The Devil is in the Details

Mortimer P. Worthy stepped out of his modest size home, straightened his checkered tie and proceeded down the cement path towards his car. Eileen kept the new car, her Mazda, in the garage while Mortimer parked his five-year-old gray Corolla out front underneath a tall spruce tree. It was an unusually warm Wednesday in March, making his five-minute drive to work quite enjoyable. He lowered all four windows, turned on the classic rock station and drove down the block.

His job was going to be especially satisfying today. All five of his English classes had been reading Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke and today was the day they would be held accountable. Mortimer preferred essay tests, something his students detested. Of course grading all one hundred and twenty five tests would be a pain, but it’s not like he was obligated to get them back to the students tomorrow.

Mortimer thought of Johnny Caralta, who was constantly breaking his chops, as he cruised down the street. In all his years teaching, Johnny was by far the worst kid of them all. He doubted Johnny ever picked up the book; all he ever did was flirt with Samantha O’Reilly or interrupt his discussions with some inane comment or noise. Well, today would be Johnny’s day of reckoning. If he didn’t pull an eighty five on this test he was off the baseball team.

One stop sign, one red light and then the usual parking spot in the back of the building, a routine Mortimer could do with his eyes closed. His thoughts continued to wander as he approached the red light. Softball season was almost here, he had to remember to put a try out notice in the morning announcements. The light turned green and Mortimer automatically began rolling out, failing to see Edward Dwayne Nassour and his red Pathfinder come flying down the road. Edward had once again overslept and was once again in a mad dash, hoping he could make it to work before Mr. Dishman realized he wasn’t at his desk.

Mortimer lazily turned to his left, his foot gently pressing down on the gas when he saw Edward coming right at him. There was nothing either man could do; the moment of impact was less than a second away. English tests and angry bosses were no longer a pressing concern as the cars collided at the intersection of Cortelyou and Lamoka. Witnesses later told police on the scene it was the loudest crash they had ever heard. Edward had been doing at least seventy and his truck had nearly sliced Mortimer’s car in half, before flipping over eight times and coming to a stop almost one hundred feet away.

There were no survivors, only remains.

Mortimer was pissed.

He was forty-four years old and was still in what he considered the prime of his life. He had been teaching English for eighteen years at two different schools and life had become quite monotonous. At his sister’s request, he started to write down the stories he told his nieces and nephews. She believed there was potential and was going to show her friend who had an in at a publishing company. Perhaps if things broke right he wouldn’t be dealing with the Johnny Caralta’s of the classroom when he was sixty. Maybe he could spend his years sitting on the back patio jotting down amusing stories and making a comfortable living.

Of course, none of the above mattered. Mortimer was dead and presently watching police keep the gawkers at bay while his mortal remains lay scattered on the pavement. He paced up and down the street when he had the sudden urge to find the person who did this and kill them…again. Mortimer stormed up the street and saw firefighters on the scene hosing down the fire which had erupted from the truck. He stood in front of the smashed windshield, looked in and screamed,

“Hey! Hey you! Come out here!”

He heard movement coming from inside the vehicle and a badly charred man crawled out from the wreckage. He looked like he had been left on the barbeque an hour too long.

“What do you want?” he replied somewhat hostile.

“What do I want? Are you kidding me? You killed us!”

“So? We’re both dead now, ain’t nothing we can do.”

“I at least want an explanation, maybe an apology.”

“Maybe if you were paying attention we wouldn’t be dead!”

“Me? Are you trying to blame this on…hey, where are you going?”

Edward Dwayne Nassour had started walking down the street, leaving a trail of charred remains, obviously not interested in furthering the conversation.

“Get back here! You owe me my life! I want my life back!” Edward didn’t care enough to turn around and said with a mix of sarcasm and indifference,

“Why don’t you make a deal with the Devil? Isn’t that what people do in situations like this?”

Mortimer began to say something, but stammered and nothing coherent came out of his mouth. Instead, he shot both middle fingers in the air and began gesturing wildly at the departing murderer.

“The Devil. Ha, very funny.” He said to himself. What am I supposed to do, call out for him and he’ll appear out of some ominous smoke?”

Quite the opposite, actually.

Mortimer shrieked and turned around to see the prince of darkness standing behind him. He was over eight feet tall, blood red, with the horns and tail and looking a little like Pierce Brosnan. The stereotypical appearance, save for the Armani suit he was wearing.

“Are you…are you the….”

Satan himself. Charmed to make your acquaintance. The Devil deeply bowed.

“You’re wearing a suit?”

I take on the appearance of whatever is in your mind’s eye and this is a much better looks than what I’m accustomed to. Thank you.

“You’re welcome?” His response was half questioning the reality of the situation and half embarrassed.

Now, I take it you didn’t call on me to have a polite conversation regarding my appearance, correct?

“That would be correct, yes. The reason why I called is because I was killed this morning by some asshole who didn’t even accept responsibility!”

There is nothing more offensive than rudeness, the Devil said with a tsk.

“Yes! Thank you. Anyway, the one thing he did do for me was suggest I contact you…“

In order to resume your life?

The two beings shared a laugh. “Wow, the Devil really is a decent guy,” Mortimer thought to himself.

I can’t exactly do that. There are rules, you know.

“Not to be rude, but if you can’t do that for me, what can you do?”

An ominous smile formed across the Devil’s genial face. With a flourish he exclaimed,

I can allow you to go back and make your life better than what it was.

“Better?”

Yes. You can go back and influence things so that way you’ll be infinitely more satisfied with the duration of your life.

“Hmmm,” Mortimer tapped the area on his face where a chin should be and pondered. “Influence how?”

I’ll explain everything in tedious detail if you’d like. I like to give my perspective clients all the necessary information.

“Okay but before you do tell me the catch. I’ve read enough books and seen enough movies to know there’s always a catch with you.” The Devil laughed like a British man watching Monty Python.

I love how paranoid humanity has become. Always thinking someone is out to get them. The notion of tricking unsuspecting men and women into giving me their soul is a propaganda trick started by the opposite side. Here is the catch, as you say. In exchange for my gift, you agree that at the end of your life you’ll spend the remaining eternity with me.

The suggestion of eternity with Satan caused Mortimer to pause. Enough had been said and written of the devil being a purely evil creature. Did he want to be condemned to a lifetime with him?

“I don’t know. Eternity is a long time.”

Before you decide please allow me to finish. I will bring you back to any day you like. You will be a spirit, unseen by anyone, including your younger self. You will have one day, from the moment your younger self wakes up to the moment your younger self falls asleep to change your life.

Mortimer clapped his hands in excitement. “You’re saying I could go back a couple of hours and make myself late for work and miss the accident? That’s great!”

No, I’m not saying that at all. The Devil said with some irritation. Remember when I said I don’t have that kind of power? You’re dead; there is no coming back from death. I’m allowing you the opportunity to improve your life up to the moment of your untimely demise. To go back and offer a suggestion that will allow you a more prosperous life, with the perspective of the knowledge you have right now.

“So I could tell my younger self to buy stock in Google and Apple?” His voice rose like a little boy telling Santa Clause what he wanted for Christmas.

Now you’re getting it. Although I’m not sure if simply an influx in money would bring you happiness. You seem like a deeper man than that. Mortimer thought about it and slowly nodded.

“I guess you’re right.”

Don’t give up now dear friend. You were a teacher for almost twenty years. In a perfect world what would you rather have done?

“I like to tell stories.” Mortimer said, sounding more like George Costanza telling Jerry Seinfeld what kind of job he wanted.

Good, good! Now we’re getting somewhere.

“My sister was just saying how I should write them down and she would try to get me published!” His enthusiasm rose on every word.

What if you didn’t need your sister’s help? What if you went back twenty years and told yourself a guaranteed best selling story?

“I couldn’t think of a guaranteed best seller when I was alive. How would I think of one now that I’m dead?”

You’re not thinking big enough. You could tell yourself The Da Vinci Code and write it! You could take one of the thousands of James Patterson best sellers and slap your name on it. Do you see what I’m saying?

“You’re saying I could steal The Hunger Games?!”

Yes exactly! So, I suggest you go back to your mid to late twenties. You would still be young enough to use that imagination of yours while at the same time have enough life experience to write some quality material. Since you were a teacher all these years I’m assuming you took the summers off?

“That would be correct.”

Good. Then I say you go back to the summer of your twenty-seventh birthday. This also allows you to keep one year of teaching under your belt. We wouldn’t want to drastically change that.

“Yeah, despite the headaches I loved to teach.”

We’ll pick a rainy day so there are no distractions and you can significantly change your life for the better.

Mortimer paused. Something still wasn’t right. “I don’t know. This is too easy. I mean, you’re the Devil it’s your job to lie.” The Devil smiled and took a dramatic bow.

How can I be a liar if I’m telling you upfront I will own your soul? I’ll spell it out again for your benefit. Your life on Earth will be infinitely better. You will die in a car accident on this day regardless of what you change and when you die your soul will belong to me.

Mortimer felt uneasy and looked around. “Wait, shouldn’t God or an angel or something show up and give me another option?”

You called for me and God gave humans free will. It’s up to you to decide. Mortimer paced back and forth debating. Finally, he reached a decision,

“And this isn’t some kind of trick?” The Devil smiled the smile of a patient man.

Human beings are remarkable at deceiving themselves. They don’t need help from me. I spelled out the situation and at the end you will end up with me. I don’t know how I can be any more plain.

“Okay, I’m ready. Let’s do it.” He stuck out his hand and shook the Devil’s red claw.

You’ll see, it won’t be too bad. Besides, you’ll have an eternity to bask in your remarkable achievements.

#

For a second he lost his breath, which was strange considering he was dead. Mortimer instinctively closed his eyes, and when he opened them the world was pitch black. Panic set in as the idea that maybe the Devil isn’t the most truthful of characters popped into his brain. Relief washed over him as his eyes began growing accustomed to the dark and he realized where he was—the bedroom of the first house he bought with Eileen. His wife was a fussy sleeper, thus the dark curtains and the absence of any light whatsoever in the room.

Mortimer looked over at his alarm clock and saw that it was 6:20am. Eileen’s alarm wouldn’t be going off for another half hour, giving him plenty of time to formulate a plan. He came to an immediate conclusion; why waste any time? Be there the moment his younger self woke up and immediately give him the idea.

Dead Mortimer crept over to the left side of the bed and stared at his back for the first time in his life. The reality of the situation presented itself and Dead Mortimer laughed. His younger version wasn’t aware of him; he could jump on top of himself if he wanted to. He pulled the five-hundred count cream sheets back, climbed into bed and waited for his younger eyes to open. The excitement of the moment was building and he started jabbering out loud,

“You are going to be so happy when you wake up. The only thing you’ll have to do is grab a pen and start writing everything down. Hell, if you’re really lazy you can even tell Eileen. You’re going to write about a post apocalyptic world where kids…”

“BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP”

The sound startled Dead Mortimer so much he jumped backwards and fell out of bed. Fortunately, being dead precludes you from getting any bruises, broken bones or even being heard.

“What the hell was that?” Dead Mortimer thought to himself. He raced over to the window and saw the garbage truck outside, with a rather large man haphazardly depositing trash into the back of the vehicle. Behind him he heard another noise and turned to see his old self now awake.

“Good morning hun.”

“Hmmmmm.”

“You want coffee babe?”

“Hmmmm,” his wife mumbled in reply.

“No problem.” He, rather the living version of He, kissed his wife on her forehead and rose out of bed.

“Game on,” he thought to himself.

His younger self made his way down the hallway and to the kitchen to put on the coffee. Scratching his stomach, Alive Mortimer stretched and yawned. Dead Mortimer knew he couldn’t absorb a thought without coffee and decided to get the most out of the experience. He could walk down memory lane and come back in ten minutes when his young brain was eager for information.

The first place he went to was the downstairs rec room. The old gray La-Z-Boy! Eileen hated that chair and when they eventually moved would force him to put his precious chair to the curb, an act that nearly broke his heart. The chair was his dad’s, and his mother spent years trying to get rid of it as well. Finally, his dad gave in but instead of throwing it out, his dad gave it to him as a house-warming present. Neither of the Worthy women was pleased. But the year wasn’t 2014, it was 1997 and his chair was still his.

Dead Mortimer sat down, cranked the lever back and let out a gratified sigh. He ran his hands over the upholstery and stared at the various little stains that had come from spilling a drink or a little ice cream. Various thoughts of childhood came to him and would have still come to him if he hadn’t looked up at the clock.

1:00PM

ONE O’CLOCK?!!

How was that possible? It was 6:20am a minute ago! Apparently time didn’t behave the same for the dead as it did for the living. With a rush Mortimer bolted out of the chair and upstairs. How fortunate he was for looking up when he did, he thought with a shiver.

Dead Mortimer wandered around the house, looking for his living self. Where the hell did he go? He checked the calendar and saw an empty box where, Tuesday August 12 resided. Pressing his thumbs to his temples, Mortimer concentrated on what had happened that day. Where could he have gone? The minutes passed and the answer continued to elude him. How the hell was he supposed to remember a random Tuesday?

Mortimer checked the clock and saw it had jumped to 3:39. Time was slipping away and there was nothing he could do and he gave his soul away for nothing and…

There was a vibration underneath his feet.

The garage door was opening! In two minutes, (or a couple of seconds to Dead Mortimer) Alive Mortimer would be walking up the stairs. He ran to the door to greet himself like a puppy awaiting his master. The moment that door opened he would start talking and wouldn’t stop until the idea stuck.

His younger entered and in a Herculean effort was carrying twenty-eight bags of groceries to avoid a second trip. Typical Mortimer, he thought to himself. He followed his younger self, struggling to make his way to the kitchen while talking the entire time.

“Mortimer, listen to me right now. Imagine a post apocalyptic world where kids were forced to fight kids due to a corrupt government. There’s a main character named Katniss, okay I really don’t like that name we can change it to something better but that’s not the point. The point is she’s the hero and we follow her and a boy who’s in love with her who was a baker. No, his father was a baker, he just enjoys eating bread named Peeta.” Mortimer laughed. “That’s the first time I got the joke. Pita bread. That’s actually kind of funny. He’s with her and there’s a romance and she shoots an arrow into a force field and you’re going to make millions!”

Dead Mortimer watched as Alive Mortimer paused in front of the cabinet while holding a box of Frosted Flakes. A smile came over his living self. The seed was planted, now all he had to do was write it. Alive Mortimer put the box down and ran to the office next to their bedroom, with Dead Mortimer firmly on his heels. He turned the computer on and stood there antsy, his left foot tapping the ground. Their computer wasn’t the newest brand, or the fastest. Booting up would take a couple of minutes.

Just enough to go grab a snack from the fridge.

Dead Mortimer watched his other him leave the room. He rationalized the move by saying, “Okay, no big deal. Just going to grab a drink, maybe a bite to eat. I’ll be back in a couple of minutes, the computer will be ready and we can do this.” Mortimer stared at his crappy computer as it ran through the various processes and programs needed to start. For a second, Mortimer wondered if his living self was going to get distracted, but that fear was alleviated upon seeing himself walk in with a glass of iced tea in his hand. He watched himself climb into the computer chair, set his glass down and open up Microsoft WORD. Dead Mortimer could hear the chimes of the cash register ringing over and over inside his head. He was going to be rich, successful and best of all, never deal with annoying kids who wouldn’t do their homework! His younger self put his fingers to the keyboard and was ready to start typing away when he suddenly stopped. Dead Mortimer barely heard what his younger self said,

“Mets game.”

Shit.

The New York Mets were playing a day game today in St. Louis. This was the first year they were good since 1989 and his younger self was not going to miss any game for any reason. That meant there would be no writing for the next couple of hours. His younger him made his way downstairs, sat down on his favorite chair and turned the television on. It was only the top of the fourth, meaning at least another two hours. Resigned to the situation, Dead Mortimer sat down on the couch and watched along.

An hour later the game was over and both Mortimers were in a bad mood. Alive Mortimer was pissed because they lost 5-2 and played like garbage. Dead Mortimer was pissed because time was ticking away. Mortimer remembered how he was after a loss; writing would be the last thing he wanted to do. How the hell was he going to get himself over to the computer? He needed another idea, and fast. He needed magic. He needed….

Dead Mortimer raced over to himself, sitting there angry on the La Z Boy.

“What if you had the ability to change the results of the game? What if you could do magic? What if you were the chosen one, sent to defend everyone from the most evil wizard on the planet? What if your name was Harry Potter?”

The familiar smile washed over his face and this time, instead of casually walking to the office room, Alive Mortimer jogged upstairs. This was money. The killing kids idea would be nothing but headaches, but this one was money. Plus, it could be for kids. Merchandising, movie rights, this was it. Alive Mortimer sat down on the computer chair leaned back and cracked his knuckles. Dead Mortimer walked into the room to watch his life change forever when the phone rang.

Thankfully he was never a phone person, so the conversation would only last a couple of minutes—tops. In fact, the only person who could keep him on the phone was his friend Mike because they would talk nothing but Mets.

“Oh no,” he thought to himself. “The Mets just lost, that means….”

“Hey Mike, yeah I watched. We gave that game away.”

“No no no! This conversation could last an hour!” Dead Mortimer thought to himself. He sat back, resigned to the fact that there was nothing he could do but wait.

Ninety minutes later, Mortimer hung up the phone. It was now 5:45pm. Eileen would be home in forty-five minutes. The good news was he had remained in the chair in front of his computer. All he had to do was get himself to write the idea down and frame out the general outline. Once he did that, he could always come back to the story tomorrow or the next day. Just start typing!

Alive Mortimer pulled himself in towards the desk and paused. Dead Mortimer took that as his cue to once again give the idea.

“Wizards, magic, Harry Potter. Annoying relatives. Boarding school for magical people. Lord Voldemort.”

The smile returned to his younger self and he typed out, “The” when the phone rang again. Dead Mortimer slammed his fist down on the desk and swore repeatedly. Who could this be? Dead Mortimer listened to half the conversation.

“Hey, honey what’s up?…No I don’t mind…I don’t want you going alone…Not a problem I’ll pick you up at the bus stop and we’ll go together…Love you too.”

Immediately Mortimer remembered, his wife’s co-worker’s mother had died and the funeral services were that night. Out of all the nights! Mortimer watched as his younger self walked out of the room and into the shower. Not to downplay a tragedy but this could be good; the best ideas came in the shower. His younger self turned on the hot water and just as he was going into the shower stopped to turn on WFAN.

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

How the hell was he going to get through to his thick skull if he was going to listen to sports talk radio? He could feel his own thoughts, they were a mixture of trivial sports and the nature of death. No matter how many times he tried to talk, there would be no getting through and he resigned to waiting until the wake was over.

#

After the wake they went out for drinks with some of his wife’s other co-workers. Time was slipping through his hands and there was nothing he could do to keep a thought implanted inside his head. Finally, they said their goodbyes and were in the car.

It was go time.

He let his wife talk about the night and the wake. After all, he had to be a good husband. Mortimer patiently waited until there was a proper lull and when his wife seemed to be all talked out said,

“Listen to me very carefully. A young wizard named Harry Potter. His parents are killed by an evil wizard. He has friends who have red hair and weird sexual chemistry. His uncle is a werewolf. I want you to speak this out loud and tell Eileen so you won’t forget.” Mortimer watched as a glimmer appeared in his younger version’s eye.

“I know this is going to be random but can I tell you something?”

“Sure what’s up?”

“A weird idea just came to me about a boy who is a wizard and there’s a bad guy who murders his parents and I think this could be something big.” His wife stared at him without saying a word. “Well, what do you think?”

“This is weird but I think it’s been done already.”

“What?” both Mortimers replied in synch.

“Yeah I was talking with Maggie the other day and she’s reading a book that you just described. I think it’s called Henry Cotter or something like that.”

“Damn it!” Dead Mortimer exclaimed, and then said again when he realized they were home. The three of them made their way upstairs while Dead Mortimer decided to go back to The Hunger Games.

“Okay this isn’t a big deal. Let’s focus on Katniss, or maybe we’ll call her Janice. She’s a tough teenage girl and…”

“I’m going to take a shower. You want to join me?”

“Yeah? You sure?

“Do I have to ask you twice?”

Dead Mortimer hadn’t counted on that.

No matter, there would still be time. He would just now have to wait for the shower to be over. Dead Mortimer listened for the shower to shut off and watched as his satisfied self and blushing bride walked down the hallway and into the bedroom. The happily married couple settled into bed and Eileen put her head down on his chest.

This was it, Dead Mortimer’s last chance. He could whisper the plot and have Mortimer tell his wife. That way the idea would be in both their heads and guaranteed to be written down at some point.

“Tell me something,” his wonderful wife exclaimed. Oh, he could kiss her right now. This was the perfect moment. He would his younger self the story of The Hunger Games, who would repeat verbatim to his wife. She would love it and he would be so excited by her enthusiasm he would start writing tomorrow. Mortimer leaned in and spoke while his younger self repeated.

“Well I had an idea for a children’s story, but it wouldn’t just be for kids. It’s set in the future.”

“Okay.”

“It’s about this girl who is forced to fight other kids to the death and—“

Eileen jumped off his chest and looked down at her husband.

“Are you kidding me? Kids fighting to the death? What kind of story is this?”

Dead Mortimer was pale in the face. Or as pale as a dead face could be. His wife was ruining everything.

“Well that’s not the whole story, it’s got a lot of political elements too.”

“Let me get this straight. You want to write a children’s story about kids murdering kids AND there’s politics involved too?”

Dead Mortimer knew he was losing the fight and decided to change gears. But to what? What else was there? Potter was out, Katniss was out. What was left? Dead Mortimer snapped his fingers, The Da Vinci Code.

“Maybe you’re right about this kids but how about this. What if Jesus wasn’t really God? What if He was married to Mary Magdalene and…”

You would have thought Mortimer stabbed his wife in the chest with a dull blade from the ferocity of her reaction.

“Stop! Stop right now! You’re going to write something that tears down your religion? You would prostitute your faith for a book? And what if you did get that published and people took it as fact? You could affect the faith of thousands, or millions!”

Young Mortimer looked horrified and agreed with his wife.

“I don’t know why I said that. I guess the wake kind of shook me up. You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. I know you’re looking for that million dollar idea. Don’t worry babe I believe in you. One day you’re going to write a great book!” Young Mortimer leaned in and kissed his wife while Dead Mortimer stood up on the bed and shouted,

“No! No I won’t if you keep rejecting my ideas! Why did I marry you? Oh my God I’m dead and I’m going to lose my soul!”

“What do you say, Mort? We’ve both had a long day. You want to turn over and pass out?”

“Sounds good. Give me one more kiss first.”

Mortimer and Eileen kissed and turned over while Dead Mortimer remained standing in shock. He couldn’t think of anything else and the clock was running out. If he didn’t plant an idea before Alive Mortimer fell asleep, he was literally doomed. Panic flooded his systems like ice water in the Titanic and he began shouting out premises,

“A REIMAGINED BATMAN BUT GRITTIER!”

“TEENAGE GIRL FALLS IN LOVE WITH VAMPIRES AND NOTHING HAPPENS!”

“ZOMBIES!”

He heard himself snoring and knew it was over.

#

Here’s where you’ll be staying for the rest of eternity. As you can see there are no amenities, no comforts to be found. You’ll be sleeping on this jagged rock while bugs of various kinds crawl over you and eat you alive. The Devil stood over him, pointing at the bugs crawling on the ground.

“And this will go on for…” The words barely escaped the grimace on his face.

Eternity. After ten thousand years we’ll switch it up a bit. Wouldn’t want you to get bored of the same horrible punishment over and over, if you get my drift.

Mortimer P. Worthy stood there and gazed around. In frustration he shouted out,

“Why are there two rocks?”

Well we like to maximize space here in hell so you have a roommate. Say hello to, umm what’s your name again?

Another soul walked in, leaving a trail of cockroaches and spiders in his wake. He said with tremendous indifference,

“Edward Dwayne Nassour.”

Mortimer P. Worthy’s jaw dropped and he stared at his new roommate.

“You! Not only did you kill me, but you convinced me to sell my soul! And now I have to live with you forever?”

The Devil laughed and said,

Oh that’s right, I forgot. You guys know each other. How funny is that? Morty, you didn’t even hear the best part. Hey Eddie, what’s the name of your son?

“Johnny.”

“And what’s his last name?”

“Well, his horrible mother changed it when she got remarried.”

“To what?”

“Caralta.”

Mortimer’s face flushed with anger.

“So what I’m hearing is that the father of the worst kid I ever taught is responsible for my death, eternal damnation and my roommate forever.” He ran over and punched Edward right in the face. Edward spat out a tooth and responded with a left cross of his own. The two men stood there screaming, beating the hell out of each other. The demon looked on in amusement, smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

Come now, Mortimer, what are you mad about? All great authors know the devil is in the details.

 

The Dunk Tank

The gleaming, converted red fire truck made the left onto Jefferson Place and slowly crept its way down the sleepy residential street. The driver remembered the block from a previous encounter. “If this particular street was a painting,” she thought to herself, “it would be titled The suburban cliché. From the cookie-cutter houses laid out perfectly on either side of the street to the rows of Norway maple trees putting the punctuation mark on every home, down to the perfectly manicured lawns. All that was missing were fireworks and the American flag.

The hot late afternoon sun reflected off the truck’s worn paint and illuminated every dent and scratch in all their glory. It seemed as if the entire truck was covered with evidence of a long life except for two panels, one on each side. The “3 Strikes” logo, written in a striking burnt orange script was perfectly centered in the middle of a black tank. Drops of ocean blue water hung over the tank as if they were suspended in time. Encapsulating the design was a clean white circle. Her partner Ronnie was quite proud of his artwork, which he was fond of pointing out whenever he could. As the truck came to a stop in the middle of the road, the breaks gave off a slight whine. “Well if they didn’t hear us coming, they will now,” Randi thought to herself.

Giving herself a quick glance in the rearview mirror, Randi brushed her dirty blonde hair away from her green eyes. “Don’t worry, you’re beautiful,” Ronnie said with the slight hint of sarcasm. Ignoring his quip, she applied a thin coat of lip gloss and smacked her lips in delight. At the same moment Ronnie slid out of the passenger seat, in a worn white t-shirt and orange bathing suit, opened the door and made his way up the outside ladder. Climbing the seven rung ladder was a breeze by now and within seconds he grabbed the top rung. His slightly pudgy frame made it over the railing and just like that he was sitting down, awaiting his public. Randi could hear him up top and with a deft touch, she ran her once manicured fingers over the radio dial and turned up the volume. Seconds later, the entire block was flooded with the melodic voices of ABBA and like gophers on the plain; the tiny faces of children began popping up from all corners. Children who had no idea what an ABBA was nevertheless knew the familiar strains of “Take a Chance on Me” and what that meant.

The Dunk Tank was here!

Randi could hear the shrieks of glee come pouring forth and could already count the green in her hands. She picked up the colorful wooden cartoon character pelican, who told potential customers they had to remain behind his purple bill and placed him on the street, ten feet away from the truck. She turned her head towards the back and shouted, “You ready Ronnie?”

Take a chance, take a chance…

“Are you kidding me? This is like Christmas for me! Especially after the last time.” His booming voice had no problem being heard over the melodic chanting of ABBA.

Randi giggled and remembered the last time Ronnie “entertained” the inhabitants of Jefferson Place. At the onset, the arrival of this curious looking fire truck, combined with the music radiating forth from its speakers had drawn the folks in for a look. On further review, the inhabitants saw an Italian man with a paunch in his mid-twenties sitting above a pool of what might be water. In those first few moments, smiles and joy were abundant as children and elderly folk alike all gathered around to see what was what. Cheer and joy were the currency of the day and the only thing that could spoil the moment was Ronnie himself, or more specifically, his mouth. A mouth that had flipped the day on its ear and infuriated the inhabitants of Jefferson Place to the point they almost overturned the truck. If the police hadn’t arrived God only knows what would have happened to them.

“Okay, I see a door opening to my left. It’s go time.”

Ronnie looked down at his two-foot perch. It had been awhile since he swept the floor clean of the dirt his flip flops had collected and deposited. His Hamilton MM3 megaphone (complete with lime green lampshade) sat silently next to his left foot. He loved his Hamilton as much as Randi, or more – depending on the day.

Like a maestro preparing to conduct his latest symphony, Ronnie cracked his knuckles, cleared his throat and clicked on his megaphone.

“I’m sorry, sir. I thought after the last time we talked you would be wearing a dress.”

The man in question, a Chinese gentleman in his late forties, narrowed his eyes in anger. He would not be surprised this time, nor would he be rattled by that obnoxious prick sitting on his perch. The father of one muttered an obscenity to himself and made a beeline for the truck.

“To be honest I have to admit, I respect you. Any man willing to embarrass himself in front of his friends and family deserves some admiration.” Ronnie was now standing up, his bright orange bathing suit fluttering in the breeze. His belly peaked out from his slightly stained white t-shirt. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Hey, Randi, do me a favor. Give this guy over here, the one mincing towards your door, three free throws. Don’t charge this man one dollar. It’s the least we could do for taking his pride.”

Other doors had opened and a crowd would soon be forming.

“Hey, Jim. If you don’t shut him up I will. Knock this guy on his ass!” shouted his next door neighbor.

“Yeah, Jimmy, drown that creep!” said the same neighbor’s wife.

Randi put the truck in park and grabbed the bucket of lime green softballs on the passenger seat.

“Well, sir what will it be? Would you like three freebies?”

“You’re damn right I want those balls. I’m going to drop him in that filthy water and then I’m going to peg him between the eyes with my other two throws.”

“Yeah, Jimmy!” said Mr. Morrison, the block’s resident historian.

“Get that jerk!” eight-year-old Billy Morgan shouted with more anger than an eight year old should have, before being admonished for his language by his embarrassed mother.

Randi laughed, climbed out of the truck and took the bucket of softballs with her. Walking towards the back of the dunk truck she said, “Now sir, remember this is all fun and games. Remain behind the pelican at all times. You can dunk my partner all you want, but you can’t maim him.”

“Don’t worry about a thing, Randi. We could give this guy fifty balls and the results will be the same. I’ll sit here on my throne nice and dry, and baldy will depart just as he arrived—a loser.” Ronnie was almost cackling in delight.

The man in question—Jimmy, had had enough. “Give me those balls! You’re going down, asshole.”

“Remember folks, if you want your chance to shut my partner up its ten dollars for three balls,” Randi reminded the crowd as she handed Jimmy the three balls.

“How about this, Randi – if anyone else wants to try and knock me down, and by a miracle they happen to do it, we’ll refund their money!”

A loud murmur went up from the block and Randi looked at Ronnie quizzically. “You’re that confident nobody here can shut you up?”

“Damn right I am, starting with this virgin doing what he does best—juggling balls in his hands.”

The crowd, growing feverish with excitement, was now cheering on their fellow neighbor to hurry up so they could get a chance. Jimmy stood there, drilling a hole into this stranger who had decided to come into his life and torment him as if he was in high school again.

Ronnie Telemundo sat on his perch, what he referred to as his “throne” and laughed some more. He was already imagining what he would say to the man after he missed on his third try. In a high pitched voice Ronnie pretended to beg.

“Please, sir, please! I was only saying those horrible words in jest. Please don’t send me to the dirty depths below. I might catch cold or worse! Hey, Randi, when was the last time we cleaned out the tank?”

Randi stood leaning against the side of the truck. Despite the time of day the sun was still bearing down and she tried to hide in narrow field of shade. She wiped her forehead with the back of her right hand and without looking up at him casually asked,

“What month is it?”

“August.”

“Then I’d say October of 92.”

The crowd laughed and had gathered even closer around the truck. They wanted to see the dirty, grimy pond water this loud mouthed fool would be swimming in. The old fire truck, now dunk truck was outfitted with clear glass to allow the very privilege. For those who were close enough, they could see what looked to be green water swishing back and forth. No doubt some form of malaria had made its home down there. The sides of the pool were lined with old water marks and dead bugs. A squeal came out of little Suzy Yacacono when she saw the water beetle climbing up the inside of the pool wall.

Ronnie could look into each and every one of their wide eyes. If this played the way he thought it would, he and Randi would be laughing straight to the next block. He climbed around to the edge of the truck and found little Suzy.

“Do you really want to see me swimming with those slimy, yucky bugs?” he asked with his face crinkled up in disgust.

“Yes!” came her immediate reply and the good folks of Jefferson Place all laughed. A couple even gave her a high five and smiled in agreement.

With an exaggerated pantomime, Ronnie stood up and signaled time out.

“Fine. If you guys really want to see me in there, in that filth you have to let me mentally prepare. I mean, if by the divine hand of God himself, this guy, or probably somebody else, knocks me down I want to be prepared.”

Ronnie stood up and began to stretch his arms. He shook his head back and forth, ran his fingers through his hair and sat back down. Putting his hands out in front of them, so that everyone could see, he opened and closed his fists twice. Then, quite slowly, he reached behind his back, waited a moment or two to heighten the drama and produced a copy of War and Peace he had hidden under his shirt. With the flourish of an old stagehand, he found his bookmark and opened the book.

“Okay, now I’m ready. I figure I can finish twenty pages in the time it takes good Mr. Personality over here to make a fool out of him-“

His last word was interrupted by the clank of a softball hitting the back wall, a good six inches to the left of the slightly rusted bulls-eye. A disappointed OHHH came out of his neighbor’s mouths.

Ronnie choked on his spit and the laughter that managed to come out was both loud and cruel. ”Are you kidding me? You thought you’d sur-“

Once again Ronnie’s sentiments were cut off by the smack of a softball, this time a mere two inches south of the target. The ball was thrown with such furious anger it almost ricocheted into the crowd. A louder AWWWWW rose up from the mob.

“One more, buddy. One more, pal.” His over-enunciated speech made the perfect partner along with his Cheshire grin. “One more reminder of how instead of playing baseball as a kid you took up ballet.” Ronnie stood up and did his best impression of a pirouette. Despite their best efforts, some of those gathered in the crowd chuckled.

Jimmy closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He opened them and narrowed his gaze on the red dot directly in the middle of the bulls-eye. There would be no more jokes, no more comments from the asshole sitting on his dumb chair ten feet away. This time he would drop him. He might not even say anything afterwards. Just turn and walk back in his house so that if he managed to come out of the water in time he could see the back of his Levi 501s. Let the cheers erupting from the crowd do the talking for him. His lips pursed into a tight smile. This was it. He could hear his neighbors cheering him on with encouragement. It was hero time.

“Hey, friend, stop thinking about your next door neighbor so we can let somebody else try and fail.” Ronnie looked for Randi’s face and gave her a knowing wink. She merely rolled her eyes and waited like everyone else to see what would happen.

Jimmy rolled the ball in his right hand and slowly brought it back behind him. With a mighty step he cocked his arm back and upon releasing exclaimed with the frustration of years of embarrassment pouring forth, “I’m not your friend!”

From the moment the lime green ball left his hand it looked to be a picture perfect throw. It felt right, sounded right, it was right!

Until it was wrong.

Jimmy’s lime green softball traveled the necessary ten feet needed, with enough velocity to cause the bull-eye to go off, sending Ronnie Telemundo to a date with whatever floated below. Yet somehow, the ball barely skimmed over the top edge of the painted metal tin. He might have missed the bulls-eye by the width of an eyelash!

Perhaps Jimmy didn’t account for the slight change in wind speed, or the drop in the barometric pressure. Maybe a drop of sweat fell into his left eye, obscuring his vision for a crucial millisecond. Or could it have to do with the sun peeking out from the clouds at the exact moment Jimmy released his throw. All these are valid reasons, perfectly reasonable hypothesizes as to why Ronnie Telemundo somehow, someway stayed in a seated position.

Of course if Jimmy, and the rest of his neighbors on Jefferson Place, were made aware of the small detail of Ronnie’s left heel tapping a button before Jimmy made his first throw, thereby shutting off the switch that would cause Ronnie to fall into the water, maybe then they would understand. Whatever the reason, Jimmy had thrown his last ball and Ronnie remained high and dry.

Ronnie stretched War and Peace high above his head and read out loud, “Vera, she said to her eldest daughter who was evidently not a favorite, how is it you have so little tact? Don’t you see you are not wanted here? Go to the other girls,” With an ounce of delirium he began laughing and then placed the book behind his back before jumping up in ecstasy. “Oh no oh no oh no oh no! You failed again! Unbelievable! Buddy you failed again! I’m going to start calling you Vera! Vera, how is that possible? Go away Vera! You are not wanted here!”

Without saying a word, Jimmy walked away from the truck.

“Would somebody please shut this guy up!” the anger in the voice of Mr. Morrison was plain as day.

“Yeah, where’s Ben? He’s got a good arm,” said Mrs. Claiborne.

“Yeah, Dad can do it!” shouted Ben’s overly excited twelve-year-old son.

Ronnie had sat back down and was once again reading. “People please! Could you keep it down? I’m trying to enjoy the intricacies of War and Peace and your shouting is not helping matters.” Ronnie paused, looked at the crowd and nonchalantly exclaimed, “Besides, isn’t your friend Ben just another version of our last contestant Vera? You know, overweight, not that bright with a cheesy thin mustache hiding your green teeth?”

Those assembled went to answer back before Ronnie interjected with one more sentence, “Or am I thinking of his wife?”

Shouts of rage arose from the din. If Ronnie didn’t piss them off previously, now they had hit their collective breaking point. The crowd rapidly began to produce ten dollar bills and shake their fists high to the heavens. Every man, woman and child each demanded to go first. Randi tried to keep some semblance of order, while making change for the widow Mrs. Foley. It would be a long night for the residents of Jefferson Place.

He Laughed

The old man opened the door to the coffee shop and took a step in my general direction. I looked up from the blank WORD document on my laptop and met his eyes as a stream of gibberish jetted from his mouth.

“Sorry, sir. You know the rules. You’re going to have to go outside.” From the demeanor of the barista who had come out from behind the counter (and who was probably no more than a college freshman) I could tell this was a regular thing. Despite the familiarity of the situation, I could detect a hint of cautiousness peeking behind his bravado. I wondered if the man, although probably homeless. had done something in the past to cause the trepidation the young man sought to hide from his voice.

The old man stared at the barista behind the counter, failing to comprehend the situation.

“C’mon, man. Don’t make me call the cops again.” The whiskers on his face hoped to project enough authority to defuse the situation before it escalated any further, as the citizens inside the coffee shop stopped what they were doing to watch the impromptu play put on by the actors.

As if a light bulb clicked on, the old man nodded and shuffled back outside to the familiar bench in front of the coffee shop.

And started to laugh.

He sat inches away from me, on the other side of the glass, laughing. A steady, machine gun stream of giggles that went on for such a period of time I felt like it had to be on a loop. I thanked God he had his back to me, sitting straight against the bench in front of the front window of the coffee shop. To witness such an example of lunacy would have invited me into the madness.

I had been coming to the local coffee shop to write for a couple of months now and saw the table next to the front window as my own. Here were the only two cushioned seats in the establishment, the rest of the tables and chairs nothing more than uncomfortable brown wood framed by a faded green something else. I would come in the early afternoon, before school let out and after the retired folks shuffled in to claim my spot and look out into the world. Writer’s block could not hold up to the world passing me by and I could always count on an interesting character walking by, the police performing official police matters or the weather as inspiration to shake me from my doldrums.

Today was different though, with the presence of the old man laughing. I guessed he was homeless, based on the amount of filth accumulated on black hoodie and the condition of the gray sweat pants he was wearing. I was in full knowledge of the condition of the man, because of my prime seating. Due to a cold I could not shake, I was surprised I was even able to hear the man; such was the congestion that had become an occupying force inside my head.

The laughter eventually sputtered out and I watched him as his head darted about, his eyes never settling on one object. Random tufts of white hair danced in the breeze he was creating and as his neck turned I noticed his right ear, specifically the amount of hair protruding from his right ear. If someone said an elderly squirrel had crawled into his ear for the upcoming winter I would have believed it on the spot. Wild white hair billowed about like the tentacles of a Kraken searching for its next meal.

A couple of years ago as I lay in bed with a former girlfriend, she absentmindedly commented on the random hairs pouring forth from my ear. I shot up in indignation, proclaiming I was too young to display such a condition. With a shrug that suggested a lack of interest in my words or my being, she told me I could think what I wanted, and the truth was in the mirror. I blew her off and concentrated on her literal reciprocation. The moment she left I retreated to the bathroom to face my fears.

Ever since I was a little boy I equated ear hair with old age. I can remember sitting next to my grandpa and looking with odd fascination at the bird’s nest residing inside. How could he possibly hear anything I was saying? As I grew older, my focus changed from my grandpa to my own father, watching him as he transitioned from a man to a senior. To me, the hair was the clock on which your time could be measured. The moment it arrived is the moment your clock started. Eventually the hair would reach its zenith and every second after would count. My grandpa had run out, my dad would be expiring soon enough.

I was no longer a boy.

The laughter started up again, spittle flying from his mouth with not a care in the world. He knew something, a secret that I did not possess. His age gave him insights, knowledge that one day I would have. The cost of which would be found on the calendar. My laptop remained open, an empty WORD document staring back at me. Not a thought could come to mind, only the obsession of watching this innocent lunatic laugh in the face of God knows what. For the second time that day the laughter died out and the man stood up. As casually as one can, I stared out the side of my eye and gawked at the insanity presenting itself to me.

The eyes nestled deep into his skull were larvae gray and his face displayed all the signs of a hard life. Grooves, scars, spots providing the atlas into his past. His lips were cracked, having been exposed to the elements far too long and the random teeth still claiming residence were a dark yellow. The skin hung loose from his neck and I had the feeling if I came across this man thirty years earlier I would probably recognize him. I suppose it was due to my staring that I failed to notice his staring back, alternating between the sight of me sitting and my laptop. My concentration was broken by the tapping of his crusty yellow fingers against the glass. With a jolt I sat at attention and looked at him. He tapped again and gestured for me to join him outside, on the bench.

I was once again a boy.

With great apprehension I looked around and found that no one else registered, or even showed a registration of the moment. The surrounding members of the coffee shop, drinkers and drinkees, were lost in their own world of reading, talking or working. Coming to my senses, I reminded myself I was not a little boy, I was a man and there was no danger lurking on the other side of the glass. I was a writer; there were tremendous gains for me in joining him on the bench. I stood up, confident in leaving my laptop where it was and opened the front door. With obvious effort the elderly gentleman slid to the right, providing me with more space than I needed.

The stench!

For the first time in my life I thanked God for my stuffy nose. If I could smell him through my current condition I couldn’t imagine the reality of the situation. He sat, staring straight ahead as I my slender frame grew acclimated to the harsh angles of the bench. Finding a comfortable position, I looked over at my new found friend, who continued to look beyond what I could see.

And so we sat.

And I waited.

The temperature was dropping and I realized I came out here only wearing a hoodie. The chill making its way up my spine was too much to ignore and I decided that no amount of creative inspiration was worth pneumonia. Before I stood up I turned around and saw someone had occupied my chair. He was staring at me and his fingers rested along the bottom of my laptop.

What the hell did he think he was doing?

I tried to jump up and instead rose tentatively and become overwhelmed by a phlegm filled cough that took forever to fully arrive. After enough germs were spread, I spat out the remaining nonsense and opened the front door.

Immediately I felt the unease as all eyes were on me. I took a couple of steps towards my seat and went to ask the kid what he thought he was doing at my computer but instead only gibberish poured out of my mouth.

“Sorry, sir. You know the rules. You’re going to have to go outside.”

I stared at the barista, who had come out from behind the counter, failing to comprehend the situation.

“C’mon, man. I just told you. Don’t make me call the cops again.”

As if a light bulb clicked on, I nodded and shuffled back outside to my familiar bench.

And I laughed.

 

Election Night

A dreary day descended into a depressing cold November night as Dale Whitmer sat on his bare mattress. He was new to town, new to the area and new to temperatures that fell below seventy. His soul was having a hard time adjusting to his unsavory surroundings, much like the critics had a hard time understanding his film. Leaving the “soon to have heat” one bedroom apartment a broker had procured for him the day before would be a chore, but his stomach could be silenced no longer. His options were simple—shake off the frostbite and leave his arctic abode or stay inside and chew on his frozen breath.

Dale chose option A.

Quite convenient for his present circumstances was a neighborhood bar down the block named, Etonner. Since he wasn’t looking for surf and turf and had no interest in trudging several blocks in his Burberry London Black Wool Single Breasted Trench Coat, the only jacket he ever owned, the quaint establishment would have to do. From the outside he could tell this would not be a most reputable of places. The awning that hung in front was weathered and no longer a confident green. The face of the bar was made up of ancient pinkish bricks that had been leaned upon, Dale surmised by the countless deadbeats who frequented this hole in the wall. He could see the cops arriving on scene to take away one drunk after another who attempted to headline their own main event.

Dale opened the door and several heads, along with the bartender, turned to look for a familiar face. As if belonging to a hive, immediate recognition that his particular face bore no resemblance to a regular came over the group and they resumed their drinking and carousing. Fine by Dale, he was there for a burger and a blast of hot air, preferably several blasts.

He walked up to the bar, already regaining sensation in his hands and asked the bartender for a table. When asked how many, Dale held up an index finger with not a hint of dirt underneath the nail. The bartender told him to take his pick of the many open tables to his right. He was a man in his early forties, Dale imagined, most likely a gym teacher who looked to earn extra money to support his family. Of course no one told him to have five kids, or to buy a house a little beyond his means. You are a product of your choices and this man probably had little of his own growing up.

Having seen too many Mafioso movies, Dale chose the table in the corner and sat against the wall, surveying his surroundings. This was the definition of a neighborhood bar; a shit load of pictures of who he presumed to be long dead regulars hung above the bar in cheap brown frames. They were a lineup of drunks and their soulless eyes met his stare and held. A local version of the Terracotta Army, guarding their emperor.

He pulled his eyes from the series of dead figures and continued his visual tour. The requisite dart board full of holes and chalk scoreboard full of permanent markings hung directly across from him on the other side of the bar. Most likely used by lonely men with a drink in their hand, looking to pass the time in their meaningless existence. The surrounding tables looked temporary and Dale guessed on weekends this space was cleared to make way for what the owner hoped to be a larger audience full of people with nothing better to do except stand next to other strangers.

There were two televisions, one flat screen and one vintage picture tube, on either side of the bar. They were muted, with closed captioning scrolling across the bottom of the screen. Dale was surprised the older box was a color one and knew its presence was due to a lower profit margin than expected. The election was today, and the the monitors were tuned to different news channels, with the political leanings of the bar readily apparent by what channel was on what screen. Both sides flaunted the same types of talking heads, each expressing the outcome of the race in the appropriate amount of joy or despair.

The actual bar itself was one big wooden plank extending itself along the entire eastern wall. The stools lined up were half full, Dale estimated only regulars would come out in this weather during the week and also assumed that his staring was starting to freak out some of the occupants. With a cough he reached for the menu standing on his table like a mini sandwich board and stared at his options. He could have a burger, with or without cheese, a chicken sandwich, a roast beef sandwich, buffalo wings or chive blini with crème fraiche and quail eggs.

Wait…

What?

Sensing the confusion, his waitress entered his field of vision and Dale already guessed her back story. She once had potential, was beautiful and full of personality and would have made a great wife to a great guy. Except birth control wasn’t a priority until it was. She was estranged from the deadbeat, happening only after they confirmed their poor choices with another. One was in college, one was in high school. She was once again alone, forgetting the random nights she woke up next to someone else. And this pattern went on and on until the entirety of her dreams flowed back into the sewer of life.

She had no interest in his back story or his blank stare and openly wondered if he was ready to order. Dale, shaking the fairy dust from his brown eyes asked her about the last item on the menu, the chive blini with crème fraiche and quail eggs. From her smile, Dale wondered how often she had heard those words and the resulting speech definitely put his guess in the upper hundreds. If Dale was going to condense her second act monologue into a concise statement he would say,

“Her boss lived in France.”

Sensing an opportunity to experience true beauty amongst the thorns, Dale ordered the exotic cuisine, along with a Grimbergen and gave a smile to dismiss the waitress. With his order taken care of, Dale was free to continue on with his examination. Looking over the occupants on the left side of the bar, he saw nothing but sport-themed hats and wretched faces. Men he felt who took an interest in gambling, ignoring their lack of talent in the activity. How much money had been collectively lost by the deadbeats staring forlornly into their dollar drafts? The rent, tuition, perhaps even a wedding ring hocked in desperation. These were men who did not know their limitations and in that ignorance remained in a prison of their own making.

A chime rang and in walked a gentleman in a three-piece suit, with the Webster’s dictionary definition of a Windsor knot. His thinning silver hair had a clean part commonly found on Wall Street and Dale guessed one would not find a piece of lint anywhere on the man’s body. A man with such distinction had to be a man who possessed some type of power and a man who possessed some type of power was certain to abuse the notion. Dale knew the man was full of avarice, cruel to his underlings with whom he expected to ring every drop of their soul until the last nickel was found. This was a man who shut his lights on Halloween and complained of too much revelry on New Year’s. His contempt was such that Dale had to mentally restrain himself from accusing the man of gross misconduct there on the spot.

Despite his outward appearance, the man was demonstrative in words and action. Dale anxiously stared at his hair to see if all his movement would shake a hair loose from its polish. This eruption of emotion was probably a passing storm, his true fury reserved from his mouse of a wife and the children he acknowledged with a handshake.

At that moment Dale realized this was the first bar he had encountered in a very long while whose only sound originated from its occupants. There was no jukebox and the televisions were silenced. Yet, based on an acoustic anomaly, he had a hard time hearing the older gentlemen who was deeply distressed by some event. Ignoring his inclinations to move towards the volume, Dale mentally took a step back and concentrated on the two younger men on the other side of the bar, one whom was in the middle of a Shakespearean monologue.

Based on the similarities in ages, Dale surmised the guy on the left was not lecturing the guy on the right. Perhaps he was giving some worldly advice, most likely involving women. The guy on the right was probably heartbroken, the Lothario who had met his match with a Don Juan who possessed an extra large wallet. The guy on the right listened, Dale gathered, to his friend tell him that there were other women, women who did not base their affections on quantity, be it physical or material. He would one day find the girl who mostly appropriately fit into the various nooks and crannies of his life. Until then, the young man should buck up and keep his eyes up—if not to see his upcoming happiness then to avoid tripping on his self pity.

His eyes darted back towards the older man who had offered the wrong opinion and was furiously holding fast to whatever position he maintained with another man, who could say to have his judgment influenced by his friends Jack and Daniel. Dale was able to hear the bartender attempt to smooth things over by offering both men a drink on the house, to keep the peace and tranquility the bar had tried to cultivate in vain over the years. With begrudging smiles, the two men agreed to disagree and saddled up to drink whatever tonic was being offered.

The excitement had ended.

His waitress came over and draped a place mat in front of him along with a carefully polished set of silverware. Before he could ask, she informed him her boss insisted that whenever someone ordered the chive blini with crème fraiche and quail eggs they received the appropriate eating utensils as well. Dale picked up the fork and felt like he held a talisman, for it brought him back to his youth when he was a dishwasher at his uncle’s restaurant. Regardless of his familial situation, his uncle was a stern taskmaster who would inspect his wash no matter how busy they were. If a fork was not polished to his satisfaction, his uncle would dump it back into the sink. Dale was warned from the very beginning, if his uncle had to do that three times he would be fired on the spot.

Dale held the fork to his eye, determined to spot the flaw. Then, the knife. Minutes passed as his eyes marched across the surface and Dale did not find a blemish. To the surprise of his waitress, who had arrived with his beer, he dropped his fork on the floor. Waiting a beat, Dale leaned over to his left and picked up the now filthy fork, placing it on the far left corner of his table. With a certain satisfaction, Dale sat up and locked eyes with his confused waitress. Her mouth began to open until she thought better and walked away. He stretched out his arms, a mixture of fatigue and exhilaration, took a sip of his Grimbergen and smiled. Dale didn’t need to check the televisions to know the outcome of the election, he already declared himself the winner.

The Thief

I knew she was a liar. Maybe not in the beginning, but I did. There was no surprise there; co-workers had questioned my judgment when I hired her as my personal assistant from the very beginning. She was nuts they said. She was crazy they warned. I brushed them aside, I knew what I was doing and it wasn’t like I was going to get involved with her.

Until I did.

Strange enough I could deal with the lies. Lies are harmless if you know the words are empty. Promises became the equivalent of Chinese food—unfulfilling. Arms length kept things safe. Our relationship was built on the immediacy of the moment and everyone at some point has steered that boat and enjoyed the ride. The warnings of an iceberg ahead were ignored because I didn’t need someone to shout them out. I could see them plain as day.

What I couldn’t see was how big the iceberg was, hiding in the depths.

I am guilty of doing something that I’d say a lot of people do nowadays. No, not getting involved with a co-worker. I meant automatic bill pay. That, in itself, is not the crime. The crime is not checking the bill. Instead of examining the contents on the statement I merrily went about my life in a blissful state of money coming in and money going out. My job was fantastic, three promotions in four years, and running my own division. It made the alarm clock a little softer in the morning. I was in the black, zero debt with spending money at my disposal. Let the computer balance my direct incoming deposit and my outgoing bills.

On a random Saturday in the middle of December, my brother asked if I ever cashed the check he sent me for our mom’s birthday gift. To make things easier we go in together. I buy the presents, and he sends me what he owes. End result, everyone wins. This year I had the brilliant idea to have my personal assistant do the shopping. She does the legwork, I give her the Mastercard and I win again. His request was a difficult one due to my memory being admittedly shoddy combined with trying to remember a check from six months ago. Giving thanks for living in the twenty-first century, I logged on to see my statement. Three clicks and a scroll later, there it was, the check deposited in bright green numbers.

So far, so good.

I was going to log out and go for a jog when I saw on the next line that I paid MasterCard a little under three hundred dollars. Interesting, since the only time I use that card is when a store doesn’t take AMEX. With a couple of keystrokes I was at the MasterCard site, looking at my previous bill. In between the random grocery bill and a gas station charge sat a one hundred twenty dollar charge for car insurance on a car I did not own.

Huh.

Digging a little deeper, I checked the previous month and saw the same charge. Another month, another charge.

Again.

And again.

Five months, five charges totaling six hundred dollars.

Who the hell had access to….

Change of plans. I wasn’t going for a jog. I was going for a drive. I climbed into my 2015 Altima and used all of its six cylinders to make it to her apartment building. A building I had spent many a night and a couple of mornings driving to work from. The good thing about being a familiar face at an ordinary apartment building is not having to ring a bell to gain admittance. All I had to do was wait a couple of minutes, see one of her neighbors and follow them inside with a smile and some small talk.

I walked through the dark green walls that covered God only knew how many layers of paint previously and walked up the three flights of loud marble steps until I saw the golden “3K” nailed to the slab gray door. At this moment maybe a thought came to your mind. You’re wondering how I knew she was home?

I didn’t.

And I didn’t care either.

If she wasn’t home I would wait until she was. There was nothing going on in my life that day. My social calendar was empty. The only need would be the inevitable hunger and my anger easily shouted down my grumbling stomach. Fortunately for me there would be no waiting. I could hear the house music blasting from behind the door.

I hated the music then, I abhor the music now.

I knocked on the door, three punches with the side of my right hand, and waited. A second or two passed and the volume lowered. I hit the door a couple more times and could hear the shuffling of feet coming towards me. When the door opened I saw a surprised face staring back at me.

“Hey, babe! You decided to surprise me?” She leaned in for the kiss and I side stepped her like I was Bruce Lee. Her face registered shock at my avoidance. “What’s the matter?” Since I was now inside she closed the apartment door. I felt the anger rising inside my stomach and it took all of the meditation courses I had taken in college to not lose my shit. Looking at her I could see she literally had two faces. When she was at work or out, she was always on point. Hair, makeup, clothes, the whole nine. Home was a different story. The hair was up in a messy ponytail, split ends apparent to even my untrained eye. The face was devoid of any makeup whatsoever and a JUICY outfit of some kind covered a body in need of some parlor tricks. We still hadn’t moved from our collective spots and I wanted to get this over with. Without saying a word, I reached into my back pocket and pulled out a folded-up piece of paper.

“What’s that?” I could tell she was tense, her words touching my ears like ghosts. I decided now it was time to speak and unfolded the paper like a magician about to unveil his latest trick.

“This is my MasterCard statement from last month.”

“Since when do you pay your bills?” Her attempt at levity fell to the Earth like Icarus. I swallowed the fury begging to rage against the dying of the light and locked my face down. A face she had cupped in her hands a thousand times on the couch to our right and in the bedroom down the hall. At one time she made smiling as easy for me as breathing. Now I could do neither and my words choked out through gritted teeth.

“Do you want to drag this out or do you want to admit what you did?”

“What are you talking about?” I’ll tell you what, the way she handled the situation made me think she missed her calling. To have the range to go from innocence, to ignorance, to comedic insight and now irritation showed some serious acting skills. She was running the emotional spectrum like a Kenyan in a marathon. Ignoring her words I said in the calmest voice possible,

“You have two options—either I go to the police and let them settle this or you admit what you did, pay me my money right now and it’s over.”

Her green eyes registered the gravity of the situation and she reached out for my hands. With obvious revulsion, I pulled back like they had touched a boiling pot. A tsunami of fear washed over her face and she leaned back against the tan wall. The image of a cornered rat came to mind. I was so locked on that thought I missed the beginning of whatever she was saying and didn’t care enough to ask her to repeat. All I managed to hear was,

“I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.” When she didn’t get the sympathetic reaction she figured would come her way her voice rose and the Italian came out of her arms and hands. “I didn’t know what to do! I figured you wouldn’t notice one month!” You know when you’re watching a movie and the character suffers a concussion? All the sound goes out and you hear a background whistle that gets louder and louder until the character shakes out the cobwebs. That’s the way I felt. My eyes were bulging out of my head and the whistle grew louder and louder until I finally exploded.

“One month? ONE MONTH?! How about FIVE MONTHS!! How about SIX HUNDRED DOLLARS!!!!”

“I just didn’t have the money. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” The tears came next and she sat down on her couch and collapsed into her hands. I made no move to comfort, nor did my words grow soft. I just stood against the door and waited for the show to end. After the tears ran dry and the sniffling stopped, she spoke up,

“I can’t pay you the six hundred right now. Give me two days and I’ll have it Monday morning.” I considered my options. I could wait two days. She would pay me Monday and I’d go to Human Resources and make sure firing her wouldn’t put the company in an awkward position. This was the win I was looking for and after a minute of silence I spoke up.

“If you don’t have the money on Monday we’re going to have a serious problem.”

“I promise you I will. I am so sorry, I’m embarrassed and I—“ Without saying a word I turned around and walked out. I couldn’t stand being there for one more second, listening to her spew her bullshit. I was done. We were done. All that was left was the waiting.

Monday morning came and went like any other. The afternoon dragged as it often does, the familiar beats of working at a job for four years. The only difference between this Monday and every other Monday that came before was the absence of my loyal personal assistant. I emailed HR if they received any word from her and received the equivalent of shrugged shoulders in reply. After an hour of no reply to my text, I called and went straight to voice mail. I left a firm, “Where the hell are you” message and pushed her from my mind for the rest of the day.

The moment I left work was a different story.

I drove to her apartment like a banshee, thankfully arriving in one piece without killing anyone. There were no available spots so I double-parked and bolted out of my car. My stomach bubbled like a cauldron and all sense of rational thoughts were being pushed aside by the color red. I wanted to find her and I was afraid to find her.

Throwing open the front door something to my left caught my eye. Her name, scratched out on the mailbox. I looked up to the sky and scrunched my face. There was a desperate need to scream and curse and I once again swallowed back the rage. A couple of neighbors walked in and the only information they could give me were smiles and sorries. Finally, I saw the maintenance guy and asked if he had seen my mystery girl. The old man scratched the back of his ear and informed me she moved out in a rush a couple of hours earlier. No forwarding address, no information given. She didn’t even care for her security, although based on the way she beat up her hardwood living room floor she probably knew there was no money coming.

Son of a bitch.

I went back to my car and sat without turning it on. I punched the steering wheel eight or nine times, then five or six more. If someone was driving past me they would have thought I was having a psychotic breakdown. To try and regain some control of my sanity I flipped the visor down and looked at myself in the mirror.

What was I going to do?

The option of the police came to mind and was ruled out just as quickly. Was it worth the hours I would have to spend filling out paperwork and giving a statement? They would probably stare back at me and think I was just another loser in a long history of losers ripped off blind by the women they thought cared about them.

I am not a loser. Six hundred dollars was not worth losing my pride.

Letting go a deep breath I turned my car on and began the drive home. With embarrassment and shame coursing through my veins I learned a most valuable lesson:

Never think you’re special. If someone is a liar, they’re going to lie to you. If someone cheats, they’re going to cheat on you. And if someone is an asshole, they’re going to shit on you.

Time to Wake up

The room was pitch black, yet he knew he was in a room and could make his way around. A woman who looked like his mom but was actually his ex-girlfriend, Marissa, came around a corner that didn’t exist two seconds ago to smile at him. She didn’t talk, the woman who was both his mother and Marissa, just beckoned him to follow her outside.

They were outside now.

He looked up and saw blue skies with white puffy clouds drifting about, like wreckage floating upon the ocean. He knew the name of those types of clouds and couldn’t think of them. He couldn’t think at all, just be.

A bee flew by his head.

Then another.

Then another.

Was he allergic to bees?

One landed on his left wrist. Too afraid to move, he bent his head down to take a closer look at the bee. Except when he did the bee went out of focus and became a black dot. He brought his face closer to examine the black dot and fell into the canyon size hole in his left wrist.

This was scary.

He felt anxious.

Suddenly he was sitting inside the classroom. Mr. Schultz was teaching science and he knew this day. In a matter of minutes, Mr. Schultz was going to split the class up into pairs and have them examine a blood slide under the microscope. He was going to be paired up with Angela, who he had fallen in love with since the moment Mr. Schultz sat them at the same table. Angela, with her blonde hair and blue eyes was beautiful and sweet and patient despite the obvious stars in his eyes. If this was now, right now he would have no problems talking to her. Hell, he could definitely date her. They were on the same level now, just not then. Then there was an infinite amount of miles separating them socially. Yet she was kind to him and never made him feel like he didn’t deserve to talk to her.

Oh shit, here it comes.

Gary Bulger, the guy everyone thought was funny because he was good looking and said funny things. He was friends with Gary at one time, a long time ago before status meant anything. He knew Gary was afraid of lightning and his father would yell at him for crying about it. Gary was a good guy.

Was a good guy.

Today, he wasn’t.

“I don’t know how he’s going to get any work done, staring at Angela’s chest.” The class laughed at him, Mr. Schultz said nothing in response and Angela gave him a disgusted look. He wanted to crawl under his desk and die.

So he did.

Bending his body like there wasn’t a bone to be found, he slithered on his back down the high back plastic chair and slid down below the desk. Waiting for him was Duke. Duke! His old golden retriever, the best dog in the entire world. Duke wouldn’t let Gary make fun of him. Duke was here to rescue him and so he hopped on his best friend’s back and raced across the desert.

Looking down at his best friend he saw Bill, his best man at his wedding. He was under water and now so was he, swimming in Bill’s inground pool while the girls splashed and laughed by the steps. Do they have their swimmies on? Where was his wife? Shouldn’t she be watching them if they were in the pool?

Why wasn’t he watching them?

Who was he watching?

He was at a table, in the middle of a room, surrounded by other tables. An old woman in some kind of work uniform sat at one of the tables, alone. She was staring out into the distance and he was aware they knew each other, but not really. More like a familiar face. The other tables filled up instantly with people and if he looked at a specific table the face came into focus. Those other tables held no interest to him. They didn’t matter.

He turned back to the old woman.

Was she crying?

Was he crying?

They’re sitting at the same table now. Crying together but not with each other. Two people, sharing the same space, feeling emotions that produce a physical reaction and not connected whatsoever. He didn’t even know her name. Did she have a name? Did she ever have a name? Why didn’t he ever ask her for her name?

What was wrong with him?

He stood up from the table and stopped crying. The old woman looked up at him and smiled. The old woman was his mother and she motioned for him to bend down. She had to tell him something. He was crying again, harder and deeper. There were sounds all around him, along with machines and his mother was sick. She wanted to tell him she loved him and he continued to cry and cry and cry. He couldn’t stop crying and he felt helpless, knowing there was nothing he could do to help his mommy. His tears turned her hospital bed into an ocean and he clung to his mommy so he wouldn’t drown.

The sun was shining.

He was floating on a raft in the middle of a deep blue sea. He should be afraid because there was no sign of land anywhere and yet he wasn’t. Just drifting along with the hot sun directly overhead. He wasn’t worried about a sunburn or not seeing land or anything at all. He continued to drift, letting the currents take him wherever they thought best. Everything was peaceful, everyone was peaceful. He turned to his left and saw someone standing on the water. They wanted him to jump in with them and go below and he didn’t want to. Why were people always bothering him when he was floating in peace? The person walked over and stood above him, floating over the raft. They blocked out the sun and he felt cold.

Why were insisting on bothering him?

The person bent forward so that their faces were practically touching.

It was his mother.

Time to wake up.

Patricia’s Donut Shoppe

“I’ll tell you what, that Obama…he’s not from this country and the media don’t want to report it. They just gave him the elections so that way he can come in and take everything from us. He’s already trying to take our guns so he can sell them to the Arabs in the Middle East. And he leaves our border unsecure so that way one day all those Mexicans can come in and vote Democrat! I even heard Obama is looking to change the Constitution so he can run for a third term! It was good enough for Washington but it’s not good enough for him! Which is no surprise because he’s not from this country and the media won’t report it!” Victor slammed his hand down to punctuate the last truth in his series of truths. His breath was labored and he looked around to see if the unwashed masses had heard his sermon. With a sigh he quietly muttered to himself,

“They ignored John the Baptist, too.”

The residents inside Patricia’s Donut Shoppe continued living their rainy Thursday afternoon. Melissa and Paige sat at the table closest to the door, alternating between math homework and gossiping about if Ricky was cheating on Ariana with Taylor. Paul sat on the other side of the room against the wall, chewing on his nails as he debated over whether to use the word, “splendid” or “superb” on the third page of his novel The Owl of the Night (working title). Amy stood behind the counter, watching Paul choose his words carefully and ignored Mrs. Pendleton fritter between ordering the apple crumb or a plain donut, a choice she grappled with every single day. The citizens of Patricia’s Donut Shoppe moved across their surroundings the way the stars moved across the celestial sky, slow and reliable.

Most of all, Victor.

Victor had been coming to Patricia’s Donut Shoppe since it was Ruby’s Coffee and More… the more often speculated upon and never solved well after it was sold to Patricia, who hadn’t actually owned Patricia’s Donuts for eleven years now. No matter the ownership or the culinary menu in question, Victor made his presence felt, second table against the wall. As the years passed, doom and gloom appeared, bogeymen that only Victor saw and everyone else ignored. He sat there every day, two newspapers opened in front of him, the crosswords ranging from entirely filled with some wrong answers to empty spaces with slightly wrong answers. He always had the same chewed on Bic pen in his left hand and to the untrained eye you would think Victor found the secret to immortal ink. His sideburns were bushy and gray, much like the hair under his old newsies style hat. A fashionista would not be in the wrong for describing his style as “disheveled.”

His face though was an entirely different story — always shaved. Although he may be lined with the canals of history, Victor thought it to be disrespectful to leave his house unshaven. A practice he had stuck to since 19 something or other.

Well before the characters inside Patricia’s Donuts were even a thought.

Victor would take his time revving his energy back to the boiling point. These days, he couldn’t carry on his political and social dissertations for longer than a couple of minutes. The words wouldn’t come together as quickly as before, nor could he maintain the ferocity needed when discussing such weighty topics. During these down periods he would sip his black coffee and munch on his powdered cruller and fiddle with the Bic pen that never left his left hand. His thoughts would fall out of focus until he gazed down and saw a trigger image or word and then he could feel the wind return to his sails.

The country was doomed!

“I’ll tell you one thing. My generation wouldn’t stand for any of this. The government with their satellites watching the computers and listening to our conversations. We fought the Russians up and down Asia to stop this from happening!” The last word pouring out of his mouth along with some pieces of cruller. “We didn’t lose Dave Nelson and Eric Cartwright and Barry Leary and all those other brave sons so the Government could send me a ticket for going through a red light in the mail!” Victor was gaining his steam and Paul turned the music on his Ipod up as he ruminated whether or not to delete the last half hour of work.

“And you’re going to tell me that I have to start learning their language? It was good enough to tell me to fly missions over Korea in English but not anymore? It’s a shame, a damn shame, that this country has gotten to this point! And you know why it’s gotten to this point? Obama! He wasn’t born here so he don’t care about us. And the media handed him the elections so that way he can come in and take everything from us. He’s got our guns! And our border is wide open so that they can come in and all vote Democrat! You watch, I bet you he runs for a third term. I bet you he does something to change the Constitution so he can become a King! Washington could have been king and he said no, but Obama is going to be king. And you know why? Because he’s not really an American and no one will say anything!” He slammed his hand against the table so hard the citizens of Patricia’s, despite a lifetime of hearing the words like a bad song, all stopped and stared at Victor, who sat there with tears filling those ancient canals.

As if his mental car backfired, Victor snapped to attention, wiped his face and looked down at the crossword puzzle. Eventually, Amy came over and told him they were closing up. As always she offered to drive him and as always he refused. His driving privilege long since taken away, Victor made the three-block walk back to his home. Rain or shine, hell or high water, Victor trudged along until he reached his front door. He could never get the key in the lock on the first or second try but eventually his front door opened. Victor shuffled into his dark living room to sit in his worn brown La-Z-boy chair. With a grunt he fell into his seat and turned his body to the right so he could see the picture in the frame. His wife Patricia smiled at him from behind the counter and across the boundaries of time. Victor smiled back. She was happy, healthy and blissfully unaware of what was to come.

Precisely the way he wanted to remember her.

Meanwhile, the grandfather clock ticked in the background, counting off the seconds until it was time to go back to go back home.