2019 Writing Competition Winning Stories

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Me First Magazine would like to present the winning stories of the 2019 annual writing competition. They were all judged on technical skills, originality, characterization, world building, and plot. All have undergone editing since being entered and so have been improved upon their previously judged submissions.

FIRST PLACE:

Revenge is a Dish Best Served with Pizza by Ronald C. Milburn

“What’s playing at the drive-in theater tonight?” Butch asked.

Though Butch was fifteen and two years older than me, I was the de facto leader of our five-member troop. Inside I was nervous and anxious, but they didn’t know it. My friends looked up to me, so I played the part.

Like me, the other three boys were thirteen. We’d been neighbors for as long as I could remember. But the summer of 1967, the start of my teenage years, would be the most memorable.

Einstein answered Butch’s question, “Cool Hand Luke is the film tonight.”

Einstein was Butch’s younger brother. Though Butch wasn’t the brightest bulb in the room, his sibling offered even lower wattage. It made no matter; he was one of us. Proximity, not intellect, was the sole condition for membership in our neighborhood gang.

“It’s playing again?” Marshall, my twin brother, complained.

Our father, a World War II veteran, named us after two famous generals. Dad named me after George Patton, and my twin after George Marshall. Since we both had the same first name, George, everyone called us by our middle names. But when our parents shouted for George, it meant they wanted either or both of us.

We’d enjoyed the show the six previous nights. The scantily clad girl washing her car on the big screen grabbed our attention as it did for the ogling convicts. But even good things grow tiresome. We’d memorized many of the lines and repeated them in the afternoons while awaiting the next viewing.

For my entire life, there had been a verbal pact to allow the neighborhood children free admission into the drive-in. It was a concession, so our parents wouldn’t complain of the parade of honking cars and squealing tires leaving the drive-in

.

Two years before, the outdoor theater hired a new manager. He was unaware of the agreement and erupted when we entered without paying. When he told us to leave, we returned home upset.

A sympathetic neighbor aimed a spotlight at the screen and erased John Wayne from the movie Eldorado. Within a few minutes, as the horns blared, the negotiations concluded, and, he welcomed us back. The converted manager even provided free popcorn for his new friends. 

So almost every summer evening, we tom cats wandered toward the projected images. As we lounged on my porch and awaited dusk, I tore a cola cup into a single strip and twisted it.

“These make long fuses,” I said.

I’d ripped it like peeling an apple and made one piece of wax-coated paper. The cup came from our lawn where exiting moviegoers had tossed it.

“So, what?” Angel asked.

“Well, I figure it’ll take about twenty minutes for this to burn. So, if we tie it to a firecracker, we’ll have plenty of time to leave before it explodes.”

Four interested boys watched me twist the wax strip to a whole pack.

“Come to the drive-in, and I’ll show you what I mean.”

As I stuffed the mini bomb in my pocket, the other guys rose to follow.

Angel whined, “I don’t like this. Remember what happened last year?”

He was referring to the incident the previous summer when I threw a firecracker into the women’s restroom. The security officer saw our failed escape after the explosion. Even though it was our first offense, the unforgiving guard suspended us a whole month.

Worse, he made us sit in his office for three hours uncertain of our fate. My anxiety during the silent wait was nerve racking as he stared at us through those mirrored sunglasses. Then after midnight, he instructed us to call home. Our disheveled fathers arose from comfortable beds to retrieve their wayward sons. I know my punishment was worse because of the late hour. I decided the watchman was a sadist who enjoyed maximizing my sorrow.

When we got home, Mom was furious and grounded us. She would have been more upset, but we had co-conspirators. Since she suffered the humiliation along with the other mothers in the neighborhood, she survived the embarrassment.

The thirty days of punishment was the longest sentence of my young life. A prisoner awaiting release, I checked the days off the calendar on our kitchen wall. Evenings during our house arrest, my brother and I sat on our front porch and stared at the distant, soundless movie. My disdain for the bellicose guard intensified each time he drove along the back row of cars with his want-to-be-a-cop, blinking light. As we plotted ways to retaliate, I exclaimed his triumph was a temporary setback, and I’d make him pay.

“But,” I explained to Angel, “We’ll have twenty minutes to get away.”

“They’ll know it’s us because we did it before,” Angel said.

 “Relax, I won’t throw it in the ladies’ room. I’ve got a better idea—we’ll get the blasted guard.”

The watchman was a towering, sturdy man with dry-roasted skin and a distinct limp. His lazy eye wandered without his control, so he almost always wore mirrored sunglasses. He carried a police flashlight in the leg-pocket of his cargo pants which he shined in my face often.

The guard’s primary job was to prevent people from entering the exit, but he patrolled the entire perimeter in his former police car. Since the firecracker incident, we were his prime suspects for any misdeed he couldn’t attribute to anyone else. His suspicions were most often correct, but to his frustration, he couldn’t prove them.

It was my second summer as his public enemy number one, and my friends were, in his opinion, my accomplices. My opponent always tried to keep me in his sight, but his hovering didn’t prevent me from misbehaving. Instead, he made me more feline cautious. The unwitting sentry honed my cunning skills the way a coach might condition an athlete. As I hoofed toward the drive-in, everyone followed, and Angel whimpered.

He said, “It’s nuts. You’re crazy.”

We called him Angel because he was always the first to confess if caught in one of our offenses. 

We ambled along the asphalt road, which was the last street in our town. Our homes were on one side, and a farmer’s field and the drive-in movie were on the other. We slipped into the cornfield to enter the rear of the outdoor theater.

Once inside, we bought candy at the snack bar then settled on a park bench out front. My clique watched Luke eat hard-boiled eggs as other inmates in the penal farm shouted encouragement. My mind wandered from the film to my detestable foe.

For a while, I struggled between my dislike for the sentry and my fear of being caught. In elementary school, I’d been the model student who got the citizenship award most years. But the summer before junior high, something changed. My yearning to satisfy myself conflicted with my wish to please others. The internal, moral quandary tipped as I watched the security officer light a cigarette. The flickering flame reflecting from his sunglasses stirred my anger—a reminder of the long wait in his office last summer.

I exclaimed, “It’s revenge time.”

“You’re still doing this?” Angel whined.

“Yes, sir.”

“Not me!”

“Who cares,” I replied.

I stood, and everyone but Angel rose to follow. Then, Einstein dropped back onto the bench. “Lose your nerve?”

He shrugged.

“Fine.”

With one less coconspirator to cumber me, I left the cowering behind and strolled toward the despised guard. Marshall and Butch joined me as I crouched beside a ’57 Chevy.

“He’s over there,” I whispered.

A rustling came from inside the Chevrolet, and Butch bolted. The stranger removed the speaker from his window glass and placed it on the pole. I put my finger across my lips and made a shhhh sound but was too late.

The door flew open, and the man hovered over us while shining a flashlight in my eyes.

“What are you doing?”

Startled, I fell backward and knocked Marshall onto the gravel. Blinded by the light, I couldn’t see him.

“Ah, hah! Hubcap thieves.”

His baritone accusation terrified me. I suspected rather than call my parents, he’d deliver his painful punishment himself, so I held my arms up to protect myself.

“No, sir. We’re not touching your car.”

He said, “Wait, a minute. I know you. You’re Perky’s little brother.”

Perky was my older brother, a former center on the high school football team. Then, he shined the beam on Marshall.

He cried, “My Gosh, there’s two of you.”

As he scanned Marshall, I could see his face and rust-colored hair. It was Red, the high school quarterback.

“Twins,” I replied.

“Hey, we’re not bothering you, Red. We’re playing a trick on him.”

He followed my pointing finger, and his mannerisms relaxed.

Wow, you two are just alike. I didn’t know Perky had twin brothers.”

Red lowered his head into the driver’s window.

“Look, guys. It’s Perky’s little brother, and there’s two of him.”

Accustomed to the ritual, Marshall and I raised so his friends could marvel at our similarity. Red laughed and slapped my back.

“I’ll never be able to tell you apart.”

“You can call us both, George.”

Red grinned. Marshall nodded his agreement as he forced a smile.

Then Red asked, “So, what’s your prank against Boss Sam?”

“Who?”

Red nodded toward the watchman’s car.

“His name is Sam, but he reminds me of one of the chain gang bosses in the movie.”

Red aimed his finger at the thirty-foot tall image.

“See.”

“So, he does,” Marshal replied.

 “Look at this.” I lifted the firecracker with the eighteen-inch fuse.

 “I’ll put this into the ole buzzard’s exhaust, and it’ll take twenty minutes to detonate.”

Red bent to get a closer look.

“Neat.”

“Perfect, huh?”

“Hey, I’ve got an idea. You two Georges wait here while I use the payphone.”

We waited with angst for Red to return. On the screen, prisoner Luke was digging a ditch. As Red returned, Luke was filling it.

Red said, “I called the Frosty Mug and talked to Wendy. She’s a carhop. I told her to spread the word so everyone could get in for free, but they’d have to enter the exit when they heard the firecrackers explode.”

Red pointed to Marshall.

 “As he’s putting the fireworks in the tailpipe, you let the air out of a tire.”

“Why?” Marshall asked.

“So he can’t chase you, man.”

Red grinned as he reached into his back pocket and removed a handkerchief.

 “Stuff this inside the exhaust, so it’ll explode louder. This will be great, and I’ve got a front-row seat. Now get going, Bubs.”

“Wish us luck.”

“Good luck.”

I turned to my brother and held out my hand.

 “Give me the matches.”

 “Matches? I didn’t bring any.”

 “Uh, oh. Me either.”

 Red unrolled his T-shirt sleeve to remove a pack of cigarettes and matches.

 “Don’t worry, George,” Red said as he pitched the matchbook.

Then Marshall and I crawled toward Sheriff Sam. While crouching, I slipped the firecrackers into the tailpipe. Then I pushed on the fuse to slide the explosives further into the exhaust. I left an inch hanging out. As I pulled a match from the book, I looked back at Red’s auto and saw the boys laughing so much, the car rocked.

My cowardly buddies watched from the safety of the bench. I waved at Butch, Einstein, and Angel with limited motion, but they didn’t respond.

“Chickens,” I whispered.

Marshall nodded.

Then he said, “Wait until I get back before you light the fuse.”

He sneaked to the passenger’s side and removed the cap from the valve. With a sharp stone, he released air until the rear tire was flat then shuffled back to me.

“Okay. Light it.”

I struck the safety match and held it steady, but a passing breeze blew it out.

“Shoot.”

I glanced back at Red who eyeballed me, then I removed another match and lit it. This time, I shielded the flame and touched it to the wax fuse. Just as planned, the shredded cup caught fire and burned slow but steady. Then, I inserted the handkerchief. As we turned to escape, I noticed other amused moviegoers laughing too.

We intended for our prank to be discreet, but we had several dozen giggling witnesses. As subtle as possible, we duck-walked back to Red’s Chevy.

“Great job, George,” Red proclaimed. “Now, you’d better scat. Don’t worry; we won’t tell.”

Marshall and I slipped behind Red’s car then walked toward our friends. As we passed the entertained occupants, we got lots of thumbs-up and waves. When we entered the snack bar, we greeted our neighbors who had worried expressions.

Angel whined. “We’re gonna be in so much trouble.”

Butch smacked his ear and growled, “Shut up and stop worrying, and if you confess, I’ll kill you. Got it? Dead!”

I said, “Here’s part two of my plan. We need an alibi, so we’ll order food and wait for it.”

We approached the counter and waited in a short line.

I said, “Hi, Betty.”

Betty had graduated from high school and worked at the drive-in and at the downtown theater too. We were on a first-name basis. As a result, she was one of the few who could distinguish Marshall from me.

“Hi, Patton,” Betty replied. “I see the whole gang is here tonight.”

“Yep, five of us,” I responded. “We want a pepperoni pizza.”

“You know it takes twenty minutes.”

“It’s okay. We’ll each have a cola, too,”

She handed us our drinks, and we paid which required contributions from everyone. A not-so-patient patron waited while we emptied our pockets and aggregated our money.

“We’ll just wait at this table.”

I wanted to be in her constant view. The next twenty minutes were endless, as we watched the film through the large plate-glass window.

Luke had escaped from the prison farm, again, and was hiding in a shadowy church. As I contemplated our similarities, I had doubts about my prank. Could Angel be right, and the joke be a mistake? Would we be suspects? I imagined myself running through rows of corn with howling dogs on my heels.

The fragrance of sizzling toppings distracted me from my misgivings, so I glanced at the clock on the wall. The pizza had been baking for fifteen minutes, and the excitement may soon start. I shouted to Betty because I wanted to document our continued presence.

“Is it done?”

Betty examined the timer as she wiped her hands.

“Five more minutes.”

As the agonizing time ticked past, I slipped back into my apprehensive state of mind. I considered removing the mini bomb from the smoldering tailpipe.

Too late now, I thought.

I tried to suppress my anxiety while watching the scene unfold on the white screen. The police arrived and trapped Luke inside the shadowy church. The cold-hearted prison guard who always wore sunglasses raised a rifle. Captivated, I stared at the officer as he took aim. Luke smirked and mocked the warden from a window.

Bang! Ding!

The oven alarm sounded at the same moment the rifle fired. I jumped as Luke slumped. Betty removed the pizza from the oven, put it in a box, and slid it across the counter.

“Order up, come and get it.”

As I waited for my heart to slow, Marshall rushed to the counter then returned.

I whispered, “The fuse must have gone out. It should have gone off by now.”

Angel replied, “Good.”

It was strange, but I felt relieved too. We relaxed and enjoyed our refreshments until the movie ended. The hot dog and popcorn box danced across the screen to announce intermission as we munched and sipped.

By the time the next show began, my adrenaline rush had faded. The second feature was a British spy thriller. The playboy agent operated amazing gadgets which fascinated me.

 Absorbed in the action plot, I forgot about my dud explosive device.

Pop! Pop! Pop! The rapid-fire blasts weren’t coming from the speaker.

“What the…” Betty shouted.

“A backfire,” someone replied.

“No, too many.”

Everyone ran to the door to investigate except for five boys who didn’t move. Outside, a frantic Boss Sam jumped from his car and looked for the source of the blasts. Smoke was still rising from his tailpipe when the first carload of intruders entered the exit.

A stream of interlopers followed and darted down different lanes. Quick to react, Boss Sam hopped back into his vehicle and flipped on his spotlight.

Thump, thump, thump, his flat tire protested as he began his chase.

To add to the confusion, the parked patrons turned on their lights and honked as the freeloaders hid among them. Blinded by the headlights, the watchman spun in frantic circles unsure what to do next.

Ignoring the commotion, we five stoics pretended to watch the movie. In a while, Betty and her customers returned to the counter, so I mustered the courage to look around the room.  Everything had calmed, and we’d gotten away with our prank.

“It worked just as planned,” I whispered.

“Perfect!” Butch replied.

The others nodded as Angel giggled, but the chuckling stopped when the accursed guard exploded through the door.

“Has anyone seen those twins?”

The furious old man removed his sunglasses and scanned the room. In a flash, he spotted us.  Enraged, he hobbled our direction and wagged his bent, arthritic finger.

“I know you did it.”

We were wide-eyed and motionless.

“You did it,” he repeated.

 From the smell of the brown spittle peppered on my face, he chewed tobacco.

Terrified, I asked, “Did what?”

“You know what you did. You put firecrackers in my tailpipe.”

All the patrons awaited my response. The silence stretched. I removed the smelly splatter with a napkin and regained my composure. Sam’s complexion grew redder as he boiled and waited.

“We’ve been here eating. We couldn’t have done it.”

He resembled my mother’s vibrating pressure cooker, ready to blow off steam. His eyes widened, one eyeball stared at me, and the other scanned my pals. He parted his dry lips and ground his yellow teeth. He appeared to be searching for the proper words to respond.

“Don’t lie to me.” Boss Sam snapped.

He seemed unable to produce a better retort as he swung his crooked finger back and forth.

“You twins are incorrigible.” he frothed.

He growled as he widened the arc of his wagging digit.

“I bet you’re all in on it.”

The manager, a short man with wire spectacles, rushed from his office. He had black hair, greased and combed straight back.

“What’s the commotion?”

Sam answered, “Someone flattened my tire and put a firecracker in my tailpipe. I know these boys did it. Remember the restroom last summer? Now people are entering the exit, and I can’t stop them.”

The manager’s face flushed with immediate anger. We were the splinter under his skin, festering again. Unable to excise us, he had to deal with the occasional flare-ups. The manager glared at Angel, who he knew to be the most probable to confess. Terrified, Angel stared back, wide-eyed.  His wimpy nature benefited us for a change.

Butch, the oldest, appeared as calm as the secret agent on the screen behind him. Under the manager’s intense stare, he casually pointed to the few remaining cheesy slices. But under the table, Butch squeezed Angel’s knee. When the manager looked back to the weakling, Angel made a squeaky sound as he clenched his lips.

“What’s wrong with you, gotta pee?” the manager asked.

Angel nodded.

“Well, go.”

Angel bolted.

Einstein received the next intense stare and responded with droopy eyes and a chin-sagging, open mouth. For a moment, I wondered if he’d drool. The manager assessed Einstein’s lack of mental ability and must have decided it was futile to interrogate him. Then he examined the almost-empty pizza box.

“Betty, how long have these boys been here?”

She looked at the clock.

“Well, they ordered and waited on it. Then they ate it, so it’s been half an hour or longer.”

“They didn’t leave?”

“Nope, they’ve been here, I’m certain.”

The suspicious manager stared at me while still speaking to Betty.

“No one left?”

“No, Sir.”

The boss turned to the seething guard.

“You must be mistaken. Go see if there’s any damage to your vehicle then stop the cars from entering without paying.”

Sheriff Sam’s eyes shot darts at me.

“I’m sure they did it.”

Boss Sam retreated toward his car, but he glared back as he departed through the screen door.  The manager pulled a roll of antacid from his pocket.

“Boys, I better not learn you did this. I’ll call your parents.”

An intemperate stare and uncomfortable silence followed his warning. Five pairs of puppy-dog eyes declared our innocence. Betty’s boss popped a stomach pill in his mouth, turned, and headed to his office.

He muttered, “This job will give me an ulcer.”

When he slammed the door, the wall shuddered, and the clock tilted. Betty straightened it with a broomstick. She had done so many other times. She walked to our table and picked up the box then set our five empty cups on top.

I said, “Thanks, Betty. For vouching for us.”

After she removed the trash, she returned to wipe the table with a damp cloth.

Betty whispered, “I’m sure you boys did this. If he finds out how, he’ll call your parents.”

“Don’t worry,” I replied.

I glanced at my friends, who were smirking.

“He won’t find out.”

We erupted in laughter which confirmed her suspicion. She could no longer restrain herself, so she giggled too.

After a while, Angel grew tired of hiding in the restroom, so he returned. Once he joined us, we headed toward home. The gravel crunched under Boss Sam’s rolling tires as he followed us.

After my cohorts entered the cornfield, I looked back at the stoical officer who had stepped out of his vehicle. He was still wearing those mirrored glasses. I was emboldened because I figured his seething anger couldn’t exceed my satisfaction. Now by myself, I shook a corn stalk.

“Shaking the bushes, Boss.”

 Boss Sam pulled his flashlight like a weapon and aimed it at me. I returned his silent threat with a Luke smile.

Then I said, “Now what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

His only movement was a curled upper lip. I winced and knew it wasn’t over. After an uncomfortable pause, I turned and left. As I hurried down the rows of six-foot-tall corn, I had misgivings about my momentary victory. But I’d never let my friends know my fear. It’s the burden one carries when he’s cool. 

Second Place:

Inventing the Artist by Adam Scharf

David’s making love to Lana, and I’m not doing anything wrong. Swear to God. There’s nothing wrong about sitting in your apartment, trying to look unalarmed as your roommate makes love in his bedroom.

I’m persuading myself the sounds are platonic and easily forgotten. I move to the kitchen to feel removed. To feel reasonable. I’ve put on Mozart, so they don’t think I’m a warm-blooded pervert lapping it up.

By the sounds of it, she’s spanking the hell out of him. They play rough. You wouldn’t believe it. I find the perfect I heard nothing face for afterward. I’m at the table appearing like a guy who’s deaf and doesn’t lick his lips hearing his roommate do it.

I’m twenty years old. I’ve been here three months and heard David choking the living hell out of his girlfriend at least a hundred times, no kidding. I’m frightened with how far they take it. How routine that’s become. They go to a farmer’s market afterward like nothing happened and pet everyone’s dog. No one detects the consensual flogging or horsewhipping that’s taken place. The dogs know and carry that burden the rest of their lives.

I don’t know what to do with myself. This is when I call Chelsea, but that’s over. I told her I went on a date with someone. The thing is, Chelsea and I’ve been broken up for a year, but we sleep with each other. She’s become something hollow. An ex with benefits. She told me, “Andrew, you’ve made me a shell of a person.”

We came close a few times to really being animals in the bedroom. We got great at sex. That’s why we’ve kept doing it this past year. I wasn’t dishonest either. I told her what this was for me.

She accepted but created this narrative in her head that we’d get back together if we did it long enough. A part of me thought that would happen too, but mostly I wanted to be an animal. This past year I dated a handful of women but always went back to her without the headache of dating.

The date I went on recently, the one that officially ended Chelsea and I, wasn’t even worth the shellacking. Her name was Allison, and she called me, “Dude,” 57 times. She left earrings on my nightstand, and I can’t even look at them.

We’re in this summer acting program, and I haven’t told anyone I dropped out yet. I was told to finish the run of Macbeth then leave.

I play one of the witches. It’s not groundbreaking, it’s sort of humiliating.My favorite line is, “A sailor’s wife had chestnuts in her lap.”

This show could have made my career. It’s this hoity toity program rich kids do to impress their untalented friends working as lifeguards for the summer. The program’s run by Michael. Swear to God, he might not have a last name. He wears clothes that no longer fit after a publicized weight loss campaign on social media. He gets a real charge when he wears his fat clothes for everyone. A few of us had dinner with him once. Everyone hit the ceiling when he heroically gave the ole, “I’ll just have the soup, thank you.” He made a girl cry after he told her, “This isn’t community theater, darling.” Christ, he just loves to eat fucking soup.

My family doesn’t like that I’m an actor. The only person who gives a damn is my older brother, Peter. He’s a writer—a tall writer. He plays the bassoon and knows French philosophy. Peter smokes cloves and brings flowers for me when he’s at my shows. He’s that kind of brother.

Chelsea sensed something romantic between Allison and I, who plays, Lady Macbeth. The first thing I noticed about Allison was her height, and I sort of love the way she says, “Line,” when forgetting a line in the script. She says it like she’s saying, “Happy birthday,” to a little kid. I love that. After two of her “Lines” I promised myself to take her on a date.

We went for drinks and got dressed up. She wore this long teal dress that seemed to flicker over her. I loved her in that dress. Any light looks good on that dress: candle light off the walls, or even light in doctors’ offices.

I know how that dress was born: After God coughed up stars to read Adam’s facial expressions at night, he sewed the dress, inspired by light where you can never tell when, or where, it came from. I have no idea what I’m saying. The dress really got to me is what I’m saying.

Allison’s movements were tender in that dress. She never sat down at the bar in that dress. She stood and leaned like she was always receiving a secret that everyone’s dying to know. The room watched her. She gave angles leaning god knows where—into noise, and men’s forgetfulness as to what the hell their date was even talking about. When I hugged her it felt like kissing. I wasn’t met with lips but perfume and everything she put in her hair. Every mirror or polished surface tried to keep her dress’s reflection. It’s a small grief when that kind of beauty walks away. I’ve seen it a hundred times. I don’t know, sometimes you get lucky.

That night she leaned toward me, interested in the stupid things I was saying. Laughing at me. I know it never lasts. Everyone in my family has twelve divorces between them and every time it started with, “Real love.”

I may be only twenty, but I’ve been in “real love” before. I have the landscape all figured out. Beauty gradually leans towards someone else. There’s beauty in brevity and ugly in permeance. It’s the way things has to be.

I’m trying to keep things together here. The noises from David’s bedroom have grown warlike. He sounds like he’s excavating something out of her.

Gods painted on old ruins and their custom to fall apart.

One of the women I dated this year I fell head over heels for, even though we dated for three weeks. She was a singer named Franny. We did a musical together a few months ago before the program.

I played a train conductor. My only line was, “All aboard!”

Jesus, did I yell that line. I got note after note from the director (Pipe down) as if I was being too loud in the family room as my dad tried to read the online menu for P.F. Chang’s.

Is that too much to ask for?

Obstinate, I bellowed louder every performance. I swear people came again just for the line. This wasn’t a good show. It was just the perfect line to say unreasonably loud right after the protagonist had a valorous kiss.

I made the review.

I’m not kidding. 

I never told Chelsea about my love affair with Franny. I loved Franny. I mean, I loved her guts. I wanted to marry her.

Her dad’s name is Abraham. That always had me rolling. I mean, what were they thinking?

Every day he has to be Abraham.

There were a million great things like that about her. She had long blonde hair, and all her dreams take place in London for no reason. We were doing pretty good, then, out of nowhere, she was talking to her “finally more mature” ex-boyfriend again and we haven’t spoken since.

Not to get dramatic, but I thought about becoming a monk after that. Don’t ask what kind of monk. Just the celibate kind with a penchant for woodwork and sneaky liquor bottles under the ole straw mattress. I had to see a therapist to convince myself that Franny’s not the only perfect person in the world. Apparently, there’s no such thing as a soulmate. It’s biology’s way of getting you to reproduce like a rabbit. I’ll tell you right now, Franny doesn’t care about me. She doesn’t care about me at all. 

Both David and Lana are moaning water buffalos in bed. Sequestered from human decency. Cooped in a paradise of prophylactics.

I’ll give Allison a call.

She was a fine date. Curly red hair and a non-visible tattoo that she’ll occasionally bring up, so that you think about it (and I love thinking about it). I like thinking about her. I love thinking about her teal dress and how the dress had movement even when she wasn’t moving. The dress is like when you stare at the moon hoping that it changes you─when you get caught in how still the moon appears. The moon’s not motionless though. The truth is the moon’s spinning. You intuitively know these kinds of things, and that her teal dress is propelling, even when the dress doesn’t look like it. 

Believe it or not: what made me quit the theater program happened on that date with Allison. She was drunk and loved talking to anyone. She gave bedroom eyes to the bartender, who looked like he’d make a great merman. He had this long, dark hair. He was Asian and loved to talk about me when I was in the bathroom.

“You know, Andrew, the bartender was talking about you just now.”

“What was he saying?”

“What kind of guy he thought you were.”

“Great.”

“You want to know what kind of guy?”

“Absolutely not. Every time he walks by, I can smell him. It’s not good. He smells like car air-conditioning.”

There was this melted candle on top of melted candle with a lit candle on top. I remember she looked great in that light. I kissed her. She was drunk by now and bit my lip. The funny thing is I wanted to be eaten alive. She brought up Franny. “You guys used to date, right?”

“Yeah, briefly.”

“That’s so funny.”

“It’s so funny.”

“You know, she’s moving to the city. She wants to do Off-Broadway in the worst way.”

The dumbest thing started happening. I feel stupid even telling you this. My eyes started tearing. I wasn’t crying. I just suddenly had tears in my eyes. I kept finding anything but her to look at.

The drinks were hitting fast. What the hell. Maybe I’ll cry in the candlelight to really wow her, I thought. I sunk in my stool. She bit my lip again. I acted like I was getting a phone call. “Sorry, it’s important that I take this quickly,” and headed outside.

I called Peter. He would calm me down. The call went straight to voicemail. That part of town was under construction. I could hear a million hammers and machines fastening steel. If you didn’t know anything about construction and you were standing outside of this bar in early evening, you’d think there were a hundred people knocking on doors just to say hello. That made me feel better. Everyone had company.

I waited long enough to charade a phone conversation with an uncle who just has to say goodnight to his favorite nephew every night. I collected myself and went inside.

When I was away, Allison told the bartender that we were actors. As soon as I sat down, he goes, “You’re an actor, huh?”

I nearly told him to drop dead, but he had more to say.

“Actors, actors, actors. There’s something wonderful in acting. I’ve been in quite a few shows myself. I quit, though.”

Allison leans in. “I’m sure you were great!”

“I was decent. Thing is, I found out what was happening. What I really wanted to do was kill someone.”

He let that linger for dramatic effect. I didn’t want to take the bait. He’s one of those guys who looks at his phone and gives a loud fake laugh so that you’ll ask him what’s so fucking funny and can I see?

Allison is tuna-like. She can’t not take the bait. “Kill someone?” she asked.

Now he had her. He leaned his arms on the bar. “There’re two types of people. Entertainers and artists. I was mostly doing dinner theater. A few theme park shows. Occasionally a commercial. Maybe some Shakespeare.”

On that line, he started looking toward the far corner of the room. He kept pontificating toward absence. I glanced toward whatever the hell he was looking at. Kind of like when a cat sees something you don’t, and can’t, and pray you never will.

He goes, “I knew something had to happen. I had to kill someone. I set out to become an artist but became an entertainer. Most don’t know the difference.”

She goes, “Oh? What’s the difference?” The night was a real slaughter. A real victory for people who can’t just tell you what they want to tell you, but also have to make a show. 

“An entertainer performs for the crowd. Most behave as though the meaning of life is the approval of others. Just look at social media. Entertainers aim to please. They want your approval. That’s why most get in the game. That becomes obvious after you’ve had a few birthdays. After witnessing a thousand posts about wanting good vibes for their audition. They’re seeking approval for getting into a scenario where they’re seeking approval, so insane.”

I had to roll my eyes at the way he said, “insane.”

“Now, the artist,” he starts looking at us again. “The artist isn’t in art for approval. The process of being God is all she needs. Her work is neither reliant nor composed from approval. There are no applause breaks. There are no curtain calls. Most never know how to become an artist.”

I know she’d just have to ask so, I bit the bullet for her. “Wow, how?”

“You have to kill the entertainer. You have to slit his throat. Don’t get me wrong. When you have to be the entertainer to pay your bills, be the entertainer to pay your bills. Welcome him in with a gracious attitude. Give him a blanket. Give him a drink, then kill him anyway. Cut his fucking head off. People don’t need you to make them feel good. Don’t do this for people. Only shits do this for people. Don’t make the world peaceful. Start a war. Collect unemployment. Eat eggs and coffee for years. Lure the wolves closer. Strangle life out of the actor doing crowd work, yelling, ‘How we doing? Oh, you can do better than that.’ No one remembers the entertainer. Shoot the motivational speaker. Rape Walt Disney. Fire him out of a cannon. Do you get what I mean?”

He stopped talking and went down the bar collecting glasses. He didn’t wait for my answer.

I turned to Allison for her reaction. She was on her phone. I felt so sad in that moment. I wasn’t sure what to do. I paid the bill. I got us the hell out of there. All I had was this hatred for something inside of myself.

I hated that bartender.

My lip was in pain.

Both drunk, we made it to my apartment. On the bed, she buried her face in my neck and undid my pants. Never looking, not even once, she touched me. She never looked where I was pointed. I finished all over her teal dress. She never wiped off. She drove home like that.

I stared at her earrings on the nightstand. I knew I was going to quit then. I knew it was crazy. I quit. I told Chelsea about the date with Allison. Everything crumbled. She told me what an awful person I was, and that killed me. Chelsea killed me. Thank God.

I’m scared. I need out. I don’t want to be here. I hate that bartender. I hate these mediocre shows. I hate myself.

I’m going to get out of this apartment. I have a month left, but I’ll leave early, when no one’s around, like a racoon. Look at this place: the old stove; the deer head on the wall, an old birthday card, wilting flowers in a vase from Peter; the jungle track sound from David’s bedroom. I won’t be here. I’ll head home before college. I’ll eat three meals, then expect starvation. I’ll meet a girl who will give me hardship, love, and bridges to understanding the loneliness of others. That’s what seems to happen to artists.

I call Peter. He’s one of those guys who will bring you flowers without feeling weird about bringing you flowers. I love that. “Andrew?”

“Hey, can we talk?”

“Oh boy, what happened?” asks Peter.

“God, I don’t know. I just want to talk to someone decent.”

“All right, how are you? Are you good on money?”

“I have a million gold bricks. What I’m saying is, I want to talk to just talk.”

“You sound upset.”

“You think you’re so good. I quit the program. I’m coming home next week.”

“You idiot.”

“I just needed to tell someone.”

“Why’d you do it? I don’t care what anyone says, Andrew. You’re a real actor. Did Chelsea say something again?”

“No, no, it was a bartender. He went on and on about being an artist and how you have to kill the entertainer. That got to me. I feel shaky.”

There’s a long pause, long enough for me to hear Lana screaming, “Yeah! Yeah!”

After a weighted exhale, he tells me, “Andrew, were you on a date?”

“Yes.”

“He was just trying to impress your date. I wouldn’t listen to him.”

“I already quit.”

“You idiot.”

“It’s fine. The program was almost over anyway.”

“You won’t get the credits if you quit. The casting directors come the last week. You’re blowing your chance.”

There’s a loud spanking sound followed by David yelling a single question dramatically over and over. “You like that? You like that? You like that?” I hear another slap, the loudest slap I ever heard, followed by Lana yelling, “Ow,” They fight, then, “Shit!”

“You son of a bitch, David!”

“Lana. It’s fine. Come back to bed.”

“What the fuck is wrong with you, David?”

The night’s a real circus. Lana comes out of the bedroom in a towel covering her left eye with her hand. She’s crying. “Peter, I’ll have to call you back,” I tell him.

“I’m coming over.”

“That’s crazy. The clock says nearly midnight. You’re an hour away.”

“I’ll let you go. I’m getting in the car. I’ll see you soon.”

He hangs up. Lana’s putting an ice pack on her eye. David runs out. “Lana, I’m sorry!”

“You hit me in the fucking face.”

“I got caught up. I didn’t want to.”

“Caught up? You punched me in the face!” She turns to me at the table.

I whip out the ole deaf boy who hasn’t heard a goddamn thing, look. I add in a blind boy look for good measure. They just have to take everything too far.

Lana goes, “Andrew, look at what he did to my eye. Is it black yet?”

I act like I’m an expert in this sort of thing and give her the once over. They’re both trying to catch their breath. “It’s a little red. You might see a shiner in the morning. I’d know. I was once punched over a guy audibly reading good news on his email, and I never took the bait to ask him what happened. He got so upset over that. He shoved me. I shoved him back. Then he punches me in—”

“Andrew, not the time. Jesus, Lana. It was an accident.”

Lana huffs. “Let’s ask Andrew about getting caught up?”

“Don’t ask him. It was an accident.”

Now she’s really going to get me involved. She sits at the table holding the ice pack on her eye. “Andrew?”

“Oh god.”

“Andrew?”

“Yes?”

 “Have you ever been fucking a girl and suddenly had the urge to punch her in the fucking face?”

“Don’t drag him into this,” says David.

I look her in the eyes. “Only myself.”

“You’re both crazy!”

She’s in tears. David sits next to her and holds her. I’m sitting across from a scene. Lana moves to his lap, and they cry. He’s making promises, rocking her back and forth. “I’ll never do it again, never, ever, ever. Never again. Never, ever.”

I’m just sitting. I’m not breaking any laws. There’s nothing wrong with pretending I’ve turned into the placemat before me. Unaware, dormant, unable to comprehend the violence in love.

He follows her back into the bedroom. They’re going to make up the only way they know how. Passion will be softer. There will be eye contact. I head to my room. It’s like there isn’t a wall between us. I’m in there playing the violin for them.

Peter will be here in an hour. I feel like such a mess. My head’s spinning. There are a million thoughts in my head. Peter will stare at me with his, What are you doing with your life, eyes.

We’ll make coffee and stay up talking. He’ll listen to me making like I’m okay, but he’ll know I’m not. He’ll go with me in the morning to beg for my place in the program back. That will be our little secret. I’ll tell them I made a terrible mistake. I’ll look like a new man, peaceful, but I’ll only look that way.

Peter’s at my front door and yapping on the phone─everyone’s favorite yapper. He always has to, “let you go,” even if you’re the one wrapping up the conversation. He’ll go, “Okay, sure, sure. I’m right in the middle of yard work. I’ll have to let you go,” after you told him that it’s been nice talking to him.

I open the door. Peter holds up a finger and shows off his yapping. He knows what the people want. The man yaps with anyone. When exiting a party, he’ll address the room with, “Goodbye lovers.” He’s pure gold.

When we used to share a room as kids—I never slept. For a month he only spoke German. I never understood a damn thing he said. Peter spoke about nothing and everything. Telling me the answers: when to kiss, what to drink, how to yap, and what Billie Holiday does during the piano solo.

I love him so much I could die.

I pour Peter coffee like a little house husband who just made his man a decent plate of eggs over a roaring fire. I over hear his conversation.

“Good, good. I’m looking forward to it. Hey, I’m at my brother’s place. I’ll have to let you go.” What a slaughter. He’s letting him have it. “Right, yes, talk soon. Okay, I’ll let you go. Goodbye.”

We get cozy on the couch. He’s out of breath all of a sudden. “Man, I got here fast. I rushed to get here.” It doesn’t explain why he’s out of breath, he drove here. I love that, the man drives here and loves to be out of breath.

Peter stares, thinking of exactly what he needs to be said. “Andrew, you need to understand something. I’m not here to persuade you to stay in the program. I want what’s best for you. You need to—what’s happening in there?” He points to the David’s bedroom.

“Lovers being lovers,” I tell him.

“Dear god. Are they all right?”

Jesus Christ, they just can’t help themselves. Nothing is sacred with David and Lana. They hear a nice yapper walk in; they unhesitatingly break out the whips. You should hear David whimpering. The lashing he’s taking─a god smiting the non-believer into, bien pensant, discipleship.

He picks up where he was. “Andrew, I want you to know that I support you entirely. Whatever the bartender told you, he’s wrong.”

“The bartender might not be wrong. I should be doing better things. Better roles. I’m letting everyone down here. I can’t find any purpose.”

Peter pauses and sips his coffee. We’re forced to listen to David squealing into submission. The entire night’s making me sad. The violent love-making. How Peter cares about me, and how fast he had to drive.

 “I know you’re not performing the best role Andrew. I know you aren’t a star on Broadway. You’re the first male to play a female witch in Macbeth history.”

“It’s silly,” I tell him.

“Did you know that Shakespeare’s wife couldn’t read? Isn’t that silly? There’s no purpose to life, Andrew. You should feel good that you know this already.”

“I have to quit the program.”

“You’re not going to find purpose. Good news is, there can be meaning. You see what I mean? You have to make meaning. It isn’t just there like a little flower. Novels, pageants, a broken sculpture, and what have you—they made the meaning. You’re free to make anything meaningful.”

“I don’t want to be here. I want to go home.”

“You’re going to be fine. You’re not going to die if you stay here. I rely on you too much for you to hide. I know that’s crazy. I do though. I don’t give a damn if you perform a big role. I only care what you bring meaning to. You bring meaning to insignificant places, and people. Success is bringing meaning to things you never thought were meaningful. The hot shots with all the lines don’t get success because their roles already have meaning. The thrill’s gone. They’re not heroes. I saw you as a train conductor—you made that moment the pinnacle of the entire musical. Honestly Andrew, I talked about that with my friends for weeks. Such beauty. That line got to me! You animated the dead. You brought color to the pail. You threw leaves on your wedding day in the dead of summer. You taught Shakespeare’s wife to read Moby Dick. I’m writing another novel because of you. The mundane, sweet people of life. Fall in love with every one of them. Don’t let yourself be found as an embassy of underdevelopment. You get to bring meaning to things no one else brings meaning to. I don’t know what else to tell you, Andrew. Jesus Christ, I need you.”

It sinks in. I go find the bartender and invite him over. I offer him a blanket, a cup of coffee. I sing Danny Boy in a dulcet tone. I wash his dirty feet like Mary Magdalene. I don’t know why, but I shave his face for him—for the hell of it—for the sheer hell of it. He doesn’t know why. Nobody knows why. Not a single goddamn person knows why.

I slice off his head, throwing it in the cauldron. Can you hear that cackle? A lit match unaware that it’s going to burn out. A funny feeling in my chest. The sound of David and Lana coming together. The brutal worship. Peter and I have closed our eyes, pretending we’re not a pirouetting moon—what Billie Holiday does during the piano solo

THIRD PLACE:

Larry Came to Lunch by Shauna McGuiness

When the doorbell rang I was scrubbing the downstairs toilet.

“Jerry,” I called “Jer! Could you get that?”

My husband didn’t hear me. He was one floor up watching “Mythbusters” with the subwoofer pounding. Almost sounded like someone was stomping the ground above my head. Beyonce was singing upstairs, too.

The music was so loud that there was no way Maya had heard the bell. Not that my sixteen year-old daughter would have come running, even if she had. Alexander was still at softball practice, and the Durneys weren’t dropping him off until after four.

“Damn,” I said pulling blue rubber gloves off of my hands.

The neighbors were always stopping by, unannounced. When we moved into our Santa Clara townhouse a year ago, I didn’t think we would ever see the people living around us. Everyone entered their homes through the garage, pressing the close button on the remote before they even got out of their cars. However, Jeannie and Richard thought sharing a wall gave them license to stop by whenever they felt like it.

My hair was wrapped in a purple scarf, but at least I wasn’t wearing my husband’s faded blue sweatpants like I was last time they appeared. Smoothing my khakis, I took a quick glance in the mirror Not bad for a forty-something, toilet-scrubbing, purple scarf-wrapped old lady.

Ding Dong!

“Coming!” I ran down the short flight of stairs to the front door, and as an afterthought pulled off the scarf and dropped it on our little cherry wood table.

Lawrence St. Paul was wearing navy plaid shorts and a baby blue, short sleeve button-up. I remember him wearing both before. His skin was lighter than mine. If his was coffee with three creams, then mine was coffee with only one. My mother is white and I inherited her blue eyes – the only one of her features that nature had chosen to duplicate in me. My father’s eyes were the coffee without any cream, at all.

He looked exactly the same as the last time I saw him, and it had been five years since I had looked into those eyes. Five years.

I never realized how much of a resemblance could be found in Alexander. My fourteen year-old son had the same ears and the same easy smile. He definitely had my husband’s chin, though. Everyone has a square chin in Jerry’s family. Daddy’s hair was pure white and cut close to his head. It looked like wool, and I ached to touch it, as I had when I was a girl.

“Daddy? ”was all I could manage.

“Are you ready? You’re gonna to have to drive.”

What? I thought.

My father’s departure had been so sudden that my mother sat in the big antique rocking chair at her house staring at the front door for hours waiting for him to return. Weeks had crawled away, but he never came back. Mama would sit on the flowered cushion, leaning forward and back. Forward and back. The rhythm maddeningly even.

Holding my finger up and ran to the second floor.

“Honey, I’ve got to step out for a while. I’ll be back.” I always said that, “I’ll be back.”

Because sometimes people don’t come back.

Jerry sat on the big, green L-shape sofa, his big tube-socked feet resting on the matching ottoman. “Don’t forget that you have to bring Maya to that party at five,” he said, not looking away from the TV.

“Right. I’ll be back by then.”

I returned to the front door. My father was still there.

My little Brighton purse sat on the table. It was worn around the edges, and the magnetic clasp barely worked, but I couldn’t bear to replace it because the kids had given it to me on a long ago Mother’s day. Little red hearts covered black leather front of it─Maya had said that it was “covered in love.”

“Uhm. I’m down in the parking lot. We bought Maya a car a few weeks ago and I’ve been letting her park in my spot in the garage.” Pointing in the direction of my grey Highlander, I unlocked it with the key fob.

Climbing in, he placed his knobby hands flat on his thighs. A familiar gold wedding band hugged the appropriate finger. How many times had I rolled that ring in my palms, mesmerized by how well it fit my thumb? Wiry gray hairs covered his legs, along with the scars from when he had knee surgery on both legs.

Where have you been?

“The usual?” he asked.

“Sure. The usual.”

Dad loved Carl’s Jr. and used to eat there almost every day. Personally, I would have chosen a nicer place for our reunion, but if he was looking for a Western Bacon Burger I wasn’t going to try and talk him out of it.

Although there was probably a restaurant closer to home, I drove the ten miles to the one by the house that he had left, five years ago. I didn’t recognize anyone that worked there. There was a time when I had known most of them by name, due to our weekly lunches.

Because I already knew what he wanted, I ordered both meals. Salad and a Coke for me. He would want iced tea. I filled our cups and found him at our booth all the way at the back in the far right corner. Dropping the little plastic order card down on the table, I handed him his drink and some sweetener.

“Did I ever tell you about the guy who was in his tent, asleep in a sleeping bag?” He gestured at me to continue.

We had been doing this routine for as long as I could remember. Picking up a yellow packet of Splenda, I ripped off the top with a flourish, saying, “The bear ripped his head clean off.” The tiny crystals tumbled into his cup.

As he chuckled softly I realized how much I had to say to him. Things that I had always been meaning to say. Things that I needed to say.

“Have you been to visit Mom?”

Shaking his head, he looked down into his iced tea.

“Where have you been?”

“So many questions. Am I an encyclopedia, all of a sudden?” He grinned.

“What’s the meaning of life?” I asked, only half playing.

“Family. Love. That is the meaning of life. Take it from someone who has learned the hard way.”

He looked so forlorn that I believed him with all of my heart.

The damn kids had changed the ringtone on my phone again, and Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda trilled from my jacket pocket. It was my brother, Darren, and if I didn’t answer he would assume the worst. He always did. I had to find a way to speak to him without blowing his mind with the news of Dad’s visit.

“Hey, Darren,” My voice sounded a little too bright.

“Hey, Sis. What’s up?”

“I dunno, you called me.” I said.

“I was wondering what time you want us over on Tuesday? Gillian thought it was five thirty, but I’m pretty sure you said six.”

“Five thirty, six – either works for me, as long as you bring an appetizer. Tell Gill to bring the little meatballs. We all love them.” I looked at our father. A small curve sat comfortably on his lips.

“Got it. Where are you?”

“I’m…having lunch with a friend.”

“Late lunch.” He grunted.

“Yes. Can I get back to it, now?” I didn’t want to waste any more time talking to someone that I would see on Tuesday. Probably.

“I can catch a hint. See you.” After hearing the click on his end, I hung up and put the phone back in my pocket.

“Look…” I didn’t know where to start. I took a deep breath. “Do you remember when I was thirteen and I told you to shut up?” It was the only time I had ever directed those words toward my Dad. I had been so ashamed after yelling at him. His tolerance and forgiveness had been more painful than if he had slapped me.

“I do.”

“I told you I was tired of hearing about your Army days. I said your stories were retarded.” He slowly nodded his head.

“I am so sorry.” I choked.

So warm was the laugh that boomed across the table, that I could almost feel it on my face. I looked up at him, shocked that he thought the memory was funny. It was one that had come back to torture me countless times since he had been away.

“I imagine you are getting it back, in spades.”

He was right. Raising two teenagers was no barrel of monkeys. I thought about how Maya had expressly forbidden me to volunteer as chaperone for the formal dance at her school. She said I was embarrassing, which had hurt a lot more than I let on.

“You’re right.” I used a napkin to wipe my eyes and blow my nose. “I just… I always meant to tell you.”

“I know.”

Our family had never been the hugging kind. Right now I wished we had been because I really needed one.

“Will you go to Mom?” I asked, “She always wondered why…”

I should have added that he shouldn’t visit his wife unless he intended to stay. Leaving again would probably kill her.

“Time to go.” He sighed, standing.

“I guess you’re right,” I said. “Maya has a party to go to, and I’m supposed to pick up all of her friends on the way.”

The burger remained untouched. I hadn’t eaten my salad, either. I piled everything back onto the orange tray, dumping our wasted food in the trash on the way out the door.

God how I wanted to stop him.

Maybe I should have said something like, “I’ll make Jerry take her to the party, let’s just stay for a little longer,” But he was already standing next to my car.

No words were exchanged on the ride back to my house, and we arrived much too soon. There were too many things that I wanted to ask. So many that I couldn’t remember even one.

I sat in the driver’s seat, trying not to cry, and by the time I opened my door he was already outside. Enjoying the feel of the sun on his barrel-shape body, his eyes fluttered closed. It was something he had always done, worshipping the sun. The skin across his cheeks was taught, and in the orange afternoon light appeared to be made of caramel.

“I’ll see you when I see you.” he said, as was his way.

“Okay.” I dumbly stared at his face, unable to move. “Wait, where are you parked?”

What a stupid, stupid question. I was just trying to delay his departure.

“I’m just down the street.”

His eyes were kind. I hadn’t fooled him, at all.

“Will I see you again?” I tried hard to stop the sneaky things, but the tears came anyway.

“Don’t worry. You’ll see me again.” He gave me a sharp Army salute.

Sturdy legs carried him across the parking lot. I turned to glance at my front door for just a second, and when I looked back he was already gone.

The next morning, I told my family that we had to go to the city. The kids tried to argue their way out of it, but I think they sensed that it was important to me so they folded pretty quickly. Especially once I promised I would take them to Scoma’s for Sunday brunch. Those kids would probably do just about anything for calamari.

Maya texted her friends, and posted selfies to Instagram, the whole way there. Alexander nodded his square chin to something on Spotify. Jerry enjoyed the fifty minutes of rare quiet.

When we arrived at the Presidio in San Francisco, I knew exactly where to go. The sun was tucked away, making everything grey – even countless eucalyptus trees, which filled the air with their strange smell. Nearly invisible mist hung in the air, landing on our faces and shoulders. Settled deep into the grass was a small rectangular grave marker. We all stood around it in silence, and I was thankful that Jerry had convinced the kids to leave all technology in the car.

Lawrence St. Paul

Col. U.S. Army Retired

B. December 20, 1921

D. June 15, 2001

When he had gone to the Library to return borrowed videos, it would have seemed inconceivable that he would never again come home for dinner. The Doctor said a heart attack killed him. An apologetic stranger reported that he’d seen Daddy clutch his chest, while standing near the James Patterson section. A librarian called for an ambulance, but by the time Mom made it to the hospital he had already passed away.

Kissing my two longest fingers, I kneeled to touch them to the stone. I didn’t cry. I had done that enough, already. Uncomfortable in this setting, the kids shuffled their feet. When I stood, Jerry put a strong arm around my waist and pulled me close.

As a passenger on my way to Scoma’s I could see the ocean. Why had he come back to visit me?

I didn’t have an answer, but I decided that it didn’t matter. Through the dark clouds, beams of light touched the flat surface of the water, making it sparkle like fine crystal. The beauty of it spoke to me, bringing peace to my troubled mind.

“You know how much he loved you, right?” my husband asked.

“Yes,” I said. “I know.”

Folding my hands in my lap, I closed my eyes and lifted my face to the emerging sun.

HONORABLE MENTION:

Doll’s Eyes by Jennifer Dickinson

My mother always told me that families should have secrets. Secrets are the glue, she said. They are healthy and bond the family. We had silly secrets like how Mom stole tiny maple syrup jugs from the Cracker Barrel gift shop and dipped wiener dogs into them as a midnight snack.

My little sister Lauren had a few years where she got diarrhea all the time and Mom let her stay out of school, telling the nurse that she had migraines because Lauren said diarrhea was too embarrassing.

As for me, I have two big secrets. One: I have this weird mole at the top of my boob and one day my mom said I need to have it removed. Gross. But my biggest secret, Lauren’s too, was Mom and how we lived.

You know how on TV shows the living rooms are always palaces? No piles of mail or shoes? No clean clothes that never made the journey from the basket up the stairs? The walls are covered in family pictures at Epcot or posters of Monet gardens? Our living room’s not a palace. It’s kind of the opposite.

Mom took the idea of a living room very seriously. She lived in it all the time. She slept on the sofa. She ate most of her meals there, too. The laundry never made it up the stairs because she changed clothes in the living room. The coffee table was covered in bills and nail polish and a box of Tampons and coupons she never used and magazines.

Sassy magazine, which was very popular in the 90s because the models looked like real teenaged girls and the articles were about bands Mom loved—Lauren and I called them the “screaming ladies.”

Mom was a teenager between 1995 and 1999. She said those years were the best of her life.

She’d get very sad talking about how she and her friends went to a club called Einstein’s that’s now been turned into a Ziggy Doo’s Ice Cream Shack. She spent every Friday and Saturday nights dancing to those screaming ladies. Mom had pink-streaked hair and lived in Doc Martens and striped tights and dresses from thrift stores.

Instead of family photos on the mantle, the mantle was covered in framed pictures of her and her old friends: four girls with pink-streaked hair and nose rings. They smoked cigarettes and drank rum-spiked cans of Orange Crush. They wore purple lipstick and purple nail polish and Mom said now they are all married to doctors and tending to broods of children. The walls were covered in posters of the screaming lady bands. And I mean covered. Like you couldn’t see any paint. In between the posters were pictures Mom cut out from Vogue and Elle magazines. Women with shellacked hair walking poodles, dripping in fur coats and pearls, Mom painted words like “slut” and “kill the system” and “anarchy now” across those women’s mouths.

Only one wall was different. And that’s the wall Mom dedicated to her Dad and it was covered in needlepointed pictures of owls, her dad’s hobby. She never got to know him very well because he died of leukemia when she was six and her mother never remarried and kept trying to fix my mom like Aunt Charlotte did.

Even though Mom never said how we lived was a secret, I’d been to other kid’s houses before. I knew that most people’s moms didn’t have a tape deck in the living room and watch Dirty Dancing at least three times a month. I knew they left the house to play tennis and garden or they had regular jobs where they put on heels and lipstick every day.

My mom only left the house to do three things: buy food, go to the bank to deposit my Dad’s checks, and go to the library to pick up old issues of Elle and Vogue and Rolling Stone off the free table, which she used for her wall collages, which was what she worked on at home.

I never had a problem with the way Mom lived because my whole life it was the three of us and it was fun. Slumber parties on the pull-out sofa bed, piled with pillows for our Oreo-eating and Dirty Dancing-watching. Lauren and I knew all the lines and for Halloween, we both got dressed up in white tank tops and short jeans shorts as the star of the movie, Baby. We both wanted to marry Patrick Swayze in heaven.

Mom never made us clean because she said Grandma made her clean too much. Once a month Dad hired Aunt Charlotte’s cleaning lady, Esmeralda to come over, and Mom used the time to give herself a mini-facial and wax her legs.

Really, it’s Aunt Charlotte’s fault that everything fell apart because she made us go to St. Andrew’s Academy. Mom wanted us to attend High Falls High, but Aunt Charlotte said she would foot the bill for private school and didn’t our parents want to give us the chances they never had?

Carmela nicknamed me Moldy the first day of school because she said my hair smelled like mildew and a few weeks in triple dared me to eat a chocolate-covered spider her aunt had brought her from Tijuana and when I said no, she pushed me into the lap pool, ruining the shiny penny loafers Aunt Charlotte had gifted me. In our Human Experience class, she glued my face over the green-faced lady corpse in the back of the magazine about drug overdoses and then tweeted the photo to my entire class. This got her into a little bit of trouble, but Dean Walters has always been too busy with the real cocaine problems than worry about my face on a paper corpse.

Mom wondered why I never stood up to such a worthless human being. She’d never let anyone put her down, she said. And sometimes thinking about that made me feel like crap. How did my mom end up with a loser daughter like me?

I’d put with three years of Carmela Fox before Lauren showed up for seventh grade. On Lauren’s first day, she came home crying because Carmela’s cousin, Jessie, a tiny brunette with chopstick legs and a nasty overbite, told Lauren she had the ugliest, moldiest sister ever to walk the face of the earth. And then Carmela and Jessie made up a song about us called “The Ugly Sisters,” a very uncreative name, and one that I wouldn’t have cared about if it hadn’t devastated my sister so much. Even back then, Lauren wanted people to like her.

By the end of the year, Lauren and I were the closest we’d ever been. There are tons of candidates in the yearbook─huddled on the settee in the library─sharing a bowl of chocolate truffle mousse in the student center, walking arm and arm toward the river. We got closer because of Carmela, who took aim at Lauren hard, especially at her locker. Shredded textbooks, spider babies covering her backpack, squished grape jelly in the sleeves of her raincoat.

Lauren saw the school guidance counselor who told her that some girls are just mean and the best thing Lauren could do was not cry or show any emotion. That witch gave Lauren a pin that said: Be brave.

St. Andrew’s was a bad place.

Lauren cried at home. In the shower, in her bedroom. Not in front of our Mom, because part of what Carmela teased us about was our Mom. Carmela thought it was weird that our aunt’s Hispanic maid drove us to and from school and that Mom never came to meetings or all-school dinners.

Is she covered with scales? Warts? Maybe she has two vaginas. Or fucks goats for fun. She has to be a freak to produce daughters like you. Questions like that sound crazy, but they can really wear you down. Especially if they’re asked so much that they become like a song that gets stuck in your head and won’t go away, even when you sleep.

I turned sixteen two weeks before the end of the year. May 15th.

Mom took me to get my driver’s license and then she let me stay home from school. We went to Donovan’s for coconut pie and afterwards I climbed into the hammock while Mom went on her every-Monday trip to the grocery store.

I yelled “More Cheerios please!” and she shut the back door and I shut my eyes. I wasn’t out very long because I could hear the chorus of “One More Day Please” coming out of Mrs. Blair’s upstairs window. Help us love, help us live, let us stay together, just give us one more day please!

I realized I was home in the middle of the day and maybe I should watch “One More Day Please” right then rather than wait until later. I’d pretend to Lauren I hadn’t seen it.

I stopped in the kitchen for a Coke and then I shoved the swinging door. I didn’t notice anyone was there at first. I love Coke and I love “One More Day Please” and that was enough to keep me focused. But then I heard a giggle.

A familiar giggle.

Evil, tiny, cold. Carmela stared at me, in my living room, by the front door.

Why was she there?

Lauren was behind her, eyes wide. She didn’t expect me to be home.

“Carmela, you were supposed to wait in the car,” Lauren said.

“Oh fuck off,” she said. “You invited me here.” Carmela zeroed in on me. “I offered her immunity if she would just let me see what the fuck is going on in this house.”

I started across the room. I wanted to stop Carmela from seeing everything, but by the time I reached her, Carmela’s eyes were all bugged out and she was grinning. She fixed her attention on the lime thrift store dress with the holes in the armpits hanging up over the television to dry. It’s got these sequined peacocks sewn into the skirt and Mom used to wear it around the house like it was a robe.

“Wow,” Carmela sighed. She pulled out her phone and started to snap a picture and I grabbed her phone and threw it hard on the ground, shattering the screen.

“You’re fucking dead, Moldy,” she said then turned to Lauren. “And if you want to have one good day of high school to remember, you will pick up the shards of my phone and take it to Dean Walters and tell her what a piece-of-shit sister you have.”

It didn’t matter what happened next. Mom would be home soon. I had to get Carmela out. I’m not a physical person. Before that day I’d never touched another person in a mean way, but I had no choice. I grabbed Carmela by the arm hard and yanked her to the door.

“What the fuck, Moldy!” she howled.

I yanked harder.

Lauren got out of our way.

After I’d thrown Carmela out of the house, I turned to find Lauren staring at the pieces of Carmela’s phone. I looked around at all the places in the room where the good memories lived: eating Oreos and watching movies and giggling, and in a flash, all those memories disintegrated.  Our living room didn’t feel like a living room anymore. It felt like a place you went to die.

Aunt Charlotte gave me the money to replace Carmela’s phone after I promised to become a “lady,” which meant manners lessons at the Club and $500 worth of pearl-buttoned cardigans and khaki pants from Talbot’s. (Aunt Charlotte swore “sand” was a better shade on me than “stone.”)

The phone cost twelve hundred dollars. Of course Carmela had the lavender glitter one with a Siri you could program to sound like Taylor Swift. I heard they only have that model in Japan.

Mom wondered all the time about Lauren. Why she stayed late at school instead of watching movies with us. Why she started wearing business suits instead of regular clothes. Swim practice was a pretty good excuse. And a boyfriend, Jasper, from my class. They got voted John F and Jackie O, which guaranteed her a free pass from Carmela. Every girl wanted to wear Jasper’s ascot on weekends.

Dating him meant instant immunity.

Mom said Lauren was growing up and we had to accept there would be changes. Mom told me we were always more alike, anyway. Which was sort of weird since Mom had a bunch of friends in high school and loved it so much. Oh, and she danced in public.

I’ll never do that. Even if I could bring Mom back from the dead if I did it. Well, maybe then. But then only.

I didn’t know before that day I should be ashamed of how we lived. We lived on our own lovely island and then it got fucking blasted to bits and I was never truly able to pick up the pieces. I won’t ever trust Lauren again. No matter what anyone else says. I’m very lucky Mom never found out what Lauren did.

I think she would’ve killed herself a long time ago if she had.

The Quantity Theory of Narrative by Colin Dowling

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I’m not an alcoholic. That would be too easy, too simple. I wouldn’t even mind that. At the very least, it’s something people successfully quit. It’s something else, something far worse being drunk on the world─rip roaring with possibility. And yet, it’s real and all around me even if it only occasionally feels like it.

I’m being responsible tonight. No vodka and Ting (perhaps the world’s greatest mixer), no back beat of shots between beers, just slow sipping a Presidente long neck because if I’m honest, drinking is required when you work for the 0.0000001 percent of the world, the global elite. It takes the edge off their ever expanding vacation expectations for this winter in the Caribbean.

It’s straight economics with these people. Why wouldn’t they expect to shell out $275,000 for a week’s worth of vacation?

My job looks great online though, working as a deckhand on a 200 foot luxury charter yacht, traveling and posting photos from the Carib to the Med and where ever the owner fancies. Of course, I’m only anywhere in the most literal, physical sense. I once got to drop some trash off on Santorini, filled some poor cafe’s dumpster to the brim then right back aboard the yacht and gone a half hour later. I’ve got a picture on the quay, so, it counts, technically. That’s what makes a night off worth it being on call 24-7, 365 days a year. It almost feels like I’m here.

I take another sip but can’t quite escape the habit of dulling, or is it deluding into what feels like a livable, soft focus reality? The one that stares out onto the horizon with young, fresh eyes and the sense of the world anew.

It’s still there. Through the bridge, up the channel and past the cardinal mark; endless and enthralling, something beyond the trades and tales that explain life away or make numbers or pixels of it. The dream of a grander fate that awakens the senses like being underway at night, the warm salty breeze and a faint but intoxicating mist, looking up to an innate marvel, a mystical glow in the scattered brilliance overhead as if only a black sheet were draped over the world, the light so bright and full as if piercing through defiantly from another dimension and with another enlivening glass I’ll genuinely believe and even feel that something remarkable happens.

There’s a picture online. Posted away as content, another reminder of the show I can’t quite live.

What do they always say? It’s symbolic? A symbol, a stray moment chasing, insisting a greater… No. Grander whole. Just like the story I keep telling myself I’m living, if even just to feel like there must be an ending to it.

“Did Roz’s boat get a Charter?” Amy asks.

It’s almost a relief in the crowded Soggy Dollar Bar in Saint Maarten, surrounded by screens, flashes and other yacht crews. She’s the Second Stewardess, in charge of the Third and Fourth, Sara and Meg. She’s like Thom, the Bosun ordering Geoff and me around on deck.

I know the answer but don’t want to. I’d rather just not know for a moment and kill the conversation, the one she keeps having at me, the one where I’m a ready excuse to ask about Roz and whatever it is that we’ve got going.

Is it an international friends-with-benefits?

It makes for a good story online though. Everyone back home thinks she’s from the UK. Maybe they want to? Brits really do have currency in America. Still, it’s odd being almost popular.

Everyone from grammar and high school friending and friendly after Roz dragged me back to social media. I feel like a stock character on people’s friends list, the awkward weird kid who spoke French and ended up abroad and is good for an interesting update. I’ll have to jump ship and disappear if I really want to keep it up. Last heard from in the South Pacific seems like the best option. Either that or running of with my Australian girlfriend. Why does it feel like such a cliche?

“Oh, of course she did. Have you seen this?” She continues phone in hand. It’s a picture of Roz and what looks like her crew and some painfully tanned chav throwing an arm around creeping over to the horny side of chummy.

Christ. Why is she showing me this? Is it a message, a symbol?

“Only 74 likes,” I somehow manage, before taking a long sip to wash away that sickening, pitifully human feeling. What smolders as jealousy before the drink seeps in and snuffs it out.

No. It’s nothing. Just another move in the great game every relationship ends up in. Or is this just what happens online? Where life is caught between too much information and too little meaning behind it?

Amy turns and snaps off a photo of our own crew scene then looks it over, pleased with the composition and capture. Another entry of what we post but never caption.

It doesn’t look very exciting, at least compared to that night off back in South Beach, Miami. It’s just a weathered deck overlooking a small basin of tenders and dinghys, ramshackle piers with wooden cleats, the crackling bright paint, the patio wall dark with tropical fungus, the bar made of lacquered plywood, the shower head that soaks anyone on the dance floor and the padded palm tree that still clocks crew on the way to the parking lot and the taxis just off the all hours excitement of Airport Road.

No. It’s just another Tuesday as the crew settles around a table on the deck, just another ice cold Presidente, the sweating glass cartridge and a sip and that starting lift of electric music, like some other current from the speakers, the wave on the DJ’s laptop as real as the one everyone here surfs around the world on an eternal spring break. The bar packed with other yacht crew, all at least sevens.

No one has been stuck anywhere for more than three months. Feral Aussies, wandering Kiwis, non-dom Brits, expat Zafers, roving Canadians and the odd, lost American.

Another drink and it’s not even magic. It’s brilliant. It’s lekker. There could be no other way to spend some time in your 20s. The senses awoken by the weather, the sun, the sea and almost pushing beyond, dreaming that the grand currents of the world, the heights of globalization are being ridden by the crazy, lucky few out there on the exciting edge of reality. Yes. That’s the stuff!

I read about unreliable narrators back in college, playing around with chronology and smudging the facts and jolting the narrative. And yet there’s something dangerously meta about the idea of living out an unreliable consciousness, fascinated at one moment, drifting off with the senses and all their lovely words. Then it’s almost like speaking French, as if someone else orders the drinks and carries them back to the table without a spill. You don’t even realize it’s happening. That comes later. Sometimes.

“Another round of provisions. Good man. Gotta keep morale up,” Mike, the Second Engineer adds, loudly, pulling the crew in like a commercial fishing boat Captain leading a tenth toast.

We throw the drinks together with mild cheer before settling back on course for the evening, chatting and hovering around the waypoint where someone leads the charge and answers the call to greatness and the club and all hours or everyone quietly slinks back to the boat for bottles of spring water and a plate of leftover green curry or the jerk chicken from the other night.

“Thought you said you were gonna pull a Geoff? Ride the settee and skype it up with your what’s her face?” Steve, the Chef grins almost as if he’s supposed to ask and get an answer on the record but just wants to get it out of the way with a little humor.

Should I have checked my messages before I left the boat?

No.

Best to let things steep, let a little scarcity, a little tension build.

Yeah, be canny, calculating!

And if I did go back, it wouldn’t be a quick hit. The little green dot would be on and a volley of messages before I even hit send then a skype with no negotiation or concessions and right into a protracted how-are-you-doing conversation which is really a veiled where-are-we-going that plods along until one of us slips out of the ridiculous play it cool game and admits missing the other.

She won the last one so by some shameful logic I have to let things sit. Maybe she’s on watch and I can slip back and send a quick message? Get some credit at no cost. Then again, she’s out there mixing it up, getting chummy, isn’t she?

And I’m not even flirting or anything. It’s only fair on balance. Two wrongs don’t make it right, but is it consensual?

I shake my head as if I can fling the thought off like a heaving line. This is not the way it’s supposed to be. Will it be any different when we get back to shore and settle into a normalcy neither of us can stand the blame for?

How could that not be settling after being out here in the world, swimming in possibility as we stare out to the horizon you can actually see from the veranda?

Another round of drinks materializes and with another sip, suddenly, definitively, there’s no better way to spend your 20s.

***

Then that phantom energy builds, the one that ascends with the music like a building swell, or is it the gravity of the down island tide, a massive body of drink where so many tanned and lovely figures bob and bray and laugh off another Tuesday in January, riding it, reveling it. Fuck. We’re in Saint Maarten. Where’s everyone else? Is this that club on the beach by the airport? I sniffle and clear my nose caught in the lifting, exciting impression of it all, just there and shooting up toward a glorious height.

I order at the bar and look around for the crew before turning back to a pair of vodka tonics. The first washes away the faint chemical drip down the back of my throat with a blast of lemon. I slouch into the second just off the dance floor and the two for $20 suddenly feels like a bargain.

Where are the crew? What course is the evening on? Another sip of indifference for the time and the club exerts itself with a digital thudding that finds a matching, racing beat in the chest.

The sound wobbles through the crowd who revel in a blatant undulation that throws the partiers together like an industrial process, as the last flatulent gasps hammer through and fade to a steady kick and something brushing, hypnotizing, in the foreground but miles off; there is a nodding, slow velocity carrying it all somewhere with a slap, a clap or a snap on the end. Then a stuttering, pushing synth, a melody sweeps in as the bass picks up and that last gulp lifts us into the surround, and fuck that sound, some other sense awakened and there’s nothing outside this ecstatic now carrying us aloft, coursing over the world, the very noise of floating over continents between places, just building, going further to that place, that plateau, that new edge of life itself, disappearing into the soundtrack of a planet; everyone in the room soaring beyond themselves grasping at a universal entrancing us all.

A pair of English DJs stoke up the club and all the other crowds, simulcast from Bangalore to Odessa to Tel Aviv to Buenos Aires. They cheer in unison, the speakers pumping out each city from a different corner of the club, borders crushed as a sheer human exuberance roars through the place. Then it takes flight. It’s not sound. It’s not music. It’s a place, some glorious pattern seducing the neurons and fuck this is it.

This is it. Until it finds another and the slow twist of a dial, a pitch or a timbre as if gravity itself were suspended and still it goes; another order, a pattern jumping across cultures or programming, that ancient yearning of transcendence lifting us from language, from history, somehow pulling beyond an entire club, entire continents, intuiting the fullest sense of a planet, reverberating through the body and pulling me into some other simpler, clearer beautiful space, as if the world and life itself disappear to a feeling, nameless, powerful and beyond. As if that something in the spirit awakens with the majesty of the sea herself…

There is a tap on my shoulder and Steve shouts something as he motions for the door. The pitched music fades as we navigate the crowd and end up out front, the islands return: chatting, cheerfully arguing in the parking lot as Steve turns.

“Yeah, everybody bailed. But it’s still early. Just a little off midnight. You down for a night cap?” He lumbers over to a cab, mumbling a destination, and haggling the price as the driver pulls away.

An indecipherable dancehall song fills out the lurching late model mini cab while the island flashes by in a wash of orange with a faint haze of a purplish sky before we stop in a gravel lot just up from the bridge. We dismount and the strip club bouncers just nod us in, yacht crew spending habits giving us an informal VIP treatment. I take a bar stool, the jaunty sound of Top 40 electro remixes crackle out the last before the DJ’s boredom fades and a soft chime of a melody dances over a digital rush, the lyrics whispering just before a digital symbol, then a fractured synth, expanding, building; the room disperses onto a softer ethereal plain and I can feel someone looking at me and turn. She forces a smile that somehow becomes her and a faint yearning lifts the senses, awoken to a planet, as if the immeasurable distance of culture and country disappears in the glint of our eyes and some other bewitching quality pulls us from ourselves. We’re so far from home, bodies caught in this infernal, global machine, still dreaming and falling with the outro as it fades into the shabby reality of the room.

“It’s kind of funny this is the only spot you can have a drink and conversation,” Steve observes, as a pair of low balls arrive. “I mean, Jesus, the club is like needles poking out your ears, that and they throw down on decent air-conditioning here…” he continues on auto-pilot, lighting another cigarette and toying with his Dunhill lighter.

She’s turned away and chatting with a fellow dancer and…

“Oy. You’ve gotta girlfriend or something like that,” Steve bellows and snaps me back from what suddenly accounts itself as seedy, bodily indulgence.

“I don’t know. Looks like there are some exotic options with very appealing spreads,” I say, and it is kind of funny before I wonder if it is even really a joke at all, or just the reality of everything made into humor coated resignation.

He breaks into a loud and lingering smokers laugh before shaking his head. “You have the most fucked up sense of humor.”

I take another drink and try not to look at her. As if I might cling to the illusion of a gaze and all it might be, feeling some other quality─a seemingly innate allure and mystery to her─that between us is not a game but a simple indescribable spark neither of us will ever understand but savor and cherish…

I must be delusional. She’s right there and oh, so possible. She’s just a few pieces of paper away and a trip up to the knocking shop, putting a condom on me with her mouth then a warm, numb jostling in a worn out bed, drowned in red light like a night watch in the wheelhouse, a pretty face bouncing above me before it ends and all that is left is just a trick for the senses and the body, just a monthly or weekly bodily obligation, like the lifesaving equipment check or the safety drill or the monthly deck maintenance schedule.

“I don’t know how you two do the distance thing, man,” says Steve.

I almost want to explain it. I could outline that not quite acknowledged leveraging of the distance: building up the longing and the want well beyond anything back ashore, anything resembling normal; pent up and instantly redeemed when we meet up, a great surge and rush then the human bits and it rolls over us like a wave. There’s excitement in every little detail, everything so dear in all the scarcity. Something we trade with promises and futures. Every instant dependent on where it is we’re going and not what’s actually happening. And you only fleetingly notice it before another glass and lusty enthusiasm pull you into a horny, helpless now!

I take a large, desperate sip. “We’re just having fun,” I say.

“Listen to you. All downplaying and shit. What would Gordon say? Having a laugh with a slapper,” Steve starts with a mocking but spot on British accent. “You can do way better. Besides, you really want to end up down under?”

“Is she a slapper?” I can’t un-ask. Just having a laugh. Just the sort of relationship that’ll do. Got to do better. Maximize the opportunities, work out the efficiencies, increase productivity and output, optimize, optimize. I realize a surge of energy and don’t want to acknowledge it beating against my rib cage.

Do I really want to settle down in the Commonwealth? South Africa? New Zealand? But isn’t EU the way to go? UK or go Continental? Western Europe? Med? Or what about the East? Language and amusing cultural differences to keep things interesting?

It’s all really for a passport and new place to live. Not a relationship at all but another quiet transaction, covered with charm and posted with novelty, unacknowledged yet inescapable. How to choose? Can you trade looks for the right country? Or personality? Does intelligence even rate? What if she wants to move to the US?

No. It’s so much simpler than that. The answer I know but doubt, that grandest externality of them all, as if some other quality cuts through life with a feeling beyond yet known, when a gaze awakens the senses as if before the sea herself, caught with her in the eternal and seemingly infinite…

Fuck. I’ve got to get out of this. I stare down at the tumbler. I can’t escape any of it.

Did it really happen all those years back? That feeling, that awful sad simple human feeling, almost in spite of the mind and the body, that mythical space between them, that spirit caught in a sheer lift, like the transcendence of a wave, the same exhilarating ride in life itself─just before the crash, wiped out and held under for years, thrown about until it relents and on the surface there is a flat and maddeningly calm sea.

“Getting a little quiet there, bro. Christ. Look at you. Your teeth are chattering. I’m not looking for a late one but this next shot might be medicinal,” he notes clinically, flagging down the bartender.

***

The beat of the marimba throbs with a backbeat through my skull. My eyes are bloodshot. My tongue is completely parched. The third, general alarm fires off and I acknowledge it with a fumbling tap just as Geoff grunts from the other side of the cabin and rolls over, “the fuck, mate?”

There is a several millisecond delay between the thought of moving the limbs and torso and their physical response, stumbling upright and into the morning routine.

I linger in the shower and scrub and scent away the evening, still evaporating from my pores. It almost seems normal quietly making down the crew corridor for the crew galley except for the thirst, that unquenchable morning after soif that will not be slaked.

I grab a cold can of Coke rather than coffee and Vegemite Toast. Oh, that wickedly medicinal sweet crackle and bite. Gotta pace it, I realize with half the can down. Calm, breath slowly. It’s going to be okay.

This isn’t nearly as bad as Monaco last season. Until it isn’t and what feels like a gut punch before a volley of heaves as I land my face in the sink and retch into the basin and fuck, someone heard it. Fuck, someone will smell it. Turn on the water, slosh it around before word of it gets to the Captain and the call to the wheelhouse and it’s over and here’s your ticket home and best of luck out there.

I head up the dock for a cigarette and try dulling the sticky, acrid taste of digestive fluid and Coke. I attempt a mouthful of water. It stays down with optimism before the stomach jumps again and I hang off a piling just out of sight and spill into the lagoon. Getting started is a feat. And, of course, I’m on deck. Even a wide brimmed hat and the best polarized sunglasses are nothing against this tropical light. The crisp optics everyone flies in for, broiling down and expelling whatever water is left in my body, now leaking from every pore.

Everything is flat, the world and everything around me happen in simple mechanical reality, determined, steady and anticipating. The body aches and creaks as a cheery lobe in my brain clings to the training like flotsam on the open ocean. There’s process and the reassuring simplicity of wet, scrub up, down, sides, rinse, blade and touch up with an absorbent chamois. The exciting trade of my time is gone. It’s just another job.

Do I really need to be here? Setting up the buckets of soap and water, laying out a hose to clean a soiled yacht to perfection? I slip into the routine, struck mute.

Geoff only bothers with the most perfunctory conversation, “Have you rinsed the portlight sill?” He comfortably mocks what is just a passing stage in his life. Just cruising through like a 21st century Redmond Barry, making the best of it and counting the days until he jumps ship and sets up in the UK. He’s certain to land as far from a dairy farm in New Zealand as one can possibly dare.

“Did you wet that bit?”

I would be back home, setting up shop in a condo kitted out with travel artifacts and a mass of volumes. Doing legal scut work with all the other legal assistants going to law school at night, toiling toward whatever simulacrum of a career exists post-2008.

“Where is the Black Streak Remover?”

Would it be different passing the bar, at best scraping together enough work to pass through some non-business expensed income, scouring restos and bars and affably begging for some word of mouth from third link friends of my brother? All of whom would wonder why anyone would give up such an interesting job on yachts to be, at best, a middle tier small town lawyer grafting and grubbing for a house let alone a boat to occasionally sail on the Chesapeake Bay and rekindle the feeling I’m supposed to be having here and now.

“Did you run a hose off the bow?”

It wouldn’t be enough, still clinging to an expired cosmopolitanism, those dated recollections of the world held together with a scatter of foreign newspapers in the browser history, amazon.fr orders, and discerning visits to Whole Foods for cheese. Maybe I would meet another ex-expatriate, obsessed with German of all languages, worldly but stranded, forever referring to that position she took at a gallery in Berlin as a few years back. Both insisting those other selves we knew, those instants we’ll never quite describe and never appreciate outside a yearning shared, powering the story we’ll wear. About it all simply being a layover, the feint then the excuse for coming in last to get a mortgage and a place to decorate with all the artifacts from failed sojourns, lingering in the caustic truth that you can never go home again. Another round of that middle pushing into upper middle game of where we’ve been or are heading, leveraging every place over so many conversations, what we saw no longer matters outside the story, if it ever did.

I’m worldly, a sailor. I’ve got South America and Africa, sub-Saharan, mind you. Back in a conversation it would take a year of BBQs and holidays and parties to wear thin, just sitting there as everyone else chats about the real world and life, just a polite friendship from the old days, whatever was and must be. Then one day casting that foreign eye on it all, that yearning for the world itself, for that feeling out there, almost mythical, as if some force or other. The one that really isn’t there at all kicking about from place to place, quietly making the trade of new, more exciting elsewhere’s against a home never found but perpetually fled. Obliviously, excitedly living out the tale of it all─as mechanical and predictable as the shurhold pole, extra soft blue brush and a frothy five gallon bucket of awl wash in the wet, scrub up, down, sides, rinse, blade and chammy cycle. That fitting return from another foolish night chasing what must; always remembered as grander possibility, out where things happen and drunk enough to let them and almost believe it.

“Bummer about watch,” says Geoff when we stow the gear in the Bosun’s locker and draw out the task with a quick tidy that eats up the last half hour. Of course, I’m on watch. “Skype your bird at least,” he adds cheerily.

I slip off the boat and up the dock for some air and a cigarette and hide behind a thicket of dense tropical shrubs next to the marina office. A massive Air France flight roars over the lagoon, banks sharply. It levels off and climbs between the low mountains before disappearing into the clouds.

They’ll be in Paris in eight hours, touch down at Roissy then the story through customs and that random schedule for the RER into the City. Catching the express always feeling like a feat, a stoked ride through the banlieu then hop off at Gare du Nord and down to the 11eme or past the labyrinth at Chatelet and St. Mich or on to Luxembourg and into an airbnb, a pleasing room with a kitchenette and bathroom appended to it, a pair of tall windows overlooking a small square at a collision of ruelles, a cafe, a tabac and a boulanger and then what?

It’s not really a dream. It’s just a story and don’t want to realize how necessary as the plane disappears into a cloud bank.

The radio calls me to the wheelhouse and I know where I am.

Colin Dowling draws on his experiences abroad: going to school in France, working on the Mediterranean and sailing the Atlantic. He writes to capture that feeling when you find yourself between borders, cultures and languages. As surfer, writer and sailor, he continues to explore globalization at the personal level. Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in his soul, he gets back abroad as soon as he can. He is currently querying a novel about his time working on a billionaire’s private luxury yacht. You can read him at: https://medium.com/@NotesfromAground or find him on Twitter: @NoteFromAground

Movie Night by Marie McCloskey

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I eased myself onto the oversized seat. My back popped and my knees locked up, but I clutched my goodies tight. A few kernels of popcorn sprinkled the floor and I nodded to my assist dog, Sally. “All yours, girl.”

The stiff chair didn’t offer as much comfort as my old recliner, but I hadn’t been to a movie in years. I was determined to enjoy it. At fifteen dollars a ticket I’d have to. I knew prices had gone up, but the concession was so high there should have been gold in the popcorn.

I got extra butter to stick it to them. Piled on the salt and took enough napkins to wipe my mouth for the next year too.

The ex would have glared at me at me. Not that she would have dared to leave her couch. Her precious Netflix shows widened her ass as fast as my injury grew my gut. I shook my head at the thought. I missed being able to walk without pain. Found myself hating the joggers I drove past on the way here.

At least the divorce is almost done. I shook my head and jammed a handful of popcorn in my mouth. The salt danced on my tongue. I gulped my drink letting the cherry coke dissolve the popcorn and fizz before swallowing.

Now I can at least enjoy some of my life again. I patted Sally on the head. She rested her face on my lap and I sat back thinking of all I’d missed out on since I got married.

“No bacon on the pizza if you want me to eat it.” The first time she said that, it was cute. After twenty years of marriage it felt like prison.

I grinned to think of how I handled her walking out on me. “You’re not the same anymore, Chuck!” she shouted.

I can’t believe I was so mad at the time. “Of course I’m not.” I slapped my leg. “I can’t do the shit I love anymore.”

“I can’t do this anymore. All we ever do is fight.”

“Only because you won’t accept me as I am. Sickness and health were just ideas to you, huh?” I’d growled.

She stormed out and I ordered and extra-large pizza with triple bacon.

At least now I can die happy, I told myself, shoved more popcorn in my mouth and belched loud enough to make the kids behind me giggle.

I turned to wave at them. “I haven’t been to a movie in years.”

A little five year old girl waved back, but her mom ignored me.

Just like Jillian.

When not arguing, she had pretended I didn’t exist. The pain in my leg stabbed all the way up my spine and she just ignored my groans. I should’ve known not to trust her. She didn’t even like dogs. I can barely trust people who don’t like dogs or at least cats, and she didn’t like any animals.

“We can’t have a dog destroying our nice home,” her fighting words came right after the wedding.

“You loved, Willis.” I gaped at her. “He was the best. Slept at the foot of the bed to keep my toes warm. And I never had to clean up spilled food. He made a perfect vacuum.”

Jillian rolled her eyes.

My loyal buddy was laid to rest in the backyard just before our wedding. He was there now, rotting under the manicured lawn I worked so hard to keep up to my wife’s standards.

“He was nice.” She had scoffed at me. “But named after a terrible actor.”

I could accept pizza without bacon and didn’t really want to replace my awesome dog, but there was no compromising with a woman who insulted Bruce Willis, no matter how type-cast he is sometimes.

Out of duty and the nature of societal pressure, I somehow got through it. Two decades I endured that…that woman. I shoved another handful of popcorn in my mouth. Kernels littered my belly. I tried to grab the ones that fell into the cracks of my seat but they escaped my clutches.

I bent forward to try and contain the mess. A fart squeezed out of me. I sat up and looked around.

No one said anything, but the couple a few seats down got up and moved further away.

More room for me, I guess. I fanned my nose.

Sally lay down and rested on my foot.  

“No woman was ever as good to me as you.” I carefully leaned forward clenching my butt to keep kamikaze gas at bay. “Go ahead.” I waved at the popcorn on the floor and she munched it.

The lights went down and the screen filled with sweaty bodies. They morphed to a woman buttoning her jeans over gaunt hips, then cut forward to a car racing along a sea-side road. I squinted and scratched my head. A single line whispered at the end. The breathy voice confirmed that I had survived yet another unbearable perfume commercial.

And people wonder why no one pays attention to this junk. I laughed to myself. They’re more useless than ever. Anything that’s gonna sell doesn’t need commercials. I marveled at the shiny smiles plastered on the people onscreen.

Jillian hated commercials almost as much as I did, at least. Netflix got that right, but they’ll probably be running ads soon too. Just like cable. The whole point of buying that was originally to avoid ads in the middle of a show, but then the providers wanted more money and killed that dream.

I rubbed my pocket, glad to have a thicker wallet without Jillian. What had started out as seven or eight dollars a month became added packages, more streaming services. Hulu. HBO. All the networks wanted to suck me dry. They left little to help with the doctor bills after the accident.

I had grown so indifferent to new shows: Amazon originals, Netflix series. They lacked something, but I couldn’t describe what. My inability to articulate the emptiness of flat storylines and mass media consumption annoyed Jillian to the point that she wouldn’t watch anything with me.

I guess I had grown a little cynical. But who wouldn’t?

I happily turned to books for entertainment. The classics were still there full of intelligible ideas and characters so real they became trusted friends. This movie was it, the one I had been waiting for, for half a decade. Hollywood finally got off the remake/nostalgia-porn train and put stock into new stories again.

Based on the book of all books, it couldn’t fail me. The story felt so real I empathized with the characters more than the woman I had married.

Thinking of all the attempts I made to get her to read the book still made me shake his head. “Just try the first page and if it doesn’t hook you, I’ll leave you alone.”

A callous cloud darkened the hue of her hazel eyes. She shrugged me off. How could something that meant so much to me not even interest her a little?

I despised how easy it was to imagine her─leaning against the arm of the couch─controller in hand. Her finger hovered over the play button to resume binge-watching her favorite garbage.

I froze in my seat. For a moment, I feared I would reawaken to the nuptial nightmare. But the theater screen plastered a PG-13 rating before us all. My breathing steadied, and the previews began.

I zoned out during scenes for the next big comedy flick. It looked like something from Idiocracy. Poop jokes, and stupid faces were all the comedic world had to offer? I couldn’t accept that. I cracked my knuckles and rubbed my knee.

The other trailers were a circus of explosions, women crying, men screaming, and a one giant eyed alien. None of them impressed me. I checked my phone to see how long we’ve been waiting. Twenty-minutes. I paid to watch twenty minutes of ads trying to get me to watch or buy something else.

I forgot why I even decided to go to a movie.

A hum of hushed voices surrounded me. I scanned the shadowed heads, wondering what they would think of the film. At least this movie will be different.

Sally smacked her lips and rested her chin against my ankles.

I shoved more popcorn in my mouth and gulped some soda. I sloshed the cold liquid around my teeth like mouthwash.

Mouthwash. My old morning routine came to mind like a movie on the screen. Jillian rolling away from me before I could kiss her.

“Morning breath.” She moaned.

She never kissed me unless my teeth were perfectly polished and my mouth was minty fresh. I grew to resent peppermint. I despised fluoride.

I grabbed the mouthwash and stared at its alcohol content. I couldn’t decide if drinking the entire bottle would get me drunk or kill me but either seemed like a nice solution. Anything to stop Jillian from complaining again.

I wondered if any cases of death-by-mouthwash existed. I contemplated experimenting. If it would have gotten her to admit she was wrong, I would have died a perfect martyr.

Now glad to be a survivor, I wore the recollection like a badge of honor. I fought and endured. And now, I have won.

I scratched my receding hairline, glad to be rid of her constant suggestions for fixing that too. I didn’t want to be fixed. Nothing would stop time. Nothing could fix my age or what life had done to me.

I blinked hard. A video filled with cute disabled kids played, asking the audience to turn off their phones. I silenced mine and pushed it back in my pocket but all around, the glow of cell phones flashed like lightning bugs on steroids.

I couldn’t understand it. The theatre had been completely devoid of the damn things until the commercial mentioned them. Now everyone seemed to be checking texts and emails.

I leaned over my seat and squinted at what was so important to the lady adjacent to me. Bad idea. Bile rose in my throat. My ass twitched.  My spit turned sour as the image of a veiny dick implanted itself in my brain.

God strike me blind! I rubbed his eyes. My hands shook, but I managed to grip my soda and suck more down.

“Oh, yeah. It’s finally out,” a nasal voice sounded from behind me.

Everyone sat still, busy wearing out their thumbs typing. Maybe they’ll be done when the movie starts, I hoped, but not even the up-tempo song, or the comical opening credits deterred them.

My mouth went dry. My heart beat slowed to a hard angry thump. No one said anything.

No one was going to stop them.

I grabbed my cane and forced myself up. “I’ve waited too long for this.”

The brilliant illumination of angry faces sat framed with the glow of the screen.

“If you’re not going to watch the damn movie, then go home. I paid too much to sit here while you all ruin the show.”

A couple of people clapped, some turned off their phones and slumped in their seats.

It worked. I jerked my head from side to side. I’d never felt so good.  I was a hero. I had stood up for myself, my rights, and the rights of all mankind.

I stuck out my chest, stretched my chin forward, and drew an enormous breath. They were listening to me. I needed to take the opportunity and further educate them, since no one else would.

“And you know what? I wonder how many of you even read the book. You do know how to read, don’t you? Or are you too busy binge-watching your precious Netflix shows?”

Sally pawed at my leg and let out a low woof. She nipped at my elbow. I know I should have stopped and watched my movie, but I was trying to confront injustice. I couldn’t help myself.

“Excuse me sir.”

My heart froze and I turned toward the voice. A flashlight blinded my eyes and I held my hand up to deflect the glare.

“I’m going to have to ask you to sit down and be quiet, or you’ll have to leave.”

My body went cold. A couple of people clapped and I found it difficult to swallow. “Maybe I should go.” I grabbed my cane. But the little girl behind me, the very one who laughed when I burped stood and grabbed my hand.

“No Mr. Guy. You should watch this. It will be fun.”

Her mom grimaced. “Jilly baby, sit down.” She pulled her back.

“Jilly?” I asked.

The little girl nodded.

I apologized to everyone and sat back down. “You have a beautiful name,” I whispered over my shoulder.

I loved bacon. Loved my dog. I had loved my wife for a time. I contemplated that as the movie played.

The acting fell flat. All the best lines never came. My eyelids grew heavy and I nearly fell asleep in public like some kind of retirement home escapee.

I yawned and glanced around when the movie was over.

“Did you like it?” The lights went up and little Jilly smiled with curls tickling her chubby cheeks. “It was so fun.”

“It was perfect.” I waved to her and her mom forced out a smile.

“Okay honey, it’s time to go.” She ushered her away, but I stretched and scratched my knees.

Sally prompted me to rise. My stomach rumbled.

I stood and gasped at the shooting pain that hit my left arm. It burned a bit too, worse than my knee ever plagued me. “Come on girl. Let’s get some quadruple bacon pizza on the way home.”

We got the pizza on the way home. I sat in my chair and licked the grease from my fingers before the pain in my arm climbed to my chest and knocked me to the floor.

And that’s how I got laid up in this hospital. My ex didn’t deserve me or Sally, but maybe I can cut back on the bacon. Just a little.

Marie likes to let her work speak for itself.

This is Only Happening by Adam Scharf

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Don’t get me wrong, I like Jane, but God only knows if I like Jane for Jane or I’m just sick in the belly over a breakup. I cling to Jane to make sure that when I snap, hearing voices, raving on the street, it’s at least in front of someone decent. You’d love her. Lovey-dovey as all get out towards me, and anyone who says the right things, believe me. She’s that person you intuitively know things about and have no idea why or how you know them. The friend of the family’s sister who lives upstate. The one you unceasingly heard about since you were a kid, I bet. I’m brainwashing myself into being crazy about her. Into believing all my headaches are out the window. 

Jane’s rich and her bedroom has drapes in it. A walk-in closet to reinvent yourself in. Her house is full of antiques, mostly furniture, and tire tracks through the rose garden. A family portrait advertising an older brother whose piety makes him say dang instead of hell.

She gives monologues unfolding her favorite features on a man. Among other things, a good whispering ear─an ear that’s nice to whisper into. I’ll let slip her least favorite too, sweaty hair on the back of the neck. That’s something we both can agree on.

Jane doesn’t listen, and that’s the greatest thing about her. She doesn’t pretend or anything. After you say something weighty and longwinded she’ll go, “See that lady? I bought that same shirt for my father.”

It’s best to only respond, “Jane, you’re killing me.”

She might, too. In her bedroom I’m usually inches from an unblocked window where I could probably jump out in an “accidental” way.

I know how to do it. I tell her, “Jane, let’s make love with the curtains open.” Then fall out screaming, “Dear God!” the whole way down.

Falling could be the only way out of this. An eye witness might blow it, telling the police, “No, no, he was smiling the entire time.”

Maybe not. Maybe I just read one of those inspirational magnets before tripping and just couldn’t shake the inspiration. You can never tell about a guy who falls the dang out a window.

I’ll break it to you, Jane ashes cigarettes on the carpet, and loves ineffectual questions. Last night she asked, “Gabriel, why are you sad? Can’t you be happy?”

I told her, “Never, I’m a wreck. It being my birthday and all.” It couldn’t be farther from my birthday. I thought it would be funny to tell her it was my birthday. That’s how sick I am.

This morning she asks, “Gabriel, what’s your favorite feature on a woman?”

The free-falling out of a window opportunity looked more and more mouth-watering, but I answered pretending to wield a cigarette in my left hand. “The landscape of the back. The crook of the neck. The curve of the breast. Sometimes I find the scent of the wrist from an old bottle of perfume she put on thinking nobody would smell her that night.”

“What turns you on the most?”

“A cold hand on my chest.”

“That’s boring.”

Boring. Does a boring guy jump out of a window after laughing at the wall for twenty minutes?

It’s nice to hold someone’s hand before falling asleep. The loneliest moment in anyone’s life is when you want to share insignificant crumbs about your day, but no one’s the dang around, or worse they don’t value closeness during mediocre moments. They want everything splashy without sincerity. Kinkade paintings without gusto. I’m going to go ahead and tell you right now what I think: the closest you’ll ever feel to another human being is sharing knowledge of an ending before anyone else knows. Parents knowing they’re leaving the playground before their kids do—it irons them together for eternity, I’m telling you.

Something’s changing between her and me. She’s probably had it up to here with me. I’m a screwball who’s applying her affection to get over someone. It’s a low thing to commit, but I’m sick. She deserves decency. You can tell she’s at the end of her rope when she paces the room like a captive whale in a tank.

She’s told me more than once, “I don’t know why I bother with you. You’re boring,” then places Beethoven on the record player and doesn’t bother starting it at the beginning but right smack dab in the middle of the record. She’s unbalanced, for crying out loud.

This morning it started building, she paced the room letting me have it. “Haven’t we had a nice romance? I dress nice for you. I read your stories. We make love every night. We go ice-skating. Nothing makes you happy!”

She omitted the night I read her diary out loud as we ate grapefruit (according to March 19th of last year. When feeling pointless and unattended, she drives by old boyfriend’s houses without stopping, knocking, or as much as giving a neighborly wave. As though arriving at the

podium without a speech, nodding, and slowly promenading stage left. That’s the sickness I’m talking about. The rat pulls the lever to feed itself cocaine till it dies.

This afternoon, after draining my glass, I could barely stand, but did it anyway. She asked, “Tell me your best move with a woman?”

“Making love with the curtains open.”

I tried holding myself up on her wall. “Eroica,” is the only record she owns because I bought it for her to play something when it rains. Endless rain, and the wind, scare me to death. She told me I was boring, not at all eye-popping like our first night together. I could tell you about that.

That night I wore my wealthy brother-in-law’s clothes to feasibly appear like I’m raking it in.

She was at a table by herself in a flowered dress. Her gestures made me nervous to say anything to her. I couldn’t think what to say. It didn’t help she was beautiful and had style.

She asked me what I did for a living and I told her I was an oil man. I kept with it because I thought it would be funny to just keep saying, “Oil man,” all night. I whispered it in her ear and she fell to pieces.

Luckily, she loves soft talking and fossil fuels. I figured when I was drunk enough I’d play the rich cliché commanding her to pack her things because we’re going anywhere in the world tonight, business class. When she’d yawn her mouth in wonder, mingled with perplexity, gushing about how she couldn’t possibly accept a gift such as that, I’d bring up the leg room, and ask for a kiss, then call it a night.

None of that happened. No kidding, she used the word, “Absolutely.” I only had a few dollars left to my name so there was nothing to worry about. She had me drive her home in pouring rain to watch her pack in the dark. I was about to throw up over the matter when the craziest thing happened. I told her, “Jane, I have $12 in my pocket, and I’m incredibly attracted to you.” 

We’ve been together ever since.

With Jane, nothing’s off the table. We talk about the whole shebang: marriage, death, and what not to name a kid to increase the odds they’ll say actual swear words. We tell each other everything we’ve ever been afraid of as though we’re already a part of each other.

Tonight’s her breaking point. It’s 8:30 pm. I pretend I’m asleep to avoid what’s about to happen. After pacing the room she’s standing over me from Mount Olympus. “Wake up. I know your problem, Gabriel. You’re hung up on that young thing you mentioned almost a hundred times. What’s her name? Gretchen. The dancer? You say her name when you’re sleeping. I bet anything you daydream about being hilarious in front of her family. You think you’re in the wrong place, with the wrong woman. Some friend who thinks he’s psychic probably told you it would all work out with her. A great sign of immaturity, Gabriel.

“Let me get this straight, the story of your life isn’t happening according to plan. Terribly original. There is no right place. You have this story in your head, your immortal beloved. Your inamorata. Your story isn’t here. I’m here. You’ll love me, but deep down you know somewhere I’m mediocre, and she is too. Someone should let you in on a secret. My English college professor, who I was very close with, Mark Walters, told me this secret, and I’ll share it with you Gabriel. Everything in your life—those tears, these people, your smile, this rain, your achievements, your epiphanies, your losses—they’re only happening.

“There’s no meaning to any of it. You’re weighing yourself down. The cancer metastasizes, or the cat walks in front of the T.V., without a clue who you are. You thought your feelings were illuminating but they’re garden-variety. It’s only happening! You can go someplace and stand there waiting for everyone to recognize you, but they won’t because you’re the only one filled in on the story. There’s no story, Gabriel. It’s just happening. All this is only happening.”

My head is splitting. “Hannah. Her name is, Hannah. It’s not Gretchen. Hannah.” Goddammit, I love saying Hannah. “It’s Hannah.”

“It’s Mark, for all I care.”

Jane throws a pile of her dresses all over the room. She’s going mad. Scattering dresses everywhere. “Watch, I’m showing you it’s okay to be fine. This is happening. All this is only happening. No good or bad with any of it.”

I’m starting to sweat, lightheaded and achy. We’ve been sick for years. Mistaking a longing in our chest for something good.

“Stop taking yourself personally. Your life has nothing to do with you,” says Jane.

She removes her dress from her body, contemplating where to place this one, before throwing it out the window. Naked. The curve of her breast. “Take off your clothes Gabriel.” Jane takes them off for me, throwing them out the window and closing the curtains.

Mounting me on the bed. Rubbing my chest. Kissing my neck. Biting my ear, her laugh bleeding held down by a sustain pedal, bent along the cut and dried entirely. She smells like lucid dreaming. A rose opens laughing its head off. Am I the only one clapping?

People gather at the foot of Mt. Olympus begging for an answer after a thousand years of famine, hereditary fate, and holy wars. Going up hills to read into stars. Sacrificing all sorts of helpless things like animals, and children for answers. It’s been a long wait. Trying not to grin, the professor of English heroically answers like a waiter who just offered to carry his table’s

water glasses inside after it started raining. He gazes at them with that misty-eyed smile the prophets would fail to capture with integrity. A scribe raises his stone tablet with chisel at hand. Mark Walters lowering his gaze extending his palm. “Friends, this is only happening.”

He pauses for an applause break that never comes. Then has the guts to wink and give them words to describe light. A God that knows nothing. The joke is there’s nothing to tell, but clap at yourself as much as possible. As much as humanly possible. Holy hell, make sure you’re the only one clapping.

“Jane?”

“Yes?”

“I think I love you.”

She doesn’t listen.

“Do you want the lights on when we make love?”

“Honestly, Jane. I think I love you.”

“Whisper it to me.”

Jane. I’m telling you that I think I love you.”

“You don’t really.”

“I want to feel close.”

“Darling, tonight is all we have. We’re breaking up. You’ll leave tomorrow morning, and we’ll never see each other again.”

We’re diachronic, knowing an ending. For the love of Pete, love is manageable. Blushing as though riding the handlebars of my good-looking boyfriends’ bicycle. We’re ironed together from now on. From now on. 

   Adam Scharf was born and raised in upstate NY. He workås as a professional improviser and writer in Orlando Florida. Previous work has been published in Jokes Review Journal and Clockwise Cat Magazine.  

Pancakes and Waffles by Alex Z. Salinas

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I sat across from Columbia at IHOP and gazed into her dark eyes. They were like two shiny, brown M&Ms. I could’ve stared at them all night. Damn fine, I thought, considering she’s blonde. My stomach tingled.

I’ve got nothing against blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls, but they’re to be expected. Run of the mill, as my mother would say. But blond-haired, brown-eyed girls? They’re a different kind of beast, as my father would say.

Life for them, I imagined, was an uphill battle. If you ask me, they’re victims of fate—prisoners of predetermination. I’m inclined to call them underdogs, but let’s get one thing straight about Columbia: she was no underdog.

“What’re you looking at?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I lied.

“You were looking at me really weird.”

“I’m sorry. Your eyes, they’re pretty.”

She smiled and said, “I know, right?”

Her teeth were perfect, pure white, immaculate. I could tell she never missed a day brushing them.

She shifted herself in the booth. Her collarbones poked through her V-neck like they were trying to escape.

I thought, What I really want to do is reach across and pull you over here.

“Why’re you still staring at me weird?” 

“I’m not,” I lied.

***

I was a sophomore in college. Columbia and I had met up by pretty much chance. After we’d graduated from high school, we were strangers for two years. Then one day, while I was on my lunch break at the mall—I worked at Dillard’s—I saw her in the food court. She was two people ahead of me in line at Subway. I cut the line and stood behind her for a few seconds until she turned around.

“Oh my God!” she squealed.

“It’s me.”

We bear-hugged.

After we paid for our sandwiches, we small-talked a bit, both of us all smiles. The whole time I kept wondering, Why don’t I have your number?

Then, when we hit a stopping point, I asked for her digits. “Would you like to go to dinner sometime?” I asked, a shot in the dark.

“Dinner?” she repeated.

“Yeah, like, can I take you to dinner? Unless you’re busy or something.”

“Whoa. Take me to dinner. That sounds like a serious proposal, sir.”

I stayed quiet, unsure how to respond.

Finally she said, “I’m messing with you, dork. Of course we can ‘go to dinner.’” Air quotes.

“Cool! Well now that I have your digits, I can call you soon? Does that sound good?”

“Sounds great!”

I waited two days before I called her. This was carefully planned.

“Hey,” I said over the phone, “how does IHOP sound Friday night?”

“Um, yeah, sure, IHOP sounds… good,” she answered.

To me, IHOP was a more respectable option than McDonald’s, and much more affordable than somewhere overrated like Outback Steakhouse, which, on my sophomore budget, was out of the question anyways, even if I just wanted to go there solo.   

“Cool. I can pick you up, if you’d like?”

There was a little bit of silence before she said, “Um, yeah, sure, that sounds good.”

“I mean, if it’s Okay with y—”

“I said yes, silly. Come get me at six.”

After our phone call, I entered her address on MapQuest. It said it would take me forty-five minutes to get to her place from my dorm. Damn, I thought, she lives in Djibouti.  

When I got to her neighborhood, I was still surprised to find myself in a trailer park, in Devine, about thirty miles outside the city. I had no clue she lived in a trailer park, or Devine.

She was standing outside her home, looking absolutely fine in dark blue jeans and a low-cut T-shirt with a faded American flag on it.

Suddenly, an image of her draped in an American flag, with nothing else on underneath, popped in my head. I pushed it away quickly. “I had no idea you lived in a trailer park.” I had no idea how bad the words sounded until they left my mouth. “I mean, I wasn’t trying to say that—”

“It’s all good,” Columbia said, expressionless. “This is where I live. Surprise.”

“Hey, you look great,” I said, changing the subject.

“Not bad for a trailer park girl, huh?” She grinned like the devil. My face turned hot.

“I’m just messing with you, goofball. Jesus, don’t be so serious.”

“I’m not,” I said, defensively, childishly. Then I high-fived her to play it off.

On the drive to IHOP, we small-talked some more, and at some point, I played music from my iPod—I’d created a playlist for our date. Columbia and I had both loved punk rock. We’d spent many lunches at school talking about Green Day, Death Cab For Cutie, Dashboard Confessional, Panic! At The Disco, all them. Thus, I’d titled my playlist, “Columbia Records.” When I showed her, she looked at me with glowing eyes, like melted M&Ms.

At IHOP, we were intercepted by an ancient waitress named Doris. I counted legit ten thousand wrinkles on her face. Once Columbia and I had decided on a booth, Doris walked us over it, slowly, very slowly. She called us both “Honey” in a near-man’s voice. From the look on Columbia’s face, she was as amused as I was.

After Doris shuffled off to give us time to order, Columbia said, with a little smile, “Stop being mean.”

“I’m not being mean…honey!”

“Oh God, don’t even start.”

“Seriously, how many packs of Camel do you think she’s put away in her life?”

“You’re evil,” Columbia said, grinning that devil’s grin.   

Doris was back and Columbia’s stern gaze seemed to order me, You better not.

She ordered chocolate chip pancakes.

And I’ll have the Belgian waffle with scrambled eggs,” I said in a heavy smoker’s voice. I couldn’t believe I pulled it off.

By a miracle of God, Doris seemed not bothered one iota by my little stunt. After all, the woman had lived through several world-shaping wars, and Eisenhower and Tricky Dick. She’d probably had a litter of children, all grown now. And lots of grandchildren. Me? I was just another punk ass kid she had to serve on a Friday night to get a halfway decent tip.

Still, Columbia kicked me good in the shin, and not without another glare from her beautiful brown M&M eyes.

The food arrived quick. My eggs were warm and fluffy. The waffle batter practically melted in my mouth. I scarfed down everything fast, like a wolf. Columbia had only taken a few bites of her pancakes when I finished.

“Good lord,” she said. “You’re not that hungry, huh?”

“Nah,” I replied. “I had a big lunch.”

I could only watch as Columbia ate. Surprisingly, she didn’t make a stink about my food voyeurism, like a lot of girls would. She chewed each bite about fifteen times, real methodical. Her lips stayed close shut, real mannered. I imagined her looking up at me and saying, Not bad for a trailer park girl, huh?

In between her numerous chews, Columbia made conversation with me, said she’d been going steady to one of the community colleges in town—one that was a Venus flytrap for all the slackers from school. Columbia said she’d also been working part time at a children’s daycare. She loved the job but hated going to school at the same time and was considering taking a year off. College was too much like high school, she said. I wanted to tell her right then and there to not unenroll, to stick with it. Otherwise she’d never go back, But I didn’t.

I just nodded my head and listened.

“And you?” she said. “You planning to finish on time?”

“That’s the plan,” I said. “Two more years and I should be done.”

“You totally will. You’ve always been smart like that.”

For some reason, her comment rubbed me the wrong way. I’d always felt I did exactly what I was supposed to do. I was no different from her.

At some point, I broke up our serious talk by doing an impression of Michael Scott from The Office. Why? Because Columbia and I had both loved The Office. And I was good at impressions.

Would I rather be feared or loved? Easy. Both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me,” I intoned Steve Carrell.

Columbia almost spit out the last of her pancakes in my face.

“Oh my God, yes.” She pointed at my mouth. “That was really good. And that was a fucking amazing episode.”

Doris was back. As she picked up our plates, I noticed she had the sourest expression I’d ever seen on a human face.

You’re a doll,” I said to Doris, in my Doris voice.

“You’re welcome, my honey,” Doris said, unleashing a frightening smile that revealed a few missing teeth.

Before I could clown again, Columbia kicked both my shins.

Pop-pop!

She didn’t like me making fun of old people.

As we waited for our check, I glanced around the restaurant. Except for an old couple sitting behind us, there was nobody else. The graveyard shift had begun. People had better things to do on a Friday night.

I turned back toward Columbia and caught her picking her teeth with her pointer finger.

“Oh my God, don’t judge me,” she said. “I get food stuck all the time.”

“I’m not judging,” I lied, waving her off.

“This is like, totally inappropriate for me to ask, probably, but can you check to see if there’s anything else stuck in my teeth?”

“Gladly,” I said.

She flashed those perfectly straight, immaculately white chompers at me. Damn, I thought, she could be a toothpaste model.

“Let’s see what we’ve got in here,” I said officiously.

I focused in on one of her teeth. “Houston, we’ve got a problem.”

Columbia’s hand shot to her mouth. “Oh my God, shut up. For real?”

“You’d better go see for yourself. Looks like something’s stuck in there pretty good.”

“Oh my God.” She rushed off to the bathroom at a pace that would’ve broken Doris’s hips. Before she disappeared, I did notice Columbia’s jeans spread tightly against her ass, which wasn’t big, but perfect nonetheless.

My stomach tingled.

When Columbia returned, she punched my arm playfully. “You freakin’ jerk.”

“I’m gonna press assault charges on you.”

“Well you deserve it.”

“Usually, always.”

The old couple behind us—I glanced back at them again—both glared at me. They found nothing funny about our company. Perhaps we’d disturbed the final moments of their peace on Earth. For a quick second, I pictured Columbia and me as them, lived past our expiration date.

I nodded at them and they both quickly looked away.

“What the heck are you up to now?” Columbia said.

“American Gothic twelve o’clock, right behind me,” I whispered. “Don’t make it obvious.”

Columbia peeked at them, registered their presence, then said, “Oh my God, you’re so evil.”

Suddenly, her expression changed. It was as though she was contemplating something heavy, something sad. A black cloud drifted across her eyes.  

“You know,” she said, “I love old people. I really do. But they also make me really sad for some reason.”

“What’d you mean?” I said, legit confused.

“Like, it sucks to know that’s it’s all gonna end one day, sooner than we think.”

She snapped her fingers.

“What’d you mean?” I asked again.

“Okay, like, here’s life,” she said, holding out her hands about a foot apart from each other, palms facing inward. “You live for all this stuff in between, then before you know it, you’re here,” she said, shaking her right hand.

I was taken aback.

“What the hell did they put in your pancakes?” I said. “Did you go and snort something in the bathroom?”

Columbia didn’t smile.

“I’m kidding.” I straightened my back. “Look, I think the point of life is to really enjoy all the in-between stuff—like really enjoy it—so that when this comes,” I said, shaking my right hand. “You’re good with it. Cool with it. At peace with it. Know what I mean?”

Columbia looked out the window, to a mostly dead parking lot.

“Yeah,” she answered softly. “I guess. It’s just…I don’t know, I guess I just see things differently. It’s hard for me to explain. I don’t really get to enjoy all the in-between stuff knowing the end’s coming. I’ve always thought that way. I enjoy things to a certain point, then I don’t. For example, I love going to the movies. Like, I love watching people do weird shit in the snack line. I love the smell of movie popcorn. I love picking out the perfect seats in the dark. But at the end of the day, all the lights will come on and I’ll have to go home. And then, later, all the lights will shut off for good. Do you know what I’m saying? I don’t know…I should just stop talking.”

I wanted to bust out another Michael Scott impression, but it was like the water in my funny well dried up. I had to dig us out of there.

“Listen,” I said. “I get what you’re saying. I totally get it. And I hate knowing all that stuff too. But I think when things are going well, when you’re having a good time, we should just stop and enjoy the moment. Like now, for instance. Let’s enjoy how stupid you looked with all that pancake in your teeth.”

The edges of her lips curled up.

“You know what else?” I added. “Sometimes you make my head hurt, so I reckon you knock it off, lil lady, or else.” My Hollywood cowboy accent was always a hit at parties.

“You’re nuts,” Columbia said, grinning an angel’s grin this time.

If I could’ve frozen time, the minute that followed is what I’d’ve froze. Comfortable silence, satisfied stomachs, infinite possibilities ahead. 

“Just so you know, I baffle everyone,” Columbia said, breaking the silence. “That’s probably why I don’t have a lot of friends. People think they know me, but they really don’t. I guess that’s my schtick.”

“Your schtick?” I said. 

“Yep. My schtick. Funny word, ain’t it? Schtick.”

“Schtick is a funny word,” I agreed.

***

At the cash register, I told Doris to put it on one check.

“It’s OK, I’ll pay my half.” Columbia reached inside her purse.

I gently grabbed her wrist. “I got it.”

“No, it’s Okay, but thank you.”

“No, it’s Okay. I got it.”

“So one check or two?” Doris said impatiently.

My earlier charm meant nothing anymore.

“One check,” I answered definitively.

Columbia squeezed me hard in the area where a love handle hadn’t grown yet.

In my ear, she whispered, “Jerk.”

***

There wasn’t as much small talk on the drive back, so, pretty quick I played the same playlist. The Ramones. The Sex Pistols. Rancid. Black Flag. The Clash. blink-182. All them.

When we got back to Columbia’s, it was super dark. All the lights were off everywhere. Pitch black. For all I knew, I was in another country. And I practically was: in Devine, the hill country. Country living was a different kind of beast, I thought in my father’s voice.

Then I remembered a time in high school when, during one lunch, Columbia had told me that her mom had grounded her once for two months because she forgot to bathe her baby sister. I did the math in my head quick: two months was one-sixth of a year. I soon realized how Columbia had only mentioned bad things about her family. It didn’t seem to me, then, that a girl like her could come from her family.

“Thanks for tonight,” she said. “And for paying. That was really sweet.”

“No problem,” I said. “I had lots of fun.”

Though I could barely make out her face—I’d killed the headlights when I got to her home—the moonlight painted a shape I knew belonged only to her.

That thought made my heart race. My tongue was suspended until she spoke again.

“Y’know,” she said, “I never did thank you for that one time you lent me your shirt junior year.”

“What?” I said, once again legit confused.

“Your shirt. Junior year. Remember? So I wouldn’t get expelled.”

“I remember. I’m just wondering what made you think of that?”

“Because I didn’t thank you, and now, I’m taking the opportunity to thank you. That’s all. Got a problem with that?”

“No, it’s just…you baffle me.”

Her moonlit mouth expanded into a smile.

You kissed me on the cheek outside the computer lab, remember? So you did thank me.”

“I did?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I don’t remember.”

“Harsh. You’d make a great lawyer one day,” I said.

“Oh shut up.”

“Make me.”

There was silence. This time less comfortable.

After a while, I don’t know how long, Columbia said, “Mr. Jenkins would’ve kicked me out of school, Mom would’ve killed me. All for a blouse. I didn’t even have boobs. I still don’t.”

“We all knew Mr. Jenkins had a hard-on for you,” I said, trying—and failing—not to think about her chest. “He just wanted you to notice his little porn ‘stache.”

“Oh my God, gross. Don’t even joke like that, weirdo.”

“Everything turned out fine, calm down.”

“I guess so.”

Outside my window, I saw the dark mass that was Columbia’s home. Inside was her mother—her mother, in bed fast asleep, or perhaps waiting for her daughter to come inside so she could trap her in a cage.

“Well,” Columbia said, breaking my thoughts, “I’d better get going.”

“Alright.”

“Call me again sometime?”

“For sure,” I said. “I’ve got your digits now.”

Another moonlit smile—an orb that shined through the darkness.

“Hey, 1999 is calling. They want their lame lingo back.”

When our eyes met again, different information was passed between them. Damaging, in the wrong hands. My heart pounded through my throat. My brain drilled a single command into me, repeated over and over.

Do it. Do it. Do it.

I put my hand on her lap—she didn’t push it away. My other hand raised her porcelain chin. Her breathing was heavy, labored. 

She pushed my seat back and climbed on top of me.

She clasped my face and bit my bottom lip soft, then hard. My hands slid up her shirt. Then down. She slapped me.

I froze.

“Nah ah,” she said.

Holding both my hands, she forced them slowly south, her control, her pace. She leaned into my ear and breathed hot air into it. “Good boy,” she whispered.

Some things you promise to keep to yourself your whole life. What happened then is one of them.

Back in my car, my windows fogged up, Columbia smoothed out her hair in the passenger mirror.

Silent, I watched her, studied her slender fingers slide across her curls like she was playing the harp.

When she flipped the mirror up, she said, “See ya later, alligator.”

“In a while, crocodile,” I said.  

She stepped out of my car and sauntered toward her front door as if she was never gone. She didn’t turn around to wave me goodbye.

I waited a few seconds, hoping, somehow, she’d come back to send me off with a kiss, but no. She didn’t. There was nothing left for me to do but leave, so I left.

Not once did I look at my rearview mirror. I didn’t play one song on the drive back to my dorm.

I waited for a call, a text, that never came. Three days in a row I texted a single question mark. Three question marks were stacked, one on top of the other. All unanswered. Soon, her voicemail message disappeared, replaced by a robotic voice informing me that the person’s voicemail inbox was full. Sorry, goodbye.

What’s the right way to go about thinking of somebody disappearing?

A terrible car accident? Lost phone? A hatchet buried in her skull, by her mother?

I came to understand something about being dead.

There’s more than one way. 

Basically, I never heard from her again. Not really.

***

After I graduated from college, I saw this girl named Priscilla. Dark skin, short, big mouth, super Catholic. We’d met in undergrad, but we really didn’t know each other.

A game of twenty-one questions on Facebook led to me asking her out to dinner. It was that easy.

Our first date, I remember her saying, “If I ever caught my husband watching porn, that pig would be out of my life so fast his balls would spin.”

When you’re younger, red flags don’t mean as much.

We dated a few months, did the things all young people do fresh out of college. One night, I’d planned to pick her up at her apartment so we could go out for steak. I’d gotten a little bonus at work. I made reservations two weeks in advance. When I got to Priscilla’s place, I called her but she didn’t answer. I called two more times and still no answer. I waited a few minutes before I tried again. Straight to voicemail. I don’t know how long I was out there with my car stalling, my cologne seeping into my nostrils. I got fed up and left.

Halfway home, she called me back.

“I’m sooo sorry.” she said. “Oh my God, I totally crashed after I got home from work. I’m sooo sorry.”

“Okay,” I said.

“You’re not mad, are you?”

“Why would I be mad?”

“Hey, like, I’m really sorry.”

“Don’t be. You’re tired, right? So rest up. Have a good night.”

She immediately called me back.  

“You hung up on me? Like seriously?”

“What do you want me to say?” I said.

“You know what, Okay. Have a safe drive home.” Click.

I called her right back. Straight to voicemail.

I had a wild dream that night. It was the middle of day, Africa hot. I was on horse, passing through the middle of somewhere like a desert. Then, at some point, I arrived at a small town, Old West style. All the buildings were wood, blackened by the sun. The townspeople were lined up in two rows on both sides of the main dirt path. I wasn’t sure if they were welcoming me, but I wasn’t scared of them. Halfway through my crossing, I hocked a loogie.

“I own this chickenfinger-lickin’ town,” I said out loud.

Next thing I knew, I was no longer on horseback, but standing with the townspeople, watching along with them as the mysterious horseman passed by. The horseman wore a large black hat, a duster, and golden spurs that sparkled. The sun was in my eyes, so I couldn’t make out the horseman’s face. When he got up close to me, I was shocked to see that he wasn’t a man, but a large ball of weeds. A huge tumbleweed. Where his face should’ve been was just brown tangles. He didn’t have eyes, per se, but I could feel them stripping me down to nothing. Stopped in front of me, the horseman said, to me and only to me, “Best look the other way, pardner.”

Priscilla and I never really recovered after that night. We squeezed two more dates out of each other, and the last one, we were both on our phones the whole time.

What can I say? It wasn’t meant to be. Life moves on.

***

Christmas season, Friday night at the mall. My old stomping grounds. The best time of the year. Yeah, right.

I walk around. I think, Nothing’s changed. The gray floor tiles are lifeless as ever. Dirty, too. Where there used to be an Auntie Annie’s is now space for rent. Waldenbooks is gone. Hardly a soul around. They must have better places to be on a Friday night.

I stop in front of Dillard’s and stare up at the glowing white sign. My old life, I think.

I pull out my phone and type in “Dillard’s” on Google. A CNN Money article pulls up, about the impending downfall of shopping malls, the catastrophic financial health of JCPenney and Macy’s, the zombie-on-life support that is Sears. The American Dream, I think.

Then I look up. I see a woman in the distance, walking with her toddler. She’s holding the child’s hand. They move closer to me. I take note.

Suddenly, a new organ seems to grow in the space between my heart and stomach. It’s the size of a bowling ball, and it’s dense as a motherfucker.

She bends down to tie the girl’s shoes. Says something in her ear.

What immediately comes to mind is, Who’s the dad?

Then, the command comes.

Run.

Do it. Do it. Do it.

You bolt across the mall like Forrest Gump after his braces come off. You hit your stride fast. You’re smiling like an idiot.

Why are you smiling? You’re disturbing the graveyard peace of the mall. You don’t look back. Not once do you look back. That’s the important thing to remember here. You’re at the opposite end of the mall. You’re sucking for air. How sweet and painful the oxygen is. You realize how ridiculously out of shape you are. You’re wheezing, and as you’re wheezing, a strange thing happens: your stomach growls. Loud. So loud you wonder if you farted. You realize you’re starving. That you can eat a cow. Then, a hot stab pierces your right knee, the one you hurt playing league basketball years ago. You grab it, wincing. The pain spreads down your leg. You’re sweating. Blood rushes to your head. You’re losing weight now.

The lights go out. So do you.

I wake to gentle taps on my chin.

“He’s alive,” shouts the little girl. “I knew he was playing dead, Mommy!”

From the ground, I study the girl’s face—not long enough to find the similarities—then I turn toward her mother, who’s kneeling beside her.

“Hi,” I say.

“Hello,” she says. “Are you Okay? Do I need to call an ambulance?”

“No,” I say. “I’m fine,” I lie.

A pause. A sentence forms in my head then bum rushes out of my mouth like a Hurricane Katrina looter.

“It’s nice to know you still have a phone, though.”

She stares, baffled, then her expression softens into something unreachably sad. Before she can say a word, her daughter taps my chin again.

“Are you a monster? Is your name Fwankenstein?”

***

 “Hey, do you think you can be ready in fifteen minutes?” I ask my wife over the phone.“What?”

“I’m going over to get you. I’m hungry.”

“Aren’t you out shopping right now?”

“Yeah, but I had a little accident and I just want to go eat.”

“What happened?” “Ran into a brick wall called the Past.”

“What?”

“Mall cops.”

“Are you OK?

“Yeah, I’m OK. Everything’s fine.”

“You’re acting weird.”

“Usually, always.”

“Well, I’m not ready right now. I need at least thirty minutes.”

“Thirty minutes? You got it. How does IHOP sound?”

“IHOP sounds good.”

“Cool. I’ve been craving waffles and scrambled eggs lately.”

“Are you pregnant or what?”

“After last night, I might be.”

“Shut up.”

“OK, be ready in thirty.”

“You know, you’re very annoying sometimes.”

“Usually, always.”

“Bye.”

“Love you.”

Alex Z. Salinas lives on a steady diet of Dairy Queen in San Antonio, Texas. His short has appeared online in publications such as Every Day Fiction, Mystery Tribune, 101 Words, Nanoism, escarp, 101 Fiction, 365tomorrows, 121 Words, Friday Flash Fiction, and ZeroFlash. He has also had poetry published, and serves as poetry editor of the San Antonio Review. 

Hold the Line by Matt Bender

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There’ve been a few times in my life when circumstances led me to consider the chorus of Toto’s 1978 hit “Hold the Line,” which states: “Love isn’t always on time.” When I was young and first started falling in love I thought it was a terrible untruth because love was real, tangible. The chorus is the only line in the song worth pondering. The verses are a slapdash series of It’s not in the way that you ____ me statements, which, while I guess may speak to the elusive nature of love, have nothing to do with whether it’s “on time” or not.

I was driving on I-95 the last time “Hold the Line” came on the radio. One can never be sure, but I believe the frustration I was feeling at that moment and the disc jockey’s decision to throw that song on was the perfect handshake of time and space. If they ever explain String Theory that moment will be in there, along with it being the direct result of me having had an extramarital affair with a groupie for my band, Fit Wizards, in the parking lot after a show.

The band had been playing at this bar called The Brass Teat pretty consistently in the months leading up it. Stan, our guitarist, was renting out a practice space he’d slip into for an hour after work to nail down some of the more difficult, more crowd-pleasing solos required by our repertoire. Our drummer had been playing since he was a kid and could bang out a solo or even a round on the bongos if he wanted to. I played bass. I was not as practiced or experienced as them, but rocked a tremendous and well-manicured moustache, a thing that added stage presence as the other dudes were physically unremarkable. The moustache raised some eyebrows when I first started growing it, but people have since become accustomed. I like to think of it as a mascot, like, “Oh look, it’s the guy with the awesome moustache. Fit Wizards must be playing.”

The drummer’s name is Tommy. My name is Scott. We have a singer, too, but seriously fuck that guy. We’re not going to talk about him.

We had just finished our second set that night at the Teat. I was packing my gear when the Groupie approached me, just walked right up on stage, set her drink on my amp and started going on about how we rock, how our choice of cover songs were the soundtrack to her life. She asked how often we played and if I wanted to go out back and smoke a joint. It’s a cliché at this point: smoking joints leads to heavy petting, leads to her station wagon in the parking lot, a choose-your-own-adventure fest of trying to forget you have a spouse and a kid and probably she does, too, but the sex hasn’t been as wild since the kid came along and wifey sure as hell doesn’t put your dick in her mouth anymore. You wonder if Groupie still does it to her husband. She really does seem to have a knack for it.

Her and I walked back grinning and returned to our respective peoples. I wanted to tell my bandmates, especially Stan, but couldn’t, because our wives were all friends and I didn’t want to risk any rumors getting started. Notice that word: were. Also notice that Stan has a practice space. Sorry to point it all out like that. It’s not that I think you’re dumb, but it’s important to the story and the only thing that’s changed about humans in the last 5,000 years is that our attention span has gotten shorter. I got Stan to lend me a key, exchanged contact info with the Groupie and started meeting her for quick trysts at the practice space.

People get bored. People find something exciting. People fuck. 5,000 years.

I should also point out that I love my wife and kid. Throughout our time together I’ve always tried to be the best dad I could be. The wife and kid aren’t really part of this story, though. Let’s put the whole me having a family thing into the same bin we put the lead singer in.

Groupie was having a great time. She’d been trying to up her meetings at the space and trying to get some free bass lessons while she was at it. Piano had been her mother’s instrument, the one she grew up playing, but something about the way a bass note hums up the spine had an atavistic effect that made her lady-bits shiver.

They say you need to have a real connection to your art – not thinking of it as a job or a hobby, but an essential and serious component of your life – if you were ever going to be truly good at it. She felt she had that for bass, hot in the blood. Fucking at the practice space made sense in that she would show up early to run over some scales and whatever song she was working on for an hour or so before I got there, but then she sucked a bonus year of talent out of me as she pinned me to the floor and took me to the hilt.

She remained a succubus. An artiste. A prodigy.

The only time I ever saw Groupie with her husband was a Saturday afternoon while jogging on the nearby greenway. They were walking on the opposite side of the sidewalk towards me. I only half-recognized her at first and must have had a leering sort of look on my face as I passed them, ogling. I’d forgotten how pretty she is. I started singing The Beatles’ “I’m a Believer” and started one more lap. They were walking behind a big group of older women when I passed them again and I didn’t see them until the last second, slurring “I’m a belieeever!” as I huffed and puffed and jogged and sang like a drunk.

I told my wife I was going to start giving bass lessons a few days a week for some extra scratch, to which she said, “I didn’t know you were good enough to give lessons.”

That hurt. Made it easier to meet with Groupie.

We met so often that going home for dinner felt like stepping out on her. I did start giving her bass lessons, though, and she did pay me. She got some snot-nose kid who lives in her building to also come down for a weekly lesson and he paid me a little more than she did.

I tried to teach him about real music. Got onto James Carr, because he’s one of the most underrated soul singers of all time. His trademark is a track called “Dark End of the Street,” recorded in 1966, and is about a man (presumably Carr) meeting a married (presumably white) woman in the shady part of town. The duality of them having an interracial fling in the 1960’s, meeting in dark locations and fearing they might get caught is heartbreaking and the stuff of real drama in soul music. In the last verse Carr sings about how if they happen to bump into each other on the street and she sees him, she should just “walk on by” and not say anything, kind of like I should have done with Groupie and her man, although it’s very likely neither of them noticed me.

One thing that cracked me up about a lot of the dudes from the Golden Age of Soul is how they would put out records where every song is a testament to love and faith and marriage and the next day you’d see news about James Brown shooting out his girlfriend’s tires, Al Green getting a pot of boiling grits tossed on him, Marvin Gaye’s string of tumultuous and short-lived attempts at commitment. Stan said, “It’s because so much passion is required to belt out some of those tunes that it boils over into their personal lives.”

I think that’s bullshit.

Those dudes lived in a time when famous people could get away with anything, drinking hard liquor and grunting up a gram of cocaine for breakfast. The ladies of soul were, for the most part, much more well-behaved.          

Groupie was an Aretha Franklin fan from way back, back when her parents would put records on and she’d dance around in the living room. When Franklin died in 2018 the whole city of Detroit celebrated for over a week in her honor. Groupie didn’t cry, but she did buy a “Best of Aretha” compilation and listened to it for a week straight while driving back and forth from work. She figured out how to play “Respect” on bass, a skill that caused Scott to laugh and say, “The student has become the teacher.” The whole day had been going well until later that evening when a group of 20-somethings drove by and one of them yelled “Suck my dick, ho!” from the car window.

TLC released “No Scrubs” in 1999 and Gwen Stefani released “Ain’t No Hollaback Girl” in 2004 which, in my mind, makes them thematically-related, the lyrics about dudes (scrubs) with barbed-wire tattoos on their biceps holla-ing from car windows and are you the type of girl who hollas back or not? With all that’s been written and said about street harassment it’s a wonder any dude does it, or even thinks it possible that a romance might begin with a catcall.

The greatest song ever recorded is The Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place.” I’ve argued with friends about whether the album or the live version is better but, honestly, they’re both just fucking awesome and you can take your pick. They have some other good songs, but this one is the best.

The original title of this story was going to be “Liberal Snowflake Freaks Out!” and involve an encounter where I detail how I freaked out on Groupie, got caught on camera and it went viral. The wives might not have all been friends by the end of the story, which may or may not have involved me getting busted for the affair and people taking sides. Groupie was potentially in a polyamorous thing with her man, everything cool with them at the big reveal. But hasn’t that been done before?

At least you got a decent sex scene and helped smash the old archetype of love and death and redemption. No Hero, no Sage, no Quest. The music stuff was fun, too.

Matt Bender is the former host of the online FreeSongProject and has been working in the international school system for the past 10 years. He currently teaches American Literature in the garden city of Guangzhou, China – home of dim sum and the Cantonese language. His work has been published in Perfect Sound Forever, Scribble and Stone Highway Review. He also worked as a journalist for Word Vietnam magazine throughout his time in Ho Chi Minh City. Read his non-fictions online at Medium.com/@benderbbender.