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Riff Raff

Riff Raff

by Bob Ferguson

I would attack them from a hiding place in plain sight. They would never expect an assault from a pariah of society. I planned to steal enough of their money to skip to Portugal or South America and live comfortably for life. Except—I had no life. They took it when they hooked Jess, my son on drugs—and he overdosed.

Drugs are every parent’s nightmare. At our wits end, we used the tough-love technique espoused by the current psycho-gurus and kicked Jess out of the house the day he turned eighteen. Through teary eyes at his funeral my wife, Jenny said “We drove him straight into their ripping claws.” She was right. The guilt, self-hate was intolerable. Ten days after his service Jenny found the easy way out—sleeping pills.

There was no celebration of life, no service, and no obituary for either of them. I buried each with a simple marker in the family plot where I had expected to be the first to rest. I headed home after the burial. No purpose. No feeling. No reason to live. On the two-lane road back down the hill it would be easy to give the wheel a quick jerk to the left into the path of an on-coming semi-truck. Swift. Quick. Sure. But with every passing second, like an infectious fever, hate began permeating the cells of my numb body. As a driving force, hate seemed more dominant than love. Vile loathing was giving me an insidious purpose for living—to seek retribution. They would pay dearly for what they had taken from me.

Parks had always been a pleasant place to while away a few hours with the family. Birds liked the high canopies of the tall oaks and centuries of adaptation had superbly equipped the squirrels for climbing trees more nimbly than Olga Korbut on the balance beam. I had no one to enjoy it with. I was wretchedly alone. The sounds and sights held no joy.

The park was further degraded, by the scum of humanity scattered about in old quilts, filthy sleeping bags and the rags on their backs like a human garbage dump. They reminded me of the dregs of the second wine bottle I was devouring. As disgusting as these human vermin were, they would be good camouflage for me to carry out my vengeance in the place where I knew Jess first began using drugs—the Park Blocks.

My .38 snub nosed service revolver that I had carried in Vietnam gave me a feeling of protection. It was stuffed into the field jacket that I had picked up at a surplus store. My gray hair was matted and matched my five days of stubble. The black stocking cap made me indistinguishable from the other homeless people who were in various stages of reverie induced by booze or drugs. I had become Charles Bronson in “Death Wish.” Life was imitating art.

It always surprised me that buying drugs was so easy. I wondered why a prosecutor simply didn’t grant amnesty to the guy at the lowest level if he ratted on his supplier. Then that supplier gets amnesty if he finks on his source, right on up to the top. I would prove my own theory. I would wait for the mule, the delivery man, the creep that made it possible to get my son hooked. It would be easy to follow him to his connection and follow that link to the next guy in the chain of command. I couldn’t offer amnesty, but a .38 in his face would be even a more convincing argument to become a stoolie. After I killed a few, they would know that Portland is no place for pushers.

“I’m Joe,” I said to a guy on a park bench as I screwed off the top of a fresh bottle of vintage MD 20/20 and handed it to him. “My wife was Jenny, my son was Jess. We called ourselves the “J” family,” I continued trying to be friendly.

“They call me Riff, I used to play the guitar on stage,” he said before he took a deep swig like it was the elixir of youth and he wanted to be a teenager again.

“I’d like to score a little Mary Jane,” I said trying to sound like an entrenched user.

“Haven’t heard that term in a while. If you mean pot, just watch that corner down there and you’ll see a guy who seems to talk to everybody. I’m tapped out or I’d give you some.”

It was a generous offer from a guy who seemed to be on his last legs.

“Keep that bottle of Mad Dog, I appreciate your info,” I said sauntering off toward a bench that had just become available with a better view of the corner.

His pants hung so low I wondered what held them up. A black baseball cap with a flat bill was stuffed sideways on a thick head of black hair. He was, it pained me to admit it, a handsome Latino. Even under his baggy hoodie you could tell he had a powerful build. Long silver chains draped down his sides and seemed to have no purpose other than decoration. He had mastered the art of smoking and talking incessantly on a cell phone at the same time.

It was a week day and he was busy. It was a quick reach into his fanny pack, a simple handshake, hug or short huddle and that was it. Money, pot, and short greetings were exchanged. It surprised me how many people dressed in suits and ties shook his hand. A bank of gray clouds created a sun screen that added an even darker mood to the nefarious activities taking place right in front of me.

He periodically got into a white, souped up Honda with dark tinted windows. He would be gone for a little while and then reappear on the same corner after stepping off the light rail stop just across the street.

The day was getting away from me. The Charles Bronson in me wanted action, but if I was careless it would be dangerous, maybe fatal. I feigned sleeping, reading the newspaper and if a stranger walked by I would even ask for spare change just to blend in with the vagrants.

The mark I had selected for my wrath would not be easy. He appeared to work alone, but there were always a few guys that looked just like him standing nearby. “His homies in hoodies,” I chortled to myself. It had been a long time since I had chortled, but it was not the good kind. I decided those stupid chains must be some sort of Ninja weapon. Even if they weren’t, he might be carrying and getting him alone would take some doing. They were wary, always looking for cops, rival gangs, and whatever other threats druggies face. They looked at me, but only saw the lowest of all life forms sitting on the park bench. Hiding in plain sight was perfect.

After a few hours the white Honda came by and he again got in. I glanced at my watch. It was a quarter to one. In almost exactly a half hour he again hopped off the Max line at the same stop—alone. That was it! I had my first victim in my sights. They had a time schedule for dropping off money and reloading with drugs and it matched the Max train schedule!

In the, invariably out of toilet paper, seedy, and filthy, public restroom, I shaved and washed my face. From my backpack I took out a non-descript jacket. I was ready.

“Riff, I’ll give you five bucks to watch this bundle for me. I’ll give you another ten when I return, is that a deal?” I asked laying the pack next to him.

“You sure you can trust me?” He said.

“Your cap says you’re a Vietnam vet or is that just brag?” I asked.

“No way! I joined the Marines right out of high school,” he said looking me in the eyes seeking a clue for some sense of trust.

“Well, Semper Fi my friend. Once a Marine always a Marine and this ol’ Marine needs your help, if I’m not back by 5:30 this evening, you can have it all,” I said walking away. I knew I had him with the Semper Fi.

Like clockwork, the white Honda came by at 3:45 on their two hour schedule. That meant that my Latino friend would conduct his business with those behind the darkened windshield and according to the Max schedule at his exit stop he would arrive back at almost exactly 4:15 pm., but I had a surprise for him.

I hustled down two blocks where the schedule read the next pickup headed north would be at 4:10 pm. It was in the “Fareless Square” so all I had to do was hop on and take a seat.  The train was deserted. He was easy to spot, sitting in the back of the second car with his feet stretched out taking up an entire seat. I took the seat directly across the aisle from him.

“There’s a whole car man, why you got to be right here in my face?” He said in broken English pronouncing “you” like the first syllable of Ju Ju Bean.

“I thought I knew you from somewhere,” I said.

“Now dat you know you don’t know me, I say you should move,” he said bobbing his head in a smart-alec way. I still wondered why the word “you” was such a tongue twister.

Physically, at 60 years old, I was no match for him, but I wanted to slap his silly face. I stood up like I was going to change seats and in a flash I pulled the .38 from my jacket pointed it at his face and said “Don’t move! My little friend here says I know you from the corner by the park, now put your feet down and your hands on the back of the seat in front of you.”

He stopped smiling. I slid into the seat behind him with the pistol pushed into the middle of his back. I wanted to pull the trigger and just leave him sitting there hunched over, but I had a problem. The gun was loaded with ammunition that was over forty years old and the bullets were green tracers. It was meant to be used as a survival pistol in case the F-4, in which I flew as a navigator on photo reconnaissance missions, was ever shot down. The green tracers were used instead of flares to notify the rescue choppers that I was a friendly force. A snub nose is not as accurate as a longer barrel, but there was a chance it could go clean through and ricochet hurting a bystander. I had never fired the pistol. Not even in Vietnam and I wasn’t sure what it would do.

“You, you are a dead man,” he said in anger making the “Y” sound even more like a “J.”

“So are you, if you don’t do exactly as I say.”  It was a bluff. “With your left hand, unbuckle that fanny pack and hand it back to me.”

For emphasis, I cocked the gun and pushed it harder into his back.

“It’s got a hair trigger,” I lied.

I took the fanny pack while moving the gun to the back of his head.

“Your buddies will be looking for you as we pass the park and what you need to do to stay alive is to wave to them as we go by.”

As we passed the park he was waving and I was holding up the fanny pack and flipping them the bird. Cute, but it was immensely stupid on my part. He knocked the gun from my hand, grabbed it and pulled the trigger—thank God the ammo was manufactured by the lowest bidder.  It didn’t fire. I had a second chance and pulled a lock-back knife with a 5” blade from my pants pocket. He was unimpressed and pulled out a 15” bayonet.

The train jerked to a stop, the doors opened and a passenger jumped on and quickly clubbed my nemesis from behind with a policeman’s night stick.

“Semper Fi,” said Riff. “I saw his amigos scattering when they thought they’d catch hell for losing the money and the pot. Then I saw him knock the gun out of your hand so I ran to the next stop. Lucky for you I always carry this souvenir night-stick for protection. A cop lost in a park scrum a while back.”

The dealer was stirring as we hopped off, ran back to the park, grabbed our gear and hailed a cab. It felt great to strike a blow for the good guys.

We gave the money to a homeless shelter, and the dealer resembled a body that was fished out of the Willamette River a few days later. The police speculated he had stolen some money and drugs from a local gang. Go figure.

Riff needed a place to live. I needed company. He’ll be living with me for a while.  He’s a pretty good guitarist. He plays and sings on open mic nights at a few blues joints. We’ve gotten involved in some veteran’s causes and my problems seem no worse than many others who are putting their lives back together.

I suppose life can imitate art, but it’s better to leave the vigilante stuff to the trained professionals. And what became of the pot? We’re Marines, not saints for cryin’ out loud.

© 2010 Bob Ferguson

“Riff Raff” won the 2010 Readers’ Choice Award.

Swing

Swing

by Anonymous

Sarah was not ready for morning. She sat in the bathroom, leaning on her elbows, willing herself not to fall asleep on the toilet. She lifted her head and stared at the monkey shower curtain in front of her, moving her eyes from one monkey to the next as they swung across the green vinyl. Eventually, her eyes faced the window and its banana colored curtains, and she winced at the sunshine outside.

The whole bathroom had a jungle theme, as did Nateʼs bedroom, all greens and browns, with an actual tree climbing from the floor to the leaf-covered ceiling. She didnʼt know whether Nate really wanted his room this way or if her sister had planted the idea in his head. He always seemed a little sad, Sarah thought, sitting on his leopard skin rug playing with his trucks or stuffed animals, trying to ignore the wild jungle around him. Or maybe that was just what Sarah was trying to do.

She had decided to sleep in his room last night, after vetoing the couch and its sweaty, sticky faux leather. Karen probably expected her to sleep in her room, with the California King and skylights and wall to wall carpeting, all the things Karen thought of as luxurious. She probably had set it up for her, with the bed turned down like a hotel, but Sarah hadnʼt even bothered going in there.

“What you need is a nice rest,” Karen had said to her on the phone last week. “Think of it as a vacation for you. Watch some cable, take a nice bath….”

Sarah got uncomfortable and cut her off, asking for feeding instructions and the vetʼs phone number, even though she knew everything would be written out for her in detail, waiting for her in the kitchen next to the color-coded calendar that took up an entire wall. Sometimes she wondered if her sister was managing a family or a political campaign.

“You know we really appreciate it, but I also think this will be good for you, Sarah,” she could hear the breath catch in her sisterʼs throat, the quiet tic of worry.

“Please,” Karen said, “Enjoy yourself.”

She thought about Karenʼs advice when she wandered into Nateʼs room last night, fingering the canopy of plastic leaves coming down from the ceiling. In the dark, it seemed like an almost plausible vacation spot, not somewhere real, but maybe a hotel room in Vegas or Disneyland. The twin bed was surprisingly comfortable, but still she couldnʼt sleep. The room smelled vaguely of plastic and when she tried to imagine herself on vacation all she could think of were the vacations she spent as a child. She kept trying to remember the details, the sagging cots she would share with Karen, the hours in the pool inventing new worlds. She couldnʼt invent anything any more. Her brain felt like quicksand, thoughts would come to her and then slowly sink till she could no longer reach them.

The doorbell rang and she jumped up, her thighs and elbows numb from sitting on the toilet for so long. She shook the tingles out of her leg as she rushed out of the bathroom, and ended up stubbing her toe on the box in the hallway. Karen and her sunscreen, she thought. Karen had bought a whole pharmacy worth of sunscreen to prepare for their trip, only to get rid of most of it after reading an article about some ingredient in sunscreen that is linked to skin cancer. All of the offending bottles were sitting in a box in the hallway, where, knowing Karen, they would sit for quite some time while she waffled back and forth between the guilt of throwing away brand new bottles and the possibility of giving someone cancer by putting them back out into the world.

Sarah slumped down in the hallway, clutching her toe. She thought about ignoring the doorbell, wasnʼt she supposed to be on vacation too? But Snowball was already up and barking and throwing himself with abandon against the window and she knew the only way to get him to calm down was to open the door.

Once she got to the entrance way, she had no choice. The top of the door was all window, and as she was pulling up her pajama pants, she saw the tall, blond man waiting on the porch. The minute she opened the door, Snowball nosed past her legs to greet him, all jumping and excitement, and then within seconds lost interest and started sniffing the potted plants.

“I have a delivery for you,” the man said. “Well, not really, it was already sitting here on the doorstep.” He handed Karen a package addressed to Nate and decorated with balloons.

“Who needs presents when youʼre at the beach, huh?”

Sarah nodded absentmindedly, still staring at the big loopy handwriting on the box.

“I apologize, Iʼm Ken from down the street. You must be Karenʼs sister,” he smiled and extended his hand to her.  She avoided it by bending down and dragging Snowball back inside. She threw the package into the entryway before closing the door, almost hitting Snowball in the face.

“Sorry. Sorry about the dog.” she stuttered.

“Oh, no problem. I just wanted to give you a heads up on this afternoon. Or did Karen already tell you?”

Sarah grimaced. She hoped it wasnʼt some kind of social gathering.

“Well, no problem. My daughters and I have been shooting a little movie, and today weʼre doing a scene in that tree out front,” he turned and pointed at the old oak in the front yard. “Itʼs a little strange because weʼll be putting our cat up there for a while, but donʼt worry, weʼll get her back down.”

“Youʼre putting a cat in a tree on purpose?”

“Yeah, I know. Whatʼs a movie without some action, right? Actually, Karen was the one who gave us the idea.”

Sarah found this hard to believe, since most of Karenʼs ideas lately involved worrying about things going wrong.

“And she didnʼt want you to sign a legal waiver or something?” Sarah said.

Ken laughed. “Wouldnʼt that be funny. Well, thanks, weʼll be out there in an hour or so, shouldnʼt take too long.”

He turned to go, stopping by the tree on his way down the path. He put his hands on his hips and arched his head up towards the sky. “Itʼs a beautiful tree,” he said before waving goodbye.

Sarah sat on the porch swing and let her eyes adjust to the sun. It was warmer outside than she thought it would be. She rested her bare feet along the smooth wood railing. The heat felt good.

Two women in t-shirts and striped workout pants walked by the house. One of them saw Sarah and waved. She lifted her hand back in acknowledgment. They probably found it strange for her to be sitting on the front porch like this, wearing wrinkled pajamas, her hair still dreadlocked from a bad nights sleep. So intimate, she thought, for a neighborhood that preferred staying on the surface of things.

Sarah remembered when Karen first moved into the house, just before Nate was born. Karen raved about the front porch. She had always dreamed of one with a swing and an old, shady tree rustling in the wind. Sarah helped her repaint the living room, and afterward, they sat out on the porch in the dark, drinking too much wine and giggling like school girls. Karen kept shushing Sarah, afraid of waking the neighbors. Eventually, Sarah curled up with her head on Karenʼs lap and they just rocked back and forth, listening to the creaking of the wood and the nighttime hum of sleep and electricity.

“I canʼt believe this is my house,” Karen whispered.

“I guess youʼre an adult now,” Sarah said as she fell asleep, Karen slowly smoothing the hair from her face.

Sarah doubted that Karen still used the front porch. Every time she came over now, after Nate was put to bed, all Karen wanted to do was clean the kitchen and curl up on the couch and watch a movie. Sarah didnʼt mind though, thatʼs usually all she was up for too. Most often, Karen would fall asleep halfway through the night and Sarah would cover her with a blanket and let herself out.

Sarah stretched her legs one more time against the railing and went back inside. Snowball saw her and immediately ran to the cabinet in the kitchen where his food was kept. He moved his head impatiently back and forth between Sarah and the cabinet door. She had missed his breakfast time by a few hours.

“Ok, I get it, buddy,” Sarah said, picking up his food bowl. She gave him a few extra scoops out of guilt and then sat at the kitchen table and watched him inhale his food. She couldnʼt imagine ever being that hungry.

Bits of cardboard were scattered across the floor by her chair. She picked one up. It was damp with ripped edges. She looked up and saw the package for Nate on Snowballʼs bed. The damage wasnʼt too bad, it was just the shipping box that had been ripped at one corner. Sarah tore off the rest of the cardboard box, hoping the contents were gift wrapped. They werenʼt. Inside was a card in a bright blue envelope and a box of jungle themed legos. Poor Nate, Sarah thought. She looked at the picture on the front of the box. There were hippos drinking from a plastic pond with an alligator lurching out of the water. In the background, monkeys played in the branches of plastic lego trees.

Snowball was done with his breakfast and was now whining at something out the window. Sarah could hear a light, twinkling sound coming from outside. She stood next to Snowball and watched as two girls in sundresses skipped across the lawn, giggling hysterically. Ken was a few houses behind, carrying a ladder and bags filled with camera equipment and props. They were early.

“Girls! Wait!” Ken shouted.

They seemed oblivious. One of the girls, the taller one with wispy blond hair, was cradling a small cat in her arms, trying to lift its face to the other girls ear, as if to share a secret. The other girl screamed with laughter at whatever the cat said and started running in circles around the base of the tree.

Ken asked the older girl to come help with the bags and she reluctantly walked towards him, still whispering to the cat and rocking it back and forth in her arms. He surveyed the tree again, and carried the ladder up to the south side, near the house. For a second, Sarah was afraid he would catch sight of her in the window, but his attention was on the ladder and before she knew it, his back was turned to her. Both girls ran up to him asking a question. He nodded and knelt down to talk to them, his hands on each of their shoulders pushing them together.  Slowly, each girl gave the cat a kiss on the top of the head, the blond girl bending down to rub her face along his fur before releasing him.

Ken tucked the cat under his arm and started climbing the ladder to the first branch of the tree, about ten feet off the ground. The girls ran to the prop bag and put on bright red plastic firemen hats. Sarah laughed as they proceeded to run around the lawn, making siren sounds and holding their arms in front of them like superman, unaware that filming had not yet begun.

The phone rang from the kitchen behind her. She watched Ken try to shake the cat from his arms onto the branch, and waited for the answering machine to kick on.

“Sarah? Are you there?” It was Karen, her voice crackling with a bad connection. “Sarah?”

Sarah sighed and went to pick up the phone, bringing it back with her to the window.

“Hi,” Sarah said, trying her best to sound perky.

“Oh good. Hi. How are you?”

“Fine, fine. Howʼs your vacation going?”

“Good. Weʼve been exploring a lot.” Karen sounded exhausted.

“Iʼm watching a fake cat rescue in your front yard right now.”

“What?”

“Your neighborʼs movie. Iʼm surprised you okayʼd this operation.”

“Oh right. Well, it seemed harmless. Except for the cat, I guess. Besides, I canʼt resist those little girls. Theyʼre so sweet.”

“Yeah, they are.”

“What are they doing right now?”

“They seem to have forgotten about the cat in the tree and are performing some sort of dance play instead.”

Karen laughed, a short staccato bark, but Sarah could tell she was distracted.

“What are you doing now?” Sarah asked.

“Trying to the leave the hotel room,” she sighed. “Itʼs gorgeous here.”

Sarah looked outside. The girls were holding on to the porch railing, pretending to be in a ballet studio.

“Hey K, do you still use your porch swing?”

“Why? is there a problem with it?

“No, no, relax, I was just wondering if you still go out there.”

Karen held her breath, the way she normally did when she was thinking. “Not as much as Iʼd like, but, yeah, I go out there. What a weird question.”

“I was just wondering.”

“No, no, I know,” Karen said, her voice softening. “Sometimes if I canʼt sleep in the middle of the night I go out there for a little bit. The air feels good…I bet it would feel even nicer up in that tree.”

Sarah smiled, “Yeah, it would.”

She heard commotion in the background, muffled cries of protest.

“I gotta go, Nateʼs being unbearable. He got a bad sunburn on his legs.”

“Uh oh.”

“I know,” Karen sighed. “Well, I was just checking in.”

“Yup, Iʼm fine.”

“Good. All right. Hey,” Karen said, “Have fun, remember?”

Sarah smiled and lifted her eyebrows. “You too.”

“Goodbye, Sarah.”

“Bye, K.”

Sarah heard Ken dismantling the ladder outside. This time he saw her through the window. He waved and shrugged, and she responded with the thumbs up sign. She watched the girls skipping back to their house, their fireman hats bobbing on their heads like apples.

Sarah sat at the kitchen table and considered eating something, though she still wasnʼt hungry. She picked up Nateʼs jungle lego box and read the instructions on the back. Maybe she would take the parts out and set them up for Nate in his room, one less mess for Karen to worry about. She unwrapped everything and stuffed the plastic wrappers back into the box.

Slowly, she put all the pieces together, snapping the leaves and branches into place, arranging the tall grasses by the base of the trunk and around the pond. She put the alligator on top of the water, the hippos gossiping to the side, like in the picture. She picked up the monkeys, one in each hand, and before clicking them onto the branches, she played with them for a brief moment. She let them groom each other. She let them sleep. She watched as they climbed from tree to tree, their limbs loose and eager, swinging with the recklessness that comes easy to the loved.

© 2010 Anonymous

The Bow-Armed-Bear-Hunter

The Bow-Armed-Bear-Hunter

by Erica Somes

We all have “that friend”. The friend who can’t seem to see the insane situation in which they are fully, inexplicably entrenched. I happened to be on the phone with that particular friend of mine, my BFF (Best Friend Forever) Kat, when I first heard about the Bow-Armed-Bear-Hunter.

“Casey’s spending the night in a tree… trying to shoot a bear?” I thought it was a joke.

“Zoe, he’s spending the night in a treehouse, with his bow, waiting to shoot a bear. He put out a few of those rotisserie chickens from the grocery store and is waiting for the bear to find them.”

“Oh, it’s all clear to me now. He’s chumming for bear, hunkered down in a treehouse, waiting for said bear to meander in for a dinner of rotisserie chicken, then he’s going to shoot the bear, with an arrow?

Can you even kill a bear with a bow and arrow? Don’t you need like, a machine type bazooka gun to kill a bear?”

“I don’t know. I don’t hunt. That’s just what his text said.”

“He’s texting you from a treehouse! That’s insane. You know that right?”

“Yes, Zoe, I know.”

“And you’re still wanting to date him?”

“Yes.”

Time for a topic change.

See, when a friend is in one of “those” relationships, where she has a boyfriend climbing into a tree to hunt a bear after graciously baiting it with store bought rotisserie chicken, well, you can only insinuate for so long, that the only person crazier than the hunter perched in a treehouse chumming bear with a bow, is in fact the person in a relationship with the crazy person, perched in a tree, chumming for bear with a bow.

“Do you want to go to the nude beach tomorrow? Josh and I are heading out in the morning. We’ll pick you up if you want to go.”

“Zoe, you want me to be naked on the beach, with you and your boyfriend and you think I’m crazy… ha!”

Kat did her best to sound appalled in order to challenge my accusation that she was off her rocker for dating Casey, the Bow-Armed-Bear-Hunter.

“I’m just inviting you Kat, you don’t have to come.”

“Why would I want to go to a nude beach with you and the gym teacher?”

“He’s not a gym teacher. Josh is a professional educator specializing in Physical Education. And you always talk about how you wish Casey would take you, so I’m asking if you want to go with us.”

“Uh huh. Yeah, well, you and the gym teacher have a good time. I don’t want to be naked around your boyfriend and Casey just texted me from the tree again, I gotta go.”

The next day Josh picked me up and after a short drive we were hiking through mosquito infested trees that seemed to exist in their own sort of microclimate, to the beach of buck naked human beings, who relish flaunting their nakedness, like rich women who buy those ugly ass granny bags, that for some reason cost a huge amount of money.

The water lapped at the sandy beach as barges the size of city blocks slowly made their way up the river.

Josh and I thoroughly enjoyed frequenting the nude beach because we shared a perverted pleasure for pointing out things that were blatantly obvious to us and yet wholly invisible to those with a sliver of a moral compass.

Today, however, after 2 hours of blissful nudity and an appropriate number of people to make fun of walking by, Skinny-Bitch came into our world. Skinny-Bitch liked to order her boyfriend No-Backbone, around and moan about EVERYTHING in a high pitched, whiny voice. Skinny-Bitch of course, had No-Backbone, lay out their blanket near our blanket… just to be a bitch. Really annoying, bitchy girls are somehow magnetically attracted to girls like me, who hate most other girls, aside from my BFF, Kat.

Skinny-Bitch also happened to have a broken leg and be sporting a hot pink cast from her knee to her pedicured toes complete with matching hot pink toenail polish. This I’m sure propelled her whining to epic heights, even to No-Backbone. She also violated the one rule of the nude beach… complete nudity.

She removed her bikini top but left on her bikini bottom. Then proceeded to smoke a joint while No-Backbone applied sunscreen to her bare boobs.

“Josh are you staring at her boobs?”

“No, I’m staring at the guy rubbing sunscreen on her boobs… Yes, of course I’m staring at her boobs. We’re at a nude beach and I haven’t become immune to boobs yet. Boob immunity takes more like three or four hours.”

“Uh huh, well Kat called me last night and told me that Casey was spending the night in a treehouse waiting to try and kill a bear with a bow and arrow. Do you think that’s even possible? To kill a bear with an arrow?”

“No.”

“No… That’s it?”

“Is there really more of an answer required for that question?”

“I guess not.”

At that point I decided to let Josh ogle Skinny-Bitch’s boobs and call Kat.

Kat answered her cell with a “Hellooooooo!” to which I responded with an identical, “Hellooooooo!” to which Josh rolled his eyes and dropped his head in his hands in utter disgust at our middle school absurdity.

“Hey there BFF, how did Bear Hunter’s night in the tree go?”

“Well, he fell and broke his nose during one of his climbs in and out of the treehouse. Took a picture of his bloody face and clothes and sent it via text message this morning when there was enough light for a photo.”

“What the hell! Is he trying to make you worried or angry or is he just stupid?”

“Well, I texted him that he needed to leave the bear alone and come home. When he told me he was going to track the bear all day and camp again in the treehouse tonight I sunk into the black hole of feigning no cell signal… he’s texted seven times and I’ve ignored him. What are you up to?”

“Way to take a stand against testosterone inspired stupidity. Josh and I were here at the beach enjoying our nakedness until this half nude Skinny-Bitch ordered her No-Backbone boyfriend to setup camp right next to us and now Josh can’t seem to take his eyes off her obviously enhanced boobs.”

“Hold on a sec Zoe, there’s a delivery man at my door, he has flowers, oh my gosh, they’re from Casey. The card says he’s sorry to worry me and he loves me. Ahhh…”

“Oh my God Kat, you’re not buying that are you! He’s calling a florist from a treehouse? What the hell… he probably took ketchup packets into the treehouse to smear on himself after he supposedly broke his nose so he could make you worry about him. You see that right.”

“He sent me a dozen roses. You go back to Josh and distract him from his boob staring. I’m going to go buy some new lingerie for when Casey gets back from hunting.”

“Oh my god… really! Really! Are you serious? Oh my god you are hopeless… if you weren’t my BFF I would never talk to you again because I find you to be so unimaginably gullible where Bow-Armed-Bear-Hunter is concerned… rather than new lingerie, you know what you need is a nice lobotomy to remove that part of your brain that finds Casey attractive and is susceptible to his lame and predictable manipulations and follow up cliche apology flowers.”

“Uh, huh, I love you too Zoe. I stopped listening a while ago. Have a good day, say hi to the gym teacher for me. Bye now.”

Kat hung up on me and I refocused my energy on my dislike for Skinny-Bitch and decided a bold move was required to regain the attention of Josh. I stood up, stretched and started walking down to the water… right past a group of frolicking college kids. I managed to pull the attention of enough of the boys to warrant Josh joining me in the water.

“How come you never send me flowers Josh…?”

“You mean overpriced flowers delivered to your door by an underpaid high school dropout? Gee, maybe because I know you’d rather receive a one pound box of Butterscotch Squares from See’s when I mess up.”

“Hmmpf. Well, I still like flowers even if I say they are ridiculous when Kat gets them from idiot boys.”

“Noted. Oh my God, there’s the Warrior! He’s here!”

The “Warrior” Josh was speaking of, was a man who embodied manliness like no other. He enjoyed strutting up and down the beach in calf height water, appropriately nude, skin shimmering with baby oil, long black hair flowing, necklace of white shark teeth around his neck and what appeared to be a third leg, swinging back and forth with every water parting step.

Josh was entranced by Warrior… He was wholeheartedly disappointed on days we came to the nude beach and didn’t get a chance to stare at his awesomeness as he patrolled the beach like some king surveying his kingdom.

“He’s mesmerizing isn’t he Zoe?”

“Yes Josh, he is beauty defined. I am once again feeling jealous of the man crush you have for Warrior. Why is it that both you and Kat are in love with these insanity inducing archetypes of masculinity?”

I stood next to Josh and watched Warrior parade by, took Josh’s hand and walked him back to our blankets to get dressed. Carefully avoiding eye contact with Skinny-Bitch, so as not to visibly grimace as the sound of the water behind me dissolved into her shrill voice.

“Let’s head back to town and get a margarita. After all this talk of Bow-Armed-Bear-Hunter sending flowers from a treehouse and feeling jealous of an overly tanned man wearing teeth around his neck, I feel the need for inebriation.”

“Inebriation of Zoe by Tequila and Triple Sec coming up…”

Yes, we all have at least one of “those friends” in our lives that make life interesting. Who makes us shake our heads and provide us all with unquestionable certainty that life is there in front of us, happening all the time. If we didn’t have “those people” in our lives, life would be so boring.

How could we exist without the Bow-Armed-Bear-Hunters and Warriors of this world?

I don’t ever want to know.

© 2010 Erica Somes

Everybody Wants to Rule the World

Everybody Wants to Rule the World

by Twins & Twins & Twins: Eliza Lane and Teresa Lane

Trevor shoved me into the passenger seat and turned up the CD player. Apocalyptic metal, hard and fast, deafened me. He mouthed something and peeled a donut over the curb and into his grandma’s rock garden, where an old cross marked the grave of Whitey, the black mouse we had accidently killed back in fourth grade. Trevor pulled back onto the driveway, killed the engine, and handed me the keys. “Don’t be afraid to put this baby up on the curb,” he repeated.

I spent the afternoon learning to drive stick shift in the red pickup that was usually parked outside the shop owned by my best friend’s dad. I’d finally picked up a job as their pizza delivery guy, my first job since I delivered newspapers in middle school. My friend Trevor had warned me that business was down, but if I was lucky I might “catch a babe or two.” He always called them babes.

It was the end of the summer before my senior year, when the leaves were still green but the grass was brittle. The neighbors were always outside: the one crazy lady who watered her driveway even in the rain, the three kids who were all different colors but were cared for by the same woman. My first evening on the job was steaming. The truck had a decent stereo, but no AC and I could feel the sweat trickling down my neck, past my chicken pox scar, and into my shirt. I pushed my long hair out of my eyes, and let out a sigh.

The last delivery of the night was scheduled for a two-storey house encased in huge trees, a rainforest canopy shading the front porch. I knocked on the door with my elbow, pizza in hand. It opened so slowly I imagined that it was a trap: the home of a serial killer, a cannibal or some kind of Buffalo Bill character. Finally, a kid about my age appeared, pale in the light of the streetlamp. He was fair, so much so that I could almost see the blood pumping blue beneath his skin. I knew the guy from school, but had never talked to him. I didn’t even know his name. He handed me a ten and a handful of change. Pizza delivery guys hate exact change. His hand trembled and all the pennies and nickels and dimes spilled onto the wooden porch. He knelt over, peered at the coins, and laughed nervously. “That was supposed to be your tip,” he said. “Just—uh—stay—no, come inside. I guess.”

I followed the kid into his house. An old woman was sitting upright on the floral loveseat in the living room. “Brian, who’s your friend?” she asked, not looking away from Wheel of Fortune. I was still carrying the pizza. He squinted at me and shrugged.

“Logan.”

“Well, you two boys have fun. You should go upstairs and play.”

Brian looked at me, unsure, and then motioned for me to follow him up the stairs. Trevor would be disappointed; this was no babe.

I knew I was breaking all of the delivery guy rules. I had come inside the house—with all my cash. The keys of the truck were still in the ignition. I didn’t know what, or who, was up these stairs.

“She stays here on the nights my mom’s at the hospital for work,” the kid explained, jerking his head towards the frumpy woman.  “My mom’s a nurse. She’s out of the house most nights, but she’s not a hooker.” I’d heard that rumor, and others, about this kid. People thought he was really weird, but his house looked pretty normal.

“I have a couple of dollars I can give you for a real tip. I’m sorry I dropped all the change.”

“Whatever.”

I glanced through the first doorway. The room was crowded: a bookshelf packed with textbooks, a well-used treadmill, a ping-pong table, and the most brutal stereo system I’d ever seen.

“You like music?”

The guy smiled. His lips cracked. He reminded me of summer camp and those kids who go home red and crispy. “For sure! I really like Duran Duran, Frankie, Tears for Fears, Eurythmics. Old school.”

“Oh, uh, cool, dude.” He could tell I wasn’t impressed and he looked a little hurt. I wanted to apologize; he seemed so weak. “So you’re a junior?”

“Yeah. And I take college classes online.”

Of course. He didn’t look like he got out of the house much. I set the pizza box on top of the bookshelf and flipped through some of the CDs. Nothing good. I turned back to Brian and picked up a ping-pong paddle. I knew I should get going, but he seemed really lonely. I thought I was tough, but I sure was a sucker for sad kids and baby animals.

I made a quick call back to the shop, telling Trevor that I had “met someone.” I’d make up a story about a hot girl tomorrow and he’d never know the difference.

Brian won the first game without any trouble, obviously in practice. I managed to fight back and the score of the second game was much closer, though I still lost. It was getting late and I knew I needed to get the pickup—and the pizza money—back to the store. I shifted my weight and put my hands in my pockets. I touched the keys to the truck and two tickets to the summer’s final show at the amphitheater. It started in less than an hour.

I pulled the tickets out of my pocket. “Hey, do you want to get out of here?”

He immediately looked concerned, disbelieving. His face scrunched and he nervously ran a hand through the straw of his hair. Downstairs the babysitter began to snore.

“Come on. When’s your mom get home?”

“Morning.”

“Does the babysitter check on you up here?”

“No, she never comes up.” He didn’t even protest the word babysitter.

“Okay, but where we’re going, you’ll need something else to wear.”

I could tell that he had mixed feelings. I did, too. This was stupid. I didn’t even know this kid, but I guessed it was better than going alone, since Trevor had bailed.

I followed Brian to his bedroom: another bookshelf, twin bed, desk, dresser. In one corner was a saltwater fish tank with crystal clear water. The purple anemone pulsed gently as two clown fish chased each other through a ceramic pirate ship.

“What should I wear?” he asked, opening his closet.

“Black.”

He pulled a pair of black slacks and a black short sleeved buttoned shirt off their hangers. He looked at me for approval. “Okay, I guess. Is that all you’ve got?” He pointed to a black ball cap on top of his dresser, next to a tube of SPF 90.

“Whoa, I didn’t know they made sunscreen that strong.”

“SPF 90 is an albino’s best friend.”

“Cool.” Honestly, I didn’t really know what to say. I was embarrassed; usually I try to be smoother than that. Brian, however, seemed unaware of my discomfort. In fact, he laughed a little.

“Just kidding. I’m not an albino. My mom‘s just a bit overprotective.”

I turned away from the closet while he changed out of his blue polo and plaid shorts. His window overlooked the side yard and I could just see the back end of my truck. The branch of one of those tall trees brushed the window.

“Logan, I don’t know what shoes to wear,” he said, interrupting my thoughts. “I have dress shoes for church and these same athletic shoes that I was wearing before.” He wagged the white running shoes in front of me, one in each hand.

“Just wear black.”

He laced the shiny black shoes and pulled the cap on. He looked like a demonic missionary. I smiled for the first time since getting out of the pizza truck.

“What you need is a nice pair of shades.”

He opened the top drawer of his dresser like a car model on The Price is Right. He was beginning to get into the spirit. Lined up in the shallow drawer were at least six pairs of sunglasses. “Sensitive eyes,” he explained. I stopped myself from saying “cool” and pointed at the pair he should choose.

“We’re going to have to go down the tree,” I told him. “Have you ever snuck out that way before?”

“No, I never sneak out.” I wasn’t surprised by his answer.

“This will be easy. That tree is made for climbing.”

He tucked his wallet into his back pocket and grabbed what looked like a yellow marker off the dresser. I raised an eyebrow.

“EpiPen. I’m allergic to bees.”

“It’s nighttime. You’ll be fine,” I told him, but he still put the EpiPen in his other pocket.

I opened the window and, one at a time, we reached for the closest branch, swung our legs over the sill and stepped onto the thicker branch just below. The final drop was no more than six feet.

Back at the pizza place, I quickly handed over the money pouch and the truck keys to Trevor’s dad. I knew that I was ninety minutes late, but I hadn’t missed any deliveries and the money was all there. He never ran the tightest ship anyway. We drove my Honda to the amphitheater just as the band started to play. My tickets got us through the gate with a half-assed pat-down. The crowd was already raging, surging like a wave of frantic animals in front of the stage.

“This is insane!” he screamed at me.  I pushed him deeper into the mass of bodies and we lost and found each other over and over in the pounding mosh. I felt like I was getting punched in the gut with every chord from the bass.

He was bright red and soaked with sweat when I led him to a clear space near the fence.  He had lost his hat in the pit, but his smile was like nothing I’d ever seen. He was an escapee from 80s pop, a newborn zealot for hard rock.

Staggering out of the crowd, directly at us, came two girls. One, with cropped red hair, supported her friend, who appeared to be in some trouble. Her breath came in short, harsh bursts and her skin, wet with perspiration, looked clammy. She sunk from her friend’s grasp, her long black hair falling over her face. She groaned.

Brian’s eyes went wide and he sprung to her side. “Are you having an anaphylactic reaction?” he shouted above the noise of the band. His hand was reaching for the pocket with the EpiPen.

She rolled her head to the side and I could see that she was pretty. She had a flat chest and baggy black cargo pants held to her hips by a wide red belt.

“A what?!”

“I have epinephrine if you need it.”

“I don’t do that—whatever it is,” she announced. We could both tell now that she was fully coherent, just winded from the wild mosh pit. Brian sat by her side and they were soon talking, screaming actually, the music nearly drowning their conversation. I wanted to make eye contact with the red haired girl, but she looked away, bored. The band played just one encore, their most thrashing song, and we all threw ourselves back into the human blender.

Back in the car, I nudged Brian hard in the shoulder. “Dude, did you at least get her name?”

“Ellie, no number. But her friend goes to my church.”

“Sweet, dude.”

I parked the Honda down the street from his house. I didn’t want to chance waking the babysitter before he could climb back up the tree and into his room. We hurried past the porch, light glinting off the scattered coins that still lay on the floorboards. Brian needed a boost to the lowest branch, but then scrambled up to the window next to his bed. He waved, smiling broadly. I turned and walked towards my car, softly humming Billy Idol’s Dancing with Myself.


© 2010 Eliza Lane and Teresa Lane

Migrating Crows

Migrating Crows

by Nick Powell

“I dated one boy before I met and married Oscar,” she said from her seat at the table as I pressed pasta sauce through a strainer, “And I was a complete bitch to him,” I laughed, “You laugh because you think I’m exaggerating. I was a shrew, and not for any good reason. He was a bossy know-it-all, but not a bad boy, and I would string him along like life was one big test he needed to pass to be in my presence. I’d wait days to call him back. If he even mentioned a bill I’d pull out a cigarette and go find a stranger to give me a light. I made him wait eleven dates before the first kiss, and from that point on I acted like a complete and total tramp until we reached the stoop of his dorm,” she began acting it out with a shaking hand, “And then I’d put a hand on his thigh, kiss him on the cheek, press myself against him, and then the second he started to put his arms around me I’d push myself away, thank him for the lovely night, and wiggle off into the night. A few of those and he just broke up with me. I was fine with it at the time because I convinced myself that I was a good Christian and I didn’t like him much anyways, but since then I’ve realized I acted like that because I liked him more than Oscar. I only got married to Oscar because he was so quiet and pleasant that I would’ve felt too awful to give him any grief, so we never argued. We just stayed together for so long that there became nothing for us to do but get married.”

I smiled, “You’re so mean to Oscar, Edi. The poor guy took you to Samoa.”

“Well, let’s not make much of that. It would be one thing to backpack through the Caucasus, or go to the Congo to perform reconstructive surgery on female genitals, or whatever. But a mission is just a place where … you’re in a strange place, yes … but you experience it all through the filter of your religion. And I love my religion, of course, but it was all rather like watching a movie directed by a soggy white Hollywood shut-in. I met many very nice savages.” She pointed at her head with a shivery gray finger, “But I remember them as characters in a mud-covered storybook.” She winced as she moved her hand back to her lap, “I remember Oscar as a mastiff. And I remember that first boy as a good time.”

“In today’s circles,” I said as I slid the drained chicken and tomato onto a plate, “It would take a lot more than that to qualify as a ‘good time’.”

She gave me a withering look, “Well now with homosexuals everywhere everything’s about hedonism,” she said. I’d mostly learned to ignore those remarks. “You’ve all become numb to the electricity of simple touching and the intimacy of conversation. Are you with a girl?”

“Yes.”

“I won’t ask about specifics because I’d be disappointed in you, but are you comfortable with her?”

“Yes.”

She nodded pleasantly, as though I’d just told her that cantaloupe was five cents off at the supermarket, “That’s nice.”

* * *

The pavement ended with two cement posts and a mass of shrubbery overrun by blackberry husks and English Ivy. All around were brown white-trimmed ramblers connected in pairs with identical squarish crew-cut lawns. There were no kids or cars or noise except for a blackbird shuffling across a chimney cap. I felt for a moment like a mannequin on a suburban mock-up lot built for an A-Bomb test in a New Mexico valley. Somewhere there was a lead-cased camera, waiting to watch my atoms swept away.

I parked my bike and undid the straps around the plywood black-painted crate on the trailer and removed the top, and left everything on the driveway. I picked out a pair of Tupperware containers, opened the front gate with my foot, and tip-toed through the overgrown walkway, wincing in anticipation of spiderwebs. I hit the doorbell with my elbow and waited all of three minutes for the door to open. For Howard that was prompt.

“Hello Mr. Compton!” I said, generally trying to channel my inner game show host as I slipped my sandals onto the door mat.

“Afternoon,” he said as he turned to shamble back to his bedroom, which was a slightly deeper shade of uniform beige than the rest of the condo. “Turn down your pant leg.”

My right jean leg was rolled up to my knee. I set the Tupperware on the coffee table and rolled it back into place. He was still only halfway there. “I thought we’d try something a bit different today. I baked you some cookies myself.” I leapt into his path and opened the container. They were beautiful, perfect circles (by virtue of an ice cream scoop), dense with half-molten chocolate chunks, dusted with maldon salt, and cleanly cracked like the surface of a parched mud lake.

He lowered his nose and sniffed. “You can keep them for yourself.”

I looked down at the cookies, looking for a bug or fungal growth. “But you could try them. I made them because it’s healthier and cheaper that way. Well, it’s cheaper for me because I have a friend who works at the dairy market and gets me free butter. But I just like to bake.”

He sniffed them again, “I think you should keep them for yourself, they look very rich.”

I tried to laugh casually, “I made way more than I could eat. How about I keep most of them but I leave a few with you after dinner. Just for a bite.”

“They look very rich. I like Pepperidge Farms, you should have brought me those,” He said, “You have friends to share with.” He said, and shuffled into his bedroom to wait for his weekday dinner: a medium egg on toast and a roasted chicken breast.

* * *

“Is this a federal crime?” I asked with my feet on the dash, “This is government property after all.”

“No, 9-4-5-6,” Miranda said, so I flipped through the envelopes in the bag on my lap and found the right wee bundle of grocery fliers and handed it to her, “But I think riding in anything without a seat belt is a felony these days,” she leapt out and threw the junk mail into its box and leapt back. We were in one of those ‘diverse’ neighborhoods on the edge of the city that most people ignored. There were no sidewalks, and half of the side-streets weren’t even paved.

“I’ve got inside connections,” I said with my right arm hanging out the side, “Just don’t take any sudden left turns. And besides, you’re not wearing a belt!”

“I’m a trained government operative,” she tipped her blue cap, “9-4-6-4. If I don’t have the ability to leap instantly from this truck, people will die.”

“So it’s like cops running red lights.”

“Exactly the same, except if cops weren’t sissies. 9-4-7-2. The other day I was driving down to my route along 82nd, and I spot one of my customers, this old man who has an insane crush on me, I see him standing on the very edge of the sidewalk, looking at something coming the opposite way, a bus!”

“Oh no!”

“9-4-8-0. I looked into this man’s face from 50 yards off, and saw, with my government training, the plaintive eyes of a lovelorn man intending to commit suicide in a desperate attempt to teach the woman he leaves how stupid she’s been for spurning him. 9-4-8-8. He wanted me to see it happen, from the inside of the very truck from which I’d rejected him so many times.”

“It’s exactly like a Poe poem.”

“So, without even bothering to stop, I leapt out of the truck and ran through two lanes of oncoming traffic! The very sight of me froze him in place. We looked at each other as the bus went past. In my eyes, my crystalline blue eyes, in whose depths I had never given him access before, because he’s a hideous little troll of a man, and in those eyes he was exposed to the deep truths of his own soul, and instantly abandoned his love for me, and realized that all this time he was meant for his snaggletoothed cousin Flora.”

“Wait a second … I don’t think I believe the part about the crystalline eyes.”

“In thanks, he gave me his suicide note. It was a thirty page calligraphied epic poem dedicated entirely to my chest.”

“Wow,” I said, “It’s like I don’t know who you are. Each bra I peel off reveals another more enigmatic layer than the last.”

“But you’re too deep to get out.”

“So, so deep. Never before had I imagined what it would be like to become involved with the hottest mail carrier on the east side.”

“Just hold on tight, Curtis. Hold on to something and don’t let go. 9-5-0-2.”

“Suicide sometimes sounds lovely to me.”

She groaned, “Oh, great, another one.”

“How many does that make for you?”

“Four men and one woman. 9-5-1-0.”

“I was actually talking about my clients. They’d love some good suicide. They’re such utterly miserable, sad, miserable people that they don’t even have the imagination to conceive the idea. But it’s just what they need: a nice big bottle of Tylenol.”

She groaned with actual disgust, “I’d rather be cooking for grumpy old people than this. 9-5-1-8.”

“Ms. Johannson, the former burlesque dancer? I tried to sneak her a homemade noodle and sausage casserole instead of her boxed Hamburger Helper. She ate half of her dish with a smile on her face. Then I dropped the bomb. She spit up a noodle onto her plate and pushed it away.” Miranda laughed, “It’s not funny! There’s not a goddamn neuron of sense in some of these people! I offered Mr. Compton some of my chocolate chip cookies the other day.”

“Ooh! The ones with the salt?”

Yes! He sniffed them and waved me away. The only one I like is Edi.”

“9-5-3-4. Is she the one who plays backgammon?”

“No, the missionary’s wife. She’s a hatchet-faced bat who, for some reason, moved here a year ago without any family in the area. She wears wide-brimmed feathered hats. She belongs on the porch of a Greek Revival being handed iced tea by slaves, but she loves my cooking. She thinks I’m some sort of wandering Mario Batali. She fantasizes that I tear through day-long cooking binges fueled by cocaine and Spanish coffee. She only wants to eat things she’s never eaten before and cleans her plate every time. Once I was flat broke and made a boiled potato stew which I reduced with some foraged sage leaves. I told her it was a traditional yucca dish made with ingredients I’d bought from a shady Ethiopian grocer. She loved it. Of course she’s a Republican. She blasts talk radio all day. I cook lunch while Sean Hannity tells me I hate my country.”

“9-5-5-0. The missionary thing should’ve tipped you off.”

“I guess if you spend twenty years of your life surrounded by brown people who, by the very definition of your presence, are inferior and need to be changed, it turns you into a bit of a … well, she’s not a skinhead, she’s just … withering. But she loves food, so she’s fine by me. She liked burgers and fries as a kid, found out that Pacific food was pretty good, and then realized that there’s probably a helluva lot of food elsewhere in the world that’s probably better.”

“What’s wrong with her? Oh … is it just age?”

“No, she’s only in her seventies, but her hands are crippled by arthritis, and her hips are giving out on her. So I guess I’m her ambassador, taking her on her own little world tour until she chokes on an anise seed.”

“That’s awful, Curtis.”

I slapped her knee, “Edi would want it that way.”

“9-5-6-6. So, you judge people entirely by whether or not they like your cooking, to the point where they should literally be happy to die consuming it.”

“… That wasn’t really the point I was getting at, but sure.”

* * *

“Don’t cook today, Curtis” Edi said, turning down the volume on the radio, “The apples on the tree in the back are too red. Go ahead and pick them, one for my lunch with nutella and that fig jam that’s almost gone, and then you can do what you wish with the rest. Ms. Abignail across the street has a large freezer, and I’m sure you have many friends to share the others with.”

I parted the blinds and looked out the back. I’d never gone back there. Edi never talked about it, and she certainly never went back there, her skin was the color of chicken fat. It must’ve been part of the groundskeepers’ rounds. Sitting in the middle of an austere lawn was a chubby apple tree bubbling with red.

“There must be four hundred apples on that!”

“Exactly, I won’t have them falling on the ground to be swept up and thrown out by the Mexicans, Curtis. It’s perfectly good food and I won’t have it wasted.”

I ignored the tempting argument and began calculating. How long would it take to pick them? Did I have any crates? The one on my bike trailer would probably carry only 50.

“And wear sunscreen.”

“It’s seventy out, and I’ll be under a tree.”

She shook her head, “Wear sunscreen. It is my tree and my house and you will wear sunscreen.”

* * *

I didn’t have a ladder or a picker. I had one black plywood crate (minus the room occupied by other deliveries), and the four immaculate unused bottles of sunscreen Edi kept in her closet. Within three days I’d ransacked the lower branches, with the spoils distributed between snacking (I like mine with camembert), two apple pies, and Miranda’s freezer. Edi instantly grew sick of them and refused to eat any beyond that first meal, but I believe this was partly due to the looks she kept sneaking through the blinds, seeing rotted apples piling up on the grass. Those wouldn’t have been a problem, but she explicitly told me to “let the Mexicans clean that up, it’s their job,” though I’m sure she was more concerned about her cook’s hands being soiled.

On the fourth day I leapt into the tree, hooking my foot into the joint where the trunk split, pulling myself up, ducking my head and contorting my body until I could poke above the canopy. I found a crook to set the crate. Hanging shiny in the sun was a cluster of apples so red and dense they looked like a bunch of unripe grapes. I wrapped one hand around a branch and leaned forward, but my sunscreen-greased hand almost slipped and I just barely caught myself. I changed tact, there was a stouter branch, sprouting from my feet towards the bunch of apples, which I centered my weight on as I leaned forward. I reached out, grabbed the smooth skin of a crimson apple, twisted, lifted up to snap the stem, and it came loose crisp and clean. Then the branch broke. Something smashed me in the face. I flailed out with an arm and it caught the ground first, bending in a very, very unnatural way.

* * *

Mr. Compton actually grinned when he saw the cast and my bandaged face. He demanded we sit down so that I could tell him the story in detail (though not before he could complain about the substitute cook, who always overcooked the egg and underpeppered the chicken), and laughed as much as his body would allow when I told it to him. I was annoyed until he told me his own quick story, which left him exhausted:

“In Korea … In Korea? Yes, Kujin. We had strapped down Gunny Bruce to a stretcher, and were carrying him back over the foothills to the M.A.S.H. unit because all the helicopters were busy. Bruce had been hit twice, in the stomach and the femur. He was dead, as far as we knew, except for the all the screaming, but we had to try. On the way, though, my mate, Slope … forgive the name, it was a different time, he had droopy eyes … slipped on some gravel on this steep path and snapped his arm at the elbow, just like that, except he only fell about three feet. Not sure how that’s possible. We changed his name to Bird Bones after that.”

“But he bucked up and carried the stretcher anyway?” I asked with rue.

“That would’ve been nice, but really I just took the front end of the thing and dragged Bruce another mile to camp while Slope bit his tongue. Couldn’t say a damn thing cause there was a man nearly dead right there in front of him, even with a bone nearly sticking out of his arm.”

“So I guess it’s a relief that you weren’t laughing at my incredible pain.”

“What? … Oh, no, I’m sorry son, I was laughing at life, I guess. And I’m laughing at the thought of you dealing with it.”

“Cause I’m one of these ‘sensitive’ types, I suppose.” Mr. Compton smiled weakly, “I had to borrow my sister’s car. I suppose I could still manage to ride a bike, but it just felt dangerous when I tried it. My girlfriend’s cooked a lot for me. She even went and picked apples from the tree I fell from.”

“Can you still cook?”

I lifted my arm and tried to flex my fingers, rimmed in plaster and frayed gauze, “I mean, mostly, but I can’t grip a pot. You’ll need to give me a quick hand when I fry the egg, I just need someone to hold the pan, and maybe a few other things.“

He smiled, “Go get started, huh? I need a minute to sit still first.”

* * *

“Have you ever broken a bone?”

Miranda sipped from her pint, “Yeah,” Miranda said, sipping from her pint. We were sitting in a booth in the back corner, the red leather split at almost every seam. The walls were covered in graffiti and vintage pornography. She was slumped with her legs up, which was pretty much her normal posture when she had a buzz. “I was eight, riding my bicycle alone through our neighborhood, and I was gonna cross the street, and I guess the guy in this truck couldn’t see me cause I was short and maybe my head didn’t come above this parked car I was riding in front of, so I just shot out into the street and his bumper plowed right into my leg. I also got a concussion and barely remember any of it. I remember sitting in a white booth after the doctor had given me some shot, and I was in so much pain that I was crying, and my mother was with me, looking very annoyed.”

I paused for a moment, considering whether to plow forward or not. “What’s the deal with your mom, I don’t know a thing about her.”

She took a long sip, “Family stuff. It’s very boring.”

At the jukebox, a tiny man with a mustache and a tall black girl were having an animated discussion about Michele Bachmann, which somehow required the tiny man to pantomime sexual positions. Miranda smiled at me and rolled her eyes. “My favorite dive for a reason.”

I draped an arm over her shoulder, “Miranda, all that family stuff may only be boring because you project it as boring. Every time I get a hint of your past I start to get the feeling that you’re actually a character in a Faulkner novel.”

“I don’t know Faulkner.”

“Jesus Christ,” I grabbed her pint and took a long drag off it, “Then Steinbeck … R.L. Stine maybe. It doesn’t matter, you know what I mean.”

“And you know what I mean.”

That sentence, as snippy as it sounded, was very comforting. It dissolved all my responsibility. Those are wonderful, exhilarating moments in relationships when you realize there’s less work to do. There’s one less game to play.

And yet …

I lowered my head onto her shoulder. “Can I ask you something?”

“Depends.”

“Why do I love it when you avoid confrontation?”

She put a hand on my leg, “Because you’re a sweet guy.”

It was a compliment. But at that moment, in the dark corner of a familiar bar, arm wrapped around a beautiful girl, it made me feel sick.

© 2010 Nick Powell