One Night in Bridgeport by Mark Paxson

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Bob Zeanah


One Night in Bridgeport (King Midget Press, 2012) written by Mark Paxson explores the reactions of people to an alleged incident. Jack McGee is charged with rape after a one-night stand that he regretted the next morning.

Jack is a big-city lawyer sent to the quaint town of Bridgeport to make a contract offer on farmland. Bridgeport is full of small-town prejudices against lawyers and big cities. Lea Rogers is one of their own, a beautiful young woman, just home from college to help her mother save the farm that has been in the family for generations.

Lea files rape charges after persuasion by an assistant district attorney wanting to make a name for himself and to ingratiate himself to Lea, his secret high school crush. However, she is not a victim of anything other than embarrassment. In fact, she instigated as much of the sexual relations as Jack did. Abandoned by the people who should have supported him the most, Jack McGee is forced to face his crisis alone along with the court-appointed young attorney who must keep her opinions detached.

In addition to presenting an engaging story, One Night in Bridgeport is as much about a study of people and their inclination to prejudgment or capacity to withhold judgment until facts are known. Paxson explores his characters and the psychology involved affecting each character. He details what the responses reveal about each character. Some convict Jack of rape in their minds without the facts; some offer solace and a place of refuge. Friends and colleagues abandon him and strangers take stances, some withhold judgment and some find ways to support him quietly. Some strangers want to become vigilantes. The judge sitting the case plans to retire as soon as he can get the rape trial over. A couple of facts keep nagging him and he is torn between supporting the local girl and slipping quietly into retirement or pursuing what nags him.

Paxson brings his legal expertise into the writing of the book. Some may feel compelled to compare Paxson to John Grisham. However, Paxson goes much deeper into the analysis of human behavior. He shows characters at a greater depth of understanding.

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Mark Paxson is a graduate of California State University in Sacramento and holds a law degree from McGeorge School of Law, University of the Pacific. He has practiced law for the past twenty years. His other published works include Marfa Lights and Other Stories (CreateSpace, 2012) and Shady Acres and Other Stories (CreateSpace, 2012). His stories “Gramps’s Record Player” and “The Ice Cream Man” were Toasted Cheese Best of the Boards selections and his article “Back to School: Reflections on Taking a Continuing-Ed Writing Class” appeared at Absolute Blank in 2011.

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Dr. Bob Zeanah is a freelance writer working mainly writing grants for small non-profit agencies. Bob teaches Creative Writing and his classes are in demand with students taking classes three or four times. In addition, he teaches classes in business writing, editing, and grant writing. He has two unpublished books, Then We Have Work to Do and A Magnet for Crazy. The latter he co-wrote with Suzan Christensen. Email: bobzeanah[at]gulftel.com

Gramps’s Record Player

Best of the Boards
Mark Paxson


It was Gramps’s old record player that did it. In the end, it almost ripped us apart, which would have been ironic. In the end, it brought us back together again.

My first memory of the record player was from a day my parents left me with my grandparents. Back in the mid-seventies when I was probably five or six years old. My grandparents were supposed to watch me while my parents shopped for a car. Mama had wrecked the car the week before and Daddy was none too happy about having to buy a new one. The last thing he wanted was for “the sniveling little brat” to come with them.

When Mama dropped me off, I did my best to live up to Daddy’s view of me. I sniveled and cried. As Mama walked down the pathway to the street, where Daddy sat in Gramps’s car waiting, I screamed and stomped my feet. It did no good. Mama got in the car, closed the door, and blew me a kiss while I held my hand out and cried for her.

As Daddy drove the car down the tree-lined street, Gramps picked me up and kissed me on my cheek, his rough stubble a memory I haven’t forgotten. “Come, little one,” he said in his old country accent. “Let us listen to some music.” He took me into the front room and sat me down in his recliner.

While I tried to control my sobs, Gramps went to a cabinet in the corner. On top was his record player. It had fake wood paneling and two huge speakers on the floor next to the cabinet. Gramps lifted the arm and placed the needle down on the spinning platter, bringing forth a crackle from those speakers. My sniveling stopped. Through the opening seconds of hissing and snapping, Gramps walked to the chair I sat in. He leaned over and picked me up, a small grunt escaping from him as he did so. He sat down in the chair and put me in his lap as the music began.

I have no idea what the song was, but it soothed me. Within seconds I had stopped crying while the delicate sounds emanated from the speakers and Gramps rubbed my back. Every few seconds, he whispered, “Shhhhh.”

In the years ahead, Gramps’s old record player worked its magic. When I was grown, along with my brother and our cousins, our grandparents’ house was where we always returned for the traditional family get-togethers. For Thanksgiving, we ate Gramma’s dry turkey and drier stuffing. At Christmas, we enjoyed her baked ham and macaroni-and-cheese out of a box. For anniversaries and birthdays, weddings and funerals, we shared in potlucks and Gramma’s version of food.

Every time we got together there was always a point at which voices would rise, forks would be slammed to the table. Whether it was politics or religion, whether Aunt Suzie should have been invited or whether distant cousin Bill was a drunk, something always caused a stir that would end when Gramps rose from the table. “It is time for some music,” he would mutter to himself, but loudly enough for everybody to hear. Gramps, who was old back in the seventies when I was just a boy, would hobble to the front room. Soon, the crackle and hiss would make its way into the dining room and a few seconds later an orchestra filled with strings and woodwinds would follow.

When Gramps returned and sat back down in his chair, the creak of his joints overriding the music for just the briefest of seconds, he would look at his family reaching down the sides of the table. “Now, what were we talking about?” For the rest of the evening, whatever conflict had arisen was forgotten. The music did its trick.

When Gramps died, preceded only a couple of months by Gramma, he left no will. Just a house full of stuff accumulated over the ninety-one years of his life. We gathered there one Saturday afternoon. All of the cousins. My brother, John, and I. Chris and Chelsea. Our mothers, Gramps and Gramma’s only children, didn’t want to have anything to do with going through their stuff. It was too painful for them. “Take what you want,” Mama said. “Whatever’s left, give to Goodwill.”

The four of us were barely in the front door when Chris stated, “I want the record player,” and headed straight to it.

“Uh-uh,” John said. “Not so fast.”

Chris stood up and turned towards John. “What? You think you get it? You don’t even like music. You don’t own a CD, let alone a record. You wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

“Yeah, but maybe Chelsea wants it or Sherri,” John replied, nodding his head in my direction.

“I don’t want anything else. You can all fight over everything else in this house, but the record player’s mine,” Chris said, taking a step towards John. It was amazing how quickly his anger had risen.

“Chris, you don’t get to just march in here and order us around and tell us what you get and what we get.”

“John, it’s okay,” Chelsea said. “I don’t want—”

“The record player is mine.” Chris walked over to John and jabbed him in the chest with each word. “End of story.”

John didn’t back down, he batted Chris’s hand away and turned a bright shade of red. “Don’t do that again.”

I did the only thing I could think of to do. While the two men, acting like little boys, stared each other down, I went to Gramps’s record player and turned it on. Once the disc was spinning, I picked up the needle and placed it on the edge. I turned the volume up so that the crackle and hiss filled the room, followed a few seconds later by the sound of a lone violin eeking out a mournful melody.

By the time the first song was over, the four of us stood huddling together, wiping our tears and promising to do better.
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Mark Paxson spends his time toiling away as an attorney, filling the role of soccer and baseball dad, and writing when he can. He can be reached at mpacks[at]frontiernet.net

“Gramps’s Record Player” took third place in ReviewFuse.com‘s July Flash Fiction category.

The Ice Cream Man

Best of the Boards
Mark Paxson


When there’s nothing to harvest, Pedro pushes his ice cream cart through the streets of Watsonville. It is a meticulously planned route that begins around 10:00 in the dusty neighborhoods on the eastern edge of town. Even though it’s early, he hopes that kids playing in the street will want a cold treat. As the lunch hour approaches, the route takes Pedro through the small downtown and the surrounding commercial areas. Once he’s sold a few Popsicles and ice cream sandwiches to workers taking a mid-day break, Pedro heads back through more residential streets. Kids playing with hoses. Kids playing tag. Kids playing baseball in the street. They can hear the little bell on the cart jingle from a block or two away. Doors slam, kids yell for money and come running with coins dancing in their hands.

The smiles and laughs from the children should make Pedro happy, but there is too much sadness in his life. So, he plasters a fake smile on his face as he hands out his frozen treats and the children snatch them and run away.

As the afternoon turns to evening, Pedro pushes the cart towards home. Over the course of a day he will push the cart through more than ten miles of the town’s streets. He has made a few more dollars to send back to his parents in Mexico and to keep food on the table for Miguel, his own happy little boy.

When Pedro gets home, he gets Miguel from the neighbor who watches him during the day.

Gracias, senorita,” he mumbles as he takes Miguel by the hand.

De nada,” Maria replies. Pedro doesn’t notice how Maria’s hand lingers on his as he passes a few of the precious dollars he has earned to her.

Miguel, having just turned three, is a ball of fire. Non-stop movement. Non-stop chatter. Pedro can’t help but laugh and smile watching Miguel. The hour or two Pedro has with his son before he puts him down to sleep is the only time Pedro allows himself to be happy. He has to for the little boy’s sake.

They play. They wrestle. When Miguel goes to bed, Pedro lies next to him and tells him stories about Mexico, about home, about his grandparents. He has not been able to tell Miguel stories about his mother. Not yet. Those memories are still too painful.

Once Miguel’s eyes have closed and he is sleeping peacefully, Pedro gets up, kisses him lightly on the cheek and goes out to the kitchen. He gets his dinner and a cerveza and sits down at the small, worn kitchen table. As he eats his meal—rice, beans and a couple of tortillas made by the neighbor who watches his little boy and whose hand lingers on his own—Pedro does what he has done every night for the last year and a half. He relives the night he lost Isabella, his wife.

They grew up together in a small town in Mexico, surrounded by family and friends. Everybody knew everybody and everybody knew Pedro and Isabella would marry some day. As early as sixth grade, other kids would make fun of them because of how close they had grown.

A few years after the couple proved everybody right and married, Miguel was born. Shortly after his first birthday, they decided to cross the border to California. Pedro and Isabella dreamed of a better life, a life they didn’t think possible in their desolate corner of Mexico.

On their journey to California, after they had crossed the Rio Grande and crouched their way through a small tunnel that funneled illegal immigrants into the country, they were packed into a van with its seats taken out. Fifteen people were packed into the back, sitting side by side on the floor. Packed in like sardines. The air was stifling and the aroma of sweat and fear filled the van.

Suddenly, the driver slammed on the brakes. The tires squealed. The van veered to the left and began to tip over. It seemed as though it took forever, but in reality it was over in a second or two. In that time, Pedro curled into a protective ball around his son, who was sitting on his lap, and tried to reach for Isabella. He didn’t reach her in time. As the van crashed over onto its side, he could feel her slide past him and slam into the wall.

The back doors burst open and the occupants began stumbling out. Pedro carried Miguel out and turned to look for his wife. She didn’t follow him out, so he went back to the doors and peered in.

There were three bodies scattered in the corner, jumbled up with each other. One of them was the girl Pedro had known for years. The girl he had loved since the beginning of his time. The girl who had grown into a woman and become his wife and who bore his child. He could see the features on her face, frozen in place. He could see that her head was bent awkwardly to the left. Her eyes stared blankly into space. Pedro had lost her while in search of a dream.

Every night, over a plate of rice and beans, he relives that night. He can still feel her slip out of his grasp and hear the thud as she hits the side of the van. He no longer remembers the feel of his wife in his arms. He only remembers his hand reaching for her that night. He no longer remembers her laugh. He only remembers the sound of the thud. He no longer remembers the smile that used to light up her face. He remembers only the sight of her eyes staring into space.

That night Pedro had to run with Miguel in his arms to avoid being arrested. He ran and ran and left Isabella behind. He wasn’t able to bury her or properly mourn her. Now he mourns her the only way he can. Every night. Alone. Reliving that night. Tears running down his cheeks. At some point, he rises from the kitchen table, rinses off his plate, and goes to bed. The next day, he will sell frozen treats to happy children dancing in the streets and wrestle with his son before putting him to bed. Then he will sit by himself and try to remember Isabella, his wife.

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Mark Paxson is an attorney in California with two kids, a wife, two dogs, three guinea pigs, and a fish. A couple of years ago he began writing a novel, One Night in Bridgeport, about a man falsely accused of rape. Now in the middle of a painful rewrite of that novel, he fills his limited free time with short stories. He’s looking forward to finishing his first novel and moving on to the all-important second novel.