Wednesday, September 22, 2010

100th story Contest!

(Short) Fiction Collective is proud to celebrate our 100th story! In order to do so we've set up a writing contest. Don't worry, no entry fees! So here's the deal, send up to 3 short stories (no romance or sci-fi please) of no more than 5,000 words each (email above.) Contest ends on November 1st. Winner will be announced in mid November. If you're selected you'll have your story published on the site, a hundred dollar check mailed to you, a few randomly selected books from the Editor's private library, and eternal bragging rights. If you don't win, don't despair because when we re-open the site for regular submissions in January of 2011 (we need a break for the holidays after all!) all of the stories that weren't selected will be up for publication (no promises though.) No lose situation so don't miss out! We look forward to reading your submissions.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

“How Norm Larsen Saved My Face” by Aaron G. Lenza

When I was eight-years-old my Italian mother coerced my four siblings and I to go to church every weekend, a chore I scorned because I would rather be making mud forts in my suburban New York neighborhood. I only remember one day of being eight-years-old.

It was a breezy Sunday afternoon in June. My father was entertaining business clients at our home with my mother. I had missed Saturday’s mass with the rest of my family because I was exploring the remains of a burnt down hospital with a girl I loved, but without a watch. My oldest brother, Anthony, who just got his license and a white Jeep Cherokee, was innocently sentenced to cruel and unusual punishment: to bring me to church.

My mother phoned Josie, a seventy-eight-year-old Albanian woman who read at church.

“Make sure they don’t walk out after communion, I’m counting on you Josie, you’re the only other parishioner I can trust,” said my mother while I was listening in on another telephone in my house.

Then I heard Josie say in broken English, “If run, the Holy Spirit will enter my legs, and I will make great chase after the donkeys.”

Ralphs Ices was out of the picture. We actually had to attend the service. As soon as the last notes of the piano rang out, we made a run for it. We pushed through hordes of parishioners to get to the large wooden doors. I forgot about the holy water, but remembered to snatch a free bumper sticker on the way out, as Father Terry advised in his weekly announcement.

When my brother and I embarked in his Jeep he saw the sticker I took and said stoically to me, “If you put a bumper sticker that says I heart St. Sylvester’s Parish on my new jeep, I’m going to give your body an Indian sunburn.”

My plan was foiled, so I needed a backup. I had been idolizing Jim Carrey and the weird things Jim would do to himself in his movies. So, I thought to myself WWJD? I took the backs off the bumper sticker and slapped it over my face. I turned to my brother and screamed, “Kabooooooo, is there something on my face?” We laughed wildly for a minute. One minute and nine seconds later, I realized that the adhesive was setting into my baby face. I panicked. I started screaming again, but in anguish this time. Since my brother couldn’t see my expressions, he thought I was still trying to be a comedian.

Anthony laughed more and told me to knock it off. I tore at my face, but the giant Roman Catholic sticker wouldn’t budge. It was almost as if the power of Pope John Paul II and 70 years of abstinence was raging inside the adhesive. With my eyes, nose, and half my mouth covered, breathing was difficult and my hysteria wasn’t helping. My brother realized what was happening and adopted a lead foot. He never drove so fast into our driveway.

Anthony ran me right into my father’s scotch and peanuts schmoozing party with me over his shoulder. My mother started crying. My dad dropped his glass of 12-year-old scotch. The guests were confused. My sisters started laughing. My brother couldn’t explain.

My parents ran hot water over my face in a large utility sink for an hour. The bumper sticker’s edges frayed, but the entire thing wouldn’t budge. Then I was maneuvered into the shower like a fish after an oil spill. I lost my hysteria and turned into a limp piece of hopeless shit. I thought I would be “sticker boy”, a weird Catholic mutant for the rest of my existence.

My father charged into the garage, over to the darkest, grimiest corner to find the greasy can of WD-40 that was always sitting there.

Papa shouted, “AARON, CLOSE YOUR EYES!”

I heard an aerosol can spray and then I could see again. My father walked back into the living room and said to his clients, “WD-40 claims to have 200 and more uses. I just found out what #201 is.”

The WD-40 experience proved to my father’s clients that he was the cool, calm, and resourceful family man built for the job.

My mother eventually stopped crying the next week, after she accepted the fact that I didn’t have eyebrows anymore. I got made fun of everywhere I went that summer. I never did watch another Jim Carrey movie again.

The story gets told at weddings, baptisms, bars, bar miztvas, and funerals. Every time it’s mentioned I thank that son of a gun, Norm Larsen, for inventing WD-40.

Today, twelve years later, my eyebrows couldn’t be bushier.

Monday, September 20, 2010

“The Hammer” by Michael Henson

Under the walls, the bluedark lights, and the clouded half-moon of Main Street, a boy stood with an uplifted hammer in his hand. He was face to face with a parking meter, with his face very stern. A moment before, as the boy stood at the corner, he had swung the hammer at his side like a lantern. A moment before that, he had pulled it from his belt. Now, the hammer hovered near the head of the meter like a wasp.

It was a cold, windless, mid October night. In spite of the cold, others, still caught in their summer habits, sat out talking on the hoods of cars or on benches in front of stores shut down for the night or on lawn chairs brought down from apartments above.

A pair of men, gone limp from long hours and cheap wine, hunkered on a stone stoop worn smooth and low by the shoes of many decades. Their elbows rested on their knees and their hands dangled stony and useless between them. They were the only ones who watched the boy.

It was a tiring, mid-week hour. In minutes, most of those now sitting would leave the streets for the rooms above, some of whose windows were already dark, some of whose windows flickered with television.

The boy and the meter stood the same height and, but for the hand that held the wavering hammer, the boy was as still and erect as the meter. He barely even blinked. But the muscles of his brow tightened as he stared into the passive steel face and glass eye of the meter.

The men on the stoop silently noted the creased brow of the boy and the threat of the hammer. Their own brows tightened as they pondered this thing.


In Cincinnati, the parking meters of Main Street run to the south in two lines, dozens to the block, hundreds all told, past the shops and the tenements, past the courthouse with its great stone face, past the blind and massive downtown buildings, down toward the Ohio River. To the north, there are only a few dozen more meters before Main Street runs up into the hill and stops. To the west and east, more meters run along the parallel streets and the cross streets, each with the same dial face and the same coin slots, each with the same glass eye.


The two men on the stoop had been sharing a bottle of wine for some three hours, starting from the time they had gotten off work. New in town, they were working temporary labor. As the people poured through the streets from the downtown offices on their way out to the suburbs, the men had settled onto the stoop with a loaf of bread, a package of baloney, and the pint of wine. The swinging sign above them read, MOUNT MORIAH MISSIONARY BAPTIST CHURCH, and on certain nights, the storefront rocked with song, testimony, and preaching. But this was not the night, and the men were left to themselves on the stoop.

The wine and the baloney were gone, but half the loaf of bread was still tied in its plastic bag.

One man counted out the last of their change. “Clarence,” he said, “We got us a problem.”

Clarence said nothing. He had rolled up a slice of the bread and was eating it slowly and grimly.

“If we don’t get paid tomorrow, we’re done in.”

Clarence nodded.

“We don’t have nothing left now for breakfast. Nothin but this loaf of bread you’re eatin out of.”

Clarence nodded again, but the man with the change could sense that he was nodding out of no real interest.

“Look at that boy, Paul, “ Clarence said. He nodded again, this time to point out the boy at the meter. Paul followed Clarence’s eye to the spot across the street where the boy slowly swung the upright hammer.

“That boy’s about to do some damage, I reckon,” Paul said.

Clarence said nothing. He was not entirely fuddled with wine and he wanted to watch this thing closely. Paul, further gone, stopped counting and stared also. The loose change was spread out on the sidewalk in front of him, a small galaxy of silver and copper coins.

The boy had by then begun to tap, almost gently, on the glass of the meter.


The hammer was his father’s, taken from his father’s tool box, taken in spite of his little sister’s warning. “He’ll tear you up if he knows you got that hammer.” The toolbox was in the kitchen, in its place near the door to the fire escape stairs.

She had seen him go to the toolbox with a swagger. He kicked the box, then hunkered down to pop it open.

The hammer rested among the ratchets and wrenches and sockets -- the gray treasures of the box. It was a ball peen hammer, its shaft and head gone dark with much handling, the corners of it nicked and blunted by beating against the stubborn underparts and innerparts of cars.

The girl cupped her hand against her mouth as she watched her brother pull the hammer out and hold it aloft as if it were something from a legend. He tested its smack against the palm of his hand. Three times.

“Awww,” she said. “He’ll find out. He’ll kill you.”

The boy held it upright by the end of the handle and swung it back and forth for the feel of it, to test it against the tendons of his wrist and the grip in his fingers. It made him feel stronger to swing it.

He had already considered tossing it back into the box and closing the lid, but she said, “Awww, he’s gonna find out.” That stiffened him. He stood just a little taller.

“Fuck him,” he said. He inserted the hammer sword-like into his belt and went to the door.

“Awww, you cussed,” she said.

She followed him out onto the fire escape. “He’s gonna find out,” she shouted down the stairs. “He’s gonna find out.”


The night air on the back stairs was cool, crisp as new paper. Halfway down, it stopped him for a moment. The stairs led down to an alley. Similar black iron fire escapes led from a whole row of buildings on either side down to the same dark alley with its boundary fences and its surface of rounded rainworn bricks and the blank wall bounding the opposite side. The half moon, half-hidden in cloud, gave little light. The lamp at the head of the alley was dark. He could just make out the dark plum of the lamp shade where boys had stoned out the bulb four nights ago. But he knew, even in the dark, the path he was to take, down among the garbage cans and engine parts of the back yard, through the gate, and down the alley to the corner.

He was stopped, for just a moment, by the snap of cold air across his face, by the bands of cold air on his arms, by the cold air, crisp as a bite of apple, that he felt in his lungs.

There was a forest-feel to that air. For just a moment, it threw him so that he did not know for sure where he was. It stopped him just long enough that he sensed his sister stepping to the door. Her shadow dimmed the light from the window. He heard her shout, “He’s gonna find out.” Then he started down the stairs again.


His father was a quick and angular man dressed daily all in gray and with hands gone gray at the knuckles and in the creases of his fingers. He had a blind left eye, crushed in the factory where he used to work. That meant he drew a check now and made a little money on the side doing valve jobs and replacing transmissions on the cars of the neighborhood. The cars were mostly older cars and had no need of computers and electronic monitors to set them right.

He said he liked it better this way, working the odd jobs, setting his own hours, now that their mother was gone. “I can keep a little better watch on these kids,” he would say. In the months since she had passed, he had set them a strict schedule. And he generally met them at school to walk them home and made sure they were fed and had their homework done before he went back out to work on whatever he had started.

Because of the eye, the boy felt his father had two faces. The good-eye face was the face of someone stirring beans or working on a motor or crossing the street. The brow and the creases around it moved and gestured. They backed up his words. He pointed with the eye; he directed people where he wanted them to go. The eye was one of his tools. When he was angry, the good-eye side was the one to watch out for.

His face on the shut-eye side was a little crumpled from the accident. The muscles had slackened a little so that the face seemed to sleep. The eyelid drooped halfway down across the blind eye so that all that was left was a dark slit and a dim glassy surface within it. The eye itself seemed to be not so much blind as sleeping. His mouth seemed to droop as well and, when his father smiled or cursed or told a story, the shut-eye side came with it to smile or curse or speak. But it came a little slowly. It seemed to drowse behind. It seemed to want to go backwards.

The shut-eye face was that of a man gone half asleep. Or drunk. Or listening closely to a song. Or dreaming some solemn, distant dream.


At the corner on Main Street, the boy looked toward downtown, then up toward the hill. For a moment, he thought of walking over toward Vine street or toward downtown, but decided better. It could be dangerous to go too far from Main Street alone, at night. Besides, if he went too far, he would never get back in time. He had no idea how long he really had, how long before his father got back home. In spite of his brave words to his sister, he did not want to get home late. He did not want to test his father.

There were lights at Topper’s Lounge, the only place on Main Street open at this hour. Every few minutes the door would open to let the music of the juke box spill out onto the sidewalk: country music, with a familiar, rock-steady beat and a familiar, neighborly voice. There were nights, he knew, when his father would go to the bar to sit in front of a cold beer gone warm and stare at the mirror while that music played. Both sides of his face would then seem to sleep. He would come in then and talk his father out of quarters for video games and for juke box songs of his own.


He liked to go with his father to work on cars. He liked the smell of grease and the problematic nodding and talking of the men around an open hood. He liked being asked by his father to hand him a tool and was proud of his knowledge of tools. But his father never let him come along on a school night.

“Hey, Daddy,” he had said. “Let me come with you.”

“You got to stay here and . . . “

“I aint got no homework. I done it all in school.”

“You got to stay here and watch your sister.”

“But she can go to Marcie’s.” Marcie was his aunt. “Let me . . . “

“This aint no little tune-up job. And I aint got time to run her out to Marcie’s this hour of a night. I got a chance here to make a little money . . . ”

“I can help. You know I can.”

His father made a sudden cut with his good eye and silenced the boy.


The boy was working his nerves tonight. All through supper, it had been pick, pick, pick. “These beans ain’t no good.” And: “Why don’t we get us cable?” It had been like that for days. Pick at this. Pick at that. Pick at this again. And now, he’d had it.

“You stay here, I said. And watch your sister.” He waited a moment to let that sink in. “And you’ll do whatever damn else I tell you to do.” He emphasized this last by pointing his finger and bearing down on the boy with his open eye.

“You hear me?” He looked at the boy so relentlessly that the boy fell back half a step.

The boy said nothing. He looked up at his father with all the hate he could crowd behind a mask of stone.


He’s gonna hit him, she thought. For sure this time, he’s gonna do it. She even thought she could see her father lunge forward. She even saw him fist up and unfist his hand.


That boy, he thought. He’s got to learn to mind. He looked down at the stony, hardset face of the boy and knew he would get nothing out of him. Not a yes sir nor even a sour I hear you. But at least he got no more lip. At least he had gained the boy’s silence.

He decided to let his point stand. “Now I’m gonna be workin over at Scanlon’s over off Sycamore. If you got trouble, come and get me. Otherwise, you stay right here.”

“But daddy . . . ” This time it was the girl.

He cut her off with a wave of his hand. “Now you mind,” he said. “You do what he tells you to do and if I aint back in time for bed, you go on to bed just like he tells you.”

“But daddy I wanted to get ... ”

“You want a lot of things, honey, but Daddy’s got to go out and earn us some money. So you mind your brother.”

He looked over to the boy as if to underscore his original command and met the boy’s stolidly defiant, silent face. Then he pulled his coat off the back of a chair and said, “You can watch TV til nine thirty. After that, you be in bed.”

Then, for no good reason, except to know he still had some power over the boy, he set two words as he would set a nail, then tapped them down with a nod and a sharp look from his good eye.

“You hear?”

The boy stared silent at the wall.

“You hear me, boy?”

The boy felt as if his father had shaken him by the shoulder, the words were so muscular and definite. He nodded quickly, to avoid being shaken again, and hoped that by nodding he had not broken down his stonewall stance. His father was taking his measure. His good-eye side was all scrutiny and puzzle.


Her father hitched his coat up onto his shoulders and reached for the door.

“Daddy, your tools.” She pointed to the tool box by the door.

“It’s okay, honey. Scanlon’s got all the tools we’re gonna need.”

“You ought to let me come along to help.”

When is he gonna let up? he thought. Fury rose up, then subsided. He struggled to remember that the boy was having a hard time, that he needed patience. The boy looked suddenly very small and fragile and yet hard as diamond. Fiercely pouting, arms folded, the boy seemed even smaller than his age, as if a younger child had suddenly broken out of the shell of the boy.

A memory, quick and painful as the blade of a knife: the boy and his mother, together in a park, or maybe down home. Years ago, a snapshot kind of memory, full of grass and smiles: She held the boy close. Cheek by cheek, they smiled toward him. Even in the black of white of his memory, light danced around their faces.

In a moment, that memory would have flooded and sunk him. He turned, to keep the boy from seeing the welling in his good eye. He coughed, to clear his voice.


She had been hit by a car as she came home from work. It was awful, awful to remember it, so he rarely did. For two nights, she had lain in a hospital bed wrapped up in feeding tubes and electrical scanners. At first, they had given him some hope. The nurses smiled when they came into the room. The scanners zigged-zagged back and forth in strong green lines across the screen. For two sleepless nights he had traded on that hope. He stayed up, hour on nervous hour, watching those green lines and listening for a word and watching for a flutter in her hands. She spoke not a word nor made a sound, but the strong green lines skittered up and down. He slept in a chair where he could watch her and the screen. If he woke in the middle of the night, the lines still skittered sharply, up and down, up and down. He listened. No sound. Then he drifted back into a stiff sleep.

Two days. Two nights. Then she quit on him. The darkening of the room called him up out of his sleep. The green line had flattened across the screen. He struggled up out of the stiff chair and felt a flutter near his face like the wing of a bird or a moth. Quickly, he found and pressed the call button and, while he waited for the nurse, felt the moth-like thing hover near. He took her hand; it was light as a leaf. The nurse rushed in and he backed away. The room felt heavy as stone.


When he told the children, the girl balled up her fists in her eyes. She leaned against him and sobbed as he stroked her hair. The boy drew himself up ramrod straight. He stood stock still like a soldier and stayed like that all through the days of visits and funeral. Some days, he could still catch the boy standing at attention, soldier-straight, rigid as a pole.

It had been two months. But only two months. He leaned down and put his hands on his knees to talk to the boy.

“Son,” he said. “Just do what you’re told. One way or another we’ll make it through this.” He always figured you had to talk to him like this, man to man. It had always worked before. To lean down and talk straight to him had always softened him.

But the boy turned to stare at the wall. He touched him on the shoulder but the boy would not turn. He kept the hand on the shoulder, just to hold for a moment that brittle memory, but the boy tried to shrug him off. With that shrug, the anger rose up in him again. That boy’s still tryin to show his ass, he thought. He was tired of fooling with him now.

“You just do what you’re told, “ he said. “I can’t worry about that transmission and you too.”

The boy rolled his eyes toward the ceiling.

The father stood up. “You make sure you're here when I get back.”

The boy said nothing. He crossed his arms on his chest. He made a small toss with his head.

He scoffed. But he said nothing.


She was glad her father was gone. It meant no more standoff and no more shouting. She thought that, with her father gone, her brother might watch TV or play checkers with her. The thought of it made her feel warm and safe. When Daddy and her brother argued, she wanted to hide; she wanted to crawl into a closet or a back room. Sometimes, when they argued, she clenched shut her eyes and clapped her hands to her ears and found a dark and a silence that were just like those of a closet.

Tonight, with her brother here, she would be treated special. I’ll make him play cars with me, she thought. He always argued and complained, but he always played with her. Then later, if her father still was not yet home, they could snuggle under a blanket and watch TV.

Her hope died when she saw her brother’s hard face. He had swelled his chest and stuck out his jaw. He watched the door long enough that he could hear his father’s footsteps clatter to the bottom of the back stairs. Then he walked up and threw a karate kick to the door. It banged in the frame and rattled the glass. She was sure her father heard it (and was sure he meant his father to hear it) and knew her father had stopped mid-stride in the middle of the yard to listen, curse, and go on. When her brother came round for a second kick, his fury changed. He seemed to smile, a sneaky sort of smile that made her worry.

“What’re you lookin at?” he snapped at her.

The taunt raised her hackles. “You,” she snapped back. “Who you think?”

But he had already turned past her to the spot by the door where his father kept his tools.


“Paul,” Clarence nodded toward the boy across the street. “What do you reckon that boy’s tryin to do with that hammer?”

Paul watched more closely for a moment. He had to squint sharply to see through the vapors of the wine.

“That boy’s fixin to break open that parkin meter,” Paul said. “That’s what he’s doin.”

“Nah.” Clarence shook his head. “Look at how he’s tappin on it. Just peckin on it like somebody peckin at the door.”

Paul peered again. “It don’t look like he’s doin anything,” he said, “that’s any concern of mine.”

The boy tapped slowly and silently, so slow and regular and clock-like that Clarence thought for a moment to check the rhythm against his watch, which he pawned two towns ago but still missed for its loud regular tick and for the feel of it like a pet on his wrist.

“Just look at him,” he said. “Now when have you ever seen a kid just tap like that? Look at the look on that boy’s face.”

“What he looks like to me is a boy that needs his tail whipped.”

Clarence paused for a moment before he spoke. He took another bite of the bread and chewed it slowly. “Well he might,” he said finally. “But he aint doin that meter no harm.”

“Yeah, well we’ll be pretty well harmed ourselfs if we don’t get us a bed for the night and somethin to eat in the mornin.”

“So what’s wrong with the mission?”

“Aint nothin wrong with it if you like sleepin on a concrete floor or an old metal chair, which at this time of a night is all you’re gonna get.”

“It beats this damn doorstep.”

They were silent for a moment as they considered their limited options. In that silence, Clarence’s thoughts went back across the street to the boy, still tapping so slowly, like clockstroke or heartbeat.


Each meter is full of levers, wheels, cogs, and springs. Each meter has a wind-down timer that clocks down the minutes with a near-silent grind. Each meter, to catch the coins, holds a locked-down cylinder the size of a can of vegetables. Each meter holds up a red flag that says EXPIRED. Each meter hides a yellow flag printed with the word VIOLATION.


The girl called his name down the stairs but her brother did not hear. He’ll be back, she thought. He knows he better be back. She saw his shadow when he opened the gate to the alley and thought to call him again, but her voice had suddenly become too heavy to move. She could not budge a sound from it.

She felt cold standing out on the steps, but hesitated to shut the door until she could guess by his footstep that he was out to the alley and had turned up Fourteenth to Main. As long as she was out on the fire escape, she could still feel tied to her brother. She knew what she might feel once she shut the door.

When finally she did shut the door, it seemed that the room had suddenly darkened, as if, somehow, the lights of the kitchen were darker than the darkness that was out on the porch, as if she had been swallowed. She was scared; she felt lonely.

I’ll tell, she thought. He’s supposed to stay here with me. She imagined her father returning and her brother sitting with his head down. She would point to him with a sneer and tell: He left and took your hammer with him. And then she could watch him get a whipping.

The brave thought kept her from tears for a moment, but the tears did come, and she cried all through the dishes and the wiping of the kitchen table and she cried as she set out her school books on the table for in the morning. And he don’t even have his homework done, she thought.

Her tears were finished by the time she decided she could watch TV. So she left the light on over the sink, went into the living room, turned on the set, and settled onto the hide-a-bed.

The living room was dark. She liked it when the only light was the light from the TV screen.

The hide-a-bed was where she slept at night, so she had her pillows and stuffed animals. In minutes, she had taken her pillow to the floor. She flopped forward into her pillow and leaned on her elbows. After the first commercial, she sat up on her knees, moved another foot closer, and hugged her pillow like a bear.

As the minutes ran down, she kept that position and inched herself closer and closer until she was nearly face to face with the bright screen.

Light from the television flowed across her face and shoulders.


Paul looked at the span of money and shook his head. “We wouldn’t be in this spot if you’d knowed how to keep your mouth shut, you know.”

Clarence took another bite of bread and chewed it like a duty.

“Will you tell me, why in the world, with us out here about to starve to death . . .”

“We aint about to starve.”

“Right. We got a half a loaf of bread and a belly full of baloney and wine. Anyway, can you tell me why, knowin we aint got but a shadow between us and the gutter, and knowin you got us run out of the last four jobs we had in the last four weeks, you had to tell that foreman to go fuck himself?”

“He deserved it.”

“Maybe he did. But I don’t deserve not knowin how I’m gonna find work tomorrow.”

Clarence spat.

“I mean, it’s like you get to workin real steady and things get going good and it gets to lookin like we might be able to get a little ahead, you got to go mouth off to a boss.”

Clarence was watching the boy across the street.

“Ever damn time.”

Paul noted that Clarence had his mind and eye on something else than his lecture, but went on. “It’s like some damn kid that’s . . . ”

“I been doin it since I was a kid. Teachers. Probation officers. Cops. Bosses. I can’t stand to have em dog me out.”

“You don’t have to let em dog you out. I’ll take the doggin out and you go on. Just so we can eat regular.”

“Ever since I wasn’t no older than that boy over there, if I thought I was gonna get pushed into a corner, I’d come out fightin.”

“Your daddy needed to kick your butt a few times.”

Clarence was silent a moment. “He did kick it. A lot.”

“So did it do you any good?”

Clarence spat again, expertly, through a gap in his teeth. He leaned back against the church door and folded his arms so that Paul could know that he intended to talk no more about it.

Paul started to count out the money again. Clarence watched him for a moment, and almost said, You think you’re gonna come up with any more this time? but he scanned the street instead. The boy still silently tapped at the meter. Upstreet, at the corner, a man in gray work clothes and a ball cap stood with his fists on his hips, staring at the boy.

Somethin’s gonna happen now, he thought. Somethin’s gonna come to a head.

The man in gray shook his head. He watched the boy as if he wanted to take it in, as if he wanted to understand what he was seeing, as if he wanted to be sure what he was seeing.

When the man in gray seemed to fill up with an energy that was threatening and familiar, Clarence got up on his feet.


A meter is rigid as a sentinel. Motionless and metallic, its glass eye never shifts. But when the handle is turned and the money drops, its inward parts begin to click and hum. (You have to get close to hear it. You have to get your ear down to it.)


Clarence dusted the seat of his pants and walked (unsteadily, from the wine and from three hours of sitting in the cold) to the curb. He leaned against the nearest parking meter for a moment -- that moment that the boy stood hammering and the man stood watching.

Then he leaned back and looked at his own meter. He wanted to know what the boy wanted to see. He wanted to see what the boy was hammering at. He saw nothing in the face of that meter but lines and numbers, nothing in that face but an arrow, buried now inside its slot. He looked through the glass, past the numbered dial, straight through to the other side. The boy and his hammer were a blur, viewed through the scratches of years, the scale of minutes, and the distortion in the glass. He flipped the lever back and forth, so that it brought up the red flag and the yellow flag, and again, red flag and yellow flag, red flag, yellow flag, in the same heartbeat, clockstroke rhythm as the boy.

And maybe it was the wine or maybe it was the sitting in the cold or maybe it was some strangely other thing, but he suddenly began to understand (though he could not have put it into words) why the boy stood tapping at the glass. He even began to beat at the brow of the meter with the heel of his hand.


“You know the tool you need for that don’t you?” Scanlon nodded up toward the starter.

“What’s that?”

He and Scanlon had the car up on ramps. They lay under it with a trouble light. Already, they were cold. There was no way they could not be, lying on their backs on the cold alley floor where any scrap of wind would catch them.

Scanlon coughed and bent his hand into a C-shape. “That starter wrench of yours,” he said.

He stuck his nine-sixteenths up into the space between the starter and the bell housing again. He could get the box end of the wrench on the bolt, but lacked room to turn it. Silently, he cursed.

“I reckon you’re right, “ he said. “And that starter’s got to come off. Aint nothin else’ll do it.” He pulled himself out from under the car and tossed the straight wrench into Scanlon’s tool box. He had only half a heart for the job anyway, after his scrap with the boy.

“Well we can’t get nothin done under here but to catch a cold,” Scanlon said, sliding out from under the car.

“I’ll go get it,” he said.

He wanted to go anyway. He wanted to check on the kids.


“Who’s been in this tool box?” she heard her father call. She felt a pang of guilt; if she had closed the box he might never have known. She pulled the blanket closer around her. Her father muttered as he rattled through the wrenches, sockets, and screwdrivers in the box. From where she sat in the light of the television, she could see only one stretch of kitchen wall, but the small light from the lamp over the sink threw his shadow large against it. It grew even larger when he found his tool, closed and snapped shut the box, then stood.

The wall exploded with shadow as he came toward the door to her room. For just a moment, the shadow hardened into his black form in the doorframe. He switched on the light. He looked at her with his good eye, then scanned the room.

“Where is he?” He turned his good eye to the wall when he said it, so that she could only see the crushed up side of his face.

When she did not answer, he brought his good eye around. She did not want to say the words, so she nodded briefly toward the back door. He followed her nod, as if he expected to see the boy, then looked back at her.

“That little son of a bitch,” he whispered. He slapped the c-shaped wrench against his thigh. “I’m gonna wring . . . ” he whispered again. He looked to the girl. “You mean he left you here by yourself after . . . ” He did not wait for her to answer. She was glad of that; she had no idea what to say.

“By God,” he said. “I’m gonna . . . ” He put one hand to the door frame and let his head tap against it lightly for a moment. Then he lifted himself off and stepped back toward the door. “You stay right here til I get back,” he said back over his shoulder. “I’m gonna pull that boy in here by the ears.”

He had turned his good eye side around to say it. Then he was out the door and onto the clanging fire escape. She heard him stalk down the stairs. She heard him slam the wooden backyard gate.

She shivered a little and pulled her head down into the blanket so that only her face was showing. On the television it was a commercial. A line of cars crossed a western desert while someone sang a song.


The boy stood out on the corner of Main Street with the hammer in his belt. He looked to the left and to the right, down Main Street to the south and up Main Street to the north.

None of his friends were out. He had hoped he would see someone so he could show off the hammer and say, I took it out of my old man’s tool box and he could say He tried to make me baby-sit but I told him where to stick it. But none of his friends were out.

He made himself glad of it. If his friends were out, he would have to stay out, for pride, until after his father came home. There would be hell to pay if he made it back too late.

He looked again, left and right, just to be sure. There were only a few old men and some of the women who stay out to talk on the street at night. He felt lonely for a moment, with no one out to listen to his story, with no one out to hear him say, My dad’s a dick, man. No one to hear him complain, Man, he just expects too much.

He could see only the people on lawn chairs and on the fenders of cars and the two winos on the front steps of the church.

He looked around again. He knew he had to get back; he knew he would be in trouble if he did not. But he wanted to do something before he went back. He wanted to feel the weight of iron and wood in his hand.

So he drew the hammer from his belt. He admired the nicked, pitted and blunted head of the hammer, its flat head side and its round head side, and the wooden shaft, its grain darkened with handling. Its weight surprised him when he tested its smack against his other hand, so he gripped it higher.

Then he held it up in front of him, a lantern, a sword.


The belly of a meter is money.

Twist the knob and the meter swallows coins. It drops them over the triggers that set the timer and into the steel cylindrical gut at its core.

The heart of meter is time.

The swallowed coins trigger the wind-down clock in the breast of the meter. The springs, pulled tense by the twist of the knob, slowly give up their force. The seconds tick off reluctantly. They hold on like fingers on a cliff.

The soul of a meter is memory. The meter remembers the coins and remembers the twist of the knob.

The meter is the crossing of time and money and memory.


He carried the hammer upright, in striking position. He wanted to break something. Anything, it did not matter. Just so long as he could get back before his father came home.

He looked at the plate glass window in the front of Grubb’s Furniture. The window was tall. Each panel was slender. Each was painted with the name of the store. He pondered cracking out the center panel at the bottom so he could watch it cascade like a brittle waterfall. The hammer waved itself in anticipation.

But Mister Grubb was a nice man. He had sold them a bunk bed on credit back when his cousin came to stay.

The hammer, still waving, moved him away from Grubb’s window and over to the curb. A car window? Here was a wide Buick, with a half acre of windshield, ready like a crop of corn. He had seen a windshield shatter before into little square beads. There were rows of cars here, parked for the night just like the Buick. But there were too many watchers for something so large.

He was ready to give up on Main Street, ready to find something on the alley or side street. But the hammer pulled him from the fender of the Buick over to the meter beside it. The meter! It was as if he had never seen a meter before. The meters were there every day, silent and stolid as a row of trees, never changing but for the arrows and flags under the glass lid. Now, suddenly, the meters took new form, as if each were a human face with a metallic jaw and a single eye and a wide glass brow. He stepped up to the meter in front of him and let the hammer wave in front of it like a dowser’s wand.

He felt power and satisfaction to wave the hammer just inches from the glass. Just to feel that power, he let the hammer wave several long moments before he tested the meter with just a tap. The meter shook inside. The money, the arrow, the flags, the inner springs and gears, all shook in a metallic jiggle and complaint. He hit again. Same sounds. And again. And over. The impulse to smash was gone. Suddenly, the shaking was what he wanted to hear. He hit until he found a pace at which the jiggling sounds from one blow would continue into the next. The meter began to hum and rattle. The hum and rattle vibrated down the shaft of the hammer and into his arm and into his whole body so that he felt his own gears and springs vibrate. He and the meter hummed and rattled and vibrated together. He could have gone on for an hour:

But then he felt a hand on his shoulder. He knew it was the hand of his father and knew that the curses that rained down on him (little sonofabitch . . . give you a job to do and you . . . deserve to . . . little smartass son of) were his father’s curses and knew that the fist that cuffed him about the ears (so that he could barely make out the words of the curses) was the fist of his father.

He felt the hammer go snatch from his hand so he ducked his head between his arms and felt the wood shaft drumming on his shoulders.

“Daddy. Daddy. No, Daddy. I’m sorry. Daddydaddydaddy.” He tried to pull away, but his father’s grip was true as a leg-hold trap so all he could do was run around in a circle pulling his father’s thumps and curses behind him like a cart. He tried to see out, but could not. It was like looking through a rainstorm from the flap of a tent.

Then suddenly that rain lifted. The blows and curses stopped. He waited before he looked up, not yet trusting this reprieve. When he did look up, he saw his father face to face with the stranger from the stoop of the church.

“Go easy, buddy,” the man said. The man may have said other things as well, but that was the thing the boy could hear: Go easy. Still bent under his father’s fist, the boy craned up to look from man to man. It was as if there were two faces in a mirror --the same creased gray ball cap, the same silver at the jaw. But the man had just one set face, and his father two: the good-eye side with its hard lines and its drawn-down anger, the shut-eye side with its heaviness and sag. The angry side grew even tighter. For a moment, he thought his father would draw back and crack the man with the hammer. He felt the impulse in the muscles of the hand on his neck.

Instead, his father stepped back, and even seemed to nod. He seemed to darken across his shut-eye side. The grip on his neck was still tight, but his father let him unbend himself and stand at his full height.

His father looked at the meter, then at the man in the ball cap, then pulled his son away.


Clarence watched the man drag the boy down the street and to the corner where they turned and disappeared.

He felt tired all of a sudden, more tired than he had been all night, and more sore in the muscles. And more drunk. He wanted to sleep it off. He wanted to be out of the cold.

Paul watched him cross the street. “You done your good deed for the night,” he said.

Clarence spat. “Let’s find us a place,” he said.


The father kicked the door shut behind him and loudly pitched the hammer into the open tool box.

“You get your smart ass into bed and don’t let me hear another word out of you.” He released the boy’s collar, gave him a shove, and watched the boy, still hunkered over, toddle toward his room.

The TV was shut off; the girl had pulled out the hide-a-bed and pulled the covers up over her. Was she asleep? She made no sound. He could imagine her tensed like a rabbit under the covers and felt shamed at the thought of the curses she had heard and the angry clatter of his tools.

He slumped into a kitchen chair and leaned against the table. He heard the boy pull open his dresser, then heard him pull off his clothes and plunge into his pajamas. He was tired now; he had avoided feeling tired because he knew he had Scanlon’s job to do. But now he was tired; he had decided to forget Scanlon and his job. He had no more heart tonight for late-night work in the cold. His life, which until now he had handled like work coming down the factory line -- jobs to be worked off one by one -- now seemed hopelessly hard. And he was tired now, all of a sudden, of split knuckles, heating bills, baloney sandwiches, rounded bolts, cars with ragged floorboards and grumbling mufflers. He was tired of notes from teachers and tired of moving his car at seven in the morning to beat the meter man.

The half moon shed its half-light across the floor. He felt himself begin to doze. He began to to sway with exhaustion.

He put his forehead against the palm of his hand and let it prop him up against the table. In doing so, he drew his hand down over his eyes so that he covered both good eye and shut eye and he was in darkness. It was a gesture he made night after night. On many of those nights, he fell stone asleep in his chair, his eyes both blinded and covered and his head propped up by his hands.

Some nights, he woke in the deep hours, looked around him (lights on, mice rattling under the sink, windows black with the darkness of three in the morning), then limped, stiff and lonely, to his bed.

But this night, before he could drop into that sleep, he was worried out of it. Something fluttered at the margins of his attention. Something brushed against his hands. He opened his eyes and the fluttering was gone. A moth? Perhaps. He looked around the dim-lit kitchen with its neat stacks of plates and orderly boxes of breakfast cereal and remembered that he needed to check on the children. For all he knew, the boy had opened a window and snuck down the fire escape. So he stood and moved unsteadily toward their rooms.

The girl was asleep now for sure. Her face, in the dim illumination of the nightlight, was silvery and innocent. Her mouth hung open and slack; her hair curled over her eyes. He adjusted the blankets across her shoulders and she brought her hand up as if to protect herself. It was a quick, reflex, cricket-claw movement. He watched, and she relaxed again.

The boy’s room was in shadow. He heard nothing, so he checked. The boy lay tightly doubled in his bed. His clothes were piled at the foot of the bed and his jacket thrown across the seat of a chair.

He thought at first that the boy too was asleep; he was about to turn back to the kitchen. But, suspicious, he listened a moment. The boy’s breathing was not the deep and loose sound of someone sleeping. It was a sneaking, bare-breath sound, the breathing of someone who does not want to be heard. He could see by the tautness in the arch of the boy’s back and the grip of his fist on his blankets that the boy was awake; he was only pretending to sleep.

Good, he thought. At least he aint out runnin the streets no more tonight. He looked up and down across the child’s tense form as if he could nail him down to the bed with his eye, then stepped to the window. Main Street was empty now. The sitters and watchers had all gone in or gone on. Main Street seemed silent and settled. The stranger who had confronted him had disappeared.

He was glad of that. It made him tired just to think of it. I reckon I was out of hand.

The thought brought a flash of heat to his ears and a lumpish feeling to his bowels. It was such a heavy, foot-in-the-gut feeling that he was dragged down with it onto the edge of the boy’s bed.

He felt his good eye grow heavy again. In a reflex, he rubbed his face and eye to clear his sight and look again at the unsleeping boy.

Maybe I’m too hard on him, he thought. The boy was still tensed and sprung, his eyes clamped shut.

Maybe we can talk, he thought. But no words came. No words could come. They were choked up in him like a pile of old coins.

He knew that without the words, there was no point in sitting here. He should move; he should make himself ready to sleep. Instead, he sat, heavy in the gut, foolish and mute, listening to the steady, slow, rabbit-tense breathing of his son.

The night was by now so silent that he could hear the distant sounds of trucks on a highway, dogs barking, a wavering siren.

He wavered in his seat on the boy’s bed, his good eye drooping, his thoughts gone flat. He was dropping into sleep like a big-wing bird.

Again, he felt the pestering presence, hovering and persistent. It fluttered near his brow. He raised his hands against it, as if to protect his damaged face, to shelter his orphaned eye. He rose, half-blind, with his hands before his face, staggered from the children’s room to his own, and fell into his bed fully clothed. He lay long enough with his hands before his face that, finally, he slept. When he woke, at five in the morning, he woke from a sleep haunted by grief and apprehension. And for the first few moments, in the half-light from the window, memory and fear so beset him that he was nearly pressed down. But he pushed back, roused himself, and began to think: what to make for breakfast? which school clothes for the children?

Friday, September 17, 2010

“Coffee Shop Revelation” by Melanie Montano

Every Monday afternoon at half past four, I wait for her at the Starbucks on Greenwich Ave; four D-train stops from the university where she studies political science. As I’m partial to the ‘dollar and change’ newsstand coffee, I can’t understand her addiction to overly-priced chai tea lattes. Yet she favors this franchise’s crinkled velvet couches, colored burgundy, like the lip stain she wears when we duck into unnamed pubs during our Friday evening rendezvous.

I pulled out my mobile to check the time, realizing she was running late. We had spoken earlier to confirm our plans, and considering the arrangement maintained throughout two consecutive seasons, I blamed the unremitting downpour for her delay. Goddamn rain. I’m always amazed how time is placed on pause whenever bad weather surfaces. Upon showers or snowfall, traffic assists to slow down the wheels of regularity. Routine is halted and excuses for tardiness are made to those who are still prompt, despite life’s inconveniences. Categorically, I’m just one of those punctual saps.

I gazed out the rain-smeared windows to observe the daily grind in motion. People-watching has always been a pleasurable pastime of mine, although Camilla finds such behavior bizarre, and often times, unsettling. Even so, there’s something novel about an anonymous face and the urgency, or indifference, of one’s stride. Each passerby co-exists without relations to one another, all while sharing the same pavement. I chalk up my appreciation for nameless folk as part of the innate writer in me, but Camilla just rolls her eyes and calls me an ‘absurd scholar.’ She does not engage in conversations which stray from her own opinions.

I was hoping to catch a glimpse of her vermillion galoshes as I examined life through the pane, but all I saw were strange faced people. Most were shielding themselves from abrasive winds and cursing Mother Nature for their puddle-sopped footwear. There were a scattering of businessmen competing for popcorn hued taxicabs, waving manic arms to hail a dry haven. Some people hid under dampened newspapers and briefcases, while uncooperative umbrellas forced others to dash under a shrouded fruit stand for temporary refuge.

I grew bored of waiting, and drifted away from the dampened scenes outside. I tried visualizing the pout upon Camilla’s lips as she would enter Starbucks, shaking out a taupe umbrella speckled with rain water. String bag slung over her right shoulder, she’d theatrically stomp her boots onto the muddied welcome mat, and pull out a silver thermos to fill up with her five-dollar fix. Upon paying, she’ll search for me among a sea of yuppie lawyers, sipping their Arabica blend while exchanging stock rises, even though I’ll be rooted in the same spot as the last six months. I already knew her champagne curls, routinely straightened every morning, had long coiled up after a brief encounter with the day’s moisture. I anticipated her irritability as she would plop onto the couch and grumble, “Look at this fucking hair.” My patience would require a few adjustment notches to accommodate her salty temper, as I’ve learned how the weather impacts her disposition. I have often prayed for sunny days.

Oddly enough, I find something disarming in Camilla’s frequent mood swings. Call it a love-illness of sorts, but I spark inside whenever her tepid eyes transmute into embers during a frenzied dispute. One the evenings when her youth beckons a night of boozing, I suppress the urge to drive past the local bars in hopes of spotting her slight figure outside. It would kill my sleep if I caught her bumming a smoke from some frat boy as she teetered in those high, black boots.

The sound of holiday chimes jingled against a closing door and rattled me from my daze. She entered breathlessly, pushing through a swarm of chattering women donned in aqua scrubs. Autopilot set in and I swiveled off the gold band, chubbed around my left finger. We both pretended the significance of vows didn’t encompass life’s deviations.

Camilla bypassed the line and darted toward the couches, quite uncharacteristic from her usual, grandiose routine. The rain had swallowed her from scalp to feet, and as she trailed water with each sloshing step, I noticed crimson veins streaking across the whites of her eyes. It was all different this time; her hastiness, the panic cemented to an ashen face. Before I opened my mouth to speak, she blurted out words that crucified my rationality:

“They know, professor. Everyone knows.”

Thursday, September 16, 2010

“Old Dogs” by Diana Bloom

“Call me back when you’ve got a moment, honey. I need your advice.”

Replacing the phone in my pocket and boarding the crosstown bus, which the driver has lowered for a man with a walker, I slip my card into the machine. I’m still not used to the yellow Metrocard with my photo on one side. The sound it makes is different, too. Settling into a single seat, I look again at the pearlized business card.

I’m on my way uptown from a Soho townhouse where I was called by a “Sylvia” the day before, asking me to come for an interview at nine today for a position teaching English to an employee. She calls back several times after talking with the boss to work out a good time for him. I’m told nothing more till I’m ushered in by a fellow in his twenties, then escorted upstairs by another young guy, who speaks without an accent. On my way, I pass a glassed-in office with three young women talking together. All of these kids are Asian. I hear what sounds like Japanese, but I’m not sure.

At the top of the stairs, I’m presented to a thirtyish Asian guy, kind of cute, who makes a slight but distinct bow and offers his hand but no name. I sit down opposite him, unasked, and learn that the posters all over the walls feature my potential students, a number of slender, very young, leggy girls in acrobatic poses, their mouths open in front of a huge crowd.

“You’ve heard of the Trixies?”

“Of course,” I fake, “but I don’t know much about them.” I assume that, like other singing groups today, they’re matching kids who don’t smile and whose music sounds more or less the same.

“You probably have a grandchild who knows the Trixies. They’re very famous all over the Asia, and we’re starting a campaign in U.S. They’ll be touring North America with Gian Bobi this fall, and we’re gonna publicize them all over U.S.”

I look at the gigantic speakers on either side of the huge keyboard behind his desk. The stuff is all cutting edge, and almost fills the small office, which is white like the rest of the townhouse, inside and out. On the right wall is a diploma from the Berklee College of Music, along with a photo of the man facing me standing with a ghoulish Michael Jackson. I learn that this man has trained the Trixies since they were 8, and that singers make more money from touring than from CD sales.

He really likes my credentials, which Sylvia found on the Web. He wants me to work daily one on one with each of the seven Trixies, whose English levels are different.

“Wanna cookie?” Standing up, he offers across the desk a large box of Pepperidge Farm.
On the card he now hands me, which I receive with both hands and peruse care-fully, I see that Mr. Kung is Korean —my bad (Azad taught me that one)-- and is some kind of VP at this PR firm. On learning I live in Manhattan, he asks if I can return today after two o’clock to meet the girls. They’re in English class now.

When I say I can’t make it later on, he asks if I can make it tomorrow, Saturday. He sees my doubtful look: “Then how about Sunday? You see, I’m lining up possibilities. I wanna start with you.”

I don’t want to seem reluctant once I’ve implied by my presence that I want the job.
Though my doubts are growing as he speaks.

Saturdays are my yoga and French classes, but I feel forced to say I’ll be out of town for the weekend, finally agreeing to come in Monday. Fact is, even that’s inconvenient. I have two regular Monday students.

He repeats that he does have other candidates, but wants the girls to see if they like me first. So Monday’s the latest he can do. He’ll be seeing the others after me.

They need enough English at their fingertips for interviews, so they don’t have to pause and translate every time they’re asked a question. “For example, when interviewer ask, ‘Who’s your favorite singer?’ right now they have to think before they can answer just one word, ‘Beyonce’.”

What he wants is a kind of workplace English. Done that before. Enable them to talk about pop culture. That’ll require some prep on my part. “Favorite boy band?” (cue): “Backstreet Boys.” “Favorite ice cream flavor?” (cue): “Raspberry swirl.” The Rs’ll be hard.

The handsome--and not badly built, either--Mr. Kung smiles, adding that they’re “real girls, they ride subway to their English class, even they have limo, and they all live upstairs, here,” he points upward, “in apartment with maid service, but they insist at doing own laundry themselves. You’ll like them.”

I know I would. And they’d like me. I’d be fine with the girls.

I decide to email him later. Now I just smile and nod, figuring we won’t speak again.

We never get to money talk. I’m not sure how he does that, since I seem to have been sort-of-hired, and he hasn’t asked if I have any questions. Normally, students ask what I charge, and companies make an offer.

I figure, since he manages to get it in that he’s bought the building, that he’ll make it worth my while to revise my life as I now know it. Or, despite the high-tech gear and hotshot stars, he’ll say his hands are tied, or he can get someone who’ll take less for the privilege of working with the Trixies.

But all this, I never learn.

On the bus home, I get a call. Since I’ve been using the cell on vibrate, I can’t always tell if it’s the phone or my innards rumbling. I hate it when people take calls on buses, but I pick up. It’s Donald, the second assistant, the one with the American accent, who ran after me as I was leaving to give me the CD. He’s wondering, in case I’m hired on Monday, can I start this week and work from 2 to 5 Tuesdays through Fridays?

“For how long?” I ask.

“As long as they need you.”

Pulling out my calendar—Estefan, Mei Ling, Sharon, Azad—I agree to come in from 2 to 5 each day, next Tuesday through Friday. I do this only knowing that when I get home I’ll email a polite rejection. (I can’t refuse on the bus.) Should I say I’m not the person they want for this job (which has saved face before for both parties), or the truth, that I have commitments, too, and can’t just desert my other students to dance to his tune?

That’s why I called Sol this morning, to see how to word things.

When I hang up (funny expression), I take out the booklet that comes with the CD and has lots of photos. The seven Trixies really are adorable, the oldest, he said, just 21, wearing the same pixie cuts, and thick eyelashes that make them look all alike. Petite, shapely, cleavage-free innocents.

I read, about the oldest, just turned 21: Onstage, Hyun is the hottest and funkiest member, but offstage she’s the big sister that all the members love and come to with their problems. … her maturity helps keep everyone in check.

I get home, and Sol has left a message. Though he has three faculty observations to write and a tenure decision to work on, he’s agreed to check my email before I send it.

“Your response sounds fine,” says Jung Ja, my friend and one of my earliest private students. I called her to avoid any cultural faux pas. “But if his English is that good, why don’t you just call him and speak directly? By the way,” she adds, clearly smiling on the phone, “get me their autograph!”

We laugh.

But I don’t feel comfortable calling. Before email, I was still mailed notes to people,

Then I take Marxy for her walk. She’s our baby. She’s getting old, fifteen human years. We’ve had her since the year after we moved in together.

At dinner, Sol serves a Pad Thai. “Why don’t you just tell him it’s not for you?”

“I feel as if I’d already accepted, though he did say he was seeing other candidates. ‘Lining up the possibilities. Time is money,’ he actually said.”

We laugh.

“Those four appointments next week sound like he’s made up his mind. I felt backed into saying we were going away for the weekend—we who never even stay out late because Marxy can’t be left alone. I couldn’t say no then. It was awkward, so I accepted, with the plan of contacting him later.

I was supposed to drop everything when he called. He had no idea I might have other work. I know it’s my fault that I didn’t say no then, but I just couldn’t. I barely got in a word, in fact.”

Sol laughs and puts his hand on mine, along with a bit of egg yolk. “Don’t worry. You don’t have to work with these Pixie Girls if you don’t want to. Let’s see what you wrote.”

“Looks good to me,” says Sol, pouring the espresso.

That night, I dream about the Trixies dancing to a slow waltz tune with Donald, Mr. Kung, and Sol. Why this job so concerns me, I don’t know. It feels wrong to refuse it once I’ve made a show of wanting it, even though Kung couldn’t care less. In my position, he’d have no scruples about “quitting” before he was hired.

Then I mentally review my email and I’m pleased. I’ve said it politely yet firmly, been appreciative yet assertive.

Dear Mr. Kung,
…good meeting you this morning...
…honored that you have considered me …. looking at my schedule, however, I see I was hasty in accepting the commitment next week when I spoke with Donald after seeing you, since this commitment would require that I make major changes in my previous obligations to other people.
I’m sorry, but for this reason I will have to regretfully cancel next week’s appointments and decline your offer.
Again, I very much appreciate….

The next morning, after Marxy’s walk, I log on, eagerly looking for his reply. And there it is, on top of my original message:

It's okay. Please reschedule with Donald. Thank you.

I have a good laugh. I never do learn who is Sylvia.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

“Daily Walk” an excerpt from the novel "Saul’s Last Book" by Allison Fine

Saul Lerner took his daily walk down Connecticut Avenue NW with his dog Barney in tow. Barney’s just a mutt, just a mutt, just a mutt (like me), he thought in rhythm with his feet. Someone he saw regularly at the dry cleaner’s (his name escaped him) stopped and petted Barney. The guy looked like he never cleaned an article of clothing in his life. He wore wrinkled jeans and a sweater the color of egg, with stains on it. Maybe his cousin owned the Dry Cleaner.

What kind of dog is that?

Oh—he’s an Arubian Cunuco, Saul told him.

A what? He looks like a mutt to me.

Well--that breed has a mutt appearance but believe me, he’s not. I’ve got the papers. He’s all Arubian Cunuco.

That’s great, the guy said and wandered on, wrinkled jeans and egg sweater with him.

Barney looked to be a cross between Spaniel and Lab, (more Spaniel than lab), with maybe a little sadness thrown in, but he tried to act like a poodle because two gorgeous Czechoslovakian poodles lived next door (the neighbors were Czech—the poodles came from France) and Barney wanted them badly. Barney couldn’t do anything about it—they took care of that years ago, but he tried anyway. The poodles disdained him—the snobs.

Saul and Barney stared in at the familiar shops they frequented for the last twenty-five years of Saul’s life and the ten years of Barney’s life. Things looked brilliant when Saul left the house until a crow crossed his path, sat on the sidewalk and shrieked at him. A good omen or a bad omen? Saul decided to find a book on Native American animism in the bookstore and find out. He wished he could figure out what crows were saying said when they screeched. A warning, or just a crow?

Storefronts changed over the years as chains bought out the independents, while others remained the same. Special haunts he visited regularly—the bookstore, grocery, the library, Levine School of Music (where he studied Jazz piano to no avail), the flower shop, the gift shop, the Melody Record Shop (he wrangled with the owner for perfect copies of vinyl records). All along the street he knew so well.

At Luna Books he found a book in the Tarot section. It explained Animal Medicine and the connection to the “great mystery” (Saul certainly thought of everyday life, while possibly frivolous, as a great mystery).

When you call upon the power of an animal, he read, you ask to be drawn into complete harmony with the strength of that creature’s essence. We all communicate through the common denominator of the creative force of Great Spirit, which lives inside the Great Mystery. The book had a long list of animals and he turned to Crow. Crow keeps sacred law, Crow bends the laws of the physical universe and “shape shifts,” a rare and unique ability. Few Adepts exist in today’s world, and fewer still have mastered Crow’s art of shape shifting. This art includes doubling, or being in two places at one time consciously, taking on another physical form, and becoming the “fly on the wall” to observe what happens far away.

Saul closed the book at this point because he felt actively alive in two places at one time: in the bookstore reading about it and back as a child in his mother Bessie’s kitchen begging for a scrap of kindness and getting marsh mellow cookies instead. These troubled childhood memories propelled him to buy the book, get a coffee and leave the store.

There must be more to life than how we live it, he thought as he passed The Pleasure Palace, an exotic woman’s clothing store he paused to stare at many times before. He never walked in. His Neurologist wife wouldn’t be caught dead wearing this kind of clothing and he did not envision himself as a cross dresser. Maybe one of his daughters? Not Natalie, the gay one who drove a truck for UPS. Pragmatic Marissa? Never. He stood in front of the window display mesmerized by the clothes splashed with color and texture draped on the mannequins. Mannequins. How weird, he thought, inhuman, cyborgs, tall, elongated—in no way like real women—although-- (he thought of Andrea and her lovely long torso), ideas like this drifted: women, bodies, power; men, sex. It always led to the same thing.

He remembered Andrea’s tango-y scent as he kissed her goodbye at the door and walked to the car. She stood at the screen and he almost wished they were newly weds so he could go running back to tell he they had to make love at once and work could wait. Hah. Work never waited. Still, he dreamed of pouring lotion pour le bebes all over her skin.

The Great Mystery of Sex! He exclaimed to himself as he stood in front of the window. No one bothered about him on the sidewalk. The neighborhood accepted Saul and Barney as part of the usual fixtures of the landscape--most of them rushed by with no discernibly functional purpose.

A down-to-earth man like me, he told himself, wouldn’t--but he immediately recognized how his mind excused itself. For so long he faked as a totally coherent man he began to believe it. In truth, his life careened along more as an experimental novel than a realistic one and for God’s sake, his consciousness roamed all over the place. His personal narrative ran toward the non-linear and life exploded daily, remarkably accidental. Maybe if he had a normal job that would change things but he doubted it. The Writer, The Professor; archetypes he felt comfortable with and knew, served as backdrops to the other stuff. The Other Stuff: more like pandemonium, he concluded. He liked the random quality of his days, anyway. He even accepted the Uncertainty Principle. The more precisely the position is determined the less precisely the momentum is known. How did this hook up with shape shifting? Saul wondered.

Looking into the dustbin of his imagination he found nothing there except excrement—the rubbish of thoughts he hoped to discard but really only stored somewhere safe for a moment such as this. The moment often required more than he had at his disposal. Sitting at the dining table every day, this morning, last night-- typing away at his latest book-- he’d been working on book after book for the last ten years-- different books but it always seemed like the same book in different shapes, sizes and colors—he pondered whether the imagination could possibly create tangible change in a writer’s reality. Can my characters leap off the page and come into my living room? The idea intrigued him. He had no desire to write science fiction, he just loved thrilling himself with his own thoughts. The horror of everyday life was that it was so uninspiring—he wanted to spice it up a bit, but he had no explanation for this kind of mental traveling, and secretly he found it impossible to consider it would find material realization. It was just a mind fuck--masturbation really, and who doesn’t need that once in a while? He had only minor medical problems, some requiring procedures, and with retirement looming in the short distance, time became vulgar, insignificant and sad, something almost fatal. He was going to live longer than he had anticipated as a young man with promise and far from filling him with joy, the stretch of life ahead of him brought a vacant feeling. Western rules of chronology did not apply to the myriad moments of Saul Lerner.

This morning, before Barney forced him to leave the house, he wrote the death scene of a woman in Rocella Jonica, Italy—a woman who has affairs secretly. This entertained him awfully, but then he feared that creating something new meant leaving the novel for a moment and doing a short story. Could he handle working on a short story while finishing a novel at the same time? Oh hell. He opened a new window in Word and sat in front of a snappish blank page.

A woman whose husband follows her, and thinks to do her in because of the shame she brings him and the family. A woman with two daughters. A woman who—
Nun sacciu, nun vidi, nun ceru e si ceru durmiv, he wrote, I know nothing, I didn’t see anything, I wasn’t there and if I was there I was asleep.

It begins with the moment of realization—no one is accountable! But from who’s
viewpoint--from the husband’s? From—her name is Florianna asserted itself in bold letters, much to his dismay. It’s on the page I can’t do anything about it now. The helplessness of the writing process, the wily nature of his imagination dismayed him. Could he control it or not? Who was God of the book, anyway?

His wife Andrea came into the room undressing as she moved through the fire of a red sunlit morning, her blouse undone revealing the tips of breasts creating a sexual gust and distracting him completely.

Why do you do that? Don’t you know men and women are different?

Re-conceive sexual arousal response, she replied.

That’s a doctor’s comeback.

I’m a doctor.

I’m a man.

Anxiety has a negative effect on sexual response.

Who said anything about anxious?

You’re so anxious you’re about to explode.

Fuck off.

Sometimes anxiety actually has the effect of enhancing sexual response to stimuli! Isn’t that intriguing? That’s why men and women fight and fuck. Cognitive processes may mediate the negative effects of anxiety.

Could you say that in Latin?

La ansiedad realza respuesta sexual.

That’s not Latin.

Spanish dear. We’re going to Ecuador in the fall.

What did you say to me?

Cojame ahora que le necesito.

He kept writing. Andrea climbed into his lap, pushing her breasts into his neck and kissing the top of his head.

I’ll never get anything done this way. He reached over Andrea’s long torso to continue typing.

Peach peaks crested every wave that came toward the shore. Clouds appeared and changed every color to its complement: pink, orange, purple, white. The cold wind threaded inside her clothes, making her wish to return inside before it turned into a cold injection—as her family often said becoming ‘gelatoso’, ice cream—when someone feels cold to the touch. The coolness she felt was more than just the wind and the water—

Ah. Saul came at the touch of her hand on his penis.

Jesus, Saul, it hasn’t been that long.

I know. I’m--

Your story is turning you on, not me.

God, you’re jealous of my work.

Andrea laughed, the sound sliding from his ear to his hands around her butt, hands caressing her with passion and care--not typical for ten years of marriage.

You didn’t get any pleasure out of this, he said into her armpit.

Tonight I will.

Why wait?

I’m on duty at the hospital.

She slid off his lap. Saul’s pants were wet. I’ll have to go upstairs, shower and change. Shit.

He continued typing anyway.

The Shinto religion has a Penis Day, Saul.


The Ionian Sea brought a memory of the ancient sailors who once traversed this tip of Italy, but Florianna could no more think of history as she could think of why she was there. Friday night was her husband’s night to be with the boys and their girlfriends. Wives were to stay home with family and children and not ask questions. Luca never entertained his girlfriends in Rocella because of his mother. Instead, he went to nearby Giossa. His girl, barely out of school, filled herself with dreams. She was necessarily an outsider. Her family did not have relations with Luca’s family. She knew that once she became a girlfriend she would never become a wife.

It’s a tribute to Bacchus.

A poor substitute for Dionysus.


They carve a penis out of a tree trunk and dance around it.

I bet you’d love that.

No. I’d hate it. We already live with the Great Big Penis guarding the Washington Mall for God’s sake.

What’s that?

The Washington Monument.

Oh hell. Shut up.

To make a long story short he felt deserted. The writing went on and on but yada yada yada— churning it out daily-- saying nothing exceedingly well, (or maybe not so well). Ten years, ten books, all the same book, none published, none ever would be. He had a book out when he was thirty-five but—failure is not something most men like admitting to, yet as he read the statistics, most men are failures. At least he had a beautiful wife younger than him, a decent home (she paid for) a good job teaching literature to graduates, (he wouldn’t go into that), a few first-rate friends, (they annoyed him), a great stash of wine—

You’re not reading my stuff are you? Saul asked Andrea as she came back into the dining room with her shirt on and her pants off.

You’re creating cognitive dissonance, she laughed.

I hope so. I thought you were going—

I am.

I work on the dining table while you have an office of your own.

I make more money than you do.


Who cares as long as everything gets paid for?

She left the room trailing her white blouse behind her like a kid trailing a teddy bear.

Back to Sex.

I’m losing Time.

Everything’s disintegrating.

What is Time anyway? I’m either velocity or location. Right now I am located--

As he stared at the clothes inside The Pleasure Palace window he felt himself to be both outside on the sidewalk staring at them and inside the clothes themselves. The texture of that idea struck him as the essence of insanity. Marvelous. He could shape shift into a woman.


Which brought him to the party. There were always parties and this one was no different.

Last Friday’s party consisted of his friends from the university, her friends from the hospital—a peculiar mixture of people who gathered together and stared at one another across the table as if they were gaping at a wacky dish in a foreign restaurant. After a few bottles of wine awkwardness eased and tongues loosened up. The doctors wanted to talk literature and books and storytelling and the writers wanted to talk science and medicine and biology.

There was Phil with Margo, who seemed distinctly unhappy and looking great in a pair of skintight jeans and a burgundy halter-top, Saul invited Kayla, an associate professor from the English department working on her second book and she brought her husband David, Andrea invited one of her medical students, Thomas-something from Idaho or Iowa, (Saul always got them mixed up), who brought his nineteen-year-old girlfriend looking as if she were in grade school. The girl had a nose ring and a conspicuous tattoo on her left arm and Saul wondered whether the conversation would be beyond her but he found her face during the evening frozen with a supercilious smile on it, her eyes moving from person to person, object to object around the room, taking in the Lerner’s twelve bookcases filled and spilling out with books. Saul caught her rifling through the album of photos Andrea kept on a table near the kitchen door. Maybe she had something going for her. If I were a thirty-year old med student I’d bang her too, Saul thought.

Thank God Andrea did not ask them to play charades as she threatened to do before they arrived. Saul cooked dinner—something simple. Corned beef, cabbage, tossed salad; string beans and Andrea bought a Key Lime pie from Wegman’s. They brought wine and various other drinks into the living room and sat around telling tales of medical procedures and literature, unsuccessfully playing with metaphors of ascent and descent.

David Burchfield, a fellow Neurologist of Andrea’s, with a large head and close cropped white hair, started off with a joke meant to break the ice between his side and Saul’s friends from the graduate English Department.

Let me tell you this story! Let me tell you this story! he shouted.

Calm down for Christ’s sake, his wife Victoria said, a pediatrician with her own practice in Fairfax. Her elbow brushed against Saul’s thigh as they sat on the couch and he felt an electric tingle of something but it could have been the wine.

It’s amazing how doctor’s want to fall all over themselves proving they can be storytellers too, Mitch Bloom said as he fingered the galley of Jasper Thorn’s new book Kicking It. Jasper Thorn graduated from the MFA program five years ago and was already up for the Penn/Faulkner award. Mitch had been a constant friend of Saul’s for twenty years. Their offices, next to each other, made it easy to kibbutz in the hall. Mostly they said hello and complained about the burgeoning numbers of “emerging writers” suddenly attacking writing programs, armed with fifty years of empowerment and accumulative anger, storming the halls and classrooms and upsetting the carefully maintained balance between power, allure and mystery and young kids worshipping faculty writers. “Emerging writers” are short on admiration for what they see as patriarchal dipshits ruining their lives, they concluded. On the other hand, the faculty really did want to ruin their lives and it was so easy to do.

So tell the joke already! Mitch’s wife Bonnie shouted. Bonnie Bloom—Saul always loved her name, but Molly couldn’t even begin to live up to his fantasy.

Mitch cleared his throat.

Ok: A Woman Who Reads. One morning a husband returns after several hours of fishing and decides to take a nap. Although not familiar with the lake, his wife decides to take the boat out. She motors out a short distance; drops anchor, and begins to read her book. Along comes a game warden in his boat. He pulls up alongside the woman and says, "Good morning, ma'am. What are you doing?" Reading a book," she replies. "You're in a restricted fishing area," he informs her. "I'm sorry, Officer, but I'm not fishing, I'm reading." "Yes, but you have all the equipment. For all I know you could start at any moment. I'll have to take you in and write you up." "If you do that, I 'll have to charge you with sexual assault," says the woman. “But I have not even touched you," says the game warden. “That's true, but you have all the equipment. For all I know you could start at any moment." "Have a nice day, ma'am," he said, and left. Moral of this story: Never argue with a woman who reads.

Mitch laughed heartily at his own joke. Thomas and the little girl smiled politely.

Phil looked at Saul who looked at Andrea who looked at Bonnie.

Any more Key Lime pie? Andrea asked.

What’s wrong with that joke? Mitch boomed.

Nothing. Nothing. Saul had tried to salvage the moment but the moment was dead on its feet.

Nothing right with it either, Kayla said. You better stick to medicine.

So how about some cards? Or watching a movie?

This was how parties went until they all got drunk enough so it didn’t matter. Saul went to the kitchen to grab two more bottles of wine. He could see that it would take a lot of lubricant to bring this dead whale to life. Personal identity disappears after enough alcohol is imbibed and he wanted to eradicate the personal identity of just about everyone in the room, including his own.

Ah, more wine, Mitch said. I really liked that joke—I don’t see—

Stop beating a dead horse, Bonnie told him. Andrea—I’ll have another piece of the pie. Bonnie, weighing in at about 230 pounds, was the last person who needed more Key Lime, but Saul was six glasses of wine past caring and too busy checking out Victoria and wondering if he could corner her in the kitchen and ask her how her pediatrics was going. Instead he took his wine glass out on the porch and watched the longest twilight fade out on the loveliest spring day in recent memory. Everything was violet with a tinge of gold, the cherry blossoms were falling from the trees and spread out all over the sidewalk like a pink and sweet pathway—the drive glistened with last night’s rain. There was a misty glow to it all--he just wanted that blush of hope to last but he knew it wouldn’t. Barney came out on the porch to join him. Too bad dogs can’t drink wine, he thought. He never understood that saying ‘it’s a dog’s life.’ Does it mean a dog’s life is good or bad? If it’s a dog’s life there is no relief. But there are smells. He supposed that was some compensation. Forget parties.

Saul snapped back into the moment and stared at the exploding colors in the window. The fashion world waits to be surprised by something new and the boredom of the rich knows no bounds, Saul realized. He thought about the meaning of colors. Some colors brought psychological depression and some brought--joy. But so what? The fashion business was all about the visual manifestation of moods placed on objects, he reasoned. The rich love moods. Oh, the rich are a moody lot. The rich (he put the phrase the rich in italics) very rarely create anything—but they willingly support mediocrity with their colossal power of preference.

Power of Preference.

Stay here, Barney. Saul bent down to pat the top of Barney’s head. Barney had been well trained to sit neatly on the sidewalk outside the door of whatever shop Saul entered. He sacrificed for the pleasure of their daily jaunts out together because he knew, he trusted, that sometime after all the waiting Saul rewarded him with a romp in the park, and the park meant the delicious smells of other dogs and the pleasures of pissing on a wide variety of trees. That was, in essence, the dog’s life.

Saul walked into the store.

May I help you? The young woman, draped in something peacock colored, flowing and just barely showing the outlines of her breasts, surprised him.

No. I’m just looking around.

He walked over to a rack of dresses and thought about clothing as he fingered the garments and felt their soft, silky fabrics on his skin. The colors tantalized him--the mystery of texture and fabric turned him on. Blue, scarlet, green, lavender, yellow, lime, orange--wasn’t that the idea--to make men feel the singular sensual Great Mystery of the Woman? High-arousal hues coupled with low-arousal hues—a form of entrapment.

Oh hell, Saul’s practical voice countered, fashion has wielded a weapon of war and aggression ever since the reversal of nature and the Fall of Adam. Those two poor souls put clothes on as a primary social factor—(particles can appear in places where they have no right to be—Heisenberg interrupted his reverie)—the first primary social factor: the moment when humankind lost its innocence by realizing the shame of its nakedness, with all the implied sexuality of power and lust and loss of control. Clothing became a ploy to control the sexual urges. Clothing begat fashion, but before fashion (if there ever was a “before”) clothing stood as the first prehistoric attempt to provide a sensory response to the world, a kind of cheap imitation of nature in all of its glorious plumage, color and richness. Clothing was essentially a ritual behavior mechanism with roots in tribal society where clothes were the way in which one identified one’s place in the tribe. Ah hah! Clothing is Shape Shifting at its most rudimentary level! This revelation gave Saul a moment of joy and he let out a little laugh, which startled the sales girl industriously straightening brilliant-colored T-shirts on a long wooden table.

I’m sorry.

That’s all right. Can I show you something specific?

No—I’m just getting off on clothes.

Oh. She smiled. Her earrings told him she understood. Ah—clothing gives out subtle signals.

Nothing has changed, he realized, as he moved from the rack of dresses to another rack of balloon-like pants with matching colored, printed shirts. We still live in tribes except the old tribes have distorted into smaller and disparate sub-tribes and sub-sub-tribes to keep the energy at a manageable level. In spite of this, the more humankind advances in civilization the more violent and warlike the tribal group dynamic becomes! This violence, subjugated, projects outwards through many artifices—fashion is one of the most trivial of these artifices--asserting itself as a pseudo-artistic portal through which humiliation of one’s fellow species finds its manifestation. Saul congratulated himself on these thoughts and held up a large pair of balloon pants. What will Barney say? Barney sat outside panting on the sidewalk waiting uncomplainingly for his master to take him to the park where he could revel in the odors of vegetation, shrubbery and other dogs. The salesgirl peered out the front window of the store to look at Barney.

Is that your dog?

Yes. He’s good. He won’t bother anyone. He’s too old, anyway.

Oh, he can come in the store. I don’t mind.

He’s probably better out there. He’s used to wandering around with me.


She went back to folding shirts.

Fashion is violence, Saul thought as he looked in the full-length mirror on the door of the dressing room with the pants held up against his body.

Could I wear these?

Fashion seeks to use the human body as a disembodied mannequin displaying the cloth and color born out of the imagination of the designer having virtually nothing to do with the person modeling the clothing, nor with the humans who may wish to adopt or modify the vision for themselves. Saul reflected that these ideas might make a good article. He took the pants into the cubicle and shut the door.

Fashion has de-feminized the woman by extolling masculine characteristics in a feminine body, (the skein of thoughts unwound in his head) by performing a lobotomy on the personality of the models who show the clothes, by demanding that models have no hips, no breasts; no flesh! Saul took off his jeans and slid the multi-colored balloon pants on. The celebration of a primary male homosexual fantasy, (which also expresses itself in the Ballet and other art forms), turning young girls into little boys-- disembodied corpses! The result? A wave of revulsion toward the natural body of a woman that, quite logically carries over into a social revulsion against women and their bodies in general. All men are homosexuals! Saul discarded that thought. Ach, Mien Gott! He heard the voice of his childhood Rabbi; Frankel the Frank, they used to call him.

With the pants on, Saul turned to the side to see how they looked. He wished for a mirror so he could see himself from behind, but he didn’t dare ask the girl for one. The pants fit but he wondered if the ballooning effect made him look a little hippy. Would Barney recognize him? And what happens when I walk out into the street?

Since women’s bodies go through so many changes in the course of a lifetime from girlhood to puberty to motherhood (for some) to menopause to death—death! At this Saul looked away from the mirror and shape shifted himself into a dead corpse lying inside a coffin. Imagine death! Forget it. He felt a sudden heart palpitation but it could have been the coffee.

Group loathing towards women’s bodily fluctuations produces in young girls and pre-pubescent girls a sense of failure, self-hatred and disorientation. Saul contemplated whether he ought to buy the pants or not. He could always give them to Andrea (who would never wear them) or give them to the Salvation Army or something. But he wanted to wear them! What taboo was keeping him from doing this? The successful woman who learns early will display a gross imitation of male behavior, body movement and dress, thus further alienating herself from her Woman power. This violence against women--a form of social aggression--does not originate in fashion but finds its most obvious expression there. The media prevails upon the consciousness of all and sundry through television, radio, film, advertising, magazines and computer ads—the violence spreads everywhere like a plague, an insidious form of bio-germ warfare that cannot be seen, felt or smelled but permeating every pore of the organism—the bio-warfare of fashion! Saul thought of the title of the article: The Vast Right-wing Conspiracy of Fashion—no--The Vast Left-wing Conspiracy of--

I am going to take the pants.

He walked out of the dressing room wearing the pants.

What do you think? He asked the girl.

Well, they look—interesting.

I like them. How much are they?

$250. They’re on sale.

What? So this is sticker shock. Could he pay $250 pants that would advertise him as crazy, eccentric, gay or was he just plain out of his mind?

With Globalization, even girls in Mongolia want to look like Tyra Banks, he thought. Until the human animal comes to peace with the Archetypal Feminine we’ll engage in social, political and emotional war in the increasingly tighter and spatially smaller Global Village we call the world. That would be the concluding sentence.

I’ll put them on my Visa, Saul said, jeans draped over one arm and wallet in hand.

Do you want to wear them out? she asked.

Why not? Barney’ll understand. He pulled his visa out of his wallet.

I need to remove the tags. She came around from the counter with a pair of scissors and delicately cut the tags off the pants.

Will there be anything else?

Not right now.

Can I put your jeans in a bag?


Saul walked out of the store with a Pleasure Palace bag and the Luna Book bag and realized that there was no place to put his wallet. The pants had no pockets. Barney looked up at him expectantly. Park now? his eyes said. Saul dropped his wallet into the bag with his jeans and they proceeded to the park.

At the park Barney ran around sniffing life while Saul sat on a bench and pulled the book out.

Crow medicine people master illusion, the book said, human law creates a mandate of acceptable behavior within the context of worldly affairs. I hope nobody I know comes walking by, he thought. Human law is not the same as Sacred Law. Crow sees the physical world and the spiritual world as humanity interprets them as an illusion.

It makes no damn difference what I wear, Saul concluded. Saul listened to bird sounds and watched Barney snuffling and hunting around pissing on trees. He felt the cold, hardness of the bench underneath the flimsy fabric of the pants. Women feel the world with their asses, he reflected. An expansion of time passed as Saul watched Barney and sat on the bench, thinking of zilch, screening the whole thing, in motion and at rest simultaneously. From somewhere far he heard a train and experienced concurrently: the train window with life whizzing by at dizzying speed—trees, houses, buildings sliding past; the earmarks of civilization minus the potential causal relationships, without reference to events—an eventless moment of pure release because it was the moment with no other moments to consider--and sitting his ass on a park bench in NW D.C watching Barney explode with joy. He sucked air in two places at the same time and both places made about as much sense as the voices of children heard in the distance or the memory of joys and desires that hung together in the intelligent dominion of his mind.

Once home, Barney raced next door to tell the poodles all about his latest excursion and sniff their hybrid excitability while Saul deleted everything he had written that morning. The moment of realization in the park became obliterated with the gestalt of his daily existence—a sink full of dirty dishes, one of Andrea’s ubiquitous household lists tacked up on the refrigerator, a pile of short-story submissions to read, an article that he had to write--it became obvious to him that in spite of the fact that he considered writing his vocation, his real vocation was reading the rotten work of other people who considered writing their vocation. Years of reading rotten work had eroded his self- confidence: he worried about the deleterious effect on his own work. He wondered if the years of reading stories of awkward desperation filled with clumsy sentences of bad writing had invaded him at some subliminal level and made him into an even worse writer than he was. But that was probably just an excuse he used to justify the fact that he hadn’t created anything worth publishing in so many years that most people referred to him as a great teacher, a great reader, a great writer of articles, a great reviewer—everything but a great writer. And, he asked himself at terrifyingly honest moments, would he ever be a great writer? At what age does promise sink into self-delusion? Could a man be promising in his sixties? How long was he going to live? He began to worry he wouldn’t live long enough to find out. He realized the absurdity of this and didn’t care. At moments such as this, Saul roamed his memory for the women who had humiliated him or loved him or both—recent memories of women (in their twenties) who often flirted with him until they discovered he really was that old, older than their fathers, (even though he could disguise all this with a certain, shrewd liveliness in his eyes) older, (especially in the paunch) than any man they had ever flirted with, and yet they found themselves flirting with him anyway. He hadn’t lost his touch. The packaging was a little frayed around the edge, but that was not the problem. The trouble was that he had not really addressed his essential weakness: he was a pagan, a vain diva filled with coldness and a wicked sense of humor, having no money, (or not enough) and a wife much more empowered than he was. In short, he was an old man weary of it all. By now, the balloon pants had begun to really irritate him. Barney was happy, why shouldn’t he be happy too? If he could get happy by sniffing around young girls life would be perfect.

The richness of the freedom conferred by the mask of fiction forced him to try, against the repeated feeling of failure, against the words of his editor written at the top of his novel: a flickering, barren, depressive perfectionism, against the memory of the stern moral code of his father; against the demanding, whining, devouring presence of his mother, to write sentences, phrases, moments, scenes, characters, dialogue into something—he wanted to be remembered. Hiding behind those wonderful invented masks gave him the option to play at reality, change it, mold it, shape it, move it, scare it into doing exactly what he wanted—the imagination was so much more pleasurable than life! But--(he opened the book he had just bought hoping for some clarity), let’s face it, he’d had a good day, he looked ridiculous in these pants, and fairly soon Andrea would be home to make him experience the momentary pleasure of pretending to be happy. Was that it? Are we are just pretending to be happy?

You have forgotten to ask for help when you needed it, the book said, thus you will not be able to receive abundance when you want it most. This is characteristic of those who are ungrateful for the blessings, abilities, talents, health, family and friends in their lives. Ungrateful humans often walk with inner pain rather than with peace in their hearts.

Saul closed the book feeling cheated and angry. Perhaps he was pushing himself too fast in the physical world—I need a Reunion with something deeper and the pants didn’t do it. He wished he really had the ability to shape shift, move time somewhere else or move himself into another time, experience another body not his own, but isn’t that what marriage is about? Experiencing Andrea’s body as if it were his own? The imagination of her body brought her energy into the room just as if she were actually there and for a brief second Saul actually thought she might be—but it was just Barney scratching at the door wanting to be let in. He went to the door and there stood Barney, with the two Czech poodles beside him, happiness complete. Saul would have let the poodles in but they didn’t really belong in his house. Barney came in alone and went right for the new bone Saul had set near his bowl of water. Saul discovered if he made the boundaries of his life smaller and smaller, dissected the days into minute divisions--moments, he could stop feeling like a doormat. He realized that Barney was his only teacher and all the rest of it was just routines he wanted to get through in a hurry. Next year is next year, Saul thought, believing in his lost youth.