Return to Richmond

Tony Press

Photo Credit: Alpha/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Zeke followed the crowd off the train and into the streets of Richmond. It was his first visit in six years. It things went as planned, or, perhaps better to say, as hoped, his next trip would be with all his stuff, not that he possessed that much. He ordered a Lyft and gave an address in the Carytown neighborhood. It was a good place to have lunch, he had heard from two locals sitting across from him, and he didn’t remember anything better, so why not?

Yellow roses held sway on the small table beneath her bedroom window. Their scent, their shape, their fragile solidity, Annie appreciated all of it. She treasured the line from the Willa Cather story: The roses of song and the roses of memory, they are the only ones that last. May it be so, she requested, of the universe and anyone who might be listening. Even the letter carrier, just now walking by.

Xavier Puentes was Annie’s father, and he was dead. Annie had cared for him his last four dreadful months and, as is often the truth, relief had come only with the final breath. He had lived merely fifty years but had packed decades into some of those years. He was tired. His body was tired. Time was up.

When Annie’s call came, Zeke had been dozing in his tiny studio in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, listening to the Mets and Pirates. He woke, spoke, listened and spoke again, and within minutes was planning his journey south. The Amtrak schedule offered two choices from Penn Station: 3:25am and 10:35am. The early one would be perfect, giving him a late morning arrival in Richmond.

Very few people had come to the funeral, which had surprised Annie. Her surprise, too, surprised her. True, there was no family in town, or even within a three days’ drive, but she’d guessed some of her father’s old co-workers would show. Apparently, they hadn’t reached the “forgive and forget” stage yet. Or maybe they’d gone straight to the forgetting.

Under ordinary circumstances, Zeke wouldn’t have been home when Annie called. He would have been at his job in lower Manhattan, slinging hash—the vegetarian version—at a joint that had been running too long to be called “up and coming” but still hadn’t made a name for itself. Maybe the owner shouldn’t have called it The Nameless, but that was her call, not Zeke’s. Still, it was fortunate he was home, thanks to an unexpected private party that chose to bring in its own cooking crew. A night off with pay was a rare and beautiful thing.

Technology, like most swords, most doors, most fences, had two sides, but neither had helped Xavier. Not in the end. Not in the hospital, not at home with hospice, and not with his old career. Once television repair was a solid career, and so it was for him, until it wasn’t. Then the boss had everyone train in VCR repair. A bit later, the boss, with Xavier’s help, had torched the place, planning to split the insurance 80/20.

It turned out that a custodian named Wally Covington, who’d been the last of the cleaning crew to be laid off, had kept his key, continuing to sleep most nights in the backroom. Including that night. Three days later, the boss confessed, though not giving up Xavier, before killing himself. Xavier’s co-workers, however, had a well-founded suspicion of his complicity. And, it turned out, they had liked Wally more than Xavier.

Reflecting on her father’s next to last set of words: Mija, estaba con mi jefe. Tengo culpable. Soy un asesino, Annie recalled the days immediately after the fire: boss’s arrest, the jail suicide, and the embarrassment of the sheriff that such a thing could happen on his watch. The stories in the paper focused more on that than on the death of Mr. Covington.

Quicker than quick, a Lyft driver named Stuart appeared in a bigger than necessary car, and off Zeke went toward Cary Street, and Weezie’s Kitchen. Both of his train neighbors had urged it upon him, though they each threw three or four other names in his direction. If you like good food, you’ve come to the right place. One added: “The Rich in Richmond is really for the food. Maybe it didn’t use to be, but now, yes. Trust me.”

Picking through her father’s clothes, Annie created three piles. One for garbage, one for Goodwill, and one, much smaller, for grasping, though she couldn’t have said why. Well, she could say why for one of the items, her father’s grey-and-red Richmond Flying Squirrels T-shirt. They’d been at the ballpark together when he bought it, only last season, and it was still in good shape. They shared shirt size, too.

On the ten-minute ride with Stuart, a friendly tour guide, Zeke began to think the whole town was secretly paid by the Chamber of Commerce. “Yeah, the wife and I have been here five years and we ain’t going anywhere. Good size, good people, good weather… oh, and the food. The food. What brings you down here, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Next week, Annie knew, required some semblance of normalcy. Her school had granted a week’s personal leave, and also placed an excellent substitute in her classroom, but on Monday, she’d be back. It was Spring, Steinbeck time: Of Mice and Men for the freshmen and, for the juniors, The Grapes of Wrath. It was her favorite time of year. And bingo, she realized yet again, each book ended with a kind of beauty in death.

A menu could be a beautiful thing to read. Twice, Zeke asked his server to please give him more time, he was having such fun savoring the pages. He had been wrong before, but this time he suspected the product would match the promotion. He chose the “Traditional Bennie” but with veggie sausage, and Kate-the-server agreed it was a good pick.

Longing, longing was a word she never used, laughed when she heard it or saw it, and yet. And yet, she was longing for Zeke. She must be. Why had she called him if not for that? When had they last talked—two years? Three? She considered “confessing” her use of the word “longing” to her juniors, a word that was omnipresent on the right side of the board, on the list of words to avoid, or, at a minimum, to think twice before using. Especially in writing. Especially in her class.

Killer food, that’s what Zeke would say if he were to Yelp this place. Flat-out killer. Even if he were not a professional, “New Yawk professional,” at that, he would have appreciated this food. Anybody with half a brain would, as long as their taste buds were intact. The vision, too, was important: the food arrived well-displayed on the plate. This was a nice landing. The rest of the day, he confessed to himself, about that, he was nervous. He walked out to the sunshine and soon was in another car

Jumping at the sound. A black SUV in her driveway, a Lyft sticker on the window.

It was happening. Zeke grabbed his bag and jumped onto the driveway.

He’s here. Look at him.

God, she’s beautiful.

Finally, they thought.

Even now, five years beyond, they relive that moment.

Dad is a memory, and they focus on the good parts, not his hatred for Zeke.

Catalina is three.

Billy is one.

All is well, in the small house, the classroom, and at Zekes Heartland Café, Fine Food from Z to A.


Tony Press tries to pay attention. Sometimes he does. His story collection, Crossing the Lines, was published by Big Table. He claims 2 Pushcart nominations, 12 years in one high school classroom, and 25 criminal jury trials. He lives near the San Francisco Bay. Email: tonypress108[at]

New Micro edited by James Thomas & Robert Scotellaro

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Tony Press

New Micro: Exceptionally Short Stories edited by James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro

My math may be off but I think there are 113 stories in these pages, written by 88 different authors. But numbers here aren’t important except to note that not one of the stories is longer than 300 words. This is New Micro: Exceptionally Short Stories (WW Norton & Company, 2018). People, let me say that editors James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro know flash fiction (just look at their editing and writing credits) and we are the better for it. This is the collection of the year.

You’ll find names you don’t know, names you do, and names that will surprise you. For that third category, I offer (the book does, actually) flashes by Stuart Dybek, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Edgar Wideman. Who knew?

But it’s not just name-dropping. Story after story grabs and grips and flat-out stuns. Sprinkled among my scribbled as-it-happened notes I found these words, frequently repeating themselves: perfect; heartbreaking; tough; yes; mysterious; haunting; scary (internally and externally); funny; sweet; and even everyday-life-yet-apocalyptic. And then there’s Wow! And Twelve Perfect Sentences! And Holy Shit!

That last comment actually came with the very first story, Pamela Painter’s “Letting Go.” The “twelve perfect sentences” arrived with Nancy Stohlman’s “Voodoo Doll,” and the “wow!” is thanks to David Shumate’s “The Polka-Dot Shirt”—but there are so, so many more jewels strewn among these pages. That one, for the moment, could be my absolute favorite, but there are probably twenty candidates for that honor. Or possibly fifty.

I did not love every single story but I’m glad I experienced each one, and I applaud the organization of the book. I’m sure each of us will find links between and among stories, as the tales occasionally talk to each other, or shout across from each other. Some connections we will all see, some will be ours alone.

A few lines that demanded I copy them into my notebook:

She’s got her clothes on, and the beginning is over.
—Richard Brautigan, “Women When They Put Their Clothes on in the Morning”

The snow falls and they can’t get warm, no matter how hard they make love.
—Michelle Elvy, “Antarctica”

They hated failure more than they hated each other, so they would do anything to keep their marriage from falling.
—William Walsh, “So Much Love in the Room”

My lover never noticed, and now at night he lies next to us, thinking that he’s the bartender.
—Thaisa Frank, “The New Thieves”

Flash fiction, in this case, defined as no more than 300 words, doesn’t always translate to great writing. We’ve all read “flash pieces” that don’t know what they want or where they’re going, other than “oh, this will be short!” The stories in the collection, brief as they are, will last a long time, and will be read and re-read often. The subtitle “Exceptionally Short Stories” reminds me that, yes, these stories are exceptional. This project was in good hands, and now, lucky for us, the book can be in ours.


Tony Press tries to pay attention. Sometimes he does. His story collection Crossing the Lines was published by Big Table. Equinox and Solstice, an e-chapbook of his poems, was presented by Right Hand Pointing. He claims two Pushcart nominations, five stories in Toasted Cheese, about 25 criminal trials, and 12 years in a single high school classroom. He loves Oaxaca in Mexico, Bristol in England, and especially Brisbane in California.

Crossing the Lines by Tony Press

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Lou Gaglia

Crossing the Lines by Tony Press

Crossing the Lines by Tony Press

I am partial to the short story form, and especially enjoy stories within a collection that express a common theme. Tony Press’s book Crossing the Lines (Big Table Publishing) is a mix of thirty-three such stories, in which a variety of major and minor characters struggle over love and loss and grapple with truth, however evasive.

In “Always Present, Always Watching,” Kenneth, in a failing marriage and killing time before his counseling appointment, comes across a book written by a teenage friend, LaDonna, whom he hadn’t seen in almost thirty years. Sitting in “a stuffed chair in a back corner” of the bookstore, Kenneth flashes back to vivid scenes of his friendship/near romance with LaDonna, which ended when she was forced to move away. Kenneth the adult remembers LaDonna’s lips, which looked “like someone—Van Gogh? Michelangelo? God?—had painted roses or peaches and transformed them into lips.” She is a unique, complex character, and when she moves away the reader misses her, as Kenneth did. There is a touching contrast in this story between the freshness of Kenneth’s teenage experiences, and his grown-up experience of going through the motions of a failed marriage. This story, about love and loss and memory and a search for the truth about others, is at the core of Press’s book.

Within this collection there are other stories about love and loss, including an interesting series of relatively short pieces in the middle of the book, all related to the Vietnam War. They are led by a moving short piece called, “Pancakes,” which takes place in 1970. Over breakfast in a diner, young Jake can’t get enough of the news, and “would have arranged for a daily paper to be delivered to the door of his dented but beloved bus.” His friend Rob, however, growls to Jake that he doesn’t want to “hear the body count every… day.” Still, Jake continues reading the paper until he comes upon news that hits home for him—the death of Jimi Hendrix. He leaves the breakfast table to walk outside, and soon Rob joins him. By the story’s end, we feel the loss with Jake, and we sense his friend’s compassion in a beautifully understated ending:

The guitar was put back into its case, returned to the van and tucked safely among the pillows and sleeping bags. He (Robby) drove, and the guitarist ate cold eggs with a plastic fork.

Later, in “Cookie and George” two unique high school boys named George, are both killed in the Vietnam War. They are very much individuals—delightfully nonconformist and peaceful in nature, but the story is mostly about the effect of their deaths on the narrator and his good friend, the sister of one of the Georges. As the narrator puts it:

…young men are almost always marching and shooting and dying in the name of something that just might be oil, might be patriotism. We touched their names with our hands, our two Georges among the fifty thousand.

Of the many fine stories in this book, the most memorable to me is “Cultural Anthropology” about two likeable college students. April becomes pregnant, and her boyfriend, the narrator, fails to be with her when she needs him most. April’s presence is felt most in the scenes in which she is absent from him—or perhaps more accurately, when he absents himself from her. At the end of the story, she tells him over the phone that “she felt dead,” that “her parents didn’t know, and it was hard not telling them,” and that “all she did was hurt.” The absent April, a strong character to begin with, feels most present to the reader then. Press deftly, patiently, and methodically guides the reader through the experience of this young couple. It is a story about a betrayal, about love and loss, and perhaps crossing lines from which one can never retreat. We feel for both characters.

The stories in this collection, in which Vietnam and post-Vietnam settings are palpably present, remind us how precious relationships are, and how every action changes the lives of others in perceptible ways. Tony Press is an excellent short story writer, and Crossing the Lines shows what can be done with the short story form, in the right hands.


Tony Press lives near San Francisco and tries to pay attention. Sometimes he does. His publications include over one hundred stories and poems (and occasional non-fiction pieces). His writing has appeared in Silver of Stone Magazine, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Connotation Press, Fiction on the Web, and Toasted Cheese.  Tony has been nominated for the Pushcart, Best of the Web, and the Million Writers Award. He is grateful to kind editors and receptive readers.

pencilLou Gaglia‘s short story collection, Poor Advice, received the 2015 New Apple Literary Award for Short Story Fiction. His fiction has appeared or will soon appear in Menda City Review, Forge, Toasted Cheese, Serving House Journal, Frigg, Halfway Down the Stairs, Rappahannock Review, Thrice Fiction, and elsewhere. He is a long-time teacher and T’ai Chi Ch’uan practitioner, first in New York City and now in upstate New York. Email: lougaglia[at]

Cookie and George

Tony Press


Photo Credit: scarlatti2004/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

The first George was my sister’s age, two years older than me. His sister, Missy, was in my class, and they lived down the street in a house that backed up to the creek that gave the town its name, so from day one I knew who he was. He was forever the tallest guy on the block. Everyone tried to get George to play basketball but he never went out for a team. He played at recess, and in P.E., but that’s all. He’d rather draw pictures.

“It’s a game, guys, it’s just hearts or four square or Risk. Coach thinks it’s war, and who needs that?” Even in art class, where he was really good, he never put his drawings into competitions.

He was always George. Never anything else. No, that’s not true, because once I heard some jocks call him Georgie-the-queer. I looked away real quick, but I heard the coach laughing with them. Who knows? And even then, when I knew almost nothing, I knew enough not to worry about who liked what. Who cares? They were jerks, I knew that much.

The second George was George only to his teachers. To the rest of the universe, from his seventh birthday on, he was “Cookie,” because that was the word that enticed him from a dead-perfect but rapidly airless old refrigerator during hide-and-seek on that very birthday: the word likely saved his life.

Of course George is not an unusual name, but we only had the two for years, even in a high school of almost 500 students.

As life does on occasion imitate art, Cookie proved to be one sweet kid. He was adored by all: little kids, dogs, big kids, teachers, parents, the whole town. Being nothing but himself, he charmed. His smile calmed you, his laugh made people grin without knowing why. He asked you questions because he wanted to know the answers. By the time he was seventeen, the girls, and doubtless a few moms, longed to share his company, and maybe one or two did. Boys liked to be with him, too, but not for the same reasons. I suppose dads would have, too, but we didn’t see many fathers in our neighborhood, even counting those who actually lived there.

George and my sister graduated on schedule as Missy and Cookie and I finished our sophomore years. George’s mother, who worked in the dry cleaning place two towns away, urged him on to go to college, but he declined.

“Not now, anyway,” he told her, and us. “I’d go if I had a reason, but right now I’d just be taking up desk space.” And just like that, he stayed, adjusting his life to full-time worker. He told us: “As soon as we get Missy through, I’ll probably go. You know me, if I want it, I’ll do it.” Instead, he hired on at the cannery, the town’s biggest employer.

George hoisted bottles, cans, crates and pallets of tomato sauce, chili, and ketchup six days a week. My mom’s boyfriend that year worked there, too, and told me “that George is skinny, but he’s a mother of a worker.” This boyfriend, Archie, looked pretty strong himself but it never came out at our place. The one thing he did lift was my mom’s real diamond ring, from when she was married to my dad. Old Archie grabbed it one night and we never saw him again. It took a while, but eventually my mom agreed it was a fair trade.

Nine months into his job, George got a letter from Uncle Sam. Just like that, he was drafted and gone. After a quick bout of basic training in a different part of the state he was off to Vietnam. My sister sometimes got letters but she never told me anything. How all of us could have been so clueless about the draft, I simply don’t know.

Two years after George’s graduation, Missy and I were practicing our own “commencement walk” across the makeshift stage in the gym. We had three days of practice to learn how to climb three steps, walk to the center, accept a diploma, and exit the other side. I guess it was the only thing they could do to slow down the clock. Strange pedagogy.

On the program, Missy was co-valedictorian. I was not the other one, but I was one of the 112 names listed alphabetically. Cookie did not make it. He had liked auto shop, and wood shop, and nothing in between, and dropped out junior year. He was already eighteen so it was his choice. Fortunately, his mom’s hamburger joint was the place in town, and without the nuisance of the school day, he served burgers and shakes from noon to eight, and still got to see everybody.

Every graduation week shocks. For three years, every day lasted forever as we trudged toward unimaginable futures. Now, entire weeks were flashing by like minimum days. Even the chunk of the senior class that hates school is struck dumb, thinking: “Well, dang, what am I supposed to do now?” Our class—“we are mighty, we are great, we are the class of ’68”—so radical, so hip, was fooled just like all the others. One moment we were freshmen, the next we were getting measured for caps and gowns. And, if you were eighteen and male, getting mail from the draft board.

Still, our year was different. I had cut my morning classes on April fourth to walk in the hills with Cookie but the car radio shouted that someone had murdered Martin Luther King. We still hiked but didn’t talk much. In June, just after I’d gone to bed, my mom came in to say Bobby Kennedy had been shot, on live television. Graduation was three days away.

Campus was dead-silent the day after Kennedy. Missy and I were sitting on a bench, sheltered by our favorite oak tree, finally signing each other’s yearbook, when Mr. Mayfield, the vice-principal, materialized as only he could, and told her to follow him.

“Hold my stuff, I’ll be right back.” Clutching my yearbook to her chest, she left with Mayfield, both walking quickly. I figured it was co-valedictorian stuff. I didn’t see her for two hours. When I did, she still held my yearbook, but she also held the knowledge that her brother George had been dead for a week—“died a hero”—Mayfield and the army guy repeated, as they could find nothing else to say. Missy and her mother, who had come to school in the army car, clutched each other on Mayfield’s mock-leather couch, portraits of championship football teams grinning down at them.

It would be a month before we returned each other’s yearbook, our messages hopelessly out-of-date. She skipped the ceremony, skipped her speech.

Despite Kennedy, despite George, graduation week continued. Those last few nights we partied on the hill behind school, drinking and smoking until we were wasted. Some kissed, some groped, some with cars did more. Missy was home with her mom so I hung out with Cookie. Missy told me I should go out, so I did. Cookie never missed those nights that flitted between boisterous and bittersweet. He promised he would be at graduation, “in the front row!”

Only four hours until “Pomp and Circumstance,” Missy still in seclusion, I went to George’s. You could say the hamburger stand was the town’s third George, named by and for Cookie’s dad, a guy most of us had never seen, who lived somewhere in Texas. Cookie wasn’t there and his mom, working alone, just shrugged her shoulders behind her blue apron.

He wasn’t in the front row or any other row. He wasn’t at the parties. Sometime the next afternoon his mom phoned. She was crying and said Cookie had called “at nine o’clock last night,” as if the important thing was the time of the call. Then she said “he joined the Marines yesterday. He’s already there.”

In March, on a steaming Sunday morning, Cookie stepped off a path someone else had chosen, walked onto a mine and exploded.

Cookie’s mother sold the place and disappeared. The new owner changed its name, sold it again, and it finally shut down. It was empty for years but now it’s a bike shop.

My sister swore off boys and started calling herself George. She moved to Canada to work with draft resisters and said she’s never coming back. She hasn’t yet.

I went to work at the cannery and my income, plus George’s “death benefit”—that’s a weird-ass term—put Missy through the university. I overdid it once at work and got a nasty hernia for my trouble, but the damn thing kept me out of the army.

Missy’s got two degrees but I tell her she can’t be as smart as people say, because she’s still with me. I’m lucky, and lucky beats smart six ways from Sunday.

Missy designs playgrounds and I build them, and we do okay. One guy who works for me is from Vietnam and he told me they call it The American War. I never thought of that.

Last spring Missy and I went to Washington for the first time. It’s been a while since the fall of Saigon, followed soon by the fall of Richard Nixon, but young men are almost always marching and shooting and dying in the name of something that just might be oil, might be patriotism. We touched their names with our hands, our two Georges among the fifty thousand. For a moment it was the way church is supposed to feel.

pencilTony Press lives near San Francisco and tries to pay attention. Good fiction, including some of his, can be found here: Blink-Ink, BorderSenses, Boston Literary Magazine, Digging through the Fat, Doorknobs & BodyPaint, 5×5, Foundling Review, Grey Sparrow Journal, Halfway Down the Stairs, JMWW, Lichen, Literary Orphans, MacGuffin, Menda City Review, 100 Word Story, 101 Words, Qarrtsiluni, Ranfurly Review, Rio Grande Review, Riverbabble, SFWP Journal, Switchback, Temenos, Thema, Toasted Cheese, Workers Write. He was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Email: tonypress108[at]

Cultural Anthropology

Tony Press

Photo Credit: Jen Kim

The morning of the last class of that summer session—the university campus aching to finally empty for the remaining weeks of August, 1970—Professor Cortez presented “an old friend,” introducing him as Charles Culbertson. He told us that his friend, a colleague for many years, would deliver a unique perspective on courtship, marriage, and sexuality among certain traditional Native American cultures. Like our professor, Culbertson was probably 40, and equally tanned. In all other respects, he was the antithesis of Cortez. He wore drab, baggy suit pants, a mismatched, tired sport coat, and a wrinkled shirt that had a faint memory of white. He was no more than five foot six (Professor Cortez was a good six-four). His backpack, open on the floor beside him, contained a liquor store paper bag out of which he sipped, furtively at first, but more openly as his talk progressed. He spoke with an inflection that strayed from Latin American to Eastern European. Neither sounded true. Although he dangled intriguing phrases like “temporary adoration,” “sense penetration,” and “descending into the power,” his talk lacked compass and meandered from one obscure reference to another. Thirty minutes in, as if a timer had sounded, he stopped, giggled, swooped up his belongings, and scurried off the stage, out the side door into the sunlit parking lot. The door slammed behind him.

Cortez walked to the vacated podium and invited response. Little was offered and the desultory discussion faded quickly. Cortez burst into an extravagant smile: “Actually, Charles Culbertson isn’t his real name. That was Carlos Castaneda. It’s been a good summer. Thank you. If you turned in a postcard, you’ll get your grades in about a week.” And he was gone.

We didn’t know if it was true. We didn’t even know where to begin thinking about it. Worse, April had never heard of Castaneda. Since then, I’ve never investigated, never felt any urgency to seek the truth of it, but the incident has never quite faded. Then and now, it seemed an appropriate coda to the course, and to what was to be our last night of the summer. Fall classes were racing in with a vengeance but this year I wasn’t playing. I had a ride-board connection to Madison, Wisconsin, where a friend of a friend would house me for a few days. After that… who knew? It was all waiting for me. For three months. Of course, after the three months, it would be back to school to save my student deferment. In another year, I’d have a degree. Maybe the war would be over.

I had met April in the front row of that Cultural Anthropology course, the day Cortez lectured on something about “titan realms of the mind.” I always sat in front rows figuring if I was going to be there, I might as well be there. If I wanted to sleep, I stayed home. Cortez worked the room, hair hanging to his shoulders, tight black shirt painted on his torso, blue jeans clinging to his long legs. His boots—April and I called them “Spanish rock & roll boots,” punctuated the smooth floor with each observation and challenge. Daily for six weeks, 120 students packed the room. It was the class you’d invite a visiting friend to see. He was also rumored to be rich—we saw him drive a bright red British sports car. He was so fantastic it crossed my mind April might have been looking for him when she searched my face. I couldn’t have blamed her.

Cortez was a scholar of the world. I played the role of a student. I did want to travel some day but Vietnam was not high on my list.

Bob Dylan was a titan, as were Jim Morrison and Mick Jagger. Me? April’s eyes, trained on me the next morning, made me feel that she thought it possible, and it was a good feeling. She sat cross-legged at the foot of my bed; her girlish body covered by one of my earliest Grateful Dead T-shirts. Though the shirt had been designed for someone much bigger, the shirt rode up when she shifted slightly, allowing a glimpse of her still damp pubic hair, and I stirred once more beneath the crumpled sheets.

She was eighteen and I was almost twenty-one. I had logged three-plus years of college; she had just begun in June, one week after graduating from high school. It was a significant gap.

She was the first girl I’d slept with more than twice. And for the last three weeks of summer school, she had been staying with me four nights a week, going home to her parents for the weekend, and then to her dorm for Sunday night. Her parents assumed (we assumed) that she was always at the dorm when she wasn’t with them.

On my bed that last morning she kept looking, as if she might forget everything the instant I crossed into Idaho. Even though I was the one leaving, she was the first out from under the covers. My ride was due. I remembered an earlier summer, still in high school, when I’d taught myself to sleep naked. It seemed odd then, to not wear pajama pants or underwear, but I knew that some day, soon, I hoped, I’d want to be comfortably naked with a girl.

“This is like Romeo and Juliet,” April said, playfully or seriously, I couldn’t tell. I often couldn’t. The movie had been our first date

“Remember,” she said, “he knows it’s time to leave, and he gets up, but she can’t stand it, and convinces him to stay a little longer. Let’s see, what did she do?” To my delight, she remembered.

Jesus, that guy was mad, but then he was laughing, when we staggered out to his car, my shirt in my hand, after ten minutes of honking. He dropped April at her dorm and we were on our way.

In five days I was in Madison, smoking dope in a brown-shingled house that supposedly once was Fighting Bob La Follette’s. After a few blissful days, I recognized the seduction of simply trading one campus town for another, so I put some effort into the next step. I found a job, and a room, in Janesville, forty miles south (and much farther still, it felt, especially without a car, from the hypnotic pull of student life). I worked, to my thrill, in a real blue-collar job, on an assembly line at Parker Pen. In postcards home I made cryptic references to “developing alliances with the proletariat.”

My room was over a garage on a quiet street midway between downtown and the plant, in walking distance of a sweet little park. I walked along it to get to my bus stop, the playground packed with little kids, mothers, and some fathers, and grandparents. It was a place a grandmother would love, and I readily accepted its comforts.

I was making more money than I knew possible, drinking Point beer, and even playing softball. Parker Pen had four teams in the city league, and I got on a team that played on the increasingly autumnal Wednesday evenings. Kirby’s Bar on Main Street, its walls lined with Green Bay Packer pennants and photos, was our team’s post-game site. If you went out the back way, past the pay phone and the toilets, you could stand, carefully, above the darkness of the Rock River. If you were drunk, you were a fool to get close.

It was from Kirby’s that I usually called April, the time difference working in our favor. I’d grab a bottle and set up camp at the phone with an ashtray filled with change. We talked for as many quarters and dimes as I had, with a little sighing and heavy breathing thrown in. In my time in Janesville, I was just so happy with the whole situation that beyond those calls I had no need for female company.

One Wednesday night, after seven innings of body-numbing softball in rapidly declining temperatures—“how can any third baseman in the world throw a ball with hands this cold?”—we were a particularly loud and raucous group, making the place even more our own than ever.

The “hello” sounded wrong. I thought for a second it was her roommate, even though that unknown entity had not once answered since I’d begun calling from Wisconsin.

“April? Are you okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, it’s just that…” I heard nothing more.

“What is it, babe? You don’t sound good. What’s up?”

“I’m pregnant.”

I can’t speak for a pin or a feather, but you do hear it when a bottle of beer drops. It didn’t break because it had been low in my hand when it fell, but it thundered on the concrete floor, and it was the only sound either of us heard for a long, expensive time. Only the phone company was happy.

“Shit, babe, are you sure? Forget that, that was stupid, of course you are. What, what… how are you?”

“Not so good.”

I’d never heard her cry.

“It’s so scary.”

“What… who… does anyone else know? What are you doing? What are we going to do? What do you want?”

“It’s all set up. It’ll be taken care of next week. Honey,” the crying increased to sobs. “Honey, can you come back?”

“I’ll be there as fast as I can. It might take a couple of days, but I’ll be there, I promise.”

“I love you.”

“I love you. Don’t worry.”


“I’ll be there as soon as I can. We’ll take care of it. I’m with you all the way. I love you. I’ll see you soon.”

It took two tries to get the receiver back where it belonged. I picked up the empty bottle and walked out the back door to the river steps. The wind laughed as it whipped through my thin Parker Pen jersey, and I screamed the word “fuck” louder than I’d ever screamed anything before. I made my best throw of the night, heaving the bottle as far south as I could, maybe all the way to Beloit.

I could have made my excuses, hustled back to my rented room, and began the process of getting myself back to Seattle, but I didn’t. Not right away.

I stopped first at the bar for another beer, and more, for commiseration. How could this happen to me? I’d been riding so high. Why hadn’t she taken care of things? Why hadn’t I? I was older, maybe I should have been more responsible, but we both were so careful. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.

My teammates were several beers ahead. My face invited questions. Questions led to answers. Answers led to more beer. More beer led to sarcasm, irony, ribaldry, raunchiness, drunken wit. Soon there were toasts to my virility, cheers for the size and skill of my tool, hip-hip-hoorays for April’s fertile delta. Ballplayers competitively imagined, and loudly described, “April-the-Acrobat.” We argued the best ways to tell, just by looking, how juicy a girl was. Then we got to their smells, their flavors, and the curse of pubic hair between the teeth.

Things did not improve—Kirby simply locked the door to prevent newcomers—as we reduced all women to manipulating cunts, as we hilariously topped each other’s suspicions of April’s motives, as Rocky said “that’s another reason to stick with sheep,” and Carl added “damn it, if they can bleed, they can breed,” But when Arthur, our shortstop, team captain, and my forty-five-year-old line supervisor and I chanted, repeatedly: “4-F, 4-F—Find ’em, Feel ’em, Fuck ’em, Forget ’em,” part of me realized that I was behaving worse than I knew possible and that if in that bar, or watching or listening through some unknown window, were any girl or woman who actually knew me, or was related to me, or might ever meet me, I would have thrown myself in the Rock River and prayed never to surface. It was the worst night I’d ever witnessed, and I was right in the middle of it.

In the midst of it, they did take a collection and I was able to leave for Seattle the next afternoon. In the morning I quit my room, quit my job, signed over my last check to pay the guys back, and threw up. Repeatedly. I was nauseous on the bus to Chicago, and the flight, through delays and bad weather, simply duplicated the morning’s agony. I spent most of the red-eye hanging over the cramped toilet.

We spent Friday together. She had indeed set everything up and the abortion was going to be first thing Tuesday. She’d been resourceful, gotten herself on benefits so it would be almost free, and most importantly, her parents wouldn’t know. We didn’t talk a whole lot, just walked around campus holding hands. Her body didn’t look any different but her face was a mess. She said she felt like shit. I was pretty weak myself, but I was smart enough to shut up about that, and she didn’t have much energy for me anyway. Because it was a Friday, she was, as she had in the summer, going home for the weekend. We would see each other on Monday, and then drive together to the clinic on Tuesday. She had arranged to borrow a friend’s car that I could drive.

Although there were plenty of floors and couches that I could sleep on, I didn’t much want to be in Seattle and I especially didn’t want to tell anyone why I was back. Maybe I feared a repeat of Kirby’s. It happened that my mother’s birthday was that Sunday, so I decided to hop a bus down to Portland to surprise her. For all she knew, her baby boy was still in Wisconsin. The idea of another bus ride made me cringe, but the thought of making someone happy, especially my mother, really appealed to me. I could get back on Monday, and nobody, especially mom, needed to know the real reason I was in town.

She said she was the happiest mom in Oregon when she saw me, and she may have been right. I stuffed myself with lasagna and because I can be as stupid as the next guy if I give myself half a chance, I drank red wine. With wine I usually just drink a glass, maybe two, but my aunts were pouring and my uncles were singing, and I had a bunch of stuff to not think about. Around midnight, the party broke up, and I was in my old room. A few minutes later, I was back in the TWA bathroom. All the lasagna, all the wine, everything. My misery was so loud my poor mother woke up, and she stayed with me for a few minutes before I could convince her to go back to her room.

I tried to get some sleep in the morning but my body swung from feverish to freezing to feverish, always one or the other. My mom twice made me get up so she could give me new sheets. The afternoon was worse, which I wouldn’t have guessed possible: delirium, shivers, sweat, and more vomiting.

“Mom, I’m a wreck, but I’ve got to get back to Seattle.”

“You’re not going anywhere.” She pressed a warm washcloth on to my forehead. “I’ve already cleared tomorrow so I can stay home with you.”

“No, mom, it’s important, I’ve got to go.”

“Honey, just think if it had happened in Wisconsin! Don’t worry, I’m here.”

She said I wasn’t going anywhere because I wasn’t in any condition to go anywhere. And nothing, she said, was more important than my health. Whatever I thought was so important would just have to wait.

I called April at three o’clock that Monday, my eyes burning as I held the phone, the receiver slippery in my feeble grip. I told her the truth: I was sicker than I’d ever been in my life, that I’d been bedridden and throwing up for twelve straight hours, that it showed no signs of getting better, that every medication I’d taken, over-the-counter and prescription, hadn’t done a thing. There was diarrhea, too. Endless. Everything endless. I told her I was sorry, I was so sorry, but I wasn’t going to be able to be there with her. Maybe her roommate, or the friend with the car, could go with her. I apologized again and again until she finally said “okay, okay, I understand, I really do” and “I’ll see you when you’re better” and then she hung up. I continued sick for two more days. I had never been, nor have been since, so physically ill.

Thursday morning, I was on the nine o’clock to Seattle. I caught a local from the station and went right to the dorm, but her roommate said she had gone home, was staying home for a few days. I called her, but she didn’t want to talk much. She said she felt dead. She said her parents didn’t know and it was hard not telling them. She said all she did was hurt. She said I shouldn’t call her there, and that we should talk next week.

Next week arrived, and we spent another miserable day walking those same campus paths, hand in hand. She said she forgave me. If she did, she’s the only one.


Tony Press lives near San Francisco. He strives to act with awareness and compassion. Fiction: BorderSenses; Boston Literary; Doorknobs & BodyPaint; 5×5; Foundling Review; Grey Sparrow Journal; Halfway Down the Stairs; JMWW; Linnet’s Wings; MacGuffin; Menda City Review; Qarrtsiluni; Rio Grande Review; Riverbabble; SFWP Journal; Shine Journal; Switchback; Toasted Cheese; Workers Write. Poetry: 34th Parallel; Contemporary Verse 2; Inkwell; Naugatuck River Review; Postcard Press; Right Hand Pointing; Spitball; Verse Wisconsin. Non-fiction: Journal of Microliterature; Quay; Toasted Cheese. tonypress108[at]

Always Another Straw

Tony Press

Chef's Special
Photo Credit: Scott Oakley

I’ve known my brother all my life but I never saw it coming. I didn’t know he was going until he flat-out told me across the kitchen table, the late August sun rising just a bit later than the day before. I was pouring coffee and he could have been saying, “Pass the cream,” like he’d done a million times before, but instead he said:

“Rob Berryhill’s giving me a ride to the station at eleven-thirty.”

“What’s he doing that for?”

“I’m going off to Denton.”

“Denton? What do you need in Denton?”

“I believe I’m going to the college there.”

And that’s how I learned Kenny had taken it upon himself to be a student. He was thirty-four, a full dozen years older than me. I did a computation and figured he’d been out of school as long as he’d been in school, then realized that no, that wasn’t quite right. But it had been a long time.

“When’s he doing that?”

“Who?” Kenny could play dumb when he wanted to. “Berryhill?”

“Yeah. Berryhill.”


My mind latched onto the only logical response. “Well, we still have time to fish. Let’s get moving.”

When we parked at the lake there was just one other vehicle, Charlie Boyd’s rusted camper-shell Chevy.

As we grabbed our gear, I asked Kenny, “What do you think of Charlie’s bumper sticker now?”

“What’s he got this time, I missed it.”

“It says: ‘My kid fought in Iraq so yours can party in college.’

“Does it? Is that what I’m going to do? I’m not even sure ‘party’ is a verb.”

“Don’t look to me. That’s for your professors.”

“‘My kid fought in Iraq, blah, blah?’ What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Beats me. I didn’t even know Charlie had a kid.”

“I don’t believe he does,” Kenny concluded, and we dropped our lines.

We fished but it was desultory. That’s not a word I often use, but that’s exactly what it was. Or maybe it wasn’t, because it wasn’t negative at all. It is a delicious thing to greet the day with your brother beside you as the water laps at your feet. All things are possible in the morning sun, especially on a lakeshore. As I tended to do at that spot, I recalled Kenny reading The Wind in the Willows to me during my otherwise lonely childhood. That image from the “Gates of Dawn” chapter always sparkles to the surface:

“…in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible color, seemed to hold her breath for the event.”

I don’t know why teachers never assigned that book in school. I understand more things each year but some things refuse explanation.

On the way back to town we stopped at the pancake place. They don’t make pancakes anymore, haven’t changed the sign, but Della can still fry eggs, despite losing her best waitress, her husband, and three fingers off her right hand on Fourth of July weekend.

Kenny paid his respects at the counter and ordered for both of us. When he joined me in the corner booth I asked how Della was doing.

“Don’t know. I asked if the highway deciding not to come this way after all was maybe the last straw for her, but she didn’t say anything.”

“You’re sure she heard you?”

“Oh, yeah, it wasn’t true about her hearing,” Kenny replied. “She’s just tired of listening to people ‘half-commiserate, half-gloat’ about her old man and Irene, so she let on that she’d lost a bit in her left ear. Except for her hand, she’s fine.”

“You think her husband knew about the highway?”

“That’s another professor question.”

Della arrived with a pot of coffee and not one word. We followed her lead until she came back with our eggs, mine scrambled, his over-easy, home fries, and extra toast. Kenny tried again:

“Della, are you at peace so soon?”

“Do I look like I am at peace? If I do, you both need glasses. Or in your case, Kenny, a new prescription. The damn thing is she was such a good worker. She’s the one I miss. Piper, if this place ever gets busy again, you’ve got a job if you want it.”

“Thanks, Della, but I’m done with restaurant work—or any indoor stuff. I’m getting enough work with the tree service. But I appreciate it.”

Kenny asked her, “What about Clark?”

“What about him? He was pretty much a zero the last few years anyway. I don’t get what she sees that I didn’t, but I don’t guess I need to.”

She left us, leaving Kenny to confess what each of us remembered:

“We were sitting right here, the first day Irene came in, wearing that T-shirt that said Not Everything in Nebraska is Flat. I finally understood the term ‘visual aid.'”

“Maybe you are ready for college.”

We ate, nothing more to say. Kenny grabbed the check so I got the tip. Della called out as the screen door thwacked shut behind us, “There’s always another straw.”

“She’s developing a case of pessimism. You may be fortunate to be leaving town.”

“Fortunate or not,” he said, “it is time to go.”

Dust chased our tires as I eased out onto the two-lane. I wondered how long Kenny had known he was leaving today. I decided I didn’t need to know the answer. He interrupted just as I was concluding that thought.

“I have to admit, it is hard to imagine Irene running off with Clark. She’s the most gorgeous thing to ever hit this town, and Clark? Really? Irene and Clark? Hard to see.”

“Didn’t you always say, ‘don’t judge a book by its cover,’ stuff like that?”

“You did listen! Mother would have been proud. I mean, I tried but I knew Irene was never going to see me as anything but a big buddy. She sure did light up a room.”

“She does, she does. So what are you going to study over there anyway?”

“Does? I believe that’s a present-tense verb. I was thinking engineering, but maybe I’m a natural for English. ‘Does?‘ Do you know something I don’t know? I mean, something in particular, aside from the multitude of things you know that I haven’t a clue about.”

“Can you keep a secret?”

“I’m your big brother and I can toss you across a room if I want to, so why don’t you just go ahead and tell me.”

“Kenny, can you keep a secret?”

“Okay, yes, I can keep a secret.”

“Clark and Irene did leave together, but he just gave her a ride to the old Jefferson cabin on his own way out of town. Where he is nobody knows, and if Della doesn’t care, I don’t think anyone else needs to either.”

“You mean she’s been across the lake from us all this time? What’s she doing out there?”

“She’s painting. And meditating. And making room for me almost every night.”

“You rascal! You red-faced little punk! Damn! You and Irene. Damn!”

We walked back into the house. Kenny lugged his already-packed duffel bag to the porch to be ready for Rob Berryhill and I sat down on the steps with him. We sat a minute before he laughed, repeated his “Damn! Irene! Damn!” then jumped up and ran back into his room.

He came back and plopped a book next to me. “Give her this, will you. She told me she’d never read it.” It was The Wind in the Willows, the faded red paperback edition. “Now I know she’ll love it.”

“She’ll get it tonight. I was going to tell you, we were going to have you out to the cabin, have a barbecue, but here you are leaving town on us.”

We heard Rob’s VW before we saw it. It coughed and barked but it always got people where they needed to go. Kenny hugged me and whispered:

“Piper, I have to admit I’m jealous as hell, but I’ll get over that. Mostly I’m thrilled for you. My baby sib is growing up.”


Tony Press lives near San Francisco and strives to act with awareness and compassion. Fiction: BorderSenses, Boston Literary, Foundling Review, Grey Sparrow Journal, Halfway Down the Stairs, JMWW, MacGuffin, Menda City Review, Qarrtsiluni, Rio Grande Review, riverbabble, SFWP Journal, Switchback, Toasted Cheese, Workers Write. Poetry: 34th Parallel, Contemporary Verse 2, Inkwell, Naugatuck River Review, Postcard Press, Right Hand Pointing, Spitball, Verse Wisconsin. Non-fiction: Journal of Microliterature, Toasted Cheese. Email: tonypress108[at]

Stepping into Summer

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Tony Press

Photo Credit: Mike Linksvayer

It is colder than it looked from my living room. After three glorious days of sunshine, during which I had been pent up within walled structures, this is my morning to walk it off.

I wear my old hooded soccer sweatshirt, which for years has felt thick and warm, but today is thin and not so protective. The breeze whips off the ocean, pausing only to plant cold kisses on my face. I keep the hood on. Summer on the coast can be hot, can freeze your ass off. Yesterday we hit 85 degrees right here, and today the radio is talking about 90-plus degrees “all over” but they never mention our corner, unprotected from sudden fog—nature’s air conditioner—and crisp sea air. Yes, sometimes, we do get the heat, but we’ll see about today.

I walk up San Pedro, glancing toward Hill Street, toward 2008 grad Teresa, and her baby, whom I’ve never seen. I suspect Teresa is worried about my reaction, as I had long harped “no babies” to my classes, and especially to the trio of Teresa, Lety, and Fabiola—so strong, so intelligent, each of them. Fabiola, too, has a baby, and I did see Fabiola and her baby, by chance, a few weeks ago. It was a fun, quick conversation, and we promised to meet soon for a longer visit. We set one up, but she didn’t show. I need to contact Teresa and Fabiola. I need them to know I still love them.

Lety, as yet, has no babies, is thriving in community college, and will be accepted by the university. Whether she can afford to go is another story. Not a good one.

Brisk walking takes away the chill, and soon I am flirting with sweat.

Across from Holy Angels Church I watch streams of people entering from all directions. A blue car briefly double-parks to let out a woman with a walker. She is about my age. I used to be young. Soon she is off the street and inside for Sunday Mass. The car moves on.

Around the corner on Mission Street it is quiet again. Few cars and almost no pedestrians, but two men walk toward me before disappearing into a doorway. What could be open at 8 a.m. on a Sunday? I reach the door: Al-Anon. Good for them, and glad it wasn’t me.

I cross the street and continue north. Two more men, could be brothers to the first two. They enter Gino’s Club: “where friends meet,” a bar that may have survived both earthquakes of the last century. I check its hours: open 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. seven days a week. Not good for them, glad it wasn’t me.

Climbing the gentle Mission grade, I turn right just before the War Memorial onto a small street I hadn’t noticed before. Just a block long, then it bends into an alley. I almost take a photo of an ancient, weather-beaten house. It could be a good photo, but what would I do with it? Last night I took a couple of photos of two mariachi musicians walking down Bartlett Street in the city, ready to make their rounds. The driveway next to the old house has a Harley and two yellow tow trucks. I don’t take the photo.

I angle up to the west on Brunswick. Approaching Chelsea Court I remember that a few students live there: Susie, the sweetheart who tried to kill herself a few months ago, and Jason, one of my biggest failures last year.

Susie and a friend unexpectedly turn the corner and walk in my direction. We smile, hug, say “good morning,” and separate. She’s doing well, has good support. I think she’ll make it.

A minute later, at 9:02 a.m., Jason and a woman appear. It may be his mother or aunt, I don’t know. She doesn’t see me, and crosses the street. Jason does, and stops. I say, “good morning.” He wears the black leather jacket he lives in, the Cincinnati Reds baseball cap he must sleep in, and the smirk that, too, is all-weather, all the time. He stares for a moment, no expression of surprise, though I’ve never been on this street, says nothing, and crosses the street to join the woman. They walk up the hill on the west sidewalk and I match them, but a little behind, on the east side. I decide I will go any direction Jason doesn’t, at the next intersection. They go left so I continue straight. I walk a couple of blocks, again impressed that Jason has maintained his silence for me, hasn’t spoken to me for four months. He has determination, no question about that, and I failed him in many ways, not simply on his report card.

I’m over the hill and out of the wind. Off with the sweatshirt, it really is going to be hot. Thank you, God, I need it.

Turn another random corner and find myself on Hanover Street. Jessica, one of my first absolute wondrous students, from ten years back, lives somewhere on this street, I learned last week, but I can’t think of the address. Is it 565? Don’t know. She had a baby less than two weeks ago, and her sister, another gem, gave me the address. I walk awhile, three or four blocks, secretly hoping I might see, or be seen by, Jessica or someone who knows me. Doesn’t happen.

I spot a park a block over, and turn that way. It must be, and is, Lincoln Park. Two men do tai chi, two others shoot hoops, and two women, perhaps spouses of the first men, circumambulate the park. This is a place students love, not just for the name. I’d forgotten how small it was.

The western sky is changing from grey to blue, with a few perfect clouds, and the temperature is definitely warmer.

I see Mission Street again and walk toward it. On Mission again I realize I was actually all the way inside San Francisco, the Daly City welcome sign maybe 100 yards to my left. I look toward San Francisco, still mulling the idea of finding breakfast, but see nothing, so I head back to Daly City.

Cross over and climb Bepler, thinking that Roberto and Maila live here somewhere. I don’t see brother or sister. I do walk to the top, giving me a good view in three directions. The southern sky has joined the west as a lighter and more appealing sight. The north is still grey but I’m not going that way.

After Bepler I wind my way down toward the BART station. In the parking lot I see perhaps twenty men, and a couple of women, all dressed in black with white shirts, a conclave of religious folks. A bit later I cross paths with a man clearly on his way to join them, and his hair makes me think they might be Hassidic Jews, but I don’t remember the others looking like that. There was lots of smiling and hugging within the group. Maybe they were waiting for a chartered bus; maybe they had just been delivered by one. Maybe they’re heading for a casino, who knows?

Now on Junipero Serra, walking in front of the Century Cinema. There are people going to the movies at what, ten in the morning? The marquee shows a 10 a.m. start for a handful of slasher flicks. Happy Sunday, everyone.

Walking through the Subway and Starbucks passage, I spot Alexis, who graduated four or five years ago, setting up in Subway. There are no customers, but it is open for breakfast. We catch up across the counter. A current student, Diana, has just started working here, and she told me that her manager was a former student of mine—“Allie or Alice.” I’ve never had an Alice. The next day, Diana reported the name as Alexis, and we figured it out.

Alexis said that after just one week Diana is an excellent worker: “She knows how to do everything already.”

I told her I wasn’t surprised, that “she’s nice, intelligent, and hard-working; what else could you want?”

“And I only speak English with her,” Alexis smiled, but she was serious.

Alexis is in only by chance this morning. Last night the guy who was supposed to open today got drunk and sick in Alexis’s car as she gave him a ride home. Another passenger was hit by some of it and no one was happy. Alexis told him to stay home, she’d do the shift, which means she’ll be here for him until 2 p.m., then go to her regular 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. over at the Geneva branch.

She likes this site better; she only takes the bus when she works at the other place, because of “all the car break-ins.” Different people over there, she says.

Alexis is coaching a soccer team: the High Tides, or something like that, and is loving it. She promises to come to campus to talk to my students in September.

Time to get going. I pass Duggan’s Mortuary and think of April. I always think of her when I am here. She died last year at twenty-four, after years of struggle with an inexplicable disease. She always wanted to be Juliet in freshman English. I remember at the viewing, just before people began to speak, a man in the second row pulled out a Chronicle and started to do the crossword. Made as much sense as anything else.

Passed where Jerry’s Café used to be, where we had a “Meet and Greet” when I was managing a friend’s school board campaign, and where I didn’t use the right name for the café in the publicity. Jerry was not happy.

Cross over, and on the curve above the freeway I realize how very close I am to home. Just a year ago—last July when I was so lazy, so heavy—I would have thought, “Oh, I still have so far to go,” even if I were just coming from BART. Now I’m Paul Bunyan striding across town, covering blocks in a single step.

And on toward Washington Street, and I pass beside Fabiola’s apartment building and remind myself again I need to see her, see the baby, send a gift. Despite the two hours-plus I’ve been walking, the 12,000 steps my invisible pedometer would clock, it feels small: this morning, these neighborhoods, those memories I carry. At my mailbox I pause, wipe my forehead with my sweatshirt, and remember that if we had this weather every day, I couldn’t afford to live here. And I know if the valley hits 100, we’ll be back in the fog, and the artichoke plant will be happy.

I’ll take what I can get.


Tony Press lives near the Pacific. His fiction appears (or will soon) in JMWW, Rio Grande Review, SFWP Journal, Toasted Cheese, The Postcard Press, Blink-Ink, BorderSenses, Switchback, Ranfurly Review, The Linnet’s Wings, Boston Literary Magazine, Qarrtsiluni, Menda City Review, Foundling Review, Temenos, Thema, MacGuffin, Shine Journal, 5×5, Lichen, and two anthologies: Crab Lines Off The Pier and Tales from the Courtroom. His poetry appears in 34th Parallel, Contemporary Verse 2, Inkwell, Spitball, Words-Myth, The Aurorean, Turning Wheel, and the anthology The Heart as Origami. Non-fiction appears soon in Quay. Email: tonypress108[at]

Mobile on the 214

Tony Press

W151 ULR at Liverpool Street station
Photo Credit: Matt Davis

“Brilliant! When? Did they induce?”

Stephen Keefe folds the Guardian he has already read, has only picked up because it was on his seat as he scrambled out of the sudden summer rain onto the 214 toward Parliament Hill. He sets it down to better concentrate on the monolog in front of him though such discourses ordinarily annoy him. At least twice each week on this very bus he imagines a swift tai chi movement, though he knows nothing of tai chi, in which he seizes and hurls a mobile out an open window. The clatter as it strikes concrete and skitters off poles, now that is a sound he could embrace. But not today. This time he warms to the words tumbling toward him (were his mother alive, she’d brand him a curtain-twitcher, but technology had changed the rules since her time). He’d picked up something from the thirtyish pink-haired girl jabbering in front of him. What had she said? Fortunately, she repeats word for word, as far as he can tell, either for emphasis or from excitement, all that she had already said.

“Just like that? At noon? It came on its own, after all? Bloody hell! After all that worrying, all those scare stories everyone told you, natural as could be!”

Natural isn’t all it is cracked up to be. If Stephen knows anything, and sometimes he wonders, he knows that. He glances at the heel of his right hand, seeking the long-faded tooth marks where his wife had drawn blood, biting him so deeply as to require stitches, during “natural” childbirth. And how relieved he had been to suffer that pain, to transport him from the hollowness of standing like a scarecrow as she writhed and sweated and cried and cursed, standing with nothing to offer. Wretched with responsibility and impotency, he clutched her hand, whispered, encouraged, lied. When he winced from the atavistic cut of her teeth, he rejoiced.

“I love it. ‘Henry.’ That just sounds so right! You’re proper parents, and I’m an auntie.”

A boy. An afternoon boy, like his own son. Early on in the dank delivery room he had commented, deadpan, that he hoped “it would be over soon, because West Ham and Chelsea would be on, and it looked to be a good match.” His wife knew he was joking (it had actually been her joke, originally, spoken at home before coming in to hospital), but he sensed disapproval from the attending nurse. No, “sensed” was inaccurate, too mild. The nurse fired high-caliber daggers, mixing her metaphoric weapons, but striking effectively despite her unjust verdict. Doubtless the bloody hand he received was, to the nurse, appropriate karma. Such a curious calling, a delivery room nurse. You might as well be in a bedroom while two people were having at it, such intimacies and fears and lies you heard. He wonders now how much they actually took in, got right or wrong, and recalled and repeated later, over tea, or in pubs, or in their own beds.

His son arrived at 1:22. Damn. It was either 1:22 or 2:21. He, so good with dates and numbers, yet endlessly caught between the two options, each, on its own, sounding perfectly correct, until he re-considered, as he always did, and tested the other in his mind. 1:22. Yes, it was 1:22.

“Yeah, yeah, can’t wait to see him. And see you guys, too. You both must be exhausted.”

Stephen and his wife were dead tired for a full year. Months and months, night after night, of “sleep” that was too-little and too-lousy. Nothing was wrong, doctors and friends parroted, but no one should ever live that way. He thought of his parents, the little they had told him, and more from the stories he had read and movies he’d seen, of people going about their business during the bombing raids of their war. An entire city sleepless. How did it function? Mustn’t there have been terrible decisions made, in families, in shops, in offices, in spaces packed with short-tempered, over-stressed people? He remembers the first time he had ever stayed up all night. It had been a “sleep-over” at a cousin’s house when they were about ten. When they finally fell asleep at five o’clock the next afternoon, he swore he never wanted that fatigue again. Ten years after, add to that the emotions and worries of an adult. Two nominal adults, that is, with an infant that neither had any idea what to do with. Two adults with increasingly little idea what to do about each other.

Serenity of a sort arrived the second year, and as the boy was approaching three, but what never returned was the zest of the pursuit, or even the passions that carried into the half year of marriage before the birth. There was no fighting. They were numb, disinterested in the other’s touch, even in the other’s eyes. It had no definition but it was inescapable. Inescapable until Stephen forged a route. Her name was Liz, and she was, until that time, equally close to both of them. On a weekend when his wife was away, he told Liz he was attracted to her. Years later, he realizes how foolish that statement had been, almost worse, really, than the subsequent coupling itself, which repeated itself only as required to explode his marriage. If you tell a woman, one who is already a friend, that you hold thoughts about her in that way, either action, or damage, or both, must follow. It is the kind of thing you shouldn’t say unless you really know what you wanted. He believes it a universal lesson. But the action served him, for it hastened the inevitable conclusion.

His first departure, they agreed, was “temporary,” to give them a chance to think. He was gone four weeks, finances fortunately not a problem for them in that time, thanks to her generous and non-judging parents, living an ocean away. He took a small room on the coast, walking, reading, going alone to a cinema each Friday night no matter what the title. He returned, not sure why, to a week of false starts, strained silences, and fumbling lovemaking, then abruptly left again, a rail pass in his pocket. He would need to resume his own academic career soon, somewhere; on the trains he saw things he long ago should have seen. In one smoky carriage after another he realized he had made a series of bad decisions, beginning with taking on the role of “husband” when he barely felt himself a man. Perhaps some men his age could do it. He could not. Rejoining his wife would be one more such decision, and he was not going to do it.

In Norwich, on the walls of the old castle, he discovered and copied Masefield’s words onto the cover of his notebook:

My road calls me, lures me

West, East, South, North,

Most roads lead men homewards,

My road leads me forth.

He rang home that night. In a long, easier-than-he-had-expected conversation, they reached an accord. When he returned to gather his belongings and resolve the minutiae, he found her more comfortable than she’d ever been in the time he’d known her. A peace was in her face, and her dealings with the boy were effortless (he knew they weren’t, but compared to earlier times, so they appeared).

Their son lost the most, but waiting fifteen years would have been insane for both of them, for all three. Stephen missed the largest part of his son’s boyhood and teenage years, the mother and child returning to the States, to her native Nebraska. With the boy now a man and to Stephen’s good fortune working in East London, they have developed a comfortable footing. It isn’t the relationship it could have been; more importantly, though, it isn’t the relationship it would have been. His wife had re-married, not right away, but successfully, and with the good services of distance and time, she and Stephen had created a state of fond friendship. Stephen failed again at a marriage, having learned too little too soon, but now, finally, he could claim to be in a long-standing mature (he dared use that term) relationship. Each keeps a flat on opposite sides of the Heath, she near Queens Park, he, on Swains Lane, and each intends to maintain the refuge, but they thoroughly delight in and appreciate what they have, and reasonably believe they will enjoy each other for the rest of their years.

The 214 halts suddenly, at his stop, his body recognizing it prior to his consciousness, the mobile and its owner long silent, long departed. He nods to the driver and steps down, and as he does so he smiles at the familiar courtship sounds from the teenagers in the park shadows. He quickly crosses Highgate and strides the short distance to his door, keys jangling and telephone numbers rattling in his head, the August evening skies clear again. The clock in his favor, he will ring his son’s mother in Omaha to thank her one more time. He will see Josh next week, their regular second Tuesday of the month, so he doesn’t really need to push his number, but he will anyway. Then he will ring Anne. Just to talk, their words arcing across the heath, lips to ear and back again, keeping the lines open.


Tony Press lives near the Pacific. His fiction appears (or will soon) in Rio Grande Review; SFWP Journal; 5×5; The Linnet’s Wings; Boston Literary Magazine; Qarrtsiluni; Menda City Review; Foundling Review; Temenos; Thema; MacGuffin; Shine Journal; Lichen; and two anthologies: Crab Lines Off The Pier, and Workers Write: Tales from the Courtroom. Email: tonypress[at]