Back Story

A friend of mine, a color field abstractionist who never made it to the big show, painted large canvases of pastels and off-whites.  He sold them to interior decorators who placed them in bank lobbies and board rooms.  He made a living, but his one show in New York flopped.

One day he invited me over to look at some new work.  I stifled a yawn as he rambled on about his “latest breakthrough”, but he rewarded my patience by pouring two tumblers of whiskey.  We lit up cigars and retired to his back porch, and he told me a nugget of art world wisdom:  “People don’t buy paintings.  They buy souvenirs of an artist’s back story.”

I didn’t know what he meant, but he explained.  (He always explained.)  “Van Gogh couldn’t draw and his early compositions and colors are crap.  But then he lops off an ear and tries to give it to a whore to prove how much he loves her.  Ends up in an asylum, shoots himself a few years later.  Folks start buying his paintings.  Wouldn’t touch them while he lived and breathed, but once the back story got out, he became a tragic genius.  Everybody wanted a piece of that.”

I asked him to name a few more examples.  “Dali shows up at a party wearing a diving suit, the ones with the weights and the bell shaped helmets.  He’s walking around with an oxygen tank on his back and nearly dies when a valve fails.  He’s sucking up all the air left inside the helmet and can’t get the damned thing off.  Great publicity.  Stole his wife away from a French poet and got kicked out of the Surrealists for making paintings about Hitler–or rather, his erotic dreams about Hitler.  He turned his life into a circus and sold off the posters.”

He went on.  (He always does.)  “Georg Grosz said that he and his buddies were like barkers at a carnival.  Come see the freak show.  And the rich ones lined up and paid admission.”

“But he paid a price, didn’t he?  Didn’t the Nazis chase him out of Germany?”

“So what?  When you put yourself on the market you have to expect some feedback from the public,” he drawled.

“You’re a real jerk,” I declared.

He sipped his whiskey, winced, and ran fingers through his thinning hair.  “And you’re naïve,” he countered.  He probed:  “So what’s your story?  Middle class background, white boy from the Cincinnati suburbs.  Married happily and had a couple kids.  Boring.  Wait a minute.  Didn’t you grow up Catholic?”

“Yeah,” I said warily.

“Any problems in the priest department?” he asked.

“Nope.  Didn’t happen to me and I never met any victims,” I said.

“Too bad.  Better start making something up.”

“What’s your deal?  I barely know anything about you,” I said.

“Oh, didn’t I tell you?  I was born in Venice near St. Marks.  My mother was a part time model and a part time hooker, and my father was Titian’s fourth cousin ten times removed.  I stowed away on a tramp steamer when I was 12 and hid with the rats in the hold.  I nearly starved in New York until I fell in with the mob.  I ran numbers for them and shook down mom-and-pops when I got old enough to look dangerous. Squiggy the Mooch sent me to art school after he saw a sketch I made of a dead body.  Said I drew the puddle of blood real good.  Met Franz Kline, fought Jackson Pollock in a bar, and screwed Elaine De Kooning (everybody screwed Elaine De Kooning).   She introduced me to Peggy Guggenheim, and the rest is history.”

“Didn’t you tell me that you’re from Milwaukee?  Your dad worked in a brewery, and your mom was a seamstress.”

“Back story, boy, back story.”

He took a long drag on his cigar and let out a long stream of smoke.

A Narrow Slice of Time: Chapter 2

 

Control Tech Brooke Marlow sat in a booth in Transportation Suite Rama and studied the layout of the next scheduled trip. Her supervisor had warned her that the mission was of vital importance and that she should triple check the time/destination coordinates against the setting of the vibration chamber. Any misalignments during the transport could mar the insertion of the traveler into the correct slice of time. Brooke sipped a cup of jasmine tea and hummed to herself as she inspected the readouts on the panel in front of her. When the charts and graphs satisfied her, she got up with her cup, grabbed a clipboard and wandered over to the silver metal chamber in the center of the room. It was fifteen feet long and resembled a sperm whale minus the fins: the end with the readout screen was broad and bulky; the body of the chamber tapered to a flattened, rectangular box at the other end. A horizontal, oval hatch in the center of the “whale’s” side opened up on a narrow chamber big enough for one person to lie in. A hard pad served as a cushion for a reclining body, and arm, ankle and head straps were attached to the white walls of the interior. The walls were made of a flexible, plastic material that softly gave way when pressed, and quickly regained its original form when the pressure was released. Brooke compared the numbers on her clipboard to the numbers on the readout screen. All was in order, as usual.

There was nothing more to do until the sedated traveler was delivered into the suite, so Brooke took her place back in the booth and pulled out her copy of the Bhagavad Gita. She was not an avid reader of scripture, however. She had hollowed out the center of the book and taped a paperback romance novel inside.

At breakfast Brooke had reached the part of the story where Dixie, the beautiful and mysterious heroine, had just met Buford, a handsome Confederate general. Brooke found the passage where she had left off, checked the departure time once more on her control board, and began to read intently.

Brooke suspected that Dixie would soon find herself locked in the embrace of Buford’s scarred but manly arms. As she read Brooke discovered that the young belle was really a northern spy sent to seduce General Buford. Dixie was directed by her superiors to spurn her suitor’s advances while further enticing him. Whenever he drew near she opened her shawl to reveal the fleshy curves of an ample bosom prominently displayed by her low cut gowns. Her mission was to befuddle and emasculate her victim before he commanded his troops against a new Union offensive in northern Virginia. Unfortunately for the spy the general’s tragic mien (he had lost a lot of men in battle) and bewilderment (her behavior had been most contrary) had softened her heart, and Dixie found herself longing to respond to his advances, to embrace him and kiss his lips.

Dixie met Buford one moonless, but starry night on a bench in a formal garden behind the governor’s mansion, and gradually gave way to her rising passion. Buford, a true Southern gentleman, took three pages to get her clothes off. The author followed with a detailed account of their consummation of a love so noble, so pure, and so sexually aroused that war and suffering could not dim its brilliant intensity. As the entangled, preternaturally limber couple attempted a maneuver that defied gravity and violated basic rules of hygiene, Brooke gripped the book tightly with sweaty hands.

Brooke heard the shoosh of the automatic door opening behind her, snapped the book shut and slipped it back into her Gita. She spun around in her chair and saw Donald Rutherford standing in the doorway. He was dressed in his official historian’s uniform of black and gray. Tall and gaunt, solemn and slow moving, Donald was not the type of man that Brooke found attractive. The transportation techs referred to the history officers collectively as “the undertakers”, and Donald’s expression this morning was suitably grim.

“Mr. Rutherford! You startled me!”

“Sorry to interrupt your spiritual meditations, Brooke. I’ve been sent down review the trip with you,” he said.

Brooke blushed and pushed the book of scripture from her lap into an open uniform bag that lay on the floor at her feet. The Gita fell open upon landing and the cover of the romance novel was revealed. A lurid illustration of a Confederate officer holding a scantily clad woman presented itself. The burning plantation in the background mirrored the fiery passion shared by the foreground couple. Donald swooped down and plucked the book out of the bag.

“Hmmm. I don’t recall this illustration. Is that Arjuna dressed in drag? Isn’t Krishna holding him a little too tightly? I bet this is a new translation. It’s got a much different…atmosphere…than my copy at home. Can I borrow this? I’ll get it back to you. I just want to compare this text with the one in mine,” he said.

“No, sir. And please keep your hands off my personal belongings,” said Brooke.

Donald tossed the book into the bag, and Brooke angrily zipped it shut. She looked up and saw a patronizing smile directed at her. He apparently found her amusing.

“Please wipe that smirk off your face, Mr. Rutherford. You may spend all of your spare time with your nose in a history book, but don’t act like you have the right to judge other people who do not share your taste in reading material.”

“Do you think that it’s a good idea to talk to me in that manner?”

“Yes, sir, I do. Mr. Downing is my superior, not you.”

“Well, I apologize if I seemed to be judging you. I just was surprised to see you reading something like that. I thought that you were the sort who read serious novels and poetry.”

“I do, but sometimes I like something a little more…simple and direct…”

“I see. Try a western next time,” said Donald. His smirk returned.

“I’m curious about this next mission. Could you tell me why everyone is so worried? What’s the big deal? And what’s with the cupcake? That’s a pretty odd mission objective,” said Brooke.

“You know all of that is classified. I can’t tell you anything beyond what’s laid out in front of you right now,” he said.

“But you know something. I’ve seen little groups of historians whispering together in the hallways. You all seem nervous about this one. I’ve heard rumors that there’s a spy in the central ashram, and that some of our recent missions have been sabotaged.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Jenna down in Static Records says that the time line has been fluctuating along multiple paths during recent trips, and that it hasn’t all been the fault of our travelers. She said that the new time line keeps snapping back to fit the static line, and that we’ve wasted four trips in a row.”

“I think that you and your friend should stick to your jobs and not worry about things outside your areas of expertise.”

“Jenna thinks that Existentialists have a new model of the Tabula Rasa in production, and that they’re blocking our attempts to disrupt its development. Is it true that the Existentialists want to wipe human history clean? Or do they just want to erase all the religions?” Brooke asked.

“You need to learn to keep your mouth shut and your eyes and ears focused on the job at hand. It’s not your business to know anything more, so take my advice and stay out of matters that do not concern you,” he said sternly.

“Oh come on, Donald. All this concerns me. All this concerns you,” she said with a slight purr in her voice.

Brooke stood up and approached Donald slowly. Her curiosity had been piqued and she was determined to find out what he knew. If the Existentialists had come up with a new and potent means of disrupting GURUTECH missions she might soon be out of a job. She had heard, oddly enough, that the dry historian thought himself a lady’s man, and that he fancied brunettes with short hair, long legs and intelligent minds. Brooke knew that she fit that description and wondered if her glasses enhanced her powers of attraction. It might be fun to pump him for information while setting him up for a fall. She never wanted to see him smirk at her again.

Brooke smiled at Donald, gave her hair a little toss and edged nearer to him. She hoped that she was being the right sort of obvious; men could be impenetrably thick when it came to reading her signals. The look on his face was hard to decipher, but his lips twitched involuntarily. She gazed at him steadily. She knew from experience that she could will the weak ones into a temporary state of submission.

“Donald, would you be interested in getting something to eat after work tonight? I know a place near the Olde Bookery on Colonial. We could browse a bit after dinner and get an espresso…what do you say?”

“Uh…”

“My apartment is right around the corner from there. I’ve got an antique copy of The Stranger that I’d like you to see. Do you read French?”

“Uh…”

“And a book of old daguerreotypes from the nineteenth century. You’d be surprised by the subjects they photographed back then.”

“Uh…”

“Uh yes, or uh no?”

Donald stammered and looked very uncomfortable. Brooke was almost touched by his befuddlement. His black eyes had a certain softness in them that she had never noticed before, and she began to find the line of his jaw attractive. But before Donald could give her an answer, the door to the Transportation Suite swung open and two monks guided a stretcher into the room. A middle-aged woman with auburn hair was strapped down to the gurney. Her eyes were fixed in a glassy stare.

“I’ve got to look at your diagrams. Now!” said Donald.

“Keep your shirt on, Mr. Rutherford. They’re right here. You’ve still got at least ten minutes to look them over. They’re bringing in the chorus for this one, and that’ll take them time to get everything in place,” Brooke said.

Donald stepped around Brooke and began to pore over the diagrams on the console. He could feel the heat of her body as she leaned in beside him to watch the charts and graphs march across the display; she answered his occasional questions about unusual spikes and accents in the temporal flow chart. Her soft, low voice both soothed and distracted him. The smell of her perfume was lilac. They lightly knocked heads when he straightened up, and he fumbled his way around her after bumping against her hip. He tripped on her bag and nearly fell. He straightened up and paused in the doorway of the control booth, tugged at the lapels of his jacket and adjusted his tie. He had reestablished his sense of personal dignity, but found that he could not look Brooke in the eye. Donald focused on her pink, glossed lips instead. They slanted upward on each side of her mouth in shiny, mocking curves.

“The mission charts, the graphs…it’s good…uh, it all looks fine, Brooke.”

“I’m sure it does, Donald. Pick me up at seven.”

A Narrow Slice Of Time: Chapter 1

Judy and I are working on our third novel in our sci-fi time traveler series.  I’m going to post one chapter a week from the first book, “A Narrow Slice of Time”, until we finish “Stitches Nine”.

narrow slice cover 4

Grasping at Time is a fool’s errand. The faster it slips by the quicker our release from misery and regret. And only a Fool wishes to go back and relive his life, to undo mistakes made, to savor in full the precious moments he once neglected to treasure. If he could return and make his corrections, then another line of errors would spring forth; if he cherished an instant he had previously ignored, then he would forsake another sweet demand upon his attention. Tis better to live in the middle of each minute and advance as Providence allows, looking neither forward nor back. Do not concern yourself with the Speed and Course of your Days, but swim in time’s stream from Birth to Death like a fish gliding through tranquil waters.
R.L. Mundicutt, 1832, Cottage Whyteford, Sussex.

Chapter 1

2036 (Standard Timeline)
Bill Plum and Aubrey Piazza climbed the steps to a gleaming, white building that resembled a knock-off copy of the Taj Mahal. The cylindrical towers on either side of the faux mausoleum were made from a material that looked like marble when viewed from a considerable distance. A sign carved in bas relief above the central, arched doorway was inscribed with the corporate logo: GURUTECH. The letters had the lilt and tilt of Sanskrit.
Aubrey was a hard faced, large boned, somewhat muscular woman of forty. Her auburn hair had a few streaks of grey near the temples. She wore tan slacks, a black silk blouse with a plunging neckline, and leather sandals. Her sunglasses were very dark, and her eyes were concealed by the reflections on the surface of the lenses. She had deep grooves on either side of her down turned mouth, and when she paused as she spoke she sometimes twisted her lips and grimaced as if she were sucking on something distasteful.
Bill was a nondescript rabbit of a man. His doughy face was dominated by a large, barrel shaped nose that skewed slightly to the left. His midsection sagged over his belt and his shoulders rounded forward. His suit was gray and rumpled, his hair mouse brown, and his black shoes scuffed. He had the neglected appearance of an aging bachelor, a threadbare man who had exhausted his meager promise long ago. Bill pulled Aubrey aside before they reach the entrance.
“Did you study the packet, Aubrey?” he said.
“Yes, of course I did,” she answered.
“I know that you don’t believe in their mumbo-jumbo, but they won’t let you take your trip until you satisfy them.”
“Why do you keep after me about that? I studied. I’m not stupid.”
“Tell it to me again. I helped you pay their fee and negotiate your errand. I don’t want to waste my time and money.”
“It’s always about that, isn’t it? It’s all about the cash.”
“Yes, dear, it is. Recite.”
“Jesus, what a pain…GURUTECH was founded in 2028 by a bunch of swamis from Kerala who enlisted the aid of a theoretical physicist from Stanford University named Fleming Anderson. Together they discovered that all moments in time exist simultaneously; they’re stacked like slices of bread. Every narrow slice of time has its own vibration signature and, and…and then they go on about string theory, Heisenberg, fluid time and gravity constants, mumbo jumbo Einstein, blah, blah, unified field, blah.”
“Correct so far. They won’t expect you to totally understand the physics, but I would leave out the blah, blah, blahs if I were you. Go on.”
“Right. If a person can attune their own personal vibration signature to the signature of a particular time period, they are instantly transported to that moment. Then there’s something about a law of affinity and spontaneous attraction. That part always sounds like a pick up line to me.”
“Aubrey.”
“Bill. Stop fussing. I’m not going to say that to the techs when I walk through that door.”
“Continue.”
“Most people cannot attune their personal vibration signal, or PVS, or maintain it long enough for the transportation to occur. GURUTECH’s engineers developed a wave mirror chamber that echoes and enhances the chance vibrations that are synchronous with a distinct time period. The person gradually comes more and more into alignment with their target destination, and within an hour they find themselves in Ancient Rome or 20th century Europe. They are allowed limited engagement with the events of the target time period, and must return within seven minutes. A chip embedded in the base of their skull acts as a portable enhancer and causes the traveler to fall into a trance at the end of seven minutes. A warning buzz in the ear alerts the traveler to their imminent departure. Traveling back to one’s own time is easier because the traveler is naturally in synchrony with their own period. The transportation goes much more easily, however, if the traveler assumes the correct mental posture just before the portable enhancer goes off.”
“And you’ve been practicing that, I hope?”
“Yesss—you’re such a worry wart. Yes, I’ve been practicing. You close your eyes, center them on the magic spot in the middle of your forehead—“
“Stop calling it that! Third eye. Be sure to call it the third eye!”
“Yeah, yeah. Then I watch my breaths. I say Om when I inhale and moo when I exhale.”
“Stop being such an ass. Om and aum. Om and aum.”

“Don’t call me an ass. Can’t you recognize when I’m telling a joke by now?”
“This is serious, Aubrey, very serious.”
“Yeah, yeah…Are you sure that it was okay to tell them about what I plan to do?”
“Yes. Telling your ex-husband what a jerk he is, or was, or will be will not significantly alter the present. The man had literally no impact on anyone but you. But remember to carry out your assignment too. You have to buy the last vanilla iced cupcake from that shop near your old apartment. That’s vital. And it’s part of the price of your ticket.”
“Messing with Jeff’s head is okay, but it’s vital that I buy a cupcake. That’s weird.”
“Vanilla iced cupcake with pink sprinkles. The gurus know what they’re doing. Carry out the deal as stated in the contract or they might send you to medieval Germany at some random moment. They don’t like it if you fail to carry out your part of the bargain.”
“Are we done now?”
“Yes, dear. You know it’s not just about the money. I care about you and I’m worried that something bad might happen. Promise me that you’ll be careful and do as you’re told. Please don’t lose your temper and do something rash.”
“Stop talking and let me get on with this.”
“It won’t really help, you know. The satisfaction will be momentary, and it won’t improve things in this time.”
“Bill, at my age I’ve learned that all satisfactions are momentary. You and I have proved that over and over. Last night was another example.”
Bill sighed and let go of her arm. They climbed the last few steps and entered a doorway to the right. A sign above their heads told them that they were entering the Hall of Time. The smell of sandalwood incense overwhelmed them as they passed inside. Orange robed monks and nuns walked about with quick, light steps, entering and exiting through arched doorways on either side of the hall. The men had shaved heads, and the women wore light scarves that covered their hair. Bill and Aubrey walked down the long, marble-floored hallway until they reached a reception desk. A few armchairs upholstered with a shiny, orange material were placed in a semicircle off to the left. When she studied the chairs closely Aubrey saw that the cloth was stitched with magenta threads that formed pulsating, interlocking patterns. The receptionist wore a fixed smile on her face. Her lips curled serenely, but the slight clench of her jaw gave her an air of willful determination.
“Namaste. Good morning. Welcome to the GURUTECH Hall of Time. What is the nature of your business?”
“My name is Aubrey Piazza. I’m scheduled to make a journey today.”
“Ah, yes. I have you down on my roster. Forgive me for not recalling your name. We have had many travelers the last few days.”
“Don’t worry about it. What’s next?”
“You will have to fill out some paper work: some forms giving us final clearance, a legal statement freeing GURUTECH from liability in all instances save technical failure, and a form declaring that your present physical and mental state is sound.”
“I thought that I already signed off on that.”
“Oh, no. Many of our clients make that assumption when they begin training. Those forms just cleared you for the training program. These forms are for the actual trip. And after you’ve finished with these there’s a short test that tells us whether you have studied the process and are aware of the parameters of your mission. Please take a seat over there and use the touch screen attached to the arm. This should only take about twenty minutes.”
“Seems like a lot of paper work for a seven minute trip.”
“You may back out of our arrangement if you wish, Miss Piazza.”
“I’ve come this far. I might as well go through with it.”
“We would be most pleased if you did, Miss Aubrey, as our technicians have devoted a great deal of time and effort in making your dual mission safe, comfortable and full of purpose.”
Aubrey took a seat in the nearest armchair, swung a padded arm over her lap and booted the touch screen embedded in the arm. Bill watched her type in her answers until he heard the receptionist cough politely.
“Sir, will you be traveling today also?”
“No, I just wanted to make sure that Aubrey, Miss Piazza, was taken care of.”
“She will be fine, sir. Her trip has been planned meticulously, and our technicians will watch over her with great care.”
“Yes. I remember you telling me that when I went on my mission. That didn’t go as planned. Did your technicians watch over me?”
“It’s Mr. Plum, is it not? I believe that I have seen your face before on memos received from our legal department. Your complaints about your experience have been taken into consideration, and your journey is now used as a case study when we train new technicians. We are pleased that you made it back to our time and that the errors that you introduced into your time line were insignificant and easily erased. I trust that your trip to Magdeburg was not too unsettling.”
“Magdeburg! Do you know what that was like?”
“Yes, Mr. Plum. All employees of GURUTECH are given a simulated experience of our default destination. There were many choices that we considered during the Thirty Years War in Germany. The 17th century in Europe was rife with wholesale slaughter, religious persecution, famine, pestilence and aimless destruction. We narrowed our selection down to the Fall of Magdeburg as it was an event so utterly chaotic and disastrous that no amount of interference by our travelers could significantly change the flow of time. Such moments in time are rare, Mr. Plum. We regret any discomfort that you experienced there, and hope that the basket of fruit and bottle of brandy we gave you on your return relieved your anxiety in some small way.”
“I spent four weeks in a psych unit having the emotional scars erased. I still can’t go to a barbecue. My memories of that place are nearly gone, but I know that it was total hell.”
“Yes, sir. Many of our default travelers describe Magdeburg with those very words. If you wish to file another formal complaint about your experience, I can ring this buzzer and two of our most considerate monks will escort you to our public relations office.”
The receptionist pointed to a buzzer on her desk with her index finger, and looked over her shoulder in the direction of two burly men in an office behind her. Bill raised his hands in supplication and took a step back from the desk.

“No, no. I don’t want to make a complaint. I just want to make sure that Aubrey—Miss Piazza is taken good care of.”
“Your concerns will be noted in our log. Perhaps it is time for you to wish Miss Piazza a successful journey, sir. Will you be here tomorrow in case Miss Piazza needs assistance following her return and processing?”
“Yes. Do you still have my number on file?”
“Yes, sir. We know all about you.”
The receptionist smiled as she said these last words, but there was no warmth in her expression. Bill took another step back and turned in Aubrey’s direction. She waved the back of her hand at him to dismiss him, and Bill stammered out a weak, “Good luck,” before hustling away.
“I’m ready,” Aubrey said to the receptionist as she finished her last entry. The receptionist transferred Aubrey’s forms and the completed test to a screen on the reception desk; she maintained her fixed smile for the most part, but frowned occasionally as she clicked buttons on the keyboard and touched icons on the screen. At one point, as the receptionist carefully studied a form, she reached for a phone, but hesitated and withdrew her hand. She glanced up at Aubrey with doubt in her eyes as she reread a passage several times, and then scrolled through all of the documents one more time.
“Why yes, Miss Piazza. You are ready,” she finally replied. She gave Aubrey her cold smile and waved to the burly monks in the office behind her. They stepped forward and Aubrey was surprised to see that they wore pistols in the orange sashes around their waists.
“What’s with the hardware?” she asked the receptionist.
“Bon voyage, Miss Piazza,” said the receptionist.
The two men rapidly came up to Aubrey and stood on either side of her. The one on the right took a gentle hold on her elbow and began to lead her toward the office. When she jerked her arm out of his grasp and tried to pull away from them, they simply picked her up by the shoulders and feet and carried her end to end as if she were a rolled up carpet.
“Bill!” she screamed once before disappearing behind the doors of the office.

The Right Thing

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Sarah Kunkel closed the blinds and pulled back the sheets on her double bed.  She sat down by the pillows, took a damp hand cloth from a bowl on her night stand and lay down.  She gently pressed the cloth to her forehead and closed her eyes.

Her migraine rested like a sleeping porcupine on the right side of her head, but sent out sharp quills to probe the back of her eyes every minute or so.  Sarah felt as though her head would eventually split in two when the malevolent creature woke up and clawed again at the tender connections inside her brain.  She hummed a lullaby in the hope that she might fall asleep.  Her mother sang it to her when she was a sick little girl, and it had worked like magic.  But Sarah stopped when the vibrations on her lips became vibrations in her skull.  Pulsations of dull pain already thudded in time with her heartbeat, and she couldn’t bear adding another rhythm to the mix.

She began to feel blessed sleep descend upon her ten minutes later.  The few remaining unaffected corners of her mind rejoiced as her limbs grew heavy and her breath began to slow.  She saw a vista open up before her of mountains topped with glaciers and Alpine meadows filled with flowers.  She took a deep breath and smelled roses and newly mown grass, honeysuckle and lilacs.  A figure clothed in dazzling white robes walked toward her.

But then the door to the bedroom opened a crack.  A shaft of light from the hall pierced the darkness.  The door swung in, and a man stood in the doorway but didn’t come into the room.  His back lit silhouette looked familiar.  But he wouldn’t dare, would he?  Not again?

The silhouette spoke in a low rumbly voice.  It was Jeff, of course, but she couldn’t quite make out his words.

“Oh for God’s sake, Jeff!  Close the door and a leave me alone.  Can’t you see I’ve got a migraine?”

“Mumble, mumble, mumble.”  He stood there and faltered his apologies.  She couldn’t take it.  He had visited every single night since that horrible day last week when their marriage had fallen and shattered into a thousand splinters of betrayal.  Now the shards were embedded inside her skull, and his visits just pushed them in deeper.

“Jeff!” she screamed and regretted it instantly.  A bloody tsunami swelled in the back of her head and raced forward to tear at the roots of her nerves.  She held her head, moaned and nearly passed out…If only she could pass out she’d praise the gods forever…When she was able to speak again she said, “Come closer so that I can hear you.  You’re killing me.  Tell me what you want and go away.”

He shuffled into the room with his head down and sat near the foot of the bed.  She pulled her hand away when he took it, but he persisted.  She was too weak to fight him.  He leaned closer and whispered, “I did the right thing.”

“I know what you did,” said Sarah.

“Please listen,” whispered Jeff.

“You cheated on me.  That was the wrong thing, stupid.  You can’t talk your way around that.  It’s over and done.  You can’t take it back,” said Sarah.

“I slept with Rhonda, but I did the right thing.”

“Rot in hell, Jeff.  And please, please go away.  Why are you torturing me?  What did I do to you to make you so cruel?”

“You don’t know the whole story,” Jeff insisted.

“What?  You’re going to tell me that it was just a mistake?  She came on to you and you felt sorry for her?  She told the cops that you were the one who wouldn’t leave her alone.”

“I didn’t feel sorry for her.  I just wanted her,” admitted Jeff.

“I see.  Now we’re being honest.  At long last we’re being honest,” said Sarah.

“I didn’t come in here to apologize for the affair.  I know that you’re never going to forgive me for that, and I don’t expect you to,” said Jeff.

“So?”

“I just want you to know that I didn’t want to leave you.  That was never my intention,” said Jeff.

“Bullshit.  The moment you went to bed with her was the moment you left me,” said Sarah.

Jeff released her hand and turned away.  Over his shoulder he said, “You’re not angry because of the affair.  You’re angry because I’m leaving.”

“Shut up Jeff.  Go away.  Make me happy and leave.”

“Not until I tell you the whole story.  I promise I’ll go away and never return after I say what I have to say,” said Jeff.

“That’s a deal, but keep it short.  My head’s about to explode.”

“Rhonda’s husband George interrupted us last Tuesday.  We heard the car pull up, and I managed to run out the back door.  But he saw my wallet on the floor by the bed.  It fell out when I grabbed my pants.  I heard him roar, ‘Whose wallet is this?!’  She screamed.  I crept up to the bedroom window and saw him slap her.  Then he punched her in the stomach and she fell down on the floor.  She tried to crawl away from him on hands and knees, but he kicked her in the ribs.”

“Stop it stop it stop it!  I don’t want to hear any of this!” wailed Sarah.

“I did the right thing,” said Jeff.  “I went back inside and fought with George.  Rhonda got away.”

“Well good for you.  You did the right thing.  You’re my hero.  Are we finished here?”

“Yes, Sarah.  I’m finished.”

He got up off the bed and walked to the door without looking back.  The light from the hall blinded her, and she closed her eyes.  When she opened them again the door was shut and he was gone.

Sarah woke up early the next morning, and the migraine had retreated.  She snapped on a lamp by her bed and saw the wedding photo of her and Jeff framed in gold on top of her dresser.  It was surrounded by an arrangement of white flowers.  She trudged over to the dresser, pried off the cardboard backing and took out the picture.  She stared at it intently for a few seconds and came to a decision:  she tore it in half to separate her image from his and tossed young, still faithful Jeff into the trash can at her feet.

The scrap landed on a thick piece of cream colored paper scrolled with black leaves and flowers.  Beneath the header was a reproduction of a photo of Jeff taken a few months ago when he and Sarah celebrated their twentieth anniversary.  Beneath that a script of heavy gothic letters read, “In memoriam:  Jeffrey Kunkel, beloved son and husband.”

The Witness

I first met my Great Uncle Adolph when I was a little boy.  He had a collie named Delilah that licked the back of my legs as I wandered through the garden behind his white, wood frame house. Adolph said that Delilah liked the salty taste of my sweat.  Flowering bushes and plants grew thickly on either side of a narrow path that meandered in lazy loops across the acre plot.  Bumble bees hummed deeply to themselves as they deliberately made their way from blossom to blossom.  Yellow and black butterflies flittered about unable to choose which flowers had the sweetest nectar.  There was a weathered, five foot high, carved angel that looked like ones I had seen in Woodlawn Cemetery where my family buried my older sister.  She had died of pneumonia the winter before.

The marble seraphim rested on a low, concrete plinth amidst three Japanese maples that had been trimmed back and kept short.  The gleaming white wings could be seen in the gaps between the overlapping branches, but her face was obscured.  When I asked my uncle who was buried there he said, “Nobody. But I can see a few ghosts lingering.”  I thought that he was kidding me, but when I looked up at his face there wasn’t a glimmer of humor in the set lines around his mouth.

He took me inside and got me a plate of anise cookies and a cup of milk.  The cookies were hard enough to break a tooth, and I had to dip them in the milk to soften them before I could take a bite. They tasted like licorice: bitter first then sweet.  We sat at the dark stained, oak table in his dining room, and Uncle Adolph said that he had a secret to tell me when I got older.  He had been keeping an eye on me and saw that I was a special boy, a young man of intent serious beyond my years.  I had no idea what he was talking about, but was pleased to know that he had singled me out over my younger brother, the boy in the family who everyone liked better than I.

My mother came to pick me up, and as we drove home I asked about Adolph. My mother was silent for a long time, and I noticed that she gripped the steering wheel so hard that the tendons stood out on the back of her hand. Finally she said, “Uncle Adolph is a sad man.  He’s had a hard life, and there’s been little good luck for him.”  I asked a few more questions, but she changed the subject and then turned on the radio.  I overheard her talking to my father later that evening when they thought that I was in bed.  She said, “I shouldn’t have let him visit that man, but I felt that I couldn’t say no.”  Father said, “What are you all afraid of when it comes to Adolph?”  My mother didn’t answer.

I saw Great Uncle Adolph once more at a family reunion when I was fifteen.  He sat by himself at the end of a picnic table.  My aunts and uncles didn’t seem to notice that he was there, but kept a marked distance between themselves and him.  He held a chicken leg up for inspection and seemed to be considering its provenance with philosophical detachment.  He barely acknowledged me when I walked up to him to say hello, and I assumed that he had forgotten who I was. But I often caught him staring at me as I messed about with my cousins.

Adolph invited me to visit him when I graduated from college.  The note had a friendly, familiar tone and was accompanied by a twenty dollar bill, his graduation present to me. I was surprised to get the invitation.  He had gradually cut off ties with all his friends, and only received my mother’s older brother Richard when Richard insisted on inquiring about my great uncle’s health.  Adolph lived in the family’s ancestral home on a valuable piece of land.  Richard reported back from time to time to the rest of the family that Adolph seemed to be in phenomenally good shape, and that he hardly seemed to age.  At the age of seventy-seven he appeared to have barely passed fifty.  The news was usually greeted with silence tinged with disappointment. I was mortified by their apparent greed. I didn’t tell anyone about the invitation from Adolph.  I feared that Richard would recruit me to spy.

I knocked on the old man’s front door and he ushered me into his living room.  There were doilies on the coffee tables, old fashioned, cut-glass ash trays mounted on ornate, metal stands, leather armchairs, and lace curtains pulled shut over all but one of the windows.  It took my eyes a while to adjust to the dim light, but when I took a good look at him I was surprised by his youthful appearance.  He moved slowly and carefully like an old man, but his face was creased by a few shallow lines and his hair had only a sprinkling of gray.

He poured me a tumbler of whiskey neat and asked if I wanted a cigar.  “They go together,” he said.  His voice was lower and gruffer than I remembered.  He cut the ends off of two long, thick stogies and passed one to me.  He struck a match and held it under the end of mine, and told me to turn the cigar as I puffed.  I coughed on the second puff, but he didn’t grace me with the patronizing smile I expected. He lit his own cigar and let out a long stream of smoke as he settled back in his chair.  I didn’t like the flavor of my cigar—it was too bitter and harsh at first—but as I continued to sip my whiskey and puff on the stogie I felt like I was cushioned within a warm, mellow glow. It was late afternoon and a golden light flooded in from the window at the end of the room.  I could see a glimpse of the garden beyond, and was pleased that it was still full of flowers.  The room, the light and the garden gave me a feeling that I was seeing a glimpse of eternity.

Uncle Adolph poured me a second tumbler of whiskey and relit my cigar.  I had let it go out while I dozed off for a minute or two.  I realized that I needed coffee more than another dram, but the whiskey was poured before my thoughts connected with my tongue.  “What the hell,” I thought as I raised my glass and drank.

My uncle sat in his chair beside mine and stared out at the garden.  I got the impression that we were waiting for something. When it was nearly sunset he motioned for me to follow him outside.  We stepped into the garden and the grass was already wet with dew.  He led me to the three Japanese maples, and we ducked beneath the low branches and stood before the stone angel.  She gleamed in the failing light as if softly lit from within.  I studied her face carefully having never seen it before, and I never saw a sadder countenance.  I marveled at the ability of the stone carver to capture such depth of grief in the angel’s features, and such compassion and tenderness.  The angel appeared to weep for every want, hurt and loss experienced by human kind, and to mourn for me as well. Death had not taken anyone from my immediate family yet, but as I looked at the angel’s face I knew that she was grieving for me too. I was overtaken by an almost intolerable wave of despair.

Adolph put my arm over his shoulder and walked me back to the house.  I staggered and nearly fell when we came to a trellis that arched over the path near his back door, but after we passed beneath it I began to feel better again.  When we took our chairs in his living room once more he did not turn on a light and we sat in darkness.  The cigar smoke hung in a stale, bitter fog, and I suddenly longed to be free of my uncle’s company.  He sat opposite me and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees.  He seemed to be waiting for me to speak, but I had no idea what he expected me to say.  I still felt weak and strangely vulnerable.  The anguish that overwhelmed me when we stood before the angel still lingered like a bitter after taste.

Adolph sensed that I was about to leave and chose that moment to begin telling me why he had invited me to visit after twelve years had passed.  I tried several times to get up and leave while he spoke, but something in his voice kept me pinned to the seat of my chair.

“Did they tell you that I’m bad luck?”

“No.  They say that you had bad luck and a hard life.”

“That’s one way of putting it…Do you know that I’m your mother’s last uncle on the Stauffer side?”

“Yes.”

“My brother Norbert died at the Battle of the Bulge.  They told us that he froze to death in a foxhole.  My younger brother Fred was killed by the Chinese in Korea.  They wore tennis shoes and would sneak across the lines at night.  They cut his throat.”

“That must have been horrible for your mother.”

“I thought that she would die of grief each time she got the telegram.  She collapsed on the porch when she heard about Fred and spent a week in the hospital. But then she got stronger.”

“Stronger?”

“Grief seemed to make her grow more vital, somehow.  It put a bloom in her cheeks after the first shock passed.”

“Grief made her happy?  That doesn’t make sense.”

“She wasn’t happy.  She was just more alive.”

“I don’t understand.”

He nodded gravely and said, “No, but you will.”  I pushed up from my chair–I suddenly felt like a rabbit caught in a snare–but he reached out and grabbed hold of my arm and said, “Don’t go.  You can’t run away from this.”

Before I could move or say another word I felt a tiny lurch in my chest, and then my mind flooded with a dreadful black substance, a viscous sludge. It was my first immersion in my uncle’s sorrow.  A deep hollow opened up within as if I had been gutted and clumsily sewn back together. Grief trickled from my head down into my emptied chest, and I became a sack of flesh incapable of feeling any other sensation beyond the dull slosh of an unspeakable sadness. I wanted to die.  I wanted darkness to overwhelm me and make everything come to an end.

I managed to knock his hand off my arm and staggered back to my chair.  I felt warmth and a sense of normalcy slowly displacing the soul killing blackness, but I was too weak to do more than stare at my great uncle.  At that point I somehow knew that this evening with him had been inevitable.

Have you ever started to read a book and realized after a few pages that you had read it long ago?  If you bother to read on you can predict what will happen next, and familiar story images appear in your mind like forgotten dreams.  I saw such images as I sat pathetically weak and quiescent in the darkness of Uncle Adolph’s living room, but the images were of my own life.  I could see a progression of events, a chain of cause and effect as my movement from past to present to future was laid out before me.  Adolph was right.  There was no escape.

He turned on a small lamp on the end table beside him saying, “It’s too dark in here.”  Then he gave me a bitter smile and said, “My mother was eighty-nine when she died.  She was in perfect health and looked much younger than her age.  But her voice sounded tired and faint when she called me and asked me to come for a visit.  We had become estranged after Fred’s death.  I couldn’t forgive her for the way she drew sustenance from misfortune, for her ability to thrive as everyone she knew grew sick and died.  There seemed to be no end to her. But when I found her lying in bed I knew that I was wrong. At first glance she showed no sign of illness or that she had finally conceded defeat to the slow decimations of old age, but her eyes were sunk in gray hollows.  When I looked into them I could see that she was already dead in some ways.”

He turned to face me directly and stared into my eyes.  I understood what he meant about his mother. No hope, no spark still lived in the man.  He swung his gaze away from me when he was satisfied that I knew him.

“She grabbed my arm just like I took yours, and she told me that she had a secret to tell.  I didn’t want to hear it, but she wouldn’t spare me.  I was the least favorite of her children as I most closely resembled my father.  He was a drunk and a wife beater, and when she looked at me she saw the same potential for evil.  It didn’t matter that everyone said that I was just like her. She only saw me as a copy of my father.  Maybe she needed that form of blindness to make it easier for her to do what she did to me.”

He got up and walked to the door that opened on the garden.  He motioned to me to follow him again, and I obeyed him though my feet felt heavy and my body limp. I was his reluctant puppet as he guided me through the garden until we reached the three maples. I could smell the musky scent of flowers, but could not see them in the dim starlight. He pushed some branches aside and made me sit on the damp ground at the base of the angel.  I could feel the wetness soaking through my pants.  A car turned a nearby corner and I briefly saw Adolph’s bitter smile once more in the passing headlights.

“Do you know that this is my mother’s house?  This angel is hers too.  When I was a little boy she scraped together enough money to commission it from a local stone cutter.  She badgered him until he got it right.  She told me that her father had an angel and she needed one too.  She wouldn’t say why. She put it in our garden and planned to be buried beneath it when she died, but in 1962 a city ordinance was passed forbidding burial on private property.  The angel has stood here for fifty years.  I don’t think that it’s been waiting for anyone.  It just watches and grieves.”

He clamped his hand on my arm again and I nearly fainted.  A strong current of despair and anguish flowed from him to me, and I felt the same sensation that a thick, oily fluid was filling my chest.  When it became unbearable he released me and sat down next to me.  I tried to shrink away from him, but I was too weak and had to rest my head on the shins of the angel to remain upright.  He glanced at me and nodded as if my condition met his expectations, and he plucked a small bottle out of his shirt pocket.  He pulled out the stopper with his teeth, spat the cork away and took a swig.

“My mother got up from her bed and led me here.  She told me that the angel had sung to her and that it was time. She had a little bottle in her hand, but wouldn’t tell me what was in it.  She sat me down here and took a drink.  Within minutes she was dead.  The death certificate said she had a heart attack, but I knew better.  Before she died she told me that she was a Witness, and that that I was one too.”

“Witness?” I managed to gurgle.

“She told me that her father was a Witness, and that our family had it in our bloodline.  ‘We are chosen by God,’ she said. I had the signs:  I was a serious man, intelligent, a bit detached but still capable of empathy.  I had the gift of feeling another person’s thoughts and emotions, and the blessing of not feeling them too much.  She had me pegged: I suffered somewhat when others suffered, but wasn’t overcome by pity.  As she died she sat down next to me and laid a hand on my arm, and I could feel her power and misery flowing to me.  I could feel all her sorrows and the sorrows of others I had never met. I could see death beds, hearses and wakes, battles, disease, poverty and waste.  I could see fearful eyes, anxious glances, and troubled faces. I could feel bones breaking and taste bloody vomit. I could feel centuries of heartbreak march like a defeated army across my heart.”

Uncle Adolph sat next to me and leaned against my shoulder.  His voice grew softer as he spoke, and at the end he whispered in my ear.

“Now you’re a Witness.  I have no right, any more than my mother did, to do this to you, but I can’t bear to live any more. I don’t have any choice.”

I tried to push him away, but he seized my arm and I couldn’t break free.  His grip weakened me and I surrendered to the inevitable.  He was still for a long time and I hoped for a moment that he had died and I would be released, but he raised his head and pressed his lips to my ear.  When the memory of that night comes back to me I can still hear the hiss of his voice.

“You’ll see their sorrow and it will be yours; you’ll feel their pain and it will cut you too; you’ll wither when they grieve.  But in the end it will make you stronger.  You can live forever, if you want to, but you’ll have to choose to bear up under the burden.  With every year it will grow heavier and heavier, but you’ll just go on living with the weight pressing down harder.  I tried to avoid it by shutting myself away in this house.  I thought that if I removed myself from all human contact I could shield myself from misery.  But the sorrow seeped in through the walls.  It wouldn’t let me alone.”

He released me from his grip and I fell on the ground.  I tried to crawl away from him, but some force of morbid attraction drew me back. I sat down beside him and listened. I couldn’t help it.

“There’ll come a time when you’ll feel full to bursting with it, but then you’ll stretch and grow.  Your capacity to suffer will expand and then you’ll feel even more alive.  The pain will see to that.  It owns you. You become it. The moments when a little happiness comes your way will feel strange…”

He paused to catch his breath.  He had begun to wheeze.

“There’s no escape unless you pass the gift on to another Witness.  You’ll know when it’s time.  The angel will tell you.  When you hear her sing it means that you can die.”

His head nodded on his chest and he fell over on his side. I heard a murmuring sound like water gently passing over a shoal.  It came from above me and when I listened carefully I heard a beautiful voice singing a dirge. And then I felt a sudden surge of energy run from the top of my head down to the base of my spine, and my every nerve tingled with fresh vitality and abundant life. I knew that he was dead.

I took the bottle from his fingers and placed in my pants pocket.  When I called an ambulance I told them that Adolph had a heart attack and that he was unresponsive.  I told them to hurry.

Sirens wailed and lights flashed out front. I led a paramedic up the garden path to my fallen uncle and knelt nearby as she checked for his pulse.  She was anxious to help him, and felt discouraged when it became apparent that she had failed. It was the second time that day that someone had died under her care.   A police officer came and took a statement from me, and as he wrote I knew that he had shot an unarmed man two months before.  The derelict had suddenly raised his hand and the cop saw a gun that wasn’t there.  It had all been covered up, but he still felt haunted by what he had done.  And then I saw the derelict standing in the garden by the angel.  He fingered the hole in his chest.  I knew that he had abandoned his wife and daughter when drugs and liquor consumed him, and he regretted that he had not done more to take care of them.  And then I saw his little girl standing by his grave in a cemetery across town.  She grew from a seven year old to an adult in seconds, and now was a twenty year old woman wearing black.  She dropped a small bouquet of wild flowers on his grave but felt nearly nothing for him.  And yet she was burdened by guilt for the shallowness of her grief because she remembered a sunny day at a park when her father pushed her on the swings, bought her an ice cream cone and told her she was pretty.

Richard was angry when he found out that Adolph bequeathed the house and property to me, and grew irate at the reading of the will when the lawyer revealed that I had also inherited a large sum of money.  My mother cried when I moved in, and her tears added to the burden that I already felt.  I took in stray dogs until I found one that felt comfortable with my company.  The others ran away after a few days.

I spend my time gardening and reading trashy novels with plots so unbelievable and characters so shallow that I can remain emotionally detached.  I have all the emotion I can handle and try not to volunteer for more.

The angel hasn’t sung to me yet, and I have a feeling that I have a long way to go. I swear that its face gets sadder by the day. It gets very lonely for me at times, but I prefer that form of suffering to the intensity of the pain I feel when I let anyone get close to me.  The exception is my little sister’s youngest child, Alice.  Whenever she visits her sweetness brightens my day.  As I watch her pet my dog and scratch his ears I feel some of the weight lift off of my shoulders.

Alice doesn’t frighten me, but some find her unsettling. She can look right through you and see into your soul.  It’s like she knows you better than you know yourself. Her father, a superstitious fool and a man of narrow understanding doesn’t like her all that much.  He neglects her.  I feel that it is my responsibility to show her some attention if her father won’t.  I let her pick flowers from my garden, and if she’s a good, I give her anise cookies and a glass of milk.

The End.

 

Black Birds (A Short Story)

She had planned it poorly when she agreed to let Tony pick her up for lunch. Linda had a nagging feeling when they sat down to eat that she would soon be dumping him. But she was more surprised than he was when she blurted, “I wanna break up with you,” right after their bony young waitress laid their meal on the table and walked away.

Linda got up and left him sitting there staring at their food: her taco salad, his giant beef and bean burrito, her sweet tea and his Dr. Pepper. She briefly returned to the table to grab her sweet tea, but walked away quickly before he had a chance to argue with her or plead. She hated when he did that.

Her glow of satisfaction faded quickly when she stepped outside into a sauna of damp heat. The August sun bore down with vindictive energy on her particular spot in Winter Park, Florida, and she squinted as she struggled to pull her shades from the bulky, white purse slung on her arm. She realized that she would have to call her sister for a ride, and saw that her sense of timing had been exquisitely poor.

Her cell phone pulsed and throbbed in her hand before she had a chance to flick it open. It was a text from Tony: “Want a ride?” Linda glanced over her shoulder but couldn’t see past the reflections on the plate glass window of the restaurant into the interior. She assumed that he was staring at her smugly from the coolness inside, and she texted “No!” She wandered down the length of the shopping strip and decided to hide inside Whole Foods. She wasn’t going to discuss anything with Tony, and certainly wouldn’t ride with him in his car. He might trick her.

Tony closed his phone and put it back into his coat pocket. He wanted to track her down and make her explain, but decided to let her go. If this latest episode in their series of break ups was just a product of one of her moods, then it would be smarter to let her work her way through it without any guidance (“interference” was her term) from him. If she really wanted to break up, then he’d let her. He was tired of making the effort to keep her happy.

He glumly ate a few taco chips and started on the burrito. He put too much hot sauce on it and had to ask Melissa, the waitress, for an extra soda. He mopped his forehead and watched his server’s hips sway as she walked away. She swiveled around and smiled at him as if she knew that he was studying her curves in action, and he turned away in embarrassment and looked out the window. He picked just the right moment to see Linda pass by. She was wearing heels and looked hot and uncomfortable as she impatiently walked back and forth on the sidewalk.

Linda’s torso was shaped like a pear with narrow shoulders and a wide ass, and her short, floral print dress with loud, tropical colors did little to hide the fat accumulating on the back of her thighs just above her knees. Today she had pulled her frizzy, brown hair into a pony tail on one side of her head, and she looked like a refugee from the eighties, an aging material girl who was getting too old to “just wanna have fun”. Tony finished his burrito and burped. He began to eye her taco salad. Break ups with Linda always made him hungry.

She couldn’t get Bobbi to answer the phone. Her sister was forever hauling her brats back and forth from the doctor, the supermarket and school, and she never picked up when she was driving. Linda debated between waiting at the bus stop at Lakemont and Aloma and walking home. The bus service was notoriously bad, and she didn’t know if she’d have to circle down town Orlando twice before finally traveling in the right direction to get home. It had to be 95 degrees out and her feet were already killing her. She needed a ride.

And she was getting hungry–she had been too nervous to drink her diet shake at breakfast–and now she felt a little woozy. She began to long for the taco salad waiting at Tony’s table for her to devour, but resisted the urge to go inside. She went back to the Whole Foods to buy something to nibble.

Linda wandered through the narrow aisles amongst aging hippies and New Age wannabes, and couldn’t seem to find anything appealing. She got trapped between two grocery carts blocking her path at the meat counter. A 30 year old blonde couldn’t decide between ground buffalo and free-range beefsteaks. She had a baby in a papoose slung across her chest and wore Birkenstock sandals. Earth Mama asked the clerk whether the methane emissions of cattle were more detrimental to the environment than buffaloes’, and Linda forced her way past when the clerk began a long winded spiel about bovine digestion. She was accosted at the grain bins by a sixty year old man wearing a golf cap and sporting a white goatee. He asked her if she like to bake bread while he stared at her breasts.

Her phone lit up as she backed away from the creep, and she told him that her fiancée was calling. She snapped the phone open and cried, “Hi, Tony!”

Tony was surprised when she answered, and her tone of voice sounded too friendly even for a good day when they were getting along. It usually took at least a week for her to respond after a break up, and he had expected his call to go straight to voice mail.

Linda said, “Sit tight. I’ll be right there!” and hung up before he could say a word. Tony raised two fingers to get Melissa’s attention, and he ordered another taco salad for Linda and a beer for himself. He knew that the drink would make his belly feel more bloated than it all ready did, but the restaurant didn’t serve hard liquor.

She breezed in a few minutes later and sat down across from him. She picked at the scraps of the first salad left on the plate in the middle of the table, and seemed surprised when Melissa arrived with a fresh order. Tony waited in silence as she chattered about her sister, the hot weather and a shopping trip that she planned to take with her mother. When she had chewed and talked her way through her meal she wiped the grease off her lips, paused, and nervously smiled at him without making eye contact. He decided to show her some mercy and said, “Do you need a ride home?”

“Would you give me a lift? Thank you, Tony.”

“No problem.”

He went up to the cashier and paid, and they walked together in silence to his car. He didn’t open up her door for her, and drove faster than usual down Aloma toward Semoran.

They got stuck at a light. A sunburned, homeless man with dirty pants and the scraggly beginnings of a beard stood on the curb next to them and held a cardboard sign. The letters were too small to read, and when she stared too long as she tried to decipher the message, the man came over with a tentatively hopeful look on his face. She rolled down her window and gave him two quarters she hurriedly dug out of the bottom of her purse. And when he took them and said, “God Bless,” she was too flustered to notice the sarcastic note in his voice.

They pulled up to her house, and Tony didn’t respond when she leaned against and kissed him on the cheek. She no longer knew whether or not they had broken up, but he had made up his mind about something. He seemed to be made of stone as he sat gripping the steering wheel with both hands.

She got out of the car and walked to her door, but she didn’t hear him start the motor and drive away. She looked back and saw him staring straight ahead. Nothing remarkable caught her eye when she surveyed her neighborhood. There were parked cars, puddles in the curbs, cinder block, ranch houses and trees. Her neighbor, an anorexic twenty year old named Tammi, wasn’t out sunbathing in her pink bikini. Tony kept staring.  Her curiosity was piqued.

Linda got back into the car. He glanced at her long enough to register her return, and went back to staring straight ahead. She said, “What are you looking at?”

“The black birds,” he said.

She squinted up past the rear view mirror and saw a row of bedraggled starlings perched on a telephone line. They crowded against each other, rustled their wings and looked wet and miserable. There must have been a sun shower in the neighborhood while they were at the restaurant. A black bird occasionally took off to stretch its wings, but soon returned. His spot might be taken, and if it was the prodigal just shouldered his way back into the line at another spot. The starlings mostly ignored each other, but made sure that they remained huddled together with wings touching.

“Do you like the birds?” she asked.

“They’re okay,” he said, and then he took her hand and gave it a squeeze.

She wanted to remove it, but instead she leaned over and rested her head on his shoulder. When the car got too hot they went inside and made love in her bed. Their post coital drowsiness slid into a nap, and when she woke up Linda discovered that she was huddled tight against his hairy, sweaty body.

She gradually separated herself from him and rolled off the bed without waking him. He farted in his sleep, and she knew that she had made a timely escape. The faint whiff she got was familiar—she knew from ten years of experience that the man couldn’t handle beef, beer and beans at one go.

She padded in bare feet to the kitchen to get a glass of water, and as she shook ice cubes from a tray she made a mental note: the next time they went out on a date she would drive herself to their rendezvous.  He wouldn’t fool her again.

Count Rudolpho the Optimistic

Count Rudolpho The Optimistic

Count Rudolpho the Optimistic stood on the balcony of his palace in the Kingdom of Schweinebraten and practiced his royal wave for the benefit of the serfs and servants below.  He wore nothing but a loosely tied bathrobe decorated with the golden squirrels of his family crest.  His audience did not bother to glance up and acknowledge the greeting of a man who was 52nd in line of succession to the throne.  Instead they filled squirrel feeders and pruned the rose bushes planted in gardens on either side of a cobblestone road running straight from the River Moldung to the gates of the palace.

Rudolpho retired to his chambers when his wrist grew weary and the scent of roses aggravated his nose, and he summoned his jester.  Holzkopf stirred beneath the sheets of the Count’s bed and said, “What do you want Miss Prissy Boots?”  The Count replied in the sternest of tones, “Never call me that unless you wish to be beaten with my gold plated hair brush.”  The jester was about to reply, “Yes, please,” when Countess Glupi entered the chamber with her eyes covered by a delicate hand heavily burdened by rings.

She said without the least bit of irony, “So sorry to disturb you as you conduct your affairs.  The footman gave me this message from Prince Saftsack.  It was delivered by a motorcyclist wearing royal colors.”

Rudolpho accepted a piece of paper from his wife after dismissing Holzkopf and tightening the robe’s belt, and asked her why she had delivered it instead of the footman.  She told him that the servant was curiously reluctant to enter the Count’s chambers early in the morning.

The Count read the dispatch out loud with grand, rolling tones:

Nobleman,

War has been declared.  You are summoned to the royal court at Schweinestall to take up your commission in the Schweinebraten Army.  Death to our enemies by they English, French or Alsatian (to be determined once all of the pertinent treaties have been read by the court lawyers)!  Muster as many men as possible from your fiefdom and march them here post haste.

Your sovereign ruler,

Prince Saftsack III

Rudolpho volunteered a cook and two gardeners as his foot soldiers, and designated Holzkopf his aide-de-camp.  All his other serfs and servants could not be found.  They had scattered into the nearby Gray Forest immediately after they heard the royal messenger drive up the cobblestone road.

When their company arrived at the Prince’s castle after making  a leisurely journey to the capital, they discovered that the army had already marched to France and had been decimated at the Battle of the Marne.  The kingdom had lost its finest flowering of manhood including Saftsack and fifty-one prominent noblemen, and the courtiers greeted Rudolpho as their new prince.  He waved his royal wave to a dispirited group of moldering bureaucrats, noblemen in their dotage, and  maidservants standing at attention with mops at “present arms”.  Their response was tepid, but Rudolpho was well pleased that his hours of practice had finally paid off.

Rudolpho felt uncomfortable dealing with matters of state, however, having spent most of his life mismanaging the affairs of a minor court.  Soon he emptied the coffers of the royal treasury and was forced to pawn the royal crown to balance the budget.  He was deposed by the Pink Revolution of 1916, and just managed to escape with three cats and his jester, Holzkopf.

They traveled covertly through the Balkans, rounded the Greek peninsula and boarded a freighter sailing out of Cyprus.  They were torpedoed and shipwrecked five times before finally washing ashore in Miami Beach where they were greeted as alien combatants.  The cats were allowed to go free on their own recognizance, but the Count and Holzkopf were detained.

While they maintained their intimate friendship during their internment in Camp Andrew Jackson, they parted company upon their release.  The jester drifted west until he reached Hollywood where he became Leslie Howard’s least favored assistant.  Rudolpho settled in south Florida and became a dance instructor. (It is said that he taught Buddy Ebsen a Rumanian form of the cha-cha.)  He took in cats and gave them orders in his most commanding tones.  When they ignored him completely he would be overcome by a wave of nostalgia and regret.

Rudolpho died in 1952 in Homestead, Florida.  He expired on the floor of his apartment with a bullet through his heart.  Witnesses stated that he was seen standing on his balcony making obscene gestures with one hand raised before him.  He wore nothing but a gaping bathrobe.  An outraged woman with two young girls in tow pulled  a .45 from her purse and shot him.  Rudolpho remained conscious for a few minutes as he lay face down in an expanding pool of blood, and assumed that the enthusiastic applause of the crowd below his balcony was for him.  He was sadly mistaken:  the shot had been taken from thirty-five feet away, and his assassin was admired by  her fellow Homesteaders for the precision of her aim.

He was buried in a pauper’s grave still wearing his bloodied bathrobe with golden squirrels rampant.  He was mourned by two out of seven of his cats.  His assailant, Mrs. Ruby Dukes Carter, was charged with involuntary manslaughter, but  was released by an attorney general sympathetic with her cause.

When attempts were made to contact Countess Glupi it was discovered that she had entered a nunnery shortly after her husband’s disappearance in 1916.  She became a teacher in a missionary school in the Belgian Congo.  A Latin lesson she gave by the banks of the Ulutango River  in 1923 was cut short by a crocodile irritated by the sound of her conjugations.  Her sacrifice is honored by her school to this day.  Every year on the day marking her death the children are given chocolate crocodiles and scrolls of paper written with the legend, “Amor fati.”