Short Fiction

This section contains novel excerpts, short stories, beginnings, endings and everything in between. For Writing Prompts, please scroll down to the END of this page & enjoy!

CELEBRATING CINCO DE WHAT?

I ducked under a low-hanging paper banner strung across the entrance of Lou’s Bar & Grill. Dangling rows of the same paper banner hung from every wall inside the place. Black flag cutouts displaying skulls and skeletal faces painted in neon white. A bigger banner of dead bones lit up the length of the bar where my co-workers were celebrating.

I was late. Sarah was going to kill me. She did not like being left alone with the guys for so long. We were the only two girls in our social group, which she didn’t mind, unless I was late, and I was super late.

As I got closer, and hoped she’d had enough to drink to nullify her anger. I didn’t have an excused for why I wasn’t on time. I could try telling her the truth, but I was 100% positive no one in our group, not even Sarah, would understand why celebrating Cinco de Mayo wasn’t foremost on my mind given the week’s headlines.

“Look who decided to show up?” Sarah acknowledged my tardiness but was not angry.

“Sorry.” I said. “Hey, guys.” I took the stool next to Sarah at the round bar top table.

Jack and Mike greeted me, but I couldn’t hear a single word over the loud music pouring out of the speakers. Though no one said it, I guessed Steve was in the bathroom.

“I gotta learn how to dance that salsa, man. Seriously.” A fairly drunk Jack tapped Mike on the shoulder before holding his hands up in a dancing position and shaking his torso so hard he almost knocked himself off the stool.

“It’s actually bachata.” I tried to correct him but no one was listening. “Not salsa.”

“Whaaaat?” Sarah lifted her hand to her ear and leaned closer to me.

“Bachata. It’s called bachata.”

“Huhhh?”

“I said it’s bachata,” I repeated, leaning closer to her. “It’s not even Mexican.” I tried to educate. “It’s from the Dominican…never mind.” I stopped when she stopped listening.

Sarah shouted at Mike and waved her hands in circles gesturing for him to order another round of ginormous drink bowls from the waiter who hurried past our table. “We need mucho mas Strawberry Margarita Bowls, señor! Cinco! Cinco bowls!”

How drunk was Sarah?

The other two started chanting cinco, cinco, cinco in their gringo accents.

The waiter flashed me a look like: You better check your friends. They’re baked.

“Ooooooooh yeaaaaah, cinco more margaritas, por favoreeee!” Jack repeated the order.

No way anyone knew the truth about margaritas, or cared, that the preferred drink of most Mexicans, at least in and around Mexico City, was actually just beer, tequila or mezcal. Even the origins of the margarita had come into question as not even being from Mexico in recent years. But, I reminded myself I wasn’t there to serve these guys another history lesson.

The night’s goals were simple:

One, be cool. Two, have fun. Three, stay sober and drive everyone home safely.

The waiter tapped his tablet a few times and loaded up our open tab with five more pricey Strawberry Margarita Bowls. He smiled a fake smile, and left. He was being flagged by three other tables whose margarita levels were dangerously low.

While I waited for my first drink, I couldn’t help wondering if anyone had picked up on the lack of authenticity being displayed for the Mexican holiday they were pretending to celebrate. I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they had noticed how Lou’s had completely decked out the entire bar in Dia de los Muertos decorations, instead of the vibrant reds, blues, greens and pinks flags of Cinco de Mayo.

My train of thought was interrupted when Sarah joined Jack and Mike in yelling, “Cinco mas! Cinco mas! Cinco for cinco!” Thinking they were so clever because they could count that they were five of us to the five margaritas that were on their way.

I looked around to see how many people were staring at us. But, every table in the place was just as wasted as they were. There was even one group of ladies, closest to the door, yelling catcalls and waving their Margarita Bowls in the air every time guys walked in alone.

I was beyond embarrassed. Questioning my choices. Why had I accepted another lets-get-together-and-drink-and-get-stupid-and-say-stupid-stuff-while-we-wait-for-someone-to-throw-up? They were not the only friends I had. They weren’t even friends. Not really. But, they were important.

They were people from work. They led the company’s marketing team. A close-knit crew everyone wanted to belong to. So, a year ago when they asked me to join them for drinks, I was flattered and accepted. It was rumored that anyone in with that crew had guaranteed themselves job security because they were college buddies of our CEO.

All I’d felt recently was shame. But, clearly, I didn’t know how to say, no. That or I was afraid of what it would mean for me at work if I did.

I had realized, just twenty minutes into our first hangout a year ago, these were not people I had much in common with, if anything at all. We had different habits, hobbies, religious beliefs and political affiliations.

I was a skin-off-chicken kind of person. They were all about their meat, extra bloody.

I was all about fruity sweet cocktails. They were all dark bitter beer and sour malts.

I was a read-a-book-cup-of-tea gal. They’re a bike-off-a-ravine-see-who-makes-it crew.

I loved marketing projects that supported social justice. They loved ones with bonuses.

I loved community service. They loved under tipping staff (like our poor waiter).

And, to remind me of these constant discrepancies, and solidify our incompatibility, Steven finally returned from the bathroom sporting his red Build That Wall t-shirt and a paper sombrero on his head.

Leave! Leave now! Make something up, just leave!

I looked down at my phone trying to establish a future alibi. I’d continue to look at my phone so much, someone would eventually be nosy enough, or irritated enough to ask me what was up. Then, I’d be easy to make up some family emergency and finally get out of there.

“Hey, gorgeous.” Steve greeted me knowing full well I hated him using gorgeous, or sweetie, or babe, or any of those awful pet names he uses with women.

“Drinks! Drinks! Drinks!” Sarah yelled and jumped on her stool.

The waiter balanced the mega margaritas with one hand, placing them one by one in front of us. At some point, Sarah’s jumping got so out of hand, I thought she might smack the drinks and spill them. Not that she’d care about making a mess much. She’d be much more interesting in how long it would take the waiter to clean up her mess. Looking for any excuse to cut his tip.

Meanwhile, across the table, the bright white letters in their large overpowering font seemed to scream off Steve’s shirt. Like, any second, they’d pop off the fabric, and walk over the table to stick their pointer finger in my face, and yell, Build That Wall! Build That Wall! I couldn’t even make out the words to “Poquito A Poquito” by Henry Santos over the loud shirt.

I knew it was a mistake the second the question left my lips. “You don’t have a problem wearing that shirt andbeing here celebrating today?”

It wasn’t a a whoopsy-sorry-I-messed-up kind of mistake. It was the might-cost-me-my-job kind of situation. But, I was going to take it back.

“Whaaah?” Steve either pretended not to hear me or decided it was better not to.

I wasn’t backing down, “You? That shirt? Being here? You don’t see a problem?”

“Nah.” He picked up his big margarita bowl, tilted his head back to take a long swig, then added, “No problem. Why? You got a problem?”

Sarah picked up on the last of our exchange and became alarmed with the tone. “Hey, you guys, wanna get those loaded nachos? What about the jalapeño poppers, extra hot.”

“I do.” I was answering Steve’s last question.

Jack and Mike joined Sarah in listening to what was gearing up to be another thing between me and jackass Steve.

Sometimes, despite how much Sarah tried to mediate, I was convinced, deep down, in places she didn’t admit to having, she loved the volatility. I could’ve sworn I saw her smiling the last time Steve lost control and called me a stupid dyke.

Steve didn’t really know my sexual orientation, but he figured I must be gay since I kept turning him down. Steve struck me as the kind of dude that didn’t trade in facts or evidence.

“I have a problem. I have a problem being. Sitting here, getting wasted, and celebrating what? Do you even know what Cinco de Mayo’s even about?”

“Hey, what’s this?” Sarah’s lame attempt at playing referee. “We’re here to have fun.”

“Fun? How can you be…” I didn’t know how to effectively get the message across to people who weren’t even aware of what they were doing. “…Sarah, Cinco de Mayo? A Mexican holiday, right?”

“Yeah, wooooo hooooo, cinco!” She said.

“But do you know what it celebrates? What historic moment it commemorates? Why it’s important to the Mexican people?”

“You sayin’ I can’t celebrate and have fun on Cinco de Mayo because I don’t know some history bullshit?” Jack slurred his complaint.

I wanted to say: I’m saying if you’re gonna be horrible enough to appropriate someone else’s holiday as another excuse to have more holidays on your calendar to get shit-faced, at least have the decency to know what it’s about. Be decent enough to pick a bar that respects its traditions instead of carelessly throwing up Dia de los Muertos decorations, when that Mexican holiday doesn’t happen till October. Have enough respect to identify their music and not sit here listening to Dominican music being passed off for Mexican, because everyone in this bar is too stupid to know the difference. Instead I said, “Yeah, I guess that’s what I mean.”

“You’re killing my buzz, chica!” Sarah complained.

I wanted to scream: There it is again. Where do you get off calling me that? And, I’ll have you know, chica, jalapeño poppers, not Mexican. Your loaded nachos with extra sour cream, so not Mexican. You idiots wouldn’t know real Mexican if it was delivered on a donkey carrying Vicente Fernandez. Instead I said, “Look it’s getting late. I should probably—”

“What’s up with you, man?” Mike interrupted me with his slurred complaint.

I wanted to say: You’re all celebrating something you have no respect for, no knowledge of. You have no shame. Then, you have the audacity to wonder why they call you the Ugly American, or stupid gringos. Instead I said nothing.

“Hey, man, you know what. Clearly, you’re not feeling our vibe, so why don’t you go home and cry yourself to sleep over all the world’s injustices. You’re ruining the whole damn night.” Steve suggested, leaned back in his stool and crossed his arms over his puffed-up chest.

I wanted to turn to Steve and say: You with that shirt! You have no respect.

I wanted to put my finger in his face and scream: You’re the worst kind of asshole. Sitting here exploiting what you think Mexico owes you, and in the same breath spewing hate for its people.  Immigrants you fear are coming to take your jobs and rape your women. You, who are just as okay putting stupid paper sombreros on your head, as you are with them putting children in cages. Drink up, Steve-o, it’s gonna take a lot more alcohol to help you live with yourself.

Instead I said, “You’re right. I’m outta here.”

I left happy knowing I’d be looking for a new job come Monday, but also a little angry with myself for not saying the things I should’ve said. I hadn’t walked out and was already regretting being the bigger person, whatever that means. I high-fived the drunk ladies on my way out, knowing they had no clue why they were high-fiving me. Is ignorance really bliss?

No “Otherness” Allowed

I recall with shame squandering the better part of my youth learning how to shed my Cuban coat to conceal my otherness. But, I couldn’t exactly change my skin color or hide my high check bones, pronounced jaw line, large dark eyes, and long, wavy, black hair that outed me as some exotic Spanish gypsy.

Instead I practiced my English every day in front of the mirror for hours after school to get rid of my accent.

Everything around me pointed to the fact that changing my speech patterns was step one in the critical process of assimilation for foreigners—it goes without saying that if you don’t speak the language you might as well not exist. There were countless weekends spent glued to the tube mimicking reruns of The Young and the Restless. Soap opera actresses all had the gentle and non-ethnic demeanor I was determined to assume to become a proper Americanita.

Ironically enough, it was Mrs. Rodriguez, my fifth grade English teacher in elementary, who became the authority on how not to appear Cuban, despite being Cuban herself. She taught me tricks to rehearse and demanded I apply myself. “Don’t round your o’s so much at the end of your sentences, and remember to speak softly and slowly. Cubans are way too loud and talk way too fast!” Mrs. Rodriguez affirmed one morning as if she weren’t one of us.

Still, I noted her advice while I fumbled over the Pledge of Allegiance for the umpteenth time.

“Softly and slowly?” I was convinced she must have gone through some secret decontamination center the rest of us missed when being processed by immigration services. Softly and Slowly was no rule of speech I’d ever heard of before. On the contrary, I found it counterproductive. No member of any household in Miami or any part of the Spanish-speaking world, for that matter, would survive by speaking softly or slowly. I knew if I didn’t scream my comments, ideas, or questions above the invisible canopy of endless shouting and conversations that flew across living rooms, kitchens, porches, and backyards alike, I might as well not exist.

Yet every morning Mrs. Rodriguez made a point to walk over to my seat and whisper through clenched teeth, “Remember Mari, softly and slowly.” She never could bring herself to call me by my given name, Maricelís. She would crinkle up her noise and shake her head disapprovingly, “Too Cuban,” she would mutter under her breath. How she taught us to assume a suitable American name, is banter for another story. For now, let’s remember the importance of Softly and Slowly.

Forty years later, on very special occasions, I still have visions of Mrs. Rodriguez cowering in the corner of a chaotic Cuban kitchen the afternoon of Noche Buena—for our traditional Christmas Eve feast—and it makes me laugh.

Tears would be rolling down her face as women moved about the house yelling orders from the porch to the bedrooms, from the bedrooms to the kitchen, and finally to the backyard where an even larger congregation of Cubanas sat shucking corn for tamales and grinding oregano for the pork rub.

As she plopped down in defeat onto the laminate floor of the Cuban kitchen, the look on Mrs. Rodriguez’s face wouldn’t just register frustration. Hers would be the look of insanity with eyes bulging from their sockets, as she pressed both hands over her ears in a futile attempt to keep the Spanish cacophony from infesting her American sensibilities. Her shoulders shrugged and her face contorted in a constant state of disgust. “Softly and slowly”, she would murmur over and over as she rocked back and forth; a balled-up mess of a person peering over her chubby knees with an insane gaze, unable to discern the vulgar noise.

Tea for One

The buzzer of Leonora’s Upper Westside brownstone rings. Twice. Then a third time.

It’s two fifteen in the morning! The buzzing comes in a familiar frantic succession revealing the intruder’s identity.

She is startled in her apartment’s galley kitchen because despite his customary frenzied buzzing, it is not his appointed day. Leo stands barefoot on her maplewood floors orchestrating her late-night Moroccan tea ritual. At the second tap of the buzzer, startled gives way to anger. How dare he just show up unannounced again for a quickie?

She was convinced after their last “talk” that Steven would respect the boundaries she had set forth for their affair —the most important of those being that he would never show up unannounced—otherwise how was Leo expected to keep her other guys a secret and maintain full control of the situation?

The reflection off her frosted cabinet doors offers a gentle reminder of a messy head of chestnut curls that flirt just above her shoulders. She squints a pair of dark brown eyes hoping the foggy likeness would adjust and paws at her frizzy strands. Leo stops herself when she decides that if Steven insists on barging into her nights he should get a less polished and certainly less agreeable Leo at the door.

She is aware, despite having just turned 30, that the dark circles around her eyes have stolen a certain radiance her face once had—an occupational hazard she has accepted after years of working endless round-the-clock sessions to meet editorial deadlines. Nothing the proper amount of foundation and the right Dior eyeshadow palette and a hint of lipgloss can’t restore.

Without changing into the expected black sheer Claudette number Steven gave her last Christmas, she stomps her way to the doorbell panel and smashes the talk button, “It’s two in the morning! We talked about this!” She releases an angry pointer finger demanding an explanation.

“Please buzz me up. We have to talk.”

“Talk? This ‘talk’ of yours couldn’t wait until daylight? I have work tomorrow. What if I was asleep?”

“Leo, c’monnnn.” His head cocked slightly to the right as he pleads on a dark stoop into the stainless steel panel adjacent the sturdy double doors of hLeo’s white-washed brownstone, “You’re probably up there making your tea. Just buzz me up, I have a surprise. I have news!”

Leonora loves the way he lingers on the Lee in Leo giving her nickname a playful ring. It conjures moments of midday lovemaking under the warm sun rays that routinely crash through her skylight—one of the many perks of leasing the top unit. And so anger or disappoint melts away as it often does with all her lovers. Curiosity now ruled as the dominant emotion because seldom, which is to say never, had Steven ever added news or anything newsworthy to their ten-month affair.

She can’t complain though. He has turned out to be the perfect romantic cliche. The kind she so desperately wanted after all the failed attempts at real relationships at university. He is a great lover. He is attentive during important holidays and events but surprises and spontaneity are not his forte.

“News or not, it’s still two in the morning.” She presses the unlock button for downstairs access.
The locking mechanism of the wooden doors signal his access. He hurries to the third floor skipping two steps at a time with the aid of the unyielding Victorian banister. Quite sprightly for a man of thirty-eight. At the top, Leonora’s curvy silhouette waits in the doorway. The outline of a left hand on her hip and the other holding her mint tea are made possible by the moonlight cutting through the skylight.

She walks away before Steven hops the last stretch of the staircase to the landing. With the door left wide open he is free to go in and make himself comfortable but he knows he has a lot of explaining to do before comfort can play any part in it.

“You’re not going to believe—” He was beyond the threshold now. His sentence cut short.

“Close the door Steven and lower your voice. My neighbors don’t need to be subjected to your visit at this time of night.” Her whisper is slow and deliberate while balancing a deep silver tray from the kitchen to a coffee table she has carefully nestled between two large leather sectionals.

Leo’s gray taffeta pajamas rustles through the silence with every careful step. She sets the tray down and gets Steven to sit down too.

“Okay, so first I need to tell you that—” Unfortunately, Steven doesn’t realize his news will have to wait until after tea.

“Steven?” She opens a tense palm and fans across the tea presentation, “Are you kidding me right now? Do I go to your office and interrupt your client meetings? Do I stop you at the airport when you’re rushing off to close deals in L.A? Better yet, do I steal your precious Sundays away knowing that is sacred time with your kids?” He had already broken his promise to Leo of never showing up unannounced. But he feared disturbing the formalities of teatime with his hasty speech will destroy any chance he might have of sharing the happy news.

“I’m sorry Leo, I’m just so excited. Besides it’s just tea for two not some corporate board meeting.” Steven finally sinks back into the black leather and crosses his legs—the appropriate body language from a man who is willing to be patient using all the wrong words.

“Just tea?” She pauses to filter all the expletives out of her next sentence, “If you must know, it was actually tea for one. I never plan tea for two.”

“But what about the time you—”

Leo knew he would bring up that Wednesday night long ago when she exposed herself and allowed him to stay the night including him in her nightly process, “It’s not a standing invitation, Steven.”

All the required accouterments for serving a traditional Moroccan tea are before them; the silver berrad or Moroccan teapot still boiling from the stovetop, the small silver dish with brown sugar, extra mints leaves piled at one corner of the tray, two Moroccan tea glasses, one crimson, the other royal blue, both trimmed with patterns of gold leaves and finally the ornate little spoon that brings it all together.

Leonora places four mint leaves in the crimson glass for Steven followed by three hefty spoonfuls of the corse brown sugar. She grinds the bottom of the glass in three quick twists of the wrist with the spoon—this unconventional step forces the mint leaves to release a premature freshness that fuses with the sugar for a fuller body. Steven always enjoyed the ceremonial way in which she completes every gesture, like a ballet dancer that takes each movement to absolute perfection or the violinist strumming the chords for its deepest notes. Leonora contrary to her Italian heritage was a hopeless tea connoisseur—falling in love with this practice years ago in college. Her cousins taunt that she loves the ritual more than the tea itself.

She carefully repeats the grinding steps in the blue glass and is ready to pour. Leo knows from her apprenticeship that junior year at Columbia that the art of a great Moroccan tea is all in the high pour. The secret of its success is undoubtedly in the froth. She remembers practicing at all hours of the night back in her dorm room where she perfected her aim—a skill her literature professor taught her that same year during their long Winter break together. “The higher the pour the more seductive the froth” he would say. She has always had a thing for older men, especially ones possessing exotic knowledge and experience of the world.

These are important qualities Steven lacks. Leo knew this day one when they met almost a year ago at the 96th Street Farmer’s Market off of Riverside Park. Before she came to his rescue, Steven had managed to pick a full bag of green mangoes that would have made him terribly ill had Leo not stopped him. He would later explain he was just grabbing a few random mangoes to mix into his normal salsa for a little added sweetness—his secretary had recommended it and promised it would be a hit with “the boys” on game night.

Steven is the type of man you teach, not one who teaches. Leo would often ask herself, Why bother? But at the end of the day she found it difficult to resist his soft salt and pepper hair, the deep lines of his face in all the right angles that enhanced his handsome score by a factor of 10 and his high-school-quarterback charm—classic Soccer Dad.

“What’s this news that couldn’t wait?” Leo sets the berrad down with a clank and forgoes the whole tea business.

“I thought you wanted to finish—”

“Never mind the tea. Spill it.” She interrupted unaware of the great pun.

“Are you sure you don’t want to—”

“Either you tell me now so I can put this day behind me and go to sleep or you don’t tell me and I got to bed anyway, with or without your bit of news.” She takes the tray back to the kitchen sink and stands at the edge of the breakfast counter taping her fingernails on the stainless steel.

Steven had never experienced Leo in this capacity before. The tender smile is gone. The welcoming tone disappeared. Her temper and mood had alluded him for almost a year. He deduced her day must have been horrible to render such nasty and rude behavior from someone so loving. “Did something happen at work today?” He is determined to inquire and gets closer.

“Surely you didn’t come all this way to ask me about work?” She sidesteps him on her way back to the coach near the window.

“I just can’t understand the attitude. Why do you seem so angry? Is it me?”

“Steven, seriously just..?” She turns away and stares at a street light through the branches of an old willow oak below while her tea grows cold and bitter. She can’t figure out how to tell him she wants him gone. That she wants her night back. Her life back. That she has changed her mind. That she doesn’t want him after all. That every Wednesday for the past ten months (with the exception of the first two) have felt like an alien invasion.

“Leonora, I came to tell you I’ve left my wife! I am here to move in with you just like you wanted. My bags are in my car a block and a half away. I rushed over because that’s not news you sit on. I thought you’d be happy but you seem angry. What’s going on?”

“I seem? Seem? Huh? Seem?”

“I can’t hear you.”

“You keep saying I seem angry. And that’s funny because you’ve never seem me angry. You’ve never seem me a lot of things. I just can’t believe you left your family. You don’t even know me.”

“Not my family. My wife. And of course I know you, why are you saying that?”

“You said that moving in together is what I wanted. Steven, think very carefully…when did you ever in the last ten months hear me say anything about leaving your wife or living together? When?”

“I’ve been planning to leave my wife since our second date. I love you.”

“Love? You don’t know me. And you never talked about leaving your wife before today. Why am I just hearing about this now? I never asked you to leave her. You can’t just decide to move into someone’s place overnight. These things require planning, discussion, negotiations, time to sink in. Besides, look around, there is no space for you here.” She stands, lifts both hands wide open and twirls in semi-circles demonstrating the lack of room in her small apartment.

“I thought you loved me. But why don’t you just come out and say what you really mean.”

“I’m trying to explain that there is no space for—”

“You don’t really mean there’s no space for me. What you really mean is that there is no place for me here. That’s quite a different thing all together, isn’t it, Leonora?”

Leo knows Steven is right; people can always make space if they want to.

She looks once more around the room then out toward the willow oak again and anticipates his briefcase, his laptop, his razors and shaving cream, his socks, his nail clippers, his Head&Shoulders, his stained coffee mugs, his tie collection, his morning paper, his occasional cigar, his love of beer and hatred for wine, his endless copies of Business Weekly, his suits, his ugly flannel shirts, his snoring, his nail-bitting, his nose hairs, his cackling laughter, his laundry, his dirty dishes, his toothbrush, that damn smashed-to-shit useless toothbrush! Ewww! Not a single one of his items or quirks have a place in her life. On some level he must have known it too—it may be why he chose to leave his belonging in the trunk of his car.

When Leo returns from the window, she finds Steven has left without any last words. Leo can now add feeling-like-a-total-bitch to the night’s festivities.

~  ~  ~

“Doesn’t every mistress dream of the day he leaves his wife? What’s the matter with me? He’s a great guy, right?”

“Leo, great in bed doesn’t make him a great guy, you know that.”

“Don’t be crass, Letty.”

“If I don’t throw a few below the belt, what kind of cousin would I be? And when did you get so sensitive anyway. This time last week you would’ve showered me with wit and profanity by now. What’s got you so soft around the edges? Is it this Steven thing or is there something else going on?” Leonora’s cousin Letty, the only married of the four Salducci girls is often called upon for wisdom.

“I’m just really confused here. Not about Steven. Steven’s gone. I wanted him gone. I’m confused about me. What the hell am I doing or more like not doing? What about relationships with Paul and Sam?”

“Why do you refuse to assign things their appropriate labels. These are not two relationships, they are two idiots. C’mon, say it with me…i-d-i-o-t-s.”

“So you found Mister Right. You’re one of the lucky few that—”

“I hate it when you guys call me lucky.I’ve told you, luck had nothing to do with my marriage. I simply refused to get distracted by muscles, a pretty face or a good lay.”

“Do tell, oh Great Wise One—who guards the truth in the Realm of It’s-All-Quite-Simple. What is the secret to finding my soulmate?”

“All right, all right, that’s enough. Have you been drinking, Leo?”

“There’s that condescending motherly tone I love so much. No, Mommy Dearest, I haven’t even had my tea today. How about we just catch up on Saturday as usual. Remind the girls it’s my turn to cook.”

“Leo, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

“Letty, I’m not mad nor am I drunk. Really. A bit cranky that I didn’t get my late-night tea. Quite bummed that things ended the way they did with Steven. Losing another pawn in The Great Dating Game has taken it’s toll tonight. I know you love me. You mean well even when your advice is pure shit. Just, promise me you’ll call the girls about Saturday at my place and let me go to bed so I can try crying into my pillow like every normal hormonal, heart-broken woman should.”

“I promise. Goodnight, Babe.”

The Keeper

A Midsummer Mystery

Prologue

The keeper stared out into the horizon from the top of his Misty Cove lighthouse as his father, grandfather and great-grandfather had before him—a fourth generation pharologist. Far beyond the crashing waves below and the ragged coastline of the bay, storm clouds choked the pinks and oranges of a summer sunset with heavy grays. It was almost eight o’clock but the keeper was still struggling to shake the eerie feeling that had crept in him just after breakfast that morning. It invaded him like a winter chill does, up the spine. It finally settled about an hour later deep in his chest; a desperate apprehension. Even after a leisurely ham and cheese sandwich and ice tea lunch and customary afternoon walk with Dotty, his faithful Bernese mountain dog, the feeling was with him. He felt it still. The absence of an ocean breeze served to solidify his angst, like the literal embodiment of the calm before the storm. This apprehension was not misplaced since he knew all too well that hot summers in the remote fishing village of Misty Cove were acutely difficult. They stirred up thunderstorms as quickly as they stirred up hostility among its villagers. And this summer was turning out to be particularly smoldering and humid.

The keeper stepped onto the gallery and clasped his hands around the wrought iron railing. He felt heavy with anxiety but knew despite his trepidation he would have to testify come morning. His duty demanded it. He leaned forward and saw Dotty lounging below just ten feet away from the exact spot among the rocks where he had discovered the washed-up body precisely two weeks ago. Dotty was unaware and continued loitering at the end of the rocky path that trails along the narrow isthmus that connects the rugged coastline and the half-acre plot that his little lighthouse and attached one-bedroom cottage reside on. This modest piece of earth had become the keeper’s inheritance after his mother’s death last winter. A place of peace and reflection. A place of traditions and values. An unlikely place for murder, but murder had found the little lighthouse at Misty Cove all the same.

 Chapter 1 

With morning came the fog and with the fog returned the previous night’s apprehension. The keeper poured boiling water into his French coffee press, gave Dotty a few bacon strips as a dietary measure and tried to recall the words he had practiced two weeks ago. He needed to remember the exact words he told the detective on the scene otherwise the jury would question his testimony. The keeper could not be the cause for any reasonable doubt. He could not let her down. He had to make it work and protect her from the hurtful rumors and inevitable isolation Misty Cove would sentence her to, unless his words rang true in the courtroom. He had to keep his story straight. He had to be believable and he knew there was no one in town more believable than him.

The keepers of the little lighthouse on Misty Cove were always men of honor, men of their word, trustworthy, dependable and respected above all else in this fishing village – every fishermen entrusted their lives to the keepers to bring them home safely. The keepers called rescue when fishermen didn’t radio in, the keepers flashed warning signals the second the weather turned, the keepers steered them into the north bay when South Bay was rough and into the southern bay when the North one closed up with dangerous swells.

But two weeks ago the keeper had also become the keeper of secrets.

The keeper meticulously completed his morning inspection of the lenses in the lantern room and was glad to find that the turbulent winds had not broken any glass panes as is common during summer months when beach pebbles are easily picked up by wily gusts and tossed through his glass. Just last summer he remembers helping his mother, Eleanor, replace at least seven windowpanes.

The keeper wiped the south-facing lenses with his father’s vinegar solution, which has always irritated his skin but proved the most effective. Glass had been covered with dust and dirt kicked up by the night’s spastic windstorms. But wiping them clean was all he would have time for. He still had to check wind direction to adjust the vents accordingly but that part of the job would have to wait until he came back from court. He could not risk being late so he made his way down the circular staircase. Since he was a boy, the keeper counted the seventy-two cast iron steps on his way up to the top. Nowadays, it was easier to count them going down.

At the bottom of the last step he took five precise paces across the black and white checkered tile toward his cottage. He maneuvered through the red wooden door that separated his obligation from his living quarters and there he washed up before carefully picking out what he would wear to court. Dotty sat, tail wagging, by the full-length mirror giving him the seal of approval for his selection of a very smart dark blue suit. The blue of the jacket had faded from years of neglect at the back of a small cedar closet but was still his favorite garment from his years as a literature professor at the local college. He knew the simple value of a worn look. He hoped it would gain him points with the jury members. It is a well-known fact that Misty Cove residents have never trusted people that are too well put together.

After giving Dotty a quick shake around the ears and ordering her to keep the watch, the keeper made his way down the pebbled path of the isthmus toward town. He resisted looking back at the spot where he had come across the body for fear the details would become fuzzy. He just repeated the two-week-old words in his head over and over in lieu of a full dress rehearsal. He ran his fingers along the summer weeds that grew wild along the path and a hot wind kicked up from South Bay interrupting his courtroom rehearsal. He came upon the section of the isthmus that narrowed too drastically to be safe for crossing but had been fortified by a concrete pier that had cracked over the decades. Here fishermen docked their skiffs, little tugboats, rescue boats and trawlers.

“Mornin’ John. And aren’t you looking scholarly today? Off to court already?”

“Good morning, Fred. Yes, witness testimony starts today. I think I’m third in the box this morning.”

“The misses clear forgot to remind me so I’ve been out here messing with this new lure. I’m gonna have to hurry home and change if I wanna catch any of it.”

“Yeah, well…lucky me, I’m required to go. Court order and all,” The keeper waved a folded paper out of his back pocket at Fred who was already out of the boat and closing things up for the day, “What can I do, wrong place, wrong time, right Fred?”

“Wickie, you’re always in the right place at right time for me, you know what I mean?”

“Yeah, yeah, you’re right. It’s just that these trials, they always turn me upside down.” He gave Fred a quick wave and stepped off the pier and into the first small street—the first of many little roads in a Romanesque grid that formed the village of Misty Cove as it all converged at the center of town by the old gazebo and the tree-lined campus of the local college by the same name.

The keeper had smiled as Fred called him wickie for the first time ever that morning. He was surprised to have liked it. It was an endearing nickname for lighthouse keepers everywhere but he was unsure he would ever fit into it as well as his father or grandfather had. For the keeper, the word wickie always conjured visions of old wise fishermen with wrinkled sunburnt faces, strong aged hands and smartly trimmed white beards that walked with a cane despite their perfect postures. Even three years after his early retirement, he still looked the part of a college professor with his blue blazer, morning copy of The Coastliner hastily folded under the left arm while the left hand steadied a paper cup of black coffee. The right hand pinching one leg of his black-rimmed reading glasses as he chewed at the ends as if a man solving the mysteries of the universe.

Three blocks away from the courthouse steps, the keeper dodged into Sarah Beth’s Bakery for a Danish and a caffeine refill. The streets along the water’s edge had been unusually empty for eight in the morning. Misty Cove has always been a town of early risers, “before the sun, if you’re gonna get anything done” was the town’s motto with regard to work ethic. The heavy cowbells above the bakery door clanged together like a melodious prairie song announcing his arrival. Sarah Beth peaked from behind the swinging double doors that separated the display case and her baking kitchen.

She perked up at once at the sight of the keeper, put on a welcoming smile and offered a clammy handshake arched over the display case after attempting to dry it off on her apron spotted with yellow daisies, “John, good morning. Is it Tuesday already?”

“Yes, Mrs. Williams, that it is,” he extended his hand in return.

“Are you ever going to call me Sarah Beth or am I going to have to file a formal complain with city hall,” she surfaced from behind the case and into the patron area where the keeper stood amidst eight equidistant oak tables each modestly decorated with one orange plastic little flower pot with a yellow daisy.

“Sarah Beth, would you refill my cup and spoil me with one of your famous cheese and blueberry Danish?” He put his paper and glasses down, got closer to her and reached for her hands, which were clutching the apron.

Sarah Beth ran back to the kitchen before he could see the tears welling up in her eyes, leaving the keeper standing there quite under-caffeinated and feeling guilty. He had planned to use the back door of the bakery as he had once before to avoid prying eyes. It would not be smart to be seen exiting Sarah Beth’s but he had to respect her need for space. The keeper would have to risk backtracking and hurrying down the street in the hopes of disappearing as he rounded the corner of Misty Cove Theater. He took the long way to the courthouse, fooling himself into believing that if he were late they would have to cancel the morning’s proceedings. After all, the case could not proceed without its star witness.

As he paced the perimeter of the stream that circled the college campus he regretted his lapse in judgment. His judgment had, uncharacteristically, lapsed too often over the course of the past two weeks. He shouldn’t have pushed her so quickly. He should have known she wouldn’t be ready. It was all still so recent, so uncertain, so unresolved. Sarah Beth needed to remain Mrs. Williams. Mrs. Williams needed to remain inaccessible but like the stubborn fisherman who dreams of the perfect catch, the keeper was determined to sail into the perfect storm.

The keeper took the courthouse steps one at a time. Townspeople passed him in a hurry to ensure a good seat overlooking the galley for the much-anticipated show. He wished he had more coffee. Unlike most people who get jittery after their cup-of-Joe, caffeine relaxed him. It kept him focused and he so wished he had grabbed his thermos. After all, he knew this would prove to be a long and arduous morning.

The Art of Refrigeration (excerpt)

The contents of a refrigerator can reveal a great deal about a person’s life. Marly and Sam Franco had the same refrigerator for twenty-three years. It was a standard Kenmore model with 19.5 cubic feet of space and a side-by-side design that allowed for easy access to an ice-maker and filtered water on the left exterior door. This cool convenience guaranteed that the kids would effectively make dangerous puddles for anyone to run through and break their necks.

This fridge also featured the latest in gallon doors so the Francos hung heavy gallons of orange juice, cranberry juice, mango juice, apple juice and large tubs of V8 with confidence—a true haven for all that was processed and sugary. These same doors turned into a blank canvas that the kids would paint on with greasy fingers, red streaks of spaghetti sauce, and sticky strawberry jam on a daily basis—a caked-in masterpiece that took extra-strength cleansers and an offensive amount of elbow grease to remove.

For more than two decades, the Francos always kept their beige Kenmore stocked with the most coveted family essentials. There was always a gallon of low-fat milk, which was never enough to last the week with two kids and a dad that demanded cereal every morning. The kids always kept countless rows of Lunchables stacked along the second and third shelves that were often traded at school for more desirable choices. The Kenmore’s crispers always stored the freshest fruits and vegetables alongside a few wilted lettuce heads and a bag of moldy carrots the kids refused to eat.

The dairy shelf on top included more than enough butter, coffee creamers, mustard, mayo, catsup, relish, three types of vinaigrette and several cups of yogurt and cream cheese selections well past their expiration date—a true condiment zone. The freezer was home to the proteins but most importantly it accommodated the family’s precious reserves of ice cream sandwiches that were the happy culmination of endless Friday Family Movie Nights.

In all those years of building refrigerator memories, the Francos were most proud of their Tupperware collection of ready-made dinners pre-assembled every Sunday. These grab-and-cook containers were not just time-saving devices, but a source of pseudo sanity on weeknights inundated with after-school snacks, homework help, before-dinner showers, walking the dog, answering work emails and deleting endless spam items, cleaning out the kitty litter box, baking three dozen brownies for a forgotten fundraiser, loading the dishwasher, sorting through the stack of mail, making sense of the bills, and finishing a half-baked idea for a Science project with the potential for a D-, all while perfecting the art of hanging up on telemarketers and bill collectors or getting off the phone with untimely in-laws.

Finally, on year twenty-four, the Francos upgraded to a new stainless steel Viking refrigerator. This Mercedes Benz of the refrigerator world boasted twenty-seven cubic feet of expansive real estate, a premium water filtration system and electronic LCD display, a Door Open alarm system, a separate ice drawer with its very own scoop, a self-closing freezer door, two adjustable humidity control crispers, and state-of-the-art additions that included a wine cellar compartment and a specialty seafood freezer section. They pampered their Viking with Chardonnays, Merlots, Syrah’s, Cabernets, Pinot Noirs, and Sam’s favorite, authentic Spanish Sangria. The freezer preserved their lobster tails for Sam’s famous lobster bisque, their jumbo shrimp for an attempt at a new Jambalaya recipe, salmon for Mrs. Franco’s morning favorite, Salmon Scramble a la Marly (with chives, cream cheese and a sprinkle of paprika—her signature spice). Other high-grade proteins accompanied their top picks such as scallops, Kobe steaks, tenderloins, and the occasional chicken breast for rare nights when the Francos strayed from their Surf and Turf diet. Aside from a few other essentials, like coffee creamer and bacon, the rest of the Viking remained vacant and spotless—completely devoid of gooey fingerprints or infantile messes—mimicking their new life as empty nesters in the urban landscape of downtown L.A.

The Art of Refrigeration (excerpt #2)

The contents of a refrigerator can reveal a great deal about a person’s life. I am painfully aware that my refrigerator screams of loneliness. During a recent stop at home I became convinced it actually mocks me. After a quick bite of Chinese take-out, while I brushed my teeth over the condo’s kitchen sink, I heard it hum in a low grumble, aaaa-lone…aaaaa-lone. I could be misinterpreting the hums. They could be guilting me into staying: come-home…come-home.

I keep it well stacked with mayo, soy sauce, spicy mustards, three types of vinaigrettes and all kinds of cream—coffee creamer, whipping cream, hazelnut cream—a true condiment haven. It houses very little actual food: three black bananas seeping like moth cocoons reside on the veggie drawer, two out of twelve tortillas are sprawled on the middle shelf, dry and cracked curling at the ends, but no protein to stuff them with, and an amorphous clump in Styrofoam that was either hot wings or last month’s Sweet and Sour special. In the back sits a lone box of Arm & Hammer working overtime to keep the smells at bay. It’s far from perfect but it’s mine. My smells. My hums.

Now, I rummage through the bowels of Daniel’s fridge for another Corona. Here, in one of Philadelphia’s most coveted suburbs, his stainless GE tells quite a different story. For starters it’s wall-to-wall wines: Cabernets, Zinfandels, Chardonnays, Merlots and the like. No hums. Also no baking soda needed—Daniel’s fridge is sterile and reeks with the odor of cleansers.

As I look past the chilled bottles I spot a gallon of milk tucked in the back. This last gulp of two percent speaks volumes about the new role of widower thrust upon Daniel. It depicts a dad too numbed by his wife’s death to notice the kids will be out of milk for their morning cereal. I continue snooping and start a mental shopping list. The kids need access to easy-to-make, comfort foods: strawberry Pop Tarts, glazed donuts, sticky buns, chocolate chip muffins, and Rocky Road ice cream—all that is processed and sugared and good in the world. Oh yeah, and the milk to wash it all down. After all, who wants to cook at a time like this? Who would want to cook, period?

Daniel (and I) could learn a little something from the world’s best refrigerators. The most efficient ice box I’ve ever seen was a Frigidaire model powered by an ancient generator in the fishing village of Steung Hauv, Cambodia. These fishermen did not mess around. Limited space meant every square inch stored only the essentials: butter catfish or eel from the river, forest rabbits, and slabs of marbled beef, all frozen and layered like a well-stuffed lasagna. Any space left was used for storing daily veggies—Efficient Refrigeration 101.

Unlike their Western counterparts, these guys would never waste valuable square footage packing a fridge with sparkling Perrier or cans of overpriced caviar. This practice might confuse them into believing they needed a bigger fridge when all that’s required is a lesson in priorities—easier said than done for U.S. consumers lost in “The Land That Common Sense Forgot.”

THE DRIVE

The brochure is trapped between the windshield and the dashboard for quick reference to directions for The Cove. A golden glow from the yellow canopy of Fall’s foliage above lights the country road ahead as we travel north to our destination. Shadows of maple leaves glide across the folds of my flower print dress as I tap my fingers to Journey blasting through the truck’s speakers…

Dont stop believin

Hold on to the feelin

Streetlight people…

“Fall makes me wanna listen to Fourplay,” Arthur announces, changing the CD to the slow jazzy beat of “Moonjogger”. I roll my eyes. How dare he change Steve? It was right before the best part; where Steve really lays into the chorus lines, screaming the lyrics the way only Steve Perry can. My husband’s assertive glare serves to remind me that the musical selection is always at the driver’s discretion.

“Fall always reminds me of Liz,” I turn my head to look out the window. The purple mountains of this Vermont morning are clear in the far distance. Once, long ago, Liz had escaped the suffocating heat and humidity of the Florida swamplands, trading friends and family for the cool and color-filled Autumns of the Northeast.

Her last postcard from Rhode Island, had a photograph of a Massachusetts church amidst the saturated and vibrant hues of Fall, but contained only a few cryptic lines:

Ang,

Wish you were here with me to enjoy this great season.

Won’t be able to make it down for the holidays this year.

I can’t keep doing this anymore,

                                                                              Love ya,

                                                                              Liz

“Haven’t you e-mailed her a bunch of times without any response? Maybe you should let her do some of the work. We’re listed. She can contact you if she really wanted to, right?” Arthur’s fingers scan the local stations for a jazz channel.

“It wasn’t her fault. I should have intervened. I should have stopped him from dragging her into the middle of our little war. You know this. Why are you asking stupid questions? She won’t contact me first. She feels I let her down. And even after all these years, she’d still expect for me to…how’d we end up talking about this again? What time is it anyway?” I grab his right hand off the steering wheel and twist his wrist toward me.11:15 A.M.

“Hello? Driving here! Could use both hands don’t you think?” He takes his hand back but instead of placing it on the steering wheel he continues a futile search for decent music at the base of a mountain in somewhereville, Vermont.

“Besides, we’ve moved so much in the past decade. How would you expect anybody to keep track of where the hell we are? Gimme the phone. I gotta call home and see if my mother finally decided on the kids’ dinner.” My palm is extended out in front of his chest. He struggles with the myriad of pockets, on what I believe is the most counterproductive piece of clothing ever invented; the cargo pants.

“I don’t know why the hell you wear those things. Anything you put in them is lost in this void of haphazard forgetfulness. I can guarantee you these weren’t made for people with a bad memory.” I slap my hand down on my thigh and wait for the phone to make its grand appearance.

Arthur tires of fumbling around the inside pocket of his leather jacket when his watch snags the inner lining, “Just check on the backseat. I think I’ve got it charging back there somewhere.”

“I’m not gonna go digging around back there. I’ll call when we stop to eat. We are gonna stop soon right?” I roll the window down to enjoy the wood-burning scent of nearby winter in the autumn air.

“Honey, can you put some glass on that window? My ears are gonna fall off. I’ll crack my side if you want.” Arthur rubs his right ear with his sweater sleeve hoping the friction will create the desired warming effect. “Are we gonna enjoy any of the outdoorsy weather Vermont has to offer, or is your plan to stay indoors all weekend in a perfectly heated room?” His “honey” and my tone carry an edge we are both aware of.

After almost fifteen years of marriage we know how easily the expectations of a romantic weekend can be its greatest adversary. We’ve come to accept that many of our planned getaways simply deteriorate into fleeting kid-free moments. I snatch the brochure from its hold. I don’t expect an answer to my rhetorical question, so I page through The Discovery Cove amenities list, and learn more about its surrounding area attractions.

“Maybe we can take this gondola to the top of their mountain? It says that on a clear day you can see Canada.” I use a more serene tone of voice, but Arthur refuses to reenter the potential battlefield that lives precariously in the small space between his right arm and my left, between our curt comments, and heavy breathing. We ride in silence for another twenty-five minutes.

I struggle with the door. The truck is at an incline at the base of another mountain. The chaotic piles of fallen leaves don’t crunch yet. They are still wet with the spray of morning mist. I see a cloud forming above the surface of Echo Lake and I think of an ancient place in ancient times; like witnessing the mystical Nordic legend of The Lady of the Lake. I allow myself to fantasize of a time when life was more basic, more clear-cut. “Don’t you think people like Joan of Arc lived better, fuller lives than any of us can ever dream to achieve? I mean, her choices were so noble, so pure, so simple. That kind of living must be full of purpose, right?” I turn to see Arthur putting his iPhone back in one of his little cargo pockets and position himself for the attack.

“People died when they were in their thirties or something. There was a war every week over land or honor or both, plus you had to hunt down your own cow if you were in the mood for a burger, so no; I don’t agree it was simpler. I think microwaves and the GPS device that helped guide us around those confusing intersections back there, that makes life simple. Joan of Arc was a glorified nut with a sword that got lucky. I prefer to order my burgers from a waitress, thank you.” We stop in the middle of the unpaved parking lot to begin a debate neither of us will win.

“Lets just get some breakfast, I’m starving,” But to his disappointment I throw in the towel.

“Oh come on, I was winning that one,” he waves his hands around and stomps one foot on the gravel as I walk on towards the house. “You never stay and fight when I’m winning.”

We are walking around the front of the Bed & Breakfast when Arthur whips his arm around his back, slapping his ass to notice he’s left his wallet in the glove compartment of the Honda.

“I’ll be right back, let me grab the money.” I continue to walk the few grey, wooden steps onto the porch of the old Victorian Inn and look forward to the light, nutty flavor of their native maple syrup over a tall stack of multigrain pancakes. Perhaps I am a bit of a hypocrite because there is no way I would have the patience or will it would take to get maple syrup from a tree as hungry as I am right now. I am embarrassed to admit that I too would prefer to order my food and have it come prepared and hot to the table.

Through one of their foggy windows I can see the orange glow from the fireplace. It has been uncommonly cold this fall, with temperatures in the low thirties for several weeks now. “I hope their Internet connection is up. Remember last year, I had to wait like thirty hours before they got around to fixing the connectivity issue,” Arthur complains as he climbs up the steps and shakes two soggy stowaways off the front his jacket. I fill my lungs completely with the crisp mountain air, and am quickly saddened by the vast disparity between my husband’s priorities and my own; the fullfilment of a purposeful life versus the gartification of instant Internet access.

“Two for inside or outside?” The uninterested young man asks, as part of his morning routine. I look up at Arthur, he shrugs his shoulders at me.

“You decide. I don’t mind either way,” he reveals a cool indifference. Sometimes I secretly wish for him to take a stand and really exercise some decisiveness, a go-get-‘em-attitude bordering on male chauvinism, rather than this really-don’t-care, whatever-you-want kind of complacency. Instead, he uses his argumentative skills during the few scarce times when I am looking for reassurance and inadvertently meet with a debate.

“Outside would be nice,” I respond. The house is almost empty. “Isn’t this the peak weekend when crowds gather to get a last look at your beautiful foliage?” I ask the boy, but get only a quick jerk of his shoulder, quickly up then it slumps back down; he doesn’t know or doesn’t care to explain. He leads us through the library where an elderly couple sip from cups of something steamy. They have the undisturbed look of locals leaning back on the green leather of an aged sofa and casually ignoring the local weather from a nearby big-screen T.V.

The chill outside shocks my senses a bit. I was temporarily comforted by the warmth and homey feel indoors. Stretching in front of us, like a grey blanket, Echo Lake is calm, not a ripple visible. The air is still; each maple surrounding the lakeside patio is silent, and even my own breathing seems to have stopped.

“Would you like to start with some coffee?” The boy inquires. I am disappointed he asked. I was secretly hoping that he was just the host, leading us to our table and retrieving a real service person, someone with a pulse.

“Coffees are great, thanx,” I take the chair facing the lake and Arthur shows a quiet dissatisfaction.

“Will you be ordering from the Brunch Menu or just having sandwiches?” The boy waits for an answer to determine which of the menus he will leave for us to inspect.

“Brunch, please,” I am pleased to see him finally disappear through the screen door. I hand Arthur his menu and become bothered by his extended silence.

“Why didn’t you say something? You know I hate talking to people. You could have tried one of your friendly comments to keep him from asking me all those questions,” This time I look across the table, demanding a proper response with my intrusive stare.

“He asked you exactly two questions, how is that ‘all those’ questions? Relax, let’s just order. We have some more driving to do before we get to The Cove.” He spots the numbered item he plans to order and slaps the menu closed. “I’m gonna try the Belgian waffle. Extra syrup.”

The side door opens rendering a pleasantly smiley girl with two coffees teetering atop a round plastic tray. She deposits the cups with a cheery “Good morning, there is your cream and this little bowl has plenty of sugar, I’ll be right back to take your order.”

“They can’t deny they’re related. That was the exact same face as the boy,” Arthur’s comments are charged by the presence of the young lady’s perky sweater. “You figured out what you want yet?”

“Wouldn’t you prefer I play the confused, overwhelmed wife-role so she has to keep coming back and vending over the table?” I sneer and point to Saturday Special #3. “Tell the pretty girl I want a #3 with a side of potatoes. And ask her for some Splenda, incase the odd chance these mountain dwellers have succumb to the evils of artificial sweeteners.” I am in the mood for an argument. I feel the sarcasm freely pouring out of every pore, but I suspect I’m not facing an opponent that will join me in a worthwhile fight. Instead I survey the landscape and think about Liz, Robert and how we left things over a decade ago. But when the T.V. inside starts to play the music video, “Careless Whispers” by George Michael, as if from some lost time capsule, pain driven by adrenaline pumps into my heart and I press down on my chest searching for relief.

“What’s wrong?” Arthur looks up from his IPhone to check on me.

“What are the fucking odds that this song would start playing at the precise moment I start thinking about Liz and Robert? Don’t answer that! I know it’s one of those stupid déjà vu things people attribute to fate or other weirder explanations. Whatever. I don’t even know why the hell I’m thinking about that shit anyway. Could it be, oh, I don’t know, that you’re so distracted with that new little toy of yours, we’ve barely talked the whole drive up?” My aggressive tome returns.

“So let me get this straight, you want me to continue talking to you so that your past and your demons don’t have the available real estate to creep into your thoughts? Why don’t we just talk about what’s really bothering you. That seems a more feasible solution then never-ending conversations, because eventually I will pass out from exhaustion and you will be left to fend for yourself. So tell me what’s bothering you?” He looks over his shoulder to see the waitress approach our table with a little black ordering notebook.

“So folks, whatta’ll it be?” She stood attentively scribbling numbers and symbols only an experienced short-order cook could decipher. With the girl gone again, Arthur returns to the subject at hand and saves me from complete lunacy.

“I know you think it’s easy to come out with it. But I don’t even know what it is. I don’t know why I’m feeling this nostalgia. Maybe it’s some unconscious effort to take your attention away from that new phone; maybe I’m suffering some kind of gadget-envy?” I attempt humor but he can see through me.

“I don’t thinks it’s simple, but I know it’s doable. So be specific and tell me what about Liz and Robert is bothering you right now?” He waits patiently for an answer.

A New Room for Henry

The digital clock on the hospital wall displayed 5:14 p.m. in absolute red numbers. Henry sat in a regulation wheelchair at a nurses’ station awaiting discharge. A poorly labeled plastic bag with his personals rested on his lap. His name was scribbled in black ink, like the cryptic handwriting doctors always impose upon their patients’ prescriptions. Henry leaned his skeletal cheek into a bony fist that teetered on his frail, eighty-four-year-old limb. In a few seconds Henry drifted into a light sleep despite the excitement of finally going home. He was defeated by the ultra frigid and disturbingly quiet hallways-he began to snore. Minutes or hours later (he didn’t really know how long he’d been asleep) he woke to the fragmented conversation between a tall nurse and a short nurse. The short one was wearing too much perfume.

“…that her cousin’s boyfriend called last night…”

“…before getting his things from their apartment…”

“…shocked to see her car out front…”

Henry heard the incoherent sentences coming from behind the counter where they shuffled papers around. Suddenly one of the nurses, the taller of the two, noticed him shifting his weight around in the cold, metal of the chair.

“We’re sorry. We didn’t mean to wake you.” She apologized.

Henry clamped his palms around the thin, wobbly wheels, stomped his large feet firmly on the tiled floor and inched away from the nurses in a clumsy backward motion, like a wounded crab hobbling back into its sandy crevice. Trapped in a corner, not far enough from the station, Henry over heard the end of their exchange.

“Don’t worry. It’s not you. I think he hates everybody.” Explained the short nurse.

“Why? What’s wrong with him?” The tall nurse continued.

“His son warned us when he checked in last week. It seems he doesn’t speak to anyone since he went blind some two years ago.” She finished and walked away with a metal clipboard-her musky smell trailing behind her.

By this time Henry was asleep again. The tall nurse’s eyes were drawn to the crust that had collected around the edges of his opened mouth.

After an agonizing one hundred and ninety-two hours of non-stop, steel-prodding sessions, midnight blood pressure checks, and nauseatingly, bland foods, Henry was leaving. He had not expected to miss his single bed, with the protruding spring, responsible for so many of his restless nights. Henry also longed for the stale smell of the old newspapers, his wife’s cigarette smoke, and country fresh fabric softener that permeated every inch of his cramped room. That room, was the only part of the house still his own. Henry had bought that house fifty-two years ago with savings from his first job. It was the house he lived in all his life. After a long delivery he had brought his wife and new baby boy to a renovated nursery complete with little yellow giraffes, pale blue elephants and hot air balloons dancing on the walls. Through the years the nursery mutated, ending up an abandoned teenager’s room with psychedelic purple walls and minimal furnishings after his son left for college. Then, three years ago when Henry widowed, his son Freddy returned.

That hot summer when Henry’s wife died marked the beginning of a series of losses that would alter his way of life forever. Under the pretense that Henry needed help around the house, his son moved his family into the two-story colonial. “At his age he shouldn’t be alone” was the general consensus of the whole family, yet no one bothered to ask Henry. Along with Freddy came his wife of two years, Delilah, and her three-year-old toddler, Little Charlie. They were all comfortably settled in Henry’s house just five weeks after the funeral. The trespassers came from an unusually large three-bedroom apartment, and required more space than Henry’s moderate four-bedroom could accommodate. During the course of the first year the house assumed a ‘new look’, as Delilah liked to call the radical dismantling of Henry’s life. The feel of home was soon obliterated by a gaudy, gold-trimmed sofa and chair, imitation Tiffany lamps, mismatched oriental rugs, and floor to ceiling mirrors. The once discrete home transformed, like the natural beauty of a woman destroyed by obscene layers of unnecessary make-up. Decades of collected treasures, family scraps, and immortalized memories: an entire life’s craft subtly relocated to the dusty attic or sold at ‘Delilah’s End-of-Summer Cleaning Sale’. Henry’s existence was eventually reduced to the confinements of his wife’s old sewing room at the rear of the house, where sunlight never visited.

The transition from head of household to lowly houseguest was devastating for Henry. He lost possession of his keys when Delilah decided to change the front door lock. Henry hoped Delilah had giving the old deadbolt a chance, but he immediately realized she was not the type of woman who could ever appreciate the unexpected comfort that comes from easing a key into a very loose lock.  But when he was put out of his master bedroom he was relieved. The room seemed enormous the first night he slept there without his wife. That enormity made it hard for Henry to breathe, as if the air in the room had become too dense for his lungs. He settled for the couch in the den. He would fall asleep to the constant noise from the late night shows, which were a comfort to him, drowning out the horrors of a silent, empty house. And after Delilah’s take-over Henry had been glad to give up the den too. It was good for him to be able to fall asleep to the rustling of the maple leaves outside the small room instead of T.V static. Henry would make the best of his displacement by converting his wife’s dim craft area into livable quarters. With Freddy’s help he salvaged a few pieces of furniture and accessories from the cobwebs of the attic, while Delilah was out on one of her morning jogs.

A square, mahogany table served as his nightstand adorned with a simple piece of cream-colored lace he rescued from the bottom of one of his wife’s wicker trunks. The table struggled to sustain its load: a glass pitcher filled to the rim with ice water, a heavy pile of outdated newspapers, and a brass lamp. A dull yellow chair with a coffee stain and a tiny three-drawer dresser were the only other items they managed to squeeze into the nine by eight area. The coziness of his new surroundings prompted an unfamiliar sense of peace and safety that inspired Henry to sit by the open window and read the paper-the smell of drenched earth penetrated his nostrils. He spent more and more time in his room and less time about the house. One Friday morning after breakfast, over Delilah’s spicy eggs Benedict and paprika hash, he asked Freddy if it would be too much trouble if he ate in his room. Delilah seemed ecstatic about the idea, so she seized the opportunity to volunteer to take Henry three meals a day. She even promised to cut back on the spices, adding how all that hot food couldn’t be good for him. It was settled; Delilah would supply him with a plain bagel and orange juice for breakfast, a light turkey and tomato on rye for lunch, and spaghetti, vegetable rice, or a hearty beef soup for dinner. And with that silent pack Henry agreed not to annoy her with his presence in return for her service.

It was almost a year later (the night he was going to read Hemingway for the first time) that Henry went completely blind. The neighbors to the rear of the house kept a wooden shack that served as a music studio every other day. That night the low, seductive melody of a sax lesson, carried in by the usual breeze, diverted him from his post-dinner routine. He avoided his regular crossword puzzle. The smells of Delilah’s spicy lasagna seeped beneath the crack of Henry’s door, prolonging a fiery heartburn he had been battling since lunch. When the wind picked up he dragged the chair away from the window. It was unusually cold for September. A long sip of ice-cold water eased him into Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees. Two pages into his reading he found it impossible to engage in the action of the first scene. His chest was heavy with feelings of fear, regret, anger, and sorrow; all complicated things he had denied for months. He tossed it back on a pile of classics he kept close to the chair. He moved in slow motion to the foot of the bed.

The music and the breeze stopped simultaneously, as if some ghostly hand had abruptly shut his window. At that precise second his world turned pitch black. He immediately extended his arms, fooled by the perception that objects around him had become closer than they were just seconds ago. Hoping his hands would serve as proximity alarms, he froze like that for over ten minutes. Then Henry tried to fool his senses and tell himself the wind must have taken out a power line that killed all the lights. When his pupils didn’t adjust to the darkness and violent shots of adrenaline streamed through his body, he knew fate had dispensed another crushing blow.

Henry never recovered his sight. He walked around his small room in desperation bumping into every piece of furniture, into every sharp corner. The lack of coordination made him resemble an overgrown toddler discovering the use of his legs. It took him many painstaking months nursing and hiding bruises and abrasions, as he learned how to feel his way around the dark. At first Henry fought sleep in case his sight returned to him in the middle of the night as quickly as it left him. The excruciatingly long days spent in isolation prompted him to question if his nocturnal abyss was what death was like. The chilling thoughts of his wife trapped in the eternal, hollow emptiness of her tomb was devastating. Tears streamed down the deep creases on Henry’s old face until he shook his head hard enough to hear his neck crack to rid himself of the demons. When the saxophone lesson began, the music didn’t posses the same sensual lure. It had become a piercing noise augmenting his torment conspiring with the ticking of the wall clock, which got louder and louder with every second. If Henry had the will and strength, he would have climbed on his bed for the large clock and ripped its insides out one handful at a time, like gutting a pumpkin on Halloween.

Two weeks into his blindness, Henry continued to hide his misfortune from Freddy. Telling anyone, even his son, would legitimize his situation and he wasn’t ready to admit defeat. He trained himself to go to the bathroom at ten a.m., three p.m., and midnight. These were times when they were out working or upstairs sleeping. He would silently turn the doorknob and cling to the hallway walls that lead him to the bathroom five feet away. During his tour through World War II, France he had become an expert at peeing in the dark. Henry rounded the sink with ease, felt for the toilet seat, and aimed perfectly every time. His sense of accomplishment was always obliterated once he realized he still had to make his way back to the room. He would tremble with fear at the thought of making a wrong turn and getting lost in the tenebrous maze of the unfamiliar furnishings. Back in the room he would rest his head down on the card table and sigh with relief. Since Delilah was still bringing his food to the room, she had bought him that small card table from a garage sale and jammed it into the space between his bed and the wall near the door. With this table in place she could drop off the food without having to step completely into the room and minimize her contact with Henry. This was the same table where he was instructed to leave his dirty laundry for pick up on Sunday mornings.

The first night Henry tried to eat he accidentally spilled his plate of vegetable rice all over the linoleum. His dense fist had come down too hard on the light, serving tray. The entire plate landed upside down and stuck to his terrycloth slippers. After thirty minutes of trying to pick up the mess Henry was betrayed by aching knees. Most of the rice was discovered by Delilah the next morning. He was extremely cautious the second night. The first spill went over as a mishap, the second would arise suspicion. He sat on his chair all day with books at his feet. When Delilah’s footsteps came down the hallway Henry picked up one of his books and pretended to be reading while she opened the door. Afraid he may have been holding the books upside down Henry would toss the books back on the bed and exchanged small talk instead. Once she’d gone Henry could guide himself over to the table with the help of the bed’s perimeter. He was overly cautious and moved his fingers slowly over each item on the tray, the way a cat rounds a vase, molding to its contour without ever putting its weight on it. After locating the spoon and plate he had mustered enough courage to take his first spoonful. With a tight, right grip on the utensil and his left hand steady on the plate (securing his rendezvous point), the first bite of spaghetti finally reached his mouth. He was very careful not to stab his mouth, lips, or face. It all went by very slowly. The process seemed to take him hours just to get through the main course. When time came for the Jell-O Henry only had enough energy to finish his apple juice. Every day he gained more speed.

By the second month he was eating like a champion chess player accelerating pieces around the board. Every day, around eleven o’clock, he expected Freddy to drop by and bombard him with a whole slew of sympathetic questions: How’s your back holding up today? Did you get enough to eat? Or how is that book you’re reading? Henry turned away from his son fearing his expression would reveal his secret, but the room was dim, lit only by a bit of moonlight coming through the window. Freddy didn’t ask his father why he sat in the dark night after night. He asked instead about his arthritis or lower back pains. Delilah’s shouting would abruptly end Freddy’s inquiry, indicating bedtime. Every night he sat in the shadows, listening to the sax, improving his eating routine and waiting for his son. Henry was getting comfortable with his surroundings and the hidden possibilities of his new life.

Conquering the challenge of living as a blind man required that Henry create a meticulous routine to ensure his survival and mental stability. His happiness would come from small, daily victories; successfully finishing his ham and cheese, Jell-O, and apple juice without making a mess, making his bed, or sleeping through the night without frightening nightmares. The night Freddy finally discovered Henry’s lie, he found him grasping at the walls on his way back from the bathroom under the bright hallway lights. He was drenched in failure, embarrassment, and sweat as Freddy helped him back to his room. The refusal to use a walking stick and the persisting problem of his safety around the house, forced Henry to live as a shut-in in his own home. Every one of his waking moments was spent feeling where everything was in his room: the specific inches, down to the millimeter, between all objects, the exact distance from his night table to the bed, between the bed and the door, from the door to the window, and from the window back to the bed-calculating life in miniscule measurements. Henry knew his life was as futile as Delilah’s Pete parakeet; living in an opened cage with clipped wings. It was different when he himself had decided to separate from the rest of the family, but his condition had robbed him of that choice; imposing solitude.

Gradually Henry lost all human desire to communicate with anyone. Fewer and fewer words came to him, until he rendered himself mute due to the overwhelming sorrow of the darkness. Freddy bought him a large T.V. and bolted the heavy unit onto the dresser to prevent Henry from knocking it over. The tube was bursting with over three hundred satellite channels. It also had the best reception in the entire house. The T.V. was tuned to CNN or The Discovery Channel loud enough to nullify Pete Parakeet’s endless scratching and Little Charlie’s deafening, midnight tantrums. Father and son began spending more time together. Freddy no longer left when Delilah called for him. Instead he would stay and read from the front page of The Inquirer until Henry fell asleep to the reading. The way his mother would put him to sleep to Charlotte’s Web as a boy.

One night last week, after staying up all night to a Discovery special on the history of aviation, Henry depleted his entire supply of water by eleven. His bladder was so full it hurt him to sit straight up in bed. Ignoring the intercom Freddy installed right above the headboard, Henry headed for the door. He figured if a man couldn’t pee on his own, he wasn’t a man at all. Through all the guts, blood, and bullets of World War II he never needed anyone to help him take a leak. He made it successfully out of the bedroom, but out in the hallway he stumbled over one of Little Charlie’s Tonka trucks and pricked his right foot. Hobbling on his left leg he smashed into an oval table, sending a Chinese vase and its twenty-four carnations flying through the air. The wooden floor beneath him was blanketed in stagnant flower-water and shards of porcelain. Trying to take a step back from all the destruction, he slipped on the puddle. Henry too, came crashing down on his left hip, which shattered as easily as the vase.

The discharge papers were finally signed. Henry was pushed through the emergency wing towards the automatic exit doors. He rubbed the hip responsible for the whole hospital ordeal. Freddy and Delilah greeted him with flowers and the screeching of the rusty car doors.

                  “Hey, Pop. You’re looking good. What did they feed you in there?” Freddy kissed an unresponsive Henry on the forehead.

“He’ll feel even better when he sees the surprise waiting for him at home.” Delilah exclaimed, as Henry slid his lethargic body into the backseat. A concerned look on his face.

                  “You weren’t supposed to tell him yet!” Freddy’s voice was heavy with disappointment.

                  “It’s alright. I didn’t tell him what it is, for God sake, don’t start.” Delilah retaliated.

                  “You always have to mess things up. Now he won’t be surprised when we show it to him.” Freddy continued his reproach.

                  “You know, Frederick, ever since you found out he was being discharged a few days earlier, you’ve been very cranky. Don’t blame me for your foul mood.” She turned away from Freddy, crossed her arms and stared out at the green blur of the passing foliage.

                  Freddy’s palm cupped Henry’s pointy elbow, as he steadied his father up the driveway. Delilah lagged behind, picking up the day’s mail and dragging their rake across the lawn to the side of the garage.

Inside Freddy turned to Henry and said, “Are you ready?”

                  Henry stood frightened in the middle of the living room. His fists clenched as he prepared for something terrible.

                  Freddy extended his arm to the right, like a magician revealing a rabbit out of a hat and said, “We’ve turned the den into your new room!”

                  Simultaneously Delilah patted Henry lightly on the shoulder on her way to the kitchen.

                  Henry was lucky the couch was directly behind him, when his legs failed him. He might have fallen to the floor and broken his other hip (which at that moment made for an infinitely better position than the one he was in). He spent the next several days on the couch, on the same spot in which he landed. He refused to eat anything Delilah or Freddy brought to him. In secrecy, at the latest hours of morning he would reach over the food tray on the coffee table and sip some of the apple juice to appease his grumbling stomach. Henry had to sleep sitting up, with his neck propped up by a scratchy, gold throw pillow.

                  The next morning faking to be asleep, Henry overheard their conversation from the kitchen table.

                  “I don’t understand it. I thought it was what he wanted.” Freddy told Delilah over his ham and cheese omelet.

                  “I don’t care anymore. After all the work we did. He’s an ingrate! Just find a way to get him off my coach. He hasn’t even showered since he got back.” Delilah spoke loud enough to be heard as she leaned on the refrigerator sipping her black coffee.

                  “Even though I already converted his old room into your new office, we could try giving him back his room. It’s clear he doesn’t want the den?” Freddy replied motioning for her to lower her voice.

                  “I’ve been dreaming about that office for months. Now you’re asking me to give it back? I don’t think so!” Delilah’s voice continued to rise.

                  “What the hell do you want me to do? Do you propose I kick him out? Don’t forget this is still his house, his house!” Freddy joined her in screaming.

                  “Honey, don’t get so upset. We’ll think of something, besides your Dad’s at that difficult stage when he needs more care and attention than we can give him; special attention.” Delilah closed in on Freddy, rubbed his shoulders and disguised her voice with a loving tone.

                  The crashing of a lamp from the other room sent them both running towards the living room. Henry stood amidst more broken pieces of lamp.

                  With his shoulders tall and his head high, Henry faced in their direction and demanded in an aggressive, firm voice, “I want my room back!”

  

“e-love”

She sat tapping her fingertips on the table with her eyes locked on the entrance.  Her Bailey’s was watered-down and his beer had become warm.  The waiter was nowhere to be found.  Once she had explained she was waiting for someone, she’d become invisible to the staff.

“Yeah, and last night I…”

“What about that great…”

Her ears tuned to the fragments of conversations that filled the crowded restaurant in an effort to silence her own demons.

I can’t believe he’s late again.

I can’t believe he’s late again.

With her fingers numb from tapping, she switched over to playing with the red mini-straw in her drink.

A week ago they, which is to say she, reserved a romantic table by the window.  This same window now afforded her a clear vantage point of the busy sidewalk. Time Square crawled with its usual madness and she didn’t resist engaging in a frustrating game of Where’s Waldo with the passing crowds?

“Hey, I’m sorry I’m so late.” His voice sneaked up behind her and slid into the upholstered chair in front of her.

They were the same six words he had been repeating for weeks.

“Yes, there you are.”

He got back up to kiss her after realizing he’d forgotten the obligatory greeting. Tilting her head enough to almost miss his kiss, she clenched her jaw to stop from screaming.

People who made scenes in public places always annoyed her.

Why couldn’t they just wait to get home?  Don’t they realize their just making fools of themselves?  How immature!

“Don’t bother with the beer.  It’s hot and nasty by now.”

“Don’t be upset.  The meeting just ran over a bit.  You know Mr. Darby when he gets talking.”

“No, actually I don’t.  But it doesn’t matter anyway—“

“Honey, listen—“

“Let’s just order!  I’m starving.”

“All right, why don’t you order us the appetizer.  I’ll be right back.  I have to pee.”

She thought she’d be relieved to see him, but his tedious excuses grated her soul.  After waving her hand back and forth for an entire two minutes, she’d managed to get the waiter’s attention.

“Would you like another,” said the waiter pointing at her empty glass.

“Actually, we’d like to start with the lobster-stuffed ravioli.”

“Your friend’s here?” The waiter looked around in disbelief.

Boyfriend,” she is unsure why she bothers to correct the waiter. “He’s in the bathroom.”

He squirmed and scribbled the appetizer on a small pad.

“I’ll put this right in for you. I’ll come back with another drink and the rest of your order.”

When the waiter walked away, he became the target for her anger.

Of course my friend is here, you idiot.  Why else would I say ‘we’, moron? Maybe you thought I forgot my medication—the one that keeps all the other personalities at bay. 

She soon realized that he was working eight other tables. She felt shame and began shaking her head, knowing her anger was clearly misplaced.  The only thing that gave her the slightest relief was, knowing that by the end of the night she would leave him a generous tip.

What the hell is taking him so long?  This late, he should’ve peed on his own time?

She began to play with the straw again.  Among the hundreds of huge Time Square billboards, one in particular caught her eye.  Nokia was putting out their new line of cell phones. Super model Cindy Crawford’s dazzling smile was the focal point of the ad. A small black phone, off to the lower-right hand corner, went unnoticed.  Below Cindy’s face big, bold letters stated:

‘Cindy’s Choice.’

What the hell do I care what Cindy chooses?  Who cares who’s name is on your under ware?  What’s in a name anyway?  And where the hell is he?

Trying to keep her fury under control, she took refuge in an old couple two tables away.  They were comfortable enough to be regulars. He nursed a couple ounces of Cognac and she sat next to him sipping an espresso. Both enjoying their after-dinner drinks. This seemed an odd sitting arrangement for a table of two. People normally sit across from each other, but these two really didn’t strike her as the normal type.  He’d tickle her between sips, and she’d give off a restrained giggle and complain in a soft and loving voice, “Honey?” checking to see if anyone had seen them.

“Here’s your Baileys. The appetizer will be out shortly.”

“Thanks.”

I can’t believe it! The appertizer’s gonna beat him to the table. She placed a bet with herself as her right knee pumped furiously under the linen.

The waiter was hesitant but felt his duty compelled him, “Do you know if he’d like another beer?”

“I’m sure he would.  But who knows when he’ll be back.  The beer’s just gonna sit there and sweat.  He can order his own beer when he decides to grace us with his presence.”

The waiter knew the kind of trouble this guy was in.  He’d been there himself a few times.  He could spot right away that she wasn’t a drinker, and the last two drinks were starting to take effect—she was unencumbered now. The secret bond of brotherhood between all men led him through the tables to the public phones to warn his buddy of eminent danger brewing at table twenty-six, but the “buddy” was nowhere in sight.

She took another sip of her Baileys. Returning to the old couple across, she’d decided they were high school sweethearts.  He’d been quarterback for the football team and member of the Honor Society. An unlikely pairing, she knew, but this was her vision and she could make it whatever she wanted—realistic or not. The woman was the muse and inspiration behind the muscle, his very own cheerleader. He became a renowned football coach with seven straight championships under his belt. They had traveled around the world and seen it all. When it came time for children, she turned down the partnership in a big law firm to devote all her time to family. They had four: Sarah, Michael, Brian and Scott. All great children. All great parents now. As a newly retired pair, they were planning another trip to Europe over Cognac, coffee and flirtatious laughter.

“Here’s your lobster ravioli.”

She never understood why servers always felt the need to announce every dish that came to the table.  Were they just making sure they’d brought it to the right table? Could they possibly think the patrons forgot what they ordered?

“Can I trouble you for some grated Parmesan?”

She grabbed for the carefully wrapped silverware, unrolled the tools out, and slapped the napkin unto her lap.  The waiter covered the squares with a lit sprinkle of cheese.

“Sorry about that,” he said sitting down and motioning for another beer by tapping his index finger twice on the warm bottle.

“Mr. Darby called. He wanted to confirm tomorrow’s presentations.”

“Explain to me what we’re doing here?”

She smashed the fork into the ravioli.

“Whatta you mean?”

“What exactly do you call this shit we’re doing tonight?”

She found his confusion amusing and annoying at the same time.

“We’re having your birthday dinner. What do you mean?”

“My birthday was two weeks ago, remember?”

“Honey, are we starting this again? You understood I had to be away for the Culter meeting in Philadelphia.”

“Yes, I’m starting this again.  What you call ‘this’ I call you missing my birthday not once but twice. I’d call it a pretty big fucking ‘this’ wouldn’t you?”  She got progressively louder.

“I didn’t mean to cancel. I didn’t mean to be late either. The client moved the meeting back. What was I gonna do?”

“I guess I really couldn’t expect you to—“

“Are you ready to order.”  The waiter sneaked up behind them without warning.

“Let me have the blackened Chilean Sea Bass with the garlic mashed potatoes and roasted bell peppers.”

“And for you Sir?”

“Prime rib, rare.”

The cell phone in his pocket began a musical tune more appropriate for an ice cream truck, than a communication device.

“Yellow?” He answered.

She slammed the last of her drink and ordered another one before the waiter walked off to other tables.

         I can’t believe this shit.  I can’t believe him. I can’t believe me!

“That sounds great.  I’ll e-mail you the proposal tonight. We can discuss it tomorrow over brunch…”

He’s not even planning to be with me later. Thinking of e-mails instead of sex. Where exactly did I think I could go with this asshole?

“Here we go. Chilean Bass for the lady. And the prime rib.” She heard the waiter, looked at her watch and realized she’d been staring out onto the city lights for over fifteen minutes while he talked to whoever was on the other end of his phone.

“Hey, this looks pretty good, doesn’t it Honey?  Friend, could you bring me another one of these.”  He said pointing to the empty beer bottle. The phone still affixed to his right ear.

“Are you gonna eat with that thing?”

She had lost all hope for the situation when the phone call finally ended.

“Smells good too, doesn’t it?”

“You never answered my question.  What are we—“

He reached again into his breast pocket.

“You’re not getting on that damn thing again?”

“I wasn’t.  I wanted to give you this before it gets too late,” he slid a beautifully wrapped gift box across the table. “But if you don’t want it?” He tried his hand at humor with no response from her.

When she opened the box, she saw a smaller ring box in it.  She hesitated, took a deep breath and panning the entire restaurant, settled her eyes on the old couple that were still giggling and playing.

That’s what I want. Cellularless love and attention. I definitely don’t want what he’s offering.

The ring box called out to her, pressuring her for an answer.  She held the box tight with both hands until it was completely out of sight.

What a stupid grin.  I bet he thinks I’m moved and taken by his effortless proposal. He may even be stupid enough to think I’m holding back the tears. Little does he know, the only thing I’m holding back is a punch.

“Well?”

“This is unexpected.”

“You take your time, Cutie.  I’ll be in the lobby on a conference call.  I’ll be right back.”

“What about your food.  It’ll get cold.”

“I wasn’t that hungry anyway.”  He walked away already dialing the number.

It’s one of those moments so unbelievable all she could do was sit there with her mouth half opened.

A sign of some kind would really help right about now. Do I follow him with this butter knife and risk felony charges for stabbing my ex-boyfriend in a lobby full of witnesses or do I…” She pondered then noticed a sign brightly lit toward the back of the restaurant.

She read: I’m Not An Exit.

It read: Not An Exit.

She re-read it twice and realized her mistake.  This was a recurring problem.  She constantly misread street signs, TV commercials and even labeled directions.  She’d become convinced, despite the test result, that she was dyslexic.  But at this particular moment she took it to be the message she longed for.

A long, tall waitress with octopus arms walked passed her table.  The trays were full of freshly baked rosemary bread.  The scent invaded her nostrils, taking her back to her mother’s kitchen—Sunday night dinners.

All the dinners over all those years that got her nowhere. When it was time for my father to leave, he just up and left.  Placing the ivory box in her hand down on the table, she allowed herself to forgive him.  At that moment she decided she wanted more than her mother had. She wanted love in her life.

“Would you care for an after-dinner espresso or anything else?”

“No, thanks. We’re done here.”

The waiter left as the boyfriend returned.

“I’m sorry…” He gave his regular apology.

Yes you are sorry. You can’t help it.

“…and then I told him his offer was too low…I got around to telling him about the new line of…”

Out of her purse emerged her cell phone. She continued to shake her head, pretending to look interested in his babble.  She dialed his number put the phone to her ear and heard his phone ring that ridiculous circus tone.

“Hold on a sec, honey. I gotta get this. Yellow?”

“Take your ring and shove it. And as far as calling me again, don’t even think about it.”

She sprinted off the seat, snapped the phone shut and threw it on his lap without prudence or a shred of embarrassment.

“Honey, what’s wrong?” He said sitting there with his jaw hanging open.

She skirted around the tables and bumped at least two servers on the way out.  Her thumb was pulsing with blood as she drove it deep into the already lit elevator button.  He rushed down the hallway just in time to make out her blur going into the elevator. The doors began to close, like two metal giants about to collide, and he made his last, sad attempt.

“Honey, listen! Please!”

“Why don’t you e-mail me, Honey?  Better yet let me pencil you in or put you on my action-item-list.  Or better yet, go away!”

The doors closed.

“The Proposal” – (A Revant of “e-love”)

Allison tapped her fingertips on the table with her eyes locked on the entrance.  Her drink was watered-down and his beer had become warm.  The waiter was nowhere to be found.  Once she had explained she was waiting for someone, she became invisible to the staff.

“Yeah, and last night I…”

Her ears tuned to the fragments of conversations that filled the crowded restaurant in an effort to silence her own voice.

I can’t believe he’s late again.

This makes six times in the last two weeks.

She convinced herself that morning, while the foamy toothpaste ran down her forearm, that she would give their relationship one last chance. Allison was a romantic.  Maybe she got it from her mother, who would spend every winter afternoon in her favorite chair by the window, rereading her old copy of Wuthering Heights, and a hot cup of Café au Lait.  Allison was in the habit of preparing elaborate evenings to celebrate any special occasion.  But her last few attempts deteriorated into offensive fights between them.  She sat there hoping the waiter would come by and refresh her drink, as she replayed the fights in her mind.

“Sorry I’m late,” he would start.

“What happened?” she would ask.

“With the new promotion, they expect me to sleep at the office.”

“Couldn’t you tell them, these reservations took me two months to manage?” she demanded.

“Honey, I just can’t…”

“Yes you can and you should’ve!”

“You don’t understand…” He would depend on some version of a walk-a-mile-in-my shoes speech.  Marcus ended every fight by using the art of defusing situations. With a cautious arm over the shoulder, Marcus was the master, as he inched along towards her face, sneaking a kiss on the cheek. Worn and tired Allison would eventually give up and go to sleep.

She kicked herself now for not forcing closure on their situation as she sees him walking towards her.

“Look, I’m sorry I’m late,” Marcus said towering over the table.

“Don’t bother with the beer.  It’s probably hot by now.” She spoke in a restrained tone, looking past him to find the waiter.

“Don’t be upset.  The meeting ran over.  You know when Mr. Darby gets talking.”

“Actually I don’t.  Look—“

“Honey, you knew what taking this promotion would mean. I need you to—“

“Let’s just order. I’m starving.”

“You order us the appetizer.  I’ll be right back.  I have to pee.” He left the table before she could complain.

“Would you like another,” said the waiter pointing at her empty glass.

“We’d like to start with the lobster-stuffed ravioli.”  She said.

The waiter squirmed and scribbled the appetizer on a small pad.

But after a few minutes her mind began racing.

How long can it take to pee?

Trying to keep her fury under control, she took refuge in an old couple two tables away.  Their level of comfort made her believe they were regulars. The old man puffed on an abnormally, large cigar, coupled with a few ounces of Cognac.  His wife sat next to him sipping her coffee with one hand always on her lap.  Sitting side by side was an odd arrangement for a booth.  People normally sit across from each other in booths, but these two really didn’t strike her as normal.  He tickled her between puffs. She gave off a restrained giggle and complained in a soft and loving voice, “Honey?” checking to see if anyone had seen them.

She took a quick sip of the Bailey’s, sending a warm shiver down her esophagus, causing her to quiver.  Returning to the couple, she decided they were high school sweethearts.  He’d been quarterback for the football team and a member of the Honor Society.  She was the spirit behind the muscles, his very own cheerleader, in addition to making valedictorian.  He became a renowned football coach with seven straight championships under his belt.  They had traveled around the country and seen it all.

They had four children: Sarah, Michael, Brian and Scott.  All, great children. All, great parents, now.  Now the couple was planning their first trip to Europe over Cognac, coffee and flirtatious laughter.

“Lobster ravioli.” Said the waiter.

She never understood why servers always felt the need to announce every dish before placing it on the table.  Were they worried they’d bring it to the wrong table?

“Sorry about that.” Marcus surprised her from behind, extending his arm and offering a rose.

“Explain to me what we’re doing here?” She smashed the fork into the ravioli.

“Whatta you mean?” He asked with an unbecoming look of confusion in his face.

“What is this?  Why did I bother with reservations and dressing up? Why do I ever bother anymore?  So you can spend all night making conference calls and thinking about tomorrow’s presentation?” She continued in vain.

“We’re having your birthday dinner.  Now what’s the matter?” He replied.

“My birthday was three weeks ago.” She felt he understood this for the first time.

“You knew I had to…” He began to explain.

“No! There is no excuse.  You never missed my birthday. In all our years you have never…” She paused attempting to relax, “…You’ve changed. You changed your priorities and now I don’t know where I stand?”

The cell phone in his breast pocket began playing a muffled tune more appropriate for an ice cream truck, than a communication device.

“Don’t you dare get that!” She screamed.

“Honey, it’s the client. I have to.” He replied in a pleading tone.

Her face tightened. Too embarrassed to continue, she sat quietly pushing the last ravioli around the plate.  Allison had lost her appetite.

“Yellow?” He answered.

Her anger transformed to anger resulted in thoughts of happier birthdays. Happier times, when they couldn’t afford fancy dinners.  Instead Marcus would get out of work early to surprise her with homemade, birthday lasagna with extra cheese, her favorite.  The night would progress into the warm bubbles of their tiny tub as he washed her hair imitating risqué foreign films.  Culminating the night’s events was a lengthy lovemaking session, delivering them into exhausted sleep.

“Are you ready to order?” Asked the waiter.

“He hasn’t had a chance to look over the menu yet.”  She responded.

She slammed the last of her drink and ordered another one before the waiter disappeared again into the kitchen.

The melancholy scent of rosemary bread invaded her nostrils, taking her back to her mother’s kitchen for Sunday night dinners.  Forgetting the ivory box in her hand, she allowed herself to wonder.

“Baby, could you put these carrots and peas in the microwave for Mamma?”

Her mother’s plump figure danced around the small ten-by-ten dining-kitchen more graceful than a figure skater.  The stew was boiling in a giant, silver pot, the wild rice simmered over a low heat.  Yet nothing in the kitchen overpowered the spicy, semi-sweet smell of Mamma’s glorious, rosemary bread baking in a three hundred and fifty-degree oven.  They all sat around the table in their designated spots and begged for a small sampling.

“Not till your Pappa sits down,” Mamma would repeat for several minutes, smacking impatient hands off the rosemary treasure.

Her bread became so popular, that she was finally convinced to putting up a Saturday Bake Sale.  Everyone on our street came out for it.

Everyone but Dad was either, touched, moved or hypnotized by Mamma’s rosemary power.  The only things that held true power in Pappa’s world were the remote, his recliner, and his domestic, cold beers.  The worst part wasn’t that he missed all the fun, but that he never even noticed it.

Allison knew she’d want more out of life than what her mother had settled for.  The promise she had made herself years ago reverberated through her brain: I will have love in my life.

The phone call ended as abruptly as it had begun.

“Let’s order.” He said.

“I’m not hungry anymore.”

“Alli, please be reasonable…” He insisted.

“Reasonable.  You think I’m unreasonable?”

“I honestly didn’t know this promotion would…” He reached into his breast pocket.

“You’re not gonna get on that thing again, are you?” She asked alarmed.

“…I just wanted to give you this, before the situation escalates.”  He said pushing a small, ivory box across the table.  She opened it to find a brilliant engagement ring staring back at her.  She held the box tight with both hands till it disappeared completely out of sight.

“Well?” He asked in an anxious but uncertain tone.

“Why would you do this?”

“I don’t understand?” He demanded clarification.

“The way things have been lately, all the fights.  How can we—“

“There’s no winning with you.  I thought this was what you wanted?”  For the first time he joined her in anger.

“What I want?  What I want? So, its what I want. What…”

Before he could address any of her questions, his phone rang.

“Go ahead, pick it up.  End us right now. Do it.”  She threatened with her most serious tone.

“But it’s the client again. I have to…” He looked down recognizing the number on the display.

“I don’t care if it’s God himself.  If you take that call you’ve made your choice about us.”

The phone was on its third ring when he said, “Baby, PLEASE!”

And on the fifth ring he answered, “Marcus Waller?”

She took her cell phone and dialed the numbers.

“Hold on a second Mr. Simmons, I’ve got another call coming through.” He excused himself going over to the second line.

“Take your stupid ring back.  You couldn’t even propose right.  I will have love in my life.”  She sprinted off her seat, snapped the phone closed and threw it at him along with the ring.

Without prudence or a shred of embarrassment she skirted around the tables, bumping at least two servers on the way out.

Out in the lobby, her thumb was pulsing with pain, as she drove it deeper into the already lit elevator button.

“C’mon, c’mon.” She whispered.

She saw him rush down the hallway after her, just in time to jump into the elevator.  The doors closed with the force of two metal giants about to collide, as he made his last feeble endeavor.

“Honey, please listen.” He begged.

“Why don’t you e-mail me, Honey? Better yet, let me pencil you in for say…NEVER! Good-bye Marcus Waller, good-bye.” She waved.

The doors closed.

“Sarabeth’s Kitchen”


The screeching halt of the 6:10 train wakes Otto from a restful sleep. Today’s the day. It doesn’t seem quite like morning yet. A cool darkness prevails within the confinements of this one-room, dilapidated apartment where Otto has carried out his daily rituals for over a decade now. At the corner near the door instead of a bed Otto has padded a floor mat with Salvation Army gray-wool blankets, rolling a few for pillows. He nests on the discolored family quilt passed down from his great-grandmother. He emerges from the warmth of a dusty quilt revealing a thin, naked body. Otto welcomes the cold with a crusty smile as a sign of a new day. The room feels unusually frigid for October, but Otto takes comfort in the long-gone smoothness of his flannel bathrobe and flattened, terrycloth slippers.

The first few weeks he lived without electricity were a learning experience. Now he has mastered the art of living in the dark, if there ever was to be such an art. He maneuvers perfectly around the deep armchair with the missing cushion resting in the center of the room. Across the room Otto sees a tiny opening between the windowsill and the rotting wood of the window frame. The only window in the whole place. He heads over to the window to prevent the chilly mist from creeping in. He remembers forgetting to jam down the window last night. In most cases people find themselves having to prod windows open with sticks during the summer months in the hopes of catching the hint of a breeze. Otto’s window situation antagonistic in nature calls for him to force the window shut. On cold days he uses a rusty metal rod he picked out of a neighbor’s rusty trash can, otherwise the window recedes a few inches back to its desired open position where its most happy. He looks through the darkness at the rusty metal rod resting against the cracks on the wall, grabs it and secures the window. Laughing his negligence away he heads towards his right where a steel sink waits.

Otto always starts by splashing a handful of just-above-freezing water on his face. This severs him completely from any trace of exhaustion. With a small kitchen rag he pats the shock off his face and begins to disrobe. Before the flannel meets the faded flower print on the back of the armchair Otto is already splashing his armpits, neck and genital area.  Convinced he is sufficiently tidy he dries and squats to remedy the puddle that has formed under his feet.  Over in the closet area (a broom stick hanging lopsided from two grotesque nails that further contribute to the cracking along the walls) Otto’s wardrobe choice is simply. He owns three old, blue jeans, which he alternates during the workweek. He washes one, dries one, and wears the other. Next to the clean jeans drapes a pair of Hawaiian shirts for the summer and another two pairs of lumberjack shirts for the winter that alternate in the same respect as the jeans. Otto glides into the pants with the skill of an Olympic hurdler and buttons his green-red, plaid lumberjack under thirty seconds. He returns to the baptismal sink where this time he turns the faucet marked ‘HOT’ instead.

For the seven minutes it will take the building’s water heater and old pluming to perk up, Otto walks the entire length of the room in five steps to reach his reading table. This small oasis of chipped green paint and wobbly legs houses most of the world’s history for the past two decades in two piles of outdated newspapers. To the right lay, what Otto liked to call, Shakespeare’s undiscovered country. To the left teeters the drained copies, spread open like neglected sex victims in a dark alley, never to be used again. Though both stacks are equally filled with ancient events and stories, they represent Otto’s only guide to the world and the changes in it. He rescues the discarded print from sticky coffee counters, park benches and trash bins.

Whistling an old fifties tune Otto grabs the third from the bottom of his ‘undiscovered’ pile and opens it to the international news section. The hissing of the faucet and a faint steam alert him of the two-minute, hot-water-window. Because even if it takes a decade for those old pipes to deliver the water, it will only run hot enough for about five seconds, ten whole seconds on warmer days. It’s not enough to run a hot wash, but precisely enough to get a generous cup of instant coffee in the mornings or warm up some Cup-O-Noddles on winter nights. Otto rushes to pour in Maxwell House clumps and hard sugar, working vigorously to dissolve both. The ceramic feels like sunshine against his numb palms and fingers. A weak steam trails off the cup’s brim forming in the shape of a smokestack that withers in the shadows of dawn. Through a single beam of light, augmented by the gunk on the window, Otto reads the last column of a 1996 article from Foreign Policy:

“Nationalism, which propelled Asians before World War II to struggle against their colonial rulers, blossomed in the first days of freedom and has now come to full flower. Mohamed Jawhar bin Hassan, a Malaysian scholar, says, ‘Increased prosperity and economic achievement are giving East Asian states greater national resilience, confidence and self-assurance.”

Otto shakes his head in accordance as the last sip of coffee touches the tip of his tongue, trickling down his throat and tickling his esophagus. He wishes there was more, but is content to wait for tomorrow’s cup. Once the cup is rinsed and left upside down to self-dry, Otto walks onto a brightly lit hallway adorned with tacky modern paintings of red lines and blue lines with yellow lines and a splash of green. When his pupils adjust to the light he locks the door with a semi-circular turn of the key. One ring for one key; Otto liked his world as simple as it could be. He stores the key at the bottom of his good pocket where it joins a timeworn bus pass. His green Army jacket hangs over the wrist of the other arm.  It’s 6:30 and Otto’s on schedule. The bus won’t arrive for another half hour and its only a ten minute walk to the stop. With time to spare he tunes his ears to the happy sounds of morning: desperate babies crying for their first meal of the day, angry wives still yelling from the night before over the limp bodies of drunken, unemployed husbands and the super banging furiously at the end of the hall, trying for the fifth time in a week to collect the rent on 7D.

Otto welcomes the chaos and noises of his live, like a demented composer delights in the rare occurrence of a perfect symphony. These are the evidence of life outside his lonely shell.

“Hey Otto, you seen this fool recently? He owes me big time! Letting himself get behind by a whole three months. What descent man does that?” The super asks without relinquishing the nocks.

“No Sir. I haven’t seen him. Talk later.” Otto responds, with half a bow knowing he won’t be talking to the super later.

The rickety stairs made a clickity-clack under Otto’s boots. He begins to snap his fingers to the rhythm, like a teenager stepping to the beat of his Walkman:

Clickity-Clack-Clack

Clickity-Clack

Clickity-Clack-Clack

Second’s after passing through the front doors Otto’s snap is interrupted by a fierce Northern wind threatening to break him in two Otto-pieces if he doesn’t slap his jacket on.

It’s still too early for the florist, but the meat market and the bakery are open. Sarabeth’s Kitchen: the best baking in the world and Otto’s one and true obsession. Fresh baked pies, pastries, cakes, cookies, bread, muffins and desserts all behind the glass storefront, stacked sky-high. The cozy two-story building has a powder-blue face, where the front room’s for sales, the back room’s for baking, storage and deliveries. Upstairs a modest one bedroom houses Sarabeth herself.

Otto pushes bravely against the Northern wind that has changed its mind and now heads towards a westerly course, uprooting weak saplings and dry leaves into a deranged semi-swirl.  Tiny bells tightly bound by a crimson ribbon above the bakery’s heavy door announce his early arrival. The overwhelming scent of lemon fills his lungs from the bottom up, like water balloons filling with water and anticipation before a good fight.  From the back room Sarabeth greets Otto, “You’re nice and early today Mr. Heartman.”

Every morning she assumes him to be the first through her door and he hasn’t let her down in the nine and a half years he’s been coming to her place. An old sixties multicolored-bead curtain contours to feminine curves, finally revealing a very full-figured Sarabeth.  A plump, motherly shape held up by two small legs that titter under the strain of her weight.  An inappropriate spring dress printed with pale-yellow roses, makes every costumer forget, at least while they’re in her store, that winter’s wrath is less than a month away.  Her eyes sit very close together and fight to stand out beyond the puffy face.  A round, little nose, to complement her round, little lips and round, little chin complete her beauty.

“Good morning Ms. Sarabeth. I guess I am running a bit early this morning.”  Otto looks at a hairy wrist where a watch should be, but remembers he pawned it more than six months ago. Still it’s hard to get used to it being gone.  That World War II, gold-platted watch was the last gift Otto received from his father, and the only gift.  On his deathbed the old man had grabbed Otto’s hand, placed the watch on the palm of his hand, closed the fingers to make a fist around the watch and whispered, “Take good care of your mother, boy.”  Three minutes and forty-five seconds later he was dead.

Every once in a while he peaks down with one eye closed hoping it would reappear.  Then his father’s words echo through his head to help him justify having pawned the watch for only ten dollars to buy his mother’s much needed medication.

Otto always felt uncomfortable calling Ms. Sarabeth by her first name.  He wishes he knew her last name, but then again everyone calls her that and she prefers it that way.  To Otto’s old-fashioned ears it sounds too young for a woman close to her fifties, but that is precisely what Sarabeth likes about it.  There is nothing more reassuring to a lonely, hardworking widow than a little gust of youthful energy every time someone calls her name. A reminder of what she used to be, like the crackling of a dying fire that still gives off some heat.  Still Otto always saw that sparkle in her tired eyes and felt no need to do away with the formalities he sheltered in.

Otto can tell what day of the week it is in conjunction with the smells of her baking.  Mondays are always blueberry pie day. Tuesdays are raisin-bran muffins with an excess of brown sugar.  On Wednesdays, Sarabeth pays tribute to her late husband, with his special recipe for the best onion-cheese loaf in town.  This warm flavorful bread had been solely responsible for his success in the neighborhood.  Every Thursday is cookie day.  Sarabeth is renowned for putting together the most creative array of sugar, cinnamon, lemon, and vanilla cookies along with some oatmeal ones with walnuts or without.  Otto’s favorite was undeniably the double-double-chocolate chip chunk that melted in his hands creating some good licking times at the bus stop for him.  But on Fridays, Sarabeth pampers herself and bakes up too many batches of her favorite, lemon buttermilk bundt cake.  This mouthwatering morning delight is based with buttermilk.  No reduced fat, twenty percent less anything or other imitations would do for her cake.  Only the best, most fattening buttermilk she could find.  Plenty of lemon zest goes into this masterpiece, which she gets extra early to peel (almost three pounds).  Her hands treasure the lemony aroma the whole day, as a reminder that the end of the week is only hours away and she will retreat to enjoy her two-day break. 

But the real secret to her bundt cake is not the buttermilk or the extra peels of lemon zest.  The secret was hidden in the backroom; a glass jug that held over a gallon of freshly squeezed lemon juice (instead of the concentrate that everyone else used).  Sarabeth was an old fashioned woman that’s never been seduced by practicality or instant gratification.  Her rewards come from the love of the labour itself.  Hours before the sun shows its face Sarabeth’s juicer is working overtime.  Finally this cake is topped off with a vanilla glaze that drips perfectly around the cake’s slopes to later harden into firm icing.

“You’re lemon cake sure does smell great.”  Otto directs his speech to Sarabeth’s head that constantly reappears over the counter, like someone’s head would look when they played a game of bobbing for apples. She works vigorously to fill her display case with endless trays of steamy goods coming up for air in little spurts.

“Buttermilk, Mr. Heartman, don’t forget the buttermilk. Besides you say the same thing every Friday.”  Knee-deep in cardiovascular activity she some days forgets why Otto’s standing in the middle of her store, arms linked behind his back like a timid preschooler waiting for his turn to speak.

“Well its true.  Yours is the best baking anywhere.”  Otto waits patiently for that expression in her eyes that tells him she’s remembered why he’s come.

“Okay, now let me get your bag.”  Sarabeth disappears behind the bead curtain into a secret world of industrial ovens, long wooden worktables for kneading and rolling, padding and cutting.  On the back wall near the backdoor, where all deliveries are made, two oversized sinks flank a fifties General Electric icebox and shinny copper utensils hang from three overhead racks.

In a momentary lapse of formality Otto imagines entering that sacred place, Sarabeth’s place.  He would grab her firmly by her thick arms pressing a hard, long kiss on her little mouth and then spreading her across the center table.  He would become excited by the slapping sounds of their naked bodies as he loves her again and again.  Two bodies covered in a light dusting of flour and passion.

Her bleached apron reappears and she surprises Otto with his thoughts and a red face.

“Here we are.  Now you have a good day.  Have a great weekend.” She purposely brushes his hand when she hands him the brown, cardboard box with the easy-to-carry handle.

“It looks promising, but one never knows.  I’ll see you on Monday.”  Otto waves and little bells sing again as he exits the store.  He can’t explain right away why he added “…but one never knows…” Otto’s always been an optimist.  His motto had for some time been ‘I will prevail’, something he picked up in the war that helped him survive.  When Mr. Green, half a block away, slides open his pharmacy gates Otto remembers his errand and understands the source of his newfound pessimism. The brief stops at Ms. Sarabeth’s always manage to distract Otto, but with the bakery more than thirty steps behind, his mind slowly returns to reality and whispers, “Today’s the day. Today you’ll know.”

Otto carried out all of his morning rituals. He wanted to pretend today was just like any other Friday and he was on his way to work.  But this morning he does not buy his customary Friday lotto ticket from Mr. Green. As his skepticism festers, he refuses to even enter the pharmacy at all.  He could probably be carrying last week’s winning numbers in his breast pocket, but Otto’s concerns are elsewhere.  Mr. Green sees him pass across the store window and motions for Otto to enter.  Puzzled to realize that Otto has not stopped, looked nor greeted him, Mr. Green slowly lowers his arm in disappointment and returns to his register. Otto continues down the street with his head a little lower than before.

Otto made his living cleaning up abandoned construction sites or condemned buildings that the city had decided were good investments.  He and other men, some with familiar faces, walked around these lots with wheelbarrows.  They overflowed with pieces of cement, broken bricks and rotten wood planks and were pushed around all day to and from the site’s dumpster.  The men cleaned as much as they could in one day for fifteen dollars.  The city had recently reserved this particular profession for the unemployed, homeless, and socially-challenged war veterans.  This way the city could not just improve the unemployment situation and seem charitable, but at the same time they’d balance their budget too.  A pretty sound business decision.  Last year the city tried to outsource this kind of job and the lowest bid came in at fifty dollars an hour per worker due to union standards.  But to Otto and the other men, the seventy-five dollars a week was better than no money at all despite what unions preached.  The three hundred dollars a month was just enough for Otto to afford his one hundred-fifty dollar monthly rent and a twenty dollar bus pass to get to the work sites.  The rest of his pay went to his mother, Isabel, at a rest home on the outskirts of town for her care and medication.

One hundred and thirty dollars exactly on the first of every month directly to the Spring Creek Hall, where spring came only briefly, there was no creek, and no hall.  It was a rundown two-story colonial built originally with twelve decent rooms.  When business picked up almost a decade ago, Ms. Bard, the owner and a true capitalist, invested for the first time in renovating the place.  But instead of improving it, the home finished off with twenty-four closets for rooms and the same cracked paint on the interior and exterior walls.  Nonetheless the set goal was reached when Ms. Bard was able to take in an additional twelve residents into the now, more inadequate old folks home.  The thought of all the extra money she would make made her a more agreeable person, as she smiled all day and hummed lullabies as she emptied brown piss out of twice as many dented bed pans and wiped down newly-arrived wrinkled, bruised bodies.  Everyone that knew her noticed the change at once. The extra work didn’t seem to bother her and she refused any thoughts or suggestions on hiring any help that would cut into her profit margin.

But all Otto could see then was the substandard care his beloved mother was receiving on a daily basis. So one Sunday afternoon after visiting with his mother Otto stormed into Ms. Bard’s office, which is to say the kitchen, and demanded change. “Ms. Bard, if you don’t do something fast about the condition of your place, I’ll have to be forced to report you to the authorities.” Otto used his most firm tone. “Listen sony, you better get the hellaouttahere before I throw you out.” Ms. Bard growled at him. This kind of forceful attitude usually would send him running. He didn’t favor the idea of disrespecting women, even if it was Ms. Bard. But that day he didn’t run, he held his ground. “No. I’m serious, if you don’t improve…” Otto was interrupted before finishing his sentence. “Okay kid, I’ll give your Mom the special treatment. Tell me what she needs, when she needs it and I’ll get it for her. Just don’t turn me in, or ask me to pour more cash into this hell hole, I just don’t have it.” She was surprisingly accommodating, he couldn’t figure why, but took the chance to act. “All right. I’ll let you know after I talk to Mom, but you better…” Otto didn’t get to finish that sentence either. “All right kid, all right! Now scram, I’ve got bed pans to dump and asses to wipe.” Since that day things were different for Isabel at Spring Creek Hall.

Two years ago before his mother’s health declined after the sudden death of his father, Otto was able to indulge in little luxuries such as electricity, heat and food.  But Isabel’s Alzheimer demanded around-the-clock-care, which he was unable to provide.  After long months of job searching among the same construction companies, where he was respected and admired before the war, Otto was forced to see the truth.  These same men that back then voiced their pro-war, patriotic attitudes told Otto there would always be a place secured for when he returned, now saw something in his personal records that labeled him ‘undesirable’.

Determined to uncover the problem, he went down to the Public Health Clinic, secretly designated for veterans, and demanded to see his file.  Under the tight scrutiny of his twenty-twenty vision the file revealed a tiny, checked box, at the lower right-hand corner marked ‘mental illness’.  Without a single complaint or question he slid the manila folder across the counter to the nurse in charge and left.  He wasn’t surprised by the discovery.  He knew the check on the box, responsible for his recent failures was a direct result of following the wrong orders a long time ago.  He and his entire platoon had recklessly fired into a crowd of civilians in some small farming village on the north end of Vietnam around nineteen, sixty-seven.  Subsequently and conveniently the whole platoon took the fall for the horror committed and were declared insane due to war-induced stress, in order to save the U.S government any further embarrassment.  Otto saw the grand scheme of things back then and still did.  He understood why his country had taken such a position and felt it necessary to betray him.

The next day he appeared at the unemployment office explained that he was a mentally ill veteran and thinking only of his dear mother, accepted his fate.  After all he had to be grateful to have found a job at all.  He knew others were not so lucky.  With his dignity tucked away in the pocket of a lost shirt, Otto realized that much of his life would work out this way and that his survival would depend on his willingness to accept such handouts (as he so often thought of them).  It was this same type of help he’d been receiving from Ms. Sarabeth all these years that left him with an empty pain in his soul.  The uniquely religious pain, that comes from not being able to do onto others, as they have done onto you.  Every day on the bus ride to work, he daydreamed about the gifts she’d get her if only he could:  fresh, pale-yellow roses every day; new spring dress she loved so much; diamonds bracelets inscribed with ‘Love’ even though she never wore jewelry; and so much more.

Crossing Lynn Street Otto’s thoughts are interrupted by the growling sounds of his stomach, which has been screaming for attention for the last two blocks and now, demands action. He stops at the corner, one block from his stop, opens the brown box and reaches for one of yesterday’s stale cookies.  To his surprise a puff of bitter-sweet lemon scent rises and makes him doubt the contents inside.  He really must be loosing his mind, he thought, Sarabeth has never giving him fresh goods and he was comfortable with that arrangement.  This way he didn’t feel like a total freeloader.  He figured she was just eliminating the dehumanizing step of picking her stuff out off the trash. Little did he know he could never really find any of her goodies thrown away.  As his bus whips around Cornell Street, he closes the box and makes a run for it.

Instead of trashing her leftovers away, Sarabeth had always taken them to a nearby shelter, The House of the Sisters of Mercy.  When the doors closed routinely at seven o’clock Sarabeth gathered the day’s excess into a big box.  She’d haul it down six blocks to this heaven for displaced immigrants, the homeless and families in temporary financial need.  When her husband was alive he would tell her, “Bethy, you’re gonna get youself killed over there.  All them weirdos and crimnals.  You get youself home quick.  I don’t want to have to be botherin’ them police and all.”  But despite the discouraging words Sarabeth couldn’t just throw away all that food knowing all those poor people down there were in such need, specially the children.  In a small corner of her heart, tucked away deep under the memories of long years of work and marriage Sarabeth reserved a special place for children.  Her and the mister were unable to have any of their own.  Though they survived this emotional blow, Sarabeth has always found a way to be involved with children.  Two summers ago before her eyesight failed her all together, she would do Sunday Story Time downtown at the main library.  The kids all called her Mamma Beth and couldn’t decide which they loved best:  her magical, fairy stories or her double-chocolate cookies at the end of the readings.  Every summer since, she recalls with great satisfaction she felt sharing the worlds of fantasy and triumph with so many little faces.   But what she remembers most fondly are the times after the readings, when they munched on chunks of melted chocolate under the shade of a four hundred year-old oak and sipped on ice tea.

So when Sarabeth heard of Otto’s situation, as people in tightly knit communities inevitably hear, her reaction was expected.  Thanks to a regular customer, Liddy, from Otto’s building, Sarabeth became well informed. Liddy was known for unraveling men’s secrets in a single breath.  She began telling how Otto’s father had died and now the poor boy had to pay for his mother’s care on that lousy veteran’s pay the government gives him every month.  Though Liddy was only ten years older than Otto, she still called him ‘boy’. She was one of those rare women that took pride in being older, believing it would make them wiser, since their beauty had long faded. Since Otto is forced to use the extra money from his job for rent, he’s electricity and heat were cut, she had explained.  

The horrifying thing was, Liddy had ended with tears building in her wrinkled eyes, that someone had seen him going through the alley’s dumpsters at nights for scraps of food.  A tiny pain gathered in Sarabeth’s heart that day right next to the little corner she held for children. Sarabeth knew immediately what to do.  She felt she’d been chosen because her profession as baker gave her the perfect opportunity to improve his sad condition.  She would fill his stomach with food and his life with joy. She first watched him for some days and became very interested in this quiet soul she was destined to save.  One Tuesday morning she intercepted him on his way to the bus stop and without a single word she handed him his first brown box in a line of many and say, “Try to have a good day.”  Soon Sarabeth realized that with every box she gave him a little bit of the pain was lifted, like the relief an evergreen must feel when the accumulated snow on its delicate branches falls off with the blowing of the wind.

Otto manages the perfect seat at the back of the bus where there are no other passengers. Otto was never one for small talk. With lemons up most in his mind, he opens the box again.  This time he fishes around the cookies and retracts the source of his mystery.  In his hand a generous slice of today’s delicious Lemon Buttermilk Bundt Cake. He lifts the dense cake to his nose and inhales long and strong until his lungs turn a shade of deep yellow. When he bites into the slice his taste buds sing and he hears harps and angels in his ears. He never thought it was possible for her baking to be better, but taste of fresh baking was indescribable.  Otto looks out of the window with a gentle smile on his face, as the city floats pass him.  Thoughts of Sarabeth replace the harps and angels; her comforting voice, the unexpected smoothness of her hand, as it accidentally caresses his and shadows of her plump, sultry figure dancing in gentle circles.

“Brad Street.” Announces Carl, the bus driver.  This would have been Otto’s stop on a regular day, only three blocks from the current construction site.  Two new veterans got off and headed down the street towards the lot that was visible in the distance.  But today he wasn’t going to work.  His foreman had given him Friday off to run an important errand. Today he had to go a bit further.  “Hey Otto, isn’t this your stop, my man?” Carl waits with the door open letting all the cold air in.  “Not today Mr. Carl. I have to run an errand.” Otto replies but not loud enough for Carl to hear.  “C’mon you gonna be late.” Carl insists, until one of the front passengers relays Otto’s reply.  Fifteen minutes later Otto finally departs at Dill Street.  He walks eight winter blocks to the Public Health Clinic. Otto thought it should be renamed The Veterans Clinic, since only veterans frequented. The usual crowd stood outside, smoking, drinking black coffee and sharing wounds, war stories.  “Hey Otto?” says a skinny man leaning against an abandoned car.  “Otto my man, how’s it hanging?” asked a round, short man in an effort to draw Otto into their world.  But Otto only offers them a wave and snakes his way through the crowd of infirmed and mangled veterans in the waiting room. Lucy is at the front desk today. Otto has always liked Lucy. She’s sincere, caring, but most importantly direct. She wasn’t like the other nurses that took shelter behind a veil of ridiculous giddiness or unexplained anger.  “Pretty cold today isn’t it Otto?” Lucy smiles a sad smile.  “It could be worst. How’s your little one?” Otto never much minds small talk with Lucy. With Lucy small talk took on the form of friendly, honest inquiry.  “She’s doing great. Took her first steps last week. Everyone says she looks like her daddy. Public Health..?” Lucy answers the phone with one hand placing it on her shoulder and with her other hand motions for Otto to wait a few minutes, her slender index finger points to the metal chairs in front of her.

Two and a half hours later Lucy calls Otto to the front. “Come on in. He’ll see you now.” She buzzes the door open and extends a see-ya-later kind of wave. In the sterile exam room 3 Otto waits some more. He knew that being called didn’t mean the end of the waiting period, it just meant you were made to wait in a different place, like a virgin that teases you with hopes of sex just to make you wait some more. The footsteps and shadows underneath the door increase Otto’s anxiety and sweat builds on his forehead despite the cold room. He wishes there was at least artwork on the walls to distract him, but the only distraction is a never-before-used sink and a handful of tongue depressors in their paper wrapping scattered over the counter.  “Well Mr. Heartman, the results are back from the lab. I don’t want to alarm you, but the test came back positive.” A young medical student, two months into his residency, informs Otto in a clinically, detached tone as he enters the small, white room. Decidedly this young man had skipped the day at med school when they taught soon-to-be-doctors not to start their sentences with ‘I don’t want to alarm you but…’ in order to keep patients rational. Otto’s heart rate stops and for a few moments he wonders if he’s even in the same room.  “Positive?” Otto asks in confusion. It sure sounds like bad news, he thinks, but how can bad news ever be labeled positive. Was ‘positive’ good or bad? It just didn’t make sense.

Ignoring Otto’s one question, the student begins to explain, “There are different medications we can start you on. You’ll have to come in more frequently for blood counts and other tests, but being HIV positive is not the end of the world.” Otto can’t figure this guy out. Not the end of the world? Not the end of the world? What is death, if not the end of the world? Otto tries in his mind to make sense of the boy’s words but fails.

Two weeks ago his insurance required him to come into the clinic for a series of tests. If he didn’t comply he ran the risk of having his coverage cancelled. On his salary there was no way he could afford to buy his own medication. If it weren’t for his diabetes, Otto would have never under gone the tests. At least not the Aids test for fear of what he may find out. Otto comes from the what-you-don’t-know-won’t-hurt-you school of thinking. As long as he didn’t know about the aids virus swimming through his bloodstream, as long as there was no affirmation of it from the medical community, he possessed a hidden cure for it. But he needed the insurance and he complied.

Today a kid, younger than his kids would’ve been had he had any, destroyed Otto’s antivirus with a few badly, chosen words and a medical report inside a yellow envelop with the words ExpressLad stamped on it. Unwilling to continue the useless conversation with ‘the doctor’ Otto gets up, thanks the boy for his time and walks out of the exam room, the office, and the building. Heading straight for the bus stop Otto knows where he must go. He has to see his mother. He has to set his affairs in order. He’d heard stories of people with  HIV living a long life, while others died only months after being diagnosed. He had to see Isabel. She has always been a good friend to her son and a good mother too. At least before she began having spells of forgetfulness when she couldn’t recognize even him. On the bus to Spring Creek Hall Otto remembers the exact moment he contracted the virus.

Otto had been home from the war a little under three months. He was undergoing a mandatory detoxification at the main facility for discharged veterans in D.C. The nurse on duty, that scorching July day, was Betty Ann. All the guys called her Betty Man due to her masculine appearance, rough hands and deep smoker’s voice. Afraid he was beginning to suffer another one of the strange seizures, he’d brought back with him from the Northern Vietnamese jungles, he pulled on the nurse’s cord. His fear increased simultaneously with his heart rate that beeped through the black monitor next to his metal bed. The bed next to him belonged to his buddy, Jimmy Tubbs, who died finally the previous Wednesday. Jimmy had been dying for a long time. It started during their second tour in an unnamed village where Jimmy acquired the services of the village whore, who in turn gave him more than he ever bargained for; aids. He was said to have caught some ‘strange disease’ that no one wanted to talk about. But everyone knew the symptoms and its fatal end result. The stat kit they used on Jimmy last week was forgotten on the table between the two beds. 

When Betty Man walked into the room Otto was full into his seizure. He was fully aware of everything during these episodes and knew Betty Man had less than a minute to inject him with the fluid the staff had been using to stop the attacks. Otto always heard them talking after they thought he was unconscious or sleeping: “That was close” or “A few more seconds and he’d be a vegetable” and they always ended with “Poor guy”.  Due to payment failure the hospital was running on their emergency generator and the rooms were all dark. With a confused look on her face, Betty Man attempted desperately to save Otto’s life. She grabbed for Jimmy T’s used needle. Pumping some clear liquid from a tiny, glass flask that was threatening to shatter on a metal tray from all the shaking, she headed for Otto’s exposed arm. Having seen the whole thing, and knowing what he knew, Otto protested silently through manic eyes. Betty Man hesitated when she saw the plea in his stare but continued to pierce Otto with Jimmy’s aids-infected needle.

On the lawn of Spring Creek, Otto looks up at his mother’s window on the second floor of the house. Most Sunday’s Otto could see her shadow behind the curtain as she sat there all morning waiting for his visit. But today was Friday and Isabel wasn’t expecting Otto till the weekend. Ms. Bard is on the porch hanging some bedpans to dry over the railing. “Good afternoon Ms. Bard.” Otto continues upstairs without waiting for her response. His step is swift up the cricking staircase. He knows to avoid the wobbly banister, and leaps in the air for a double-step at the top. Isabel has one of the best rooms, considering the meager accommodations. It’s a corner room with large windows on both walls, so she gets sunlight all day long, unlike some of the interior rooms, which resemble musky coffins. Every week Isabel went out to the backyard and picked fresh weeds she placed in a clear water glass on the north window. Bright yellow ones with spiky green leaves, smoothing purple ones with extra long stems and her favorites she called, baby buttons. These were weeds with round little leaves spiraling up the stem that revealed at the very top three clusters of red, pin-size buds.  They were a special reminder of the first pajamas she made Otto, with little red buttons that kept his attention for hours. Because Ms. Bard was not the sort of woman to keep a garden or understand its aesthetic purpose, Isabel had to make the best from what was available. Isabel appeared to be the kind of resourceful person that could get water from shoe leather and make it look easy.

“Good morning, mom.” Otto enters the room with a light tap of the door. He places his baked goods next to Isabel’s many Reader’s Digest journals piled on her nightstands. “Who goes there?” She looks over the pages of one of the journals from her twin bed, squints her eyes and visors the sunrays with her right hand. “Hi mom, its me Otto. Your son.” He’s careful not to sound too condescending, because on a good day she tends to get annoyed with the unnecessary explanations and may answer ‘I know who you are boy. I look stupid to you’ in anger. But today she is happy for the help and extends her arms, “Otto baby, how’re you doing. Gosh this week sure went by fast. I feels like Thursday and here we are, another Sunday.” She leads him to the foot of the bed, the only spot in the room where he can sit, aside from the floor. He sits and still holding her hand, explains, “Actually ma’am its not Sunday. I came early this week. Its only Friday.” She gets up, walks slowly over to the window and starts rearranging her weeds. “Mom, what’s wrong.” Otto asks when he realizes she’s playing with the plants. Something she only does when she feels depressed or sad. Without acknowledging his previous question, Isabel picks up a bunch of the ‘baby buttons’ and joins Otto on the bed. “I would be baking pies, like your lady friend, for the fall festival and you were such a good baby. You would sit on the floor in the middle of the kitchen and play with your buttons for hours.” Isabel hands him the ‘baby buttons’ pats him on the back and returns to the window.  “Didn’t you tell me she gives you cookies on Friday. She making lemon cookies now? What you got in there, baby, that smells so good?” Isabel had most of her conversations with other people from that window. “Ms. Sarabeth gave me some of Friday’s Lemon Bundt Cake. Buttermilk Lemon Bundt Cake.” He makes an effort and remembers the buttermilk. “I told you that girl liked you, didn’t I?” Isabel smiles and moves aside so Otto can put the ‘baby buttons in the glass. Otto isn’t sure where to start. How does he tell his mother, he’s dying? He doesn’t even understand it himself.

Sure the doctor had told him that with the medication and recent advances in technology people were living regular lives. But if that was true why did he know so many that died? Why weren’t they living ‘regular’ lives? He couldn’t tell whether he’d be part of the living or dying. There was no sign, markings or tests that revealed such outcomes, so in the meantime Otto was set to live as a dying man. He didn’t exactly know the difference between living a regular life or living to die, but he felt there must be a significant difference. After all, how could he go on like nothing was wrong? He was dying and had to do something about it.

“Mom, two weeks ago I…” Otto tries to start from the beginning. “Honey, would you get me some water, my cans empty.” Isabel goes back to the bed and puts her tired neck to rest against the aqua headboard, not realizing she’d interrupted him. Otto takes the tin pitcher, with melting ice still rattling at the bottom, to fill it in the bathroom down the hallway. Ms. Bard tried to always keep the can full of water for Isabel after Otto’s only talk with her, but it’s passed eleven o’clock and his mother’s drank her morning supply. Isabel drank three cans full everyday. She went to the bathroom four times the number of cans and believed that water cleansed her soul, mended her sins and kept her bladder healthy. Whether she was right or not, she was the only elder in the entire place that didn’t suffer any urinary problems. “Here you go mom.” Otto hands her a plastic cup full of tap water. “Oh no thanks, baby. I don’t want any. I just like to keep it full incase that horrible Ms. Bard forgets to pay the water bill again.” Isabel’s eyes are closed now. Otto circles around the tight space uncertain of what to say or do. Then suddenly he goes over to the weeds and straightens one of the purple ones that slouched over. The view out of the window surprised him. He sees only greenery and the powder blue of the sky. He can see why his mother likes playing with the weeds so much, its relaxing and peaceful. “You know son…” Isabel grabs for a heart-shaped pillow with the words ‘Life is Love’ embroidered in delicate script writing and props her head up to get more comfortable. “…old fools were young fools once.” She reaches her hand for his and places a soft kiss on it, gives his hand three, love taps and drifts off to sleep. Those words take Otto back to the first time he ever heard them from her.

It was Christmas Eve and Otto’s stepfather was passed out on the couch, with a dozen empty beer cans on the floor in front of him. Like every seven-year-old in the world, Otto couldn’t sleep that night. The anxiety was like a jolt of caffeine that invaded his nervous system. There was no Christmas tree yet. No gifts under the tree that should’ve been there. But hope is one of the last things to go in life, as Otto found out the next morning. Otto woke to a cold gust that sneaked under his covers and immediately froze his toes. On his way down the stairs he realized the house was too quite for anyone to be up yet. He was still determined to go see what this Christmas was all about. He’d heard from the kids at school that you got all the presents you ever dreamed of, pancakes for breakfast and more candy cane than the stomach could handle. Otto had never heard of Christmas before that year. He got to thinking Santa Claus was someone’s uncle that came to visit every year and brought goddies and stuff for the neighborhood children. The living room was covered in its winter dimness, so Otto flicked the light switch. Next to the T.V. set, planted in Isabel’s cleaning bucket was a three-foot plastic tree. The pine needles weren’t green like he heard they should be.

Instead they were made from silver foil and the branches of wire. Frankie, down the street explained the last day before vacation that people decorated the trees by hanging all sorts of things: colored, glass balls, shiny snow flakes and satin ribbons. But the only decorations Otto saw were the empty beer cans that were on the floor the night before, dangling on twelve of the branches and the sticker price from Stop n’ Shop on the top branch, ‘Sale-1.99’. Under the tree his stepfather had left him a carton of Lucky Strikes marked with black, permanent ink that read, ‘From Santa’. When Isabel came downstairs she explained to Otto that Carl was a moron and had no right to do this. “I’ve made some mistakes, I’m trying to correct. Please be patient with me, baby.” Isabel sat at the kitchen table explaining through a stream of tears. “Its Okay mom.” Otto made her feel better. “Baby, you need to do better in life. Try not to make so many mistakes. That’s how you end up a fool. People think old folks turn foolish over night, just because they’re old. But you have to always remember, old fools were young fools once.” Isabel wiped her tears. That was their last day with Carl and their last Christmas.

As silently as he could manage, Otto stands over Isabel, covers her with an old family quilt and kisses her on the forehead, before exiting the room. On the ride back home the bus was empty and he didn’t know the bus driver for this route. Words and images from the day’s events make rings around his head: flashes of Betty Man’s confused face as she tried to save his life, the doctor’s reassuring statements of living with aids, and his mother’s advice, “Old fools were young fools once.” He leans back against the seat to alleviate his sore neck. An advertisement for a new retirement home diverts his attention. It’s being built downtown, near the new Cineplex. It will be opened in two months and they promise the best health care treatment in town. Otto wishes he could get his mother a spot in this new home, but fears his hundred and thirty dollars wouldn’t be nearly enough. Still, he allows himself to daydream. He can picture his mother’s petite frame lost in the multicolored gardens of the home’s atrium on a cool April afternoon.

The bus driver calls out for Lynn Street. Outside the temperature rises drastically and Otto’s jacket comes off. He resolves to go to Mr. Green’s pharmacy and fill his new prescriptions. “Mr. Green? Anybody home?” Otto speaks out from the counter. From a swinging door at the back of the store comes Mr. Green carrying more than a dozen cartons of Lucky Strikes, half menthol, half regular. “Otto! I tried to call you this morning, but you didn’t see me. What’s going on?” Mr. Green let the cartons spill over the counter and focusing on Otto. “I’m sorry Mr. Green. I had an important errand to run this morning. How’s the Misses?” Otto leans in on the counter, tightly griping the prescriptions. “Forget the Misses. Have you checked your lotto numbers from last week. I know I aint as sharp as I used to be, but I never forget numbers. I think you just might be a winner.” Mr. Green wiggles all ten fingers with anticipation. “C’mon, C’mon let’s take a looksy.” Otto is going too slow for Mr. Green and when the ticket finally peers out of the pant’s pocket, Mr. Green snatches it away and runs to the number’s board across the Coca Cola display. With his index finger wildly moving back and forth from the ticket to the board, Mr. Green’s legs start to bend at the knees in little rabbit hops. Otto gets around to meeting him at the board just in time to hear Mr. Green yell, “Yes. I knew it. You did it. You did it. You won!” Mr. Green pats Otto on the back and hands him back his ticket. “Let’s go see what they were paying last week.”

Once again Mr. Green becomes a blur, as he rushes back to the register to verify the winning amount. On an accounting ledger carefully tucked at the bottom of a drawer, the amount read, fifty thousand dollars. “Uh Wee! You’re a rich man Mr. Heartman. Whatta you say to that?” Mr. Green in all his excitement hasn’t realized Otto’s sad expression. “I can’t cash it for you here. I don’t keep that kind of money around the store since last year’s robbery and all. But if you go to the big stores on Main Street anyone can cash it.” Mr. Green suddenly realizes Otto has prescriptions to fill. “Thank you Mr. Green. Do you know if these are covered in my insurance?” He hands them over to Mr. Green. “Are these new for Isabel?” Mr. Green searches the station for his bifocals. “No Sir, those are mine.” Otto’s tone is one of disbelief, like an unprepared student that gets called on by the teacher to answer a tough question. With his glasses in place Mr. Green inspects the scribbles of handwriting and his forehead folds into layers of wrinkles above his eyes. “If you can’t read it I can go back and…” Otto says to him, almost in a whisper. “No son, no. I can make it out. I just think it’s damn unfair, with your winnings and all.” Mr. Green disappears into the backroom to get the medicines. When he returns he pushes the code for insurance on the register and hands Otto five bottles in a brown paper bag. “So, whatcha gonna do now?” Mr. Green struggles with the question. “I’ll be Okay. Things are never as bad as they seem. At least that’s what my mother says. Besides, now that we’ll be seeing each other more often, maybe you can teach me how to play chess, after all. You mind if I take one of these envelopes you have here?” Otto waves goodbye and hears Mr. Green’s words fade behind him, “Take whatever you want, take whatever you need.”

Around the corner from Ms. Sarabeth’s bakery Otto sits on a bench. He takes the lotto ticket out of his shirt pocket and slides it into the envelope. After licking the envelope shut he takes a six-inch pencil from the same pocket and starts writing on the opposite side of the envelope flap.

Sarabeth, this is for everything you’ve done for me. Nobody ever did much for me. You’re a very special lady and I’m lucky to know you. P.S – Hope to see you Monday.   Sincerely, Otto

Otto knows his mother could benefit by moving to a new home like the one beingbuilt on Main Street. And now with all that money buying her a place would be easy, but his heart tells him he must give his winnings to Sarabeth. He feels sure his mother would agree with his decision. Five steps away from Sarabeth’s his palms start sweating in fifty-degree weather and a heavy lump settles in his throat. Underneath the door, Otto fills with fear at the ringing of the little bells, as if unconscious thoughts or feelings had been leading the way to Sarabeth. He turns to leave when out of the back and through the colorful beads appears Sarabeth. “Mr. Heartman is that you?” She squints her eyes to focus on him. “What are you doing back so early? Is anything to matter?” She puts down the tray of cookies, to concentrate on Otto. “Everything’s all right. I just came to give you this.” He grabs her arm, pulls it so that her hand is turned up, and places the envelop on her palm. Otto leans in and kisses her tightly on the cheek. “Thank you for everything.” He quickly turns to leave, avoiding any questions or objections she may have. “Not so fast. Let’s see what’s in here.” Sarabeth hooks her arm around his elbow and holds him in place. She opens the envelope, sees the ticket, and starts to read the note. Otto fidgets and looks around the store nervously. “Oh my…” Sarabeth cries silently as she finishes his words. A few minutes ago she’d been the recipient of one of Mr. Green’s mamy phone calls to announce Otto’s great fortune. She’s aware of Otto’s intentions and stands in shock.  “…but I can’t accept this, I…” She wipes her face and takes a deep breath. In a burst of delirium, Sarabeth wraps her arms around him; on the right hand she keeps a strong hold on the ticket, the other hand, wet with salty tears.

With that much money she could pay off the store and still have enough to help Otto buy his mother a room at the new retirement home. With her voice cracking, Sarabeth tells Otto, “You know, my favorite movie is Casablanca. Have you seen it?” She backs off realizing she was still pressing him. “No, I haven’t, but I’m sure it’s nice if you like it.” Otto can’t believe she’s not mentioning the ticket. “It has the best ending line of all movies and it comes to mind at this moment.” She explains. “Really, so what’s the line?” Otto’s diverts his attention from the winnings and becomes more interested in what Sarabeth point is. He never knew her to say anything that wasn’t relevant or meaningless. She was always on track, that’s one of the things he appreciated most about her, her straight-forward approach to life. “It goes something like, ‘This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.’ Except in the movie it was two fellas talking. In this case…well, it’s different.” She lowers her head to hide her blushing face. “What do you mean, Mrs. Sarabeth.” Otto’s forehead wrinkles with uncertainty. “I think you can call me Sarabeth, you big silly.” She giggles and pokes his lower abdomen. “What I mean is, you should come upstairs for dinner tonight. We’ve got lots to talk about.” With the redness gone from her cheeks, she winks at him. “Okay, is seven a good time.” Otto follows her lead. “That’s great. That gives me time to fix up the place a bit. No one’s been up there since Ed died, you know.” She says. “Great.” Otto replies and heads for home to fix himself up. When the little bells ring above him, he turns to say, “Sarabeth, call me Otto.” Sarabeth smiles a wonderful smile and says, “That’s a good name, Otto… I like it. I like it a lot.”

“MEMORY BOX”

My fondest childhood memories are of toil and triumph. At that time, our house was always filled with laugher and the smell of freshly brewed coffee. I would sit for hours on hardwood floors and marvel at the colorful tents I engineered out of my Mamma’s vast collection of quilts. These enormous caverns towered above me to become a refuge from the simple pains of school bullies and unfinished math homework. Other times they served as sanctuaries against my mother’s complaints of phone bills, Dad’s late work hours, and the leaky kitchen faucet. On days when the sunlight penetrated the quilts, I pretended the shapes along the nine-patch blocks were friendly faces visiting from fairy worlds, coming to share their fantastic stories. Between the indiscernible patterns, hidden along the stitching, lay the secrets of old maps leading to undiscovered treasures and endless adventure trails. In that place I dreamt of shiny, pink ballet slippers, silver astronaut suits, rusty pirate swords, and of being a mermaid, too. But it wasn’t always a magical journey. Whenever I neglected to secure the corners of the heavy fabrics, my entire fortress would come tumbling down, making gravity my enemy.

The beginning of my life was as wonderful as any kid could dream up; lazy Saturday afternoons spent drifting back to sleep on our lime-green porch swing, after a healthy helping of my dad’s fluffy pancakes and Mamma’s buttery grits and cheese. I couldn’t have been older than six or seven then. I still suffered what Mamma lovingly called “accidents” resulting in embarrassing, cold puddles that mysteriously appeared on my bed in the mornings. My biggest concerns were 1) would I get the Astronaut Barbie or the Ballerina one for Christmas? 2) would Miss Pierce, our science teacher, bring back that disgusting frog into the lab again?  and 3) should I punch Bobby at the cafeteria in front of everyone or kiss him behind the playground in the afternoon, where no one could see? I remember being happy with the world as I perfected the dance of growing up. I was naïve enough to think that my happiness was everlasting.

On my parents’ seventh wedding anniversary Mamma thought celebrating with the same wine she served Dad on their first dinner date would bring them luck and eternal happiness. That hot weekend I was sent away to my Grammy’s. Their evening, after three hours of reminiscing and four bottles of Valley Orchard red, culminated in the conception of a loud, irritating, self-centered crybaby they named Elizabeth. Don’t get me wrong.  I love my sister. Unfortunately I hate most things associated directly or indirectly with her: the way my Mamma suffered when her fingers and feet doubled in size those last five months; the strange way in which her belly grew and grew and grew, like a balloon at a party that stretches, and expands and finally pops because it can’t hold the air any longer; the frantic cries that filled the hospital halls that twenty-ninth of October when her belly finally spilled its contents all over the bleach-scented sheets. But the hijacking of my parents’ attention was the one thing I’ve never been able to forgive her for.

They never had time for me after Lizzie. They fed me endless apologies and unrealized promises. I spent most of my time in tears, but my desperate cries for attention were grossly mistaken for bad behavior. I felt myself disappearing (my existence slowly fading), like a Polaroid picture in reverse, until I was rendered mute and invisible. I still recall with pain the morning of my first grade graduation. I was being presented with the prestigious “Reading Excellence” award. I looked over the sea of parental units wearing cameras around their necks and smiles across their faces. I expected to at least see Grammy (who would always cover for Mamma) but no one went. After spending all day practicing what I would tell them, I was ready to confront the betrayers. Instead I ended up sitting on the cramped backseat of our 1967 puke-green Dodge covering my ears so Lizzie’s screaming would not pop my eardrums, while my parents fought over whose turn it was to change her dirty diaper.

I was very comfortable believing, for a very long time, that my parents never fought until my sister entered our lives. The truth of it is, that the pressures of unwanted jobs, the sharp edges of married life, and an unexpected first child, had ruined their unspoken dreams to “see the world.” Only with endless patience, time and constant maintenance could they repair the rift that had begun tearing through their young love, like asphalt cracking under the pressure of a seven-pointer on the Richter scale.

The summer of my fourteenth birthday I fell in love with Bryan Sanchez. I filled the margins of my diary with his initials. Perfect tiny hearts enclosed the letters BS, colored in bright candy-apple red. On the night of our first date, Lizzie was going to cover for me by making Mamma believe that I was in the bathroom all night battling my period. After a horrible movie and a sad attempt at ignoring our lack of chemistry over strawberry shakes and chili fries I went home. Crying. Deflated. I walk into my room, and adding insult to injury, is Lizzie with her nose in my diary. She looked up at me, laughed and pointed out something (that, though rather obvious, I had not noticed before); Bryan’s initials spelled out bullshit. I charged her. It took both Mamma and Grammy to pry us apart.

During my senior year in high school I found my passion. I was going to be a photographer. Mr. Greene, my Introduction to Film and Photography teacher, assured me I had ‘an eye for life’ as he called it. He explained that the first picture I took captured both the stubbornness and frailty of old age, when I photographed my Grammy napping on the porch in her rocker with a copy of Huckleberry Finn slumped over her lap. For the first time in our tumultuous lives, Lizzie and I were at peace. She was happy that my new pursuit kept me out of the house most of the day (as I only showed up to sleep) and I was happy that she was staying out of my way too. But I dropped photography after Mamma pressed me. For months she said I shouldn’t chase silly dreams. “Figure out how to become something useful,” she prompted on a daily basis. Lizzie makes an effort to remind me of my lack of “balls” as she refers to my inability to stand up to Mamma and follow my calling.

The only family tradition I hang onto is Sunday night dinners (and I still haven’t figured out quite why). The rest: Mamma’s scrapbooks; her quilts; our home movies; the thirty-year-old zoo ticket stubs along with other painful remembrances rest in a dark corner of my attic. If I keep then hidden from myself, like that last cigarette I hid in an empty jewelry box deep in my closet, last summer when I quit smoking, I can resist them. Maybe then the pain and shame can stay hidden away too. My past, like an old photograph, is devoid of nature’s hues, faded by time, lost at the bottom of a dusty memory box, buried within the cobwebs of my brain.

The Expresso Blogs give a shocking jolt of micro-fiction in a variety of genres. Anything from a love story, to a love story gone murder mystery. The caffeinated pieces are meant to wet the appetite (like an amuse-bouche) that is never quite enough.

Here’s a sampling:

 “The Stain”

Victoria stands at the edge of the bed confused as to how and when her new dress got stained. She lays it out flat to discover a pear-shaped grease spot under the left shoulder, too low to hide with a scarf, too big to be covered with a pin. The rain pelts on the bedroom window urging her to get on with it, like the repetitive tapping of impatient fingernails against a glass surface.

For days she planned to wear this particular dress. She rummaged through every clothing store in the city looking for something different, something special for this anniversary. Then, last weekend, the quest was over. After their Sunday brunch when Victoria and James were walking back to their apartment, James spotted a teal-blue cocktail dress in a store window and pointed it out to her. Victoria knew, that had to be this year’s anniversary dress.

“Honey, how’re you coming along?” James’ voice is muffled behind the bedroom door, clean-shaven, tuxedoed, with a Martini in hand wanting for his wife.

“Just give me a few more minutes.  I can’t find my earrings.” She answers him, not sure why she lied.

“V, you had them on just a minute ago. What’s going on?” James wiggles the doorknob, but it’s locked.

“Just give me a minute.” Victoria responds in a tone she knows will keep James away.

Earlier that afternoon, they had their scheduled anniversary lunch, where they exchanged gifts, as they did every five years.  Victoria and James celebrated in multiples of five.  Her law firm demanded a minimum of seventy hours a week and his design company was a twenty-seven-hour-a-day job.  They couldn’t afford to break away every year on long, dreamy vacations.

“Why don’t we go away tonight? Book a late flight to Paris or Greece? Let’s just get away from here.” Victoria had tried to propose an alternate plan.

“What about all the people we invited. We can’t, not now.” James had reminded her.

“I don’t want to think you care more about them than us. This is supposed to be about us right? Us celebrating our love, us spending special time together, us, us, us.” Victoria had gotten annoyed with his response.

“Honey, the party was your idea. If you wanted to go away it would have been fine with me.” James placed the blame back on her lap.

“How could I plan any kind of trip? You have that meeting tomorrow morning with the head of some organization, I forget which one, and I have to be at the office for some Partnership Committee Forum.” Victoria complained and sank into the wicker chair of the outdoor café.

James thought it timely to exchange gifts to avoid a fight. “Here, let’s open our presents.”

She got earrings like she always did and he got his third pair of engraved cufflinks with a little number fifteen engraved on the back by his initials. With the effort of ten archeologists, he had unearthed the right pair of earrings from a large pile at one of New York’s finest jewelry authorities. The last two pair had not impressed Victoria, so he was relieved to have purchased these.

“These are really wonderful.  And they go perfect with my new dress.” She was genuinely pleased and gave him a light kiss on the cheek. Just the right color. Just the right size.”

She had wondered at that moment if it was accidental that the earrings matched her dress or if the coincidence was some sort of happy foreshadowing.

At almost nine o’clock with guest starting to arrive, none of that mattered. Her dress was ruined, the dress she was meant to wear tonight was completely and utterly unwearable.

“V, Ellen wants to know if she can come in and help you out?” James passes on the message from one of Victoria’s colleagues.

She hates it when James calls her V.  At the beginning of their marriage it seemed a cute pet name, but lately it had a condescending tone she despised. Besides why would a grown-up woman need any assistance getting dressed, “Tell Ellen I’ll be right out.  I’m almost done now.”

The apartment was newly renovated, but the building was one of the oldest in Manhattan.  Victoria listens for Ellen’s footsteps to return to the living area before opening the door about five inches and signaling James.

“Don’t have people coming back here hurrying me!” Victoria attacks James.

“Ellen seems to have gotten us another one of her cookware gifts and couldn’t wait to show it to you.  I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to seem rude.” James tries to explain.

“I know Ellen can be very pushy, I’m sorry I didn’t mean to snap at you.  I’m just so…” She couldn’t finish. Even though the dress was ruined, she felt her anger was unwarranted.

“So what?  What’s wrong V?” James sounds extremely concerned.

“The earrings aren’t the problem.  It’s the dress that’s ruined.  The whole night is ruined.” The tension in her voice began to escalate again.

Before leaving her and returning to the guests, James squeezes his arm through the five-inch opening and covers her cheek with his cool palm. “Maybe I can just go tell Ellen and the others you’re not feeling well.  Whatta you think?”

“No, that’s such a lame excuse.  Nobody’ll buy it. Everyone will think we’re having a fight.  Besides I feel terrible, they all must be hungry by now.” She opens the door a little more.

“There are only four people out there. Ellen and her new friend Nellie something. And of course Maggie and Fred from across the hall. I don’t think anyone else is going to show. It’s pouring outside! Let me take care of it. I’ll pack them a nice dinner to go and give them a bottle of wine each. I’ll be back before you know it.” James insists in his gentle fix-it tone.

“But what am I supposed to do now?” Victoria wonders out loud.

“Relax, for one thing, Sweetie.  Why don’t you get comfortable. Run a bath or something.” James suggests.

She hates being called Sweetie or any other endearing little pet names. Unfortunately most times, she knows that James realizes he shouldn’t say or do things after the fact. The five-inch opening closes.  James disappears down the hall and Victoria begins running a warm bath even though she’d recently showered.

She sits naked at the edge of the tub as the waterline rises; a few inches at first, while she remembers their first magical date: His fingers had caressed her upper back (near the base of her neck) in a flirtatious move that took her by surprise.  It was one of those moments too perfect for words, when the lighting is low, the wine adds just the right dose of dizziness and every phrase seemed to sing, rhyme, and dazzle.

“V, what are you doing!” James is alarmed to see the water overflowing the tub and his wife sitting there naked staring into space. He rushes across the wet floor to stop the water, loses his footing and slides across the hard tile, stopped by the tub’s cold ceramic. A burst of water splashing on Victoria’s face for the grand finale.

“Oh my God.  Are you alright?” Victoria reaches to help him up. His fall has brought her back to reality, but she starts to smile.

“I’ve pulled something!  What the hell were you doing?” James shouts.

“What? Why are you screaming like that?” She replies.

“V, what the hell’s the matter?  You’re starting to scare me.” James reaches for the bathroom sink trying to stand.

“Stop calling me V, God damn it! I’ll get some towels.” She reaches over and turns off the faucet. The smile gone from her face. When she realizes she is naked, she heads for the nearest piece of clothing, the stained dress on the bed and throws it on.

“After all these years why do you still find it so hard to tell me when something’s wrong?  Don’t you trust me?  Don’t you trust that I can help?” James managed to get up and is sitting on the toilet. Uneven blotches of water cover his tux.

After she gathers some towels to dry the floor she goes back to the linen closet to get more towels for James, who is still on the toilet with a pathetic look on his face waiting for an answer.

“Come out of those clothes you’re drenched. And don’t bring trust into this.  You know I trust you. This is not about you. It doesn’t always have to be about you.” She throws a towel at him from the bathroom door and goes over to the foot of the bed.

James walks out of the bathroom with only a white towel around his waist. He bends over the dirty clothes hamper and reveals a dark pink bruise on his right shoulder.

“Your shoulder’s hurt. Come sit down, I’ll get my cream.” She orders him.

She begins to rub the cold grease on his bruise in a circular motion hoping to prevent an ugly mark. The feel of his skin under her fingertips arouses her. Victoria backs away enough to be able to admire him completely.  He was very strong for his years.  She pushes him onto the bed, and without removing her dress sits on him.

“Don’t change the subject. You always avoid giving me a straight answer.” James tries to resist.

Her lips fall on his mouth.  She places his hands strategically on her hips. They love without worries, time constraints or emotional barriers. After a few passionate minutes they both face the ceiling with stupid grins and sleepy eyes. She heads to the bathroom to pee. When she catches her reflection in the mirror she doesn’t see the stain.

“Where’s the stain?” She is stunned.

“Huh?” James is in and out of sleep.

“The stain on the dress.  It’s gone!” She affirms, “Did I imagine it? What the hell’s wrong with me?”

“V, I can’t hear you, you’re whispering.  Come back to bed.” He hoists his tired body onto his elbows and looks over at his beautiful wife.

This time ‘V’ had an endearing ring to it, reminiscent of their early years. She meets him back on the bed and says, “I think from now on I’d like to spend our anniversaries like this.  More drinks and less clothes. And definitely no people.” The words are heavy coming out of her mouth.

“That’s great.  I didn’t want to ruin all the fun, but I’ve never really been the tuxedo type.” He smiles at her.

“What else don’t I know about you Tuxedo-man?” She sits up in bed, resting her arms on her knees.

His fingers caress her back in a flirtatious move that takes her by surprise.

Tomorrow I’ll call in sick and go get him a real present. She thought.

“Flower Power”

“Where is the happy couple?”  The question hung on everyone’s lips as they walked around the deck sipping their cocktails and fancy frozen drinks, drained of small talk.

“Don’t tell me they’re upstairs again?” Snared Mr. Miller, as he puffed on a Cuban cigar.

“Patrique, what kind of strange contraption did you bring the lovebirds?  What did you drag in this time that could be taking them so long to put together?” Mr. Miller had directed his frustration towards Susette’s brother, but Patrique only caught the last bit of the attack.

“What makes you think, my dear Sir, that this delay has anything to do with me in the least?”  He had been sitting at a considerable distance from Mr. Miller on the hand-knitted hammock.  A hammock he himself had bought for his sister in the South Pacific for last year’s party.

“Well, Susette came downstairs while you were in the bathroom, refilled our drinks…” Lily Miller informed Patrique in a low, slow voice “…and then she excused herself again and said she was working on your gift.”  All guests turned towards Patrique expecting an answer.

“But I went to the bathroom more than twenty minutes ago, haven’t they been down since?”  Patrique dismissed the conversation, placing a question where an answer should have been. He was more interested in continuing the study of the new girl behind the bar, from his comfortable hammock.  The rest of them engaged in crossfire of possible reasons that could be keeping Susette and Sammy.

“Perhaps he doesn’t feel well…” or “Maybe they’re in the middle of a fight…” one of the younger couples whispered.  But it just may have to do with Patrique’s gift after all, the multiple arrangements of exotic Amazon flowers delivered fresh this morning directly from South America.

Susette and Sammy celebrated their wedding anniversary every year with a traditional Sunday brunch.  Only the closest friends and relatives were invited.  These men and women came each year with perfectly wrapped packages, containing an assortment of lingerie, bread machines and Fondue cooking sets.  There was Mr. Peters from Sammy’s office.  A nice, single, middle-aged, balding gentlemen, that always got invited.  The rumors around the office were that the invitations were a charity contribution to the Mr. Peters Loneliness Foundation.  There were The Millers from the other side of the Bay, a charming couple of 21 years.  Lily Miller was a quiet, petite woman, who in recent years had turned from quiet to sad. Her two boys deserted her to attend out-of-state universities, leaving behind a house too big for The Millers.  Mr. Miller on the other hand made up for his wife’s lack of personality, as he waved his annoying cigars around and told tasteless jokes. 

Other couples made up the congregation of friends, The Shelbeys, The Fuentes and The Cornells were all younger in age.  The Millers almost considered them newlyweds, amateurs.  Caroline Shelbey always arranged for all the kids to stay at her mom’s ranch for the day, so the adults could play.  This year there was also Karen, a new addition to this year’s guest list.  She was a beautifully, tall brunette from one of Susette’s cooking seminars.  Susette didn’t tell Karen, but she was hoping to set her up with her brother, who she felt needed a little taming and warmth.  Karen would have never accepted on account of her limp, which makes her very self-conscious.  And the last of the guest was Patrique, Susette’s extravagant, older brother.  Patrique always came in fresh from some foreign excursion in far off places (this time, Journey into the Amazon).  He always came baring strange gifts, like the time he gave them a charmed, silk scarf, which if placed over both their heads while they kissed would bond their fates forever.  He’d bought such scarf from an old, gypsy charmer in a dusty Moroccan market during his Hike through the Pyramids Tour.  But on their 12th wedding anniversary Patrique had for them twenty bouquets of wild flower arrangements.

The afternoon was sweltering hot.  The modest shade produced by the European awnings was insufficient for keeping the dozen or so guest comfortable.

“How long do you figure they’ll keep us waiting out here in this God-forsaking heat?” Mr. Peters had become irritated, unsatisfied by his Mango-peach colada, which defeated by the hot rays was nothing more than a melted, orange mess in a sweaty glass.  The music from the radio got too monotonous, and so everyone voted for the TV.  Luckily Sammy had recently installed a good-sized unit, caddy-cornered on the wall directly over the bar.  After flipping channels for several unnerving minutes, the now exhausted crowd agreed on some news:

A stimulating new study hails some flowers as powerful aphrodisiacs.  Lilies and other wild flowers topped the list of heady blooms whose fragrance is said to fire up the flames of passion.  Its been reported that “the secret of maintaining healthy male and female libido is to keep a vase of roses, orchids, or lilies by the marital bed,” says Victoria Richardson, chief executive of Britain’s Flower and Plants Association.  The power of flower petals stem from a substance they emit called phenylethylamine, which slows the breakdown of the brain’s feel-good chemical endorphin.  The arousing study seems to back up a belief, dating back to the Indian love manual The Kama Sutra that a direct link exists between sex and flowers. Flower sales have increased four hundred percent since the study was made public. There have even been documented events of an incredible boost in libido in many gardens around the world including the U.S., Australia and Brazil.

“Didn’t you just come from Brazil, Patrique?” Asked one of The Cornells, knowing they would prepare the firing squad with such an open-ended comment.

“Yeah, that’s right.  That’s damn right.  In one of her very short trips to fill our drinks and put out the finger foods, Susette told us you’d just come from some crazy Brazilian forest trek.  Now isn’t that right?” Mr. Miller was led on by other instigators.

“Harry, I know you’ve been trying to implicate me in this from the beginning.” Patrique stood up from the hammock walked over to the front of the bar and explained.

“All the countries are into it.  Even here people have already tried it.  Yeah, I got them what’s called ‘Flower Power’.  Only in this little obscure town where nothing happens and no one lives, could y’all be so ignorant about such a miraculously wonderful discovery.”  Every ones eyes rolled back into their heads, like Romans interrogating Jesus, except for Karen.  She seemed very intrigued by Patrique’s worldly manner.

“Oh, come on Patrique, you don’t expect us to believe…” one of the women began to debate but was interrupted by her own husband.

“Come now, Pat, you don’t think some flower can actually…well, you know?” as he motioned towards his penile area.  Patrique was beyond trying to convince these losers of ‘Flower Power’ because he knew the flowers could speak for themselves.

“Of course I don’t expect y’all to understand this, even though you just saw it first hand on TV.  Let’s just let it go.  I’m going to get another beer.”  He signaled Karen before reentering the house to follow him inside.  She walked behind him towards the kitchen, as the left behind the voice of Mr. Miller,

“How can you call that news, anyway.  We had news in our time.  When something was reported on the tube, you could bet your house it was the real stuff.  Nowadays, you can’t tell the boys from the girls. News, Hah.”  He mocked Patrique with resentment in his tone.

Not noticing her limp, Patrique introduced himself,  “I’m Susette’s older brother, as you may have gathered.  Listen, don’t pay any attention to them, I’ve seen the flowers in action myself.  I’ll show them.  I’m sorry, I’m rambling.  And you are…?” he sent out his tan, right hand to meet hers.

“My name is Karen.  Karen Baxter, I’m in Susette’s cooking seminar on Thursdays.  I really wasn’t going to come.  I don’t know anyone and it just seems like a get-together for old friends, not new ones.”  He was pulling a large, deep pot from under the sink, and reaching for the vase of pale, yellow roses on the breakfast table.

“But how else can you make old friends, without first starting as the new one?”  As the scent of the flowers engulfed the cozy kitchen, he gave her a flirtatious wink.  Setting the burner on high, he asked Karen to fill the pot with hot water.  As they waited for the water to boil, he watched Karen limping around the kitchen trying to find a large ladle for stirring.  Patrique payed no mind to her limp, like DaVinci hypnotized by his Mona Lisa, he couldn’t see past the beauty in her eyes.

“Its boiling, what do we do know?”  Karen had also forgotten about her limp.

“Now for the main attraction!”  He tore the petals off the roses and gently dropped them into the love soup.  The outsiders were temporarily entertained by some of America’s Funniest Videos and their slushy drinks.  Inside the plot was boiling along with the pot.  Patrique grabbed for some pot- holders, leaned over Karen’s shoulder and whispered for her to open the window that lead to the deck.  His whisper turned into goose bumps that ran up and down her body as his lips accidentally caressed her cheek.

“And to think, I was going to actually stay home today and miss all the fun.”  She had a bit of trouble opening the unfamiliar window and then moved aside.  The steam from the kitchen hovered over the entire first floor surprising the plotters with sexual intoxication.  Without a single word they retreated to the nearby den, where they locked the door and found comfort and salvation on a passion-red Persian rug.

Buried under meaningless conversation and an undetected scent of roses, the crowd became relentless.

“It’s been over an hour now.  Maybe we should all just excuse ourselves and call it a day?”  Lily Miller convinced the others, but Mr. Miller had fallen asleep on the hammock due to the combination of alcohol and extreme weather conditions.  The Shelbeys, The Fuentes and The Cornells agreed surprisingly fast, having forgotten their interest on Susette and her Sammy.  They kept their good byes brief, as they dashed to nearby Hotels or back home; but not without first stopping at the floral shops.  Florists all over towns and cities were now open 24 hours, due to the increase in business.  Soon the price of flowers will be like that of diamonds, if this crazy sexual trend continues at this rate.

Lily decided it would be best to let her husband sleep it off.  After all he was the only one unaffected by the change in the air.

“Mr. Peters, why don’t you drive me home first and them come back for my husband.  You know my boys have both moved out since we last saw each other.”  Lily walked up to him and with a firm grip on his bicep pinched his behind with her other hand.  And so Lily and Mr. Peters were to cross that irreversible line from friends to lovers.  Not worrying about Mr. Miller, Lily grabbed a handful of flowers from the front garden and was driven home.

Susette and Sammy were coming downstairs to replenish their bodies with cold, sugary fluids.  They would have found that everyone was gone, expect Mr. Miller.  They would have also discovered that her brother had after all found warmth he so desperately needed, but before they reached the bottom step another powerful scent of roses, sent them running back upstairs.

Two weeks later the news reported a record-braking low of absences in the workplace.

“Lovers, Park Benches and Roses”

Two lovers on a park bench nibbled on each other’s lips, under the New York skyline. An occasional ocean mist sprinkled their cheeks, as they faced the Hudson, awaiting the magic of sunset. Surrounded by multi-colored tulips and trees with their blossoming pink buds, the lovers took the springtime scene and turned it to their advantage. Strange faces coming and going, merging and emerging from behind the crowded, brownstone buildings. Contrary to the popular opinion, that New Yorkers are cold an apathetic, most of the pedestrians couldn’t help but stare at the indiscreet couple. But the lovers wouldn’t have cared, if they had noticed. “Look at these kids, Howard…”, said an angry old lady to her husband of fifty-seven years as they passed the bench. “…shouldn’t they be in school or something?” The old man barely acknowledged her remarks as he puffed away at his cigar a few feet in front of her. “C’mon Helen, catch up. It’s late. We’ll miss the damn train.”

They both disappeared down the stairs of the South Ferry subway station, near the edge of Battery Park. The old lady still shaking her head in disgust. A conjunction of the city noises gave way to the frenzy that is the afternoon rush hour. Nonstop cab horns, random screams from neighborhood quarrels, musicians performing on street corners for quarters, the continuous sound of metal on metal as the subways run above and beneath, the hum of eight million voices, all one hypnotic symphony. Still the lovers heard nothing, as they sank deeper into their own world, population of two.

A child and his mother were coming up to the lover’s bench. She was a tall career woman. A leather briefcase hung from her right shoulder and a cellular phone permanently afixed to her ear. She rushed passed the bench in embarrassment as she tugged her six-year-old son with her free arm. The tiny boy giggled devilishly behind a mound of strawberry scoops that ran down his arm in melted streaks of pink. Mom quickly gave him a little pull, in a failed attempt to keep him in line as they walked on.

Now the couple, with sweet kisses and promises of love they intend to keep, were the center of attention to anyone within a fifteen feet radius. Even an older couple, in about their mid-thirties noticed the lovers, while they were cruising  on their matching bikes. The husband had the day off on account of a holiday. So his wife had decided on the spur of the moment to ride to the park and have a late picnic-brunch. From the front of her handlebars hung a straw picnic basket overflowing with fresh fruits, cold cut sandwiches neatly wrapped in saran wrap, two bottles of seltzer water, plus some red plaid napkins and silverware. The husband was staring across the street at a young teenager in tight Lees and a revealing half-shirt. While the wife’s attention was directed towards the lovers, still on the bench, still kissing. In the face of pure, undisturbed romance she herself was taken back to a more happy time in her life. A time when cold winter nights were spent snuggled beside the fireplace, with a chilled bottle of Chardonay and a timeworn copy of D.H.Lawrence’s, Lady Chatterley’s Lover . But now, years later, her marriage had turned an ugly reality she dared not face. Even when they had leaned their bikes on a tree and got started on their brunch, the wife couldn’t help glance at the kissing couple.

Ignoring the uncomfortable silence between her husband and herself, a hopeful smile appeared on her aging, freckled face. The sunset burst into the Hudson in glittery sparks of golden cinnamon, burnt orange and velvet purple. The lovers held each other’s hands, her head on his shoulders. A jogger appeared on the scene, crossing State Street onto the park. His gray sweats soaked through with traces of great cardiovascular endurance. Cool air from the river penetrated his nostrils, cleansing his lungs; but having no effect on his cluttered thoughts. He and his wife had been arguing for several weeks now, and no matter how much or how far he ran the marriage was still in shambles. Stopping on a bench near the lovers, he bent over to retie his Nikes and catch his breath and think about his wife.

Maybe I’ve been working too much. Or maybe she’s hiding something that’s bothering her. I don’t know . Maybe its my fault. I don’t know…

The playful giggle of a young lady interrupted his train of thought. He looked over a couple of benches down and spotted the lovers. A breath-taking sunset dove behind the Statue of Liberty in seconds, giving birth to New York’s bright, neon night. The lovers left with the sunset, as they disappeared between the shadows and the trees. The scent of a passionate kiss and the sigh of eternal love lingered over the empty park bench.

On his way out of the park, the jogger caught the scent and heard the sigh, as if they were coming from within. He stopped on the corner of State Street and Battery Place, where an old lady wore an old faded skirt and a sixties t-shirt with a huge sunflower on the front. She sold the most beautiful pink roses in the entire city.

“Hey, Mr.Roberts. Long time no see. Don’t tell me you buying flowers from the shops, now?”, she gave him the third degree as she adjusted her bra with her left hand and handed him her prettiest, pink bunch with the other.

“C’mon. You know I won’t do that to you , Conny. Besides, my wife would notice the difference.”, he handed her a wrinkled five dollar bill from his pocket and took the bunch of roses with extra care.

“See you tomorrow, Conny.” The jogger waved as he ran down the street that lead to his apartment building.

“See ya later Roberts.”, said the old lady in vein, Mr.Roberts was out of ear shot by now.

She adjusted her bra again, after sticking the money in her shirt. A smile came upon her face with the realization that at least one woman tonight would get a beautiful surprise, wrapped in cheap, clear plastic, tied with a red, silk ribbon. She felt her long hours and little pay was now justified.

“Flowers. Beautiful roses, carnations. Flowers. Sir would you like some lovely flowers for the lady…”, she asked a passing couple which ignored her. “…flowers. Pretty flowers…”

PROMPTS…

First, A Bit of Background:

I ran out of journals and we all know any self-respecting wannabe writer can’t be without at least one journal. The masters have stacks and stacks of empty journals just waiting to be filled with literary mastery. I spotted an interesting buy called “Write the Story”–quite a cool little writing tool. It is an impressive all-black journal embossed with gold letters on the cover. But the real fun is inside. Every page houses a creative writing prompt, in which the journal gods lay out a scenario and challenge writers to include specific words into the exercise. And so, I thought to share this process as a regular post (with this being the first of many to come). I thought it might be interesting to share the dynamics (though often insane) of the creative process as it unravels or resolves itself…so I will NOW turn to a random page of my new journal (yes, I’m going to do it as soon as I’m done explaining it) and what appears in the following lines below will be a direct result of the writer’s brain. Since I will be typing without much thought, I will, at the end, reveal what the prompt was and tag my little exercise as Sludge (for utter and complete crap) or Spark (for writing that is okay enough to possibly spark a good storyline or idea). Here goes nothing…

Writing Exercise #1:


…but my so-called friends just laughed and continued inserting stale pizza squares into their mouths. They were convinced I was kidding. I had that reputation. They assumed I was playing another trick on them so I looked around the crowded school cafeteria in a desperate attempt to find someone, anyone that would believe me. I know it seems stupid to scan a room for a stranger that would believe my crazy story but I always prided myself in being able to pluck a trustworthy, no-bullshit type from a crowd; a gift I’ve possessed since middle school. To me it was as easy as finding a candle lit in a dark room. But even if I could find someone, would they really buy that our high school’s dandelion field just beyond the first stop sign near the football field had disappeared over night along with all the bumble bees that just yesterday had buzzed happily over the budding flowers. I caught Andromeda’s gaze. She was a senior known for her love of all-things-science, so like a robotic poet, I repeated my unbelievable story about a disappearing field of flowers. I felt myself tremble and could hear the words falling out of my mouth with the same obnoxious clickity-clack my keyboard makes when I type too fast. Part of me was determined to stand there and repeat myself until she believed me, the other half wanted to run, run and hide with embarrassment because I realized how insane it all sounded. But, even if I had decided to run for it, I couldn’t. Fear had paralyzed me and my feet felt as cemented as a pre-historic iceberg in arctic waters. But then Andromeda‘s face changed. Something I said clicked. She got where I was coming from and decided we needed to get more acquainted. Call me Andie, she said with a smile and we walked out, leaving the spectacle that is a high school cafeteria, behind us, presumably to solve a much bigger problem.

Phewwwwww!!! That was NOT easy!

I rate myself 9 / 10 on this one because…well, nothing’s perfect. As my high school drafting professor would say, “there’s always room for improvement” but overall, it’s a Spark!

Try this one & see what you come up with. LET THE SPARKS FLY (pun intended)!

WRITING EXERCISE #2:

WRITING EXERCISE #3:

WRITING EXERCISES #4:

WRITING EXERCISE #5:

WRITING EXERCISE #6:

I’M SHARING THIS ONE BECAUSE MY SON SAID IT COULDN’T BE DONE – AND HE’S WITNESS TO THE FACT THAT IT ONLY TOOK ME A VERY PROUD 6 MINUTES.

Writing Exercise #6: The Enchanting Mermaid that Ended Our Bromance

I watched the raindrops trickle down the glass pane of our Starbucks. A summer rainstorm had brought with it much needed relieve from the stifling heat, but it always brought with it the tall non-fat latte with caramel drizzle that ended our bromance. She rushed through the heavy double doors, like something out of a fantasy; a beautiful dripping mermaid looking for shelter from the rain. I took my pencil off my ear and tapped Tyler on the shoulder. He was justified in ignoring me. I always poked him with pencils, pens and Sharpies just to annoy him when days went by too slow, which was often. Most Mondays were uneventful. Tyler and I were set to close the store, working in isolation from the rest of the baristas. We were a team. I was the Batman to his Robin, the Han Solo to his Chewbacca or the Spongebob to his Patrick. He would, of course, disagree, believing himself to be the alpha of our little duo. But this Monday would prove to be different. This Monday would put an end to my loveless life, while simultaneously wrecking my three-year friendship with Tyler. Her gleaming emerald eyes, her tender dimpled smile, and the fiery red curls that draped down to her lower back were all responsible elements in the destruction of our bromance. The mermaid swayed a few steps to the cash register, and asked me in a sweet melodic voice if our wireless was working. I assured her we had the best wi-fi in the entire county. She liked my joke and smiled another cute dimpled smile before ordering her tall non-fat latte with caramel drizzle.

Tyler approached with his chest a bit more pumped out than usual, like a peacock strutting his blue iridescent plumage. I did the only thing to be done in that such situation, I cock-blocked the peacock. Tyler felt the immediate sting of my betrayal and took the necessary steps back, leaned on the shelves, crossed his arms and began sulking. I knew I had betray the Bro Code. But looking into the eyes of the mermaid, this goddess, this divine creature, I had no chance of surviving her charms, her hypnotic pull. I was her servant, she my master. I would have followed her to a watery death, like cursed pirates from ancient seafaring legends. We exchanged one last smile and she left happy with my coffee cup in her hands, the one I prepared with extra love, inscribing my cell phone number in thick permanent ink across the top. That fateful Monday night, Tyler and I closed the coffee shop without a word between us; our silence prominent throughout the dining room as we wiped, swept and mopped. He finally took the store keys out of his pocket, and we walked to the exit where he stopped to secure the door after setting the alarm. Under the dim light of the parking lot lamps, we both knew, without having to say it, there would never be another video game and pizza night spent at his apartment, or nights by the bonfire at the beach with roommates and stale beer. Our time together had been interrupted, a premature death we would both mourn, presumably, for days. And when her call vibrated in my pocket, the whole world, including my dejected long-time friend, disappeared beneath the heart-thumping excitement of new love.

WRITING PROMPT #7:

WRITING PROMPT #8:

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