Short Stories 

 

 

 

Sunday
May182014

Short Stories by Jessica Barksdale, Bruce Colbert, Anna Maria Mickiewicz, Travis Laurence Naught, and James Weiss

 

 

                                             Turnip

By Jessica Barksdale

 

            “Fan-tastic,” Araceli said. “Like total duh!”

            “What’s duh?” Esme asked, not looking up from her literature textbook. It was Esme’s night off from her job at the convalescent home, and she and her best friend were studying on her queen-sized bed, the door closed, her parents caught in a fishbowl of stupid television and post dinner coma. Esme’s room was warm, the small window cracked an inch, the walls a sunrise yellow. Both of them were sunken in the down comforter, surrounded by Esme's pillows and stuffed animals, Araceli half hidden by Panda’s large, wobbly, ancient head.

            But even with her eyes on the small, tight textbook print, Esme could see her friend’s long dark hair, her big brown eyes etched in eyeliner, the lids streaked with a slash of aqua. Without breathing, Esme could smell the sweet crackle of Araceli’s jellybean bubble gum. Since they met a year ago in a psychology class their first semester at Contra Loma Community College, they’d been hanging out on nights they didn’t work. Or have dates, which wasn’t that often lately, or ever, really, especially for Esme.

            Every so often, Araceli would text: Biz-eee tonight!

            On those nights, Esme would study for a bit and then slip into the family room and sit in between her parents and watch Real Housewives or Dancing with the Stars.

            Araceli jostled herself into position, leaning on her elbows, her body stretched out behind her as she clicked on her laptop. She was supposed to be studying for a pre-calculus test, but she hadn’t cracked her book. Esme wasn’t sure how Araceli would ever transfer to a four-year college.

            “This is great. Listen. So would you like ever answer an email from someone named Margaret Fink?”

            “Who’s Margaret Fink?”

            “No one,” Araceli said. “That’s the point. Total spam. Margaret writes to like tell me they received a message for me. Just me! Can you believe that? And it’s so important I should click here!”

            Araceli raised her finger and pretended to click on her keyboard. “And of course the link goes to some web site where I’d just have to buy whatever it was. Margaret Fink. What a name. As if.”

            “You think that’s weird. There’s a guy in my English class named Marc Turnipseed.”

            Esme hasn’t told anyone else about this, savoring the guy’s name, loving each time their instructor Ms. Jensen read through the roster, calling out, “Marc Turnipseed?” the teacher’s face just barely not smiling. Now that the semester was three weeks old, Esme feared the coming class when Ms. Jensen stopped calling roll, finally knowing able to recognize who they were.

            “Seriously?” Araceli said. “Isn’t that like a bad joke or something?”

            Esme wasn’t sure about turnip seeds, but she didn’t know much about vegetables in general. Or roots. Or whatever. She had a feeling that roots didn’t need seeds, but she could be wrong about that. Her mother Marta made carrots and potatoes and lumpy squashes for dinner, but they were always covered in a rich, spicy sauce and cooked to mush. Sometimes, Marta shook her head and said, “Beans are a vegetable, too,” though Esme knew this wasn’t true.

            Legumes, she thought, feeling a bowl of unwashed pinto beans under her fingertips.

            “There was a guy named Bing Bing Bong in one of my classes for about a minute. At least until he got kicked out into a lower math class. The teacher was all, ‘Bong, Bing Bing.’ Everyone laughed like crazy.”

            Araceli laughed at the remembered laughter, spun onto her back, pulling her laptop with her. Outside Esme’s room in the house, someone flushed a toilet. Outside in the world outside the house, someone started a car.

            “He’s cute,” Esme said, feeling the heat in her throat as she said the words.

            “Who?”

            “Marc Turnipseed.”

            “Doesn’t look like a turnip?”

            Esme shook her head. No, Marc Turnipseed didn’t look like a turnip or what Esme thought a turnip looked like—round and white and dirty with a beardy tail and maybe a green stalk?  Was it sort of purple too?  Or was that the other one, the thing that started with an R. Not radish. Rutabaga. Anyway, no. Marc was medium height, blonde haired, blue eyes, strong hands. Hands that could catch things. Footballs, baseballs, babies. Nicely cut fingernails. She knew this because she often sat across from him and stared at his hands as he wrote to Ms. Jensen’s writing prompts.

            “So?” Araceli said.

            “He’s not round and white,” Esme said, and Araceli laughed again.

            “Thanks to god, as your mom would say. If he were some nasty, non-Catholic white guy, you’re mom would be after him with her comal. Running faster than life. Pow, cast iron to the head.”

            Esme flushed. So far, her mother hadn’t had to kill anyone with her comal, the pan she used only for heating tortillas on the range. And if things kept going this way, her mother would be too old and weak to pick up the pan by the time Esme ever found a guy. By then Mrs. Marta Hernandez would be witch-like, shrunken, blind and deaf. And the guy could be from Russia or Sweden or some other forgotten, frozen white place and no one would ever know.

            But that wasn’t going to be true for Araceli, who was destined for someone. Esme, however, was short and round and dark (what vegetable was she? A beet? She probably wasn’t even a vegetable; her cousin Ricky once called her a “rectangle with hair”) Esme couldn’t even fill out her own real name, Esmeralda, regal and royal and flush and darkly green.

            The total opposite of Esme, Araceli was tall, tiny in the right tiny places, full in the right full places. Her hair was smooth, her light brown eyes wide. Her finger and toenails were perfectly shaped and painted pink. Her knees were smooth, her skin tone even, her eyebrows perfectly shaped. And she had boobs, too, that overflowed her tight

t-shirts that hugged her from chest to waist. When she and Esme walked through the quad on their way to the cafeteria, guys always watched Araceli. As she and Araceli scurried toward the double doors, Esme felt like one of those police shields, the hard, truly rectangle shaped ones that deflected protestor’s rocks.

            It was only a matter of time before some guy in some class asked Araceli out and the date lasted forever or some guy came into her job at Forever 21 to buy some skimpy shirt present for his supposed girlfriend and swooped up Araceli. Then Esme would be here on the bed, alone, again as usual.

            “So what are you going to do?” Araceli asked.

            “About what?” Esme asked, looking up at Araceli who radiated something dark and sparkly pink.

            “You know! Marc Turnipseed?”

            Esme shrugged, flushed, shivered in her shins.

            “God,” Araceli said. “Just talk to him.”

            “Just like that? Just start talking? I mean, go up…” Esme started.

            But Araceli was laughing, her laptop listing on her lap. “Oh, my god. I have a spam for size triple D breast enhancement! With no surgery!”

            Trapped in the bubble of Araceli’s laughter, Esme looked down, holding tight to Marc. Just walk up, she thought. Just talk.

            “Come on, It’s hilarious,” Araceli said, shifting, her own ample chest plump and ripe.     Esme shrugged, the bubble and Marc disappearing. “Once I got a spam called ‘Penis Growth Sample.”

            “Gross,” Araceli said, sitting up and leaning against the wall, straightening her shirt. “What is a penis growth sample?”

            “I have no clue,” Esme said, not knowing one thing about penises, at least beyond biology textbooks and her cousins’ chatter and bragging and some bad movies, quick flashes of dangling dicks. There was her high school junior prom date Bobby Lento and his hard on as he pressed up against her while they danced, but it turned out he was so drunk, she had to drive them both home. No one had asked her to Senior Ball, and that night, she’d sat with her parents, as usual, on the couch, trying not to imagine her classmates’ activities:  6 pm limo. 7 pm dinner. 8 pm dancing, drinking, laughing. 12 am limo. 1 am everywhere but home and probably penises for everyone.

            She’d hoped college would be different, a whole new crowd, guys from all over the state, none who knew her yet. Esme imagined that she’d find a studious, kind, sort-of hot guy who liked to read. But since junior year and sweaty Bobby, a whole spell of nothing. The idea of going from where she was now to “penis growth” seemed impossible, a distance she couldn’t cross, not even with a shield. Life would be so much easier if she didn’t have to move at all.

            She sat up crossed legged and leaned against the wall next to her friend. “And I don’t want to know anything about it.”

            Araceli shrugged, clicked through her email. Esme shimmered and tried to study.

 

 

            “Marc?” Ms. Jensen asked, looking immediately to Marc, not even bothering to say his last name. It was over now, Esme thought. Ms. Jensen will never say Turnipseed again. Soon, she won’t even say Marc. There would be no excuse for Esme to even look at him, except if Ms. Jensen put them into groups, which she had only done once so far.

            Ms. Jensen finished reading the roster and put down her roll book. As with every first couple weeks of a semester, the class was full, the air conditioner trying to chill the small stuffy room. Esme could smell things she didn’t want to, body heat and hair gel and the fake floral scents of dryer sheets. They were all sitting way too close to each other, and she could almost feel the rough newness of the jeans the boy in front of her was wearing.

            As Ms. Jensen opened her textbook, she wondered what Marc Turnipseed smelled like. Maybe grass and earth and spring rain. She vowed to look at the turnips when she went to the market with her mother this weekend.

            Ms. Jensen went on and on about plot, something that Esme remembered from senior English. Up on the board went a triangle and then conflict and crisis, the triangle tipping into resolution and then nothing. Esme scratched the known shape onto her notepad. Unlike this triangle, Esme knew she lived in narrative, the dreaded thing Ms. Jensen said no true story was.

            “Life is a narrative,” she said last class. “A story is something better.”

            Wake up, shower, drive to school, sit in hot rooms with people she’d never know, go find Araceli after class, go to her job at the nursing home, go home, study, watch television with her parents.

            Esme was no hero, never bolting through thresholds or overcoming dark nights of the soul. Where was her conflict? Where was her crisis? Where was her elixir, the magic potion Ms. Jensen talked about? All her life there’d only been beginning and resolution, both of which ended in bed, and bed that included nothing but her stuffed animals and sleeping. All the way from this community college classroom, she could hear her father’s snores from down the hall.

            Her life was one long narrative after another.

            “What if, like, the hero doesn’t want to go on the journey?” someone had asked last class.

            “No story,” Ms. Jensen said. “The erstwhile hero has to start all over again.”

            “Or do nothing,” another student said.

            “Or give up,” someone else said, and the class laughed, but to Esme, it wasn’t funny.     

            “Okay, people,” Ms. Jensen said now. “Get into groups of four. Try to find people you didn’t work with last class.”

            Last class, Esme worked with the tall lanky boy with scarecrow arms and long hair, the girl with hair dyed grayish purple, the boy named Nin Nguyen—he said it Nin When—and Taylor, the blond girl who looked the way Esme had always imagined for herself. If Esme was a rectangle with hair, Taylor was a shimmering hour glass with smooth, tanned arms and legs, a gold necklace that glittered at her throat, and a plain, boring, beautiful face. She smelled like the beach on a perfect day.

            Esme pulled herself out of her desk and looked around, trying not to find Marc Turnipseed but finding him anyway. He sat with no one she worked with last week, and as if Araceli possessed her, Esme walked over to the group and sat down in a desk, dropping her notepad as she did. As she bent down to pick it up, she saw Marc wore Converse high-tops, the soles worn to almost flapping.

            “Okay, people!” Ms. Jensen was almost yelling. “I want you to plot out a story that all your group knows. It could be a story from the book or from a movie or TV show. All of you do it together but make sure each of you have your own triangle. Don’t forget to chart the developing conflict.”

            Esme remembered to breathe, trying not to look at Marc. So she turned to the girl next to her.

            “Hi, I’m Esme,” Esme said.

            The girl nodded. “Kaitlyn.”

            Kaitlyn was slim and pale, her dark hair long and straight, her face small like an elf’s. Her brown eyes were so deeply brown, Esme couldn’t see her pupils.

            “I’m Marc,” Marc said, turning to the African-American kid who sat low in his chair.

            “Anthony,” he said. “You’re that turnip dude.”

            Marc nodded, and Anthony shrugged a little, slipping lower in his chair, sliding on his over-sized, baggy pants.

            “So what’s with this chart?” Anthony asked.

            Esme wasn’t sure her heart was beating or her lungs pulling in air, but when she thought this, she blushed, so she knew she was alive. But barely. Always, she’d been barely alive, just sort of there, a rectangle with hair. She hated her cousin for saying those words because she knew they were true.

            “It’s about finding the story arc,” Marc was saying. “Just think of your favorite show.”

            “I don’t watch much TV,” Kaitlyn said. “What about a movie?”

            All Esme had was TV, really. The housewives and the dancers, the tension of plot about who hated who and who would win the dancing contest.

            “300,” said Anthony. “Scarface.”

            Kaitlyn rolled her eyes. “What if I’d said something like The Devil Wears Prada?”

            They all were silent, Esme casting about in her mind for a movie that the four of them—different sexes, different cultures, different basic tribes—would know. But the only movies that came to mind were the ones her mother let her watch over and over again when she was little:  Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid.

            “What about Titanic?” Marc said. “Everyone’s seen that.”

            Yes, thought Esme.

            They all nodded. Marc pulled out a piece of paper and a pen and looked up. She stared at a mole over his smooth left eyebrow, the way his hair lifted over his forehead, curled around his ear.

            “So the development is all that research stuff, the old lady on the ship who turns out to be Kate Winslet. Her flashback to her former life, the rich girl on the rich part of the ship. Then there’s Leonardo—“

            “Jack,” Esme blurted, interrupting Marc, having carried around a torch for Jack since she and Araceli Netflixed the movie a year ago.

            “Right,” Marc said, turning to her.

            “How he wins at cards to get on the ship,” Esme said, her mouth ahead of her personality. “He wins the tickets. Then he’s stuck on the lower decks. He saves Rose from jumping, befriends all the rich people.”

            “And then there’s that dancing in the lower decks scene,” Kaitlyn said. “They fall in love.”

            Esme remembered it all. “The drawing. Her—her . . .”

            Kaitlyn nodded, as did Marc, his smile tight, and Esme imagined he was thinking about the scene the way Esme was right now, too, the way the charcoal lingered on Rose’s breasts, Rose’s gaze at Jack, Jack’s focus on his work.

            “Is the climax when the ship hits the iceberg?” Anthony asked. “Or when she lets him fall off that piece of wood.”

            “She so did not let him fall off,” Esme said. “He let go. He had to. He sacrificed himself. He’s a hero.”

            “She did,” Anthony said. “Selfish.”

            “The dark night of the soul,” Kaitlyn said.

            “Her fault,” Anthony said.

            “Anyway,” Marc said as he drew the triangle.

            “What about when she throws the necklace into the water?  That’s what they’d all been looking for all along,” Esme said. “That could be the climax. Because the movie isn’t really about the sinking of the ship. We know that story. It’s determined. It’s about the romance. About Jack and Rose.”

            They all stopped, turned, started at Esme.

            “That’s right,” Kaitlyn said. The sinking part is really part of the setting. It’s the environment, like Ms. Jensen said.”

            “Okay,” Marc said, holding out his triangle, little lines marking the plot points the group had come up with, the top point just what Esme said, the necklace being flung.

            “I’m not sure,” Anthony said. “I still think it’s the iceberg. Or Rose killing Jack.”

            Kaitlyn rolled her eyes. Marc Turnipseed turned to Esme, his eyes on her, the charcoal of his gaze unblinking.

            After class, as the students pushed out of the room and fanned into the quad, Esme felt slightly high, filled with light, awash in the grace of Marc’s triangle. He’d picked her climax. He’d written what she said on top of his pointy drawing. Ms. Jensen had loved their triangle, using it the entire discussion to prove her idea about conflict and how it builds, agreeing with Esme about the necklace toss, even when Anthony raised his hand to argue. And Marc? He smiled the entire time, beaming at Esme as if she’d directed the movie herself.

            She swallowed, trying to find exultant breath, looking for Araceli who usually waited for her on a bench in the quad. Finally, Esme had something to tell her friend, something good and juicy and real. Where was she? As she scanned the small area, she stopped, jolted, her body still and clear and cold as the water old Rose Dawson threw the necklace into.

            Marc Turnipseed was walking down the hallway, talking to Kaitlyn, both of them laughing at something, Kaitlyn leaning close, Marc almost facing her as he walked. He was animated, and Esme imagined she heard the words “ship,” and “ice,” and “sink.”

            Then Kaitlyn did the terrible thing, lifting her hand and putting it on Marc’s arm.

            “What up, dog?” Araceli said, grabbing Esme by the shoulders.

            “Stop it,” Esme said, pulling away.

            “Saw-ree,” Araceli said, her hand on her hip, her mouth in the “Don’t give me that shit” expression.

            Esme stared at her friend, trying not to notice the guys looking at Araceli as they walked by. But how could they not? If she’d been in the class just now, Marc would have been gazing at her. Everyone would. It wouldn’t matter that Esme’s triangle was so good.

            Behind her, someone played a ukulele, signing a stupid little song, others joining in. Ms. Jensen walked by, a string of students following her. Esme stared at Araceli, her tiny t-shirt, her slim, curvy body, her concern. No one in this whole quad was like Esme. No one was such a total idiot. A true loser. A person who couldn’t even do something right and make it stick. Make it count.

            Esme wanted to explode, but she didn’t know how to and she wasn’t sure what for. She didn’t know how to crash into the ice and ruin everything, everything being absolutely nothing. Because there really wasn’t anything to ruin. Nothing but flat clear narrative water all around her.

            Esme sighed, shook her head, adjusted her bag on her shoulder and tried to smile.

            “Bad class?” Araceli asked as they started to walk toward the parking lot.

            “The worst,” Esme said, feeling the tears go back to the enormous reservoir they’d been collecting in since she realized that she wasn’t remarkable or interesting or pretty or useful in any single way. “Ever.”

 

 

            At work, Esme didn’t have to touch the patients, even though Araceli teased her about wiping old people’s asses. In fact, Esme wasn’t supposed to really get near them. She was to sit behind the desk and answer questions from family members or staff. She was to answer the phones, reply to general email questions, and clean the staff room and make the coffee there in the gigantic coffee maker.

            She was allowed—if things were calm and her tasks completed—to read her textbooks, but not romances or other paperbacks that would give the wrong impression to the families of prospective “guests,” as her boss Mrs. Ryan called them. Mrs. Ryan was the assistant to the executive director of Apple Valley Rehabilitation and Convalescent Facility, but Esme had never met Mr. Lun, the director, not once in the eight months she’d worked there, seeing only his name on the parking plaque outside in the lot. His office was in the front building on the second floor, and everything he said came to the staff in the Joy Building via Mrs. Ryan. And Mrs. Ryan was busy. She clacked away, up and down the halls, attending to every crisis until she left for the day, Esme, the social worker Veronica, and the LVNs taking care of the evenings and night shifts.

            Esme was working the 4 to 9 pm shift, Mrs. Ryan bustling by only a few times before she leaned over the desk, peering down at Esme, the woman’s bosoms—because that’s what they were, two rounded pillows, puffy and hidden under some damn ugly flowered blouse—smashed against the laminate counter.

            “All looks calm. Do keep your ear out for Mrs. Wiseman. She’s been really bothering the nurses all day. But we’re shorthanded until 8. Just Jimelle and Stephanie until Ashley comes in.”

            “What about Veronica?” Esme asked, knowing that the social worker had magic words that always worked to calm the old ones during their fragile rages.

            “She’s in the Harmony Building tonight. On call here only. You know how to ping her if there’s a problem?”

            Esme nodded, worry in her throat. There were 18 old people in this people building. Old old people, the kind with spotted skin, humped backs, and bleary eyes. The kind thick coke bottle glasses didn’t even work they were so blind. The kind that pooped in their pants and shuffled around in their heavy-ass diapers. The kind that smelled bad, like wilted lettuce and stale bread kept in a broken down refrigerator. They had no hair or sprouted white wisps; they weren’t fat or thin but just hanging onto their bones for dear life.

            Anything could happen to people who could break so easily. One slip, and they were goners. One day, their bodies would just turn off, and someone would have to find them, just like Esme had found her abuela Rosa.

            It shouldn’t have been a surprise. Her abuela had moved up from Ensenada to die, Esme’s mother parking her in the back guest room. All night long, in and out of one bad dream and then another, Abuelita cried out, “Ay. Ayúdame. Ay. Ayúdame. Dios mio.”

            Esme would slink past the guest room door, pretending she didn’t hear her grandmother’s soft, sad laments. She’d grab her sweater, her backpack, and head toward the garage door and her car, just right there, waiting for her,  but her mother forced her to go back and sit next to her grandmother’s bed. There Esme would be, holding Rosa’s paper thin hand every morning until the very last minute before she had to leave for school.

            “Feo,” her abuela would whisper, and Esme didn’t know if her Rosa was calling Esme or her life here in this room ugly.

            Probably, it was Esme. Before her abuela had gotten old and sick, she had been sharp and dark and mean, her cut glance like a thrown knife. When Esme and her parents visited during summer vacations, Rosa handed them a lists of chores to the minute they finished breakfast.

            That’s where Esme learned about legumes, her fingers picking though piles of pinto beans that her abuela’s cook would later soak and boil.

            “Find all the dried, shriveled ones,” Rosa had said. “Find the rocks. Don’t miss one.”

            Esme never really understood why her parents went along with this, until she realized that her mother was scared of her own mother, and her father was scared of his wife.

            But the woman who had been set up on the pillows in the guest room? She wasn’t the same woman who’d fired a maid for being fifteen minutes late to work. That strict, proud woman was gone, leaving behind a visible shadow, so light and thin, Esme thought maybe instead of dying, her abuela would turn to dust.

            But she was strong enough to still scare everyone.

            Esme sat with her abuela every single day until the morning they all woke up to find her dead in her room, Esme the first to find her, her abuela’s mouth slightly parted, her eyes wide open. Maybe she’d been surprised at the end, Esme thought. But probably she’d just been angry that whatever had taken her hadn’t been just right.

             After Abuelita was taken away and her things cleared up, it was the hospice worker who recommended Esme for this job.

            “Mi’ja,” her mother said, clasping Esme’s hands, crying. “What an honor! The woman said you were a saint to your abuela. And now, your abuela is looking over you!  She loved you so much! Her spirit is giving you this opportunity.”

            “But,” Esme had started, but her mother had bent over the kitchen table, crying, telling Esme that they’d all still be connected to Abueltia if she would just take this job. Besides, they needed the money to pay for all those college classes she was taking.

            Now Esme was stuck with all sorts of old dying people all day and, sometimes, evening long.

            “Ayúdame,” she whispered.

            Her phone buzzed in her pocket, and because Mrs. Ryan had already left, Esme knew she could look at it.

            Carefully, she slipped it out of her purse, glancing at the screen.

            Hot date, yo! See u at school.

            Esme sighed and thought about Araceli out with the guy she’d told Esme about today, the dark -eyed dude in her sociology class who smelled like caramel or something sweet and brown. In her mind, she saw Araceli walking down the hallway at school not with Esme but with this guy, the hot dark brown sweet guy that would take her away forever.

            The clock ticked. The nurses called to each other. The old people moaned. Esme answered the phones, showed visitors to rooms, sat behind the high desk, feeling like something round and immobile. Her heart beat in her eyes, her palms sweated. She could barely swallow.

            Just after seven, dinner service was cleared away, the cafeteria workers clattering their carts out of the hall, the big doors closing behind them. Esme picked up her book, sighing, but then Jimelle rushed the desk, her eyes wide. She clutched her pink cell phone, which matched her working scrubs.

            “I’ve got to go home. My kid called.”

            Esme stared at her, her mouth open.

            “I know,” Jimelle said, wiping a slight sheen of sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. “But I have to. It’s a total emergency. Just don’t tell Mrs. Ryan, ‘kay?  Ashley will be here in 40 minutes. The patients are watching TV, ‘cept Mrs. Wiseman who’s in her room. Just keep your ears peeled. Stephanie’s in the common room, ‘kay?”

            But before Esme could say anything, Jimelle dashed out, the doors banging behind her, too.

            Esme turned to listen into the hallway, down into the space that separated her from Mrs. Wiseman, the most immobile but angry person Esme had ever met, nothing right with any second of her life. Esme hoped that when she got that old she’d either just die or appreciate the seconds that were left. But she’d never seen any of the old people here stop to think about that. No, most weren’t as bad as Mrs. Wiseman or her own abuelita. But they wanted what they wanted when they wanted and a lot of television, too.

            The hallway was still and glowing white against the darkening world outside the windows, the slight whine and jingle of the common room television the only sound other than the florescent buzz of the overhead lights. Esme sat back in her chair and looked at the clock. Stephanie would be here in 35 minutes. Esme’s own replacement Chad would be here then, too. And finally, she could go home and go to sleep and hope to forget about the day.

            For a few minutes, Esme read a little, but she was daydreaming too much, thinking about Marc Turnipseed and Kaitlyn. She shoved the book away and stood up, leaning over the counter, staring at the black flecked linoleum as she pressed her belly flat against the hardness. How had Marc and Kaitlyn gotten together just like that?  Over one triangle?  There was no conflict or development. Poof! They walked out of a class and down the hallway, leaving Esme behind when she’d been the one to come up with the idea. She was the one that had pulled the whole group tighter, even roping in Anthony. Ms. Jensen had thought Esme’s necklace idea was awesome, but none of that mattered. Nothing changed nothing. And now Araceli was gone, too, all of them walking away from her.

            Esme knew she was in the part of the hero story Ms. Jensen called the tests. And Esme was tired of them. Better, she thought, to be the hero whose journey never started, who went home instead to watch TV.

            “Nurse!” Mrs. Wiseman called, her voice loud but thin, scratchy with age and dry mouth. “Nurse, god dammit!”

            Esme stopped breathing, waiting for more. There was rustling, and then, “God dammit, you flighty bitch. Get in here! Help me!”

            Esme craned her neck to look down the hall into the dark cave of Mrs. Wiseman’s room. She looked down farther still, hoping to see Stephanie clomp down the hall in her orange clogs and head toward Mrs. Wiseman’s room, taking care of whatever was going wrong in there. Esme knew whatever trouble it was it smelled of pee or shit or old lady mouth, air as rancid as the inside of used tin cans.

            “Nurse!” Mrs. Wiseman called out, and then there was a crash, a toppling of something metal and glass, a waterfall of shatter.

            Esme’s mouth opened, but she didn’t cry out. She turned and saw Mrs. Wiseman’s room’s flashing yellow button, knew that there was a yellow flashing light in the common room, too. But Stephanie didn’t emerge, running, her stethoscope in one hand.

            Slowly, Esme sidled around the counter and walked toward Mrs. Wiseman’s room, breathing low and shallow. There were no more sounds, no rustling, no metal objects clanging against the linoleum floor. The television whined, the lights buzzed, but all was quiet in a place where quiet is bad.

            “Ayúdame,” Esme heard her abuelita cry out now, even from the grave. “O, dios mio!”

            Esme stopped at the door, seeing the fragile lump of Mrs. Wiseman on the floor, the old woman’s body like a vegetable, still and inert and dry. There was no juice there, no life, nothing left. Esme flicked on the light, blinking against the brightness. Mrs. Wiseman was twisted into a tight knot of wrong, nothing natural about her rounded shape. Her mouth was gaping open, her eyes shut. Even from where she stood at the door, Esme could see the veiny transparency of Mrs. Wiseman’s eyelids.

            All her life, Esme had done what she’d been told, and what good had it done? She was nothing but nothing, just like Mrs. Wiseman. Like all these old people were. There was nothing and then you ended like nothing, no triangle of story coming to save you, no one really there who could prevent any of this.

            Or if the triangle came, it wasn’t the one you wanted.

            Esme flicked off Mrs. Wiseman’s light and backed away down the hall, walking behind the counter, and sitting down in her chair, the yellow light flashing behind her. She looked at the clock. Twenty minutes until Ashley and Chad showed up and found everything. Esme waited for a feeling, imagining that something inside her would burst, killing her with a flash of fire. But the only thing in her was the feeling of something already exploded, nothing left but the slight residue of gunpowder and the memory of smoke.

            She breathed, one, two, three. And then she grabbed what came, pulled it all around her. Esme shrugged on her emptiness, looked down at the desk, and started reading.

 

Soft Ice Cream

By Bruce Colbert

 

Never late not once in the mostly placid fourteen years we’d been married, she wasn’t this time either, smiling at me from a still pretty face surrounded by her freshly-cut, longish dark hair maybe an inch over the green fleece collar, eyes quickly glancing around the dockside café she’d at been once before. We’d been legally separated for nearly a year. Legally! She liked to say that word, not just separated, she’d tell people, no, not that, but “legally separated,” a term which

conjured up five or six  mildly threatening letters passing between our lawyers for a few months. There’s no shouting on the phone when you’re legally separated she once told me, though I rarely shout anyway. Silence had always been my weapon of choice in our few arguments.

Those morbid letters usually began with… “Pursuant to our last request about your dog, cat, sailboat, life insurance policy or grandma’s India Tree china cups,” and ended with a line or two of the usual venom. I can only guess that she thought these letters would somehow empower her, urged on by her closest not-so-newly divorced girlfriends, and I’m sure they did. After all it was official, she was now legally separated from me in the state of California, a letter attesting to that fact buried somewhere in Marin County Court House records. For some strange reason, no one ever bothered to send me a copy, so I had to take Karen’s word for all this.

            Like most middle-aged men who suddenly find themselves alone, I stumbled through a few brief but doomed relationships with much younger women, ending with them bored to death with me and my late night rants about a search for inner peace, listening glassy-eyed to my poorly paraphrased Jung over a half-drunk glass of stale wine. I hardly recall those nights. The truth was, I still wanted to be married to Karen, married on some level whatever that meant. We could start as friends I reasoned and maybe remain that way, trying not to become husband and wife again in not quite the same conventional way, at least not in the way we had ended up. Fat chance.

            That July I had left our house on Bridge Street in Sausalito because she had asked me to, and rather than argue, I simply moved the four blocks down the hill onto the sailboat we owned, which was comfortable enough, moored next to the San Francisco commuter ferry. For those first six months on the boat I patiently waited  for some sign she’d come back to her senses, but nothing happened between us, no real conversations, actually none. Even when I’d bump into her in the grocery store at the other end of town she wouldn’t talk to me, but instead pat her purse like it was a holstered six gun wherein lay hidden the neatly folded legal separation document. She believed in the letter of the law almost like some kind of middle-aged female Wyatt Earp pointing to her tin star.

My attempt at another romance (can I call it that?) started with the gum-chewing twenty-three year old blond assistant office manager at my Embarcadero office complex  overlooking the Bay where  I had an advertising agency along with my business partner Scotty Simmons who also happened to be between wives. He held the record for the shortest marriage that I knew of: three weeks. I had heard the story when he was drunk three or four times in the last few years, usually after all the guests had left the office Christmas party. He would pace around the front office several times, stop at the fake silver holiday tree, play with the string of colored lights and say in his bass announcer’s voice. “I’ve never told you this.” Oddly enough, he somehow always had a fresh glass of scotch in his hand when he started his story and then looked out the window, glancing back at me once or twice for sympathy.

            After returning from his honeymoon cruising the South Seas, he and his then TV news anchor bride stopped by her San Francisco apartment for a few minutes on their way to dinner to listen to all her unheard phone messages and with him standing there, she turned to him and after listening to message number three from some unidentified man, called out like a pentecostal supplicant.

             “Oh Lordy, Lordy, he really does love me!” she cried to the heavens after a long breathless sigh in her native Texas Hill Country drawl, and then looking directly at Scotty dried a tear of joy. “I think it’s a good idea if we don’t see each other anymore.” And with that, she went into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator and uncorked a fresh bottle of Alexander Valley Chardonnay to celebrate this late breaking news, but alas with just one glass, her own, A particularly hurtful thing he later told me because it was a spectacular ’94 vintage that they were saving to celebrate their return from paradise.

            The only other thing Scotty ever said about the breakup of this marriage, his second, was that being a lifelong sailor “that it really took the wind out of my sails!” He could be a very emotional man when circumstances called for it. Otherwise he was mostly humorless, using a few tried-and-true nautical terms to pepper his speech, sort of a

complement to the boat shoes he wore on Saturdays.

            Undaunted by the overwhelming grief he felt the next morning at the office he told me that despite this bout of depression he was still able to get a date that night for a quick dinner at the St. Francis Yacht Club. And later an intimate coffee employing the fancy new Italian espresso machine he got Cafe Trieste in North Beach to install on his new forty-foot Catalina sailboat. Mario the gregarious owner of Trieste

thought of Scotty as a man unlucky in love and liked him immensely, and being a good customer too, had put it in himself in exchange for use of the boat over the Fourth of July weekend with one of the new waitresses he just hired while his wife and son visited her family in Genoa. The lady in question with Scotty  at the reception desk that morning was a twenty-one year old woman he had met in the  Starbuck’s coffee line. This resourcefulness was something you could admire about him. He had promised her, a budding graphic artist fresh out of art school on her first job interview inside the building, that she could redesign and later become editor of a newsletter we didn’t publish as yet, or ever would.

            Life of course wasn’t all smooth sailing later as I came into the office late one day mid-week to hear Joyce, our straitlaced Mormon receptionist mutter, “What is wrong with that man, can you tell me? not really expecting any answer. Just repeating it again and again, not looking at me, or anyone for that matter.

            Later over lunch at the overpriced deli across the street in the Ferry Building, Scotty told me the harrowing tale between bites of his roast beef sandwich. He had this machine gun way of talking, mostly because he had been a radio DJ in his twenties in LA, where he even had a special radio personality created by station KVXT for him, the one and only surfer-dude, Bobby Oceans. So you always felt he was trying to talk above a breaking wave.

            Well, it seems he had a deal to park his new car at a gas station nearby at half the price of the garages surrounding the Embarcadero. So the other day he’s leaving early, I’m in Sacramento on business, and he’s off about three o’clock on a sunny day in the October version of San Francisco summer. Before cranking up his shiny green Jeep, he gets a quick soft ice cream from the corner vendor and is licking away at the

cone about to get into his car when he passes an attractive twentysomething girl with shiny red hair and long, smooth legs, his precise taste in women as he so often elaborated on whatever that meant, the ruining. I think he simply meant marriage and children but was never curious enough to ask. We’re both fifty, actually I’m two

years older than him, fifty-two. He’s obsessed with this half-your-age appeal with women, it makes him feel like the combat helicopter pilot in Vietnam he once was.

            It’s always risky he tells me with the younger ones, you never know how much flak you’ll take before you go down in smoke.

            Anyway he smiles at the girl wearing jean cut-offs on this hot day and says, “Want a lick?” She coos back, “Yeah.” and they strike up some kind of banal conversation. He asks her where she’s going, maybe he can give her a lift.

            “I’m going where you’re going,” she purrs, then jumps into the Jeep and they’re off to his beachfront apartment. And he’s off to the races, or so he thinks.

             Well, Scotty’s a modest man in his storytelling unlike some and simply says that they got intimate right away and had a marvelous few hours. But there were some troubling signs.

            At first when she walks into his beach shack as he calls it, she admires his paintings and then the view of Richardson Bay.

            “I’m from Visalia in the Central Valley, the hottest and ugliest place on earth!  You know where that is?” she asks walking out of his kitchen with a cold beer in her hand not waiting for an answer. Next she sits down on his white leather couch, takes her shoes off, wrestles with her purse and removes a bottle of nail polish and begins painting her toe nails a bright shade of pink. He’s very peculiar about his white

couch but doesn’t say a word since everything this afternoon is about negotiation.

            “You can wait for the five minutes they’ll take to dry, can’t you?” she whispers already guessing what he’ll say. As she puts her freshly painted toes on his coffee table, she pulls down the zipper on her cutoffs enough to show a tan line, smiling all the while. He grunts out a laugh from his soft belly, “Sure!”

            After it’s all over and she’s almost dressed, she tells him she wants five hundred dollars in cash right now, or she’s gonna call the police and tell them he raped her. A real post-coital disconnect for him, I’d say. Well, Scotty’s no fool and he’s seen the inside of a lot of brothels in Southeast Asia in his youth and the seamy side of life in

South Central and Compton too, but never anything quite like this, he can’t answer. So she repeats the request, or threat, like most people would call it.

            “If you don’t, I’ll walk out the door here and I’ll start screaming you raped me,” she tells him giving him a dead man’s stare.

            He’s starting to get the picture pretty quickly and his year of thinking he was never going to come back alive out of the jungle returns with a shiver. “You’re kidding!”

            “Try me, mister!” she hisses.

             Now he knows he’s in trouble, so he says OK, but explains that he doesn’t carry that kind of cash and they’ve got to go to an ATM. All the while his mind is working feverishly trying to find a way out of this nasty situation. A rape charge—true or untrue—would ruin him.

            “My card is only good at Bank of America for that much cash in one shot, so we’ll have to go back into San Francisco for the cash,” he tells her, giving it a decent spin of sincerity I’ve seen in client meetings over the years. “It’s no problem going there. You’ll get your money, OK. Take maybe fifteen minutes.”

            They leave his beachfront apartment and drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, neither one saying a word. Finally he spots a bank kiosk next to Mel’s Diner on Lombard Street and points to it so she can see for herself. She nods a cautious acknowledgement.

            He tells her he’s sorry if he upset her, he thought mistakenly that she wanted the lovemaking as much as he did. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know.” he repeats. The woman doesn’t speak but her body language tells him she’s starting to relax. “Hey I make a lot of change,” he insists, “this is no big deal,” and nervously laughs reaching across to touch her tanned arm gently. “We’re cool!”

            He had pushed her into something she didn’t want, he was too aggressive, it was almost a rape. She tells him all this. He’s frightened of what this is becoming but acts nonchalant although his ex-pilot’s heart is beating fast. He’s finally scared.

            “Tell you what, here’s a twenty, go get us some ice lattes while I get the cash for you, alright. Then I’ll drop you off wherever you want, ” he tells her with false bravado. He tries to keep his hand from shaking as he hands her the twenty and pulls off the street. She looks at him for a moment, gives him a half smile and takes the cash. He drives into the lot at Mel’s and parks.

            They both leave the car at the same time and he pulls his wallet out as he walks to the ATM, easing out his red bank card in plain view as he shuffles along. In a few seconds, Scotty’s at the cash machine putting his card in the slot and touching the screen to start the transaction. He glances up once or twice at her and keeps touching the computer screen in front of him.

            The girl stares at him across the small restaurant parking lot and then turns to walk into Mel’s for the lattes while he’s still waving to her. She walks up to the counter and places the order with a short, fat Mexican guy, looking back out the window every few seconds to catch sight of him.

            He’s smiling back at her and then in another moment he’s holding up a handful of folded bills so she can see he’s gone ahead with his part of the deal. She nods.

In an instant he’s inside the Jeep again, starts the engine and slams the gear shift into reverse and is backing out into the street with screeching tires, and like a shot is part of the flowing traffic on Lombard, moving faster and faster from lane to lane in the next two blocks, only slowing down for a second, signaling a quick turn left and then the jeep disappears from sight altogether.

            Without moving, the young woman watches all this from the window in front of the restaurant cash register, mechanically handing over the twenty bucks for the iced coffee, very softly, inaudibly mumbling something to herself. With a handful of bills, she takes the bag with the coffee out the front door and then without even looking

drops it in the trash can at the bottom of the steps. Slowly she walks across the tiny parking lot and turns right on the sidewalk looking at her small hands first as if they had something to do with this, and turns uphill toward downtown San Francisco. Not angry, not sad, not even disappointment showing on her face. Nothing,

            I watch Scotty closely for a few seconds, see his full Roman noise, his sandy hair, his freckles, and then instinctively just shake my head. He’s wiping the grease from the sandwich off his large hands, he’s six three, a big guy.

            “That’s a helluva story,” I say not knowing what else to add.

            “That wasn’t the end, no Sirree,” he goes on, trying to sound nasal like country singer Buck Owens whom he met once in Bakersfield, a rural backwater where he spent two exiled years at a country-western radio station before moving on to LA. “I must have told her the name of the Agency and she looked it up somewhere alright,” he explains. “Because by mid-morning the next day I hear Joyce arguing with a woman out front, saying she just can’t walk in my office, unannounced. And that’s just what the woman did.”

            She’s standing in my office, her, this same woman dressed in a tee shirt with a peace symbol on it and brown chino slacks, and tells me point blank she wants her $500. “You raped me, give me my money!” she says. At first she’s calm but then starts getting louder and louder, calling me a son of a bitch, demanding the money.

            I tell her to get out but she refuses and starts yelling. Finally, I get a little forceful and jump up from my desk and grab her by the arm pushing her out of my office. Now I’m the one shouting, this time at a terrified Karen telling her to call 911 and get security up here fast. We have an extortionist on our hands, I gesture toward the woman glaring at me.

            After maybe two minutes of this, the girl finally lowers her voice a little and keeps repeating to Karen that I’m a rapist, men like me get their kicks from raping young girls.

            “I want my money, you raped me, you’re sick,” she tells me again.

            Joyce’s ready to start crying hysterically when the building’s burly black security guard opens the office door and asks what’s wrong. Like a flash the girl runs past him and must’ve taken the fire exit steps because a moment later when we came out into the hallway she was gone. The elevator isn’t that fast.

            I let out a deep breath at the table and asked Scotty if that was the end of it, did she try to see you again, call, or anything?

            “No, nothing, that was a month ago, and I asked Joyce to do me a favor and not upset you with this. She just got a little emotional today, so I thought you should know what happened.

            “What was her name?” I ask him.

            “It’s funny somehow,” he says grabbing his reading glasses off the table eyes totaling the check. “We never used each other’s names, even from the beginning. I guess we both knew it was just a passing thing.”

 

 

Chocolate

By Anna Maria Mickiewicz

 

Salvador Dali's chocolate mouth shines out from an exhibition at a modern art gallery in London. The marketing pulls people in with the subtitle Red Hot Surrealism.

I don’t remember my first trip to Warsaw very well, but one detail remains—chocolate at Café Wedel. The liquid variety in an intricately translucent fine china cup. Even in times of crisis, the coffee shop smelt of vanilla and sweet exotic spices. It was like a mirage in the urban desert. In a black room behind heavy green curtains, a small coffee shop stuck in the nineteenth century was operating normally, almost furtively. Here it was all elegant furniture, flowers in vases and importantly—chocolate.

"What do you want to be?", people would ask. The moment was approaching and I had to think. “I want to work in a chocolate factory”, I answered, albeit still unaware of Roald Dahl; I’d been inspired by the coffee shop. My reply raised a smile. I often repeated it, mischievously, just for the fun of it. It was the seventies, a brief period when Polish children were allowed to dream.

Then the cycle of everyday life changed. In the Poland of the eighties, thinking about chocolate was taboo... However, one day I was given a box of After Eight, filled with mint, in special individual little brown sleeves; I cherished them, limiting myself to one a day.

I had only recently learned that chocolate factories actually existed. There was one in San Francisco. Not long after I got there, I saw the brown brick block by the ocean where they made chocolate by the ton. It was bitter, devoid of sensuality, aroma-free...

* * *

 

One day I received two emails, from different continents.

Peter from America: you must see Chocolate, a brilliant romantic film, I warmly recommend it.

Annie from Sweden: That Chocolate, mawkish, two-dimensional characters, how could they have made such a film!

Can anything be compared to Warsaw chocolate?

Maybe a cup of chocolate by Lake Como in Italy, glazed by the sun's reflection; the cold deep clouds, the craggy hills, the elegant women and the sensual mouth of Salvador...

 

* * *

But in Warsaw, there’s no sensuality now. It’s best represented by the stark reality of the Polish artist, who, disguised as a man for the sake of her art, filmed naked men in a Budapest bath house.

 

These are the Breaks

By Travis Laurence Naught

 

Sea air. Cold, wet sand forming around my feet. The spray off of the water, breaking, sends shivers up my spine. I  probably should be wearing more than board shorts and a light top on this fifty-five degree Lincoln City day, but it started out sunny and I could have sworn it would reach seventy. Bothering with finding the forecast seemed like a waste of time. Serves me right, I suppose. My watch tells me the time is 11:20 in the morning and I have been out here a little over one hour.

Gulls squawk in the distance and there is a lingering smell of decay in the air. People say life came from the oceans, but where there is an abundance of life, there is an abundance of death. One of my family members proved this years ago on a bike ride from Washington state to Chicago. Swaths of dead animals guided his entire tour. An abundance of mankind leads to an unnatural number of locusts, frogs and even rabbits falling prey to highway drivers.

Squish, squish, squish.

I pick up my pace to get the blood pumping and warm-up a little. The world changes for me as sharp lines become blurred by  faster movement and my ears hear less specific noises. It feels good to be out from in front of the oppressive work place. People can be jealous of my writing at home office schedule, but the reality is that the only way to relax while working from home is to get out.

I see a piece of driftwood that has washed ashore and make it my goal. This is a little trick I picked up while studying sports psychology, goal setting often leads to greater personal achievement. I could have set a goal to run all the way to Newport, but that would be ridiculous. Goal setting only works when success is realistic. Works best when the goal is measurable and difficult to achieve. I will reach that piece of driftwood in three minutes time.

One minute in and I start to angle slightly toward the water's edge. Just moments ago I was starting to shiver, now the adrenaline has my body warm and I'm threatening to sweat. Waves continue to wash in, but pulled rivulets of the receding tide are recognizable as the eager Pacific sloshes toward Japan. Small bits of sea life are left in my sand flecked dust; a starfish, several hermit crabs with their rented shells, even some wriggling creatures that could be worms or fish. I do not slow down to study them. I am getting closer to the driftwood.

Two minutes and thirty seconds in. The driftwood is within fifty yards so I begin to slow down. Made it. My pulse is racing and I feel fresh. A couple of deep breaths from my mouth and I switch to gathering air through my nostrils. The air is much more pungent here.

I put my mind to figuring out what could make the air so putrid. Eyes peeled further inland, I wonder if perhaps there is a processing plant nearby. No buildings can be seen. Scanning toward the water, I see a large mass another couple hundred yards further down the shore. There are at least three people around it. One of them is facing me, waving both arms as if to get my attention. I start walking toward the scene.

"Hey, what do we do?"  This new person is awfully quick to assume that I would have any answers for a scenario I have only just begun to process. There is a dead gray whale on the beach. It has apparently been here for some time, I decide, based on the smell.

"Well, it's dead."  I don't know what else to say. The man scoffs, but I disregard the response and start looking at the beast. It's dry; another sign that this whale has been ashore for some time. There are small pieces of its exposed side missing, but none bigger than my fist. Gray, for lack of a better name, certainly did not die from any of those wounds. I stand up straight and scratch my head. "Do whales have heart attacks?"

"No. We think this guy beached himself. Confused whales do that sometimes."  Her voice catches me off-guard, I even jump a little. I turn around to see a soft faced woman and portly man. She is obviously the take charge person of the two. That excites me.

"Great, officials."  The guy who was mad at me for not having any answers is no happier when some of my questions start to be answered. Oh well, can't please everybody.

"We found him about four hours ago. In another 20 minutes or so, he will be dragged back out to sea."  She points to the ocean. I notice a name badge that reads Sharon. The brown outfit hides most of her form, but I can tell Sharon is fit and seems roughly my age. A quick glance to her left hand shows no ring or tan line, so I decide to take a little more interest in the situation.

"And the tide will bring him right back in! You people are wasting my tax dollars!"  Now it's necessary to intervene. This bothersome individual is getting a little too worked up and I want to prove my worth.

"Sir, I think they've got this situation under control."  I can tell I'm not making any friends with him, but that was not my goal. Sharon, trying to cover a smile, puts her hand over her mouth. "I'm sure all of this is scripted in advance. We should probably let them do their job." 

He squints at me and huffs loudly, turns around and starts stomping back toward the road. "Fine! But if my daughter sees that dead whale again on the way back from school, I'll sue!" He finishes the immature show and gets back into his undersized SUV. Blows my mind how some people carry such a sense of entitlement, even when nature is involved. I shake my head, chuckle and turn back around to find out more about Sharon.

"I hope I wasn't too gruff. He was getting on my nerves." 

"No, you were fine. Scott is famous for his tantrums. Earlier this year he demanded we put a stop to the bears leaving salmon carcasses along the banks of the creek by his place."  She approaches me and extends her hand. "I'm Sharon. This is my partner, Rusty." 

We start to visit about the intricacies of their plan. According to her, the tide hit its high at 11:05 a.m. and would not be at its low point until just past 5 in the afternoon. Since it is now almost 12, that gives them a good two hours to motor the carcass offshore and still leave it time to be drawn far enough out that the remains would not be returned to the beach.

Rusty finally speaks, "Here comes Hank now."  I see a 40 ft. vessel motoring about fifty yards offshore and wonder how they are going to attach Gray to get him moving. "I sure am glad he and his son were available today."

A rooster tail shoots up on the opposite side of the large boat and around the rear end zips a personal watercraft. It heads straight for the beach and I can see a line tailing it in the water. Within a minute, the machine is on the sand and it's rider is dismounting.

"Hello, Alan. Thanks for doing this."  Sharon seems to know this guy. I try to remain an interested observer as the two begin untying the line at the back of the ski. It's at least three inches around and is tinted black. Not your average piece of rope. Rusty seems content standing nearby, hands in his pockets.

They get the rope unfixed and start walking toward Gray's tail. The animal is not one of the bigger of its species, thank God, and I actually think this plan has a shot at success. I join them and offer any assistance I might be useful for Alan is more than happy to see another fit man to help him with the tail and instructs Sharon to wrap a pair of figure eight patterns after we lift the fluke.

Oh my God, it's so heavy! Rusty sees us struggling and waddles over to provide what assistance he can. The three of us have to set the fluke back down before she is finished.

"Come on guys, I thought you were my big strong men."  So, she knows her power over me. I suppose every woman knows their power over every guy. I shake my head, bend my knees and lift again. Sharon takes another 30 seconds to complete her job and we are relieved to be done.

"Ok, now the real fun begins. We have to dig along the length of this guy so we can get him moving before Dad starts to pull."  Alan has apparently taken a course in beached whale removal. "I will let him know we are about 30 minutes from hauling this guy away."  Alan picks up the radio and starts to convey the message as Sharon and Rusty start scraping the sand along Gray's side.

He has got to be 30 ft. long and weigh as many tons. I am starting to question the plan. It seemed more reasonable when I was just focused on one end of his body. But, I shrug my shoulders and start at his head, moving toward Sharon as I scrape sand with my shoe. Meeting women since I moved to Lincoln City has not been easy and I am not going to point out any flaws in her plan. Trying to be supportive of course.

My last girlfriend was in college. We were together three years before I graduated and decided to spend a year living and writing on the beach while she finished school. I went back to visit her for a surprise Halloween trip and walked in just in time to see the Big Bad Wolf taking advantage of Little Red Riding Hood. She claimed it was poor timing. I told her I was glad to have such bad timing, saved me some trouble down the road. That was almost six months ago. Made for a cold winter by the beach, but at least the waves kept me company.

Sharon and I are getting close enough that I can see her smile as we choreograph our movements to cross paths. We bump into each other and both apologize. Many a love story has started with hard work and a common goal. Quite romantic, considering the smell.

The trench is only about 2 ft. wide and 6 in. deep after our initial pass and Alan decides we need to make another. Back and forth we shuffle. I have really gotten myself into it now, but there is nothing better on my plate, being an otherwise unemployed, single writer beach bum.

Everybody is making snide comments about the odor but me, so I decide to try my hand. "It smells like old fish tacos."  Even Rusty laughs; got to love innuendo humor.

We finish the second pass and I notice that the trench is a little wider and a little deeper. Alan gets on the radio and tells his dad we are going to push in thirty seconds. I really hope that Hank is able to count to thirty, because there's only one shot at this. We get in position on the opposite side of Gray and countdown from 10.

Sharon, Alan and I take spots along the forward girth of the carcass and Rusty is closer to the tail end. After we all yell one, everybody is heaving with all of their strength. I can hear Hank's boat revving out in the water and actually start to feel a little movement!

There is a brief sliding motion and then a sickening tearing sound. I looked toward Rusty and see that he is laying face first in a blood slick and the back 6 ft. of Gray's tail are surfing over the breakers. Hank is towing a smaller bit than we had hoped for. Sharon rushes over to help her co-worker while Alan and I stand by dumbfounded.

"I'm Alan. Thanks for helping, such as it was."  He shakes my hand with a firm grip and I am somehow able to keep from cringing. "This was the first time we've ever tried something like this. Doubtful we ever try again." 

"Really? It seemed like everyone knew what they were doing."  I can't help but feel a little bad about telling off Scott earlier. He might have been annoying, but he was certainly right about questioning their tactics. "Now what?"

"Last time we blew it up. Not my department, though. I need to get on the horn with Dad and tell him to wait for me. Sharon! I'm taking off, see you at dinner tonight?"

And there it was, all of my Good Samaritan deeds were for naught. He already had a date with this new girl of my dreams and I did not even get the feeling of accomplishment from finishing a job. The story I am going to write about today will not have a happy ending. Some days, life really stinks.

"Maybe! I need to get this situation cleaned up before I can come home. Be safe." 

Even worse. Home! They are a happily joined couple, regardless of a wedding ring. She is probably pregnant and doesn't even know it yet. When it rains, it pours.

"Tell Dad to set an extra plate tonight! Our new friend has worked hard enough to earn dinner, at least."

A plot twist! Apparently Alan and Sharon are brother and sister. Hallelujah! I struggle to keep my rejoicing on the inside as I see Alan slide his craft back into the water and speed off after the larger boat.

Taking advantage of a momentary bit of solitude, I use the opportunity to give myself a once over. My shirt is drenched with sweat and some other form of fluids from pressing up against Gray, I have sand all the way up past my knees and I am starting to feel the tired effects of my first physical exertion in months. The walk back to my place is going to be a little easier knowing the day has more in store for me. Excited trumps tired every time.

Sharon waves me over to where she and Rusty are. He is sitting up now, looking a bit worse for wear, but unharmed. They are talking about calling the demolitions guy when I get to them.

"Perfect. I'll make the call, you should go back to the office and get cleaned up," Sharon finishes.

Rusty grunts his reply, stands up, throws me a weak wave goodbye to me and starts trudging toward one of the two official vehicles parked along the road. He has obviously had a long morning. We stand there silently until he gets back in his rig.

"Thank you for all of your help this morning. I'm sorry that we weren't able to get this taken care of quickly. Johnny's Demolition was actually who called in the carcass but we wanted to try something new. I'm going to give them a call now and this thing will be gone by 2:00. I'm sure they are all but loaded into their truck now to come down and blow something up. Would you like to join us for dinner tonight? Dad's cooking fish."  She is back in her take charge mode. I am distracted by enjoying her work ethic and almost miss the question at the end.

"Um, sure. I am going to have to clean up though," I respond, pointing out my unkempt state.

"Good."  She hands me a business card. "This has the office address on it. We live directly behind it in the yellow house. See you at 6?"

"Sure! I mean, thank you. That will be nice. Anyway I can watch this thing go up?"

"Trust me, you don't want to be anywhere around when old Gray goes pop. See you tonight."  She smiles and turns around, reaching in her pocket for her cellphone. "Yeah, Johnny, this is Sharon. Yup. I know you did. Great, see you in ..."

I decide to be gone when she hangs up. Mostly so she cannot see how excited I am. The brisk walk takes me about halfway toward the driftwood before I glance over my shoulder and see her watching. My left arm goes up automatically in a wave and I start to jog away from her.

The muscles that I know will hurt me in the morning feel good for the moment. It is one of the tricks I learned in sports psychology, accomplishment will help a person overcome fatigue. Sure, the whale carcass is still mostly on the beach, and it's not like I am getting ready to marry Sharon tonight, but for now I feel great!

I am jumping over the large piece of driftwood with the intent of making it back quickly to capture these feelings of being alive in writing. It is definitely a burdensome lifestyle at times, sitting at home while the world goes on, dying to be out in it, but every now and then I am glad to have made the choice. It allows me to act on my desires. It allows me to share wonderful experiences—like today—with the world through stories.

 

 Three Stories by James Weiss

 

The Frame 

 

            I want to talk about the frame. Not an actual, tangible frame, but a metaphorical frame. A theoretical frame. We talk of reframing questions. What would these look like?  And I mean all of them, for framing: the play within the play; orange peels floating in the Bay of Fundy; Freudian slips; and baptismal fonts; a dogeared copy of The Catcher in the Rye; that smudge on your pants; my favorite color; your lucky number; how she does her hair; and the ring around my bathtub.

            In 1915 the French Dada artist, Marcel Duchamp, arrived in New York City. He spoke very halting English with a thick French accent. Having left cubist painting behind in Paris, he revolutionized art by developing the found object sculpture. He reframed the question, asking: “Can this be art?  How about this?  If I remove a snow shovel from a hardware store and hang it up in my studio, can this be art? “ The shovel has not changed; it is the space around the shovel that has changed from a non-art context to an art context. Throughout the 20th century we see a reframing of the nature of art.

            The great French deconstructionist, Jacques Derrida,—whose writing is always already impenetrable—presents an unusually cogent 13-page introduction to his book entitled The Truth in Painting. Derrida talks about the frame; or more exactly the passe-partout, which is the matte board. The matte-board—100% rag and neatly beveled-—is a no man’s land, a place between the art and frame. Derrida says the frame creaks and cracks. He wants to focus on the gap between the frame and the art, on the frame within the frame.

            Jacques Derrida lived in Paris, but Derrida is not French; no—Derrida is a French-speaking Algerian, an outsider commenting from the margins. From the edge of the frame. 

 

 

Fear Of Technology

 

            The Unabomber lived in a shack in the woods and seethed over his deep mistrust and hatred of technology. He was only captured after The New York Times and The Washington Post agreed to publish his anti-technology diatribe (September 1995). A couple of years before that, the Unabomber struck in the lab just down the hall from me. I heard it explode. The computer scientist, Professor David Gelernter, opened a package that blew off most of his right hand, and blinded him in one eye. The reporter from the Boston Globe called to find out what I thought about it. She asked if I was worried about opening packages. I'm not too worried. I wasn’t famous enough to get a package from the Unabomber. Some people are afraid of technology. I’m afraid of fame. Fame is definitely on my list of the overrated. Fame, bumperstickers, fireworks, parades. I’ll have to check my list.

            I was thinking of enrolling my children in The Waldorf School, so I went down there for their orientation. It seemed like a healthy and creative environment for children, but there was one thing that troubled me. They are afraid of technology. They discourage children from watching television or using computers. I listened to their spiel for a while, and it made some sense; but finally I raised my hand and asked: “I understand your concern with the negative effects of television and computers on young children, but aren’t you afraid that they’ll be out of touch with their peers as far as pop culture goes?”

            And the woman sighed and she said: “Well, of course we want them to know—for example—that Spiderman has a yellow cape…”

            “I’m sorry,” I interrupted, “but I have to stop you right there. First of all, Spiderman doesn’t even have a cape; and if he did have a cape, it would be blue or maybe red—but definitely not yellow. Definitely not yellow. Spiderman doesn’t have a cape.”

 

 

 

 

The Ark

 

            You are driving south, away from the lake, south on Route 7, out of the small town of Conneaut, Ohio. You come to an intersection with a dirt road, and there’s a small hand-painted sign there that reads: THIS WAY TO THE ARK. So you turn onto the dirt road and drive for about a mile until it dead ends into a cornfield. You stop; you park the car; you get out, and now on foot, you follow the signs to the ark.

            Out of nowhere, the proprietor—the architect—appears: he’s a little guy, about 90, wearing blue jean overalls and a Superman t-shirt. He introduces himself as Noah, and he collects your money. It’s three dollars for a tour of the ark. Then he’s off into the cornfield, so you follow. Noah waves a bible, one of those with the thin  pages that flops open like two big droopy dog ears, and he jabs at the pages with his middle finger as he quotes from scripture. His voice is raspy and he gasps for air as he speaks.

            “Listen! Are you listenin’?! You better believe. It’s all here in black and white for you to read. You can read, can’t you boy?!?”

            You assure Noah that you can read, but now you’re not so sure where you are. The corn is thicker and tall, and you don’t know which way the car is. And now this whole thing doesn’t seem like such a good idea. And you’re not sure that there really is an ark. And if there isn’t an ark, then where are you going?  And Noah is walking faster now, still jabbing at the bible as he raves, and you’re starting to think things like: If this guy tries anything I can probably take him. And then: Unless he’s packin’ heat.

            So now, you’re starting to freak out a little bit, and the corn seems thicker than ever—when suddenly, you push through into an opening, into a huge clearing in the cornfield. And there, at the center of the clearing, under construction, is a gigantic ark:  300 cubits by 50 cubits by 30 cubits. And it dawns on you that America is a very big place, and you have absolutely no idea what’s goin’ on out there.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Post:
 
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>