Gato

It’s not the first time Talisman has come across a human child in this part of his territory. But the sour scent tells him the girl is not well. She’s curled on her side beneath the scratching tree, her dark hair dull and matted, her eyes glassy, her chest nearly still beneath her thin, dirty clothing. Talisman bats at her with a soft paw the way he’s seen the humans do; the only reaction is a delayed shift of her eyes to his. He wills her to hold his gaze. One second. Two seconds. Her lids then fall closed as if keeping them open is too much effort. Has it been enough to convey trust? It’ll have to be. Night falls hard and cold in the desert and he’s loath to leave her unprotected from the coyotes and the grown humans, but she needs nourishment. 

He calls for the human’s mother; surely she’ll not have gone far with her young one so ill, but his cries go unanswered. Still yowling, less and less often as he gets no response, Talisman stretches his body over hers to provide heat and to warn predators away; they’ll also sense the sour aroma on the wind.

Soon Talisman’s mate Kowloon arrives, mewing apologies for being too far afield to hear him. Her amber eyes widen in alarm as she quickly absorbs the situation.

“No grown human tends her?”

Talisman shakes his head.

Then a sound comes from the girl’s throat. “Gato,” she breathes.

Every inch of Kowloon freezes except her tail, which paints the scrubby grass in a slow swish.

Talisman’s throat vibrates to calm the girl…and his mate. Kowloon has bad memories of grown humans, so in a soft mew, trying not to break his soothing spell, he asks her to take his place while he finds the one the humans call Esperanza.

“Don’t worry,” Talisman purrs. “This girl is small and weak and too ill to hurt you.”

“I worry more for you,” Kowloon growls.

“Esperanza is good. I was sick once and she found me and poked me with something sharp like a claw but I got better. She leaves water in the desert for the mothers and children who travel in the night. I’ve seen her do it. The water is trapped in a big container but sometimes she’ll leave a bowl. Agua para los gatos, she said once, and her voice was as soothing as the water itself.”

Kowloon still has reservations, but she changes places with him to keep the girl warm. Talisman presses his forehead to Kowloon’s then slinks off toward the village. It’s better this way. Kowloon is a fierce fighter, and several times tangled with coyote pups who tried to hurt their kittens. She won’t let anything harm the girl.

Esperanza lives in a small house on the far edge of Talisman’s territory. Sometimes he hides in the brush and watches her tend her garden. Always with her eyes soft and smiling.

“Gato,” she says, when he hops up to the windowsill. She’s the only grown human he’ll allow so close. Her hands are rough but her touch is light and warm. “Gato, what is wrong?”

He mews one continuous note of alarm, telling her about the sick young girl, while holding her gaze with his. He hopes she’ll understand. Her mouth presses tight and her eyes narrow. “I will get my things and meet you outside.”

Soon they’re walking through the scrubby grass. Esperanza has a light attached to her head. Light makes Talisman jittery and he wants to hide. A much bigger light suddenly pops on over them and Talisman is all claws, clinging to the base of a small tree. Esperanza stops and puts a hand above her eyes.

Her words are angry now. Two grown human males appear from the dark and Talisman hisses low in his throat. They speak angry words back. Their language is different from hers. One grabs her arm. She jerks it away. Her bag spills as Talisman stalks forward. One human shines his big light on what’s spilled on the ground.

“Soy medica,” Esperanza says. “Doctor.”

The males look at each other and smile. Not a friendly smile. Talisman growls.

“Go on, Esperanza la medica,” one of them says, sweeping his arm forward. “Show us who you are looking for who needs doctoring.”

“El gato knew where to…”

But Talisman’s already gone. He must protect Kowloon, and the child. He’s fast, and strong, and he sees them, a lump of cat and girl beneath the scratching tree.

“Cover her,” Talisman pants, already using his claws and mouth to drag deadfall around the base of the tree. Kowloon helps. “She’s okay?”

“Sleeping,” Kowloon says. Then stops, whiskers twitching. “Humans are coming. I can smell them.”

“Cover her up good and hide with me.” 

They huddle between the scent and the girl.

Talisman sees them. One male to either side of Esperanza, pushing her along. Each male has something shiny attached to his hip. She looks sad and lost. The fur rises on Talisman’s back. “On my count,” he says. “I’ll go left, you go right. One…two…NOW!”

They sink teeth and claws into flesh. They bite and scratch and growl. The men yelp and cry and attempt to slap them away. But they’re too fierce. So fierce that Talisman didn’t see when Esperanza rushed in and stole the shiny things from the men. But she’s screaming at them to leave el gatos alone.

Talisman turns his head just enough to see Esperanza raise one of those shiny things in the air. There’s a noise so loud Talisman leaps back and grabs Kowloon and they roll off into the grass. Talisman quickly rights himself to see Esperanza now pointing the shiny things at the men. They lift their hands to the star-filled sky.

“¡Váyase!” she yells. “If you are not running when I count three, I will shoot. What you do, with the women and children, is very bad.”

And they run. She watches them go, then puts the shiny things in her pockets and starts picking up the items from her spilled bag.

“Gatos,” she whispers. “Gatos, come. We will see to the girl.”

Family Business

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing some preliminary research for a historical novel that’s been nagging at me for a while. I learned that in the early twentieth century, there were about 10,000 kosher delicatessens in Brooklyn. Now there are just a few dozen. This fact inspired a story for #2minutesGo this week. Happy Passover or Easter or Sunday, whichever you celebrate.

——–

The masonry and wood in the basement smelled like decades of everything it had absorbed: corned beef curing in stainless steel bins, cucumbers pickling in barrels, even the German and Yiddish and Russian and Polish words that had been spoken here, as the newer immigrants in Williamsburg supplanted the old. 

Eli’s first trip to the basement was as etched into his memory as the hash marks on the support beams. “See these, boychik?” his father had said. “This is where I keep track of employees that don’t work out so well.”

Pop had been smiling when he said it, so it was probably a lie; nobody knew the real answer. Eli eventually surmised that the marks represented a mundane system of accounting: how many rounds of pastrami, how many pounds of kosher salt, how much black pepper.

He ran a finger over a segment of them, ticked off like days a man might count his prison sentence. 

Eli had never counted.

“Grandpa?”

He swiveled toward his granddaughter. “Yes, Miriam?”

“I’m so hungry for Chinese food and this place is giving me the creeps. Can we please go back up to our table soon?”

“Yes. Very soon.” He peered up along the tops of the walls. It didn’t look much different, except for some new wiring. Telephone. Cable. All the modern conveniences. He took another deep inhale of the literal melting pot the space had become. “You know, I found it immensely comforting to be down here when I was your age.”

“Why, because you could hide from Papa Abramowitz?”

He grinned. Remembering all the hours he’d spent here. “Your great-grandfather was a pussycat. No. It wasn’t like that. I liked that it was quiet. I liked when we were working down here, just the two of us. He was so busy running the restaurant that this was sometimes the only time we spent alone together.”

Still with her arms hugged around her skinny middle, she picked her way over, through what was now extra cases of paper take-out containers and soy sauce packets. She stopped a few feet away from him. How much of her mother, her grandmother he could see in her face.

“That sounds nice,” she said. “I wish I could work like that with my dad. Well. I can’t paint like he can. But, you know. Help with stuff. Buy new brushes and write in the little book which paintings he’s sold.”

So serious, my little Miriam.He was thrilled that she agreed to this weekend together. Soon she would be of an age not to be caught dead wandering around Brooklyn with an old man. Eli plucked his hat off his head and plopped it onto hers; she tilted it at a jaunty angle and made a movie star face at him, which always made him laugh.

“But let me ask you something, mein aynikl. Did you ever ask if you could?”

Her gaze dropped to the concrete floor. Then she peered up at him. “Did you ask Papa Abramowitz?”

“Ask! There was no asking back then. It was the family business. We just did.”

“But we have a family business.”

“Yes. I suppose you do.”

She took off his hat and smooshed it back on his head. “I’ll ask him. I’ll ask him when we get home. But please. Please, please, can we go upstairs and eat now?”

“Go on.” He pressed a hand to her thin shoulder. “I’ll be right behind you.” He had a feeling he would never see this place again, and, unlike the last time he’d left, he wanted to say a proper goodbye.

————

Photo: City Foodsters [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

The Council: Biden Edition

This week’s flash fiction was inspired by current events. Warning: weaponized political satire in operation. Proceed at your own risk. Don’t try this at home. And if the men in black suits show up at my door, it’s been nice knowing you.

——

Forty-four leaned back in his computer chair, rubbing his temples.

“Honey.” Michelle had just come in from the garden. “What’s wrong? Joe again?”

It was easy enough to guess; Obama-and-Joe internet memes slid one after the other across his screen. Going through the Biden folder sometimes lifted his spirits, but it wasn’t working. He’d gone up to Delaware, took him out for a beer, saw all the new pictures of the grandchildren. He told Joe the world was different now. There were things you couldn’t do anymore. A teary-eyed Biden had thanked him effusively, then grabbed him in a bear hug and landed a big fat kiss on his cheek.

He was starting to believe that nothing he told the man would make any difference. It was a bitter pill to swallow. Here he’d been trying to bring change to the country, and he couldn’t even change Joe Biden. Maybe nobody could.

“I’m starting to think you’re right about him,” he said.

“You know I am. I’ve spent time with that man. He’s not going to change. But he does need to feel useful. He needs to feel that he can still make a difference. You know what to do.”

After she left, he picked up the phone.

—–

“Man, thank you for this.” Joe grabbed Forty-four’s arm as the former president swung his car off the Beltway toward Earl’s neighborhood. “A mission. Like old times.”

Maybe this was not Forty-four’s best idea. But it was too late now. He’d already made arrangements with Earl. The Council was expecting them. If he could sell this idea, maybe all was not lost. Lord knows they’d been short of ideas lately. “Look. Before we go in, there’s a few things I need to make you aware of.”

Joe waved a hand. “Yeah, yeah. I get it. Mum’s the word. Secret society and all that. I get it, and believe me, I’m honored.” He grinned like a kid. “So, they’re all gonna be there, really?”

“Be cool, Joe. I mean it.”

“How come this is my first invite?”

“Excuse me, but when were you president?”

“I could have been. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Hillary’s in, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t have—”

“Special circumstances,” Forty-four said. “And don’t call her that when we’re at Earl’s. Forty-three-and-a-half will do.”

Biden tapped a finger on the side of his nose, gangster-like. “Ah. I get it. So what’s my number?”

“We don’t usually…” Damn. That hang-dog face. “Okay. We’ll call you Forty-four-and-a-half. Work for you?”

“Fine and dandy.”

—–

As Forty-four figured, Joe lit upon Earl like the old friends they were. A tap on the arm warned him to cut it short, as the others had started arriving.

“Thank you for your indulgence,” Forty-four said as they all got seated. “I think you’ll find that our guest has some very special skills to bring to the table.”

Thirty-nine nodded sagely after a long clasp of Joe’s hand, as did Forty-three after a deep look into each other’s eyes. Forty-two seemed also in agreement, and pleased to see his former colleague. But Forty-three-and-a-half smirked and said under her breath, “What are they going to do, out-gaffe each other? Smell each other’s hair?”

“Now, Hill,” Forty-two said. “She’s been a little out of sorts lately.”

The look she gave him would wither most men. Forty-two just smiled. Forty-four did not want to be him on the car ride home. He didn’t blame her, though. Having to hear that “lock her up” nonsense everywhere she goes.

“Now if you’ll indulge me a moment, I have an idea. Forty-four-and-a-half here is going to help.”

Joe broke into an impish smile. “I’m gonna give him the business.”

Silence.

It lasted until Forty-three, steepling his fingers under his chin, said, “Perhaps you haven’t taken a full measure of our adversary.”

“Full measure? I’ve been measuring that guy since the first day he even thought about taking our jobs. And forgive me for saying so, but I’ll tell ya the God’s honest truth. You’ve been doing it all wrong.”

“Oh, please do elaborate,” Hillary said.

“Thank you. Madam Secretary, I mean, Forty-three-and-a-half.” He winked at her. “See, he thinks he’s this big tough guy. And most of what you’ve tried on him was tough-guy measures. Barry—sorry, Forty-four—remember how you made fun of him at that Correspondent’s Dinner, and he lost his ever-loving mind? Why don’t we just weaponize it?”

“A weapon of mass satirical destruction,” Forty-one mused, his eyes twinkling.

Joe pointed at Bush the Younger. “He gets it. Dontcha see? We go crazy with the memes. Find one of them Russian bot thingies to spread ’em around. Everywhere he goes, he’s met with an army of orange baby balloons. Then we can hire Alec Baldwin…”

“He’s gonna stroke out.” Forty-two hid a guilty smile behind his hand.

“Wait,” Forty-three-and-a-half said. “Can we get plausible deniability on that?”

“That’s why we’re keeping you out of it. Take a walk in the woods or something. Write another memoir.”

“Screw that,” she said. “I want to be there when it happens.”

“No.” The strength of Forty-four’s voice surprised him. And that he was now on his feet. “The last face he sees…is gonna be mine.”

Flash Fiction: The Caddy

I was putting his nine iron back in the bag when the thunder started. Which was weird because the sky was almost totally clear. But in Florida, you never knew. You’d think we’d be used to the changing weather, but there was something different about this rumble. It sounded like a warning.

At least he thought so because I swear he flinched.

I’d only caddied for him a few times, when his regular guy couldn’t make it. “Everything all right, sir?”

“Yeah. Yeah, fine.” Making a tight fit in the passenger seat of his golf cart, he wiggled a hand into the front pocket of his khakis and came out with a sweaty ten-dollar bill and shoved it at me. “Kid, take a walk, okay?”

I took a walk. I’m not stupid. The pay there was shitty. I only worked for tips. And, occasionally, whatever food was left over.

Still, I had this sense of something not quite right. If his heart finally exploded (and among the caddies we were taking bets as to when) I didn’t want to be the guy who walked off and left his charge in trouble on the back nine. I’d never work in this town again. So I took a few steps away and hid behind a bunker.

“What?” he said, seemingly to no one. “Seriously, in the middle of one of my best games—”

Lightning flashed. Like that sky-to-ground shit. So close I nearly pissed myself.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Whatever. You want me to stop lying so much. Sure. I can do that.”

Thunder. It sounded like the sky was laughing.

“Watch me, loser. I got this.”

Loser. He’d called God loser? Because that was another thing discussed among the caddies. That while he played the course, he talked to God. And it wasn’t always respectful. He talked to God like he was someone who worked for him. I never called myself that religious, but even I knew that wasn’t right. You don’t call bullshit on God. If you want to live.

Another rumble came like a question.

He threw his hand up. “Because it’s easier than the truth,” he said. “Hell, nobody cares what you tell them. I know what they wanna hear. And it ain’t the truth. If I went out and told the truth I’d lose a million Twitter followers, easy. I’d never sign a boob again.”

The sky responded. The clouds darkening. “For fuck’s sake, how can you be that naïve? You must be a Democrat.”

I totally expected lightning after that. Like, for the whole club to get blasted off the face of the earth. I even put my arms up over my head.

Nothing.

He shot his middle finger toward the sky. “Pussy. Loser. I don’t know what those evangelicals see in you. Maybe they’re smoking something. I think you fucked it up, and you fucked it up big, and now you’re trying to blame it on someone else.”

I’d never heard thunder that loud before. It shook the ground.

But the man only chuckled. “Obviously you’ve forgotten we had a deal. And that you signed a solid NDA. I’ll have your ass in court so fast you won’t believe it. Acosta won’t even believe it.”

The sky responded and the man laughed louder.

That was when I saw it. The dark spot at the edge of the rough. He was facing away from me, and the words flooded my brain, as insistent as a command from…well, Him. “You know what to do,” I swore it was saying, and for some reason I could not take my eyes from the iron sticking farther out of the bag than the others.

I crawled over there—fortunately he was occupied with whatever trash-talk he was doing with the Big Guy—inched it out of the bag and, employing skills I’d honed playing pool and darts in many, many bars, I sailed it true and it landed near the dark spot.

Thunder sounded like a snort of amusement.

“What?” The man turned. I ducked away, back behind the bunker. “Aw, who the fuck left that over there. Caddy. Caddy? Hey. Pablo!”

My name was Juan.

He worked his cell phone out of his pocket. “No fucking signal. We had a deal. We had a deal! Five fucking big shiny bars wherever the hell I am.” A slow, rolling peal of thunder. “Fine. Be that way. I’ll just have to get it myself. No thanks to you.”

He tossed the phone onto the seat next to him and struggled to pull his bulk from the cart. Scowling, he lumbered across the green toward the rough. As he was bending, he clutched his chest, dropped to the grass, and it seemed the earth, through that dark spot, opened up to swallow him.

I could do nothing but stare for what felt like minutes. Then I snuck out from behind my hiding space, got the club, cleaned it up pretty, and put it back in the bag. The sky looked a little lighter. The dark spot was just as green as the rest of the thirteenth hole. I thought it best to leave the cell phone where he’d dropped it.

I felt something then, like a hand in my shirt pocket. Very slowly, I checked it and found a crisp new twenty.

I’m not stupid. I dropped that twenty into the first church collection bin I saw.

Carla

This week I was inspired to go a little dark. Some parts of this story are based on actual incidents. I learned why I never go to that pharmacy.

———

“Ma’am?”

The syllable filters down like mist, drifts around in her head as she parses the inflection and what it wants of her. Everybody wants something. Read this, join us, click here, you won’t believe what happens next. Get mad, get religion, get woke, donate to save the polar bears. Save democracy. Save the planet. Save the children. Save your soul while you still can…

“Ma’am, I have to close the store now.”

Store. She clasps something in the faded-denim valley of her crossed legs. Cotton balls. Jumbo size. She doesn’t remember needing cotton balls. She doesn’t remember coming here. She never comes to this pharmacy. But she can’t remember why. The slippery package feels nice in her hands. Cool. Soft. Comforting. There’s a background hum—ventilation maybe—the air is clean and antiseptic, the floor carpeted. Before her sparkles a mirrored wall of wands and lacquers and tubes, but she can only see slices of her face. Face slices. The words and image make her laugh…softly, to herself, before her throat tightens and the tears threaten to return.

“Ma’am.” Now it’s a plea. “Ma’am, I need to go pick up my kids. Is there someone I can call?”

“Carla,” she tells the heavens. Remembering how her mother loved it. Loved crooning it to her to chase away the pain.

“Oh…kay. Does this Carla person have a number?”

“I’m Carla. My name is Carla. I’m not ‘Car.’ I’m not ‘ma’am,’ I’m not ‘honey,’ I’m not ‘libtard,’ I’m not ‘snowflake,’ I’m not…” The tears choke off her voice before she can say it. Crazy.

Silence from above, except for the buzz of fluorescent lights. It skitters across her nerve endings. Now she remembers why she doesn’t come here. He shook his head at her when she said that about the buzz; he walked away and turned on the television. Those loud, braying mouths spewing garbage. Like his.

He can’t walk away anymore. Or watch that network.

“Okay, Carla.” She pinpoints the source of the sound. A loudspeaker mounted to the ceiling. The voice is slow and deliberate. Almost kind. But she doesn’t quite believe it. “How are we going to get you home?”

An image flashes through her mind and she shakes her head violently. The slices of her face dance. Face slice dance. Not funny. Not funny anymore. She clutches the cotton balls more tightly to her middle and with the unlacquered finger of one hand traces patterns in the dried, rust-red dots on her jeans. “Oh. Oh, I’m not going home. I’m never going home.”

Nonessentially Essential

Terry was supposed to have been home by now. Done with all this. That was the deal. Pete had made dinner, fed the kids, took care of the dog, the cats, the dishes, the laundry, the playdates, the bills…keeping himself active now to stem the barrage of disaster scenarios. Accidents and phones dead and emergency rooms and—

Stop.

He took a deep breath. Two. Three. Four. Checked his phone again to make sure he hadn’t missed her. Some accident of interstellar space keeping her voice from its landing pad, some defect in the system. Once he had two voice mails and the little button on his phone never told him.

Nope. Nothing.A low rumble started from far away. He felt it in his fingertips, pressed against the countertop. The rattle in the windows pounding in his heart.

“Dad. Dad!” Mark, all of seven, came barreling in, hair askew, eyes wild. “Dad. It’s one of those big planes. I can tell by the lights! Come see!”

A fifth breath. He’d been hearing more and more of those engines shaking the house. Cargo planes from the air force base, an hour away. Headed god knows where with how much killing power.

He went outside with his son. A clear, cold night. Stars twinkling. The sort of night Terry had written poems about, before she took on this new assignment… Before she tore a hole in the tapestry of their everyday. Before terrible meals and unmade beds and lonely nights. So many lonely nights. He knew this was the deal. Didn’t mean he liked it. Didn’t mean he hadn’t had the occasional fantasy of driving to Washington and punching a few politicians in the face.

“Dad!” Mark was shouting, pointing up.

Pete had never seen lights move that slowly across the sky. Hovering. Taking one last, long glimpse at what its passengers would be leaving behind.

“I think it’s a Galaxy!” Mark waved. As if the people on board could see him. “Like the one Mom was in! Dad. You think she’ll come back in one, too? Maybe this time we can see it?”

His throat tightened. His hand landed on Mark’s thin, twitchy shoulder. “Yeah. Maybe. We’ll see. Let’s go in now, son. Cold out here.”

He went back to busywork, diverting his attention. Long ago he’d stopped watching the news; he didn’t want to know what had exploded where. “Just keep in touch when you can,” he’d said, mustering all his energy to quash some Y chromosome throwback—or voice of his father—telling Terry that her place was with them. Not in some godforsaken country doing thankless work for ungrateful leaders, where every day could be her last.

“I have to try,” she’d said. A near-death experience shining a new light in her eyes, as bright as the stars she wrote about. “I have skills they need. Getting girls into schools. Teaching them to read, to have a chance to improve their lives. I have to serve.”

“But couldn’t you do that here? Somewhere safe?”

She laughed, a soft laugh, pressing a cool hand to his cheek. A strong hand, one that had held babies through sickness and health, through joy and pain. Yet tender enough to calm his greatest fears.

She couldn’t calm this one. It would have been so easy: don’t go.

He’d reasoned, he’d fumed, he’d tried so many ways to get her to see things from his point of view. But in the end he gave up the fight. Because he eventually realized that when she came home—and he wouldn’t even allow “if” into his head—he wanted her to come home to him. 

Three months, she’d said. That was what she’d signed on for. Six months ago. 

He put the kids to bed, watched something unremarkable on television, put a leash on the dog for one last, quick walk.

Half a block later, under a canopy of stars and silence, his phone rang.

Terry. His blood pressure dropped twenty points just hearing her voice, hearing her tell him about the work she’d done, the lives she’d bettered. He held his tongue each time he thought “what about our lives?” But then he saw a shooting star. Making a wish on it like his mother always told him. Wishing he could make peace with her decision.

“Honey, you still there?”

“Uh. Yeah. Sorry.” The connection was bad. Why did she sound so flat?

“I said, is next Tuesday good? Around six?”

“Good. Good for…?” Damn. So self-involved, so absorbed with how this was making his life a holy mess that he didn’t…

“For meeting me at the base. They’re done with me. I’m coming home. Or would you prefer I call an Uber?”

“Wait. Done with you?”

The pause broke his heart a little. In it, he imagined a frown, a shrug. A brave face. “No money, no nonessential services.”

Those bastards. “They can’t just—”

“Yeah.” The sound this time was a definite sigh. “They can.”

His Y chromosome went into overdrive. “We’ll find you something else. Some other way you can help. There are plenty of girls here, poor neighborhoods, schools that need help…”

Was that a laugh? It was a soft laugh, a little sad, but it made him stop. And smile.

“Whoa, cowboy,” she said. “I want to talk about that, I want to talk about all of it, but let’s wait until I get home, okay?”

“Yeah.” His voice broke. He cleared his throat. “We’ll do that, yeah.”

After they ended the call, he petted his patient dog’s soft ears, and the two of them finished their walk silently, gratefully, under the dome of stars.

The Council: Goodbye, Forty-one

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

—————–

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. 

————————

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.”