The Council: Goodbye, Forty-one

This week’s flash fiction was inspired by current events. I just couldn’t help myself.

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The loss of Forty-one had brought the council together again. First, at the cathedral, where they’d exchanged appropriate pleasantries, then later, with most of their spouses otherwise engaged, at Earl’s. It seemed befitting that Forty-three make the toast, and when they were all assembled and served, they raised their glasses toward the empty chair, followed by a few moments of silence.

Forty-four felt the weight of his absence. The loss of what he brought to the table—the wisdom, the connections. He also felt the unspoken tensions of earlier in the day. But broaching the subject so soon after the funeral…

“Every day I pray for his soul,” Thirty-nine said, with a heavy sigh.

“You’re a better man that I am,” Forty-three and a half added, then downed the rest of her scotch and ordered another.

Her husband passed her a sly look. “Now, honey, you may want to slow down on those…”

“Don’t honey me. Are you driving?”

“Well, yeah…”

“Then I’m drinking. Did you see Twitter? He wants to put us in jail and I’m the bitch because I didn’t smile at him. Lock thisup, you orange buffoon.”

“Hill, what’d I tell you about staying off those social media things? They never did no one no good…”

Forty-four cleared his throat. “Come on, folks. Time’s a wasting and we need a new plan of attack.”

“He’s right,” Forty-three said. “Got us a serious problem here and I don’t feel right as it is leaving Laura and the girls too long tonight.”

“Then we’ll make it quick,” Forty-four said. “So here’s where we stand. Winning back the House might give us some checks on this guy, but I won’t trust that until I see it. Contacting Putin again is off the table. He’s achieved his objectives and won’t help us. Unless we can deliver Lindsey Graham in a dog harness, but I doubt he’s gonna fall for that trick twice…”

“I’ll do it.” Everyone turned to the breathy voice with the Georgia accent.

“Jimmy…” Forty-three and a half laid a hand on his forearm.

“No, please. I sat in that cathedral today hearing about doing good for the world. Yes, we certainly had our disagreements when it came to governing, but I believe we’re here to help each other and to do God’s work. I know my time is next and I want to make what little I have left count for something.”

Forty-three sat taller. “Can’t let you do that, Thirty-nine. Wouldn’t be prudent to let that be your legacy.”

Forty-four narrowed his eyes. Was it his imagination, or was the Texan across the table starting to sound like his father?

“I got an idea,” Forty-three said. “Lemme give Dick Cheney a call. See if he’s up for a little quail hunting.”

Ten Fingers, Ten Toes: Flash Fiction

This week’s Flash Fiction Friday, I was inspired to write this bit. I’ve been working with Jeff for a while; maybe he’s auditioning for a role in the next novel. 

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Ten fingers, ten toes. It’s all Jeff ever wanted. Early on he and Marta had their separate and shared expectations, but after a sleepless night of labor and encouragement which ended in a whiplash decision to do an emergency C section, their perfect daughter—their daughter!—dozed in recovery, with Marta in another room, all stitched up and doing the same.

He could have stood at that nursery window for the rest of the day, despite his fatigue, despite the ache in his feet and back, watching that pink squirmy bundle, her daddy’s red hair already curling atop her head. Then he felt a hand hover and light on his arm. As if afraid to touch him.

Marta’s mother. “Jeff. Let’s you and me get a coffee, all right?”

Lillian’s too-sweet tone raked his nerve endings, for the bitterness he knew lay beneath. It was clear to him the first day they met that she didn’t like him. Never thought a lowly truck driver was good enough for Marta. But perhaps now with the baby they’d yet to formally name, that could change. She’d finally understand that Jeff was all in, would never do anything to hurt his family. He’d put in for the shorter runs now, so he’d be home more, and if it came to it, he’d look for a new job.

He followed her to the cafeteria and got them settled at a table. Milk and sugar were added, bagels smeared with cream cheese and jelly, neither of them speaking except for the discomfiting combination of Lillian’s false smile and the worry lines between her pale brown eyes. The eyes that followed the movement of his hands as if measuring the calorie count of his breakfast.

“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” Jeff said quickly.

His hope for a diversion only lasted a few seconds. “Yes…indeed she is.” Her gaze settled somewhere behind Jeff’s right shoulder, then dropped to her coffee. “Maybe… Maybe this would be a good opportunity for you to look toward the future.”

Yeah, here we go. “I can provide for us just fine. And if we need more, I can look for other ways—”

“I didn’t mean…” Her voice came out breathy, flustered. A flush rose to her painted cheeks. “I meant…your health. Maybe it’s time to think about one of those programs…they worked so well for Oprah…”

He bit into the bagel so he wouldn’t blast her with the first words that came into his mind. 

“I’m just thinking about that little girl,” Lillian said. “How heart-wrenching it would be for her. To go through the milestones of her life without her father…”

“I’m fine,” he growled.

Her head jerked back, as if she thought he’d strike her. Jeff took a couple of deep breaths so he could keep a civil tongue. “I’ve got it covered, Lillian. You don’t need to worry about me.”

“I’m only thinking about her. Whatever you decide to name her.” She took a ladylike bite, set down her bagel. Then sat a little straighter and said, “Have you ever thought about going back to college, Jeff? Finishing your degree? It would give you more options, and maybe make it a little easier for you to—you know—look after your health. So you won’t have to settle for whatever’s in those truck stops.”

One, two, three…He forced a smile. “You know, Lillian, it’s been a long night. Maybe you’d like to go back to the hotel and get some rest. I’ll call you when Marta’s awake.”

Her lips pursed. Message received. “You do that.” She returned his smile, even tighter. On her way out she snatched up her bagel and coffee, dumped them in the trash, then wiped her hands as if she’d been touching filth.

Jeff sat a while and finished his breakfast, chewing on her words. But then the memory of his daughter, seeing her for the first time, chased everything else away, and he headed back to the maternity ward to check on his girls. Marta and… Caroline. He was starting to love the sound of the name Marta had added to their list. That Lillian had turned her nose up at it was just a bonus.

Voting Buddies

Jennie Walters always dresses her best when it’s time to vote. She’s doing her civic responsibility, an effort of extreme importance. She’s never missed an election, and she’s never even tried to shirk her way out of jury duty, like some she knows, like even her own husband, God rest his soul. “This is a representative democracy,” she tells anyone who will listen, “and I aim to represent my own part in it whenever I’m given the chance.”

But she had some trouble convincing her grandchildren. They’d just sit and roll their eyes when Jennie went on about voting. “People around the world have fought and died for this right,” she’d say, standing between them and the television. “Don’t you ever go taking that for granted.”

Her grandson, Spencer, could never be reasoned with—he had far too much of his mother in him—but her granddaughter, Deidre, shortly after her eighteenth birthday, was so proud to show Jennie her sticker proclaiming that she’d voted. They’d been voting buddies ever since. They made it special. They’d go to the firehouse together, stand in line, check in with the volunteers—half of whom Jennie had known since childhood—and then celebrate afterward. She’d make a fancy dinner until she could no longer manage so well in the kitchen. Deidre took over the honors at that point, first in Jennie’s house and then, when she moved out and got married, in her own. They didn’t get to vote together anymore, as Deidre lived in a different district, but there was always a celebration afterward. Year after year after year, even when Deidre had children of her own and moved to a bigger house in the next county. And even then, they’d all get together, and Jennie would tell stories about the first time she voted, and who got elected, and how even one person’s vote could make all the difference.

But then Deidre moved up north for a new job, a wonderful opportunity. That took some adjustment, and Jennie was happy for her granddaughter, but she felt terribly sad on Election Days. Even though they chatted on the computer thingie, it wasn’t even close to all of them being together.

This November she felt even worse. A fall had left her laid up temporarily, and Jennie didn’t even know if she could get out of the house to go vote.

“Get an absentee ballot, Grandmama,” Deidre said over the phone. “It’s easy. Lots of people do it.”

“That ‘lots of people’ is not going to be me! I am going to that firehouse if I have to call a fireman and have him carry me there.”

There was a long silence on the line. “Grandmama. You don’t have anyone there taking care of you? What happened to that nurse’s aide?”

“Pfft. She doesn’t even believe in voting, can you just imagine?”

“You get that ballot,” Deidre said.

Jennie promised she would, but it was all so confusing. First she had to get to the right website, then find a form to even apply for a ballot, then wait to get the ballot, then mail that in…how could she trust all those people? What if her vote didn’t get counted because she was not there to see it? She wasn’t too proud to admit that she cried a little while sitting at that computer in her wheelchair. But it didn’t sit easily on her that this would be the first election year in which she wouldn’t vote.

In fact on the big day, she didn’t bother getting out of bed until close to noon. She didn’t even look at the television while she got herself together. Just played some old music and wheeled herself to and fro doing this and that. When the computer thingie rang, she knew it would be Deidre, and she doubted she’d have the strength to talk to her without crying.

But she didn’t want to worry her, so she answered, to find two beautiful great-grandbaby faces grinning at her and waving. “Hi, Grandnonna!” they both yelled, giggling like they had a secret.

And then the doorbell rang. In walked Deidre, beautiful in her best dress, and behind her… Spencer. All decked out in a suit and a tie.

“Put your hat on, Grandmama,” Deidre said. “I know you didn’t get that absentee ballot. So we’ve come to help you vote.”

The Council: Notorious

A little story inspired by current events. Warning: satire alert.


The Council: Notorious

In case he’d been followed, Forty-four looked right and left before disappearing inside the door. Once again, they’d had to change locations. Once again, he blamed that on Forty-two, chatting up the waitresses. But Forty-four could always trust this place. A few times he’d escaped from his official duties and enjoyed a draft and part of a basketball game here.

“Evening, Earl,” he called to the barman, noting with some satisfaction that he was the first to arrive.

The barman nodded, already at work procuring the beverages. “The usual, Mr. President?”

“Now, you know you don’t have to keep calling me that.”

“Yes, sir, but you know I always will.”

As he took a seat at the big table in the back, he decided to give Earl twice the usual payment. Not only was he closing his whole business down for the night to cater to them, but good people who could keep a secret in this town were worth their weight in gold. If anyone cottoned to what they were doing, not only would the Council be driven deeper underground, but the current occupant of the Oval would waste no time splashing the fact of their existence all over the media, with his fool jibber-jabber about “Deep States” and “enemies of the people.”

Earl brought Forty-four’s beer, set the tall, frosty glass on a bar mat. “Any new ‘usuals’ I should know about this evening?”

Forty-four ticked off the orders on his fingers. “Two Diet Coke and rum, one iced tea”—he was about to give Forty-one’s and Thirty-nine’s orders before he stopped himself, feeling a hint of sadness that they were too infirm to make the trip, that their time on this planet was growing shorter. “And we’ll be having a special guest, but I’m not sure what she’ll be drinking.”

Earl grinned. “I know just about everyone in this town, Mr. President. You tell me who and I’ll tell you what.”

“Notorious in a black robe,” was all he said, and Earl laughed.

“Oh, my lord. Last time she was in she schooled me on wine and made me order a case of a particular vintage of California red. Might have a bottle or two left.”

Soon the others began trickling in. Madam Secretary, whom they’d christened “Forty-three and a half,” looked more relaxed than he’d seen her in years. After some brief chitchat, Earl made himself scarce and they got the two missing members on the line and settled down to business.

“First of all, thank you for your time, and to those present, thank you for coming out in this weather. Especially you, Justice. I know I speak for…well, most of us when I say I don’t want any harm befalling you.”

“Here, here.” Madam Secretary hoisted her glass, her husband following her lead.

“No need to worry about me,” the deceptively small but iron-tough woman said. She flicked her stiletto-sharp eyes, huge behind her giant glasses, toward Forty-three. “You, on the other hand…”

Forty-three gave one of those humble Texas-boy shrugs that made so many, including Forty-four’s own wife, overlook his history. That made quite the picture, him handing Michelle a piece of candy on national television during McCain’s funeral. “I know y’all want to take me to the woodshed for whipping up the undecideds for the Court nomination, but I hope I made up for it by getting Fox News to stop airing those ridiculous rallies.”

“And we’re grateful for that, at least,” Madam Secretary said.

Forty-four frowned into his beer. He’d had a long talk with Michelle about picking his battles post-presidency, and certainly it stood to reason that those on the other side of the aisle were doing the same. He preferred those battles where they were all standing together. Like the one they regretfully had to address again tonight.

“Now. As you’re undoubtedly aware, our last attempt to restore order in the Oval has failed. Apparently Mr. Putin feels his work is done and has focused his attentions elsewhere. That’s why I’ve asked the good justice to join us this evening. Not in her official capacity, of course.” He eyed each member of the Council in turn to gauge their discretion, and he felt reassured. Even by Forty-three.

The justice sat up straighter. “I have the evidence you need.”

“Please let it be a blue dress,” Forty-two muttered, and his wife speared him with an elbow.

“It is airtight,” the justice said. “And it is damning. You are not to ask how I procured it. Let’s just say that not only does our newest associate not hold his liquor as well as I do, but he becomes quite talkative. About many, many sensitive subjects.”

Forty-three grinned. “You drank him under the table and he spilled his guts?”

“In vino veritas.” Then she stood, took one last sip of her wine, and started for the door.

“Wait,” Forty-four said. “You have security?”

The diminutive justice laughed. “I have an army of women. And a black belt. I’m good.”

Ave Maria: Flash Fiction

A little story that’s been going through my head like a prayer…


Ave Maria

“Jen?”

“What?” Jenna barely recognized the bark as her own voice, but she could sense Toby cringing back into the faint strip of light that separated her from the party going on in the next room. Never in their three months together—the longest relationship she’d managed in years—had she spoken to him so sharply. He didn’t deserve that. “Sorry.” She pushed herself up from her sister’s bed, pausing in case the vertigo returned. It didn’t. Still, she didn’t feel like standing yet.

The softer tone emboldened him to venture a couple of steps closer. “I was just coming to see if you were all right.”

“I’m fine.” The words rolled out on cue, her automatic response to nearly every inquiry about her health, her moods, her distraction. She hadn’t thought anyone would miss her, with her nieces and nephews running around being adorable, with Toby deep in a discussion about football with her brother, with somebody sitting down to the piano. The air had felt suddenly too close, too warm, and she’d learned the hard way that when the chain of symptoms starts, if she doesn’t get horizontal fast, nature will do it for her. “I think… Maybe it was the wine.”

She hadn’t been drinking, a fact she hoped he didn’t notice, but if he had, he didn’t call her on it. Just stood before her, in that sweater she loved, arms tight over his chest, and nodded.

She’d suffered through these episodes before, and her doctor had no answers for her, despite the battery of tests he’d ordered, but it had never happened here, in her sister’s house, surrounded by family. Maybe what her last boyfriend said when they broke up had been right: “Lady, you need a shrink.” She wrote it off then as one of those throwaway lines, by a wounded guy who needed to have the last word, but perhaps he’d been more intuitive than she’d believed.

She’d never told him what happened to her. She’d never told any of them.

Toby’s eyes were soft. At times he reminded her of a forest creature. She worried that she’d scare him off. Like the others. But he wasn’t like the others. He ended their first date with a light squeeze of her hand and a smile. After their second, he asked if he could kiss her goodnight. It was kind of sweet. Again she felt bad for being so bitchy to him.

She patted the mattress beside her. He came over and sat, leaving just the right amount of space between them. She liked that he was there. She liked that they were about the same height. It made her feel safer. “Do you want to go home?” he asked.

She shook her head. “No, really, I think I’m feeling better now. But maybe we could just, you know, stay in here for a while.”

Her nieces started singing “Ave Maria.” That song. The beauty of it. Their pure, unspoiled voices made her chest ache. Then tighten with anger, scaring back her tears. If anyone so much as laid a finger on them…

She grabbed his hand so tight he flinched away. “Hey, what—?”

“Something happened to me,” she said in a rush, barely above a whisper, her throat so tight from the tears it felt raw. “It was a long time ago and it was really bad and that’s why I can’t, why I have such a hard time, why I’ve never told anyone…”

And there she stopped. The song dove and swooped, the notes on angelic wings.

“You don’t have to,” he said. “If you’re not ready, you don’t have to. I know how difficult it can be.”

She kept bobbing her head. He seemed like he meant it. That it was enough for the moment. But then she turned to him, drawn by something in his tone, a question in her eyes.

He nodded. “Yeah. But we don’t have to talk about that now, either.”

She moved a hand closer. He met it.

The Sock

Hi, everyone! Back to flash fiction again. I’ve been writing bits and pieces about this character for a while. This week, he had a story to tell me.

The Sock

The bed creaked as Jeff turned over and pulled the quilt over his aching head. Like some little bastard pounding an anvil in there. His beard itched, his blood sugar was probably in the red zone—no, make that definitely, his queasy stomach and lightheadedness told him—and he deserved every stinking last bit of it. In fact, he stunk. From the dank, sweaty sheets to the comforter to the body encased in them, clad in boxers and a T-shirt stained with a multitude of sins. A shower would help. But that would mean getting up. Passing the detritus of his bacchanal of the previous night…and the night before that…and, hell, he didn’t remember what day it was. He clamped his eyes shut and cursed himself and thought those words he’d thought so many times before: never again.

The phone rang. He had a vague memory of it ringing a few times yesterday, but he didn’t want to talk to anyone. Still didn’t. The people from unemployment could go fuck themselves. Who else would be calling at whatever the hell time this was—the sun was just reaching the slat in the blinds that meant he should be up and around already. Going and getting ’em, like the guy from job counseling said. Jeff took in as deep a breath as he could and let it out slowly, waiting for the voice mail to pick up.

It didn’t. Shit. That meant the damn thing was full. Then the ringing stopped. Caroline.What if something was wrong with her, what if Marta had been trying to get hold of him, what if it was Caroline herself, wanting to talk to her daddy…?

The comforter tangled around his legs and he hit the carpet with a thud, ass first.

Something was sticking into his back. It felt like a fork. He opened his eyes to an empty pizza box a few inches from his face. The sausage and pepperoni grease in the cardboard turned his stomach the rest of the way over and he couldn’t make it to the toilet in time and most of it landed on the carpet in front of the bathroom door.

“Kill me now,” he groaned. His stomach heaved as he dropped from all fours back to his side. In his head he saw Caroline’s little face. If by some miracle she came back home, what would she think of him? Half naked and big as a barn and lying next to a puddle of his own puke. Marta, of course, would have all of her suspicions confirmed. She’d just stand there with that ugly smirk, then whisk his daughter away from him again, maybe for good this time. Caroline. She’d grow up and learn the truth of her parents and the world soon enough, but a five-year-old shouldn’t hate her daddy.

For her, he struggled to his feet. For her, he cleaned up the vomit and stuffed the comforter into the washing machine. Threw out the pizza boxes, the beer bottles, the empty bags of chips and cookies and fast food meals.

Then, spent and not yet ready to face the phone, he fell back onto the bed while the washing machine swished and whirled.

The sock. It was all because of the sock.

He’d read somewhere that keeping up with the normal routines of life could help fight depression from unemployment. He’d pushed the living room sofa back so he could vacuum beneath it…and a small pink sock with little bunnies on it had reduced him to a 320-pound sack of tears. He fell and kept on falling.

No.The voice inside him fought through the self-doubt, through the choking sobs, through the recriminations that he’d been a failure…as a husband, as a father, as a man. He would do this for Caroline. Marta could take a flying fuck, but he had a daughter. A beautiful, perfect daughter, with his red hair and freckles, with Marta’s eyes. Whatever she told his daughter about him, it would not be that her daddy offed himself, committed passive suicide by pepperoni pizza. He had to keep going. For her.

He tried to remember where he’d left the sock. He found it wedged between two couch cushions. So small. The sock, and the foot it had slipped over. Giddy with the news that he and Marta were having a girl, he’d gone a little crazy at the mall. He bought a pink teddy bear and little onesies and one of those mobiles that goes over the crib, pastel-colored bunnies hopping in circles.

Marta didn’t take the mobile; she’d thought it was tacky and that he’d spent too much money on it, but he found himself now in Caroline’s bedroom, flicking the switch and watching the bunny parade.

After a while he felt strong enough to clean himself up, then face the voice mail. Two calls about overdue bills. One from unemployment. And a voice he vaguely recognized.

“Hello, Mr. McNeil. This is Diana, from the weight loss center? You came to one of our meetings a few weeks ago? Well, we missed you and wonder if there’s anything we can do to help.”

He played the message two, three times. It was a nice voice, kind. Sincere. He remembered the woman. She’d weighed him in. He didn’t much like the meeting, all those women applauding each other about losing a pound or two, as if it were a damn game show.

But maybe it was time to go back.

The Council Redux: Flash Fiction

Here’s what my evil little muse called upon me to write for this week’s Two-Minutes-Go. It’s a sequel to a piece I wrote a while back, creatively titled The Council. Thank you for your indulgence.

—–

The Council Redux

The alley is slick with rain and god knows what else. Forty-four doesn’t want to think about what he may have just squished beneath his shoe. The establishment he slinks into, all neon and tarnished brass, is certainly a peg down from their last meeting place. But the location had become compromised. He has a good idea how that happened; Forty-two has gotten a bit loose-lipped in his retirement. Any hint to the press that they were meeting could mean the end of a secret institution that has performed an important public service for centuries. They had a close call a while back, and made out like they were joining forces to raise more money for hurricane relief.

He greets the owner and says he’ll wait for his party. Finally, the men start arriving. With one addition: an honorary member they’ve started calling “Forty-three and a half.” Under the circumstances, it was only right. Eventually they shake off their raingear and sit at the round table to shake off the chill. Except for Forty-three, still on the wagon, the beverages are stronger than in prior meetings. It seems the order of the day.

When all are settled and braced, a long silence passes and Forty-one, in his wheelchair at the head of the table, clears his throat. “Afraid we have to give this another go,” he says. “Best laid plans and all.”

They nod somberly. What they’d planned last time was supposed to have looked like a heart attack, but apparently Forty-five suspected and had one of his sycophants sit in the Oval Office chair instead. Bet now he wishes he’d asked Omarosa to do it.

“I might have some ideas,” Forty-three and a half says, a sly smile crossing her face.

Forty-two smirks, hides it with a swallow of his Diet Coke and rum. “Praise God let it be the business end of one of your high heels.” He touches his forehead. “That thing still gives me a twinge when it rains.”

She rolls her eyes. “Hit him where he lives.”

“Tried that,” Forty-one wheezes.

“No,” she says. “Not in the Oval. In his Achilles’ heel.”

“What, the bone spurs?” Forty-two asks.

“Try again,” his wife replies.

A small, thin voice with a Georgia accent pops in from Forty-four’s cell phone speaker. Thirty-eight isn’t well enough to travel these days. “With all due respect, Madame Secretary,” he says, “I believe you were less than successful at exploiting his weaknesses.”

“You know what I’m talking about,” she says.

Forty-four nods. “Yes, indeed I do.” He waves a hand in her direction. “Madame Secretary, it would be my utmost honor to let you make the call.”

“I’ll do it,” Forty-three pipes up. “After all, I’ve looked into the man’s soul.” He presses a few keys on his phone, then smiles when a voice answers. “Good afternoon, Mr. President,” Forty-three says in Russian, astounding Forty-four with a skill he did not believe his predecessor possessed. “We have a situation here. I believe one of your assets is defective.”

Respect: Flash Fiction

The air in the basement was so thick and close, Jacquie struggled with her breathing, and more than anything, she wanted to go home and play her Aretha Franklin records and cry. But last week she’d begged for this open mic slot, and beggars don’t get to be divas. Not in dives like this, with ceilings so low she could reach up and touch the dank acoustical tiles while her Vans stuck to the spilled beer on the concrete floor. She couldn’t even imagine how much worse it would have been back in the days of smoking in public places. “Count your blessings,” her mother, who’d sung in those smoky clubs, once told her. “If they pay you to sing, you show up and sing, come hell or high water. Even if they don’t pay you. Never know what it might lead to.”

Might lead to suffocation, Jacquie thought. She’d been ticking off acts in her head and knew she had maybe ten, fifteen minutes tops to step outside for some air and a hit of asthma meds before she was supposed to go on. She waited until the young guy on stage was done with his rap—not bad—to sneak out the side exit.

The relief of the cool night kissed her skin. Traffic wound through the neighborhood, people went to bars and restaurants, oblivious to the ache in her chest, the gaping chasm in her soul. “The show must go on,” her mother also told her. Every time Jacquie’s nerves acted up or she was coming down with a cold or even that one night when her father was in the hospital and she was supposed to sing lead in the school play.

Jacquie went on.

As she held the medication in her lungs, she wondered how she was supposed to go on tonight. “Respect” was the first song she’d ever sung. Two and a half years old, singing with her mother in the living room. Her first memory.

The door opened; the guy who’d done the rap stepped out, gave her a nod, offered a cigarette he took back when he saw her inhaler, but he lit one up for himself and blew the smoke the other way. Close up he didn’t look so young. Maybe twenty-five, thirty. It could have been a trick of the street lamps out here, or an illusion of the stage lighting in there. Whatever. Age is just a number. People have been telling her she’s too young to even know about Aretha, too white to like or even sing her music. Screw that.

“You on the list?” he asked. “Or just didn’t feel like staying home?”

“Yes,” Jacquie said.

“I hear that.” He dropped his cig on the sidewalk, ground it out with a big-ass-sneaker toe, crossed his arms over his skinny chest. “Way I figure is, they can’t do it, so we gotta.”

She nodded. Letting that soak in and make sense.

“You know,” he added, “I think it would be a damn shame if you didn’t go on tonight.”

“Really.” His eyes were sweet, his smile warm and friendly. “And why’s that?”

“Cause then I wouldn’t get to hear you sing again. Best version of ‘Chain of Fools’ I ever heard coming out of a white girl.”

She didn’t know how to react to that, but he laughed. Which made her laugh. She remembered that night. Her first open mic at this same club. A friend dared her to sing, and sing she did. She felt so good after she didn’t even need her inhaler.

Then she fell serious. “Is it disrespectful, you think? To sing her songs, especially tonight?”

“Hell,” he said. “I think the whole world should be singing her songs. Especially tonight.”

She hooked an eyebrow at him. “You have some nice musicality when you rap. You sing any?”

“Little bit.”

“You know that duet she sang with Ray Charles? ‘Two to Tango’?”

“Oh, damn yeah. That was one of my favorites.”

She stuck her inhaler back in her pocket and reached for his hand. “Come back in and sing it with me.”

The Orchard

Walking across the orchard takes Eugene longer now. But this doesn’t dissuade him. Even though the sky is washed with blue-gray mist and tiny sleet pellets bounce off the oilcloth sleeves of his old barn coat. Even though the ground is frosted and lumpy and altogether unsuitable for walking, he lumbers along with a cane in one hand and Wyeth’s leash in the other. His old boy has gray in his jowls and his vision is going, and oftentimes both of them hobble on their sore hips, but the Irish Setter knows the way; seems to know each dip and rise of the earth and steers Eugene’s path toward level footing. While he was getting dressed, sitting on the bed to don his trousers, socks, and boots, he tried to remember the lines of the poem, the one about the young man who was not strong enough for this world, and it was painful to admit to himself that he’d need to bring the book with him. It’s a small volume, fortunately, and it jostles along in his left pocket; the usual offering wrapped carefully and tucked into his right.

He takes long, careful breaths and watches the white vapor of his exhales dissolve into the mist. He recalls the questions he used to ask the rabbi when he was a child. So many questions. “What happens to your soul when you die?” “Where do the memories go?” “If there’s no heaven and no hell, how do we meet again?” Eugene smiles a bit to himself, remembering how he’d exasperated the poor man into finally ending with “Some things are just meant to be mysteries.”

Then his daughter’s voice comes back to him. “It isn’t your fault, you know.” He’d been so angry with her for saying that. Yelled out a blue streak he quickly regretted but never apologized for. Intellectually, he knew she was right. But what if… Everyone in the neighborhood knew the path of his morning walks. Up the hill, across the orchard, down again. They could set their clocks by him. What if the boy—it hurts too much to even think his name; even Trudy’s voice breaks on the rare times she talks about her son—what if the boy had hesitated, hoping Eugene would stop him?

Useless to think such things anymore, he tells himself. But still, each year he’s compelled to come here. And once again his feet and trusty Wyeth propel him across the unkempt and sometimes frozen meadow, through the sleeping peach and apple trees. To the one tree. The one he talked them out of cutting down.

It isn’t hard to find, the oak that borders the smaller fruit trees. Over time the boy’s four brothers had memorialized it, each in his own way. One year he saw a smear on it that he swore was lipstick, Trudy’s usual shade. The tree looks lonely. In his imagination he places Trudy beside it, in her blue down coat, her hair wild and not as red as it used to be, waiting for Eugene so they could walk back together.

Wyeth stops, looks back, as if to prompt him. “Thank you, my friend,” Eugene says, getting out the book of poems. He pulls in a breath, steadies himself as he finds the page, whispers the words that are carried away on the breeze. Then, so carefully, he takes the package from his other pocket, unwraps the tissue from the single purple blossom, Trudy’s favorite, and tucks it into a seam in the bark.

As he pats the trunk, in reverence, in regret, in memory, Wyeth starts, letting out a low bark. Eugene looks behind him. His daughter is crossing the meadow, one hand up in somber greeting. For a second his eyes fool him into seeing her as she was then, so small. Standing so straight and brave at the boy’s funeral. Eugene blinks and she’s grown, and married, and out of his house. She leans toward the oak and kisses the bark, right over the spot Trudy’s son James had carved his initials. Then links her arm through his. “If you’re done, Dad, let’s go inside. I’ll make you breakfast.”

Revenge: Flash Fiction

Seriously, who knows where the inspiration comes from pieces like this. I haven’t the foggiest…


Revenge

Once upon a time, a little boy lived in a big city. His father worked long hours; his mother, who never wanted children, ignored him, spending her days flipping through fashion magazines and painting her nails. Sometimes he would hide her favorite things or even break them so she would notice him, but most of the time it didn’t work. When it did, he felt important again. It was worth any punishment she might give him—locking him in the closet, taking away his toys, even giving him the back of her hand—just to see her react to him, just to know that she loved him. Or at least he liked to pretend so.

In fact he would tell everyone at school how wonderful his parents were. He’d brag about his beautiful mother, his rich and powerful father. Some of the bigger boys didn’t like that, and they’d knock him down and steal his lunch money. Worse were the beatings, but he could take that. They weren’t as bad as the ones from his father, when he’d come home on Friday nights smelling funny and red in the face. But one day at recess, six of the boys came for him at the same time, punching him and punching him and calling him terrible names. Blood and tears dripped into the dust of the playground as the boys, laughing and congratulating each other, walked away.

And in that spot, drying his own tears and wiping his bloodied nose with a handkerchief, he made himself a promise. That when he grew up and became as powerful as his father, he would get revenge on all of them. Then he had another thought. Why wait? Why not destroy them now?

He dreamed up how that could be done, then waited until Friday night and told his father about the boys. His father beat him for being weak, said no son of his would let bullies take his money. The boy didn’t protest, because he knew that afterward his father would be calmer and might listen to his plan. And he did. He bought the business three of the boys’ fathers worked for and shut it down, turning the employees out on the street.

The boys only beat him harder, but it was worth it. It was worth it to know that the pain his father could cause others was worse than the pain he was feeling himself.

He grew up, tough and mean on the outside, and eventually took over his father’s business and found his own beautiful wife. But he didn’t like the whispers in the office that he was worse than his father. It made him angry. So angry he’d find someone he could ruin—he had quite a list of enemies to choose from—and for a while, that helped. But soon it didn’t. It was like a hole gaped inside him, and he needed to fill it up. With more money, more revenge, more power, more women. It didn’t matter what it took; he ate other people’s pain like Tic Tacs.

Then one day they tried to make him answer for what they claimed he’d done. He had his secretary read the paperwork to him, and he just laughed. He threw expensive lawyers at them, and lies, and more money. But they kept coming. The attacks so fierce and fast even his fancy dodging couldn’t stop them.

He grew tired. His beautiful wife had fled; his business was nearly bankrupt. His expensive lawyers stopped returning his calls. Then, with no weapons left at his disposal, they came for him. With proof of his misdeeds. With witnesses. The women he’d abused. The colleagues he’d ruined. The customers he’d bilked. He’d never prayed before, but now ensconced in a prison cell and an orange jumpsuit, he dropped to his knees and asked God for forgiveness.

Maybe it was his imagination, maybe it was one of the voices that had begun speaking in his head, but all he heard was laughter.