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Prodigal Son

“There was not a cell of modesty in Pop’s bloated old body; he’d probably want to raise PT Barnum from the dead to put on the show of all shows.”

Amid the chaos, the family arguing about who would get what, you figure no one will miss you. He’d told you where to find the paperwork. Which car to take to the house in the country. Your older brothers call it “the cabin.” What a joke. Pop only bought it because he thought it would make him look smart. Because some wise man in the past droned on about doing his best thinking in his cabin in the woods. Pop had been there once. He stayed exactly two hours, pronounced it “boring as hell,” then went back to the city. But you’ve always liked it. You really want nothing from him, and told him so the last time you spoke, and somehow he respected you for that (probably calling you a schmuck behind your back). Now a small part of you hopes he left you the house in the woods. Maybe that’s why he’d hidden his will there, and gave you, as final instructions, the job of driving up alone to read it and bring it back.

The house isn’t easy to find. A highway to a series of two lane roads to a dirt path to a cluster of pine trees across from the remnants of an old barn. The gate, cleverly designed to look like scrub and deadfall, opens with a touch of the remote. Soon you’re inside, lighting the fire to chase off the chill and drinking his good scotch out of the bottle.

A manila envelope sits on the coffee table. During the drive, you’d speculated about the funeral he might want. There was not a cell of modesty in Pop’s bloated old body; he’d probably want to raise PT Barnum from the dead to put on the show of all shows. Pomp and goddamn circumstance.

But when you get all cozy to read his last wishes—images of showgirls and champagne dancing through your head—you are stunned to find, attached to a standard will, a page with your name on it that reads: “I don’t want a funeral. They’re depressing as hell, no matter how much you tart them up. So, put on a party if it makes your mother happy. Otherwise, use the money for something better. That, I’ll leave up to you. You were always the smart one. The good one. The others, not so much.”

You set down the papers, drink more scotch, watch the flames dance in the hearth. Wondering. True, you’ve been away for a while. Unable to stomach the political circus, the election, the mockery he made of every institution. But was it the office that changed Mr. Flash-and-Dazzle’s tune? The consequences of his decisions? The bombs he dropped, the ruined lives, the plummeting poll numbers, the flag-draped bodies coming home?

You can see that. Even his handwriting on the note looks less self-assured than the confident scrawl of his prime. No doubt the government will feel obliged to give him a proper funeral. No doubt your brothers will want a four-story golden mausoleum in the middle of Park Avenue, emblazoned with the family name. Part of you doesn’t give a shit what kind of pharaoh-like send-off they envision, and you realize there’s nothing you can do to stop them. But a portion of his estate is legally yours.

Maybe you can do some good with that. Maybe he would have wanted one of his children to spend his legacy righting some of his wrongs. When and if you have kids, maybe you’ll want that, too.

There’s no need to return to the city right away, so you slip the letter into your pocket, take the scotch and head outside to watch the sun set, marveling at how beautiful the light looks, melting into the lake. You drink a toast to the old man. If he’d stayed long enough to see this show, maybe he would have had some good, wise thoughts in his cabin in the woods, and maybe everything would have worked out differently. Maybe you wouldn’t have had to kill him.

The Interview

You sit in the waiting room, sweating in your best suit, your tiny espresso with a twist of orange growing cold. The receptionist’s long legs cross beneath the desk made of glass and wire. A soft ping sounds from her sleek phone. “He’ll speak with you now.” She unwinds herself from the chair and shows you to what you never thought was a door. When you first walked in, it merely looked like part of the expensive woodworking, but with a touch, it swings inward.

The room is empty except for an impossible chair, like the one the receptionist had been sitting in, and another near-invisible table. Atop which is a tablet.

You look at her, confused. Her smile is smooth, practiced. “Push the green button,” she says, and retreats.

You push. The red camera light flashes on. A voice oozes from the tiny speaker: “Hi, Johnny.” It doesn’t sound fully human; perhaps it’s being filtered. You wonder if this is a joke. A reality TV stunt.

“Uh…hello?” Your voice cracks and you clear your throat. You wish you had the miniscule cold espresso you’d left on the glass coffee table.

Robo-pad speaks up. “Why do you want this job?”

For a moment your brain locks. You were in a bar, wondering how many shots of tequila would kill a human about your size, when you saw the email on your phone. It intrigued you. No subject line. All the body contained was “You don’t even know how bad you want to work for me” and a time, date, and location. When you sobered up it was still there. You took it as a sign.

“May I ask, what kind of job is this?”

The voice laughs and abruptly stops. “You don’t get to ask the questions, Johnny. It’s not that kind of interview.”

“Well, I”—you wipe your damp palms against your thighs, hopefully out of camera range—“It’s hard to tell you why I want this job when I don’t know what my responsibilities will be. I mean, I didn’t even apply.”

“You were carefully picked from a pool of very, very qualified people. Majorly terrific people. I already knew you’d be perfect. But you gotta just tell me, why’d you show up?”

Since this seems like such a laughably fake situation, you decide to tell the truth. “Because I was in a bar trying to commit suicide by Jose Cuervos? Because teaching history to seventh graders pays shit and my last girlfriend left me for a backup singer in a Justin Bieber cover act? Because it was Tuesday and I hate Tuesdays because it’s too far from the previous weekend and too long until Friday? Because I owned a suit and I hadn’t worn it in a while? Why does anybody do anything?”

“Good point,” the voice says. “You’re hired.”

You blink a couple times. “To do…”

“Whatever I tell you.”

“And why would I do that?”

A dollar figure flashes onto the pad. You nearly fall off the nearly invisible chair. “Believe me, Johnny,” the voice says. “You won’t care what day of the week it is when you’re waving that around.”

“Okay.” You clear your throat, cross your arms over your chest. “Assuming I take this job, give me an example of one thing that you might tell me to do.”

“It depends on the situation. If it’s one I don’t like, your job is to make it better. We can quibble over these tiny details all day long, Johnny. But I’m very selective. If I chose you, you gotta know it’s for a very good reason.”

You start wondering what that reason might be. You thought you’d drowned all of them in tequila by now.

“You’re thinking,” the voice says. “I don’t get why you’re thinking. Because I tell ya, this is the best job you’re ever gonna have. But why don’t we do this? Try it for a day. Less than that. Say you’re on my staff for, oh, an hour. Two, tops. You don’t agree this is one terrific way to make a living, you’re free to go.”

That sounds reasonable to you. “Okay. Where do I start?”

“First thing I need you to do. There’s a situation happening right now. I need it to go away.”

A shiver snakes down your spine. Just what have you agreed to? “I don’t think—”

“One hour, Johnny. That’s all I ask. That’s what you agreed to. You don’t want the world to know that you’re such a loser that you go back on your promises. You don’t want the stink of that following you to your next job, do you? Because I can make that happen. I can make anything happen.”

“If you can make anything happen, then why don’t you take care of your own little situation.”

“Hey. You decided to come here. Frankly, I got lots of better things I could be doing. And people I could be doing them with if you catch my drift.”

“Just…fine. Whatever. Tell me about the situation. Please.”

A document appears on the screen. You squint. It’s the US Constitution. “You want me to read the Constitution?” Okay. There are weirder things you could be doing for a hell of a lot less money.

“No,” the voice says. “I need you to explain it to me.” The receptionist slithers in and presses a stack of hundreds on the table next to you. “And consider this my request not to tell one living soul what we’re doing here.”

“Okay, well, um… The Constitution, originally comprising seven articles, delineates the national frame of government—”

“Johnny, stop. Use smaller words.”

 

 

 

Pen Monkey

“Come on.” The voice was like a bowl of thorns coated with honey. “You can do it. You did it before. Tell ya what. You do this now, I’ll let you write my next book.”

Happy Equinox…just wanted to share a bit I wrote for last week’s Two-Minutes-Go. Inspiration? It’s everywhere.

As a prison guard in a medium-security facility, Chip had seen some real doozies—CEOs who thought they were due time off from their sentences for golf holidays, celebrities demanding big-name designers upgrade their uniforms. He’d kept notes on all of them for his maybe-someday career as a bestselling author. But this new inmate made taking the graveyard shift worthwhile. Since the old guy was a night owl, that was when the fun really started.

He’d just stepped into the corridor to begin his two a.m. sweep when—

“Chipper! Oh, Chippieee… Aw, come on. Where’s my little friend? Where’s my little buddy?”

The voice repelled yet fascinated him. In the space of seconds, Prisoner 84235 could go from sounding like a creepy old dude trying to lure a kid into his van with candy, then sink into a lower register, like he was aiming to get a girl into the vehicle instead. The other guards said he was crazy and probably should have been sent across the river, where they had the good drugs and quiet, padded cells. But Chip guessed his lawyers kept him out of the bin. Why the legal team hadn’t been good enough to keep him out of the system altogether, Chip could only speculate about. Some of the guards thought that was his wife’s idea. That doing time had more cache than doing psych time. That a stretch in Club Fed would make him worth more when he got out.

When Chip reached his cell, the voice crooned to him. “Chippppp-ieeeee… My phone doesn’t work.”

Of course it didn’t work. Prisoners weren’t allowed to have phones. He’d whined like a toddler when they tried to take it, then he’d threatened to sue everyone in the building. One of the female first-shift guards gentled it out of his hands long enough to remove the battery and the SIMM card, and he’d been content. For a while.

“Did you try turning it off and turning it back on again?” Chip asked.

“Yeah. Twice. This is very sad. And totally unfair.” He beckoned with his small fingers. “Come on, Chipster. Let me use yours, okay? I’ll make it worth your while.”

“You know I shouldn’t—”

“Come on.” The voice was like a bowl of thorns coated with honey. “You can do it. You did it before. Tell ya what. You do this now, I’ll let you write my next book.”

Chip cocked his head. It was probably a bullshit offer, but at the very least, hearing this guy out could be entertaining. Maybe something he could use in his own book one day. He slipped the phone out of his pocket. “Okay,” he said. “What are we doing tonight? Email? Blog post?” His eyebrow hooked up. “Angry tweet?”

Prisoner 84235 grinned, his face bunching like one of those wrinkle pooches. “Yeah. That. Tell ’em—” He waved a hand. “The wire-tapping, the plague, that little business with the nukes… the fact that there’s never any pistachio ice cream anymore…not my fault. It was fake. It was all fake.”

“Like the fake news?” Chip wondered if he should pull up a chair.

“No. All of it. The campaign. The election. The presidency. Me, even. What. You don’t believe me? Believe me.” He pointed at Chip’s phone. “Start tapping, pen monkey. I got a story to tell you.”

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.