don’t even think I would have acknowledged him beyond the obligatory nod except there was something odd about his demeanor.  He was looking away from me when he stepped into the car — head down, face averted — as though he was trying to avoid recognition.  And to make matters worse, I could have sworn he acted disappointed when he didn’t get it, sort of like he flinched when I didn’t go all giddy on him.     

He took a position in the front corner of the elevator, I mean actually facing the corner, his back toward me, his head bowed, the crown of his head just beneath a video screen featuring video clips of Rich Little doing impersonations of Johnny Carson in the resident comedy club.  It was funny stuff, seriously funny, the impersonations, I mean, but my instincts were alerted to the peculiarity of this guy’s behavior.   

His clothes were nice, I guess, an oxford shirt, slacks — Dockers I believe, leather belt, and leather loafers.  If I’m honest with myself, he was probably a little over-dressed for Vegas these days, at least in contrast to my shorts, t-shirt, and flip-flops.  His hair had been colored a deep brunette, natural enough from a distance, but when you’re standing as close as I was, I could see his scalp beneath wisps of thinning hair.   

Then the sequence on the entertainment system switched to clips of Rich Little impersonating George Burns.  I look up at the screen with the change.  I look at the guy again, and back at the screen, the coincidence slowly dawning on me before smacking in the gob.  

Holy shit!  It was him.  It was Rich freaking Little.

“Weird,” she said.

“It was weird.” I agreed with her.

The guy’s an entertainment icon.  If you were born mid-century, like I was, you grew up watching Rich Little at least once a week on the television.  I guess it would be fair to call him the John Stewart of his era.  Who can forget the parody he made of President Nixon, hair slicked back, shoulders hunched forward, both hands in the air about his displaying the peace sign as he repeats Nixon’s infamous words, “I am not a crook,” in a pitch perfect intonation, his head shaking as he speaks to emphasize the presidential jowls?  He did more to bring down the Nixon administration than anybody except, perhaps, Tricky Dick himself.  

“And kind of sad, too,” I added.

Why is this guy still working, I had to ask myself as I move past the initial shock, and what’s he doing working in this fleabag establishment?

It’s not the biggest venue on the Strip, or anywhere near the swankiest.  It’s not even close to the action, unless you consider a view of McCarron International Airport and the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign the Sin City equivalent of Comedy Central.  And they’d put him on the twelfth floor, no less, among the riff raff flown in on cheap charters from the UK, Australia, and China for fast women, cheap beer, and photo-ops in front of not so convincing replicas of the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, and the Great Pyramid of Giza and made him pick up his own laundry to boot.

“It is sad,” my wife offers up.

“Can you imagine how far he’s fallen?”

“Not that.”

“What then?”

“That you run into Rich Little, and the first thought you have is negative.”

Okay, so the story isn’t about Rich Little, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it is not all about him.  It’s also about me, how I reacted upon running into him, where my thoughts went in that instant of recognition, and what that says about my own situation.   

It’s one thing to experience celebrity on the television, or even on the video screen of a Las Vegas elevator, but it’s another thing altogether to come face-to-face with it in real life.  There is a human dimension to celebrity that we often ignore, a person behind the persona, and very often that person is just like us.  

You see, Rich Little and I have a lot in common.  We’re both relics of another century.  Sure, he’s got a couple of decades on me, but I’ve got enough years under my belt to share some of the same expectations about the proper course of life, about the progression of a family and a career and that dream of riding quietly someday into a well-earned sunset.

Bear with me a moment, and I’ll bring it back to Rich Little in due course.

I retired — early I might add — some years ago.  I enjoyed my work, but I’d started to wonder whether the skills I’d learned as a corporate attorney would translate to the real world outside the artificial culture of my employer and worry whether I might be missing another act somewhere in the theater I call my life, you know, before the curtain finally comes down.

It wasn’t a difficult decision, and I haven’t regretted it for a moment.  The company wanted to eliminate a level of management, voluntarily of course, and they made it worth my while to leave.  I was caught between a strong manager, one I admired, and some strong subordinates, many of whom I’d helped to train, and I figured it was time to go before someone asked me to go.  I was going to travel and write, and my wife had it in her mind after chasing me on the corporate junket for twenty-five years that we were going to find a little slice of heaven not to far of the beaten path.

I went back for a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities since retiring, creative writing with a minor in social psychology.  It’s sad, I’ve found, the beautiful things about art and critical thinking at the cutting edge of culture our education system teaches each of us to ignore when it’s cranking out fodder for the corporate economy.

I’ve published a few pieces of short fiction and some creative non-fiction.  We’ve travelled a lot, the wife and I, to some pretty far-flung places.  That slice of heaven has had to wait as our daughter prepares to put down her own roots, but I have to say it’s been a joy to be a part of her life the last several years, as she’s gone from girl holding onto her childhood to a woman anticipating her future, something that never would have happened had I stayed in the corporate world.

The financial implications of retirement are nearly cliché by now, at least if you’re paying attention to advertisements on the television from Wall Street investment types that probably don’t make a hell of a lot of sense to anyone who doesn’t already have a significant investment portfolio.  I spent a few sleepless nights at first worrying about money, whether I’d put away enough to enable a comfortable lifestyle for thirty or forty years without a regular paycheck, particularly with a daughter preparing to start college.    

Nothing prepared me for the nightmares, the restive nights as my subconscious cycles through the dissonance of dreams about work years later when I should have known somewhere deep down that I’m not supposed to be there.  I’ve started to think of it in terms of addiction, or withdrawal perhaps, not from the routine of work, but from the adrenalin rush it induces, the big deals, the intense negotiations, the power plays against attorneys with long names and longer pedigrees that have you walking on egg shells while you were in the thick of it and leave you feeling exhilarated when they were completed.  

It’s like chewing tobacco for any of you who have had to overcome that particular addiction.  You’re dreaming at night that you have this great big, unsavory wad in your mouth, and you’re working furiously to get it out, pushing it out with your tongue, digging it out with a finger, even rinsing it out with water, never quite able to rid yourself of it until you wake up suddenly spitting with all your might to get that foul taste out of your mouth.   Except, when I do it, it’s foul taste of work I’m attempting to expel.

Retirement is something everybody should be lucky enough to try once before you actually retire.  You learn pretty damn quick that the personal myths you’ve built around your identity, your professional good looks — just kidding, your killer negotiating skills, your keen sense of human motivation, and your ability to carefully balance risk and rewards to capture shareholder value, not to mention your importance to the organization and your relationship with co-workers are not entirely true.  The world goes on just fine without you, and it can feel sometimes like you have all but disappeared.  

That might be beneficial to the young lions out there, the ones who believe their poop doesn’t stink right out of college.  A colleague back in my corporate days used to call them instant experts, the people who claim to understand an entire field from a single experience.  But it can be frightening when you’re facing the prospect of starting all over, unless, of course, you’re one of those instant experts, and I suppose it’s only natural that you hold onto some of the dreams while you’re building a new identity.

Lately I’ve noticed something new creeping into my experience, something that just popped up over the past couple months, years after I retired.  We recently returned from five weeks in Greece, my wife and I, and I just can’t seem to get into the routine of real life anymore, not since we got back.  

Those of you who have been to Greece will tell me it’s reasonable to feel a little let down after the spontaneity of Greek culture.  Ordinarily, I’d agree with you, but this has been going on for weeks now, and I just can’t bring myself to find much satisfaction in the little pleasures of life — a steak, a good glass of wine and a stunning sunset — not the way I used to.

There is this essay I read, from Lee Gutkind, to the effect that the writing life is all about waiting, for inspiration, for a publisher to reply to your query, for that letter of acceptance, and ultimately for that publication to appear, and my problem is I don’t get as much pleasure anymore — dare I say, actually feel a growing sense a disappointment –with each opportunity to publish.  Gutkind suggests that the ability “to publish great work is what makes all the rest of the waiting worthwhile,” but I’m not so sure.  I have it on good authority from other artists — well, maybe one or two other artists, and painters at that, no work is ever complete.

I mean, we are talking the human condition, aren’t we, writing and publishing no more than other vocations, and retirement no less than any other stage of life?  We’re enamored with novelty, and it takes more with each new experience to get us excited.  Lately it seems, I’ve turned inward, living more in my thoughts than my senses, waiting for something big to happen, anything really — good or bad, and my problem is I don’t have as much foresight anymore into what the next big thing might be – or I have too much of it, I can’t decide which — or any confidence that I’m going to find as much pleasure in it.

Anyway, that was kind of my mindset standing there behind Rich Little.  I wasn’t exactly present in the moment.  I’m struggling with my identity a little bit, as a retiree, that is, and a writer.  I’ve been feeling a little, shall we say, numbed to my prospects, and I projected my own dissatisfaction onto him.

So shoot me.

I had the pleasure of studying human development as part of my minor in social psychology, and it turns out there has been a lot of speculation on the topic of life stages.  I say speculation, because psychology was addressed until quite recently as a branch of philosophy.  

That’s right, folks, those minds that history acknowledges as great contributors in the fields of psychology and psychoanalysis, Freud, Jung, and Erikson among them, they told us how the mind works at various stages in our development based entirely upon how they thought from their own ruminations it should work.  Other have attempted to introduce the scientific method to the study, but the people designing the experiments aren’t usually the type who had have a wealth of practical experience, not when the subject is aging, and if you’re like me you don’t take a lot of comfort in statistical analysis intended to define the norm.

Freud gave us the Oedipal complex.  Jung gave us the collective subconscious.  Erik Erickson, bless his heart, gave us the identity crisis, from infancy to old age, with the conflicts one must resolve to successfully pass from one stage of life to the next, and it’s those stages I want to discuss, particularly the last one.

Erikson theorized that each of us go through what we hope has been a period of sustained productivity — as opposed to stagnation — from our mid-thirties to roughly our mid sixties, at which point we enter a sustained period of reflection during which we face a crisis of sorts between what he calls “ego integrity” and “despair.”  Apparently, we’re supposed to use the time available to us in that final stage of life to piece together the story of our lives, our successes and failures, in an arc that allows us to live out the rest of our lives with a sense of completeness or closure if we want to avoid the curse of despair.

My wife picked up the book, Travels with Epicurus, A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life, before our trip to Greece.  She didn’t get around to reading it, beyond the first few pages, I guess, and gave it to me upon our return to help me out of my funk.  Imagine my surprise when I opened it to find it is less about the Greek islands than it is Western culture, and less about a fulfilled life, measured in terms of the entire life cycle, than a fulfilled old age.  

The author, Daniel Klein, studied under Erik Erikson as a philosophy student at Harvard, and in his book, he attempts to reconcile the Epicurean ideal of seeking pleasure with Erikson’s notion of ego integrity.  It was Epicurus after all who said, “It is not the young man who should be considered fortunate but the old man who has lived well, because the young man in his prime wanders much by chance, vacillating his beliefs, while the old man has docked in the harbor, having safeguarded his true happiness.”

The problem with the modern world, Klein says, is that we’re fixated on what he calls the “forever young” mentality.  We’re compelled to seek eternal youth, the notion that we can prolong that youthful vigor through cosmetic surgery, hormonal therapy, fitness and a bucket list full of life goals we need to accomplish well into our golden years, what Klein calls “old, old age.”  The definition of ego integrity is doing what comes natural to us, and I gather from Klein that acceptance of the aging process is the most natural thing we can do.

The inflection point for Klein was the suggestion of his dentist that he undergo dental implants, as opposed to fitting himself with dentures, to compensate for the loss of bone density in his jaw.  He questioned the wisdom of using weeks, if not months, of the time he has left to undergo the procedure and painful rehabilitation when all he would accomplish was avoid the inconvenience and embarrassment of dentures.  Instead, he retired to a Greek island, his suitcase full of books, to contemplate the great questions of our time, like the importance of memories, companionship, of play, of spirituality, and the best way to inhabit the life he had left to him.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I just don’t think giving into the temptation of ennui is the cure for it, not in my case.  I’ll get those dental implants, keep my regimen of fitness and diet, and continue tick off items from my bucket list, even if I might pass on cosmetic surgery, erectile dysfunction drugs, and testosterone supplements.  I have loved a man who gave up early in life, and another who fought to the bitter end, and while the one lived just as long as the other, the other lived better with the time they both were given.  

For me, I guess, it comes back to those words from Lee Gutkind.  “To publish great work is what makes all the rest of the waiting worthwhile.”  They make for good metaphor, for life at least, if you supplement them with the corollary, no great work is ever complete.

So I got on the Internet after my wife went to sleep, to see if I could claim some redemption from our conversation.  I expected to find some indication that Rich Little had stumbled somewhere along the way, and that this show of his, the one I called sad, is a desperate step backward for a man who has to work.   

As it turns out, I found, Little has enjoyed a productive career since the days we used to laugh with him in front of the television, even if I haven’t exactly followed him since that time.  He lives in Las Vegas, and his current show, the one I ridiculed, is a continuation of a long and successful run on the Strip.   

No salvation there, I’m afraid, but some wisdom perhaps in the example of his life.   

He is on record as saying he has no plans to quit performing, not as long as his health and voice hold up, and as I continued reading I started to understand he motivations. Cary Grant once said to him, ‘You have no idea what you do to people.  You make them forget all their problems; make them laugh … and that is a rare thing to be able to do.’”    People often comment on a particular sketch he’s done, he says, “they remember it for the rest of their lives, and that’s a pretty amazing feeling.”

And what of my encounter with the man?  How did it end, you’ll want to know.

The elevator continued without stopping after he got in, all the way down to the casino level.  The door opened to a throng of people waiting to go back up, and I have to say he exhibited the same curious behavior.  He lowered his head in what I interpreted as an attempt to avoid recognition, and he seemed to flinch when he wasn’t recognized.   

I caught up with him after a few quick steps along the corridor adjacent to the casino floor, so that I was walking next to him, almost shoulder to shoulder.

“Rich Little?” I asked.

He stopped and turned toward me.

“Yes,” he said without hesitation or any apparent reluctance.

“I’m a fan of yours.”

I held out my hand, and he took it in a firm grasp.

“Thank you,” he said.

We went our separate ways, but I remember thinking what a refreshingly pleasant man he is.

And my biggest regret from the experience?  I still don’t remember actually looking at him, even when I shook his hand.

  

 

Posted in

Jan Priddy, 12/21/2015

Current occupation: beach walker 
Former occupations: private and public high school Art and English teacher, college English teacher, quilt store clerk (best reverse income), baker, architectural draftsperson, freelance designer, dog magazine columnist, direct delivery junk-mail rep (most disreputable), artist, record store sales clerk, abused Taco Bell employee.
Contact information: My work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and publication in journals such as Brevity, The MacGuffin, CALYX, Work Literary Magazine, Raven Chronicles, The Humanist, and North American Review. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, I live in the NW corner of my home state of Oregon. Until recently I blogged at Quiet Minds. Contact me at andpride@gmail.com.

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COFFEE SHOP

 

“Well, come on then,” Dad said. “We don’t have all day.” He shoved the driver’s door shut, and headed across the parking lot. Inside the truck, Rob tugged on the latch, and the door opened with a grinding shriek of metal on metal. It was 1957 and the future hadn’t shown up yet. Behind the café the sky had just bleached from pink dawn to hot day.

    He caught up with his dad just as the door to the restaurant was about to shut. A glass door in a metal frame, glass all the way to the ground. Inside the air was cool, and smelled refrigerator-cold, but also of eggs and sausages, sweet syrup and cigarettes. Men hunched at tables by the window, and on the padded stools lined up before the counter. Their voices clattered with silverware on plates, cups into saucers.

    “Hey, Dot,” his dad called. A woman in a fitted gold dress and striped apron looked up. She had plates of food all over her arms—one in each hand and three more balanced between.

“Hey, Al, how’s tricks?” She spoke between lips holding a filter cigarette. On her feet were shoes like the ones the nurses wore, her legs tan from stockings. She walked to a table by the window, speaking to each of the seated men. Her lipstick was red in a pale face, and a riffle of blond curls crossed her forehead. She gestured toward the stools at the counter with one loaded elbow. Rob had never been out to breakfast before, had never seen this waitress, but he disliked her instantly.

    “Two of the usual,” his dad said as he sidled onto a stool. He nodded Rob to the seat beside him. “You want your eggs scrambled or sunny side up like your dad?”

    Rob didn’t know what “sunny side up” meant but he nodded back and his dad pulled a cigarette from the pack in his breast pocket and struck a match under the counter top. “All right then,” he said and pulled a long draw, blew out the match without taking the cigarette out of his mouth. “Sausages, Robby. Sausages, two eggs, short stack, no orange juice, and I guess we’ll skip the coffee for you.” He looked down at his son, tapped the cigarette in the glass ashtray and called out, “Bring my boy a cold glass of milk, Dot.”

    “Will do.” The woman clunked the huge oblong plates onto a table and walked behind the bar counter. She marked on a pad with a pencil, tore the page, stuck it in the rotating clippers of orders, and spun it toward the kitchen. “Two fives, Sunny,” she called to whoever was cooking.

    “Is this where Joey had breakfast on his birthday?” Rob asked. His younger brother’s birthday the month before had been the cause of a complete dust up in the back yard. Joey always got the best stuff.

    “Yep,” said his dad. “Come here every Saturday for breakfast. You’re coming along to help at the job, so you get the regular too.” He dragged on the cigarette and Rob watched it spark red as paint. “You gonna work hard for me today?”

    “Uh-huh.”

    “What’s that?”

    “Yes, sir.”

    His dad nodded and attended to his smokes. He looked up and down the bar. “Hey Travis, you still working for Fordham?”

    “Hey, Al,” said a man in white overalls. “Nope. Finished that job. Working for Terence Cooper over on the Indian School Road.”

    “Brick?”

    “Yeah. Did the window trim and it’s just the interiors left to paint. They got tile in the bathroom. Flamingo pink.” The other man laughed. “Wanted the walls to match.”

    “Talk him out of it?”

    The painter shrugged. “Maybe. I’m bringing white and we’ll see if he wants a bathroom looks like a whore house.” He looked down and seemed to notice Rob for the first time. “This your boy?”

    “My oldest. Rob.”

    “Nice to meet you, Rob. Your dad tell you we served in the same unit?”

    “No, sir,” said Rob. His dad had been an Air Force mechanic during the war. He waited for more information, but the men went back to discussing housing projects, stupid foremen and stupider architects. The wait between jobs, working in the heat, and how someone drove a nail through his thumb.

    “Dumb as a sack of hammers. I told Cooper he’d be sorry for taking him on, but he doesn’t listen,” said the painter.

    “No, they never do.”

    Dot reached under the back side of the counter and flipped paper coasters in front of them, poured coffee for his dad, and a glass with milk so cold it hurt Rob’s teeth when he took a sip. He remembered in time to say thank you.

    “You’re welcome, son,” the waitress said, and worked her way down the bar, pouring coffee as she went.

    Rob sat up as tall as he could to see. Behind the counter were trays of coffee cups upside down, saucers, glasses like the one his milk came in, and smaller glasses he guessed were for orange juice. He wished his dad had asked him. He would have liked a glass of the orange juice, dark like a sunset, moisture beading the sides of a pitcher, also on the ledge. Under the cover of a footed stand were raised doughnuts, some with red jelly leaking out. Another stand held a complete cake, bigger than what his mother made from a box mix, and frosted with wavy chocolate and a fancy bubbly border around the edges. He sucked his upper lip into his mouth and bit at the chapped skin before he remembered he was trying not to do that anymore and spit it out.

    “No chocolate cake for your breakfast,” Dot said from behind the counter. She grinned. “Saw ya’ lookin’. Don’t think your dad’s giving you cake for breakfast. But just you wait, you’re gonna like what you get.” She put before each of them silverware wrapped up tight in a twist of paper napkin.

    She slid a bottle of catsup in front of Rob’s dad. Behind her, coffee poured out of a machine into another glass carafe, one of three half full of coffee. Men at the tables called out for more syrup or catsup, clean napkins, refills on the coffee. Rob watched her leave the counter, top off coffee, stack glasses and cups and gather dirty dishes onto a tray emptied of clean cups. So far she hadn’t stopped walking and she talked nonstop to whoever was closest, her smile nonstop too. Someone in the far corner table must have told a joke because all three men barked laughter into the chill air.

    Thring, thring, the man in the kitchen ran a black-painted bell, “Order up.” Rob saw two huge oval platters on the ledge leading from the kitchen.

    Dot swung the platters from the ledge to right in front of them. It was more food than Rob had ever had on a plate all his own, yellow, white, golden, brown, a twig of green.

    His dad pounded the catsup bottle until it dribbled onto his eggs, handed it to Rob. He poked the point of his toast into his reddened eggs, and then sopped up the yolks. In his other hand, his fork cut pancakes. A cigarette burned in the ashtray and between bites, his dad rubbed his hand across his chin and drew smoke, tapped ash, and called hello to men coming in the door.

    “See that man with the green shirt?” his dad gestured with his loaded fork.

    “The one who just sat down?” Rob turned to see a gray-haired man in a neat white shirt and bolo tie.

    “That’s him.” His dad took two bites, chewed and swallowed, sipped coffee. “Meanest man in Arizona,” said his dad.

    “I can hear you, Svensson.” The voice was not shouting, but it was loud and it came from the Meanest Man in Arizona.

    Rob rested his fork on the edge of his plate, and looked again past his dad and then up into his dad’s face. Both men had cigarettes in their mouths. Neither looked at the other.

    “Don’t think I can’t hear you.”

    “I’m only saying what’s common knowledge,” Rob’s dad said to the kitchen.

    “Like hell—”

    The waitress stepped from behind the counter with two glass carafes of coffee. “You boys just take it slow and easy. Too early in the morning for this.” She topped off the cups of all the men at the tables, emptying one carafe and pouring from the other with her left hand. There didn’t seem time to do it so fast. “And watch your language,” she said.

Rob leaned all the way forward to see around his dad and met the eyes of the Meanest Man in Arizona. The waitress was pouring the man’s coffee, talking in a voice Rob couldn’t hear.

“Fine,” said the Meanest Man in Arizona, and he swung around on the stool, stepped down, and left without his breakfast.

Rob noticed how quiet the café had become because right then people began talking again. All the noise of the café went right on once the glass door sucked shut.

“Why is he mean?” Rob asked. He could see the Man climb into a pickup and back out of his parking place.

“Laid off his entire crew last Christmas.”

His own dad was always laid off over Christmas, and Rob opened his mouth to say as much.

“A month at Christmas. From the Monday before Thanksgiving.”

A week without work was something his dad planned for. His mother cried last New Years because there was no food in the house and she couldn’t go shopping until payday.

“He went fishing up in Minnesota. Jack Perry had to borrow from his sister to pay his mortgage. Isn’t that right?” His dad turned to the man sitting on the other side of Rob.

“So they say,” said the old man in a plaid shirt, hands thick and rough as carved clay curved around his coffee cup. He looked out from under graying eyebrows and sucked his lips in.

“Men need to work,” said his dad and turned his gaze back to the kitchen.

An order came up from the kitchen and the bell rang again. When Dot returned she leaned her hip against the ledge behind the counter and lit a fresh cigarette, tipped one foot onto its toe and grasped one elbow with her other hand, smoking the way girls did, the cigarette pinched between her index and middle fingers. Lipstick made a pale mark on the filter. When Rob glanced up at her eyes, the waitress winked. Rob looked down at his plate, and forked a hunk of pancake and sausage into his mouth, struggled to chew without choking.

    “Pack us up two lunches, Dot,” said his dad as he poured more syrup over his pancakes, big as dinner plates.

“You’re not going to give that to your boy, are you?” she said as she set another syrup pitcher in front of Rob. “It’s blueberry syrup, Honey,” she said to him. “Give it a try.” She winked, and turned back to his dad. “Peanut butter and hard fried eggs for Rob here?”

    “Nothing better.”

    “Whatever you say, Al.” She shrugged, but then she turned to Rob. “ ‘Course if you was to say you’d rather I put blackberry jelly alongside your peanut butter, I think I could manage that. And maybe a hunk of chocolate cake?”

    Rob looked from his dad, who faced straight ahead, chewing and holding his coffee cup with both hands, to the waitress. Back again to his dad, who said, “Fine by me, son, but you’re missing something.” He swiped the last bit of his toast around the plate and then talked while he chewed. “Go ahead and give my boy and me some cake in our lunch.”

    “I’ll have what my dad’s having, Dot,” Rob said. “Thank you.”

 

Posted in

Mark Blickley, 12/14/2015

Current Occupation: Teacher
Former Occupation: Photo Finisher 
Contact Information: This piece is based on a friend who is an ultra dedicated "warrior" pest exterminator.  My latest book is Sacred Misfits (Red Hen Press) and my latest play, Beauty Knows No Pain, recently ended a Fall run at NYC's 13th Street Repertory Theater.  I am a proud member of the Dramatist Guild and  PEN American Center.

 

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Exterminating Angel

 

They’re hard to see.  By you can smell ‘em. Yeah, they’re here alright. This is their most favorite room in the entire hotel.

Smell that?  It’s like rotting raspberries wrapped in a stanky sheet. You can smell it, right? It’s the odor of indecency. Thought I got ‘em all last week. Or most.  And no one comes better than me, Crispin Colvin, exterminator extraordinaire!  Damn straight! Know what my motto is? “My extermination clears a path to your liberation.”)  Your liberation, from fear and suffering and infection                    

I  know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking why does that fool spray all that deadly chemical and not wear a mask?  A mask?  I don’t need no friggin’ mask. I ain’t got nothing to hide or be ashamed of.  Purity protects me. Purity of essence!

You doubt me?  You think I’ve sniffed too many fumes and delude myself that spirit is superior to body?  My body of work speaks for itself. And I’m here to protect all of you from the evil that goes by many names— chintzes, mahogany flats, red coats, wall louse, crimson ramblers. Yes, I’m talkin’ bed bugs. Those little demons are masters of deception.   Anywhere you can slide a credit card a bed bug could fit. They can flatten themselves down to fit in any crack or crevice.  Feeling itchy my friends?

I’m like a freakin’ suicide bomber, willing to die for a cause or a reason in any season in order to flush away all of their bloodsucking trauma and filth. Filth, you say? Don’t all the magazines and newspapers stories make a point of telling us that bed bugs aren’t attracted to dirty, unclean, grimy places?   It’s true. They don’t even inject any dangerous diseases in the warm succulent flesh they feast on. Your flesh. That’s not their brand of torment.  The filth I’m talking about is PERVERSION!  A filthy perversion of body and soul! Your body and soul!

Do I hear snickering? Go ahead, laugh. Laugh and show your ignorance. There’s a national epidemic of bed bugs in these United States of America and not because of physical filth. It’s because of moral filth. Within the fabric of American life are the crevices where these gluttons skulk and hide, waiting for the opportunity to siphon your

blood to fuel the most despicable acts of sexual depravity this side of a Tiger’s wood!

You ever hear the label scientists put on bed bug mating rituals? They call it

TRAUMATIC COPULATION!   That’s right.  And do you know why they call it traumatic? It’s because the male ignores the female’s genitalia. Rejects her pathway to creation. He refuses to gently place his sperm into a female opening. Oh no. If they did that it would mean the males would have to court the females and show them respect by trying to please or appease them. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but not in the wicked world of bed buggery!

    A male bed bug's sex organ is a weapon greater than my own. It’s a long sharp spear with a hypodermic hook attached at the end. The male pounces on the female, holds her firmly while she struggles, and then rapes her by stabbing his razor sharp hook over and over into her back, her stomach, any exposed area on her body. He stabs and squirts these huge doses of sperm directly into her mutilated flesh. If she’s lucky enough that this mating wound doesn't develop a serious infection and kill her, then his seed swims to her ovaries. Every time he gores her flesh it leaves a scar.

I ask you, can a society that treats its females like this be less deserving of extinction? I am a warrior for righteousness.

Brace yourself, my friends.  There are even more shocking perversions male bed bugs commit against all that is decent and true in nature. They indulge in bestiality.  You heard right. Bestiality.  Twenty percent of their sexual encounters are with foreign animals. The little hopheads will bang anything that even looks like a bed bug. These perverts have sex up to 200 times a day and they don’t give a damn who it’s with. These gangsta bugs spend their whole lives just stabbing and shooting, stabbing and shooting. They stab anything that moves with their pointed pricks and shoot a disgusting amount of splooge into whomever or whatever they gash and slash. If a male bed bug were human in size, he’d be shooting seven gallons of man milk with each ejaculation! It ain’t human and it ain’t decent. Killing them is a sacred privilege.

Domination! Abomination!  Proliferation! Irritation!  Aggravation! Defecation! Fornication!  And Homo-gen-iz-ation of an entire generation of male miscreants!

Yes! Yes! Yes!  These bloodsucking fiends engage in homosexuality more than any other depraved sexual activity.  Fifty percent of their illicit intercourse are the rape of other males who have just sucked—your—blood. And when the sperm of the rapist enters the male, the jism searches for ovaries. When none are found it mixes with the raped male’s man gravy and is passed on in his next encounter with a female. Sick. Sick. Sick.

You wanna scratch?  You feel them chewing on your tender skin? Where’s the itch? The itch is in their lust for your blood. They cannot indulge their dirtbag dicks without feeding on your juicy red plasma. They must feed on and steal your lifeblood energy in order to satisfy their corrupt desires. It’s the warmth of your bodies and the sweetness of your breath that draws them to your vibrant flesh.     

I smell them!

I listen to them!

I fill my weapon with venom and wait… wait… wait… wait….

 

Posted in

Devin Donovan, 12/7/2015

Current Occupation: Lecturer in Composition
Former Occupations: Plumber, Student, Corporate Communications Writer, Contractor's Apprentice, Ice Cream Scoop/Soda Jerk.
Contact Information: Devin Donovan lives in Charlottesville, VA where he works as a Lecturer in Composition at the University of Virginia. His work has recently been featured in Talking Writing and Black Heart Magazine. He keeps his hands in the trades as a part-time plumber doing small jobs for friends and family. He loves the smell of copper tubing dust ground into his skin. He loves to build sentences.

 

#

The Start of the River

    Llewellyn Powell came out first thing in the morning to thaw the pipes in Albert Bagni’s basement. He brought his apprentice Jeremy with him. They came in through the bulkhead out of the cold, Jeremy carrying the portable propane heater and the canister of propane. Lew carried his droplight and a small bag of hand tools. He turned and shut the swing doors of the bulkhead after him. Jeremy got to work firing up the space heater.

    The ticket said no water. “So what’s goin’ on?” Lew asked Albert. No water could mean anything. The office didn’t know.

    “I heard water running in the middle of the night,” said Albert, competing with the noise of the propane heater, “so I came down and shut the main valve off.”

    “And it’s off now?” Lew asked, “cuz I don’t see no water.” It was off now, Al explained, puzzled. Lew was buying time. Jeremy tinkered with the heater to look busy.

    “Ok well I gotta see water to know where it’s coming from,” Lew said. Al cracked the valve and Lew grabbed it and torqued it open hard.

    “I can hear it,” said Lew, “still can’t see it.” And then the water started pouring slowly out the entrance to the crawl space and running down the cinder block partition. Slow like gravity, not pressure.  

    Jeremy darted around looking for a bucket. Lew stood and watched. Al slouched his head away from the ceiling, suddenly feeling very large. “I’ll leave you to it,” said Al. “I’m upstairs if you need anything.” Lew nodded but kept his eyes on the crawl space.

    When Al was gone Lew told Jeremy to “shut that off.” Jeremy turned the main valve to the right with a mix of relief and guilt. He was useful now. Crawlspace jobs can always use a runner. But runners don’t go in the hole.

    Lew went up the bulkhead steps and the slats of wood creaked under the weight of his boots. He released the latch lock of the steel doors and pushed one open after another and they fell to rest on the hard snow with a soft crunch.

    Lew returned from the van with his solder box. He twisted the lit end of his cigarette between his fingers and put what was left in his pocket. He told Jeremy to wait at the entrance to the crawlspace and to turn the valve on when he told him to. He unhooked his knife, his tape and his cell phone from his front pockets and placed them on the ledge of the cinder block wall. Unraveled the droplight cord that was wrapped around the bulb’s metal cage and plugged it into the closest outlet. Clicked on the light and placed it in the hole. Pushed his solder box in as far as it would go. Stepped up on a chair and squeezed himself into the hole headfirst.

    The water had run down the fall line of the earth where the dirt came together like a funnel. He held his caged light like a torch, nudged his box forward, and inched along the water’s path like a worm.

    Lew pushed his tools and dragged his belly until his droplight ran out of cord. Twenty-five feet in. He liked to keep track of the deep holes. Guys at the shop knew how to talk about holes. The pipes took a right turn. The river took a right turn. He hung the bulb’s cage by its hook and tried to face its light in the direction he would have to go. He left his solder box with the light and slithered halfway back down the funnel of earth to Jeremy.

    “Turn it on!” he yelled.

    “What?” Jeremy called from the mouth of the space.

    “Turn the valve on!” he shouted. “Slow.”

    “Ok.”

    Lew inched back to his solder box and the hanging light and heard the split pipe start to hiss somewhere off in the darkness. He watched the river start to run again.

    He pushed his solder box ahead of him and then crawled after it. Push, crawl, push – until he was so far from the light that it started to fade. Another twenty-five feet, at least, he thought. The start of the river was still somewhere in the darkness. He pulled his miniature flashlight out of his back pocket.  He flashed it at the river. He ran it along the pipes. Mostly he followed the sound.

    He crawled until he reached a corner of the home’s foundation. There was some low light coming in from a hole in the siding dug by a skunk. He shone his light around until he saw a nest made of shredded fiberglass insulation. It was empty. He put his light away. He could see well enough by the light the skunk let in. Water was pouring slow and steady out of the back of a half inch copper elbow where it had frozen and split. It lay against the concrete foundation. The skunk or the rats had robbed its insulation. He had one elbow in the box. He could make it work if he unsweat the split elbow, but he needed the water off.

    He looked back at the entrance, but was too deep in the hole to see it. He yelled to Jeremy. “shut it off!” The water continued to trickle. He yelled louder. “hey!” He could make out the faint roar of the propane heater on the other side of the house. He wasn’t about to crawl back. He screamed long at the top of his lungs, “HEY!” If no one heard that, he thought, then no one could hear him here.

    If he got out of the hole, he could bring the story back to the shop, thought Lew. But he knew it wouldn’t sound like the stories the other guys told. They had that point – the peak – that the guy would build to or a punch line he would recite and repeat and emphasize with gestures to make sure everyone knew when to laugh or when to be amazed. This wasn’t one of those stories. There was no sound bite – no sudden change. There was no beginning to this, and no end in sight. Just the forever of every day stretching out before him like a dark, unending crawl space. No one would believe how deep he was under this house. He’d have to drag them here, and even then it wouldn’t be the same because then they’d have company. Someone who could hear them. Lew’s story would just make them feel alone. Best he could do was tear Jeremy down for disappearing. The guys would get that.

    Lew screamed to no one until he was full and tired like after a big meal. He lay his head down in the crook of his elbow, closed his eyes, and nestled into the dirt like a rat as he listened to the water trickle out of the fitting and run down its own icicles into a pool that fed a river that the earth was too hard and cold to absorb.

Posted in

Matt McGowan, 11/30/2015

Current Occupation: science and research writer
Former Occupation: newspaper reporter
Contact Information: Matt McGowan has a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in journalism, both from the University of Missouri. He was a newspaper reporter, and for many years now he has worked as a science and research writer at the University of Arkansas. His stories have appeared in Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Open Road Review, Danse Macabre and Indiana Voice Journal.

 

#

Let’s Go for a Ride

 

It must have been 1977 or 1978, because Kelly was there, standing on the back porch, messing around with his trombone. I caught my parents whispering at the kitchen table, my father holding the newspaper, folding it quickly and then tucking it under his arm.

    They turned toward me, but then my father looked away.

“What?” I said. “What’s going on?”


    My mother stepped from the table and met me in the middle of the room. Her hair was short then, and that too told me it was ’77 or ’78. Standing in front of me, she placed the ends of her fingers against my chest and kissed me on the cheek.

    “Nothing, honey,” she said. “You better hurry. Kelly’s waiting for you.”


 

For three summers, Kelly and I worked on a treehouse in the post oak behind our garage. At the end of the third year, while building an extension on two branches reaching out across the fence, we saw a burgundy Jaguar pull into the alley between our garage and the Parker’s. We were sawing and hammering when we heard the roar of the Jag’s engine. We stopped working and watched the car roll under us. The driver turned and parked on the concrete slab in front of the Parker’s garage.

Kelly and I scurried out of the tree and crept up the alley. Peeking around the corner of the Parker’s garage, we saw the driver. He was leaning against the Jag, reading a book.

Tall and lean, his chestnut hair shined in the sunlight. He was focused on the book, nodded slightly, then licking his forefinger and turning a page.

“I like your treehouse,” he said, without looking away from the book.

I looked at Kelly. His eyes widened like an aperture opening in slow motion.

“But I’d do that wall a little different,” said the man.

“Which wall?” asked Kelly.

“The one facing the garage. I could help you with it, if you want.”

We nodded. “Okay,” said Kelly.

“But first…”

The man slapped the book shut and tossed it in the car. Stepping back, he glanced at the house and then turned and starting walking toward us.

“Who are you?” Kelly asked.

The man reached us and offered his hand to shake, me first.

“Dallas Parker,” he said.

“’Parker?” said Kelly, before he and Dallas finished shaking. “So you’re related to…?” Kelly pointed to the house. He knew who lived there; he just didn’t know what to call them.

“My folks,” said Dallas.

Kelly muttered. “Oh, I didn’t know…”

“Listen,” said Dallas. “Can you guys do me a favor?”

We nodded.

He reached back and pulled out a fat wallet, the leather worn at the edges. He flipped the wallet open and revealed the compartment for bills. There were scores in there. Rifling through them, he found two fives.

“Here,” he said. “One for each of you.”

“What for?” said Kelly.

“I need you to watch my car,” said Dallas. “Don’t let anybody touch it.”

“That’s it?” said Kelly.

Dallas nodded and then turned and started toward the house. As he passed the car, he thought of something. Reaching inside, he pulled out a blue towel.

“Here,” he said, handing it to me. “This too. If a bird shits on my car, wipe it off.”

 

At supper that night, when I asked my parents about Dallas Parker, their eyes lit up and they looked at each other. My dad frowned. It was the same countenance he took on when I brought home Bs and Cs instead of As.

    My question was simple: “Why didn’t anyone tell me the Parkers had a son?” Everyone knew the family. Dr. Parker, Dallas’s father, had delivered virtually every baby in town since 1953. Mrs. Parker grew world-class peonies and hydrangeas, which brought hundreds of gawkers by their house. She played the organ at church and was the attendance secretary at the high school. Their daughter, Mrs. Feland, was my eighth-grade science teacher. Her son Chris was two grades behind Kelly and me.

    Despite all this, despite the fact that this prominent family lived right behind us, that we had exchanged pies and sometimes socialized during the holidays, I had no idea they had a son.

    “Why do you ask?” said my father.

    “Because I met him today. Kelly and I did.”

    Again, my parents looked each other, their brows furled.

    “What?” I said. “Why are you guys acting so weird?”

    “Is he home?” asked my mother.

    “Yeah,” I said. “We talked to him in the alley.”

    My dad said Dallas had gone away to college on a football scholarship. It was years ago, before we even moved to town. He lived somewhere in California, and until now, apparently, he never came home.

But what my parents didn’t know – and Dallas’s own parents didn’t know – was that Dallas Parker had been home, or close to it, for months.

 

Dallas had a smile no one could say no to. I remember thinking, if this guy likes me, I’ll do fine in the world. There was electricity around him, a glow, and it came on when his subtle nod turned into a grin, and that grin turned into a smile.

    He was washing the Jag. I met him in the alley. He’d already helped us with the treehouse wall and bought us lumber for a new room. We’d gotten to know him pretty good.

But that day, Kelly wasn’t there, which seems odd to me today. Until his family moved to Texas, he and I were always together.  

    Dallas and I talked while he washed the car. He caught me staring at it, mesmerized.

    “Come on,” he said, “let’s go for a ride.”

Before I even considered what my parents would say, we were gone, cruising down MacArthur.

We didn’t talk during the ride. I think he knew I wanted to feel the car under me, listen to its engine roar as he shifted through the gears. We cruised slowly through the neighborhood, never reaching fourth gear. This went on for ten minutes, and I thought he was taking us home.

Instead, he passed Pennsylvania and drove all the way to Broadway.

I looked at him as he turned the steering wheel. His jaw was tense, the upper teeth set against the lower, and there was something different about his eyes, like the light had gone out of them.

We went several blocks before he said anything.

“You wanna have some fun?” he said.

“Okay,” I said. “What kind of fun?”  

“I’ll show you.”

He turned right on Madison and headed toward the new high school. The building was only a few years old. They had built it on top of the field he’d played football on. If he was nostalgic about this, it didn’t show. When we passed the ugly, windowless structure, he didn’t even look at it.

At the first entrance to the school parking lot, he shifted down into second gear. The Jag’s engine revved so loud I thought it would explode out of the hood. Dallas’s right foot played with the throttle, pumping it, making the car lurch. He did this a few times, and then he buried his foot on the accelerator and everything just opened up. I could hear the carburetor sucking oxygen as we screamed down the street.

I knew what he was gunning for but I didn’t think he would do it. Just beyond the T intersection up ahead, there was a bump in the road, a remnant of the old embankment that had been there before the city extended Madison to the north. I’d gone over the bump several times, with my mother behind the wheel of our station wagon, at no more than fifteen miles an hour. When the Jag hit that bump, we were pushing fifty.  

When we launched, my right hand white-knuckled the armrest on the door while the other pressed against the dashboard. My head thrust forward, and I levitated, suspended there, floating in slow motion like an astronaut in a gravity-less capsule.

I grunted but it wasn’t audible. All I could hear, while flying through space, was the whine of the engine, the wheels spinning and Dallas screeching like an insane monkey. When we slammed to the pavement, the car heaved and skidded. Dallas grunted too but immediately sucked air back into his lungs and then blew it out again, having himself a good laugh while furiously cranking the wheel to keep us from rolling.

The engine roar and the squeal of the tires were deafening. We slid sideways for a long time and I thought we would flip over. Somehow, we didn’t. When we stopped, we were facing the opposite direction.

“Aaaaahhh haaahhhh!” shouted Dallas, slamming his hand against the steering wheel.

I hadn’t breathed since we’d launched. I was laboring to catch my breath.

He looked at me. “You okay, man?”

I don’t know what I said. All I can remember is feeling the door handle on my palm and my back tingling against the seat.

 

It rained the next week, which kept Kelly and me out of the treehouse. I started to care less about it, but he wanted to continue working.

When we returned to it, eight days after the joyride with Dallas, neither of us had seen any sign of him. We were working, still fiddling with the small room that hovered over the fence, when we saw a different car pull into the alley. This one was a tan, a two-door Oldsmobile with a chrome bumper and a white felt top. The car moved slowly and stopped next to the concrete pad in front of the Parker’s garage. Kelly and I watched as it idled there for less than a minute and then moved slowly, continuing down the alley.

After it was gone, we may have driven a few more nails, but I know both of us were thinking about the car. When it returned, this time stopping on the street at the end of the alley, we hopped down out of the tree.

The man standing outside the car, which was still running, was wearing a bright blue and yellow Hawaiian shirt, half buttoned. Acne had permanently scarred his face. He was probably much younger than he looked. His hair was greasy and gray, and there was an unlit cigarette stuck between his lips. He did not seem intent on lighting it.

When he saw Kelly and me, he removed the cigarette and smiled.

“Boys,” he said.

We waved. I looked at the car. A woman was sitting in the front seat. She turned and looked at us briefly, but then she turned the other way, twisting around, and said something to someone sitting in the backseat.

“I’m looking for a friend of mine,” said the man standing outside the car. “He said he lives right around here. I haven’t been able to reach him.”

We nodded.

“Dallas Parker,” said the man.

We nodded again.

“You know him?”

“Yes,” I said.

Kelly pointed toward the Parker’s.

“Okay,” said the man. “I thought that’s what he said. We’ll check back later.”

The man smiled again and thanked us. When he drove away, the woman sitting in the front seat was laughing and nodding vigorously, as if the person behind her had told her a joke that had some kind of deep truth.

 

We waited a few more days and Dallas finally showed. He stepped out of the Jag wearing a tattered jean jacket and silly wig, a blond afro. I couldn’t tell if it was meant for a man or woman. Kelly asked him about it. Dallas said he found it in thrift shop and thought it was funny.

    “Your friends stopped by,” I said.

    “Oh yeah,” said Dallas. “Who?”


    “They didn’t say. There were three of them, but we only talked to one. He had marks on his face.”


    “Oh yeah,” said Dallas, calm and cool as always. “I know who you’re talking about. I talked to them already.”

 

We saw Dallas even less after that. His visits home became more and more infrequent, and he rarely had time for Kelly and me. He’d stop and talk for a few minutes, but then he’d hurry off into the house, where he didn’t stay for long. These visits always occurred during the day, when his father was at the clinic. Returning to the car, he’d wave at us before taking off, but that was it. He was always in a hurry.

 

I had no reason to believe my parents found out about the joyride. If they had, the punishment would have been severe, probably grounding for weeks. They made no mention of it when they called me downstairs and told me to stay away from Dallas Parker.

    “Why?” I asked.

    My father looked at me with an expression that said he would not engage in a protracted conversation.

    “Well, honey…” said my mother, gripping my forearm.

    “We don’t have to explain why,” said my father. “Just do what I say.”

    The shift from “we” to “I” meant that was the last word, so I didn’t pursue it. But that night, when I was reading in bed, my mother came into my room and told me that Dallas had gotten into some trouble.

    “What kind of trouble?” I asked.

    “Well, we don’t know the details,” she said, “but it involves the police. So your father and I think it’s best that you…”

“I know,” I said. “I will. I’ll stay away.”

But I didn’t have to. I didn’t even have to try, because, to my knowledge, he didn’t visit again.

 

I found out what happened. There was a raid at house on the west side of town. Local cops and even the FBI had been following him and others for months. There were a lot of rumors and misinformation about the arrests and a large drug-trafficking operation that covered the four-state area. But one thing was certain. Those involved, the people arrested, worked for a man named Cecil Cox. I’d never seen Cecil Cox, but I’d heard people talk about him. When they did, there was always a dark edge, as if merely uttering his name made one vulnerable.

 

A month later, three people – two men and a woman – were found murdered in a house on old highway 43. I knew where the house was. We used to drive by it on our way to Kansas City.

Something this bad never happened, and everyone in town was talking about it. Again, rumors circulated. Most of these involved one or other gruesome detail, the most popular being that blood was dripping off the dining-room table when the cops got there. Some folks said the victims were from Chicago and possibly connected to the mafia. Others said it was Cecil Cox’s gang.

It took almost a week for police to release the victims’ names. When the story ran on the 10 p.m. news, I was sitting on the living room floor, sorting coins. My father was behind me, in the armchair by the window. He may have been expecting the story, but I wasn’t. The names themselves meant nothing to me, but when they flashed images of the victims on the screen, I recoiled.

“That…!” I yelled, standing, pointing at the screen.

“What?” said my father. “What is it?


“Him! He’s the guy…!”

“What guy?”

My body shivered. I was bouncing on my toes, still pointing at the TV. “He’s the one who stopped by here… looking for him.”

“For Dallas?” asked my father.

“Yes! And her. She was there too!”


    “When?” asked my father.

“I don’t know,” I said. “A few months ago, I guess.”


    My father called the police and told them what I told him. He said they might want to talk to me, but so far what we had to offer didn’t help much.

 

After Dallas’s arrest, we saw the Parkers less. When we did, they didn’t talk a lot. They seemed distracted.

    They had reason to be. Dallas’s trial was coming up. I knew this, but I didn’t think about it much. I was disappointed and even a little mad at Dallas, although at the time, I don’t think I understood it that way. All I knew was, with each day that passed, I became less enamored with Dallas Parker.

 

That’s how things were when I came home from school and found Mrs. Parker holding on to my mother in the alley. They were standing near the corner of the Parker’s garage. My mother was facing her house, and Mrs. Parker was facing ours, but I couldn’t see her face because her head was buried against my mother’s chest. When I coughed to get my mother’s attention, she shooed me away without turning around.

 

We had a baseball game that night. Kelly and I played on the same team. I rode to the fields with his family. My parents, who were busy with my sister, came later.

    After the game, we were drinking Cokes and hanging out between the Babe Ruth field and the girls’ softball field. That’s when we saw Mrs. Feland, our science teacher. She and her son Chris were walking to their car. Chris had dirt all over the front of his uniform, and he was staring at the ground while his mother talked to him.

I said hello. Mrs. Feland heard me. She looked up and waved, but she acted like she didn’t know who I was.  

    “Did you hear about that?” said one of our teammates.

    “About what?” asked Kelly.

    “Feland’s brother.”

    We shook our heads.

    “He got killed,” said the teammate.

    “What?” I said.

    “It’s true. Some kind of shootout.”


    “Where’d you hear that?”


    “I don’t know,” said the teammate. “School, I think.”


   

I didn’t say anything on the way home. I waited until we were inside the house, until my sister had gone upstairs. When I asked them, my father nodded. My mother started to cry.

    An hour later, we turned on the news.

They killed Dallas Parker in broad daylight. He was exiting the courthouse in Carthage, ten miles to the east, where he had been on trial for two days and mentioned the names of several associates. He was shot twice in the chest. Another bullet hit him in the neck, just under his left ear. A sheriff’s deputy who was escorting him out of the courthouse was hit too, but he survived. Two other deputies returned fire at a Mercury Grand Marquis, but they did not catch the assailants.

 

At the end of that summer, Kelly moved to Corpus Christi, Texas. His father, who worked for a petroleum company, got transferred. It was hot and hazy the day we stood out on the sidewalk and waved goodbye, as they loaded up the last of their belongings and drove away.

    I stopped working on the treehouse. I had other interests – music and sports – and it just wasn’t the same without Kelly. My little sister and her friends played in it from time to time, but I didn’t go up into it again.

 

 

 

Posted in

Hiromi Yoshida, 11/23/2015

Current Occupation: Poet/Editor

Former Occupation: Reference Services Assistant, Wells Library, Indiana University Bloomington

Contact Information: Hiromi Yoshida has worked in academic libraries throughout most of her graduate student career. Winner of multiple Indiana University Writers' Conference awards, her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the Asian American Literary Review; Indiana Voice Journal; The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society; Evergreen Review; and Bathtub Gin. She enjoys the challenges of sketching and life drawing.

 

#

Life Drawing

Straining optical nerves beyond limits of the [immediately] visible—the life drawing model is

squarely positioned before her like an immobile granite sphinx of luminous flesh—a challenging

assignment—every fiber of the artist’s body pulsates outwards from beneath

 

skin’s thick epithelial lining and its pointillistic pores—steadily guiding the disciplined hand wielding a 4B pencil stub, converting molecules of lead into curvilinear lineaments on the unsullied

sketchbook page…  [She feels the thin film of grey scum already seeping out of her pores, already

coating her tense body straining toward that unblinking fleshy sphinx].  

 

She draws the lines, then, blurs and smears them (again and again);

dragging shadows into their proper places; always trying to maintain perspective without undue manipulation [of things that aren’t even part of the frame she is working within].

 

So tentative at first, and then so boldly obvious with stroke upon stroke accumulating

layers of charcoal grey emphasis—covering the same ground.

 

The figure emerges from the sheet of paper as though it were always

meant to be there exactly, a tentative smudge boldly outlined—a grey voluptuous shadow—

projected outward from the artist’s own body perspiring scum pointillistically.

 

#

The Exotic Dancer

 

She undulates a cocaine dream,

psychopomp of dry-iced cocktail

splendor on salted

rocks &

splin-

  tered chandelier nights.

 

She draws rhinestone accolades—

sticky shot glass

pennies &

overstuffed dollars from hoodwinked

  snakeskin wallets in crinkled

 

Armani pants,

lapdancing private

peek-a-boo booths of

beaded curtain tricks spilling

champagne buckets &

mirrored silver—

 

automechanical doll

showcased in

plexiglass coffins &

gargantuan

wax museums.

 

She spits pomegranate

seeds between

tiny porcelain teeth at

gargoyle stevedores

ogling painted caravans &

copping a coptic

animadversion—

 

shedding flimsy wrap-

  around skirts &

  polyester lace bra     

 

             straps to a mere

 

G-string of scaly gorgon eyes

 glittering hard

               sequins

    at tassled

           ballerina

                 antics

 

twisting a tourniquet of

trapeze tulle &

tight fishnet round &

round a flaccid drum

delirium—

 

spinning acrobatic,

tilting a dizzy

high-rise axis toward a

levity of gyrating

Manhattans.

 

Castaway snake

goddess, she

writhes hieroglyphically

 

beneath disenchanted moons

drifting in smog—

 

her calculated striptease

catalyzes a litany of

 

Village junkies

plastic saints  

ex-communicated mater dolorosas

nymphomaniacal hermaphrodites

dungeon damsels with dagger eyes &

bearded hipsters.

 

Queen of orgiastic limbo,

she staggers into flickering

flourescence at Grand Central Station—

craving styrofoam deli food

with uroboric hunger.  

 

#

The Life Drawing Model

 

The life drawing model emerged from the page

quite literally, and at the artist’s new workplace, no less—like a popup blowup doll,

jack-in-the-box sphinx—a pointillistic joke, wearing the same green

 

designated workplace uniform T-shirt as the artist and the other store employees.  The artist discovered that this new co-worker (aka former life drawing model) actually had a name, a life, an employee ID number—and that she was in fact, even more diminutive than the artist.  

 

One afternoon, she instructed the artist to restock the bottled beverage refrigerators according to the convoluted system the store managers devised (as though they had nothing better to do than give us a hard time).  “I’m going to flip out if you don’t go away now,” she suddenly declared to the artist during this instruction session that was literally quite cold.  

 

The artist’s proud masterwork had emerged from the

sullied sketchbook page—no longer the granite sphinx

of luminous flesh, but instead, a spectral

imp grinning and chirping, “Hello” to store customers at the liminal

 

threshold of the cash register circulating sketchy currency—threatening to morph into the

artist’s ironic symptom of neurosis, begging for oblivion (not permanence)—receding into the

 

distance quite pointillistically.  

 

Posted in

James Alley, 11/16/2015

Current Occupation: Retired from 25 years as a government employee now seeking enlightenment via freelance writing.

Former Occupation: Get ready: IT Specialist, landscaper, busboy, cook, restaurant manager, stable-boy, produce stocker, adaptive gardening instructor, school bus driver, furniture mover, ice cream sales, handyman, waiter, parking lot sweeper, welfare worker, carpenter, house painter, cat whisperer, lumber yard peon, and assembly line worker.

Contact Information: I’m a native Californian residing in West Sacramento with my wife and three cats. I’ve written whenever work and life’s obligations would permit, beginning with a novel about a special young girl on my welfare caseload who magically prevailed in the shadow of her mother’s profound mental illness. I’ve had a sprinkling of successes over the years: a story in the national magazine True Romance, short stories in various men’s magazines, numerous stories in the literary journal The Yolo Crow, a chap book including the writings of six local-area writers, and two unpublished novels.

 

#

UNION DUES

 

    At a time when life was simpler and more complex, but money was as critical as it would ever be, there was an interesting help-wanted sign in the student employment office at the university.  Mike seldom went in there, but on this day made a point of looking.  He needed some income.  Summer was starting and it got old asking the folks for gas and food money.  It was bad enough living at home in the first place.

    It sounded pretty good.  Description:  6 workers needed to move furniture into a Beverly Hills office building.  Duration:  4 weeks.  Salary:  $2.80/hr.  Deadline:  ASAP.  Contact:  Rick Stern  

    He carefully followed instructions, took one of the pink Job Interest sheets from the table and wrote in the job number: 72-1408, the contact person: Rick Stern, his own name: Mike Carson, address, phone number, and social security number.  He handed it to the woman behind the front desk, Mrs. Emeline.  She was large and well dressed and had swirled blonde hair.  She glanced up to him briefly, then looked away.  She took a phone call, then sorted various papers on her desk.  Finally she looked to him.

    “Did you find something?”

    “I think so.”

    She read the pink sheet carefully, then pulled a file from her drawer and read that.  “Have you ever moved furniture before?”

    He shrugged.  “Yeah.”  He’d helped a million friends move from one apartment to another.  He’d helped his sister and her husband move.  He’d helped his mother rearrange the living room furniture.  Hell yeah, he’d moved furniture before.

    “Are you available beginning next week?”

    Mike nodded, “Yeah.”

    “For four weeks?”

    “Yeah.”

    She gave him an application.  He completed it.  She said to call back on Friday.  Mike went back to his apartment and told his roommate Dave Jason about the job, then called Garth in the Valley.  He was home from school for the summer too.  Everyone needed work and this sounded good, and good money.

    Dave Jason and Garth followed through immediately, rushed down to the university employment office and filled out the same forms.  They all called back on Friday and were told to report to S&H Interior Design on Santa Monica Blvd. at 11:00 a.m. Monday.  

    They drove there together.  It was a new brick and glass office building.  Inside the glass doors all was cool, carpeted, muted, and dark.  The directory said S&H Interior Design was on the third floor.  They rode the elevator up and found the suite.

    A receptionist took their names and asked them to be seated in the waiting area.  There were three other young men there, one tall and blonde, two smaller and Asian.

    After a few minutes, the receptionist said, “You can all go in now,” and pointed to the door.  They all got up and trudged through the open door into a hallway where they were greeted by a neatly dressed and well manicured man.  He was smiling and cheerful.  “Welcome!  C’mon in!  Step right in here.  I hope there’s room for everyone.”

    They stepped into the office.  There were only three chairs, so the first three sat down and the other three stood.

    The man introduced himself as Rick Stern and shook the hand of each of the six young men, then took a seat behind the desk.

    Mike noticed how perfectly groomed he was, how tawny his skin, how immaculate his shirt, how perfect every hair on his head, how stylish his clothes.  He spoke very succinctly, was very polite.  He thanked the six for coming in this morning.  He hoped they weren’t inconvenienced by the traffic.  (Five of them had been born and raised in LA and were accustomed to traffic.  The sixth, Dave Jason, was born and raised in New York City and was accustomed to traffic too.)

    He explained that a new office building had recently been completed on Santa Monica Blvd. and would soon be occupied by the law firm, Honeywell, Heaton, Sturgis, and Lachowsky.  He asked if anyone had heard of that law firm.  None of them had.  He said the law firm had contracted S&H to complete their interior design.  Now all that was complete and the furniture purchased and waiting to be installed.  A professional moving company would oversee the move, but the six here in the room would do the heavy lifting.  

    They all had to sign a contract and agreed to report to work at the Santa Monica Blvd. site on Wednesday.  As they rode home, Mike commented that Rick Stern seemed to be a pretty nice guy.  Garth agreed, but added, “Although one or two too many touches.”  This he said in a slightly high voice, alluding to the fact Rick being obviously gay at a time when being gay was not yet openly acceptable.  

    On Tuesday Mike and Dave Jason were called by the secretary at S&H Interiors.  The job was being postponed until the following Monday.  Meanwhile, on Thursday they were to report to the offices of the Teamster’s Union on Ventura Blvd.  All the workers on this job would be in the union.  Their pay would be $3.50 rather than $2.80.  This was getting better and better.

    On Thursday Mike and Dave Jason and Garth arrived outside a modest two-story brown stucco building on Ventura Blvd.  Inside was a spacious carpeted reception area.  At a desk sat a beautiful brunette.  She smiled.  “You must be Mr. Carson, Mr. Jason, and Mr. Gaston.  Go ahead and have a seat.  Mr. Franzese will be with you in a few minutes.”   

They seated themselves.  Once again they saw the tall blonde guy and the two Asian guys already seated.  The six waited for a while.  The room muted, the walls dark imitation wood.  They were surrounded by black and white photos of what looked like gangsters in black suits posing in night clubs and at job sites.  Pure Mafioso.  Then two guys out of central casting entered from a side door, black suits, Italian, all jokes and overbearing.  

One stopped in his tracks and said, “Hi boys.”

They all said hi.

“Welcome to the Teamsters Union.  You here to get sworn in?”

None of them was sure what they would be doing.  Mike shrugged and said, “We’re going to be doing a furniture moving job in Beverly Hills starting next week and were told to report here today.”

The guy seemed pleased.  “The S&H Interiors job?”

Mike nodded.

“We did a little favor for you boys.  Someone was trying to pull a fast one on us, but we sniffed ‘m out.  This job’s going to be strictly union.  It’ll put a lot more money in your pockets.  How does that sound?”

Mike nodded.  “Good.”

The guy looked to everyone else.  “What about the rest of you?  You asleep or what?  You wanna make more money or less?”

Now they were all awake.  Everyone nodded and agreed aloud that they’d like to make more money.  

The guy was pleased.  “That’s what I thought.  And that’s exactly what we’re going to do for you.  Strictly union wage.  A living wage.”

Mike felt obligated to respond.  “We appreciate it.”

Now the other guy approached them.  “My name’s Willy Sanducci.  I’m the Teamsters Rep for West LA and Beverly Hills.”  He extended a hand to Mike.  He said, “Mike Carson.”  The guy’s grip was like a vice.  He turned to Dave Jason.  Dave stated his name and the two shook hands.  Then he went around the group, each of them following suit, stating their name and shaking hands with Willy Sanducci.  

Then the first guy said, “Willy will be your union rep.  He’ll be the most important person in your life for the next few months.  Any problems at the job site, you talk to Willy.  He’ll straighten things out right away.  Willy doesn’t fuck around.”

The group of young men – barely beyond boys – wasn’t sure whether to laugh or not.  Were these guys for real?  Mike knew instinctively the time for laughing would be later, not now.  These guys might be clowns, but they were assuring the group they’d be paid well for this work, and who can argue with a good salary?  But he was worried about Garth.  He knew not to make eye contact with him.  As for Dave Jason, he was probably not getting any of this anyway.  Or maybe it seemed pretty routine coming from New York as he did.  These guys might be his neighbors back home.    

    Then the first guy said, “By the way, I’m Rocco Rizzi.  I’m Willy’s boss, so if he gives you any shit, just let me know.”  He smiled approvingly, then shook hands with each of the six.  

    “Boys, what’s going to happen today is you’re going to meet the big cheese, Benny Franciamoni, the president of the LA Teamsters.  Then we’re going to swear you all in and you’ll officially become brothers with all lifetime rights and protections of the union.  How does that sound?”

    When no one said anything, Mike said, “Sounds pretty good.”   

    Rocco continued.  “Now all that comes with a price.  Nothing’s free, right boys?”

    Everyone shrugged.

    “For all the rights and protections of the union, you’ll be expected to do two things.  You know what those two things are?”

    No one knew.

    “Pay your monthly dues and keep your nose clean.  In other words, play by the rules and don’t cause any trouble and you’re good as gold for life.  This is a golden opportunity for you boys.  You don’t know how lucky you are right now.”

    Now the tall blonde guy took the lead.  “I know I’m lucky to have a job.  Work is hard to get.”

    Rocco enjoyed this.  “That’s right, boys, and don’t forget it.  But just because work is hard to get, don’t let the boss try to Jew you out of a fair salary, alright?”

The group was silent, uncertain how to respond to this.  

“Alright, boys?”

Everyone mumbled alright.

Mike was beginning to feel a sense of dread.  This was getting too crazy.  He knew Garth too well.  They grew up together.  Garth lived for humor.  It was already clear the two must not to make eye contact until they were far out of sight of this place.  

#

    Willy and Rocco worked the group for a while longer, enjoying their seniority over the group, and their self-importance.  Meanwhile the group was weakening, being softened up by so many body punches.  Mike was concerned.  This could go the wrong way.

    Finally the group was led through a door down a hallway to an office with the sign JAMES L. “BENNY” FRANZESE, PRESIDENT.  Everyone was respectful, quiet, as they entered the office.  It was a large room, at one end a huge desk, behind it a hunched-over little guy looking a hundred years old, a heavy toupee perched on his head and puffing on a big cigar.

    “Hiya boys!” he called out in a rasp.  “Sit yourselves anywhere.”

    Now this was too much.  Again the office was surrounded with photos, even one of Jimmy Hoffa, others of Teamsters officials, all Mafiosos, on docks next to freighters, at railroads, at construction sites.  But Benny, the little Mafioso perched behind this desk, was over the top, a caricature.  The group seated themselves on the plush couches and easy chairs and waited for what was next.

    Benny spoke loudly, in a back-room poker game rasp.  “Well boys, welcome to the Teamsters Union.  I understand you’re going to be moving some furniture.”

    “Yeah,” someone responded for the group.

    “And you’re gonna get union pay, ha?  How ‘bout that?”

    This was all too much.  The group was weakening further.  The opening act had been a great set up, now Benny was killing.  Mike gazed straight ahead, focusing on Benny, trying to give him his highest respect, trying desperately to disregard the rest of the group.  

    Another  Mafioso in a black suit came in and spoke briefly to Benny, then left.   Benny said, “Boys, we’re going to swear you all in in a few minutes.  Meanwhile we’ll wait here and get to know each other a little better.”

    Everyone wondered what that meant.  Mike felt almost panicky, struggling to contain a smile.  Thank God the room was dark.  Behind him Garth sat quietly, but for how long?  Mike would not make eye contact, even in this darkened room.  That would be danger.  Still, he maintained hope that with concentration and intestinal fortitude they would all survive this bizarre encounter.

    But Benny was relentless.

    “So tell my about yourselves, boys.  Any a you been movers before?”

    Mike waited.  He was ready to tell about his moving experiences, but then one of the two Asian guys spoke up.  

    “I worked for Beacons the last two summers.”

    That was good.  A solid interaction.  Benny said, “Beacons, huh.  Whereabouts?”

    The Asian guy said, “Monterey Park.”

    “South LA,” Benny rasped.  “Did you get union pay?”

    The guy said, “I don’t know.”

    “Was it a union shop?”

    “I don’t know,” the guy said, sounding amused.

    “What was your pay?”

    They guy said, “Three fifty an hour.”

     Benny shook his head.  “That was union.  Congratulations.  You’ve already got union seniority.  You might end up supervising the rest of these guys.”

    The guy said, “I don’t think so.”

    Benny waved to the rest of the group.  “How ‘bout the rest of you.  Anyone else been a union mover before?”

    Mike couldn’t contain himself.  “I’ve moved a lot of furniture, but I’ve never been paid for it.”

    Benny flicked his cigar.  “Whattaya mean, never been paid.  You workin’ for free?”

    Mike said, “I’ve helped a lot of friends move.  I usually get paid in pizza and beer.”

    The group chuckled.

    Benny nodded.  “That’s good, helping your friends.  But I bet you wouldn’t want to work all week lifting furniture and get paid nothing more than a few pieces of pizza.”

    Mike agreed.

    “That’s where the union comes in.  Boys, when I was your age I’d already been working for ten years, since I was a kid.  And the wages were nothing.  You couldn’t buy a loaf of bread with a day’s wage.  But let me tell ya, the unions have fixed all that.  You’ll get a decent wage you can live on.”

    Everyone was grateful, but then, they were all college students planning to work for a month or so, then move on with life.  Still, yes, they’d be glad to receive $3.50 instead of $2.80 an hour.

    Benny said, “Boys, I started in the sweat shops in New York’s lower east side.  Any of you familiar with that area?”

    Nobody was.

    “It was a rough area and you had to be tough to survive.  It was hard work, but I did like I told you boys.  I kept my nose clean and played by the rules.  I helped start the teamsters in New York.  Now look at me today.  I started dirty and with nothing.  Now look at what I got.”  He gestured to his surroundings.  “This big office, assistants, a beautiful secretary out front.  Any of you get a good look at Tina out there?  Not too hard on the eyes, huh?”

    They’d all seen Tina.  She was fifteen years older than them, heavily made-up,  and from a very different world.  

    “You guys can have all this too.  You just gotta work and keep your nose clean.”

    Benny took a couple more puffs on his cigar, blowing blue billows into the already thick air.  There was an awkward silence.  On his desk was a little toy with six suspended steel balls hanging in a row.  Mike had seen these before.  If you pull the ball at one end away from the others and let it go, it falls back against the others, transferring the energy to the opposite end, forcing the ball at that end to pop away and bounce back, in turn causing the original ball to bounce, the cycle repeating itself until the energy is dissipated, all this revealing the basic laws of physics.

    Absently Benny pulled the ball at one end and watched the chain reaction, then turned to the group.  

    “A little toy to occupy myself,” he explained.  “When my wife calls and asks what I’m doing, I tell her I’m playing with my balls.”

    The group stared in disbelief.  Was Benny trying to amuse them, playing down to them, or was this typical Mafioso union language?  They were left to ponder this as his phone rang.  Benny picked it up.

    In his loud rasp, nearly shouting, “Hello, Corky?  Yeah.  Yeah.  Tell the boys we’re coming in next week whether they’re ready or not.  And Corky, tell those boys to clean up their act, will ya?  Christ, they’re actin’ like goons down there.”  He listened for a minute.  “Yeah, yeah, I know, Corky!  Yeah!  Tell’m I’m gonna win that fuckin’ buck-fifty back, will ya?”  After another silence, he laughed.  “Corky, say hi to Tallulah for me, will ya?  Is she still a doll?  Okay.  Okay.  Buy, Corky.”

    Again he addressed the little group, now hopelessly weakened and teetering on the precipice, staring absently.  Mike heard Garth cough several times behind him, then ask the tall blonde guy for a cigarette.  Mike was petrified.  He knew the coughing was a reflex to head off laughter, the cigarette a diversion to occupy him and hopefully maintain composure.  

    But the onslaught was merciless.  The group was losing its nerve.  

    Benny, oblivious to any of this, serenely ensconced in his world, spoke again.  “So you boys go to college?”

    No one was willing to speak, fearing their voice might betray their mirth.  Finally Mike said, “Yes.”

    “What school?”

    “UCLA,” Mike said.

    When it was quiet, Benny spoke again.  “Anyone else?”

    One of the Asian guys said, “LA City College.”

    When there was an awkward pause, somebody in the group spoke, desperately trying to maintain a coherent give and take.  “Benny, did you go to college.”

“No, boys, my mother told me I wasn’t a good student.  I said, How do you know that?, and she said, Because I went to the school to ask the teacher how you were doing and she told me you play hooky every day.   I said, That’s a lie, so she said, then tell me your teacher’s name.”  He looked forlorn, then raised both palms facing the heavens and said, “I couldn’t tell her.”  He smiled contentedly.  “No, boys, school was never for me.”  

Mike wondered when they would do the God damned swearing in so they could get out of this place.  But it was too late.  Behind him he heard Garth yelp, then force a cough, then yelp several more times.  Mike looked to the floor and chuckled silently, fearful he was about to laugh out loud.  

Then the blonde guy began laughing noisily, then yelping helplessly. Suddenly it was a chain reaction.  One of the Asian guys was laughing, and behind him Dave Jason, who didn’t laugh often, was laughing lightly.  

Mike struggled mightily, his face contorted by the effort, his lips tight across his teeth, when suddenly he could hold it no longer and a loud whimper blurted forth, then he guffawed out of control for several desperate seconds before covering his mouth in a futile effort to smother the sounds.   But now all was lost.  The whole group was sniggling, hee-hawing, guffawing, chortling, tittering, snickering, convulsing, and horse laughing with no pretense at control.  The laughter roared from the group, a laughter made mightier for having been stifled so long.   

All involved were aware that this was inappropriate, and wrong, and discourteous in a circumstance where they were hoping to be hired to make some money.  And yet all these facts somehow made their mirth greater.  

Benny looked to the group.

“Something funny, boys?”

Now what was to be said?  This group who didn’t even know one another’s names were suddenly old friends with a common cause, a common source of intense amusement, and a common emergency.     

Again the tall blonde guy spoke.  He was maybe the biggest victim here, having been inadvertently situated next to Garth, not knowing that Garth’s tolerance and self-control were so limited, his sense of humor limitless.  But now, trying to salvage the situation any way he could, he lamely offered, “Oh, one of the guys told us a joke earlier.”

What kind of sense did that even make?  Why would they all suddenly start laughing about a joke twenty minutes after arriving at this office?

“You wanna let me in on it?” Benny said.

Now what?  

Mike wanted to step in, but couldn’t think of anything whatsoever to say, and now his tears were clouding his vision and he was trembling violently.  

The tall guy couldn’t even compose himself to answer.  Through laughter he said, “Oh, it was nothing.  A private joke.”

Mike was aghast.  A private joke!  That’s not the right thing to say.

Benny sat back in his chair.  It wasn’t clear what was going on, but it wasn’t good.  This wasn’t what you’d call respect.  It wasn’t even keeping one’s nose clean.  

They waited a while longer, the laughter now subsided but for an occasional cough or throat-clearing from time to time.  They sat mostly waiting for the swearing in ceremony they’d been promised, but finally were told they could now go back into the lobby to sign their union documents.  Tina had a stack of papers at her desk.  Each of them signed their name in three places, then she told the group they were done and could go.  They eagerly stepped out the door into the parking lot.   

The feeling was sheer, unadulterated relief.  

The six of them, now best friends, stood by their cars and relived the event for several minutes, laughed again, then laughed even harder, then decided it would be best to vacate these premises.  They would see one another next Monday at the job site.  

As Mike and Garth and Dave Jason climbed into his car, Garth said, “Weren’t we supposed to do some kind of swearing in?”

Mike looked to him.  “Fuck, I’m just happy they didn’t take us out back and shoot us.”

The job started as planned on Monday, the crew a tight-knit one with high morale, united for having survived a grueling ordeal together.  They kept their noses clean and made union wages.  Nobody had any complaints to bring to the union rep.   The job was done in six weeks, the fancy new office opened as planned, and the movers dispersed, each heading in their own direction, a pocketful of money and a teamster for life.     

 

 

Posted in

Robert Gregory, 11/9/2015

Current Occupation: Grantwriter

Former Occupation: College Teacher

Contact Information: RG has published four full length collections of poems, most recently The Beautiful City of Weeds (Hanging Loose), and three chapbooks, most recently You Won’t Need That (Willow Springs/Acme Poem Company).

#

The Over and Over Again: Two Figures

 

Empty cars nose to tail line the curb, a white and partial moon up high and all alone above them, a sky that’s just beginning to be blue, a place that’s never seemed so deep and wide and far away.  

Or just another sky that’s black for now, depending on how busy you might be with other things.

An older man sitting by himself at a table on the patio, the coffee shop just barely open and he’s there already.

It looks as if he didn’t really want to sit inside the way the other older men delight to do and listen to the chatter, the chirping as it sounds to them, of the cheery skinny long-haired girls behind the counter busy teasing and complaining and supporting each other against the common enemies, the black and empty early morning and the black and empty old necessity, the ones that have them prisoner now (but only temporarily) while they consider in between their skillful moves and gracious repetitious courtesies that someone lies (or should lie, or did lie, or will lie) alone and naked back where they belong, someone sleepy and relaxed and friendly and affectionate, or so it always seems when they are busy and in uniform and making jokes about the scones and the weather report and misplaced faith in things in magazines, things that make your hair look green as grass if you’re not careful, things intended to be devastating but that turn your skin a dead and scary white instead.  

Not reading out here. Hardly any light can reach him from the interior.  Not out here to smoke. Just sitting with a hand around his cup, a little hunched because it’s chilly still.  Surrounded by the black and empty lot, the mainly empty roads in each direction, the hiss and rush of someone flashing by regardless deep inside a vehicle inside the radio for jokes and prices, news and movements of the systems and the storms. A little farther off, lights above the intersection change and change again.

Just a little farther still, a neighborhood of big expensive places set well back from the road, where even so they also rise or shine at this ungodly hour.  Dark empty spaces: swept and tended lawns. Heavy shapes of trees, the canopies lifting high above the houses, old and calm, dignified and patient.  

Maybe for a change he’s just looking, just watching the morning unfold: the opening of things, the movements and adjustments that he never had much chance to contemplate when he was busy otherwise.

Maybe not. He has the look of empty pasture now, the look of something left on a patio table, a section of the paper that’s been read and read again, no longer crisp, the look of someone up at 6 as always but bored already with this new and unexpected thing, and lonely, insignificant, no longer anyone to be asked for help or counsel, not a man to see or be afraid of, not an item on anyone’s calendar. A ghost.

Sitting all alone out here (or almost all alone, unaware of the watcher) in something more or less like darkness while it works its way across to blue again, he’s just begun to feel the early morning’s slight and temporary chill — still tentative, still just the voice and glance of a stranger, someone asking for the time – but a touch of what’s to come.  

Deep down early in the empty building where the bareness of the walls and absence of the daylight make the silence even more itself, there’s a blur of sound that isn’t sound, water gray and warm from standing, old and dirty now, weary and contained inside a bucket up on wheels, an apparatus with a thousand years of dents and rust and nothing left of any maker’s name.

Not a sound of water rushing down or running off and disappearing, not living water, water in a harness rather, with its head hung down and dreaming, like the horses that he used to see asleep and standing in the days when there were wagons coming through the neighborhoods, some old dirty cheerful man aboard who shouted out or sang a song he’d made or had inherited, had always known: more like a call, a bird call in the way he worked the syllables of rags to make them last and make them move around and then come back to where they were and it brought the women out which was what counted, approaching him with some scrap they’d saved for something else and then had lost the image of or more likely the person for whom, so had let it somehow fade out and blur away and turn stale, become too thin and drab to keep it any longer.

Then a splash and a slap and now the ragged mop (that old driggle-draggle nasty thing his mother used to say when she was telling him to fetch it or to throw it out, it stank too bad, they had to get a fresh one, though where the money’s coming from I wish someone would tell me) has drawn a painter’s empty brush along the ugly floor, old and worn and faded muddy brown, down an old and empty corridor in semi-darkness now again by him, the man who’s done all this and heard all this for years and years, very early, on his own, nobody in the offices upstairs, no ties, no envelopes, no legal pads, no shiny shoes with little tassels, no sound of women’s heels, a sound he’s always liked, although they’re hell on wax.  No sound of voices giving orders about what to do or how to do it.

And so the silence is maintained. A man who leans into his work as always, wrapped again  — or veiled it could be since he sees the stuff around him well enough — inside a dream or something like a trance, as always, a trance beyond which he can see elsewhere in memory so easily because it’s always just the same:  

Outside it’s just a little after dawn and all the crows that gather at the corners of their chosen tree or favorite piece of roof have spread their heavy glossy wings and gone, giving out a cheerful and annoying sound, a challenge and a brag.

Like those young hoodlums do who stand around on corners, the difference being — one difference anyway — that they’ll never fly, although they’re always trying, always talking like they will, like they do already, so they say, and he did too, for a while it really seemed to be so. But it was only noise.

It all comes down to something else that isn’t much like flying.  If  you want to live at all.  Some don’t, not really. Not bad enough.

And yet it isn’t so bad. All it really is, is learning how to deal with the over and over again.

That – and how it gets so quiet when you’re on your own. But there’s ways around it.

Thinking about the noise they make that no one really hears because it’s not a word, it’s only crows again.  They've been making that sound a long time.  But that's just it.

 

 

Posted in

Joshua Steele, 11/2/2015

Current Occupation: Research Analyst
Former Occupation: Research Assistant
Contact Information: Father. Husband. Cat-lover. Research Analyst. Where does Joshua find the time to write? It's entirely possible the typewriter does it all for him, but don't tell anyone.

 

#

The FINKEBYNE MANUSCRIPT

    Drinking on the job is frowned upon in most professions. Why do so many writers do it, then?
    Jackson Randolph asked himself this very question. Jackson was an editor for Birdstone Publishing. He read more manuscripts and half-assed attempts at novels in a month than most people could stomach in a lifetime.
    And, yes. Most were shit.
    He couldn’t understand it. Even well-known alcoholics, who happened to also be serious, successful authors didn’t drink when writing. Except Hunter S. Thompson – he was usually drunk or drugged – but let’s consider him the exception, rather than the rule.
    It wasn’t just that these manuscripts were bad. Most were. In fact, even in the past, fewer than five manuscripts ever actually made it past his desk in a year. They were getting worse all the time. Many began as a paean to some long-lost lover (these he usually set on fire by the end of the first page), others contained such anecdotes as “Doomed to a life of solitude, Mr. Simmons had failed for the last time at marriage”. Boo-hoo. Cry me a river.
    Jackson was tired. He’d gotten into this profession because he loved to read books. But not these. Good God, not these.
    He always dreamed he’d be the one to discover the next Great American Novel. After twenty years as editor, this had yet to occur. Sure, he’d sent a few through the system, even had his name on a few published books. Still, he longed for that life-changing discovery.

#

    When he got home each day, with ink-stained fingers and the beginnings of a migraine, wife and daughters rushed to the door to greet him. They lavished their affections upon him and wanted to hear all about his day. They asked questions like: “Did you find the next blockbuster hit of the summer?”
    “No, just filled my trash can, mainly. People sure do send in a lot of garbage.”
    He wished he had different news. Yet, day after day, he told his family that a day’s work consisted primarily of throwing manuscripts into the trash. Sometimes, he told the girls about the ones he set on fire, which was worth a laugh or two. But really, he just wanted to respond to their question with: “Yes, I did. And it’s great!”
    A happy family, they would all gather around the dinner table and enjoy a home-cooked meal and talk about their days. They would laugh at each other’s jokes and they would praise each other for their accomplishments. At this point, Jackson always forgot his troubles and enjoyed the quality family time.
    Later that evening he told his wife about his struggles at work.
    “Tell me more about these writers. What makes them so bad?”
    He mulled over the more eloquent ways to say: “They’re just a bunch of drunken idiots” but he couldn’t find one, so he said: “They’re just a bunch of drunken idiots.”
    His wife burst into laughter. “People just want to live up to the image they’ve grown accustomed to, and I suppose being a raging alcoholic is right up there with the horn-rimmed glasses and an ashtray full of cigarettes beside the typewriter. All drinking does is remove your self-control.”
    “Yeah.”
    “Hmm,” she started again. “Maybe you should try reading some of these manuscripts when you’re drunk!”
    They both laughed.
    “Alright! I’ll do it!” He wasn’t sure if he meant it or not, but it sounded good.
    After their talk, he retired to his study and picked out a book to read. Life on the Mississippi.
    “Ah, yes. Something good. Why can’t these idiots write like this?”
    Why can’t an idiot write like this? Twain called out from his steamboat. Do you think I was ever more than an idiot, blathering on about one thing or another? No, the question you should ask yourself is, why do these folks try so hard?
    His favorite authors always had witty commentary, or at least he thought they did. He even got the idea to burn the worst of the manuscripts from Ray Bradbury – well, the idea came from Guy Montag, who gave it to Bradbury, who gave it to Jackson.
    He wondered if Mark Twain had a point. If he did, Jackson didn’t follow. Trying too hard? Sure. Maybe they ought to try less. Oh to hell with it.
    Jackson put the book down and went upstairs to bed.

#

    “Jackson! Got a new manuscript for you,” the mail clerk shouted.
    Great, another piece of drunken bull shit, he thought to himself.
    He set his coffee mug on the manuscript he was currently reading. The only use he could conceive for it at this point was to keep the coffee mug from leaving a ring on his desk. Yeah, for sure, these “writers” were trying too hard…
    He walked down to the mail room. The decorations in the hall were old and dilapidated. The potted palm in the corner had been there for twenty years and the few assorted Monet prints hanging haphazardly along the walls were just as old. The carpet was worn, too. Just the tell-tale signs of a publishing house on its way out, he thought.
    Jackson thought about the back and forth trips down these very halls over the years. Too many times to count.
    “Looks to be a monster,” the mail clerk remarked. “Sort of reminds me of the stories you hear about Thomas Wolfe and Maxwell Perkins.”
    “Oh great…” Jackson chuckled. “Just what I need now. A crate filled with manuscript. There’s no way in hell I’ll be reading a crate, even if it is Thomas Wolfe.”
    It wasn’t quite a crate, but the manuscript was massive.
    The men laughed.
    “See ya, Phil.”
    “Later, Jack.”
    Jackson tossed the box containing the new manuscript beside his in-box. He’d get to it later.
    “Gaylord Finkebyne, eh?” The name of the author was strange. “Might as well be called Jose Cuervo.”

#

    By mid-afternoon, he’d thrown away two more manuscripts. He relished the solid “thump” the bundled pages made as they hit the bottom of the trash can. As the day went on, though, these “thumps” were replaced by “thuds” which were finally replaced by “flops”, at which point he knew his day was over.
    The Finkebyne manuscript seemed to call his name then, but he ignored it.
    He phoned his friend Calvin, an editor at another publishing company. Old college buddies, not quite rivals; one could say they had a healthy competition going. They made a bet years ago regarding who would publish the most best-sellers in their careers. At this point in time, Calvin would win that bet.
    Calvin was inundated with what he termed “best-sellers in the making.”
    “Really? All I ever get sent is garbage,” Jackson said.
    “Well, I wouldn’t say what I get is any better, to be honest. I’d rather read some Kurt Vonnegut or Mark Twain. I would never claim these aren’t crap. I’d say these manuscripts just fall in line with what currently sells.
    “Like this one:” Jackson heard papers rustling on the other end. “It’s called ‘The Vampyre Sister’. For God’s sake, Jackson, what has the industry come to?”
    “I don’t know. I really don’t know. How do you do it? How can you stand to read this drivel, day after day? How do you make it through these so-called ‘best-sellers in the making’?”
    “You really want to know? I’m almost embarrassed to say.”
    “Hah! I’m embarrassed to say there’s no way I can tolerate reading that sort of shit, and because of that, this job has lost its pleasure. Just last night, Judy and I joked that I ought to get drunk before I read the manuscripts, at least then it would be interesting again!”
    “That’s what I do.”
    “What?”
    “It’s the only way to tolerate it.”
    “Really?”
    “Yeah. It seems almost blasphemous, doesn’t it?”
    Jackson thought about it. “No, not really.”
    “Well, I mean, it’s almost painful to do it otherwise. You’d never get past the first page!” Calvin was right.
    “You’ve got that right. Besides, it seems to me that most of those are written drunkenly in the first place. How else can you explain it?”
    “Wow, you really think so?”
    “It’s the only explanation. That or they’ve sold their soul to the devil. I mean, some of the spelling I see! Jesus! And the grammar! These could only be explained by the presence of alcohol.”
    “Huh…” was all Calvin could muster.
    They said goodbye and went back to their jobs.
    Jackson left the Finkebyne manuscript for another time. He decided he would try the drunken read-through at home that night. He planned to retire to his study with a large glass of Scotch and attempt to make it past the first chapter. If he did, he promised himself he would read through the entire thing and decide at the end whether or not to burn it.
    He took the last manuscript of the day and crumpled the entire stack as best he could and threw it into the trash can.
    So, Calvin drinks when he reads his best-sellers, huh? He shook his head.
    He and Calvin had graduated college together. Neither very good at writing the novels they wanted to read, but they were both very good at spelling and with grammar. They felt that somewhere out there, someone had written the novels they wanted to write and it was their job to find them and bring them to the light of day.
    Naturally, they graduated and went right to work at separate publishing houses. Early on they were optimistic.
    How did we end up here? Jackson thought. Reading such garbage. Isn’t it our responsibility to weed out the bad books? But here’s Calvin, sending them right along. That can’t be right.
    But he did want to know what it felt like, having his hands on a best-seller, one that sold millions. Even if it wasn’t the book he wanted to write, he thought his family would be proud to know that he helped it along.   

#

    That evening, before he left work for the day, he made a point of telling everyone – including the mail room – he was taking the Finkebyne manuscript home to do some after-hours reading.
    “I’m taking this one home with me, got a good feeling about it. This is the one!” He proclaimed. “The next Great American Novel.”
    Of course he hadn’t read a word of it and he had no confidence whatsoever that the manuscript wasn’t garbage. He put on this show mainly for himself, to get himself into the mood, so to speak.
    “Okay, Jackson,” everyone said. Nobody cared anymore what was done with the manuscripts. Hell, they didn’t even care that he burned some of them. Everyone had become so complacent and so accustomed to the fact that the firm hadn’t seen a good book in years that they assumed all incoming submissions were garbage and didn’t stand a chance. Like Jackson, they had all but lost their drive.
    Jackson laughed and headed home.   
    On the way home, he considered the following: this would be the first time he’d ever read a manuscript when drunk. Slightly nervous, he thought of what might happen if someone found out. Then he reminded himself that nobody gave a damn anyway.

#

    After dinner, he retired to his library with a bottle of whisky. He sat in his favorite brown leather chair and poured a glass. He looked around at his bookshelves and listened to them calling out to him.
    Hemingway called out from Pamplona, Wolfe from Altamont and Bradbury from Mars. Here were men who had given him his dream. Without them, he would never have fallen in love with books in the first place and would never have become an editor.
    That’s not about you. Someone else wrote this manuscript. If a little drink is what you need to face it, then drink, Hemingway told him. Be a man about it, make your decision.
    So, he drank the first glass.
    Then he picked up the manuscript.
    He read the first page. He let the words seep into his mind. He absorbed every sentence. For the first time in a long time, he wasn’t immediately disgusted.
    Hmm, he thought. Maybe this does work.
    He wasn’t quite drunk, he reminded himself. So he didn’t totally discount the manuscript, yet. Perhaps it was just that good.
    He continued to read. He drank another glass. He was hooked. He hadn’t read anything this engrossing in years. It was like the words on the paper decided to glue themselves to his eyeballs.
    The explosions of language on the page were relentless. At first he was struck by the imagery and the wild imagination. The metaphors! The similes!
    Jackson found himself crying. He convinced himself they were tears of joy at having finally gotten a good one. He smiled when he recalled his friend’s advice. It seemed ironic that he’d begun drinking so as to tolerate the manuscript, but now he couldn’t stop reading.
    He read on.

#

    By the time he finished, on page 354, the sun was rising. Instead of trying to get a few hours of sleep and commuting in a little late, he rushed to the kitchen and scarfed down breakfast. He bolted out the door wearing the same clothes as the day before.
    When he got to the office, the early arrivers were trickling in and he sped by them as they meandered around the coffee station.
    “Wonder what he’s in such a hurry about,” they remarked. He didn’t notice.
    He marched straight to his boss’s office and thumped the manuscript on the desk.   
    “For God’s sake, Bob! Whatever’s on the press right now, stop it! We need proofs made immediately. It’s the next best-seller.”
    “Hmm.” Bob Birdstone set down his coffee. “What’s got you all fired up, Jackson? I haven’t seen you this excited about anything in at least ten years.”
    “It’s a damn good story, Bob. The best I’ve read in a long time.”
    “Hmm. I’m not sure if that’s high praise or not, considering what you’ve had to read these last few years.” He laughed. “Tell me about it.”
    Jackson told him the story.
    “Let me read it.” Bob said.
    Bob read it. Jackson waited the two hours it took for Bob to come to a conclusion.
    “Jackson, you consider me a friend, right?”
    “Yes, of course.”
    “We’ve known each other for years, you and me.”
    “…I’m listening…”
    “You’ve always been so obsessed with finding the Great American Novel that you’ve never really stopped to consider the fact that most people just want to be entertained. Until now.”
    “What?”
    “This’ll sell millions, Jackson. Millions. It’s no Charles Dickens. No, not even on the same level as Stephen King. It doesn’t have one ounce of literary merit in it. There are no awards for style. No Pulitzer. But the story. The story is there.”
    “But…” Jackson recalled the enjoyment he’d felt reading it.
    In this moment, he realized what Mark Twain meant. Those similes? Those metaphors? The gripping plotline? He found them because he wasn’t looking for them.
    “Of course, we will make millions when this hits the shelves. This ‘Finkebyne’ or whatever he’s called will make millions, too. People will eat it up. But tell me Jackson, how did you get past your usual prejudice?”
    “I had a drink or two with Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain.”
    “I suppose that’s what it takes in this day and age. Even though I’m not sure what you mean by that, I knew there was no way in hell you’d have enjoyed this any other day.”
    “Maybe not.”
    “Jackson?”
    “Yeah?”
    “I suppose you ought to spend more time with those two. We might not end up bankrupt. It just doesn’t pay to have such a literary fixation anymore. Maybe we shouldn’t try so hard.”
    “You know what? You’re right about that.”
    Jackson went home that night and finally told his family he’d finally found it.
   

 

 

 

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Robert Bak, 10/26/2015

Current occupation: Agent/Manager for BAK Editions.
Former occupation: DynaTheater & Planetarium Manager for the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.
Contact Information: Robert has been involved with the entertainment business for many years. First starting off as a stage manager Off-Off Broadway in NYC, and then working in Los Angeles and Albuquerque. He has been a director and producer of plays with national award winning playwright William Derringer. In addition to his involvement in theater, Robert has written a number of short stories. He would like to thank William for the training and insight of what the writing process is. Robert is very pleased that his story, “Dark All Over” is being published in Work Literary Magazine.

 

#

THE FLYING VASE

A SHORT ESSAY

    You must be thinking, a flying vase?  I did not think so either, except on that bright spring day, driving in my delivery truck.  I had my set of deliveries, which were loaded on the front shelf of the truck.  My ensuing stop was from Bloomingdale’s.  As I turned the corner, with the side door open, the box flew out.  It landed on a grassy section, and out of the box came this beautiful cobalt blue vase.  I immediately stopped the truck, and I ran to retrieve it.  Not a scratch or mark on it.  I quickly grab it, the paper tape that was used just came apart in my hand.  I carefully put the vase back in the box.  I then placed it in a safe part of the truck, to bring back to the office, where I would tape it back up, and the package would look as good as new.  The next day, off I went again, and I was able to deliver it, with no one knowing how far it had flown.

 

Posted in

Jeff Wise, 10/19/2015

Current Occupation: High School English Teacher
Former Occupations: Veterinary Assistant, Motorcycle Detailer, Music Instructor
Contact Information: Wise's poetry has previously appeared in PiP. He is also writes short fiction. Wise grew up in Indiana, attended Indiana University—Bloomington, and now lives in Memphis, TN with his beloved orange tabby, Ms. Devereaux.

#

Author's Note: I wrote this poem while sitting through a day-long professional development session in which attendees (teachers at a high school in  the Arkansas Delta) were subjected to a litany of sales pitches by  providers of insurance and legal services. After every presentation, the room erupted in an eerie applause. After one salesman finished his speech in which he celebrated the speed at which his company paid out claims to cancer patients (pray you get cancer if you buy his policy) I decided I could no longer condone the passive acceptance of these "professional development" sessions in the form of applause. While my co-workers sat attentively, I furiously scribbled in my notebook.

 

 

Applause

Together we make
Noise to celebrate
The world
Before our half-attentive eyes
That signals something
Buzzing in our dormant
Buzzing minds.
Crescendo.
Someone follows the path.
A thank-you
A clank of a dropped
Microphone blasts out of
Ragged, sharp, treble-heavy
Speakers.
A slight echo
Yelling the last cue which
Falls on the ears of a few in the back
That stare out the window,
Whose minds buzz louder than the others’.
Click.
Echo.
Clap clap clap
Starting in the front moving like a
Ripple throughout shared space.
A boat leaves a dock.
Room for those with tickets and a desire to board.
So all clap
For fear of being left on shore
In a world with a few
Whose minds buzz louder than the others’.

 

 

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