The Last Bomb Threat

Mariel was backstroking off the wall in the deep end of Lane Five when the sirens began. At first, with her ears under water, she thought it was part of the music from the aqua aerobics class at the other side of the pool. The instructor liked to mix it up, keep her elderly clientele moving. But now they were moving all right—they were a blur of white hair and pale, sagging flesh and multicolored bathing suits heading for all the ramps and ladders.

Damn it, not again. Three times this month, she’d been kicked out of the pool from the bomb threats. Not just out of the pool but out the side door into the parking lot, and it was damn freezing outside. Were those anti-Semitic meshugge bastards aware that most of the people here only came to the Jewish Community Center for the pool? It was like calling a threat in to the YMCA because you were gunning for the Christians. Or the Young Men.

Part of her wanted to say no to the lifeguard coming her way, where she and Ruth shared the lane. Ruth was still swimming, her strokes long and elegant and perfectly synchronized.

The boy who barely looked old enough to grow whiskers was standing at the edge, clapping his hands and saying, “Let’s go, ladies. Everyone has to evacuate, now.”

Ruth turned her head just long enough to call him something nasty in Yiddish and then she was off again.

“Come on, Ruth,” he said, his voice whiny now. “You’re gonna get me in trouble.”

“Okay, okay, quit shouting.” She grunted as she tugged her potato-shaped body up the ladder. Like a penguin, Ruth was amazing under water but not so much on dry land. She sometimes had trouble walking, and Mariel was afraid she’d slip and fall on the wet tile, and the lifeguard looked too busy hustling everyone else clear to notice.

So Mariel followed her out. But where they were supposed to turn right toward the exit door, Ruth turned left, muttering something Mariel didn’t understand.

“Ruth.” The cold hit Mariel’s wet body and she wrapped her arms around her chest. But the woman wouldn’t stop. Again, Mariel followed, fully expecting one of the lifeguards to come chase them down, even revoke their memberships for not following their instructions.

Undaunted, and with no one following them, Ruth kept trundling along, one strong leg planting into the hallway after the other, her body rocking from side to side with each determined step.

Then she turned left, into an abandoned office. “Shut the door, already,” she said, and Mariel complied.

Ruth punched a sequence of numbers into the phone on the desk. “Yeah,” she said, when Mariel guessed someone had answered. “They’re at it again. You know what to do.”

Mariel couldn’t help but ask. Ruth shrugged, showed her a small mark on her forearm that Mariel had always assumed was a birthmark or maybe sun damage.

It was a number. “This,” Ruth said. “After the war, I had to do something. And I guess once Mossad, always Mossad. So I called in a favor. We won’t be hearing from those schmucks anymore. Now, let’s go. I’m cold and I want to finish my laps.”

Then she waddled back to the pool.

And Mariel followed.

Annika

The Russian man was back, lounging at his favorite table like a king. Annika could have predicted this. From the first day he strutted into their bistro and charmed Svetlana into preparing a special dish for him, he had the bearing of a man used to getting his own way; Annika did not fathom why Svetlana couldn’t see that. Maybe love was making her blind. Or maybe he had simply worn her down. To save her dignity, perhaps, or to extend this cat-and-mouse game she was playing, Svetlana chuckled, took two wine glasses from the batch Annika had just washed and hand-dried and filled them with the last of the good Riesling. Svetlana leaned against the counter, sipping from one of them. “I will make him wait,” she said. “What do they say about anticipation, what is that maxim in English?”

Although Annika knew enough English to get by, her first language was German, French her second, so she could only shrug.

Eventually Svetlana went to him, and Annika could not bear to watch. But she imagined the strikingly beautiful chef striding across the dining room, smiling at him, insinuating herself into the chair opposite his, flirting with him as if it was a craft she’d polished as well as Annika had the wine glasses. The change in the pitch of her voice, the low, intimate tone, was a painful thing to hear.

Because Annika had seen him around town with other women. She didn’t know if it would have been kind or cruel to tell Svetlana this. Until that moment, Annika had held her tongue. But just yesterday, she’d passed a jewelry store and saw him through the window, his arm around a slip of a thing as she pointed to various items in the cases. Certainly he was not old enough to have a daughter that age, and there was nothing fatherly or brotherly about the way his hands seemed to own her.

It was that empty hour between lunch and dinner, so Svetlana had the luxury of lingering with special customers. They had wine and bread and cheese, and he leaned toward her and drank her in with his eyes. He was besotted with Svetlana, and why not? The chef was smart and worldly and elegant. And as a Russian, Svetlana understood him in a way none of these little French girls did.

When it was time for dinner prep to start, Svetlana came back in the kitchen, slipping into her white jacket. Her cheeks were flushed, either from the wine or his attention.

“What?” Svetlana said to Annika. “What stick flew up your ass and died?”

Annika turned toward her station. The pots still needed to be washed. “He is not worthy of you,” she said, half-hoping Svetlana wouldn’t hear.

But damn her, those sharp ears caught everything. “That is charming of you, to be so concerned,” Svetlana said. “But I know what I am doing.”

Heat flooded Annika’s pale cheeks. “No, I think you don’t. I think you don’t know him as well as you claim.”

Svetlana flipped a palm up, as if this was of no consequence. “Yes. There are others. And a wife in Moscow. We have no illusions.”

Annika smacked her sponge into the soapy water. “This is just what I meant! He is not worthy—you deserve someone who will love you and you alone. You deserve…”

Already Annika had said too much and her words stuttered to a stop.

Svetlana smiled, stepped over to her, pressed a palm to Annika’s cheek. “Liebschen,” she purred. The low note of it, coupled with the warmth of her hand, vibrated a chord in Annika’s belly. “It is truly sweet that you look out for my welfare.” Then she turned away to begin her prep. “You know, perhaps you could do with a distraction. A night out. I will see if Grigory has a friend.”

The List

“You close your eyes and think of things that used to be funny. One by one you reject them, because they’ve all been outlawed.”

This bit popped into my head when I sat down to write something for JD Mader’s Two-Minutes-Go. Maybe one Friday you’ll join us.

The List

In the back of your desk drawer, folded in half, then quarters, then eighths, then tucked between the unread pages of your Tiny Orange Book, is your list. Of all the things you’ll do when you’re allowed to leave your house again. On damp, melancholy days, fog rising from the ground in small, accusatory fingers, you make hot tea and retrieve the list. After you were released from prison with antidepressants in one hand and the Tiny Orange Book in the other, a neighbor who had been a psychologist in the old days wrote the list for you as a form of therapy. She said that it might be too overwhelming to look at all the items in one gulp, but on bad days, like this one, when the electronic anklet felt as heavy as a battleship anchor, it could help to choose an item at random and just daydream about it for a while.

She said it could give you hope.

You close your eyes and run a finger down the page. Stop. Open your eyes. You’ve chosen “make someone laugh.” Your stomach sinks toward your shoes. You’ve lost the will to laugh yourself; how are you supposed to make someone else do it?

But somewhere in your mostly-functioning moral compass, you know it would be cheating to choose something else. You close your eyes and think of things that used to be funny. One by one you reject them, because they’ve all been outlawed. Satire on television, political cartoons, stand-up comedy. You have vague memories of being on a stage, saying things, hearing the sound of laughter. But after the treatments in prison, you forgot what you used to say. For some reason, you do remember that it used to make you feel good. It made you feel like you were lifting troubles off other people’s backs. People applauded, and when you got off the stage you got money and an invitation to do it again another night, or someplace else.

As the fragments of memory spark around, you get angry. You start to recognize the emotion as heat rushing into your face, your shoulder muscles tightening, a churning in your gut. In prison they gave you a chart that shows different emotions and a how-to guide for letting them go.

But this one sticks. It sticks in your brain like Velcro. You remember loving this thing you did on stage and are angry that you can no longer do it.

The anger fuels you. You storm around the house, finding as many small objects as you can—salt and pepper shakers, candlestick holders, coffee mugs—and line them up on the fireplace mantel. If the anger had come back to you, maybe the brambles of that emotion could rummage through what’s left of your memory and eventually the words that were funny would stick to that, too.

You pace in front of your “audience” and spew out random words. It’s all nonsense, like “Candlewax bumblebee went to the circus can you hear me now making America great again we’re winning so bigly now I got the best generals, just the most amazingly best, yadda, yadda, yadda…”

You go for another few minutes, remembering that was called a “set” back then, and something strange is happening to your face. You’re smiling. The muscles feel tight and strained, and you pat a hand to your cheek, then rush to the mirror and see that yes. Yes. You are smiling. And just the fact of that, followed by the memory of what you now recognize had once been called a joke, makes you laugh. A tiny chuckle. Then bigger.

It was only an itch at your ankle at first. Then a jolt. Then you collapse to the floor, twitching and writhing. Your smile freezes into a grimace of pain. Then so does your body. As the light at the edges of your vision begin to dim, these words fly through your mind: “A priest, a rabbi, and Donald Trump walk into a bar…”

Salt: A Modern Fable

“Someday,” he said, clapping a small hand to the boy’s shoulder, “this will all be yours. It will be your legacy. It will be the salt to rub in your enemies’ wounds.”

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I’ve never written a fable before, but when I caught a headline on Politico yesterday, this story jumped into my head. I wrote it for 2-Minutes-Go.

—-

Salt

More than his gold-plated golf clubs, more than his collection of celebrities on speed-dial, more than any of his trophies, the man loved his salt. He’d cultivated that salt with a patience he’d bestowed on no human in his life. He’d traveled the earth looking for the best location to harvest it, the ideal climate, the primo seaside sunbaked leeward cove, where the big-league crystals collected. But it still was not good enough, the haul too paltry, so he spent a million dollars of his fortune on a magician’s spell to make the minerals more powerful.

That was the ticket.

The salt colonized and crystallized and concentrated and sparkled. The ocean and magic combined to imbue it with the bitter tears of mermaids in mourning, the revenge of white whales, the last cries of drowning mariners, the shaking fist of Atlantis. He brought no one there except his favorite son, on secret missions, telling his wife they were going to the circus, or hunting tigers. The first time they reached the cliffs, the boy looked confused, and the man indulged in a wolf’s smile.

“Someday,” he said, clapping a small hand to the boy’s shoulder, “this will all be yours. It will be your legacy. It will be the salt to rub in your enemies’ wounds.”

The boy didn’t understand, and the man was angry, and the boy grew quiet. But he kept bringing the boy to the cliffs when he traveled to check on his salt, to make sure the enchantment still held, to make sure there would be enough. For he had a lot of enemies. He’d hoped to push some sense into the boy. Like his father had done to him.

During his next visit, as they beheld what the family fortune had purchased, the boy asked, “Is it time yet?”

The man lifted his chin and felt the sea breezes on his freshly exfoliated face. He licked a finger and raised it in the air. “Oh,” he said, relishing what was to come. “It’s time.”

And he took off his expensive shoes and rolled up his expensive trousers and picked down the rocks to where the salt deposits lay, all the while wincing at the pain in his soft, small, pedicured feet. The boy followed his lead, carrying the golden bucket, and soldiered on under its weight as the man filled it to the brim.

The salt was beautiful, and it was his, and the man felt a touch of pride as if it were another child.

When they returned to the city, he climbed to the highest tower, the boy in his footsteps, and opened the windows where the people gathered below. From their shouts he knew that most of them hated him, were envious of all he possessed and of the victories he’d claimed, but he waved and smiled, told a few jokes. Drawing them closer.

Then with one mighty hurl, he emptied the bucket over the ledge, but the wind blew the salt back at him. He tried to duck the onslaught—too late. The last thing he saw before the crystals blinded him was his son, standing behind him, smiling. A wolf cub’s smile.

Flash Fiction: A Call to Prayer

“The tray snapped through and there was no dinner. No lentils or rice or meat he could not recognize. Only a black hood. He said another prayer, put the rank cloth over his head, and waited.”

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A Call to Prayer

The heavy footsteps came closer, echoing through the cool stone corridor, and stopped in front of Aaron’s cell. A man grunted the short, guttural words he’d come to associate with the delivery of a meal, and he waited for it to clank through the hatch at the bottom of the door. By the slant of light through the tiny barred window near the ceiling, and the last time he’d heard the call for prayer, Aaron expected dinner: lentils or rice with a bit of meat. Over this meal he’d say his own prayer, thankful for what he’d been given.

The tray snapped through and there was no dinner. No lentils or rice or meat he could not recognize. Only a black hood. He said another prayer, put the rank cloth over his head, and waited. The man called out a question. Aaron said yes and the door creaked open. By his own arrogance, he’d once learned what was on the other side of the hood—a guard with a rifle—and didn’t think it would be wise to tempt fate again.

He let the man nudge him out and down the hallway, their footfalls ringing in lockstep. Each heavier than the last. Aaron’s heartbeat stole the air from his lungs, the saliva from his mouth. He thought of Jesus on the cross, of that iconic prayer: Fatherforgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.

The guard stopped him. A door swung open. He was led forward. Made to stand in a certain place and pushed down at the shoulders. That meant sit, and a hard surface awaited him, and his hands were tied behind his back.

The hood was removed from his face and the door clanked shut and he was alone on a blue plastic chair in front of a flat-screen television. He knew what came next. The interrogator would come and turn on the set and watch with him. When the cloaked men got through their litany of crimes against the accused, the end was mercifully swift; he prayed that his compatriots had not suffered long. Then he would provide the same answers to the same questions he’d been asked so many times. No, he didn’t work for the government. No, he wasn’t with the military. No, the church he claimed to represent was not a front for a ring of American spies.

Part of him prayed that he would be taken next, just to have it done with.

The door opened again. It was not the same interrogator that had sat with him the last two times.

This man gave him a sad smile, almost one of gratitude. “You are Aaron Westbrook?”

“Yes.”

“You are the same Aaron Westbrook who went to Syracuse University in 1980?”

Aaron blinked. “Yes.” This man didn’t look old enough to have even been a sparkle in his father’s eye all those years ago.

“You saved my uncle’s life. He was going to university there. Some men pulled him from his car and called him terrible names and beat him and stole his wallet and left him for dead in the street. He says you took care of him. He speaks of you often. How you got him a doctor and let him stay with you and…”

“Saleh?” Aaron smiled. He hadn’t thought of his old friend for so long. “Speaks? He’s still alive?”

The man nodded enthusiastically. “Yes. In fact, he is the reason I’m here. He recognized you on the news and asked me to find you.” After a quick glance at the door, he started working on the ropes that bound Aaron’s hands. “Come with me. I know a way out. For both of us.”

Flash Fiction: Traitors

Valerie cried all the way home in the back of the black sedan, and even though Alphonso the Secret Service man said nice things to her, and even offered to let her wear his mirrored sunglasses, it was no consolation. She had let her father down. He spent all day helping people get along, the least she could do was try not to punch them.

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While I was working on a passage for my National Novel Writing Month project, one line of dialogue kept pulsing in my head: “I know who your father was.” It prompted me to write this story for 2-Minutes-Go. You can read all of this weeks’ wonderful writing here.

——

Traitors

Nobody talked much about her father’s job, when Valerie was little. Mother only said that Papa worked for the government and was in charge of helping people get along with each other, which Valerie thought was a very important thing. That’s why when Ricky Alvarez pulled her hair in the cafeteria and said her father was Benedict Arnold, she punched him in the face. Valerie cried all the way home in the back of the black sedan, and even though Alphonso the Secret Service man said nice things to her, and even offered to let her wear his mirrored sunglasses, it was no consolation. She had let her father down. He spent all day helping people get along, the least she could do was try not to punch them. But over cookies and milk that afternoon, she thought about that again. She asked Angela the cook, whom she always trusted to tell her the truth. “Mrs. Angela?”

“Yes, my little mouse? You would like another cookie?”

“No, thank you.” She set down her glass. “Mrs. Angela, is my father a traitor?”

Mrs. Angela’s lipsticked mouth squinched tight. And she stared, long and hard. “Who is saying these things to you? Was it that boy?” Her fist pressed into the counter. “I will tell your mother, and she will call that awful boy’s father.”

“No!” A bite of cookie fell into Valerie’s lap. “I mean, no, please.” She picked up the crumb and set it daintily onto her plate. That would probably make Ricky Alvarez angrier, and she didn’t want to have to punch him again. Because she thought he was sort of cute. If not for the pulling her hair and the Benedict Arnold thing.

“Your father is a wonderful man. And don’t you let anyone tell you differently.”

“But…but what does he do?”

“He makes the world a better place. That is his job. And we should all be thankful.”

And that was that. Valerie finished her cookie and slunk out. She walked out onto the wide, green backyard, where the gardener was clipping dead branches from the trees, where a camera pivoted atop a tall, sturdy fence post, and looked up, into the sky and the clouds and the sun.

Then someone was talking to her, and the memory dissolved. “Your time is up.”

She sighed. Her father stood, his prison uniform hanging on his thinning frame. “Thanks for the cookies,” he said, and a guard took him away.

Flash Fiction: You’ve Tried Everything

woman-74595_640I wrote this flash piece for last week’s Two-Minutes-Go and wanted to share.

—–

You’ve tried everything. The pills, the chanting, the download-for-half-price-right-now self-help lectures that are supposed to teach you to love yourself and your body, deeply and completely and without judgment. You’ve repeated the affirmations that you don’t need to self-medicate your feelings with a box of Oreos or a jar of coconut-pecan cake frosting and a spoon. But here you are again, another week gone by, another crumpled five in your purse ready to tango. You walk the aisles, telling yourself that because you are carefully considering what that five will buy, weighing how horrible you will feel from eating a sleeve of peanut butter cups versus a sack of trail mix, that makes it better, somehow. Or at least you’ve given yourself the chance to change your mind, even though you know you won’t. Even though you know that you’ll eventually make your choice, wait for a few of the customers to leave, then sidle up to the skinny, lipsticked twenty-something at the cash register and say, “Yes, I’d like a bag, please,” as if you’re not going to eat it all in the car on the way home, as if she doesn’t know that, too. It’s not fair, really. It’s like a secret shame you’ve asked her to carry, without actually asking.

You feel compelled to add, “Oh, that’s for my husband, he can’t stop eating that junk,” and she nods and makes that old, tired noise with her tongue, as if she or maybe an older sister has one like that at home. And maybe she’s not as thin as you first thought, and maybe there’s a bit of a vacant look in her eyes, as if she’s counting the minutes until she can clock out. You wonder if she’d rather be a million other places than behind the register of a convenience store, what her life is like outside this place. And if she too trolls the aisles, buys a random whatever with her paltry employee discount and is surprised to find the container empty when she’s finished her commute.

Something thick lodges in your throat, and as she’s handing back your change with a practiced smile, your voice is barely above a whisper. “It’s for me.”

And then she nods, the smile softening, and says, “I hope you have a better day, hon.”