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.”

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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.

The Oval: Wishful Flash-Fiction Thinking

Once again sleep dodged him, that bitch, and while the custom-made mattress was the most comfortable thing he’d ever set his ass on, its emptiness made his chest so tight he could barely breathe, let alone think. He dug his fingers into the pillow top as if it was his salvation. Like Leo in that movie about the iceberg. They said push the button, if there was anything he needed. A Diet Coke, one of those tiny new cans that made his hands look bigger; a fast-food run; adoring letters from his fans. But what he needed they couldn’t provide. They couldn’t even fake. They couldn’t force his wife to sleep in his bed. They couldn’t change the way she looked at him, like she was a hostage and he, her puppet master. Twice in the last six months, she’d threatened to leave him, and it didn’t sound like she was kidding. Prior to that he’d thrown some jewelry at her, promised her anything, and she calmed down. Now even that wasn’t working. He could bust into her room, and if she wasn’t comatose on Ambien, he could make demands, point to the many legal agreements she had signed. But that would only make things worse.

Maybe it was time to ask for help from a higher power.

He slipped out of bed, as quietly as he could for a man of his inestimable size, and in just his robe and Batman socks, padded first down the hall then down the stairs. Those he passed averted their eyes, because they knew not to speak unless he spoke first. Especially in the middle of the night. Especially when he was wearing his Batman socks.

His heart surged when he reached the Oval. He loved everything about that fucking room. It even smelled good, like new money. Like the tears of his enemies. Reagan said he would never step on the seal, but Reagan was a pussy. He was in charge now. He stepped right on the damn eagle’s throat, wiggling his toes into the plush carpet. But even that left him feeling hollow. And that made him angry. He sat in the big chair, spun around, trying to recapture the experience, draw power from the walls and the massive desk and the flags.

He closed his eyes and thought about Washington. Thought about Teddy Roosevelt. Tried to conjure the ghosts of his predecessors; the ones who hadn’t been losers, anyway. Then the voice came back to him. The voice he’d been trying to ignore. It had blabbed on and on about the tone of the office, how you rise to the occasion, blah blah blah, so many big words he’d let his attention drift to the portrait of Dolly Madison on the wall. Damn, that was one hot babe. Maybe he could get the women around here into some corsets. “Read the letter,” the voice had told him, at the end of their “conversation.”

“Read the letter.”

He hadn’t wanted to read the letter. This was his job now, and he was going to do it his own damn way. In fact, he almost asked the cleaning girl, that Kelly what’s-her-name, to throw it the hell out, sight unseen. He didn’t know why he’d kept it. Maybe he was smarter than he thought. Maybe he knew, somewhere in the back of his mind, that there’d be a sleepless night like this one. Hell, maybe it would give him a good laugh. So he reached his tiny hands underneath the desk drawer and pulled off the envelope that had been taped there.

As he’d thought, there was a bunch of gibberish, words with way too many syllables, and he skimmed down to the bottom, looking for the bullet points. There were always bullet points. But the last sentence was what caught his eye. “If you take absolutely nothing away from this letter, from our conversations, from the good counsel of your trusted advisors, always remember this: happy wife, happy life.”

That last bit landed like a lead balloon in the pit of his stomach. He sat there for damn near an hour, still clutching the letter, still thinking about those words. Who would have thought it all made so much sense? And then he felt light, like he hadn’t in years. Like he hadn’t since he stood at the very top of the first skyscraper his father had even taken him to.

He did two things after that. He pulled the divorce papers she’d given him from his desk drawer and signed them. And then he called his speechwriter.

“I’m off this bus, kid. Write me the best fucking speech of your life. Make me sound like a goddamn hero, stepping down for the good of this beautiful country. I want tears out there, kid. Real fucking ugly-cry waterworks.”

Then he hung up, padded back to his residence, and slept better than he had in years.

El Suizo

Carlos sipped coffee in a small café in Havana, his choice of table perfectly situated to allow a view of the street while staying in the shadows. Waiting for the man they called El Suizo. Whose sense of time, apparently, was nowhere near as accurate as a Swiss watch. This worried him. Operations such as theirs depended on accuracy, respect, and trust. If Carlos couldn’t count on him to appear when he was supposed to—

“You would like another, guapo?” The waitress had a pretty smile, and he nodded, and she topped him up, and he followed the rhythm in her hips as she walked away. As she served the customers. As she swung back into the kitchen and returned with another patron’s order. It calmed his nerves to focus on something other than why his contact had not yet arrived.

Maybe it was the traffic. Maybe El Suizo wasn’t the man they claimed him to be. Carlos had been disappointed before. What he had planned was nothing short of revolution, and if they weren’t victorious, or slaughtered on the battlefield, surely they would be executed for treason.

Maybe his plan wasn’t even possible, the odds against them too great. What could a few hundred mercenaries do against the greatest army in the world?

He took a deep breath and let it out, let the tension loose from his broad shoulders. It had been so long since he’d visited the land of his birth. Watched the women, smelled the coffee, heard the music. He felt like a youth again, skinny and poor and playing in the streets. The familiar pressure also began to return. Destiny. The weight of two generations of failure resting squarely on his back. His grandfather died fighting against Castro at the Bay of Pigs invasion. His father had been on the losing side of a cop’s gun in Miami. His mother wanted better for him. She cried when he returned to Cuba and joined the army. Somewhere in heaven, she was probably still crying.

Moments after he set his mug down, a muffled boom rocked the building. Rattled the windows. Set off car alarms. Sloshed his coffee across the table. The waitress shouted Spanish obscenities as a tray she’d been carrying hit the floor.

As people ran out to see what had happened, a man walked in. Dark hair. Dark clothes. His face devoid of expression as he crossed the café to Carlos’s table. He took the seat opposite his without a word, as if he had merely gone out to put more money in his parking meter and was now returning to his meal. He couldn’t have been more than twenty.

“Sorry to be late,” he said. “Had a bit of a situation down the block.”

He spoke Spanish well, for a man who was purportedly Swiss. He also smelled of diesel fumes and burnt hair.

Carlos tipped his head toward the door. “Please me that wasn’t your situation.”

El Suizo—or whatever his name really was—cast a glance over his shoulder. “That?” He picked up a paper napkin and dabbed it into the spilled coffee. “No, my friend. I believe that one was meant for you. Your rental car is totaled, but fortunately your would-be assassin is a piss-poor demolitions expert.”

Damn it. They’d found him. Carlos started to get up. “We need to go.”

The too-young man merely shrugged and leaned back in his chair. There was something oddly Gallic in the gesture. Maybe this El Suizo wasn’t so Suizo after all. “No need,” he said. “Not only is he a piss-poor demolitions expert, but he’s also a very slow runner. I doubt he’ll be doing more bomb making anytime soon. Or”—he sniffed—“ever.”

And after he asked the waitress for two tequilas, the young man turned back to Carlos. “So,” he said with a crooked smile and a light in his eyes. “Tell me about this operation.”

Rebuilding

Toby had built beautiful homes into the unlikeliest of places, fit rock against rock to craft the finest stone walls; he’d even designed a treehouse that disappeared into the branches. But nature always has the last word.

Yet you can’t tell a client that. Not when a windstorm uproots a mighty oak from waterlogged earth and smashes it through the roof of a back porch that had been one of his favorite projects.

He knew from the forecast it would be bad. He knew what those conditions meant for the things he’d worked so hard and so long to create. It meant phone calls. It meant backbreaking hours of excavation and reconstruction, and more thoughts that perhaps the business was becoming more trouble than it was worth.

But he couldn’t think of that now, as he wound his truck through the debris on the road leading up to Ms. Brandon’s house. Jane. Nice lady, divorced, about his age. She’d been a sweetheart to work with, never once balking at his vision or his price or his schedule. She’d inherited the house from her grandmother, and the only improvement she’d asked for was a screened-in back porch. A place she could sit in the warmer months with her books and her lemonade and her cat, a pudgy Persian who was not as young as he used to be and therefore couldn’t be allowed outdoors. And she was willing to wait for him. Which made Toby want to move heaven and earth to help her then; and to help her now.

She was standing on the front stairs when he pulled up. She looked a lot smaller than he remembered, her dark hair long and loose and wet from the rain. Her hands were clasped together as if in prayer. He almost felt as guilty as if he’d caused the storm that toppled her oak. As he swung out of the truck, he said, “I’m so—”

“Simon got out.” She wrapped her arms around her chest and started fast-walking toward the back. He followed. “The tree broke one of the screens,” she said, “and he must have been so terrified he bolted out, and now…”

Holy yikes, Toby thought, getting an eyeful of the damage the tree had done. The trunk had crushed that roof. She was damn lucky it hadn’t killed them both.

“Are you okay?” He scanned what he could of her, looking for cuts or bruises.

She nodded fiercely, then her gaze raked the length of the oak, which surpassed that of the porch by a good eight feet. “Yes. Fine. A little shaken up, maybe, but Simon…”

“You think he’s up there?”

As if answering, he heard a small yowl. He thought it would be easier to spot a white Persian cat among the green oak leaves, but it was one dense tree and one scared cat.

“Simon, baby, it’s going to be all right,” Jane said, in a kind of tremulous purr that made Toby want to fix every problem in her life. “Can I use the ladder on your truck? I tried already with Gran’s, but it wasn’t tall enough.”

“I’ll take care of that.” He hated the way his voice came out, the way his chest puffed of its own accord, like some kind of superhero. Idiot. “You just wait there and try to keep him calm so he won’t run off.”

It took some doing, and he had to shinny up the length of the fallen tree and past the roof line, where he hoped there was enough trunk to balance out his weight, and Simon and the tree gave him a few decent scratches, but eventually Toby got him down and settled in Jane’s arms.

“You’re bleeding.” She tipped her chin toward the front of the house. “Come inside, I’ll clean that up. It’s the least I can do.”

Soon Simon was fed and sleeping off his adrenaline rush. Sporting four new Band-Aids, Toby sat with Jane on the front porch, where she’d brought lemonade and a sketch pad. He watched her hands as she picked up a pencil. Those same hands had been so tender on him; why hadn’t he noticed last time the depths of her gray-blue eyes or the sweet huskiness of her laugh as she teased him about rescuing cats from trees? Funny tricks, the mind plays. What it lets you see or not see. Like the patterns in the way a rock wall fits together.

He pointed at the pad. “You want something different on that back porch, when I fix it?”

“No, I love it just the way it was. What I’ve been thinking lately”—she began to sketch the slope of the lawn—“is a little stone path leading up to a gazebo.”

“I think we can do something like that. But maybe more like this…”

She handed him the pad and pencil, their forearms brushing a spark in transit. The blue devil tails of the storm gave one last flick as they departed from west to east. Nature, as always, having the final word.

A Little Bit of Saving

This is a bit darker than I normally go, but it called to me. It’s still calling.

—-

The cat scurried to the back bedroom when the doorbell rang. Normally Louisa followed, peering through her dusty, faded curtains until her visitor, usually another reporter, had left in frustration. But she didn’t know why she now felt a frisson of excitement over human contact, however brief or impersonal or potentially invasive. Because the emptiness of the house had been pressing down on her a little too pointedly? Because the prescription vial in the cupboard above the sink glowed a little too fiercely in the back of her mind? Something had her tiptoeing across the dirty living room carpet and reaching for the door. The two young men on her stoop looked innocent enough. Missionaries of some religious cause, certainly, with their black ties and white shirts and pamphlets.

Had it come to this? The loneliness, the desperate need for company even as she tried to repel it? Did they know about her? About Alex? Maybe they were new at this and thought they could save her soul. It was too late for Alex, but maybe her soul could use a little bit of saving.

“Good afternoon, ma’am,” the taller of the two said. Louisa cringed. His mouth softened, rounding. “Oh. I didn’t mean to offend you. I should have remembered some women don’t like–”

“It’s all right.” She told herself to be grateful for mothers who still raised their sons to say sir and ma’am and please and thank you. Like she had. She told herself there was no way this young man could have known that those were Alex’s last words: “Good afternoon, ma’am,” he’d said, barely above a whisper, as a female prison guard came in to administer his lethal injection. Louisa tried to shake the images out of her head. The stoicism on his face. Not of repentance but of resignation. He’d done what he’d done and this was the price he was made to pay. Worse, she sometimes thought it was the right decision. Like doing him a kindness, the way suffering dogs are put to sleep. “How…how can I help you?”

“Ma’am?” the other one said. Eyes wide. “Maybe you want to sit down?”

“Maybe…” Her stomach knotted; something buzzed in her head and her legs began to weaken. “Just for a moment.”

They were good boys. Raised right. They made her comfortable, fetched her a glass of water, asked if there was anyone they should call. Raised right. She thought she’d raised him right.

In the silence, the two boys looked at each other, and the one who seemed a bit older started. “Have you heard the good news about Jesus Christ?”

She thought she’d be strong enough for the words she knew were coming. But she saw it again, the little white church. The police cars. The odd phone number that had flashed on her caller ID. She gulped the rest of her water. Wishing she’d never opened that damn door. Wishing she’d had those pills in her hand. She’d gobble every single one.

“I think you boys ought to go now. Believe me when I say I’m beyond whatever saving your God can offer.”

After they left without argument, all polite and thanking her for her time, she moved blindly to the kitchen cupboard and reached for the prescription vial. Then the cat came in, mewling, rubbing around her legs. Louisa’s face dampened with tears she didn’t know her eyes were still capable of producing. She knew then this wasn’t the way. Instead of the vial and the last of the bourbon, she picked up the phone and the business card one of the reporters had given her. “I’m ready, if you’re still interested in writing that book,” she told the woman who answered. “But I don’t want it to be his story. I want it to be about those beautiful children. And every penny of profit to go toward making sure nobody gets to do this again.”

The Window Washer: Flash Fiction

Billie adjusts her harness and hoists the rake higher, aiming for the sheaf of ice that had accumulated on one of the skyscraper’s uppermost eaves. An occasional circus performer, she has no fear of heights. She doesn’t even mind most of the people in the building, who stare and point whenever she hauls the platform up the side to wash the windows or knock the icicles down. Sometimes she’ll put on a bit of a show for them, twirling away from the platform or doing a somersault.

Not today. It’s too damn cold, the ice too thick, and she doesn’t like the way the wind bangs the platform against the façade. Thank God for good support hardware. She knocks the rake against the eave and the ice cracks and falls, then she lowers herself to the next floor that needs her attention. A knot forms in her stomach.

It’s his floor.

She doesn’t know his name, but she’s seen him around. While she was getting her rigging together. When she’d taken a coffee break at the lobby café. He’s handsy with women, and they don’t like it, and when they try to dissuade him, he laughs. She’d caught one of them crying, one of those random comfort-a-stranger moments, and Billie shared her tissue and a shoulder. He’d threatened to fire the woman, in a veiled sort of way, and her complaints to Human Resources had been buried.

Even Billie is no stranger to his game. Yeah, there was always some guy who liked to play with the girl on the flying trapeze. Blow a kiss, give her a flirty smile, safe behind his window. This one… she could identify his privates at five paces. And she’d reported him, too. But his floor was high enough that those complaints also went missing.

Today he sees her, and grins slowly. Stepping closer, one hand finding his belt buckle. And she finds something with one hand, too. The lipstick in the pocket of her coveralls. Big and bold, she writes “SEX ABUSER” backwards on the glass, gives him a wave, and bashes the ice above his window. She knows she’ll get fired for this, but she doesn’t care.

She can always run away and join the circus.