Is This Thing On?

Happy Friday! I wanted to share a bit I wrote for Two Minutes Go. We’re still open, if you want to play. Or just stop by for a read. Excellent writing going on.

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After a few months of house arrest, the shock frequency diminished, and Henry began to see his ankle cuff differently. He painted the silver finish dull with one of his daughter’s apocalyptically named nail polish colors—Irony or Acid Rain or Corporate Greed or something. Wore his shirt unbuttoned and pretended he was one of those old-time cartoon prisoners in Alcatraz, with their raggedy striped pants and a link or two dragging off their old, rusted leg irons. He let his beard grow and limped around the house talking to imaginary pigeons.

His daughter rolled her eyes and started making more coffee. “Dad. Stop it. They’ll just shock you again if you try to do anything funny, if that even qualifies.”

His shoulders slumped as he dropped his character. “Everyone’s a critic.”

“She’s right, dear.” His wife had walked in, began fussing around with breakfast things.

“You know”—he snatched a piece of bread before she could toast it—“I don’t think they’re even listening anymore. Maybe the guy in charge of that department quit again. Last night I recited about a dozen dirty limericks. Turns out a lot of things rhyme with ‘Trump.’ And…nothing.” He addressed his ankle. “You hear me? Nothing. Hello? Is this thing on?”

It just sat there. He’d missed a few spots with the nail polish, a shade of grayish-black somewhere between a gangrenous limb and mold, and they glinted in the kitchen lights.

“You owe me for that nail polish,” his daughter said. “That stuff costs, like, ten dollars a bottle.”

“I’ll take it out of your college fund,” he said. “Or here’s an idea. Try to help your old man through this.”

“Through what?” his daughter said. “You sleep half the day, then watch old movies, order pizza and go back to sleep. Throw in some beers and porn and that’s, like, a dream life for half the guys I know.”

“You’re fourteen. What kind of guys you know drink beer?”

But she just smiled and left the room, waggling her fingers goodbye over her shoulder. He spun to face his wife.

“You think they’d let me watch porn?”

Her eyes flattened. “Are you kidding? From what I’ve seen of him, after Fox News, it’s probably the most popular channel in the White House.”

He grinned and pointed a finger at her. “Ooh, you’re gonna get it. They’ll be coming after you next. Then you’ll be wearing one of these. Maybe we can get a matching pair.” He addressed it again. “Hello? Is this thing on? There once was a man from New York, who boasted of girls he could—”

“Henry!”

“What? Nobody’s listening. I could call him every name Jon Stewart ever dreamed up for him and nobody would notice. I could do twenty minutes on his weird bromance with Vladimir Putin. Hell, I could probably grab the Saws-All and cut this thing off and fling it into the dumpster across the street.”

He’d never seen her so pale. “Henry. Don’t you dare. Just because it might not be monitored twenty-four-seven doesn’t mean it might not have some kind of built-in—”

“You worry too much.” He headed for the basement. “It’ll give you wrinkles.”

Downstairs he rummaged through his tools. Several projects decorated his workbench, and he sighed at their varied states of abandonment. In the beginning of his house arrest, after an initial period of mourning, he’d thrown his energy toward creating things. A birdhouse, a set of bookshelves, a knife rack for his wife. But all inspired his comedy, became a stage for new routines. He imagined birds gathering, the cardinals scolding the finches, the crows telling dirty jokes. Each earned him a shock, so he’d stopped.

Maybe he was finally free now. Emboldened, he grabbed the saw and hacked away. No shock. Not even a vibration.

He took the severed anklet upstairs to show his wife. Alarm spread across her face. He half expected it to explode, or that any second now, he might hear sirens and the men in black would show up at his door. Like the first time. But no such thing happened that morning.

He set the mangled, streaky device on the mantel. A trophy to his survival. Even if he could be arrested again for doing his act in public, he’d write jokes for that broken ankle cuff; he’d perform for it. After all, after everything, the show must go on.

A couple weeks later, he finished a set, grabbed a beer, and was about to watch Bird Man of Alcatraz for the twenty-third time when he heard an odd noise coming from the cuff—long then slow beeps, like Morse code. He inched over to it. Touched it. Nothing. Then a voice: “Are you still there?” It was female. Tentative, with a thick accent.

What the hell. “Yep. Still here. Paying my debt to society.”

“Please do not stop. It is making me laugh and I need this so desperately.”

Wow. He had a fan. “I didn’t think the administration hired anyone with a sense of humor.”

After a long pause, she said, “I am not exactly hired. I… I feel like a prisoner here.”

You and me both, sister. “All right, then. For you, I’ll keep the act going.”

“I am grateful,” she sighed. “I just have a question. How did you get your ankle thing off? Mine itches like I cannot believe.”

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Schadenfreude

I’m going a little dark this week. Sometimes you just have to get these things out of your head. The bunnies and sparkles will return at some point…maybe.

——-

After the doctor asks her question—they only give him female doctors now because of what he did to the male ones—she lets silence seep into the room. He pretends the silence is poison gas. It’s only spreading across the floor now, licking the soles of his laceless shoes, and the young man plays with the silent death like a game. There are so few other amusements here. The cloud can only rise so far before he answers. It snakes up his cuffed ankles and winds around his calves. To his waist and he closes his eyes, imagining the smell of it, the vaporous feathers that rise off the top of the cloud reaching his nose. When it gets to his collarbones, his throat tightens as if two hands are choking him. An oddly exciting sensation. Then he sees the images, the blood.

“Yes,” he says, his voice hoarse and broken. “I’m having the nightmares again. Is that what you wanted to hear?”

The corners of her mouth turn down; she taps her pen against her notepad and makes the usual inquiries—if he’s taking his medication. If he’s taking it on time. If he’s taking the right dosage.

“Yes, to all of it, all right? What do you want from me? These pills. All these pills. All these treatments. All these pointless queries about whether I am doing my self-care and writing in my journal and letting the negative thoughts float by like clouds on a summer afternoon…it’s bullshit. It does nothing. I keep seeing it. Over and over and over.”

Her lips compress. The corners of her eyes pinch. He is making her fearful of him, afraid of what he might do, and he’s enjoying that as well. Back when he was allowed to live at home, Mama explained that long German word to him, said it meant enjoying other people’s pain, and she told him that he mustn’t have those feelings. But how do you control a feeling? If they are, as the doctors keep telling him, these floating, ephemeral things, how can you let it drift from your mind if there is no breeze and it stalls over your head, building and turning gray and swollen?

After a moment, she says, “Is there anything different about the nightmares?”

“No. I still see it. The head. His head. The blood. Like a trophy.”

She leans forward. The expression on her face changes again, to that of someone who cares. He doesn’t know if he can trust it. “Which one?” she says. “The one that was supposed to be a joke?”

“No.” The word is so small he barely recognizes it as his own breath leaving his body. “The other one. The real one. The one the police said I was holding when they found me.”

Prodigal Son

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday Flash Fiction: Deja Vu

navigation-1048294_640This piece was inspired by this week’s 2-Minutes-Go Flash Fiction, and I wanted to share it:

Deja Vu

Lunch wasn’t sitting well, the sudden rise in the humidity was making his sinuses throb like a mother, and Malcolm still had one more job to do before he could call it a week and collect his money.

The déjà vu of the address he plugged into his crappy GPS stopped him for a moment, but then he shook it out of his head and followed its schoolmarm directives. He knew the cardinal rules of the job: have a short memory and don’t get involved. Maybe that was why he drank so much. It helped with the memory part, but it didn’t help so much with the guilt. He woke each morning with the gut-sinking sensation that he’d ruined someone’s day, maybe even someone’s future. But several cups of coffee usually killed that. So did the piles of bills on his kitchen table and the rationalization that if people hadn’t done something stupid he wouldn’t be visiting.

But when he turned up the broken driveway and saw the sheared off gutter dangling by one clamp over the raggedy lawn, one of those smothered memories snuck up and sucker-punched him.

He’d been there before. The driveway had been less choppy; the lawn had been shorter. A pale wisp of a girl, many months pregnant, had answered the door. She’d looked like his daughter, whom he hadn’t seen in years. He’d mumbled the name on the papers and she shook her head and he said he was only doing his job and she stood there growing paler and he shoved the papers at her and got the hell out of there as fast as he could and downed most of a fifth of JB when he got home.

Now he turned the car off and sat, staring at the crumbling stairs, the sagging gutters, and one intrepid weed growing straight up out of it. The doorbell glowed orange. The papers lay crisp and stapled on his front seat. His breath quickened. His mind snatched at excuses. Had an accident. Lost the paperwork. Nobody home… His smile dissolved. No matter what he dreamed up, this would not end well for her.

Then a car pulled up behind him. The pale and less-wispy girl flew out, fists clenched, eyes blazing. “You people. You people, haven’t you people done enough? He’s not here. He’s not here, all right? You want him? You go to his girlfriend’s house, you get him there, and you know what? You tell him he owes me for the care and feeding of our child.”

And with that she pointed to the backseat, and the pale, towheaded baby, and the lunch that hadn’t been sitting well in Malcolm’s stomach punched him too.

Her once-pale face flared red, but she seemed to have shouted herself out, so he rolled down his window. She stood with sagging shoulders, her right hand extended. “Okay,” she said. “I get it. The papers are all made up there, and you’re only doing your job, and I guess”—she sighed—“I guess I’ll have to find a lawyer or something, huh.”

“I can help you,” he mumbled.

“Huh?”

Malcolm cleared his throat and said, louder, “I can help you.”

And when he got home, the undelivered summons back in his briefcase, he collapsed into a kitchen chair and made two phone calls. One to his boss, telling him he quit. The second to the public defender, telling him the name and new address of the deadbeat dad.

He then tried to make a third, but the same sort of schoolmarmish voice that scolded him from his GPS said that the number had been disconnected.

The robotic words were still echoing in his mind when he drank the JB straight from the bottle, knowing it would not kill everything that he’d done, but he damn sure hoped to give it a try.

The Ride

hitchhiker-691581_1280Hi, everyone! I’m sharing one of the pieces I wrote for this week’s 2MinutesGo flash fiction luau and quilting bee on JD Mader’s blog, Unemployed Imagination. Maybe you’d like to drop by and see what we get up to. It’s fun, and free, and there’s some great writing.

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The Ride

“Been out there long?”

It was the first thing he’d said to her since the car pulled away from the shoulder. She stared at his unshaven profile, the pointed chin, the glasses sliding down his nose. Was he dim or just trying to make conversation? Of course she’d been out there long. She was soaked clean through and her backpack was a dripping mess in the trunk of his ancient Gran Torino. Then she sighed. As if the damp, overheated closeness inside the car needed any more twice-breathed air. He didn’t have to stop. He could have just left her there in the pouring rain and made an anonymous phone call from the road.

“A while.” She drummed her fingers atop her wet jeans.

He nodded, keeping his eyes on the slick road ahead. His skinny arms, tense from gripping the wheel, reassured her. If he were a big hulking guy, she might not have gotten in. Her mother’s warnings about taking rides from strangers had only partially penetrated her brain. She was certainly old enough to discern whether a driver represented a threat, and although the weather might have flavored her judgment, he seemed kindly. Like an uncle. Like the kind of guy who might have teenage daughters at home that he would want picked up by a law-abiding, decent man if they’d been stuck out in the rain.

“Where are you headed?” he said finally.

She shrugged. “As far as you’re going would be fine.”

His laugh came out like a tiny squeak. “Well, you might not want to be going that far. I’m aiming for Canada.”

“Funny,” she said. “That’s exactly where I’m going.” She liked the sound of Canada. Of starting over somewhere no one knew her, where no one looked at her sideways because of what her father had done.

He didn’t answer. Cold rainwater dripped down her back and she shivered. What if he started asking questions? Like how old she was, and why she was leaving the country, and if there was someone he ought to be calling? But he said nothing. The tires sluiced through the flooded roads; passing eighteen-wheelers drenched them and he flipped the wipers on high.

As they approached the next exit, he cleared his throat. “Okay, then,” he said, as if making some decision on the spot. “But I need to, um, pull off here and take care of an errand, first. Maybe you can help.”

Considering that he was driving her a couple hundred miles, hadn’t asked her any questions, and there wasn’t that much money in her mother’s purse, she’d be willing to give him a hand. Within reason.

“What will I be doing?”

He smiled at the tollbooth collector and handed over a few singles. As he rolled through an intersection and took a left into the parking lot of a small strip mall, he said, “There’s a gun in the glove compartment.” He brought the sleek, giant car to a stop but left the engine on. “If anyone comes after us, start shooting.”

(New: audio version on SoundCloud!)

Two-Minutes-Go Road Trip

writerWhile JD is wading some mountain stream in search of Moby-Trout, or at least that’s what he told me to say when the FBI come by asking questions about him, he’s entrusted our Friday flash fiction fandango to me. No Black Friday crowds here. Just a place to share some words.

Or, in a passage I stole from his website:

Hey, writer-type folks. AND PEOPLE WHO JUST WANT TO PLAY BUT DON’T IDENTIFY AS ‘WRITERS’ – all are welcome here! Every Friday, we do a fun free-write. For fun. And Freedom!

Write whatever you want in the ‘comments’ section on this blog post. Play as many times as you like. #breaktheblog! You have two minutes (give or take a few seconds … no pressure!). Have fun. The more people who play, the more fun it is. So, tell a friend. Then send ’em here to read your ‘two’ and encourage them to play. 

Here’s one to start us off:

The air cooled a few degrees, and that’s when I knew she’d arrived. So I snuck up the back stairs, and at a safe remove on the balcony, I readied myself to eyeball the intruder. Rumors had been flying about her—her beauty, her feline grace and charm that belied a volcanic temper. But before any polite introductions could be made, before we could circle each other and stake our claims, I had to see for myself. Evaluate the potential trouble.

And she looked like trouble. Green eyes widening, she flattered the hosts while scoping out the room, hunting her next mark. I knew that game. My muscles went on alert, a ripple of tension beneath my skin, tiny hairs standing on end like tiny field agents reporting to command. No. Boundaries must be set. There could be no room for misinterpretation, here. This was my turf. I’d been deftly ingratiating myself to these people for years. I had them just where I needed them, each step of the plan clicking neatly into position, and I could not allow some slick interloper to get between me and what I deserved.

They were calling for me. I set my expression. Welcoming, but cool. Calm, but alert. One that spelled delighted to meet you, my dear, but no need to make yourself comfortable, because I’m sure you won’t be staying long enough to even learn what kind of soaps are in the powder room.

Ready, finally, because I would not be rushed, I sashayed down the stairs. And on the second from the bottom, I froze. She had her nose in my food dish. In. My. Food. Dish. The hairs on my back shot to attention. I did not care a whit how lovely she was. This meant war.