Foreign Affair

Boots’s Pick
Neil Weilheimer


Despite a sore back and calloused hands, Diego Montalvo picked up his shovel, broke through the first layer of dirt and began digging a six-foot-deep hole.

Carving out graves was indeed hard and bleak work. But it was better than the time he picked bell peppers in California. And it was far less noxious than when he cleaned stalls on a horse farm.

Nobody bothered Diego here in Arizona, except for the occasional belch from an equally strong Korean man, who chipped away at the earth alongside. For hours, the two hardly spoke. When they did, it was mostly to gesture the boss was nearing or that it was time for a water break.

“Must be in nineties today,” said the Korean. “Go slow.”

As their shovels and pick-axes removed layers of stone, the men’s grunts grew louder. Diego rarely questioned, at least publicly, why Americans weren’t more receptive to the simplicity of cremation. Nor did he waste time thinking about why six feet was the socially accepted depth to bury someone.

The job paid well enough, certainly more than he earned building homes in his native Mexico, where his wife and two daughters lived.

By five in the afternoon, the rectangular hole was ready. The two men sat in the ditch with their backs against the cool, freshly hollowed dirt, opened their coolers and each guzzled two Pabst Blue Ribbon beers.

“Look like you have heavy thoughts,” the Korean worker said.

Diego stared at the sky, unresponsive to his partner’s comments.

“You need girl. That help with your troubles, my friend.”

Diego smiled. He thought of his family back home and how he’d sing “Duérmete Mi Niño” to his daughters before bed. Sweet dreams, my baby. Their eyelids trying to beat back sleep but eventually succumbing. He longed to hold his wife, Magdalena, to smell her pillowcase after a night’s rest and to eat her hand-pressed corn tortillas, with refried pinto beans and moist orange rice on the side.

It’s been more than two years since he last saw them. But Diego feels closer to home every Friday, when he sends most of the week’s pay across the border. Thanks to the money, Magdalena was able to take their daughters to the doctor’s office for the first time. Soon, they’ll rent a larger place to live.

“I know nice Thai girl. Here, call her,” said the Korean man, handing over a business card that featured an illustration of two naked women.

To appease him, Diego took it and tossed the card in his cooler.

Later that night, Diego lay on his back on the torn couch, smoking, with his big brown toe poking through an old sock. The apartment, a converted skid row motel across from some defunct establishments, was small, even though he lived alone. A bed, leaky toilet, mini-fridge and a portable grill also furnished the room. The walls were tinted lemon curry, much like a newspaper that’s sat around too long.

Diego sent one smoke ring after another toward the ceiling, thinking about how he told Magdalena he’d quit months ago.

“I’m so proud of you, Diego,” she said over the phone.

“It’s best, for me, you, the girls.”

“We miss you. When will you becoming home?”

“Not for a few more months. There’s lots of work here in the summer. Many old gringos drop dead from the heat, you know.”

“So when, Diego?”

“I’m sending more money this week,” he responded, trying to both appease her and change the conversation.

“The girls keep asking for you. They’re getting big.”

“I want to bring you here,”he said.

Diego had tried to convince her before, but it always led to a fight. Even with the promise of more money in the U.S., Magdalena didn’t want to leave Mexico, especially Torreon. She loved the city and its simplicity. It’s where she grew up, and her parents, brothers and cousins all still resided. Magdalena didn’t mind her job, despite having to clean the bathrooms and change the beds at the tourist-friendly Fiesta Inn. And she never had to look far to feel comforted by the extended, welcoming arms of the Cristo de las Noas.

“Stop, Diego. You’ve always wanted more. But home is here.”

“Kiss Rosa and Frida for me. I need to sleep now.”

As Diego replayed that conversation, he lit another cigarette. He took a quick, powerful drag and let out a slow exhale. Soon Diego’s stomach began to hurt, from loneliness and hunger. He opened the mini-fridge. It was empty save for two beers, a half-eaten Snickers bar and a grapefruit he’d planned to have for breakfast the next day.

Diego grabbed a beer, slammed the little door and headed to his cooler to see if anything was left from lunch. Inside he found a few pieces of sandwich crust and the business card the Korean man had given him earlier. Diego looked at it closer, rubbing his thumb over the hot-pink raised lettering.

Full-body treatment. Erotic massages. Private parlors. Asian angels galore and more. In calls and outcalls available.

With each swig of beer, Diego’s need for companionship seared deeper and the possibilities of the card came alive. He called.

Just after 11:00 p.m., he sat in a waiting room chair, with two other strangers nearby. None of them made eye contact. Diego was nervous, though not nearly as tense as when he trekked across the U.S. border, navigating a desolate stretch of Arizona’s southern desert with eleven other men, one of whom was a thickly built man with scruffy facial hair, a tattooed neck and no front teeth.

Now a small woman entered, and in broken English asked Diego if he was ready.

After forking over $30 for a thirty-minute massage, Diego was ushered through a doorway veiled only by hanging strands of beads. The room was mirrored all around. In the center, milk crates elevated a mattress. On the far wall, a small but clearly visible sign stated that solicitation of sex is punishable by law and anyone asking for favors of the kind will be ejected from the building.

Overhead, some type of music from the Orient played. For some reason, Diego started to think of rickshaws, dragons and chopsticks.

“Take clothes off,” said the woman. “Somebody with you very soon.”

Diego disrobed slowly and placed his clothes and muddied cowboy boots in the corner. He sat on the bed and stared at himself in the mirror. He was much thinner than he remembered, though still muscled, and he had deep pouches under his eyes. Diego thought he saw a patch of gray hair. As he was about to take a closer look, a slight Thai woman entered.

She smiled and nodded at him. The woman unrolled a large bath towel, spreading it over the bed. Diego removed his underwear, the last remaining piece of clothing, and lay on his stomach. The woman began to knead and press, first across Diego’s shoulders and back, then down his legs.

“Flip,” she said.

After Diego turned over, the woman gently pushed the towel aside. He was completely exposed.

“Should I rub everywhere?”

Diego nodded.

She picked up a bottle of massage oil, squeezed and carefully wrote the number fifty on his chest. Diego knew what that meant. No words needed to be spoken. He nodded again.

When they were finished, Diego reached into his jeans and handed her the fifty dollars.

“I’m Tasanee.”

“Diego.”

She offered him water in a wax-coated paper cup.

“Thank you.”

“You haven’t been here before.”

“First time.”

Tasanee had seen many men like Diego, all with looks of victimhood and vulnerability, like they were passive participants in their own existences. Most of them came to her because they were either drunk or just trying to work through their loneliness. “Where you from?”she asked.

“Mexico.”

“There’s family there, right?”

“Wife and two kids.”

“It’s hard to be away. I can…”

Diego interrupted. He didn’t want to talk about his family. Instead, he asked about her. “And you?”

“From Phuket. You know, in Thailand. I left after the tsunami took everything that mattered. I lost my parents, two brothers, a husband and son.”

“Sorry.”

The woman who ushered Diego back to the room peeked in. “New gentleman here for you.”

Diego smiled at Tasanee and left.

For the next several days at work, Diego replayed his brief time with Tasanee, the way she glided her hands over the length of his body. She was much younger-looking than his wife, with shinier hair, more defined cheekbones and a jutting chin. He guessed that she was about 28 years old, though she was really closer to 40. On the outside she appeared joyous and flirtatious. It was the very thing Diego craved.

Now, though, he couldn’t have such thoughts. On this particular day, Diego and his partner, the Korean, have to dig four ditches, one of which has to be large enough for the body of a 400-pound woman. The men dug at a furious pace, removing one shovelful of freshly tilled soil after another.

“Special coffin coming,” the Korean had said. “Dig wide, not down.”

Diego understood. The heavier caskets would often sink themselves over time. At first, he laughed. But then he began to wonder how she died. Was it because of her weight? Was she alone, without anyone to confide in or be intimate with? Does she have family that will attend the burial? How long had she been dead before someone found her? Diego imagined she had housecats, furry unkempt ones that probably had urinated on the bedroom carpet by now.

Nobody came to the funeral. It was just Diego, the Korean man and a bright noon sun that left them both squinting.

Lowering her into the grave had tested them. The coffin was heavy. And the casket was so wide they had to do it manually, straining their lower backs and hamstrings. They couldn’t use planks to lower her because they were prone to snapping. It would have to be by rope. Just before they had the woman all the way in, the Korean man felt himself being tugged forward.

“Can’t hold her no more,” he said.

The casket plunged into the hole, landing with a dampened thud. At least she didn’t flip, Diego thought, and have to be buried face down. They shoveled dirt back in. Eventually sod, along with the standard cemetery-issued tombstone that etched in name and lifespan, would cover the plot.

Diego suddenly wanted to see Tasanee again.

After work, he called the number on the business card with the two naked women on it, and asked for Tasanee.

“Do you want to come in for massage?” the woman on the other end of the phone asked.

“No. Just to talk with her.”

“What’s this for?”

“I came in a few nights ago.”

“Hold on.”

Several minutes passed before anyone returned to the line, which had been looping a batch of local ads.

“Hello?”

“Tasanee?”

“Yes.”

“This is Diego…”

“Okay.”

He paused. Clearly she hadn’t remembered him. “From the other night.”

“Is this for an appointment?”

“No. You started to tell me about your family. I wanted to see you again. To talk more.”

Tasanee recalled his face and the cheerless eyes. “Come by the parlor at 10. I’m done early tonight.”

As he waited for the hours to pass, Diego thought about bringing some flowers or candy, but wasn’t sure if she’d take that to mean it was a date. Instead, he ironed the one dress shirt he owned, clipped his fingernails and shaved.

Diego arrived early, occasionally strolling past the storefront’s entrance. To calm his nerves, he sat on the curb and looked across the street. A 99-cent shop, laundromat and two corner liquor stores book-ended the block. An airplane rumbled overhead. Diego leaned back to watch it.

“Going somewhere new or returning home?”

Diego turned to the voice coming from behind him and grinned. “Thanks for seeing me again,” he said.

“Have you eaten?”

“Not since lunch.”

“I can fix you something, if you like,” Tasanee said. “I live a few blocks from here.”

The air was hot and still. As they walked, Diego started to reach for her hand, quickly pulled back and then reached again. But he had missed because she was a stride ahead. Tasanee had seen the gesture, though, and put her arm around his elbow, nuzzling herself close.

Diego didn’t mutter a word. He was unsure of himself and felt much like a teenage boy who had already fallen behind his peers in knowing how to talk to girls.

“Do you like it here?” asked Tasanee.

“Very much. I can work. I can make things happen, my family can live better. Here, I can hope, there’s always promise,” said Diego. “But I worry a lot, about being caught and losing it all.”

Tasanee nodded, staring ahead with a blank expression on her face. “Let’s go inside,” she said.

The apartment she rented for $350 a month was on the fourth floor of a five-story walkup. The hallway smelled, thought Diego, but not in a bad way. The air had traces of meals cooked the night before and from the landlady doing laundry in the basement. Tasanee’s home was small but much nicer than Diego’s. Doilies hung off end-tables. Ancient-looking, expertly-carved wood trays and elegant vases accented the living room. The bedroom featured handmade paper lanterns with bright rainbow patterns. And there were hints of money: a flat-screen television, ceiling fan, and well-stocked refrigerator.

“Relax. Put your feet up.”

In the kitchen, Tasanee prepared a side-salad, slicing up cucumbers and shallots. She chopped cloves of garlic, fresh hot chili peppers and coriander roots, and worked them into a thick, smooth paste. Then she minced and fried chicken in a wok. A soft but sharp aroma soon made the place feel warm.

For the first time in months, Diego felt connected to something. “You have a lot here,”he said.

“I have mostly memories. Some very good, like how my family and I used to celebrate Songkran every April. We’d start the new year with fireworks, drums and dance. And eat so much. It was beautiful. Others disturb me. When I sleep, I often see swirling waters and hear people screaming. The other night I saw an innocent, wide-eyed girl clinging to a floating piece of wood, drifting, looking for her mom and dad, wondering why they weren’t helping.”

Diego just listened. When she finished, he hugged her. Tasanee gripped him tight, pressing her head against his chest. Diego could hear muffled sniffles and then saw tears coursing down her cheeks.

“Where’s your booze?”

She pointed to the refrigerator. He found all the right ingredients: tomato juice, hot sauce, lime wedges, and a bottle of Worcestershire. Diego grabbed two mugs, rimmed them with salt, and mixed everything together. Then he poured in cold beer and handed Tasanee a full glass.

“To better times,” he said.

She raised her glass and responded, “And to new friends.”

The table was set. Cucumber salad, bowls overflowing with spicy, fried chicken and rice. Diego was scooping up forkfuls of the dinner, as if he hadn’t had a good meal in years. After each bite, he drank.

“There’s plenty, Diego,” Tasanee said. “I’m glad you like it.”

“My tongue is tingling, like it’s dancing in my mouth.”

“Let me see.”

He stuck out his tongue and wiggled it side to side. He was at once taunting and flirting.

“That your tongue tango?”

The alcohol was setting in and they were laughing with ease.

“Tango’s not my people,” Diego said. “I’ll show you how to really dance.”

Diego turned on the stereo, finding a local station known for playing a mix of Mexican music. Thumping his hand against his thigh, Diego smiled. “Listen,” he said, as the volume became louder.

A rollicking, up-tempo norteña sound boomed out. Accordions, guitars and saxophones powered the song, which had filled the room. The lyrics were poetic and angry, about longing and loss.

“Los Tigres del Norte,” Diego said as he reached for Tasanee. “Do you feel the emotion, the struggles? They’re speaking right to me.”

Tasanee put down her glass and joined Diego. They started to bounce to the beat, two-stepping around the room. At first, slow. Then, as the music quickened, fast. They tried to keep up with the wheezing accordions, but only became clumsy, bumping into things. They didn’t seem to care.

When the dance ended, Tasanee jumped into Diego’s arms, holding her like a bride on her wedding night—an image that wasn’t lost on either of them. Diego carried Tasanee into the bedroom, which had a Buddha statue prominently displayed on a nightstand in the corner. He kissed Tasanee gently on the forehead, the nose and then hard on the lips, which were full and wet with beer. Soon they were on the bed, naked and fucking.

After, they lay side by side, with only the points of their elbows touching. Tasanee turned away from him on her side. “Hold me, Diego. Hold me till morning.”

Her breathing slowed to a steady, easy pace, and soon she was asleep. Diego watched her, tracing the silhouette of her body with his eyes. After a while, he moved away and for the first time that night, he thought about his family in Mexico. He considered how long they could continue to live apart and whether his arduous journey had been worth it.

To get here, Diego traveled more than 400 miles before slipping into the U.S. in the middle of the night. He had been one of the few to make it, crossing the open desert with just a jug or two of water, a few cans of food and cloves of garlic—he’d heard that that would help repel snakes. At pone point, Diego wanted to give up, wishing the border patrol would catch him and send him back home. His tongue had become so dry it had turned a chalky white, and he even had hallucinations of mermaids splashing about in fountains. Diego’s legs were rubbery, with the knees often buckling—and they had been bloodied from walking into cactus spines at night, when the bulk of the scrambling was done. To make matters worse, one of Diego’s brothers, who had also hoped to escape poverty, dropped dead in the desert. Saddened, but too exhausted to cope, Diego could only bring himself to take his brother’s food and the little money he had taped to the underside of his testicles, supposedly the best place to protect it. There wasn’t time for a proper burial. It would be several days before he was safely inside the U.S. and able to call home, informing the family that his 23-year-old brother died and that he had been lucky enough to make it.

Now comfortably in bed, Diego started to shiver. The thought of not knowing what had happened to his brother’s body haunted him. For the next hour Diego tried to fall asleep, but he couldn’t shake the image. Diego went into the living room. He opened a window and stared out at the purple-hued sky and the dust particles swirling around the street lamps. The night was silent outside and life was still. Diego felt like he was in two places, two homes. No matter where he was, somewhere else would be better, he thought. He started to sing, somewhat muffled, the words to his daughters’ favorite lullaby: “Go to sleep my baby. Go to sleep my sunshine. You’re forever in this heart of mine.”

When Tasanee woke up in the morning, she saw that Diego wasn’t there and he hadn’t slept next to her all night. She called for him. With no answer, she shouted his name again, but with more urgency, if not fear, in her voice.

“I’m here, Tasanee,” he said from the other room. “I’m right here.”
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Neil Weilheimer is a journalist in New York City. He’s reported on business trends and some of the most colorful boardroom executives for more than a decade. Away from the newsroom, Weilheimer spends most nights reading better writers or watching reality TV. He is currently working on a book of short stories. E-mail: Nweilheimer[at]aol.com.

Waiting Room

Boots’s Pick
Meg Pokrass


In the doctor’s waiting room, she passes the time by going to the restroom. It’s hard to walk, so getting there is exercise. The problem is: once she’s in, she only has herself to talk to in the mirror. Running warm water over her cold hands and then using a paper towel to dry her fingers evenly, one by one, is strangely comforting.

When she comes out her husband, Will, has disappeared into a sports magazine. Though it could be her imagination, he looks older than last time they were here. He has less hair, and his laugh lines have disappeared. There hasn’t been a lot to laugh about. He has been aging from the stress they are living with, and though it’s not her fault, it feels like it is.

The doctor is fifty minutes behind, and she’s his last appointment of the day. He’s the top Podiatric Surgeon in the city and he doesn’t understand what is happening to the nerves in her foot, and that alone makes her so anxious she wants to scream. He says it’s due to her autonomic nervous system, similar to Phantom Limb Disease. Only she’s not lost a limb, and she isn’t an amputee. During every visit, he shakes his head and says, “This is not making sense.” He always ends with a half-smile and tells her to come back in four weeks. Before walking out, he shakes Will’s hand hard.

Sitting in the waiting room, looking at the clock and listening to Barbara Streisand singing “Silent Night,” she recalls Christmas Eve morning at the airport waiting to travel to New York to be with Will. That would have been their first Christmas together. Her heart was pounding because she was so nervous just like this. She remembers that first Christmas Eve well but she can’t touch it—Will’s breath, her freezing nose, the warmth inside their bed despite the inadequate heater.

She turns to him and says, “Let’s leave.”

She can see the thought of it blooming in him, bringing blood back to his face. She feels a gigantic sigh escaping her diaphragm like the pop of cork.

There are no stairs to climb down, just an elevator to the main lobby with the plastic tree and more Christmas tunes to listen to. Will parked the car on a slight hill so he runs to get it. It’s evening. White lights blink on and off in the windows of St. Mary’s hospital across the street, offering their standard but fragile cheer.

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Meg Pokrass lives in San Francisco. Her poetry and stories have appeared in The Emry’s Foundation Journal, Two Twenty Four Poetry Quarterly, Black Buzzard Review, March Street Press, Flutter Magazine, and are forthcoming in The Orange Room, and Halfway Down the Stairs. She has performed with theatre companies throughout the United States, and considers writing a natural extension of Sensory work developed as an actor. E-mail: meg[at]newbusinessintroductions.com

No Good Reason

Boots’s Pick
Michele M. Feeney


It just happened they were visiting Stonewall when the construction started, the Monday morning after Thanksgiving. A yellow backhoe maneuvered to and fro, deftly lifting heavy loads of dirt. Linda found the rhythm of the movement and the roar of the machine, punctuated by moments of silence while the driver planned his next assault, hypnotic.

Linda didn’t visit her folks much; she liked to think she’d left Mississippi in almost every way many years ago. But now, with a grandchild in the picture and her folks older, she and Scott and Trevor drove down every Thanksgiving.

Linda was always ready to head back to New York by Saturday, but Scott didn’t like to drive on holiday weekends. They usually stayed until mid-day Monday, then drove through the night, nursing coffee from a thermos while Trevor slept, arriving at work and school bleary-eyed early Tuesday morning.

Linda glanced over at Scott, who appeared enthralled by the equipment. His forehead showed pink under beads of moisture; he should have worn a hat. Trevor gazed at the equipment, also transfixed. He had precious little chance to see heavy equipment in the city. Just a few more minutes.

A biker, sweating and winded from his workout, paused next to Linda.

“What’re they digging for?” she asked. She couldn’t imagine; there was little new construction in Stonewall. The sorry little town weighed on her.

“They’re digging up the old swimming pool,” he answered. “I heard it’s in perfect shape. Hope to have it open by next summer.”

The swimming pool. Linda cannonballed back to 1974, when she was just eight years old, a year older than Trevor was now. The September the pool closed for good.

*

“Why are they sucking the water out of the pool?” Linda asked her father, tall in steel-toed work boots and pressed jeans.

Linda could barely see the lip of the pool across the two lanes of traffic, and couldn’t see the surface of the water at all. Small brown birds pecked at the rivulets running from a big hose down the gutter of Hamilton Street.

“Looks like they’re draining it, sweetheart.”

It was mid-September, still over a hundred degrees in the afternoons.

“It’s still so hot.”

“Maybe it’s broken. Maybe something got in it and died.”

“Maybe they’re cleaning it,” Linda said, imagining the pool like a big bathtub, a sponge the size of her mattress spreading Clorox all around its slimy sides.

Her father took her hand and pulled her along faster. He needed to be back to work at the grain elevator by the time the four o’clock train passed through.

*

“I didn’t know there was a swimming pool here,” Trevor said. “Why don’t we come here in the summer?”

“There hasn’t been a swimming pool here for many years,” Linda answered. “Not since I was a little girl.”

Scott looked at her quizzically, but she didn’t elaborate.

*

Linda asked her father to walk down the other side of Hamilton Street the following morning, wanting to pass a little closer to the pool.

“Sure, baby,” her father agreed. “There’s a good chance you’ll be learning to swim in that pool next summer. Have a look.”

“I’m going to learn to swim?”

“Why not?” Her father smiled.

Linda imagined herself a dolphin, arching up, sparkling in the sun, then deep into the dark water. She giggled, making her father grin.

When they got up close, she stepped off the sidewalk, dropped her book bag, and put her nose right up to the chain-link fence. The pool was a bone-dry cavern, white as chalk.

“Bet you it’ll look a whole lot better by this afternoon,” said her father, who was tall enough to look over the fence. “Best be moving along.”

It was hot that day, almost as hot and sticky as the middle of the summer. Linda thought about the pool on the dusty playground playing kickball, and again at her desk in the close afternoon. The vision brought her sweaty self comfort. She imagined the baking rectangle full of sparkling cobalt blue water, cool like her grandma’s well water. She drew the pool during free time, from above like a bird flying over Stonewall would see. She filled the pool with water, using the silver crayon to add sparkle. That’s what she expected to see on her way home, when she and her father crossed Hamilton Street to get a better look.

Where was it? Were they on the wrong street? Where the pool had been was a flat, level, dusty lot, just like all the other flat, level, dusty lots in town.

“Are we on the wrong street, Daddy?” Linda asked. “Did we go a different way?” She pivoted around. The same houses as yesterday, the same signs. Just the pool was gone; in its place, an empty lot. How could a whole pool be gone?

“No, sugar. It’s the right street. The same street as yesterday.” He shook his head, lips pursed, eyes half-closed.

“Where’s the pool?” She looked again just to make sure she wasn’t imagining the raked-clean surface of the empty lot.

“I don’t know, sugar.” He took up her hand again. “Let’s go.”

He pulled her along toward home, even faster than usual, his jaw tight. He didn’t ask about her day, what grades she got on her papers, nothing.

*

Trevor was the one to ask, “Why was it filled in?”

Scott, a country boy from Vermont, waited for her answer with the same curious look as Trevor. He would be incredulous that what she was about to tell him could happen in the United States in the mid-1970s. She readied herself for an afternoon of well-meaning, but ultimately tedious, support.

“It was filled in because they didn’t want the black children using it. The law said it had to be open to everyone. So rather than follow the law, they got rid of the swimming pool.”

“So then nobody could swim?” Trevor asked.

“That’s right. It was closed.”

“Nobody could use it?” Scott’s eyes were as wide as Trevor’s.

“Nobody.”

Scott and Trevor stood silent, seeming to consider the irony of closing a pool to everyone just to keep the black children out.

Finally, Trevor asked, “Isn’t it really hot here in the summer?”

“Yes. Really hot.” Linda remembered in a rush: round fans on the windowsills with grates she mustn’t put her fingers near, moldy towels in the bathroom cupboard, a freezer not cold enough to keep the ice cream hard. “Humid, too,” she added, thinking of rice in the salt shaker.

“Could you ever swim in the pool?”

“No. I never could.”

*

Folks met at the Crossroads Bible Church the night they filled in the pool. Linda was usually glad for a meeting instead of prayer services. A meeting meant the children would all go down into the basement and play, giving the grown-ups their privacy. This night, Linda huddled on the stairs rather than playing, barely aware of the racket from below, straining to overhear what the grown-ups said.

“The children I mind,” one woman said. “They were crying today about how they can’t swim this weekend. Crying to me.”

“You can’t blame children, Donna,” someone answered. “They only know what they’ve been taught.”

“I know, I know,” the first voice interrupted. “But my own children have never, ever been swimming. I don’t let them go into the branches. My brother drowned down there, down past the fork. I know I can’t expect children to hear themselves, to understand, to see my place, but still…”

Linda thought about the pool. It was just a pretty pool. None of her friends swam there or even anybody she knew. It wasn’t until the very last day her father suggested she might ever swim there. She hadn’t even really gotten used to the idea before the pool was gone.

*

“Mommy,” Trevor asked, “could I have gone to that pool back then?”

“No, baby,” Linda answered, looking at Trevor’s creamy brown skin, black curly hair, and deep brown eyes.

“Could Daddy?”

Scott’s face reddened to match his forehead. Who knew when a painful topic would come up with a child? Still, Linda owed Trevor an honest answer.

“Yes. Daddy could have gone swimming there. Back then, when I was a girl and he was a little boy, he would have been welcome. Today, if there was a pool, or if we come back next summer, we can all go together.”

“That wasn’t fair,” Trevor said quietly. “You must have been mad.”

“It wasn’t fair,” Scott started, and Linda made a tamping-down gesture with her hand, silencing him. He meant well, but that man could talk the paint off the wall. This was something she and Trevor shared; it was her voice Trevor needed to hear.

“I was just a little girl, sweetheart. I wanted to go swimming, but…” she hesitated. “Adults get mad about things like that. Your grandfather was angry. I didn’t know any different.”

There were a few seconds of silence. Linda tried to imagine what Trevor’s next question might be.

“How did you meet Daddy?” Trevor finally asked. “I mean, if you couldn’t even go swimming together?”

How to explain to a child the atmosphere of New York University back in 1982, when she met Scott? An interracial couple was still a novelty, but the only pointed response was outspoken endorsement. And Trevor’s New York City, a generation removed from she and Scott’s courtship and a continent away from Stonewall, Mississippi in 1974, offered no context for the buried swimming pool.

“We met in college, sweetie,” she said. It was as good an answer as any.

*

The meeting lasted a long time, so long Linda fell asleep on the stair, leaning against the wall. Linda’s daddy carried her home, her head on his shoulder. Names and ideas and plans volleyed back and forth between her parents as they walked home that night, but, as it turned out, her father’s anger and the meeting came to absolutely nothing. It was just one more thing that didn’t change according to plan. By then, people were scared. Linda knew her father was scared, by the careful way he talked and acted around white people, so different from his jokey self around home and his friends. Her mother was scared a little, not so much, but Linda couldn’t imagine her feisty momma scared anyway. What changed that summer, when she was eight, is that her daddy started telling her, whenever he got the chance, that she wouldn’t be living in Mississippi when she grew up. That scared Linda.

*

“Why are they opening it now?” Trevor asked.

“Nobody remembered there was a pool,” the biker answered. “A dog was digging on the lot one day and exposed the edge of the pool. Somebody put two and two together and realized that was where the old pool was.”

Linda had forgotten the young man, who was still winded, standing off to her left, so startled a bit when she heard his voice. She felt irritated he’d stood by during their whole conversation, then reached over and squeezed Scott’s hand, hoping he’d take the hint. It was time to go.

They all watched in silence a few minutes more. The construction equipment was making quick work of the dirt in the modest-sized swimming pool; the bulk of it would be out by noon.

The biker continued, “The machine work’s going to be done in a couple of hours. What’s left has to be hand dug. That’s an old-fashioned plaster surface. Volunteers are coming down here around five this afternoon to finish the job. I’ll be down here myself.”

Linda regretted her irritation of a moment ago. Wasn’t she the interloper here? This young man had every right to stand by and watch the progress of the project.

“When are you going to fill it back up?” Trevor asked.

“Tomorrow, we hope. We’re installing new filters and equipment first thing in the morning. Equipment’s waiting up at the train station right now. We hope to start filling late morning. Gonna have a dry run, so to speak,” he chuckled, “then shut it down again. Open it up on Memorial Day with a big party. Like in the old days.”

Linda looked sidelong at the young man. He had no more concept of the old days than Trevor. As far as he was concerned, finding the pool was a happy accident, and its restoration a gift. A fine excuse for a town party, skin tones reflecting a wide palette.

Forty-eight hours, Linda thought. That’s all it took to reverse thirty years of mean-spirited retirement of the main source of summer entertainment for white children in Stonewall. Then she pictured the easy way other women crossed the pool at her health club, and contrasted her own awkward stroke. Not quite reversed, she thought. Swimming is one of those things you have to learn in childhood to be truly graceful.

*

Even though she knew her daddy didn’t want to talk about the pool, Linda had to ask. “Why? Why, Daddy?”

“Why what, sweetie?”

“Why don’t they want me to swim?”

“It’s not you in particular, honey, it’s all of us. You can’t take it personal.”

“Why, though?”

Her daddy thought for a few minutes, pulled some of the mints she liked out of his pocket, offered her one, took one himself, sucked on it a minute, and finally said, “I don’t know, sweetie. No good reason I can think of. No good reason.”

*

“Why didn’t they want you to swim there?” Trevor asked.

“It wasn’t just me, honey. It was anybody with brown skin. I didn’t take it personally.”

“Why didn’t they want anybody with brown skin to swim there?”

Of what benefit to Trevor was it to understand hatred? Sure, history was somewhere in the curriculum of his life, but why today, at seven? Then again, who knew when kids would ask the tough questions. Linda debated. Finally she answered.

“No good reason, honey. No good reason.”

That answer felt inadequate.

“It wasn’t fair,” she added, realizing she’d used Trevor’s exact words. And Scott’s, she then thought, regretting her earlier impatience. She searched for more words, then appreciated it was one of those times more words wouldn’t help a bit.

“Can we come back tomorrow, Momma? See it all filled up?”

They’d planned to leave shortly, and get back to the city early tomorrow. Linda secretly loved seeing the New York Skyline at dawn; it was the moment she felt the holidays began. Seeing the pool filled with clear, blue water would mean staying an extra day, missing more school and work. Linda looked over Trevor’s head to Scott, a question in her eyes. He nodded, and she smiled.

“Sure, honey, I’d like that,” she answered, tied for a moment to the little girl disappointed by the dusty lot. “We’ll bring your grandpa.”
pencil

“I am the mother of four, living in Phoenix, Arizona. I work part-time as a lawyer and write whenever I can.” E-mail: mfeeney7[at]cox.net

The Peddler

Boots’s Pick
Edward Rodosek


“Tara,” Marcel glanced at me over the newspaper, “the Bodoni Circus came into town yesterday.”

“Bodoni? I’ve heard about it.” I didn’t stop mincing the greens I was preparing. “Shall we go?”

He smiled. “You don’t care a pin for circus shows, Tara. But I know you’re mad about the fortune-telling.”

I stopped my work and gazed askance at him.

“Okay, okay,” he consented. “We could take a peep. Maybe they have some interesting animals.”

I chuckled. “I hope you don’t try to bribe some tamer to allow you to wash an elephant like you did last time.”

The doorbell buzzed and Marcel glanced through the window at the front yard. “It’s Bill. He surely brought me the last issue of Threatened Nature.”

I saw him talking with the postman. Then the local tramp, Ida, hobbled along the sidewalk pushing her shopping cart and Marcel gave her some change. Coming back, he waved at our neighbor, Stillman, who was out watering his geraniums.

Our cat, Kitty, entered the kitchen with Marcel. When he bowed down and caressed her, Kitty jumped up on a chair. He gave her a small vanilla cake from the jar.

“Why do you feed Kitty so much?” I objected. “Look how fat she is.”

“Oh, she’s just mad about those vanilla cakes,” he said smiling.

*

Our old Ford inched through the dense crowd in the City Amusement Park.

“It’s hopeless,” Marcel said. “We’ll never find a free parking space.”

“Look,” I shouted, “there on the left!”

He made a sharp curve into the last free space. I stepped out of the car onto the soaked grass, but the mud presented a slippery obstacle.

“Give me your hand, Cinderella,” Marcel said, “or you’ll lose your shoe.”

I chuckled. “Oh, Prince Charming, thank you so much. Where is the ticket office?”

We started to hustle through the crowd to a deafening roll of drums. A brass band thundered, and sawdust stuck to the mud that was already caking our shoes. Finally, we managed to find seats on a bench pressed between a fat man and a mother with a whimpering baby on her lap.

The show was already in full swing; in the middle of the arena, a huge cage was set and the tamer in it cracked his whip.

“Look, Tara,” Marcel’s eyes widened. “The tigers—four, five, six! Aren’t they magnificent?”

Soon the workers removed the cage and the elephants came in, holding one another by the tail. After them riders appeared showing their customary skill on the galloping horses, and then not too brilliant trapeze artists, and then a pretty dull snake-man. There were all the usual circus appearances but none of them were any more than average.

I glimpsed at Marcel who was trying to subdue his yawning. I neared my lips to his ear and he nodded with relief. While we got up and squeezed out of the big tent, the uproar behind us became more bearable.

I took Marcel’s arm and we walked along the row of brightly decorated stalls and countless little twinkling lights.

“Where do you wish to go now?” he asked.

“Wait,” I said. “I think we shouldn’t need to search for too long.” After several steps, I stopped and pointed to the left.

“Aha, I knew it; that was the real reason we came here.” In a loud voice he read the worn-out inscription over the entrance to a small cabin. “‘The Omniscient Fatima—your past, your future, useful advice for you’. Oh, what a cliché! Do you really want to enter?”

“What a silly question. Give me a tenner.”

He sighed and handed me the bill.

“Will you wait here for me, Marcel? I won’t be too long inside—ten, maybe fifteen minutes at most.”

“That’s out of the question. I’m going to find a tent with beautiful young belly dancers. Maybe they’ll also serve the arrack and an opium pipe.”

I frowned.

“Okay,” he added. “I’m going to look around the nearby stalls and I’ll be back here in twenty minutes or so.”

*

When I went out again—confused and disappointed—Marcel wasn’t there yet. Of course, I had only been inside five minutes.

I still couldn’t grasp why had the fortune-teller behaved in such an odd manner. After she had taken the tenner, she offered me a crystal ball, prophesying from coffee grounds or reading the future from my hand.

Madam Fatima was babbling all the time while I reached out my left palm and she held it under the table lamp. Instantly she became silent and her bronzed face went noticeably numb. She released my hand, got up, gave the tenner back to me, and began to excuse herself.

“Sorry, Ma’am. Regretfully I couldn’t see anything from your palm. My magic power is helpless in your case; that happens sometimes, you know.”

She neither replied to my question nor did she listen to my objections.

“Sorry again, ma’am, no hard feelings.” Then she helped me, gently but firmly, out of her cabin.

That damned gypsy must have been nuts, no doubt about that. And I was crazy for persuading Marcel to visit that silly circus. I should simply forget the entire incident.

I took a walk to the nearest sweets stall and ordered a coffee. After about twenty minutes, I decided to return to the fortune-teller’s cabin.

Marcel wasn’t there yet, so I ambled through the stalls looking around. Then I noticed a dark, lonely figure standing aside with his back to the crowd.

“Hey, Marcel!”

He turned as if he had just waked up and his strange, absentminded gaze amazed me.

“Where have you been, Marcel? Is everything okay?”

He nodded without saying a word and stepped up to me. Then he pulled the car keys out of his pocket and without looking at me, he headed toward our car. Trying to keep pace with him, I looked at his profile and noticed he was… he was different in a way.

His expression was severe, lips tightly pressed, a protruding chin, his gaze fixed straight forward. Had Marcel always been that way? No, it was different. For heaven’s sake, I surely know my husband after seven years of marriage.

His silence made me nervous. “Did you find anything interesting?” I inquired.

Marcel shrugged his shoulders, still avoiding my eyes.

I wanted to know and I didn’t want to stop asking until I found out. “You’ve certainly visited the lion’s cubs? Or a hypnotist? The House of Ghosts?”

He shook his head repeatedly and that irritated me. “Damn it, don’t be so mysterious! Where have you been?”

Marcel hesitated. “I was at a peddler’s. His tent stood at the south end of the alley.”

“At a peddler? What was he selling? Did you find anything worth buying?”

Marcel shrugged again. “He didn’t have anything I wanted. So we just talked for a while.”

“You talked with a total stranger—what about?”

“Oh, I don’t remember. About this and that. Nothing in particular.”

“I don’t believe that,” I commented. “It must have been more then nothing in particular for you to look so absentminded now.”

“I am not absentminded.” His voice became gruff. “I don’t know what you want from me.”

He unlocked the car and we scarcely entered as he drove away even before I had time to fasten my seat belt.

Neither of us broke the silence all the way home.

Marcel garaged the car while I went upstairs to our bedroom. I undressed and stretched out on the sheets. There were no signs that my husband would come after me. I picked up a book but after some time I realized I didn’t have a clue what I was reading. So, I turned the light off but I wasn’t sleepy at all. I lay on the bed, miserable, hopeless, exhausted, and confused. Finally, I went to the bathroom, looked for a sleeping pill, and washed it down with a gulp of unpleasant tepid water.

All I needed now was a good, long sleep. In the morning, everything will be okay, as always.

*

I didn’t know how long I had slept when a brutal hand grabbed me and turned me over on my back. What…? Only a moment later I realized it was Marcel.

“Hey, wait!” I protested. “If you suddenly want sex, this is not a way to—”

Marcel’s hand covered my mouth and before I managed to push him away, he parted my legs with his knees. I resisted and tried to tumble aside but his body was heavy. He took me violently, without any kisses, and without any foreplay, as if I were a whore. He didn’t care a bit about my rage and it didn’t disturb him in the least. I felt only disgust and shame.

Luckily, he finished quickly and tumbled from me on to his side of the bed. Tears of despair fell down my cheeks; I started to strike him with my hands, I punched him with clenched fists—his back, his arms and legs and the pillow with which he protected his head.

Finally, I could only sob. I tottered to the bathroom and started to rub my body with a soaped sponge. I stayed under the warm shower so long I nearly fell asleep in the shower. Feeling dizzy I descended the stairs into the living room, grabbed a pillow and a blanket and lay down on the sofa bed.

*

The sun streaming through the living room windows woke me at eleven. I had a swollen tongue and a repulsive taste in my mouth. I got up and then I recalled what had happened the night before. An odd mixture of feelings flashed through my mind—disbelief, anger, and humiliation.

Marcel was on duty, thank God, so he wouldn’t return before six. By then I would have to decide what I should do. How I should behave? What would be proper to say to him? But, that wasn’t just an ordinary quarrel, damn it! It was… It was something I couldn’t understand. It was as if I had dealings with a stranger instead with my Marcel, my husband, whom I had known all those years.

I pondered at least a dozen possibilities about how I should behave and I discarded them one after another. Not scolding, not reproaching, not a threat of divorce—nothing seemed proper to me. I puttered around the house, tried to tidy up the rooms, displaced things aimlessly and then put them back. Before I realized the time had passed, I heard the well-known sound of Marcel’s car.

Oh, God, was it possible that it was already six o’clock? My pulls fastened, my mouth was dry and my palms wet. I sat down in the armchair against the door so I could see his face the moment he entered. I heard Marcel’s steps coming near and then he entered the living room.

“You are not Marcel, are you?” I heard saying myself. “Who the devil are you?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about.” He needed only a few seconds to overcome his first surprise. His gaze seemed soulless.

“You are not my husband.” I stared at his stern features. “I want my husband—I want my real Marcel to come back! He shall love me again, the way he loved me earlier, all those years!”

He glared at me. “Tara, you’re either drunk or out of your mind.” His voice was restrained, his attitude steady.

“What… Oh, God, what happened at that damned peddler’s? What has that devil done with you? Did he implant something in you… some demon?” I was on the brink of tears and I felt my fists clenching so hard my nails thrust into my palms. “Answer me, damn you!”

“Why should I answer you?” His voice remained indifferent. “You just said I was not your husband. I’m somebody else, a stranger. Therefore you haven’t any right to ask me personal questions.” Calm and self-controlled, he walked into his study and closed the door.

I wanted to go after him and confront him head on. I wanted to say him he had no right to treat me the way he did. But I couldn’t do that. All my arguments seemed unconvincing and my entire imagination vanished.

I was still sitting in the armchair when he came out of the study dressed in an old sweater and flannels. The odd thing was that I felt an embarrassment while he obviously didn’t. He took armfuls of books from the shelves and carried them out into our backyard. I was dumbfounded for among these discards were five or six complete bounded volumes of Threatened Nature, his favorite magazine.

Not long after that, I noticed the smell of smoke. I went to the window and saw Marcel burning the magazines inside an old steel barrel. I didn’t understand. He loved these magazines and before yesterday he had been literally obsessed with reading them.

I went to the kitchen to make a sandwich or two, for my own supper only. While I was buttering my bread, I heard a painful groan from outside and noticed something white flying past the kitchen window. What—?

I rushed to the window just in time to notice our white cat running away from Marcel, who watched it scornfully. He kicked it! He kicked Kitty, our beloved pet that he’d always caressed and spoiled!

My blood was boiling. I had patience when he treated me rudely but that was too much! I won’t allow him to wreak his malice on the poor animal. I rushed through the entrance hall but Marcel was already getting into our old Ford. Then he turned the car onto the street running over a neighbor child’s bike.

“What are you doing, you bastard?” I shouted with rage. Then I realized it wasn’t an accident for he braked and backed over it again, distorting the bicycle. Then he accelerated down the empty street.

I was dismayed. Who could I ask for help or at least for advice? My parents were dead, my only sister was somewhere overseas, and my best friend Sophie was in the maternity ward at the hospital. What about an adviser for married couples or a shrink? Oh, no. They would surely demand I should first talk reasonably with my husband.

I shook my head. Maybe that was the only way. I mustn’t give up after the first try. I have to persuade Marcel to listen to me and both of us have to try understanding each other. Calmly, as two adult, civilized people.

Hours passed, and then it grew dark but Marcel still didn’t return. Late in the evening, I went upstairs to our bedroom. I grabbed Marcel’s pajamas, two pillows and a blanket. I held them as far from me as I could—and carried them downstairs to the living room. Tonight I was going to sleep in the bedroom. In the locked bedroom.

Again, I waited in vain for hours waiting for sleep. And again, I had to get up to fetch a sleeping pill. The living room was still empty and quiet.

*

The slanting beams of the rising sun woke me up. I heard Marcel’s steps from below and the opening and closing of the living room door. While I descended the stairs I saw Marcel’s bedclothes folded up where I had left them the night before. So, he didn’t come home until morning. He’d never done such a thing during all seven years of marriage.

He entered the room and this time he didn’t avoid my gaze, he only nodded to me.

“Marcel, do you have a minute or two for me now?”

“Of course.” The words weren’t hostile; in fact they were strangely neutral.

“We must talk about what happened. I will be open-minded and I expect you’d be the same, okay?”

He shrugged. “I’ve nothing to hide. I also wouldn’t lie to you—if that is what you mean.”

“Everything… Everything is different since we came from that… oh, hundred times cursed circus! I haven’t the slightest idea what that damned peddler has done to you. But it had to be something awful—something evil.”

His attitude remained calm. “Why are you thinking that way?”

“Listen… Marcel.” I could barely utter that name. “From that evening you became a total stranger to me. And probably I became a total stranger to you, too.”

He tacitly shrugged, obviously agreeing with what I’d said.

“Help me to understand, at least that much I deserve after seven years of marriage.” I had to dry my tears and I hated that emotional response of mine. “You… You have to give me back my Marcel as he used to be. We both must take certain steps, together.”

“What do you propose?”

“We must go back together. I mean to the place where all this began. Let’s go to the circus again. We must find that peddler and force him… No, we can offer him money. I have quite a lot of my own savings. We can pay him, as much as he wants. All I want is that he lifts that spell from you, for heaven’s sake. Marcel?”

“Okay, if that’s all you want.” He spoke as if we were going out for a newspaper. “And forget about your savings. He wouldn’t claim any money from us.”

I wondered about Marcel’s swift agreement. No objections, no irony—was that possible? Marcel led the way into the garage while I grabbed my purse. My hands were trembling so hard my keys fell on the floor.

There were not nearly so many visitors as there had been that fatal evening. Many of the market stalls were closed, including Madam Fatima’s cabin, and I was frightened the peddler would already be gone, too. Marcel drove along the main alley to the end and then he stopped in front of a large tent.

The peddler’s tent was entirely different from all the others. A black, semi-translucent foil was strained tightly over a kind of slender, deceptively fragile framework. In front of the tent an empty, smooth plate, resembling black glass, was placed. It seemed to me the plate hovered inexplicably, without any support, about three feet above the ground.

The peddler was standing in front of his tent. A tall, self-confident figure, donned in a black mantle, black hood over his head, huge sunglasses, black beard, and a mustache. His lips were blubber, sensual, like on the pictures of Pan chasing a frightened virgin.

My mind got instantly blank. I couldn’t recall any of the words that I’d earlier prepared to say to him. Marcel was the one who restored the situation. He stepped forward and said calmly, “I’ve been here earlier, remember? The day before yesterday, in the evening.”

“Oh, yes, of course.” The peddler’s sensual lips widened in a kind of demonic smile. “You were the one who was interested in— Well then, let’s forget that. What can I do for you now?”

“I have… We have a sort of complaint.”

“Really? Such things happen to me very rarely. Still, I’m wholly at your service. You’ll tell me what seems to be wrong and I’ll try to correct that.” While the peddler was talking, I had a feeling his black glasses were fixed on me. “Perhaps it would be better if we talk inside my tent? After you, please!”

He flashed a smile at me, politely stretched his left arm, a door-size part of the tent slipped aside, and we entered.

*

During the first part of our ride home, Marcel and I remained silent.

It must have been raining meanwhile for on the uneven parts of the street surface many puddles remained. That district was sparsely populated so walkers were rare.

Each time Marcel noticed a puddle near the sidewalk he drove the car close to the curb and spattered a pedestrian with muddy rainwater. That seemed to me so funny I chuckled at every such occasion, especially when the wet splattered person responded by using strong language.

“Hey,” I made a comment, “you missed that one.”

“That wasn’t my fault,” he objected. “The puddle was too small.”

Then, I noticed a stray Doberman so I called Marcel’s attention to it.

“You better fasten your seat belt,” he said, as he sharply turned aside and stepped on the accelerator. The dog began to run for its life in a zigzag manner. I stooped forward as far as the seat belt allowed me, licked my lips, and watched the exciting chase. Marcel kept twisting like a professional racing driver, speeding up and breaking violently. Three or four times we nearly got the Doberman but then it found a gap in a hedge and swooped through it.

“What a pity!” I said. “Still, you were wonderful, darling.”

Several blocks from our house, we saw the old local tramp Ida carrying an apple in her hand. About the time she started to push her shopping cart over a stripped crossing Marcel put the engine in neutral, and we silently drove close behind her back.

Then he pressed the horn.

The old woman gave a shriek, her cart overturned, and all her belongings strewed on the asphalt ground. Her apple rolled slowly across the entire width of the road until the curb on the other side stopped it. I roared with laughter when I saw she was pressing her hand on her chest, her eyes horrified by fear.

After Marcel locked the garage, a thought occurred to me.

“Listen, Darling,” I said, “maybe we could pay a visit to the Stallmans’ this evening. What do you say?”

“Sure,” Marcel said. “We could chat a little, play cards, and even afford ourselves some drink. Was that what you had in mind?”

“Yes, Darling. Besides that we could suggest to the Stallmans that we should go to that peddler… I mean… to the Bodoni Circus, all together. They have three children, so it wouldn’t be too hard to persuade them.”

“That’s a good idea,” he said.

pencil

Edward Alexander Rodosek is a Construction Engineer, Doctor of Technical Science and Senior Professor in Faculty of Civil Engineering, Ljubljana, Slovenia, European Union. He is married to Rina and they have one daughter, Tejka. His pastimes are chess and long walks with his golden retriever Simba. Besides his professional work he writes science fiction, mostly at night. He is an author of ten collections of short sci fi stories and four novels (see: http://www.cobiss.izum.si/cobiss-eng.html) in Slovenia with good reviews. Several of his short stories have been published in SF magazines in USA and UK (Aphelion, Brew City, Down in the Dirt, Dreams Passage, Expressions, Jupiter, Midnight Times, Nocturnal Ooze, Quantum Muse, Sacred Twilight, Silver Thought, Spinnings, Spoiled Ink, Static Movement, Thirteen, Ultraverse, Vermeer, Whisper of Wickedness). E-mail: lesim[at]volja.net.

When Life Hands You Lemons

Boots’s Pick
Stephanie Moulton


Life hands people lemons all the time. This guy was given a whole grove—and no sugar.

He stood at a busy intersection with a sign, which read, “Will Work for Food.” Cars passed, and the occasional driver gave him the finger. Most shook their heads and frowned. He could see contempt in their eyes, could almost read their minds. “Get a job,” they’d spout. “The rest of us have to work, why shouldn’t you?”

They didn’t know that he’d had a job once. It paid enough for his wife to stay home with their children. When the economy went bad, he got laid off. He had too much education and experience for other jobs in his market. Fast food places wouldn’t hire him either. The savings account went dry, but the mortgage lender still wanted money. Soon, they were living on the streets.

Days blended one into another. Every morning, he and his wife would look for jobs, and every afternoon they would stand at the busy intersection with their sign. Once in a while someone would stop, but would tell them where to get help instead of just helping.

He thought this day would be no different. The sign was smudged; he stood motionless in the spring heat. He saw the stranger approach and dipped his head in shame, wanting the man to pass by as quickly as possible. Instead, the stranger stood before him with a paper bag that smelled of warmth and full stomachs. He smiled and took a large thermos out of the bag.

“Lemonade?”
pencil

“I am a senior English major and Student-Creative-Writer-in-Residence at the University of Illinois at Springfield, married, and have a one-year-old son. Another piece of flash fiction, “Beautiful Medusa,” was Billiard’s Pick in the June 2005 edition of Toasted Cheese.” E-mail: stephaniemoulton[at]gmail.com.

The Acquiescent Passion

Boots’s Pick
Ken Rider


It starts the moment you turn into the parking lot—a bittersweet obsession that drives you relentlessly forward. You cannot control your thoughts, nor do you desire to do so. You have long since ascended to a plateau of chronic urgency. You wonder how much more your perishable faith can endure regarding the expectation of emotional fulfillment. You perceive that you are running out of time, as this tormenting mania is unwittingly nourished by a burning desire. Your optimism, although weathered by seasons of disappointment, is still potent; however, it is diminishing, much like the stoical confidence anchored in your prime and the immortality perceived in your youth. Loneliness is a shadow, your constant companion, a voice in your ear that reminds you of a void that grows ever larger with each endless night, each misplaced day… each fleeting year. Your primal subconscious has awakened a semi-dormant creature from a restless sleep. You have transformed, once again, into an adept, seasoned hunter, a master at deceptively stalking unsuspecting prey, yet you are a bumbling novice at bagging your game. Your camouflage is a cloak of indifference and your weapons, a pleasant smile and a trusting face. The metamorphosis is swift, but complete. You embrace its essence with an acquiescent passion.

Approaching the enclosure that contains the elusive prey, intermittent movement catches your eye: one target to the left, three to the right, one over there and one dead ahead. You discern their merit in the blink of an eye, systematically eliminating the undesirables: “Too young, too old, too fat, too skinny, too ugly… too married.” The automatic doors methodically open as you walk toward the shopping carts, each one cold and waiting in line for a brief touch of a warm hand. Your attention is initially focused on the cashiers, but not so much that they would notice. You scan each face, then down each body, as you pass them. Some glance up to make eye contact, while others ignore your presence. The premise is to acquire necessities; however there is a subconscious agenda, hidden just beneath the surface. A quick, inconspicuous, reconnaissance is conducted, while simultaneously recalling a subliminal list of physical characteristics regarding the perfect mate. The store is filled with prospects, some pleasing to the eye, some not, and still others who fall somewhere in between.

You become excited by the multi-colored blonde who is just in front of you. She has a decent figure, a little heavy in the lower extremities, but you could overlook that. She turns to the left, revealing her face, one transitioned with layers of base, powder, and paint, vainly concealing the telltale map of time. Dispassionately, you look away and move on. Your expectations are high, anticipating a better selection. You approach the cute, but obviously young, cashier who has smiled at you on countless other visits. Was that warm smile, in the past, one of interest or was it merely the programmed grin of a salesperson? You walk slowly, hoping to gain a split-second of eye contact. She looks up to see you, nods her head, and immediately turns back to her customer, spouting a scripted response. You pass her by, sneaking another quick glance, but she never looks back.

You enter the produce department, the first checkpoint in the maze of long aisles and crowded shelves. The elegant, elderly woman in front of you is stalled, massaging a pineapple and then sniffing an avocado. You turn to the right, grab a small white onion, and hear a woman saying silly things. You look up to see a woman pushing a cart with a child carrier. You muse briefly, automatically eliminating her as a prospect, and turn to go down aisle number 1. A subtle glance reveals a young couple, early twenties, carefully examining the canned sweet corn, before placing the off-brand “two for a dollar” cans in their half-full cart. Shades of envy come over you as you witness her place her hand on the small of his back, gently rubbing, back and forth. You reach the end of the aisle, and experience a slight rush of adrenaline that momentarily takes your breath away. There she is again.

A petite, blue-eyed brunette, one you have seen many times before, is standing in front of the butcher’s cooler, carefully discerning her choice of prime beef. She appears to be close to your age—early ’40s, with touches of graying hair. You don’t need any meat today, but that hardly matters. You wonder if she has ever noticed you. Eye contact with each other has been made on several occasions. You push your cart a few feet from her, pick up a pack of hamburger and examine the price. She looks up, recognizes you, smiles and speaks.

“Seems we’re always running into each other… doesn’t it?”

You are shocked, but excited. You interpret the comment as an opening to get a conversation started. You never once think she is only being kind or polite. You haven’t considered that she may be married or otherwise engaged. Your selfish desires have eliminated any rational thoughts, only emotional greed. Boldly, but with uncertainty, you make your move.

“Yes… it does. You cut your hair… it looks nice.”

You see the smile abruptly disappear. She leaves the cooler without choosing anything and hastily pushes her cart in the opposite direction. You feel embarrassed at first and want to apologize, but it is too late for that. You wonder what this woman is thinking. You begin to feel like an idiot, that is, until you see the tall, mid-thirtyish redhead reaching up to grab a box of cake mix from aisle 5. Your eyes cut toward her midriff. The stretch has exposed her pierced navel, signaling an uninhibited spirit. When she looks your way, you shift your eyes to the signs hanging from above the aisle, pretending you don’t see her. You pause for a moment as you discreetly scan her shopping cart, observing the 20-pound sack of potatoes, the numerous cans of Spaghetti O’s, the case of seven-ounce fruit drinks and the “family size” box of laundry detergent, all pointing towards probable unavailability, with excess baggage. With reluctance, you dismiss her and carry on.

You catch a glimpse of a voluptuous, symmetrical torso as it flashes across the opening at the end of the aisle. She is going the opposite way, so you must turn around in order to accidentally cross her path on the previous aisle. The closer you come, the better she looks. She sees you and smiles. Again, the adrenaline rush, as you ask yourself questions, optimistically hoping for positive answers. What is she thinking? Is she interested? Is she “looking” too? Is she single? Is she married? Could she be… “the one”? You suddenly picture the two of you together, married, and cuddled up on the couch, watching a romantic movie. Your fantasy is shattered when two small children, screaming at the top of their lungs, run up to her, begging and whining, while stomping their feet.

“Mommy, Mommy… Can we have some of these… Please… Please… Pretty please? Daddy lets us gettum all the time.”

Geez, what a couple of spoiled brats, you say to yourself.

Peripherally, you see her look up toward you, but you maintain your focus on the children, exhibiting a “they are so cute at that age” grin, but only long enough for her to notice. You make eye contact, demonstrating your nurturing, non-threatening, trustworthy, “see how much I love children” smile. After all, she could be divorced and this is merely her weekend with the kids.

You continue down each aisle, constantly on the alert for the elusive trophy, while avoiding the lower forms. The borderline obese woman, still in her pajamas and house slippers, looks at you with a curious stare as you cross paths by the cookies. She smiles at you, grabs a pack of Chips Ahoy, chunky, and wedges them into the overflowing buggy. You feel uneasy. Her eyes appear to be fixed on your midsection. You cringe at the thought of what she may look like at daybreak before she has a chance to “freshen up.” Anxiety forces you to quickly turn and continue on your way. You hear her sliding her feet lazily across the floor. Aisle 12 is coming up, only four more to go, and still nothing to get excited about. Your initial, elevated criteria have slowly deteriorated, forcing you to contemplate settling for something less than hoped for. You notice a stately woman, obviously up in age, but appealing from a distance. She is standing by the spices, appearing to be watching you. She has, among other things, a handful of single-serving TV dinners stacked in her cart.

You approach the target from the left, stop right next to her, and scan her ring finger, pretending to search for a particular seasoning. Her acrylic fingernails only accentuate the disfigured joints of her fingers, failing in their attempt to divert attention from the shadowed patches on her hands. You see her eyes cut toward you, but her face is turned away. She too appears to be examining the shelf right above her. Her mid-twenties jeans clash with her overbearing middle-aged perfume. Her sleeveless turtleneck cannot fully hide the elastic skin under her chin or hanging from her frail arms. Images of lifeless breasts and a deflated posterior flash in your mind. You arbitrarily pick up a bottle of lemon and herb seasoning to drop in your cart before moving on. Only one more aisle to go and your optimism is waning. Then, out of nowhere, she emerges, moving toward you with an exotic elegance and a casual grace.

“My God,” is all you can think. No words can accurately describe your emotions. You feel your pulse begin to race. She is floating toward you, eyes straight ahead, gliding like a gazelle. Your level of confidence decreases, your self-esteem plummets, for you are witnessing the manifestation of your desire. You begin at her tanned feet, barely covered with thong sandals, up to her faded jeans, passionately clinging to her slender thighs. The supple points of her femininity are barely hidden by the thin fabric of her faded cotton top. You struggle to appear aloof, pretending she is nothing special, as you approach ever closer. You attempt to avoid excessive eye contact, but she is hypnotic, with her olive skin and raven hair. As you pass her, only inches away, the air is suddenly adorned with a hint of freshness, of unspoiled innocence, of sweet passion, like a gentle breeze caressed by a field of jasmine. Her full lips are luscious, her hazel eyes intoxicating, and her sweet voice is mesmerizing. She stops and turns to speak.

“Excuse me… Would you happen to know where I can find the puppy food?”

“Why yes… It’s… It’s… Uh… Back on… On aisle 9.” Your voice crackles and your face becomes flushed, as your insecurity rushes to the surface.

“Thanks.” Her sensuous smile strips you of your apathetic facade.

“You’re very welcome.” You try to remain calm, but cannot. Anticipation has filled your pounding chest.

“I just recently moved here and this is only my second time in this store. My name is Angela.” She tilts her head to the side as she extends her willowy arm.

“I’m Ryan.” You stall for time, holding her petal-soft hand as long as possible.

You cannot believe it; she is the one striking up a conversation. Your face fights the urge to brandish a wide grin, but fails miserably. You are beyond excited and past expectation. Your mind whisks you to another consciousness. You fantasize long, deep passionate kisses, taking naps together on rainy days, calling each other “baby,” and proudly displaying her to all of your friends. You scramble, in your mind, to come up with a response that will solicit more conversation and possibly her phone number as well.

“Well… Angela… ” Saying her name, further enhances your smile. “If you ever need guide, I would be… ” You stop as her cell phone rings.

“Hello… Oh hey sweetie… No, I’m at the grocery store… Okay, I will. How’re the kids… Good… Be home soon… I love you too… Bye. Sorry, you were saying?”

You deviate from your original response and make up a generic comment that disguises the embarrassing disappointment of her inadvertent rejection. With the wind driven from your sails, you nod your head, say it was nice meeting her and walk away, dejected, but still hopeful “the one” is still out there, somewhere.

You make your way to the cash registers; however, the exit is strategically timed in order to ensure the checkout is with the young, semi-attractive girl on register 4. Once again, you wait for the telltale eye contact that never comes. You look back to catch just one more glimpse of the gazelle and then monitor the entrance. Unlikely prospects pass the automatic doors and parade past your condescending gaze.

“And how are you today?” The checkout girl goes through her scripted greeting.

“Fine.”

“Looks like you’ll be cooking hamburgers tonight… Sounds good… I love homemade hamburgers.”

Is she flirting with you… Maybe hinting that she is interested… Should you ask her if she would like to join you? You agonize about what to do, but passively do nothing, thus preventing the likelihood of another rejection. You push the half-empty cart of groceries and disappointments out of the store, slowly returning to the current reality. Then you remember that you need some blank cassette tapes.

As you walk across the parking lot to Wal-Mart, the restless creature is awakened, yet again. Approaching the enclosure that contains the elusive prey, intermittent movement catches your eye: one target to the left, three to the right, one over there and one dead ahead. You discern their merit in the blink of an eye, systematically eliminating the undesirables: “Too young, too old, too fat, too skinny, too ugly… too married.” The automatic doors methodically open as you walk toward the shopping carts, each one cold and waiting in line for a brief touch of a warm hand. Your attention is initially focused on the cashiers, but not so much that they would notice. You scan each face, then down each body, as you pass them. Some glance up to make eye contact, while others ignore your presence. The premise is to acquire necessities; however there is a subconscious agenda, hidden just beneath the surface. A quick, inconspicuous, reconnaissance is conducted, while simultaneously recalling a subliminal list of physical characteristics regarding the perfect mate. The store is filled with prospects, some pleasing to the eye, some not, and still others who fall somewhere in between.
pencil

“I was born in Louisiana in the the summer of 1955. I have been writing for approximately two years and have discovered that my passion for this hobby has consumed me. I write every morning before going to work and contemplate writing all during the day. I have written four books, as of this date, and can’t seem to stop.” E-mail: krider1955[at]yahoo.com.

Broken

Boots’s Pick
Erica Zidel


It was not supposed to rain today.

The forecast for the week called for clouds and humidity but only a scattered chance of showers. It rained just once last week and there had been a greater chance of it then.

Inside the room, the air was stifling. Outside it was cold but inside it was hot. The black fan buzzed furiously on the bookcase, trying in vain to break the humidity. The single window stood open a crack, but the heaviness just lingered. No breeze dared enter. The white curtain with eyelet cutouts had been drawn shut, and a dull grayness seeped in through the spaces.

The boy sat at the foot of the bed, picked his sweater off the floor. He pulled it over his head and stood up.

The girl tried to rise, but the air pushed her down.

“Don’t get up,” he said.

She watched him pull on his jeans and sank back on her pillow. She breathed in deeply and the familiar scent swept through her body. The room started to spin. The girl closed her eyes. Please don’t leave, she wanted to shout. On the bookcase, the fan continued to roar.

“It was good to see you again.” He offered an empty smile.

She lifted her eyelids. The room was getting hotter. The air clung to her body like a wet shirt.

The girl nodded.

He walked over to her and bent down. He pressed his dry lips against her forehead the way he always used to.

“I’m glad we can be friends.”

She didn’t say anything. The grayness attacked from all sides and her heart raced into oblivion.

The boy turned and took his coat from the desk chair. He walked out the door and closed it most of the way behind him. The fan screamed and the thickness buried the girl in her bed.

Inside the room, the rain started to fall.

pencil

“I am a freelance writer and a graduate of Harvard College, cum laude in English. I have studied fiction writing under authors Samantha Chang and Katherine Vaz, and have had my work published in Fifteen Minutes, the weekly magazine of the Harvard Crimson. In 2003, I was hired to author a 120-page book, entitled Hooking Up: The College Girl’s Guide to Dating and Relationships, which was published by Rabbit’s Foot Press.” E-mail: erica.zidel[at]gmail.com.

Cathartic Introspection at 3:18PM

Boots’s Pick
Matt Hardman


It’s always interesting when we see an object or person juxtaposed into a unfamiliar situation: a seagull sixty miles inland, a rusted Ford LTD in an affluent neighborhood, a attractive woman alone in a seedy bar sipping Pabst, or the show of capitalism of the bohemians at the Wicker Park craft show that surrounds me as I write this.

That’s why it struck me to see the old woman in line in front of me in the supermarket. I see her almost every morning on the train. We always end up in the same car towards the front. She gives me the same “looking down her nose” look at me every day. Maybe it’s my long hair, I think, Or maybe she’s tired of seeing me.

We both get off at the same stop, Clark Street and Lake. I always rush past her, probably brushing up against her bony shoulders once or twice. She takes the elevator and I take the escalator. I try and get ahead of her so I’m not stuck in the processional that seems to automatically form behind her. Thousands of us flow out of the cattle cars that whisk us away from our lives to our places of employment, and she is just a slow moving obstacle, blocking the American dream of “Work hard and you can make it, by God, you can be someone!” You see, she always walks, or should I say shuffles, very slowly. I’ve learned that kind of movement doesn’t play well with the hurried crowd pouring out of the Blue Line subway. All’s fair in love, war, and trying to get to your connecting train at 6:50AM, I’ve discovered. So I don’t feel too bad for brushing past her; she should be used to it by now.

So here we are, together in line at Jewell on a Saturday afternoon. Again, I was joining her, both of us on the way to a destination, with a singular purpose. What was she buying? I peered over those same bony shoulders to see what was in her basket and noticed three packages of generic instant cocoa, a quart of soymilk, and a pair of white socks. She turned at looked at me and I got the same look down the long range of bone that was once a nose. I wonder if she recognizes me? I thought. I was wearing a hat after all. She glanced into my basket to discover it full of fresh vegetables, chicken, organic corn chips, and a six-pack of Red Hook IPA. It was going to be a good dinner tonight.

What kind of person gets cocoa, soy milk, and ankle socks in the same trip to the store? I wondered. She was no doubt questioning my decision to purchase organic chips instead of the store brand. Hey, it’s my money. Deal with it.

She hobbles slowly in line, putting her items on the counter and brushes into me as she sets her plastic basket on the floor. Payback, I guess. She burrows around in her coin purse looking for the correct change, then gives up looking for the nickel in a sea of dirty pennies. She stares blankly at the clerk as he tells her that the machine at the end of the counter will automatically dispense her change. Ah, the wonders of modern technology! Now the uneducated no longer have to make change. She grabs her thirteen cents and meanders home. She must live alone since she doesn’t have a wedding ring on. She looks isolated, aged, and discontent with whatever hand that life dealt her.

So what’s the point to this three-minute observation I made while in line at the grocery store? I started wondering what she thought of me. Why does she look at me the way she does? More importantly, what do others see when I’m out of my element?

I work long hours at a corporate job, a prisoner in my cube. The good of the company affects my every decision. I am professional, honest, and do my job quite well. There have been many instances while interviewing candidates that I make a decision that will affect their lives, even though we have never met. I have sent many people back to the unemployment office to testify to a faceless swine of government efficiency, to beg for one more week of benefits, when I could’ve sent that person home to celebrate their new job with their family and friends. So what would my stuffy co-workers think if they saw me now? Camped up against a tree with a notebook propped on my ripped jeans and an anti-corporate America T-shirt on? An opposite portrait of the character I play Monday through Friday. How about when I’m lying naked in bed with a girl I hardly know, high on Mexican hash that we bought earlier that night? Or when I was running from the police at an anti-war rally on Lake Shore Drive? Or when I sit alone in my apartment, crying, wishing for a second chance at a lost love? What would my Protestant family think if they knew I spend my Sunday mornings in a Buddhist temple, chanting away as the incense permeates my skin and the spirit of Siddhartha surrounds me? Do my eyes truly convey the life that I have lived? The pain, the happiness, and the 27 years I have spent becoming me?

I guess I’m no different than the woman in the supermarket. I am a picture within a landscape, within a telescopic view from the heavens. I lead one life, then another. But does anyone really care? Do they take me as who I am, not caring what’s beneath the surface? What do others see when the sun is at my back?

Maybe I’ll take the time to greet the woman on the train when I see her next. Probably not though. Our private selves are our own, for those privileged few to discover.

pencil

“I am 27 years old and live in Chicago. I currently work a job that stifles creativity, so I have begun writing again to help balance my life.” E-mail: ml_hardman[at]hotmail.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.”

pencil

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