Posts Tagged ‘short story’

The News

Monday, March 27th, 2017

metaphors

(a story from Todd’s novel of stories Under the Table Books)

I don’t have much, but there’s one thing I treat myself to every Wednesday, and that’s a newspaper, fresh from the rack. No one else has touched it. The news is absolutely fresh. You can smell its freshness. The folds of the pages are sharp and clean. This is my greatest luxury, my last strong link to civilization. It may not seem like much to you, but for me buying the Wednesday news is absolutely, without question, the zenith of my week.

Furthermore, it is absolutely essential that I pay for it. If someone gave the newspaper to me, it would have no importance whatsoever. I must get my news through ritual.

Every Wednesday I wake up early, wherever I happen to be, and I take a bath. Sometimes I bathe in the river. Sometimes I use a garden hose, if there’s no one around to tell me not to. Sometimes I am somewhere with a shower, and now and then I find myself in a house with a bathtub. That, of course, is the ultimate luxury, to soak for a while in a tub full of truly hot water.

Then, once my body is washed, I put on my cleanest clothes and set forth to find a newspaper rack. I do not buy my papers from vendors or in stores. I want my news direct, no middlemen. When I have located a rack I like the look of, I approach it slowly, with solemnity. I do not allow myself to read the headlines. To know anything at this point would destroy the purity of the experience.

I take three quarters from my pocket. Seventy-five cents still buys the news in this town, thank God. I will have had these quarters since the day before, at least. I will not beg on Wednesdays. No, the day I buy my paper is a day of dignity for me. On this day I am as good as any other man, even the President, even the Pope.

I hold the quarters, heads side up, between the thumb and index finger of my right hand. I read aloud the dates on each coin. Lately, I’ve been getting lots of those bicentennial ones. 1776-1976. George Washington on one side, a Revolutionary War drummer on the other. On the George side it says LIBERTY up above his head, and then in smaller print under George’s chin it says IN GOD WE TRUST. If we didn’t know better, we might think George was a mannish-looking woman, hawk-nosed and severe, with silly curls and sillier ponytail, with a ribbon in it yet. There is no mention anywhere on the coin that this person is George Washington. Somehow we know. Or maybe it would be more appropriate to say, somehow we have not yet forgotten.

I put the quarters in the slot, give the handle a pull, and listen carefully as the quarters roll, then fall into the change box. Sometimes the chamber is empty and the quarters clonk against the bottom in a sad hollow way. Other times the coins settle gently onto a good pile of fellow coins, making a beautiful clinking sound. I sometimes think the sound my quarters make going in is more important than getting the paper itself. If I am sad, that beautiful soft musical sound can cheer me up. And if I’m happy, that hollow clonking can leave me doubting everything.

There are times when the paper on top of the stack is damaged, dog-eared or torn. I take the next one down, or the next. I want perfection of form if I can’t get it from the contents. And sometimes only one paper remains, the paper held against the glass by the metal frame. I do not like these papers as well. They have been looked at by countless passersby and handled roughly by the person stocking the rack. I take them, but those Wednesdays are never quite as good as the Wednesdays when the quarters fall just right, and the papers are many and fresh, smelling strongly of ink, hot off the presses, still warm from the ovens of thought.

I tuck the paper under my arm and go in search of a place to read. I need a table, sunlight and good coffee. I will not drink cheap coffee on Wednesday. Fortunately, there are many good places to go in this town, many good cups of coffee to be had. I am known in these places. On Wednesday I am not a bum, a freak, a shopping cart person. My shopping cart is hidden somewhere safe. I am free of my few things on Wednesday. I have a dollar to spend, a morning to dedicate to my god, the news. If all my days could be like Wednesday there is nothing I couldn’t accomplish.

I read the paper in order, front page to back. I read every word, save for the Classifieds section, and on a rainy day I will read that, too. I study the advertisements. I ponder the editorials. I read every comic strip, every statistic in the sports section, every letter to the editor, every shred of gossip. I meditate on my horoscope. I scrutinize the photographs and wonder at the movie reviews. I fall in love with the fashion models, devour the food section, second guess the business experts and check my stocks, the ones I would have bought a year ago when the market was way down and the time was right.

All in all it takes about four hours. Then I carefully reassemble the paper and carry it to my friend Leopold who meets me in front of the library, downtown, every Wednesday at one o’clock. Sometimes I get there before him. Sometimes he is waiting for me, leaning against the old stone building, holding it up with his strong little back.

I give him the paper. He always asks, “Anything good?”  I usually say, “A few things.”  Though once I remember the paper was as empty of anything good as I have ever seen it, and I said, “No, Leo, not a god damn thing.”  To which he responded by putting it directly in the recycling bin without so much as a glance at the sordid headlines. And once, yes, once I said, “Oh Leo, it’s incredible. You won’t believe all the good news.”  To which he responded by hugging the paper to him like long lost best friend.

And then, with or without Leo, depending on his mood, I walk to the Post Office where I purchase a postcard on which I write a brief note to the President, which I then send. Now and then I’ll include a poem, if a good rhyme comes to me. Sometimes I’ll quote an editorial or a news item. Whatever I write, it is inspired by the news I have just read.

One time I wrote him a postcard that said, “Dear Mr. President, it is clear from the news that you have lost touch with the will of the people. As they grow more and more desirous of a peaceful world, you grow more and more vituperative, angry and irrational. I urge you to take some time off to search your soul, to listen to the inner voice, lest you drift too far from your purpose.”

And the very next week the headline read PRESIDENT IN SECLUSION. Had he heard me? Did he read my note? I don’t know. I only know that he cancelled all appointments for three days and went into seclusion. To think. To ponder. Perhaps to study the news.

I like to think that he reads all my notes, and that he looks forward to my postcards as I look forward to the Wednesday news. He listens to me. He didn’t at first, but now he does. Now his aides sort through the avalanche of mail to find my cards. They know my handwriting now. And I mark my notes in another way, too. I take a quarter, with the bust of George face up, and I press the postcard down onto the coin and then I take a pencil and I color in over the quarter, so that George and LIBERTY and IN GOD WE TRUST and the date come through, like a temple rubbing.

I’m not insane. I don’t believe the President listens to me. I am a man who lives for Wednesdays. I once owned fleets of cars, now I push a shopping cart, which I did not steal. I found it by the river where the shopping carts grow. I will return it someday. Perhaps the day before I die. I have never stolen anything. I fathered three children. I had tens of hundreds of thousands of millions of dollars. I lived with a woman, my wife, and could not love her.

What am I saying? Why have I told you this story? Because though the news itself may be a mass of lies and half-truths, rising above it, every Wednesday, is a tone, a feeling, a universal hum. And it helps me. It allows me to go on, to hope.

Some find salvation in prayer, some in music. I am not saved yet, but if I am ever to be saved, if I am ever to find the peace I seek, I know where I’ll read all about it.

 

Beautiful hardback copies of Under the Table Books illustrated by the author are available from Todd’s web site for just seven dollars plus shipping.

A thirteen-hour reading of the novel by Todd is available from Audible and other audio book sites.

The Beggar

Monday, March 13th, 2017

The Beggar

Buddha Statue photo by Todd

a story from Buddha In A Teacup

Each morning on her way from the subway to her office in the pyramid building, Cheryl passes hundreds of beggars. And each evening on her way home, she passes most of the same beggars again. And there are beggars in the subway station, too.

Every few weeks, moved by a compulsion she has no explanation for, she empties the kitchen change jar into a paper bag and carries these hundreds of coins with her to work. On her way home at the end of the day, she gives this change to the only beggar she has ever admired. She has never told her husband or children what she does with the money, nor have they ever inquired about its repeated disappearance.

The man she gives this money to is tall and handsome, olive-skinned, with short brown hair and a well-trimmed beard. He is, she believes, close to her own age—forty-nine—and he wears the saffron robe of a Buddhist monk. He sits cross-legged on the sidewalk in front of the Costa Rican consulate, a stone’s throw from the subway entrance. His back is perfectly straight, his head unbowed, and he sits absolutely still. He is not there in the mornings, but he is there every evening of Cheryl’s workweek, except Wednesday evenings.

His large brass bowl sits on the ground directly in front of him. When money is dropped into the bowl he does not alter his pose in the slightest, nor does he make any outward gesture of thanks.

As the weeks and months and years go by, Cheryl finds herself thinking constantly about her favorite mendicant. He has become something of a hero to her, though she knows nothing about him. She begins to wonder where he lives and what he does with the money he collects. She has no idea when he arrives at his begging post or when he leaves. She doesn’t know if he is mute or deaf. Does he beg on Saturdays and Sundays, too? She only knows that he is there at six o’clock on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday evenings, sitting very still and gazing straight ahead, receiving alms.

When she begins waking in the night from dreams in which she and this man are fleeing together from some unseen terror, she decides to change her path to work. She tells herself that if she stops seeing him four times every week, she will eventually stop thinking about him. So she chooses another subway stop, one a few blocks further from the pyramid building, but with only the rare beggar along her way.

For the first week, her new route gives her sweet satisfaction. She feels as if an enormous weight has been lifted from her shoulders. She hadn’t realized what a tremendous strain it was for her to pass by all those poor people every day. And she no longer sees him—that impeccably silent man in his golden robe. She no longer sees his piercing eyes or his sensuous lips or his beautifully formed hands resting palms up on his knees.

Still, she thinks of him constantly. She wakes exhausted from dreams of making love to him, of being his wife, his judge, his executioner. But it is only when she fails to sleep at all for three days and nights in succession, and feels herself dissolving into madness, that she decides to learn all she can about him.

She takes a week off from work, though she doesn’t tell her husband she is doing so. On a cold morning in November, she rides the subway into the city at her usual hour. She stands on the sidewalk across the street from the Costa Rican consulate and waits for the object of her obsession to arrive.

At noon, his spot still vacant, Cheryl goes to a restaurant and fortifies herself with a meal, though she has little appetite. She has lost several pounds during the weeks of her growing concern about this man. Her husband believes she has finally discovered a successful diet.

Tired of standing, she is sitting on the sidewalk, her back against the wall of a bank, when he appears a block away—a golden flower in a river of darker flowers. He walks with stately grace, his begging bowl in his left hand, and a small rug, tightly rolled, in his right. When he has attained his place, he bows slightly in each of the four cardinal directions, places the bowl on the sidewalk, unfurls the rug, sits down upon it, and assumes his meditative posture, his eyes fixed on his bowl. He takes a deep breath and exhales, after which his breathing becomes imperceptible.

A moment passes, and now money begins to rain down, the bowl filling so quickly Cheryl is certain the monk will move to empty it, but he does not.

A man in a filthy black coat, a beggar Cheryl has seen a thousand times before, approaches the man in gold, nods to him, and empties the overflowing bowl into a small cardboard box.

A few minutes pass and the bowl is full once more. Now the veteran with one leg who sits in his wheelchair by the fire hydrant with a cat on his lap, rolls up to the man in gold, and leans down to dump the rich bowl into a red tartan sack.

And so it continues hour after hour until the last commuter has gone home and the bells of a distant church chime eight o’clock—seventy-seven beggars of every age and sex and color gifted by the begging bowl of the man in gold. Cheryl has tallied them in her notebook, the ink smeared by her tears.

A few minutes past eight, the man rises from his rug and stretches his arms to the sky. Now he bows to each of the four cardinal directions, rolls up his rug, picks up his empty bowl, and crosses the street to stand in front of Cheryl.

She looks up at him, speechless with love.

To which he replies softly, and with the force of a hurricane, “Hello my dear friend.”

Mr. Bosman

Monday, September 5th, 2016

twin falls winkler and nolan tw

Twin Falls painting by Winkler and Nolan

Tim Bosman, forty-seven, boyish and playful and a superb acting coach, has been the Drama teacher at Carlyle High in Rincon, Idaho, for the last fifteen years. And though he has been happily married to Sarah for twelve years and they have produced two lovely children together, many people in Rincon still think Mr. Bosman is gay.

When he was twenty-one and freshly out of college, Tim moved to New York City and spent four years striving to succeed as a stage actor before moving to Los Angeles and spending six years laboring in the lower echelons of the movie business. And though he came close on several occasions to landing juicy roles, he never did get a big break and finally gave up his quest for stardom and became a high school Drama teacher.

His bitterness about not succeeding as a professional actor eventually evaporated and nowadays Tim loves his job, loves his wife, loves his children, loves his students, and could care less that some people think he is gay. He directs three plays a year at the high school and one play every summer at the Rincon Community Center, last year’s A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum a huge success.

Many of Tim’s students are so inspired by working with him that they major in Drama in college, and one of Tim’s students, Rip Morgan, is now a regular cast member of the mega-popular sit-com Get Outta My Face. Thus for aspiring thespians at Carlyle High, Tim is a god, his approval sought by dozens of insecure teenagers, mostly girls, who make casting the school plays a hellish ordeal for Tim and his wife Sarah who lives through the anguished hours with him as he decides who among his charges to make deliriously happy and who to reduce to emotional rubble.

Today is the last day of school before the blessed summer break; and the tradition at Carlyle High for as long as anyone can remember is for the five hundred students, forty-three teachers, nineteen administrators, and seven maintenance people to convene at day’s end on the football field for a mammoth barbecue. Staff and students and parents and former students gather to eat hamburgers and hot dogs and wish each other well until next year, or to say goodbye to those going to college or entering the work force or leaving town.

And it has become Tim’s tradition to use this finale on the football field as the time for speaking privately with each of his Drama students and thanking them and encouraging them and wishing them well. The graduating seniors who have taken Drama from Tim especially look forward to this day, for they have been told by those who have gone before them that Mr. Bosman becomes uncharacteristically emotional with his seniors at the end-of-the-year barbecue and says things he would never say in class or while directing a play. Mr. Bosman, as one former student declared, becomes a fountain of loving wisdom at the barbecue, and loving wisdom is what his students crave.

This year’s barbecue is an especially poignant affair for Tim because the two finest actors he has ever had the pleasure of working with are graduating. Consuela Valdez—tall, curvaceous, loquacious, and drop-dead funny—is going to UCLA, while Aaron Goldberg—short, stocky, and screamingly droll—is going to Reid. Consuela and Aaron have been in thirteen plays together since their freshman year and are inseparable pals, though they have never been sweethearts.

So when Daisy Alexander, a ditzy junior, is surfeited with Tim’s praise, Tim decides to bestow his fond farewells on Consuela and Aaron together.

Now as it happens, the moment Tim raises his hand to summon Aaron and Consuela for their grand denouement, Aaron is at the apogee of a seminal conversation with Didi Schlesinger, a lovable squeaky-voiced ingénue who has the regrettable habit of forgetting her lines at crucial moments in front of large audiences. Aaron and Didi are finalizing their plan to meet tonight to climax three years of relentless flirting by going all the way with each other.

Also as it happens, in this same moment of Tim’s beckoning, Consuela is reveling in an erotic tête-à-tête with Larry Spangler, the blue-eyed bad boy Tim cast in Rebel With A Toothache—Larry brilliant in rehearsals but so drunk on opening night he ruined the play. Consuela and Larry’s conversation is also about going all the way together tonight, an experience Consuela has imagined several hundred times since Larry kissed her during the dress rehearsal of the ill-fated Rebel With A Toothache and she nearly passed out from the pleasure of their lips coalescing.

And so when Aaron and Didi and Consuela and Larry converge on Tim—his two finest conjoined with his two most disappointing—Tim is more than a little chagrined. But before he can settle on an appropriately kind way to ask Larry and Didi to leave him alone with Aaron and Consuela, the unexpected occurs.

“I’m honored, Mr. Bosman” says Larry, speaking in his marvelous smoky tenor, “truly honored you would call me over here with Connie and Aaron and Didi. I seriously screwed up. I let you down. And I let myself down, too. Yet you still include me with these two who never failed you.”

Tim is about to reply to Larry when Didi proclaims with nary a trace of squeakiness, “Me, too, Mr. Bosman. I’m honored, too. But more than honored, I’m determined to prove you right for believing in me despite my screw-ups. You make me want to keep going, keep trying, keep working to bring my unafraid self to life on the stage. And I will.”

“Ditto moi,” says Larry, putting his arm around Consuela. “I’m not going to UCLA, but I am going to LA, and make it or not, I’m gonna try. That’s what you gave me, Mr. Bosman. For which I can never thank you enough.”

“Nor can I thank you enough,” says Didi, winking at Tim. “And now we’ll leave you alone with your stars.”

“Oh don’t go,” says Tim, seeing himself getting off the bus in New York City twenty-five years ago. “Everything I say to them is meant for you, too.”

 

Thanksgiving

Tuesday, December 1st, 2015

thanksgiving

Marcia’s Best Ever Blue Hubbard Squash Pie

(This story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2015)

Henry Abbot is not in the habit of picking up hitchhikers, though until eight years ago he very much enjoyed giving rides to strangers and dropping them at the best hitchhiking spots in Fort Orford.

Oh, he still stops for Miles Larsen when he comes upon Miles walking home burdened with groceries, and he still gives the Collison boys rides when he sees them trudging home in the twilight after football or basketball or baseball practice, but they aren’t hitchhikers, they’re his friends and neighbors.

Youthful at fifty-nine, strangers guess Henry is in his late forties. A big sturdy man with sandy brown hair and pale blue eyes, Henry is a former lumberjack, now the manager of Dorfman’s Hardware, the only hardware store in Fort Orford, a town of three thousand hearty souls on the north coast of California. Henry was born and raised here, and except for five years away when he was in his twenties—two years of military service and three years peddling his songs in Nashville—Henry has never gone away except for the very occasional vacation.

A bachelor until he was forty-two, neither he nor anyone who knew him expected he would ever marry. Friendly, intelligent, and handsome, Henry liked women and women liked him, yet he seemed incapable of more than fleeting intimacy. And then he met Katy, the new veterinarian in town, fifteen years his junior, and they married three months after her arrival. They had two beautiful daughters, Cecily and Diana, and when the girls were seven and five—eight years ago—Katy fell off a ladder, struck her head, and died instantly.

Now Henry’s primary goal in life is to live until his daughters are able to fend for themselves, which is why he doesn’t pick up hitchhikers anymore—to lessen his chances of encountering a crazy killer.

But on this cold November morning—driving to town in his old white pickup—when he comes to where the country road he lives on meets the coast highway into Fort Orford, he sees a woman standing by the road with a backpack, violin case, and a small brown dog, and this woman is so much like Katy, Henry cannot help but stop for her.

Everything about her reminds Henry of his wife—her dark brown hair in a three-strand braid, her white Guatemalan blouse embroidered with red and blue and green thread, her loose-fitting blue jeans, her pointy chin, her light brown eyes, and her radiant smile. That she also has a violin and her dog is the twin of Leo, Katy’s constant companion, makes the similarity uncanny.

She opens the passenger door, looks in at Henry gaping at her, and asks, “Are you okay? You look stunned.”

“Haven’t had my coffee yet,” he says, his voice catching in his throat. “Still a little dreamy.”

“How far you going?” she asks, scanning him with a practiced eye and judging him safe, her accent Midwestern, as was Katy’s.

“Just into town. Fort Orford. Four miles.”

“Mind a dog?” she asks politely. “We can ride in back if you do.”

“Love dogs,” he says, smiling as she makes the same clicking sound with her tongue against the roof of her mouth that Katy made—the little pooch jumping up onto the seat and gazing intently at Henry.

The woman lifts her big pack into the bed of the truck with remarkable ease, gets into the cab with her violin case, puts on her seatbelt and says, “Thanks for stopping. I’m Jolene. The mutt is Crawford.”

Henry caresses Crawford’s head, and the little dog hops onto Henry’s lap.

“Now that is truly amazing,” says Jolene, frowning at Crawford. “He’s never done that before.” She turns her gaze on Henry. “What are you? Some sort of dog whisperer?”

“We have a couple dogs,” says Henry, scratching behind Crawford’s ears. “Probably smells them on me.”

“No,” says Jolene, shaking her head. “He doesn’t even do that with people he knows. Only ever does it with me.”

“Maybe I remind him of someone,” says Henry, pulling onto the highway—Crawford leaving him to sit on Jolene’s lap. “I’m Henry. Where you headed?”

“Portland,” she says, embracing her violin case. “Unless something better manifests along the way.”

“Are you a classical musician or a fiddler? My wife…she’s no longer alive…she played the violin, too.”

“This is not a violin,” says Jolene, smiling sweetly at Henry. “Mandolin. I play folk songs and my own tunes, too. Some jazzy Brazilian things.”

“I used to play guitar,” says Henry, remembering his days in Nashville, how so very close he came to selling a song. “A million years ago.”

“So beautiful here,” says Jolene, sighing with pleasure as the dark blue waters of Prescott Bay come into view. “You know a good place to have breakfast in Fort Orford?”

“I know the best place,” says Henry, looking at Jolene and realizing she is quite a bit older than he first took her to be, her eyes pale blue not light brown, her skin dark olive, not white and freckled as was Katy’s, her hair not brown but black with strands of gray, not braided but in a pony tail, her blouse pale yellow and not embroidered, her jeans brown not blue. “Stuyvesant’s. Excellent omelets, strong coffee, brilliant waitresses.”

“Then that’s where I’m going,” says Jolene, tickling Crawford’s chin. “And aren’t you a lucky dog it’s not raining, so you won’t be getting wet while you wait.”

“I just realized,” says Henry, laughing, “you’re not American. You’re…”

“Irish,” says Jolene, nodding. “What a remarkable ear for accents you have.”

“If you’d like, you can leave Crawford with me,” says Henry, feeling perfectly at ease saying so. “I’m two doors down from Stuyvesant’s. The hardware store. I’m the manager. Dogs allowed.”

Jolene considers this offer and says, “Only I was hoping you’d have breakfast with me. My treat. I made a bundle busking in San Francisco.”

“Then we’ll bring Crawford with us,” says Henry, slowing way down as they enter the town, his eyes full of tears. “They won’t mind him if he sits on your lap.”

“Or yours,” says Jolene, gazing at Henry. “He loved you the minute he saw you.”

Stealing

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Giants Mendo Hardware

(This short story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2014)

Angel Pagan, the switch-hitting leadoff batter for the Giants, one of the swiftest outfielders in the game, takes a short lead off first base and tries to ignore his inner dialogue about base stealing while keeping his focus on the pitcher. Angel has reached first base with one out in the bottom of the seventh inning by beating out a slow roller to third. The Giants are trailing the Padres one to nothing. This would be, as everyone in the ballpark knows, the ideal time for Angel to steal a bag and get into scoring position. However, despite his blazing speed, Angel has had little success as a stealer of bases.

Quackenbush, the Padres relief pitcher, a hefty right-hander with a decent pickoff move, hates throwing to first because it messes with his mechanics. Angel knows of Quackenbush’s aversion to throwing to first because Roberto Kelly, the Giants’ first base coach, just reminded Angel of said aversion while Angel was taking off his batting gloves after safely reaching first. Thus informed, Angel widens his lead, though not enough to tempt the reluctant Quackenbush.

Quackenbush’s first pitch to Joe Panik, the Giants second baseman, is an eighty-mile-an-hour slider right down the middle, Joe taking all the way to give Angel a chance to steal. But Angel isn’t going anywhere. Strike one.

Angel returns to first base, toes the bag, and waits for Roberto to give him a sign or a bit of advice. But Roberto keeps his distance and barely makes eye contact, which Angel interprets as Roberto implying If I’d had your speed when I was playing I would have stolen a hundred bags a year, though that is not at all the sort of thing Roberto would say.

Angel takes his lead again, and Gyorko, the Padres’ first baseman, positions himself at the bag in readiness to take a throw from Quackenbush. Gyorko taps his glove and smirks at Angel as if to say Go on. Stretch out that lead. Quack’s got a better pickoff move than you think.

During batting practice, none other than the legendary Willie Mays approached Angel and said, “I got a bet with Cepeda says you steal twenty more bags this year once you get your timing down.”

Timing thinks Angel, unaware that he is slowly shaking his head as he watches Quackenbush come set. It’s not about timing. It’s about trusting my instincts.

Panik, having failed miserably as a switch-hitter in high school, only bats from the left side and rarely hits for power. He is, however, an excellent contact hitter and against a finesse pitcher like Quackenbush looks to pull the ball. Having double checked with Giants third base coach Tim Flannery that he has permission to swing away, Panik turns his full attention to the pitcher and tells himself not to swing at anything except something off-speed on the inner half of the plate. Panik has no problem with Angel staying put at first because Angel is so fast he can score from first on a deep single and trot home if Panik hits one to the wall.

Angel takes his role as leadoff man very seriously, some might say too seriously. In practice, he steals bases with ease, whether the pitcher and catcher know he’s going to steal or not. But in games, doubt makes him tentative and devours those precious tenths of seconds that make the difference between Safe and Out. For Angel there is nothing more humiliating than being tagged out while trying to steal.

In the dugout, Bruce Bochy, the Giants skipper, scratches the gray stubble on his spacious chin and ponders whether or not to signal Roberto to signal Angel to steal, knowing that commanding Angel to steal always makes Angel give away his intention by rising onto his toes and holding his hands out to the sides like a kid pretending to fly. So Bruce decides not to command anyone to do anything and just hope Panik knocks a single or better.

Meanwhile, from his seat eleven rows up behind first base, eighty-one-year-old Willie Mays, one of the greatest base stealers of all time, gazes intently at Angel and suddenly realizes why Angel has so much trouble deciding whether and when to go. He’s trying to figure things out with his head instead of letting the momentum of the game carry him.

And in the split second after Quackenbush checks Angel and begins his pitching motion, Angel takes off, the pitch way too high for Panik to swing at, Angel beating the throw with ease and springing up from his slide to stand atop the second base bag like he’s king of the mountain.

What was that? wonders Angel. How did I suddenly know? 

August Fable

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

August Fable

Water Lilies by Max Greenstreet

When I was in my early thirties, I lived on a monthly disability check from the state: two hundred and sixty-eight dollars. My rent for a small room in a boarding house in a scary neighborhood in downtown Sacramento was one hundred and forty dollars. That left me one hundred and twenty-eight dollars for food and not much else. And I was sure the woman I loved—Maria Escobido—wanted a man with a good job, and I didn’t have any job so I rarely spoke to her except to say hello and thanks.

I would go into Maria’s little grocery store and buy a carton of milk or a beer or anything just to be close to her. I wanted to ask her to have coffee with me, but I never asked because I was afraid she might say Yes and I would have to tell her I had nothing.

My recurring fantasy was that I saved a wealthy man’s life and he hired me to be his chauffer and live above his fancy cars in an elegant apartment with a view of majestic trees and a curving drive. With my ample pay, I bought fine clothes and went into the little grocery store and said, “Maria. I have a good job now and live in an elegant apartment over my employer’s Rolls Royce. Would you like to go out to dinner with me?” And she would say Yes and we would become lovers and live happily ever after.

That was how I started my days, lying alone in my bed dreaming about Maria inviting me with her beautiful eyes to kiss her. Then I’d get up, grab my towel and razor and go down the hall to the bathroom. We had a system on our floor. I was in first since I got up the earliest. When I was done I’d rap on Larry’s door and when he was done he’d knock on Shirley’s door and then Shirley would knock on Sheldon’s. One day I woke up so sick I couldn’t move and Larry didn’t get up until eleven because he was waiting for me to knock and Shirley and Sheldon both slept in, too.

Sheldon was a cartoonist, Shirley worked at the Lesbian Crisis Center, and Larry collected books about astrology, tarot and the I Ching. They were as poor as I was, but they were happy, whereas I was miserable because I was a failed writer and didn’t believe Maria Escobido would ever want to be with me unless I could get a decent a job or save somebody’s life and then get a decent job. And, of course, I would have to stop smoking pot because Maria was definitely not a pot smoker. However, whenever I stopped smoking dope I wanted to die.

I told myself I had to buy something before I could speak to Maria so she wouldn’t think I was a dead beat. She was always nice to me, sometimes effusively so, and one day we talked for a long time about our favorite movies and she gave me a smile that seemed to say I like you. I like the way you think.

I came out of her store after our movie conversation feeling elated and hopeful and sure she would say Yes if I asked her to have coffee with me. But when I got back to my little room and looked in the mirror I thought No. She only spoke to me because I bought something. Why would such a marvelous full-of-life woman want to have anything to do with a loser like me?

I’ll never forget the time—a broiling hot day in August—I decided to splurge on a beer and went into her little store and she was on her tiptoes reaching up to get a case of Heineken and she was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and the case started to fall and the next thing I knew I was beside her bringing down the case and her breasts brushed my arm and she blushed and said Thank you in the sweetest way and I lived for weeks in a frenzy of love for her.

So…every day I would shower and shave, put on a clean shirt and jeans and running shoes, eat a couple bananas and hustle over to Plaza Park to see if anybody wanted me to make a dope delivery. I was a presentable person, and because I would deliver lids in exchange for joints, dealers liked using me.

One spring day Marcus asked me to deliver three lids to someone in the capitol building. I said, “Marcus, I love you, man, and I greatly admire the quality of your product, but three lids is a large felony. What say I deliver a bag at a time? Then it’s only a misdemeanor if I get caught, which I will gladly chance for my usual fee.”

“Talkin’ hazard pay,” said Marcus, a colossus with a deep rumbling voice. “Hundred bucks and you just come and get it for a month. Sound good?”

“A hundred bucks and I just come and get it for a month?” I echoed, loving the thought of Marcus keeping me in fat joints for an entire month—no need to run dope to get dope.

So I combed my hair, made sure my fly was up, and took possession of those three baggies of glistening bud hidden in a hollowed out law book. Then I merged with a crowd of drones swarming into the capitol building, and nobody thought I was anything but a casually dressed servant of the state as I hurried past the Governor’s office and caught an elevator to the third floor where legions of ambitious men and women hurried to and fro with piles of folders and steaming cups of coffee—the perfect moment to deliver dope.

I located the appointed suite, told the receptionist I had something for her boss, and a moment later he emerged from his office—a boyishly handsome man in a snazzy gray suit—one of the most powerful politicos in California.

He came close and said, “Hey. How are you?”

“Fine,” I said, wondering how he could be so calm with his career in the hands of some stranger off the street who might be a narc. “Here’s that volume you requested. Hope this does the trick.”

“Saved,” he said, taking the book from me and hugging it like a long lost friend. “Just in the nick of time.”

Riding down in the elevator I thought What a joke. The ultimate loser bringing weed to the guy who rules the world—both of us wanting to get high, him in his mansion and me in my hole.

For delivering that weed to a head of state, Marcus gave me sixty bucks and a bag of rag and I did not complain. Life went on. I bought my food at Maria’s little grocery store and went to movie matinees a couple times a month and saw three or four movies for the price of one, sneaking around when the ushers were looking the other way. I bought a six-pack of Heineken every month when my benefit check arrived and shared my beer with Larry and Sheldon and Shirley. I lived that way for five years and saw no way out but suicide.

For my thirty-fifth birthday Sheldon and Larry and Shirley bought me a tarot reading from Larry’s friend Diedre, and when I looked at the gift certificate I decided that after the reading I would put an end to things.

Larry had assured me that Diedre was a gifted seer, but he hadn’t mentioned she was as beautiful as Maria Escobido. Diedre’s skin was white alabaster, her eyes emerald green, her long brown hair in a pony tail tied with a green scarf, her blue silk blouse embroidered with shimmering silver fish, turquoise rings on her fingers, her voice songful and free of doubt.

We sat facing each other across a small round table, the room lit with candles. She asked me to shuffle the deck and hold the cards and think about my life. So I shuffled the cards and closed my eyes and there was Maria Escobido smiling at me. And I realized it wasn’t true I had to buy something if I wanted to talk to her. Maria liked me whether I bought anything or not. I had invented that lie to defeat myself.

I handed the cards to Diedre and said, “Thank you. The revelations are coming fast and furious.”

She nodded graciously, turned over the top card and said, “This is you.”

“I always wondered who I was,” I said, reading the words on the card—The Magician. “Nice robe. Is he a chemist?”

“Alchemist,” said Diedre, searching my face with her brilliant green eyes. “You possess great power, but your power is unavailable to you because you don’t realize who you are.”

She turned over the next card—The Lovers—started to say something, shook her head and turned over the next card—The Tower. She frowned at the image of a burning castle, touched The Magician, touched The Lovers, touched The Tower and said, “You need to take immediate action or you will lose everything. This is definite. You can’t wait another day. You must act.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” I said, wondering if she knew I was planning to kill myself. “Take action. How?”

“Live your dreams,” she said, tapping The Magician. “Take a chance.”

I got back to my scary part of town at dusk—fog cloaking the streets. Benefit checks were late that month, people angry and desperate. I passed a shiny new Cadillac parked in front of a vacant lot, nothing unusual about such a car being parked in my neighborhood, a drug dealer’s car, no doubt.

And though I knew never to look into parked cars because men with guns did bad things in parked cars in my neighborhood, something made me look and I saw a man sticking a needle into the arm of a girl with her mouth taped shut, her arms tied behind her back—and my rage erupted in a scream and I yanked the door open and the man fumbled for his gun and I kicked him in the face before he could shoot and kicked him again as the driver’s door swung open and somebody huge got out to kill me and I ran away screaming bloody murder and people came rushing out of their houses and swarmed over the car and caught the two men and got the girl out and she was Maria Escobido’s sister.

****

That was thirty years ago. I live far away from Sacramento now in a blue house on the outskirts of a coastal town. I own the village bookstore and my wife Sierra is a chef in the finest restaurant for many miles around.

I would love to tell you that Maria Escobido and I became lovers after I saved her sister, but that didn’t happen. I ran back to my room, stuffed a few precious things into my knapsack, and left a note for Sheldon and Larry and Shirley thanking them for being my friends and explaining if I stayed I would surely be killed. Then I caught a bus to the edge of the city and from there hitchhiked eight hundred miles to the north and got a job as a dishwasher in a café. The owners liked me and eventually gave me a job as a waiter.

One day I charmed a customer who owned a gourmet restaurant and he asked me to come work for him, which I did. A year later he promoted me to maître d’ and I kept that job for many years until I saved enough money to open my bookstore and buy our house.

Sometimes when I’m standing at the bookstore counter reading or writing and the bell over the door jingles, I look up expecting to see Maria Escobido.

In my fantasy, she does a double take, smiles her radiant smile and says, “Oh my God, it’s you.”

And I say to her what she always said to me when I would enter her store after a long absence. “Where have you been hiding, mi amigo? I missed you.” Only I will use the word amiga.

Heaven and Hell

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

Little Sparrow Nolan Winkler

Little Sparrow Nolan Winkler

(This short story from Buddha In A Teacup appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2014)

On their way to a matinee of the San Francisco Ballet, Roger and Susan must stand for the entire journey in a crowded subway car. They are wearing heavy coats on this chilly November day, though inside the slow moving train it is a veritable sauna—the air conditioning having failed.

Susan is twenty-six, a fetching brunette, and Roger is forty-nine, a strikingly beautiful former ballet dancer turned fashion designer. They have known each other for exactly one year, Susan and her two young children having moved from homelessness into the collective household where Roger and his lover Paul have been mainstays for more than a decade.

Paul and Roger were friendly and cordial with Susan for the first few months after she moved in, but they did not become close friends with her until they undertook their annual production of the community musical and Susan became their indefatigable assistant—Paul directing, Roger the choreographer and costume designer.

Rehearsals for the play—Guys and Dolls—proceeded splendidly until a week before opening night when the lead actress—with three big songs and two extravagant dance numbers—fell seriously ill. Paul was about to cancel the show when Susan shyly suggested she could play the part.

“I was a pom-pom girl in high school,” she told them, blushing at her confession. “Back in Tennessee? And I’ve been singing since I was a little kid. Mostly in the shower. But I can sing on key, and I know all the lines, so…”

To their great relief and astonishment, Susan was not only good in the part, she was fantastic. The play, which traditionally ran for two weekends, played to sold out houses for five weekends, and Susan became both a local star and the apple of Roger’s show business eye.

Susan was not as awed by her success as Roger and Paul were, and she returned without complaint to being a breakfast waitress in a nearby café and a mom afternoons and evenings.

Roger, however, was eager for Susan to pursue a show business career, for he saw her as a modern hero triumphing against all odds—with talent worthy of the professional stage.

Paul cautioned Roger about transferring his own frustrated ambition onto Susan, but Roger waved the warning aside, saying, “Oh, I’m just having fun. I just want her to see things so she can get a feel for the magic of it all.”

A voice crackles over the train’s public address system. “We apologize for the delay. We will be traveling at half-speed due to construction work. The air conditioning outage is due to an electrical problem. We apologize for the crowding. Two trains ahead of us went out of service unexpectedly. Thank you for your patience. Have a nice day.”

Roger, sweating profusely, shakes his head in dismay. “And they want to encourage the use of public transportation? Ha! This is a farce.”

Susan takes off her coat revealing her newly created dress, a svelte blue sheath designed and sewn by Roger. The train screeches to a halt and Susan is thrown against a burly man in a gray business suit. “Sorry about that,” she says, righting herself. “Did I hurt you? I’m so sorry.”

“Not at all.” The man smiles wearily and wipes his brow with a white handkerchief. “This is insane.”

“I’ve never been on the subway before.” She grins at him. “I think it’s wonderful.”

“This is not wonderful,” says Roger, running a hand through his perfectly coifed silver hair. “This is hell.”

“At least we’re moving again,” says Susan, nodding hopefully as the train lurches forward. “I’m not at work. And I don’t have the kids, much as I love them. And it’s my birthday. I’m going to the ballet. What could be better than that?”

“We could be sitting in an air conditioned train going fast.” Roger closes his eyes. “This is a nightmare.”

 *

They detrain an hour later in downtown San Francisco, Susan following Roger through the bustling throng to an escalator blockaded with a big Out Of Order sign.

“This is too much,” says Roger, starting up the stairs. “A four-story climb after sweating like pigs for an hour? This is criminal.”

“Yeah, but we’re here!” Susan tugs at his coattails. “I’m so excited, Roger. This is just so great.”

The automatic turnstile won’t let Susan exit the underground. So while Roger waits impatiently on the other side of the barrier, Susan approaches the station attendant in the big glass cubicle to find out why her ticket has been rejected. The attendant—a woman with sad brown eyes and silver fingernails—is talking on her mobile phone, oblivious to Susan.

Roger shouts, “Hurry up! We’ll miss the opening piece!”

The attendant doodles on a notepad and says into her phone, “No, baby, we went there yesterday. I’m tired of Chinese. Let‘s do Mexican today. Chile rellenos sound real good to me right about now.”

“Excuse me.” Susan nods politely to the attendant. “I’m late for a ballet show and my ticket…”

The attendant snatches the card from Susan and sticks it into a slot on her computer console. “Not Maria’s,” she says, continuing her phone conversation. “Let’s go to Cha Cha’s. Better margaritas. Hold on.” She hands the card back to Susan. “There’s no credit on this. You need to add three dollars and seventy cents at the Add Credit machine.”

“But I paid ten dollars in Berkeley,” says Susan, her eyes filling with tears. “And I don’t have any more money with me.”

“Sorry,” says the attendant, yawning. “Machine says that card is dead.”

“Jesus!” cries Roger, waving his arms at Susan. “What the hell’s going on?”

Susan shrugs helplessly. “She says my ticket doesn’t have any credit. And I didn’t bring any more money.”

Roger storms up to the cubicle and shouts through the glass. “Now wait just a god damn minute. We put ten dollars on that card in Berkeley. Our train was a half hour late, the air conditioning didn’t work, the escalators are broken, and now…”

“You want to talk to my supervisor?” The attendant glares out at Roger. “You want to file a complaint?”

“No, ma’am,” says Susan, speaking softly. “None of this is your fault. We know that. But the thing is, it’s my birthday and Roger is taking me to my first ballet. I just love to dance. And he was a ballet dancer. And we’re awful late, so…”

“Okay, go on,” says the attendant, buzzing open the gate. “And teach your friend some manners.”

 *

They race along the crowded sidewalks, arriving at the theater just as the performance is about to begin, and despite Roger’s anguished protests, they are compelled to wait in the lobby until the first piece is completed.

Roger falls onto a sofa and buries his face in his hands. “But this was the piece we wanted you to see. This is the main reason we came. This dance is about you, about your life.”

Susan sits beside him and puts her arms around him. “Roger. It’s okay, honey. There’s four more dances after this one. And this is the most beautiful theater I’ve ever seen. Look at those stairways and those chandeliers. Isn’t this amazing?”

He looks up at her, his cheeks streaked with tears. “But we wanted so much for you to see this piece. Paul will be crushed. We wanted this day to be perfect for you.”

“It is,” she says, smiling at the usher, a grim little man in a gray uniform barring their way to seats in the seventh row. “It is perfect. I love everything about it.”

The door behind the usher opens a crack and a wizened face appears, its twinkling eyes meeting Susan’s, its lips communicating something that causes the usher to beckon to Susan and Roger.

“Come in,” says the usher. “There’s been a slight delay. You have just enough time to get to your seats.”

The Gift of the Old Guy

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

(This short story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2012)

1

Ray, a slender man of eighty-two, his white hair sparse, gazes out the bus window at the passing fields. He is lost in thought, truly lost, unaware of who he is or where he’s going. Ray’s wife Vera, on the other hand, knows exactly who she is and where she’s going. A buxom gal of seventy-nine, her fantastically curly hair tinted pinkish blond, Vera is Flo’s mother and Otto’s grandmother, and she and Ray are on a Greyhound bus going to Ukiah to be with Flo and Otto for Christmas, which is only two days away now. She sits so her shoulder touches Ray’s as she knits an orange and black afghan, her mind crammed with gift lists, recipes, and words of wisdom for her grandson.

“We should have driven,” says Ray, frowning at Vera. “How are we gonna get around without a car?”

“We don’t have a car anymore, dear,” says Vera, smiling at her husband. “Remember? We sold it three months ago. Since I don’t drive and they took your license away, there wasn’t much point in keeping it.”

“Must you remind me?” he says with mock indignation. And then, straining to remember, “Why did they do that?”

“You had another accident. And thank God no one was hurt.”

Ray frowns. “The light was green. The light was not red. I don’t care what anybody says. The light was not green.”

Vera nods. “Yes, dear.”

Ray glares out the window and remembers the light was red and that he had every intention of hitting the brakes. But his foot went to the accelerator pedal instead of to the brake pedal and…he closes his eyes and braces himself for impact.

Vera watches Ray for a long moment before returning to thoughts of turkey and pies and gingerbread and all the stores she wants to go to when they get to Ukiah.

On the edge of sleep, Ray hears a man’s voice, a voice his doctor calls a primary symptom of Alzheimer’s. Sometimes Ray thinks the voice is God, but other times he knows the voice is his memory.

“Hello Ray. Would you like to be Santa Claus again?”

Ray shrugs and says, “Sure. Why not?”

Vera looks at her husband and sighs with relief to see him temporarily content.

Ray is a department store Santa again, sitting on his red throne, a line of children stretching out of the toy department and snaking past Sporting Goods before making a sharp turn at Beds, which is where Ray loses sight of the line, though he knows there are kids lined up throughout the store and out the doors and down every road to the sea.

A little boy climbs onto Ray’s lap and says, “Where’s my candy cane?”

Ray says, “Ho ho ho! Have you been a good little boy?”

The boy grabs Ray’s cotton beard and pulls off a big chunk. “You’re not really Santa Claus!” shouts the boy. “You don’t even know where I live!”

Ray wakes with a start. Vera puts a calming hand on his arm.

“I could kill him,” says Ray, looking at his wife, unsure of her name, wondering if she can be trusted.

“Time for your pills,” explains Vera. “That’s why you’re cranky. I thought we could wait until we got there, but we can’t.”

 2

Otto, verging on seventeen, pushes the old station wagon up over seventy. His mother Flo arches an eyebrow. Otto slows the old wagon to sixty. He wants to stay in good with his mother because he needs the car tonight for his big triple date with Zak and Josh and their respective Awesome Babes.

“Think Gramps will like my blue hair?” asks Otto, making sure to signal when he changes lanes. “Remember when I had it real long and he said I looked Arthurian?”

“Fortunately, your grandfather is color blind,” says Flo, finding it impossible to relax when Otto is driving. “And your grandmother thinks anything you do is fabulous, so…”

“Um…” says Otto, clearing his throat, “about tonight?”

“I said you could have the car,” says Flo, rummaging in her purse for lip balm. “I want to take mom on the bus. That way she’ll be limited to buying what we can carry.”

“Um, mom?” says Otto, exiting the freeway at the suggested speed and hoping Flo is impressed by his magnificent show of self-restraint. “I was wondering about a slight advance?”

“On your inheritance or your allowance?”

“Very funny,” says Otto, flooring it through an intersection to beat the red.

Flo winces. “Since when is it a sin to stop at a yellow?” She clears her throat, remembering the family therapist’s admonition: Try not to be too hard on Otto. What with his father moving out and the ensuing emotional confusion…“How much do you need?”

“Forty?” he says, forcing a hopeful little smile.

Flo forgets all about the family therapist’s admonition and says, “Who do you think I am? Donald Trump? You think I’m made of money? I gave you forty dollars two days ago.” She sighs. “Long gone, I’m sure.”

“My skateboard was shot,” says Otto. “It’s how I get around. I needed…”

“Nothing,” says Flo, unable to restrain herself. “You get nothing more from me. And I want you to fill this car with gas before you bring it home tonight. Zak and Josh can chip in.”

Otto frowns deeply. “Are you serious? It takes fifty dollars to fill this old hog.”

“That’s right,” says Flo, her eyes narrowing. “And I work forty-eight hours a week. I bring home nineteen hundred and sixty-seven dollars a month, from which I pay the rent, insurance, utilities, food for you, clothes for you, music lessons for you, school supplies for you, an allowance for you.” She’s screaming now.  “…and every time you take the car out, it comes back empty, which means fifty more dollars, doesn’t it? And every time you go out with your stupid friends you want forty dollars on top of the fifty I just spent to fill the fucking car. And I can’t afford it. Okay?”

Otto is confounded by the intensity of his mother’s anger. “So you want me to get a job? Flunk out of school?”

Flo squints furiously at him. “No. I want you to get a job, stay in school, stop watching television and diddling your cell phone every second you aren’t skateboarding, and start being some HELP!”

Otto thinks for a moment and replies, “Okay, then. How about thirty dollars?”

 3

Ray sits up front with Otto, while Vera sits in back with Flo. Quietly, so no one up front will know, Vera hands her daughter a wad of cash—five hundred dollars. Flo kisses her mother’s cheek and whispers, “Thank you, mama.”

Vera holds Flo’s hand, gazes at Otto’s blue mop and says, “I find your coiffure positively daring.”

“You should see my friend Zak,” says Otto, relishing her praise. “He totally shaved half his head and dyed the rest magenta.”

“Daring, indeed,” says Vera, feigning delight. “Will we be meeting your girlfriend tonight?”

“You better believe it,” says Otto, winking at his mother in the rearview mirror.

“And her name is?” asks Vera, already knowing from Flo.

“Natasha,” says Otto, nodding emphatically. “Natasha Svetlana Jones. Her mother is like half-Russian and her dad is like Ukrainian or something, and, uh…I should warn you she’s got a massive gold spike in her right nostril.” He pauses dramatically. “Well…massive is like a relative term.”

“I can’t wait to meet her,” says Vera.  “And I just love how colorful and poetic your speech has become.”

“Is this girl a cannibal?” asks Ray, unsure of what anybody is talking about.

“No way, Gramps” says Otto, grinning. “On the contrary, man, she’s actually a vegetarian.”

“So why the spike?” asks Ray, touching his nose and wincing.

“It’s the fashion these days, dear,” Vera explains. “A fashion statement.”

“Or something,” says Flo, rolling her eyes.

“A statement of what?” asks Ray, frowning at Otto.

“Like her personal statement,” says Otto, nodding thoughtfully. “You know, like her personal belief about being able to like…express yourself.”

Ray surveys the suburban sprawl and he thinks they’re in Los Angeles in 1976. He frowns at Otto and says, “Jesus, Frankie, we’re supposed to meet those guys on Wilshire in ten minutes. Step on it.”

“What’s he talking about?” asks Otto, confused by his grandfather’s confusion.

“Don’t ask her,” says Ray, slapping his grandson’s arm. “Listen to me. This deal is as good as made.”

“His Alzheimer’s,” says Vera, nodding sadly. “He thinks you’re his old business partner, Frank Lazuli.”

Otto looks at his grandfather and says, “Gramps. I’m not Frank. I’m Otto and it’s two thousand and twelve and we’re in Ukiah. Okay?”

Ray blinks a few times as he returns to the present, turns to look at his wife, and says, “Like I was there again, honey. Just like I was there.”

 4

After supper, Otto’s girlfriend, Natasha, petite and pretty, her long hair maroon, her purple belly shirt revealing a big silver ring piercing the rim of her navel, explains the thrill of thrash dancing to Vera.  “It’s like…” she says, staring into Vera’s eyes, “it’s a way to get past societal repression into a state of physical bliss. I mean…after I thrash for like ten minutes I’m just totally free. I’m like totally…uninhibited.”

“We had Elvis,” says Vera, taking Natasha’s hand. “And then going wild at the Fillmore with Quicksilver and the Airplane.”

Flo shows her father how to operate the automatic channel changer. She points the device at the big screen television and the images jump from starving Africans to the Marx Brothers to somebody selling used cars to a woman taking off her clothes to a Canadian weather report to Australian soccer and back to the Africans.

“Can’t I just get up when I want to change channels?” asks Ray, sneering at the little plastic thing.  “It’ll be the only exercise I’ll get today. We missed our walk.”

“But dad, there are over two hundred channels to choose from. Part of the fun is channel surfing.”

“Fun for you maybe,” says Ray, reluctantly accepting the changer.

Otto, wearing his razor blade earring, ripped combat jacket and purple combat boots, gets the car keys from Flo and proclaims, “Hey everybody, be happy. I’ll be back by midnight for sure. Or so.”

When the young ones are gone, Vera says, “I like Natasha. She has a wonderful energy. Says she wants to be a veterinarian acupuncturist. Do you think they’re having sex?”

“What?” says Ray, glaring at the television. “Who?”

“Sex,” says Vera.

“Not now,” says Ray, winking at her. “I’m busy pushing little buttons.”

5

Vera and Flo catch a bus downtown, and when they are settled in their seats, Vera brings forth her list of things she wants to buy. Flo leans her head against her mother’s shoulder and says sadly, “He’s much worse, isn’t he?”

“Day by day,” says Vera, nodding. “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to handle him by myself.” She shrugs. “Two weeks ago, he got up in the middle of the night, went outside without his pants on and tried to flag a cab. He thought it was 1973, the year he lost a fortune on all that desert land.”

“What will you do?”

“What can I do? I’ll have to put him in a home.”

“Oh, mama, I’m so sorry.”

“Let’s not think about it now. It’s Christmas. Let’s spend some money.”

6

Back at the television, comfortable in a recliner, Ray is stuck on MTV, dazzled by beautiful young women with long legs and perfect bodies. He forgets he’s watching television and thinks it’s 1972, the Starlight Lounge in Vegas. He and Frank Lazuli and Murray Cornish are celebrating closing a big deal—a new shopping center. They’ve got money to burn. Vera and Tammy and Twyla have gone to bed and left the boys to blow off steam and chase girls.

The phone rings and rings and rings until finally Ray emerges from the past to answer it, a voice saying, “Gramps? It’s Otto. Is Flo there?”

“Flo lives in Ukiah now,” says Ray, feeling rather proud to have remembered this new information.

You’re in Ukiah,” says Otto. “Remember? You came up for Christmas. We picked you up at the bus station today.”

“But of course,” says Ray, remembering nothing. “Hold on a minute.”

He wanders through the house, but finds no one. He vaguely remembers that Flo and Vera went somewhere, but by the time he gets back to the phone he thinks Vera has left him for another man.

“Hello, Frankie?” says Ray. “You still there?”

“This is Otto.”

“Where’s Frank?”

“I don’t know. This is Otto. Your grandson. Is Flo there? My mother?”

“No!” says Ray, glowering at the television—someone dunking a basketball in slow motion. “And if you don’t stop harassing my daughter, I’ll have the police on you so fast you won’t know what hit you.”

And with that, he slams the phone down and goes back to the Starlight Lounge.

 7

Otto, Zak and Josh come up with a plan for getting money so they can fill the station wagon with gas and take their girlfriends to a dance club in Santa Rosa. The plan centers on Ray. Otto parks the station wagon in Zak’s garage and jogs the seven blocks home. He finds his grandfather transfixed by The Empire Strikes Back. Yoda, a little green person with pointed ears, is speaking to Ray.

“Hey Gramps,” says Otto, full of false joviality, “you figured out how to use the DVD player. Cool.”

Ray says nothing.

Yoda says, “You will only find what you take with you.”

Ray replies, “Your color is bad. You should see a doctor.”

“So…Ray,” says Otto, “I’ve got a little business proposition for you.  Interested?”

Ray clicks off the set, turns to his grandson and says, “Frankie, I’ve had it.  Vera’s left me. I can’t do this anymore. The Wilshire deal wiped me out. Took me months to find a steady job. It’s not much, but it’s steady, and I want her back.”

“Okay,” says Otto, taking a deep breath, “but if you can front me a hundred dollars, I’ll turn it into ten thousand by Christmas morning and wrap it up in a little blue box and put it under the tree. Promise. It’s an absolute sure thing.”

“I’ve heard that line a thousand times,” says Ray, shaking his head. “Hell, I’ve said it a thousand times.” He grins at Otto and winks. “But okay.”

He fishes his wallet out of his back pocket and gives Otto all he has—five twenties. Otto tries to thank Ray with a kiss, but Ray shoves him away and says, “Don’t get queer on me, Frankie. Just make the deal, okay?”

“Okay, Ray. Okay.”

8

On Christmas morning, Vera is in ecstasy and Ray has become addicted to watching Otto play a video game in which he attempts to conquer an alien civilization. Flo is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

“We have some big news,” says Flo, smiling wanly at Otto as they gather in the living room to open presents. “Vera and Ray are moving to Ukiah, and so for a few weeks…until we get them settled nearby, they’ll be living here.  Won’t that be great?”

“Here?” says Otto, shocked at the prospect. “We only have two bedrooms.”

“Oh, it won’t be so bad,” says Ray, winking at his grandson. “And now we can turn that ten thousand into a million. Right?”

Otto blushes, stunned that the old man remembered that two-day-old con job. “Whatever, Gramps,” he says softly. “Whatever you say.”

Flo hands the first present to Vera. She unwraps it carefully to preserve the wrapping paper.

Ray peers at the presents under the tree and sees no little blue box. He frowns at Otto and says, “So…things didn’t work out so well, huh?”

Otto stiffens. “I don’t know what he’s talking about.”

Vera shrugs. “Don’t worry, honey. It’s just his Alzheimer’s.”

“No, it’s not,” says Ray, feeling remarkably lucid. “I may forget a lot of things, but I don’t forget a business deal.” His eyes fill with tears. “You promised me, Otto.  You promised me.”

“This is too weird,” says Otto, standing up. “I didn’t promise him anything.”

“I’m sorry,” says Vera, bowing her head. “Maybe our staying here isn’t such a good idea.”

9

Otto sits on his bed feeling guilty and cruel. He talks quietly to a large smoky quartz crystal, a Christmas gift from Natasha. She says the crystal has the power to convert negative reality into positive reality.

“I never should have lied to him. I hurt him. I didn’t think I could. I didn’t think it would matter to him. I always loved him when I was a kid. I really did. So please, please make this all okay.”

Having said this, Otto has a vivid memory. He is seven years old, walking with Ray along a beach at Lake Tahoe. Suddenly a huge dog rushes toward them, murder in his eyes. Otto wants to run away, but Ray holds onto him and says, “It’s okay.”

Now the old man squats down, holds out his hand to the dog, and makes kissing sounds. The dog becomes docile and friendly. Otto is astonished by the transformation of the beast. Ray explains, “They get aggressive like that because they’re afraid, not because they really want to hurt you.”

Someone knocks at Otto’s door and he expects his mother to come in, angry with him for robbing his grandfather, but it’s not Flo, it’s Vera.

She sits beside Otto, runs a hand through his blue hair and says, “We’ll only stay if you want us, honey. We certainly don’t want to intrude on your life.”

And Otto is about to confess his crime and ask for forgiveness when Vera adds, “Oh, and by they way, did Ray give you the money I gave him to give you? The hundred dollars? Or did he forget?”

fin

Going (a short story)

Friday, September 14th, 2012

(This story was published in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2012)

“We were all on this ship in the sixties, our generation, a ship going to discover the New World.” John Lennon

“Things have changed,” says Caroline, thirty-three, tall, slender, beautiful. “Love would be nice, but my window of opportunity is closing fast, so…”

Marjorie, Caroline’s mother, sixty-five and six inches shorter than her lovely daughter, waves for the waiter to bring more coffee. A few pounds heavier than she likes to be, Marjorie is vibrantly healthy, her long brown hair streaked with silver and gray, her green eyes sparkling with life. She wants to say to Caroline, You think I don’t know things have changed? We’re going backwards! The 50’s are here again, the 30’s close behind, then 1900, the Dark Ages, witch-hunts, slavery! But instead she says, “Of course things have changed. Things are always changing. But love is still the reason we’re alive. To love and be loved.”

“Oh, please,” says Caroline, rolling her eyes. “The sixties are over, Mother. Forty years over. Look where love got you”

Marjorie thinks back to a sunny day in 1967 when for the first time in her adult life she wore no bra, her nipples caressed by the thin cotton of her tie-dyed blouse. She was twenty-two, a graduate student at Berkeley, tripping down Telegraph Avenue looking for love—and finding it in the person of Hal, Caroline’s father, playing Frisbee in People’s Park.

“I admire Jeremy,” says Caroline, gazing up at the ceiling as she always does when stretching the truth. “He’s really quite nice and very bright, and he absolutely mints money. He just sold his third start up company for sixty million dollars. He dresses impeccably, knows everything about wine, owns a fabulous house in Hillsborough, a condo in Maui, a vineyard in…”

Marjorie listens to the litany of Jeremy’s assets and thinks I can’t believe this is happening. I’m the mother. I’m supposed to be urging her to marry him because he’s rich and she’s supposed to be saying But Mother, I don’t love him.

“I loved John,” says Caroline, shaking her head. “For five years. Insanely. Look where it got me. Nowhere.”

“Where is it you want to get?” asks Marjorie, smiling painfully as the waiter fills their mugs. “John was an artist. You had marvelous adventures together.”

“I want to be comfortable,” says Caroline, about to cry. “I’m tired of the hassles, the bills I can’t pay, saving myself for some guy who doesn’t exist. If I marry Jeremy it’s carte blanche from here on out. No more confusion. No surprises. A perfectly nice guy with buckets of money. I’ve paid my dues. Time to have babies.”

“You don’t think babies are confusing and surprising?” says Marjorie, her heart aching. “Believe me, honey, babies are, by definition…”

“Only if you’re poor,” says Caroline, squeezing her eyes shut. “Like we were. But Jeremy has millions of dollars. Many millions. Can you spell nannies?”

Marjorie remembers the rallies, the marches, the be-ins, the banners and placards and signs that said FREE LOVE! She used to think Free Love meant Love Without Cost, but now she realizes it was demand: Release Love From Its Shackles. Set Love Free. And in setting love free, set women free.

“Anyway, the point is,” says Caroline, gnawing at her thumbnail, “he needs me to decide before the end of the month, in eleven days, when his fiscal year ends. For his corporation. Because he wants to buy me a car. And to get a deduction he needs to make me an employee, but if we aren’t going to get married I don’t want to put him through the hassle.”

“Wait,” says Marjorie, her head throbbing. “You’re deciding to marry him on the basis of a car?” She thinks of women in Africa being traded for cows.

“Don’t lecture me, please,” says Caroline, folding her arms. “I knew you were going to lecture me.”

“I’m not lecturing,” says Marjorie, rummaging in her purse for aspirin. “I’m asking a question.”

“You think Jeremy is stupid, don’t you?” says Caroline, nodding. “You think he doesn’t have a sense of humor because he didn’t get Alex’s stupid little ironies. And because he didn’t think Young Frankenstein was funny. Right?”

“I have met Jeremy twice,” says Marjorie, waving frantically for the waiter to bring water. “He seemed…remote.”

“Why?” says Caroline, snarling. “Because he’s totally focused on where he wants to go? What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing,” says Majorie, her eyes filling with tears as they always do when Caroline snarls at her.

“Jeremy isn’t confused,” says Caroline, nodding resolutely. “That’s one of the many things I admire about him. He isn’t looking for himself. That’s all your generation ever did was look for themselves, and you never ended up getting anywhere.”

“Where should we have gotten?” asks Marjorie, the room spinning.

“Somewhere,” says Caroline, raising her hand to call for the bill. “As opposed to nowhere.”

_

Hal, Caroline’s father, meets Marjorie for drinks and appetizers at the Hyatt on Union Square. Hal is tall and handsome, sixty-seven, with bushy gray hair and pale gray eyes, a restless fellow with big hands and broad shoulders and a roving eye. He downs his first beer in a single gulp and signals the waitress for another.

“We used to eat for two weeks on what it costs to have two beers here,” whispers Marjorie, always uncomfortable in opulent surroundings. “It’s outrageous.”

“We were hippies,” says Hal, making eyes at their waitress. “I make more in a day now than I did in a year back then.” He thinks about his boast for a moment. “We were kids. Ignorant as mud. Miserable. What? You want to go back?”

“Were we miserable?” she asks, smiling at memories of their joyful lovemaking. “I remember being excited most of the time. Happy.”

“We were kids,” he says, dismissing the past with a wave of his hand. “Kids are excited most of the time. What did we know?”

“Speaking of kids,” says Marjorie, taking a deep breath, “has Caroline spoken to you about…”

“I told her to take the car. In his tax bracket it’s the new engagement ring. Definitely a win-win situation. What’s she got to lose? No big deal.”

“I remember my engagement ring being a big deal,” says Marjorie, realizing as she always does at some point during her infrequent meetings with Hal that she still finds him supremely attractive.

Hal downs his second beer and signals for another. “I bought the stupid thing on Telegraph Avenue from a pothead jeweler. Two peace symbols melted together.” He snickers. “We dropped acid before I gave it to you.” He shakes his head. “A miracle we survived all that shit we ingested.”

“I still have it,” she says, blushing. “Reminds me of our innocence.”

“You’re never gonna get married again, are you?” he says, marveling that he stayed with her for a month let alone eleven years, and that despite his constant infidelities she never ceased to love him.

“You’re never gonna stay married, are you?” she replies, recalling a few of his many wives, how alike they all seem to her.

“What are you talking about?” He winks at the waitress as she delivers his beer. “I’ve been with Louise for three years now. Going strong. The thing with Janice was an escape. To get over Gina. Besides, Janice was way too young for me. Ditto Anna.” He sighs. “Oh, and Denise.” He reddens and laughs. “But who’s counting?”

“Going strong with Louise,” says Marjorie, smiling sadly, “but you’re having an affair. I could always tell when you were cheating on me and I apparently can tell when you’re cheating on your current wife.”

“Hardly an affair,” says Hal, raising his hand and making a scribbling motion to call for the check. “Every couple weeks. Besides, it’s acceptable now. Nobody really minds so long as you follow the protocol.”

“There’s a protocol?” says Marjorie, aghast. “Louise doesn’t mind?”

“Louise is very comfortable,” says Hal, nodding emphatically. “She lacks for nothing and has her own…diversions.”

“Oh,” says Marjorie, overcome with sadness. “Well, okay.”

“You don’t approve,” says Hal, winking at the waitress again as she places the bill before him. “But you made love with my best friend and I made love with yours, and we watched each other do it. Remember? So we could move beyond jealousy and guilt and possessiveness. So we could get free of the patriarchal Judeo-Christian bullshit. But we didn’t get free of anything, did we?”

“I don’t know, Hal,” says Marjorie, remembering how thrilled she was to move beyond jealousy and guilt and possessiveness. “I just don’t think she should marry him for a car.”

“It’s not the car,” says Hal, dropping a fifty-dollar-bill on the table and rising to go. “It’s what the car represents.”

_

Marjorie and Alex are sitting on their two-person sofa in the living room of their little flat on Polk Street, smoking pot and watching the fish in their aquarium. Alex is small and quiet, sixty-two, entirely bald with brilliant blue eyes. He owns a window washing business that employs former drug addicts. In 1968, Alex took three hundred LSD trips and ever since, he claims, has been free of doubt.

“My daughter wants to marry a man for a car,” says Marjorie, overcome with sorrow. “And to be comfortable. I can’t quite grok it.”

“There are many roads to love,” says Alex, getting up to clean a smudge on the aquarium glass. “Maybe she’ll drive there. What kind of car?”

“Either a Jaguar or a Mercedes,” says Marjorie, sighing. “That’s part of the ritual, not knowing what kind of car until the moment he gives it to her, but sort of knowing.”

“But not a BMW?” asks Alex, frowning. “Curious.”

“I guess it doesn’t matter,” says Marjorie, her vision blurred by tears. “Right?”

“It does and it doesn’t,” says Alex, sitting beside her and pretending to be driving a car. “Mileage, repairs, comfort.”

“I’m sixty-five,” says Marjorie, shaking her head. “I’m a high school teacher who smokes pot every night and has a daughter marrying a man for a car. Not really, but sort of.” She frowns at Alex. “How long have we lived together?”

“Ten years,” says Alex, kissing Marjorie’s cheek. “Ten incredible years.”

“And where are we going, Alex?” She gazes forlornly at the darting fish. “Where?”

“To the kitchen for a snack, then to bed.”

“And then?”

“Dreamland,” he says, kissing her again. “Then to work. I to make glass clean, you to impart wisdom to fourteen-year-olds.”

“It’s insane,” says Marjorie, exhausted. “We should move to the country. Grow our own food.”

“Few windows out there,” says Alex, imagining a vast field of tall brown grass.

“We could grow all we need,” says Marjorie, thinking of her one gangly tomato plant on the back stoop. “Couldn’t we?”

“You don’t like it here?” asks Alex, pouting. “San Francisco is Mecca. I love this place, this moment. You.”

“I hate that Caroline would marry a man for a car.”

“It’s not the car,” says Alex, rising to clean another smudge on the aquarium glass. “It’s what the car represents.”

“That’s exactly what Hal said.”

“Hal didn’t mean it the way I mean it, “ says Alex, glaring at a school of Neon Tetra.

“What did Hal mean it meant?”

“Hal meant it meant security and success.”

“And how do you mean it?”

“I mean the car represents the mechanistic plane of reality. She is marrying a machine, not a person. She is marrying a thing that is not intrinsically alive. A system of organization. A file cabinet, if you will, and she will try to fit into one of the files.”

“But I can’t say that to her. I’m her mother. Anything I say is loaded.”

“She knows what she’s doing,” says Alex, torn between chocolate ice cream and a bagel with cream cheese. “We all know what we’re doing, only we aren’t aware we know because we’ve clogged the channels of awareness with fear.”

“So what should we do? Just…go along?”

“Yes,” he says, ice cream gaining the upper hand. “Go along and do the best we can and help each other and love thy neighbor and relish those moments when we are truly…comfortable.”

“What does that mean? Comfortable?”

“Like cats. You know? Turning and turning and turning, changing positions until we get comfortable. And then we stay in that position until we are compelled to move by hunger or curiosity or the need to go to the bathroom. Yes?”

“I don’t know,” says Marjorie, closing her eyes and seeing Caroline climbing into a huge filing cabinet. “I only know that my daughter is about to marry a man for a car. Or what the car represents.”

Alex shrugs. “Well…there’s always the next generation.”

“Wow,” says Marjorie, dumbstruck. “Caroline with children. What a trip.”

_

Marjorie is having dinner with her mother, Gloria, at Legumbres Organica. Alex is at his Judo class and Gloria’s fourth husband, Bert, who doesn’t like Marjorie’s politics, is at a baseball game. Marjorie is having a tofu tostada and a wheat grass spritzer. Gloria, eighty-four, a spunky aerobics nut, is having a green power shake and a lentil tostada.

“But Mom, you were right there with me during the sixties,” says Marjorie, remembering the first time she got stoned with her mother, how they howled with laughter and wept like babies. “And Caroline was so enlightened and advanced as a child, and now she’s practically a Republican, and I don’t mean a moderate.”

“We all have to rebel,” says Gloria, shrugging. “I drew the line at some things, psychedelics for instance, you went over some lines, stayed behind others. You didn’t draw any lines for Caroline. Maybe she had too many options. Maybe this is her way of drawing her own lines so she can have something to go over. I don’t know. And please be careful about the word Republican. Bert is a Republican and he pays my bills, thank you very much, though in the privacy of the voting booth he knoweth not for whom I vote.”

“Still, Mom, a car? Marrying someone for a car?”

“I did the same thing,” says Gloria, shrugging again. “Exactly.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” says Marjorie, waving the thought away.

“It’s true, sweetie,” says Gloria, smiling sheepishly. “And you are the fruit of such folly. I was seventeen. We’d been in Los Angeles for two years, refugees from Detroit, and I was desperate to get away from my parents. My mother, contrary to everything she told you, hated my guts and my father was meshuggah. Crazy as a loon. And I was a cutie pie and there were three fellows courting me. Peas in a pod. Herb Morris, Jack Scott, and your father. Herb Morris had a fruit stand, Jack Scott was a carpenter’s apprentice, and your father was a bill collector. They were all dabbling in real estate and they all asked me to marry them, but I said no.” She pauses and lowers her voice. “Then one day your father drove up in a brand new Ford. My heart started pounding. I lost my mind. I ran out of the house, jumped into your father’s arms and said, ‘Yes, yes, yes. I’ll marry you.’”

“Mom,” says Marjorie, deeply shocked. “You never told me that.”

“There are many things I’ve never told you,” says Gloria, sipping her power shake. “Many things best unsaid.”

“Still,” says Marjorie, her voice shaking, “those were hard times.”

“The Dark Ages,” says Gloria, nodding. “When I divorced your father it was considered a revolutionary act.”

“You started the revolution and we carried it on,” says Marjorie, frowning in confusion. “Only here we are back to …”

“It’s a pendulum, or a circle,” says Gloria, laughing gaily. “We come back around, but we’re a little higher up the cone or the pyramid or…I don’t know. We go along and do the best we can.”

“Higher up the cone toward what?” asks Marjorie, never having thought of life as a cone.

“I’m not a mystic,” says Gloria, taking Marjorie’s hand, “but I’m more optimistic than you are. Remember, I lived through Hitler and the Great Depression. You survive times like that you can’t help but have a different view of reality.”

“But what about the sixties?”

“Yes,” says Gloria, sighing wistfully, “Just yesterday I was thinking about that trip we took in the Volkswagen van, you and I and Hal and that wonderful guy Larry with the long hair and the guitar. Ecstasy under the stars of Arizona. Naked without shame. I think maybe it was a glimpse of the future, so we’d know what to look for. A myth to guide us.”

“But we’ve forgotten the myth, and Caroline spits on the myths of the sixties.”

“She’s just drawing lines,” says Gloria, kissing her daughter’s hand. “Don’t worry.”

_

On a warm September evening, Marjorie and Alex, Hal and Louise, Caroline and Jeremy and a hundred other people are drinking fine wine on the mammoth brick patio of Jeremy’s baronial mansion in Hillsborough to celebrate the impending nuptials of Jeremy and Caroline. Dozens of servers ply the crowd with platters of scrumptious hor d’oeuvres, the air pungent with the scent of roasting lamb—an electrified string quartet playing classical music with a reggae beat. Upon sampling the splendid food and saying hello and congratulations to Jeremy and Caroline, Majorie and Alex are about to sneak away when Jeremy strikes an enormous gong to get everyone’s attention.

Jeremy is tall and fit, thirty-six, his blue eyes clear, his blond hair stylishly wavy, his voice a deep monotone. He smiles at his audience and says, “We just want to thank you for coming tonight. Caroline and I. This is just such an awesome night for us. We’re totally stoked and we’re so glad you can be a part of where we’re going.”

Someone shouts, “Here, here!” and the people raise their glasses and echo, “Here! Here!”

Marjorie, barely in her body, asks Alex, “Are they saying h-e-r-e or h-e-a-r?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he says, putting his arm around her to hold her up. “The origins of the ritual have long been lost.”

Marjorie gazes at her lovely daughter standing beside Jeremy and tries to feel sad or happy or angry, but she feels nothing. Absolutely nothing. Caroline is drunk on champagne, high on cocaine, and waiting impatiently for Jeremy to give her the keys to the mythic car.

“I feel nothing,” says Marjorie, whispering in Alex’s ear. “Take us home.”

“Go beyond nothing,” he says, giving her hand a playful squeeze. “Think of this as theater. Think of your daughter as a brilliant actress playing the role of her lifetime, which she is, set on another planet.”

“This is another planet,” says Marjorie, relaxing in Alex’s embrace. “What happened to earth? Who stole it from us?”

“So anyway,” Jeremy continues, “in honor of our engagement and to seal the deal…”

Silence claims the moment as Jeremy reaches into the pocket of his black leather slacks and brings forth a red leather ring box.

“Oh, yeah!” shouts Caroline, holding out her hand to Jeremy.

“Hope you like it,” says Jeremy, placing the box in her hand. “One of a kind just for you.”

Caroline opens the box. There, on a felt pedestal intended for a ring, are two golden keys to her new car.

“Benz or Jag?” someone shouts. “Jag or Benz!”

Caroline peers at the keys and shrieks, “Benz! Benz! It’s a Benz!”

“Now I do feel something,” says Marjorie, clutching Alex’s hand. “I feel I’m going to be sick.”

The crowd stampedes, some people rushing through the house, some rushing around the house, everyone heading for the behemoth circular drive in front of the baronial mansion where the mythic car awaits. Alex leads Marjorie through the cavernous home, pausing with her under the colossal crystal chandelier in the gargantuan foyer.

“Imagine having to clean all those,” says Alex, gazing up at the several hundred dangling crystals. “No thank you.

Marjorie stops in the colossal front doorway and gazes out at the fabulous scene—dozens of stylishly dressed men and women swarming around the new car like crazed bees around a dazzling flower, the Benz long and sleek and dark turquoise, Caroline’s favorite color.

Jeremy gallantly opens the driver’s door for Caroline and she gives him a peck on the cheek as she climbs in. Now she starts the engine and the people cheer—Hal standing in front of the car, transmogrified by the headlights into a phantom.

“Did you know they made the ovens?” asks Alex, whispering to Marjorie.

“What?” says Marjorie, mystified. “Who?”

“Mercedes-Benz. They built the ovens Hitler used to incinerate the Jews.”

“Oh, why?” says Marjorie, moaning. “What happened to us?”

Now Jeremy appears at Marjorie’s side. “May I speak to you?” he says in his unwavering monotone. “Alone?”

She doesn’t want to go with him, but she does. She follows him down a wide hallway and into his magnificent study, everything huge and made of dark mahogany, the towering bookshelves full of rare old hardbacks. He closes the door and goes to a desk as large as Caroline’s new car. He opens a drawer and brings forth a black leather check register.

“What are you doing?” asks Marjorie, mesmerized by the calm precision of everything Jeremy does.

“What do you think?” he asks, smiling pleasantly.

“I don’t know,” she says, desperate to make meaningful contact with him, “but I feel like I’m in some sort of weird movie.”

“Life can be weird,” says Jeremy, nodding. “Very weird. Caroline says you don’t approve of my giving her a car. She says you think the money could be better spent on something else. So please tell me what you think that is and I’ll write a check for the same amount I spent on the car to your favorite non-profit organization. I want you to approve of the man your daughter is marrying. It’s very important to me.”

“Why?” she asks, baffled by him.

“I like you,” he says, his tone unchanging. “I think you’re beautiful and full of life and I admire you for what you went through, the sixties and all that, yet you still managed to raise a wonderful daughter. That’s a great accomplishment and I’m the beneficiary.”

“Don’t write a check,” says Marjorie, tingling from head to toe. “Just…it doesn’t matter.”

“But it does matter,” he says, frowning. “It matters enormously to me. I’ll explain why in more detail someday, but for now I’d like to write you a check.”

“Just be good to her,” says Marjorie, looking into Jeremy’s eyes. “Don’t let her get too comfortable or she’ll go to sleep and never wake up.”

“I don’t understand,” he says, his frown deepening. “Why not be comfortable?”

“Okay, okay,” she says, closing her eyes to think. “How much was the car?”

“That’s a very special car,” says Jeremy, a faint ring of pride in his monotone. “One of a kind. Hand assembled and signed by two of the most famous artisan assemblers in Germany.” He pauses dramatically. “It cost four hundred and thirty-four thousand dollars.” He shrugs. “From which, totally legally, I actually make money.” He smiles warmly. “Do you know how that works, Marjorie?”

“No,” she says breathlessly. “And I don’t want to know. So…write a check for four hundred and thirty-four thousand dollars. And make it to me.”

“You,” he says, nodding slowly as he writes. “What will you do with it?”

“Buy a farm,” she whispers. “Or maybe open a bookstore. Something. Somewhere.”

_

“I’m going to send the check back,” she says to Alex as they spoon in bed, he the outside spoon.

“Good idea,” says Alex, yawning. “First thing tomorrow.”

“He’ll respect me more,” she says, unconvincingly. “He wants me to like him. But I don’t. He seems so…empty.”

“Why did you have him write the check to you? Why not Greenpeace or No More Nukes?”

“Because for just a minute I was tired of all the hassles, you know? I wanted to be free of all that shit and just be…comfortable.”

“Send him back the check,” says Alex, his words free of irony. “We’re plenty comfortable.”

“Then what?”

“Then we keep going.”

“To where?”

“Slowly but surely,” he says, holding her tight, “we’re evolving.”

“I guess that’s something,” says Marjorie, relaxing in his embrace. “Still, I wish…”

“Yes?”

“I wish my daughter had turned out to be a more generous person.”

“There are many roads to freedom,” says Alex, sighing contentedly. “She’s young yet. Maybe she’ll drive there. Maybe she’ll end up more generous than anyone has ever been.”

“I’d love that,” says Marjorie, getting out of bed and floating down the hall to the kitchen. “She used to be. When she was little. Gave everything away. Free as a bird.”

Marjorie has a big drink of water and skips back to the bedroom, renewed.

“Hey, Alex,” she says, climbing into bed. “Next anti-nuke demonstration or anti-war march, let’s go on it. Want to?”

Alex does not reply. He is asleep and dreaming that he and Marjorie are in a turquoise Mercedes. Bill Evans and Eddie Gomez are playing dreamy good jazz on the surround sound stereo. The car isn’t going anywhere, but the seats are very comfortable and the windows are spotlessly clean.

__

 

Balance: a short story

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

photo by Marcia Sloane

(This story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2012)

I was the only child of elderly parents. They both died the year before I evolved out of puberty, and I was left in the care of a diminutive maiden aunt. She had absolutely no short term memory and even less money. My bedroom was my haven, my black and white television my constant companion. I was an uninspired student, a mediocre athlete, and I think it fair to say that I had no real friends, no one to confide in, no one to discuss my fears and fantasies with.

I cannot remember when I first became aware of the feeling I am about to describe. I know that I felt it when my parents were still alive, and before I could read, which means I may have been as young as four. I suppose it is even possible that I was born feeling this way, but my memory only stretches back to my late twos, when our big dark tabby cat killed a huge rat, and I saw him eating the rodent, staining the kitchen linoleum with bright blood.

And yet, even now, after all these years of living by and for this belief, I hesitate to reveal my secret. I fear it may sound trite and stupid to you. I fear you will think it little more than a poor excuse for a life poorly lived, a delusional, idiotic notion. But I must risk your contempt. It is my duty.

All my life I have been convinced that something spectacularly good was going to happen to me, though not necessarily through any particular effort on my part. That, in a nutshell, is my system of belief.

Perhaps, from this, you will make the guess that I am a lazy person. I must admit that “lacks motivation” has appeared on every report card and job evaluation I have ever received, save for the one from Mrs. Rhodes, my fourth grade teacher, who preferred her males docile. But was it laziness that made me eschew competition for quietude, or was it my philosophy? Did I survive the first fifty-seven years of a sadly uninteresting life because almost anyone can survive fifty-seven years somehow? Or did I remain a moderate optimist, despite the grotesque redundancy of my days and months and years, because I was anticipating with ever fiber of my being an unknowable event that would set me free and allow me to become whatever I was supposed to be?

It is true that over the years I passed up several higher paying jobs because I could simply not convince myself that doing so was worth the effort of relocating or re-educating myself. I never believed I could be one of those people who succeed through hard work and purposeful determination.

I did buy lottery tickets and enter sweepstakes (if they came to me in the mail), hoping, naturally, that I would win, yet knowing all the while that the winning of money was not what awaited me. No, I was certain I was going to be given something.

I never had a vision of what that something would be, but I knew it would be incredibly good, and that once I had it, I would be content. I occasionally fantasized about fabulous gifts arriving from surprising patrons, but even the effort of fantasizing seemed futile. Go along until it happens, I told myself. Don’t look for it. You won’t know it until it falls on you. Those were the guiding slogans of my life, such as it was.

 

So, I’m walking home from my tedious, not very difficult, fairly low stress job with the telephone company. My rather drab, comfortable, average-sized one-bedroom apartment is within six blocks of the transmission facility wherein I supervise twenty-five operators and spend my copious free time reading historical romances. The day has been a day like any other, long and uneventful, save for the obstreperous old lady who threatened to unleash the forces of evil upon me if I didn’t refund the money she claimed the pay phone ate, which I did, not wanting to take any chances with the cosmic balance, in case there is one.

I am exactly one and half blocks from home and television and reheated pizza and cold beer, when I feel something click. Do you know what I mean by click? Something both inside and outside me falls absolutely and undeniably and perfectly into place—or into various places simultaneously. Click. And I know, as surely as I have ever known anything, that the universe or whatever you wish to call this dimension we inhabit, has suddenly, or finally, lined up, synchronized all its various parts, and is now ready for whatever I’ve been waiting for all my life—a fabulous feeling, like a sudden cool breeze on a blazing hot day. All my senses are heightened. My heart picks up the pace and I feel like dancing.

I arrive home. There are two police cars, lights flashing, parked in front of the Big Tree apartments, named for our two scrawny redwoods. I am greeted by my landlord, Mr. Lester, a small man with a penchant for absurdly big white belts. He is sweating profusely, his toupee slipping.

“Try to remain calm,” he says, touching my hand. “There’s been a robbery.”  He takes his hand away. “You’ve been cleaned out.”

As I make my way through the small crowd of curious onlookers, Mr. Lester calls out to me, “And they got away in your car.”

My telephone is ringing as I enter my otherwise empty apartment. The refrigerator door is open, revealing only a glaring emptiness. I find myself missing the beer more than any of my other possessions.

“Hello,” says a voice, as I pick up the phone. “This is Jenkins. Am I speaking to operator supervisor four six nine eight dash eleven seven nine six dash four one one oh one?”

“That’s me,” I reply, hearing myself as if from a great distance, realizing I must be in shock.

“Well, I’m sorry to have to break this to you so suddenly, but…”

I’ve been terminated. Twenty-nine years. Done. Major cutbacks due to competition engendered by deregulation. No desk to clean out. No security badge to return. That’s all been taken care of. They’ve changed the locks, the codes, the special procedures. Any personal belongings I may have left in the facility will be waiting for me in a brown bag at the receptionist’s desk. Thank you very much. Click. Drone. Beep beep beep.

Mr. Lester enters. “Listen,” he says, frowning at me, adjusting his wig, “I hate to do this to you, but the police feel, and I have to agree, that it’s pretty strange that only you were robbed. It’s as if you were selected for a reason. And I’m not making any assumptions, but the other tenants, as you can imagine, are very concerned, and since your lease has expired anyway, would you mind…”

I walk out into the last few moments of sunlight—jobless and homeless and without possessions. All I have are the clothes I’m wearing and the money in my…

I feel all my pockets. My wallet is gone—my identification, money, everything—gone. I remember being jostled by a slender young man in the liquor store. I had just bought a Lotto ticket.

In my confusion, it occurs to me that I have probably picked the winning numbers. The jackpot currently stands at seventy-five million dollars. But the ticket is in my wallet. My wallet is gone.

I walk down the street to the nearest pay phone. I have a friend, well, more of an acquaintance really, who might allow me to stay at his place until I can get new identification and begin collecting unemployment. I have seven cents in my pocket. I look in the change slot, hoping for a quarter. No such luck.

Someone taps me on the shoulder. I turn. It is a policeman. He is frowning at me. “See some ID, bud?”

I begin to tell him my story. His frown deepens. “Are you saying you don’t have any ID?” he asks. “Because if you don’t…”

On the way to jail, sitting in the back seat of the police car, I try to think of someone to call for help. I can think of no close friends, no casual date, no relative, no one I am certain will help me. I have never done a consciously bad thing to anyone, but neither have I ever been much of a friend to anyone. I decide to not call anyone right away and see what happens. You might say I surrender.

I find that I don’t mind my night in jail. No one tries to hurt me, the food is edible, and the bed has a new mattress, much firmer than the one I had at the place I so recently called home. I sleep like a babe and wake up refreshed. My sense that everything is in place and ready for spectacular change is more tangible than ever. I thrill from head to toe when they unlock my cell and lead me down the hall.

I am brought into a room and told to walk out on a narrow stage with four other men. A glaring white light shining in our eyes makes it impossible to see who or what is in the audience.

“That’s him,” someone says. “Number four.”

I am taken to another building. The guard treats me roughly. He shoves me into a dark cell. I ask to make my phone call now. He ignores me. I shout at him, protesting my innocence. He continues to ignore me. I panic and call him a filthy name. He opens my door and hits my arm with his club. The pain is greater than anything I have ever experienced. I decide not to make a fuss.

A few hours later, I am taken out of the cell and shoved along a narrow hallway to a small, stuffy room. I am left in the company of three unsmiling detectives. One of them asks me if I know why I’m here. I begin to tell my story, expecting to be interrupted, but they listen to me until I can think of nothing more to say. They look at each other, communicating in a strange silent way that reminds me of something out of a horror movie. One of them clears his throat and asks me where I was on such and such a night.

“Home watching television, most likely,” I reply, shrugging. “That’s what I do every night, except…”

“Except what?”

“Volleyball nights at the Y.”

“And what nights of the week would that be?”

“Tuesday and Friday,” I say, suddenly overwhelmed by the realization that without volleyball nights at the Y, I would have no social life whatsoever.

“This was a Wednesday,” says one of the men. “The night we’re interested in was a Wednesday.”

“Well, then…television,” I say, hearing how terribly sad I sound.

“Any witnesses to that?” asks another of the men.

“I live alone.”

The words reverberate in the empty chambers of my heart. I live alone. I am alone. I have always been alone. I have never known how not to be alone. Is this so strange? Am I a human aberration? Or am I more typical than any of us cares to admit? Am I not quite normal? Am I not Everyman, minus a few special acquaintances, a disenchanted wife, an alien child or two?

I open myself to the silent communication of my interrogators. I hear the hum of their desire. I hear gears meshing, teeth gnashing, bile gurgling. They are in no way concerned with my innocence or guilt. They are hungry for my death. I am a solitary rat in a dirty little corner of modern times. They are a gang of alley cats. They only know how to do one thing.

My court appointed attorney, a sweaty little man who resembles my ex-landlord to an annoying degree, tries to convince me to plead insanity.

“To what?” I ask. “They never did tell me what I was charged with.”

“Well…murder,” he says, frowning at my file. “Two people. It says here you practically confessed.”

I go into deep shock. My attorney summons a guard and I am taken to the infirmary where I am given an anti-shock shot. I fall into a deep sleep and dream I am standing on the threshold of the place where something spectacularly good is about to happen to me. I stand on the threshold for the entire dream and wake up sick as a dog, my legs aching, my head about to explode.

Two days later, at our next meeting, my attorney once again begs me to plead insanity. “The evidence,” he explains, “is overwhelming.”

Eye witnesses, massive circumstantial evidence, no alibi, no character references, no job, no home, a desperate situation, a motive.

“What motive?” I ask, coming out of my latest stupor.

“You’re penniless, homeless, bereft. You feel that society is responsible for your misery and so you decided to strike back.”

“No!” I scream. “I was happy for the first time in my life. Everything was finally, once and for all, perfectly arranged for the occurrence of spectacular good. I was in a state of pure bliss.”

“So you did it for the thrill,” he whispers. “I thought so.”

The judge rolls his eyes and the prosecuting attorneys snicker at each other when I announce my intention to defend myself. But I am determined to tell my story. I honestly feel that only I can do justice to the details of my life. I am determined to prove to the jury that I am not only sane and innocent, but that our so-called society is breaking down and they are all in as much danger as I am of losing their lives.

I am given six weeks to prepare my case. I write and rewrite the story of my life. I state and restate the philosophy that has guided me all these uneventful years. I practice in front of my cellmate until he asks to be transferred to another cell. I know that my coming moment in the spotlight is not the spectacular good awaiting me, but I am beginning to think my defense may lead me to that long awaited moment. I realize I am on the verge of modifying my belief system, of taking my actions seriously. The proximity of doom is a powerful agent of change.

I am eloquent. I am impassioned. I remind myself of every great attorney I have ever seen in a movie or on television, only I am even better because I am three dimensional. I move the jurors to tears.

I am sentenced to death.

But still, still, I do not doubt that very soon, a truly great good thing will happen to me.

In my cell on death row, I find it impossible, for the first time in my life, to watch television. But the moment I make the decision to have the set removed from my cell, I become suicidal.

Four months and three days before the date of my execution, I have my first session with a therapist, a Freudian. Two days later, I request a Jungian. Two weeks later, I wake up from a vivid dream and am shocked to find that I am in prison, on death row, awaiting my grossly premature death. I understand myself too well now for this to be a reasonable way to spend this brief flickering we call human existence. I try to harmonize my lifelong beliefs with the coming of my death, but all I get is atonal dribble.

I recall the story of Job and the stories of Kafka. I think of archetypes and heroes and the three times in my life when I turned down the opportunity to have sex with really terrific women. I think of black men lynched for being black, Jews slaughtered for being Jews, wars being waged for corporate gain, and me, a passive white man being murdered for being a passive white man with no alibis and a belief in something other than a vengeful God.

I begin to dream of escaping. But in these dreams escape is always secondary to where I escape to. I invariably find myself in an alpine meadow, hiking uphill toward the summit of a snow-covered peak. I have a child on my back and he or she is whispering in my ear.

Two months to go. I attack a guard in an attempt to actualize my dreams—the first overtly aggressive act of my life. I am severely beaten and thrown into a lightless confinement cell. After three weeks of near total sensory deprivation, I begin to believe that maybe I did murder those two people, whoever they were. I know I did not, I know I have never broken a law, but the brutality and senselessness of my ordeal demands of my wounded psyche that it come up with a reason for this hellish turn of events. Surely, a voice cries within me, torture and death are not prerequisites to the happiness we have postponed for so many years.

Two weeks to go. I am on the verge of accepting that I am insane. I am sticky with the feeling that my twenty-nine years with the phone company was all a vividly boring hallucination. What if my lack of ambition and my absolute belief in impending spectacular goodness is nothing more than a misfiring synapse in an otherwise perverse and murderous brain? What if I am a murderer? What if I only know the very surface of things seen on television?

I ask to go to the library. I am escorted there by two heavily armed guards. The selection is small. I close my eyes, reach out, and touch the spine of a small book. It is an account of the life and trial of Joan of Arc.

The day of my execution arrives. Joan is with me now, not so much in me, but riding lightly on my shoulder. She gives me good courage. I feel, as a matter of fact, quite calm.

And yes, it occurs to me that death may be that spectacular good I have been awaiting, that my moment of release will be the best thing that ever happened to me in my otherwise unnecessary existence. But I still don’t believe I’m going to die. I continue to believe in…well, divine intervention.

The warden arrives to tell me that my request for a pardon from the governor has been denied. For some reason, this doesn’t surprise or upset me.

A priest is admitted to my cell. We are left alone, the door closed. This is unusual, but I don’t question it. I surrender. I give myself, body and soul, to the glorious principles of Universe.

The priest is a terribly skinny man with sunken cheeks. He does not look at all well. He asks me to confess. I tell him I am not a Catholic. He asks me to confess anyway. I tell him everything I just told you, only in much greater detail. I lose all sense of time. The past and present merge.

At the end of my story, the priest smiles faintly and says, “We thought so. Our evidence corroborates everything you’ve just told me.”

“What do you mean?” I ask, the back of my neck tingling.

“I mean that we have known of your innocence all along,” he explains, coughing into a handkerchief.

He shows me the handkerchief. It is stained with blood.

Quickly, he explains that he belongs to a secret organization fighting inhumanity and needless violence around the world. He has been chosen, because he is about to die of an incurable disease, to die in my place. We exchange clothes. He gives me his realistic fake moustache and heavy framed dark glasses. Before I leave the cell, he tells me exactly what to say and when and where to say it. We embrace, and in our embrace I feel the first stirrings of love.

Moments later, I am outside the prison walls, opening the door of a late model car. As I roll along the highway, making sure not to speed, I activate the tape player.

“Welcome. It is our pleasure to save you. You will find your new identification, a valid passport and one million Swiss francs in unmarked bills in the glove compartment, along with a first class airline ticket to Zurich. Don’t worry. All will be well.”

I drive to the airport, park the car, check my suitcase, and make my way to the departure gate. My reservation is confirmed. I am handed a boarding pass. I walk down the sloping hallway to the softly purring jet. I take my spacious window seat in the first class section, and buckle my safety belt, though I have every reason to believe I won’t need it.

How do I feel? I feel fantastic, swollen with life. Everything I see is sharply focused. Every sound is rich with meaning. Every moment is bursting with opportunity. I am free of the doubt that enslaved me. Every moment is now.