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.”

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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.”

Cerulean: Flash Fiction

This week’s 2-Minutes-Go story is not political. I hope you enjoy it.


Cerulean

Eugene had run out of cerulean. How he’d used up his entire supply of paint the color of a cloudless sky over Woodstock in early autumn, like the one that now surrounded him, was a circumstance he couldn’t fathom. Nor could he fathom the luck that his old car started up on the first try and had already made it to the main road. He didn’t remember the last time he’d driven it. But the vision he held so gently in his mind—the sparkle of last night’s rain on the pines, so sharp he could smell it, the freshness of the wind-scrubbed sky—couldn’t wait for his daughter to return from her honeymoon; couldn’t wait for the UPS truck to deliver his shipment, if he were even successful in ordering. Miriam did all that for him. Ordered supplies, picked up groceries, paid the bills. Even cooked his meals.

“Nothing is going to change, Dad,” she’d said as she picked up her suitcase, giving him a too-bright smile that reminded him of his late mother-in-law. “We’ll only be ten minutes away.”

Ten minutes. He could die in ten minutes. But he’d said nothing. Just wished her well and returned to his studio, the echo of each thump of his cane reverberating around the bungalow.

He pushed the memories away and turned left, into the art store’s parking lot. At least it wasn’t crowded. After snapping off the ignition and thanking the old girl for her troubles, he closed his eyes and pressed the names of the items he needed into his mind. Cerulean. Cerulean. Was it also phthalo green? Did he have enough to last until Miriam returned? Damn it. He should have taken inventory. He should have made a list. Why hadn’t Miriam left a list?

A knock on his window made him flinch. He clapped a hand to his chest when he saw the smiling face leaning toward him, the soft hand waving. “Oh, good god,” Eugene muttered under his breath. The young man—maybe not so young, but at nearly eighty, almost everyone looked young to him—owned one of the local galleries. He’d been after Eugene for months—years—to do a solo show, a retrospective, of all distasteful things. Like he was already dead.

One of the reasons Eugene dreaded going into town. He sucked in a breath and undid his seatbelt, reached for the handle…and it was already being opened for him.

He had one of those modern names. Justin… Jason…

“Good morning, Mr. Sokolov.”

Eugene hated that, too. Sokolov was his father, his grandfather. And the way Justin or Jason pronounced it, with a Russian accent, also rankled.

But Miriam was always after him for being short with people, so he tried, despite how it pained him. “Thank you,” he said. “And good morning to you, too.”

The man’s smile broadened as Eugene’s fell. This is why I don’t invite conversation, he would say to Miriam. Because then they don’t let you go home and paint.

“It’s hard to imagine you here,” Jason or Justin said.

“A painter. At an art supply store?”

The young man’s cheeks flushed. Which somehow pleased Eugene. “Well.” He cleared his throat. “An artist of your caliber. It’s hard to imagine that you need something as earthly as oil paints and brushes.”

“With what else do you expect that I paint? Blood and shit and my own fingers?”

The young man seemed to shrink. Jake. That was the man’s name. How odd. When he was a child in Brooklyn, Jake was a Jewish name. It was his grandfather’s name. Jacob. Now Eugene felt sorry for this Jake. Guilty for being deliberately cruel. Yet apologies stuck in his throat around an image of his zayda Jacob, tall and strong and stern. And his words: “We survived the tsar and his Cossacks and his pogroms. Sokolovs apologize for nothing.”

Eugene said, “I hope you’ll excuse me. I’m only here for paint and then I must go.”

“Of course.” Jake held up his hands. “I don’t want to stand in the way of inspiration.” His gaze drifted to Eugene’s unsteady right leg. Instinctively Eugene straightened, even though he needed to hold on to the open car door to do it. “But…can I help you?”

“No. Thank you.” Eugene closed the door much more gently than he would have liked to—the old girl didn’t deserve his anger—and turned toward the shop’s entrance. Stairs. Damn it. He’d forgotten about the stairs. He forced his legs forward. Aware of Jake’s eyes on him. Judging him. Calculating. Wondering if he should ask again about that goddamned show. Or would he wait until Eugene’s death made his work that much more valuable.

But the stairs. So much higher than Eugene remembered. God forbid he fell in front of this man. In the middle of town. Cursing his vanity that kept his cane at home, he said, “One painting. I’ll let you show one painting. If you help me get inside.”

The Translator

This week’s flash fiction bit was inspired by current events. With a twist. I hope you enjoy it.


The translator had dreamed in different languages before—bits of this and spots of that blending together into linguistic soup, or the frustration of not remembering words she needed to say. But never dreams like this. Nightmares, really. The men’s faces loomed like mountains over her head, their eyes laser-sharp. “Tell us,” they said. “Tell us what you heard.” This time, they’d locked her in a small room, left her alone in the dark. It was cold and damp and she was hungry and they’d taken her shoes. The door bashed open, the shock so great that she’d woken, sweating, heart racing. The comfort of someone sleeping next to her would have been welcome. The steady breathing, the warmth. The thing she missed most about him.

Comfort had come in a cup of hot tea, a breath of the night air. She had both on her small terrace, and she curled into her chair, imagining the stars through the orange-black haze of the sky. Stars that didn’t need human language.

A light winked on and her neighbor’s terrace door slid open. Sam stepped out, a robe over his pajamas, both hanging loose on his thin frame. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

“No, it’s okay.” She sat up, straightening her nightgown. Their terraces shared a railing. A feature she hadn’t been crazy about when she took the apartment, but Sam and Trish were considerate neighbors, both retired from their government desk jobs, and the translator traveled a great deal. “My body clock is still messed up from traveling. Seems I’ve forgotten when to sleep.”

“Occupational hazard?”

He didn’t know the half of it. She wouldn’t lie about that occupation when asked, but she didn’t like to advertise it. She detested the inevitable questions—if she’d met such-and-such world leader, if she’d ever translated something wrong and caused an international incident. “Something like that.”

“Boy, I tell ya.” He scrubbed a hand over his receding hairline. “The news lately is what’s keeping me up at night.”

She nodded. “That, too.” There were so many voicemails on her phone that she’d turned it off. Her palms grew sweaty, her throat tight when she remembered what a colleague had called to warn her about. That Congress would try to subpoena her over what was said in Helsinki, a breach of her professional ethics. Never again, she thought. Never again would she take a job where there was no press, no backup. She had the seniority to refuse an assignment; perhaps it was time to start.

Perhaps it was time to retire. Would she then need to keep what was said confidential? For the good of the country, could she reveal the startling and worrisome things the men had discussed? The thought gave her more comfort. The dark SUV across the street did not. “Sam.” She tipped her head toward the road. “Has that car been sitting there for a long time?”

He squinted into the distance. “Not sure. I think I saw it this morning. Why? Think they’re up to something?”

It could have been any of them. An agent with the subpoena. Or someone from either side who wanted to shut her up. She swallowed and said, “Follow me and close the door behind you.” As quietly as she could, she set down her tea, got up, walked back into her apartment, and started repacking her suitcase.

After she briefed him on her situation, he said, “Is there something we can do?”

“Yes. If anyone asks you, tell them you don’t know where I’ve gone.”

His thick white eyebrows knit together. “But you haven’t said—”

“Exactly. It’s safer for you and Trish that way.”

He put up a hand. “Just give me a minute. Please.”

She didn’t know why she waited. Maybe the suddenly serious glint in his gray eyes. She continued her packing. Passport. State Department ID. All the cash she had on hand. Then her door opened. Sam, fully dressed now, had Trish with him. Trish was stuffing what looked like a gun into the waistband of her jeans. A shoulder harness peeked out from Sam’s jacket. “Let’s go,” Trish said, flashing an FBI badge.

The translator couldn’t get the words out. In any language. She stammered, “Am I…under arrest?”

“No.” Sam picked up her suitcase. “We’re taking you someplace safe.”

The Language of Payday: Flash Fiction

Becky can’t speak much Spanish, but she knows the language of payday. She knows when it’s five o’clock on Thursday, at least during the growing season. That’s when the men in the red T-shirts pile in to cash their checks and buy groceries. Some of her coworkers complain that they’re loud and stink of sweat and the fields, but Becky smiles just seeing them in the parking lot, tumbling out of a series of yellow buses. She thinks they’re cute—well, some of them—and they’re always friendly to her and very polite.

She has her eye on the last worker in line at the check-cashing counter. The other men call him Pablo. It’s only his third week. Even though the rest of the men are laughing and joking around, Pablo doesn’t speak. Last Thursday, he came to her register, unloaded his items as if they were treasure, counting on his fingers and pursing his lips when he realized he was one bottle of Pepsi over the express line limit.

“No problema,” she said, and checked him through. His smile so gentle, his eyes so sweet, his relief like a word balloon over his head before he plucked up his bags, mouthing “gracias, gracias” as he hightailed it for the bus.

“Hey, is this the express line or what?”

A flush runs up Becky’s cheeks when she realizes she’s been ignoring her customer.

“Sorry.” She hustles items over the scanner.

“Can’t you do something about that?”

“I’m sorry, what?”

The woman, bone thin with a bad dye job and overplucked eyebrows, waves a hand toward the men at the counter. “I don’t know, like not letting them in all at once, or something?”

“They’re just cashing their checks,” Becky says.

“And I wanted to buy my Camels. Now I have to wait. Since I can’t buy them at the register anymore.”

“I can get them for you, if you like.”

The woman sniffs. “Hello? Express lane? Then you’ll be making everybody else wait and they’ll be looking at me like I’m the bad guy.” She turns to the six customers behind her. “All of you mind waiting while Becky here gets my cigs?”

Nobody makes a peep. The third customer turns to the fourth, and they share an eyeroll.

“It’s no trouble, ma’am, and it won’t take very long. Or I can ask someone else to—”

“Forget it,” the woman says. “I’m running late. Just ring me up.”

Becky catches Dave the supervisor out of the corner of her eye, already warming up his unhappy-customer smile. “Is there a problem here?”

“You should open more registers.” The woman stares pointedly at the line of men.

“I’m sorry you had to wait. I can offer you a coupon for twenty percent off your next—”

She’s still watching the men. Becky wonders if she’s aware that her hand has tightened around her pocketbook. “Are they even legal?”

Becky’s neck muscles stiffen. She can’t even get the first word, the first thought out before the woman, eyes narrowed, marches over to the check-cashing line.

“You don’t belong here,” she shouts. “Lemme see some ID.”

Pablo bolts for the door.

“Watch my register,” Becky says to Dave. “Please?” She runs after him. Finds him huddled in the last seat in the last bus.

His Spanish is rapid and she thinks she hears the words for “family” and “work” and he looks like he’s trying not to cry.

“I don’t understand.” She eases toward him. “No hablo…that fast. Pablo… How can I help you? Is there someone I can call?” She wracks her brain for the words. Teléfono, she knows. Then she remembers from some long-ago high school Spanish class: “¿Puedo ayudar?”

He stops talking and looks up. His eyes. So sweet. He pulls a worn wallet from his dirty jeans. Shows an identification card, next to a picture of two small girls. She’s seen ID like that before. It’s an H2-A visa. All the migrant workers have them.

She looks at him, puzzled. “You’re legal, you’re here to work on the farms. Why didn’t you just—?” Of course. He must have heard the threats. “Here.” She pulls a pad and pen from her apron. “What do you want?”

“¿Que?”

“Food. Groceries. ComidaTú quieres…? Tell me. Yo quiero pagar…” Damn, what was that word? Not to pay, but to buy. “I want to buy it for you. And I’ll get you”—she pointed to his paycheck—“dinero. Until next week. You can pay me next week. Or whenever.”

When she had him all squared away with the few items he needed, plus a bottle of Pepsi and an extra twenty bucks, Becky returned to her register. “Thank you,” she told Dave. “Did that customer get her cigarettes?”

“No,” he said. “And she won’t be a customer anymore. At least not here.”

Missed Connections

This quirky bit of short fiction was inspired by the “Missed Connections” section of Craigslist. I hope you enjoy it.


Missed Connections

Cotton Candy Cat Girl

You were standing behind the door of a stalled outbound Green Line train at three thirty Tuesday afternoon. Leggings with white cat faces in a sea of black. Pink streaks in your long white hair that made me think of taffy and bubble gum and girl singers from the eighties. You were reading something on your phone that made you smile. I won’t be able to sleep until I know what it was. Maybe you missed me, a skinny redheaded freckled guy in a Spider-Man T-shirt, staring at you from the inbound side, wishing time would freeze, longing for a non-pervy look into your closet. But in case you glanced up, for only a second, or even if you didn’t, let’s meet in the middle and share TBR lists.

Doe Eyes on the Green Line

I was so engrossed in rereading the first Harry Potter book—crushed so hard on those Weasly twins when I was a kid, or is that TMI?—that I barely noticed the T had stalled out north of Kenmore. Maybe it was the rush of the train passing on the opposite tracks that pulled my attention. Maybe it was you. I saw your eyes through the window. Soft, like a doe’s. And you smiled. So tell me, tall, dark, and handsome in the black muscle tee on the Tuesday afternoon train. I’ve never done anything like this, and maybe you were just smiling at my punky self like “look at the freak,” but if those eyes were meant for me, let’s meet for a brew somewhere and see where this leads.

Cat Girl, Why So Blue?

I didn’t think I’d see you again, or that you’d even get my message. But there you were at five thirty on Friday, on the outbound C train, your cotton-candy hair now streaked with blue. Does it change with your moods, like those old rings my mom has? I wish I could make it pink again. If you looked out your window you might have seen me crossing Beacon Street against the lights—yeah, I’m a rebel like that—with beer and comic books and a pizza. If you remember the guy in the Flash T-shirt carrying a bunch of stuff while drivers honked at him, maybe we can split a pizza one day. Unless you’re vegan. It’s hard to tell anymore.

Crossing Paths at Park Street

Thursday at eleven a.m. at the Park Street station. Our eyes met across the platform. Your gaze dropped to my checkered Chuck Taylors and you smiled, in a better sort of way than before. So maybe I’m not so much of a freak as I think I am. Or you were looking for something to brighten the reason you were wearing a suit in the middle of the day in the middle of July. But then a train came, and when it pulled away you were gone. I hope you got the job. Or got out of the ticket. Message me and let’s talk about it. I’m a good listener.

Rainbow Brite

Friday afternoon, about two. You were sitting at an outdoor café in Coolidge Corner, blue and pink now braided together like dancing rainbow ribbons, with something tall and frosty in front of you. I was on the inbound C train, and I almost pulled the cord to get out, but I thought that would be kinda creepy. Also, you looked like you were waiting for someone. I hope whoever it was showed. Because that’s not right, to leave a cool Rainbow Brite girl like you stranded on the corner. I might have to challenge the person to a duel or something, and I have a feeling I would probably suck at that.

Was It Something I Said?

It might have been amusing, if life were a rom-com, and if I was being played by that girl from Juno, to have two or three guys come up to my table and ask if they could join me. You know, with that la-la-lasoundtrack behind us. And then I’d have to tell them, “No, I’m waiting for this random guy I met a handful of times and all I know about him is that I think he likes my wardrobe.” Funny, huh? Totally hilarious. So I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and convince myself that your mother’s cousin’s hairdresser needed you to change a flat or something. Same place on Monday?

Color Me Baffled on the B Line

I thought you smiled at me on Saturday afternoon, across a sardine-crowded outbound Green Line car at Copley Station, but that could have been wishful thinking. Or my overactive imagination. I mean, who knows? Maybe I’m invisible. Like I’m a spirit traveling through time and I’m the only one who can see my body. Color me baffled, but you sort of gave off that vibe today. Like you’d just realized you’re also not part of this dimension. Is that why you’d washed the streaks out of your hair? Why you were wearing all black? Maybe there’s another plane we can meet in.

Fool Me Once, Shame On You. Fool Me Twice, You Suck.

Saturday night you said your name was Rafael and that I was the most beautiful girl you’d ever seen in a train station. You twirled your finger around a lock of my hair and said some romantic-sounding words in a language I didn’t understand. Or the music in the club was too loud. Maybe you really did apologize for the no-show in Coolidge Corner. Two drinks in I was ready to go home with you and find out where the trail of your tattoos led. Then that Latina chick slithered by and called you Enrique. You didn’t correct her. That phone call you got right after must have been important. By the way, you owe me twenty for the bar bill. Donate it to your favorite charity. A scholarship fund for the women you leave behind. Or use it to buy a goddamn clue.

Watercolor Painting Freeze-Frame

Mom’s eyebrows rose when I said that once again I’d seen you, a palette of somber shades on a Monday morning, dashing across Beacon Street to beat the rain. She doesn’t believe in missed connections, in the Doppler Effect, in two trains passing in the night. If fate wanted, it would have us meet in the middle, a watercolor painting freeze-frame of two hands pressed on either side of a window. Well, that’s not exactly what she said. In truth it was more like “schmuck, what are you waiting for?” But I like my version better. It has more hope, more life, more magic. What if it’s not the Green Line at all where we keep missing, but the Hogwarts Express?

Damsel in Distressed Denim

You didn’t strike me as the kind of person who reads Missed Connections, so I’m posting this to the universe and hope you see these words. Thank you for the handkerchief—we both knew I couldn’t blame all the tears on the rain. You’re a kind man, and the world needs more kind men, and your wife is a very lucky woman. I wish I knew how the two of you met, but since you got off at Copley, I didn’t get to ask, so it leaves me to imagine. I’m seeing another handkerchief, another rainstorm, another damsel in distress. She’s probably wise and funny; she’d probably be proud of you for helping me. So this guy wasn’t the one. It’s hardly the end of the world—I’ll just throw my D&D dice and let fate take me for a spin.

All by Myself on the Top of the Shelf Looking Down

Maybe my mother was right. I kind of felt like a schmuck when I saw you on the Park Street platform Tuesday afternoon with that guy. You in black Chuck Taylors (how many pairs do you have!) and your hair snagged into a high pony; him like a billboard for Muscle-Man Gym. It’s none of my business. We don’t even know each other’s names. But the hole that gnawed at my stomach when I saw the two of you together, the way he touched your arm…that had a name, and it wasn’t pretty. So I went home to the part of the movie where they’d show montages of me being all bummed and alone. Sorting my superhero socks, alone. Eating my cornflakes, alone. Shopping for comic books, alone. But I can’t shake this Spidey-sense that he was the kind of guy you thought you should go for, and that I—maybe you’ll also think I’m a schmuck for saying this—was a guy you might want to get to know. A little. Maybe. A guy can hope.

Missing Something?

Hey, cute freckle-faced dude in the Avengers T-shirt who jumped off that wicked jam-packed Green Line train at Washington Street, so fast you left your comic books behind: I’ll keep the bag in a safe place until you answer this message. Well, after I read them. You have great taste in comics.

My Rainbow Connection

You in pink Chucks and pink tights and pink hair, you with a rainbow of colors in your kaleidoscope eyes, a smile I know is for me because there’s no one else in the car leaving Kenmore Square at eleven p.m. on a Wednesday. You stand and walk toward me and take the seat next to me, lean your head against my shoulder, and for a long time, we say nothing. It feels right, like we’re two magnets, and I can almost hear a ping that makes us visible again. Like the two halves of Shazam’s magic ring. You smell like coffee and donuts and books; you tell me that you’ve always liked guys with red hair and freckles. Your number sits on my phone like a promise. So I don’t even need to post this message. Maybe I just wanted to thank Missed Connections for existing? Or maybe I’m just sticking my tongue out at that guy who was never going to be good enough for you. So, Cotton Candy Girl, would you mind if once in a while I posted here, wrote some goopy stuff to make people believe in happy endings? Or is that too weird? I’ll let you decide.

The Sinkhole: Flash Fiction

A story in the news this week caught my attention. But, really, how could I help myself?

——

The smell came from a dark, thick patch of grass near the fence. Momma always said that the grass is always greener over the septic tank, or maybe that was the title of a book she liked. So I went to tell the groundskeeper.

He laughed and patted my head, something I’d never liked, but I held my tongue because I was getting paid decent money for mowing the grass and didn’t want to make him mad. “Rich people’s shit stinks just like the rest of us,” he said, then told me he’d take care of it.

He didn’t take care of it.

Next time I came, the patch was darker, and bigger, and needed a serious mowing. I got as close to it as I could stand. My eyes were watering from the smell. The grass was soggy, and maybe I was just imagining it, but it looked like the whole patch was kind of…sinking in the middle.

“Kid.”

My stomach cramped. It could have been the smell. But I knew better. I knew that man’s voice.

“Hey, kid. C’mere.”

He was bigger than I thought. Meaner than he looked on the television. I couldn’t get any words out of my mouth. Momma also said that I should stay far away from “that fool,” as she called him, and she never said anything like that without good reason. I tried to take a step back but my feet froze. Then he came to me.

“Kid. Don’t go near that if you know what’s good for you.”

Then he shoved five bucks at me and walked away.

I kept his money. Didn’t feel right spending it, but I kept it in one of Gramps’ old cigar boxes in my closet.

Then I started to wonder. What was so important about that stinky patch of lawn that the president himself was giving me money to stay away from it? Somehow I didn’t feel like he was scared I’d get hurt.

Next time I came, that part of the lawn was marked off with yellow tape, and three men were standing around staring at it. I didn’t know what good staring at it was going to do. It was all swampy now, and sinking even lower in the middle. And good Lord, that smell. I’ve been in a lot of outhouses and such and I never smelled anything that bad. That got me wondering if maybe some animal fell in and died, like the raccoon that got trapped under our porch.

I was about to tell them that when a big hand landed on my shoulder.

I turned and my mouth went dry. I’d never seen this man before, but he looked even bigger and meaner than the president. His face was one giant prune and it was getting redder and redder by the second.

“You got business here, kid?”

“I just mow the lawn…”

“Not anymore, you don’t. Get your ass out of here.”

I was so shocked and afraid that it was like my feet had decided for me that we were going to turn around and run. I made it about a block and a half away before I stopped. And thought. He didn’t have any right to fire me. I didn’t even know who he was. The groundskeeper was the man who’d given me the job, the man who gave me my twenty bucks after I’d finished. What was I doing, running away like a little baby. I heard what Momma might tell me: “Stand up for yourself and be a man.”

So I took some deep breaths and walked back there. Tall and strong like a man. Right to the groundskeeper’s office. And I told him what happened, plain as I could.

He listened. Nodding at me. I thought for sure he’d say the man was right to fire me. For standing around gawking while the men were doing their important work. For causing trouble. But he just said, “Close the door and sit down.”

I did. My heart in my throat. I might have been hovering an inch off my chair, I was so nervous. My palms were sweaty and I wiped them on the legs of my cargo shorts.

He leaned forward. “I’m gonna tell you something, son. And I need you to promise me you’ll never tell another living soul.”

I nodded, sure my eyes were bugging clear out of my head. Momma told me a man’s word went straight to God. That a real man—a real, good man—never promises what he can’t deliver. “Yes, sir.”

“That’s where he puts his sin.”

Now, I knew all about sin. But I didn’t understand the rest of it. The groundskeeper must have realized that, because he let out a long breath and moved a little closer, until I could see the red veins in his eyes. “There’s this story. It was writ a long time ago by this English dude. There was a man who made a deal with the devil to stay young and good lookin’ forever. But there was a catch. You know there’s always a catch when you make a deal with the devil. The devil, he put a painting of the man in his attic? And this painting, it had a spell on it, so that it got older and uglier each time the man sinned. Which was all fine and good for the man. He could do what he pleased and the painting took the hit. But he was overcome with guilt every time he looked at the painting. Eventually it drove him crazy and he stabbed the painting, and the man fell down dead as if he’d stabbed himself.”

It took me a long time to think about that. “So…the grass out there grows higher and gets stinkier each time he…?”

The groundskeeper nodded.

“Boy, he must sin a lot.”

“It ain’t for us to judge,” the groundskeeper said. Quiet, like we were in church.

“But that’s not good for the lawn.” I wondered if maybe the devil would give him a portrait instead, that he could stick in the attic. “And that smell, it could make people sick.”

He nodded again. “Well, I agree with you, son. That’s why those three men are out there right now.” He hooked a gnarled thumb over his shoulder.

“If it’s his sin, what can they even do about it? Dig it up and put it somewhere else?”

“They’re doing what they were told to do. Stand around and look at it for a while, make it seem like they’re fixing it. Maybe put some hay down, soak some of the stink up. Bless them, they don’t know it’s only gonna come back worse.”

It made my stomach ache. How could that thing get any worse? I swallowed hard before I asked my next question. “Do I still have a job?”

He gave me a soft and kind of sad laugh. “You’re a good boy. You’re a good worker. Yes, you still have a job. Leave that man to me.”

I couldn’t sleep that night, after what the groundskeeper told me, about the sin and about the painting in that story. It just wasn’t right, to be that full of sin and also be the president. And leave that stinky swamp out there on the lawn, making anyone who gets near it sick. But I kept my promise. I didn’t tell a living soul what the groundskeeper told me. I did my job. Eventually, they took the yellow tape away from the stinky spot, which was a little less stinky, and they’d raked up the hay. But that grass was way darn long and needed a serious cutting. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to take care of that.

So I did.

The next morning, Momma told me the president died. And that they’d asked everyone who worked there to come by and pay their respects. Momma said she’d come with me, though I knew from the pinch in her mouth that respect was the last thing she wanted to give him.

As we walked by the part of the lawn where I’d spent so many hours working, I tried not to look at the stinky spot. Maybe it was my imagination, but I couldn’t even smell it anymore. It just smelled like fresh-cut grass. It wasn’t soggy, it wasn’t sagging in the middle…it looked just like the rest of the lawn. Momma leaned toward me and said, “You do such good work, son.”

My jaw trembled with fear. Had I killed him? Was it really true, what the groundskeeper said, and what I did was like stabbing the painting in the attic?

No, I told myself. That was just a made-up book.

It wasn’t my fault, what happened to the president. I was just doing my job.

Not a Good Year for the Grapes

I rarely know what I’ll write for #2MinutesGo Fridays…but this is what poured from me yesterday. I hope you’ll come visit some week and write, read, or comment!

—–

It had been a good week for the restaurant but not for me. I wanted to plead a headache and tired feet and go home, but my maître d’ enjoyed our weekly ritual and I didn’t want to disappoint him. “Tell me,” he said, after we’d nearly emptied our first glasses of wine. “Would you ever go back to Russia?”

“What’s the point? There’s nothing to go back to.”

“I would go back,” he said. “I want to experience where my parents came from.” Ever since seeing some silly Hallmark card of a movie, Dmitri has been enamored of the idea of discovering one’s roots, of reconnecting with the soil from which one had sprouted. But he was born in Brighton Beach, to Russian immigrants, and has never known another country. I’ve had enough of roots and soil. That poor, pathetic village where I’d spent my childhood might have given birth to me, but after it betrayed me, I felt no compunction to return. That soil and I owe each other nothing.

“Bloom where you’re planted.” I refilled our glasses and waved a hand around my state-of-the-art kitchen. “Here, I bloom. Not in some field of mud and chicken shit which is now probably a shopping mall.”

“Yes.” He gave me a small and telling smile. “It’s wonderful here, the best restaurant in the neighborhood.”

“But you think I’m missing something.”

I took his silence as a yes and gulped half my wine—not the best pinot noir we’ve ever served but hardly the worst—then clicked the glass back to the counter more gently than I wanted to. Hell, if I were alone, I’d have flung it against the wall. “Ask your parents what they’re missing. Ask them why they left.”

His jaw tightened. “Perhaps it is time to close. I’ll call you a cab.”

I let out a long sigh as if it could expel the bitterness from my body. He was right to be angry with me. He didn’t deserve the business end of my metaphorical knife. How was he to know that Sergei had left me for his twenty-five-year-old girlfriend in Moscow? My personal life was nobody’s business, especially those in my employ. “I’m sorry. It must be the wine.”

Dmitri nodded and crossed to the register. “No need to apologize. Maybe it was not a good year for the grapes.”

I stopped him before he could pick up the phone. “Dmitri. If you would ever like to take your vacation there, I would be happy to give you the extra time. And a little bonus.”

His eyebrows rose. “Really. Extra time and a bonus to go back to ‘nothing’?”

“Who knows?” I shrugged. “For you it might be different. Maybe they have not yet built a shopping mall.”

He accepted my peace offering, and as I got into the cab, I watched him disappear into the night. Hoping that if he did decide to make the trip, he would find fulfillment. Unlike what Russia had given me—the scars I never revealed, a jail sentence I could never unremember. No. They would never have me back. Even if I desired to return. I would continue to grow where I had planted myself. True, I could no longer bear fruit like a twenty-five-year-old, but I would dig my roots harder into my adopted soil and bloom with a goddamn passion.

The Night Guy: Flash Fiction

Piotr hated working the night shift in this part of the Kremlin. The place was creepy as hell. The gothic architecture towered over him, laughing a frozen smile; the furnishings were heavy and dense and stank of mold and centuries of cigarette smoke and pain and death. He could never get the smell out of the carpets and the drapes, no matter how much Febreze he used, when he could even get it. The babushkas in the market shoved various potions into his hands when he asked, but those made everything smell even worse. God knows what they were concocted from. Lard or rotten fruit soaked in vodka?

He shuddered to even think about it.

At least it was quiet, late at night. No one gave him a hard time, and mainly he had the run of the building.

Well, most of the building. Sergei, the day manager, warned him about going into certain rooms. “Don’t those get dirty, too?” Piotr asked, but Sergei just puffed out his chest, gave him a warning look, and said he’d take care of those rooms himself.

At the time, Piotr shrugged and obeyed, but there was the oddest odor coming from one of those “forbidden” rooms, and by the day it had been getting worse. It smelled like the kitty litter box in his cousin’s apartment. Yes, he was not supposed to go in, but who would Sergei blame if the higher-ups discovered something horrible in one of their important rooms? Certainly Sergei would point his long, snooty finger at him. It was simply the way things worked around here. That’s how it had been in Russia for centuries. Shit rolled downhill. And Sergei was adept at stepping out of the way.

But tonight, it was just getting to be too much. He tried to ignore it, but the aroma made his eyes water every time he came near. Finally he got his cart and rolled it over to the door and was reaching for his keys when a finger tapped his shoulder. He screeched like a little girl and must have jumped a foot.

Hand on his heart, he turned. His eyes widened. He tried to get some kind of sound to come out of his mouth, but all that resulted was an impotent squeak.

The man just smiled, a smile that reached impish eyes. Big joke, Piotr thought. Sneak up on the night guy. But then he realized who this man was, and he didn’t know what to say. He had never seen the president before. Of course he’d seen him on the television, and once in a while a glimpse as he swept out the door and into a waiting car, but never…this close. And never…while Piotr was on the brink of doing something terribly wrong.

“It stinks,” Piotr blurted, then cursed to himself as his cheeks flamed red. “I… I only come to clean…”

The president then set his hand on Piotr’s arm. Piotr could only look at it, imagining how he’d go home to his wife and say the president touched him. Actually touched him.

“Don’t trouble yourself…what is your name?”

“Piotr,” he said, barely getting the syllables out.

“Piotr,” the president repeated. “A fine name. A fine and bold name, one that should be shouted with the chest held high!”

“Piotr,” he said again, shaping his lips around each sound.

“Better!” The president raised a finger like a conductor. “Keep practicing. But maybe in the East Wing. I will take care of things here.”

“Piotr,” he repeated, louder and bolder.

“Marvelous,” the president said, giving his arm a small nudge.

Piotr began walking away, pushing his cart before him. Saying his own name under his breath. But then he stopped. His wife… how she would nag him if he didn’t get a picture on his phone; she would again think he was lying!

He stopped. Turned in time to see the back of the president as he eased open the door. In the sliver of light it revealed, he thought he saw a thatch of orange-blond hair. And more. Piotr’s cheeks flamed again; his eyes widened. Knowing he had seen something he shouldn’t have. The American president on a bed with two girls, at least! No. This was bad. This was very bad. And it smelled very bad. He had to get away. He gripped the handle of the cart and began to push just as the president called his name.

Piotr froze. “Y…yes, Mr. President?”

“You were right, after all. We have a bit of a mess to clean up.” He pulled out two fifty-ruble banknotes, which he tucked into Piotr’s pocket. “Give it about ten minutes, and you’ll take care of this, yes, like a good man? And then maybe we’ll see about moving you to a better position.”

A better position. Better than Sergei’s? His wife would be so happy.

“Can I… may I get a picture?”

The man laughed. “A picture. Of course you can get a picture. The girls love to have their pictures taken. But only if you send me a copy and promise not to show it to anyone else.”

Piotr stood up straighter. He’d meant of himself with the president, but… “I can do this thing for you.” Ha. Not only would his wife be proud, but how it would get Sergei’s goat pleased him, too.

“Very good man. With a brave and wonderful name.” He pulled more money out, pressed it into Piotr’s palm, and sauntered away.