Prodigal Son

“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.”

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.

The Last Bomb Threat

Mariel was backstroking off the wall in the deep end of Lane Five when the sirens began. At first, with her ears under water, she thought it was part of the music from the aqua aerobics class at the other side of the pool. The instructor liked to mix it up, keep her elderly clientele moving. But now they were moving all right—they were a blur of white hair and pale, sagging flesh and multicolored bathing suits heading for all the ramps and ladders.

Damn it, not again. Three times this month, she’d been kicked out of the pool from the bomb threats. Not just out of the pool but out the side door into the parking lot, and it was damn freezing outside. Were those anti-Semitic meshugge bastards aware that most of the people here only came to the Jewish Community Center for the pool? It was like calling a threat in to the YMCA because you were gunning for the Christians. Or the Young Men.

Part of her wanted to say no to the lifeguard coming her way, where she and Ruth shared the lane. Ruth was still swimming, her strokes long and elegant and perfectly synchronized.

The boy who barely looked old enough to grow whiskers was standing at the edge, clapping his hands and saying, “Let’s go, ladies. Everyone has to evacuate, now.”

Ruth turned her head just long enough to call him something nasty in Yiddish and then she was off again.

“Come on, Ruth,” he said, his voice whiny now. “You’re gonna get me in trouble.”

“Okay, okay, quit shouting.” She grunted as she tugged her potato-shaped body up the ladder. Like a penguin, Ruth was amazing under water but not so much on dry land. She sometimes had trouble walking, and Mariel was afraid she’d slip and fall on the wet tile, and the lifeguard looked too busy hustling everyone else clear to notice.

So Mariel followed her out. But where they were supposed to turn right toward the exit door, Ruth turned left, muttering something Mariel didn’t understand.

“Ruth.” The cold hit Mariel’s wet body and she wrapped her arms around her chest. But the woman wouldn’t stop. Again, Mariel followed, fully expecting one of the lifeguards to come chase them down, even revoke their memberships for not following their instructions.

Undaunted, and with no one following them, Ruth kept trundling along, one strong leg planting into the hallway after the other, her body rocking from side to side with each determined step.

Then she turned left, into an abandoned office. “Shut the door, already,” she said, and Mariel complied.

Ruth punched a sequence of numbers into the phone on the desk. “Yeah,” she said, when Mariel guessed someone had answered. “They’re at it again. You know what to do.”

Mariel couldn’t help but ask. Ruth shrugged, showed her a small mark on her forearm that Mariel had always assumed was a birthmark or maybe sun damage.

It was a number. “This,” Ruth said. “After the war, I had to do something. And I guess once Mossad, always Mossad. So I called in a favor. We won’t be hearing from those schmucks anymore. Now, let’s go. I’m cold and I want to finish my laps.”

Then she waddled back to the pool.

And Mariel followed.

The List

“You close your eyes and think of things that used to be funny. One by one you reject them, because they’ve all been outlawed.”

This bit popped into my head when I sat down to write something for JD Mader’s Two-Minutes-Go. Maybe one Friday you’ll join us.

The List

In the back of your desk drawer, folded in half, then quarters, then eighths, then tucked between the unread pages of your Tiny Orange Book, is your list. Of all the things you’ll do when you’re allowed to leave your house again. On damp, melancholy days, fog rising from the ground in small, accusatory fingers, you make hot tea and retrieve the list. After you were released from prison with antidepressants in one hand and the Tiny Orange Book in the other, a neighbor who had been a psychologist in the old days wrote the list for you as a form of therapy. She said that it might be too overwhelming to look at all the items in one gulp, but on bad days, like this one, when the electronic anklet felt as heavy as a battleship anchor, it could help to choose an item at random and just daydream about it for a while.

She said it could give you hope.

You close your eyes and run a finger down the page. Stop. Open your eyes. You’ve chosen “make someone laugh.” Your stomach sinks toward your shoes. You’ve lost the will to laugh yourself; how are you supposed to make someone else do it?

But somewhere in your mostly-functioning moral compass, you know it would be cheating to choose something else. You close your eyes and think of things that used to be funny. One by one you reject them, because they’ve all been outlawed. Satire on television, political cartoons, stand-up comedy. You have vague memories of being on a stage, saying things, hearing the sound of laughter. But after the treatments in prison, you forgot what you used to say. For some reason, you do remember that it used to make you feel good. It made you feel like you were lifting troubles off other people’s backs. People applauded, and when you got off the stage you got money and an invitation to do it again another night, or someplace else.

As the fragments of memory spark around, you get angry. You start to recognize the emotion as heat rushing into your face, your shoulder muscles tightening, a churning in your gut. In prison they gave you a chart that shows different emotions and a how-to guide for letting them go.

But this one sticks. It sticks in your brain like Velcro. You remember loving this thing you did on stage and are angry that you can no longer do it.

The anger fuels you. You storm around the house, finding as many small objects as you can—salt and pepper shakers, candlestick holders, coffee mugs—and line them up on the fireplace mantel. If the anger had come back to you, maybe the brambles of that emotion could rummage through what’s left of your memory and eventually the words that were funny would stick to that, too.

You pace in front of your “audience” and spew out random words. It’s all nonsense, like “Candlewax bumblebee went to the circus can you hear me now making America great again we’re winning so bigly now I got the best generals, just the most amazingly best, yadda, yadda, yadda…”

You go for another few minutes, remembering that was called a “set” back then, and something strange is happening to your face. You’re smiling. The muscles feel tight and strained, and you pat a hand to your cheek, then rush to the mirror and see that yes. Yes. You are smiling. And just the fact of that, followed by the memory of what you now recognize had once been called a joke, makes you laugh. A tiny chuckle. Then bigger.

It was only an itch at your ankle at first. Then a jolt. Then you collapse to the floor, twitching and writhing. Your smile freezes into a grimace of pain. Then so does your body. As the light at the edges of your vision begin to dim, these words fly through your mind: “A priest, a rabbi, and Donald Trump walk into a bar…”

Flash Fiction: A Call to Prayer

“The tray snapped through and there was no dinner. No lentils or rice or meat he could not recognize. Only a black hood. He said another prayer, put the rank cloth over his head, and waited.”

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A Call to Prayer

The heavy footsteps came closer, echoing through the cool stone corridor, and stopped in front of Aaron’s cell. A man grunted the short, guttural words he’d come to associate with the delivery of a meal, and he waited for it to clank through the hatch at the bottom of the door. By the slant of light through the tiny barred window near the ceiling, and the last time he’d heard the call for prayer, Aaron expected dinner: lentils or rice with a bit of meat. Over this meal he’d say his own prayer, thankful for what he’d been given.

The tray snapped through and there was no dinner. No lentils or rice or meat he could not recognize. Only a black hood. He said another prayer, put the rank cloth over his head, and waited. The man called out a question. Aaron said yes and the door creaked open. By his own arrogance, he’d once learned what was on the other side of the hood—a guard with a rifle—and didn’t think it would be wise to tempt fate again.

He let the man nudge him out and down the hallway, their footfalls ringing in lockstep. Each heavier than the last. Aaron’s heartbeat stole the air from his lungs, the saliva from his mouth. He thought of Jesus on the cross, of that iconic prayer: Fatherforgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.

The guard stopped him. A door swung open. He was led forward. Made to stand in a certain place and pushed down at the shoulders. That meant sit, and a hard surface awaited him, and his hands were tied behind his back.

The hood was removed from his face and the door clanked shut and he was alone on a blue plastic chair in front of a flat-screen television. He knew what came next. The interrogator would come and turn on the set and watch with him. When the cloaked men got through their litany of crimes against the accused, the end was mercifully swift; he prayed that his compatriots had not suffered long. Then he would provide the same answers to the same questions he’d been asked so many times. No, he didn’t work for the government. No, he wasn’t with the military. No, the church he claimed to represent was not a front for a ring of American spies.

Part of him prayed that he would be taken next, just to have it done with.

The door opened again. It was not the same interrogator that had sat with him the last two times.

This man gave him a sad smile, almost one of gratitude. “You are Aaron Westbrook?”

“Yes.”

“You are the same Aaron Westbrook who went to Syracuse University in 1980?”

Aaron blinked. “Yes.” This man didn’t look old enough to have even been a sparkle in his father’s eye all those years ago.

“You saved my uncle’s life. He was going to university there. Some men pulled him from his car and called him terrible names and beat him and stole his wallet and left him for dead in the street. He says you took care of him. He speaks of you often. How you got him a doctor and let him stay with you and…”

“Saleh?” Aaron smiled. He hadn’t thought of his old friend for so long. “Speaks? He’s still alive?”

The man nodded enthusiastically. “Yes. In fact, he is the reason I’m here. He recognized you on the news and asked me to find you.” After a quick glance at the door, he started working on the ropes that bound Aaron’s hands. “Come with me. I know a way out. For both of us.”

Flash Fiction: Traitors

Valerie cried all the way home in the back of the black sedan, and even though Alphonso the Secret Service man said nice things to her, and even offered to let her wear his mirrored sunglasses, it was no consolation. She had let her father down. He spent all day helping people get along, the least she could do was try not to punch them.

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While I was working on a passage for my National Novel Writing Month project, one line of dialogue kept pulsing in my head: “I know who your father was.” It prompted me to write this story for 2-Minutes-Go. You can read all of this weeks’ wonderful writing here.

——

Traitors

Nobody talked much about her father’s job, when Valerie was little. Mother only said that Papa worked for the government and was in charge of helping people get along with each other, which Valerie thought was a very important thing. That’s why when Ricky Alvarez pulled her hair in the cafeteria and said her father was Benedict Arnold, she punched him in the face. Valerie cried all the way home in the back of the black sedan, and even though Alphonso the Secret Service man said nice things to her, and even offered to let her wear his mirrored sunglasses, it was no consolation. She had let her father down. He spent all day helping people get along, the least she could do was try not to punch them. But over cookies and milk that afternoon, she thought about that again. She asked Angela the cook, whom she always trusted to tell her the truth. “Mrs. Angela?”

“Yes, my little mouse? You would like another cookie?”

“No, thank you.” She set down her glass. “Mrs. Angela, is my father a traitor?”

Mrs. Angela’s lipsticked mouth squinched tight. And she stared, long and hard. “Who is saying these things to you? Was it that boy?” Her fist pressed into the counter. “I will tell your mother, and she will call that awful boy’s father.”

“No!” A bite of cookie fell into Valerie’s lap. “I mean, no, please.” She picked up the crumb and set it daintily onto her plate. That would probably make Ricky Alvarez angrier, and she didn’t want to have to punch him again. Because she thought he was sort of cute. If not for the pulling her hair and the Benedict Arnold thing.

“Your father is a wonderful man. And don’t you let anyone tell you differently.”

“But…but what does he do?”

“He makes the world a better place. That is his job. And we should all be thankful.”

And that was that. Valerie finished her cookie and slunk out. She walked out onto the wide, green backyard, where the gardener was clipping dead branches from the trees, where a camera pivoted atop a tall, sturdy fence post, and looked up, into the sky and the clouds and the sun.

Then someone was talking to her, and the memory dissolved. “Your time is up.”

She sighed. Her father stood, his prison uniform hanging on his thinning frame. “Thanks for the cookies,” he said, and a guard took him away.

Flash Fiction: You’ve Tried Everything

woman-74595_640I wrote this flash piece for last week’s Two-Minutes-Go and wanted to share.

—–

You’ve tried everything. The pills, the chanting, the download-for-half-price-right-now self-help lectures that are supposed to teach you to love yourself and your body, deeply and completely and without judgment. You’ve repeated the affirmations that you don’t need to self-medicate your feelings with a box of Oreos or a jar of coconut-pecan cake frosting and a spoon. But here you are again, another week gone by, another crumpled five in your purse ready to tango. You walk the aisles, telling yourself that because you are carefully considering what that five will buy, weighing how horrible you will feel from eating a sleeve of peanut butter cups versus a sack of trail mix, that makes it better, somehow. Or at least you’ve given yourself the chance to change your mind, even though you know you won’t. Even though you know that you’ll eventually make your choice, wait for a few of the customers to leave, then sidle up to the skinny, lipsticked twenty-something at the cash register and say, “Yes, I’d like a bag, please,” as if you’re not going to eat it all in the car on the way home, as if she doesn’t know that, too. It’s not fair, really. It’s like a secret shame you’ve asked her to carry, without actually asking.

You feel compelled to add, “Oh, that’s for my husband, he can’t stop eating that junk,” and she nods and makes that old, tired noise with her tongue, as if she or maybe an older sister has one like that at home. And maybe she’s not as thin as you first thought, and maybe there’s a bit of a vacant look in her eyes, as if she’s counting the minutes until she can clock out. You wonder if she’d rather be a million other places than behind the register of a convenience store, what her life is like outside this place. And if she too trolls the aisles, buys a random whatever with her paltry employee discount and is surprised to find the container empty when she’s finished her commute.

Something thick lodges in your throat, and as she’s handing back your change with a practiced smile, your voice is barely above a whisper. “It’s for me.”

And then she nods, the smile softening, and says, “I hope you have a better day, hon.”

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.