“Sammie Lover” – short fiction

Jars of peanut butter are arranged in carefully manicured rows on the shelf in Wegmans. Jif, Skippy, Peter Pan. Creamy, crunchy, extra crunchy.

And then you have the peanut allergy-friendly varieties: cashew, almond, pecan, macadamia.

I put a finger to my lips, let my eyes roam over the labels, take my time. I already know what I want but I don’t want to appear eager or excited. I pick up a jar of creamy Skippy, put it in my basket. It sits next to a package of sliced turkey, a box of tissues, a bunch of bananas. Can’t have it look like I’m here just for the peanut butter.

Farther down the aisle a guy in his 20s peruses the jellies, the jams. Only he taps a foot on the linoleum, gives little sideways glances to see if anybody’s looking. I catch his eye, nod, give him a smile, continue on my way. He looks at his feet, hurries down the aisle in the opposite direction.

 

At Stop & Shop, I roll down the jelly aisle with my cart. I consider the offerings on hand. There’s Smucker’s, Welch’s. Grape, strawberry, fig, apricot. Mass-produced, organic, artisanal. Orange marmalade for the truly discerning.

I go for a jar of Bonne Maman strawberry preserves, with its checkered lid and cursive script on the label. It costs a couple bucks more than the other brands but it’s worth it. I carefully place the jar in the cart, next to a bag of romaine hearts, in the part of the cart where a child would sit if I had a child.

It joins the other items I don’t really need: a 12-pack of toilet paper, a box of instant oatmeal, a carton of pumpkin-flavored coffee creamer, a package of Chips Ahoy. I don’t even eat cookies.

 

I go to CVS, pick up a bottle of Robitussin, some shampoo.

I peruse the two shelves that constitute their bread section. There’s a few loaves of Pepperidge Farm whole wheat, Nature’s Own multigrain, Stroehmann white.

I select a loaf of the Stroehmann, carry it in the crook of my arm like a baby.

 

I get home, put the bags of groceries on the kitchen table. I glance at the LCD display on the microwave: 9:47pm. I used to do my grocery shopping in the morning or during my lunch break. I don’t do that anymore. Too many prying eyes.

I draw the curtains in front of the window by the kitchen sink, draw the curtains in front of the living room window. Don’t need any Peeping Toms.

I take out the bread, the peanut butter, the jelly, arrange them on the counter. I could care less about the other stuff, let it all sit on the table.

I undo the twist tie on the bag of Stroehmann, stick my nose in, take a long whiff. Smiling, I remove one slice, another. I open the toaster oven, gently slide the slices in. The toaster oven is a stainless steel work of art. It can slow cook, reheat, roast, broil, bake, you name it. I only ever use it for toasting. But it gets it right every. Single. Time. Best $250 I ever spent.

While the bread is toasting, I unscrew the top on the jar of Skippy, smell that too. I open the jar of Bonne Maman. The scent of toasting bread suffuses the air. My mouth waters.

I take a plate from the cupboard, a butter knife from the silverware drawer, arrange them on the countertop just so. The toaster dings!, and I remove each slice of bread using my thumb and forefinger. It’s hot but I don’t mind the pain.

I wait a couple of minutes, let the bread cool just a little. I spread a thick coating of Skippy on one slice, a couple gooey dollops of preserves on the other. I put the slice with the peanut butter on top of the slice with the jelly. I don’t bother cutting the sandwich, just pick it up and take a big bite.

Gooseflesh raises on my skin, blood rushes to my face. It’s warm and sticky and messy and I don’t want it to end.

How anybody could hate this is beyond me. Yet, being seen with a PB and J in the wrong place at the wrong time could be the death of you. Literally.

 

Zane says when he was in high school, he told his “friend” that he liked peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He says that this person went and told another kid who told another kid who told another and on and on until everybody knew Zane’s secret. Pretty soon everybody was calling him “sammie lover.” A few tears leak out of Zane’s eyes, roll past the rims of his glasses. He uses the cuff of his argyle sweater to mop them up.

Blue plastic chairs are arranged in a circle in the basement of a church. Zane’s in good company because each one is occupied by somebody who has endured a situation similar to Zane’s. We tell people we can’t help it, that we were born this way. Most guffaw when they hear that, think it’s a choice.

We thank Zane for sharing, tell him to stay strong.

The meeting ends. I’m gathering up my coat and purse when I feel a light touch on my arm. I look up, see Zane.

He asks me do I remember him from the other night. I’m not good with faces so I tell him no.

He asks me was I at Wegmans the other night, was I there getting peanut butter.

Oh right, I say. You were the guy looking at the jellies?

He lowers his head, nods. He says, Sorry if I seemed a little skittish. He says, That’s how I am in supermarkets anymore.

I put on my coat, sling my purse over my shoulder. Aren’t we all, I say.

 

Zane picks at the cardboard sleeve of his coffee cup, tells me I remind him of his sister. He says, The way you walked around Wegmans, like nothing could hurt you. He says, Renee was like that.

I say, Was?

He pushes his glasses up on his nose, says, Yeah, she died a couple years back. He says, She loved peanut butter and jelly.

We’re in a coffee shop down the street from the church. After the meeting, Zane asked if I wanted to get some coffee with him. I said sure, why not.

I offer my condolences, ask him how it happened. I say, If you don’t want to talk about it, I completely understand.

Nah, it’s okay, he says. I can talk about it.

Renee was in a grocery store one day, bought bread, peanut butter, and jelly. Zane says that his parents let them have peanut butter and jelly all the time growing up, that they never treated it like it was weird or repulsive. So neither did he, neither did Renee.

She was a freshman in college, doing her own grocery shopping for the first time. So of course she bought those things at one store, not three. Somebody must’ve spotted her, Zane says, because she was found outside the store, her face disfigured and bloody. Her shopping bag was ripped open, the peanut butter, jelly, bread, and other groceries strewn around her broken body.

I wince, tell Zane his sister sounds braver than I could ever be.

He gives me a thin-lipped smile, sips his coffee. We sit in silence for a few moments, neither of us knowing what to say next. Finally, Zane says, You hear about the rally this weekend?

I shake my head.

He tells me a pro-PB and J rally is going to be held in the city, that there’ll be a parade and then a few PB and J-ers will speak.

I must look wary because he says, Heavy police presence, too. He says, Nobody messes with us. He asks me would I like to go.

I swallow, say, Um. Say, Well.

He removes a pen from his jacket pocket, slips the sleeve off his coffee cup. He flattens the brown ring on the table top, jots his number on it. He slides it across to me. He says, Give me a call if you change your mind.

 

A humongous peanut butter and jelly sandwich dances up to me, hands me a small package wrapped in wax paper. I fold back the paper, catch a glimpse of beige, of purple. I gasp, quickly refold the paper, thrust the sandwich into my purse.

Zane puts a hand on my arm, says, No no, it’s cool. He unwraps his sandwich, takes a big bite, smiles. He says, See?

I look around, see other people doing exactly what Zane is. I take the sandwich back out, remove the paper, bite into it. I say, It’s so. Good.

Zane laughs, takes another bite. He says, Right?

So I changed my mind about the parade. I called Zane, met up with him and his friends.

We stroll through the streets of the city, munching on our sandwiches, smiling, talking, laughing. Several people are dressed as sandwiches, many others are dressed in purple shirts and khaki pants. I see one woman wearing a shirt that shows two cartoon-ish pieces of bread hugging each other, peanut butter and jelly squeezed between them. Letter-shaped clouds above the sandwich spell out PUT ‘EM TOGETHER, NOTHING’S BETTER!

The woman spots Zane, runs over, throws her arms around him. She’s got a sandwich, too.

After they hug, she motions to me, says, And who’s this?

Zane introduces us – the woman’s name is Martha.

Martha says, Haven’t seen you before. She says, This your first rally?

I nod.

Zane cups his hand around Martha’s ear, whispers something to her.

Martha gives me a look as if to say, “You’ll do.”

The crowd starts to slow and then comes to a stop. We’re standing in the middle of the street, flanked on one side by a stage, a microphone stand on top of it.

Martha says, Be right back. She disappears into the crowd.

I turn to Zane, ask him what he said to her. He smiles, polishes off his sandwich, says, You’ll see.

When Martha reappears, she’s up on the stage, behind the mic. Her arms are raised, and she’s waving to the crowd with both hands.

Into the mic she says, Put ‘em together!

Everybody around me shouts, Nothing’s better!

Martha whoops and claps. She thanks everyone for coming out, says that every rally gets us a step closer to equality. She talks a little more about how we, how “sammie lovers,” are people, too and that being out in public is the best way to show we aren’t scared.

She says, So now I’d like to welcome a new face to the stage. She says, This is the first rally she’s attended, and I don’t know about you guys but I’d like to hear what she thinks. She leans into the microphone, says, What do you say?!

The crowd claps and howls in response.

Martha says, That’s what I thought! She says, Come on up, Justine!

My breath catches in my throat. Zane lightly elbows me, says, You heard the lady.

I swallow, hand my sandwich to Zane.

I get to the stage, take Martha’s place behind the mic. The cheering and clapping die down. I adjust the mic, clear my throat.

I say, Thanks. I say, Um, let’s hear it for Martha!

More clapping, more cheering.

It gets quiet again, and I say, Like Martha said, this is my first rally. I say, And she’s right, you know. I say, Things like this. They’re important. It’s scary to be different but it shouldn’t be. I say, Some of us have lost things just for being who we are, and that sucks.

I pause, look over at Martha, look out at Zane. I say, My parents disowned me when I told them I liked peanut butter and jelly. I say, People say honesty is the best policy. I pause, say, They never tell you that honesty can feel so shitty.

 

It was a couple of years after I graduated college. I’d gotten tired of hiding who I was from my parents so I decided to tell them. Actually though, I wasn’t that direct.

We were in the kitchen one morning, Mom, Dad, and I. They were at the table, having their coffee and reading the paper. I said good morning and without saying another word, started making a PB and J. Mom and Dad didn’t notice anything until I sat down at the table with my sandwich.

Mom looked over, made a face, said, What. Is that?

I said, Peanut butter and jelly.

Mom put down her paper. Dad did, too.

Mom said, Is this for real?

Dad said, How long? He said, When did?

Since sophomore year in college, I said. So for a few years now.

They sat there for a little while, processing. I ate my sandwich, put my plate in the sink. Put away the peanut butter, the jelly, the bread. Took my place back at the table.

Finally, Mom said, Well this is completely unacceptable.

Dad said, You try not liking peanut butter and jelly? He said, Maybe give ham and cheese a chance?

I said, Guys. I said, This is who I am. You need to accept it.

Mom said, Please leave.

I said, Daddy?

He said, Justy. We can’t be seen as. He lowered his voice, said, Sammie lovers.

Tears in my eyes, I got up from the table, looked at each of them in turn. I said, You’re such fucking cowards.

I left and never went back.

 

I finish my story, and the crowd is silent. Then Zane yells, We love you, Justine!

Everybody starts cheering, whistling, shouting my name. My eyes well up, and I move to leave the stage. Martha grabs my arm, spins me around, hugs me. Her eyes wet with tears, she says, Thank you so much for doing this. She says, Stories like yours save people.

She releases me, says into the mic, Let’s hear it again for Justine!

The applause continues as I step off the stage and into more welcoming arms. I’m like a president, a rock star, glad-handing and hugging the members of what feels like my new family.

I make my way to Zane. He hugs me, too. He says, See? He says, Aren’t you glad you came?

I smile, nod, start sobbing. I fall into his arms again.

 

Martha plucks a jar of crunchy Jif off the shelf at Wegmans, tells me she usually goes creamy but likes to change things up every now and again. She puts it in her basket, sits it next to a loaf of raisin bread.

Days after the parade, Martha calls me, asks if I want to run some errands with her, says she could use the company. What she doesn’t tell me is that she wants to go to the grocery store to buy exactly three items.

She moseys down the aisle, selects a jar of Welch’s grape jelly. She holds it out, wiggles it at me, says, I keep it real. She adds it to the basket, proceeds toward the checkout lanes.

I bite my lip, look around.

Martha says, What are you doing?

I say, Uh. Say, Nothing.

As we near the end of the aisle, a man and his teenage son pass us with their cart. The man glances at Martha’s basket, grunts, says, Fuckin’ sammie lovers.

I wince.

Martha smiles, says, That’s right, my good man. She says, It’s a taste sensation. You should try it. She looks him right in the eye, says, You know you want to.

The man grumbles, pushes his cart past us, his son trailing him.

As we approach a checkout line, I say, That was amazing. I say, Does that happen often?

Martha puts the peanut butter, jelly, and bread on the black conveyor belt, says, More often than I would like, yeah. She says, But what am I gonna do? Go to three different stores?

I guffaw, scratch my head, say, Yeah, I guess that would be, uh. Pretty stupid.

She says, We’re here. She looks at me, says, They need to get used to it.

 

Talking heads on TV tell me there’s anti-sammie legislation that’s being voted on in a few days in D.C. They’re saying that, if it passes, it will be illegal to consume a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in public.

I grab my cell phone, call Zane. I ask him if he’s seen the news, ask him if he’s heard this bullshit about anti-sammie laws.

He sighs, says yeah, he heard.

On television, pundits debate the proposed legislation. A couple of them call PB and J “disgusting” and “revolting.”

Zane says, Justine? He says, You there?

I say, Yeah. Say, I need to call Martha.

 

Cops pace back and forth in front of metal barricades. They scan the crowds behind them, eyes alighting on each face before moving on to another.

In front of the Capitol building, protesters have gathered. We, the sammie lovers, are behind one set of barricades. The anti-sammies are behind the other.

Standing flush against the barricade, Martha holds a megaphone in one hand, thrusts a PB and J into the air with the other. The megaphone to her lips, she says, Put ‘em together!

We respond, Nothing’s better!

Across from us, anti-sammies hold signs that say “Ham and Cheese – Sure to Please!” and “Peanut Butter and Jelly – Bad for Your Belly!” They chant, PB and J! They chant, No way!

This continues until a young woman in a pantsuit walks down to where we are. We fall silent, and she says, The bill has been voted down!

We cheer and hug each other. The anti-sammies boo, shake their signs. We wave to the cops, thank them for being there. Some break character, smile and wave.

Our mission accomplished, we disperse.

Zane, Martha, and I walk back to my car. We’re about to cross the street when a full jar of peanut butter slams into Martha’s head. She stumbles, falls down the steps of a nearby Metro station.

She tumbles down a long flight of stairs, comes to rest on a landing.

She isn’t moving. She doesn’t get up.

 

The pastor says that Martha was like a bulldog, that once she had her jaws locked on something, forget it, that was it, she wouldn’t let go. He smiles, says she would’ve taken that as a compliment.

In the distance, a chorus of acidic voices shouts, PB and J! It shouts, No way! They wave signs, make a show of stomping on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They’re standing right outside the cemetery gate.

Whoever threw that jar of peanut butter at Martha’s head, he or she wasn’t caught. The police said the fingerprints from the jar couldn’t be matched to any they had on file. Whoever it was, though, Zane and I are convinced he or she was an anti-sammie.

Now, like a metastatic cancer, the anti-sammies have spread to Martha’s funeral.

The pastor’s eyes dart in the direction of the protesters. He looks at us, offers a small smile, his lips pursed together. He clears his throat, gets on with the ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

Soon one of the protesters is on a megaphone prattling on about how peanut butter and jelly is an “aberration,” a “gross misuse of foodstuffs.” He calls us “freaks,” “malcontents.”

I huff, stomp away from Zane and the other mourners.

I go to my car, dump my purse in the front seat. I grab Martha’s megaphone from the backseat. It’s been there since D.C.

Brandishing it like a pistol – held near my hip with my finger on the trigger, I march to the wrought iron gate. I bring the megaphone to my mouth, shout, Put ‘em together! I shout, Nothing’s better!

A voice joins mine, and out of the corner of my eye I see that it’s Zane’s.

Before we know it, everybody else at the funeral joins us, and it’s D.C. all over again – them on one side, us on the other.

A jar of peanut butter comes sailing over the gate. I duck and Zane swoops in and catches it. He says, Thanks! He says, I was almost out!

There’s a commotion among the anti-sammies, and a group of cops converges on a guy with a backpack. They open it, find jars of peanut butter, jars of jelly.

I move closer to the fence, get a better look at the guy with the backpack. He’s the same guy from the grocery store, the one shopping with his son.

We later find out that his prints match those of the ones on the jar that killed Martha.

 

A sea of flickering orange dots stretches out before me. A tear-streaked face hangs above each one.

Perched on a stepstool, I hold a microphone to my lips. It’s sweaty in my hand. I clear my throat, and it booms from the speakers. I say, I didn’t know Martha that well. We only met recently. I say, But I can tell you that she was one of the bravest, most passionate people I’ve ever met.

The candlelight vigil was Zane’s idea. He said it’d give other sammie lovers a chance to mourn, to pay their respects. He organized it but insisted I be the one to speak.

I motion to an enlarged photo of Martha, which Zane, standing beside me, is holding up. In it, Martha holds a PB and J in one hand, gives a thumbs-up with the other. She gives the camera a closed-lipped smile since her cheeks are bulging, ostensibly with masticated sandwich.

Martha wasn’t ashamed of who she was, I say. She never hid, never apologized.

Tears gather at the corners of my eyes. I blink, and they roll down my cheeks. I say, We should all strive to be more like her.

I sniff, say, She was taken from us too soon. I say, And that’s the point. Because even though there are those who would hurt us, who wouldn’t think twice about taking our lives, we cannot back down, we cannot hide. I say, We cannot give them what they want because Martha wouldn’t.

I raise my candle, say, To Martha.

The crowd joins me, raises their candles. In unison, they say, To Martha.

There’s one person who doesn’t say anything, who doesn’t raise a candle. He’s wearing a sweatshirt, has the hood pulled up. His hands are jammed in his pockets.

I glance at Zane, mouth the words You see that?

He shakes his head no.

When I look back toward the hooded stranger, he’s gone.

 

The hooded stranger tells me I ruined his life. He says, It’s all your fault.

With his hood up, I can’t tell who it is. I squint, say, What’s my fault?

The vigil over, Zane and I are at his car packing up the speakers, the leftover candles.

The stranger folds back his hood. It’s the kid from the grocery store, the son of the guy who killed Martha. He says, It’s your fault that my dad’s in jail. He says, My life is ruined ‘cause of you.

Zane puts a hand on my arm, says, Hey. He says, Let’s just go.

I shrug Zane off, level my gaze at the kid, say, Are you fucking serious? I say, Our friend is dead because of your asshole dad! I say, He can rot in prison for the next hundred years for all I care. I say, And believe me, you’re better off without him.

Zane tries again to pull me away, says, C’mon, Justine, it isn’t worth it.

The kid pulls a knife, says, Better listen to your friend.

I yank my arm away from Zane, step toward the kid, say, Oh, what? I say, You gonna pick us off one by one? Follow in Daddy’s footsteps? I say, Is that your deal? Just keep killing us, hope we’ll go away? I say, We’re never going away! I thump my chest, say, C’mon. Take your best shot, champ.

The kid closes the distance between us. He huffs and puffs but doesn’t do a damn thing. He just says, Fuckin’ sammie lover, and walks off.

 

Zane gives me a ride back to my place. He’s silent the whole way.

We’re parked in front of my house, the engine idling. I lean over, give him a kiss on the cheek, say, Thanks for organizing the vigil. I say, I think Martha would’ve liked that.

Staring straight ahead, he says, Mmm.

I poke his arm, smile, say, What’s your problem, grumpy?

His eyes don’t leave the road. He says, You shouldn’t have antagonized Emo Boy back there.

I say, What? I say, He antagonized me.

And you shouldn’t have engaged him, Zane says. He turns to me, says, I mean, what was all that “Take your best shot” crap? He says, You don’t know what these maniacs are capable of. He says, Jesus Christ, Justine, he could’ve killed you! He turns his attention back to the windshield, says, It’s not worth dying for.

I say, Not worth dying for? I say, I would rather be six feet under the cold fucking ground than have to hide who I am. I say, I’m done playing by their rules, I’ve had it. I say, And what’s with you, huh? They kill your friend and you can’t man up and defend her memory? I say, You just gonna keep rolling over for them, keep shying away every time you go to a grocery store to buy peanut butter or jelly? Is that how you want to live?

I get out of the car. I look back at Zane, see him hunched over the steering wheel, say, Martha didn’t die so you could tuck your tail between your legs. I say, And Renee didn’t either.

I slam the door, watch as Zane slowly drives away.

 

The cashier at Stop & Shop makes a face, scans the three items I’ve placed on the conveyor belt: a jar of crunchy Jif, a jar of Welch’s grape jelly, a loaf of raisin bread. A tribute to Martha.

She exchanges looks with the customers standing in line behind me.

I look at her, look at them, look back at her, say, I’m standing right here. I say, At least try to act like human beings.

I tossed and turned most of the night, dozed for maybe an hour or two. After the thing with that dopey kid and then Zane, I just lay in bed, slapping at the rumpled sheets and seething. These people are lucky I don’t stab them.

The cashier forces a smile, bags up my purchases.

I snatch up the bag, turn to the cashier, the morons in line, say, Get a fucking grip.

Striding out of the store and into the fresh air, I smile, feel like I could kick a hole in the sun.

 

When it comes to PB and J, I’m a white bread fan. Always have been. I have to admit though, Martha was on to something with this whole raisin bread thing.

I sink my teeth into the toasted crust, get a nice, big mouthful of crunchy peanut butter, of grape jelly, of raisins and cinnamon.

I’m spread out on a park bench, enjoying the sandwich in the open, as I should be. I found the most crowded park I could, made a big show of taking off my jacket to display my “Put ‘Em Together” t-shirt, which is just like Martha’s. Then I unwrapped my sandwich and dug in. Another tribute to Martha.

People give me looks, wrinkle their noses at me. I wave at them, say hi. Nothing can ruin my mood. It reminds me of that first parade I went to with Zane.

Zane.

I’m about to take another bite of my sandwich but lower it, take my phone out of my purse. I call Zane, get his voicemail.

I say, Hey. Say, It’s me. I swallow hard, tell him I didn’t mean a word of what I said, that I was only angry and upset, that he was the one who got me out of the house, that I would never have done that if not for him, that I have him to thank for getting me out of my shell. I take a breath, say, I’m sorry, Zane, okay? I tell him to meet me in the park if he can, that I’m enjoying a sandwich and that he should really try it. I say, Call me when you get—

The phone is slapped out of my hand.

What the fuck, I say. Who—

I look up, see that idiot kid. He’s still wearing the same hoodie. And he’s joined by two of his friends.

One of them takes the sandwich off my lap, bites into it, spits a chewed lump at me. It hits my nose, rolls down my cheek, my chin. The kid says, Fuckin’ disgusting.

Another one says, Completely unnatural.

I scan the park. It’s suddenly devoid of people. Like they’ve cleared out. On purpose.

What’s unnatural, I say. Is that you’ve ruined a perfectly good sandwich. I add, Douche bags.

The kid in the hoodie slaps me across the face, and it’s hard enough that I fall off the bench and into the grass.

My hand goes to my face, and I kick out hard, catch the kid in the shin. He curses, stumbles sideways. One of his friends grunts, another laughs. I get to my knees, punch one of the cronies in the balls. He grabs his crotch, moans.

The kid in the hoodie recovers, sends a sneakered foot into my ribs. I cough, fall over.

They all take turns kicking me. I cover up as best I can, try to deflect the blows, but eventually one of them boots me in the head. The edges of my vision begin to blacken.

I see Zane sitting across from me in the car last night, telling me that this isn’t worth dying for. I hear myself telling him I’d rather be dead than hide.

Things are getting darker, and the kids aren’t slowing their onslaught, and it’s looking like I’m going to get my wish when I hear Zane shouting. The kicking stops. My attackers flee.

Then Zane is leaning over me, strands of hair hanging in front of his glasses. He puts a hand on my shoulder, says, Hey. He says, You okay?

I take a painful breath, groan, say, Think so.

Zane slowly sits me up. There’s a small, brown paper bag lying next to us in the grass. He says, Funny we had the same idea.

I say, Whaddya mean? I say, Wha’s in the bag?

He says, PB and J. He smiles, says, We can’t hide, right?

I nod, return the smile, say, Right.

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“A Thankless Job” – short fiction

My nipples ache even though I’ve been off the marble for a year. But actually, between cryosleep and FTL travel, it’s been more like four months.

I lay in my rack and rub my boobs to try to alleviate the soreness but my atmosuit makes that difficult. I wish I could take the stupid thing off, really get in there and apply some bag balm, use a pump to get rid of the milk. But it’ll be a while before I can fuck off back to Central. Even then, the pumps on the station aren’t the greatest. The eggheads have perfected traveling through the black but lactation in the black? Forget it.

So I rub them until rivulets of milk pulse out of my nipples, soak the cups of my bra. The soreness abates a little as the visor of my helmet flashes red. The HUD announces, REPORT TO FOB DELTA FOR SITREP AND MISSION BRIEFING.

I groan, peer over at Teller in his rack. I key the mic and hear him snoring lightly.

Lucky bastard.

 

An ever-shifting mass of blobs fills the briefing room at FOB Delta. It’s right in front of me, and when I reach out to touch one of the blobs, everything shifts and I’m standing on a berm overlooking a valley, the blobs smack-dab in the middle of it.

The Major says, This will be your staging area, Sergeant. She circles the mass of blobs with a finger and a big, red O appears around it. She says, Our intelligence confirms that this is the main hive. She says, Take this out, we should be good to go.

I say, This is the closest we can get, ma’am?

The Major’s helmet bobs forward. Unfortunately, she says.

I salute her. Cock ‘em and lock ‘em, Major, I say.

She returns the salute. Cock ‘em and lock ‘em, Sergeant Pennski.

The Major taps her wristscreen with a gloved hand. The hologram dissipates like smoke in a stiff wind.

 

I’m trying to give Teller our orders but he won’t let me. He’s too busy prattling on and on about his wife and kids.

He got a vid from his family while I met with the Major, and he’s catching me up on their comings and goings.

The other grunts call us Penn and Teller, after those goofy magicians from way back in the day. The ones from the old school vids that don’t make you feel like you’re in the room with them. Penn and Teller – we show up, ta-da!, you’re dead.

Only difference is my Teller doesn’t shut the fuck up.

Teller, I say.

He tells me his one kid scored a goal in soccer, the other one aced a math test.

Teller, I say. Shut up a minute.

Sorry, Sarge, he says.

Got our orders, I say. I transmit them to Teller. His eyes track back and forth beneath his helmet’s visor as he reads the briefing, silently mouthing the words.

He says, So that’s it, huh? He says, We get rid of this hive, we go home?

Seems so, I say.

Teller grabs his rifle from the rack on the wall, hefts it. He says, Let’s fuck shit up.

 

Teller and I are on the rocky outcropping above the main hive, lying on our stomachs. Our atmosuits go chameleon, soak up sand and grit from the ground. We’re just another couple of rocks on an alien world.

Looking down at the valley, we see hundreds of blobs slip-sliding over one another, a slick, glossy amoeba. I feel like I’m on a microscope slide. Or a petri dish.

Fuckin’ far, Sarge, Teller says. We can’t get any closer?

I set my rifle’s bipod, lean into the stock. I say, We could but I wanted a challenge.

Teller’s silent.

C’mon, Teller, I say. Use your goddamn head. We’d be right next to them if we could.

Teller arranges the magic wand on its tripod, taps his wristscreen to sync it with his helmet.

I do the same with my rifle. Now I see what it sees.

I say, Range?

Four point seven kliks, he says.

I say, Wind speed?

Point two kph, he says.

I check my rifle’s readings. Confirmed, I say. Ready to rock.

My tits twinge. Just barely but they do. I grunt, pull the trigger.

The hive explodes. But not before Teller’s head does.

 

Teller had a saying: “You better be happy as fuck to go to war.” His voice echoes in my head as I sit in the debriefing room at FOB Delta.

The Major is telling me it wasn’t my fault, there was nothing I could do. She tries to keep elation out of her voice as she tells me that I ended the war, tries to make Teller’s death sound like a somber event that shouldn’t be overshadowed by the end of the war. She isn’t terribly convincing.

The blobs are a telepathic, psychokinetic hive mind. An especially goddamn powerful one. They can smell fear a mile away. Literally. Fear, irritation, anger. Any negative emotion, they feel it and they react. The more of them there are, the stronger their ability, the greater their range. Hence Teller’s saying.

The Major puts a hand on my shoulder, says I’ll probably get a medal. She says she’ll put the recommendation in herself, have the General sign off on it.

That soreness in my breasts, that was irritating for a second. No, a split second. A split second and that was all it took. Why they killed Teller and not me I’ll never know.

The Major gives my shoulder a squeeze, reassures my actions in the field. She says, You did good, Viv. She says, The human race owes you. She says, I owe you.

I nod, give her a thumbs-up.

The Major tells me that I’m to go back to my cube and get my shit wired, that I’m to be on the first transport back to Central.

In my head, Teller says, Bet you’re happy as fuck now, Sarge.

Even in my head he can’t shut the fuck up.

 

I’m naked from the waist up, and a grunt named Williams is latched onto my right nipple, the hairs of his mustache tickling my areola. He suckles and moans, reaches around and grabs my ass.

I told you, Williams, I say. Tits only.

He removes his hand, continues suckling, starts massaging his dick through his pants.

Once I got back to Central, I stripped off my atmosuit, made a beeline for a lactation suite. The pump wasn’t getting the job done so I pinged Williams, knew he’d help me out. That freak.

Then again, I’m letting him do it, so who’s the freak?

We waited until everybody else went to chow, met up in the station barracks. The cold metal of my bunk presses against my shoulder blades as I stand against it, my hands on my hips.

Williams spends some time on the right one, switches to the left.

I look down and Teller’s lips encase my left nipple, bits of brain like chewed raspberries leaking out of his eyes. He nibbles it, says, Now I’m happy as fuck, Sarge.

Williams peeks up at me. He says, Something wrong?

I grind the heels of my hands in my eyes. No, I say. Just keep going.

 

Williams follows me around like a puppy, offers to help me get into my hospital gown. It’s SOP to put on a gown before getting into a cryotube.

We’re onboard the Sentinel, one of the troop transports headed back to the marble. Williams and I are in the slumber bay, rows of cryotubes lined up like syringes.

I put up a hand. I say, Nah, I got it. I manage a tight-lipped grin, say, Thanks though.

I strip off my utilities, stow them with the rest of my gear in a compartment at the foot of the tube. I catch Williams staring at my boobs, licking his lips. I meet his eyes and he looks away.

I put on the gown and wince as the fabric rubs against my chafed nipples. Found out Williams is a bit of a biter.

Williams says, So. He says, When we get back.

I say, When we get back what?

He gives me a look like we’re playing Pictionary, like I should know the answer. And actually, I do.

Listen, I say. That was a one-time thing.

He looks at his feet, shifts from one to the other, a puppy who’s just pissed on the rug and knows it. He says, Well, if you change your mind.

I tell him I got it, I know where to find him if I need him.

He nods, gets into the cryotube next to mine.

I slide into my own, sink into the thick pads, massage my nipples through my gown.

Teller lays the bloody stump of his neck on my shoulder. His disembodied voice says, Williams has some mommy issues, huh? He tweaks my nipple, says, Looks like he found Mommy’s teats.

Fuck off, Teller, I mumble.

The cryotube’s needle tunnels into my spine. I conk out.

 

I expect Williams to be standing there when I climb out of my cryotube, expect him to have slippers in one hand, a bathrobe in the other.

But he isn’t, he doesn’t.

Instead, the Major is posted beside my tube, a matte black box in her hands. She’s wearing a crisp service uniform, has her auburn hair pinned up in the back.

She holds out the box, says, You sure about this?

I hold her gaze.

She nods. I thought as much, she says.

I take the box from her.

Teller’s headless body is behind the Major, thrusts its crotch against her ass.

He says, Think that box would weigh more if I still had my head?

The Major says, Sergeant? She says, Viv? She says, You okay?

I blink, say, Good to go, ma’am. I put the box in the crook of one arm, salute her with the other.

Behind the Major, Teller flips me the bird.

 

Back on the marble, nobody is there to meet me when I debark the Sentinel. I push through throngs of families and friends greeting grunts with open arms, wide smiles, eyes full of tears.

Teller pats a little boy on the head. He says, No family for you, huh, Sarge? He says, Wanna tell everybody why?

I ignore him, catch a tram back to base. From there I get my car, go to my house.

Teller takes a look around when we get inside. Fuckin’ Susie the Happy Homemaker up in here, he says. You sure this is your place?

He scans the photos that are scattered on the kitchen counter. They’re flanked by a pizza box and a bottle of Merlot, both empty. My last meal before I was deployed.

Huh, he says. Guess you do have a family. A husband and a baby boy by the looks of it. He looks at me, says, But where are they now?

I say, SHUT! UP!

I slap myself across the face. Teller disappears.

I open the fridge, grab a bottle of Chardonnay, open it. I take the bottle and my gear to my bedroom. I strip down, take a scalding hot shower while I gulp down the cold wine.

Afterward I wrap a towel around myself, dig through my gear to find my PCD. I ping Williams, ask him if he’s around. I say, I’m here if you want me.

Williams asks where I am. I give him my address.

 

Williams doesn’t touch my boobs. Not once. Doesn’t even ask.

We’re sprawled on the kitchen floor. That’s how far he got before I jumped on him.

He could’ve done whatever he wanted to me, could’ve been as freaky as he wanted but he didn’t, he wasn’t. It was some of the most normal, loving sex I’ve ever had. Surprising.

Williams is asleep, his chest slowly bobbing up and down with each small, even breath. My head rests on his shoulder. I run my hand through his ink-black chest hair, wonder what he’s dreaming about, hope it’s not a nightmare.

I get up, grab a blanket off the couch, drape it over Williams. I retrieve the nearly empty bottle of Chardonnay, polish it off. I take a bottle of Cab Sauv from the rack, uncork it. I take a long pull, see Teller kneeling next to Williams.

He says, Poor Williams. Teller peers up at me, says, You know you’re only using him to delay the inevitable, right? He says, There’s a certain black box that needs your attention, Sarge.

I upend the bottle, chug the rest, throw the empty at Teller. It smashes against the wall, bits of green glass sprinkling the floor. Williams opens his eyes, sits up. He looks at my boobs, but for only a second.

I say, I need to go. I pause, say, You can stay here ‘til I get back. If you want.

Teller reappears, scratches his head, says, Definitely didn’t see that coming.

 

I’m spitting out pieces of Teller, trying not to swallow.

Wanda, Teller’s wife, is standing in front of me, her arms crossed. The black box the Major gave me is on the ground, half open, the rest of Teller’s ashes spilling out.

We’re on the front porch of Teller’s house, a robin’s egg-blue rancher nestled in the ‘burbs. I gave Wanda the bad news and handed over the box. She stared at it, stroked it like a beloved pet that was just put to sleep. Then she threw it at me.

Teller is in his dress uniform like I am. Tears of blood are leaking out of his eyes and running down his cheeks.

He crinkles his nose, sniffs. He says, Goddamn am I gonna miss her. He says, Most beautiful woman I ever seen.

Wanda’s eyes are puffy, her hair knotted in places. Stains mottle the front of her sweatshirt. It looks two sizes too big. I assume it’s one of Teller’s.

Teller says, You pissed her off, Sarge. He says, This wouldn’t be the case if you’d looked out for me in the first place. He says, I didn’t mean to rhyme just then. He says, Ha ha.

I pick a flake of ash off my lip, clear my throat, say, You have every right to be angry, ma’am. I say, There isn’t much else to say except that I’m sorry. I say, I know that doesn’t really help though.

Wanda scoffs, shakes her head. She says, You think what you did matters?

I say, I was there, ma’am. I say, With your husband. I say, We saved the world. I say, Your husband saved the world.

She waves her hand at me, says, Oh bullshit. Bill always said it was stupid to try to fight those. She waves her hand again, says, Whatever the hell those things are. She says, He said that fighting them was like fighting cockroaches. There’ll always be more. She picks up the box of Teller, wipes her eyes with the sleeve of her sweatshirt. She says, You can’t fight what isn’t afraid for its life.

Teller kisses his wife’s cheek. He turns to me, says, No offense, but I’m glad it’s you and not me. He says, Great gal. But such a bitch sometimes.

 

I’m standing in the checkout line at the liquor store, a bottle of wine in each hand and a bottle under each arm.

I pile them on the counter, debate whether I should go back and get a couple more.

After the meeting with Wanda, I needed a drink.

Teller props his elbow on the shoulder of the old guy manning the register. He says, Can’t blame ya, Sarge. He says, She drove me to drink a few times, too.

The old man’s name tag says HARV.

Harv eyeballs the chevrons on the arm of my uniform, says, Sergeant, huh? He says, Must be pretty proud of yourself. He cocks an eyebrow, swings his head right and left. He says, You hear that?

I look around. There’s nobody else in the store.

I shake my head.

He shrugs. Anyway, he says. Big hero, winning the war for us marble dwellers. He scans and bags the wine, says, Waste of time and money, you ask me.

Teller wraps his hands around Harv’s neck, says, I’ll hold him. He gestures to the bottles in the bag, says, You break one of those over his dumb fucking head. He says, Nobody’ll blame you.

Beads of sweat pop out on Harv’s forehead. He works a finger into the collar of his yellowed button-down. He swipes a sleeve across his forehead, stares at the register.

He says, Um. He digs a finger into his ear, wiggles it. He says, How you wanna pay?

I hold up my PCD. He nods, and I swipe it across a panel embedded in the counter.

I collect the bag, the bottles clinking together as I carry it out of the store.

I’m just out the door when I hear a crash from behind me. I turn and look through the front window, see Harv throwing bottles against the floor, the walls. He yells and kicks over a display of high-end tequila.

Teller presses his face against the glass, squints at Harv inside. He says, I don’t know, Sarge. He says, Think our friends are fucking with us again?

I shrug, go to my car. I get in, set it to autodrive, twist the cap off one of the bottles, guzzle a quarter of it.

 

I ask Williams what’s up with the breast milk thing, why he likes that.

He says, It’s like being a child molester.

I raise an eyebrow.

He waves his hand, shakes his head. He says, No no, I didn’t mean it like that. He says, You know when a child molester says, “Oh, it’s a sickness”? He says, My thing, it’s like that. He says, I don’t want to like it but I do.

I nod, run my fingers through his damp hair.

He was dozing on the couch when I got home, and I attacked him again. My breasts were sore and engorged so I told Williams to do his thing while we fucked. He hesitated but obliged.

Hate to admit this but I kind of liked it. Kind of a lot.

Teller stood over us, mimed jerking off. He said, Guess you can’t judge the guy anymore, huh, Sarge?

Afterward we lounge on the couch, naked and sweaty. I hold Williams’s hand, kiss the back of it.

I say, We did the right thing, right? I say, With the blobs?

Fuck the blobs, Williams says.

I say, Yeah, but. I tell him about Wanda’s diatribe, about Harv.

He massages my forehead, says, Were they there?

No, I say.

Then what the fuck do they know, he says.

He tenses up, relaxes, tenses up. Gotta go to the bathroom, he says.

I release my grip on him. He gets up, wobbles to the bathroom.

Teller lays next to me on the couch. His gray, naked body shifts against me like loose chicken parts in a sack of water. He says, You in love, Sarge? He kisses my boob, leaves a bloody lip print. Way you were looking at him just now, he says. Way you were playing with his hair and shit? Looked like love to me.

After a bit, Williams stomps back into the room. I catch a wink of silver seconds before he lunges at me with a kitchen knife.

Makes me think of Hal.

 

Hal pleads with me, begs me to breastfeed Jordan. Says it’s healthier, says it strengthens the mother/child bond.

I explain that he’s not wrong, that I just don’t want to do it. Some women are okay with it, actually want to do it. I’m not one of them.

But Jordan could care less whether I like it or not.

We try to give him a bottle but the kid cries and cries when we do. One night, too exhausted to protest, I let Jordan have a go at my boob. He latches right on and quiets down immediately. Just my luck.

Hal still tries to give him a bottle every now and again, just to see if he can, just so I can get a little more sleep. Never works. So I get up, feed Jordan.

Hal doesn’t stay in bed when I feed Jordan though. He gets up with me, says he has trouble sleeping.

I ask him why. He shrugs, says he doesn’t know, thinks maybe his schedule is just thrown off.

Hal stops drinking orange juice. He has a glass every day but then one morning, just like that, he’s done. Says something about it being too acidic. It’s like when I was pregnant – I slept fitfully, found banana bread repulsive even though I’d loved it before I got pregnant. Only Hal isn’t a pregnant woman.

One night Jordan cries to be fed. Hal pats my hand, says he’ll try a bottle. I fall back asleep as he pads down to the kitchen.

I wake up when Jordan stops crying. I get up, scamper down the hall to Jordan’s room, eager to see what miracle Hal has worked to get Jordan to accept a bottle.

Hal’s standing over Jordan’s crib, a milky white bottle in one hand, a bloody paring knife in the other.

I go to the crib and peek over the rails. There’s little Jordan, my baby boy, his throat cut, his blood soaking into the bedding.

I feel a jolt of pain, actual physical pain. It’s Hal, drawing the blade of the knife across my arm. He does it slowly, staring at my arm. He doesn’t blink, barely breathes.

I look at him, tears trickling down my cheeks, and he draws his arm back, prepares to stab me. I run.

I go to my bedroom closet, grab my pistol from the top shelf. I turn around and there’s Hal, knife in hand, blood dripping from the blade and onto the carpet. I raise the weapon, fire two shots into Hal’s head.

The two most important people in my life are dead, but it’s not Hal’s fault. Although I don’t know that at first.

I slump down in my closet, grip my bleeding arm, curse Hal through my tears.

 

Williams swings the knife downward. Same knife that Hal used. I roll off the couch as the blade sinks into Teller.

Teller looks at the hilt sticking out of his grey chest. He says, You kept the murder weapon. He says, Kinda weird, no?

I take the stairs two at a time, go to my bedroom closet, get my backup piece. Again. Shoot a person I care about. Again.

Teller nudges Williams’s leaking body with his foot, says, Same shit, different day, huh, Sarge?

I nod, notice my breasts throbbing from my sprint up the steps. I massage them with one hand, hold the pistol with the other.

There’s a crash outside, a scream, an explosion. These remind me of Hal, too. The same things happened after I killed him.

The blobs started the war but we didn’t know it. We didn’t know it because they made us attack ourselves. They got into the heads of something like five percent of Earth’s male population, made them attack us. Nobody knows why they targeted men. Nobody knows why their telepathy affected each man differently.

Once the eggheads figured out the blobs were behind it, the military tooled up, retaliated. Bet your ass I was in the first wave.

Teller stands by the window, crosses his arms. He says, Guess the blobs are kinda pissed we blew up their pals. He turns to me, says, Wanda was right. He turns back to the window, says, My death meant a whole lotta nothin’.

On the nightstand, my PCD buzzes. I pick it up, and a priority message flashes on the screen in red: ATTENTION – REPORT IMMEDIATELY TO BASE FOR SITREP AND REDEPLOYMENT.

Teller says, Here we go again, huh, Sarge?

I nod, say, Time to fuck shit up.

He gestures to the window, the world beyond it, says, Think they’ll appreciate it this time?

I say, Do they ever?

Teller shakes his head no, says, It’s a thankless job.

I say, But somebody’s gotta do it.

At that, Teller cackles, vanishes.

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“Little Lambs” – short fiction

Mom and Dad smile constantly now. That’s what bothers me.

At the dinner table, Mom says, Honey, would you please pass the asparagus?

Dad says, Certainly, dear. The bottom of his face is a great half-moon of exposed choppers as he passes the platter.

Mom accepts it, her pearly whites gleaming.

Billy and I each raise an eyebrow.

Mom uses small, silver tongs to transfer a few spears from the platter to her plate. She says, And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. She says, Hebrews thirteen sixteen.

Dad closes his eyes, holds up an arm, cranes his head back. He says, Praise be unto Him.

Billy and I have seen this behavior before: Mary and Joseph were the same way.

 

Mom and Dad are arguing about something stupid. This is before they act like Mary and Joseph, when things were crappy but normal.

They’re arguing about something stupid because they’re always arguing about something stupid. It’s Dad’s cooking or Mom’s lack of ambition or Dad’s beer belly or Mom’s chattiness. They’re a nonstop revolving door of meaningless arguments.

Mom and Dad spend so much time arguing or waiting to argue that they aren’t exactly present when they do ordinary things, like tie a necktie or put on make-up.

We’re enjoying a quiet, yet tension-filled ride to Church when Mom looks over at Dad. She tells him his tie is crooked. Dad barks that Mom looks like she applied her make-up with a leaf blower. On and on they go until the car’s tires hit the asphalt of the Church’s parking lot. Once that happens, boom, they’re dead quiet.

Dad parks and turns off the car. He and Mom turn around in their seats, peer at Billy and me in the back.

They stare at us until their scowls soften and become smiles.

Dad says, Sorry, guys.

Mom says, That had nothing to do with you. She says, You’re great.

Dad looks at each one of us in turn. He says, You ready?

We all nod yes.

Dad smiles. Mom does, too. Billy and I follow suit.

Our merry band of pretenders gets out of the car. Grinning like the freshly lobotomized, we enter the Church.

 

During the service, we’re singing “How Great Thou Art.” I glance up at Mom and Dad while I belt out the second verse. You know how your eyelids droop when you’re sleepy? That’s what Mom and Dad’s mouths are doing – they smile, their mouths go slack, they smile, their mouths go slack. They’re so busy smiling, so busy keeping up appearances, they forget to sing.

A Deacon stands at the end of our pew, scanning the crowd. He too is smiling until he spots Mom and Dad. Then, like Mom’s and Dad’s, his mouth goes slack.

 

The service ends. We start toward the exit but are flanked by two Deacons just before we reach it. One puts his hand on Dad’s shoulder, the other puts his hand on Mom’s. A third Deacon comes up behind Billy and me, puts his hands on our shoulders.

One of them, still all smiles, says, We’d like you folks to come with us.

Dad looks at Billy and me. He doesn’t bother smiling. He says, We’ll be right back, guys. He motions to the Deacon at our backs. He says, This man will look after you while we’re gone.

Mom and Dad are led away. So are Billy and I.

 

I’m staring at a poster of a woman helping an old man across the street. They’re smiling at each other. Block letters at the bottom of the poster proclaim, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. – Colossians 3:17.”

It’s one of several that adorn the walls of the Sunday School classroom.

Hard, wooden chairs, arranged in neat little rows, take up the majority of the room. In the front row, Billy and I occupy two of them.

We’re silent, sitting up straight. And smiling. Always smiling.

After a while, footsteps echo in the hallway, that click clack of dress shoes against linoleum. There’s a pause, and then the door opens.

A handsome, square-jawed man in a dark blue suit and red tie enters. His brown hair is neatly combed, a part running down the left side with laser precision. He’s followed by a leggy, statuesque woman in a pastel blue blouse and black skirt. Her long, blond hair falls perfectly across her shoulders. They each carry a Bible, and both of them are smiling. They look like they actually mean it.

They pull two chairs from the front row and put them in front of us. They sit.

The woman puts a hand on her chest. She says, I’m Mary. She puts her hand on the man’s thigh. She says, And this is Joseph.

Joseph says, What are your names?

Lisa, I say.

Billy, says my brother.

Joseph says, Do you know why we’re here?

Billy and I exchange a glance, shake our heads no.

Mary says, Your parents needed to go on.

Joseph says, A retreat.

Mary nods, says, A retreat. She puts a hand on Joseph’s arm, says, Joseph and I are going to take care of you while they’re gone. She smiles, says, It’ll only be a couple weeks. She says, We’ll have fun!

 

Billy and I get ready for bed. We brush our teeth, wash our faces.

We go to our bedroom. We used to each have our own but Mary and Joseph decided to make some “teensy-weensy adjustments” and turned Billy’s room into a Bible study room.

Although he didn’t say anything, Billy scowled. Mary caught that, said, Tsk. She said, That’s one strike. She pulled out a small notebook, jotted something down.

We get into our beds, pull the covers up. Joseph looks at Mary, says, Forgetting something, aren’t we?

We already brushed our teeth, says Billy.

Mary smiles. She says, No, silly. She puts her palms together in front of her chest and cocks her head.

Billy and I nod, get out of our beds, kneel beside them.

We clasp our hands together, close our eyes, recite a simple prayer. In monotone, we ask God to bless us, our parents, and our dog, Noodle.

We say amen and are about to get back into our beds when Joseph clears his throat and turns to Mary. He says, Guess we aren’t much to be thankful for, are we, Mary?

Billy says, We didn’t ask you to stay here. He says, You were forced on us.

Evidently, he’s still upset about being evicted from his room.

Mary steps forward. She says, Excuse me?

Billy says, Our parents were taken away from us. He says, We didn’t want you here in the first place.

Mary’s still smiling but it’s not her usual smile; she wears a vengeful rictus that an evil clown might have. She pulls out that same small notebook and scribbles something inside it. She says, That’s strike two, mister man.

My back is to Mary and Joseph when I mouth the words, Just do what she says.

We kneel again, thank God for Mary and Joseph.

Our voices are as empty as the prayers themselves.

 

We’re sitting on the couch. It goes Mary, me, Joseph, Billy. Mary has her arm around me, Joseph has his arm around Billy.

My skin is crawling. Judging from the grimace on Billy’s face, probably his is, too.

On the television, there’s some show that recounts Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. Every talking head and “expert” on the show treats it like it’s undeniable fact.

Billy’s eyelids begin to drop. As they do, his head leans forward. This happens two times. The third time, Joseph catches it and signals to Mary.

She reaches for her notebook, which is sitting on the end table.

I say, This is complete garbage. I say, Where’s the evidence supporting any of this? I say, Am I expected to believe that a man actually died and came back to life?

A sharp gasp from Mary and Joseph.

Billy’s head jerks up, and he smiles at me. And it isn’t for show.

Mary bolts off the couch. She grabs her notebook with one hand, grabs me with the other.

I’m pulled into Billy’s old bedroom and pushed onto a couch that used to be in the living room. Mary yanks a Bible off the shelf, thrusts it into my hands.

She says, This is your evidence. She says, This is all the proof you need. She opens her notebook, scrawls something in an angry hand. She says, That’s two strikes for you, missy.

Mary marches out of the room, locking the door behind her. I stretch out on the couch, open the Bible to the New Testament. I lay the book on my stomach and close my eyes.

I hope Billy appreciates the diversion. I didn’t have even one strike, let alone two. Granted, he has to watch the rest of that stupid show and I don’t.

Thank God for that.

 

Mary, Joseph, Billy, and I are in the foyer to greet my parents when they finally come home.

Mom and Dad stride into the house hand-in-hand. They’re both smiling.

I try to remember the last time I saw them like that, but I come up empty.

Billy and I run to them, throw our arms around them.

Mom says, Praise be unto Him.

Dad says, God’s will be done.

Billy and I disengage, stare at them for a moment. The irritation, the pettiness, the tension, they’re all gone. They look like Mom and Dad, but they’re not them. They’re like Mary and Joseph now.

Billy starts to cry.

Oh, my little lamb, Mom says, hugging Billy. There there, she says.

I glance up at Mary, expect her to take out her notebook, give Billy his third and final strike. Instead she hands it over to Dad.

It’s official: Mary and Joseph’s reign is over. But the nightmare doesn’t seem to be.

 

That poster of the woman helping the old man is staring me in the face. Again.

The Sunday School classroom is emptied out, and I’m sitting in the front row. Again.

Only Billy isn’t beside me this time.

Today’s Church sermon focused on the “Mysterious Acts of God,” how God does things for certain reasons, how those things should not be questioned.

During the Pastor’s spiel, Billy looks at me, arches an eyebrow. I shrug. Luckily, nobody notices.

We’re walking to the car after the service when Billy says, If God can do anything He wants, why does He let wars happen? He says, If He has all this power and doesn’t stop wars from happening, doesn’t that make him a pretty crappy god?

Mom and Dad stop in their tracks. Dad takes Mary’s notebook out of his pocket, makes a note as he shakes his head.

He says, That’s it for you, young man. He takes Billy by the arm and goes back into the Church. Mom and I follow.

Dad finds a Deacon, whispers something to him. The Deacon shakes his head, nods.

A second Deacon joins us. Mom smiles, says, Go with this man, little lamb. She says, Your dad and I have to take care of something.

I’m escorted to the Sunday School classroom, sit there until Mom and Dad come to get me.

They pull chairs from the front row, place them in front of me. Smiling, they sit down.

Dad says, Your brother. He says, He had to go on.

I say, A retreat.

Mom nods, says, A retreat.

I smooth the skirt of my dress. I say, It’ll only be for a couple weeks, right?

Mom and Dad smile, nod.

Running my fingers along the frilly hem, I say, And he’s going to get lobotomized, right? I say, Like you guys were? I point at the poster of the woman helping the old man. I say, Because that’s the only way anybody would actually buy that crap.

Dad takes out the notebook, adds a third strike for me. He says, Such a disappointment, little lamb.

Mom says, You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires. She says, Ephesians four twenty-two.

 

When I see Billy again, he’s sitting in a hotel room. A hotel room that doesn’t have any windows.

A Deacon collects me after Dad puts the final nail in my coffin, so to speak. The Deacon blindfolds me and leads me out of the Sunday School classroom.

As the door shuts behind us, Dad says, Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. He says, Joshua one nine.

The Deacon and I walk down stairs, up stairs, through hallways. I’m so turned around I can’t even guess where we are.

Eventually we stop. I hear a key being fitted into a lock, a deadbolt snapping back. I’m gently led through the doorway, and the blindfold is removed.

My eyes adjust to the soft but abundant light that suffuses the room. And there’s Billy, sitting on the edge of a twin bed. The door shuts behind me, the deadbolt slides home.

Billy runs to me and throws his arms around my waist. I return the gesture, patting his back like Mom used to.

I take in my surroundings. There are two twin beds, a night table, a bathroom. It’s a cozy prison cell.

Billy and I each sit down on a bed. He swings his feet, says, Wonder what’s gonna happen now.

I shrug, say, Good question.

There are two Bibles on the night table. I pick one up, let it fall open to a random page. I look at it and snicker. I say, Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves. I say, Matthew seven fifteen.

Seriously, Billy says.

 

Billy and I are sitting on a bed, facing each other. I hold my hands out, palms up, and he holds his hands out over mine, palms down. I smile, slightly jerk my hands, and Billy yanks his away. He rests his hands on top of mine again when we hear the snick! of the deadbolt. Billy looks at the door, and I slap the tops of his hands. He doesn’t notice; he’s busy looking at the door as it swings open.

Two Deacons pass through the doorway, one after the other. They stand to either side of it as the Pastor enters.

The Pastor wears a black suit with a red tie. His gray hair is parted down one side. A Bible is clutched in front of his chest. He’s Joseph, age 60. Only his teeth are whiter and brighter than Joseph’s could ever hope to be.

His mouth a thousand-watt grin, he says, Hello, my little lambs. He says, I have come to offer you absolution.

Billy says, You have something in your teeth.

The Pastor’s tongue slithers out between his glowing ivories and glides along the slick veneers. He does this while maintaining that smile, looking more like a coyote than a man.

Just kidding, says Billy.

I laugh.

The Pastor’s smile falters for a split second, like a neon sign that’s on the fritz. He says, Accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior. He says, Accept Him into your hearts and all will be forgiven.

He closes his eyes and raises the Bible above his head. He says, I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. He says, First Corinthians one ten.

Tell Lord Jesus to suck it, says Billy.

I laugh again. Amen, I say.

The Pastor shakes his head. He says, Such a disappointment. He says, May God have mercy on your souls.

Yeah yeah, I say.

 

I’m hammering on a cold, steel door with my fists, screaming at the Deacon to bring my brother back.

After our meeting with the Pastor, two Deacons blindfold Billy and me. They load us into a car, take us who knows where. When we arrive at our destination, they walk us into another windowless hotel room.

The Deacons remove the blindfold and let me lay eyes on Billy. They let me get a good look before one of them stabs a syringe into Billy’s neck. The same Deacon picks Billy up as he collapses, carries him away.

The other Deacon follows them out, slams the door behind them. That’s when the hammering begins.

I’m at it another five minutes before I wear myself out. I slump to the floor and start crying. Didn’t expect things to get this dark. Turns out Christians are about as merciful as the Romans who crucified their savior.

 

On a hotel-style room service cart, a stack of banana and blueberry pancakes sits in front of me. I’m powering through it, washing it down with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. For a glorified prison, I have to admit that the food is spectacular.

Sitting on the edge of one of the beds, I cut into the fluffy cakes with the edge of my fork. A syrupy bite is millimeters from my mouth when I hear the deadbolt retract.

The door opens and Billy’s standing there. Smiling.

He’s by himself, a Bible clasped in his hands. Blue suit, red tie, hair parted. He’s Joseph, age 10.

I drop my fork. It hits the edge of the plate, bounces off, lands on the carpet.

I say, Billy?

He says, Yes, sister, it is me. He says, I’m saved.

I say, Why are you here?

He says, To spread the good word. He says, And he said to them, Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. He says, Mark sixteen fifteen.

Good lord, I say.

Billy nods. Exactly, he says.

I stand up, go to him, put my hands on his shoulders. I say, Billy, you don’t really believe that. I say, Do you?

He nods and smiles. I swear his teeth look a shade or two whiter.

I say, And you’re here to, what, convert me? I say, Make me repent?

Billy shakes his head, smiles some more. He says, Why no. He says, I’m here simply to tell you that God is great, that He is risen. He says, That soon you, too, will go forth to tell of the beauty of God’s grace.

Translation: they’re fucking with me. The Pastor, the Deacons, Mom, Dad, all of them. There’s no way out, and they’re rubbing it in my face.

My hands still on Billy’s shoulders, I shake him. Lightly at first, then harder and harder, his head snapping back and forth like it’s on a spring. I stop and he smiles at me. So I slap him across the face.

Still smiling.

Slap him again.

A toothy grin.

Let my hand fly.

He says, But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. He says, Matthew five thirty-nine.

I grab him by the shoulders again, twist him around, march him toward the door, pound on it. I say, Get him out of here! I say, You hear me? I slam my fist against it some more, say, Open this goddamn door NOW!

I flatten my hand, slap it against the steel. Between hitting Billy and the door, my hand is getting sore. I don’t care, keep assaulting the door.

Billy says, Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise. He says, Isaiah sixty eighteen.

To Billy I say, Oh shut up. To the door I say, Come on!

Billy says, Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. He says, James four seven.

I shove Billy into the door face-first. When he pulls away from it, there’s a few droplets of blood smeared on the steel. His nose is bleeding. To my surprise, my eyes start to water.

I take two handfuls of the back of his suit jacket, bash him against the door. I start to sob full force. To the door I say, Hear that? I say, That’s your errand boy’s nose breaking! I say, Where’s your god now, huh?

I smash Billy into the door twice more before it opens.

A Deacon fills the doorway. He gently lays his hand on Billy’s head. He says, Do not worry, little lamb. He says, Her time has nearly arrived.

Billy turns around, blood dripping out of his nose and onto his lips, his chin. Teeth stained pink, he smiles. He says, You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. He says, Leviticus nineteen eighteen.

The Deacon closes the door, locks it.

I slump against it, cry until I lose my breath, my chest heaving.

 

In a dressing room, a poster hangs where a mirror should be.

It shows a beefy woman in an ill-fitting dress standing in front of a mirror. She looks anxious, worried.

Bold text trumpets, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. – Proverbs 31:30”

I turn my attention from the poster to the white nightgown hanging from a hook on the wall. Matching cloth flats lay on the floor below it.

I regard them a little while, wonder if they made Billy wear the same thing or something different. I’m picturing him in a little, white suit – a pint-sized hybrid of Joseph and Colonel Sanders – when there’s a sharp rap on the door.

A Deacon says, Don’t want to keep the Lord waiting, little lamb.

I roll my eyes, mutter, Why not? He’s not going anywhere.

The Deacon says, What was that?

Nothing, I say.

I sigh, shake my head. I reach for the nightgown, stop, retract my arm.

Another knock on the door, the Deacon’s non-verbal reminder to hurry up. I proclaim that patience is a godly virtue. The Deacon grunts in reply.

Florescent lights shine into my eyes when I look up at the ceiling, search for a possible escape route. There are no removable panels, no way out of any kind. Even if there were removable panels, it’s not like I could reach them. There’s no stool in here, even.

A third knock. This one lighter, more demure. A moment passes, and the door opens. It’s Mary. Mary with her jackal smile and perfect blond hair. She’s holding her hands in front of her, a pair of tailor’s shears clamped between them.

Hello again, little lamb, she says. Having trouble getting dressed?

She takes the scissors in one hand, opens them, closes them. Snip snip, she says.

She turns me so I’m facing the fat lady on the poster. I feel the cold metal of the shears on the back of my neck, the tips of the blades pointing due south.

In a movement so precise it seems practiced, she slices down the back of my dress, slashing through my bra and underwear at the same time. She stretches her arm into the hallway, and a Deacon’s hand appears to take the scissors from hers.

Mary steps in front of me, undresses me like she’s peeling a banana. Goosebumps pop out all over my body and my eyes fill with hot tears. I swallow hard and blink back the tears so she doesn’t see them.

She plucks the nightgown off the hook, pulls it down over my head, fits my arms into the sleeves. She bends down, takes my shoes off, replaces them with the flats.

There, she says, putting her hands on my shoulders. She takes my hand in hers, raises it above my head. She closes her eyes, says, Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. She opens her eyes, flashes that jackal smile, says, Psalm fifty-one ten.

Mary walks out of the room but leaves the door open.

A Deacon appears in the doorway. It’s time, he says.

I step out of the dressing room and into a bright, white hallway. Not sure where it is in relation to the hotel prison because I was blindfolded before I was taken to the dressing room.

A second Deacon materializes at my back. He and the other Deacon each hold out an arm, signaling for me to start walking down the hallway.

My feet swish over the tiled floor, and I keep my steps as small as I can, trying to delay the inevitable. The nightgown hangs off my shoulders and billows out when it catches an errant puff of air. I shiver.

We reach a white door. It looks heavy and is engraved with a pattern that looks like two halves of a gate.

One of the Deacons steps in front of me, puts a hand on the doorknob, twists it. He says, Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. He says, Second Corinthians five seventeen.

The door opens and an impossible luminescence swallows me.

I can’t see my own feet let alone the Deacons. I turn in what I think is the direction of one of them and say, Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful. I say, I don’t know who said that, but whoever it was, it was somebody much brighter than you guys. I say, But that’s not saying much.

Then I shut my eyes and laugh. Laugh as the light becomes darkness.

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“The Newest Thing” – short fiction

When I tell the owner of a five-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath Colonial that she should hang dried squirrel carcasses from all of her lampshades, I’m picturing my husband’s cock in her mouth.

When I say, Murals made out of shaving cream are very in right now, this broad is on all fours and my husband’s tongue is buried in her ass.

I say, Do you have any dead relatives? She nods, and my husband is bound and gagged while this strumpet whips him with a riding crop. I say, You should have one of them exhumed, stuffed, and mounted.

I say, Potential buyers love that kind of thing.

I almost always meet clients alone. Then one day I brought my husband along.

 

I get the call on the way home from Jerry’s colonoscopy.

It’s this woman, Marina, she’s a stager. One of the best. She gives seminars, even. I’ve been to a couple.

Marina says she’s selling her house, that she needs a stager, that I was recommended by a mutual friend.

I’m caught off-guard, I don’t know what to say.

Marina asks if I’m still there.

I’m still here, I say. I ask her why me, why not stage your own house.

A doctor wouldn’t treat her own child, she says. It’s like that.

I ask when she’d like to meet.

She says as soon as possible.

I jump the gun, tell her I can be over right away. But that I have my husband with me.

She’s says that’s fine, that she’ll see me in a bit.

I look over at Jerry, still in a post-anesthetic daze. He waves his hand as if to say, Do what you need to do.

So I do.

 

We get to Marina’s house, and Jerry stays in the car. He’s nodding off and doesn’t seem bothered.

Marina gives me a tour of her house. It’s not what I expected for somebody so successful – it’s modest, dare I say cozy.

We’re strolling through the house, and I don’t know what to tell her. The house looks perfect. She’s done things even I wouldn’t have thought to do.

We finish the tour and are back in the foyer. I’m searching for what to say when there’s a knock at the door. Marina opens it, and Jerry’s standing there.

He gives Marina a smile like he just shit himself.

This is my husband, Jerry, I say. We were on our way back from the hosp—

Won’t you come in, Marina says.

Jerry stumbles through the door. Marina catches him by the arm, smiling and tutting. Oh you poor dear, she says.

Had to use the bathroom, Jerry says. He looks at me, broadcasting an apology from his eyeballs.

I say, Like I said, we were on our way back from the hospital, Jerry had a colo—

Let me show you where the WC is, Marina says.

I squint and cock my head. Did she really just say “WC”? What is this, the 1930s?

Marina slowly leads Jerry down the hallway to the bathroom, one hand on his back and the other on his biceps.

While Jerry is in the bathroom, Marina asks what do I think, what should she do.

I dig around in my purse for my phone. Waggling the phone in the air, I say, Would you mind if I took some pictures? I have some ideas but I’d like to study the spaces before I give any recommendations.

Marina winks and nods. Very professional, she says, smiling.

It takes me about fifteen minutes to document every room. When I return to the foyer, I hear giggles coming from the kitchen.

Jerry and Marina are at the kitchen table, a glass pitcher of iced tea between them. Marina is still laughing, one hand over her mouth while the other grazes Jerry’s hand.

Jerry smiles and takes a sip from a sweating glass. Ah, he says. For a guy who had a fiber optic camera up his ass an hour earlier, he certainly seems fine now.

The look they give me when I walk in makes me feel like I just broke up a party. I’m the narc, and they’re the kids with the keg.

Think I got everything I need, I say.

Jerry reluctantly says goodbye.

I say I’ll be in touch, and we leave.

 

Days go by.

I still don’t have any ideas for Marina’s house. The last thing I need is to give Marina bad advice or no advice and have her blab to people about my inadequacies.

On a whim I decide to drive past her house, thinking that maybe inspiration will hit.

I’m approaching her house, and there’s a maroon Acura parked out front. I didn’t know Marina had a maroon Acura. It looks like Jerry’s car.

Son of a bitch – it is Jerry’s car.

I coast by the house like a shark who can’t stop moving less it dies. When I get to the end of Marina’s street, I make a right.

Get to the end of another street, make a right.

Get to the end of another street, make a right.

Get to the end of yet another street, make a right.

And I’m back on Marina’s street.

I pass the house again, and Jerry’s car is there. Again.

It’s no mirage. I’m not losing my mind. This is really happening.

But maybe it’s nothing.

Maybe I’m imagining the worst.

I stop in front of a house that’s three doors down from Marina’s.

I suck in a deep breath and get out of the car. I walk to Marina’s, and it feels like a dream, like I’m not walking at all. I’m…floating, drifting to her house.

I stand at the end of the driveway. Maybe I don’t want to know what’s happening in there. Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe if I stand here long enough I’ll grow roots and wouldn’t that be something.

I slowly move one foot into the driveway. Then I move the other foot. Before I know it I’m on the side of the house, near the dining room window. It looks right into the foyer.

Jerry is standing with his back to the front door. Marina is in front of him, kneeling. She has her fist in front of her mouth, and she’s bobbing forward and back, forward and back.

Oh. My God. She’s blowing him.

Her other arm is hooked around Jerry’s side, her hand sandwiched between Jerry’s ass and the door, doing who knows what.

I back away slowly, hypnotized by Marina’s motion. Forward, back, forward, back.

A voice behind me calls, Can I help you?

I turn and it’s Marina’s neighbor, an elderly woman in an old, violet housecoat.

Just checking the meter, I say. I’m from the electric company.

I’m also in a pantsuit and heels. Think she’ll notice?

The meter is in the back, the neighbor says.

I wish I were that out of it. If I were, I could get back in my car and drive home and pretend like none of this ever happened.

Right, I say to the neighbor.

I manage a tight grin and wave thanks. I venture around the back and am greeted by a deck.

Since Marina’s house is on a bit of a slope, the deck sits about five feet off the ground. So, standing in the pachysandra bed that abuts the thick timbers that comprise the foundation of the deck, I peer over the weatherproofed slats and look through the sliding glass door right into the kitchen.

Marina is bent over the kitchen table, and Jerry is savagely thrusting into her from behind. Their violent movement causes the salt and pepper shakers to shimmy across the table and crash onto the floor.

Marina’s arms flail until her fingers find purchase, latching on to the sides of the table.

Slowly, I recede from the deck floor. I touch the diamond pendant on my necklace, a gift from Jerry for our tenth anniversary.

Then I throw up into the pachysandra.

Head throbbing, I trudge back to my car and get in. I lift a bottle of water from the cup holder, open it, and take a drink. I swish some water and spit it out the window. I close the bottle and replace it in the holder.

I take a deep breath, let it out. After a moment I start the car and drive away.

 

They say you sometimes enter a hypnotic state when you drive, that you don’t “wake up” until you reach your destination. That’s certainly true because I’m parked in my garage, and I swear I don’t remember the drive home from Marina’s. I could’ve run over a gaggle of schoolchildren, and I wouldn’t remember it.

Sitting in my car, my hands still gripping the steering wheel, I stare at the wall of the garage, at Jerry’s workbench full of tools. Marina is bent over it and Jerry, gripping her ass, pounds away, hammers and wrenches rattling.

My cell phone trills. I blink, and Jerry and Marina dissolve into the ether. I pick the phone off the passenger seat and look at the screen. It’s Marina.

I push the green “answer” button and put the phone to my ear.

Marina says, Hello? She says, Janine? She says, Are you there?

I imagine her walking around the house, skirt bunched up around her waist like a swollen belt, trying to track down her underwear.

I’m here, I say.

Well hello, she says. She asks do I have any suggestions for her, do I have time to stop by.

My mouth goes dry.

I don’t say, Drop dead. I don’t say, Fuck off. I don’t say, How does Jerry’s dick taste.

Sure, I say. I’m on my way.

 

And I’m back at Marina’s house.

My car is parked where Jerry’s was, and I’m standing in the foyer.

Marina is smiling so widely that I swear her skin is going to tear.

She claps her hands and holds them in front of her. Her skirt and blouse hang perfectly, and not one hair is out of place on her head. She doesn’t look like a woman who was just fucked on her kitchen table.

So, she says. Any ideas?

I don’t have any. Not one. Marina’s house, like the woman herself, is perfect.

Well, I say. I point at the plantation shutters on her windows. It wouldn’t hurt to paint clown faces on the shutters.

I have no idea where that came from. I’m expecting Marina to call 911, expecting her to tell the operator to send an ambulance because a woman is having a stroke in her home.

She looks at the shutters and cocks her head. Go on, she says.

The problem with most houses today, I say, is that they’re too…perfect. Where’s the character, where’s the charm? Creases form in Marina’s brow, and I touch her arm. Don’t worry, I say, you’re not alone.

Marina’s forehead relaxes, and she smiles. She asks me to wait while she “fetches a pen and paper.” She returns and is jotting furiously in a small spiral-bound notebook. She finishes and says, What else?

I explain about the squirrel carcasses, the shaving cream murals, the taxidermied family members.

She writes all of this down, the pink tip of her tongue poking out the corner of her mouth. The same tongue she used on Jerry’s dick.

I exile this thought from my mind and continue giving her my ideas, every one more whacked out than the next. An hour later Marina has filled her notebook and is beaming.

I make a show of taking my cell phone out of my purse and checking the time. I say, I have to run, Marina. Jerry’ll be home soon.

She starts at the mention of Jerry’s name but barely. Thank you so much for coming over, she says. You’ve been so helpful.

She walks me to the front door and opens it. Before I know it, she’s hugging me, pinning my arms to my sides. If she feels as awkward as I do, it doesn’t show.

Marina lets go, and I give her a half smile, waving as I walk to my car. She mouths “thank you” as I get in and key the ignition.

Makes me wonder if all mistresses are this chummy.

 

I’m making snickerdoodles for Jerry when my phone bleats. I’m dumping copious amounts of laxative into the batter as I crane my neck to see a text from Marina.

IT SOLD IN A DAY!!!! it says.

I fumble the bottle of laxative, and it spills on the counter, glug-glug-glug-ing out on to the granite surface.

The phone bleats again – it’s a link to Marina’s house listing.

I right the bottle and grab a wad of paper towels. I dab at the puddle with one hand and operate my phone with the other.

I scroll through the pictures from the listing. She did everything I suggested to the letter. There’s even a waxy figure wearing a funeral suit standing in a corner – a stuffed corpse, I assume.

Congratulations! I write back.

Couldn’t have done it without YOU!! Marina writes. They love it so much they want to buy the whole house as is, furniture and all! Yay!

Who’d the house sell to? The Munsters?

I put the phone down and return to the cookie dough.

I decide there’s probably enough laxative in there to cause Jerry’s colon to prolapse so I give it a final stir and start placing small blobs of dough on a cookie sheet.

Jerry doesn’t know I know. He doesn’t know because I haven’t said anything. I haven’t said anything because…I don’t know why. Call it paralysis. Call it cowardice. Call it temporary insanity. Sometimes things don’t make sense.

So I’m putting laxatives in his food.

And giving Marina bad advice.

What I thought was bad advice.

 

Time passes.

I’m in the bathroom, putting on my makeup. The lingering scent of Jerry’s excrement hangs in the air. An unwelcome side effect of my on-going revenge. The TV is on in my bedroom, tuned to some national morning show.

One of the talking heads says, Up next, stager-to-the-stars Marina Van Camp joins us in studio to talk about the hot new decorating trend, dubbed “freak chic.” We’ll be right back.

I drop my mascara brush, and it skids into the sink. I patter out to the bedroom, stand at the foot of the bed. Commercials for products that I could care less about crawl by, each one dragging by. I’m tapping my foot and fidgeting with the hem of my blouse. Get on with it already!

The picture cuts back to the morning show, and there’s Marina, smiling that ear-to-ear smile, a toothy canyon in the middle of her face.

A wide shot reveals Marina on one couch and the host on the other. The talking head introduces Marina, pronounces her last name “Vahn Cahmp.” Marina’s plucked and coiffed, impeccably attired.

The talking head praises Marina’s style, asks what inspired her to do such a thing.

The problem with most houses today, Marina says, is that they’re too…perfect. Where’s the character, where’s the charm?

You’ve got to be kidding me.

Marina explains how she needed to sell her house, how what she’d done wasn’t working. She says, I had to get weird with it. She says, I had to think outside the box.

The show cuts to a before-and-after split screen of Marina’s house. That trollop takes credit for all my demented ideas, all my horrible suggestions.

A new set of before-and-after photos cycle through. They’re the houses of actors, pro athletes, rock stars – Marina’s clients. The talking head says these photos and many more will be featured in the upcoming issue of People Magazine.

People! Magazine!

My jaw throbs, and I realize I’m grinding my teeth. I take a breath, sit on the edge of the bed.

The talking head thanks Marina for her time, Marina still wearing that face-splitter of a smile, and cuts to commercial.

 

I’m in my car, driving to my nine o’clock: a three-bedroom Tudor. A buzz saw is whining in my head so I turn on the radio to drown it out.

NPR is doing a piece on “freak chic,” and telephonic voices of so-called experts extol Marina’s brilliance. My knuckles go white on the steering wheel, and I click the radio off.

When I get to the appointment, the woman selling the house ushers me inside and makes a sweeping gesture with one arm toward the living room. She tells me she isn’t happy with the room, that it’s too…perfect.

She says, What about a pile of dead computer monitors in the middle of the floor. That’s what that rapper had, she says, and his house sold in an hour.

My lips clamp together, and I smile knowing that it doesn’t look like a smile at all.

As politely as I can, I try to steer this woman away from the dark side. But it doesn’t matter. Marina has already got her hooks in.

Marina the jezebel. Marina the phony.

I say, Have you heard of “demo decorating?”

I make air quotes with my fingers.

The woman tilts her head like a confused dog.

It’s the newest thing, I say. It’s very in right now.

Strolling through the house, I suggest exposing a few wires, punching bowling ball-size holes in the drywall.

We return to where we started by the front door. I say, Are you familiar with the term “controlled burn?”

Again with the air quotes.

The woman shakes her head no.

It’s simple, I say. You burn part of your house.

I gesture toward the rear of her home. I say, The sun porch would make an excellent candidate.

The woman covers her mouth with her hand.

I know, I say. Seems drastic. But if you want an omelet…

 

I don’t send the woman a bill. I don’t follow up. I don’t expect to ever hear from her again.

Then I get a card from her in the mail. I open the envelope and pull out a card. THANK YOU! is sandblasted across the front in glittery print.

I open the card and a check falls out. I read the message scrawled inside: Consider this a bonus! Best advice ever!

I pick the check off the ground. It’s triple my usual rate. If I were a cartoon, this is where my eyes would pogo out of my head.

I hustle to my computer and search for her listing. She followed my directions explicitly – her house is a disaster. The sun porch is reduced to carbonic toothpicks, even.

The kicker: the house sold for double the asking price.

 

I’m in a two-bedroom Cape Cod, and spotlights are assailing my face with incandescence.

I squint, and a woman in a tailored pantsuit asks me is the light too much, would I like it turned down.

I say, Uh.

She turns to a cameraman and says, Ernie, turn down the kliegs a little, will you?

The lights dim. I stop squinting.

The woman, Jillian, smiles. She says, Better?

I nod.

Jillian explains that they’re going to shoot me giving the homeowners some advice on how they should stage their house, then she’ll interview me, then she’ll interview the homeowners, and then that will be it.

Jillian is from a local news affiliate that wants to do a story on me and “demo decorating.”

This comes on the back of an enormous surge in business for me. I have more success and more money than I’ve ever dreamed of. Yet I’m still the bridesmaid, not the bride.

Marina still holds that position.

Even Jillian assumes that Marina is my inspiration, that I’ve spun my aesthetic out of hers, that I’ve taken her idea and evolved it. That stings.

But I give answers when asked questions, smile for the camera.

Smile even though I want to scream.

Smile even though Marina is the architect of my deconstruction.

Smile even though she’s stolen from me. Twice.

Marina’s got fame and fortune.

But Jerry has chronic diarrhea.

Things aren’t all bad.

 

Jerry.

Poor, stupid Jerry.

He finally left. Practically crapped his entrails out before he did. He never suspected the laxatives. He thought the colonoscopy had “rewired” his digestive tract. Like I said, stupid.

We’re sitting at dinner one night, having osso buco, when Jerry gives me the news.

He says that he’s met someone, that he’s leaving me.

Okay, I say. I make a careful incision into the veal, separate fat from meat and meat from bone.

He says, It’s Marina.

I know, I say.

He says, You do?

I take a bite of veal. I say, I’m keeping the house and all the furniture.

Okay, he says. He continues eating. So stupid.

Please leave, I say.

He nods, wipes his mouth with his napkin, and goes.

Anticlimactic, I know.

I slice into the meat again. When I put another morsel in my mouth, it tastes saltier than the others. That’s when I realize that tears have tracked down my cheeks and onto my lips.

 

The news segment gets picked up in the national news, and pretty soon I’m getting calls from all over the country.

I fly to Los Angeles to meet with some film mogul about his house. He has a driver pick me up at the airport, shuttle me to the walled-in compound where he lives.

We pull up to the gate. In front of us is a red Ford sitting next to a small guardhouse. There’s an arm jutting out the driver’s side window. I can’t hear what the owner of the arm is saying but the arm itself looks like it’s having a seizure. There’s a lot of pointing and fist shaking.

The uniformed guard sticks his head out and waves my limo through. As we pull past the Ford and through the gate, I peer at the driver through the tinted windows.

It’s Marina.

The insulated carapace of the limousine baffles all outside sound to a dry whisper but I can still make out her words before the gate closes behind us: “But he’s my client! Mine!”

I smile, and that sucker goes ear to ear.

 

Exposed Tyvek sheeting. Deleted gutters. Chimneys missing bricks like half-finished games of Jenga.

I see all of these in the neighborhoods surrounding mine. Houses seem to be losing parts. Devolving.

A house on my street is stripped down to the studs in one area, completely exposing the master bath. My neighbor, Gretchen, has a towel around her midsection and is winding another around her head as I drive up to the curb and park.

I step out of the car, shield my eyes from the sun with my hand. Gretchen sees me and waves.

She yells, Isn’t this great. She yells, Way better than a skylight.

I nod, ask her what gives.

She says it’s the newest thing. She says Marina suggested it.

“Marina.” As in Madonna or Cher. As in she’s so famous she’s shed her last name like she’s telling people to shed parts of their homes.

I ask Gretchen, is she selling, has she had any offers.

She says she was thinking about it but she likes it so much she’s going to stay where she is.

I nod, wave goodbye, and walk to my house. It’s not until much later that I remember to retrieve my car.

 

There’s a knock at my front door. It’s Jerry.

He tells me Marina dumped him.

I don’t say, Surprise surprise. I don’t say, Who didn’t see that coming. I don’t say, You dumb fuck.

Sorry, I say. I actually say it, it actually comes out of my mouth. And it actually sounds sincere even though it isn’t.

He says he’s sorry, too.

I put up a hand. I say, Don’t.

He says, Is there any chance.

I say, No.

He nods and says, House looks nice.

I say, That it?

My colon cleared up, he says.

Poor, stupid Jerry.

Good for you, I say. Anything else?

He shakes his head and walks away slump-shouldered. And I actually feel bad for him. I actually pity the sad sack.

I don’t say, Fuck you for making me feel bad for you.

I don’t say it even though I should.

 

I’m posted behind a dais in a hotel ballroom.

PowerPoint slides flick by on the screen behind me as I cycle through them with a remote control. They’re before-and-after shots of homes I’ve staged with bits of bulleted text peppered in.

Saying the “after” shots are of homes is a gross overstatement; most of the shots show just slabs of gray concrete sitting in the midst of ornate landscaping.

I say, A house is more of a state of mind than an actual thing. I say, Buyers need to be able to visualize their house, what they want.

Marina is in a hotel across town, on the lecture circuit like I am. She’s probably giving her audience a slightly modified version of what I’m saying. And honestly? We’re both full of shit. Only difference is I know it and she doesn’t.

Marina and I have become animals. Bulldogs pissing on each other.

I do something, she one-ups me. She does something, I one-up her.

She told people to start removing their siding, their drywall. I told them to strip the whole house down to the studs. She told people to erase a few rooms. I told them to get rid of an entire floor. Back and forth we went until there was nothing left but the foundation, that cold slab of concrete on the screen behind me.

We’re the worst kind of cause and effect.

Now we’re preaching to the masses, messiahs competing for market share.

And the masses, they’re lining up, waiting to be saved.

Delivering my litany to the throng of disciples lining the ballroom, I don’t say, Save yourselves. I don’t say, Before it’s too late. I don’t say, Even though it is too late.

I finish my spiel, ask if there are any questions. Nearly every hand in the room reaches for the ceiling.

I point to the center of the room at no one in particular because I can’t tell one hand from the next. I say, Yes, you.

A woman stands, puffs her chest out, and smiles, as if she’s the Chosen One. She says, Why is your house still standing?

Every Jesus needs a Judas. This woman is mine.

Not that I blame her. I mean, she’s right – my house is still there, still has all its parts. And it’s tastefully decorated, if I do say so myself.

I say, I have no intention of selling.

Even as it exits my mouth I know it won’t be enough to appease her.

She says, Seems a little hypocritical, doesn’t it?

I don’t say, All religions do.

I’m a stager, I say. I stage houses that are going to be sold. My house isn’t going to be sold. Next question.

She says, Yes, but.

I say, Next. Question.

She says, Marina’s living in a tent on the concrete foundation of her house. Why aren’t you?

This woman is quite a few rows away from me but I catch a gleam in her eye. It’s the gleam of a brown-noser, a teacher’s pet. A gleam that says “Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, I caught you” in a sing-song voice. It’s the gleam of a weaselly toady.

This woman is a plant. Sent by Marina.

I clench my jaw, release it. I say, Marina is a tramp who fucked my husband on her kitchen table.

That gleam in the woman’s eye? Snuffed out like a flame in a stiff wind.

I say, Marina fucked my husband and stole him from me just like she stole my idea for “freak chic.” I make air quotes with my fingers.

I wrench the microphone from its stand on the dais and step in front of it. I say, I staged Marina’s house way back when. I gave her those bat shit crazy ideas. And it’s all because I caught her fucking my husband on her kitchen table.

I don’t say, Talk about false prophets.

Thank you for coming, I say.

I drop the microphone. Feedback squeals when it hits the stage.

I walk past the rows of occupied chairs, part a flock of fire-code-violating, standing-room-only disciples in the back, and barrel through the double doors. I stop in the cavernous hallway, gather my wits. Then I go to my room, pack up my things, and catch an early flight home.

 

Great swaths of white billow down and around the front yard of my house. Everything is wrapped and draped in them: trees, bushes, the lamppost.

I’m headachy and jet lagged so it takes me a second to realize that I wasn’t home for Halloween – my house has been like this for days. Fucking kids and their toilet paper.

News vans have collected on my street, an amoeba of media. I maneuver my car into the driveway, and TP streamers fwish against the windshield like in a car wash. Reporters, ducking bands of white, converge around the car. They back up just enough to let me out, but after that I’m surrounded by microphones and cameras.

Questions are broadcast at me in a fuzzy cacophony of cocktail party chatter.

I put up a hand. I say, One at a time, please.

One of the reporters says, This feud with Marina, is it over?

I should say, Marina won. I should say, She can have all the idiots willing to listen to her bullshit. I should say, I’m done.

I open my mouth to respond when the reporter points at the flowing sheets above us. He says, And what’s with the toilet paper?

I gently run my hand along some cottony ribbons. I should say, What’s it look like, genius? I should say, Get a clue.

I say, Oh this? It’s the newest thing.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

“The Sadness of Waffles” – short fiction

The sadness of the waffles drives me to Craigslist. Guess things happen like that sometimes.

 

Amelia got the house in the divorce. And the TV. And the couch. And the microfleece blanket we used to snuggle under as we watched that TV on that couch in that house. She got almost everything.

I got the waffle iron. And the dog.

I’d say I made out okay.

In hindsight though, I should’ve let her keep the waffle iron, too.

We’d gotten the waffle iron as a wedding gift, and one morning I got the bright idea to surprise my new bride with waffles for breakfast.

Amelia was surprised alright. She was so surprised that when the smoke alarm started bleating and the house filled with acrid smoke produced by the carbon squares that were technically waffles, she almost called 911. Apparently there’s a learning curve to making waffles. Things they don’t tell you in Home Ec.

After that, thanks to Amelia and her firm grasp of the culinary arts, I learned how to make waffles. They became the cornerstone of our marriage, really. Waffles on weekend mornings, waffles for dinner sometimes, waffles on our anniversary, even.

You know when you see a couple laughing about something, and you ask what they’re laughing about, and they tell you but you don’t get it because it’s some cutesy inside thing that only they get? For Amelia and me, waffles were that cutesy inside thing.

I should’ve known things were bad when she started to want pancakes.

 

Weeks after I install myself in an apartment that’s as empty as the rest of my life, I’m hunched over the kitchen counter one morning, staring at the brushed chrome surface of the waffle iron. The box of Aunt Jemima sits next to the mixing bowl, which is flanked by milk, eggs, and oil. All the ingredients are there except the will to make the stupid things.

I regard the iron some more, give up, fill the mixing bowl with Corn Pops, and splash in some milk.

Standing over the kitchen counter, I shovel soggy Pops into my mouth and chew slowly. I pick out a few mushy nuggets and feed them to my dog, Bella, when I spot my laptop on the living room floor. It’s better company than the counter and a logical stand-in for the TV I no longer own so, bowl in hand, I pad over to it. Bella trails me.

Since I still don’t have a couch, I park myself on the floor and boot up the computer. Bella plops down next to me, the patch of white, arrow-shaped fur on her forehead standing out against the brown. She mewls, and I give her a few more Pops. She sucks them down and lays her head in my lap. She’s the one bitch who will never leave me.

The laptop wheezes to life, and I pirate an open Wi-Fi connection from somewhere nearby to get online. I check my email and find a message from my buddy, Chad, in my inbox.

The subject is “Gonna try to bang this crazy broad,” and all that’s listed in the body is a link to a Craigslist personal ad.

I have another spoonful of Pops, suck in an errant droplet of milk that’s threatening to add itself to the stains on my t-shirt, and click the link.

The headline is “My pussy is dripping, will you fill it?,” and the ad says “I’m a super horny 25-year-old looking for a hung dude to watch me pee and then fuck me in front of an open window. Send pic (full body, dick out) to get one back. Must be able to host.”

Jesus.

To Chad I write, “Don’t get stabbed.” I send my reply and return to Craigslist.

Chad’s been using Craigslist to hook up with randoms for a while now. The last girl he was with was really into being choked. When I asked Chad if that was weird, he said, “Fuck no, it was awesome!” Before that, it was a girl who loved being fisted. When asked if that was weird, he said, “Fuck no, it was awesome!”

At the time, I was skeeved out by Chad’s debauchery. At the time, though, I was still married. Now, sitting in front of a computer cruising the Casual Encounters listings with nothing but a cereal bowl and my dog for company, I get it. Loneliness is a strange mistress.

I’m clicking on random ads, most of which echo the one Chad sent me, when one catches my eye. The headline is “Cute married chick looking for NSA hook-ups.” I have no idea what NSA means – I’m over 30, after all – so I Google it. I should’ve guessed it meant “no strings attached.”

The ad reads “I’m looking for a regular, NSA, DDF friend with benefits. I’m married so it needs to be super discreet. And please, no questions about personal life. I’m 28, 5’5, 120lbs, red hair, hazel eyes. Send a pic to get a pic.” Had to look up “DDF,” too. These people and their acronyms. Why can’t they just say “drug and disease free”?

I love redheads. Always have. Amelia was blonde. I’ve dated brunettes. Never got to be with a redhead.

I hoist the mixing bowl to my lips and guzzle the sugary milk. I belch and look down at Bella. “What do you think, Bell?” I say. “Should I answer?” She yawns. I take that as a yes.

Before I compose my reply, I run through some photos stored on my hard drive. I find a relatively recent one of Amelia and me. We’re smiling and pretending like our world isn’t going to violently bisect at any moment. The memory stabs. “Fuck,” I say. Shaking it off, I crop out Amelia and resave the picture.

I go back to my email and bang out a message: I’m interested, I’ll be discreet, blah blah blah. I attach the photo and send it off.

 

Months pass. I hear nothing from the redhead, and I forget all about the ad. When I finally get an email from her, it says more or less what mine said: if you’re interested, let me know. A picture is attached.

I click on the attachment, and the photo fills my screen. Her body is small and tight, her face is round and freckled. She has a head of long, curly, orange-reddish hair. Her only physical flaw is a small collection of acne scars on each cheek. Other than that, she’s a centerfold.

I damn near sprain a finger typing my reply.

I hear back from her a little later. She says her name is Vera and that she likes the “cut” of my “jib.” Tough to tell if she’s making a joke. I think probably she is.

We decide to meet at a hotel not far from my apartment in a couple days. I tell her to call the front desk when she gets there, have them transfer the call to my room, at which point I’ll give her the room number. She agrees and I log off.

Then I go buy a pay-as-you-go burner from a convenience store.

I figure if this goes well, she might want to hook up again, and I’d rather not give her my actual phone number because I use my phone for work.

Chad told me a story after he started up with all this Craigslist stuff. He met a girl on there, gave her his cell phone number, and one night he got a call from a number he didn’t recognize. He was half in the bag so he answered with his “sexy voice” and asked the caller if she was fingering herself. “She” was Chad’s boss, Paul. Paul was calling from another phone because his cell phone died and he needed Chad to fix something on some spreadsheet. Chad got the heave-ho due to “irreconcilable differences” but Chad and I both knew it was because of that phone call. Lesson learned: don’t use a work phone for anything but work.

 

I show up to the hotel an hour before we’re supposed to meet. I get a room, go up, and lie down on the bed.

I turn on the television. It’s tuned to the hotel’s “about us” channel. It’s droning on about their special couples’ massages when I switch it off. Half an hour passes, and I’m having second thoughts.

I use the bathroom. After I finish, I decide this isn’t for me. I’m about to leave and have my hand on the doorknob when the phone rings. I pick up, and a silky voice says, “Hey, it’s Vera.”

I give her the room number and she hangs up. A few minutes later there’s a knock at the door.

I open it, and Vera is standing there. She’s wearing a black down vest over a white long-sleeve shirt. Brown leather boots cover the calves of her tight jeans. I stifle a grin – she’s dressed like Han Solo.

She smiles, sticks out her hand. “Hi. I’m Vera.”

“Lyle,” I say, taking her hand. Her grip is warm and firm, her skin soft.

I stand there, grinning like an idiot.

Her brow raises slightly.

“Oh,” I say. “Come in.”

Vera crosses the threshold, hitching up a satchel-style purse on her shoulder.

She walks to the foot of the bed and looks at the nightstand. Three condoms are sitting on top of it.

“Oh, um,” I say. “This is embarrassing. I didn’t mean to.” I put my hands on my hips. “Shit.”

She moves toward me. I’m pretty sure she’s going to walk right by and out of the room when she stops inches in front of me. She kisses me as we move to the bed.

We undress each other down to our underwear. I have my hands at the waistband of Vera’s underpants when she gets up and goes to the window. She pulls the shades closed, plunging the room into near darkness.

She comes back to bed and pulls the sheets aside, slipping in. She smiles and reaches under the covers. She pulls out a lacy black thong and fires it at me like a rubber band. It hits me in the face. She giggles and motions for me to join her.

As I slide in between the sheets, Vera turns onto her side, facing the window, away from me. I remove my underwear and spoon her. My boner parks itself in the crack of her ass. She cranes her head back and kisses me, grinding her ass against me.

I reach around to her crotch. She intercepts my hand before I make it there, directing it to her mouth instead. The diamond of her wedding ring winks at me as she sucks my finger. When she’s finished she puts my wet finger on one of her nipples, tracing little circles with it. She moans. “Get a condom,” she says.

I grab a rubber off the nightstand. I start to roll it on, and Vera reaches back to finish the job. Then, still on her side, she guides me inside her.

Pumping away, I feel like a marionette. She’s pulling the strings, I’m moving to her whims. Dance, puppet, dance.

Vera moans intermittently. Each one is soft, barely audible, like her parents are in the next room. She clenches up as I’m about to come, and when I do, she shivers. “Mmm,” she says. I assume she came, too.

She sighs, gets out of bed, gathers her clothes from the floor, and beelines to the bathroom. I pull off the condom and am searching for something to wrap it in when she emerges from the bathroom fully dressed, a Wookiee being the only thing missing from her ensemble.

She picks up her purse and rifles through it. The room is still bathed in darkness so I have no idea how the hell she can see what she’s looking for. A second later she pulls out a slip of paper. She places it on the foot of the bed. “Call me sometime,” she says. “I had fun.” With that, she hurries out of the room.

I drop the condom on the bed and reach for the paper. It’s got her name and number on it.

I sit back against the headboard, studying the piece of paper. I’m admiring Vera’s handwriting – it’s the nicest I’ve ever seen – when I feel a wetness against my leg. It’s the condom, leaking onto the bed. Yuck.

I stare at the rubber, all used and forgotten. “I know how you feel,” I say.

 

A couple days later I text Vera from my burner. I hear back immediately. We decide to meet at a different hotel. Half an hour passes, and she texts me the room number, instructing to me to “just come up.”

I get to the hotel and wander up to her room, knocking out “Shave and a Haircut” on the door. She opens up, greeting me in nothing but a pink thong. This one appears to have a silky quality to it. I mean, I think it does. The shades are drawn again so it’s tough to see.

Vera pulls me into the room and kisses me so hard our teeth click together. She pulls back, giggles, and kisses me again.

Unbuttoning my pants, she leads me to the edge of the bed. She yanks my pants down to my ankles, taking my boxers with them, and pushes me onto the bed. Leaning over the bed, she proceeds to give me a world-class blowjob. She could teach a class, that’s how good it is. For all I know, she does teach a class.

I’m close to coming when she stops and rolls a condom onto my dick. I don’t know where it came from. She’s like the David Copperfield of fucking.

She turns around, squats over me, pulls her underwear to the side, and rides me reverse cowgirl-style, making very little noise. Once again, it’s her show. I’m just the apparatus, so to speak.

Like our first time together, we finish simultaneously. And like the first time, she scurries to the bathroom immediately after, scooping up her clothes along the way.

I stare at the ceiling. I feel dizzy and disoriented, like I just fucked a tornado. I’m not sure if this is good or bad.

Vera steps out of the bathroom fully clothed and throws her purse over her shoulder. Instead of making a speedy exit, she crosses to the window and flings the shades open, the afternoon sun spilling into the room. I squint.

She takes a yellow elastic from her wrist and ties back some of her hair so that a small bun sits above a curtain of orangey curls. She narrows her eyes at me. A beat passes. She says, “You want to get some coffee?”

Still staring at the ceiling, I pull off the condom and drop it on the pillow, the creep version of a complimentary mint. “Okay,” I say.

 

We’re at a diner around the corner from the hotel. It’s midafternoon so there are only a few other people in there. Senior citizens, business folks out for a late lunch.

A waitress straight out of Central Casting comes to our booth to take our order, popping gum in between sentences.

Vera orders coffee and asks for skim milk on the side. I ask for mine black. The waitress jots it down and turns to leave, popping her gum some more. Vera says, “Ooh, wait.” The waitress turns. “You have pecan pie?” The waitress nods, pen hovering above her order pad. To me, Vera says, “If I get pie will you have some?” I shrug and nod. Vera smiles at the waitress. “One slice of pecan pie, please.” The waitress makes a note and off she goes.

The coffee and pie arrive. Vera pours in some milk and takes a sip of her coffee. I sip mine and burn my tongue.

“Hot,” I say.

“Want some milk?” she says.

I shake my head.

“Sorry for waiting so long to email you back,” she says. “This whole thing is kinda new to me.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I say. “New to me, too.” I reach over and spear some pie with my fork. I eat it, and it’s some of the best goddamn pecan pie I’ve ever had.

I love diners.

I say, “You do this a lot?” She raises an eyebrow. “Go out for coffee with strangers, I mean.”

She smiles. “We’re hardly strangers now.”

“You know what I mean. Your husband know you do this?” I pause. “Sorry,” I say. “No personal stuff, right?”

Vera shrugs. “It’s okay, I don’t mind.” She sips her coffee. “I don’t know even know why I put that in there. Just seemed like the thing to do.” She picks up the stainless steel demitasse and pours a little more milk into her coffee. “Anyway, my husband doesn’t know I do this because my husband is at work,” she says. “He’s always at work.” She stares into her mug for a moment then looks up. “And to answer your other question, I don’t do this very often.” She takes a bite of pie, chews. “Mmm,” she says. She concentrates on the pie as she separates another morsel with her fork. “You ever been married?” It’s like she’s asking the pecans.

“Once,” I say. “She died.” A half-truth, really: Amelia’s dead to me.

Vera puts the pie in her mouth and chews slowly. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she says. “When’d she die?”

“A few months ago,” I say. Again, not complete bullshit.

“Oh my god,” she says, putting her hand over mouth.

I pile on more details. I don’t know why. She had cancer. Breast cancer. Started as a lump, metastasized. Moved to her lungs. Then her brain. I do Susan G. Komen walks now. I quit while I’m ahead and ask her what kind of work her husband does.

Vera says her husband is in finance. Works 80- to 90-hour weeks most times. Comes home exhausted, barely acknowledges her when he flops into bed, sometimes still wearing his suit. He used to be in shape. Now he’s overweight and pasty, the by-product of processed trans fats and fluorescent lighting.

I’m on the verge of blurting out that it’s not his fault, that he’s only trying to build a life for her, for them, for their children if they choose to have them. I’m on the verge of blurting out all of this because I was in finance, and Vera is describing what led to the decline of my marriage. But I stay quiet, playing the role of the sensitive widower.

I look at my watch and tell Vera that I have to get going, that I’m “watching my buddy’s dog” and need to let her out.

That isn’t bullshit; Bella does need to go out. But not right now. Truth is, I’m feeling ill. Maybe it’s the pie.

I slap a ten on the table and slide out of the booth. “See you ‘round,” I say. I don’t look back when I walk out.

 

My stomach is doing gymnastics as I drive home, bouncing and flipping. I open my window. Cool air rushes into the cabin.

I quit my job after Amelia and I split. Didn’t see the point in working that hard if I wasn’t building a life with somebody. I became a consultant instead. Pay isn’t as good but the hours are much more tolerable. Wonder if Vera or her husband knows that’s an option. If I were a nice guy, I’d drop the charade and help her save her marriage. Some sensitive widower I am.

I curse myself for asking about Vera’s marriage. “No questions about personal life” – I should’ve abided by that.

I get home and walk Bella. My stomach has settled when my pocket vibrates. I take out the burner.

It’s a text. From Vera.

I ignore it and turn the phone off.

 

A week later I’m sitting on my new couch texting with Chad about the pee fetish girl: did he meet her? Was it weird?

Instead of saying, “Fuck no, it was awesome!” he starts telling me about her interests (she likes to kayak), her job (she’s a vet), her favorite food (Indian is first, Thai is a close second), and so on.

Wait. Is he in love?

“And holy fuck,” he adds, “girl knows how to suck a dick.”

Yup. Love alright.

Ever been the only single person at a wedding? That’s how this feels.

It’s enough to make me flip on the burner.

 

Vera’s texted only two more times since the one a week ago. I start to punch out a response but give up and call instead.

She asks if I want to “come over.” As in “to my place.” My stomach lurches at the idea of seeing The House of the Unraveling Marriage so I ignore the suggestion, telling her to meet me at a hotel if she wants to see me. She agrees, and I hang up and make the arrangements. I text her to meet me at the hotel in an hour, which she does.

I attack her when she gets to the room. I’m like early man, tearing at her clothes. She ain’t in charge this time; I am.

The room is dark because I closed the shades. I still don’t understand why the room has to be pitch black but whatever, I can compromise. She’d find a way to close them anyway.

I get almost every stitch of clothing off her and move in to kiss her when she pulls away. She walks over to the bed, takes off her underwear, and bends over. I remove my clothes as I stomp over, putting a condom on in the process.

I take her from behind and it hits me: I’m doing what she wants me to do, she’s still calling the shots. I wanted to face her but she won’t let me have my way. I pump away, grunting through gritted teeth.

Most women would be disgusted, stop me, call me an animal. Not Vera. She pushes back, making those faint “uhh uhh” sounds.

We finish. I collapse onto her, our faces buried in the bedspread. Vera elbows me off her. I don’t fight it. What’s the point, why pretend I have even a modicum of control.

Fuck that.

I grab her wrist when she starts for the bathroom. I try to pull her back to the bed but it’s no use. She twists away, grabbing her underwear off the floor. It’s a surprise when she stops short and puts them on, disregarding the bathroom entirely. Her back is still turned to me.

Vera goes around to the other side of the bed, pulls the comforter down, and gets in. She props herself up on her elbow and smiles. “Bad day?” she says.

“Something like that,” I say. I’m a furnace so I stay on top of the comforter.

“Wanna talk about it?” she says. She runs her hand through my hair, leans over and kisses my forehead.

My stomach throws itself against my ribcage. Guess it wasn’t the pie after all; my body is rejecting Vera. I exhale. “I can’t do this anymore,” I say. Sweat pops out on my nose. “You need to fix your marriage.”

Vera sits up. “But I don’t—“

I put up a hand. “Save it.”

I get up and my stomach tries to stay behind. I put a hand against the wall to steady myself as I grab my boxers off the floor. I say, “Your husband is trying build a life for you guys.” I pull them on and reach for my pants and shirt. “That’s why he works so hard.” I wriggle into my pants. “So be a big girl and grow up.” I tug my shirt over my head. “See ya.” I snag my shoes on the way out the door, put them on in the elevator.

When I get to the lobby, I snap the burner in half and toss it in the trashcan. Then I vomit into it.

 

I’m at the dog park with Bella a few weeks later. The sun is shining. My life still blows but my conscience is clear.

Things could be worse.

I’m sitting on a park bench, watching Bella sniff a schnauzer’s ass. I feel a tap on my shoulder. I look up. It’s Vera.

Things are worse.

“Hey,” she says. She points at the vacant spot next to me. “Mind if I sit?”

I turn my attention back to Bella. She’s moved on to the ass of a corgi. I shrug.

She sits. “So,” she says.

“So,” I say. The diamond in her ring catches the light and redirects it into my eye. Blinded by her love. Fitting.

Vera jerks her chin at the canines. “You still watching your friend’s dog?”

“Yeah,” I say. “He travels a lot. For work.”

“Which one is yours?” she says. “Or his. Whatever.”

“Brown mutt,” I say, pointing at Bella. “Sniffing that dachshund’s ass.” I’ll never figure out Bella’s fascination with small dogs.

She smiles. “Cute.” Her smile fades. “Haven’t heard from you in a while.”

“Lost my phone,” I say. Technically, that’s true; I don’t know which landfill it’s in.

“You could’ve emailed me,” she says.

“How’s your marriage?” My eyes move to her ring and then to her. “I assume you’re still married.”

Vera considers her ring, twists it this way and that. “Oh,” she says. “Yeah. Um. He’s. I mean, we’re.” She sighs. “It’s complicated.”

“Right.” I stand and whistle for Bella. She trots over, leaving the ass of a rat terrier in her wake. I clip the leash to Bella’s collar. She sniffs Vera’s knee as Vera scratches behind her ear. I give the leash a gentle tug. “C’mon, Bell.” To Vera I say, “Bye.”

 

A little later I’m home, spread out on the couch.

Bella is beside me gnawing on a dried chicken strip. It was a treat for sniffing so many tiny canine asses. Pretty sure she set a record this time.

The mutt takes her attention away from the strip and looks toward the door. A second later there’s a knock.

And they say bats are the only animals with radar.

I go to the door and open it. Vera is standing there.

“Uh,” I say. “How did you—“

“Followed you home from the park,” she says. “Gotta use your bathroom.” She grabs my hand. “Show me where it is.”

I lead her to the bathroom. She flicks on the light and stands in front of the toilet.

She takes off her wedding ring, holds it up. “See this?” she says. She drops it in the toilet and flushes it. “Got that for 30 bucks at Wal-Mart. Who knew their costume jewelry was that nice?” She turns off the light and steps out into the hallway. “I’m not married.”

My mouth hangs open, an aircraft carrier for flies.

“Matter of fact, I’ve never been married,” she says. “All that stuff about finance? Got that from my brother, he’s an investment banker. I described him.”

I laugh.

I laugh because I’m relieved. Because the situation is nothing if not amusing. Because only on Craigslist can you find a married woman who wants to have an affair who isn’t actually married.

I laugh because what the fuck else can I do?

“You’re not mad?” she says.

I smile. “No, I’m not mad.” I pull her to me and kiss her.

I disengage and take her hand, lead her into my bedroom. I kiss her again, reach under her shirt, and draw my hand across her stomach. Trembling, she exhales.

I pull off her shirt and kiss her chest. My hands move to her jeans, and I unbutton them. Her hands gently pull mine away, and she turns around, dropping her pants. Her underwear hugs the cheeks of her round ass.

I press my lips to her freckled shoulder and turn her around. “Not this time,” I say.

Vera hangs her head. “I can’t,” she says.

“Sure you can,” I say. A tear drips down her face and briefly pools in one of her acne scars before moving along. “What’s wrong?”

“You don’t know me,” she says, clasping her hands in front of her.

“You don’t know me, either,” I say. “It’s a good time to start over.”

I move to kiss her but she puts her hand out. I stop.

She shakes her head. “Don’t.” Her hands move to the waistband of her underwear. “You need to see something first.”

I nod, and her panties drop to the ground.

Buried in a small thatch of ginger curls is a tiny penis. I squint. Actually, it’s not a penis; there’s no discernible shaft, no balls. Rather, it’s a huge clitoris that looks like a penis.

“I’m an intersexual,” she says. Vera crosses her arms over her bare stomach, hugging herself. Her head droops and curls fall in her face.

An intersexual. Some people might define Vera as a hermaphrodite but a hermaphrodite has full sets of both male and female genitalia. A real deal human hermaphrodite is extremely rare. As in almost never happens. Intersexuals are more common, and their genitalia is usually…mixed. Like one ovary and one testicle, stuff like that. In Vera’s case, she happens to have an enormous clit that is noticeably penis-like.

Big deal.

I drop to my knees, bury my face between her legs, and show her just how much that doesn’t matter. It works, too, because the next thing I know, we’re a sweaty tangle of limbs and heavy panting.

This time, with her inhibitions gone, Vera doesn’t play the role of the puppeteer. Rather, we’re a partnership as we intertwine and move together.

She doesn’t make the little coquettish moans that I’m used to, either; her cries of exultation are sometimes accompanied by small whimpers, like she’s been freed after years of captivity. She comes three times, each time shuddering to a halt but quickly starting up again. When we can’t go anymore, she melts into me and I hold her. I’m exhausted and happy.

I breathe in her warm, syrupy funk and close my eyes.

 

The next morning I smell waffles. The smell takes me back to Amelia, our house, our marriage. A wave of nausea sucker punches me but it passes.

Vera isn’t in bed but her clothes are still scattered around the room. I get up and slip my boxers on.

I’m pulling a t-shirt over my head when I shuffle into the kitchen. Bella spots me from the couch and scampers in, too.

The waffle iron is tucked into a corner. Vera is at the stove, gripping the handle of a frying pan. A mixing bowl sits adjacent to the cooktop.

She’s wearing the shirt she tore off me the night before, and it hangs open a bit. Her penis-y clit seems to peek out at me but it could just be my imagination.

In one motion, she maneuvers a spatula into the pan and gives the pancake inside a quick flip.

I come up behind her, wrap my arms around her waist, and bury my face in her curls. They smell like strawberries.

“Pancakes, huh?” I say.

“Saw the waffle iron,” she says. “Thought you’d like something different.”

I chuckle and put my chin on her shoulder. “My wife isn’t dead,” I say. “She’s alive and lives in Kenosha. We got divorced a few months ago.” Bella noses around Vera’s knees like she did the day before. “And I’m not dog sitting. Bella’s mine.”

“I know,” she says, patting my hands. “You’re a terrible liar.”

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“Another Cliché in a Too-Long Line of Them” – short fiction

If a bug gets into the house, Jared traps it between his hands, takes it outside, and releases it. He literally wouldn’t hurt a fly.

So it’s surprising when he slaps me across the face hard enough to draw blood.

I go sprawling on the kitchen linoleum. He stands over me, unsure whether to be shocked, angry, or hungry for more.

Holding my hand to my face, I kick out. My foot connects with his thigh. He goes down.

I run to the bathroom, lock the door behind me.

 

Jared’s cell phone is on the toilet tank, sitting next to an old issue of Cosmo. My issue of Cosmo. The cover boasts “10 Ways to Make Your Man Worship You.”

I spit blood into the sink and throw the magazine into the wastebasket.

I grab the phone, dial 911.

Jared leaves his phone in the bathroom sometimes. He likes to play games on it while he’s “dropping the kids off at the pool.” His words. Ironic that I’m using it to call the cops on him.

The operator picks up. I start to give him the details when Jared hammers on the door, yelling at me to let him in.

My face flushes. I tear up. Not because I’m scared. Because this whole situation is such a cliché. Because I have horrible taste in guys. Because I’m afraid that’ll never change.

I tear up because I have daddy issues.

 

For most of my childhood, Daddy was a good daddy. Tea parties and piggyback rides, soccer games and dance recitals, Daddy had his bases covered.

Then Daddy lost his job.

Daddy managed a chain of grocery stores. Another company bought the chain, laid Daddy off. “Redundancy elimination.”

He looked for other jobs but didn’t have any luck. Mom was as supportive as she could be, offering to get a job to help pay the bills. Daddy refused. He was too proud, too old fashioned. Thought a woman’s place was in the home.

He kept looking, kept getting rejected or hearing nothing at all. What little extra money we had he started spending on booze.

Another cliché in a too-long line of them.

Daddy started drinking more and more, looked for jobs less and less.

Unbeknownst to him, Mom got a job. At the grocery store Daddy used to work at. Just some shifts here and there. Somehow Daddy didn’t notice.

Until he did.

He was drunk one night, pissed his pants.

He and Mom had separate dressers. Separate but identical. Still in a drunken haze, he went into what he thought was his dresser looking for a fresh pair of underpants. Found an apron from his grocery store instead. ISABELLE was printed on the plastic name tag pinned to it. Mom’s name is Isabelle.

Daddy didn’t like that.

When Daddy confronted Mom, she was in the kitchen making dinner. Eggplant parm. Our favorite.

My little brother, Danny, and I were playing in the family room when we heard the crash. We ran to the kitchen. Found Daddy looming over Mom, her lower lip split. The eggplant parm and the dish that held it were on the floor. The eggplant, sauce, and cheese mixed with the glass shards, a delicious, dangerous mess.

I somehow had the wherewithal to nudge Danny behind me. He didn’t need to see that.

I didn’t need to see that.

But it was in my face, impossible to avoid.

Daddy turned around, saw us standing there.

“Hope, take Danny upstairs,” she said. I didn’t move. “Now!”

“Shut up!” Daddy said. He hit Mom again.

I jumped. So did Danny. We started to whimper.

Daddy pointed at the eggplant parm. “Who’s gonna clean this shit up, huh? Who?!” He backhanded Mom. A cut opened up on her cheek.

Tears in my eyes, I stepped forward, took Daddy’s hand. The one he didn’t use to hit Mom with. “Daddy, stop!” I said.

He pulled away, hit me too. His wedding ring caught me across the cheek, gave me a cut like Mom’s.

Mom didn’t like that. She popped up, punched Daddy. Barely phased him. “Don’t you dare hit her!” she said.

Daddy wheeled on her, hit her again. Closed fist this time.

Mom collapsed.

I grabbed Danny’s hand, pulled him into the bathroom off the kitchen, and yanked the door shut behind us. I looked into his eyes, all red-rimmed and teary. Just like mine. I said, “Stay here, lock the door. Don’t come out ‘til I say. Okay?”

Danny nodded. I left the bathroom, closed the door behind me. I heard it lock.

I rounded the corner into the kitchen. Daddy was in mid-shout. “—you do the one fucking thing I told you not to do!”

Mom cowered on the ground, flattened herself against the cabinets. Glass shards clung to her hands.

“Look at me when I talk to you!” Daddy said, slapping her.

I scampered to the garage, bypassed Daddy’s ’67 Camaro, his pride and joy, went to the

corner where we kept soccer balls, tennis racquets, bicycle helmets. And baseball bats.

I picked up an aluminum Easton and hefted it as I walked to the door.

I stopped and took a couple practice swings. On the second swing I got too close to Daddy’s Camaro, took off the side view mirror and some paint. I laughed like a mental patient.

Fuck Daddy’s pride and joy.

I marched back into the house, came up behind Daddy. He was still shouting and had taken a few more shots at Mom. Her face was swollen. Blood and snot ran from her nose.

I gritted my teeth and choked up on the bat. I swung low, aiming for his ankle.

There was a crack! as the bat connected. Daddy went down.

Beauty swing. Under any other circumstances it would’ve made Daddy proud.

After he crashed to the floor I went to work on his ribs, his other leg, his arms. I huffed and puffed as I laid into him, my ten-year-old arms burning with the effort.

The only reason I stopped hitting him was because I’d started to cry.

I dropped the Easton, went to Mom’s side.

She was beat up but conscious. She put her hand to my face, gentle as could be.

I helped her up and got her to the couch in the living room.

Then I got Danny out of the bathroom. He ran to Mom when he saw her on the couch.

Then I called 911.

 

Jared’s still banging on the bathroom door, demanding entry.

The 911 dispatcher is having trouble hearing me. I’m yelling the address into the phone when I hear the door crack.

I look over. Not the door. The doorframe.

Jared keeps it up, he’ll get through in no time.

Another wham! and I startle, dropping the phone. It clatters on the floor tiles.

My eyes dart around the bathroom, searching for something I can use as a weapon.

Plunger? No.

Toilet brush? Definitely not.

C’mon, there’s gotta be something….

Ah. Towel rack.

I rip the towels off and yank on the rod. It takes a few pulls but it comes free just as the doorjamb splinters and Jared stumbles in.

The stainless steel rod brings drywall dust with it, fogging up the room. Jared waves his hand in front of his face, sees me, and charges.

I swing the rod at his head. It catches him in the temple. He stumbles sideways and crashes into the bathtub, banging his head on the porcelain.

I retain my stance, expecting him to get up. He doesn’t.

Still holding the rod, I lean over the tub and take Jared’s pulse. Alive but out cold.

There’s at the knock at the front door. I jump, drop the rod.

I touch my finger to the corner of my mouth as I approach the door. It comes away bloody. I wipe it on my tank top.

When I open the door and see two police officers standing there, I start sobbing. Didn’t see that coming. The sobbing, I mean.

I fall into one of the officer’s arms. His name tag says BENDIS. His badge says DEWEY BEACH POLICE DEPARTMENT.

 

Everything after that is the same as it was with Daddy: cops and medics, statements and questions. Jared’s fate is the same as Daddy’s was: he’s carted out on a stretcher. I catch the word “concussion.”

I’m sitting on the couch, talking to Officer Bendis. I ask how the rest of this will go, how it will play out since there weren’t any witnesses, since it’s he said/she said.

Officer Bendis jots something down on his notepad. “It’s always ‘he said/she said.’ But ‘she said’ usually wins out because men are fucking animals.” He looks up from his notebook. “Pardon my language.”

Officer Bendis sounds a lot like the judge who sentenced Daddy to prison. Minus the profanity, that is.

The medics ask if I want to go to the hospital, do I want to talk to somebody. Thanks but no, I say.

The house clears out, and I go to the bedroom to gather my things. Throwing clothes and toiletries into a duffel bag, I vow to be single for a while, to vet future suitors more carefully.

My track record, I’ll be shocked if I follow through with either one.

 

Bag slung over my shoulder, I head for the front door.

I’m at the threshold when I remember my jacket.

I drop my bag on the floor, go to the adjacent coat closet and root through it. I find my jacket and pull it off the hanger. When I do, something hard falls on the floor, landing with a clank.

I feel around and get my hand on something cold and metallic. I remove the object and laugh when I see it in the light.

It’s a bat. Louisville Slugger, aluminum, worn rubber grip.

Feels like an old friend.

I go to return the Slugger to its resting place in the closet but I stop. Bat still in hand, I close the closet door instead.

I place the bat on the floor and stuff my jacket into my bag. Then I pick up the duffel and the bat and walk out of the house, the screen door slapping closed behind me.

I doubt Jared will miss the bat, and if he does, fuck him, let him riot. I need the Slugger more than he does.

For me, the bat’s a reminder: Daddy didn’t get the best of me.

And neither will anyone else.

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“The M-Word” – short fiction

Sitting in the windowless shoebox that housed the NYPD’s Omnicide Division, Plank and Darwin were waiting for a call and doing what they usually did while waiting for a call: they were arguing.

“Look, pal, all I’m saying is the English language is full of so many good words that you don’t really need to use swear words,” Plank said. “I’m not saying substitute ‘fudge’ or ‘sugar’ or anything like that. I’m saying go without.”

Darwin looked up from his crossword puzzle. “Do you know what the median IQ of the NYPD is?”

Plank stared.

“Didn’t think so,” Darwin said, scratching his chin with a thick mitt. “And actually, I don’t know either. But I’d guess it’s around 110 or so. Maybe. Don’t quote me.”

“Kinda low, isn’t it? 110?”

“Eh. It’s average intelligence. And as such, the average person doesn’t speak the King’s English so it’s completely normal for them to say ‘fuck’ or ‘shit’ or ‘cockknocker.’” Darwin giggled at the last one. Plank cringed at all three. “That’s how people fucking talk, Plank. And those words are especially useful when you’re pissed off. So knock it off with that ‘curse words are for the unenlightened’ bullshit.” He turned back to his puzzle. “Now what’s a five-letter word for ‘bouncy orbs’?”

Plank folded his arms and scowled. “Balls,” he said.

Darwin giggled again and scribbled on the paper. “Hey, that fits.”

The phone on Plank’s desk rang. He picked it up. “Omnicide, Plankard.” He listened to the voice on the other end. He rolled his eyes. “Yes, I know. ‘Omnicide’ means ‘the destruction of all life.’ They’re still working on the name. Something I can do for you?” Plank picked up a pen and started jotting on a steno pad. “Uh huh. Uh huh.” He put down the pen. “Alright, we’re on our way,” he said, hanging up the phone.

Pencil poised over his puzzle, Darwin said, “Well?”

“Body at 62nd and 3rd. Human.”

Darwin put the puzzle in a desk drawer, trading it for a holstered Glock, which he attached to his belt. “Want me to drive?”

“Very funny,” said Plank.

 

Barreling down 3rd Avenue, Plank and Darwin’s squad car got a lot of stares. Of course it did, it was the mongrel offspring of an SUV and an M1 tank, all rounded edges and armor plating, designed to hold up under nothing less than a stampede of maladjusted apes. Darwin hadn’t gotten his license yet (he’d failed three times already), and it made him nuts. He ached to drive the Bastard. However, Darwin found the Bastard’s plush passenger seat quite comfy and was enjoying the ride. That is, until Plank decided to ruin it.

“Could you go a day without swearing?” Plank said.

“Holy living Christ.” Darwin turned and glared at his partner. “Again with this?”

“Seriously. If I bet you fifty bucks, could you go a day without swearing? Bet you couldn’t, pal.”

“Lemme ask you. What is a swear word exactly?”

“It’s a word that, um, you know, hurts my ears when I hear it. Something that sounds…boorish. Uneducated.”

“And that makes it offensive? It offends you when you hear ‘shit’ or ‘fuck’?”

“’Offends’ isn’t really the right word. Like I said, it. Well. It hurts my ears. It’s distasteful.” Plank paused. “You like fruit. What’s your favorite fruit?”

Darwin cocked his head and closed one eye. “Peaches. Those freestone guys.”

“And if you bite into a peach that’s past its prime, one that’s all mealy and mushy, what do you do?”

“Spit that shit out.”

“Right.” Plank held out his right hand. “That’s what curse words are to me: bad peaches.”

Darwin nodded. “Interesting analogy.” He spotted a piece of lint on his suit jacket and flicked it off. “You realize, though, that by finding these words offensive and shooting your mouth off about them, you are, in effect, giving those words even more power. If you calmed down and simply ignored them, maybe they would cease to bother you. Maybe they’d become powerless.”

Plank rolled the Bastard up to the corner of 62nd and 3rd, parking it inches from the yellow crime scene tape. “Yeah. Maybe,” he said.

Exiting the car, Darwin smiled. “Yeah. Maybe.” was Plank’s way of crying uncle. For the moment, anyway.

 

The first thing Darwin and Plank noticed at the scene was the smell. Not the smell of the dead guy decaying on the sidewalk in the afternoon sun but rather the stench of the shit that was strewn all over the body.

“Hoo boy,” Plank said, crinkling his nose at the odor. Approaching the officer at the edge of the cordon, Plank opened his suit jacket to reveal the badge clipped to his belt. “Plankard, Omnicide.” He jerked his chin at the body. “Was the vic found like this? Covered with, you know, feces?”

The officer, whose nametag said HARR, nodded and put a hand under his nose as a breeze blew the smell toward him. “Sure was.”

“Any witnesses?” Plank said.

“Not sure,” Harr said. “Haven’t gotten a chance to find out, been securing the scene since I got here.”

“It’s secure now so do us a favor,” Darwin said, pointing at the growing throng of rubberneckers near the taped barrier. “See if you can rustle us up a witness or two. Broad daylight, lots of foot traffic, somebody must’ve seen something.”

Harr, quite a bit taller than Darwin, stared down at the detective.

Plank snapped his fingers in front of Harr’s face. “Hello, Earth to Harr.” The officer’s eyes fluttered and shifted to Plank. “You heard him,” Plank said. “Chop chop.”

Harr nodded, gave a thumbs-up, and went to do their bidding.

Plank looked at his partner. “Shall we?”

“After you,” said Darwin, his arm outstretched.

Peering past the Crime Scene Unit techs who were bagging, tagging, and photographing everything in sight, the two detectives studied the victim. He was wearing a Ferragamo suit and loafers, looked to be in his mid-40s, and had a full head of curly black hair that was graying at the temples. Other than the golf ball-sized goose egg above the victim’s right eye socket, the body looked untouched. There was no blood, at least none that was visible. It was one of the tidiest crime scenes they’d ever seen.

“What’s up, doc?” Darwin said to the small Indian woman kneeling next to the body. She was wearing a dark blue jacket with MEDICAL EXAMINER emblazoned on the back.

Making notes on a clipboard, she said, “Oh, Detective Darwin, aren’t you the clever one.”

“Actually, Dr. Parveen, he is the clever one,” Plank said, removing a notebook and pen from his jacket pocket. “I’m just the driver.”

“Only because ‘the clever one’ failed his driving test three times,” said Parveen.

“Alright, alright,” Darwin grumbled. “Couple of ball aches, you two.” He sat on his haunches and rested his knuckles on the sidewalk. “So what’s the story here?”

“Well,” said Parveen. “It would appear that the victim was hit above the right orbit, fell down, and then once he was on the ground, his chest was beaten until his breastbone shattered.” To illustrate her point, the doctor opened Zatmary’s shirt, exposing a large, dark purple bruise in the middle of his chest. “My guess is that the blunt trauma induced cardiac arrest.”

Plank flipped open his notebook and started writing. “Commotio cordis, right, doc?”

“Why Detective Plankard.” Dr. Parveen smiled at Plank. “Been doing some studying, have we?”

“Nah, just a baseball fan,” said Plank, ignoring Darwin’s incredulous gape. “It’s why catchers wear chest protectors.”

Shaking his head, Darwin directed his attention back to the body. “We have an ID on this guy?”

“Not yet,” said Parveen. She looked past the detectives and said, “Ryerson!”

“What?” The voice came from a nearby CSU tech who was too immersed in cataloging bags of evidence – what few there were – to look up.

Parveen said, “Do you happen to have the victim’s wallet over there?”

“Yup.”

“Kindly bring it over, would you?”

“Yeah, okay.” Gripping his clipboard and an evidence bag with one hand, Ryerson continued making notes as he walked over. When he reached the body, he looked up from his clipboard, immediately noticing Darwin. “What can I, uh.” His eyes slid from Darwin to Plank to Parveen and then quickly back to Darwin. “Do. For you guys.”

“For starters, Ryerson, you can stop staring,” Darwin said.

“Sorry, Detective,” Ryerson said. “It’s, uh, just that I never—“

“Never what?” Plank said. “Seen a detective doing his job? Ain’t your first crime scene, right?”

Ryerson shook his head.

“So quit gawking and try to divide your attention between all of us,” said Plank. “You got the wallet?”

“Yeah.” Ryerson tucked the clipboard under one arm and held up the evidence bag with the other. “Right here. What’d you guys need this for anyway?”

“Beer money,” Plank said. Ryerson’s lips parted as if he was going to say something but didn’t. “His ID, genius. We need his ID.”

Darwin smiled. He hated being on the receiving end of Plank’s ball breaking but he loved witnessing it.

“Oh,” Ryerson said. “You mean you guys don’t recognize the vic?”

“Obviously,” Parveen drawled.

“Drum roll. That.” Ryerson pointed at the body. “Is Ron Zatmary. As in Zatmary Cosmetics Ron Zatmary.” An adamant proponent of animal testing, Zatmary was often in the news because of his outspoken beliefs. A friend of PETA he was not.

Parveen and the detectives were speechless.

“Right?” Ryerson said. “Check this out.” He opened the plastic evidence bag and took out the calfskin wallet. He extracted a New York driver’s license from the wallet and held it out for them to see. “Beard.” Ryerson cocked his head at Zatmary. “No beard.” He put the ID back in the wallet. “I didn’t recognize him without it either.”

Darwin snapped on a pair of latex gloves and held out his gloved hand. “May I?” he said.

“Be my guest,” said Ryerson, handing Darwin the evidence bag and wallet.

Plank paused from writing. “What do we got?”

“Besides the ID,” Darwin said, thumbing through the wallet’s contents. “A few hundred in cash, a Black AmEx, and this.” He held up a photo of a ridiculously beautiful woman holding a ridiculously adorable little boy. Darwin turned to Ryerson. “Where’d you find the wallet?”

“Pants pocket,” said Ryerson.

“Looks like everything’s still here,” Darwin said. “Guess it wasn’t a robbery.”

“Man, Ron Zatmary,” said Plank. He shook his head as he scribbled in his notebook. “We better pray for an eyeball wit,” he said. “This guy’s got so many enemies anybody could’ve done it.”

“Who could blame ‘em,” Darwin muttered. He was no fan of Zatmary’s either. He caught Plank giving him the same disapproving look he gave him when he cursed. “Sorry,” he said. “Slipped out.” He turned his attention back to the wallet photo. “Who do you suppose this is? Wife and kid?”

Parveen’s eyes darted to the ring finger of Zatmary’s left hand. “No wedding ring,” she said.

“Somebody might’ve swiped it,” said Ryerson.

Darwin said, “Take the ring but leave the wallet? I doubt it.”

“Whoever she is, we’ll find out. She should be notified,” Plank said, making a note. “So what do you think, pal? Probably rule out premeditation, huh?”

“Yeah I’d say so,” said Darwin. “What you said before though, about how anybody could’ve done this. It couldn’t have been anybody.” He pointed at the bruise on Zatmary’s chest. “It takes a hell of a lot of force to shatter somebody’s breastbone and induce cardiac arrest. And there doesn’t seem to be any sign that a weapon was used, right, doc?”

“It wouldn’t appear so,” said Parveen. “A weapon would’ve made more…mess.”

“Right. So. It was either a bodybuilder or.” Darwin looked at Plank. “The obvious.”

A breeze kicked up, and Plank caught a whiff of the dung. Grimacing, he said, “And what of the, uh.” He waved his pen at the putrid logs. “Leavings.”

“Oh, right. Almost forgot,” said Darwin. He tucked his tie into his shirt and leaned over the body, his nose damn near touching the small turd that lay just above Zatmary’s belt.

Parveen said, “Oh god, is that really necess—“

But it was too late. Darwin was in full-on hound dog mode, taking long sniffs of the excrement. After the fifth, he stood up. “Elderberries.”

Plank jotted it down. “Yeah?”

“Yup. Got the same ones in Central Park.”

“We can have that analyzed, you know,” said Parveen, whose face was a mask of revulsion.

Ryerson gagged. “Seriously.”

“My way’s faster. But we should still run it for DNA.” He pulled his tie out of his shirt. “But who knows how long that’ll take. Probably solve this thing before we get the results back.”

“We can hope anyway,” Plank said. He felt a light tap on his shoulder and turned around. “Oh. Harr,” he said. “Any witnesses?”

“Just one,” Harr said.

Plank held out his hand. “Lead the way.”

Making a point not to look at Darwin, Harr walked a few steps ahead of the detectives. He led them to a young redheaded woman standing just inside the cordon. She was holding a paper shopping bag with SEARLE printed on the outside of it. “This is Lacey Horrocks,” said Harr. He turned to Lacey. “These gentlemen are detectives. They just want to ask you a few questions, okay?” Lacey’s head bobbed, signaling that it was. “Guess I’ll leave you to it then,” he said, walking away.

“Hi Lacey,” said Darwin, smiling. “I’m Detective Darwin.” He motioned to his partner. “This is Detective Plankard. Like the officer said, we just need to know what you saw so if you could start from the beginning, that’d be great.”

“Oh, okay, so, like, I was coming out of Searle? And this, like,” she waved her hand at Zatmary’s body, “total d-bag—“ She gasped and covered her mouth. “Oh, um, I didn’t mean to, like, speak ill of the dead or whatever. My mom? One time she accidentally called my Gramma the c-word and this was, like, literally right after her funeral and she said, ‘Lacey, do as I say, not as I do’ and I get it, right? Shouldn’t speak ill of the dead. Anyway, this guy is walking down the street, like, talking on his phone, I think he might’ve been FaceTiming? He’s walking toward 62nd and this mom and her kid, they’re, like, walking up the street toward me. And they’re totally minding their own business and this guy is walking toward them, like, not paying attention to where he’s going, like, at all, and he literally walks right into the mom and the guy drops his phone and as he picks it up, he calls the mom,” she glanced at Darwin, “the m-word. Like, ‘Stupid effing m-word’ or something like that.” She looked at Darwin again. “I was, like, totally disgusted. I mean, get with the times, right? Anyway, the mom hears this and sort of tries to, like, brush it off or whatever. And the kid, oh my god, he was so cute. He says, ‘Are you okay, Mom?’” Lacey put her hand to her chest. “You could literally hear my heart breaking. And then the guy says something like, ‘Keep your m-word on a leash.’ And that was when the mom, like, totally lost her shit. She, like, punches the guy in the face or whatever,” she brought her fist up to her right eye, “and he falls down and she literally starts, like, beating on his chest and yelling. All this happens and, like, I had to do something, right? So I, like, ran back into Searle and had them call 911 because I totally left my phone at home.” Lacey hung her head and scratched her arm. Dropping her voice to little more than a whisper, she said, “In the interest of, like, full disclosure or whatever, I have to admit that I think the guy kinda, like, had it coming. I mean, you can’t use words like that and expect people not to, like, lose their shit.” She raised her head. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not glad he’s dead but you can’t, like, underestimate the effects of hate speech.”

“True,” said Darwin. The expression on his face matched that of a funeral director’s.

Plank glimpsed his partner’s somber demeanor. Turning back to his notes, he said, “So. When you came back out of Searle, the mother and the kid, they were gone?”

“Yeah. Totes.”

“Could you describe the mother?” Darwin said. “She have any distinct features or anything?”

“Um,” Lacey said, playing with a strand of her hair. Examining it for split ends, her face brightened. “Oh! She had, like, bright auburn hair? Her son totally did too.”

“Anything else?” Darwin said.

“I guess she was, like, around your height or so,” Lacey said, looking at Darwin. “It’s, I don’t know, tough to tell?”

“Do you remember what she was wearing?” Plank said.

“Jeans and a t-shirt? It wasn’t, like, fashion forward or anything.”

“Understood,” Darwin said, handing her one of his cards. “If you think of anything else, please give me a call.”

“Oh yeah, totes,” she said, accepting the card. “Do you happen to, like, have an extra one of these? I can give you my digits in case you need ‘em or whatever.”

“Absolutely.” Darwin handed her a second card.

Lacey took it, searched her bag, and came out with a pen. Flipping the card over, she started jotting on the back of it. “I’m, like, such an idiot,” she said. “I can’t believe I left my phone at home. I could’ve totally just, like, put your number in my phone, and you wouldn’t’ve had to waste another card. Save some trees, you know? And I probably could’ve, like, taken a video or whatever with it.” She finished writing and handed the card back to Darwin. “That would’ve helped, right? A video of the crime, like, in progress?”

Plank’s ears pricked up, and he rifled through his notes. “Lacey, you said before that you thought the victim was FaceTiming, right?”

“I mean, I think he was? He was holding his phone, like, away from his face, and talking to it. And he didn’t have, like, earbuds or a Bluetooth or anything so I just assumed he was FaceTiming.”

Plank said, “Excuse me a second, I’ll be right back.”

Darwin and Lacey both nodded.

Trotting over to where Ryerson was boxing up his evidence bags, Plank stuck his pen behind his ear and wedged his notebook under his arm, slipping a pair of latex gloves out of his jacket pocket. “Ryerson,” he said, putting on the gloves as he approached the tech. “Please tell me you found an iPhone near Zatmary’s body.”

“Sure did, boss,” said Ryerson. He pulled a bag out of the box and handed it to Plank.

“Okay if I take a look?” Plank said.

Ryerson shrugged. “It’s your dime.”

Plank removed the phone and was stonewalled by the passcode screen. “Should’ve known,” he mumbled. He pursed his lips and examined the phone. It had a fingerprint scanner. That gave him an idea.

He approached the EMTs who were fitting Zatmary’s lifeless form into a vinyl body bag and said, “I get in there a sec?” One of the medics nodded. Plank reached into the body bag, gingerly pulled out Zatmary’s hand and pressed the thumb against the phone’s sensor. The phone made an audible click as the home screen appeared. “Thanks, guys,” he said. The EMTs finished sealing up the bag as Plank accessed Zatmary’s call log. His most recent call was indeed a FaceTime call, and it was with someone named Ada. Plank took out his own phone and copied Ada’s number into it. Then he resealed Zatmary’s phone in the evidence bag and handed it back to Ryerson.

“Get something good?” said Ryerson.

“Fingers crossed,” Plank said as Ryerson went back to work. Plank turned to see Darwin coming towards him. Alone. “You finish up with Lacey?”

“Yeah, think we literally got, like, everything we’re gonna get from her?” Darwin said.

“Wait, you’re goofing on her for how she speaks?” Plank said.

Darwin smiled and shrugged. “Nice girl and all but you gotta admit, some elocution lessons wouldn’t hurt.”

“But, to quote you, ‘that’s how people talk.’”

Darwin’s smile vanished. “Actually, killjoy, I said that’s how people fucking talk.” He nodded in Ryerson’s direction. “Anyway, what’d you need from him?”

“Got the number of whoever Zatmary was talking to before he got killed,” said Plank, waggling his phone in the air and starting back toward the Bastard. “Lacey was right, it was a FaceTime call. I figure we find out where this Ada person lives—“

“Ada?” Darwin said, following his partner to the car.

“The name in the phone. Ada. I’m thinking we find out where she lives, talk to her, see if she saw anything. Bit of a long shot but a lead’s a lead.”

“True.”

The detectives reached the Bastard and got in. Using the on-board laptop, Plank ran a database query on Ada’s number. Seconds later, a result came up. “Ada Zatmary,” they said in unison.

“Who’s that, you think?” said Darwin. “The woman from the picture?”

Plank scanned the details on the screen. “Only one way to find out.” He put the Bastard in gear and aimed it toward Ada’s address on Central Park West.

 

Over the years, Plank had had to tell quite a few people that their loved ones had been killed. And it always went horribly wrong.

Either he went into unnecessary detail about how they were killed (“Your wife was stabbed eight times in the neck with a railroad spike. Sorry.”) or he giggled while delivering the bad news because he sometimes giggled when he got nervous, he couldn’t help it.

Luckily for Plank, Darwin’s bedside manner was exceptional. Thus, Darwin took the lead when Ada – who was indeed the woman from the wallet photo – opened her apartment door.

After introducing Plank and himself, Darwin, his hands held in front of him, said, “Ma’am, I’m sorry to inform you that Ronald Zatmary was killed this afternoon.” His tone was so tender that he could’ve been on PBS teaching people to paint “happy little trees.”

The detectives waited for her to say something or do something or simply tear up but nothing came – Ada appeared as if she hadn’t heard Darwin at all. She just stared at Plank, and he, awkward as it was, stared right back.

“We’re very sorry for your loss, Ms. Zatmary,” Darwin said. “If you need to talk to somebody, we can put you in touch with a grief counselor.”

Still nothing. Ada’s blue-green eyes remained dry and focused on Plank.

Plank licked his lips. “I’m sure. Heh.” He stifled a grin and the chuckle that was sure to follow, took a breath, cleared his throat. “I’m sure this comes as a shock—“

“It’s not a shock,” Ada said, blinking slowly. “I know Ronnie was killed, Officer.”

“Detective,” said Darwin.

Ada looked down her nose at Darwin. Then she turned her attention back to Plank. “My son was talking to Ronnie when that…,” she glared at Darwin, “animal killed him.”

Plank said, “May we speak to your son, Ms. Zatmary?”

“It’s Mrs. Zatmary, and you may.” She pointed at Darwin. “He may not.”

Darwin began to seethe. “Ma’am, do you want to help us catch who did this or do you want to go to jail for obstructing a homicide investigation?” Ada’s lips disappeared into a thin line. “Well? What’ll it be?”

She stepped back into the apartment, holding the door open. “Please come in.”

The detectives followed Ada through the foyer into the living room, which could have easily held Plank’s entire apartment and a good chunk of Darwin’s house. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, the living room had floor-to-ceiling windows that offered a marvelous view of Central Park.

Despite its opulence, the apartment was quite warm and homey. Its walls and shelves displayed many framed pictures: some depicted Ada, the same little boy from the wallet photo, and a man who looked similar to Zatmary; some depicted Ada, a slightly older version of the boy, and Zatmary himself; some depicted all four people. In each photo they were smiling, hugging, laughing. They were on beaches and boats, in parks and backyards.

Leading the detectives down a hallway, Ada caught them slowing a bit as they inspected the photos. “Ronnie’s not my husband if that’s what you’re thinking,” she said. “Ronnie was my brother-in-law. I was married to Vernon, Ronnie’s younger brother. Vern died a few years ago, and Ronnie got us this apartment shortly after. He has, well, had an apartment down the hall.” She stopped in front of a door. “This is RJ’s room.”

“RJ?” Darwin said.

“Ronald James. My son,” said Ada. “We named him after Ronnie.” Facing the door, she put her hand on the knob. “I haven’t told RJ about Ronnie yet. Mostly because I didn’t know for sure.” She shut her eyes. “You aren’t going to tell RJ about Ronnie, are you? That he’s dead?”

“No,” Plank said. “We just want to ask him some questions, that’s all.”

“You can tell him when you’re ready,” said Darwin.

Ada nodded and opened the door.

The walls of RJ’s bedroom were decorated with Philadelphia Phillies pennants, a panoramic photo of Citizens Bank Park, and autographed action shots of various Phillies players. It was as if the Phillies had thrown up all over the room. The only non-Phillies items were several framed pictures of RJ and his uncle – most taken near or on a baseball field – that sat on the dresser.

RJ, who looked to be eight or nine years old, sat cross-legged on his bed, head down, sorting baseball cards into different piles.

“RJ, honey?” Ada said.

The boy lifted his head.

As Plank and Darwin entered the room, Ada gestured to them and said, “These are police detectives, sweetie. They need to ask you a few questions about what you saw when you were on the phone with Uncle Ronnie, okay?”

He nodded and put his cards down.

“Hi, RJ,” Plank said. “I’m Stanley Plankard and this is my partner, Oliver Darwin.” He pointed to the bed. “Mind if I sit?” RJ shrugged. Plank sat. “So. Phillies fan, huh?” No response. “I’m a Mets fan myself but—“

“The Mets suck,” RJ deadpanned.

Plank and Darwin howled.

“RJ!” said Ada.

“It’s true, Mom!” RJ said, looking up. “They got no pitching!”

Darwin turned to Ada. “He’s right, ma’am. They don’t.”

Plank grinned sheepishly and shrugged. “It’s a rebuilding year.”

“Isn’t it always?” said Darwin, winking at RJ.

RJ grinned.

“But who was it who beat the Phillies the other night? Let me think,” Plank said, tapping his chin. “Oh that’s right, it was the Mets.”

“But their record stinks and they still got two games left in the series.” RJ’s head drooped and gloom settled over his face. “Uncle Ronnie was s’posed to take me to the next one.”

Darwin and Plank exchanged a glance. Plank said, “Is that what you were to talking to him about this afternoon on the phone?”

RJ nodded. “Yeah, before he said that mean stuff to that lady.” He picked up a card and, as if it were too heavy, his hand flopped on the mattress. “She didn’t have to hit him. He didn’t mean what he said.”

Darwin had his doubts but kept his mouth shut.

Plank said, “Could you tell us what you saw?”

RJ nodded and proceeded to tell them. Aside from a few missed details – he’d witnessed the whole thing via cell phone camera, after all – it matched up with Lacey’s statement. That is, until RJ said, “Then Mom took the phone away from me and told me to go to my room.” He went quiet and regarded his cards again. “Uncle Ronnie is dead, isn’t he?”

Darwin said, “Uh…”

Ada took a step into the room.

“Yes, he is,” Plank said. His tact, that wild pony, had broken free and hurled itself out the window once again, causing him to go against his word to Ada. Fortunately, children, unlike adults, were better at handling the truth, even in its rawest form. That’s how Plank rationalized his mistake, anyway.

If Ada had had something in her hand, she would’ve thrown it at Plank. But she didn’t so she stayed quiet and waited for her son’s reaction.

RJ just picked up a few cards and put them back down. He swiped at his eyes with the back of his hand.

Plank put his hand on RJ’s shoulder. “I promise we’ll find who killed him. There will be justice.” He never made promises with murder investigations because he couldn’t promise anything. But a major part of the kid’s life had been wiped out, and a promise that might’ve been empty was all he had to offer in the way of comfort. And comfort, even a modicum of it, was sorely needed. “You know, I was a little older than you when my dad died.” It was an admission he hadn’t expected to make. He had more to offer after all.

His attention still directed at the cards, RJ said, “Did it hurt?”

“Yes, it did. Very much,” said Plank. “Sometimes it still does. But I have good memories of him so that helps. And from what I can see,” he gestured to the framed photos on RJ’s dresser, “you have some great memories of your uncle. As long as you have those, he’ll never be truly gone.” He paused. “Some people might call that a cliché but that doesn’t make it any less true.” He reached into his jacket and pulled out his card. “We need to talk to your mom privately for a little bit but before we go I want you to have this.” He placed it on the pile of baseball cards. “Like I said, I know what you’re going through so if you ever want to talk, my number’s on the card.” He gestured to the baseball cards. “Even talk baseball if you want.”

RJ, clearly not in the mood for consolation or social gestures, was still. He picked up Plank’s card and held it by the sides as he would a Mickey Mantle rookie card.

The detectives got up and went to the door. Plank paused, turned to Ada, and said, “We’ll be in the living room when you’re ready.” He closed the door behind him, and he and Darwin went to the living room to wait.

A bit later, Ada emerged from RJ’s room and joined them in the living room. When she came in, Plank, who’d been sitting on the couch, writing in his notebook, stopped writing and stood up. “Listen, I’m sorry for telling RJ back there, I—“

Ada slapped him across the face. Plank just stood there and took it. Darwin

winced.

“Apology accepted,” said Ada. She lowered herself into a leather easy chair adjacent to the couch. “Now. What would you like to know?”

“You can start where RJ left off,” Darwin said. “After you took the phone away from him. Just tell us what you saw.”
Ada folded her arms across her chest. “After I stopped screaming Ronnie’s name into the phone, you mean? After he’d been beaten to death? Is that where you want me to start?”

Darwin and Plank sat there, blinking.

“I’m sorry,” said Ada. She put a trembling hand to her forehead. “It’s just, uh.” She lowered her hand and composed herself. “Never mind.” She swept a lock of strawberry blond hair out of her face. “Where was I? Oh, right.” Her eyes locked with the detectives’. “That little brat threw his feces at Ronnie.”

“I assume you’re referring to the assailant’s child,” said Plank.

“Yes,” said Ada. “Him.”

Darwin, who was sitting next to Plank on the couch, leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “Are you sure?” He spread his hands. “I mean, the camera angle—“

“The camera was pointed down the street,” said Ada. “It was pointed upward while Ronnie was being hit but the angle changed afterward, I don’t know how. It was pointed down the street, and as he and his mother were walking away, I saw that kid reach into the back of his pants, pull out a fistful, and throw it at Ronnie. And then he started talking about muffins.”

“Muffins,” said Darwin.

“Muffins,” said Ada. “He threw his excrement at my brother-in-law and then asked his mother if he could have a muffin when they got home. As if what he’d just done wasn’t the most repulsive thing ever.”

Darwin slowly sat back, sinking into the couch.

Plank made some notes. “Anything else?”

Ada shook her head. “The call ended after that.”

Plank nodded. “Out of curiosity, you know why Ron shaved his beard? We didn’t recognize him without it.”

“He got tired of all the negative attention so he shaved it off, figured he could go incognito for a while.” Ada managed a small smile. “It was his disguise.”

“I see.” Plank closed his notebook. “Alright, well. Guess that covers it.” He stood up.

Ada pushed herself up out of the chair. “I’ll show you to the door.”

They both looked at Darwin, who was still sitting.

Plank cleared this throat. “You comin’, pal?”

“Oh, yeah,” Darwin said. “Yeah.” He got up slowly, mechanically, as if on autopilot.

Ada held the door open for them. Darwin trudged into the hallway but Plank stopped short, dug into his jacket pocket, and came out with another card.

“Thank you for your help, Mrs. Zatmary,” Plank said, handing the card to Ada. “If you or RJ think of anything else, please let me know.” He paused. “And what I said to RJ back there. The same goes for you; you want to talk, call. You’re not alone in this.” Like with RJ, this was unorthodox but, as with RJ, it was the right thing to do.

Ada nodded, and, for the first time since they’d entered her apartment, tears breached her eyelids. Her hand went to her nose as if she were holding back a sneeze, and she closed the door behind Plank as he exited, the latch fitting into its notch with a snick.

 

Plank flipped through his notes as he walked toward the elevator. “We ought to get the super to let us into Zatmary’s place,” he said. “Probably a dead end but we should check anyway.” It took him a second to realize that Darwin wasn’t by his side. He stopped and turned and saw Darwin still standing outside Ada’s door.

Darwin, his arms hanging like wet spaghetti at his sides, had his back turned to Plank, and he was facing the floor-to-ceiling window at the end of the hall. Like the windows in Ada’s apartment, it too looked out onto Central Park.

Plank went to his partner’s side. “You hear what I said about Zatmary’s apartment?”

Darwin waved him off. “Forget about that.” Furrows creased his brow, and his eyes were aimed straight ahead at the park. “We gotta go across the street. We gotta stop by my place real quick.”

“Um,” Plank said. “Okay.”

 

Once they hit the street, Plank did his best to keep up with Darwin, who was zipping right along as they crossed over into the park. Darwin didn’t offer an explanation, and Plank didn’t ask for one. He just tried to keep up as best he could as they approached the Tree Houses. Darwin’s breakneck speed was such that Plank wasn’t able to stop and marvel at the sheer magnificence of them, which is what he’d done every other time he’d seen them.

Located smack dab in the middle of Central Park and suspended in the boughs of genetically modified, speed-grown sequoia trees and held in place by a complex network of bolts, girders, and high-tension cables, the Tree Houses were, well, tree houses. With running water, electricity, and even cable TV, the fully functioning domiciles were also a 12-year-old’s wet dream.

When they arrived at Darwin’s quadrant, a small panel on the side of a tree irised open and Darwin positioned his eye in front of it. A beam of light scanned his eye from top to bottom and side to side. Darwin stood back as the panel beeped and a metallic voice chirped, “Welcome home, Mr. Darwin.” A carbon fiber ladder shot down from above and came to a quick yet gentle stop in front of him. Darwin immediately began to climb with the same furious determination he exhibited while jetting through the park. Plank followed.

Plank’s lungs and muscles were screeching at him to stop when he reached the platform at the top of the ladder. But his body’s cries went unanswered as he trailed his partner across one of many high-tech walkways that spanned the evergreens. A few moments later, Darwin, with Plank in tow, burst through the front door of his house. Storming through the living room and into the kitchen, Darwin stopped when he saw the tinfoil-wrapped plate on the table.

Licking his lips, he went over to it. After he removed the foil, he rested his hands on the back of one of the chairs. “Muffins,” he said, his shoulders slumping. He picked one up and sniffed it. Even though he didn’t need to, he bit into it anyway. It was delicious, as always. “Elderberry,” said Darwin.

“So what does that mean?” Plank said.

“It means that my neighbor might’ve killed Zatmary.” Darwin ran a hand over his face. “Fuck.”

A cop arresting somebody in his or her own neighborhood was always a dicey proposition. It was like farting at a funeral – you tried to avoid it but sometimes it happened. Eventually, people realized that it wasn’t personal, that cops just have a job to do, and life would slowly return to normal. It was a different story in the Tree Houses.

A few weeks earlier, the detectives had worked a case that had occurred in the vicinity of the Tree Houses. That is, the victim, a Tree House resident, appeared to have fallen from the Tree Houses and landed on the concrete walkway below. Plank and Darwin hadn’t been able to rule it a suicide or a murder because nobody in the Tree Houses would talk to them. They went to each house and asked the residents (the ones who would actually open the door, which was only two) if they knew or saw anything, and they both unequivocally said they hadn’t. It turned out the victim was set to testify against a murder suspect who didn’t even live in the Tree Houses, let alone have anything to do with anybody residing there. Living in the Tree Houses, it seemed, was tantamount to swearing a blood oath of secrecy. Some called it omerta, like in a mob movie. It was a tenet not to be violated under any circumstance. But if Darwin was right about his neighbor, he was about to.

“Might not be her,” said Plank. He sincerely hoped it wasn’t. He remembered the looks Darwin got on that other case, how both residents treated him like he’d peed in their corn flakes, as if just asking them a few questions made him a turncoat. Plank didn’t think the Tree House residents would grease a cop as they probably had with that witness but he couldn’t entirely put it past them.

Darwin was silent as he put the half-eaten muffin back on the plate with the others. He sighed and waved for Plank to follow him.

 

Standing at his neighbor’s front door, Darwin tilted his head from side to side, stretching his neck like a boxer about to enter the ring. “I’ll do the talking,” he said, sucking in a lungful of air and knocking on the door.

Scampering feet sounded from inside the house. When they stopped, the door was flung open, and the detectives were looking down at a kid whose auburn hair looked a bit damp. He was standing on a welcome mat – it said FOSSEY in block letters. A smile plastered across his face, he said, “Mr. Darwin!”

“Hey, Stevie,” Darwin said. He tried to smile but the result made him look constipated. “Your mom around?”

“You get the muffins we left for ya?” said Stevie. “Elderberry’s my favorite. Mom puts cimmamon in them, you know.”

“Oh, yeah, they, uh, were great as usual,” said Darwin, scratching his bald pate. “I actually wanted to thank your mom for them, is she here?”

“Yeah, lemme get her.” Stevie tilted his head back. “Moooomm! Mr. Darwin’s here!” The kid had a bell in every tooth.

Seconds later, Stevie’s mother, who had the same auburn hair, sauntered to the door. She was wearing jeans and a loose-fitting shirt and smelled like soap. She was smiling until she spotted Plank. Her hand on her son’s shoulder, she said, “Do me a favor and go to your room for a few minutes, sweetie.”

Stevie was prepared to protest but the scowl on his mother’s face changed his mind. He raised his hand in a pitiful wave to Darwin, turned heel, and trudged to his room.

“Can we come in, Marlene? Gotta talk to you about something,” said Darwin.

Marlene studied Plank. What she was searching for Darwin had no idea but it was clear she didn’t like what she saw. “Make it quick, I gotta start dinner soon,” she said. She held the door open for Darwin but let it swing shut in Plank’s face. Plank caught it and paused at the threshold. When it was clear that Marlene didn’t care whether or not he came inside, he entered.

Marlene and Darwin were in the living room. Darwin installed himself on the couch while Marlene was ensconced in a leather recliner. Plank stood next to the couch for a moment, feeling like a spoon in a drawer full of knives. “Sit down,” Marlene said. “You’re making me nervous.”

Plank did as he was told and sat beside his partner. He slowly got his notebook and pen out of his pocket and held them in his lap.

Darwin leaned forward and clasped his hands together. “There’s no easy way to say this so I’m just gonna say it,” he said. “We got three witnesses put you at the scene of a murder this afternoon, Marlene.”

“Me or someone who looks like me?” Marlene said, straight-faced.

“You, Marlene,” said Darwin. “They gave a description of Stevie, too.” He sat back and crossed his arms. “Found Stevie’s fecal matter at the scene, too. There were elderberries in it.” He paused. “I was surprised he threw it like that. Thought you broke him of that habit.”

Marlene stiffened.

“Look,” Darwin said, “we can take you out in cuffs and make a big scene or you can come quietly to the station with us.” He shifted just enough in his seat to expose his holstered Glock. “Or we can tranq you, do it that way. Up to you.”

“Fine,” Marlene said, holding out her wrists. “Handcuffs it is.”

“Doesn’t have to be that way,” said Darwin.

“Only way I’m leaving is in handcuffs.”

Darwin inhaled and let it out little by little. “I’m not looking to embarrass you, Marlene.”

“Oh cut the shit, Ollie,” Marlene said, boring into him with her dark brown eyes. “You’re not looking to help me save face; you’re looking to help yourself. You walk me out in cuffs and you become a pariah, which you obviously don’t want. But guess what? If I’m fucked, so are you.”

“So you admit to killing Ronald Zatmary this afternoon?” Plank blurted. He couldn’t help himself – screw this lady and her complacency.

“Plank—“ said Darwin.

“Is that who that was?” Marlene said. “Thought it was just another dickhead bigot. Piece of shit disrespecting my son like that. Ask me, I did the world a favor. Assholes like him aren’t meant for longevity.”

The detectives looked at each other and had an entire conversation without saying a word – Plank was sorry, Darwin let it go, the situation sucked but what could you do.

Darwin stood up. Taking handcuffs from a pouch on his belt, he said, “Marlene Fossey, you have the right to remain silent.” As Darwin slapped the cuffs on and continued to Mirandize her, Stevie poked his head into the room. He glimpsed a flash of silver at his mother’s wrists and rushed to her side.

“Mom, what’s going on?” he said. He turned to Darwin. “What are you doing to my mom?”

Darwin uncuffed Marlene. “Tell him,” he said.

Marlene crouched in front of Stevie and put her hands on his shoulders. “Remember how I hurt that man this afternoon?” Stevie nodded slowly. “Well, that wasn’t a good thing to do. Mr. Darwin and his friend need to take me away for a little while.”

“What? No!” Stevie said. He clamped his arms around his mother’s neck. “You can’t take her, Mr. Darwin!”

“Is Phil here, Marlene?” Darwin said.

“Nope, won’t be back ‘til later,” she said, smirking.

“We could get child protective services down here to get the kid,” Plank said. Marlene’s smug look was replaced with a worried one.

Ignoring his partner, Darwin said, “Can we call him?”

“You can,” Marlene said. “But he ain’t gonna like it.”

Unfortunately, she was correct – Darwin called Phil, explained the situation, and Phil just yelled “Fuckingchrist!” into the phone before promptly hanging up. When Phil got home, barreling through the front door and nearly blasting it from its hinges, Plank’s hand went to the butt of his Glock.

Phil came bombing into the living room, chest heaving, hair matted with sweat. He was wearing construction coveralls.

“Hey, Phil,” Darwin said. “I don’t know when Marlene’s bail is going to be set so—“ He was interrupted when Phil’s fist collided with his face.

Plank drew on Phil.

Darwin raised his hand. “Don’t,” he said, rubbing his jaw. Plank lowered his weapon but kept it in his hand.

“Fuckin’ traitor,” Phil said.

“Sure, it’s all my fault,” Darwin said. “I made Marlene kill Ron Zatmary just to fuck with you.” He threw the handcuffs to Plank and nodded.

Plank holstered his weapon and went to put the cuffs on Marlene. He was a few feet from her when Phil launched himself at the detective.

Darwin pulled out his sidearm and fired. The tranquilizer flechette buzzed across the room and stuck in Phil’s side. Plank barely had time to move out of the way before an unconscious Phil cleared the sofa and crashed into the wall. Stevie, who’d been relatively calm the whole time, started to cry.

Darwin sighed and reseated the Glock in its holster. “Guess we better call for backup.”

 

The black-and-whites, once they got to the house, were tasked with keeping an eye on Stevie until Phil woke up. The officers suggested that perhaps it wasn’t the greatest idea to leave Phil unrestrained but the detectives assured them it would be fine; the flechette, besides being a tranquilizer, also contained a mood-altering cocktail that would leave Phil feeling groovy and placable when he awoke. The officers were still wary but took the detectives at their word. They asked why Phil had been sedated and, after they were given the rundown, why charges weren’t being pressed. To which Plank replied, “No harm, no foul.”

Darwin wouldn’t have blamed Plank if he’d wanted to run Phil in. If somebody had come at Darwin like Phil had at Plank, that somebody would’ve been fucked. But Plank shrugged it off.

As the detectives ushered Marlene out of the house and onto the walkway, the officers were at the door, flanking a bawling Stevie who was yelling, “Don’t take my mom, Mr. Darwin! Come back! Come back!” Forget about the bodies and the blood, it was stuff like that that kept Darwin up at night.

Since they had Marlene in handcuffs, they couldn’t use one of the ladders to get down; they had no option but to take one of the open-air elevators. But to get to the elevator, they had to walk past a bunch of other houses, the doors and windows of which were now filled with prying eyes. It was a small miracle that Plank was blasé about the Phil situation because it was already awkward as hell perp-walking Marlene down the walkway. It would’ve been ten times as bad if they’d had both Fosseys in custody.

When they got to the elevator, the three of them got on board, and Darwin hit the “down” button.

“Take a good look, Ollie,” Marlene said. “Nothin’s gonna be the same after this.”

Darwin mashed the button repeatedly and, even though he tried not to, he looked at the residents lining the walkways, their eyes all pinned on him. He didn’t want to admit it but she was right – his life as he knew it was over.

The elevator sank slowly, and Darwin tried to put himself in Marlene’s shoes. Would he have come quietly or put up a stink like she had? He wanted to think he was a little more righteous than to make an innocent suffer needlessly. But then, if he were in Marlene’s shoes, he wasn’t sure he wouldn’t have flipped out on Zatmary, too. It didn’t matter though, he had a job to do and that’s what he was doing. But doing the right thing should’ve felt better.

 

The detectives guided Marlene to the Bastard and loaded her into the back. Once she was situated, they got in, and Plank fired it up.

As Plank drove them back to the station, Darwin sat back, closed his eyes, and massaged his forehead. The idea of booking Marlene, calling it a day, and relaxing at home appealed to him until he remembered that home wasn’t exactly his sanctum anymore.

“Maybe this isn’t the best career choice for you, Ollie,” Marlene said.

Darwin ignored her.

“You could do a million other things, and you choose the one thing that puts you at odds with your own,” she said. “You really think you’re accepted by them, don’t you?”

Again no response from Darwin.

“Hate to break it to you, Ollie,” she said, “but you’re just another monkey to them.”

Plank peered at Marlene in the rearview mirror. “Say, how come it’s okay for you to throw around the m-word but I can’t?”

“Oh, c’mon, you know why,” Darwin said, his arms crossed. “You’re a human and we’re monkeys. You ain’t one of us, you shouldn’t use the word.”

“’One of us’?” Plank said. “Don’t lump yourself in with her.”

“You know what I mean,” Darwin said. “We’re monkeys and you’re not.”

“Technically, pal, you’re a hairless chimpanzee,” Plank said, again looking at Marlene in the rearview, “and you’re an orangutan.” He paused. “And, really, the proper nomenclature is ‘sim.’ Or ‘simian’ if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.”

“That’s what you call us,” said Marlene. “Just another label.”

Plank considered arguing but thought better of it – it’d be like reasoning with a brick wall. He stayed silent and so did she.

“She’s got a point, you know,” Darwin said, breaking the silence. “We’re given labels, treated like second-class citizens. You saw how Harr and Ryerson acted around me. How Ada treated me like a piece of shit.”

Plank said, “I don’t think—“

“You don’t think what?” Marlene said. “You heard him, we’re treated like second-class—“

Darwin whirled in his seat and gave Marlene the ol’ eye-fuck. “You. Shut up. Or I swear to Christ we’ll hit you with a resisting arrest charge on top of everything else. Isn’t that right, partner?”

“Technically, she was resisting, yeah,” Plank said. “The whole ‘give me cuffs or give me death’ schtick.”

Marlene acquiesced and shut her piehole.

Darwin turned back to his partner. “You were saying.”

“I was going to say that I don’t think that Harr and Ryerson have anything against you. I’ll bet they’re probably just not used to the concept of sims as citizens yet. To them it’s still got some novelty. I mean, it’s a brave new world, pal. Some people just ain’t ready for it. As for Ada, that was misdirected hostility.” He hooked a thumb in Marlene’s direction. “Mother of the Year back there kills Ada’s brother-in-law so of course she’s going to be a little less than civil toward the next sim she comes in contact with.” He put up a hand, traffic-cop style. “I’m not justifying it or saying it was right but it was a natural reaction. She lost family, can’t blame her for going off the rails a little.

“And really, it took me a little while to get used to working with you,” he said. “‘Course that had more to do with you being surly than being a sim.” He smiled and playfully elbowed his partner. “But still. Gotta give it time. I mean, Doc Parveen doesn’t act weird around you. And that girl, Lacey, she was nothing but nice to you.”

“Fair point,” Darwin said.

Marlene muttered something involving the word “blame.”

“What’d I tell you about talking?” said Darwin.

“Wait, what did she say?” Plank said. Darwin shrugged. Plank looked in the rearview again. “What’d you say?”

Marlene opened her mouth, shut it.

“It’s okay, I honestly want to know,” Plank said.

“I said you can’t really blame me for killing that shithead,” said Marlene.

“How the fuck you figure that?” Darwin said.

“Your partner there said he couldn’t blame that woman for going off the rails since her brother-in-law was killed,” she said, “and I’m saying that you can’t blame me for going off the rails either. He called my son, an innocent kid, who doesn’t know from prejudice, a monkey. Guy bumps into us and we’re the assholes? Fuck him.”

“Bit of a stretch, no? Kill a guy just because he used a word you didn’t like?” Plank said. “Look, you love your son and want to protect him and I get that. But nobody needs protection against words because they’re not a threat. And because you didn’t stop to think about that, you’ll probably do twenty to life now. Where does that leave Stevie?”

Marlene face went hangdog, and she looked out the window. “You don’t know what it’s like.”

“Oh, what, you’re the only one who’s ever been called a monkey?” Plank said. “Look at my skin, lady. I’m black. I’ve been called monkey, nigger, coon, you name it. But unlike you, I don’t let that rule me. Because, in the end, they’re only words. They don’t matter.” He smiled and shook his head. “Damn it.”

“What?” Darwin said.

“I hate it when you’re right, pal,” Plank said. “No offense.”

A grin slowly spread across Darwin’s face. “None taken.”

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“A Bad Time For Blasphemy” – a piece of micro fiction

Wrote a little something called “A Bad Time For Blasphemy” for a contest at Medium.com. Check it out here. Or read the text below. Enjoy!

Almost nothing was under my control.

After I insulted the Boss, I began to choke. The edges of my vision darkened as my throat closed up. My life was a top nearing the end of its spin. The only things I could control were my hands so I tugged at my collar as if that would suddenly allow my throat to unclench. It didn’t.

Actually, wait. Let me back up a bit.

I’m in the, well, call it the construction business, and my company had been working on this enormous, one-of-a-kind building. So much went into this thing — I’m talking billions of dollars, countless man-hours, a lifetime worth of stress, and after all the late nights, all the arguments, all the hand wringing, this monster came together beautifully, it was complete. We could finally kick back and relax, it was Miller time! Then, out of left field, our competitors up and steal our blueprints.

This unnerved us. Of course it did. We bust our asses for years (years!), and this group of jerkoffs comes along and swipes our designs. Hell, we heard they even had moles inside our organization to steal that stuff. It was industrial espionage of the highest order. Disgusting. The Boss was so pissed he took it upon himself to retrieve the plans. But even he, in his infinite wisdom, couldn’t. When this was revealed at our next board meeting, I kinda sorta broke his balls about it. Maybe not the best idea, I admit.

During the meeting, a co-worker and I were discussing the implications of the theft when it hits me: the project is completed. I say, Who cares who has the plans? We have the final product — we’re gold, baby! Well, my co-worker is having none of that; he fights me tooth and nail, saying what if our competitors do this, what if they do that. I respond, reiterating my point in hopes that my halfwit co-worker gets it, and the Boss picks this very moment to spout off about his religion. His religion! Of all the times to bring up his ridiculous beliefs, it has to be now? At this point my blood is boiling — I’ve had it up to here with the company, my co-worker, and especially the Boss. Without thinking, I turn to the Boss and say, If your religion is so great, where are the plans? Why didn’t your magical friend help you recover them? The Boss, clad in that stupid black suit (he always wore the same thing — such a freak), raises his hand and that’s when I feel my throat close.

The Boss says, “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”

Then the Boss’s boss says, “Enough of this. Vader, release him!”

The Boss says, “As you wish” and turns away from me, at which point my throat opens, and I hit the table, gulping air. When it came to his religion, the Boss could be such a dick.

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“Gotta Keep the Animals in Check” – a Corp City story

Patricia Wiggins walked the six blocks home after working the graveyard shift at St. Raphael’s General Hospital. It was a few minutes past 6am so she didn’t worry much about walking alone; by her estimation even criminals had to sleep sometime. An icy wind sliced down the dark boulevard, and she turned up the collar of her wool coat to keep it at bay. Nothin’ to bother me ‘cept the wind, she thought.

She was a block away from the warmth of her apartment and the company of her overweight tabby, BB, when a greasy arm shot out of an alley and latched onto the sleeve of her coat. He came out of the shadows, all scabs and bloodshot eyes. A rusty knife with a duct-taped handle hung from his other hand. “Gimme your stuff, bitch,” he said through cracked lips.

Patricia cursed herself for carrying her pepper spray in her purse instead of her coat pocket like she should have. She let her purse slip down the length of her arm and was about to hand it over when Greasy Arm said, “Uh-uh, bitch, all your stuff.” Brandishing the knife millimeters from her cheek, he pulled her close. His breath was a corpse’s wet turd.

She wanted to scream but couldn’t. She closed her eyes for a brief moment and when she opened them, Greasy Arm was on the ground, both arms bent at grotesque angles, his nose smashed flat. And then she was staring at an unassuming, stocky man who stomped on the corroded blade, shattering it. A navy baseball cap was pulled low over his eyes so she couldn’t quite make out his face. His hands were buried in the pockets of his matching navy utility coat. A small patch on the left side of it said Corporal City Zoo.

“Who are you?” she said.

The corners of his mouth turned upward ever so slightly. “I keep the animals in check, lady. I’m the zookeeper.” His voice was warm and slick. It sounded the tiniest bit familiar but she couldn’t place it.

Before she could respond, he turned and disappeared down the same alley Greasy Arm had come from.

When Patricia got home, BB was spread out on the couch, supine but awake. She took off her coat, sat next to the chubby feline, picked him up and hugged him. She said, “You ain’t gonna believe what just happened to me, Buddy Boy.”

 

Later than day, Mr. Greasy Arm, known to the other fiends on Broadus Road as Roy “Fish” Frye, slogged out of St. Raph’s Emergency Room. Both of his arms were in casts and a bulky splint was taped over his nose.

He dug around in the pocket of his grimy hooded sweatshirt and came up with the small bottle of Percocet the ER doc had given him. Fish thanked God that he was wearing said sweatshirt because it was the only article of clothing he owned with a pocket big enough to accommodate his casted arms. Seemed he’d be wearing that particular hoodie a lot for the next few weeks.

As he thumbed one of the five Percs into his mouth and dry swallowed it, he tried to recall as much of the previous hours as he could. Fish worked especially hard to conjure up the face of the prick who’d busted his arms and nose. However, the perpetual haze that was his memory made that difficult.

He’d heard the rumors, the whisperings about the zookeeper, the local vigilante who would pounce on you if you misbehaved. Fish recalled one particular story he’d heard from another junkie named Marsh who had been on the nod at the time. Come to think of it, Fish thought. So was I.

“I seen a guy with his whole face punched in,” Marsh had said. “Said he’d robbed the Snappy-Mart, the one up on Reese? Said this guy with a hat on just come out of nowhere, started beatin’ on him, took the cash, and that was it. Come to find out the guy with the hat returned the money to the store. And the guy’s coat? It had a Corp City Zoo patch on it, man, like he was a zookeeper or somethin’. Strange world, man, strange world.”

Strange world, indeed.

Even stranger that the zookeeper rumors had apparently been true.

Who was this guy, Fish wondered. And why the hell couldn’t he leave well enough alone?

“Messin’ with the natural order never amounts to shit,” Fish mumbled, feeling the opiate wave of the Perc wash over him. Fish thought Mr. Zookeeper ought to know better, that he should recognize that Corp City was no place to play cowboy.

Fish struggled to come up with some idea of who it was who’d fucked him up but nothing came. One minute he was pulling that fine-looking bitch toward him and was on his way to breaking off a piece and then bam, he’s on the ground with two useless salamis for arms and breathing through his mouth because his nose wasn’t an option. He saw that hat and matching coat though. And the zoo patch, he’d definitely seen that.

There was something else though, something on the very edge of his mind. Fish closed his eyes and focused on it. Was it something the guy said after he laid me out? While he couldn’t think of the exact words the guy used – other than something about keeping animals in check, whatever the fuck that meant – he did remember the tone of the guy’s voice. The guy had a voice that could melt butter, Fish was sure of that much.

Shaking his head, Fish continued past the hospital, back home toward Broadus Road.

He put his casted arms inside his hoodie pocket and grasped the pill bottle, secure in the fact that at least he had his high for the day. Fish was reveling in that tiny victory when his shoulder hit somebody else’s. He looked at the burly man who’d run into him.

The fireplug said, “Sorry, animal.”

“S’okay,” Fish said. He did a double take and narrowed his eyes. “Wait, what’d you say?”

“I said sorry, man.”

Fish looked the fireplug over. He appeared to be in his 30s, had a receding hairline that said as much. What hair he had was slicked straight back. His navy peacoat was hanging open, and Fish could see what looked like a khaki work shirt that matched the guy’s khaki pants. Aside from the duffel bag hanging from the guy’s shoulder, the fireplug looked like some dumbshit janitor.

Fish nodded and blinked. “Uh, yeah, right, no problem, man.”

The fireplug smiled, turned, and walked toward the hospital.

Fish started back toward home when he swore he heard the fireplug say, “Be seein’ ya” in that same slick-ass, melted-butter voice as the zookeeper. He turned around and the fireplug was gone. He shook his head and plodded down the street. Maybe I’ll lay off the Percs for the rest of the day, he thought. I’m hearin’ things.

 

Months earlier, Victor Plintz was handing out candy to schoolchildren. The kids were pouring out of a school in Afghanistan. He handed each child a piece of candy, digging into the pockets of his fatigues to get more. Out of nowhere a car exploded, obliterating the kids and some nearby soldiers. As he was thrown off his feet, machine gun fire erupted, tearing into more soldiers. The gunfire thundered, and the soldiers, blood pouring from their eye sockets, were howling, “Pliiiiiintz! Pliiiiiintz!” Victor looked down and saw one of the soldiers, his lower jaw obliterated and his lifeless tongue lolling out like a meaty pink ribbon, poking at his feet. He gasped and his eyes popped open.

He looked at his feet and saw the end of a nightstick prodding them. The nightstick was jutting through the bars of his jail cell. The nightstick was attached to a guard named Maggs.

“Plintz. Plintz,” Maggs said, his voice flat.

“Yeah, whatisit?” Victor sat up, rubbing his throbbing jaw. He’d been grinding his teeth again.

“Got a visitor.” Maggs opened the cell door.

Sighing, Victor got out of his bunk and exited the cell. He walked a few feet ahead of Maggs as they made their way toward the visitor area.

Walking past the other cells, Victor picked up scraps of conversation. His ears perked up when he heard somebody say, “Yo, I’m sayin’, you know how a bus stop has those glass walls with, you know, pictures and shit on ‘em? Zookeeper put my boy through one of those. Just for grabbin’ some bitch’s bag! And check this shit out: my man stabbed that muh’fucka, you know, ‘fore he got thrown through the glass, and the zookeeper just walked it off like it was nothin’!”

It wasn’t the first time Victor had heard about this elusive zookeeper, the bogeyman who seemed to have Corp City criminals spooked; he’d heard other cons talk about the guy as if he were some kind of fucking superhero. Only this zookeeper sounds like a chump, Victor thought. Who the fuck wears a zookeeper uniform to fight crime anyway? Wouldn’t catch Batman wearing a get-up like that.

When they arrived at the outer door of the visitor area, Maggs knocked on the adjacent window behind which sat a guard at a desk. He nodded at Maggs, buzzed the door open, and, through the crackling speaker, said, “Booth 5, Plintz.” Victor walked through the door, went past the other booths occupied with cons visiting with their loved ones, got to booth 5 and sat down on the cold metal stool. In front of him, on the other side of the safety glass, sat his father, Francis, who already had the phone, which was attached to the booth wall, against his ear.

Every week, Victor walked from his cell to the visitor area and every week during that five-minute walk he thought that maybe it’d be somebody different. A buddy from the Marines, maybe. Every week he thought, Maybe it won’t be him. You never know. Every week though, much to his chagrin, Victor was greeted by his father, a smile on his wrinkled face.

That smile. That stupid fucking smile. If not for that smile, Victor might have been able to muster a modicum of tolerance for his father’s visits. Why did Francis insist on looking like he was attending a carnival when he visited? I’m in jail, Victor thought. Save the smile for when there’s something to be happy about, like when I get the fuck out of this dump.

His lips in a tight line, Victor groaned, picked up the phone, and put it to his ear.

“Hey, boyo,” Francis said, still smiling.

“Hey, Dad,” Victor said.

“How you doing?”

Victor shrugged. “Okay, I guess.”

“Just okay huh?”

Victor had endured this every week for almost five months. He couldn’t take it for another seven. “Why do you keep coming here, Dad?”

Francis’s mouth, which was starting to arrange itself into a frown, opened and closed.

“We go though this every week,” Victor said. “I tell you not to come, you pretend you don’t hear me, and you keep showing up. Why?”

Francis couldn’t meet his son’s gaze. “I just…wanna see you is all.”

“Yeah, well, I want spaghetti and meatballs.”

Francis looked up and grinned. “Food that bad, huh?”

Like his father had done to him in the weeks prior, Victor acted as if he hadn’t heard him. “I’m gonna say this once. You come back next week, I’m not coming out to see you. I’ve had it.”

If Francis were a balloon floating peacefully in a cool breeze, Victor would be the asshole kid who yanks it down and pops it. The old man sighed. “Alright, Vic, you win. I won’t come back.” He paused. “Call me every once in a while though, okay? You know I worry.”

“We’ll see. Phone time ain’t easy to come by around here,” Victor lied.

Francis nodded. “Okay, well, I love you, kid. Keep your head down in there.” A hangdog look on his face, Francis hung up the phone, picked up his coat, and walked toward the door. Francis was putting on his coat as he walked through the door and Victor glimpsed the embroidered patch on the front. It said: CORPORAL CITY ZOO.

Victor stared at the door as he slowly hung up the phone. He’d completely forgotten that his father had worked at the zoo. Maybe the old man knew something about that zookeeper person the cons talked about, maybe he had some idea who the vigilante was. Of course I think of something to talk about after I tell him to leave, Victor thought. He shook his head and trudged back to his cell.

Every week following Francis’s last visit, Maggs’s footsteps would echo through the cell block and as the guard walked past Victor’s cell, he thought for a split second that Maggs would stop and tell him he had a visitor. Instead, Maggs, his eyes pointed straight ahead, would cruise right by his cell. He was amazed that Francis was staying true to his word and keeping his distance – he’d never listened before so why start now?

Victor presumed that his father’s absence would somehow make his jail time more tolerable. Instead, he became annoyed with himself for telling the old man to stay away and annoyed with Francis for actually adhering to Victor’s dumb wishes. His brain had split up into warring factions that led him to the conclusion that he didn’t know what the fuck he wanted in the first place.

A similar notion kept gnawing at Victor as time wore on: since when did he know what he was talking about anyway? And what right did he have to tell his father to stay away? It wasn’t Francis’s fault that Victor followed in his dad’s footsteps and joined the Marines even though Francis begged him not to. Wasn’t his fault that the USMC got sent to Afghanistan. Wasn’t his fault that Victor came back with an apparent case of post-traumatic stress disorder. Wasn’t his fault that, according to some court-appointed shrink, the PTSD caused Victor to get ossified drunk on a regular basis and, on one particular night, beat the piss out of those three dickheads at The Watering Can. Wasn’t his fault that those pussies couldn’t take a beating and squealed to the cops. And it sure as hell wasn’t his fault that Victor got locked up behind that shit.

Nope, it was all Victor’s fault and what did Francis want? Simply to visit his idiot son in jail, to see if he was okay, because he loved him. That’s what the smile was, merely a sign that his father loved him and was genuinely happy to see him. And Victor hadn’t even seen that. So what did he know? He didn’t know shit.

It was this eventual state of self-loathing that led Victor to break down and call his father. Standing by the pay phone with the handset to his ear, Victor punched in Francis’s number and heard it ring. And ring. And ring. And ring. Then the answering machine picked up. Hiya, this is Fran Plintz, I’m out at the moment so if you could leave your name, number, and a message, I’d appreciate it. Thanks. A lump formed in Victor’s throat at the sound of his father’s genteel tone. He swallowed hard.

At the beep Victor said, “Hey Dad, it’s Vic. Listen, I, uh, just wanted to call to see how you’re doing.” He paused. “And, look, I’m also really sorry about how I treated you last time. You didn’t deserve that and I’m sorry. So, um, if you want you can visi—“

“Hello? Vic?” A woman’s voice. She sounded out of breath.

“Yeah, who is—“

“It’s Cindy, Vic.”

Cindy. Yet another family member left in his wake. Victor recalled seeing his cousin at his trial, remembered the perpetual scowl on her face. She’d looked ready to beat him half to death. He’d seen that same dirty look when they were kids. He’d pissed her off so badly one time that she punched him in the side and cracked one of his ribs. A lesson there: don’t fuck with Cindy, she hits like a man. He’d have to tread lightly. “Oh, hey Cin, what are you do—“

“What the fuck, Vic?” Yep, Cindy alright.

“Huh?”

“You banned your own father from coming to see you?”

“What? I mean, yeah, I did but that’s why I call—“

“Oh, what, you think you can call and say you’re sorry and the ship’ll right itself?”

“Well, I—“

“You have no fucking idea what’s going on, do you?”

“No, I haven’t talk—“

“Because if you did, you’d know that things are pretty shitty.”

“Cindy, I don’t—“

“Some of us actually give a shit about family, Vic. Some of us actually take our responsibilities seriously. You obviously don’t and if you did you wouldn’t be in ja—“

“Cindy.”

“—il and everything wouldn’t fall on my shoulders like it always does. I mean, Jesus Christ, Vic, aren’t you a little old to start a bar fight? Who—“

Cindy.”

“—does that anyway? Fucking children, that’s who. And let me tell you something el—“

“Cindy!” Victor was getting stares – angry ones from the guards and curious ones from the cons waiting for the phone. He lowered his voice. “Cindy, please, just listen to me for a second, okay?”

Silence from the other end and then, “Fine.”

“You’re right, okay? I fucked up. But there’s nothing I can do about it now.” He closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. A headache announced its arrival with a faint throb. “As for Dad, you’re right about that too. I was really shitty to him and I was only calling to apologize, whatever that’s worth.”

Silence again.

“Cin?”

“Yeah, I’m still here.”

“Well? What’s going on?”

“Fran’s got cancer.”

Victor’s eyes went wide. “What? W-when?”

“Found out a couple months ago. It’s in his pancreas.”

“Well. Why. Why didn’t he tell me?”

“You seriously want me to answer that question?”

Walked right into that one, he thought. “Can I talk to him?”

“Not right now, he’s sleeping. He had a chemo treatment today and that stuff wipes him out.”

Victor didn’t know what to say. His face flushed and a sheen of sweat followed.

“Vic? You still there?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m still here. It’s just, you know, I still have about a month to go in here. Is he gonna, uh, gonna be there—“ He wanted to add “when I get out” but he couldn’t. His eyes started to fill up with hot tears, which he choked back.

Cindy sighed and answered his unfinished question. “He should be. He’s been doing good with the chemo and radiation and stuff and his spirits are high but the doctors haven’t been that, you know, optimistic.”

Victor thought he heard his cousin sniffle, as if she too were fighting tears. It was the first time he’d ever heard her get upset or anything vaguely resembling upset.

She said, “Listen, can you call back another day? He’d love to hear from you.”

“Yeah. I mean, the soonest I can call is next Tuesday. Would that work?”

“That works. I gotta take him to the hospital in the morning but we’ll be back in the afternoon.”

“Good, I’ll call then.” He looked at the line of cons waiting for the phone. They were starting to look anxious and annoyed. Never a good combination. “Listen, I gotta go.” He paused. “Tell Dad I’m sorry for everything and that I love him, okay? Will you do that for me?”

“Of course.”

“Thanks, Cin. And thanks for taking care of him, really, I appreciate it. I’ll talk to you next week. Bye.“

Victor was about to hang up when he heard Cindy say, “Vic.”

“Yeah?”

“I’m. I’m sorry for hitting you with both barrels before. I’ve just been, you know, stressed out with Doug and the kids and work and now Fran.”

“You don’t need to explain. I get it.”

“Even if you were here, I’d still be there to help, you know that, right?”

“No, I know.”

“He’s the sweetest guy in the world and now this. It’s really fucked my head up, you know?”

“I can imagine.” He paused. “But if anybody can pull through this, it’s him, right? He’s tough.”

“I hope so.” She didn’t sound convinced although Victor couldn’t say that he was either.

“So next Tuesday, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Alright, talk to you then.”

“’Kay. Keep your head up.”

“You too. Bye.” Victor hung up the phone and went back to his cell. His cellmate wasn’t there – Victor guessed he was probably in line for the phone – so he lay down on his bunk, buried his head in his pillow, and cried harder than he ever had in his life.

 

The next day and every day for the following month, Victor steeled himself and packed each day with so much activity that he didn’t have time to think. It was one of the most valuable things he learned in the service: in times of stress, keep busy, keep your mind sharp. When he was in his cell, he was doing calisthenics. When he wasn’t, he was running around the exercise yard and using the free weights. His father wasn’t giving up on life and neither, Victor had decided, was he.

Francis tried to reschedule his chemo, which fell on the same day as Corp City Pen’s visitation day, so he could resume his visits with Victor but it wasn’t to be. It was for the best though. As much as Victor wanted to see his father, it was evident that Francis needed all the rest he could get and schlepping all the way out to CCP every week wasn’t conducive to that. Instead, Victor called Francis every Tuesday and Thursday like clockwork.

Cindy was right, Francis sounded upbeat given the circumstances. When Victor asked him how the treatment was going, the old man said, “Ah, it ain’t so bad, kid. Not like I had much hair to lose anyhow,” laughing at his own joke. Even so, Victor could hear the strain, the weakness, in his father’s voice. He was fighting hard but cancer was a motherfucker.

One day Francis had been asleep when Victor called, and when Cindy picked up, she assured him that he tried to stay awake to catch the phone but he just couldn’t – the treatments were taking their toll. On the other hand, she’d mentioned that the doctors had grown more optimistic given recent changes.

“I think talking to you turned things around, Vic, I really do,” Cindy had said. “I mean, ever since you guys started talking again, he’s been different somehow. He has this look on his face like he’s, I don’t know, building a house or something and whatever happens, he’s gonna get that thing built and not even a tornado could stop him.”

When Victor heard that, he discreetly rubbed his eye with a knuckle so the other cons wouldn’t see his tears.

A week later, Victor was released. He’d tried to persuade Francis not to pick him up, that he could take the C train home but the old man wouldn’t hear of it. So when Victor walked out of the main gates of CCP, Francis, holding onto Cindy for support, was there to meet him.

Despite his gaunt appearance, Victor thought Francis actually looked pretty good – the color in his face and an ear-to-ear smile went a long way. Victor’s boots crunched over the newly fallen leaves as he walked over to Francis and threw his arms around him. When Francis’s arms clamped around Victor like they always had, Victor took heart. Still plenty of strength it seemed.

“Hey, Dad,” Victor said.

“Hi, boyo.” Francis stepped back, smiled, and, with his hands on Victor’s arms, said, “You look good, kid.” He squeezed Victor’s arms. “Jesus. S’like you’re made outta iron.”

Victor grinned and looked at the ground. “Yeah, been hittin’ the weights a little.” He looked over at Cindy, who was actually wiping away tears with her coat sleeve. He couldn’t believe it. “Hey, Cin. Thanks for comin’.”

Francis lowered his arms and said, “Well, give your cousin a hug.”

As they hugged, Cindy said, “Good to see you, Vic.”

“Yeah, you too.” When he let go of her he couldn’t look her in the eye. He hadn’t forgotten what she’d said to him the month before and it still stung because, well, she’d been right.

When his eyes finally met hers though, she smiled and gave him a wink. It was a very un-Cindy-like thing to do, and Victor knew that all was forgiven, even though he wasn’t sure that he deserved her clemency. He heard Francis’s voice in his head: That’s how family is, boyo. You crap on them the most and they forgive you the quickest. He looked at Francis, who was smiling ear to ear, and returned the smile.

“C’mon, boyo, let’s get you home,” Francis said, clapping his son on the shoulder.

Victor smiled and helped Francis to the car.

As far as homecomings went, Victor thought it was a pretty good one. That night he had dinner at home with Francis, Cindy, her husband, Doug, and her kids. Victor wasn’t sure if the meal was Francis’s idea of a joke or not (he guessed it probably was) but it didn’t matter, it was the best spaghetti and meatballs he’d ever tasted.

That night Victor lay in his old bed in his old room, his hands behind his head. Listening to the wind whip through the dried leaves outside and his father’s light snoring in the next room, Victor wondered what he was going to do next. He came to the conclusion that he didn’t care if he was mopping up shit all day everyday as long as he could be there for his dad. Francis was his priority. Beyond that, fuck all mattered.

 

Victor spent a good portion of his first full day as a free man at St. Raphael’s General Hospital. He sat next to Francis for six hours as he went through a chemo treatment.

Francis dozed off and on while Victor flipped through the poor selection of magazines. He was perusing a good-looking eggplant parm recipe in an old issue of Woman’s Day when a shapely black woman wearing pink scrubs approached. She smiled at Victor and put her finger to her lips, signaling to stay quiet lest Francis was awakened.

She gently ran a long-fingered hand up and down Francis’s arm. “Fraaaaannnnciiiiis,” she purred. “Fraaaaannnnciiiiis.”

The corners of Francis’s mouth slowly turned upward but his eyes didn’t open.

The woman continued. “Fraaaaannnnciiiiis.” Her hand glided down to Francis’s hand, which lay open, palm up, on the armrest of his chair. She tickled his palm and as his fingers slowly closed over hers, his eyes opened.

Francis looked up at her and said, “Patty.” A smile filled his face. “Patty Patty Patty.”

Patty smiled back and said, “Hello, Francis.” She leaned down and kissed his mostly bald pate. “How are you, sweet love?”

“Eh, I’m getting by,” Francis said. “What about you, doll?”

“About the same,” Patty said.

Victor smiled. He’d forgotten that women, all­ women, loved Francis. And the old guy didn’t just eat it up, oh no – he dipped huge hunks of bread in it and savored that shit.

Still holding Francis’s hand, Patty looked at Victor and said, “And I’m guessing you’re Victor?”

“That I am, ma’am.”

Ma’am?” Patty pulled a sourpuss. “Old ladies are called ma’am.” She pointed to the plastic nametag hanging from her scrub top – it said ST. RAPHAEL’S GENERAL HOSPITAL and, underneath, PATRICIA, RN. “You call me Patricia. Or Patty. Just not ma’am.”

“Sorry, force of habit. I used to be a Mari—“

Patty patted his arm. “It’s okay, I know. Francis told me all about you.” She grinned and cocked an eyebrow. “Also told me you got a bit of a temper, hmm?”

Victor nodded. “Little bit.”

Francis chuckled.

“Well, I’m sure they had it comin’,” she said. She walked around to the back of Francis’s chair and started to massage his shoulders. A beatific smile was plastered across the old man’s face as he leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Victor was sure it was innocent but still marveled at his father, the Female Whisperer. “So what’s next? You lookin’ for a job?”

“I just got out yesterday so I haven’t had a chance to look yet but yeah, I need one. Not exactly sure where though. I mean, being an ex-con and all.”

Patty bit the corner of her mouth and cocked her head to the side. “You know, I think they might be hiring in maintenance.”

“Work as a janitor you mean? Here?”

She grinned. “Too good to push a mop?”

Victor shook his head. “It’s not that. It’s just, you know, ‘cause of my record, I doubt a hospital will hire me.”

“Ah, they’d be lucky to have you, kid,” Francis said, eyes still closed. “Shouldn’t hold a bar fight against you.” He blew air through his nostrils. “Those pussies should’ve kept their goddamn mouths shut,” he muttered. Francis’s eyes popped open. He craned his head back to look at Patty. “Sorry for the language, doll.”

She patted Francis’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, baby.” She redirected her attention to Victor. “Anyway, it’s not like you’re gonna be performing brain surgery. And this place doesn’t only hire saints, pardon the pun.” She paused. “I know the manager, Wendell. I can talk to him, put in a good word for you. If you want.”

“Yeah, I mean, that’d be great. You really think he’d give me a shot?”

“I think your chances are pretty good. Wendell’s a vet too so he’ll at least have a better understanding of where you’re coming from.”

“He was a Marine?”

“Long time ago but yeah.”

“If you wouldn’t mind that’d be terrific. You need my number or anything?” Victor pointed at Francis. “I’m staying with my dad right now so…”

Patty smiled. “I know where to find you.” She stopped massaging Francis’s shoulders and bent down to kiss him on the head again. “I gotta get going on my rounds, boys.” She smiled at Victor. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Vic. I’ll be seeing more of you I take it?”

Victor smiled. “Yes, ma—“ He caught himself. “Yes, you will.”

“Good.” She reached for Francis’s hand and squeezed it. “And I’ll see you in a few days, sweet love?”

Francis’s eyes slowly glided up her form. When his eyes met hers he said, “You bet, doll.”

Patty smiled at Francis, winked at Victor, and went on her way.

Francis closed his eyes and leaned back again. “Nice girl, that Patty.”

Victor nodded, watching her leave. “Yep.”

“Single, too.”

Victor didn’t respond to Francis’s comment; he just smiled, and let it lay.

 

The following weeks turned into months, and the crispness of autumn intensified, turning into the crackling cold of winter. As the brittle leaves faded away, so did Francis. It happened more slowly than the doctors predicted but still too quickly for Victor.

Victor got the job at the hospital. Patty was right, Wendell had understood completely. After Victor told him his story, Wendell said, “Haw! Three pricks against a Marine? They’d had three more guys it would’ve been a fair fight.” He stuck out his hand. “Job’s yours if you want it, Vic.” Victor smiled and shook it.

Victor worked the second shift, 3pm to 11pm, so he had enough time during the day to take care of his dad. He was glad he was there for his father and wouldn’t have had it any other way. But as the cancer ate away at Francis and he became more and more of a papery husk, Victor felt something he didn’t expect.

There’d been a time when, as a kid, he’d watched his father split wood in the backyard for hours, hardly breaking a sweat. The axe would keep slamming down and slamming down, and, in that moment, Francis was the stuff of Greek mythology to Victor, legendary, a god. Now he had to help the old man take his shirt off because he couldn’t lift his arms. The feeling Victor didn’t expect was heartbreak.

 

One day he was clocking in at the hospital for his shift when his cell phone – a cheap, pre-pay thing – rang and he dug it out of his pocket. It was Cindy.

She told him that Francis had collapsed at home and was unconscious. Breathing but unconscious. An ambulance was bringing him to the emergency room.

Patty had all but forced the janitor gig on Victor. Had he been a gambling man, he would’ve bet a hundred bucks that she did it just so he would already be at the hospital if something like this happened. His father had been spot on – Patty was good people for sure.

After the medics brought Francis in and he was settled in the ER, Victor was allowed to see him. The sight of his father awake took his breath away, he was that relieved.

Francis smiled when he saw his son. “Hey, boyo,” he said. His voice was a whisper. The nurse stood next to his bed, taking notes on a clipboard.

“Hey, Dad. How’re you feeling?”

“Pretty good. I gotta go. Gotta go…keep the animals in check. I’m the zookeeper, ya know.”

“Yeah, Dad, I know, you worked at the zoo.” Victor’s eyes met the nurse’s.

“I’ll go get the doctor,” she said.

The ER doc didn’t have much to offer in the way of new information. It was exactly what Victor thought: the cancer was simply getting the better of his father and he collapsed because he was just…used up. And oh yeah, his mental faculties seemed to be slipping too. The doctor was finishing up his useless summation, adding that he was going to admit Francis to the hospital for at least a couple days, when Cindy joined them.

As the doc continued on his rounds, Victor filled Cindy in, and they both sat with Francis for a little while in silence. In between dozing, Francis would repeat what he said to Victor about having to “keep the animals in check.”

Victor looked at Cindy and said, “He ever do anything like this before? Mention any of this zookeeper stuff?”

For a moment Cindy was silent. “Um,” she said. “Not that I remember.” Another pause. “Maybe he misses his job?”

“Maybe.” But who would miss cleaning up shit in a zoo?

Although it took some effort, Victor convinced Cindy a while later that it was okay to leave, that she should go home to her family. Once he assured her that he’d keep her posted, she gathered her things, kissed Francis, and left.

Victor continued his bedside vigil when a hand pushed aside the curtain that surrounded Francis’s bed. Victor smiled when Patty poked her head through and said, “Hey.” Victor motioned for her to join them.

Patty slipped in and sat next to Victor. “What happened?”

“He collapsed at home. Luckily, Cindy was there when it happened and she called 911.” He narrowed his eyes at Patty. “How’d you know he was down here?”

“I saw the admission orders up on my floor.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that some kind of violation?”

She shrugged. “Probably.” She grinned. “But why follow the rules, right?”

Victor chuckled. After a few moments, he said, “Did my dad ever mention anything about being a zookeeper?”

“Only once, in passing. Why?”

“When he wakes up, he keeps saying that he has to go take care of the animals, that he’s a zookeeper.” He shook his head. “I don’t know, I think he’s just out of it.”

Patty reached over and took Victor’s hand. They sat there like that until Francis was taken up to his room.

 

Victor stayed with his father until 11pm – he figured he might as well stay until what was supposed to be the end of his shift. Not like I have anywhere else to be. He turned off the TV, kissed his sleeping father on the head, and made his way to the door when he heard Francis’s voice. He said, “Don’t forget to check my coat, boyo.”

Victor turned around. Francis’s eyes were trained on him. He slowly approached the bed and said, “Your coat? Your coat isn’t here. It’s—“

Francis’s eyes started to close, as if getting that sentence out required every last shred of energy. “Gotta keep the animals in check, kid, gotta—“ Francis fell back asleep.

Creases formed in Victor’s brow as he tried to make sense of what his father said. Shaking his head, he left the room. Once he made it home, he climbed into bed and passed out.

The next morning, he woke up thinking about what Francis had said. He got out of bed and, still in his t-shirt and boxer shorts, went downstairs and started rummaging through the coat closet. When he got to the Corporal City Zoo coat, he found a folded-up piece of paper tucked away in the inside pocket. He pulled it out and saw Vic written on the outside. Victor unfolded it, sat down on the couch, and began to read.

 

Hey boyo,

 

Not sure when you’ll get this or how you’ll get it or, hell, even if you’ll get it. But I wanted you to know that I’m truly proud of you, Vic. As I write this, you’re in jail and I’m proud of you. When you went to jail, I was beside myself, I really was. I couldn’t stand the idea of my son being locked up like an animal. I kept asking myself how this could’ve happened, what I could’ve done differently to make sure you’d stayed out of trouble. I finally figured that you were a grown man and your decisions are your own and there’s nothing I could’ve done about it. Once I accepted that, I didn’t feel better about you being in jail but it was sort of the sugar I took with the medicine to make it go down, you know? Anyway, once I accepted it, it got me thinking. For the life of me, I just couldn’t believe you beat the piss out of three strangers for nothing. It simply didn’t add up. Even when you were standing in that courtroom and pled guilty and everything, I still couldn’t believe it. And I wanted to ask you about it when I went to visit you but you were always so annoyed when I was there that I didn’t want to make it worse. So one night after work I went over to the Can. I only been in there a handful of times and never after your fight so I figured screw it, I could use a drink and maybe by being there I’d understand why you did what you did. I go in there and Ernie’s behind the bar as usual and he gets me a beer and asks how you are and I tell him okay and I ask him what happened the night you were there and he says it was so busy that he really didn’t see anything, that he’d wished he had because he always liked you and would’ve been happy to be a witness but he didn’t see anything. That was probably bullshit because I know Ernie from when we were kids, always such a weasel that kid, and Ernie only takes care of Ernie but it was still nice of him to say that stuff. Anyway, I’m sitting there with my beer, just nursing it, and this girl, maybe in her 20s or so, attractive enough but kind of looks like she’d been rode hard and put away wet, comes over and sits down right next to me. I look over at her and smile, ask her how things are going. She seems kind of shy and says fine. Then she asks if I’m Vic’s dad. I said I was and I ask how she knew and she says she overheard me asking about your fight and that we look alike, which made me smile, so she took a guess. Then this girl looks like the whole weight of the world just fell on her shoulders all at once. She leans in close and her voice gets quiet and my ears aren’t what they used to be so I have to listen close. She says that she was there when you got into that fight, that she saw the whole thing. Now I think big deal, everything’s done and you pled guilty and you’re an honest kid so what news could she possibly have? I don’t say any of that though, I just keep quiet. She keeps on talking, saying that she was the reason the fight started in the first place. That those three dopes you knocked around were giving her a hard time and even though you were shithoused, her words, you stepped in and those guys got in your face and you were trying to be calm. Then she says that one of the guys called her a dirty cooze, again, her words, and that’s when you took those guys apart. She said that she freaked and ran right out and didn’t go back and had no idea that you’d been arrested and got locked up, that she’d only heard about it after everything was said and done. She’s telling me this and my jaw’s on the ground, I can’t believe it. I wanted to shake her, to ask her why didn’t she come forward no matter how much time had passed but I couldn’t, I was in shock. So she says she’s sorry, and I nod like a dope because I can’t find the words and she goes off to do whatever she was doing before she saw me. I’m sitting there at the bar, my beer still in front of me and I’m staring at the bar, just staring. I swear I can close my eyes and still see every single water ring on that bar, I stared at it that long. After a while Ernie comes over to me, asks me if everything’s okay and the cobwebs clear a little bit and I say yeah, finish my beer in two gulps even though it’d gotten warm, put my hat and coat on, and head out. I’m on my way home, thinking about what a good thing you did standing up for that girl, and I’m walking by that convenience store over on Reese Ave., I forget the name, Quick-Mart or something, and this dope in a ski mask comes spilling out the door, waving a gun like a maniac, some money spilling from a plastic bag in his hand, and this schmuck starts running toward me. I’m ashamed to admit it but my first instinct was to let the guy pass, that it wasn’t any of my business, let the cops take care of it, all that. But like I said, I was thinking about what you did so as that idiot ran toward me, I started running toward him full steam. This guy is so wild eyed that I don’t think he realized I was coming for him. I start to get real close, like maybe ten feet away, when this knucklehead realizes that I actually am coming for him. He starts to raise the gun but I close the distance, drop my shoulder, and plow right into the guy. The gun goes flying off I don’t know where but he’s holding on to that plastic bag like his life depends on it so when he falls, he’s still got the bag. He’s on his back and I’m standing over him and without thinking I start to whale on this guy. When I hear something crack (I think it was his nose), I stop hitting him and get a hold of myself. I yank the mask off this guy and it’s some kid, maybe 18. Maybe. His face is pretty busted up but he’s still breathing. I noticed he had one of those stupid Brothers of the Star gang tattoos on his face so I suppose the kid was trying to make his bones or something. Such a waste. Anyway, I grab the bag of money, walk it into the convenience store, give the clerk the money back, and start back toward the door. I’m halfway out when the guy asks who I am and I look down at the patch on my jacket and I do that thing with my voice, you know, like when I croon like Sinatra, and in that olive oil voice I say, “I keep the animals in check. I’m the zookeeper” which sounds so dumb now that I think about it. I mean, who am I, John Wayne? Then I leave and go home. I’ll be honest, kid, I don’t think I slept a wink that night, I was so keyed up from what happened. For maybe the first time in my life, I really felt like I did some good in the world. Don’t get me wrong, Vic. When I look at you I also feel like I did good cause I raised you right and you turned out great but I’m talking in the grand scheme of things here. In other words, I did something to help out somebody who wasn’t friend or family. And that felt goddamn amazing. So I went out and did it the next night and the night after that and the night after that and on and on. And every now and again, I hear people mention the zookeeper this or the zookeeper that so who knows, maybe you’re aware of my, well, secret identity I guess you could call it. Anyway, the reason I’m writing this letter, and I think this is the most I’ve ever written in my life, ha ha, is I wanted you to know why I did what I did, that your father actually made some kind of difference in the world, even though it was really only a small one. I’ll keep this zookeeper stuff up as long as I can but I’m no spring chicken so who knows how long it’ll last. Anyway, the point I want to make is this: do something good in this world, boyo. Do something to help a stranger, for no other reason than to help them. Do it because life is short and if you don’t do something good for somebody you don’t know, you won’t know how good it feels when you do. And let me tell you, that is not something you want to miss out on. Granted, you were in the service so you already know what it’s like to help people without getting any thanks in return, ha ha. But really, kid, be good, be nice, help strangers just because it’s right. And know that I love you, you’re the best son a father could ever hope for.

 

                                                                                    Love,

                                                                                    Dad

 

 

Victor sunk into the couch as he stared at the letter. Sitting in his hand, the thin pages had the weight of an entire encyclopedia. He certainly felt like he had that much information in his head jostling around, trying to find room to fit. He had a million questions but with his father in the hospital, he wasn’t sure that he’d ever get any answers. He shook his head. What happened, happened, he thought.

Scratching his head, he realized that he was still in his underwear. He got up, put the coat back in the closet, and took the letter up to his room, where he stashed it in his sock drawer.

Then Victor showered, put on his work uniform, and set out for the hospital.

 

Victor spent the day with his father, who was in pretty good spirits although still out of it and very weak. They watched crappy daytime TV, ate crappy hospital food. Francis slept off and on.

After lunchtime, Cindy stopped by. She had bags under her eyes.

“Hey,” Victor said. “You okay? You look tired.”

“I look like shit, you mean.” Oh look at that, she was grumpy to boot.

No, I mean you look tired.”

She plopped down in a chair and put her purse on the floor. “It’s okay, I do look like shit. Didn’t sleep very well last night.” She looked at Francis, who was asleep. “Lot on my mind.”

Victor looked at his father, too. “I hear ya.”

“How is he?”

“No change, really.” His mind flipped back to the night before, how Cindy had hesitated when he’d asked her about Francis and his zookeeper talk. He hadn’t given it a second thought at the time but now, due to recent revelations, it seemed suspicious. “So, uh, this morning I found a letter that Dad left me.”

Cindy raised her eyebrows. “Letter?”

“Remember how Dad kept talking about being the zookeeper last night?”

“Yeah…”

“Have you heard about this vigilante—“

She put up her hand as if she were directing traffic. “Lemme stop you right there. I didn’t feel like getting into this last night but since you’re obviously looking for answers, yes, I knew that Fran was,” she made air quotes with her fingers, “‘fighting crime’ or whatever the hell you wanna call it.”

“Well. Why. Didn’t you try to stop him?”

“Pfft.” Cindy chuckled. “What, change him? You know how hard it is to get somebody to change? Especially a man?”

Victor stared back at her, a bovine expression on his face.

“Of course you don’t. See, you can’t change anybody if they’re not lookin’ for it. The only person you have any hope of changing is yourself.” She paused. “And really, you should know better than anybody that trying to change Fran is a particularly tall order. I couldn’t have gotten him to stop with that zookeeper bullshit any more than he could’ve stopped you from joining the Marines. Once your minds are made up, forget it.” She leaned back in her chair, her face pointed toward the ceiling, and closed her eyes. “You Plintzes, I’ll tell ya. Getting a 5-year-old to eat lima beans is easier than getting you two to do something you don’t want to do.” She opened her eyes and looked at Victor. “And as a mother of two, I can assure you that getting a 5-year-old to eat lima beans is no goddamn picnic.”

Still looking at his father, Victor grinned. His old man was persistent, no doubt. After all, it had taken the better part of five months of Victor harping at Francis week in and week out to get the old man to stop visiting him in jail. “Guess you got me there.” He paused. “Out of curiosity, how’d you find out?”

“About the zookeeper stuff?”

Victor nodded.

“He showed up at my house one night covered in blood.”

“Um.”

“That’s what I said.” She closed her eyes again and rubbed them. “I’m getting ready for bed, brushing my teeth, and the doorbell rings. I go downstairs, open the door, and there’s Fran, bleeding all over my stoop. And get this. He was smiling. As if he’d brought me flowers or something.” She shook her head. “Anyway, I throw him in the car and take him to the hospital. Which was stupid now that I look back on it. Should’ve just called 911. But all that blood.” She cringed. “Yeesh. Guess I wasn’t in my right mind.” She pulled at a loose thread on her coat. “So I get him to the ER, and it turns out that he’d been stabbed in the gut. Matter of fact, that’s how we found out he had cancer.”

Victor peered at Cindy. “The hell you say.”

“The hell I say.” She wagged her finger at her abdomen. “They took a bunch of x-rays to see if he had any internal injuries and they didn’t find any but they did find a mass in his pancreas. Which of course turned out to be cancer.” She waved her hand in the air. “But I’m getting off track. When I brought Fran in, I’d left my purse in the car. Totally forgot about it. After I got him into the ER, I went back out to the car to get my bag and that’s when I saw the coat in the backseat.”

A puzzled look crossed Victor’s face.

“You know, the one with the…zoo patch,” Cindy said. “He took it off on the way to the hospital so the cops wouldn’t see it when they questioned him. Fran just told them he fought off a mugger and couldn’t remember what the mugger looked like.”

“The cops bought that?”

“Guy Fran’s age? Why wouldn’t they. Anyway, once the cops left, I asked him what really happened and he told me he’d been patrolling the streets or whatever, jacked up some purse snatcher and the guy pulled a knife on him.” She put her hands up as if to say Ta-da! “That’s how I found out.” Cindy glanced at her watch. “Shit. I gotta get back to work.” She got up and slung her purse over her shoulder. “You here for the duration?”

Victor eyed the wall clock. “Just a little longer. ‘Til I start my shift.”

She nodded. As she moved toward the door, she stopped and put her hand on Victor’s shoulder. “You need anything?”

Victor watched his father sleep. “Nah, I’m good. Thanks though.”

“’Kay.” Cindy squeezed Victor’s shoulder. “I’ll see ya.”

Settling back in his chair, he sat and rubbed his temples, trying to absorb all the new information Cindy had relayed. The seams of his head felt fit to split.

He looked at the clock again – there was some time left before he had to start his shift so he closed his eyes and let his mind uncoil.

He was back in Afghanistan, handing out candy to kids. There was the same explosion, kids dead, guys in his unit dead, other guys torn up and bloody and poking at his feet, pleading for Victor’s help. Like many times before, he awoke with a gasp.

Victor saw his father watching him, his brow furrowed.

“Bad dream?” Francis said.

“Yeah.” He rubbed his eyes.

Francis nodded. “I used to get ‘em too. Bad ones. After the war.” Victor had trouble visualizing his father in Vietnam, marching through the jungle, M-16 cradled in his hands. In Victor’s head, Francis in the Vietnam War was like Sesame Street – “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things doesn’t belong.” But whatever, he wasn’t about to interrupt the guy. Besides, after reading that letter, maybe the thought of him at war wasn’t so strange. “I’d wake up in a cold sweat. Terrible.” A thousand-yard stare occupied Francis’s face.

“You still have them?”

“No. No. Not anymore. Ever since. Um.” The vacuous gaze again. “Shit.” He rubbed his wrinkled forehead. “Lost my train of thought.” He smiled and pointed at the wall. “The caboose is over there.”

Victor returned the smile. That old chestnut. He looked at the wall clock. “I gotta get to work, Dad. But I’ll be by later, okay?”

Francis winked at his son. “Sounds good, kid.”

 

At the end of his shift, Victor stopped by Francis’s room to check on him once more before he went home.

When he got to the room, Patty was standing by the bed, holding Francis’s hand. Francis was smiling. Patty was smiling too although the tears in her eyes told a different story.

“Hey, boyo,” Francis said.

“Hey, Dad,” Victor said. “How you feeling?”

“Oh you know, not bad.” Francis was like a bunch of twigs wrapped in cellophane – not exactly Victor’s definition of “not bad.” Francis pointed at Patty. “I want you to meet Patty, Vic. She’s a nurse here.”

“Oh, h-hi, Patty,” he said. “Nice to meet you.” He looked at Patty and understood where the tears came from.

His father said, “Real sweetheart, this Patty. We were just talking, and it’s like we’ve known each other forever.”

Patty covered her mouth and, in as calm a voice as she could muster, said, “Excuse me for one minute, Francis, ‘kay?”

“You bet, doll,” he said.

Victor looked over his shoulder as Patty quickly passed by him. He said, “I’ll be right back, Dad. I gotta ask Patty something.”

Francis gave his son a thumbs-up. “You got it, kid.”

Victor found Patty in the hall just outside Francis’s room. She was covering her eyes with her hand. He put his hand on her shoulder and said, “You okay?”

Without hesitation, Patty wrapped her arms around Victor, buried her face in his shoulder, and sobbed. He hugged her, and rubbed her back as she cried.

It didn’t take long for Patty to pull it together. She stepped back from Victor and wiped her eyes with heels of her hands. “I swear to God this never happens,” she said, sniffling. “It’s just. That man. It’s like I’m losing my father.” Her eyes went wide and she looked at Victor. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean—“

“No, I know. It’s okay.” He looked at the floor. A couple beats passed. “Has he ever, you know, not recognized you before?”

Patty sniffed and shook her head.

Victor nodded. “You just getting off?” he said, purposely changing the subject.

“No,” she said. “Night shift.” She motioned to Francis’s room. “I just wanted to check on him before I started my rounds.”

“Gotcha,” he said. “Listen, I’m gonna say goodbye to him real quick and head home. You sure you’re okay?”

Patty pulled a tissue out of her scrub top and wiped her nose with it. “Yeah, I’ll be okay.” She paused and looked at the tissue as she fiddled with it. “They tell you not to get attached, you know? To keep it…clinical. And up ‘til now, I did that just fine.” She looked at Victor. “Sorry you had to see me like this.”

Victor shrugged. “S’okay. Can’t be easy seeing all the shit you see.”

“You’re a good man, Vic,” she said, staring into his eyes. “Don’t ever think differently.” She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek, lingering for a couple seconds. Her lips were soft and warm. Definitely the highlight of Victor’s day. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” She turned and walked down the hall.

He turned and went back into Francis’s room. The old man was asleep and snoring lightly. Victor kissed his father’s head. He said, “Night, Dad,” and left.

 

When he got home, Victor hung his coat up in the closet. He was about to close the door when the Corp City Zoo coat caught his eye. Without thinking about it, he took it out and put it on. He zipped it up, remembered what his father wrote in the letter, and lowered his voice like he’d heard his father do so many times. He said, “I keep the animals in check. I’m the zookeeper.” He chuckled. “Huh, does sound stupid.”

Victor turned and saw his father’s navy blue ball cap hanging from a hook on the door. He grabbed it and put it on his head. Perfect fit, just like the coat. And, like it was the most natural thing in the world, he turned out the lights and walked out the front door. Hands jammed in his coat pockets, he started walking.

Still on autopilot, Victor walked to Broadus Road, the so-called bleeding sphincter of Corp City. There was garbage in the street, strewn up and down the sidewalks, peppered on the stoops, all over. Had it been a photo in an art gallery, it would’ve been titled “Happiness’s Scumbag Brother.”

Victor walked down the street, past one ramshackle tenement after another. Most of them were vacant, some were occupied by junkies. When he spotted one marked with a six-pointed star – the sigil of the Brothers of the Star – on the other side of the street, he ducked down a dark alley, watched the branded building, and waited.

He felt like he was back on patrol in Afghanistan, keeping vigil to make sure the bad guys didn’t disturb the peace. Just like then, he felt strangely comfortable, the sort of comfort that comes from being exactly where you’re supposed to be and doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. It was reassuring.

Victor stayed in that alley most of the night, just watching. For all the stories he’d heard about the infamous stretch of hell known as Broadus Road, he wasn’t impressed. It was dirty enough and looked like a demilitarized zone but other than that, it was much ado about nothing. There weren’t any Brothers hanging around, no screams, no cries of despair. Victor checked his watch and saw that it was nearing 5am. Deciding to pack it in, he started to walk to the mouth of the alley when the door to the Brothers’ house opened and a long-haired man spilled out of it.

The scuzzy long-hair tripped over the stoop and fell to the ground. A tall, skinny guy filled the doorway. Wearing a wife beater and a broad-brimmed black hat while holding a gleaming hatchet, the guy cut a menacing silhouette against the light that leaked through the doorway. He stood there long enough to say “Fuck off” without actually saying it and then receded into the house, slamming the door behind him.

Another scraggly creature came scampering around the side of the house and was hopping from foot to foot as the long-hair picked himself up. “You get it, fish? Huh? You get it?”

Fish groaned and rubbed his arm. “What’s it look like?”

Scraggly stopped hopping and scratched his head. “Um, no?”

Fish shoved past Scraggly and walked down the street.

Trailing Fish, Scraggly said, “You use that knife I give ya?”

Fish didn’t answer.

“Thought you was gonna cut a couple of them Brothers and grab the dope. What happened to that?”

Still no response.

Scraggly scurried in front of Fish, walking backward when he pulled ahead. He said, “What are we gonna do now, Fish, huh?”

“M’goin’ to St. Raph’s, Marsh. Maybe score some Oxy or Vics or somethin’.”

Marsh stopped in his tracks and pouted. He said, “Hospital already turned me down today.” He spread his arms wide. “What am I gonna do?”

“Guess you’re on your own.”

Marsh scratched his head and, seconds later, dashed down a side street.

Once Marsh was out of sight, Victor started to follow Fish.

 

When Fish tromped through the main entrance of the hospital, Victor posted himself across the street, leaning against the wall of a bus stop alcove as if he were waiting for the number nine. He wondered if the ER folks would show Fish some mercy and throw him a few pills or just give him the boot. It was anybody’s guess.

When Fish doddered out half an hour later, he turned, hocked up a wet one, and fired it at the glass doors. Guess they gave him the boot.

He watched as Fish walked down the street, cursing “those doctor fucks” as he went. He waited until Fish was a block away and followed him. Fish had only gone five blocks when he took a sharp turn into a nearby alley. Victor walked past the alley and sensed the junkie’s eyes size him up as he passed. He hoped that Fish would try something and was surprised by his own disappointment when Fish didn’t. Not so stupid after all, Victor thought.

Spotting a closed storefront near the alley, Victor slipped into the darkened doorway and waited. The doorway was set back into the building and was flanked on either side by big glass display windows that provided Victor a perfect line of sight.

About fifteen minutes had passed when Victor spotted a figure walking down the street toward him. He looked at his watch: it was a few minutes past 6am. The person passed under a streetlight. Son of a bitch, he thought, recognizing the person. Patty. He remembered what time it was – she was on her way home from work. He tensed as she walked past the alley and inhaled sharply when an arm darted out and grabbed her. His actions after that were automatic.

 

Once he laid Fish out and he’d had his brief interaction with Patty, Victor faded into the shadows of the alley that Fish had oozed from. Hiding behind a dumpster, he watched Patty hitch her purse back up onto her shoulder as she stared down the alley. She squinted, trying to see through the gloom but failing. She shook her head and walked down the street. Victor waited a few seconds and followed her to make sure she got home okay. When she entered her building a block later, Victor went home too.

Stepping through the front door of his house, Victor took off the coat and hat and, handling them as though they were ceremonial garb, hung them back up in the closet. He closed the closet door and, as if it were a switch being thrown, he went from awake to exhausted in a blink. A grin on his face, he went upstairs, flopped on his bed, and fell asleep.

 

Victor woke up hours later with that same grin on his face. First time that ever happened. He looked at his bedside clock. It was early afternoon. He stretched his arms and noticed something was gone. A feeling that he’d had every day before was simply not there. The…heaviness had vanished.

He rubbed his face and there was no jaw pain, no soreness. He hadn’t ground his teeth. He tried to recall if he’d had any bad dreams but as far as he could remember, he hadn’t dreamt of anything. He’d just slept. Slept better than he had in a long time.

He thought about what his father had said the day before, about the bad dreams he’d had after Vietnam. The old man forgot what he was going to say but Victor guessed it was something about the dreams going away after he’d started with the – how had Cindy put it? – zookeeper bullshit.

“Huh.” He threw back the covers and bounded out of bed.

He’d just gotten out of the shower and was putting on his work uniform when he felt his stomach grumble. Realizing he hadn’t eaten anything since the night before, he headed downstairs to the kitchen to make himself a sandwich. Once it was assembled, he brown bagged it, pulled his peacoat on, and put the bag in his coat pocket.

He was about to head out when, as if an invisible hand was guiding him to do so, he put his father’s hat and zookeeper coat in a duffle bag, and slung it over his shoulder. Then he left the house and headed to the hospital.

On his way, Victor noticed that the streets seemed different somehow. Less oppressive, more vibrant. He took the sandwich out of his pocket and chomped down on it. There was nothing remarkable about the sandwich – it was just a couple slices of uncured ham, a slice of sharp cheddar, some bib lettuce, and brown mustard on white bread – but to Victor it tasted like a work of culinary genius. With the sun on his back, the brisk winter wind in his face, and that sandwich in his hand, he felt like his shoes fit right again. He remembered what his father had written in that letter, how being in the service and doing good for next to no reward were one in the same, and at the time he saw his dad’s point but after last night, forget it, they were definitely not the same.

Being a Marine was a job to Victor, a slog like any other. It was a selfless act to some extent but you were paid for your time and you were ordered to protect somebody or something, you never got to choose; Victor always felt like he was just carrying out somebody else’s agenda. Helping Patty wasn’t like anything he’d ever done in the service. What he did in that alley was his choice, and it filled him with the sense that he’d truly made a difference. It was no wonder his father had kept at it night after night because, well, there was nothing quite like it. It felt good enough to make him consider doing it again.

Lost in his thoughts, Victor had just swallowed the last bite of his sandwich when he bumped into somebody. It was Fish.

For a split second, Victor thought Fish would recognize him. When Fish didn’t, Victor, unable to stop himself, screwed with the junkie. He was practically giddy when he hid behind a nearby ambulance after he said, “Be seein’ ya” in his “zookeeper voice,” causing the junkie’s head to swivel back and forth as he looked for Victor, making Fish look like a nervous rat.

As Fish turned and walked away, Victor heard a rattling sound come from Fish’s clothes. It sounded like a pill bottle. Victor guessed it was probably painkillers from the ER. Asshole should thank me, he thought, sneering. I got him what he wanted.

 

Before Victor clocked in, he went to check on his father. As he approached Francis’s room, he ran into Cindy, who was coming out.

“Hey,” he said.

“Oh, hey.” Cindy still looked like sleep wasn’t her friend. “You just getting here?”

“Oh, yeah. I overslept.” Not the full story but what Cindy didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. And it would save him from an ear-splitting lecture – a nice bonus.

She gestured to Victor’s shoulder. “What’s in the bag?”

“Just some clothes and stuff for Dad.” Victor pointed his thumb in the direction of the elevators. “You outta here?”

“Yeah. Just on my lunch break.”

Victor jerked his head toward Francis’s room. “How is he today?”

Cindy let out a heavy breath. “Um.” Tiny pockets of tears formed in the corners of her eyes. “I mean, shit, he’s. He was awake for a while but he’s um.” She ground the heels of her hands in her eyes and sniffed. “He thought I was your mom. He even said he’d see me soon. See your mom soon I mean.”

“Oh.” Like that, the high he was riding dissolved. He didn’t know what else to say so he gave Cindy a hug.

After a few seconds, she disengaged, wiped her nose on the back of her hand and said, “I guess I’ll.” She tilted her head in the direction of the elevators.

Victor managed a small, tight-lipped smile and nodded. Watching his cousin plod down the hall made him think twice about entering his father’s room. Did he really want to see the old man like that? The thing with Patty the night before was one thing but this. Damn.

But the reluctance retreated, and Victor entered the room.

Francis was staring into space when Victor walked in. His father’s skin looked gray and tight, like it was trying to keep whatever life he still had from escaping.

Approaching Francis’s bed, Victor hesitated for a second before he said, “Hey, Dad.”

His father’s head turned slowly. At first Francis stared through Victor, as if he wasn’t there. Then recognition crept in little by little. Francis’s colorless lips transformed into a feeble smile. “Boyo,” he said. “How. How you doin’, kid?”

Francis’s scratchy voice was a shot through the heart. It took Victor a moment to register the old man’s question. “I’m okay,” he said, putting his hands on the bedrail. “How are you feeling?”

His father exhaled and looked like he lost twenty pounds when he did. “Pretty shitty, kid. I won’t lie.”

“Anything I can get you, anything you need?”

“Besides a genie in a lamp?” Francis chortled then started coughing. He got it under control, said, “Nah,” and put his hand on Victor’s. “Got everything I need.” He smiled again but it melted away as quickly as it appeared. “Can’t be the zookeeper anymore though.” Francis’s eyes pivoted up and fixed on the ceiling. “Somebody’s gotta keep the animals in check.”

“Yeah, Dad, about that.” Victor rubbed his neck. “I found your letter. And. I took care of it for you.”

Francis’s head spun toward his son.

Victor unslung the duffle bag, opened it, and took out just enough of the zookeeper coat for Francis to recognize it. “I took care of it. Last night.” He recounted the previous night’s events for his father, leaving out Patty’s name so as not to confuse the old man. When he finished, Victor said, “You were right. No feeling quite like it. Felt great.” For a moment, he and the old man stayed silent, basking in the warmth of a shared truth. Then Victor smiled. “Even used that Sinatra voice you do. Gave ‘em your line and everything.”

You did the voice?” Victor nodded. “Prove it,” said Francis.

“I’ll do you one better.” Victor cleared his voice and, after considering for a second, began to sing. “And now, the end is here. And so I face the final curtain. My friend, I’ll say it clear. I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain.”

Francis, in his skin and bones, joined in. “I’ve lived a life that’s full. I traveled each and ev’ry highway. And more, much more than this, I did it myyyyyy way.” His father’s voice was rich and full, which startled Victor because he had no idea where it was coming from. As they sang together, Victor’s eyes welled up. But he didn’t want his voice to falter so he did his best to choke back the forming droplets.

Down the hall from Francis’s room, the elevator doors binged open and Patty stepped out. Digging around inside her purse for her ID badge, she felt a pang of irritation at being at the hospital when she shouldn’t have been. Somebody had called out sick, and Patty, being Patty, agreed to fill in at the last minute. Although, having just gotten off from the night shift hours earlier compounded with not having slept well due to the nerve-jangling effects of narrowly escaping a mugger, she wasn’t happy about it.

Even so, she tried to put on a happy face as she approached the nurses’ station to clock in. That’s when she heard it.

Singing.

Not terribly loud but distinct. She stopped and listened. She heard two different voices singing: “Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew. When I bit off more than I could chew. But through it all, when there was doubt. I ate it up and spit it out. I faced it all and I stood tall and did it myyyyyy way.”

Patty couldn’t quite pick out the song. Sounded like something her grandparents would’ve listened to. Patty’s musical taste tended more toward classic rock. Electric guitars and drums, stuff that rocked. Hendrix. Springsteen. The Who. This was something else. But she knew one of those voices. She knew it.

She followed the sound down the corridor and stopped just outside Francis’s room. She peeked around the doorjamb, saw Francis and Victor singing together. Patty’s eyes ran over Victor and went wide when she realized that he was her buttery-voiced guardian. I’ll be dipped in shit, she thought. Jaw agape, she pulled back from the doorway, and went to clock in.

Patty had just finished hanging her coat up and was clipping her ID badge to her scrub top when an announcement sounded over the PA system. A female voice, calm as prairie grass, said, “Code blue, 3rd floor, room 314. Code blue, 3rd floor, room 314.”

Shit.

Patty followed the other nurses’ to room 314 where Francis was flatlining.

As nurses and doctors quickly filled the room, Victor stepped toward the door, allowing them the space to try to revive his father. Patty exchanged the briefest glance with Victor before she joined the staff in the task at hand.

Not knowing what else to do, Victor waited in the hall.

Several minutes and a flurry of activity later, one of the doctors came out to tell Victor what he already knew: his father was dead. Victor nodded and was told that he could go back in to say goodbye if he wanted to. He thanked the doc and waited until everybody filed out of the room. They all walked past Victor silently, avoiding eye contact. Once they were out, he went in.

Patty was still in there, standing next to the bed. Her back was to the door.

Victor joined her at her side. For a few minutes they didn’t say anything. Just stared at Francis’s body, as if by staring they could will him back to life. Tears free flowed down their cheeks.

Patty bent down and kissed Francis’s head one last time, which Victor found a tad creepy. But grief took different forms, he supposed.

Breaking the silence, Patty put her hand on top of Victor’s, which was resting on the bedrail, and said, “Thank you.”

Still staring at his father, Victor said, “What for?”

“That…guy. In the alley this morning.”

It took him a minute but he got it: she must’ve heard him singing, recognized his voice, and put two and two together.

Still looking at his father’s body, Victor squeezed her hand. “S’alright,” he said, nodding at the old man’s lifeless form. “He would’ve done the same.”

 

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“Warning: There Could Be Some Side Effects” – short fiction

After he discovered and developed the polio vaccine, Dr. Jonas Salk was asked, during a televised interview, who owned the patent. He replied, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

You have to admire that. Here was a guy who was responsible for stopping a disease that killed who knows how many and left who knows how many more paralyzed. And he did it because it was the right thing to do.

Not for personal profit. Not for notoriety.

Dr. Salk was a saint.

And I’m sure that pharmaceutical company execs all over the world heard that story later on and shit their collective pants, the level of their incredulity was probably that high.

For the record, I am no Jonas Salk. Though I’ve been compared to him.

To be fair, I’m more comparable to a virus. Or better yet, cancer.

 

Speaking of which, the disease that almost did me in was Stage 2 melanoma.

It started out as a mole, like most cases of melanoma do.

The small, black/brown mole, shaped a little like the state of Alaska, made itself at home on the back of my shoulder, where it meets my neck. I first noticed it after I got out of the shower one day. All of a sudden, boom, there it was.

After trips to my primary physician and a dermatologist, it was decided that it’d be a good idea to get a biopsy done.

A biopsy. I’ll be honest, I was scared out of my mind when I got that done. I’ve gone skydiving, I’ve been in three car accidents, and I’ve been audited by the IRS. Believe me when I say that if you want to really get your blood pumping, go get something biopsied. You’ll experience a completely new level of terror. Just the very thought that you could have a terminal disease is enough to make you sweat. What’s kind of funny about a biopsy though is that the anticipation is the worst. It’s so bad that when the results are finally revealed, no matter what they are, you’re just relieved to know something definitive. That’s how I felt when I was told that I had Stage 2 melanoma anyway.

Soon after I got the news, I had to have blood work done. A couple weeks later my oncologist, Dr. Naveen, delivered some unexpected news about the results.

Sitting in his office, I remember saying, “Come again?”

“I said it seems that your body is fighting off the cancer.”

“Fighting it off? How do I have Stage 2 melanoma if I’m fighting it off? How’d it go from Stage 1 to 2?”

The doc shrugged. “I’m not entirely sure. But it isn’t getting worse.”

“How do you know?”

“The lab called me at home when they noticed some irregularities in your blood. Apparently, your body has been producing an unusually high number of large granular lymphocytes.” He paused, his eyes narrowed. “Do you know what those are?”

I shook my head.

“A large granular lymphocyte, or LGL, is a type of white blood cell that essentially defends your body from disease. Those cells are responsible for fighting the cancer in your body.”

Dr. Naveen went on and on for another 10 minutes, explaining what exactly was happening in my body. I’m not sure what he said because I zoned out – partially from shock, partially from elation, partially from relief – for most of it.

There were two points the doc made that did get my attention, however: 1) high levels of LGLs were a symptom of a rare form of leukemia but he added that I didn’t have leukemia and 2) he had sent my blood to a colleague of his at Johns Hopkins for further examination.

When he stopped talking, I said, “So, um, I’m. I’m gonna be okay?”

“Better than okay actually. She tested…”

“She?”

“My colleague at Johns Hopkins.”

“Oh, right.”

“On a hunch, she tested your blood against a number of different diseases. AIDS, HIV, other forms of cancer, Alzheimer’s, the flu even. Your blood fought off every single one of them.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No, I’m not.”

“But how can this be? I’ve gotten sick before, I’ve had the flu, my grandfather had Alzheimer’s.”

Dr. Naveen sat back in his chair and shrugged. “I don’t know. My colleague’s guess is that the melanoma activated some part of your immune system that had never been used before.”

I sat there speechless.

“She would also like to do some more tests, if that’s okay with you.”

“Um, sure, yeah, whatever she wants.”

He picked up a pen and began scribbling on a notepad. “I’m going to give you her name and number so you can sort out the details.”

“’Details?’ I already said okay.”

“She’ll probably want to see you in person, get more blood…”

“Hold it.” I sat forward. “She wants me to be a lab rat?”

He frowned. “I wouldn’t put it like that. Your body could possibly hold the cure to every disease that’s plagued humanity.” He lowered his head a bit and looked at me over the top of his glasses. “You don’t think that’s worth exploring?” How to Make Your Patients Feel Like Complete Assholes 101 must be taught at every medical school because every doctor I’ve ever met is great at it.

“You have a point.” I paused. “Gimme the number, I’ll call her.” He handed me the slip of paper. Dr. Irene Jacoby, it said.

 

I saw Dr. Jacoby a number of times over the following months. She’d take my blood, check on my Alaska mole (which got much smaller and eventually disappeared), pretty standard stuff. She also told me that she’d been talking with some researchers at a pharmaceutical company called PopeInnisLeland – more commonly known as PIL.

The researchers at PIL wanted to try to synthesize certain properties of my blood in order to make a drug out of it. To do this, they needed a pint of my blood every two months to run more tests on. They even offered to pay me for it. $1000 per pint, that was the offer. The original offer.

Now, what I did next could seem a little less than, well, altruistic. But I figured that if my blood could quite possibly cure the human race of every disease, why shouldn’t I cash in? There are some who probably think that I had no right to cash in, that I should’ve given my blood away as freely as I was born with it. But I got to thinking. Do professional athletes, who have amazing physical skills that they were born with, play for free? Are geniuses expected to use their advanced intellects for nothing more than a pat on the back?

Fuck no!

Anyway, shortly after PIL made its original offer, I did what any American does when potential riches hang in the balance: I lawyered up.

My lawyer drew up a contract that stated, along with a lot of other legalese, that A) I’d be a full-time employee at PIL, B) my salary would be $10 million per year, C) I’d be paid that salary for life, and D) the drug would be sold to anyone – insured or not – for $10 (How’s that for altruism? I made it affordable. So there).

Granted, the fine print said that the contract was predicated on the condition that PIL could turn my million-dollar blood into an FDA-approved drug.

Fast forward about six years, after the drug was synthesized, tested, and approved by the FDA, when lymphovox – more commonly known as Panelix (I still think the name sucks, they just slapped “panacea” and “elixir” together. But given what it could do, they could’ve called it Shitsonex and it wouldn’t have mattered) – hit the shelves. Looking back, I should’ve asked for more money; I could’ve bought several houses with what I made but PIL could’ve bought several countries from the cash it raked in.

 

The media blitzkrieg that followed the drug’s release was like nothing I’d ever experienced in my life. I was on the cover of every major magazine in the world. I was Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for chrissakes.

Then I was awarded a Nobel Prize, a surreal moment for sure. Granted, PIL and Dr. Jacoby each got one too but all the focus was on me. Like I had anything to do with it. Okay, Panelix was derived from my blood but it came at a steep price; as I said, I’m no Dr. Salk. But nobody paid attention to that.

At any rate, I turned into a celebrity. Everybody loved me, I was hounded for my autograph, it was crazy. I heard somewhere that a bunch of kooks started a religion based on how I lived. The mind reels.

As wild as all of that was, nobody, and I mean nobody, could’ve predicted what came next.

So a cure-all hits the human race and nobody is getting sick anymore. For a while, things are absolutely wonderful.

Everybody is in a good mood. Morale, on a global scale, is at an all-time high.

The fewest cases, ever, of suicide are reported.

In war-torn countries, the fighting tapers way off and completely stops in some cases.

Cities like New York and Philadelphia, where everybody seems generally pissed off all the time? People walking down the street are smiling and saying hello to each other.

It. Was. Amazing.

Then the wind blew and the cradle rocked.

 

Since nobody was getting sick anymore, the need for doctors plummeted. Like a lead balloon, as they say.

Although hospitals started laying people off left and right, emergency rooms still did decent business. After all, Panelix couldn’t stop people from cutting themselves or twisting their ankles. Cardiologists did okay too; Panelix couldn’t make people exercise or stop eating poorly. And plastic surgeons, well, nobody gave them shit about boob jobs and lipo not being “real medicine” anymore.

AIDS clinics though? Gone.

Oncologists? Out of business. I still wonder if Dr. Naveen regrets sending me to Dr. Jacoby.

Pharmaceutical companies also took a huge hit, quite a few folded completely. Hundreds of thousands of employees of the surviving companies were laid off. PIL came out on top of course, although they’re struggling now too. There are only so many drugs you can make when disease is eliminated. Companies that pulled in several billion dollars a year are lucky to make a few million now.

And the insurance companies, oh, the insurance companies. If there was one silver lining, it was that people who had been screwed over by insurance companies for years got to see Aetna, United Healthcare, and the rest of ‘em get a big ol’ helping of the desperation pie that their customers had been eating for years. The elimination of the phrase “pre-existing condition” made the whole thing seem that much sweeter.

Ironically, Panelix spawned an epidemic. Anybody in the healthcare industry who dealt with disease was suddenly out of work. Healthcare, one of the most recession-proof, financially secure fields in the world, was suddenly the most at-risk. Hell, enrollment at medical schools thinned out like there was no tomorrow. Never thought I’d see the day when parents urged their children to become anything but doctors.

The fall of the healthcare industry was the first domino. Then the economy tanked. Again.

 

In an economy that was already the second worst in history, the healthcare industry collapses and shreds the rest of it. It was officially worse than the Great Depression.

With billions out of work around the globe and those people just trying to figure out how to simply survive, who’s worrying about buying a new car? Or a 42” Sony flat screen? Or an iPhone? That beautiful thing called capitalism packed its bags and went bye-bye.

The only things people were worrying about were food, clothes, and shelter. And after a while, shelter was in short supply too.

A ton of people stopped being able to make house payments so foreclosures rained down worse than when the housing bubble popped in ‘08. Only this time, there were so many that some cops gave up on evictions after a while. Squatters’ rights became unwritten law.

Some people, who didn’t want to be forced out, took what money they had, bought motor homes, and lived on the road. Nomadic life was en vogue.

All this happens and everybody thought they’d hit bottom, that it was impossible that things could get worse. Then came the food shortage.

Since nobody was getting sick anymore, natural selection had been more or less eliminated; the herd wasn’t being thinned out. This led to overpopulation on a planet that was already grossly overpopulated.

Of course, this was a huge strain on resources. Namely food.

 

There were so many healthy people around the world that the farming industry just couldn’t keep up. And I truly thought the big food corporations would come up with a solution. My hopes were high. Those people had completely bastardized food, going so far as to make genetically modified organisms, yet they couldn’t solve the problem. Just too many mouths to feed.

Thus, gardening became everybody’s favorite hobby. People took to backyard and rooftop gardens like crazy but although people grew and harvested as much as they could, the winter always came and the growing always stopped. The nails were hammered into the coffin every time.

Some folks had greenhouses, sure, and people in warmer climates were still able to grow but there was an overwhelming demand and not enough supply so things still went sideways real quick. Some people got so desperate that they were barbecuing squirrels, rats, raccoons, anything they could get their hands on.

You’d think that people would’ve been rioting, flipping cars over in the streets, looting supermarkets for every last can of soup, going crazy. But that wasn’t the case. Instead, a general feeling of despondency settled over most of the world. People were just too emotionally – and physically in some cases – devastated to do much of anything. It became known as The Global Depression, which seemed like an understatement.

 

You don’t hear much talk about it but I’m sure that everyone is looking for someone to blame. On the days when things seem particularly bleak, which is all the time now really, people must want to point a finger at somebody. That’s how it works, right? When things go awry, people want, more than anything, to be able to look at someone and say, “This is all your fault.” The ol’ Laurel and Hardy routine. This is another nice mess you’ve gotten me into, Stanley.

If that’s what you’re looking for, blame me. It started with Panelix and that can be traced back to me. I’m Patient Zero; I’m the rock in the pond that caused the ripples. Throw me in and you’ve got shantytowns set up in abandoned shopping mall parking lots.

And soup kitchens that are on every block in every town.

And gunshots that ring out every 20 minutes as people hunt their next meal.

And the fact that cable television is now kaput.

And the thousands of people who now live like the Amish since, let’s face it, the Amish were just fine before, during, and after the shit hit the fan.

So go right ahead and direct your anger and frustration at me, I can take the heat. After all, I’ll be long dead before my PIL money – and the food I bought with it – runs out. Having said that, try not to be too hard on me. I mean, look at the bright side: at least you don’t have to worry about germs.

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