Gone Dad - John Mullen
Pine Cut Thin - Paul Silverman
The Bowl - Tom Mahony
What They Tell Her - Florence Kraut
Stand and Deliver - K.C. Ball
On Christmas Eve Deidre brings a little aluminum tree to the grave. It sits in a plastic pot and she decorates it with bulbs and tinsel and the usual things. She stakes it down using thick string and wooden clothes pins so it won't blow over. It begins like this. At the holidays Deidre tends to make a fuss.
The cemetery is situated on the main road through town and the gravestone is in plain view of anyone passing by. In February, around the small marker, she can be seen scattering Valentine hearts on the patchy, winter grass. In April she's unpacking Easter baskets from the trunk of her car, and on the 4th of July it is sparklers, which are placed in a small vase and carefully lit one by one. On ordinary days she usually brings something too, a box of crayons, a pack of cards, race cars - toys for the older boy he might have been and not the infant he was.
At first there is sympathy, steaming casseroles and mournful eyes. Poor thing, people say. Crib death. Awful business. They shake their heads when they talk about it. Whisper it, in respect. First such case anyone can remember here. After all, it's not a large town.
But, after a time, the sympathy wanes. Her visits to the grave are public and messy and her grief is a chore to witness and even think about. It's like an oil slick, overwhelming them all. When her name is mentioned (and what sort of name is Deidre, anyway, and isn't she new in town and where has she come from and why is she here?) they cluck their tongues, and let out deep sighs. Sometimes they even laugh. Crazy woman. Must be why her husband left.
The gifts disappear, and sometimes even the decorations. Deidre knows the grave is being raided by the children who live in the subdivision nearby. She imagines the thieves watching her from a safe distance, like little soldiers, hunkered down and fidgety, waiting for her to drive off so they can pounce. Before the end of each visit she climbs on the car's hood, stands on tip toes and shields her eyes, looking in all directions, across this former meadow, where decades ago there was nothing but tall grass and wildflowers, but is now carefully lined with stones. She never spots anyone, except an occasional hunched and stricken visitor like herself.
There are things she can do. On any given day Deidre can sit on the moist ground with her back against her son's stone and simply wait for them to come. She can park her car down the block and double back and watch from behind some hedges. She can catch them. She can call the police or harangue their parents or gently tell them in simple phrases about pain and loss, as they stand there slack-jawed. She'll make them weep.
These are her options, her comforts, and they feel heavy and real, like strands of beads around her neck. She can twist them tight or let them slide through her hands and what a blessing it is to see it's all up to her.
Bill Gaythwaite's stories have appeared in several magazines, including Alligator Juniper and Lynx Eye, as well as Mudville Diaries, an anthology of baseball reminiscences, published by Avon Books.
"Hi Sweetie. How you doing?
"I'm great. You look nice. I like that shirt."
"Oh, yea. A real looker, that's me. Say, how's … your husband. His work going okay?"
"Sure, you know Frank. Takes everything in stride. Matt's great too."
"Matt. Doing well in school is he?"
"His job? Ya, he loves it. Finally making some money, you know. Just got himself a bigger apartment, in Astoria now."
Matt … His job … What kind of job? … That little guy?
"Well, you worked when you were young too. Remember that little school you ran one summer? What were you then, about twelve? In the back shed?"
"Good job with the memory there, Dad."
"Twenty-five cents a day you charged the parents. The assholes … sorry … those mothers didn't give you a penny more, either."
"Remember, Dad, you put a Dutch door on the shed just for the school?"
"Took me three weeks. Never closed right either."
"So, do you like your new digs here?"
"Oh sure. It's nice enough."
This room. The TV's huge. A fucking thousand channels and nothing to watch. Who took my books? How can I work without my books?
"Oh, just thinking, you know, how nice it'll be to get back home . . . with your Mom and all."
"But Dad she's been …
"The food good? I smelled it when I came in."
"No bacon sandwiches. Imagine a hotel without bacon sandwiches?"
"Well, I'll bring you one next time, how's that."
"Thanks Lizzie, you're very nice to me, you know that."
"How's that cough of yours? You've had it a long time."
"I'm okay. Strong as a bear, that's me."
"Okay then, well I love you Dad."
"Love you too, dear."
"Good day to you, Professor Heller."
Professor? This isn't my office. It's much nicer. My office is a shit hole. What class is she in?
"Oh, good morning Miss. You look rather chipper."
"Well thank you, sir. You look quite handsome yourself."
They're forward these days, the students. I didn't say 'pretty'. I said she was 'chipper'. Though she is pretty . . . well, in a foreign sort of way.
"How you feeling today, Professor? You had a little temp yesterday. Juicy chest too."
"I'm okay, strong as a horse, that's me. So what can I do for you Miss?"
"I thought we'd get you dressed today and ready for breakfast. How'd you like that?"
Breakfast? What time is it? Get ready? Why is she here? Jeez, I'm in bed . . . and there's a student here.
"Thank you Miss, but I've had breakfast."
"You have, huh."
"It was … My wife . . . made bacon sandwiches before I left."
"Here, let me swing your legs over the side … there. Bacon sandwiches, yummy. Were they good?"
"Just stay like that. I'll get some things to clean you up."
"But I have to … "
"Then you can be in your chair with your books."
"What's your name again?"
"Yvonne, my name's Yvonne."
"Oh sure, I knew that. You're very nice to me, you know that."
Nice voice. Pretty too. I feel good. So pretty. Dad? Whose Dad?
"Hi there. How are you today, Miss."
"You look nice, Dad."
"Oh sure, a real looker. That's me."
"Like that yellow sweater I got you?"
"The sweater I got you. The one you're wearing."
"This one? Ah, I think my wife got it. No, knitted it. She knitted it for me. But it is nice. Soft too."
"Dad, do you know me today?"
"What class are you in?"
"I'm Lizzie, Dad. Your daughter. Remember?"
"Sure I do, how are you Lizzie? How's your father?"
"You're my father, Dad."
"Daddy, please. I'm so … Frank left me, Daddy. All these years. He told me last night, wants a divorce, and then he walked out. Just left."
"And I don't know what to… I don't have any money. He took the car. I mean we argued a lot but I thought everything was okay. I'm so …"
Poor girl's crying. I don't know. She's so sad. I love her. Who is she? My stomach, it's crying in my stomach.
"Oh, Daddy. I miss you so much, I just wish …"
"But I …"
"No, Dad, don't … oh, I'm so sorry, I don't want you to cry. Come on Dad, don't cry now."
"But I can't … Who? … I don't know you."
"That's okay, Dad, I know you. Come on, gimme a hug."
"Jeez, you're really hot. You sure you're okay?"
"Oh sure, strong as a bull, that's me."
"Is this Elizabeth Nelson, Mr. Heller's daughter?"
"This is Margaret Shepherd, at Country House."
"Margaret, is something wrong? What is it?"
"Well yes, your father has pneumonia, I'm afraid. It's in both lungs. We need your permission to transfer him to the Southside ER."
"What will they do for him?"
"I expect I.V. antibiotics. It should bring him back if we . . . "
"Don't move him, please. I'll be right there."
"Mrs. Nelson you don't understand how . . . "
"I'll be at Country House in fifteen minutes to be with my father."
"But . . . Ah, yes, of course."
John Mullen has written books, reviews and journal articles in philosophy and psychology. His Kierkegaard's Philosophy: Self-Deception and Cowardice in the Present Age (1995) is perhaps the most widely read introduction in English to the Dane's work. His story, "The Coprological Visions of Judy Dallas: A Retrospective" appeared August 2008 in The Cynic Online Magazine. John Mullen lives and writes on Rocky Neck in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
Now I can talk about the place with the long-handled shovels and the dirt. Take you there, just like I took the kid. In the end Didi threw me out of the house for it. She said I had no business taking the kid to a place like that. He was just out of diapers, it's true, but he could walk a straight line, and I took him, because a chain of fathers is important. That's what I believe, and in the way this chain goes I'm the kid's father and Zev was mine. Didi always fought me about this. She said Zev was an animal. She didn't want the kid within ten miles of him. Ever.
An animal? Harsh I'd say, although Zev did break a face or two, but never for money. Not the sort of person Didi wanted at her parties. She even wanted to keep him away from our wedding, maybe for fear of crushing the canapés.
What did Didi know about animals? She wasn't born in the Tsar's manure piles. She never wrestled a horse to get its shoes off. She was born with a silver filling in her mouth, right here. A dentist's daughter who married down. Me—down—that's who she married. A son of Zev, Zev who hardly ever spoke, certainly not in English. His tongue was tied even in Yiddish. He earned his keep breaking sidewalks with a steel pick. For Italian padrones, who called him their Jew cavallo, their Jew horse.
Zev used to make a fist and the kid would hang on it with both his hands, as though it were some kind of carnival ride. By then Zev's beard was ash-gray, his skin candle-yellow, but the fist was still like a horse's hoof. The kid could do this for hours, hanging on Zev's fist and spinning through the air, making this crazy screeching sound. But not like any human. You could swear it was the screeching of a bird.
The burial place was in a sea of tenements, but the look of it was straight out of the Tsar's potato fields. The old beards knew only one way to get buried. Didi had never seen such a thing. Not a coffin as she knew it, carved and shiny-thick. But pine boards, raw and white and thin, loosely nailed together, slipping this way and that as Zev was carried to the hole and the tall mound of city dirt. You could see snatches of ash-beard or eye-pouch as the top board rattled around. The dirt was piled high and the hole was deep. It smelled of smoke and sewer steam, and there was only a single tall shovel. It stuck up from the dirt pile, waiting for us. We were supposed to go up, each of the men, one by one. I'd seen it before, one shoveler at a time, men working slow as a dirge, until the mound was gone and the hole was filled and nothing showed, only the beaten-down dirt. But on that day the first shovel-full brought a sound from the crowd that was like nothing I'd ever heard. A moan, I suppose, or a cry—there just is no word for it. So dreadful and deep it felt like it was coming from Zev too. Something in the hole had shifted—it must have been the earth below, moving—and the pine top-board was shaken way out of position. There was a crack a mile wide and the dirt fell right on the face and the beard, and all down the yellowed white shirt. The kid saw it and squirmed and tore at my eyes. But I held on, even when Didi tried to pull him away from me. I wouldn't let go, I even missed my turn shoveling. I missed my turn and I was the son. The kid screamed as I carried him away, following the others past the stones, through the iron gate to the smashed sidewalk.
All those times I went back to the grave I went alone. Didi wouldn't go. She begged me never to let the kid set foot in the place. She said he wasn't the same kid, not after that day, and it was all my doing.
Now when I go to visit the burial place I can see them both, my two closest, now, then and forever. Zev I can see just by staring hard at the granite stone, at the Hebrew letters. The granite is no more than a fog to me. I can squint and see all I need to see.
The kid is there too. Alive, I guess you could say, and above ground. He won't get the meds himself, so I bring them to him. Not to him directly, I give them to the two old keepers who sit in the shed of an office, with their prayer-books, shawls and skullcaps. They make him tea and a little soup. The kid has his own beard now, too, black as Zev's once was. He stays on the smashed sidewalk, for the most part. They can't budge him, not even the cops, who are kind of amused. The crate he's found keeps out some of the wind and none of the cold. At least it's wood, not cardboard. Thin slats of wood, whitish. It makes me think of the day with the pine and the dirt. After dark the two old beards close the gate. They tell me that's when the kid pushes his face through the iron rails and makes this sound, a bird sound that lasts long into the night. It's a soft sound, somewhere between a shriek and a whimper. No complaints from the neighbors—they don't even hear it. Maybe Zev does.
Paul Silverman has worked as a newspaper reporter, olive packer, sandwich man and advertising creative director. One of his commercials won a Silver Lion at Cannes. His short fiction has appeared in The South Dakota Review, Tampa Review, Minnetonka Review, Hobart, Pindeldyboz and many other literary magazines, both print and online. His story, "Getaway," published by Verbsap, is on the 2006 Million Writers Award shortlist of Notable Online Stories. He's been a Spotlight Author in Eclectica, which has nominated his story, "The Home Front," for Best of the Net, 2008 and The Million Writers Award, 2008. He has three Pushcart nominations for stories in Byline, Lily and The Worcester Review.
Back in high school my friends and I used to ride skateboards in a big concrete ditch we called The Bowl. At the time, I hadn't realized it was a flood control channel. I hadn't really considered its official purpose at all. It was just a place to ride skateboards. Not that I couldn't have figured it out if I'd thought hard enough, but the point is I didn't care, as long as we could skateboard there.
But I digress.
Anyway, one summer day a pack of us were skating The Bowl. We were about to quit and head home when Amber showed up with a pack of her friends.
I was in love with Amber. We all were. She had long brown hair and tan skin and blue eyes and was just smoking hot by any reasonable standard. None of us had ever talked to her.
We started showing off a bit while the girls watched, going higher, faster, deeper. But they looked bored. They yawned. They studied the sky. They fidgeted with their bags as if preparing to leave.
Panic spread through us. This was our chance—the first and maybe last—to connect with Amber and her friends. Once we unlocked that door, the rewards were limitless: parties, notoriety, dry-humping.
We had to raise the stakes, get attention.
"Let's skate the death zone," Joey said.
A hush settled over the group. The death zone was further down the channel where it steepened before going underground. Holes and cracks we called death holes littered the concrete. To our knowledge it had never been attempted.
"Who's going to do it?" Smitty asked.
Joey turned to me. "Go for it, man."
"You're the best skater here. Do it for the good of the group."
"The good of the group?"
"Yeah. Maybe the girls will stick around. One of us might score."
"I'm taking all the risk. What do I get out of it?"
"Glory. A hero's welcome. And first dibs at Amber."
"So you won't try and weasel in?"
Joey shrugged in a kind of vulnerable, faux-innocent gesture he used on unsuspecting girls. "Of course not. I'm not even interested in Amber. I'm angling for Lisa. I like a bigger girl."
Lisa wasn't bad, but certainly no Amber. Joey was a lying bastard. He had high standards and often scored above his genetic station. He was my best friend, but I didn't trust him at all. He'd finagled girls away from me more than once. "I don't know ..."
"C'mon man," Joey pressed. "Don't be a pussy."
"I'm being a pussy? Why don't you do it?"
"If I had your skill, I would."
Joey was buttering me up. He skated just as well as me. Well, almost. I had a reputation to protect.
I glanced over at Amber. At perfection. I'd never muster the stones to talk with her but maybe my skating could do it for me.
I hesitated, studying the death zone. This could end badly. Some safety gear would've been wise, but back then nobody wore pads or, god forbid, a helmet. If you tried to strap one on somebody would've walked over and kicked your ass.
Seriously. We were idiots.
As I stood there paralyzed with doubt, Amber and friends started to leave. Now or never.
"He's going for the death zone!" Joey yelled to them.
The girls stopped and turned. They knew about the death zone. Every kid in town did. It was sort of the Forbidden City of the local deviant youth culture.
Everyone stared at me. There was no backing out now. Joey had made the choice for me. Jerk. As usual, it was all about him. I didn't know whether to thank him or punch him in the mouth.
I locked eyes with Amber. A smile spread across her lips. Ambiguous. Like the Mona Lisa. What did it mean? Pull this off and you'll be groping me by dusk? Keep stroking, chump, you'll never get this? I didn't know.
But I had to find out.
I walked over to the drop-in. The place went silent. The sun seemed suddenly brighter, hotter. A faint trace of sewage in the air.
I stole one last glance at Amber, took a deep breath, and dropped in. A clean entry. I rode up the opposite wall, grinded off the top, and worked down the channel. My turns were smooth and tight. I entered the death zone.
My skateboard shimmied beneath my feet. I weaved through the death holes. My focus was total. Zen-like. The end approached and I felt the first glimpses of glory. Delusions of grandeur.
My focus waned as I began planning for Amber. For my hero's welcome. I could smell it. Could taste it in my mouth as I nailed a death hole and slammed head first into the concrete.
I was in a coma for two months.
When I finally woke, Joey and Amber were together. Completely in love. They got married after college.
A few weeks ago I saw them at our twentieth high school reunion. Amber was as hot as ever. She really hadn't lost a step, even after pushing out three kids.
But let me tell you something: she was a bitch. She had Joey running all over, fetching food and drink, treating him like a stray dog. Nothing satisfied her. Vain Joey had been reduced to errand boy.
As Amber barked at Joey across the table, my wife and I glanced at each other. She'd known all about Joey. I could tell by the way she bit her lip that she considered this hilarious. And as I stared at my wife that night I realized one thing.
That death hole was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Tom Mahony is a biological consultant in central California with an M.S. degree from Humboldt State University. His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared or is forthcoming in Flashquake, The Rose & Thorn, Pindeldyboz, In Posse Review, Verbsap, 34th Parallel, Void Magazine, SFWP, The Flask Review, Foliate Oak, Decomp, Long Story Short, Flash Forward, Six Sentences, Laughter Loaf, and Surfer Magazine. He is currently circulating a couple of novels for publication. Visit him at TomMahony.net.
"Mrs. Banks. We're worried about Kevin."
Don't want to hear this. She's worried. I'm worried. Everyone's worried, but no one does nothing. "He in trouble again?"
"He's always fighting. He spends more time in the Principal's office than in his classroom."
"The kids call Kevin names and then he fights."
"I know. 'Bank the Skank.' That's not nice. Someone should tell them."
"Well, we do reprimand them, but it would be better if they had nothing to tease about."
"They shouldn't make fun of him."
"He has this odor…perhaps he doesn't bathe himself properly."
"I tell him and tell him, but he don't listen to me. He don't like baths, and our shower's broke."
"I see. Well, that's why they make fun of him."
Feel red. Handle on my pocketbook's broke. Why didn't I see that. Dirty white plastic. Got it last July at the used clothes store. Maybe that's the smell. Used clothes. Room's crowded. Nurse. Two teachers. State lady. Social worker.
Why'd I bother ironing this shirt? Wanted to look nice. Impress them. Show them how hard I try. Now I got those wet rings underarm. Might as well have balled it up. They don't care what I look like.
"And there's Susan, Mrs. Banks. If she misses any more school, Susan's going to have to repeat 8th grade."
"Oh, she wants to go to school. But sometimes she don't feel a hundred percent. You know girls." Talking too fast. "And Kevin's been sick. Sometimes Susan stays home with him." Why'd I say that? Always talk too much.
"Why is Susan staying home? Why aren't you?"
They're frowning. Shouldn't keep Susan home. I know that. "I got to work." Had to beg to get this afternoon off to meet with you. Boss says, I'll have to deduct it. He don't want to hear my troubles. No one does.
"I know it's hard for single moms, Mrs. Banks. You get food stamps?" Nod. "Medicaid?" Nod. "Cash allowance?"
"No more. Used up my limit. That's why I work.
"Your mother died last year, didn't she?"
"Yeah." Throat feels tight. My nails are raggy. Chipped polish. Bought that nail slicker from CVS. Supposed to shine and shine.
"Look, Mrs. Banks, something has to change."
Change how? So tired of this.
"I know it's hard Mrs. Banks. But if they don't go to school we'll have to do something. It's Educational Neglect."
"We could take the kids."
What? "Where would you take them?"
Six of them stare: blue eyes, brown eyes. Slanty, round. Hair kinky, straight, gray, black, red. Think. Click, un-click purse.
"I'm not saying we would take them…just that we could."
"Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"Mrs. Banks, we're not threatening you. We want to help."
What a laugh. Help. No one helps. It's all on me. And I can't do it no more.
Nod. "Okay. Take them."
Florence Kraut lives and writes in Rye, New York. Her short stories have appeared in national confession magazines and magazines for children and her op-ed essays have appeared in Westchester news magazines. Her stories have recently appeared in Westchester Review, 2008, Rambler Magazine, WriterAdvice and Boston Literary Magazine. She is a social worker and formerly Executive Director of a family service agency in Connecticut.
The Pizza Dude was flying high.
Nothing pharmaceutical, mind you. Just the righteous rush that was one of the rewards of working behind the wheel. The windows of his eight-year-old Cavalier were cranked down and the volume of the CD player was cranked up. Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries preceded him into the night.
It was almost two a.m. One more stop on a five-pie run. Pushing the limits of the store's forty-five minute delivery guarantee. Then he spotted the police traffic stop; he slowed.
Emergency lights strobed shadowed lawns. The hard glare of high-pressure sodium streetlights shifted the alternating red and blue to orange and green. A Lotus crouched at the curb ahead of the cruiser, but there was no movement around either vehicle.
Curious. As the Cavalier pulled even with the cruiser, the Pizza Dude heard the police band radio crackle.
"Officer requesting backup! On foot pursuing subject eastbound—"
The street name melted in a sudden burst of static. The Pizza Dude spotted movement within a yellowed pool of light a block away. Two running figures, the guy from the Lotus, no doubt, and the pursuing officer. The streetlights seemed to catch at the edges of the polished brass on the officer's duty belt, holding him back.
The cop was easy to overtake, he already was slowing, gasping for air, but the guy from the Lotus was just kicking into second gear. He looked to be all of twenty-five, the sort to run marathons, and he was almost as fast as the sports car he had abandoned. He turned, saw the Cavalier rolling toward him, and redoubled his effort; reached up and flipped the bird over his shoulder as he ran. Okay. The Pizza Dude had games he could play, too.
He jammed the gas pedal to the floor, goosing the Cavalier into its best effort; it wasn't the beater it appeared to be. As it came even with the guy from the Lotus, the Pizza Dude whipped the wheel to the right, bounced over the curb and stood on the brakes.
The guy from the Lotus slammed into the right front fender of the Cavalier. His feet levered off the ground, flying upward and over his head, which became a slow-rolling pivot point that hung in front of the windshield for a full second. Then the cartwheel ended, as the guy's back and bottom slammed into the Cavalier's hood. He slid off the left front fender to the ground, limp and unresponsive, stunned by the sudden interruption in his flight. Seconds later, the cop staggered to the scene, wheezing as if he were a tea kettle about to come to the boil.
"Wherever you came from," he said. He paused; clutching the Cavalier's passenger-door window frame with both hands. "Wherever; thank you, thank you. You got a commendation coming for this."
That wouldn't do.
"No need for that, officer," the Pizza Dude said. "Just being a good citizen."
He popped the transmission into reverse and nudged back a bit. The cop let go. When he did, the Pizza Dude gave it more gas and the Cavalier bumped back onto the street.
"Hey!" the cop said. He was starting to get some wind back. "Hey! I need a statement!"
No time for subtleties now. The Cavalier was little more than a hint of red as it hurtled away from the scene and toward the last delivery. There, with seconds to spare, the Pizza Dude double-timed toward the front door with one extra-large supreme (no anchovies, thank you). The delivery box was balanced before him upon one gloved hand, a deep-dish offering to the gods.
He pushed the door bell button. When he heard footfalls from within, he slipped his battery-powered heating element from under the box and into an asbestos-lined back pocket. The door opened; the customer already had his wallet in his hand.
"Right on time," he said. "How much do I owe you?"
"Thirty-one fifty," the Pizza Dude said.
The customer offered up four tens and the Pizza Dude handed over the box. Steam seeped from its crevasses.
"Oh, man, it's still hot!" the customer said. He juggled the box from hand to hand; his fingers danced upon the cardboard.
"Thanks, Dude," he said. Already talking around the edge of the door. "You can keep the change!"
K.C. Ball lives in Seattle, a stone's throw from Puget Sound. She is a retired newspaper reporter and media relations coordinator, and now devotes her time to writing fiction. Several of her flash pieces have appeared online at Every Day Fiction.