The Garbage Man

litter

“So, you admit you’re guilty?”

Officer Paul George had only started his interview, yet his scowl made it clear his patience was already paper-thin. But Nelson Edwards had never been in a police department before. He took a minute to look around. Six officers, both uniformed and in plain clothes, sat at or stood over desks, chatting about new and old arrests and active cases. Computer keyboards softly transferred information to the glowing desktop screens. One antique Selectric typewriter clacked away in a far corner of the room, operated by a cop who appeared to be as much an antique as the device. Radios blurted static-laced cop lingo. A wall clock reading 9 o-clock hung on a wall painted a flat, dull, bureaucratic gray green.

Finally, the officer broke the silence. “Well?”

He stared at George for a second. “This is different than what I expected.”

“What?”

“The station,” Nelson said. “I mean, I’ve never seen the inside of a police station. Ever. For anything. Heck, I’ve never even really talked to a cop until I met you tonight. No speeding tickets, no insurance reports. Nothing.”

“I’m glad to hear you’ve been such an upstanding citizen up ‘til now,” George said. The corners of his tired eyes crinkled with not-so-subtle sarcasm.

“It’s not that, it’s just that my only image of the police has come from television – you know, blaring sirens, hookers lined up on a bench, drunks throwing up in a cell.”

“Well this may come as a surprise to you, Mr. Edwards, but television isn’t always accurate. Not even those so-called reality shows.”

“Oh, I know that.” Nelson laughed at what he took to be the cop’s attempt at humor.

George’s sharp stare and what sounded like a growl confirmed in no uncertain terms Nelson had misunderstood.

“Alright now Johnny Clean Cut, knock off the BS and answer my question,” George demanded. “Do you admit you’re guilty of shooting the victim?”

Nelson took a deep breath and considered his options. “Look, I am many things, but I am not one to lie. I believe the truth is always the best route…”

“Well I am so glad to hear that…”

“…and the truth is, I shot the guy…”

“Ok, now we’re getting somewhere…”

“…but that doesn’t mean I’m guilty.”

George looked at Nelson again like he’d just flicked him in the ear.

“What does that mean, exactly?”

Nelson paused a split second, trying to put his thoughts in an order that would hopefully make as much sense to the cop as to himself. “It means that I shot him. But ‘guilt’ is a philosophical expression of regret for one’s actions. And I don’t regret shooting him at all. Not one bit.”

George guffawed.

“Wow! I haven’t heard that much semantic mumbo-jumbo since my Ethics 101 class in college!”

“Forgive me, but you’re wrong,” Nelson said, modulating his tone of voice, not wanting to throw more gas on a potential fire. “This isn’t just semantics,” he continued. “I am very deliberate with my words.  I work hard to say exactly what I mean, and to mean exactly what I say. And what I mean is, I shot him, but I felt – feel – entirely justified.”

“Justified or not, it’s still illegal. You can’t just go around shooting people just because they do something you don’t like. We don’t want or need any of that movie vigilante nonsense.”

“Now wait just a minute!” Nelson rose quickly, forgetting his right hand was cuffed to the chair back. The chair tipped forward, banging against the desk. Every officer in the room instinctively spun toward the metallic clang. Several dropped to their knees and simultaneously drew their guns.

George quickly waved his hands toward the wall of blue that had formed. “Stand down, everyone, stand down,” he said. “It’s alright,” he reassured, order now restored. “Just a moment of insanity on Mr. Edwards’ part. It’s passed. We’re all good.”

Nelson stood still as a statue, not daring to breath or even blink until all the officers re-holstered their firearms. He trusted the police, generally speaking. As much as anyone else who never encountered them. Still, he’d seen all the news stories about rogue cops shooting young black men to maintain a healthy dose of life-preserving doubt. Not that he was young or black, but it never hurts to be careful, he reminded himself. They slowly turned back to their paperwork. One or two focused a cautious eye in his direction for several minutes.

“Well, I have to say, that looked a lot more like television.” Nelson smiled involuntarily, exhaled and sat down gingerly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to cause a fuss. I just want it clear that I had a very good reason for doing what I did.”

“Fine.” George took his pen back into his left hand and hovered it over the yellow legal pad slanted across his desk. “Understand I’m not making any legal judgments, but for the sake of moving this along, I’ll take you at your word. Now tell me exactly what happened.”

***

“Mom, where are you?”

“I’m up here, honey. Hold on, I’ll be right down.” Helen quickly folded the last few items in the laundry basket, laid them on the appropriate dressers for herself and Nelson and bounded down the stairs.

Melissa scolded her mother. “Hey, be careful! You’re not a spring chicken anymore.”

“Ha, ha, very funny,” Helen said. She wrapped her arms around her oldest daughter and held her tightly, her chin resting easily on the younger woman’s shoulder. “It’s amazing, but you still smell the same now at twenty-three as you did when you were a baby.”

Melissa gently broke the hug and laughed. “I certainly hope not, considering what I spent on this perfume, and knowing how bad babies can smell sometimes.”

“You know what I mean,” Helen said. She smiled gently at her daughter, now a grown woman. “You’ll understand someday when you’re a mother.”

“Well, I am not interested in having a baby any time soon so it may be a while.” Melissa returned her mother’s smile, love lighting her eyes. “Where’s Dad?”

“Your father? I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? You guys didn’t have a fight, did you?”

“No! Not at all.” Helen sat on the couch and patted the spot next to her. Melissa wedged herself into the corner of the couch and turned to face her mom. “I mean, he went for a walk about an hour ago and I haven’t heard from him.”

Melissa’s eyes crossed the living room to the family dog who lay snoring on his oversize pillow bed near the television. “Doesn’t he usually take Duncan with him?”

“Usually,” Helen said, “but not always. Sometimes he just goes off by himself.”

Melissa looked over her mother’s shoulder at the graying sky in the picture window. “This late? It’s getting dark out there.”

“Sweetie, I understand, but after nearly forty years, I don’t ask anymore.” Helen chuckled. “That’s something else you’ll learn if you’re very, very lucky.” She rolled her eyes. Melissa laughed sympathetically. She understood her father’s idiosyncrasies well enough to know why her mother sometimes opted for blissful ignorance.

“Seriously, I’m not concerned. Your dad just needs some time and room to burn off whatever fog is in his head,” Helen said. “He’s a good man and he’s earned that much. The only thing that bothers me is, sometimes he seems more upset when he comes back. Well, that and his outfit.”

“His outfit?”

“Yes. Once in a while, especially when he goes out later in the day like this, he wears his black sweatshirt and sweatpants. I’m always worried that he’s going to get hit by a car crossing the street or walking down that path through the park. You know how dark it gets in there under those trees. I’ve told him and told him to wear something easier for people to see, but you know your father. You can’t tell him anything.”

***

Officer George raised his pen above his yellow legal pad, already graffiti-ed with indecipherable notes. “OK, start from the beginning.”

“Um…” Nelson’s eyes fell to the pad and rose again to George’s face.

“What is it, Mr. Edwards?”

“Well, are you going to write down my statement? As opposed to typing it, I mean?”

George’s forehead wrinkled with confusion. “What?”

“Not to cast aspersions,” Nelson said. “I mean, my handwriting is atrocious too. It’s so bad that sometimes I can’t read what I wrote later, and I just want to make sure you get this right.”

“Listen, Mr. Edwards,” George said, not a sliver of patience offered or even hinted.  “Not that it makes any difference to you, but I am not a great typist. I write now, type later. I’m kind of ‘old school’ that way. Plus, you will get a chance to review everything before I ever put fingers on the keyboard. I have been a police officer for twenty-four years now, and every single second of my twenty-four years of experience is strongly suggesting you focus a little more on what you’re going to say and a little less on how I am going to write it down.”

The cop made a show of gently laying the offending pen on the notepad. Then he turned slightly from Nelson, took a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped a speck of spittle from the corner of his lips. He turned back and raised the pen again, his now-clean lips smiling. “Can we do this now?”

litter 1Nelson lowered his head and laughed a little to himself. “Yes, sir. Really, there’s not much to tell. A couple nights ago, I went to the park near my house to take a walk as I do every night. And there was garbage all over the path, in the bushes and flower beds, everywhere. Just like every night. Dirty paper plates. Styrofoam takeout boxes. Fast food bags and cups – and not always empty, either. Plastic water bottles. Beer cans and booze bottles in the grass. Broken glass on the sidewalks where kids walk to the elementary school – the elementary school, for goodness sakes!” Nelson shook his head.

George cut him off. “And what? This made you mad enough to go back tonight and shoot someone?”

“Well, not exactly.”

“Well, what, exactly?” George pressed.

“The garbage made me mad, sure. So did the fact that I called the city seven times and asked them to either come clean it up or have the police do a better job patrolling the park” – Nelson quickly caught himself – “present company excluded of course…”

“Of course.”

“No, what really made me mad, and not just this time, but every night for weeks, months, heck the last couple of years since I’ve started walking each night, is that there are garbage cans every two or three hundred yards along the path.” Nelson started to rise again but he quickly checked the impulse as the other officers pivoted toward his voice.

George took up Nelson’s story. “So, you put on dark clothes, hid in the underbrush along the path, waited there until someone came along and littered, and you shot him. Is that it?”

Nelson paused. The words sounded silly coming out of the cop’s mouth. Frivolous. But Nelson knew to the core of his being, that he was right, no matter how ridiculous things appeared. “Right,” he said simply.

“Fine,” George exhaled as if he’d won a battle.

Nelson looked back at the clock on the wall. He couldn’t believe he’d been there an hour already. “No!” Nelson said, not even bothering to try to contain his contempt now. “I shot him because he has no respect. Not for the law, or the environment or for society. Not for our community and the neighborhood we all share. Most of all, for anyone else. They’re selfish and lazy. Pigs, every one of them. They think the world is theirs and they’re the only ones in it.”

George stared at Edwards, waiting for him to say something he could legally explain, if not outright defend.

“I mean, there is so much ugliness in this world. People hurting their kids and their spouses. Bullying everywhere. Politicians dividinlitter 2g us so they can conquer each other. Religious hypocrites hating and rejecting anyone who dares to believe something different from them,” Nelson explained.

“I get all that, but…”

“No buts! No more buts!” Nelson slammed his free hand on George’s desk. He took a breath, struggling again to contain his temper, handcuffs and police officers and guns and jail cells be damned. “I mean, it’s not that hard! Put your goddamn trash in the cans! Is that so much to ask?”

“Look, most of the time I simply pick up what I can and throw it away,” Nelson said, somewhat sheepishly. “I tell myself that bending over fifty times a mile is good cardio. But I decided a couple days ago that I’ve had enough. Just like in the movie: ‘I am mad as hell, and I am not going to take it anymore!’”

George stared at Nelson. “What are you talking about?”

Network,” Nelson said. “The classic film? You’ve never seen it?”

“Sorry,” George said. “No.”

Nelson shook his head and continued. “Look, I’m a simple guy. I don’t ask for much. I try to be a good neighbor. I help at church. I don’t live high off the hog. My wife and I, we’re not flashy. We have a nice, little house that we built into a home first for us, then for our kids, now for our grand kids.”

“Oh, you have grandchildren?”

“Not yet, but maybe some day. And when we do, guys like me, we just want to be able to enjoy whatever time we have left in a world that doesn’t laugh at us or spit in our faces.”

Officer George reflexively reached for his handkerchief again, but Nelson waved him off. “No, you’re fine. I wasn’t talking about you. I’m talking about the guy I shot, and everyone like him.”

“So, did you know this person?”

“No. But why does that even matter? He’s the same as all the rest of these jerks who can’t even take the time to give two craps about anyone else. I don’t know him, same as he doesn’t know me. But we shouldn’t have to know someone to care for them, to respect their place in the world. We all share a little bit of space in this world. Yet he has no problem violating that space which, for a guy like me, is sacred. I just want a place in my tiny little corner that’s safe and clean and quiet. Someplace I can go to get away from all the other crap in the world today without having to step over piles of garbage.”

Nelson slumped back into the chair. As usual, the relief of honesty made him feel palpably lighter. Officer George scribbled furiously, fighting to capture every word of Nelson’s statement. Finally, he stopped writing and stared at the page. After what seemed like minutes of silence, he looked up at the captive culprit.

“Mr. Edwards, no one will ever mistake me for one of those left-wing tree hugger types, but I do enjoy the outdoors every now and again, so I understand your frustration with litter — ”

“No sir, not with litter. With the litter bugs.” Nelson purposely lowered his voice.

“Right.” The cop wrote ‘B-U-G-S’ in the margin of his notepad, then pointed at the page. “Got it. Litter BUGS. Either way, like I said before, you can’t just go around shooting people who do things you don’t like.”

Nelson sensed the hammer was about to fall. He stared into his lap.

“I get where you’re coming from,” George continued, “but I have to charge you with something.”

“Like what?” Nelson asked, hoping he wouldn’t spend too much time behind bars.

“All things considered, and especially since the guy wasn’t really hurt, we’re probably looking at a misdemeanor of some kind.”

Nelson took a breath, one-part relief, one-part confusion, one-part suspicion. “Just a misdemeanor? What’s the penalty?”

“Depends. Judge’s discretion. Could be a $500 fine, could be community service.”

“Community service? Like what?”

“Usually, picking up trash,” George said. It was his turn to try to stifle a laugh. “You’re just lucky it was only a paintball gun.”

“No, he’s lucky it was just a paintball gun!” Nelson snapped, then quickly caught himself. “Well of course it was just a paintball gun. I may be mad, but I’m not crazy. I didn’t want to hurt anyone, I just wanted to teach someone a lesson. He’s lucky I didn’t paint a big ‘LB’ on his chest.”

Once again, George offered only a blank stare.

“Like in The Scarlet Letter?” Nelson prodded. “Hester Prynne? Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale? C’mon, really? You must know the Scarlet Letter. Where did you go to school anyway?”

George cocked his right eyebrow. “Mr. Edwards, please don’t push your luck.”

“No sir. I mean, yes sir.”

Nelson looked back at the wall clock. Another thirty minutes had evaporated. He realized he hadn’t called his wife. Officer George had started filling a form on his computer. “Sir, I never did get my one phone call.”

Officer George nodded toward his desk phone, his eyes locked on the screen as two fingers hunted and pecked on the keyboard. “Feel free,” he said.

“Um, sir, I can’t reach…” Nelson rattled his cuffed right hand.

“You’re pushing again, Mr. Edwards.”

***

Helen picked up the chiming phone.

“Nelson? Honey, where are you? Melissa is here. She’s been waiting for you since just after you left. We thought maybe you got lost. You are getting older, you know.” She looked at her daughter and smiled at her gibe and started to roll her eyes again.

Her eyes suddenly stopped, mid-roll. “What? Where? The police station?” Helen said.

“What’s wrong Mom? Is Dad OK?”

Helen shook her head and held up a finger to Melissa. “What in the world…What did you do?”

Nelson gripped the receiver with his free left hand. He looked at Officer George still slowly completing on his report. He debated for a second how to answer. He wanted to be honest but not alarm her.

Just then, another officer escorted a tall, twenty-something man across the other end of the office toward the holding pen. The young man wore a rainbow of blue and green and pink and red and orange and yellow quarter and half-dollar sized splotches, some still dripping down his grimy shirt and torn jeans. Nelson caught the man’s eye, glowering at him until the cell door clicked shut.

“Let’s just say I was taking out the trash.”

 

God Walks Into a Bar…

bar3

As I’ve shared before, my writers’ group often creates something around a unique topic, theme or word. This month, the challenge was to write a “Post Fourth of July” piece about “Freedom” — i.e., no fireworks. Here’s mine. 

GOD WALKS INTO A BAR…

Just so we’re clear: I am God.

Yes, that God. Well, the only God, if you want to be technical, although at one time many years ago there were several other so-called “gods” who got a lot of attention from various prophets and spiritual leaders of all kinds, but trust Me on this, there is only one, and I AM…Who AM.

Ha! You see what I did there? No pronouns, no gender. That tends to throw you a bit, but it is what it is, and I am what I AM. Anyway, I am introducing myself right from the start so that there’s no question, no doubt, and worst of all, no nit-picking from the literary types who may be reading this as to why the narrator in this story knows what everyone is thinking.

Which is kind of a neat twist, since so many of My Creation have dared to think that they knew what I was thinking. Ha! My thoughts are so much bigger than your ability to comprehend. It’s really kind of silly for you to even try. I kept telling you that for a long time and some of you got it, but then you got into the Faith business and you had to have something to sell to the masses. I get it, really, I do. I don’t like it…but that’s for another conversation.

Sorry! I got sidetracked there a bit. Fair warning, I sometimes do that. I don’t talk directly to My Creation very often, no matter what those Fundamentalists think. It’s too hard. I can’t ever get a word in edgewise…so when I do have a chance to talk, I sometimes overshare…

So, as you may have heard, I like to visit My Creation every now and then just to check things out, chat a bit, hear what you have to say. You’d think social media would have made that easier, since everyone can share their every thought about everything all the time. About that, I’ll just say this: just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. And contrary to popular belief, social media is not Satan’s handiwork. Not because he couldn’t. He’s very clever. I know from first-hand experience. Rather, he’s just not that evil. I mean, come on…to create something that feeds humanity’s most base, arrogant, self-centered instincts and make it as close as a few easy clicks on a computer with no awareness much less regard for the possible consequences? Only Man would do that. Still, Old Goat Face sure appreciates it. And yes, he does have accounts on all the biggies: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Of course, Snapchat is his favorite.

Darn it, I got sidetracked again. See what I mean?

So, to the point: I stopped at a local bar recently and sat down next to a patron. It doesn’t really matter who it was. You’re all the same to Me. Besides, this is just a random sampling, not a scientific process (and yes, I love science. Who do you think invented science? Although Satan had a hoof, er, I mean, a hand in trigonometry…)

But, for the sake of this story, let’s just say it was an English-speaking American male, and I spoke to him as a Christian, since that’s the faith system he was most familiar with. Really though, it could be any faith and any religion. Frankly, they’re all the same, and they all end with Me, no matter what you call Me, or how you try to talk to Me. I’ve never understood why My Creation has never understood that. It’s not a great mystery. I mean, I understand, of course! There’s political power in division that unity simply doesn’t offer. What I mean is, I don’t understand why you don’t understand. That kind of power creates more trouble than it’s worth. But again, I digress…

Anyway, I introduced myself. And, My Creation doubted Me. No surprise. All that chitter-chatter about faith and trust usually goes right out the door when someone sits down next to you claiming to be Me. It happens a lot, actually. Suffice it to say, I knew what was coming.

“So, you’re God, eh?” he said. He peered at the mirror behind the bar. He was trying to see if My reflection was there next to his own between the bottles of hard liquor. It was.

“Hey, cut that out! I’m not a vampire,” I said, startling him. His eyes snapped sheepishly back to mine, embarrassed at having been caught.

“Ok, well if you’re God, then prove it.”

“Oh, that’s not a good start,” I said. “Didn’t you pay any attention in Sunday School? The Egyptians and the Red Sea? The ten commandments and the golden calf? Forty years walking in circles in the desert? The ending of ‘Lost’? Testing Me usually doesn’t end well.”

“OK, let’s just say you’re God.”

“I AM.”

“Then what’s your name?”

“I just told you. I AM. I knew what you were thinking and answered your question before you could even ask it. Because I’m you know, I’m God.

“Fine, Mister I AM.”

“Not Mister.”

“Missus? You mean, like Mother Nature?”

“Nope, not Missus either. Just, I AM.”

Uncertainty clouded his eyes, but he still played along. I have to say I appreciate honest pragmatism in My Creation. It helps weed out the real weirdos. People who believe everything will believe anything. Always dangerous.

“Ok, well then, can I buy you a drink?” he offered.

“Certainly.”

“Really? I thought drinking was a sin.”

“Not at all. What you do after you drink is sometimes sinful but drinking itself is fine. I want My Creation to enjoy the life I’ve given you – in moderation, of course! I love a good drink every now and again. Especially at weddings.”

“Great. What’ll it be?”

I looked him square in the eye. “Truthfully, I like all fermented beverages, but wine is my favorite. Are you sure you’ve heard about Me?”

He ordered a glass of a decent Merlot for Me, and another swill beer for himself. Yes, it is true, some beers and wines are better than others, and this was one of the cheapest and thinnest around. The kind you drink to get drunk, rather than to enjoy My handiwork. Ugh! But he was buying so what could I say?

He wound up to ask another question. “Now, please don’t get angry. I don’t want any floods. I left my ark at home!”

“Good one!” Honestly, it was not a particularly clever retort, but I try to ease My Creation’s heart in many ways. Laughter is one of the best. In cases like this a little white lie doesn’t hurt anything.

“I don’t mean to test you or make you mad, but if you’re God, like you say…” – he leaned over his drink and nudged Me in the ribs with his elbow and winked – “…then what was the greatest thing you ever gave us?”

“What is the greatest thing I ever gave My Creation. Not was. Is. The greatest thing I ever gave you is the gift that keeps on giving, as you like to say.”

“Ah! Mister Tricky with the Words!”

“To answer your question, the greatest gift I ever gave My Creation is…”

“Wait, I know this one: Your son, Jesus.”

“Yes.”

“Ha! Score one for the doubting human!” He nodded his triumph.

“And no.”

“What?” His eyes spun with puzzlement. Or maybe it was the booze.

“You see, Jesus was indeed my son, and he did indeed embody my love and grace better than any of you, but you’re all my children, same as he was. You all have the exact same abilities, the same skills, the same resources as he did. The only difference was, he listened better.”

I paused to let that golden nugget settle in his mental prospecting pan.

“No, my greatest gift to all of you was something simpler, yet infinitely more difficult: Freedom.”

“Come again?”

“Freedom. Free will. The ability to choose. To determine what you will do. How you will treat others. Who you will love. Where and when – and even if – you will come home to Me. It’s what puts you atop the rest of My Creation.”

I sipped my wine, letting it roll around my tongue. Delicious! Grapes are truly one of My most inspired inventions.

“Well, that and opposable thumbs,” I added. Another sip, swirl and swallow.

“And I’d also throw self-awareness in there, though most of you are so self-absorbed that it’s impossible to be aware of anything, most especially yourselves.”

He downed his beer and placed the empty mug on the bar. He paused. “Huh…that’s pretty deep.”

“Well, I am God. ‘Deep’ is kind of my thing.”

“Ok, supposing you are actually who you say you are…”

“I AM.”

“Right, right, that again. Supposing you are who you say you am…er, I mean, who you are…oh man, now you’ve got me all twisted up!” He took a deep breath, then tried again. “What I am trying to say is, I suppose then we’ve really fucked things up – oops, forgive my language!”

“Don’t worry about it! Remember, I invented all words, not just The Word.” Not a bad pun, if I do say so myself – and I’ve made a lot of them through the millennia. I offered a toothy grin.

“Hardy har, har…very funny.”

His brain struggled to gather itself. I’d really put a lot on his mental plate, and it showed, but that’s not my fault. Very few of you use more than a fraction of the intellect I gave you.

“So, you’re saying we’re responsible for just about every bad thing in our lives because of the choices we make?”

“Just about.”

“War?”

“Yep.”

“Starvation?”

“Uh-huh.”

“The Holocaust.”

“That was a bad one.”

“Trump?”

“You even have to ask?”

“What about pain and disease?”

“Most of those are just a part of life. Your body is a glorious machine. All machines break. But yes, sometimes they break sooner or more often because of how you treat them.”

His mouth hung agape. I gently pushed his chin up until his lips met. Finally, he spoke. “If you’re the parent of everyone as you say, then you must be pretty mad at us.”

“I have to be honest, you know, being God and all. It’s been pretty disappointing.”

The weight of a thousand simultaneous guilty thoughts dragged his gaze down to his hands.

“But there have been a few encouraging exceptions. Joan of Arc, Ghandi, Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln, that little girl who stood up to the Taliban even after they shot her in the head.”

He smiled, relieved.

“And I have to say, Ringo Starr.”

“Ringo? Ringo is your favorite Beatle?”

“Without question. I love his whole ‘Peace and Love’ thing. Comes straight from his heart. He really seems to get it.”

“Wow! So, then, why in the world would you stick with us? Why haven’t you – what’s the word? Smite? – Why didn’t you smite us all a long time ago?”

“For the same reason your parents didn’t ‘smite’ you when they learned that you crashed the car when you went on a joy ride with your girlfriend while they were gone on vacation.”

His brow crinkled.

“How did you know about…”

I stared at him as hard as I could.

“Oh, that’s right…God.”

“And the answer is, because I know I raised you better, and I have faith that you will eventually do the right thing. Which, by the way, is my favorite Spike Lee movie.”

A hesitant smile peeked from his eyes. “Really? After everything we’ve done?”

“Of course. I know in my heart that you’ll get there eventually. Listen: there’s a lot of hooey in your holy books. But you know the part about me making you in my image?”

He nodded.

“That part is absolutely true. And listen, the fact of the matter is, I’ve made mistakes myself.”

“Really?” He laughed a little. “God has made mistakes?”

“Of course. Have you seen the platypus? I could never quite get that one right. The point is, I believe in you, even if you don’t believe in Me.”

Clearly my message hit him like a ton of bricks. Or he’d finally had too much to drink. Either way, he shook his head. Confusion skittered across his brain like water bugs on a pond. He didn’t speak for several minutes, not knowing what quite to say. Finally, he broke the silence.

“Hey, do you want another glass of wine?”

“That’s very kind. Thank you.”

As he waved at the bartender, I reached over to the water bottle sitting at the edge of the bar. I held my hand over the top and…well, you know. He turned back, looked at the bottle, then my glass, then at Me.

“Really?” he said. “You couldn’t just wait for me to order you another glass?”

“Well I could have, but why waste good water?” I smiled.

I poured a glass of the most magnificent Cabernet Sauvignon. Deep purple. Lush, dark berry flavors. Bold and complex finish, not too heavy on the palette.

Dare I say, it was heavenly.

 

 

 

Caught In A Trap

elvisMy writers group occasionally creates something around a particular word, idea, style, etc. This month, the post-Valentines Day challenge was to write something around the word “hearbreak.” Here’s mine. 

P.S. — I don’t write a lot of fiction, so just letting you know that this is fiction…or is it???

CAUGHT IN A TRAP

I don’t know why I did it, really. I’ve never been much of a bar person.

I guess I was just tired of hanging around my hotel room three days into a week-long business trip to Memphis. So, I wandered out onto the evening shade, the streetlights like little moons hung every few feet, brightening the otherwise-dark sidewalk along Beale Street.

Memphis is an amazing place. Like a lot of Southern towns born and bred in the bloody brutality of slavery, its culture now celebrates its African American roots in many ways, most especially its music – that wonderful, weird, exhilaratingly American mix of jazz and blues and gospel and country that we call rock and roll that oozes out of every building like summer sweat from the pores on your forehead.

Anyway, I had nothing else to do. The sun had gone down two hours ago but it still had to be at least 95 degrees, and so humid that even my boxers felt damp under my pants. This kind of weather is just a fact of life for Southerners. But it turns Northern brains to oatmeal.

So, I ducked into a doorway under a faded sign reading “Aaron’s Pub.” Tiny, dark and nearly empty, calling it a pub gives it too much credit. Maybe on its better days it had ambitions to be a saloon. But tonight, ambition was nowhere to be found, unless it was hidden in the muck on the floor that kept tugging at my shoes.  A bitter swirl of stale beer, cigarettes, vomit and bleach waged war on my nostrils. Still, I was hungry, thirsty and bored, so I sat on a spinning, sticky, vinyl-covered stool and carefully sheeted the bar under my forearms with a layer of paper napkins. I stared hopefully at the sign on the wall behind the cash register, but it was so dark in there that I couldn’t make out the drinks. Finally, the bartender came over.

“What’ll you have?”

“I don’t know. Either it’s too dark in here or my eyes are worse than I thought, but I can’t read what you’ve got.” I pointed toward the sign as if the bartender didn’t know it was there. His head swiveled slowly toward it, then back to me.

“Naw, it ain’t your eyes,” he said, smiling through a noticeable but not overly thick twang. “It’s definitely dark in here. The owners like to keep it that way. Gives our fine clientele a little bit of privacy.” He nodded toward a booth in the far end of the bar where two people – I couldn’t tell if it was a man and woman, two men, two women, or some new species science hadn’t identified yet – sat wedged into the seat and into each other.

Now I smiled, the ice broken and glad that it wasn’t just my blurring, middle-age vision. “Ah. I understand. Well sir, I guess I’ll just have a Jameson’s on the rocks then.”

“Good call,” he said, nodding approval. “The hard stuff always goes down easy on a night like this. Name’s Baldwin.” He offered a thin, smallish, dark-skinned hand. “As in James. My Mama loved him so much she bought everything he ever wrote. She kept all his books but gave me his name.”

He handed me a short glass and tendered another smile, happy with his own well-worn joke. I swirled the glass, watching the amber fire dance over the frozen, clinking stones, then raised it to my lips. The whiskey cooled my tongue and throat and I knew I had made a good choice to come in here.

“Oh my…Baldwin, I have to tell you, that is good, my friend.” Another longer sip and deeper swallow. “The last three days have been the longest week of my life. But this helps a lot.” I tipped the glass in his direction. “Cheers.” I finished the drink quickly – much faster than I should have, I know, but in the moment, I needed it. “Hit me again.”

“Yessir. Hey, where y ’all from?” He topped off the glass.

“Chicago. Here for business and hating every minute of it. But don’t worry about me. I am sure you hear this kind of thing all the time.”

“Yessir, I do. But that don’t make it any less true for you. And your truth is my truth, so long as you’re paying and I’m pouring.” Another reedy laugh at what must have been a favorite from his standard arsenal of bar chatter. Normally I am not much for small talk, but somehow just shooting the shit with this skinny, balding, middle-aged African-American bartender on a hot Southern Night was just what I needed at that moment.

As we chatted about everything and nothing, I snuck another peak at the mystery couple. They had moved from the booth to the eight-by-eight linoleum patch that loosely qualified as a dance floor. They held each other tight – so that I still couldn’t tell who was who or what was what, for that matter — kind of shuffling in place in front of an Elvis impersonator singing to a tape machine.

“Hey, Baldwin. Who’s that guy?” I rattled the ice in my glass toward the far end of the room.

“Him? Not sure what his real name is. He insists we just call him the Big E. Or Mr. Presley. Or just Elvis.” Baldwin flicked a damp dish rag at a stain about two stools down from mine.

I chuckled. I’d seen lots of Elvis impersonators on these stupid business trips – and magicians and musicians who used to be stars but are now on their way down the fame ladder, you name it. They’re good corporate entertainment. Popular with most people, uncontroversial, and cheap. But there was something unique about this guy. He was good. Really good. When he finished his set, I walked over to him.

“Hey, how are you?” We shook hands. His hand, and the rest of him, looked older up close now that I could see him more clearly in the faint neon glow. “You were pretty terrific up there.”

He wiped his brow with one of the four or five silk scarves always hanging around the neck of a guy performing the slightly overweight, bedazzled, caped, giant-collared, jump-suited, ginormous side-burned, mid-1970s version of Elvis. “Well, thank you. Thank you very much!” he said, almost too predictably, through a sneer.

I laughed.

“What’s so funny?” He stood up straight. I guess he was about six feet tall.

“Oh, nothing. I’m sorry, I just thought the whole ‘Thank you very much’ thing was all part of the act. I didn’t mean any offense. In fact, just the opposite. You’re very good. Maybe the best I’ve seen.”

“The best what?” The words slid easily through his baritone drawl.

“Well…” I was slightly confused by his question… “the best Elvis impersonator, of course!” He looked a little pissed off, but I didn’t know why. I was just trying to pay the guy a compliment.

“I’m not impersonatin’ nothing. I’m really Elvis.”

“Ok then ‘Elvis’”I made air quotes – “I seem to recall that you died in 1977. How is it that you’re here in Memphis in 2019?”

“Because I wanted to disappear, so that’s what I did. I was tired of performing, the drugs were killing me, my records were still selling, but I just wasn’t feeling it. I felt like everything was just on auto-pilot. I wasn’t, I don’t know, me anymore. Colonel Parker, we didn’t always agree, but he was a smart guy. We figured out a way for me to disappear, and I did for a few years, just long enough for people to kind of move on, get over me.”

Now I really let loose with a huge guffaw. “Riiigggghhhtt!” I winked to show I was willing to play along. “I remember hearing stories about you working in a grocery store in Kalamazoo, Michigan.”

“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about. Maybe that was one of them impersonators. The closest I ever got to Kalamazoo was playing Detroit a few times,” he said, no wink.

“Ok, if you say so. Well, if that’s all true, then what are you doing here?”

“Well I still like to sing, so I do this little show. And like you said, there are so many people pretending to be me that no one suspects that I’m really me. Kinda like I’m hiding in plain sight.”

For a second, I flashed back to how, just a couple hours ago, I almost walked past this place. Now there I was, laughing out loud, amazed and impressed by his total commitment to character.

“You don’t believe me. Go on, test me. Ask me anything you want.”

“Ok, how long have you been doing this?”

“Doing what? Singing? ‘Bout eighty years, I guess. Mama always said I sang my first song when I was four, so…”

As a hard-core “Elvis-storian” (as we super fans call ourselves,) I know a lot of Elvis trivia and facts. The easiest one, of course, is his birthday. January 8, 1935. Which would make this guy eighty-four. I guess it’s reasonable that he’d have started singing at four,so eight years would be right, mathematically if not logically.

“Ok, that’s pretty good. But what’s your favorite food.”

“C’mon man, don’t waste my time. I have to sing again in fifteen minutes.”

“What? You don’t know your favorite food?”

“…Peanut butter, bacon and banana sandwiches.” Now Elvis – I mean, this guy playing Elvis – sneered at me again. “Cooked on a griddle, the way Mama used to do. Go on, ask something else.”

I peppered him with everything I knew about Elvis Presley. Favorite drinks. Stories about women. Career stats. His friendship with Nixon. Whether he really shot up that hotel television. He answered every question, returned every detail I lobbed.

“Alright, alright, maybe you are the real Elvis.” For a brief second, the idea didn’t seem entirely impossible. Maybe he’d been doing this act for so long that he had convinced himself that he was telling the truth…Or maybe he truly was Elvis Presley, hiding out…After all, he was about the right age and height, and his voice was still beautiful even here in a hole-in-the-wall, smoke-filled bar…

My thoughts started to swim in the brown ether that had migrated from my belly to my brain. Then logic slapped me hard and sobered me up.

“What am I saying? Sure, you knew a lot of information about Elvis, but that doesn’t prove anything. Anyone could google that stuff. If you’re Elvis Presley – the real Elvis Presley — tell me something that no one else would know about you.”

He turned and stood with his back to me for a few seconds, futzing with one of the cords plugged into his tape machine. When he turned back, he looked so sad that I instantly felt bad for giving him a hard time. Elvis or no Elvis, this guy was suddenly an old man carrying a heavy heart on his fake-jeweled sleeve.

“Ok,” he said slowly. “I’ll tell you something I never told anyone but ‘Cilla.”

He took a minute, apparently gathering his thoughts. “I have always hated being called the King of Rock and roll.”

I heard what he said, but for some reason the words didn’t register. “What are you saying? You’re sorry about your career? The impact you had on popular music and culture and…and…well, everything?”

“Naw, not that.” His voice slipped back into a crawling drawl. “I’m real happy with the way my life went, mostly. I worked harder and sacrificed a lot more than anybody will ever know. I’m proud for all the gold records, the way ‘Cilla took over my estate, how Lisa Marie grew up, all of that. Hell, I’m even proud of a couple of those stupid movies that Colonel Parker forced me to do,” he said.

“I just feel like people have always given me too much credit for doing something I didn’t really do.” He pushed a stray strand of graying hair out of his eyes.

“I grew up listening to folks here in Memphis sing about their lives, all poor just like me and my family. On the radio, at church. All’s I did was sing their music. They created ‘ELVIS PRESLEY’ as much me or Sam Phillips or Colonel Parker. I got all the money and fame and the Cadillacs and Graceland and all the rest. But they got nothin’.  And I always felt guilty about that.”

I knew the answer, but I had to ask, just to see if this “Elvis” was being as honest as he wanted me to think. “Well, why is that?”

“C’mon, man. Don’t tell me you’re so drunk you can’t see the answer right here.” He held his age-spotted right hand, bearing two large (and I assume, fake) diamond rings on his pinky and middle fingers, right in front of my nose.

“Because I’m white. And most of them were black. And the white world wouldn’t buy black music from black people. But black music from a white guy, well, they’d buy that. And they did. By the millions. You know what color you get when you mix white and black together? Green. The only color that matters in this world. Lots and lots of green.”

His head drooped. He stared at his shiny, white leather boots. “That’s always bothered me. I always felt like I cheated just a little bit. Or worse, that I stole something precious from my family. I tried so hard to shine a light on the people who deserved it. To tell people that I hadn’t invented anything. I was just singing what I knew. Maybe it was my voice the audience heard, but it was their music. But no one cared. They just wanted to hear ‘Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll.’ It crushed my soul. I felt like I was caught in a trap.”

My jaw dangled, my feet cemented in place, unsure of what had just happened. Either I’d fallen hook, line and sinker for the world’s biggest whopper from the best Elvis impersonator on the planet, or the once and always King of Rock and Roll had just spilled his darkest secret to me, a total stranger, in a dive bar in Memphis, Tennessee forty-two years after he supposedly died.

“Well, if you don’t mind, I need to do my next set.”

“Elvis” – or whoever he was – put his left hand on my shoulder and looked me square in the eye. “Now don’t go telling everybody what we talked about. It’d sorta spoil everything for the crowd.” His right hand swept toward the dance floor, still empty except for the unidentifiable couple swaying in the same spot to their own unheard music. “Elvis” chuckled lightly at his joke.

“Whatever you say, Big E.”

I smiled and shook his hand again. I pivoted, a bit wobbly, to return to the far end of the bar where Baldwin stood waving another glass of whiskey at me. As I tramped across the flypaper floor, “Elvis” sang the opening lyric to one of his biggest hits. I’d heard it a million times before, but now it sounded, sadly, new.

“Well since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell. It’s down at the end of Lonely Street at, Heartbreak Hotel…”

He leaned forward, cradling the mic close to his pouting mouth, and nearly whispered: “You make me so lonely baby, I get so lonely, I get so lonely I could die.”  

 

 

 

The Strangest Thing

cheetah  I don’t write a lot of fiction. 

However, once a month, my writers group gives a special assignment to break up the routine of our regular works in progress. For August, we were to write something, in any style, about the prompt, “A baby cheetah knocks on your door and asks for a sandwich.”

Here is mine — a short story about friendly revenge.

NOTE: It shouldn’t need to be said, but in this day and age, everything needs to be said: no animals, cheetah or otherwise, were hurt in the writing of this story!

THE STRANGEST THING 

I slurped another gurgle of beer and tipped the frosted mug toward my friend, Chuck, perched on the next stool.

“Yea, so the strangest thing happened to me the other day.”

“Do tell.”

“I was watching the Sox game – they were losing again, what a shitty season they’re having this year!”

“Ok, nothing too strange about that.”

“Hold on, I’m not finished. I was watching the game when I heard someone knocking on the door.”

I raised the glass to my lips once again. It was a hot day. I was parched and couldn’t get the cold, amber relief to the back of my throat fast enough.

“Anyway Mr. Impatient, I got up and answered the door, and what do you think I saw there?”

“Jeezus, man, I don’t know! Please just tell me. I have to get home some time tonight or my wife is going to kick my ass. I’ve been out every night this week.” Chuck sipped his Crown Royal neat, his drink of choice ever since we met in college thirty years ago. He tossed a handful of corn nuts into his mouth just as I started to answer. Bad timing on my part.

“It was a baby cheetah – Hey! Don’t choke!” I firmly smacked Chuck on the back to help him find his breath.

“What the hell? Did you say a baby cheetah?”

“Yep.”

“A baby cheetah? As in, a jungle cat?”

“Technically they live more on the plains of Africa, but yes.”

“Ah, yes…I should have known that factoid,” he said, a little too dry and snarky for my taste. Still, he is my best friend, so I let it go. He took another drink to try to wash down the rogue corn nut remnants. “Ok wise guy, what gives? And get to getting to the point already…”

“So, like I said…”

“Hold on one doggone minute!” Chuck pushed his left palm nearly into my face. “Just stop right there. Is this another one of your stupid long-winded jokes?”

“Sir, I do not know to what jokes you refer.” I elevated my nose slightly, feigning indignation at his disdain and doubt-ridden suggestion.

“You know what the hell I mean. I mean like the one about a moth flying into a podiatrist’s office that goes on and on and on forever before you finally get to the stupid punchline and laugh yourself silly.”

“Tsk-tsk…” I clicked my tongue loudly and rolled my eyes. “Don’t take it out on me just because you have no taste or sense of humor.”

“I have no sense of humor? Mr. Kettle, may I introduce you to Mr. Pot?”

“Whatever. You mock, but I swear, this is absolutely true. So, there I was, staring down at a baby cheetah. And guess what happened next?”

“Here we go again…” Chuck turned away and grabbed another handful of nuts.

“The cheetah asked for a sandwich.”

A storm of half-chewed, spit-cemented nuts spewed from Chuck’s mouth. I kind of felt bad for the guy. He is my best friend, after all. Well, maybe not all that bad, but a little sympathetic, at least.

“Hardy-har-har,” Chuck said, slamming into each syllable. “He talked? A baby cheetah talked to you? He used actual words?”

“Naturally. How else do you think he asked for a sandwich? Sign language?”

“Fine, Mr. Smarty Pants. I’ll bite. So what kind of a sandwich did he request? Antelope? Gazelle? Hippo?”

“Of course not! That’s just stupid. First, why would I have any of that? And second, it’s a baby cheetah. Haven’t you heard a word I’ve said? It wanted peanut butter and jelly, like all kids.”

“Ok, if you say so.”

“I know so.”

“Fine. So, when this cheetah…”

“Baby cheetah.”

“Right. Baby cheetah. When this baby cheetah magically shows up on your porch…”

“Uh-huh.”

“…and speaks to you…”

“Now you’ve got it.”

“In English, no less…”

“Why wouldn’t it speak English? This is America, after all.”

“…and asks you for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich…”

“Uh-huh.”

“…what did you do?”

“What anyone would do. I went back in the house and made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”

“And you served it to him – I’m sorry, I’m assuming it was a male?”

“Good question. Truthfully, it was hard to tell. I was so amazed that words were coming from his mouth that I didn’t really look at its hind quarters, if you know what I mean. Plus, you know, at that age, the male voice sounds just like a girl’s so I can’t say for sure.”

“Ah, of course,” Chuck said, letting this tidbit of clean, clear, pure logic roll over his brain. “Silly me! What am I thinking? So, you served the sandwich to it?”

“Certainly! Why wouldn’t I? Poor, little thing looked hungry, and it’d come all that way from…wherever it came from. But first I invited it in. I didn’t want to be rude.”

“Heaven forbid! So, what did you do then?”

“What any reasonable person would do. I offered him a side to go with his sandwich.”

“Let me guess – Cheetos?”

I waved my index finger at Chuck in agreement. “Aha! You would think so, right? But no, he said he doesn’t like the orange dust rubbing off onto his fur. So, I gave him goldfish crackers to go along with the sandwich…”

“Goldfish crackers?”

“Again, kids love the goldfish. Don’t you know anything about anything? Plus, you know, a cheetah? Cat? Fish?”

“Ah! Of course! Shame on me for not connecting such obvious dots and appreciating your magnificent thoughtfulness. Then what?”

“I gave him a glass of milk.”

“I get it now – cats like milk,” Chuck said, triumphantly.

I looked at Chuck like he had two heads on his shoulders. “How the hell should I know what cats like? You know perfectly well that I have two dogs and a parakeet. I am allergic to cats. How long have you known me? And you call yourself my best friend?” I rose from the barstool as if to leave.

Chuck grabbed my shoulder and shoved me back onto the stool. “Sit back down you idiot, and finish telling your incredible story.”

I smiled, happy with my small victory. I didn’t win many such battles with Chuck. Taller, more attractive, quick witted, a naturally gifted musician, he’d also always been wiser and cleverer than me. I love him like a brother – maybe even more than my own brothers, truth be told – but I admit, envy sometimes rears its ugly green head when it comes to my best buddy. So, every win, no matter how miniscule, was to be celebrated.

“Well, Ok. That is, only if you really want to hear it.”

“Yes. Pretty please, Freddie. Please honor me with the rest of your story,” Chuck said, stretching and dragging each word for melodramatic emphasis.

“Ok, so, where was I?”

“You’d given the mysterious talking baby cheetah a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and goldfish crackers because that’s what children like, and a glass of milk because…You didn’t say why you gave it a glass of milk.”

“Because milk goes perfectly with peanut butter, of course!”

“Of course. Why didn’t I think of that? So, then what did you do?”

“Well, we talked for a while.”

“About?”

“You know, the usual. The weather, politics, sports. He’s a big football fan. Likes the Bears, but his favorite teams are the Detroit Lions and the Carolina Panthers.”

“Go figure!” Heavy laughter finally rolled through the new smile on Chuck’s face. “So, then what?”

“Then I politely excused myself, went back to the kitchen and out to the garage.”

“Why did you go to the garage, pray tell?”

“Because I keep my guns in a locked cabinet in the garage, so our kids can’t get at them.”

“Wha…?” I had Chuck right where I wanted him, stuck in a briar patch of befuddlement.

“I took my revolver from the cabinet, marched back into the house and shot the cheetah right where he sat – oops, sorry, I mean, it.”

Chuck’s eyelids and mouth rattled open like broken window shades. “What the hell? You shot and killed a talking baby cheetah that had come to your door and asked for a sandwich? Are you insane? Why would you do such a thing?”

“Well, think about it. I mean, it was still a cheetah, right? A wild animal? We don’t allow wild animals in the suburbs. He could have grown up to kill us all. Or at least eat our pets!” Every muscle in my cheeks, forehead, eyebrows and chin strained under the immense pressure to hold back a guffaw. God, I was enjoying this.

His face now an ice sculpture of confusion, he slowly shook his head. “But…wha…that doesn’t make any…I mean…How…” Words spluttered through his lips like water through a clogged faucet.

Straight-faced, I continued. “Don’t worry about it! Everything is fine! I cleaned the fur real nice. No blood stains at all. Then I skinned it and cooked the meat. You ever had baby cheetah?”

No reply.

“Tastes just like ham. A little less salty, but good.”

Still no response. I could barely contain my glee. I prepared my final salvo. Took a deep breath. Then fired.

“Speaking of ham, did I ever tell you about the time I went to see Bob Franco, who lives on a farm?”

Finally, Chuck looked at me through eyes still glazed with the image of me eating a talking baby cheetah. “What? Who? Bob? The guy we knew from our freshman math class in college?”

“Yep. The very same. He’s a farmer now, and when I pulled up to his house, I noticed this three-legged pig kind of hip-hopping around the side yard. So, I asked Bob, ‘Hey, why does that pig have only three legs’?”

Chuck stared at me for about 15 seconds. I tell you, if his eyes could have shot lasers, I’d have been a pile of ash. Finally, he spun off the bar stool, grabbing a handful of corn nuts and whipping them at my head. He stampeded toward the bar’s front door, nearly toppling a waitress carrying a tray of drinks.

“Chuck! Wait!” I gasped through pounding waves of laughter.

Skating across the floor in five long steps without so much as a “good bye,” he slammed the door just as the words escaped my lips. He didn’t hear them, but I didn’t care. I had finally gotten his goat – or, cheetah, as it were.

I held my sides to keep from keeling over with laughter and yelled into the beer-battered barroom air.

“Chuck! Come back! Don’t you want to know why this pig has only three legs, Chuck? It’s the strangest thing!”

My Favorite Summer Vacation

summer vacation    Writers are readers — and thieves.

A truism about writing is, if you want to write like someone, then do it! Don’t just sit there complaining and daydreaming: “Oooh, I wish I could write just one sentence as tightly as Hemingway…If only I could write a poem as honest as Maya Angelou…Man, if I could write only one story as magical as Gabriel Garcia Marquez.”

Rather, write like your heroes write. Copy their style. Their tricks. Their voice. So that in the process, you can figure out who YOU are as a writer. 

So that someday, another writer, casting about for his or her own style, might say, “I wish I could write like____!”

I recently finished two books by Junot Diaz as part of my ongoing “Year of the Latino Writer.” One of them was his magnificent first novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”

In this book Diaz completely omitted all quotation marks from the dialogue. This little trick really forces the reader to pay very close attention to the story, or risk getting tangled in a literary thicket.

I was so intrigued with this approach that I decided to try it myself in a new short story:

MY FAVORITE SUMMER VACATION

A clanging chorus of telephones suddenly filled the Jordan Observer newsroom.

The acoustic eruption shattered the normal post-deadline, mid-afternoon peace and quiet. This time of day, the newsroom usually sat virtually empty. Reporters hit their beats, took lunch or stole home for a quick break before the night’s meetings, and bosses gathered to review the morning’s issue and plan for the next day.

Still, the noisy outbreak yielded a comforting note of reassurance for Metro Editor Marie Wallace, recalling the not-too-distant days when newspapers were the world’s first, last and best information outlets. Touching bases with regular contacts, snitches calling in tips, even readers complaining about the slant of this story or that. It was all music to the veteran newswoman’s ears. Not like this newfangled Internet nonsense with its instant gratification, thin-as-tissue-paper credibility — and digital silence. In a solid, professional, working newsroom like the one she’d occupied for 27 years, you knew when stuff was happening.

Well, she reassured herself for the thousandth time since the Observer had connected to the World Wide Web a year ago, readers will always want more than what the Internet can give. I doubt it’ll survive the decade…

Wallace’s reverie snapped when the main line on her own phone lit up. Hello?

Hey Marie…I mean, Ms. Wallace.

Willie, I keep telling you, Marie is fine. How are you doing out there today?

Ok, I guess, Willie said, sincerely trying to hide his frustration. I mean, not to sound ungrateful, you know, I am extremely grateful for the chance to work for the Observer and all, but you know, I was kinda hoping to do something a little more, I don’t know…meaningful?

This kid is one big ball of ambition. I can’t blame him. He just wants to break his first big story, Marie thought, remembering her own days as a young reporter, when Drudgery often dulled the Dream. The routine footwork of a life in print could darken even the shiniest movie house vision of journalism. Cultivating sources. Scouring dozens of poorly-written press releases. Explaining to crackpots why the paper wouldn’t just print their latest UFO sighting. But most of all, just listening. Watching. Talking, Looking for dots to connect. Then connecting them before anyone else. The visceral thrill of a byline on a major story easily surpassed most sensations short of sex. (Sometimes, it was even better than sex, truth-be-told. Sex is fleeting, the recent divorcee thought, ruefully. Bylines live forever, if only in a file drawer.) Still, getting to the front page often required a lot of work. Hard, repetitive, mind-numbing, ambition-draining, spirit-crushing work.

I understand. I really do, Marie said, effecting her most maternal tone. Empathetic, supportive, but firm. Just what she always wanted from her own bosses. But you also understood what the job would be when we brought you on for this summer internship. I know you want to do great things, and who knows? Maybe after you graduate, we’ll hire you permanently and you’ll have lots of chances to really make a name for yourself. You’re a good reporter and writer, Willie. You have a bright future. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have chosen you for the position. You know we haven’t had an intern for many years. We couldn’t afford it, and the full-timers didn’t want to lose any work to anyone, much less some kid. I know that you are not just another college student. For now, though I need you to do what I need you to do. Which is?

Willie grumbled, not for the first time since he started the internship in late May at the end of his junior year. Yet here it was, the middle of August, and all he’d done was…Anything and everything that you ask me to do…and most especially anything and everything that the regular reporters don’t want to do.

They laughed together. Their shared commiseration and easy camaraderie would in time form the foundation of a friendship that would last beyond even the murder of their newspaper careers at the hands of the Internet. Right, Marie said. So, get to it, and get back here. Everyone is gone and I could use your help with these phones. Willie could hear the insistent ringing behind Marie’s voice – unusual for this time of day, Willie knew. And Willie, I can hear you rolling your eyes rolling over the phone…

But I hate these “Man on The Street” interviews. Asking people stupid questions and taking their pictures…

Hey, hold on just a minute there… I know it’s not the best assignment – which is why the full-timers are only too happy to give it to the summer intern, she thought – but it can’t be that bad. What’s today’s question?

“What was your favorite summer vacation, and why?”

Marie had to agree with her protegee about that one. But it was summer and news was slow. The idea was to generate easy copy. Ask people something that was likely to get a good quote – not too long, not too short. Snap a quick head shot for the next day’s paper, throw five on the Editorial page, and voila! A surefire, effective and cheap way to draw readers. Truism Number One About Journalism, Marie knew: Vanity always wins the day and the dollar (or, in the Observer’s case, the 35 cents.)

Alright, I see your point. How many more do you need?

Well, I talked to about twenty people so far…

Any good ones in there? Even in the two short months that she’d been his editor, she learned that getting information from Willie could be like extracting a sliver – a lot of painful digging. If he didn’t show so much promise…

I don’t know, I guess so, Willie finally offered. About what you’d expect. A lot of The summer I Spent with Grandma Before She Died, The Summer We Saw the Grand Canyon, The Summer I Learned How to Swim, The Summer I Puked Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream On My Sister, the Summer I Made Love For The First Time, blah, blah, blah. Actually, that last one was a pretty good story, but I suppose we can’t use it.

Um, no, probably not, Marie chuckled. Ok, so it sounds like you probably have enough, but try to get one more really good one just to be sure and then come back to the office and write it up.

But Mariiiieee!

Just one! And stop whining. It’s unattractive, she cajoled. I have to go now and pick up some of these calls.

Any idea what’s going on?

None. Although if I had to guess, I’d bet you lunch tomorrow that it has something to do with this morning’s story about the murder at the service station on the East Side. Did you see the paper yet?

Yes, I have it tucked under my arm. Willie had grown up with the Observer and was a devoted reader even before they started paying him for his work. The police gave a decent description of the guy from the security video before he killed the clerk and ran away. Sounds like a scary dude.

You can say that again! Alright, well, I’ll see you soon. Marie hung up and pushed the first of several flashing buttons on her phone. Jordan Observer, Marie Wallace speaking…

Willie cradled the pay phone headset back in the receiver and heard his change drop into the phone’s belly. Another 25 cents wasted… He spun back toward the mall. The corridors seemed unusually full for a summer weekday afternoon. Was there a hot movie out that he had missed? Or just the lure of indoor air-conditioning on an especially-warm late summer day? A predictable assortment of teens skulked through the common areas and food court. Their backs curved as if their spines couldn’t support the extra weight of their heads, most sporting hooded sweatshirts despite the sweltering August heat. Idiots! This is why the world is going to hell in a handbasket Willie sniffed, forgetting – or ignoring – that he was only a year or two older than most of them. Gaggles of senior citizens did the orthopedic shuffle from store to store, killing time before the retirement home excursion bus picked them up. Many beelined to the chain buffet restaurant to use their elderly resident discount, get home and go to bed before 4 p.m. Willie had eaten there, too. The food wasn’t bad, and he agreed, the price was right. Still, the Depression-Era crowd irritated him. Squeezing every penny until it bled. Arguing over the “way things used to be”. Criticizing anything resembling change. He hadn’t been a professional reporter for very long, but Willie knew enough to know that he wasn’t going to get much insight or flair from either the skateboard crowd or the geriatrics. He kept scanning the mall mob for a potential fifth “Man on The Street.” Or a woman. Or a kid. Could be anyone, really. Just one, and then I can go…Minutes passed. Felt like hours. Then…there! Not too old, not too young. White male, mid-forties. Probably capable of stringing together a decent sentence or two, he considered. Always practicing his reporter skills, Willie further catalogued the man’s features as he ambled easily past the giant (fake) Sequoia that anchored the mall’s common area and headed toward him. Dark, short hair, stocky build, average height, and jeans and white tank top shirt. Finally, the man was close enough to talk to. Sir, I’m a reporter with the Jordan Observer and just wanted to ask you a quick question for tomorrow’s “Man on The Street” feature. Do you read the paper?

The man scanned Willie from shoes to face, like one of those hospital machines looking for tumors, then locked onto Willie’s eyes. Sure, I guess so, he replied casually, when there’s something in it worth reading. His lips crooked, more than a smirk but not quite a smile.

An odd twinge pinched Willie’s neck. Well, this won’t take but a minute. I’m going to ask you a short question, record your answer – Willie showed his tape recorder – and take your picture. If my editor likes your answer, we’ll run it in tomorrow’s paper. He remembered the tag line Marie told him to use with everyone he interviewed. Remember to buy the paper tomorrow so you can see yourself!

Oh, that shouldn’t be a problem, the man said.

Willie couldn’t stop staring. The man looked familiar, but how? Willie had lived in Jordan his whole life. Knew a lot of people. He didn’t know know this guy, but still…

What’s the question? I’m kind of short on time.

What? Oh. Right…The question is, what was your favorite summer vacation, and why? Wait, I’m sorry. Willie fumbled with his tape recorder before hitting the record button. First, what is your name?

My name? Bill. Bill Kelly.

Bill Kelly…Bill Kelly…common enough, easy to remember, but it doesn’t ring any bells. Thanks. Now, Mr. Kelly…

Willie stopped again. He couldn’t slip the eerie feeling that he somehow knew this stranger. I’m sorry, my brain is all over place today. Must be the heat!

Kelly offered a polite laugh, but pushed on. Like I said, I’m in a bit of a hurry.

Yes, sir. So, anyway, the question is, what was your favorite summer vacation and why?

Kelly paused only the scantest fraction of a second. As if the experience he recalled was so fresh that it barely qualified as a memory. Oh, that’s simple. It’s this summer. The summer of 1992. Yesterday, as a matter of fact.

Wow! Really? That’s amazing. And too easy, Willie thought, noticing that pinch again in his neck… Everyone else I’ve talked to has gone back to their childhood. Why is this summer so special?

Because I killed someone for the first time.

Years later, after his newspaper career had died – or, perhaps more accurately, after the newspaper business had died under him like a lover who’d had a heart attack – Willie would pin this moment as the start of his life as a real journalist. The second when his eyes that, thirty minutes ago, rolled at the prospect of even one more insipid interview, slammed open in recognition. Heretofore unseen, dots as bright as a galaxy of burning suns now appeared. Dots daring to be connected. White male. Mid-forties. Stocky. Brown hair. Jeans. White tank top…up close, he also made out pinkish spots. Is that…blood?! The police description of the murderer from this morning’s paper!

Suddenly fired with the adrenalized cocktail of terror, ego and opportunity, Willie cautiously retreated one step. What did you say?

Calmly, Kelly repeated himself as if he’d shared nothing more than the temperature. I killed someone for the first time. And I liked it! No feeling quite like taking another person’s life, absorbing all that energy.

But…why…what…Everything he learned in three years of college journalism classes, the last few weeks of on-the-job training, all the coaching and support under Marie’s wing all clogged his brain. Stuck behind a tongue thick with confusion, unable (probably for the first time ever!) to form words. Never taking his eyes off Kelly, Willie finally spewed the most obvious question burbling in his mind: Then why are you walking around the mall?

Why not? Kelly said. His tone so smooth that not even the world’s best detective would suspect they were discussing anything more important than the score of the Cubs game. I like the mall. Lots of interesting people to look at, stores to visit, the air conditioning – boy, it’s hot out there, you know? Plus, haven’t you heard the phrase, “Hiding in plain sight?” Now he laughed, eyes dancing with the thrill of outsmarting everyone. And no one can stop me. Not you or the cops. Now put that in your stupid newspaper!

Kelly turned and ran toward the food court, crashing through the wall of meandering mall patrons. He disappeared down a corridor by the washrooms before Willie found his voice.

Hey! Hey! Stop that man! Willie screamed. Call security! Call the police! No one seemed to hear him, or make any effort to stop Kelly. Willie took three stumbling steps in Kelly’s direction. Stopped. Turned back. Pivoted again, unsure what to do. Who to call first. The police? The newspaper? He returned to the payphone, picked up the headset and dropped a quarter into the slot.

Joliet Observer, Marie Wallace answered in her usual smooth, professional voice. How can I help you?

Marie, it’s me, Willie.

Hey, are you on your way back? People are calling with tips and sightings of the suspect from the murder yesterday. I really need your help here. Did you get one more “Man On The Street?”

Willie paused. Slowed his breathing to offset his pounding heart. Confidence and excitement burned in his chest as words obediently lined up and formed sentences, and the sentences gathered into a story – his story — on the front page of his brain. At last he spoke.

Yes, Marie. Yes, I did…

 

 

 

 

The Mirror

I’ve had a rough “Dad Transition Period” as my young adult daughters have begun their new lives. Recently, my very wise — if slightly irritated — wife said I needed to “redefine myself” to help smooth the road ahead. 

Here is a fictional take on that charge.

***CONTAINS SOME ADULT LANGUAGE***

jail-bars

“So, asshole, what’re you gonna do?”

No answer.

Diz’s deep, brown eyes locked on to the equally deep, brown eyes opposite.

“I said, what are gonna do? Huh? Make up your mind!”

Another unresponsive stare.

“Man, I wish you’d knock that shit off.”

Diz turned to the man lying in the bunk above his own in their six-foot by ten-foot cell.

“What’d you say?”

“You heard me.” Jailed for the third time in his 25 years, currently for drug possession and use, Branford was familiar with “street crazy” – the showy bravado effected to earn position or reputation or credibility. Yet this old man truly made him nervous. Branford glared at Diz from his top bunk. “Stop talkin’ to yourself in the mirror like that.”

“Aww, what’s the matter? Does it bother you?”

“To be honest, yea, it does.” Branford turned full on his side. “You been actin’ like some nutty ass old geezer for weeks, man. Is that why you called Diz? ‘Cause you act all dizzy and shit?”

The kid wasn’t entirely wrong.

The truth was, John’s mother loved jazz and had named him after her favorite trumpet player — John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie.

However, the innocent nickname came to mean something more ominous as John’s erratic temper and dark behavior earned him half a dozen trips to jail for petty offenses as a teen; then, when dark turned deadly, a life sentence for murder twenty-three years ago.

Diz usually explained the unfortunate evolution of his name to the prisoners that passed through his cell over the years — most who were too young or stupid to know Dizzy Gillespie, much less care about jazz, America’s most significant cultural contribution.

Normally, Diz wrapped the story in a good-natured “I-know-I-am-an-old-man” laugh. A joke about how, in his sorry case, life and art collided in a way that no one could have anticipated. Certainly not his sainted mother! He was impressed that Branford had somehow pieced together enough facts after only a few weeks together – or at least had picked enough information from the prison grapevine – to connect the dots about Diz’s past. Though Branford’s conclusion wasn’t entirely accurate, it was “close enough for jazz,” as the musicians say.

Still, today Diz didn’t feel like schooling this boy on the finer points of jazz, irony or anything else. A tension he’d never known gripped his mind like fingers struggling to grasp a ball that is slightly too big for them. Plus, there was no harm in keeping the kid in the dark a bit. If nothing else, the rumors about his past infractions gave Diz a slight upper hand in a place where any advantage was golden. He purposely kept his answer non-committal, neither confirming nor denying Branford’s conclusion.  Diz offered only a conciliatory chuckle. “You’re pretty smart, for a young punk.”

“Really man, I don’t much care. I just wish you’d be quiet so I can get some sleep. Ain’t no one going to answer you from the other side of that steel.”

“Well, you seem like a good kid, so I’ll try to control myself. But the truth is, somebody is going to answer me.”

Branford sat up in his bunk, hunching over and ducking his head slightly before it scraped the ceiling. “Who? It sure ain’t me.”

“No, not you. Me.”

“Man, now I’m totally confused. Whadda you mean, you gonna answer yourself?”

Diz backed away from the stainless steel mirror attached to the stainless steel sink, adjacent to the stainless steel toilet. He leaned against the wall on the other side of the cell, facing Branford. “You haven’t heard?”

“Heard what?”

“This is January 2017, man.”

“Dude, I know what year it is! I didn’t smoke that much crack!”

“There’s a new law this year that lets a few inmates go before the end of their time if they change something about themselves.” Diz’s eyes twinkled with the prospect of freedom after nearly a quarter century behind bars.

“Who told you that? I talked to my lawyer not three days ago and he didn’t mention any new law.” Branford dropped from the bunk, his bare feet hitting the concrete floor nearly noiselessly.

Diz quickly crossed in front of his cellmate and sat on his own bed. Branford spun around to keep Diz in his line of sight and nearly tripped on the toilet. Diz liked to do things like this, knowing the tight space they shared was even tighter for those unused to navigating it. Sixty square feet is a lot smaller than it looked in the movies. One more way to let the new guy know that the old guy was in control…

“Well I can’t speak for the quality of your Public Aid attorney, but I got this directly from the warden herself. She told me and a bunch of other long timers that the state has a new clemency program – hey, you know what clemency is, right?”

“Yea, yea, asshole. Just ‘cause I did a little dope doesn’t make me a dope.”

Diz cracked a thin, teasing smile. “Ok, I just wanted to be sure. I know you druggies sometimes can’t remember your own names much less understand big legal concepts.”

About fed up with his cellmate’s riling, Branford did not return the sharp-humored grin. “Go on, man,” he said flatly.

“Anyway, she said the state is going to give early parole to ten lifers who ‘redefine themselves.’ ”

“‘Redefine themselves?’ What the hell does that mean?”

A long, hollow silence ballooned inside the cell.

“Well?” Branford’s volume rose like a child waiting for the end of a bedtime story.

Diz rose from the bunk and paced like the caged animal, back and forth from the barred cell door to the concrete back wall. He stopped and stared up at the three-foot wide by two-foot high window in the center of the wall, seven feet from the floor. The window was too high for anyone to reach. Even if he did think about escaping now and again, six bars sectioned the window into narrow gaps breached only by the sun light – which shone, mockingly, in the mornings on the floor in long, cold, muddy-gray stripes.

Diz gaped silently at the window for another 30 seconds. “She didn’t say. Women piss me off, man. They say half of what they actually mean, and then you’re supposed to just somehow figure out the rest. And God forbid if you get it wrong!”

Branford, who had a serious girlfriend, understood and laughed. Diz spun quickly on his heel to face his cellmate, his eyes now flecked with frustration and anxiety.

“I mean, I can’t change my past. Hell, if I could go back to when I was your age, I would change a million things just to get rid of the guilt that eats me alive some days. I can’t change who I am here. I don’t pretend to be no model prisoner, but I do my best to keep my head down, fly under the radar. I do my work. I keep my cell clean. Mostly I just read my books and listen to my jazz.”

“To what? Jazz?” Branford saw an opening. Like a boxer he jabbed, playfully flicking a verbal punch at Diz. “Oh, you mean that Old Man shit? I don’t listen to anything before when I was born!”

The thinnest hint of a smile creased Diz’s face as he mentally scored a point for his cellmate. Touché, punk …

“No, really man, all joking aside, I think the answer is right in front of your face,” Branford said.

Diz stepped quickly toward Branford, hands waiving, voice rising, exasperation exploding. “What do you mean? This is my life in the balance and she’s talking in circles like the goddamned Riddler from Batman or something! I feel like the top of my head is coming off. What’s the fucking answer, man?”

Branford cautiously put his hands on Diz’s chest – a dangerous move to make with a man doing a life sentence for murder. “Slow down brother!” Branford ordered. “Sit down for a second and just breathe for a bit.”

Diz collapsed onto his bunk and cradled his head in his palms.

Branford talked low and slow, as if to a child in the throes of a temper tantrum. Except this “child’s” tantrums could hurt many people – and had killed at least one for (allegedly) looking too hungrily at his baby sister.

“Look, the warden said you had to redefine yourself to get out of here, right? You’re absolutely right. You can’t change Yesterday. It is what it was.”

“Right.”

And you can’t change Today. It’s not in your control, at least not in here.”

As if on cue, one of the ever-present guards sauntered by, peeking in and trying a little too obviously to eavesdrop. Diz stared at the guard and sighed. “You got that right.”

“So the only thing you can do anything about is Tomorrow.”

“I don’t underst…What are you…? C’mon, man! Say what you mean!”

“Change your Tomorrow! She said redefine yourself, right? Well redefine your Tomorrow. Does it mean change your politics? Learn to control your temper? Take up a new hobby? Earn a college degree? Hell if I know! You’re the only one who can figure that out. And I sure as hell don’t know how or why that would let you get out of here. But I bet that’s what the warden’s talking about. Women are always saying some shit like that! It’s confusing as all get out. But in its way, it makes sense. Redefine yourself. Let go of the past. Make a new future. No one can do it for you, man. You gotta do it for yourself!”

Diz raised his head and stared silently at Brandon. He couldn’t believe that this crack-smoking kid had produced such a simple, yet profound insight.  A sudden wave of guilt crashed on the shores of his conscience.

“Listen man, I…” Then, just as he was about to apologize for everything he’d done and thought about his cellmate in the couple of weeks that they’d bunked together, the same guard appeared again in front of their cell.

“Diz, let’s go!” the guard ordered. Invisible hands magically unlocked and opened the door. “The warden wants to see you.”

Diz rose from the bunk and turned toward the guard. “One second, please, sir.” He turned back to Branford. Confusion and fear and exhaustion conspired to etch new lines in his face, adding to those that middle age had already dug. But his eyes sparkled again with excitement. “I’m not sure what’s gonna happen here. I don’t know if I’ll be back.”

“I hope not,” Brandon said. “Nothing personal, but I won’t miss you talking to yourself in that mirror.”

Diz smiled, turned his back to the guard, shook Branford’s hand and held it. He squinted hard, effecting his best “Dirty Harry” stare. “If I don’t come back…just know that it’s completely your fault.” His eyes widened as a grin replaced the mock scowl. “And if I ever see you again on the outside, I won’t be holding it against you.”

“Based on what I heard about you, that’s good to know!”

“I said let’s go!” the guard barked. “I have more to do today than be your personal escort service!”

Diz reached the front of the cell in two short strides. He looked right and peered at himself in the steel mirror…Something looks different…But what? He broke his gaze. “Oh, by the way.” He looked over his left shoulder. “My mom named me for Dizzy Gillespie, the great jazz trumpet player. Just thought you should know.”

“Yeah, I know.” Branford’s sly, crooked grin confirmed he’d figured out Diz’s secret. “My mom loves jazz, too. She named me for Branford Marsalis.”

Diz exploded with laughter.

“I should have known! Why else would anyone name their kid Branford?”

The guard grabbed Diz’s left elbow and guided him down the corridor as the cell door clanged shut behind them.