Category Archives: Flash Fiction

A Dog’s Wisdom

Joe is sad today. He sits and taps with his fingers. He stops tapping for a moment and says something aloud, which I don’t comprehend – I understand maybe four hundred words, mostly commands. Sentences are outside my understanding. The concept of “opposable thumbs,” which he once told a friend is what leaves Man inferior to the lower life forms, is beyond me. When he asks me if I want to go for a walk, it’s “walk” I respond to. I look up from where I’m laying, at Joe’s feet, to see light flicker across his face as he goes back to tapping.dog_wisdom_quote_wood_wall_art-rbe31e22c49434b52b049d65342392213_zfgxb_324

Earlier, while it was still dark outside and before he started tapping, he stared into the light and said, “Another rejection letter. I’m a slave to the whims of others.” I don’t pretend to know what that means, but it made Joe pissy, as the woman who used to come around said. He sighed and put fire to one of those sticks he sucks on without ever eating. I don’t like them; they make me sneeze. He sipped from the cup on his desk – I can smell its bitter scent – sighed again, and began tapping. I find the sound pleasing because it brings Joe contentment. I can sense Joe’s moods as easily as I can detect my favorite smells – grass, bacon, and Joe’s scent. The woman who used to come around no longer does, and I sense from Joe sadness in her absence, but also ease. They often raised their voices at one another, which left all three of us unhappy.

Joe finds the smelly sticks soothing, and the steaming water in the cup leaves him alert. He calls them his muses. Still, there is an underlying sorrow to his mood this morning, despite the tapping, which usually leaves him feeling happy. He stops tapping to sip from the cup, and he puts the stick between his lips; I watch its end glow and smoke rises lazily from its end. I sneeze, and Joe leans over to scratch me between my ears and then goes back to tapping. A moment later he stops and, looking into the light, eyes moving from side to side, says something I don’t understand. Then he sighs and says, “Shit,” which is one of the commands I know. I cock my head because I’ve already been outside.

Joe gets up and takes his cup with him to the kitchen. I follow him and as he pours more water into his cup, black and bitter smelling, I sit salivating, staring at the door behind which he keeps my treats. A moment later, the door swings open and Joe reaches in to get me a Milk-Bone – another word I understand.

“Good girl,” he tells me, a sad smile on his lips. “You’re so easy to please.” I wag my tail: a dog’s response to a human’s smile. Then he scratches me between my ears before leaving for the den and more tapping.

I don’t know why Joe is so sad. I wish he could be more like me. I’m happy with my morning walk, a tummy scratch, fresh water in my bowl twice a day, and food in my dish, along with the occasional Milk-Bone and table scrap. I’m happiest when Joe takes me to the park and lets me run free among all the wonderful smells.

I wonder if Joe would be happier if he had four legs and could run free with me.

 

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Excerpt from January’s Thaw

The portion of the story in January’s Thaw on which the flash fiction piece Old Love is based.

Our eyes meet, hold for a moment. We are thirty-five years older: Lindy in her 1982, me from my own 2082.

Despite her affliction, which has left her much thinner and frailer than I would’ve imagined, I still recognize her. Despite my own aging—more than a few pounds heavier, longer, grayer hair, bearded and hobbled by a bad knee—perhaps she, too, recognizes something familiar; she looks back at me, her gaze at least steady, perhaps wanting to rec­ognize me.

I smile, nod. It is the polite thing to do.

“Do I know you?” she asks, rushing the four words together nearly as one, the sound more breath than voice; it is difficult for her to support her speech.

I shake my head. “I don’t think so.” More truth than lie: I had withheld from her in our youth any hint of the Joe January I would become.

“Listen,” I add. “Do you have the time? I seem to have left my watch elsewhere.”

Lindy’s eyes widen; I see the light of recognition. A corner of her mouth rises. A moment later a full smile breaks across her face and I glimpse the Lindy I knew so long ago. In that moment I realize that it was this anything but chance meeting that had resulted in Lindy taking the necessary steps to return my watch to me sixty-five years into her future.

John Roberts—I can’t bring myself to refer to him as her husband—seemingly embarrassed to be seen with her, glances at his watch and says angrily, “Twenty-five or six to four.” An inadvertent reference to the song that, in the future, became a favorite of mine.

“Thank you,” I say to Lindy, and, “I hope you will forgive me.”

My apology leaves no impact on John Roberts, who only takes Lindy’s arm and starts to turn her, roughly; Lindy nearly loses her balance but John Roberts is quick to support her.

“Come on, Lindy,” he says. “Let’s go.”

I watch Lindy’s back recede as they make their way to the diner’s exit.

As John Roberts opens the door, Lindy turns back to offer me a smile and a nod that is not the result of her condition, and I steel myself to put the next stage of my plan into motion.

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A Fistful of Polyphemus

This short story was just too good, in my opinion, not to include in one of my novels—A World Without Music. Polyphemus is the great one-eyed god in Greek mythology—the cyclops.

Nothing like a Saturday morning with a woody staring you in the face.David

“Where is she?” Polyphemus asked me.

“Who?” I said, teasing him, knowing full well to whom he was referring.

“You know damn well to whom I’m referring—Kitty.”

“That’s Miss Kitty to you. You treat her with respect.”

“Where is she? I want her.”

“Who?”

He was starting to turn purple with rage.

“That ’Bama Baby you keep ogling on your desktop—damn, she looks fine nekkid—and that you take to bed in your mind’s eye when you climb into the sack every night. The one you fantasize about—running your hands all over her smooth skin, sticking your tongue in her navel, suckling her breasts, sucking her toes, kissing and tonguing your way up her soft legs, feeling her thighs clasping your ears as you—”

“Careful,” I said. “You’re getting excited and you know what happens when that happens.”

“Where is she?” he demanded, ignoring my admonition.

“Where do you think she is? She’s in Alabama.”

“Where’s that?”

I laughed.

“Are you laughing at me? You know I don’t like to be laughed at.”

“I know,” I said, recalling my wedding night more than twenty-five years ago, when my wife giggled at her first sight of Polyphemus in his rain gear.

Where’s that, Allybammy?”

“Alabama.”

“Yeah, that. Where is it?” He was getting persnickety.

“What do you mean, ‘where is it?’”

“You know geography was never my strength.”

“I know,” I said. “You always preferred biology—particularly where the female anatomy was concerned.”

“Why is it you always send me in to mop up after you finish with your tongue?”

“Because it’s about my pleasure, too, you single-minded goofus—and hers. It’s about anticipation. Are you complaining?”

He ignored me: “Where is she? Where’s Alabama?”

“Way down south in Alabama.”

“South! Yeah, there’s where I want to go … south … I want to go spelunking. Take me spelunking. Pah-lease!?”

I felt like choking the spit out of the little fucker, but instead I opted to douse him with cold water in the shower.

Oh, yeah. It’s allll about the anticipation …

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Mommies Do Too Lie

Tina was not yet quite five years old, but she knew Mr. Binkley was up to no good when she saw him in her backyard at three o’clock in the morning.

Tina was not what her mommy would call a light sleeper, but she awoke with a start when she thought she heard Mommy cry out. After a few moments, when she heard nothing more than crickets outside her bedroom window, Tina convinced herself she’d only been dreaming and rolled over onto her other side to look for sleep; what she found was the black button eyes of Lucretia staring back at her.

“What should we name her?” Tina recalled asking Daddy the day he’d brought her home. “How about Lucretia?” he suggested. “That’s a good name for a teddy bear, don’t you think? We can call her ‘Lucy’ for short.”

“Lucretia,” Tina said. She liked the sound of the name, and enjoyed how it made her mouth feel when she said it, so she giggled and promptly affixed the name to her new best friend, and loved her daddy all the more—not only for bringing Lucretia home to her, but also for naming her.

Tina clutched Lucy and tried to fall back asleep; but the harder she tried, the more difficult it became for her.

Tina had just recently learned to tell time; the clock in her bedroom had no big and little hands, like the clock in her kindergarten classroom. The clock in her bedroom had numbers only—numbers that changed every minute. When she first awoke, the numbers showed 2:45. Now they showed 2:59—oops, now 3:00. She knew that was fifteen minutes, but even though a minute can be only a minute—sixty seconds can no more take seventy seconds to pass than it can take fifty seconds—from the perspective of a five-year-old (and insomniacs unable to sleep through their disorder), time passes so much more slowly.

Eventually she heard Mommy’s voice whispering from down the hall, and then she heard footsteps followed by the creak of the third riser from the top of the stairs. She wondered why it creaked twice.

Tina set Lucy on her pillow and told her, “I’ll be right back.”

Then she hopped out of bed and pushed both her feet into her pink slippers and her arms through the sleeves of her just as pink robe. Was there truly a prettier color than pink?

It was then, as she passed her bedroom window, that the light on the back deck flashed on and she saw Mr. Binkley walking quickly past her swing set toward the fence at the back of the yard. It seemed he had come from the back of her house, catching the attention of the motion detector, which in turn had caused the light to come on.

He must be up to no good, Tina thought, recalling that her daddy once told her that people out after midnight are likely up to just that.

Curious, Tina went to find her mommy.

“Honey, what’s wrong?” Mommy said, startled to see Tina standing at the top of the stairs, waiting for her.

Tina yawned and rubbed her eye with a fist before sitting on the top step. A moment later her mommy sat down beside her.

Halfway Down

Image courtesy of A.A. Milne

“I woke up and heard you talking to someone,” Tina said.

“Me? Talking to someone? Are you sure you weren’t just dreaming?”

“Yes.”

“Well,” Mommy said, “I couldn’t sleep either, so I went downstairs for a glass of milk. Come to think of it, I was talking to myself, trying to remind myself to add a couple things to the grocery list for when I go shopping later.”

“Oh.” And then, “What was Mr. Binkley doing in our yard?”

“You saw Mr. Binkley in our yard?”

“Uh-huh. And I wasn’t dreaming.”

“I … I don’t know, honey, what he was doing in our yard.”

“I think he was up to no good,” Tina said knowingly, not knowing how she knew, only that if her daddy said people out after midnight were up to no good, well, then it must be so.

Tina was suddenly very tired again and so she rested her head in her mommy’s lap, the mystery of the third riser on the stair creaking twice a forgotten curiosity. Mommy said nothing, so Tina asked, “When’s Daddy coming home?”

“Honey, I told you. He’ll be home in time for Christmas.”

Tina sighed. It was early September. Christmas seemed a lifetime away.

“Why did he have to go away to A … Af—”

“Afghanistan. Daddy is a marine, honey. He had to go fight to protect the Afghans.”

Tina knew what an afghan was. Grandma had one that she covered her lap with when it got cold outside and she sat in her rocking chair rocking to read her bible. So Tina surmised her grandma’s afghan had come from Afghanistan, a place she knew was very far away. What she couldn’t quite grasp was why they needed her daddy to fight for them.

“I miss Daddy,” Tina said, and yawned again.

“I know you do, sweetheart. So do I.”

And Tina believed her mommy, because her mommy had always been truthful with her. And because her mommy had always been truthful with her, Tina knew, beyond a shadow of doubt, that Mommy was truthful, too, to Daddy. If Mommy said she missed Daddy, it was true.

It would be a few years before Tina uncovered some of the untruths her mommy had told her while her daddy was away. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy—those are untruths many parents tell their children. Those were destined to fall in Tina’s life, too, like dominoes. But there would be other untruths Tina would uncover that would rock her small world to the core—like how missing someone doesn’t necessarily equate to remaining true to them.

But on this night, Tina believed her mommy, because she was nearly five years old and a good girl, and that’s what good girls did: put their trust and belief in their mommies.

After all, why would her mommy lie to her?

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Do You Like to Kill?

Once upon a time in the land of Nam, a man relished playing God, having within him the power to give or take life. To take away everything it embodies, everything it is and everything it ever will be—that’s power.

As a boy the man’s dream was to play major league baseball. He idolized Tigers Hall of Fame right fielder Al Kaline and dreamed of roaming right field at Tiger Stadium, where Cobb played, making spectacular catches, of hit­ting for average and homeruns, of setting records and winning a World Series. Watching Mickey Mantle launch a blooper Denny McLain intentionally served up to him in 1968, just a few months before Mantle retired from baseball, only inspired him further.

But he never had the chance to see if he had it in him to play in the majors. Fearing he’d get hurt, his parents denied him, discouraged and dissuaded him.

“Baseball is for only a privileged few,” his mother advised, perhaps thinking she was saving him from disappointment.

“Learn a trade,” Dad said, “and get a job at a Union shop.”

Dad joined the Marine Corps in his own youth, avoiding the drudgery of a mundane life; but that was exactly the path down which he advised his son to go. Bad advice that, coming from a man who’d chosen to avoid working an assembly line to become a walking zombie and retire in forty years with a gold watch.

And then fate struck in the name of Sgt. Schreiber, who’d served in the Pacific Arena on Okinawa, where some of the bloodiest fighting in World War II took place.

Schreiber showed up at the young man’s house in June 1969 to attend a Marine Corps reunion with his father. Then seventeen, the young man hadn’t seen Schreiber in five years. Colorful, larger than life, Schreiber had made a life of the Corps. The young man recalled that earlier visit, and the night Schreiber and his father finished a full bottle of tequila, trading shot for shot until they got to the bottom. They then cut the worm in half and split that, too.

Schreiber looked approvingly at the seventeen-year-old, already over six feet tall, and although he was skinny as opposed to muscular, Schreiber looked from boy to father and back to boy and proclaimed: “We’ll make a Marine of him, eh?”

Then he asked the young man: “Do you like to kill?”

The young man stammered something about flies and mosquitoes being the only things he’d ever killed, adding that while he couldn’t say with any degree of certitude he enjoyed it, he felt a certain gratification in succeeding with his first strike initiatives.

Schreiber left after the reunion, destined to die several years later the result of some HIV tainted blood he received during open heart surgery. But his question stayed with the young man, haunting him to the point that, after he turned eighteen, he didn’t register for the draft, but instead enlisted in the Marine Corps.

It’s strange how sometimes small events impact in big ways; how a simple question often results in life-changing decisions.

℘–

From his crèche high in an outcropping of rocks, the young marine sniper watches the lone Viet Cong approach the crossroads.

Turn left, he thinks, centering his cross-hair on his chest, and I might just let you live. Turn right or keep coming and you’ll be dead before you even hear my rifle’s report.

At the crossroads, the gook stops a moment, his rifle clutched across his torso. He glances furtively left and right; after a moment, he turns left.

He’s maybe six hundred yards from the sniper’s position and can’t feel the cross-hair now fixed on his back.

“Fuck it,” the marine mutters.

Not feeling at all magnanimous this morning, having spilled his morning cuppa jamoke, the marine draws a slow breath, holds it, listens to Schreiber’s voice—“Do you like to kill?”—and squeezes the trigger. His weapon recoils against his shoulder; a moment later the V.C. falls heavily onto his chest, writhes in the dust for a moment, and then lies still.

The marine sighs, spits some tobacco juice, and mutters, “That would be a ‘yes.’”

Sniper

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Eking One Out

“E-K-E?”Scrabble-610x445

“Eke.”

“What is that?”

“Are you challenging?”

“Believe it.”

Greg reached for the SCRABBLE Players Dictionary and began flipping its pages. He’d played this game against his old nemesis, Barry, plotting his strategy carefully. Playing his last tile a few minutes ago, Greg held a slim lead—347-341. The nearly three-and-a-half-hour epic battle had gone nearly the way he’d planned it. Barry had darted out to a quick early lead; but Greg had slowly reeled him in and, by the halfway point, he’d gone ahead, keeping it close, trading Barry’s scores nearly point for point. Greg’s catch me, kiss my ass strategy was to win by a single point if he could manage it, first pouring vinegar into Barry’s wound before rubbing salt into it; however, whether he won by a single point or six points, the shame would be all Barry’s.

Greg had only to wait as Barry futilely searched the board for someplace to play his final tile, “K,” and come up empty. Maybe he hoped to tag it onto the end of a word somewhere—how many words ended with a “K?” INK, BLINK, THINK, SINK, LICK, STICK, SEEK, PEEK, KICK, MONK, BLANK, CLICK, TICK, PICK, PACK, BACK, SACK, PEAK, BOOK, LUCK, COCK, WORK, MILK, CHICK, WALK, TALK, FLICK, LINK, BANK, RANK, DRANK, FRANK, JUNK, OAK, QUICK, SUCK were just a few (Greg had played “PEE” horizontally early on, scoring double word points, then made a new word of it a few turns later by adding “R” to the end of it when he played “HAREM” vertically, scoring triple letter points for the “H”). Or maybe Barry hoped to nestle it in between two letters to create something that, in his moody blues wildest dreams, would amount to seven or more points.

And so Greg had settled back into his chair, lips besmirked (not in the SCRABBLE Players Dictionary), smugly waiting for Barry to concede checkmate; the chair creaked from the weight of his great bulk, and he listened to the clock on the kitchen wall tick its tock. Greg was about to clean Barry’s clocK. All he had to do was wait for his capitulation.

This was going to be sweet.

FreaKin’ great.

Until clicK went the “K,” onto the plastic surface of the deluxe SCRABBLE playing board: EKE.

“Fahk,” Greg said.

“No, eke.”

“To supplement with effort; to obtain with great effort.”

Barry nodded. “Eke. Five points for the ‘K’ and one each for two ‘Es.’ I guess I managed to eke out this one, old friend.” Barry did his best Ricardo Montalbán impersonation from The Wrath of Khan, as Khan had repeatedly referred to Captain Kirk as “old friend.”

“I fuckin’ hate you, Barry. I fuckin’ hate you.”

Barry didn’t think Greg sounded at all like William Shatner.

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The Lost Apology

“I’m sorry, but—”

“No, you’re not sorry,” he said into the phone.

“But—”

“There you go again, trying to justify your decision—the choice you made. Erich Segal got it wrong—all wrong. Being in love means forever having to say you’re sorry. Putting the needs of your family ahead of your own. But an apology with an explanation is really no apology at all, is it?”

“What would you have me say then, Paul?” Carla’s voice sounded thin with digital distance.

“I don’t want you to say anything. I want you to come home, to your husband and our daughters.”

“It’s my job, Paul.”

“Your job is to take the assignments CNN gives you. They didn’t assign this one to you, Carla. You asked for it, then clamored for it, next kicked and screamed to get it. They didn’t want to send you because they knew the risks. But you finally cashed in a favor to make sure you got it. What I wanted and what our daughters wanted never even entered into the equation.”

“It’s a once in a lifetime story.”

“And what do I tell Mindy and Stacy when their once in a lifetime mommy doesn’t come home?”

“Nothing’s going to happen, Paul.”

“I wish I—no, we wish we could be as sure.”

When Carla said nothing Paul feared maybe the call had dropped.

“You still there?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Carla, you’re in a Middle East nation that’s just overthrown its government. I think it’s wonderful they got rid of a dictator, and hopefully the next guy won’t be so ruthless. But you don’t belong there.”

“I’m a journalist. I belong where the story takes me. And I have my team with me.”

“Oh, that makes me feel much better—three guys, one of them armed with a camera. I’ll be able to watch, live, the first ever rape-execution of a Western journalist. I’m sure Sid will get some creative shots.”

“Don’t you think that’s a little extreme?”

“No, I don’t. You’re a woman, blond, in a Muslim nation that treats women like property and resents Westerners—especially Western women.” Paul sighed before surging ahead: “I’ve seen what’s going on over there. The streets are filled with thousands of unruly people.”

“Celebrants.”

“Yes, celebrants. And what better way to celebrate than by abducting a white blond woman and—”

“Don’t say it, Paul.”

“Why not? You think by not saying it that it won’t happen? You think you’re invincible because you are woman? Damn Helen Reddy.”

“These people are happy.”

“You don’t think there aren’t some supporters of the former regime still around?”

“We haven’t seen any.”

“No, of course you haven’t. And you wouldn’t see any. Not like they’re walking around wearing sandwich boards.”

Carla said nothing.

“This is all about you. Always has been. You and your career.”

“You knew what you were getting when you asked me to marry you.”

“Did I? I knew what you were—a journalist. What I didn’t know was how selfish you can be.”

Carla went silent again.

“Carla?”

Silence.

“Shit,” Paul said and closed the connection. Already sorry for his last comment and wondering how much of it Carla had heard, he thought the call had merely dropped and that she would call back momentarily.

But she didn’t.

Sid refused to tell Paul anything of what he witnessed, saying only, “You don’t want to know.” And then he told Paul how sorry he was that he’d been unable to keep Carla safe.

Paul didn’t know if not knowing Carla’s fate only made it more horrendous. He had a fairly fertile imagination.

Paul suspected he was suffering a sort of survivor’s guilt, not being able to tell his wife how sorry he was—no “buts” about it—for calling her selfish.

Apology

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Let There Be Darkness

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

With the words, “Let there be light,” I spoke existence into existence.

Now, I think it’s time I did something about this creation of mine called Man.

He’s evil plain and simple, and I’m deluding myself by insisting that sometimes good beings just do bad things. The truth is, he has always been fascinated by the allure of the fruit—indulge the desire, ignore the cost. He has come to worship the seven: lusxuria, gula, varitia, acedia, ira, invidia and superbia.

I’ve always despised haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plots, feet that are swift to run into mischief, a deceitful witness that utters lies, and, most of all, he who sows discord among his brethren. Like the child who chooses to ignore his parents’ warning against disobedience, man has embraced the seven; indeed, he has taken them to levels even I could not imagine.Darkness

And still I forgave him. To love someone is to forgive them.

Adam was the crowning achievement of my creation. There was nothing I wouldn’t do for Adam, nothing I wouldn’t give him, and so when I saw that he was lonely, that he hungered for a companion, I created for him a woman. When Eve bid him to taste of the fruit, I knew I had lost him forever.

From that moment I knew nothing I offered could compare to earthly delights, not even the promise of eternity.

I once sent a great flood to wash away the evil, to start anew, but man again chose pursuit of that which he could see, taste, touch. For that I have no one to blame but myself. Being human must be very lonely.

As a deity, I am everywhere at once; wherever I am I am at the center of the universe, and can commune with the lowliest creatures.

I trapped the spirit of man in flesh. As a fetus he is one with his mother; but at birth he knows solitude, and for the remainder of his life he seeks the comfort of earthly pleasures—food, wine, the touch of others. Man mistakes communion of the flesh as love (a lie to himself as well as his mate), while woman is untrue to her mate in the intimacy of darkness.

The comfort I can provide he eschews because I am something he cannot see, touch.

And his desire, his need for creature comforts only grows with each generation.

Like the child who outgrows the need for parents, man has cast me aside. His hunger for knowledge has turned to a thirst for power and materialism, which, in the end, he must leave behind. Sadly, his wisdom has not kept pace with his knowledge.

I am at fault for setting rules to which he could not adhere. I set him up for failure, giving him the freedom to choose, fully aware that he might choose against me. I knew this, yet I hoped it would be otherwise. Such is hindsight, even for God.

There were, are, good men, and women, but always I know their hearts.

Mother Theresa, who endeavored so diligently to do my work, knew doubt. In her doubt, she chose not to feel my presence within herself.

Rodin created beautiful works of art, but always he lusted for that which he sought to immortalize in clay. I cannot condone beautiful creations born of vulgar, evil thoughts.

Mozart sought, in his musical creations, to be godlike. Does God suffer superbia in wishing acknowledgement of the gifts he bestows upon his creation?

Man has become a blight on my creation. Like a germ that devours its benevolent environment, he takes and gives nothing in return, not to his environment nor his brethren. He knowingly wreaks havoc and absolves himself of any wrongdoing. He is ego, avaritia his birthright. The world around him, his brothers and sisters, exist only for his benefit. No other creature save man savors, revels, in its cruelty toward others.

And so I find myself at this precipice—a perfect being having created in man imperfection incarnate. I wonder if, long ago, evil once lived in me and, in seeking to rid myself of the bile, I poured forth the evil into my creation. Perhaps the vitriol sought a host it could manipulate to its own ends and slipped from me into the flesh of man, where it, too, could be fruitful. Surely, before this instant to which man refers as the universe, evil had not existed.

With no one to blame but myself, I speak the words:

“Let there be darkness.”

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Old Love

An excerpt from January’s Thaw, but written from another character’s perspective.

The gentleman looked at me intently, not the way a stranger does when passing on the street, out of courtesy.

“Do I know you?” I asked.

“I don’t think so.”

Something in the tone of his voice betrayed some hidden truth. His answer might not have been an outright lie, and perhaps at another time in another place to another person he might admit the semantic truth behind his assertion. It was lost to me.

“Do you have the time?” he asked. “I seem to have left my watch somewhere.”

My husband gave him the time, he thanked us, and we left the restaurant; to a casual observer we might have appeared a trio of good friends.

It wasn’t until I was seated in the car beside my husband watching the gentlemen, hobbled by a bad knee, that I was able to peel away the layers of the brief exchange: the hair I saw as shorter and more salt and pepper than white, styled in the manner of a bygone era; the cheeks and chin barren of beard that, today, hid the dimpled chin of a face that once was more rugged and angular; the eyes, darker, more intense but still mischievous; the build leaner; the gait more confident, nearly arrogant.

It came to me then and I smiled at the memory of an affair from thirty-five years ago. I was twenty-eight and taken by the bad boy image he portrayed—the Cagney-like bravado, the misguided gangster you couldn’t help but root for. The affair had been forest fire passionate and I fell in love, or thought I had.

Careful not to demand exclusivity, I took what he was willing to give, reveling in the way he looked at me and kissed me and touched me, (perhaps) deceiving myself of his goodness, hoping I might one day find the key to his monogamy.

Then one day he went away, leaving behind his watch on my nightstand.

In time another love found me—the man seated beside me now. A good and decent man, more campfire passionate and with less ambition, but a good provider nonetheless for me and our two children, who for thirty years now has treated me well.

There was a time, early in the marriage, when I wondered whether I’d settled, but a wise person once wrote that one should marry their best friend so that you will have someone to talk to in your old age. We have much in common and I’ve come to love him dearly.

The memory of that past fleeting affair asserted itself and I felt the ghost of excitement. I accept the affair now for what it was: at best a different kind of love but more likely not love at all. Sometime during the past three decades I came to want what I have and let go of my wonderment of what might have been.

We drove past the gentleman, waiting at the corner for the light to change, who, I imagined, pretended not to see us, and I was moved by his seemingly all aloneness.

Was the meeting in the restaurant chance? I couldn’t know any more than I could know why he went away those many years ago. Angry then, in that moment of seeing his vulnerability, I now forgive him, and choose to believe the reunion intended. Placing my hand on my husband’s knee, I silently thanked the gentleman for looking into my life, and loved him for the time we had, and for letting me go, then and now, for letting me have my old love.

oldlove

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Eight Seconds Less

“You speak English?”

The German stood there, hands behind his head, rifle at his feet. Lying next to the Kraut was Reynolds, his throat an oozing red gash. I’d just stepped out of the brush, where I’d taken a dump, to find him rummaging through Reynolds’s backpack.

“No?” I asked, my rifle trained on his chest. “I suppose it doesn’t matter you don’t understand a word I’m saying because I don’t understand this fucking war any more than you do.” I looked over at Reynolds again and thought, There but for the grace of a bowel movement go I.

“You know, before Nature’s call, my friend Reynolds and I were having quite a heated debate over who was the better ballplayer, Ruth or Cobb. Didn’t matter which of us was right because it could never be proven.” The German kept looking from me to the barrel of my rifle. “And now neither of us will ever be able to convince the other.”

I glanced yet again at Reynolds, his blood soaking the French soil under his head, his eyes wide. Dead though he was, I wondered if his brain might still register the sound of my voice before it, too, died. I’d heard the sense of hearing was the last to go. I looked back at the Kraut, his own eyes wide; but where Reynolds’s held surprise, the Kraut’s betrayed fear.

“I hear that in the Pacific the Japs are trained to say, ‘fuck Babe Ruth,’ hoping the marines will give away their position.” I chuckled and the German forced a smile onto his thin lips, as if suddenly we were buds and I’d just told him a joke he didn’t get but he didn’t want to be left out of the joke because that would mean we weren’t really buds. I ignored his gap-toothed grin.

“Back home, me and guys like Reynolds over there who you just cut, we’re heralded as heroes, fighting for truth, justice and the American way. Where you come from, in the Fatherland, I imagine they’re just as proud of you.

“But they don’t have a clue, do they, Herr Mac? War: It brings out the worst in us even as it sometimes brings out the best. Just last week, Wiggins, a guy I went through boot camp with, threw himself on a grenade, saving Reynolds and me. Earned himself a Medal of Honor. Not that it’s of any value to Wiggins. His life bought Reynolds another week. And me? Who knows whether I’ll make it home alive. I’m not even sure I want to. Sometimes I think the ones who go home in a box are the lucky ones. After what I saw at Normandy, I understand what they mean when they say you can never go home.

“But Normandy at least was war─at its horrific worst. Men with guns shooting at men with guns shooting back. Kill or be killed.” Reynolds continued to lay, inert, never to move again, not even to brush away the flies his rotting flesh would soon draw. I imagined his brain starving for oxygen, the sound of my voice perhaps growing fainter as the last remnants of his life faded to … what? I didn’t have a clue. Since I’d landed at Normandy I seriously doubted the existence of a God.

“But what you did to Reynolds was murder. You never gave him a chance, did you? Snuck up behind him to cut his throat.” I looked at the contents of his backpack, spilled out on the ground: some K-rations, a couple of chocolate bars, a deck of playing cards—Reynolds loved to play Euchre—a letter to his girl, her picture. “To the victor go the spoils of war, eh?

“Well, Herr Mac, I’m going to be sporting about this,” I said, raising my rifle. “I’m going to count to 10 … one─”

The German dropped to his knees, thrust out his hands and shouted, “Nein!”

“Ten,” I said and pulled the trigger. The German fell onto his back, a perfect hole smoking in the center of his chest. “You dumb shit,” I muttered. “You just robbed yourself of eight seconds of the rest of your life.”

K-rations

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Sandlot

This short story was the forerunner to Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings. It appeared in River Walk Journal several years ago.

“Hey, Buzz, what happened out there today?”

Tiger_Stadium_5-569x454

Field of Dreams in a bygone era

Eighteen years in the Majors and I still don’t like tape recorders pushed into my face after a game, especially not after a loss, and not when I’m heading for the shower with a bar of soap wearing nothing but a towel, and that draped over my shoulder. I’ve gotten used to it I suppose; it goes with the game, but I don’t have to like it.

“I fouled out to end the game,” I said into the recorder. “I stranded the winning runs on base and we lost the game.”

“A few years ago that wouldn’t have happened, right? You’d have brought those two runners home, wouldn’t you?”

He was baiting me I knew, this kid reporter trying to make a name for himself in the local paper, looking for a quote from the colorful veteran. I’ve never considered myself colorful. I’ve always just wanted to play ball. I don’t think of myself as outspoken, but I say what’s on my mind; sometimes, when I’m quoted in the morning paper, they somehow manage to make me sound erudite. Most of the time I find it amusing. I looked at his press badge, pressed it and asked him what was supposed to happen. He didn’t get it. I decided against explaining. I guess you could say I was in a foul mood.

“Yeah,” I said, “and last night I hit a three-run shot to win. So what the game wasn’t on the line in the third inning.”

All the reporter did was stare at me. Somehow he knew I wasn’t yet done. Maybe it was because I had sat down on the bench. I let out a long audible sigh.

“Look, what do you want from me, a scoop? You want me to tell you I’m washed up, finished? That this is my last year?”

The kid sat down on the bench across from me and I thought back to a similar discussion I’d had with my dad twenty-five years ago, when I was playing ball in high school…

“Look, what do you want from me?” I asked.

“I want you to come to your senses,” Dad said. “Major League Baseball, that’s a pipe dream.”

Both Dad and Mom wanted what was best for me, and they both thought they knew what best was: they wanted me to play it safe — learn a trade or get a degree and spend the next forty years working nine to five for someone else. I saw that as a sentence, one that would end up with me, at age sixty-five, regretting that I’d never even tried, disgusted with myself that I’d given up my dream, sans the pipe, for what my parents had wanted for me.

“I’m going to college, and I’ll get a degree” I said, “but I want to play baseball.”

“But Major League Baseball —”

“Is for a lucky few,” I finished for him. We’d had this discussion before. “Well who’s to say I won’t be among those lucky few? Guys get paid millions for hitting a mere .250. A few seeing-eye ground balls and bloop singles here and there over the course of a season spell the difference between mediocrity and superstardom. I’ve got some talent, Dad, and I’m hard-working. I can hit a curve ball and if I can learn to lay off the high inside fastball I’ll be able to work a count. I’ve a pretty good glove, too. After my playing days are over maybe I’ll end up managing, or in a booth doing color. If I don’t make it, well, then I’ll have my degree to fall back on.”

Dad said nothing more, not then and not after I’d made it to the show; he died the year before I was drafted. Maybe that was as much the reason I continued to play well into the twilight of my career.

Baseball is a humbling game. Trust me, I know. I was drafted… well let’s just say I wasn’t taken early. I spent a year in the Minors; played solid defense at first base and hit well enough, for average and with above average power, to earn a good look the following year at spring training. I was fortunate that I had a good pre-season, so the team took me north. I worked my ass off to stay in the Majors. I might not have Hall of Fame numbers, but I’ve rarely been cheated at the plate; sure I’ve had my share of oh-fers, but I’ve accumulated some three- and four-for-fours along the way, too, and a Gold Glove to boot. I haven’t won a World Series (this might be the year although it’s still only June) and have been voted an All Star only twice, but I’m proud of my career. I’ve played the game the way it was meant to be played, with adolescent joy. I’ve put up numbers good enough to have played my entire career for the same team and I’m thankful each and every day I take the field, which isn’t as often as it once was.

Maybe I should’ve gotten out of the game a couple of years ago, but thanks to the designated hitter rule — a rule I despised when I broke into the game and still loathe for the sake of the game (call me a purist) — I’m still playing, at age forty, this kid’s game that I love so much. I learned long ago not to pay too much attention to what the press writes or says about me, for good or bad, or to listen when the fans boo me — they’re the same ones who’ll cheer me tomorrow. This game, as much mental as it is physical, is filled with ups and downs, and I’m hard enough on myself without trying to please the press or the gate — and I think that has helped my longevity as much as anything.

I didn’t say any of this to the kid reporter who sat looking at me wide-eyed. I sighed, stood up and took a few steps toward the showers, and then I turned back; the kid was still looking at me, still hoping for a story. Sportswriters, I thought wryly. I tossed him, underhand, the bar of soap. He reached for it — it glanced off the heel of his hand and landed on the floor, bouncing once. He sat and I stood, each of us looking at the other. After a long uncomfortable moment, for him at least, he picked up the bar of soap and lobbed it back at me. I snatched it out of midair, rolled my eyes, and headed for the showers.

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