Prologue

PROLOGUE: ACCIDENT

It is all about speed, driving through the desert. The faster you drive, the more you are lifted up out of the natural world. You move with no effort and the desert flows past you. Until you hit something.

A man, a product of Brighton, England, was taking his evening walk in the desert twilight. Considering the things that had taken him from the shingle beaches of the channel to the desert outside Palm Springs, he could hear the intermittent sound of cars on the road in the near distance. If he had turned to his right he would have seen the lights moving along the highway. But he preferred the shifting colors of the desert and so heard the accident instead of seeing it.

First, the sudden, quickly building sound of skidding tires. The sound of other cars trying to brake. A loud bang. Still the skid screeching. Another long drawn-out bang. A moment's silence. Then a horrible series of crashes as something pin-wheeled off the road, smashing through the desert. Sudden silence. The moment extending. Then, two voices shouting. A sudden scream. Johns stood still looking across the mesquite. It occurred to him that it could have been Ryan. He turned and walked quickly toward the end of the driveway thinking, I'll just go look and make sure. He broke into a run.

Susan Yee opened her eyes and looked up at a beautiful pattern of light coming through shattered glass. The car had stopped speeding smoothly down the road. Now she wasn't looking at the desert sweep past; she was looking at the sky. She remembered the stomach-dropping realization they were going to crash.

Susan finished breaking the side window with her high heel. Glass pebbles showered down over her. She dropped the shoe and looked for a foothold to help her in her climb up and out of the wreck. Maggie Chow lay tossed in a heap against the side window that now rested against the pavement. She tried to keep from stepping on her friend. Blood was seeping through Maggie's black hair. Susan paused, half in and half out of the car, to survey the wreckage around her. The Lincoln Town car rested on its side pointing back the way it had come. Something–she couldn't tell what kind of car–lay twisted and torn apart. And something else was off the road in the mesquite. She slid to the pavement, bent to slip on her five-inch, fuck me heels and carefully started to walk around. A car came slaloming through the wreckage and then gathered speed as it whizzed away.

"Thank you for caring,” Susan said.

"Are you all right?” It was Ryan's voice. She looked for him. He was sitting on the gravel at the shoulder of the road. She looked at him, but didn't answer. "I think I'm fucked up,” said Ryan. He kept flexing his right arm, looking at the elbow.

Two more cars slowed to make their way among the cars and wreckage. A woman stuck her head out the window of one of the cars. "Do you want me to call 9-1-1?”

"Yes. Please. We need an ambulance.” I'm in shock Susan Yee thought, "Am I hurt?”

“I get dizzy if I stand up,” Ryan called.

"Fuck you, Ryan. You almost killed us,” she said.

Susan stopped turning in a circle. She stared at what they'd hit. The wreckage off the road could have been red once. Another SUV came up, made its way through the pieces of cars, and pulled over on the shoulder of the road. A man in tennis whites got out and walked toward her. He pulled his sweater over his head as he came.

"Here. Put this on," He said, lifting the sweater over her head.

Looking down, Susan realized that her blouse had been torn away and she was naked from the waist up. A siren slowly built its alternating sound in the distance.

The ambulances seemed to arrive quickly. Susan looked up and saw the first one coming through the wavering heat. The police arrived shortly after. They seemed to be moving very slowly to the people who, having been moving so fast through space, had come to a stop so disastrously.

The center of the accident, what had once been a classic Porsche, was now red metal, ripped and hammered into a shape that resembled anything but a car. Flung from the highway, it was planted in the sand thirty feet off the road. The hot metal chunk of the engine lay twenty feet from the car. The broken bodies were where the collision had thrown them. The big Lincoln Town Car was on its side, its hood and grill destroyed. And an Audi sedan with one side deeply creased, was nestled under the rear wheel of a black Escalade.

Chapter 1

CHAPTER 1: ARRIVAL

Frank Caldwell was driving southeast away from Los Angeles and into the desert, heading down the 10 to Indio and Palm Springs. He had left early from LA with the morning chill still in the air. Now he was coming up on Indio and close to the end of his drive. The car was climbing through a pass in the Chocolate Mountains. He had reached the wind farm by 9 am. Line after line of relentless, three-bladed propellers turning in synch on their towers.

The house was outside Palm Springs. The client was a Rock musician, wealthy of course. The job was armed bodyguard and supervising house security. The client had stressed that, so there had to be a threat, or a perceived threat, involved. Or he wanted the status of having an armed bodyguard escort him around town. When asked about it, Ryan (the client), had downplayed the threat, had been vague, Seacole said his explanations had wandered. Caldwell was curious about that. You never expected your client to be totally honest with you at the beginning. Events usually forced the truth out.

Frank was incredibly focused. That was your first impression of him. He was six-three, 210 pounds, with the build of a Cruiser Weight and wore his hair in a near military cut. The physical confidence of four years in the Golden Gloves capped by another two as a professional showed in everything he did. For the first meeting with his client, Frank had dressed in khaki slacks and a white short-sleeved shirt as a concession to the heat. A lightweight brown and black hound's-tooth checked sport jacket was carefully folded and lay on the back seat.

Frank Caldwell was the top bodyguard at Seacole Security. He held a California investigator's license, one of eight held by Seacole's employees, and a permit for a concealed weapon. He was a realist.

Frank's father George had also been a boxer. Coming out of the south to California at the beginning of the opening up of the Fifties, George had discovered that he could not make his way by what work he could find. When he married he stepped into the ring and began bringing home an extra paycheck to support his wife and the three children that followed the marriage. He wasn't a great fighter; he was a good fighter, a journeyman with a chin like a brick. He had a powerful body shot, a left that knocked out three men in his career. Hard to bring down, he would take a knee, gather himself, and rise at nine. Never knocked out, he fought on the undercards of seventy fights. Trainers sharpened their boxers against George Caldwell's brick. George never expected anything else. He figured he would see how many checks he could bring in; how far he could shift his family up the ladder on his back. The small family settled securely on his back, feared for him. Even now they watched him out of the corners of their eyes looking for dementia, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's, the deadly slowing of speech and trembling hand. So far George Caldwell had eluded it all.

When Frank had tried to follow him into the ring, his father lectured the dinner table on why he had suffered under other men's fists. Frank had persisted. Frank's brother finally shamed him out of the ring. Had taken him to lunch at Roscoe's Waffle House and shamed him. Told him, "You're not Dad and you'll never be him." Told him that he was throwing his father's sacrifices back in his face. And Frank also knew he didn't have the brick, couldn't take the hooks and jabs. He was tired of pissing blood, standing over the toilet in some dressing room waiting for the burst of the thick, red stream once the clots forced through, the toilet splattered red. He wasn't his father, he couldn't stay through the damage done.

Stopping once in Hemet for a date shake, Frank arrived at the house at 10:00 in the morning when the heat began to build. Desert House, a large two-story modern design, landscaped with cactus, agaves, ocotillo, and Joshua trees sat well back from the highway. The guard on the gate passed him through and Frank pulled his Camaro into the drive, stopping on a gravel oval that already held a Lincoln Town car, a red Corvette, an SUV, a 300 series BMW, and a Miata. Through the big windows he could see someone moving around, a shape passing back and forth in the back of the house. Looking over the roof of the car, Frank tried to sort out his impressions.

This was going to be his house, his assignment. This place he had to protect. Ryan, the man was his responsibility. Everything Frank had done to this point in his life would be set against what happened here. He continued to scan the house, the object of his protection. His enemies target.

He walked to the front door, rang the bell, and waited. A man opened the door. It wasn't Ryan. Frank remembered Ryan from his old music videos. This man wore a collarless, white shirt and black slacks, with highly spit-shined, shoes.

"Frank Caldwell to see Mr. Ryan. I'm from Seacole Security."

"Ah yes, we've been expecting you. Welcome to Desert House Mr. Caldwell, please come in."

The man shut the door behind Frank and led him through the great room and down a hall to a room set up as an office. At least it had a table set up as a desk with two leather-strapped Wasilly chairs ranged before it. There was an off-white Berber on the floor and cartoons of musicians on the walls. Behind the table was a console with Ryan's four Grammys arranged on it. A terracotta pot held what looked like the green skeleton of a plant. One wall was a sheet of glass forming one side of an atrium full of cactus.

"If you wouldn't mind waiting here, Mr. Ryan will be with you shortly." Frank waited.

He was looking at the cactus in the atrium when the reflected image of a naked woman passed through the rectangle of the door. Frank turned to look but the woman was gone, replaced by Ryan.

"I'm Ryan." He spoke with a pause, as if waiting for the applause to die down. "Welcome to Desert House." It was the voice Frank had grown up with only huskier, darker with age and abuse. Looking closely, you could still see the younger Ryan. The eyes were tired now. At the beginning, they had been pale grey and looked right at you. He was heavier, his face fuller. The hunger that came out in the early photographs was gone. Ryan wore a white and green short-sleeve bowling shirt and jeans with sandals. He had a turquoise and silver bracelet on one wrist and a bright, stainless steel Rolex on the other. He projected hip wealth.

"Nice to meet you," said Frank.

Ryan gave Frank a quick, firm handshake. He sat in one of the chairs facing the desk. Frank sat in the other.

"Did you find your way down here all right?"

"Yes. Very good directions. Very clear."

"It'll be good to have someone here who can handle things. I'd like you to look around the house and give me your suggestions for security. Do you have a gun with you?"

"Yes. Seacole mentioned that you'd had threats."

"I was involved in an accident a while back and threats were made. There's also a lawsuit coming out of the accident. There are more lawsuits and threats over the band. A couple of my lifelong friends are not happy with the money situation. They're suing over who owns the group name. You know, who can tour with it. And people come by. Crazy fans. They come out now and then. Crazy people live in the desert. Thieves."

"Thieves?"

"There was a break-in."

"What did they take?"

Ryan seemed to stop and rapidly consider possible answers. "Mementos."

Ryan looked into the atrium. He gave a little nod like he was satisfied with his choice of an answer.

 "You file a police report?"

"Yes."

"I'd like a copy."

"I can get it for you. They didn't find anything. Didn't even come out

that night. Showed up the next day. Anyway, I can brief you."

Brief me on what? thought Frank

"Johns will get you settled in," Ryan added. "Then we'll talk some more."

"What about the band members?"

"Well." Ryan turned and looked out into the atrium. Seeing something else. "It's about money. It's always about the money." He stood up, as if to start pacing and then, after three steps nowhere, sat down again. "The formula we agreed on when we started and the division we worked out after Circus when I went solo. My lawyer versus their lawyer versus the record company's lawyers. Managers. Girlfriends and wives. Billy Kelvin had three wives and I swear each one of them hated my guts. Mike threatened me with a gun in Kansas City."

"Mike?"

"Drummer." He looked like he was going to open up about something. "Over a girl. And money. Man, people never forget. Or forgive. Once money gets into your band it is gone. Everything just turns bad, man."

"Anything more specific than that? Any threats while they were cold sober and thinking clearly?"

"It's the life, man. Nobody was ever totally sober then."

"What about now?"

"Now? The band is healing. All of us are healing. Mike and I have our problems. I fucked his daughter. That was a mistake." Silence, then, "I don't want to talk about this anymore right now."

The man Frank assumed was a butler stepped through the door.

"You've met Johns? Johns, Frank Caldwell." Johns extended his hand. His

handshake was dry and surprisingly strong.

"Glad to meet you, Mr. Caldwell."

"Nice to meet you, Mr. Ryan."

"Johns has been with me for ten years. God. I sound like some old Brit. 'Johns has been in the family for centuries.' Anyway. Johns saw me through AA and Rehab and detox and Rehab again and divorces. Lots of craziness. Anyway. He takes care of the house. We've got three maids who come down from Indio to help out, but Johns is the majordomo. That's his official title: Majordomo. Really." Johns smiled. "Johns will get you settled in. Then we'll talk some more."

Frank went out to the car and got his bags. Johns showed him to a room on the second floor down the hall from Ryan's. The room had the same wealthy rock star style as the downstairs. Potted cactus and carved wood objects had been placed around the space. There were framed photographs on the walls and Indian pots on the dresser. By the windows, three leather club chairs and a wood and iron table formed a sitting area. A flat-screen television sat on a chest in one corner. Frank had a view of the pool and the desert.

This was the first time Frank had lived in the desert and known it as a desert, the landscape unchanged by the irrigation and imported plants of LA. He slid open the glass doors and stepped out onto the balcony and into the heat. The impassive humps of the Chocolate Mountains rose in the distance. A few hundred yards out lay a gully choked full of the rubble that had been swept down from the mountains when flash floods came cutting their way through the flats. It was a horrible land and a beautiful land, covered in boulder flows and thickets of thorny brush, wicked Joshua trees, and sudden bursts of flowers.

Scattered through the desert were oases surrounding perfect examples of the architecture of the Fifties. On the other side of the freeway up by the aqueduct there were small shacks pulled together out of the junk scattered through the desert, lone houses surrounded by tall chain-link fencing, and abandoned shells that had once been houses. Places where you never saw anyone moving around outside in the heat.

The band. Crazy fans. Crazy desert people. Thieves. Frank repeated the mantra of bad guys.

There were more than enough bad guys in the desert to account for hiring a bodyguard, like lawyers and retired child actors. But he didn't like Ryan's deliberate vagueness about things. Frank liked clear threats, the kind you could identify, isolate, and counter. But Ryan wanted to play games and not be direct about anything, leaving lots of shadows, blind alleys, and atmospheric fog. He wanted to be kept safe from things without having to name them. He didn't want to admit Frank to the game yet. Ryan was trying to be a character, "the Innocent Client", in a Chandler novel with one of those private eyes with a true heart and a selfless devotion to lost blondes, thought Frank. He'd been listening to his own songs where lonesome strangers moved through a landscape of haunted women in black dresses and lone men drank scotch in empty bars, while the Santa Ana honing everything to a desperate edge. But he was Frank's client. And Frank would protect as far as possible.

The house was closed up, quiet and cool. The downstairs rooms were as big as ten million dollars could make them. In what Americans had taken to calling the great room, the entire back wall was floor-to-ceiling glass. At one end was a massive fireplace made from the rounded stones the mountain sent down. Over it, a Robert Williams painting of a woman wearing stockings stretched out on a giant taco. Two leather couches faced each other across a large wooden coffee table. In the center of the table was a large piece of white coral. Closing off the square were two leather armchairs. Between the chairs was a stand with a large geode broken so it revealed a curving core of purple crystal. A number of highly polished guitars had been lined up along another wall. With their inlays, body shapes, and metals, they dominated the room as Ryan's tribute to himself. By the windows were an eight-sided table and eight high-backed chairs. A backgammon board with a game still in progress was laid out by a carousel of poker chips. All the furniture had inlays of exotic woods and smooth flowing lines.

Frank followed the central hall back to the kitchen. Johns was sitting at a long wooden table reading one of four cookbooks laid out before him. The kitchen had lots of granite counters and wood cabinets with a light stain carefully worked to look old and uncared for. There was a big subzero refrigerator and a Viking stove. Frank continued through, with a nod to Johns, stopping at the French doors leading to the patio. Fifty feet in front of him was one of the biggest pools he had ever seen. There were round metal tables topped with white umbrellas off to his left. Farther left was an outdoor kitchen with a gas grill.

"We'll have lunch at noon. Sand dabs and a salad," said Johns.

"I love sand dabs."

"Good. We'll have a white wine along with it. You do drink don't you? If not, we have all sorts of sodas and fruit juices."

"Wine sounds good."

"Mr. Ryan has an excellent cellar, primarily Californians, but still a quite nice cellar. For dinner, I'm thinking of pecan-stuffed pork chops.

"You eat very well here."

"We try."

Frank looked at the bodies placed around the pool. Ryan and another man sat at a table under a white umbrella. A laptop computer was open on the table and both men were looking intently at the screen. Three women completed the group. A tall redhead had pulled a lounge chair into the shade of an umbrella separate from the men. She seemed focused on doing her nails. Two other women were sunbathing on two of the lounges lined up by the pool, one face up, the other face down. Face down was nude; face up was topless. Face down had propped herself up on an elbow and was talking to the other woman. There were towels on the tile around the chairs and bottles of water, the remains of drinks, and tubes of suntan lotion.

"You could take a photo of that," thought Frank, "and call it Aging Rock Star at Home. Or just Rock Star. You've got the girls, the conference with the lawyer, the pool. Take a picture and put it in Vanity Fair."

"Who else is here?"

"Well." Johns got up from the table and came over to stand beside Frank.  

They looked out over the pool and Johns began naming people. The man with Mr. Ryan is Joshua P. Rubens, Mr. Ryan's accountant. The girl at the table is Naomi Sinclair. The other two are Maggie Chow and Susan Yee."

"Which is which?"

"Susan is the one with the tattoo.”

Something about the two women was trying to fit itself to an image in Frank's mind. He couldn't summon it up just then or remember where it came from but there was something familiar. Especially her ass, he thought. Why does her ass remind me of someone?

As Frank watched, the talking girl turned and looked right at him. Her sunglasses hid her eyes. He couldn't be absolutely certain she was looking at him, but he could feel her gaze. She stared at him not breaking contact until he came out and spoke to Ryan.

Susan Yee was telling Maggie about this guy who had tried to pick her up at Spider the other night, when she looked up and saw the black man standing in the kitchen. He seemed like a distinct piece of existence separate from everything else. He also looked really built. He was looking right at her.

"Don't look. There's this guy in the kitchen staring at us.”

"What?” Maggie turned to look.

"Don't look. I bet it's the security guy.”

"Oh. I got the cast off just in time.”

"I hope he brought his gun with him.”

"Ryan said he was going to carry a gun.”

As Frank came out into the yard, one of the girls got up, face up, posed on the edge of the pool, then dived smoothly disappearing beneath the surface of the water. Her head reappeared at the other end of the pool. Frank got another quick flash of something, a little clearer this time. He couldn't catch it. Frank submitted it to his unconscious for further action. He looked around and went to sit at a table a short distance from Ryan.

"Give us a minute.” Ryan had noticed Frank, he turned back and continued talking to the other man. Frank looked at the reflective surface of the water, the ocotillo and Joshua trees. He picked up his name several times in the conversation. Soon they seemed to arrive at a mutual point of completion. Ryan closed the computer and called Frank over.

"Sit down Frank. I want you to meet Joshua Rubens, my business advisor."

"Mr. Rubens."

"Josh."

"Okay. Josh."

"I was just telling Josh what your duties would consist of. Josh and I go back a long ways." Josh shook a cigarette out of a pack. He looked like a large seal. He was sweating lightly.

"So you finally took my advice and hired a gunfighter."

"Security, Josh, the word is security."

"Executive protection." Frank tossed in.

Josh dismissed both comments with a wave of the cigarette. "You got me to handle the record company and Mal for their lawyers. Now you got him for the thugs. Welcome on board Frank."

"Thanks."

"Could I see your licenses, Frank? A necessary formality."

"Of course." Frank took out his ten dollar wallet and handed it across. Josh actually read both cards with Ryan looking over his shoulder. That was a first, thought Frank. Josh handed the licenses back.

"You filled him in?" Josh looked at Ryan.

"I told him a little."

Josh nodded and flicked the ash from his cigarette. "Well some people are upset over things. As you probably know there was an accident, a fatal accident. Here. Right out in front."

"In the road down from the house," Ryan corrected.

"Wherever. Ryan is about to go to court on this matter. Several weeks ago, there was a request for money, one million dollars in fact. Though we'll negotiate that down."

"You're going to pay?"

"Sometimes it's cheaper than the truth. Also, it avoids a lot of publicity and problems. I'm sure you must have some knowledge about how these things get handled Frank." Josh paused and made eye contact with Frank for the first time. They had reached an important point. Josh was about to give that jerk to set the hook. He was asking Frank to commit himself, to join their little group and accept participation in this confusion.

Frank smiled and tried to look innocently inquisitive. He had expected something like this. When Seacole told him about the trial and the lawsuit, he had known it would happen. It was just a little early. But then Josh probably wanted to get back to town.

"The girls were involved in it. Some other people."

"Sounds pretty bad."

"Bodies all over the road," said Ryan.

 Frank looked around at the "bodies" that were present. "Everyone seems to have come through pretty well."

"Maggie broke her arm and got a bad head wound," Ryan traced an arc on his head. "But they were in the back seat. I almost got killed." Ryan did his thousand-yard stare again. Frank wondered how real it was and what Ryan was seeing.

"The thing is," Josh was saying, "the thing is, people have tried to get into the house."

Frank watched Susan Yee going back and forth in the pool, while Rubens and Ryan talked about the attempted break-in. Susan enjoyed the silence under the water, just the hollow water sounds. Her only thoughts were of her stroke, the movement of the water, and the sounds. Willing herself not to think about anything outside the pool, she tried to attain emptiness, becoming the movement through the water.

"People have been hanging around the house and photographers stalking me ever since I moved down here," said Ryan.

Ryan and Josh were also watching Susan Yee go back and forth.

"This was something different," Josh added. "These guys got in, went to the office, and then left real fast. And they didn't grab anything, coming or going. You see what I mean? They wanted something specific. Knew what it was. Knew were it might be."

"I think it's the Sohn family," said Ryan.

"Stanislaus Sohn died in the crash," Josh added.

"They're out to get me. Rich bastards."

"The Sohns have been here since the Fifties, Frank. They're old Palm Springs. Get written up in ForbesVanity Fair did a spread on them. Pictures of old man Sohn in tennis whites eating raspberry ice cream. Bunch of fascists. The family has a nasty history."

"They want to see me hang," said Ryan.

"Who else was involved in the accident?"

Ryan and Josh looked at each other. Two conspirators trying to decide whether or not to tell Frank that the package they gave him was going to blow up or let him find out on his own.

"Well," said Ryan, looking at Josh, "Well." Ryan looked at a cactus. "The Sohns, the Fredericks from next door," Ryan gestured toward a hedge on a rise in the distance. "Then there were the Levins. They were just driving through. That guy from Vegas."

"A lot of damage," said Frank.

Susan pulled herself out of the pool at the far end. She posed, face tilted up to the sky, swept her hands back over her hair, pressing the water out, molding it into a long serpent that coiled down her back. Water flowed down over a tiger climbing toward a branch covered with red flowers. The tiger had planted a rear paw on her right buttock and stretched its muscular body up. The claws of a front paw reaching for a hold on her shoulder. Its snarling head turned to the right. Its tail curled. Red petals fell around the black and yellow stripes of the tiger. The tiger moved as she wrung the water from her hair.

Whether it was a fragment caught from a video, magazine or show, Frank didn't know, but she definitely had set a hook in him. He would have to figure it out.

She looked in Maggie's direction and then began walking over to the table where the three men were seated. Susan performed her walk like a dancer, every step carefully placed for maximum impact.

Frank was aware of Susan's approach. He could just see her at the edge of his peripheral vision. Josh was staring as she carefully walked toward them. Ryan seemed oblivious. Maggie Chow watched, chin perched on her hand, controlling her urge to laugh. Then Susan was next to him, five-foot seven inches of brown body, dripping water.

Frank looked up at her. Susan smiled.

"Hello," she said, "We haven't been introduced. My name is Susan Yee." She extended a damp hand.

"Frank Caldwell. Please to meet you, Susan." Frank carefully took her hand, trying not to reveal any emotion.

"Frank is going to be handling security for me."

"Oh. Do you carry a gun, Frank?"

Frank looked up at her and considered the several possible responses he could make. He rejected, "Yes, want to see it?" and selected something more appropriate.

"I'm licensed to carry a weapon."

"Good. I feel much more secure."

Then she turned and executed a perfect walk back to the lounge. The men watched her go. Frank watched the tiger strain to reach her shoulder. She moved with the studied motion of a dancer. Placing one foot in front of the other. He turned back in time to notice Ryan making a face at Maggie. Something there, he thought.

"Damn, I wish I were that tiger," said Josh. "

When they finished talking, Ryan accompanied Josh out to his car. "I wonder what that conversation is going to sound like," Frank thought. He decided it was time to get to work. He began by taking a walk around the house. A quick survey would let him reconnoiter the grounds and lower the level of distraction. Frank took a small notebook from his hip pocket and began making maps. Later, he would transfer the information to the maps he brought with him. He noted the placement of trees, gullies, rocks that could shelter a man. He marked where the telephone and power lines came into the house. He estimated the distances to the house and the location of the nearest houses. Next, he'd do a walk-through of the house.

Frank had reached the front of the house. He decided to walk to the gate. He'd reached the end of the drive and was beginning to wilt under the heat. The sun seemed to exert a physical pressure on him. A car shot past like a low-flying plane, breaking Frank's reverie. The way people drove, it was no wonder they had accidents. To his left he noticed what could be a roadside shrine. A Mylar balloon tied to a cross waved back and forth in the slipstreams from passing cars. Flowers and candles were stacked at its base. The collection of objects gave the accident a reality none of the talk had. Frank looked at it for a moment and then turned and walked back down the drive.

There were two outbuildings on this side of the main house. Frank decided to check them and then get out of the sun. The first was clearly a garage. Four bays opened onto a large circular drive of crushed red stone. The doors were all down and locked. At the side an outside stairwell led up to a porch on the second floor. There would be a room or two up there, thought Frank.

He angled over to the other building. The door was locked. Looking through the windows he could see a painting set up on an easel. The was a painting of a woman, her back to the viewer, standing on the water in the middle of the pool looking toward the Chocolate Mountains in the distance. Lines of fire burned along the top of the mountains. Other canvases were stacked against the walls. The next room held computers, guitars, keyboards, and a drum kit. There were lots of chairs and stools scattered around. Microphones stood about the room patiently waiting for someone to return.

He abandoned his tour of the grounds, heading back to the house through the pool area. Two heads bobbed in the pool, Maggie and Susan. Frank considered going up and changing into his trunks. The heat was getting bad. He didn't wear a hat and felt like his head might explode. A slight breeze like that burst of heat you got when you opened a really hot oven swept over him.

"Hey, Frank! Join us!"

"You're gonna burn if you stay out in the heat. The middle of the day you're either in the pool or in the house."

"I may take you up on that."

"Do. We can tell you what's really going on down here. Help you solve the mystery." Susan hadn't shouted that last part. She had only meant for Frank to hear it. Frank glanced toward the house. Johns was moving around in the kitchen. He didn't see Josh or Ryan. Sitting in the game room was an older, white haired version of Ryan. A Hispanic woman was talking to him. Frank guessed she was a maid or the old man's keeper.

"I'll go change."

"Don't change."

"Just jump in we're very informal here at Desert House."

"Very."

"I'm on duty."

He turned toward the house followed by their cries. "Frank! Come back, Frank!"

Chapter 2

EDITOR'S NOTE: Wimpole Street Gazette is proud to introduce our first serialized novel, the mystery DESERT HOUSE by ROMEY KEYS. Every two weeks we will be adding a chapter, so stay tuned.   

•••

CHAPTER 2: NIGHT

After dinner, Ryan beckoned to Frank and walked outside. At the end of the pool, out of the arcs of light cast by the house windows, they had built a teepee of logs in a clay chimenea taller that Frank that rested in a wrought iron stand. It was all very rustic and authentic. Frank had watched while Ryan explained how to build a fire of the correct size. They stood and watched the flames lick at the wood. A few sparks went up into the air with the smoke. Ryan searched around on the ground until he found a piece of charred and blackened window screen. He bent the edges to keep it from sliding off and placed it carefully on the top of the chimenea. 

“Don’t want to burn down the desert,” said Ryan.  

Then he went into the kitchen and came out with two single malt scotches, doubles. He handed one to Frank and settled down in front of the fire. Flashed his bad little boy smile.

“Bending the rules just a little, Frank,” said Ryan.

Frank sniffed his glass to get the deep smoky smell of the peat. 

“It helps staring into fires,” said Ryan. “They let you see things clearer. You’ll like it out here Frank. Have you ever been in the desert in spring? When we’ve had a good, wet winter, it just explodes with wild flowers. You have to go over the Anza Borrego. Just carpets of wild flowers. Colors just spread out across the land in big sheets.” Ryan turned into the wind, inhaling deeply. “When I moved out here I decided no lawn, no East Coast flowers. I wanted to be true to the land. Now I’ve got white sage, Saint Catherine’s Lace, that’s Orange Blanket flower. I brought in the Joshua trees.”

Ryan started with the basics. The collision on the road: a smash-up off in the near distance from the desert house. Feeling like he was seeing in broken stop-motion, while being helplessly flung around in the screeching, banging confusion of the crash. Then everything was still and you were trying to collect yourself and figure out what you’d just experienced. 

Johns running toward the wreckage spread up and down the highway. Other cars coming through. Survivors being pulled out of cars. The police arrive. People attracted to the accident take photos. People begin disappearing into ambulances, into police cars, into the desert. A Lincoln Town Car, a vintage Porsche, a Jaguar, and a four-door German car—nine people—so much broken metal and torn humans scattered along the road.

People were dead.

“I was driving. I’ve never said I wasn’t. I guess that makes me responsible for some of it. I was going pretty fast. The police couldn’t really say how fast. I didn’t brake so there were no skid marks.” Ryan looked into his glass. Trying to see the accident clearly. “I was just . . . driving.” He seemed to be struggling with something within him and having a hard time of it. “I admit I was going pretty fast. No faster than I usually drive. No faster than anyone else around here drives. I pulled out to pass and a car in front of me started skidding sideways. And then I hit it. Then I was just bouncing around inside the car. Bounced off the airbag. The car is up on its side. And it’s all over.”

Frank didn’t say anything. He was thinking of the little memorial.

“Then it’s people running around and ambulances and police. I just walked out into the desert, ended up here at the house sitting out by the pool.”

“You left the scene?”

“I just needed to get away and process it all. Then I got myself together and walked back down to the car. I hurt my arm. Man that scared me, I didn’t know if I’d be able to play anymore.”

“What caused the accident?”

A look of perplexity on his face, Ryan raised both hands, then let them drop. “You got me.”

“The police must have reached some conclusions.”

“The police report didn’t really say anything.” Frank knew there was a trial coming up and he knew Ryan was facing manslaughter charges for negligence.

Frank was silent. They watched the fire burn away at the logs for a long minute. Then Frank raised the issue of house security. “Can we meet tomorrow to discuss the security setup? I’ve got a list of suggestions from Mr. Seacole. He felt you needed....”

“I’m certain it was clear to pass. And Sohn just appears in front of me out of nowhere. The Sohns were one of the founding familes. Sohn was so respectable, he wouldn’t even talk to Frank Sinatra. If he were still alive and his family didn’t have all the pull in the world, that son-of-a-bitch would be on his way to jail.”

Frank stayed quiet.

“I mean the man has all the money in the world and he’s driving himself around. Cheapskate.” Ryan stopped and ran his fingers through his hair, his head down. “Why the hell did that old fool turn in front of me? It was such a nice day. Such a nice day.” Ryan’s right hand shaped a curve in the air.

In the silence that followed both men finished their drinks. 

“Yeah. We’ll go over the security system tomorrow. Oh, I think Billy is coming down this week. I’m pretty sure I invited him. At least, he says I did. I invite a lot of people down. Billy is just country enough to take an invitation seriously.”

•••

The fire had burnt down to a red glow among the ashes. Ryan sat looking into his empty glass. Frank stood up to stretch. His back to the fire, he looked out into the darkness. He caught a quick, brief movement. 

“Ryan.”

“Yeah.”

“Go inside now, someone’s out there.” 

“Who?”

“Go. Now.”

Frank began moving away from the house to escape its light. Ryan followed him. Frank could feel Ryan behind him. Without looking around, he spoke to him the way you tell a child to do something.

“Go inside now,” said Frank. 

Ryan looked past him into the darkness. 

“This is dangerous,” Frank added. “I will handle it. You go inside.”

Ryan turned and took two steps toward the house. He turned to ask a question. He saw Frank, hand on the gun at his hip, running into the night. Ryan ran for the house.

Frank stopped in the shadows cast by some Joshua trees and tried to stay perfectly still. A large black shadow of some night predator passed soundlessly overhead. People were moving about in the house, but Frank kept his back to it, letting his night vision adjust. Objects were separating themselves out of the landscape. He stood waiting for the movement. There was nothing. Closing his eyes, he focused on locating the intruder by sound.

There were regular movements slightly to his right. Frank stopped doing the silent warrior bit and broke into a run. The footsteps quickened and Frank heard someone colliding with objects in the landscape. They came to a clear spot. Suddenly a figure scrambled, tumbled and fell up the slope before him, making it to the top. Glancing back quickly, the man raised his left arm to the stars and extended his middle finger.

Frank, stumbling through a stream bed full of rounded river stones, put in an extra burst of speed, and, reaching the top, saw a light-colored Volvo SUV pull onto the highway, the arm and its finger still extended, sticking triumphantly from the driver’s window. Frank started to run after the car, which leisurely rolled toward Palm. Frank decided to stop being a fool and ran to the side of the road to get a handful of stones. When the first rock just skimmed the roof of the car, the driver sped up until he was just a pair of headlights moving away.

The walk back to desert house in the cool night didn’t calm Frank. Several cars blew by him, honking rather unnecessarily. Just before he turned into the drive at Ryan’s, a blue Maserati slowed down. Frank stepped back from the road, watching as the car eased by looking him over. Suddenly the interior lights came on and a blonde man and woman looked out at Frank. It wasn’t a proposition or an offer of help. Frank could feel the hate coming from the car. When they finished examining him and letting him look them over, the woman turned to say something to the man. Then the light went off and the car accelerated away with a low growl. 

“I guess I’ve met the Sohns.”

___

ROMEY KEYS was born at home in Lanham, Maryland in 1947. The doctor delivered him between breaks to catch a boxing match on the radio. He has a Ph.D. in English Literature. He taught at UCLA for eight years. Now he's a Documentation Specialist for hire.

WHAT'S YOUR STORY, MORNING GLORY?
Oleg Kagan

My wife and I are old-timers in our small west Los Angeles apartment building; we have lived here for five years. I know the names of two humans and one dog living in the 15 units surrounding us. I'm told this is normal in the big city.

All in all, we lucked out with this place. When friends complained about their buildings, we bragged about ours. Two things stood out: First, we had our manager, an energetic New Zealander named Margaret with two autistic sons and a zest for gardening. She was competent and friendly, and with her handy husband took care of any issue we had. The second was the building's central courtyard, which Margaret diligently kept tottering just on the charming side of overgrown.

Passing through this courtyard was a daily touch of something simple and artful, like the hummingbirds that hovered around the little bird feeder every summer. Being observant there was always rewarded; leaves, bugs, and birds, changing every day. I grew so attached to the winsome bundle of Morning Glory wrapped around a small bush that I even published a poem about it. Oh, and for years a couple of doves returned there annually for their spring vacation. Tell me, is your courtyard a love nest for birds that coo? Ours was.

Then the owner, an ancient lady whose late husband had constructed the building in the 60s, finally died. Not long after, Margaret's husband began making long trips down south. He had bought and restored a boat, Margaret told us before she and the boys were to depart, so that the family could sail back to New Zealand. What a way to live!

Instead of hiring a new on-site manager, the owner's next of kin decided to personally supervise their new property. Technically, it was the grown-grandson Hank of Podunk, Nevada, who was appointed manager, but I never did glimpse him. This was not so with his mother, Golden Belle, who drove in from Podunker, Nevada to check things out. She was set to stay for a week, but like an obnoxious guest, stayed for five months.

We did not immediately dislike the dumpy, fully-blonde, octogenarian. In fact, we considered the introductory letter she hand-wrote, xeroxed, and tucked into all of our screen doors, amusing. It was written on the dead owner's outdated stationary, had drawings of a lighthouse, the sun behind a couple of skinny, crooked mountains, and was dated "February 1, 2016, year of our Lord". It began "Beloved Tenants," ended "Enjoy your stay," and loosely adopted the metaphor of Golden Belle as "the Captain of our ship," who "reside[sic] on Deck #12". Let it be said that the sailors on deck nine studied her words closely, reading them aloud several times and in different voices.

Despite the enthusiasm of her introduction, it soon became clear that Golden Belle had trouble adjusting to us apartment-dwellers because days after her arrival she undertook to change our ways.

It started with a notice near the building's back exit excoriating the mystery ruffian who'd left a cigarette butt there. The letter ended with the sign-off: "The Bell has Rung!". Next was a note -- topped by the time it was written: 6AM -- reminding us that the "Laundry Room trash Basket is for: Lint only. Not wrappings - towels etc." There was also a drawing of a stinky towel and her now-classic sign-off. Other missives followed and yes, they were all filled with peculiar capitalization, illustrations, and the fervent self-righteousness a holy warrior reserved for the unsaved hordes.

These admonitions were calmly ignored, though it is true that some brave resistance fighter took to adding whimsical doodles and post-scripts to her notes, as well as finding and deliberately planting old cigarette butts near the building's entrances. My ire was not truly awakened until The Bell aimed her puritanical gaze on our lush, wanton courtyard. One morning, about a month into her stay, she waylaid me on the way to my car and began discharging things like "This courtyard is a real mess, isn't it?" "I can't believe we let it go for so long," and "I'm going to fix it." Becoming a murderer occurred to me right then, but I had to get to work!

She spent the next four months wrecking our cherished courtyard with the help of a withered, barely ambulant man (husband? servant? We don't know!), and a bevy of part-time laborers. Even for a novice gardener, she did a terrible job -- chopping down and tearing out established flora willy-nilly with replacements that were pretty much DOA. And then, randomly, I guess she decided that she was done (both with the courtyard and with us) because with nary a farewell Golden Belle got into her old Cadillac and set sail for home.

I don't know what the other neighbors thought of the courtyard situation because we barely see each other, much less communicate. I do know that between Golden Belle's arrival and the sale of the building to its current absentee owner (and faceless management company), the screenwriter downstairs became paralyzed after a fall on the beach, the moody realtor in the second floor apartment across from ours moved out, as did the cute Serbian couple who lived under her. The young ladies, who live adjacent to the couple, graduated from college, and the guy with glasses above them got a roommate. Andrew, an entrepreneur who lives downstairs, participated in a panel at my library and did a good job. Also, the baby belonging to Eric and his wife, who live in the apartment next to ours, turned one.

By the way, when we first moved in, Eric left a green tea Kit-Kat bar from his trip to Japan on our door handle. When I rang to say thanks, he acknowledged that it was actually intended for the school-age daughter of the librarian living beneath us who used to live in our apartment. But he let us keep it, and I respectfully remember his name (though he has surely forgotten mine). The Smokers (everyone calls them "The Smokers") from downstairs continue to have their TV constantly on and smoke with their door open, and a poodle named Kona has moved in next door to us.

I don't know what our neighbors thought of Golden Belle, but anyway, what could we do but go on with our lives? Even the doves came back this year. I should move on, shouldn't I? Let go of things I can't control and all of that. Still, every day I pass the spot where the small bush used to be and I can't just forget that the Morning Glory is not there. 

___

OLEG KAGAN is a writer and librarian from Los Angeles. His work has been published in Frogpond, cattails, ROKOKO, Saturation, Phantom Seed, and numerous anthologies. He can be found on the web at lifeinoleg.com.

EXCERPT
from An Illegal Start
James Harris

An Illegal Start (click to buy tickets)
premieres in the merry-go-round on the Santa Monica Pier
May 5, 6, 11, 12 & 13, 2017, 8:00 PM

The play is set in 1980's rural western Colorado, where an old merry go-round in a defunct amusement park becomes a refuge for two young men (played by CAMERON TAGGE and IRISH GIRON) after a near-fatal accident, catapulting an unlikely friendship into an intimately intertwined journey through the trials of two starkly different life paths.

From Act 2, Scene 6

ROBBIE:
I’m getting married! (Pete hesitates, then replies. He is less than pleased.) 
PETE:
Well! The story’s complete, then, isn’t it? 
ROBBIE:
Huh? 
PETE:
(Dryly) Congratulations. 
ROBBIE:
I expected you to be happy for me. (Pete concedes.) 
PETE:
I am... I am happy for you. 
ROBBIE:
Good. 
PETE:
Yeah. 
ROBBIE:
I’ve got something to ask you. 
PETE:
Yeah? What? 
ROBBIE:
I would love for you to be my best man. (Pete stares at Robbie for a moment before answering.) 
PETE:
No. 
ROBBIE:
No? 
PETE:
I can’t. 
ROBBIE:
Why not? 
PETE:
I’m not going to be there. 
ROBBIE:
Why not? 
PETE:
I’ve made other plans. 
ROBBIE:
I haven’t even told you when it is yet. 
PETE:
Yeah, well... I’ll be busy. 
ROBBIE:
How can you be- 
PETE:
I’ll be busy! 
ROBBIE:
(Stunned) God damn you... 
PETE:
He can’t. He has “special plans for us”. 
ROBBIE:
No. God damn you. You and your self righteous, “follow-the-river-out-of-here-to-find yourself” bullshit. I thought you really had it together, Pete. You spoke as thought you had all wisdom, and I bought every word of it. You had the guts to leave everything behind. To do things your own way. To be Pete Wilson! I believed everything you said, about how life began outside of this valley, about growing up, about finding myself! And look at it all. Look at it all now! 
PETE:
You look at it! You found a life outside of the valley! You grew up! You found... Yourself! 
ROBBIE:
But you never did. That’s it, isn’t it? You never did... (Pete takes a long, heavy drink.) And you’ll never find it in there. (Pete snaps, confronting Robbie face to face.) 
PETE:
Don’t! Don’t you tell me where I will or won’t find myself. Don’t you lecture me! Don’t you give me any of your self-righteous bullshit! All you’ve become is a stereotype! 
ROBBIE:
A what? 
PETE:
You heard me. It’s what America does to its poor. They got you to join the service as an act of desperation. 
ROBBIE:
Desperation? 
PETE:
Desperation! Low income, no higher education, and to top it all off - a broken heart! Hah! And all over someone whose name you can’t even repeat!!! 
ROBBIE:
(Calmly) I can repeat it. 
PETE:
You can?! Well then do it! (Pete’s menace grows as he prods Robbie.) Do it once! Do it! Do it!! Do it!!! (Robbie answers calmly and directly, yet somewhat ashamed.) 
ROBBIE:
Teri Garcia. (Pete stumbles, did he hear this correctly?) 
PETE:
T-T.. Teri? 
ROBBIE:
Teri. 
PETE:
“Her”... Teri? 
ROBBIE:
I know I fixed you up with her, and you went out and all... And I know how much you liked her, but- (Pete turns away.) 
PETE:
You putted with Teri Garcia? 
ROBBIE:
Pete! It just never worked out. Not for you. 
PETE:
And sunsets? 
ROBBIE:
Not for her. 
PETE:
And Amaretto sours... 
ROBBIE:
And not for me. 
PETE:
She had beautiful brown eyes. 
ROBBIE:
Yes, she did... Pete, I’m sorry! (Pete takes another drink. He smiles wildly at Robbie, catching him by surprise. The effects of the liquor are really beginning to show.) 
PETE:
And you... Hell, you cheated on her. 
ROBBIE:
No. 
PETE:
No? You told me!!! Hah! Does you future wife know you’re a cheater?!! Ha Ha Ha! (Pete laughs wildly as he waves the half-empty bottle around. Robbie stares warily at Pete; his sturdiness that of a soldier.) 
ROBBIE:
No! Stop Pete! Stop! (Pete stops..) 
ROBBIE:
(cont'd) She’s not the one I cheated. (Pete tries to straighten himself, taking this statement.) 
PETE:
Who then did you- (He catches himself, realizing that Robbie is referring to him.) Me??? (He laughs.) Me???!!! You think you cheated on me???!!! 
ROBBIE:
I’m sorry, Pete. (Pete begins putting it all together now, as best as a drunk can.)


___

JAMES HARRIS is the author of Santa Monica Pier: A Century on the Last Great Pleasure Pier (Angel City Press, 2009), and co-founder of Santa Monica Public Theatre.

 

ANIMALS OUT OF WORK
An excerpt from Come Home Canyon
Jill Schary Robinson

“Shameful time for your buddies,” Ember said to her horse Rusty as she rode him into Come Home Canyon. Horses used to have jobs. Now, really rich people kept some horses polished up like poker chips. As they rode, the few horses still around just looked over Rusty as if he was a show-off. She heard the thundering up behind them. A guy rattled by in his Ford and squeezed his rubber bugle, honking them off to the side. The horses gave each other downcast looks. Shook their heads. It was real hard, Ember guessed, for these horses to see owners you used to work for, rumbling in on these motored rides, these ugly creatures called cars, dolled up in knight-in-shining armor metal. Nothing you’d want to hold close. For horses, it was the end of love and feeling useful. “We’re just about dust.” 

Ember left Rusty out to graze and tossed off her boots in Hank’s cabin. 

“Ember, Good Lord! Pull up your sox, kid! We got a job today!” Uncle Hank slapped her on the shoulder. “Own five horses, coin’ fine. Jose and Lance coming home from fixing Las Virgenes Canyon fences. Jose’ll need coffee.” Hank looked at the big clock rescued from the old Post Office. “You and I, due in Culver City—two hours from now.” 

Uncle Hank, Head Stunt Man at MGM, had trained Ember. She put on the percolator, ran up the trail to the main house to her loft. Put on frontier pants, blue-checkered shirt. Pulled back her long dark red hair tied into a ponytail with a twist of leather, grinned at her face, cheeks her friend Josie and called her look. “You approach people tough. They get thrown by how you look them over. Then you grin and they laugh right up with you.” Ember loved Josie, but Josie was thrown two years ago, broke her neck. Thank whatever I got Rusty and Hank. And Jose. And now, at 14, Ember heard Hank say, next to him she was “the best stunt person in town.” Hank didn’t throw compliments around. Jose had been a toreador when he was a kid; he’d left his family’s big ranches in Mexico to work with Hank in movies. They were best buddies and each wore a wide, silver cuff with each other’s names on. 

“Heard from your Ma this morning?” Hank asked. Ma was Hank’s sister. 

“No. She’s, you know. I didn’t hear her come home—except she was smashed, shoes on stairs, some guy using the spitoon. Yuck.” 

Everyone at school knew Ma was a drunk. And “cheap.” And when kids would tease—“I saw your Ma on the balcony in nothing but her black stockings”—Ember would cringe and hope she’d get a job on a far-off location. The ranch where she lived with Ma was right on the main Sage Brush road. And Ma would hang out looking for jobless guys ambling by. Whatever, just someone needing a drink and some time naked in bed. Ember got the percolator started for Hank, and she put the kettle on for Jose’s rosemary tea. Lance, his horse, was a Palomino. He liked her horse Rusty, but Rusty wasn’t interested in anything but galloping around the canyons with Ember. 

“Eggs and bacon?” Ember asked Hank. She took the frypan down from the rack.

“Just a couple of eggs for me, Sweetie.” He slapped his gut. “Jose said I got to lay off fat or I’ll be losing my looks, not to mention too heavy to somersault off a rooftop.” 

“Aw, Hank, you’ll always be the real best, and handsome as Gable, if you ask me. I”m going to walk some coffee up the trail to Ma. See if she’s—you know—“

“I know.” 

The trails connecting the cabin, the ranch house, the stables, and the tack room were kept rough and netted with chaparral brush to keep the land from sliding toward the sea during storm season. Ember reached the high point halfway to the back door of the house and turned, looking out over the sea. There’d never be anything she loved more than this view, the smell of this land, with the whiff of horse. There’s no use for people without land and horses. No reason whatever. She raised her arms to the sun. There was a prayer this Indian teacher said at school every morning. Vishnu was really born in the Land of India across from China—or whatever—but he was beautiful and you’d say, “Look to this Day, for it is Life…” and Ember liked to say it every day from this place—where her life was. She loved the line about “the Splendor of Action.” Whoever wrote that rode horses and knew them well. Embver told that to Vishnu who agreed. 

“A horse needs to come out at dawn. To catch the best, earliest light.” 

Now, holding the mug of coffee steady Ember climbed the steps to Ma’s wing, knocked on the door. 

“What the hell do you want?” Ma shouted. 

“I got you some coffee.” 

“I don’t want it.” 

“Ma. It’s me.” 

“Who?” 

“Ember. MA!

“Then you ought to know not to wake me.” 

"Well, I’m going with Hank—we got a job.” 

“Good for you!” Ma growled. 

“I’ll leave the coffee by the door.” 

“Yeah,” Ma said, voice blurry. Bad night. 

Ember walked down the trail, taking the right trail to the tack room, picked up a tube of the Veterinary liniment. Rusty still had a bit of a limp from an ankle twist a year ago. Jose had told Ember if she rubs it in “like this”—he’d showed her how—“it will be all gone. One day!” 

Rusty came running over, whinnying. When Ember took the right turn, she could feel his excitement, the lift of spirit, just like hers when they saw each other. Like when Jose saw Hank come in the door after a job and his eyes lit up. She felt that with Rusty and, with Hank, too. But it wasn’t the same—she’d love to see some real person look at her and be wild for her with his eyes. 

TRUNCATE
Sheikha A.

Autumn should have arrived ten days ago
but the days are mystifyingly clear
and with a cool breeze today – 
we are probably receiving the residual
monsoon winds from across borders.

This stray monsoon doesn’t know it can
never initiate rain on my ground – 
we live under a despot sun.

My skin hasn’t started to flake,
darken and wrinkle like autumn-inflicted trees,
but has turned a shade lighter – 
an unwelcome unexpected 

Spring never arrived; summer hasn’t left;
autumn is late; the months are shedding
days faster than the leaves in flight
to desiccation.

The days carry themselves with eccentric
precision – eight years have seen no change.

Winter will be its nonage burgundy self;
the nights crusting with sadness,
the hours condensing with slowness.

___

SHEIKHA A. is from Pakistan and United Arab Emirates. Over 300 of her poems have been published in various literary venues, both print and online, including several anthologies by different presses. More about her can be found on sheikha82.wordpress.com

TATTOO MAN, Chapter 1
Shirley Cannon

You never saw cars on the road on Sunday mornings.  Hardly ever.  I liked the quiet breath of the air.  I could see crows as they flew down from trees and landed nearby.  They say that when you start noticing crows and counting them, more and more show up.  Everybody said different things about what they meant.  I heard four of them meant good luck.  Two, death.  Eight, pain and sorrow.  There were quite a few that morning.  I lost count.  Nine, I think.  Maybe.  I couldn’t remember what nine’s supposed to stand for.  I loved looking at the crows.  The glistening black of their feathers made me think of peacock coal, that hard anthracite kind, not bituminous coal like we have.  Peacock coal is jet black and streaked with hot pink, Indian yellow, and stripes of acid green like you see sometimes on the back of a beetle.  As I neared the mine, I could hear the low hum of generators, pumps and high tension lines that kept the mine alive six days a week, and then sounded like some kind of slumbering beast on Sundays.  

I’d been walking barefoot on the newly tarred road, just heading up toward the coal mine, like I did every Sunday morning.  When my feet got too hot on the fiery surface, I hopped onto shady patches when I could, cool patches created by the thick, overhanging trees.  Sometimes my toes would sink down into sun-softened spots of tar that covered deep potholes.  It felt good the way the tar would sink in when I poked it with my big toe, and then slowly return to the way it was, like some thick licorice cushion in a hot, hard place.

At twelve years old, I was drawn to the mine like I was a spirit who walked through ghost towns.  Rusted coal cars lay like skeletons on abandoned rail lines.  The mine office, a once whitewashed cement block building, was now charcoal gray, like it’d been picked up and fondled by grimy hands, then plopped down onto that hard piece of earth.

There was no grass or green of any kind to be seen, except when I looked up.  Up was where the trees were.  Up was where the hills were which held the trees.  Up was pure green coolness.  That dark hooker green spotted with sunlight which somehow managed to slip past the hulking mountains that surrounded the black tar road and black coal-covered ground, and the mine with its rusted metal doors and blackened coal tipple, the rusted brown wires and creosote-covered telephone poles.  Up was green.  Down was dark.  All my life, green had been where freedom lay.  My place to play and hide in spots no one else knew about.  But, that black and rust and tar?  That’s where my heart lived.

I followed the coal car tracks toward the tipple and found myself in front of the rusted doors that blocked the entrance to the mine.  I picked up a rock and knocked a few times.  It made a loud, hollow sound.  I dropped the rock and picked up a rusted railroad spike.  It was a good one, and I thought I’d take it home for my collection.  As I walked back toward the road, the tiny rocks covering the mine yard hurt my feet, so I scrunched up my toes to put some space between the soles of my feet and the hot pebbles.

Back at the road, I crossed over to the memorial, a large, three-paneled wood sign that reminded me of Italian paintings on a calendar at Joey Matteo’s house, with one big dirty panel in the middle and one skinny panel on each side.  I’m sure it must have been white when it was new, but it had turned grimy gray, the same color as the mine office.  It was hard to see some of the names, but I liked to read about the men who’d died in the mine.  Charlie Foster, crushed between a coal car and a support timber.  Leonard Ackerby, a ceiling gave way.  Harold Barthlow, slag fall.  Paul Rapach, Gabriel Blackmore, Carl Brady, black damp explosion.  There were almost fifty names in all.  Most of them had died of white damp poisoning.  Some drowned when water flooded through.

From where I was standing, I had a good view of the mine office, so first I heard the car coming, then I saw it pull up and park in front of the office.  Dr. Morris got out and unlocked the door and went inside.  He came out right away and began loading cardboard boxes into his trunk.  Suitcases were piled up in the back seat of the little sports car.  I held my breath as I watched my mother.  She was sitting in the car and wearing big sunglasses.  The top was down and she had her head laid back with her face turned up toward the blue sky and green trees.  She looked like a movie star in that white convertible.  Her hair sparkled like it was filled with orange diamonds.  When he came out with another box, he put it in the trunk, then touched her hair and smiled at her.  Bent down and kissed her on the lips.

I waited for him to go back inside and then walked over to the car.  I was trying to figure out what to say, but my brain wouldn’t let me keep track.  At first she looked surprised, then like she was mad at me for something.

“What are you doing up here by yourself?  You should have stayed home and not be running all over the place.”  She checked over her shoulder then looked me up and down like she was in a store.  “Where’s your daddy?”  She checked over her shoulder again.

“He’s at home, sleeping.” I said.  She seemed to calm down.

“You going to Pittsburgh to live?”  I wanted to add “with him,” but I didn’t.  “When you coming back?”  She probably wouldn’t have answered me anyhow.  She just looked at me through her big glasses.   

“Mrs. Fortley will see to you if you need anything.  You should be in church instead of running up and down this road like some wild thing.”

I could feel my bare feet burning on the hot pebbles as I stood there, but I didn’t move them.  Instead, I reached down to my calf with a fingernail and cut a deep “X” through a mosquito bite that had been driving me crazy.  I rubbed my thumb back and forth on the rough surface of the railroad spike and wished she’d just take off those glasses.  She didn’t.

“I don’t want you to go,” I said toward my leg, and bent down again to scratch the bite.  “I could help out more if you didn’t go.”  

When I straightened up, she looked at my dirty blouse and jeans and said, “How often do you change your underpants, girl?”

I didn’t know what the answer should be.  I was afraid all of a sudden that it would be too often or maybe too long and then I’d lose her forever.  I couldn’t remember what I did.  Or what I was supposed to do.  My mind felt like a jukebox she could see into, big and visible, with hundreds of choices and only one dime.  I remembered how we used to clean up to go up to the doctor’s office every week, so I finally said, “Once a week.”

“Once a week!  What’s wrong with you, girl.  You know better than that!”

Just then Dr. Morris came out of his office with the last box.  He locked the door and dropped the key in the mail slot.  When he turned around and saw me, his eyes got wide and sad for a minute.  Just as he was starting to smile at me, I took the railroad spike and raked it across my mother’s side of the car.  Then I raked it again, harder.

“You’re gonna be sorry some day.”  I whispered it low, but I knew she heard me.  Then I told myself when I headed back home, “From now on, I’m doin’ what I please.  And I’ll change my underpants when I damn well feel like it!” 

•••

Every Sunday after that, I walked up to the mine as usual, except I kept hoping she’d be there.  I didn’t know how life was gonna happen without her.  One Sunday I picked Johnny Jump Ups.  I put them on the window sill and made myself take a bath and wash my hair.  Most Sunday mornings Mrs. Fortley came down to see how I was.  That particular morning, she knocked gently on the screen door and poked her head into the kitchen.

“Addie, darling,” she said in a long, exaggerated drawl, “Why, Addie, look at you.  So cleaned up and pretty.  And the kitchen fixed up so nice!  Where’d you get those Jump Ups?”  Her huge body made the kitchen seem smaller than it was.  She stood with her hands on her hips and pretended to look jealous, but I knew she had Jump Ups growing all over her yard.  Violets were her favorite flower.  Except maybe for white roses.

“You walk up to the mine again?”  She didn’t wait for me to answer.  She knew I walked up there every Sunday morning mostly.  She just helped herself to a cup of coffee, put milk and three heaping sugars in it, then set it on the kitchen sink.  She stood as close as she could to the sun that was coming through the window so her heavy, wet hair could dry.  Mrs. Fortley washed her hair with Tide every Sunday to keep the shine in it.

Everything about her seemed heavy and wet as she shifted her weight like a wave of fat from one foot to the other and took sips of the hot coffee.  She was close to 300 pounds.  That’s how she’d say it.  “Lordy, I’m close to 300 pounds!”  She always got weighed by a doctor in Morgantown when she went to see about her diabetes.  Her damp hair was the deep golden color of the sulfur creek that ran past the mine and through Flaggy.  It was thick, healthy hair, streaked through with silver.  It was hanging in loose, natural curls that framed her smiling, plate-sized face, freshly creamed and shiny from some mysterious beauty treatment she concocted from her garden.  Her aqua-blue eyes, a little milky from cataracts, were two pools of kindness.

“Better to take a Sunday walk than go to that church, sweetheart.”  She shook her head and rolled her eyes a little then blew gently on her coffee.  “Not one flower growing in that churchyard.  Not one!  That should tell you something.”  She raised a knowing eyebrow.  “Especially no Jump Ups.  Even if there was, those people would never let you pick them anyhow.  Might give you a little too much pleasure to have them on your window sill like that.”  She smiled slyly, and then shifted her big body around a bit to catch more sun on her hair.  She sipped her coffee, and then tilted her head slightly to the right so she could see the flowers.  And me.

“I don’t go to the church anymore,” I told her, even though I knew she knew it.  

I’d tried the church after my mother left and had prayed really hard.  My friend Joey nicknamed it the Holy Roller since it was a Pentecostal church.  I only went there to ask God to bring her back, and I even asked him to bring my sister Marion back, too.  Even before my mother left, Marion had already run off to Cleveland with Baker Hutchins to get married.  Baker got a job in the Ford plant up there and we never really ever heard from them except through Baker’s mother.  But, mostly, I prayed that my father would give up the whiskey and the morphine.  People at the church would pump me about my mother, but I wouldn’t answer them.  I heard what they said when they thought I couldn’t, about how my mother had pulled the wool over the mine doctor’s eyes.  All I could think of was how Jeannie Lucas was right about her being a slut.

Nobody at the church had ever liked my mother.  She never went.  She was a lapsed Catholic.  The only thing worse, I guess, would have been a good Catholic, or maybe a Jew.  But nobody really knew any Jews, just the ones who owned some of the stores in Morgantown, and nobody actually knew them except to buy from them.

The slate dump caught on fire not long after my mother left, and Jeannie’s family saw it as a sign of God’s wrath.  Everybody knew it’d burn for years.  Just pump out black smoke that would eventually kill every leaf on the trees if it got really bad before it finally burned itself out.  Then Flaggy would look like Everettsville at night.  Pitch black everywhere except for the deep pockets of fiery red, glowing out from deep within the burning dump, a giant, over-baked biscuit that never gets removed from the hot smoking oven until it finally becomes a cinder, cooked down, I guess, to some tiny, dried up version of itself until it’s too far gone to even burn or stink anymore.  I can’t believe I was only twelve years old then.  Still, from that time until now, I’m twenty-six now, that’s how I felt, just like that cinder, every time I thought about her leaving us.  I thought about her all the time.  I didn’t know what I was to do without a mother.

So, one Sunday when Mrs. Fortley came to visit, I watched her finish her coffee and wondered if I should tell her what had happened when I took my walk up to the mine the morning my mother left, and maybe tell her how I saw her leave.  Part of me wanted to keep it hidden away, though, to have it be like an open sore in some dark part of myself so I could bring it out at night maybe to lick it.  Then put it away again before it had time to heal.

“I need to talk to your daddy for a minute, honey.  Is he around?”  I told her he was in the living room.

I listened from the kitchen as she talked to my father.  “You mean she didn’t even leave a note?”  I couldn’t hear what all my father said, but Mrs. Fortley sounded mad when she said, “Just left like a snake in the night.”  She’d brought us a pot full of homemade chicken and dumplings.  I put them in the refrigerator and kept on listening.

“Dallas, you should call up Marion in Cleveland and tell her to come home and take care of her sister, or at least come and get her and take her back with her.”

My heart squeezed up into my throat or I would have screamed, “No!  I want my mother back!  I hate Marion.  I just want my mother to come home!”

My father must have said no or shook his head, because Mrs. Fortley kept on and sounded worried about how I was gonna do and who was gonna do for me.  But she didn’t get anywhere.  I could tell.  She looked mad when she came back out to the kitchen.  I figured I should tell her about scratching that car with the spike and that I saw them, but the look on her face said maybe I better not.

“Have some more coffee,” I said.  I picked up the pot to pour her some more. “Thanks again, Addie, but I better not.”  She glanced back toward the living room where my father was, and started to leave.  When I thought about how my mother had talked to me that day, my heart started pounding like that rock on the mine door, so I just said it loud and fast before I lost my nerve, “You think you could start teaching me how to cook?  I need to learn things.”

Mrs. Fortley’s face lost some of its anger as she looked at me.  I looked back real steady, hoping that she’d say yes.  All she said, though, was “Okay, I think I might be able to do that.  Why don’t you come up to see me later today, or when you get the chance.”   She looked once more toward the living room, and then left.  

___

 

EXCERPT
from Loss
Mel R. Friedman

Ever since that day in Pennsylvania all those years ago when Leo had ordered a dish of pork chow mein, only to violently expel it from his stomach minutes later in the alley behind the restaurant, Leo had formulated a set of rules to ensure his emotional survival. Despite his ambivalence regarding the concept ofG-d's existence, Leo's set of rules remained valid.. If this G-d, described throughout the Old Testament, as a just and merciful G-d, did exist, then surely he would figure Leo, his family, and more than six million others had suffered enough. From the moment Leo's tortured digestive tract had regurgitated its final morsel of forbidden food until the end of Leo's life, he should suffer no more losses. 

If, in fact, G-d did not exist, however,  the law of averages and probability should ensure the same outcome. For a life long compulsive gambler, such a postulation made perfect sense.

As they filled out the hospital admittance forms, Leo was in a dark mood. Six years earlier, Leah's mother had succumbed to cancer at the age of 59. Mother and daughter had resided in the province of Alsace on the edge of France and Germany. Several years after the war had ended, Leo learned about heavy water experiments the Germans had conducted in the years leading up to the second world war. If Helen's death resulted from radiation exposure generated by those experiments, Leah's current condition could easily be a casualty of those trials as well. 

Thirty minutes later, the admittance paperwork completed, the pair was ushered into Leah's room.   Leo had ordered a private room for her in advance. He didn't mind the additional expense. He wanted her to be as comfortable as possible.  Once the nurse helped her unpack and slip into the hospital gown, Leo was allowed inside. As he walked through the door, Leo noted how frail she looked , lying under the sheets ,  an intravenous needle protruding from her left arm. Her large brown eyes looked forward, wearing an expression of sadness and fear. 

“Shall I bring you something to drink?” he asked.

“No”, she replied.  “Why don't you take a seat in that chair?”. 

She raised the arm with the needle and pointed to the chair situated near the floor lamp several yards away. Leo stood motionless. She pointed towards the chair a second time.

He grabbed the arm of the chair, moved it closer to the bed, then sat down.

“Listen”, she began. “If I don't make it, I want to remind you to make sure to give my mother's jewelry to the boys.”

“Don't be ridiculous”, he began, but she cut him off.

“I don't have the strength to argue now”, she continued. “I want to get this clarified now. Do you agree?”

“Of course”, he said.

“Good”, she continued. “Now, there's something else.”   Leo raised an eyebrow.  “Now what?” he wondered. Tomorrow's surgery was to be an exploratory , or at worst, a hysterectomy, and here she was, acting as if she were already on her death bed reciting her last will and testament.

“In the back of my closet, you will find a dozen handbags. If you open each one, you will find a piece of paper with a name on it.”

“What?'  he exclaimed. “What on earth are you talking about?”

“Each bag has the name of the designated recipient inside. You will know which ones will go to your sisters, my cousins, and a few other relatives. “

“Stop this nonsense right now”, Leo exclaimed. “You are here for an exploratory surgery. You will wake up tomorrow, and you will still be around for a long time to come. Do you understand?”

“Perhaps”, she replied. “But if not, I want to organize things properly while I still can.”

Leo slapped the top of his forehead in disbelief. Leah would undergo a procedure tomorrow which would reveal the state of her still unknown condition, and here she was, already anticipating the worst , with name tags of the intended recipients of her handbag collection foremost in her mind.  She had always been the eternal pessimist throughout the duration of their tumultuous marriage. To be fair, , though, Leo could not blame her. After all, spending her pre pubescent years hiding in a cramped subterranean apartment in Casablanca anticipating the pounding on the front door from the dreaded gestapo raid was hardly a recipe to generate a rosy outlook on life. 

He walked over to the window and gazed out at the evening rush hour traffic crawling along Amsterdam Avenue below..  As he did so,  unbeknownst to her, Leo gazed at Leah's reflection on the inside surface of that window pane as well. Her calm behavior astounded him. Though he had encountered near death experiences on a daily basis during the war, Leo's survival instincts did not allow him the luxury of dwelling on inconvenient emotions like fear and sadness. One could argue, he mused, those inconvenient feelings had continued to catch up with him during his years ever since. 

Leo continued to stare at her reflection in the window.  To Leo, the expression on her face suggested she was resigned to what she assumed was an inevitable fate. He remembered what he had said to his boys recently. “From that day I emerged from the sewers of Warsaw with my hands up, I was certain I was going to die. I have considered every day of my life since that moment as pure profit.”

Leo wondered if Leah felt the same after she emerged intact from that cellar apartment in Casablanca at the war's end.

He remembered the day he had seen her for the first time at that soccer game in Yankee Stadium . They were so young. He was eighteen, she was seventeen. The two of them had not fully processed what each had lived through during the war years. Perhaps the pair immersed themselves in their budding romance in a vain attempt to eradicate the painful memories of their recent past, and plan for a brighter future. Add to that the obligation they both may have felt to procreate to replace the millions that had been lost, and their fate was sealed.

Of course that was not to be. Staring at Leah's image reflecting off the hospital room window pane, Leo felt overcome with a strong feeling of sadness and regret.  Sadness for the potential imminent loss of Leah's life,  and regret for the way their marriage had been destined to fail from its outset.  They were a mismatched pair, each carrying their load of excess emotional baggage for their young years, each coping with their own separate inner turmoil in different ways. She with her obsessive behavior, and he with a never ending restlessness manifesting itself in compulsive gambling and philandering. Nevertheless, standing at the window, he loved her as much as he ever had, and the feelings of sadness were choking him.

He turned to Leah. “I'm going out for a cigarette. I'll be back in a few minutes, ok?” She nodded.

He walked down the hall and summoned the elevator near the floor's nurse's station. When it finally arrived, he stepped inside and pressed the 'lobby' button. It stopped on every floor.  Expressions on the faces of its incoming passengers convinced Leo he was not the only visitor in the building that day fearing the worst for their loved ones' prognoses. The tension and sadness which filled the tiny space were unbearable.

The ride from the sixth floor to the lobby could not have taken more than two minutes. To Leo, it felt like an eternity. When the doors finally opened, Leo exited the elevator with the ferocity of a shot fired from a cannon. He stepped outside on to the cool sidewalk of Amsterdam Avenue, still clutching his pack of Parliaments and book of matches. He walked a few steps towards a lamp post to shield his cupped hands from the wind. The cigarette finally lit, Leo inhaled . His eyes darted in every direction as he surveyed the throngs of people and traffic around him. That moment he knew this would be far more difficult than he had ever imagined.  This time,things were definitely not looking up.

___

MEL R. FRIEDMAN spent his formative years growing up in Queens, New York. After graduating New York's Stuyvesant High School and CUNY's Queens College, he moved to Southern  California, where he resides till this day.  After joining the Wimpole Street Group several years ago, Mel began writing again after a long hiatus.

SAN FRAN CHANT
Jessica Baker

Back in the city of angels but with a little more madness in my skin,
a little more beat to the rhythm pumping through my veins,
a glitter-bombed, Tibetan peach pie-eyed mermaid.

Wish I could bottle up the way the sunshine pierced the redwood treetops,
preserve the feeling of rose rewards, of roadside raspberries devoured crab-watching on unnamed coastal cliffs,
savor the succulent visions of the hysterical in Tenderloin, the rambling hippies praising the universe,
whose bodies operate grungy against the pastel paradise of painted ladies, asymmetrical,
whose ravaged hands hammer out drum-circle psychedelia while strangers spin in sacred spirals,
inspired by Haight Street temples, enshrined in endless crystals,
rhapsodizing god in all names and forms.

Abducted by an unceasing out-of-body experience, my spirit is still
choking down fernet between beetle-adorned bar walls,
stumbling, intoxicated by exultation, up and down tie-dyed hills,
singing infinite gratitude to our angel-headed hipsters.

___

JESSICA BAKER is a museum publishing professional with editorial experience at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Rubin Museum of Art. She occasionally plays with words, but more frequently guides others with theirs. She can be found scrawling the poetry of Sylvia Plath on Los Angeles walls in ultraviolet invisible ink.

THE ARTIST
Daniel Barbare

The Artist

is
self

green
leaves
and
seasons

meant
to
be
experienced

life
is
a
dream.

___

DANNY P. BARBARE is located in the Upstate of the Carolinas. He attended school at Greenville Technical College. He has been writing poetry off and on for 36 years. His poetry has recently been published by HERA ( Humanities Education Research Association.) He resides in South Carolina with his wife and family and small dog Miley. 

3 POEMS
Robert Beveridge

CRANBERRIES ON ICE

This could be
the only hotel in Wales
where live lobsters are served
to unsuspecting customers

they must paint them
that peculiar shade of red
only achieved
in boiled lobsters
and the eyes of hardcore drunks

one man, drunk, itinerant,
gets fingers pinched
by a mischievous lobster

undaunted
he pries it open
and starts to eat

*

DOING LUNCH WITH JESUS

They thought
about ordering sandwiches,
but He kept dripping
on the rye,

so they settled for pizza,
where the stains
wouldn't show as much.

They're sitting
out on the porch
in a little cafe
in New Hope, Pennsylvania,

just across the bridge
from that great big glow-in-the-dark
garden Golgotha
He now calls home.

He's been incognito these last two thousand years,
shaved his head
and moved to Libya
after the ascension trick,
then emigrated
to America
at the outburst
of World War I.

The interviewer, swallowing
a bite of pepperoni,
notes that He
looks like Willem Dafoe
in the epic film
about his life,
except He, in the flesh,
is wearing jeans and sneakers.

He did let the mustache
grow back, at least.

The two sit
in a momentary lull in conversation
and sip Pernod,
staring out
at West Mechanic St.

He speaks
before the interviewer
can grab a pen:

“There was a hit and run
at this corner
some years back.

The poets
had a field day with it.”

Flustered, the interviewer
scribbles a few words:
“Hit and run—W. Mechanic—
poets field,”

but his subject
is already talking
about life in Persia
|in the 13th century.

*

SANCTUARY

For Allison Beveridge

It is a common door, the same
as the other twenty-five on the hallway.
Brown, handle, peephole in the knocker,
a place to run a fob. It’s the payoff
for the caress of plastic on plastic,
the blink of the green light,
that sets this door apart.
                                        Beyond,
the place itself is small, functional.
A kitchen just big enough to cook
for two, a space for a child to play,
love seat to curl up and watch movies,
comforting and comfortable bed
with two sets of pillows. An escape
from a world full of errands that must
be done just so, endless paperwork
and too many storage boxes. I’ve put
two steaks on the grill, potatoes
}in the oven. All that is required of you
is to pick up a fork, talk about nothing.

___

ROBERT BEVERIDGE makes noise (xterminal.bandcamp.com) and writes poetry just outside Cleveland, OH. Recent/upcoming appearances in Pink Litter, The Ignatian, and YuGen, among others.

"HE DIDN'T KNOW WHO HE WAS…"
Pablo Capra

He didn’t know who he was, he was too young,
but he liked white walls and seeing things in front of them,
and most of all he just liked to see.
He liked the wider awareness brought about by extra gazing
as it clarified and cast a light on a deeper reality.

There are many colors in white: 
there’s a catoptric surface, a plum-scented wind, wild ducks chime in….
He could never find the bottom.
As the touch perfectly hollows the place where it lands,
his wonder made everything blossom.

His paintings were substantial hard-fought battles,
taking up too much time, removed.
“I paint, I look, I erase,”
he gasped, identifying his facture.
“I didn’t do this to become a crusader.”
He liked when things that were normally never still paused:
a bird, a dog, an unplayed guitar.

When the bird looked up, it saw its short life:
a small gaze to a gold puff tethered.
When the dog looked up, it saw its intelligence,
and wanted to strike out—which it would never.
When the guitar was leaned against the wall, its haptic seduction grew, 
calling to the player who stroked his chin with haptic pleasure.

Childhood had been a game, the birds flying by,
searching for a castle to call home;
making faces fish-like, goat-like
at the limits of what was accepted or what was known;
a minstrel with a poem always in his hand,
and an independence that left him trembling,
chasing maidens on dirt roads to swimming holes,
dusted skirts and wind-blown hair by wind-blown grains yellowing.

He was pale from the moon, from staying up until the curtains turned orange,
watching sunlight pirouette down upon the vespertilian skyline of the city.
He marveled as, with the noise of hammers, people began to stir,
making the world flower again with their activity.
His espiègle fellows tried to bring him out on the town.
They put figs in his mouth.
“A life well-lived needs to be celebrated!” they exclaimed.
But they left him alone when he insisted, “I’m working this summer.”
People sympathize with someone trying to live their own way.

July was a lizard, asleep in the heat. 
The colors dried on his hands.
He wore them like jewelry.
When he felt lost, he stood very still.
Sometimes he’d stare at his impassioned reflection,
wondering, “What can I say about me?”

___

PABLO CAPRA is a poet and publisher of Brass Tacks Press.

 

SITUATION IMPOSSIBLE
Romaine Colthurst

One fine day at Buckingham Palace
Prince Charles honoured a transvestite
Who wore midnight blue silk and ostrich feathers
Nothing like Adam, the man I nearly married
Who, twenty odd years ago, told me he had a secret
Not a huge surprise as what ex-Etonian isn’t partial to a spot of Rocky Horror
And what harm could it do if he preferred bonking in suspenders?
After all I adored him
Stockings proved to be fiddly as they caught on the hairs on his legs
And at six foot three even extra large only reached up to his knees
It took the two of us to fasten the suspender belt around his waist
And there was no way we were going to be able to attach the dangly bits
But he seemed more than satisfied
Even though we had to remove the suspender belt half way through proceedings
As it was cutting off his circulation
But he kept the stockings on
Next he wore a basque, a gift allegedly bought for me
But the strain proved to be too much and it burst apart
Just as we were getting down to business.
But there was a progression. 
He found a shop in Soho and stopped buying gifts for me
That pretense was discarded along with his boxer shorts
And soon his collection of underwear exceeded my own.
Extra large Jewel encrusted basques, long black gloves, frothy garters,
Thigh high boots, dog collars, crotchless panties all snuck into our lives
Though I did manage to dissuade him from too much rubber
But it was the makeup that proved to be too much
The sight of those huge sticky red lips coming down to kiss me
Then it was intimate dinners for just us two girls and what he fondly imagined as small talk.
“But you’ve known me since I was eight, I’m the girl you climbed trees with
What on earth makes you think I want to discuss hem lines?”
As our wedding day loomed and I grappled with guest lists and bridesmaid dresses
Adam declared that he needed to dabble with the love that dare not speak its name
It would be a one time thing after which he was confident that he’d have no problem committing to me
The plan was to find a male whore to do the deed
So I said yes it was best he did this before sanding up in church
And plighting his troth to me
And prayed he’d change his mind
He made his plans but chickened out ,
But I ended it anyway
Adam is now Misti, with an ‘I’
He looks nothing like the tranny at Buckingham Palace, all elegant and smooth
He’s fluffy and fuzzy, with purple tops and plucked eyebrows
A sad, sad man who once was my starts and moon

___

ROMAINE COLTHURST worked for Jill and Stuart Shaw for three years when they lived in London and is a longstanding member of the Wimpole Street Writers.  She is currently working on a series of children¹s books.

 

FRIENDS
Josh Kravitz

“I’m starting to worry about something,” Billy said, a bit hesitantly.  The seven-year-old was lying on a grassy hill, looking at the sky.

“What are you worried about?” said Grontarr, the twelve-foot creature lying next to him.  

“I’m worried that you’re not…that you’re not real.”

Grontarr furrowed his brow, or at least his version of it.  His furry purple face had only one, very large eye that left little room for a forehead.  The eye glared at Billy a long moment before Grontarr finally broke out laughing.

“Hahaha.  Not real!  That’s hilarious!”

Grontarr’s laughs revealed the expanse of his cartoonishly frightening mouth.  Sharp, oversized teeth struggling for space.  A wide maw that seemed built on an endless swivel.  And then there were the two tongues that gave his gravelly voice a lilting tint.

“It’s not that funny,” sniffed Billy.  Grontarr’s guffaws finally ran their course.

“So, what, I’m like, your imaginary friend?”

“I guess.”

Grontarr grew a bit concerned.  He nervously pressed his finger against his own chest, dozens of small horns peeking through his patchwork tunic.

“But…I feel real.  I have a mother.  And a father.”

“But how do I know I didn’t just imagine them too?”

Grontarr looked stumped a moment.

“I guess you’re right.”

“We look so different.  Like we’re not from the same planet.”

Grontarr looked back and forth, comparing his gargantuan Velosian frame with that of the four-foot human.  Tri-fingered hands bigger than Billy’s head.  The small feet of the boy dwarfed by Grontarr’s metal hoofs.

“It’s possible.”

The two friends turned their attention back to the sky, worried as to where the conversation was headed.  Grontarr finally broke the silence.

“Billy…”

“Yes, Grontarr.”

“We’ve had so much fun playing together.  I don’t want it to end.”

Billy turned his head quizzically, as if doing a math equation in his mind.

“Why would it end?”

“Well, if I’m not real, you’ll eventually leave me to play with someone who is.”

Billy’s face quickly grew angry.

“I would never do that to you Grontarr!  Never.  We are friends for life.”

“Really?”

“Yes.  Friends for life.  Say it with me.”

“Friends for life!” the pair shouted, smiling.  Grontarr started tickling Billy, who began laughing hysterically.

“Hahaha!  Stop!”

The merriment dying down, Billy and Grontarr laid back and turned to the sky.  Billy smiled and sighed.

“I love you, Grontarr.”

“I love you too, Billy.”

Just then, the pair heard the sound of footsteps approaching.  A shadow appeared over them.  A scraggly voice boomed out.

“Dinner’s almost ready.  Wash your hands.”

“Okay, mom!” the pair yelled in unison before cracking up with giggles.

“It never gets old,” remarked Billy.

“Are you playing with your imaginary friend again?” asked Mom.

“Who’s to say what’s imaginary?” replied Grontarr.  “Who truly knows what’s real and what isn’t?”

Grontarr and Billy shared a knowing smile.

“I guess you’ve got me there, Grontarr,” replied Mom, shaking the furry purple head that sat atop her nineteen-foot frame.  “But you still need to wash your hands.”

___

JOSH KRAVITZ has been a writer since he was in the womb, when he penned What to Expect When You're Expected. He lives in L.A. with his laptop and is celebrating a birthday this year.

 

THE MERCHANT OF PEARL
Mani Leyb
Trans. from the Yiddish by Marvin Zuckerman

The horses they fly, in the sleigh they are spanned,
The whip, it cracks in the merchant's right hand,
Happily tinkle the bells.

--Girl, go open the door wide for me,
Let me go into your courtyard to see,
I am a merchant of pearl.

Young merchant you come from so far, far away,
But you've come to some poor people who never can pay,
What you ask for your pearls.

--Girl I have journeyed expressly to you,
For your parents are certainly rich people too,
To have such a pearl of a daughter.

O clever young merchant, you come from the world,
But you will not be able to buy me with pearl,
Away from my mother and father.

--Girl, go open the door wide for me,
Let me go into your courtyard to see,
There to talk to your parents.

Good little merchant, speak so no more,
Into this court I'll not open the door,
I am the bride of another.

The horses walk, in the sleigh they are spanned,
The whip, it hangs slack in the merchant's right hand,
Mournfully tinkle the bells.

___

MANI LEYB was a leading figure in the American Yiddish poetry group known as Di Yunge (“The Young”), the first movement in Yiddish literature to cultivate “pure poetry,” explicitly rejecting political goals. Leyb immigrated to the United States in 1905 and became a shoemaker. He was influenced by Russian authors such as Aleksandr Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov; in London en route to America, he met the Hebrew writer Y.H. (Yosef Haim) Brenner. By concentrating on themes of solitude, abandonment, and hopelessness, Leyb became a poet of “the lost soul in the big city” (according to Zalman Reyzn), and his influence on modern Yiddish poetry was vast. He also wrote stories in verse for children. One of his best-known poems, “Shtiler, Shtiler” (1914; “Hush, Hush”) is “a credo for a poetry of nuance and understatement, a kind of allegorical reflection on the state of modern Jewish life, and a play upon the messianic expectation that runs through the whole Jewish experience” (according to the American literary and social critic Irving Howe. (From the Encyclopedia Britannica)

MARVIN ZUCKERMAN was born and raised in the Bronx, N.Y., to working-class immigrants from Poland. Neither of his parents had any formal education. Both garment workers. Grew up in the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Cooperative Housing development on the southern border of Van Courtlandt Park in the Bronx. Worked 15 years for the Northrop Electronics Division in Hawthorne, CA, as a Configuration Management Engineer, Proposals and Reports Coordinator, and Data Management Supervisor. Became professor of English at Los Angeles Valley College in 1976, serving as Chair of the English Department for 15 years, and Dean of Instruction for six years, retiring in 2002. Published eight books, two of them English college textbooks, five of them in the field of Yiddish, and one of them a translation from the Yiddish into English of a memoir published by Purdue University Press in 2016. Also published various articles in journals and periodicals, one of which appeared in Volume 333 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography: Writers in Yiddish (Thomson-Gale, 2007), “Yehoash,” pp. 337-343. In his retirement, Zuckerman has served as representative of the Administrators’ Association (Teamster’s Local 911) to the Los Angeles Community College District’s Board of Trustees, and as creator and administrator of various academic projects for the Los Angeles Valley College’s Job Training Program.

 

Chapter 3

EDITOR'S NOTE: Wimpole Street Gazette is proud to introduce our first serialized novel, the mystery DESERT HOUSE by ROMEY KEYS. Every two weeks we will be adding a chapter, so stay tuned.   

•••

CHAPTER 3: FIRST COYOTE

Quiet filled Desert House, most of its souls still slept. Frank had been awake for some time. He sat with his back against pillows propped up on the headboard. He had pulled the curtains and had the glass doors wide open to the desert morning. Wrapped in a blanket, Frank sat in the chill of the desert and watched the intruder come closer. Something the house had drawn in from the hills, a coyote with a white marking on one ear.

Frank had spotted the coyote when it climbed out of one of the gullies and paused to look over the terrain. The coyote had made its careful way through the desert moving in an arc toward the house. It seemed to have no real destination in mind, but still it moved steadily toward Ryan’s house. Now it paused at the boundary between the yard and the wild. 

“You’re one careful dude,” Frank said. Taking a decisive step, the coyote crossed into Ryan’s domain. Confidently the animal walked toward the collection of human things on the grass. Probably looking for food. The animal stood, half-turned for flight, looking over the house. Then it seemed to forget the house and sniffed around the dead fire in the chimnea. It stood unmoving for most of a minute, then followed its shifting thoughts and trotted off toward the drive.

Once downstairs, Frank switched the alarm system to its daytime settings. Exiting through the kitchen, he circled the house and then the garage and studios checking the windows and doors. He stretched, and then jogged to the top of an incline that formed the beginnings of the foothills of the Chocolate Mountains and looked back over the house. It wasn’t much of a run but at least it got him started.

The day was critical to his assignment. It would give him his first look into the lives of the people at Desert House before they began to react to his presence. Frank wanted to see them as they were before they had taken up their daily roles. He had identified some of the groups among the residents. The second step would be to find out what held the groups together.

When Frank came in it was still quiet in the house. No one else was awake, or at least no one else was moving around. He decided to take the initiative and fix breakfast before the quiet disappeared. A good observer, Frank had watched Johns move around the kitchen preparing dinner and setting the table, and thought he could find everything he needed. 

He entered the cool kitchen and, without switching on the lights, got to work. Frank stood, surrounded by glass-fronted, white cabinets loaded with dishes, familiarizing himself with their contents. Finally, he took down a mug from a cabinet that seemed to hold everyday things rather than what he thought of as more formal dinnerware, a cup less likely to be missed if broken. Johns had taken a frying pan from a cabinet behind the island and below the counter. So Frank began opening and closing the doors beneath the counter. He found a bin of potatoes. One cabinet held a collection of stock pots. The next was full of large skillets. Frank felt that he was getting closer to his goal. Finally, he found them: frying pans of a usable size. He chose one with an insulated handle.  

Frank measured coffee into a paper-lined plastic cone filter and fitted it into the coffeemaker. He opened the glass-fronted refrigerator, selected three brown eggs from a drawer, and lined them up on the black and white speckled granite beside a package of bacon. He found tomato juice and poured himself a glass. Next he had to deal with the big Wolf stove. Frank had watched Johns clean it the night before. The stove gleamed from polishing like a new car. Red knobs ran along its front. Below them were two oven doors. Six cast iron burners and a griddle filled its broad top. Frank turned one of the red knobs. The gas lit with a soft pop. He put the frying pan on to heat. He placed four strips of bacon in and watched them cook. Then he replaced the bacon with the eggs. 

He put the juice on the table along with silverware. The elaborate, wooden kitchen table had been designed from a light pine to look the way kitchen tables should have looked in some New Yorker’s idea of the rural 1900s. So much of the things wealthy people surrounded themselves with were newly manufactured duplicates for the things of a poorer America.

He heard water running somewhere in the house. A sound suddenly loud and then soft as a door opened and closed. Someone was coming downstairs with a shuffling step. He took a step back from the counter so he had a view down the hall. The soft, padding step was moving toward him through the house. Susan Yee appeared in the hall walking toward him. Her long black hair was now held by a clip at the back of her head setting off her high cheekbones and full-lipped mouth. She carried her cell phone, a thick copy of Vanity Fair, and a Franklin Day Planner. On her feet were bunny slippers.

“Is someone fixing coffee? Did you make it strong? I have to have at least three cups of strong coffee. Nobody here makes it right.”

“I make it strong. There’ll be enough.”

“You’re cooking. Nobody cooks but Johns.”

“Where did you find those?” Frank gestured toward her feet.

“You mean foot-foot and foot-foot-foot.”

“They have names.”

“There as alive as you and I. Or as I will be once I have some coffee.”     Frank poured her a generous cup and put it on the table. “You shouldn’t cook. Johns really likes to cook for us. He has a love affair with that Viking. He’s going to feel very hurt that you didn’t wait for him.”

“Oh, I think he’ll cope.” Frank put his plate with the bacon and eggs across the table from Susan. He loaded up his coffee with cream and sugar, surveyed his creation, approved, and began to eat.

“Who are you, Frank? Where do you come from? How did you get into the protection business?”

“I tried boxing and that wasn’t going anywhere.”

“Did you like beating people up?”

“Yes. I liked it. I liked the training. The build up to the fight. Then, just you and the other guy in the ring.”

“Mano a mano.”

“Yeah.”

“Ever get your butt kicked, Frank?”

“A few times.” Frank took a sip of coffee. “It’s part of the learning experience.”

“Trust a guy to turn getting his ass kicked into a valuable learning experience. What did your father do?”

“Construction. And he boxed.”

“Kicking ass runs in the family.”

“Yes. He had seventy fights by the time he retired.”

“That’s a lot of fights. Is he all right? I mean he’s not like damaged or anything.”

“No, he’s doing okay.”

“Good.” She sat quietly for a while. Looking into her cup. “He must be one tough guy. It’s good you quit boxing when you were still young.”

“Well, I miss it sometimes.”

“Don’t be macho, Frank, take care of yourself.”

“I do okay.”

“You didn’t catch that guy. But don’t worry, trying is everything.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“I feel a little like a fool for running after that car.”

“I wouldn’t go out into the desert chasing somebody. He could have shot you. Maggie thinks it was an insane thing to do.”

“Maggie’s probably right.”

“What do you think of Ryan?”

“I like him. I’ve always listened to his music. From what I’ve seen since I’ve been here he’s okay.”

“You think he’s okay?”

“Yes. Now it’s my turn. What do you do, Susan?”

“I sing, dance, model, and act. I met Ryan working on his last video. They were doing this elaborate storyline that tied together all the videos and I got to be in three of them. That was almost two years ago now.”

“What’s Ryan like?”

“Ryan is okay.”

“Do you live here?”

“And you like it here.” 

 “Maggie and I come out every few weeks or so, people just show up, lots of musicians and entertainment people and actors and environmentalists and politicians and everybody. We went to this party with him and met the mayor. The mayor asked me if I was famous.”

“You’re an interesting girl, Susan Yee.” 

“Yes, I am.” 

“How did you get started in show business?”

Susan laughed, “I’m not in show business. I just do things like videos or work as an extra or a spokesmodel. I stand by customized cars smiling, presenting the car, and showing the girls. You see . . . I started out as a princess. I had this cute tutu and this silver plastic tiara I always wore to dance class. I was so happy being a princess that I decided to stay one. You’re smiling.”

“I was picturing you in your tiara.”

Light filled the space. The intimate world vanished, a rumbling voice broke the mood.

 “Who is messing up my kitchen? Someone will pay.”

 “Sorry, Johns. I just couldn’t hold out. There’s some coffee left. I can offer that as a gesture of peace.”

“Coffee?” Johns took out the plastic cone, sniffed it, and dumped it in the trashcan. “Never leave coffee grounds around after they’ve served their purpose.” Then he took the top off the coffee carafe and sniffed that. “We’ll see.” He poured some into a cup and sipped at it. “Passable. As a cook you’re a good primitive.” He began cleaning up the dishes.

“I can take care of those,” said Frank.

“No, you might make a mistake and wash the omelet pan. It will eventually get over the bacon. The bacon goes in the oven here and the omelet pan is wiped out with a paper towel. You’ll learn.”

Johns took a large coffee press from a shelf and held it up.

“This is what we use for coffee. A press makes the best coffee. If you just want a lot of coffee fast, then you use the machine.” He plugged in the grinder and took a bag of coffee beans down. 

“Today, Papua New Guinea.” 

Frank understood that he was getting a lesson. 

“We start out by grinding the coffee.” Johns poured beans in the top of the grinder and started it.

Susan leaned close to Frank and said in a stage whisper, “He’s very strict about who he lets use his kitchen.” Then, aloud to Johns, “Will you ever forgive me for those eggs benedict I made and the way I just dumped everything in the dishwasher?”

“Let’s not speak of that. At least Frank used the same pan you used for your construction. So nothing was really damaged.” The coffee went into the glass cylinder. Johns added hot water and paused with his hand on the plunger. “How are you finding things here, Frank?”

“Fine so far. You have a very tight routine here.”

“It has served Mr. Ryan well. There were times when everything was extremely loose and that did not serve anyone. You may have come just in time, Frank. This house has needed protecting for a while. Maybe you can be the one to hold things together.”

“Problems?”

“A general feeling of uneasiness.”

“And a few things going bump in the night,” Susan added.

Johns took Frank and Susan’s coffee cups and replaced them with new full cups. 

“Thank you,” said Frank.

“I’ll just put some muffins in to bake and then join you for coffee. It’ll be nice to have at least one person clearly on our side. Mr. Ryan has been through quite a bit in the last year. He deserves a rest. Maybe it’ll be fun here again. I’ve dealt with overdoses, breakdowns, thieves, singers in the middle of delirium tremens, God knows how much vomit, and mobs of freeloaders and drunks. But this last year . . . I can take care of Mr. Ryan. You handle those people out there,” he gestured toward the window.

“I’ll do my best.”

“Ryan and I are friends going way back, way back. I’ll stand by him. I spent a night walking him up and down the floor trying to keep him alive when he overdosed. I’m his friend. Maybe you’ll be his friend too.” Johns turned back to the counter and began taking down and arranging the things that would become breakfast.

“When does Ryan usually come down?”

Johns paused in his work, “He’ll be down after his Yoga and meditation. Would you like something else?”

“No I’m fine. Ryan does Yoga?”

“Rock has entered a new age.”

“Good morning.” Maggie entered. She wore jogging shorts and a top with UCLA logos.  “I’m going to run before it’s too hot.” She continued through and out the door. 

Frank was by the quick entrance and exit. Was she like this or was he the cause. He turned to Susan. “You don’t run?” he asked. 

“I run,” said Susan. “I pulled something yesterday, so I’m taking today off.”

“Mr. Ryan said you had never been a bodyguard before, Frank,” said Johns.

“No. I haven’t been the primary. I have worked security though. In the Army and while I was getting my license.”

“You have a bodyguard license? You’re official?” asked Susan.

“I have a California Private Investigator license and firearms permit from the Bureau of Security and Investigative Services.”

“I never thought you had to have a license. Did you have to take a test?” said Susan.

“Yes, you take a test. And you need to have at least 6,000 hours working security. Do all of that and they give you your license.”

“I want to become a private investigator, Johns. When I retire from the runway, I’ll open my own dingy private eye office and get a secretary named Biff.”

“Biff?” said Frank.

“You’ve already got the gun,” said Johns.

“You have a gun?”

“Yes, Frank. I walk around packing heat. Not right now, of course.”

Ryan walked into the kitchen wearing a white and brown caftan. “Susan is the John McClane, the Trinity, the Jason Bourne of Palm Springs. Watch out for her. She is deadly.” He put a CD case on the table beside Frank.

“Damn straight I am,” said Susan. “I’m one bad motherfucker, Jack.” Susan took an exaggerated swig from her coffee cup. 

“You’re so sexy when you talk tough,” said Ryan.

“I gotta get me one of those leather coats like Morpheus and some cool sunglasses. A big black leather trench coat with lots of buttons down the front. And a sword.” 

“Is that because of the things that went bump in the night?” Frank asked.

“Breakfast is ready,” Johns said to Ryan, and began putting plates at the head of the table.

“Someday I’ll tell you the story of that thing that went bump in the night.” 

Frank looked at the CD. The cover photo showed a group of armed men on horseback, riding fall landscape into a small town. Above the picture was the band’s name, Longriders, in period western script.

“A gift,” said Ryan. “That’s our first album, ‘Northfield.’ You can get a feel of the band from that. Doesn’t get as much airplay as it used to, but it still holds up.”

“It’s a classic,” said Johns.

“They tried to rob the bank and got shot to pieces,” said Ryan. 

“The First National Bank of Northfield. September 7, 1876. Bad luck,” said Johns. “And too many Civil War veterans.”

“Yeah. That too,” said Ryan. “But that started the band. Got us out of high school gyms and fairs, and put us on the road.”

“Left the small town behind, and discovered the world,” said Johns.

“City boy.” Ryan hooked a thumb in Johns’ direction. “Out of London.”

“The center of the world, despite what New Yorkers say,” Johns countered.

Frank realized that Johns might be the key to Desert House. He seemed to be the quiet center that held everything together. The day before, Frank had begun to realize that Johns was more than just the cook and house manager. Ryan had called him the majordomo. Maybe his job was holding Ryan together. He’d have to find out Johns’ story.

___

ROMEY KEYS was born at home in Lanham, Maryland in 1947. The doctor delivered him between breaks to catch a boxing match on the radio. He has a Ph.D. in English Literature. He taught at UCLA for eight years. Now he's a Documentation Specialist for hire.

AZURE BLUE
BC Petrakos

When Alice got the divorce papers, when she saw his name, a list of assets, a list of agreements written down on white sheets of paper separating her from the life she knew, she took a deep breath. 

Alice watched herself being erased from what she was, what she thought, from all that was important before and all that meant nothing now. She sat down slowly on the couch and stayed there.  For a year.

She was blue.

Alice only got up from the couch to go to the kitchen or to the bathroom. The man who signed the paper dismissing her existence paid the rent, the utilities and some other things. But she knew, in truth, he didn’t do anything personally, he was never personal. Someone at his office sent the checks and paid the bills.

He was now just a signature on paper, a source of confusion and a reason for Alice to be on the couch and to be blue.

That year, she did not leave the house, ate only what was in the cupboards, did not turn on the TV, or radio or computer. That year, she was so blue that she cried and took a lot of baths. She couldn’t bring herself to go into the bedroom or look at the bedroom so she kept the door closed. Mail stacked up by the front door. Her grass turned brown, her car stayed in the garage. Nothing was done. No one visited. 

Alice was blue.

After a year, Alice decided to take her last bath. She had run out of food and had very little soap left so she decided it was time. In order to take the last bath, she had to go to the bedroom. She had to open the door and walk to her closet. She knew it would be the last time she would do it and it took her three days to complete this task. The only reason she had to go into the bedroom was to get a swimming suit. She reasoned that someone would find her after the last bath and she did not want to be naked. Her only choice was to go into the bedroom and get a swimming suit from the closet. She stood, walked to the door that had been shut for so many days, and opened it. The sight of that huge bed made a sharp pain shoot across her flesh as if it were yesterday, as if she just saw the notes, heard the conversations. It felt as if she was cut in her guts as she stood in the room, took a deep breath and tried to focus. She decided to walk to the closet and get a swimming suit as planned. She recognized this was the last of her decisions. In the walk-in closet, she saw half the clothes missing, taken out more than a year ago.  The other halfof the closet was full of clothes, neat and organized

the way she used to make her maid organize it, all hangers and clothes facing the same direction, everything

pressed, hanging color coordinated and perfect.  She remembered scolding that maid for mixing beige with taupe and being in a rage that she did not understand the difference. The maid was right. There was not much of a difference. She saw dresses from big corporate parties, remembered arguments, and drinking, and shopping sprees that meant nothing. She saw cute outfits and designer shoes that when they were purchased made her happy, or what she thought was happy. She saw half a closet with nothing and half a closet with neat, lifeless, once expensive clothes, clothes which have become like her, no longer valid, valuable, or necessary. She smiled at this thought and went to the custom dresser ‘they’ were not happy with. The little dresser ‘they’ discussed and she whined about. The little dresser in the closet conversation that drove the poor ‘Closet

Lady’ insane. The dresser ‘they’ laughed about, the dresser that was so important, so wrong, so not perfect. It was the last time they laughed . It was the last time he talked to her, it was their last decision together.

He like a king extending pardon, gavethe ‘Closet Lady’ her check for the balance , even though the thing was not right.  Together they smirked and watched the ‘Closet Lady’ cry. Poor thing, they were royalty in that moment, they held the fate of the Closet lady,  holding back her pay her till the last second, how arrogant they were together?   

She realized the swimming suit was a good idea as it was her last bath and who knows what someone would find her. She thought whoever would find her after her last bath would be unsettled anyway?  Whoever would find her would not, at the very least, find her naked.

Before the divorce, when on a trip to San Francisco, she went into a Chinese market and found an old fashioned straight razor. It was new and the blade was steel, it interested her. So she bought it. It was just before the end of that other life of hers, before the papers, the arguments, the betrayal, the discoveries, before the couch,  the silence, the tears. Before the year of being blue. She remembered standing at the counter and looking at the strange straight razor, in that moment,  it reminded her of

something she could not put her finger on.  She remembered trying to find a reason to buy it and the man showing her how sharp it was by cutting his finger with a swift touch. “Very sharp,” he warned. There was a part of her that knew exactly what it was for, she realized that now. 

When she got home, she put it in her dresser in the little black box it came in as if it was jewelry, right

next to the diamond earrings he gave her for the first anniversary.

She went into the bathroom turned on the water, as hot as she could stand it and then…she settled into the tub.

After a year on the couch, looking at the papers, sleeping, thinking, and crying. She heard herself speak out loud, her voice was dry and scratchy from not talking. She said in a low steady tone “Today, today, today”

She said the word ‘Today’ like it was a chant or a prayer. “Today,” she repeated.

It was interesting to open the razor. It took a bit of work, it was long and heavy. The blade was still surprisingly sharp and the first cut went deep and was a shock. It hurt with a burning sting and poured her blood into the bath water. She cut again on the other arm, deep and after a moment she cut again, deep. It was a burning cut, water being mixed with blood, hot and surrounding her. After a moment she couldn’t feel anything, she got light-headed and her eyes focused on the circle of teardrops at the end of the tub. The part of the fixture that drained the excess water was sucking excess tub water into its teardrop slits.

Then a strange thing happened. The water turned blue. The mixture of blood and water turned azure blue, it was the last words that she said… “Azure…it’s Azure Blue,” and she felt herself pour through the teardrop slits at the end of the tub, and pass quickly through tubes and steel and then she was forced into the sea,  the swirling life of the sea. Around and up and down, fast and suddenly slow. She moved and she was no longer she, the body was no longer her, now the azure turned to gold and green and nothing and everything and all that there is. She was living in every molecule, she was moving and touching and not touching everything. No more memory, regret, no more thoughts of love, no more couch and paperwork, now she was not anything but azure, and gold, everything and nothing, touching and cold, warm and for the first time filled with life!

___

BC PETRAKOS is an award-winning playwright, Pushcart Prize & Best Of The Web–nominated, widely published flash fiction writer.

BLOOD SISTERS
Mattilyn Rochester

“I know! I know!”  Becky screeched.  She pulled out a shiny Swiss Army pocket knife from her stone washed cut offs and proudly showed it to Melody.

“What the heck is that for, Girl Scouts?”  Melody said and fired a quick look at the front door.  No mean moms in sight.  Melody was all out of options and was certain bud Becky could not come up with anything that could or would change her own mother’s mind.  She refused to look directly at her best bud for fear of the lump in her throat.  She knew if she looked at Becky’s eyes, as brown as her own, with shoulder length greasy brown hair to match, that lump would turn into tears and drown her sherbet.  So, she licked her sweet treat instead.  She handed Becky what was left of the soggy cone.  Becky slurped away oblivious to the imminent threat at hand.  Becky’s idea had not worked and were part of the reason they were in this mess in the first place.  

Last week, Becky told Melody to reason with her mother.  “Just tell her!” Melody knew better.  Her mom was stubborn as a bull.  Melody had, in the past, tried a few of the tactics she witnessed her play mates make to sway their parents and it had not ended well for Melody.  When Mrs. Pinter put her foot down, it was a Looney Tunes “That’s All Folks!”  kind of thing.  

The short reign of Becky Wheatly and Melody Pinter as best friends had come to a swift finale, just 2 and a half short years.  They met in kindergarten and became fast friends.  They played together almost all day every Saturday and in the Summer they were together daily.  For hours they explored the deep woods behind the high school playing Swiss Family Robinson,  they dragged buckets of crawfish from the creek near the cemetery that stunk up the garage, and they played house mostly at Melody’s because Mrs. Pinter hadn’t met Becky’s parents.  Why couldn’t Becky just play at her house?  But no she had to suggest to Mrs. Pinter that she meet her big brothers instead.   Besides they were the ones who were home most of the time anyway.  Melody had never heard about or seen Becky’s parents and Becky only talked about her big brothers.  That was the meeting marked the beginning of the end.  The last time Melody played at Becky’s.  And the last time Becky was allowed in Melody’s house.  

 After the said meeting, her mother’s rampage had been seismically proportional to the end of the world.  Only this time, Melody was happy that her mother’s rage was not directed at her.  “Who the hell do those poor, bunch a good for nothin, low down, triflin bunch a nothin’sthink they are?  Gonna have the nerve, the gaul, the audacity to open they not past a 3rd grade education, West Virginia hillbilly, trailer park, feeding Mountain Dew soda pop to newborn babies mouths to say my baby can’t play with their little beat up sister in they little, dirty, stankin beat up house?  Just because you black? Paleeaze!”  Mrs. Pinter paused the rant to catch her breath.   She didn’t rinse the dishes before putting them in the dish washer.  This was a no no.  But Melody thought better of reminding her mother who glared at her like she had, “You betta not go back over there.  They should be honored to have a Pinter grace that muck they call a house.  You betta not go back over there.  You hear me?”  She didn’t give Melody time to answer.  “Hell will freeze over and heaven will be one big burning bush before you EVER take yo black self over to they dirty white house!  You hear me?  Answer me when I am talking to you young lady.”  Melody obeyed, “Yes, Ma’a-”  She didn’t wait for Melody to finish,  “I didn’t come all the way to NJ from the red dirt,stinking outhouse, backward, bloody handed cotton picking country for this.  No sireee!  And where are her parents anyway? Them boys couldn’t put together a sentence if their lives depended on it.”  She wanted to tell her mother that their house was pretty clean except for that flea infestation.  But she wasn’t supposed to be there when no one was home in the first place.   Melody had been there when Becky was home alone a few times.  She wasn’t sure what their being white had to do with anything but that was the cat’s fleas not theirs.  Melody thought the flea thing, besides the red itchy bumps all over Becky, was pretty cool.  The big plastic tent that was over their entire 4 bedroom Rancher house for a day looked like a super special flying saucer.  

Melody cleared the table but opted to pass the dinner dishes to her mom across the white island countertop that separated them instead of walking directly into the kitchen.  It was usually Melody’s chore to do the dinner dishes but she didn’t say a peep.  She thought she could probably leave and go upstairs to her room and her mom would be none the wiser.    

“Humph!  They got some nerve!  Listening to the one who got all the money, all the power and control and too dumb to realize they are pawns of their own white stupidity.  I know that kind.  I grew up wit that kind.  Keep them dumb and poor quicker than me.  Dumb is the real definition of a nigga, not black my dear.  Dumb and white is worse than dumb and any kind of black in my book.  Because the white man gets them to think that they better than me or you, just because they white?  Paleaeze!   They relax into their limitation.  Lazy.  Our limitations are imposed.”  She mindlessly slung Melody a soaking, soapy dishcloth and without skipping a beat continued, “Systematic sins against humanity.  They ain’t got no damn excuse as far as I’m concerned.  No excuse!  You better not go over there!  You hear me?  You better not!  And she bette not step her licey head in my house again.”  Melody wanted to ask what systematic meant and a whole bunch of words but once she opened her mouth only,“Okay mommy” came out.  

Melody quietly wiped the table down and passed the rag back to her mother.  Melody also wanted to tell her that the lice thing was fixed in Becky’s hair and that she had fixed it herself with some V05.  Even though she was scared to spook her mom with words and even though her heart raced a little each time her mother moved somehow this tirade made Melody feel close to her mom.  

After dinner they even drove to Sunnyside Farms for homemade ice cream.   Mrs. Pinter got her favorite, butter pecan.  Her mother always ate butter pecan when she was upset.  Well, she ate it when she was happy too but she ate a little more when she was upset.   Melody even got to get a cone and whole container of her favorite, rainbow sherbet to take home for later.  She was planning to hide it in the freezer behind liver or something so her brother wouldn’t see it.  

Melody had forgotten about the Becky pact her mother instituted by the time their red and brown station wagon pulled up the driveway.  Becky was sitting on the red bench on the front porch.  Melody jumped out of the car and ran to greet Becky.  “Want some Sherbet?”  

“Sure!  Hey Mrs. Pinter!”  

“Hay?”  Mrs. Pinter said in her teacher voice.   Melody wanted to whisper to Becky, hay is for horses but picked a red berry off the bush and squashed it in between her fingers instead.  Mrs. Pinter didn’t smile but addressed her politely, “Hello Becky.  Does your family know you are here?”  Becky dug her hands deep into her pockets and looked down.  “They aren’t, like, um home.”  Mrs. Pinter towered over them and reality bore down on the two girls like the sun had moved just above their heads to incinerate them to smithereens.  They were done.  There friendship cooked.

“Well I don’t want you disobeying your parents.”  Mrs. Pinter looked at Becky then at Melody.  It seemed like she was going to say something but instead said, “Melody 10 minutes.  Then you have to practice the piano.  You have things to do.  An idol mind is the devils playground.”  The screen door screeched and the iron knocker to the door made a loud singular BANG.  Mrs. Pinter was gone.  But somehow she wasn’t.

The two stood across from each other and said nothing for a while.  Melody looked at the sherbet stain on her shirt and hoped it would come out in the wash.  It was her favorite.  A pink t-shirt with a roller-skate and shoe strings hanging that you could actually tie.    Becky dug deeper into her pockets and smiled.  “I know I know!”  Melody looked at the front door, then at the knife.  

“What the heck is that for, Girl Scouts?” 

“I figured out how we can still be friends!”

“How?”

The door opened.  Mrs. Pinter nodded for Melody to come to the door.  Becky quickly shoved the knife back in her pocket.  Melody opened the screen door and Mrs. Pinter handed her two bowls of sherbet.  Through the screen her mother said, “After you finish you are going to have to use your words and tell your friends you have things to do.”

“Yes mommy.”  Melody smiled.  “Thank’s, I mean thank you Mrs. P.” Becky said.  There was still hope.

The girls slurped and gobbled in silence.  Their good times were being threatened by the grown ups.  Melody swirled the remaining colors of the melting sherbet together with her spoon.  She put the bowl to her mouth and drank the rest.  Becky licked any remaining sticky drippings from her hands, wiped them on her shirt and brandished her pocket knife.  “Look it.”  Becky opened the blade and placed the pointy head of the knife into her tender skin.  

“That your girl scout knife?”

“Yup!”  Becky’s tongue always protruded out of one side of her mouth when she was concentrating.  She gently pushed the sharp blade into her forearm.  A bright red stream of blood stained Becky’s freckly arm.  She looked up at Melody and winked.  Melody wrinkled her forehead.  She could hear her mother in her head, you keep making that face it will stay that way.  But she couldn’t help it.  Becky took the tip of the blade and lifted the thin layer of her skin that protected her muscles and blood vessels.  “Ewww.  Don’t that hurt?”  Melody screamed. 

“A little.  But its worth it.”

“Huh?”

“What do you see?”

“Blood!”

“No silly after that.”

“Skin.  Ew.  It looks like meat.  Like chicken.”

“Now you go.”  Becky passed the knife to Melody but Melody let go of the knife and it fell on the ground.

“Nuh uh! I can’t have no marks on my body unless my mommy puts them their.  And besides.  Why?”

“Cuz underneath we the same silly.  You not black.”

“I’m not?”  

“Nope!  You just got a tan is all!  You not black and I’m not white.  We like are like, chicken!  We can play together.  Here I’ll do you so you can see.”  Melody jumped back.  

“That’s gonna hurt.” 

Becky picked up the knife and wiped her blood on her jeans.  “You wanna be friends or not?  Just trust me.”  Melody looked at the front door.  There were no signs of life. 

“Okay.  But after I gotta practice the piano.”  Melody extended her left arm.  

“No the other arm so we can be twins.”  Becky was concentrating.  “Gotta not cut too deep.”  She placed the blade flat against Melody’s forearm.  The sun caught a glimmer on the silver that reflected a gleaming light from the knife.  “One, two, three.”  She cut into Melody’s skin.  Melody barely flinched.  Her lips disappeared and her teeth bore into them.  But the lifting of Melody’s top layer of skin was a different story.  They both looked at the blood pouring from Melody’s arm.  “Why is mine bleeding more?”  

Becky shrugged her shoulders.  “Maybe black people got more blood.  What do you see?”

“I thought I wasn’t black?”

“You know what I mean.  What do you see?”

“Blood.  Okay blood and skin.”  A broad smile took over Becky’s face.  

“And!  What color is it?”  

“The meat? Ohhh!  It looks like chicken too!  Squawk!”  

“See?  I told you!  Now we can be friends!  You not black I’m not white!  Underneath we the same!”  

“Wow!!!  The chicken sisterhood!”

“Best buds forever! Squawk!”

The two friends from Kindergarten danced and jumped around the porch.  They made a song of the words.  You’re not black, I’m not white.  Deep inside we are the same.  They danced and chased each other around the porch screaming, “We’re the same! We’re the same!”  Becky stopped.  “Lets seal it with blood!”

“Okay!  Blood sisters!”

“Yeah that’s even better than best friends Melly!”  

“Yeah and you got freckles.   They the same color as me!”

“Yeah! God just didn’t finish coloring me in!”  Brown arm and freckly peach arm merged into one bloody mess.  They sealed their friendship with blood.  A few minutes later.  Melody was passed out on the front lawn and Becky was meekly but urgently banging on the front door.

___

MATTILYN ROCHESTER's most recent performance was at the Catalina Jazz club. She has performed literally all over the world:  throughout the US, Asia and Africa.  This excerpt is a work in progress of her memoir and solo show, now entitled, “The Long Goodbye” a mother who can’t remember and a daughter who can’t forget.