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Rook

September 30, 2015 Leave a comment

A thick, humid day gave way to rain in the evening which intensified all through the night.

In the morning when Spence steps from his car, where he had slept upright behind the wheel, the air is dry and much cooler than the day before. Tongue of cotton swabbing and wrinkled suit. Tie tossed into the back seat at some point. His back aches. He is too old to be sleeping in cars, he decides.

He stretches, steps around to the curbside of the blue Volvo and opens both front and back doors, steps between them, shielded from view. He stretches, unzips and relieves himself, watching for pedestrians or passing patrol cars. It is early. He has the immediate environs to himself. The bar across the street, where he had over-imbibed the night before, is closed. It will not reopen until 4 p.m.

Back into the car. The key still in the ignition. All he gets is click, click, click. Lights and the radio left on overnight. No-one around to offer a jump. An expired AAA membership. Calling a garage would probably cost most of the cash that he is carrying. He hasn’t a clue where his cell phone is anyway. Maybe in the bar.

Nothing to do but walk. Spence doesn’t know the neighborhood well but he knows it can go from safe to dicey within a block. He wishes he had a change of clothes. Despite the poor condition of his suit, it is expensive and gives off an incorrect impression that he carries meaningful money. In a few blocks he comes across West Side Pawn. Open at ten. A pawn shop is an indication of decline. He may have ventured in the wrong direction. He looks at his watch, a Christmas gift from Jill that also broadcasts false fortune. 7:25 a.m. He is about to turn around, retrace his steps and head back to the Volvo when he sees a man exiting a building a block ahead. Signs of life from what appears to be a bar. He presses on.

As he draws closer he sees the sign. Rook. Picture of a black bird like from the card game. As he reaches the corner to cross the street, waiting for the light to change, he hears a voice behind him.

“You could buy me a drink.”

He hadn’t noticed the woman seated on the bench at the bus stop. A hooker most likely but, if so, given her condition, new to the trade. Clean and with a bright, wholesome smile. A tiny waist, he notes, as she rises from the bench. An hourglass figure though a lot of sand has settled to the bottom. Spence looks her over, trying to guess her age. He could easily err by a decade or more.

“Come on,” he says, crossing the street with the changing light without waiting for her.

Light on her feet, she skips after him. Grasps his elbow like a Prom date when she catches up.

Spence leads her to a bar stool rather than to a table. They sit at the bar with three old guys who look like they haven’t left the Rook in years.

“Whassup Sandy?” says the old bartender.

“Dan!” she responds.

Sandy orders a shot and a beer. Spence only a beer. A little too early for whiskey, though back in the day he’d often greet the morning with a Plain Dealer breakfast – a raw egg plopped into a glass of beer – after working the night shift. The total comes to $15. Spence hands Dan an American Express card that may or may not be valid. The silver haired bartender, who walks with a pronounced limp, frowns and shakes his head. Spence takes a crumpled ten, a five and three ones out of his pocket. Dan is gleeful over the tip. An uncommon occurrence, Spence surmises.

Sandy downs the whiskey in a single gulp, wipes her mouth with the back of her hand.

Spence excuses himself to go to the bathroom for a discreet place to check his funds. Two twenties, a five and four ones. Enough for a few more rounds or a battery jump but not both. On the way back to the bar he notices a pay phone, a rarity these days. He slips in the change and calls Jill’s number. She doesn’t answer, the call goes to voice-mail. Spence doesn’t leave a message. He knows he hasn’t much to report that would elicit interest or sympathy at this time in the morning.

When Spence reclaims his stool he sees Sandy with a fresh shot. He’s guessing it’s on his tab. As a test, and because he wants another, he orders a second beer. Dan doesn’t ask him to pay at the point of delivery. There’s the answer.

###

Another unanswered phone call to Jill. He leaves a message this time about his stranded condition and the number of the pay phone. Jill’s parents are in town. Spence is, no doubt, the main topic. The potential son in law, once considered a promising asset due to his good job is now an object of doubt and derision. His failure to make good on the marriage proposal fresh in their minds. Fancy footwork in his rope-a-dope relationship strategy. After he got fired, Spence moved in with Jill until he could get back on his feet. That was four months ago. The job search is not going well because a hunter needs both sufficient prey, weaponry and motivation. He spends most of the day driving around the rundown Near North neighborhood, exploring a city that had been a mystery. Jill’s job and apartment are in the ‘burbs. She refuses to deal with the dangers and inconveniences of the urban core, where “they” live, although she never explicitly says who “they” are.

Spence has been scouting the drinking establishments where “they” live. Dives, like The Ruby and Rook, where the booze and food are cheap and the characters plentiful. Funds are chronically low. Spence has sold off stereo equipment and most everything else of any value. Jill grows increasingly reluctant to extend loans.

###

Spence checks his watch again, is about to tell Sandy that he needs to be on his way, whatever way that is, when the thought occurs to him.

“I’ll be right back,” he says. He studies Sandy’s face as he lifts himself uncertainly from his stool. Acne scars on her cheeks like constellations. Like a target at a BB gun shooting range. Punctuation without sentences. Indications, perhaps, of deeper scars within from a pustular adolescence.

“Where are you going?“ Sandy asks with alarm. Dan looks at him with equal concern.

“Here,” Spence says, emptying his pocket to settle for the drinks, removing suspicion and buying Sandy another round. “Give me 15 minutes,” he says.

Spence exits the Rook, crosses the street where he sees a girl on the bench in Sandy’s previous position with the same lonely but hopeful visage. He walks the block to West Side

Pawn.

###

The pawn guy seems fidgety and uncertain as he hands Spence the money.

Spence returns to the Rook sans watch but with two crisp one hundred dollar bills in his pocket. Much less than the timepiece’s value but more than he expected. No one has has phoned during his absence, he is told.

He noticed that the girl on the bench has moved on.

Dan places two upside down shot glasses in front of Spence and Sandy.” Ben has your next round,” he says pointing to an elderly gentleman at the other end of the bar who wasn’t there when Spence left. The old man doesn’t turn when Spence says “thank you” in his direction. The old man stares at the shelves of cheap whiskey behind the bar as if communicating telepathically with old friends. Ancient Age. Jim Beam. Old Overholt.

Sandy walks over to Ben. Plants a kiss on the old man’s cheek. He smiles and pats her on the rump.

Spence thinks about the girl who was sitting on the bench across the street. Younger and prettier than Sandy. “Do you have a roommate?” he asks Sandy.

“How did you know?”

“Just a hunch.”

“She’s upstairs. She’ll be gone in a little while.”

They redeem the shot glasses for their gift drinks. Spence goes to the restroom, steadying himself with the juke box on his way. After he’s through with business, Spence dials Jill’s number but hangs up after the first ring. A slurred noontime conversation will not further his ambitions.

###

Yet another drink? Phone a garage while he still has sufficient funds? Try to reach Jill one last time? Spence’s muddy mind fails to give traction. He loads the jukebox. Sometimes decisions are made for you. He turns from the jukebox in time to see a tow truck pass by dragging a blue Volvo. He sighs.

“We’ll have one more,” Spence says to Dan. To Sandy he says, “After these do you want to go upstairs?”

She smiles and and awaits her drink.

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Categories: Uncategorized

Writing

September 25, 2015 Leave a comment

I’ve abused you lately with my short fiction. Many of you prefer my memoirs and off-the-cuff observations. I’ll try a more balanced approach in the future though no-one has ever accused me of being balanced.

I strike while the iron is hot or, to abuse a saying, at least while it is plugged in (a story there, I’ll try to get to it soon). Because of the realities of my productivity, or lack thereof, I must write what’s in my head at the moment.

About one in ten of my short story ideas result in an actual story. One in ten actual stories are worth sharing. One in ten of the shared stories, I consider to be good. One in ten of stories I consider good, probably, actually are.

Nevertheless, I’m going to offer advice based on my experiences though I lack credentials to do so. Think of this as, not a sermon from the Mount but, a plea and a confession from the gallows.

1. Write. A lot. Even if most of it is bad which it will be. Most of the stuff you think is good will be bad if you wait a day or two to reread it. By the way, that last step is critical. Make sure you destroy the bad stuff so it is never accidentally discovered after you pass so you don’t suffer embarrassment posthumously. Note: don’t drunkenly burn the manuscript in the bathtub and set off the fire alarm as I once did.

2. When you’re not writing. Read. Read good stuff. Reading crap will cause you to write crap. Danielle Steele – crap. George Saunders – good. Got it? The good stuff is not just literary classics. There are a lot of great contemporary writers out there but you’re unlikely to find them on bestsellers lists. Incidentally, if you’re writing to get rich and famous you are a bigger fool than I am and I’ve set the bar pretty high. You’re better off playing the lottery.

When I was living in Cleveland, in my twenties, hanging out at Publix and Kay’s bookstores downtown, among other places literary, I developed a process inspired by my book reviewing work. Caveat: this requires a bit of pre-knowledge about the lions of literary fiction. If you’re a reader and writer of genre fiction, I can’t advise you but I can pray for you.

The process: You should no more buy a book for its cover graphics than a bottle of wine for its label. Instead read the reviews on the back of the dust jacket. Not so much the content of the review as the name of the reviewer. If Philip Roth says a guy is great, even though you’ve never heard of him, he probably is. If you find he is truly worth reading, read all of his work. Pay attention to the reviewers on the dust jackets of all the books and follow the trail. It’s a form of social networking that existed before the computer.

In summary so far: write, write, write, read, read, read.

3. Learn where and when you write best. I work best early in the morning or in the evening. The afternoon is a wasteland for me. I’m engineered for siestas, perhaps. I can’t write in solitude or complete silence. I lie. I once could. I can no more. Vacuums fill my head with messy apartment thoughts. Messy relationship thoughts. Messy business thoughts. I need white noise. I wrote an entire novel at Arnold’s bar. Not a good novel. Not a publishable one. I’m just saying I cranked out 64,000 words over four months amid the chaos that is the bar scene. I didn’t destroy the failed novel. I am parting it out like a car in the back yard. A piece here, a piece there. As short stories.

Carry a journal at all times. Keep it by your bedside. Take it to the bathroom. Don’t get confused and wipe your ass with it. There’ll be plenty of shit in the journal as it is.

4. Experience life. If you can afford to travel, by all means, do so. When I was flush, I went to Europe every year (sometimes twice a year) to se-set my mind (I also learned that America is #1 only in all the ways that don’t count).

If you can’t travel physically, travel in your head. Find ways to stimulate your imagination. One way, of course, is to read. Other ways are through new music (don’t listen to the same stuff all the time). Find unfamiliar surroundings with unfamiliar people. I’m a creature of habit like everybody else and I have to work hard to follow this rule.

If you starve your imagination, it will die. A writer with a dead imagination is a typist.

5. Be courageous. Non-writers and amateur readers often confuse the writer with his fiction and may judge you harshly. Fuck them. Experiment. Insult and offend. If you’re afraid to explore, hire a P.R. firm and a focus group and get the hell out of my way. Write for yourself and hope you reach others as a result. If you write for a target audience you’ll never find yourself. Better safe than sorry is terrible advice for a creative writer. During my corporate years (the only period I truly regret although it provided the money for travel) I self censored. Trying to fit in corporate America is to be a part of a hedge where bits of your personality get trimmed off everyday. If your goal is safe, pleasant conformity you are not and never will be a writer.

6. To have the time to write and read and live and successfully piss people off you need to turn off the fucking t.v. Sell it if it’s worth anything. Use the money to buy a good bottle of Scotch or a night on the town or a hooker or to play the ponies. Or buy a rueben which would still represent a good deal. If you forget or choose to ignore everything else I’ve said, remember this: Nothing in life is worth less than a television.

Excuse me, I’ve got work to do.

Categories: Uncategorized

A Super Hero Contemplates Retirement

September 11, 2015 Leave a comment

Sometimes he thinks he would like to return to his home planet. The world that has derogatorily been referred to as the West Virginia of the solar system. A world ravaged and impoverished. Undeserving of its Ultra Planet moniker. Like a suburban street with no foliage named Elm Street. Still home is home and sometimes he dreams of Ultra Planet and all he left behind to champion justice here.

Life has been difficult of late. Aging is uncomfortable even for the most well endowed and the competition has grown  more fierce. Plaxar, Ultra Man’s evil nemesis is, frankly, younger, more virile and better looking. Let’s face facts. And only a few days ago he was alerted to a rumor that Plaxar had been seen in the company of Ultra Woman.

Super villains and heroes, have always offered one another certain accommodations. Ultra Man allows Plaxar to practice evil on a limited scale so long as he succumbs when appropriate and Ultra Man’s friends and relatives remain off limits.

The Lodge is a demilitarized, neutral zone for all super heroes and villains. The Lodge, sponsored by the The United Association of Super Heroes and Villains, is where they meet to socialize and gossip while they drink and play pool or cards.

One of Ultra Man’s super powers is extra sensory perception. His limited ability to read minds is a powerful advantage in the game of euchre but not at all helpful while shooting pool where Ultra Man’s less than perfect eye-hand coordination and grasp of geometry have prevented him from mastering the bank shot. In fact, Ultra Man hates pool but is occasionally goaded into a game.

His pool partner this evening is Mirth Man who can leave you writhing on the floor with laughter, holding your aching stomach muscles, tears streaming down your cheeks and with no will to resist the assault. The opposition tonight is Plaxar and Mirth Man’s twin brother, Dr. Tragic, who inspires suicide among his opponents who can’t tune out his tales of woe and misery. Mirth Man and Dr. Tragic always work alone, never as a team where their powers cancel each other out.

Ultra Man faces a difficult shot.

“3 ball. Corner pocket. Off the 15,” he says with all the confidence he can muster.

“Yeah. Right,” says Plaxar dismissively.

The cue ball hits the wrong side of the 3 and caroms off to stroke the 8 into the side pocket. Game over! Plaxar guffaws. Mirth Man and Dr. Tragic neutralize one another’s reactions.

Saved by an Ultralert. Someone is out there creating mayhem. Ultra Man looks among the Lodge gathering, trying to determine who might be at large before rushing to the changing room to don  his tights and cape from his locker. Damn! A gravy stain on his cape. His auxiliary cape is at the cleaners. He hopes. He lost the ticket and can’t remember how long… The cleaners donate clothes unclaimed after 30 days to charity. Ultra Man imagines a homeless person parading about on the hot streets wearing his blood red cape. Using it to wipe snot and whatever else from his syphilitic nose. A humiliating thought. Oh well. Up. Up. And away.

###

“We need to do something about this. It’s been weeks,” Ultra Woman says from her side of the bed. Ultra Man is unable to delve into Ultra Woman’s thoughts, nor she his. It’s why they’ve been able to stay together for so long. He knows what she’s talking about anyway. He’ll pretend he doesn’t.

“About what?”

“You know what I’m talking about. Your ultra dick.”

“This again?”

“Honey, it was always so ultra…” She reaches over and touches him. Shifting tactics.

Ultra Man will have none of it. “I’m tired. I’m under a lot of stress.”

“You say that every time. You could see a doctor.”

“Word would get out. I’d be the laughing stock.”

“I don’t care. My ultra pussy needs action.”

“Is that the reason you’ve been hanging out with Plaxar?”

No response. Ultra Woman rolls to her side, her back to him. She turns out her light.

“Tomorrow. I promise,” Ultra Man says. He returns to his trade magazine, Super Hero Quarterly, but realizes he has to go to the bathroom again. It’s the second time within the hour due to his enlarged ultra prostate.

###

Another Ultralert. Ultra Man rises from the bed careful not to wake Ultra Woman. Into his tights and gravied cape and away he goes. He has a premonition. It’s Plaxar.

The city is quiet. The air rushing past, mussing his graying hair, is crisp and dry. His cape flutters like a flag as he scans the streets from above looking for the crime in progress.

When Ultra Man touches down Plaxar is busy, outside the violated bank, loading sacks of cash into an old Econoline. He has a hostage bound and gagged. A woman of the night who had happened on the scene and alerted authorities.

“This is the end of you Plaxar. You’ve gone too far,” Ultra Man says.

“Says you,” responds Plaxar as he rushes Ultra Man and hurls him against an SUV parked across the street activating the car alarm. Sirens wail in the distance.

Ultra Man picks himself up. He is able to tune into Plaxar’s thoughts. Knows his next move.

Parry. Thrust. Ultra Man delivers a series of vicious blows. Wham! Pow! Zowie! Thump!

Plaxar is finished. Crumpled on the sidewalk when the police arrive.

“You’ve done it again Ultra Man,” says Sgt. Sullivan. “Good work.”

Ultra Man releases the prostitute from her bondage. She runs away from the familiar policemen.

Ultra Man issues a salute as he rises into the air. On the flight home he feels a stirring in his loins. An ultra erection.

Categories: Uncategorized

West Side Pawn


Cliff answers only because he recognizes the number. Jerry calls only occasionally. When he needs a drinking buddy or company at the track. Jerry likes to play the ponies. Cliff always take his calls. Jerry’s rich or, at least, he spends like the rich. Cliff is poor and spends like the poor which means not at all. Jerry is always good for a few drinks. Sometimes more. If Jerry gets really hammered Cliff can ask for a loan that he won’t remember in the morning.

Most other phone calls Cliff doesn’t answer. Invariably they are salespeople trying to sell something he can’t afford. Or bill collectors trying to collect something he doesn’t have. Or pissed off women demanding something he won’t understand.

“Cliff. This is Jerry.”

“I know.”

‘I need your help.”

“In what way?”

“I’m in Chicago with Lulu.”

Lulu is Jerry’s latest squeeze. Cliff doesn’t remember her real name but it doesn’t remotely suggest Lulu. Lulu is a homely girl in the face. Thin lipped. Little teeth showing lots of gums. Eyes too far apart. But she’s got a pair of legs that make you drop to your knees and pray. Jerry says she’s the best lay he’s ever had. That she likes it from behind and talks dirty into the carpet all the way through it. Cliff’d try to get some of that if he wasn’t afraid of Jerry.

“I’m afraid I can’t help you with that,” Cliff says.

“I need you to mind the store today.”

“Kinda short notice. Where’s Vinny?”

“Vinny’s dead.”

“How do you mean?”

“As in not breathing.”

“Jerry I know what dead is. What happened?”

“He dropped dead in the store yesterday. Massive coronary occlusion. Doctor talk for a heart  attack. Lanny stopped by and found him face down. Lucky for me.”

“Lucky that Vinny is dead?”

“Lucky that Lanny happened by with Vinny still warm. A stranger would have come in and cleaned me out.”

“That’s terrible news.”

“It gets worse.”

“What’s worse than dead?”

“Lanny took Vinny’s keys before they hauled him away. To move his car off the street so it wouldn’t get ticketed and towed.”

“Okay. Vinny wasn’t likely to be driving anyway.”

“Right but Lanny took Vinny’s car to his apartment complex. He knew where it was. He’d dropped Vinny off  a couple of times when he was too drunk to drive. Lanny went inside to take a piss. Guess what he found?”

“What?”

“Watches. Electronics. A wad of one hundred dollar bills. Vinny was ripping me off.”

“Vinny the thief is worse than Vinny the dead?”

“From my perspective.”

“Why can’t Lanny open the shop?”

“Lanny has to go to his real job. Besides Lanny don’t know shit about pawning.”

“Neither do I.”

“I know but you’re my last hope. Nobody else is available.”

“Thanks for your confidence.”

“Just do what you did last time. Don’t buy anything. Just treat it like a retail gig. Prices are clearly marked. I’ll make it up to you, you know that.”

“I haggle up to twenty percent, right?”

“Yeah. I buy at ten cents on the dollar. Usually. Don’t make a habit of discounts. I don’t want to get a reputation.”

“You’re in Chicago. I don’t have keys.”

“Lanny will meet you there before he goes to work.”

“When?”

“Now.”

###

Cliff sits behind the counter on the high stool and looks around. Jerry has a lot of cool merchandise. Cliff decides he wouldn’t mind sitting on the high stool as a habit. He’ll ask Jerry to teach him the pawn business which involves being able to differentiate the good stuff from the junk and feeling okay about taking advantage of people’s desperate circumstances.

A guy walks in causing the door to make a loud, annoying noise. It’s important for a pawnbroker to know when someone has opened the door. Your survival depends on being aware. There’s a loaded 9mm under the counter. You need a sense of when you might need the gun. That sense usually comes the moment the door opens.

The guy carries a small box. He opens it on the counter. It contains a small collection of earrings. They have embedded gems that look expensive but Cliff can’t tell a diamond from zirconium.

Cliff tells the earring guy that he isn’t buying because he’s filling in for the regular guy who died of a heart attack yesterday. Earring guy doesn’t give a shit about some dead pawnshop clerk. He starts to carry on about the earrings.

Cliff  tells him again about the “no buy” situation. The guy keeps spouting off about the earrings. Frustrated, Cliff asks him how much he is asking for the earrings.

“$200.”

That doesn’t sound like much. The earrings look nice. “I can do $100.”

“$150,” the guy comes back quickly.

Cliff opens the drawer and takes out the money. The guy knows the drill. He already has his driver’s license on the counter so Cliff can write down the information on the sheet in case the earrings are stolen merchandise. The door screams again and a woman walks in as Cliff is counting the money onto earring guy’s outstretched palm.

The guy splits. The door howls again as he leaves. Cliff tapes the buy sheet to the small box of earrings and puts it in the space under the shelf behind him.

The woman is pretty. Dark eyes and short cropped hair. Bright smile. Good legs. She is looking for a birthday gift for her boyfriend. Maybe a watch. “Danny likes watches,” she says. All the good ones have boyfriends, Cliff is thinking.

Cliff shows her the watch section in the glass case. He comes around from behind the counter to stand beside her and see the watches from her perspective. He is unfamiliar with the merchandise.

She’s focused on the high end of the watch collection. She asks about one of the more expensive watches. Cliff goes back behind the counter, plucks the watch and rather than offering it across the counter carries it to her so he can stand with her again.

She puts the watch on her tiny wrist. Cliff doesn’t know why. Maybe it’s just something you do instinctively with watches. He smiles and reaches for the watch. He puts it on his own wrist which he has always considered handsome. It also gives him the opportunity to lightly touch her. After modeling the watch he hands it back making sure he can brush her warm hand again in the process.

“I like it but I don’t think I can afford $500.”

“I can go $400.” Jerry wouldn’t be happy. This isn’t haggling, this is a high school girl in the back seat giving it all up from the get-go.

She has moved closer to him. He can feel her hip against his. They are close to the same height. He can smell her. Not a chemical fragrance but the essence of her under her fragile spaghetti strap sundress. Thin material. He can’t detect bra or panty lines. Cliff tries not to stare. It’s hot outside. She still glistens with sweat. Little bumps start popping out on her bare arms from the shop’s air conditioning. He already has a plan in his head. He’ll offer her a sweet deal in order to get her name and information. He’ll make it up on other sales by pretending he offered other discounts when he didn’t. That involves fudging the sales slips but it will all net out the same so it isn’t cheating.

“That’s still a little steep.” She says what Cliff expected her to say. Her voice is like melting butter. A bit of a southern twang that might be faked. He pretends he’s Stanley Kowalski in A Street Car Named Desire. Not the perfect role model but the only one that comes to him on the fly.

“I can do $300 but that’s my final offer.” He realizes he’s being ridiculously generous. Beautiful women will do that to you.

“That’s sweet of you. I’ll take it,” she buttered at him.

She hands him a credit card. He was hoping for cash so it would be easy to manipulate the sales slip. He’ll think of something else. Maybe swap price tags with a lesser priced watch in the case and hope Jerry doesn’t notice. The advantage of the credit card is he has her name already. Amanda.

Cliff runs her card. Puts the watch in the nicest box he can find. She signs the slip. Now for the punch line.

“If you give me your email I can add you to the list so you get notified of specials.” There is no list. There are no specials.

Amanda looks at him doubtfully but surrenders her email on the pad of paper Cliff placed on the counter in front of her. Maybe she knows the score and decides to play anyway. Perhaps the game is on.

She exits through the angry door. He watches her shimmy away and hopes that her boyfriend pulls a full Vinny before she gets home.

For the next two hours, nothing. Cliff remembers this from the last time he worked West Side. It’s a feast or famine business. You’re parched or soaked. They arrive in clusters or not at all. The rest of the day is sporadic. He’ll do $1500 in sales. All at a discount. He wonders how Jerry will feel about that.

Jerry calls as Cliff is locking up. Cliff tells him it was a decent but not great day. He doesn’t tell him about the discounts. He doesn’t tell him about the purchase of the earrings but Jerry wasn’t calling to ask about business. He asks Cliff if he can cover the rest of the week, until he can get back in town for the weekend. Jerry always works weekends himself. They are the busiest days and he can stay connected to the business. He’ll soon find a replacement for Vinny, Jerry says. Cliff doesn’t ask for the job over the phone. He’ll wait and do that in person after a few successful days that show his mettle as a pawn guy.

That evening, Cliff is tempted to email Amanda to thank her for her business or some other bullshit excuse. He doesn’t because he has been drinking and knows that phone calls and emails under the influence are almost always a bad idea. Besides she’s probably getting her brains fucked out in exchange for the watch.

The next couple of days at West Side Pawn are indeed better. The business more brisk with fewer discounts. Cliff doesn’t buy anything though he is tempted. A bracelet that would have been perfect on Amanda’s slender brown wrist, for example. He still doesn’t know how Jerry will feel about the earrings. He wonders if there is a way to shift money around so he can take the earrings off the books and give them to Amanda. The pawn business, he is learning, is character warping. The shadiness and desperation of most of the customers is contagious. Like the kid in grade school who passes his lice around.

###

He sees her even before the door squeals with delight. Amanda is wearing an even prettier sundress. She seems sad and nervous as she approaches the counter. Cliff is nervous too. Maybe the watch failed or wasn’t what it appeared to be. A fake. A cheap Chinese knock-off. Instead the news couldn’t be better.

The watch in its box on the counter. “I wonder if I could return it? I’m afraid I don’t have the receipt.” Her voice is somewhat tremulous.

“Is there something wrong?” Cliff asks.

“Not with the watch. With him.” Amanda attempts a smile. It’s like a light bulb that shines one last moment when switched on before burning out.

Cliff knows better than to probe. “Of course. We offer a 30 day buy back guarantee.” The sign on the wall that says all sales are final confirms this as a lie. He takes $400 from the drawer.

Amanda thanks him. Her teeth seemed whiter. Her hair shinier. Her wiggle more pronounced as the door squawks her departure.

She’s long gone before he realizes his error. So captivated is he that he had forgotten that she only paid $300 for the watch. Cliff will find a solution later. Maybe she’ll realize the error and return with the hundred bucks.

That evening Cliff sends Amanda an email wishing her well and hoping things worked out for the best. She doesn’t respond. The email probably went into her spam folder. Cliff is nothing if not an optimist.

Later, after a few beers and shots, he thinks maybe she’s dodging him because of the hundred bucks. He texts again to say he didn’t text her earlier because of the refund and not to worry about the hundred bucks.

Even later after more beers and shots he emails Amanda again to ask for a date.

Shit, here it goes, he thinks. He turns off the computer so he isn’t tempted after the next round.

###

Jerry returns. Cliff had a good week. He expects praise and the offer of a job.

Jerry emerges from the office. “Okay. Two problems.”

“Too many discounts?”

“Three problems then. We’ll talk about the discounts later. The earrings are garbage. Dime store crap. And the drawer was short $100 in cash.”

Cliff recovers quickly. “I took a chance on the earrings. It’s how I’ll learn.” He’d forgotten about the extra $100 refund to Amanda. He doesn’t go into it because any refund violated policy and only would made a bad situation worse. Instead he says he’s not sure went wrong. Cliff goes into his pocket. Counts out ten twenties and five tens. Hands them to Jerry, refunding most of what he had earned for the four days of work. Cliff doesn’t want the job as much as he wants Amanda. West Side Pawn, he thinks, is his only hope. His and Amanda’s Paris. She’ll be back. He’s sure of it.

Jerry takes one of the twenties and hands it back to Cliff, saying that’s what the earrings are worth. Puts the rest in his pocket. “Let’s go play the ponies.”

“Okay. About Monday. Work.”

Jerry doesn’t respond.

 

 

 

Categories: Uncategorized

You’ll Get Caught


Whatever you’re doing

you’ll get caught

 

Too much thinking

too much drinking

 

Driving too fast

Eating cured meats

Having unprotected sex

with other men’s wives

Smoking in bed

Putting on weight

Walking alone

down dark alleys

Brandishing loaded firearms

Enjoying illegal substances

Camping among carnivorous wildlife

Ignoring blood

in your stool

or piss or semen

 

Something will get you

Your choice or not

Whatever you’re doing

You’ll get caught

Categories: Uncategorized

Pickled


Magnus Magnussen is a chemist, engineer and  an expert in process management. A smart man. An educated man. A learned man whose interests and talents range far and wide.

Magnus is also a drunk.

He always drank but he began in earnest after the passing of his wife Olga four years ago. Olga succumbed to cancer which had been engineered by something awry in her chemistry, a failure of processes that could not be managed.

Magnus works for an international firm that manufactures equipment and designs processes and systems for the large scale production of fermented foods. He is steeped in pickles. Sauerkraut. Herring. You can pickle virtually anything. You might say Magnus is pickled.

Magnus arrived at work one morning in a mildly inebriated state. The Plant Manager and his coworkers were fully aware of his weaker proclivities but tolerated them because they view Magnus as invincible, indispensable and, most importantly, hugely entertaining. Magnus is not a salesman, never aspired to be a salesman, yet whenever the firm encountered a reluctant customer they send Magnus.

On the morning under discussion, Magnus was strolling along a catwalk, in a spotless white lab coat, suspended above an enormous vat filled with vegetables and experimental pickling fluids that were believed to cut the fermentation process in half, doubling profits for everyone.

The sour and pungent smell and Magnus’ ethereal condition led to light-headedness and vertigo. He toppled over the rail and into the vat where he could not gain purchase on the floating cauliflower. Due to an oversight by his parents Magnus had never been taught to swim.

He heard the panicked voices as he sank and rose, rose and sank, thrashing, choking as his throat filled with pickle juice.

“Mag has fallen! Help him!” Someone called out.

Magnus watched, from above as in flight, his own floundering body bobbing up and down, sinking out of sight only to emerge once more. At one point he saw Olga reach out for him. Their hands touched as they had so many times years ago. Her smile told him not to be afraid.

###

When he was revived on the large, stainless steel prep table on which he had been stretched like a fish to be gutted he could not help but feel a certain disappointment. He lifted himself bolt upright and not seeing Olga among the concerned gathering, reclined once again with remnants of pickling fluid burning in his nostrils.

The ambulance would deliver him to the place where medical experts could test and observe and pass judgment on his post-pickled soundness. The company doctor on the scene, a good man of modest training, had asked him if he knew who he was and where he was to which Magnus had responded, “I’m Mickey Mouse and I am in Disney Land” They all laughed, relieved to still have their Magnus Magnussen among them.

On his ride to the hospital Magnus fingered objects in his pocket. Pieces of carrot. Asparagus tips. Miniature ears of corn. He saw no reason not to snack on these bites of food during his journey.

###

Magnus was pronounced sound, unplugged and released from the medical facility. The company, upon updating and reviewing his employee file after the incident, discovered that Magnus had not taken vacation since well before Olga’s departure. Management insisted on a leave. To everyone’s astonishment Magnus consented, announcing his plans for a respite at a northern fishing village with a trunkful of fishing rods, reels and tackle and his favorite brand of vodka. He didn’t announce the vodka part. He didn’t need to. The other thing he didn’t announce was his out-of-body experience while bobbing like a gherkin in a jar. How it had sapped his enthusiasm for the pickling business on the whole and its various slices specifically. And how he wasn’t exactly sure when, if ever, he might return to work.

###

Bad fortune occurs in threes, they say. They say a lot of stupid shit. But sure enough, on his drive north in his Citroen, which knew very little road time, Magnus lost his way and found himself meandering rural backroads. Distracted and, no doubt, braking erratically as he attempted to get his bearings, he is rear-ended by a commercial truck carrying nothing less than a load of pickled herring, sauerkraut and beets. The vehicles couple like mating beasts on the lonely stretch of narrow asphalt. The truck driver is an instant fatality while Magnus, though unconscious, breathed steadily and regularly. More than two hours later the accident is happened upon by a solitary female driver.

“Mister. Mister. Can you hear me? Are you badly injured?” Magnus can hear the woman call to him as though from far away, much like the voices when he was fermenting in the vat. Somehow the woman extracts him from the wreckage. Magnus is woozy and disoriented but manages to position himself in her passenger seat. She drives a few miles to a tiny village. Magnus, fading in and out, thinks he can smell the sea.

The village has neither hospital nor inn so the woman, who has introduced herself as Sylvie, takes Magnus to her home which has extra rooms to serve as a boarding house when the rare need arises. While Magnus rests on her sofa in front of a fire sipping at a cup of tea, Sylvie summons the town’s physician and alerts far away authorities to the scene of the accident.

After examination, the doctor detects no damage beyond bruises and various minor contusions. The faint possibility of a concussion. Sylvie is advised to keep an eye on the patient and not allow him to drift off to sleep. Magnus complains of a stiff neck and sore ribs. The doctor retrieves bottles of muscle relaxers and pain relievers from his bag. An antibiotic to ward off infections in his wounds. Sylvie listens to instructions. Dosages and frequency of administration. After accepting modest payment for his services, extracted from Magnus’ wallet which he had handed to Sylvie, the doctor retires to the local bar from whence he came.

Thinking it best to keep Magnus alert through conversation, Sylvie engages him. He tells her about the events of the past several days, his out-of-body experience and how, unfavored by luck once again, he has endured an auto-body experience. Sylvie is delighted by the witticisms which offer further evidence of Magnus’ soundness.

Things move quickly. The police assign blame for the accident to the expired truck driver. The medical team never arrives in the village having busied themselves entirely with the totaled truck driver. This meets with Magnus’ approval since he is comfortable in his present circumstances and has no desire to be probed and prodded once again. The insurance company will rely on the police report and the photos of the destroyed Citroen rather than dispatch an adjuster to the remote outpost. They will send the settlement check to Sylvie’s address. Magnus intends to mend in the village for a few days, buy a replacement auto when the check arrives and continue on to his original destination. It doesn’t hurt that his brief stay is encouraged by and under the supervision of Sylvie who is attractive, smart, funny and, by his reckoning, roughly his contemporary. A low mileage, expertly maintained model in mint condition, by all appearances.

The rods, reels, tackle and vodka are casualties of the car and truck union. Not a concern. The fishing gear can be replaced and Sylvie’s home is well stocked with vodka. Despite Sylvie’s concerns regarding his health, Magnus convinces her to join him for a drink by the fire that very evening.

###

When Magnus isn’t enjoying the muscle relaxers and pain pills, he enjoys time with Sylvie and the vodka. Music on the radio or phonograph. Sylvie doesn’t own a television. Magnus didn’t either. She refuses to accept payment for the room but doesn’t complain when Magnus arrives laden with food and drink.

Sylvie has not allowed Magnus an expression of physical intimacy. Over the next few days she,  like a moon in elliptical orbit, alternates between close and distant. Flirtatious one moment, disinterested the next. The townsfolk, on the other hand, don’t seem pleased at all. They view Magnus with suspicion, even alarm. They talk about him amongst themselves when he walks by. He makes it a point to smile and doff his fedora at every encounter but has yet to receive so much as a smile in return.

###

When Magnus receives his insurance check he suggests to Sylvie that, perhaps, it is time for him to buy a car and move on. To his surprise and delight, she protests. “You are not yet fully recovered,” she says, “You are under orders to complete your prescriptions. You can’t drive safely under the influence of powerful medicines”. Truth is, Magnus’ recovery has been nothing short of miraculous. He has never felt better.

He’ll delay purchasing the car, he decides, until he takes his leave. Motorized transport is hardly needed in the tiny hamlet. He can easily walk its width and breadth or borrow Sylvie’s bicycle if he takes a notion.

There is another incentive to stay. The local sauerkraut. The most delicious and unique he has ever tasted. Tart and briny but also somewhat nutty like a wild mushroom. The sauerkraut is consumed every day. Sylvie eats it for breakfast. Magnus adopts her habit. Magnus is no stranger to fermented foods but the magic cabbage is beyond his ken. Sylvie brushes off questions about the kraut as both unknowable and irrelevant and the rest of the town is unapproachable on the topic. Magnus discovers that the sauerkraut is made in a squat cinder block building, without a sign, a few miles from town. In a fit of robustness he walks the distance to ask for a tour. He is curtly refused.

Magnus spends most afternoons in the local library so as to stay out of Sylvie’s way as she attends to business. She maintains accounting books for most of the merchants, handles commercial transactions and serves as a mediator, solving problems that business affairs so often generate. Sylvie is as close to a public official that the village has. She would be Mayor if the town had such an office.

The library is a one room affair divided into small but serviceable collections. Reference, filled with battered old dictionaries, encyclopedias, maps and almanacs. Periodicals that are always at least one issue behind. Fiction which leans toward the classics with just a spattering of popular titles perpetually on loan. History, politics, philosophy, science, whatever the bespectacled, thin lipped librarian chooses to entertain. it wouldn’t take very long to consume the entire collection.

Most fascinating is the local history and genealogy section. Loose leaf pages, three hole punched and assembled in binders that are not allowed to leave the building. Magnus studies the volumes under the librarian’s penetrating gaze which eventually leaves him uncomfortable enough to exit with a novel, allowable under an arrangement with Sylvie since Magnus can’t, as a non-resident, qualify for his own borrower’s card.

In genealogy he found Sylvie’s lineage but the trail leads only to confusion. Sylvie’s date of birth has to be in error since it would put her a century older than her estimated age. Or the Sylvie in the book must be a progenitor. If so, where is the current Sylvie? The records snag and tangle his mind like a briar patch, bringing on the recent irritating headaches which he keeps to himself fearing a medical intervention.

For dinner, Magnus and Sylvie feast on savory elk sausages and sauerkraut. Magnus takes a second helping. By way of intense curiosity masked as innocent conversation, he asks Sylvie about her family.

“What was your mother’s name?”

“Agathe,” she says and corrects him, “Is not was. She lives still.”

Yes, he remembers Agathe from the genealogy but can’t recollect relevant dates.

“Where does she live?”

“Nearby.”

“Might we visit someday?”

“Agathe is a very private woman. She doesn’t suffer visitors well.”

“And your  grandmother?”

“What about her?”

“Her name.”

“Carolina.”

“When did she pass?”

“I’m going to put on a record. Would you like a vodka.”

“Yes. Please.”

Magnus tries to re-assemble names and dates from library records but what he recalls makes no sense. Perhaps he’s suffering a form of dementia from the accident.

###

Magnus takes the insurance check, that he has been carrying around in his wallet, to the town bank. His request to open an account is denied. The banker who operates without assistance offers to cash the check but warns it will take a few days for funds to clear. The banker suggests taking the check forward to a bank at his next destination. Magnus endorses the check, leaving it behind, to the obvious chagrin of the banker.

He returns to the library. The genealogy shelves are bare. The librarian explains that the documents were sent away for professional binding. She isn’t sure when they will return.

Magnus strolls to the tiny cemetery he noticed on previous wanderings.

The older headstones are clustered by surname. The newer ones, there aren’t many, are found on the perimeter where space allowed. Jarvi. Partanen. Wuopio. Peura. Seppa, which is Sylvie’s maiden name. She never married. The collection of predictably repeated names share one thing in common. Each of the stones has a date of passing chiseled into the tabloid but never a date of birth.

“I’ve had an interesting day,” Magnus tells Sylvie over a meal of pork and sauerkraut.

“How so?,” she asks.

“I cashed the insurance check but I can’t get the money for a few days.”

“That’s nice.”

“Then an unfruitful trip to the library.”

“I heard. Why are you so curious about us?”

“I’m a scientist. I traffic in questions.”

“Be careful. You don’t do well in traffic.”

“I also visited the cemetery.”

“What would you like to do this evening?” she asks.

“I’d like to listen to Mahler. And drink vodka.”

“That can be arranged.”

###

Magnus sleeps fitfully. Tossing and turning as is his tendency after over-consumption of vodka. He is in that vague realm between awake and asleep when he hears his unlocked door open. There is no reason to lock doors in a place that offers such safety of person and possessions.

His eyes adjust. He sees Sylvie illuminated by moonlight through the shutterless, undraped window. She wears a light-weight, cotton robe that falls from her shoulders. Her full, firm breasts, with prominent nipples, float celestially.

In the morning Magnus is served a bowl of oatmeal. He doesn’t ask for the sauerkraut. He doesn’t ask any questions at all. Sylvie clears the table when they finish. She smiles a smile she hadn’t smiled before and leaves.

###

It is the day his money is available. He spends the afternoon in the bar. The locals no longer stare at him while they talk amongst themselves. Instead they ignore him. He is making progress. The bartender pours his drinks without comment. He carried the bills from the bank wrapped in an official looking folio. He doesn’t flaunt the cash but he also would be without fear if he did.

When he arrives at Sylvie’s in the evening, modestly inebriated, she is accompanied by a guest. A Mr. Virtanen. Mr. Virtanen sells boats and farm machinery. And the occasional automobile.

“I understand you are looking to buy a car,” Mr. Virtanen says.

“Mr. Virtanen is prepared to make you a very attractive offer,” Sylvie adds.

Mr. Virtanen’s proposition is beyond generous. Without any research, Magnus senses the car is being offered at or below cost.

“You shouldn’t refuse,” says Sylvie. She leaves the room while the two men transact business.

###

Sylvie stands by as Magnus loads his few possessions into the new automobile.

As he’s ready to drive away, Sylvie approaches and delivers a warm kiss. “You understand that you are welcome to return,” she says, “After you’ve taken time to think. Carefully. Which is, perhaps, not your nature. There are conditions. We’re a provincial town not easily accepting of outsiders who don’t understand our ways. Please come back but not as a scientist.”

“I understand,” Magnus says. “I do have one request.”

“No,” Sylvie says. “You can’t take any kraut.” She smiles and walks away.

 

Categories: Uncategorized