“With Distinction” (July 2016)

Verne could not remember the last time he was this happy. His brother, Bowden, was coming home from the war in Afghanistan after eight long years. Delays and reassignments added up like layers of dust, further covering over even the possibility that he would ever come home.

But there it was, on paper, on the letterhead of the United States Army: “Corporal Bowden Lucett has been honorably discharged, having served seven years of active duty, and has served his country with distinction.”

Verne relished those last two words: “with distinction.” Everything the Lucett family did was with distinction, whether it was the weatherproof shed his mother, Mary, built in the backyard, where she grew her award-winning onions, or his uncle Guy’s twice-reprinted poetry books which seemed to sell so notably despite the poor sales of poetry these days.

Verne’s father was Acton Lucett, who’d helped invent the basin wrench, while Verne’s older sister Pan, and her husband Marty, had put together the most successful machine shop in Hudson County. The things those two could make out of steel, when they put their heads to a task….”distinct” was too weak a word.

In fact, it was only Verne whose distinction was taking a distinct amount of time to pronounce itself. His music, his painting, his skills in the kitchen, they had been pronounced, as were people’s delight in them, whether of the ear, the eye, or the tongue. But for some reason, Verne felt like he would never receive such a letter of recognition after such a long effort, or that he might never even commit himself to one.

Still, Verne felt what distinction he could feel rising within him: the love for his brother, and more than once, he considered that perhaps his distinction was to be found in such love for other people, his selflessness, his desire to see only other people find happiness and merely to facilitate their travels, never to embark on such a journey himself. Perhaps that was his place, and once he found the right partner, he would find his purpose.

But it seemed too easy, too little, too light a task for someone upon whom great visions were thrust like sudden storms. No one else could translate their jagged lightning bolts into delicate brushstrokes on a canvas, or their howling winds into notes on the sheets of his music book, never to be heard beyond the acoustically flawless confines of his mind.

His distinction had even cost him his place at college. Far be it from Verne to clarify and centralize his existence around the demands of others when invariably purer, better, bigger, stronger ideas arrived in his mind at a rate mental pedestrians could hardly hope to fathom.

The world had always stood against him, defying him to put aside his haughtiness and simply do something, not somethings; one thing, and to keep doing it indefinitely, without his interest in that thing falling like a dead leaf into a lake, to be dissolved and evaporated, absorbed and regrown months later. He sometimes wished he could comply and obey, like Bowden had done, like all of them, and reap the rewards of doing so. And he tried.

But he could not, so it seemed. He could not focus.

One fine day in Mid-August, Bowden arrived at the train station, his green duffel in his hand and a fresh haircut on his head. Verne stood with his family and began to revisit another recurring idea, his preoccupation: that perhaps there was nothing else for him to dedicate his life to than the well-being of others. Maybe that was the goal that he should seek. Maybe his heart would not be complete until he did so; maybe it would never be complete.

“Hi brother,” Bowden said, tossing aside his duffel and wrapping his arms around Verne. Verne slowly approached, soon clasping Bowden close to him like a blanket.

“Did you get taller over there?” Verne asked.

“It’s just my posture,” Bowden said. “We have to look confident to the enemy, after all.”

Their father, Acton, said, “My two boys!” and came in to join the embrace. Mary sauntered over from where she’d been standing contrapposto, her denim jeans coated with a fresh layer of garden dirt. “I’m dirty,” she said, dusting the dirt from her hands and coming in next to Acton.

“Get in there, Panny,” Marty said, taking his Nikon F from its case with professional speed. Pan was only tardy because, leaning against the steel pillar, she was crying; it had been so long, and even when you know your siblings are okay and safe and well, it is still very easy to forget the sensation of their physical presence, which is almost like an injury. Pan pushed her hair out of her eyes and went up to meet her brother after eight years, while Marty took a picture.

Verne was at the middle with Bowden, and for that moment, surrounded by those who loved him and whom he knew did not judge him, and holding the one person in his life that made it seem clear, he felt like nothing was wrong, and he reminded himself to ask Marty for a copy of that photograph. He was curious to know how he looked when nothing was wrong and thought it would make a great self-portrait, as soon as he finished the other three.

“Camping Trip” (October 2010)

“When I smile at you,” said Randolph, kneeling beside the fire-pit and awakening his fingers on Cassidy’s silken bangs, “I only want you to smile back if that’s how you feel.”

She shrugged and lightly pressed his hand away, conscious of the perspiration layering her forehead. “I just don’t like to leave you hanging,” she said.

“You leave me hanging anyway,” Randolph replied, “while I try to figure out what you’re really thinking.”

“I’m thinking my eyes hurt,” Cassidy said. She stood up from beside the desperate flames and thought of tossing in yet another chunk of wet wood, whether to stoke the flames or choke them, she wasn’t sure. But she and Randolph had been working at this hearth for over an hour and these paltry orange licks were all they had to show for it.

What more was there to do? The sky was turning black; dingy clouds just obscured the net of stars hanging between man and heaven. A clear view of it, at least, would be nice.

The drive lasted five hours, and deposited them on the chin of this verdant mountain, tired and hungry. But a just-add-water dinner, or a sandwich, wouldn’t suffice. They took this journey, in part, to watch their protein-rich food sizzle over an open fire, burning in a hand-dug pit in front of them. So tonight, by god, they would have fire.

“When I smile,” Randolph began, “I just want you to know that I’m here, and that I love you and I want to take care of you.”

“I know,” Cassidy said, placing the log above the aspiring heat, to help some of the moisture evaporate. “I just don’t want to talk about it.”

“I’m not asking you to talk.”

“If I don’t smile, you’ll know something’s wrong, and then you will.”

Her predetermination fascinated him while he found it quietly infuriating. In her green eyes he saw all of the resolve of one wishing for distance.

“I know something’s wrong anyway, sweetie, I always do. You don’t have to talk to me about it, just don’t smile if you don’t feel like smiling.”

“No, you’ll ask me to talk about it.”

“It’s hard to know something’s bothering you and to not…”

“Shh,” she interjected. “Do you hear that?”

He exhaled the rest of his thought. “What?”

“I think it’s a raccoon.”

“Hm.”

“Sorry,” Cassidy said, standing up and flipping the suspended log to its other side.

“Anyway, I was saying it’s hard to know something’s bothering you and be unable to say or do anything about it.”

“Exactly,” Cassidy said. She flicked a daddy-longlegs from her shoulder without a flinch. Randolph remembered last year, when, at first, she trembled at the mere mention.

“Right, but I don’t have to ask you to talk about it. I could just leave it alone, if you’d prefer. But I still don’t want to see you smiling at me if it’s not how you really feel. If you don’t feel like a smile inside, don’t smile.”

“But,” she said. She collapsed into the folding chair and began to twirl her curls into themselves.

“But what?”

“But if I don’t smile, I’ll be admitting… look, I can’t think about what’s bothering me, I don’t want to think about it because it just makes me sad. I have to act like nothing’s wrong as much as possible. That’s the only way I’ll have a good time on this trip. I really…babe, I really don’t want to get depressed on this trip; I just want to have a normal time, that’s all.”

“If you smile, you’re not being yourself, you’re not being normal, you’re being weird.”

“What?”

“Look, baby.” He dropped the book of matches into the fire, watched it briefly flare up and die down into ash. “I know you, and all I’m asking is that you don’t bullshit me. Don’t fake a smile, it doesn’t work on me, and the more you do it the worse I know you’re doing. Then, you know what I’ll do?”

“What?” Cassidy was standing again, bent over him, her hands on her hips and even the tiniest of the tiny flames burned in her eyes like real anger.

“I’ll ask you what’s wrong.”

“And I’ll say nothing.”

He turned back to the fire, fanning the flames again and again with his broad-brimmed hat, trying to persuade them towards a stronger form of life. Soon, his hat became limp.

“Should’ve brought some damn firestarter,” he said.

“Yeah,” said Cassidy. “Look, I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

“Babe, it’s just that you have to understand how I feel when you can’t share this shit with me and how am I supposed to act when I know…”

She raised her hand, silenced him.

“What?” he said.

“Listen,” she replied. “Robins, all the way out here?”

“Must be lost,” Randolph muttered. Again, he exhaled a resignation of his thought.

“Sorry,” she said. “What were you saying?”

“Nothing,” he said. “If you don’t want to talk about it, we won’t talk about it.” He grabbed the log above the fire, the one she’d been trying to dry out, and dropped it directly into the dull orange maw. Soon, the last of the orange crinkled away, leaving smoke and steam and a modicum of heat.

“Babe!” she said. “I was trying to dry that one out.”

“Well, it’s dry. It’s completely dry now.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean forget it. I’m making a sandwich. Want one?”

“Sure.”

“It would be really nice to cook something but I’m just getting sick of fucking around.”

“Actually, babe, let me have a try at it, before you make your sandwich.”

He paused by the cooler, opening and closing the lid just for fun.

“All right.”

Cassidy took a new book of matches from his hand and knelt down by the fire pit. She started building a pyramid of tinder. With fresh lungs, she blew a breeze, and with a single matchs, lighted the structure at both ends.

Cassidy was determined to make it work for her and Randolph, to disprove the belief in the backs of their minds that there was no point, that this was all a waste of time.

“A Welcome Haunting” (November 2009)

Jonathan stepped down the metal stairs of his house before remembering they weren’t always made of metal: the image of dark, stained wood, appearing under thin grey carpet sprang out in relief from the surface of the staircase, which glinted in the noonday sunlight seeping through the Venetian blinds, and when the glitter of light on shiny metal caught Jonathan’s eyes he promptly directed his gaze towards the window, where he saw the back of his own head, his own hand clutching the sill, eyes transfixed outward onto the green hills of his homeland.

No sooner did he reach the place where the vision of his former self had been gazing than the timer went off in the kitchen, compelling his right shoulder to twist in the same direction it had late that night in ’84, when his father called for him from the very same kitchen, but before Jonathan had made it out of the living room and into the adjacent dining room, he saw that his father was already there, next to the dinner table, an expression of anger on his rashed face at… what? Jonathan didn’t have time to hear his father’s parched lips pronounce the thing that upset him, because turning to face the chandelier brought about a most distracting image: Brianne pulled up the left side of her thermal shirt with its floral pattern, since Jon had informed her that no one else was home, and his smile spread wider until the tiniest of red flowers took him from the surface of one image and onto another, the prior dreamlike apparition fading behind him like its message was delivered.

Mother sat at the table with the rose in her hand, stirring a cup of yogurt with the stem before biting down silently on the blood-red bloom, and reminded Jonathan of her confusion until the whiteness of Mother’s unstained teeth prevented him from sympathizing for much longer than a moment, the mouth of his deceased uncle Jeffrey opening itself up before him as it had when he was small enough to be intimidated by it. “HELLO, little Jonathan, HOW ARE YOU?” it said, but the boy never quite knew how to answer with anything that would satisfy the tall, balding, war-deaf man.

It was with this sense of resignation and inadequacy that Jonathan took another step forward, yet the lingering feeling of failure provided him with a suspicion of being watched. In turning around once again towards the window, he saw little Victoria peering out from behind the curtain. “You dummy,” she said, bringing Jonathan to the mall by association, where the mannequin fell down the up-escalator, tearing its exemplary clothes as a plastic arm got caught in the little girl’s ribbons…

The timer rang again to remind him, and Jonathan said “Okay,” as he had and did again when someone offered him a joint, and the resulting memory was a blank slate, made of lost time, yet this didn’t prevent the little white stick of a drug from looking like the styptic pencil his father showed him how to use, so that Jonathan found himself scratching his face from the mild irritation of astringent on recently opened skin, but this time, he avoided looking at the blood in the mirror, for fear of being reminded…

In his evasion, it didn’t take long for Jonathan’s eyes to close and open again on the darkish dining room in front of him, where the chandelier had yet to be lighted, while in the kitchen his dinner simmered on the stove without so much as a scallion or a sprig of parsley to garnish it. Yet this plainness almost brought another tear to young Jonathan’s eye when, as a boy, he realized that some people in the world have nothing in their lives to rely on but hunger, who would be grateful to have a simple meal like this everyday, without fail. And so Jonathan didn’t lament his simple dish, but was grateful for it.

And the thought of gratitude sent Jonathan stepping down the aisle of a church. He attended only to please his mother until it no longer pleased her, but entering the dining room at last and recalling the memory of the rose caused him to remember that ultimately, his motivation changed: no longer did he need to please her, but only to keep her calm, as calm as the flame of the candle on the altar, as plain as the wafer of pastor’s bread placed in his mouth, welcoming its simple satisfaction fully with grateful lips and tongue.

But his tongue found its way back into his mouth when he saw what was happening through the dining room window: his brother, Tim, lay supine in the driveway, playing dead on a thick layer of snow, in a bright red coat and blue snowpants, while the neighbor slogged by with his snow shovel and bent over to see if Tim was okay, and Jonathan was worried until the younger boy hopped to his feet and stared in through the window, as if to remind Jonathan that it had been his job to watch Tim.

Jonathan felt a sense of urgency rippling through him and he took one frenzied step towards the kitchen, where the backdoor was, until he remembered that the door was not his destination, but Jonathan kept it in mind anyway, as his teacher, Mrs. Belfiglio, kept it very well in mind that he had been whispering during class, and, despite being in  third grade, Jonathan’s vocabulary was extensive enough to whisper “Fuck her” to Billy, who sat next to him and who smiled scandalously as though presented with Brianne’s breast, which tempted Jonathan to forget all else and force himself back into that silly white soft dream, hoping to press forward towards the dream’s conclusion…

But he resisted the temptation, because Jonathan knew he would starve and start a fire if he did not tend to his dinner, never recovering from the recollection: his life would restart from that point in time, and when Jonathan lived back up to this point again…. it had happened to him before, and it was no fun.

A brushing-by of cool breeze from the kitchen took Jonathan by surprise, and it was as though he was beside that ice-coated window in bed, his glazed eyes glaring lovingly at the evergreen trees which seemed so much more fortunate than himself, until it occurred to Jonathan that he was lucky enough to receive He-Man’s castle for Christmas when he was five, and the Castle’s voice-amplifying Magic Microphone really annoyed Victoria and Tim after he used it throughout Christmas morning and well into Christmas night, even taking it out of the house so that Jonathan’s high little voice could be heard above the din of dinner at Granny and Grandpa’s house, where cool breezes seeped in under all of the closed windowpanes, and made everyone hungrier for hot turkey and ham.

The coldness made him hungrier for rice after the surprise wore off, and Jonathan’s thoughts took no notice of his thirst, to avoid recollecting that awful incident at the drinking fountain… But stopping there, in the doorway, he paused in his breathing when an amoeba slid across the dark wall of the cavernous mud-room, much like the one his science teacher had shown him with a bioscope; this amoeba was thin and moist, the size of half a piece of bread, with its little white organs swimming around inside, and Jonathan wondered if his own organs swam around or if they preferred to stand still…

…Until the amoeba crept upon the face of the wall, then, when it noticed Jonathan’s threatful stare, the single-celled organism darted down in fright and disappeared behind the coats on the wall-hooks.

But the sight of the coats made him think of his mother again, wearing her beige cashmere coat indoors in the summertime, when the weather was as hot as rice in a pot, too hot to be wearing an overcoat let alone a hat and scarves. But Jonathan ended the thought, wondering why the coat was still there despite his mother’s absence for the last ten years or so…

“Oooh,” he said, smiling and turning back towards the kitchen, where the timer rang once more. He smiled, now, with sadness, remembering that nature had made him this way, and that he had nothing but to be grateful, as he would be for that simple, basic rice that didn’t question its existence: why it was heated in a pot, why it was spooned onto a plate, and why it was eaten. If it did do such a thing, Jonathan would be unable to eat it and then he would starve, because he decided long ago to eat nothing conscious.

It took a moment, since the thought was so well-driven, but the man who had sat across the street from the house—begging and screaming for food to be brought to him because he was too weak to stand, who died of starvation there a day and a half later, his naked arm still woven through the slats of the picket fence—he could have just been sleeping. This was how Jonathan remembered it. And Tim, little blond Tim, wanted to help him, taking two granola bars from the new box in the kitchen and starting out the door and across the street and offering them to the Hungry, and what was Jonathan doing? He found himself in the bathroom, looking into the mirror for longer than usual and tending to his unpleasant face, when Father’s yelling forced him away from his gaze: Hunger had struck Tim in the legs, and the little boy lay on the ground crying while the man on the fence remained there, eating the granola bars….

And remembering this occurrence, Jonathan yanked himself away from the bathroom mirror and ran right across the kitchen, passing the rice and the timer as it rang out yet again. He whipped open the backdoor of his house, the amoeba peering out from under the basement door, the sound of the bells on the doorknob ringing in his ear while the mud-room light switched on and the bulb flickering out gave him that frightened feeling in his neck… his mother and his father kissed in the hallway with the passion that had been there only before he was born—his father had unscrewed the lightbulb…

Yet, when Jonathan was outside, an unmistakable moment arrived when he was reminded of nothing.

He saw the sun was setting, sending a dull red light like old bricks over the surface of the earth, where debris of broken sidewalks and overflowing garbage cans obscured the ground, the tangled mess of dead trees offering no shade to prevent the light of the tired sun from reaching the greasy ground beneath the bodies of derelict automobiles, desolate from disuse, while a coating of moths is momentarily startled from its resting place over the streetlamp, revealing green light as it winks out for the last time.

Jonathan’s eyelids narrowed, his eyebrows crinkled, his hand reached towards nothing since nothing was there, and he breathed a deep breath in the first moment of peace that he had had all day. Yet now, he again beheld the world, whose image was frightening, more than any of these memories that grasped at him and refused to leave him be. Moments like these, though, made Jonathan grateful that he was haunted by them, since the present day of the world was too dull red and desperate faded white for his eyes to behold, and Jonathan could feel as each decaying moment crept up his legs and tried to overtake him.

The moment was only a moment, and Jonathan felt it come to an end as the sight of a tattered billboard, its remnants swaying like something dead in the acrid wind, depicted an open mouth trying to say something, and the memory of poor Magen, forced to speak in front of the class, yet without any words behaving like friends, stood with her mouth open as her face grew redder and redder like the steadily intensifying sunlight, and again Jonathan wanted to place his hand on her thin shoulder, leaning towards her to whisper the words into her ear…

But before long, he sighted a rat, peering out from underneath a sopping cardboard box before scurrying right past Jonathan, fast as he could, pulling a comrade behind him, and what did Jonathan think of but Tim and Victoria, pulling their brother from underneath a car, whose danger he had failed to recognize as he stood in the street and contemplated an encounter with a covered wagon (from when? he would never be sure), and it made Jonathan feel sad for having been saved, and for needing them to save him.

His sense of sadness and happiness had always been odd, but it took this remembrance to provide Jonathan with an unaccompanied contemplation: as he looked upon the slow destruction of the world around him, little images were poking out from the crevices and cracks, with meanings great and small and free from value of good or bad, much like the faithful friends of memories were separate from his physical self, yet they were still a part of him somehow, even while they waned and faded away like shapes in clouds.

His mind marveled at its own fullness, like the great glass of lemonade his mother had poured for him. He forced himself to finish it because it was so good; that sweetness, that tartness, that cold liquid that ran down his throat and into his body was the reason he remembered it so well…or was it the tall glass glistening under the summer sun, while his mother smiled under her sunglasses and gently stroked his bare shoulder, and Jonathan’s little friends splashed about in the swimming pool behind him?

Tim walked up and said “Could I have some please?”

Jonathan then said “Yes,” and Mother said, “Of course you may.”

Jonathan turned and walked back into the house, wanting to know, and yet not needing to, remembering, by the sound of the timer through the screened window, the rice was ready now, and Jonathan smiled; he only had to eat, and his life would continue, and remain his own.

“Penalty Kill” (June 2014)

“SHOOT IT YOU MISERABLE…”

The television blared the proof of Edward’s failure at top volume, the slow disintegration of his principles, of everything he knew, as Team Captain Dwight Ratchet’s final attempt to score a goal for his team, the Austen Fighters, against their sworn enemy, the Sacramento Terror, ended in ignominious and incontrovertible defeat.

Edward raised his fist; his four buddies from work, Randall, Patrick, Steven, and Vernon, all watched it happen, their eyes widening like eggs cracked into a frying pan, before Edward brought the fist down onto the coffee table. Beer cans and styrofoam containers leapt at least a hand’s length under the impact, some falling to the floor. A plate of cheese fries landed on Steven’s shoe, but his outburst was outmatched by Edward’s string of unedited cursewords.

“FUCKING SON OF A FUCK HACK RATCHET, YOU PIECE OF SHIT!”

The American flag on the far side of the room, behind the TV, shuddered under the impact. It fell from one corner, then the next, then the next, until it draped down onto the carpet just beside Edward’s dirty boots and Vernon’s toolbox.

“I just can’t believe that, I just can’t believe it. Just one thing, that’s all I ask for, just for the Fighters to win, just for Ratchet to win it for us, but he didn’t. He didn’t win. He blew it.” Edward put his face in his hands and dug his thumbs into his eye sockets.

“Um, Eddie?” Randall put hand on Edward’s shoulder. “You okay man?”

“It’s just been so long, is all,” Edward said, shutting the TV off as the theme music led into the post-game analysis. Silence came like an unwanted exit, a freedom towards a thing unknown. “I’m just so tired of coming in last.”

“But we made it to the playoffs this year,” Steven said, scraping the last of the cheese-like sauce from his leather shoe with a paper napkin. He flicked the napkin onto the table; little JoJo, the dog, wandered over and lopped the napkin into his dripping mouth.

“Goddammit JoJo,” Edward said, reaching over and yanking the flavorful wad from JoJo’s growling maw. “I know,” he said to Steven. “It’s just been such a hard year, every win has been a struggle, but we made it. But we couldn’t make it the one night it counted, the one night it mattered the most. The Terror were always going to win, the Fighters were always going to be losers. Losers. ‘Fighters’ for what? For losing.” He thumped his forehead with his closed fist and stared at the litter on the table.

A few of them cleared their throats.

“Well, I guess I’ll get going,” Patrick said, standing up and running his hand through his hair. “Got work tomorrow.”

“Yeah, me too,” said Vernon. He stood up as well, and Steven followed suit. Soon the three of them were gone. Only Randall stayed behind.

“You know what I’m going to say,” he told Edward.

“What?”

“It’s only…”

“Don’t say it.”

“…a game.”

“Get out of my face with that.”

“This has nothing to do with everything else you got going on in your life.”

“Like what?”

“The job, your back aches, Margaret leaving, you know, the whole deal.”

“Sure it doesn’t. Nothing has anything to do with anything else. In this life, nothing is connected, nothing means jack shit.”

“That’s the spirit,” Randall muttered. “Well, I’m going to get going myself. Got work tomorrow morning, got problems and pains in the ass, just like everybody else.” He stood and waited for a moment, but Edward didn’t budge. “See ya.”

Randall left. Edward only struggled to his feet to lock the door. Then he went to bed.

But he couldn’t sleep. He felt hot. He gripped his fist tight, and the pace towards sleep seemed forever slow. Incredulous images gripped his mind: after all these fifty-four years of his life, what it would have felt like if the Fighters had won. His team, his heart, his identity. If Ratchet had angled his shot on goal just a little differently, with just a little more strength behind it. Or if Philippe LeBreton hadn’t thrown away those two perfectly good breakaways on pointless showboating.

In a way, it was a blessing that Edward himself hadn’t made it to the pros after college. Watching at home, he always knew what the team could be doing better. He had the kind of perspective that the team and its coach lacked: that of the spectator. If there could be a team that had both, that team would be unbeatable.

“You need me,” he said, speaking to the wall, to the crisp, cold air in the bedroom, to the cluttered nightstand and frayed rug. “It’s obvious. We would have won.”

He heard a rattle at the front door of his small house. Any pittance of relaxation that had calmed his heart was replaced by an earnest pounding. He reached for the gun in the drawer of the nightstand–a Glock M19, named Drusilla–and calmly waited for the intruder to enter his bedroom.

It wasn’t long before he heard another rattle, this time at his own door. Edward leaped up in bed and pointed the loaded gun in the direction of the noise. His lower back screamed in pain; he chewed through the anguish, speaking through clenched teeth.

“Who the fuck is there.”

There was no reply. He turned, getting out of bed, gripping his dresser for a moment to soothe the pain, the gun kept trained on the door. Another rattle, and a whine. Edward inhaled, and crouched, approaching the door on his knees, his free hand reaching for the doorknob. His heart beat into his ears, but Drusilla was steady and strong, ready to right this most recent wrong.

He turned the knob and bashed the door open with a shoulder roll, shrieking like a cheap exhaust pipe, landing in a crouch and pointing the gun upward where he thought he saw the figure.

JoJo leapt back what seemed a hundred feet, his wagging tail knocking cans and bottles from the coffee table. He scrambled over to Edward and began to lick his face.

For a moment, it was hilarious. Inside, Edward burst out laughing. But the ache to his back proved a stronger influence than the situation that had just transpired. Tears rose to his eyes; one hand pushed JoJo away, the other gripped his lumbar spine as though to rip it out. But again, he fought through the pain, and got to his feet.

“FUCKING DOG,” he yelled, kicking the coffee table with a bare, twisted foot. It flipped like a cop car in a chase scene, its contents scattering as far away as the TV on the other side of the room. A half-eaten bag of ketchup-flavored potato chips, having not lived up to their promise, opened up across the couch in a shower of crispy red wafers. Edward patted JoJo’s eager face and squeezed Drusilla brutally, firing three shots into the mess of chips and cushions, sending bits of potato and couch cushion flying. Three bright flashes tore through the dark room.

The dog ran for cover behind the heavy curtain. White smoke made Edward cough slightly. He smiled and found the pack of Denizen Ultra Lights next to the floor lamp. Dropping the gun onto the couch, he sat down on the rug and lit a cigarette with the silver flintwheel lighter he kept on the end-table. The flame lit up his aged face; he closed the lighter and rubbed the metal against his undershirt to polish it.

Relighting, Edward looked at himself in the reflection. Wind-battered skin, under a thick but uncultivated beard, the kind that men wear when they have given up on life. His small eyes glistened in the yellow light; he smiled but could not see his teeth.

He stood soon up again, slowly, laboriously. The room was still dark, but a strip of light now appeared through the vertical blinds. Edward found the gun on the ventilated couch cushion. Holding it up, he looked at himself in the mirror over the mantel, standing in that strip of light. For the umpeenth time, he pointed the gun at the mirror and spoke to himself.

“Come on, you motherfuckers. Come get me.”

In his mind, Edward floated back in time to several years earlier, when, soon after the motorcycle accident that altered his back, he found himself cornered on crutches by a group of gangmembers in Fort Worth. Four of them–three with knives, one with a gun–approached him with no expectation of resistance. Under the harsh streetlight on the dead-end street, Edward sharply exhaled the smell of rain from his nose, raising the crutches like swords in the direction of his opponents, and barking the same seven words he’d just repeated into the mirror.

“Come on, you motherfuckers. Come get me.”

They had beaten him mercilessly.

His white knuckles gripped the gun; he saw his eyes bulging in the reflection. His free hand rose and brought the gun down as though to disarm himself. His teeth chattered in the cold room.

JoJo wandered over from behind the curtain, tail wagging, tongue lolling, the horror of the three gunshots already a distant memory.

“Come on,” Edward said again, “come on, JoJo, let’s go to bed.” He patted the dog’s head. Excited, it made its way to the bedroom. Edward held Drusilla close to his face and found the safety catch. Engaging it, he went inside the bedroom and closed the door behind him.

“Men” (August 2015)

Okay, I know I haven’t been posting one story every week. I’ll try for at least every two weeks. Still have plenty to go. You can’t blame me, though. I’m a fiction author 😉 Meantime, enjoy “Men.” -ML

James watched his uncle, who sat on the log beside the fire. The man smoked quietly, gazing into the flames as though at a heavenly body. But his eyes were dim; what he saw neither interested him nor deflected him. It had no effect.

Earlier, the two of them had taken a walk while it was still light out, into the soft pine forests of Mount Monadnock, and James came to understand more clearly the concept of a nature walk. His uncle’s knowledge of plants and insects and anything with legs went a long way towards explaining the man’s place in James’s life. But his uncle’s drinking was continuous, and after awhile his subject matter switched, from the reasoning behind the placement of a butterfly’s tastebuds on its feet, to the contents of his own wretched soul.

“You know, James,” he started to say as they passed the same tree stump for the third time, indelibly lost. “You know, there are some people who are made to live. They’re made to enjoy their life, these things that surround us that we can’t get away from. You see, they’re made for it. They go around thinking how great life is, how wonderful it is, how precious, and talking about it. And I don’t think I’m one of those people. I’ve been to twenty-nine countries and I just don’t.”

By the time they’d returned to the campsite, it was almost dark. James had long since grown silent.

He watched his uncle now, a few hours later and a few more beers heavier, teetering on the log between the ground and the fire, and wondered what the man was thinking, whether this campsite would be a good place to end it all, to say goodbye to the trees and bugs and wind and sunlight, and the people who seemed to add nothing to his life. And James almost wished he would.

But when he wished that, James wondered where his father was.

“That’s right, Jimmy my boy,” his uncle said suddenly after a short silence. “Life is a huge hunk a’ dogshit, and basically consists of learning to enjoy rolling around in it.”

James cringed at the image, and at the sight of a man who viewed his life and everything in it that way, a way he had never known.

“I’ve never learned to enjoy it. That’s the thing, Jim. The smell of it, the people around me smiling even though their mouths are full of it. Full of it. That’s what I go through.”

Just then, James heard an approaching step, and the clatter of glass. His father returned, carrying a plastic supermarket bag full of empty bottles. “You didn’t leave any for me, you bum?” he said.

“But some of us have,” Uncle said, finishing his thought. “Some of us do it everyday in our offices, shuffling, climbing, wading through the shit, with a big stupid smile on our faces like all the other suckers.”

“What are you telling my son?”

“The truth. And he seems too stupid to get it, he doesn’t say anything. Both of you too stupid to do anything about it.”

James turned to his father, trembling, who extended a finger at his brother. “What’d you say about my son?”

“They’re all spoiled rotten.” His voice came from the back of his throat. He shimmied to one side and stood on the other side of the log, a little farther from the fire. “Rotten, too stupid a generation…”

“You motherfucker.” James’s father tossed the bag of bottles aside, breaking some of the glass. James started, gripping the arm of his lawnchair. His father leapt at his older brother, who swayed from the alcohol in his napoleonic system. They grabbed each other’s shoulders and fell to the ground as one unit, kicking up a small cloud of dead leaves, twigs, and startled insects.

They growled at each other incomprehensibly like dogs.

James watched as the tussle moved towards the fire, which was not roaring but not whimpering either. The lawnchair started to feel like it was closing up on him. The curses of his nearby kin became abstract, faint even, as the heat from the fire seemed to crawl up his body and force his eyes closed, his breaths coming short and shallow.

James fell forward out of the chair and onto the fire, unconscious and unaware, as his father and uncle were for at least a minute. Soon, lying on their backs exhausted and embarrassed, they laughed at their own silliness which had not waned a lick since they were both James’s age.

“The Tone Poet” (ca. November 2006)

translated by Verne Chen.

Claude realized he’d left a task undone. He bent once more over his writing desk and added a G Flat major seventh chord onto the page’s last staff. Looking the line over with patient, confident eyes, he heard the tones in his head leave their impressions on him. The overall relief was satisfactory. Placing the pen into the inkwell for presumably the last time, he stood up and glanced out the window onto the slowly-dusking street. Claude sighed, and left the room.

From his back pocket, he produced three pieces of paper. The first two comprised a letter from his friend Paul duVin. The third was a poem by Jean-Jacques de Michaud, “Jealous Vine.” Claude had been planning to turn it into a piece of music for the last three weeks. His present piece, with which he had just concluded his day, was based on duVin’s “The Lost Bracelet.” No sooner was Claude finished and happy and satisfied with it than he came to realize it was worthless, inferior, and unworthy of being written at all.

And yet, those notes, that rhythm, had been fluttering in his head ever since picking up “The Lost Bracelet” when it was still only a poem.

Downstairs, he reread a few lines of the letter from Paul duVin:

…and I hope it doesn’t detain you from more personal matters, but Claude, let me assure you that this poem came to me as a feeling does from a piece of music. I believe it will be only a matter of matching the correct musical tones with the corresponding emotional stimuli of the poem; it will create a complete brochure of emotion, inspired by these words and music.

For these three weeks, Claude had been bothered by duVin’s use of the word “brochure.” Could duVin, a poet and wordsmith, not have used “exhibit” instead, or “showcase”? Even “folder” would not have detained Claude’s feelings so precipitously.

There was no mistake in Claude’s mind. “The Lost Bracelet” was a fine, moving poem; he knew he was quibbling over a trifle. Yet, fixing tea and watercress salad, Claude was unable to think of anything else, so might his displeasure be due to something more?

He did not want, without good reason and self-assurance, to put aside a work of his own to focus on the requests of another. This thought made him remember, however, that “Jealous Vine” was to begin in precisely that manner: a poet named Jean-Jacques de Michaud had entreated, with youthful humility and verve, that no other tone poet than Claude Cloquet could possibly do justice to his poem. Upon reading it, Claude found that “Jealous Vine” was indeed worthy of a singular justice. He accepted this assignment with no small amount of grace and enthusiasm from his fellow artistic, indigent colleague.

Oh, but the older poet duVin was so less clear in his flattery of Claude Cloquet, and, as it happened, his poem was now so less striking.

Resisting close-mindedness, Claude forced himself to contemplate this: was it de Michaud’s flattery that made his poem so much finer, so much lovelier, than duVin’s? Was it because his vanity had not been satisfied that Claude was less inclined to find “The Lost Bracelet” worthy of his intellectual time, energy, creativity, and love?

And yet, he had done it. He had made music out of “The Lost Bracelet” for nothing in return, except the malaise of unfulfilled vanity.

Finishing his meal, Claude brought the poem and letter again from his back pocket.

De Michaud’s “Jealous Vine” was indeed a fine poem, lacking in originality what it more than made for in greater depth, a pretension Claude often leveled at himself in times of clarity. It would yield a six- or seven-minute piece of music, were one to be written, and it would take about ten days to write, again, were it to be written. But, unfortunately, as Claude read it for the fifth or sixth time in his life, still no signal tune stepped out of him. Still no introduction, no theme, no fantasia, no coda, no bridge, no transition, no resolution or lack thereof. Nothing but his own feelings in response to the lines. One small stanza in particular caught the attention of his mind’s eye:

The clever fog slakes

The object of my loss

And barely dares to glisten,

To offer final marvels,

At the foreignness of death

Claude saw the vine in wilderness and its tremble of goodbye, its disappearance behind a fog of earthly confusion and years gone by, and with the last twinkle of daylight Claude saw only the fog, the vine having never grown so long, never emerged to begin with.

He sipped from the tealeaves, and revised his pretentious opinion. It would take no flattery or coercion or reeducation in the field of good poetry to persuade him this fact: certainly, “Jealous Vine” was a very fine poem.

Yet, still, no tune came.

Claude thought only of that poor, shriveling vine, vanished behind a tightened grate of trivialities. Then, thinking again of “The Lost Bracelet”, he thought of that work’s cheapness and distracted sense of self. As self-conscious as a bracelet, the poem and my music alike.

De Michaud is a fine poet, he thought. It is worthy. His life is not a waste. He asks for nothing from the world but understanding, and he thinks that I can bring it to him. For what does duVin ask? A favor.

Upon the break of moonlight through the kitchen window, Claude Cloquet saw the first few notes of the tone poem, fluttering into his mind like black butterflies across a meadow. It was a new melody, like tomorrow would be, traversing his field of awareness. It summoned happiness, but more, it birthed the bright task of inspiration.

With a word of self-encouragement in his ear, and with a little fear that the fog might envelop his tune at any moment, Claude scurried back to the writing desk, protective of his freedom and of his fear. After all, the fear of getting lost in the fog would be the music’s beauty.

“Realizing” (August 2015)

The two ducks rose from the surface of the water and flew away. “Do you think it’s because they don’t like us?” Marian asked, turning around to speak to her mother. The little girl’s absent hands almost let go of the small oar she was using to help propel the boat forward.

Her mother, Alita, replied. “It might be, Ree. They might be afraid of us.”

“But we would never hurt them,” Marian said, bringing the oar back into the boat and leaving the task of returning to shore to her mother. She was preoccupied. “I want to see them again.”

“I don’t know if they’ll come back, sweetie. Ducks have their own families, you know.”

“They do?” Alita nodded and said, “Mm-hm.” “Do they love each other very much too?”

“I’m sure they do.”

“And do they do things together too, like go for a walk in the park or collect rocks?”

“I’m sure they do something like that.” A small breeze helped the boat along, lightening Alita’s load.

“They why would they be afraid of us?”

“Just because they don’t know us, baby. People and animals are often afraid of people, and animals, that they don’t know.”

“What if I tell them my name the next time I see them? Then will they stay?”

“I don’t know. No, honey, they won’t understand you.”

“Why not?”

“Because they’re animals. Animals and people don’t understand each other. That’s part of why we’re afraid of each other.”

Marian began to cry softly, putting her little head into her hands. “I don’t want them to be afraid of me, I could never hurt them.”

Alita stopped rowing. The sun was starting to hide behind the mountains, but she stopped thinking about it. She held her daughter in front of her.

“I don’t want them to go away,” Marian continued. “I want them to be my friends.”

“It’s okay, Ree. They can be your friends in your heart.”

“It’s not enough,” Marian replied. “I can’t see them in my heart. It makes me sad.” Finally, she broke down sobbing, as though she was many months younger.

“It makes me sad too,” Alita said, holding her daughter tightly in the middle of the lake.

After a little while, Alita gathered the two of them together. They dried their tears and paddled back to shore, where they made some dinner and drew pictures of ducks in Alita’s old sketchbook. Then, Alita put Marian to bed and wrote in her diary about what had happened that day, trying not to cry again and almost succeeding.