Brian Fugett

SHHH…LISTEN TO THE EKKO

 Tuesday. Mostly sunny. High of 92 degrees. Enough humidity to sink an aircraft carrier. A man has no business drinking coffee in this weather; it’s murder. But here I am sweltering in this dingy little truck stop, knocking back coffee number three, waiting on a hot little broad/number who calls herself Ekko. I’m pretty damn sure that’s not her real name, especially since I first met her in an internet chat-room. You know how that goes. 

Ekko is a nineteen year old, peanut butter blonde endowed with a perfect set of 34 C’s. I met her in an internet chat room three weeks ago. 

I glance at my watch and scan the joint one last time. The place is swarming with truckers, bikers, and Mexican itinerant workers. All of them full of hard looks as they feast upon heaping stacks of flapjacks and ham steaks. I can feel their eyes on me, probing me, sizing me up. I must look like a foreigner to them, sitting here decked out in my Armani suit and tie. Shit, listening to them talk in their cryptic CB lingo about Harleys and rest-stop whores makes me FEEL like a foreigner. I don’t think we even speak the same language.  Why the fuck Ekko picked this place to meet is beyond me.  

I knock back the remainder of my coffee. Meanest fucking brew I’ve ever had. The shit scours my bowels like a fiberglass enema. Gonna’ take a quart of Mylanta to douse that fire. I wave down the waitress and order a tall glass of chocolate milk with a matching donut. 

A minute later she shuffles back with the grub, and just as I take a bite, I notice the woman outside peering in the window. Shit, just to look at her: the ski-mask, the trench coat, the burgundy moon boots with feathers tacked to them; it’s the kind of exquisitely creepy fashion ensemble that announces, “Look at me! I’m psycho!” 

I watch as the strange woman scans the place, her eyes slowly drifting from one table to the next. I try to avert my gaze but it’s too late. She catches me watching her and the edges of her eyes pucker as if she is trying to place me. She taps the window and waves. A bit unsure, I point to myself and mouth “who me?”

The woman nods.

I reply with a tense wave, hoping like hell that will be the end of it.

No such fucking luck. 

The strange woman darts for the entrance, eyeing me the entire way, then shuffles inside. As she weaves her way through the maze of tables and booths, my body shudders with the nauseating realization that this is Ekko, the woman who was supposed to be here two hours ago. I take a deep breath and brace myself for the impending drama.

Ekko seats herself across from me, plucks the donut from my plate, wipes off the chocolate frosting, and slams it onto the table.

 “Damn, another breakfast murdered,” I remark. “Does this mean we’re still not on speaking terms?”

A tense silence prevails. Then very slowly, she presses a finger to her lips.

“Shhh…listen to the echo,” she whispers, tilting her head to the side as if straining to catch some distant voice. That’s her quirky little way of greeting people. She thinks it’s clever. I, on the other hand, think it’s annoying.

 “Come on Ekko, cut the bullshit charade. Okay? Just tell me what this is all about.”

She stares vacantly at the ruined donut for a moment then fishes a Marlboro from her pocket, lights it, and lets the smoke tumble from her lips. “Nathan…I have a slight problem.”

 “No shit? The whole ski mask and moon boot ensemble was my first clue. You look like a fugitive from the fucking loony bin. Why don’t you take that ridiculous mask off?

 “Can’t do that, Nathan.”

 “Why the hell not? Is it stapled to your head or something?”

“Just forget it. You wouldn’t understand.”

 “Wouldn’t understand? Come on babe, try me.”

She shifts restlessly in her seat, takes another hit from the cigarette, then leans in close as if imparting a dark, shameful secret. “I lost something when we were fooling around at that motel last Wednesday.”

“What do you mean ‘lost something?’ You promised me you weren’t a virgin.”

“NOT my VIRGINITY, you arrogant cockhead.”

 “What then?”

 “My right nostril.”

“I’m sorry, run that by me again.”

 “I lost my right nostril.”

I take a deep breath and hold it for a moment, fighting like hell not to laugh. “Is that why you’re wearing the mask?”

She nods.

Unable to contain my amusement, I reach across the table and pull the old “got your nose” trick, jamming my thumb between my fingers. “Hey look, here it is. I found it.”

 “I’m being serious,” she hisses, extinguishing her cigarette on the donut between us.

“Okay, fine. Let me see your nose.”

 “No. It’s too hideous.” She hangs her head shamefully.

 “Ekko honey, you just don’t lose a nostril like you do a set of car keys. It’s physically impossible. Maybe you need professional help.”

 “I don’t need professional help. I need YOU, Nathan. Please spend the night with me.”

 “Fuck that! You know I can’t. My wife is onto us, Ekko. She found those e-mails you sent. Her and I have been fighting for three days straight because of them. I got two kids to think about. I can’t put them through this. It’s not fair.” 

 “What are you saying?”

 “I’m saying you and I are gonna’ have to cool it for a while.”

 “Please don’t do this, Nathan. I can’t bear to be without you.”

 “I’m sorry, but I told you once things started to get ugly that it was over. It’s not fair to my family.”

 “Your family? What about me? Can’t you see I’m pining away for you? Every day we are apart I lose a little more of myself.”

Don’t know if it’s all the bad coffee or the humidity, but I start to feel dizzy and disoriented and everything suddenly seems so unreal, Ekko, the mask, the missing nostril, the burly truckers, even the ruined donut. I don’t want to be here anymore. I want this over with. “Listen Ekko, I got an eleven o’ clock appointment. I really have to go.”

I rise to leave and she snatches me by the wrist, yanks me back into my seat.

 “Don’t leave me,” she says, her eyes welling with tears. She strokes my hand for a moment, then flies into a nervous rage and begins clawing at her head and pounding on the table.

 “Shit Ekko, calm down. People are staring.”

She shakes her head and sneezes violently three times. A rope of blood and snot streams through the mask, oozes to the table.

 “Oh god. I can’t breath. I can’t catch my breath,” she mutters, fumbling through her pockets. A bottle spills from her hand, scattering tiny yellow and green pills across the table. I try to help her, but she pushes me away. Then she cuts loose with a dreadful howl and buckles to the floor, a motionless heap of trench coat, snot and blood.

A creepy stillness grips the joint. I can feel anxious eyes probing me from every direction.  I plunk a $10 bill on the table, weave my way to the door, and step out into the stifling August heat.

Duncan Ros

Steak Knives

It was a nice two-story suburban home with a well-manicured lawn and a brand-new luxury Mercedes in the driveway. The kid had been eying it for a while and had finally decided to make his move. Whoever lived there, he figured, could stand to lose a dime.

A man answered the door after a bit of a long wait. He was dressed in a dark bowling shirt, gray slacks, and had on neon-green elbow-length rubber cleaning gloves. Clean-shaven, mid-thirties, with cropped blond hair and a face that was almost impossible to remember even if you stared at it for an hour.

“You’re not Billy,” he said.

“No sir. My name is Josh Munson, and I’m out here on this beautiful day going door-to-door to see if I could interest you in a brand-new set of state-of-the-art premium steak knives.”

The man stared at Munson blankly.

“I’d be happy to give you a demonstration if you have a minute.”

The man looked as if he were on the verge of slamming the door in his face, but something shifted in his expression and he warmed up. “Why don’t you come in and have something to drink?” he said. “It’s hot and I bet you’re thirsty.” Then, after a beat: “But I’m probably not going to buy whatever you’re selling.”

“I’ll take a ‘probably not’ over a ‘no’ any day,” said Munson, smiling. “And I’d love a glass of water if you could spare one.”

They went inside, which smelled strongly of bleach and Pinsol, and went to the kitchen where he took off his rubber gloves. The house was clean and plain-looking but full of expensive furniture, electronics, and china—as if everything was out of a photo from Better Homes and Gardens and placed accordingly. The only thing that wasn’t camera-ready was a black garbage bag seated next to the fridge, knotted rather loosely at the top.

“Just doing some cleaning since the wife and kids are gone,” said the man, placing his hands under the hot water of the sink and soaping them. Then he went through several cupboards before finding a water glass and filling it. “She’s always moving stuff around. I can’t keep track,” he said, laughing, and handing Munson the glass of water.

“Thanks a lot. I didn’t get your name, Mister—”

“Just call me Howard,” he said, drying his hands and shaking Munson’s. “So you really are just knocking on doors and seeing who bites?”

“That’s right.”

“I like it. Okay,” he said, getting comfortable, “let’s see what you’ve got.”

Munson pulled out the steak knives, then he went through the pitch that he’d memorized in the bathroom mirror of his motel room the day before—tempered steel, a lifetime warranty, cuts like butter, a heck of a deal. Howard watched him somewhat bemused, arms folded to the front with half a smile.

He ended his spiel with the demonstration, taking out one of the knives he was trying to sell and a small length of rope. Then he asked Howard if he had a comparable steak knife of his own. Howard looked around.

“Will this work?” he said, pulling out a butcher knife from the sink by the blade and handing it to Munson.

Munson took it by the handle, examined it, and put it on the table. “It needs to be serrated,” he said. “Has to saw through.”

“Right. Let’s see,” said Munson, pulling at a few drawers. “I don’t know where she put the steak knives. I don’t even remember if we have any. Let’s just see how good yours is since I don’t feel like tearing the kitchen apart.”

“That’s fine,” said Munson, handing Howard his steak knife and holding the length of the rope taut. “See if you can cut through my rope.” Howard held the knife rather awkwardly in his slightly shaking hand, chuckled, and sawed through the rope without a problem. 

“Wow, that’s a hell of a knife,” said Howard. He gave Munson a toothy smile that gave him the creeps. Being a good salesman, he smiled back politely.

“What do you say?” said Munson. “They’re usually three-hundred for a four-piece set, but I can do two-hundred if you have cash.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Does one-fifty sound a little better?”

“As I said, I’m not looking to buy anything. Do you need to use the bathroom or anything before you leave?”

Munson went down the hall to the bathroom, taking stock of all the nice expensive things in the house, noting that the bedrooms were probably upstairs and that there was a basement. He looked in the medicine cabinet but couldn’t find anything to take him up or bring him down. Then he threw some water on his face and neck to try and cool off before setting back out.

“Oh,” said Howard as they headed to the door. “Would you mind dropping this off at the next garbage bin you see? Mine’s full right now.” He picked up the garbage bag next to the fridge. “I’d appreciate it, bud.”

Munson was a little upset about losing the opportunity for some fast cash but just nodded a tad dejectedly, took the black garbage bag—which was a little heavy—and sauntered back to his car with a quiet “have a good one.” He threw the garbage bag in the back seat, thinking he’d find a dumpster somewhere in a block or two, and drove off. It didn’t take long for him to forget it was even back there.

***

When Munson came by the neighborhood later in the evening, he was happy to see that the Mercedes was gone. And of course, there was no security system to speak of. It was the only house on the block without one, which was the reason Munson had picked it out of all the others.

The window in the bathroom was unlocked—he’d made sure to leave it that way. It was just big enough for him to fit through, something he had also taken into consideration when casing the place. He hopped on the trash bin, which had been heavy and awkward to push in place below the window, and pulled himself through as quickly and quietly as he could. 

It was dark, and his eyes needed a moment to adjust. He sat and listened for a few minutes, just to be sure there was no movement in the house. When it was clear that he was the only living thing inside, he went to the front door to unlock it.

But it was already unlocked.

Munson smiled to himself. Either they had forgotten to lock their front door or they were just incredibly naive and stuck in the care-free habits of a bygone era. In any case, he was going to make the evening profitable, although the wasted effort on window acrobatics annoyed him.

A simple B&E job—five minutes in and out. Objective: get all of the valuables you can into the black garbage bag, which he took from his back pocket and unfolded, and get out the door. 

He had it done in four minutes and twenty-one seconds, which he had timed, and he felt damn proud of it. He’d managed to ransack all of the best items from everywhere except the basement, which he hadn’t had time to go down into. Maybe some other time.

He went back to the car and put the loot into the trunk of his stolen Honda. The take included a Blu-Ray player, two Chromebooks, an X-Box, and some expensive women’s jewelry from the master bedroom. It would only take twenty minutes to get from the suburbs to downtown, and another ten to find his fence and pocket the money.

The steak knife set was just something he’d come by in a discount shop—he’d swapped the hundred-dollar price tag with a ten-dollar, with the idea brewing for a bigger scam. The cashier knew he’d swapped tags, Munson could tell, but she wasn’t getting paid enough to care. The fact that the steak-knife-salesman gag worked only bolstered Munson’s already elephantine ego, and he prided his ability to come off as a hard-working stand-up citizen and to get people to trust him enough to let him into their homes.

A few blocks up the smell hit him. It was pungent enough to make him want to throw up. He’d noticed it earlier and had thought it was coming from something foul outside, or maybe some curdled cream from a spilled coffee, but now he knew its source—the black garbage bag he’d taken from Howard and forgotten about in the back seat. It had been cooking in his car, in the hundred-degree heat all day, and was like a punch to the nose.

The garbage bag was heavier than he remembered it being. He drove full-speed intending to throw it out the window—to be rid of the smell ASAP. As he pulled it up to the front, the plastic knot came undone and something fell onto his lap, causing him to panic. He didn’t notice that the traffic signal in front of him had turned from green to red, and went right through it.

An SUV in the right lane plowed into the passenger-side fender, sending shards of glass flying. Munson’s airbag shot out, as the car spun around counter-clockwise, knocking his cocked head violently into his seat. The lights and sirens followed at a prompt pace, as is common for the suburbs.

***

The two detectives—the only occupants of the third-floor hospital waiting room in the middle of the night—waited to see their as-of-yet unidentified suspect. The T.V. in the corner was muted with an air-fryer infomercial. The press hadn’t gotten their hands on what would be a top story.

Jenkins, younger and fresh-faced in jeans and a tailored blazer, sat in an uncomfortable hospital chair. His partner, Fitz, older and weathered from twenty years on the job, stood with his hands in the pockets of his cheap polyester slacks. His mustache was silvering and he was beginning to show his mileage, his younger athletic physique rounding into an older man’s.

“Do you think it’s him?” said Jenkins as he choked down a sip of acrid vending machine coffee from a styrofoam cup.

“Yeah, I think it’s him. I’d like to think that finding a guy with a garbage bag full of victims’ remains means it’s him.”

“But he doesn’t fit the profile. The guy we’re looking for never robs his victims.”

“The profile. Shit, Jenkins. He probably just needed some quick cash to fund his bloodlust. Maybe he was hungry and tired of eating Hot Pockets in his mom’s basement.”

Jenkins shook his head. The third floor was quiet. Just the antiseptic dull hum that hospital waiting rooms tend to have.

“I don’t like it.”

“You don’t have to,” said Fitz. “It is what it is. I just hope that Quantico gets back to us so we can figure out who the hell he is.”

After a little over an hour, a doctor came out and greeted the detectives. He was dressed in a white lab coat, smocks, and wore thick glasses. His head was bald with long gray tufts at the edges, and his teeth were stained yellow.

“Nice to meet you, detectives,” he said, “I’m doctor William Keller.” The two detectives gave their names rather numbly, without pleasantries or any attempts at handshaking. “If you’d like to take a look at the patient—uh, your suspect, I suppose he is—you can come back with me.”

They filed into a cramped hospital room that could barely fit the three of them. The kid was bandaged up, his head in a neck-brace, and his leg was in a cast and suspended above the bed at thirty degrees. The pulse of the hospital machinery made Fitz think of a fast food kitchen at breakfast time.

“Will he wake up?” said Jenkins.

“Doubtful,” said the doctor. “Even after the sedative wears off from the surgery. There’s severe head trauma along with fractured cervical vertebrae and a broken tibia, not to mention a fair amount of internal bleeding. I don’t suspect he’ll live long. Even if he does, he’ll likely be in a state of severe mental impairment.”

“He’ll be a vegetable,” said Fitz, not a question, “and taxpayers will have to pay for it, to keep this, this thing alive.”

Jenkins looked at the kid. He didn’t look like a serial killer. He looked like a camp counselor, or at worst, a call-center employee just out of college.

“I don’t make the rules,” said the doctor.

“Yeah, sure,” said Fitz. “But the man upstairs who does, he will have something to say about this, I can assure you.” he leaned over the comatose body and whispered: “I hope you rot in hell for what you did to those people, you piece of human garbage.” Then: “I wish I could pull the plug, doc, if I wasn’t so sure you’d go and tell on me.”

“Please don’t.”

Jenkins’ cell went off and they stepped out of the room, the doctor looking over his patient the way a gardener does a bed of weeds.

“We got something,” said Jenkins in the hall, stuffing his phone back into his pocket after the quick back-and-forth that Fitz only heard half of. “Misner has a file for us, but wouldn’t tell me much over the phone. He wants us to go and meet him at the precinct.”

“Alright, let’s go,” said Fitz.

It took twenty-three minutes to get down there, which was twice as long as it would usually take, but Fitz insisted that they go through a drive-thru for breakfast sandwiches and coffee. Jenkins made a comment about the adverse health effects from the continual consumption of fast food, to which his partner said, “What are you, my wife?” Jenkins could think of many responses, each more biting than the last, but instead chose to focus on his driving. 

Misner was in the basement of the station, and its sole occupant. He was clean-cut and about the same age as Jenkins, but had an awkward and nervous disposition that made him hard to be around for an extended period of time. This was why the chief had stationed him below the ground floor, out of plain sight.

“The guy you’ve got at the hospital is Chris Higgins,” he said, handing Jenkins a stack of papers. “Did some time in Upstate New York and Virginia. Mostly B&E, some small possession with intent charges, and a juvenile record a few pages long. It’s all there.”

“Anything violent?” said Jenkins.

Misner shook his head. Fitz looked at Jenkins. Jenkins looked down at the papers and said, “It’s not our guy.”

“The hell it isn’t,” said Fitz, his voice rising. “The hell it isn’t our guy, Jenkins. Even if it isn’t our guy, we’re making this our guy.” His face was flushed red. “Jenkins, look at me. This guy had pieces—pieces—of the victims, in his car, with their stuff. Lord knows his prints are in that house, on that knife. For all intents and purposes, for the press, for the families at home trying to sleep at night, this, this is our guy.”

Jenkins and Misner looked at Fitz. They let him catch his breath, and looked at each other. The room felt all the quieter without the yelling.

Jenkins finally said, after some long minutes: “But what if this isn’t our guy? What if ours is still out there, and he does it again?”

“He won’t,” said Fitz. “Not unless he wants caught, he won’t.”

***

They quietly wheeled Higgins into the operating room with the instruments and bright overhead lights. The doctor and his assistant were gloved up and masked. The doctor cleared his throat and stretched his arms like an athlete before a game.

“You did really well. Really very good, and I’m pleased with you,” he said to his assistant. “I think you have potential. You’re teachable. Not everyone is like that. Teachable.”

“Thanks, Billy, that means a lot coming from someone I respect so much.”

“But just remember, I took you out of that ward, and I could just as soon put you back in. I need live specimens from here on out, like this one. This one has served a real and true purpose for us tonight. But hacked-up bodies do me little good. You need to remember some of what I’ve taught you and exercise some self-control.”

Howard felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. The doctor had a way of making him feel shame. No one—not even his own father or mother—could make him feel such heavy self-disappointment. 

“I’m sorry Billy, I—”

“It’s okay, Howard. I understand that learning new habits takes time. I believe in you, that you can do it. Just remember, everything you do is a choice.” They looked down at the kid, his young incapacitated body under the white lights, the machinery whirring. “If we work together, it can be beautiful, Howard. Don’t you want it to be beautiful?”

“Yes. Yes, I do.”

“Good. You can start by handing me that scalpel.”

Judge Santiago Burdon

The Bare Necessities

I’m confused by drug testing and how they determine the results. I’ve been subjected to this invasion of my privacy on numerous occasions, always perplexed with their findings. Believe me, I’ve asked many times what the test is designed to discover. The answer is always the same. “The purpose of the test is to see if there are any drugs in your system.”

The drug test results are presented by someone with an apologetic expression, politely whispering the findings:

“I’m sorry Mr. Santiago but you failed. We found marijuana, cocaine and traces of opioids, possibly heroin or oxycodone.”

Usually this is followed by:

“Do you need help with an addiction? I can arrange an evaluation for you with a drug counselor.”

My first experience with this violation of my civil rights caught me completely off guard, and I must confess it still leaves me flummoxed to this day.

“No thanks, I don’t desire to be locked up with a bunch of head cases for three months or so. I’ve already been a passenger aboard that crazy train. Also, I don’t have the luxury to take advantage of your offer. I’m sure my parole officer will be determining my agenda for the immediate future. But let me ask you this, if I am being tested for evidence of drugs in my system, wouldn’t it be correct that if I test positive I’ve passed, not failed? Therefore I object to the results of your test under the pretense your explanation and procedures are deceptive, false and misleading. I demand my results be documented as Pass and not Failed.”

“Oooooh, Mr. Santiago you…”

“Call me Santi.”

“Are you an attorney? You’re so cute when you get all worked up, throwing words around like a Philadelphia lawyer.”

“Listen…”

“…Meredith.”

“Listen Meredith, lovely name.”

“Named after my grandmother.”

“I’m sure she is just as lovely as you.” 

“She passed away six months ago. Cancer. I miss her so much, we were like sisters.”

“I felt your pain, saw it in your face the second she was mentioned. It’s difficult to express condolences and I don’t want to come off as patronizing. Although, I have experienced  the deaths of loved ones myself and would like to offer a bit of advice that comforted me during those trying times.”

“Please go ahead.”

She sits on the sofa next to me in the reception area with only one other victim waiting for his results.

“Think of the wonderful moments you both shared together, the laughter, the silly expressions and the hugs, the kisses. She’d  want you to embrace those memories, not to mourn her passing. I believe the smile you experience every time you think of her is the best way to pay tribute to her life.”

“Who are you, Santi? Are you some kind of spiritual healer? What a comforting and sincere way to channel my emotions. Usually people begin to express their feelings and pain they’ve experienced, making the moment about them, completely invalidating my own feelings. I’m sorry, but the last thing I want to hear is someone else’s story. Is that wrong?”

“‘No one’s pain is greater than your own.’ I’m not sure who said that quote, but it’s not mine.”

“Well it’s perfectly fitting for the subject of this conversation. Listen, I want to tell you something important. There are instructions on your client sheet to inform Randall Cunningham at the State Corrections and Parole Office of the results of your test. I’m sorry, but Mike the new guy called him already. I wasn’t supposed to tell you, but you’re such a nice guy.”

“Ya I figured as much. Don’t feel badly, you’re just doing your job. This isn’t your problem anyway, it’s my doing.” 

“Hold on a minute, I’ll take care of this. I know what I can do.”

“Don’t do anything that would jeopardize your position here. Please don’t risk your job for me.”

“I’m the office manager, I’ve got it covered. Don’t worry, I can’t fire myself!” 

She disappears into the back area. A short time later, two State Troopers enter the reception area. There’s no doubt in my mind who they’re here for.

One trooper covers the reception room as the other strolls to the front desk, calling out for assistance. Meredith materializes from the back and immediately engages him in conversation. I’m unable to hear, but I know what they’re discussing and I prepared myself for the consequences, which include my parole being violated and me returning to prison to serve out the rest of my sentence. I begin to question the authenticity of her grandma story, thinking it may have just been a ploy to keep me occupied until the troopers arrived.

They finish their conversation with Meredith, who points me out to the officer. He walks directly toward me as his partner reaches for his handcuffs. Meanwhile, Meredith has a huge smile on her face, giving me a thumbs up behind their backs.

“You Santiago?” the cop inquires in a John Wayne tone.

“If you’re from Publishers Clearing House or the State Lottery Office, then I’m your man.” 

His partner finds a bit of humor in my response and chuckles.

“You’re a real comedian. Now I’ll ask you again and expect a serious answer, no smart mouth. You got it?”

“I am Santiago, officer, how may I help you?”

“Guess you dodged a bullet today. Randall thought for sure you’d drop dirty and he’d violate your parole. Send your sorry ass back to the joint.”

“Tell Randall I’m sorry to disappoint him. It’s a comfort to know that he’s pulling for me to complete my parole and make it on the outside.”

“Ya, well you keep your nose clean and don’t give us a reason to have to meet again. You got it, convict?”

I couldn’t find a reason to piss the prick off anymore than I already had, so I politely bid him and  his partner a good afternoon. Unable to resist one last comment, I tell them, “You be careful out there.”

They walk out the door, completely ignoring me as Meredith returns, laughing as she slaps my ass with her clipboard.

“We pulled one over on those troopers, didn’t we?” she giggles. I’m half expecting her to break into a cheerleading routine with all of her jumping around. 

“Meredith, I honestly have no words to express my appreciation. I am so grateful for you covering my ass like that. There’s no way I can ever repay you for your help. What did you do?”

“I told them there was a mistake. The new guy read the results incorrectly and you actually tested negative.” 

“So you mean I passed the test.”

“Okay you stubborn ass. Yes, you passed and we found no illegal drugs in your system.”

“You are an absolute angel without wings. A Goddess!”

I grab her to give her a hug and kiss on the cheek, but she pulls me in close and plants a kiss on my lips, leaving me wanting more.

“Wow, I wasn’t expecting that at all!”

“You can start paying me back by taking me out to dinner tonight. That is of course if you’re not already spoken for. A guy like you probably has a girlfriend, huh?”

“As a matter of fact, I was recently given my walking papers by that supposed girlfriend. Seems my checkered past clashed with her pastel future.”

“So what then, you’re nursing a broken heart?”

“I’m not feeling that way at all. I would be delighted to have your company this evening. I’d enjoy spending time with someone other than my temporary roommate. It’s a date.”

“Wonderful, I’ve got a roommate too. She’s the drug counselor I mentioned earlier. Did you drive here?”

“No, I haven’t been certified to reinstate my license.”

“That’s okay, I can drive. I’m getting ready to close up. Do you mind waiting a half hour or so?” 

“That’ll be fine, I’ve got to wait for my buddy Johnny anyway. He’s coming to pick me up, and like all Colombians, including most Central Americans as well, he has no concept of time.”

“Great, we’re on the same page. Although I’m a little disappointed you’re not grieving over your breakup.”

“Why would that be?”

“They say the best way to get over a woman is to get under another one.”

“Actually now that you mention it, I’m feeling devastated and could use some pampering. And I’d  like a chance for us to get to know each other better before taking that step.”

“How sweet of you to say that. It was just a joke, maybe. And I already know more about you than you’re aware of. I’ll be back in  a jiff.”

What have I done to deserve this good fortune, cosmic manna? Days like this are so rare I can’t recall the last time an occurrence of this magnitude took place. The gods are smiling down on me and with such adulation. I’ve got a date with an adorable, incredibly stunning woman, who has a great sense of humor, is compassionate and kind hearted on top of it. I dodged more than a bullet today, I dodged a hand grenade due to her quick thinking. I’m still astonished by her altruistic and humanitarian manner. People don’t usually do these kind of things for guys like me. In fact, I was sure she’d set me up, Santiago getting duped like a mark at Three-card Monte, or Bonneteau as it was called in New Orleans. I had to ask myself, why was a treasure like Meredith not in a relationship, living with someone or married?

Another pebble in my mind’s shoe, making me uncomfortable, is that she knows I’m an ex-con and hasn’t asked why I was incarcerated. Most women are on the heel toe express with their backsides turned to you at just the mention of the word ‘prison’. I could be a pedophile, a rapist or a serial killer.  And here she is, willfully going on a date with a guy she has no idea who he is or any clue to his character. And what in the hell was that comment, ‘I know more about you than you’re aware of’?

I’m starting to go to my crazy place. There’s something amiss, and I’m not sure I want to find out what it might  turn out to be. 

What am I going to do now? I’ve already committed myself to an evening with her, and now that I think about it, I don’t know shit about her. She could be the fucking psychopath for all I know, and she’s setting me up for the kill. Maybe she does have a boyfriend, and they work as a team murdering unsuspecting ex-cons like me. Some type of sick vendetta, taking revenge on them for the crimes they committed.

Stop it Santiago, you’re really freaking yourself out. Come back now, don’t go there.

“Hey Meredith, I’m going to wait outside for my buddy. What about this old guy here? He fell asleep on the couch. Is he waiting for his results?” 

“No Santiago, he’s the night security guard. He’ll be fine.”

“Okay, I’ll be outside.”

It’s hotter than a Finnish sauna out there, forcing me to question my decision to leave the air-conditioned office. It’s going on five thirty already, and the sun still looks as though it has reached its zenith, stalled in the sky while doling out as much burn as possible before quitting time.

I take cover under a Palo Verde tree, which doesn’t provide much shade at all, sitting in the grass beneath it.

Moments later, I immediately recognize the stinging sensation which has suddenly begun to afflict my legs and lower back. Fucking fire ants, fire ants, attacking me without mercy!

I leap to me feet, frantically brushing myself with my hands. I pull my shirt off over my head without even unbuttoning it, screaming in pain as I attempt to shake the ants out. Looking down where I’d sat was a mound of dirt just crawling with ants, all of the little bastards on the attack. They stared up at me, daring me to come closer and make another attempt to invade their territory.

My screams finally capture the attention of the employees inside the clinic. They just stare at me jumping around from the doorway. Not one of the spectators come forward to offer their assistance. 

“Fire ants! Fire ants!” I scream.

Shortly after, the awakened security guard walks out with a bucket of water.

“Got into the ants did ya? Those lil’ buggers can do a lot of damage in a short time. Where’d they get’cha at?”

“Pretty much everywhere, but my legs, feet, and crotch is where they concentrated their assault. My back as well and a few of the first wave made it up to my neck.”

“You talk like an educated feller. You’re not from around these parts are ya?”

“Listen I’d really like to talk with you, but unless you’ve got some other purpose for that bucket of water, could you pour it over me and get these fucking ants off of me!?”

“I’ll do your back and legs, but you’ll have to take care of your crotch yourself.”

Meredith then appears, running towards me with a fire extinguisher in her hands. The security guard pours hot water down my back and my legs, bringing instant relief from the ants’ onslaught.

“Santiago, close your eyes and hold your breath!” Meredith screams as she sprays me with white chemical powder.

You probably won’t believe me when I tell you this tidbit of information, but it’s the first time I’ve ever been sprayed with a fire extinguisher. Honest to god truth. 

“Do you know if this will even work?” I manage to squeak.

“Shut up until I’m done. You don’t want to be breathing this stuff into your lungs.”

“Hey that’s enough, that shit is really cold!” I scream. “Stop, I’m freezing and I don’t feel any ants on me!”

I’m covered in white by this point, looking like Casper the Ghost. Meanwhile, the flame retardant has mixed with the water covering my body, and the heat from the sun is causing it to harden like plaster of Paris.

It is then I hear the strangest thing, making this scene more surreal than anything a movie director could ever come up with. A soundtrack gradually becomes audible, growing louder as the music draws nearer. No, I’m sorry, the song wasn’t White Christmas or Frosty the Snowman. Rather, it was the Seven Dwarfs from Snow White singing “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s off to work we go. It ain’t no trick to get rich quick. Hi Ho.”

I’d bought a tape for my daughter at the swap meet last week, a collection of songs from Disney movies. And for some reason, Johnny has become fascinated with the songs, playing it every time we’re in the car together.

Johnny comes running over in a frenzy, calling out to me. “Bigotes, Bigotes, how you catch on fire!? You okay? You need hospital?”

“No J.R., I think I’m okay right now. I got into a nest of fire ants and they attacked me.”

“I saw Mar-a-Death Heavy Metal lady with fire finisher and thought you are on fire.”

“No Mr. Rico, I only used it to kill the ants that were biting him all over his body. The chemical inside freezes and kills them.”

I begin peeling off the hardened dust in large strips and the security guard lends a hand, humming Hi Ho to himself the whole time.

Some of the other clinic staff begin to leave, saying goodbye to Meredith and giggling as they pass. 

“What the fuck is going on here?” I as Johnny. “How do you know Meredith? And what did you call her, Megadeath Heavy Metal Lady?”

“I know her because…”

“Shut up, I’m not finished. And you, Heavy Metal Lady. When did you meet Mr. Rico? Now don’t talk all at once. Megadeth, I’d rather hear your explanation first so that way I may get the truth without a bunch of embellishment.”

“We met here, at the medical center,” she informs me. “Johnny was sent here by his parole officer for testing, just like you were, and he also went to counseling with my roommate Linda. She shared some things they talked about that wouldn’t violate client/therapist privilege. He is quite the storyteller, this Mr. Rico, the name he claims you gave him.”

“Bigotes, please don’t be mad at me. I tell them stories about things that happen to us when we are together. They laughed very much and always say tell more. I don’t tell of our work, don’t worry about that.”

“Goddamnit Rico, can you be any more obvious?”

“No, that part is true,” Meredith says. “He never told us, not even when we asked, but I have a pretty good idea.” She winks but I don’t acknowledge her gesture.

“Johnny my friend,” I begin, eager to change the subject. “It’s a fire-ex-ting-uisher, but ‘fire finisher’ works just as well. Also, her name is Mare-a-dith, but I think she has taken a liking to Megadeath. Isn’t that so, Heavy Metal Lady?”

“Actually no, I don’t especially care for it. But I didn’t say anything because I know it’s difficult for him to pronounce my name, so I let it slide.”

“So how did I get mixed up in this bizarre affair?” 

“It’s more my fault then Johnny’s. I mentioned that I’d had to meet this Santiago he spoke of nearly every time we talked. He showed me a couple of pictures of you, and I thought you were somewhat good looking.”

“Well I know that’s bullshit, because I’m strikingly handsome. My mother told me!”

“All mothers tell their sons that. Did yours wear glasses? Anyway, whenever he told us a story, it always included his best friend Santiago. He spoke about you like you are some kind of god. You could never do anything wrong. You’re smart and look out for him. You’d never let anyone hurt him. Never have you belittled him or questioned his actions. You are the best friend anyone could ask for and you have a heart of gold. But you have a temper like a rattlesnake and you holler like a wolf!”

“Johnny embellishes quite a bit.”

“You shouldn’t invalidate his feelings for you. You’re friends like Helen Burns and Jane Eyre. There’s one thing he said, actually, that really touched my heart.”

“What touched your heart?”

“He said he learned from you what a friend should be.”

“Okay, this is enough, save it for my eulogy. Why did you use the Jane Eyre reference? How did you know I would understand what you mean?” 

“Bigotes,” Johnny interjects, “please say you are not mad at me for saying the things I said. She said she wanted to meet you. So when you told me you had to go to the drug center place, I told Mere… her you were coming here today. I know you will not like to have set-up date. So we do it in secret.”

“Solo bueno, carnal (All good, my friend). Solo bueno.” I tell him. “So, now that we’ve got this all out in the open, what are we doing?”

“You go home with Johnny, shower and change your clothes, then I’ll pick you up in an hour. I think we should go to the casino for dinner. They’ve got a prime rib dinner special, and then afterwards we can play some Blackjack. How does that sound?”

“Evidently you’ve planned the evening, so I wouldn’t want to disappoint you. I took you for a vegetarian, however. Guess I got that one wrong.”

“Why, are you a vegetarian Santi?”

“A vegetarian? No, my dear. Although I do eat them. This sounds like quite the night we’ve in store. You’re amazing.”

“Not really. l just read your prisoner profile on the prison website. You communicate with mostly women. You studied Victorian novels, liked Blackjack and gambling, and you even told the reason for your incarceration, which was drug trafficking.”

“Well, you certainly did your homework!”

I put out my hand to shake hers.

“Hello, my name is Santiago. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Heavy Metal Meredith. See you in an hour or so. You have my address in your paperwork.”

I lean in and give her a kiss on the cheek.

“Okay, see you in an hour or so.”

I get into the car with Johnny for the short ride home. He doesn’t say a word. I think he may be feeling me out, checking my attitude before starting a conversation.

Eventually he hits ‘Play’ on the tape deck, and the music blares again:

Look for the bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife

“Hey Santi, so how was your day?” he sheepishly asks.

“Really, Johnny? Just more of the same. Why should you expect otherwise?”

I give him a playful punch in the arm. Of course he reacts as if it actually hurt.

Look for the bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife

“Santiago, do you know what is ‘strife’?”

Gene Goldfarb

Interview with a Dirty Writer

Q. What’s your earliest dirty experience?

A. I saw a friend’s mother taking a bath when I was six.

Q. So what exactly did you see?

A. A nice pair of boobs and lots of soap.

Q. Let’s move on. Earliest dirty movie?

A. That’s an easy one, “And God Created Woman,” with Bridget Bardot. It was all white bed sheets, golden skin, blushing, breathlessness and Bardot’s pouty face and body.

Q. Any other dirty early movies? 

A. I, a Woman, I Am Curious Yellow, Swedish Mistress, as I remember.

Q. What kind of films were they?

A. All Swedish and dirty. One sexual adventure into the next. One had a scene where a young hot blonde girl masturbates in her bedroom near an open window, while the guy who’s interested in her sits outside on his motorcycle revving the engine under her window. 

Q. What did this mean to you?

A. The decadence of western bourgeois society within a post-modern paradigm.

Q. Honestly, can you put it in simpler terms?

A. A lot of mindless heat.

Q. Is there anything in fashion, art, or politics that captures the current zeitgeist?

A. Aside from pornography? Yoga pants for women. If men could be criminally charged for ogling women wearing this item of clothing, you wouldn’t be able to stuff the jails fast enough.

Q. Seriously?

A. Please. Thong bathing suits make a statement, where YP (yoga pants) issue a suggestion. The latter’s so much sexier by leaving something more to the imagination. While dining with my family once in mid-town Manhattan, a stark naked woman marched past our window, heading uptown all business, no one appeared to notice her. It was a good five minutes before I saw a police car heading uptown, presumably after her. If she had instead worn yoga pants and had the body for it, she would have turned heads fast enough to give a community of chiropractors a field day. Okay, bad example.

Q. What about what stimulates gay men?

A. If I gave you an answer I’d only be pretending that I wasn’t guessing.

Q. Is there a drink you associate with sexual stimulation or stamina?

A. Tit milk mixed with vodka, and a stemless maraschino cherry. A real zinger.

Q. Any other stimulants?

A. Yes. There are particular perfumes, odors really, women in certain neighborhoods of Rio De Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Montevideo apply to themselves that supposedly drive men absolutely insane. I can’t vouch for it except to say no one I’ve met has ever returned alive and sane to credibly tell about it.

Q. What else can get men excited?

A. Contrary to the rhyme about men not making passes at women who wear glasses, if the woman otherwise has an ounce of attractiveness, men will be turned by this apparel into little schoolboys aching to be spanked. It makes sex dirtier by triumphing over stodgy rectitude. Instead of glasses, it can be nylon stockings with a black seam (actual or drawn) up the back, or just the right shade of lipstick applied a bit too generously. That’s it, not much. Men need just a slim streak of smoke issuing from a furrow of propriety to set them on edge.

Q. Is that it?

A. A starchy white nurse’s uniform. Men will always wonder if there’s a rhumba going on underneath. Also a good show of legs always has men, especially mathematicians, wondering where parallel lines meet somewhere in space and what that’s like.

Q. Any books that you thought were over-the-top erotic?

A. Marquis DeSade’s “Bedroom Philosophers” appealed to the animal in me. And there’s D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which took me out to the spiritual horizon in sexual relations.

Q. What about something short and sweet?

A. There was a commercial jingle in my early college days about paper panties. It went something like this, “Put ‘em on, tear ‘em off, throw ‘em away. Paper Panties!” I couldn’t get it out of my head, and kept wondering if I could ever witness this and at least collect all these torn, discarded panties.

Q. What’s this obsession with women’s panties?

A. I think if they wore boxer shorts it would disappear in a day.

Q. What about periodicals like National Geographic with native women from undeveloped lands? Did you ever thumb through it as a teenager?

A. Purely for anthropological edification.

Q. What about pin-ups?

A. My parents kept finding these magazines almost as quickly as I could hide them. I told them it was to read many of the articles they might contain, again for sociological research. I did find a way to hide at least one pinup from them in a newspaper under the fold of a book jacket. The pin-up was of a comedian’s wife appearing in a gossip column in the New York Post.

Q. That’s hard to believe. Do you even remember the book?

A. George Lefebvre’s “The Coming of the French Revolution.”

Q. Don’t you think everything you’ve told us is really inexcusable objectification of females on your part?

A. Objectification maybe so. Inexcusable? I don’t think so. I wasn’t taught to objectify females by any older role models. The cowboy heroes I watched on television when I was growing up were actually a very clean lot and would only kiss, if that, behind a large hat. The heroes of today’s movies lose no time making out even on prime time TV with lots of heavy breathing and few if any clothes on top of or under the sheets. In sum this is all natural like the tides, they come in and then go out, over and over.

Q. So, how do you define a perversion?

A. Oh, that’s a political question.

Robin Cantwell

The Rat King

‘Campbell. You’re late. Sit.’

As I listen to my boss snap at me like I’m some sort of Pavlovian poodle, I slip into the chair opposite his desk and watch him gulp his coffee. He savours it, loudly, licking his lips with his reptilian tongue.

‘I tell you, that’s a fine cup of joe,’ he grins. ‘Shame you’ll never get to enjoy it. They save the real stuff for senior management, see. You pencil pushers only get capsules. They practically piss in them. Hey Campbell, wanna know what success tastes like?’

He leans forward and holds out his coffee cup at full stretch, letting it waft under my nose.

‘Sir, I wanted to check in with you about the Paris promotion? I was told we’d hear back last week and –’

‘Paris?! You?!’

He rocks back on his chair legs like a conquering warlord and screams a hellish wail of laughter.

‘Word on the ninth floor is you’ve screwed up the Henderson deal, Campbell. Just when I thought you couldn’t sink any lower.’

‘Sir, I did no such thing!’ I protest limply, scrambling my brain to remember who the fuck Henderson is and what exactly is his deal.

He clenches his fists and grits his teeth, as if ready to launch himself across the desk and smash me to smithereens. And right on cue, I feel it: the faint stirring of an erection in my underpants. Now this isn’t one of those unwelcome hard-ons you get when sharing a glass of wine with your fiancée’s better-looking sister. No – this is a pump of full-bodied adrenalin reserved exclusively for those sweet, sweet moments of unfathomable humiliation.

I brace myself for the torture to come:

‘A weakling who lets people trample all over you. That’s what you are, Campbell. Hell, you’re not good enough to shine my shoes.’

‘Be that as it may, I believe myself to be an integral cog within the company’s –’

He slams his fist down on his desk, sending a battalion of corporate plaques, trophies, and commemorative busts flying my way.

‘Little baby Campbell wants me to give him the Paris promotion – too hard for you here, is it? Too tough a boss, am I? You’re a cubicle rat, Campbell. A stinky little cubicle rat.’

He bites his teeth against his bottom lip and makes gnawing rat noises, doing his best to eat away at my self-esteem – but as I watch the veins in his neck bulge with testosterone-fuelled rage, little does he know that I’m absolutely rock hard down below.

‘You know why I don’t belong in a cubicle? How I took one look at that fucking infestation out there and said ‘Sayonara’? It’s because my big balls won’t fit in them. And the way I’m going – they’re going to have to build a bigger building for them too.’

‘So…I’ll wait to hear back about Paris?’

‘Paris is strictly BBO, Campbell. Big. Balls. Only. Now piss off and do some bloody work for once in your miserable life. Au rev-fucking-oir.’

He dismisses me with the flick of a finger, and off I trudge to my desk, listening to the water cooler gurgle its pity at me. I stare at my computer and think of ways to turn it all around – how maybe, just maybe, if I claw back the Henderson deal, Paris could still be on the cards…or failing that, promotion to a slightly bigger cubicle.

But I can’t suppress it. My groin still burns from the glorious smackdown he just gave me. I need to unload. So I do what I always do in times of trouble: I rush to the toilets, lock myself in, immediately drop my pants and jerk off to memorised porn videos, faithfully reconstructed with precision-engineered accuracy. 

There’s only one problem: every time I picture myself with a girl – be it a pornstar confused by my presence, the argumentative barista down the road or Racist Cathy from Accounts – my boss bursts into the fantasy, ripping off his clothes to expose his Herculean torso and testicles the size of bowling balls. The women rejoice with feverish delight, of course – as if Superman has just flown in to save them from my over-eager touch. Then he beds them mercilessly as I stand in the corner and watch, wide-eyed with arousal and fear.

The plot thickens. Now it’s just me and him. Mano a mano. Giant dick versus shrivelled slug. Without a single word of instruction, I turn around, squirming uncomfortably as he enters me. I wince at his disapproving grunts – I can only assume he’s disappointed that I surrendered so easily. I try to stop but can’t. Instead I listen to him tear into the loves of my life one by one – how it was too easy to bring them to orgasm when he was banging them in the boardroom behind my back – until I finish with a mad flourish, splattering the wall like a squirt gun loaded with cottage cheese. I stare at my weird graffiti and think about what I’ve done. Just like he’d want me to.

I leave without washing my hands, rubbing my gummy residue between my fingertips. I’m on my way back to cubicle purgatory, ready to zonk out on Minecraft when I see it: my boss’s mythical coffee cup, unguarded by the kitchen kettle. While his assistant searches for milk in the fridge, I tiptoe over and peer inside his chalice of power, filled with a brown swamp of boiling water. Without giving it a second thought, I stick my crusty finger into the cup, feeling the water scold me as I stir in my sticky essence.

Moments later and I’m back at my desk, watching him through the reflection in my monitor while he patrols his office behind the great glass walls that keep the vermin at bay. His assistant brings in his coffee. I hold my breath. He takes one look at the cup – sniffs at it suspiciously – then swallows. He licks his lips and smiles.

The taste of success…

Judge Santiago Burdon

Naked Truth

I mentioned to a poet friend of mine, one of the few I respect, if he believed a writer could consider himself a success by the amount of nude photos women and surprisingly number of men send to him.

I’m not sure how to measure my efforts as a success or as a failure. My point of view is if I am doing what I’ve always wanted to do as a profession, then I have achieved success.

I’ve mentioned my somewhat modest expectation to others when discussing the subject and it has received a variety of comments. But the comment that has been most popular is, “Bullshit! You can’t tell me you don’t want your book to be a bestseller or have your books made into movies and make a shit load of money. C’mon, everyone wants to be famous, and I’m not talking the fifteen minutes kind.”

“Famous isn’t good for a writer,” Ken Kesey once said. “You don’t observe well when you’re being observed.”

Fame and fortune would be wonderful perks, without a doubt, but these have never been among my motivations for being a writer. I sincerely am not concerned if what I write is accepted or rejected. Rejection letters are just fuel for my creative fire. I selfishly write for myself not for an audience. Twisting your prose to fit the perimeters of an audience is a fucking trap without any hope of escape.

A true writer knows this predilection is actually a curse we’re born with. It manifests in our souls, an insatiable need to be recognized. I described a writer in a poem written years ago:

A Poet is an Artist that paints in darkness
Words of the poem are colors creating light 
A Writer is blessed with all of the answers
Cursed with the search of which questions to ask

It’s the first time I’ve ever directly quoted myself.

“Okay, but get back to the naked pictures, will ya. No one is interested in this boring literary mumbo jumbo.”

I couldn’t agree with him more.

“So, I’ve been receiving what I consider a large number of nude photos on my WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, and Gmail accounts, and I’ve concluded it is a direct correlation to my success as a writer. I’ve researched the subject to investigate if other writers have experienced the same anomaly. I haven’t discovered any mention of it being so. I surely can’t be the only writer out there that has received this type of appreciation in response to their work.”

My poet friend said he’d get back to me, it was something he had to think about. Although I judged him as an accomplished poet, he turned out to be an unreliable counselor. He would’ve been a terrible bartender. After a week I contacted him to ask if he had made a decision concerning my question. He first apologized and then started laughing, commenting he didn’t think I was serious. He believed it was all a joke, a setup or research for a story. Now I had his complete attention after convincing him my question was authentic. 

“In order to make an educated decision, I’d need to look at the pictures. Do you think that could be possible?”

“I’m not sure how seeing the photos would help in determining an answer to my question. Besides, all the senders asked me to keep them private and not share them.”

“How many photos exactly have you received? Are the women totally naked, and can you see their faces?”

“I guess close to twenty five, including the three photos of men.”

“Were there suggestive messages with the photos? Also, are you sure they were sent in response to your writing? Are you on some type of dating site?”

“Yes, some included sexual messages. Most mentioned my poems and I’m not on a dating site. So, what do you think?”

“I rarely receive more than fifteen comments on my poems when I post them,” he said with a sarcastic tone. “So I’m going to conclude yes, it does have a relevance in determining your success as a writer. Although, the most viable explanation is that your poems appeal to a unique audience of sick, twisted and perverted readers.” 

The phone hummed a dial tone without a goodbye.

And I thought, why did he say that like it’s a bad thing?

Sara Corris

Miracles

November, 2020: Dad Bods

“Yuck! Daddy has donut crumbs in his shoulder hair!” 

“Da-da gwoss! Gwoss da-da, hahaha.” 

Stacy and Jordan scampered off across the park, laughing. Their father remained seated on the cold hard earth, back slumped, gut protruding from beneath his sweater, gaze inscrutable.

Rob smiled down at him. “Same, man. Same! After 32 or 33, it all hits at once: the weight gain, hair sprouting in weird new places–”

“Gotta cultivate that dad bod.” Jaimie’s dad patted his paunch with a grin.

Rob laughed and gestured to his own flabby midsection. “Same, dude. Same! I can barely fit into my jeans.”

“Good thing we’re not heading back to the office anytime soon. I don’t think my work clothes–”

“Ravages of time. It’s inevitable.” William’s dad reached for the donut box. “Nothing to do but embrace it, lean into the dad bod–” 

“Hey guys. Anyone seen my shirt?” 

The dads ceased talking as all six feet, five inches of Tessa’s dad stood shirtlessly before them.

“I took it off for my HIIT workout, now I can’t find it anywhere.” 

Sweat glistened on Tessa’s dad’s hairless torso. It trickled down into his cumgutters while the dads glared at him in silence. 

Tessa’s dad shrugged. “Guess I’ll have to keep moving to stay warm.” He smiled, turned, and launched into another set of burpees.

The wives returned en masse. Rob caught William’s mom’s eye for a second before turning to kiss his own wife, Meghan, on the top of her head.

“So whaddya want to do with our Bella-free weekend in the city, Megs? I’ve only got the one showing tomorrow … Megs?” 

“Huh? Sorry Robbie, could you repeat that? I got distracted by all the squirrels.”

Nearby, Tessa’s dad executed another set of hand-clap push-ups with flawless form. His daughter, his heavily pregnant wife, and his dog, all seated on his back, cheered and laughed. 

“Now do one-hand, daddy!” shouted Tessa. 

“Ok, baby!”

Stacy and Jordan’s dad watched Tessa’s happy family as his right hand fumbled around for the donut box, in vain.

He glanced down, then looked around. No box.

“What the–”

He looked up and saw the hulking mutt a few yards away. Watching. Grinning. The box with the last remaining donut in its hideous maw.

“Mommy, Daddy, look! That man is fighting with a dog over a donut!”

“Uh-oh!” Tessa’s dad laughed toplessly.

Jamie’s dad continued conversing at Jamie’s mom: “I’m considering increasing monthly transfers to the stocks portfolio–”

Jaimie’s mom gasped and squeezed his arm. 

“Look, there’s Tessa’s dad! I’m going to go see how he’s holding up, what with all this Asian hate on the rise.” 

Jaimie’s dad stared.

“But … I’m also Asian, and you’ve never asked me …” he trailed off. His wife was gone.

William came toddling up to his parents.

“Tessa’s daddy is SO strong!” William exclaimed breathlessly. “Look! He’s carrying Tessa and Tessa’s pregnant mommy and Cinnamon the doggie all the way home! Wow!” 

He lifted his tiny arms up to his father. 

“Carry me home, daddy!”

“Baby, you know daddy’s back hasn’t been right since that time he tried going to the gym three months ago,” said William’s mom. 

“I hate you,” muttered William’s dad.

***

The Following Monday: TBF ADD Is Totally Real (I Have It Myself)

Rob’s phone lit up with a new message from William’s mom. He threw the sports section over the phone without reading it.

Rob stared down into his coffee as he spoke. “I might stay in the city tonight. Not come home, I mean.”

“Uh-huh.” Meghan continued frowning at the prescription bottle in her hand. Had she already taken her pills this morning? When she’d first come into the kitchen, perhaps?

“Because of work. Work’s been crazy. Weird, right? You wouldn’t think it from the news. I’ve got showings booked for every night this week. Next week too.”

“Hey Robbie? Did you see me take my Adderall this morning? I can’t remember if I took it already.”

“What?”

“Did you see–oh, never mind.” Meghan shrugged and gulped down another 30mg.

“So you should assume for the next couple weeks that I’ll be staying in the city most nights, unless I say otherwise.”

Meghan settled down at the table with a mug of coffee and began scrolling on her phone. “Uh-huh. You helping Bella get set up on the computer today?”

Rob leaned back and sighed. “I guess, yeah, I can get her started. But I have to be out of here by 10, and I need to get myself ready first. I actually have to go out into the world. Assholes around here assume everyone can hunker down in their pajamas, work from a laptop–”

“Language,” Meghan murmured, absorbed in her reading.

They sat in silence. Several minutes passed before Meghan spoke again, her head bent over her phone.

“You going to be home for dinner tonight? Can you pick up some things from the store on the way?”

Rob stared. “Didn’t you hear anything I said? I just told you, I’m slammed at work. I’ve got showings booked every evening for–”

“Holy shit! Did you know the Righteous Brothers are white?” 

“… huh?”

“I’ve lived my whole life, thinking they were black.” Meghan shook her head in disbelief, then turned and gazed out the window. “My whole life. What else don’t I know?” she whispered.

“What the fuck?”

“Language.”

“But you just said ‘shit’ a moment–”

“Language.”

Rob sighed with frustration. “MEGS. LISTEN. I won’t be–”

“Ssshh, keep it down! Bella’s still asleep. You want to wake her?” 

Rob lowered his voice to an irritated hiss. “I am trying to tell you, I won’t be home tonight because of work–”

“You’re still too loud. If she wakes up, you can deal with her.”

In a strained whisper: “I keep telling you, work is really busy right now, and tonight I won’t be home, and in fact most nights I probably won’t be home, so you should just assume going forward that I won’t be home unless–”

“Oh god.” Meghan swallowed. “I definitely already took my meds this morning. Shoot.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I accidentally took my meds twice. It’s nothing, I do it all the time. It just means my heart feels weird and jumpy for a few hours, like it’s trying to escape my chest. It’s annoying, is all.” Meghan got up to refill her mug.

Rob watched incredulously. “That … really doesn’t sound good, Megs. You say you do this a lot–”

He was interrupted by wailing from Bella’s room. 

“Shoot, she’s up. Can you handle her this morning? Get her to have some breakfast, but first she’s got to use the bathroom, maybe some fruit, she won’t touch the bananas but she’s been into the pineapple lately, if you haven’t eaten it all already maybe try giving her some of that, but you have to cut it up into very small pieces or she won’t eat it, and get her all set up on the computer? I’ve done it the last three days. I still haven’t finished my coffee.” Meghan’s hand jerked as she tried to pour, sending coffee everywhere but into her mug.

***

December, 2020: Endings! Beginnings! Squirrels!

Rob typed out a brisk final message to William’s mom. Don’t overthink it, he told himself. Get to the point and be done with it.

I’m out. Meghan’s starting to suspect something. I can’t risk it anymore. 

Rob read it over and hit send.

Meghan came into the bedroom and screamed.

“Jeez, Robbie, you scared the shh– … the crrr– … you really, really scared me! What are you doing here?”

Rob stared. “Megs. I’ve been here for hours. I talked to you out by the TV, remember? You were sorting laundry.”

Meghan’s mouth hung open. Shoot, the laundry!

She craned her neck back towards the living room, trying to determine whether she’d actually put a load into the machine, or just left everything in separate piles on all the furniture.

“Megs … Megs … are you listening? Did you hear what I said earlier, by the TV? About staying out here with you guys from now on, only heading back to the city for showings when I really need to?” Rob struggled to stay patient.

“Uh-huh! That sounds nice.” She turned back around and smiled. 

Meghan went to her dresser and began changing for bed. “Can you bring back some more of my winter clothes, the next time? Sweaters. Also for Bella. Are you going back tomorrow? Pyjamas too. But with the footies, I don’t know. They grow so fast. A whole year? Dental floss; that’s what I meant to get! No. She’ll need new ones.”

Meghan went to draw the curtains, but stopped when she saw Rob. “What’s wrong? Do you have a headache?”

Rob lifted his head from his hands. “Megs. Come here. Sit down.” She did; Rob took hold of her shoulders and stared into her eyes. “I’m not going back to the apartment, ok? I’m gonna stay out here with you guys, from now on.”

Meghan swallowed. “Oh. Well … great! That will be great.” She forced a smile, then rose and went to the window. “The curtains … Bella will be thrilled.” She stood staring out, not pulling the curtains shut. 

Oh god oh god what will I do I can’t … aww! A squirrel!

“Robbie, come look! There’s a squirrel in a tree!” she called over her shoulder, but Rob had left the room.

***

Later That Week: It Really Is A Solid Franchise

Meghan and Tessa’s dad lay on the rug before the fireplace, fully nude, facing each other.

“Really? You’re not teasing me?”

“Meghan, I swear! They’re my favorite movies. I watch the whole series start to finish at least once a year.”

“Seriously? Me too!”

“What! Really?”

“Yes! Which one’s your favorite?”

“That’s tough for me.” Tessa’s dad frowned. “Objectively, I’ve got to go with Furious 7 as the all-round best, but personally? I love the ones with Han.”

“I love Han too! I still feel deeply ambivalent towards Shaw, even though he’s on their side now–”

“I know; the British are such dickheads. But, before all that? Han being with Wonder Woman? That was huge for me, seeing that on the big screen. Walking Dead gets all the attention for pairing Glenn with a white chick, but–”

“–but the Fast & Furious series has been low-key racially progressive since DAY ONE, both in front of the camera AND behind the camera–”

“–YES, exactly!” Tessa’s dad slapped the ground. “I can’t believe this! Which one’s your favorite?”

“Well, like you, I fully appreciate that Furious 7 has the greatest cinematic merit. But my personal fave is the first.” Meghan lowered her eyes. “Because it was the first time I’d seen ADD depicted onscreen in such a raw way. When Paul Walker says to Jesse, like, ‘you’re so good at computers, how are you not working for NASA or something,’ and poor Jesse explains he’s got ADD–”

“–it’s heartbreaking.”

“Right? And later, when Jesse impulsively makes that terrible bet against Tran, then loses the bet, then panics and impulsively flees? Those are textbook ADD behaviors.”

“It’s so sad when Jesse shows up at Dom’s place days later, and he’s like, ‘please help me, I didn’t know what I was doing, I have ADD,’ and then Tran and his crew gun him down right there in the driveway–”

“–he had so much potential, but he never stood a chance in this world. Because of the ADD.” Meghan sighed. “And that’s what it feels like, for me, every day. Fast & Furious nailed it. It … made me feel seen.” 

Tessa’s dad swallowed. “That’s how the Fast & Furious franchise makes me feel, too. Seen. When I felt like, maybe no one did.”

Meghan kissed him. “I see you,” she whispered.

“I know that now. That’s why I love you. And I see you, I really see you.”

“I know. You make me feel the way Fast & Furious makes me feel. Seen. Really, truly seen. And I love you for it.” She wrapped her limbs around him and drew him back on top of her.

***

June, 2021: Awww! A Miracle!

Meghan stood outside the movie theatre, too stunned to order an Uber. 

Only one person in the world could understand what she was feeling at this moment, and he was the one person she couldn’t call. It had been too long. Too much had happened, in both their lives. So much sorrow.

All around her, people streamed out into the streets, buzzing about one thing: a hero’s return from the dead. That, and the space car.

Meghan felt the tears coming. She reached for her phone. But instead of ordering a car, she found herself drafting a text. To him.

“Meghan? I thought I saw you in there.”

She looked up. He was standing there, so close. Smiling at her. 

She smiled back, her first smile in months. 

“You did. You did see me. You’ve always seen me.”

And she was in his arms again. 

“I see you,” she told him, over and over, between kisses.

“I’m sorry your husband shot himself in the head–”

“I know you are. I’m sorry your wife died in childbirth–”

“I know, I know,” Tessa and Gisele’s dad murmured as he drew Meghan to his chest. 

Feeling Meghan’s goosebumps, he wordlessly peeled off his shirt and swaddled her in it.

They looked into each other’s eyes and smiled. Everything was going to be ok.

Don Stoll

State of Nature

I’m the last bloke you’d think would know any philosophy: never a day of uni in my life. But I know a bit about the one true philosopher of our time, old Tom Hobbes.

Acquired my knowledge as a lad, good thirty years ago. “Advanced” for my age, I was. Would go into a pub, usually get told to leave. But one night got served straight off. 

Barman’s drawing my half when bird next to me says, “Make it a pint.”

Smiling she says, “I’m a nihilist,” me with no clue what she means. 

She sees that, says, “Sorry, studying philosophy at uni.”  

She’s twenty. I can’t believe my luck. We get pissed. 

Next morning I wake up in her bedsit. She’s sitting up, sheet pulled up to cover herself. Me wondering why she bothers since I’ve seen it all. Or would have, night before. I can’t remember how she looks, so maybe there’s sense in her covering up. 

I say, “Last night’s a blur, so we do it again this morning it’ll be like the first time.”  

I laugh thinking that was a good one. She nods the sort of nod that means she’s not listening, and her smile from the pub is gone. I think Bloody hell, now that she sees me in the full light of day. . .  

I come clean, say, “I’m fifteen but no way you could have known, that’s on me.” 

Her smile comes back. She lowers the sheet. Lovely jog to the memory, that was. Tells me she knew I was a baby, had only been pondering her hangover. 

She says, “Sod your age,” and, “Danny, right?” 

I say, “Close, luv.” 

I call her luv because I’m fucked if I can remember her name. 

I say, “It’s Davy.”

Sliding down on the bed I say, “But you call me whatever long as you call me for mealtime.”

After a minute she says something I can’t make out because she’s got my ears clamped. But the calm way she says it, like she’s ordering breakfast in the same place she goes every morning, tells me I’m not doing a proper job. Takes practice, I guess.

She says, “No worries, Danny or Davy, come on up here.”  

I obey. Kiss her mouth wondering what she tastes more, herself or the skinful I’d had night before, not just coming out of my mouth but out of every pore. Whatever she tastes she doesn’t mind.

The kiss finally over I say, “So that’s it, sod the law?”    

She says, “Give it a minute, sod more than the law.”  

I wasn’t hard all the way till she said that.   

“Yeah, sod the law,” she says. “State of nature’s coming, and in such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no. . .”

I try to kiss her mouth again but she says, “Clever bloke you should know about, Thomas Hobbes.”

I say, “Professor of yours?” 

She says, “Look him up,” and, “Abridged version for you: in the state of nature there is no society; and continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” 

I say, “You going to flip over?” and she says, “Didn’t I say give it a minute?” 

She says, “Anyway, I promise you the state of nature’s coming.”

Not long after I did what she told me, looked up Hobbes. Seemed like bollocks.

Till the oceans started rising.

***

Thirty years after my unusual lesson in philosophy, I pissed off for the States. If the planet was drowning, better to be somewhere with more land. It would take longer to go under. Immigration ban didn’t frighten me because by that time, amidst the general chaos, passports had become incidental and enforcement at ports of entry was slipshod. It was mostly vigilante, meaning that as long as you were white and you sounded American, you were safe. I can do a number of Yank accents. I chose Midwest.

Enforcement at the ports was a joke. I brought in an old Westley Richards droplock double rifle in my luggage. Knew I’d find use for it. Bloke can always find use for a rifle. 

Course, you could still ask why not stick to dry ground in the middle of the States instead of heading for California. But I never thought about putting down roots there, with less ground all the time where they could get a purchase. My thinking was that California had been rich, so all the posh people fleeing to high ground would have left loads of swag. Help myself, then piss off to dry, beautiful Montana was my plan.

Took over a place in this sodding ghost town. Assumed I had no neighbors. Then evening came, lights went on at a place a couple of hundred meters away. Could have moved, but I decided to observe through the glasses first. Thought I might as well stay put unless they were going to give me trouble. 

Old chap, young woman. His daughter, I think, come at no small risk to herself to talk him into moving. Wouldn’t have been the first old chap to insist on staying in a doomed house he’d lived in forever.

Next day old chap’s on his deck with a rifle, blasting away at a wolf well out of range. He’s bloody starkers. I think, Off his head, and his daughter has to tolerate it. 

Then she prances out onto the deck also not wearing a stitch. Strokes the rifle barrel, then starts stroking elsewhere. Then decides more than stroking’s needed. Use your imagination.

But it’s no good. He hangs his head, that not being the only thing left hanging. She goes back in the house.  

Need to meet them, I thought. And once I had, him saying their names were Frank and Ludmilla Pride and she was his third wife, the way she looked at me told me she was aching for a younger bloke. I’m thinking he’d introduced her as his third wife to hint that he’s got one who looks like this now, imagine the women he had when he was younger.  

I think, Not sure you could have done better. And, You’re young no more, lad.          

Anyway, he’s doing all the talking. But finally he says, “This man’s no danger to you, Ludmilla, you can talk.”  

She says, “Is pleasure to meet you,” in an accent you’d have needed a chainsaw to cut. He says he’d brought her to the States right before the ban on immigration passed. So I understood why he’d told her not to worry about me: I hadn’t used my phony Yank accent. I also understood why she’d stayed with him in this ghost town instead of heading inland where the younger blokes were, but also where the hordes wouldn’t give a toss that she was legal. They hear her and know she’s a foreigner, she’s done.   

We chatted more. Frank said he’d been mayor of the city when it was a city. 

“Practically Mayor for Life,” he said.

That made me curious. But truth is that after we parted ways, I thought more about Ludmilla than about Frank. 

Anyway, place I’d taken over happened to be near the city library. I thought one day I’d have a snoop around. Never been a reader, but you never know. I didn’t have to break in: the staff had fled without bothering to lock up.    

I poked about and came across the old newspapers. I recalled “Mayor for Life” and thought I’d see what there was to read about Frank. There was loads. 

City, when it really was a city, had an interesting story too. And Frank’s own story tied up with it.     

***

Frank Pride had liked to boast about his success in the stock market. And he liked to say that a winner in business would also be a winner in politics. 

Critics said he’d been lucky to exit the market just before it crashed in 2002 and 2007, and lucky to jump back in as it was about to tick up.  

“You know what makes someone a critic of me?” he liked to say when he was campaigning for mayor. “Not being as rich as I am.” 

Ecstatic applause.

“History teaches that markets rise and fall. You’ve heard about the first-ever market bubble, the one for tulips that burst four hundred years ago? I learned that markets rise and fall from my old Dutch uncle who got out of tulips at the right time back in 1637.”

Frank must have been proud of that joke, knowing he was the last forty-five-year-old man in the world that anyone would mistake for four hundred. Losing his hair, but fit. And his wife gave proof of his vigor. He would deliver his tulip line and then turn to where Wife Number Two, the former Olga Orlova, a beauty barely half his age, was sitting. Frank would present her with a fresh tulip. 

“History also teaches,” he’d add after kissing her, “that the oceans rise and fall.”

He would scan his audience for the right face before delivering his next line. 

“Sir, you remember when a morning stroll could take you from Alaska to Russia?”

A smile would spread across the face of the chosen old geezer.

“But don’t try that now unless you’re from Galilee,” Frank would smile back.

He would pause for laughter.   

“And Mr.”. . . (he’d pause again so the old chap could shout his name) “you also remember the Ice Age. So you’ve learned that the climate changes and oceans rise and fall, just like my Dutch uncle learned that markets rise and fall. And I say now’s the time to be smart about rising and falling ocean levels, so we can profit from them just like we profit from rising and falling markets. I say we unincorporate Beach Flats now before the ocean covers it. Then we reincorporate later after the ocean has washed away the mess!”    

Frank would have to shout so that his audience could hear him over their cheers.

***

The Beach Flats neighborhood was cut in half by a river that flowed from the mountains to the sea. The first people to live there after the Ohlone Indians were Italian fishing families, with some Portuguese mixed in. Some of those families built restaurants. As the waters got fished out, the restaurants remained. Every one of the restaurants lining the pier was either Italian or Portuguese. 

By the time there was no more fishing you’d have seen, if you looked back toward land from the pier, Beach Heights North on your left and Beach Heights South on your right. The ocean views made this real estate to kill for. 

A time came when the rich people on Beach Heights decided to buy enough of Beach Flats to make room for an amusement park. This would bring money into a neighborhood that would never see fishing money again. The new park straddled the river and it had a roller coaster, like every amusement park. But what made the reputation of this particular park was the river. From the bridge connecting the two halves of the park you could look down on “mermaids,” girls paid to swim back and forth under the bridge.

Eventually, the park suffered from mismanagement. Best example: the “adult swims,” when the mermaids swam naked and admission to the park doubled and by paying double again you could swim with them. Absolutely my cup of tea, I don’t mind saying. But amusement parks do best when Mum and the kiddies feel comfortable. 

The adult swims finally went away. But they’d polluted the atmosphere, making it welcoming to every sort of sleaze. In particular, the old Beach Flats Italian and Portuguese families had been replaced by a new “demographic,” if you get my meaning. Heights people looked down on Flats people in more way than one. 

So Beach Heights fell in love with Frank’s plan to unincorporate Beach Flats. Its “demographic” would have to provide for themselves the services that Beach Heights and the rest of the city had got fed up paying for.   

“Low moral values keep the Beach Flats property values low,” Frank would say. “I’m going to let the ocean scrub the filth out of there. Then, when the time is right, I’ll go back in to build great moral values and great property values.”              

As for the pier thrusting from Beach Flats deep into the bay, Frank’s plan was not to unincorporate. The money saved by unincorporating the Flats would pay for new access roads and bridges to the pier, bypassing the Flats. Direct access from the Flats would be denied. Though some people said that new access roads and bridges wouldn’t save the pier from rising ocean levels, Frank had an answer. The savings from unincorporating the Flats would pay for construction of a sturdier, taller pier. 

There were happy memories of the glory days of the pier’s Italian and Portuguese restaurants, but good families had stopped going because they didn’t like passing through Beach Flats. However, Frank’s plan was to take apart the old restaurants plank by plank and put them back together on the new pier, far above the waves. 

Diners who didn’t want to think about Beach Flats would have their view of it blocked by a wall of steel and concrete. Nothing excited the crowds at Frank’s rallies as much as watching him get worked up about the wall.

***

Long after the end of his third term as mayor, Frank planned to celebrate his seventy-fifth birthday with his wife. I wondered how much he had to celebrate.

During the thirty years since he’d first become mayor, the ocean had submerged Beach Flats, driving out the old “demographic” like rats from a sinking ship. But then the ocean had submerged the pier, meaning the old one. New access roads and bridges had been affordable, but it turned out that the new pier hadn’t. The ocean had gone on to submerge also Beach Heights North and Beach Heights South and nearly all of the rest of Frank’s city. He’d moved several miles inland while the rest of the population had moved farther inland still, to places like Minneapolis and Missoula. 

Why hadn’t Frank gone, too? Concern for Ludmilla’s safety? Perhaps. But my guess is that stubbornness had to be a big part of it. Same stubbornness that had made him stick to his guns about rising and falling ocean levels even when scientists told him there was no evidence that the falling would start soon enough.

I went looking for Frank and Ludmilla on his birthday. My lorry was loaded. I wanted company for the drive to Montana.

But would she go with me to where her not being a proper Yank would be an issue? I’d need to show her I could protect her, be hard in more ways than one.   

Frank and Ludmilla had their guns and I had my Westley Richards.       

“Bulls and bears,” Frank said. “Never saw them in the old days.”

He always talked about the sodding bulls and bears. Story was, a rancher who’d left for the Midwest had abandoned his cattle, bulls included. And what with depopulation, the grizzlies had come back. You never dared go walking without a gun. 

“You going to shoot something for your birthday dinner?” I said. 

“I used to like turducken on my birthday,” he said. “You know turducken?”

I shook my head.

“A chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey and cooked that way. You slice it and get the meat of all three birds at once.”

Frank beamed.

“How about stuffing a bull inside a bear,” he said. “Or a bear inside a bull?”

Ludmilla shook her head. They had no staff to do the work.   

I was tired of small talk. I knew I was taking a gamble since I might have misjudged her attachment to him. But I’d made up my mind. 

Thinking of old Tom Hobbes and the state of nature, I raised my Westley Richards and emptied it into Frank’s chest.

I looked at Ludmilla. Maybe she didn’t like having blood sprayed all over her.   

She looked down at herself. I held my breath. 

She smiled. I let out my breath. 

“Come to Montana with me,” I said. “I can protect you.”

“I need a shower first.”

I had an idea.

“How about we go tomorrow? While you shower, I shoot a bull and a bear. We’ll do the stuffing together. Curious to taste it.”

She nodded.   

Joseph Farley

A Man Walks Into a Bar

I had been in Irish bars in America, and a few in Dublin, but I had never been in a bar before like Harrington’s. 

I had visited a female friend who lived in another town. I had arrived on a Friday evening. I had expected to stay the weekend at her apartment, but was kicked out early on Saturday afternoon. Permanently. I won’t go into details as to why this occurred. Lets just say that neither one of us was without faults.

I had time to kill before my train home and good reason to drink. Harrington’s was near the station. I went in to get mellow. 

It was in some ways a typical neighborhood bar. It was dark. The walls and floors were faded wood with faded stains. Not many people attempted eye contact.

I took a seat at the bar and ordered a draft beer from the bartender. There was a bowl of salted nuts and a bowl of salted pretzels for sharing, items intended to stimulate thirst. There was also a bowl of dry cereal with multicolored marshmallow bits in it.

I asked the bartender about the cereal when he plopped a frothing mug in front of me.

“What’s that for?”

“To keep the leprechauns away.”

“You’re joking,” I said. “There’s no such thing.”

“Oh there is. Believe me. My family’s been under a curse from them for centuries.”

“Really? And this cereal scares them off?”

“No. It helps us pick them out of the crowd. If a short fellow, or a lass, comes in here, especially if he or she has a brogue or reddish hair, and eats only marshmallows from the bowl, we have good reason to suspect it’s a leprechaun.”

“That doesn’t seem a logical test. I would think there would be something more magical involving iron horse shoes or the like.”

“You’d be surprised how susceptible leprechauns are to modern advertising. The ad campaign for this cereal has taught them to believe that it is a prized food for them. That’s what advertising does. It creates the need then you are stuck with the need.”

“This cereal is advertised in Ireland?”

“Doesn’t need to be,” he said. “There are plenty of leprechauns in America.”

“How do they get here?”

“Stowaways. They hide in the luggage of tourists coming back from the Emerald Isle. Once here they set up home and breed like any other immigrant. The one’s born here are a bit taller due to the diet. They’re partial to those Mc burgers and green milkshakes truth be told. Some even intermix with the locals. In the old days we would just keep an eye on anyone under four foot tall who came in. Now we have to check out anyone under five foot five.”

I was glad to be five nine.

I asked, “Are there any other tell tale signs that a customer is a leprechaun?”

“They only order whiskey. Never beer or a cocktail.”

“For sure?” I asked.

“Dead sure,” said the bartender.

“Do they cause any trouble when they come in?”

“The sure do. They have a tendency to puke all over the bar, piss on the bathroom, and skip out without paying.”

“Don’t other customers do that?”

“On occasion, but leprechauns dance a jig on the sidewalk and jeer you through the window before disappearing in a puff of smoke.”

“Smoke?”

“Weed or cigarettes. No clay pipes. America changes people.”

“While bothersome that doesn’t seem so bad a curses go.”

“You’re not a bartender and you’re not a Harrington. You have not grown up with tales from great grandparents, grandparents and parents about the annoying antics of leprechauns. It gets to you. Hits you in your pride. Hits you in your wallet. I keep a shotgun under the bar loaded with rock salt. They move so fast I’ve never hit one. Maybe winged one, but she just stuck out her tongue and kept dancing on the sidewalk.”

“How did the curse start?”

“As I was told it started over a hundred years ago, back in Ireland. My great great great was a part owner of a pub in County Kildare. He was known for his drinking and for his strong bladder. He had some bad habits. The worst was that he hit the product. A wee nip here and there. Something you shouldn’t do if you run a bar. Eats away the profits. One slow night, he did much more drinking than pouring. After closing up he was heading home across a field. There was a pile of large stones that had been there for ever and a tall, wide tree that had been there close to forever. My ancestor’s bladder, which was large and could hold a lot, suggested that he empty it. The tree looked like a good spot. My ancestor undid his buttons and lifted his hose out. He sprayed gold all over that tree. He just kept going and going. Although he did not know it, a leprechaun lived under that tree, a leprechaun that was well connected in leprechaun circles. That leprechaun noticed a trickle leaking through his ceiling that fast became a flood. He rushed out to confront the man damaging his home, but my ancestor just laughed at the leprechauns threats and shaking fists. He kept on letting all that gold stream out, much of it on the hat and clothes and face of that leprechaun. The wee man, I mean the leprechaun not my ancestor, was angry but could do nothing about it because of the religious medals my ancestor was wearing. Still, he put a curse, a wide and lasting curse, on my sacred ancestor and all his descendants.”

“And the curse was…”

“I don’t know what the words were. Probably said in Gaelic or another tongue anyway. But I know the result. The leprechaun knew my ancestor was barman. It was stuff a barman hates. Vomit on the floor of the bar, piss on the floor of the bathroom, and unpaid tabs.”

I was about to tell the bartender that he was serving baloney, or should I say blarney, when a smallish man, no bigger than five foot two, with a pale face and red freckles came into the bar. The bartender eyed the new arrival with suspicion, but said nothing. The new customer sat down at the bar two seats away from me.

The man called out to the bartender, “Give me a shot of Jameson.”

“Are your sure of that?” replied the bartender. “We have a special on Guiness. Draft. Three bucks a mug.”

“No thank you,” said the new customer. “I’m more of a whiskey man.”

“Suit yourself,” the bartender replied. He wiped down the counter with a brown rag, using this more or less as an excuse to lean over the bar and sneak a better look at the man. When the bartender straightened up he looked at me and touched his nose.

I snuck a glance at the character. I didn’t see anything particularly odd about him until I saw his socks. Green socks. Emerald green. This suggested bad fashion sense to me, not evidence of the guest being a leprechaun. He notice me and winked. I turned away, focusing on my drink.

The bartender set a bowl of cereal and a bowl of salted nut on the counter next to the man. Then went to pour a shot.

There was a mirror on the wall behind the bar. I could tell the bartender was watching the man while trying not to be obvious about it. This of course made it even more obvious.

I tried watching the little man out of the corner of my eye, curious to see if he would reach for the nuts or the cereal. The little man seemed to ignore both bowls next to him. I noticed all the marshmallow shapes in the cereal. I was relieved when the man glanced at the bowls, reached over and took a handful of nuts.

The bartender had taken his time getting the shot for his customer, but finally put it down in front of him. 

“Six bucks,” the bartender said.

“Can I run a tab?” asked the man.

“No tabs. Cash now.”

“No problem.”

The little man pulled a wallet out of his back pocket, He took six crisp dollar bills from the wallet and placed them on the counter.

“Here you go.”

The bartender seemed to relax. He reached for the money.

What happened next was a blur. The little man downed the shot in one gulp and slammed the shot glass on the counter. The sound froze the bartender for a moment. One of the man’s hands snatched the money back from the bartender while the other moved across the bowl of cereal. When the hand left the cereal bowl all of the marshmallows were gone.

The little man jumped down from his stool, shoved the marshmallows in his mouth with one hand and the dollars in a pocket with the other. He jumped back further from the bar and did a little dance. Then he threw up on the floor. 

The bartender reached for his shotgun. As he did so the door to the men’s room at the back of the bar began to open. 

The leprechaun whipped his cock out of his pants and let loose a stream of golden piss. It jetted across the room, winding around wooden pillars and startled customers. It dodged the customer coming out of the men’s room and splattered on the bathroom floor before the door had a chance to swing shut. 

The bartender aimed the shotgun and fired. The blast of rock salt his the leprechaun in the chest, propelling him into the air. It landed hard on the floor, but popped to its feet right away.

“So it was and so it will ever be,” it laughed.

The bartender let out another blast.

“Get out you bastard. May all your gold turn to rot.”

“Fine with me,” said the leprechaun. “I traded it all for crypto.”

The leprechaun ran out the door of the bar with his cock still hanging out. He did not pause to do another dance or shout more rude remarks. Instead it took off down the sidewalk. 

This showed that the bartender’s information about leprechauns was not necessarily correct. I wondered if he would update his check list.

The bartender ran out of the bar and chased after leprechaun. No one was tending the bar.

I left a tip on the counter and prepared to leave. I had seen enough. I figured someone must have called the police about the shotgun going off. It didn’t matter that it was rock salt. The police wouldn’t like it. I didn’t want to be there when the police arrived. I didn’t want them to make me miss my train. And I didn’t want them to ask me any questions. That usually led to trouble.

As I got up to leave I noticed no one else in the joint seemed upset. I asked an old man seated further down the bar why no one showed any surprise or concern.

He replied, “Most of us are regulars. Seen it all before. Something like this happens a few times a year. It’s part of the charm of the place. Where else can you see such a show?”

I asked about the cops. He told me no one bothers to call them anymore.

One after another the regulars helped themselves to free drinks. Not a lot. Most just topped off what they already had.

“It’s a tradition now,” said the old man. “Whenever there’s a leprechaun incident. The surveillance camera doesn’t work and the owner blames any losses on leprechauns, and none of us says otherwise.”

I wished I had known that sooner. Still, I thought it was time for me to leave, and best that I do so before the bartender returned. I grabbed some marshmallows from one of the bowls on the counter. And some of the nuts. I l left the cereal. I stuffed them in one of my pockets as something salty and something sweet to chew on later. Then I climbed over the bar and took a bottle of the good stuff. Then I decided to go for two. I stuck both bottles in my travel bag.

I left the bar and walked to the train station, just as fast as my legs would carry me. That’s kind of fast. Believe me. I can walk rather quickly. Almost a blur. 

My father, all six five of him, used to say, “You have to keep changing. Adapt. Move with the times.” I’ve always tried to do so.

My mother used to say, “No matter how much you change, never forget where you came from.”

I never have. I always listened to my momma. All four foot five of her.

Joseph Farley

The Narc in the Cupboard

Zack woke in a haze. It was hard to focus. The prior night had been wild from what he could remember. All he knew now was that he had to get up. It was necessary.

He went to the bathroom, emptied his bladder and took a dump. That was enough work to put him in a mood to go back to bed on most mornings, but not today. He had other needs to fill.

He touched soap and ran water over his hands. He called this washing. 

There was a dirty cup on the sink. He filled it and drank it down. His mouth was still dry and pasty. He filled and drained another glass. His mouth still didn’t feel right. He considered brushing. He didn’t see any toothpaste laying about. He looked around and couldn’t find a tube anywhere. Then he remembered he was out of toothpaste. He had meant to get some at the store yesterday. And the day before that.

Zack dipped a toothbrush in the soap dish. The soap was still damp from washing his hands. It would do.

His mouth felt a little better, but his belly was saying other things. A rumbling in his stomach told him to eat, but a rumbling lower down in his guts told him he would need to shit again, real soon. The signal from down below took precedence.

A half hour later his hands were clean again. The bathroom stank, but he could live with it. It smelled worse on most days.

He needed something to eat. His stomach was bossing him about. It would have to be something easy, something even he could not mess up. His head was in worse shape than his asshole was. It had been a late night.

He went to the small kitchen in his apartment, opened a cabinet and took out a box of cereal, all oats and sugary sweetness. He took a half empty bottle of milk from the refrigerator. He placed both items on the kitchen table. He took a spoon from a drawer, and reached up to another cabinet at eye level, next to the stove, to get a bowl. He opened the cabinet and stopped. All the shelves had been removed from the cabinet and all the plates, cups and bowls that had been inside were missing. Instead, a short man with mirrored sun glasses, a waist length leather jacket, jeans and army boots was curled up inside. The man’s chin was tucked to his chest. His shoulders rested against one side of the cabinet. His knees were bent and cramped against his body, almost touching his mustache. 

“I’m just a dream,” the man said. “Close the cabinet and go about your business.”

“Ah, I can’t. I need a bowl for my cereal. What did you do with my bowls?”

“Everything that was in the cabinet, including the shelves, is in a box under the kitchen table.”

“Why did you put them there?”

“I didn’t put them there. You must have done it and forgotten about it.”

“I didn’t do it. The plates were there yesterday. You must have moved everything.”

“I couldn’t have moved anything. I’m not really here. I’m a dream. An illusion.”

“I don’t know about that. You look pretty real.” Zack noticed the man had a lanyard around his neck with a photo I.D.. Zack’s vision was blurry but he thought he could make out the word ‘Police.’

“You and your friends got real high last night. You haven’t come down yet.”

“Do you have a warrant or a court order saying you can be here?”

“Of course not. I’m not really here. You’re imagining it because you have a guilty conscience.”

“What do you mean?”

“Come on. You know you met with that dude in the parking lot. The guy had something in the trunk of his car, a big package wrapped in a black plastic trash bag. He let you open the bag. You stuck your finger inside, then put your finger on your tongue. You exchanged a few words and you gave him a big roll of bills. He checked the roll and put it in his pocket. You took the bag, put in your car and headed home.”

“Man, it’s like you were there. Have you been following me?”

“I couldn’t have been following you. I don’t exist. I’m all in your head.”

“What did I do when I came home? I’m having a hard time remembering.”

“You carefully unwrapped the package, divided the contents, and used a scale to weigh out and fill small zip lock bags. When you were done, you put all the small bags in a shoe box and hid them under some sweaters in your bedroom closet. Then you called some of your friends to come over and party with the leftovers.”

“Are you sure you weren’t really there? You remember more about last night than I do.”

“I am you, in a sense. I’m in your head.”

“Okay, so if you’re me, tell me what happened after my friends came over?”

“You all drank a lot, snorted, shot up, and took some pills. One of the girls who came kept you busy while your friend Phil searched your apartment. Then you drank more with your friends and did some more stuff. Finally, you passed out.”

“Really? I can’t remember most of that, especially Phil searching my apartment.”

“You were busy getting laid. After you passed out Phil went through your bedroom. He found your stash, took most of it and all the cash you had. He also found the gun you bought last week at the playground.”

“Shit! Phil did all that? Why didn’t any of my other friends stop him?”

“They were all in on it. Phil gave them a cut.”

“Damn those mother fuckers. I’m going to kill them all.” 

“How? You don’t have a gun anymore and you have no cash to buy one.”

“Damn it. Damn it. They were supposed to be my friends.”

“How can someone in your business have true friends, especially as a freelancer. You have many more enemies than friends. At least they decided not to kill you.”

“They were going to kill me?”

“Phil wanted to put a pillow over your face while you were unconscious, but your other friends wouldn’t go along with it.”

“I guess they’re not that bad, except for Phil.”

“Nah, the others figured you’d be killed by the loan shark you borrowed money from to start up your business, since you won’t be able to make any payments now. No need for them to get involved.”

“Mother fuckers. Those fucking mother fuckers. What should I do?”

The man in the cabinet pulled out a typed statement and handed it to Zack along with a pen.

“Just sign this statement. I’ll take care of the rest.”

“How can you help? You told me you don’t exist?”

“I don’t exist, but, you can think of me in some ways as your fairy godfather. You sign this, date it and go back to bed. I will magically take care of the rest. Best of all, I’ll keep you safe.”

“Safe?”

“Safe from Phil, your friends, and that loan shark. I believe their names are all in the statement. But it would help if you could write in the name of the guy you bought the stuff from.”

“That’ll help?”

“You will sleep easier.”

“And what about my kitchen? Who will put all this stuff back in the cabinet?”

“Don’t worry about it. After you sign the statement, and go back to bed, everything will be fine. Sleep for an hour or two. Take a pill if it helps. “

“Okay, if you say so. But you’re really me, right?”

“That’s right. I’m part of you. Your conscience and your higher self.”

“Higher than I am now?”

“You’ll never know.”

Narcotics and the organized crime unit made the arrests, fourteen in total. Zack denied signing any statement, but a figment of his imagination had suggested he put his thumbprint on the paper in addition to his autograph.

There were some questions about the arrests. Captain Davis from Narcotics defended his diminutive operator to Chief Inspector Morton and the DA.

“Detective Smalls is a good officer. Honest as they come, and dedicated. His methods may be a bit unorthodox but he gets results.”

“Well,” said the DA, who had his doubts, “Lets just hope the evidence he obtained doesn’t get thrown out by a judge this time.