Sunday, June 27, 2010

Winter Pride

Originally published in Storyglossia

Tanya Berdoff is trudging back and forth through the snow in front of my house. A straw hat shields her face, and Christmas lights flicker all over her body. Other than that she isn't wearing a thing.

When she notices me peering out through the window, Tanya stops pacing and faces me. Her breath steams, rises skyward. As she shivers, her pale, puppy-dog-ear breasts and her heavy thighs wobble beneath the myriad of shapes and colors coming off the lights strung around her.

Across the street the Berdoff's porch light flicks on. The front door swings open. Tanya's husband, Henry Berdoff, steps out and lights a cigarette. Scowling in my direction, he raises a fist in the air and shouts, "Beat that, you fucking pork chop!"

I let the curtain fall and turn away from the window.

My wife, Myra, who'd been reading in bed, sets her magazine in her lap and looks my way. "What's going on out there, Roy?"

"The Berdoffs' are pissed," I reply.

Myra raises herself up onto her elbows. Her magazine falls out of her lap and onto the carpet. "What's their problem now?" When I don't answer right away, Myra climbs out of bed and joins me at the window.

I pull the curtain aside just in time for Myra and me to catch sight of Tanya Berdoff's broad blinking backside lumbering past the life-sized, mechanical Santa Clause that decorates their front lawn. When Tanya reaches her porch, Henry kisses her.

Myra says, "I can't believe that crazy woman's outside naked."

Standing quietly at the window, we watch Henry drop to a crouch on his porch. He reaches an arm past his wife's legs and unplugs a cord. The lights covering Tanya flicker off. Slowly, shrouded beneath the blotchy glow, Tanya spins herself free of the cord she'd been wrapped in. Henry rises to his feet. He glares our way, then flicks his cigarette toward our house. Before they disappear through their front door, both Henry and Tanya raise a finger to give Myra and me a not so neighborly gesture.

We remain at the window, silent, staring across the snow-coated road, watching the Berdoff's mechanical Santa waves its arm and bends at its waist. Finally, I release my grip on the curtain, turn to Myra and pull her close against me.

Softly, I whisper into her ear,"Myra?"

She pushes away from me with her palms and studies my face. Her head begins to move from side to side.

"Please, Myra?"

Retreating, backing toward the bed, a disgusted scowl stretching across her face, Myra says, "Not a chance, Roy. Not a chance in hell." Her right hand, with its jabbing finger, rises into the space between us. "First thing in the morning," she says, "your ass climbs that roof and each of those damn reindeer come down."

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Balloon Swords

Originally published in Mudluscious

They met in a park as children. It was a late summer afternoon. His balloon sword was green, hers red. They stood opposing each other in the grassy park center, near the playground. He raised his balloon sword, then charged, thrusting his weapon at her heart. She winced and tried to defend herself by waving her red balloon sword back and forth in front of her face. But he used the sun setting behind him to his advantage. He ducked, blinding her momentarily, and his thrusting green sword struck home. Still holding her sword in one hand, she fell backward onto the grass, closed her eyes, and rested her free palm on her chest.

Years later, each time the battle was replayed without balloons, he would recall the dry heat of that summer afternoon when they were still children. He recollected the chiming of a passing ice cream truck. He remembered the flitting shadow of a bird crossing over her pale face. And he would wonder, again and again -- how different things might have been if he hadn’t discarded his green balloon sword to drop onto his knees, just so he could see if her heart had really been pierced.


Originally published in Underground Voices

The rain battered the ground and the passing cars hurled spray from the pavement onto my jeans. A dark, low-to-the-ground sportscar sped past, then slowed suddenly before veering to a stop on the shoulder. Its trouble lights started to flash.

I looped the straps of my backpack through my arms and shrugged it into place. Trotting across the gravel to where the car waited, I felt relieved that someone had finally stopped.

Above the car's rear license plate, chrome letters spelled out the word SPYDER. The passenger's side window slid down and I peered inside. It was a tiny two-seater, black interior, and the driver was a woman about my age. A green glow coming off the instrument panel lit up her face.

She tilted her head, smiling, and said, "Look at you. Drenched." The windshield wipers groaned as they arced and scraped rainwater off the cracked glass. "Where you headed?" she asked.

I shoved a clump of wet hair out of my face and tried to blink the rain out of my eyes. "I guess I'm just on the move," I said.

"Running from something?" she asked.

For no reason, my stomach clenched. I looked the woman over. Her blonde hair was a disheveled mess of stringy silk. Mascara stains coated the skin beneath her eyes. She had on gray sweats, the shirt hooded and the pants baggy. "Yeah," I replied. "I guess that's what I'm doing. Running."

I startled when the automatic lock released. The woman said, "Get in. Let's run together. Maybe grab something to eat down the road."

I tugged on the handle and opened the door. But I hesitated, didn't get in. She leaned across the center console and used her arm to sweep fast food wrappers and empty cigarette packs off the passenger's seat onto the floor. She straightened and smiled and kept staring at me.

There was something needy in the way she grinned. Alarm bells pounded inside my head. Everything felt too similar to relationships I'd spent my life escaping.

Just then, bright headlights from an oncoming car hit the cracked windshield and cast floating web patterns across the woman's face.

I slammed the door shut. Shaking my head, I told the woman, "Hope you don't get offended if I pass on the ride."

She chuckled. "You're afraid of me, aren't you?"

As I backed away in the rain, I reminded myself the weather couldn't stay bad forever. The woman behind the wheel said nothing. She simply kept her hungry gaze on me, never once blinking.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Fried Plantain

Originally Published in elimae

Still humming, my father slices the plantains. He drops the slices into a hot skillet.

"I won't forgive her," I say.

My father says nothing. He tongs the browned slices out of the sizzling oil and transfers them onto a plate. He asks me to flatten them.

After coating all of the slices with wax paper, I slide the first one under a drinking glass. I lean hard against the glass's rim, squashing the fruit flat, squeezing the oil out.

My father quits humming. "Gentler, child."

"I hate plantain," I reply, staring at him through eyes that burn. "First they're bitter, then they become rotten."

Shaking his head, my father sits in the chair next to mine. He reaches out and touches my wrist. "Not rotten," he says. "More mature. Sweeter. Softer."


Originally Published in Ken*Again

The egg rests in your hand, its tips pinpricked, everything inside drained out. Using light strokes and thin-hair brushes, you color the delicate shell, careful not to shatter that fragility which houses nothing.

Listless in bed, her eyes remain open, focused on a point on the ceiling. You’ve tried to reach her before, never successful.

You fill the tub with warm water and sprinkle the surface with tender red leaves—poinsettias. A small tribute to someone you still love.

One arm slid beneath the hollows of her knees, the other placed across the back of her shoulders, you heft and carry her from the bed to the bath, and set her into the water.

The soft sponge you apply with a gentle touch. She doesn’t react. She never does.

The nurses, almost always touched by your devotion, wait until the last possible moment, and then allow you a final kiss before telling you that you must leave.

Outdoors, behind the wheel of a rusted Rambler parked in the shade of an oak, your lover waits reading. She raises her face from her book and glances through the windshield. She gently smiles. She never asks why, only agrees to drive you each first Sunday of the month. She understands, your lover does, what you still share with your wife is much deeper than just devotion.


Originally published in Wigleaf

While browsing a souvenir shop in the airport terminal, the man who'd flown across an ocean encouraged his new bride, a woman he'd selected from a photograph in a catalog, to assist him in choosing a gift to bring home to his mother.

Anyone paying attention to these newlyweds could see they were not yet in sync with one another, nor were they completely comfortable in each other's presence.

They made their way along the souvenir-filled aisles. He led, she followed. Occasionally, the man stopped and removed an item from one of the shelves. Turning toward his new bride, he asked her what she thought.

Because she always nodded, he very gently took her hands in his and explained to her that he did not expect her to agree with everything he said.

Still, each time he asked his new bride's opinion regarding a snow globe or metal trinket that replicated some well-known local landmark, she smiled and nodded. If he placed a printed t-shirt or baseball cap into her hands, she smiled and nodded.

Toward the rear of the shop the couple paused in front of a display filled with wooden figurines. Most of the carvings were of native people clad in traditional attire. The man and his new wife stared long at one particular figurine: a dark wood carving of a native woman wrapped in a native dress. Held in front of the wooden woman was a straw basket brimming over with a sampling of local fruit.

The man bent and when he removed the carving from the shelf, its wooden head shivered on its coil and began to bob up and down, up and down.

Startled, he turned to face his new wife. She was staring down at the toes of the new shoes he'd bought her.

Replacing the figurine on the shelf, he said, "No. I don't care for it either. Let's see if we can't find an interesting keychain instead."

A Recurrent Dream

Originally published in Pequin

At the breakfast table, Nestor’s wife breaks the news, revealing to him that the company she works for has scheduled yet another business trip for her to attend. She claims the seminar, which will be held seven-hundred-miles away in New York City, is necessary for the advancement of her career.

Nestor stares down at the eggs on his plate. “When?”


“Funny," Nestor says, focusing on the yellow of his eggs, "how these company meetings always pop up with little notice.”

“They weren't able to—” his wife begins to explain, but when she catches Nestor shaking his head her voice trails off.

"I knew you were going," Nestor says. His gaze rises from his plate to his wife's anxious face. “Last night I had the dream again.”

She doesn't reply. She knows, after all, her husband is referring to his recurring dream. In the often described nightmare, Nestor floats above his body and observes his wife bending over him while he sleeps on their bed. With a deceitful smile on her face, she sews his eyelids shut with a threaded silver needled.

In the heavy silence, only the tines of his wife's fork can be heard as they clink against her porcelain plate. Nestor says, "It's true, isn't it? My dream has meaning, doesn't it?"

She releases her fork. It drops onto the plate. She gets out of her seat and hurries from the room.

While he listens to her quick footsteps fade on the wooden floor, Nestor smiles. His ploy to put his wife on the defensive had been successful. His grin widens. He resumes eating his breakfast. Heartily. He knows, of course, that during her trip to New York, his wife will be too upset to wonder what Nestor is doing, and with whom.

Finding Freddy

Originally published in Dogzplot

Freddy lived next door. He had club hands. His thumbs and fingers were folded inward against his palms, resulting in two permanent fists.

Because of this physical oddity, the rest of us boys allowed Freddy special concessions. If we played 'Red Light, Green Light' in the middle of the street, we pretended not to notice the extra steps Freddy sneaked while everyone else stood frozen. When we played 'Dodge Ball,' the ball never came near him. And in the evenings when we played 'Hide-n-Seek,' Freddy never got found.

This afternoon on Freddy's front porch we played 'Rock-Paper-Scissors.' Of course, none of us ever brought our hands up to reveal anything but scissors, which Freddy's permanent rock repeatedly crushed.

When Freddy got up to go to the bathroom, his mother came out of the house and confronted us. She wiped her hands on her apron and said, "Treating Freddy special does him more harm than good."

After Freddy sat back down, we resumed our game of 'Rock-Paper-Scissors.' This time, however, our palms always came up open to shroud his fisted hand. Later, in the road, when Freddy shuffled his feet in 'Red Light, Green Light,' we sent him marching to sit on the curb. Playing 'Dodge Ball,' I carefully aimed the ball at Freddy, then hurled it so hard it blasted his head and left a purple bruise blossoming on his face.

I felt a little bad after that, and it wasn't until we got around to playing 'Hide-n-Seek' that it struck me that Freddy's mother had been right. Each time one of us found and dragged Freddy out of his hiding place, he gave off a loud and unfamiliar howl of joy.

Dakota Street

Originally published in Lit Up Magazine

She solicited him from an upstairs window.

He mounted the weathered steps, and left his leather boots outside her front door.

Indoors, he sat on the sofa with his hands folded in his lap and described his loneliness. She shook her head and raised a finger to his lips.

His visits to the woman's tiny apartment grew frequent. Her modest dreams and simple desires enlightened him. She did not hesitate when he offered her his name.

His happiness did not go unnoticed among his circle of family and friends. They pressed for details.

"Dakota Street," he finally revealed.

Collectively, they responded with sighs and scorns and belittling grins. "Women like that make poor wives," one of them said. That night he had been shamed into abandoning the woman he had already fallen in love with.

Without her in his life, the gripping loneliness he'd once suffered resurfaced. When the rainy season blew in, along with it came nights of sleepless lamentation.

In the spring, cradling an armful of red roses, he returned to the woman's Dakota Street apartment. He made his way up the familiar wooden steps.

Never again, he promised himself, would he allow the judgement of others to persuade him. When he reached the landing he discovered a pair of shoes -- not his -- resting outside her door.


Originally Published in Dogzplot

In the park, Jenny's father folded an old newspaper into a kite. I asked my mother could she do the same. Instead, she stalked the hedges, walked alongside them until she spotted a blue dragonfly.

The insect was balanced on the sword-shaped tip of a leaf. My mother positioned her hand above it. In one quick motion her fingers had the dragonfly's clear wings pincered between them. The dragonfly's tail curled inward, and its spindly forelegs clawed the air.

Back at the picnic table, my mother dug red thread out of her hobo bag and looped some around the dragonfly's thick neck. She set the wooden spool into my palm. "Here," she said. "Go fly this."

When she saw my dragonfly buzzing skyward, Jenny dropped her kite. She ran over and stood beside me clapping her hands. She begged me to let her try. But since I had no father to magically craft old newspapers into boats or hats or kites, I ignored Jenny and continued to maneuver my dragonfly with pride.

The thread went slack and Jenny laughed. She picked her kite up off the ground and bolted across the park. I reeled in my headless dragonfly.

I sat on the grass, and while I pinched apart my dragonfly's segmented tail, I listened to Jenny's kite flap in the afternoon breeze. I lifted my head then, and saw my mother at the picnic table, laughing with yet another strange man.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Temporary Now

Originally published in The Battered Suitcase

Spinning circles, Faith and I. Couple of nobodies whirling round, headed nowhere quick. Who knows how we've managed to make do these past few months. Today feels no different. Standing in the cold and the wet, future don't look too bright. I know I'm not supposed to dwell on the future. Supposed to put my worry on getting through today. The now.

Last night we slept where we scored. Burned and crashed. Something we do a lot. Got up this morning to a battering rain. Haven't eaten since. And the way things are going might be a while before we do. Only a few generous arms have slipped out from rolled down car windows. Seven bucks. Eight. Maybe. Lots of coins. Hardly nobody one with any extra to spare. While I hang back by the scrubweed, propping up the cardboard sign, Faith, she works the cars waiting on the light. She raps her raw knuckles against the wet windows. "Spare some change," she begs.

Most of the time folks ignore her, keep their gazes straight ahead. Once in a while they'll turn to face her, scowling. Or maybe raise a finger and laugh. One guy, when the light flashed green, rolled down his window and spat in Faith's face. Get a fucking job, fucking crack-slut, he shouted. Faith got her hands in the window, got hold of his collar, but when he jammed the gas pedal she got thrown off. A tough girl. Faith. Not easily bothered. She's all about the now. All about believing that today is the only mattering day. Folks who worry on the future, or dream about the past, Faith says, got their heads wrapped around the world all wrong.

Light goes green and the lane clears. I make mention of how bad the rain's getting. I raise the sign I'm holding over my head to keep the rain from drenching me. Faith, she palms a damp frizz of red hair off her face, shrugs, and says, We got much bread left? I don't answer, so she says, Yeah, that's what I thought. She gives herself a glance; her breasts beneath the wet and clinging pullover she's got on. She yanks the fabric away from her skin, then tugs downward, letting the shirt grab and form around the goods she's got. The goods. That's what she calls them. In an ugly way, gets desperate sometimes.

One night a month or so back we'd actually caught enough coin to rent a room. In that room I asked her why we stoop. Uptight and angry, Faith said, Why do you give a shit? Besides, she went on, it's all temporary, anyway. All this shit's temporary.

I said, Maybe I give a shit because I care. Maybe I wanna make a life with you. Faith said, Talk that way again and you're on your own. Last thing I need, she said, is a bunch of happy-happy, joy-joy crap. She didn't mean it, though. I knew that she was hiding behind that tough girl mask. She no more wanted to be alone than I did. Nobody wants to be alone.

That night in the dark I lay on the bed and listened to Faith struggle to keep her sobs inside. Next morning in my arms, she whispered, Let's do it, Donny. Let's kick this shit and anchor down to a real address. Get real jobs. Live real lives.

I got out of bed and parted the curtains. Sunlight swept over the room. Felt different for a minute. Warm and bright. Real and secure. Never felt that way before. But it didn't take long for those hopeful vibes to become temporary. Like always, the reality of the now needed to be dealt with.

Light goes red again and the cars begin lining up. Faith leans over the lead car, peers into the driver's side window. She gives the guy behind the wheel an eyeful of the goods. Then the window cranks down. Help a lady out, Faith says to the driver. The driver, an older guy, suit and tie type, probably says back, What's in it for me? Cardboard sign I'm hefting above my head sags heavy with rain. Even before Faith glances over her shoulder my way, I know she's getting into the car with the guy. It's warm in there. No rain. No wind. No past. No future. Pretty music. The temporary now.

When she nods, I nod back. She opens the door, hops in, slams the door behind her. She sits gnawing her bottom lip the way she does when she wants you to think she don't care about nothing. We'll hook up later. After. Like always. When the car drives off, its tires send a splash of water off the pavement onto my jeans. Ankles to cuffs drenched. I move up with my sign alongside the lane. They don't look my way, though. These drivers. Like they know I ain't quite whole. Like they know something's missing. Like they know ain't know faith with me today.

Later, if things go right, we'll eat good, maybe even get a room.

I let it guilt me. Faith doing what she does to keep us going. Wish things could be different. Wish I could snap my fingers, make all this crap disappear. I tell myself to quit dreaming. If I've learned anything from Faith, it's not to count on things being too different from one day to the next. Life don't work that way. Not unless through some miracle you strike it big.

I hit the mother-lode once in my life. Just once. The day Faith came along. But right here, right now, with cars splashing past and the rain pounding down, I almost hear Faith's voice in my head, saying, Damn you, Donny. Quit dwelling. Quit hoping. In the real world dreams don't pan out.

But I can't help myself. My hopeful streak tells me she's right about all this being a temporary thing.

Like Braveheart

Originally published in Tuesday Shorts

If I had on a yellow dress I'd get myself up off this filthy, gum-stained floor and race past the lockers. At the opposite end of the corridor I'd whirl around and scream out their names. Gus and Kip and Justin and all the others. Once they turned toward the sound of my voice I'd slowly raise my middle finger. Then I'd spin around, bend over and lift the back of my dress just like those courageous Scottish warriors in the film Braveheart. Everyone standing around would clap and laugh, making those dreadful boys feel very small.

But then if I had on a yellow dress, it would lend truth to their insensitive taunts -- wouldn't it?

Texas Chili

Originally published in Boston Literary Magazine

This morning my wife got word her first husband died. She celebrated by whipping up a serious batch of Texas chili. Real sirloin and no red beans. Fantastic. But while cooking she must have sprinkled too much onion and chili powder and cayenne pepper into her creation, because she couldn't quit digging into that box of tissues on the kitchen counter beside her.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Spoon-Faced Julia

Originally published in Dogzplot

Because Julia Farley's face was concave, we made her our buddy.

On Saturdays, after H.R. Puffnstuff, the guys and I would bang on the Farley's front door and ask Mrs. Farley if Julia could come outdoors to play. Of course, Mrs. Farley always agreed. She even offered us brownies if we promised to return our spoon-faced friend before noon.

We sometimes laid Julia down on her back on the grass, then lugged the long garden hose over. So she wouldn't drown, one of the guys poked a couple of straws into her nostrils. We released a dozen guppies, and laughed as they splashed in the shallows of Julia's sunken face. Once, one of the guys whistled over a stray dog and encouraged it to lap the water out of Julia's face.

In the playground, we boys gripped Julia by her ankles, raised her feet into the air and used her face to shovel the sand for treasure. When the dreaded hour of noon drew near, we took turns resting our elbows in Julia's sunken face while watching planes soar in the sky overhead.

Like the cherry blossoms and the nesting of birds in the trees, our fun with Julia repeated itself year after year. But about the time Julia's face filled out, her breasts and behind did the same. Older boys began to drop by the Farley home.

We truly did miss Julia Farley's company. Her replacement - Duck-Lipped Donna Dixon - was neither half the fun, nor nowhere near as willing.