Fiction

Every Day is Sunday

by Peter Bracking

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Ross groans almost inaudibly. He rolls on the hard bed and this causes the phlegm in the lungs to shift and out pops a single soft cough that cannot be stifled. Before he opens his eyes the door is being squeaked open allowing the forty five pound black and white mutt to jump on the bed ready to stick to Ross’ side, from the moment of entry the dog could always see his face. In the doorway is Pavel. He is rubbing a finger under his nose. His one good eye winks and he is gone leaving the door open. The pisote, ten pounds of terror, leaps into the room to ensure the dog has not given it the slip. The beginning of the morning ritual.

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Ross ablutes. Leaves the room, squeaking the door closed and uselessly telling the dog to ‘stay’ outside he pushes his way into the Pole’s room. Pavel is in his forties, tight brown curls with a knife scar that runs from his eye to the edge of his chin. He is medium height. He weighs about four pounds if he is holding a small barracuda. He is sitting on the bones of his ass bouncing on the edge of his bed. He is a bit flushed and his blind eye always looks as if it is staring directly at Ross.

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“Something to wake up with.” It is always a statement and always a necessity for him. Ross sits on the only chair as he does every morning knowing by afternoon he would search corners for mythical rocks. “Ja,” Pavel smiles for the first time.

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The rooms are two of four on the floor. Only two rooms are ever occupied. The rooms are cubes 10×10 with one corner plumbed with a shower that works if you use a bucket and not the faucet and a toilet with a cistern that doubles as the room safe guarded internally by intricate spider webs that operates the same way. Two walls are windows. Floors, walls, and ceilings are unpainted, untreated concrete. The window is spiked shut, concrete gouged out below the frame in number of places where the long spikes were much stronger than the concrete the window was eventually anchored to. Grey, grey, grey is the décor. There is a ceiling fan with about a four foot wingspan that does work when there is electricity in town and a table to go with the chair that Ross occasionally wobbles on.

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Pavel and Ross are the outcasts of the white population of about twelve. They live in a hotel on the beach. In the Garifuna part of town, the black part of town, with the descendants of the failed slave revolt on St. Vincent Island off the coast of Venezuela. They are anathema to the upstanding white population that are there to stretch their civilized pension dollars. As if the two of them could ever give a shit.

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The thin Pole has been there about a year and Ross has been dragged down the short corridor every morning for about six months now. Ross wondered why he ever complained about it to himself.

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Pavel had told his story even if Ross would not break his own vow never to reveal his. Pavel told him that he had slummed in most of the capitols of Europe. In a whirlpool of drugs. That he preferred an Italian winter to a Scottish summer. Ross got the idea that the Pole knew how to get by on nothing everywhere he went. Pavel told him that he learned to speak English in prison in Morocco. His scar was born there too. He thought some Arab had been giving him the eye and so tried to give him a blow job in the shower one hot morning. He had lost his eye in the ensuing knife fight. He told Ross that he had simply fallen in love with the wrong big fucking Arab. Morocco was his third prison and after his release his family would not suffer him to return to Gdansk, they could not stand the idea that he was even on the same continent as they were. He got a fat monthly allowance to stay very far away. This thin strip of brown beach was very far away. Pavel was one of the many remittance men Ross had met. But that is another story.

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He was an addict. If it could be liquified and sucked into a rocket that he could poke into a vein it was good by him. Pavel spent more money on syringes than Ross spent on food. Pavel’s problem was that it was impossible for him to get high alone. He did not just want company, someone to sit there and to talk but someone who was high as well. Hence every morning the door squeak and the finger under the nose.

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It can’t be later than nine am as he has not heard: “Rosco, su desayuno!” shouted up from below. For some reason that he could never figure out it was impossible for his neighbours to call him by his single syllabled name, always adding the ‘co’. Ross always thought that Pavel could never wait until after breakfast and if Ross did not stir he would wake him. Ross, unfortunately, never could sleep that long to find out. There is small time element then as all that needs to be done must be done before the breakfast call. The first round anyway.

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This particular stretch of beach was part of the cocaine trial from Columbia. Most of it came off the cargo ships that unloaded across the bay, a one- time training ground for the mercenaries that fought as Contras in the most recent American intervention in Nicaragua. A great deal of uncut cocaine moved through and around the tiny town that they lived in. Pavel is in heaven.

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The first thing that he does is hand Ross a rather new copy of an Estonian/Spanish dictionary left by the only previous occupant of the grey room. Ross is the only person who uses it and he never opens the book. Pavel smiles more broadly now, his scar stretching his face into a grimace that actually looks like pain. Then it begins.

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Pavel leans over and searches through the papers, empty match boxes, cigarette butts, the occasional bit of food, the general mess found on any junky’s table. He finds nothing. Then he searches in the drawer. More paper, useless junk, a tablespoon with the bowl blackened thick with carbonation that he sets aside, bottle caps, match boxes, even paper clips, but not what he seeks. His smile gets wider with frustration. The appearance of pain palpable. He moves his bones off the bed, gets on his sharp knees and looks under the bed where there is nothing and never has been anything. He walks over to his suitcase abandoned in a corner of the room throws it open, searching deep into the emptiness and finding nothing. Ross can hear the dog outside whine some communication to the pisote. Pavel stands in the middle of the room his head and good eye turning wildly around. Ross begins to wonder how long until the breakfast shout. Pavel is breathing heavily now, sweat is beading on his forehead. Ross says nothing. He knows better. Pavel finally has a brainstorm, looks over his shoulder to see if Ross is looking and when he assures himself that Ross is staring out of the window at the palms, reaches up to the ceiling fan and there, exactly where it always is, on one of the wings, is a very large bag of high grade coca which he plucks down with a heavy sigh of relief. Success. This takes about ten minutes from the beginning to the end. Every morning. If Ross is ever foolish enough to mention where the dope is Pavel gets paranoid, thinking that Ross is watching where it hides to steal it. Ross has nothing but time. This is Pavel’s ritual, not his. And who is Ross to say anything about it? Both waiting and the counting of time are meaningless when compared to the eternal rhythm of the ocean a few meters below and across the street.

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By now there is at least one cantina blasting Bob Marley outside. Another will start up playing different Marley at a competitive volume within moments. Kids are shouting and will be playing. Young ones jumping a hank of frayed rope removed from an equally frayed, now useless net. Older boys rolling a dead tire through the dust with a stick. The bars on the corner are open and will be beginning to fill. Two bars, eleven posts at widely varying angles planted in the sand with a plywood seat nailed onto the tops is the total seating arrangement. Life trudges on. Outside.

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Pavel’s eye is locked on the bag, quarter ounce or half ounce.

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Back to the table and Pavel digs out a new rocket and places it precisely at the edge. He takes the four month old newspaper and opens it on his lap. He carefully opens the bulging bag. Now he takes back the dictionary. He picks up his tablespoon. He fills the tablespoon and dumps it onto the book. There is usually a gram or two of the yellowed grains in a little hillock. He covers the hillock with a matchbook, to stop it blowing off but the window is nailed shut and the only other possible source for moving air is the fan which is never turned on. He hands the book with it’s carefully covered hillock carefully back to Ross, Pavel’s partner in dreams. “This is for you.” Again, the same as every other morning.

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He fills his spoon again with the yellow coca, looks at Ross who finds a reason to turn away, and immediately unfolds the few thin pounds around his bones standing to replace his precious bag on the always still wing of the fan. Then he adds a drip of water to the concoction while Ross lights a candle. Pavel hovers the spoon steadily over it and the dope and water begin to bubble immediately. He fills the rocket and looks at Ross. Ross must always be first so he cuts a big line out. Pavel smiles, reaches over and flips papers, with a blind hand, and passes over a crisp tightly rolled American hundred dollar bill. Ross honks back a good part of his hillock. As soon as Ross lifts his head Pavel pokes the rocket into his arm and plunges into his dream. Moments later after his head falls back onto his greasy pillow and Pavel is on another planet. He will remain, in his dream, on another planet or in another dimension for about ten or fifteen minutes. Pavel does not fuck around with his dope. His plan is to get fucked up so small doses are a waste of his life.

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Ross has to piss to beat the band and now is the moment to make a move. He slips out as politely quietly as he can and zips down the three flights with both dog and pisote trying to trip him believing misguidedly as animals tend to do that they are off for a walk. Ross slows and smiles at the black family who adopted him and runs into the latrine across the street. Listens to the sound of his water falling, falling and ignoring the stink. Finally relieved
he opens the door almost tripping on the dog and the pisote standing eternal guard. Ross takes a minute to help pick out the daily fish from someone’s cousin that both the family and hotel guests will eat and then he has to beat it back up the stairs in a rag tag parade of three to be there when the Pole reenters this dimension. He takes only a moment to look at the glistening sea and to smell the mangoes growing within arms reach. He slips in and usually his timing is perfect. Pavel lifts his head, probably at the sound of the dog’s whine on being shut out, shut out, always shut out, and Pavel rejoins the mundane living just as Ross is cutting another line.

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Now if Pavel is very serious he will now begin to fill another rocket. Ross waits, crisp bill halfway to his nostril. Pavel thinks for an instant and stands and he digs around on his piled table until he finds the baking soda and it is time to cook some rocks. Ross always holds out the pile on the dictionary to fill the spoon for rocks. “No, no, how many times, no. That is for you.” Pavel says this so many times he has almost lost his accent with the repetition.

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And again, as always, Pavel begins the search for his comfort coca. Table, drawer, bed, suitcase, at which point Ross finds something interesting about his broken sandals, then the miraculous thought of the best hiding place, the wing of the ever still fan.

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He dips the spoon back into the bag, judiciously adds soda, water and they watch the magic of chemistry. The mixture bubbles. Then slowly a slick, an oil forms on the water. This oil is skimmed off and as soon as the heat is gone it hardens. Crack. One spoonful yields a number of large rocks. One spoonful is never enough. They begin to smoke the first pile as the second is being made.

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There is always a collection of ashes stored in any one of the many matchboxes. The pipe is a pop can with pin holes. Ash is mounded and the rocks placed on top and ignited melting down into an instant dream. When the ash is all sticky it is put aside and saved in another match box, to be smoked that later when Pavel is too stoned to see how much dope to mix with the soda. He is toking away and he nods at the book and the pile of cocaine under the matchbox and he stares at Ross with his piercing eye. Get higher is the indication. Pavel can’t even wait for Ross to decide his own pace. Pavel has a mission and Ross is merely the second in command. He has to keep up. After all what are friends for?

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The dog whines outside the door. Someone is coming up the stairs. Pavel freezes with the can pressed to his face. Ross knows it is someone the dog is familiar with but he is still as well. A shadow passes the window. Emilio. Pavel’s lover.

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The door opens and Emilio, very large Emilio, glowers at Ross reaching out and taking the pipe from Pavel. Leans down and kisses him, kicks the door shut. “Phosphero,” he says. Another ugly look is fired at Ross.

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Nothing changes. In the past Emilio’s wife had been interested in every aspect of Ross several times before Ross was ever aware of Emilio who was now hatefully part of his every morning. Ross was now very aware that sweat was poring off the black man. The heat and closeness of the room was beginning to smell.

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Pavel put another large rock on the ash and lights it for the love of his life. Emilio inhales and blows out a swirling acrid cloud of smoke. The can rattles as he puts it down spilling the coated ash onto the floor. Emilio wipes his hand over his dripping brow. Ross is sure the hand shakes.

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Ross picks up a match box with ash to reload the pipe when the dog barks. This means someone is on the stairs that the dog does not know. This was never to happen without a call from below. Pavel paid a great deal of money to be informed. Ross’s hand froze. Pavel’s eyes close. Emilio stays very still.

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The dog began to bark in earnest. The pisote chittered in support. The door is kicked open. The first and only thing that Ross could see was the gun. The small hole of a revolver pointing into the room. He sees the uniform next. Two cops burst in waving guns. Pavel starts to giggle. He cannot stop. Ross remains frozen, box of ash in one hand, the other stretching towards the crushed can next to a large pile of crack rocks. Emilio stands.

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“Si senor,” one of the cops says. Emilio and the cop exchange hard looks.

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The other waves his gun at Pavel, motioning him to stand. The gun waving in his face stopped Pavel giggling but left him short of breath. “What’s going on? You know I pay. I pay. What’s going on.”

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The first cop, the one who had spoken, eyes still locked with Emilio tightened his jaws and said, “Asasinado.”

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Ross looked at Pavel’s blank stare. He shook his head. “Murder,” he told the Pole.

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“Vamanos.” The second cop had adenoidal problems.

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The cops push Emilio and Pavel ahead of them. The second cop turns to Ross and rubs a finger under his nose and laughs. “What’s happening?” Pavel screeched. “What is happening to me?” Only when they had start down the steps back to the beach did the dog stop barking. Then Ross took a breath. His heart began to beat again.

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Ross starts to move after a moment. He grabs the can, fills it with ash and selects a very large rock and places it on the grey mountain. He lights a match and as he begins to pull the chemical into his lungs; to initiate the dream.
Carried on a sea breeze he can hear:

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“Rosco, su desayuno!”

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Peter Bracking tells tall tales. Earth point: Vancouver, Canada.

Words have been published by more than a dozen presses in four countries on two continents including:

Maisonneuve; Black Heart Magazine; Lantern Magazine; Feather Tale Review; Thrice Fiction ; streetcake magazine; Existere

The only occupation he regrets leaving is beach bum. Peter is the artistic director of Utter Stories.

Self aggrandizement: http://utterstories.wordpress.com

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Kreso9

painting by Kreso Cavlovic

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Cher Bibler, Fiction, Uncategorized

The Time Before

by Cher Bibler

 

I.
Tonight there is no light but the glow from around the streetlights. I am standing here waiting for you, but you don’t know it so you won’t come. I stand alone and look over the park past the swingset and the slide, into the darkness over the baseball field. This is such a sweet slow time when I’m alone and there’s no one to misunderstand me.

A car goes by slowly but I pretend not to see it. The air looks thick and foggy in front of its headlights. I hold in my breath until the echo of its sound dissolves and I’m alone again.

If I’d told you to meet me, you would have, but I’m still not sure about you. I pretend there is some magical way you will sense that I’m here and come to me, because this is the way I want you: I have a dream figure of you sketched out, how I’d want you to be if you knew that I wanted you, if you were sure of me. I know what reactions I’d want, things I’d want you to say and feel.

In a way this time is better than the real thing will be, this dream time; or so I tell myself. I am holding myself back, keeping this suspense, watching you.

II.

I am sitting here with you. We’re talking about books. We’ve never read the same ones but we’re sure we’d both like them, if we had. I’m trying to tell you why.

I hold myself just far enough away from you so we don’t touch. I’m waiting for this to overwhelm you. When I first met you I never expected to feel this way about you. You were just an ordinary person; I had no warning.

I’m sitting crosslegged hugging my legs. I lay my head on my knees and look down at the carpet. You’re talking about your sister but I’m not listening anymore. Our conversations lately have drifted aimlessly.
I’m amazed at this thing that’s grown here between us. I analyze its beginnings, as far as I can dissect them. I can’t find the seed where it began, but I can see how it gathered momentum and how I witlessly encouraged it along.

III.

I’m thinking about my last lover, and how he merged into the dream I had of him until I couldn’t tell them apart. I’ve had plenty of time to think about the mistakes I made with him and I keep them at hand for reference so I don’t make them again with you.

It’s not fair, I guess, to compare future lovers with past lovers, to make them compete with old ghosts grown mellow with memory, but at each step I’m reminded of the last time I felt this way, and sometimes your eyes merge with his eyes and I think there is only one man out there who keeps coming back to me in different disguises.

My old lover never really liked competing with my fantasy of him.

IV.

I have practiced conversations we will have someday; I’ve told your dream counterpart all the secrets about myself. He took it well. He was very understanding.

V.

I sit here by you, not touching but close enough I can feel your body heat. I’m looking at your hands, studying the texture of your skin wondering how it would feel. It looks very soft and I wonder why that attracts me (stereotype—men are supposed to have strong hands).

I imagine how you would react right now to me touching you, but I don’t touch you. I sit wrapped in this thought.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Cher Bibler is the author of About Irene, a novel told from the viewpoint of a collectible french fashion doll about her friends, her owners, and the things that happen around her. She has had poetry and fiction published in magazines such as The Evergreen Review, Amanda Blue and The Firelands Review. She sings in a rock band, edits an incredible online literary publication, and has perfected the art of making potato pizza. She currently resides in Merida, Mexico.

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Scott19

photo by Skot Horn

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Fiction

Futility

by Judith Steele

1.
A priest in white robes lives in a lofty cool temple. Outside is a desert, red sand dunes, sky solid blue. The priest stands at the arched exit of the temple, strains his eyes, sees sand and sky, black shadows. Are they shadows of people? He hears screams, or is it laughter? Not for the first time, he wishes for the courage to go out. But he thinks: Is it a laugh or a scream? He retreats into the safety of the temple.

2.
Bird song from trees in the castle garden. A woman in soft gowns and floating veils, day after day protected and sheltered by riches not hers, her only wealth her potential to produce a male heir. Her absent lord married her for just that purpose, but she has failed him. Every day she smiles at everyone, sitting with her useless beauty in the walled garden.

3.
Twenty uniformed men crouching in wet grass in the mist on the top of a hill, watching four stone buildings at the bottom of the valley. Inside the stone buildings are twenty men wearing a different uniform. Sentries stand at the doorways to watch the hilltop. Not long after dawn, some men of one uniform or the other will possess the territory of these stone buildings. Not long after dawn, some men of both uniforms will be dead. The soldiers of both uniforms wait for dawn, hoping their obedience will outlast their fear.

4.
Cherry works in an office, the only female in a hush-hush job, between two wars. She wears a sober dark suit, red red lips, takes pride in her work, her life fulfilled. Something happens, a slip-up by someone too important to take the blame. Someone has to take the blame. Cherry is not supporting a wife or children. Cherry can retire to the country they say, with her dear old parents. She understands, she is not one of the boys. She packs up her desk, walks sedately and obediently from the office. In the corridor she screams. And screams. And screams. Inside the office, the men wait for her to stop.

5.
Every day the child tries to find the way to please the mother. Every night when the father comes home the mother whispers to him, and the father shouts at the child. When the mother is sick and the father is absent, the uncle comes and takes the child into her bedroom and shuts the door and the child thinks she is being punished for making her mother sick and her father absent, and thinks when she has finished being punished, it will all end.

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She is silent and waits for dawn. She smiles meaninglessly in paralysed obedience. She forgets. With whatever cunning the brain has to hide events. If not feelings. She becomes a
loudmouthed rebel, a catastrophic risk-taker, dangerous to everyone and herself. The intelligence she has produces nothing.

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One day she remembers. With whatever treachery the brain has to store what it has hidden; and to produce it at an unknown signal from parallel events, words, feelings, appearances. She is paralysed by fear. She retreats to silence. She wants to break it, to walk in the open, to have the courage to speak, or simply to scream. Will she?

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Judith Steele is Australian. Her poetry has appeared in Northern Territory and South Australian publications including Northern Perspective, Northerly, Dymocks Northern Territory Literary Awards, Friendly Street Poets. Poetry or prose has appeared on websites including The Animist, Four and Twenty, Islet Online (as Dita West), In other Words:Merida .

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Scott1

painting by Skot Horn

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Fiction

It’s You, Not Me

by Mikel Miller

The tomato plant looked like it needed attention—still in its little plastic container; root bound, spindly with withered leaves, not even twenty inches tall. It had one marble-sized tomato, one pea-sized, and half a dozen tiny yellow blossoms.

She brought it with her when she moved into the apartment next to me. We transplanted it to a big clay pot on the balcony, with potting soil and good drainage, giving it room for roots to take hold in its new home.

“Maybe it’ll like it here,” she said, helping me drag the heavy pot to a spot in the full sun. “If we take good care of it, maybe it’ll bear fruit someday.”

I was cutting off some of the shoots between the branches and the trunk the next day when she interrupted me.
“What are you doing?”

“Getting rid of the suckers,” I said. “They won’t bear fruit, and all they do is suck energy from the rest of the plant.”

“I never heard of that. Are you sure?”

“Yeah. My mom used to do it back on the farm.”

Some leaves were still withered after a couple more days, so I cut off some of the lower branches and trimmed others to get rid of the curled leaves.

“What are you doing now, farm boy?” she asked.

“Pruning,” I said. “It’ll help the healthy branches grow.”

“Your mama teach you that too?”

“No; just figured it out on my own.”

“Well, Mr. Horticulture, my mama’s tomato plants had lots of branches and shoots and leaves, none of them withered. She used Miracle-Gro®. I think I have some for flowers.”

She found a pouch of timed-release Miracle-Gro® in a box of her garden stuff, the kind for potted houseplants. I jammed two of the thimble-sized suppositories into the tomato pot. With water in the morning and water in the afternoon, and sun most of the time, the plant showed signs of new life in a few days. Droopy branches showed strength, with more yellow blossoms. I got two more thimbles from the pouch under the balcony sink.

“How many of those are you plan to use?” she asked, interrupting me.

“As many as it takes,” I said. “It’s like the electric paddles paramedics use to shock a patient’s heart and get it beating again. Stand back, woman.”

“Did you read the instructions?” she asked. “Maybe it says how many to use and how often.”

“Duh, we’re in Mexico—the instructions are in Spanish,” I said, jamming the suppositories into the soil.
Within a couple of weeks, the original marble-size tomato was almost the size of a golf ball. More pea-sized tomatoes appeared on the top two branches, along with more blossoms.

“Some of the leaves are still curled, and the stalk looks weak, like it’s going to fall over,” she said, frowning. “Maybe you should Google tomato plants and see what it needs.”

“Google probably uses teenagers in India—what do they know about tomatoes in Mexico?” I said. “But I’ll get some Miracle-Gro® just for tomatoes, with instructions in English. And a cage to hold it up.”

Home Depot had the right stuff, in English, the kind you mix with water, for $5.28. The only wire cages were four rings tall—another $3.78.

“Don’t you have anything smaller?” I asked the clerk. “This cage is ‘way too big for my plant. Besides, nearly ten bucks to grow a few tomatoes seems expensive.”

“One size fits all,” the clerk said. “Besides, some plants grow big and bushy, four feet tall or more, with lots of tomatoes.”

Chemicals and cage in hand, I returned home and installed the cage in the pot. It was top-heavy and leaned to one side.

“Didn’t they have anything smaller?” she asked. “It’s ‘way too big, especially since you cut off the bottom branches and ripped off the little suckers on the others.”

“Do we have a problem”? I asked. “Seems like you always criticize what I’m doing with the tomato plant, no matter how hard I try. Is something wrong?”

“Nothing wrong with me,” she said. “If anybody has a problem, it’s you, not me.”

I found some wire pliers and cut more than twelve inches off the cage prongs below the bottom ring. The cage didn’t lean as much but was still two rings higher than the plant. A dose of the new chemicals seemed urgent, so I mixed a batch.

Neighbors came for dinner on the weekend, and we sat under an umbrella, sipping drinks at the table on the balcony. It was hard to overlook the scrawny plant nearby.

“What kind of tomato plant is it?” one asked. “I’ve never seen one that looks like topiary, with branches cut back and only a few leaves. Is it going to be all right?”

“I don’t know what kind,” she told them. “It had a lot more branches and leaves when I moved here. He’s trying hard, but I don’t know if it’s going to work out.”

My routine of watering, watching, waiting, and weekly doses of chemicals seemed to pay off. More blossoms appeared. More blossoms became pea tomatoes. More pea tomatoes became marble tomatoes. The plant had seventeen potential tomatoes, counting all stages, but marble size tomatoes didn’t seem to get bigger than golf balls.

“You want to see what a tomato plant is supposed to look like?” she asked about a week later in frustration, leading me to the community garden. A dozen or more tomato plants flourished on one side of the small plot—short bushy plants, lots of leaves, and none of them curled. Some long branches were like vines almost touching the ground.

After another week, our plant had new blossoms and more golf balls. I gave it another dose of chemicals. It grew taller, reaching for the third ring up, with sprawling branches we had to bend and tuck inside the cage. The soil turned dry in the warm summer sun, and some of the leaves had ends that turned brown, so I used coffee grounds to mulch the soil.

“What are you doing?” she asked, seeing me dump the morning grounds a couple of days later. “No wonder the pot and the balcony are crawling with ants—they love coffee grounds.” I got a spoon and dug out as much of the grounds as possible.

“Put some dried bay leaves in there—ants stay away from them sometimes,” she said. “And use a shredded coconut husk for mulch.” I covered the soil with bay leaves, covered them with coconut husk, and poured on a pitcher of water.

“I think one tomato will be ready soon,” I said a week or so later. I pointed to it, almost the size of a racquetball, turning from green to yellow. Over a week or so we watched it turn from yellow to orange, and then to red. After a couple more days, I couldn’t wait any longer, and I wanted to pick it.

“I’m not sure it’s ready,” she said.

We picked it anyway. She opened her mouth wide when I offered her a taste, savoring the meaty fullness and juiciness.

“That was good,” she said. “Is there more?”

We shared several more tomatoes, experimenting by adding a dash of olive oil and a bit of soft cheese topped with fresh basil sprigs. She offered some parting advice before leaving on a two-week trip back home.

“Just wait for the rest of the tomatoes to ripen before you try to pick them. And watch out for tomato worms.”

By the time she returned, one worm had arrived, about an inch long, skinny and bright green, humping its way along a leaf. I captured it and tossed it over the balcony. The Internet was minimal help in identifying the creature; it showed pictures of larger tomato worms, fat and dark green, with little horns on their heads. A few days later we noticed an invasion of tiny white bugs–aphids, maybe, or tiny flies just hatching–all over the undersides of the leaves. Wanting to avoid pesticides, I sprayed them with dishwashing detergent. It didn’t work.

“Maybe there’s something more effective, and still an eco-friendly solution,” she said.

Searching the Internet for eco-this and green-that, I found a few options from the Google guys in whatever country. None of those options were available at Home Depot in Mexico, so I bought the non-eco stuff. It produced results within a day: tiny white carcasses like ash littered the balcony tiles under the plant.

I continued watering the plant, and the plants in the community garden too as a Plan B. It grew beyond the top rung of the metal cage, long branches sticking out the sides, loaded with ripening tomatoes. To keep the cage from tipping over, I had to fasten it to the balcony railing with a bungee cord. More tomatoes grew bigger in early August, shining in the sun on the balcony, big enough for neighbors to notice during walks.

While I was back in the USA for a quick trip, we texted almost daily about nurturing the plant and dealing with more aphids. “I’m trying to fight them off,” she said. “But they just keep coming.”

When I returned after Labor Day, we ate a few more of the red ones, but she was never really sure they were ready to pick.

A month later, she decided to move to another place, with only a few tears about leaving. Just packed up her stuff one afternoon, piled everything into her car, and drove away. I don’t remember if she waved goodbye.

Maybe she was right. Maybe it was me.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

I’m never certain what to say about myself in an author bio. Here it is in less than twenty words: I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing, decided in college to become a journalist, and now I’m an “indie” author. (My college English professors would cringe at using three verb tenses in one sentence.)

I also manage book projects at EgretBooks.com, a small independent publisher that specializes in publishing eBooks for out-of-print literary fiction. Two of our projects have won prestigious national awards in the USA from the Independent Book Publishers Association. For both, I was the managing editor from start to finish.

After helping launch EgretBooks.com in Mexico in 2012, I moved from the Baja to Guadalajara–the country’s second-largest metropolitan area–with its European cultural heritage, robust modern economy, and one of the largest book festivals in the world. In 2014, I became an administrator for the Facebook group Mexico Writers, which spotlights books by authors who live and write in Mexico.

As a member of Publishers and Writers San Diego, and the Ajijic Writers’ Group at Lake Chapala, I divide my time between the United States and Mexico.

When I’m not writing, I’m available for hire to help authors with the nitty-gritty of editing and self-publishing books. If you’re interested in help with your book, just send an email to mikel.miller09@yahoo.com.
¡Viva Mexico!

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Sally11

Lakeside Lounge

photo by Sally Davies

Standard
Fiction

Xochimilco’s Frozen Assets

by William Snyder

“BEEP…BEEP…SCREECH.” A beat-up VW passed on the right as a twenty-something blond stepped into the intersection; Holly scrambled back to the sidewalk. The air quality had improved but traffic was the same since her last visit to Mexico City. Put a powerless citizen in a car you better watch out. On the streets the ordinary Mexican was powerless but behind the wheel they had a chance to show their frustration with political corruption and unlivable wages. Although she wasn’t into religion Holly found herself furtively making the Sign of the Cross and muttering under her breath ‘vaya con dios’ as she hailed a cab to the museum.

She navigated the peacocks and Xoloitzcuintles in the garden without further mishap. The Dolores Olmedo Museum was built in a unique spirit of Mexican eclecticism. It included folk art and archeological finds along with the finest collection of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo paintings in the world. Dolores Olmedo had been Diego’s model and one of his lovers in the 20’s before he hooked up with Frida. When Frida died Diego and Dolores resumed their romance almost 30 years later. Romance may be the wrong word to use for any relationship Diego had with a woman but his relationship with Frida was closer to romance than any other. He made Dolores promise to display Frida’s work with his own after he died. Dolores agreed to do it because she loved Diego and his paintings but the same couldn’t be said about her feelings for Frida or her work. The museum was an anomaly born from love and hate. The combination of style and subject matter added to the experience; Diego’s work was of his people; Frida’s was of her pain.

The last 10 minutes in the museum Holly spent surveying Frozen Assets. The Depression, skyscrapers, homeless men stacked like cadavers and Rockefeller waiting for his money were Rivera’s cryogenic vision of New York City. The Big Apple may be a metaphor for the fruit of the Garden of Eden but it can be hell on earth when tasted. Holly thought to herself Diego got it right; NYC was full of frozen assets. She favored the painting because it spoke to her of the past and the family she left behind in Long Island.

Frozen-Assets-by-Diego-Rivera

Frozen Assets by Diego Rivera

Their hotel was a five minute walk from the museum. She was surprised that Carlos was agitated when she arrived.

“I asked you to be back by 2.”

“It’s only ten after.”

“I’m meeting Miguel before he gets on the bus.”

“Sorry. I didn’t know.”

“I’ll be back by 5. Diego didn’t sleep, he needs his nap. We can catch one of the boats on the waterway when I get back. You love it there, right?”

“OK. Hurry back. You’re right I do love Xochimilco’s waterway.”

Five years before she had met Carlos Sanchez in Cancun on her last spring break from Stanford. He was a computer whiz from the Yucatan blessed with the Maya math gene. They spent more than a year flying back and forth between LA and Merida before he took a job as a website designer at an Orange County start-up where the venture capital firm she worked for provided the funding. Now he was a Program Manager with lots of stock to cash after the IPO happened next quarter.

Initially the wedding plan was to have the ceremony at the family estate in the Hamptons, but Carlos preferred the West Coast so that more of his family could attend. Holly liked the idea, especially since Carlos’ brother, Miguel, said he would be Best Man. She lined up several dates for Miguel with friends from LA’s Westside and Santa Monica but none of them were kept after Vicky caught his eye at an East LA dance club. Love and more than a little bit of passion took over and soon Vicky was expecting his baby. Miguel got a job working construction in LA so the baby would have a father and be born a US citizen. His brother was already a citizen by marriage and that could grease the skids for Miguel’s green card.

Vicky was from a Roma family well known in the world of flamenco dancing. Ostracized by them for hooking up with a man outside the gypsy world, she felt it was a blessing in disguise that she was welcome in a world where women had rights. With their different backgrounds – East Coast establishment money and Roma heritage – it was a stretch but Vicky and Holly became BFF’s. The two couples became inseparable with social lives that ran the gamut from Boyle Heights taco stands to a performance at the Walt Disney Center of Ballet Flamenco Sara Baras. When Vicky and Miguel bought a fixer-upper house they moved in with Holly and Carlos until everything was ready. While they waited for the baby Holly and Vicky became as close as sisters. The joy Maria gave Vicky and Miguel brought a renaissance to Holly’s belief in family so that not long after she was expecting herself.

Miguel should have gotten his green card before he was stopped for a non-working taillight on the 405, but with Maria’s birth and Holly’s pregnancy it had been a back-burner item on his to-do list. He made 3 times working for Mara Salvatrucha in Merida than what he made in the US but he would never leave Vicky and the baby to go back to work in Mexico. Mara Salvatrucha was dangerous when they were crossed but there was no cell in Merida. Miguel worked alone for them as a middle man distributing drugs to Belize sent from Chiapas, Mexico. He was beaten up by LAPD for the 13-7 V on his bicep – the good luck – bad luck tattoo mistaken for a gang member’s tat. Miguel had actually gotten 13-7 V after he met Vicky to show her and his brother he had left La Mara and found good luck.

LAPD handed Miguel over to Homeland Security who put him in a group to be flown from El Paso to Mexico City. It was part of the $1.4B of taxpayer money the US government spent on the Merida Initiative as part of the War on Drugs. Instead of returning illegals to Mexico at the border where it would be easier for them to re-enter, the USA government flew them into Mexico City and Mexico paid their bus fare home with money provided by the US.

Ironically, LA was the origin of the Mara Salvatrucha. Formed originally by Salvadorans to take care of their Salvadoran brothers found homeless on the streets of LA, La Mara eventually became Central America’s most dangerous gang. Now they were criminals and drug dealers with a code of honor based on loyalty rooted in the Latino family value of taking care of your own. Miguel met Smiley in a Merida bar one night. They hung a couple of nights before Smiley recruited him. It was a no-brainer; the money was 10 times more than he was making as a reporter for a local newspaper. Miguel knew nothing about La Mara’s origin when he took the 13 second beating from fellow members, Smiley included, that served as his initiation in Chiapas before he started selling drugs for them in Merida. His boss, El Sol, was pissed at him when he didn’t come back from the wedding but he let him go because there was no cell in Merida and no one in Chiapas would question El Sol.

Holly and Carlos were to fly the next day from Mexico City to Merida for Diego’s baptism – the perfect occasion for a Sanchez family reunion, the introduction of its newest member and making plans for reuniting Miguel with Vicky and Maria. Holly was accustomed to ignoring Carlos when it came to the baby, so she strapped Diego on her back and headed for the embarcadero leaving a note:
See you at the boat dock.

Xochimilco is like Venice to some and a cesspool to others. The smell of the waterway takes some time to get used to, but as long as Gabriel Marquez Valdez wrote and lived there, Holly was inclined to think of Mexico City as a harbor for artistic endeavor. She couldn’t say it was a safe harbor with all the violent crimes, but the city does have 20 million people and with that size shit happens. The hippy ambience of the ‘flower field’ – the meaning of Xochimilco in Nahuatl – was intensified by the colors of the boats parked along the docks. Boats don’t travel in flocks but the waterway was gridlocked by a flock of trajineras painted in the same brilliant colors as Frida Kahlo’s parrots.

An artist was painting a portrait of a wedding couple sitting in the Aztecan version of a Venetian gondola. The embarcadero was filled with people enjoying the Mexico City sun on Sunday. A crowd began to gather next to a monument in the park. Holly was curious and took a spot at the outer edge while Diego slept. Everyone’s attention seemed to focus on a limo encircled by a host of armed guards. A bus pulled in behind the limo. A group of young men began filing out. Some of the crowd waved. A small podium was set up by a guard. The flags of Mexico and the USA were stuck in the ground by another guard next to the monument. With the American consul at his side a Mexican government official spoke at the podium:

“Sunday at Xochimilco. What better day for the first day of American-Mexican cooperation in bringing our family members back to their…

“BLAM!……BLAM! BLAM!”

The American consul went writhing to the ground. People began shouting and running in all directions. Guards ran toward the smoke spiraling above the trajinera where the bride lay in shock on the boat deck. The bridegroom was on his knees consoling her. He gave thumbs up to the guards to show she was OK and waved his arm to indicate that they should continue to run after the unseen gunman in the direction they were already running. When the guards passed the bride and groom scampered off the trajinera.

Holly cowered under a bench protecting Diego. A man walked toward her on the embarcadero. Paint box in hand, he pulled her out from under the bench.

“Come with me, Holly.” She recognized Carlos’ father and nodded.

In the mercado across the street they were joined by two guys in hoodies.

“What are you doing here?” Carlos lifted the hoodie from his face.

“Have you gone insane?” Holly hugged Diego closer to her breasts.

“Nice shot, Papa.” Miguel in the other hoodie hugged his father.

“Nice shot? Sight was messed up at first. Had to adjust after that first shot. I was afraid I hit somebody in the crowd. Don’t know why I went for his leg, should have killed him but El Sol said no because he didn’t want to piss the Mexican government off. Don’t know why killing an American should piss them off. I have a passport and ticket to Seattle for you. Somebody will be waiting for you there. Vicky and Maria will be there next weekend. Compliments of La Mara. All is forgiven as long as you do what you’re told from here on out. Carlos, take care of your family. See you at the airport tomorrow. You weren’t supposed to know about this, Holly. I hope the baby slept through it. He’s beautiful. Diego, our gift from God. A wonderful name. Time to go.”

Carlos’ father patted the baby’s head. He and Miguel embraced Carlos before walking into the street. Carlos and Holly started back toward the hotel. An ambulance siren drowned out the yelling from the crowd.

“I told you to wait in the hotel. My dad called Mara Salvatrucha in LA. Vicky’s going to live with Miguel in Seattle. Miguel doesn’t want to get back into the business but it’s how he’s getting back to the States and he’s legal this time. The paperwork’s all done.”

“Here take him. I have to sit.”

Holly struggled to a bench. Carlos took the baby; Diego’s blanket was staunched with blood.

“My God! Did you know this?”

He quickly stripped the blanket looking for a wound.

“It’s not him.”

Holly slumped and slid to the ground. Carlos ran toward the ambulance pointing back to the bench.

“My wife’s been shot! Help me!”

One of the medics ran to the sprawled body. Carlos stood over him as he checked for vital signs. Carlos knew without hearing the words.

Diego was cared for by a nurse in the hospital’s pediatric ward while Carlos was informed of what had to happen before the body could be taken home. He was surprised that after the autopsy the body would be frozen for the trip back to the States. When all the details had been worked out Carlos went back to the hotel and wept through the night with Diego in his arms. Miguel, Vicky and Maria, were ‘family’ in her own words. Then this baby in his arms came – his son the gift from God. Now Diego’s mother was gone. The family was gone. If only she had listened to him and stayed at the hotel she wouldn’t be frozen like the people in the painting she loved so much.
The wait seemed endless until the flight left for Merida. Carlos’ mother and father stood side-by-side baffled by Carlos’ glazed stare as he walked toward the baggage carousel in the airport. Carlos put Diego in his grandmother’s arms. His father asked…

“Where’s Holly?”

* * * * * * * * * * * *

William Snyder is sweating out the winter of his life in the capitol of the Yucatan state in Merida with Vicky Carrasco-Silva, the love of his life, and his dog Chino. His travels have taken him to Europe, Ireland, South America, and most of the USA. He has lived in Philadelphia, Dallas, Atlanta, San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles. Prior to becoming a writer in Mexico he has been a teacher, consultant, manager, technician and business owner dealing with application software and computer technology. His writings have been published by Merida English Library, Queen City Crier, Inotherwordsmerida.Com, The Merida Review, Merida’s Night Writer, The Yucatan Times, GE Magazine, and Knowledgeware Users Conference. He is the father of 2 sons and 2 granddaughters.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Angie5

photo by Angela M Campbell

Standard
Fiction

work in progress

by Steve Benson

 

CHAPTER 1

 

1

          “You full of shit, marshal.”

          “How’s that?”

          “Look, I know you got a job to do, but aint no way a U.S.  Deputy Marshal gonna put his life on the line for me.  Face it.  I’m just a punk to you; a worthless little fly on your shoulder.  If they put the moves on me, the first thing on your mind would be your wife and kids.  You got kids?”

          No reply.

          “Your wife then.  How long you been married?”

          “None of your business.  Now finish your breakfast.”

          “OK, I get that too.  The less that scum like me knows about you and your family, the better.  All I’m saying is that you have your priorities.  And I don’t blame you for that.”

          U.S. Deputy Marshal Joe DeMaio washed down his last bite of toast with a glass of orange juice.  He stood, walked across the hotel room and opened the door as far as the chain would allow.  Two Muskogee police officers looked back over their shoulders at him.  Joe nodded and shut the door.  He looked back at Leon Fix who was now standing in front of the mirror, wiping crumbs from his tie.   “Let’s go,” Joe said.

          “Gimme a minute to get presentable.” Leon replied.  He put on his suit coat and brushed at it the same way he did with the tie.  “I got to look good for the judge.”

          You’re gorgeous,” Joe said as he opened the door.  “Now let’s go.”

          Both officers turned and looked into the room.  “Stay behind Mr. Fix here and don’t be shy about keeping your hands on your weapons,” Joe said to the officers.

          The four of them walked down the hallway, Joe in the front, Leon in the middle and the officers bringing up the rear.  Leon strutted down the brightly colored carpet, seeming to enjoy the convoy of law enforcement that surrounded him.

          “It’s the same with these two cops here,” said Leon.  “Lucky if they making forty grand a year, and now their chief tell them to guard me with their lives.  With their mother fucking lives!  Aint gonna happen.”

          “You sound like you’re expecting trouble,” said Joe as he continued to walk toward the elevator.  “Anything I should know about.”

          “Naw, just talking.  That’s all.”

          Joe stopped and turned around.  “Then shut up and get serious,” he said.

          “I am serious marshal.  Just want to make sure you are.”

          Joe turned and continued on; the others followed.  He hoped that there would only be one day of testimony.  He’d had his fill of Leon Fix.

 

2

          The group arrived at the Muskogee County Courthouse and entered through a nondescript side entrance where they met Chief Bailiff Stewart.  Boxes of court records teetered halfway to the ceiling of the small musty room.  Stewart stood next to the only desk in the room; his face craggy and suspicious.  Joe had met with Stewart the day before so there were no security check points or metal detectors.  Stewart did a quick pat down of Leon and then signed off on the police officer’s escort papers so they could leave.

          “We’re going to leave through that door,” said Stewart as he pointed his meaty finger.  Joe noticed a dried splotch of shaving cream under Stewart’s left ear.  “We’ll make a right and two lefts.  We’ll enter the courtroom through a wooden swinging door with a small window in it.  Fix, you sit with your attorney and Deputy Marshal DeMaio will sit behind you in the gallery.  Any questions?”

          “Yeah, I got one,” said Fix.  “What a nigga gotta do to get a cup of coffee?”

          Stewart’s flat top haircut seemed to bristle at Fix’s question, like a dog whose fur had been stroked the wrong way.  He sighed, looked from Leon to Joe and spoke.  “He does know he’s white, right?”

          Joe couldn’t help but chuckle at Stewart’s question and the unexpressive way he’d asked it.  “I think they call it race confusion,” Joe replied.

          “Shit.  I know I’m white.  I’m just being who I am.  Ghetto aint got no color.”  Leon smiled wide revealing two gold plated canines.  “It’s all attitude.”

 

3

          A bailiff, a Deputy Marshal and a low level meth transporter walk into a courtroom.  As Joe looked through the small window on the side door to the courtroom, he thought of this joke setup but couldn’t pin down a good punch line.  The jurors were already out and sitting at the opposite end of the room.  To Joe’s right was the judge’s bench and to his left were the prosecution and defense tables with the gallery directly behind them.  Leon’s attorney sat with the prosecutor while the defendant and his attorney chatted back and forth at the other table.

          “Show time,” said Stewart.  He pushed the door open and held it as first Leon and then Joe walked in.

          Leon sat down next to his attorney.  Joe stood for a moment, looking at the people seated in the gallery.  The first row was filled with suits and stern faces.  He guessed DEA.  The others seemed to be a mix of media and curious members of the public.  One small group on the back row of the defense side of the room had him concerned.  He recognized them as relatives of Marco Trujillo, the defendant.  Two armed bailiffs stood behind them on either side of the main courtroom entrance, so Joe was somewhat reassured.  He walked to the first row of the gallery and stared at two men until they both scooted in opposite directions, opening up a spot directly behind Leon.  Joe sat down and noticed a strong odor of cologne on the men who sat on each side of him.  Yep, definitely DEA.

          “All rise,” said Bailiff Stewart from the front of the courtroom as the judge entered through the chamber door.  “The Honorable Judge Thomas Stoffers now presiding.”

          Joe noticed that Stewart’s eyes were darting around the courtroom as the judge made his way to the bench.  He hoped that the bailiffs at the back of the courtroom were as serious as Stewart.

          “You may be seated,” said Judge Stoffers as he sat down.  He placed his glasses on the end of his nose and began reading a file on his desk.

          From behind him, Joe could hear the beginnings of a commotion.  A male voice spoke in irritated tones.  “He was set up.  He didn’t do nothing.”

          The outburst was followed by a female voice shushing him.  Joe assumed it was members of Trujillo’s family.  Bailiff Stewart moved several steps toward the gallery.  His eyes were on whoever was making the disturbance.  Joe could again see the dried shaving cream under Stewart’s ear.  He smiled, realizing that Stewart was just too damned imposing for anyone to tell him about it.  The male voice at the back of the courtroom grew louder but Joe, unlike the DEA Agents who surrounded him, kept his head forward.  What happened behind him was the bailiff’s business.  His business was currently sitting in from of him wearing a mustard yellow suit and scratching the back of his shaved head.

          “Bailiffs, please escort that gentleman from the courtroom,” Stewart said.  Joe could hear the footsteps as the bailiffs did as they were told.

          “Get the fuck away from me.  I’m gonna be heard.  My brother didn’t do nothing!”  Stewart stepped forward even further, he was now standing between the defense and prosecution tables.

          “Bailiffs, get him under control!” he said.  Joe could now hear shuffling as the bailiffs grabbed at the man.  A woman began to cry and plead with the man to calm down but he continued.

          “Get offa me cops!  I can say what I want!”  One of the gallery benches scraped across the hardwood floor as the bailiffs wrestled with the man.  Stewart was now standing at the gate that separated the gallery from the front of the courtroom.  He opened the gate and stepped through to help the other two bailiffs.

          Just as the gate swung shut, Trujillo stood from his seat at the defense table.  Joe was the only law enforcement officer who saw him get up.  The bailiffs were still trying to get Trujillo’s family out of the courtroom and the rest of them were watching the show.

          Trujillo ran toward the front of the prosecution table, he was staring directly at Leon Fix.  Joe put his hand in his jacket and grabbed his gun.  There was something in Trujillo’s right hand but he was moving too fast for Joe to see what it was.  Trujillo came to a stop in front of the prosecution table.  The judge, who could also see what was happening, yelled for Stewart, but he was too far away to do anything.

          Joe leaned to his left and pulled his gun out.  He was practically laying on a DEA agents lap.  Trujillo pulled back his right arm, meaning to stab fix.  Joe could see it now, Trujillo was holding a pen.  Joe aimed at Trujillo’s chest and pulled the trigger.  The pen, which was halfway to its target, fell onto the table while Trujillo fell backward to the floor.  The Muskogee County Court emblem on the front of the judge’s bench was now coated with a layer of Trujillo’s blood.

          Joe could again hear a commotion behind him, this time much louder.  The thirty or so people in the gallery were now trying to run through the double door entrance to the courtroom at the same time while Trujillo’s family screamed and cried.  Joe jumped over the railing to the front of the courtroom, grabbed Fix by the back of his collar and pulled him to his feet.  They exited through the same side door that they had entered through earlier and didn’t stop until they were again in the room where Stewart had met them.  Joe pushed Fix into a chair in the corner of the room.

          “Sit down and keep your mouth shut.”  Joe pulled his cell phone out with his left hand while still pointing his gun at the door with his right.  He called the first Deputy he saw in his contact list, U.S. Deputy Chuck Miller.  Miller answered on the first ring.

          “What’s up DeMaio?” Miller said.

          “Miller, listen up.  There was an attempt on my witness’s life.  I’m currently in a storeroom in the Muskogee County Courthouse.  I need backup ASAP!  I shot the perp, it was the defendant.  Get someone here as soon as you can.  Bailiffs tend to get itchy trigger fingers when you shoot up one of their courtrooms.”

          Joe ended the call and looked down at Fix.  “Are you OK?  Any injuries?”

          “No,” said fix as he patted himself, looking for stab wounds or bullet holes.

          “Good, just sit tight.  The cavalry will be here soon.”

          “Hey marshal, thanks for proving me wrong,” said Fix.  “You still crazy for doing it, but thanks.”

          “Just my job Fix.  You’re court property and I’m protecting it.  Nothing more.”

          Fix slowly nodded his head.  Joe thought that it was the first time he’d seen anything close to a deep thought in his expression.

          “Still…thanks,” said Fix.

 

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Steve Benson was born in Corpus Christi Texas and has lived most of his life in the American Midwest. He currently lives in Merida Mexico with his wife Jill. Steve has collaborated with Jill on writing and creating two short films. They are currently working together on a feature length script, a ghost story set in the 1870’s. Imagine Cabin in the Woods meets Little House on the Prairie. This is Steve’s second novel.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Sally4

Remedy Diner by Sally Davies

Standard
Fiction

White Lilacs

by Grace Andreacchi

The first time I caught sight of him he was just a boy really, no more than twenty, the Church was crowded and hot, it was Easter Sunday and there were flowers everywhere lilies hawthorns and white lilacs. He sang one of the Bach cantatas, I had to crane my neck to see him, a fragile boy with a head of thick, curling bright hair combed carefully back out of his eyes, he sang so beautifully, a warm sweet boyish voice, high and pure almost as light as a child’s. I knew from that moment that I would always love him more than anyone else in the world. The first time I spoke to him he was coming out of the canteen, there was something tucked under his arm rather awkwardly, a brown paper parcel, he was walking quickly with his head down and so we collided in the doorway. ‘Excuse me, please’ he said and blushed, and smiled at me easily the best smile I have ever seen. I love you, I said. I am going to marry you… ‘You sing at the Nikolaikirche,’ I said. ‘I saw you on Sunday.’ He allowed that this might be true. The next time I saw him he was sitting at one of the bad tables way at the back at the Empire Café. He wore a shiny old evening suit that was probably older than he was, he wore a melancholy expression and was smoking a cigarette languorously, like a tough guy in the movies. He waved when he saw me and I sat down at his table but this time I couldn’t think of anything to say. ‘How did you like my singing?’ he said. He looked at me with enormous twilight eyes, it was an urgent question that must be answered with absolute honesty. I have been looking into those eyes all my life, I thought. ‘It was beautiful,’ I said, speaking with absolute honesty into those astonishing eyes. He had just finished a set, I had come to the Empire on purpose to hear him, he was beginning to get a name for this sort of thing. Tears rolled down my cheeks when he sang those sentimental songs. ‘Did you really think so?’ he said. Marry me, I said. Kiss me this minute before I die. ‘It was so beautiful you made me cry, indeed you did!’ I said. He made me cry, makes me cry, present tense. Will always be able to make me cry. ‘This isn’t what I want to do,’ he said. ‘I want to be an opera singer…’ ‘You will,’ I said. He asked me to a concert he was giving the following week at a church in Potsdam.

It was on a day in spring. All the way to Potsdam the rain had been pelting down but just before the train pulled into the station it suddenly stopped, the sun came out and the whole world was now glittering as if a shower of jewels had just fallen from heaven. I stepped out onto the platform and immediately caught sight of him standing about a hundred feet away, his arms full of white lilacs. That fragile, somehow melancholy figure. Then he caught sight of me as well and waved as if from the deck of a ship and we walked towards one another slowly at first then faster and faster till we were actually running towards one another, smiling into one another’s eyes. I was only nineteen and did not bother to hide what I was feeling. Why should I? You are the One, I thought. I have found you, and I will never let you go. Once we were face to face he stood there smiling at me and holding those lilacs – they were just a bunch of wild lilacs he had cut in the fields, they grew in great abundance all along the railway sidings, and the air was thick with their scent. I love you! I said. ‘Are those for me?’ I said. He seemed to have forgotten he was holding the lilacs, he just stood there smiling at me, he hadn’t said a word. Then started as if he’d just woken up and handed them to me, still wordlessly. I put my face right down into them and the million tiny petals tickled my cheeks and kissed my lips and my forehead as I breathed in their overwhelming, sweetly melancholy scent. ‘Oh how beautiful!’ I said. ‘I love lilacs, they’re my favourite flowers…’ ‘They’re just wildflowers,’ he said, blushing slightly. He blushes like a girl, I thought, what a delicate boy he is. I love this delicate boy. I love him to distraction and we have only met – what – two weeks ago? Oh but I have known thee forever, from before the world began, my Prince… ‘I love anything wild,’ I said. ‘They’re much nicer than store-bought flowers, don’t you think? They have such a scent! Come, try for yourself…’ I held the lilacs out to him and he stooped a little, bent his head and buried his face as I had done in their white beauty. A lock of hair fell across his forehead and when he looked up at me again I saw a few of the tiny white petals clinging there. Gently I brushed them away with a white-gloved hand. While I did this he stood perfectly still, smiling like an angel. ‘Let’s go,’ he said. ‘This way, Madame, if you please!’ He gave me his arm and we walked together not the streets but the air itself pure spring air made of nothing but sunlight raindrops lilacs we walked all the way to the church we saw nothing but each other.

‘Invite him for dinner,’ said Mama.

‘He’s shy,’ I said, ‘I don’t know if he’ll come.’

‘Of course he’ll come,’ said Papa, ‘What nonsense! Bring the young man round for a proper inspection. Does he have something to be ashamed of?’

‘Of course not,’ I said. ‘He’s simple, that’s all – you’ll frighten him, Papa…’

‘Oh my, if he frightens that easily I don’t think I’d have him if I were you!’ said Papa.

‘It’s not you he’s interested in,’ said Mama.

‘That’s just what I was afraid of! You’re already making fun…’ I said.

‘Nobody’s making fun, Matti, just invite the young man for dinner – what’s so complicated?’ said Mama.

‘You are,’ I said.

‘Nonsense,’ said Papa. ‘We’re simple people as well, theatre people. What’s wrong with that?’

Johannes came to dinner. He brought us a parcel of calves’ liver, something that was very hard to get, the blood had leaked through the paper and stained his hands and the gently frayed edge of his shirt cuff. He handed this bloody packet wordlessly to Mama, along with another enormous bunch of white lilacs. I took the flowers and arranged them in a vase, noticing that the bottom petals also were stained dark with blood. Mama called to Marthe, the cook, who marvelled at the liver. ‘My father’s a butcher,’ Johannes said. These were the first words he spoke to my family. ‘A useful profession these days more than ever,’ my father said. Johannes blushed. My little sister Lise went right up to him and gave him her hand, which he kissed solemnly. ‘Matti says you want to be an opera singer,’ she said. ‘My Mama’s an opera singer!’

‘I know,’ he said. He wouldn’t look at my mother, who was smiling at him, but he looked at Lise and smiled easily, that smile again.

‘I’m Lise,’ she said. ‘I’m going to be a famous pianist when I grow up.’

‘Of course you are,’ he said.

‘Matti plays the violin,’ she said. ‘Have you heard her? She can play all the Bach partitas and I can play the Preludes and Fugues. Are you going to sing for us? Mama wants to hear you sing.’ Johannes said nothing but continued to smile that ravishing sweet smile of his. Lise still had hold of his hand. ‘Are you Matti’s young man?’ she said. ‘Are you going to marry her?’ ‘Lise!’ I said. Johannes didn’t say anything, but he allowed Lise to lead him to the sofa where she sat down beside him and whispered something in his ear that made him smile even more if that were possible. Then she gave me one of her looks and said ‘If you don’t marry him, I will!’ ‘Lise!’ I said. Everyone was laughing. ‘It’s a promise,’ Johannes said. ‘If Matti won’t have me I will certainly marry you!’ ‘Wait a minute,’ she said. ‘I want to show you something…’ She disappeared off to her room. ‘It’s love at first sight…’ Papa said, smiling at Johannes. Lise came back with her beloved Struwwelpeter held flat against her chest. She sat down beside Johannes and opened the book. ‘Look here, he looks just like you!’ she said. She held up the book for all of us to see the picture of the boy with the full head of hair and melancholy expression. ‘But I did comb my hair!’ said Johannes, laughing as hard as any of us. ‘This is what it looks like combed. You should see it in the morning when I get up! I look like a wild animal!’ He growled like a beast and pretended he was going to eat Lise, who went mad with delight and beat him off with the Struwwelpeter.

Mama had the liver cooked with onions and we ate it along with a blood red burgundy Papa said was only right on a special occasion like this. After supper Mama sang an Italian song accompanied by Papa at the piano, then Lise played one of her beloved fugues with that serious self-critical air that always seemed comical to me in a child so young. ‘Please won’t you sing something for us?’ she said, turning those shining eyes of hers on Johannes. He didn’t make a fuss, but got up and looked through the music, quickly chose something and showed it to Papa, who nodded in agreement. It was a song from ‘die Schöne Müllerin’ and the whole time he was singing this song he looked directly into my eyes. My knees were trembling my heart was in my mouth I thought dear God let me die of happiness right this minute for I shall never again be as happy as I am now with this boy’s eyes shining into my eyes and his sweet urgent voice piercing my heart. ‘Dein ist mein Herz!’ That is what he sang. And gave to me, that Sunday afternoon in May, the raw and bleeding implacable gift of his heart. Mine forever.

Into the Woods

Johannes came for us in an old clattery wooden cart, it was the same they used to deliver the meat, he said, but not on Sundays, his father had allowed him the use of it for the entire day. At the front of the cart stood a gentle white horse, his coat carefully brushed. Lise went mad when she saw that horse. ‘His name is Falada,’ said Johannes. ‘Here, give him something to eat and he’ll give you a kiss.’ He reached into the cart and took an apple from an overflowing picnic basket. Lise held out the apple and Falada took it in one bite, munching thoughtfully while eyeing her sideways, then suddenly turned his great white head and nudged her shoulder. Lise stood very still, not sure whether to be afraid or not. The horse put out his large, thick tongue and licked the side of her face and neck. She gave a little scream and clung to Johannes, who was laughing softly.

‘He’s not going to bite me? Is he?’ she said.

‘Of course not, Schwesterlein. He likes you very much. Falada never bites anybody, do you old boy?’ And he patted the horse’s neck with that fine hand of his. Then lifted Lise into the cart, and turned towards me. ‘May I have the honour, Madame…’ he said, and bowed low as if he were inviting me into Cinderella’s carriage. There was a red and white checked woollen blanket spread across the wooden seat, I can still see that blanket, exactly the way it looked, with bits of hay clinging to it. He smoothed the blanket though it didn’t need smoothing and Lise and I sat down. Then he took hold of the reins and said a quick word to the horse and we were off, clattering through the streets of Berlin under the ever-changing greengold shadows of the morning.

Soon we had passed the outskirts of town and were out into the broad open country where the sky stretches all the way to the perfectly flat horizon. Not a cloud in sight, only blue sky and greengold fields of ripening grain, and the endless allées of apple trees whispering gently in our wake. We passed through village after village, each with its small, stalwart brick church pointing hopefully towards heaven, its cluster of houses, its animals and children dotting the fields. As we drove along the bumpy lanes we sang, just old songs that everybody knows about flowers and love and springtime. Lise was singing the loudest of all, I was afraid she’d sing herself hoarse. ‘Settle down,’ I said after a while. ‘You’ll tire yourself out like that.’

‘No I won’t!’ she said.

‘You want to save something for later,’ I said. ‘Don’t you want to go swimming? You quiet down and let Johannes sing something for us now.’ She crept up to where he was sitting and put her face round to look at him.

‘Will you sing one just for me, please?’ she said.

‘Very good, little Princess – I will if you promise to sit still and listen,’ he said. Lise crept back to her place at my side, a big smile on her face. He sang a song about a little bird that misses its mother, a funny old song that was also a little bit sad.

When we entered the woods it was like entering a great quiet church on a hot day, suddenly cold and still, and filled with strange echoes. I felt a shiver down my back. Water was glinting in the filtered sunlight – we came to a lake lined with reeds taller than a man. ‘This is the place,’ said Johannes. He drew the cart to a halt and we got out. A strange cry came to us across the water, it must have been some sort of water bird but it startled us. Among the reeds a number of swans, their white shapes drifting like clouds upon the dark green water. On the face of the lake golden chains of seeds and tiny broken leaves, above the lake bright insects whirring, the arms of the drooping willow, the wild roses in clusters and the golden pears, and in the depths of the lake the summer sky and the whispering treetops, the clusters of wild roses.

‘I want to show you something,’ said Johannes. He was speaking in a whisper now. ‘Come this way,’ he said, so we followed him, away from the lake into what looked like an impenetrable thicket. Something whirred in the dense foliage – a bird? an animal? Johannes pulled at a thickset pine branch and beneath was an old broken gate, half off its hinges. We passed through and found ourselves standing before a little tumbledown chapel. It wasn’t really much more than a heap of stones, a young oak had made its way through the floor, and the stone walls were barely visible beneath the quivering vines. But the small, square bell tower was still upright, and wore its pointed hat with a certain air of defiance.

‘It’s a church,’ said Lise. ‘A teeny tiny church in the woods…’

‘It’s what they used to call a Lady Chapel,’ said Johannes. ‘It was built a very long time ago, to honour the Mother of God.’

‘God doesn’t have a mother, that’s silly,’ said Lise.

‘Don’t mind her, she’s such a little heathen,’ I said.

‘Well Jesus definitely had a mother,’ he said. ‘Mary was Jesus’ mother, and this chapel is hers. Come, I’ll show you…’ He pushed at the door and as he did so there was a sudden flash of red and a little half-grown fox cub darted out and disappeared into the wood.
Inside all the green things were growing wild upon the walls, twining themselves over the altar and round the lovely bones of the old stone windows. The startled birds fled as we entered, leaving only the clatter of their wings behind them. The three of us stood quite still, as if under a spell. Behind the altar the whitewashed wall had been cleared of all the vines and debris. There was a small round window at the top of it and just below this, painted onto the wall, a Madonna in a faded blue dress with a baby on her lap was sitting on a slightly crooked throne. She did not look directly at us, but slightly off to one side, and the expression on her full, childish face was sad and serious. The baby Jesus, who was nearly as big as his Mother, held a little bird in his hand.

Johannes walked up to the painting and looked at it for a long minute, smiling a secret lover’s smile. ‘I found it,’ he said, turning around to smile at me now. ‘Nobody cares about it, nobody even knows it’s here. It was under all these vines, totally overgrown.’

‘You cleaned it up?’ He nodded.

‘Nobody knows about it. You won’t tell?’ We promised never to tell. I wondered who he thought would be interested in this old painting in the woods anyhow…

‘She’s my own,’ he said. ‘Like my own mother…’ I knew that his mother was dead, had died when he was still only a small boy.

‘So you’re taking me to meet your mother?’

‘Why not? Didn’t I meet your parents? I want you to marry me, so we have to meet all the relations. It’s normal.’

What did he just say? Did he say that?

‘Then let’s have a wedding,’ said Lise. ‘We can have one right here.’

‘What a good idea,’ he said. ‘Go and get the flowers for the bride and we’ll have it right now.’ Lise went running off to look for flowers. ‘You will marry me, won’t you?’ he said, smiling at me again. Those smiles of his! I never knew anyone to smile like that, only angels are supposed to smile like that, with all the heart in the eyes. I said yes.

Soon Lise was back with her arms full of wild roses. Johannes twisted them into two wreathes and put them on our heads. ‘Now you’re my Queen,’ he said to me, ‘and that makes you the little Princess.’ Lise stood solemnly while he placed the wreath upon her dark hair.

‘Who’ll be the minister?’ she said.

‘Our Lady will do it,’ he said. So we knelt down before the awkward little Madonna and said that we would be true to one another in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, till death alone should part us. But we were not thinking then about death, for at twenty nobody does. Lise said the words along with me, softly under her breath, pledging also to love him through every sort of calamity, till death should part them. I didn’t try to stop her, what would have been the point? She loved him too much to be stopped, she was all in earnest, she was only seven. When we had done with the vows she strewed more flowers across the broken pavement. ‘I claim the first dance!’ said Johannes, and began to waltz me round and around the little chapel, all the while humming at the top of his voice a waltz from Johann Strauß. Lise too was dancing, and soon we were laughing too hard to keep it up, but just collapsed in a heap all three together and then went running out into the sunshine.

‘Time for lunch!’ said Johannes, rubbing his hands together. We spread the blanket on the ground and unloaded the basket. There was so much lovely food – sausages that tasted of earth and applewood, a whole loaf of dark bread, even butter, and those fat golden pears from his father’s garden… I don’t believe anything has ever tasted as good since. While we ate the whole chorus of woodland birds sang for us gentle songs rippling above our heads in time to the swaying shadows. Mother had given us a bottle of wine and we drank it all, Lise too, though I knew I ought not to allow it, I hadn’t the heart to say no. Soon my head was spinning and the insects seemed to be talking much louder than before, though I couldn’t quite make out the meaning of their chatter. Johannes was lying on his back, the dappled light caught in his eyes. I rolled over onto my stomach and looked down into them.

‘You’re eyes have spots,’ I said. Dozens of bright golden flecks were floating on the surface of his deep grey eyes. For a moment I thought I saw the sky in there, the clouds and the birds, and the overhanging branches… He smiled and blinked a little. ‘You ate all the sausages,’ I said.

‘No I didn’t!’

‘You did! I saw you do it! Lise, didn’t he eat all the sausages?’

‘You ate as many as anybody,’ she said. ‘Don’t be stupid.’

‘You hear what our little sister says, don’t be stupid…’ said Johannes. He took hold of my hand and drew me close. He was wearing a white shirt open at the throat, the sleeves rolled to the elbows, I could see the smooth wall of his chest as he bent towards me, and his naked forearm strong and slender with a light down of gold upon the pale skin. Then he was kissing me, with kisses so soft, so deep, I thought – this is what I have been waiting for all my life, this is exactly what I have been longing for for my whole life long only I didn’t know it – how is it that I didn’t know… We lay on that blanket and kissed and kissed, it seems to me we must have been kissing for hours or days or even years, there was no time in it, for we kissed the way a dog eats, the way a bird flies, simply and correctly and without thought, and in our hearts was perfect joy.

You’re not supposed to watch people when they’re kissing. It’s boring anyway, all they do is lie there. I wouldn’t want to go on kissing all day like that, it’s stupid. I wonder if there might be any fairies living here in the forest? I wonder if I might find that fox cub again and make friends with it…

Lise wandered off to look for the fairies. First she looked in the mossy nooks under the great old oak trees, but she found no fairies there. Then she looked among the pale, curling ferns, parting them carefully with her fingers – she found many small wildflowers, pink and white, some of which she picked, but alas, she found no fairies there either. She headed for the lake, slipping and sliding on the muddy bank, for she wore her city shoes, which are not made for this sort of thing at all. Quickly she grasped at the branches of an overhanging willow and slid to a halt. Before her was the lake, covered in water lilies, thick and darkly green. The reeds reached right over her head, shutting her into a bright watery palace. The swans took no notice of her, for they were very busy, dipping their long heads continually among the water lilies. A dragonfly settled on her arm, and she watched it without moving. His wings are glass. He is made all of glass like a Christmas angel. The dragon fly flew away. No fairies here either. Lise was sure they must be somewhere nearby. Here was something – a small, overgrown path. She began to follow it, deeper and deeper into the forest. Soon she could no longer see the place under the oak tree where they had spread the blanket. Sunlight poured down through the treetops, covering the path in greengold light. This must be the way to the fairies’ castle. I’ll bring them these flowers as a gift. Those fairies are so tiny, they can use them for umbrellas when it rains… The path twisted and turned and sometimes it was so narrow she could barely pass along it at all. After a while she noticed the day was no longer bright and sunny but had begun to grow cold and dark. Ahead of her there rose a tall, round stone tower, it cast a long dark shadow over the path. Lise stood very still, looking up at the tower. A witch must live there. From the tower came a strange and terrible sound, like the scream of a great bird, but there was no bird anywhere to be seen. Then she saw a face at the window, high up in the tower someone was waving to her. A woman in a blue dress with a face like a witch, pale and terrible but also beautiful – the woman was beckoning to her, begging her to come closer, and still closer… When she was right at the foot of the tower the woman suddenly smiled, showing her terrible teeth and a terrible mouth big enough to swallow Lise whole. The mouth opened wider and wider and just when it seemed certain the witch would swallow her Lise suddenly found herself inside the room at the top of the tower. The woman was gone, but a man was standing there, at least she supposed he must be a man, but he had a dog’s head on his body. He was dressed all in black, soldier’s black, and on his dog’s head was an officer’s black cap with a shiny silver skull that glittered at her in the dark. The inside of the room was very dark, and many small lights were winking and twinkling from different places on the walls, the lights were blue, or else they were white, moving and changing in circles around her, or were these only the stars turning round in the sky… There was a strange smell, a very bad smell, something was burning, and then a loud noise, a very loud noise, and it was coming from outside the tower just above their heads. There was a noise like the biggest thunder in the world and the tower shook and shook and then began to break apart. All this time the man with the dog’s head stood perfectly still, watching her with his nasty black dog’s eyes. He had a whip in his hand as well, but he didn’t say a word, only watched silently as the floor opened up beneath their feet… and now she heard the witch’s terrible screams, wordless and shrill, like the cries of a great bird.

We must have fallen asleep in one another’s arms, for when we sat up it was beginning to grow dark and Lise was nowhere to be seen. ‘Oh my God! Lise! Where can she be? Lise! Lise!

‘She can’t have gone far,’ Johannes said, but he looked worried too.

‘What if she’s fallen into the lake?’ We rushed towards the lake but found no small white body floating among the indifferent swans. ‘Where could she have gone? Lise! Lise!’ We called and called, stumbling among the trees, calling, shouting, no Lise anywhere.

‘She’s lost! What if we never find her?’ Johannes was bent over, pulling reeds from the bank and twisting them together; he looked up, and I felt my heart turn over at the look in his eyes. How is it that he only has to look at me for me to feel safe?

‘We’ll find her,’ he said. ‘Don’t get so hysterical. People get lost in the woods sometimes, but they also get found. She hasn’t been carried off by the fairies you know.’ He had made a torch from the reeds and lit it, a great smoky flare went up. ‘Come,’ he said. ‘Let’s use our heads. Where would she go? Look, here’s a little path – she probably went that way.’ We followed the path but it soon split in several directions, each time it split he would look carefully at the ground and then say ‘this way’. It grew completely dark and the moon rose and began to shine through the trees, covering the path in silvery light. We found her at last, sitting on an old overturned boat beside a stream, huddled together, shivering and crying. ‘I’m sorry!’ she said. ‘I’m so sorry!’ Her eyes were enormous with fear, I had never seen her like that before.
‘Lise, what happened? Are you hurt?’

‘There was a witch…’ she said, and began to sob very hard. ‘A blue witch, and a man with a… a man with a head like a d-dog…!’

‘A witch? Lise, at your age…’ But Johannes put his hand on my arm, motioning me to be silent, then knelt down and took her up in his arms.

‘Never mind, little Princess, you’re safe now,’ he said. We both of us believed him. We believed in him completely. He was just that sort of boy.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Grace Andreacchi is a novelist, poet and playwright. Works include the novels Scarabocchio and Poetry and Fear, Music for Glass Orchestra (Serpent’s Tail), Give My Heart Ease (New American Writing Award) and the chapbook Berlin Elegies. Her work appears in Horizon Review, The Literateur, Cabinet des Fées and many other fine places. Grace is also managing editor at Andromache Books and writes the literary blog AMAZING GRACE. She lives in London.
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Kreso15
Painting by Kreso Cavlovic
Standard
Fiction

La Figura

by Terin Tashi Miller
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He had become a figura, a celebrity. He had done it this time last year as he had done it before, with grace in the handling of the small red cape and good, swift, merciful killing of the bulls from all the acclaimed ranches. It had happened on the second of May, in a bull fight celebrating the time of El Don Francisco, the painter Francisco de Goya.
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Jose Miguel, the bull fighter, had dressed in period costume like the rest of the bull ring’s staff, the men with long hair in Queen Anne nets and he himself carrying a large, Napoleon-style hat.
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And, as in Goya’s time, Jose Miguel alone fought one at a time six bulls from different ranches. He had cut six ears in all that day, two on the second bull and one on the third; two on the always capricious fifth and one on the sixth, in the driving rain that almost always opened the Madrid bull fighting festival just before the feast of San Isidro, Madrid’s patron saint.
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His poise in handling the more than 1,000-pound bulls, his closeness to their life-threatening horns, and his compassion in dispatching the less-worthy, less-brave and more stupid bulls, made it nearly impossible for bull fight fans to afford tickets for the rest of the year.
 .
His skill had made him rich, again, from the tourists who would pay the inflated prices to see him in front of a bull. He was now 26, and he had been through all this once before.
 .
It was because he had been through this before that he had not lost his head to the fame this time. And it was because he had been through this before that, after his usual circuit of fights in South America, he had spent the Spring practicing with his own bulls on his ranch. It was, however, because he had been practicing that now he wore a cast on his right hand, to keep his tendons in his forearm from becoming more badly damaged by the punishment they took each time he thrust a sword to its hilt into a bull. He had practiced charging the bull simultaneously as it drove toward him in its last fatal attempt to take the life of its oppressor. And he had practiced standing still, receiving the bull as it came for him, allowing the bull, as a man might if the situation were reversed, to take its own life at his hand, his estoque sword the instrument of the termination of the bull’s life, the final judgment having been made by something greater than them both, the judgment that the sheer power and will and brute force and bravery of the bull should not overcome the grace and ballet-like art of the man with the cape, and the intelligence to be able to avoid death while holding it at his finger tips.
 .
He had practiced killing swiftly, severing the aorta of the bulls by placing the sword at the first try in the cross where the bull’s shoulder blades met the bulls spine if his feet were apart, where a space for the sword that would end the bull’s life existed if the bull’s feet were together. Each miss was to his wrist like placing a stick into the hood of a moving truck. Each success was like placing the stick in the space between the truck’s hood and its windshield.
 .
Now, his right hand was in a cast from all this practice. And he wore green and gold, his favorite colors, on his shimmering gold-embroidered costume. It was the twenty-first of May, and again, he would spend the afternoon in this deadly ballet. But this time, he had competition from two other experienced killers of bulls.
 .
This year, he was a figura because of what he’d done last year. This year, what he’d done, and how he’d brought fans to their feet in their plastic rain gear or holding their umbrellas, chanting “Torer-o! Torer-o!” and clapping, some crying, waving their white handkerchiefs into a sea of white around the bullring from the stands for the Presidente of the ring to award not just one, but two ears for his valor and bravery, and his merciful, almost slaughtering-house-swift killing, would not be enough. This year, he had to do better. And again, it was raining.
 .
A cheer and a wave of applause enveloped him and the others as they waited to step into the ring for the procession that would start the day’s event. The King of Spain had just arrived and taken his seat at the lowest row, behind the barrera that separated the ring from the stands. He could tell by the cheer, the applause, and the first trumpet notes and drum roll of the band starting. It was darker in the callejon where he and the others waited, smelling the horses of the picadors and knowing they smelled the bulls. He was glad the King had arrived. And he was glad the King preferred to sit at the barrera. It made it easier to dedicate a bull to the King. It also made it more likely, the King being an avid aficionado, that the King would be able to catch Jose Miguel’s hat when he tossed it to the King for safekeeping until the bull had been killed. He smiled to himself, his head down, shifting his weight to his right side. He could not toss his hat so well with his right arm in a cast now, and he hated trying to throw his hat up the two stories of the open stands to the Royal Box, where the King’s mother, La Infanta, always sat in her wheelchair with her head resting on her shoulder from her stroke.
 .
It was their turn to enter the ring. Jose Miguel stepped forward in the center of the others and held his dress cape wrapped tightly around one shoulder and his waist. When he reached the required spot in the outer part of the ring, near where he and the others had entered, he unconsciously made a cross in the sand with his right slipper. He smiled to himself, still superstitious after all this. It was raining harder.
Jose Miguel looked up into the drops of rain. Across from him he saw the seventh section of the ring, Tendido Siete, where the eternally critical, loud and raucous fans sat, and knew The Plaza was full. The promoters would be pleased with this.
 .
Besides the King, several members of the new government were present. Even the rich and famous came to see him kill. He remembered being hungry. He remembered being poor. He remembered being an orphan like several others at the Madrid bull fighting school. He was glad the beef from the bulls he killed would be sold to the bars near by and not wasted.
 .
To his right stood a friend, another figura whose greatness was eclipsed by his own. Jose Miguel was better with the old-style flourishes of the long and the short cape. He always had been.
 .
To his left stood a lesser-known bull killer, another friend, a Colombian. He would provide comparison, as would the former figura, Enrique.
The bulls were supposed to have been bred by one of the best ranches in Spain.
 .
His two friends each took on the first two bulls. In the beginning of those two fights, Jose Miguel stepped up with his pink and blue long capote and distracted the bull to come toward him, so that he could show his twirling passes, his veronicas that spread the long cape like a skirt over the bull as it charged at the motion, its head low but its hoofs forward – a bad sign. At the part of each friend’s first bull of the day, he stepped forward again, “stealing” the bull’s attention in a quite, removing his long cape from it’s shield-like position in front of him and spinning it over his shoulder, revealing the picador’s horse to the bull and causing the bull to gather strength and try to push the horse and rider out of the ring, the bull still believing itself to be master of all it could see.
 .
The other figura handled the first bull, a dark black beast of more than 600 kilos, well. Enrique killed very cleanly, controlling his bull with the movement of his small cape, the muleta, well, not needing to spread it too wide with the wooden stick at its top to get the bull to follow it.
When there was no rain, there was a cooling breeze that the people in the stands enjoyed. But Jose Miguel preferred the rain. His footing was sure, his toes gripping the damp sand of the ring as it sloped from the center, even if the bull’s footing wasn’t.
 .
Jose Miguel killed his first bull of the day in the driving rain in front of Tendido Siete. He could barely see the section of the stand because of the rain, which struck his costume loudly. But he could hear them over everything which is why he brought the bull there, in front of that section, to kill.
 .
The bull was bleeding some from the picador’s work. The barb-tipped banderillas that hung at the bull’s side from the bull’s shoulders had soaked in some of the bull’s quick-clotting blood. The bull, tiring from its attempts at clearing the ring, was breathing hard, its tongue feeling the cooling rain. Jose Miguel rose to his toes and lifted his killing sword over his head in an arc and sighted down its tip at the spot over the bull’s horns where he intended to take the animal’s life. Then he lowered the small red muleta to get the bull’s horns and massive head more at the level of his own chest.
 .
The movement of Jose Miguel’s small red cape sparked the bull’s charge.
 .
As the bull charged, Jose Miguel charged, and the killing sword, the estoque, sank in straight and smooth as if it belonged in the center of the open cross left when the bull’s shoulder blades moved away from beside its spine. Jose Miguel passed the bull to his right with the small red muleta in his left hand, his arms forming a cross as he plunged the estoque and knew the minute the sword went in that he’d killed the bull. All the fans, seeing the bull’s massive head, its horns hooking inward, still on its feet in its charge, and Jose Miguel’s lunge directly over the bull’s head, his waist to his feet, which were in the air, directly in front of the bull in its charge, feared the worst.
 .
But Jose Miguel knew he was fine. He only hoped he’d shut up “Los Sietes.”
 .
On his second bull of the day, Jose Miguel threw his hat to where he planned to kill the bull near the center of the ring. His hat fell bottoms up, causing some of the older fans to gasp with superstition. He walked up and turned his hat so it sat as if it were on top of the center of the ring.
 .
But this next bull would not charge. It was either smart, or cowardly. Bulls normally attack anything in their vision, feeling their territory threatened. Jose Miguel knew this. People said he knew bulls as if he’d been one before being human. All he knew right now was that there would be no killing his last bull of the day in front of the same section in which he’d killed his first. This bull had barely even noticed the picadors’ horses, despite the picadors’ attempts to clank around in their stirrups and attract the bull’s attention.
 .
As he was thinking this, he noticed the rain had stopped. Then he noticed a very faint breeze. What he did not notice in that instant as he stood in front of his second bull, a bull that would not allow him the opportunity to do his old-style cape work to the delight of the fans and the improvement of the bull’s last appearance alive, was that the breeze had gently lifted the muleta, which he’d had in his right hand. He noticed the rain had stopped while trying to get the bull to move past him with the small red muleta held out from his right side, watching it over his right shoulder rather than his standing in front of the bull. He decided it would be better to switch his position from the natural to stand in front of this statue-like bull. He turned on his left slipper, feeling the wet sand under his toes, moving his right foot in a semi-circle until he was almost facing the bull, still keeping the cape in front of the bull’s face.
 .
The bull saw its chance. The bull saw the cape move and the man move, and it knew the man was bigger. In the instant Jose Miguel moved to face the bull from standing to its left, he knew also that the bull had charged. And the man, the figura, was helpless.
 .
For in that instant of mutual recognition, the bull dug its left horn into Jose Miguel’s right hip, near his groin, and lifted him into the air like a toy. Jose Miguel was impaled on the horn, facing the sand of the ring of Las Ventas, the most important bull ring in the world, the ring in which he’d become a figura twice, from on top of a horn, with the red muleta cape still in his right hand.
 .
He grabbed the sand when the bull’s horn became unhooked, and he waited for everyone to get the bull away from him before hurrying back to his feet. He felt as if he were still in the air above the bull, facing the sand. But he was on his feet, as were the people in the stands.
 .
From the stands you could see just a trickle of blood near his ankle. It appeared to be perhaps some of the bull’s blood. Then you saw it getting bigger, flowing more rythmically, and it was deep maroon.
 .
Jose Miguel took his red-handled killing sword out of its dark leather scabbard. He held the estoque in his left hand, his good hand, while waving back the others who rushed in to make certain he was all right. He picked his muleta up off the sand where he’d let it go, all the while keeping his eye on this bull that had his blood on the tip of its left horn. He bent over for a second, his hand at his hip. There was blood on his cast. He went to the side of the ring where the bull waited, watching him.
 .
The two watched each other without speaking. Both were catching their breath with their mouths.
 .
“Vaya, hombre! Vamos!, ha, toro!” said one loud voice in Tendido Siete, hoping to get the bull to move.
 .
“Callate, cabron!” shouted several voices from the stands.
 .
He lined the bull up at the tip of his killing sword after scraping it along the sky. He now held his muleta in his left hand.
 .
“Huh! Huh!”
 .
But the bull did not move.
 .
He raised himself with his toes digging in the sand, lowering the muleta.
 .
Still, the bull would not move.
 .
So he charged it.
 .
He and the bull came toward each other, both in pain. Being careful to pass the muleta in his left hand across to his right side, his left arm forming a cross underneath his right, he felt the tip of the estoque find resistance and braced himself for the jarring, searing pain of hitting bone with his hurt wrist. But the resistance gave way, and the fingertips of his right hand felt the damp hair on the bull’s hide and the rush of warm blood rising through the opening before the pain of the impact shot up his arm. He rolled over the bull to its side. Jose Miguel killed the bull so fast that, still in shock from seeing the bull get Jose, none believed it until the bull took two steps forward and stopped, as if having just remembered something, and dropped to its side in the sand, its four legs sticking straight out.
 .
Jose Miguel, the figura still, walked stiffly to the infirmary.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Terin Tashi Miller spent many of his formative years in India, the child of anthropologist parents. Since then, he has lived and worked in a variety of countries in Europe and Asia. The author of three novels, Kashi, Sympathy for the Devil, and Down the Low Road, his writing has appeared in guide books, international magazines including Time and Geografica Revista, and newspapers including The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News and The Los Angeles Times. His short stories have also been published in numerous literary magazines.
He began his writing career as a part-time reporter for Time magazine, then worked for The Associated Press in India and North Dakota and AP-Dow Jones News Services in Spain and New York, and as a reporter for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Milwaukee Sentinel, Amarillo Daily News and the Hilton Head Island Packet.
Born in St. Louis, Mo., and raised in Madison, Wis. and several provinces in India, he currently lives in New Jersey.
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kristi48
photo by Kristi Harms
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Fiction

Lifeguard

by John Gorman

I was ten when my parents decided to let the Doyles raise me. Mom and Dad weren’t throwing in the towel, but preparing themselves. God forbid, they both died together.

We saw the Doyles a few times each summer. Their place was in Breezy Point, a blue-collar Irish and Italian-American community. There were plenty of boys my age to play with, but I liked spending time with the Doyles because, for the most part, they treated me like a grown-up.

Phil was painting the coffee table when we arrived, a newspaper tucked under his knees as he added the last brush strokes. He waved a big hello. He’d held me in greater deference since I caught him smoking an American Spirit last summer after his wife Maggie had yammered on and on about his willpower. I got ten bucks for discovering the bitter truth.

I knew him as the happy-go-lucky handyman, the king of gutter-stripping, refrigeration, and Chinese Checkers. If you cropped his image at the chin, had no inkling of the tool clutched in his hand, then you’d suspect a philosopher hidden within his pensive nut brown eyes, grappling for the critical thread to save the universe from sputtering into chaos.

Maggie thrust the screen door open with her elbow and greeted us, her silvery hair poking through the sides of her navy bandana. The table had already been set with white ceramic bowls and red paper napkins choked through blue wooden holders. A tray of finger sandwiches sat in the middle next to a jar of Gulden’s mustard and a small dish of chopped tomato and cucumber.

Maggie gave me a firm handshake. She excused herself and went back into the kitchen to fetch a pitcher of lemonade. Dad eyed the chairs to see which one had the most shade and frowned when he noticed the director’s chair by the head of the table. The tree threw off a Brobdingnagian shadow, but Dad’s back wouldn’t last pressed up to stretchy fabric. He plopped into the wicker seat nearest the screen door.

Even while we lounged on the deck sipping lemonade and breezing through the cursory formalities of catch-up, Phil tended to chores, a pair of pliers dangling from the belt loop of his denim shorts. He sat for a minute then jumped up to open the screen door so Maggie could set down a piping hot pan of quiche surprise.

“Look what the chef of the future whipped up,” Phil said.

I helped myself to two heaping wedges. Of course, I burned my tongue. I let the quiche cool on my plate and attacked the potato chips.

“Looks like feeding time at the zoo,” Dad said.

“Who wants to adopt this kid?” Mom said.

Maggie smiled, pouring me a tall one. Ice-cubes with lemon pulp floated to the top of my glass. “Sure, we’ll take him for a month,” Maggie said.

I didn’t think anything of it then. Mom joshed. She had that way about her. After lunch, I excused myself to change into my swim trunks. Maggie got up and walked me inside. She wiped her feet before entering and I did the same. She pointed to Phil’s room and I grabbed my swim trunks out of Mom’s tote bag. The window was opened a crack and a warm breeze rustled in, spreading the smell of fresh-washed sheets and ocean mist. I tweaked the blinds until the room faded into a charcoal gray. When my eyes adjusted to the grainy darkness, I caught a glimpse of Rocky Marciano’s boxing gloves pinched within their eight-by-ten frame. A while back, Phil had told me he got the champ’s autograph when he was waiting in line for his meatball hero at a Hell’s Kitchen pizzeria.

I heard Maggie and Mom talking by the back porch. I moved to the corner to hear them clearer.

“Oh my God,” Maggie said. “You weren’t kidding.”

“I know it’s a huge responsibility. But you like Dennis,” Mom said.

“Sure we do, but there’s so much to consider. What about your sister?”

“She’s got three kids. Where’s Dennis going to fit in?”

“They’re family though.”

“We want Dennis to get all the attention he deserves.”

“Phil never wanted to have a baby.”

“He’s practically a teenager.”

“That’s when the shit hits the fan.”

I then had the fierce desire to steal a glimpse of Maggie’s face. I wanted to see the rejection. I slipped out the side door. Mom stood with her back to the house, both elbows propped by the wooden rail, peering off to the bay. Maggie faced away, her fingers twitching for a cigarette— a taste of her past, but her youth had blown away like so much sand in the wind and when I’ d crept up on her she grinned like a toothless fortune teller.

“That’s some bathing suit,” Maggie said.

“Swim trunks,” I said.

I’d been dying to go for a dip the whole muggy ride over. I stood there instead as if waiting for a beating. I heard footsteps clopping around the bend.

“Aren’t you coming?” Phil said, cracking open a fresh Coors.

Some of the foam sprayed onto his knuckles and he licked it clean.

He led me to the front deck where Dad was rubbing suntan lotion on his face. He left two dabs on either side of his nose and let his towel hang off his shoulders like Superman. Phil downed the last of his beer and parked it on the table. He snapped his fingers and we followed him out the gate. We didn’t take the concrete walkway on Kildare, but Juno’s sandy path to the ocean where the houses gave way to huts. He waved to a dozen or so residents camped on their decks sipping beers, chatting with friends. I tapped a wind chime made of mussel shells and watched it rattle in a creepy hula dance.

By the tail end of the beach, we cut through the dunes swaying with wild, wiry strands of grass. Pipers prowled for coffee crumbs and other goodies left behind by day-trippers. The sun hid behind a gauzy veil of clouds as if it hadn’t made its mind whether or not to show its face on Breezy Point’s listless shore. Two teenage girls lay facedown on their royal blue beach towel. The skinnier one dipped her feet to her butt and gazed into a thick paperback the cover of which was chewed off. Her friend twisted to snag a bunch of grapes from a grocery bag. I turned my head afraid she might catch me staring.

Phil and I were already topless and in our swim gear while Dad was still wearing his khakis. He shed them on the beach revealing his white, almost albino legs. They were hairless too, though he didn’t shave them.

“You could win a beauty pageant with those babies,” Phil said.

I laughed, but really it bothered me. Mainly, I was angry with my dad for not landing his own jab. He smiled wanly and brushed it off. It must have upset him because he went to such great lengths to hide his legs. The only time I saw them exposed were those few fleeting moments in the summer before he dipped into the cold shimmering mouth of the ocean. Dad tossed his towel on the sand, sat, and then oiled his legs.

Phil pulled the beak of my baseball cap over my eyes momentarily blinding me.

“How about a quick run?” he asked.

“Think you can take me?” I said, in a cocky voice.

Phil turned the knob on his radio then clamped his headset to his ears. I gave him a thumbs’ up. Where the tide’s creamy foam swished onto the shore we broke into trot. Seagulls scattered. I dashed into an early lead, pumping my arms into a metronome. Every so often I turned to see Phil’s progression, but he hung back a good twenty yards. I felt invincible, my lungs lighter than clouds. A soft breeze filtered through the back of my fishnet cap.

By the time I reached the first red flag and an empty lifeguard’s chair, my calves had gotten tight. Blood rushed into my neck. I spit to the side and the salty seawater sprayed my lips. The moist sand clumps left under my toes packed into their own islands.

Phil faded to a dream. I couldn’t tell if he’d given up or if he’d slowed into a stroll. I stayed my course. Coney Island’s Cyclone grew with each step. I’d heard you could wrap around the Rockaways and into Brooklyn’s great beach. The crisp tingle of rollercoaster metal lured me on and when a warm gust of wind tossed my cap into the sea I staggered toward it. The beaming sun toyed with me. I retrieved my cap two-handed and put it on backwards with the adjustable flap pulled to its last snap.

Twenty some-odd yards later, I crossed a patch of sun-baked kelp and my legs almost buckled. I eased into a walk. Nothing brisk about it. I wanted to tumble into the sand and cover myself ankle to nose.

When Phil finally cruised past me, I kicked sand at him as if I were Billy Martin soiling an umpire. He didn’t even turn his head and kept his same stupid old man’s pace. Before his stride fused to a blur my stomach began to swirl. The bitter taste of acid rising up my throat till something like spoiled pineapple chunks slithered down my chin. I pushed my knuckles to my mouth and added sand to my mess. Then I rinsed off in the ocean. The sharp chill sent a jagged arc of goose pimples across my pinkish arms.

I walked it off.

Dad swam in the distance, drifting with the speedboats, and I followed his path. I stayed close to the water, letting it splash over my ankles. Tiny bubbles swilled into the mud when the tide washed back out. Dad swam facedown, his kicks perfectly synchronized with his rising and splashing arms. He dove down for awhile, never for too long, and he rose like Poseidon, his wet stringy hair dripping onto the skin of the sea.

This time he stayed under for too long and I worried. Not a single lifeguard in sight. I ran again toward where I had last seen him surface. A bright ray beamed off the water making it shine like a sea of jewels. A clam shell crunched underfoot. “Dad,” I yelled. “Dad.” The waves rose into a higher shelf and roared when they crashed. I treaded currents waist high. Then put my arms into it. My kicking sucked and I had to set my mouth to the side to breathe. I’d swallow if I put my head under.

“Where’s your pop?” Phil shouted, startling me.

He came in at the knees and clapped his hands into the water.

“He must have been a dolphin in his past life,” Phil said.

“Shut up,” I said.

“What’s the matter with you?”

I bit my lip. I wouldn’t let him see me crying, but he trailed me out. So there was no other choice, but to go under. I threw my arms wildly. One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand then I slid my ear to the surface and listened for Dad’s heartbeat. I heard the drone of a million conch shells and saw the papery sway of seaweed. A huge green wave smashed over me, spun me around, and plunged to floor. Then I saw Phil’s hairy legs dithering in the currents. I lost my orientation, but floundered to the green glow, hoping to escape. I kicked and flailed until I touched bottom and then I rose from the knee-high water. My right ear still clogged and my feet sank into the mushy sand. My nerves soared.

From my helpless vantage point, I watched the maddening swill of water spit up an arm. I couldn’t tell who it belonged to and then I saw that Phil had wrapped his arms around my dad like he was hanging onto a life preserver except it was Phil who was making sure my dad stayed fastened to him. They carried on this drunken dance, Phil hauling my dad to the shore and dumped him onto the shell-crushed sand. He didn’t need CPR or anything like that. My dad, beached on his back, was already spitting up seawater and I felt my stomach churning again. I kept a horse fly’s distance, my head buzzing, and a malicious wind whipped behind my ears. The weird thing about seeing somebody you love so close to death is in that splintering instance everything pulls into focus— watertight— infinity squeezed into a single drop.

I couldn’t help being a little angry at Phil for jumping in and grabbing my dad. He didn’t give him a chance to surface on his own. I wanted to believe he would’ve made it up just fine, didn’t want to consider for a moment that my dad could ever depend on somebody else the way I depended on him.

When my dad had seemed to have shaken off this terrible thing, he turned to me with will-o’-wispy eyes and said, “Don’t you never go into those riptides.”

I nodded and wiped the snot from my nose.

We loped back, not together, but as a discombobulated crew. The beads of sea had completely dried on my back. My hair was still dripping. When we hit the walkway, I still couldn’t shake the jittery pulse of emotions that made me feel both bolder and more brittle.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Before his stories made it into print John Gorman snapped the Eyesore of the week for the Queens Ledger. Now he spits wine for a living. He also enjoys a goof game of Mancala (preferably in the sand). His fiction and essays have appeared in Monkeybicycle, Apt, Hunger Mountain, The Summerset Review and Writer’s Digest. His debut novel Shades of Luz is published by All Things That Matter Press. He earned my MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University. He blogs @ http://jgpapercut.blogspot.com/

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Kreso2

painting by Kreso Cavlovic

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Fiction

The True Death of Agamemnon

by M F McAuliffe

 

Agamemnon left. Retired. Took his war-pension and went down the coast, remarried and set up as a fisherman. He wasn’t any great shakes at that; the boat was all stove in on the left-hand side, right where the frame swept up to form the bow. The thing was up on trestles in the shed next to a broken down Harley.

When they heard who he was all the local blokes offered to help with the repairs. He’d never been one to turn down a volunteer so there was a standing arrangement for them to come around whenever the weather was inclement.

It was frequently inclement.

The woman he’d married was the one he’d brought back from the war. Apparently she’d said the boat’d be the death of him. He used to tell ’em that, back in the shed, put on a face and show ’em how his eye had lit up and he’d roared that she was as big an idiot as she’d ever been, the only thing the boat had ever killed was fish, and not too many of them, either; and now even the fish were safe because he never went out in it.

Apparently she never spoke to him after that.

She never seemed to move or speak at all. Just sat at the kitchen table with that old mobile she never used, long red nails around a glass of beer, half-smoked cigarette in

her right hand. Not till the day of the funeral did anyone see her without a fag in her hand and a column of smoke at her shoulder.

Well, whenever it rained the friends’d arrive, sort of slouch past the picture-window; the wife’d just sit there, elbows on the laminex, grey and white random cross-stripe it was, jerk her head and nod for ’em to go along to the shed. Of course all they ever did was help Agamemnon with the keg and knock ’emselves silly on the bracing or the scaffolds while they guzzled and glugged and cackled at stories from his glory days as a general. The repairs never progressed at all.

And that’s what happened, of course.

One Saturday afternoon Agamemnon himself staggered against the boat one time too many. There were only two trestles holding the whole thing up, and the thing was fifteen feet long, solid oak, except for the hole. The momentum carried him to the front edge of the hole. He threw his arm out to save himself and the impact jostled the whole thing off balance. The front trestle tipped and fell; the whole front end fell. Splintered oak at the edge of the hole, long and sharp as a spear. Oak ribs adding to the weight.

The spear punctured a lung. He was dead in ten minutes.

It was still raining. Like all the others it was one of those grey coast days when it rained from dawn to dusk, dawn just a low black sky turning grey and dusk just a low grey sky turning black.

The back of the boat was still on its trestle. That was how they got it off him, eased in under until they could raise the front long enough to prise him loose. They laid him out and then told the wife.

She still didn’t move. The smoke from the cigarette just ascended, steadily.

She must’ve moved sometime. She buried him.

The friends all turned up at the funeral, sober for the first sunny day in years.

The wife quit smoking, sold the place, gave the Harley to one of the friends, and moved away.

 

* * * * * * * * * *

M. F. McAuliffe is the co-author of the poetry collection Fighting Monsters (1998) and the limited-edition artist’s book Golems Waiting Redux (2011).

Her short fiction has appeared in Overland, siglo, Australian Short Stories, The Adelaide Review, The Clarion Awards, and Eye-Rhyme. Her poetry has appeared in Famous Reporter, Poezija (Zagreb), and Prairie Schooner, among other venues; her long poem “Orpheus” was staged by the experimental La Mama Courthouse Theatre in Carlton, Victoria, in May, 2000.

In 2002 she co-founded the multilingual magazine Gobshite Quarterly with R. V. Branham, and she continues there as contributing editor.

 

1467358_10151695440636548_174055202_nphoto by Steve Shewchuck

 

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