Showing posts with label flash fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label flash fiction. Show all posts

20 December, 2019

redactions, #4: the pawnbroker



______ sold the wedding ring for $40 and was later disappointed it didn’t go further in getting ___ drunk. The pawnbroker acted bored and barely even looked at the ring, handing it off to his underpaid lackey, a sallow-eyed and slightly punch-drunk brunette, to weigh it. ­­­____ tried to meet the lackey’s gaze, mentally asking her to put her finger on the scale. It was clear when she brought the ring back that she didn’t. The pawnbroker spit out his offer and added, “I can give you a deal on a .38. There’s a waiting period, though.” The last part was almost sympathetic.  Naturally ­­____ refused the gun and pocketed the cash, hoping the punch-drunk lackey found a way to pocket the ring. Or the .38


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23 February, 2018

Ethel's Frankie - a short dog fiction (draft)

Mick Parsons, Fiction

Ethel knew there was just something not right about the boy, and she could never quite lay her finger on what it was. He ran around like boys were supposed to. Growing up, he played sports and did ok in school. He wasn’t going to be a scholar or anything like that, but he wasn’t simple, either. 

But dogs didn’t like him. And smaller children at church seemed scared of him, although he was always polite to everyone as far as she had noticed. Bessie, her friend at Wednesday bible study, told her she was looking at him as an extension of his father. There was always something wrong with Big Frank, and when her Stacy took up with him it was all Ethel could do to keep her faith that it would work out in God’s good time. Even after Big Frank disappeared, her Stacy was never the same. In and out of detox and rehab facilities in the city. In and out of jail. It about broke Ethel’s heart and mortified her at the same time when Stacy called from the police station after being picked up for solicitation at that big truck stop on just off the interstate. It made her think about all the men in town and wondered how many of them Stacy had allowed to use her like a cheap sock. The police wouldn’t tell her who the man was she got caught with, only that she was the only one arrested. 

Leave it to a man to get away after getting what man always wants, she thought.

So, when Bessie told her she was heaping the sins of the parents on the head of her Frankie-boy, she tried to take it to heart. She really did. And for a time, it all seemed all right. 

And then all the cats started disappearing. And then Ethel found where the bones were buried behind the compost bin.

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28 August, 2011

Daguerreotypes:Leon and Delilah's Night Out


Leon wandered the dark narrow bar, telling people who didn't know him he just got out of prison – 5 months – and would they buy him a drink. Underage Delilah hobbled around on crutches, sneaking pity beers from men old enough to be her father but young enough to appreciate her cleavage. One drunk couple, slopping all over the floor, stumbled out to the parking lot, fucked in the back seat of an '95 Oldsmobile, and returned. After two more shots, she started rubbing up on a woman playing darts and before long, they were dancing. Leon managed a few drinks before Underage Delilah ratted him out for a beer and a menthol cigarette.

“I hurt my leg in the river,” she said. “I'd show you my scars, but haven't been able to shave my legs.”

13 June, 2011

Oompa: Part, The 3rd

After a considerable amount of groaning and several severely patronizing chastising remarks from Shakir, Stanley led the Westerner off to the left – he could not tell the direction because dark rain clouds were covering the sky and, in spite of what his new employer insisted, Stanley did not have an animal's natural sense of direction. He chose the left because his left testicle itched and turning that direction gave him a chance to scratch without having to endure more of Shakir's attempts at “civilizing” him.

The way next to the river was relatively clear of brush and weeds and there was very little grass to speak of; mostly it was tiny pebbles, all of which he felt through the thin soles of his expensive patent leather shoes. They were shoes made to look good, not be comfortable or to hike soon to be 50 foot deep lakes in the middle of nowhere. His blisters had popped and formed new blisters. He could feel the leather starting to crack from exposure and abuse. As they neared what turned out to be the southern wall of the canyon the clouds let loose a torrential rain that turned every bit of dirt around them to mud and made the pebble-like rocks under Stanley's feet slick like marbles. Halfway to the rock face, he slipped and fell in the mud screaming an obscenity, causing him to swallow a mouthful of mud that smelled like animal shit.

MOTHER FUCKER!” He screamed and wallowed and could not – or maybe his body simply wouldn't let him – get out of the mud. J. Paddington Shakir, holding his nose with the dainty forefinger and thumb of his left hand, tried to pull Stanley up with his right; and were it not for the fact that Stanley was more afraid of walling in animal shit with Shakir than he was of wallowing alone, Shakir would have pulled himself in and they both would have been covered in whatever the foul stench was. Needless to say, when Stanley stood up, the remnants of his suit were ruined.

It's a shame Oompa,” Shakir said shaking his head, “that all you know of the King's English are crude obscenities.”

It's YOUR fault!” he snapped back, giving in momentarily to the shock to his pride. He was typically a very particular about his dress and groom habits. Now he felt as dirty inside as he did outside and as much as he spit and vomited, he could not get the taste of excrement out of his mouth; it lingered like bad mouth wash.

Shakir frowned and shook his head. “This is unacceptable, Oompa.” His tone was sharp and whiny. “We must find shelter, and we must find it soon. We simply don't have time for another one of your primitive culture's superstitions; wallowing in animal feces won't protect you from some non-existent thunder god. Hold yourself together for God's sake, man!”

I don't know if I'll make it out this giant fucking hole in the ground alive, Stanley thought. But one way or another, I'm going to get that son of a bitch.

The rain was steady and picking up pace; at first, Stanley appreciated the rain because it at least washed off some the mud and shit that was caked into his clothes and into every pore of his body. The muddy water was seeping into his shoes, soaking through his silk socks and squishing between his toes. He thought he could feel the rot growing between his toes and imagined what he would look like if he were rescued; his wife would come to the hospital (after she dismounted that fucking sumo-wrestler downstairs) and see him there, with all of his toes amputated from some rare wilderness rot. Of course, by then he would be insane and not notice the absence of his toes, and his wife and father-in-law could institutionalize him somewhere and forget about him. Stanley found the thought somewhat comforting; sure, he'd have no toes. But he'd have no cheating wife, no bastard of a father-in-law who enjoyed making midget jokes at his expense – like the time he paid to have kiddie urinal installed in the Executive bathroom with Stanley's name engraved on it. Or the time he insisted that Stanley dress as an elf for the office Christmas party and made him sit on everyone's lap. Or at their wedding when he locked Stanley in the empty wine refrigerator.

Look there, Oompa!” Shakir was shrieking like a little girl. “A cave! I see a cave!”

What good does that do us?” Stanley asked. “Then this giant mud puddle floods, the cave will flood too. We're better off trying to climb out.”

We'll never make it up in this downpour,” Shakir said like he briefly considered it as an option. “Besides, I bet that the cave we're looking for; and if that's the case, we won't have to worry about anything. Come!”

I'm not your fucking dog!” Stanley spit between his teeth.

What's that, Oompa?”

I said, I'm your willing cog!”

Your attempts at English are improving yet, my little friend. Let us get out of this torrent and dry off.”

You bet!” I'll play along, Stanley thought. Just until I eat your goddamn eyeballs.

[Be sure to check out Grindbone, too, for more work by Mick Parsons, as well as work by Kaplowitz and Brent Allard!]

   

22 April, 2011

Harvey Nada

When is it time to walk away? There is no walking away, no escape. Nada. When Harvey thought about the concept of nothing, he preferred to think of it in Spanish terms. Nada. Nothing seemed like much more finite term. A term with limitations. A Beginning. A Middle. An End. Nada seemed more eternal; he didn't know why. He didn't really understand what it was about the word that appealed to him, either. It wasn't as if he were fluent in Spanish; the only other Spanish words he knew were taco, burrito, and cervasa. Other than that, he was shit out of luck. Nada.

The clock on the wall was old. Certainly older than him. Maybe not as old as the room he was currently sitting in. The paint on the walls was mint hospital green and peeling the way that only lead paint can peel. The furniture was old, too... what little there was. A small wooden table and chair.A light hung fromt the ceiling over the table and provided the small room's only light; he had been in jail cells that were bigger. A small sink so dirty the white porcelain was stained beyond redemption and so old that the water coming out of the tap was spit warm and so metallic tasting it was virtually undrinkable. The toilet worked, but didn't have a sear. There was a narrow bed with a thin mattress that smelled of mothballs, bed bugs, and old sex. He didn't sleep on it, even though he had been waiting for more than 72 hours.

He hated these kind of deals. Sitting and waiting. Waiting and sitting. Sometimes he checked the time on his cell. He tried not to do this often because it only reminded him how slow the time was passing.

Harvey didn't have the personality for intrigue; so the longer he sat, the more he thought about walking out the door. He was starting to smell himself, and he wanted a shower, a good meal, and to get laid. It all seemed so pointless... all this waiting around. Waiting for what? He thought. Nada. But he sat anyway, rapping his swollen knuckles on the old wooden table and staring at the door. Sometimes he dosed off; but he slept the way his grandfather's hound dog used to sleep – aware and half awake. Sometimes he occupied his mind by imagining what he was going to do to Sanford when ran into that son of a bitch again. Sanford was the reason Harvey was sitting in a shit hole room for 3 days. Sanford was the go between. The messenger. The goddamned gopher. Sanford who said it was a sweet and easy deal, so long as he played along.

He was in the process of imagining the exhileration of breaking Sanford's bones one at a time – starting with the pinky because it hurts and because it never really heals right no matter what you do – when there was a knock at the door. Harvey instantly focused on the door, waiting for it to open. He stood up, prepared to meet whoever was going to walk through it. He thought of what he would say, what his offer was. He thought of Matilde, waiting for him, and thought of the way her body had felt the last time he touched it. He thought of the last hamburger he had eaten. Focus, he thought. Focus. Harvey focused on the door knob, waiting for it to turn.

The door knob never turned and the door never opened. Instead, a note was slipped under the door. A note and then nothing. Not event he sound of foot steps walking away. He walked over, bent down, and picked up the note. It was written in a neat, flowing script that reminded him of a woman's handwriting.

It read “Three days.”

28 March, 2011

Oompa: Part, The 2nd

 There was nothing at the bottom – at least, nothing that Stanley could see. He was exhausted and he could feel his bad knee swelling up: if felt the size of a softball. Shakir had to stop fifteen times on the way down the steep wall, and nearly fell half a dozen times. And each time he nearly fell, Shakir steadied himself using his trusted guide – nearly causing both of them to tumble to their deaths.

“Well, Oompa,” J. Paddington Shakir panted, looking around the valley. “What do you think?”

“What do I think?” Stanley squinted and looked around just in case he missed something; he hadn't. There was some scrub brush along the edge and rocky sand at the bottom that was cut by a muddy creek bed that hadn't seen a fish or a frog or even a dragonfly in months. The brush that seemed to line the bottom like a ring of hair had nothing on them that looked at all edible – and Shakir had burned through most of the water and the rest of the food on the previous day. “I think I'll be lucky if I don't break my neck walking out of here.”

Shakir laughed – and shook his head. “One of these days you'll learn to trust me, Oompa.”

Stanley shook his head and let himself sit on the sharp, uncomfortable ground. How did he get here? He'd lost his watch some time during the short crossing from the city to the sparse desert they were now in the middle of. He had no idea where they were; and he was pretty damn sure that J. Paddington Shakir didn't know either. He thought of the two dozen times he could've gotten away from his erstwhile “master” in the previous couple of days. I should've just pushed him, Stanley thought. When we were standing at the top of the gorge, I should've just pushed him. He would have fallen and broken his neck and no one would have missed him.

“We ought to find shelter, Oompa,” Shakir said. Stanley knew what that meant; it meant that HE needed to find them shelter. But there was nothing, not even a tall tree to stand under and get out of the hot late afternoon sun. In the three days that Stanley had let himself be led on by Mr. J. Paddington Shakir, he had not really been able to figure out anything about the man who would, in all likelihood, lead Stanley to his death. He gave no indication of who he was or where he was from or what he was looking for; it was as if the man simply thought that Stanley knew exactly where they were heading. If he had been thinking straight, Stanley told himself that he would have led the poor fool back to civilization and deserted him. That was what he SHOULD HAVE done; but he also told himself there was no point in trying to rethink his past mistakes with this man. What mattered, Stanley told himself, was that at some point in the future, when the opportunity presented itself, he would desert this sun-stroked idiot and make his way – somehow – back to his cheating wife, his safe air-conditioned cubicle, and the collection of internet porn that kept him satisfied while his wife fucked Fuji the sumo-wrestler.

“We ought to find shelter, Oompa.” When he repeated himself, it meant that Shakir was getting annoyed at his guide.

“Well I don't see anything,” Stanley said, “that we could use. “No trees. No overhangs. Nothing. You've found us a really good spot to die.”

Shakir shook his head. “You must have faith, pygmy. The Lord will provide. He even provides for pagan pygmies like you.”

“I'm a Lutheran,” Stanley said.

“We don't have time to exchange philosophies,” Shakir said. “We need to find shelter.”

“Why?”

“It's going to rain soon,” Shakir said. “And if we don't do something, the rain will flood this hole and we will drown.”

“If it was going to rain,” Stanley asked through gritted teeth, “then WHY did we come down here?”

Shakir shook his head and smiled. “You must have faith.”

“You must be kidding.”

“No,” Shakir said. “I am not.”

07 March, 2011

Sketch of One of the Dream People

Jarvis woke up most mornings with a dull, relentless headache. Aspirin didn't help. Coffee didn't help. At first, he thought he was starting to have an adverse reaction to cheaper cigarettes and switched to a more expensive brand. But the only impact that had was on his already stretched bank account. Then he gave up smoking, thinking that would help. Then he tried drinking until the headaches went away; but he just ended up passing out. And instead of sleeping through the night, he would wake up in the middle of the night, feeling as if he couldn't breathe.

He never remembered dropping off to sleep; but he knew that he always did. He slept hard and deep and nothing disturbed him until the headache woke him exactly seven minutes before his alarm. On weekends when he didn't set the alarm, he still woke up at the same time.

Various doctors had told him various things over the years to explain the headaches. He'd had all kinds of scans, taken all kinds of marvelous drugs. Jarvis had been to so many doctors trying to get the right combination of pain killers and tranquilizers that they started to believe he was a junkie. He was once referred to a shrink who, after seven sessions at $950 for a fifty minute session (only half was covered by his company insurance plan) told him he was repressing rage about the death of his father. He stopped going to the shrink after that and tried the remainder of the drugs he had; but the drugs worked like booze. He'd nod off for a while but end up waking up with the sensation that he was choking.

This morning was like every other morning except that Jarvis had a moment. It was less than a moment. Brief. Shorter than a half a breathe. He knew he was about to wake up and his eyes opened. The headache was gone. The dull thud that had haunted him since he was ten years old had disappeared. It was glorious and reminded him of life before the headaches. It reminded him that once upon a time, he loved being out in the sun; that his tan was so dark from playing outside all day in the summer that the neighbor kids used to laugh and call him the village nigger. He'd even gotten into a fight over it once with Tommy Delaney and won.. and it had been a glorious win. That had been before the headaches.

And he remembered something else. An image, or a sensation. Snow covered hills. Riding on a large wooden cart being dragged by two large oxen. He was sitting next to someone that he had known, but no one he recognized from his everyday life. But in the dream, the person was someone he knew and trusted. He knew the man had a scar over his left eye even though he could not see his face in the dark.

Jarvis wanted to hold onto the memory as long as he could. He rarely remembered his dreams, but when he did, it came in brief flashes. They were always different and always the same. Sometimes he would revisit places he'd dreamed about before. He always knew the landmarks and never got lost and was never scared or worried. He was trying to remember if he had ever seen the ox driver's face when the image was shattered by the onslaught of another headache. He covered his ears with his pillow and let the alarm go off for a full five minutes before he ripped it from the plug and threw it across the room, smashing the body length mirror that hung on the back of his bedroom door.

21 February, 2011

An Altogether Different Time Table

He drove through the rain and the night because he didn't want to be late. The only thing worse than being late was being later than that. Schultz was a man understood and accepted that all aspects of life function in complex levels of degrees and exceptions. Except that none of the exceptions ever seemed to apply to him.

The rain picked up and so did the wind, which was making it more difficult to see the road in front him. Schultz hated driving at night; he didn't see so good at night to begin with, but there he was, driving through the middle of nowhere in god fuck forsaken Iowa where they didn't believe in street lights, or in keeping the roads paved and even. Various parts of the road were in such need of repair that it felt like he was driving on one long washboard. He'd driven through so many pot holes that he was waiting for the axle on his car to snap in half; at the very least he expected to blow a tire. And just what the hell will I do then? he thought. Change a tire in the middle of fucking nowhere during a rain storm on a road with no shoulder? He didn't think it likely that he could call AAA in the event of something happening. He wasn't sure if there was even a mechanic nearby, and if there was, he wasn't sure that he would trust his car to any mechanic he might find.

It was, after all, a Fine German Automobile, not just some piece of crap Ford.

Even though he was careful to only go five miles below the posted speed limit, for the sake of safety, a large pick up truck had been riding his bumper for the last 10 miles or so. The high set lights made it even more difficult to see; they were a back light against the rain, reflecting off the drops in the sky and wetness of the state route in front of him. He thought of his grandmother, who went blind from cataracts. Is this how it starts? Am I going to wake up one day and not see anything at all? He could go to an optometrist and find out, he supposed. But Schultz didn't like doctors, or any ilk. Liars and pickpockets, his Uncle Carl used to call them. And Uncle Carl would know. He had been an insurance adjuster for over 30 years before he died of thrombosis.

After a while the truck sped up and passed him, splashing water all over the windshield, almost causing Schultz to wreck. The tail lights of the truck soon disappeared, swallowed by the darkness ahead. Schultz thought maybe the darkness was swallowing him, too, that maybe this was what it was like for his grandmother. Not all at once. So slow that you don't notice it. Not until there's nothing left to notice.

He looked at the clock display on his radio. He had a half hour to go and no real idea of how much farther it was. There were no markers, no signs. He wasn't even sure he was still on the same road. For all he knew he'd passed into a different state altogether. It all looked the same, even during the day. How in the hell was he supposed to find his way at night?

31 January, 2011

Sketch of The √úbermensch

After the call ended, Jackson sat up, turned his legs around, and sat on his bed. He stared out the window that looked down on the alley below. Everything was still wet from the rain. To someone who didn't know any better, Jackson looked half asleep. But Jackson didn't sleep. Not really. He associated sleep with dreams and he couldn't remember the last time he had a dream. Whenever he laid down on the narrow bed and closed his eyes to rest his body, he drifted in darkness until he opened his eyes again.

For this one thing he was grateful.

The man who called had asked if he was disturbing Jackson; this was more out of formality than actual concern. Jackson knew the man only as Kingston, and he knew that Kingston imagined himself to be a gentleman. He often wished that Kingston would give up the charade – especially when he called in the middle of the night. Jackson preferred short and concise conversation. It saved time and, what was more important, didn't waste his.

“Give me the name,” Jackson had said. Kingston laughed, but didn't comment further. Jackson didn't need a false sense of camaraderie to do his job; he didn't have friends, didn't have family. He had long given up on the idea of brotherhood he'd learned in the Army and again when he rode with the club. Jackson was his own army, his own club. At least Kingston had learned to stop asking him if he wanted to meet for a drink.

“Cranston,” Kingston said. “William G.”

“Okay.”

“Need any particulars?”

“Only if they're important.”

Kingston went on to tell him where William G. Cranston could be found, and where he could be found for the next four days. That was the window. Four days. If things went the way they usually went, Jackson would be seeing this Cranston within a day and a half, unless there was some delay he couldn't account for. People, in spite of being addicted to routine, changed it on occasion. And if Cranston had any idea who was coming for him, he might change his routine. Sometimes they ran. Mostly they didn't. If this one ran and it took longer than four days, he had an understanding with Kingston that it cost extra. Kingston didn't have a problem with this, and Jackson didn't object to making more money; it was more about time.

He took his last cigarette from the pack next to the lamp on the bedside table, lit it with a match from the book of matches sitting next to the pack, and stood up. The moment he stood up his entire body was awake.

Before he tossed the book of matches back on the bedside table, he looked at it. He'd picked it up in a bar three nights before. Jackson only went to this bar once every other month or so. He'd gone there for the same reason he always went there. To meet Audrey. Audrey was a hooker – though for as much as it cost, she called herself “a professional girlfriend.” It was supposed to be a joke; Jackson supposed it was funny. But as far as he was concerned, whether you pay $20 or $20,000, a whore is a whore. Audrey kept herself up and was still young enough to be sexy. She was the most recent in a line of arrangements he'd had over the years. She was smarter than most and didn't mind that Jackson didn't really like to chit chat. He met her at the bar and they left soon after, going to a hotel downtown where Jackson had reserved a room. He never brought anyone to where he lived, never went anyplace with them he didn't know, and he never spent the night.

Audrey was one more in a long line that would probably include many more before he got beyond the need to get his rocks off. By that time Jackson figured he would either be dead or he would retire and disappear completely. Then not even Kingston would be able to find him. And if he happened to, Kingston wouldn't be found, either. By then Audrey would be a faint memory; he might not even remember her name. He rarely remembered information was not necessary.

But there was something different about her, too. Jackson wasn't entirely sure what it was. In the past, he would get what he needed and when he tired of their company, he would stop seeing them. There had probably been a few who had made the mistake of falling in love with him – that chubby blonde one in Kansas City had been like that. But he never led them on, never allowed them to expect more than a generous tip and money for a cab ride back to where ever they slept. He didn't offer personal information and didn't ask for any.

He was not different with Audrey, and she was quick on the up take. She was all business and he liked that. No bullshit. No fuss. Maybe that was it. But that didn't explain why he sometimes woke thinking her name or why he sometimes thought he smelled her his clothes, even after he'd had them laundered.

He put on clean clothes, pulled on his coat, grabbed his case out of the closet, and walked out the door of his small one room apartment. It opened into an interior court, like many of the old buildings in New Orleans. One way in. One way out. His room was on the top level in the corner near the stairs. He stood at the railing for a second and looked down. There were some quarter kids living on the level  below him. They were awake, playing music, getting drunk and high. They were round-faced and starved at the same time. The girl, a tattooed whore of no more than 17 years old, had propositioned him before. He never spoke to her. She looked and smelled diseased.

As he made his way down the stairs to the street, he thought about William G. Cranston. Kingston had sent the man's picture to his cell phone. He was a thin man with brown eyes and a pock marked face. He didn't look like he would be any trouble.  

28 January, 2011

The Beans, Bread, and Beer Fund: An Explanation

Making it as a writer is rough, no matter how you go about it. Mostly people get some kind of pointless day job, or they become college instructors. Either way, you're more or less screwed out of valuable work time. A tedious day job saps your strength, your soul, and your imagination. Teaching on the college level isn't much better, except that you're expected to jockey for position, scramble your way up the ladder by stepping on the backs of your friends and colleagues, chasing that mirage once called tenure.

The other option -- go at it alone, try to come up with some other equation. And unless you get "discovered" or picked up by some eye tooth licking salivating agent or a big house publisher that wants to own your work into the next century, you do, more or less, go it alone. That's just the way it is, and, like Bukowski wrote, "isolation is the gift."

But life, even an inexpensive one, isn't exactly cheap.

I've learned a lot over the last year about hawking my own stuff and hustling to get writing work as well as exposure. While that oft dreamed of dream of writers to get picked up, get a major contract, and skyrocket into literary fame still pecks at me, I have learned to stop hoping for it. I still have my need to write, though, and I am still dedicated to the Art and the Craft of it. I write, in some fashion, nearly everyday. And I will continue unabated.

The Beans, Bread, and Beer Fund was something I started and posted on my blog as a sort of joke. Okay, half a joke. If I can't get The New Yorker or Playboy to pay me, maybe I can find people who wander across my blog, like what they see, and are willing to help. It's the digital equivalent to singing on a street corner with my hat on the sidewalk. But I haven't pushed it or explained it.

Until now.

I can't tell you your contribution will be tax deductible. It won't. I'm not a non-profit 501(c) 3 organization. Whatever you contribute will go towards what the name suggests – food, shelter, and some beer (I'm just being honest.)

If I can get enough money in this fund, it's my intention to put that money toward a limited run of print chapbooks, in addition to my Dead Machine E/Ditions.

I have two chapbook length manuscripts of poems: Boomtown Holiday and Love and The Baboon that I intend to release as E/Ditions within the next six months or so. If you are so kind as to give, depending on how much you give, you could end up on the dedication page.

Here's how it works:

$1- $12.99: your name will appear on a dedication page in one of the upcoming E/Ditions, and you'll get a free copy of one.
$13 - $29.99: your name will appear on a dedication page in both the E/Dition and one of the limited edition print chapbook. If you leave me your address, I'll send you a signed copy of the chapbook of your choice.
$30 + : all of the above. Plus, I'll list your name on a permanent page on deadmachinefictions.com as a  motherfuckin' god send. Really.


The link on the right sidebar will take you to PayPal, where your personal information is secure. I will not have access to your card numbers, and you can use any credit or debit card, or your own PayPal account. The link below will also take to the same place.


Thanks in advance for your goodwill and your support. I won't forget it. Ever.







By the way:

I'm also thinking about putting together The Beans, Bread, and Beer Tour.

I'll come to your venue and read from any number of my works and teach workshops on fiction, poetry, and independent publishing. Base cost is the cost of a bus ticket to wherever you are, a cot or couch in a reasonably warm place, and a flat fee to be discussed, depending on whether you're looking for a reading, a workshop, or both. If you're interested email me at mickp@deadmachinefictions.com.


03 January, 2011

A Sketch of North Eustacia, Illinois

The report was a staggering one; three counties over, in a little town no one had thought about since nobody remembered when, the entire town simply dropped dead one day. Of course, no one noticed until the January thaw, and then it was only a lost tourist trying to get to Galena who took a wrong turn and ended up in North Eustacia, Iowa. And the tourist wouldn't have thought anything of it, except that milk cows were roaming the streets, along with the left behind chickens, pigs, dogs, and other semi-domesticated and domesticated critters that hadn't starved to death or had learned how to survive just fine on the eyeballs, belly fat, and fingers and toes of their deceased caretakers. Just walking around, like nothing was wrong. After the tourists – two little old ladies from Cicero, Illinois – noticed the milk cow standing at the corner of Main and Market Street, they noticed the broken windows in all the store fronts. The foul stench of 557 dead bodies – based on the most recent census numbers available – didn't reach them until one rolled a window down, mostly out of amazement. Neither of them had ever seen a real milk cow or a live chicken up close; neither woman expressed a desire to look at one, alive or on her dinner plate, ever again.

After the shock wore off and they rolled up the window and immediately drove themselves to the next town over – Bluffington, population 1978 souls according to the most recent census numbers – which was only about twenty miles north west of North Eustacia, they went straight to the police station and reported what they saw. The jabbering old women were not taken seriously at first, though they might have been if the Police Chief had been on duty; the Chief Delmer Cole was worldly man, a decorated veteran of both Gulf Wars, and had seen enough to know that a town full of dead people, while odd, was not outside the realm of probability. Instead, these two panicked septuagenarians had to explain themselves to one Jasper Cullen, a part-time police deputy and with a high school equivalency and plus ten academy hours. Jasper wasn't even allowed to carry a loaded gun yet, so they let him answer phones and go for coffee. Jasper had never gone any father than five miles in any direction from the town of his birth, and had only heard of North Eustacia when the high school football team played them each year at Homecoming; and even at that, he only knew the name from the cheerleaders rallying cry “There's no pretty faces from North Eustacia!” He remembered this because he liked to watch them jump up and down in their short shirts and tight sweaters.

The two old women – who have still refused to give their named for fear that the strange death they witnessed would somehow follow them back to Cicero and look them up in the phone book – were in near hysterics When Chief Cole happened to come back from lunch with the mayor and heard their story. The first thing he did was call the North Eustacia Police Chief, Watson Gunderson. Not getting an answer, he called City Hall. Still not getting an answer, he called the one or two other numbers dialed at random using the same prefix. Getting neither an answer nor a wrong number recording, Cole got into his car and drove to North Eustacia himself – leaving the babbling women in care of a much humbled Deputy Cole, who offered to go get them a cup of coffee from the new coffee house that had just opened up the street, free of charge.

It took several days to herd all of the animals. Cleaning up the bodies took more than a week, because it meant going door to door. Some people were sitting in their chairs. Some were in bathtubs. Some had collapsed in the middle of the grocery store, or sitting in their cars. It looked like all 556 of them had simply died wherever they were, whatever they were doing. A few people were found dead while having sex. Two teenagers were dead in the backseat of a Chevy Impala at the park; the minister of the North Eustacia Church of God was found dead in the ladies' restroom at the park, his pants down to his knees, his hands still clutching what remained of himself after a wandering animal, to avoid starvation, bit the head of his penis off.

The investigation into the event took longer than it should have because out of 557 residents – according to the most recent census – a total of only 556 bodies of men, women, and children were found. At first, the detectives from the State Bureau of Investigation thought there might be someone alive to notify about the deaths. Then they supposed that maybe the one missing person was somehow responsible; but when the coroner's opus report came back, indicating no cause of death this theory was discarded and the 557th person was considered a statistical error.

The water was tested, as was all the food at the grocery, and in the restaurants. There were no other reports from any surrounding town. Many of the policemen, fire fighters, and others who came to help or to gawk needed therapy for years afterward. Delmer Cole never talked about what he saw, either with the people who helped in the clean up or with anyone else. He simply wrote a report and filed it with the proper authorities. Jasper Cullen eventually passed all of his deputy training and was allowed to carry a gun … though no one ever gave him real bullets and he still only answered the phone and got coffee. The two old women, it was supposed, returned to the safe suburban haven of Cicero and never wandered that far from home again.

25 October, 2010

Vox Humana

When's the last time you left the house, she asked.

What day is it?

She shook her head and didn't answer me. Sometimes I think she gets more aggravated at me when I validate that she's right than when I prove her wrong. There's no point in reminding her that there's nothing to do, nowhere to go, and that even if there was, we didn't have the money for me to do anything, anyway.

You need to get out of the house.

Has the outside world changed dramatically?

She shook her head again. That's not the point, she said. It's not healthy for you to stay in all day every day. People need sunlight.

It's been raining for three days.

You KNOW what I mean, she said.

I did. Not that I intended to let on. She only got onto me about getting out of the house when she had to work a lot; it was her way of telling me she felt bad about leaving me alone all the time without having to actually tell me. I don't mind walking around, actually. I just like to have an eventual destination in mind. Or some purpose other than to walk around. People in small towns like this one don't simply walk around. This isn't like out west, where people exercise for the sake of exercise. This is the heart of the Midwest, where the food is fried … even the vegetables … and the logic isn't really all that logical. There are nice people, and I do, on occasion, try and wander out among them. Among but not one of. I usually give myself away within a minute or so of striking up a conversation. Most of the conversations I have with people around town are less than a minute. Strangers usually take the first 5 to 30 seconds sizing up people they don't know. They compare the appearance of the newly met person to mental images of everyone they know. Then they spend another couple seconds – never more than 5 or 7 – listening to the person to see if they have anything in common with this newly met person. We learn to do this almost instantly. The human brain is capable of such amazing things. Like deciding in less than a minute whether the new person is a friend, a foe, a fuck buddy, or just another douche who ought to be ignored. This is part of what psychologists and other skull crushers call socialization. And I knew that she wanted me to socialize. Spreading the joy. Or whatever.

You should give people a chance, she said.

What fun would that be?

There are good people out there.

Then they should come in here.

She shook her head and sighed. You don't even go to the bar anymore.

It's always the same conversation.

She sighed again. She knew I had a point.

So start a new one.

It's not that easy. The last time I went to the bar I sat in on the same conversation. The old men at the bar talk about corn, cancer, and who recently died. Everyday is a maudlin wake, sad broken old men drinking to the memories of people they probably hadn't talked to that much in life. Once I tried to start a conversation about politics. I was roundly ignored.

You should still try, she said. You used to try.

I know.

She paused. Are you? She asked. Going to try?

I took a drink of my beer and lit a smoke. I loved her, among many reasons, for her eternal optimism. We'd probably have the same conversation again in a few days. But I really hated disappointing her. I was really  tired of disappointing her. She was working a lot and having to be my only point of human contact was one more stresser she didn't need.

Sure, I said. I'll try.

27 August, 2010

Sketch of The Reason Why (Zed's Justification)

Everything about her seemed deliberate. No. Deliberate’s the wrong word. Practiced. Everything about seemed practiced. Yes. Practiced. Not like she stood in front of the bathroom mirror every morning going over her accent, elocution, smile, wink, and blink that made her come off more like a Victorian Era coquette than a Gen-X burnout. She was practiced in the way a woman becomes practiced because she always did the same things. A lovely creature of habit that, if she had bothered knowing anyone long enough, her mimicry of herself would have been found out.

But Alice didn’t get to know people. Or maybe it was that she didn’t get close to them. Not really. Alice was warm and friendly, flirty, fun, a good conversationalist. Good drinking partner. The kind of person that people instantly fell in love with, wanted to be around, wanted to talk to, wanted to impress. And yet, she never told anybody anything about her. That was her. She wasn’t a woman you wanted to know as much as she was a mystery you needed to solve.

We had mutual friends because she had an affair with my best friend Donnie. Calling it an affair makes it sound seedier than it was, though, because he wasn’t married. But they were together for almost an entire month; they were always together. In that whole time, he never knew anything about her except the exact number of tattoos on her body and how she liked her coffee. She liked her coffee with amaretto and whole milk. Donnie wouldn’t talk to me about the tattoos.

Then I ran into him one time and she wasn’t there. I asked him where she was.

He shrugged. “I dunno.”

“She didn’t stay over last night?”

He shook his head. “Nope.”

“You guys have an argument?”

“Nope.” Donnie seemed satisfied and not all that heart broken. Women usually liked Donnie. Donnie was exciting. Dangerous. Or, at least he played the part. So I assumed I’d see Alice again eventually. I thought about her from time to time and sometimes I’d ask Donnie if he’d heard from her. He hadn’t. Sometimes I would call her. She never picked up or returned any of my calls.

When I saw her again, it was two years later. I was standing in line at a coffee shop in Seattle. I was there on business. She was standing right in front of me. Her hair was a different color; but I knew it was her. I said her name, and she turned around. It took her a minute; then she smiled and asked how I’d been. She talked to me like she couldn’t remember my name.

“Zed,” I reminded her. “I’m doing fine,” I said. “I’m here on business.”

“Hmm,” she answered. “That’s nice.” I expected her to ask me what kind of business I was in. She didn’t. She also didn’t say why she was there or how long she had been living in Seattle.

“Do you ever talk to Donnie?” I asked

“Hmm?” Alice looked up from ordering her coffee. She ordered espresso with whole milk and amaretto syrup. She looked like she was trying to remember who I was talking about. “Oh. No.”

“Oh. Well, he’s married now.”

“Good for him.” She smiled. I didn’t detect a hint of sadness. I didn’t detect a hint of anything.

“I’m still not married.” I regretted it the instant the words came out of my mouth. I knew how it sounded. Desperate.

“Oh. That’s nice.” She paid for her coffee and moved on. She waved at me and smiled. I thought about asking her if she wanted to meet for drinks; but she was out the door before I could.

26 August, 2010

Sketch of a Man Late for His Father’s Funeral

Uriah was sure he saw Santa Claus working on a road crew; he was the one holding the two-sided sign that read SLOW or STOP. Uriah passed him by when the lane opened and the line of cars he was near the back of was allowed through; at first, the inconvenience of the delay annoyed him. But once he thought he saw Santa Claus, he wanted to turn around and be sure.


Turning around was no easy task. Although the road was a main artery, it was still only a two lane state route. It ran almost the length of the state and was parallel with the Mississippi River for nearly the entire distance. It ran through several small towns and wound its way up and down the edge of the state, much like the Mississippi wound its way through the continent down to the Gulf of Mexico. Uriah knew to stick with the river and eventually it would take him where he needed to go. He didn’t have a map and didn’t own one of the fancy GPS screens like people had. He traveled the way he always traveled – with a vague notion, the memory of where he had gone, and a little common sense. His father had been a traveling salesman and since Uriah’s mother deserted them, he went with his father. Uriah had no diploma to prove he was educated; but he had learned to read on diner menus, practiced on Gideon Bibles in cheap motel rooms, learned math adding up his father’s sales, and learned to write from filling out order forms. His father taught him how to drive in the middle of Nebraska.

What he couldn’t learn any other way, Uriah learned in libraries; sometimes, his father let him sit in the library reading books all day while he made sales calls, if they were in a town with a decent library. Because salesmen travel set routes in the same way the planets orbit the sun – at least that was the way Uriah’s father explained it to him, and he saw no reason to contradict it – eventually people along way stored up books for young Uriah, and saved them for him for when he and his father were back in town. Sometimes they saved toys for him, too, or a new pair of pants or shoes. Especially the women. He realized later that the waitresses and librarians and preacher’s wives all felt sorry for him and for his dad, and that some of them – some of the waitresses and nearly all of the librarians – wanted him and his dad to settle down and live with them. But Uriah didn’t feel sorry for himself. Not usually. The only time he wished he had a normal dad with a normal job was around Christmas time. They’d drive through towns all over his dad’s orbit that were decorated with lights and ornaments and fake icicles and manger scenes. The manger scenes were Uriah’s favorite, because he thought he understood how Jesus must have felt, having to stay in a barn like that. The pictures of Santa Claus were his other favorites… and the men dresses as Santa who listened to other kids’ Christmas wishes. He even sat on a Santa’s lap once; but the beard wasn’t real and so Uriah knew it wasn’t the real Santa Claus.

But Uriah was a man now and realized that Santa Claus wasn’t at all real; it was one of those stories normal parents told normal children. His dad told him, too… but only because he probably felt bad about not being normal.

It was more than ten miles before Uriah found a decent place to turn around; he didn’t like to turn around in people’s driveways and avoided U-turns on narrow roads like that one. Especially if there wasn’t much space on the edge of the road. He almost didn’t turn around; but he saw an empty parking lot up on the right. The parking lot was in front of an empty building that had once been a bait and tackle shop. As he turned around in the gravel lot, Uriah wondered briefly if the inside still smelled of fish and old men and pipe smoke, the way he remembered it when he had been very young. He wondered how the man who had ran it died, and wondered why his son didn’t keep it open. Sons follow the orbits of their fathers, like the planets around the sun. It didn’t make sense to him that the bait shop owner’s son wouldn’t be a bait shop owner. Then again, he thought, it didn’t make any sense that Santa Claus would work for an Illinois road crew when it isn’t Christmas.

25 August, 2010

Sketch of a Corn Fed Beauty

She had managed to save enough money to get to Phoenix, and she told herself that it had to be enough. To start. She’d been scrupulously putting back money and planning her departure since she was 13. That had been the first year she didn’t at least place in the Young Miss Corn Husker Beauty Contest at the County Fair. That year she was in the top 5. Her mother had consoled her afterwards by telling her what was wrong with her. Her shoulders were too wide and mannish, her mother had said, and her hips were child-bearing hips. “And what the good lord gave you,” the woman harped through pursed lips that had worn too much lipstick, “you didn’t use.” Her mother was referring to her pretty face and her large breasts. She knew she had a nice smile, and that didn’t bother her so much; but her mother had tried to talk her into a strapless gown that she knew she’d fall right out of; and while Billy Halderstadt, that little pervert who sat behind her in geography and undid her bra strap, would enjoy it, she didn’t want to run the risk. She went with a dress that she thought her Daddy would have liked instead. That, according to her mother, was why she placed 5th.


Even though she didn’t enter any more beauty pageants, she worked. Sometimes at the library, and then later, when she was old enough to drive, she worked as a waitress one town over. Her tips were always pretty good. She knew to smile. People liked that. Then the restaurant closed because the owners died within 2 days of one another – they were in their 80s and had been married as long as anybody could remember – and she found a waitressing job at the new Pub & Grub. She couldn’t serve alcohol because she wasn’t 21; but her tips were better. It was because of the tank top; but she didn’t care. More tip money meant more money put away for her escape. At first, she wanted to go to Las Vegas. She’d seen it in movies and it seemed so glamorous, so different from the fields of corn and soy and the stink of manure. Then she saw pictures of Hollywood. Palm trees. Infinite sunshine. Beautiful people. Everyone there seemed to be from somewhere else, and they’d gone there to become something else. So she decided on Hollywood.

But there were distractions. Billy Halderstadt, for one. He always came around on her shift, always asked to drive her home, always asked her out. He worked at the granary during the summer and made pretty good money. She finally gave into him to shut him up. And that had been her mistake. She ended up letting Billy kiss her. Before long over a few more dates, it led to other things. Then she found out she was pregnant. And when she told Billy Halderstadt about it, he laughed and called her a whore and asked her how she knew it was his. The tears burned her eyes. After that, everyone in town seemed to know. Everyone except her mother, who still harped on her about minimizing her mannish shoulders and her child-bearing hips.

She thought about keeping the baby; but there was too much at risk. If she did that she’d never escape. Never get to Hollywood. Never be someone else. So she took some of her money and drove to the nearest clinic, two hours away. The nurses there wanted her to have someone to drive her home. But there wasn’t anyone.

After that she stopped trying to date and focused on 2 things: saving money and counting the days until her 18th birthday. Her 18th birthday was the day after her high school graduation. She made her plan. Her mother wanted to throw a big party; so she let her just to keep her mother busy. She counted her money and checked on bus ticket prices. She could get to Hollywood if she used everything she saved; or she could go to Phoenix and have a little left. She looked up pictures of Phoenix. There were palm trees there, too. And infinite sunshine.

17 May, 2010

The Day After

She hated the panicked feeling of gasping for air. But the pain that shook her body down to the bones whenever she coughed and spit up pieces of her lungs was worse; and even with the oxygen, the cough never really stopped because her lungs never stopped filling with liquid. Whenever Loleen Bausendorfer took off her oxygen and tried to remember what it felt like before her body turned against her, tried to drown her in her own fluids, she couldn’t sit for more than two minutes. She couldn’t take more than a step out her wheelchair or off her bed without getting dizzy and feeling like she was about to die. Annmarie, her daughter-in-law, was always giving her a difficult time and insisting that she leave the oxygen on and that she not move around so much; but Loleen was tired of the noise the tank made and tired of the plastic itching under her nose and tired of being stuck in her son’s house. She was particularly tired of Annmarie, who Mitch had married in spite of his mother’s objections; but living there was better than being in the hospital, and at least Candice the hospice nurse came in the evening to check on her.


Not that being in a hospital would do her any good. Loleen knew she was dying. So did everyone else. Mitch knew she was dying and insisted she move in. Annmarie knew she was dying and resented that she was doing it in her house. Her grandchildren knew she was dying, but didn’t have any patience with her anymore now that she was too sick to make her famous double chocolate cookies. Loleen knew that the only reason she was living with her son and his family was that there wasn’t enough money to put her in nursing home – and that would have almost been better, if she didn’t know that people got stuck in nursing homes so that their families could learn to forget about them.

The day before had been a busy day. Annmarie drove the 80 mile round trip from Mt. Arliss to Silverton to take her shopping at JC Penny’s. It was an important trip. They’d gotten up early. The kids didn’t want to go and weren’t silent about their displeasure. Annmarie wasn’t all that excited about going, either, but Loleen had impressed its importance upon her and promised to pay for the kids to eat at McDonalds. Loleen didn’t like that she had to nag and bribe her family – the people who should want to take care of her. If it were Annmarie’s mother, there would have been no question; but Annmarie’s mother lived out of state. Loleen understood that it was a maudlin reason to go shopping. And while it was true that Loleen still had some nice dresses, none of them suited the purpose.

None of them was a dress she wanted to be buried in.

And since her death was, according to Dr. Sims, imminent she wanted to make sure all the details were taken care of. Mitch wouldn’t have a clue what to do and she didn’t trust Annmarie to put in the kind of care and attention to detail that it deserved. Loleen had already picked out her casket, her headstone, and had chosen the songs and even the preacher. All that remained was the dress.

Annmarie was forced to push Loleen around in the wheelchair; this didn’t bother Loleen much except that she had to keep reminding her to slow down. Deciding how she wanted to look for all eternity was a serious task. And it was a detail most people would take for granted. It was bad enough that she’d heard Annmarie talking to her son about cremation. Cremation! Like they were some aboriginal tribe on some backwards subcontinent! And who would visit her in the cemetery if all that was left of her was a pile of ashes? Annmarie would just as soon have her cremated and put the ashes in an old coffee can and bury her in the backyard next to the dog.

Loleen didn’t like the first seven dresses she looked at. Well, she’d liked the fifth one okay; but she said she didn’t like it because Annmarie was sighing and hemming and hawing like her time was being wasted. All the woman did was work at Mitch’s bar sometimes and watch Spanish soap operas. She didn’t even really take care of Loleen. If Mitch hadn’t rebuilt the downstairs bathroom so she could use it herself, she was sure Annmarie would have let her sit in her own mess until Candice arrived. And Candice was a sweet girl; but she wasn’t family.

So she made Annmarie wait through the sixth and seventh dresses – both of which were fine, she supposed. But by the time she got to the eighth dress, Loleen was getting tired, and she was getting a headache because the grandchildren refused to behave.

The dress was a deep purple dress with a gold and silver floral design; the fabric was soft. It struck Loleen as almost royal – maybe because of the purple. And while she would have never bought a purple dress before, she knew it was the perfect one.

Propped up on pillows as she was because she couldn’t lie down and sleep anymore, she took the oxygen tube off and stared at the dress hanging over the closet door. She lay there watching the dress while her lungs filled up with fluid and her breathing became more labored and her body instinctively prepared for another round of coughing. What a beautiful dress, she thought. Then she closed her eyes and tried to imagine what it would be like to be perfectly still forever, clothed in that purple dress and removed to a place far away from the sounds of her grandchildren, her son’s wife, and the pain that woke her up every morning.

10 May, 2010

The Problem With Jewelry

When Bill Watson spoke – which was entirely more often than most people thought he should have – every sentence that left his mouth carried a sense of finality. Whether he was talking about the weather or the government or the price of corn or the state of somebody’s marriage and the fates of their ill-conceived children, his tone was convincing even when his words were not.

He suffered through his retirement with all the nobility he could muster by running a semi-permanent garage sale in his front yard. When it wasn’t raining and when it wasn’t the dead of winter, he sat in his front yard behind three large tables full of stuff he dug out of his basement and his barn to sell. Late Spring and Summer and early Fall were his best times because he took advantage of the traffic of people visiting the unusually large number of antique and junktique shops in Mt. Arliss and unincorporated Arliss County. There were nearly as many of these shops as their were churches, except that the churches did a little better financially and the shops were a little more interesting to outsiders; and Bill Watson, who believed unerringly in the tenets of Democratic Capitalism as well as the divine notion that Arliss County was the true center of the universe and potentially the true location of the biblical Eden, took full advantage as best he could. He was not one to haggle on a price; but as he often remarked, when he asked $5 for a solid metal pipe wrench in workable condition, it was significantly cheaper than having to buy a new one.

Bill stayed at his tables until 3 in the afternoon during the week, and after that he could be found at his usual stool at the Moose Head, where he had been a regular since the bar opened its doors. He had first walked in the door a middle-aged man and had, like the bar and the entire town, aged to a functional decrepitude. He had weathered changes by not changing at all; and like most men who dealt with the world in this fashion, his resilience had made him a little cocky. He did not like the world and did not apologize for it – but he would be damned if that was going to make him lie down and quit.

On good days, the television in the Moose Head would be showing an old rerun, like Bonanza, Bewitched, or The Rifleman. He liked Bonanza and The Rifleman, and he thought Elizabeth Montgomery had had nice legs back the day; but that was only when Bob and Ethel were in the bar because Bob only watched reruns of old television shows he had watched when he was younger and flush and things were good. (Ethel still watched her soap operas and enjoyed Wheel of Fortune; she thought Pat Sajak was still cute and that Vanna White was still a Hollywood slut who got lucky.)

On this particular day, I was sitting next to Bill and Gary was tending bar. Gary was the only non-family member who bartended and it was generally thought that he was kept on because he couldn’t do much else besides play a mean game of pool and beat any video game out on the market. After Bob and Ethel left – earlier than usual – Gary switched the channel to VH1.

“Christ,” Bill muttered. “Why people want to WATCH music, I’ll never know. Used to be, we’d LISTEN to music.”

“It’s more than music,” Gary tried explaining. “They have their own shows now.”

“REALITY television,” he countered. “What a stupid idea. People watch TV to get away from reality, not live in it. Or…” he paused to take a sip of his Old Style Beer, “… they USED’ta.”

He looked up at the television, probably to find something else to bitch about. It didn’t take him long. “What the hell is THAT?” Bill pointed at the screen. On it, there was a former basketball player going into rehab. This presented two problems for Bill: 1) he was rich and 2) he had pierced not only both ears several times, but both nostrils and he had two loops in his bottom lip. To Bill’s credit, that the man was also black didn’t matter so much, though others would have made that more of an issue.

“It’s one of those rehab shows,” Gary answered. Gary was a large man whose very existence some claimed was proof of the existence of god because most people of his size would not still be able to walk around… though he did wheeze considerably and was heckled mercilessly about his love of pretzels and potato chips and was happily engaged in a long term relationship with a woman everyone but me had met.

“Rehab,” Bill scoffed. “Will ya LOOKIT that guy? What’s all that shit in his face?”

Gary shrugged.

“Piercings,” I said.

Bill turned and looked at me, his head bobbing up and down the way it did when he was about to make a pronouncement. “Well, ya SEE that? THAT’S what’s wrong with things.”

“What is?” Gary asked.

He turned and nodded at the television. “That’s why THINGS ARE THE WAY THEY ARE.” Bill said.

“Jewelry?” I asked.

He turned and looked at me again and we locked eyes. He stared, shook his head, and then turned his attention back to his beer.

“I’ve heard a lot of things,” I went on – probably because I’d had two scotches too many – “about why the world is screwed up. But I never considered that it might be jewelry.”

Gary chuckled a little, but checked himself when Bill glared at him. Bill refused to look at or address me and when he left, he didn’t acknowledge me either. By the time he left, I’d switched to beer; after Bill left the bar, Gary bought me a beer and switched the channel to a baseball game.

05 May, 2010

Between the Rush

Lili sat down with a cup of coffee after the last of the breakfast rush paid and left. They were regulars – an old married couple who didn’t like her. Their son had died in Vietnam and they blamed her because she was Japanese. The dishes were still on the table; but there was no hurry. No one would be in until later that afternoon or maybe even that evening. Tuesdays were slow. The only times that downtown Mt. Arliss were really busy that time of year was on Mondays, because of court day and everybody was across the street at the courthouse. She hoped that summer would pick up like it usually did; but people weren’t buying antiques the way they used to, and there was more to do further up in places like Galena or across the river Clinton where the casino was.

The noise from the kitchen meant that Nikita and Raul were cleaning down and getting ready for lunch service. They would want her to bus the table, but they wouldn’t get onto her about it for a few minutes. Lili’s feet hurt from her worn out shoes and she couldn’t shake the tired feeling from her bones. Because business was so slow, tips had been bad and she couldn’t afford a new pair of work shoes. Maybe when summer comes, she thought. Maybe it will pick up this summer.

Most of the people who came into the restaurant knew Lili because they’d been eating there since even before she started working there; even still, they couldn’t help but stare at her, and they were always surprised when she didn’t sound like an extra from a Charlie Chan movie. It didn’t matter that she’d grown up on an American military base or that she was only half-Japanese and that she happened to take more after her mother than her father. It didn’t matter that she learned English before she learned Japanese. It didn’t matter that her husband had was a local boy and that everyone had known him since before he was born. None of that mattered. People were mostly nice to her, even if they did eye her a little bit. Sometimes the old women treated her with suspicion because they were afraid that she might steal their crotchety old husbands. Lili knew they all thought all oriental girls were geishas because they’d seen it in a movie.

But they didn’t worry as much anymore. Lili was older and was probably not as pretty as she had been when her husband Arley got out of the Army and moved them back to his hometown.

At least Nikita and Raul liked her; they understood what it was like to be treated with suspicion. They were from Uzbekistan. In Mt. Arliss that was the same as being a Russian, so everyone took them for commie spies when they first arrived. But eventually, when enough people met them and heard their story and saw how they loved all things American – they even started calling their french fries Freedom Fries and still called sauerkraut Liberty Lettuce – people accepted them as more or less an equal part of the community. After Arley died, they were the only ones who would really talk to her, and they gave her the waitress job so that she could support herself.

That had been more than 15 years ago; and even though Lili had long forgotten the little bit of Japanese her mother had taught her and she dressed and talked like everybody else, she was still an outsider and she had to struggle more for her tips than young Delores, the single mom who had grown up in Mount Arliss and had been pregnant before she got out of high school. She would have to bring her son with her to work sometimes. Customers almost always tipped her better when she did.

Lili looked up when she heard the bell above the door ring. It was a youngish man – which meant he was in his mid-30’s. He was new to town. People didn’t know what to make of him because his wife worked but he didn’t. He sat down at the lunch counter and waited without saying anything to her. She smiled at him, stood up, and smoothed her dress.

“Do you need a menu?” she asked.

He shook his head and smiled. “Just a cup of coffee,” he answered. There was none of the usual wariness in his eyes. He didn’t look like someone who had a lot of money to tip. And besides, all he wanted was coffee. But she found herself relaxing just a little anyway.

She poured him a cup of coffee. “Cream and sugar?” she asked.

He shook his head again. “No thank you,” he answered.

She left him at the counter and bussed the table, which made her feet hurt. The old couple left a nickel tip for a $10 check. Most people left at least a dollar, but she knew they’d left a nickel because neither of them had a penny, which was the usual form their derision took. Nikita and Raul were talking in the back and arguing about what the dinner special was going to be. The man at the counter wasn’t watching her; he was staring into his coffee, lost in thought.

What does a man like that think about? she wondered.

He finished his cup, without saying another word and left money on the counter. Then he got up to leave. He smiled and waved at her – a nice, polite wave – before he walked out the door. She rang up his coffee. He’d left a small tip. Lili smiled and pocketed the little bit of change.