Category: Stories

A Lucky Good Year

water-taxiSometimes a water taxi in Bangkok is the best option from point A to B, a city bus cleaving through the choppy, brown water of the canal. The sweating commuters, packed elbow to elbow on the plank seats, are happy for the breeze and cool spray off the water, filthy as the liquid highway is. You have to be quick climbing aboard or going ashore. The taxi, like most things, is connected to the frenetic pace of the city and does not stay moored on the pilings too long. Old radials long retired from street work act as a buffer between the dock and the boat’s hull that slaps against the tough rubber panoply as the taxi dips and rises with the weight of riders scuttling in and out, and the undulating current. 

A career in public transportation observing the diurnal comings and goings of the masses may not sound like an exciting life but believe me, for an old timer like myself, I am lucky to have my job. Most of my ilk were not as fortunate to find such a position after completing their service. 

I work on the Hua Chang pier in the shadow of the Monkey Head bridge that spans the busy canal. This stop on the taxi’s route is a popular one with tourists. Nearby is Han Square and the bustling open air markets where one can purchase anything from fresh prawns for dinner to a wok to cook them in, not to mention the rainbow of spices and flowers perfuming the air. Just off the square is the Paragon hotel with its famous, or perhaps infamous, Gold Elephant bar. Once a favorite watering hole for legendary expats and writers, a cocktail in the rich French Colonial interior amid palms, teak and ivory is an experience not to be missed by many erudite visitors to our city. 

Although historical ghosts will haunt the district forever, several reputable hostels attract younger travelers and all their youthful energy. I see many faces everyday who are excited about life and the wonders they will discover and experiences they will treasure forever. My pier is not a gateway to an austere temple or a sober business center, my pier is an entrance to pleasure. 

Yes, my pier is a fine place to work and I am lucky. I have always been lucky, considering my humble beginnings. I rolled into this world as just another nameless creation among a multitude of nameless creations with a bright, shiny black face but not much else to set me apart from the rest. We truly all are brothers and sisters on this earth. We all come and go in our own time and although we are created for different purposes, we all leave behind a footprint. 

My purpose seemed to be traveling and I hit the road very early. You need tough skin for a life on the road and mine was galvanized. I have seen some of the toughest give out early, ending long before their time, but I managed to keep on going until that fateful day. I was on my usual run through the Southwest when I was taken by surprise and stabbed outside of El Paso. The wound was not severe enough to kill me but it put my hazardous career in doubt. I was fearful of what I would do next since my qualifications were scant. 

The company patched me up and kept me on as a reserve for a period before being laid off with others like me. Fortunately, there was still some life left in me and I found work doing local deliveries for a while before I was finally unable to take the burden. My employer was a kind soul and, unlike the big company from which I was unceremoniously discharged, kept me on his payroll as an amusement for his children. It was a peculiar job to say the least but it was fun and rewarding and not the least bit difficult. 

My quarters were below a massive oak whose broad leaves provided cool shade during the hot months and a mosaic of brilliant colors when the season changed. The children would take turns climbing on my rugged shoulders for a ride. I would take them back and forth, high into the blue heavens to our mutual delight. I never tired of it.  

There was not much use for me in winter months but I did host a family of birds who built their nest in the safety of my bosom. I took great pride in sheltering the vulnerable and doing my part to foster new life in a hostile world. When the hatchlings were of age, they flew one by one from my sanctuary, leaving me alone and feeling melancholy. I looked forward to warmer days and the return of gleeful children but I never saw them again. They, along with my employer, moved away and the new owners of the big house had no use for an old fool like me hanging around their lovely oak tree. I was cut loose and sent on my way, to where I did not know. 

It was not long thereafter that I found myself in the company of other worn out, discarded characters. Those who spoke, always talked of a young and proud past when life had purpose, never of a hopeful future. We made for a wretched congregation of the unwanted. I was glad to be free of that woeful bunch when I was hired on as part of a roofing gang.

The work was not difficult and required no experience; I simply held things in place along with a few of my fellows. At first I was skeptical that someone as unskilled as myself was even needed and worried that the discovery of that fact would surely result in my dismissal. The man in charge, however, insisted workers such as myself were crucial and spoke of things I didn’t understand like, “roof rumble” and “oil-canning.” So, work I did despite the job being boring to the point of stultification. And the heat, that unforgiving Texas sun. Everyday I felt as though my black skin, thick as it still was, would melt on the baking, popping tin. And yet I performed my duties with no complaints; as lowly as my position may have been, I still served a purpose, a role in life. 

A brief shower or thunderstorm deluge brought momentary relief during the long, parched hours of the workday. “Might as well enjoy the rain,” I reasoned. There was, after all, no shelter on a rooftop. The drops hit the metal skin of the roof like fingers tapping out a mystical rhythm on the head of a bongo. I have no ear for music but I would hum a silly melody that I remembered the children singing as they played around me beneath that magnificent oak. Or perhaps I learned the melody from that family of birds I harbored. 

My strange course through life took another abrupt turn during one particular and very violent storm. The tempest was nothing I had experienced before and I admit, I was frightened. Clouds the color of an ugly bruise lowered close to the horizon as if weighted down by the heavy inundation within them and the sun overhead disappeared like a candle snuffed out. The blistering heat of midday was blown away by cold gusts that made the metal below me creak and buckle but I remained steadfast as a fool, determined to do my job regardless of the unsettling situation. Experience taught me to anticipate a thorough drenching. I waited for the first fat drops of rain but what hit the metal first with a loud snap, ricocheted off and struck my hide with an icy sting. In an instant, the roof and my poor self were being pelted with balls of ice the size of cocktail onions. To this day I shiver with the painful memory of my frigid lashing. 

What followed the frozen barrage I will never forget. From one of the low, ominous clouds, the finger of a dark, malevolent God extended, spinning, as if it were drawing frantic circles into the earth as if writing an account of epic mayhem. The rotation created a thick cloud of destruction filled with all manner of debris, natural and man-made and the impending doom was headed directly toward me. 

I recall very little of what happened next. A strange sensation of heavenly ascension wrapped itself around me. The air was sucked away just before everything went black as death.

At first, I believed I had been called home to the Lord, unscathed and weightless, awash in divine effulgence. But I had not died, the darkness was temporary and I woke to a brilliant day. The buoyancy I felt was the gentle, warm sea where I bobbed like a bottle carrying some strange message to whosoever should find me. And found I was, indeed, fished out of the waves like a mackerel by a kind boatswain of an Eastbound freighter. 

To my dismay, not a single member of the ship’s crew seemed the least bit impressed that someone like me should be found floating in the Gulf of Mexico. Indeed, they treated my presence in the water as something as common and natural as a fish. Although exceedingly grateful for my rescue, I could not help but harbor some resentment that no one aboard recognized the miracle I represented. What saved me from sinking into the depths or shark attack, in my opinion, could only be explained as the intervention of our merciful Creator. I reflected on this miracle for the entirety of my journey to Bangkok and continue my contemplation to this day. 

Of course, I have shared this marvelous odyssey with my co-workers at the Hua Chang pier. A few are cynical as they never traveled far or suffered real trials while others have had lives similar to my own. One steel-belted soul, a Michelin, served on the frontlines of a civil war and witnessed unbelievable brutality. And I work side-by-side with a more meditative Firestone who was nearly burned alive in India. 

As for others, my new career provides ample opportunity to share my tale with all who take the time to listen but few do. I do not blame them. People are in a hurry and are often too busy to recognize the everyday miracles that surround them including their own precious circumstance. But I have learned to take nothing for granted. The bustling city, her canals, the pier, the water taxis and their passengers, my own watery reflection. I cherish them all and will for the remainder of my lucky, lucky life.

The Hurdles of Epiphany

Coach Milton climbed the bleachers overlooking the football field where on crisp Friday evenings in early Autumn the Fighting Bluejays of Middlesburg High battled other local teams on the gridiron to an  insufferable soundtrack of current pop hits arranged for marching band. This was, however, early Spring, a period that marked the beginning of track and field season. At the top of the stands, Coach Milton had a commanding view of the dirt ring that orbited a green sea of turf where an assistant coach led a new crop of would be sprinters, high jumpers and pole vaulters in calisthenics.  Watching the gawky teenagers struggle with the coordination required to perform jumping jacks, brought to mind an analogy between track and chorus. It wasn’t his own, he knew next to nothing about music, but was tendered to him by Mrs. Blackmore who at the time was Middlesburg’s chorus instructor. That was in the early part of his teaching career when a new school year promised a fresh start even though they all ended very much the same.

Track is to sports as chorus is to music, a dumping ground for students eager to participate but not talented enough for the football team or the concert band.

How did it go? He lifted a pair of binoculars to his eyes and fiddled with the little wheel between the lenses to bring into focus a distant point. What emerged from the blur happened to be the shapely rump of a girl genuflecting in a hamstring stretch.

Track is to music, no, that wasn’t right. The looming sky looked as if it could have been an artist’s interpretation of sorrow done in charcoal. He searched it for the answer like a bad student consulting his crib sheet but heaven held no inspiration. 

He took another peek at the girls bottom. Oh, yes. Track is to sports as chorus is to music, a dumping ground for students eager to participate but not talented enough for the football team or the concert band.

At first the observation had pissed him off and he had wanted to punch Mrs. Blackmore’s sad, weary face that was made all the more unattractive by her jaded attitude and an enduring puffiness caused by too much wine and sodium. However, each school term since had come to an unwavering conclusion, bringing the idiom into perspective.

He sighed and brought his attention back to the business at hand. In the lenses of his field glasses stood the magnified image of Wilton Brown, his lean regional champion of the 400 meter hurdles. A senior now, he would surely go All-State this year. Coach Milton made a habit of observing his best athletes from different vantage points in order to spot potential weaknesses or strengths that could be exploited. As of yet, he had seen nothing but perfection from his star runner. His measured steps between hurdles were swift and consistent and he leapt over the obstacles with the ease and beautiful grace of a deer hopping a fence.  Watching this youth excel reminded Coach Milton that there were indeed rewards to his job.

But just as Brown cleared the final jump and sprinted the remaining stretch to the finish line, the coach felt something tighten in his chest and he grew short of breath. At first he thought he was having a heart attack but seemed to remember hearing somewhere that cardiac arrest always starts in the left arm. He flopped down onto the smooth wood of the bench under the crushing weight of an unpleasant epiphany as lethal as any infarction, albeit much slower, painful and cruel.

It was an utterly banal reflection for a track coach. Nonetheless, he had never thought about it until this moment. All of his life up he had been going in a circle, an endless loop of years. It didn’t matter who came in first or dead last, we all end up right back at the beginning to start all over again. Worse still, he was teaching young people the same circuitous pattern that would lead them spiraling to their own unfulfilled existences until they disappeared like water down the black hole of a drain. 

He jumped to his feet, allowing his binoculars to slip from his grasp and go crashing through the crisscross of steel support beams that held the tiered seating erect. He descended the stands at a clumsy pace that nearly caused him to trip twice. He darted to the school parking lot and his dumpy Ford Fiesta with faded paint and a squeaking fan belt that needed changing. He jumped in and raced home.

His wife, who was not expecting him home so soon, was interrupted from her afternoon routine of Boone’s Farm and self pleasure. She wrapped herself in a bathrobe and concocted a haphazard lie about being under the weather as an excuse for her unkempt appearance. Coach Milton took no notice as he pushed passed her into the bedroom without saying a word. He wrestled from the closet the same Samsonite that had carried his things to Myrtle Beach on the couple’s honeymoon years ago. He tossed it into the middle of the sagging mattress and began filling it with items from his chest of drawers. 

“Aaron, what on earth are you doing? Do you have a track meet out of town or something? It’s not on the calendar. Aaron?” His wife, still groggy from the effects of wine and mechanized ecstasy, watched her husband’s erratic packing in an indifferent stupor that suggested she didn’t really care if he answered or not. 

From behind the screen of the front door she watched Aaron Milton fling his single piece of luggage into the gaping rear of the hatchback and drive away. She waited for him to return the next day and the next. After two weeks she called her friend Sandy at Coldwell Banker and put the house on the market.

Ashen Cross

ash-cross

When I first met Bernard I thought, judging from the dark smudge on his forehead, that I had missed Ash Wednesday. And for an instant I found myself in that terrifying world of dementia, an ugly, swirling world of lost moments and strangers with strange voices, a world where my mother had been spending more and more her time. The strong grip of Bernard’s handshake quickly restored my senses and transformed the dark, liturgical blemish into some sort of birthmark with irregular edges.

Bernard dealt in antiquities not antiques, my sister had joked, but antiquities; he worked in the admissions office of Oak Grove Retirement Community helping elderly clients in their transition from independence to assisted living.

He arrived on the front porch of the house in which I grew up and was preparing to sell with a briefcase full of brochures and paperwork. I invited him in and led the way to the sun room in back of the house through a maze of packed boxes and furniture wrapped in stretch film and moving blankets. I made him comfortable and went to the kitchen to pour coffee.

I returned to find Bernard sitting in front of documents neatly spread out on mother’s prized glass-topped table presumably in the order in which they were to be presented. It was a beautiful day and the sun streaming in through the windows reflected brightly off the gloss of an Oak Grove pamphlet.

Bernard tapped lightly on the table’s surface, “In my home country, it is popular with tourists to go for an excursion in a glass-bottomed boat to see the coral reefs and colorful fish without the need for diving.”

I stared through the table and tried to imagine the beauty of Neptune’s aquatic kingdom but could only see a tile floor in desperate need of sweeping. I looked back up at Bernard’s beaming smile as if he was pleased to share a wonder with me.

“This process I know is very difficult but I will help you and your family through it,” he assured me while unfolding some of the community’s literature and sliding it under my nose like a menu.

For many years after my father had died mother continued on with the diurnal routines of the retired: gardening, church, choir, volunteering for charity work. If during this time she had experienced episodes brought about by diminished cognizance it is not certain.

However, one afternoon she drove her Lincoln through the Buchanan’s boxwood hedge and onto the front lawn because she claimed it was the parking lot of her podiatrist’s office. This embarrassing event culminated with a visit to a neurologist who gave us a grim diagnosis.

Once dependent on others for transportation her activities dropped off. My sister and I took turns getting her to church, although a few mornings I would arrive at the house to find her still in bed. And once, on a Friday evening during a routine check-in, I found her waiting by the door dressed in her Sunday best and fuming that we would be late for the processional hymn.

Dick Dillon, organist and choir director, called me at work to say mother was no longer able to read the music on the page and insisted on singing an old show tune.

The worst of it came one night when a frantic message from my sister summonsed me over to mother’s. When I let myself in she called to me from the darkened sun room where she had taken refuge on a chaise lounge. The windows around her were like slabs of slick onyx. She had pulled her sweater around knees like a teenager curled into a ball of insecurity and her eyes were puffy and red. She had raided my stash of beer that I kept in a mini-fridge in the garage and two empty cans were on the floor beside her.

Before I sat down I asked if I needed to get a beer for myself before she told what had happened.

That night, while preparing for bed, mother had spoken to a woman in the bathroom mirror. That woman had told her she was going to die and be judged for terrible sins.

“That’s what mom said,” my sister told me in a quavering voice, ‘she pointed into the mirror and said it just like that.”

She apologized for drinking my beer but that she desperately needed something to soothe her nerves and that the first one tasted so good she had another.

“This is all very natural,” Bernard reassured me while we went over the benefits and amenities of Oak Grove before moving on to the legal documents. “Your mother will have the best of care and be with people of her generation. That will be fun for her. And don’t worry, with the house sold there will be plenty of funds to cover expenses.”

While Bernard spoke and shuffled papers I gazed at his birthmark. I wanted to see it once again as an ashen cross.

Funny Signs

harmacyThe dream faded. My eyes opened on the green, segmented digits of my alarm clock. Abraham had been correct, I was indeed the chosen one, as evidenced by the envelope beside the clock. Unfortunately, if the hour on display was correct, the chosen one had very little left of the day to deliver it.

It wasn’t easy to get up and running, sick as I was. A few days prior an annoying tickle in the back of my throat went afoul before slithering down my windpipe to make trouble in my chest. In no time my lungs were producing a thick, yellow phlegm with the fetid taste of disease.

Nurse Girlfriend ordered a long soak in a tub filled with scalding water and eucalyptus scented bath salts. Instead, I poured myself three fingers of Lansdowne Rye. Liquor soothed a prickly itch that triggered violent coughing episodes and, unlike conventional medication, this remedy took immediate effect. My head had no sooner nested in the cool dimple of my pillow than I found myself dreaming of poor Abraham Lemon falling from his ladder, paint bucket and all. I stood over his prone body on the craquelure of Hartley’s & Grill parking lot. The agony, which glazed his normally piercing turquoise eyes, caused him to whimper when he spoke, “Wake up you idiot, you are the chosen one.”

A day after Abraham Lemon’s accident a get well card was passed between the trembling hands of Hartley’s regulars. Once the card had collected the requisite amount of signatures and best wishes it was passed to me for delivery to Darden University Hospital.

Outside Abraham’s room a powerful looking custodian was swabbing the floor. He paused to plunge his mop into a bucket of steaming water that wafted disinfectant. The piercing bouquet was just the irritant needed to induce an episode disturbing enough to bring a nurse out from hiding. L.N. White insisted I wear a surgical mask and so I entered Lemon’s room looking as if I was a member of the staff.

The bed closest to the window in room 3015 cradled the long, lean frame of Lemon, A. He looked to be as peacefully sedated as I had expected, however, I didn’t fully appreciate to what degree until he started talking. Over a period of time Lemon’s drunken patois had become intelligible to my ears but this was something new.

“I thought you said we’d have not to operate, doctor,” mumbled Abraham’s strungout voice box.

The plastic tubes of his IV rattled when he lifted a weak arm either to emphasize his objection or to protect himself from the scalpel.

“Abraham, it’s me. I ain’t the doctor.” I could feel the mask scratching my lips as I spoke.

To someone imbibing top shelf pharmaceuticals my mask proved an effective disguise. His drowsy eyelids were barely ajar and he regarded me through thin slits. I made another attempt at explaining who I was and why I was there without exposing him to my germs.

“Do you remember being on the ladder at Hartley’s?”

His pallid tinge brightened a bit with recognition.

“Hartley. Yeah, I know her. Hey, you know what? I work at a place called Hartley’s Bar & Grill. I cook…sometimes.”

“Sure, Abraham, I know, man. But they don’t call it that anymore. Remember? That is what caused the accident.”

His mouth stretched into a faint smile or a perhaps a scowl of pain. It was impossible to know for sure. I continued.

“They passed that law. The one that outlawed the word BAR in the name of any business that served alcohol.

I felt that Abraham was slowly regaining the use of his memory when a nurse, different than L.N. White, appeared from nowhere on a pair of silent white sneakers to take his pulse and check the flow of whatever cocktail he was being served. She gave me a perfunctory smile and disappeared carrying with her whatever sensibilities Lemon was beginning to reclaim.

“Anyway, Abraham,” I held up the envelope, “Hartley and them got you this card. Everybody signed it.”

“Hartley. You two getting by okay. How’s the kids?”

It was unnecessary to explain to him that neither Hartley nor children were involved in my life. I didn’t even respond. Abraham was in deep hibernation.

I placed his get well card on the rolling table beside a cup with a goose-neck straw and tray of untouched food and left 3015 for home.

Lemon’s near catatonic state and one more croupy spasm before leaving Darden’s parking lot had me contemplating my own course of medication. The two options I considered were cough syrup and such, available at Lipton’s Pharmacy, or a whiskey, available at Hartley’s. Both had their arguments.

The day was nearly done and lights were sparking into action everywhere against the encroaching night: street lights, headlights, house lights, store lights. People moving in windows looked like people on a television set.

The fat, red letters on Lipton’s sign were aglow, all but the P in pharmacy. They radiated into the darkness that the family owned apothecary was still proudly serving the community after sundown.

I slowed but did not stop.

I did not stop at Hartley’s either. The bar’s placard that swung by the roadside was glowing brightly. I could almost make out the strokes that Abraham’s brush had left in the white paint he had applied over the now illegal word. At least he’d finished the job, I thought, before the ladder, unstable on the clear glaze of ice, had slid from beneath him. In Abraham’s honor, Pete, the weeknight bartender, had placed on special a shooter he called Lemon Drops until Hartley put an end to what she considered insensitive.

At home Chef Girlfriend was stirring a pot of chicken soup she had promised her ailing honey.

“Where have you been, hon?” Chef Girlfriend left the bubbling cauldron and began chopping herbs.

“Hospital,” I wheezed, “had to deliver that card to Lemon.”

“You’ve got to be kidding. Why didn’t you just give it to me. I work there, remember.”

I hadn’t thought of that until that exact moment and said as much.

“You’re going to catch pneumonia if you’re not careful. Speaking of which,” she pointed with the tip of the knife to a bag on the table,  “I stopped at Lipton’s and picked you up some goodies.”

I was glad I did not make the stop and asked if she had noticed the sign with the missing P.

“Lipton’s Harmacy? Yea, there’s some irony for you. “I almost didn’t want to go in.” She gave me a big smile, “Funny, right?”

“It’s funny alright. There are a lot of funny signs out there now.”

She tilted her head and raised an eyebrow.  “What do you mean?”

That a law intended to defend the public, or at least the public’s perpetually vulnerable morality, had sent a man to a hospital bed was not the type of cosmic paradox I felt worthy of acknowledging.

“Oh, nothing. What time’s dinner, babe?”

Mission Failure

Man Overlooking Mars A while back I started working freelance so that I might untangle myself from the corporate day-to-day. It wasn’t the life I expected. In fact, not much changed except that I lost my insurance and other benefits associated with full-timers.

I wrote this story during my last gig.

It takes place in the distant future but, as you well read, nothing much has changed.

Mission Failure

Manhattan was beset by a cold and gray afternoon. Clouds drifted by the streaked windows of the 45th floor like lost spirits. Weighted down with despair, they slowly fell to earth where they mingled with the fog that haunted the wet sidewalks. Red brake lights retreating north, amber headlamps advancing south reflected their colors off the slick and glistening pavement. The Hudson was a lifeless slab, a vanity mirror for the leaden sky to gaze at its somber face. On the other side New Jersey was all but forgotten behind a drab stage curtain lifted just enough to view a sliver of the complex urban set constructed behind.

In the corner of my eye Lawson grew larger, his hazy shape forming into solid contours as he scurried to my desk. Harried as usual, be shook a piece of paper like Chamberlain just off the plane from Munich. Lawson was beleaguered and gaunt and I wondered if the same cancer that ate Neville’s bowels bad begun feasting on Lawson’s. The paper was not for me, thankfully, but he held it within close range of my ear so that I might experience its abrasive noise as it crinkled in his nervous clutch.

I had grown accustomed to Lawson’s blustery ovations to otherwise trivial matters. Had anyone else approached my desk in such a wide-eyed state I would have been dreading a pronouncement of consequence, knowing what pronouncements of consequence usually held.

“God awful weather, eh?”

I nodded, “Terrible.”

“It’s a beautiful day at my desk. Let me see.” He dragged a rake of five boney fingers through a head of ashen hair, an action that produced a squall of dandruff that dusted the top of my desk. “My Eco is set on A, no C19: San Francisco harbor, sunny, no fog.”

“Mine was the dreary East when I came in this morning. I can’t change it.” I feigned a long sigh in order to blow away the debris from Lawson’s scalp.

“Call our systems support outlet.”

The scene outside was the perfect pairing for my mood, or maybe it had created my mood. At any rate, there was no strong urge to make adjustments. I yawned, deeply.

Lawson hushed the agitated paper by laying it out before me. What was once a crisp, white sheet was now a corrugated mess. He attempted to smooth out some of the wrinkles that his worry had rendered. His crooked index extended, he delivered a quick succession of taps to the bold print that read: Notice of Compliance Failure. It was a pronouncement of consequence after all but one that concerned Lawson and Lawson alone.

His face was a mask of dire predicament. “Apparently I have scored too low on my last CSE. Do you know what that means?”

“You didn’t study.”

A flash of consternation crumbled into the exasperated look of an earnest man suffering the fool. “You know you can’t study.”

“So, you’ll take it again.”

“Three chances then you’re out. Gone. Transfer or contingent leave. I have two left.” Staring blankly across the expanse of office floor 45, “I don’t even know where I would go.”

And with that he was gone, stumbling absently back to his view of San Francisco to fret over the soiled notice he had left behind.

A helicopter buzzed through the gloom, northbound, following the tail lights on the north side highway, over the toy boat ferries, to destinations unknown even to the coded functions in the Eco’s elaborate guts. I chose C19 on the keypad: stormy New York persisted.

I had been determined to allow myself the luxury of wallowing in self-pity all morning but my own glum mood had been spoiled by its confederation with Lawson’s residue of disconsolation. My suffering had become a crashing bore. I was eager for brighter surroundings. In seconds I was speaking to someone who introduced himself as Kelvin, J.

“Thank you for contacting your systems support outlet. May I have your user ID and security code, please?”

Credentials provided and problem described, Kelvin began his diagnosis.

“Okay. Looks like I see you in New York, stormy. And you’ve tried steps 2 through 7 in your Eco’s operation manual?”

Confessing I had not, I was led through a series of procedures designed to eliminate the probable cause of malfunction. He typed as he spoke and the plastic clatter of keystrokes punctuated his instructions. Click, clack, click, clack. A sudden flash of white was promising but otherwise, no improvement.

“Well, I can go ahead and change your Eco from here but I will have to dispatch a member of the ground unit to switch out your hardware. It might take a day or two; we are kind of backed up. What would you like on your Eco? Something nicer, I’m guessing. How about tropical?”

As pleasant sounding as it was, Kelvin’s suggestion seemed far too wet at this point. The desert I thought and requested.

“Uh…okay.” There was an extensive list from which to choose and each included such parameters as, season, time of day or evening. “Mojave, Gobi, Painted, Sahara?”

I requested Death Valley, my saturnine disposition not fully lifted. My choice included several specific points within its enormity. Having never been, I picked the alluringly named Artist’s Palette. My first glimpse of the desert’s majesty lasted only seconds. The tender petals of an indigo bush trembled in the breeze and vanished into crackling static. Then there was nothing but space: empty, void, nada, zilch – zero.

Kelvin J. was silent. Had it not been for the moist ebb and flow of his breathing I would have thought he’d joined New York and the desert in oblivion.

“Nothing, huh? That’s weird. Well, a functioning Eco is important so I will escalate this issue to, Tier 2. Meanwhile, I’ll go ahead and expedite your hardware exchange.”

Tier 2: I imagined the system support team arranged on a ridiculous étagère. A ticket was issued, a random alphanumeric sequence that signified nothing to anything but the matrices of system support where endless troubles and resolutions were chronicled – short tales of woe and happily­ ever-afters. Call completed.

With no Eco I had the unique opportunity to use the gigantic window for its original purpose. I stood looking out our vast universe. Overhead, Earth was a point of light in the endless black. Below, Mars, a pocked bloodstone marbled with veins of rich crimson and pale yellow wrapped in a lambent, copper haze.

A full year, Earth not Martian, had elapsed since I began my contract with the interplanetary corporation Galaxy Sunn. This period of time was nine months longer than the agreement stated when it was signed – by me, one year ago. A series of work extensions and certain difficulties posed by a distance of 43 million miles had kept me long past my release date. And, while my compensation had accumulated nicely, further interest in the position had not; I was more than ready to sever the relationship.

However, a voluntary resignation would place the burden of paying for my own accommodations while waiting on the next available transport, also out-of­ pocket, back to big, blue Mother. ”Next available” could mean days, weeks or months while my debt to G.S. Inc. for room and board accrued. A normal contract termination was more agreeable since the corporation picked up the tab but this formal release had not been issued and, as the extensions piled up, I feared it never would. Certain parallels could be drawn between my situation and those of the penal colony occupants digging in the rusty Martian soil.

I carved a question mark in the rime of frost my weary sigh – not feigned – left on the glass. Had there been some guidance for resolving my dilemma, it was not in the heavens. Nor were the familiar vistas and skylines of earth available for contemplation with Eco defunct. Instead, inspiration came from the crumpled receipt of Lawson’s failure.

The Core Stress Evaluation was one of many periodic tests The Inc. maintained as a bulwark against liability. Low scores were an early indicator of a decline in skill sets that could potentially place revenue, property and lives in jeopardy. Whatever threat Lawson posed to any of this capital was ponderous. He was, nonetheless, now referred to in certain database circles as Lawson, the risk. My colleague was determined to improve his standings in this clique; I was determined to do irreparable damage.

Unfortunately, my contractor status made me exempt from such things as the CSE. And so, compiling a list of alternative methods that could achieve a blemish substantial enough to warrant a discharge without ruining future prospects elsewhere or becoming entangled in legal troubles consumed my free time. Blank was how my list remained over the next few days. Lawson, in contrast, had achieved strike 2. Effortless.

Set against the colossal blackness of space his lanky frame seemed to deteriorate before my eyes as he stood in front of my Eco-less window. Gustav Holst: his Planets, Neptune the Mystic, the final movement and its choir dissolving into the realm of the inaudible, this was Lawson’s own voice – fading into nothing.

Wringing hands: “I don’t understand. I’ve never had problems with CSE. I can’t go back to blue Mother. What would I do?” He paced.” How do you stand it without an Eco? Without day and night I wouldn’t ever stop working. It would drive me insane.”

“I opened a ticket.”

“Ticket, ha! Tier 1 or Tier 2? Oh, it makes no difference. Those guys are kids, I have shoes older than most of them. They don’t know how to do anything. I’d go down to support in person and ask for a Team Lead.”

There were no Team Leads on duty when I arrived at my support system outlet on level 22-F. Kelvin J. was not there either. Lawson had been accurate about this department’s youthful composition; the support representative who assisted me could have easily been younger than Lawson’s footwear antiquities. She introduced herself as Hope, no last initial.

Click, clack, click, clack.

She entered the ticket number I’d produced into her computer console. Blank. “That’s weird.” Head scratched, she retyped the entry, this time slower, careful, deliberate. Blank, still. A third try returned the same.

Eupeptic and eager, “Well, I’ll just enter a new ticket and expedite it for you.” Personal details taken, she asked me to describe my technical issue.

I felt the words Eco and Broken and Hardware taking shape behind my teeth as Hope’s fingers drummed lightly on the keys waiting for instructions.

“CSE. I haven’t received my notice for the CSE. I think I might be past due.”

Her petite nose almost touched the display and its glow highlighted her features with a bluish tint as she scrolled through the list repeating the letters CSE aloud as if to conjure it up.

Cheerfully, “Here it is: Core Stress Evaluation.” She sounded out the syllables in a measured tone so there’d be no confusion.

She leaned back in her chair out of the monitor’s corona. Her expression had changed from winsome to worry. The timbre of her voice darkened, “But this says you’re exempt.”

I mirrored her concern and added disbelief. Barefaced, “But I took it six months ago, as instructed.” I conflated my lie with a poignant recollection of how the same thing had happened before and what a time I’d endured.

Reassured and generously pitiable she began typing. It was good to see her chipper nature return.

”Well, there were some updates to certain divisions recently. That could have affected your account. I’ll just change your status then and add your CSE.”

In moments I was the recipient of a new alphanumeric code and Hope’s promise that I would see a notice from Galaxy Sunn compliance to complete my CSE within two business days.

The gravity generators could have crashed for all I knew as I practically floated back to my desk to wait like a school boy on Christmas Eve. Soon I could begin failing three times, all the way back to blue Mother.

What came in two business days was indeed a notice from the compliance office of Galaxy Sunn Inc. I was congratulated and thanked, personally and profusely, by my Team Lead and his Team Lead on behalf of the Interplanet Security and Intelligence Division. Through my efforts, a gaping hole, in an ominous sounding bit of gadgetry that I never knew existed, had been discovered and patched against possible catastrophic breach. My contributions and value to The Inc. were such that my contract was extended for six months, Martian not Earth.

My Eco was restored shortly after my pronouncement of consequence and upgraded to boot. Poor Lawson, strike 3 and his desk was clean before the sun set on the San Francisco harbor. We shook hands for the last time at my desk that overlooked the Hudson and New Jersey. Manhattan was beset by a cold and gray afternoon.

A Pier at the End of Summer

 

pier-painting

As it is now officially sum-sum-summertime I offer a bit of light prose for a lazy afternoon in the hammock or on the beach.

It includes infidelity, descent into madness, heroism, crime and a trip to the seashore to boot.

You can read it all right here or you can download the PDF and print it out for reading offline just in case that summer thunderstorm knocks the power out in your neck of the woods.

Click the link for the file: A-Pier-at-the-End-of-Summer-JohnTruelove

A Pier at the End of Summer

Drake Mathews opened the door to a balcony overlooking mountainous dunes, covered in thick blades of grass and golden sea oats. Beyond the dunes, the beach stretched into the endless waves of the Atlantic. On the horizon, green clouds had massed and the strong breeze that blew through his hair and into his stuffy hotel room smelled of salt and the approaching storm. Drake had not bothered to close the front door when he’d carried in his bags and the squall he created blew it shut with a violent bang. The sudden noise startled him and he jerked around, expecting to find something worse than a darkened foyer. He parted the dense curtains that covered the large picture window and the afternoon sun spilled over the room’s modest furnishings. He had rented an efficiency apartment that came equipped with a refrigerator, sink, stove and a small bar with two stools that served as the kitchenette’s dining table. There was a full-size bed, a heavy looking love seat, and a wobbly coffee table of artificial wood, all facing a television. Below the window, an air conditioner was fitted neatly into the wall, but he preferred the natural air and the ocean noises so he left the unit off.

From the suitcase he’d thrown on the bed, Drake removed a short stack of shirts he planned on hanging up, a toiletry kit, and a Colt .45 handgun, placing the items side by side on the stiff mattress. The duvet and pillow shams were dark blue with a seaside print of white shells, fish, sea horses, star fish, and life preserver rings. He laughed to himself when he realized that he had laid the pistol directly on top of a life preserver and he returned it to the suitcase beneath his boxer shorts.

He slid a bottle of bourbon from brown a paper bag and absently tossed the empty, wrinkled sack on the floor. Leaving the bottle on the bar, Drake took what he figured served as the room’s ice bucket and went to find the hotel’s ice machine.

Drake Mathews made the trip from New York to the coast of North Carolina in a little less than ten hours, stopping at intervals only long enough to refuel, buy coffee, and use the bathroom.  Ultimately, he was more interested in leaving the city in the shortest time possible than he was in reaching his destination. He had called the borough of Queens home for over twenty years – until a series of events sent him spiraling into a crisis that caused him to make less-than-pragmatic decisions.

He found the ice maker humming alongside a Pepsi vending machine tucked away in a stifling little room under a stairway. It was a hot, late-summer day and on the west side of the hotel, without the immediate benefit of the coastal breezes, the heat rising form the black asphalt of the parking lot was suffocating. By the time he got back to his room, both he and his ice were sweating profusely. He found a glass in a cabinet above the kitchen sink, filled the bottom with a handful of watery ice, and put the rest in the freezer. He gave himself a good sized pour from the new bottle and took a seat on the balcony, watching tendrils of lightning sizzle in the approaching clouds.

The beach was deserted by the time the first big drops of rain began spotting the sun-baked crust on the top of the sand. Drake went inside and made another drink. The film of water on the ice had refrozen quickly and the cubes were now fused into a solid brick, which Drake chipped at with a fork. A resounding explosion of thunder ripped the air like cannon fire through the walls of a paper castle, and the sheets of rain that followed were so dense they obstructed any view past the first foothills of dunes. Tiny pebbles of hail ricocheted off the window and Drake propped himself up on the bed to watch the storm through the rain-streaked glass before falling asleep.

***

When the divorce papers sent by the firm representing Mrs. Drake Mathews arrived at his office, he was expecting them. Their previous marriage-counseling sessions revealed in minute detail her festering dissatisfaction with him. The therapy was refereed by a female psychologist in her late fifties who sat comfortably in an oversized armchair with her legs tucked beneath her as if she were watching television. She listened intently as each partner spoke, hoping to hear among the accusations and criticisms anything that could be salvaged and used to repair the couple’s union. Drake’s wife did most of the talking, though, and she was so forthcoming about their private matters that he felt very little inclination to speak himself. During the time his wife had the floor, the doctor’s impartial gaze would often shift its focus to him. She studied his facial expressions and body language for anything that might have betrayed what he was thinking. One particularly heated diatribe culminated with his wife admitting to having had an extended affair. When this admission came to light, there was no need for the therapist to interpret Drake’s feelings; without a word he had stood and left the room.

What Drake did not expect was to be told that the position he’d held for fifteen years had been eliminated as part of a corporate downsizing initiative. Even more unexpected was having the news delivered by his regional manager, the same man who had been sleeping with his wife. The lawsuit he filed against his company was settled out of court and in his favor, but the proceedings had been humiliating and rumors circulated through his industry. And as he began his search for new opportunities, he discovered that the stigma attached to his name left a cautionary flag on his resume and always preceded him to interviews.

During the tumultuous legal proceedings, Drake began to notice a hollow feeling above his stomach. He assumed he’d developed an ulcer and joked with his regular physician that part of his soul had been sucked out; a battery of tests was conducted. His doctor had offered up Brazil as a fine destination when Drake mentioned he might take a long vacation. He was actually reading a copy of Frommer’s guide to South America when the doctor called to tell him he did not have an ulcer and suggested a specialist.

When Drake woke, it was still light outside, but the brunt of the storm had passed, leaving in its wake a fine drizzle that misted out of a gray sky. The temperature had fallen considerably and the hairs on his arms rose as he shivered against the chill drifting in from the balcony. He got up to close the door and felt the spongy carpet beneath his bare feet. Some of the storm had found its way inside and soaked a large area of the floor. He noticed the empty glass on the bed and hoped that the damp spot on the crotch of his trousers was only spilled whisky and melted ice. He shut the door and went to the bathroom to take a shower.

***

The next morning was cool and breezy, with billowy clouds floating in a peaceful sky. Drake walked down a path cut into the dunes that led to the beach. At the entrance, the local police department had posted a sign that warned of strong rip currents. He was headed toward a fishing pier that he could see from his room.  When he had checked in to the hotel, the desk clerk had given him a brief overview of the nearby businesses and attractions. The pier was open to the public and was attached to a shop that sold fishing supplies and groceries. The shop also ran a short-order grill and Drake was able to purchase a Styrofoam cup of coffee and a pair of glazed donuts wrapped in a thin membrane of clear plastic. The massive wooden pilings held the pier’s wide deck high above the crashing breakers and the gentle, green undulations above the deep. The worn older planks, cracked and warped by the costal elements, were interspersed with newer replacements but all bore some scar or stain left by fishermen and the life they wrestled from the ocean below.

At the end, where the pier widened into a rectangle, a colony of sportsmen tended several lines. Some leaned on the railing and others sat on the tops of large red and blue Igloo coolers. By the look of the group, Drake reasoned they had been fishing all night.

Drake also noticed a fierce looking gull busy trying to make a meal out of what might have been the dried viscera of a fish. The bird pecked at the spot, circling around it on rubbery feet. It paid no mind to him as he took a seat on a tall bench nearby and propped his feet up on the railing. He set down his cup and fumbled in the pocket of his shorts for a pack of cigarettes. Drake had given up smoking years ago but had picked up a carton at a gas station in Virginia along with a disposable lighter that he held in the shelter of his cupped hand as he lit the tip of the cigarette and inhaled deeply. He had already smoked half of the pack – they were incredibly fresh and delicious – and a bargain by New York City standards.

***

At forty-seven, Drake found himself without a relationship or a career. The hollow space inside him remained, promising a dismal outlook on his future health; he had neglected to contact the recommended specialist. The studio apartment he had moved into after the separation from his wife seemed to decrease daily in size as though it were shrinking while Drake slept. There were days when he would not leave his room at all. Instead, he tried watching the walls for any movement, but reasoned they might have been moving too slowly to be perceived by the naked eye.  He remembered as a teenager watching his stepfather mark the level of booze in his liquor bottles to deter uninvited potation. And so, with a ruler and heavy pencil, he employed a similar method of surveillance by drawing firm ticks on the hardwood floor an inch from the baseboard. He would check the marks mornings and evenings with the ruler to record any activity. It was hard to be certain, but there was either no change or the gradation of his ruler was not precise enough to measure distance on such a small scale.

He had inherited his .45 pistol from an uncle and had lived with it in violation of New York City handgun laws for many years. He enjoyed shooting as a youth and considered himself a good shot, although this particular weapon had remained locked in its case and hidden away since the first day it came into his possession. Once he was again living alone, Drake took time to clean and oil it properly as he became reacquainted with its solid weight, the diamond-patterned grip, and the tension of the trigger by firing imaginary rounds into the plaster of the encroaching walls. When the muscle in his forearm grew too tired to continue he would lift the barrel to his temple and give the trigger a final pull.

He was thinning out years of financial records from a file storage box when he came across a postcard sent to him years ago by someone with whom he’d since fallen out of touch. “Greetings from Poseidon’s Oceanfront Hotel – Cypress Island, NC” was printed on the front above a cartoon sea god wearing a pair of sunglasses. On the back was a blurb about the hotel and the island community. He researched both in greater detail the following day.

Anything that did not fit into the trunk of his Toyota four-door was carried to the curb on trash collection day. He left the same night feeling better than he had in months.

***

Drake finished his breakfast and carried the litter to a garbage can chained to a light post. He lit another cigarette and was about to make the trip back to his hotel room when he heard a commotion at the end of the pier. The group of night fishers had congregated on one side and were looking down at the water as one pointed to a piling where an inflatable raft with the print of the North Carolina state flag was snagged by its tow rope. A few yards away, directly below where Drake was standing, a woman clung desperately to a piling as white-capped swells washed over her. A crowd had gathered on the beach and an old man in bib overalls and a John Deere cap joined him at the railing, mumbling something about rip tides and drowning.

Drake handed his wallet, room key, cigarettes, and lighter to the man. Stepping out of his flip-flops and removing his shirt, he climbed over the side and jumped in feet first. The ocean swallowed him whole and its waters closed off the world above him, shutting out all light and sound as his plunge took him well below the layer holding the sun’s warmth and into a black, cold vacuum. For the instant his body remained in place, neither sinking further nor rising, he wondered if it felt something like this in the end.

When his head broke the surface he was facing away from the pier and it took a moment to establish his bearings. The ocean was calm but the sea was lapping at his face as he treaded water to keep afloat. It was difficult to see. The tiny droplets clinging to his eye lashes distorted his view – tiny, inaccurate lenses that refracted the light bouncing off the surface. He looked up and saw the old man on the pier and traced his position to where the woman hugged the piling. When he swam close enough he could hear her whimpering in panic. He coaxed her into taking his outstretched hand and when she had released her hold on the pier, Drake dove and swam underneath her. He surfaced again behind her and quickly wrapped his left arm around her neck and began towing her to shore. The barnacles encrusting the piling had lacerated the woman’s arms and legs badly and, as Drake swam, she left a trail of blood drifting behind the two of them like scarlet ribbons fluttering in the breeze.

The crowd awaiting them on the beach included two paramedics and a police officer. Three men had waded into the surf and they helped Drake and the woman out of the water. Exhausted, he found a spot just beyond reach of the incoming tide and sat down in the dry sand. One of the rescue workers began treating the woman’s cuts while the other examined Drake and asked if he needed further assistance. Drake waved him away and the medic returned to assist his partner. Among the gathering was the fisherman from the pier, who had brought Drake’s things down to him in a grocery bag. He also carried a roll of paper towels and pulled off several sheets for the dripping hero.

While Drake wiped his face, he noticed that a pair of brightly polished black shoes had appeared beside him. Looking up he could see his soggy reflection in the dark sun glasses of the police officer.  It was peculiar to see someone on the beach so formally dressed. Drake knew that he must have found the full uniform uncomfortable, judging from the beads of sweat that dotted his pink brow and the oily rivulet that trickled from the thick stubble of his crew cut.

When the officer asked for identification, Drake retrieved his wallet from the shopping bag and extracted his New York driver’s license. The officer read Drake’s information into a walkie-talkie and in a few moments a hollow, disembodied voice spoke back in police code that Drake couldn’t understand. From the rear pocket of his blue trousers, the officer produced a thick tablet and took down some details on Drake’s license before handing it back, along with the pink copy of a summons.

As it was explained to him, jumping or diving from a fishing pier was in violation of town ordinance and was clearly posted on all such structures. Drake could pay the $150 fine in person or by mail, and if he wanted to challenge the citation, he could appear in court at the time and location printed on the ticket. Drake was too tired and dumbfounded to protest. He was parched and a sudden wave of nausea only added to his weakened condition. He was worried that he wouldn’t be able to stand, much less stumble back to his hotel room. The fisherman, whose principles of justice and civic duty had been challenged, came to Drake’s defense. But his initial appeal was ignored and further, more pointed indignation only bounced off the back of the retreating officer and was silenced by the sand where it fell.  Drake, now fully prostrate, could see the old man scratching at the shaking head beneath his John Deere cap and heard him muttering colorful phrases about local law enforcement.

***

After a few days of debating how to handle the situation, Drake finally decided it would be best to settle the matter in person. He had done his best to try and forget about the whole incident and enjoy himself. With complete abandon he indulged in activities and substances a man his age would have normally avoided or at least taken in moderation. He partook of the culinary offerings around the hotel with ravenous gluttony, surviving on a diet of cheeseburgers, fried food, and doughnuts, finishing each meal with a delicious cigarette. He swam at his own risk, walked for miles on the beach without the aegis of sunscreen, and drank heavily from the whiskey bottle that was soon replaced with another. However, his recent misdemeanor remained an irritant and the pink ticket served as a constant reminder. He had fastened the summons to the refrigerator by a flexible magnet advertising a local restaurant, presumably left behind by a former tenant. The slip had an unpleasant chemical odor that Drake inhaled every time he needed a cold beer.

He appointed a date for himself and on that morning he made himself presentable by showering, shaving, and dressing in clean, pressed clothes. He chose a short-sleeved shirt with a square hem that hung a few inches over his belt, allowing the generous yellow linen to move freely. He left the top two buttons undone to further accentuate what he hoped was a casual demeanor.

Police headquarters was a short drive from the hotel and was set up in a squat cinderblock building that also housed the island’s volunteer fire and rescue. The only person in the building was a chipper civilian office clerk who greeted Drake with a big smile and offered to help in any way she could. He asked to speak with the officer whose name he remembered stamped on the gold plate above his badge and whose signature, written neatly on the ticket, greeted his trips to the refrigerator with a cruel smirk. The clerk said she was waiting for his return from a local eatery where he’d gone to pick up coffee and a ham biscuit for himself and an egg sandwich with ketchup for her. Drake was more than welcome to wait, which he did, passing the time by reading the notices pinned to an enormous bulletin board.

There was an electric eye at the front door which triggered a mild, little beep that announced the station’s comings and goings. When Drake heard the alarm, he turned to see the policeman carrying his takeout order in a small cardboard box printed with the name of a snack cake. His eyes were not hidden behind the dark frames of his glasses and grew wide when they saw Drake approach him from the bulletin board. The officer dropped the box but before he could bring his free hand to the gun in his holster, Drake was already aiming the .45 he’d kept concealed beneath his shirt. He fired two shots directly into the officer’s chest and the force of the pistol’s caliber sent the policeman’s limp body crashing into the wide blood pattern that splattered the wall behind him. The clerk sat frozen behind her desk as the report reverberated around the room. She had turned white and seemed to be choking on a scream stuck in the back of her mouth, hanging open on the hinges of her slackened jaws. He delivered two more slugs into her soft abdomen, knocking her out of the chair.

Drake looked down at where the box of food had hit the floor. The lid of one cup had come off on impact and coffee – with cream – had spilled into a light tan puddle on the linoleum. He tucked his .45 back into his belt and picked up the other cup. He removed the lid and blew lightly on the black coffee before taking a sip. He peeled the foil wrapping from the sandwiches, smelled both and selected the ham biscuit. When he stepped outside, the only thing that noticed him was the electric eye as its high-pitched tone bid Drake farewell.

***

The ham biscuit had given him a bad case of heartburn and he crunched on a chalky antacid tablet as he walked out to the end of the pier. Drake deftly folded the pink ticket into a paper airplane and launched it out across the ocean. The weightless jet teetered on its makeshift wings until it was caught and blown backwards by a strong draft, forcing it to make a crash landing in a bait tank. A cluster of silver fish pecked at the fuselage as if the wreckage were a morsel of food. Drake plucked the dripping paper from the tank and deposited it into a trash can.

The television brought the evening news and the day’s gruesome headline into his room with all the sensationalism the networks reserve for unthinkable crimes committed in small towns where nothing much ever happens.

Drake thought it was all very entertaining as he alternated between the whiskey bottle and a can of beer. The only progress in the investigation was a series of still images taken by a security camera. The grainy black and white photos captured the lone gunman committing his crime as it progressed in ten-second intervals. Drake wanted to take all of the photos and bind them into a flip book so he could watch the murders like a silent movie, as his thumb releasing frame after frame after frame.

It was hard to see his own likeness in the photos, but he wondered if the hotel manager had recognized him as the tenant in room 222, and was, at that very moment, calling the hotline number listed on the bottom of the screen. He picked up the unloaded .45 and squeezed a few empty rounds towards the imaginary strike force kicking down the door. Then he aimed and fired at the blonde anchorwoman whose beauty was spoiled by her solemn recitation of the grisly details.  He continued firing phantom bullets randomly throughout the room, piercing the metal skins of the stove and refrigerator, exploding the lamp’s earthenware base into jagged shards, and leaving the walls riddled with charred, smoking holes.

A chimerical blast chased after each make-believe slug like a harried messenger too late with the news of its deadly arrival.  The concussions echoed off the walls and gradually dissipated into the soft thud of ocean waves striking the shore. Soon, the voice of the Atlantic was the only sound to be heard in the apartment, and into the ringing ear of Drake Mathews it whispered, “The end, the end.”

 

 

 

A Fish Story

Mermaid and the Barnacle

Charlie Moses loves cigars. They make him feel like a big shot. Even with dark crescent moons of dirt beneath his fingernails he puffs away like a robber baron behind a big oak desk. The sight of a sea lion basking on a rock often prompts Charlie to remind those around him that if he were ever to adopt a sea lion he would name it Stogie due to the animal’s resemblance to a fat, brown cigar. His brother, known to everyone as Crash, suggests the ripe odor as another reason.

Charlie likes oysters, too.

“You know that old saying about only eating oysters in a month with an R in it? Well, that’s why I like February – there’re two Rs. I reckon that means I eat double,” he says.

I had been searching for Charlie and Crash all day. When I finally found them they were no longer on their boat but seated at a dockside table of the 6 Belles Tavern overlooking the bay and the fishing boats moored in the harbor. I was now eavesdropping on their conversation.

“It’s a good thing February is a short month,” Crash says, “Else you’d eat yourself to death.”

Charlie Moses laughs, pats his enormous gut and sucks another briny slug out of its half shell, washing it down with a hearty swig of beer. Then he gives his cigar another puff and produces a fetid billow that drifts across the table like fog over the bay.

Crash motions to the waitress for the bill. I would have to speak with them later, in a less public location.

The Moses brothers inherited the fishing trade from their father Luther Richmond Moses along with his boat the Barnacle. It was a humble craft that took its name from what Moses senior considered to be the boat’s primary catch. Validation came at the conclusion of every fishing season when a bountiful harvest was scraped from the hull.

The elder Moses never expected his sons to follow in his wet footsteps into the family business. He expected to become a wealthy man, sell the Barnacle and retire young. I confess I am to blame for that fancy.

I first met Luther many years ago before Charlie was old enough for school and Crash was earning his nickname through repeated failures at taking his first steps. It was the height of the season and nearly every pot was brimming with crab and those being hauled to the surface by the Barnacle were no exception.

Dungeness crab is a delicious treat and they are easy enough to catch yourself should you be so desirous but when someone like Luther has done the work of luring them so conveniently into a cage, resisting the urge not to pluck one for yourself is difficult. I was in the process of doing just that when the block and tackle aboard the Barnacle groaned into motion. To my horror I found my hand trapped between the bars of a cage being hauled in and I was part of the days catch. I broke the surface and found myself face to face with Luther Moses who hung over the stern with his mouth agape. He halted halted his machinery leaving me and the cage in the water and I thrashed desperately to escape. “I was putting up quite a fuss,” to quote Captain Moses.

I have friends and relatives who are vociferous regarding our superiority over Earth’s other creatures and while I can’t say I disagree with most of their points, I have a more humble opinion about myself personally. Still, I felt slighted at Luther’s casual reaction over his encounter with a beautiful, enchanting mermaid; he was more concerned over the pilfering of his crabs than beholding one of nature’s most reclusive creatures. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was in the presence of a man so coarse he would lambaste a unicorn if he caught one in his lettuce patch. His accusation of me being a thief was justified – at that moment at least – but I am far from being common. Is it bromidic to say my ego throbbed as much as my poor twisted wrist? He activated the ship’s grinding winches once again and I was lifted fully out of the ocean, swinging from that monstrous cage of indignant crabs. Water dripped down on my tangled hair and my tail flapped helplessly in the air like an ordinary mackerel – it was humiliating.

Flotsam and Jetsam, indeed. Luther welcomed me aboard with a few more prosaic bon mots that sounded as if they’d been borrowed from the churlish mouth of a picaroon. I sat on a slimy deck that reeked of vanquished sea life and only slightly less sour than the barleycorn on Luther’s breath.

“I guess I hooked the mother lode today, huh, my little fish?”

I wasn’t too sure what he was implying. A twinge of fear prickled at the end of my fin when I considered the fate of the other captives, completely helpless now even behind their spiny armor. He seemed all too eager to sail me back to the docks and flaunt the prize he’d snatched from Neptune’s realm. Some cabal of greed and lust covered his eyes in a vitreous glaze transforming them into portentous mirrors in which I saw a reflection of myself gutted, stuffed and mounted like a barracuda. They caught a splinter of sunlight, flashed and the scene changed to one of me swimming in a subaqueous freak show staring out at grotesque, contorting faces pressed to the glass walls of my aquarium prison.

Judging from the smile it was evident that he realized the worth of his unusual catch but I quickly apprised him that the value of my release would be worth far more than anything he might be dreaming about.

“Then the legend is true?” His smile widened, the corners of his mouth disappeared in a forest of whiskers, possibly touching behind his head.

“Yes, well, depending on the legend you have heard.”

“In my legend, I get 3 wishes.”

“One… wish, actually. But it can be anything you desire so consider it very carefully.”

He sat down on the crab pot and gave his stubbled chin a contemplative massage until he’d rubbed the smile into a worrisome scowl. Despite my first impressions of Luther, I could see that he was a thoughtful man who did not take ponderous decisions lightly. We sat for a good while as Luther considered whatever angles his schemes might take. Except for the gentle, wet slapping of waves against the hull and the occasional screeching gull, we sat in ruminating silence.

At last he chose wealth and this is where the story takes a sad turn. I was young and inexperienced; I had never granted a wish before. Looking back, of course, I should have consulted with an elder member of my kind. But to be young is also to be brazen and so when Luther wished to die a rich man I thought my job was all too easy.

“What is your name, gentle fisherman?” I asked.

“Luther. Luther Richmond Moses of Inuit Cliff, California.”

“Then free me Luther Richman Moses of Indian Clip, California. Free me and your wish will be granted.”

He grumbled something about trust as he pried my sore wrist free from the bars. I flopped starboard, threw myself over the gunwale and swam away. Fifty yards out I surfaced again to wave a final goodbye but Luther had his back to me, bent to the chore of emptying his crab pot.

That was the last time I ever saw Luther and there was certainly no reason for a reunion but I was always curious how his life had turned out with the great wealth his single wish had brought him. You can imagine how I felt when I learned that instead of enjoying a life of luxury he had toiled for the next 30 odd years on the Barnacle and had died with next to nothing. Worse still, he was interred beneath a modest headstone donated anonymously with the inscription: Rest in Peace – Luther Rich Man Moses. I was mortified.

“Well, that is some story,” says Crash as he waves away a rancid cloud from Charlie’s Honduran.

“Are you sure we can’t get you something?” asks Charlie. He lifts a can of beer out of cooler. A shard of ice still clings to the metal and Charlie plucks it overboard.

I found the Barnacle and the brothers a mile or two offshore and introduced myself. I was welcomed aboard; Charlie helped me over the gunwale.  Crash went below to retrieve a piece of lawn furniture that unfolded into a chaise lounge. The chair was more germane to a summer patio than the deck of a fishing vessel but it was very comfortable and allowed me to recline fully.

Veneration for phenomenon was apparently not a family trait and my ego experienced a familiar pang from the time I’d met the elder Moses. In their defense, I reasoned the boys had heard the story since childhood and were partially insulated from the full shock of a mermaid in corporeal form. They were a good natured pair and bore me no animosity considering their Father’s tragedy for which I was responsible. They even found humor it.

“We always thought it was one of the old man’s fish stories. He had quite a few.” Charlie let loose a loud belch. “Pardon me.”

Crash shook his head in agreement, “Something he made up to entertain us kids. But when that headstone showed up…”

Charlie finished for his brother, “It gave us pause.”

“A damned good laugh, too.”

And they chuckled again together.

I had come prepared to make handsome restitution but to my surprise the brothers were hesitant to accept. In light of past events they were concerned what form the remuneration might take. It was only after I assured them that I had learned from my mistakes and guaranteed periodic audits of my handiwork that they finally acquiesced, albeit with lingering trepidation.

Charlie still loves his cigars. And although his tastes have become more refined, the higher quality leaf does not emit an exhaust any less offensive according to his brother. Charlie still loves oysters, too. Only now he is less likely to limit his indulgence to months with an R in the name.

The Barnacle was sold and the Moses brothers quickly acclimated to their new lives as men of leisure. They had plenty of time for cocktails at the 6 Belles Tavern every afternoon and would often discuss the validity of their late father’s other fish tales especially one he told concerning a unicorn in his lettuce patch.

Immortal Tea

Image

Every afternoon around 3 O’clock Chin-ten would make himself a cup of tea. He preferred Oolong and kept the tender, dried leaves in a red tin with the words Xian Cha printed on the front. On the back of the tin drawn in silhouette, a Chinese junk sailed towards the skyline of an exotic harbor city underneath a brief history of Xian Cha tea. Chin-ten had never brewed nor tasted Xian Cha. The container was empty when he purchased it for a dime at a garage sale some years ago.

Chin-ten had never sailed on a Junk either and the closest he’d ever been to an exotic port was New York harbor. Chin-ten was born and raised in Flushing where he owned and operated a framing shop. He lived above the shop with his wife Chu-li and when she was still alive they would have tea together every day at 3. He always told his wife as he scooped Oolong out of the tin that one day they would have to sample this recherché delight called Xian Cha but they never did.

A few months after Chu-li had passed away, Chin-ten hung a help wanted sign in the front window of his frame shop. While he could legitimately justify the need for an extra hand, he had to admit to himself that he was lonely working long hours all by himself. And despite his interactions with customers he worried that his isolation was having a negative effect on his sense of reality.

Of the several people who inquired only one seemed capable, a girl in her early twenties named Betty Wu. Betty claimed to be a foreign exchange student enrolled in art school and was studying museum restoration although Chin-ten suspected that she was somehow in the country illegally. The young girl was very pretty and reminded Chin-ten of his late wife in many ways but he asserted to himself that his decision to hire her was based solely on her qualifications: an interest in fine art as a career and previous experience.

She worked weekday afternoons to accommodate her morning class schedule and Chin-ten paid her in cash to avoid any embarrassing revelations of citizenship that could result in the loss of his only suitable candidate. Betty proved to be a reliable and tireless helper.

Chin-ten had never changed his afternoon routine and every day at 3 o’clock he brewed two cups of tea. Only now he shared them with Betty Wu.

Despite the positive changes that his new assistant brought, Chin-ten still missed his Chu-li terribly. He often thought the worst thing that could ever happen was to lose his wife and her passing had unfortunately proved him correct until one day when a customer visited Chin-ten’s shop with a collection of photographs to be framed.

On that morning, Chin-ten looked up from the wooden frame he was assembling when he heard the pleasant jingle of the tiny bell above the shop’s front door that announced the arrival of visitors. The doorway connecting the workshop and the showroom was covered by a heavy curtain. Chin-ten pushed it aside and stepped behind the counter where a young Asian man was standing. He wore overalls and baseball cap with the name Dragon Imports stenciled in gold letters on the crown.

“I wasn’t expecting a delivery,” said Chin-ten.

“Actually, I am dropping off some things from my boss to be framed, photographs,” the man responded, holding up a flat parcel.

The photos were sandwiched between two pieces of cardboard. He placed the package on the counter and Chin-ten carefully peeled off the adhesive tape holding them together.

“It is unusual,” Chin-ten spoke as he worked, “Typically I present the customer with a choice of framing options in person.”

The man explained that the instructions were inside as Chin-ten removed the last of the tape.

Chin-ten lifted the top piece of cardboard using both hands.  When he looked down at the exposed photographs he heard a loud gasp escape from his mouth. The hair on his arms and the back of his neck were on end and he felt the blood drain from his face. He stood motionless like a statue of a man removing the lid from a crate and amazed at the contents.

A sheet of paper had flown out of the packet and fluttered to the linoleum floor. The delivery person had gone to retrieve it and returned deeply concerned over Chin-ten’s reaction.

“What is it, are they damaged?”

He looked at the man, mouth agape, and immediately tried to compose himself and hide the look of shock that calcified his face.

“No, no. Everything is okay, okay.” He forced a smile as the man handed him the paper.

“These are the instructions.”

Printed on the paper was a list that detailed the type of molding, glazing and the color of mat board to be used to complete the framing job as well as who to contact when the work was finished.

“Do you need an estimate?” Chin-ten asked. His voice had the monotone inflection of a robot.

“My boss didn’t say but he wondered if the job could be done by tomorrow.”

Chin-ten cleared his throat to find a chipper tone, “It will cost extra for a rush the job but yes I will have it done by tomorrow.”

The bell rang a good-bye to the delivery man as he left. Chin-ten went to the front window and watched him cross the street to where he’d parked a panel truck with the company name Dragon Imports on the side. The man climbed in and drove away.

Chin-ten took the photos into his shop and spread them out on a worktable. He rubbed his eyes as if something was distorting his vision. He took a deep breath and looked at the assortment of 8 x 10 portraits once more. Chin-ten had framed dozens of glossy corporate headshots just like these. There were five in total, three men and two women, all wearing business clothes and bright, friendly smiles in front of a plain matte background. These were a product of an uninspired yet professional studio photographer and there was nothing exceptional about them, certainly nothing to provoke the reaction he’d displayed in front of the delivery person, except for the one that had been on top of the stack. Chin-ten held the photo in his trembling fingers and stared in disbelief at the face of his late wife Chu-li.

Why did this customer have a photo of his dead wife? Did she have a secret life of which Chin-ten was unaware, had she been involved in a cult, was she still alive? The questions were swarming in his head like a dark cloud of starlings when he heard the bell above the door. That would be Betty, he thought, and hurriedly collected the loose photos. He put them out sight, saying nothing about the matter when Betty stepped through the curtain.

That night Chin-ten found it difficult to fall asleep and when he did at last he slept fitfully, waking often before drifting off again. Around 4 a.m. he decided it was useless to stay in bed. In the kitchen he let the tap run until the water was cold and splashed a few handfuls on his face before putting the tea kettle on to boil. He walked downstairs to examine the mysterious photograph once more but to his astonishment, Chu-li was no longer in the picture.

Chin-ten was frightened that he was losing his mind and was unduly startled by the sudden, querulous whistle of the tea kettle that fractured the pall of silence. As he mounted the stairs the kettle was silenced as if it had been taken off the heat. When Chin-ten entered the kitchen he saw that Chu-li was steeping the tea.

“Don’t be frightened, Chin-ten. Here, I have made your tea.”

He began to stammer.

“No, Chin-ten, this is not a dream. I am real but I am a ghost.”

Chin-ten felt his knees weaken and he clutched the back of a kitchen chair for support. The legs made a dry scraping sound as he pulled it out from under the table to sit. She placed the cup in front of him and the steam rose from the hot liquid like an apparition. He hesitated, picked up the cup with a shaking hand, blew and took a sip to test the corporeal nature of the drink.

Chu-li took the seat across from him and spoke. Her breath was icy and her words made Chin-ten shiver.

The year she died, Chin-ten was to celebrate his 30th birthday and Chu-li wanted to give him a special present to commemorate this pivotal event. She had given it considerable thought but was unable to think of an appropriate gift until one afternoon at 3 when the two of them were having tea. In all the years that Chin-ten had been using that peculiar tin, he had never once tried Xian Cha tea and Chu-li was determined to find this alluring delight. Covertly, she examined the container and found a label on the bottom that gave the name of a company and an address: Dragon Imports, Java Street, Brooklyn, New York. There was no phone number listed so she went to the business in person.

Dragon Imports was located in a desolate and depressing section of the city surrounded by junk and scrap yards and a water treatment plant. She made the long trip from Flushing to Greenpoint by bus and walked the remaining distance from the bus stop to an unassuming warehouse on Java Street. The company was on the second floor of the building and she climbed a worn, rickety staircase to the office.

The cold, dimly lit room was large and smelled of mildew. It was cluttered with a divergent array of goods including anything from cookware and pottery to lamps and silk garments. The only congruity to this merchandise was that it might have been imported from the Far East. The space was unattended but there was button on the wall to push for service. Within seconds an old gentleman who introduced himself as the owner of Dragon Imports appeared from seemingly nowhere. His appearance was as impeccable as his politesse. At first he spoke to Chu-li in Mandarin but quickly changed to English when he realized by her expression that she did not understand the language.

When Chu-li explained why she’d had come and asked if she could purchase Xian Cha tea directly, the owner assured her that he would be happy to sell it to her but that it was very expensive. It was indeed exorbitantly priced and Chu-li demurred.

Seeing her disappointment, the man suggested another gift. He cited her husband’s appreciation for decorative containers and took from a shelf a Japanese puzzle box with a delicate marquetry that formed the shape of a serpent wrapping itself around the exterior. He commented on the fine craftsmanship and demonstrated the delicate complexities involved in finding the single combination to open the box by sliding hidden panels in the proper order. When he had removed the lid he held it up to Chu-li and she saw her reflection in a mirror affixed to the underside. The moment her eyes touched the glass she felt dizzy but she was unable to look away. She no longer recognized the swirling mosaics of multi-colored glass that had been her own eyes. The undulating kaleidoscopes peering out of the mirror slowly lost all color until they were finally lifeless black. It was over in manner of seconds and as the man withdrew the lid from Chu-li’s vision she saw that his lips were curled into a sinister grin. She left quickly, nearly falling down the staircase as the man’s hollow laugh chased after her.

In the months that followed Chu-li developed an illness that mystified her doctors. She presented with no other symptoms but high fever and extreme weakness. She became so debilitated that Chin-ten had her hospitalized and she was placed in an intensive care unit. Her condition deteriorated rapidly until one morning when a nurse shook Chin-ten awake from where he was sleeping in a waiting room chair. She whispered that Chu-li had slipped away.

“Chin-ten, the man at Dragon Imports steals souls. This theft of my being is what killed me. He uses these souls in Xian Cha tea; he grinds them up and mixes them into the leaves. The tea is sold to people who desire a new life. His customers are the terminally ill, the very old or the hunted criminal who is desperate for new identity.”

Chin-ten blew on his tea. He had wrapped both hands around the cup against the chill that gripped the small kitchen.

“What would you have me do, call the police? And tell them what? Do you know how crazy this sounds?”

“Chin-ten, there are many more like my soul being held prisoner in his puzzle box. We will lose our souls forever unless we can be freed.”

“But, I’m no shaman…witchdoctor…whatever you call it. How do you expect…”

The ghost of Chu-li smiled and said, “Simply find the puzzle box and open it, dear husband.”

Chin-ten woke early the next morning slumped on the kitchen table, the remaining tea cold in the cup beside him. He felt foolish for having fallen asleep in such a place and worried for a moment that he had started sleep walking. He convinced himself that Chu-li’s visit and her fantastic story had all been a dream and he castigated his ludicrous subconscious.

After he’d washed and dressed he went directly to his workshop.  The photo of Chu-li was as it had been when it was delivered with her lovely face smiling out at him. Regardless of the odd nature of his situation, Chin-ten knew it would be of interest to the police.

Why would Dragon Imports be in the possession of a photo of his deceased wife? Perhaps something or someone there was responsible for her death. What about the other faces smiling up at him from the work table? Were they in danger, had something terrible befallen them as well. It was, as Chin-tin resolutely decided, a matter for the authorities to investigate.

The phone and the number for his precinct were in the front room. As he started in that direction he noticed something moving on the photos that stopped him short. At first he thought it was light refracting off the paper’s high gloss but instead it was the eyes of each person starting to change. Chin-ten watched astonished as each underwent the kaleidoscopic phenomenon that Chu-li had described before extinguishing to pitch black.

He set to work on the job immediately; he wasted no time in ridding his shop of whatever evil he had allowed across the threshold. He called the contact number in the instructions. The same delivery person as before arrived with the balance due and was gone before noon.  When Betty Wu arrived he left her in charge of the shop with instructions to lock up if he hadn’t returned by closing time from his important errand.

By mid-afternoon Chin-ten was climbing the squeaky steps of Dragon Imports. The picture that Chu-li had sketched in his mind was so vivid that Chin-ten felt as if he had made this squealing ascent many times before and knew what to expect on the other side of the office door. The room was deserted and the raspy complaints of the corroded door hinges reported his entrance to no one. The dusky light of an expiring afternoon filtered in through large, grimy windows with chicken wire skeletons.

There was a small hole in the shabby wooden floor that allowed a glimpse of the world that bustled below him. From what Chin-ten could tell the business occupying the ground floor was some sort of sweatshop. There were bolts of colorful cloth printed with the characters of a popular cartoon and women hunched over whirring sewing machines.

Chin-ten surveyed the merchandise mounded on tables, stacked in bins and stuffed on shelves. Had Chin-ten known no different he would have guessed that Dragon Imports was the supplier of ridiculously cliché, Pan-Asian vendibles to every stall in Chinatown. Standing prominently in the morass of second-rate inventory was a bronze statue of a Chinese soldier from an ancient dynasty. Posted as a sentry in the absence of a shopkeeper, it followed Chin-ten’s movements with blind, patina eyes. Chin-ten focused on a wall of Japanese puzzle boxes of various shapes and sizes. They were cheap factory models with poorly applied lacquer and crooked decorative patterns; amid these imitations the object of his search was easy to spot.

The chest was simple but undeniably handmade by a master craftsman. The scales glistened along the back of the serpent coiling around the box. Its hypnotic ruby eyes flashed and its ivory fangs were poised to strike at whoever dared plunder the treasure it guarded.

“May I help you, sir?”

Chin-ten jumped, startled. He had not seen or heard anyone enter the room and he wheeled around abruptly to see an old man staring at him through a pair of wire rimmed glasses with thick, round lenses. He was short, at least a foot shorter than Chin-ten, and he wore a fine silk suit that was perfectly tailored to fit his lean stature. He stroked a perfectly trimmed goatee that was silver with age and Chin-ten could see that his long fingernails were immaculately manicured and tapered into sharp points. His head was bald but the skin was stretched tight across the shining dome of his skull and free of crease or livery blemishes.

Chin-ten was caught completely off guard. In his haste to get to Dragon Imports and find the puzzle box he had failed to invent a believable excuse for his visit, especially to a business hidden away in the nether folds of Brooklyn’s seedy belly. He blurted out, “Tea, I came to purchase Xian Cha tea.

The old man’s spectacles magnified his bright, inquisitive eyes and they narrowed as he scanned Chin-ten from head to toe as if shrewdly appraising the common appearance of a man seeking such an exceptional delectation.

“Of course. I am Mr. Tan. I am the proprietor of Dragon Imports and I perceive you to be a man of exquisite taste. How, may I ask, did you come to know of our tea?”

Chin-ten lied, “A business associate of mine. You understand, naturally, I cannot disclose a specific name.”

The old man grinned, “Naturally. And did he, your associate, disclose the value of our tea?”

“He said it was priced according to its value but no specific price was mentioned.”

Mr. Tan slid a wispy hand into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and produced what appeared to be a business card and held it forward. At first Chin-ten thought the owner suspected he was being deceived and this gesture politely implied that their business was concluded.  The card that Chin-ten accepted was plain, however, except for a price in dollars written in neat script – outrageous.

“Today’s price,” said Mr. Tan.

Chin-ten tried to act nonchalant and handed the card back saying in a voice he hoped sounded insouciant, “That figure will not a problem.”

“Excellent. Please, this way.” Mr. Tan signaled for him to follow and he led Chin-ten to a second door that opened to a long, narrow hallway. “After you, sir.”

The polished hardwood floor that stretched the length of the brightly lit passageway shimmered like the surface of a pond beneath the midday sun. The exposed brick walls on either side had been painted fire engine red and seemed to pulse like hot blood coursing through an artery. Chin-ten heard the percussive taps of Mr. Tan’s spotless wingtips behind him as the two marched forward. They entered a rotunda with plain white walls, a floor of damask colored marble and a high vaulted ceiling finished entirely with gold leaf. A cincture of lights was concealed behind molding that ringed the junction of wall and ceiling illuminating the gilded canopy. The light radiating down washed the room in warm, aureate brilliance.

As in a museum gallery, framed portraits were hung around the entire circumference of the room below an individual brass picture light. There were, Chin-ten counted, 35 in total. Underneath each stood a podium in the style of an Ionic column with a fluted shaft and scrolls carved into the capital. Resting on top were rectangular packages wrapped in simple, Kraft paper. A palsied woman who looked to be in her seventies was the only other customer in the space. She was dressed in Chanel and supported herself with a walking cane.

Mr. Tan spread his arms in a gesture of presentation. “Please. You are free to browse our current selection. Each blend is one of a kind. I am positive you will find a tea to your liking.”

Chin-ten approached the portrait closest to him. It was the same style of photo as the five he’d framed earlier. The work matched his own although he did not recognize the handsome young man smiling back at him. Below the photo was a plaque listing the subject’s age, height and weight. The only other information was a manufacturing date and serial number that matched that which was printed on the packages of Xian Cha tea. He moved to the next, a beautiful young woman with the same information.

The woman across the room summoned Mr. Tan who went to assist. Mr. Tan placed her selection of tea in the shoulder bag she carried. Then he removed the photo from the wall above the empty podium and escorted her out of the room.

Chin-ten went quickly from portrait to portrait. He came to a stop in front of a familiar face. A caustic mixture of rage and bitter sorrow boiled inside him and he felt his eyes well. That there was no name to indicate who Chu-li had been in her past life served as a final ignominy. It was as if she had been a nameless victim of senseless genocide and interred in a mass, unmarked grave.

From far down the hallway he heard the snap of Mr. Tan’s hard soles on the wooden floor. They grew louder as he approached and soon his footsteps were reverberating off the cold marble until the ceased directly behind Chin-ten.

Chin-ten closed his eyes and in the darkness a motion picture flickered on a screen. In the film Chin-ten whirls, delivering a solid punch to the tender abdomen of Mr. Tan who doubles over in pain as he gasps desperately for the air forced out of his lungs. In a single motion Chin-ten grabs the defenseless head and brings his knee powerfully up into Mr. Tan’s face knocking the old man to the floor.  Chin-ten kneels over the prostrate body and begins smashing the skull into the stone. The violent act creates wet, crunching sounds as the bone shatters and the insides spray out covering the floor with a gruesome impasto of blood and brains.

Chin-ten opened his eyes. Mr. Tan was waiting patiently with his hands folded in front of his chest and wearing a serene smile. He asked politely, “Have you found your perfect tea, sir?”

Chin-ten answered flatly, “No, none of these will do.”

Mr. Tan, in all sincerity, looked disconcerted that he could not meet a customer’s needs. He said with concern in his tone, “Please, take your time, perhaps another look.”

“No, none of these will do. But I will have that Japanese puzzle box you have in the front.”

This was met with silence.

“The one with the snake wrapped around it. I will have that one.”

Mr. Tan was calm but his polite smile had vanished and he spoke slowly in voice hardened by gravity, “That is not for sale, sir.”

“I will have it.” And Chin-ten was off and running down the throbbing red hall with Mr. Tan’s quick, clicking steps in pursuit.

In the front office Chin-ten seized the box from the shelf and at once realized he had no idea how to open it. When Mr. Tan caught up with him, Chin-ten was holding the box over his head and as the old man lunged to intervene Chin-ten slammed the box down on the sharp apex of the bronze warrior’s helmet. Mr. Tan screamed for him to stop. Chin-ten closed his eyes and the violent film played. He brought the box down again and again with all his strength until it splintered and broke open with a loud crack. He threw the mangled wreckage on the floor at Mr. Tan’s feet who knelt immediately, trying to mend the damage. As he did, shining globs of metallic liquid slithered out like mercury released from a smashed thermometer. Mr. Tan frantically tried to catch them but they eluded his desperate clutches and glided with the twitching hide of quicksilver through the hole in the floor. Tan crawled on all fours to hole and bent to peer into the sweatshop below. He lifted his head and his face twisted into a hideous scowl. He rose to his feet and pointed a lithe finger at Chin-ten and began cursing him in Mandarin and then in a dialect Chin-ten did not recognize. His complexion had flushed to deep crimson and drool oozed from the corners of his mouth as he spit out his inflamed diatribe. The man’s eyes, bright with rage, rolled back into his head, exposing the glistening, translucent whites, crisscrossed with crooked rivulets of grotesque, red veins. He bolted from the room, down the creaking steps in pursuit of what Chin-ten reckoned were emancipated souls.

Alone, Chin-ten returned to the gallery and collected the packages of tea on Chu-li’s pedestal like remains. He looked at here beautiful face once more and was gone.

In the anxious weeks that followed, Chin-ten fully expected to be paid a visit by the police with warrants of arrest for theft and destruction of property. He worried that Mr. Tan himself might come into the frame shop reinforced by ghoulish, satanic confederates seeking some sort of recompense or worse. But nothing happened and Chin-ten’s modest life returned to a normal routine. The only evidence that the absurd events ever took place was the tea. He kept it wrapped in the kitchen beside the tin of Xian Cha that he promised himself he would dispose of but had not.

One afternoon at 3 o’clock while Chin-ten was waiting for the water to boil, he took the tin from its place, flipped the can over and carefully read the back. He’d read the product description many times over the years but always with the detached attention of someone reading the insignificant information on the back of a cereal box while they ate breakfast.

Xian Cha, tea of the immortals…an ancient art of tea making…nourishes the soul…transform into a new person…

How long would it take? He wondered. He opened one of the Kraft paper packages and emptied the tea into the tin. He brewed a cup and took it downstairs to the frame shop where Betty Wu put down her work, eagerly accepting the refreshment.

“Is this different?” she asked after her first sip.

“Yes, it is something new. Something I think you will like.”

Betty Wu shrugged. “It tastes like green tea, Chin-ten. But it’s better than that Oolong you always make.” She winked at him and drank what would be the first of many cups filled with Xian Cha tea. In time all of the tea was gone and Chin-ten was reunited with his wife, Chu-li.

A Western Scene

cowboy-truelove

The wind is up. A small tornado of dust twists a dervish down the street of packed earth. The town’s main thoroughfare is cleared of most activity by the sun in Arizona’s midday sky. Dogs pant beneath porches in the cool dimples they’ve dug in the dirt.

The louvred pine doors of the saloon squeak and flap; there stands Nate.

Addressing me at the bar: “Cowboy. There was a man come by the livery looking for you. I thought you might be getting a shave so I sent him to the barber. I told him if you weren’t there then sure enough you’d be here. And sure enough, here ye be.”

Me, not so much addressing Nate as my whiskey glass: “How could you be sure he knew who to look for? Saloons get crowded in hot weather. ”

“To be sure.” Nat regards the amount of elbows on the bar. “He freely admitted not knowing you on sight. So, I give him a description.”

Nat, with surprising eloquence, delineates my features.

Not a boy but no old timer. Less than 6 feet in boots yet still taller than a lady. Lean and wiry as opposed to outright skinny. Hair, full and brownish, not dark – a touch of blond in the sunlight, truth be told. Brows are prominent but it can’t be said of them to be bushy like burlier oafs and the dancing brown eyes beneath can give out a fierce stare sharp enough to pierce raw hide. A month away from the razor and the only hair on his face will be that which grows around the mouth and chin, a natural Van Dyke, if you will. Fair as the English gentry. He will be the cautious man. Expect no gregarious “Pleased to meet thees” or other such frivolous pleasantries. Once known from Adam, though, and trusted, he is true and faithful as your best hammer.

All smiles, proud of the portrait he has painted, asks: “How did I do, Cowboy? Can you picture thee.”

“I can, Nate, I truly can. It is if I were looking into a woman’s vanity. And I am flattered by your kind words and candor as to my character.”

“A pleasure, to be sure.” Modest: “The allusion to a hammer was my own device.”

Then he asks, pleased to have been of service, “And this fellow, did he find ye alright?”

“He did indeed, Nate. He did indeed.”

My drinking hand – glass, whiskey and all – motions in the direction of the table and chair overturned by the prostrate body beside it.

The louvred pine doors announce another. It is Uriah adjusting his beaver felt stove pipe knocked askew by the low doorway.

“Begin your undertaking, Uriah!” The bartender, wiping a mug, is anxious to remove the stiff before peak hours.

“I declare, Cowboy. If I’d have known this to be his grim business I would have left out a few details. I hope you don’t hold a grudge.”

“No, Nate. In fact, in your description I noticed one particular omission that worked in my favor.”

“I can’t think what that would be, Cowboy.”

I wink. “Cowboy shoots better when drunk.”

L.A. Office Party (Part II)

Our building had a rooftop garden where, during nicer weather, many took their lunch or bronzed those portions of their hide left exposed by summertime fashion. Levi used the area in all weather as a sanctuary from his hectic duties and tormentors. Because of his calm demeanor, I sometimes pictured him sitting cross-legged amid the potted plants, meditating and practicing deep-breathing exercises to find an inner peace. In reality, he used these brief respites to release the anger and frustration that accumulated with each phone call or capricious agenda from Ms. Hooper. I imagined a clever mechanism of behavior-regulating valves rigged up to Levi’s innards by a pipe-fitters union working on behalf of some cosmic anger management organization.

As we emerged into the muted, gray afternoon, Levi twisted the first valve, which let loose an explosive tirade.

“It says right there on all those laminated placards from the State Board of Employment in the kitchenette that I don’t have to take this shit!”

I was only able to make out a sentence or two before it turned into an incomprehensible rant akin to a sermon preached by a homeless person in a deep state of agitated passion.

Working in tandem was a sort of intake valve. This he used to pull the fragrant smoke from his special cigarette deep into his lungs where a spicy cloud remained for longer than I thought humanly possible. Little wisps of smoke would trickle out through tightly clenched teeth while his lips mouthed the syllables of the unbroken anathema, his voice no more than a choked, wheezy buzz. A long suspiration carried his final incoherent rambling mixed with a ghost-colored plume of effluvial exhaust to join the metropolitan smog.

Levi offered the cigarette to me. It was rolled by the nimble fingers of an expert, using a blend of tobacco and hashish. A delicate tendril of smoke curled from the ashen tip and I placed the moist end to my lips and took a drag. I began to cough almost immediately, while I struggled to keep from wasting our receptionist’s precious anodyne.

Whatever his system was, it had restored Levi’s calm composure and my spasms had helped return his convivial smile. I passed the smoldering narcotic back and took a cleansing breath.

“Did I ever tell you about my piss test?” I asked.

“I don’t believe we’ve had this conversation.”

Employment here was contingent on the successful completion of a drug screen and background check. I presumed that we had all been subjected to the same humiliating experience of reporting to a diagnostics lab and supplying a technician in scrubs and tacky jewelry with a fresh urine sample, although I found it difficult to understand how our Human Resources department had received a clean report for a candidate by the name of Leviticus Johnson.

“I couldn’t go, couldn’t perform. I seized up under pressure. Shy bladder, they call it.”

Levi took a drag. He spoke while holding his breath.

“Shy what?”

“Bladder. You can’t pee around other people or in strange places.”

The idea seemed to amuse him more than my inability to hold smoke. The cigarette dangled from the corner of a grin that had grown slightly sadistic and he made motions with his hands for me to continue.

“No shit. Go on.”

I had not always had this problem. It had developed somewhere along the timeline of traumatic events that marked my life like mileposts on a crooked highway. It was an inconvenience, but I had developed a few tactics to manage my handicap. For instance, whenever a trip to the physician required urination on demand, I made a point to consume as much coffee and water as I could hold beforehand – to the point where I would be cramped and desperate upon arrival to the examination. Such was my strategy that day, yet I remained uncomfortably full for several hours after two failed attempts to deliver the goods.

On the day of my test, I took the paperwork sent to me by the Human Resources department to a lab in my area. I had not been required to make an appointment; patients were handled on a first come, first serve basis. I located the suite number and entered a narrow, somber waiting room. The space was sparsely decorated with a row of well-worn chairs that ran along the wall. Above them a few framed prints portraying pastoral scenes on yellowed paper were hung. At the end, opposite the door, stood a high counter that was deserted except for a sign silently commanding all patients to add their name to a list and wait to be called. Although unattended, the sign made the desk an indomitable figure in the space. A ballpoint pen was tethered by a piece of string to a clipboard holding a form in the tight grip of its metal clamp. The form had suffered the long-term effects of inaccurate photocopier reproduction. Each generation had introduced a slight deformity into the original and the column headings for Name and Time of Day along with the ruled lines on which to enter information had taken on a wavy appearance. I made note of the hour and jotted it all down before taking a seat. I thumbed through a soiled, out-of-date magazine full of smiling Hollywood buffoons to take my mind off my swollen belly. Periodically, an expressionless lab technician would appear behind the counter, consult the list and compare the number of entries to the population of the waiting room.

My name was called by a Puerto Rican woman with an immaculate manicure and more gold jewelry than a lineage of monarchs. Her only identifying marks that she worked in the medical profession were her pink, surgical scrubs and a photo ID. She gave me a stubby bottle accompanied with a baffling set of instructions that seemed overly complicated for peeing in a cup and pointed to unoccupied toilet.

It felt as though my excess water would cause a severe rupture or take a more dramatic exit by leaching out through my pores when the normal exit route refused to operate as designed. Both of the times that I came sheepishly out with an empty cup, my technician greeted me with the type of admonishing glare an exasperated parent reserves for a naughty child. She offered no empathy or comforting words of assurance and encouragement – only a stern warning that after three failed attempts the test would be cancelled and I would have to return in 24 hours to try again.

I stood frozen above the gaping maw of the porcelain bowl on my third and final try. It seemed to be mocking me and I felt my manhood shrivel. Humiliated and dejected, I was about to admit final defeat when I remembered a bartender friend’s passion for bizarre tales. I figured this qualified so I dug the cell phone from my rear pocket and dialed his number. His sonorous chuckling, made raspy by a two-pack-a-day habit, got me laughing so hard that I would have wet my pants had they not already been unfastened and dangling around my knees. With smug triumph, I presented the bottle containing several ounces worth of drug free evidence at a fresh 98.6 degrees to a caramel-colored hand. She screwed the lid on tight and carefully affixed a sticker that held my identifying information around its fat middle. Over the top she ran a piece of tape with some laboratory data and flattened the ends down to either side. This was evidently to prevent tampering with my watery testament and it reminded me of an unopened bottle of liquor. I was amazed that her long, glossy fingernails allowed her to perform these duties so deftly. I signed a form and was free to go.

“Damn.”

Levi drew the word out as if he was holding a musical note for several bars.

“And I thought I was uptight. Come on let’s get off this roof. There’s probably something I’ve got to clean up by now, anyway.”

The cigarette had burned down to an empty paper twist and Levi flicked it with his thumb and index finger into the wind. Its tiny white body was just a spec but I tried to follow it as it flew from the roof joining the snow flurries that had started to swarm in the growing darkness.

The partygoers had abandoned the conference room leaving behind the scattered debris of plastic cups and dishes with the remains of food, balled paper napkins, crumbs, and empty bottles. Levi dragged the large chrome waste can out of the corner and began to fill it indiscriminately with the waste he cleared from the table.

“Another L.A. office party.”

I had been to Los Angeles on a few occasions but there was nothing about this party that even hinted at having a California theme with the possible exception of the guacamole dip or the odor of reefer which had entangled in the ropey wool of my sweater along with the February cold.

Lame Ass, is what that means, if you were wondering.”

The CD we’d left playing had reached its end and the only music to be heard was someone in the distance whistling the Cornell fight song, if such a thing still existed. The greasy, fetid stench of fast food drifted in, comingling with the lingering post-party smells.

“You ever ask yourself, ‘Why did I put up with that kind of crap just so I can get a job working here’?”

I held up a wine bottle to the light. It still had a good mouthful or two left swirling around inside the tinted green glass. I considered upending the thing and finishing it off.

“Every day, Leviticus. Every day.”