Voting Buddies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You get that ballot,” Deidre said.

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

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

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

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

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

The Council, Reflective: Flash Fiction

Earl’s eyes were warm and kindly as he poured Forty-four another beer, then busied himself behind the bar, leaving him his privacy. Or as much privacy as he could have with two Secret Service agents guarding the door. He was grateful for their service, thankful for all the people who’d helped him through the years. Toward the end of his second term, Forty-four had grown wistful about returning to civilian life. He and Michelle had made plans. But given the circumstances of the world and the existence of the secret Council, he’d resigned himself to the reality that his life might never again be truly his own.

Michelle was okay with that as well—to a point. From the tension he plainly saw on her face, they’d reached that point. When he’d told her about the package that had been intercepted, she nodded, said she needed to call the girls, and spent the rest of the afternoon in her garden. He knew better than to bother her there.

Was it too soon for the Council to meet again? Forty-one said that it “wouldn’t be prudent” to risk a meeting so close to the election, then added, “Remember that Jim Comey fellow and all the trouble he caused.”

But Forty-four felt a need for their collective wisdom to help unburden his soul. As Thirty-nine once told him, when at a loss for direction a few months after leaving office he’d come down to Georgia to help nail up some drywall, many hands lighten a load. At least the dastardly mailings gave him an excuse to call Forty-two and Forty-three-and-a-half, ask how they were doing. The connection and Bill’s sense of humor did help somewhat. “Keep in touch, Barry,” Madam Secretary said as they wound up their call. “Just don’t expect any emails.”

He slipped his phone back into his pocket and tried to focus on the basketball game on the TV. It wasn’t working. He tapped a long finger on the bar. “Hey, Earl?”

He turned, his face brightening. “Something I can get for you, Mr. President?”

“No, I’m good here. I just want to know…how’s it going for you, for you and your family?”

Earl shrugged, his hands busy polishing glassware. “Can’t complain much. Wish certain things didn’t cost as much as they did. Wish I had a little more to leave the grandchildren.” He lowered his voice. “Wish that fool who took on after you would go back under that rock he crawled out from”—at this Forty-four nearly spit his beer across the counter—“but time will out, don’t it always?”

“Amen,” Forty-four said, lifting his glass.

“I like what you said, on the TV.” Earl nodded toward the set above the bar. “About getting the kids out to vote, not standing for hate and such. Ah, makes me wish we could change that law about you only getting two terms.”

It wasn’t the first time he’d heard that. Of course he’d heard plenty about how his two terms were two too many.

“You coulda done so much more good,” the barkeep added, tightening one wizened hand into a fist.

If you only knew, Forty-four thought. “Thank you, my friend. It’s always good to hear.”

When he left, he pressed two twenties onto the bar and wouldn’t take no for an answer. After the agents saw him home, he was in some ways pleased that Michelle had already gone to bed. He had some phone calls to make. Yes, he could get behind a microphone and hopefully inspire a few people, but it would be nothing compared to the clarion call they could all make together.


Thank you for reading. If you want to catch up on this sporadic, whenever-I’m-inspired series, you can read the first one here, the second one here, and the third one here.

Ave Maria: Flash Fiction

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


Ave Maria

“Jen?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She moved a hand closer. He met it.

The Sock

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

The Sock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sock. It was all because of the sock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But maybe it was time to go back.

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.”

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.