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!”

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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.