Monthly Archives: February 2015

The Empress and the Fool—Clark Humphrey

Upon hearing a vague noise of disturbance of some sort emanating from the bar, Annabeth quickly completed her tasks in the back room. She re-straightened her already nearly-perfect posture. She took three deep breaths. She opened, and refocused, her eyes. She mentally prepared herself to be in charge of any situation that might exist out there. She silently vowed to handle it as a refined young lady reproving the creaky, aging boys-in-men’s-bodies who, for the time being, comprised her establishment’s customers.

She opened the door out to the back bar area. She carefully scanned the room, right to left.

No one was fighting. No one was arguing. No one was vying for control of the two rundown sports TVs. No beer glasses seemed to have been broken or even spilled. No chairs seemed to have teetered over.

The disturbance came solely from one smoothly swaggering young man. He pounded his fist on the bar and demanded to get some service, preferably this year.

He looked unlike anyone Annabeth had seen in her three years of operating the Empire Tavern and Sports Bar.

Oh, she’d seen men who’d fancied themselves to be criminals of a sort. But they always turned out to be white fraternity boys affecting, poorly, what they perceived to be “ghetto” patois and mannerisms, down to the sagging jeans and exposed boxer shorts. Annabeth’s main challenge with these boys, besides the threat of fake ID, was to keep herself from snorting with laughter at their ridiculous countenance.

But this specimen was different.

He was decently, though flamboyantly, clothed. He sported a lean-cut black suit, pastel shirt, skinny crimson necktie, and slightly oversize fedora hat. Annabeth sensed that she had seen this exact ensemble in some 1990s crime-drama film, but could not immediately remember the specific title.

Annabeth also noted to herself that his garments were only slightly dampened by the evening’s heavy rain; he’d clearly driven (or been driven) here instead of walking.

He had kept his hat on after entering the establishment; a clear sign to her that he was not the gentleman he seemed to pretend to be. Also, his demands for service “sometime in THIS century, if you please, anyone, hello?” were decidedly uncouth, especially since he could now see that she now stood directly in front of him.

Still, there was something about his stance, his beady blue eyes (when he finally looked up to see her), and his boyish chin that could seem almost charming.

His ongoing monologue to himself about his deserving a quality drink, if one could be gotten within this less than quality establishment, barely changed tone when he first made eye contact with her. He stared at her across the bar and continued mid-sentence about how he most likely could not expect any true top shelf liquors in this pit of squalor, “but could I at least have something more sophisticated than the plastic jug whiskey from Hood River, Oregon?”

“I can assure you, sir, that our selection of the finer liquors, while comparatively small, is highly select and personally approved.” With a total lack of wasted motion, she waved an arm toward a small shelf on the back-bar wall. It held twenty-three bottles of various high-end liquors, most of them unopened or nearly so.

“I can tell that you have yet to persuade your standard clientele about the superior qualities of these products, compared to the more economical road to shit-faced-ness provided by a Monarch with a Bud Light chaser; isn’t that right, Ms….?”

“You may call me Annabeth. And yes, my dear, it has been a creative challenge to raise the drinking standards around here. The men you see around you are, shall we say, creatures of habit.”

“To me they seem more like the Walking Dead, except they don’t bite. Or at least I hope they don’t.”

“Now see here, my sir: These may not be the most sophisticated of gentlemen, but they have supported this business since before I acquired it.”

The man, who had been standing all this time, sat on the nearest bar stool. “You sound a little wistful there, a little less than completely adamant about that defense. Could it be that you might wish, that you might even be planning, to leave them at your first chance? And you can get me a Glenlivet, neat, with a hard cider if you have one or a Guinness if you don’t.”

Annabeth silently grasped the requested bottle, opening it for the first time. She poured a shot into a shot glass she kept on reserve for the rare occasions when someone ordered the good stuff, and handed it to the man. “I’m afraid I only have Guinness in the can, if that is acceptable.”

“If that’s what you’ve got, I’ll take it.”

She brought out the can from a room-temperature display case. He grinned. “You know that’s not meant to be served cold. That shows me you know too much to stay in a dump like this.”

She made the very slightest hint of a smile as she served him the opened can and a clean pint glass. “And what, may I ask, has drawn you within our doors this evening?”

“That, my gracious miss, is something I’d rather not reveal, at least not in a forum like this. Let’s just say I’m staying away from any place where I might be known.”

Annabeth silently snorted. The most flamboyantly attired person to visit the Empire Tavern and Sports Bar in all the time she’s been in charge, and he claims he wants to be discreet?

He downed his shot in one gulp; not the proper way to drink finer liquor, she thought. He poured the stout into his glass, slowly, stopping two thirds of the way through; at least, she thought, he got that routine right.

While waiting for the stout to settle in the glass, he resumed addressing her. “You can tell me something, though. You can tell me why you’re in this place that clearly doesn’t deserve you.”

With her operational routines caught up and the few other customers on the verge of nodding off, Annabeth chose to continue the conversation. “As you have correctly surmised, remaining in charge of this establishment, as it currently exists, is not my long term goal. No, I indeed have my dreams, and these dreams are large indeed.”

She told him of her dream restaurant, the Green Peahen; how it would emphasize always-fresh ingredients within an ever-evolving menu, all under her constant caring supervision; how it would be a “destination” spot attracting knowledgable diners from throughout the region; how she would start it at the site they’re now in, after a thorough remodel, once she could arrange the financing.

“Well that’s all fine and all gourmet artisanal pie in the sky. But, my dear lady, and if I may dare as to ask, what are you actually DOING to make it real?”

An unfazed Annabeth told how she had been dutifully applying for every small business loan and grant she could learn about; how she had developed a complete set of menu designs, logos, and architectural renderings for the project; how she had tested various menu items and combinations on her friends and at group dinner parties.

“Yeah, but what are you doing NOW? Aside from talking to me, that is. I’ll tell you what you’re doing. You’re serving up swill beer to what looks to me like a dwindling bunch of addled armchair athletes. Yeah, it’s a slow night in here. But I bet you have a lot of slow nights. I bet your “fast” nights aren’t as fast as they used to be. I bet you’re only barely paying the bills; am I right? You don’t have to answer. But you do have to know that at the rate you’re going, you won’t have your quaint little bistro in here. You’l have nothing.”

Annabeth might not have been the proprietress of a strip-mall sports bar for that many years, but she had at least learned to refrain from arguing with drinkers when it could be avoided. So she remained quiet as he continued his glib little rant.

“What you need to do isn’t to make any more action plans. What you need to do is ACT. Do something. Take the situation into your own two hands, and pretty hands the are if I’m allowed to say that, take it into your hands and get going already.”

Against her better knowledge, Annabeth responded. “And what, kindly sir, would that entail, specifically?”

“Obviously I don’t know more about your specifics than what you’ve said and what I’m seeing around me now. But you’ve got to do SOMETHING. Get out of your rut. That’s what I’m doing.”

Instead of rudely reminding him that he’d declined to say what he was doing just moments ago, she simply asked, “And what ARE you doing, besides talking with me?”

“I’m working it, I tell you. I’ve got my angle. I’m making it happen. I’m telling this pantywaist suburban purgatory goodbye forever. I’m a player, and a player needs his stage. A big stage, with wings and rafters and maybe a trap door in the floor.

“All this time I’d been held back, just like you, held back in this subdivision shithole. Circumstances had conspired against me. I was stuck in a dead end job, at a dying business, against my will.

“Then, not too long ago, I had a revelation. Something came to me. A vision, if you will. I saw the image of the man I could become. A man who took charge, who got things done. A man who created his own reality.

“From that moment on, I’ve been taking charge. I said goodbye to the dead end job. I said goodbye to everything and everyone that was holding me back. Now I’m ready to start my real life.”

Annabeth’s natural skepticism toward the boasts of a drinker gradually eroded during this. She looked around at this most familiar room, and envisioned it as a self-made prison, with the barflies like prison guards who both restained her and worked for her; she could dismiss them any time but had never done so. She saw her dream restaurant moving farther away from reality instead of nearer.

The man motioned to get another shot and another stout; she attained them. She walked back toward him with his drinks, her eyes a little wider and her mouth slightly opened. He resumed.

“I’m gonna give you a suggestion. You get your hide and your money out of this sinkhole. Get yourself prepared to make the break, but don’t take too long at it or you’ll never do it. And when you do do it, look me up.” He jotted an email address and a cell phone number on a coaster, which he handed to her. “I don’t know where I’ll be when you’re ready. Maybe in New York. Maybe in Mexico. Maybe in St. Maarten. But you get your things in order and contact me. We’ll get you that restaurant; unless you’d rather see the world with me. Do you know what this place is insured for?”

When Annabeth realized what the man had asked her to do, she was only briefly visibly shocked. She turned around for just a moment, ostensibly to take glasses out of the dishwasher.

As soon as she’d lowered her head, she heard another set of noises. The door opened and quickly slammed. She’d have to get that fixed, she thought.

She looked up and saw a balding man of about 60, his clothes oily and tattered in spots. A loose strand of brown tape clung to one shoulder of his overcoat. With just a slight limp, he marched directly toward the younger man. He gave off a slight aroma of smoke and burnt plastic. He coughed a little as he spoke.

“You realize, son, you’re not that hard to find. All I had to do was track down each of the last bars in town you haven’t been kicked out of.”

He looked at Annabeth. “Don’t worry, lady. He’s not underage. He’s just a good-for-nothing punk.”

He looked back at the young man, who did not turn around toward him. “Surprised your old man’s not a stiff, eh? Did you really think I’d not have noticed that you’d tried to disable the sprinklers?”

The young man spoke to the man behind him, clutching his shot glass and staring straight at the yellowing Budweiser bikini poster behind the bar. “Look, it was you who made me keep working there. It was you who thought anybody still wanted to go to a tiny suburban video store—one that didn’t even have any pornos or good horror.”

“But it did have the one with the glib crime lords, at least until you wore it out. What was it again, ‘Pulp Fiction’?”

“No, I kept telling you it was ‘Henry Fool.’ Hal Hartley is a real filmmaker; Tarantino is just a ‘meta’ parodist.”

Annabeth took one step back as the two continued their glum argument. She pondered whether being a fraud was really any worse than being a dreamer.

Off Line—Elaine Bonow

Off Line—Elaine Bonow

He may have been the most fascinating person I’ve ever known, but…He doesn’t seem to have an Internet fingerprint as far as I can tell.

What do you mean everyone is on the Internet right?

I only met him yesterday. I’ve looked but so far no real leads. And you know how paranoid I get of meeting anyone in person these days. It’s so personal.

How did you meet him? What did you do? Where were you?

I just went shopping at the Market, you know the Metropolitan. Since it is so nice out I was feeling really good. You know how you feel when everything just seems to be right.

Shit, I don’t think I’ve felt like that ever. You’re always so “Pollyanna” anyway. I don’t know how you can stand yourself.

Don’t be a hater. I can’t help myself. I got a little dressed up. I dug out that red sweater that shows off my boobs, put some lipstick on, let my hair down. And remember, it’s also almost Valentines Day.

Woo Hoo; I haven’t had a great date on a Valentines Day for ages. It’s been a long time singe Marko was around. Boy Oh Boy, did he treat me good, at least for the first couple of years.

Marko was a dick and you know it.

Yeah, but he was fun for a while. He spoiled me and then, ha ha ha, soiled me. But enough of that old crap. What happened, tell me and don’t leave anything out?

I was cruising the candy aisle and he actually backed into me. It was like a cheap intro to a porno.

That’s funny. Most of the time someone runs into you they are some kind of freak with spots or some old lady and her caretaker buying soup.

I didn’t think much of it or him at first. He was an older man; well not old I’d guess he might be around sixty. He is taller than me and looks like he is in decent shape. He was dressed all casual but not too young.

You’ve always had a daddy thing. Yo, remember that one old guy you hung out with, the one who loved going to the opera.

Yeah, Mr. Mike was fun. He took me to every single opera performance on the West Coast, San Francisco to BC. I just had to drive and he was happy. Plus we stayed at all the fancy hotels when we went even when we went to the opera here.

Too bad he passed. Glad he was doing something he loved. I’d like to be so lucky. Maybe I could find some one who wants to go on long walks on the beach and smell dandelions with the baby seals.

Girl, you are so cynical.

I think I am funny.

True that. Well, I was flustered because when he actually looked at me, I felt that tingly feeling, like, who is this guy and why haven’t I seen him before. I come here almost every day. I know everybody and they know me. I looked around, you know, looking for the wife or the children or his caretaker.

And? Was he alone? How did you talk to him or did he talk to you first? Or did you stalk him through the store, hiding behind coke displays and pretending to study the back of the olive cans.

He actually stopped me down the next aisle as we stumbled away from our initial crash. He didn’t even give me the usual lines; just that his name is Randy Butler, he plays piano for the symphony and ballet. He lives in an old Victorian apartment not far away, He’s single and straight he’s adventuresome and would like to get to know all about me.

Dang, that’s like a cocoa-for-cocoa-puffs kind of guy.

Hell yes! I thought so too but when we got to the counter all the clerks knew him by name and even asked him how the favorite ballet stars were doing, like they’d known him for a while.

Well, sounds legit and you say he wasn’t too doddering, too ugly or had bad breath?

No, no he seems very dignified and cool so I didn’t say no when he asked if I would like to get a coffee and talk. I’ve been so bored lately and it was such a nice day that I said yes.

That’s a fast turnaround. I’m glad it was broad daylight. You are usually so afraid of casual dating. I mean you going to coffee with him after knowing him for a good fifteen minutes is so strange.

I couldn’t help myself. Form the time we walked out of the store to the coffee shop I was more and more, how can I say it, enamored with him? He asked me all about myself and what I liked and he seemed to like the same things I did and more. He seemed to know so much about everything. Plus he had been everywhere plays all kinds of music on a ton of different instruments. He paints and writes poetry. He’s published for Christ’s sake.

But that’s only stuff he told you. How do you know he’s not so full of shit? I mean, girl, are you that naïve?

I thought about that but he was telling the truth I swear it. He just knew too much. He invited me to go to the opera with him and not only that said he would introduce me to everybody. We are going to meet at the backstage door tomorrow night before the show.

I must admit that this does sound promising. It sounds much better than meeting someone on OK Cupid like I do. You should have seen the lying profile of the last geek loser I met on line. Bah. Ick. Yeck.

That’s just what I thought. This has got to be innocent enough. I’ll be all right.

Right, unless he is a late blooming serial killer. The question is what should you do about not finding him on the web? I’m there. You’re there.

I know, I know. I checked Linkin, and Facebook, Twitter and Pinerest. Nothing. Do you think there could be anyone, anywhere that is not on line?

I have heard rumors about that but I’ve never met anyone off the grid.

Well, I think I’m going to take a chance. If you don’t hear from me after tomorrow just come look for me in the Twilight Zone.

A Fascinating Night–Shanna

You sit at the bar, staring into your glass of wine, and wonder why you are there. It’s been a long week at work and although it’s Friday and everyone says you’re supposed to go out on Fridays, you really just want to go home, peel off your work clothes and slide into something comfy. There’s still a few more episodes of the tv show you’ve been watching on Netflix and you’re wondering how it’s all going to end. But somehow you got coerced into coming out for “just one drink” and now you can kick yourself for not sneaking out the other door at the office when no one was looking. The jabbering of the girls you work with, sitting next to you at the bar, makes you wince and you wish sometimes that they would just shut up. You catch a glimpse of your reflection in the mirror behind the bar and as you look at your pale, tired face and limp hair, you wonder again why you are there.

And then you see him, and you remember.

You remember the first time you saw him at the bar. It was a few months ago and, much like tonight, you had stopped in to grab a drink at the end of a long week. He was there, playing pool with his friends, and you couldn’t keep your eyes away.

You remember now the reason you agreed to go out to this bar after work was because you hoped to see him again.

He was stunning, he still is stunning, and you feel yourself perk up just from looking at him.

There isn’t anything you can point to that makes him fascinating, in fact you don’t even know him, but he seems to shine in his own ray of light. You watch as he holds court with his friends, everyone hanging on his words, and it’s clear he is the leader of his little faction.

He laughs and you shiver as the sound washes over you. His laugh is like music and you wonder what his real voice sounds like and how it would sound whispering in your ear.

Tonight, he’s playing pool again and you think he must play here often. He’s made all his shots so far and his friends are ribbing him because they haven’t had the chance to play yet. You watch him in the mirror as he leans down to take his shot, the pool cue stick gliding gracefully through his hands, and you wonder what it would be like to have his hands glide over your body.

You look as he takes a sip of his beer and notice he’s wearing a black pin-striped suit, with a white shirt and red tie. He’s left the suit jacket hanging over the back of his chair and rolled his shirt sleeves up. You watch as his forearms flex as he handles the cue stick again and you’re glad that he’s rolled up his sleeves tonight. The contrast between his white shirt and tan arms is almost blinding and makes the silver watch on his wrist stand out more. His hair flops around his ears and as he casually flips his head to keep it out of his face you wonder if his hair is as soft as it looks and you realize you want to run your fingers through that mop.

You smile as you remember what occurred the last time you saw him at the bar. You had gotten up to use the ladies’ room and had casually walked past him on the way. The bar was crowded and you took the opportunity to walk a little nearer him on the pretext of getting away from the crowd. Your arms had barely touched and you were close enough to notice his green eyes and he smelled so good. You wanted to crawl up his chest and arms and bury your nose in his neck.

You watch him and think he’s so different from all the other boys you’ve known. Growing up in the outskirts of town, all those boys cared about was getting some ass and who had the bigger car. You could never be bothered with those boys, as you knew you were destined for something greater.  And then it hits you that this guy is not a boy, he’s a man, and you want to know all about him more.

The bartender asks if you’d like another drink and you realize you’ve drank all of your wine without noticing.  You look at her and shake your head no. As the bartender walks away, you look back up into the mirror but the pool table is empty and he’s gone. You sigh and think you might as well call it a night. As much as you’ve enjoyed looking at him the entire night, you’re still a little tired and those comfy clothes and your bed are creeping to the front of your mind. You bend down to grab your purse and, when you stand up, he standing there next to you.

Up close, he’s even more beautiful. His eyes are greener than you saw, and his suit more expensive that you thought.

You think that, in all your 22 years, he’s the most fascinating person you’ve even seen. You swear you can hear your heart stutter when he smiles at you and your mouth goes dry as he leans in. You are mesmerized by his lips when he says, “Are those space pants? Because your ass is out of this world.”

You lean back and frown, wondering if you heard him correctly. He looks at you, smiling, and you notice his voice is kind of high pitched and he has a sort of drawl, nothing like you imagined. In fact, you think it kind of sounds like how your old friends sound when they get high and think everything is hilarious.

He bends nearer and whispers in your ear, “Can I have your picture so I can show Santa what I want for Christmas?”

You cringe and realize that as fascinating as he may seem, you don’t want him whispering in your ear or whispering near any part of your body. You look at him and suddenly you see those same boys you grew up with, just in a pretty package. And you realize that you may have moved to a new place and grown up but those boys are still the same.

You smile sadly at what could have been, pull your purse over your arm, and walk out the door. You can hear your bed calling your name.

CONSTRICTION Daniel Enderle

 

Looking down through the grime of his third floor window to the street, with its closed steel shutters, Hank viewed the few passers-by as a litany of the halt and the lame. It seemed each of them had a hitch in their get-along. He closed one eye and tracked them with the snub barrel of his pistol as they staggered along the block dangling lumpy white plastic bags from their gnarled hands. He knew he was far more likely to shoot himself than any of them. The world was a shabby place and, not for the first time, he gave serious credence to the option of an early exit. He sighed at the thought that, as he was now several years past fifty, it would be, at best, only a relatively early departure. If his life was represented as a single day, he would now be in the late afternoon.

As for this actual day, it was an early Sunday morning in winter and, as he sat by the drafty window next to the warmth of the open oven in the kitchenette of his no bedroom apartment, his thoughts turned from offing himself to the viability this; his only surviving chair. The place had come with two chairs and a Formica-topped table. The other chair had crapped out three weeks earlier as he stood on it to change a lightbulb. That resulted in a broken arm and the loss of his dead-end job. No one had signed his cast. The remains of the broken chair sat in the corner. The burned out bulb remained in the overhead socket. A glass half full of vodka sat on the table and beside it stood the empty bottle.

 

The cheap pistol was a six-shot revolver with just three bullets loaded boy, girl, boy, girl between the empty chambers. Although he’d done it that way to accommodate his need for symmetry, he acknowledged to himself that the arrangement did facilitate the possibility of Russian Roulette.

 

Thinking about shooting himself made him feel as sick as the thought of limping through another day. He wasn’t sure he could do it, but he had done some research. It‘s sort of tricky getting the job done with a small caliber weapon. It turns out that the method indicated by the universal sign language for suicide of a raised thumb with the index finger to the temple is highly problematic and can sometimes result in nothing more than blindness and an even more diminished sense of joie de vivre. Hitler, God bless him, did it right; he took poison and then tucked the muzzle under his chinny chin chin before pulling the trigger and doing some critical damage to his shriveled little cerebral cortex. And, at least, Hitler had gone out with his girlfriend by his side.

 

Hank’s pleasant reverie ended with the intrusion of an entirely novel sound which, at first, he thought might be an auditory hallucination. The doorbell chimed three times. In the 27 months he had lived there he had never heard it before. He didn’t even check it when he moved in. He had never once even thought about it. He put the gun on the table next to the empty vodka bottle and looked above the door to the painted-over gizmo on the wall. He’d have sworn he’d never seen it. It seemed out of character for this flat. It should have been a crummy buzzer instead of a bell. Then it chimed four times.

It’s funny about car horns and door bells. With the horn, you can tell whether it’s just a reminder that the light’s green or if the guy behind you is calling you an inattentive asshole. With the bell, you know whether the person at the door can’t wait to see you or if they’re really hoping you aren’t going to answer. In this case, whoever was pushing that button had big news.

Hank retied the belt on his bathrobe, turned two locks, drew the deadbolt, unhooked the chain, put a foot out as a stop, and opened the door just wide enough to look out into the dim hallway where a he saw a tiny white haired ballerina dressed in a pink leotard, a tutu, and dance slippers. She, also, was entirely unfamiliar to him. She was in motion shifting from foot to foot and rising up on her toes. She rubbed her hands together. You gotta see this! He’s wrapped around my icebox, she shouted.

Who is?

Come on. You’ll see.

She grabbed his big hand with her little one and tugged him towards the stairs. He broke free.

Hold on, he said and stepped back inside for his keys.   He downed the rest of his vodka and took a hard look at the pistol, but left it right there.

When he closed the door behind him she was halfway up the first flight of stairs looking back at him with a fierce grimace. Her teeth were very white. He followed her up past the fourth floor. He watched the muscles ripple in her thighs. He found it erotic and thought, dude, she’s old.

Her door was open and she walked to the center of the single room and stood with one hand on her hip and the other pointing towards her kitchenette.

Wow, your place is just like mine, he said. But there was one key difference; the long wall across from the two windows was all mirrored and a horizontal rail four feet from the floor ran the length of it. There was a child’s old fashioned iron bed, a lamp draped with floral handkerchiefs, and a wingchair with wood armrests carved in the shape of griffins. There was a Formica-topped table with two chairs between a window and the stove. The rest of the space was just the empty hardwood floor except for a small Persian carpet between the bed and the wingchair. The mirror reflected the gray light of the clouds coming in the windows and that temporarily dazzled him so that, at first, he did not see the enormous white snake wrapped around the refrigerator.

It was an older model; smaller than his, with a big chrome lever to open it. On the door was the word “HotPoint.” That seemed odd for a device meant to keep things cold. He knew his mind was working these details to keep him from dealing with the reality of the very big snake coiled around the refrigerator which was boosted at an angle away from the wall. It was a snake. It was real. It was big. And it was wrapped twice around the refrigerator.

She remained pointing at the snake, but she was staring at him.

Is it yours?

Of course not, you imbecile. Why would I have a big fucking snake in this tiny studio? Why would I need your help if I was used to having a big fucking snake choking my icebox?

Well, what do you expect me to do about it?

I don’t know, but you’re a man aren’t you? What else are you good for?

Why did you pick on me, he asked.

Because you were home for Christ’s sake. No one else answered the door.

I kinda wish I hadn’t.

Well, you did. So deal with it. Broken arm or no broken arm, you’re on deck.

We should call the cops, he said.

Fuck the police. I got enough trouble without those bastards barging in here. Do something.

Where did it come from, he asked.

How the hell do I know? From the snake place I guess. Get it the hell off my fucking icebox.

Then what I am supposed to do with it?

First things first, bright boy, she said.

He stepped past her and looked at the snake. Its red eyes were half closed. She’s cold. That’s why she curled around the refrigerator. She likes the heat from the motor.

How do you know so much all of a sudden?

My brother had a snake when we were kids.

What kind of snake?

It was a corn snake.

Was it this big, she asked.

No way. This is an albino python. A big one.

No shit?

Yeah, it takes‘em years to get this big. He rubbed the smooth skin behind the head. She’s a good girl.

How do you know it’s a girl?

I can just tell.

So pull her off my Goddamn icebox.

There’s no way. She’s all muscle. She’s not going anywhere until she warms up.

Well, that ain’t gonna happen until spring. The heat doesn’t make it up here to five.

It doesn’t make up to the third floor either. Let’s turn on the oven. He turned the knob for the oven and the ones for the burners. Do you have a big pot?

What are you going to do? Cook it?

No fill it with water. Put it on low. The steam will help.

Once the water started heating up they stood there looking at the snake. It hadn’t moved and took no notice of them. They continued watching for several minutes until she said, so what do we do now?

I don’t know. This might take a while. Do you have anything to drink?

She didn’t smile, but she did say, that’s the smartest smart thing I’ve heard out of you.

Whaddaya have?

I got some shit for your ass. That’s what I have.

What is it?

Sit down and shut up, she said. She pointed at the wing chair. He sat and she pulled up a rickety wooden chair just like the ones in his place. She set an old fashioned wooden milk crate between them and placed two little crystal glasses on it. His was green and hers was purple. From a kitchen cabinet she produced an oddly shaped brown bottle with an intricate stopper. She filled their glasses to the brim. He could smell the liquor. He looked over at the snake and saw the eyes shift and the tongue flicker twice.

What’s this stuff?

Just drink it. Little sips.

He liked it. Strong, just a little bitter, and a little fizzy.

What is it?

It’s a narcotic.

Really?

Really.

Wow. This is good. My name’s Hank. What’s yours?

Gladys.

He held up his glass and said, Gladys.

She raised hers and said, Hank.

They both raised their eyebrows in salutation and each took another sip. They stopped talking. She kept pouring. Either time passed very quickly or it stopped all together; he couldn’t tell. The windows had steamed over and were now translucent. At one point he remembered to look at the snake and thought she had unclenched. Her eyes were closed.

The ballerina hummed a little song and refilled their glasses. Later, Hank set his glass down and gripped a griffin’s head with his good hand. He closed his eyes for just a moment. When he opened them he found Gladys kneeling right between his sprawled legs. She gripped the waist of his sweat pants and pulled them right under his ass and down to his ankles.

What are you doing? His tongue was too big for his mouth.

I’m going to blow your mind, she said.

You’ve been doing that since I met you.

Shut up, she said. Then she removed her dentures, uppers and lowers, and set them on the milk crate wrapped in a floral handkerchief.

You’re so little, he said.

You’re not so big yourself. Her voice sounded different without the teeth.

She put her mouth on him and it was good. He’d never been gummed before, but it was good.

He thought, dude, she’s so old. Then he didn’t think anything. He lost track of himself. She took her time.

When he came she took up her glass and downed its contents in a gulp and then she laid back on the small Persian carpet with the back of her hand pressed to her mouth and giggled. They both slept.

When he woke, ages later, the windows were still steamed, but the light had changed. He looked up at the ceiling for a long while. Gradually his gaze shifted and he watched the red of a blinking neon sign behind the gauzy reflected frame of window in the mirrored wall. He shifted his eyes again and noticed his own, still seated, reflection. His pants were down. He tried to make eye contact with the figure in the chair and found himself instead distracted by something else he saw in the mirror. On the hardwood floor before him was the image of some weird kind of reverse mermaid. It was backwards. Instead of the top half of a lady he saw only her legs and, instead of a fish, he saw a serpent.

 

                         -30-

 

 

 

 

 

 

RETURN TO SENDER – DAPHNE BELLFLOWER

Evie stared at the front door. The brass doorknob beckoned, inviting her, daring her to touch it. Evie paced the length of the door six times, feet tracing a circle on the scuffed wood floor. She turned suddenly, and grabbed the knob. Her hand burned as she yanked the door open.

Immediately the outdoor noise overwhelmed her; robins screeching, tree leaves grating, the distant roar of a lawn mower. Loud persistent barking. Evie felt the floor tilt sideways and start to spin. Nauseous, she slammed the door shut. She made her way to the sofa and sat down, heart pounding. She grabbed the TV remote and turned it on with shaking hands, making sure to mute the sound.

Evie watched Matt Lauer and his generically beautiful co-hosts silently banter until her heartbeat slowed to the point where she could turn up the sound. She shook her head in disgust as the Today Show’s hosts traded quips with weatherman Al Roker about the series of snowstorms plaguing the east coast. Evie couldn’t stand any of them, but Al Roker irritated her the most.

“We expect blizzard conditions for the next 48 hours,” Roker said, grinning idiotically. “Looks like everybody is going to have to stay inside this weekend.” Evie glared at the TV and switched it off. She went to the kitchen to get another cup of coffee, making sure to walk the length of the living room twice before entering the kitchen. “48 hours, oh no” Evie muttered to herself. “Welcome to my world.”

 

She poured herself another cup of coffee, and opened the door to her pantry. Four bags of Stumptown coffee, specially shipped from Portland, Oregon, sat on the shelf. Evie’s heart began pounding again. She ran to her kitchen computer and ordered six one-pound bags of Hair Bender’s Roast, making sure to check the box for FedEx overnight delivery.

 

Evie returned to the living room with her coffee and stared at the front door. It shimmered like a desert mirage in an old cartoon. She stared at it intently until it stopped sparking and glistening, took a sip of her now cold coffee and walked the length of the living room three times. Evie’s temples throbbed. She turned the hall light on and off seven times and headed to the bathroom to shower.

 

She opened the cabinet beneath the bathroom sink and breathed a sigh of relief when she saw two 12-packs of toilet paper and 19 bars of soap in neat stacks next to the towels. She would be able to shower in peace. Evie showered, dried her hair, and carefully put on her makeup. She rooted through her 27 tubes of lipstick, decided on Chanel’s “Jezebel,” and made a mental note to order eight more lipsticks from Sephora after she got dressed.

 

Evie studied her face in the mirror. She looked good. John used to tell her that no matter how much she pissed him off, no matter how crazy she got, she still turned him on. The thought of John getting angry because of this made Evie smile. Who was he to comment on her mental health?

 

Dressed, made up and feeling less anxious, Evie opened the curtains in her bedroom, the guest room, the breakfast nook, and the living room. She stared out the living room window, looking for the brown truck. Nothing yet. Evie strained to look up and down the street. Still nothing. She checked her watch and saw it was 9:44.

 

Evie peeked into the window at her next door neighbor’s house and faced her daytime nemesis: a small white terrier with the capacity to bark for hours. After the dog’s owners left each morning for work, the terrier expressed its dismay from its perch in front of the window with series of barks that would increase in intensity and frequency. The duration would vary; at times there was complete silence. During these episodes of quiet, Evie prayed the terrier had succumbed to a seizure. But invariably one of the several delivery trucks that serviced Evie would rouse the dog and the barking cycle would begin again.

 

Evie backed away from the window and sat in front of her living room computer. Her left eye throbbed. She checked her work email, found there were no emergencies, and decided to check her personal email for today’s scheduled deliveries. The organic fruit and vegetable box would arrive today, as well as the Office Depot printer ink, the Shiseido sunscreen SPF 50, and two pairs of shoes from Zappos. Evie smiled. Zappos meant UPS, which meant UPS driver Guillermo Ortiz. There was also an email from Evie’s ex-husband John, telling her he was getting remarried. Evie deleted that one.

 

When they first met, Evie thought John was the most fascinating person she had ever known, but after they were married John’s loud voice and terrible table manners began to drive Evie slowly insane. Evie thought it ironic that John blamed her for their divorce when clearly she was the wronged party. How was she expected to listen to him scream day in and day out about his work day, sports, politics, or any other subject he thought interesting while chewing with his mouth open. Evie shuddered, went to the kitchen and counted her spice bottles twice to relax.

 

She wasn’t exactly sorry when John moved out at the beginning of last year. He was always pressuring her to do things she didn’t want to do, like leaving the house or going to a therapist. Besides, if John was still living there and running all the errands Evie never would have noticed Guillermo. She closed her eyes and thought about Guillermo’s broad shoulders and narrow hips perfectly encased in his brown uniform. Even his name, printed neatly on the UPS delivery slips, made Evie happy. She took a deep breath, counted to 59, and opened her eyes.

 

Evie walked to the front door and crossed her arms. The front door pulsed with energy, emitting little zaps of red light. She glared at the door. “I need my mail you bastard,” she said aloud, the sound of her voice startling her. Evie lunged for the door, pulled it open and staggered out to the front entry towards her mailbox. It was drizzling lightly; the mailbox surface was covered with a wet, oily sheen. Evie grabbed frantically at her mail, jammed tightly in the opening. “Fucking postman,” she yelled, slamming the door shut behind her. The terrier started barking.

 

Evie closed the curtains and sorted through her mail, separating bills from the stacks of catalogues sent to her by advertisers alerted to her purchasing habits by online data. She threw the catalogues on her coffee table and reviewed her bills. Mortgage. Late. Electrical bill. Late. Water sewer garbage. Late. Evie sighed, then jumped up and ran to the front window. She took a quick look at the house next door. The terrier was still at the window, barking frantically.

 

Evie looked up and down the street again. No sign yet of the UPS truck. She worried it was Guillermo’s day off. She didn’t know how she would make it through today without seeing him. Evie tried to imagine what his voice would sound like. Maybe it was low and scratchy like Brad Pitt’s. He could have an exotic accent like Antonio Banderas, or make even the most mundane things sound sexy like Brian Williams. She could hardly wait to find out.

 

She looked at her watch. It was 10:02. The morning was flying by and Evie needed to get some work done. She switched on the TV and sat down in front of her living room computer. She logged in to the office server and half-listened as Rosie O’Donnell argued with Whoopi Goldberg about bullying while she edited her latest project, an online manual detailing how to sync Microsoft data with existing IPhone and IPad playlists. This topic was incredibly boring and this group of engineers seemed even more illiterate than usual. Evie decided to concentrate solely on the manual for the next 17 minutes.

 

Evie heard a truck pull up. She jumped up and ran to the window. It was UPS with her new shoes. Her heart began pounding as Guillermo got out of the cab. He walked around to the back of the truck, pulled up the door, and retrieved her Zappos box. Evie swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry. She felt light-headed. She could hardly breathe. Her clothes became too tight, constricting her. The floor tilted and started to spin. Evie fell to the floor and covered her eyes.

 

She heard Guillermo’s footsteps on her entry stairs. He knocked on the front door. Evie counted four sharp raps. There was silence. Evie rolled over and looked at the door. It was vibrating, shaking so hard that the hinges were buzzing. The door knob was bright red, hot and poisonous. She was too dizzy to stand up on her own, so she grabbed the doorknob for support. It burned her hand. Evie screamed.

 

“Ma’am,” she heard from a thousand miles away. “Ma’am, are you all right? Are you there?” Guillermo began pounding on the door. Each knock was like spike to her brain. Evie closed her eyes, covered her ears and screamed again.

 

“Ma’am,” she heard him shout, “Ma’am, if you don’t answer the door, I’m going to have to call the police.”

 

It was too much for Evie. Her head was pounding, the ground was spinning, and her clothes were cutting off her blood flow and air supply. She frantically pulled her t-shirt over her head, wiggled out of her jeans, ripped off her bra and almost had her underwear off before she vomited all over the floor. Guillermo continued yelling and pounding.

 

Evie gathered up her strength, spit the excess vomit out of her mouth, and repeatedly began kicking the front door. It stopped vibrating. Guillermo quit pounding on the door. Evie began taking deep cleansing breaths. She decided that 11 deep breaths would be enough. Evie took one more gulp.

 

“I’m fine,” she said through the door. “I just stepped on some broken glass. But I’m fine now.” She swallowed. “You can just leave the package on the steps. I’ll get it in a minute.” Evie heard Guillermo drop the package and run down the steps. “Thanks,” she yelled at the door. “I’ll be fine.”

 

Evie rolled over. The floor was cold on her naked back. The vomit had a sharp sour smell. She stared up at the ceiling and thought for a few minutes. Guillermo’s voice was high-pitched, a little nasal. She was sort of disappointed.

 

It was quiet now, except for the barking. Evie sighed. At least the FedEx delivery would arrive tomorrow. Evie closed her eyes and started counting the individual barks; one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve…