Thomas Locicero, 7/24/2017

Current occupation: Teacher
Former occupation: Customer Service Supervisor
Contact Information: Thomas Locicero’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Roanoke Review, Boston Literary Magazine, Long Island Quarterly, The Good Men Project, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Jazz Cigarette, Quail Bell Magazine, Antarctica Journal, Rat’s Ass Review, Scarlet Leaf Review, Tipton Poetry Journal, Hobart, Ponder Review, vox poetica, Poetry Pacific, Brushfire Literature & Arts Journal, Indigo Lit, Saw Palm, Fine Lines, New Thoreau Quarterly, Birmingham Arts Journal, Clockwise Cat, Snapdragon, felan, The Ghazal Page, Red Savina Review, Better Than Starbucks, Poetry Quarterly, The Write Launch, Bindweed Magazine, The Skinny Poetry Journal, Abyss & Apex Magazine, The Avocet, Speculative 66,, Kestrel, and Spectator & Spooks, among other journals. He lives in Broken Arrow, OK.



There Was a Time in America

There was a time in America
when life and work were synonymous,
when people, actual people, were forced to come
to a New World to work—and for this privilege,
they were permitted to live—and when almost all
of a civilization was forced to go, to march, so that
their red earth could be “worked” by white men
off the backs of black men. A new definition of work.

There was a time in America
when tilling meant food and “Timber” greed,
but lumberjacking was work and work meant
life, so now we plant a tree when we tear one down
because we are better people than we were then.

There was a time in America
when if a man did not work, he did not eat,
a warning the apostle Paul wrote to the men
of Thessalonica, who lazed about believing
the Parousia was imminent. We scoffed at those
who did not work, acted as if we invented it,
mocking siestas and European naptime and, eventually,
maternity leave, suggesting that vacations were for
the lazy.

Today, in Japan, death by overwork is called karoshi.
Some say it is a culture. This we also mock.

There was a time in America
when a job was like a marriage, till death—or retirement—
do us part, when a paycheck was paper and smelled
of sweat. Now, in our divorce culture, we feel lucky
to have the privilege to work for people who would
prefer automatons to us, people who know our families,
yet would discard us like stale bread without a moment
of hesitation.

Today, in America, we clutch our invisible paychecks
like they are winning lottery tickets.


Jan Priddy, 7/17/2017

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



I was good at my first job. I filled and wrapped 
a taco fast as anyone. I smiled, my hands
busy filling tiny containers with hot sauce
when no customers came to my window.
I cleaned and closed best of all, shifting
the food to the refer, scrubbing down
the stainless steel, mopping again and again
beginning early because we were not paid
to close. The work had to be done whether
it took ten minutes or an hour. I did it right
in ten. The new boy was paid a third again 
each hour what I received for training him. 
When I asked, the boss said he was a boy,
something I had already noticed. But I
did not walk away from that job because
the work was hard and boring, or because
I was not paid for closing, or because
my boss thought it was fair to pay me less.
I walked away the day he told me protesters
deserve to be shot. Wrapped in his belief 
that made me want him dead. But instead, 
I walked away and even when he asked, 
I never went back. He shorted my last check, 
well, what could I expect?



Jobs for women used to appear
separately from the classified listings
for real work in the paper.
My grandmother worked and so
did my mother, only when they needed
to support the family. 
Each took the sort of position
women were welcomed to, and each
suffered discrimination. 
They worked in clerical
positions, under the supervision
of men younger than they.
And each enjoyed the work
until they left because was expected
of women who became wives. 
As if working were a sorry
circumstance, a pointless leisure 
that kills the soul. 
My grandmother cranked
the laundry on Monday, filled
shelves with canned fruit.
Housework and mothering
kept her busy every day until
she began dying. 
It was only late in her life
that my mother acknowledged
how much she loved her job. 
“You always feel better,”
she claimed, “when you are earning
your way.” I felt it. 



Before I delivered junk mail,
folded burritos, and priced records
I folded laundry and penciled
out the cost of aquarium supplies.
Sometimes I swept and dusted
before vacuuming. I washed 
the family dishes and none
of this was fun. It was work. Work
was also roasting a turkey, baking
pies, a batch of cookies, a green
salad—also work, but work enjoyed. 
Bad managers can ruin a job, but
the job itself might not be so bad. 
I enjoyed leaning out the window
of my friend’s truck, hanging
leaflets and coupons. We laughed 
together as we went, house to house
in our disreputable task. The fast
food job was sometimes fun, a way
to get work done swiftly. I got a tip
one time. I learned how to make 
pastries during the year at a bakery.
I watched the boys go into the ovens
and come out loaves. I stood 
at counters and waited on tired
and hungry people. Even the bad
days were not so awful. Awful 
was watching my father die
of cancer. Awful was burying
dogs. Awful was losing my
temper with people I love. Work
never dipped into awful. 



Caroline Taylor, 7/10/2017

Current occupation: writer and editor
Former occupation: publications director, speechwriter, and magazine editor
Contact Information: Caroline Taylor's short stories have appeared in Work Literary Magazine (one, two, three, four occasions) and other online and print magazines. She is the author of two mystery novels and one nonfiction book. Visit her at



Nearly every office has its would-be thespians—staff members who are asked to partake in the annual holiday skit in which the actions of management are parodied by the staff. To Corliss, it was looking more and more like she might be the only person foolish enough to have done it twice. And, the only reason she even considered it the first time had to do with rumors that staff members who went that extra lap around the Christmas tree—whether providing food and drink, decorating the conference room, or acting in the skit—might see just a bit more pay in their holiday bonuses.

The first time was back when Corliss was writing grant proposals for the state historic preservation league, a place ripe with the scent of old wood and old money. Her colleagues, she’d learned, were people of cultural refinement and obvious good taste who found the mission of protecting the state’s architectural and historical treasures a worthy task for their specialized talents. Thanks to Corliss’s winning prose, a generous mix of state funding and private donations made it possible for everyone to be paid to do this noble work.

That should have made them happy, but the preservation to which they were so devoted seemed to apply only to inanimate objects. The knives slipped into unsuspecting backs were long and sharp. So, yeah, she should have known better when she agreed to take part in the skit. She should have known that the rumors of an extra generous holiday bonus were as believable as trees on Mars. And she had to know there was bound to be somebody among the high and mighty managers about to be lampooned who lacked a sense of humor.  

The cast for the holiday skit included the league’s affable president, who, everyone suspected, was already grooming himself for a higher-paying position; the brilliant vice president and chief operating officer, who did not get along with the president but knew far more about architecture and preservation; the clueless vice president for marketing, whose skills at yacht racing far outmatched his business acumen; and the aggressive chief financial officer, whose power over the purse strings had terrorized the entire organization, including the board of directors. The president and two vice presidents were men, so the role of “Bonnie Cashbox” landed in Corliss’s lap like the contents of a freshly microwaved cup of coffee.

She had to admit it was a great name, though—combining the CFO’s real name, Bonnie (who was neither sunny nor blithe), with a word neatly summing up her job.

“Hey, guys,” Bonnie would say, barging into a meeting with her blouse only half tucked into her mini-skirt. “Sorry I’m late.”

Yeah, right. We’ve only been sitting here for fifteen minutes.

Then, she’d throw herself into her chair, hoist her legs up onto the table, cross her ankles, and proceed to shred the theories of whoever happened to be talking, all the while snapping her chewing gum.

Corliss could tell right off that such louche behavior had never before been witnessed by the Talbots and Randolphs and other patricians whose blue-blooded cohorts still governed the league. Perhaps they tolerated Bonnie’s belligerence because she was a CPA with an MBA from Wharton. She knew where the secret budget fat was deposited and how to surgically excise that deposit from beneath a vice president’s stricken gaze faster than you could say “gotcha!”

The role itself was a cinch. All Corliss had to do was arrive (ancient metal cashbox in hand and, of course, late) to a meeting of all the other “managers” and then pull “a Bonnie” by plopping into her chair, throwing her legs onto the table, crossing her ankles, and snapping her gum.

“Can’t do it, guys,” Corliss said. “I don’t know how to snap gum.”

Oscar, the IT guy who was going to play the sailing vice president, offered to instruct Corliss. But he was immediately overruled by Chaz, the architect who would play the president-loathing VP. “Just blow bubbles,” he said. And somehow manage to keep that bubble from popping each time the script called for Bonnie Cashbox to say “no.”

Corliss managed to pull it off. In fact, the audience, employees and their families, laughed so hard, some of them probably snapped a few straight laces.

It took a couple of days for the euphoria to wear off, leaving in its wake a lurking suspicion that perhaps it was better that Bonnie herself had skipped the holiday party in favor of a ski trip to Vail.

“I’m okay,” Corliss kept telling herself. Maybe Bonnie would never find out. And, if she did, she wouldn’t dare fire the league’s best proposal writer. Bonnie was not without friends, however, so naturally she did learn all about it, probably even watched a video captured on somebody’s cell phone.

One day the gum-snapping CFO dropped by Corliss’s office. “I am so sorry I missed the holiday skit,” Bonnie said with a warm smile. “I hear you had them all in hysterics.”

As for the little bit of extra pay in the holiday bonus, who knew? Nobody shared that kind of information for fear it would produce even sharper knives. As memories of the skit faded, Corliss began to relax. But then, two months later, the league lost its biggest donor, and Corliss was let go. She kept telling herself it was simply coincidence. It had nothing to do with her role in the skit.

It wasn’t because she loved to ham it up, either. It had started when she was only sixteen. She’d made it to the finals of the Louisiana Music Educators Association statewide vocal competition where she won first place for a solo folk song called “He’s Gone Away.” Getting to that point had required a serious investment in voice and music lessons. But the award was based, not just on vocal prowess, but also on interpretation—which was not at all difficult for a hormone-crazed teenage girl whose boyfriend had just enlisted in the Marines.

Once a performer, always on the lookout. That at least partly explained why Corliss couldn’t help saying “yes,” when her thespian talents were again requested at the annual holiday skit put on by her new employer, a federal cultural agency headed by a woman. “Please call me Chairman Alistair,” she’d announced when first meeting the staff. “I don’t cotton to chairperson or, heaven forbid, chairlady.”

There would be no padding, real or imagined, to the holiday bonus this time because Uncle Sam did not play that game. But he did acknowledge teamwork—in the form of contributing to and participating in the holiday party. Serious Brownie points were at stake for those who sought them.

Corliss was one of several employees who reviewed grant applications. But she saw more of Chairman Lisa Alistair than would normally be the case because Alistair happened to live two blocks away, and they often encountered each other while Corliss was out running and Alistair was walking the family dog. They had even more in common since Corliss’s nickname happened to be Lisa. The two women were also about the same height, although Corliss was a blonde and about ten pounds heavier than the chairman.

Alistair had only been chairman for a few months. Her appointment was not controversial, perhaps because her husband was a distinguished federal judge. They hailed from one of those western states known for big skies and small populations.

“How can I make fun of her?” Corliss asked her colleagues. “She’s too new! She’s too nice!”

“You’ll figure out something,” was the response.

After much deliberation, the skit writers settled on a comedy routine in which “Chairman Lisa” was feeling stressed out by her new job. Donning a brown wig, Corliss decked herself out in a western outfit, complete with cowboy boots and a leather belt that sported a big brass buckle.

Drawing on her earlier success as a singer, Corliss belted out new lyrics to an old-time country tune called “Why, Oh Why, Did I Ever Leave Wyoming?” The original lyrics had needed only slight alterations—changing the name of the state, for example—to suggest the noble “sacrifices” that the Alistairs had made by relocating to the hazy skies and overcrowded roads of Washington.

This time, Corliss had learned her lesson. Long before the curtain went up on the holiday skit, she’d insisted that the revised lyrics be put through the agency’s version of the “humorless staff” test and also vetted with various higher ups.

During Corliss’s boffo performance, Lisa Alistair laughed so hard, her face turned beet red. Afterward, she approached, grabbing Corliss’s hand. “Love your outfit. It’s so Wild West.”

Corliss felt her face grow hot. “I hope you weren’t offended.”

“Don’t be silly,” the chairman laughed. “As a matter of fact, Frank and I are going to be hosting a chuck wagon dinner in a couple of months. I might want to borrow your belt.”

Afterwards, though, Corliss sensed the tide of opinion shifting. Several colleagues who’d once found the skit hilarious were now pointing fingers at her (back, of course), whispering, “The fool!”

Corliss ignored them. This time, she’d not be handed a pink slip under the guise of “downsizing.” It was not that easy to get rid of civil servants. All she had to do was outlast Chairman Alistair, who would either move on to a more prestigious appointment or, if the other party won the next election, be replaced by a new chairman.

Instead, a few months later, Corliss found herself rewriting the lyrics to “Thanks for the Memories,” in preparation for a farewell party celebrating her own transfer to a job in a government agency that turned out to be so enormous, there would be no chance that anyone could possibly put together a holiday skit making fun of top management.

That more or less marked the end of Corliss’s amateur thespian days—at least when it came to skits lampooning senior management. She’d had fun doing them, even though her two forays onto the stage had turned out not to be particularly smart career moves. The occasional spoof newsletter? Roasting a departing colleague? Sure. But, if there actually were amateur thespians at the new job, and if they had big ideas for the holiday party entertainment that involved a risky “but morale boosting” skit, Corliss would have no problem whatsoever pointing out just how fond she was of safe.

Joan McNerney, 7/3/2017

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. 




Maintenance Man

Everything falls apart, 
all things rot and crack.
Each day another tenant
fills out forms to request
repairs.   Hot water tanks
burst, sinks back up, toilets jam. 
Smoke alarms break. 
It's a messy life, he pushes
against riptide.
All spring and summer,  
weeds keep growing. 
Leaves gather during fall.  
In winter time, ice 
covers walkways.
It’s time to go home now.
Tomorrow he will return
to pick up the pieces again.

The Teacher

She hoped some would leave, 
rise above dirty factory gates
past plumes of smoke spewing
from the cement plant.
Occasionally when discussing
great American novels, the walls
shook. Ravines were blasted
for more rocks to crush into powder.
She wished they would not become
clerks for soul-less chain stores or 
cooks in fast food joints where
smells of burning grease lingered.  
What was the use of teaching literature
and poetry to these children who would
soon grown listless?  Their spirits ground
down like stones in the quarry.

The Librarian

Always cherished the sanctity of 
this place.  This refuge of
knowledge arranged in infallible 
logic of the Dewey Decimal system.
Brian loved to touch these volumes.
Especially heavy reference
dictionaries, atlases, almanacs
and encyclopedias.  Those sheltered
in secluded shelves for staff only.
Children come along each day
to feast on colorful books. Lounging 
in small chairs they became
spellbound by cornucopias of words.
Mostly he likes the retirees who
linger with newspapers and
magazines in the reading corner. 
They confess not to understand 
computers, writing down requested titles.
At the end of evening, Brian walks
through the quiet.  Before leaving,
he will select a saga of spicy
adventure to flavor his evening.   

An Accountant

During the day, 
he could calculate
the secrets of ciphers
grabbling with white 
ledgers and tight rows
of numbers.
Richard knew how statistical 
data can be rigged while
cash flow double entries
could conceal trouble.
His eyes were wary
but he still believed
in good faith credit.
As night grew so did his 
appreciation of the
eloquence of one. 
That fat place maker
known as zero. Why
mystics marveled
at the holy seven.
While Richard slept his
dreams multiplied.
Suddenly long division
subtracted an unknown
quantity yet sums still
added up. Where had
his equations wandered?

Carl Wade Thompson, 6/26/2017

Current Occupation: Graduate Programs Writing Tutor
Former Occupation: Janitor/Meat Packer/Waste Disposal/Fork Life Operator
Contact Information: Carl Wade Thompson is a poet and graduate programs writing tutor at Texas Wesleyan University. His work often focuses on his manual labor experiences.


Once, I Signaled A Crane

    In spring of 2015, I was working a dead-end job at a warehouse distribution center as a member of waste disposal. After being in graduate school for three years and unable to take my comps, I had quit school, moved back home, and started working at the distribution center near my home town. Stuck in a deep depression, the job did not help matters as I saw myself becoming more and more meaningless as time passed by. I wanted a job that would take me away from my hometown and provide meaning in my life. As I scanned the want-ads one night, I saw that there were open interviews for working on an off-shore oil rig. As my uncle had worked on an offshore oil rig and had enjoyed the experience, I decided to try out for an interview. After an interview and physical examination, I was soon driving to Lafayette, Louisiana for training to be an offshore oil rig roustabout for Noble Oil.

    Arriving in Lafayette, the other trainees and I were immediately put on a bus and soon were driving south into the swamp until we arrived at our training camp, which was nearly an hour out into the boonies. The training camp was right beside the bayou and was held in part of an oil rig where we ate and slept with a modular building for a classroom. Beside the modular building was a small crane, which was part of our training. As a person who had been in school for most of his life, most everything there seemed foreign and new as I knew next to nothing about working on an oil rig. As we got off the bus and went into rig sleeping quarters to claim our bunks, I knew the week of training was going to be more challenging than I had ever imagined.

    Over the course of the week, my fellow trainees and I learned about safety guidelines for working offshore and the tasks that would comprise our daily workload. Whether it was learning to always keep a hand on the safety rail while walking on all stairs or how to chain hoist a load of pipe, it was all hands on, where class room instruction met hard application. As the days went by and we learned more about the ins and outs of working on an oil rig, the more I felt like I was over my head. In order to pass the training, you had to take a live test and show you could do all the tasks that we had practiced. But after witnessing the skills of the other students, I knew that I was way behind, because every physical task took me longer to perform, and speed is everything on an oil rig. By the end of Wednesday of the first week, I was sure of failure, and I wasn’t sure what I should do.

    While in the classroom on Wednesday, the coursework turned to working as a crane signalperson. Our instructor, who was a Noble safety officer named David, was a stern teacher who looked like he was more at home in the bayou than in the city. With a deep Cajun accent, every word that came out of his mouth was built on a foundation of Louisiana history. After working for 20 years as an offshore oil rig safety officer, he had seen the worst accidents imaginable, and he taught us as a man who had seen it all. So when we went through the book and he told us about how important a crane signalperson is, I made certain that I listened.

    “Now guys,” David said as we ended for the day, “We will be testing on signaling cranes first thing in the morning. And remember, you only get two tries to pass this test. You don’t get a third chance.”  When he said his last words, I knew he was talking to me, because I felt like I was barely passing as is. As we walked out and headed to the rig housing to have supper, I made up my mind that regardless of what happened for the rest of the training camp, I was going to pass the signaling portion with flying colors.

    After dinner, the evening was free before lights out, and so I went back to the classroom to study my textbook. As I looked at the hand signals, I set out practicing what the images showed. Whether it was signaling how to hoist a load up to lowering the boom, I practiced over and over again, reading the chapter on signaling like my life depended on it. I knew that night that maybe working offshore was not the job for me, but I wanted to at least do one thing well. All my life, the only thing I could do well was reading and writing, my world always being within the confines of school. Just once, I wanted to do something physical and being good at it, have a work skill that translated to manual labor.  Regardless of the outcome, I wanted to do my best to show I could at least do this one thing even if I didn’t pass the rest of the training.

    That night as I slept in my small bunk among the other recruits, I lay awake for a long time. I was worried about the next day, but I was also questioning my resolve to be a roustabout. I was scared of the whole thing, scared of what might happen on the oil rig and how I would hold up in the middle of the ocean while constantly scrambling to carry cable or chipping paint. When I finally went to sleep, I wasn’t sure what I was more worried about, my resolve for sticking with the training or passing the test the next morning.

    Early the next morning after breakfast, we all went outside to demonstrate our crane signaling skills. As I waited for my turn, I was so worried that I started sweating in the cold bayou air. But when I went to stand before the crane and begin my test, I suddenly became calm and collected. All of a sudden, I understood all I had to do was to take my time, think, and signal accordingly.

    “Okay, Wade, signal the crane to hoist it up, slowly,” ordered David.

    Standing as straight as I could, I point my finger straight and made a circular motion with my right palm straight out above it.  Slowly, the crane’s hoist went up and carried a load of pipe. For a moment, time stood still as everyone stared amazed as I performed the motion like the picture in the textbook. It even surprised David, the safety officer, as I had never done anything right the first time.

    “Okay, that’s good,” said David. “Now, direct the crane to move the load to the right.”

    I nodded, never taking the eyes off the crane operator. I took both of my hands, moved my upper torso, and signaled with my hands turned right for the operator to turn the hoist right. I watched as the crane’s hoist moved the load to the right, high overhead.

    “Stop,” said David, his arms folded.

    Raising my rand hand, I made a gloved fist, motioning for the hoist to stop.

    “Hey look at him,” said one of the other trainees. “He’s just like the textbook.  He’s doing it exactly like the pictures in the textbook!”

    Hearing his words, I smiled, knowing I was doing good. And as David directed me to signal other maneuvers, I did so with a skill that none of the other trainees was able to match. Even David, the man who gave praise sparingly, said I had done fine. For once, I passed with flying colors, and for a moment I could picture myself as a signalperson on an oil rig. It was a fleeing moment, that feeling of belonging, like I could actually make it offshore. After the day’s training ended, I knew that I had at least accomplished one thing, something I could take away and make my own. Even if I never signaled a crane again, at least I knew that I could have done it.

    That night in my bunk I thought about the day and what I had accomplished. I was able to do something well, the only time where I had stood out in all the training sessions. And my skill had come from all my studying of my books, which was what I was good at all along. My mind played over the signaling again and again. But I knew, deep down, that I didn’t belong. Finally, as I drifted off to sleep, my mind was made up: I was going to quit the training at morning call.

    The next morning, I went to talk to David and the other instructors and told them my decision. What surprised me was that they said they could understand why I would quit, and it was good to do it now instead of finding out on a rig that I didn’t belong. But the words I took away, that stayed with me the longest, was David’s:

    “You know what, when you first came on, I didn’t think you would make it. Really, I didn’t think a college boy would make it out here. But you really could have made it, got through the training. You proved that yesterday with the crane.”

    I smiled and nodded. His words meant a lot, and I knew that the training hadn’t been a total bust. After I turned in my work gear and collected my duffel bag, David gave me back my Noble hard hat. “Keep it. Something to remember us by.”

    As I was driven out of the training camp, I had no regrets about my decision. Going back home, I straightened out my life and eventually went back to graduate school and obtained my PhD in English. Now an academic and the graduate writing tutor and instructor for a university, I still think back to my time training on the oil rig in the bayou. I still have the hard hat, and my twin sons play with it. Sometimes, I wish I had completed my training and done one stint offshore. But I know, deep down, that the world of the roustabout was not mine, and I am thankful for making the decision to ultimately leave the training.  But whenever I see construction that has a crane, I think, “Once, I signaled a crane.” And that knowledge gives me a sense of peace that makes the decision I made all worthwhile. For that experience I am thankful as it lives on in memory.  

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?”


“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.”


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?”


    “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.”


    “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.



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!”

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 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. 





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.


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?

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!