The worst fantasy usually came around four o’clock, with an hour to go before the end of his shift. Kneeling on the carpet, gut hanging like a bowling ball bag over the belt holding his uniform from falling off his skinny haunches, Bob squirted cleaning solution onto the coffee-colored stain. Hours ago, it smelled like coffee, too, but so many people had walked on it by now that it smelled of lint and shoes. Someone walked on a dog’s little surprise too, Bob was pretty sure. His nostrils were sensitive, kept clear by the burning mist that rose from the red-bodied, purple-nozzled bottle in his hand.

The fantasy, the worst one, was intimately concerned with this nozzle. It was plum-purple, with a white twisting square on the end that shifted from OPEN to CLOSED position. Bob pictured himself turning the nozzle towards him and sticking it into his mouth, potent as a pistol. He saw himself squirting over and over, could almost taste what he usually only smelled, the sickly sweet chemicals landing in great white droplets on his tongue and sudsing-up as he’d begin to cough, the mist crawling into his lungs and bubbling there lethally. It would be a slow, painful death, if it even killed him. If he lived, he’d get fired, for sure, and he’d get sent to the hospital where Medicaid would need to cover him because his bank account wouldn’t be able to cover an ambulance fee, let alone a hospital stay.

His knees ached and his elbows felt like rusty hinges as he rubbed his white rag over the coffee-stain, pointlessly. It would take baking-soda to draw out the stain, but they wouldn’t give him any. They insisted on him using the same liquid cleaner for everything, from wood to glass to plastic. He leaned back and pulled mucus back into his throat, feeling the wetness curl down his throat. It was five after four. He had another fifty-five minutes. He had a coffee stain to get out. His large, pregnant-seeming stomach rumbled.

He leaned forward, and squirted some more onto the brain stain.


Frivolicking, a writers’ retreat

Swamping a small space inside an inn that is surely not in Surrey despite its name are several dozen frozen faces, dripping in the heat lamps. Masked in social-butterfly expressions, they eat brownies, pretzels and sip white and red wine. A few of the brave clutch bottles of cool green beer, proving their ability to think outside the box, which in this case is the social gathering they have gathered socially for.
A white man with white hair speaks from a podium to a room of mostly white faces. He is shrivelling up like an acorn’s shell left in the corner of the room during several seasons; the signs of decay are barely there but if you chip the exterior with a fingernail, all the little outside triangles will dust right off and you’ll be left with a wrinkled and broken thing that used to hold a seed of something great.
Polite claps. The writers flee as politely and unobtrusively as they can, in groups of three or four, pretending that their greatest desire isn’t to hide under the covers with their antidepressants, whether in bottle, pill, teddy-bear, book, television, or person form.
It is the beginning of what promises to be a gruelling, frightening and terribly – in all the disparate meanings of the word – illuminating two weeks

Untitled – A Vignette

The sparse hairs on Mr Fairchilde’s chin did nothing to promote the air of confidence he wore like a bespoke suit. He beckoned Eleni into his office with a small head dip, an echo of past centuries’ courtly bows, a concession to politeness he only expressed in physical gestures. In conversation, Mr Fairchilde was short, although in stature he was rather tall.

Eleni glided in, her feet obscured by her perpetual hippie-skirt. She jingled as she moved, obscuring any sound her feet might have made, giving her the illusion of true weightlessness. The cheap metal bracelets on her arms, peeling fake silver revealing coppery rust flakes, chimed as she swung them to and fro with far more vigour than seemed necessary for such a small person.

She looked around, surveying the tinseled, red and green bannered, generally over-the-top ornamented walls. They reminded her of the gaudy décor that hung at the corner bar, dug out of lumpy, leaking, boxes every holiday season and packed away with sweaty, alcohol soaked hands a week later. Mr Fairchilde’s reputation was sinking in her eyes minute by minute, and though she had no one to blame but her sister for recommending him so highly, she eyed him with the kind of distaste she usually reserved for small critters, hamsters and guinea pigs, which she especially hated.

“Anything to drink, Ms Cooper?”

“No. You get paid by the hour, don’t you?”

“I do. Business it is.”

They sat down, Mr Fairchilde taking his huge brown leather chair – brown, not black, he was sure, made him seem a little warmer than the usual solicitor – and Eleni in the right-hand plastic on plastic affair reserved for clients. She thought it would make more sense the other way around, with the client feeling more comfortable, more apt to waste time and money. It didn’t seem the thing, to consider the client’s need to be reminded that time was short and that any minute over the first hour would be charged as an entire second one. Like parking lots, the whole bunch of them, she thought.

“Why don’t you tell me what it’s about.”

“I told you over the phone.”

“Refresh my memory, please.”

Eleni spoke, telling him the things he wanted to know and watching him make notes on a legal pad which he held up on his knee, so she couldn’t see it. She imagined, as she often did, a film camera coming around her, circling, until it panned onto the lined yellow paper to reveal the punch line – that Mr Fairchilde wasn’t taking notes at all, but was doodling pictures of naked women or genitalia.

Mr Fairchilde, for his part, took notes carefully, meticulously, and more importantly, accurately, just in case Eleni were to claim to have said something she didn’t later down the line. Clients could be fickle, he’d found. His brain was consumed entirely by the task, and he didn’t even notice, not even with a tiny corner of his brain, how much Eleni resembled his ex-wife, nor how the pitch of her voice was similar to the babysitter he’d had when he was nine years old. These things flew by his consciousness as he focused on the chore in front of him, and the only nagging thought in his brain was a sneaking suspicion that, if this was all that therapists needed to do – listen and take notes – he could be making even more money than he was already.


A carbonated drink fizzed as the cap was screwed off the top of the bottle. A spoon scraped around the little cup made of styrofoam and cancerous chemicals. A baby cried. I stared out the window and listened to the cafe make the sounds of life behind me, and I wondered whether I should participate. My brain felt sluggish. I could move and think and speak, and had been doing so all day, but it seemed as if I needed to make a conscious effort to do these things. I needed to think “move” before I moved, “speak” before my lips opened. It was disconcerting, being so bossy towards myself.
The mug of tea in front of me had gone cold. My hands felt heavy with the weight of too much awareness. I looked at them, trying to see whether there was a visible difference in grams. Maybe they were actually heavier. But no, they looked the same, large palms, long fingers, the joints closer to the palm seemingly chubby and oversized to me.
I wondered whether a parade of Disney characters walking outside would energise me. No. Probably not. Maybe a spiritual experience, an Angels in America kind of revelation. Too much energy. The perfect thing, really, would be if the cafe disintegrated behind me and the chair I sat on turned into the foot of a bed and I could simply let my body go, entirely, all at once, and lie down. I would sleep for hours, maybe forever.

Fifty Words

Watching your father shave reminds you of the lion in the MGM logo. The movements are predictable, identical every time, but no less impressive for that. There is a grandiosity you wish you had, a majesty of spirit and body you have not yet attained. Manhood, you think, is incredible.

The Owls

It wasn’t a long drive. We started out in Downtown, with plenty of tall buildings around us. We passed through suburbia, taking note of some of the more adorable houses around us – a memorable one had a thatched roof. Next there was a bridge. I’m almost certain it was over a river, but perhaps I am mistaken. There was a bridge, anyway, not long, but it was definitely a kind of suspension bridge, although it was a miniature of the kind that are to be seen in San Francisco or New York City.
After the bridge, the scenery began to change. There were some vestiges of suburbia, some strip malls and large gas stations, and then we passed into the countryside. It seemed incredible that there was farmland so close to the city – still, technically, IN the city – but there you go. Some places are like that.
The fields weren’t pure anymore, though. Subdivisions sprang up among them, and a few McMansions were either already built, a blight on the landscape, or in the process of being erected, their cement shells monstrously out of place amidst the huge and empty expanses of land.
We drove down a long dirt road until we saw the line of cars that were parked on the left, one after another, neatly and politely. We found an empty spot and donned our coats, gloves, scarves and hats; the sun was peeking from behind the heavy gray clouds, but it wasn’t warm by any means. We each dutifully took a pair of binoculars from the trunk, two large and expensive pairs and one small and still expensive pair, and set off towards the path that ran along the sea.
Somehow, we’d gone from city to suburbs to country to the seashore, all within a half hour.
“Look at the paparazzi,” my aunt whispered to me. Walking toward us from the seaside gravel path were a group of four adults in heavy raincoats, holding two large tripods and proportionately large cameras. None of them had the sleaze of actual paparazzo, which made sense – they weren’t there to spy on and photograph people’s personal and sordid lives, after all. They were there to photograph the owls.
That was why we were there, too. We’d come to witness the eruption of owls. Snowy owls live in the arctic tundra, but their food supply must have become scarce this past winter, because they showed up here sometime in March, and were chilling, in all their glory, on the stacks of driftwood washed in by the high tides.
It was easy enough to spot them without the binoculars. They were so white that they stood out among the rotting brown wood and the yellow and green weeds that filled the space between the path we were on and the sparkling water.
We got to see four of them that day. Three of them were older and mostly white, their feathers looking more like fur than anything. They were nervous, as any animal would be if there was a long row of people standing on a path barely fifty yards from them, murmuring and clicking away at cameras and peering at them through strange contraptions. There were also several bald eagles circling above, and the older owls glanced up every once in a while, their heads seeming to blend into their arched backs and their beaks hanging open, observing the other predators on their land.
There was one young snowy owl, who for some reason I felt was a female. She still had a lot of brown spots all along her back and head feathers, and she was the first one we saw who decided to move and give us a bit of a show. Of course, seeing snowy owls on a sunny day was already rather awe inspiring, but this young owl was fidgety and more nervous than her older counterparts, and she took a walk along the dead trunk she was perching on. We got to see her lifting her talons and witnessed the mass of feathers that cover both her legs and in between those long, sharp toes. She was ungainly as she shuffled along, her neck and head bobbing a little. If only we could have seen her flying, I’m convinced she would have proved to us just how graceful she could be.
Looking at the owls through the binoculars, I couldn’t help but think of poor Hedwig, Harry Potter’s owl. She was a snowy, and she died for her master. I doubt any real snowy owls would be willing to live in a cage – they looked much too wild for that, their powerful, big bodies spotted like snow leopards.
There is some beauty that should remain wild.

Being Grace

Counting down from ten never worked for Grace. If anything, it only exacerbated her temper and focused it, creating a keener point to her already sharp tongue, so that when she opened her mouth and spoke, the words that emerged were more painful, more disdainful, and more disrespectful. When she reacted without thinking, she’d usually stumble around with inadequate phrases that blunted the fierce criticism; she kept more employees this way.
Grace was not, to say the least, graceful. Besides her forge-heat temper, she was also frequently rude – not on purpose, but because the niceties of polite small talk and banter seemed like a waste of time and she hadn’t the patience for them. She was also leery of letting others do any work for her and preferred counting on herself. She despised debts of any sort and had difficulty thanking those who helped her. Those who loved her, though, accepted this in her, and learned to become deaf to her tactless observations and blind to her sometimes embarrassing behavior.
She ran a small business, which was unfortunate for it forced her to hire others and trust them with at least a certain amount of responsibility. She always had the uncomfortable feeling that she was turning into a cliche mega-boss-lady, a woman universally feared for her tight bun and neatness. At the same time, she hated the thought that people would look at her and think “Oh, she’s really all mushy inside.”
It was hard for her, being Grace. She often wondered whether there was anything she could do about it.


It was a mistake to think that going down Main Street at six o’clock in the evening would be a good idea. It was all part of getting over it, of living her life, of being the bigger person. She’d heard these phrases over and over again, coming out of her friends’ lips. She watched those odd flaps of skin move around those words, fascinated by the way they were formed out of clicks of the tongue and smacks of flesh on flesh.

It was strange, but over the last six months, all the faces Paige saw had turned into a strange arrangement of mouths and noses, eyes and ears. They stopped seeming like a cohesive unit – as they’d always seemed before – and began looking like collages, bizarre formations stuck together on a blank, flesh-colored slate. The only face that still made sense was the one that she hadn’t seen in person for twenty-six weeks.

But on the winter evening that she finally took the once-regular route home from work, Paige saw that face again, and its perfect clarity baffled her more than all the bits and pieces of faces that she’d gotten used to. He said hi, and she said hi back, and she could feel her mouth as if it, too, were its own entity and not connected to her skin any longer. The awkward pause lasted a lifetime and a nanosecond, both at once, and then he said that she looked good. Paige didn’t know what to say back, so she nodded and clutched at her bag. It was something solid and real, and the feeling of leather and fabric anchored her and reminded her that she was of this earth, not an alien who’d fallen from the sky moments ago. She remembered that she needed to get away, and fast, or something bad would happen, although she was unclear what that might be, exactly.

She didn’t turn back to look at him again. She was too scared that his face would have turned away by then and she’d only get to see the back of his head.


Drip Drop

Drip. There is a computer screen in front of me. Drip. There is a glass window behind it. Drip. There are drops coming down from the roof of the library behind the window. Drip. There is a gravel yard beyond the water. Drip. There is a brick wall beyond the yard. Drip. There is a tree behind the wall.
The sky is one long unbroken shade of gray, which seems to be fitting for the kind of day it is. My mind is not at peace. My soul is not at peace. My heart is not at peace. Peace is close to the word piece, which makes sense, since they’re all in pieces right now.
Drip. There goes a tear. Drop. There goes another. Drip. The smell of wooden paneling makes me cry. Drop. The thought of thousands of miles makes me cry. Drip. I feel far away. Drop. Everything is pressing too close.

Ursula Awake [Flash Fiction]

The hammering, clanging, clanking – the sheer metallic cacophony of sound was driving Ursula slowly, but surely, crazy. It wasn’t very late – only eleven-thirty or so – but there were rules about this kind of thing, even laws. No noise of this kind after eleven o’clock. Or even ten. She wasn’t sure which, but either way, by now the work should have ceased, the workers gone home for the night.

Turning over again, she lay a hand on her ear, shoving the other one deep into the pillow. Her own skin and bones weren’t nearly enough to shut out the racket, so she pulled over her husband’s pillow – he was still in the living room, watching something stupid on TV – and held it over her ear, making her head look like a strange, Ursula-faced sandwich. She began to laugh, a little at first, then harder, finally rocking with hysterical giggles, stifled behind her mouth. She tossed the second pillow away again. It wouldn’t do to be woken in the middle of the night by the sound of her husband’s ridiculing snort.

Still the noise went on. Ursula sat up and shook a couple more pills out of the plastic, orange bottle that was as familiar by now as a teddy-bear. Reaching for her glass of water, she hesitated, wondering if her habit was escalating. She decided she would think about it in the morning. Right now she needed the deep sleep that she hadn’t gotten since her daughters were born some thirty years previously. Maybe tonight would be the night, even with the pathetic stage being built in the park outside.

And that was another thing: why on earth were they building the stage at this hour? The park was controlled by the neighborhood, and they’d all signed to have the lampposts turned off there during the night. How were the workmen seeing what they were doing? Ursula mentally upbraided herself for assuming that the workmen were men. She supposed perpetual fatigue was as good an excuse as any for being a bad feminist.