Monday, November 29, 2010

Timothy Baron

I'm not even going to bother telling you a story about myself. Trust me, these days it wouldn't be all that interesting. I could describe to you my guesthouse apartment with its oversized, spartan furniture. Or, I could tell you how every morning I wake up at 6:00, start working at 8:00, stop working at 5:00, and then go to sleep at 10:00. I could describe the furnishings and food at my favorite restaurants, which I patronize exclusively and repeatedly throughout the week. I could describe a life that's comfortable and thoroughly mired in routine. I could describe a life I enjoy, but that doesn't make for good stories.

Or maybe I could take a different approach. Maybe I could tell you how every now and then I walk by a cafe that's playing Nico Case or The Decemberists, and I'll get misty eyed and nostalgic. I'll wander in and order a hot chocolate, warming my hands on the glass as the album plays through memory after memory. Or maybe I could tell you how I'll spend hours downloading a 10-minute YouTube clip of The Last Unicorn, because for some reason I woke up thinking about it, longing for it.

But this doesn't give the full story, either. I could also talk how sometimes I get restless in my routine, and I'll pack my bag with water and rations, and I'll hike off in a random direction. The bustle of McLeod is quickly behind me, and I'll be scrambling over boulders or pulling myself up the side of a cliff. Exhausted, I'll lie down on a large rock or amongst prickly grass, and it'll be so quiet that I can actually hear the bees. While on these trips, I rarely encounter other people, but when I do, they're shocked to see me with my white skin and Western style. They wave at me and their kids rush over and ask if I know how to play cricket. I'll sit with them and eat sour crab apples, dividing my sole cupcake into quarters and passing it around.

Or maybe I could talk about how sometimes I go to one of my favorite restaurants, but it will be packed full. I'll have no choice but to sit with a stranger, probably also a Westerner, probably also over-eager to talk to someone after hours of silence in the Hindi crowd. We'll finish our momos and thungpa, we'll drain glass after glass of lemon ginger tea, and hours will pass as we we converse. Surprisingly, we never talk about our travels, but instead talk about our homes. I'll tell them about Texas, and as they tell me about Canada or France or Brazil or Israel, I see their eyes grow foggy. They're no longer in a cramped Tibetan restaurant. They're back home, and they're narrating everything they see to me.

And then there are the Facebook binges. An entire day gazing half-consciously at photos of far-away friends. Their lives continue. Their hair grows, then gets cut in dramatic new styles. They get new jobs; they lose old ones. Relationships form and fall apart. Their world moves forward, and I sit in my Indian cybercafe and watch from a distance, my own life spinning in static motion.

Or maybe I could talk about the future, which has come into crisper focus now that I've been removed from the present. I've seen the vast desolation of West Texas. I've seen myself hovering over Jung and Freud. From far ahead, I hear a calling. The siren sings to tempt the sailors, but perhaps this is best. There are places that the ship will not take them. Sometimes, they need to swim on their own.

I could also write about my hair, which I haven't cut in months, and which now is so stiff and round that it looks like a black cottonball. Or I could mention that my soap ran out several weeks ago, and I'm too wary of the local brands to get more. I don't think that I smell, but I can't say for sure. Similarly, I haven't washed my clothes in months. I only shave every few days. For whom would I bother to groom myself? No pictures are being taken. I am the eye behind the lens, and you will not see what I've become.

So you see, there are no good stories here, only fragments and impressions.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Leslie Price

“I feel totally brain dead.”

Sarah rolled her eyes. “Then maybe you shouldn't stay up until two in the morning watching Nick at Night.” Leslie just groaned. This wasn't about the reruns, though she did love her some classic Saturday Night Live. This was about the muted zombie buzz behind her eyes. She was becoming one of the living dead; she just knew it.

The cafeteria was abuzz. Leslie liked that word. 'Abuzz.' It was like she was sitting in the middle of an oversized beehive, all the giant worker-bees humming around her. If she closed her eyes, it just might be so.

“What are doing?” Jen.

“I'm communing with the hive mind.”

This got a baffled laugh. “What?”

“Nevermind.” Leslie cracked her eyes open, wincing at the bright cafeteria lights. “Why does life have to suck so much?”

There was a pause, then Sarah sighed and placed a limp hand against her forehead. “Oh woe is Lezzie.”

This made Jen laugh. She cupped a bowl in her hand and held it at an arm's length. “Alas, poor Lezzie, I knew her well.”

Now everyone was laughing, and Leslie just groaned again and dropped her head onto the table. “Wake me when you're done with drama class.”

Remarkably, their teasing didn't end there. Steph joined in with an O'Hara impersonation, “I will never know Lezzie again!” And then her jackass boyfriend had a stab at it, too. Leslie did her best to just tune them out. Really, it wasn't all that hard. She could feel the darkness hovering just at the edge of consciousness. If she just relaxed a little, she could beckon it in. It would envelop her, and she wouldn't have to listen to anyone for another glorious five or ten minutes. Perhaps the teachers wouldn't notice her lying face down on the table, either, and they'd just let her sleep and sleep until all the school crumbled around her. She'd wake up a hundred years from now in the ruins of American civilization. Moss would be growing over the concrete husks of the strip malls; great forests would have torn through the roofs of subdivision homes. Yes, she could feel it. The darkness was settling in. Sleep was coming. Let it wash over her like the tide.

She was just about under when the table began rattling. Leslie jolted awake, only to find her friends pounding on the table and cracking up. “What's your malfunction, you jackasses!” The tables around them fell silent, and for a tense moment Leslie worried that the monitors overheard her, too. She twisted around to look at where they always stood, and like a pack of prairie dogs, each of her friends turned to look the same way, too. Vice-Principal Elroy was standing by the exit with a couple of teachers, but they were so engrossed in their conversation that they hadn't noticed. Leslie sighed, and then turned back to her friends. In a stage whisper: “One day, you'll be like I am now. You'll be tired and eager for sleep. Yes, you will. And when that day comes, I will know. I will know, and I will be there.”

This made the others laugh again, so Leslie yawned and put her head back down. If they interrupted her sleep again, there would be hell to pay. She knew where each of those fuckers lived. And, she had a car now, too. She'd drive to their houses one after the other, her car rumbling beneath her, rocking her back and forth like a sailor in her ship. The waves would lap at the side of the boat, murmuring to her as she fell asleep. She would lean on the rail, slowly dozing off, until finally she tumbled over and sank deep into the sea. The water was soft and warm as cotton. The outside world with its bright lights and noise was still there, but it was muffled and faint. This must be how a baby feels in the womb. And that was the last thought she had until the bell woke her for AP World History.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Alexander Faraday

Today he was on the tail of a fat German couple. In their loud tropical shirts, they didn't seem too remarkable at first glance. In fact, he thought they were just more Americans, like him. When he overheard them talking, though, that was corrected. Definitely German. It was strange, because usually Germans traveled with a little more dignity than this. Perhaps that's why he chose to follow them so deeply into the bazaar. He wanted to see what they would do next.

It was a bit of a disappointment when they spent the next fifteen minutes sifting through t-shirts. He felt like he was a kid forced to accompany his mom to the mall. Nothing was more boring than clothes. While they did this, Alex hung back and purchased a cone of peanuts. Munching on those, he seemed inconspicuous enough even as he lingered in the crowd and watched the German couple. Eventually, they shook their heads and moved on, no t-shirts in tow.

As they got deeper into the bazaar, Alex overheard another American. “How much are these?”

“Ten rupees.”

The American picked up a whole packet of postcards and asked excitedly, “All these for just ten rupees?” The Germans kept walking, but Alex paused. That was a smooth move by the American. Now the postcard merchant would have to 'disappoint' him.

“No, no. Sorry. Ten rupees each.” Alex saw exactly how this would play out.

The American hesitated, looking very disappointed. “Oh.” He flipped through the postcards, then shook his head. “It's too much. Five rupees.”

“No. Ten rupees each.”

The American shrugged and then walked away. It was like birds in a mating dance. Each step came naturally to the pair.

“Okay, okay! Eight rupees!”

The American paused, his back to the postcard merchant. After long consideration, he turned around, shaking his head. “Five rupees.” Both Alex and the merchant were surprised by this. He should have raised his price a little. He was being stubborn, which meant the merchant had to be, too.

“No, eight rupees.”

The American grabbed a pack of postcards and waved them in the merchant's face. “Look at these. They're cheap. Bad prints. Five rupees, no more.”

Several of the nearby merchants stopped to watch their argument. This was the perfect opportunity for Alex to snag a few trinkets without anybody noticing, but he was as caught up by the argument as everyone else.

The postcard merchant looked genuinely offended. “I no deal with you! You go away!”

The American could feel everyone's eyes on him, so he didn't relent. “I'm going to buy this one. Five rupees!” He reached for his wallet and pulled out a five rupee note, waving it in the merchant's face. The merchant just crossed his arms and glared at the American.

Alex should have been pocketing little bronze Buddhas at the moment, but without even really thinking, he marched over the postcard merchant. “How much for a postcard?” The merchant just glanced at him, then returned his glower to the other American. “Ten rupees, right? Here.” He handed the merchant a twenty rupee note, grabbed a faded postcard featuring the Himalayas, and then walked off, bumping his shoulder against the other American's.

Nobody followed him, but he heard conversation picking back up in that section of the bazaar. Situation defused. As he walked, he folded the postcard into a paper airplane. It was heavy, but the paper was stiff. When he threw it off the roadside, it soared for a full minute, gliding until he couldn't see it any longer. Who knew where it would land. He imagined it continuing for miles and miles across the Indian countryside, over the Indian sea, past the Pacific. Soaring across the American West, it finally plummeted out of the sky, falling into the lap of his friends. “Greetings from Snowy Himachal!” Soon, he'd be on his own airplane.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tiffany Weiss


“The best!”


“The best!”

This was the state championship. This was the closest game all year. Fourth quarter and the Louisville Packers were ahead by two points, but the ball was with the Ridgemont Rabble. They could still win this, and Tiffany was cheering for all she was worth. She'd never been so excited for a game. None of the girls had.

“Tiffany! Beth! Double-handspring!” That was their captain speaking, and Tiffany didn't even think about it. She ran and flipped over her hands, twirling twice through the air. The crowd had fallen silent, transfixed by her feat. She straightened her legs for the landing, but they hit something else in the air. A moment later, she and Beth clattered to ground.

There was a sharp pain in her ankle, but it was nothing compared to the wails coming from Beth. The other girl cradled her arm. Her face was bright red and tears were streaking down her cheeks. The rest of the squad huddled around them, but their captain cleared some space. “Are you two alright?”

Beth obviously was not, and the field medic carried her away on a stretcher. Tiffany knew that something was wrong with her ankle, too, but if she told anyone, they'd take her out of the game. This was the state championship. She wasn't going to spend it on the sidelines holding a bag of ice against her leg. “I'm fine,” she finally said, pushing herself up. Her ankle still hurt, but as long as she didn't put her full weight on it, it wasn't too bad.

“That was stupid,” her captain reprimanded her. “You've got to watch where you're going. I'd suspend you if we didn't need every girl we've got.” Tiffany simply nodded, and then her captain went back to leading the cheers. “Rabble!”

“The best!”


“The best!”

The crowd started cheering again, and their team made a seventeen yard run. They were well past half-field now. Tiffany was cheering, too, and the pain in her ankle became just a faint echo. The clock was ticking down, but her team was going to win. She could feel it! She let that feeling overwhelm her, and then she projected it out to the crowd in cheer after cheer. It was the sort of thing the team could hear. It was sincerity and real passion. It was what made her a great Rabble-Rouser.

There was another long run, and suddenly her team was just six yards from the goal line. They could do this! She cheered and cheered, but two plays later they hadn't made any progress. Another failed throw and they were at fourth down. They had to make it now or everything was lost. The couch called a time out, and her own captain pulled the squad into a huddle.

“We're doing the human pyramid.”

There was a murmur of excitement, then one of the other girls spoke up. “But Beth was the top. Who's going to take her place?”

The captain's eyes scanned her squad, weighing each of them. Finally, they settled on Tiffany. She could tell that her captain was weighing something. “Tiffany's the lightest, but she messed up big just half an hour ago. Can we count on her?” Tiffany's heart froze, but soon the other girls were nodding their consent. “Then Tiffany it is. Now . . . break!”

The football team was lining up for their play, and row by row the girls stacked on top of each other. Soon the third tier was complete, and Tiffany scrambled on top. Standing on the backs of the two highest girls, she felt something shifting in her ankle that shouldn't. Tiffany ignored this, though. She held her pompoms high and cheered, her face bright red and tears streaming down her cheeks.

Warren Dander

Agathor was in trouble. Standing before him was a massive orc warlord, a brutal axe in one hand and the head of Rodrick the Healer in his other. Their wizard was being kicked to death by a horde of hobgoblins, and Patterpoot the rogue was being chased through the foothills by a dragon. All seemed lost, but with dedication and strength, Agathor could still win the day. He hefted his mighty broadsword over one shoulder and swung at the orc warlord's chest. 0-4-2. Critical failure. The sword flew out of his sweaty palms and straight into the back of their wizard.

“Thanks a lot, Warren!” Matt slammed his dice to the floor and then stormed out of their dorm room. Looks like it was just Agathor and Patterpoot left. If they won this battle, then they could hire a cleric to bring Matt's wizard back to life. Even Rodrick could return, though they'd need to retrieve his head first. That shouldn't be too hard, since Agathor now wielded the Holy Blade Skullcrusher.

Greg rolled some dice, and then looked up at Warren grimly. “The orc warlord strikes you for twenty three damage.”

Agathor grit his teeth as the orc's axe sunk into his chest. A blow like that would kill a normal mortal, but Agathor was Agathor! Roaring, he tore the axe free from his chest and then snapped it in half. The orc warlord's eyes grew wide in disbelief. Yes, fear the Agony of Agathor! The battle had turned squarely in Agathor's favor, but then the orc warlord drew his might broadsword from the dead wizard's back. Gleaming in the fiery sunlight, the Holy Blade Skullcrusher was now being used against Agathor! He growled in outrage.

“The dragon swats you with its twenty-foot tail.” Greg rolled his dice. “Twelve damage.”

Biting his lip, Chris calculated the damage. To a mighty warrior like Agathor, twelve damage was negligible. For a little thief like Patterpoot, though. . . . Finally, Chris shook his head. “Looks like it's up to you, Warren.”

The dragon's mighty tail swung through Patterpoot, tearing the thief in half. It was the goriest death yet, and Agathor bent his head back, keening for his lost comrade. “Patterpoot! No!” The force was his cry sent a shock-wave through the battlefield, scattering the hobgoblins and knocking the orc warlord over. In a blinding red rage, he charged his fallen opponent, tearing the Holy Blade Skullcrusher out of the vile creature's hands. It was now over for his foes.

Warren and Greg stared each other down. Between them was a tile floor littered with Lisa's cosmetics. (Greg's girlfriend let the boys use them for the game.) Agathor was 'Strawberry Sundae,' the only tube of lipstick still standing. At his feet was 'Lollipop Lush'--e.g. a soon-to-be-slain orc warlord. Warren counted out his dice and quietly shook them, his eyes never leaving Greg's face. With a single, deft motion he scattered them across the floor. 18-3-20. Success.

The Holy Blade Skullcrusher sank deep into the orc warlord's chest. Vile, black blood bubbled up from the wound. The orc warlord reached a hand towards his killer, his twisted lips producing a gnarled facsimile of human speech. “Agathor. . . .” Agathor stared down at the monstrosity, twisting the blade to hasten it's death. “Agathor, I am your father. . . .”


There was a pause, and then both Greg and Chris started cracking up. After a moment, Warren joined in, though the joke didn't really seem all that funny. After an epic battle like that, humor was just in bad taste. Finally, Chris clapped his hands and stood up. “Awesome job, Warren! You'll have to bring Patterpoot back and then we can do this all over again.”

Meanwhile, Greg swept the cosmetics into a small black handbag. When the floor was clear, he also got up. “See you next week!”

Even after the others were gone, Warren stayed seated, his palms on his knees, sweat trickling down his armpit. In his mind, he was reliving every swing, every parry, every glorious line of their combat. These are the stories legends are made of.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Carrie Lettings

Carrie kept her hands wrapped around the warm mug. That was nice. Inside was hot chocolate, steam still pluming off the top of it. She didn't even bother taking a sip. It would burn—and plus, she wanted something in her hands right now. They were cold, and it would look better when Sarah showed up if she already had a drink. She wanted to look settled, like she cozy in her sweater and scarf, like she was as warm as a kitten and would be good to snuggle up with.

The cafe was crowded but quiet. Everyone was scooted close to each other, and their conversations were but faint whispers. The cashier was playing The Decemberists, but the volume was down low. Hardly anyone moved, and the loudest noise was the woman nearby, flipping through her book. Carrie blew on her hot chocolate, watching as the the white cream swirled around on top. It was the perfect moment for Sarah to show up, and when Carrie felt the other girl's eyes on her, she immediately looked up with a big smile. She could feel the twinkle in her eye.

“Hey!” Sarah smiled back just as brightly, and soon they were hugging each other, kissing one another's cheeks. Carrie felt little tears gathering in her eyelashes, but she blinked those away. Take her friend by the shoulders, she stood back and looked at what Sarah had become. It had been years, but the changes were no surprise. The dykey haircut, the ring through her upper-lip. They had Facebook now. Sarah might have been miles away, but it was like they still lived together. Everything about her new look was immediately familiar.

“Wow. It's so good to see you.” Sarah seemed surprised by her own words, and this only made Carrie smile bigger.

“Yeah.” Sarah's eyes were roving her face, picking up every little detail. Carrie could feel her own eyes doing the same thing. “I know exactly what you mean.” And then they just stood there, staring at each other, taking in the fine details that Facebook didn't allow. Sarah was as gorgeous as ever, and now she had the attitude to match. Carrie knew that she'd be watching her friend all afternoon, just like this: marveling at the smiles, the sighs, the old habits.

Finally, Sarah looked away to eye the cafe. “This place hasn't changed at all, has it?” Carrie just shook her head, never taking her eyes off her friend. “Are the Americanas still the best?”

“Nope. The hot chocolate's still best.” The was a pause, then they both cracked up. “You should have some of mine. You look like you could use some warming up.”

And with that, they sat down next to each other and took turns sipping from the hot chocolate. The silence between them was long and comfortable. Even if they had a thousand stories to tell each other, that was unimportant. What was truly important was this, was being this close. They could share stories through email, but they could never feel the warmth radiating off each others bodies. Maybe that would all be moot now, though. Maybe they should share everything again.

Soon the mug was almost empty, and only a little bit of white foam floated on top.

“So you're thinking about coming back?”


Sarah's voice was as warm as the hot chocolate, as calm as a winter day.

“We've missed you.”

“I know.”

And the other girl was smiling. It was the faintest thing. Carrie could have watched that face all day.

“Let's get another cup.”

Lee Fiegalman

“So you want to keep you fingers straight, like knives.” Lee demonstrated this for sons. “This way, they'll cut through the air, and you'll go even faster. Now try.” Nick and Will teased each other by making fists, scissor fingers, and a Vulcan handshake sign before settling into the right shape. As always, though, Pete went right for it. “Good. Now with each step, twist your hips like this so you get better reach.” Once again, he demonstrated for his sons, and the move was complicated enough that all of them concentrated on his outstretched leg. Nick got it right away, but he had to correct the other two. Once he was confident they understood, he lined them on the sidewalk. “On three. One, two, three!”

They bolted off. Nick and Will were pretty evenly matched, which made sense since they were basically the same person. (Lee knew that Mary would hate it if she heard him thinking like that, but really, who could deny it?) Pete had the definite edge, and while his two brothers lagged behind, he sprinted all the way to the fallen tree, touched its trunk, and then started back. Nick and Will hardly noticed. They never expected to beat their brother anymore, and the competition was solely between them. Evenly paced, they started pushing and jostling each other as they came back.

Pete flew through the finish line, and then bent over, breathing heavily. Lee really couldn't tell if what Pete so different was his body or his strength of will. He always crossed the finish line a good seven or eight seconds before his brothers, but he was also the most winded. If he could just get Nick and Will to run with half the abandon of their brother. . . . It probably would never be, though. They were already beginning to see themselves as losers. Perhaps Mary was right that he needed to find new activities for them so that they could feel like winners, too.

Mary would hate it if she knew he thought this, too, but Lee definitely had a favorite. Ruffling Pete's hair, he gave him some praise. “Good job!” When the other two brothers crossed the finish line, he grabbed them both in a big bear hug and spun around with them. They laughed hysterically, and when he put them back down, they stumbled in a dizzied fog. Soon, the twins were wrestling each other while Pete stood back and watched. Lee didn't really understand what went on between the three of them, but it was obvious that Pete was an outsider. They were all still close, but the twins had a kind of intimacy that the third brother would never be able to share. Perhaps Lee kept having them run so that Pete would have something to be proud of. Even if he was never as close to his two brothers as they were to each other, at least he was a winner.

Lee clapped his hands. “Alright, boys! Let's line back up! I want to see y'all twisting those hips!” Pete was right at the start line again, but Lee had pick up the other two and set them back down beside their brother. They were still laughing and jostling each other. “One, two, three!” And once again, Pete took right off, his two brothers lagging just a little bit behind. Within just a few seconds he had developed such a lead that the others had no chance of catching up. Soon, the twins were focused on each other again. As their brother crossed the finish line, they kept running, but they were also laughing and shoving each other.

“Wow!” Lee gave Pete a big squeeze on the shoulder. “That was the fastest yet!” His son looked up at him, just soaking it in. It was the strangest thing. Pete absolutely needed his approval. It was his sunlight. The other boys, though, they could take it or leave it. There were just two of them, but it was like they had formed their own little society. They had their own standards, their own values. Lee wasn't part of the system. Pete wasn't part of the system. Mary was a bit, but even she had only the most limited influence. He watched his other son, still breathing heavily from the long sprint. “You're a tiger. You remember what a tiger is, right?” Pete nodded. “They're strong, yes. But what makes a tiger really special?”

Pete grinned big. “Dedication!”

“That's right! Pete the Tiger! You've got dedication!” He gave his son a big smile as the other two boys sprinted across the finish line.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Joyce Reiner

She spent almost an hour selecting the right outfit. Really, she hadn't even planned on this, but after her shower, she'd paused in front of her closet. Although she'd intended to just slip into a nightgown, her eyes were drawn to the lingerie folded beneath. It had been weeks since she and Zach had done anything, and although she hadn't really been thinking about it, Joyce was definitely in the mood. Her husband still wasn't back from work, but perhaps she could surprise him. Ultimately, she settled on an outfit they'd only used twice before. He'd liked it a both times.

Once she was dressed she slid beneath her covers and waited. He should be home any minute now. It was already past 11:00, but this was typical these days. Several of his coworkers had been laid-off recently, and now he had to juggle their jobs, too. By the time he got home, he rarely even bothered to take a shower. He just crashed in bed and fell right asleep. That's why he and Joyce hadn't been doing much recently.

She heard the faint clatter of him unlocking the front door and then his footsteps as he stomped through the foyer. Zach had such a distinctive way of walking. She'd be able to pick out his footsteps even if a dozen other people came into their house each night. The covers were still pulled up to her chin. The lights were off. Her eyes were gently closed. When he opened their bedroom door, he was courteous enough not to turn the lights on. She just laid and listened as he took off his shoes, as he dropped his clothes onto the floor. Once she would have complained about this, but recently, he was being sloppy out of consideration. If he were to hang his clothes back up, he'd have to turn on the light.

When he slid into the bed next to her, she could smell him. She'd always liked his smell, though over the past several weeks it had developed an acrid quality. This wasn't the biggest deal, though. Overall, she still liked it when he was close. His heavy breathing. The way the bed settled differently with him next to her. Before he could get too comfortable, she reached over and grabbed his hand, guiding it to her waist so that he could feel the frills of her lingerie. His hand was large and heavy, and it rested on her limply before he pulled away. The rhythm of his breathing slowed down by another notch, and she could tell that he was falling deeper into sleep.

Pulling back her covers, she let the moonlight illuminate her from the waist up. His back was to her, though, and his head was pushed firmly into his pillow. She stared at him intently, hoping that he'd somehow pick up on her desire, but his breathing only grew deeper and slower. When that didn't work, she coughed gently, and then finally, she put a hand on his shoulder and pulled him down. His eyes opened blearily and he stared at her a moment before pulling the covers more snugly about himself and closing his eyes again.

She was starting to lose the mood, too, but this wasn't fair. It had been weeks since he'd done anything more than kiss her, and even that lacked real passion. Was something else going on? Was this really just work? “Are you having an affair?” Even she was surprised by how she blurted that out.

Zach groaned, rolling over again. “No.” He wasn't even entirely conscious, and hearing him, Joyce didn't doubt his sincerity. Of course he wasn't having an affair. He was being overworked. His bosses were dicks. But still, they'd had hard times before, and their love life hadn't suffered. Why were things so different now?

Joyce stared down at herself, her pale breasts radiant in the moonlight. Just like Zach, her body was heavy these days. She was thirty-four and she'd become a real woman. Nobody called her a girl anymore, a phrase which had lingered until her late 20s and which she had resented so much at the time. Maybe that was the difference. Maybe he didn't find her attractive anymore. Maybe they were both growing old.

She slid out of her lingerie and tossed it to the floor. Once she was certain Zach was asleep, she pulled on a more modest nightgown and then crawled back under the covers. She slept on her right shoulder, her back to her husband, his back to her, and eventually clouds rolled across the moon and everything was obscured by darkness.

Abe Meyers

Abe wasn't the sentimental type, and it frustrated him how clingy his brother had become. Perhaps they were both a little a drunk, but Aaron was going overboard. On their way to the next bar, Aaron kept grabbing him in that great bear hug of his, squeezing him and blubbering, “I'm gonna miss you so much!” The funny thing was, Abe had lived in the same city as Aaron for years, but they hardly ever saw each other. Aaron was just drunk, and Abe considered skipping the next bar and sending his big brother straight home.

The only hitch was that Samantha was probably out tonight. It was a Saturday, and unless she was sick, she always went out on Saturdays for a drink. Abe was doing the best he could to hit up all her favorite clubs, but he had yet to see her. There was of course a chance that they had missed each other. While he was heading to Flambourgs maybe she was just leaving, going to a bar he'd already visited. The odds of this happening were actually way too high for Abe's liking. All he could do was keep hoping.

“Do you remember how you used to wake me up? You'd be begging me to read you a story from Dr. Suess or whoever you like at the time.” Aaron was still rambling drunk. Abe didn't have to say anything; Aaron would carry on the conversation all by himself. Although they were brothers, Abe seriously regretted inviting Aaron along. It would have been better if he'd gone on this search alone. Now, even if he did find Samantha, he'd have to pry his big brother off and send him home in a taxi. It was going to be awkward no matter what.

A gaggle of co-eds strutted by in their miniskirts, and although none of them could rival Samantha, Abe still gave them a smile. One of them returned his smile, which he thanked to his new Armani. Aaron didn't even notice, though. He was entirely wrapped up in his story. It's not like he could have gotten a smile from those girls, anyway. He was dressed like a bum. Hell, he was a bum. He was the big brother, sure, but already Abe was showing him up. In just two days, he was getting on a plane to China. In just two days, he was going to begin his life as a nuclear engineer. Meanwhile, Aaron hadn't even completed his Masters. He'd been a good student for years, but then he started smoking pot and got all messed up. Now, he could hardly hold down his job as a grocery-bagger or whatever the hell he was doing.

“Here's Flambourgs.” Abe gestured at the club's doors, which pulsated with the heavy music inside. His own heart was beating just as heavily. It beat this heavily before he entered each of the bars tonight. Would Samantha be inside? Would he get this last chance to bring her home with him? Abe started for the door, but Aaron grabbed him in another big hug. He had to wrestle himself free. “Dammit, Aaron! Stop that!” His big brother just grinned stupidly.

Abe straightened his shirt and then went for the door again. The bouncer hardly even glanced at him, but his eyes lingered on Aaron's shabby clothes. Abe crossed his fingers, hoping that his brother would get turned away at the door, that they'd have to have their tearful farewell now. It wasn't meant to be, though. The bouncer glanced back at Abe and then waved Aaron in. How ironic. Abe's Armani had impressed the bouncer enough to gain admittance for his unwanted brother.

Flambourgs was packed tonight. The music was loud, but the roar of drunken chatter was even louder. He had to push himself through the crowd, which mostly consisted of men a good seven or eight inches taller than him and Aaron. He didn't bother looking back to see if he had lost his brother, either. Aaron would just have to keep up tonight. It would do him some good. And anyway, Abe was on a mission. He was looking for Samantha. The problem was, he couldn't easily find her in this crowd. Eventually, it was clear that she wasn't even here. Dammit.

When he turned back around, Abe found that his brother was gone. Great. He started worming his way through the crowd again, this time looking for Aaron. The oaf wasn't by the bar. He wasn't in the bathroom. He wasn't picking up his cell phone, either. Well, fuck this. Abe was leaving the country in two days, anyway. He shoved his hands in his pockets and made his way to the door.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Erin Richie

“Don't be a sissy!”

Heidi was standing on the edge of the cliff waving her friend Staci closer. For her part, Staci coward a few feet back and shook her head.

“Come on! It's safe! I've done this a dozen times!”

Staci just bit her lip and shook her head again. Erin was watching all of this from the sidelines. Like Heidi, she stood right on the edge of the cliff. She was ready to jump with her friends.

“You're being a sissy! Come on!”

They were at an obvious impasse. Staci kept her eyes on her feet and looked like she was about to cry. Heidi kept gesturing wildly and yelling. Down below, wave after wave pounded against the cliff face. It was probably a four-story drop. Staci had come up to the edge with them, but when she saw that, she scooted back and refused to budge. Erin got nervous looking down there, too, but wouldn't disappoint Heidi. She wasn't going to be scared.

“It'll be fun! Don't be such a spoilsport!”

Staci shook her head again. There were tears on her cheeks. “But I don't want to!”

Erin kept looking at the waves. It was hard to tell from all the way up here, but the waves looked like they were as tall as walls. When they crashed against the cliff, they made a horrible sound. Erin totally understood Staci's fear. She didn't want to do this either.

“If you don't do this, then I'm calling you a sissy for the next week!”

Staci was quiet again. She just shook her head.

“And,” Heidi continued, glancing at Erin, “I'm going to make sure everybody else does, too!”

Erin didn't like this, but she nodded, anyway. Maybe that wasn't the right move. Staci's face went bright red and she started bawling. Immediately, Erin felt terrible. She went over to the other girl and took her hand.

“Come on, Staci. It'll be fine. Heidi's done this before.”

Staci visibly calmed down, but she still shook her head. “Please don't make me do this.”

Heidi also came over, grabbing Staci's other hand.

“Okay, it's time to go.”

She started dragging Staci towards the cliff. Staci resisted, but Heidi was stronger. As she was still grasping Staci's other hand, Erin realized she was expected to help Heidi drag their friend to the cliff. She felt awful for Staci, but that didn't matter. She wouldn't disappoint Heidi. She started dragging Staci towards the cliff.

“No! No!”

Staci screamed and thrashed in animal terror. Her voice had lost something that made it human. As hard she she struggled, though, she couldn't break free of her friends' hold. Slowly, they made it to the edge of the cliff.

Below, the waves had grown. Erin was trembling. She really didn't want to do this. Heidi was there, though, her long blonde hair blowing in the salty wind. She looked like a hero from the movies. She looked totally serene. Erin wouldn't disappoint her.

Both girls held on tight to Staci's hands, rocking them back and forth. “One!” Erin's legs were shaking. “Two!” She decided not to look down. “Three!”

And all three girls were plummeting through the sky.

Down below, waves the size of houses crashed against the cliff.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Oliver Keyes

He stood on his balcony, smoking the last cigarette in his pack. The cigarette was probably two months old now. Oliver wasn't a particularly heavy smoker, but when he was in the mood, he had no qualms about it. Why he sometimes got into these “moods,” though, he didn't know. If asked, he couldn't even describe what they felt like. It's not like his life was bad.

Inside their apartment, his beautiful wife was watching a documentary on the 56” plasma screen. When she was done, they'd probably have a stimulating conversation followed by wonderful sex. Tomorrow, he'd spend eight to ten hours doing work he found interesting and meaningful. He took another drag of his cigarette. No, Oliver's life wasn't bad. It wasn't that at all.

Far below him, the city was winding down. It wasn't particularly late, but it was a Sunday. People were tired. Maybe that's what it was. Maybe he was tired. A slow trickle of cars still flowed through the intersections. Several dozen people wandered the streets, and every now and then, a snippet of their conversation drifted up to him. It was like the faint murmur of a lover saying goodnight.

He clenched the balcony rail, his cigarette still clutched between his knuckles. Somewhere out there, somebody was playing music. He could faintly hear it, and when the wind turned the other way, the music disappeared. For brief, irrational moment, Oliver thought that maybe this mood was because of the music. That couldn't be it, though. He'd only just heard it, and the mood had been around for a while a now.

When the wind turned again, the music returned with it. He took a long drag of his cigarette as he listened to them playing. It was some sort of hardcore punk band. From all the way up here, he couldn't really understand their words. Apparently their audience could, though. Every now and then, he'd catch them singing along with their coarse voices. Other times they'd whistle.

Oliver used to go by Ollie. He used to go to shows like that all the time. If he were there now, he'd be one of the guys shouting off-key and feeling like the music represented his own beliefs. Of course, he couldn't show up to an underground show looking like this. They'd stare at him in his sports jacket. He wouldn't belong, and that would spoil everything. People went to shows like that to lose themselves, not to be reminded of how they were different.

In the hills to the west he could see a big bonfire, and he figured that's where the show was happening. Probably, the cops would show up in another half-hour, but until then, that little parcel of the night was theirs. He took another draw off his cigarette, wondering if these days he had anything to wear to show like that. Amongst all the designer t-shirts and couture jackets, no. Not a thing. Even his tanktops wouldn't look right. Neither would his trendy haircut.

His cigarette was almost out. Savoring the last puff, he flicked the butt over his balcony, watching as the little ember spiraled away and finally disappeared. As if waiting for this moment, the balcony door slid open and he felt his wife wrap a long arm around his waist. “You feeling alright, darling?”

“Yeah.” The audience was cheering now, hooting so loudly that their cries echoed across the whole city. Oliver pulled his wife closer. “How was the documentary?”

“It was good. Gave me a lot to think about.”

And as sirens blared toward the western hills, Oliver listened to his wife talk about the movie, society, and its discontents.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ashley Powell

She is accompanied only by the youth minister, Jacob Riley. Everyone else is waiting for them ahead, and even now, she had hear them singing. It's faint and faraway, but they're getting closer. There is only one path through the forest, and it's clear where they are going. She's never been down this way before, but she could find it even without Jacob. She'd just follow the trail and listen to the music. It would guide her. For his part, Jacob has said nothing to her this whole walk, except for a solemn greeting at the trail-head. She assumes that it is part of the ceremony.

It is a beautiful morning to walk through the woods. Although it's early October, the air is pleasantly warm. When the wind blows, it knocks away dozens of multi-colored leaves. Many of the trees here are maple, and the canopy is so thick that most the forest is cast in shade. Now that fall has began, shafts of light streak amongst the foliage like a species of heavenly tree. Her attention shifts between this scene and her old, marked-up Converse shoes. She'd scribbled all over them with black and purple markers. Things like skulls and hissing cats. The names of her old friends, signed by their own hand. Little crimson hearts. Ashley specifically chose to wear these shoes today.

They don't match her white dress well. Before driving out here in her dad's old Buick, she'd looked at herself closely. She was still young, just sixteen, but there were faint wrinkles around her eyes. Nobody else would notice, but she did. It was probably the cigarettes. She'd stopped, though. It wasn't a popular move with her old friends, but she guessed that didn't really matter anymore. She spent at least twenty minutes combing her hair before leaving. It had been long time since she'd tried that hard to get the kinks out. Her hair is really frizzy now, but she figures that won't matter for long. It will be getting wet very soon.

She keeps wanting to put her hands in her pockets, but since she's wearing a dress, that isn't an option. Instead, she just clasps her hands in front of her like she's a bride. The music is getting louder. She doesn't know if they are singing for her, or just for themselves. She likes the idea that this is a sort of serenade, that they are beckoning to her like the sirens in the Odyssey. She glances over at Minster Riley, and the solemn expression on his face hasn't changed at all. She doesn't understand how he can do that. Although it is a special day for her and solemnity comes naturally, he must have gone through this dozens or even hundreds of times. How he can summon these feelings is beyond her. Perhaps that's what made a minister different from normal people.

They are getting really close now, and she grasps her hands tighter. She hadn't expected to get nervous like this. She won't have to say or do anything, but she knows that everyone is going to be watching her. And after this, no more cigarettes. For real. And she is going to get rid of her Converse. Everything is going to change. She wants this, though. Their voices are getting clearer and louder, but she cannot decipher words. They are singing in their own sort of language. They are like birds in the forest with human voices. In some ways, this is what she loves most about them. When she was a baby and her mother sang to her, it must have been the same way. It wasn't about the meaning of the words, it was about the tone of the melody. This was a song of community.

Minister Riley guides them off the path and into the heart of the forest. She can hear the faint trickle of a river. She can hear the others singing. When she sees them, they are all wearing white as well. They stand waist deep in the water and welcome her into their circle.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Paul Croffit

It was cold, and when it was cold, it wasn't good to be tall and thin. Towering at just over six-foot-six, Paul was shivering in the mountain winds. For the most part, he'd planned this out well and managed to cram everything he needed into a single 4-gallon pack. The hitch? The only way he could make it work was to pack his jacket at the bottom, where it would be compressed by the heavier stuff like his tent and stove. Other things were well planned, too. For instance, his timing seemed spot on. He was going to make it to the peak just before sunset. The only problem was that it was getting colder earlier than he had expected. There were probably another forty minutes of hiking ahead of him, and even exerting himself like this his teeth were beginning to chatter.

Beside him, his stocky Sherpa guide didn't so much as shiver. The guy couldn't have been more than five-foot-four, and while Paul was wire thin, his companion was thick. Paul wasn't sure if he would describe it as fat or muscle. It was probably something in between. Either way, it worked for the guy. Paul had climbed dozens of mountains before; it was his job, after all. He still got winded as he approached the summits like this. In contrast, his guide was breathing evenly like he was on a stroll through town square.

Another wind blew by Paul, and he seriously considered stopping, unpacking everything, getting his jacket, and then packing everything back. He was proficient at this by now and could probably do everything in just seven or ten minutes. That would put them a bit behind schedule, and maybe they'd have to hike the last stretch through twilight. With a pair of heavy duty flashlights, though, that wasn't a problem. Paul just didn't want to lose face in front of his guide.

They hadn't spoken much at all. Paul wasn't even sure what his guide's name was. Tingtuck, Tingmuck, Teetong. Something like that. He wasn't really one for this region of the world. He was more into the Andes and the American West. 'Mountaineering Monthly' wanted his take on the Himalayas, though, so off he went. He'd climbed through them once before, but in his opinion, they lacked the beauty of American mountains. They were too desolate. Too high. By the time he was at this elevation, he couldn't see a tree anywhere, not even way below him. Pollution was also becoming an issue. The smog from India and China encircled the mountains and just hung there like a ring of gray. His Sherpa and him had passed that ring hours ago, but he could still see it. In fact, when he looked down, that's all he saw.

The wind was literally battering him now. He could handle the force, but the faster it blew, the colder it got. He started breathing fast and hard through his nostrils, hoping that would help. His mom had gotten into Kundalini a few years back, and now she was trying to get all her kids to start, too. Over Thanksgiving last September, she gathered them in a circle in the backyard and showed them “The Breath of Fire”--or something along those lines. It was a funny sounding name, but he had to agree. It did something. And up here in the mountains, maybe it would help keep him warm.

His Sherpa glanced at him, and Paul imagined he saw the slighted twist to the guy's lips. It was hard to tell. The people in these parts were unreadable. Still, he'd rather be thought of as a hippie loon than as someone who couldn't handle a simple hike. This was his job, after all. Professional pride was on the line. He shoved his hands more deeply into his pockets and kept breathing heavily. Breath of Fire. Breath of Fire. Eventually, his Sherpa stopped and turned to him.

“You want stop?” Paul grimaced and shook his head. The Sherpa continued looking at him though, gauging something about Paul that he couldn't read, and then the guide simply nodded and continued up the mountain. Paul trotted behind. The wind kept howling around them, but they were so close and he wasn't going to stop now.

Although it felt more like an hour than twenty minutes, they were soon at the top. Paul dropped his pack and pulled out his camera. The jacket could wait; there wasn't much sunlight left. He started recording the view from every angle. This was a strange place. No matter were he looked, he couldn't see the horizon. The smog and air were so thick that all he saw was sky.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Ayumi Murakami

It was yet another peaceful, boring day in Hakami Park. Why the old fucker insisted on meeting here when there was so much happening in the city was beyond her. Actually, no. It wasn't beyond her. She knew exactly why he did it. He did it to take her out of her element. And if, at the same time, he happened to make himself look peaceful and boring, then so much the better. He was old, but he certainly wasn't the type to enjoy feeding pigeons. Kirasawa was a manipulative bastard who just happened to have gray hair and a penchant for appearing wiser and more selfless than he was.

She spotted him on a bench under the shade of a cherry tree, like he was some sort of Genji messiah. The fucker. She gave him a big American wave just to piss him off and then sat down without so much as a “Konichiwa.” He gave her a stern look, and then shook his head.

“Sometimes I think your brothers are starting to understand us, but you, Ayumi, persist in defying our wishes.” He spoke like he was British fucking royalty. Just because he represented the board didn't mean he could use “we” when he really meant “I.” Everyone knew this scheme was his brainchild. That's why it was so damn retarded. “Just look at the way you're dressed.” He waved his hand across her death-metal tee and her baggy shorts. His mouth was scrunched up like he'd bitten into a lemon, but Ayumi could tell it was just an act. This was the sort of face a mom made for her two-year-old. It wasn't real emotion.

“Yeah? You like Acids Mother Temple, Mr. Kirasawa?” Of course, she'd selected this outfit just for him. While her siblings were starting to play along with his stupid game, she recognized it for exactly what it was: an attempt to secure and hold power. He wasn't going to give the business back to her family no matter how they dressed in kimonos or raked their stupid fucking rock gardens.

He just shook his head, clearly at a loss. Good. Score one for Ayumi Murakami. At least somebody in her generation had enough pride to stand up for the family name. “I seriously wonder abut you Murakamis. Your brothers treat this like a game. They do what I ask, but they clearly don't understand why. And then, there's you.” He gave her a sharp look, as though to say, And then there's you, the Devil Child. That made her smile.

“And how would you have me change, oh wise sensei?” She watched him expectantly, but he didn't flinch. Oh well.

“First off, I'd have you wear decent clothes. And then, once you knew how dress like a lady, I'd have you learn how to behave in polite company. Even the most coarse manners would be an improvement over . . . this.”

Of course, Ayumi knew what he really meant. “That's to say, you'd have me become somebody's murmuring mistress. You'd have me marry some corporate asshole and have corporate asshole kids, just like good, traditional girls dreams of.” She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, well, there are other ways to be traditional. Haven't you ever heard of Sei fucking Shonagon?”

Kirasawa flinched this time. “Watch your language.”

She shrugged and gestured at the empty park. “It's not like there are any children around.”

“There are your elders.”

“There's just one of you.” Kirasawa grimaced. Score two for team Murakami! And now, game point. In her sweetest voice: “Oh Mr. Kirasawa, you're right. I've been rude. I am so, so sorry. But tell me, oh great and wise leader of Murakami Pharmaceuticals, how's the business been recently?” He was silent. “I hear that your stock has fallen yet again. Surely that couldn't be true, Mr. Kirasawa? Why, when my parents were running the business, we experienced growth quarter after quarter.”

“Things are different now,” he snapped. “We're in the middle of a recession.”

“Oh, Mr. Kirasawa. Please don't get upset. This isn't personal. But still, Mr. Kirasawa--” She looked at him. She reminded him that she was the tiger and he was the lamb. “--it's time you stepped down. It's time you returned the reigns to those with enough breeding to lead.”

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Erik Richardson

Erik was now in his twenties, but dates still scared the shit out of him. It seemed like he should have gotten over this by the time he received his high school diploma, but apparently this wasn't one of those things you could just toss off with some tasseled hat. It wasn't a very rational fear, anyway. As he saw it, he really didn't have a whole lot to be nervous about. The girlfriends he'd had always liked him a lot. (Well, almost always. There was that one.) It's just that whenever he met a new girl, she became a big deal. He would think about her all the time. For instance, last night he thought about Jennifer while eating dinner. In his head, they had a really charming conversation over their Big Macs and fries. When he didn't actually have to talk, words came so easily to him.

Now, though, he was faced with the task of making real conversation, and he knew it wasn't going to be like in his fantasies. In fact, she probably wasn't even going to be like he remembered her. Over the last week, he'd thought about her a lot, and in that time his memories got a bit distorted. It was like making a copy of a copy of a copy. All that Xeroxing blurred things. It made her outline soft and mailable, and it was up to him to interpret what was behind the static. Probably, he hadn't got right. In fact, he wasn't even entirely sure he would recognize her when she showed up.

He was standing in the middle of Hamilton Park now, lingering by the statue of that cavalry guy. You know, the one with the horse reared up and the man on top that wasn't freaking out at all. He had his arm outstretched with a sword pointed at the sky. If only Erik could be half that confident. Right now, he was just lingering in the shadow. Well, not the physical shadow. Just the metaphorical one. But, you know. . . .

Anyway, that's where they were going to meet. Five minutes ago. It was already 1:35. Obviously, she wasn't standing him up or anything. She'd liked their conversation as much as he had. They'd lingered in the cafe for four whole hours, and even when he had to rush off to basketball practice, it didn't really feel like either of them wanted to stop. See, things were different that first time. She just sat at his table, and he didn't have time to get nervous. He just started talking, and it was alright. In situations like that, he could actually be kind of charming. Well, as charming as he ever was. It's these long waits that got him riled up. Hopefully she'd forgive him a few jitters. Probably she would. She might even have them herself.

Erik was feeling awfully awkward, though, just standing out in the middle of the park. A bunch of other people were walking by with their dogs or their baby strollers. Sometimes young couples would pass by, holding eachothers hands or (in one case) with their arms wrapped eachothers waists. He looked pretty pathetic standing there all by himself, clearly waiting for somebody who hadn't yet showed up. Of course, he didn't catch anybody staring at him, either, but he was certain—absolutely certain in the most paranoid way, that they were looking at him when his back was turned. He knew it was a stupid idea. But so was getting nervous before a date. Just because something's stupid doesn't mean the brain won't think it.

The awkwardness eventually got to be too much for him, though, so he headed over to the food stall and bought a corndog. Of course, he didn't even like corndogs. It just gave him a purpose for being here. Yeah, you know, I'm just one of those guys who likes his street food. Probably, I'm gonna go off to handle important things when I'm done. Don't bother me now, though, 'cause I'm just savoring the sweet meat and cornbread of this here dog. Uh-huh. Erik took a seat beneath the platform, stretching his legs out like he was comfortable and casual. Yep, he did this sort of thing all the time.

He wolfed the first several bites down, then his teeth hit the popsickle stick (or whatever that thing was). Yeah, Erik, you've gotta pace yourself. A guy sitting around with just a popsickle stick will raise eyebrows. Better to take it slow. Better to really savor every bite and morsel of that yummy, gummy flesh. At a slower pace, he could make the corndog last at least another ten minutes.

And that's about how long it took. He was still sitting there all self-consciously casual when she appeared down the road. His heart gave a little beat, but that was alright. At least he recognized her. Standing up, he gave her a wave, and she smiled big and natural as she came over.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Natalie Cohen

The three of them were in Marissa's backyard building a set-piece for 'Ringers.' This time, it was a hulking wooden television that the actors could pop into. Natalie was crouched over two pieces of 2x4, hammering them together. Several nails hung from her lips. Marissa and Tamara were also crouched, poised like they were getting ready to do something. Several minutes had passed, though, and they were still so caught up in their conversation that they hadn't done a thing.

“You've heard of Guy Debord, right?” Tamara shook her head. “He was this French philosopher from the mid-century. Super insightful. And you know what he said about this? He said, 'You're all living a lie and it makes you a slave. Problem is, even if you read this book, you're probably not going to know what that means.' And he's right. It takes a lot of thought. Most people aren't up to it.” Marissa's eyes never left Tamara's face. When she honed in on somebody like this, she didn't let up. For her part, Tamara looked completely mesmerized.

Natalie watched this for a moment, then grabbed the nails out of her lips. “It's like you said before. How people are blind.” Marissa glanced at Natalie and curled her lips. It wasn't quiet a smile; more like the look you'd give a kid who was butting in on an adult conversation. And just like Natalie hadn't said anything at all, Marissa turned back to Tamara and continued her spiel. Of course, Natalie had heard it all before, anyway, so she just put the nails back in her lips and resumed hammering. One, two. One, two. She could get most the nails in with a couple deft blows.

This was her project, after all. Hers and Marissa's. They'd locked themselves in her house for four days and didn't step out again until the script was finished. Natalie had never done something like that before. She was a hard worker by nature, but up until she met Marissa, her work ethnic was directed solely at textbooks and essays. To have somebody show you that you could do more, that you could create art. . . . It was wonderful. Marissa had transformed her. She had brought her to life.

After a few more nails, the base of the television was firmly squared. She laid on the plywood undercarriage and started hammering it on, too. Once the plywood was firmly attached, Natalie started erecting the walls. She affixed one to the lower right-hand corner, then paused and looked up. Across from her, Tamara was nodding, and Marissa was clearly impressed. “So you understand? Ah! What a relief. I've been trying to get this across to people here, but nobody gets it.” Marissa's face was just a few inches away from the other girl's. It almost looked like they were about to kiss. Natalie's heart was pounding.

“Can the two of you help with this?”

There was a pause, and then Marissa slowly turned to face her. “Yeah, yeah. Of course.” She was utterly natural about it, and when she slid over to help, it was like they were best friends again. One girl held the 2x4 while the other hammered it on. They were a team, and soon the two of them had affixed each of the four corners of the television as well as the top brackets. Tamara busied herself gathering scraps of wood that had fallen by the skill saw.

Before they could start on the walls, Natalie had to run to her car to get another box of nails. When she returned, she found Marissa and Tamara sitting on the porch steps, once again immersed in conversation. When Natalie picked up one of the plywood walls and started banging nails into it, they didn't get up to help. There was electricity crackling between them again. Marissa was bring Tamara to life, like Frankenstein over somebody's corpse. His previous, failed creation hulked in the corner. Unwanted. A bad memory.

She hesitated.

She was just making this up, right? This was all in her head. Marissa and her were a team, and even if things were kind of bad right now, this was just a phase. It was an inexplicable but temporary falling out. She just had to bite down on these nails and keep working. Once their show was a big success, Marissa would remember why they had started working together. They were brilliant in each other's company, like two mirrors reflecting the same fire. Soon, it would be like it used to. They would be best friends again.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Thoughts on Divorce

Maybe it's a race thing.

Here's what I mean. I'm of mixed heritage. My mother's family is Irish, and my father's family is Jewish. Both families have been in the United States for generations, but neither mixed with other ethnicities until my parents' generation. This was common. Up until the baby boomers, race was traced along finer lines. Italians married Italians, Jews married Jews, Irish married Irish, and so on. Our parents' generation was the first to wed across ethnic lines on a massive scale, and my mom and dad were no exception.

It's worth noting that both families celebrate the 4th of July. Both families enjoy hotdogs and CBS. Both families attended public school and spoke with an all-American accent. Superficially, the Jewish family seemed just as white-bread as the Irish. Having grown up with both, though, I've come to see differences. The personality of the Jewish side is darker and more overtly intellectual. They're good storytellers and surround themselves with fine things. The Irish side is big and bright and boisterous. They laugh far more readily and with far less irony than my Jewish cousins.

Differences were also apparent in how my mother and father handled an argument. My mother bore hardship with a Catholic grace. She did not raise her voice. Instead, shame and guilt were her weapon. My father didn't notice this. For him, an argument should be like fire. It should burn fierce and fast until it died, and then the ashes should be blown away. In time, they found themselves to be incompatible. In time, they got a divorce. Most of their generation did the same thing.

Both of them were “American.” Both of them drove cars and went to the movies. Both of them worked corporate jobs and spent long evenings on the sofa watching Star Wars. Their public lives conformed to the textbook, but at home, she was Irish and he was Jewish. It's what they knew. They modeled themselves after their parents, just as their own parents had done with their grandparents. It was a heritage of home-life. It was culture. Each had learned a martial dance of compromise and debate, but these dances were as ethnically distinct as tap-dancing and klezmer. When my dad paired up with my mom, each did the dance their parents had modeled, and of course, the steps didn't match. Despite their attraction, they made horrible partners.

This is not to say we should only marry within ethnic bounds. Perhaps that would have been a good idea fifty years ago, but it's too late now. Our generation is already mixed up. Just go to a modern concert and watch the way people dance. We don't dance together; we don't know how. It can't get worse than this, so . . . marry whoever. Just be aware that our generation is facing a challenge. We've got to come up with new dances; we've got the synthesize and compromise and reinvent. It won't be easy. It's also something that must be done, or else we and our own children will be riding the same wave of divorce.

This is what our generation is about. We've got to figure shit out.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Paul Fisher

The setting: a college diner. The time: midday. Paul is sitting by one of the diner windows, his eyes fixed outside. He isn't looking at anything in particular, but it is a beautiful day. Summer is fast approaching, but everything is still green and alive like it's spring. Today, there are no clouds in the sky, and his eyes casually rove the scene. He spends equal time watching a squirrel grooming itself, a flock of birds darting between the trees, and girls walking by in tanktops. Although he's not particularly interested in any of these things, he enjoys looking at them in the same unfocused way somebody might enjoy looking at a Monet.

In front of him is a half-eaten plate of sandwiches and an untouched mug of coffee. There is also a thin school report lying by the plate. He is wearing a simple university t-shirt and jeans, and a varsity jacket hangs on the back of his chair. Apparently, he played soccer. His senior year, he even spent some time as captain. He is clearly not a high school student anymore, though. He looks more like a college sophomore.

At a nearby table, several girls in spring pastels are giggling and eying him. When he turns away from the window to return to his meal, he notices this and smiles faintly. His expression is friendly, but he's trying not to encourage them. One of them smiles back, but the others look disappointed. Turning his attention to the table, he grabs one of the sandwich triangles with his right hand and the report with his left. In the top right-hand corner of the first page is his name, followed by RHE-317 and DR. SAMANTHA RICHARDS. At the page's other corner, written in red ink, is the number 84. He looks at this and is clearly pleased.

The diner door opens and another young man walks in. His hair is longer and shaggier than Paul's, and strands have been bleached blond. Like Paul, he has an athletic build, and when the girls in pastel notice him he gives them a big smile. He slaps Paul on the shoulder before sitting down on the opposite side of the table. “What's up!” Paul simply turns his papers around so other guy can see. His lips are a straight and somber hyphen, but his eyes are obviously smiling. The other guy looks the paper over, then laughs. “You must be like the next fucking Shakespeare or something! Eighty-four. . . . Man.”

Paul grins at the compliment. It's the slightest curl of the lips. The girls in pastel are watching him again, but he doesn't notice. His eyes are on the paper. “I didn't leave my room for two days.” He flips through the pages, re-reading some of his favorite lines. “And I still had to stay up all night.” The other guy whistles, then deciding that isn't enough, he pounds on the table appreciatively. The hostess shoots him a nasty look, and he waves her over to place an order. She obligingly walks over.

“Get me a grill cheese and OJ.” She gives him another scathing look, and he grins wildly. As she walks away, he twists around to look at the girls in pastel. One of them is still looking his way, and he smiles at her before turning back to his friend. “I ended up hiring that Trevor guy. Seventy bucks, and he didn't do much better than you.” Paul frowns. “I mean, an eighty-seven. And he's an English major, too. Guy should consider a change of majors. Sociology or something.”

There's a long silence between them. It's obvious that Paul is trying to find a way to tell his friend to grow up and do his own work, that he won't be able to pawn it off on others for the rest of his life. Paul's never been good with words, though. Eventually, his friend just shrugs, then leans in with a grin. “I think those girls like us.” Paul's eyes flicker up to the girls in pastel, then back to his friend. “Wanna do something about it?”

Paul shakes his head. “No, dude. I've got Erin.”

Kevin grins, then pretends to slap himself on the head. “Of course! Sorry, dude.” They eye each other a moment longer, then his friend slides out of his chair. “If you'll excuse me.” And he saunters over to other table. The girls smile at him as he approaches.

Paul turns to the window again. His eyes grow unfocused.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Erica Bailey

She sits on a stool in the middle of her room. It isn't a big place, and what little space she has is crammed with objects. Against one wall rests a beaten-up leather sofa, which seems to have been dragged into her room from the dumpster. Aside from a single cushion, it is layered with clothes, books, and a few dirty dishes. In another corner of the room is her entertainment system, the television rotated to face the single cushion of her sofa without clothes on it. The top of the TV is littered with small plastic toys and unusually shaped rocks. Against another wall sags an ancient and poorly crafted bookshelf. Its shelves are laden with trash: broken rebar rods, piles of old National Geographics, plastic bags shoved inside of more plastic bags. It's unclear what she's doing with these things.

Perhaps she plans to use them for art. Before her is an easel, and on the easel is a canvas with several strokes of paint. She holds a palette in her right hand, and a paint brush in her left. The tip of the paintbrush is poised in midair. She holds this position for thirty seconds, and then a minute. In the background, Morrissey sings about what's in his mind. On the tip of the brush is a glob of vibrant blue paint, which contrasts sharply with the darker oranges and browns on the canvas. Maybe she's planning a coastal scene?

Another minute passes, and she still doesn't move. Of course, she breathes, and her shoulders slowly rise and fall. But that's it. Her canvas remains unchanged. It is almost as though she herself is the painting, or perhaps she's posing for another artist's work. Certainly, she would make an interesting subject, though from this angle we can't see her face. The only hint we get is her left ear, from which dangles a slender earring made of dark, glossy beads. We also see her hair, which is mangled and asymmetrical and obviously cut by herself. Although its naturally ginger, strands have been dyed black. They're clumped together rigidly, and it looks as though she used spray-paint to dye them.

Morrissey's song comes to an end, and slowly she returns to life. First a little twitch of the shoulder, then a slight nod of the head. Finally, her left arm starts moving, and she waves the paintbrush in front of the canvas, nearly touches it a few places. It never actually connects, though. No blue is left on the painting. She pauses again, and then shaking her head, she deliberately wipes the paint off of her brush. After being frozen for so long, it's good to see her moving with such decisiveness.

This time, she dabs her brush in the reds and violets of her palette, mixing together a new color. When she's done, the tip of her brush is like the ember of a burning cigarette. It is a color that will go well with her painting. After a moment, she moves the brush towards the canvas, but once again she doesn't touch it. She seems unable to find the right spot to start. This is obviously very hard for her.

Eventually, she groans and moves her brush back to the palette. This time she mixes black with a deeper shade of red. The color she produces could be the crimson of a setting sun or the blood flowing out of an open vein. When she's done, she throws the palette onto her couch, as though she wants to get it away from herself. Maybe this is best. She is now committed to a single color, and other possibilities will not distract her. Meanwhile, the palette settles at an angle, and the blue and brown paint slowly roll onto a tank-top.

Time passes. Her shoulders are tense in concentration, but still she doesn't move. Even so, something about her posture is different this time, and we hold our breath because it seems like she really is about to make art. Perhaps she will paint the red, desolate mesas of the southwest or the lips of grim-faced man. When she finally does move, though, it is not to the canvas. Her left hand swings over to her right, as though her brush is seeking the palette again. Of course, the palette isn't there anymore. It's on the couch now. Instead, the brush lands on her wrist, leaving a trail of crimson. The paint glistens in the fluorescent light. As if responding to her will, Morrissey's music grows darker and more insistent. She makes another stroke, this time heavier and slower. She's applying a lot of pressure, and the hairs of the brush splay across her skin.

When she's done, she holds her wrist up to examine her handiwork. Of course, this isn't a real cut and that isn't real blood. It's just make-believe. Probably every painter has done this at some point. For now, though, she pretends like it's real. She slides to the open cushion of her couch and spreads her arms wide. Her left arm hangs limply over the edge of the sofa. Her right hand touches the still-wet palette. This aggravates her, and she grabs the palette and slams it against the canvas. It slowly slides down. Leaning back once more, she closes her eyes and pretends to fall into a long, deep sleep. Morrissey continues to sing in the background, but the CD is coming to an end. Soon it will stop producing music and spin quietly in its tray until all sound dies.

She doesn't move. The only movement is the palette.

It slides past the bottom of the canvas and then clatters to the floor below.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

William Anders

Bill warily eyed the steak in front of him. He'd never had one before, except maybe when he was a real young kid, and even then, his dad probably cut it for him. He had no idea how to approach this, and although he should have been hungry to try, circumstances were conspiring to make him too nervous to enjoy the meal. Across from him, the fellow who was paying for this began cutting neatly into his own steak. “I'm just saying, it's amazing that you've lived the kind of life you've lived. I'm really, truly jealous. You must have hundreds of stories, like Jack Kerouac.”

Candlelight flickered across the fellow's face, and Bill briefly got the uncomfortable idea that maybe he was on a date. Maybe this guy was about to kneel down and offer a lifetime of companionship or something. But no, that couldn't be it. So Bill just shook his head, saying that his life was more normal than all that. “I really just am moving around all the time. Like in that song, you know? 'Like a Rollin Stone.'” He was about to smile, but then he reminded himself, No. No, can't that. He couldn't let this guy see his missing incisor.

“Well, I still think you had the right idea. I've been wearing this suit and going to a nine-to-five all my life, and you're about to be richer than me.” The guy was making clean geometric cuts into his steak, like it was some sort of puzzle. Bill wasn't sure if he was just getting buttered up or something, but the guy seemed sincere enough. Strange to have a fellow like that envying him. He felt horribly uncomfortable in his own suit, and he swore it was actually made to itch. The people at Clothes For Jobs had been good enough to give it to him for free, though, so it's not like he was complaining. “I bet if you took an IQ test, you'd score really high, Bill. I know I guy in Mensa, and I bet you'd score higher than him. Have you ever taken an IQ test, Bill?”

Bill just shook his head, blushing all the way up to his ears. Don't smile. His mom had always said he was bright and that he'd make something of himself some day. She'd be proud if she was here, no doubt about it. He was about to become a millionaire, he knew it was going to be big. He felt himself tearing up a bit, so he focused his attention on the steak again, so that other fellow wouldn't notice. He was having a real hard time with it, though. He wasn't even sure how to hold the knife right, and the meat kept shredding real messy.

“You're gonna be rich, Bill. I'm really jealous.” The other fellow eyed Bill's progress on the steak, then kept on talking. He really wished he could remember the guy's name, but when they shook hands and all, he was just a little too nervous. “I'm going to be frank with you, Bill. It's kind of obvious you're new at this. I mean, your patent was sloppy and I can tell you're a little on edge. But really, Bill, you don't need to be. Tarpline Inc. has already settled on an amount, and let me tell you, it's a lot.” Bill lifted his eyes off the steak, looked the fellow straight in the face as he pronounced Bill's destiny. “Two-hundred thousand dollars.”

It was like getting kicked in gut by a mule. He returned his eyes to the steak, trying to think what had happened. They were going to make hundreds of millions of his design. They'd probably sell it to the military or something. Why aren't they offering him just a little fraction of that? Just a single million? “I really had to fight for this, Bill, but when I saw your product I knew it would be worth it. You're really lucky. We haven't given out this much in years, not since the economy fell apart. And I mean, just imagine all the things you could do with two-hundred thousand dollars. You could buy a house in cash. Or, you could move to Tahiti and live like a king. Why just a couple years ago we gave a young inventor like yourself forty thousand, and he's still over there living it up.”

There must have been twenty, thirty people in the restaurant, but it was quiet, just murmurs coming from all the dark corners. Bill hated it. He hated this suit and his buzzed haircut. It made him feel like Samson or something, his neck and ears naked for everyone to see. The fellow must have known all along that he was uncomfortable. His patent was worth way more than that. It had to be. “Two thousand dollars?” he muttered over his steak.

The fellow smiled. “Yeah, thousand dollars!” When Bill didn't lift his eyes of the steak, the other guy grew more somber. “Come on, Bill, don't be like that. Things are hard these days, and two-hundred thousand is a lot. More than we've offered anyone else in years.”

Bill just shook his head. “I was thinking you'd give me like, you know . . . a million.” In the movies, the hero would have looked the fellow in the eye firmly as he said that, but Bill just looked at his callused knuckles, at the knife in his hand. The meat was all mangled now, and he still hadn't taken a bite.

The other fellow laughed, like Bill was joking, but then his laughter fell short. “You can't be serious, Bill. We'd never make a profit if we paid you that much.”

But that was a lie, and Bill knew it. They'd be making billions within a few years. He took a deep breath. “A million,” Bill repeated, looking up this time, glancing at the tie knotted around the man's neck before his eyes fell to the mangled steak again.

“Bill, think about this. What would you even do with a million dollars? What would you even do with two-hundred thousand? I can up this to two-hundred and fifty thousand. That's tops, Bill. That's the kind of money our CEO pulls in each year. You can't hope for more than that.”

The guy sounded so honest, Bill would have believed him if he knew it couldn't be. He'd chosen to approach Tarpline because they were the biggest tent manufacturers in the country. Because they'd be able to give him the most money. This time, Bill looked the other fellow in the eye. “Give me a million, or I go to Hubberds.” Yeah, Bill grinned, that's how they would have done it in the movies.

Finally, the other fellow took a deep breath, steadying himself. “Alright, Bill, I can see you're really intent on this, and I can respect that. I'll call the higher-ups and see what I can do.” Bill nodded, and the guy took a cellphone out of his suit pocket, tapping its display a few times until it started ringing. “Hi, Mr. Richards. I'm with William Anders right now, and he's asking one million for the patent.” There's a tense silence on the phone. “Now, I know that's a lot, but hear me out.” And he started rattling off the qualities of Bill's patent, admitting that it was risky, but that it might be worth it. Silence followed, and then an explosion of yelling. Bill was certain he heard the word “son-of-a-bitch” shouted several times, but the other fellow stood up for him and his patent. Finally, the phone calmed, and the fellow put in a few more good words for Bill, then listened to something, then hung up.

He took a deep breath, looking Bill in the eye. “I got him to agree to six hundred thousand, Bill, and before you tell me that's not enough, just think about it. That's huge. And I'm sorry to say, but there's just no way you're getting more than that. Not from us, and certainly not from Hubberds.” And there he went lying again, just when he seemed to be getting honest. Tarpline was going to take his idea and make hundreds of millions with it. They'd sell it to the military and make a fortune. Bill shook his head and scooted his chair back noisily. The other guy held up his hand. “Wait, wait. This is highly unorthodox, but I'll put in a hundred an fifty thousand of my own money. That's how much I believe in your design, Bill. Just sit down and take my offer. Eat your steak.”

“A million,” Bill insisted. “You're gonna make way more than that. We both know it.”

“But there are other expenses. Advertising and production.” Bill wasn't going to listen to this. He got up, scooted is chair back in like his mom taught him. The other guy got up, too, slamming his hands down on the table. “Alright, fine! Bill, I'll take out a mortgage to make this happen. A million. Of my own money. You've got it.”

“And taxes?”


“And taxes? How much will it be after taxes?”

The other guy scowled, but quickly caught himself and replaced it with a smile. “A lot, Bill. You'll have a lot.”

“Pay me enough so that it's a million, after taxes.”

And the other guy sighed, dropping back into his seat. “Fine,” he muttered, waving Bill off, “You've got it.” A million. He was going to be a real millionaire. And sitting back down for his steak, Bill smiled.