Gary Hoffman – Fiction

Don’t Mess with J.R. Bunting

 

We weren’t really expecting anything exciting to happen. We were just a bunch of mostly veteran reporters sent to cover a story in south Florida that looked like it was going to be much less than interesting. Of course, our job was to make it interesting for the folks back home. A story about a good murder would have been something to make us want to write it. Four of us had gathered in the Blue Heron Lounge of the Victory Hotel in Miami. Now, the Victory wasn’t known for being the hotel with the most five star ratings, or any star rating we knew about, but it was cheap, and all our editors liked that.

 
We were all there because Jolene Harding was running for mayor of Miami. This in itself was not remarkable, except Jolene was an openly professed, gay, twenty-two year old transvestite. Her name had been Joel, but she changed it for political purposes–at least that’s what her press releases said. She was supposed to show up at the Victory for a press conference, but none of us were real sure why she chose this venue.

 
We were all pretty quiet and busy concentrating on our drinks, when somehow Buzz Lucas got on the subject of the guy his daughter was living with. “The guy’s a jerk,” Buzz proclaimed. “He doesn’t even read newspapers.” He took a long slug of his drink. “Hell, for all I know, he can’t even read. The dud will probably be a bum for the rest of his life. Won’t earn a dime!”

 
“You mean he won’t become rich like all us journalists?” Leo Mantis said.

 
“Hey, maybe I missed out on something,” Walt Burbis said. “You mean you guys got rich doing this, and I didn’t even know about it?” He laughed and took a pull on his bottle of beer.

 
“Well, some people have done pretty damned well putting words on paper,” Buzz said.

 
“Name one,” Walt challenged.
Buzz got a serious look on his face. He stared right in Walt’s eyes. “J. R. Bunting.”

 
“Looks like he’s got you there,” Leo said. “J.R. found how to work the system, somehow.”

 
“J.R. was a genius,” I told them. “He was very good at many more things than just writing.”

 
“You talk like you know him,” Walt said.

 
“Oh, I know him alright. Have known him since he was twenty-six years old and had just gotten out of the slammer.”

 
“The slammer? J.R. did time?” Buzz asked.

 
“Oh, yeah.”

 
“What’d he do?” Leo wanted to know.

 
“Well, he was just a kid, sixteen, if I remember the story right. He was growin’ up in Butte, Montana, and his parents didn’t seem to care about him. Kind of let him grow up like a tumbleweed driftin’ around town. There was a little ole store there that was open late at night. J.R. and a couple of his buddies decided the old lady who worked the store evenings would be a easy target, so they went in to steal some beer. J.R. went back to the cooler to grab a couple of six-packs while the other two stayed up front to divert the attention of the old lady. Well, she caught on real quick and tried to stop them. When she came out from behind the counter, one of the guys pushed her and she fell. She hit her head on the corner of the counter and died.”

 
“Holly crap!” Leo said.

 
“Yeah, holly crap,” I continued.

 

“Everything was caught on a surveillance tape. The kid who pushed her got thirty years. J.R. and the other guy got ten each for just being there. J.R. spent two years in a juvenile facility and was then sent to Montana State Prison. Being a young guy, he had to do a lot of fighting to keep the older men away from him. Cost him time he could have gotten off for good behavior. So, he spent the whole ten years locked up.”

 
“Boy, never heard that story about him,” Walt said.

 
“Well, it ain’t somethin’ he advertised, but I never heard him deny it, either.”

 
“So he gets out, becomes a major journalist and starts racking up the big bucks? Never even finished high school?” Buzz said. “Maybe there’s hope for my girl’s boy friend yet.”

 
“Oh, he finished high school alright,” I said. “In prison. He also picked up some pointers on a few illegal things along the way. Guess that’s just part of being there. But, he got a degree in journalism by correspondence through University of Missouri.”

 
“That’s one of the best in the country,” Leo said.

 
“Damned straight! J.R. never wanted to settle for anything less than the best. Course that also got him in trouble later on,” I said. “So, anyway, I was knocking around the country at the time trying to land some sort of a writing job that would pay me enough money to live. I ran into J.R. at a bar in Omaha, Nebraska, one night. Course his name wasn’t J.R. then. It was Randy Osgood.”

 
“Randy Osgood? Where’d J.R. Bunting come from?” Walt asked.

 
“That’s another part of the story. So he tells me he’s working as a reporter in Omaha and thinks his editor might be willing to take on another reporter, if the guy can write. He tells me to bring in some of my clips the next morning, and he’d introduce me to his editor. Well, he was good to his word as he always was. He made the introduction and left me alone with the editor to sell myself. I got the job. ‘Bout six months later, J.R. asked for a raise. The editor in Omaha laughed at him, and that pissed ole J.R. off. He started lookin’ for a better job the next day.”
“One of the people he contacted was Sid Roanstein. Sid was managing editor and the owner of the Trib in Chicago. After a week or so of haggling, J.R. got a new job and a small raise. He said the raise wasn’t worth moving, but he was mad enough at the guy in Omaha to do it anyway. But, that was J.R.—once he got his mind set on something, he did it.”

 
“We up to the place where he changed his name, yet?” Leo said.

 
“Not yet,” I told Leo. “I think we need another round before we go on with the rest of this story.”

 
Everyone agreed with a fresh drink, so we waited while the waitress brought us more booze. “Okay,” Walt said. “Let’s get to this. I’m learnin’ things I never heard of before.”

 
I smiled at him. “Of course you never heard most of this before. It was a little before your time. How old are you, Walt?” I asked him.

 
“Twenty-four.”

 
“Well, much of this happened before you were even born. Where was I now?”

 
“J.R. had just moved to Chicago,” Buzz said.

 
“Oh, yeah. As soon as J.R. gets to Chicago, he gets introduced to this show girl, Lily Branovich. Lily was a looker. She had tits big enough she probably couldn’t see her feet if she was standing up straight. Ole J.R. falls head over heels for her. They were seen together in some nightspot every night after she got off work from her show. So life became very good for J.R. and Lily. He was doing well at the Trib, and Lily was photographed more than at any other time in her life. People at the paper started calling J.R. Judge Roy Bean and Lily was his Jersey Lily.”

 

“Lily had one major flaw in her character though. She not only liked all the attention she was getting, she especially liked the attention from men. It didn’t take too long before she was steppin’ out on J.R.. ‘Course, J.R. didn’t know anything about it, at first. Everyone else in Chicago seemed to, though.”

 

“While all this was going on, J.R. was developing another idea for a column he thought would be good for him and the paper. He talked to Sid about it, and he was willing to give it a shot.”

 
“That’s when J.R. got into the letters to the lovelorn business?” Leo asked.

 
“Yep. J.R. thought it would sell, but Sid wanted him to change his name. He wasn’t sure a man writing such a column would be taken seriously. Sid wanted him to take a name that could be taken as a woman’s name. J.R. always thought the Judge Roy Bean thing was funny, so he came up with the same initials, J. R. The bunting part came from baby’s clothing. He thought women would be drawn to that. Sid also agreed to give J.R. a few extra bucks per column, if it did well. J.R. was so convinced it would do well and he would have extra money, he slipped off and married Lily one night.”

 
“Well, it sure as hell did well,” Buzz said.
“Thing was, Sid didn’t really bother to tell J.R. how well it was doing. Sid was getting inquiries from other papers wanting to carry the column. He saw the chance to make a great deal of money, so he called J.R. into his office and offered him a good raise to keep writing the column. There was a catch though, but all J.R. saw was the money. The catch was Sid wanted to copyright the J.R. Bunting name. That meant he could control who got the column and what price they paid. J.R. signed the papers.
“J.R. got the first hint of what he’d done when he was traveling around the country covering other stories. Other journalists all over were talking about his column and what a splash it was making. It was also about this time that he began to hear rumors about what Lily was doing. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when he heard that Sid was running around with Lily.”

 
“Wow! A double whammy!” Leo said.

 
“Yeah, and no one was going to get away with doing that to J.R. Bunting,” I said.

 

“He knew he’d get back at Sid and Lily, but he just wasn’t sure how. But, J.R. was patient about this situation. He waited until the right time came. He did hire a private investigator to follow Lily. What was found just made him more determined. It seemed Lily was now spending most of her free time with Sid.”

 
“A few months later, Lily’s mother got real sick, and Lily wanted to visit her. At the same time, Sid concocted a scenario to get J.R. out of his life once and for all. He would have Lily all to himself, and he figured he could find some flunky to continue writing the column. He gave J.R. a story to work on, told him he wanted it the next day, but that he couldn’t work on it at the office because a cleaning crew was coming in to wax the floors that night. J.R. thought the whole thing sounded fishy, but he went along with it. That night, J.R. went out on the town. He posed for pictures with local politicians and anyone else who was half-way notable. He got into a scuffle with bouncers at Club 29 when they wanted him to leave when the club was closing. J.R. insisted they call the police to straighten things out. They did.”

 
“The following morning, Sid was found stabbed to death in J.R.’s apartment. Of course, there was a big stink about it, and several local politicians called for hearings as to what had happened. After all, Sid was a prominent citizen in Chicago. J.R. was immediately ruled out because he had hundreds of witnesses, as well as the police themselves, who could place him somewhere else.”

 
“How the hell did J.R. get away with that?” Buzz asked.

 
“Well, like I said, J.R. had a perfect alibi. During the hearings, many things were brought out, including Sid’s relationship with Lily. It was theorized that Sid had come to J.R.’s apartment to kill J.R. so he could have Lily all to himself. A police captain testified his theory about Sid’s death. He figured Sid came into the apartment carrying a knife, which was found with a couple of Sid’s fingerprints on it, to kill J.R., but tripped over the edge of a rug, fell, and stabbed himself. The only unanswered question was why Sid also had a gun in his coat pocket. The captain said he thought it was a backup for Sid. He really wanted to use the knife because it wouldn’t make any noise.”

 
“So did J.R. have anything to do with it?” Leo asked.

 
Buzz slapped him on the arm. “Sure he did! Hell, he’s J.R.!”

 
“So what really happened?” Walt asked.

 
“First, two weeks later, J.R. marched into the new owner’s office and showed them a paper Sid had signed a few weeks before giving all rights to the column back to him. The new owners were Sid’s sons, Barnaby and Ernest. They really didn’t have a clue as to what was going on, but since it was J.R. wanting to change something, they had it looked into. The signature on the document was taken to a handwriting expert and was guaranteed as being authentic.”

 
“How did J.R. do that?” Leo asked.

 
I smiled at him. “One of the skills he learned at Montana State Prison University. He could take anyone’s signature, and after three or four tries, have it down pat.”

 
“So he got the rights to his column back?” Buzz asked.

 
“Yep, free and clear.”

 
“What happened to Lily?” Walt asked.

 
“She stayed around for a time while the divorce was going on. She was pretty much shunned and left Chicago draggin’ her good-looking little butt behind her,” I said.

 
All of them were sitting silent, looking at the table that was anything but well taken care of. Buzz sloshed his ice cubes around in his glass. Leo was turning his glass on his coaster.

 
“So how did J.R. do it?” Walt finally asked.

 
I cleared my throat. “More training from Montana. I ran into J.R. one time in a bar in the Village in New York. He had quite a few drinks under his belt, and he started talking. He said they used to spend their time in jail thinking of ways to kill people and get away with it. Like I said, he got suspicious when Sid told him he would have to work at home that night. Before he left his apartment, he turned the light on in his home office and just left the door open a crack. All the other lights in the place were out. He left a tape recorder running with sounds of a typewriter coming from it. He then strung a piece of black wire across the hallway, right at the edge of the rug, so if someone came in, they would trip on it. He took a butcher knife and froze the handle in a pan of water. He could then set the block of ice on the floor with the blade pointing up. He figured Sid would come in, trip on the wire, and fall on the knife. He also figured Sid wouldn’t die immediately. He would probably grab for the knife and leave his fingerprints on it somewhere. By the time J.R. got home, the ice was melted. He took down the wire, scuffed up the rug, and called the police.”

 
There was again silence around the table as the men digested the story.

 
“So he got away with murder?” Leo said.

 
“God, what a story this is gonna make,” Walt said.

 
“What story?” I asked him.
“You mean you’re gonna keep this under your hat, and you want us to do the same?”
I took a drink of my Scotch. “I’ve kept it a secret for over twenty years. You try and turn on a colleague like that, and I have enough connections to see you never work in journalism again.”

 
“You serious?” Walt asked.

 
“Wouldn’t test the theory, if I were you,” Buzz said with a smirk across his face.
Another journalist stuck his head in the door of the lounge. “Hey she’s here!”
“Well, gentlemen, looks like it’s time to go to work,” I said.
We all were draining our glasses when we heard two shots fired in the lobby.

“Sounds like we might have a murder story after all,” Leo said.

 

🍃

 

Gary R. Hoffman has published over three hundred short stories, non-fiction articles, poetry, and essays in various publications. He has placed over one-hundred and fifty items in contests. He taught school for twenty-five years and lived on the road in a motor home for fourteen years. He now resides in Okeechobee, Florida.

Brian Michael Barbeito – Fiction

PROMISES MADE UNDERWATER

(A kiss for the mural)

Colored electrical lights affixed to small poles had stationed themselves at the bottom of the wall. There were some yellow ones and some were blue, while on the sides two that were faded and orange tried also to throw their glow up at the wall. It was the white ones though, larger in physical size and with more wattage, that outshone the others. Beside all of these were thick grasses and they were probably as thick as a brand or type could come without being called feral. They grew up all ways amid and amongst themselves, hunter and forest green hued, but so textured for the thousands of blades that at times they appeared black. This was all on the Atlantic Coastline and the sea somehow both rhymed and foiled the sky. The first boasted of whitecaps and reefs, of piers that tried to race out to the horizon line where cargo ships tried to slate the sea and floating man’o’ war, of poison puffer fish and myriad other artifacts. The second was a home to small planes that flew banners advertising local eateries and other events, and strange native birds flew by there with cumulus and cirrus both watching their flight and the ways of the planes. The coastline was a mixture of bright cement curbs that waited beyond the hot sands and of course the palms, terrene trunks and verdant leaves, which lived with a slightly cocked posture in boulevards of woodchips, sand, or both.

 

When the day tired of itself and even the dusk became overtaken by the night come to announce itself like a wave, the mural could be seen for the lights that shone on the wall. The mural was painted three or four stories tall on the side of, depending on how you looked at it, a large motel or a small hotel. It was of a tall ship, a realist-painting, and nobody knew who the artist was because it was neither signed nor dated. The ship was with wind in the white sails and the ocean birds scattering across the forecastle. The sea, rough, choppy, a sky threatening rain but no rain yet – but the ship – determined, going, plodding through to somewhere. I often paused to look at the ship in the day and also at the night. I stared at the picture until someone had to tap me on the shoulder and bring be back to the motel streets, the bright curbs, the sounds of the sea or the nearby seagulls yapping over scraps.

 

At nights, I waded unceremoniously through the water up to mid shin. Nothing really happened save for the night. I made the mistake of going in a bit deeper. I felt a solid object and wanted to see what it could be since whole conch shells, bright pieces of coral broken off from the nearby reefs, and other treasures could be found in that area. As I bent down, I did manage to grab the piece but I then lost my footing due to a wave and perhaps the dark. Next thing, a larger wave appeared and brought me out about five or ten more feet. I had gotten taken in an undertow, the bottom side and invisible part of the wave that pulls outwards back to the sea again. I was under the water and had swallowed what felt, against reason, like a chunk of the sea. Flailing my arms, thinking I would tread, and waiting to hear the sound that the arm and hand make upon the top – I realized that I was further under the ocean than I expected. Panic-dread-angst, all mixed together as an emotional stew. Bits of white specks in the vision, some internal vision. Nothing supernatural that I knew of – probably neurons firing and creating some odd lights. I wasn’t coming up. I didn’t know who Poseidon was but it felt like something was pulling. It was only more undertow. I said internally that I would kiss the ship, the painting of the ship – if I could get back up. Who I said it to, and why, I didn’t and do not know. Maybe I said it to the firmament, the reef, to an unknown God or Gods, to the whole, to myself, or to nobody at all. Maybe I thought the ship was a rendering of a real ship and the spectres or phantoms of the crew lived in those parts still. Oxygen deprivation, chaos, the feeling of going further downwards – these did not live well with logic. But as soon as I said it I was up. Gasping,  I swam inwards, and lay on the shore. After some time I rose, shook myself off and walked towards where I had set out that dusk.

 

The next days held  hours that were quietly rhapsodic. Outwardly I appeared the same and did the prosaic things that make up time. Inwardly I was happy to be among the earth dwellers and the living. Days learned how to be weeks as they traded themselves continually for night and then the night for the bright and onwards. Weeks joined hands and made a few months. Eventually I left. I forgot to kiss the mural. It would have looked insane, so maybe I intentionally forgot. But I wanted to. I thought I would be back but it’s not always the case that you get to go back. An unfulfilled promise and a broken deal. Maybe this is my kiss for the tall ship. I wonder sometimes if the mural is still there where the sea, effervescent, a salty and languid but dangerous libation, kisses the shore. And if it is, I wonder if the strong white lights nestled in thick grasses still outshine the others and splash themselves on the ship and the sea and the sky beginning in late dusk and going through the long pitch dark stretch right into places where secrets and promises are borne and made.

 

🍃

 

Brian Michael Barbeito is a resident of Ontario, Canada. He is the author of the book of short fictions Chalk Lines from Fowl Pox Press (2013) . Recent work appears at Fiction International from San Diego State University.

Sean Daly – Fiction

First Things First

 

For me, I try my best to get along. I don’t want drama. Even if I’m constipated which happens. It’s uncomfortable to talk about but it happens sometimes. This morning feels like an eternity since I went. I think I’m good to go….then… ahem… then the sensation is followed by nothing.  But today it will happen soon enough, I tell myself, for sure, you got this one.

Now I’m at a Costco parking lot.

“Are you okay?” my girlfriend says.  She knows there’s a problem.  Even though I’ve remained silent about the whole matter.

“I’m okay, why?”

“You look distressed.”

“Nah.”

The morning is all light, no heat. I always go in morning like clockwork, so I’m kind’a heartbroken if you want to know the truth, but it doesn’t stop me from getting out of the car and trudging to the entrance.

“Do you have the list?” she asks.

I fumble in my pocket. Everyone moves in a general malaise. Get this, my girlfriend stops by a reverse osmosis system and becomes immersed by it. By water. Fascinated by water, which is a good thing in its own right. Clean water can help. I’ll admit it. I’m not crazy.

But, I say.

“Let’s just stick to our list, Hun.”

Then my girlfriend recites it without looking. “Tri-tip, lettuce, rice.”  She’s memorized it even though she just asked me for it.

“We agreed to stick to the list.” None of which is conducive to movement, I’ll agree, still I want to get the items for the BBQ and split. I reach for my pocket again, but my hand stops over my gut as if it were a magic wand.

“We could use a water system?” Her voice is all heat, no light.

“I dunno” I say.

I wait.

Hmmmm,

but I say nothing more.

No follow up from her, either.

Nada.

“So were getting one now?” I say after a spell. As a matter of point, I catch myself observing the water moving through the charcoaled system, one cylinder to another, and it looks beneficial in all candor. It really does.

I grab her hand. I want to move along and get what we came here for. “What’s wrong with our water, anyways?” I say tugging at her, playfully.

“Chemotherapy, pesticides, heavy metals.”

Talk about nails on a chalk board.

And the entire store is populated with anonymous faces which is neither here nor there.

But she shakes off my grip – miffed.   She walks away – borderline fuming – the way she does. I pursue her while doing a quick inventory of the food I’ve eaten in the last 24 hours.  Then I review the list she’s memorized, the one rummaged for in my pocket. My girlfriend stops, again. Hands on her hips.

“So we can’t even entertain other things we might need?”

I hesitate. My thinking is this: sure we can babe after, but only after, I  go. I got to move my bowels, you have no idea, but no words come out.

No explanation in my defense, whatsoever.

Not a word.

Nothing at all.

 

🍃 

Sean Daly

Toti O’Brien – Fiction 

FIVE THINGS SHE DID ON HER BIRTHDAY                                


     21.
     On the evening of her twenty-first birthday she attends English conversation class. A small group. Two guys in their thirties, non-descript. A middle aged Chinese couple. The teacher, for whom she has fallen head over heels. Another girl, a bit older, the teacher clearly plans to get intimate with. Tonight.
     She has known the very minute she’s passed the front door. You catch these things by radar, at twenty-one, especially when directly involved.
     There’s a bottle of lemon vodka on the coffee table. She has her eyes on it, but she refrains momentarily.
     The class starts. None of the students, her included, is in very good shape. They are slow, they stutter, they blank. The teacher—a bright guy, on the brisk side—has to feed them each and every word. They are reviewing body parts. “How do you call this?” he asks, brushing her forearm with an awkward, quick caress. She knows what he means—la piel, la pelle, la peau. It is on the tip of her tongue. She so wants to please him. She tries. “Sky,” she whispers. Almost… Irritated, frustrated, he turns the other way.
     This is when she grabs the bottle, unscrews the tin cap, and down goes the whole damn thing.
     She awakes kind of late the day after, wrapped in a thick bathrobe. He has brought her a cup of coffee. She needs it. He is relaxed and smiling. No kidding: the other girl is still lingering in the kitchen. They are still pecking and flirting. Love birds.
     Her dress is almost dry, hanging on the balcony in the morning sun. A long tunic, with a small embroidery, white. They have thoroughly washed it yesterday night. They have washed her too, sticking her stark naked in the bathtub, since she has vomited all over herself. She remembers nothing. Her dress slightly damp on her sky—her skin—is refreshing.
     Thank you. I mean I am sorry. Goodbye.
     Since, she can’t stand the smell of lemon vodka. Alcohol should be drunk unflavored. Pure.

     22.
     She is still trying to learn English. Another small group in another area of town. She has fallen head over heels for a fellow student. A bit older, bit weird, plenty mysterious.
     Things were kind of evolving between them. Meaning they had exchanged phone numbers and such. Things were getting promising for the last few months—until he briskly vanished. Once a week she has sat at her desk and spied for the sound of his car, persuaded she could recognize it. She’d know when it would turn the corner, park at the curb. Then she only should wait for the door to be pushed open, and his lanky frame to appear. Every passing car made her ears bleed. Every passing car scorched her nerves, ripping her apart.
     On the night of her twenty-second birthday he comes back. He sits by her and sighs, “I’ll bring you out to dinner”. She holds her breath momentarily.
     He has picked a downtown joint, small and trendy. In a daze, she has no idea of what they are eating or drinking. A North African transsexual singer, just a couple of feet from their table, grabs all of her attention. Short and bold, not-too-thin, but gorgeous. And the way he sings in French, “Plaisir d’amour, ne dure qu’un instant”—whatever it means—is just mesmerizing.
     He was sent on a job, he says, that’s why he has missed class. Very well paid for once. Should he buy something special before squandering the unexpected sum? He’ll do whatever she says. Seriously? She tries focusing, but the singer makes her mind wander. She tries harder. “A motorcycle,” she spits, suddenly inspired. She details brand and model, she can almost see him ride. What about her? Not sure. “Chagrin d’amour,” goes the song.
     He was sent to India, in fact. He has brought back a stone for her birthday. Here it is, surrounded with soft cotton, in a real jewel box—a pink amethyst.
     Early the morning after she goes belly button piercing. She’s bringing along her gold chain—the one from her First Communion—to be melted in order to mount the stone. Can’t afford it otherwise, but the chain will do. She will wear the pink thing from now to eternity, or close. “Dure toute la vie,” wailed the singer. Is it how the song ends?
     Then he never returns to class. She keeps her ears tuned, in vain.
     Once, while waiting in front of a theater with friends, she sees him arrive with fracas on a sparkling bike—the correct one. A girl is behind him. They don’t look much in love. They look totally, boringly for-ever-matched. They look married.

     23.
     She has moved abroad. After a short breather, she has fallen head over heels for a guy she’s met on a typing job. Right. She is typing a super-boring book a writer needs on the spot. Please, please, please, can’t wait. Hunched over the keyboard, she sweats, when a guest comes in and starts fooling with her. Around her. Behind her. Making funny faces—awkward way to break the ice. It breaks anyway. He insists for the writer to keep the typist for dinner. They exchange information. She can think of nothing else since.
     She invites him at her birthday party. A small gathering—besides him and herself a selected girlfriend, just in case. The two of them are a bit older than she his. And way smarter, and perfectly tuned. Thus the conversation shine, which is good, because he is having fun.
     Too much fun? They slouch on her bed—a large mattress on the floor. They are talking psychoanalysis, dreams, and so on. “Have you fantasized to have sex with two guys at once? How often?” he asks. “With two girls?” her friend promptly replies. “Have you ever dreamed,” her girlfriend insists, “you had two penises instead than one?” He laughs, splitting index and middle finger like a viper tongue—his hands casually reaching behind this and that waist, to the right, to the left.
     She wonders if she should call it a night.

     50.
     She has moved abroad again and again. In her country of last destination, she has serendipitously met her first English teacher. They have made a beautiful child, then they have separated.
     On the night of her fiftieth birthday she has got a good gig. She will sing French love songs at someone’s birthday party. This is what she does best. She has left her son and her umpteenth boyfriend at home. They will have fun together. More than they would with her.
     Outside it rains cats and dogs. The address points to a residential area of town, up the hills. Tortuous little routes deepen out of sight, concealed, remote. In the fog she only can see a couple of feet ahead. Everything feels unreal, but instead of being scared she’s exhilarated.
     The gig goes impeccably. No one bothers her while she does her thing in a corner, niched between an aquarium and a flower display. Smoothed in, part of the furniture, enclosed in her bubble.
     Later, someone comes to pay a compliment. Her performance was perfect. Discrete, neutral, unobtrusive, tinged with just that drop of nostalgia. The organizer is pleased. He smiles while he puts the check in her hand. “It’s my birthday,” she cannot help whispering, but he’s gone already. She cries suddenly, without a reason, her face buried in the scores she’s packing away.
     When she gets home, they are sleeping.

     8.
     They have chosen today for her first communion. Are they trying to spare themselves a celebration? Save on dessert?
     She has been waiting. A bit scared, bit perplexed. She has never worn a long, white, embroidered dress before—not even for Carnival. It’s a strange, eerie feeling. Not so sure about the bonnet, hemmed with curly ribbons, tightly framing her face. Whatever Mom wants.
     It’s a cold gloomy day. They have driven uphill to a small chapel. Proto-Christian, Dad says. Spare, severe. Naked. She kneels in the first pew. Family is bunched behind her. No one else.
     The priest talks in Latin. She knows what about, but she doesn’t quite understand. She feels dizzy—something is squeezing her throat, oppressing her chest—the smell of incense perhaps. Or the scent of the narcissi she’s holding. So pungent. So pure, porcelain white, almost fake. Sculpted. Petrified. Dead, almost.

     22.
     When they step out, downtown looks alive, brimming with entertainment. Vendor booths crowd the plazas and the riverbanks, stores are open and lit, tourists everywhere.
     “And your favorite flowers?” he asks. She’s unsure. Until she remembers: “Narcissi. Isn’t that smell incredible?”
      He laughs. “They will be hard to find, girl. We’ll try.”
     “They are in season.”
     “That’s true. With a little luck.”



🍃



Toti O’Brien’s work has appeared in Peacock Journal, Sein und Werden, Avis, and Ink on Thirds, among other journals and anthologies. More about her can be found at totihan.net/writer.html

Carol Roan – Fiction

AFTER  GOD  LEFT

by

Carol Roan

Frank Wilson decided to cook some oatmeal for his supper. Why not? At his age, he could eat whatever he damn well pleased. Truth be told, his stomach wasn’t what it used to be, and it had been acting up ever since his encounter with that newcomer, Geoffrey . . . Geoffrey . . . No matter his surname, not worth trying to remember. He didn’t know why he let the man upset him. 

“Now, Franklin, you know as well as I do why you’ve taken a disliking to that man.” Edith had been in her grave for fifteen years, but she still hung out in the kitchen, ever ready to tell him where he’d gone wrong. 

He’d eat in his den, that’s what. He poured some cream on his oatmeal, never mind his damn cholesterol. The thought of his doctor, and the feeling that Edith was glaring behind him, inspired him to throw some chocolate chips on top before he headed for his leather easy chair.

He was halfway through his supper before he could admit that Edith was right. As was too often the case. The Geoffrey fellow reminded him of himself, or of the man he’d been in his day. Except that Frank had been for bringing Spring Valley up to date, modern, and the new man was for taking the town backwards. Either way, the two of them were do-gooders, thinking they knew what was best.

The difference was that Frank had finally learned his lesson. Spring Valley wasn’t about to be changed. It would plod along its own mulish path, ready to give you a kick with a hind leg if you thought otherwise.

He put his empty bowl and cooking pot in the sink, told the hovering Edith that he’d wash them in the morning, and went upstairs. Where he lay straight and flat on his side of the bed, and made order of his tomorrow. Frank watched himself as he would move around the gardens and paint the front steps and, if he was up to it, fix the drain spout. If he planned until he was weary, he could sleep without dreaming, without seeing beyond his house and yard. Sharp on the edge of his mind were thoughts of who he might have been and what he might have done if he had not married, if he had not come back to Spring Valley. His order began at that fear’s edge of naming the ifs.

He had begun planning his retirement from the insurance business in Philadelphia when he decided he would move back to his hometown. Edith had wanted to settle in Delaware, near their daughter. But she’d been after him for thirty years to make peace with his father, so the next time she brought up that subject he agreed with her.

 “You’re right,” Frank said. “He’s not going to be around that much longer, and I’ll regret it if we don’t patch things up now. A few years in Spring Valley, and then we’ll move wherever you want.”

He thought it best to give her a week or two before he told her that his grandfather’s house had come up for sale, and that they’d be moving east sooner than she expected. He’d checked out the commute. He could drive—I-95 was a straight shot—or he could catch the train that ran between New York and Philadelphia. All in all, it had seemed like a good decision at the time.  

He had intended to spend his weekends fishing and golfing. But after they were settled in  and his gardens were planted, he began to see what Spring Valley needed with eyes he had brought from the outside world. He had a vision then of how the town and its men could be. 

Frank had been mayor for two terms but had not yet accomplished all that he’d set out to do. He had been up for re-election, with his head full of plans for the next two years. And then those plans had all withered and blown away one Saturday morning at the barbershop.

When he stopped in that morning for a trim, most of the chairs along the wall had been occupied by men waiting for a shave or a gossip, holding newspapers up near their faces to keep the talk from turning womanly. Then a man over by the window had made a remark, not meaning anything ugly by it, just joshing about how the mayor‘s father was walking the streets saying the town didn’t need any more of an uppity mayor who’d gone to college.

Frank’s father still held a sore spot in his heart. When the barber turned him around to face the mirror and give his blessing to the trim, that heart sickness came up into Frank’s eyes and changed his vision. He didn’t see anyone in the mirror that he recognized. He paid his two dollars, walked out of the shop, and saw his father clomping along the sidewalk in his fishing boots. He was flicking his dentures in and out of his mouth and talking loud to the trees about his son. Clomp, “uppity”, clomp, “college,” clomp, “idiot,” with the false teeth rattling like a skeleton’s jaw.

Frank walked back to his own yard and never let his thoughts drift toward the town again. As soon as his car was in the garage at night, he changed into his overalls and knelt in his gardens. Sunday mornings he drove Edith to church and himself out of the valley to play golf.

After he retired, he took Wednesdays for his sabbaths and left the town to fish in a lake beyond the hills. He went alone. 

Unless the neighbor-boys’ ball landed in his tomatoes. Then he asked if they wanted to go fishing on Wednesday. Beyond the ridge, memories of the outside world came back to him and he became a storyteller, a teacher. He laughed and told the boys stories about the life he lived outside, about the golf tournaments he’d won and the country he’d seen on his travels. He talked to them about how they should help their mother more and gave them advice about school, all mixed up with how to set the hook when a fish bites. 

“I was a psychology major myself,” he told them. “Remember, boys, there’s no better preparation for business. Doesn’t matter what you do in this life, you’re going to have to deal with people.”

On some Wednesdays when he fished alone, with only his past self for company, he thought about the girl Edith had been. He lay on the lake shore and felt strong and lazy again, and thought of bringing her with him. He imagined dipping his fingers into the cool edges of the lake and drawing her youth on her face until it shone, and then carrying her off into the woods.

He had asked her once. He’d made up his mind before he reached the ridge that he would not look down into the valley, but just keep his eyes on the winding road and walk straight into the house and ask her.

But she had said that he must be getting old, or maybe sick, because he knew that Wednesday was her prayer group day and that the Lord’s work came first.

The lake-smile that had traveled all that way on his face turned quiet, and his eyes lost their distance. He went to the garage to change his clothes. He put away his tackle and floated the pickerel not needed for supper in coffins of water for the freezer. That had been the end of such dreams.

Frank knew God had left the town long ago, without leaving behind any work for the women to do. And He was’t coming back, that was the plain fact. No matter that he had learned not to believe in God, the town had believed in God and that meant God had been there. Even the men had believed. Because they had needed God more than the women had.

When God had been there, the hills had been His hills, men’s hills, set on the earth to contain God’s people and to protect them. The hills had touched God’s sky, a strong sky that had kept the men upright and tall, had kept them from being sucked into the rich, giving earth of the valley.

The hills had never been breached when God was there, for the men then were heroes who went over the hills to fight the enemy. They had had order, then, and a reason to die. Even if they lay in the churchyard circling the oldest oak tree, an obelisk nearby marked their earth-covered bodies, and another monument marked where a famous speech about freedom was given, and another the house of a signer of the Declaration.

But after God left, the monuments stood lonely, and there were only the closing, circling hills, and a random sky that parched, or flooded, or ravaged the streets with lightening. 

Frank never told his wife God was gone. There wasn’t a man in town who didn’t know the hills didn’t reach to God anymore. And not one of them so cowardly as to tell a wife the sky was empty, a loss they had each borne in silence after that night when they had all felt the cold rise up out of their guts and never come back to them warmed by a Protecting Father.

Young as he’d been that Halloween night—still in his teens—he’d tried to warn the men. He had seen them going toward the train station with their shotguns carried low and strong. He had gone out into the middle of the street and tried to tell them that it was just the radio. That it wasn’t real, but just a made-up story about the Martians landing over in Grover’s Mill.

But they had pushed him aside with their gun barrels. The invaders would never get through the hills, they said. “The British didn’t get through and, by God, the Martians aren’t going to get through. We’ll turn them back at the station.”

He had watched them coming home in the chill of near-dawn, had seen them dark under the pale sky, their guns lifeless and drooping. A laugh had started deep in his belly for their cold night on the tracks scaring away nothing but voices that had come through the air. But their necks had been so bent, so vulnerable, that his laughter had twisted down into fear, and he had looked up for heaven. The first time he had done that since he was a little kid. 

Back then Frank could look up and find God with a white beard and white robes sitting on a gold throne straight up above the Presbyterian church steeple, looking down at the valley and smiling. He remembered how he had creased his eyes nearly shut and stretched his mouth open until God had shone out of the sun, or the moon, and had sat there as clear as anything.

He’d grown out of such childish beliefs more than a year before, and had expected he’d soon grow out of the loneliness that followed. But then the silent men had walked past his window—a crowd of them, each man somehow made lonely by the night—and the sky above the steeple was empty.

Tears started in Frank’s eyes at the old, old memory. Tears he’d thought had dried up long ago. Out of habit, he reached across to Edith’s side of the bed. But his hand found only the smooth, cold sheet.

He got out of bed, fumbled for his slippers, and made his way downstairs, holding onto the handrail, as he’d had to do of late. He filled a bowl with chocolate ice cream, added some caramel sauce, then some peanuts, and sat down at the kitchen table. He didn’t smile, didn’t want to encourage Edith that much, but he did look toward her chair.


🍃

With graduate degrees in vocal performance from Indiana University and in business from Columbia University, Carol Roan has sung in the television premiere of a Ned Rorem opera and has testified about gold trading before the CFTC. Several of the stories from her collection have been published in literary journals; others, as yet unpublished have won awards, including a fellowship to Summer Seminars Russia, where she studied with Gina Ochsner. More information about Carol’s meandering career is available at www.carolroan.com.

Joe LaFata – Fiction

Everybody is from the Same Place

1.

Existing/growing on this lake is different than existing/growing on land. Or anywhere else, for that matter. Under sun and moon this body winks from coruscating coves and glittering inlets. Double suns replace alarm clocks: one high which nudges our shoulders at dawn; one low that sits on the body, shining its reflected light into our rooms under the seeps of doors. And the thickness of summer air: in its height the vegetation receives more, swells with humidity. The moisture emanating into the air from the body is so thick that when our families visit from out of town they walk around wearing snorkels. From inside, they sweat with each glance they poke outside through the windows, which remain clouded with condensation. And everything is green. Even the water is green in reflecting the puffs of green trees miles high, as big as clouds and as thick with water, too. Sweaty, slick branches uplift leaves that pant tears like hot, green tongues. Yet we have cycles, too. In a seasonal spiral towards vegetation’s abdication, the boughs give back more. Things turn colors. Fires scintillate on shorelines across the lake from wherever you are; their distant flashing accenting the shades of the season of everything falling into the water. Near-decomposed brown quilts of leaves crinkle under preteen feet racing to and from docks. Later, coupled teens pile quilts into abandoned boathouses for fun and fumbling, warming each other with skin against skin. It never freezes here: exposed limbs line the body and soon slip straight into sleeves of new leaves. The fresh and heavy heat comes quick, overnight. And now it has cycled into our last muggy months here in this place that I’m from and that, in some ways, everybody is also from. There is not enough of me to breathe it all in before leaving. Most everybody stays: getting hitched, thronging around the body in new homes, starting careers, saving up to buy their parents’ boats, generations upon generations of motor oil making faint trails through the body which just erases them anyway. And now, realization: there’s not enough time in this last summer cycle to be ready to leave, yet I’ve been breathing this my whole life, never once stopped breathing it or even left to breathe somewhere else. And leaving coming so quick that we’ve abandoned maintenance of the house. We have since allowed the fish to sleep on our roof. We have since let the vegetation swell wild, the grass appear mangy. And during sleep, shellfish and other lake-beings hover over my bed. Drip things into my open mouth.

 

2.

In the new place, sealant paint covers the walls white. They are not yet the color they will become. The first time I saw it I got embarrassed when we arrived in my father’s car and saw the others cutting wood with an electric saw, pouring concrete over his future porch. He takes me up to the house through the mud where the driveway will be. The halls echo with a voice like my own but older, one I can never inhabit, with plans for paints and future furniture: This is the master bedroom, this is the master bath. His voice goes on but all I can think of is this is the master bedroom, this is the master bath. He’s not pointing or gesticulating to the vaulted ceilings or high archways; he holds his hands behind his back like my grandmother taught him as a child when in stores, so as not to touch anything in that childishness he shed long before I knew him. Yet he’s making happy, quick steps, dodging piles of wood and stone, his wood and stone, soon to be placed into a permanence that will long outlive his retired time here, that will eventually become a place for others. And although he is from the same place as me, it’s not in the same way. We share experiences from the lake house, only gathered and kept them differently. Now, this skeletal frame filled with carpenters and the hammering of wood is housing for us a very different experience. And, for him, it is a good one. He shows it to me like it’s his new toy which requires our dislocation to be fully assembled. Later he asks how my own search for place is progressing because, frankly, time is running out. The yard isn’t much, he says, but that’s the point, you know. Less yard = less yardwork. No lake winds, no double sunsets blinding from the west. Less space—we don’t need it—functional rooms, open floorplan. It will be ready in October.

 

3.

The air’s thick moisture vibrates with the psalms of swans as they scull themselves across the body in this last summer cycle in this place which, in some ways, everybody is from. Someone living elsewhere could make that same argument, no matter how differently they see things. These twins down the lane sleep religiously tangled in each other in order to see each other’s dreams, wondering if one day they’ll be separated and how they’ll share each other’s memories like they do now. They wake in kayaks bumping against their neighbors’ docks, arms linked so as not to drift away from each other. Still come and visit us, they say as they pass by our dock in synchronous paddling. During their wet naps at noon in the grass, short and neat next to ours which we have long since allowed to climb past our knees, they dream in nervous conjectures what translocation from each other will feel like, guessing its texture. Anyway, it is sweating and, like a lantern, the body holds moonlight: the bulb above feeding the shimmering bulb below. The heads of snakes make trails in the body close to shore, where we are sitting and drinking. I breathe in, hard. We pull fish out of the body like flapping silver coins and take the hooks out of their mouths, send them swimming into September.


🍃

Joe LaFata is earning his MA in Digital Publishing from the University of Illinois Springfield. Having earned a BA in Creative Writing from Illinois College, he has lived in the Midwest his entire life. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Forte, The Alchemist Review, and Flash Fiction Magazine. 

Glen Donaldson – Fiction

Falling Like Dominos

 

The senate inquiry into the reasons why pizza had been legislatively classified as a vegetable had been flawed from the beginning. In this part of the country, everyone knew that corruption was synonymous with government. As Shakespeare had written centuries before, “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.” When Alfonso ‘The Moth’ Esposito III – known equally for his frequent fashion faux pas (super deep v-neck shirts, Disney character ties, square toed dress shoes, unibrow) as he was for being the 29 year old President and CEO of tomato paste giant Grupo Bimbo Foods  –  was revealed as one of the five people appointed to the government commission tasked with unearthing the suspected murky deals that had led to the distrustfully leveraged ruling, many immediately suspected a dough-coloured whitewash.

 

In truth, among The Moth’s conglomerate of food manufacturing firms was a company that acted as the chief supplier of pasta sauce pizza bases to school tuckshops along the entire East Coast.  It was therefore rightly seen that Esposito had much to gain by the FDA’s reclassification and anointing of pizza as a nutritionally sound food staple considered suitable for serving on school premises to the nation’s growing children.

 

Grupo Bimbo was long suspected to have had links with the La Cosa Nostra chapter of the

Sicilian mafia. It was certainly no stranger to allegations of misconduct and using bribes and kickbacks to help secure government and private sector supply contracts and favours. In the 1930’s the company had reinvented bread as a variation on the marshmallow and named it ‘Submarino’, (later to become known as ‘Twinkies’) effectively sidestepping government agency food laws at the time which prevented nutritional tampering with provisions deemed primary food products.

 

More recently the shady corporate had come under the glare of official scrutiny when their

popular ‘diet pizza’ was found to contain toppings that included ear wax and bellybutton lint. They’d also been held to account by no less than NASA (National Advertising Standards Association) for misleading promotion of their $12.95 gluten free pizza (gluten being a protein composite found in barley, rye, wheat and all their hybrids). The company had been forced to clarify that the gluten component of the pizza was included at no extra cost and that it was the other ingredients that constituted the advertised price.

 

The head of this roily food manufacture and supply empire may not have looked  like he

came from central casting, but with his engorged sense of entitlement and what sections of the press had dubbed his ‘Machiavellian narcissism’,  in many other ways he was the perfect poster boy for the selfie/hashtag generation. With pale skin through which you could see the blue of his veins and his watery, unblinking stare, The Moth had a distinctly alien look and a definite air of intrigue about him.

 

Inevitably, with Esposito’s appointment, the commission, only formed after a court overruled several previous efforts by council leaders to spike it, was itself the subject of questioning. By that November, both the flawed original legislation and the commission itself had fallen with the last of the autumn leaves. Police launched Operation Crispy Crust, carrying out 67 search warrants, ending in 15 arrests. The result was a noticeable (though some suggested temporary) disruption and downsizing of Grupo Bimbo’s supply chain and a loosening of its stranglehold monopoly on the pasta sauce and tomato paste industries.

 

Somehow managing to escape prosecution on charges of graft and corruption himself,

Esposito succeeded in airing one of the more memorable quotes in the wash-up to the

inquiry into the inquiry when he was heard to remark “Corrupt politicians make the other ten percent look bad.” The Supreme Court is still to hear appeals brought forth by Grupo Bimbo’s legal team but it is widely considered they are unlikely to change their minds. As one senator commented –“The happy ending has been delivered and the improper legislation is now a dead animal lying on the bitumen – what I understand in some circles is referred to as ‘road pizza’.”

🍃

Glen Donaldson wishes people had a brightness setting and longs to elevate small talk to medium talk.

 

He has had work published by Jotters United, Positive Words Magazine, GhostStory.com, Tiny Owl Publishing, 101 Fiction, Tokyo Voice Column, Ipswich Life Magazine, Australian Writers Center, Lend Me Your Literacy, Into the Void Magazine, Fictuary, Octavius Magazine, Ether Books, The Binnacle, DesiWriters, The Flash Fiction Press,Cadillac Cicatrix, 81 Words, Wattpad and QWeekend magazine.

 

He is forthcoming in The Bombay Review and Horror After Dark.

Paul Beckman – Fiction 

May It Be Written

May It Be Done

I am the third son of the fourth daughter. For years no one spoke of this pairing—it was always the seventh son of the seventh son. How Orthodox—how sexist—how far-fetched, but none-the-less that’s what was palavered about. Until now, that is. 

I was tired of my family members not talking with each other at different times for reasons both remembered and forgotten so I took it upon myself to resolve it for once and for all and let them disagree and still talk—even though it’s goes against our DNA.

In a recently released but much earlier translated footnote in the Dead Sea Scrolls that only I had been privy to (since I created it), the third son of the forth daughter is the be-all and end-all in the family and in the community. 

Being that one, I was entitled to a life of leisure, multiple wives (if I choose), fresh baked goods galore, the decider of all disputes and a fresh young ox on my plate whenever the urge struck me.

To break the news, I called for a family picnic which is the only way to get my entire family to show up anywhere. Everyone comes—even if they’re not speaking to others. I’m known for my picnic spreads. A word of explanation: in my family any gathering where food is served is called a picnic whether it be Thanksgiving or Passover.  Don’t ask. Okay—tradition—that’s the best I can do.

I broke the news over the serving of the brisket which meant that only a fraction of the family actually heard me. My brisket is to die for. Word made it around the table after a bit and soon each person had their own interpretation. “How about the 1st daughter of the third son?” “The only child of an only child?” “The second cousin of a second cousin twice removed?”

As I had expected none got the true gist of the Dead Sea Scroll footnote.

So over desert; Babka, apple strudel and rugelach and decaf coffee with Sweet and Lo, I explained that nothing was going to change except that I was now titular head of the family. I wanted no ox, young or otherwise, no more wives and I planned to keep on working. My role was basically to settle in-family disputes. Period. I was to act as a mediator and my word was the word. I was to be the Supreme Court, the Ralph Bunche, and the Gandhi of the Mirsky clan. That’s all I told them—no big thing—no tributes—no major changes except that we will no longer have family members not talking to other family members for long forgotten or petty reasons such as we have today and have had so often in the past.

As the picnic wore down I stood packaging the leftovers for anyone who wanted whatever there was and by the time everything, including all of my Tupperware, was all gone so was my family—never to be heard from again; but who bonded as never before, only this time with a common enemy to scorn and talk about at their family picnics.


🍃

 

Paul Beckman was also one of the winners in The Best Small Fictions 2016!  published by Queen’s Ferry Press

His stories are published worldwide in print and online in the following magazines amongst others: Connecticut Review, Raleigh Review, Litro, Playboy, Pank, Blue Fifth Review, Flash Frontier, Metazen, Boston Literary Magazine, Thrice Fiction and Literary Orphans. His work has been included in a number of anthologies. Paul earned his MFA in creative writing from Bennington College. His latest collection of flash stories, “Peek” weighed in at 65 stories and 120 pages. Paul lives in CT and his website is www.paulbeckmanstories.com

 

Iris N. Schwartz – Fiction 

So Said Lynette

 

When she was five years old, Lynette began rewriting her life as a novel. (She was three when she started reading.) Now she is nine. 

Lynette’s real-life parents, Bill and Sarah Smythe, put back vermouth and inhaled Marlboros. Bill, six feet, four inches, possessed the frame of a man who eats only when prodded. Sarah, thin but shapely from afar, up close exhibited a fine network of facial wrinkles often bestowed upon the nicotine-addicted. Lynette’s friends thought Mr. and Mrs. Smythe exotic, envied Lynette her flaccid parental bonds. 

Lynette never told her friends that, most weekend mornings, she vacuumed heaping ashtrays and washed sour-smelling highball glasses; and then prepared pancakes, sausages, and fresh-squeezed orange juice for herself and older brother Jimmy. She washed and dried breakfast pans and dishes. Checked on her parents, always finding them, fully clothed and snoring, on their extra-long bed. This was comforting as well as worrisome for nine-year-old Lynette.

John and Judy Wilson, the parents in her book, drank only cold water or tea, and toked Jamaican weed solely on special occasions. They didn’t throw parties for adults; they planned fun and educational family events.

Lynette’s alter ego, Kendra, an average-height brunette with above-average looks, had no trouble making friends, and was expert at double-Dutch jump rope and on-line games.  

In her novel, Jimmy did not exist. Rather, Lynette replaced him with a Dalmatian dog, Tintype. Was Tintype a silly, quaint name? In her book, So Said the Wilsons, no name was silly.

Lynette kept the novel a secret. Once in a while, when Bill or Sarah tried to shake free of an alcoholic haze, one or the other would ask why Lynette took her “little briefcase” into the bathroom. They didn’t wait for an answer, just mentioned it to their boozehound friends as if it were the cutest thing in the world.

The girl disdained the lot of them.

In the bathroom Lynette could think. Cry. Write. Breathe. Some days, locked in for an hour at a time, she felt lucky no one in the family suffered digestive problems.  

She wanted to make the Smythes suffer. Bender Bill micturated in his pants in front of his   daughter. Sloshed Sarah exhaled smoke rings into Lynette’s face. Jism Jimmy addressed Lynette as “Skelet-o” or “Miss Ug.” For all that and more, she wished them ill. Or dead. It didn’t make her proud of herself. It gave her relief.

Paragraph one from So Said the Wilsons:

“Every year John and Judy Wilson planned intricate escapades for their only child, Kendra, to bolster her intellectual, social, and physical well-being.  This Saturday was ‘Excavate Your Treasure Day,’ complete with crayon-wrought treasure maps, hand-sewn   pirate costumes, and Judy’s special combination pink lemonade-honeyed green tea. John had been planting ‘little boxes of fun’ for a week, on the grounds and inside their two-story home. Both parents worked hard to provide Kendra—and pet Dalmatian Tintype!—a ‘bootyful time! ’”

Her opening paragraph makes Lynette want to retch. She will improve it, as she’s a fearsome editor. Plus, writing the book transports her to another zone: a caring-parent, self-abusing-brother-free, loyal-dog zone, where every living creature is hers to mastermind. 

She’s sure So Said the Wilsons will sell. Longer term, the kiddie novel should allow Lynette Smythe to emancipate herself. To leave this booze-soaked dunghill and its denizens behind.

That Saturday the Smythe parents were throwing one of their disgusting soirees, which meant Jimmy would have to go to the basement, or a friend’s house, or under a rock, or behind a giant trash cart to obsessively masturbate. Lynette would have to stay in her room most of the night, or ride miles away with her laptop on unicorn Destiny.

Oh, for a day with John and Judy Wilson! An afternoon whispering to Tintype and brushing his coat! Lynette would swear off Candy Crush. Quit jumping rope. Even lock away her laptop—No access to So Said the WilsonsNo texting friends!—for a month.

On Sunday morning Jimmy was not in his room. His bedcovers were in their usual disarray. Backpack and cell phone were gone. No stench of sweat. No cum-stained socks. Lynette felt flutters of panic in her stomach and throat.

She ran to her parents’ bedroom to alert them. No Bill! No Sarah! Wrinkled bedspread. No keys on the dresser; no wallet, no purse!

Lynette covered her mouth with her hand to slow her breathing. She sat on the rug in the living room and shook back and forth. The nine-year-old envisioned Bill and Sarah, bloody, under a truck; Jimmy, mangled, inside a dumpster, face half-hidden by apple cores and paper coffee cups.

For the first time that morning Lynette noticed the living room was devoid of full ashtrays, dirty glasses, and soiled cocktail napkins. No cigarette smell, either. She peered through the windows overlooking the Smythe driveway: No SUV! What was going on here?

How would Lynette be able to continue her schooling? What would happen when she ran out of food? Who would pay the mortgage? How would she celebrate her tenth birthday tomorrow?

As unlikely as it seemed, Lynette knew that had to be it. Her parents and brother must have left early─and stealthily─to buy her a birthday gift! Sarah and Bill must have cleaned up all party detritus last night before collapsing into bed, and conspired, along with Jimmy, to make Lynette the happiest ten-year-old in the neighborhood. 

Lynette could barely believe her luck. Could Bill and Sarah Smythe live up to John and Judy Wilson? The nearly-ten-year-old felt tired from sudden excitement and good fortune. It was, after all, early Sunday morning. She hadn’t slept enough─or eaten. Now was a perfect time to sit on the couch and wait for her family. Surely they would bring breakfast back. 

Warm. Warm…and soft. Movement. Licking. Lynette raised her head. Dalmatian puppy breath warmed her cheeks.  This adorable creature was running around her, then to her, panting in her face and licking her cheeks.

“Finally!” Judy took a drink of cold water, laughed, then called to her husband, who was rolling a diminutive joint in the kitchen. “John, Kendra’s back! Bring that weed in here.” 

Judy turned back to her daughter. “I think Tintype was scared he’d never play with you again! Be a dear and bring us some rolling papers now, would you?”


🍃

Iris N. Schwartz is a fiction writer, as well as a Pushcart-Prize-nominated poet. Most recently, her work has appeared in Grabbing the Apple: An Anthology of Poems by New York Women Writers; and insuch journals as The Gambler, Gravel, Jellyfish Review, MUSH/MUM Journal, andSiren. She has work forthcoming in Pure Slush (Volume 12).

Toti O’Brien – Fiction 

THE PIANIST

The sound. Fluid, and pixelated. The sound—sweated, and magic. A suspension of breath, then the applause.


     *

     Fluid means attached, continuous: someone holding your hand during a walk. Holding tight, never letting go. They won’t let you go: they have grabbed your hand while still in the elevator, before reaching the wooden portal, leading outside.
      You can’t manage the portal by yourself: it’s too heavy. You have tried. Someone has laughed. There are always witnesses to your poor performances, you have noticed. It is tiresome. You see laughter about to burst on their face—invariably you start clowning around, meaning your act was for their amusement. They think all you do is potentially funny for some reason. Wrong. Most of what you do is dead serious. You are learning how to live, what’s entertaining about it? You are trying to survive, understanding the ropes of what seems an insecure trade. Don’t they know? They are so eager to laugh… and you oblige, wearing your puppet hat, being the doll.
     You have tried to push the darn door, thrusting your entire body in the effort, palms spread against the wood: first the thing didn’t budge, then it crept an inch or two while you lost your balance. Someone laughed then took your hand, slamming the thing open with their other hand. Dang. When are you going to be strong enough?

     Now, a walk is fluid because of the hand that never lets go of yours. Outside, streets and sidewalks are a sort of giant, nasty river. You have to cross, smartly and prudently, or you’ll drown. Danger! they have cried: you could be run over by a car. Those things are blind: they don’t see you. You need watching!
     You can watch for cars: you aren’t blind, you understand velocity, you can run. You think you are quite fast but then, how can you know if they don’t let you try?
     There’s a loophole in the system, you have noticed… You can’t do things because you don’t know how. But if you don’t try how can you figure? “Everything,” they say, “will come in its own time”. The mystery is unfathomable. Everything will come… how if some things are late? If they forget to come? Should you indefinitely wait without taking action?
     You take action. You repeatedly ask. You are denied.

     It is one of the fundamentals laws—so implied you don’t bother formulating it. Things need to be asked for, then denied. It’s a dance… You find it tiresome, but—who knows—maybe its lack would be boring. Anyway they all seem adept to the game, seemingly unavoidable.
     It’s not that things are forbidden. At least you haven’t thought that way. They only need to be pushed or pulled—like a toy your brother has grabbed at the other end. Things need to be dug out, like holes in the sand. You are good at digging deep, narrow holes with your plastic shovel. What are you looking for? Nothing, or—in fact—the middle of the earth, but of course you don’t say it to avoid someone’s burst of hilarity. Truly you are looking for the other side: it can’t be too far. It’s a matter of patience and determination. You haven’t formulated it, but you know. Things can be obtained by patience and determination—against resistance. Resistance is law number one. You push against the abominable front door, separating the world of home from the slushy, river-like street. You pull on the hand keeping yours like a secret. You pull on your chain. It will end up breaking.
     Still, you should thank the hand that insures continuity to your crossing. You should, but you can’t.

     Your steps pixelate the crossing. Small, pointed, separated. You steps are teeth, little dots, nails hammered by your legs. You hammer the nails on the street. Your steps are black marks on the page leaned against the piano stand. You have asked what such words mean, for they don’t look like those printed, for instance, on father’s newspaper—that large thing he hides behind, to suddenly lower a corner and yell at you.
     They are notes, mother said with a smile. You have already seen notes, like the one she has in her hand when you go for errands (the other hand holds you). Not the same kind of notes. You like those on the piano better: their blackness, their hammering quality on the page. You don’t know yet they transform themselves into sound. They remind you of your black shoes drawing steps on the pavement. Your steps make sound.

     *

     Now, the piano teacher is exceedingly tall. You are cross. You don’t want to be given lessons, sit on the wooden stool, be quiet, listen to what he has to say. But you weren’t given a choice. Besides, you understand the thing has implications. You mean it came attached, as some do. It came wet and a little bleeding. Those things you can’t just refuse—you can, but not bluntly or blindly.
     You need to apply some care, for they aren’t neutral. They are sticky, attached, you were saying. You have understood the piano thing is quite sensitive. You can’t frankly oppose it. Still, you don’t want to sit with this oversized unknown individual.
    Predictably, he is interested in your hands. He claims them… how original. He starts by parcelizing them… numbering fingers: how ridiculous… Now your fingers have numbers—they need to hammer keys for a counted amount of times. He’s concerned by your doing this: daily, please, for at least twenty minutes (how can you keep all those arithmetics going?)
     Your hands—so free, so capricious—have been regimented into a foreign army. They’ll wear an extraneous uniform, speak a language that sounds mechanical and of little interest. Should you obey? Should you surrender to this obnoxious routine?
     As we said the question is tacky. Mother is hooked on it… this tall man as well. A promise of obedience escapes you.
     You bitterly regret it.

     **

     Piano routine has grown to two daily hours. She is gifted, the master said. He said it after two classes, promoting her to the written page, admitting her to the secret of curly markings and ornate hieroglyphs. Should she feel grateful? In a way she does. But the scores have lost their magic. Now she has eyes for them.
     She already had eyes. She doesn’t want too many.
     The point is, her talent (what is it, if not something someone says about someone else?) has gained her two hours of daily reclusion, cutting her out from toys, brothers, games, television… Two hours sat on a stool behind a closed door. Is it a prize? Clearly it isn’t. A punishment? Clearly it is, but the talent-thing fogs it, blurring the contours. Can you be talented and consequently punished? Apparently.
     Piano practice cannot be begged off by means of repeated asking. It doesn’t respond to the rules of resistance… there’s something unnatural about it. Not all have to deal with it: it landed on her, alas, like an oversized hat, quite uncomfortable. It grows stickier and stickier. Mother clings to it: a jellyfish.
      She has heard her play once. Mother used to play. Now she doesn’t. Never will again. Why? This belongs to a set of no-answer-questions: a wide coffer adults keep accurately locked. Mother doesn’t play: she does, now, as if mother’s hands took hold of hers. By the way, isn’t she mother’s possession? She is, though she’s pulling out… patience, determination.

     *

     She can’t beg her way out of her piano hours, though the weight of it swells as she grows older. The afternoon becomes shorter: homework takes more time. Little is left, and in such exiguous window there’s more urgent, tastier, spicier stuff she wishes to do. Girlfriends’ phone calls. Mysteries on television.  Challenging card games with brothers. Craft projects.
     She would gladly give up school, play piano instead: the lesser between two quasi evils—she means bores. But that isn’t in question.
     She must deal with temptation, then. Skip practice? At least shorten it, biting off a tad at the end or at the beginning—maybe both. Interrupt? More than once. Lie about it: that’s hard. Mother asks for practice reports—she verifies her progress, of course, with the teacher. If she cheats she will be discovered. If she doesn’t score well she’ll be in trouble. How? Not sure. She’s afraid she will become worthless.

     While her hands—they have a life of their own—play the keys, her eyes wander over the wooden surface of the instrument, beyond the score. She could reproduce every mark by memory… she has read the veined designs a zillion of times.
     She knows all the shapes that can be made out: clouds, trees, bridges, buildings—more than all, faces. Many. Her gaze slips from the score to the shiny panels, lingers on the images, visits the faces, engages in mute conversations. The scenario entertains her. She starts nurturing a weird thought: to kill time, at least push it forwards. She asks herself if the figures are due to the wood’s irregularities and strata, of if someone actually traced them.
     Someone actually traced them. She knows this is a fancy—a lie, in other words—but she starts believing it. Then it isn’t a lie anymore: it is the beginning of insanity. Over practicing leads there, unavoidably.

     *

     She is insane. On the right side of the piano, an arch leads into an empty room. Since her study time is late afternoon, for a part of the year there’s no daylight. A lamp draws the small circle of her supposed concentration. Besides, darkness surrounds her. It would not be a problem, if not for the presence of the arch leading to the unknown: meaning to a room she can’t seize or control. Slowly emptiness starts to obsess her, to haunt her. A cold breath is coming through—a menace. Someone could be there, hiding, then jump out and surprise her, especially if she gets too absorbed by the music—that in the meanwhile has grown complex. (She is talented, the teacher keeps saying). She’s absorbed anyway: the pieces are more layered, the arpeggios and thrills faster and faster. Then she’s suddenly startled. She stops dead, she thinks she heard something. She shivers.
     She has spotted a new design on the wood, in the intricacy of blond and red lines: in the lower right angle. Usually the score blocks it, but one day she has found it. She hides it since, but she knows it is there. A devil. A demon. Not only the face: the full bust, a bit crooked. Enticing. Not unpleasant. Mischievous, in a seductive way.
     Still the devil… on the right, together with the gaping arch of obscurity. She is chilled. She no more dares entertaining bad thoughts such as cheating on practice time, skip more tedious assignments—checking them anyway, on her notebook. Whenever temptation assails her, fear grabs her. Grabs her hand, lifts it in mid air, directs it.

     Her teacher—year after year, he has become a friend—is preparing her for recital. She is ready, so is her Beethoven. She will be a success and he’s proud of her. Will mother? Perhaps.
     He asks her to rehearse curtain bows. “Look at that arch!” he exclaims. “A perfect mock stage! Go back there then come forwards, stop center, bow, count to three, lift up, smile!” But she is frozen: she needs confessing she can’t. While she thinks of lies the truth falls from her lips. Sympathetically, her teacher laughs: “I will cure you. Come on! Nothing is in the dark that wasn’t in… etcaetera.” She has no choice but stepping out to the corridor, through the television lounge, into the room of darkness. Cross it, then come forwards. Like diving in cold water… same shiver, same exhilaration. She runs, she repeats. She has done it ten times. She feels ten years older: a grown up. “Bravo, my little diva,” says he.
      She knows he has taught her something for once.

     *

     Early on Easter morning, she cut her hand with the dented knife used for bread. She was tidying the kitchen to surprise her mother, first thing. Wraps and ribbons were littering the table: chocolate eggs were opened the night before, following tradition. Mother hadn’t cleaned up, for it was too late.
     She’d take care of it then make breakfast. With the knife she tried cutting a golden cord whose knot couldn’t be undone. She could have stored it as it was. Her action was an excess of zeal. Plus, the knife wasn’t the right tool: a pair of scissors were needed.
     The blade tore her palm cutting all the way through, deep, zigzagging: a mess. Mother found her bent over the sink, unsuccessfully trying to stop the bleeding. That asked for a trip to the emergencies. Talk about a surprise.

     She cut her left hand. No more bass, no more accompaniment, for the moment. They would use the occasion to strengthen her right hand—said the piano teacher, unscathed. She still practiced for hours.
     When the wound scarred, she saw how it interfered with her destiny line… She kept pondering: her fate had been artificially upset. By her own hand… the other one. Would it consequently change? The scar matched the line for a while—only, it made it nonlinear. Complicated, arabesque. Then, towards the end it sharply diverged. If the line were a river—as of course it was—the scar marked a crucial bifurcation. A delta of possibilities.

     Though it was perfectly scarred the hand wouldn’t heal. She could scarcely move it: it was knotted, nested, as if holding something it couldn’t let go. Mother brought her back to the surgeon who had mended it. Maybe there was nerve damage, he said. That, said mother, of course couldn’t be: the girl played the piano. She had to keep playing.
     For sure.
     She had noticed the surgeon was exaggeratedly tall. She had not paid attention when her dangling flesh was sewn up. He grabbed her by the hand (the right one) with a tone of authority. Not unsympathetic. Come with me—while he dragged her to the sink he had filled with hot water. He let go of her right and took her left: frightened, she tried pulling back. Firmly he sunk it in water, starting to articulate it, pushing and pulling.
     She screamed once: it hurt like hell. But something came lose. He laughed, letting go of her. “Hopefully it is only muscles. Don’t let them shrink. You need this routine, daily. Hot water, then brace yourself. Move it! Move it!” Then he turned towards mother: “Don’t worry, she’ll play”.
     Yes she will.

     *

     After the concert’s end—she went with friends of her age; the academy gave away tickets to gifted students, like her—she climbed on stage, then respectfully waited on the side. She had started collecting signed programs.
     You see: she had embraced her musical destiny. She had made room for it. She simply kept practicing, progressing—and destiny made itself. Now she went to concerts and collected autographs she then showed to her mother, quite proudly.
     While she waited, she noticed his scorched fingers. All around his nails the flesh was raw, and profusely bleeding. Astonished she looked at the keys, to see if they were stained. She could not tell.
     Her turn came. He smiled automatically. She pushed her program forward, smiling as well. He signed with a flourish—quite an emphatic gesture. “I liked your performance,” she said, meaning it. He smiled more. “I wonder though,”—that was inappropriate, she knew, “how could you so marvelously play with those wounded fingers?”
      She promptly regretted it. It wasn’t her business. It could have been something he wasn’t proud of. “My fingers?” He looked as if he was seeing them for the first time. Surprised, astonished. “My fingers?” He had to be insane, she thought. Over practicing does it.
     In fact he laughed, soundly. What was such hilarity about? “But I don’t play with these,” he exclaimed, giggling away.
      Then what did he play with? Whose fingers, she meant.

🍃

Toti O’Brien’s work has appeared in Between the Lines, Litro UK, Panoplyzine and Five on The Fifth, among other journals and anthologies. More about her can be found at totihan.net/writer.html