February 20, 2019No Comments

Fiction in a minute: Atmosphere

"Nanga Parbat. It's one of the tallest mountains in the world at 26,000 feet," Brooks said, his voice rising in pitch and in speed as he told me about the book on the Himalayas he was reading. "But it's the sherpas that really get me. They were so devoted, so honorable. One stayed with a fallen climber on a ridge, facing sure death, just because he would not leave the man to  die alone. He could have saved himself. Think about that! And he stayed."

Brooks slammed his hand on the kitchen table with a thwack that made my coffee shiver in its mug. "I have to show you the photo of this killer mountain," he said.

His feet hit the floor so hard I can hear the house creak. I poured the coffee down the sink drain, its dark smell now reminds of me of foreboding and turns my stomach. Cold from the tile floor shot up my legs.

Like the man in the suit waving his hand over a map on the morning news show that played silently in the other room, I was a meteorologist, not of the weather but of Brooks' moods. His mounting excitement, verging on agitation, told me a storm was brewing. When he slammed his hand on the table, I knew the funnel cloud had formed.

Now I waited for the tornado to touch down.

I let the hot water warm my hands as I washed the mug. The cat rose from her sunny perch by the back door and snaked between my legs before leaving the kitchen. Perhaps she sensed the impending storm too.

"Nancy!" His voice traveled across the wood floors and over the furniture, piercing as a tornado siren. I counted his footsteps--one, two, three, four--until he burst back into the kitchen holding what looked like one of the used clothes dryer sheets made to stop static electricity in the laundry.

"I've told you before how toxic these are! Chloroform, camphor, ethyl acetate. The EPA calls these hazardous waste and we rub them all over our clothes."

He shook with anger. The Himalayas and the deadly honor of the sherpas was forgotten in the face of the tragedy of dryer sheets.

The mug, slippery with soap, dropped out of my hand to break against the stainless steel sink. A sharp bite of pain pulsed up my arm. Blood swirled into the water. I nicked my finger on a ceramic shard.

Brooks stared at the blood, his mouth hanging open. "Do you have your tetanus shot up to date?" he asked. He looked fearful. "Do you need stitches?"

I wrapped a dishcloth around my hand and held my arms out to him. "Don't worry, Brooks," I said. "It is a small thing."

August 21, 2015No Comments

Fiction in a minute: Superstition

My wristwatch was stuck at half past two, even though the morning sun indicated otherwise. Most people would get a battery, reset the time and move on with their day. But I had old superstitions rattling around in my head, a legacy of my Nana’s myriad household warnings and omens–like if your right palm itched you were going to get money, if you got your stomach wet while you washed dishes you’d marry a drunk, or if you sang at the table you’d marry a crazy person. And if a clock stopped, someone was going to die.

“Just put a new battery in it, for crissakes,” my boyfriend Stuart said, when he caught me regarding the watch with the kind of revulsion I reserved for cockroaches and cigarette butts.

I talked him into going to the jewelry store with me. We followed the empty footpath around the lake to town. It was one of those dark November days, stark trees against a sky blanketed in grey clouds, wind whipping up dried leaves into clattering funnels. A duck swam across the rippled water, flapping its wings. I pulled the thick wool of my jacket snug across my chest, and wondered if it would rain.

“My mom called,” he said.

If Stuart wanted to pick a topic to take my mind off of Nana’s superstitions, he could not have chosen a better one. We never failed to argue about his mother. I’ve watched Stuart try to rescue her from herself since we were kids. She was the kind of person who thought the world owed her a good time, so every day was a disappointment. I supposed drinking cheap bourbon out of plastic tumblers compensated somehow, or at least made the time pass.

But in the name of harmony, I bit back the question “What kind of trouble is she in now?” and made one of those “mmm” sounds.

“She got laid off,” he said, glancing sideways at me.

She only started working again two weeks ago, I thought. Even for her that had to be record.

“She’ll get unemployment, then?”

“That’s not the point, Kelsey. I’m worried about her. She spends too much time alone in that trailer. No one comes to visit her anymore. She didn’t even get any trick or treaters at last month.”

The kids were probably scared to go there. See, Sherri’s trailer didn’t need to be decorated special for Halloween. It already had the requisite cobwebs, rickety steps and general disrepair of a haunted-looking trailer, every day of the year.

“She wants me to move back in with her.”

Enough. The words spilled out of me like sleet from the sky.

“No way. Bad idea. You love living in your own apartment. And being around her isn’t going to help you stay sober,” I said.

“She’s hit the bottom. She said so herself. And she needs my help. How can I say no to that?”

“She can do what you did and dig herself out. Pour the bourbon down the sink, go to AA meetings and get a sponsor, and do the work herself.”

Stuart’s silence went on so long I thought maybe I’d gone too far, but when I glanced at him he was studying the footpath like we were on a tight rope and he didn’t want to take one wrong step. I quieted the chatter in my head so it wouldn’t continue to come out of my mouth, and concentrated on the moment. I felt the metal watch in my long sweater’s pocket hit my upper thigh with every step. I listened to the sound of dried leaves skittering across the grass. I watched my breath form clouds in the air. After a while, I took his hand and squeezed, relieved when he squeezed back and smiled.

In the distance, a muddy black truck rounded the corner and rumbled toward us.

“She has to admit she has a problem,” Stuart said. “Until then…” He shook his head slowly, eyes still on the ground.

Ahead, the truck wove sharply onto the shoulder before jerking back between the yellow lines for another twenty feet, then lurching back to the shoulder. Sun glare on the windshield blocked my view of the driver. Stuart, oblivious, continued to stare at his shoes hitting the dirt path. Something wasn’t right, I thought. The driver was texting or drunk or maybe both.

“Stuart!” I shouted, but it only made him look at me, not at the danger ahead. And the truck had sped up. I yanked his hand, which sent him sprawling toward me and out of the truck’s path. The horn screamed at us as the driver shook his fist at us and drove by, as though we had been in his way. Then, the shrill squeal of brakes on pavement followed by a loud crash.

I was down, my head on the grass, the pain in my hip so sharp I couldn’t breathe for a moment. Stuart stood above me, stunned, and pulled me to my feet.

Stuart ran toward the wreck, and I followed behind, slowly, my hip crying out with every step. The truck had smashed head-on into a maple tree. The front end of the truck had folded onto the windshield, and a pair of thick, denim-clad legs were visible through the open driver’s side door.

When I got close enough, I saw the blood on the steering wheel and heard a terrible gurgling, but Stuart blocked me from looking at the driver’s face.

“It’s pretty bad,” was all Stuart said. I saw a beer can on its side between the brake pedal and his brown work boot. The smell of beer wafted to me over cold air.

“Could have easily been you that got hit, instead of that tree,” one of the cops who came later told us. “Kind of a cold day for a walk, ain’t it?”

We wouldn’t have been out at all except for that stupid wristwatch stopping, I thought. I pulled it out of my pocket and looked at its face, now as cracked as the truck’s windshield. I must have landed on it when I fell. And I watched as the minute hand ticked forward.

July 24, 2015No Comments

Fiction: Opportunity Knocks, Part 3

Robin slid limply down the side of the turbine until she could feel the cold tile floor through the seat of her pants. His fall played on repeat in her head. He was just a man, blood and flesh and bones like all of us, the power he held completely vanished -- dispensed into the air like humidity. She’d had entertained a few fantasies about killing him, or at least having him disappear, but now, incredulously, someone had actually taken that ultimate step. A small smile found its way to her face.

She waited as the group filed down the stairs, shoes clanging on metal. Ladonna’s knees went wobbly on the staircase, and she fell backwards against the fire chief, who grabbed her by the elbows and guided her slowly down. Harmon stood back, away from the body and seemingly out of its line of sight. Robin realized that Harmon somehow wasn’t completely confident Paul wasn’t going to sit up, point his finger at Harmon and shout “murderer!” But Robin could see Paul’s eyes were closed and his neck was at a very unnatural angle. A trickle of blood ran down his chin. He was clearly dead.

The commissioners whipped out their cell phones in near unison to call 9-1-1 while the head engineer spoke intently into his radio.

“...horrible accident...”

“...I was scared of something like that when he suggested we go up there...”

”...the catwalk was slippery. I almost lost my balance...”

The police arrived, as did paramedics and some employees who were stationed at the power plant. The police shuffled everyone into the conference room. But they didn’t seem to notice when Robin peeled off to hide the camera.

She needed to think. From the way everyone was acting, it was clear that no one saw what happened but her. The right thing to do was to tell the police what happened. Because it was a terrible accident, right? But still, something held her back. Why hadn’t Harmon said anything?

A policeman in a stiff blue uniform stood at the door to the conference room with watchful eyes and a neutral face. The head engineer slouched in his seat, head tilted and resting on the chair back. Harmon sat by himself at the far end of the u-shaped conference table.

“Cup of coffee, Commissioner?” Robin said to Harmon, holding out a steaming paper cup. Up close, he smelled metallic, a scent Robin associated with fear and sweat and adrenalin. And blood. The armpits of his suit were stamped with damp rings and he’d loosened his tie and unbuttoned the top two buttons of his broadcloth shirt.

He took the cup with a nod, and peered at her through wire-rimmed reading glasses as if seeing her for the first time.

“I’m Robin. Paul’s assistant,” she said.

He took a sip of the coffee and shuddered. “Still very hot,” he said. “I’ll let it cool down.”

He set the coffee on the conference room table and gave her a quick smile as though she was dismissed. But when she didn’t move away, he tilted his head at her and raised his wooly eyebrows.

Her head was churning ideas so fast she was afraid they would pour out of her ears. Career blogs always talked about seizing opportunities. Should she seize this one? She had come to enjoy the small powers of invisibility, but didn’t she want to have the power to make real change? And, to be honest, to taste the pleasure of being extremely visible for once? To be someone who mattered?

“Terrible accident, wasn’t it?” she finally mustered.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “I was right in front of him when it happened. If only I had turned around --  I might have been able to grab him...”

I’ve got you, old man, she thought.

Out loud, she said, “Really?”

His eyes, now cold and calculating, bored into hers, as though he could see into her soul. She held herself perfectly still, feeling her breath go in and out of her lungs, just like in yoga class.

“And where were you when this terrible accident occurred?” he said.

“You didn’t see me?” she said. She leaned on the edge of the table, but didn’t break eye contact. She wanted to see every one of his reactions.

“I’m not surprised you didn’t notice me. People tell me I just blend into the background,” she said.

His grey eyes were steady on hers, but his tongue darted out to quickly wet his lips, betraying his discomfort.

She smiled. “I’m always amazed what people do and say around me. Paul never understood that. I could have been a valuable asset to him, but he was too much of an asshole to see it.”

His eyes popped wide open at her profanity.

“Not a very kind way to speak of the newly deceased,” Harmon said, tapping the coffee cup thoughtfully. “But I understand what it is like not to be appreciated. Or maybe I should say to be to misunderstood.”

“I saw you two arguing.”

She was surprised how strong her voice sounded. It felt so good to have real power. To be in control instead of at the mercy of another. She saw it clearly now. Her invisibility was a defense mechanism. The way she coped with an impossible situation. And now, she felt she could shed it like a winter coat on an early spring day. She just didn’t need it any longer.

Harmon closed his eyes for a beat. When he opened them, she knew he wasn’t planning on confessing anything to the police.

“Perhaps there was a little spat about how a contract should be awarded. Just a little mix-up in the course of business, my dear. Barely worth mentioning.”

“Funny,” she replied with just the hint of a smile. She stood back up and planted her feet, thinking of yoga’s tree pose. She envisioned her legs growing deep roots in the ground, making her unmovable, connected to the earth.

“I was thinking it was barely worth mentioning what I saw today from the floor of the power plant. Where I was taking pictures of all the VIPs on their important tour,” she said.

She forced herself to keep her hands at her side so as not to betray her nerves under his glare.

“What a talented woman you are.”

He stood up with a grunt, taking advantage of his height by forcing her to look up instead of down at him. She could smell the coffee on his breath. He was a killer and he was trying to intimidate her. But she had leverage. She leaned into his coffee smell, close enough to see dots of white wax in his mustache.

She laughed.

“Like I said, you see a lot when you are invisible.”

Neither one moved for several beats. Harmon locked his eyes on hers as if waiting for her to back down or state what she wanted. Robin did neither. She just breathed and waited, the black silk camisole fluttering against her breastbone with each exhale.

Doors were opening for her she had never imagined. Just yesterday she was hoping Paul would grant her a merit increase on top of her cost-of-living pay raise. Now, she could take his job.

“Where’s the camera?” he said at last.

“It’s not with the police, if that is what you are asking.”

“How can I be sure it stays that way?”

This was it. The moment of truth. Robin told him she wanted Paul’s job, then waited. She reminded herself again of tree pose, the deep roots extending through the carpet, the building’s foundation, on into the soil and rocks below, but her branches reaching for the sky.

“Paul taught you well, didn’t he?” Harmon said with a curt nod.

A detective in a brown leather blazer opened the conference room door and spoke quietly to the uniformed officer.

“Can we see Robin Duffy next?” the detective said.

Robin tugged the seams of her blazer down and stepped away from Harmon and the conference table. She turned back to look at Harmon. He was staring at the tabletop like it was covered in hieroglyphics.

Two weeks later, Head Commissioner Harmon opened the regularly scheduled meeting of the commission in memory of former chief of staff Paul M. Boyce, a loyal employee of Creek City who died tragically in an accident at the city’s hydroelectric power plant. Harmon read from a bulleted list of Boyce’s accomplishments and tried to sound sincere.

“Now, for the next order of business,” he said, his hands shaking slightly as he turned the loose pages of his detailed agenda. “Appointing Paul’s successor.”

Robin sat in the first row, her knees pressed together and feet angled to the left. She smoothed her navy blue skirt across her legs and tried to project confidence and professionalism.

“As you know, I’ve taken a very personal interest in filling the chief of staff position,” Harmon said. “And on behalf of the committee, we think we have found the right person for the appointment from within the staff. Robin Duffy has worked for the city for fifteen years, most of those under the tutelage and guidance of Paul Boyce. Her job title of administrative assistant does not do her justice, for her work has gone far beyond that. In the past two months, she has demonstrated the ability and the knowledge to step into Paul’s wingtips. I can tell you firsthand that she has learned so much from her mentor.”

Harmon waited for a beat while David McNerney made the motion to appoint Robin to the position, and Ladonna Jackson made the second. Just as he’d asked them to a few days before, in exchange for chair positions on the finance and revenue committee, and handshake agreements to help move pet projects forward.

“All in favor?” Harmon said.

Twenty “ayes.”

“Any opposed?”

Silence.

Robin flashed what she hoped was a grateful smile at the commissioners. Some smiled generally in her direction, others looked at their papers or their laptops, a few checked their mobile phones. Two minutes into her new job and she was already becoming invisible again. She glanced over at Harmon, expecting the same from him. But he was sitting up straight, staring directly at her, unmasked hatred in his eyes.

Oh well, she thought. She could manage him. She’d found the dossiers Paul had prepared on each one of the commissioners. And Harmon’s was the juiciest one of all.

July 17, 20151 Comment

Fiction: Opportunity Knocks, Part 2

You can read Part 1 here.

The bus carrying the VIP entourage of commissioners was king of the parking lot, tall enough to let its passengers look down their noses at lowly cars and trucks driving alongside. It pulled up outside the power plant with a low rumble followed by a squeal of brakes. The hydraulic door sighed and a stream of community leaders disembarked, wearing somber business suits and faces to match.

The first woman to approach Robin’s check-in table was a tall black woman with a poof of blond hair. Her name was Ladonna Jackson, and she was the newest commissioner. A few seconds later, she was replaced at the check-in table by the head commissioner, Bradley Harmon, and the city’s fire chief, Tim Daniels. They were both built like aging defensive linemen, large and imposing but with sagging skin and grandfatherly smiles. Harmon, a feline-faced good ol’ boy with a grey bristle brush mustache waxed into handlebars on either side of his mouth, looked through the name badges for his own, while the other nattered on about the mayor’s latest press conference. Robin was invisible again, even though she handed Commissioner Harmon his name tag.

Paul stood by the door, working the sincere eye contact “I really care about you” thing and two-handed handshake with the finesse of a United States Senator at a voter rally. As the last commissioner got off the bus, Paul followed him into the conference room where Robin sat with a pleasant smile fixed on her face, just in case her invisibility was slipping.

Commissioner Harmon stood in the back with Paul while the others sat down in rows of chairs set up for a presentation by the head engineer of the power plant. Paul never sat for anyone’s presentation. He considered his time too valuable to spend listening to someone else.

Robin watched as Paul grabbed Commissioner Harmon’s shoulder, temporarily wrinkling the light grey wool gabardine of his suit.

Harmon turned quickly and looked over his shoulder, startled. He smiled but his eyes were wary.

Paul leaned in to say something, then used his square chin to point to the driveway where the bus sat, still running. They exchanged a few more words, then Harmon ran a palm over his bald head with a nod, the mustache concealing any frown.

Robin watched them exit the glass doors and vanish into the afternoon sunlight. She was confused by what she saw. Was Harmon was afraid of Paul? It seemed like the balance of power should swing the other way, since the chief of staff served at the pleasure of the commission. But it was not unlike Paul to find ways to punish people who got in his way, even people with more authority than him. Working for him for three years, she had been conditioned to keep problems from him and never question him in order to avoid his wrath. Who knew what Commissioner Harmon had done to Paul? Perhaps he had embarrassed Paul publicly. Or questioned a decision he made. She was embarrassed to realize that her first reaction was relief that Paul had a victim other than her in his sights. And this realization made her ashamed, so she put the episode out of her mind and went to check on the coffee.

When the head engineer finished his show-and-tell, Robin turned on the lights. People blinked and stretched and yawned. The polite ones who had put their electronic devices away in pockets or purses or briefcases for the duration pulled them back out and bowed their heads to study the small screens.

Paul rushed to the podium, sidestepping past the head engineer to stick his mouth in front of the microphone. Robin turned and saw Commissioner Harmon in the back, scrolling through email on his mobile. She was startled to see his face had gone white as marble and his hands were shaking.

“For the next part of the tour, you’ll need to wear hard hats and safety glasses,” Paul announced. “We’ve got them for you in the back. Now, I know for some of you ladies, this isn’t fashionable, so if you don’t want to mess up your hair, you can skip the tour.”

Ladonna Jackson grimaced and marched past Robin to grab the first hard hat and glasses and put them on. “Is he always such an ass?” Ladonna asked a man in shirtsleeves, who shrugged. Robin followed them through heavy doors into the hydroelectric power plant.

The vast hall felt more like a train station than a power plant. Vaulted ceilings soared seventy feet above, and the massive turbines were cased in a sea foam green metal casing that resembled nothing as much as classic Pullman train cars. The air was thick and moist, and the turbines rumbled and roared like jet engines. Sunlight glistened off the reservoir through the open bay doors and onto the shiny tile floor.

The head engineer pointed down the aisle separating two rows of the massive fifteen-feet tall turbines.  A stainless steel landing with rounded guard rails adorned the top of each turbine. With gestures and shouting, he made it clear that the group was to follow him up the stairs to a catwalk that grazed the roof line.

With a few raised eyebrows and exaggerated feints of fear, the group queued behind the head engineer to tramp up the grated metal stairs. Ladonna grabbed the handrails on either side and climbed the steps on tippy toes, taking care not to let her three-inch heels get caught in the grating.

Paul was the last to mount the stairs.

“Get pictures of this for the newsletter,” Paul shouted in Robin’s ear. She’d forgotten to take any photos at the presentation, had forgotten even that the small digital camera was in her jacket pocket. Icy white waves of anxiety pounded in her chest and she tried to quietly calm her breathing. A simple mistake, that’s all, she told herself. No one has died. I made a simple mistake.

She waited until the commissioners arrived at the catwalk and were looking down into the spinning turbines, then snapped away. She saw Commissioner Harmon pause, his eyes on Paul. Paul arrived at the landing and looked down. Robin waved to let him know she was doing what he asked, but got no response back. Invisible again, or maybe just hidden by the shadow of the turbine. Paul wouldn’t care where she was as long as she got the pictures he wanted.

She saw Paul shake his head and try to move past Harmon, who blocked him like a linebacker on the fourth down.

The head engineer led the group farther away from the pair, pointing and gesturing down toward the turbines. Everyone’s eyes were cast downward towards the huge machines, except for Paul’s and Commissioner Harmon’s. Robin zoomed the camera lens, to see if she could read their lips. All she saw was bared teeth and snarls.

And then, in one abrupt and entirely unexpected gesture, Commissioner Harmon bent at the knees, grabbed Paul by the arms, and flung him like a doll off the catwalk. Robin screamed, and so did Paul, but no one could hear it over the noise of the turbines. Robin somehow managed to press the camera button at the apex moment, capturing a perfect mid-air picture of Paul, arms and legs flapping like wings. On the catwalk, Commissioner Harmon’s gaping mouth was a black hole under his bristle brush mustache.

Paul tumbled sixty feet to land, rear first, onto the pointy top of the turbine case. His body crumpled then lay still.

July 10, 20151 Comment

Fiction: Opportunity Knocks, Part 1

The first time it happened she was at the laundromat. Then there was another occasion, a few weeks later, while pushing her cart at the supermarket. Initially it was terrifying, but now it happened nearly every day and Robin was starting to like it. It was certainly more gratifying than the long stints of yoga and meditation she’d been trying in order to replace resentment and powerlessness with peace and acceptance.

Yes, she did feel just the tiniest bit lonely, but loneliness was a tolerable price to pay for this seductive new power. The things she learned! Just today, she’d discovered that Alesha and her husband hadn’t had sex in three months. And that Missy was pretending not to know how to use a spreadsheet program to avoid doing work.

Knowledge was power. And power was something Robin definitely lacked in her dead-end cubicle job at Creek City. She’d tried to accept it, writing out little gratitude lists every morning to try to keep her attitude positive. I am healthy. I have a wonderful son who loves me. I have a job when so many people do not. But knowing people’s secrets turned out to be far more motivating. Her secret knowledge made her feel strong, like a hammer cracking through people’s outer shells, revealing their messy, gooey insides. So she quickly learned not to mind that she’d had to become invisible to get it.

Even Robin’s young boss Paul Boyce, Creek City’s chief of staff, wasn’t immune to the power of her invisibility. She heard his footsteps, quick and agitated, on the hallway tile before he poked his head in the conference room where she had been waiting for him for half an hour.

“I almost didn’t see you. What are you doing just sitting here?” Paul was short and plump, with tiny hands and a high-pitched voice that reminded Robin of her son when he was a toddler, always on the verge of a temper tantrum if he didn’t get his way. Her son grew out of it, but Paul was committed for life.

“You said to meet you down here at one,” Robin said. She tried not to let her impatience leak out. His favorite power play was to make people wait.

His little legs covered the twenty feet of thin office carpet in surprisingly long strides. He started rifling through the box of laminated name tags. With trembling hands Robin fumbled for the smooth black jade pendant hanging around her neck, trying to tap into the calming powers promised by the saleswoman at the Goddess Rock Shop. Try as she might, she could only partially believe in the stone’s mystic powers. If Paul were to ask about whether the stone had any meaning (which he never would) she would deny it and say she simply liked the way it looked.

“Robin, am I going to find typos again?”

The sound of her name hit her ears like the heavy clang of a bell. She could feel his anger rising like a fiery morning sun, even though he hadn’t actually found a typo yet. He was looking for an excuse to erupt.

“I checked them twice,” Robin said.

She tried to swallow but her mouth was too dry. After days of enjoying her invisibility, she felt practically naked to be the focus of so much of someone’s attention. Especially the critical kind.

If he found a mistake in the name tags, he’d start yelling and then follow her back to her desk where he would stand over her shoulder watching her try to correct the names with shaking hands. Please don’t find an error, she thought.

He pulled out a random sample for inspection, his green eyes ping-ponging over the names and titles. Robin held her breath. Paul had every name of every commissioner memorized. He was the kind of man who was uptight about the small details but often let the really big things slide.

“Looks OK,” he said, and flung them on the table in a messy heap. Robin’s hands crabbed over the table, gathering them up for re-alphabetization. He turned his back to her.

Her shoulders softened and she took a deep breath to release the tension, like the yoga instructor told her. She was invisible once again.

You can read Part 2 here.

June 2, 20151 Comment

Fiction in a Minute: Dude, Part 5

Editor's note: you can read Part 4 here.

He knew as he walked to the waiting room with Melly that he couldn’t leave. He texted Ray that he was tied up, then slumped into a chair like a man knocked down by a haymaker punch he never saw coming.

His mind played back Linus’s request like an audio loop. The image of a baby formed before his eyes against the blank waiting room wall, its innocence and potential as pure as sunlight. His genes, and those of his father and mother (now gone), living on through this sparkling baby. And what an offer -- to procreate without responsibility, a donor of life who gives and then departs, his duty done in minutes rather than over decades.

And of course there was the karmic payback, the chance to give life where once he had taken it. Now in his mind’s movie theatre he saw himself in another waiting room, his girlfriend Kimmie’s red eyes and smeared mascara, the signs on the wall about sexually-transmitted diseases and something called the morning after pill that he had never known existed.

Someone said “father” and he looked up to see Melly staring at him, holding a pot of thick black coffee in one hand and a styrofoam cup in another.

“What did you say?”

“Coffee. I asked if you wanted coffee,” she said.

Neil shook his head, and watched her turn from him, her hands moving over packets of sugar and artificial sweetener and dried creamer.

“You and Linus have been looking into the artificial insemination thing for a while?” he said.

She turned to him, her face wrinkling in confusion, teeth chewing her bottom lip. “We can’t afford that kind of thing,” she said, and he understood with great clarity that he was expected to have sex with her. He found himself appraising her with different eyes, noticing the way her button-down shirt gaped slightly between her breasts, and the soft roundness of her rear end.

After a time, sitting in silence next to Melly, the thought occurred to him: What if Linus died on the operating table? Did he mean for Neil to take Melly as his wife? Panic stirred in him, and he sat up straight in the chair, his legs ready to run. He willfully slowed his breathing. Certainly that wasn’t Linus’s expectation. He just wanted to come clean with Neil about his reasons for dragging him to the Green Man bar. A deathbed declaration of truth was all it was.

His mind took on the prayerful mantra, “let him be okay, let him be okay,” and Neil realized this was the closest he had come to praying since his mother’s death. But because he didn’t believe in God, he threw the words out into the universe like pennies into a wishing well, rather than addressing them to some supreme being with the power to grant him this request.

Melly turned on the television, standing on her tiptoes to reach the buttons that changed the channels. A remote control was nowhere to be found. She settled on a cooking show, and they both stared at the female chef at her stove, talking directly into the camera. And so the hours passed.

The surgeon strode in on lime-green running shoes, his head covered in a blue bandanna that matched his eyes.

“Mrs. Deguerra?” he said, and Melly glanced at Neil shyly before taking the more expedient choice of letting him identify her this way, instead of going through the “we’re not married” speech.

“The surgery went well. The bullet missed his heart by an inch. It sliced through his shoulder and went out the other side, so we had nothing to remove. We’ll know later if he’s lost any motor function or has nerve damage; in which case he may need more surgery. But he’s recovering nicely.”

Melly seemed to melt with relief, and Neil felt a weight lifted. No need to worry about interpreting Linus’s intent in making his odd request and wondering if it included becoming Melly’s guardian, protector and baby daddy.

After another cooking show had begun and ended, Neil heard the soft squeak of sneakers on the tile floor. A nurse in pink scrubs holding a clipboard motioned for them both to follow her. Neil followed the two women, feeling tethered to Melly and unwilling to let her out of his sight until he had delivered her back safely to Linus.

They came to brightly lit single room, where Linus lay looking out the dark window.
Neil heard Melly gasp back a sob, then watched her as she flung her brown purse on the ground and slid into the chair next to the bed. Linus turned to her and they pressed their heads together, hands clasping. She kissed him several times, her lips making soft smacks on his skin. Linus winced in pain but still smiled. Their love electrified the air, and Neil felt the tiny hairs on the back of his arms and neck begin to stand up in response. Here was certain love.

“I’ll do it,” he blurted out, and they both turned their eyes to him, first in surprise, then joy.

April 25, 20152 Comments

Fiction in a Minute: Dude, Part 4

Editor's note: you can read Part 3 here.

The smell of diesel fuel and exhaust hit Neil’s nose, then gave way to the disinfectant and alcohol smell of the emergency room.

Last time Neil was in an emergency room, his mother was still alive, a cut on her head needing stitches on Christmas Day. They weren’t at this particular emergency room, but something about these waiting rooms made them all the same. Slow, tense places serving as holding pens for the big show behind closed doors.  About thirty people sat in clusters of two and three, in straight-backed chairs designed with cheapness not aesthetics in mind. Fear and worry thickened the air.

Melly picked up the handset of an old-fashioned push button phone, the kind of phone his parents had before the ubiquitousness of “cordless” technology. She kept her back to him while she spoke, and he saw her nodding her head.

“They said we should go to the fifth floor waiting area,” she said to him.

Unmarked doors, name badges, long white corridors, the shell-shocked faces of other families, a man with a face like a mouse slowly mopping the floor. A nurse in pink scrubs met them at the elevator.

“You’re here for Mr. Deguerra?” she asked in a matter-of-fact way, clipboard at her side.

“Yes,” Melly said. Neil waited to be asked if he was family, but apparently this nurse wasn’t going to bother.

“He’s in pre-op,” she said. “Why don’t you go in for a few minutes?”

Pre-op sounded to Neil like serious family time. He couldn’t imagine Linus would want him in there -- what if he had important, deathbed kind of things to say to Melly? Surely this would be where they parted ways.

Melly smoothed her hand over her hair and he felt her hand clamp his forearm and squeeze gently. The nurse marched ahead of them down the hall without looking back.

“Please come,” Melly said. “I don’t think I can do this alone.”

The pre-op room was the size of a small theater, divided into twelve compartments by drapes hanging from ceiling tracks. They walked down the well-lit aisle, dark eyes following them from the occupied beds.

Linus laid in the furthest bed, his head propped up and his eyes dull with pain. His hospital gown drooped, exposing his right shoulder, making him seem small and old.

“You came,” he said, his lips lifting into the beginnings of a smile. “Perfect.”

Melly crooked her hand around his, her knuckles pressing into the white sheet. Tears spilt onto his arm.

“No, no,” he said. “No crying, for everything is going to be all right, Melly.”

“You saved my life again,” she said, a sob shuddering through her thin frame.

“You don’t know that,” Linus said. He blinked and refocused, this time on Neil. “Maybe this dude here saved both our lives.”

I didn’t save anyone’s life, Neil thought. If anything, me and Linus surprised the robber and that made him shoot. If we hadn’t walked in, maybe it would have never got violent. Maybe the man would have taken the money and left Melly, shaken but unhurtWho could say whether our appearance was a good thing or a bad thing? It just was.

“It was nothing, man. Now you’ve got to relax and let the doctors do their work,” Neil said.

“But I need to tell you why I brought you there,” Linus said.

“You wanted me to play for Melly,” Neil said.

“This is going to sound weird,” Linus said. “Because, to be honest, I’ve forgotten your name--”

“Neil.”

“Okay, Neil. Well, it’s still going to sound weird, but listen, if I don’t make it out of here, I need you to know this.”

“You’re going to make it out of here,” Melly said.

Neil chimed in. “Definitely.”

“I want you to get Melly pregnant,” Linus said.

“Linus!” Melly dropped his hand and covered her mouth. “Not now.”

Neil had no words to respond. “Err, um...”

“Look, I wasn’t going to spring this on you like this. We were going to warm you up to it. Get to know you. We wanted a musician, and you’re good-looking and you got talent. That’s the truth of it.”

“You’re freaking him out,” Melly said to Linus before turning to Neil.

Her blue eyes pleaded for his understanding. “I didn’t know he was going to do this,” she said. “That’s not why I asked you to come.”

“No, it’s perfect, though, babe, don’t you see that?” Linus said. “He feels the connection. He’s a good man, see?”

Neil shifted his weight and slipped his hand into his pocket. The cool plastic of his phone reminded him of Ray and his invitation, and he wished he were there now blasting a joint, strumming his guitar.

“I don’t have a job,” he said. A stupid thing to say, but all he could think of. Me a father? I can barely make my half of the rent most months.

“We’d take care of the baby,” Linus said. “We just need your sperm. My equipment doesn’t work.”

The nurse in pink scrubs appeared. “We’re going to take you in now, Mr. Deguerra.” She grabbed a handful of the white and blue curtain and yanked it open.

“Think about it,” he said.

“Yeah,” Neil said, thinking that he was sure he’d do little else. What an awkward, unexpected proposal -- a man potentially on his deathbed asking for him to get his wife, girlfriend, whatever, pregnant.

“I love you,” Melly said, holding Linus’s hand again and walking alongside the gurney.

Editor's note: you can read Part 5 here.

April 24, 20152 Comments

Fiction in a Minute: Dude, Part 3

Editor's note: You can read part 2 here.

Still in shock, Neil found himself walking ten blocks back to his car, a dark green Toyota mini-pickup, not sure how it had come to be that he would to take Melly to the hospital. There’d been some confusion after Linus was shot, during which the ambulance left without her, sirens screaming.  And she’d stood there, in the middle of the bar, arms folded over her chest and her face puffy and wet from crying. “I’m too upset to drive,” she said. It also turned out that she and Linus didn’t have a car.

The sun was too bright, and the others on the sidewalk were too cheerful. The saline, fishy smell of the ocean bit at his nose. A paperback mystery novel he had once enjoyed sprang to his mind, its dark comedy of murder and death set in the sleepy beauty of the Florida Keys striking him as horrible now that he had witnessed in person a violent crime. There really was nothing funny about being shot.

His T-shirt was as damp as if he had ran two miles, and the cool sea breeze made him shiver. The sound of laughter pealed out of a juice and smoothie cafe. His phone buzzed in his pocket, and irrationally he thought it was Melly or Linus, calling to see where he was, before realizing that of course neither had his mobile number.

The text on his phone was from his friend Ray. “Want to come over and jam?”

Neil thought about the last jam session he’d gone to at Ray’s; a kickback, marijuana-infused afternoon playing riffs and listening to Ray’s girlfriend come up with crazy lyrics to their impromptu songs. It sounded like the best possible antidote to the events of the day; the gunshot could become a story with edges dulled by distance and pot.

He put the phone on the seat without responding and five minutes later, he was parked in front of the Green Man bar. The urge to put the truck back in drive and keep going was strong. Why get involved in these peoples’ lives? They didn’t even know his last name. Surely they would not be surprised if he never showed up again, an afternoon ghost with a guitar on a day of tragic events.

But then Melly stepped onto the cracked sidewalk, her hand shading her eyes from the glare, and a green purse strapped around her body. She looked fragile and small, like a doll, standing there, so Neil tapped the horn -- one beep -- and with the faintest of smiles she walked toward him.

“I guess I could’ve taken the bus,” she said, settling into the truck’s bench seat as he slid the phone back in his jeans pocket. “Thanks for coming to get me.”

Neil saw she’d pulled her blonde and grey hair into a thin ponytail, revealing a sharp jawbone and hollow cheeks. Good-looking, for an older woman.

“No worries,” he said. But she’d already turned her head to look out of the window while he drove, her long fingers knitted together and resting on her lap.

They drove in silence for a long time, down Washington Boulevard to Lincoln, stopping and going and stopping in the usual beach area traffic.

“Linus owns the Green Man,” she said, out of the blue. “He likes to tell people I do, but it’s not true.”

“Are you two married?” Neil didn’t know what else to ask her, and even this venture seemed intrusive, odd. The kind of question that served only to highlight how little he knew about both of them.  He was a stranger thrust upon them in a tragedy.

She just shook her head. “Lived together a long time,” she said.

“Common law marriage, then,” he said, not sure why he was pressing her on this. She shrugged and kept looking out the window.

Neil drove through the enormous intersection of Lincoln Boulevard and the Marina Freeway, the white buildings of Daniel Freeman Hospital shining like a beacon against a bright blue sky. A day for taking pictures. He pulled into the driveway, following a sign that said emergency services drop-off. I’ll drop her off then head over to Ray’s. Duty done.

She closed her eyes and sat still as a mannequin. Neil held his breath, worried she would never get out. He realized that it would not be so simple for him as to be able to drop her off at the emergency room and then go about his life, chalking the whole experience up to a weird life lesson about not going off with strangers. He resigned himself to taking care of this woman, who had just witnessed her lover's shooting, and been at gunpoint herself. Let’s not be such a selfish bastard today, he thought.

“He’s saved my life five times,” she said, trembling slightly and Neil saw the tears brimming over her lashes and spilling on to her cheeks.

“Why don’t I park the truck and we’ll go in together?” he said.

She nodded and opened her eyes so he could see the gratitude outshining sadness briefly in their blue depths.

Editor's note: You can read part 4 here

April 17, 20152 Comments

Fiction in a minute: Dude, Part 2

[Editor's note: you can read part 1 here.]

Feeling some trepidation at following a stranger to an unknown location, Neil trailed behind Linus, his guitar case banging against his thigh. The other man carried Neil's mini-amp in one hand, the extension cord draped around his neck like a thin, black snake.  They crossed the street and headed north on Main. They walked for blocks in silence, until gluten-free pie bakeries and forty-dollar T-shirt stores gave way to liquor stores and apartment buildings begging for fresh paint.

Neil cleared his throat. “So, are we almost there yet?”

“Almost there,” Linus said without turning to face him.

“Longer walk than I expected,” Neil said, and when Linus didn’t respond to that, Neil felt a prickling along the back of his neck. What made him go off and start following this strange du-u-ude to a secret spot? He considered peeling off, claiming he had some pressing appointment he forgot about, but he didn’t want Linus to think he was some kind of pussy afraid of walking a few blocks. If it came to it, Neil could throw a punch.

At the next intersection, Linus turned right and ahead of them was a white stucco building, bars on its curtained windows. Someone had painted “Green Man” in shaky, uneven lettering above the open door.

It took a few moments for Neil’s eyes to adjust to the quiet darkness inside the bar. He first saw a jukebox on the far wall opposite the door, with red, green and yellow lights flashing. A thick man in dark clothes stood in profile to them, his left hand twitching at his side. Facing him was a tall blonde woman, who was pulling money out of the cash register with shaking hands.

“Melly,” Linus said. “You gotta hear this guy play.”

The man pivoted to the door. Neil didn’t see a gun, but he saw the flash of an explosion coming from the man’s right hand. The sound was deafening. He dropped the guitar case and then dove for the floor just as Linus was thrown backwards and on top of him.

“LINUS!” the woman shouted.

“The money!” the man said, his eyes darting from Linus and Neil to the door.

Neil’s throat closed over the coppery taste in his mouth. He saw dollar bills flutter to the floor like leaves, then scooped up by the man with shaking hands. Neil waited for the sound of the gun, but all he heard was heavy footsteps headed out the door.

He wiggled out from underneath Linus’s legs. Blood soaked the left shoulder of Linus’ shirt. Neil looked at the woman, who still stood frozen behind the bar, her hand clapped over her mouth.

“Call 911,” he said. “Now.”

She picked up the phone and he turned back to Linus, who was staring at the ceiling.

“Dude, we’re getting you some help,” Neil said. “You’re going to be all right.”

“Is that Melly?” Linus asked. The woman sobbed street names and numbers into the phone.

“She’s okay,” Neil said. “Just shaken up.”

“I wanted to bring you here for a reason,” Linus said.

“Yeah, my songs,” Neil said.

“More---” Linus said, then a coughing fit pulled his shoulders off of the floor. The bloodstain on his shirt spread to his chest. In the distance, Neil heard the sirens.

“Don’t---“ Linus said in between coughs.

“Lay back,” Neil said. “They’ll be here soon. Try to rest. You’ll be fine.”

“But---“

The sirens grew louder and louder until he heard the crunch of tires on gravel and doors opening and shutting outside. Two of LAPD’s finest came through the door with guns in hand, scanning the room before one kneeled next to Linus.

“Gunshot wound to the shoulder,” he said into his radio microphone. “Everyone else okay?”

Neil nodded, as did Melly.

“You shouldn’t---“

“Are you trying to tell me something about the shooter?” the police officer asked.

Linus shook his head, then slumped back on the floor, his eyes shutting. Neil watched his chest, relieved to see he was still breathing. Whatever he had to say to Neil, he’d have to do it when he was in better shape.

Editor's note: You can read part 3 here.

March 13, 20151 Comment

Fiction in a minute: Dude, Part 1

Neil crunched through the chords of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” on the corner of Hill Street and Main in Santa Monica, the mini-amplifier stealing power from the corporate coffee seller without gaining the attention of its many baristas. If the caffeine junkies sitting outside noticed the theft of electricity, they didn’t care. Nor did they care about Neil’s guitar playing. Two pairs of women talked non-stop, while the singles at the other tables stared into the abyss of whatever electronic device they brought with them.

A green striped polo shirt blocked Neil’s line of vision to the cars obeying the corner’s stop sign.

“All right, du-u-ude!” The man clapped his hands and whistled a long shrill note. A few coffee drinkers glanced up to see what the fuss was about, but no one else clapped.

“Come on, peeps! Give it up for this du-u-ude!”

Neil noticed the man had a way of drawing the word dude out as though it had three syllables, like a caricature of a laid-back beach bum in the eighties. He squinted into the sun and craned his neck to get a good luck at Dude’s face.

He was older than Neil expected, though maybe the old school “du-u-ude” should have been a clue. Deeply tanned skin hung in creases from his bony face, and a hot pink circle on his nose suggested a recent skin cancer intervention.

He extended his hand then curved long fingers around Neil’s outstretched palm in a loose, but not limp, shake.

“Linus,” he said, his left fist banging on his chest.

Neil introduced himself and thanked him for the applause in a low voice. The attention, though welcome, was a little embarrassing.

“Du-u-ude, you are awesome. You should be playing the Civic Center, not the street corner.”

“Yeah,” Neil said. “Tell my agent.”

Like he had an agent.

“You got any of your own songs?”

“Sure, but no one wants to hear those.”

“I do.” And with that, Linus folded like a penknife onto the low brick wall surrounding the coffee shop patio, drawing his knees up to his chin and bringing his worn flip-flops encasing surprisingly well-manicured toenails into view.

Why not? Neil thought. He pulled the amplifier cord out of the guitar and strummed a little.

“I’ve got this song I’ve been working on lately,” he said. “I don’t have a name for it yet, and only an idea for the chorus lyrics.”

“Lay it on me.”

Neil played the song, humming where he didn’t have the lyrics worked out. Linus was an attentive audience of one, his eyes trained on Neil’s fingers pressing and flicking over the guitar strings, a smile playing on his face throughout.

“That was epic, du-u-ude,” he said, rising from the brick wall to give his standing ovation. Neil couldn’t stop smiling.

“Come with me,” Linus said. “I want you to meet some people over at this pub. They’ll let you play there. Maybe even pay you.”

Neil glanced at the guitar case with its few crumpled dollar bills and loose change. He’d put half of the money in there himself, just to make it look like people were donating. The corner wasn’t working out so well, he thought. What did he have to lose?

Editor's note: You can read part 2 here.