Bruce McDougall – Fiction

Wishful thinking

 

 

He’d pushed his cart along three different aisles of the grocery store, through personal hygiene, paper products and crackers, and she’d appeared every time in the same aisle to look at items on a shelf right next to him. He felt sure the woman was stalking him.

It was Tuesday. His wife had gone away for the week with her book club. He’d driven to the store just before noon, when no one but old-age pensioners went grocery shopping. He had a list with him. He’d scribbled it on the back of the note that his wife had left yesterday on the kitchen counter while he waited outside in the car to drive her to the airport. “I love you,” she’d written. On the other side of the page, his grocery list began with broccoli.

He saw the woman for the first time as he was deciding whether to buy broccoli with stems or broccoli without stems, wondering if the inconvenience of slicing and disposing of a stem was worth an additional twenty cents. He saw her from the corner of his eye, examining carrots.

She had a mane of black hair, olive skin, dark eyes, dressed in black. Black stockings drew his eye to her legs. She looked fit, competent, probably good at her job, whatever it was. Judging from her appearance, he thought she might have come from a nearby office: run in, run out, so she wouldn’t have to waste time at the end of the day.

Moving past the apples, he reminded himself, as he did often these days, that he was twenty years older than he’d been the last time he’d become casually involved with a woman, and now he was married. Though he flattered himself that he was still endowed with a remnant of sexual credibility, he also knew that no woman would feel transported by the sight of a geezer of his vintage unless she was his wife or thought he was rich. On impulse, he dropped a six-dollar basket of raspberries into his cart. They weren’t on his list.

He advanced with his cart past slabs of cod in a freezer and turned into the personal hygiene section in search of hair and body wash. It came in a container that resembled shampoo, but he remembered from the last time that he’d done the grocery shopping that he’d found it, after a long fruitless search, in another section altogether, with the soap. His wife mocked him for buying it. She said it was hard on his skin and left a film on his hair. He said it was cheap and convenient; she said it was lazy. There were only three choices, and today one of them was on sale. One of them was always on sale, always much cheaper than shampoo or soap alone, probably because the store couldn’t get rid of the stuff unless it reduced the price. His wife was right. His skin felt dry, and he was losing his hair.

He looked down the aisle toward the deodorants, and there was the woman again, studying the top shelf. He wondered if she’d misinterpreted the raspberries in his cart as a symbol of disposable wealth. Perhaps in her mind, such lavish extravagance distinguished him from the poor economizing grunts in cheap nylon jackets who calculated the cost of broccoli stems. He reminded himself that raspberries weren’t on his list. Women go for spontaneity, he thought.

In recent years, he’d had a hard time telling a person’s age with any accuracy. He was often astonished to learn that men and women who hardly looked old enough to drive in fact were high-school teachers or partners in law firms, with children in the third grade. When he walked through the university campus downtown he wondered if he’d wandered into a class of visiting high-school students. This woman certainly looked older than that. She also looked as if she might have listened more than once to Marianne Faithful’s album, Broken English, in which the singer directed a compelling torrent of bile at the unscrupulous men who’d contributed to her suffering. Albums, he thought. Kids at university wouldn’t know what he was talking about. But she would.

He imagined their conversation as he fixed his eyes on the three brands of hair and body wash. He considered deviating once again from his list so that she wouldn’t think he was penny-pinching on his personal hygiene. He looked at the vast display of soaps and reminded himself that the companies that peddled these products spent a fortune on advertising. How much were you paying for the product and how much were you paying for the woman up to her neck in bubbles telling you to buy it? Of the three brands of hair and body wash, he grabbed the cheapest, tossed it into his cart and moved on. Decisive, deliberate and without hesitation: women liked those qualities in a man, too. He drove onward into paper products. The woman hadn’t been pushing a cart or even carrying a basket, and she was already holding a bag of carrots. With a tube of deodorant, her hands would be full. He’d likely not see her again.

Through the store’s sound system, he heard a song called Happy Together by The Turtles. He’d first heard that song in high school, driving in his mother’s car with a girl named Joanne, whose salesman father traveled every week to Kalamazoo, Michigan. It was the first time he’d heard of Kalamazoo. His sixteenth year was a good year. Whatever happened to Joanne?

He could have gone directly to the next items on his list. He’d shopped here enough times to have memorized the layout of the store. But today he wanted to break free of old routines, explore new worlds, live on the edge, cast his fate to the wind. Buoyed by the happy melody, he sailed through paper products and headed into cookies and crackers, grabbing a package of Oreo cookies to compensate for all the wasted years when he’d allowed caution and convention to suffocate his spontaneity. He placed the cookies in his cart, looked up and saw the woman in black, studying the Saltine crackers.

From her features and the way she was dressed, she might have run her own business or managed the loans department of a bank. He sensed that she was single or at the very least, available. Her features seemed composed like a model’s, with no deeper purpose than attracting a man’s attention. He sensed no foundation of commitment that would lend gravity to her flirtatiousness. Was she flirting? Or was she seeking revenge, Marianne Faithful of the Saltines, waiting for a chance to drive a pair of nail clippers into his eye?

She looked perplexed, as if she couldn’t make up her mind whether to buy crackers with salted or unsalted tops. He noticed that her hands were free. Whatever she’d carried from other sections of the store, she’d abandoned. She must be one of those people, he thought, who fill a bag with cashews in the bulk section and then, when they see in the confectionery section cashews in a jar at a lower price, simply discard the bulk bag on some random shelf, relying on an underpaid, beleaguered shelf stocker to retrieve it and put the nuts back where they belonged. He felt disappointed in the woman. He had little respect for people who make life difficult for others.

In the yoghurt aisle near the far end of the store, he realized that, in his moment of liberation from the tyranny of his list, he’d forgotten to pick up paper napkins. The price you pay for freedom, he thought. He parked his cart in front of the six packs of single-serving yoghurt. He figured no one would mind if he left his cart there. He’d never seen anyone buy those things. They were too expensive for most people’s budgets. He hurried back to paper products. When he returned with the napkins, the woman was standing near his cart, examining kefir through the glass doors.

Even then he resisted jumping to conclusions. She could be following a path similar to his through the store. It happened all the time. Two people entered the store, started their expedition in fruit and vegetables just inside the door, passed each other at the canned tuna, reconnected by the spaghetti sauce, made eye contact near the soda water and, by the time they reached the yoghurt, they felt as if they knew each other. They might not be friends, but they’d shared intimate details about their preferences and tastes that remained unknown to all but a few other people. Maybe she had her own list. He glanced again at the woman’s empty hands. She could have kept it in her pocket. Her hands looked sensitive and experienced.

He told himself to get a grip. Women didn’t dress up in attractive clothes so they could wander around a grocery store picking up strange men. He’d heard of men and women having casual encounters, but they happened in bars, not in the dairy aisle. Years ago, on a trip to Chicago to attend a medical convention, his friend, a doctor, had encountered a woman and her mother on a hotel elevator and ended up minutes later having sex with the daughter in a linen closet. When his friend told him the story, he hadn’t known exactly what to think. It sounded adventurous, spontaneous, kinky, unpromising, pedestrian, desperate, thoughtless, cavalier, aberrant, indulgent, perfunctory, silly and rather dog-like, all at the same time. Complicated, he’d said. “Complication’s all in your head,” his friend said. Such occasions had never presented themselves to him, or perhaps they had, and he hadn’t recognized them. Maybe this was such an occasion.

He pushed his buggy all the way to the back of the store, past the meat counter and the fresh fish, to the far corner where fresh-baked bread was stacked on wooden racks in front of a swinging metal door. The door opened into a dimly lit storage area. He seldom went to this part of the store. He didn’t eat much bread. He lingered for a moment beside the pumpernickel, feeling mildly disappointed that the woman hadn’t followed him. He turned and chugged past the over-priced organic produce and the shiny green root vegetables that cost less than a dollar and would feed a family of six. His wife once brought a durian home, where it sat for days on the kitchen counter like an organic brown Sputnik, until she finally hacked it apart and baked it in the oven. It smelled like a smoldering gym bag. He dropped a durian into his cart. A woman would have to be truly interested in a man who bought one of those things.

He made his way to the check-out counter. He’d loaded far more items into his cart than he’d put on his list, but he’d forgotten sparkling water. The store wasn’t busy. The cashier told him she’d wait while he went to fetch it. He returned quickly. After the conveyor belt transported the last of his groceries past the cash register, the cashier helped him stuff them into the canvas bags that he’d brought with him. He hoisted the bags into his cart and went back to the cash register to pay the bill. And there again was the woman in black, waiting for him to insert his credit card into the terminal. He tried not to look at her, but he noticed on the rubber conveyor belt a solitary bright green package of sugarless gum. She looks after her teeth, he thought.

Years ago, in the third grade, he’d ridden his bicycle up and down the street outside the house of a girl in his class named Oksana, hoping to draw her outside with the sheer force of his animal magnetism, but even then, he’d known that his magnetic force extended no further than his own imagination.

He took his groceries to his car, imagining that the woman was nearby. Perhaps that was her SUV in the parking space two away from his? He pushed his empty cart to the buggy corral and returned to his car, resisting the urge to survey the parking lot. What in the hell did he want to happen? He was a married man.

He drove away feeling relieved, disappointed, unadventurous and foolish. He couldn’t count the number of times in his life he’d felt the same way. If Oksana had burst out of her house when he was nine years old and pursued him down the street like an intoxicated groupie chasing Mick Jagger, he wouldn’t have known what to do. Now, as always, he doubted that he would ever find out.

 

 

🍃

Bruce McDougall 

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Kevin Doalty Brophy – Fiction

Hippareni Dome 

 

 

  [Late last year a treasure trove of ancient tablets was discovered in a hidden level of a ziggurat in Sippar during the British Museum’s excavation of the contemporary site of Tell Abu Habbah. What follows is a newly translated excerpt from the last pages of the Sumerian Book of Stones, written by the successive generations of a family belonging to the mushkinu. The methods with which the Sumerians constructed and deconstructed the Hippareni Dome (and if it ever existed at all) is still the subject of debate and dispute among scholars and historians.] 

 

  The memory resides beyond the grandfathers of our grandfathers. They too were able to commit it to text so that it may be preserved for those who followed and have yet to follow. Due to this reasoned foresight, we now know that the advent of this great nation state ushered in with it not just the usual promises of prosperity, liberty and appeasement of the Gods, but also that of safety. The only promise a ruler cannot keep – neither King nor Queen can ever guarantee their own safety.

 

  The denizens of Tell Abu Habbah went about their daily lives, generation after generation, the same repeated processes of birth, education, marriage, children, middle-age, old-age, rebirth. With any promise of safety lurks the spectre of danger and chaos. Threads of doubt emerged within the fabric of each passing year. Stone poles erected for border security slowly transformed into sun-baked walls. These expanded along the coast until they converged with other border walls. Eventually a great wall separated our hill city from our immediate neighbours and the rest of the world. Centuries passed. Our gross domestic product fell exponentially. Times were not as prosperous as they once were but our people, disciples of asceticism, living their vocational callings, continued on tirelessly against the practices which did evil unto them.

 

  Did the generations before us notice when their shadows began to follow them around, first for more than half the day, then twelve hours, then twenty-four hours? Did they consciously witness the building of the great wall? Did they survey the slaves condemned for life to place fired stone upon ochre and sand all their waking day in sweltering heat? How many tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of lives were given to this great construction, this gargantuan tribute to a King whose name was long forgotten? Not to mention why the structure was ever commissioned to begin with? They, of course, believed they were doing God’s work, that God wanted to keep them safe from whatever was out there. (When provided with a task so demanding one must conjure up a valid reason as to why.)

 

  Eventually plans changed, no longer horizontal but vertical. It was not a question of what could advance from the sea or neighbouring cities or states but what could careen from the sky. They began to build upwards, brick after brick, year after year, life after life, with no end in sight. Eventually the day came –  they managed to fill in the last brick at the very top of the dome, the apex point. Up there, Heaven in plain sight, with their pulleys and canvasses, they celebrated. On ground level, in the Great Tower, a celebratory feast was announced. All royalty ate fine foods and drank red wine older than they themselves. Down below the moat and the bridge the people too cheered and cried in delight. Finally, the original promise of the King was vindicated – their safety was assured forevermore.

 

  The fantastical architecture served a dual function: it acted as a gift to all of us and as a warning to whoever may approach us. Our Kings and Queens may be bestowed otherworldly powers by the Gods but they do not possess clairvoyance. They could not have known we would cheerfully live in this cage when construction commenced. The day the last brick was filled was the day the universe became insurmountably smaller, finite – acting as a guarantor for an eventual backlash against the powers that be. For that was the day the sun never rose, casting us into a perpetual night. There is something oddly unnatural about a lack of sunlight, even if only experienced for a short amount of time. It is another one of those states humankind cannot bear for very long. By the time the bricklayers reached the ground level, expecting a hero’s welcome, there was blood on the walls, thrones built from skulls and bones, hollowed carcasses and hungry wolves lying in wait. The operative orders of the new Executive were to tear down the dome, brick after brick, year after year, life after life.

 

  It is impossible to know what will happen when our internal clocks recover – will we remember why the dome was decommissioned, why it existed at all or what existed before it? Will we be afraid of the outside – or will we simply live in wilful ignorance of such a concept? When will we hear again the crash of waves, the dawn chorus of birds, and the wholesome laughter of youth? Did we ever before?

 

  There are whispers around the ziggurat forecourt. One can eavesdrop on those who gather at the central pond for purification. Light has started to trickle in from the very top of the dome, where the bricks are being removed one by one. We can hear the strange songs of lapwings and chants from faraway places. No visitors yet – to them we must be like the egg in the void, hidden, waiting for chaos to emerge. People are hushed, but the tone is persistent, the message pervasive – we must rebuild the wall, this time with stronger materials. From reading my family’s entries in the Book of Stones, I have lived centuries, perhaps millennia. I understand from reading the accounts of my grandfathers and their grandfathers before them that one must always pose the questions: who is spreading paranoia and trepidation around town at the most foundational of levels; who is giving such claims the buttressed support they need to infiltrate the minds of the impressionable; who profits from the building of the wall; are they building the wall to keep others out or to keep ourselves in?

 

 

🍃

 

 

Kevin Doalty Brophy

Charles Rammelkamp – Fiction

Lee Harvey Oswald

 Castleman knew at once that the pounding on the front door was Shelley Pickett. It was loud and uncontrolled, erratic. It was crazy.

“Is that Shelley?” he called from the kitchen where he was chopping onions for a lentil soup.

Jodie, in the dining room, went to the front door.

“Go away, Shelley!” she shouted, as if to a dog that was rooting around in the garbage or tearing up a shoe. “Go away now! I will call the police if you do not leave now!

Jodie came back into the kitchen. Castleman had peeled several cloves of garlic from a bulb and had begun mincing them. It wasn’t fear that kept him from going to the front door so much as denial. It had only been a week before that Shelley had come to their house while he and Jodie were sitting on the front porch reading the newspaper. She’d stumbled on the steps and torn a hole in her jeans. They’d given her some warm water and a towel to clean the wound, and Jodie had put a bandaid on the scraped knee before Shelley left, muttering about killing herself. Now she was back. Apparently she thought it was okay to come to their house.

“She’s gone?”

“She saw me calling 911 on my cellphone. I canceled the call when she started to leave.” But Jodie went back to the living room to check.

“Roger! She’s still here!”

“Oh, fuck,” Castleman muttered, more discouraged than anything else. Why was she doing this? Why was she acting this way?

Just then Jodie’s cellphone rang. “Yes, I did,” she said. “Thank you for calling back. There’s a woman who’s been stalking my husband for several months, and she’s out on our front porch right now and she won’t go away.”

Castleman swept the minced garlic and chopped onions into a pan and turned his attention to the carrots and red pepper.

“She’s wearing a jean jacket, pants with holes torn in the knees and –” Jodie went back into the living room. “And a red flannel shirt and sneakers. Probably between fifty and sixty.” Jodie gave their address to the dispatcher, who assured her a patrol car would be on its way.

Castleman finished cutting the carrots and peppers, added them to the pan with the onions and garlic and sautéed them in oil for a few minutes before adding a can of diced tomatoes and the lentils, a container of vegetable stock, salt and pepper. He wiped his hands and joined Jodie in the living room. She was looking out through the window, from a distance where Shelley could not look in and see her.

“I wish they’d hurry up and get here,” she fretted.

Castleman looked beyond her at Shelley out on the sidewalk. She was consulting her own cellphone. Then the landline began to ring.

“God damn her,” he sighed. “Why is she doing this?”

“OK, they’re here,” Jodie announced a minute later. Two officers, one a bald white man, the other a squat African-American, had arrived in separate cars, no doubt responding individually to the call.

Through the window Roger and Jodie watched the officers talking to Shelley. They saw her handing over a photo ID and the officers writing on their notepads. The white guy walked away, talking into his radio, reporting facts, gathering information.

“Should we go out there?” Jodie asked Roger.

“I don’t know. Maybe not. But maybe we should. I don’t know. What do you think?”

“Maybe we better go out there.” Jodie opened the door and they stepped out onto the porch.

“Roger!” Shelley called. “Oh thank God you’re here! I just want you to know how grateful I am to you for reading my poetry! You’ve really made me such a better writer!”

“But Shelley, I’m not reading your poetry! I’ve told you that again and again!” Castleman kept his voice neutral, if emphatic, meanwhile rolling his eyes at the officers, shrugging his shoulders, as if to say, See what I’m dealing with? You simply cannot reason with this person.

“But you have to!” Shelley shrieked. “I can’t do this by myself! Ineed you! Please, please, please, please,please help me!”

Castleman shrugged again and shook his head at the policemen. What more could he say?

“I just wanted to tell you Doctor Sheridan has adjusted my medications,” Shelley went on in that imploring voice. “I promise not to pester you. I swear I won’t. I just wanted you to know. Thank you so much for reading my poems, Roger, I am so grateful, I –”

“Shelley, Roger is not reading your poems. He is not working with you on your manuscript. Just go away. Now.” Jodie’s was the voice of sensibility. Any rational person would have heeded her.

Castleman went back inside to attend to the lentil soup, simmering on the stove. This did not seem cowardly so much as simply expedient. He and Shelley could come to no resolution. He stirred the soup, tasted it, added a bit more pepper.

A few minutes later Jodie called to him. “Roger! Could you come out here?”

“She’s gone?” Castleman did not see Shelley on the sidewalk. He glanced at the patrol cars to see if she were in the backseat.

“She finally walked away, toward the park.”

“OK, I’ve got another call to respond to,” the bald white cop said to his partner, without looking at the Castlemans. He got into his car and drove away.

The officer who’d stayed behind, Sergeant Lipscomb, looked to be in his thirties. He had a sympathetic face. Jodie told him she was glad they’d been gentle with Shelley.

“It’s not her fault,” she said. “She’s just – crazy.”

“You still have to protect your property,” Lipscomb said, but he acknowledged the implied compliment.

Castleman told him the story of his acquaintance with Shelley, how she’d been in a creative writing class he’d taught at a local community college “back in the last century.”  Almost twenty years ago. “She lives in the neighborhood, just a few blocks away. She’s on SSI. From time to time she’s hospitalized.” He shrugged. “I don’t think she’s violent, but….”

“She doesn’t have a record for violent behavior,” Sergeant Lipscomb assured.

“She doesn’t?” Roger and Jodie looked at each other with relief. He wondered if the officer thought this was a sexual affair gone wrong. He imagined there were a lot more cases like that than somebody wanting her poetry read.

“But she’s crossed a line here,” Lipscomb repeated, “and you have to protect your home.” He handed a notecard to Castleman with numbers and dates and addresses on it. “If she continues to bother you, go to the Court Commissioner’s office downtown and file a restraining order. Bring this information with you. I wrote the address on the card.”

After the policeman left, Roger and Jodie went back onto the porch.

“Well, no history of violence, at least,” Castleman shrugged, and Jodie agreed it was a good sign.

Still, Castleman thought, lingering outside while Jodie went back into the house, there’s always the first time, isn’t there? He tried to remember if the kid who killed John Lennon on the sidewalk in front of his home – the Dakota – had had a history of violence but couldn’t remember. Like Shelley, hehad attempted suicide and went to shrinks for depression. He’d approached Lennon for an autograph and then shot him in the back five times. Not that Castleman was John Lennon, though in Shelley’s eyes he seemed to be some sort of rock star, the man who could make sense out of her poetry, or whatever it was she had in mind – if she had any clear idea in her mind at all. Chapman had blamed it all on literature himself – The Catcher in the Rye.

Castleman looked again at the card Sergeant Lipscomb had given him. The address of the court commissioner where he’d file a complaint, Shelley’s ID – she did not have a driver’s license but this was a government-issued ID number. Castleman recalled that she had driven a car back when she was a student. He supposed she was deemed no longer capable of driving since then. There was also a date, 11-22-63 – Shelley’s date of birth. The same day JFK had been assassinated.

Castleman went back inside to look at the soup. He picked up the telephone on his way and dialed for the messages. She’d left three, all while she’d been standing on the sidewalk. “Hello, Roger? You’ve got to help me! Please! I’m not –” Castleman pressed the delete button. “Roger, I am not leaving until you –” Again he pressed the delete key. The third began, “I could kill you.” This time he pressed save.

“Any messages besides hers?” Jodie called from the kitchen. “Was she ranting again?”

“I didn’t really listen to any of them,” Castleman told his wife.

 

🍃

 

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore, where he lives. His most recent books include American Zeitgeist(Apprentice House), which deals with the populist politician, William Jennings Bryan and a chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, by Main Street Rag Press. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from FutureCycle Press.

 

Salvatore Difalco – Fiction

KRAFT

 

I tried to channel Samuel Beckett during an episode on my computer. I call times when I sit there episodes. Like schizophrenic breakdowns, or epileptic seizures. More and more I’ve come to see them as the psychic and hormonal anomalies that they are. For it makes no sense to sit here and pretend to create reality. The only reality: markings on paper. Burn them and that information would cease to exist. And they say information can’t be lost or destroyed. On the other hand, a perfect record of this exists in the hard-drive. Destroy the hard-drive and it would cease to exist.

“Dinner’s ready, man.”

“It is?”

“Time flies when you’re having fun.”

“Who says I’m having fun?”

“It’s an obsession, then.”

My annoying friend, whom I will not name, as this has gotten me pilloried in the past, is correct, to some degree. But to call my thing an obsession seems imprecise. I compare it, more accurately, to eating, or defecating, functions that hardly require obsessions to promote and validate them. I have no choice, plain and simple.

“You’ve painted yourself into an existential corner.”

“You can say that, yes. I’ve nowhere to turn.”

“And yet, it will never sustain you.”

Sustenance, an issue at the end of the day. Anyone can record their silly thoughts and call them art. That doesn’t necessarily make it art. But it also doesn’t negate that possibility. Who’s to say?

“I made lasagna.”

“You’re kidding?”

“Yeah, I am. Made macaroni and cheese.”

“From a box?”

“Of course from a box.”

I can’t go on. I must go on . . .

 

 

🍃

VOYAGEUR 

 

In some respects, the guided tour left much to be desired. I liked discovering things on my own, at my own pace. I had spent a month in Rome when I was a young man, by myself, with the guidance and counsel of no one. And though my Italian was poor, I managed just fine. The man beside me smells like borotalco, not a bad thing on its own, but blended with sweat and fecal matter, upchucking becomes a distinct possibility.

“Stop the bus! Stop the bus!”

“Guy’s green, man.”

“He’s gonna be sick.”

“Get him outa here!”

A thousand hands shove me forward through the tunnel of the bus, into the harsh light of southern France. A Van Gogh field to my right blinds me with its uncanny blaze. A flock of black birds circle in the sky. I smell grape-pressings and sheep’s cheese.

“Another delay.”

“What can we do?”

“I have a suggestion.”

“Shut the fuck up, you old fart.”

The voices grow distant. The painting grows smaller and smaller, the black birds descend.

“There he goes.”

“Down for the count.”

“Someone get water.”

“You stepped on my foot, ass-wipe.”

And then I feel a great peacefulness arrest me. I am breathing evenly, calmly. The earth is warm under my cheek. I hear the bleating of sheep in the distance. I will come, I will come to you, my pretties …

 

🍃

 

Salvatore Difalco 

Carl Perrin – Fiction

The Diamond Bracelet

 

 

            Brenda poured herself a cup of coffee and asked, “How did you get that cheap son of a bitch to buy you a diamond bracelet for your anniversary?” She poured a generous dollop of cream and three spoonfuls of sugar into her coffee and stirred until her sister thought she would scrape the glaze off the inside of the coffee cup.

            Miriam smirked and said, “I made him feel guilty.”

            “He’s not having an affair, is he?”

“God, no. He’s too lazy to have an affair, but he has plenty to feel guilty about.”

“Like what?”

“Well, for one thing, he promised me to give up smoking three years ago.”

“He didn’t give it up?

“He gave up smoking at home, but I can smell the smoke on him when he comes in. He knows I can’t abide alcohol, but every once in a while he comes home smelling like a brewery.”

“So how did you use that to make him feel guilty enough to buy you a diamond bracelet?

Miriam poured herself another cup of coffee. “You know those new gizmoes they have to control things in your house?”

“Like turn the light on and play music and stuff?” Brenda ran her fingers through her hair, which was blonde this month.

“I bought one last month. I knew he would object to me spending the money, so I hid it under the bed.”

“Yes?”

“I learned that you could talk to it and have it say stuff back to you.”

            “So?”

            “He is such a creature of habit. He takes a nap every afternoon at 3:00.”

            “So what did you do?” Her voice was impatient to hear how her sister used the gadget.

            “I fixed the gizmo–it’s called an Echo–to come on at 3:15 every afternoon and say, lowering her voice to a creepy waver, ‘I am the voice of your conscience.’

            “He never mentioned hearing it, but I knew he did. I could tell that it shook him up,” Miriam laughed. “After about a week I told him I wanted a bracelet for our anniversary. Then I stopped ‘The Voice of his Conscience.’ A few days after that he came home with my anniversary present,” waving her wrist in front of Brenda again.

 🍃

            Two weeks later Miriam was at Brenda’s As Brenda poured the coffee, Miriam asked, “Where did you hide the macaroons?”

            “In the bottom cabinet, behind the big stew pot.” The sisters loved macaroons, as did Brenda’s husband, Harold, but Harold was supposed to watch his sugar intake, and if he found the macaroons, he would eat the whole package.

            “So, did you decide where you’re going on vacation next month?” Brenda asked,  taking a delicate nibble out of her macaroon.

            “We decided to go to North Carolina.”

            “North Carolina? Whatever are you going to do there?

            Miriam hesitated. “We’re going to watch the NASCAR races.”

            “NASCAR! NASCAR? I thought you hated NASCAR stuff.”

            “I do, but the reservations are all made. The money is spent. We can’t go anyplace else at this point.”

            “You let him turn the tables on you, didn’t you? You let him make you feel guilty because he spent so much money on that bracelet.”

            Miriam looked down. “Yes, I’m afraid I did.”

            “I still don’t understand it,” Brenda said. How could he afford it? That bracelet must have cost thousands of dollars.”

            Miriam shook her head. “That’s what I thought when I agreed to go to North Carolina with him. But yesterday the credit card bill came. The bracelet isn’t diamonds at all. It’s only rhinestone, and it cost $19.99.”

 

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 CARL PERRIN started writing when he was in high school. His short stories have appeared in The Mountain Laurel, Northern New England Review, Kennebec, Short-Story.Me, and CommuterLit among others. His book-length fiction includes Elmhurst Community Theatre, a novel, and RFD 1, Grangely, a collection of humorous short stories.  He is the author of several textbooks, including Successful Resumes,and Get Your Point Across, a business writing textThe memoir of his teaching career Touching Eternity, was a finalist in the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Award.