Sugar and Spice

The Snark Zone
Lisa “Boots” Olson


Daphne poured sesame oil into the wok, watched as it swirled and pooled at the bottom. She gave it few moments to heat, then slid the marinated chicken strips down the side. She twirled the mass with the wooden spatula, salivating as the smells emerged.

“Frank is looking at us again,” Jonah commented. He pounded the cleaver through a red pepper with practiced skill.

She turned to her husband. “Nothing new about that. Where’d you put the garlic?”

He indicated her left with the cleaver. She emptied the aromatic yellow contents into the wok. They clung to the chicken, turning a deep brown in a matter of seconds. Grabbing another small glass bowl, she tossed in a small amount of minced ginger, then a sprinkling of red pepper flakes. She churned them together, and the kitchen filled with the aroma.

She added another tablespoon of oil to the mix, capped the wok and sipped from a glass of red wine. Jonah was lopping the head off broccoli with expert precision. Smiling, she crept up and ran a hand up his exposed back and into his blonde hair. The cleaver wavered.

“I can’t chop when you do that,” he said.

“Sure you can.” She massaged his scalp for a second, trailed her fingers down his backbone and cupped his buttocks.

“Knock it off, you! I’m trying to cook here!” He brandished the huge knife, chasing her away. Giggling, she washed her hands and returned to the stove.

Steam rose from the wok when she removed the lid. Adding the broccoli florets, a chopped onion, the red pepper slices, and the remainder of the marinade, she whipped the ingredients into dinner.

“You should wear an apron when you cook, you know.” His breath was warm against her neck. “You might splatter oil on yourself.”

She moved the wok to a cold burner. “I’m careful. It’s done, where’s the plates?”

He cupped one of her breasts in answer. She slapped his hand away, turned into his arms. “Hey! Dinner time!”

“That’s exactly my thought,” he licked his lips as he looked her up and down.

“I’m dessert, not dinner. Get some plates,” she smiled.

He heaped rice onto matching black china plates. She ladled the stir-fry on top, garnished it with cashews. “Want to eat in the dining room?” she asked.

“I’ll bring the wine,” he answered.

They met at the table, settled down to enjoy the repast. The doorbell rang five minutes later. They both sighed at the nightly ritual.

Motioning him to stay, Daphne went to the hall and opened it. “Frank,” she said.

“Um, hi. Got a cup of sugar I can borrow?” He’s not even inventive anymore, she thought. His eyes never lifted from her chest.

She ignored his ogling. “Sure, come in.”

They made it as far as the credenza before she felt his meaty hand palm her rear-end. She rounded on him, enraged. “Look, I don’t mind you watching us through your telescope every day, Frank. We believe the human body should be appreciated, that’s why we live as we do. And I think I’ve been fairly tolerant of your insane need for cups of sugar during dinner, as well. But grabbing my ass is outside my limits!”

Fat lips curled into a sneer. “If you are going to leave it out, I’m going to take it.”

“Get out,” Jonah threatened from behind them.

Frank folded, lowering his shoulders and backing toward the door. “Freaks!” he screamed at them when the knob was in his hand. “Dirty perverts!”

Jonah advanced, and the rotund man made a hasty exit. “You all right?” he asked.

She sighed. “Perverts, he says. He’s the one staring at us through the windows at all hours of the day. Like he’s never seen naked people before!”

“Forget him, Daph. He won’t be back for any more sugar. I’ll take care of that. C’mon, dinner’s getting cold.”

pencil

Boots, our resident Amazon and keeper of all things fantasy (you know, like hennins and sacrificial companions), can be reached at boots[at]toasted-cheese.com. You can also find her hosting Maxim Tremendous, Perpetual Passion and Locusts and Tape.

The Companions Are Chosen

Best of the Boards
Janet Mullany


Smeg raised the shining blade above his head. “Who will join me, brothers? I stand before you, earth-tempered, mindful of the great quest on which I am called, to boldly go where even elvenfolk unevenly wander askance.”

There was a stir in the great hall under the sputtering torches. A figure stepped forward, clad in mail and girt with leather thongs. “I am Mighty Phlegm, cousin to Dork the Bile and Veinous the Vile. I thirst for adventure and hunger for fame and lust for immortality.”

Smeg’s eyes narrowed as he lowered his blade, and fingered the flashing jewels of its hilt, fingers idly caressing the bulbous glowing ruby of the pommel. “Aye. So it may be. Is that Dork the Bile who lives by the Lake of Forgetfulness or Dork the Bile who sells eels ‘neath the Castle Thunderous portcullis?”

“It is neither. My cousin is Dork the Bile who lives down the lane.”

A gasp arose. Pitch fell from the torch and flame flared among the rushes on the floor. A servant rushed forward to stamp out the fire with his bare feet.

“You shall join us,” Smeg announced and took the other in a rough male embrace. Disentangling their beards, he bellowed, “There are no more?”

“Aye, sir.” A thready voice rose from the depths of the hall where base men and hounds vied for scraps thrown from the high table.

A low rumbling arose in the flickering glare. “Sacrilege. Who dares speak?”

Smeg’s eyes fell on the huddled figure at his feet. “Who are you, scum?”

Dork unsheathed a sword that rippled like flame ‘neath water in the holy shrine of the Maidens of the Mothers of the Grateful Dead. “I will end his insolence ere the great clock of the Indigos strikes fifteen.”

“Stay.” Smeg strode forward, one hand on his swordhilt, the other clasping a bejewelled horn cup of mead that reflected the intense ardor of his eyes. He gestured forcefully, “Speak, dog.”

“Lord, I am but a humble jester. I will lighten your nights with song, I will juggle sundry implements neath the midday sun, I will provide jolly japes and pleasant diversions, I will sing many a catch and teach your companions amusing rounds to lighten their loads. When danger looms, I will caper and jest ’til the enemy is o’ercome with merriment and wets his britches. All this I can do, sir, and more.”

Smeg reflected. “It is well.”

pencil

Janet, a.k.a. elailah, can be reached at janetmly[at]erols.com. You can also find her at the Toasted Cheese forums and Monday Motivation chat.

Manassas

Best of the Boards
Mona Wanlass


As dawn penetrates
the camouflage of darkness
gray mist rises
from the creek beds of Bull Run,
called to muster
in a stand of maples
shoulder to shoulder against
a backdrop of Union blue.
Snare drums advance
the centenarian collective
on footless march over Henry Hill—
through a perennial spread of wildflowers,
evanescing into early morning dew.
Sentries stand rooted in the wood line,
rusted canons silently hold their ground,
a bugle call reverberates
the tones of history—
over land still fraught in civil war.

pencil

Mona, a.k.a. ciquing, can be reached at ciquing1[at]cs.com. You can also find her on the boards at Song of the JubJub.

Tiger Lily

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Exhibition
Theryn Fleming


“Beautiful, Kai. One more roll and we’re done here.” Ricardo gestures at his assistant. The girl exchanges cameras with him. They speak briefly.

“Can I get you anything?” she asks, looking at Kai.

“Thanks. I’m good, Tess.” She stifles a yawn. Late afternoon sunlight shafts through the loft’s high windows. Just want to get this done and get out of here.

Ethan and Claire, the prop kids, swoop in and shift a few things around. Swap an umbrella with a beach chair. Tess adjusts the direction the light’s being reflected.

“This round without the top, okay?”

Kai hands the bikini top to Claire. Tess steps up and spritzes her with a mixture of water and oil, then slides the sarong lower on her hips.

“Let’s start with you arms crossed over your chest—yes—just so. Turn little to the left—.” Ricardo never stops moving. Reminds her of a hummingbird.

Ethan moves the fan, directing it toward her.

“Good, good.” Ricardo starts snapping. “Tilt your head back. Just so, yes. Hold it. Good. Now turn—with your back toward me—look over your shoulder—and yes…”

*

“Great shoot,” Tess says as Kai dresses.

“Thanks.” Automatic. Tess is obviously leading up to something.

Tess fiddles with a lens. “Thought any more about the Playboy spread?”

“Mmm.” Kai shrugs into her jacket, the buttery-soft leather one she loves, and pulls her cell phone out of her bag.

Tess laughs. “Still no, huh? Well, I won’t tell Ricardo yet. He’ll be crushed. Let him think there’s hope.”

Kai fast-forwards through her voice mail. Her agency, with more bookings; her realtor, asking how the apartment is working out; her dad, just saying hi; JD, the hockey player she went out with last week, wondering if she’s free tonight. Then: “Kai, this is Dr. Ashley Barrett. Please call me at your convenience.”

She leans a hand on the stool beside her. This is it. Dr. Barrett had promised to call as soon as the test results were in.

“Going to the Ralph Lauren party tonight?” Tess asks.

“I’ve been invited,” Kai says as she punches in Dr. Barrett’s number. She calls it so often that she knows it better than her own number and yet she hasn’t been able to put it on her speed dial. Somehow this keeps the reality of her situation at a manageable distance.

She walks away from Tess as Ashley Barrett’s receptionist answers: “Dr. Barrett’s office.”

She unglues her tongue from the roof of her mouth. “May I speak to the doctor, please? This is Kai Simon.”

“One moment, Ms. Simon. She’s expecting your call.”

A click and music. Enya. Probably supposed to be soothing. Hard to believe she’s putting her future in the hands of an ‘Ashley’. But Dr. Barrett had been Maya’s doctor and took care of her mom at the end too. She trusts her, though going strictly on results that doesn’t make much sense.

“Hello Kai.” The perfect doctor’s voice: serene and confident.

“Hi.” She’s at the far end of Ricardo’s loft now, away from Tess and any other curious ears.

“You know I prefer to do this at the office, but— well, I’m not going to keep you in suspense. You tested positive for the gene.”

She shivers. Stupid lofts, impossible to heat. And this jacket is useless. No insulating value at all.

“Kai?”

Say something. “I’m here.”

“Kai, remember this is just a gene. Just because you have it, doesn’t mean that you’ll get cancer. It only…”

“…increases the probability. I know. But they’re all dead, Dr. Barrett. All of them. My sister, my mother, my aunt, my grandmother, my cousin. All the women in my family are dead.”

“I know, Kai. I know. You can come in right now, if you like, and we’ll talk about your options.”

“Again? No. I know my options. And you know what I decided to do if the test were positive.”

“You want me to schedule the surgery?”

“Want? No. But, yes, schedule it. Only… give me a month or so, okay? I have something I want to do before—”

“Whenever you’re ready, Kai. It’s going to take some time to get used to the idea. Look, I know right now this seems like an empty platitude, but after the reconstruction, the difference won’t be noticeable to most people.”

Who’s she think she’s kidding? “No. Just the ones I work with. My career will be over as soon as I have this surgery and you know it. Ashley.” Okay, that was snide. But fuck it all anyhow. I’ve lost nearly everyone I love and now this. I think I’m entitled to a snarky remark or two.

A pause. Then in the same patient voice: “If it’s any comfort, I do think you’re doing the right thing. With your family history—.”

“Right.” Brusque now. “So you’ll get back to me with the date?”

“I will. And call me if you need anything—or if you just want to talk.”

*

“Tess? Is Ricardo still here?”

“He’s in the office.”

Kai strides across the loft, knocks on the open door. “Ricardo.”

He’s scribbling something in his daytimer. He looks up, tapping his pen on the book.

“About the Playboy shoot—.”

“Yes?” The tapping stops.

“I’ll do it.”

“Kai, darling! That’s wonderful.”

“Go ahead and set it up. Only one thing—make it sometime in the next three weeks, okay?”

“I understand. Busy girl! Bet you’re booked through the summer. Everyone wants a piece of you, don’t they, Kai?”

*

The mom-and-pop store at the corner has fresh flowers out front. Her mom always bought herself flowers when she was feeling down. She selects a bunch and steps inside to pay. On the rack of tabloids next to the counter, The Globe’s headline screams: “Model Kai Simon’s Tragic Story”. She throws a ten on the counter and backs out of the store. The clerk calls after her: “Hey! Aren’t you?”

She waves at a passing cab. He stops. They always do for someone who looks the way she does. She wonders if that will change. Then wonders how she can be so vain. She gives him her address.

She sniffs the flowers. Tiger lilies. Her mom’s favorite. Three years in June since she died. Enough time for the pain to dull, to be able to enjoy the things Mom loved as happy memories rather than sad reminders. Now her sharp pain centers on Maya. Thirty-six days. How long will it be before she stops counting?

A traffic snarl halts the cab. Kai stares out the window. A billboard: a mother with a baby held to her breast. “Breastmilk is Best” the tagline reads.

I’ll never be able to breastfeed a child. For the first time, tears nip at her eyes. Stupid, really. She doesn’t even know if she wants kids.

Her phone rings. “Kai Simon.”

“Kai, it’s Dave.”

“Oh, hi.” Oh, Dave. Poor Dave. She tries to inject sunshine into her voice.

“Busy tonight?”

“I, uh—.” Supposed to go to the Ralph Lauren party. And JD would be the perfect date. But she didn’t feel much like going and even less like pretending nothing were wrong to a guy who was sure to dump her when he found out about her upcoming surgery.

“I understand if you are, but the kids are really missing their mom. If you could come over, I think it would really help…”

“I’m not busy.”

“Great. Want to have dinner with us?”

“Love to.”

She watches the billboard recede as the cab starts moving again. No, she will never breastfeed a child. But if she ever has one, she won’t leave it motherless at five or seven either. She wipes away her tears and gives the cabbie her brother-in-law’s address.

pencil

Theryn (a.k.a. Luci), Toasted Cheese’s resident gen-X poster child and keeper of sarcastic repartee can be reached at beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com.

The Testing

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Exhibition
Amanda Marlowe


Damiol smothered the fire, and removed his fur cloak. He stood naked, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the faint starlight. A chill wind whipped around his slender body as he stared toward the west, waiting for the moon to sink below the horizon. There. Not even a glimmer of light on the snow. It was time for the berries. Time to become a man.

“When you reach the peak of the mountain, you will find a ledge. The bush is there.” Elder Morrion’s instructions ran in an endless stream through his mind.

His hand sought in the dark among the thorns of the sepelia bush. When he had found five of the precious berries, he yanked his hand and allowed the thorns to rake his palm. Both blood and berries mingled black in the starlight. Damiol crushed them together, then dipped his fingers into his palm. He shook the paste into his mouth, then smeared what remained in streaks across his face. Dip. Swallow. Smear. Dip. Swallow. Smear. The last of the juice he rubbed over his chest.

“Once you have performed the purification with the sepelia berries, seek the bonfire, and watch. You will know when you must offer your entire self.” And that was all. There was nothing more to do but watch and wait.

He turned to seek the dim flicker of light, and stood watching it dance, letting the wind whip his hair in any direction it chose. He refused to shiver. If he shivered, he might fail. He focused on the bonfire below until it whipped about in his mind, dancing up closer, closer, up the mountainside, up above the ledge he was on, up into the sky to join the stars. To be one with the Goddess.

Damiol flung himself backward onto the ground, arms flung out, and continued to watch the fire as it danced among the stars. He would study the dance until the Goddess came to take her sacrifice, and speak the phrase that would guide his adult life.

A kaleidoscope of explosions flickered through his brain. The patterns were becoming clearer, the path of the Goddess on the fringe of his understanding. His body was still, but his eyes traced the circles within circles of the heavens.

Then understanding fled, replaced by terror as the Goddess herself appeared before him, shimmering and translucent as water. And then he was up, dancing to music that made him weep, and yet, too, he was flat on his back, spread out under the stars. And the Goddess was water, and air, and fire, and earth, and she danced with him, and on him, and in him. But the Goddess never spoke a word.

She returned him to his body, and wrapped herself around him. When he cried out as she accepted his sacrifice, she made no noise. When he bit back the cry as she branded him with the mark of her favor, she was silent. And as the glow of dawn spread throughout the mountaintop, she vanished. And still, she had not left him the phrase that would guide him to his life’s path. Had he failed? Impossible.

Damiol remained staring at the sky until late morning. When the sun edged into his direct vision, he arose and wrapped himself in his cloak. Then he started on the long trek home.

His mother and Erril were waiting at the gate, but though their eyes asked many questions, their mouths were closed as custom demanded. Damiol, too, spoke to no one as he strode through the village. His first words must be to the council of Elders.

He entered the longhouse, where the five Elders were assembled.

“Damiol of Erona, drop your cloak and show us the Goddess has declared you a child no longer.”

The fur cloak slithered to the floor. The blood had welled around the deep gouges on his chest, and the Elders nodded at the sign of the Goddess’s favor. “It will scar well.” Morrion smiled. “You must have pleased her.” Damiol looked at the floor, his eyes tracing the circle his cloak formed about his feet.

Elder Cormat spoke. “We have your medallion prepared, Damiol. Tell us, what words did the Goddess leave with you, that we may engrave them in the ancient tongue and set you on your path in life?”

At this Damiol raised his head, and looked Cormat in the eye. The Elder’s eyes were bright, and his smile large. Damiol shook his head. “She said nothing.” He watched the smile falter and the forehead furrow.

“You jest with us, Damiol. It is unlucky to speak of anything before you speak The Phrase.” Morrion’s voice seemed overloud as he spoke to be heard over the murmur of the council.

“Would I jest? You know my history, Elder. I have never lied. She said nothing. She came, She marked me, and She was silent.”

Morrion glanced at the rest of the council. “We must discuss this. Such a thing has never happened before. Yes, the Goddess has rejected boys who were not ready to be men, but never has she accepted and not offered guidance. Cloak yourself and wait outside.”

His mother Leera was waiting for him. Leera’s eyes widened as she saw him still in his cloak, and she traced the pattern on her palm repeatedly. Damiol bit his lip; he knew this was her habit when she was frightened.

Erril appeared, making faces at him. But he too was silent as he saw the fur cloak. Damiol managed a small smile for his friend, though his eyes strayed often to the closed door of the longhouse.

After an eternity, Morrion opened the door, and motioned Damiol back in. “We have decided to give you your medallion, for you have obviously earned your place among the men of the village. But we must leave it blank. If the Goddess said nothing, you are free to pick your own path through life.”

Cormat spoke up. “Your path does not lie with us, though you are always welcome here. Shed your cloak now, take your medallion, and dress as a man dresses.”

Damiol bowed to each Elder in turn as they withdrew, then dressed in his new clothes. He slipped out of the longhouse.

“Erril, my friend, you know better than to ask me.” He punched the lad’s shoulder. Erril wasn’t to take his testing until springtime, and was all curiosity.

“And you know better than to answer even if I do, worse luck.” Erril punched him back. “So, what’s it to be? I was hoping you’d be carpenter and join us as my father’s apprentice.”

“I don’t know yet. I must talk with my mother, Erril. I promise I’ll tell you what I can about it later if you’ll leave us be for a while.”

Erril grinned, and clasped Damiol’s hand. “I’ll hold you to that.” Then he dashed down the street.

Damiol turned to his mother, opened his shirt and showed the blank medallion. “Mother, does the Goddess hate me, that she leaves me with no words to guide me?”

“Son, How can I know what the gods have planned for you? You should have been God marked at birth, like me, yet you weren’t. You should have been Goddess marked last night, yet you weren’t. I just don’t know.” She traced the lines of blood on his chest. “I will be glad to see this when it scars. If it scars.”

Damiol shrugged. “If it scars, or if it doesn’t, I am Goddess marked. And if She chooses to be silent, that does not mean I can’t be guided by her wisdom.”

Leera smiled, “I call you ‘my boy’ for the last time. For those are surely the words of a man.”

pencil

Amanda (a.k.a Jam), Toasted Cheese’s resident tech-whiz and keeper of the stars (both the heavenly and Hollywood kind), can be reached at bellman[at]toasted-cheese.com.

The Admission

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Exhibition
Stephanie Lenz


The E.R. smelled like Listerine spilled on stainless steel. Voices around the curtain spoke medicalese. Once in a while I heard “psych consult” and my posture improved for a moment.

I glanced around. Pretty standard. White cabinets. White drawers. Cotton gauze. Half-empty container of rubber gloves. A red box with a biohazard symbol and “sharps here” printed on it. A sphygmomanometer on the counter. I always liked that word. “Sphygmomanometer,” I whispered to myself. “Sphyg-mom-a-nom-eter.”

Someone yanked the curtain and the metallic rattle startled me. “Sorry about that Ms. Barrett.”

He was about my age. Probably a resident, I said to myself. Long coat. He’s not a student.

“I’m Dr. Lapham. You can call me David. Mind if I call you Laura?”

“Go ahead.” My throat was dry.

“Let’s see what we have here. May I?” He reached for my purse. I handed it over and he put it on a cranberry-colored chair.

“Could I get some water or something?”

“Absolutely,” he smiled, flipping up the first page on my clipboard chart. “We have a vending machine if you want something stronger.”

“Anything caffeine-free.”

“Sure.” He dipped in his coat pocket and fished out a penlight. Flashed them in both of my eyes. “Follow my finger just with your eyes.” He went through the usual motions and asked, “You wanna tell me what happened?”

“She does this sometimes” I answered, looking left, right, up, down.

“A lot?”

“When she’s off her meds, yeah.”

“Haldol?”

“Thorazine.”

“Ah.” He felt around the gash in my forehead. “Headache?”

“I’m okay.”

“So what’d she hit you with?”

“The phone receiver. It’s one of those old phones too. Heavy.”

“Doesn’t look too bad,” he said, squinting at the gash over my eyes, feeling the skin around it. I winced twice. “Couple stitches maybe. What happened to your hand?”

“The bottom part of the phone when I made a grab for my purse. I keep my keys on me anymore but not my license. It was stupid.”

Doctor Dave shook his head. “Pretty smart if you ask me.”

The nurse who brought me in slipped through the gap in the curtain. He told her about my equal, reactive pupils and said, “Can we check her pressure again? Seems high.”

I didn’t want to think about it any more. I wanted them to take their info and fix me up so I could go home and get two or three good nights of sleep. They’d release her tomorrow. She’d be compliant for maybe a week. Then it would begin again.

I answered Doctor Dave’s questions while the nurse pumped the bulb and cut off my circulation. What day is it? Christmas. Who’s President? Bubba. What’s your name? Depends on who you ask. When he gave me a look, I answered properly. Where are you? The E.R. If you’re walking down the street and you find a stamped, addressed envelope, what do you do with it? I wanted to say “set it on fire” but I said, “Mail it.” I was pretty far through “start at a hundred and count backwards by seven” when the nurse released my arm.

“Pressure’s the same,” she said.

“I have GAD. Can I get that drink now?”

“Um, yeah. I’m going out there,” Doctor Dave offered. “Do you have something to take?”

“Little yellow pill.” I pointed to my bag.

After he left, the nurse asked if I needed a shot of something anyway.

“I’ll be fine once I take a pill. Seriously.”

She handed me my bag. “Your mother’s being admitted.”

I nodded. Same old, same old.

She did her busy work, scribbling on the chart, looking back through my records and worrying her forehead. Nothing new. I found my pill case and extracted a diazepam.

Doctor Dave returned with a can of Canada Dry and his attending.

“I’m Dr. Patil,” she said, extending a smooth hand. “How are you Laura?”

“Okay.” My standard answer. People tended not to question “okay.”

She stepped forward and examined my forehead more gently than Doctor Dave had. “Butterfly closure should do it. I want an x-ray of her hand though. Move your fingers, please, Laura.”

I wriggled my blackening knuckles.

“Very good.”

“Thanks,” I said to Doctor Dave as I popped the pill and took a swallow of ginger ale.

“Do you live at home?”

“For the holidays. I’m a student.”

“How long has your mother been off her meds?”

“Since before I came home.”

The nurse handed my chart to Dr. Patil. She read over my previous injuries, the broken arm, dislocated fingers, burns, cuts, bruises. I realized I was slumping and sat up straight. Habit.

“Is your father…”

“He died in Vietnam. MIA on paper. Ask my mother.” No one smiled back.

“Do you have brothers or sisters?”

I never knew if I should count Lance as a brother. I had no idea where he was. “We weren’t exactly close. He left home when I was twelve,” I answered. “He left before he left, if you know what I mean.”

“Do you have someplace to go?”

I hated that question. They always asked. The docs who patched me up. The docs who admitted my mother for seventy-two hour observations. Did I have somewhere to go? Whenever my mother was locked up, home was safe. I could answer, “Yes.”

*

After the x-ray, I waited in the private row of chairs in the E.R. proper picking the fingernail polish off my bruised left hand. My fingers still trembled slightly; the pill hadn’t kicked in. I was sorry I hadn’t agreed to the shot. My mind flashed to the dime bag in my purse and I considered sneaking out to light up. Damn papers were at home though. My forehead began to itch. The stuff they’d used to irrigate the cut dried my skin. I picked the acetaminophen out of the little paper cup one at a time and consumed each with the paper-flavored water I’d been given.

Cardboard cutouts of drunk-looking Santa Clauses smiled from the wall. Silver and red tinsel drooped from the ceiling. A sad three-foot fake tree sagged in the corner. I considered getting up to plug the lights in but reasoned it was after Christmas by that point. Besides, they must have been unplugged for a reason.

Overhead, someone paged Dr. Patil and Doc “Sam-I-Am,” my mom’s psychiatrist. He never believed me when I said I could spend the night at my grandmother’s. Maybe my mom had gone off on her “I hope that fucking bitch is getting fucked in the fucking ass with a fucking pitchfork” rant. I sipped my ginger ale and fantasized about smoking that joint.

“Laurie.”

I looked up to see Dr. Sam-I-Am. “Hey.”

“We’re gonna 302 your mom, okay?”

I lifted my shoulders and shook my head. “Whatever.”

“She’s covering,” he said, scratching his cheek. “Not doing a good job though.”

“I bet.”

“Will you be at home tomorrow?”

“Probably.” I searched my bag for my scrunchy blue knit hat. No reason to stay. They could commit her without my help.

“I’ll call you to discuss the options.”

I stood and zipped my coat. “Options. Right. My options or hers?”

***

I let the car idle in the hospital parking garage. Heat redeemed my numbed face, hands and feet. I futzed with the mirrors, making the extra effort not to see my latest scar. Played with the radio, looking for anything but Christmas carols but turned it off instead.

The parking garage is free on holidays, so I didn’t have to stop. I drove past the raised metal arm with my left turn signal on to go home. My hand throbbed but my nerves finally seemed quiet. I took a deep breath and flipped the signal the other way.

pencil

Stephanie (better known as Eden), Toasted Cheese’s resident witch and keeper of useless (but entertaining) facts, can be reached at baker[at]toasted-cheese.com.

Disconnected

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Mollie Savage


Two pit bulls glared at me from the gray, grimy office area. The brindle stood, marched in my direction and commenced sniffing around and between my legs.

“Hello, pooch.” I tried my damnedest to stay calm. Dogs smell fear. I let my hand fall, palm open for his inspection.

“His name’s General.” The second pit bull, as gray and grimy as the machine shop I’d entered. Jack Winston, according to the name plate on the desk, said “Hep you?”

“I’m Sandy. With Precision Phone.” I said. My usual act was a forward greeting, shake hands, get down to business. I wasn’t sure if the General would favor that maneuver.

“You’re too early, ain’t been installed yet. ” Jack, seated, stared at me.

“I know, that’s why I’m here.” I waved my work order. Fucking new salesman, Ted, forgot to tell the customer that I was going to install their new telephone system. It always happens when I show up. Customers think I’m the training ‘gal’. Most get over it. Most of our systems go into clean, professional offices. Those are educated people. They’ve heard about the equality of sexes. I could tell this old dog hadn’t read a newspaper since the civil war.

General pushed his fat flat nose into my crotch. Shit, next thing he’ll be humping my leg. “Mr. Winston, do you think you could call General off? He’s getting a little too friendly.”

“Ain’t mine. Belongs to the boy.” The bastard got out of his chair, leered my way, and as he pushed open a grease encrusted metal door said, “He’ll be along shortly.”

General commanded my attention with his inquisitive sniffs and snorts.

“Dog, get the fuck out of here.” I looked into his beady brown eyes and roared, “NOW!”

“Hey little missy, don’t you be getting fierce with the General.” A younger version of Jack Winston smiled while he scritched General’s cropped ears. “So you’re Sandy. Ted told me he’d be sending his top notch installer. Didn’t expect a pretty little blond like you.”

He stared at my tits. I don’t wear a bra, never have. Those puppies are nice and firm. There was a time when men gaped at my boobs, I gaped at their, usually, less than bulging crotch. I learned. They consider it an invitation. Now I look them in the eyes and speak.

“Are you Jack Winston? I need to talk with him or this phone system won’t get installed today.”

“That’d be me.” He thumped a black oily thumb against the faded blue tee shirt clinging to his puffed out chest.

“Fine. If we can confirm where you want each phone and where the equipment room is, I’ll get to work.” I handed him the floor plan attached to my work order.

“What’s this mean, KSU?” He stepped beside me. Close, too close.

“Key Service Unit. The box that makes the phones work… goes in the equipment room. According to this” I stepped back, pointed at the pencil sketch of the office layout “it should be in a closet in here.” I turned the knob of a cheap hollow pine door and pushed it open. “And, let’s see. A phone goes on desk in here, one over there” indicating the old man’s perch, “and one in the shop area. Right?”

He nodded, scratching his unshaved cheek. “Yah, just replace the old ones.”

“Great. I’ll just scope out the equipment room and hop to it. ”

Before I could flick on the light, he grabbed my hand.

“Wait. You can’t. I mean, don’t go in there yet.”

“No problem. You’re the boss. I’ll bring in my stuff. Tell me when.” I flashed my pearlies. Hell, I don’t ask questions, don’t make demands on the customer. He probably has girlie pictures in there. Rednecks like him think we ‘ladies’ are offended by their little boy fantasies. I went out to my truck and commenced hauling in my tool box, ladder, spools of cable, and the boxes of telephone gear. Depositing all on the unmopped, unswept linoleum floor in front of Jack’s closed office door. I went back out for a smoke. Wasn’t my problem if the customer delayed the install.

I’d never been to the ship channel before. Houston’s inland port for petroleum presented a gloomy picture. Barges billowed black soot that swirled like soiled snow over cinder block buildings, sour sulfuric water puddle on the crumbling concrete streets. I was in the midst of repair alley. Pipefitters, machine retoolers, blade cutters and ice houses; where unhappy, underpaid workers bitch about the boss over quick can of Buckhorn Beer.

I flicked my half smoked Camel toward the dumpster. Better inside than out.

“It’s all yours.” A new version of Jack Winston walked out of the open office. No two day stubble; a clean green polo shirt, jeans with a sissy sharp crease, crocodile skin boots. Hot damn, he was one looker. “I’ll be back at 11:45. If you’re done by then, I’ll buy you lunch.”

“It’s a deal.” I shot him a wicked grin. I felt moist. Everywhere.

Two and a half hours. Half hour per phone, one hour for the KSU. My shoulders tightened. Half the normal time frame for a new install. I carried my green metal tool box into the Jack’s spartan office. No girlie posters on the walls, just a gray metal desk and chairs. Clothes were neatly draped over an oak Captain’s chair by the small, open closet. I stepped into the closed, let out a whistle and relaxed. What luck. Three pristine phone cables connected to Ma Bell’s interface. No need to run new cable if they all had continuity. Fifteen, twenty minutes per phone, max.

General poked his snout in my tush. Damn. We eyed each other. I reached down, slow. Real slow. Patted his big brown head, and scritched behind those poor cropped ears. I swear, he purred, like an overgrown kitten. Friends for life. “Okay, let’s do this job together General.”

He followed me like an obedient private. I worked with precision and speed. Checked cable continuity, rewired jacks, attached the KSU to the wall, punched the cables down on the mounting block. One hour. An easy hour ahead programming and testing. I went out for a Coke and a smoke.

Eleven thirty-five. System installed, work area cleaned and gear loaded in the truck. I scrubbed off dirt and sweat with some toilettes I keep in the truck, undid my pony tail and brushed the dust out of my hair. Be nice if I had a little ribbon or scarf to tie it up with, but no luck. I couldn’t complain, I’d been lucky so far. Got the job done in record time, and in a few minutes a free lunch with one hot dude. I sat on the tailgate humming while I filled out the paperwork the boss demands we turn in at the end of a job.

Eleven fifty-five. I lit a cigarette off the butt of the one I just smoked. What an asshole. A goddam stupid asshole. I walked over to the nearest ice house, bought a cold Buckhorn and joined the other unhappy workers bitching about the boss.

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Mollie Savage lives in the Missouri Ozarks with her husband Joe, dog Frida Von Pumpernickel and The Caterina. In order to support her writing habit she is a Small Business Coach and operates an organic market garden. Mollie is currently working on a biography of a Missouri newspaperwoman. You can connect with Mollie at collage[at]townsqr.com.