Delicacy

Baker’s Pick
Timothy Bastek


Photo Credit: haley8/Flickr (CC-by)

Cynthia saw the winged boy today. He was the last of his kind, an ancient race who once dwelled in the jungles far to the south. He did not give Cynthia or her classmates notice when they approached the cage. He just sat in his tree, his back facing them, his features hidden behind his dirty wings. The zookeeper explained the winged boy was dying and would not last much longer, possibly not even through the night. The plaque at the cage’s base said a team of archeologists had found him in a ruined temple cowering by the bones of his ancestors.

When the first colonists arrived two centuries ago, they saw the winged people of the South as nothing more than food. Their wings were considered a delicacy. It did not matter if the cities they built deep in the jungles were a treasure trove of knowledge for modern architecture, nor did the colonists care if their histories and legends revealed the wisdom of an ancient race. All the colonists wanted were their wings, to cut them from their backs, pluck off the feathers, fry them in oil and sacred herbs from the jungle, and dip them in sauces finely crafted from the from the winged people’s own harvest. Besides, the jungle languages were too savage and barbaric for the refined and civilized colonists to understand.

As her class passed through the zoo’s gates back to the bus, Cynthia glanced in the open doors of the restaurant that stood near the entrance. Inside, a wealthy man gave instructions to the chef, who nodded as he sharpened his knives.

pencilTimothy Bastek is from Chandler, Arizona. He’s been fortunate enough to have spent a year studying in Sweden. His stories have appeared in Tales of the Talisman and HelloHorror. Email: timothybastek[at]gmail.com

The Last Time I Had Brunch

Baker’s Pick
Jeff Bakkensen


Photo Credit: Lindsay Ensing (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: Lindsay Ensing (CC-by-sa)

“The last time I had brunch,” says the one, and stops to think. “I literally can’t remember the last time I had brunch.”

“The last time I had brunch was with Robert at Yvan,” says her friend, sitting. “Remember? After Beck’s birthday party?”

“Wait.” A third. “Where was I?”

“Weren’t you there?”

“Were you there when we had brunch at Trio?”

The third one again: “I don’t remember that.”

The second: “I think you were there.”

“Was I?”

“I’m pretty sure.”

The man next to the one who’s sitting joins in. “I was having brunch when that man was killed at 59th Street a few weeks ago.”

They all pause.

Two beats.

“Oh,” says one standing. Their eyes all meet in the middle and they smirk.

“You didn’t hear about this?” asks the guy. He’s got shoulder-length dreads and a sort of urban militant flair. “It was raining and someone uptown stuck their umbrella in the door to try—”

“Beck’s was December 17th,” says the one sitting. “Maybe you were at home?”

“Yes!”

The third: “Were you with us the morning of the marathon?”

Sitting across from the guy in dreads, black suit, no tie: “Don’t talk about that stuff while we’re on here.”

Dreads: “Don’t talk about what? He was waiting on the platform and the umbrella hit him in the—”

“Did you hear about the guy who got stuck in the revolving door?” This from a white kid looking up from his paperback.

“Because it’s bad luck to say that stuff.”

“—finished eating and I get down there. This massive, unbelievably vibrant puddle—”

“Remember Adrian that time we were at Wondee? When he picked up the fork and stabbed it through his own—”

An olive-skinned woman seated down the car, tight black dress, uncrosses her legs and fixes me with her eyes. Is it a smile?

“—severed three fingers I think when it swung—”

“—like ‘Hey bitch, why don’t you’—”

“I had brunch,” says an older woman, “the morning of September the 11th,” and we all swivel towards her. Sheepishly, “Of course I’ve had a few since then.”

In the middle of the car, two passengers hanging off the center pole who’ve up to now shown not a mite of interest in each other suddenly swing together and find each other’s lips, holding for a few heartbeats.

We decelerate towards a stop. The doors open.

“I’ll see you tonight,” the one says, and turns to find her way off.

The other watches her go, eyes darting between strangers, tracking her window to window.

A man walks in, suit bruised with grime. The doors close behind him.

“Ladies and gentleman, I don’t beg, I don’t steal.”

The doors close and for thirty seconds more, we’re alone with each other, hurtling through the tunnel into the dark.

pencilJeff Bakkensen once came in second place in a George Washington look-alike contest. Recent fiction can be found in Oblong Magazine, Smokelong Quarterly, The Antigonish Review, and Straylight Literary Magazine. Email: jeffrey.bakkensen[at]gmail.com

An Unexpected Truth

Baker’s Pick
Jhilam Chattaraj


Photo Credit: Daniel Mennerich/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Daniel Mennerich/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I liked him a lot. Every time I walked into the store, he would greet me with folded hands and politely say, “Namaste, Madam, how have you been?” He would walk me through the latest collection of clothes and make suggestions from time to time. His name, he said, was Nicholas. He had been working as a salesman in the store for about a year. I would tell everyone about his courteous behaviour.

My husband, however, was very dismissive of my admiration for Nicholas. He would try to convince me that Nick, as I would often call him, was simply doing his duty. His chivalry would disappear the day he found a new job. But I rooted for Nick. In fact, I told many of my colleagues that they should visit that store and Nick would help them make an affordable yet sophisticated choice. Nick’s behaviour made me debate with others who, influenced by the present media, concluded that India was no more a country safe for women. As a feminist, I believed in standing up for men too. I argued with them stating that our country still had good and caring men.

I was so determined to prove them wrong that one Monday morning while travelling on a public bus to my office, I began typing on my tablet, a post for a blog. My idea was to raise an alarm against the gender crises in Indian culture as represented by popular mass media. I was citing examples of men like Nick, when I realised that my bus was nearing the stop. I quickly dumped all my stuff into my bag. Before I could step down off the bus, several young men and women came running to get into the bus. I managed to get down. Just when the bus was about to leave, I saw a young man, very familiar, running towards me to catch the bus. He did not recognise me. In a hurry, he dashed against me. I was hurt. I fell down. Everything in my bag rolled out on the road. The young man did not look back.

As I tried to get up and collect my stuff, I realised that the man was none other than Nicholas. He was wearing a blue shirt with an ID card dangling down his neck. Some of the people around helped me get back on my feet. They advised me to sit for a while and drink some water. While I tried to shake off the unexpected jolt in my ordinary day, it struck me that the ID card bore the name, Pawan Kumar. I refused to believe what I experienced. I took my phone and called the store. It was 10 a.m. already; surely they would be in business. I asked them about Nicholas. They said that he had left the store on Friday. And they did not know if his name was Pawan Kumar.

pencilJhilam Chattaraj is currently working as an Assistant Professor at R.B.V.R.R Women’s College, Department of English, Hyderabad. She loves to explore the world through literature, culture, and photography, especially bird photography. Her area of interests in literary research includes Diaspora Studies (MPhil) and Popular Indian Culture (PhD). Her academic and creative writings have been published in journals like Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Muse IndiaIndian Book ChronicleLanglitEast LitIndialogue FoundationWomen’s Web, Birds.com, and Indian Bird Photographers. Email: c.jhilam1984[at]gmail.com

Aspire Dinnerware, New from Villeroy & Boch

Flash
Sherry Welch


Photo Credit: ume-y/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: ume-y/Flickr (CC-by)

I thought this is the kind of cup someone should want. Not white, but ivory instead, speckled and delicate like an egg, lavender stamped elegantly around the handle. Unwrapped, bubble-wrap tossed next to, not in, the trash, I set it alone on the counter. I lifted it, pleased at the delicate C my fingers shaped, and used my other hand to wipe away forgotten cereal Os.

I tried to be the person who loved this mug: I drank European coffee, and tried Earl Grey tea, too. I told myself to drink from this mug instead of a bottle of dark amber beer or two-buck chuck. When I filled it with powdered cocoa, it almost felt like home. I thought of pine trees and snow storms, missed my mother. In the bright sun of the west coast, I guiltily scrubbed it elegant again.

Sometimes, for weeks, it sat in my cabinet, upside down, and out of mind. Still, it reminded me to read the paper each morning, stay late at work, visit my friends’ terrace parties full of ties and heels. It would be proud of me, sometimes, and sometimes not. My promises were intermittently kept. The cup would probably have forgiven me if I could have just avoided drive-through windows, read that bestseller, turned off prime-time. When I was sick of doing three people’s jobs for the pay of half of one, and I thought I was finally done with it—I remembered the person who owns that mug is not a quitter.

I thought that mug was stronger than it was, as I slid it into the gentle cycle in my dishwasher. I was almost relieved: through Cascade-steam, that mug was ended in powder and pieces.

pencilSherry Welch has an MA in Writing and Publishing from Depaul University and currently resides in her home-town of Chicago. Email: sherrene.welch[at]gmail.com

More

Baker’s Pick
Ryan Dempsey


Photo Credit: Marissa Garza/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Marissa Garza/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I need to see you again,” Erik texted Sarah that morning from the store. He owned Sam’s Spud Hut close to Ninth Street. His dad Sam gave it to him before he passed and Erik still used the same fryer as when the store opened fifty-three years ago. Resting his elbows on the counter, he looked out over the boardwalk and at the ocean. The boardwalk was full of walkers and bikers, families on rumbling surreys and summer girls in bikinis, all out to get their sun before the forecast storm hit later that day. But it was too early for any of them to want fried potatoes. So he watched and waited for the phone to rumble a response between his arms.

“Rough night last night?” An old man startled Erik. He wore no shirt and had very tan and pickled skin. He was a regular but Erik could never remember his name and just called him Skip. Skip stopped by every morning around ten-thirty to get “the first in the oil” as he liked to say.

“No,” Erik answered as he stood from the counter and yawned. “Just the sitting here and waiting kills me. If I could work all day and keep moving I’d be fine and still have enough energy to nail the wife.” Skip laughed, but Erik knew he wouldn’t be getting anything from Molly; she was angry with him again. He picked at a drop of hardened cheese on the counter. She had no idea what was going on; she had no right to be mad.

He moved to the fryer to fill Skip’s order: double potato curly. The grease bubbled and boiled hot as the phone vibrated on the counter next to him. He wiped his hands on his apron, regarded the white cloth and decided he would order black ones as soon as he could. But that wouldn’t help with the smell. He shouldn’t have to do this; he owned the damn place.

Through the glassless window above the fryer he could see the rest of the boardwalk and the other stores. He remembered being here with his dad and every one of the stores down the wooden walkway was owned by a different family or person. Kites used to own the sky, but now all Erik saw were cranes towering over the tiny shops. One by one the shops he grew up with were being destroyed to make room for the franchised food vendors and T-shirt chains.

He took the fries from the fryer, piled them into a cardboard bucket and handed it to Skip. He remembered his phone. “I have dinner tonight with my family. But we can get together after.

Erik smiled. “I’ll meet you after dinner.”

As he responded, the phone came to life in his hands and he almost dropped it into the hot oil. “Can you come fix the roof before the storm?” It was Molly. It was the third time in almost half a year he had to patch the roof above their bedroom.

He talked to Skip for a while only half-listening before he told him he had to leave but that he’d be back later. He watched Skip waddle off down the boardwalk. Coming out from inside the shop, Erik pulled the crimped sheet of aluminum over the front opening and lowered the sheet of steel he used over the open window above the fryer. He secured each with a padlock and a sign that said, “MAY RETURN THIS EVENING.” He’d had Molly write one up for the evening time as well, for when he closed early: “CLOSED FOR THE NIGHT.”

He wandered a few stores down, through the line of patrons waiting outside Pete’s Potatoes, weaving in and out of the groups of kids and parents that stood in front of Sammie’s Shirts and Shorts to the corner ice cream store, Duke’s. Duke knew his father. Sam, Duke, Pete and Samantha were all friends, starting their businesses around the same time. Duke Sr. was the only one left; all the others had passed their businesses along to their children. Duke’s recently moved to the corner building because he needed more room. There was a line there as well.

“Duke around?” Erik asked the cashier. A few teenage kids buzzed around her.

“I don’t think so,” she said in a Russian accent, turning her head to look for her boss. She wore a white apron, the same color as the ice cream. “I think he is at home. No. He is away on vacation. He only stops in once every few weeks. I can have you talk to the supervisor if you like.”

“No, that’s fine.” Erik looked past her. They had tables and small booths but mostly people waited at the pickup counter. “Geez, it’s not even eleven yet.”

“Duke changed the hours and now we open earlier and longer.”

“Good for him, good for him. Yeah, I’m just leaving for a few hours and I wanted him to keep an eye on the shop.” Erik pointed towards The Spud Hut.

“I will let my supervisor know.”

“Thanks,” he said

She smiled and he wondered if Duke was nailing her.

“I can hardly wait to see you again,” Erik texted Sarah from the top of a ladder that leaned against the vinyl-sided surface of his home. The clouds had started to come across the sky and he could see the line between the morning sunshine and the coming afternoon rain. He dreaded climbing the ladder but the roof needed to be fixed. He was sick of just patching it; he needed a new roof. But in order to actually replace it he needed money and in order to get money he needed to work. “But there’s no time for that,” he said aloud. “All because of those goddamn corporate companies throwing their goddamn money around and taking my goddamn business.” He hoisted himself onto the roof, the shingles warm against his palms.

“Watch your language!” Molly raised her voice from the bottom of the ladder. She was ten years his junior. She held their child who straddled her hip.

“He can walk, you know?” Erik said. He looked at the roof and cursed again at the situation, never at home because he needed to be at the store, at the store all the time because he needed the money. He thought about hiring Skip but he’d probably eat through the entire stock of potatoes. He poked angrily through the shingles with a stiff hand. His son started to cry and he listened as Molly walked away with him into the house.

Erik climbed the roof further so he was at its peak, where he got the best reception, and checked his phone. Nothing from Sarah. She was probably getting ready to go to out. He met Sarah like he always met them: at the store. And he always knew which ones were worth the time. It was never that Molly wasn’t worth it but it probably would have ended much the same way all the others did.

His son screamed.

Erik started on another row of shingles. The leak was probably from a previous search on the roof. Maybe he had disrupted how the sheets sat on top of each other. He knew the futility in searching but he had to keep the rain out before the storm really pulled through. Had the leak been anywhere other than their bedroom he could have let it be. But the drops of water started falling straight into the middle of their bed, creating a division that forced them to far opposite sides of the bed and eventually him to the couch. The thing was, it wasn’t just a leak. “We need a new home altogether!” he yelled at the shingles. And this reminded him again of the boardwalk, his threatened business and money.

“This is all because of them,” he muttered to himself again. He sat on the roof, the breeze from the ocean stronger now with the storm just over head. At first he was proud that he stood up to them, as slowly he felt each store around him becoming another carbon copy of the last one built, except for Duke’s and Sharon’s Sunshine Shop. And Bill’s Bicycle Rental and Amato’s Pizza and the other small shops whose names still blazoned their front signs and archways, shops whose names Erik could not remember.

He would probably have to give in and sell. Probably make a good chunk of change and he could probably buy a new a house, but Erik knew that wasn’t the point. The point was his dad had started the business and built it up to a sustainable form of income. There was a certain pride in that that was no longer there. Apparently his name didn’t mean much anymore. It was all about more. More, more, more. More stores, more patrons and more money.

It began very slowly like most summer storms. He hadn’t realized how windy and dark everything had gotten. First he saw the lightning then heard the thunder. He felt the mist from the rain as it blew in at him. It thudded into the roof like chisels pounding into a wall. It fell like that for maybe a whole minute before any struck him. Then suddenly it became a downpour, churning down the roof and overflowing the gutters. He let it fall on him and it felt good.

His phone vibrated then and he almost dropped it taking it from his pocket.

“You still haven’t fixed it!” His wife stood at the base of the ladder under an umbrella, their child in a diaper beside her.

“Yeah, yeah.” Erik shooed his hand towards his wife’s voice, his hair saturated, clothes soaked through, eyes transfixed on his phone, regarding Sarah’s message.

pencilRyan Dempsey currently resides with his wife and daughter in the Pittsburgh area. Ryan’s fiction is published or forthcoming in such places as The Portland Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Gravel, Drunk Monkeys, and Almost Five Quarterly. Email: ryandempsey82[at]gmail.com

Fat Peanut

Baker’s Pick
Nancy Nau Sullivan


Photo Credit: Helen Haden/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Helen Haden/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Ann raked through the dresses on the sales rack. A blue dress with a chain link pattern. A Pucci. Pucci’s back.

Most of the good stuff was gone. She remembered when this shop was a wood hut where the islanders—the real islanders—bought cheap beer, cigarettes and salami. Now Pine Avenue was turquoise and pink, with a designer donut shop and shop after shop of this stuff. Her hand dropped down the polyester sleeve of a yellow-and-pink top with swirls from neck to hem. My sister could carry that one off, I couldn’t.

The grizzled old Floridians were gone. The island was peopled with fat rich white northerners who smelled of expensive soap and talked, loudly, about nothing.

The woman standing next to Ann pulled a short white dress off the rack. “I like it but I’d have to iron it,” she said.

“No one irons anything any more. They like to look wrinkled.”

The woman was wrinkled and stylish with shiny blond-grey hair and liquid-blue eyes, so light they almost disappeared into the whites. She had diamonds in her ears the size of cocktail peanuts.

The woman twirled the dress back and forth. She hung it up and then took it out again. “I really like it.” She mostly talked to herself like Ann wasn’t there. The woman seemed to be used to an audience.

Ann decided to be nice. Sometimes she had to make the conscious decision. “A good cut on you. Jag.” It was more of a beach top with breast pockets and pearl buttons. Ann liked it, too. If the woman didn’t want it, well, maybe…

The sun was bright and warm on the porch of the shop where all the sales hung. Forty percent off.

“It’s 87 dollars,” the woman said.

She was a snowbird flown from the cold, landing on this island off the coast of Sarasota. Ann couldn’t place the accent. Boston? Maine?

The woman suddenly dropped the dress to her side, as if reading Ann’s mind. “Where are you from?”

“Chicago,” Ann said. “Originally.”

“My daughter’s in Indiana. At Butler. She’s there because she’s a professor,” the woman said. As if the daughter needed a legitimate reason to be in Indiana, which by the way, Ann was about to point out, is not Chicago.

Ann let it pass. Snowbirds were one thing, one irritation in life’s island cycle. As soon as the first Easter egg came out of the basket, they would all be gone up north to their lilacs and tulips. Ann couldn’t wait. She wanted the roads and grocery stores and beaches back. But she couldn’t have it all back.

“Where are you from? Can’t quite place the accent,” Ann said.

“Ohio. Hubby’s in cardio.”

“Oh?” Ann felt like a snowball had been stuffed down her back.

“Yes, We just love this island,”

Ohio, maybe Cleveland. Cardiologist.

The Cottage.

Ann had lost their beloved cottage to a cardiologist from Cleveland. He’d swooped in with more money than God and bought it out from under them. Ann’s uncle had been the instrument of destruction. He’d taken the matter to court, and under the laws of partition, he forced the sale of the cottage. He took $840,000 in the deal, making the most of real estate before the Crash of ’08. Ann and her brothers had tried to buy him out, but he wouldn’t have it. He worked on the cardiologist from Cleveland who hung in there with a slew of lawyers, pushing for the deal until it was done. Ann had looked over at her uncle in court, his white, bald head bent and shining, the orb of evil. She could not look Uncle Neil in the eye after that. She didn’t have to because he died. She used her share of the sale—$130,000 of Judas money—to pay off debts. She’d wanted to throw it in the Gulf. It would have made as much sense. But the money was gone, and so was the cottage. To someone like this woman, someone from Cleveland. She remembered the name. Hurley, or Huntley.

The woman took the white dress out again. “I’m going to try it on,” she announced brightly.

The first thing the cardiologist from Cleveland did was tear down the cottage. He built a tan McMansion with orange shutters and a green barrel-tile roof and filigreed balconies, leaded glass coach lamps and Tiffany glass in the front door. Hideous. The cottage had stood on two gulf-front lots, so there was plenty of room for the grand mansión, finished off with its trucked-in Disney-esque garden of hibiscus and palms. They called it The Condo, it was so big, towering over that little house on the corner next door that now was completely cut off from view and sunshine.

Her grandmother found the cottage on a sunny day in 1956. She’d been reading The Bradenton Herald, crinkling the want ads. She tapped the crumpled pages of the newspaper with a pencil. “Ha! Let’s go out there and have a look.” Ann didn’t know what she was talking about, but she was excited. In her six-year-old brain, she knew this had to be something special. “Out there” meant the beach. On the island.

They drove out to Anna Maria Island in her grandfather’s new hunter green Cadillac, the bulbous versión with the pokey little fins. Ann had her bathing suit wadded up under the front seat, just in case. Off they went, her grandfather with the cigar in his mouth and her grandmother with a frill of white hair blowing in the humidity, clacking over the wooden drawbridge, past the tall spindly palms and the mangroves, the Brazilian berries and the Australian pines, out to the white beach and turquoise wáter. Burning pitch wafted from the fireplaces in the new little stucco ranch houses at Key Royale, Sand Dollar Haven, Coquina Corners.

The cottage stood on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico on stilts, slightly crooked on the white sand. The logs were interspersed with swaths of white stucco; it was a striped house with a rusty-red shingled roof. The white-framed windows on either side of the faded green door, like two great eyes, saw right into Ann’s soul.

Ann’s grandfather laughed when they pulled up to it and got out. “Liz, the gulf is right up to the house!” She just laughed. She was falling in love, and so was Ann standing next to her, the two of them looking out at the wáter, while Ann held her silky fingers. She squinted up at the sun, yellow, soft, golden sun. She opened her eyes, and the turquoise wáter dazzled her from that minute on. Her grandfather chomped the cigar, paced the short street of crushed shell. He nodded at her grandmother, both of them grinning. She raised the edge of her floral housedress and waded into the foamy surf. Ann flopped into the waves beside her, bathing suit forgotten.

Her grandmother had saved “egg money,” tucked in her rubber stocking. She made the down payment on the cottage and four surrounding lots—most of them underwáter—for $5,000. The seller was glad to get rid of it.

Over the years, they piled in and drove out to the cottage. The beach changed, receding and advancing, until finally they ended up with a football-field-sized playground of sand like white sugar. They jumped into the fierce winter waves and rolled in the sand until they were sugar cookies. They hid in the sea oats and ran out in shrieks of laughter; they buried each other up to their necks, dug for coquinas and made horrible soup with shellfish (from an Old Cortez récipe). They scoured the beach for sand dollars and periwinkles. They watched dolphins and fed lettuce to the manatees and stale bread and cereal to the sea gulls.

All day they were on the beach, and at night, they watched the white edge of the gulf from the window. The wind creaked and sang through the cracks between the logs. Ann went to sleep, listening to the waves that rolled up close to the window, some nights, lapping against the cottage. The splash was thrilling. Her grandfather said the pilings under the cottage went down seventeen feet into the sand, and that they would be safe in the best place on earth.

It was magic, winter after winter, into March for St. Patrick’s Day and Dad’s birthday in the sun and under the moon, until it stopped. The time was gone, but Ann held on to it. It was there in the burning pitch, the musty sea, the sound of gulls. It all brought her back there instantly to the cottage. As long as there was memory, it would always be there.

She stood behind the woman, the blue dress looped over her arm. Ann saw the woman write Hurley on the charge slip. Hurley from Cleveland.

Ann felt the sharp twisting in her soul.

She wanted to strangle the woman, follow her out to her Mercedes, probably, and key the side of its impeccable paint job, maybe even trip the woman on her way out—before she strangled her.

The woman turned. “Well, you have a wonderful day. Enjoy your dress. That is a fabulous color for you.”

Ann’s lips worked as she plastered on the fake smile. She wanted out of there. “You, too. Have a great day, and a safe trip. Back to Cleveland.”

“Cleveland? Why would I go to Cleveland?”

“You said you were from Cleveland.”

“Lord, no. I can’t imagine why I said that. Ohio, yes, Cleveland, never.” The woman juggled the white shopping bag with the Jag dress in it. She shifted her Fendi bag to the other arm. “Didn’t you say you’re from Chicago? No, we’re not from Cleveland. We’re from Chicago. Just like you.”

pencilNancy Nau Sullivan is a Chicago area writer who recently returned from the Peace Corps in Mexico. Prior to service, she taught English, and for many years, was a reporter and editor at newspapers in the Midwest. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Marquette University. Amphorae Publishing Group will publish her memoir, The Last Cadillac, in February. Her stories have appeared this year in The Blotter, The Atherton Review, and Akashic Books online. Email: nabns[at]aol.com

Remaining Balance

Erin Charvet
Baker’s Pick


Pontones
Photo Credit: Alberto Romero

Hal McHugh walked into the crowded, dingy waiting area and scratched his head. The last things he remembered were the antiseptic hospital smell, the masked faces of the doctors and some shots that had made him feel funny and fall asleep. Then a prolonged, annoying electronic beep had announced with apparent glee the permanent cessation of his vital functions. He’d done what they’d said and gone toward the light, but he hadn’t expected to wind up here, in this poorly lit place with a bunch of bored-looking people and no available chairs.

Had he died and gone to the DMV?

“Take a number, please,” said a frumpy woman sitting behind a window.

She slid a small slip of paper into the little metal tray beneath the slot at the bottom of her window. Hal picked it up. He was number 10,491,602. Glancing up at the large digital display on the wall, he saw that they were only currently on 533,754.

“Great,” he groaned. “Just my luck.”

He looked around for a sign indicating where the restrooms were, figuring he could kill some time that way, but didn’t see one. Then he realized that having relinquished his physical body, he wouldn’t need things like restrooms anymore. And if he didn’t need restrooms anymore, what else didn’t he need? This line of thought led him down a long, circular path of speculation that took up some time. A little while later somebody got up and he took their chair, so he was able to close his eyes and nap for a while. Napping—or rather, trying to—took a good bit of time as well, seeing how there were so many people shuffling about and arguing and asking one another for cigarettes and whining about being dead.

At last he stood up and began to wander the room again, contemplating his situation. He determined that although it was highly disagreeable, death at fifty-eight wasn’t the worst thing in the world that could happen. He’d had a respectable (albeit much-hated) mid-level management job for the past thirty years, a four-bedroom house in a good neighborhood and a wife who still wasn’t half bad to look at, even if she was hardly fit to boil water in the kitchen. His kids hadn’t wound up as cult members or with their faces on any America’s Most Wanted billboards, so he felt it safe to assume that his parenting had been equally satisfactory. His life hadn’t been the least bit exceptional, but he supposed that he’d gotten as much out of it as possible for someone who’d never sought even the shadow of remarkability. He might have lived another ten or fifteen years at most, had those clowns not botched his heart surgery.

After no certain amount of time spent wandering the room, sitting and standing again, striking up (and instantly regretting) conversations with the people in his immediate proximity, and examining water stains on the ceiling and walls with the closest to thing to scientific interest of which he was capable, Hal’s number was called. The woman behind the window pointed to a door, which he hurried through with the urgency of a man whose pants are on fire. Beyond the door was a colossal warehouse full of desks and ringing phones. He wandered down an endless cubicle corridor, overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the place.

“Mr. McHugh?” someone said.

Hal looked to the left and saw a pudgy, red-faced man in a tweed suit that perfectly fit his ideal of an IRS auditor. The man’s smile was so wide and artificial that Hal half-wondered if he were about to hear a sales pitch for a timeshare in Pensacola.

“That’s me,” said Hal.

“Name’s Dwight Strickland,” the man said, holding out a hand. “I’m your eternity officer. Wonderful to finally meet you in person.”

“Eternity officer?” asked Hal, shaking hands with him.

“I’m like a loan officer,” said Strickland. “Except this relationship really lasts forever!”

“I see,” said Hal. “So what is this place, anyway?”

“Sort of a stopover en route to your final destination, wherever that might be,” said Strickland. “Not quite what you were expecting, I take it?”

“Well, I’m not sure I—”

“Excuse me just a moment,” said Strickland, whose phone had begun to ring. He picked up and listened to whoever was on the other end with much intensity. There were a few uh-huhs and hmms and head nods. Then he thanked the caller and hung up. “Bosses!” he sighed, with an eye roll and a dramatic toss of the hands. “Just because we’re all dead doesn’t mean they’re any less demanding.”

You have a boss?”

“We all have bosses. You might’ve heard of mine—Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, Satan, etcetera. Some of your former associates have dealings with him on quite a regular basis.”

“What?” said Hal, blinking. “Like who?”

“Stan Ridgemore, who sold you your boat, for example. Fran Wyzinski, your old boss, and Dennis Neidermeyer.”

“My accountant was colluding with the devil?”

“We try to avoid terms like collusion here,” said Strickland. “Heaven, hell, purgatory, all it really boils down to in the end is business… and a slight temperature difference. Anyway, let’s get down to it.”

“To what, exactly?”

Strickland looked at Hal as if he were an escaped mental patient. “Your debt, of course,” he said. “Got to calculate what you still owe.” He took a big calculator from a drawer in his desk and began punching in numbers. “First of all, you were still sixteen years away from paying off that second mortgage you took out on the house.”

“That sounds like a lot.”

“Perhaps, but you really needed the money at the time. Remember how Holly just had to go to that fancy New England school with lots of big oak trees around? What you’d ‘put away’ for college barely covered her first year of tuition. Then she had to join a sorority, have a monthly allowance and get an apartment all by herself.”

“Fine, I get it,” said Hal. “Just tell me what the bill is.”

“Shortly,” said Strickland. He continued calculating. “There’s also the credit card debt, of which you still have over $48,000, not counting future interest. They’ve bumped up your rate three percent while you’ve been here, by the way.”

“Three percent already! How is that possible?”

“You’d never know, but you’ve already been dead for over a year,” said Strickland. “Sense of timing differs for the dearly departed.” He punched in more numbers. “Next we have the car.”

“But I’ve had my car since 1996!” Hal protested. “And Linda only got the Subaru because her Saab’s transmission was shot. That’s been paid off for years!”

“Not your cars,” said Strickland. “You co-signed on the purchase of Kenny’s Mercedes. Remember how he insisted on five-hundred horses under the hood and an all-leather interior being essential for what he so aptly referred to as ‘networking’? Well it turns out that Daddy’s little C-student wasn’t quite the entrepreneur one might’ve hoped for. As a result, the last several payments have been missed.”

“What else?” asked Hal, groaning.

“You owe the hospital for your heart surgery. Big time.”

“Oh no, that must be a mistake,” said Hal, holding up his hands. “I had excellent health coverage.”

“You are aware, of course, that your insurance company only covers sixty percent of the cost of successful operations?”

“But I died!” Hal protested. “I shouldn’t have to pay a single dime for that operation. If I were still alive I’d be dragging those incompetent jackasses to court right now!”

“Sound logic on your part, but here’s the kicker: if you were still living, you would have only been accountable for a forty-percent deductible, or approximately $37,600 for the operation. But because you died the insurance company pays nothing, making you liable for the entire cost.”

“That makes no sense!”

“Guess you’d better read the fine print next time,” said Strickland. “Now let’s see, where were we?” Hal put his hands over his face, the infernal clack-clack-clacking of the calculator knocking around inside his skull like marbles rolling around in a wooden box. “Now, with the new roof, remodeling of the kitchen, landscaping in the front yard, last year’s taxes, gas, electricity and dry-cleaning bills, we wind up with a grand total of $702,853.47.”

“Now hold on a second,” said Hal. “I also have a million-dollar life insurance policy. Haven’t you factored that in?”

“Correction,” said Strickland. “You had a million-dollar life insurance policy.”

“What happened to it?”

“Your wife threw a wonderful post-funeral party catered by Chez Hubert and picked out a reeeeeeally nice casket for you too. Macassar ebony and platinum with an incredibly comfortable satin interior. Top of the line, really. Almost makes you want to die all over again!”

“But the whole amount couldn’t possibly have gone to my burial, could it?”

“Oh no, of course not!” said Strickland, chuckling. “Linda went shopping on Rodeo Drive, got some plastic surgery and bought a beach house down in St. Thomas. She’s getting a foot massage right now from the cabana boy she picked up earlier.”

“Why would Linda think she needed work done?” Hal asked.

“Who knows,” said Strickland. “TV, magazines, marketing… but I tell you, she’s never looked better!”

“So now what?”

“Now we put you to work until you’ve paid off your remaining balance. Keep in mind, however, that you’ll be earning considerably less than you were at the time of your death.”

“Why less?”

“We subtract what you would have normally spent on food, which for you was a considerable chunk of your paycheck,” said Strickland, standing. “Now I’ll show you to your desk. Come with me, if you would.”

Hal followed him down the corridor for what seemed like several miles. After an uncertain number of turns, they arrived at an empty cubicle. On the desk was a rotary phone, a pen, an ancient typewriter and a yellow notepad. Strickland snapped his fingers. A huge metal cart overloaded with files came rolling their way. He stopped it with his foot.

“You’ll be reviewing these reports, and then reporting on what you’ve reviewed,” he said. “All you have to do is read through each file, type up a recap of the contents and place what you’ve typed into a new file.”

“Sounds pointless and dull,” said Hal.

“This job calls for a very particular skill set. Thirty years of mid-level management made you the perfect candidate.”

“So how long will I be here, then?”

“Shouldn’t be longer than fifteen or twenty years,” said Strickland. “About the time you would have retired anyway, if you’d made it that long. Then it’s on to good old ‘Rest in Peace’.” He looked at his watch. “Wow, getting to be that time. Enough witty banter for one day. I’ll let you get to it then. Good luck!”

Strickland spun on his heel and took off in the direction from which they’d come. Hal watched him disappear around the corner. Then he picked up one of the files, sat at his desk and began to read through.

pencilErin Charvet is an Atlanta native who studied journalism and psychology at Georgia State University. She’s been writing poems and stories ever since she can remember, and hopes to continue for as long as possible. She comes from a large family with whom she is very close, and currently lives in Paris with her husband. Email: erincharvet[at]gmail.com

Negative Space

Baker’s Pick
Sandra Fees


negative space
Photo Credit: mollybob

When sand is so hot on the feet
you forget how to walk

and when prayer is the shape
of a teacup

Because the young woman tells her boyfriend:
negative space is cool

and because the room is too big
and the world too small

After you drink holy water
in the Narayan temple

and sacrifice what was
for what is

Then everywhere is a tree
wanting to be climbed

and everywhere arms press
into sleeves of air.

pencilSandra Fees is a poet and minister. She studied creative writing at Syracuse University in the 1980s and was editor of the Harrisburg Review from 1994-2001. She’s an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and lives in Reading, Pennsylvania. Email: sandrarfees[at]gmail.com

On Cellardyke Beach

Baker’s Pick
Pamela Scott


The Reaper at Anstruther
Photo Credit: Gordon Ednie

Every summer when I was a kid my parents took me to a little fishing village in Fife called Anstruther for two weeks. We stayed in a chalet at Anstruther Holiday Village.

My parents never had money for a holiday so the first year we went it was a treat. I was nine. Dad drove us there in the old red Volvo he was driving at the time.

The village was twelve miles outside St Andrew’s. We drove past hundreds of acres of corn and poppy fields when a massive road sign materialised out of nowhere. Welcome to the East Neuk of Fife. I thought the words ‘East Neuk’ were exciting and magical.

We almost missed the turn off for the village. The road sign was tiny. Faded white paint on a tiny pillar of stone. WELCOME TO ANSTRUTHER and a sign pointing to the right. Mum saw it at the last minute and yelled so hard Dad slammed on the brakes, thinking something was wrong. Dad reversed back along the road, turned right and followed the street.

The Holiday Village took ages to find. It was tucked behind several rows of houses. We drove along the same street dozens of times before Dad finally asked for directions. He weaved the car between the houses and drove through large wooden gates bearing a sign with the words ‘Anstruther Holiday Village’. He parked the car in front of a small building marked OFFICE. It didn’t take him long to get the keys and a map to our chalet.

It took ages to find the chalet. We drove around the place in frantic circles while Mum scrutinised the map and Dad yelled at her. He finally stopped next to a building we’d passed dozens of times, got out of the car and carried our luggage inside.

The chalet was a converted old one-storey, two-bedroom Army barrack. The amenities were basic. Electricity. Calor Gas fire instead of heating. A bath and toilet. A colour TV with four basic channels. Basic furniture including a couch, a couple of chairs and a large table. Self-catering of course.

As the years passed my friends went on holiday to Spain, Greece, the French Riviera, and Italy and we returned to Anstruther. It never occurred to me to be jealous of them. The weather was always scorching. Every year I got a tan. I was with my favourite people on earth. I got to take pets with me. Foreign climates held no interest for me.

 

Our first year in Anstruther was a year of discovery.

I took my budgie with me. Billy Boy. Dad had taught him to sing rude songs, swear creatively and make rude body noises. I couldn’t help laugh when Billy Boy whistled the sash, made belch or farting noises and sang Billy Boy’s a Protestant boy while Mum threatened to cook him for dinner and gave Dad one of her famous ‘looks’ designed to wither him.

On our first day in Anstruther I discovered the greatest secondhand bookshop in the world. It was at the end of a street that looked directly onto the harbour. We were walking to the village to have a look around when I noticed a sign on a lamppost that read ‘2ND HAND BOOKS’ with an arrow pointing along the street. I dragged my parents with me. The bookshop was in a building painted bright blue.

I was in heaven. There were two large fold-down tables in front of the shop covered in books. Inside the shop was my version of Aladdin’s Cave—every wall covered in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves breaking under the strain of books they carried. There were even shelves in the middle of the room that you had to squeeze past.

We hadn’t been in the shop five minutes when I started weighing Mum and Dad down with books. There was sappy expression on my face. My eyes were wide as saucers. I’m sure I drooled a little. They almost had to drag me screaming from the shop in the end carrying eleven carrier bags filled with books. The whole lot cost less than £30.

I visited the bookshop every year. I always bought dozens of books. As I got older my tastes changed and I discovered the joys of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Shaun Hutson, and Richard Laymon.

I have so many memories of summer days sitting on a blanket on the beach huddled over one book or another completely lost in the world between the pages.

On our second day we discovered the neighbouring village of Cellardyke. It was a tiny village a mile-and-a-half away. We decided to check out the beach at Anstruther and were sorely disappointed. A few inches of sand and lots of rock. Dad clambered across the rocks to see where they led. Mum and I followed. I stumbled and fell a couple of times.

The rocks led to a proper beach and another harbour. Golden sand stretched for miles. The beach had donkey rides, stalls selling gifts, and a Mr Whippy ice cream van. Dad bought us a cone and found out the place was called Cellardyke, the smallest village in the East Neuk. There were a couple of rows of shops, a post office, and a café.

When we finished our cones we took the road way back. The road was called Coast Road. We walked past rows of caravans that stretched most of the way between the two villages. We found out later they were part of Cellardyke Holiday Park.

Over the years we spent a lot of time in Cellardyke. The walk was pleasant along the Coast Road. The breeze from the sea was lovely. We always bought a cone. Dad and I walked along the narrow harbour wall and watched fish in the sea and looked at all the fishing boats. Mum always sat at a small bench on a hill overlooking the harbour. The idea of walking the harbour wall made her feel queasy. We spent a lot of time on the beach. Dad would drag Mum into the water and wind her up by splashing her. I sunbathed and read.

On our third day we discovered the little shop at the bottom of the hill behind the holiday village. There was a very steep hill that led from the back gate right down to the beach. The hill was too steep for a car and you had to walk very carefully. My legs were killing me by the time we reached the bottom.

We were behind a lot of houses. There was a sandy path that led down to the only sandy area of the beach. Right next to the opening that led to the sandy path there was a little shop. It sold the usual newspapers and magazines as well as handcrafted gifts and homemade sweets.

Dad started to go down to the shop every morning to get a paper, bread, and milk. We bought all of our gifts there. We started our daily walk to Cellardyke from there. As the years passed the hill seemed to get steeper and steeper. Dad’s legs got bad with arthritis and we had to stop using the hill.

On our fourth day we discovered the Anstruther Fish Bar. It was one of many businesses that overlooked the harbour. We’d been shopping one day when Dad noticed a huge queue leading from the building down the street. Curious, we went over to investigate. The windows of the place were covered in signs proclaiming the fish bar to be award winning, the best in the East Neuk and world famous.

We had to queue for almost two hours before we finally got a table. We sat at a table at the back of the restaurant. The place was mobbed and cramped. There wasn’t a lot of room for people to move about.

The fish and chips were amazing. They were served on plates inside cardboard boxes that looked like rolled up newspaper. You had to eat with a wooden fork.

We ate there at least once every year.

 

I have so many memories of Anstruther that have never faded.

The smell of the sea. I’d never smelt it before and grew to love it. Even now I can’t smell the sea without thinking of those summers.

The sound of seagulls screaming as they flew overhead.

Hot sand squelching between my bare toes.

Rummaging inside various gift shops.

Sitting on the harbour wall and eating a Mr Whippy.

The hot sun in my face, making my skin sweat and my eyes water.

Walking along the pebbled streets that wound all over the village.

After we stopped going on holiday to Anstruther we returned for a day trip every year. We revisited all our haunts. We carefully made our way down the steep hill behind the holiday village. We walked across the rocks. We walked to Cellardyke and had a cone on the harbour. We paid a visit to the secondhand bookstore. We ate at the fish bar. We walked the pebbled streets.

 

It was during the first week of our second year in Anstruther that Dad had his accident.

It had been raining and miserable all day but it finally stopped. Dad wanted to explore the rocks with me and my dog Sheba. He wanted to show me how to fish in the shallow pools that sometimes formed in the rocks. Mum didn’t want to come.

The rocks were okay at first. A couple were damp buy nothing major. Dad walked carefully, stopping to wait for me to catch up. He lifted me over some parts I couldn’t manage myself. I had a net with me and Sheba was running around. He helped me catch tiny little fish. Sheba got bit on the nose by a crab and stayed much closer to us.

After a while we reached several large flat rocks that had green moss on them. They sloped upwards. At the bottom were a series of sharp rocks piled on top of each other. Dad tested the first moss-covered rock. It was fine. We crossed it. He was testing the second one when his legs went from under him. He gave a scream and he lost his footing and slid down the flat rocks towards the steep ones. He smashed both knees off the sharp rocks. There was blood everywhere. Sheba lay down at his feet and howled in pain.

He couldn’t stand up and told me to get Mum. I ran back towards the holiday village screaming my head off. I yelled and cried all the way to our chalet while everyone stared at me. Mum phoned an ambulance.

Dad had to get over thirty stitches in each knee. At the hospital they found out he had arthritis in both knees. The stitches didn’t come out for a month and his knees were left badly scarred.

 

Sheba came to Anstruther with us every year. She was my dog. My voice was the only authority she recognised. She never paid any attention to Mum and Dad. At home she used to escape from the back garden and run to the grass verge across from the house. She ran circles round Mum and Dad as they chased her. As soon as I appeared she ran to my side. I didn’t even need to say anything.

Summers in Anstruther were even better with Sheba. I’d play with her on the beach and in the water. I’d bury her in the sand. I built sandcastles that she took delight in demolishing. She had this big rubber bone that we used to play with. I would take a hold of both sides. She’d grab the middle and drag me around the water.

I came home from school one day and Dad told me Sheba was gone. I was thirteen. She’d bitten a kid at the end of the street on the hand and his parents made such a fuss she had to be put down. I went into hysterics. I locked myself in my room and trashed the place. I didn’t speak to my Dad for weeks and called him a murderer.

The summer after Sheba was put down we returned to Anstruther for the last time. It wasn’t the same without Sheba. I sat around the chalet moping with my head stuck in a book. I didn’t want the beach or the water or anything. Dad offered to get me a new dog that was trained but I only wanted Sheba. My best friend I’d shared so many happy memories with on Cellardyke beach.

pencilPamela Scott is thirty-two years old and lives in Glasgow in the UK with her partner of eight years. In her day job she works in a call centre. She has had her poems and short stories published in various UK magazines including The New Writer, Carillon, and Words with Jam. Her poems have been published in anthologies by Indigo Dreams Press. She has been shortlisted and won second place in various competitions including The Global Short Story Competition. Email: scootiepm26[at]hotmail.co.uk

Leaving

Baker’s Pick
Cheryl Diane Kidder


Feet in the light and shadows
Photo Credit: Silver Starre

The sun came in sharply against the heavy curtains of Ramada room 615. It was a Thursday morning and the maids weren’t quite up and about yet. There were only a few guests during the week so the maids took their time pulling out the clean sheets, folding them, pulling out the clean towels, folding and putting them into neat white stacks on their carts. The couple in room 615 hadn’t slept all night. But they’d never left the bed.

“What time is it?” He had never stopped watching her.

“Ten, ten-thirty, I’m not sure.” She leaned up on one elbow, “You need to get going?”

He turned toward her and grunted no and pulled her closer. He let the smell of her skin envelope him, pulled the sheet around them in a protective gesture.

“When do you need to go?” she asked him, speaking softly, watching his closed eyes. She wanted him to tell her he would never leave.

He didn’t want to answer. He didn’t want to leave. “Sometime,” he said quietly. There was nothing in the room but the two of them, no day outside, no night passed.

She lay back down. Their pillows were overlapping. The sheets were tangled. The bedspread was somewhere on the floor. She had no idea where any of her clothes were.

“Where are the kids?” She didn’t want to know but thought they might be on his mind.

“With the sitter.” He opened his eyes and looked at her. She’d closed her eyes by then, only imagining his face next to her. “Are you hungry?” he asked her.

She opened her eyes. “Kinda.” She smiled at him. “You?”

“To eat I’d have to get out of bed.” He closed his eyes again. There was a heat in the room, under the sheet. He hooked his leg around hers, their ankles entwined.

“What do you have to do today?” she asked him, smiling at the motion of his hips on her, answering back, meeting him under the sheet.

“Work, always work. Go home, then work again.” He made a face at the thought.

“Work is so bad?” She laid one hand on his arm, encouraging him.

“We get a lot of jerks. You just have to deal with people all day long.”

“You need a desk job.”

“I’m not cut out for a desk job.” He let her lead him.

“Have you ever tried it?” She gently nudged his arm onto her hip.

“I couldn’t be cooped up for eight hours. It would drive me nuts.”

“I’d hate to be on my feet for eight hours,” she told him. There was a pause. She listened to his breathing. Her head was just below his shoulder. If she blinked now, her lashes would brush his chest. She wanted to always stay within the sound of his heart beating.

They were like statues in the bed. They were like children in the bed.

“What will she be doing?” she whispered into his chest, not sure he would hear her.

“I really don’t know.” He opened his eyes.

She looked away.

“Do you want me to find out?”

She laughed, “No.” Her breath made a warm spot on his chest and he moved against her.

“Because I will if you want me to.”

“No, no. Not at all.”

He pulled back from her and looked at her. “She’ll wonder where I was last night. And this morning. She won’t ask, but she’ll wonder about it.”

“She won’t talk to you about it?” Her hands had gone silent.

“We don’t talk.”

“Never?”

“Never.” He thought about it. “Only about the kids.” He closed his eyes again and put his hands back on her. “What will you do today?”

“No work.”

“No work for you.” He grabbed her ass and pushed into her ever so slightly.

“No work for me. I’ll be bored. I’ll wonder when you get out of work. I’ll wonder what you’re doing, I’ll wonder who you’re talking to, who you’re seeing, if you’re laughing, if you’re sad.”

“I won’t be happy, much,” he said, rocking forward and back, stroking her back.

“I will be happy for a little while. After I leave here I will be very happy. I will forget everything except that I was here. This will be my only reality.”

He stopped rocking, left his hand paused over her back and looked at her. “This is my only reality.”

She can hear the maids outside their room speaking in Spanish but she knows she’s put the “Do Not Disturb” sign out so they won’t knock at the door. The heavy drapes are keeping the light out of the room and the A/C purrs quietly. The room is shadows around them.

“What time is it now?” he asks her, his hands moving across her back, down to her ass again, pulling her closer.

“About noon I’d guess.” She groaned a little, not sure what he wanted, not caring.

“I should get going.”

She opened her legs one last time. He pulled her on top of him, her hair in his face.

He won’t close his eyes any more. He’s getting ready to leave. He hasn’t moved a muscle but she knows he’s getting ready in his head to leave. He’s thinking about where he left his jeans and that his shoes might be in the bathroom. He won’t look at the wine glasses on the table when he picks up his keys to go, but she will sit up in bed a little just to watch him get ready. He won’t look at her again until he’s completely dressed, keys in hand, shoes tied, jacket on. Then he’ll sit on the edge of the bed and take her hand. The room will still be in unnatural shadows around them even though it’s no longer morning.

It was noon and nothing had been decided.

pencil

Cheryl Diane Kidder has a B.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. Her work, nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, has appeared or is forthcoming in: CutThroat Magazine, Weber—The Contemporary West, Pembroke Magazine, Able Muse, decomP Magazine, Tinge Magazine, Brevity Magazine, Brain,Child, Identity Theory, In Posse Review, and elsewhere. For a full listing see: Truewest. Email: chekid[at]hotmail.com