Bart Plantenga, 1/15/2018

Current Occupation: writer / proofer / translator / editor / volunteer refugee advocate / yodel expert / periodic journalist
Former Occupation: foot messenger / house painter / cab driver / factory worker / forestry – tree trimmer / mailman / house renovation 
Contact Information: web; radio; Youtubeb/art pretentious movies

 

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The Kingdom Of Busby Berkley

I saw right away that I was the only “guy” in the Dorian Gray Bar, in The Riefenstahl, landmark-status-hotel-turned-condo. I was posed so that one and all knew I was not just some shiny bauble in a fop’s generic dream, nor some cut of chop sculpted by hankering eyes, but a man, a boy, an alien – more and less – inhabiting an uninhabitable land – and now this portion of bar. I was drinking a La Trappe Dubbel (6.5%), from Holland, reading the label as I peeled it off. OK, I’m nervous. I looked in the mirror behind the bar, perturbed that my haircut, asymmetrical [kindest description] or fucked-up [brutally honest], continues to mock me day and night.

 

As I wiped the brew’s glisten from my chin with my shirt sleeve, I reminded myself to add La Trappe to my list of favorite brews. I – as immigrant, uitlander, naive and knowing – had learned in the short while I had been in New York that everyone had lists of best bands, pizza, movies, desserts, Italian ice, knishes, sex positions, beers, and clubs. They were willing to defend them, even if it meant losing a friend in the argument. Especially clubs because I was going out so much that out actually became in and nowhere and everywhere were easily confused concepts of place: Top 7: Tertiary Synthetics, Big Rock Candy Mountain, Hobo King, the Boot Leg, Earwig, T-Birds, the Cocteau Club (where I kept a toothbrush in a glass behind the bar).

 

A beguiled or beguiling man of a prior splendor was drinking and staring into a dank concoction (a Cummerbund?), a gelatinous drink that looked like it had been siphoned from the Kill van Kull. Other cravated men gazed forlornly into the carpet, some managing sly deadpan smirks that somewhat managed to disguise their spiritual qualms.

 

Busby Berkley pushed through the heavy revolving door. There he stood in the lobby, rubbing his lapel with his thumb and forefinger, dapper as a skipper in search of his yacht. The wait staff scurried through the plush, post-Marienbad lobby, nodding their heads with an obeisance – or was it condescension? – in any case, I felt awkward, out of place.

 

“Re-ahh-lly hope you can forgive me,” Busby apologized profusely – something about a dear friend in dire need – which gave him leeway to place his chummy hand directly upon my thigh with the weight and feel of a spilled octopus salad.

 

Berkley’s mind was sharp like a branch snapped in two. Like the knife thrower’s knife. Every hair left on Berkley’s skull was individually trained to daily affect its delightful symmetry. I thought: James Mason’s shorter brother.

 

Berkley had suggested this rendezvous only three days earlier when he had befriended me at the corner of 8th Ave. and 46th St., turning to me to say: “I know you. You’re someone.” And that he couldn’t place me in his “memory Rolodex” irked his sense of – omniscience (is that the word I’m looking for)?

 

“No, I’m just a no one.” It’s true – despite a few “free” drinks at the Cocteau, some lines of coke, a few poems, and a casual errant swipe at my midsection, I was barely someone. I may have entertained the notion of being a catch, a young fling-thing, sultry and svelte youth to some art gallery dame or fop, but, really, I was a nobody. These kinds of daydream delusions sustain you when you’re running around Mid-Manhattan on your rounds as a foot messenger, sneakers sloshing with a day’s rain, earning minimum wage at a job even most homeless people turn down as too degrading. To earn extra pocket clink I’d run between pickups and deliveries – sometimes $15 a day – pocketing the subway fare that the Cosmo Geographical Messenger Service, would reimburse me for.

 

“A lifestyle overhaul is called for here.”

 

Berkley ordered two kirs with a hint of a nod and flutter of a forefinger – William Powell I thought.

 

“A kir is a Mediterranean sunset, as sweet and glorious as a teen’s aspirations … But what’s that smell – like a sour Insure.”

 

“Insure?”

 

“Adult Pampers. But for you Furman, incontinence is still just a distant, ill-defined piece of flotsam.”

 

“Uh, OK.” And then I realized it was probably my sopping, sour socks.

 

“Your writing, your poetry, your DElusions – or do I mean ALlusions? – took my precious breath away. The way only great cognac – and writing – can. Mmm … It was nice of you to send them to me so … promptly … What a set of lovely limbs you are attached to by the way.”

 

I am standing there dazed by his clever, quicksilver repertoire.

 

“Am I giving you a headache? I know I’m giving myself one. Come on back to my place. 27F.”

 

He paid for the drinks with a big bill withdrawn from his portefeuille with the hand that still held the kir glass and, like in movies, not a drop was spilled. A quick backhanded “shoo” indicated no change would be necessary, ensuring that his generosity (and his latest catch?) would be duly noted.

 

In “his” elevator of chrome and mirror (to daily taunt one’s reflection) I saw my head from an angle I’d never seen it from before. I felt like a stranger inside myself.

 

“And companionship.”

“Huh.”

“Lucrative … People are lonely. The ones who have everything have nothing.”

27F was actually 27A through 27F – spacious like a department store floor.

“Et voila! I’m a Gemini, so beware! As you will soon note – Baroque and modern, Deco and Gothic, Danish and Florentine, 50s and 20s, Shaker and African, erotic and sacred. It’s all me.” He knew just what to do with a vase of calla lilies (or, perhaps, he knew exactly who of his minions would.)

 

“A maladroitly placed vase makes me nauseous … Perhaps, being a writer, you could write about my … little shoebox chateau for Home & Garden. I know the editor.” (As a function of the verifiable phenomenon known as Creative and Impressionable Hearing Loss, CIHL – I thought I heard “Homo Garden.”)

 

If I lived Berkley’s life, I thought, I’d also concern myself with aesthetic assaults on good taste. Isn’t that what sophistication is all about?

 

“‘Sensitive as a barometer,’ my mother, may she rest in Hell, er, I mean peace, used to say. I make things happen,” he continued. “This is where the real business of theatre happens. Anyway, it’s all about denying realities – theatre is just a vestigial organ of the soul.” The more he elaborated on what he could do for me, the more it seemed my glass just wouldn’t get empty.

 

“Look out here; it’s not a pretty view. But a not-pretty-view is an interesting view. My past. Ye olde silk mills of Paterson. And so here I sit, past, present, future all in full view.” His arm swept vaguely across the west, toward New Jersey or Ohio.

 

This gesture led to more opportune movements: his hand strumming my collarbone, then my neck, while the other ever-so-lightly (in my mind?) brushed my emergent nipple. His arm heavy like the arm of an uncomfortable chair. I would later write: The dead weight of an injured officer dragged across a minefield.

 

He smelled like a barber shop on Saturday at noon – a crisp cleave of the air.

 

“Paterson is where I discovered I was not like other boys … You are standing on real estate that goes for $1200 per square foot. To know I bought it when it was $78. You can buy a thousand acres of prairie in Montana for that. We’re talking the compression of desire here, the telescoping of human endeavor. And I own this – all 3275 square feet of it – and possession, as you will someday learn, is 99% of happiness.”

 

The tour continued room by room, heirloom by heirloom, with him issuing his grand, sweeping gestures as if his early theatrical influence was Moses or Monty Hall.

 

“The work I will offer you will get you off the street. Messengering is an occupation of necessary humiliation for all to experience. My dear friend, William Saroyan and his son did it. Henry Miller, Mercury, there are others. From the stone of humility do we chisel the sculpture of pride, self-esteem, character. To wander is to dream. But you mustn’t wander too long. Especially someone like you, a writer, a poet, a sensitive soul. You need to be reeled in periodically.”

 

Anything of value, lacquered end table, gilt frame – everything, actually – he felt compelled to describe, place in its proper milieu, appraise it to within a few pennies (how would I know) of its current Christie’s value.

 

“Everything here is real – marble, teakwood – I insist because the real grounds us, Furman. Christie’s and Sotheby’s both have fat dossier’s full of photos of every detail of this place. They’re just waiting for me to croak.” His voice tapered off into a haze of reverie. “I learned this in Sub-Saharan Africa – not Palm Springs. Keeps one in touch with the elemental, because tromp l’oeil soon leads to tromp de coeur, and how easily the eye then tricks the heart.”

 

Then suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a wall was really a sliding Japanese screen, which opened upon an office filled with muted bustle, everything chic and simple, grey and rosé, matching and soft, artificial and ergonomic.

 

Five groomed, gloomy lads, trim as letter openers, puttered away, hunched over obese files and computer terminals in an air of maybe forced and numbed détente. Like one had to pinch gratitude from its fruit.

 

He swept me (hand on small of back) into his brood, “John Dean, Wilbur Mills, Julio Iglesias, Horst Wessl and Rudolf Hesse – Furman Pivo, my new houseboy.” His pronunciation of “boy” made me feel he truly did mean possession was 99% of happiness. They glared at me the way slaves might who were suddenly faced with the prospect of having to share their already meager rations with another. Oh, how they coveted my gold handcuffs.

 

As he poured his 4th White Horse Scotch straight up, Busby,with a certain circumscribed glee, spilled that his 5 boys – “really can be coerced into a jolly time.”

 

“In honor of my 61st birthday, the boys stuck candles up their flosculi – that’s Latin for ‘little flower’ derived from the Greek for anus, the culus being a rosebud. Now that’s poetry – hehe.” A small nudge of elbow to the giddy part of my ribcage. He was very self-amused by his own bawdy imagination and proud: “Punch me in the gut,” he showed me how by punching himself, “solid, no flab – a sharp knife is a good knife …”

 

My job: tidy up, dusting, cleaning, and more. Twenty hours a week and he expected punctuality and said so. Eye for detail; no fingerprints on the crystal, no watermarks on the silverware. His lads (the human candelabra?) never so much as uttered a word, unless all those sighs and clucks of tongue were truncated niceties. And, as is the wont of a self-styled benevolent monarch, he rather enjoyed the notion of rivalry (a secret of power) among his glum brood.

 

He inspected for dust and prints and made me wear pink rubber gloves. He checked the dishwater – “Prevention is protection” – with a forefinger to be sure it was scalding. Sterilization was his philosophy, his insurance policy, in an age of mysterious diseases.

 

When I dusted he watched. Or rather, he admired the way his smart choice of uniform (ballet tights and a sleeveless, ribbed tee shirt) highlighted the special features of my physique. He held his breath when I handled the Louis Quatorze (“pronounced cat oars”) porcelain bookends. He could not prevent himself from saying, “Careful! Those are worth a montaigne de centimes in sentimental value alone, not to mention current market value, more than your worth with all your exquisite limbs …”

 

Berkley knew very well that flattery (no matter how hackneyed) and benevolence (no matter how petty) were the keys to the jailhouse gate. A staff kept perpetually hungry for approval and remuneration was a staff kept bitter, obedient, anxious, and eager to please. Gratitude and servitude were strange bedfellows.

 

I also did some filing, hand laundering, vacuuming, made his bed. He always seemed to be there, like a shiny beetle in the corner of your eye, offering advice or autobiographical tidbits.

“This – have a look – I purchased on holiday in Firenze. A steal in ’73. ‘The Holy Family,’ circa 1525. Sodoma. Well, perhaps it is a copy, but, notice – the Christ child touching his own penis.”

 

“Interesting.”

 

“INteresting?! More than that, Furman. It’s the very cross-pollination of onanism and faith, prurience and purity.”

 

Saturday I again arrived promptly at 9. He was still lolling around in bed after 11. Rifled through the Times, his mail, fidgeted with gadgets. Ate half a grapefruit, topped with a maraschino cherry (which he tried and failed to pop into my mouth from the pinch of his meticulous fingers), a toasted dry English muffin and a bedside vintage Bakelite pot of chamomile tea.

 

“Delicate plumbing.”

 

While dusting under his bed I discovered a glossy autographed photo.

 

“Oh, I should frame that. I know just the darling frame for it. It’s from my dear friend, Nureyev. Rudolf Nureyev.” He held the photo, stared at it. “Ah, Rudolf, a coil of tensed surreptitiousness crammed into a shiny tinkered codpiece. His sex is so … Jack-in-the-box.” He flung it onto the bed and impatiently plowed through a blur of television channels with the remote.

 

“‘The male and female culus surely do not differ in their capacities to stimulate a penis to orgasm’ – or so it says here, I’m merely quoting, Furman, just quoting.” Everything that emerged from his maw of pearl and gold seemed wedged between quotation marks, ensconced in 3rd-person sarcasm, quote-inside-quote. This alleviated him of any responsibility for the increasingly emboldened nature of his utterances.

 

He often wore nothing in bed and alluded to this state, even affording me a casual flap-of-the-sheets.

 

“You looked, you rascal.”

 

He liked his home warm, hot even, and I worked up a sweat and he saw me sweat. “Feel at home. Don’t be shy. Work in your skivvies because, you know, it’s just us boys. And boys needn’t be shy amongst boys.”

 

He had purchased some pantoufles, darling French slippers, for me. Upon which he heaped endless praise; the way my “exquisite ankles” arose out of them, how my feet completed their exquisite design.

 

“I do not relish your tennies  …”

“They’re Converse hi-tops.”

“Whatever … with their treads tromping dog doodoo around my lamb’s wool rugs and … you understand. Let me see you.”

I stood before him, still, very still, stiff as a riding crop, heart beating inside my thoughts. “‘How strange he stands there. So big! And so … cocksure.’”

He tied a French maid’s apron around my waist. And when I polished his Victorian porcelain figurines he could not suppress an ill-defined smirk. I made lunch and we ate together. He liked a glass of Bordeaux or two, with his bacon, lettuce and tomato on toasted cracked wheat.

“Bacon’s just one of very few little vices. Man is interesting only in the depth of how he incorporates his vices. I’m being honest. And in this jungle it’s so rare that honesty too, has become a sort of vice.”

 

He idly (or perhaps strategically) leafed through an art book he had splayed open between our respective lunch plates.

 

“Here ‘Saint Anne, Joseph, Mary & Child’, 1511, Hans Baldung Grien. It reveals by far the most blatant example of a foreign hand – in this case Anne’s – touching the Lord’s glorious dick.”

 

And from the back of the art book slipped a glossy magazine, Sport Naturisme. He leafed through the spreads of young boys naked in nature.

“Sometimes I see them as nude and other times as naked.”

Features: “Jeunes Gens Nus Dans L’Intimité De Leur Chambres” and “On The Banks Of The Ganges – Young Boys Bathing.”

 

“Is it art?”

 

“I wouldn’t know.” I did, actually.

“Or just stroke material?” He took another bite of his sandwich. “I love meat.”

 

“I’m vegetarian.”

 

“That’s a shame, but I guess it’s ‘healthy’. And isn’t it a marvel how vegetables are converted into flesh and how lovely the way your flesh fits about your frame. You rival Donatello’s ‘Dying Slave.’” He flipped to a page so that I could see what he meant; that it was a compliment.

 

“See, maybe you’re an athlete of a sort. Do you do sports?”

 

“Not as much as I used to.”

“What do you like?”

 

“Well, I ran track and cross-country in high school.”

 

“You must’ve been a natural. And now you’re a messenger. Perhaps it’s predestination. Genetic.”

 

“I dunno. I was pretty good …”

“Did you have satin running shorts?”

 

“Yea …?”

“Wore a … JOCKstrap?”

 

“I did.”

“Was it a COMfortable feeling?”

“I guess.”

“Any other sports … ‘WATER’ sports perhaps?”

“I did Tai Kwan Do.”

“Oh, how utterly thrilling – and so marvelous for ‘discipline’ … Care to show me some of your kicks?” Mind you, I was wearing only an apron and my bikini undies – no shirt, nothing else. right here is the human dilemma: how does one accommodate the predilections of a boss and still maintain one’s dignity? The equation is the more unequal the social status between partners, the less attention will be paid to the pleasure of the lower status partner.

I performed some vestiges of various kicks. And I don’t remember whether he was sighing and marveling at my technique or whether he was just afraid for his fragile baubles.

“Marvelous. Bravo! Priceless! That’s why you’re so marvelously … lean.” He clapped and offered a certain leer that could only have otherwise come from behind Joseph von Sternberg’s monocle in a 20s Berlin cabaret. “Now, does the jockstrap ever … lose its FUNCtionality, how do I … and release your …”

“Uh, I’m not …” But I was; his ellipses (another tactic in his destabilization repertoire) became easier and easier to fill in.

“Of course, of course.” With the completion of his 4th, my 2nd, glass of Bordeaux he’d become distinctly more “honest.” Effusively so.

“I’m looking right now to … replace my French boy – half Algerian – from Marseilles. Lovely lad. He’s not really legal, which is somewhat thrilling. You must understand that a man such as me, still ‘needs’ things, things money can’t always ‘buy’ outright. But it’s worth a foray … You have such an underdeveloped sense of … you’re naive, charming, exquisitely put together.” Held breath. Wink wink. “Glory in your fleeting charms, Furman. While you can.”

 

“We’ll go shopping. I expect BIG things from you. And I’m going to make those BIG things happen. Take a cab to Barney’s. Purchase you some nice things … Versace, Armani … So I can take you places to meet people, be seen. Circulate you. I know editors, critics, I know everyone who’s anyone. People who trust my … impulses … and so must you.” The more he seemed to offer ME the more he seemed to expect I was going to offer HIM.

 

I dusted a frame, straightened another; one held a print: “The Penis From Sir Charles Bell, Letters Concerning The Diseases Of The Urethra.”

 

He opened another bottle. It was assumed I would match him glass for glass. “And you must know that drinking, with me, well, it’s part of your ‘johhhb description.’”

 

At one point, while cleaning the window of his antique bookcase, he poked his wormy forefinger in through a hole in my underwear. “You’ve got quite a…‘hole’ there.” Framing the “hole” with a set of 2 fingers curved around each side of his head to emphasize that the allusion to hole was not meant to be attributed to him. Irony, you know.

 

By 7 p.m. that Saturday, we were having yet one more “last drink.” But when I asked him about a paycheck for the past two weeks and said my rent couldn’t wait, he glared at me squalid-eyed, as if I’d just betrayed him. Pissed on his Persian camel-hair rug.

 

“Fetch my slacks.” I grabbed them from the back of a chair. From his portefeuille he counted out $400 in $5 and $10 bills.

 

“I hope you don’t spend it all on something stupid – like women or drugs.” He pronounced “women” like others might “mercenary” or “scorpion.”

 

“Or, even stupider – like rent,” I added as I stood up to introduce the idea of departure. Had he hidden my clothes, the ‘rags’ he’d come to despise? No, they’d been rolled up and stuffed into a plastic bag, shoved into a utility cabinet. But I found them because in desperation one finds secret determination.

 

“You’ll be back Tuesday?”

“I’m not …”

“Excuse me …?

“9:30, Tuesday.” I lied. But I never returned. Even avoided the corner we’d met on, the block he lived on, the kingdom he ruled. For years, up to this very day, actually.

 

“Maybe avoiding temptation, the sight of a repressed version of yourself,” as Bernice was to suggest, referring to some article she’d read.

 

When I stepped outside on that Saturday evening, the rain echoed – tiKtiK – on the hollow sidewalks. The earth was paved over. The sky leeched of glory. A gloomy cocktail in a bleary aquarium. I looked up; there’s Busby, pressing his face, pouting against the slimy glass. Kidding! But maybe in the movie version.

 

I ducked out of the rain inside a parking garage along 10th Avenue. Despite the fact that these concrete miasmas are described as makeshift hunting grounds; despite warnings that once in, you lose your way. It’s not paranoia; it’s been on the news. Who is it that said: “paranoia is spirituality inside-out, awareness with a broken compass”?

 

The girl standing out of the rain next to me smiled and then stared straight back out into the rain. Her wet tee shirt said: STUPID NASTY MYTH ☹ WORK AS SELF-ESTEEM. I smiled at her, but stopped short of asking: “Is synchronicity meaningful coincidence that leads to magical communication? Like what they used to call destiny?” Maybe my smile said: “loneliness sucks” but I did not mean anything else with it. She smiled back and stopped short too.

 

Gangs of swirling, dreamless youths in like-colored shirts and hats roamed up the Ave. They’ve been rooting for losing football teams forever. They were looking for purgation. I stepped out into the rain to follow their migrations. They may have been onto something. Or the something of nothing. I am 24 and heading in a direction that I hope will tell me where I am going.

 

 

Jonathan Ferrini, 1/8/2018

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.

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The Final Watch

   Interstate 8 climbs west out of the Imperial Valley and twists through the rugged mountains upward into East San Diego County. My name is Tommy and I recently graduated from the Border Patrol Academy. I’m assigned to work the graveyard shift at the Campo checkpoint along Interstate 8 which is 65 miles west from the Mexican border crossing and fifty miles east from San Diego. The checkpoint is surrounded by rugged, isolated terrain accessible solely by four-wheel drive vehicles. Thousands of vehicles pass through our checkpoint daily but you wouldn’t realize it working the graveyard shift as wild animals outnumber the vehicles.

   My Senior Agent and mentor is Ben who reached mandatory retirement age. He loves his job and is a widower without children. He is kind, fatherly, and enjoys telling tales of his storied career more than mentoring me. His rotund body is showing wear and tear. He has a limp and bouts of memory loss. Ben’s faithful partner is a drug sniffing German shepherd named “Ruger” who can hold his own in a brawl. We spend most of our shift relaxing in recliner chairs and keep a cooler filled with soft drinks and water. Ben and Ruger nod off from time to time which I don’t mind. Our office is a small trailer. It’s a full moon tonight and the sky is full of stars. A breeze is kicking up the fragrance of the chaparral.

   It’s 0230 and Ruger barks. Ben wakes and grabs the binoculars looking east down the freeway which is dark. “It looks like CHP Officer Wally is on the beat”, Ben remarks.  Although I see nothing, I won’t question a Senior Agent. Ruger is barking relentlessly and dragging Ben to the checkpoint. Ben says, “Hand me a Coke for Wally, Tommy.” I comply but remain dumbfounded. The checkpoint is lit with floodlights but I see nothing. Ben and Ruger cross the two lane freeway to the checkpoint.

   Ben crouches down and leans as if peering into a vehicle to speak to a driver. Ruger stands on both legs and Ben holds him close. I watch in disbelief as Ben holds a conversation with an apparition.  Ruger barks and pulls Ben towards our chase car. Ben yells, “Wally just received a radio call to respond to an overturned tanker truck at mile marker 4.  I’m going to assist. Man the fort!” Wally and Ruger race down Interstate 8 with lights and siren. I’m tense and confused. I radio Ben who doesn’t answer. To my relief, I hear Ben request radio assistance from CAL FIRE Station 44, “Overturned fuel truck on fire. Driver trapped. Assisting CHP Officer Wally. Send fire engine and ambulance.” Within minutes, CAL FIRE Engine 44 and an ambulance race by the checkpoint. I run to our four wheel drive truck and speed towards mile marker 4 to assist.

   Mile marker 4 is several miles west from the checkpoint. I see Ben’s chase car emergency lights flashing ahead and his chase car is positioned across the two lane freeway as a safety measure to prevent vehicles from approaching. A coyote darts from the brush, crosses my lane, and disappears into the wilderness. I swerve and narrowly miss the animal but at ninety miles per hour, I struggle to gain control and keep from flipping. I maintain control of the truck and park but don’t see Ben or Ruger. There is no overturned tanker truck. Engine 44 is parked alongside the freeway with its emergency lights off. The ambulance is leaving empty. A masculine, calming voice calls to me, “Up here on the bluff, kid.” I climb up on to the bluff and meet Chief Johnny of Engine Company 44. He is tall, thin, and has a thick mane of silver hair and handlebar moustache. He is handsome and I suspect many are happy to be rescued by Johnnie. “Call it a night fellas”, Johnnie commands his men who conclude their search for Ben and Ruger.  

   Johnnie asks, “What’s your name Agent?” I reply, “Tommy, Captain.”  Johnnie places his arm around my shoulder and raises his head towards the sky remarking, “You can practically count every star”. I’m flustered and quivering.  Johnnie holds me tight and looks me in the eye. In a hushed voice he says, “About thirty years ago, I responded to a tanker truck fire at this very place. Ben and CHP Officer Wally were attempting to extricate the driver. Just as we began spraying the tanker with foam retardant, it blew into flames. The driver was pulled to safety, Ben suffered singed eyebrows but CHP Officer Wally burned to death. There’s no earthly explanation for what happened here tonight but I’ve seen it before. Agents like Ben never forget losing a fellow officer. When their time to die comes, they prefer it occurs doing the job they love and choose to vanish forever into the wilderness. The San Diego Commander of the Border Patrol and I go way back. I’ll call him tonight and explain everything. He’ll understand”. Captain Johnnie and I walk down the bluff to our vehicles. Captain Johnnie waves as Engine 44 returns to the firehouse. I park Ben’s chase car alongside the meridian and will retrieve it later.

   I return to the checkpoint confused. I stare at the star filled sky and learned tonight life holds many secrets. I miss Ben and Ruger and will never forget them. I hope they are together in a better place. Across the freeway, a lone coyote exits the brush, sits and stares directly at me. Our eyes meet for a moment and the coyote belts out a howl before returning to the wilderness.

Beth Adelman, 1/1/2018

Current Occupation: University Grants Officer
Former Occupation: Teacher and Editor
Contact Information: A native of New York City, Beth has enjoyed working as an ESL teacher, university lecturer, editor, and grant writer. She recently published a short story in Bodega Literary Magazine, and has won two awards for fiction from the Bronx Council on the Arts

 

#

Shirley

    On the subway into work, Shirley tried to prepare herself in case there were more budget cuts. If the worst happened, she’d have to cancel her sister’s surprise 50th birthday dinner at ‘Pete’s Italian’ right away. Thinking of Pete’s, Shirley realized with astonishment that she’d forgotten to take chicken out of the freezer to defrost for tonight. The butcher would be closed by the time she got back home. Maybe soup would be the best hot alternative for Walter’s dinner?  I’ll liven up a can of minestrone with some diced carrots, she decided as her train came to a halt at 34th Street. The doors shot open.

    “Getting off!” Petite, determined Shirley repeated to an older man so engrossed in his newspaper that he didn’t move.  A woman with blue hair saw her distress and cried,  “Let the lady off!”

    Without looking up from his paper, the man stepped aside. When Shirley got off the train, she turned back to the blue-haired woman to thank her since the doors were still open. She gathered all her strength into her voice so that she’d be heard above the noise of the station. But instead of yelling ‘thank you,’ a different word came out of her mouth: “Soup!”

    Shocked, Shirley stared at the passengers in the train. A large man pulling a suitcase got off the train and pushed past Shirley as the bewildered passengers stared back at her.

    The subway doors slammed shut and the train moved out of the station.  Only then was she able to leave the scene of the incident. She walked up the crowded station steps to Seventh Avenue, where a hard, cold rain was falling. In the fresh air under her umbrella, Shirley felt hot with shame. She had never caused a scene in all her 51 years.  

    I wanted to thank the blue-haired woman, she told herself as she dodged others’ umbrellas on the Avenue. She was not the kind of person who shouted nonsense at strangers. The further she walked from the station, the less she felt that she, a practical office manager for a non-profit agency, had to do with the ‘soup’ incident.     

    It was a relief to reach her office. In the snug, well-organized room with its wall of framed commendations above shelves of forms, and a scratched wooden desk in the corner, Shirley knew how to size up problems and resolve them.

    She put her wet things where they belonged, sat down at her desk, turned on her computer, and listened. The corridors beyond her door, once filled with talk and laughter, were silent. Two days ago, after new budget cuts were announced, staff stopped socializing. Now no one wanted to be caught chatting.

    “It’ll get lonely here,” she thought while picking up her to-do list for the day.  

    “Shirl-ee!” A Texan’s voice startled her.

    ‘Yes?’ Shirley thought she said, turning around.

The Senior Vice President was standing next to the shelves in a silent laugh that exposed his yellow teeth. “Before I go to the downtown office, I need to hear ‘bout the agitation over there.”

Strange, Shirley thought. I didn’t hear myself answer him.

    She put down her list and opened her mouth to explain the situation in the downtown office. But she couldn’t speak. She tried again, but made no sound.

    “Ya’ll lost your voice!” he shouted. “Don’t you worry. I’ll tell everybody. Git along, li’l doggies, git along!” the Vice President sang as he left her office, his shoes squeaking.

    What’s happened? Shirley thought. She tried to say ‘Yes.’ Her lips formed a smile; her lower jaw moved down and up, but she couldn’t speak.  

    Her phone rang. The small screen on the device showed the receptionist’s number. She watched in horror as a green light trembled in the button for her line.  A few minutes after the ringing stopped, she read an email from the Vice President broadcasting her condition to the entire staff.  ‘In solidarity with Shirley losing her voice,’ he wrote, ‘use email instead of phone calls today.’

    This can’t be, Shirley thought. I don’t lose things. She grabbed her pocketbook onto her lap. There was her money in her wallet, there was her lipstick rattling against the mascara in her cosmetics bag. All was well in her bag.  

    Whether or not she had her voice, the to-do list demanded attention and she got to work. Sitting on the edge of her chair, Shirley wrote, “We had to get the cheaper ones,” in response to the head of Human Resources’ email about special pens. She wrote to vendors, explaining that the agency would pay their invoices very soon, answered staff members’ distress about the new reduced vacation time and referred department heads to the revised employee handbook. To the one staff person who stopped at her office to check up on her, Shirley scribbled a note:  “Thanks! Very busy!”

    The head of Human Resources emailed again about the pens. ‘No one uses pens anymore!’ she answered. ‘We’re on computers all day long.’

    If I was on the phone with him, I’m not sure I could have been so strong, Shirley thought,

and absently put her fingers to her throat. She wasn’t sick. There were no swellings, bumps, or lumps.

    Did lose my voice for a reason? Probably not, she answered herself. She remembered that yesterday evening, when she was a block from her apartment building, a black cat ran out of the alley and onto the sidewalk.  She could have avoided it, but a cold wind was blowing and she wanted to go straight home. The cat crossed in front of her before sliding under a fence. She hadn’t taken precautions, and now look what happened, Shirley thought.

    That conclusion made her uneasy. She knew she was a little superstitious, but to blame losing her voice on a cat might be going too far.

    We’ve had cats forever, she reasoned. People haven’t been losing their voices because of them. Could that cat have been different? She didn’t want to think about it, and tried instead to say ‘Yes.’ Her lips formed a smile; her lower jaw moved down and up, but she didn’t speak.

    I’m still working, Shirley comforted herself. If I lost a finger instead of my voice, I’d still work. If I lost an ear but had my voice? I’d talk on the phone with the good ear. I would always find a way to do my work.        

    She heard the soft chime of an elevator arriving at her floor. Someone asked the receptionist a question.   

    The rain struck loudly against her window.         

*   *   *

    “She knows everything about our agency—finances, people, policies. She’ll explain all the new policies to you!” the Executive Director boomed as he approached Shirley’s office.

    He shouldn’t bring anyone to me today, Shirley worried.

    “Impre-thiv!” lisped a male voice to Executive Director.  

    The agency’s burly Executive Director, in a red bowtie and suspenders, strode across her office to her desk and in an agitated undertone said, “State’s here on a surprise visit. Wants to know how we’re handling the crisis.”

    He introduced her to a plump, beaming State Inspector with a stain on his shirt. The two big men in her office took up all the space in her room, and there was no place for her to stand up.     

    From her swivel chair, Shirley pointed to her throat and gestured that she couldn’t speak.

    “She can’t tell uth anything today,” concluded the State Inspector. “Very bad weather.”

    I hadn’t thought of that, Shirley mused. It could have been the weather.

    “You can’t lose your voice,” pleaded the Executive Director. “I need you to explain the policies.”

    Shirley bent her head apologetically.

    The Executive Director reached for the phone on Shirley’s desk and dialed his secretary. “Thrown a curve ball here in Shirley’s office,” he said.  “No, I didn’t know. Bring her a cup of tea, will you? The microwave!”

    As the flustered Executive Director talked about the budget cuts, Shirley felt obliged to smile although she was becoming more frustrated with the convoluted way he was describing them, until the Inspector finally interrupted him:

    “The point — to avoid layoffs?”

    “These policies create a different context,” said the Executive Director.   

    What does that mean? She looked up at the Executive Director “You’ll be ok,” said the Executive Director. “Here it is!”

    Shirley sipped the tea as both men bent towards her. The tea was too hot, and she quickly put the cup down.

    “Now,” cried the Executive Director. “Explain!”

    “It won’t work that fatht,” the Inspector suggested.

    Shirley felt no change in her throat; she knew that her voice hadn’t come back.

    “Try!” said the Executive Director.  Shirley shook her head, no, she couldn’t. She had never refused the Executive Director, and she was sorry, but she could not open and close her mouth with two men staring down at her.  

    As the Executive Director followed the State Inspector out of her office, he told Shirley to bring him the memo about the budget cuts after lunch. In the doorway, he turned back to catch her eye and pretended to type on an imaginary keyboard. She understood. No memo existed, and he was depending on her to write it.  He gave her a regretful smile before leaving.

    That’ll give me a chance to explain things properly, she thought. She felt optimistic for the first time that day.

     The rain had stopped. Gray clouds were moving quickly above the brick buildings of West 37th Street.

    It was one o’clock. I’ll get lunch, Shirley told herself, and think about how to solve my problem.

*   *   *

    At the airy coffee shop on Seventh Avenue, Shirley took her usual table for one by the window, behind the register.  Stopping at her table, the waiter said, “The same?”

    She nodded, Yes.

    The coffee shop hummed with voices and the pleasant clatter of plates and utensils. The bell on the counter rang. “Coming, dear!” joked a waiter.    

    It’s a pleasure, Shirley thought, to hear people enjoying themselves.

    While she was finishing her grilled cheese sandwich, the sun came out from behind the clouds. It shone on the coffee shop’s two brass chandeliers and illuminated the wall above the counter.  Diners at a table near Shirley stopped eating to applaud the sudden light.

    It is wonderful, Shirley thought, to see the sunshine again. A new idea came to her. If something is lost, it could still exist. If a lost thing exists, it can be found.  If she could remember the last place where she had her voice, then she should be able to go back and get it.   

    While eating her grilled cheese sandwich, Shirley remembered the early morning. As they were getting dressed at home, she told Walter, her husband, “Rain is the new snow.” He chuckled. She had her voice then. She said ‘Getting off’ on the train. She had her voice then, until—she had to admit it—she yelled a ridiculous word to the woman with the blue hair.  

    I said my last word in the subway station, Shirley thought.  If she never got her voice back, the last word she would have said in her life would be, Soup!  To have the last word of a life of efficient management at home and at work—be Soup!  

    That could not stand. It might seem silly to look for a lost voice, Shirley thought, but that’s the practical thing to do. While waiting to pay for her lunch, Shirley examined the wrapped chocolates in a bowl next to the cash register. She liked chocolate very much, although to keep her figure, she seldom ate it.  If her lost voice liked chocolate too, she could use it for bait.  Shirley bought two chocolates before leaving the coffee shop.

    Five minutes later, when she was downstairs in the 34th street station, Shirley walked to the wall between the clerk’s booth and the turnstiles, turned the chocolate towards the floor and counted to twenty to give her voice time to get up. Nothing happened.

Shirley wished that the singer on the opposite platform, accompanying himself on the accordion, would stop. She needed to hear her voice when it returned, since it might be weak from lying in the station all morning.

Nothing jumped for the chocolates.

    I’ll have to go onto the platform, Shirley thought. She felt extravagant paying a fare without intending to take the train. Every few steps, she stopped to hold the chocolates loosely towards the floor and wait for her voice to claim them.

    A train came in. People on the platform boarded the train and the doors shut.   The conductor leaned out of his booth to give her a questioning look. Because she couldn’t speak, Shirley shook her head no, she didn’t want the train and threw the chocolates into a trash bin.   

*  *  *

    That afternoon, between listening to voice messages from outside callers, Shirley recalled that the subway station had been surprisingly clean. If she had lost her voice when she yelled ‘Soup,’ it could have fallen on the platform and gotten swept up by the crew that cleaned the stations. Maybe they threw her voice with discarded newspapers, tissues, and coffee cups, into in a big bag and hauled it on the garbage train with the other bags. If I was right about leaving my voice on the platform, I went back too late, she thought. She stroked her throat and felt very sorry for her voice.

    The radiator hissed—the sun shone on her back. Shirley wrote the memo for the Exective Director, edited, and proofread it. She was proud of her work. No one else could have written this, she thought after emailing it to him.

    I’ve shown that I can do my job without my voice. Walter will adjust to a silent wife if necessary. And if my voice wasn’t on the garbage train? She asked herself. She sat back in her chair, her small feet dangling above the threadbare carpet. It might have fallen onto on the suitcase of that man who pushed me when he got off the train. That arrogant man looked like the type who goes to meetings in Albany. She pictured her voice as a small thing sitting up on the luggage rack of the train. When that man reached Albany, he’d take his suitcase down, Shirley thought, but my voice would know better. It would stay on the train moving north, past gray cities, past malls, past hills and farms and windmills. It might tumble off at a small station by the woods, and roll away onto the snow. There’d be sunlight gleaming on the snow and a hush of pines and other kinds of trees, she thought. A cool breeze would sweep through the forest. She’d never been in a forest in winter, but she’d seen photos in magazines. She could almost felt the brisk, pine air—she was tempted to breathe deeply in her close office—but, better not, Shirley told herself.

    It was five o’clock.

    Shirley put on her coat and joined the workers on Seventh Avenue going to the subway. The streets felt subdued. Even the sounds of traffic were muffled. In the cold darkening street, the cry of the man who sold the evening paper rang out to the city.

“Get your evening Post here! Post he-uhh!”

His phrase had a defiant, passionate tone. “He-uhh!” rang against the shabby buildings. Shirley felt the rhythm of his phrase; she knew how many seconds passed before he said it again.

“Get your evening Post here! Post he-ahh!”

    As she approached, he peeled off one of the papers in his stack for her. “Miss?” She shook her head. She never bought that paper and kept going.

    His voice called out again, and she stopped next to a doorway to listen.

    “He-ahh!” The lone voice seemed to expand the space where Broadway and Sixth Avenues crossed, as it rose above rattle of the subways, the people, the lights and the stores, and above the swirl of taxis and buses. Then it was gone. Shirley waited, but the newspaper seller was finished. I have to get going too, she thought. I’ll have to go over to the supermarket to buy soup and carrots when I get off the subway. Hot soup—yes, that should be good for me, she told herself. She joined the people hurrying to the subway station for the evening’s ride home.