The following stories appeared in various publications over the course of my writing career.
The Lovelandtown lift bridge lurched and stuck in place, the roadway stalled twenty feet above the street.
A man appeared, his orange reflector vest shining as the bridge’s red and yellow lights blinked on and off. He pulled his wool cap on over his ears and spoke into a little black box, his breath a puff of smoke. Few cars idled behind the warning arms on either side.
One car, a Mercedes, pulled into the lot of the Lovelandtown Tavern, nestled by the bridge on the west side.
The dark bar forced your eyes to adjust. If you were lucky enough to have a companion, you could read their emotions but not see their flaws. Locals frequented, mostly roughneck types – fishermen, mechanics, lifelong waitresses from other establishments. Smoking had been banned years ago, but a lingering haze remained. You spent your night with mostly old-timers and those worn out from life, the salt of the earth. You left smelling like stale beer and black licorice but feeling wholesome.
James Hubert III sat at the bar. It was late. His wife and kids were long in bed and he knew he should be, too. But with the Lovelandtown lift bridge stuck in mid-air, a drink beckoned him. He sat next to Vince DeSantos, a small, stout man, with a bowling ball head and dry, cracked knuckles. Vince humphed when he walked. James and Vince grew up together.
“Really like this place,” said Vince.
“Me too,” said James. “We probably know everyone in here.”
“Me more than you,” said Vince.
“But they leave us to our Rolling Rock.”
Vince rolled his thermal sleeves to his elbows and drooped his shoulders as he ran his thumbs under his Carhartt coverall straps. “Things keep me warm on the job, he said, but make me sweat my ass off inside.” He tilted his green beer bottle and gulped as he drank. James drank, too.
“This beer brings me back,” said James. He rolled up his dress shirtsleeves and tucked the cufflinks into his breast pocket. Both men leaned their forearms on the bar, their Rolling Rock bottles standing at attention before them.
“Brings you back from what?” asked Vince. “You only live over the bridge.”
James held up the green bottle and peered through it like a looking glass. He stuck his nose on the opening and sniffed.
“Remember when we’d help my dad with yard work during the summer?” said James. “We’d help him cut the lawn and weed whack as he ran around and trimmed the trees and reposted the fence. Like teenaged boys are supposed to do, he’d say. Then we’d break and sit on the back step and he’d crack one of these. It was the only time he drank beer. He’d take a sip and then pass it to us and say, one sip each. Nothing better than the smell of freshly mowed grass and the twang of this beer. The best days I can remember,” said James.
“Were they though?”
James peered out the window and watched the men on the bridge scurry like mice trying to find their cheese. “I was happy,” James said.
“It was different, then,” said Vince. “I have Desiree and little Vinny now. I worry now.”
“My Jimmy fell off his scooter and split his forehead last week,” said James. “Sheryl called me and my throat locked up. He’s fine, she said, he’s got a few stitches and a lot of blood, but the head bleeds. I wanted to run home and hug him. But I couldn’t leave. Even if I did, I probably couldn’t have found a flight home at that time.
“But you have it all,” said Vince. “You parked your Mercedes next to a twenty-year-old pickup truck. You have a house with a bay view and another with a mountain view.”
“That’s not what warms me up, though, Vin. It could all go away. At least you enjoy what you do. Every day. And you’re home to enjoy the important things.”
“What would it have been?”
“Archeology,” said James.
“There’s no money in that.”
“That’s what my parents said. But there’s learning and digging and exploring. No cubicles. No business class.”
“Don’t wish away everything you’ve got,” said Vince.
The yellow and red flashing lights stopped flickering through the tavern’s windows and the bar fell quiet. James turned to see workmen on the bridge climbing into their trucks. James stuck twenty dollars on the bar. “This one’s on me,” he said.
“I’ll get the next one,” said Vince.
They stood, shook hands, and hugged, slapping each other on the back. “Come see us sometime,” said James, gripping Vince tightly as if not wanting to let go.
“I will,” said Vince. “I work Saturdays and some Sundays. I’ll have to get over the bridge to you. Tell Sheryl we say hello.”
“Nah, the fresh air is good for me,” said Vince.
They walked outside. James climbed into his coupe. He watched Vince stuff his hands into his pockets and bury his chin into his coveralls and walk west, disappearing into the cold night. James Hubert pulled out of the parking lot and sped up and over the bridge, his Mercedes’ lights fading as he passed over the top and down the other side.
Originally published in Happy Pure Slush Volume 15
Originally published in print for Pure Slush: Five Pure Slush Volume 10
Fernando shifted in his metal chair, waiting for the immigration agent to talk. So, the agent said, you’d like to stay?
Si, signore, said Fernando. Ah, yes.
What does Orlando have that Naples doesn’t?
We have the best wine in the world. We have beaches and an old-world feel. And my family is there.
But, continued Fernando, it was my fifth day on the job at the Italian restaurant in Epcot. We’re a squirrelly bunch. Everyone’s from different region of Italy and all excited to be here – just as excited as the tourists. And we’re making money. More than I could at home. They even give us free admission to the parks. We can walk around, go on rides, and get our picture taken in front of Cinderella’s castle.
You’re having a good time.
Ah, sir, that’s not all of it. Or how do I say it?
The best is yet to come.
The agent closed the manila folder on his desk and pushed it aside. He smiled.
You know something I do not? asked Fernando.
Fernando sat back in his chair. He looked at Agent Parker. Well groomed. Comfortable. Tie loose and sleeves rolled. But he nervously twisted his gold wedding band with his opposite hand. Agent parker nodded his head… waiting.
It was my fifth day on the job. Before my shift, we went to Magic Kingdom to explore. I met the group at the entrance and there she was, standing with the rest. Her name is Abilene. The visitors say that place is magical. They like the shows, the costumes, and they feel good. She made it magical that day.
Agent Parker chuckled.
The sun – it’s big here – lit up her black hair. Her skin was like smooth chocolate. Her green eyes glimmered like fireflies. But it was her smile. Her nose crinkled. Not a wrinkle. A crinkle, you see.
We did everything that day – It’s a Small World, Peter Pan, and Haunted Mansion. Then they set off the fireworks over Cinderella’s castle. We shared cotton candy. She smiled every time I handed it back to her and I saw that crinkle.
You met someone.
I met my princess.
How long do you want to stay? As long as she is here.
Agent Parker picked up a picture frame that laid facedown on his desk, stood it upright, and grinned. Congratulations, Fernando, he said and extended his right hand.
Fernando shook Parker’s hand excitedly. Thank you, signore. That place is magical.
I’ll extend you as long as possible. Take care of the paper work today.
Thank you, sir.
Thank you, Fernando.
Fernando ran out of the office. Parker picked up his phone and dialed. Hello, a woman said.
Hi, honey. I’m sorry about what I said this morning. I have an idea for our anniversary.
Originally published in Pure Slush: Picking Shirts
Every Sunday afternoon at five o’clock, Martin’s wife Lee says, “You have to pack before Bug goes to bed.”
This Sunday was no different. Elizabeth, his petite two-year-old ran up to him and asked, “tea, Daddy?” So they sat at her plastic, red and white table and chairs. She poured the invisible drink into light pink, heart- shaped cups. “Cheers,” she said, clinking her cup with his.
“Salute, Bug,” he said.
After a fast few minutes, she was up and ready for something else. “Dance crazy,” she said. Martin blared Eric Clapton’s They’re Red Hot and Elizabeth jumped around the living room and the kitchen. She clapped her hands and crouched down, pouncing up like a spring. She stood on his feet, grabbed his hands, and they spun around. He only heard her giggles.
“Puzzles!” said Elizabeth. She pulled out a stack of puzzles. Hundreds of pieces fell to the floor. They snapped in half the pieces of an ABC’s puzzle and then she was off – brushing her doll’s hair, feeding the dog, and making pie in her plastic kitchen set. Martin followed her every move through their home.
Soon, it was six o’clock. “Almost bedtime,” said Lee. “Want to help me pick out shirts?” he asked Elizabeth.
She ran to his open closet and looked intently at the selection of oxfords, plaids, and polos – all basic shades of blue and gray, simple and fitting his personality – looking for her favorites. Then with both hands she grabbed the shoulders of two tops and yanked them off their hangers. “These ones.”
Martin normally packed the shirts she picked. It helped during the week. While dressing in front of the long hotel closet mirror, he’d laugh remembering her method.
It was seven o’clock. His steel blue duffle bag sat, packed, by the front door.
At eight o’clock, after reading her favorite books, they cuddled on the soft, gray chair in her dark bedroom and sang Twinkle, Twinkle while her nightlight slung pale blue stars across the ceiling and down the walls. When her eyes drooped, he laid her in the crib. He kissed his hand then touched it to the top of her head, her big curls wrapping around his fingertips. “See you Friday morning, Bug. I love you.”
“Love you, too, Dad,” she said.
Martin sighed as he closed her bedroom door. The duffle bag sat, packed by the front door, ignored for a few more hours.
published 27 June 2015
Blood and Water
Originally published in Pure Slush: Blood and Water
As I drive to my childhood home, it dawns on me that this will be the first time in over a decade that my family is together, since that raucous Seven Fishes dinner. The best smelts in the world couldn’t shut us up that night.
“You’re a bitch,” my older brother Carl yelled at my Dee. “You only show up here because you feel like you have to. It’s fake. You’re fake to me, to Mom, and even to Jim.”
“And you’re a bastard, Carl,” I defended, slamming my hand on the table. Dishes clattered. “We’re gone.” I grabbed Dee’s hand and stomped us out.
“Jim,” Mom said at me. She was unsure how to handle the situation. She’d been unsure about a lot since Dad passed. A lot of widows and widowers find their independence and strength. She was lost.
Dad would have been disappointed in all of us that night. He always told us, Don’t say anything you can’t take back. Disagree. Don’t disrespect. Dad was kind, chivalrous, and coolheaded… a true gentleman. I tried to emulate him and inevitably failed. Carl, a “me first” prick, always shot his mouth without considering the consequences and apologized later. He was right about Dee, of course, but that was for me to find out.
And the apologies came. Texts buzzed first, the easiest and least personal. Then two emails hit my inbox. Finally, he called and left a voicemail. I’m sorry he said. He always said that. Sorry for stealing your favorite baseball card. Sorry for crashing your car. Sorry for screwing up your screwed-up marriage. It was his final reaching out and the last time I heard his voice. Forgetting him was easier than forgiving him.
Driving through my hometown, I notice the homes, friends’ homes, wrecked. The storm’s floodwaters have washed clean the foundations and memories. Piles of debris line the streets. I pull up to my house, park at the curb, and get out of the car. Mom and Carl carry boxes from the porch to their own pile at the end of the driveway. Mom’s face is blank, like she’s burying a relative but it hasn’t set in yet. Carl whistles behind her, the unaware child at the wake.
“Honey, I made you and Carl lunch,” she says. She thinks ham sandwiches and lemonade will make it all better.
“I’m here for Dad’s tools,” I say. The good son gets the tools.
“Oh.” She rubs her aged, translucent hands together unsure how to handle my brevity “They’re in the shed. Take what you want from your room, too.” She walks away from me. Carl follows behind, whistling.
My Chevy now loaded with Dad’s toolbox, ratchet set, and giant wrench, I check out my old room. It had become a catchall, but my trophies, noodle art, books, and a picture – an unframed photo of Carl and I when we were in grade school wearing our peewee baseball uniforms and Dad crouched next to us wearing his coach cap – are still there.
“Jim,” says Carl, scaring me a bit. “I’m s –”
“Get out of my room, Carl.” I push him into the hallway and shut the door in his face. I bury the picture in my back pocket and grab a photo album labeled Family Trip to Disney World. Sitting on the floor and leaning against the door, I flip it open.
published 29 June 2013
Lost in Amsterdam
A fine mist fell. Jeremy zippered the slicker his mother had made him wear. Heading down Leidsestraat, he saw cheese, he saw cappuccino, he saw fries. He smelled pot, he saw Heineken, and he could have jumped on a canal cruise and taken a guided tour, passing houseboats and brasseries, experiencing the city as it should be done.
He walked north instead.
The breeze blew cold. Walking quickly, he grabbed the slicker’s collar and tucked the ends together then pulled the hood up over his head, shading his face from the lively crowd, overflowing onto the sidewalks, standing under umbrellas and smoking cigarettes, speaking in Dutch and English. Locals sped by in cyclist caravans, probably off to fill another bar or restaurant. Passing through a square, dancers spun on their heads to beat music while people circled around them and clapped.
Jeremy continued on his journey.
He stopped when he reached the corner of Oudezuds and another cross street whose name he could not pronounce. Two waist-high cement, cylinder barriers stood in the middle of the cobblestone road. Each barrier had small, red lights glowing from their tops, signaling a warning or a welcome. Jeremy breathed deep and walked around them.
These streets – no chatter, just pitter-pattering feet – were filled with mostly men, lumbering up and down the constricting alleyways, heads down and hands in their pockets. Jeremy couldn’t help but look up. An excitement coursed through his chest that he’d never felt before. His pace quickened and he took shallow breaths. Jeremy glanced from side to side, inspecting each girl. The girls, standing behind glass doors, danced in bikinis and waved. Maybe at him. Maybe at the other men trotting by. Red bulbs glimmered through small fixtures next to each door.
Jeremy stopped at one door. The girl inside, plump and Asian – nothing he’d date back home – smiled. Jeremy pulled the hood from his face and smiled back. He opened the door and walked in. Vanessa, she called herself, closed the shade on the door and shoved Jeremy onto a mattress.
Forty-five seconds later, Jeremy pulled up his pants and handed Vanessa thirty Euro. “That happens to every man their first time,” she said in her Dutch accent.
A man he thought as he walked back. He stopped at a whiskey bar. He figured a man would drink whiskey after doing that. He sat on a stool and threw down a smoky single malt. He didn’t taste its subtle hints of oak, but only felt it burn his throat.
Back at the hotel, he slithered past his sleeping parents. He got in the shower and scrubbed himself clean. Harder and harder. He lathered and scrubbed. He cried and scrubbed, using only his hands, his fingernails scratching red lines into his hot skin. He held in his bellows and let out puppy whimpers.
Will I tell the guys when I get home? he wondered, toweling off. He grabbed his stomach and lurched toward the toilet, hugged the damp porcelain, and emptied remnants of his night into its whiteness. Probably the scotch.
Originally published in Pure Slush on 16 September 2011
Call Name Mary Magdalene
The bell rings, so the girls and I run to the front of the compound and line up. We’re dressed to impress and barely dressed. Tall, dark, and handsome (short, dark, and pudgy, but we make him feel otherwise) eyes us up and down.
He picks me, of course, and we stroll down the hallway toward my office – complete with spinning bed and power tools. My call name is Mary Magdalene, I say, because who wouldn’t want to sleep with a saint. Plus, Jesus could ring that bell any day.
His hands fumble over my curves like he’s petting his golden retriever. He wears inexperience on his face like I wear my mascara.
We make it to my door and I key it open. He’s not so bad. Not tall, dark, and handsome. Certainly not Jesus. But maybe he’s mister right, the one who’ll take me away from this.
I close the door behind us to find out.
Originally published in 52/250 A Year of Flash: Call Name Mary Magdalene
West Side of the Tracks
“And I promise that your tax dollars will never get diverted to the West side of the tracks again!”
The crowd, holding signs that read Otto for Congress, hoots and hollers. Campaign music blares as Otto steps off the stage – handshakes and hugs. Then his manager escorts him to the tour bus, complete with a wet bar.
The bus heads west on Route 36, toward the next stop — Howell, New Jersey. After driving ten minutes, and after crossing the tracks, the bus gets a flat.
Otto gets off the bus and sees a young kid sitting on a stoop. Tattered shirt and worn-kneed jeans, the kid hops off the stoop and walks up to Otto. “Hey, mister. Wanna play a game?”
Otto looks at the stoop and at the house behind it: shutters falling off, boarded windows, and graffiti — a building, not a home.
“You have to throw a rock and land it in that box over there,” explains the kid. His small hand points to a warped cardboard box on the corner of the sidewalk.
Otto turns to his manager. “We have to get more money over here,” says Otto.
“This is the West side of the tracks, sir,” says Otto’s manager.
“All politicians break promises.”
The kid hands Otto a jagged rock. “Visitors shoot first,” says the kid. Otto tosses the rock and it lands wide to the right by about one foot. The kid sinks his shot right away. They play until dark.
He deployed for Iraq February 4th. A quick goodbye in Gmail. No mush; no bravery. Just see you in six. I marked each month’s anniversary with a countdown — 5 months left, 4 months, so on.
The headlines were my source of information and contact. Four Soldiers Killed in Baghdad read one. Seven Ambushed in Fallujah. I’d read them, look for his name, and maybe clip it out. It put me there; put me in touch with him.
After the first month, he emailed and gave me an update. He ran late-night patrols — left at about 1am — and got back around 2am Eastern Time. He said he’d be online more because Iraqis were taking the calls. Poor bastards were losing legs, getting ripped in half; their parade now. So I’d stay awake until he logged onto Gchat, until I saw the little green light next to his name. Staring. Waiting. Sometimes he came on. Sometimes nothing. Worrying.
The months passed and the contact slowed. He was busy. I was busy. The articles became sparse. Other, better shit happened — Snooki punched a ho.
It had been weeks and I sat in the back of the theater as the credits for The Hurt Locker rolled up the screen. Others filed out, talked about the acting and special effects. I stared for a while. Bitch of a war. Where’s the sacrifice? They ate their popcorn, were entertained. I stayed up until 2 every morning. I wiped my damp cheek with my sleeve and left.
This story was originally published for 52/250 A Year of Flash: Personal Trenches
It is Monday and I am a bit tired, so I apologize for the brief letter. I recently built a barracks at Plaszów — forced by the Labor Office — and my hands and arms are still sore. I probably shouldn’t complain.
The SS and Gestapo began rounding us up, at least those who aren’t registered, those without yellow cards, today. Rumor has it they got at least 1,000 and took them to the camp, to the barracks. I tried not to watch and only listened, only heard some of the shouts and shots and cries.
Now some poor man is sleeping in the bunk I constructed. I hope he sleeps well, dreams, and is soothed by the warm breeze blowing tonight. The breeze is comforting. A blanket. It is hard to notice the breeze most times. Other times, it’s all I want to notice.
This bed I built, that holds my neighbor this warm night, I have a feeling I may be lying in it myself soon. Yellow cards only carry so much weight.
Goodnight, Abram. I hope you sleep well, too.
1 June 1942
This story was originally published in Istanbul Literary Review’s May 2011 issue.
Marylou Fisk sat in the back of her Senior English class at Saint Thomas High School. She passed notes — Marylou to Betsy, Betsy to Beth, Beth to Jenn.
Two weeks until graduation and the gang was still together. Just yesterday, they were sharing zit remedies, then tampons, and then kissing advice. From Baptism to First Communion, to Confirmation, and then Baccalaureate Mass, they’d done and seen it all. Never judged and never torn apart. They were as close as friends could be.
In between ketchup-covered fries, a Quarter Pounder, and a vanilla shake, catty comments, and lots of laughs, Marylou slipped in her announcement, a grenade in a rose garden. “I’m pregnant,” she said.
Marylou stood at her Baccalaureate Mass, crammed in the back of Saint Thomas’s Church with the parents who had arrived late. You can attend mass, Father Cuthbert — the principal — told her. But you can’t sit with your class. Betsy, Beth, and Jenn each had planned graduation parties. Marylou still hadn’t received her invitations. The three girls sat in their pew that day, chatting with each other as if they were whole, missing no pieces. Even Marylou’s parents stayed home, ashamed to be seen in church with their sinner.
“At least we have each other,” she said as she patted her barely visible bump.
Originally published in 52/250 A Year of Flash: Marylou’s Baccalaureate
Before the Dance
The house was all but empty. Just a pair of rocks glasses sat on the hardwood floor in the center of the living room.
A man walked through the house, examining each room, making sure nothing was left, a whiskey bottle in his hand. Most of the furniture had sold already; the leftovers were in the driveway. He made his way to the living room and sat down next to the glasses.
A woman walked in from the kitchen. She sat next to him as he poured what was left in the whiskey bottle into each glass. “They could’ve given us more time to make a payment,” he said.
“It’s been eight months,” she said. “Too long.”
They sipped their whiskey and held hands.
“There’s a three-car garage here; a pool; a basketball hoop,” he said.
“Memories that you’ll take with you. We can start fresh. Rent. Not be shackled to one spot.”
They finished their whiskey and the man shook the empty bottle. “We’re out,” he said.
“I’m going to a hotel,” said the woman.
“I think I’ll stay here one last night,” he said, “but I need more whiskey.”
They got up, walked to the door, and looked around the bare house. He put his hand on the small of her back as they walked outside into the crisp Spring dusk and he closed the door.
Originally published in 52/250 A Year of Flash
Four Thousand Dollars from Baghdad
Jogging along Penn Station’s mucky floor with the herd, I ran though the day’s schedule in my head: meeting first thing, two meetings later in the morning, and a conference call at two. My train was twenty minutes late and I forgot to iron my shirt. A good start.
I darted through the open space near the tall escalator and staircase, heading toward 7th Avenue, and glanced up quickly enough to notice a National Guardsman holding an American flag, motionless and reverent. Nine more guardsmen stood single-file behind him. Beside the row of guardsmen, stood a row of ten New York City police officers. Behind them, four bagpipers and two drummers. They were all dressed for presentation, pressed uniforms, kilts, and shoes shiny as mirrors. The group stood in formation off to the side, allowing everyone to bull through.
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. The base drum easily filled the cavernous building. The rat-tat-tat of the snare joined and the bagpipes came in low.
I stopped. In my hurry to catch a late train and make my meeting, I had forgotten.
The procession worked its way to the center of the open area, at the bottom of the stairs, and the bagpipes started their Amazing Grace.
Others stopped. We bowed our heads and remembered the first plane.
The day before, I had been talking to my uncle about getting embedded with an Army unit in Iraq; I wanted to fulfill my sense of duty and thought my writing was the answer – a prose-shooting patriot.
Hemingway said that war was a great subject for a writer to experience and write about. Writers who didn’t get the chance were jealous. My cousin, an EOD specialist with the Navy, was heading to Iraq in a few weeks. I wanted to go. I wanted to see war.
The bagpipes went silent and I made my way to the office. My day went on and though my fingers typed, my mind was stuck on war. How can I see it… feel it?
“Fly to Baghdad,” said Jason, a colleague and confidant. “Wait until your cousin gets there and buy a ticket.”
“That’s crazy,” I said and walked away. Crazy and brilliant.
Six weeks later, I sat in a sauna of a cab and pulled out my wallet, proud of my determination. “How much for the seven miles to Baghdad?” I asked cabby.
“Four thousand US dollars,” he replied.
“This is the most dangerous road in the world and you want to drive down it. You crazy,” he said.
“But it’s not that far.
“About four thousand dollars away,” said cabby.
The air-conditioned cab was no match for the sweltering heat outside. I was told to be prepared, be ready for a wall of heat. Choking heat. My forehead poured like a hydrant and my deodorant quit before I got off the plane. This wasn’t heat. It was hell. Freaking Jason and his grand ideas.
I tilted on the cracked, pleather cab seat, peeling my left leg up like a security cap on a new jar of peanut butter.
“So, crazy, do you have four grand?” asked cabby.
I didn’t have it. Even if I did, I wouldn’t have given it to him. What was I thinking?
The cab jolted and the ground shook. Leaning forward, I peered through the windshield toward Baghdad and saw a plume of dark, gray smoke. “I think I’ve seen enough,” I said. I handed him a twenty and stepped out of the cab and into the blanket of heat, immediately covered in sweat and humiliation. Four thousand dollars to Baghdad and I gave twenty.
On board the plane, I successfully fled the carnage, while on the ground my cousin drove straight into it. I pulled out my calendar and counted down the days to his return, to the day I’d tell him how far away I was.