Monthly Archives: March 2015

Composure–Clark Humphrey

On the day Annabeth was to sign the papers and surrender the keys to her business (including all inventory and furnishings, such as they were), she looked around the tired old boozer one last time.

For six months, she’d worked an insane number of hours and constantly wracked her brain trying, if not to turn the bar’s fortunes around, to at least make it contribute toward her restaurant nest egg. It never did.

In the middle of a thought about what it would have taken to effectively run a place like this, a long burnt-out fluorescent tube inside the beer-bottle cooler suddenly turned itself on. So you’re that happy to be rid of me, she silently said to the otherwise unoccupied room.

The room, she fantasized, might have known she’d wanted to destroy it in its current form. After she realized the bar couldn’t contribute to her restaurant fund, she hoped to run it at a tolerable loss until she could install her dream restaurant in the building. That didn’t work either.

Eventually, she’d realized that to make this establishment work, she would have to become a completely different person, the sort of person who enjoyed being here. She would have to enjoy the company of Bud-sipping old men and Jaeger-swilling young men. She would have to enjoy the sounds of hair metal juke-box selections and bombastic TV sports announcers. She would need to become good at stopping arguments before they became fights.

But she’d known for a long time she could never become somebody else. Not that people didn’t try to change her.

Her ex husband was neither the first nor the last person to attempt, repeatedly, to break her strong yet calm demeanor. Heaven only knows knows how the girls in high school, and to a lesser extent in college, kept letting up situations designed to lead her “out of character.” They seemed to believe she merely pretended to be polite and respectful and proper, as if trying (too hard) to present herself to authority figures as the perfect little princess.

But no matter how much booze they tried to pour down her throat, how many “jokes” they played on her, how many different ways they tried to anger, embarrass, tickle, intoxicate, or arouse her, she remained who and what she had always been.

Not long after the last of those incidents, her then-husband set upon an ongoing campaign to mold her into his ideal wife.

At first, her demeanor attracted him. He liked the way she presented herself in public made him (and, by extension, his oft-shady business ventures) seem a little more classy.

But at home, he had other intentions.

Sometimes, he wanted her to play out scenes he’d seen in pornos. (Such bizarre concepts! Such awkward positions! So little tenderness or compassion!)

Other times, he wanted to remake her into “one of the guys.” He wanted her to come to enjoy, or at least tolerate with a smile, the meetings with shady financiers in shadier settings. The loud, meaningless chit-chat about sports and “action” movies. The ingestion of cheap liquor and who knows what other substances. The men she had to pretend to be “friends” with, with their greasy hair and their huge hands that would try to paw her whenever the husband wasn’t in view.

But through all of these occasions, Annabeth remained who and what she had always been. Her head remained book-on-the-scalp level; her spine remained good-little-girl straight. Her voice remained lilting yet assertive. She spoke in clear, coherent, complete sentences. No matter how often she had to explain herself, she never once betrayed a hint of sarcasm or impatience.

The husband then expressed another vision for what he wanted her to become. He asked her to help bankroll his entrepreneurial projects. He first suggested it in an off-hand remark at the dinner table. She proclaimed that they had agreed at the time of their engagement to keep their respective finances separate; and she did not care to risk the money she was saving to start her restaurant on speculative projects whose full details he had still not revealed to her. He insisted, then and at several subsequent occasions, that she would get her money back and much more; that this was a sure thing; that if she really loved him she would trust him.

He said that on three different days. The second time he said it, she realized she did not trust him. The third time he said it, she realized she did not love him.

From that point it was a matter of waiting for something to happen. It happened when she came home one evening and picked up the the smartphone she’d inadvertently left on the dresser that morning. His big, greasy fingerprints were on it. The email app contained a message from her bank. The message said that someone had repeatedly tried to access her account, and reminded her to regularly change her passwords.

From THAT point it was a matter of letting the attorneys sort it out.

He’d taken on major debts and had few liquid assets. By the time everything was sorted out, the bank got the house and she got one of his more legitimate investments—a controlling interest in a dying beer hall in a dying strip mall.

And now that was going away.

The building’s isolated location had made it a lousy site for a bar. But the same attribute made it a great site for a legal marijuana store. No schools or parks or churches, and very few residences, were anywhere near it.

The check Annabeth would receive this afternoon would pay back most of her operating losses, leaving her no closer to her dream restaurant than than when she’d been married.

She had no more house, no more marriage, and no more business.

But, she thought at she closed the sticky front door for the last time, she still had herself, and always would. Whether she liked it or not.

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Mistress and Servant–Clark Humphrey

The menu’s first page contained a notice claiming that “All of our staff members are fully empowered to meet and exceed your expectations.”

She soon learned, however, that “empowerment” meant different things in different situations.

For her, it usually meant she had to make her own decisions, then to get berated when the owner found out she’d taken matters into her own hands instead of going to ask him what to do.

Alternately, if she did venture into his sacred kitchen space to ask him what to do, he’d shoo her away and tell her to go figure it out herself. This did not prevent him from berating her later.

As a server, then after her promotion to greeter and service manager, she faced one large or small crisis after another.

A server would call in sick, and nobody else was around to cover that shift. The online reservations company the restaurant used would overbook the place; or it would turn people away, mistakenly believing the night’s seatings were sold out.

In all of these situations, she kept her head held high and her voice steady.

This was a high-end ultra gourmet bistro, so she seldom had to deal with the worst of the worst in the clientele department. She faced few clueless tourists or screaming children. Almost never did she face someone trying to pay for a meal with a sequenc of three maxed out cards. Her diners were, for the most part, as courteous and polite as people paying a hundred dollars for dinner should be.

There were exceptions, however.

And this night featured one such table full of exceptions.

Oh they LOOKED all right, or they would if you saw a still photograph of them. Clean-cut, tall young men in “business casual” suits, with perfect hair and perfect teeth and perfect baby blue eyes.

But when they came into the restaurant, they came in screaming. They continued to scream the entire time they were there. They shouted, they cajoled, they high fived, they slapped one another on the back. They exchanged aggressive “jokes” about “whores and bitches” (all of which they uniformly found to be riotously funny).

The server, a short waif-y girl just out of college, approached their table. One of the tall men asked if it was true when the menu said that every staff member was “fully empowered” to meet guests’ every need. When she said yes, they grabbed her by the arm and “joked” about taking her into the alley for “a friendly little gangbang.” They even “offered” to take turns videoing the proceedings with the new cell-phone video app they’d just launched. She jerked her arm away. Two of the tall blue-eyed men joined arms to encircle her. She ran into the kitchen. They remained seated at their table, screeching with laughter.

That left Annabeth to emerge from behind her greeter’s podium, to remind these young gentlemen that they are guests here, paying guests but guests nonetheless, and that they should behave accordingly.

The tallest of these tall boys reached to grab Annabeth’s hand. She deftly withdrew it just in time. With breath reeking of Jåeger shots, he claimed she, and every employee here, really worked for him and his friends. He claimed they knew how to hack Yelp and every other review site, so only their own negative reviews of this place would show up. They said they could take down the restaurant’s website and hijack its social-media accounts, and there’d be nothing she or her boss could do about it.

Annabeth stepped back a single step; just far enough that no one seated at the table could grab her without standing. She stood up straight, alternating eye contact with each of the men. She admitted aloud that lecturing them on decent public behavior would be obviously futile. What she could do, she unhurriedly explained, was to remind them that this establishment was owned by one of the city’s most renowned chefs, and that it supported by investors who included some of the city’s most prominent and well-connected citizens. Some of these, she assured them, held leading roles in the local software industry. These people could ensure that the young men at the table would never work at any major technology firm on the North American continent, or attain the financing for any such firm of their own. Should the young gentlemen at this table do anything other than leave this establishment on their own feet, without incident and without entertaining even the vaguest fantasy of retaliation, they could expect productive futures in such dynamic industries as sanitation, long-haul trucking, or even washing the dishes at great food and beverage establishments similar to this one.

By the time she finished her short lecture, every person in the dining room, guests and servers alike, had stopped what they were doing to listen. Even some of the kitchen crew had come out front to see it.

When she was done, there was a half minute of silence (except for the canned chamber music playing softly on the speakers).

Then, one by one, the young men rose, gathered their coats, and walked out amid the icy glares of everyone in the room except Annabeth. She had returned to her greeter’s station. She deleted the young men’s party from the evening’s reservations list, but not before she looked up, and wrote down on pen and paper, all the contact information for the man who’d placed the reservation. She cleanly tore that sheet of paper from its pad, attached strips of adhesive tape on all four sides, and stuck it to the inside left side of her greeter’s podium.

She looked up as the last of the six men closed the door on his way out, scowling and mumbling under his breath about “cunts, dykes, PC thought police, can’t take a fuckin’ joke….”

The instant the door slammed shut, everyone in the dining room stood and applauded.

The young female server hesitantly re-entered the dining room, darting her eyes every which way. Once assured that her nemeses were out of the place, her hunched shoulders visibly lowered and her facial muscles relaxed. She took one long outward breath, then another. She walked up and hugged Annabeth so hard that Annabeth implored her to let go.

Finally, the chef/owner strode into the dining room, something he seldom did during serving hours. (He’d always privately said, “What’s the point of owning the joint if you can’t do the things you love and have other people do the things you hate?”)

He clomped through the room on his big feet, approaching Annabeth.

“The guys just told me what you just did. I’d have done it all different. And I’d have gotten it all wrong. I’d have gotten angry. I’d have yelled back at those clowns and it would have made everything worse.”

From that point on, the chef/owner actually listened to Annabeth’s suggestions and complaints. He gave her the staff and budget she said she needed to keep the place running properly. And he inflated her job title from “service lead” to “director of dining room operations.”

Only once did they again talk about that night. They did it just as they were preparing for the public radio interview promoting their newer establishment. During the sound check, she asked him if there was any tech money behind his operations. He said there was this one minor investor whose ex-husband had retired from Microsoft, “oh, back in the days of Mirosoft Bob or something like that.”

Returns and Departures – Tom Gaffney

“Go ahead, give it a try.  Just know it will be trying, potentially more upsetting than helpful.”

They had been camping since they left Glacier.  At first she had been so disconsolate she did not care to mark time’s passage.  Roger and Manny had both been apologetic for their return, but said it was hopeless: they had to come back for her.

There had been a few weeks after her return from the pier.  She had been frightened her first night back by the sound of an old VW heading east on 542.  The sound of that old van frightened her.  But it had not been that night.  Time passed, blessedly normal.  Deep down though, she knew that the stuff in her pocket was not good news and sooner or later someone was going to come looking for her.

The past encounters had been similar to that afternoon in their dream like strangeness.  To whatever degree she could say she had gotten used to things, she guessed she had.  The way you get used to some vivid nightmares, but instead of waking up in a cold sweat you return as if from a daydream with your friends looking at you in a concerned way, asking if you are alright.  But she had never come home with remembrances in her pocket.

This trip was different, and Roger let her know right way.

She had a day off and had gone for a hike.  Mid-week, nobody else out at the butte.  It had been a beautiful day and the sunshine and effort on a long familiar trail, all beneath the grandeur of Baker and Shuksan, peeling away the fatigue that had dogged her since the encounter with Svetlana and George and the pelicans.

She was definitely paying more attention to the birds since the pier.

The trailhead lot had been quiet on her return.  Whether she knew what was waiting she had savored that afternoon.  At least she had that.

She was getting changed at her car, having a drink when she first heard the sound of the van as it labored up the last of the switchbacks.  She was even able to look down the slope into the valley and watch as the van climbed the hill to her.

They pulled up, no false smiles, but a faint note of welcome, or mere relief.

“Lucille, I am sorry to do this to you.  Normally I would not bore you with such pleasantry as I once again disrupt your life.  This really is unprecedented in my experience, which I assure you, is considerably more humble than you might think.”

“Sure Roger, sure. Whatever.”

“I am afraid that knowing more about what is going on will not help you, will only draw you in more deeply.  I must ask though,” a look of fear in Roger’s eye, “did you hold on to everything Svetlana put in your pocket that afternoon?”

“Somehow, I knew we were not finished,” she said, weary words floating away from her, “it is not everyday someone sends you home with a finger and a ring.”

“Was there anything else?” some of his tension dissipating.

“A napkin with some kind of code, a kind of signature from Svetlana, a lipstick smear, and a piece of fried clam.”

“Fried clam?”

“I saved that too.”

“Fried clam,” said Manny.   “Reminds me Roger – nearly time to eat.”

Roger squinted, nearly smiled, and added “Manny, if things weren’t so fucking bad already I would beat the shit out of you.”

“Good luck with that Roger Dodger.  I have no fear.  Whatever happens, I wager it will be better with a full belly.”

The van was crammed with camping gear.  They stopped by her apartment, parked her car and took some clothes.

“Do you want to leave a note for Dave?”

“What do you know about Dave?  Every other time I left, time here seemed to stand still.  What is going on?” Lucille asked.

“As I said, I have never seen this before.  Aside from affecting our memories no tangible physical items had crossed from that perspective to this perspective in my experience.  And time, at least as far as I and Manny can see it, has seemed a bit different for us since that afternoon.”

“It was a trip man. “ Manny chimed in.  “George and his pals, some scary stuff.”

“So, my departure is going to be obvious to Dave?”

“I fear it will.  And I do not take this impact lightly.  According to what I have learned this is to be avoided.  But something strange, even by our standards, is going down.  Now, I am scared, I must admit.  But trying to hide from this would be a mistake near as I can tell.  A capitulation if you will. I think most of these, characters, are pretty ambivalent to us, only interacting when they can and when they see it as necessary.”

“But you saw George, talk about a bad,” she spluttered, “aura.”

She left a note for Dave.  She left with the two of them.  Her life was hers, and no matter how she felt about it sometimes, having it stripped away was raw and painful.  The loneliness was immediately intense, numbing with sudden stabs of great anguish.

“Two more days, we meet, near as I can tell.” said Roger.

“With who?”

“Svetlana, or one of her, um, messengers.”

She tried to call Dave from a payphone at a rest area on I-5.  The first time he hung up.  She lost her change.  Manny had some quarters for her in the ashtray, so she headed right back.  He picked up again, on her fourth try.

“Why do you keep calling me?” Dave yelled into the phone.

“Dave, Dave, it’s me,” she nearly sobbed into the phone.

“Listen, I know the IRS is not coming for me you scammer.  There is no lien on my property.  There are no unpaid taxes.”

“Dave, its Lucille.”

“Now fuck off, stop calling me.”

The line went dead.  So, she could get through to Dave, but only as some kind of spam caller.  Oh the wonder of it all. What did it matter?  She was cut off.  She just wanted to be home on some boring evening, a quiet night talking, watching a movie.  But the only way she could get to him, he thought she was a spam caller.

“Well?” asked Roger.

“You were right.  It was a waste. Worse than a waste.”

Back into the van, they were soon immersed in the routinely terrible afternoon traffic that began north of the city line.  The anxiety of the group was palpable and the crawling traffic and the drone of the radio were no comfort.

You know, being off from work has not been half bad, Fred thought.  Been a good opportunity to tune up the resume.  I need to get out of there.  The place is stagnant, pay is good.  He found it hard to believe he was saying it, but the culture there was terrible.  Really kind of soul crushing, a depiction of an office from decades gone by.

The arm was in a sling, but the headaches had finally stopped.  The EMTs and the Orthopd were amazed it was nothing worse.

“You are a lucky man,” said the doctor.

It was a beautiful spring afternoon.  Ethel had pointed out it was a shame he could not use his time off more industriously in their pea patch or on any other number of projects.  What are you going to do?

Their patch was in the greenway under the power lines on Beacon Hill.  He had arranged with Connie to have her drop Clara there after school.

The patch was in need of some attention – no surprise there.  Plenty of weeds.  There was a new nest of crows in the trees adjacent to the pea patch.  They seemed a bit annoyed with Fred, but more so with some raptor – a hawk or an osprey – that was taking an interest in the location.

Connie dropped Clara off, exchanging pleasantries through the passenger window before heading off.

“Well bean, how was the day?”

“Fine. Nothing too exciting.  Testing this week – no homework.  What’s up with those birds?”

The crows were making a big noise, and chasing the bird of prey as it circled lazily, hovering high above the patch and the power lines.

“They are noisy.  What a racket.”

They were watching the birds, not noticing the van as it pulled up.  It was on them before Fred even looked up.

Manny had his window rolled down, “hey Fred, how’re you doin’ old boy.  Last I saw you; you were face down on the pavement.  You ain’t looking too bad, for you.”

Fred moved himself between Clara and the van, stunned first, then finding his anger.  The details of his accident and running into these two before and during it were vivid.  The connection was apparent to him.

“Hey – I remember you well enough now.  Seems like when you two show up it’s not going to be good.  Whatever issue you have with me . . . “

“Don’t worry dad, Fred,” said Clara, a distant look, a high cloud crossing her face, “I’ve known Manny for a long time. How are you Mister Manny?”

Roger had climbed out of the van and was walking around the front.

“Manny, what’s going on?  How does . . .”

He was cut off – a sizzle, the sound of an electric discharge.  The body of a large bird fell to the ground, some feathers following it, slowly descending.

The group of crows had swollen to quite a group now, Lucille might have said hundreds, but who knew.   They hovered over the group, their noise deafening.

“Old Manny,” Clara continued, smiling “where there’s trouble he’s sure to be found.  Good to see you old friend.”

The crows screamed and brewed in the late spring afternoon.  The sun watched, a silent and distant witness, as this patch of earth resolutely and with practiced pace turned its back to another day.

Card Game – Tom Gaffney

“It isn’t that this bores me my dearest  . . . um, what is your name again?”

“Lucille. My name is Lucille.” By my count that is the third time you have heard my name.

“Lucille,” she smiled, fluttered her eyebrows, stared fixedly at Lucille, “I regret, the, ah, scale of our situation prevents me from being confident that I know what is going on.”

“You’re having a hard time paying attention?”

“In a sense, yes.  Not because you or this game is unimportant to me, but I am forced into a rather constricted situation to even know, be aware, and be able to participate.” She adjusted her ample bosom as she said this.

“So, participation is important.”

“Sure,” she laughed.  Laughed harder when she picked up her cards.  “Oh, Lucille I really have had wonderful cards since you arrived.”

Lucille sat playing cards, euchre to be exact, with four characters: the Diva and George, and two fellows who had gone unintroduced, who had said nothing except “hearts, pick up the hearts,” in unison, no less.  When Lucille had first arrived on this scow they had seemed to be one person.

It turned out they were two small people, one sitting on the other’s shoulder.  Actually, they were one sort of medium sized person and one small person who amounted to one slightly above average sized person when seated with their backs to you and covered by a cloak.  Coming to the table and seeing them from the front it seemed a laughable ruse.

The Diva and George thanked me when I said I did not mind if they played as one person.  They worked together well, using an actual hand each to hold their cards.  They said almost nothing but would look and stare longingly at the player whose turn it was.

“Euchre is a silly game, simple,” George muttered.

“And harder to cheat at.”

“Isn’t signaling your partner cheating?” Lucille asked.

“Of course it is, lovely Lucille,” smiled George, rancidly.  His smile was crooked and an eyebrow was raised.  The smile was disturbing due to several missing teeth and one especially sharp (sharpened?) incisor that had a diamond embedded.

“Of course signaling is frowned upon, most greatly,” added the diva.

“I was wondering.  It must have been an accident then when you tapped the toes of Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum over here just before they bid.”

“Am I Dum or Dee?” the short one asked.

Lucille heard a voice in her head, silent to the others judging by the lack of reaction.  She looked over to where Roger and Manny were: Roger was prone, appeared to be sleeping.  Manny had produced some fishing line and was patiently fishing by hand off the edge of the rootless pier.

“That’s just it Lucille: Svetlana knows George wants something from her.  And she is unsure of whether she is better off winning or losing this game.  The fellow who previously occupied your seat, the reverend, had been sucking up to her ladyship just before he went swimming.  The commentary by the pelicans definitively sealed the question of whether or not he was an impartial participant”.

“Then what should I be doing?”

“Playing euchre, I think.  I’m not sure.  What else do you think I can say?” Roger’s voice echoed in her head.  “Svetlana is capricious and temperamental, but not all that mean.  George though, you do not want to find yourself alone with him, ever.”

“Svetlana is cheating though, and I am playing against her.  And she is cheating in a painfully obvious manner.  One of my aunts would have hit her with a beer bottle by now.  That’s not the way you play euchre.”

“I know that much as well.  And not much more.  Your objective here (aside from maintaining general corporeal unity) is to be cultivating some kind of rapport with Svetlana, keeping George at bay, and keeping Dum and Dee from splitting again.  If we have four of them there will definitely be trouble.”

“What, they used to be one?”

“Watch Dee, he’ll be full sized before two more hands have elapsed.”

This exchange, this internal dialogue with Roger, took place in the same moment that Svetlana leveled a withering glare at Lucille.

George leaned back on his stool, right hand idly rubbing the hilt of a big knife on his belt and then on to his ample and even bigger belly.  He closed his cards with his left hand while admiring the ring on his left pinky.

Smiling, he said, “Lucille, I have only had the pleasure of knowing you but a few moments.  And you are my partner, but if you hope to depart this table, eventually, in your current association, I suggest you take care in the accusations you level.”

“Shut up George.  My dear, Lucille – see I can remember, I am not entirely insensitive to your identity.  I am afraid my exuberance at returning to the game, the thrill off the competition, caused me to behave quite poorly.  I must say I appreciate your courage in speaking up in such an environment.  Despite the setting, I really do hope we can play some cards.”

Manny’s voice in her head this time.  “That’s why we brought her along.  Remember the last time you said something to Svetlana . . . “

“Shut up Manny – no extra information.”

Svetlana did really seem pleased by Lucille’s questions.  Likewise, George glowered. Dum and Dee barely seemed cognizant.

Svetlana suggested they re-start the game after some food.  A reset if you will, amongst friends.  Without pause, she clapped her hands and Roger and Manny came over with place settings and an assortment of piping hot deep fried foods: vegetables, fries, and clams.  Yes, clams.  And goblets of wine.

Lucille feared that her acceptance of this: suddenly fresh cooked food appearing on the pier in the middle of the ocean – close to the coast if you believed Roger – let alone the rest of this nightmare situation, complete with Roger and Manny talking in her head, was a sign that she had lost any grip on reality at all.

“What would appear strange at this point?” Lucille found herself wondering.

She tried one of the fried clams, intrigued by the most ridiculous thing on the table.  The twins consumed the lion’s share of the food at great pace.  Svetlana enjoyed some healthy portions as well.  George tossed back his wine.

“No wine for you Lucille?”  Do you mind?”

As George took her wine glass his hand, and its pinky ring, lingered for a moment on hers.

“We could make beautiful music together you know that – don’t you?”

Lucille was looking right at him, realized his voice too was in her head. She felt as though she was paralyzed, and then, though George’s face was still, she could feel his leering lascivious presence in her head.

“I look forward to when we can spend some quality time together, alone.”

Svetlana, taking care not to touch Lucille – that much she could notice, wrapped her hand around George’s wrist, and moved it out of contact with Lucille’s hand.  Her face was now stern and commanding, “enough!” she said, “let’s finish this.”

The game was renewed and now progressed at a pace Lucille would have recognized in her auntie’s kitchen.  The banter was lighter, though Dee and Dum were mumbling to themselves.  Dee, either through time or fried food was now the same size as Dum.

The game seemed above board too.  No sleight of hand.  No signals.

Now, euchre can be confusing, to most anyone.  Many an argument has ensued from an innocent mistake.  George and Lucille had the advantage.  On George’s deal it was Svetlana’s turn to bid.  She sighed and passed.

“Nothing,” she said, “nothing, I have nothing.”

It was on to Lucille.  Just then she felt George’s toe, for the briefest of moments, and the hissing of “pass” in her head.

But Lucille had a good hand.  A hand that would finish this game with these unseasoned euchre playing abominations.

Svetlana’s foot lashed out, kicking George’s leg away from Lucille’s.  With amazing speed she grabbed George’s left hand, reached across him and tore the knife from George’s belt. Then she raised it above George.

“You wouldn’t dare,” he almost spit at her.

“I would,” answered Svetlana.

She brought the knife down, severing George’s left pinky with two, maybe three cuts.  The sound was gruesome and George’s utterances were understandably pained, profane and menacing.

“I think you should prepare to swim for it Lucille.”  This was Roger speaking out loud now.  A full melee was erupting.  Dum and Dee now appeared to be three and they were moving with George towards Svetlana.

“Lucille dear, thank you for joining us today.”  Svetlana found a moment for the smallest of embraces.

“Go, now, Lucille,” urgency in Roger’s voice.  “Go.”

Her importance to the group had subsided.  She watched as Manny reluctantly put down his fishing gear so as to join the melee.  Svetlana might have been dressed for the opera, but she seemed more than capable in a brawl.

Lucille shrugged.  This time she had to trust Roger.  Time to get wet again.

In that split second in the air above the water she noticed the pelicans hovering above the pier.  It made no sense, but she thought she heard them saying goodbye.  Keeping with the incongruous environment, the water was at first shocking, then almost warm and comfortable.  The last thing she noticed was the kelp rubbing on her legs.

Later, she was in the Chandelier, her visit to the pier a distant almost untestable memory.  A dead evening.  She would stay until ten, but the kitchen was already closed.  She was tired, had grown more so from the middle of the shift on.  She needed some fresh air if she was going to stay awake.

“I can’t wait to go home and sleep.”

She shrugged into her jacket, and went to sit on the porch and get some fresh air.  The night was spring chilly. The Baker highway was quiet, still for the moment.  Soon the rains will be here and the ski area will shut.  April and May are quiet months for Glacier.

She watched the stars, and could hear the rumbling of an old van in the distance approaching town.  So quiet, but the hairs on her neck stood up.  It was then she noticed something in her pocket:  wrapped in a napkin – a finger with a ring.  Numbers scrawled on the napkin.  A lipstick smear.  And a piece of fried clam.

After the sequence of numbers, a signature: “with love, Svetlana.”

Adrift – by Tom Gaffney

Climbing out of the water on to a boat should be easier.  Lucille managed to brace herself with her feet on the wooden beam that ran near the water line.  Roger held on, and then Manny grabbed an arm too and hauled her up on to the deck.

As she came to rest she began shivering immediately.  Manny draped her with a fetid but welcome shipping blanket.

“No need to tell me you are happy to see me,” said Roger, smiling.  “Just look at this beautiful spot.  I knew you needed a vacation.”

Experience with Roger had taught her she could get some situational information but little to no meaningful background.  Admittedly, and after many encounters, the relationships currently at play were confounding.  There was always the shock, and then the hope that it would not happen again.  But that hope was smaller now, something she had come to see as burdens: hope and memories.

The last she remembered was she had been tending bar at the Chandelier.  Not quite shoulder season, but getting there.  Then bam . . . here I am.   Like a lightning strike.

The view was astounding on many levels.  From beneath her blanket, over several arcs, she took in the full circle view.  No land in sight.  The water had seemed quite rough while she was swimming in it, but from up here, on whatever you call this floating platform, she could see the waves were not so big once your perspective shifted.  She was accompanied on this strange vessel by Roger, his foil, Manny, and on the opposite corner, sitting in a group of four, playing cards was a rather buxom woman and three men.

“Well, my dear, if you wanted to see me, why didn’t you just drop in?” Lucille asked.

“I would have if I had known where you were.  You left your beloved Olympia and I had no patience to look for a forwarding address.  You weren’t thinking of losing me were you?”

“That dream fell asleep quite a while ago. I try not to hope for it. Just hope that I have moved past my usefulness. No, Roger, I am just trying to live a life.”

“Lucille – you are like a utility tool.  So often you come in handy. Now, when your blade is dull, maybe then our affair will be closed.  But you are still sharp.”

“I feel the warmth. Well – do I get some info on what we’re up to?  Whose day you wrecked in order to fetch me?  Just where on earth we are?  Who you are?”

“Nice.  No need to worry.  We didn’t have the time to hunt you down; we did know where some of your old connections could be located.”

“Have to ask, pretend normal rules apply.  Orienting myself.  One of the reasons I’m here, you must recall, my ability to communicate.”

“So true.  You find yourself this afternoon outside, you may trust, your normal temporal arrangement, floating on a little piece of Japan.  You are on a pier, released by last year’s earthquake, meandering toward the coast of Oregon. “

“No shit. Really. Interesting.”

“In your reality: yes, shit.  In your time, last year really, this thing was pulled from its moorings by the tsunami that hit Japan.  It will be landing in Oregon, near Newport actually, in the next six weeks or so. And Fred – do you remember Fred?”

“Fred?  Oh no.”

“He will be fine.  A concussion, a broken arm.  That guy did not even remember me.  Silly human consortium, quite a water bag.”

“Pelvis fracture too, I bet,” added Manny.  “His bike though – that’s a write off.  Going down the hill just a bit too fast. Did his job.  Too bad about the bike, it was a nice one.”

“I’m sure,” Lucille responded.  Poor bastard.  She had not actually seen Fred in years.  Had only met him once.  He had been there that first afternoon that seemed much further away than it should for a woman of thirty.  Whatever. Now she sat in this strange situation, pleased to be warming up.

Things could be far worse she tried to tell herself. For long stretches of time she lived a normal life.  Spent a lot of time in the woods, boyfriend, plenty of friends and family.  She loved where she lived, spent a lot of time outside and having fun.  Even made her living that way sometimes.

But then, there would be Roger, and Manny.  That ugly ass old van.  Or this.

How was your shift at the Chandelier today honey?  Alright.  Pretty good tips.  Pretty normal, if you look past being whisked away in the middle of the shift – just pulled right out.  Time paused.  And taken to a pier – a fucking pier – are you kidding me – that may as well be in the middle of the ocean because I can’t see any land.

Now, none of these events has ever been debasing.  I haven’t been sexually or physically assaulted. Yet.  Not even humiliated, just big heaps of confusion, menace, and omens. Though the menace is generally of a much more psychic rather than physical nature.  Just weird more than anything.  When I am with these two the memories of interacting with them are very clear and distinct: what has happened in the past, my real life.  I still call it real.  Insist on it.

She laughs.  Just trying to convince myself I am still sane.

She looks up to what ought to be a beautiful sight.  A group of brown pelicans feeding.  Taking turns diving, then just coasting in the breeze.  Not worried about the pier and its inhabitants, just floating in the breeze, following the seasons.

When I go back, the memories of here – whatever here is, will be quite indistinct.  Like the memory of a dream, but it persists and never gets all that vivid.  It persists, does not fully fade.

Fortunately, I guess, it can happen at any time.  Meaning, it imbues all of my life, but it doesn’t make me terrified to go to sleep, hasn’t left me with PTSD. These abductions are tied to some events from long ago (long ago to me).  Fred and the others – I never see them.  Never really knew them that well.  But somehow my life and there’s and the world of Roger and Manny and the freaks that populate that world got entangled.

Something about how I can know what direction I am going in, or where I am located, but never both.   Try talking about that with someone at home.

Raised voices from the card game.  Jesus Christ, a card game on this fucking pier.

“Be ready Lucille, I think you might be up soon.”

“Up, up for what? Don’t I get a packet, a briefing, a tape that explodes in 30 seconds?  Just what the fuck do you want me to do?”

“Lower your voice. Watch. Listen.”

“Look at them over there.  Things are getting a little heated.”

There was some disagreement at the card game.  The lone female participant, who looked like she was dressed for a night out, her hair done up and lots of make-up, was getting in the face of a dude all dressed up like a country western singer.  Fancy collar on his shirt, some kind of dressy cowboy jacket: a man mostly in black.

“That woman looks kind of regal.”

“Big, you mean.  I believe in your realm she would be called a diva.  I wouldn’t fuck with her if I was George.”

“George – the gambler she is arguing with. “

“Got it, I guess.”

The breeze shifted a little, and so did the pier, and just like that the pelicans were directly over the pier.

Then some spatter near the card players.

“Looks like the pelicans just shat on that game.”

The card players jumped up, cards dropped to the table, and then blown into the water.

“I knew it,” the diva said. “You sir are a cheat.”

She turned towards a fellow Lucille was really getting her first look at.  He seemed to be rather advanced in age.  Wearing a priest’s collar.  His face seemed to be consumed at once by a deathly gray pallor and a look of deep terror.  His coat was spattered with pelican shit.

“You know, the pelican shit never lies,” said George.

The priest opened his mouth, to protest, Lucille was sure.  But the pier dipped and he was gone.  A small splash but no other sound.  Gone.

“Roger,” the diva called.  “Clean up this table.  And get my friend George here a new partner.”

“Lucille,” Roger said, “you’re up. “

Manny smiled, gave her a light punch on the shoulder.

“Good luck Lucille.”

Unbuilding Empires—Clark Humphrey

Several months after her intervention with Lauralee, Reenie found herself again driving past the forlorn intersection along the forlorn arterial road just off of the main highway, in between the old gravel pit and the new Buddhist temple.

The 7-Eleven was still there. Kitty corner from that, the independent deli-mart that had been going in and out of business as long as Reenie remembered seemed to be about to reopen as a Halal meat market; or perhaps it had already re-opened and re-closed. From across the street in the dark, she couldn’t tell for sure.

But at the intersection’s northwest corner, at the site of so many of Reenie’s past triumphs and tragedies, of the men picked up and tossed aside (before, during, and after her marriage), of the pseudo-profound ruminations about the state of our lousy society, something was missing.

Where the Empire Tavern and Sports Bar had been, there were a vacant parking lot and a darkened vacant building. In place of all the Budweiser and Seahawks signs, a large single painted banner promised a legal pot store at the site coming in the fall.

Reenie continued to drive out to her meeting, which she suspected would go off about as usual. On the drive, she heard a bit of a public-radio interview with a man who was billed as the city’s next up and coming celebrity chef. He talked about how everything in his life had prepared him for this step. He’d toiled in other chefs’ kitchens, trying to work his way up to the top; a haphazard journey, considering the often short lives and abrupt ends of some of these ventures. He’d finally become the protege to one of the town’s top 20 chefs; then he made it to the top spot when his boss and mentor took an offer in Palm Springs. Now he was leaving that kitchen to open his own.

The man explained to the whispery female interviewer that this was the only way you broke into the high-end restaurant trade these days, and that there was no substitute for learning the entire scope of kitchen work through rigorous experience.

Reenie immediately thought of Annabeth, the strangely proud and high-toned woman who’d owned the Empire Tavern the final time Reenie had been within it.

During her time working the Steps and sponsoring other women who were working them, Reenie had become quite the amateur expert on self-delusions, hers and other people’s. Now, she thought of Annabeth, of her rigid posture and her almost Victorian tone of voice. Could such a figure ever be happy working for someone else?

Reenie envisioned Annabeth as a lowly kitchen apprentice, slicing up fresh veggies and chopping up soup meat during some endless evening shift. Not gently imparting instructions to those beneath her, but instead having orders rudely barked at her by three different bosses, who each wanted everything done five minutes ago and who each demand Annabeth’s total attention and submission. The pre-dinner prep hours would segue, with many important tasks yet unfinished, into the serving hours. Annabeth would still be simmering soups and preparing desserts by the time the orders flooded in. Through nothing less than superhuman endurance, she would finish every task given her, always accurately and usually on time.

For the first few weeks, Reenie imagined, Annabeth would survive. She would believe herself to be better than her situation. She would take whatever came her way with stoic determination. She wound hang up her apron at the end of a shift with a satisfied grin.

But as the weeks and months wore on, Annabeth would likely wear out.

Reenie envisioned a time, perhaps three months into the job. A particularly slammed evening. For some reason, every upper-crust couple in town has decided to have dinner out this night. And most of them have come to this particular bistro. And also, Reenie imagined, there would have been problems. The kitchen ceiling might have had a big drip right through a fluorescent light fixture; or the garbage disposal sink might have been backed up; or the store room might have been infested by moths. Oh, and a health inspector might have shown up earlier in the day and demanded that some filthy kitchen surfaces be cleaned up ASAP.

That evening, Reenie iagined, would be Annabeth’s version of the “death level” in one of Reenie’s daughter’s old video games. It would be the biggest, toughest, most unrelenting, impossible ordeal. It would break the poor girl. Either she would run out of the restaurant’s front door one hour before closing time, or she would curl up and hide in a corner of the walk-in cooler (which wouldn’t relieve her profound sweating), or she would somehow finish her shift but then shuffle out the back door glassy-eyed and speechless, like an extra from The Walking Dead.

Reenie then assured herself that she was not passing judgment on Annabeth’s abilities or on her value as a person. No, Reenie was simply being realistic, something she feared Annabeth might never do until it was too late, the poor thing. Reenie sighed. She asked herself out loud (she’d always said when you’re driving alone there’s nobody to call you crazy when you talk to yourself, and even advised such activity to people she talked to at the meetings) why there weren’t 12 Step meetings for more non-chemical kinds of addictions. One of them could be Deluded Entrepreneurs Anonymous.

The sound of her own voice was interrupted by another voice, coming from the public-radio station. It was a voice she’d only heard once before, but memorably so.

As part of the same program segment, Annabeth was discussing her role as the director of dining room operations or some other high falutin’ job title at the celebrity chef’s new restaurant. With a voice that could have easily gotten her cast as the dowager matriarch on that PBS drawing-room serial, Annabeth calmly and assuredly told the breathy interviewer that the chef created the spectacular food, but that every other aspect of the diner’s experience was her responsibility, from the decor and room ambience to the place settings to the wait service. She added that she hoped she could execute a “presentation” whose quality would equal that of the meals themselves.

With surprised frustration, Reenie shouted “The Little Shitter Went and Done It! SHIT!” at the top of her lungs, almost missing a red light in the process.

Then she reminded herself of something else she told the women at her meetings: In your car, with the radio on, no one can hear you scream.

Hook, Line, and Sinker – by Shanna

Claire sat at the bar, absentmindedly twirling the straw in her drink. She wasn’t quite sure what it was she was drinking; all she could tell was that it was pink and the bartender had whipped it up for her when she had asked for something fruity flavored. Claire had almost expected a little umbrella to be hanging from the rim when the bartender placed it in front of her. But it tasted good and sweet so Claire didn’t mind so much, especially since she was on her third drink.

The ice in her glass clinked together as she swirled and she contemplated asking the bartender for another round. Claire didn’t know how people could drink gin or whiskey – those drinks were always too sour for her. Claire needed something sweet to wash out the bitterness that always seemed to be at the tip of her tongue. But the bartender was at the other end of the bar for the moment so Claire sat and twirled her straw in her watered-down drink and traced the condensation ring left by her glass on the bar as she wondered how she had gotten to this place.

Claire had never been to this bar before, but the lights called to her as she was walking past and the glimpse she caught through the window looked promising. After sitting down at the bar, Claire realized she was a bit hungry however, not being familiar with the menu, Claire opted not to order anything to eat. She was allergic to many foods and she couldn’t always trust that items were not cross contaminated.

“That’s why I prefer alcohol,” she thought. “I know I’m not allergic and there’s hardly no way for other foods to get in contact with it.” Luckily Claire was not allergic to any fruit (that she knew of), so she was still able to drink her fruity concoctions.

The bar was fairly empty that night, which accounted for why there was only one bartender working. The bartender was an older man with a kind face, the kind of bartender Claire liked. He didn’t say much and made the drinks strong. Claire hated it when bartenders insisted on asking questions and knowing her business – they all seemed to want to play therapist. She already had a therapist, a good one, one that she paid a lot of money to. Claire didn’t need a bartender to solve her problems, she needed a bartender to serve what she ordered, even if she did order fruity drinks.

That was another thing. Claire didn’t understand why so many waiters and bartenders seemed to be alcohol snobs and disapproved of her drinks. Who cared if she drank her alcohol with fruit juice instead of Red Bull or Diet Coke or straight up? The end result was always the same.

Claire leaned on her hand and glanced around the bar. There were a few groups and couples sitting at the tables scattered throughout the floor, and her attention was caught by the two guys sitting on the opposite side of the bar. Claire had noticed them as soon as she walked in and had been watching them the entire night.

Claire thought at first that they were colleagues, having a drink together after a long day at work, but now she couldn’t tell what they were. She had been eavesdropping on their conversation since she sat down. Their topics had ranged from work, “You can’t let Mark get away with claiming your idea as his,” to the state of transportation, “It doesn’t matter where you live, the train is always delayed,” and now shopping.

“What outlet stores did you go to?” asked the guy on the left.

“Tulalip,” his companion replied, taking a sip of his beer. Claire smiled and laughed to herself. It must have been his first time to Tulalip as he had mispronounced the ‘a’ sound in Tulalip to sound like the ‘a’ in cat.

Claire studied the duo. The guy on the left was handsome with thick dark brown hair. Not knowing their names, Claire had dubbed him “Brownie” in her mind. His friend appeared to be a little shorter, with lighter colored hair, and just as good-looking. The two sat close to one another and had a sense of familiarity between them that Claire thought they might be on a date.

“And you were there for how long?” Brownie asked.

“6 ½ hours.”

Brownie appeared to choke on his drink and he slammed his beer down on the bar. “Craig!” he exclaimed. “What were you doing for 6 ½ hours?”

“I don’t know,” said the aforementioned Craig. “I guess I went in some shops.”

Brownie stared at Craig. “What shops did you go to?”

“I can’t remember,” Craig shrugged and mumbled into his beer.

Brownie turned more fully to Craig, as if to give him all of his attention. “You were at the outlet mall for 6 ½ hours and you can’t remember what stores you went in?”

Craig thought for a moment and then shrugged again. “I don’t know – maybe Nike?”

Claire thought this conversation might be the strangest one she’s heard in a long time. Were these guys arguing about an outlet mall?

“Well, what did you buy?”

Claire leaned a little closer to hear the answer. From her own experience and knowing that she could only shop for a couple of hours before the tediousness set in, she, too, was curious to hear what Craig had bought after spending hours at the stores.

“Nothing.” Craig seemed to whisper.

“Wait, so you went to the outlet mall for 6 ½ hours, you can’t remember what stores you went in, and you didn’t buy anything?” Brownie’s voice was skeptical and Claire found herself nodding along.

“Well, it was a big place. There were a lot of stores and a lot of things to choose from. I couldn’t make up my mind.”

Claire clamped her lips together to keep the laugh from tumbling out. She could feel someone looking at her and glanced up to see Brownie staring at her, also struggling not to laugh. Claire met his gaze and the sides of her mouth twitched up. She watched his eyes as they scanned her face and drifted down towards her cleavage. “Definitely not gay,” she thought.

“I can’t believe you.” Brownie said, turning back to Craig and shaking his head. “I think it’s time for you to go home and go to sleep.”

Claire watched as the two men got up from their seats. As Brownie clasped Craig on the back as he steered him towards the door, she contemplated leaving as well. Now that there was no one left in the bar to pay attention to, Claire figured there wasn’t any point in staying. She picked up her drink, still sans an umbrella, and grasped the straw between her lips. She had just slurped up the last dregs of her fruity cocktail when she realized someone was standing next to her.

Looking to the side, she saw Brownie leaning against the bar next to where Claire was sitting. She hurriedly set her glass down, sat up a little straighter and smoothed down her skirt.

“Sorry if our conversation was a little loud,” he said. “I’m Joe.”

He smelled fresh, almost like the smell of cut grass, and for a moment Claire was reminded of her childhood, of those lazy weekend days playing outside with the neighborhood kids, when they would ride bikes until the sun went down and the lights came on and the mothers called their children inside to eat. But that was a long time ago, Claire thought as she looked up at Joe, and she didn’t know where that thought had come from considering she hadn’t been a child in many years.

“No, you were fine,” Claire said. “I was actually enjoying hearing about all the stores at the outlet mall.”

Joe laughed and signaled the bartender over. “Sometimes I don’t know how that guy gets through life. But he’s been my friend for years so…” Joe shrugged.

“I have a friend like that too,” said Claire. “I know what you mean.”

“So, what are you doing, alone in a bar at,” Joe looked down at his watch, “8:45 on a Tuesday night?”

“Well,” Claire drawled, “I’m not alone anymore now am I?”

Joe picked up the shot he had ordered from the bartender and slammed it back. He set the empty glass on the bar. “Want to get out of here? I can get us a room upstairs.”

Claire smiled at him. “I thought you’d never ask.” She reached down, grabbed her purse and slid off of the chair.

They were silent as they walked out of the bar and headed towards the hotel lobby. His hand on her back was strong and warm and she could feel the heat through the thin material of her blouse.

It wasn’t until they were standing in front of the elevators that Joe looked at her, nervously. He cleared his throat. “I’ve never done this before,” he said.

“What, you’ve never taken a woman up to a hotel room before?” Claire teased.

He glanced at her from the corner of his eyes and grinned.

“Oh,” said Claire as they got into the elevator, “you mean you’ve never taken a hooker up to a hotel room before. Well, there’s a first time for everything and I’m a great teacher,” she said as the elevator doors slid shut.

Off Line Chapter 2—Elaine Bonow

Chapter 2

A

s I looked out on the quiet street before me, I wondered what had brought me to this point, then I remembered the first time I saw her. A supermarket is not the best place to meet a woman. She might be shopping with her husband or for the family, and in this neighborhood with its proximity to the ballet and opera, most of the females who frequent this particular market are young ballet students, their mothers or totally focused opera singers with no time for dalliances.

I feel so lucky that I have a job a pianist for ballet classes and opera rehearsals. My job is fantastic, especially for someone who should be retired or doddering in a rest home. I get to do what I love every god dammed day of the week playing everything from Chopin Mazurkas to the Sound of Music. The best part of all is being around artists, dancers, singers and musicians, everyday all day long.

Being a professional musician is the end result of my early bohemian life and a long life so far. It keeps me being a very modern fellow compared to the other men I know of my generation, especially when it comes to dating and sex. That’s why this particular woman intrigues me so much, so much so I had to find a way to get to know her.

Truth is my fantasies about her were getting under my skin, just like Sinatra sang:

I said to myself: this affair never will go so well.

But why should I try to resist when, baby, I know so well

I’ve got you under my skin?

She was so different from the divas I dealt with daily. I overheard her talking to her friend one day and she had such joie de vivre. The ballet crowd from young to old, were so thin, so puny, so boring with their obsessions about proper food intake, how to enjoy eating salads without dressing, drinking eight ounce cokes mixed with water and smoking American Spirit cigarettes.

The opera singers were even worse, so self-centered and neurotic about their mouths and throats. God, I remember this one diva, Carolyn was her name, a stunning woman I courted that would have silent orgasms for fear of damaging her vocal chords. I got so tired of the silent grunting and the hissing humidifier I had to end that dalliance.

My life has been one long indulgence in art, music, dance and theater. You name it and I am there. I could never exist in a cubicle or even before the cubicle, the office and its atmosphere of oppression. I have avoided the routine life of family, kids, the inevitable series of affairs with even younger women until the wife leaves you and remarries’ your best friend who’s wife left him for the widowed high school English teacher.

I avoided all this type of scandal by never getting married. I love women too much. I can fondly recall all of the women I have bedded since the first; well it was she who bedded me when I was just a lad of fifteen. Ah, sweet Suzanne, my mother’s second cousin who was quite a bit older than me.

I have been discreet and loving for the thirty-six conquests I have counted. I don’t consider myself a rogue or a Casanova or a Simenon, the French writer who claimed to have bedded over ten thousand women. I think of myself, as a normal bachelor of a certain age who like Simenon, adores all sizes, shapes and hues of women. I don’t claim to be that prolific but at my age and reflecting on my life I’m glad to be free to chose what makes me happy and hopefully I have made a few women happy, at least for a while.

Right now I am glad I have something to look forward to, my date with the lovely Georgina, “but everyone calls me Georgie.” The first time I saw her I was intrigued by her vitality. Her appearance was unique from head to toe. I recognized those Fleuvogs she wore, shoes that look old fashioned but terribly hip. Most women of her generation wore those awful multicolored tennis shoes with those terrible clumsy white neoprene soles.

Watching her these past few months I noticed that she had quite a few pairs but my favorite were the lavender suede ankle boots. I do love short boots on a woman. Georgina was of medium height built of soft curves and glorious breasts. I couldn’t help notice because she seemed to always wear soft v-neck sweaters, her neck swirling in scarves, like a Parisian grand dame accenting those luscious breasts of hers.

It was easy for me to find out a little about her from the store clerks. I found out she was single and had a thing for expensive chocolate which in my vast experience meant she like to be indulgent and in my humble opinion that particular weakness of hers was an omen of sweetness in a lady.

My opportunity came somewhat easily or should I say I took advantage of her in a nice way. As her back was turned I was able to carefully bump right into her backside as if by accident. Working in the theatrical world for years had given me a certain ease in this world, nothing forced, nothing untoward, no moves that might seem ungentlemanly.

I caught her eyes of surprise at the initial bump and looking surprised, myself backed away as if embarrassed. In the next aisle I gave her a smile and a little bow, and started a little chat. I waited for her to checkout and escorted her from the market. She didn’t resist and I made a suggestion that we should meet for coffee the next afternoon and that I would love give her a tour of the opera before the performance, only if she thought that I wasn’t being too forward.

That was only yesterday. Standing here now in the window of my quaint flat I do hope that our rendezvous will go well. I have everything planned in case she falls for my charming self.

 

Chapter 3

 

 

THE GENIE by Karen Uffelman

As I looked out at the desert wasteland before me, I wondered what had
brought me to this point. How did I go from mild-mannered toy store clerk
to wild man lost in the Sahara? Then I remembered the genie.

We were all drunk. Me, Thomas and Billy, drunk as skunks in the basement
of Magic Mouse Toys. Our manager, what’s-her-name, was home sick with the
flu, and, trust me, nobody’s coming to the toy store on a rainy January
4th, so we opted to close up shop early. It was pouring buckets outside
and none of us were prepared to face the deluge, so we retreated to the
downstairs storeroom and were well into the fifth of gin Thomas stole from
his dad’s liquor cabinet when the little genie showed up.

Like, a frickin’ real-live genie. How do you like that?

“What the hell?”

“Store’s closed!”

“Jesus Christ! What is that thing?”

He wasn’t the least bit scared of us, that’s for sure.

“Hello children.”

“Who you calling children? We’re, like, ten times bigger than you!”

“Look, we work here. We’re employees, okay? And this storeroom is
off-limits to….to….”

“Genies?” the little guy’s eyebrows shot up and he tilted his head to one
side.

“Where did you come from?”

Mr. Genie pointed above our heads. There, up on the top shelf, were five
or six small boxes, each labeled MAGIC LANTERN for children 6 and up.

“You came out of one of those? Are you serious?”

I was really drunk, so drunk that I thought I might be hallucinating.

“Listen up, young gentlemen, I know this is all surprising and shocking to
you, but I’ve got things to do and can’t really spend the rest of the
evening in the malodorous cellar. Let’s get down to business.”

Thomas got up from the over-turned bucket that had been serving as his
throne. The bucket was supposed to be catching the drops from the leaking
sidewalk above, which were now forming a puddle on the floor. Thomas
stepped right into the pool of water, but didn’t seem to notice. To judge
from his listing stance, he was possibly drunker than me.

“There’s going to be no business here, Mr. Genie man. You need to go back
into your toy lantern and we need to get back to drinking our gin. Right
guys? Right? Arthur, tell him!”

I opened my mouth to speak, but Billy piped up.

“What do you mean by business? Is this about wishes or something?”

“Or something!” Thomas bellowed, and then started giggling.

“I hate to say it,” the genie sighed, “but your wish is my command.”

Billy frowned, “I think this is some kind of trick. I saw an Outer Limits
like this. Don’t say the first thing that comes to mind, everybody, okay?”

“We each get three wishes, is that the deal?”

“Hmm. There’re three of you, so how about three wishes total? As I
mentioned, I don’t have all night. I have places to be, boys.”

Suddenly there was a giant toad where Thomas had been standing in the
water. Thomas was gone.

“What the hell was that? What did you just do? I thought you were supposed
to be granting us wishes! Where’s Thomas?”

“He wanted to see what it would feel like to be a toad.”

“No he did not….I mean…what just happened? He never asked to be a toad! He
didn’t have the chance! What did you do to him?”

“I’m pretty sure he said he wished to become a toad.”

“NO. HE. DIDN’T. I didn’t hear him! He never said any such thing!”

“Well, he thought it then. I really have to get going. Do you want your
wish or what?”

Billy and I looked at each other. Billy was starting to get panicky, I
could tell. I really needed some pretzels or something; my stomach was a
little queasy. I don’t even actually like gin.

“Look, Mr. Genie…”

And suddenly Billy was a toad, too.

Now I was starting to get panicky. I fixed the genie with my most serious
stare. And I eyed Thomas’s bucket. My stomach was rumbling and I might
need it.

“I want a real wish, okay, not this becoming a toad nonsense. You probably
think it’s funny, turning Thomas and Billy into amphibians, but even
though I’m really drunk I know it’s not fair. It’s probably against your
genie code of conduct or whatever.”

The genie rolled his eyes.

“Okay, I won’t turn you into a toad, but can you PLEASE hurry up and tell
me what you want? And no hysterics. Otherwise I’ll decide for you.”

“Where are you in such a hurry to go, anyway? It’s pouring outside. You’re
going to get drenched if you leave.”

“If you must know, I have a date. For which I am 75 years late. The girl
is hot, hot, hot, but she’s probably gotten sick of waiting for me, and
you asking me questions is not helping with my already extreme tardiness.”

“Okay, okay, I’ll try to be speedy, but I’m so drunk, I feel awfully
nauseous, and I don’t really know what I want.”

“Uh-huh. You feel nauseated, not nauseous. Why, universe, why? Why do I
get stuck granting wishes to pimply teenage boys who don’t even have a
grasp on basic grammar?”

And then it all gets kind of fuzzy.

I sort of remember telling him I was sick of my piss-ass job, sick of
living with my mom, sick of not having a girlfriend and having to jerk off
twice a day. But mostly, because the drops kept falling from the sidewalk
overhead and Thomas and Billy were hopping about in the giant puddle that
was now covering half of the floor and I was now the only one left to
clean it up…mostly I was sick TO DEATH of the rain. I just WISH I didn’t
have to deal with the RAIN.

And then, poof! I’m ankle-deep in scorching sand. Nothing but cactus and
rattlesnake and blistering sunshine. Desert wasteland. How do you like
that? I wandered for days and days. I’ve only just made it back to Seattle
and barely survived with my life.

But nobody believes me.

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…