I’ve convinced her to go out for coffee one last time.
“I can’t believe I’m here,” she says.
“You’re kidding right?”
“Love conquers all. Right? Like we always used to say.”
“Like we used to say. It doesn’t seem able to conquer your cheating heart.”
“Look, I’ve been given a gift, a talent if you will. I don’t know what to call it. But can you honestly say that if you had the gift you wouldn’t use it?”
She seems to chew on that one for a bit. “I don’t think so, not if I really cared about someone. Not if I was truly committed to a person.”
“You see? That’s the thing. You don’t know. You could at least try to understand.”
“I’ve tried, believe me. How would you feel?”
I sit back, sip my coffee, think about it. “All right,” I said, “tell you what. Why don’t you take them for the weekend? We’ll see how strong your will power is.”
I ask the kid behind the counter who makes sandwiches if I can borrow a knife. Then we go out to the parking lot. It’s a bloody freaking mess, but once we get each other’s ears off and sew them on to each other’s heads, using the little sewing kit she keeps in her glove compartment, we’re good to go.
“Go ‘head,” I say. “Try ‘em out.”
She’s reluctant at first but then gives the ears a good wiggle and my heart just about leaps out of my chest into her hands. “Wow!” I say. “I knew they worked, but… Wow!”
“Oh, stop,” she says. “You really felt something?”
“I always feel something for you, but this is something different. That’s powerful stuff. They make you irresistable.”
I’m okay during the day but when the evening hits I can’t help picturing her in some bar setting her sites on some hot guy then giving the ears a wiggle. It’s hell.
But then Monday finally comes and we meet again for coffee. I bring a sharper knife this time to avoid some of the gore.
I ask how it went.
“You were right,” she says. “It’s impossible to resist.”
The thought of her with another guy just about kills me. “Look, I don’t want to know what happened. We’re even now, right? So what do you think, you want to give it another shot?”
“Under one condition.”
“I’ll do anything. Name it. I can’t live without you.”
“I want the ears.” LS
Jerry never dated or attended games. He asked Lara Kimmelheim to a dance. She said yes but ended up going with Steve Aplet—and getting pregnant soon after.
To escape the others and yawn-provoking classes, Jerry found a small room at school, too small for a classroom but larger than a closet, by the wood shop. Mostly it was used for storage—boxes, heaps of paper, a few old computer monitors. With a forged a hall pass, he snuck off there when he could. One spring afternoon when Jerry walked in, he found Steve already there. They started talking, first about music, then about The Royals—Steve grabbed Jerry by his lapels and pointed a knife at his back.
“Make a sound and I’ll kill you right now,” Steve said.
Jerry was lanky and slight, like a white straw. Steve had bulky arms.
“Why are you doing this?” Jerry asked.
“I want someone to die with me.”
“I don’t want to die.”
“I don’t either, but what we want doesn’t matter.”
He grabbed Jerry’s shoulders and started twisting. The knife cut through his green shirt with PUMA written on the front. Jerry turned quickly and slipped free. Steve turned the knife on himself. Jerry ran out to get help, but it was too late.
Jerry faced interviews with school authorities, cops, Steve’s parents, and a battery of shrinks. Few, other than his parents, believed he had nothing to do with Steve’s death.
“Were you and Steve having sex?” a pennyloafered shrink asked.
“No, I haven’t had sex yet.”
“Did you just let him die? Did you want Lara that much?”
“No, she bores me, but less so than most of the others.”
Jerry wondered if another kid had walked in, would Steve have done the same to him? Or did he single out Jerry? Answers got mopped up, disinfected. Steve hadn’t said ten words to him before it. Why him? This was no Romeo and Juliet scene or a double Romeo scene, just one minute that determined his life.
Kids vandalized Jerry’s house, spiked the wheels of the family Kia, scrawled obscene messages on the front sidewalk and set Facebook ablaze with plots.
His family moved. To another state. The sophomore became a Junior. A Senior. A graduate. A college graduate. An employed middle class man. A married man with two kids.
He didn’t kill himself. He went on. And on. Like a button rolling down an icy mountain, nothing to stop it. Ever. Many saw the button and never stopped its journey. An airwave rolling deeper and deeper into space. Into the cold depths. LS
We cut trails through the woods with rusted machetes we stole from the garage of that empty house down the street. We swung the machetes like skilled explorers making our way through the violent jungle, breaking branches, injuring tree trunks, slicing the dirt in front of us. You explored your way right into the path of a water moccasin, its fangs breaking through the back of your ankle, the holes in your flesh covered by mud and moss. And I dragged you all the way to your house, to your father, and I watched as your mom panicked, called an ambulance and smashed her hand in the screen door, the droplets of blood marking the way for the medics. And I listened to your dad blame me, and then I listened to my dad blame me, and I wondered if you would blame me. But you didn't. Because you died. LS
The time draws near, and she feels the anxiety building.
Her palms moisten; her lips parch. Her heart beats a staccato rhythm that echoes in her ears. The air around her is cloying, the heat oppressive. She tries to breathe, only to find her chest more constricted with each inhalation. She looks around for an escape route. There is none.
Her captor thinks her beautiful at the worst of times, and so in a rare act of kindness toward him, she has made an effort to look her best. This guise -- the costume, the painted visage -- it has all been arranged for his pleasure. Her legs buckle slightly under the crushing weight of his will, now so overpowering she knows it will bring about her demise.
Despite her delicate frame, her footfalls pound the earth with the weight of a thousand sledgehammers. She feels his presence, edging ever closer, and knows she cannot let him sense the fear that dwells within her breast. Any second now, he'll appear before her and the life she has known will cease to exist.
How did she get here? Details of the events that led to this moment blur in her mind, then fade away. Blindsided by his charm, she’d fallen victim easily. Now at his mercy, she cannot fight back. She has no choice but to succumb, and let her daemon suitor emerge victorious. Though her inner turmoil rages on, outwardly she is powerless: a simpering coward, unable to break free.
The time has come. She goes to him a willing victim: the lamb, choosing her own slaughter. The world collapses upon itself and she is oblivious to all save for the man, the murderer, standing before her.
She wipes the tears from her eyes and turns to him, resigned and accepting of her fate. A breathy whisper emerges from somewhere -- someone -- deep inside. With determination, she opens her mouth to speak and seals her fate.
“I Do.” LS
We awoke one morning and he was there. No one knew who he was, where he came from. He said he wanted work. It was harvest time and we needed all the help we could get, so the village elders agreed he could stay for the season, which surprised us; we’re not accepting of strangers. But we do as the elders say.
He was a hard worker. Competent. Quiet. Did as he was told. And slowly, he gained our trust.
Slowly, he began making suggestions for improvements. “Perhaps try pulling the plow like this?” he’d say. “Maybe stack the hay bales this way?” Harmless little things.
The village elders were upset. We’d always done things our way. Even if they weren’t the best ways, they were our ways. Who was this stranger to tell us differently?
But the elders let us try the stranger's ways, and they worked. And so he was accepted into our village.
Accepted by most, that is. One of the elders, the oldest and wisest, wouldn't fold. He railed against the stranger. “He’s trouble, is what he is!” he spat. “The elders before us are spinning in their graves. Mark my words, no good will come of him. I’ve seen it before, believe you me!”
We laughed at the eldest, the other elders joining us. Told him he’d gone daft in his old age. He stomped down to the cemetery near the river, sat on the bank under a tree and sulked. We soon forgot about him.
The stranger was one of us now, though we still knew little about him. He continued to make suggestions, but now they were mixed with orders, demands. “Give me half the wheat crop, to sell at faraway markets where it’ll bring a better price,” he told us. “Make me fine shirts of linen, to prove to them I’m not a backwards country farmer.”
The village elders folded to his demands. “He's improved our crops. He’s brought us forward. Give him whatever he wants, with glad hearts!”
The eldest, of course, protested. “He’ll take our crops, the best our village has to offer, and we’ll never hear tale of him again! The elders before us are spinning in their graves. Mark my words, no good will come of him. I’ve seen it before, believe you me!”
We laughed again, told him sitting in the sun had softened his mind. He again stomped down to the river. We soon forgot about him.
The night before our traders were set to leave for the faraway markets, our village had a large celebration. Drinking, dancing. We feted our stranger, who’d brought us forward.
We awoke the next morning and the stranger was gone, with our wagons of grain. With several of our strong young boys. With my sister, and the sisters of others as well. With our future.
The next year, another stranger appeared. He was shot on sight. LS
"I've never seen both freeways completely stopped before,” said Joseph. His son David scanned his iPhone. "Here it is. A truck rolled over and caught on fire at the junction of 238 and 580.” Joseph wasn't upset, even after 20 minutes stopped in gridlock, because any time spent with his son was welcome.
Joseph and his son had always been close, but even more so after David left for college. They had the same, quirky sense of humor, a combination of Monty Python and Steven Wright. David was telling his Dad some jokes to pass the time.
But Joseph laughed so hard and for so long that he began to cough, and then fell forward slowly. David was panicked and reached for his father. "Dad, Wake up.” Joseph was unconscious but realized he was driving and recovered in a panic. His body shivered and his eyes opened to see that he was still stopped in traffic. "Oh, how long was I out?” "About 30 seconds, but I thought you had a heart attack.” Joseph took some deep breaths. "No I just blacked out. You better drive."
"We should go to a hospital", said David. Joseph wiped some sweat from his forehead. "No, I'm ok, let's get you back to Berkeley." David insisted, "No Dad, I'll take you home. Annie can take me back to school."
The next day Annie and Joseph went to the doctor. The nurse asked him why he came in. "I fainted last night, he said.” The nurse was taking notes. "Where did this happen?” Joseph paused. "My son and I were stopped in that traffic jam. He was telling me a joke. I laughed so hard I lost my breath and fainted.” The nurse looked up. "Didn’t you go to the ER?” Joseph reassured her. "No, I just went home and rested. My wife took him back to school.” The nurse took Joseph's blood pressure and listened to his heart. "So you were driving?” Joseph couldn’t believe what the nurse was saying. "We were stopped in traffic; I had my foot on the brake the whole time.” Later the nurse came in to get a signature approving treatment. Joseph didn’t notice that an admission that he was behind the wheel when he fainted was hidden in small text of the three-page form. The doctor came in and confirmed the exam. "Well, you seem ok now, but I want to run some tests.”
A few days later Joseph received a letter from the DMV. "Your license has been suspended. You may apply for reinstatement in 90 days.” Apparently the nurse had reported the incident, some law he wasn’t aware of. “If I thought this would happen, I would have said David was driving.” Calls, emails and letters to the doctor and the DMV were fruitless. Joseph understood the need to keep the roads safe, but his car never moved; there was never a moment when others were endangered.
Not being able to drive meant keeping a secret that would jeopardize his job and any future work he might apply for; you see, most applications include a question about your driving record and employers routinely check a DMV report before hiring. It didn’t matter that Joseph was healthy; it was the appearance of a serious health condition that put his resume in the rejected pile. So what do you do when you can’t tell the truth to explain a misconception?
These 30 seconds were threatening to derail Joseph’s career and life. The nurse didn’t discuss the issue with Joseph and the doctor; she just filled out a form and sent it in. She blindly followed a legal requirement and we know where that can lead. We all know doctors skew the facts in order to protect their patients. Isn’t justice more important than truth? It was too late to blame the nurse and the DMV didn’t care.
After the EKG, the halter monitor and the stress tests, Joseph had a clean bill of health. The doctor never apologized for the nurse of course, but he was sympathetic. He assured me that the cause of the fainting was a mystery and in all likelihood, wouldn’t happen again.
Well, 90 days came and went and Joseph expected a reinstatement letter. It didn’t arrive. Bureaucracies like the DMV have no incentive for efficiency, much less personal attention to cases that are suspect. Fainting while behind the wheel is more egregious than a DUI when it can’t be explained. After another month of appeals and meetings, the suspension was finally lifted.
Annie sat down with Joseph for dinner. “Honey, your license is reinstated tomorrow. How should we celebrate?” Joseph looked happy for the first time in months. “I think I’d like to take a drive to the coast. We can have lunch at that seafood place.” Annie smiled. “And maybe stay overnight?”
Joseph and Annie headed off that Saturday, around the winding road over the mountain towards the ocean. A morning fog was lifting from the Sun’s rays. As he turned around the blind corner, Joseph saw a truck in his lane swerving; the driver had collapsed over the steering wheel. Thinking quickly, he slammed on the brakes, put it in reverse and headed backwards around the corner of the road. The truck slowly veered off of the road, flipped over and landed 100 yards below. Annie screamed and grabbed her husband. “Joe, that man was asleep or had a heart attack. He would have killed us for sure.” Joe called 911 and waited.
The police took their statement. “Was he drunk officer?” said Annie. “No he had a suspended license for health reasons, bad ticker,” said the cop. Annie held onto Joseph. “It was the scariest minute of my life.” Joe nodded and said to himself. “Half a minute.”
Joseph and Annie left shaken on their way to the coast. LS
15th April 2010
Fiona and Mitchell stand beside the bar in the luxurious Keats Room. The wedding guests form a queue, each wanting to pass on their congratulations and good wishes for the future. Mitchell dishes out firm handshakes and booming laughs for the men. Fiona receives the attentions of the women with graceful smiles.
Rosie taps her foot and checks her watch as she stands in line. She wanted to be first but the coach-load of colleagues from Fiona’s college pushed her aside outside the wedding venue. When she got to the Keats Room, Mitchell’s friends from the golf club beat her to the queue.
Eventually Rosie reaches the happy couple. She hugs Fiona, and tells her favourite cousin how beautiful she looks. Fiona manages a blush for the fiftieth time that afternoon, and thanks Rosie for coming. Rosie steps to one side to allow Mrs Patterson to pass on her congratulations.
“Thanks for coming, Rosie,” says Mitchell. He shakes Rosie’s hand. Rosie forces a smile. She doesn’t like Mitchell. He stinks of money and influence.
“No problem, mate. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world. One word of warning though - you hurt Fiona, and I’ll kill you,” says Rosie.
Shock flickers across Mitchell’s face before they burst out laughing. Mitchell claps Rosie on the back. Rosie ruffles Mitchell’s hair.
“Good one! I’ll look after her, I promise,” he says.
“You’d better,” mutters Rosie as she leaves the couple and heads toward the other cousins by the window. She drops a handful of Mitchell’s hair into her purse.
29th October 2015
Mitchell sits on the sofa in Deirdre’s living room. He looks around at her modernist decor, and smiles. He remembers Fiona’s chintz and pastel shades, and shudders. He rubs his wedding finger, glad to be rid of the ring.
His phone buzzes on the sofa beside him. Another text from Fiona. Mitchell shakes his head. She’s been hysterical since he left three days ago. He tells her that it’s not her fault, that these things happen. He tells her she can keep the house, he really doesn’t care. He tells her that he wishes it could have turned out differently. He tells her that she’s not to blame, and nor is Deirdre. He tells her that he cannot help who he falls in love with.
Mitchell sees movement outside the living room window. He sighs, and hauls himself up from the couch. He expects to see Fiona outside. She has been by twice already, pleading with him to change his mind. He told her to leave, to stop embarrassing herself. He told her the divorce will be fair. Mitchell kicks himself. He needs to call his solicitor and find out how to begin proceedings.
The front garden is empty. Mitchell wonders if Deirdre is back from work. He peers up the road, trying to spot Deirdre’s Nissan Micra.
Pain shoots up his left arm. Mitchell lurches backwards, clutching at his shoulder. A throbbing beat begins in his abdomen. He falls to his knees, doubled over. A fresh wave of agony shudders through his body. He looks up and sees a shadow beside the window.
He calls out for help. A fist of pain reaches into his chest and grips his heart. Panic seizes Mitchell. A wave of agony knocks him onto his back. He feels as though a giant is thrusting a hundred needles into his chest. A burning sensation crawls up his arm from his right hand. Tears spill down Mitchell’s face now, his blurred vision focussed on the shadow at the door. He tries to call out but the pain is too great.
He wheezes as an iron grip clamps around his heart. Mitchell twitches twice, before lying still. His glassy eyes stare at the wall, seeing nothing.
* * *
“I told you I’d kill you if you hurt Fiona, but you didn’t listen, did you?” asks Rosie.
She stands outside the whore’s house, watching Mitchell’s body twitch through the front window. Rosie puts away her lighter, and drops the doll filled with Mitchell’s hair into her bag.
Rosie smiles and leaves the garden and walks away down the street. The coroner will conclude a heart attack killed Mitchell, and Fiona will claim both his life insurance and his fortune. The slut will get nothing.
Rosie gets into her car. She looks in the rear view mirror. The Angel of Vengeance looks back. LS
I met Garrison Keillor once, in 1976, in Saigon. He was wearing a white linen suit and a white fedora eating pho at a small café where he insisted on being called Mr. Andicott. Between slurps of the fiery broth he entertained local boys, homeless by the looks of them, with sleight-of-hand trickery and the butchering of classic Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes sung in his unique and incessant warbling (he particularly favored “With a Little Bit of Luck” from My Fair Lady). He saw me sitting there alone, drinking tea, and asked me to join him.
“Do you know me?” he said, looking around as if to keep this secret intact, his lips permanently puckered as if expecting a kiss.
“I believe so, yes,” I replied.
“Good, good. It is nice to be known, wouldn’t you say?”
“I…do not believe I am known, sir. So, I would not know.”
“Ah, well, you should become known. It is quite invigorating.” He laughed, snorted, and sucked up more broth. I watched as the neighborhood boys, those riff-raff, watched his every move from afar, scattered along the place like delicate little creatures, entranced by him, fixated on his jowls as they wobbled with his ferocious eating gestures. He soon sat back in his chair, nestling in place as if it were some throne, and this café—his kingdom. “There is a certain degree of anonymity here, you know.”
I wasn’t sure if he meant this café or Saigon in general, but I did not ask. A boy soon approached, much older than the others, but still a boy, wearing only jean shorts, his skin dark and smooth, his face lighting up as if he had a real purpose here. He approached Garrison, who noticed him out of the corner of his eye, and waved him near. The boy whispered inaudibly as the man, their king, clicked his tongue while processing what he was being told. Once the boy had finished, Garrison produced a fistful of coin, handing it over. The boy smiled and left, taking most of the others with him.
Then, as if remembering I was there with him, privy to his idiosyncrasies, Garrison sat up at the table, forcing a smile through his thin lips. “Would you like to hear a secret?”
“I know the secrets of the universe,” he giggled. “Would you like to know them?”
“Sure,” I responded and watched as he sat back in his chair and folded his arms across his great sprawling belly. He waited a moment then proceeded to sing in his gravelly voice “The Ants Go Marching”, raising his fist during the chorus, spittle foaming at the sides of his mouth during the excitement. I watched and waited, and after he had finished, he wiped his mouth clean with a handkerchief plucked from his jacket.
“The secret,” he declared like a proud papa, “is there, buried in those verses.” He laughed and slapped the table, then stood and fixed his suit and pocketed the handkerchief. He tilted his hat toward me, then to the staff waiting behind the counter, and left the place, his musk trailing behind him. Outside, a rickshaw pulled up as if on cue, and Garrison stepped up, his great weight slugging the thing down. The driver began to peddle, and before Garrison disappeared from out of sight, he looked back inside the café, meeting my gaze, and smirked as if he already knew how everything would turn out. LS
Gym sucks. I stand between Patrick and Latisha exchanging mortified glances. If I’m the last one standing, I swear brain matter will leak from my ears.
“It’s survival of the fittest, Dude, nothing personal.” Blake shrugs as he chooses the next member of his kickball team.
Team captain number two waves Latisha over. It’s down to me and Patrick. As Blake’s “best” friend I shouldn’t be sweating it. But I can feel the wet circles under my pits already. This is raw humiliation and I’m still feeling it two hours later.
“You may have a good arm, but when it comes to kicking, you’re no Adam Vinatieri,” he says during lunch.
Great. Announce it like a radio broadcast to the whole cafeteria. I toss an empty milk carton at his head.
“Dude, get over it,” he says, like I’m the jerk.
Who does he think he’s kidding? His best sport is badminton. Pure luck that he was chosen team captain.
By the time gym day rolls around again Blake and I are talking. Barely. But that doesn’t mean that if I had the chance to humiliate him I wouldn’t take it.
As we enter the gymnasium there’s a substitute teacher in the doorway and a rack of playground balls at center court. She tosses me a ball. “You’re team captain.”
“Dodgeball!” the sub hollers and blows the whistle.
I make Latisha and Patrick my first two choices, then start flexing my throwing arm. I love gym. LS
It was a weak moment that I picked up the magazine.
Glossy, thick as a textbook, the cover model swathed in white taffeta.
It had an almost hypnotic effect on me. I flipped through pages of iridescent confectionary masterpieces, sparkling hands holding fragile lilies and silhouettes wading in in the surf at sunset.
“Excuse me, can I get by?” she asked.
The woman who spoke to me gestured at my shopping cart blocking the aisle. She noticed what I was reading and smirked to herself.
She didn’t congratulate me or ask if I’d set a date. She looked at me, an over thirty Botox aficionado with a naked ring finger and judged for herself.
“Who do you think you’re kidding?” she seemed to be saying. “Women like you die alone.”
I flushed and hastily put it back, as ashamed as if I‘d been caught looking at porn. LS
"If the truth be told, I'd rather hear a story."