Finding Audacity

The Snark Zone: Letters From the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming


I’m contemplating articling interviews and the inevitable silly questions: What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? Of course, I can think of a half-dozen real weaknesses without blinking, but who blurts out a real weakness in an interview?

The person who doesn’t get hired, that’s who. This is why it’s a dumb question. The asker doesn’t really want to know the answer. It’s a trick to see how you will handle it.

Meh. I’m tired of games. Ask me what you really want to know.

Anyhow, I still haven’t decided what I’ll say beyond the trite: “I’m a perfectionist. Really!” Except in my case, it’s not just a stock answer, it’s true. And it really can be a liability. The reason I kiss deadlines on a regular basis has as much to do with perfectionism as procrastination. Which is not to say that I’m actually perfect. That’s not what perfectionism is about. It’s about trying to attain perfection. Which, although it may be possible on a one-off, is not possible on a regular basis. Knowing that doesn’t make a difference to a perfectionist, though.

I’ve said in the past that you can separate writers crudely into two groups. The first are the ones who agonize over every word and persist in hanging onto the belief that everything they write sucks, even when they know logically that it doesn’t, and to whom the act of submitting is the equivalent to writing a 100% final exam, it’s just that hard. Afterward, they’re constantly thinking: Did I pass? Did I pass? The second, of course, are the ones who experience no such angst. They write prolifically and think it’s all great, even though their first (and only) drafts are riddled with grammatical errors. Maybe they know the errors are there; maybe they don’t. If they do, they have confidence that someone else will take care of them—that their brilliance will so overwhelm anyone reading that he or she will have no choice but to see past any mistakes, no matter how egregious.

The first group are generally (I said generally. No hate mail, please.) better writers than the second. But I bet if you did a survey, you’d find the second group gets published more often. The reason is simple. Writers in the second group feel no compunctions about submitting. And if you submit often enough, eventually someone’s bound to take notice. Maybe someone will even clean up your grammar for you, or fill in a plot hole. You never know. Best-selling authors are not usually the best writers. They may be good; they may be competent. But usually not the best. The best are holed up somewhere, hoarding their writing like its pirate’s gold—treasure so beautiful it will blind you with its perfection if you dare to look upon it. At least, that’s what we’d like to think. It keeps us from having to confront the reality: that even the best suffer from crises of confidence.

That’s the thing about angsty writers; success doesn’t take the angst away. They savor their victories for approximately four seconds before the chill hits: what if it was a fluke? And then they’re off, on another futile quest for perfection.

What angsty writers—what I—lack is audacity. Prolific writers have audacity in spades.

Audacity is a willingness to take risks. Not risks in the sense of danger, but in the sense of chances of success. An angsty writer will have no problem doing something terribly dangerous, but only if their chances of success are good. The prolific writer, on the other hand, doesn’t flirt with danger, but risks failure on a daily basis. Success calculations aren’t even a consideration.

Audacious is the person who enters a marathon without properly training for it, knowing that she will have to walk the majority, if not all, of the way, if she is to finish, and not knowing, if in fact she will finish, because she’s never gone anywhere near that far before. Audacity will take her over the finish line, albeit bedraggled and limping, hours after everyone else has finished and the volunteers are jonesing to go home. And audacity will allow her to wear her “finisher” T-shirt while beaming with pride and informing everyone: I did a marathon!

Well, I suppose. Technically. But call me crazy, walking 26.2 miles does not make one a marathoner. I could go out and walk a marathon today. So what? A marathon is not a walk; it’s a run. The point is to run the distance, or at least the majority of it. And if I couldn’t do that, if I didn’t know I could do that before I entered, I wouldn’t do it. I sure as hell couldn’t wear a “finisher” shirt knowing I’d walked the entire way. I wouldn’t be proud; I’d be embarrassed.

But I lack audacity. Plenty of people do just that, and are proud, and get kudos galore showered upon them. How many times have you heard “Congratulations, you’re all winners!”? Maybe I am crazy. It’s true there is something to be said for simply finishing a task, no matter how unpretty the journey is. In writing, finishing is at least half the battle. The question is, is it enough?

Lack of audacity is not the same as a lack of self-esteem. Angsty writers know they are competent; but to them, competent is not good enough. It’s fine for other people, but not for them. Angsty writers are always harder on themselves than anyone else. The why of this is mixed up with pride and expectations.

A friend from law school just finished her BA. She completed her last year concurrently with her first two years of law after getting early admission. Last week she threw a party and invited friends, family, former co-workers. Everyone was so excited for her. I mean, really, truly excited. And proud. I marveled at it. It was so genuine and so obvious.

The spring I graduated from university, my mom also graduated. She’d gone back to school to finish her degree the year after I started. My SO graduated with his master’s degree. And my brother graduated high school. If that wasn’t occasion for a party, I don’t know what was. But there was no party. I tried to work up some excitement, but nothing ever materialized.

My second university degree, I don’t think I even got a card. I had to buy myself a present.

At the time, I don’t remember thinking anything of it. I was so used to subdued reactions, that it didn’t strike me as odd. But now, with my writing eyes wide open, I’m looking around and I wonder. This is not how other people react. Other people celebrate. They’re proud. They’re excited.

I don’t mean to say that my family didn’t give a shit whether I graduated or not. Quite the contrary. But at some point—and this happened pretty early in my case—achievement went from being an accomplishment to being an expectation.

It was expected that I would do well in school. It was expected that I would go to university. If I hadn’t— well, that would have been a failure. But to do so was not viewed necessarily a success, it just was. Almost as if there was no other option.

And I think that is a great deal of the reason why I lack audacity. Why I’m wary of risks. Why I won’t try something unless I know I have a very good chance of succeeding.

I pulled out my old journal yesterday, the one I wrote in when I was in junior high. And you can see it there: I consistently reported my grades, but I was never, ever proud of how I did in the subjects that came easily, the ones I always got As in: English and math. What I desperately wanted to do well in was PE, the only class I struggled to not get a C in.

I was never able to enjoy my successes because I was constantly chagrined by my perceived failures. Not good enough! Try harder! You have no idea how many hours I spent in the basement trying to stand on my head. Over and over, until the skin started sloughing off my scalp in huge papery flakes.

The thing is, I wasn’t a failure. The failures were the kids who always complained of sprained ankles or cramps or forgotten gymstrip, who never even bothered to try.

I remember one day in 8th grade PE we were sent out on a 5 mile run. There were about 60 kids all told, 30 boys and 30 girls. I remember finishing with plenty of time to get cleaned up and changed and even sit around for a while afterward, so I probably took somewhere around 45 minutes, which sounds plausible. I was 7th to finish, behind 5 boys and 1 girl, and I was so proud of myself. More kids came in afterward, before the bell, but what I remember is that so many kids didn’t finish before the class ended that the gym teachers had to take a pick-up truck and drive around the course and pick them up. Of course, most of them weren’t even making an effort; “run” meant “walk very, very slowly” or possibly even “sneak into the bushes and smoke as soon as you lose sight of the school.” But whatever. I was exhilarated.

What happened to that?

I don’t know. I still ended up getting a C in PE because my teacher, the sadist, had me nailed as a C student and that was that. It’s true I sucked at anything requiring speed or coordination. But to be able to run 5 miles in about 45 minutes—that’s decent. It’s not Olympian, but it’s decent. Someone could have least have said, good job, keep it up, unlike a lot of this schlock we’re teaching you, it’ll serve you for life. But I don’t remember that occurring.

At any rate, by the time I finished high school, I’d stopped running. I’d started having knee issues. I dislocated my kneecap, and my knees started making grinding noises. I thought running would only aggravate the situation, and no one really disabused me of the notion.

I didn’t start running again until two years ago. In a last desperate attempt to find something that “worked,” I threw caution—and my knees—to the wind and started to run. The key to my sticking to it was intervals. At first I only ran one minute, then walked one minute. At first it was hard. And then it wasn’t so much. And then it started to be—shock—enjoyable. And it worked. I finally stopped feeling like I was on the losing end of a battle with a couch potato. And my knees? Well, they’re just fine. Still noisy, but fine.

This past weekend I entered a 5K “fun run.” It was the first time I’d gone in an organized run since elementary school. It had taken me two years to get to the point where I felt comfortable running with other people. I entered pretty much the shortest event out there. No marathons my first time out. Maybe never. But I did okay. I ran all the way and came within 22 seconds of my goal time, which is not bad for a first try.

But I knew that I could run the distance, and I knew pretty much how long it would take before I entered. Or else I wouldn’t have done it. The unknown was how I would measure up. I finished right in the middle of the pack. To use law school lingo: top 55% overall, top 39% of the women.

Decent.

Audacious? Well, no, not really. About as audacious as waiting to apply to law school until after I’d found out my LSAT mark. But I am re-learning what it feels like to be proud of oneself for accomplishing something, instead of merely relieved to have avoided failure.

Then again, accomplishing something that wasn’t expected? Yeah, that’s maybe just a little bit audacious. And I don’t just mean the run.

I guess I’ll have to re-think my answer to that interview question.

pencil

E-mail: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com.

A Walk In Space

Best of the Boards
Kathy Snyder


The thick door of the Moon Shot slammed on the blazing afternoon sun. Clear white spots drifted into her vision. Rochelle closed her eyes then opened them again, delaying the moment before she must locate her husband.

The cranky bar was just two blocks south of the Space Center. Three astronauts gathered at a back table. A live NASA transmission of a space walk beamed on a large screen over their heads. They critiqued it the way jocks picked apart a football game.

It was peculiar for her husband, Leonard to be here. Researchers rarely mingled with the fly boys—different temperaments. There he waited in an amber booth. The serious scientist in the midst of thick bar laughter. She made her way to him, crunching broken peanut shells under her boots.

“This is fun,” she said. After almost twelve years of marriage there seemed little need for salutations. She slid her bottom across the varnished bench. A pointed nail head caught the bias of her blue jean skirt. “Damn.”

Leonard ignored her remark and tightened his lips around the tip of a red striped straw. He blew a slight breath into his iced tea and scrutinized the foamy swirl.

“Interesting,” he said. That was her Leonard, always analyzing something.

“You called me to this rendezvous,” Rochelle said and tapped the side of his glass with her fingertip.

Just then a short, craggy faced waiter with greased black hair and a smudged apron tied around his waist appeared at their table. “Can I get y’all something?”

“What kind of Mexican beer do you have?” Leonard asked still staring at the glass. “Wait,” he raised his head. “Dos Equus, right? ” he said to Rochelle. “Get her one of those with a glass.” His gaze returned to the table.

Rochelle was twenty-two years younger than her rocket scientist husband and she liked it that way. No bothersome talks about starting a family. No insecure finances. He funded her artistic pursuits, and often complimented her abstract water color landscapes or patiently listened to long soulful poetry readings with his hands folded across his knee, gaze just to the left of her face. In return she played the charming wife at the various formal functions they attended around the capital area. At least that was her role back in Washington D.C. before his sudden transfer to Houston several months ago. She decided to make another stab at conversation.

“The sailboats from the Moonlight Regatta should be entering the bay tomorrow.” She tore off a small piece of the paper coaster and rolled it into a ball between her thumb and index finger. “I thought I’d leave in the morning to catch the moment.”

“Sounds like a good opportunity for some work,” he said with his head still down.

She found it charming the way he called her painting work, like it had an important value. A shock of gray hair fell out of place and landed on his temple. She acted upon a quick impulse to touch him just as the waiter returned and placed the cold beer between them on the table.

Leonard swirled the ice in his glass with a thick finger. Rochelle watched as several drips meandered down the side of her mug. They joined and formed an delicate web. Then a picture of Frank standing on the teakwood deck of his restored schooner, white smile, blue eyes, rugged tanned face, invaded her thoughts.

“There is something,” Leonard said. He raised his eyes and nailed her with a surgical stare as if he were trying to see through her head and out the other side. “Things haven’t been the same since we left Washington,” he added and pointed to the beer. “Drink up.”

“OK,” she said and raised the clumsy mug to her lips. She long ago accepted his dry logical ways. After a few years her fascination with his order and logic waned and Rochelle found herself with an unanswered emptiness. The move to Houston, this cowboy backwater excuse for a cosmopolitan city, only exasperated her loneliness.

“I said hey,” a pair of long legs wrapped in Wranglers paused at their table and a hand slapped Leonard on the back. “Dad gum, it’s Len from the lab.”

Rochelle mouthed the word “Len?” No one ever called him that. Her husband shrugged.

“Pardon me, Ma’am,” Trey took off his white straw cowboy hat and placed it over his heart. “Is this the little lady?” he stooped his well over six-foot frame a bit and smiled at Leonard who nodded. “Trey Scoats,” he stuck his sinuate hand in front of Rochelle. “Your husband here is going to help me get to Mars. In two-thousand ten. That’s the mission date. Until then I’ll amuse myself building the space station.”

Rochelle shook his hand and teased, “Didn’t your mama ever tell you it’s impolite to wear a hat indoors?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he answered. Then replaced the hat on his head with a wink. He hooked his thumb around a belt loop next to the most enormous brass buckle Rochelle had ever seen and lingered next to their table watching the space walk.

“Would you care to join us?” Leonard asked. Rochelle heard the well-known reluctance in his voice.

“Look at that. Look at that there,” he nudged Leonard with one hand while pointing towards the screen with the other.

Rochelle twisted her upper body around and checked out the broadcast. An astronaut floated in the dark space like a bulky ballerina. The two men watched with the fascination of a practiced eye as the space man tooled around with a Lego like machine three times his size. After a long minute, the entire bar erupted with applause.

“Mission accomplished,” Trey whooped with a toothsome grin.

Even Leonard allowed a smidge of a smile to bloom on his tight lips. His research team had developed a chemical mixture crucial to the success of this mission. An important step. “It’s good to see the fruits of your labor,” he said and drained his iced tea.

Despite having no idea what occurred, Rochelle joined in the infectious enthusiasm and caught Trey’s eye. “Have you gone up?” she asked.

“Yes, Ma’am,” he answered. Rochelle studied his handsome face with the square jaw and chiseled features. Despite all the good ole boy jargon his countenance reflected that of a strong man with a distinct sense of purpose. A hero.

“What’s it like?” she asked. A slight tingle played at the end of her fingers.

“Like going into heaven,” he said. The intensity of his dark blue eyes lingered in her after his gaze returned to the space walk. “Like going into heaven,” he repeated and with a tip of his hat walked over to join the other astronauts gathered at the table in front of the screen.

“Excuse me for a moment,” Leonard stood up and patted his gut. “Too much iced tea.”

The last and only other time Leonard had summoned her for an afternoon meeting he announced his odd transfer to Houston. Rochelle wondered if Leonard was forming the habit of bad news accompanied by afternoon drinks. Maybe he knew about Frank. Nothing to know really. Just two friends enjoying their mutual interest in sailing and all things nautical. The hairs on her arms stood straight atop an array of white goose bumps. She sipped beer and imagined Frank taking a shower, the water pounding his muscular legs, the soap trailing down his back.

“It almost seems criminal to interrupt that thought,” Leonard said with no trace of mirth.

“Just picturing the horizon filled with billowing sails as the regatta arrives from Corpus,” she said. “It’s part of my work. I sometimes visualize a palette days before I paint.” Since when had lying become so natural?

“And such good work it is,” he answered with genuine pride. Several of her pieces had sold to private collectors. Another whoop rose from the astronaut table.

“You started to say something,” Rochelle prompted, ready to get on with it. She watched her husband make eye contact with Trey and lift his empty glass in mutual celebration.

“Oh yes,” he said. Just then, his text messenger trilled. An annoying interruption. “Excuse me.” He pulled his reading glasses from his sweater pocket and read the message.

Rochelle quelled the urge to lean over the table and peek. She diverted her eyes to the wall between the booth. It was decorated with an unimaginative grid of autographed mission crew pictures dating back to the Gemini program. Alan Shepherd, Neil Armstrong, the earnest faces of the Apollo 8 crew. Leonard punched buttons then dropped the text messenger.

Her insides tightened. She needed a break, a distraction from the oppressive humidity. She pulled a green compact from her purse and arranged her hair.

Leonard returned the device to his pocket and removed his glasses. “You look lovely,” he said and with that reached out and placed his hand on top of hers. “But something is missing.” She struggled to keep her fingers like stone. “You’ve changed since our move to Texas and I don’t like it.” He stretched out his leg and pulled four crisp one hundred dollar bills from his trouser pocket. “Buy a pretty dress, something formal. Not unlike the red dress you wore to the National Science Institute Ball in D.C.” He forced her fingers to close over the cash. “The Space Center is having their annual Starlight Fund Raiser in two weeks. I thought we’d attend.” He picked up his glass and swirled the melting ice. “Does this please you?”

“Yes.” She stuffed the money in her purse.

He paid the tab with a ten dollar bill and stood up. “I’ll be working late in the lab tonight.” He kissed the curve of her cheek. “Be careful.”

A sharp sliver of sunshine invaded the dim bar as he opened the door on his way out. Trey winked at her from the astronaut table. She checked her watch. Four thirty. Enough time for a sunset sail.

pencil

E-mail: Calmergirl[at]netscape.net.

Dear Lightly Toasted Editors

Too Good Not To Publish: Cover Letters
Kathy Maeglin


The Erudite Editors
Toasted Cheese

Dear Lightly Toasted Editors:

It’s a sad fact of life that one must eat to survive—well, not so sad if what you’re eating is chocolate, but I digress. The aforementioned sad fact is why the vast majority of the writing I’ve done in my life has been non-fiction—journalism, to be precise.

In an effort to entertain my fellow humans and make my own life a heck of a lot more fun, I’ve turned some of my scribing attention to creative writing. The short story below, which is about 1,800 words, is a taste of my work. Please don’t read it on an empty stomach.

I hope you’ll find my story worthy of sharing with your readers. To be honest, I haven’t had any of my fiction published yet. But I just embarked on this crazy-wench-thinks-she-can-be-a-fiction-writer phase of my life a few months ago, so I’m still naively optimistic.

Thanks for taking the time to consider my work. And thanks for creating an E-zine that doesn’t make aspiring writers feel like protozoa.

Sincerely,
Kathy Maeglin

pencil

Back To The Garden

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
E.E. Mazier


Father Joseph had hoped that a stroll in the garden behind the rectory this early morning would help center him for the busy Sunday ahead. But the scent of roses was overwhelming in the heat. He continued on to one of his favorite parts of the garden, the koi pond. Father Joseph usually found the undulating orange, black and white fish mesmerizing and mentally refreshing.

There was plenty troubling his mind, particularly his relationship with Monsignor Albert Wall, whom he was to assist at Mass this morning. As hard as Father Joseph tried to please the older cleric, the exacting monsignor was increasingly dissatisfied with his work. Father Joseph worried that a bad review from the monsignor would mean continued servitude in other parishes, delaying assignment to a parish of his own. The monsignor’s parishioners love him because he appears so strong and caring, thought Father Joseph. Monsignor Al had a way of persuading people to do things they normally wouldn’t—like the time he wrangled the donated koi out of the wealthy parishioner infamous for his stinginess.

But Father Joseph had felt first-hand the sting of the monsignor’s personal insults when things were not done precisely the way he demanded. In fact, one of Father Joseph’s most troubling thoughts was that the monsignor had a cruel streak, that he seemed to enjoy inflicting humiliation, albeit masked by irreproachable reasonableness.

Immersed in his thoughts as he walked, Father Joseph stumbled over an object protruding from a shrub. He gasped as he realized that the protrusion was a human leg that did not pull away reflexively. His heart pounding, Father Joseph pushed the shrub aside for a better view. He nearly dropped to the ground upon seeing coagulations of dark red by each blood encrusted wrist. A sharp pair of garden shears lay near the ashened face of Monsignor Al.

The ensuing police investigation uncovered a barely legible note in the monsignor’s pocket stating “I have betrayed everything and everyone.” Detectives dispatched the note to a crime lab for analysis. It seemed to Father Joseph that that the investigators doubted the authenticity of the note. So did he, having never seen any hint of regret in the monsignor. He understood that if the note was discounted, so was the theory that Monsignor Al had died by his own hand.

There was no indication of a breaking and entering of the rectory grounds. Nor did anything appear to be missing from the rectory.

The police questioned many parishioners, including everyone listed as having an appointment with the monsignor on the last day of his life. Father Joseph offered triage counseling for the shocked and frightened parishioners called to account for themselves. The only non-parishioner in the appointment book was Melanie Drivers, a sweet girl of about 18 who was receiving premarital counseling with her fiancé from Monsignor Al. Distraught, Melanie told police that the monsignor had been particularly kind to her to help her feel at home in the parish that was to be hers upon her marriage.

Father Joseph started hearing repugnant rumors recycled throughout the parish. One of the ugliest was about a Loretta James, who years earlier reportedly used to find excuses to be near the then-Father Al. Some parishioners thought Loretta liked Father Al a little too much, but no one ever saw him act inappropriately toward her. According to local wags, Loretta eventually married and moved several towns away. Someone thought he had seen her at a Mass not long ago, but this was not confirmed.

The young cleric also began to realize that affection for Monsignor Al was not as widespread as he had believed. A number of parishioners on the receiving end of the monsignor’s strong-arm tactics expressed discomfort with or even disdain for him.

In the end, the interviews yielded nothing useful to the police. When the lab reports came back confirming that the note was written by the monsignor, the investigative fervor of the detectives cooled down considerably.

But anxiety and fear churned deeply in Father Joseph. Adding to the mix was the enormous guilt he felt for having thought ill of the monsignor. He might have had his unpleasant side, thought Father Joseph, but he certainly didn’t deserve to end his days bleeding to death in despair in the garden. Father Joseph also could not shake the feeling that someone knew more than had been revealed to the police.

The monsignor’s death stirred many parishioners’ thoughts about dying with a guilt-ridden conscience. There was also rampant confusion and panic about the possibility of a murderer lurking in the shadows of the parish. Father Joseph noted that many parishioners began using the rite of confession as an ad hoc counseling session.

Late one Saturday afternoon, after seemingly hours of listening to parishioners unburden themselves and of repeatedly reassuring them that the parish was safe, Father Joseph was collecting his things to end the confessional sessions for the day. As he as about to rise to his feet, he heard someone enter the confessional box. It was a woman—he could smell the flowery perfume.

“Bless me father, for I have sinned. It has been, well, years since my last confession,” the woman said haltingly.

The deep, sensuous voice was familiar. Father Joseph struggled for a few seconds to recall—yes, it was “just Marie” from the phone. In recent weeks, Father Joseph had taken several messages from her for the monsignor. She always refused to give her full name. But Father Joseph knew that Marie lived in a distant parish. Why would she come to his church for confession? He encouraged the woman to go on.

Marie explained that she was born in the monsignor’s parish. She had been baptized there, had received first communion, and been confirmed there. She had even attended the church’s elementary and high schools.

Father Joseph looked at his watch. How long was this rambling going to continue? He wanted a stroll in the garden before dinner.

“I had to move away, you know.”

“Oh yes?” he said.

“Back then, things like that mattered. My poor parents, the shame, the guilt.” Marie sounded close to tears. Father Joseph didn’t know what to say.

“You know Melanie Drivers? Doesn’t she remind you of someone?”

“I don’t understand,” Father Joseph said.

“She’s my daughter.”

“So Drivers is your married name?”

“I never married, Father. And Melanie is my child only.”

Father Joseph was beginning to feel annoyed. Soon it would be too dark to see the koi.

Marie continued. She said that she had loved Melanie’s father deeply, that he had been her first true love. She had known him for some time before anything happened between them. Then, shortly after her 18th birthday, the man pressed her for sex. At first Marie was frightened by the prospect, but she found herself surrendering to the man’s charms and reassurances. She also admitted to being thrilled by the forbidden nature of the affair.

“This much detail is not really necessary,” Father James interrupted.

“But it is, Father. Don’t you know who I am? I was the number one topic in these parts for quite some time.”

For several moments the silence of the confessional box was broken only by the breathing of the two people within. Then Father Joseph blurted out, “You’re Loretta James, aren’t you?”

“Yes. Loretta Marie James. He always called me Marie when we were alone together.”

“I understood that you moved away after marrying.”

“I wasn’t married. I was pregnant. By my parish priest. Good old Father Al, as he was called back then.”

“Oh my God, what are you saying? It’s vile,” said Father Joseph in hushed tones. Then a shocking thought entered his mind. “Are you responsible for his death?”

Marie sighed. In a small voice she replied, “Yes.”

Father Joseph fought hard against the desire to flee the confessional box. As repugnant Marie’s words were, he owed her a duty as her confessor. But once he calmed down, he once again started thinking logically. He even began to doubt Marie.

“Why now, after all these years?”

“He sent me packing. I was just a kid. He said I was causing him a crisis of faith and that he could serve God again only if I was out of sight. So I stayed away. Then I found out that he gave in to the temptations of the flesh again. With our Melanie.”

The meaning of this took a moment to register in Father Joseph’s mind.

“That last afternoon I showed up and found him pulling weeds in the garden. How appropriate that he should be on his hands and knees. He tried to brush me off at first. But I told him, yes I did. The look on his face—he had no idea about Melanie.” Marie began to sob. “Then I saw him cry, maybe for the first time in his rotten life. That was the last time I saw him.”

“You’re not responsible for what he did.” Father Joseph spoke softly.

“But I am. I drove him to it. I—I just wanted him to suffer. I never dreamed he’d go that far.”

“It’s not your fault. You did nothing wrong,” Father Joseph said.

“It will destroy Melanie. She doesn’t know anything,” Marie cried.

“Then don’t tell her. You don’t have to tell anyone if you don’t want to.”

“But I’ve sinned greatly and I have to pay somehow,” Marie said.

“No. The sins committed against you and your family are even greater. I can’t begin to know your pain. But I don’t think the Lord Jesus Christ requires you to suffer even more.” The words came out with difficulty. Father Joseph felt exhausted.

“What should I do now?” Marie was calming down.

Father Joseph thought for a moment. “Say a slow ‘Our Father.’ But feel every word of it. Let if be a revelation to you. Then go home and put the past behind you. Help your daughter any way you can. And reclaim your happiness.”

Later, by the koi pond, hot tears fell from Father Joseph’s eyes for a long time.

pencil

E-mail: eemazier[at]iwon.com.

Autumn Joy

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Patricia Fish


I knew my friend Mattie’s new boyfriend was out to kill her the moment I saw her garden.

Which is obviously ahead of myself and for sure there were other signs of Jeremy Reed’s evil intent besides that bizarre garden.

“He’s great, Janey. I want to tell you all about him when we have time.”

I squinted my eyes in Mattie’s direction the day she told me about her new friend Jeremy who, she let it slip, was only 32.

Mattie had to know there was no need for my comment. Mattie was 61. A very handsome 61-year-old lady to be sure. But 61 is not 32.

It’d been three years since Mattie’s husband, Alfred, died. He didn’t leave a huge estate but left Mattie quite comfortable.

I am a widow and have been so for almost ten years. My husband left me quite well off also. After Al died, Mattie and I were both widows and as those things tend to do, it caused us to grow closer. Since Mattie no longer had a living husband and all the obligations that come with this, we could spend more time engaging in leisurely activities we both enjoyed.

If I was angry at Mattie for being so silly as falling for this young stud-muffin, I was doubly furious that she was so obtuse as to not see how the fellow was only after her dough. If Mattie failed to see this I sure would have had a difficult time convincing her that Jeremy Reed was out to kill her. Alas I couldn’t have correctly ascertained this fact until Mattie was half-dead in a coma and I finally had a chance to see her new garden.

Though I had my first clue when Mattie told me that she and Jeremy were selling her house and were going to buy a small cottage out by Martin Lake “together”.

“What do you mean, ‘together’?” I griped.

“Now hold on, Janey. It’s not what you think,” Mattie said, but I changed the subject. The truth was that Mattie was certainly old enough to decide such things and I was no one to judge how she handled her money.

I only met Jeremy once before Mattie was rushed to the hospital. That time Jeremy shook my hand after Mattie introduced us and gave a friendly hello. He was tall and muscular. One could tell he worked out in some fashion. I had just stopped by Mattie’s new house to drop off the flyer for a cruise I was interested in when Jeremy popped his head out of the door. Mattie was forced to introduce us but she quickly suggested that Jeremy should go inside and continue the unpacking.

I was more than a bit annoyed when Mattie demurred from a beautiful trip to the Bahamas that I so wanted to take. She had to be home that week as tender love bits “needed” her.

It was Jeremy himself who phoned me that Mattie had to be rushed to the hospital. “She’s not breathing,” he shouted but his speech sounded slurred. I spoke no more but slammed down the phone then rushed to the hospital to see how my friend was doing.

“She’s suffered a severe bee allergy reaction,” the doctors told me. I asked for clarification because I thought the good physician was telling me that my friend was in a deep coma due to a bee sting.

“It seems there was some delay in getting help for Mattie. She was stung by very many bees it would seem. Mattie is allergic to bee stings and has a medic-alert bracelet in her pocketbook stating this.”

“What was the delay in getting help?” I asked.

The doctor shrugged then nodded his head in a direction over my shoulder. I whirled around and saw Jeremy coming out of the hospital entrance.

I spent several hours at my friend’s bedside. Mattie was breathing with the help of a machine. The ICU nurses told me her prognosis was guarded but hopeful.

“She also has asthma which contributed to the problem,” the charge nurse whispered. “But we think she’ll pull through. What, did she walk into a hive of bees?”

This I did not know but I could see that Mattie was bloated and red from what had to be many angry stings. So her new honey babe arranged for Mattie to get stung by a bevy of bees then delayed getting help as long as he could? I would have bet the hunk of love knew Mattie was allergic to bee venom and likely knew that it would take a hive to kill her. He finally got help but too early as Mattie had not died yet.

I gritted my teeth the whole drive over to Mattie’s cottage. The nurses told me that Jeremy had yet to bring in some decent bedclothes for Mattie, so I decided to drive over to her love nest and get some for her. Then I had no idea how Jeremy plotted this near-death but I was sure he was behind it. After I saw Mattie’s new garden I could understand the diabolical plan Jeremy put into place. It was a sort of genius at that and I knew I would never convince Mattie of this, much less the police.

For Mattie’s new “garden”, using the word loosely, was filled with over a hundred Autumn Joy.

Autumn Joy are pretty plants which bloom in the fall, naturally. They are semi-succulent and grow well in most soils. I liked Autumn Joy and always had a small stand of them somewhere in my garden. But a hundred of them?

Bees love Autumn Joy like no other plant on the planet. Bees lay themselves splat in the flowers of the Autumn Joy as if an alcoholic on the sidewalk after being kicked out of a bar. That many Autumn Joy in full bloom would attract enough bees to kill an elephant.

I didn’t kill Jeremy Reed in a premeditated fashion. At least that’s what I told myself after I struck Jeremy on the back of the head with a pick-ax. He was wandering around the garden, likely looking for me; I may have made some noise in my research. The pick-ax was leaning against the tree and opportunity was upon me. Mattie is such a slow learner, I despaired she’d either be poor or dead by the time this creep got done with her. I tossed the pick-ax in the lake and drove off quietly. I decided to go back to the hospital and hope that the nurses hadn’t noticed I’d been gone or would think I’d just been down the cafeteria for a break. I’d certainly deny ever having left the hospital that night. With the kind of attorney my means could allow, I figured I might get away with it. And I’d saved my friend Mattie a lot of grief as well. We still might be able to go on that trip to the Bahamas.

To my surprise Mattie began to stir about ten minutes after I returned to her bedside.

“Janey?”

“Where’s Jeremy?” she croaked, her voice hoarse from the throat tube. I reached for the buzzer to summon a nurse but Mattie stopped me.

I shrugged. “Don’t you worry, he’ll be here. He was here earlier, all night, the nurses told me.”

It served no good purpose for me to speak disparagingly of Jeremy at this point.

Mattie sipped a drink of water, almost painfully, then leaned back in the bed.

“He’s a good boy, Janey. I’m afraid I didn’t tell you the whole truth about Jeremy.”

I didn’t say a word. Best to leave Mattie struggle with it all.

“Janey, Jeremy isn’t my boyfriend. He’s my son.”

Mattie struggled to take another sip of water and I got up to help her. I thought she’d said Jeremy was her son but I figured the water would get the croak out of her voice.

“I gave him up for adoption over thirty years ago. I never even told Alfred about him. But with Alfred gone and since we never had any children…” Mattie faded off, then leaned back onto her pillow to rest from the strain.

“You see,” Mattie said, pulling herself a bit up on the bed, “Jeremy is retarded. I knew he was retarded when I gave him up for adoption. But Janey, he does all right for himself. He lived in a group home for the retarded before I bought the cottage. He does landscaping and he loves to work in the garden.”

I didn’t say a word but busied myself helping Mattie take another sip of water.

“How about all of those Autumn Joy!” Mattie suddenly exclaimed and even laughed a bit. I sat stunned.

“He didn’t know, Janey. He ordered them all out of a catalogue. He saw a picture of them and liked them so much that he tried to order them himself. To surprise me. Only he doesn’t speak so clear, Janey. He has a little bit of a slur. When all of those Autumn Joy were delivered I couldn’t bear to hurt his feelings. So I planted them all.” Mattie laughed at the memory.

“He had trouble using my cell phone, Janey. He understands a regular phone but he was upset and could hardly speak. It’s why there was a delay in getting an ambulance. We’ll have to work on this in the future but I’m so proud of him, Janey. I was going to tell you everything but I was still trying to get used to it all myself. Having Jeremy around has been wonderful, Janey, and I know you’ll be happy for me.”

My skin was clammy and my hands were shaking as I listened to the words of my friend.

“Jeremy is all right, isn’t he, Janey?”

pencil

E-mail: Patfish1[at]aol.com.

In The Andersen’s Garden

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Robin Hillard


It was always there, the memory covered, most of the time, by daily trivia. Then my brother came to stay with us.

“Did you ever wonder what happened to Lyle?” he asked that first evening, as we swapped stories of our childhood.

I felt my face burning and an iron band tightened around my chest as I struggled to breathe, symptoms my mother called my allergy. “Even the smell of tomatoes brings it on,” she said, but she did not know about Lyle.

Bill was still talking. “Bit of a mystery at the time,” he said, “the way the fellow disappeared.”

It happened when I was eight, and Billy four.

Dad’s mother had cancer and when our parents had to go to her, they left us with their friends, the Andersens. The Andersens lived on the edge of town with a large garden, a huge tin shed that was Mr Andersen’s castle, and an enclosure known as “the chook yard,” where a big black rooster bullied his harem of hens.

Mr Andersen had retired but he was always busy, working in his garden or doing odd jobs for neighbours. Sometimes they paid him, but mostly it was “a favour for the dear old girl” or “a bit of pruning for a poor old chap.” Although he did not get much money, he often came home with car full of junk that someone was going to throw out. “It might come in useful,” he would say. “I’ll put it in the shed.”

Billy and I loved the shed. We never knew what we might find as we poked around: pieces of old furniture, bottles half-full of strange liquids, and rusty tins with faded, unreadable labels.

The shed was not my favourite garden place. That honour was reserved for an old mulberry tree, with branches that arched to the ground, making a little, hidden house that I claimed as my own. When Billy followed me I pushed him out.

Those first weeks were heaven. Mrs Andersen, who had no children of her own, treated us like small adults, and Mr Andersen spoiled us both. Then Lyle moved in.

He was there one afternoon when I came home from school, leaning against the kitchen wall and watching Mrs Andersen.

“You always were a good cook, Phyll,” he said, grabbing a handful of peas. Mrs Anderson frowned, and pulled the bowl away.

“Hey, who’s this?” he asked, looking at me. “Aren’t you a pretty one?”

Mrs Andersen told me sharply to “get changed now, and go outside.” She sounded angry. She had never sent me out of the kitchen before, especially not without my glass of milk, but I did not argue. As I changed out of my school clothes I heard her telling the man to “watch yourself, Lyle.”

Lyle would have followed me outside, but Mrs Anderson called me back for my milk, and as I filled my glass she stood between the visitor and me.

“You won’t be staying long,” she said to him, but he laughed again.

“I’m sure big brother will give me a bed, after all we’ve done together.”

“Sid’s not like that any more.” She banged the lid on the saucepan and might have said something else, but Mr Andersen walked in.

He frowned when he saw Lyle, but when his brother talked about “old times,” and something he “would not want to have to tell,” Mrs Andersen spoke up. “I suppose you can stay for a couple of days,” she said, crunching up her face like somebody taking nasty medicine.

So Lyle stayed, and I did not like him at all. He called me “little girl,” and was forever trying to stroke my cheek. Mrs Andersen did not like him either, and always seemed to know when he had me cornered.

“Betsy— I need you.”

“Don’t go,” he would whisper—grabbing my arm with his sweaty hand.

I would yell an answer, as loudly as I could, ready to peel potatoes or help make up a bed, anything to get away from Lyle.

Then he disappeared.

It was a Saturday morning. Mrs Anderson had taken the car into town, Mr Anderson was working in the garden, and Lyle was dawdling over his breakfast. I did not want to stay in the house so I took a book and Jessica Jane, my favourite doll, and headed for my own safe place—under the mulberry tree.

There I was, sharing an adventure with the Famous Five when there was a heavy breathing over me. I looked up to see, looming though the branches, Lyle’s face.

“You look very cosy, little girl. Mind if I join you?” I did mind, very much, but what could I say? He came very close and I tried to wriggle away.

“Hey, sit down lass—don’t be such a hurry there.”

He grabbed my arm, and held me down, against the trunk so I could not move.

Something tinkled on the lawn outside, Billy’s tricycle bell.

I screamed for him to come, and could hear the wheels approaching then moving away. Poor Billy! “You must never, never come in here.” I had said, when I claimed my special place, now I was calling him. What could a four year old do?

“Ssh— we don’t want the little man here.”

“Billy!” I choked on the shriek as a big, dirty hand went over my mouth and I could not breathe.

There was a rustle in the branches. It was not Billy who answered my scream, but Mr Andersen.

“Go inside Betsy,” he said sharply, pulling Lyle out of the way. I scrambled past them and ran up to the house where I rushed into my room and slammed the door. I buried my face in the pillow and sobbed.

When Mrs Andersen called me out for lunch I was very relieved that Lyle was not there. I must have looked awful, but no one asked any questions, and when I choked over my food Mrs Anderson gave me a hug and took the plate away.

I went back to my room and wished I could cuddle my doll, but she was still under the mulberry tree and I knew I could never go back, not even for my beloved Jessica Jane.

There was a gentle knock on the door and a quiet, “Betsy girl!”

It was Mr Andersen. He had collected both my book and doll, and as he gave them to me I remembered how he had come earlier, just when I needed him most, and suddenly I felt safe again. I snuggled contentedly into my bed and lost myself in Enid Blyton’s world.

Mr Andersen worked all afternoon, in the garden under my window. “We must get those tomatoes planted,” he said to his wife, and I heard her murmur agreement before she went inside.

By the end of the day he had made a trench, a little longer and wider than my bed, and he must have got up early the next day, because, before I had my breakfast he had the hole filled in, with good, soft garden soil.

But where was Lyle?

He did not come back to the house. For a couple of days I expected him, and shivered whenever a door slammed, or a branch rubbed against the window but when he did not appear by the end of the week, I began to trust Mrs Andersen when she said: “That Lyle’s gone for good this time.”

Then the policemen came in their big car. There were two of them, standing at the front door asking for Lyle, and they did not sound friendly.

Mr Andersen told them his brother had moved—no, he did not know where—and yes, he would let them know if the man came back.

The policemen did not believe him, they kept repeating the same questions, and one of them took Mrs Andersen outside, as if he thought she had something different to say. They did not look at the tomato plants standing, like a rank of guards, in the new garden bed.

“Your brother will certainly not come back,” Mrs Andersen said again, as the police car drove away. “Good riddance to him.” How could she be so sure when even the policemen thought he would turn up?

“Better water those tomatoes, eh love?” Mr Andersen said grinning, and I looked at the oblong mound of earth.

Our grandmother died, our parents returned, and Billy and I went home. I tried very hard to forget about Lyle, but sometimes, in my nightmares, I was back in the Andersen’s garden, with great hands reaching up, out of the dirt, to grab me, and, when I woke up, I stuffed the blanket into my mouth to smother my screams. And I developed allergies; as my mother said: “just the smell of a tomato can make Betsy ill.”

Now, as my brother talked, the memories came back. “Quite a mystery man, our Lyle,” he said, “I always thought he’d met a sticky end.” I tried to steady myself as the room swayed around me, Bill’s words pushing into my head. “But it seems he was conning some old girl—got his hands on her money and took off. I met her son. He said Old Andersen followed it up—and made good the loss. He was a corker bloke, Old Andersen.”

He certainly was. The room stopped spinning, my breath came easily, and as I felt the cool air on my face I knew that if I had a dish of juicy red tomatoes I could eat them all.

pencil

E-mail: robinhillard[at]ozemail.com.au.

Della

Beaver’s Pick
Gary Dudney


The first note Mary Jo slipped to me was a shocker. She and Janet Haddock wanted to know which one of them I liked best.

Which one I liked best? I didn’t like anyone best! It was fifth grade for crying out loud. Girls weren’t on the radar screen.

But then there was the thing with Joel, my best friend. One day out of a clear blue sky he ups and announces he’s going over to Becky Smythe’s house.

“Becky’s house? What are you going to Becky’s house for?”

“Watch TV,” he said coolly.

“Whadda ya mean?”

“We sit on her couch down in the basement and watch TV.”

“You sit next to her on the couch?”

“Yeah,” said Joel. I looked at him, this guy who I suddenly didn’t know from Adam. “It’s fun. We just goof around.”

Yikes!

I showed him Mary Jo’s note.

“Whoa! Lookin’ sharp!” he said.

“Whadda I do?”

“Tell ’em who you like.”

“I don’t like either of them.”

“Just play along and see what happens.”

I took out a piece of paper and wrote, “Dear Mary Jo and Janet, I like Mary Jo best. Yours truly, Dale.”

Without a word, Mary Jo snatched my note from me and ran off giggling with Janet to a far corner of the playground, where I guess Janet got the hatchet right in the back of the neck.

Then comes a new note with a heart drawn on it. I had it out on my desk. I looked up and stupid Lamar Wells was turned around in his seat grinning at me. It slowly dawned on me the whole class had gone silent. The teacher, Mr. LaPointe, was standing right behind me. His arm came past my nose and plucked the note right out of my hand.

I shot a glance over to Mary Jo. Her face was frozen in horror. Her mouth formed a perfect O.

Mr. LaPointe sidled up to the front of the classroom with my note between his two fingers like it was a playing card he was about to flick at a hat. Any of the gray-haired old teachers at my school would have given me a break, but not Mr. LaPointe. He unfolded the note and read it to himself. I looked at Mary Jo again and saw in her face what a loathsome idiot I had just become.

“Shall we get back to our math?” Mr. LaPointe said, glowering at me.

That was it with Mary Jo.

“Who are you taking to Fun Night?” Joel asked.

“What?” I said. “We’re going to Fun Night together, aren’t we?”

Apparently not. Everybody was pairing up this year. Joel had already asked Becky. That night I tossed and turned. I tried a trick for getting to sleep where I got out from under my covers until I was freezing cold and then crawled back under the blankets and tried to fall asleep while I was warming back up. It wasn’t working.

A couple of days later, there was an air raid drill at school. We marched into the hallway and sat down cross-legged on the floor with our backs against the wall. Then we bent forward and folded our hands over our necks. This was supposed to protect us from all the flying debris caused by the atom bomb that Nikita Kruschev had promised to drop on us. After awhile, I got tired of staring at the crack on the floor in front of me and looked up. Right across the hall was Della Parker. Her long thin fingers were clamped over her skinny neck. The other girls were whispering to each other and giggling but she was quiet and perfectly still. Part of her wavy brown hair brushed the floor she was bent over so far.

Della Parker. It struck me that I couldn’t remember anybody ever calling her just Della. You said her whole name, Della Parker. She didn’t seem to have any friends. She was smart. She could always answer questions when she got picked. She sat on the far side of the room from me. I could picture her over there with her skinny arm raised up, bent at the elbow a little. It was never straight up and down.

When the air raid drill was over, Della raised her head up and saw me looking at her. She wore glasses with frames that were turquoise blue on top and clear on the bottom. The lenses were thick. Her eyes swam behind them, slightly magnified. She looked back at me and smiled.

“Della,” I said to Joel on our way home from school.

“What?” he said, picking up a little helicopter seed pod that had dropped off the oak tree that grew at the corner of the playground. “Who?”

“Della Parker,” I said.

“Oh, yeah. What about her?”

“Maybe I’ll ask her to Fun Night.”

Joel didn’t say anything right away. He flicked the seed pod into the air and we watched it whirl to the ground. “She’s sort of a brainiac, isn’t she?”

“Well, yeah,” I said.

It took me awhile to work up the gumption to ask her. One day I waited for her after school. I caught up to her on the sidewalk and fell into step. But I didn’t know what to say. It was like there was a freight train roaring through my head.

“Hello, Dale,” she said puzzled.

“I… uh… thought that… uh… are you going to Fun Night with anyone?”

“No, I have to—”

I didn’t let her finish. “Will you go to Fun Night with me?” I blurted out.

She stopped. “Gosh, Dale, that’s so nice of you to ask but I’m supposed to sell cookies at the Girl Scout booth.”

It was like a swift kick in the stomach. “Okay,” I said and then I didn’t know what to do. Walk off? Talk to her?

But she rescued me. “Wait… you know what… I guess it would be okay if I went around with you for awhile. There are other girls selling cookies. We can take turns.”

“That would be great,” I said. “Umm… I’ll find you at your booth. So… okay… I’ll be there.” And I ran off.

In the car ride over to Fun Night, my mom asked, “Dale, honey, are you going to be with Joel tonight?”

“No,” I said looking out the window. “I’m just going to walk around.”

“So you’re going alone?”

“No. Well, part of the time. I don’t know. A bunch of us are getting together.”

“What’s Joel doing?”

“He’s going with someone.”

“Oh,” my mother said.

By the time we got to the school, it had gotten dark and a sharp wind was blowing. I hurried inside. It was already crowded. The air was warm and smelled of popcorn. The younger kids were dragging their parents from room to room where all the games were set up. The older kids were standing around talking. A banner hung on the wall, “Welcome to Fun Night!”

The Girl Scout booth was at the far end of the corridor. I could see the girls in their uniforms. I decided to look around before I joined up with Della. I went upstairs and went into the first room I came to. It was the Ring Toss. Kids were throwing rings made of rope at soda pop bottles that had been glued down to a big piece of plywood. I watched for awhile and then started out the door. I ran into Joel and Becky.

“Where’s Della?” Joel asked.

“I… uh… I’m looking for her,” I said.

Becky focused her attention on me. “Della?” she said. “Della Parker?”

“Yeah. Della Parker,” I said.

“Ooo-kay,” she said grinning.

They went in to do the ring toss. I made my way past a cakewalk that was going on in the hallway and came to the far staircase. Halfway down the steps I stopped and spotted Della at the Girl Scout booth. She was helping a kid wrap his cookie in a napkin. She had on her uniform. Her sash in the front was covered with badges.

I came down the stairs.

“Oh, Dale. It’s you. Hi. Can I get you a cookie?”

I was thrown by the question. “N-no,” I stammered. “I came to pick you up.”

“I know,” she said laughing. “I was just kidding. I have to tell Mrs. Weingarten I’m leaving.”

She disappeared into the room behind the booth.

“Okay, Dale. Where are we going?” she said when she reappeared.

“Let’s go to the fishing hole.”

We entered a room labeled “Ye Olde Fishing Hole” where sheets had been hung over a line that cut the room in half. We were given bamboo poles with a string attached to the end and a clothes pin on the end of the string. We threw the lines over the sheets and waited. Before long a tug signaled to pull back the line. I had a pack of chewing gum on my line. Della had a whistle. We opened up my gum and each had a stick.

From there we hit the Ring Toss and the Wishing Well. Then we got in the line for the Ghost House. A teacher was there to make sure only a few people went in at a time.

“I guess we have to wait,” I said. “Unless you want to do something else.”

“No. This is fine,” Della said. She brushed her hands down her Girl Scout skirt and straightened her sash.

When we finally got inside, a ghost jumped out at us from behind a screen. Della reached for my arm and held it tight as we felt our way back to the cloak room where a black light lit up the fluorescent signs in front of a row of bowls: “Brains!” “Eyeballs!” “Guts!” We gamely pushed our hands down into each bowl. At the end someone handed us paper towels to wipe our hands off.

After that Della asked if we could go by the Girl Scout booth to see how things were going. I left her there for a minute to use the bathroom.

Lamar Wells was there when I went in. He stood washing his hands.

“Saw you with Della Parker,” he said to my back. “She’s just the ugliest girl in the whole school.”

I kept my head down and ignored him. When he opened the door to leave, the noise from the hall was suddenly sharp and loud. Then it cut off as the door closed.

I rinsed my hands in the sink, ripped off a length of paper towel, and slowly dried my hands. The ugliest girl in the school? I hadn’t even thought about what Della looked like. I hadn’t thought of that at all.

I took a long drink from the water fountain. Della was standing in front of the booth waiting. She brightened when I came over to her.

“The girls here can handle the booth,” she said. “I can still be with you.”

“Okay. Let’s… ” I looked up and down the hall to see what we hadn’t done yet. “Let’s go watch the cartoons.”

Mr. LaPointe was running the projector in the cartoon room. Only a few kids were there. The cartoons weren’t too popular. We sat through the end of a Tom and Jerry film. Mr. LaPointe flipped the lights on and rewound the film. Then he threaded the next film through the projector. It seemed to take forever. Della and I sat and waited. Finally the lights went back off. It was another Tom and Jerry cartoon.

When that ended, Della said, “Dale, do you want to do something else now?”

“Ya know,” I said. “I’m getting sort of tired. Maybe I should take you back to the booth.”

Della looked surprised. Her mouth opened just a bit, then shut. “Let’s go back then,” she said.

When we got to the booth, she reached out and gave my hand a little shake. “Thank you, Dale,” she said and quickly turned and walked through the door behind the booth. I stood there for a minute with a bad feeling welling up in me.

After that, I didn’t want to hang around. I found my mom in the teacher’s lounge sipping coffee and talking.

“I’m ready to go,” I said.

She looked at her watch. “Well, that’s a record.”

Outside it was freezing. It was like winter had arrived that night. I zipped my jacket up as high as it would go. I could see my breath. Orion was glittering brightly above me. I jumped into the car and scrunched my hands deep in my pockets. I felt like curling up on the car floor in front of the heater like I used to do when I was a little kid.

“Dale,” my mother said, “who was that girl I saw you with?”

A voice in my head said, It was Della Parker. Della Parker and she was so nice.

But out loud to my mother, I said, “Nobody.”

pencil

“Originally from Wichita, Kansas. Spent four years in Poland on a Fulbright exchange and married there. We now live in Monterey, California, have two teenage kids and almost no time to write.” E-mail: gdudney[at]ctb.com.

Dale’s Night

Boots’s Pick
Ryan Potter


Dale Marion never felt comfortable around other staff members. Seemed they all had spouses, kids, new homes, and lakefront cabins north of West Branch. Dale had none of that and never wanted it. He wanted something different, something to replace the boredom of it all.

Because he kept to himself, he knew some of his colleagues made fun of him. Whenever he entered the staff lounge to grab a Coke, the teachers at the lunch table stopped talking. Sure, they said hello and smiled, but even after ten years they kept him out of the loop, waited until he was gone to resume their conversation. Dale actually got a kick out of how different he was from them.

The seventh graders who entered his science room every August saw him as Mr. Cool, a man with biker boots and a ponytail. Parents saw him as a harmless oddball, the eccentric science teacher who turned kids on to cells and genetics. At conferences and open houses, Dale was always surprised at how much these Polo-wearing conservatives appreciated him.

Problem now was he hated it all.

Some time during the past winter he started coming to work for the paycheck instead of the kids. He didn’t blame anybody. All he needed was a break to sort things out, take the summer to think about his future.

Dale thought about all of this as he gathered in the bus loop with the rest of the faculty and administration of Westphalia Middle School to wave goodbye to the students for the summer. In past years Dale was sad on this day; sad he had to let go of the hundred or so relationships he’d spent the past nine months on. But today, as he watched the smiling faces in the bus windows pass by, he was glad to see them go.

Dale walked behind the other teachers and studied them as they re-entered the school. They were all smiles today, laughing and talking about their summer plans, talking about anything but teaching. Dale knew that many of them didn’t smile much during the school year.

Take Gordie Davis, the old-timer in the room next to Dale’s. Gordie was 62, obese, and about as unhappy as they come, always complaining about his wife and how he’d never retire as long as she was around. Dale watched Gordie from behind and noticed how his love handles bounced over the sides of his belt like Jell-O. Dale thought, God, is that me 30 years from now?

And that’s when Dale Marion figured out what was troubling him: He was in the early stages of becoming Gordie Davis. True, he wasn’t fat and married yet, but like most of the staff members today, he was happy the kids were gone, couldn’t wait for the little bastards to get out of the building, a new feeling Dale didn’t like. He said to himself, so this is it, teacher burnout at 32. Wonderful.

He bought a six-pack on the way home and opened the first can 20 minutes later as he ate last night’s cold pizza on the living room floor of his Royal Oak condo. Feeling anxious and restless, he made the phone call he’d been thinking about for a while. He was on the last piece of pizza and halfway through his third beer when he decided to leave. He gulped the rest of the beer and took the remaining three with him for support.

He drove up and down Woodward, stayed in the “safe part” from Ferndale north through Bloomfield Hills. He hid two cans of beer under his seat and placed an open one between his legs, sneaking sips when opportunities arose. Dale was buzzed and knowingly breaking the law for the first time since high school when he’d gone around with a baseball bat shattering the windshields of parked cars for the fun of it. Dale laughed at the memory. He slid in a Kid Rock CD and turned it up until the windshield vibrated, feeling more confident with every drink of alcohol.

He drove south out of Ferndale and crossed Eight Mile, entering Detroit around midnight. Dale was on his fifth beer now, feeling nervous and excited as he approached Highland Park, windows down and Kid Rock blaring.

Highland Park. Better known as Detroit’s asshole. Three square miles of decaying shit surrounded by the Motor City; home to a strip of Woodward so crime-ridden you’d have to be insane to walk it alone at night. But here was Dale, popping open number six, driving into the asshole as if he’d lived in it his entire life, feeling the glares from the people who lived here only because they couldn’t get out. Dale stared back at a few of them until they looked away and shook their heads. Dale was thinking he’d won their respect since they couldn’t hold his gaze.

He stopped at a red light and noticed a liquor store ahead to his right. Five tough-looking young guys, early twenties, were hanging around out front near a payphone, talking and laughing like they’d known each other since grade school. Dale said to himself, shit, they probably do go back that far.

He needed more beer; he was just getting started. When the light turned green he pulled up in front of the liquor store and parallel parked in a space next to the pay phone. As he sat there debating whether to get out, he could feel the guys in front of the store eyeing him. Dale pretended not to notice. Instead he thought about the staff and students back at Westphalia Middle School and what they’d say if they saw him now. Check out Dale Marion, cruising Woodward with confidence, about to get out and rub elbows with some Highland Park thugs. Or maybe something like, Don’t mess with Mr. Marion, man knows the rough part of town.

Dale turned down the Kid Rock. He left the windows down on purpose, grabbed his keys, and got out of the car. Standing there on Woodward, he felt the alcohol buzz intensify and had to concentrate just to walk straight. He wondered what these young guys might do to him if they knew he was drunk. Cool it Dale, he thought. You’re in charge here.

He walked around the young guys on his way toward the store and nodded at them like he recognized them from the neighborhood. One of the guys nodded back and asked him what was up. Dale said, “Not a lot, man.” The guys laughed as he entered the store, but Dale didn’t think much of it.

Dale came out of the store with a 40-ounce beer in a paper bag. He nodded at the young guys again, the guys nodding back like before, not giving him any trouble. He stepped onto Woodward and walked around the front of his car to the driver’s side.

As he opened the door, a white van pulled up and braked hard behind him. By the time Dale turned around, two muscular men wearing black ski masks had their arms around him. They grabbed his keys and the beer and tossed them both inside his car, then pulled him toward the open side door of the van and shoved him inside. Next thing Dale knew he was spread-eagled on his stomach facing the floor of the van with the two guys holding him down.

They pressed the left side of his face hard against the floor, the angle allowing Dale to see his car through the still-open sliding van door. That was the strange part, how they held him there and kept the door open for a few seconds, like they wanted him to see something special.

Dale saw the young guys from the pay phone walk onto Woodward and get inside his car. The guy who had asked him what was up sat in the driver’s seat and turned his head to meet Dale’s gaze. The guy smiled as he waved the keys in the air, shaking his head as if to say, sorry, pal, but you’re screwed. He started the car and held up Dale’s 40-ouncer. “Cheers, motherfucker,” he said, then took a drink and passed the bottle to his buddy in the passenger seat.

As Dale heard his car speed away down Woodward he was surprised how calm he was. Must be the alcohol, he thought. Okay, this is a carjacking, right? Some gang the cops haven’t busted yet? They have my car and that’s what they wanted. Now they’ll dump me off somewhere, maybe beat the hell out of me first, but nothing worse, right?

He felt a needle prick in his right arm and saw the empty syringe land in front of him and roll out the open door onto Woodward. His vision blurred as one of the guys closed the sliding door. He felt the van accelerate and everything faded to black within seconds.

He awoke blindfolded and sitting upright in a metal chair that felt like the kind people rented for graduation parties. His wrists were tied together behind the chair with thick rope, his feet shackled to the two front legs. He had a splitting headache from the alcohol and whatever it was they’d injected into him. The worst part was the rag they’d shoved into his mouth, forced it in so far he couldn’t move his tongue. The fabric smelled and tasted like gasoline, causing Dale to dry heave every few minutes.

The room was humid and musty. Dale heard several footsteps rushing about on the floor above, all kinds of things being moved around up there. He guessed he was in a basement. The whole scenario felt like an action movie. Any minute now he’d free himself and find a way out of this place. Jesus, what a Friday night this was turning out to be. You were bored, right? Wanted some excitement? Sick of being a schoolteacher, isn’t that what you said?

He heard footsteps descending a stairway. His heart raced and beads of sweat formed on his upper lip. He tried wiggling out of the rope and shackles, but he fell over sideways in the chair and landed on a cold, concrete floor instead. Lying there in pain he said to himself, so my life is going to end at 32 in the basement of a Highland Park crack house. Wonder how they’ll do it? Blow my head off? Slice me up? Maybe smoke some rock and take turns on me? Two guys smoking, one guy cutting, then they switch. Crazy fucking crackheads.

There were three of them and they started circling him, Dale hearing only their footsteps. He figured they were taunting him, waiting for the right moment to strike.

They circled for three minutes before Dale snapped. He tried screaming, but he choked on the gag and grunted instead. Frustrated, he started flopping around the floor, trying to make physical contact with one of the abductors, but all they did was back up to avoid him.

The footsteps stopped once he settled down.

A young male voice asked, “Scared yet, Dale?”

Dale felt a hand yank the gag out of his mouth. He took a few deep breaths, then said, “How do you know my name?”

A female voice said, “We checked your wallet.”

Dale cleared his throat. “Let me go. Please.”

The third voice, an older male, said, “Can’t do that, Dale. The night’s just begun.”

“What?” Dale asked.

Nobody answered. They shoved the gag back into his mouth instead.

Moments later Dale felt the hairy arms and hard muscles of the two males as they untied his wrists and feet. They held him down long enough for the girl to take the metal chair away. They positioned him flat on his back, stretched his arms above his head, and tied his wrists back together. The girl came back and retied his feet.

They left him alone for a few minutes, but Dale knew they were close because he didn’t hear anybody go up the stairs. He guessed they were waiting to see how he’d react. What he did, he stayed still and thought about the staff and students from Westphalia, pictured them sleeping like babies in their suburban fortresses.

For the first time in his life he wished he were there with them. Wake up early with the wife, have a go at it, roll off the four-post bed, cup of coffee with the Free Press, let the dog out, bug the kids a bit, skim the pool, mow the lawn. Didn’t sound too bad, did it?

But then what? Drive the kids around all day? Let the wife storm Somerset and run up the plastic while you stay home and sneak in the porno you rented last night and hid in the toolbox? Maybe tie one on later and watch the Tigers lose, then pass out and do it all again tomorrow? No way, Dale thought. Even if I live through this thing, there’s no way my life will come to that.

The two males lifted him by his hands and feet, held him there in midair. He heard the woman preparing something on the floor beneath him, and when the men set him down he landed on a thin sheet of plastic. Somebody forced a plastic grocery bag over his head and secured it tightly around his neck, Dale feeling the plastic against his nostrils with each inhale. Between the gag and the grocery bag, breathing was almost impossible, and somewhere, deep within, Dale knew the worst was still to come.

He used everything he had to put up one last fight, jerked his limbs hard enough to catch the abductors off guard and throw them back a few feet. He tried sitting upright, but two hands landed on the plastic covering his ears and slammed him back down. A third hand covered his nose, blocking off the flow of oxygen to his brain. Dale thought, this is it, this is the end. I’m dying by suffocation and I can’t even move. As the hand pressed down harder, Dale had a strange vision. He found himself admiring drowning victims, how they could at least whip their arms and legs around before they died, leave this world knowing they fought death to the end. But here he was a vegetable, couldn’t even see his killers.

The hand pulled away just as Dale was blacking out.

“No way, pal, you’re not going that easy,” the older male said.

They tore a hole in the plastic around his nose. As Dale regained consciousness he realized they’d stripped him down to his underwear. He heard a box open and felt something tickling his belly, like little feet scampering around down there.

Jesus, that’s exactly what they were, little feet. More of them now, crawling through his chest hair, down his legs, over the plastic bag, tiny cold noses probing his nostrils. Somebody lifted the waistline of his underwear and tucked one of them down there. Dale felt fur and a tail brush against his genitals. My God, he thought, they’re putting rats on me. Of all the animals in the world, he hated rats the most, had a phobia of them ever since one bit him back in fifth grade.

The rodents toured his body for a few minutes, Dale not moving a muscle the entire time. Then the two male abductors lifted the plastic sheet beneath him and wrapped it around him like a blanket, rats included. The rats were trapped against his flesh now and didn’t like it, Dale feeling them fighting for freedom, like they were drowning. As he prayed for them not to bite him, he felt the warmness of his own urine spread across his upper thighs.

Last thing Dale remembered about the basement was being rolled up in more plastic. They wrapped it tight enough to render him motionless, but left enough slack for the rats to tunnel around inside, using his skin as a road. The female abductor cut a hole through the new plastic over his nose, and this time she cut one over his mouth. Somebody pulled the gag out again, but Dale was too weak to scream, too exhausted to say anything. What he did, he savored the oxygen entering his mouth and wondered when these three maniacs would get bored and end it.

He tried to imagine what he looked like to them, this 32-year-old man stretched from head to toe, rolled up in plastic like a carpet. He wondered what they’d do with his body when they were finished. How long before somebody finds me? He wondered. How much of me will the rats eat? My God, I’m such a loner will anybody come to my funeral? When was the last time I talked with Mom and Dad?

He blacked out after they pried his mouth open and let a rat poke its head inside.

 

He came to lying fully clothed in a fetal position on the front porch of his condo. The sun was beginning to rise, but he had no clue what time it was. His head felt like a truck had run over it. The rope burns on his wrists stung enough to make him want to scream.

He stood up and leaned his elbows on the iron railing of the porch, looked out at Woodward and tried to clear his head. He felt his wallet in the back pocket of his jeans and took it out. Everything was there, even his driver’s license. He realized his keys were with his car, but there wasn’t anything he could do about that.

Despite everything he’d been through the past several hours: abduction, carjacking, forced drug use, and physical torture, Dale smiled, smiled because he was still alive. All he could do was shake his head in disbelief and wonder whether this experience would change the way he lived his life.

He walked around to the rear-entry garage, punched in the security code, and watched the garage door open. He used a spare key he’d taped to the bottom of a trashcan to let himself inside the condo.

Dale took the most refreshing shower of his life, the hot water soothing the soreness he felt throughout his body. He stepped out of the bathroom a few minutes later wearing a towel around his waist.

The phone rang a minute after that.

“Hello,” Dale said.

A male voice, calm, said, “Hello, Dale. Home sweet home, huh?”

Dale’s heart jumped. It was the older guy from the basement. “Is it over now?” Dale asked.

The guy said, “That’s up to you. Do you want it to be over?”

“Yeah, it’s done,” Dale said. “So, how many times have you done this?”

The guy laughed. “You’re number 40,” he said. “How’d you like it?”

Dale looked at his raw wrists and bruised ankles. “A little rough, but I guess that’s part of it.”

“Yeah,” the guy said, “keep it as real as possible. Have to be careful, though. Last thing I need is a paying customer dying in the middle of it.”

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Ryan Potter teaches middle school in suburban Detroit and spends his evenings writing fiction. E-mail: karma002[at]sbcglobal.net.

Jack’s Accidental Protest

Baker’s Pick
Kerri Lynn Shaffer


The doors of the Volvo slammed one by one as everyone got out to stretch their legs and see the baby. Jack opted to stay in the car, not based on his indifference to the baby, though that existed, but because this was a nicer car than he was used to and he was comfortable. Plus, he was belted in and the thought of untangling himself seemed like too much effort.

“I’m just going to hang out here,” Jack called to his roommate. She looked at him puzzled for a moment, then closed her door, leaving Jack alone in the quiet hum of the recently running car. He contemplated the dashboard with a sigh of contentment, but his calm evaporated in the dry warmth of the backseat as he caught a glimpse of what was going on outside. Turned in his direction were his roommate, his roommate’s sister, her husband, and in the middle of them all, looking at him with scary-genius contempt, was The Baby.

Jack waved weakly at them before realizing the windows were tinted and they couldn’t see him. He felt briefly relieved before the fear set in that he was witness to something he wasn’t supposed to be seeing. He was seeing people talk about him, people he trusted, people he was sure thought he was highly creative and intellectual. He couldn’t read their words but he felt certain that each nod toward the Volvo, each squint into the sun expressed their distaste for him.

Jack started to sweat in the calm interior of the Volvo. Suddenly it was too quiet in the plush seats, the sun beating relentlessly through the windows despite the tint.

Was I supposed to go look at the baby? he thought wildly. Is it really that big of a deal? The others turned occasionally to glance at each other, but the baby kept his gaze locked onto Jack’s. “Damn baby,” Jack muttered, but he didn’t really feel angry with the baby. Jack was feeling intimidated. He contemplated stepping out onto the sidewalk, sauntering up to the porch, and grabbing the baby as his brother might, strongly, interestedly, saying something like, “Hey there, who’s this big fella?” He considered mentioning that he’d had to call his boss, but now could focus on the real man of the hour, this fantastic baby!

But too many minutes had passed and Jack knew any show of enthusiasm would be seen through. His friends hated him. He was misanthropic, deviant, a baby-hater. He probably hated animals, too. And art. Jack found himself getting defensive. Fuck the baby. Fuck the yards and the barbeques. This wasn’t his scene. These weren’t his people. He just needed to get back to the city. Back to the people who understood him.

His friends exchanged kisses and hugs as some were left and some returned to the Volvo. Jack set his mouth and turned to the window, pretending to watch the scenery but staring at his reflection instead.

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Kerri Lynn Shaffer is a native Californian who has lived all over the country before returning home to reside in San Francisco, which she considers the best of all possible worlds. E-mail: kshaffer[at]academyart.edu.

Missed

Billiard’s Pick
Gina M. DiSarro


After a year of her silence, it was he who finally said something. Late in the newsroom, as usual, the only light was that from a house lamp they lit for relief from the fluorescents.

He turned from his computer to look at her. “Have you ever liked someone and thought they felt the same way, but neither of you ever said anything?”

Her eyes widened, and she lightly bit her bottom lip. Glad it was dark, she turned her back on him and began typing. “I think… maybe.” She felt him looking at her.

“Why didn’t you ever say anything?” His chair squeaked as he swiveled back and forth.

She felt something in her stomach heat and her neck prickle. “I don’t— I guess… fear of rejection, or ruining a friendship. I’m not sure.”

His chair stopped. “Oh.”

She heard him swivel back around.

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Gina DiSarro presently lives in upstate New York. She has worked professionally as an editor for both creative and academic writing. She received her B.F.A. in Creative Writing from a small college in Vermont and is currently working toward her Master’s in English. E-mail: ginadisarro[at]verizon.net.