Mitchell Toews, 6/19/2017

Current Occupation: writer
Former Occupation: marketing
Contact Information: Mitchell Toews lives and writes at a lakeside cottage in Manitoba. When an insufficient number of, "We are pleased to inform you…" emails are on hand, he finds alternative joy in the windy intermingling between the top of the water and the bottom of the sky or skates on the ice until he can no longer see the cabin.

#

Fairchild, McGowan and the Detective

 

THE BOSSES I HAD IN MY LIFE and the boss I became are closely related. I learned from all of them. Some taught me how to act, others taught me what not to do. Coming from a small town where so many people were my relatives or – at the least – a member of the Mennonite community, it was my good fortune to become educated in the work world by some outsiders; “Englanders” as we called them secretly. They were Englanders because of the language they spoke, not necessarily because of their country of origin or citizenry.

As a young teen in Hartplatz, I was fortunate enough to have an after-school job in the Loeb Lumberyard Sash & Door shop.

It used to be that window sash was built and installed onsite with pre-cut parts. A skilled carpenter could produce and putty-glaze four windows or more in a day. In the Sixties, companies began prefabricating the entire sash package – building ready-to-install windows for the openings. Now any carpenter could glaze a whole house in a day or two.

Loeb was deeply invested in this new fenestration enterprise and I had a job chopping sash components on the mitre box saw. We had a power saw, but it broke down so often that many days I was required to cut the pieces by hand, from 4:15 to 5:45, Mon-Weds-Fri.

With the day shift gone at 4:00, it was a pleasant job, working in the quiet workshop that was scented with the fragrance of sawn cedar and fir. The sawdust from these resinous species would be settling as I arrived, my work area neatly swept and tools put away by the departing worker, “Mexikaunsche Froese”. His real name was John Froese, but there were so many John Froeses around that his “eatjenome” (nickname) was “Mexican Froese”, owing to his family being the only local Froese family to have returned from Mexico, where many had gone in a sub-migration several years earlier.

My rolling cart of sticks was at the ready. Pieces were gathered and bundled like bunches of celery, tied with twine. My job was to process the pieces, cutting them to length at 90 or 45 degrees, according to the form attached to each job. After they were cut, I would inspect them for flaws, clean up the ends with sandpaper and put a check mark on the work order.

It was boring, steady work, requiring just enough attention allocation to prevent finger amputation but still allow for mental meanderings to other, more interesting mental vistas. My job provided comic book money and created in me an abiding desire for a future career that required, and gave, a little more.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, my boss, John Fairchild, would be there. He would stop in on me a couple of times per evening – making sure everything was OK and checking on my production, so he could plan for the morning.

Mr Fairchild was, as it turned out, my best boss ever, even though I did not know that then. I worked at the sash & door shop for four years, eventually growing to know many of the regular tasks and being able to safely run most of the equipment; even knowing the foibles and idiosyncrasies of the older belt-drive turning machines. Like the hockey player who wins a Stanley Cup in his first year, I did not yet have a full appreciation of what I had in Mr Fairchild.

He had been recruited from Winnipeg and came originally from distant St. John where he had run a sash & door business for the Irvine family. His Maritime accent stood out in stark contrast to the flat, nasal Mennonite twang common to the sash shop.

Fairchild was quiet, calm and observant. He had the habit of suddenly being there, whenever needed. Like the Ghost of Sash Production Present, he would appear just as the saw was going wrong or to help decipher a messy work order.

He told stories about sailing in New Brunswick and had a technical degree from Ryerson, a school in Toronto.

Fairchild was short and lean and his work clothes – though dusty – were neatly pressed and clean, save for the inevitable stains: glue, paint and cutting oil from the sharpening shop. His eyes were pale blue and he always had a red Loeb carpenter pencil behind his ear. Like a lot of Englanders, he used the Canadian “eh” in abundance. I never saw him lose his temper or shout.

Once, during one of my rare day-shifts, an older co-worker, a man with a family of seven, Nathan Wall, had a melt-down. His car had broken down that morning and he was in a generally foul mood. Nathan had a temper and when frustrations piled up, he often burst. He was a craftsman and overall a fine person, except for the occasional incendiary outburst.

That morning, after his drill jammed for the third time, Nathan threw a hammer the length of the shop in frustration. Mr Fairchild saw it from his shop desk across the room. Carrying a folding measure and flipping it open and shut casually, Fairchild took his time wandering over to where the hammer had landed. He then picked it up and ambled back. Fairchild stopped at the bench next to Nathan's and engaged Frank Dueck in a lengthy conversation about Saturday night's hockey game.

Nathan stood helplessly – without his hammer he could not continue. He fidgeted as the manager chatted with Frank. Then Fairchild patted Frank on the shoulder and placed the hammer on Nathan's bench. He motioned for Nathan to follow him back to his office. As we watched, Fairchild conducted a painfully slow progression, stopping at each station while hot-headed Nathan followed behind him, feeling our gazes.

Nathan went home to “cool off.” At lunch, Fairchild, knowing my affinity for comic books, asked if I felt safer now, seeing as, “we apparently have Thor working in our shop, eh?”

#

On Fridays, one of the other managers, Bob McGowan, was in charge. McGowan was also an import – having come from a large millwork in Chicago. He was both a part-time production manager and also led the sales team. The sales team – such as it was – consisted of McGowan and Walter “Eadshock” Wohlgemuth. (“E-yid-shucka”; literally dirt apple – translated to “potato.”)

As a production manager, McGowan made a fairly good salesman. Fairchild, I sensed, took a dim view of McGowan but tolerated him, despite their differences. Fairchild treated McGowan with respect and the proper deference, as a fellow manager. The fact that they were both non-Mennonites also served to align them and for McGowan in particular, it formed a feeling of “us and them.”

I believed that Fairchild felt a kinship to all those who did their job properly. He did not care who you were or where you were from so long as you worked hard and treated others with respect. McGowan did not share this inclusive viewpoint.

Fortunately, the two bosses did not work together often.

McGowan, despite his roguish tendencies and sometimes-unhidden disdain for the Mennonites who provided his income, was not without some charm. He was humorous and energetic. Tall and fit, he too wore neat shop clothes, often opting for a tie — tucked into his shirt-front buttons for safety. He had white teeth and his neatly cropped hair was salt-and-pepper grey. He tended to look at you directly and without blinking during a conversation.

I noticed something strange about McGowan one day. I watched him as he went from workbench to workbench, checking on production totals. At each station, as he made his tally, he stood in exactly the same pose as the other man. When he spoke to Klippenstein, he stood leaning back, his weight on his heels – just as Klippenstein did. For Nathan, McGowan mimicked the smaller man’s peculiar crouched posture. With me, he stood as I did – hands on hips – until I changed my pose to fold my arms across my chest. He did the same, his clipboard dangling.

At quitting time, I walked by his office where he sat with his feet up and a Sportsman cigarette smoking in a large glass ashtray on his paper-covered desk. I stuck my head in to say, “G' night, sir!”

“Yea, yea kid, goodnight, goodnight,” he shouted back. I paused, and then leaned into the doorway, “Say, may I ask you something?”

“Sure thing. What is it, Matt?” He sat forward in his chair and tapped the ash off his cigarette.

“Well, it's no big deal,” I said, “but I have noticed that when you talk to someone… ” I started.

“Yes?” he said, leaning forward a bit more, making me feel tense about quizzing him.

I plunged ahead.  “I’ve noticed that you always copy the person you are talking to. The way they are standing, I mean.”

I started as he jumped up, both hands slapping the desktop and his chair rocking back violently.

“Ha, kid,” he laughed, his eyes bright. “Ya caught me!”

I looked at him questioningly.

“It's a salesman trick, see? What you do is take on the same posture as the other guy. It kind of flusters him and puts you in the power position. Understand?” He stopped and reached over to tap a book on the credenza. “Power Poses” was written on the thin spine.

He continued, “It's like animals. When a deer and a cougar meet in the forest, you can imagine the difference in their postures. The cougar would be aggressive – the deer scared and ready to run.”

“OK,” I said, still a bit iffy.

“So, you don't want to take on the ‘cougar pose’ right away or it puts the other person on the defensive and they run. And you can't sell ‘em if they run, right?”

“Right.”

“So, you copy them a few times. This puts them off-balance, but not scared. You, on the other hand, are in control.” He stood, his cigarette dangling from his lips, the white smoke curling up towards the yellowed ceiling tiles. “Then, when you want to get them to agree to something, you switch to a 'power position' and they instinctively agree.”

“Wow!” I said. “Does it work?”

“Yeah, I think so. I practice all the time when I talk to you guys in the shop.”

“Well, I kinda think it works with us just because you're the boss.”

“Yeah, maybe,” he said, butting out his cigarette and regarding me with some late-arriving pique. “I also have some power tactics in here. See how my chair is higher than the others and how you look UP at me? And see how I have pictures of my family and awards and shit on display?” he pointed to the wall behind him. “That is like baring my FANGS!” he concluded, flashing his white teeth for emphasis.

“Does it work on Mr Fairchild?” I asked, crossing my arms and leaning forward, tall on the balls of my feet.

He leaned his hands on the desktop and tapped his shoe on the tile floor a few times, then sat down and said, “Nice try, kiddo. See yer tomorrow, ya rascal!” busying himself with a sheaf of printed pages.

#

A favourite McGowan misadventure concerned hapless Eadshock Wohlgemuth. “Ead” for short, was a well-meaning, earnest but somewhat lacklustre sales professional. Ead’s father was a wealthy potato farmer and his many sheds, garages, barns and houses made the Wohlgemuths powerful Loeb Lumber customers.

Bob McGowan was the chief salesman and Ead did the travelling to Winnipeg and Kenora and beyond, selling lumberyards pre-fabricated sash and doors. Ead knew his father's influence was partly why he had this plum job. He also knew he was not particularly well-suited to it and he often ran scared, believing his days in sash sales might be numbered. Ead feared McGowan like a Robin fears a cat.

Ead had a small office in the lumberyard. It had a window facing into the retail tool and hardware portion of the store and his name and title were painted on the glass. One day, I happened to be in the store talking to Don Hoeppner, the store manager. Ead walked up to us fresh from a trip to Gimli. We greeted him, but he was distracted, staring in astonishment at his office where Nathan was busy scraping the lettering off of the glass with a razor.

“Don, Matt, what, am I . . .” Ead stuttered, his posture slumped in defeat and his arms hanging slackly at his sides in a most prey-like pose. He clearly believed he had been fired and had not yet been told.

Just then, Bob McGowan came striding up the stairs – two-at-a-time — from the basement, a box of sash locks under his arm. “Oh! Wohlgemuth!” he called out, pointing a long arm at him and snapping his fingers loudly.

“I meant to tell you,” he shouted.

Ead sucked in his breath, and looked quickly at Don and I, his florid face pale.

“I've changed your title and I'm getting you some business cards. YOU are our new Sash & Door SALES ASSOCIATE!” he said, skidding to a halt in front of Ead like a thirsty cowboy galloping up to a saloon. He pushed the carton of sash locks at him. “Here, drop these at Beaver Lumber in Ste. Remaude.”

“McGowan OVER and OUT! “ he said, wheeling on his heel and marching off rapidly, oblivious to Eadshock's elevated heart rate and welling eyes.

#

McGowan carried on for several years and then suddenly one day he was gone. When he did not come to work for a few days, I asked Mr Fairchild about it. Fairchild nodded and said simply that a mutual decision had been reached and that Mr McGowan had moved on to another job in Winnipeg.

McGowan, over and out, I thought.

#

Years later, I began working full-time – as my dad said, “for real” – in a large Grambles Department Store in Winnipeg. Here I often recalled and employed the things I learned from Fairchild and McGowan. In addition, I met a third Englander who taught me about the rough world I was part of.

My job was in the Hardware Department and that suited me fine. I felt at home with the pieces and parts, tools, cans of paint and other lumberyard merchandise. I was part of a regular coffee break group that included the store’s assistant manager, Ted Olynyk, and Art Ross, who was the shipper/receiver. We often sat at a table beside Miss Sharon Stewart, who was a pert, 5'2” Scot, as tough as pig iron and our fearless Store Detective. Miss Stewart would sit alone at her table, looking straight ahead, sipping her tea and following along with our conversation. She took pains not to reveal her cover as a shopper. Her lips barely moving, she would often brief us about those she was surveilling.

The most exciting days occurred when a “crew” was in the store. These were professional teams of shoplifters who hit the store with a practiced routine of distraction, deception and theft. They stole big-ticket items and were hard to catch. Miss Stewart felt that if we at least made it difficult for these “nickers”, as she described them, it might be enough to take our store out of their regular rotation. Hers was a patient, bend-don't-break strategy.

On days when the game was afoot, Sharon would sneak over to one of the store telephones and after activating the public address option, announce, “Hardware personnel to Aisle 10 please; Hardware – Aisle 10.” There was no Aisle 10 in our store. It was code for me to go to the front of the store and be ready for action. Art and Teddy would go outside for a smoke, chatting casually just outside the entrance. I was the “rover” inside the store, ready to chase the shoplifters in case they sensed the trap and bolted for one of the emergency exits or tried to get out through the Auto Centre.

By law, Sharon could detain them only after they were outside of the building. She would indicate with her eyes and some surreptitious pointing, which person was holding the stolen goods. Sharon would also let us know who the accomplices were. At her signal, we would converge on the culprits just as she addressed them; the moment they exited.  “Excuse me, may I see your receipt please?” she would demand, brandishing her Store Detective badge.

We loved these situations because they took us far outside of the normal, boring routine of the department store. Art “Lady Byng” Ross was a big burly fellow, and he was imposing despite his gentle name. Teddy was a former street fighter and his smaller size was deceptive – he had the demeanour of a honey badger once things got rough. I was young, foolish and relentless – often chasing flushed crooks through backyards and across school playgrounds in the surrounding residential neighbourhood. It truly was a game to me.

When one particularly hardened crew arrived at our store, Sharon was steely-eyed and determined to catch as many as she could and try to get the ringleader. They had hit us hard in the past and as she said in her pleasing brogue, “Is this personal? Oh, you bet it is. They goan tah be liftit for their crime!”

As Detective Stewart drew the net taut that day, one of the thieves broke for the Auto Centre. I followed, vaulting a shopping cart and tackling the shoplifter in the middle of the Grambles Coffee Cafe. I arm-locked the skinny kid and waited for Sharon. Outside, Teddy and Art had a grip on a tough looking bearded man. Seeing me, Sharon left them and hurried to where I knelt on top of the teenage accomplice. She leaned over and whispered, “Let him go!” urgently, but very quietly, into my ear. I made a face at her – I had worked hard to snag him and my knees and elbows were hurting as a result. She hissed, “NOW!” and I jumped up. He scrambled for the door and took off, dodging traffic on Regent Avenue.

She grinned at me, “Bonnie open field tackle, lad. But, he was still in the store!” she admonished, her R's rolling like kegs of single-malt on the distillery floor as we rejoined Art and Ted with their captive.

“Now help take this gentleman,” she paused to shine a gold-capped, toothy grin at the suspect, “up to the interrogation room and wait for the police. You stay with him there so Art and Teddy can get back t'work.”

By law, only the police could search the shoplifter for stolen goods. To prevent the suspect from discarding any stolen goods on their person, we would lock them up in a small room together with a store employee until the cops arrived. It had to be a person of the same gender as the suspect. The interrogation room was secretly connected to an adjacent room with a small one-way mirror. It was also wired for sound. Sharon would wait in the adjoining room watching and taping any conversation for possible evidence. Grambles was waging war on shoplifting.

While I waited with the bearded thief, he began whispering to me. “Look, buddy, I know I shouldn't have done this, and the thing is, it's my third offence this year. I'll go to Stony for sure.” Stony Mountain Penitentiary was the Province's most severe lock-up. “Please, kid; I'll give you the three watches I got. They're worth a hunnert, easy.” I stared straight ahead – I didn't want a trip to Stony either.

After a minute or so, the guy bent forward, his face in his hands, and he began to cry. He broke down, saying, “My son, my damn son . . . stupid, stupid!” I sat in the tiny room, listening to the thief tell me his woes, shaking my head slowly at Sharon through the two-way glass.

Later, after the police had searched and interrogated him and he was led out of the store, Sharon and a tall constable motioned me over. “So that guy was pretty upset about his situation, eh?” the big cop said.

“Yeah, he said he has a little kid and the guy figured gettin' caught meant going to Stony and not seeing his kid grow up.” I replied. I could not help feeling a little sad about it myself.

“He will go to Stony, that’s sure,” said Sharon, grinning sheepishly as the cop held up a Ziploc bag with two large hunting knives in it. The bag was marked EVIDENCE.  “He’ll be in prison for a while, since he was carryin' these twin beauties – one in each boot.”

 

Posted in

Cass Hayes, 6/12/2017

Current Occupation: Intern at the Oxford American
Former Occupation: Food preparer at Taco Casa in Waxahachie, Texas
Contact Information: Cass Hayes is from Waxahachie, Texas and is currently a student in the Arkansas Writers MFA Program at the University of Central Arkansas.

#

Wanted Dead and Alive

    Steve could feel his brain getting harder and heavier. The doctors had looked him over, shook their heads, said there was nothing they could do– his brain was turning to stone. A tale as old as time, some pathogen had caused some virus. They had said he’d gotten it from a mosquito bite, but bull to that. Steve thought he probably got it from drinking out of the school water fountain after Mitch McDougal, the redneck twerp who always had sores oozing on his lips. No matter, though. Right now, mostly all Steve had was a little spot of stone in the back of his brain, and headaches that came and went. Nothing world-ending.

    “You don’t touch anything, don’t do anything, don’t say anything,” said Dale as him and Steve sat in Dale’s pickup on the shoulder of old Highway 77 way out somewhere in the country, surrounded by cotton fields freshly tilled and bare. Dale was all gray– gray hair, skin, fingernails, cowboy hat, and gray stubble on his jaw– and he had to shoot himself up with morphine just so he could stand up straight without passing out. Right now he was in the driver’s seat with a needle in his arm. He caught Steve staring and Steve looked away.

    The truck was ragged, with a trash bag over one of the back windows and a blanket stapled over the backseat cushion. In the passenger’s seat there was a dark stain Steve just knew was blood. Dale had a gun on his hip that he told Steve not to even look at, but then when Steve got all huffy about why’d he even invite him to help out if he wasn’t going to give him nothing to do, Dale’d let him hold it. The gun hadn't been as heavy as Steve thought it’d be. Dale’d snatched it away before Steve could see how it shot. Anyway, he knew he hadn’t been asked along to shoot the ghosts. He’d been asked because he had a smartphone and was dying and so supposedly could see them, and because Dale’d happened to sit next to him in the hospital during treatments a time or two.

    Dale’d waited a while before asking Steve what he had.

    “I don’t know,” Steve had shrugged, as if he couldn’t care less. “It’s something in my head.”

    “Welp,” nodded Dale, rolling his eyes, “at least we know it’s not a brain.” Then he’d asked Steve if he had a smartphone that could record video. When Steve said yeah, Dale asked if he wanted a job, something about hunting down criminals who’d escaped into the ghost world, videotaping them for proof of capture to show to the bounty people. Anyway, it had sounded exciting at the time, and when Dale had said it was dangerous work Steve had jumped on board.

    Steve, of course, knew exactly what he had. The sickness had started out in the pasture with his dad. His dad liked to walk the land sometimes on weekends, traipse around the creek and stock tanks, carrying a pistol and a glass of bourbon and looking to shoot the heads off snakes. He liked Steve to go because then he could ramble to himself without admitting he was a crazy person. “My father used to take me out here, just like this,” he’d say. “But I’m worried about you, son. You’re going soft awfully young. I always feared your place was in the kitchen with your mother.” Then he’d spot a snake, sometimes a moccasin or a cottonmouth but more often just a little old grass snake. “Here,” he’d say, whispering like a prisoner escaping from jail or something, not booming or stomping anymore. “Hold my glass.” And Steve would hold the bourbon, wincing against the crack of the pistol, bracing himself because once he’d jumped and spilled bourbon all down his front, and his dad about to never let it go.

    Steve didn’t remember much of getting sick that first time. He had felt lightheaded and suddenly weak, fell over into the grass and felt so tired he couldn’t move. His father had stared at him. Just tilted his head and stared, his folded eyes glowing fiery blue, squinting down at his son in the tall grass and black dirt– like somebody looking at a possum and trying to figure out if it was dead or not. Then Steve had sort of blacked out. Had woken up in the hospital with a load of doctors observing him, commenting on his color and vitals, taking notes.

    On Highway 77, Steve gazed out the window at the empty field and white sunlight, the bigger and newer highway blurred with cars on the other side of the pasture. “So, what do they look like?” asked Steve, thinking about the ghosts. He knew they weren’t just floating bed sheets. He pictured them being almost see-through and gray, like a projection, or maybe zombiefied like that girl from The Ring. “How do you get to ‘em?” he asked. “Can you shoot ‘em?”

    “You can’t shoot nothing,” said Dale.

    Small fingerprints smudged the window glass. Steve guessed the stains on the seat cushions could also be from a chocolate popsicle running down a little kid’s hand. Or mud from off a dog. Or soy sauce. “I’ve shot snakes before,” said Steve. “My dad showed me how.”

    “Ghosts ain’t snakes,” said Dale.

***

    Steve’s head hurt like heck. He winced, licked his fingertips, and slicked back his hair, checking his reflection in the pickup truck passenger’s side window– checking the ugly red pimple that’d appeared that morning. Then he hustled after Dale. Dale walked a lot like Steve’s dad– with assurance, a manly swagger– but with more caution, slowly and with a hand pressed to his side. Steve guessed the pain in Dale’s gut still hurt even with the morphine. If it was anything like the headache, they were in for a rough day. They walked on the shoulder, careful not to stumble into the steep ditch, Dale’s eyes scanning the road ahead. A few cars shot by. “So,” said Steve, “who we looking for?”

    “Judge Smith.”

    “He’s a ghost?”

    “No. He’s not even a judge. He’s a farmer.” Dale swatted a hand around. His hand was rough and scarred, like the hands of the men who actually tended all the acres Steve’s dad owned while he sat in a pressed suit behind a polished oak desk in an air conditioned bank. “He owns all this land,” said Dale. “Grows cotton. Old school.”

    Steve kicked a broken chunk of asphalt. “If he ain’t a ghost, when why are we looking for him?”

    But Dale wouldn’t say. Steve wondered if Dale had a father or was a father or if someone was waiting at home already mourning his absence, already growing used to it, already moving on. Up ahead, a rusty tin gate was left open to a white rock driveway that led to a small farmhouse in the distance. The farmhouse looked boring, shrunken surrounded by the huge pastures, the waving grass and black dirt tilled in unwavering straight lines. “Judge don’t like nobody driving down his driveway,” explained Dale. “He says other folks’ tires rut up the gravel.”

    “You know him?”

    “Came across him. I’m looking for somebody he used to know.”

    They crunched down the driveway towards the house. The closer they got, the more cussing Steve could make out. “Well I’ll be a sorry sumbitch straight from hell,” grunted a giant of a man swinging a shovel at the ground. He hit something, and the something exploded dark slime onto the man’s shovel and boots. Dale took off his cowboy hat, the wind licking up his gray hair, and called out Judge’s name.

    Judge saw and walked toward them, taking out a handkerchief and mopping his forehead.

    “Frogs?” asked Dale.

    “Hell yeah. Useless as tits on a bull. They tunnel into my foundation.” Dale nodded, as if any of that made a single lick of sense. Steve looked Judge over, feeling a bit unsure about how to take him. He was old, bald, with a wart on his protruding chin and a liver spot over the thin wire frame of his glasses. He moved with stiff knees and had broad shoulders like an ex-linebacker or something– somebody who could snap your spine with his bare hands, if he could catch you. One thing was for dang sure– he wasn’t no ghost.

    “I wish I could help you,” said Dale. “Is there some sort of poison, maybe?”

    “They don’t make none that work right. It kills the rabbits, and then you ain’t got nothing to eat.”

    Dale shook his head sympathetically. Judge stabbed his shovel into the dirt. “You’re still looking for Lana?” he asked, folding his handkerchief back up and slipping it into his jeans pocket. “Because she sure as sin been hanging around here. Asking for money, same as always. Wants to go to Italy.” Judge laughed as if the desire was as crazy as rabbit poison. “She ain’t here now, though. Went down to the lake.”

    “So Lana is the ghost?” asked Steve. “They can use real money?”

    Dale stared daggers at Steve for speaking up. Judge grunted, said, “Money ain’t real, boy.” His glasses glinted as he checked Steve up and down. “What’s your name?”

    “Steve.”

    “Well, Steve, I don’t know what field trip Dale here’s taking you on, but don’t get your hopes up. I’m nearly seventy years old, with two stints in my heart and a rotten pair of lungs, and I ain’t seen no ghosts yet. Most I can do is hear ‘em. And Lana, she leaves me notes. Wrote the last one on the mirror with my dead wife’s lipstick. The slut.” Steve gulped, wondering whether Judge meant Lana or his wife. He looked to Dale.

    “You’ll see ‘em,” said Dale softly, almost sad-like. Steve could see the pain and drugs dulling Dale’s red-rimmed eyes, his irises like stagnant water. Dale nodded and turned back to Judge. “Welp,” Dale said, “thank you anyway.” He returned his cowboy hat to his head.

    Steve heard a ribbit, and Judge scowled and picked back up his shovel, started hunting through the tall Johnson grass. Steve’s head hurt like a spike jabbed through the back of his skull. It made him feel weak. It made him think of his father staring at him in the pasture, the glint of the bourbon glass sharp in the sunlight. The ache steady as a tom-tom, Steve frowned and followed Dale back down the driveway. “Lana’s a criminal?” he asked softly.

    “Lana Jones stole over two million dollars worth of diamonds, which were later recovered with her accomplice brother. He was arrested, but she got away, into the ghost world.”

    Turning back toward the house, Steve watched Judge crash further out into the pasture and start digging some kind of hole with the shovel. “How do you get to the ghost world?” Steve asked.

    “More ways than you know, Steve.” Dale’s jaw was tight like he was holding a marble in his mouth. “Lana did it by shooting herself. It surprised me, a woman like that. But I shouldn’t be surprised. I figure she panicked, but still I woulda thought poison, maybe jumping off a bridge.”

    Steve swiveled back to Dale. “She’s dead? I mean, really dead?”

    Dale twitched his nose and stroked the stubble on his jaw. He glanced out to Judge, grinned and shook his head. “God knows what Lana saw in Judge,” he said. “Grit, I suppose. They don’t make men like that no more.”

    Well, in Steve’s opinion, maybe it was a good thing men like Judge had been discontinued– if only for the frogs’ sake.

***

    Steve imagined the small spot of stone in his occipital lobe expanding, soon calcifying his nerves and brain matter. First taking his vision. Then his ability to understand language. Then making his clumsy. Finally making his head so heavy he wouldn't be able to lift it with just his neck. He’d have to hold it up with his hands or maybe get some sort of contraption to keep it propped up. Like maybe one of those dog cones turned upside down. Of course, by then he’d be drooling like a kid in Calculus, groping around blind too, so would there even be a point in looking around?

    “Do you have a family?” Steve asked. Dale kept his eyes roving across the road, checking the mirrors.

    “Have some daughters. Adults. Had a wife. Had a son. He died.”

    Steve gulped, his throat dry. “Is he–”

“He ain’t no ghost. He’s gone.” Dale pulled through a gate, the fences on each side crooked posts connected with brittle rope. “This world just ain’t for some people, Steve. It eats them out from the inside.”

Steve knew he was maybe supposed to say “I’m sorry,” but he couldn’t say it. Instead he asked, “How can you be so sure I’m gonna see them?” Dale put the pickup in park beside the  lake. “You don’t even know what’s wrong with me.” The radio played Ernest Tubb, but quit as soon as Dale killed the engine. He lifted his hat and pulled his fingers through his gray hair.

“You’ll see ‘em, Steve,” said Dale. He opened the driver’s door and got out.

“My dad didn’t really teach me how to shoot snakes,” Steve said quickly. “I’ve never fired a gun.”

Dale rolled his eyes. “If you really wanna kill a snake, you don’t need a gun.” He slammed the door and the whole truck rattled. Steve hopped out too and followed, even with his head aching and butterflies fluttering in his stomach, thinking maybe he’d made a mistake, thinking maybe he shouldn’t of lied to his dad and went with this broke-up, quite possibly deranged ghost bounty hunter he didn’t know nothing about. They walked toward a tiny shack near the water that said, “Bait and Grub” in peeling red paint on a piece of plywood above the door.

    “You want to kill a snake,” continued Dale, “you got to have talent. Quick hands.” He grinned. “You snatch it up by the tail and snap it like a whip.” He mimed the motions with a startlingly fast fist. “You do it right, the thing’s head’ll dislocate from its spine. It’ll be dead. Not a drop of blood.”

    Dale winced and touched his side. Steve swallowed. “I think my dad likes shooting ‘em.”

    “Well, you don’t have to like what your dad likes. There’s more than one way to kill a snake.”

    The waves cracked against the limestone shore like a knife on a cutting board. A few weeks ago, Steve wouldn’t of gone with someone like Dale, not in a million years, not for a million dollars. He wouldn’t of lied to his dad. The man who’d taken care of him during one of Steve’s mother’s many breakdowns. The man who’d had Steve’s second grade teacher fired when she scolded Steve for refusing to participate in show and tell. The man who’d slapped Steve for making some stupid joke about his grandfather being so pickled with vodka that his body would make the grass on his grave turn yellow. Family meant something sacred and historic to his dad that Steve never did understand. And now Steve could feel the stone creeping forward, the stone that would lay him by his grandfather and leave his dad with no one to hold the bourbon on snake-hunting trips.

    Dale was hurting again. He held up a hand and then went back to the truck to shoot up.

    Steve drifted to the shore. He stood a few steps from the brownish water that rocked fish skeletons and beer cans onto algae-slick limestone. Bullshit that Dale could kill snakes by snapping them like whips, Steve thought. Nobody could do that. It was just big talk. He checked toward the truck and saw Dale grimacing behind the wheel with his head leaned back and a needle in his arm. The truck pinged about the open driver’s door. Steve could feel his smartphone warm in his pocket. He would only have to record Lana if Dale had to shoot her. And Dale said he’d have to shoot her.

    Steve turned back to the lake.

    A cloud of something that resembled gnats drifted up from the surface of the water. Grayish-tan and quivering, the bits floated and dispersed and pulled together, buzzing faintly like the wail of a siren faraway in a pitch-black night. Steve stepped back. Gnats didn’t drone. Mosquitoes? They didn’t form clouds of such fine particles. A dust devil? But the cloud didn’t spin, and dirt couldn’t of been picked up from the water.

    The cloud continued to drift toward him, and in a panic Steve thought of calling out to Dale, but when he turned his head slightly a woman’s voice said, “Please don’t,” and the voice was so desperate that Steve stopped.

    He looked closer, harder, and could see that the cloud had started to take the shape of a woman– tall, with long arms and wide eyes that seemed secure and curious, like a girl who sees her features in an old photograph of her mother. She stayed milky grayish, hugged her stomach and, once her legs fully formed, swayed her hips as she walked toward him in a long fur coat and fashionable high heels. “My name is Lana,” she said in a breathy voice with a New York accent– Steve recognized it from TV and because it didn’t sound like the way people talked around here. She was beautiful, glamorous, with a smile like a pearl necklace.

    “I’m Steve,” Steve said with his mouth gaping open.

    “You’re dying aren’t you?” she said, concerned but flipping her hair like a cheerleader. “It’s not so bad. I can tell you about it.”

    “But you’re not all the way dead,” he said.

    She pursed her sepia lips coyly. “Why are you here?” she asked. “You look awfully young. Looking for one last adventure, one last screw-you to mom and dad?”

    She seemed to be daring him to stare. He looked away, toward the Bait and Grub shack and then toward Dale, who was still in the driver’s seat with his head leaned back and his eyes closed and the needle in his arm like some kind of junkie.

    She wasn’t a criminal, Steve thought. Maybe she stole some jewelry but, Jesus, hadn’t she paid for it by practically dying? Seeing her made Steve’s heart jump like it jumped at the crack of the pistol and the splatter of a snakehead on those shooting trips with his dad. And Steve would always stiffen his jaw at his father afterwards, pretending he could handle it– pretending he felt proud to be a part of a family tradition greater than himself. Pretending that seeing reality– seeing real death– would make him better appreciate life. But in reality Steve felt sick when his dad shot stuff for no reason. In reality, Steve figured death wasn’t part of some sacred family tradition. It happened to you and you had to face it alone.

    “You stole jewelry,” he said.

    “I know.”

    “You broke the law.”

    “We needed the money.”

    “And then you shot yourself.”

    “Yes.”

    “Both stealing and killing yourself are wrong, just so you know.”

    Lana tilted her face upwards. “I wasn’t going to jail. I wasn’t ever going to be locked up. And I’m not going to be locked up now.” Steve watched her as she stood there, her arms hidden in the folds of the fur coat and the smile on her face and a coolness drifting around her. She was some rich girl. Had to be. She walked with the same assurance and flippancy of girls stepping off Highland Park school buses.

    Through her, he could see Dale creeping nearer, holding out his gun with both hands. He must of seen.

    Steve inched his cell phone from his pocket. “You know what it means, Steve, doing things in life that you aren’t proud of but you have to do them anyway. You’re young but you know that,” said Lana.

    “You stop right there, Lana Jones,” Dale said. Steve raised the cell phone and flicked to the camera app. The smile that had been fixed to Lana’s face since she’d appeared now drooped away, and her eyes suddenly became a predator’s eyes, angry at Steve for not letting her get away, for filming her. The moment seemed to Steve like it should be private. Like scattering ashes into an ocean– Steve felt she didn’t want to be seen again. He felt a tug of shame, of fear. Not at her or her anger, and not at Dale or his gun, but at the knowledge that Lana was going to try to get away and Dale was going to stop her– and then she would be gone. Gone all the way this time.

    “What I did was wrong,” Lana said, facing Steve but her eyes cutting to Dale, “but I didn’t hurt anyone but myself.”

    Dale’s hands shook and were loose on the gun. “Death like that hurts everyone who’s ever known you.”

    “Just do what you’re going to do.”

    “I’m obligated to take you in if you cooperate.” He squinted down the gun barrel.

    Lana smacked her lips together as if she just put on lipstick. “I stole that jewelry for money, yes. Me and my brother were in great debt. Terrible debt. But I chose jewelry for personal reasons too. My mother, when I was little, used to open her jewelry box and let me put on the necklaces, the rings, the bracelets, my grandfather’s silver watch. It was all too big for me then, but it made me feel glamorous. There’s always personal reasons.” She swiveled her head to face Dale. Steve noticed her highheels had started to get blurry. The camera recorded. Dale flicked his eyes at it.

    She was starting to disappear, the cloud of what had been her feet and legs now starting to dissipate. The grayish tan of her faded, the gnat-like particles spreading apart again so that her form became fuzzy as if faraway. Dale’s hands tightened on the gun and he squeezed the trigger, and out burst a bullet of blue electricity that hit Lana in what Steve guessed had been her stomach but was now an ill-defined cloud. She spun around, her blurred face shocked and writhing like… like a bucketful of snakes. A dark spot appeared on her temple, and when black ink started to run from it Steve realized it was the bullet wound that had killed her. She screamed louder than a tornado siren. Steve ducked and put his hands over his ears. He dropped the phone. Pain flashed through his skull, and he imagined the high-pitched sound shattering the stone from his brain. But that wasn’t possible. The cloud with Lana’s face shook violently, cobalt blue sparks flying from where Dale’s bullet had hit her.

    In a burst of blue light, she exploded, the particles of her turning white and zipping away into the sunlight through the expansive sky, water, and pastures. Water lapped on the shore.

“Welp,” said Dale, putting his gun back in its holster, “let’s get some lunch.”

    Steve stood timidly and let his hands drop from his ears. He picked up the phone, still recording, and pressed stop. He pressed delete. He dropped the phone again, trying to put it back in his pocket. The whole world had gone a bit hazy, like he was crying, but he wasn’t. Blackness outlined his vision. The headache was gone, and without the pain he felt empty, almost floating, almost as if he didn’t exist. He stumbled after Dale, who walked back to the truck, but Steve only made it a few steps before he stopped, feeling tired, dog-tired. Feeling too worn-out to follow Dale. Steve sat down on the shore. He wanted to tell Dale that he didn’t get the recording. He wanted to know whether Dale would be infuriated or not care, but either way Steve knew Dale couldn’t do nothing about it.

    Sunlight played on his skin– miraculous little flakes dancing and glowing white, the white of apple blossoms in an orchard or magnolia petals in the moonlight. And Steve didn’t think of Mitch McDougal at the water fountain. And Steve didn’t think of Judge bludgeoning frogs to death with a shovel. And he didn’t even think about Dale being mad about not getting the recording and sticking himself with needles.

    He thought of Lana, how she had become a burst of pure energy, scattered throughout the universe.

    He thought of his dad and holding the cool glass of bourbon and feeling proud and dirty at the same time. But Steve didn’t feel proud or dirty one bit now, sitting there beside the wide-open water.

    He felt free.

    He was dying. But for now he was alive. He was alive. He was alive all the way.

 

 

Posted in

Sam Smith, 6/5/2017

Current Occupation: Senior Support Worker
Former Occupation(s): Waiter, Kitchen Porter, Office Assistant, Charity Fundraiser, Support Worker.
Contact Info: Sam Smith is a former student of the University of Salford, where he recieved an MA in TV/Radio Scriptwriting. His stories have been featured in Lit Cat, Maudlin House, Two Words For and Baphash.

#

The Merger

Redmond was sweating. He had no reason to be nervous, yet his armpits and midriff were becoming damper by the second.

He turned everything over in his mind once more, in an effort to reassure himself. He’d spearheaded the Kyoto buyout, which left some of the Epsilon team with egg on their faces. That was by far his crowning achievement as captain of this leaky vessel. So long as he focused on the apples and oranges, it was likely to be plain sailing.

Redmond applied moisturiser methodically to the bridge of his nose and his knuckles. He wanted to do his elbows too, but it wouldn’t do to partially disrobe in the offices of Barker, Barker, Reece & Lindstrom.

Opposite him were twin oak doors that led to the main conference room. In there, the fate of his business was being decided. The sweatiness intensified twofold. Every now and again a burst of raucous laughter would spill out from between those doors and make him jump. Were they laughing with him, or…?

He pushed the unsavoury thought right to the back of his mind, replacing it instead with a picturesque villa in Tuscany, and a woman in a pristine white dress waving at him from a balcony. One day, in the not too distant future. If he could just get his feet under the table at B, B, R & L, then everything else would simply fall into place.

He just wished he hadn’t left his meditation sphere back at the Mews. Marjorie would have given it to that idiot dog of hers to use as a chew toy.

The double doors swung open, and a wiry mantis of a man who Redmond recognised as Lindstrom stepped out. The latter fixated on the former, and eyes ablaze, stalked forward, hand outstretched.

Redmond stood, and took Lindstrom’s curled hand in his. At once he felt a strong connection.

“You’ll be happy to hear we’ve okayed the merger”, he gushed, his eyes still twinkling like new stars.

Redmond glanced down and saw his and Lindstrom’s hands, now no longer indistinguishable, but one smooth and melded ball of flesh.

He looked back up in horror at Lindstrom and where there once was a mouth, there was now a slowly unfurling proboscis. As his eyes began to roll back in his head, he was dimly aware of words coming from somewhere high above him.

“From here on in, we’re inseparable!”

Posted in

Robert Bak, 5/29/2017

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 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, essays, and plays.  Early in 2017 Diverse Voices Quarterly published Robert’s “Why Is There A Queue?” story in their Volume 8 – Issue 30.  Robert’s short story, “The Magic Room” was a 2016 finalist with Fiction Week Literary Review.  Work Literary Magazine will be publishing his short story “The Flying Vase” in their 2015 magazine. Agave Magazine (Volume 2 – Issue 4) will be publishing his short story, “The Monthly Bill Is What” in their fall 2015 issue.  Work Magazine at WordPress.com published his story, “Dark All Over” in 2012. He would like to thank William for the training and insight of what the writing process is. 

 

#

MOVE TO MAKE MOVE

 

For any of us who have worked in the retail business, you know what kind of a challenge it can be.  The customer is very fickle, always demanding the newest and most improved merchandise to be purchased.  Especially in the clothing and fashion aspects, it changes every season.  What is new is now old, everyone is looking for the latest statement to work.

Especially if you are working in a large wholesale warehouse location.  Sales are the most important daily requirements of the management staff.  They have their daily meetings, going over all of the previous day, week and month sales.  It is a bad day when the numbers are not being made, what they can do to improve the numbers?

Ross has been working for five years at a warehouse group, he had the five AM to one PM shift.  As soon as he came into work, he was assigned to the liquor and produce sections.  After the warehouse opened he would then work either as a cashier, or other assigned work.  Ross would each morning check the work assignment sheets to see what needed to be restocked or what had to be moved to a new location.

The management team would decide which products would be reassigned to a new location.  Always hoping the new location would improve sales.  In retail you want the customers to check as many aisles as you can.  This way as they are trying to find what they are looking for, there is a chance they will see something they were not going to purchase, but it caught their eye.  

These repositioning of stock took place every morning.  Around seven AM the first of the delivery trucks would arrive.  It then turned into an industrial ballet, as forklift trucks would be flying by, then the hand trucks would start moving about.  Ross had to look twice before he could move so he would not be run over.  The many forklifts were zipping back and forth delivering all of the necessary supplies for the members as the doors would open soon.  All of the workers are on a time crunch, the two-way radios going off all over the warehouse.  And then the dreaded announcement.  “We are opening the doors in five minutes.”

Regrettably, it would confuse the customers but also the workers.  This is what Ross called the, “Move To Make Move” daily work.  Move this pallet from one row to another row, and that item could move to another location the next day.  One pallet could move three or four times in one week.  Always hoping the customers would notice and purchase that item.

And of course, the management team would be keeping track of the sales and would see if these repositioning of stock was working.  Of course they never told the hourly workers what was working and what was not.  This moving of stock was a make work project for the hourly staff.  This is what the retail business has become.

Ross by this time had brought into play to these daily changes, every day was a new day and a new location for some of the merchandise.  

Welcome to the move to make move way of life.

 

Posted in

Joan McNerney, 5/22/2017

Current Occupation: Volunteer Museum Guide
Former Occupation: Typesetter

Contact Information: I am from Brooklyn, New York and fell in love with poetry when I was nine years old.  My first publication was in Young America Sings at fourteen. It has been a long and wonderful journey. After retiring from the advertising business, I have moved to upstate New York near the Albany area.  The natural beauty of the area has given me a great deal of inspiration to continue my voyage through the world of literature.  Thank you for this wonderful opportunity.
 Joan McNerney’s poetry has been included in numerous literary magazines such as  Seven Circle Press, Dinner with the Muse, Moonlight Dreamers of Yellow Haze, Blueline, and Halcyon DaysThree Bright Hills Joan McNerney’s poetry has been included in numerous literary magazines such as Press Anthologies, several Poppy Road Review Journals, and numerous Kind of A Hurricane Press Publications have accepted her work. Her latest title is Having Lunch with the Sky and she has four Best of the Net nominations. 

#

Delivery Driver

Ray comes all winter 
with office supplies.  
He calls female workers
“gorgeous”. Smiles 
spread like wild fire.

Besides reams of paper,
ink cartridges, he carries
the sun. Says it fits perfectly
into his bowling bag.  

Sprinting upstairs, balancing 
boxes of staples, paper clips,
pens, Ray shouts. “I brought
the sun with me today, slung
it right over my shoulder.”

He brings what they all
want on those icy dark
afternoons to make them 
feel sizzling warm.

#
The Waitress

Sally thought everything was
up to luck and she had zero.
Her chances got swept
away with yesterday's trash.

Every day working in this 
dumpy dinner slinging hash.

There were the regulars
who knew her name and
left good tips.  They had
no place else to go.

Her feet swelled up at 
the end of lunch rush.

Sally wiped tables filling 
ketchup bottles, salt shakers, 
sugar jars while staring out the
window at pulsing rain. 

Waiting a half hour for the bus,  
winds tangling her hair.

She stopped at the market to 
bring a few groceries home.  
Struggling now to open her door, 
only cold rooms would greet her.

#
The Meteorologist

One summer when only seven,
she heard thunderstorms bursting
through skies, watched lightning 
slash bright Z’s across night.  

Later she studied for hours currents
of mercurial storms and cloud  
formations.  Stratus, altostratus, cirrus, 
cumulus fell swiftly from her lips.

Some places burned with rings of blistering
winds sweeping across the desert. Rains 
rammed houses downstream on the plains. 
Northern ice bashed trees breaking power lines.

Her desire was to understand grand forces…
tornado, hurricane, drought, blizzard.
Calculating air currents, moisture, heat
or cold indices to predict the atmosphere.

Moods of the sky master puzzled her.  
She only knew what she did not know.  
Why this same force creates rainbows
yet pummels whole towns with its fists?

Posted in

Jonathan Ferrini, 5/15/2017

Current Occupation: Commercial real estate and insurance broker salesman.
Previous Occupation: Commercial real estate broker salesman.
Contact Information: Jonathan Ferrini is a published author who resides in San Diego. He received his MFA in Motion Picture and Television Production from UCLA. Jonathan has been a self employed commercial real estate investor and consultant his entire career.. He is also a US Patent holder.

 

#

Love at Last Dance

Traffic inches along the 101 Freeway at rush hour South of San Francisco on a Friday evening except for the luxury buses racing up the carpool lane. I can make out the images inside the buses through the tinted windows of young tech employees returning from work to homes throughout the Bay area. The luxury busses are provided by the tech companies at no cost to their prized employees who recline in comfort and enjoy wifi. The young employees are healthy, successful, and optimistic about the future but I know something they don’t know because you learn it with maturity. Nobody prepares us for sickness, old age and death.

I grew up in the area just south of San Francisco now called “Silicon Valley” in the sixties and seventies. I’ve watched the farms, independent businesses and affordable homes replaced by steel and glass headquarters of tech companies. This area was once populated with regular folk representing a variety of races, income levels and age groups which made the Bay area a beautiful microcosm of America.  Today, it’s sadly divided between the successful and those living in their shadow. The blue collar middle class lifestyle I enjoyed as a youngster is gone.  I couldn’t afford to purchase the house I grew up in and still call home. It's difficult to live where everybody seems younger, smarter, and more affluent than yourself.

Traffic has started to move again and I’m buoyed by the fact that it’s the second Friday of the month which means it’s the “Beauties and Beaus Ball” which I never miss. The dance starts at eight but I arrive at 6:30 to help Mrs. Pike set up the ballroom for the evening. Maybe tonight will be the night I find love? My last passenger of the day is Harriett Lim whose stories about her jet set life in 1960’s Hong Kong are fascinating and make the trips to and from her doctor’s appointments read like an Ian Fleming novel. Harriet owned a successful night club in Hong Kong called “The Harem Club” which was frequented by actors, singers, models, artists, filmmakers, stewardesses, and the “cool” from throughout the world. Her lavish penthouse atop a downtown skyscraper with a commanding view of the harbor was not only her home but served as a salon for her intriguing guests. Harriett hosted many a secret lover including well known celebrities whose names I’ve been sworn to secrecy.  Harriet was born to a wealthy family in China who owned a great deal of property on the mainland. Harriett was a trailblazer. She was wealthy, single, and a shrewd businesswoman with many influential contacts throughout the world.  At the time of the Cultural Revolution in China, Harriet’s family property was confiscated, her family members killed or imprisoned, and her family fortune wiped out. Harriett’s political contacts informed her that Chinese spies were on their way to Hong Kong to kidnap her back to China to stand trial. Harriet was forced to flee Hong Kong and sold the nightclub at a discount price and the money was used to bribe immigration officials and obtain a visa to the United States. Harriet arrived in the United States virtually penniless and quickly made her way to San Francisco where she found work in the kitchens of Chinese restaurants. Harriett viewed San Francisco as a sister city to Hong Kong and saw it becoming a destination for the world’s elite. She knew that being bounded by water, San Francisco land would escalate in value and she was determined to profit. Harriett obtained a real estate sales license and began selling homes to Chinese immigrants. Within a few years, Harriett was one of the most successful real estate agents in San Francisco. In addition to earning sales commissions which she used to purchase rental properties, Harriett formed investment syndicates and began purchasing high profile real estate throughout San Francisco. Today, Harriett is one of the wealthiest women in San Francisco with a vast real estate empire.  Harriett has a quick wit and a wry sense of humor. Harriett’s stories always end with the same note of optimism which goes “you can have whatever you want in life if you persevere. Success the second time is always sweeter”! Harriett is 99 years old. We have an ongoing bet whether she will reach 100. I hope I lose.

I’m Roland Lokout and I drive a van equipped with a wheel chair lift for the “Happy Home” hospice facility. Happy Home consists of two wings. One wing is reserved for the wealthy. They dine and live as if staying in a Five Star hotel. The other wing is reserved for those subsisting on Medicare and social security benefits. That wing isn’t so “happy”. The duality of the “Happy Home” residents is a metaphor for the Bay area today.

I didn’t seek this profession. It sought me.  I visited my dying father at the not so “happy” wing and drove him to and from his medical appointments. My gentleness with dad and friendliness to the other patients caught the eye of the Happy Home management who asked me to drive the wheelchair van. I’m good at my work and have befriended many wonderful patients and their families over the years. Despite earning a BA in history from a local state college, I’ve never been ambitious and driving for the “Happy Home” is my first job. I filed my first tax return at age 50!  I was an only child and born to a couple who didn’t expect a baby in their forties. My father was a machinist and punched a clock at an aerospace factory. My mom was a housewife who told me that I “ruined” her life. She was also fond of telling me that I was “stupid”, “unattractive”, and would never “amount to anything in life”. Mom was bipolar and unprepared for motherhood. She was fortunate to have married my loving, doting father who tolerated her psychosis. Before dying, my father told me mom unsuccessfully attempted to give me away as a baby. I don’t blame my father for not interceding in her abusive behavior because he loved mom and was ill-equipped to deal with mom’s abusive behavior save institutionalizing her which he would never do. Mom destroyed my self esteem by the time I reached junior high school and throughout my life I feared failure. It was easier never to apply myself so it took me ten years to finish college and I never sought employment. Dad felt guilty about mom’s abuse and although he attempted to motivate me to find work, he allowed me to live at home unemployed with an allowance until the day he died. Mom died before my father and I don’t miss her. I live in our family home and it's filled with my parent’s possessions which I cannot bring myself to discard. Our home is mortgage free and I pay the upkeep and my living expenses with my job at the Happy Home.

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s quotation, 'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” has never been true for me. My last name is apropos because I feel that I’ve been “locked out” of love and romance. I’ve always been socially awkward and never had a girlfriend. My first and only date in high school was with a foreign exchange student who reluctantly agreed to attend “grad night” with me. She ditched me and I was left alone for the remainder of “grad night” watching my classmates dance and celebrate. I never received therapy for mom’s abuse so I’ve sought the love of my mother from women. Love is fleeting for me like a warm Santa Ana breeze kicking up, warming me for a moment, and then disappearing.

I’m fortunate to work in the “happy” wing and have had favorite patients to care for over the years. May was an elderly former English professor whose hands were crippled by arthritis and her eyesight was failing. May never married and didn’t have visitors. At the end of my shift, I would enjoy meeting May in the library. She was always seated in her favorite reclining chair near the fireplace. Because of May’s failing eyesight, I always approached her slowly and whispered, “May, it’s Roland”. May would smile and reach for my hand. The staff provided May with a pot of Earl Grey tea, a fine china tea cup, and saucer. She would motion towards the tea cup and I would carefully raise the cup to her mouth for her to sip.  I’d read passages from Chaucer, Keats, Byron, Browning, and Bronte to her late into the evening until she fell asleep. One evening after my shift, I entered the library and didn’t find May. I inquired as to her whereabouts and was told by a nurse that she was in bed. I knew from past experience with the elderly that such a change in routine meant death was near. I quietly entered her room and softly announced my presence. May was in bed lying in a reclining position. She looked tired and was ashen grey. May smiled and motioned towards a novel by Jane Austen atop her night stand. The novel had a specific page and passage marked. May asked me to read the passage. “To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love." Just as I finished, May struggled to sit up in bed placing her frail arms around my neck and whispered, “Remember these words, Roland”. May’s embrace failed and I gently laid her to rest on the bed. She was gone.

I often stare through the rear view mirror into the back of the van where Claire sat in her wheelchair.  She was only in her forties, emaciated, and dying from cancer.  Claire was beautiful. Her long black hair was kept combed and immaculate by the caregivers. Claire was a successful concert pianist, never married, and travelled the world giving recitals and recording her performances. She had the look of the most popular girl in class and was likely the head cheerleader, class president, and prom queen. Claire liked me for who I am on the inside, not the outside.  I will never forget Claire. I loved her.

I look away from the rear view mirror and memories of Claire just in time to slam the brakes as the traffic stops at the red light ahead of me. The wheelchair slams into the front of the van jolting me back to the reality of my lonely and loveless life. The light turns green and a few turns later, I arrive at the “Beauties and Beaus Ball”. The ball is held at the city recreation center gymnasium. It’s 6:30 pm and I arrive in time to help Mrs. Pike prepare the gym for the ball. I enter the men’s bathroom to tidy up. I’m amazed that I still fit into my high school tux after all these years. I gently comb what hair I have left into place and spit polish my shoes. I spray myself with the bottle of my father’s “Hai Karate” cologne. I leave the men’s room and enter the gymnasium which serves as a basketball court but will be our ballroom tonight.  Mrs. Pike is the organizer of the ball and its promoter for the past twenty years. She is an octogenarian and a tough as nails, no nonsense retired San Francisco Police matron. Mrs. Pike was married to a sailor who deserted her and I suspect the ball is a way to stay connected to the days of her youth and romance.  Mrs. Pike has a warm spot for me and allows me to assist her with the setup and breakdown of the ball in return for waiving the $20 admission fee for men. Women attend for free. Mrs. Pike also permits me to greet the women as they arrive and escort them to their cars at the end of the evening so that I have an opportunity to ask them out on a date. Although I’ve chided her to stop smoking, Mrs. Pike is a chain smoker and a cigarette dangles from the corner of her mouth as she tells me to mix the punch, hang the streamers, dust off the vinyl records, and prepare the PA sound system consisting of a record player and microphone. When she dims the lights of the gym, Mrs. Pike will switch on an inexpensive home disco lighting system which creates ambience to the gym.  The makeshift ballroom is strangely out of place within this Silicon Valley Mecca of technology and privilege. I’ve completed the setup and it's eight o’clock. The first to arrive are the men.  They are mostly regulars consisting of software engineers who are high on intellectual achievement but lacking in social skills.  They are the “heart and soul” of Silicon Valley and rewarded handsomely by their employers. The regulars also include pensioners and a few elderly gentlemen who haven’t lost their dance moves. By 8:15, the women begin to arrive. Although there are a few regulars consisting of retired age women who come to kick up their heels and dance for the sake of dancing, the young beautiful women are Asian and Eastern European immigrants who are dressed to impress. They all look like princesses. Although they barely speak English, they know how to ask “what you do for a living”? Mrs. Pike tells me they come to meet successful men they can marry and obtain citizenship. Mrs. Pike dims the lights and the dance begins. As usual, she scratches the vinyl LP as she drops the stylus down upon the “Blue Danube Waltz”. The men and women pair up on the center of the “dance floor”. It’s always a competition amongst the men to find a beautiful dance partner but the women are selective. They’ve developed the ability to ferret out the successful by appearance alone. As usual, I find myself sitting on the sidelines with the retirees and the elderly guys. We talk about sports in between music changes and are approached to dance by the older women. We can’t decline their invitations and these women are patient and enjoy showing us how to dance. Half way through the evening, I’ll work up the nerve and ask a beautiful young woman to dance. It’s wonderful to hold one close and feel her breath on my cheek and smell her perfume. It isn’t long before they ask in broken English what I do for a living. When I tell them I’m a driver for a hospice, I’m dropped like a hot potato. Word spreads amongst the women and my chances are forever doomed for the night.

At 11:30 pm, Mrs. Pike slowly raises the lights and announces, “thank you beauties and beaus, we look forward to seeing you next month. Tell all your friends about us.”  Before breaking down the ball with Mrs. Pike, I’m charged with escorting women to their cars through the dark parking lot. I’ve had professional business cards made up specifically to hand to these women in hopes of arranging a date. My card reads “Roland Lokout, Palliative Care Specialist” and includes my phone number. I’ve walked several women to their cars this evening, handed them my card, and return to help Mrs. Pike close down the gym. We lock the doors to the gym by midnight. Mrs. Pike thanks me and says, “Roland, honey, I hope tonight was your night. See you next month”. As Mrs. Pike drives away her headlights illuminate my business cards strewn throughout the parking lot. I retrieve each of them and hope they will bring me better luck next month.

I met Claire several months ago. Word spread throughout the “happy” wing that a beautiful world renowned pianist had been admitted who was terminally ill with cancer. It wasn’t long before Claire showed up on my schedule of doctor’s appointments for the day. I knocked and a mild voice asked me to enter her private room. Claire was laying in a hospital bed which had been raised permitting her to watch TV, read, or look out the window. I noticed the morphine drip which had been placed into her arm and knew her condition was serious and death was imminent. I introduced myself by saying hello Claire, I’m Roland. You have a doctor’s appointment this morning and it’s my pleasure to be your driver. I’ll wait in the doctor’s lobby until the doctor is finished and bring you back. Claire waived me off without saying a word. Medical appointments are at the discretion of the patients. Claire was introverted and didn’t want to leave the hospice. It’s normal. I politely excused myself and read a note in her chart which read “DNA per Attorney Conservator”. I’ve seen this notation before and came to learn that “DNA” signifies “do not resuscitate” and conservatorship suggests Claire isn’t capable of managing her affairs. I didn’t see a list of visitors and the attorney was a partner in a prestigious San Francisco firm. Claire was financially well heeled. It saddened me that she was alone and dying.

 

Weeks passed and Claire didn’t want to be removed from her room. I always asked if I could bring her anything and was curtly told to leave her alone. Claire was becoming weaker and the circles around her eyes darkening. She wasn’t eating. I knew Claire’s time was growing short.  She enjoyed binge watching episodes of network celebrity dance programs. One evening after my shift, I visited Claire and asked if I could bring her anything and was told “Get out of here and let me die alone and lonely”. I shot back saying it doesn’t have to be this way Claire! Claire became enraged saying, “You don’t know me. You don’t what it’s like to be a poor girl from Oakland wearing hand me downs and teased by the other kids. You don’t know what it’s like to struggle to follow your dream of mastering the piano while practicing on an out of tune YWCA piano! Now that I built a beautiful life for myself, it’s stolen from me”!  I shouted back do you know what it’s like to never have known love? To be rebuffed by women including my own mother? I was the awkward kid my classmates enjoyed teasing. It took me ten years to earn my history degree from an undistinguished state college. I didn’t want this job but it’s the best I can do. The highlight of my life is attending a monthly ball held on a basketball court and I can’t even get a pretty girl to dance with me. There are times I would trade places with you and everybody else in the place that is dying until I meet somebody like May and Harriet who teach me life is worth living to its fullest. All we have is time so make the most of it. I never had the courage to stand up for myself and vent much less to a beautiful woman and it felt good! Claire gave me a blank stare. I was sorry to hear that she also had a tough upbringing and felt bad about confronting her. I turned and headed for the door and Claire spoke up. “You like to Dance, Roland”? Yes, Claire, I do. “Tell me more about the ball, Roland”. She motioned for me to sit in the chair beside her bed. She was intrigued how such an unglamorous ball could exist within the center of Silicon Valley and wanted to know every detail.

In the following weeks, Claire invited me to watch the dance programs with her and I noticed how she marveled at the dancer’s ability to move effortlessly around the dance floor. It warmed my heart when Claire grinned or managed a subdued laugh as one of the amateur dancers couldn’t keep time or step with their professional partner. I brought her lattes and ice cream which she struggled to consume but it made her happy. Claire had a tough childhood. Her father deserted her alcoholic mother and they subsisted on welfare. Claire's mother hosted many a late night visitor for grocery money. Claire and I shared an unpleasant relationship with our mothers which created a bond between us. Claire spoke fondly of the many world capitals she visited and played for adoring audiences accompanied by world renowned orchestras. Claire was also able to meet many a statesman who visited her backstage after the performances. I'm sure she had her pick of suitors but she was in love with the piano. It was ironic that fate brought a world traveler and a guy who never left home together. It was during these evenings that I knew I was falling in love with Claire. I also noticed that she was pressing the self dosing button with increased frequency on her morphine drip.

 

The second Friday of the month arrived and time for the ball. I didn’t want to attend because I’d rather be with Claire but I had an obligation to Mrs. Pike so I couldn’t cancel.  I arrived at 6:30 and helped Mrs. Pike set up. I immediately retreated to the sidelines for the evening. Mrs. Pike noticed that I was withdrawn and approached me asking, “What’s the matter with you Roland?” I told her I had fallen in love with a beautiful dying concert pianist who enjoys dancing but is confined to her hospital bed.  Mrs. Pike suggested that I invite Claire to the next dance. It was a terrific idea but I knew we were running out of time before Claire passed. Mrs. Pike asked me to point out a girl about the same size as Claire. I selected a young beauty just about the same height and Mrs. Pike said, “Roland, honey, let me take care of the rest. I can’t wait to meet Claire. See you next month.”

It took me a few days to work up the nerve to ask Claire to the ball. Claire was weak and I couldn’t see how we could get her out of bed and onto the dance floor. The sparkle in Claire’s eyes was dimming and I knew from experience she didn’t have long so I asked her if she would like to attend the ball with me. Claire struggled to comprehend the invitation asking herself is it conceivable that a man would be inviting a dying woman to a dance? Claire pointed to the IV within her arm and the bed shrugging her shoulders about the futility of the invitation. I suggested to Claire that it would be my honor to take her in the wheelchair and we could attend even if only to watch. Mrs. Pike was one “smart cookie” because Claire’s wardrobe consisted only of hospital gowns to which I replied Mrs. Pike has a gift for you. I retrieved a box with a ribbon and bow and helped Claire open it. Claire beamed like a kid on Christmas. Inside, Claire saw a beautiful Satin ball dress and a makeup kit including my favorite perfume. It also included a handwritten invitation from Mrs. Pike saying, “Please be our special guest at next month’s Beauties and Beaus Ball”. Claire was flabbergasted and a tear ran down her face. Mrs. Pike had given me the night off so that I could arrive and depart with the other guests.

The next several weeks were the slowest I ever recall. I knew there would be no warnings when Claire’s time came but I was able to witness a dying woman muster every remaining ounce of life and strength in her body to stay alive. I’ve seen the same phenomenon in comatose dying patients who often wait for the last relative to arrive bedside before letting go. Claire was determined to make it to the ball!

The second Friday of the month arrived and a bevy of nurses attended to Claire’s bath, wardrobe, makeup and hair. As I entered her room, I witnessed the most beautiful woman I ever met sitting erect in her wheelchair. Claire was beaming. I pinned the corsage on her gown and I wheeled Claire down the hall and into the lobby. The morphine bag swung back and forth from the hanger attached to the wheelchair. The nurses and staff each commented on how beautiful she was. As I wheeled Claire to the van, it felt like Prom night for both of us and the journey to the ball was short.

Mrs. Pike greeted us like VIP’s saying “Claire, you are beautiful. Welcome. I’m so happy you and Roland could join us”. She directed us to a center court position where Claire could view the ball and where she had placed a chair for me to sit alongside Claire. One of my retired “bench warmer” buddies brought us punch and cookies and tactfully departed. The lights dimmed, and Mrs. Pike selected one of the most romantic Strauss waltzes, “The Voices of Spring”. She didn’t drop the stylus this time. The gym looked like a Vienna ballroom tonight because I was with Claire. The women were beautiful and the dancing was extraordinary tonight. Claire was transfixed and I noticed her keeping time with one of her feet. Claire reached for my hand and didn’t let go throughout the evening. I knew that Claire and I wouldn’t have another opportunity like this again and uncharacteristic of a man with low esteem, I leaned in to Claire and asked may I have this opportunity to dance, my lady? Claire paused, a big smile filled her face, and she struggled to stand. I caught her before she fell back into the chair and held her tightly around her skinny waist. As we moved towards the dance floor, the IV tube anchored Claire to the wheelchair. With one graceful move, Claire reached for the IV line and removed it from her arm. I placed my arms around Claire’s tiny waist and carried her to the center of the dance floor. She was light and felt like a bag of bones. Her body was limp but she held her arms tightly around my neck with every remaining ounce of strength she had left in her body. It was necessary for me to carry Claire in an upright position as she was too weak to stand but we danced and I could feel her breath against my neck and her heart pounding with excitement. Her perfume was the familiar scent that I had raved about to Mrs. Pike on many an evening. We were oblivious to the stares from the other dancers who gracefully made room for us to dance. On more than one occasion, I caught a teary eyed glance from a beautiful dancer. Claire hummed the bars of the waltz and whispered romantic sounding words in French and German to me. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know their meaning. I could feel the meaning. We never left the dance floor and as the ball room emptied late into the night, Claire and I were alone dancing in the center of the ballroom. Mrs. Pike dimmed the lights and spun the disco light ball which shot colors of the rainbow throughout the room. Claire was electrified and we were alone sharing a magic moment. It was after midnight and Mrs. Pike made a motion to me that it was time to leave for the evening. As I rolled Claire from the ball, Mrs. Pike leaned in and kissed Claire on the cheek saying “it was my pleasure to meet you my dear. You and Roland were the beauty and beau of the ball. Goodnight”. Mrs. Pike turned to me and her “hard as nails” veneer was replaced with tears as she said, “Goodnight, Mr. Lokout. You are a true gentleman”.

We returned to the hospice which was quiet as the nurses were on their rounds. I wheeled Claire into her room and carefully lifted her into her bed. She held my hand with a weak grip and stared into my eyes. Her grip became stronger; she closed her eyes, and puckered her lips. I leaned into to kiss her gently. Our hearts raced and our lips quivered. I experienced a life time of dating in our innocent kiss. As we separated, I gently laid Claire back into the hospital bed. I reached for Claire’s blanket and she motioned for me to lie beside her. I straddled the edge of the hospital bed and gently positioned myself next to Claire and placed my arm around her. We drifted into a deep sleep. I was awakened by nurses outside in the hall making their morning rounds and knew it was time to rise. I reached over to kiss Claire on the cheek and found her still. Her eyes were open and a trail of tears had dried upon her face. She was smiling and gone forever.

It’s been a year since I lost Claire and each and every month I find myself back at the ball armed with my cache of business cards. Mrs. Pike has been nudging me to try online dating and has recommended dances throughout the Bay area where I may have better luck. Since knowing Claire, my self esteem has improved and I may follow Mrs. Pike’s advice. Harriett recently passed having made it to 100! The front page newspaper article reported that her real estate empire was placed into a trust and the rental income used to help the homeless and immigrants. I’ll always remember Harriet and May’s advice knowing it will bring me love one day. Alfred Lord Tennyson and Jane Austen were right!

Posted in

Anthony Parker, 5/8/2017

Current Occupation: Freelance Writer/SAT prep teacher
Former Occupation: Office Drone
Your Short Biographical Statement: I have an MA in Creative Writing from Cal State LA and an entire book of stories ready for anyone–anyone–to publish. For the past couple years, I have been accepting rejections from literary magazines nationwide (but I've gotten into Statement, Noctua Review, West Trade Review, Zaum and Peck Rd.). I can be found online at anthonyparkertriestowrite.blogspot.com.

 

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The Man Connected To the Other Side

 

“Which house is yours?” Jenny asked me.

“That one up there, on top, over on the far right,” I answered, pointing toward an Orion’s Belt of lights strung atop one of the Hollywood Hills. My driveway, tennis court and front lawn were always lit. I don’t have a pool.  

“Must be nice to have a place up there,” she guessed.

“It is.”

“You don’t make it sound so. Why you staying here?”

“I really like hotels,” I told her.

“Excited about being on TV tomorrow?”

“No.”

“You’re not nervous? Really?” Jenny asked, surprised.

“No.”

Jenny wanted to hold my hand. She wasn’t sure if she could. “I love Lindsay’s show,” she said.

“Everybody does,” I answered.

Ten stories below my suite, Los Angeles twinkled our reflections into black Christmas trees pasted flat on the window. The television show provided a fancy hotel room for guests. The hotel actually calls my room the Extreme Wow Suite. Rates aren’t listed on the hotel’s website. Call the front desk and the clerk immediately refers all inquiries to the Sales Dept.

“I used to be in Lindsay’s book club,” Jenny said, sounding very far away. “I tried contacting her when I got sick. We don’t have the same mom, but we’re still sisters, you know. I wasn’t going to ask her for anything, I just—”

“She never knew you called,” I told Jenny. “No one ever talks about her family. Her staff knows better. The production company paid your hospital bills without telling her.”

“Yeah, well. That’s her choice, I guess. Does Lindsay know we’re friends?” Jenny turned toward me to ask.

“No.”

Their resemblance screamed at me. Same cheekbones. Same mouth. Same hair. Same earlobes. Both wore their father’s face. Jenny had the softer voice.

“Are you going to tell her?”

“Eventually, I’ll tell her.”

We shared a long moment of silence I enjoyed more than she did. Double-paned plate glass hushed everything outside my hotel room quieter than a hand covering your mouth. Los Angeles rolled out in all directions below, its lights a prairie of electric flowers plugged in humming their pulse. In the same eyeful, I saw everything. I saw after the big earthquake spills all these buildings onto their sides. I saw mastodons roam a slow pack down where the 101 freeway blushed ten thousand bumper-to-bumper brake lights that moment Jenny shared with me at the window. Jenny wouldn’t understand if I tried explaining it to her. That’s not meant to be an insult. I still don’t understand.   

“The city is beautiful at night, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Yeah. Pretty. Lot more lights than Fresno,” Jenny said. After she spoke, more silence. “I liked your book, too. A lot. Read it twice.”

“Thank you,” I said. She knew I’d know if she were lying.

“Did all that stuff happen? Is it all true?” she asked.

“Mostly. I’ve got a new one coming out. Lindsay is going to make her book club read it.”

“Lindsay wouldn’t like it, right? That we’re friends, I mean.”

“No. Not really,” I answered. Jenny’s gone before my last word. Back to steam.

I took a shower and brushed my teeth before laying down to wait for sleep. I left the air conditioning on because I like the sound so much. My hotel suite had a bed large enough for me to sleep pointing my body any direction without dangling over the pillow-top edges. When I did sleep, I dreamt that one day I stopped dreaming. I was happy. But, I was bored.  

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Most guests of the Lindsay Corcoran Show first think the ficus tree in the corner of the green room is fake. They’ll pinch any leaf and rub it with finger pads like fabric to check. It’s very real. Seated on the overstuffed couch across the room, I can tell the ficus is real. Of course, I also know a production assistant named Aaron bought it at the Sheridan Gardens Nursery on Hollywood Way. I know a lot of things.

I know that ficus tree cost $97.41, tax included. I know Aaron bought a dozen ficus trees and paid using a credit card with the production company’s logo embossed under the raised number and expiration date. I know all the numbers on the card. I know Aaron drove a black pick-up. I know Aaron has blue eyes. I know two years from now the show will have a ratings drop and get snubbed at the Emmy nominations. I know the new Executive Producer makes immediate changes to shave ten percent from the budget. I know Aaron gets fired. I know Aaron’s parents let him move in to their new house down in Irvine while he job hunts. I know they’re nice people. I know they both have blue eyes, too.

The last time I occupied this room a small table with a large flower arrangement stood wilting there in the corner. Flowers keep dying. New ones have to be ordered. A semi-regularly watered ficus is practically unkillable.

My agent sat on a canvas-back chair and my publicist on the couch beside me. My assistant sat cross-legged on my other side, thumb-typing my schedule into her phone. I’m holding half a chilled bottle of water she opened for me. The couch made a sound like a dry finger slid down a balloon when one of us moved. Four human beings and one ficus tree breathed in and out. I got up and walked over to water the plant. I knew it was thirsty.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

The hardback edition of my first book topped all the New York Times bestseller list non-fiction categories when I last guested on the show. Soft cover editions were being glued together in Dexter, MI the exact moment I sat on the cream color imitation leather couch across from Lindsay Corcoran. Each copy of my book proudly wore a gold sticker featuring Lindsay’s Book Club logo. Lindsay provided the blurb on the cover. The publishing company chose an italic typeface to visually imply its breathlessness and a large font because Lindsay Corcoran is the most famous person on television.  

In the commercial everyone saw, the one her network ran for days leading up to the broadcast, Lindsay Corcoran asked me how she’s going to die and then closed her eyes to brace for my answer. The camera cut to me about to speak when the screen faded into Lindsay sitting alone in her studio asking America to join her for the most powerful hour of her life. Subtle harp music plucked under the entire thirty-one second clip.   

“You’re never going to die,” is what I said to her.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Two different cast members have played Lindsay Corcoran on Saturday Night Live. The impression stayed the same. The Lindsay character wore a blonde feathered wig and purple turtleneck sweater. Lindsay’s audience brayed wild at everything she did or said. They’d pull out their own hair and hit each other with folding chairs when Lindsay gave everyone a car or a yacht. Then, Lindsay brought out Buddha or Jesus or Gandhi and the famous guest went out of their way to tell Lindsay Corcoran how much better a person she is than they were.

Twice male SNL hosts have played Lindsay’s fiancé Carson. In one sketch, Lindsay interviewed the Dalai Lama while Carson sat at her feet being stroked and fed treats. She hit him with a rolled up newspaper when he started humping the Lama’s leg. In the other sketch, she kept Carson on a studded leather leash while he held a parasol and fanned himself like an old Southern lady. Everything he said was a double-entendre, trying to get into Nelson Mandela’s khaki pants.

Lindsay kept rejecting offers to host the show. She won’t even do a cameo appearance.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Lindsay Corcoran hasn’t always been her name. She hates her real name, so I’ll keep it to myself. It’s easy to find anyway.

Lindsay’s parents met in a bar on her mother’s twentieth birthday. They weren’t together long. One day her father just stopped calling and coming over. He didn’t feel guilty because he’d made up his mind to break it off before he knew about their baby.

Her mother, Terry, still worked a checkout counter at the Safeway on North Blackstone up in Fresno. Terry’s been there long enough to have really good health insurance and a decent 401(k). Magazines at Terry’s register obsessed weekly about Lindsay’s fluctuating weight or why Lindsay still hasn’t married Carson after being engaged so long. Terry hated when they guessed at Lindsay’s sexual orientation. Or Carson’s. She turned those covers around.

It’s an open secret Lindsay Corcoran is Terry’s daughter. Tabloids did those “Lindsay Corcoran’s Mom is Poor” stories a few years ago. Terry stopped doing interviews. Now Terry lived in a small rented house with two runny-eyed poodles and used her employee discount to buy her microwave dinners and Jodi Picoult novels at the Safeway on 1st Street. She tried to not watch too much TV.

Lindsay’s father, Carl, drove an eighteen-wheeler with a pair of scuffed chrome testicles dangled under the bumper sticker forever rhetorically asking “How Is My Driving?” A decade in he settled on “Lizard Handler” for a CB handle. Truckers call women who hangout around their layover stops “Lot Lizards.” An entire common language evolved among truckers. Carl’s weakness for eye shadow and spider web nylons meant Lindsay had brothers and sisters in other states and time zones.

Six years ago Carl’s truck slid off a patch of black ice merging onto Highway 94 outside Saint Cloud, MN. It rolled down an embankment before flopping jack-knifed in the snow. Truckers call losing traction on the road “Ice Capading.” Paramedics and firemen and police left thousands of pockmark footprints at the scene fresh powder covered by morning. Carl died thinking the flurries were stars he zoomed past in outer space.

Lindsay Corcoran didn’t know those people.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Calling it either a ficus tree or a ficus plant are both acceptable. The ficus is the official tree of Bangkok. Nine million people in Southeast Asia agree it’s a tree. The most common ficus species is named ficus benjamina. When you think of a ficus, the image is a ficus benjamina.

The ficus benjamina’s rubbery green leaves beg you to feel if they’re real. Each pointy leaf’s stem and veins bulge like the spine and rib cage of a skinny young woman who’d turn around to take her shirt off if she let you get that far.

Benjamina is a good name for a shy girl. Benjamina would be tall, and have a nice complexion. And she’d be really funny when she opens up to you.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Almost two dozen of us surrounded the pool at my uncle’s new house. Uncle Ron slurred through “Black Magic Woman” while working the barbeque, spatula in one hand and Bud Light number four in the other. Most of the kids were splashing water, black hair glued flat to their faces. I’m sitting on the diving board shaft, close to the turquoise tiles grooved along the pool’s lip. I can see my bare feet in the deep end. The rest of me was dry.

“What d’ya mean he can’t fucken swim?” Uncle Ron roared loud enough to hush the laughter and music. “Jack, get over here. Now.”

My mom said something to him I couldn’t hear. I want to say she’s telling him to leave me alone.

“Nah, he’s gotta learn,” he said to her. “Move your ass, Jack. C’mere.”

Time slurred when I walked toward him. Uncle Ron crouched down so deep lines furrowing his cheeks and forehead got near my face. Skin below his eyes sagged from all his early mornings and two pack habit, slipping off the bone under our high winter sun.

“What are you? Thirteen? You gotta learn ah swim. Everybody needs a learn howda swim,” Uncle Ron reasoned. Then he pushed me into the pool.

My nose stung with the first water rush I inhaled. Desperately thrashing wild, I tried reaching for the pool’s edge, but he used the cleaning net to push me down. “Paddle, goddammit. Paddle. Paddle,” Uncle Ron yelled at me. Our family watched. I’m actually fifteen when this happens.

Foam boiled my eyes. For a moment I got a hand around the net’s aluminum pole. Uncle Ron ripped the pole away and used it to push me down. The net poked under water like a bird hunting fish. I kept swallowing chlorine acid.

And that’s when two columns of pure white light broke the surface above. Water parted like drapes opening. A woman saved me. She had big delicate hands and long fingers, the kind someone named Benjamina would have. That’s the name I gave her in my mind: Benjamina. I remember her Benjamina hands so well. No veins. No hairs sticking out. They were dishwashing glove smooth.

Alongside me in the water, Benjamina’s arm length hair hung slack below her shoulders. It should have floated away from her head and swayed like loose seaweed. But it didn’t. Her black dress didn’t billow open or ride up her legs. Nothing affected her. Touching my face, Benjamina calmed me. I trusted her. So, I stopped struggling and followed her smile. I was dry again when we passed the surface and rose higher.

Benjamina took me far away.

I turned back to see my Uncle Frank dive into the pool fully dressed. Mom screeched through hands covering her face. Kids stayed in the shallow end. Cousin Mark helped roll my limp body onto the patio. Adults crowded around. Uncle Ron knew CPR. I started falling back toward the ground when he pinched my nose and shoved harsh air into my lungs. Second life tasted like beer and cigarette ash. I missed Benjamina. I couldn’t remember her face. I just remember her lips. That smile.  

Pearly light sizzled away like my eyes were fogged up glass clearing. My new world sparkled pristine. Coughing up a full throat of water, Uncle Ron’s scared face filled my vision first. I looked into my uncle’s fat pupils, each a black olive floating in a bowl of bloody milk. His whole life rippled there, beginning to end.

I saw him carrying a snub-fingered baseball glove to watch the Angels play at Wrigley Field downtown before it got bulldozed. I saw him run from Grandma’s broom. I saw him try to sleep in a Vietnam jungle under hissing rain. I saw him drink. I saw him knock a woman’s front teeth out. I saw him push me into the pool. I saw him smoke endless Marlboro reds in a plaid recliner. I saw him flat-line in a sterile hospital bed with no one watching. I wanted to hate him, but felt something better. Complete empathy. I couldn’t ever hate him for drowning me.

Everything meant to happen did happen.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Each major television journalist took a turn interviewing me. Katie Couric made sure she got footage of us walking in a park with my mom she could pair with voice-over narration. An entire week I sat across a gray table from Larry King fielding call-in questions from viewers all over the country whose names I already knew. Four days after I told Geraldo Rivera he’d die masturbating with a bath robe belt knotted around his throat, Barbara Walters came to our house.

The network parked two trucks stacked full with video and sound equipment and a mile’s worth of fat electrical cables on our street. Then they brought in a long trailer for Barbara Walters to sit in quietly going over her notes until our agreed time to begin. Watching Barbara Walters open our front gate and walk across our yellow lawn was surreal. She’d never been to Reseda before and would never return.

Back in New York City three days after we met, Barbara Walters stood on a bone-colored masking tape X and read the broadcast’s introduction off poster sized cue cards. Barbara Walters’ most recent contractual stipulations specifically negotiated cue cards on set instead of a teleprompter. The jerky motion of words rolling up a screen unnerved her.

“Tonight, we meet Jack Franklin, a Los Angeles-area teenager who’s become quite a sensation these past few months,” Barbara Walters started, addressing America directly. She kept her hands folded while speaking. People able to maintain eye-contact with the camera while reading without their eyes constantly scanning left to right impress me. That looks hard to do.

My face projected on the screen behind Barbara Walters looked like I was trying to peak at the cue cards over her shoulder. Two rows of bare Helvetica print sliced my face into northern and southern hemispheres. It said:

Jack Franklin:

The Boy Connected To The Other Side

 

“Jack’s story,” she continued, “has been told in numerous magazine articles and newspaper stories, as well as a string of high-profile television appearances. Details have become well-known: a freak diving accident at a family gathering changed Jack Franklin’s life forever. Knocked unconscious, Jack sank underwater and stayed there several moments. When revived, he told an amazing story. Jack, a poor swimmer, drowned. He died; or, came very close to dying. Young Jack Franklin experienced what is commonly referred to as a near death out of body experience. What Jack saw during this time he stopped breathing has been the subject of much interpretation. How this event changed him, however, is beyond interpretation. Without any rhyme or reason, he woke simply knowing everything about, well, everything.

“Jack Franklin’s talents for telepathy, clairvoyance and precognition have been documented and verified during his many media appearances. He’s passed batteries of tests, both medical and scientific. The consensus is that this young man is the first human being proven to possess extra-sensory capabilities. These abilities, many believe, have a spiritual nature; a gift from God, so to speak. Others are still skeptical. Recently, I spent some time with Jack and, honestly, our encounter was strange, wonderful, inspiring and, ultimately, transcendent. Please, join me in getting to know Jack Franklin, the boy connected to the other side.”

Weeks before, my publisher sent Barbara Walters an advanced printing of my first book she read in one day and night. That Christmas her assistant included copies in all the gift baskets Barbara Walters had sent to family, friends and acquaintances.

“Your book, The Other Side,” she said holding up her copy I signed after we were done, “is astonishing. I find choosing the correct word or words to describe what you document very difficult.”

“Me, too,” I said to Barbara Walters. We laughed together in blurry smeared focus. Her three cameramen each used a special lens filter that made us look like we were being filmed through Vaseline thick fog.

She started with some biographical questions I couldn’t answer very well. Anything before the pool is hard to remember. I apologized for being a bad interview several times.

“What exactly was that white light you saw?” she eventually inquired.

“Information.”

“Would you mind explaining that for me?” Barbara Walters asked without consulting any of her blue index cards.  

“The universe exploded in my face. It told me everything at once.”

“Did you see heaven?”

“I saw more than that.”

“I don’t understand,” she admitted.

“I don’t really, either. Guess you kind of had to be there.”

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Of course, I didn’t write my first book. The publisher wouldn’t let me and I didn’t want to. So, I stayed at the Chateau Marmont for four days in a suite next door to the one John Belushi died in and told a ghostwriter my story. We got all the details down, but he said he’d still change some. Honesty taints good stories. I liked the book. He made something a lot of people liked. Millions found their own meaning in what happened to me. I didn’t tell the ghostwriter about Benjamina. I still haven’t figured out what saint or dead family member she might be. He would’ve tried to make her the Virgin Mary for my autobiography.  

A lot of people bought my book. My publisher made sure copies were available online and sold in stores the day before Thanksgiving. People gave my miracle story to each other for Christmas and Hanukah gifts. Lindsay Corcoran’s production company bought the film rights. She’d started producing spiritually-themed cable TV movies, beginning with biopics of the Dalai Lama and Eckhart Tolle. Each had “Lindsay Corcoran Presents” suspended above their scripted title.

My life story premiered Easter Sunday night with back-to-back airings on the Lifetime Channel.  Filming took two weeks. The actor playing me was too tall. On the afternoon they shot the pool scene he mimed drowning for six takes with both his feet touching the pool’s floor. The movie made sure to present the white light I saw as God. A choir sang on the soundtrack when the actor playing me hovered above his body double sprawled out of focus on the patio below. I decided not to be on set that day. I didn’t get to see the crane the production used to film my death.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

The ficus tree is also known as the weeping fig tree because it’s arched leaves droop and point their tips toward the ground. The leaves have a waxy sheen to them. Glossy leaves meant ficus benjamina evolved to put on happy face despite a natural proclivity to sulk. The color of a ficus is almost unnaturally green. A healthy ficus gets easily mistaken for a fake ficus. The ficus tries really hard.

Swedish botanist Carl von Linné first described the ficus benjamina in 1767 in the twelfth edition of his Systema Naturae. Linné was very fond of Benjamin Franklin’s scientific writings. Benjamin Franklin was very fond of shy girls. Benjamin Franklin prided himself on being able to make sullen women smile. Franklin would have named the plant ficus labiae. Few people earn naming a plant after them. He really did.  

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

I shook out the last drop of water from my bottle into the ficus tree’s pot when Craig the stage manager arrived to usher me to the set. He stopped in the doorway behind me when I said hello first.

“Time to go, Mr. Franklin,” Craig announced.

My agent and publicist and assistant tucked my hair back and straightened my tie and told me not to be nervous. I followed Craig into the hall, waiting for him to ask about his mother.

“I love your book,” Craig told me. “Can’t wait to read the new one.”

“Thank you.”

Backstage, we stood side by side watching Lindsay on a monitor screen begin to introduce me when he finally gathered the courage to know.

“This is probably a terrible time, Mr. Franklin, but I have to ask you. My mom’s been—” Craig started.

“Jack. Please just call me Jack,” I stopped him mid-sentence to correct. I hate being called mister. “Don’t worry. The next round of chemo puts her into remission.”

“Thank you,” Craig sighed. He wanted to hug me. I would have let him if we had the time, but Lindsay was about to bring me out to the stage.

“Jack just turned eighteen, so he’s not a boy anymore,” Lindsay said. Her audience got loud, clapping for the birthday I had eight days before. “Please, welcome back to our show Jack Franklin: the man connected to the other side.”  

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Five years ago the Lindsay Corcoran Show did an episode about the adult entertainment industry. A trio of actresses on the couch opposite Lindsay told her audience about a game called “Dad or Uncle?” members of the crew would play on film sets.

“What is that?” Lindsay asked.

“Guys on set, behind the cameras, you know, the crew, they try to guess who touched each girl funny: Dad or Uncle,” an actress with two first names answered.

The actresses giggled away suppressed traumas.

“I don’t think this game is funny at all,” Lindsay said, visibly shaken, “and neither do millions like me who’ve endured sexual abuse.”

Mascara dripped out of place, Lindsay’s body clenched into a closed fist. One of the actresses went over and put a tanned arm around her. The studio audience sat very quiet while Lindsay let out a cry from her stomach that had slept there years. Then, they stood and clapped for Lindsay.

Looking up into her audience, Lindsay felt loved. She cried harder, eyes so tight they looked like knife slashes to her face. Lindsay asked for a commercial break. She needed to compose herself. And she wanted to get all that glitter off her jacket.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Lindsay Corcoran never told anyone why she chose Lindsay Corcoran for her professional name. Back when Lindsay did local news in Bakersfield she decided to save the story of how she picked her name until her Barbara Walters interview. Sharing Barbara Walters’s fog was one of the earliest career goals Lindsay set for herself.

“There’s a sign on the freeway going south leaving Fresno that says Lindsay and Corcoran with arrows under the names showing you which lane goes to which,” she got to eventually tell Barbara Walters. “L.A. is straight ahead.”

“Lindsay and Corcoran are cities?” Barbara Walters asked, amused.

“Yeah,” Lindsay laughed, “they are. Small ones. Corcoran has a prison and Lindsay is a farm town. The world’s largest olive is there.”

“You must be very proud of yourself, Lindsay. You’ve been so wildly successful since you essentially escaped Fresno.”

“I’m here,” Lindsay declared.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

“Which house is yours?” Lindsay Corcoran asked me.

Lindsay held a drink with two ice cubes she specifically asked me to make that way without saying please. After inviting herself into my hotel suite, she fluttered straight over to my window. Lights of Los Angeles attract the same attention fireworks do. Security is pretty tight at the hotel I’m staying at but they let Lindsay in, past the front desk and to the elevators. No one stopped her. When the most famous woman in the world walks into the lobby, you assume she’s got a room reserved.  

After our interview earlier, Lindsay did her usual wind-down routine of snorting three caterpillar-thick rails of finely ground Bolivian cocaine off an antique hand mirror. It’s the reason magazines have been shouting about her successful diet plan the past few months. She brought a brick of it into the country on her private plane each time she visited the girl’s school she founded there. Lindsay really loved sunny places. The hand mirror once belonged to Judy Garland. Two years ago Lindsay anonymously bought it at a Sotheby’s auction. I finished pouring myself a drink with the same nine dollar minibar Coke I opened to make hers.

“Come here,” she ordered. “Show me where you live.”

“Um, there, you see those three lights close in a row, up there? That’s my house,” I showed her. I touched the glass how I would touch a map thumbtacked on a wall.   

“Can you see my house from here?”

“No.”

Lindsay’s estate in Malibu is bigger than mine. Her mansion is on the other side of the mountains, facing the ocean. She slept alone in a garage door sized bed. Her fiance Carson has his own room across the hall. Years they’ve lived that way.

“You were great on the show today,” she complimented me.

“Thanks.”

“Happy birthday, by the way,” Lindsay said. She ran her fingers across the back of my head. I could feel Lindsay’s fearlessness. She had very good cocaine. “Eighteen,” she slithered, drawing out the e’s. “Finally.” Lindsay started laughing, too loud and for too long.

“What about Carson?”

“Come on,” Lindsay said tugging my hair. “We both know where he is, what he’s doing right now and who with.”

A mile and a half away Carson sat in a theater on Santa Monica Blvd. while a happily married junior high history teacher from Glendale performed oral sex on him impressively well. The movie projected on the wall gave enough light to see traded yes or no facial expressions. Carson kept watching the man’s Dodgers hat bob up and down. The theater smelled like a clammy palm.

“Yeah, well,” I said.

We shared a long moment of silence I did not enjoy at all. She finished her drink and held the glass up to my face. While I made her another, Lindsay wandered around my suite, humming. Without her five inch heels on Lindsay Corcoran could be mistaken for delicate.

“Tell me what’s on my mind.”

“No,” I told her. “I don’t want to do that.”

Lindsay used both hands to take her drink from me. “Fine, no magic trick,” she smirked. “Tell me what’s on your mind.”

“Plants.”

“Plants? What do you mean?” she laughed. Lindsay tilted her head in a way that made her smile open strangely wider. She wasn’t just hunting. Cocaine made her actually interested in my answer.

“Have you noticed the plants around your office?”

“Nope; haven’t,” Lindsay answered honestly.

“Aaron, one of your production assistants, got sent out and bought a couple dozen ficus trees. They’re spread out all over your offices. One is right outside your dressing room,” I informed her.

“Oh.”

“Yeah, I just can’t get this thought out of my head. I—I—”

“What is it?” Lindsay asked between sips.

“The ficus he bought looks like that one over there,” I pointed toward a tightly pruned example standing between matching Mark Rothko lithographs hung in the foyer.

“No, still haven’t noticed them.”

“I have. The ficus is the most popular indoor plant species in North America.”

“Good to know,” Lindsay half-whispered. “Another, sir,” she ordered in a heavier voice. Then she flicked her wrist to make ice clink together in her empty glass. Tambourine bracelets jangled half-way down her forearm. She kept screaming her thoughts at me.

“I can hear you. Come on, stop it,” I plead, taking her glass.

“Fine. Tell me more about this fucking plant.”

“It’s really a tree,” I countered. I stopped myself from telling her about Bangkok and the nine million people there who agree with me. I put fresh ice in her glass and splashed gin on the cubes before emptying the Coke can into her drink. “Here,” I handed her the glass.

“Come, sit down and tell me more,” Lindsay made her initial move. She landed on my suite's nine person wide couch and set her glass on the table. I took my drink over and settled far enough away to notice Lindsay buttoned her blouse until just about the middle of her chest. “Talk plant to me, I like how deep your voice has gotten,” Lindsay whispered, getting closer. Lindsay smelled nice despite the alcohol murdering her breath.

“The species of ficus in your office is called the benjamina. The ficus bejamina. Isn’t that pretty?”

“Sounds like a girl’s name.”

“That’s what’s been stuck in my head. Benjamina does sound like a girl’s name, right? But, Benjamina doesn’t sound like the name of a normal girl. It’s not a Jane or a Susan or—”

“Lindsay?”

“That’s not what I mean, but, yeah, I guess you’re right. Benjamina isn’t a normal name. The kind of girl named Benjamina wouldn’t be an average girl.” I tried picturing the face of the woman who saved me in the pool. Still nothing.

“Benjamina . . . Sad girl name,” Lindsay piped in.

“Another name for the ficus is ‘the weeping fig.’ Botanists agree with you, I guess.”

“The weeping fig,” Lindsay repeated, managing to make unsexy words purr. I took a long drink to hush her thoughts. She kept asking for the same thing. “I like it: the weeping fig. It’s kind of pretty.”

“I do, too," I agreed. "It’s beautiful."

Lindsay smiled and bit my earlobe. She told me to keep talking and kissed my neck. I hadn’t thought about sex since Uncle Ron gave me mouth to mouth. Hearing other people’s sex thoughts made me not need my own.

“The weeping fig,” I said trying to focus, “reminds me of you. You’re a Benjamina.”

Lindsay pulled away from me. “The fuck does that mean?”

“I look at you and see a weeping fig. In living rooms and doctor’s offices and waiting areas and airports you’re sulking, there on everyone’s TV. Wardrobe and makeup cover how you’re sulking right in front of them. But, I noticed. You’re sad, but you’re trying not to be. It’s one of the things I like about watching your show,” I said.

Lindsay shoved me, knocking the high ball glass out of my hand. My drink splashed on the white rug, but the glass bounced and landed right-side up. I stared at the glass until I decided it was another thing that reminded me of Lindsay Corcoran.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry, Lindsay. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

Lindsay grabbed my hair and kissed around my mouth and bit my lips shut. “You want to apologize?” she panted. “You want to fucking apologize? Apologize.” She crowded my head with begging. “You know what I want,” Lindsay groaned before laying her flat, dry tongue on mine.

“Don’t make me do that,” I plead. She straddled me and rubbed my face into her cleavage. I breathed through my nose. Lindsay kissed me again, clicking our teeth together.

“You know I know you want it,” she slurred.

I pulled Lindsay away and studied her face. Even under shadowy dimmed lights with smeared make-up, she still looked like the person on TV. Lindsay Corcoran had a camera-ready face she’ll maintain through diets and Botox and subtle face lifts and Vaseline caked camera lenses for decades.

“Do it for me,” she said. “Please.”

“Okay,” I gave in. “Okay. Just stop.”

Lindsay smiled for me and got ready. I pulled an open hand down from high above my head and slapped her left cheek hard enough to leave a red palm print behind.

“Again,” she wanted. And I did it again.

Posted in

Bradford Middleton, 5/1/2017

Current Occupation:  Low-grade sales assistant for big supermarket company.
Former Occupation: Student, Music PR, writer, admin serf.
Contact Information: Bradford Middleton lives in Brighton on England's south coast.  When he isn't writing stories and poems he can often be found on the check-out at a local supermarket.  For more from him follow @beatnikbraduk on Twitter.

Read his pieces from 2014 , 2015, and early 2016 and late 2016.

 

#

DOWN AND OUT WORKING IN RETAIL

 

Jack was at work and, as usual, he really didn’t want to be there.  There were a ton of other places he would rather be; his room, his local bar, prison, in the ground six feet under, it all had to be better than this.  He hated his job that was for sure and the previous week which had seen him lose out on a new room due to some ridiculous administrative procedure that he couldn’t afford to pay had just made him realise how bad his life was.

Today though was just going to get worse and by the end, well all he could think about when he got there was getting out alive and unharassed.  It was only a four-hour shift, his usual stint during the early afternoon and he knew it was going to be a killer from the moment he walked in the front door.  No one on the shop-floor, huge empty spaces on all the shelves made him wonder if there was actually anyone at work.  Walking to the back of the store he entered through the staff door and down the stairs.  He finally bumped into one of his bosses.

“What the fuck is going on” Jack asked.

“You know the usual fucking Sunday meltdown.  Evelyn called in sick; Gary just didn’t show up, a bakery person…”

“I’m fucking sick of this place,” Jack announced cutting his bosses tirade off in its prime, “…I’m going to get a new job!”

“What you’d give up all of this?” his boss asked with just a hint of sarcasm.

    Jack walked back up the stairs to the shop-floor and was pleased to see Nina working away on the check-out.  The queue was huge and went all the way to the back of the store; there must have been about twenty people waiting and Jack knew that it was already going to be a long hard shift.  Upon his arrival Nina turned to him.

“I’ve had enough of this, I’m going home,” she said as she finished packing the bags of the most recent customer.

Jack simply looked at the queue and got on the microphone requesting back-up.  As he greeted his first customer he noticed a couple of shop-lifters loading a bag up with a whole load of cider, very strong cider.  There was nothing he could do about it though and by the time he finished sorting out his first customer they had made their escape.  His boss was still hiding downstairs, doing whatever it was that the bosses seemed to spend so much time doing downstairs.  He didn’t know he was just shop-floor scum; the sort who didn’t even earn enough in his monthly pay packet to pay the rent let alone anything else.

He continued processing the customers and after ten minutes had made his way through most of the twenty who had greeted him when he’d arrived.  He went to the microphone again, knowing that he wouldn’t get any help but at least it would alleviate any blame the customers may want to pin on him for wasting their Sunday.  The customers came and went and no one asked how he was doing, was he having a good day, within twenty minutes he had given up being pleasant, he just wanted them out of his store.  He looked at the clock and noticed he still had three hours and forty minutes to go, two-hundred and twenty minutes, over thirteen-thousand seconds; it all seemed too much, like an eternity trapped in hell.

As he greeted a new customer he heard some words from the other side of the counter for the first time that shift.

“Oh I remember you,” the voice intoned nasally and Jack looked up whilst continuing to pack the carrier bag of ready meals and fizzy wine.

“Look at yourself, you’re a mess…” the voice began to drone as Jack simply continued to pack the bag.

“Let me give you a make-over and you’ll look ten years younger… Why don’t you say anything?  Are you that ashamed, you need a shave, a haircut, I’d dye it too for you, get rid of all that gray hair…”

“I like my hair just like this,” Jack managed to interject, knowing that this would provoke some kind of response but wanting to at least defend himself somehow.

“But how can you be happy with yourself if you look like a homeless beggar… you look like a disgrace.  Let me give you a make-over!”

It had been years since Jack had really lost his temper but this guy was really treading on his final raw nerve.

“What do you think?” the guy asked of the next customer.

“I think he looks fine, he should be able to look however he wants too…”

“Well what do you know; I bet that’s not even a real Gucci handbag!”

Jack’s fuse finally exploded and he jumped over the counter to the shock and consternation of the remaining customers.

“You can’t talk to me like that, do you understand. I’m not going to let you buy any of this stuff and really you need to leave before I really lose my temper.  Now get out!”

“What??” was all the idiot could muster in response.

“Get out, I’m refusing to serve you.”

“You can’t do that!”

“I don’t care, I don’t have to listen to anyone talk to me like you just have and as I’m the only one here, well…”

There was a stunned silence from the remaining customers as the idiot slouched out the store empty handed.  Jack just got on with his job and slowly the town awoke from its Halloween inspired hangover.  People started talking.

“Hey, how’s your day man?” one of the regular customers asked Jack.

“I’m having a nightmare today,” Jack intoned chuckling to himself about what a nightmare this shift was turning into.

“What’s up?” the guy asked.  He seemed genuinely interested.

“I had this customer about an hour ago, just so damn rude!  He said I look like a homeless street beggar.  I really don’t need to deal with shit like that today when we are so understaffed I ain’t seen a colleague since the start of my shift.”

“That’s no good man, what is going on with this town?”

“No idea man but this guy really stepped on my final nerve, can you believe it… A homeless street beggar!  I’ve never been so humiliated!”

“You shouldn’t talk like that about those poor folk,” a woman’s voice interjected from the queue.

Jack just looked at the customer he was serving and arched an eye-brow.

“Anyway man, we’ll see you soon, have a great day!” Jack said as the guy turned and headed for the door.

“Thanks man, I hope your day gets better!”

After checking the clock Jack replied, “Yep, maybe in about an hour and a half at four when I get to leave!”

The woman who had interjected in the conversation walked up and presented  a basket of goods.

“You shouldn’t talk like that about the homeless, it’s not their fault, it’s the government!”

“Would you like a bag for your Tory-graph?” he asked sarcastically.

“A lot of them have problems but what you said shocked me, you shouldn’t consign people to a stereotype just because of the way they look.”

Jack just put his head down, knowing if he made it through this customer’s transaction without any further harassment or embarrassment.

“I think I’d like to speak to your manager.  Your attitude is borderline racist and I don’t think this role is good for someone like you!”

“A racist?” was all Jack could muster.

“Yes, a racist!  I’m going to get you sacked!”

Jack walked over to the microphone and asked for a member of management to come to the check-out.  This time one came running, one who he hadn’t seen arrive, one he didn’t really get on with.

“Your bill comes to 21-48,” Jack announced as the customer touched her new credit card against the card reader.  

“Are you the boss?” the woman asked of the young lady who had come running when Jack had asked.

“Yes, my name is Jeri, I’m the duty manager this afternoon, how can I help?”

Jack merely got on with his job, knowing that this could well be the end.  If he lost this job he would be really up against it; he struggled to pay his rent even in the good times and right now was not one of them.  It took another hour before his shift finally came to an end and by the time he got to the front-door on his way out of the shop he was still angry.  It hadn’t helped that his boss had told him he would just be working the shop-floor rather than check-outs until he had been through a investigation into his alleged bad conduct but if he thought that was bad what was to come next was a whole lot worse.

“Are you going now?” a nasally voice intoned as soon as Jack hit the pavement.

“You!” Jack exclaimed, flying into a complete rage.

“You could lose me my job you fucking cunt!  If you think I look bad now how will I look when I am really destitute and homeless and you know, it’s going to be all your fault!”

Jack barged pass him, having never been a fan of violence, and began his walk home, it was his home now and there awaited a bag of weed that would, he hoped, make him forget what had been a truly awful shift.

Posted in

Sunil Sharma,4/24/2017

Current Occupation: College Principal
Former Occupation: Vice-principal
Contact Information: Mumbai-based senior academic Sunil Sharma is a widely-published Indian critic, poet, literary interviewer, editor, translator, essayist, freelance journalist and fiction writer. He has already published 14 books: four collections of poetry, two of short fiction, one novel, one a critical study of the novel and co-edited six anthologies on prose, poetry and criticism. His six short stories and the novel Minotaur were earlier prescribed for the undergraduate classes under the Post-colonial Studies, Clayton University, Georgia, USA. He is a recipient of the UK-based Destiny Poets’ inaugural Poet of the Year award—2012. Another milestone is that his poems were published in the prestigious UN project: Happiness: The Delight-Tree: An Anthology of Contemporary International Poetry, in the year 2015. Sunil edits the English section of the monthly bilingual journal Setu published from Pittsburgh, USA. For more details, please visit Sharma's blog, http://www.drsunilsharma.blogspot.in/.

 

#

Downsized

At 4.30 pm, in a glass cage in tony south Mumbai,
Mr. Joshi, of 25 years of service, was told over
Weak coffee by a fat bald guy with a sneering smile
Here, your check and goodbye!
The AC was on despite the mild January— a rarity
In the coastal city bursting with migrants and other workers
With Ray Bans and faux leather briefcases with solemn demeanour
Mr. Joshi was torpedoed in that Siberian desert but did not show—
Although the guy with golden specs wanted some tears and crying
But the terminated—a suburban guy with a heart and kids, ailing mother and divorced sister, all living together—did not show anything but a bold smile.
His parting words, however, sent the chill down the fat bastard’s spine: Boss! Today, me.
Tomorrow, you!
We all are just human fodder!
 

Posted in

Jeremy Caldwell, 4/17/2017

Gary Beck brings a poem on love and fire.Current Occupation: Graduate Student in Creative Writing
Former Occupation: Office Associate, Call Center Representative, Rural Electrician
Contact Information: Jeremy Caldwell lives in Lincoln, Nebraska. He has poems and reviews published or forthcoming in Poetry Quarterly, Tule Review, Drunk Monkey's, and Prairie Schooner. He's currently pursuing a MA in Creative Writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

 

#

Library Book Mender

This man's profession is an old one,
and soon, will disappear.

The large cast-iron board shears he uses
will go the way of print photos,

and in a former life may have sliced
cereal boxes, but now

wears dust like a cheap nightgown.
In the old days he says now,

he would use needles to shoot
wheat paste into cover corners,

and screws, tight as ticks,
to hold weathered pages

while the glue dried.
The days of repairing and replacing

can be counted on fingers,
the same fingers I imagine

as warm and inviting, yet rough
and calloused like a deckle edge,

working on his last day,
with his last book, where he remembers,

like always, nothing about it,
but knows he's staved off time

just a little longer.

 

#

Contractors Replacing a Gutter

Across the street, there are two of them
with worn jeans and flapping tool belts,
carrying clinking ladders, clacking aluminum,
emptying them on the ground like cigarette butts,
as the sun shrinks islands of ice on sidewalk squares, 
where only us humans seem confused this may last.
As they stand, shifting rock salt on the driveway
one eyes the edge of the roof, growing stern 
and contemplative, waving a strong hand
of measuring tape at the bare rim, while the other
looks up, knowing a slight drizzle
won't wash their problems away.
 

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Gary Beck, 4/10/2017

Current Occupation: I am currently a writer
Former Occupation: I was formerly a director/playwrite.
Contact Information: Gary Beck has spent most of his adult life as a theater director, and as an art dealer when he couldn’t make a living in theater. He has 11 published chapbooks and 3 more are accepted for publication. His poetry collections include: Days of Destruction (Skive Press), Expectations (Rogue Scholars Press). Dawn in Cities, Assault on Nature, Songs of a Clerk, Civilized Ways, Displays, Perceptions (Winter Goose Publishing), Fault Lines, Perturbations, Rude Awakenings, The Remission of Order and Tremors will be published by Winter Goose Publishing. Conditioned Response (Nazar Look). Resonance (Dreaming Big Publications). His novels include: Extreme Change (Cogwheel Press), Call to Valor (Gnome on Pigs Productions), Acts of Defiance (Artema Press). Flawed Connections (Black Rose Writing), Sudden Conflicts by Lillicat Publishers and State of Rage by Rainy Day Reads Publishing. His short story collection, A Glimpse of Youth (Sweatshoppe Publications). Now I Accuse and other stories will be published by Winter Goose Publishing. His original plays and translations of Moliere, Aristophanes and Sophocles have been produced Off Broadway. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines. He currently lives in New York City.

 

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Policy Factions

The issues of our time
are seldom what they seem
as we sanction countries
for developing nuclear weapons,
yet sanctions never stop
development of nuclear weapons,
only hurt ordinary folk,
since the wealthy and powerful
remain comfortable, well-fed,
secure in their positions,
never deterred
by economic pressure
to change their ways,
an American fantasy
that the people will revolt,
replace their leadership
with democracy,
a political delusion
common in the U.S.A.,
where we want everyone to love us,
despite the mess we made
in Iraq, Afghanistan,
in ill chosen invasions
that changed nothing for the better
at a prodigious cost
in national treasure,
our young men and women
volunteers trusting their country
not to expend their lives
without good reason,
and we gave them wounds and death,
then withdrew our troops,
another failed venture
that weakened us at home, abroad,
while all the lands that hated us
gloated at our defeat,
calculating how to harm us
as we cowered at home

in a crippled economy
overseen by a selfish congress
enrapt with it's own agenda,
apparently unconcerned
that many Americans
may fall off a fiscal cliff,
the people's suffering preferred
to distressing their masters,
whose comforts come before
the needs of the nation..

 

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