A Social Visit

“You were saying…” the strange woman prompted. 

Maggie sighed and shifted.  The woman had sat too close to her on the sofa.

“Come on, tell me what’s bothering you,” coaxed the unwanted guest.

Maggie had hidden from Another One the day before, but this lady had pounded the front door with her knock-knock-knocking. Maybe she’d go away if Maggie answered a few questions.

“My children don’t care about me,” said Maggie.

“That can’t be…completely true,” said the visitor.

“What’s your name again?  Why are you here?” Maggie demanded. “Are you with social services?”

“I’m Mary.  I sang with you in the choir.  Don’t you remember?”

“Oh yes, Mary.  Your boy ran off to New York,” said Maggie.

“That’s right.  He went to New York, but now he’s in New Orleans.  Do you remember the rest?” said Mary.

“He changed his name and danced on stage as a woman,” Maggie stated.  “He called himself Lulu.  Or was it Lola?”

“Lulu,” said Mary.

“And didn’t he go to jail?” asked Maggie.

“Lulu did a few bad things, but she’s turned everything around now,” said Mary.

“Lulu.  You actually call him that?  He’s always been Robert to me and he always will,” Maggie insisted.

“I do call her Lulu.  She prefers that.  I got used to the new name, and it suits her,” said Mary.

“I’m sure it does,” sneered Maggie.

Mary let the rudeness hang in the air for a minute.  She changed the subject:  “Did your husband leave you before or after your boys graduated from high school?”

“After,” muttered Maggie.

“Why did he leave?” Mary persisted.

“That’s none of your business,” Maggie rasped.

“I understand.  Sorry to intrude.  How are your two sons?”

“Fine.  They’re fine, but they never come to visit,” Maggie complained.

“Why is that?” asked Mary.

“I don’t know,” said Maggie.

Mary snorted a short burst and covered her mouth.

“You think that’s funny?” Maggie snarled.  “Wait till it’s your turn.  You’ll get old too.”

“But I am old,” Mary said.  “I’m older than you.  Don’t you remember?”

“Which Mary are you?  There were three Marys in the choir when I started.”

“Mary Schumacher.  I sang mezzo one row behind you.”

“Oh, I thought you died.  We sang for your funeral.  The church was half empty, and I thought, ‘Doesn’t that lady have any family?’”

“That must have been some other Mary,” Mary said with a smile.

“No, I’m sure it was you.  You had that queer son and a trampy daughter with five kids by three men.  She only married the last one after she got sick.  Did she die from leukemia?”

“Why yes, she did.  And Tom raised all the kids after she was gone,” Mary said.

“I wondered about that.  Only one of them was his,” said Maggie.

“Two, actually,” said Mary.

“Are you all sure about that?” Maggie smirked.

“What does it matter now?” asked Mary.

“Matters to some more than others,” said Maggie.

“Two are Tom’s:  the cute little girls, Katie and Laura,” said Mary.

“Well, some think that Katie’s pretty, but Laura has a flat nose and mousy brown hair,” said Maggie.

Mary said, “That’s right.  But we all love Laura for her sweet personality.  Her kindness makes her beautiful.”

“And she’s fat,” Maggie contradicted.  “Fat girls have to be nice or no one pays attention to them.”

“And skinny girls can say anything they want?” Mary ventured.

“Only if they’ve got big boobs,” declared Maggie.

“I see.  And did you have big boobs?”  Mary inquired.

“Course, I did.  Still got ‘em.”  She placed her hands under her breasts and pushed them up.

“That must be wonderful for you,” said Mary.

“Would be if I weren’t 87.  Now I’m just dried up and old,” said Maggie.  She let her breasts drop and wobble on her stomach.

“You won’t be old…forever,” said Mary.

“ I’m not as old as you and I’ve kept my looks better than you have, but I’m old,” said Maggie.  “I’m so old I feel every year in my bones.  I tell Kevin that I’m ready to go, but I keep living on and on, miserable and more miserable.”

“Well, I feel better every day,” said Mary.

“But aren’t you dead?” said Maggie.  “I sang for your funeral, and the church was half empty.”

“So, your boys don’t visit.  Why is that?” Mary redirected.

“One says he’s busy.  He calls me every so often but gets off the phone as fast as he can.  And he cuts me off in midsentence whenever I say mention his ex-wife,” said Maggie.

“The one who cheated on him?” Mary inquired delicately.

“Yeah, that one.  He doesn’t want to know anything about her and acts as if his first marriage never happened.  She still lives in the neighborhood and I see her at Publix.  She tells me what she’s been up to, and I pass it along to Kevin,” said Maggie.  “You’d think he’d take an interest.”

“Didn’t Kevin remarry?” Mary asked.

“He did,” Maggie said.

“Is he happy now?”

“I guess.  But her family lives up in Jacksonville, and Kevin moved there.  Ursula’s Mom and Ursula’s Dad and her two brothers and her nieces and nephews are important,” Maggie growled.  “I’m not that important.  I only see him twice a month if that woman lets him out of her clutches.  And then he stays for an hour, keeps glancing at the clock like he’s got more important places to be, jumps into his car and races straight back to her.”

“I’ve heard that he comes every week and brings groceries,” Mary said.

“Where’d you hear that?” Maggie demanded.

“And doesn’t he mow your lawn and gas up your car?”  Mary asserted.

“Only when he feels like it,” Maggie groused.

Mary put a hand on Maggie’s shoulder, and the old woman shrank away.

“My God, your hand’s so cold!” Maggie cried.

“Really?” Mary replied.  “Your house is so warm I’d think my hand would feel toasty.”

“Your girl died of leukemia,” said Maggie.

“Why, yes she did.  You like to talk about that, don’t you?  I remember that you brought that up a lot after choir practice,” said Mary.

“Did I?  I don’t remember,” muttered Maggie.

“Oh yes, you did,” Mary said.  A pleasant smile played across her lips.  “You had a theory that you often shared about her illness.  Do you remember your idea?”

“No.  Theory?  No.” Maggie stammered.

“Oh yes, you do,” Mary insisted.  “You wondered whether her pill addiction caused the leukemia.  You passed me an article about drug abuse and hepatitis.”

“Hepa—”

“—titis.  You never seemed to be able to distinguish between hepatitis and leukemia, but you were very sure that Chrissy caught cancer from dirty needles,” said Mary.  “And you wouldn’t believe me when I told you that Chrissy never shot up.

“Needles…I don’t want to talk about that,” Maggie snapped.

“You seem sensitive about needles. Are you afraid of them?,” asked Mary.

“Kevin’s sensitive…I’m not sensitive about anything,” said Maggie.

“What’s your other boy up to these days?” Mary asked sweetly.

“Not much,” Maggie whispered.

“Brett’s been away for a long time, hasn’t he?” Mary nudged.

“Not so long.  It seems like he left yesterday,” replied Maggie.  “I sang—”

“I heard a rumor that the police found him in Miami.”

“Miami?  Brett’s in Miami?” asked Maggie.  Her eyes teared up.

“They found him in a dumpster in Little Haiti.”

“What was he doing in a dumpster?” asked Maggie.  A drop rolled down her cheek.

“Still had a tourniquet wrapped around his arm,” Mary continued. 

“Shut up!” barked Maggie.

“The needle was gone, but there was a fresh puncture wound.”

“Bitch!” Maggie screamed.

Mary patted Maggie’s shoulder and said, “There, there.  Did I say something to offend you?  I’m sorry.  Folks get so upset these days about the least little things.”  Mary smiled sweetly as if she truly felt apologetic.

Maggie tried to pull away, but Mary clenched a bony forearm and held tight.  Maggie began to shiver.

Maggie said, “Who are you?”

“I’m Mary Schumacher from the choir.  I sang mezzo one row behind you.”

“But why are you here?”

“Just for a social visit.  You seem lonely,” Mary said gently as she tightened her grip. 

Maggie didn’t pull away.  Her arm felt numb, and the ice flowing through her veins had become soothing.  She nodded her head and began to slump.

“That’s right,” Mary soothed.  “You’ll feel better soon.”

“Didn’t you die?” slurred Mary.

“Not so much,” Mary offered.

Maggie straightened and swatted at Mary’s hand.  She couldn’t dislodge it from her arm.  She sank again and groaned.

“Leave me alone,” Maggie pleaded.

 Mary said nothing.

“Why did you come for me?” Maggie gasped.

Her voice faded on the last syllable.  Her eyes closed.

Mary held Maggie in her arms and rocked her until she stopped shivering.  A rattling sound briefly disturbed the settled quiet.  Mary stroked the white hair on Maggie’s scalp, put her blue lips close to Maggie’s ear and whispered, “Because no one else would.”

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I’m Your Mother GPS

I had to take a trip to an obscure section of downtown Orlando the other day and decided to download a GPS app before leaving.  I’d been avoiding using that travel guide as I’d found it annoying when riding with other drivers.  The monotone repeating commands and reminders seemed too controlling and insistent.

I skimmed through a few options and found one entitled, “Mom”.  It came in three levels.  I had no idea what each level offered, so I chose #1.

I backed down my driveway, and a sweet low voice hesitantly spoke:  “Oh dear, did you leave the stove on?”  I ignored it, checked my rear view mirror and backed out onto the road.  “Please pull over and clean the windshield before we go any further,” Mom asked kindly.  I pulled back on the windshield wiper lever, and cleaner fluid shot onto the windshield.  My wipers are getting a bit ragged, so a few streaks marred my vision when I turned east and faced the sun.  The GPS sighed quietly..

“Turn right,” she told me when we reached the stop sign.  “And watch out for that hooligan driving that yard service truck!  Why don’t we wait and let him go ahead of us?”  I had plenty of time to pull out before the driver cleared a speed bump with his trailer, so I edged forward.  Mom sighed again and said in a slightly discordant singsong, “You’ll seeeee.”

Yard guy sped over the bump, trailer nearly went air borne, and I had to stomp on the gas pedal to avoid a collision.  Yard service guy leaned on his horn and tailgated me all the way through the neighborhood.  Mom said nothing when we reached the intersection of Eastbrook and Aloma.  The green light gave me a chance to accelerate through the turn and leave my antagonist behind (he couldn’t manage to stay glued to my bumper without jack-knifing his trailer).

I kept up my speed for a few blocks and took another turn to make sure that I’d lost the yard service road-rager.  The silence remained deafening until I turned onto Howell Branch Rd.  Mom muttered, “Now I don’t have the slightest clue why you’re taking this road.  You’ve got me all turned around.”

I pulled in at the Casselberry Commons shopping center and found a parking space.  I went to the app page and found the “DELETE” command. But every time I tapped the button, the phone harrumphed indignantly and refused to comply. Mom said, “You can’t get rid of me that easily, young man.”

I turned off the phone, tossed it onto the passenger’s seat beside me, and resumed my trip.  I heard an odd noise when I turned left onto 17/92 in Maitland.  I glanced to my right and saw that the phone had somehow turned on.  The screen glowed hot pink.  I picked it up when I came to a stop at the next light and saw the GPS app had switched on to level 2.

Mom said, “Well, I’m back…Aren’t you going to say something?  You know that you’re just like your father…Why are you turning onto Lee Road?  You’re not going to take Orange Blossom Trail downtown, are you?  I bet you are.  I can tell by the squirmy look on your face.  You can’t fool me.  I’ve told you again and again that there’s nothing on OBT but hookers, drugs, strip joints and porno shops.  You’re going to turn right around and go through Winter Park on 17/92.  When we reach Colonial, you’ll take a right, go a mile west and take a left on Orange Avenue.  Well, do it.”

I turned onto OBT and headed south.  The phone turned a deeper, more fiery shade of pink.

“You never listen to me, do you?  Professor Bigshot, used to ordering people around, can’t take simple instructions from someone who knows better, who knows what’s best for him.  Maybe if I’d been around you’d still be married to Rhonda.  Such a lovely girl, and you just cast her aside like last week’s garbage.  You thought I didn’t know about her, didn’t you?  You should see the dumb look on your face.”

“But how?” I faltered.

“You agreed to unlock personal data when you signed the user agreement for my app.  I can look all over the internet and find out about you.  That picture today on Facebook looks embarrassing.  Were you drunk when it was taken?  And that girl you’re with looks like a little chippy.  Is she after your money, what little there is?”

“She’s nice,” I insisted.

“I like Rhonda better.  She looks like a good girl, and you married her in a Catholic church.  You’re still married to her in the eyes of God even if you think that a silly piece of paper gives you the right to cheat on her with loose women.”

“She cheated on me!” I shouted.

“Don’t raise your voice to me, young man!  And keep your eyes on the road.  There’s a porn shop on the right.  Eyes front!”

I drove past and didn’t look at the female dummy in the window display.  I didn’t notice that it’s nipples were painted bright red and that it sported a spiked black and white striped teddy with a lacy black fringe.  I focused instead on the road straight ahead.

I crossed Colonial and kept going south.  Parliament House appeared on the right.  The phone turned hot orange.

“Are you one of them?” she hissed.  “Is that why you flit from one relationship to another?  You’re looking for a woman to satisfy you when all you really want is a man?  Is that it?  Your father must be spinning in his grave!”

“I’ve never been to the Parliament House.  I’m not gay, and my father is still alive,” I said.

I parked at a meter further down the block, picked up the phone and tried to pry the battery cover off.  A sudden electric shock made me drop the phone.  I sucked on my fingers and listened to the phone screech at me.  The screen turned red.

I took an envelope out of my shirt pocket, gingerly wrapped it around the phone and tossed it into the glove compartment.  I got a second shock, but the insulation took some of the sting away.  Muffled shrieks and curses came from the compartment as I continued on, so I popped a Led Zeppelin cd into the player and jacked up the volume.

I pulled into the parking lot of a run down motel (daily and weekly rates) and got out.  GPS Mom howled long and loud.  I opened the trunk, retrieved a bag of groceries and walked to a unit on the ground floor.  Patty, a woman I had met at church, opened the door and let me in.  I handed her the groceries, and she made me a cup of coffee.  We sat and chatted about the new pastor, the ongoing feud in the finance committee, and the recent memorial service for a woman who had died two days after turning 94.  Patty thanked me once again, and I returned to the car.

I saw smoke coming from the glove compartment.  I tore off my t-shirt, wrapped it around my hand and pulled the door open.  My registration and insurance cards had caught fire.  The phone glowed bright red.  I grabbed a water bottle out of the compartment in the console between the seats, sprayed it onto the flames and got the phone wet.  I heard a smothered scream and a gurgling rattle, and the screen went blank.

I tossed the phone onto the sidewalk once it had cooled down.  The screen shattered, but I ground my heel onto it to make sure it was dead.  I should have buried it.

I got lost a few times on the way back but attributed my mistakes to a mind sorely disturbed by the events of the day.  I didn’t need a GPS program to get around.  I really didn’t.

Two days of blessed peace followed.  I went out and bought an old fashioned flip phone, ran a few errands, read a book and avoided the internet.  On the third morning I heard a timid knock on my front door.  “Girl scouts?” I wondered.

I opened the door and saw a man wearing a dirty shirt, torn pants and battered boots. The left one was missing its heel.  He held something behind his back.  A rusty bicycle lay on its side near the edge of my bed of plumbagos.

“Umm, Mister, I’m sorry to bother you, but I have to return something that belongs to you.”

I took a step back and partially closed the door.

“I’m sorry mister,” the bum continued.  “I picked up your phone on the sidewalk near where I live, and it started talking to me.  It told me your address and kept ordering me to bring it to you.  It told me a lot of other things about you, and I tried not to listen…None of my business.   I would have left it on the sidewalk but it wouldn’t let me be.  And I couldn’t make it shut up until I promised to return it.  I’m sorry mister, but this is yours.”

He slowly swung one hand forward. It held my phone. The screen was shattered, but the remaining splinters had turned purplish black. Red, broken letters suddenly lit up among the dark shards, and I read, “Level 3”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

The Right Thing

https://cdn.morguefile.com/imageData/public/files/l/lauramusikanski/10/p/43723b3791ff0f23bf8bb4dfb09c3c64.jpg

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.”

Postal

Rich saw the white and blue painted jeep pull up at the bottom of his driveway. He heard a metallic clang, and the vehicle drove away. To steel his nerves he took a sip from a flask he kept hidden in his inner coat pocket, and then he said, “I’ll get the mail.” No one answered. He lived alone.

It took forty-two steps to walk from his door to the mail box by the road, and he knew every crack and oil stain in his driveway along the way. The roots from a maple in the neighbor’s yard had pushed up the cement four inches above its original bed in a section near the end of the driveway, and he carefully stepped down when he came to the rift. He had been meaning to tear up the concrete, dig out the roots and patch the hole, but kept putting off the job. He would have to work with his back to mail box at some point during the repairs, and he didn’t want to tempt an ambush.

And a level driveway meant that more visitors from work and church would nose their cars up the slope to his house. He didn’t have time to entertain guests when he needed all his vigilance to keep an eye on the mail box. And he sometimes suspected that the postal service might have already infiltrated his circle of acquaintances. Bob, the fat, fortyish guy who manned the cubicle next to Rich’s, often spoke with genuine disgust about UPS and Fed Ex when a package arrived with damaged goods inside. Rich knew where his allegiance lay. Louise, the choir director at Aloma Methodist, hoarded booklets of stamps in her purse. She abruptly snapped it shut if she thought that someone was looking too intently at the treasure within. She was a postal junkie.

As Rich approached the mail box he studied the wooden post and the dings on its metal shell. He had given a neighborhood punk with a bad case of acne and greasy hair twenty bucks to destroy it last week. Joey was supposed to wait until 3:35 in the morning to bash in the box with a hammer and set fire to the wooden post. If he had followed directions he wouldn’t have been interrupted by the patrol car making its nightly rounds at 3:05. So now the box was waiting for him with a partially crushed carapace and a blackened but intact post, and Rich was afraid that it knew who was to blame for its damage.

Rich picked up a fallen stick from beneath the maple’s overarching branches and used it to gingerly open the lid. It creaked on rusty hinges in an accusing tone. There wasn’t an explosion. He pushed the stick into the gaping opening and gently probed. Nothing attacked and no traps snapped. He pulled rubber gloves from his back pocket, tugged them on nervously and tentatively reached inside. He found two envelopes, one from a cable company and one from his daughter. His hands trembled as he slowly and respectfully closed the mail box.

He backed away from it in a half crouch ready to run if necessary. But it stayed rooted to its spot, and the lid remained shut. He turned and scurried away after he had gained a safe distance of five feet, and trotted back to his front door. He was brave enough that day to look over his shoulder just once during his retreat.

He tossed the two envelopes into a metal box on a bookshelf by the door, shut the lid, turned the lock, and stripped the gloves off his fingers and into a trash can. He took a seat in his recliner and took another pull from his flask…and another. He had to regain some composure before he faced the delicate and dangerous task of opening his mail. But he fell asleep without warning as he often did these days, and when he woke up the letters were gone from the box by the door. He frantically searched the house desperate to know the location of the infiltrators, and when he sat down again in his recliner he squealed with terror when he saw them on the end table at his elbow. When he had calmed down somewhat he recalled that he had stumbled to the bathroom before fully awakening. Perhaps he had opened the box and transferred the envelopes himself before dozing off again. Perhaps…

He fought the urge to snatch them up, shred and burn them. But he didn’t. He had made that mistake once before. He pulled on another pair of rubber gloves, took out a pocket knife dedicated for this one purpose from a clear, plastic container on the coffee table, and used it to delicately slit open what purported to be an advertisement from a cable company. A new copy of his credit card fell out and landed on the floor. The accompanying letter congratulated the bank’s cleverness in disguising the delivery, but Rich knew better. The mail box wanted him to lose the card.

The handwritten note in the second envelope was from his daughter. She informed him that she and her two young daughters would be arriving for a visit on the 23rd. That was only three days away, not nearly enough time for him to change the locks on all the doors and escape to a distant, inaccessible location. Little Lauren and Brooke liked to play a game called, “Scream at Grandpa”. The last time they had invaded his sanctuary they nearly put him in the hospital by “accidentally” running into him as he stood on a step stool, and he suspected that his daughter encouraged them to endanger his life. She still assumed that she was the primary beneficiary in his will. And what seemed worse to Rich was that she had filled out a civil service exam just before leaving town. She claimed to have become an insurance saleswoman in Tennessee, but that could just be the false identity that she had been given. Maybe those brats weren’t hers—Rich had never met the father and she certainly had little control over them and they looked like no one else in the family with their fat cheeks and piggy little eyes.

Rich pocketed the credit card and threw the letters and envelopes down the disposal in the kitchen. He realized, as he listened to the growling blades in his sink, that the box had figured who was ultimately responsible for the attack. His recent mail up until Joey’s aborted mission had mostly been benign come-ons from real estate agents and flyers from evangelical pastors who wanted to save his soul and lighten his wallet. He had enjoyed the lull in hostilities, an armistice from postal mayhem. But this letter from his daughter was all too transparent in its malignancy. Only the box in league with the postal service could have plotted such a subtle and ingenious scheme, so innocent on the surface and so deadly beneath. He knew that this was the opening shot of another campaign against him.

He wanted to call his friend Bill, but doubted if he would find any comfort from that quarter. He knew that Bill thought that he was losing his mind. He listened with condescending amusement whenever Rich explained his theories about the collusion of the mail box and the postal service to ruin his life. Bill worked for the St. John’s water management agency, a state bureaucracy that had nothing to do with the mail. But state and federal organizations were linked by computer, and subtle propaganda and subliminal messages could be sent by e-mail, and a person reading that corruption could be influenced and not know it and Bill might be a sleeper agent who would spring into action when a code word was sent to him by the postal service and…

Rich traced the initial moment of his downward turn into misery and confusion to an evening 11 months ago when he made the mistake of turning on the nightly news. A talking head named Ridge Rockwell reported that Congress had drastically cut funding for the Postal Service. The service had begun to lay off older workers drawing higher salaries while recruiting scabs willing to work for low wages and no pension. A recently appointed spokesman wearing a patched and stained uniform stepped up to the microphone when a reporter asked him, “What segment of the population is the service targeting in its search for new workers?” He looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks and he had a nervous tic in one eye. The press agent began to laugh hysterically and seemed unable to regain control of his composure until a stern man at his elbow nudged him hard in the ribs. The bedraggled man wiped tears from his eyes and finally answered: “Oh, from all walks of life…You’d be surprised.”

One morning a few weeks after the broadcast Rich waited by the mail box for the mailman to pull up and hand him his mail. He had been out raking leaves when he heard the jeep approach. The carrier wasn’t John, the happy, bald guy who normally worked the route. His replacement had a thick head of black hair and a sour attitude. The postman slung the mail into the box and slammed the lid shut instead of handing it to him. Rich sarcastically said, “Thanks, buddy.” The surly carrier glowered and said, “Nice shirt, buddy!” Further down the block the postman intentionally rammed into a trash can that had been left in the road after the garbage pick-up. It eventually bounced free of the jeep’s bumper and lay dented and scraped in a yard one block east of its starting point.

Rich glanced down at his shirt and saw that it was soaked with sweat and stained with smears of dirt. When he thumbed through the stack of mail he found two late notices for bills that he swore he had already paid.

Two months later his wife Tina was bitten by a brown widow spider that had nested inside the mailbox. She spent a week in the hospital, almost lost her thumb, ran out of sick time while recuperating at home and was fired. The surly postman made a point of walking up to their door to deliver the envelope containing the news that her unemployment had been denied. Her former company’s legal department claimed that she had repeatedly broken company policies. She went into a depression when she couldn’t land a new job, and when the money got tight she ran away. On the day she left she told Rich that she going out to buy stamps, but never returned. She eventually mailed him a postcard from Toledo, Ohio (“Come visit the beautiful shores of Lake Erie!!), and wrote in a script that looked strangely unfamiliar that she had left Florida for good. Tina didn’t invite him to join her or give him the address of the place where she was currently staying. Divorce papers arrived shortly thereafter along with three flyers from local divorce attorneys.

Rich missed Tina, but bowed to the inevitable and signed on the bottom line without contesting the terms. Outside the courthouse his lawyer pocketed his check and told him that he was a free man. Rich asked him why Tina hadn’t showed up for the hearing, and the attorney smiled mysteriously and said, “She did everything by mail.”

When Rich returned home he decided to take action to start a new chapter in his life. He called the number on an advertisement he found lurking in his mail box. It connected him to a Christian dating service. A perky and sincere sounding woman named Joyce took down his profile information, and he was eventually matched with a thirty something divorcee who invited him back to her place at the end of their first date. Mary ripped off his clothes and jumped on top of him, and he thought that he had found his piece of heaven on earth. But after the final throes of their passion she made him kneel by the bed and pray with her for the forgiveness of their sins. Hers was a vengeful God in need of lengthy appeasement, and his knees were sore by the time she finally let him get up and put his pants back on.

Mary called him every day until he blocked her phone calls. She didn’t give up. She mailed him home made cards with pictures of kittens glued on construction paper with kiddy paste. She invited him in the messages (written with crayon and glitter in the margins) to attend prayer meetings with her. Then, when he didn’t respond, she became concerned about his soul. Finally, after sending ten cards to him without any response, she wrote a long letter describing the tortures of hell. The kitten on the enclosed card was given this speech bubble: “Jesus is your Savior or your Judge–choose wisely!”

The only contact with her that he had initiated had been on their first date, but that didn’t stop the mail box from presenting him with a restraining order from the Seminole County Courthouse and a notice that he was banned for life from the Christian dating service.

He wasn’t a suspicious man by nature and attributed the spate of bad mail and personal misfortune to a string of rotten luck. He still believed that people were basically good at heart. But he grew concerned one day when he saw the friendly mail carrier with the bald head in the back of the surly postman’s jeep. Rich called out to John as he passed by, and the man’s eyes twitched in his direction. The jeep was a half block away from Rich, but he thought that he saw a flesh colored bandage over John’s mouth.

Rich made the mistake of calling his local post office to report what he saw. The clerk on the other end growled into Rich’s ear, asked for his address and hung up on him. The next day he received an audit notice from the IRS and a bulky envelope from his insurance company. A complicated document informed him that he wouldn’t receive compensation for the damage done by a laurel cherry tree that had twisted and fallen on his garage roof during a recent storm. A hole had been punched through the shingles, and the roof had started to rot around the opening. As he picked through the double negatives and sentences with varied tenses and multiple clauses that appeared to contradict each other, he discovered that the insurance company had changed the definition of what constituted a “tree” and a “roof”. According to his “case manager” his claim had been denied because his “vehicular shelter toppage” had been struck by an “arboreal agent” that was not recognized as “culpable species of tree” in his policy.

Rich couldn’t tell if the world or he had gone mad, but began to suspect that the mail box was the source of all his trouble. He stayed home more often when he wasn’t at work, and his social circle narrowed as he spent his free time keeping the mail box and postman under surveillance.

The final straw came the day after the mail mysteriously moved from the strong box to his night stand. He got a notice from his savings and loan stating that he had automatically been signed up for a life insurance policy, and that $300 would deducted from his savings account each month starting two months before. As his current funds were now minus $237, he would be fined an additional $50 for each day he was delinquent in paying for said service.

Desperate times called for desperate measures. If the mail box was the source of his trouble, he would try to circumvent it. He jumped into his car and drove down to his local post office. He hadn’t been there for months, and had even skirted the streets in its vicinity when an errand took him in that direction. He bought his stamps at the grocery store check out. He sent packages via UPS.

Now he tightly gripped the steering wheel of his car for several minutes after backing into a space closest to the lot exit. He wanted an easy route of escape if necessary. He longed for a sip of whiskey before going in, but had left the flask at home. He forced himself to open the car door and walk into the building. He thought he heard the doors click shut and lock behind him, but was too afraid to go back and check. He waited in line behind a fat woman and a man with a cane. When he was called to the counter the clerk looked at him suspiciously and snarled, “What do you want?”

“I’d like a post office box.”

“You would…” the clerk sneered.

“Yes, please,” Rich answered.

“And why do you want that?”

“Uh, I’d just like one, please.”

“Fill out the form and we’ll do a background check and put you on our list.”

“A list? What kind of list?”

“We tell your kind that it’s a waiting list.”

“My kind?”

“Your kind. Don’t play dumb.”

“Is it…a waiting list?”

“You’ll find out.”

“Uh, no thanks. I’ve changed my mind.”

“What’s your name, sir?”

“My name?”

“We have to put your name on a list of people who have changed their minds. Your name?”

When Rich backed away and tried to run to his car the clerk leaped over the counter, tackled him and held him in a choke hold. Rich stopped struggling but heard the clerk call out, “Tase him! He’s got a knife!” A jolt of electricity shot through his body and pain sizzled through every nerve ending. His eyeballs gave him the impression that they were trying to pop out of their sockets and roll away. And then there was blackness.

Rich woke up in a cinder block walled holding cell. A tiny window in a steel door sent a thin shaft of light into the narrow space. He saw that he wore nothing but his boxers, a gray t-shirt and black socks. He heard footsteps in the corridor and looked out of the slit. He saw three heavy set women wearing postal uniforms trudging down the hall. They stopped outside the door opposite his cell, and one of them tapped a night stick on the metal frame. A tough sounding guard called out in deep, mannish voice, “It’s time, Tina.” Rich heard a woman sobbing inside, and then his wife cried out, “No, you can’t make me!”

The guards opened the door and the biggest, meanest looking one pulled Tina out by the hair. Tina fought and bit until she was struck on the head with the truncheon. They dragged her unconscious form by her feet through a door at the end of the corridor.

Rich had been too terrified to call out her name during the assault, but before he had a chance to reflect on his cowardice he saw a troop of male guards coming for him. They threw open his cell door, grabbed him on either side by the arms and frog-marched him out of the cell block. They threw him into a small, windowless room with a bench and a bundle of clothes. A short, fat guard said, “Put these on. You’ve got two minutes.”

Rich opened the bundle and found black shorts and a powder blue shirt and a dark, blue baseball cap. He got dressed as quickly as he could, but was still buttoning the shirt when the door opened and Fatty threw a pair of black shoes at his head. Seconds later the door opened again and two guards took him in hand and pushed and shoved him into a room divided up into gray painted, metal cubicles. Chutes shaped like mail boxes were bolted to the ceiling. They opened at irregular intervals and dropped parcels and bundles of mail onto the heads of the prisoners below, and Rich saw that the men and women all wore the uniform that had been given to him and were chained to their seats. The guards roughly pushed him into an open cubicle, sat him down on a chair and manacled an ankle to the leg of a sorting table. Fatty spoke into cell phone and mail began to shower down onto Rich.

Fatty slapped him on the back of the head and pointed to five slots in the table. Each was labeled with a local zip code number. Fatty picked up a letter from Cleveland, pointed to the zip on the envelope and pointed to a slot. Rich nodded his head. He understood. He began to file letters, and although he made a show of diligence the guard didn’t move away. Fatty stood at his elbow as if willing his prisoner to look up. Rich finally succumbed.

Fatty looked contemptuous as he pulled an envelope out of his back pocket and handed it to Rich. It was addressed to him. Fatty told him to open it. Inside was an eviction notice. The county had seized Rich’s home by eminent domain, and a new sewage pumping station was going to be built in his garden. Fatty took the form from his trembling fingers, stuffed it into a new envelope, licked the glue along the flap with his fat, pink tongue and handed it to Rich. A bitter tear rolled down Rich’s cheek as he pushed it into the appropriate slot.

“Congratulations,” Fatty said. “You’ve just joined the postal service.

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.