The First Time…

“Oh my god,” Louie Jackson said. “I am so embarrassed, and so sorry, Mrs. Anderson!”

            Jackson’s head dropped, his chin nearly touching his neck which now blossomed in fiery, red-hot shame. He seemed to fold into himself as his chest and abdomen deflated like a popped balloon.

            “It’s Ms. Anderson. I am divorced. And no need to apologize, Mr. Jackson. It happens all the time.”

Louie lifted his eyes only high enough to see the look on the nurse’s face. Attractive in the mature, slightly wrinkled way of experienced, middle-aged women confident in their authority and knowledge, she smiled a toothy grin of reassurance.

“Ok, but…I mean…” Louie couldn’t control his stammer. “At his age? I mean…Jesus…he’s ninety-seven years old. I didn’t think those parts even work anymore.” He shifted in his chair, trying to relieve some of the ache now creeping up his lower back. “And with the dementia and all?”

Again, she smiled. Louie caught himself staring at her eyes which seemed to sparkle. They were violet, like…like Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes! Wow, he thought, if she weren’t taking care of my grandfather, I might just…Her honeyed voice, practiced in soothing confused patients and their anxious family members, snapped him out of his temporary fugue.

“Absolutely! Sexual urges and thoughts are usually one of the last things to go. But let’s be clear. Your grandpa didn’t actually try to have sex with anyone – although that has happened, too. ” She lowered her eyes and grinned, almost coy, and tittered. “Usually though, it’s the women who try to initiate sex. I know you wouldn’t think so, but it’s true. One time, I walked into a patient’s room only to find her on her knees between a male patient’s legs doing…well, let’s just say he may not have understood what was happening at that moment, but that’s a memory he won’t forget!”

Louie guffawed like a mule that’d been kicked in the hind quarters. “Really?”

“One hundred percent true,” she insisted. “But anyway, back to your grandfather. He wasn’t doing anything. Rather, he is telling stories about his sexual exploits to anyone who will listen. The nurses don’t mind so much. Like I said, we’ve all heard and seen it all before. But he’s upset some of the other staff – especially the dining room attendants who are mostly young girls,” Nurse Anderson said. “Funny thing is, these girls today, they think they know everything. But to see the looks in their eyes when your granddad gets going, it’s pretty clear that they don’t know what they don’t know.”

Now they both laughed, enjoying a joke as can only two AARP members who know that Youth is a flimsy house of cards in desperate need of a foundation that comes only with age.

“Well, I certainly appreciate your candor and understanding, Ms. Anderson. I will go talk to my grandpa right now.” He rose, extending his hand to the nurse, excited to feel the soft touch gloved in her firm grip. Louie offered a smile of his own. He strategically extended the handshake to hold her hand as long as possible. “I hope to see you again, but under less…risqué?…circumstances,” he said as he turned toward the hallway to the patients’ rooms.

Nurse Anderson gently pulled her hand back – subtly enough to not offend, yet slowly enough to still suggest she might like to hold hands again sometime. “Yes, that would be nice, Mr. Jackson,” she said.


Louie checked each door as he passed until he came to the one bearing his grandfather’s name on a postcard-sized label hanging at eye level: “Ronald Gates.” He knocked, turned the knob, and announced himself in one swift motion.

“Pop-Pop, it’s Louie,” he called into the room. “Are you up?”

Ronald Gates emerged from the bathroom trailed by a toilet flush. “Of course, I’m up! It’s almost lunchtime, isn’t it?” He moved surprisingly fast and smoothly for a man three years shy of a century, a testament to his youthful love for any kind of athletic competition. Louie had watched his maternal grandfather play – and win – many a game of baseball, basketball, tennis, even paintball when Louie had taken up the then-trendy activity in the 1980s. Mr. Gates closed the gap quickly and wrapped his still-strong arms around his oldest grandchild.

“To what do I owe the pleasure today, Louis?” He’d always called Louie by his full name.

“Oh, nothing special.” Louie looked out the window, hoping his grandfather wouldn’t see the lie on his face. “Just thought I’d stop by, check in on you, make sure you’ve got everything you need.”

“That’s very thoughtful of you,” Gates said. “Maybe that’s why you’re my favorite grandson!” He smiled and flicked a light jab into Louie’s ribs.

“I’m your only grandson, Pop-Pop!”

“Ok, but still, you should never refuse a compliment, young man. You never know if you’ll ever get any more.”

Or, if I might ever get a date with that hot nurse…the thought was incongruous, but Louie used it as a springboard to leap to the real purpose for his visit.

“Pop-Pop when I came in, I happened to see your nurse, Ms. Anderson –“

“Oh, she’s attractive, isn’t she? If I weren’t old enough to be her father…”

“Well, grandfather, actually, I think…” Louie said. “But in any case, yes, her. And she mentioned something that concerns me just a bit.” Louie shuffled over to the overstuffed, plush, Brady Bunch green couch along the wall facing the television. Ratty along the arms, the start of a tear in one cushion, it was nothing that he’d ever buy, but it came with the room. “Come sit down.”

The old man joined his fifty-two-year-old grandson on the couch. “What can I do you for, Louis?”

Louie chuckled. His grandfather’s witticisms anchored and defined an irrefutable charm that endeared him to nearly everyone.

“Well, to be honest, the nurse, Ms. Anderson, told me that you’ve been talking a lot recently about your sex life to the patients and staff, and it’s upsetting some of them.”

“Really?” Gates said. “I can honestly say I don’t remember doing that, but if you say so…what exactly have I been telling them?”

“Lots of things, but the one that came up the most, I guess, is about your first time making love – I assume with Grandma.”

Ronald’s right hand cupped his chin, rubbing the stubble of unshaven beard. “No, that can’t be right, because your grandmother wasn’t my first.”

Louie inhaled sharply at this revelation.

“Oh, Louis, don’t act so surprised,” Ronald tut-tutted. “Your generation didn’t invent pre-marital sex. I had two partners before your grandmother. The first, like most ‘Firsts’ of just about anything, wasn’t very good. I was no expert either if I’m honest. But the experience itself changed my world.”

Louie flopped back into the giant couch cushion. He felt like he would never stop sinking, so he grabbed the arm of the couch with his left hand to stabilize himself.

“You know what the best part was?” Ronald smiled at the memory forming where memories were now so very scarce.

“I don’t really want to…”

“It wasn’t the act itself. No, that went very quickly and didn’t do much for either of us, truth be told,” Ronald said. “No sir, it was when she raised her hips from her parent’s bed – they were out for the night and never thought twice about leaving her alone with me – she raised her hips and let me pull down her underwear. I mean to tell you, there is absolutely nothing more meaningful or sacred to a man as when the woman he loves, or at least, lusts for, willingly gives herself over. The intimacy of that act, the faith, the commitment, the trust, the confidence, the air of control, that’s what makes it so sexy and powerful.” Ronald paused, drew a deep breath. “And magical. I’ll remember that forever, dementia or not.”

Louie’s heart raced like a stallion out of the gate. The air crashed out of his lungs as if he’d just been hit with a medicine ball. “Pop-Pop!”

“What?” Ronald said, voicing a mixture of sincere exasperation and surprise. “You mean to tell me that’s never happened to you? I mean, I know you’ve been single your whole life, but I assume you’ve been with a woman or two?”

Of course, his grandfather was right. Louie’d never been especially lucky in the love department, but he’d been around the sexual block a few times. Enough to know the exact thrill of which his ninety-seven-year-old Pop-Pop spoke.

“Well, the first time for me was actually kind of similar,” he confessed. “I was a freshman in high school, on a band trip to Canada for a competition and sitting on the seat next to one of the flag girls. We’d been kinda-sorta flirting for a while, nothing too serious. But it was a long, long, loooonnngg drive. It was night. There was a blanket covering our laps. We were holding hands under the blanket when she suddenly guided my hand down the inside of the front of her pants which, somehow, she’d unbuttoned and unzipped. My fingers touched her, you know, down there. I didn’t know much, but I knew enough, and I did what I knew. She didn’t stop me from touching her, but she refused to touch me for some reason.”

Louie laughed at a sudden “Aha!” moment. “I guess I was just her love slave for that night!” He paused, eyes closed, savoring the movie running through his brain, then snapped back to attention. “But Pop-Pop, that’s not the point.”

“Oh? Pleasuring someone is not the point?”

“Well, I mean, it was the point at that time, but not right now. The point now, is, you can’t be sharing your memories and stories with people here. It’s shocking to hear that kind of stuff from a man of your…”

“My what? My age?”

“Well, yes.”

Ronald stood again and paced toward the television then back to the couch. He extended his right hand to his grandson. “Louis Jackson, I love you, but I am terribly disappointed in you.”

“What?” Louie was both confused and surprised. “Disappointed in me? What did I do?”

“It’s not what you did, but what you didn’t do. You didn’t defend me.”

“Pop-Pop, I don’t understand.”

“No, apparently not. So let me help.” Ronald said. He pulled his grandson close, rubbed his left cheek, then put both hands on either side of Louie’s head.

“I am here because I have dementia. I know this as well as anyone. I know that every day I have one less joke to tell, one less bit of wisdom to teach, one less story to share. I lose one more part of me.”

Louie raised his right hand to his face and wiped away the start of a tear. “I know that Pop-Pop, I know, but…”

“No but’s!” Ronald barked loudly. He released Louie’s face and waved his right hand in the air. “God forbid you should ever know this pain, but in the meantime, I need you to know about it, so you can at least explain. I don’t mean to offend or hurt anyone’s feelings. I am just trying to be Me as long as I can.”

Ronald grabbed his grandson again and kissed him on the cheek and forehead as if Louie was a baby. “Who I am, is who I was. And I am losing who I was. So, I am sharing whatever is left of me while I still can. If that happens to be a dirty story, well, I am truly sorry if I accidentally offend someone, but if I do, you just tell them: it could be worse.”

“How could it be worse, Pop-Pop?” Louie knew the second the question cleared his lips – and from the wide grin on Ronald’s face – that his grandfather, ever the jokester, ever the performer, had set him up, dementia be damned.

“I could have crapped in the potted plants, like Old Man Carbondale!”

How’s Your Sandwich?

Alan gingerly lifted the lettuce leaf on his sandwich, moving beneath and around each layer of condiment between the bottom of the bun and the top of the sliced turkey.

            “Hmmm,” he muttered, his tone clearly voicing his disappointment.

            “What?” His best friend, David smiled and chuckled. The light laugh was equal parts amusement and irritation.

            “Oh, nothing…I guess.” Alan’s eyes continued to explore the plate as he slowly reassembled the sandwich. “It’s just that…I don’t want to make a big deal out of it, but…” Alan bit and chewed a hunk of the sandwich without lifting his eyes.

            “C’mon dude, spit it out. No! I mean, don’t spit it out. Swallow that bite but then tell me what is wrong?” David said. “It can’t be that sandwich, it looks fantastic. Look at that thing. It’s a Thanksgiving dinner disguised as a panini. Turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes. I mean, really, what’s not to like?”

            Alan finally looked up and slurped a mouthful of coffee.

            “No, you’re right, of course. It’s delicious.”

            “Well then?”

            “I don’t know,” Alan stammered, another mouthful of turkey mixing with his words. “I guess I was just expecting more.”

            David sighed so loudly the people at a nearby table peered over. He waved at them and smiled to warn them off. The warning was fake, but the sigh – and the frustration behind it – was real.

“Look man, we’ve known each other, what, thirty years now? And every single time you eat something, or read something, or watch something, or listen to something, you act like this.”

Alan’s eyes opened wide with sincere confusion. “Like what?”

“Like you’re disappointed that this sandwich isn’t perfect. Or that movie moved too slow. Or that song wasn’t creative enough. Or the band was too loud. Or that book petered out before the end. Or, whatever. It’s like you can never just be happy with the way things are.”

“No, that’s not true,” Alan weakly protested.

“Yes, it is true!” David insisted, again loud enough to draw attention from nearby diners. “And honestly, it pisses me off. Most of the time you’re a terrific guy, funny, smart, thoughtful…”

“Thank you,” Alan started to reply. “I feel the…”

“I’m not finished!” David said firmly, but in a more controlled voice. He lowered his head, leaned in over the table towards the man with whom he’d grown up. The man who stood up at his wedding. The godfather to all three of his children.

“We’ve been friends long enough that I feel I can speak honestly, hopefully without hurting your feelings too much. So, I’m gonna just lay it all out there.”

“Well go ahead,” Alan said. “Who’s stopping you?”

Hearing the clear ring of defensiveness in Alan’s voice, David leaned back, sat up straight and took a deep breath. “The truth of the matter is, you act like nothing is ever good enough, no matter how good it is. Including people. You’re especially hard on people. And it is irritating as all get-out! I mean, really man, what are you looking for? What in the world are you expecting to find? A golden ticket?”

Alan sat up as still and straight as if duct taped to the back of his chair. Hands flat on the table, eyes wide as if propped open with toothpicks, not a single facial muscle twitched. If not for the fact that he wasn’t turning blue, it would have been hard to know if he was even breathing. Finally, his lips cracked. Words crept out slowly, like a dog that’d been called but afraid of being kicked.

“So…wow…I’m not quite sure…how to take…I mean…I didn’t know I…didn’t mean to…not complaining…just, wow.”

“Listen man, the same friend brave enough to speak truth from the heart also loves you enough to give grace from the heart,” David said. He spoke quietly across the table that now seemed to hold a slightly larger divide than it had only moments before.

“I tell you this only because I don’t want you to expect so much from life – or at least, from this life. It’s not that you can’t find perfection or joy, or whatever it is you think you’re looking for, it’s just that you set the bar so high that it’s impossible for anyone, or anything, to meet your standard. And it kills me to see your disappointment and the frustration and the anger,” David said, plaintively. “And over what? A sandwich?”

Alan leaned back, still clearly shellshocked by his best friend’s grenade of candor.

“If I had known I was coming off that way, I would have never…” Alan shook his head. “Have others seen it too? Please tell me I haven’t hurt anyone…”

Now, David leaned back over the table until he and Alan were nearly nose-to-nose. “Of course, others have noticed, but we all love you. We love you when you bitch about books. We love you when you complain about records. We love you when you criticize movies. The common thread here is, we love you. So, we look past your bad behavior!”

David’s right hand darted to Alan’s plate and quickly hoisted the turkey sandwich before Alan knew what was happening. David took a huge bite and chewed it only inches from Alan’s face like it was the first – or maybe the last – turkey sandwich of his life. He laid the remnants back on the plate, sat back, and made a show of licking his fingers. “Mmmm, that is one delicious sandwich!”

Now Alan could only laugh in relief, his guilt rushing out of him like air out of a balloon.

“This is my whole point,” David said. “It may not be the best sandwich ever – although this one is pretty darned tasty. And that, my friend, is the meaning of life.”

“Wait a minute,” Alan said, his face swapping out guilt for confusion. “You’re saying a ‘pretty darned tasty’ turkey sandwich is the meaning of life?”

“No. And yes!” David said.

“What I mean is, you waste all this time being disappointed about something that isn’t there instead of appreciating what’s right in front of you. The artistry, the effort, the vision, the passion, the music, the magic of everyday life. Even the sweet tang of turkey and mayonnaise and cranberry sauce, mixing together juuuuussst right!” He licked a few more imaginary crumbs from his index finger.

“Not everything is going to be perfect. In fact, most things aren’t. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t good, or even great,” David said.

“Finding the good in the bad, the joy in the sorrow, the love in the hatred, the light in the darkness, the exceptional in the average,” he continued. “It’s hard, man. It takes a lot of dedication and faith and patience and time and courage and effort,” David said.

“That challenge, that’s what makes this life worth something,” he said. “Our work to seek and see and create ‘good’ in a world that doesn’t give up its ‘good’ easily. That’s the meaning of life.”

David’s fingers snuck toward Alan’s plate, closing in on what was now a sandwich in name only: a crust of bread, a sliver of turkey, a hint of tomato, and the tiniest green blanket of lettuce.

Alan smacked David’s hand. “Hey, that hurt!” David protested melodramatically, waving his hand in the air like he’d been shot. Another nosy diner turned toward them. David chuckled.   

“Leave that alone,” Alan said. He quickly reassembled the morsels and deposited them into his mouth. “That’s the best turkey sandwich I’ve had…well, today anyway!”


“Happy birthday, dear Dad/Grandpa/Uncle Joe, happy birthday, to youuuuuuu!”

            The group of well-wishers hung on to the last word for what seemed like eons in Joe’s ears. The notes mixed with the antiseptic smell in the air that crept into his room at the assisted living facility where his family had parked him ten years ago. They’d expected him to die much sooner. And why wouldn’t they? After all he was 107 when they brought him here. Any reasonable person with any kind of respect for normal life would have died by now. Given up his spot in the daily bread line. Turned over his table in the Restaurant of Life.

But not Joe.

Here he sat. Still able to walk the halls. He didn’t even need the hand under the elbow from family or visitors that most of the residents, all much younger than him, needed if they could walk at all. Not that he saw much of his family. Except for “official” visits like today or a holiday when relatives were invited to have lunch with their resident (on his tab, mind you) he rarely saw, much less walked around the halls with many of them.

Still able (and very happy) to chat up and wink at the women, young and old, although he’d never done anything beyond flirting the few times when circumstances had led in that direction. Not for lack of ability or interest. Joe still had both. He might have been a little slower on the draw, but he was certain the old “love gun,” as that silly band KISS had sung a million years ago, could still fire a round or two. Rather, no woman, no matter her age, even looked at him, much less saw him as an interesting, capable, viable partner of any kind, much less physical.

And still sharp as a new tack fresh out of the box. That expansive family? He still called every one of his seventy-two kids, grandkids and great grandkids by their proper name, no hesitation at all. And don’t get Joe started on current affairs or politics or sports or culture or – most especially – music and movies. He could back just about anyone into an inescapable conversational corner, tongue-tied and feet tangled in their knotted, and often only half-tied rhetorical rope. Nothing worse than an ill-prepared or lazy adversary, Joe often chastised after winning another argument.

Still, most days, Joe Barker was not happy. Especially on his birthday.

“Hey there, Dad,” his son, Matty, said. “How are you feeling today? Doctor says you are doing great, for a man your age. Heck, you’re doing great for a man of any age!” Matty dropped the zinger loud enough for the room of relatives to hear. As planned, it drew the fawning, cooing, polite but insincere laughter he intended. It almost seemed like he was waiting for a drummer to add a rim shot. Ba-doom-doom. Csssss! Matty was the youngest of the four kids he had with his wife, Claire.  He was far too old to still be called by the diminutive nickname, but it stuck, glued to him by eighty years of life. It was both ironic and sad, Joe thought, since the older kids – Joseph Junior, Monica, and Jean – had all died long ago. Matty, the “baby,” was now the adult. Had been for many years. Except when visiting Joe, Matty was usually the oldest person in the room.  Heck, Joe’s youngest great grandchild was twenty-nine, and carped incessantly about turning thirty, like that was something worth complaining about. Joe appreciated Matty’s high spirit and good nature. He loved his son’s sincere, well-intentioned effort to inject some levity to counterbalance the wailing sobs from the old woman across the hall that hung in the air like smog. But Joe couldn’t look past the very old elephant in the room.

“Matty, you know how I am. I am here. I am awake. I am healthy. I am breathing. I am hearing, talking, eating, reading, listening to the radio when I can get Alexa to answer me, watching television when I can find something that interests me. But I don’t want to be.”

“Dad come on now,” Matty interjected. What was coming was inappropriate for the day and the room of guests who’d gathered, no matter how many times they’d all heard it before. “We have talked about this.”

“Yes, son, we have. So, you should know by now how I feel,” Joe said. Eyes turned toward his rising voice, still as clarion and crisp as that of a man half his son’s age. “I want to be dead. Like everyone else of my generation. I should be in the ground or in an urn on top of your fireplace. Instead, I am here.”

“But Uncle Joe, we all love you,” said one of his nieces, Catherine. “We don’t want to lose you any time soon.”

“Catherine, sweetheart, I appreciate the sentiment. I really do. And I love you for saying it,” Joe said, smiling at the beautiful middle-age woman. “I know you all mean well for me. But I want to be dead. I’m not sad, or depressed, or suicidal, I promise. It’s just the natural order of things. A man my age should be dead. And I would have been if not for that stupid COVID-19 vaccine.”

Few in the room had lived through that god-awful pandemic. Fifty years ago, an unknown virus gobbled up and shat out most of the world’s human and financial resources for nearly three years. They had not lived through the plague, yet not knowing its reality didn’t make its truth any less real.

“I did what I – what we were all – supposed to do,” Joe said, evenly, with the practiced flatness of tone of someone who’d told the story many times. “I wore my mask, I social-distanced, I stayed away from everyone I loved for months at a time. And then, the first vaccine came out, a month before election day that first year, just like you-know-who said.”

A glancing smile broke quickly across Matty’s face. To this day, his dad refused to speak the former president’s name as if in ongoing protest.

Joe looked around the room, filled with everyone with even a scintilla of concern or affection for him.

“To this day, I don’t know what was worse – him winning re-election, or the millions of people who died after taking that first vaccine. And not just died. But died horrible, painful, terrible deaths because they had been willing to believe anything anyone said, just to get it over with faster. So they could stop wearing masks and go out to dinner,” he said.

“I cannot even begin to put into words how angry and betrayed and guilty I felt, because I’d been ‘smart enough’ to not take that first vaccine.” Joe’s bony, knobby index fingers waved in front of his face, making air quotes. “I knew it wasn’t safe. How could it possibly be? They rushed it into production as soon as the government waved all the safety regulations. Any fool would have known it wasn’t safe.” Joe took a deep breath. “Except those that didn’t. Including your mother. She believed everything that man said. Boy, we fought so much that first term…” Joe’s voice trailed off, drowned under a wash of memories. “Look what her faith got her.”

A tear crept into the corner of Joe’s 117-year-old eye. He quickly turned in his chair toward the wall and wiped it away.

“Dad, I think it’s time for us to go,” Matty said softly. He and his father had had this conversation so many times over the last half-decade that it’d taken on a life of its own, breathing its own sorrow into the air around Joe. The loss of his mother was the real source of his dad’s bitterness, at least as much as the politics of a plague that killed many millions of people, including two younger cousins, Matty knew. “You need your rest.”

Joe’s head swiveled back like he’d been slapped. “Rest? Rest? Rest for what? To play another round of Old People Who Should Be Dead Bingo?” he yelled. “Matty, you cannot possibly understand what it means to be so old that the oldest people around me are considered youngsters by comparison, and yet I can’t die! I have absolutely nothing in common with anyone. I am utterly and literally alone on an island. It’s not that I have lost touch with the world, Matty. The world has lost touch with me”

“But Dad, you could have taken your chances with the next four vaccines. You chose not to,” Matty said smoothly, trying to calm his father.

“And it’s a good thing, too, seeing as how they all failed. It’s like the virus kept getting smarter every time and laughed at us with each new vaccine. Ah, but then they came out with a sixth one. And every scientist and doctor worth their lab coats said this was the one. This one would cure COVID forever — and not just the current strains. It would even prevent new strains that hadn’t even formed yet. Well sir, that sounded too good to be true, but I figured, what is there to lose? The sixth time must be the charm, right?”

Matty dropped his head. He’d heard the inevitable answer to this rhetorical question a thousand times before.

“It worked, all right,” Joe said. “Only too well! Now I am trapped by my own bad luck and some sick, twisted cosmic irony! Here I am, a living, breathing testament to the power of modern medicine!” Joe shouted. His vitriolic cynicism was as clear as the spittle now on his lips. His anger drew surprised glances from a few people floating around the edges of his room.

“Dad come on. You know there’s nothing to that. There is no proof that the vaccine caused you to live longer, or stop your natural aging, or whatever it is you think happened. It could have been a fluke. It could be that you’ve got incredibly good genes. Maybe God has a reason for keeping you alive so long. Who knows? Yes, there were problems with the first six vaccines, but the next one worked the way it was supposed to. Maybe not for everyone, but at least for a few people. The others who lived all had happy lives and eventually died just like we’re all going to do” Matty said. “Including you.” His voice carried just the faintest wisp of exhausted exasperation.

Joe shifted in chair. Several relatives had quietly slipped out of the room, lingering now outside the open door or down the hall near the dining room. Those remaining watched the ballgame on the television. “Bears are losing again,” Joe noted to no one in particular. “Some things never change.”

Matty lifted and gently held his father’s right hand. He spoke respectfully, but firmly, as if reprimanding a child whose countless good deeds far outweighed this one bad one. “Dad, all we know, all any of us care about – “ Matty waved his right hand over his shoulder toward the thinning herd as it now issued a collective groan at yet another Bears fumble – “is that you are still with us. For whatever reason. It doesn’t matter. Your life is a blessing. And we cherish it.”

Joe quieted for a few seconds, reflecting on the journey he’d taken, but would have never wished on anyone. A wistful chuckle escaped through a melancholic smile. “A blessing? Hmmm…fifty years of memories that no one else understands, of a colossal human disaster that we brought on ourselves.” He stared at his and his son’s hands, intertwined. “Somehow, this blessing feels more like a curse.” He raised his eyes to his Matty’s face. “Son, you are a caring and conscientious man. I have always been most proud of  your heart. So, I know you understand when I say this: I love you, but I don’t want to see you ever again.”

A loud cheer erupted behind them – thankfully, loud enough to hide Matty’s gasp. The Bears had scored a rare touchdown.

“Now Matty, I don’t mean to hurt your feelings. I just want to be left alone until I die. Lord knows when that will ever be, or how it will happen. I don’t want to bother you with all that.” Joe smiled and winked at his son. “Plus, at your age, you shouldn’t be driving anymore.” The attempted joke fell flat. Matty stared at his father, unsmiling.

“Matty, all I do anymore is sit around here and review my life. My freakishly long life. You know I’m not particularly  religious. Never have put much stock in all that ‘Invisible Man’ stuff, but sometimes I think that if there is a God, He was using that virus to teach us a lesson in humility. You know, they called it a ‘novel’ virus because it was new. But really, there was nothing new about the situation. As usual, we humans saw something small and thought we could just crush it under our giant feet.” Joe said.

“Six times, we rushed. Sacrificing safety for speed and profit,” Joe said. “Six times, our arrogance told us our size and strength would win out. That our superior firepower would win the war because it always had. But none of that mattered to the virus.”

Matty had long been in awe of his father’s wit and intellect. But he was astounded by the words Joe now spoke.

“Dad,” he nearly whispered, “to be fair, the scientists and doctors finally got it right with the seventh vaccine.”

“Great!” Joe said, looking away. “Lucky Number Seven, I guess.”

Joe took a deep breath. For the first time in many years, he called his son by his adult name. Decades of kind, mature patience with his father had earned him this small token of his father’s respect.

“Matthew, here is what I have learned these last fifty years when I should have been dead and spending eternity with your mother,” Joe said, wryly.

I won, I suppose, but we failed,” he said.

“Our leaders failed us, our doctors and scientists failed us, the media failed us. Heck, even that God of yours failed us. But mostly, we failed each other. As individuals, as a community, as a species. And why? Because doing the right thing took too long and was inconvenient.”

Now Joe stood, walked to the door, and stared down the hall. A man who looked older than Joe toddled down the corridor, clinging shakily to a sparkling, aluminum walker. He turned and reached back to his son, hugging him with all his might.

“I don’t believe in much these days, Matthew, but I have come to believe that God of yours gave us that virus to remind us that we’re supposed to find our strength by working together,” Joe said.

“But we didn’t. We never do. Instead, we died from something too big to kill. Our hubris and greed.” Joe exhaled deeply. He slumped into his chair like a deflated balloon.

A groan rose from the remaining visitors. The Bears had lost again.

“I guess God just gave us a taste of our own medicine.”

If I Die Before I Wake


I opened my eyes.

Darkness. Had it happened?

No, the fire in my gut and pounding behind my eyes from another restless night confirmed I was still alive. Then, “Good morning, Dad. Time to wake up.” My daughter’s voice was always a welcome treat, and today, even more so.

She threw open the shades. Late-winter sunshine poured through the window, so sharp the dust magically materialized in the air like specks on an X-ray. I squeezed my eyelids tighter to block the light. No luck.

“How’d you sleep?” she chirped.

“Honey, I haven’t slept in days.” The lack of rest clouded my sight. I instinctively rubbed my eyes, hoping they’d clear.

“Oh, come on.” She cheerfully tugged at the blankets tucked around my chin. “I have your breakfast going downstairs. Eat a little something and you’ll feel better.”

“I doubt it.”


“Because today’s the day.”

“What’s so special about today?” Jenny flowed around the room like a spring breeze, my twenty-eight-year-old angel picking my clothes from the floor, straightening the blankets at my feet, fluffing the pillows behind my head. Maybe – probably? – for the last time.

“You know very well.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I’m going to die today.”

Jenny slammed to a halt. Her head snapped around. Her eyes, mirroring her smiling demeanor only a few seconds ago now lasered her anger. “Stop saying that, Dad, that’s not true and you know it.”

“But it is true. That’s what that idiot doctor told me. He said, ‘A year, maybe more.’”

“Right,” Jenny said. “A year, maybe more.”

“I’m sorry honey, I appreciate your optimism, but I’m pretty sure what he said was, ‘A year, maybe more.’ Today is one year since he pronounced my death sentence, so…”

Jenny sat at the end of the bed. “OK, fine, if you insist on being like this, then please let me know when you’re going to expire so I can plan the rest of my day. I have other things to do than to sit around here waiting to hear your death rattle.”

Her flat stare was deadpanned proof of her wit, dry as a dinosaur bone in the desert. Jenny’s sense of humor was a welcome gift from her mother, and a reminder of the only other woman I ever loved. Still, it stung sometimes. “Ouch! That hurts. Your mother, rest her soul, would have never talked to a dying man that way.”

Jenny’s head drooped under the weight of a smile. “Oh yes she would’ve. If she’d lived, she would have threatened to kill you herself for talking like this.”

She laughed, and I smiled too, then took her left hand. My thumb gently caressed her beautiful ring signifying her marriage to a wonderful young man who loved her very much. Not as much as me, but enough to understand when she started spending a night, then two, now three or four a week babysitting me as this goddamned disease stole my life one minute at a time. Which is to say, enough to earn a father’s respect and appreciation. It had been bad enough losing my darling wife to her own illness just as I was diagnosed.

“You sure are one special kid,” I said, choking on the whispered words, struggling against a wave of tears.

“I’m not a kid, Daddy. I’m a big girl.” She smiled easily. Our secret code for the inside joke she’d been making to me since she was six. Memories of her childhood brightly colored by her independent spirit and piss-and-vinegar attitude filled the corners of my mind. “I know honey. I know. I know.” Suddenly, I felt tired. “Do you mind if I rest a bit now?”

Jenny stood and headed toward the bedroom door. “Only if you promise not to die before I come back.”

“I’ll do my best, but I can’t promise anything.”

“Ugh! Daddy…”

I don’t know how long I dozed. It felt like a few hours, but it couldn’t have been more than the few minutes Jenny needed to whip up a light breakfast. She set the tray on the dresser and approached the head of the bed.

She gently lifted me under my arms to position me higher on the stack of pillows behind my head. “I brought some green tea, some scrambled eggs and a piece of plain toast. Nothing too heavy. Don’t want to go against your medicine and upset your stomach.”

She turned back to the dresser to get the tray. l waved her off. “Thank you honey, but really, I’m not hungry.”

“Why not? Are you sick?”

“Well, I’m going to be dead soon, if that’s what you mean.”

“Daddy, stop that, please,” Jenny said. “It really upsets me when you talk that way. And no, that’s not what I mean.”

“Alright, I’m sorry. My stomach is fine.” I tapped on my forehead. “I have a lot on my mind is all, with it being my last…” I caught myself and sheepishly avoided Jenny’s glare.

She circled the bed and laid next to me, propped on her elbow so I didn’t have to turn too much. Always thoughtful, this one, even down to the end.

“OK,” Jenny said, “for the sake of argument, let’s say that today is your very last day on this earth. What is so heavy on your mind that you won’t eat the gourmet breakfast I made?”

How does one answer such an immense, intimate question? Especially to a person – the only person — one holds above all others? Carefully, I decided. Delicately, but honestly.

“My sins. My many, many sins.”

Jenny rolled her eyes.

“All right, I’ll bite. What enormous sins have you committed?” she teased.

“Jennifer Ann, I’m serious.” I paused. “I have done some terrible things in my life. Things I am embarrassed about. Ashamed of. Things I feel terrible for doing to you, your mother, lots of people.”

“Wow. Except for when I got in trouble as a kid, the only time you’ve ever used my full name is when you told me Mom had died.” She sat up and turned again now to face me head-on, her arms wrapped around her raised knees. “Sins like what? You didn’t kill anyone, did you?”

“No, of course not.”

“Steal anything?”

“Nothing big.”

“Cheat on Mom?”

I took a breath, exhaled, then took another. “Let’s just say, once or twice some innocent flirting went a few steps past ‘innocent.’ But your mother knew about all of it — and held me accountable.”

Jenny gazed at me, then dropped her eyes. She traced one of the flowers on the bedspread with her finger for a few seconds. “Well, I guess there’s not much to say about that now that Mom is gone. In the big picture, I suppose that’s not such a terrible thing…”

I quickly cut her off. “But that’s not the worst of it. That’s not what’s bothering me.” Now it was my turn to look away from her. My beautiful, smart, intuitive girl. Her sharp, blue eyes could soothe one second and cut to the bone the next contracted with exasperation.

“Alright, I give up! What’s the big sin, Dad?”

“You know, I’m not the religious type…”

“I know, my wedding was one of the only times I’ve ever seen you in church.”

“…Right. So, I don’t say this lightly, but I think I’ve cut my ties with God…or Mother Nature…or the universe…or heaven…whatever you call it.”

“Darn it, Dad, spit it out!”

“I don’t know…” The ideas that had overtaken my mind the last few weeks now struggled to take shape. “This is just hard for me to put into words. I guess, for lack of  any better explanation, I’ve come to realize just how disconnected I am from other people.”

Jenny expelled a loud sigh of relief. “Is that all? I thought you had done something really bad.”

“But it is bad, honey. I’ve spent years pushing people away, creating some stupid myth of mystery. I wasted my entire life building walls when I could’ve – should’ve – been building bridges with all the people in my life. And for what? To protect my privacy.”

Jenny’s eyes crinkled and she laughed. “I’m confused. Your job put you in the public eye a lot. I remember people interrupting you all the time, wanting autographs or pictures, at dinner, the movies, ball games,” she said. “I’m just your daughter, so what do I know? But it seems to me like you had good reason to want a little space.”

I’m sure it was the medicine confusing my memory, but for a moment I swore her mother stared back at me. So trusting. So kind. So forgiving.

“Of course, I had a reason. But it’s the worst possible one: I just didn’t want to be bothered. True, I don’t like many people. Most everyone I ever met was thoughtless, self-centered, mean, stupid. But honestly, it was just my own arrogance. My ego was so big, there was no room for anyone else. I created a mountain of bullshit of the highest order. Turns out I was the stupid, petty, small one.”

My hands trembled weakly as I took hers again. “I never wanted anyone near me. I didn’t want to be responsible for another life. Now that I want someone, need someone, there’s no one. I feel so stupid, so…” I dropped my eyes, ashamed of my horrible truth, then raised them again. “I don’t mind being alone, Jenny. But being lonely is a terrible thing.”

A tear wet Jenny’s cheek. “Daddy, I’m so sorry! If I had known I would have come over more, done more!”

“No, no, my love bug! You haven’t done anything wrong. I didn’t mean it that way. Goodness, you’re the only person I have left. I am so grateful you listen to me at all. No, it’s all my own fault.”

My voice caught in my throat as pain knifed through my gut and sucked the air from my lungs. My grip on Jenny’s hands tightened, then released as the ache in my belly ebbed.  I breathed a few times to regain my strength, but the new words seemed heavier than usual, draining what little energy I had only a second ago.

“I finally understand what everyone means when they talk about heaven being the shared space between people,” I croaked weakly. “That’s the good news. The bad news is, I realize now that I’ve thrown away the greatest gift God ever gave — the love and friendship of others. And now that it’s too late for me to do anything about it, I’m terrified God will punish me.”

“Punish you how?” Jenny’s soft voice matched her gentle, but firm grip.

“By forcing me to maintain the distance I created. By keeping me away from all the people who cared about me.” I paused, trying to stave off the army of tears I’d been fighting for days.

“By not letting me near the one person who I ever let get close to me. The one person who understood me. Accepted me. Forgave me.” I took a deep breath, held it, then exhaled.

“I am terrified God will never let me see your mother again.”

At long last the tears came. I couldn’t help it. These thoughts had consumed nearly every waking moment the last few days. To hear them out loud from my own mouth somehow made them even more horrible. I felt like Frankenstein that awful moment his monster rose from the table charged with the life he’d given it.

“Oh, Daddy, don’t be silly. God isn’t cruel.”

“Oh Jenny, now who’s being silly? Have you actually read the Bible? How about today’s newspaper? Look around us, Jenny. If God’s not cruel, He’s at least got a wicked sense of humor.”

She took a deep breath, eased her legs over the edge of the bed and slowly, wordlessly stood.  She lifted me, fluffed the pillows and lowered me back, then gently kissed my forehead. Like I’d done to her a million times when she was a child. I was grateful for her silence. My swollen throat wouldn’t have allowed a word to pass if she’d said anything.

A minute passed, maybe two. Then, “Dad, for your sake, for all our sakes, I hope and pray and trust and believe with every part of my being that you are wrong,” she said, offering the gentlest, subtlest reprimand I think I’ve ever gotten.

She tucked the blankets around me and opened the window. A soft afternoon  breeze, warm enough to suggest spring was just around the corner, danced lightly into the room.

“I believe God forgives our sins, even – especially – if we don’t forgive them ourselves. And that includes the sin of refusing His gifts.”

Jenny lifted the food tray from the dresser and turned to go, but then set it back down. She returned to the bedside, gently nudged me over, took my left hand, and sat.

“Most of all, I believe God even forgives us for forsaking Him. Or Mother Nature. Or the universe. Whatever you call it.”

She smiled and winked at me. One more joke for the road, I guess.

“Otherwise, how would we possibly survive the unthinkable evil that we create? The walls we build between and around each other? The hatred that ignores and belittles God’s love? All the god-forsaken things we do to God’s own creation in God’s name?” Jenny said. “For me, a loving, forgiving God is the only thing that makes any sense in a world that makes no sense at all.”

Suddenly, the air seemed to shimmer with the glittering grace of her conviction. My chest swelled with equal parts sorrow and pride.

“My beautiful child, how did you get to be so wise?” My voice stumbled, heavy with sincere awe for this soul, at once child-like and mature beyond measure, who was the last and final bridge to whatever this world is, and the next world might be.

“I listened to the people around me. Friends. Family. You. Mom,” she said. “Then I listened to my heart.”

Her words were so beautiful and encouraging. Yet, reality gave me little hope, and even less comfort. “That’s all wonderful, and I am glad for you, but I don’t have time now to fix all my mistakes.”

“Sure, you do. There’s always tomorrow.” Jenny bent and kissed my cheek

“But what if there’s no tomorr–”

“There’s always tomorrow, Daddy.” She frowned, giving no ground.

We volleyed for a while longer about the nature of Nature, spirituality, what might come next — whether “next” would be in this room, or somewhere else — and what that might look like wherever or whatever or whenever it came.

We discussed philosophy, religion, politics.  We eventually turned to less contentious subjects: memories of her childhood and comparisons of her own young marriage to her mother’s and my early years as a couple. I dozed between debate points, waking to my snores only to find her waiting patiently for me to answer. My admiration for my daughter–and regret for my imminent passing–grew with each bright, intuitive, thoughtful, sharp, funny idea and statement that she spoke.

Finally, the emotional burden of the day weighed heavy on my heart and tugged at my eyelids. The breakfast tray remained untouched on the dresser, as the afternoon sun faded.

“Honey, I’d talk to you forever, if I could. But I’m tired. I think I might really sleep more than a few minutes this time.” My thin laugh sounded more like a whisper than a chuckle. “Do you mind if I take a nap?”

“Of course not! Now close your eyes,” she ordered. “Don’t think too much. Just rest. You’ve had a hard day. I’ll wake you when it’s time for dinner.” She clicked the light switch and pulled the door behind her, leaving it open enough so I could see the light in the hallway.

I lay still, staring into the semi-darkness, afraid I’d once again find myself in the crossfire between the rest I so desperately sought, and the flashing explosions of anxiety that had kept sleep at bay for days.

Jenny’s words rolled through my brain. I thought about her faith in ultimate goodness. Her understanding of the mysteries of love. Her forgiveness of human failing.

My body pointlessly protested the pain building inside with every shallow breath, one relentless brick after another. Yet I felt a new calm. A strange, but welcome sense of peace. I turned toward the glow outside the bedroom door.

Then I closed my eyes.


The Garbage Man


“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.”


“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…


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. 


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.


“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.”


“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.”





“The Holocaust.”

“That was a bad one.”


“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???


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!


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?”


“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…”


“…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…”


“…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.”


“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:


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.



“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.”


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.