"Welcome to Pre-Kindergarten," Ms. Thompson told a classroom of four-year-olds sitting at desks on the first day of school. "We have rules you have to follow each day. You must sit still in your seat. You must raise your hand if you want to talk. When we walk to the lavatories, you must walk in line, silently. Does everyone understand," she asked? Little heads nodded yes. "At the end of the week, those of you who have followed the rules will get a grab bag full of school supplies and treats. Ms. Sue, my assistant, will keep track of who is following the rules each day."
While Ms. Thompson checked attendance, Ms. Sue handed students worksheets and pencils to draw lines connecting words with pictures illustrating their meanings.
A warm September breeze blew through the open window of the old city school, carrying with it a yellow jacket. The bee landed on Mary's wooden desk. She was frightened and wanted to scream. Remembering the rules, she clenched her teeth, instead. Bill rocketed from his chair, raised his notebook in his small hands, and slammed it on the bee. "It's dead," he screamed. "I saved us from the killer bee." The students cheered, clapped, and chattered. Ms. Sue removed the bee with a paper towel and cleaned Bill's desk with a disinfectant wipe.
Susita, turned to face George to talk about what had happened the way people do at games when a baseball player hits a ball and runs. "What did you do that you weren't supposed to do," Ms. Thompson asked, sternly looking at Susita, whose black braid hung down the back of her blue polo uniform shirt? "I donno," she said. "What did you do, George," Ms. Thompson asked? George shrugged his shoulders and looked at her with questioning brown eyes. "Both of you talked," said Ms. Thompson. "Bill, what did you do," she asked? "I got out of my seat, but I had to or the bee might have killed somebody." "I understand," Ms. Thompson said, "but you must remember the rules.
Ms. Sue, and volunteer grandparents and parents served breakfast to the students and opened milk and juice cartons for children.Volunteers dashed around the classroom, collecting trays of leftover food and disinfecting desks when breakfast was over.
While they were doing this, Sierra barfed up chunks of golden brown pancakes in a mixture of milk and orange juice
"Ew, it smells," yelled Leroy, from a bunker under his desk. Mary walked Sierra to the nurse.
When she returned, Susita and George were sweeping the floor that students had littered while cutting out pictures of leaves they had colored. Bill was collecting the crayons, and Ms.
Sue was collecting the scissors.
At the end of the day, Ms. Thompson handed out a homework assignment listing
classroom rules that students were to memorize with someone at home. "A typical day in Pre-K," Ms. Thompson said to Ms. Sue. "Right," Ms. Sue agreed.
Jennifer was born in a high-standard family. Her parents were famous for being the top doctors, and expected her to become successful like themselves. They pressured her to become a medical doctor, and she had to follow her parent’s goal. Eventually, she convinced herself that it was the right thing to do, and being a doctor was her dream.
Lily was Jennifer's childhood friend, and their parents were close to each other. Lily’s parents hoped for her to become a doctor too. The two girls were very close, and Jennifer believed that Lily would stay by her side. They would eventually become medical doctors together. However Lily became distanced with her, after she unexpectedly moved away.
There was a reunion party for school classes, after Jennifer graduated high school. Jennifer had not seen Lily for a long time, so she excitedly greeted her. After they greeted each other, Lily brought up a conversation about her wanting to become an artist. Jennifer was shocked, and asked about her plan to become a medical doctor.
Lily said becoming a medical doctor wasn’t her dream, and she just went along with her parent’s goal. She eventually found her dream of becoming an artist, and worked on it since she moved schools. Jennifer tried to convince Lily that being an artist would have been difficult. Lily agreed but said she would rather do things she loves and enjoy, because it is worth it.
When Jennifer heard her childhood friend being happy that she found her dream, she felt empty and flat. Jennifer realized becoming a doctor would not make her happy, and wanted to find her own dream like Lily.
She started going to the photography class her friends recommended, and realized she loved taking pictures. When her parents found out that Jennifer had been slacking off, they were outraged and did not understand her reasoning. Jennifer explained becoming a doctor was their dream, and she wanted to find her’s.
Jennifer’s parents and Jenifer argued about the topic for a long time, until her parents finally stated they would allow her to work on her photography class. However, Jennifer would have to give up on things like her privileges like her car and monthly allowance. She needed to get a part time job, and support herself without her parents’ help.
A few years later, when there was another reunion party, Lily noticed Jennifer. She asked about her medical job. Jennifer replied that she doesn’t work as a doctor. Instead, she takes pictures and makes a living off it. Lily was surprised and asked if it was to follow her dream. She replied, “I had to give up many privileges to be where I am. My parents still do not fully understand me, but they have accepted that this is my life. I had many struggles, but I look forward to each day because I am doing what I love.” Lily was glad her friend finally found her own dream.
Finally, I thought, relieved, I’ve found the house. I walked up to the front door and knocked.
After a moment, an elderly woman came to the door. “What?” she croaked, peering out through the black netting at me. “Who are you?”
In response, I asked her a question of my own. Pulling out a folder with the words “Project Angel” stamped across it from inside of my jacket, I held it up and inquired, “This is your research, isn’t it?”
The woman paused. Slowly, her tongue flicked out and ran up across her upper lip. Finally, she said crudely, “Yeah. What of it?”
I stared at her, shocked.
The woman waited a grand total of two seconds before she repeated impatiently, “For fuck’s sake – what? What about my research?”
I stuttered out in disbelief, “You – You created a drug that enabled humans to feel perfect empathy. And you regard this research as nothing?”
“It is nothing,” she told me matter-of-factly. “So what if I made that drug? Only one person in this world dared to take it. That was when I realized, too late, that the type of medicine that people crave, isn’t to heal others, but to heal themselves. Health is not the precondition of humanity anymore. It is the precondition of selfishness.”
“Wait, you can’t just accept that conclusion and give up. That’s too easy,” I argued back. “Part of science is to marry it with philosophy. You have to try harder to convince people to open up their hearts.”
She snorted loudly. “Yeah, kid, I’m telling you that that’s a horrible idea.”
“It’s not. The world could use a little more empathy.” I waved the folder before her. “You must have believed that, too. Else, why would you have dedicated your career to creating this drug?”
The woman paused. The cold, sneering look faded from her face, leaving her looking exhausted. Finally, she murmured, “Listen closely, kid. Stop caring about this drug. It’s for your own good.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, suddenly feeling afraid. I had given up twenty years of my life to track down this woman’s research and address. For her to tell me such pessimistic things seemed incredibly unfair, even if she had no reason to know that I had sacrificed so much of my life in pursuit of her original idea.
The woman’s eyes clouded over. She was clearly seeing something other than me standing before her. Then, she murmured, “The one person who did dare to take the drug – he was my husband. And you know what happened after he took the drug?”
I shook my head.
“He committed suicide. Because he empathized too deeply with the person he was standing next to – me.”
My mouth fell open.
The woman stood there for a moment longer. Then, she said simply, “No one needs that kind of shit. Burn it.” With that, she closed the front door, leaving me standing on the front porch, still holding this folder of useless ambition.
Suddenly she wondered how she was supposed to translate the heavily marked score, which looked strangely familiar, into any sound, using the long row of binary keys facing her.
As her teacher has always said, cells that fire together wire together. But what if her hands failed to play back ‘memories’ of her practice including only warm-ups she did earlier? “Muscles do not have a memory of past training,” she had a blinding flash of what she read in a random magazine before her turn. Her palms moistened. Being scared to ask for a Kleenex on the towering examiner’s table, she wiped the palms on her new skirt, then restarted.
Cells managed to ‘wire’ together this time. Her hypothetical thought, “Muscles do not have but at least a ‘one-day’ memory,” was instantly verified in her experience as her body and hands began to move rhythmically with the music she was creating for her audience. Her fingers danced smoothly across the keyboard while skipping a note or two without being noticed---even by herself. Taking note of the following regions, her eyes scanned left to right, and top to bottom, so to decipher the polyphonic script with the intertwining of different melodic lines. Her ears listened attentively to how hard and how soft she pressed the keys keeping the beat inside her head all the time.
The head playing conductor, the eyes sight reading ahead, the fingers performing legato and staccato, the ears giving attention to the music being produced, the muscle orchestra worked in tandem to create a masterpiece of her interpretation towards the exhilarating finale.
The loud words, “Well done!” made her feel less again.
“Think of something, Kevin.”
Slumped at the round wooden table in the kitchen, Kevin lifted his head and stared at his wife of 25 years. He couldn’t help but notice Joanne was trying to frown. She used to have her own range of frowns. From the gloomy to the downright hostile, Kevin had, naturally, seen them all, and his heart rate quickened at the memory of her pre-coital frown. Alas, these days no amount of neural activity could breach the frozen wasteland of that once lively brow. Botox-ed to buggery was a phrase that kept popping into his mind (never an edifying image). Lunch hours, or weekend treats, it was her sodding money, her time, her face. Nothing he could do or say. He missed the comforting ritual of her frowns. It was as though a part of her was lost to him. Lost behind a substance, locked within a compelling idea of youth and beauty.
And, just like an old commercial once had it, Joanne liked the product so much she went and bought the sodding business. Not that she had any trouble convincing him to take out a lease on the retail space. Business was tickety-boo; no one at ground level saw Covid-19 coming!
“It’s beyond our control, love.”
The idea was to keep the business afloat by offering firming injections and beauty treatments after hours and early mornings, sneaking clients in through the back door. Everything was hunky dory until the woman at the flower shop alerted the press.
“We’re only standing up against the infernal thing” Joanne tilted her head and raised her arms, “protecting our livelihood!” beseeching the kitchen ceiling.
Unfortunately, the vitality of their argument was at variance to the will of the people. And all hell broke loose. Didn’t help that Kevin was a retired Detective Chief Inspector.
Now they were enemies of the people, caught out in the people’s pandemic.
“Remove the blindfolds.”
The expectant crowd, captivated by the scene, as the next couple are readied for disassociation - eyes finally able to see exactly how the blade will fall – screams muffled by gags.
“Remove the mouth restraints.”
The crowd leans forward, lips silently moving along with the pair.
“No. Wait.” they shout in unison.
“No disassociation is easy – being the un-joining of two people - removal of the offending digit being moderately sufficient. However, sometimes the joining has gone too far.”
Gathered friends and family, wearing court-appointed safety-smocks, scooted chairs closer to the table. Those in front donned additional court-appointed safety-goggles.
“Lower the blade.”
“Help. Someone, please?”
Hoods were raised as the mechanical arm lowered.
“Engage the blade.”
The blade began to spin.
“Don't. Make them stop.”
The audience nodded their heads. One coughed. Another smiled at one of the pair. Most tightened their hoods.
No one could hear them if they wanted. The whine of the blade had begun, but they could see the sincerity through the tears in their eyes.
“Complete the separation.”
As smocks and goggles were carefully removed and dropped into court-appointed plastic buckets, the pair were escorted out singly. The event was over much too quickly, but seemed to make a lasting impression on everyone involved, though not many could applaud the outcome.
Vingon had been on earth for fourteen days. The abandoned farm he landed on was only a mile from the town; so far, no one bothered him. Ransacking the house, he had found fermented grape juice, which was now taking full effect. He read another label: “Shake Well then Refrigerate after Opening.”
He thought about it, slithered to the porch, and looked across the field. There was the open well that needed shaking. The ship’s gravitational beam should be adequate, he thought.
Moments later, the townspeople were covering their heads, and fleeing their homes, as the ground shook. They were nowhere near a fault line, nor a temperate zone, but that didn’t stop the snow that followed the earthquake.
The ship’s Thermos-Destabilizer should have sufficiently refrigerated the Well, Vingon thought. He looked up and let a white flake burn his middle tongue.
The townspeople were already considering a new holiday, to commemorate the rare events. A mile away, drunk on fermented juice, Vingon was now reading another label: “Cook Well before Consumption.”
THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE IS FOR LATE-MIDDLE-AGED MEN ONLY:
White haired and balding dudes, I’m actually writing you this in fear and loathing. These are terrible times. The levels of radiation, global warming, plastic pollution, etc., have caused a new and terrible epidemic (even worse that COVID – actually COVERT(, the results of which the government is suppressing in a vast conspiracy. My neighborhood Shaman, who lives in his parents’ basement next door, has given me the terrible news.
1) When the 75th anniversary of the actual moment of our births arrives, a process is going to start which will cause our penises to fall off.
2) There is no stopping this process. The Shaman has gotten me to wear a brightly colored jockstrap (the colors repel negative influences), so when the hideous event takes place it will catch my “package.” I've been wearing the jockstrap for two weeks now, and I never remove it. I suggest you start wearing one if your 75th is coming up.
3) Orangutan Glue is supposed to be effective for sticking our stuff back on. In fact, I have started smearing it on already in hopes that the wretched event will be minimized if not avoided. I suggest you do the same.
4) Do not remove the jockstrap after you smear your manliness with the glue, not even when you take a leak or a dump. You don't want your most precious organs sliding into the toilet and getting flushed.
5) For the sake of my fellow late-middle-aged men everywhere, have your significant other photograph you with the glue and jockstrap on (as I have). Place this photo on Facebook so our sex will know the horrible fate that awaits us and that it can be at least dealt with if not prevented. (As I have.)
6) If you do not do this, you may suffer the fate of certain prominent politicians in this country, who have lost their gonads years ago. The massive cover-ups that are currently being investigated actually have to do with the fact that the leaders of certain foreign nations actually have these politicians’ balls or they have no balls at all!
There was only one launch left for the day.
The bird was cupped in my hands, a small wren. “You’re about to go on a flight, little one,” I cooed, “but you’ll be flying on different wings.”
I began to hurry as I saw the sun, the golden sky-egg yolk, slide closer to the horizon. I could see the hot air balloons, amassed, waiting on the cliff edge. Mine would be there waiting too.
It was a great service, the hot air balloons. The Dearly Departed Flight Company sponsored these Memory Launches. Only two a day, once at dawn, once at sunset. I had never missed one since I’d been here.
The Living only remember you for so long...launch them a memory, and they’ll remember your heart-song.
Sunshine spilled all around me, aureate and silent. Light was a memory too, touching us all with forgotten nostalgia.
I ran up to my balloon. It waited for me wordlessly. Hopefully.
I kissed the top of the bird’s head, placing it gently in a small nest in the basket of the balloon. “You need different wings where you’re going.”
The bird knew. Knew its purpose.
We, the Dearly Departed, all stood silently, waiting for the last of the light to extinguish, the first breath of night giving soft flight to the awaiting balloons and their heart-songs, nestled in safely for their journey.
The earth cradled his feet on the forest path. Sunlight spilled onto his shoulders, the memory of light. He heard a wren call in the tree above him. He stopped and looked skyward. Old eyes, old sky.
She always did love wrens, he thought, smiling continuing on his journey. He thought of her daily.
It was the cadaver dogs that found Jennifer. Alive.
The whimpering toddler was clinging to a board jammed between two boulders.
Her parents were found yards away down the hill, buried under mud.
The dam break and its devastation killed five people that day. A community mourned, then rebuilt.
Now nine years old, Jennifer lives with Grandma and Grandpa in a ranch-style home nearby.
Grandma Laurel is troubled by the girl’s backyard interest in rocks, water — and mud. Jennifer had been told how her parents died.
“We could have a party and you could make some new friends,” she suggests.
“The rocks are my friends, Gramma.”
Jennifer’s outdoor play doesn’t worry Grandpa Tom. He remembers a childhood exploring creeks, catching crawdads and building rock dams. “No harm done. Leave the child be.”
But Laurel continues watching from the kitchen window. One afternoon, Jennifer tugs on her sleeve. “Gramma, come meet my rocks.”
She’d lined them up, all different shapes. Laurel recognizes some: granite, shale, pumice. Others seem, well, unusual to find in a backyard.
“See Gramma, these are my friends. They talk to me.”
“Sweetie, rocks can’t talk.”
“Mine do. And they have names. This is Luella and Horace and Eb…e…ne…zer,” Jennifer stumbles with pronunciation as she pats her friends.
“Those are old people names, Jennifer. Where did you hear them?”
“The rocks told me. They have old names because they’re old rocks.”
Jennifer shows Grandma a small stream she’d made. And the dam she’d created with rocks and branches.
Worried Laurel talks Tom into buying a backyard playset and invites the neighborhood children for a party. Jennifer enjoys herself, but the following day is back to her stream and rocks.
When she asks for a doll family of two small-size adults and a child, Grandma and Grandpa take her shopping. Finally, Laurel relaxes.
Until she sees the dolls atop the small dam Jennifer built. And is horrified.
“Jennifer, I want to talk with you about what happened to your Mommy and Daddy.”
“I know what happened, Gramma. The dam broke and the water turned into mud and killed them. But it won’t happen again. My friends will protect us.”
Laurel sits Jennifer on her lap. “How will they do that?
“They'll tell us when it’s going to rain next. And when the dam breaks again, and we have to leave.
“First, they’ll go ‘whoosh.’ Then they begin to rumble. After that the mud comes down.”
“Oh,” Laurel says, holding Jennifer tight as she tries not to tremble.
That evening Grandma goes online. After finding a structural engineer’s report on dam safety, she again checks the weather. Rain is forecast in a few days.
The next afternoon, a neighbor strolling by sees Laurel packing the family SUV and stops to chat.
“Are you folks going on a trip?”
“Probably. It’s up to Jennifer and our rocks.”
Neighbors can either be the worst part of life or the best, never both, because you never know who they really are or how you will get along with them. My new one, well, I wasn’t sure where he fit at first.
When I introduced myself to him, after a brief exchange of pleasantries, he ended our conversation by telling me that he was, “a man of irony.” Having absolutely no idea what he meant by that, I left him with a firm handshake and assurances that, if he needed anything, I’d be right next door. I’d also be confused, but still willing to lend a hand.
His first order of business was erecting an eight foot privacy fence around the perimeter of his property. It, naturally, dwarfed the four foot picket fences that were the norm here.
A locksmith came by to install the bulkiest door handle and deadbolt I’d ever seen. I’m assuming that he didn’t leave a spare key under the doormat.
Next came the motion lights and security cameras on each visible corner of the front of the house. A fancy doorbell with another camera completed the front door setup.
I am also almost positive that I saw him ushering two large dogs into his backyard about a week ago. Massive dogs, I should say. Dobermans or Rottweilers, from the looks of them. My suspicions were affirmed when the “Beware of Dog” sign was tacked to the fence.
Another sign, a shiny “No Trespassing” one, landed in the front flower bed. I thought it was surely the final piece of the puzzle because it really finished off and sold the transformation.
It was apparent that my new neighbor wanted no part of any visitors on his property, and he was willing to go to great lengths to make sure everyone kept their distance. I certainly had no intentions of going over. Probably ever. Not after witnessing all of the security measures he’d put in place.
Anytime anything even breathes in the vicinity of his lawn, he will probably know about it and see it before his would-be visitor even has time to think about stepping foot on his property.
And I was wrong about the “No Trespassing” sign being the finishing touch. That came in the form of a garden flag planted directly next to the “No Trespassing” sign. On the flag was the word “WELCOME” in big, brilliant, bold letters.
Once I saw it, I laughed because I realized that my neighbor was exactly who he said he was. I think we will get along just fine.
Sometimes I remember you, not you completely, but the way you made me laugh. We’d drive down dusty roads as jokes rolled off your tongue. Windows down, the sun warming us all over and the wind in our faces, it felt like love. Your humor was my drug for my own father was always busy, a workaholic while my Ex was sly, a damn playboy. My life was one of those lousy sitcoms minus the pause button, until you. I remember my daughter liked your shiny motorcycle and your blue truck. We had picnics in the grass and you always roasted the delicious meats and the smores, with heavy gooey marshmallows, gushing everywhere.
Once, you used your gifts to sketch her in that polka dot sundress, and she loved how you added the band-aid on her nose from her ant bite. She looked like a cartoon character, the ones that make her giddy and me smile. Yes, I was dizzy, caught up in you, thinking of greener pastures, a world full of promise, I suppose.
The thing is, I do remember those moments, but everything shifted when you went away, didn’t it? I forgot to take the little blue pills, and the sunlight from one window was all I had. Then, the rain came hard falling-falling on the roof as I slouch in a bathrobe. My daughter giggles while she watches loud cartoons. It’s our music. Later, I’ll make her special pancakes with extra butter and cinnamon. I’ll float about like Casper in a mood until I remember to take the pills and that extra one to numb it, swallow it down and try to forget you.
For some, the rain falls too fast to be soothing. I’m fine, so long as there is no thunder. I sit beside the window, and I wait for my ears to fill with that soft, but incessant nocturne of raindrops clinking across our metallic world.
The rain falls steadily. I find that the thrumming sound escaping from its silvery curtains is not unlike the sound a hummingbird’s wings make when it crafts flight from thin air. Watching the rain try desperately to coax some saturation back into the manmade world, I find myself wondering: Are we all so desperate to live, as to beat our wings faster than our hearts can ultimately survive?
I immediately hear my father’s voice go off in my head, berating me. “You ask such useless questions! Make yourself useful, and go find work.” My father was a metal-worker, and the rust of everyday life lay thick on both his body and his beliefs. He had the soul of a champion, but the body of a corpse. I never learned how to speak to such a man. Even in my dreams, when I stand before him, I am silent, mute.
On days like these, where absence molds presence, and not the other way around, the rain-wrought haze bleeds up into a rust-colored sky. I know what that sky is made of. It’s tragically comprised of the melting souls of ghosts, for we have all left someone behind. There are no strangers in the rain.
Opening my mouth, I can taste on my tongue the lost confessions left behind by the twice-dying ghosts. It tastes like the sea. Through the turquoise haze all around me, my father’s voice rises up, all shattered and mosaic-like, and I remember that as he left the house years ago, he’d kept murmuring under his breath: She drowned. She drowned. She drowned.
As always, my father was right. My sister did drown, and of her own volition. By then, my father’s bones had rusted well over, and though he’d reached for her, she had already gone. And where had I been? Honestly, I don’t remember. I can’t even remember if I was born by then. Was she my older sister, or my younger sister? I can’t recall. Was she my twin sister, or was she me? At this point, does it matter? All things are equal before the rain.
No longer caring about the dignity of the world’s axis or of my own exhausted spine, which at this point are the same, for all I have in this world (or any world) is myself, I succumbed to the feeling of laziness before a rain-veiled world. I laid my head down on the windowsill and gazed outside. Losing myself to this blurred world, where all things are indistinguishable in their melancholic shapes, I found myself praying to the blue angels: Give me something softer. Give me something the light can catch for a little bit longer than this quick, thrumming thing called life.
So, he is staring at the tiny Asian woman, mesmerised by her ability to draw the perfect circle. He didn’t know a thing about her. Had, somehow, forgotten to read her case notes. Until quite recently, he thought Petra was blind.
“Why are circles so hard to get right?” Joyce Cheadle was addressing him directly.
“I… dunno, Joyce” he absently replied.
“Petra’s are perfect.” Joyce continued, “Look, Johnny Ray. Perfect.”
Johnny Ray – people called him – was in a place where old stuff ended up; a storeroom in the basement, full of broken chairs, bits of tables, cracked consoles, plastic items, and shit gotten old and forgotten. And he no longer told people, like friends, or acquaintances, faces, eyes and breasts over drinks (if he was lucky!) while otherwise socialising, no longer did he say to people that it was a privilege to work in the public sector with (or, sometimes adding “looking after”), the under-privileged, the vulnerable, damaged. Coz it was never true. And it was no privilege.
A job, that was all Johnny Ray did.
A resident had died. He had been asked to look after a small bunch of problem clients. He’d cleared out the storeroom. Set up a trestle table. Laid on sheets of paper, crayons, pencils, felt tip pens.
“What are we doin’, Johnny Ray?” Came a chorus-line type cry.
Circles…. Circles… and more Circles.
To keep the restless natives occupied.
The grapevine thought very little of him. He tricked people into working with him; he put the squeeze on them; in a crisis he always came out on top. The world would manage fine without Matt Waldron, and everyone in Joe’s bar knew it.
“Good evening, Mr. Waldron.”
Magically, Waldron’s favourite table became free. Heads turned; conversation hushed. He had changed the weather by walking down the stairs.
“Sure, Joe,” Waldron gulped the beer Joe thrust into his hand. He paused and sucked his teeth. “Joe, tell me, what’s the word on that Paul character?”
“ The boy’s quiet, but they say he’s reliable – honest as the day is long and picks up a guy’s way of working real quick.”
“And his girl?”
“Sassy, determined. They say she had a guy beaten up for messing with her. But she’s popular, sociable. Drinks whisky.”
“I need Paul, Joe. Jewelers in Greenwich.” And what Waldron needed usually came to pass.
It started as a straightforward job. Easy locks. No alarms. Dark, narrow alley. Then a cop came home late and interrupted them. Waldron panicked and shot him. Paul was arrested and charged. Waldron was seen a few times at the station house but was soon back on the street. Don’t ask.
“It’s fate, Joe. You win some, you lose some.” Waldron’s attempt at a philosophical smile came out as a smirk.
The bar is empty, Joe is clearing up. She comes to Waldron’s table, red-eyed, her face grey and drawn.
“Bring the bottle, Joe. Two glasses.” Waldron pours two whiskies.
“Gee, Ruby, what can I say? Fifteen years…”
Ruby shudders. She takes a hefty pull at her drink and leans towards him, her stare fierce, unswerving. “You could say you’re sorry.”
“Sure, I’m sorry. But we’re big boys and girls…”
He pauses, as if he just revealed some great universal truth. “If there’s anything …”
She’s already on her feet. “I’ll call you.” Her words fade as she runs up the stairs.
They meet on West 11th Street. The streetlights are lost in a fine drizzle. The diner’s brightness floods into the gloom beyond the huge windows. Ruby arrives early and orders cappuccino and a sandwich. A man in a black Homburg sits reading a newspaper.
Waldron is late. Breathing heavily, he orders whisky and takes the place next to her.
A tear rolls down her cheek. She stares at the floor.
“I need the bathroom.”
Dabbing her eyes with a tissue, she stands tall and walks out in slow time, like a pallbearer.
Homburg man finishes his coffee, folds his paper, and turns to go. As if it’s an afterthought he pulls a gun; shoots Waldron twice in the head; and follows Ruby into the night.
A pedestrianised parade; an insignificant town. The first Saturday in January.
Grumpy consumers, their stretched patience mirroring the mile-long length of stores, jostle for space amongst buskers and Big Issue sellers. As a street preacher attempts to save souls, bargain seekers strive to save pence, each so engrossed that they neglect to notice the pulsating storm cloud developing overhead.
A belligerent mother slaps a whining child, bickering lovers trade low blows, a sneaky thief pockets a wallet; all events simultaneous, all actions inexplicably paused as a subtle shift within the atmosphere makes hairs bristle upon backs of necks.
An ominous rumbling signifies a downpour; the rolling boom causing startled folk to aim their gaze at the heavens. The canopy above appears to split into two, unleashing a ferocious blizzard. As the swirling flakes descend, gasps of confusion switch to sighs of amazement as a singular truth is revealed.
It appears to be raining paper.
Thousands of fluttering pieces, all sizes and colours, drifting down towards the earth. As the first page lands, an elderly pensioner, crumpled note dancing near the end of her nose, snatches at the air. Squinting at the sheet, tightly held in her arthritic grip, her tired eyes realise that there is writing waiting to be read.
The familiar scribble raises a tear. The letter, from her father, lost in a house fire years ago, ends with a sentence made up of three simple words. It is more than enough.
The teasing breeze delivers post to all the bewildered crowd. Shopping is soon forgotten as people madly grab for the scraps, mesmerized by what they discover.
The perpetually drunk rough sleeper clamps a shaking hand across his mouth, scanning the birth certificate that states his real mother’s name.
An angry middle-aged man falls to his knees weeping, his daughters undiscovered suicide note clamped tightly to his chest.
The broken-hearted widow giggles at the long forgotten naughty polaroid; her husband, striking a pose, weeks before the cancer was diagnosed.
People begin to cry hysterically, others simply laugh out loud; some lean on the shoulders of absolute strangers, too dumbstruck to stand upright, each bewitched by their own personal miracle.
Somewhere in the centre of the chaos, a grubby faced toddler shrugs off her older brother’s hand, slipping from the loose grip of his fingers to wander in amongst the rabble. Lost in the confusion, she weaves her way to the very edge of the riot.
Stooping down close to the buckled tarmac, she scoops up some paper from the dirty gutter, frowning slightly as she scans first one side then the other.
With a puzzled shrug, she screws up the sheet, tossing it away as she retrieves another, then another.
All of them are totally blank.
Squatting by the kerb, she pulls out a cracked purple crayon from her jeans pocket, making her first bold mark on the empty expanse of the page.
Then smiles to herself, as she begins to draw a dream of an unknown future.
If anyone was ever to bother to listen they would realise that Joan had more stories to tell than you would ever imagine. Widowed, lonely, standing by her window watching the neighbours ignore her with their laughing children and partners poking barbecues in summer or digging the snow from their paths in winter.
In her younger days she had wondered if it was true that women become invisible after 50...and she felt at least for her that had been true. Her neighbours never came to check on her in the cold weather, during the lockdowns or invited her to their garden parties. To them she was just some old lady who may as well not have existed. Some rich old lady, as she was away much of the time enjoying her cruises.
Cruise ships were when Joan’s world came to life. Lunch at the captain's table, crew that always made sure she was happy and her drink of choice by her side, and entertainers who always made her feel included. Joan’s world grew as she left her front door to the gangway of the ship from a tiny pinprick to the whole world. The friends she made each trip would laugh with her late into the evening.
Joan watched the new neighbour next door pull up in his car with his coiffed stubble and well groomed man bun. “Stupid vegan hippy type” she muttered, then checked herself for making assumptions based on appearances. After all, she hated it when people did it to her. Nobody would assume she had used these long lonely evenings after her silver surfers course to learn computer hacking, coding and all the other high tech skills.
If the neighbours had taken the time to get to know her they would know the truth was she wasn't a rich old lady. It had never been easy to make ends meet even to pay the bills let alone afford fancy holidays until she had stumbled upon the idea of turning her invisibility to her advantage. All the nuisance callers, with their inane questions about whether she wanted her roof repaired, to join their religion or change her electricity supplier were happy to come in for a cup of tea. A tea laced with drowsy poison that made them succumb to sleepiness and confusion. Stealing their bank details and hacking into their bank accounts meant they money was often moved from their account to hers before they had even had their lifeless bodies thrown in the old bathtub of acid. Granted it took a while for the bodies to dissolve but she preferred to use her shower room now anyway.
The police smiled sweetly at her when making their door to door enquiries. Their forensic psychologist had told them to look for a young male, perhaps with a computer degree feeling disengaged from the world as their profile suspect so she never hit their radar. Oh the assumptions people make.
Noah was a quiet boy who rarely initiated conversation. His parents worried, but he was polite, always replying to questions and the many doctors they had consulted over his five years of life, had given him a clean bill of health. His Grandma called him a "thinker, in touch with a different world."
When his sister was born Noah surprised everyone. He approached the crib with tears in his eyes.
"She's an angel," he murmured.
Indeed, with her gorgeous chubby face, she did resemble the cherubs on the ceiling of the local church. They called her Angela, Noah called her Angel.
It was as if Noah had been saving his words for just this occasion. His parents were delighted, a new baby daughter and a now vocal son who spent hours gazing at her. Noah would ask Angela questions, pretending the baby could answer.
One day Noah's mother heard him ask,"Where are your wings little Angel?"
"Angela won't need wings on earth," she smiled gently; "she'll get them when she goes to heaven."
"I don't want her to go to heaven," Noah sobbed, "who will I talk to?"
"You have a lifetime to talk with your sister Noah, and you can always talk to me."
"You don't know the answers like Angel does," he replied. "Angel says she is leaving, she wasn't supposed to come."
"You're being silly, Angela isn't going anywhere, she's part of our family."
Noah bought his sister a present, ready for her first birthday and carefully hid it in his room.
Two weeks before Angela was one year old, she cried out suddenly and stopped breathing. Noah stood dry eyed as he watched his parents and the paramedics attempt to revive her.
"She couldn't grow her wings," he whispered. "She should have waited; I said I would help."
At the funeral, Noah placed Angela's birthday present on the coffin, a beautiful pair of iridescent fairy wings.
"You should have stayed little Angel," he admonished sadly. "I told you that you could have wings and still stay."
Standing at the edge of the world, with her hands clasped tightly at her chest, the young woman listened to the wind whispering to her. It asked her, “Could you do it all again? Could you live the way you have a second time, knowing all that you know now? Could you offer yourself up to the world once more, believing and searching for a purity that you never found?”
The young woman stared out at the immense landscape before her, a vast expanse of opalescent, milky-white cloud, lit up by soft and silent lightning. The fluctuating light reflected in her blurred, feather-covered eyes, healing them. She had never seen such scintillating flashes of opalescent gold, tamed fire caught on endless cloud, and she watched the quick tongues of flame diving in and out of the vast iridescent sky – or was it the sea? It was difficult to put a metaphor to the very pulse of dreams.
Still, all rhythm shared some common numerical heartbeat, and just as the waves of the sea washed up repeatedly against your bare ankles, returning pieces of yourself to you, so the wind’s whispering question crested once again in her mind: Could she live again, exactly the way she had? It was not the first time she had ever considered this question, of course, but she had never considered it as seriously as she did now. She thought back over the many years of her life for, though she looked young, she had actually lived many years on this earth. It was only when she began walking to this singular cliff, the very edge of the world, where all souls come to pass, that the years began to drop off of her body, the way one naturally sheds layer after layer of winter clothing when the glittering frost begins to thaw.
She was growing younger yet – or was she simply being healed? It was difficult to tell whether it was landscape of time or the soul inhabiting that landscape which was the constant reality. Now, with trembling fingers, the young girl removed the glasses on her face. For the first time in many years, she saw better without them. With her glasses off, she suddenly realized that it was not the wind that was speaking to her, but a pearl-silver, nearly translucent swallowtail butterfly, batting its gauzy wings mere inches from her face. She stared at the butterfly, pretending to think over its question, but the answer was already clear on her bright and hopeful face.
Hope – but for what? A future, always a future.
“Yes, so I thought,” the butterfly sighed softly. “That’s why human beings only live once in this world.” The butterfly began to say, “Step off - ” but she was already gone, nothing more than a startling flash of gold lightning, running jagged, wild, and free, along the endless dreamscape of the beyond.
He was not home until a quarter to twelve. His mother was seated in her rocking chair, withdrawn into herself. He stood next to her, tremulous, half ashamed. He knew his mother wanted to reprimand him.
“I like to meet her and talk to her, but I want to come home to you mother,” he said rather wearily.
“But you still go trapesing up there, miles and miles, only to get home at midnight. Is there no one else to talk to?”
“You don’t care about Sartre and Descartes,” he retorted bidding her a very abrupt goodnight.
There was a terse silence. The clock ticked loudly.
He woke up groggy and disoriented. Something was stifling him. He went straight up to the sink where his mother was washing up.
“Why don’t you like her?” he groaned in despair.
“I don’t know my son. I am sure I have tried to like her. I have made attempts, but I can’t – I just can’t! She delights – she delights as she whisks you off from me. She is not a simple girl, she wants to absorb you until there is nothing left of you, not for me, not even for yourself,” she wept tears of agony and distress, “she leaves me no room, she leaves you no room,” she howled piteously.
And he immediately hated his betrothed. When he believed she had wounded his mother, he loathed her, he loathed her enough to abandon her.
In a late February afternoon four years ago, John Stewart from the US was strolling through the streets of the modern urban section of Marrakech, Morocco. Rounding a corner, he spotted Ahmed, a young Moroccan. Colorfully dressed in costumes, Ahmed was sitting on a cement block underneath an equally colorful wall painted with the thematic seal of the local authority. Ahmed’s pose reminded John of French sculptor Rodin’s famous “Thinking Man” statue. What attracted John most was Ahmed’s unique multi-colored funny brimmed hat, totally in contrast to the gloom displayed on his face. John approached him to strike up a conversation. Ahmed was from a nearby village, but came to town every day dressed up in historic traditional costumes, so that the western tourists could snap a few pictures with him to post on their social media portals. In return, he expected a couple of bills of valuable western currencies to consider them to be his daily wage. Thanks to recent global technological revolution, he also had access to a cheap smartphone bringing the world news to him that affect his livelihood.
And on that day in 2017, it finally hit him. America just elected a new President at the end of a most divisive political process in its history when hate, insult and mockery of fellow human beings made up the platform of the winning candidate. From the well-heeled British tourists, he heard about the certainty of that country’s pulling away from the union that other European countries had been working so hardly to keep it together. He became aware of the moral failure of the German executives of a top car maker of that country, with their intention to cheat the fellow human beings in exchange of more profit. John asked Ahmed about his own country’s future outlook. He referred to John to the construction of the spectacular modern Hasan II Mosque in Casablanca (that John visited just a few days ago), for the legacy of the current ruler at a cost of more than half a billion Euros, the money which could have easily been utilized for betterment of healthcare, education and job creations for ordinary people like him. So, he was deeply pondering “Where our world was heading to?” instead of posing with the tourists.
John had no reasonable answer to Ahmed’s query to take away his gloom and make him funny again. In a world, where one percent of current population, amounting to 72 million had been living in tents as the refugees due to war, poverty and displacement, juxtaposed with the fact that only three richest people inside his own country owned more wealth than the poorest 50% of population amounting to 170 million people, John himself pondered “May be utopia has just been a concept, but isn’t human equality also about human dignity?”
Two gentlemen sat together for a while with no intention of posing for a picture for the virtual world.
In the stone church, she glanced towards the tall windows where bright milky clouds floated by. But these billowy wafts did not bring her peace but rather a heaviness in her breast. And, as the pastor spoke fervently about charity, she stopped listening. All she could feel was the loss, the loss of the man, the only one she had truly loved. He would never again see those puffs of purity scudding across the sky. Nor would he see their children playing, tumbling, and giggling on the lawn below them. He would not witness her tears falling unhindered from her lids as she pinned their matrimonial sheet to the line and searched the white wisps for some acknowledgment, some reassurance. And then, then, through the stained-glass window, she saw the sky change. The wind rose, a gray pall swiftly crossed the sky, and she heard it, a spring rain, unexpected, gentle, soothing to her soul. Yes, she thought, yes. You are still here.
“What in the world is that?”
“MTV,” he shouts, head still swaying.
“Yeah, I know that. But what is that, uh, noise?”
“Nirvana. They’re so bitc...uh, awesome. And they’re playing here in Honolulu next month. Pink’s Garage. I so have to go, Mom. I just have to.”
“Pink’s what? Oh, Nevermind. Will they provide ear plugs?” She cringes as she says it, both her age and inner Mom showing. “We’ll see...”
“Hey, third and final call. Time for dinner.” Mark shakes his head. Cameron, his 15-year-old son, lays sprawled on his bed, eyes glued to his iPhone, head bobbing to his Air Buds, not having heard a word. He steps to the teen’s side and taps him on the shoulder. “What’cha listening to?”
Cameron pulls the right side Bud from his ear. “Huh?”
“What are you listening to?”
“And what exactly is Tonal Tonic?”
“They’re a Hip-Hop/Rap/Electronic fusion. They’re pretty rad.”
“Yeah, fusion, Dad. You do know there is other music out there besides The Doors and Led Zeppelin, right?”
“I probably do, but choose to ignore.” Smiling, he tousles Cameron’s hair, then gestures toward the door. “Come on...let’s fusion with Mom at the dinner table.”
“What is that?” he asks.
“Remember Great-Grams Lucy left me those boxes?”
“Yeah, I guess...”
“They were stuffed with these, uh, records. And a stereo and speakers and this...” She stops for a moment, as if off in thought, then jumps up, moving to her dresser. There she stares at a device, its arm laying on a black plastic pancake that spins atop. “Turntable. It’s a turntable.”
Cameron nods, then meanders across to the line of boxes. “Great-Grams' old vinyl collection! I wondered what happened to those. Looks like she’s passed the torch to you.”
“Yeah. I’ve been listening to them, one after the other.” She reaches into the closest box, smiling as she grabs the top album – “Meet the Beatles.” “She called this one, ‘keen-o’.”
Note for Beatle nerds in the UK: The story refers to the American album 'Meet the Beatles' as opposed to the earlier UK version 'With the Beatles'. 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand' is only on the US album. Jim's got this right – editor.
Jake was a devoted high school teacher. Passionate about science, in and out of the classroom.
Unfortunate for him, attendance at lectures dwindled as the school year progressed. Students recognized his extensive knowledge, but he failed miserably in presentation.
One day at the chalkboard he glided past formulae he had written, and stumbled. Students sitting in the front row raced to assist him. School day over, he drove home baffled. How could he be so clumsy?
Entering his home, with an unintended pirouette on the rug, he realized his problem. The sole of one shoe was partially loose, flapping underneath. He knew what had to be done. The basement repair shop was waiting for the return of his shoes.
Word of the incident must’ve spread. Class attendance went up dramatically, likely due to curiosity. Perhaps sympathy. Students didn’t know why he fell and he had no intention of telling.
Another situation arose merely days later. To make room for papers on his desk, Jake pushed pens to the side. Several rolled onto the floor. He tried to reach them while on his chair. He got up and bent down from the waist with his back to the class. The pens were within his grasp.
Laughter spread throughout the classroom. Annoyed at not knowing the cause, Jake threatened the class with a detention. Peace erupted spontaneously.
He was happy to return home and be greeted by his smiling wife.
“You’re finally wearing the Santa boxers I gave you,” she exclaimed.
“How do you know?” he grunted, taking off his glue-glistening shoes.
“I can see them in the slit between your buttocks,” she chortled. “Those pants need to go.”
“But they’re my ONLY better pants!”
“I’m taking you shopping, mister. No buts! New pants, and while we’re at it, new shoes.”