Sandra & Richard: character sketches

It was Sandra’s pleasure, on certain nights of the year when she had saved up a few extra dollars from her minimum-wage job as a security camera technician at a large office building, to put on her most expensive-looking blouse and the pants that clung tightly to her in ways that made her uncomfortable on other days, and take herself out to a bar, for a drink or three.

Richard was the bartender at her favorite place, a swanky watering hole for journalists, for which Sandra had a particular fondness that she was pretty certain had to do with an old television show she had watched as a child, sitting in her father’s lap, in which the backroom dealings between journalists and politicians was never overtly made clear and which had conveyed to Sandra a strange idea that journalists were at the end of the day people with integrity and a need to tell the truth. Richard knew Sandra from their days in grade school, though they hadn’t met again until she’d started coming to the bar. He pretended he didn’t know her, since she clearly didn’t recognize him. When he told her his name – he made it his practice to introduce himself to people who frequented the bar, since it usually increased his tip intake – she had looked him squarely in the eyes and had shaken his hand with vigor, hers more calloused than his though he was certain his were stronger, and had said it was a pleasure to meet him.

She hadn’t been aware of him in grade school either, but then again, those years had been her queen bee era. She had been popular, a great wit among her friends, and she had had the special ability to put people down and make them love her at the same time. Sandra didn’t think much about her childhood, because she had never come to really appreciate how magical her grade school days had been. They had always been a distraction, and a poor one at that, from a home in which her brother was both intellectually and physically disabled and required the vast majority of her parents’ attention as well as her own.

Richard was, to put it simply, in love with Sandra. He didn’t know her very well, not in the sense of understanding her dreams and ambitions or her fears and foibles. But he knew enough about her to recognize that she came into the bar with the same clothes every time, indicating a wardrobe lacking in the finery she yearned for. He knew enough to recognize in her a come-hither look that screamed of loneliness as well as a lack of trust, as she rarely agreed to go home with any of the men she talked to in his bar. Her instincts and her sense of self-preservation were keen, Richard decided, or else she would let herself be hurt over and over again. Instead, she kept a close watch on her heart and kept her mind tucked away in a safe place from which it could observe, judge, and make calculated decisions.

Sandra herself would never have imagined anyone was looking at her so hard. She couldn’t fathom anyone taking such an interest. And besides, she wasn’t at the bar to find someone like Richard – a minimum wage worker like herself. She yearned, not for glamour, not even for safety, but for a mindset so different from her own that it needn’t worry about paying rent, buying groceries, credit card debt racking up. She yearned for a carelessness of mind that would have the space to be wrapped up in her, her, only her.


Pillar of Salt

A lamplight of approval blushed up her cheeks, bringing out the radiance she had only imagined in the shower, as the stinging hot droplets of water pinged off her oily skin. Eliza, the letters told her, you are going places. Eliza, the phone calls told her, you are successful. Eliza, Eliza, Eliza: you are beloved.
She believed it, but she didn’t feel it. Her hands and her voice changed gradually with the confidence allowed by such an assumption of power and will. It took some practice to flick the switch that released synapses allowing behaviors she hadn’t known were in her. She ket the electric currents flow through her, unabashed, doing what electrons are supposed to do, magnetically surrounding her with an appeal that called out to others. I am desired, her eyes signaled.

Her hands and her voice became smooth, the callouses chipping away one layer of skin at a time as her confidence grew and the need for such constant participation in her craft waned. The buzz around her rose in tone and deepened in pitch and became a hum, a melody of impossibility. Eliza flourished.

She still didn’t feel it. It happened to her, around her, an envelope marked with a resounding YES. Still she stood in the eye of the storm that was her durable success. She was a pillar of crumbling salt, and she was certain that sooner or later, the chips would be noticed and people would realize she was not the sugared candy they thought she was.


It Was Warm and Cold and Round and Square

I found a mystery on the beach today, half-buried in the sand. There were plenty of people around. Sunbathing, building sand-castles, running in and out of the sea. When they ran in, they were usually dry. When they ran back out, they were always wet. The water was cold that day. No one stayed in for very long. I didn’t wear my bathing suit. I was just in shorts and a t-shirt with the name of the company I work for inscribed on it. They give me free things like that sometimes. Once I got a big duffle bag. I use it to carry my laundry down. Some people say that’s free advertising. I say it’s a free bag.

I stepped right on the mystery at first. I was barefoot. My shoes were with the blanket I’d spread out on the sand. I didn’t want to take my shoes off at first. But the blanket kept flapping up in the wind and I needed something to weight it down with. So I took my shoes off. They were the kind you can wear without socks. So I was both shoeless and sockless. Completely barefooted. Once, feet were considered erotic. I guess they still are for some people, if you can believe what you read in the tabloids.

My foot still has a mark on it. The mystery was sharp. I jumped away from it and yelled a little yell. It hurt. Nobody was watching, though. Everyone was too involved in what a nice day it was. That’s probably why no one found the mystery before I did. Even though my foot was stinging, I got down on my knees to look closer at the thing that hurt me.

It was round and square and triangular. I pulled it out of the sand. It was pretty small. It was heavy and light. It was clear and opaque. It sang a little tune when I shook it. It rattled. It was the most ordinary and mysterious thing I’d ever seen. I guess that’s why they call it a mystery.

I took it home. I wrapped it in the blanket first. My neighbors would never let it stay on this street if they saw it. We’re a no-pets zone. Nobody wants dog poop on their lawn. I don’t have a lawn. I have a rock garden. It’s very relaxing. I use a rake and make shapes in the sand. Then I walk on all the zigzags and see my shoe-prints. I wear different shoes every day so that I won’t get bored. I have almost thirty pairs. That’s just enough.


There is nothing under the deep wide endless feckless ocean of a sky that I could possibly want from this son of a gun with his hat and his shades and the voice honeyed smooth with WD and moisturizer. There is something Slavic about his voice, though I can’t put my finger on what it is. Maybe a slight rolling in his Rs, not piratical so much as alcohol-infused even when he’s stone-cold sober. But maybe it’s something else, some shadow of a Cold War era film that plays at 4am when my insomnia is kicking me in the gut with its steel-toed boots.

I do not want a thing with him, with this Berkovitch, but he keeps showing up on my doorstep anyway, trying to sell me stuff I don’t need. He posed as a pizza delivery guy once, and I nearly opened the door that time, thinking some charitable friend had seen my Facebook status of announced hunger and laziness and had taken pity on me. But no, it was just Berkovitch, forehead and eyebrows huge and chin minimized to a pinprick in the fisheye view through the peephole.

“Go away, Berk,” I yelled through the several layers of reinforced metal I was lucky enough to have as a barrier between me and him. “Trot off, sniff at some other pussycat, shoo.”

“Pizza delivery,” he insisted, looking down at what was, unmistakably, an empty pizza box. There were no signs of grease anywhere on it, and no friend of mine would have ordered me some kind of low-fat, low-cal, oil-free pizza unless it was April Fool’s and they were trying to be cruel. Messing with my favorite meal is a profanity against a religious experience I don’t easily stand for.

“I’m calling 911 now,” were the words that made him shuffle away. He left the pizza box on my doorstep. I checked it after a while because I really was hungry and I was tricking myself into thinking maybe the guy had left me something edible in there, but it was empty, all empty, just a big childish scrawled heart drawn inside with a pen that was clearly only half work, going on the fritz, since the heart shape needed to be reinforced with lots of lines drawn over and over with various inky thickness to make sure it was legible.

Nothing, really, nothing I could want with a guy like that, this Berkovitch man, who posed as an Avon salesman the first time he came by, and had a civil and quite invigorating conversation with me about how Avon were trying to change their face by not sending out only women anymore, because that was sexist. It was true, I agree, the term “Avon lady” seemed to mean something pretty universal, if you, I added, meant to restrain universality to a certain demographic and geography and socioeconomic standing which, he agreed this Avon gentleman, most people did. But then, see, he turned out to only want to tell me I was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen, and while it was nice to hear, because I’d been having some bad luck around that time, I realized he was a creep and a fraud and threw him out.

And now, well, now he’s just around, and he keeps coming back and sometimes I think about opening the door because he seemed intelligent except for the creepy stuff, and maybe I should let him in and just tell him we can talk and be friends, but the last guy who stalked me stuck a knife in my thigh in the end and I still walk with a limp so I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t do that, but I should call the police and that’s something I just haven’t done yet because really, poor guy, right? Poor guy.

Something Sharp

Their dogs run around wildly, leashes dragging behind them. It isn’t accidental, this leaving on of leashes. It’s strategic. If the dogs get into a fight, the owners want to catch at the leash quickly, yank the animals away from each other with a sharp pull at the neck that shocks the air and bark out of them. It’s cruel, sure, but efficient. Technically, they’re not supposed to let the dogs off the leash in the park either, so it’s a way to get around the rules, sort of. 

Ida’s dog is small, lean and brown with perky chopped ears and a mouth bigger and louder than all hell. He’s a sweetheart when he keeps it shut, but he gets high strung and barks at people too often. Some think he’s mean, and she spends half her Saturdays with him fighting her arthritic knees in order to run after his leash when he gets too barky around little kids who don’t like it. Little kids these days, she always thinks, have been raised too soft, like melting marshmallows. Squeeze ’em, and the soft stuff in the middle will pour right out. It’s the reason she prefers her dog to her own grandchildren. She never utters such a blasphemous confession, barely admits it to herself, because she loves her kids’ kids, of course she does. She just doesn’t have a lot of patience for them. They’re too spoiled, their lips wobble so easily, they want and want and want. 

Ruth feels Johannes’ arm’s weight on her shoulders and keeps her mouth zipped. She doesn’t tell him to take it off, that she’s warm, that it’s heavy, that he’s making her uncomfortable. They just moved in together, it’s their first weekend sitting outside with the dog, it’s too early for so much criticism. He’s a sweetheart, but he’s so proud of her in public that it’s hard to bear some days. She sees the old woman sitting to the bench on her left, past Johannes’ skinny little body, and wants to sit with her instead, to be a woman among women. Her dog is female, a gorgeous collie she got for free from a friend who couldn’t sell the runt of the litter. She’s named her Posy, a terribly sappy name, yes, but it suits the fluffy dog. Ruth is sometimes childish like this. Johannes isn’t, is the problem. He never wants to go out with a picnic basket and lie in the sun all day, or play with the dog. He wants to hold onto Ruth and sit stoically with her on a bench, a picture-perfect couple of yuppies. He wants to take her out to dinner at fancy restaurants where he gets to wear loafers and nice pants with a gap in between to show off his socks. He’s the kind of person who cares about what socks he wears. Ruth’s socks are all old, holey, and often mismatched.

Ida calls her dog over and he doesn’t come. She leans back on the bench. He’ll come when he’s ready. She sees him playing with the collie that belongs to the couple next to her. She’s pretty sure they’re new in the neighborhood, at least in the park. Though the dog is familiar, that collie. Maybe one of them is new? She doesn’t recognize them together, anyhow. They have that glow, she thinks, that smug us-against-the-world glow that young couples have. It’s tender, but so thin a veneer that she could pop it with a needle. Not that she keeps needles on her, or anything else sharp for that matter. It’s safe being an aging lady in this town. She’s thankful for that. 

Johannes’ stomach rumbles. He leans his chin on Ruth’s hair and rubs it around. She makes a sound in her throat which he takes for satisfaction, although it is impatience. He asks her if she’s ready to go have lunch yet. You go, she tells him. She wants to play with the dog a little. He says nothing, but he stays.

Sticks on Stretched Leather

The drums thud in time to her heart. She feels loud some days, her mouth as wide as the sticks she plays with. She runs and runs and runs and is always behind the other girls running to school. She can’t catch up. Her legs don’t let her. The girls don’t know what she does in secret. They don’t know she runs at night too. She runs and runs and runs at night to the valley. Her head thrums with rhythms and she falls asleep in lessons and there are no two ways about it, she won’t be going to school next year. She knows she is wasting her time and her father’s money. Her mother’s care. Her sister’s sacrifice. But the books in tatters at the school and the walls dripping with sweat and Teacher shouting when they forget their lessons – there is no reality to it. There is no tradition.

The rhythms. There is tradition in the rhythms. In the footsteps on the ground and the dances and the songs. She sees the way the women look at the elders. Even the elders who have forgotten how to eat by themselves and who don’t go far enough away from the river to do their business, even they get looked at with respect. Even the smallest elders with the biggest ears that the little children laugh at, even they remember the drumbeats when everything else is gone. It is soul, the rhythm. It is heart. It is mind and body and memory.

Everyone’s history is in that beat. She thrums to the story of them all and practices far from anyone who can hear, and waits until one day she will be able to show them, show them all, that she has learned their family names in the language of sticks on stretched leather.

Never Be

Standing in the corner with the umbrellas and the hat-rack is an old rolled-up map of places the old woman has never been. She sits and rocks in her chair in front of the television that has been broken since 1967 and stares at the window behind her left shoulder and the silhouette of her figure  reflected in the rounded screen before her. The dials are dusty and the buttons are cracked with age. The plug is melted to its socket from the time a bad power outage sent a surge through the wires and sparks flew everywhere.

The old woman’s cheeks are sunken in and her shapeless knit hat is askew. She chews her bottom lip in a rhythmic motion that matches her rocking, and she counts. She counts the steps it takes to get from her chair to the kitchen, and from the kitchen to the post-box outside. She counts the steps it takes to get to the store in town and to the bus stop that takes to the city and to the music hall in the city where she saw the young man with the broken tooth and the newspaper hidden in his jacket and the glasses fitting his face lopsidedly. She counts how long it would take her to find her address book and run her finger down the alphabet to find his name; how long it would take to get a grip on the page and how long it would take to flip to it without ripping any of the pages in between. She counts the teeth left in her head and the days that have passed since her children have visited.

She counts wrong, often. She loses the thread between four-hundred twenty-seven and four-hundred twenty-eight. Sometimes she skips numbers, going from one thousand and one to twelve-thousand fourteen without a pause.

Her door is unlocked and she waits for the cowled figure she was promised in childhood. She remembers pictures of hourglasses and the fear of other girls looking at the scythed man beside them in the tarot cards. She knows exactly what she will say if he ever shows up. She will complain, and ask why he didn’t come when she could still take a step, a dance, a twirl. He will have to carry her out now, she’ll point out, and what, she’ll say, is the point of that.

Quickie #6 – Mostly Jill

Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Jack was a figment of Jill’s imagination, you see, so when he broke his crown (while falling down) it was hard for Jill to stay up top with her heavy pail, alone and afraid with her mind shut down and quiet all of a sudden, a girl broken up. The snake in the garden was small comfort but he was someone to talk to at least and he promised to help her get home, so she let him bite her ankle and tumbled down the hill and straight down a rabbit hole where she got stuck, rather, and had to wait for some pounds to trickle their way off her body, drip drip dripping down into a pail (that the rabbit in the hole kept for just such purposes) until she could shimmy back out again.
When she attempted the hill again, it was much steeper than it had been before and she kept finding herself too tired to climb more.
I’m too old, Jill realized, to be climbing these hills anymore.

Rough Night

“Someone’s having a hell of a night out there.” Earl’s rough palm was wrapped around the glass of cool beer, his body heat seeping through it. In ten minutes he would make a face and complain that his beer was warm and blast it all, what was it these days, it was October, the weather shouldn’t be this nice, something was happening and Lord only knows who’s being punished for what.
But his beer was still cool as he lifted it to his puffy lips to drink and he listened to the car alarm circle around itself in endless loops that changed tone and pitch depending on how he concentrated his ears. It sounded either like a repetitive beep-beep-beep or like a continuous whine then pitched up and down like the cheap roller coaster ride he’d helped put up at the Harvest Fair the week before. It was a sound he couldn’t keep his mind as firmly wrapped around as his hand around his glass, and it puzzled and pleased him.
“Mhm.” Rosie agreed, too late, to Earl’s assertion. Maybe she was humming in her head and had let a note slip out. Maybe she was nodding assent at the litter of kittens suckling in the corner of the yard under the cover of the mulberry bush. You could never tell, with Rosie.
“Poor bastard, somebody’ll call the police on him if it keeps on going.” Earl couldn’t tell if the car alarm’s volume was actually shifting or whether it was his ears. He had to go to the doctor again, get some wax taken out. They’d wanted to give him a hearing aid last time. He’d said no-sirree, it was just wax buildup and please take it out. The gold nuggets in his ears would have been worth millions if they were the real metal, Earl always joked. The doctor and his assistant shrugged and looked at each other and Earl had known what they were thinking, because it kept happening – that look. Just wait, just you wait, he’d wanted to tell them, until you get old, and see how you like that look then.
Rosie brushed her hands off from the dirt she’d been digging in. It was soft and moist from the watering can sprinkling she’d given it, and it looked good enough to eat, the richness exuding a smell as succulent as chocolate-pecan pie.
The sun was setting and the car alarm was still going and Earl hoped there was someone out there having a bad night of it. It was all part of the experience, having bad nights. All part of the same process, that getting old part people forget about.

Cage [Flash Fiction]

The motorcycle gang was at it again. Cage rolled over, belly to back. He listened to the mindless, formless screams coming from the highway, wordless whooping shouts between men playing chicken or racing or whatever it was they were doing. Keeping him awake, that’s what.
The cat made a noise between a burp and meow as she jumped onto his bed. She’d been throwing up all over his apartment, and he wasn’t sure he should have her anywhere near his bed, but he’d forgotten to close the door and now here she was. He heard the motorcyclists getting closer again. They seemed to loop around the section of the I-whatever it was that was near his place. Cage didn’t drive. He kept track of street names. He knew that Carrigan Way led to Archduke Avenue and that Archduke intersected with the ten plague streets. He knew where he could jaywalk by sound rather than sight and where he should look everywhere because of the twisty streets that drivers zoomed down with no consideration of walkers like him. He knew nothing about highways, except that he hated the motorcyclists.
The neighborhood he’d settled in recently was a strange one. The cat, for instance. She wasn’t an isolated case. There were ferals all over the place. Especially around the ten plague streets, he’d noticed. Some fanatic, a rich one, had erected the city about a hundred and fifty years ago. Who knows what religion the man had believed in, but everyone seemed to think he definitely didn’t belong to their neck of the woods in terms of belief. Cage didn’t know who to believe, but what seemed to be established fact – what everyone agreed on – was that the run-down neighborhood where Cage lived now was the original town that had grown into the city, and that the ten plague streets were the first ones built, all along Archduke Avenue.
They were still tourist draws, too. When Cage went on his walks, he saw people, almost every day, taking pictures under the Blood Street and Frogs Street signs. He noticed, not without a smile, that some people looked up nervously at the Lice Street sign, as if worried that there might be some up there, left by a higher being, or more likely a high school student, just as a prank.
The cat nuzzled her head into Cage’s armpit, which was uncomfortable because of the heat, but he was also much too exhausted to try to move her. He also vaguely feared that trying to move her in any way could induce another round of vomiting. He didn’t pet her, just let her lie there, and listened to the motorcyclists go round and round. The yelping had stopped. Maybe it was just one of them, now. Driving around the highway, lonely.
What am I doing here? Cage thought. What on earth am I doing here?