No Photos, Please – Interview with a Paparazzi

If I score a decent shot today, my month may work out alright. By ‘alright’ I mean I won’t have to move home to the folk’s garage sofa again. Of course, Hawk is right about money. Anyone would be a fool to do this without some expectation of compensation. Expectations don’t pay the bills though.

I’m sitting at Dr. Hogly Wogly’s, in the Valley no less, trying to collect my thoughts and grab a bite after a disastrous morning.  I got the call to door-step Britney, too late. She was long gone by the time I got there. Then, en route to Shiloh’s birthday party, at Casa Vega, I got caught in traffic and construction on Lankershim. One lane in rush hour with a stop light about every twenty feet. It was insane! I could have walked there faster. No wonder no one lives in the Valley.  So, I missed that too.

So here I am, thinking I found a quiet place to finally get breakfast at what, one o’clock? And this cockatoo behind me won’t let anyone in the place get any peace. No one will look at her, afraid to become a target.

Even when there is lead time to the shoot, you never know. Nowadays, it’s like a ravening pack of dogs, into it for the love of the chase. Fools think just because they have a smart phone, they’re capable of being pappies. No way.

Of course, if they weasel their way onto a team and get sent out… they may do alright. But ‘til then, you jostle with all the other free lancers, scratching at the pecking order periphery, praying for a flat fee. Then you’ve got your expenses…

Hold it. “Hawk. What you got?… No way! By the airport? LAX? I’m in the Valley. That’s like two hours away, if I’m lucky… What? Van Nuys has an airport? Since when?… Well maybe. Get me something back over the hill can’t you?… Speak up, will you? The woman in the booth behind me is having a baby… Long overdue. Why is JLaw flying out of Van Nuys?… You’re kidding! That was a long time ago. And anyway, that was Paris. She wouldn’t remember that. She loves me… Private jet? Where is the airport?… Oh, right, Van Nuys. Got it… If you say so. Thanks!”

Good. I can finish up here and try to find the Van Nuys Airport in plenty of time. Make my nut for the month.

Some celebs get lonely, or have a show coming out and want people to remember the hot ticket. Not yesterday’s news. They use us to promote their product – them.

Some pappies try to get the goods on them. Make them look bad. Figure someday the animal pix will be worth something. I made that mistake when I first started. Hawk was giving me the business about JLaw. But they need you. And if you can make friends with them, make them look good, they’ll work with you. Make them look like animals, they’ll respond in kind.

There was one time, some starlet of the month… no, not Miley… maybe… Cameron! Well, anyway, she gave one of the cheeky paps a roundhouse with her purse. She must have had a gold brick in it. He went down like a raw oyster. For the count. It took three of us to get him back to his feet again. But not before we got our shots in. Three papers published my pix. Cha-ching! Plus overseas!

I don’t know what he said to her but she let him have it. Her eyes were like pin points. You know, like a cornered animal about to attack? Well she did. Pow!

I wish I had a camera with an f-stop as small as her pupils. Tiny! Talk about depth of field. Everything’s in focus. Here to the moon! She looked psychotic.

Speaking of psychotic, this gal behind me is going to ruin her voice. What is her problem? Am I the only one who hears this?

Technically, it’s so much easier now, with digital and send. Back in the prehistoric film days, some real money could be made with the seller’s market. Now, competition’s stiff and prices are down. It helps to have Hawk watching my back. Couldn’t do it without him.

Hawk is very old school. Ancient history. Remember film? Hawk said, in his day, he had an army of runners taking film to his private lab at any time, day or night. No one could beat him. He’d be there at the clubs all night. What a life. He claims he was there when that Lady Di got it. I doubt it though. Maybe in spirit.

He never made the transition to the whole digital thing. He was there from the beginning though. Now he rides herd on all the baby pappies who think they’re hot salsa. He gets his cut from everyone.

Can someone shut this woman up? What’s the number to 911? How is the guy with her still sitting there? Is he on a leash? Enough!

Of course now, the photo-shop jockey is king.  The primitive stuff had genius to it, and wit. But what they can do today makes the old collage style look like cave paintings. They put stuff out now, that never happened and you’d swear it was real. No wonder the courts threw out photo evidence.

Once Hawk told a bunch of us he doesn’t take half the shots he sees. Prefers to keep them in his head. Pure… Something about the moment, the big ‘now’ being lost between the past and the future. I didn’t really follow too much, but I think he was saying something like, you worry about where the shot will end up, in the future. But by the time you get it, it’s all in the past. And the key moment, the ‘now’, he says, gets lost for all the distractions. Really. What do you have if you lose the now?

Hawk says you don’t need graven images to be damned. That’s what he calls film, ‘graven images’. He says some people still worry the camera steals their soul. How ignorant is that?

Wait. The mouth and her hipster lap dog are leaving. She’s still upset. Over what? She’s just walking out. Leaving him to handle all the business.  Oh, there’s a limo waiting. Chauffer… Wait. It’s her! You mean JLaw’s been the one revving the chainsaw up my back for the last hour? I could’ve gotten a gazillion shots!

Where’d she get a bouquet from? Then she hits him over the head with it – again! Like what Hawk says. The best shots never make it into the camera. They’re only in your head. But they live on, forever.

Catch ya later. I gotta get to the airport.

What They Found, Thought Abandoned

Jenna looked into the den from the doorway. Chelsea was sitting cross legged on the floor, surrounded with papers and books. She was looking at a photo album. Jenna tried to mask her impatience. “What’s up, Chelz?”
Chelsea looked up and read judgement on Jenna’s face. They knew each other so well. Even their masks were revealing. “I know. I’m supposed to be sorting and disposing of Mom’s stuff. But this insisted.”

“I finished all of Mom’s closet and dresser. Basically divided everything into giveaway and throwaway. There’s a few things I could wear, but won’t.”

“Anything I’d want?”

“Ask me again when you gain a hundred pounds. Maybe some of her jewelry. You just playing there?”

“No.”

“Sure. Need help?”

“No.”

“Mrs. Johnson brought a casserole by. I’m going to have some. You hungry?”

“Maybe later. This is really cool. You should look at this.”

“It’s tuna casserole. Fresh.”

“Okay. I’ll be right in.”

“We have about twenty casseroles, you know.”

Chelsea laughed, “I know. How much comfort food can two people eat?”

“It’s warm, if you want some.” Jenna turned to go. “Oh, and I get dibs on the goulash Mrs. Schwarz brought over.”

“Wait, Jen. You should look at this.”

Jenna stopped short and allowed herself to be drawn into the den against her better instincts.

Why should Chelsea get all the fun?

She made her way to the desk chair, dancing past the stacks of ancient magazines and the old bills and newspaper clippings strewn on the floor.

“Look at all this. What on earth was it all for?”

“She thought she might need it. She was going to get to it all. When she had time.”

“Time? She had nothing but time.”

The chair protested loudly as Jenna sat and reached for the picture album.

“What am I looking at?”

“There’s a lot,” said Chelsea, pointing at the top picture. “But I wanted you to see this. At Dad’s company picnic.” It was an old black and white Polaroid, with the serrated edges, faded to white where the fixing gel missed.

“Hey, Geeky. Meet Gawky.”

Chelsea laughed.

That’s us?” Jenna stated with a hint of doubt.

“Who else?”

“Who else, indeed. Who else but I could look that dorky, in a swim suit? Thanks Chelsea. You just made my day.”

“I thought you’d get a kick out of it.”

“What am I, ten? And you, looking already, like an Olympic champion.”

“You have to be kidding. I was always amazed at how you maintained your dignity. I mean, we were at the beach! Your hair is perfect!”

“I didn’t like getting it wet.”

“How did you always get that perfect flip? And then I always looked like a half drowned feral puppy.”

“But in a good way.”

“Yeah, right.”

“And twice as skinny.”

Jenna relaxed into the book. She turned the page. “Oh my God!”

“What?”

Jenna began to pull the picture out of the book. “No! It’s too horrible. Who would take a picture of that?”

“Jenna don’t! You’re gonna ruin it. What is it?” Chelsea struggled with Jenna for control of the album. Finally, Jenna just slammed the book shut. Chelsea pulled it free and riffled through the pages to find the offending picture.

“I can never un-see that.”

“Which? Come on! You have to show me, Jenn. I’m your sister.”

“That one.”

“This one?”

Jenna looked away in shame. “Yes.”

“What’s wrong with that? You’re cute!”

“I’m ridiculous. I’m grotesque. I’m a clown.”

“Well, you’re the cutest clown I ever saw. And anyway. You’re not really a clown. You’re a ventriloquist’s dummy.”

“Worse! Some costumes should be outlawed.”

“What about the year Mom made me be Pinocchio?”

“What about it?”

“Why not just hang a sign on me that reads, ‘Liar’?”

“Your long nose kept falling off.”

“Talk about embarrassing.”

“Mom always came up with themes.”

“Where do you think Disney got all his ideas?”

“The worst was when she made me Snow White.”

“Well, I had to be the witch.”

“Witches are cool, though. Princesses are boring.”

“Are you kidding? Princesses get all the perks! They get the Prince!”

“Yeah! And the poisoned apple!”

“Well, yeah. But witches get water thrown on them and they melt. Or they get burned at the stake. Oh, boy! Mom, can I get burned at the stake this year? Jenna always gets to be burned at the stake.”

“You remember that kid Jeremy? He came dressed as a Prince, and for the rest of the year, everyone called him ‘the kid formerly known…’”

“That was so cruel.”

“He was a dork.” Jenna thought for a moment. “I think Mom felt sorry for me.”

“What are you talking about?” Chelsea laid the album on the floor by the desk.

“She made me the Princess because I was ugly. She tried to…”

“I was a witch!”

“You were the most beautiful witch ever!”

“Yes, warts were all the rage that year. I was on the cover of Vogue!”

“Your beauty showed through, though. Even a little wart couldn’t stop you.”

“Three! I thought I was a wart. Mom had to explain that I was a witch and the warts were just part of the total effect.”

“Well, I was envious. I couldn’t believe how the boys were looking at you.”

“Lookie-loos at a car wreck.”

“That wasn’t what I saw.”

“You should have said something. I would have traded with you in a snap.”

“I wish I had. I felt stupid in all those frills. Like lipstick on a…”

“Don’t you dare! I wished so much I could be like you.”

“Get out.”

“I was crying because you were so beautiful. And Mom kept telling me to stop it because my green make up was smearing.”

“She spent so much time with you. With me, it was, ‘Here. Put this on.’”

“You are so wrong. You’re such a natural beauty. You would have glowed in anything.”

“Chelsea…”

“It’s true.”

“You are the one with the great body. You are an athlete. You have a bookcase full of trophies. You…”

“I over compensated trying to get some attention. You were their star. And I was over there, calling out, ‘Look! Look over here! Here I am! What about me?’ Little Miss Afterthought.”

“They felt sorry for me. The frump. They thought the only way I would get a man was if I knew how to cook and sew.”

“That was what Mom loved. She taught you everything! If I went into the kitchen it was because I felt the need to get hit with a wooden spoon.”

“She only did that once. And it was a joke. You are such a drama queen. I’ll never forget the look on your face when she did that.”

“In any case, I was ‘under foot.’ She shared all her secrets with you.”

“You were more of a Daddy’s girl.”

“Except Dad wasn’t home. Or if he was, he was watching football.”

“Or baseball.”

“Or golf.”

“You were independent.”

“That’s spelled, f-e-r-a-l. I think he was looking for me on TV.”

“You could’ve gone pro.”

“Maybe… Shoulda, woulda, coulda…”

“Well…”

The sisters looked at each other in silence.

Chelsea pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed her eyes. “I love you Jenn.”

“I love you too. I have to. You’re all I have left.”

Chelsea burst into sobs and laughter and they embraced for a long time.

One of them said “I miss them,” and they tightened their embrace.

Then Jenna broke the clinch and gently punched Chelsea’s chin. “I’m hungry, Chelz. You want to join me? I’ve got hot. I’ve got cold. Cheese. Tomato… Whatever you want, as long as it’s a casserole.”

“As long as there’s starch, count me in.” Chelsea said, looking about herself. “I don’t think this is going to get done tonight.”

“No rush. Let me help you put some meat on those bones.” Jenna helped Chelsea to stand and they walked to the kitchen with their arms over each other’s shoulders.

Barbie Doesn’t Believe in Unicorns

a fiction

Amy played in a quiet corner of the sand box. The weather was glorious. The air was filled with the waves of shrieking and laughing voices. It was Easter break from school and all around her children chased each other through the park in exhilarating games. It was a wonder that her little corner was so serene amidst all the swirling chaos.

Amy methodically created a little beach scene for her Barbie doll. In her bikini, Barbie reclined in a beach chair, made just for her. A scrap of striped fabric was spread like a towel beneath Barbie’s resting figure. Amy used a twig bearing some withered leaves to give Barbie shade. A small pink, plastic pony with a blue mane stood near the twig.

The Barbie looked as though it had been through quite a lot. She was not new. But she had maintained her figure and despite hard use, appeared resilient. Her hair looked like anyone’s hair would look after a day in the sand and sun.

Amy used a small bucket to pile sand up into mini-dunes. Some other found objects were strategically placed about the scene to suggest Barbie had indulged in a little picnic. It was a little Barbie paradise.

A shadow fell over the scene and Amy looked up to see a silhouette of Tom standing over her. She shielded her eyes with one hand.

Tom said, “Whatcha doing?”

“Playing.”

“That doll’s going to get skin cancer if you let her lie in the sun all day.”

“I’m not worried.”

Tom plopped down and splashed sand onto Amy’s little area. Amy arranged the twig which had fallen over and shook excess sand off of Barbie.

Tom watched this process with little interest. He was in Amy’s class. He enjoyed teasing her.

“Why do you spend so much time with that piece of plastic?”

“Her name is Barbie.”

“You named the piece of plastic, Barbie?”

“She’s my friend.”

“Why not have a pet rock?”

Amy looked at Tom with a quizzical expression.

Tom kept pushing. “I’m serious. It’s all the same dead stuff.”

Amy leaned in toward Tom and spoke as if divulging a great secret. “A rock sitting on a lawn chair? That would be silly.”

“Yeah, I guess. But I think that’s my point.”

“Don’t you play with toy soldiers?”

“I used to. Before I realized how stupid it is, moving little pieces of plastic around. Pretending.”

Amy shrugged and continued about her business of adjusting Barbie’s accouterments.

Tom snickered. Amy looked up and asked, “What?”

“Oh, nothing. It’s just silly.”

“I figured.” Amy tried to ignore him.

“Well, I mean, you’ve heard that old saying, ‘dust to dust’?”

“Of course.”

“Well then, you’re pushing sand around, and Barbie is made of sand. And you, will be sand someday. So…”

“So?”

“Don’t you get it? It’s all sand! Even the air is full of dust. Just sand and dust everywhere you look.”

Amy looked at Tom and said nothing. After a few moments, she took a handful of sand and put it up close to her ear. She nodded while letting it sift through her fingers. Then Amy murmured in agreement.

Tom frowned. “What are you doing?”

Amy shrugged. “The sand disagrees with you.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It says you are wrong. That I’m alive and it is dead.”

“Yeah, right. How could it talk to you, if it was dead?”

Amy went back to her project. Someone called to Tom and he waved them away. He wasn’t giving up.

Tom, grabbed the pink pony and moved it through the air. “Whoooooo! I can fly!”

Amy yelled at him, “Put it down, Tom. It can’t fly. It’s a pony.”

“Yeah, a plastic pony.” He dropped it back into the sand. “Do you believe in unicorns, Amy?”

“It’s a pony. Not a unicorn. Can’t you see it doesn’t have a horn?”

“Yeah, I know. It’s not a plastic unicorn. But do you believe in real ones?”

“I hate to tell you this Tom, but there’s one sitting on your shoulder.”

Tom reflexively brushed his shoulder off.

Amy laughed. “Oh, now you scared it away!”

“Get serious, Amy.”

“Okay.” She returned to playing with her Barbie.

Tom was getting impatient, “You didn’t answer my question, Amy.”

Amy looked at him with some distraction. “Are you still here?”

“I asked you if you believe unicorns are real.”

“I’ll answer you, if you answer me.”

“What?”

“Why do you care so much about unicorns, if they don’t exist?”

Tom looked at her as if he saw a trap.

Amy continued, “I mean, it sounds like you believe in them. It’s all you talk about. Are you a secret unicorn missionary?”

“Hardly.”

“But you believe in them?”

Tom hesitated. He suddenly felt defensive.

Amy clapped her hands, “Focus, Tom. Well?”

Tom yelled at her, “No!”

Amy was startled by the vehemence of Tom’s reply. “Okay then. I’m glad that’s settled.” She turned back to Barbie’s beach scene.

A shadow fell over Tom and he turned to see who was standing over him.

It was Amy’s father. “Amy?”

“Oh, hi Daddy.”

“Everything alright? I heard yelling.”

“I’m great.”

Tom scrambled to his feet. “Hi, Mr. Schueller. I have to go.” Tom ran to join his friends.

Amy’s father knelt in the sand and looked at Amy, “What was that all about?”

Amy came over to her father and hugged him. He hugged her back and kissed the top of her head. “I don’t really know, Daddy. I think he’s sad.”

“Kids sometimes feel lonely.”

“Not me. I know you’re always with me.”

“You ready to go? Mom will be waiting for us.”

“Let me get Barbie.” Amy broke away from her father and gathered her doll, the pony, and the accessories into her backpack. Each thing had its place. They walked to the car together.

As they drove away, Amy saw Tom standing with a bunch of his friends. He watched them pass and made a little wave of his hand as they passed by. Amy waved back.

Lord of the Manor

a fiction by John K. Adams

I first saw him standing at the foot of my driveway. He wasn’t doing anything. He stood there for a long time. Then he sat on the curb. He just sat there with no place to go.

I was talking to my agent, Stu. He works at Real Grounds Coffee shop & Real Estate office. When he’s not selling houses he’s a DOB, Doctor of the Bean. Not a real doctor but he can prescribe exotic blends of coffee for me when he thinks I need them.

He serves me coffee and always says it is “Muy robusto!”

And he found my house for me.

It’s a fixer-upper in a good neighborhood. You know, location and all that. The house doesn’t need much but its large yard is over grown with weeds and trash. That’s how he got me the good price, which was still substantial, believe me, but way below market.

But now I’ve got this guy hanging out in front of my house driving my property value down.

“So what’re you going to do?”

“I don’t know. Should I call the cops on him?”

“That might not help. Then when he gets out, you’ve got an angry homeless guy hanging around.”

“How can someone just hang out like that?”

“Hire him to help you with the yard. You need the help.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“Just don’t do what my client did. He bought a house and promptly cut down all the trees.”

“What?”

“He said he didn’t want to deal with the fall leaves.”

“What a dope!”

“He turned his yard into a desert, man. I can’t imagine what his AC bill was every month.”

When I got home, I looked at what I had taken on with the yard. It is huge. I could build a tennis court back there and it wouldn’t even be cramped. I couldn’t do that myself. And also, I’d need to take up tennis.

Maybe, in time, a koi pond in the back corner. Parts of the yard are so over grown, I couldn’t get through without a machete. But the jungle has potential.

I came home from work a few days later and noticed the yard looked better somehow. I wandered into the back and looked for changes. There was nothing specific. It just looked better. Greener.

I ducked under some low branches and saw it. The homeless guy had an encampment hidden back where he thought I wouldn’t notice. What if he burns the place down?

He was trespassing! I strode to the front but he wasn’t around.

I couldn’t sleep that night. I knew it was him. I should have ripped his tent up and thrown it into the street. Who knows what kind of company he keeps? Vermin.

Next morning, he wasn’t around. I wasn’t about to wake him in his camp. Hate to ruin his beauty sleep. I’ll meet him on my terms.

I left work early figuring I’d catch him and demand he vacate my property. Now.

When I got home, he was sitting by my driveway like the first time I saw him. Just staring. Is he high?

But I was in for a surprise. My yard looked great. I couldn’t believe it.

I pulled into the drive and walked around back. There were Canna growing there, in a little row. Very pretty.

I walked toward them and almost fell into the koi pond! It wasn’t exactly where I envisioned it going, but hey! And it was stocked with koi!

I approached my ‘tenant’. “Let’s walk around back. We need to talk.”

He looked at me suspiciously and started for the back. He had a funny rolling walk, like he was more adept at maneuvering around a boat deck, or clambering over rocks than walking on level ground.

“I don’t need to talk. What’s your problem?”

“Are you camping in my back yard?”

“What of it?”

“Did you fix up the yard? Nice job.”

“I bent a twig or two. No big deal.”

“I owe you. What do you want?”

“Nah. Nothing.”

“I could put you on regular. Give you a weekly check. Keep you busy. Do maintenance.”

“I don’t think so.”

“You could get a place. Stop sleeping on the ground.”

“You can’t afford it.”

“What? I could help…”

“You couldn’t pay me enough, man. Just let it go.”

“But you… Wait. I couldn’t pay you enough?”

“I don’t want your money.”

“But, what about equipment? Basics of life? A home?”

“You start paying me and then you start thinking you own me.”

“I wouldn’t…”

“I don’t need anyone dictating to me like their secretary.”

“Set your own hours.”

“Then I depend on it and then you decide you don’t need me anymore and then I’ve got a bunch of crap to drag around with me. Let’s skip that movie.”

“I thought I could…”

“It’s too many rules, man. I don’t need it.”

He walked away. I couldn’t believe it. I’m begging to pay him and he walks away. I couldn’t afford it? Who is he?

I went and sat on the grass by the koi pond. The Canna reflected in the lazy water. The fish swam, gently rippling the surface. There were lily pads!

The sunlight faded into subtle shadings and pastels over the manicured lawn.

The yard was pretty much complete. Where before was nothing but chaos, now, wherever my eye came to rest, it took in a harmonious, multi-colored vision. This arched branch led to a cascade of flowers spreading over lush dichondra. Add in the birds and it was positively symphonic!

A half dozen hummingbirds hovered around me. Maybe more.

I went in and emailed my secretary that I wouldn’t be in the next day. I said something came up.

I got up before dawn and sipped a fresh coffee blend from my friend Stu’s apothecary while waiting for my mysterious tenant. I had to understand.

He emerged from the thicket at first light and ambled toward the front of the property. I pursued him to continue our conversation.

But strangely, it was difficult to follow him. At every step, vines and flowers would sprout up out of his footprints. Things were growing so fast, I found myself leaping over low hedges just to keep up.

I finally caught him by the driveway and confronted him.

“Hey! I just wanted to help you out.”

He was adamant. “You really don’t get it. You cannot buy me. I grace you and you cannot help but make it your show.”

“It’s not that, but…”

“Listen to yourself. You’re pathetic.” He lumbered away like a bear. Our meeting was over.

I felt so strange. Was I hallucinating? What was in that coffee Stu mixed up? Muy robusto, indeed.

I don’t remember anything after that until I found myself in my room. My head was in a fog. I needed coffee.

I looked out the window and the yard looked like it had a week ago, over grown and dry. Just like before my homeless camper came to stay. Weeds grew high. There were no flowers. The grass was patchy and brown. The wilderness had returned, as if nothing had changed. How could this be? What happened to my koi pond?

Stu was the sanest person I knew. I pulled out of my driveway and headed toward Real Grounds.

I came around a bend in the road and noticed a neighbor’s yard. Canna lined the driveway. Funny I’d never noticed them there before.

How beautiful they looked.

The Mother of all Monsters

Samantha sat at her kitchen table watching the clock tick. Her days were spent in pain, or waiting for pain. Kevin would be home soon. Then it would start. The battles. The struggles. The fights.

Sometimes, they just screamed at each other. Sometimes, it got physical. Dishes would fly. Doors break. Once a knife was pulled. Never the same, always horrible.

How long had she felt his prisoner? It seemed like forever. Years.

She remembered when she was little, her father always chided her for taking in every lost stray. At least now, her father wasn’t around to shake his head in pity for what she’d become. In today’s parlance, a pushover, a victim.

She had just wanted to help Kevin. Now look where she was.

Why didn’t someone abandon him on a mountain top when he was first born? Before he had a name? That’s what the ancients did. To moderns it might seem cruel. But to the survivors, it was actually a mercy. Those ‘ancients’ really had it on the ball.

Samantha picked up the pistol and examined it. It was heavy and mysterious. So heavy, in fact, she feared it would be more lethal to throw it at him than to try shooting him with it. Could she aim it? She reminded herself to take a practice course one of these days.

She chambered a shell. She liked the sound of it. The mechanical certainty it provided. Cold and rigid.

She knew it wouldn’t come to that, but she wanted that option available. Samantha was determined to make a change. It had been too long, living like this. She couldn’t do this anymore.

The things he would say to her. The demands. The liberties. The screaming. No more.

When he walks into the room, everything else must cease. It must be about him and his insatiable desires. Food. Attention. Whatever.

When he put her in the hospital, she thought that would be the end. But it was only the beginning for her. She saw no end in sight, if she didn’t act. Maybe not even then.

Samantha would hear about women coming out of the hospital and then not leave the abuser. It was incomprehensible. How could they continue?

And now here she is, still with him. How many years later?

It all seemed so natural. The pain subsided. He cried. He needed her. People said they belonged together. They didn’t know what he put her through.

Did he? Since he never thought of anyone but himself, she thought not.

Had she ever not felt like his captive? Even before she knew him Samantha sensed he would enter her life and take it over. More than a prisoner, she was his slave.

Samantha knew she wouldn’t shoot him. No one would believe her story about how he abused her. No one can understand staying with an abuser, so killing him also defies credulity.

But if it were an accident? Run him over? She could do that.

The pistol did make her feel secure, though.

Samantha heard the door slam. She stiffened and looked at the clock. He was early.

Kevin called out to her but she remained silent. Samantha quietly slipped the pistol into a drawer.

She heard his steps approaching.

Kevin appeared in the doorway and he saw her sitting there. Samantha remained motionless.

“Mommy!” He dropped his backpack and ran to her, giving her a tight hug. Samantha hugged him back, less enthusiastically.

Kevin pulled away and exclaimed, “Mommy, guess what Miss Thompson said. She said next year, in third grade, we get to… we’ll be learning our tables!”

“That’s great, Kev! But you already know yours, don’t you?”

“Well, I know the fives. Those are easy.” He started counting up by five.

Samantha took him by the shoulders. “That’s good Kev. But you skipped school, didn’t you?”

“No!”

“Now don’t lie. I know you did.”

“But I didn’t Mommy. They let us out early for a teacher’s confa…. a meeting!”

“This isn’t the first time I caught you lying. I’m going to tell your teacher. You always lie.”

Kevin started to cry. “I didn’t lie, Mommy. Miss Thompson will tell you.”

“You’re just a stupid freak and a liar.”

He ran out of the room in tears. Samantha called after him. “Do your homework, you little brat! It better be done before dinner!”

Samantha walked to the side-by-side refrigerator and opened the freezer door. She thought, what a blessing TV dinners are. She pulled out a couple and turned on the oven to pre-heat.

Samantha settled into her chair and looked contentedly at the drawer where she’d put the pistol.

“I’m not done with you yet.”

Climbing Mountains, Rolling Down Hills

a story by John K. Adams

I will never climb Mt. Everest.

That said, it recently became obvious to me, I need to drop a few pounds.

You scoff, but it’s true. When a man struggles to sit at his favorite table (that’s table not booth) in his favorite Mexican restaurant, something’s got to give.

I planned to burn some calories walking a trail in the hills behind the Brand Library in Glendale. What could possibly go wrong?

Note to survivors: unless you carry a stretcher in with you, no one will provide one to carry you out.

I walked a ways along the well-marked path but found it too tame. I looked up and had there been clouds, I saw a trail up where the clouds would be.

Nearby someone had erected a sign in the shape of a stop sign, but the word on the red octagon ominously read “START”.

The devil on my left shoulder whispered, “The view from the summit must be spectacular!”

My tennis shoes chimed in, “Let’s do it!” And so off I went.

The distance was not the problem, a few hundred yards at most. That most of those yards are almost vertical is what makes them daunting.

I estimated it should take less than an hour to climb the well-marked trail. Even less if I didn’t stop at every spot of shade for twenty minutes to take in the view while those little white dots stopped swimming around my field of vision.

To be fair, there was not that much shade.

From the vantage of the flat-lander you might say those hills are nothing but a collection of rocks and weeds. But you would be wrong.

Striding along the trail you quickly realize this is a vast lizard sanctuary, home to thousands of the critters. Some of them are larger than any you might find this side of the Galapagos.

However, I saw not one coyote, mountain lion or scorpion. They must have been afraid of me and cleared out while they could.

Imagine my surprise that in many places on the ascent, there are steps cut into the rock. Why not just install an escalator and be done with it?

That anyone spends time up there at all amazes me. But to actually chisel steps is beyond remarkable. Who would do that?

It must have been those energetic gangbangers taking a break from spraying graffiti on all the dead trees.

I took a momentary break. I was closer to the top than the bottom, but that did not comfort me.

I wiped sweat from my brow and thought the bird chirping at me (or some similar fowl) could just as easily be serenading me down below while I sipped a cool drink in the shade of a tree. It apparently read my mind and flew off.

As it took flight, it looked over its shoulder and called out, “See ya!”

I finally reached the top. To my surprise and chagrin, I discovered a well maintained fire road. No lanes were marked but it was far superior to the narrow path I had clambered up.

However, I was disappointed there were no latrines or drinking fountains available. Budget cuts strike again!

The view was truly spectacular. The whole valley lay before me.

And I could see the ocean. You know, that hazy brown thing that floats above downtown?

The park service had thoughtfully provided signs! Curiously, all of them had arrows pointing down. No doubt indicating the correct direction in which to fall.

Later, my son asked me if I had jogged up the trail. Hah!

No, jogging is too tame for me. With no witness to dispute me, I declare I sprinted, leaped and did cartwheels all the way to the top. Then at the summit, I danced a jolly jig and skipped my way to the foot of the hill.

Go ahead, call me a liar.

 

 

 

Open Palm, Second Sight

a short story by John K. Adams

Mara reads not just palms.

For instance, her new client Miguel, came in. She offered him a chair in which he sat stiffly. He looked pretty sharp but uncomfortable in his new black suit and badly tied black tie. He had a tan line where a wedding band might have been minutes before, or days. The collar of his dress shirt was frayed.

Miguel looked at Mara expectantly and with a curious urgency. She took his hand in hers and opened it to see his palm. Miguel also focused their hands, wondering what she could see that he could not. Remnants of grime hid in the creases of his palm. He is a mechanic.

Mara looked up from his worker’s hand and took in his tired, unshaven face. Tenderly, almost whispering, “I see illness. Loss. A funeral.”

Miguel’s eyes welled up with tears. “How did you know?”

How could she not?

Mara is good at her craft, but she has no illusions about the extent of her skills, or gifts. She has no ‘second sight,’ as some call it. She is good at reading body language and drawing her clients out with questions.

Ask those who play against her at their weekly poker game.

But then there was her longtime client, Derek. Every month he came to laugh and share stories. He enjoyed her insights but had no illusions about her ‘powers of divination.’ They had known each other for years. They were more friends than anything else.

Theirs was more of a long term therapy session than hocus pokus,  or mumbo jumbo. Who provided the therapy to whom, might be debatable. But what they shared went deeper than the creases in his palms.

Derek was not so secretly in love with Mara. But she wouldn’t allow talk about his feelings for her. She had strict rules against dating clients. Even clients she liked. It just gets too messy, she told herself.

One day, their conversation ran past her usual closing time. Derek matter-of-factually suggested they continue talking over dinner. Caught up in the moment, Mara agreed before realizing it broke her fundamental rule.

“Okay. But we go Dutch,” she said.

“Whatever,” Derek said. “You’re hungry. I’m hungry. We can even sit at different tables if you want.”

Mara laughed, but felt a twinge about how she fell into this so casually.

Derek drove. He chattered on about nothing while Mara quietly tried to make sense of this new experience. She kept asking herself, “What are you doing?”

They entered the Italian restaurant. The hostess seated them and Derek ordered wine for them both. Mara decided to surrender to this new experience. Why not enjoy it? It’s just Derek. And anyway, she liked him.

Derek raised his glass to her in a toast. “I’ve never done this.”

“Neither have I,” Mara said.

“I mean, to have dinner with a woman who can read my mind,” Derek teased.

“Silly. You know I can’t do that.”

“Come on.”

“You know that. I barely know what I’m thinking half the time. How would I know what you are thinking?”

Derek leaned in, “So, tell me what I’m thinking.”

“I just told you, I can’t. My mind is blank.”

“But you tell fortunes, Mara. You’re a pro.”

“It’s a… technique. You know that… I get impressions. I don’t have magical powers.”

Derek enjoyed this game. He smiled at her until she smiled back. “Mara, you discount it, but you’re a powerful woman. You know I am completely enthralled.”

“Stop it Derek. What are you going to order?”

“You tell me.”

“Derek, stop it. I mean it. You are being ridiculous.”

The waiter came to take their order. He looked at Mara.

“I’ll have the pumpkin raviolis with white sauce, please. And could we have some bread, too?”

Derek interjected. “That’s what I was going to order. See? You can read my mind, after all.”

Mara tried to stifle her laugh. She closed her eyes. Was it the wine? She felt strangely light headed.

The waiter left with their orders. Mara sipped her wine and looked at Derek. Was it the lighting? He seemed to glow. She shook her head. “This wine is strong.”

Derek was expansive, “It’s the night. It’s the company.” He touched her hand and stared into her eyes, “I feel it too, Mara. It’s you.”

Mara laughed. “Oh, Derek. I think it is you.”

The waiter delivered their identical orders. They began to eat in silence.

Derek perked up. “Where were we? Oh yes. You were demonstrating your extraordinary powers of perception.”

“You mean that I’m drunk on this wine?”

“Mara, I defy you to tell me what I have in my coat pocket.”

She knew. How did she know? “I don’t know.”

How could she know? This had never happened.

“Go ahead. Take a guess.”

“Please, Derek. You tell me.”

“Mara, I’ve never seen you like this.”

“You’ve never seen me with a glass of wine.”

“So guess. Humor me.”

“I feel so… light. I need to concentrate.”

Mara tried to focus. Even though Derek was playing, she knew her future was in the next thing she said. What if she was right? Or wrong?

Suddenly it was so clear. She just said the words that popped into her head. “A tin of peppermint breath mints.”

“That’s amazing!” Derek produced the tin she described with a huge smile.

“But you always have them. I see you pop them all the time.”

“Actually, no. I never bought them before today.”

“Okay, Derek. Enough parlor tricks. Your food is getting cold.”

Mara barely remembered the rest of the dinner. They laughed and had a wonderful time. Derek was a perfect gentleman. But there was something off-putting about what had happened. She decided it was an aberration. The temporary effect of that wine.

Nonetheless, they started going out every Friday night. She knew he would ask her. She knew where he would take her. She laughed at how well she knew him.

Derek started bringing her flowers. She knew he would. She knew what kind they would be. And the colors.

Mara’s work continued as it always had. She really was good at it. But she didn’t depend on any special powers to make her living. She just knew what to do. Observation was a skill borne of long experience.

But with Derek, it really was as if she had a second sight. Mara told herself she knew him so well, and he was so consistent, of course she would know.

Then Mara noticed. She even knew what he would say. Before he said it. She would see this look on his face and realize she had answered a question before he had articulated it. It was shocking to Mara. But Derek just smiled. He loved it.

Mara wasn’t charmed by this though. There is such a thing as being too predictable. When every move is expected, what sustains the spark? Mara became restless.

They would pull up to the restaurant she knew he would take her to. They had never gone there before. But she knew. She had always wondered if ‘second sight’ was possible. Now she dreaded it.

She joked that she had second sight but had treated it with glasses.

“Surprise me,” became Mara’s answer to anything Derek asked her. He tried. He failed.

She always knew what trinket lay in the beautifully wrapped box. Around every blind corner she sensed the promise of inevitable disappointment.

Mara started turning her phone off. She needed her phone for her business. But she knew when Derek would call and turning her phone off, just for a while, worked for her. She changed her email address.

Then he came to her office without an appointment. She knew he would. It was the only way.

Mara also knew what had to be done. Derek entered the office and stood there, not knowing what to say.

Mara helped him out. “Derek, I’m avoiding you.” He started to speak but she raised her hand to silence him. Cut to the chase.

“I’m sorry Derek. It isn’t your fault. But it isn’t working out. You didn’t do anything wrong. But we can’t see each other.”

Derek understood. Mara knew he did. He left without a word.

“What a relief.” Mara felt her head clear. It was like awakening from a troubled sleep. She felt like the old Mara again. The fog was clearing.

She prepared for her next appointment, a new client. He arrived and stood respectfully in the waiting room.

Mara observed him, unseen. His name was Roberto Canari. He was tall and athletic. A musician, with a mane of auburn hair flowing gracefully over his shoulders.

She invited him in for their session. He had no wedding ring and no tan line where one should be. He was exactly what she wanted in a man.

They sat across the table from each other. Mara asked for his hand and examined his outstretched palm.

She heard something drop. “Did you drop your phone?”

Roberto felt his back pocket. “No. I have it.”

Mara shook her head. “Sorry, I thought I heard something fall.”

Again, she heard an unmistakable impact. Roberto reacted sharply and looked at the floor. He looked at her and smiled sheepishly. “Sorry, it dropped after all. How did you know that would happen?”

Mara rolled her eyes. “Get out.”

 

 

Love’s Cure

a short story by John K. Adams

“Hello Doctor?”

“Yes, I’ve been expecting your call.”

To have and to hold and ‘til death do us part. Who could argue with that?

Abigail was perfect for me. She was everything I ever wanted in a partner, friend and lover. And she felt the same about me. Everything fell into place for us, easy as breathing.

We vacationed in Spain and rode horses past ancient Andalusian windmills. We joked about slaying giants as the sails fluttered and groaned, turning against the wind. Then, after galloping together to the crest of a hill, I dismounted and proposed marriage to her with the valley spread behind me. Abigail shouted “Yes!” laughing through happy tears.

We wed in wine country and honeymooned at a vineyard, walking amidst the arbors, plucking luscious grapes and laughing together.

One early morning we drove to Morrow Bay and picnicked in the shadow of the great rock, before the sun burned the fog away. Huddled on a blanket, we watched laughing gulls wheeling through the mist. We drank brandied coffee from a thermos, fed each other grapes and fresh baguettes and laughed until the sun was high. We always spoke of this as our ‘picnic at freezing rock’.

It didn’t take long to settle into a happy routine. Life went on easily and contentment reigned. Months rapidly accumulated into years. And then, something slowly felt off to me. Was it all too easy? It seemed we were ready to grow further. At least, I was.

How old fashioned of me to think of children, usually a woman’s topic. Broaching the subject with Abigail never felt right, though. And even broad hints were deflected.

Then, one night at dinner I just bluntly asked. And Abigail, just as bluntly, said no. She didn’t want children. And didn’t expect to ever ‘be ready’. She resented friends and relatives presuming things about the time, and their unsubtle hints about her and my ‘health’. She insisted she was happy with me and didn’t want to disrupt our love with diapers and baby puke.

After that, any further attempts to continue the discussion were met with her ‘look’. The subject was closed. It was the only forbidden topic in our whole time together. It was so strange for this huge gap to exist between us while everything else was still perfect. I could find no way around it.

But, old fashioned or not, I wanted a family. It was a natural progression of a loving couple to raise children. An embrace of the future. I always imagined passing my sense of the world to my children and watching them learn to navigate the shoals of life under our care.

During our courtship, the topic never came up. I just assumed children were part of a normal marriage. I was foolish to take that for granted.

I became restless.

I didn’t cheat. That would be stupid and beside the point. I wanted a family, not a mistress. And I was still in love with Abigail. I was at an impasse. The need for a challenge nagged at me.

Then, an ad popped up online, while researching a project. I almost missed its promised of relief for the lovelorn who need the ‘flee-dom’ to move on to a more positive personal relationship. A medical procedure which deleted my loving emotions while allowing me to retain my memories! Was this too good to be true?

The reviews on Yelp! appeared legitimate and were uniformly positive. Glowing, actually. I couldn’t find too much on the procedure itself, but the results spoke for themselves.

I called for an appointment with Dr. Wilhelm.

The procedure was amazingly inexpensive, $199.99. The outpatient procedure took about an hour, under sedation. It was not invasive. There was no recovery time or healing. Just relief.

The office was no less than opulent, comfortable and easy on the eye. The staff was cheerful and professional. I wondered how Dr. Wilhelm could maintain this facility with such affordable treatments. He must have a huge clientele. Who knew so many suffered from this condition?

And to the big question, is it reversible? Dr. Wilhelm responded with a question of his own. “Why would you want to do this if you want to reverse it?” I could not answer that. Dr. Wilhelm confirmed, “if the need arises, it is indeed reversible.” He assured me their success rate is extremely high. There didn’t seem to be any downside to this life changing procedure.

They did not pressure me. There was no pitch, no pressure. But I’m not impulsive. I told them I would get back to them.

No problem.

While I drove home, Roy Orbison’s song, ‘Crying’ came on the radio and I lost it. The song hit me exactly where it was intended to. I didn’t want my love to end. I wanted one last piece to complete our lives together. I didn’t see a solution. It wasn’t up to me.

I took Abigail to dinner at our favorite restaurant and broached the subject once more. She responded with, “Are you really going to ruin this wonderful dinner by starting a quarrel?” ‘Nuff said.

Next morning, I made an appointment, for a week hence. I concentrated on work and kept to myself. There was nothing more to fight about. Abigail seemed distracted too.

On the day of my appointment, I left work early so it would be done and I could return home at my normal time. What would happen after that, I could not plan in detail. I figured I would tell Abigail, as much as I had loved her, my love had faded and it was time for us to part.

While driving to Dr. Wilhelm’s office I felt anxiety building. Deleting my love for Abigail was not what I wanted. But my life felt incomplete. I also didn’t want to hurt her. Freeing us both would allow us to find partners more suited to our temperaments. It was a win/win situation.

Dr. Wilhelm’s assistant was courteous, professional and disarming. Such a personal issue like deleting one’s love for their wife was treated as my personal business. No one pried or asked inappropriate questions.

I filled out the appropriate forms and flipped through a magazine.

Dr. Wilhelm made me feel I was doing the right thing, relieving myself of this unwanted stress on my life. After all, why shouldn’t I find a mutual love with someone who wants the same things in life as I do? Compromise is for losers.

I lay back in the chair and the doctor put a breathing mask with anesthetic over my mouth and nose.

I awoke and was told the operation was a success. I was free to go as soon as I felt ready. I felt fine. They told me to call if I have any questions or reactions to the procedure. Otherwise, no follow-ups were necessary.

I felt great. I paid the nominal fee and practically kicked my heels as I walked out the door.

As I drove home, I reviewed my life with Abigail. I remembered everything, clearly and concisely. But that yearning ache I had felt for her was gone. I was free. I really believed this was for the best, for both of us. I hoped she would see it that way too. I hoped we could continue to be friends.

Coincidentally, that Roy Orbison song came on again. I appreciated the melody and lyrics and Orbison’s genius for interpretation. But not one tear welled in my eye. My love for Abigail was dead.

I opened the door to our home, prepared for a reasonable discussion of how to move forward, to disentangle our lives without rancor or pain.

The entryway was dark. But a dim, flickering light glowed from the dining room. There, the formally set table was lit by three slender candles in elegant candlesticks. My mother’s antique china awaited a feast of what promised to be my favorite beef stew.

Potted vines heavily laden with voluptuous clusters of ripe grapes were draped around pictures and furniture. Abigail had turned our home into the grape arbor where we had first sworn our wedding vows.

I didn’t know what to think.

Abigail entered, smiling coyly. “We need to talk,” she said with a shy giggle. “And I need to apologize.”

She was pregnant. And happy about it. Abigail begged my forgiveness at her stern rejection of having children. She confessed she was afraid and handled it badly.

Abigail raised her glass of cranberry in a toast to having as many babies as I wanted. Her manner was easy and fun, like when I first fell for her.

I burst out laughing. But I felt nothing. Abigail took my laughter for agreement. She was thrilled.

She sat me down and served me a dinner fit for an expectant father. I ate. We talked. We laughed. I felt nothing.

I couldn’t bear to tell her I no longer loved her. That I was indifferent to her news. How could I?

I no longer loved her, but I knew what I had to do.

I called Dr. Wilhelm’s office, first thing the next morning. He was expecting my call. I explained what happened. He told me, “Relax, my friend. It happens all the time. If anything, the reversal procedure is in more demand than the cancellation procedure.”

I asked what my next step should be. He said, “It’s very simple. Your annual income is?”

I told him.

“And your wife’s annual income? This is going to cost you.”

 

 

Fool Me Twice?

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

Father Perez finished his prayers and left the rectory to conduct this evening’s confessions. He entered the church and saw a lone man waiting by the confessional doors. Perhaps we’ll wrap up early, he thought.

Fr. Perez remembered at seminary, when the Bishop would joke about which of the Ten Commandments were the favorite subjects for confession. Three and ten were thought to be the closest contenders. As Fr. Perez passed the Stations of the Cross, he made his weekly wager with himself about this.

The waiting man was unfamiliar to Fr. Perez. He appeared to have lived a long, hard life but curiously, there was something immature about him. “Ten miles of bad road,” his father used to say. Fr. Perez crossed himself at the memory of his father and to ask God’s forgiveness for judging this man, seeking absolution.

As he came to the confessional, he nodded to the man who nodded back sternly. Fr. Perez entered his booth. It was always an adjustment for him to be in a space so close, so intimate and solitary. The dark wood absorbed the subdued light. He could hear his own breath.

Fr. Perez heard the other door close and then reopen. The man moved about and then settled in the adjacent compartment. Fr. Perez slid the privacy screen open.

The man gruffly mumbled “It’s too dark. I can’t be in the dark. Propped the door.”

Fr. Perez said, “How long has it been since your last confession?”

“Oh, God… I don’t know… decades?”

“I’m listening.”

“I kind of fell out of the habit after one of you priests started diddling me when I was a kid. Not much future in it. I would say most of my sins started about then. Fifty years back, more or less.”

Fr. Perez blanched. He’d never encountered a situation like this.

“I’m very sorry you ever suffered at the hand of another brother in Christ.”

“That’s easy for you to say.”

“How can I help you today? Do you want to make a confession of your sins?”

“Didn’t you hear me? I didn’t sin. Everything I ever did was because of him. And let me tell you, I did plenty.”

“Yes. We are all sinners. Are you here for absolution?”

“I want to know why. Why… Why does a loving God let his man on earth abuse innocent children?”

“I want to help you. You deserve an answer to that and any other questions you have. But I’m sorry. This is not the best time or place to have this conversation. Would you like to make an appointment to meet with me at a time convenient to you?”

Fr. Perez heard the sound of sobbing from the other booth. The man was having a break down. Then came a low growl that grew in volume into a shriek of rage. Fr. Perez braced himself for an attack. The man sounded demonic.

“You’re just like all the rest,” the man yelled. “How many years are you going to put me off? Why does He do this? I never hurt anyone.”

“Please don’t yell. I want to help you. What can I do? We can meet tomorrow morning in the rectory.”

“Over and over and over. You made me do your disgusting… you threatened me… made me your slave. For years! Why won’t anyone answer me? Why!”

“Sir, I never saw you before. I want to help. But you have to understand, I didn’t do anything to you.”

“You’re God’s man! Aren’t you his rep? Aren’t you all acting in His name? You did it. He did it. God did it. It’s happening all over the world! All the same to me! When does it stop? Why are you doing this to me!”

“Sir…”

“Don’t call me sir, you son of a bitch!” An enormous wrenching sob came from him. “You. Hiding behind that screen. I want answers!”

The man hit the common wall hard enough that Perez thought it would break. He stammered.

“We are all sinners. Broken. All fall short in God’s eyes. Every day, I ask forgiveness. We are but worms.”

“Worms!”

“Understanding is so difficult. God’s…”

“Yeah! God’s ways are mysterious! What a crock! You all get this script out of the same book?”

“Please. I want to help you. Can you listen to me?”

The man blew his nose.

Fr. Perez continued, “It is simple. But it is not easy. I know. This monster. This abuser will answer to God.”

“Yeah, yeah. You’re all the same.”

“You came for answers. Grant me the opportunity to respond. Please.”

“Go on…”

“We all must answer to God.”

“Platitudes…”

“You have made serious charges. I believe you. Let me offer you the answers you deserve.”

The man sniffed behind the screen.

“Bear with me, please. God tells us if we want him to forgive us, we must also forgive those who harmed us.”

“I don’t need anyone’s forgiveness. I was the one who was abused. Don’t you get it?”

“I get that. I do. There are two points I want you to get, though. Before we can move forward. Please hear me out.”

“Shoot.”

“What this man, this priest did to you is an abomination. There is no excuse.”

“You got that right.”

“But, you are bound to him by that experience, because you cannot let go of the harm he caused you.”

The man stifled a sob.

“The only way for you to escape his haunting presence, is to forgive him. He lives in your head. Expel him. Release him… with forgiveness.”

“That’s it? The best you can do? I should condone his crime against me? Let him off scot free?”

“But clutching this pain doesn’t hurt anyone but yourself. He doesn’t know, or care. It’s destroying you.”

“Ruined my life.”

“I know it doesn’t make sense, but let him go so you can heal. Give him to God to do what He will. Free yourself. This torture has gone on too long. Reclaim your life.”

“Too late for that, Jack.”

“Actually it isn’t. Job got back everything he lost.”

“So, I forgive him. Then what? Trust God to give it to him like He’s been giving it to me my whole life?”

“A couple of things. If you forgive him, you don’t have to worry about what God will do. It’s not your problem any longer. You let him go.”

“But then what? Don’t you see? I want him to pay!”

“Of course you do. Now. But when you forgive him, that won’t be your concern any more. He will be history.”

“History.”

“How much do you remember from history, in school?”

“Lincoln freed the slaves?”

“Good to remember that. Now don’t get me wrong about this forgiveness deal.”

“How so?”

“I don’t mean you can forgive him this minute. Or even today. It takes time. You haven’t been smoking as long as you’ve hated him.”

“Quit all the time.”

“Right. But it is something to think about.”

“But he broke me. My whole life…” The man wept for a minute and then fell into silence.

Fr. Perez asked, “You know what I think?”

“Tell me.”

“I’ve studied this a bit. Be honest. Do you need to forgive yourself too?”

“For what?”

“It wouldn’t surprise me if you blame yourself for what happened.”

“Get out!”

“You were a kid. But who doesn’t kick themselves when they get cheated? ‘I was a fool! I should’ve known better!’”

“You know what he did to me? I was ten!”

“No way is it your fault.”

“Damn straight.”

“Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know you. But think about it. You don’t deserve the blame. Even from yourself.”

“Of course not.”

“That’s all I’m saying.” Fr. Perez let the man have his silence.

“Father?”

“Yes?”

“Thank you for taking this time. I feel a little better now.”

“I hope so.” Fr. Perez stretched a little.

“Ah, but there’s still something… You sly…”

“What?”

“You pulled a switcheroo on me.”

“How so?”

“I came in asking ‘Why does God allow this to happen?’ And you got me thinking all about forgiving myself.”

“Yes?”

“Well, you didn’t answer me. Come on. Don’t you think you played me just a little?”

“I see your point. But no, I disagree.”

“Really?”

“Yes. The ‘Why?’ question is pretty complex and I didn’t know how much time I would have to answer it. It deserves an answer. That is why I hoped we could meet at a better time.”

“Okay, I get that.”

“I wasn’t trying to put you off, or pull a switcheroo. I really wasn’t. You had urgent needs that needed assistance.”

“I accept that.”

“Also, I wanted to offer you some tools you could use that would be of practical use to you. Your perp – there’s not much you can do about him.”

“He’s dead.”

“Right.” Fr. Perez made a silent Sign of the Cross. “So, the only thing you have control over is yourself. I wanted to give you actual strategies, not platitudes.”

“I can see that now. Thanks.”

“You are welcome.”

“So, you might be wondering…”

“What’s that?”

“Why would I come to confession? I was pretty hopeless. Why bother?”

“Why don’t you tell me?”

“I miss church. Is it too late for me?”

“My friend, you are here. Of course it isn’t too late.”

The man’s voice got husky, “But… it… uhm, it scares me. Why would I want to come back?”

“A friend of mine would say, ‘Where else would you go?’ But I understand. Lost trust is hard to regain.”

“I can’t go through it again. I can’t. The peace is all jumbled up with…”

“No one wants you to ever go through that again. There is a verse, in Matthew… something like, ‘Whoever would cause a little one to stumble…’”

“The millstone verse? One of my favorites.”

“Good. But I can tell you this…”

“What?”

“The Church needs you. Jesus suffers seeing the Church struggling. This is not what he wants for us. You have strength and experience that would help us to heal.”

“How can I trust a church that lets these animals go to confession and then pick up where they left off?”

“Confession doesn’t count, if it isn’t made sincerely.”

“But it goes on and on! It’s so corrupt!”

“We are struggling with this. I won’t pretend to have an easy answer.”

“But is there an answer? Are we just kidding ourselves? It is one thing for a kid to be a fool, but…”

“Sadly, people cannot help but make everything they touch… human. Jesus started the church. But it isn’t a political party or a trade union. It isn’t about dues. Or fresh coffee. People get busy managing things. They lose sight of Jesus.”

“A club, instead of an adoration.”

“Exactly. Ever go into a house and all the pictures on the wall are skewed? You want to straighten one. But it doesn’t look right anyway because they’re all skewed.”

“I hate that.”

“Well, Jesus is the plumb line. He is the absolute measure.”

“He makes all pictures straight?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“I’m the picture. You’re the picture.”

“Only, we look at Him while He looks at us.”

“How do we scrub the gutter, though?”

“I’m not trying to put you off. It is a vital question. That is between them and God. Right now, I am concerned with what is between you and God.”

“What’s between me and God is that damned priest.”

“You were innocent. Whatever else you did. Or think you have done. He reads our hearts. You can accept his forgiveness, or not.”

“Is it really that easy?”

“I said it was simple. I didn’t say it was easy.”

“Right…”

“You know heaven is filled with forgiven sinners, right?”

“Of course.”

“And that hell is filled with forgiven sinners too?”

“It is? You mean…?”

“The difference being, the ones in heaven accepted their forgiveness.”

“Wow! Is that true?”

“Would I lie?”

They both laugh.

“That’s just… Man! I don’t know… Father, thank you for your time today. You gave me some things to think about.”

“I hope so.”

“Maybe we’ll talk again.”

“I’ll pray for you. Go in peace. God bless you.”

After a few moments, Fr. Perez heard the other door close. He prayed in the dark, cramped booth and lost track of time. Perhaps he dozed.

When he awoke, Fr. Perez opened the booth door into the darkened, deserted church. The last two votive candles guttered.

He walked up the center aisle and genuflected before the dimly lit altar. He stared at the mystery of it all.

Then, feeling weary, Fr. Perez returned to his quarters.

Thoughts Louder than Birds

Fiction, by John K. Adams

Maybe it was me. Of course it was me. I did it.

Have you ever noticed that it is impossible to find peace and quiet anymore? You might say, ‘You live in a large city. What do you expect?’ But really, I expect to hear traffic. Traffic is not that big a deal. Traffic confirms your hearing aids are on. It’s surf.

But must I listen to chirpy sales pitches while I buy gas at the self-serve? What are they selling, anyway? I’m already buying their gas. Do I also have to go inside to peruse their irresistible selection of scrumptious snacks?

No. I do not.

Then at the burger place drive through, I’m trying to order two standard combos and the guy starts arguing with me. My money pays his wages and he’s arguing! Just give me my order! Don’t forget the extra salt!

Mary, my wife, told me he was just trying to upsell. But it was arguing. How hard is it to just take the order and leave it at that? If I wanted to add an extra whatchamacallit, on special today, two for the price of one, I would have said so in my original order. Wouldn’t you?

It began to look like that famous scene in the old Woody Allen movie that he never made, where he’s in the drive through, after almost colliding with the post holding the microphone and speaker. The voice from the speaker is so garbled, Woody can’t understand what the order taker is saying. Woody eventually ends up in a huge dispute with this invisible person. What starts as an attempt to order a burger turns into a heated debate over the fundamental precepts of Judaic beliefs in the afterlife and where they go off track as compared to the basically nihilistic foundations of existentialism. It would have been hilarious.

So, I’m thinking I’m stuck in a Woody Allen movie with this order taker who learned enunciation from pebble chewers. I’m so frustrated that in a fit of pique, I cancel the order. But then I realize I am boxed in, front and back by other cars and cannot leave.

So I try to get the order taker to take my order again. But now he’s giving me the silent treatment, which infuriates me even more. Does he want to sell me a burger? Or not? I want him to fulfill his destiny and sell me a damn burger. I’m hoarse from yelling. My wife is threatening to get out and walk because she can’t stand being seen with me. Finally the manager comes on and takes my order which I heroically pull myself together enough to give to him. Everybody’s happy, right?

I drive forward to the pay window, complete the transaction and then edge forward to pick up the food. Only the food is not there because they threw it out. They had the order when they took my money but now it’s mysteriously gone missing. Ever have one of those days?

I will not attempt to describe to you the emotions passing through my brain at that moment. Suffice to say, if my head had literally exploded, I would not have been a surprised. I would have needed windshield wipers to clean inside the windows. Mary took my hand at that moment. I needed that.

So, they find the order. It was just an oversight. Yeah, right.

Mary suggests we find a quiet street and have a car picnic and calm down. Amazingly, finding a quiet street was easy and I could eat while the food was still hot. Mary distributed our lunch. Nothing like French fries straight from the fryer. Comfort food.

Calming took a little more time.

It was a shady street. A butterfly raggedly flew by a cat lurking beneath some bushes. Two people walked by talking intently. Where does everyone go? So many people. So many destinations. Who can keep track?

Down the block, a kid attempted a skateboard trick. Over and over. The clack of his board hitting pavement marked time like a broken metronome. His determination was admirable, or crazy. Hope his parents have insurance.

It was so quiet I could actually hear the birds in the trees. After my melt down, that was a treat. They were probably singing all the while I was yelling my lungs out at that poor order taker. It was like camping and the first time seeing the Milky Way spilled across the sky. Distinct bird chirps. Order in the chaos. Life goes on.

On reflection, I realized I had created the whole deal. It wasn’t the poor guy’s fault I couldn’t hear him. He was just doing his job. By the time we got to the pick-up window, I had become such a clown, who wouldn’t hide my food? Had it been me, I might have done worse.

Twenty minutes before, I could have ripped up the sidewalk from sheer rage. Now, I listen to the peaceful symphony of birds and watch the shimmering light of leaves fluttering in the gentle breeze.

Who can say where the wind comes from? Or where it goes?

Not me.