Only Sick as Your Secrets

a fiction by John K. Adams

Mark said, “My Dad is a gigolo.”

Shouts of protest and guffaws dominated as the group erupted in reaction to this.

Sally asked, “What’s a gigolo?”

Tom started humming ‘Just a Gigolo’.

Marian couldn’t stop laughing into her napkin.

Ed just looked at the table strewn with drinks and beer bottles, shaking his head, “No, no, no, no…”

Grace touched Mark’s hand and gave him a look of compassion. Mark started to laugh. Then he put his arm over her shoulder. “It’s okay. I doubt they’ll even remember…”

Then Mark called out, “Anyone beat that? I didn’t think so. Pay up, ladies and gents.”

They were playing Family Secrets. Everyone had to buy a round for the one who had the most shocking, most outrageous revelation about their family. No one came close to this.

The table settled into relative quiet while they contemplated the ramifications of Mark’s announcement.

Sally again, “No, really. What did he mean?”

Marian leaned over to Sally, “It’s a man who gets money from women for, you know, sex.”

“Men do that too? But I thought…”

Another burst of laughter.

Ed lent support, “Often talked about, Sally. But seldom done.”

Sally persisted, “But what about his Mom?”

“She died,” whispered Marian. Sally picked up her drink.

Trying to control his own laughter, Tom tried to calm the group. “As the unofficial devil’s advocate, I have some questions for Mark. How do you know this? Do you have any proof? And, how does one get started in this? Is it a side gig? Or is it, like, his main source of income?”

The shouting and hilarity erupted again. Mark raised his hands indicating he was waiting to answer. The group quieted.

“I know, because he told me. Though he didn’t use that word specifically.”

“What word did he use?”

“He was pretty lubricated when he told me. He said he met these women in Beverly Hills and was dating some of them.”

“That doesn’t…”

“No, wait. But then he bragged that they are ‘loaded.’ And it came with a ‘debit card’.”

This set Grace off. “No! Did he really say ‘debit card’?”

Mark nodded. There was too much noise to be heard.

Marian added, “Nice meeting you Mr. Debit… I mean, Mr. Donato.”

“Debit Card Donato,” chimed Ed. “Donate to Donato! I can see his ad now.”

“But wait!” Sally protested. “But this is terrible.” She shook her head, trying to make sense of it all. “Mark. I didn’t know your Mom died. Are you okay?”

Mark composed himself. “Yeah. I’m okay.”

“Was this recent? I mean…”

“Yeah. Back in November.” Mark looked down and away. Grace touched his shoulder.

“But that’s only four months! And he’s…”

Marian gestured to Sally to let it go. Sally rolled her eyes in exasperation. “But… Mark, I’m sorry.”

Mark waved her off.

Tom took the floor again. “I’m sorry for the delay, folks. But the rules of the game state, there has to be more than vague grotesqueries presented. We want the goods before we pay up.”

Mark composed himself and addressed the group. “I’m not going to use his exact language. But he more or less said… they pay him for his… uhm, `time.’ One of them is an artist. She’s painting his portrait.”

“Among other things,” Ed interjected.

“Which can be left at that,” Mark concluded.

Ed asked, “Is it a nude?”

Mark laughed and shrugged. “I doubt it, but…”

Marian asked, “Or smoking a cigar? Wearing a ruffled collar? Like a Dutch Master?”

“A close up?” Ed again. “Does he charge by the brush stroke?”

Tom asked, “Where are you going to hang that picture?”

Grace said, “Not over the fireplace.”

“Maybe, in the fireplace,” countered Mark.

“Or the bathroom,” offered Marian.

Sally could only say, “Ewww!”

“It’s Dad’s house. He’ll hang it, wherever he wants.”

Tom tapped one of the beer bottles with a knife. “Ahem… I’m sorry folks, but again, we are digressing. We need to focus.”

Marian reacted, “We’re just having fun, Tom. It’s a game, remember? Do you always have to crack open Robert’s Rules?”

“Not always, Marian. But someone has to be the pompous ass. I figured tonight was my turn.”

“And every other night…”

“I’m sorry. Am I stepping on your lines? I meant to give you a break. Relax.”

“No, go ahead. Please.”

“Thank you. Back to the game… Mark. This has been a very entertaining revelation. You put us all to shame, with your shameless confession. But you haven’t offered any proof.”

Everyone got quiet. Sally sipped her pina colada.

Mark pulled a plastic card from his pocket. “Alright, you doubters. I just happen to have exhibit A, a debit card in my possession. It isn’t mine. I borrowed it from my father.” He held it up. “You’ll see it doesn’t have my father’s name on it either.”

Ed grabbed the card and looked closely at it. Others huddled in to see.

“I need that back, guys.”

Ed held the card up. “Drinks are on Mark!”

Tom added, “Or, more accurately, Ms. Greenberg…”

“Guys. I need it back. I won the game. You are supposed to be buying the rounds. Not me.”

“Nor Ms. Greenberg…” added Grace.

Ed returned the card to Mark. “Of course. We don’t want to stoop to the level of ‘he, who shall not be named.’”

Marian asked, “What’s your Dad’s name again?”

That got a laugh.

Tom waved the waitress over. He turned to Mark. “So, do you want all these drinks now? Or would you like them on account?”

“I’ll take one now. And you guys can treat me over the next… week or so. Is anyone keeping track of this?”

“We won’t forget.”

“Nor will I.”

The waitress arrived at the table. Tom ordered a Mai Tai for himself and for Mark. “Anyone else? The night is young…”

Sally raised her empty glass. “Pina Colada?” But everyone else passed.

The waitress cleared some of the empties and went to the bar.

Grace pulled on Mark’s sleeve. “Your Dad won’t miss that card, will he? I don’t want you to get on his bad side.”

The others leaned in to hear Mark’s response.

Mark shook his head. “Actually, you won’t believe this, but he enjoys this. He brags about it, being the stud. He told me he feels about twenty-five.”

“Disgusting!”

Tom weighed in. “It’s a different mindset for a man… I mean, I would never…” Everyone laughed.

“They have robots for that now, Tom.”

“Oh, Marian, a robot could never do what I do.”

More laughter.

“So here’s the kicker,” Mark continued. “Now, mind you, I’m not condoning this. But my Dad seems to think there’s an opportunity here.”

“That’s awful!”

“He’s recruiting!”

“That’s the worst! Pimping his son’s friends?”

Mark pocketed the debit card. “I draw the line at free drinks from you guys. I have nothing more to say.”

The waitress set the fresh drinks on the table.

Marian turned to Ed. “Tell me you wouldn’t do that.”

Ed smiled at all eyes turned on him. “Now hear me out…”

“Oh no. Here it comes…”

“No, really. As male fantasies go, that may be tempting. But the reality? I would have to draw the line at that. I wouldn’t sell myself. Not that way, anyway. I never paid for it. And I’m not a taxi for hire.”

Mark raised his glass. “Here’s to Ed’s moral clarity!”

Sally said, “Here’s to love!”

Everyone chimed in, “Here’s to love!”

 

 

We’ll Always have Pedro’s

Joaquin stood in his doorway and looked at the sunset. It used to bring tears. But now it confirms his relentless grief. One more ending. Another day passed. Another week.

Once again it is night. And once again it is this night.

Did his friends leave him? Or did he leave them? Who wants to waste their time on him, after all? He has nothing to offer. “Life goes on,” they said. It certainly does. They moved on. He doesn’t need them. Joaquin knows where he belongs.

He sits and stares and sometimes awakens with a start. He never feels rested. Nothing interests him.

He doesn’t follow current events. TV announcers are like nails on a blackboard. Newspapers are a torture.

All these people, blithely living their lives, ignorant of Maria’s passing. How dare they? What gives them the right to enjoy their lives, when Maria left so young?

Only his memory of Maria doesn’t change. Truly the love of his life, she is his one constant. His true north. And that proves a curse too. The living change and grow. But Maria lives no more.

Everything ends. Everything always ends, Joaquin thought. But he lives on. He can’t end himself and this constant pain. If he left, who would remember Maria?

Joaquin knew he wouldn’t sleep. So he stepped into the deepening gloom.

He looked at the clock above the funeral home door. With grim irony, he observed, you can always count on them to have a dependable clock. Each evening he pondered how time continues its cyclical journey. Moving ever forward, yet covering the same ground over and again.

Joaquin stepped carefully on the uneven sidewalk. He remembers when they installed it. They were kids, giggling together. They waited for the workmen to leave, to inscribe their initials inside a heart. It was Valentine’s Day. Today. How many years ago? He chased her with his muddy finger outstretched.

Joaquin noted those initials each time he walked by. Over time, tree roots transformed the path into an obstacle course. Who put these old trees here? Joaquin didn’t remember them. Soon, other workmen will restore the sidewalk to safety. Can’t let anyone sue the city over a sidewalk. Safety first!

Then, Joaquin’s heart and their initials will be consigned to a landfill. But he will remember.

Joaquin continues aimlessly over the same route he travels every night. The store fronts have changed. Traffic ebbs and flows. His path traces the steps they walked together, hand in hand, from the beginning. So many times!

He saw their old café up the street. Just a fast food joint. Joaquin remembered all the meals they shared at Pedro’s. He figured he owned it several times over for all the food he bought. Crispy tacos! It was cheap, good food. But it was always a feast when he shared it with Maria.

Joaquin watched the young couple as they approached the café. They were dressed for a romantic night out. He wondered, “Why do they go to my café?” Joaquin loved this place, but it was not for fine dining.

He reached into his jacket pocket and waited.

~

Sam and Elle bustled about, getting ready. It’s Valentine’s Day and they were going to their favorite, romantic dinner.

They had always gone to this restaurant for special occasions. A relic from a simpler time, the building was once someone’s home. When the city expanded out, someone converted it into the French restaurant they went to for ‘special nights’.

Elle always ordered the filet mignon, the best in the city. And they would share a crème brûlée for dessert. Sam would linger over coffee, or perhaps a brandy, while watching the city settle into nighttime through the bay windows.

“We need to go, Elle. You look great,” said Sam as Elle checked her hair in the mirror and straightened her dress.

“I’m ready. Just let me…”

“Of course.” Sam straightened his tie and donned his sports coat.

As Sam merged into traffic, Elle checked her smart phone. She groaned with disappointment.

“You aren’t going to believe this.”

“What?”

“C’est la Vie is closed.”

“You’re kidding! But we have reservations!”

“No. It says here, the health department shut them down due to ‘rats.’”

“Rats?”

“Yup.”

“There goes the recipe for their ‘secret sauce’. Rats always get blamed. Anyway, I thought rats were ‘de riguer’ for a French restaurant.”

“Sam? Where are we going to eat?”

“Uhm… Everything is booked. It’s Valentine’s Day.”

“Well, I hope you know I’m not cooking.”

“Never crossed my mind… Thinking outside of the Jack-in-the-box…”

“Well?”

“This is unorthodox, but how about that place we used to go to when we first started dating?”

“Pedro’s? We haven’t been there in years!”

“It might be fun. You’re nostalgic. Let’s drive by and see if it’s still open.”

“Great idea. Best food in the world. It’ll be open.”

“Doesn’t hurt to slum it on occasion. It’s for a good cause.”

They parked and made their way down the jagged sidewalk to their nostalgic favorite.  They held hands with affection, but also to keep from falling.

Elle noticed Joaquin standing down the block but then was distracted by the heart shaped balloons.

“Oh, look! They’re beautiful. Sam, this is perfect. You’re a genius.”

“Let me tell you, blowing them up so they float is not as easy as you might think.”

Elle grabbed a booth and Sam went to the counter to order their traditional, “Two plus two crispy tacos, a large fry and two large diet cokes.” The longtime employees were gone. But the chef caught Sam’s eye and gave him a little salute.

Sam and Elle took turns taking pictures with the pink balloons. Elle borrowed a quarter from Sam to put on a favorite from the juke box. “They still have all my songs,” she exclaimed. “Why did we stop coming here?”

Their number was called. Sam went up to retrieve the tray stacked with little baskets of rich food. He asked for two plastic forks.

Then Sam heard Elle call out. “Wait! Stop. What are you doing?” He turned to see a little man hurry away from their table and exit the café.

Sam rushed over to Elle. “Are you alright? What did he do?”

“I’m okay. He just walked up and put that on the table.”

Sam looked down to see a crisp, hundred dollar bill lying on the Formica table top. It made no sense. He grabbed the bill and ran out to catch the man. There was no sign of him.

Sam returned to Elle and put the bill back onto the table. He shook his head. “Did he touch you? What happened?”

Elle still looked confused. Her eyes glistened. “You went to get the food and he just walked up and put it down. He looked at me and kind of made a little bow. He didn’t say anything.”

“Oh! The food.” Sam returned to the pick-up counter and got their tray. He transferred the baskets with the tacos and fries onto their table. The hundred dollar bill lay there untouched. Benjamin Franklin looked more amused than usual.

Sam smiled and pushed the bill towards his wife.  “I believe this is yours, Elle.”

They looked at each other and grinned. “Happy Valentine’s Day!”

Photo Finish

The photo haunts Tom. Who is the woman standing on the tropical beach with his wife? And why does Tania deny knowing her?

Her name is Molly. Molly Treacher. He found her wallet in the bank parking lot. Inside, facing her ID was the picture of her and Tania standing together with Diamondhead behind them.

Tom looked up as Molly approached him.

“That’s mine.”

“Yes. I was going to turn it into the lost and found.”

“No need. Here I am.”

Tom handed it to her. She turned away.

“Excuse me? The woman in the picture with you? She’s my wife.”

Molly stopped. “I doubt it.”

“She’s Tania. How do you know her?”

Molly looked around nervously, “Excuse me? Are you stalking me?”

“No. I just wondered.”

“I need to go now.” Molly turned away. Tom watched her walk into the bank.

Over dinner, Tom asks Tania about Molly. She denies any knowledge of her.

“Maybe she’s married. Molly Treacher? You were in Waikiki together? When were you in Hawaii?”

“Doesn’t ring a bell, Mr. Pavlov.”

“Perhaps if you saw her.”

“I’m not looking for a friend, Tom. Why are you pushing this? I said, I don’t know her.”

“I saw the photo of you together on the beach.”

“Sorry, can’t help you.”

Tom sat on the front porch, reviewing the day. People walk through the twilight. No one seems to know anyone else. Isolated souls passing by. Where is everyone going?

He feels like he entered a parallel universe. By asking a simple question, he unwittingly entered a realm where secrets are kept and questions cannot be asked. It didn’t add up. Married for ten years, he realizes he really doesn’t know his own wife.

The next day, Tom acts. He finds Molly’s phone number and calls her. Before she can protest, he invites her for dinner with Tania and himself.

She hesitates and then asks, “May I bring Mercer, my husband?”

“Your husband? Of course.”

Then she asks him, “And Tania is cool with this?”

“She will be.”

He exchanges information with her. They will meet at a restaurant, so if things sour, they can leave at will.

Tania balks. She accuses Tom of working behind her back. Of conspiring with strangers.

He counters with the fact that she is not being honest about this. He has no expectations. But he wants her to be open with him. He tells her he loves her. He apologizes for forcing her hand but he needs to see this through.

Driving to the restaurant, Tania continues expressing her doubts.

“I hope you know what you are getting us into. You don’t know these people.”

“Well, I don’t. But you do. How bad could it be? It is one evening. No great loss.”

“You hope.”

The initial meeting seems especially awkward to Tom. Tania and Molly are cordial and guarded. Mercer takes center stage and presumes his judgement is final. His aggressive grasp of Tom’s hand pulls Tom off balance. As does his comment, “You’re shorter than I expected.”

Tom smiles at this jab and resists the temptation to point out Mercer’s premature baldness. Instead, he feels silly for responding with, “Yes, but my feet reach the ground.”

Tom wonders why, if Mercer is as superior as he presents, he feels the need to compensate. Tom kicks himself for striving to impress this overbearing fool.

Their first drinks arrive and Mercer raises his glass, specifically to Tania, “You are beautiful as ever, my dear.”

Tania responds with, “And you are just as tall.”

Mercer turns to Tom, “She has the most exquisite laugh, don’t you think? If I could bottle it, I’d be a millionaire.”

All eyes are on Tom as he turns to Tania, “Actually, it’s in stores now, isn’t it? Look for it. ‘Tania LOL’.”

Tania smiles.

Tom understands, not only the women, but Mercer and Tania knew each other, long before he and Tania met. Being the odd one out, Tom tries to observe without injecting himself further.

The conversation stays on the shallow end for too long, Tom thinks. What are they afraid of? They touch lightly on current events, with only a whiff of politics thrown in to test the waters. Mercer holds court and makes broad declarations on topics important only to himself.

Molly and Tania sit demurely, enduring a return to the familiar. Tania catches herself tapping her fingers nervously. She looks at Tom and puts her hands in her lap. He smiles at her, but she looks away.

Tom hopes to see Tania with fresh eyes. Who cares if Mercer made a killing in the market, last December?

Molly tries to draw Tom into the conversation “Is your work going well?”

“Yes, I’ve been so busy. I wish we could get away more. Have you traveled anywhere interesting this year?”

Meals are ordered and Mercer makes sure the waitress knows he wants separate checks for the couples.

Tom excuses himself and heads to the restrooms. Mercer stands. “I’m going to the bar. Anyone need anything?” Tom asks him for another Scotch on the rocks. Mercer rolls his eyes.

Tania and Molly look at each other and smile uncomfortably.

Molly speaks, “I know this wasn’t your idea, Tan…”

Tania brushes it off. “We are about due. Don’t you think?”

“I want to tell you I’m sorry…”

“Nothing to apologize for, Molly. We all make choices.”

“Actually, I wasn’t trying to apologize. I mean, I’m sorry I ended up with Mercer.”

This brings them both much needed laughter, followed by a decade worth of unshed tears.

Tania composes herself. “Now you made my make-up run. That was rude.” They laugh again. Then she looks at Molly in earnest. “I think we both know now, one shouldn’t toss away a good friendship over a crush.”

When the men return, the atmosphere is noticeably lighter. The women share stories about their travels.

“…And the Na’ Pali coast? Snorkeling in the caves at low tide?”

“That was unbelievable! What did we name the sea turtle who came to visit every afternoon?”

“Uhm… Tony!”

“Right, Tony! Who would expect a four hundred pound turtle to be so cute?”

Mercer tries to refocus the conversation back to himself.

Tom interjects, “Let her finish. I want to hear the story.”

But he has so much to say on population distribution among the islands and their annual rainfall. The others exchange glances to the drone of Mercer’s voice.

Dinner plates are cleared. Coffee sipped. Dessert rejected.

Tom feels the evening worked out alright after all.

After a moment’s pause, Mercer raises his glass. “I think we are due for a toast. To the one who got away…”

Then Mercer and Tania both say, “…Me.”

Mercer looks at Tania with surprise, “What do you mean, ‘you’?”

She put her hand on Tom’s. “Yes, me. Tom is the best thing ever happened to me.”

Oscar Night

Jimmy could hardly sit still. This is the biggest night of his life. His whole career is riding on this one evening and he feels ready to explode.

Of course, no one looking at him would know that. He’s been in the biz long enough to know, never to show his emotions. That’s what scripts and make up and cameras are for. Don’t forget cameras. Without cameras we’d have nothing. None of us. None of this.

Jimmy loves the cameras. And the cameras love him.

Just smile. You gotta smile. Who wouldn’t? It’s such a circus. How can you not smile? Make it real.

Yes. It is almost too much. The theater is filled with so many people he’s known for so long. Some of them friends. Many competitors. But there is a mutual respect, or Jimmy liked to think so, between long time collaborators. Even when you strive for a job against so many talented people. Someone has to get it. Better when it’s you, but like the Duke used to say, “Catch the next wave.” There’s always another job, another wave, another Oscar. Until there’s not.

But tonight! Oh boy! Walking up that red carpet. He’s made that trip before, but tonight, they were watching him. Everyone knew Jimmy. Everyone wants to grab his hand. Pat him on the back. Take a picture. Be seen with Jimmy! It is grand. Grand to be Jimmy.

And the women! So many beautiful women! And the clothes. Jimmy has never seen such dresses! Each one more extravagant than the one before. Who wears such stuff? Actresses! They can get away with it. Do you know how many poor children you could clothe with the fabric in that one dress? Is that a dress? Or a house?

Oh, and look at her. Excuse me. You look cold. Does your mother know you went out naked? Your goosebumps have goosebumps. Maybe Dame Whatshername will lend you some of her train with which to cover yourself.

Even tomorrow, when they do the postmortems on the evening and cat about this ugly dress, or that worst look. Hey! Shut up. They were on the carpet. They had the good seats. They were the ones the paparazzi were calling to. Where were you? Lame bastards.

Men are smart enough not to compete on the fashion front. Hopefully, they remember to wear pants. And the tux sleeves aren’t too short. That’s about as daring as the men get. Try to look dignified in the midst of all this brouhaha. They want people looking at their faces, not the clothes. What the men really want is to stand beside a beautiful woman. They really don’t need more than that, when the cameras are flashing. That is plenty, thank you.

A man can look like a toad, but if he’s standing next to a babe? Who cares? He’s a toad with good taste in women. “Look at that beautiful woman with the pet toad!” More power to him. Maybe later, when she kisses him, he’ll turn into a prince.

And the paparazzi. How many flashes can you stand? It’s enough to give you a seizure. Yikes! Take it easy guys. I’ll hold the pose… That’s it? How about one more? A money shot. Get it.

Here comes the interview. “Hey! How are you? Blah. Blah. Stunning!”

“Thank you. Hey, I love your blah, blah. How do you do that?”

“Oh, it’s blah. Got it from my mother, blah. But enough about me. How do you feel tonight? Is this your night?”

“I feel great. I know I did my best and I trust the Academy and the gods that be, to touch those most deserving. I’m just so honored, blah.”

“Well, I don’t want to jinx you. Ha, ha!”

“And blah, blah to you too! Ha, ha!” Smooch!

Jimmy looks around at all the people. And not just people, famous people! He never dreamed. Of course he always dreamed. But to be here is something he could hardly envision. Talk about a cast of thousands.

Look at the sets! They dropped a few dimes on this. Every year it out does every expectation. So much talent. And so much talent that never gets a nod. A name on a list at the end of the show. How many people work to make this come off? It is incredible!

Oh! And there she is. If he owes it to anyone, it is to his co-star. Jimmy knows he wouldn’t have the nomination if not for her. They call it acting, but those scenes with her — well, they forgot about the cameras. Twenty people standing around and they were alone.

She is staggeringly beautiful to Jimmy. Not cliché ‘stunning’. Not merely gorgeous. ‘The original knock-out’ is how Jimmy puts it. And none of the distracting frippery about her dress. Simple, pure class. Elegance defined. Of course nothing could disguise her classic looks.

Jimmy tells people, thousands of years from now, scholars will debate ‘What was she really like?’

Jimmy regrets, they couldn’t make a go of it, off set. He thought they were really in love. It was a movie, silly. Jimmy got taken, like all the rest. “It’s called ‘acting,’ Jimmy,” he chuckles to himself. And she is an actress through and through.

He catches her eye and she nods with that little smile of hers that makes him melt inside. It was just for him.

But she doesn’t come over. No time for that. Who’s the new heartbreak escorting her tonight? Some surfer she discovered? Or Tony, her PR hack, shoe-horned into the program? Cue Hollywood Hairboy #3. Action!

Jimmy hopes for his sake, he’s got the stuff to land on his feet. He’ll need it. Jimmy walked that gauntlet. Good luck!

Smiling people stroll by. They offer their hands, embraces, kisses on the cheek. Some of them mean it.

The orchestra is starting up! Here we go. Batten down the hatches. Jimmy’s getting an Oscar tonight! “Don’t let it slip through your fingers, boy.”

Jimmy looks at his notes. Short and sweet. Sincere thanks. Hit all the notes. Humility. Make them laugh. Make them cry. Leave them wanting more. And thank her. She won’t expect that.

Judging by the acceptance speeches, Jimmy knows it will be a long evening. At least until he gives his. Then everyone will wake up. He was all for the third seamstress getting her due. But please don’t let her near the mic.

Jimmy thinks, “Can everyone just shut up and let me have my statue? Enough!”

After a while, Jimmy wonders if he accidentally wandered into a political rally. “Is someone running for president? I thought these were acting awards. Actors don’t have opinions, they have scripts.”

Suddenly, it is time. Jimmy can’t believe it. It all happened so fast. He doesn’t feel ready. Where did the night go?

He keeps repeating the mantra, “Wait to hear your name. Don’t jump up until they say your name.” Jimmy braces himself on the arms of the chair.

The presenters come out. She is one of them. This could be weird. Maybe it will be perfect. Is it a sign? An omen? Jimmy swallows hard.

The presenters stall with some banter. Everyone is laughing. It is excruciating. The man gives her the envelope. She looks directly at Jimmy with that little signature smile. She opens the envelope and the look in her eyes says it all. She says the most beautiful words in the most beautiful voice, “And the winner of the Oscar, for best actor is… Jimmy…”

The crowd goes nuts. She throws the envelope over her shoulder and strides to the edge of the stage to offer her hand to Jimmy as he bounds up the steps. There are screams and whistles as she gives him a passionate kiss. The other presenter makes a big show of breaking them up. It’s pandemonium. Jimmy wipes tears from his eyes as he steps to the mic…

Nurse Salazar tapped Jimmy on the shoulder to get his attention. He looked up at her from his chair with a look of confusion.

“Mr. Jimmy, time for your meds. They’ll help you sleep.”

Jimmy looked at the television. The end credits streamed by. The big music reached its crescendo. Then Jimmy remembered the golden statue, cradled on his lap.

The nurse continued. “Everyone in the home gets so agitated. Every year, it’s the same.” She smiled down at Jimmy. “You want me to take that for you? You don’t want to drop Mr. Oscar. I’ll put it back up on the shelf. He’ll be safe there.”

Jimmy surrendered his Oscar with reluctance. In exchange, she gave him a small cup containing some pills.

“Here you go, Mr. Jimmy. These will help you sleep. Would you like to get into bed now?”

Jimmy smiled at her. “Do you want my autograph? You can say you knew me, when.”

 

 

 

Night Watch

Stewart is finished with his rounds of the automobile storage lot. He climbs the steps to the temporary mobile office unit, enters and hangs up his jacket. The temporary unit is only temporary in that it looks about to collapse under its own weight. It shifted on its foundation during an earthquake and was never jacked back up to level.

It is about 2:00 am. There are no deliveries due tonight. Unloading a train full of late model cars takes most of the shift. A team of drivers and others mill about, getting the new cars off the train, parked and signed off. This lot serves many of the local dealerships. But tonight is blissfully quiet.

Stewart likes the graveyard shift. He enjoys the freedom it offers, to bask in his thoughts, his music, his poetry and privacy.

Roy sits before the computer at the far end of the mobile office unit. He looks up at Stewart as he approaches.

“Hey Stew. Anything to report?”

“All quiet.”

“Great. Listen up. I’m going to call HQ.” Roy held the walkie-talkie up to his ear. “Lot C to HQ. Anyone there? Over.”

In a moment, a voice responds. “HQ copies Lot C. You have something to report? Over.”

“Yeah. I need some back-up. We have some unauthorized bunny rabbits here on the lot. Please advise. Over.”

There was a pause and then HQ responded. “Lot C, did I hear you right? Unauthorized bunnies? Over.”

“Yeah. You heard me. Rabbits. There are several unauthorized bunny rabbits hiding out on the lot. They might be threatening the inventory. Please advise. Over.”

“HQ copies your report of unauthorized bunnies, Lot C. Stand by until further notice. Take no action. Over.”

“Lot C copies that. Are you sure? Over.”

“HQ confirms. Take no action at this time. Over.”

“Lot C copies. Over.”

Roy put the walkie-talkie down and smiled at Stewart. He was thrilled with himself.

“I get such a pleasure giving them grief.”

Stewart shook his head. “I know you get bored Roy. But you really think they give a damn? How often do you make that call? Once a month? They think you’re crazy.”

“Maybe. But it makes the night go faster.”

“Whatever floats your boat. I’m going for a walk.” Stewart turns and heads toward the door.

“You just got back, Stew. Here. Take the desk.”

“Naw. That’s okay.”

“Going to call your girlfriend?”

Stewart doesn’t answer. He doesn’t have a girlfriend. Never will. And Roy knows it. Roy loves giving everyone grief. Stewart thinks belief in God is easier than expecting a woman to desire him.

Stewart pulls his jacket close, against the cooler than usual night. He sees the acres of cars, row after row, gleaming in the moonlight. Some nights they remind him of the rows of stones in a cemetery. All polished up, with nowhere to go.

He gazed at the stars. Here, on the edge of the city, you can actually see them. A rare source of joy for Stewart.

Looking at the sky, the strains of his concerto ‘Star Stylings,’ run through his head. Inspired, but not influenced by John Cage, Stewart didn’t resort to random consultations of the I Ching to determine which star from the sky to place on the musical scale. Stewart thinks Cage’s star map compositions are clever on their face, but too brittle and discordant for Stewart’s tastes.

And Stewart felt Cage’s pretense of invoking an indifferent universe, was a fraud. How is it random if you choose the parameters of the exercise? Creation demands choice. And choices have consequences.

Stewart’s astral influences are both more grounded and lyrical. They draw on the flowing lines of the Saturn, the Mercury, the Nova, and for counterpoint, the Lotus. There was no denying cars are an integral part of his life.

The musical themes suggested by the designs of these cars, suit his yearning, romantic heart. And he likes the private joke too. Years of nightly tours of the lot, provided ample opportunities to study the graceful lines of his favorite models.

How he incorporated the tempo marking the phases of the moon, he could not explain. You would have to hear it, to understand. And maybe not even then.

How to get it heard, though. How does someone like him, a freak of nature, ever get an orchestra to play his music? Or an audience to hear? Stewart doesn’t know if such a thing as an undiscovered genius actually exists. It isn’t for him to claim that status. But being undiscovered, of that he has no doubt. He’s half-way there.

Stewart makes his way through the routine. He moves from station to station, turns the key to mark his passage and confirm all is well at this location. He trains his flashlight across the terrain, outside the fence, and down, between rows of cars. Even at the moon. No one ever breached the perimeter. Not on his watch.

His adoptive mother had high hopes for him. She loved him so much. She and her husband provided Stewart with the best education. Music. Literature. Broad cultural horizons. They, or she, did for his mind what they couldn’t for his body. Stewart learned soon enough though, intellect doesn’t draw the girls.

No matter how his mother cared, life teaches what it will. The incessant schoolyard nickname ‘Igor,’ taught him where he stood in the exacting social strata of grade school. At the bottom. The daily playground lessons in survival, toughened him in a way his mother could not. Those bullies unwittingly, did him a favor. They confirmed what he learned from his ‘father’.

Of food, clothing and shelter, he had no wants. Education? Granted. But he was never accepted. Adapt, or die.

It might have seemed strange to grow up in home always feeling like a guest that over stayed. There was always a sense he was too dim to take the hint and leave. But that was the only life he knew.

Eventually, he did leave. And now he lives independent of external influences, a night watchman. He provides security to others while maintaining visions of grandeur, with modest means. He is his own man. Mainly.

With each new generation of cars, Stewart notes the incremental changes in styling, which make all cars resemble some bland Platonic ideal. He remembers when cars were distinctive and made a statement. Now, except for their size and the emblem, a car is a car is a car. When will the pendulum turn? Does everyone really want to drive a variation of the Toyota Corolla?

Stewart admits his living circumstances are not ideal. But he chose them. They serve his purposes. Stewart and his friend Ira, live in his 1973 Lincoln Town Car, known to them as Lincoln Manor. Their joke is, they could supplement their income by subletting the spacious trunk.

They pay no rent. Their overhead is nil, save for insurance and occasional gas. They shower at the community college. And eat, wherever.

Parking tickets are their biggest expense.

Stewart recalls their last conversation. And many prior conversations, when Ira got tickets.

“How do you expect us to save money when we get multiple tickets per week?”

“I know, man. I’m sorry.”

“You’d be living the high life in Costa Rica, by now, without these things dinging us every week.”

“You think so?”

“Do the math, Ira. Tickets add up.”

“I believe you. I’m no good at math. You know that.”

“You’re missing the point. You can be with Dolores and be happy.”

Ira was an interesting case. He could have any woman he wanted. Stewart often observed Ira’s effect on the fair sex. Standing in line, or walking through a mall, women would literally flock around him. Ira had charisma to spare. There were worse things than being the wingman for a chick magnet like Ira.

Stewart enjoys talking with women. They respond to his poetic outlook on life. But he knows they never see him as more than a source for an interesting conversation. Stewart cherishes those times. But he knows his limitations. It is close to ideal.

Except Ira is attached. Dolores is his fiancé. They met online. They are in love. He is saving to join her in Costa Rica and get married. It will be a wonderful life. Ira’s been working toward this for five years.

Ira’s loyal friend, Stewart, wants for Ira what he can never have for himself. Stewart works to save enough cash for Ira to embrace his dream.

Once Ira achieves his destiny, Stewart feels his task will be complete. Then he can check out. Hang it up. Take the high dive.

Who would miss him?

Who knows? If he went to Costa Rica too, maybe he could meet a senorita who wants an ‘gringo grotesque’.

Being a security guard is a low status and low pressure job. But, also a necessary one. Stewart takes in the acres of mass produced status, under his care. Most would find it boring. But it provides Stewart with the freedom to explore his passions. It energizes him.

Some would consider him homeless. But Stewart chooses to live in his car. His mother’s sister, Aunt Jean, offered him a home with her. But she wants to mother him. Stewart isn’t a kid anymore.

And, Jean wouldn’t accept Ira. She doesn’t know him. He isn’t family. Since Stewart can’t abandon Ira, they continue on at Lincoln Manor.

Besides his music, Stewart also writes. Days off, he sits in his spacious front seat with pad and pen and works on his sonnet cycle. This is another sore spot for Stewart. Getting published.

He has almost two dozen sonnets completed. Each leads to the next. In them, Stewart grapples with questions about his humble place in the universe. He sees himself, an existential ant, but without connection to any nest. Each question leads to another. And so ‘round and ‘round it goes.

He’s composing the final one now, which ties back to the first. You could start with any and read them through, full circle. It all makes sense, regardless your entry point. Each poem begins with the final word of the one before.

But getting it published is the trick. Stewart doesn’t know the ropes. Where can someone like him find a publisher? Who buys poetry?

Making his rounds, Stewart walks the well-trodden perimeter, past car after shiny car. The rhythm of his stride serves as his metronome while composing each line.

A rabbit hops onto the path from behind a shiny new car and Stewart chuckles, remembering Roy.

“You are late, March Hare. Hop to.”

The rabbit stares and then continues on his way. Stewart considers the possibility the rabbit occupies a superior place in the universe. It isn’t plagued with useless knowledge and doubts about purpose and destiny. It doesn’t cling to fallible reason. In its innocence, the rabbit needs and conceives of nothing like salvation. The rabbit is the crown of its creation. Or is it at such peace, because it is conscious and sure of the part it plays?

Stewart looks again to the sky. What instrument or pen could connect those dots and coax out an image of the divine? He always ponders the question he would ask of this tormentor.

“God, how long?”

Once again, done with his rounds, Stewart enters the temporary office unit. Roy is still at the computer.

“Hey Stewart. Anything to report?”

“All quiet.”

“Great! You want to take a break? Dig it. I just beat my all-time high score on Tetris. Go ahead, try to beat that! Three hundred eight thousand, four hundred, nineteen!”

Stewart looks at the computer screen and nods.

“That’s amazing. You rock. Looks unbeatable to me. I’m going to take a walk.”

“Aww, man. You want some coffee or something?”

“I’m going to take in the sunrise, before I punch out.”

Stewart steps onto the gravel lot and looks to the east. The glimmers of another dawn are barely perceptible.

Cold Country

Maisie couldn’t write fast enough. She didn’t even want to pause to start a new line until her pen ran off the paper. There was so much to say in this last note.

She knew she was bad at boundaries. Even her margins – or lack of them told that story. She didn’t care though. Not anymore.  Now they would get the message.

She was a mess. That was also clear from her scrawl. Handwriting was a form of venting for her. Penmanship was a bore. If you want legibility, use movable type, was her philosophy. There was so much rage, she could hardly hold the pen.

Then she ran out of ink. Or the pen did. Maisie screamed in frustration as she threw the pen across the room. She started to sob and then let it all out, for quite a while. Until she began to feel cold.

The cold draft came in from every possible crevice. From under the door. Behind the curtains. The feeble heat emitting from the vent couldn’t compete. It seemed she was always cold. But she couldn’t sleep any more. Time to act.

Maisie looked at her unfinished note and nodded. The final word, ‘never,’ trailed off, unfinished, as the pen gave up. It was actually the perfect ending. Maisie felt she had run out of ink too. Saying nothing more was the perfect way to say it all.

~

Trent couldn’t believe how cold it was. Just yesterday, it was in the forties. He had put on shorts and his Hawaiian shirt. Spring had arrived! He walked around the park, happily greeting others as they celebrated the end of another bitter winter.

Then it clouded up, started to drizzle, and then to rain. Now it was well below zero and the world had transformed. Outside his window, the world was covered with dazzling glass. Every branch of every tree was sheathed in ice. Glazed cars were frozen in place. Their wheels embedded in gutter ice. The city had shut down. Was this how it ended?

It was terrifying and beautiful. Trent hated the cold but this was too rare, even for Minnesota.

Trent dressed for survival and went out. He walked past the extension cords, umbilicals, strung to the oil heaters of the cars parked on the street. A woman poured steaming water on her car door lock and groaned as it froze before her eyes.

It was so cold, it felt the air would break. Every sound seemed brittle.

Trent pulled out his lighter and heating his key, jammed it into the lock of his pickup. Presto! Ice shattered loudly as he pulled the door. He scraped his windshield and then paused to listen to the silence enveloping the city. No wind. Too cold for church bells.

His truck roared to life. Trent jammed it into gear and with some resistance, pulled out of his spot. This was something. There was no traffic! The snow plows hadn’t even begun to make a dent.

Trent drove downtown and laughed as he revved his engine and pulled a donut on Hennepin Avenue. Not another car in sight, for miles. No homeless out today. You’d have to be crazy to brave this weather.

He headed toward the river. Then he saw a woman walking alone. He pulled over and opened the passenger door.

“Excuse me! You need a ride?”

The woman stood and looked at him as if he were crazy. She wasn’t inclined to get into a car with a stranger. Even in this weather.

“It’s okay. I’ll drop you where you want. Get in. It’s brisk out.”

“Did you say ‘brisk’?”

“Do you want a ride, or not? I won’t force you.”

She waded through the snow, climbed in and slammed the door.

“Hi. I’m Trent. You look half frozen.”

“No surprise there.”

“Where you headed?”

“The lake.”

“Okay. That should be beautiful. No crowds.”

“Exactly.”

Trent turned up the heater and started to drive. The truck fish tailed a little until it gained traction.

“Actually, I hate the cold. Never could stand it. Even as a kid, every winter I wondered, will this be the return of the ice age? Maybe this will be it. Next year by this time, we’ll be under a mile of ice. It’s possible.”

Maisie sat silently, watching her breath vanish in the heated cab.

“You want a blanket? I always carry a blanket.”

Maisie shook her head.

“So, you might ask, ‘If you hate the cold so much, why are you the only one in five states, out driving in it?’ And that’s a pretty good question. I’ve never done well living in the margins. Everyone does it one way? I find another. I never met an envelope that couldn’t do with a little stretching.”

Maisie looked at Trent. She didn’t say anything.

Trent continued, “I used to get in trouble in school, ‘cause I’d stray over the lines in my coloring books.”

“And pick up strangers.”

Trent smiled, “I hope you won’t be offended, but you aren’t very threatening.”

Maisie stared straight ahead.

“In fact, I hate the cold so much, I think this will be my last winter here.”

Maisie mumbled, “Me too.”

“I think my life here is about to end.”

“That’s my plan.”

“There’s just no way to live here.”

“Amen.”

Trent looked at her, “You beginning to thaw out a little?”

Maisie nodded from behind her scarf.

“Tell you what. I’ll take you to the lake and all. But it’s going to be brutal there. Want to get a coffee first?”

Maisie shrugged. Trent took that as an affirmative.

“Now, where in this god forsaken town can we find a hot coffee?” Trent made a turn. “I bet there’s something open over on University. Or maybe down by the airport. We can try the river too. I bet it’s beautiful. That’s the thing. It’s so friggin’ cold. But look at it. Where can you see beauty like this?”

The low sun shone brilliantly through the ice laden trees, which amplified the shine tenfold.

“It’s like, once in a lifetime you see that. I would’ve brought my camera, but was afraid it would freeze up.”

They drove along the deserted river road. The low sun made a rainbow through the steam rising from breaks in the ice.

“I mean, look at this. A storm like this… You’d think it would have a name. They name hurricanes.” Trent put on an accent. “Yeah, ‘You remember that blizzard back in ’19? Ole. Yeah. Ole. That was a cold one.’ Of course, every year they’d name the biggest storm Ole. Easier to remember.”

Rounding a bend, they hit a patch of black ice and spun a one-eighty. Trent fought the wheel and they came to rest against the snow bank.

“Whoa! Sorry about that. You okay?”

“That was scary. I thought we were supposed to be stopping someplace.”

“We will. Stay here while I check our situation.” Trent pulled his gloves on and exited the pickup. Maisie watched him as he made his way around the truck. He braced himself and pushed against it. Nothing moved. Trent came back around and got in.

“Boy, it’s cold out there. Doesn’t appear to be any damage. Let me see if I can get it out without digging.”

Trent revved the engine but the wheels whined as they spun against the ice. He tried rocking it from forward to reverse, but nothing worked.

He sighed. “The bed is too light. Can’t get any traction.” Trent reached behind the seat and took the blanket with him out into the cold.

He jammed the blanket under the driving wheel and then got back in. This added remedy did the trick. The blanket flew out behind them as they pulled away from the bank. The truck fishtailed as they made their way back onto the highway.

“What about the blanket?”

“I can get another. I want to keep going.”

“But what if we need it?”

The tires crunched on the crusty snow as Trent stopped the truck. He ran and grabbed the blanket. He threw it into the bed and got back into the truck. He revved the engine again, starting slowly to ensure traction. He didn’t want to slide again.

They rode in silence for a while. Then Trent broke the tension, “Sorry about that. Wouldn’t be good to offer you a ride and then take a detour into the river.”

“Agreed.”

“Look!” Trent pointed ahead to a truck stop at the bend. They pulled in and parked. There were only two other cars in the lot.

They went in and found a booth. Trent signaled for two coffees. “Do you want breakfast? Or anything?”

“I’m okay.”

The waitress brought the coffees. Trent ordered a side of toast.

He looked at Maisie. “So, where do you think you’ll go?”

“What do you mean?”

“I said I was going to leave. Can’t do winter any more. I was thinking the South. Or California.”

“I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. What would you do?”

“I’m open. Farm eggplants. Work on a fishing boat. Have truck will travel.”

“Really? Eggplants?”

“That’s a joke I tell myself. You know, not enough eggplants in the world.”

“Too many, if you ask me.”

“Anyway. I figure, with my truck, and my back, I can always find work.”

The waitress brought the toast. Trent offered Maisie a slice. She said no. Maisie watched him spread jelly on a slice. Then he offered it to her.

“Do you mind?”

“Of course not. It’s for you.”

Maisie reached for it and then Trent pulled it out of her reach. She pulled her hand back, confused.

“You need to tell me your name, though.” He pushed the plate toward her.

“Oh, I forgot. I’m Maisie.”

“Hi Maisie. So, if you survive your visit to the lake, what’s your plan after that?”

Maisie swallowed and sipped her coffee. “I didn’t really have any plans after that.”

Trent looked at her while he chewed his toast.

“This may seem out of left field. But think about it. You don’t need to answer now.”

“What?”

“We both said we need a change of scene. Think about it. What if we blow this pop stand? Together, I mean.”

“I don’t get you.”

“I just mean. Well, I’m inviting you to leave the state with me. Let’s head out. Get a fresh start. Somewhere warm.”

“I don’t know you. I don’t know anything about you.”

“I didn’t mean we leave today. But think about it. We have until spring, or summer. We could talk about where we want to go.”

“I don’t know…”

“That’s okay. I was just babbling.”

The waitress returned to the table. “Can I get you anything else?”

Trent looked at Maisie.

She looked at Trent with a half-smile. “Do you mind? I have money.”

“Go ahead. I’m in no hurry.”

Maisie turned to the waitress. “I’d just like to see what’s on the menu, please. And some more coffee.”

The waitress left. Maisie leaned forward a little. “So really, Trent. Tell me about eggplants.”

The Shadow Wine

a fiction by John K. Adams

The Shadow Wine restaurant featured a large mural in its main dining room. It depicted a young woman lit by a single candle, holding her glass of wine up to her lover who responded in kind, from the shadows.

Everyone loved its subdued colors, golden highlights and mystery. People ate dinners and debated, why was the lover in shadow? Was it actually her reflection in a mirror, or perhaps her lover’s ghost? Once, the local television station did a segment about the restaurant. It featured interviews with the artist and Shadow Wine’s owner, Marco Constantine.

Of course, the main attraction was the exquisite food, prepared and presented with attention to exciting all the senses. Rodrigo Cortez, the chef and partner, studied at the best European culinary schools.

Customers, especially women, asked their waitress, Miriam, if she modeled for the painting. She denied it. Though meant as a compliment to her beauty, Miriam wanted no association with the famous mural.

She had waitressed at the Shadow Wine for a long time. People asked for her when making their reservations. Some people referred to the place as ‘Miriam’s’.

Tonight was the most difficult of the year. The place was packed for Valentine’s Day. There was a waiting list. Miriam enjoyed serving her many loyal customers. Those couples wanting to share a romantic evening at their favorite restaurant. There were many happy, hopeful, young couples here tonight. The air was filled with musical laughter.

But Miriam wished she could share a meal with her lover, instead of working this night. Every year, it was the same. Miriam ate alone.

Shadow Wine was famous for its warm, intimate environment. It was a grand night out. But couples felt they were enjoying a private party. And no clean-up afterwards.

Miriam couldn’t understand the popularity of restaurants designed with the industrial efficiency and acoustics of a factory.

But she would happily give up a week’s work, to eat at one of those, if she could do so with the love of her life. Miriam was alone.

She had known some customers for years. Though they matured together, some couples never seemed to grow old. She looked at the women. They were loved.

“Why them, and not me?” she wondered. Many commented on her beauty. She knew she was more beautiful than many. She often saw women and men watching her. But having beauty was not the secret. They had someone. And she did not.

Some regulars would come in, always with someone different. Men who wouldn’t, or couldn’t sustain a relationship beyond a single dinner at a good restaurant, seemed odd to Miriam. But the women who came in often, but unattached, seemed to be auditioning. As if they wanted Miriam’s approval. Flaunting their ability to ‘catch’ the eye of many. They missed the point.

The Josephson’s came in. They were favorites. Mr. Josephson, Charlie, embraced Miriam like an old friend. Emma kissed her cheek. They treated her well. Miriam could never understand what he saw in, Emma. She was never a beauty. What did she have?

They sat at their regular table, sharing a bottle of their favorite pinot noir. Speaking low and laughing heartily. They truly enjoyed each other’s company. The candle light made their eyes shine.

Charlie smiled at Miriam, “A fixed menu. You have it easy tonight, eh Miriam? I don’t know how you memorize all those specials, every night.”

“I can teach you. It isn’t that hard. Fish? Beef? Veal? Chicken? What’s the sauce? No one listens anyway.” They laughed together. They’d had this conversation many times.

Emma took Miriam’s hand and said, “Thank you for giving up your night to be here. It wouldn’t be the same without you.”

Watching her reflection in a mirror, Miriam sometimes mimicked Emma’s attitude, her mannerisms, and her laughter. Not to mock, but to divine what sparked the attraction. Miriam knew she lacked some inner… something. No mask or pretense could provide it. What was the shape of that hole inside her?

Had she become an ice queen? Remote and unapproachable? Did she depend so, on her looks, she had become the mountain unassailable?

It wasn’t as if she had never been with anyone. There weren’t many. Those she shared time with, always drifted away. It never went deep. Miriam concluded, men cannot go there.

Except for Everett. He was the one who got away. Except that he didn’t. He lingered on the periphery of her life. Always had. It just never moved out of the shallows. What ever happened to Everett? She never knew when he would call. Or if.

Of course, everyone assumed she was ‘spoken for.’ Marco, thanked her.

“It’ll be a good night for you, hmmm? Lots of tips you can spend on something for your boyfriend. Thank you so much for making yourself available tonight. You’re a dear. It would be a madhouse without you. I can’t believe Silvia called in sick. I’ve had it. She’s out.”

Miriam nodded and smiled. It would be a lucrative evening. Small compensation for giving up what she didn’t have.

Tommy, the dishwasher, always seemed happy and full of life. He was still young. He didn’t know better.

“You have plans for later, Tommy?”

“Of course! Sally and I have a late dinner. That is, if I can get out from under this mountain.” Tommy laughed as he spread his arms to indicate the counter covered with dirty plates. “We’ll do our real Valentine’s on my night off. Are you getting away early?”

“You know me, Tommy. I always have plans for later.”

The Pilchards were another story. When they came in, they barely spoke. Miriam doubted they said a dozen words to each other, the whole evening.

They ordered, stared at their plates and didn’t dawdle. Dessert? Hah! But they tipped well.

Miriam expected they wouldn’t notice if she seated them at separate tables. Yet, here they were on Valentine’s. Saving their passion for later, no doubt.

She didn’t envy that couple. “I don’t care. Whatever she has. I don’t want it,” she said to herself.

The night went fast. Always does when it’s busy. Miriam hated standing around. She’d fold napkins to pass the time. But tonight there wasn’t even time for a break.

She helped close up. Marco sent the others home. Miriam prepped the tables for tomorrow’s lunch.

It was finally quiet and dark. She sat, kicked off her shoes, poured herself a glass of red and just sat, looking at the low burning candle. Then Miriam lifted her glass and toasted her lover in the shadows.

 

Let Me Explain

I was settling in for a quiet evening at home, when I got a call from my friend Cal. He sounded strange, with an edge to his voice bordering on panic. But there was also something about his tone that sounded like he was about to float away on the slightest breeze.

I hadn’t seen him in weeks, so agreed to meet with him. He needed to talk.

When I got to the café, Cal was already camped in a booth. He spotted me and came toward me with the urgency of a freshly minted zealot. I thought he must be leaving and cleared his path. But he grabbed me and pulled me back to the table.

“Where have you been, Sam? I’m ready to explode.”

“I came straight away. Are you alright?”

“I had an extraordinary experience and need to talk with someone. Thanks for coming out. I know it’s late.”

“So, shoot. What’s happening?”

Cal looked at me with an intensity I’d never seen. His stare was so penetrating, I felt he would crawl in and discover some deep secret. Not that I have any of those.

I looked away and caught the eye of the waitress.

Cal started, “You’ve known me for a while. I hope you don’t think I’m crazy.”

“You are one of the saner people I know, Cal.”

“I’m not sure you answered me, but thanks. Maybe it’s because of my childhood, but I never felt I belonged anywhere.”

“Pretty common. We’re a mobile society.”

“I once estimated I stayed no more than eighteen months, anywhere I ever lived.”

“Even as a kid?”

“Especially as a kid. I never went to the same school twice, until high school. And I went to two of those.”

“Wow!”

The waitress brought my coffee and looked at us, waiting. I told her, “A plain omelet, with an English muffin, light butter.” Cal waved her away. Just coffee for him.

“So, I always felt displaced. An orange in the avocado bin. But then this happened in that bookstore, up Cahuenga.”

“Yeah, once I was there for hours. Like time stopped. It’s incredible. They have more books than a library. It feels strange, all those books. I like to read, but… who has the time?”

“So, back to what I was saying. Everyone feels like they’re the hero of their own life, right?”

“I guess. I haven’t seen a western for years. The whole genre kind of died. Does anyone even write westerns anymore?”

“Whatever. What I’m saying is, I don’t even feel like I’m part of my own life anymore. Let alone being the hero.”

“Uh huh. But…”

“And I’m in this bookstore but it stopped being a bookstore. You know what I mean? It was like all these souls were in there, waiting on the shelves. Waiting to be picked up and looked at. You know, really seen. Waiting…”

“Wait.” I got a phone call. I hate getting them. I mean why’s someone calling at that time of night? It turned out to be nothing and I turned it off. I hate phones. Don’t get me started.

Cal was stirring his cold coffee. I said, “Sorry about that. You were looking at books?”

“I was hearing something. I thought it was some guy in a car outside with his stereo way up. And then I realized it’s my own heart beating. Really loud.”

“Don’t take this wrong, man. But, are you high?”

“You aren’t following me, Sam. It was actually calming. I felt alive. I was aware. Like when you’re watching a thunderstorm but you’re safe inside?”

“Did it rain?”

“No.”

“Once it was thundering so loud, I just hit the floor. It was instinct. I felt like I was at ground zero in an artillery barrage. I thought it was all over.”

“I mean, it felt like when you’re in a subway station, or downtown and it’s deserted. There should be people around but it’s big and empty and strange?”

“So the bookstore was empty?”

“No. But I realized that everyone. Not just in the store, but every-one, every-where, was going about their lives, trying to get through the day in one piece and care for their loved ones. Like I do, unconsciously, all the time. Sleepwalking through life. But I saw it all. Their pasts, their futures… their sadness. Everything. The weight of their lives, bravely borne…”

“Doesn’t it drive you crazy. I mean do we ever get to know anyone? Really? Do we ever?”

“So that’s why I called, Sam. I had to tell someone because I was feeling like it would all fade away. Like when you wake up from some life changing, earth shaking dream. And by the time you’ve brushed your teeth, you don’t even remember it.”

“Oh, I forgot…” I was talking to the waitress. She brought my omelet. “Could I get a side of pancakes too? And some more coffee. Thanks!” The waitress left.

I turned back to Cal. “Yeah. Sometimes I wish I didn’t care so much about things. I just feel so much. Like when, say you go to Yosemite and it is pretty as a picture, right? So you take this perfect shot of this perfect view. And then you realize everyone since Ansel Adams took the same picture from the same, exact vantage point. We’re talking millions of pictures here. It’s tragic. Like there’s footprints in the concrete, and a little sign saying, ‘Stand Here for Pictures’.”

I wiped my mouth. My omelet was the best ever. The restaurant deserved a plaque. Eating and talking at the same time though, is something I never mastered.

Cal sipped his coffee, sighed and then laid it out. “I don’t know. It was such an immense feeling. I don’t have words for it. Like I turned a corner into an alternate universe. My perspective has always been so narrow. And then… the world opened up. Things were glowing, crackling with energy. Words can’t do…”

I put my fork down and leaned forward. “I’ve always been frustrated, trapped inside my skin. I always wished I could be everywhere at once. You know? But to be stuck in one body, in one time and place… It’s so limited. Can you say, ‘pedestrian’?”

Cal had that strange, sad look in his eye again. “I shouldn’t have called. It’s late.”

“No, I get it, Cal. Look, it’s like stereoscopic vision. I shut one eye and I see you there. I switch eyes and, oops, suddenly, you’re over there! But where the hell are we, really? You know?”

Cal looked at me. Then he shut his mouth and settled back into the booth. He sipped his coffee and just stared. I kept the momentum going, since he wasn’t going to talk.

“You know what I mean, don’t you? ‘Be a jerk. Go to work. Same ‘ol, same ‘ol. How ‘bout them Dodgers? Think it’ll rain?’ It gets tedious. You know what I mean.”

I think I was helping him a bit. Cal had calmed down. Whatever he was on, was wearing off. I wanted to help him into a soft landing.

So I continued. “I tell you. I get so sick of the day to day grind. Don’t you wish you could be in a plane crash and get your picture in the paper? Just once? Go out with a splash. Right?”

Cal pushed his empty cup away, slipped a fiver under the saucer and stood up.

I couldn’t believe it. “Where you goin’, man? You gonna leave? I’m not finished.”

He looked at me with a look of complete peace. I guessed I’d helped him after all.

Then he said something that made no sense. He was mumbling to himself. And then he said ‘Ephemeral’. At least that’s what I thought he said. Then he walked away. I never saw him again.

‘Ephemeral.’ What the hell is that?

Wedding Dance

“Look at her. My Alice. Getting married. But not to me.”

Bill took in the scene and pondered his options. Less than none.

Alice, his love since kindergarten walked down the aisle on Daddy Dickie’s arm. She was smiling, but Bill could see the truth no one else could.

They grew up together. In first grade, Alice’s sister Emily, stole a cigar ring from Dickie’s humidor and married Alice to Bill over Easter break. They were just playing then. But to Bill, that was a rehearsal for the real thing.

Funny that sister Em, would not be here for this wedding. Was her absence a statement?

To Bill, this was theater at its most tragic. Alice was being offered on an altar of expediency. And Bill could only stand by, helpless to change anything. He was the Best Man, and should be the Groom.

“When Pastor Frank asks if there is any reason these two should not be joined in Holy Matrimony, I could have a break down, a coughing fit, an attack of PTSD. I could lose the ring. But diversionary tactics would be of no use.”

If Alice withdrew, Bill imagined a formidable offensive line of women who would rush the altar to marry his brother Dan. He wouldn’t want to get trampled in the stampede. Someone needs to speak up. There would be a Hallelujah Chorus, if someone but spoke.

And no one will. Dickie would see to that. People said the reason Dickie was not on Mt. Rushmore, was not because they ran out of mountain. But that Dickie didn’t want to share the space. Bill had never seen Dickie go this long without a phone to his head.

After Bill came home with his war injury, Dickie called him ‘half a man’. Who did Dickie think he was, Hemingway?

Everyone was just furniture in the room Dickie called his life. And he arranged it how he wanted. Bill thought, “My wooden leg doesn’t make me half a man, Dickie. In your book it makes me half a lamp stand. What makes a man is something else altogether.”

Dickie’s protégé, Dan, was rising in the law firm, would soon be named partner and would be set.

When Bill was overseas, Dan stepped in to fill the emotional gap for Alice. And of course, Alice made her choices.

Bill couldn’t deny his two year stint in the Army helped sour the deal. Why did he leave? That was stupid. Long distance romance is for fairy tales.

Bill startled from his reverie. Did I just hear Pastor Frank say, “We are gathered here today, blah, blah, blah…”?

Someone said, “Cut to the chase Frank. People are getting hungry.” That got a laugh.

Of course, this is the rehearsal. Tomorrow was the ‘big day’. Anything could happen between now and then. But it wouldn’t.

Bill looked at Pastor Frank and remembered when they were kids. He somehow always won at king of the hill. Even when everyone ganged up on him. Then he went on to be their high school star quarterback. Frank was always big.

Everyone he’d known his whole life was there. To Bill, it felt like they were still playing pretend. But they weren’t.

Alice stood next to Dan. She smiled at Bill with moist eyes. He never could look at her without a smile. She always did that to him. He looked away.

“Of course, if she goes through with this, I’ll have to reconsider my feelings for her,” thought Bill.

Dan faced him with his hand out. He wanted the ring. Bill pulled it from his pocket and feigned dropping it. Everyone laughed. That was Bill. Always cutting up.

Dan gave him his stern, big brother, ‘Don’t do this. Not now,’ look.

Bill returned with his best, ‘Back at you, bro. Speak for yourself,’ smile.

Dan’s phone rang. He glanced at Dickie who gave him a look. Dan handed the ring back to Bill. “Stand in for me. Can you do that?” He walked to the rear of the church with his earwig already in place.

Bill stepped forward with a smile at Frank. “Pretend I’m Dan.” Frank nodded.

Then he turned to Alice with a smile. “Remember…?”

“I do, Bill.”

Bill pantomimed putting the ring on Alice’s finger. He leaned forward, but Alice dodged his kiss. She gave him a little frown. “You do know I’m with Dan now?”

Bill nodded. There was nothing to say after that. He slipped the ring back  into his pocket.

Frank wrapped it up. “So, that’s it then. If there’s no questions, we will see you all here tomorrow, at eleven a.m., sharp.”

Dickie called out the restaurant where they were all meeting.

Alice looked for Dan and he waved to her from the back. Smiling people milled about.

One of the bride’s maids, Melissa, came up behind Bill and touched his elbow. “She’d have a harem if she could.”

Bill turned to her. “Hi Mellie. You mean Alice?”

“She has Dan. Why tease you, like that?”

Bill struggled to understand. “Oh, well. We go way back…”

“We all go way back. When you put the cigar band on her finger? It could have been a bracelet.”

“You were there?”

“Always.”

“Of course. Melissa! I, uh…”

“It’s amazing how things can change in just a couple decades…”

“And yet, it seems like nothing’s really different.”

“How long have you been back?”

Bill looked down. “A few months.”

“Rather not talk about it?”

“No. I can talk. Not much to say.”

“Can I buy you a drink?”

“I should get to the dinner.”

Melissa cocked her head. “You’re kidding, right? Come on.”

Bill laughed. She took his hand.

Melissa parked across from her local hang out and they went in. They found a table and she signaled the waitress.

Bill looked around and laughed. “I’ll give you this, Mellie. If I ever need a dive, I’ll know who to call.”

“You’ve never been here?”

“Not recently.”

The waitress brought two bottles of beer to the table.

Melissa clinked hers to Bill’s. “Welcome home.”

“Long time.” Bill drank and looked around. “Some of these characters look like they were here before the bar was built.” Bill finished his beer and waved for another.

“I didn’t know you were back, ‘till tonight. What’ve you been up to?”

“Got a job. Taking it slow. Can’t quite catch the beat.”

Melissa watched Bill lean back and stare at the table.

“Was it scary?”

Bill gave her a blank look. Then he pointed at his leg. “You mean this? It was over before scary rolled out of bed.” Bill looked at the ceiling fan. “You know those little guys that march around every hour on those old town clocks?”

“Hitting the chime with a hammer?”

“Yeah. The whole thing played out like clockwork. Once it started, we just watched it unfold and there was nothing we could do but go through our preset motions.”

“You knew?”

“It was like a slow motion dream.”

Melissa covered her mouth.

“I’m okay. Others… They called me Jazz.”

“Why Jazz?”

“You know… they drill us ‘til we can do it in our sleep. Break down, rebuild our weapon. All the routines that allow us to survive… Coordinating… knowing everyone’s next move.”

“Yeah…”

“I made a comment one day… you know, we all knew each other so well, if something happened, we could adapt. So I said, it was like being so comfortable, there’s room to play in the space between the notes. You can improvise.”

“So they call you Jazz?”

“And there were  already two Bills when I joined the unit…”

“Do you play?”

“A little bass. Not anymore.”

Melissa waved the waitress over.

Bill smiled, “I was going to do that. This one’s on me.”

~

The wedding went about as they usually do. It was party time. Everyone was in a swirl of celebration. Alice and Dan were the perfect couple. Everyone said so. They looked happy together.

After dinner, Melissa found Bill sitting alone, tapping time to the band with a knife.

Melissa clapped when the song ended. “You alright?”

“I’m fine.”

“I was a little woozy this morning. But coffee…”

“I’m good.”

The band started another song.

Melissa touched Bill’s arm. “Let’s dance.”

Bill shook his head. “I don’t dance, Mellie. You know…”

“Come on, Jazz. Show me the Syncopation Strut. I’ll try to keep up.”

Bill looked at her with an, ‘are you really going to do this?’ stare.

“Come on, Bill. You owe me one dance. You know you want to.”

Bill couldn’t help but smile. He pushed his chair back. “You know, I’m no Fred Astaire.”

“Good. Ginger just left the building. Just promise you won’t dip me.”

“Promise…” They laughed together.

They made their way to the edge of the dance floor and moved somewhat stiffly until they found the rhythm. Then it began to look like fun.

They danced past the main table. Alice’s eyes tracked them as they moved by. Dan was on his phone.

“Are you going to dance with the bride?”

“Wasn’t planning to. Word on the street… she’s a married woman now.”

The music ended. Bill bowed deeply and Melissa curtsied and laughed. She thanked him and started back toward the table. Bill caught her elbow and asked for another dance.

“I thought you’d never ask.” Bill took her into his arms. Melissa put her head on his shoulder. The music started on cue.

 

Comeuppance

Dr. Razz felt some anxiety about his next client, Mr. Miller.

“How did I get to this point?” he asked himself. “Step by step,” he answered.

Had he gone too far? Did he cross a line? Almost certainly. But “Never retreat,” had been drilled into him while in the national service. Fate had brought him to this. His solution was not to dig in his heels but to commit, take command of his slippery slope and turn it into a headlong charge. “Damn the torpedos!”

Dr. Gene Rasmussen, Master of Hypnosis, was proud of his practice of twenty years. His clients called him Dr. Razz. He had helped many people, from celebrities to the indigent, with his particular skill of “pulling the rug back from your mind,” as he liked to put it. People’s lives had been renewed.

Dr. Razz knew that with Mr. Miller, he may have not only pulled back the rug, but actually ripped up the sub-floor and perhaps started excavating the ground beneath the foundation. All of this was done of course, without the slightest knowledge, or permission of his client.

No one would blame him. Anyone would do the same. But now, his whole career and life was at stake.

Of course, he wasn’t actually a doctor of hypnosis. No such degrees are available. Dr. Razz felt his doctorate was for something more mundane, as if being a doctor of anything is mundane. He didn’t have the shingle on his wall. It was never mentioned. Hypnotism was all he was known for. He earned his fame in that specialty. All that was now in jeopardy, but for a good cause. Dr. Razz was going to take his stand.

He traced the beginnings of his unfortunate, ethical compromise to a little game he started playing early in his practice. Testing how far his clients had ‘gone under,’ he would ask a series of penetrating questions. Not too personal, mind you, like, “Do you pick your nose?” But something slightly off putting, which, should the client balk, would indicate the client had not yet surrendered access to the innermost doors of their subconscious. No harm was done. It amused him.

He rarely caught a client pretending to be hypnotized. But Dr. Razz had no patience for fakes.

Eventually, when he was sure the client had indeed, descended that stairway deeply into their subconscious, he began asking some truly shocking questions.

Well, now he found himself in a bind. This particular client answered honestly and Dr. Razz half wished he had never asked it. He could refer Mr. Miller to another hypnotist, but what reason could he offer to justify it? That might create an even worse situation.

No. Dr. Razz was determined to follow this to its inevitable conclusion. Honor required it.

Joseph Miller originally came to Dr. Razz for help in combating obesity. He had started dating someone and wanted to improve his appearance and so also, his self-confidence. They were making good progress.

The cause of Dr. Razz’ pain was, Mr. Miller was seeing Dr. Razz’ wife, Sophia.

His receptionist buzzed him and said Mr. Miller was waiting in the lounge. “Ah, Mr. Miller,” said Dr. Razz with anticipation. He pulled Miller’s file up on the computer and nodded grimly to himself. “Are you ready?”

Dr. Razz greeted Mr. Miller at the door, calling him ‘Joseph’. They shook hands. Miller was familiar with the routine and sat in the chair opposite Dr. Razz.

Mr. Miller affirmed the treatments were bearing fruit. He had lost weight and felt better about himself.

“And your lady friend?” asked Dr. Razz.

“Better all the time,” replied Mr. Miller. “I’m seeing her tonight.”

Dr. Razz grunted. “We must fix you up but good, then. Let us begin.”

The doctor instructed Mr. Miller to concentrate on his breath and to imagine himself descending a stairway, down, down… down.

Mr. Miller pictured himself walking down circular stone steps lit by flaming torches, as might be seen in a movie about a castle dungeon. The torches cast flickering light on the deeply shadowed stone walls.

When he reached the bottom step, Mr. Miller signaled. He imagined a banquet room, bright with candlelight and gauzy drapery and flowers. The table was set for two.

Dr. Razz spoke with an even, gentle tone. “When you sit down for dinner, no matter how much you love the food, half a plateful will satisfy you completely. You find female voices annoy you. If a woman speaks to you, respond with strong impatience. Speak with anger and aggressive authority. Your rage filled words will be enough. Your verbal message will forcefully overcome any resistance. Do you understand?”

Mr. Miller nodded. Dr. Razz had to stifle his laughter at this master stroke. His wife will be terrified by Miller’s angry outburst. And that will be that. She will come running back to him.

Dr. Razz gently reminded Mr. Miller that he would not consciously remember their conversation, but he would act in accordance with everything he said. Mr. Miller nodded in agreement. Dr. Razz snapped his fingers and Mr. Miller awakened.

Mr. Miller stretched and said he felt refreshed. He thanked Dr. Razz for all his assistance. They shook hands and Mr. Miller exited.

Dr. Razz felt great. He would soon have his Sophie back. And all would be well.

~

Sophia had the table set for two and everything was ready. She lit the candles and it all looked perfect. Joseph will be so surprised, she thought. Sophia looked once more into the mirror and was pleased at what she saw. She wore a new dress and loved how it flattered her figure.

She heard Joseph’s signature knock and Sophia opened the door for him. His eyes lit up when he saw the table set the way he had imagined during his session. Gentle music played on the stereo.

Sophia embraced him and led him, without speaking, to the table. He could smell the roast she had prepared and smiled as she brought the platter and served him.

They ate in silence. Sophia wondered if anything was wrong. He was so quiet.

Joseph pushed his plate away. Sophia felt anxious when she saw he had left half the food on his plate.

“Did you like your dinner, Joe? Can I get you anything else?”

Joseph slapped his napkin onto the table and pushed his chair back. He stood abruptly and leaned forward between the candles.

He spoke with barely controlled rage. “The food was good, Sophia. I ate my fill. If I wanted more I would have asked for it.”

Sophia was taken aback. She didn’t know how to react to Joseph’s behavior. She tried to mollify him.

“Would you like some dessert then? I made a pie.”

Joseph blew out the candles. “No, Sophia. I do not want dessert. I’m through with dinner. I want silence. Do you understand?”

Sophia left her chair and ran to Joseph. She embraced him. “Ohhhh, Joseph! What has come over you? You tiger!”

“Will you be quiet! Say nothing!”

Sophia kissed Joseph passionately and led him into the bedroom. She could only think how wonderful it was to finally get a manly man.

All Joseph could think was, “That Dr. Razz is a genius.”