Stories

1946, by DC Diamondopolous

Snowflakes blew sideways down Main Street in Richmond, Virginia. It was Valentine’s Day. Newlyweds, James and Betty Smith cuddled inside the trolley car. Betty took the cuff of her coat and brushed it across the window. Snow powdered brick buildings, running boards of parked Fords and Packards heaped with flurries, the sun paused low over the horizon. The Capitol was dusted in shades of gray.

They’d taken the train from their home in Philadelphia. It was their first trip south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

James had saved enough for a few days off and asked his bride where she would like to go. Ever since Betty saw Gone With the Wind, she wanted to visit the South.

Betty felt ritzy in her stylish beret, the mauve gloves and matching scarf arranged in neat folds around her neck. Cold air stung her bare legs. Though rationing ended it would be another year before she could buy nylons.

For their first day in the city, they went to the movies.

Back home, as she watched the coming attractions for Gilda, she just had to see the movie. When Rita Hayworth tossed back her luxuriant hair, her low-cut dress revealing a generous bust, and smiled at Glenn Ford, Betty dreamed of seducing James in just the same way.

She didn’t have the sumptuous hair, or the opulent cleavage, and gosh dang it, she wasn’t beautiful like all the good looking dames in the movies, but she knew that James was dizzy in love with her.

The trolley clanged, stopped and picked up a man in uniform.

Betty’s nose touched the glass as she stared down the street and saw the theatre marquee with neon lights. There were so many people, bundled in wool coats and hats. They gathered in the portico, buying tickets at the box office. A column of people stretched beyond the roped off barricade, so many movie goers that another line began on the opposite side. Even on a cold late afternoon, half the city came out for the premiere.

“I’ll get the tickets,” James said.

Betty kissed his cheek. “I’ll miss you, darling.”

The trolley stopped. James tugged at the brim of his fedora. Betty hurried down the aisle and stepped into a cold gust of air.

She rushed to the shorter line, brushed snow from her coat, and tightened the scarf around her neck. People filed behind her, James waited at the ticket booth. He blew her a kiss. She beamed.

Betty heard grumbling. Of all the days to get into a snit, she thought.

Across the portico, an older man glared at her. Why, she wondered? She smiled back. Perhaps he had indigestion, or the biting wind triggered his rheumatism.

James put the tickets in his pocket and dashed to Betty.

They nuzzled.

Low angry voices rumbled behind them.

Betty didn’t move but glanced from side to side.

Two women in front looked over their shoulders. One scowled, the other clicked her tongue.

“Where’s their southern hospitality?” Betty whispered to James.
“Beats me,” he said and kissed her on the mouth.

Across the arcade, a woman shook her head and muttered.

Betty let go of her husband and stepped away.

“Hey, come here.” James reached for her.

“No darling,” she said, afraid she had offended their southern ladylike ways.

Muffled barbs. A woman cackled.

James took her hand.

“No darling. They don’t like public displays of affection.”

“Nuts!”

“They’re genteel. I’ve heard that about the South.”

A man across the way glowered and spat.

“Fuddy Duddy,” James said, burrowing his fists into his coat pockets. “We’re married.” He yanked at his collar. “I spent four years fighting for my country, I have every right to hold hands with my wife.”

Betty lowered her gaze and stepped further away from her husband.

She smelled aftershave lotion on someone behind her.

“Let’s leave.”

“You wanted to see this movie.” James reached for her, wrapped his arms around her, and pulled her to his chest.

The crowd’s pulse throbbed with a venomous beat, snaking its way around the colonnade.

“Please, James. Let’s go.”

People stepped out of line. Shoes squished. Twisted faces. Snarls. The mob moved in on James and Betty Smith.

Betty hung onto her husband’s waist for fear they would tear them apart. Sweat soaked her blouse. She wanted to bolt. Run all the way back to Philadelphia.

“Trouble makers!”

“Wise guy!”

James’ arms tensed. She felt his back muscles tighten. That frightened her more than anything. Open the doors, she prayed. She feared if they moved they’d be beaten to death.

“We’ve done nothing wrong,” James shouted.

Atomic eyes. Incendiary mouths. Spurts of vapor.

The theatre doors swung open, two men ran out, and the older one yelled, “Break it up, move back!” He pushed through the crowd.

Someone shoved James.

He swung around. “Hey! Step out in the open and fight like a man. I’ll bust your chops,” he seethed.
Betty grabbed him and held on. “No darling.”

“I said break it up!”

The younger man held out his arms, urging people to get in their lines. “Show’s over. Except for the one inside.”

The pack shifted, grunted and slowly began to separate.

“You agitators or something?”

Betty glanced at his name tag: Manager Michael Buchanan.

“No,” James said. “We were minding our own business. Just holding hands.”

“All we wanted was to see the movie,” Betty said.

“I’ll handle it, darling.”

“Where you from?”

“Philadelphia,” James said.

“Can’t you read?”

“Of course I can read.”

“You’re standing in the colored line.”

Betty reeled. Her gloves hid her mouth. Her romantic image of the South ruined forever.

“Northerners,” he muttered. “Get in your own line and from now on remember where you are.”

The young man stood at the door taking tickets from people across the portico.

Betty glanced around, ashamed, not for herself but for everyone there.

“Let’s leave, James.”

“You’ve been looking forward to this movie.”

“Not anymore. Let’s go.”

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Stories

The Crystal Dragon: KTV, part 2, by Edward King

#adventure #crystal dragon

Hammer and Laser walked up the stairs into the purple light.
The sign above the door read “KTV.” Months worth of dust from the road covered the sign.

They entered the door and walked up a flight of stairs to the lobby. The purple light intensified.

The lobby contained a fish tank, an empty counter, and a bench under which lay multiple pairs of rubber slippers.
Where are we? said Hammer.
Laser shrugged innocently.

Fen Yi rushed out from the back.
“Welcome!” she said. “We’ll be with you in a minute. Would you like a cup of tea?”
%
A litany of women slept amongst blankets and pillows on couches and the floor. A bouquet of flowers lay falling apart.
Purple light fell onto the women, fell onto the canister of film.
Emily Long popped off the lid of the canister and took the roll of film out.
She loaded the roll of film into the camera and closed the camera.
Her camera would bring freedom.
Emily pointed, framed the shot, and took the picture.

%
Fen Yi led Hammer and Laser past the counter, deeper into the purple light. They came walked past a room with an open door. When they peeked in, they found it filled with resting women. Laser eyed the women curiously. Hammer looked around the room until he saw—
“Alex!” he called.
The wooden steps that led up to her door.

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What’s Your 20? by Mary Ellen Gambutti

#creative nonfiction #literary

On a hot June day, out in the fresh hardwood and hemlock shaded forest roads, our bus-full of sightseers has embarked on what was billed as a relaxing weekend in the Alleghenies. But, to our dismay, our supersized driver has taken on Pennsylvania’s western winding two-lane blacktops in rough and ready style, and scenery begins to blur. As he careens, the narrow roads seem to spin. I worry we’ll never make these curves.
Our designated picnic spot eludes our grumbling driver, until tires crunch on a gravel lot, and we spy a rustic pavilion; picnic tables sheltered in Oak and Pine. Hungry and tired, we disembark. I gauge distance across the lot against thickening clouds, and wish I were back at the hotel—better yet, home. I ease onto a splintered bench, as a sudden wind whips a massive branch free. With a sharp crack and loud roll, it hits too close.
No taste for my turkey sandwich, I abandon the table for the bus. I toss my apple core to a squirrel begging in the windy weeds. Gusts blow dust and fumes from the idling bus across the lot. Rain stings my face as I mount the steps in a somber line of grim-faced passengers. As we return to the road, a storm approaches, the severity of which we cannot know.
Now, the road lurches through a threshold. Whoosh! We whiplash into waves. I shout, “Whoa!” as though my urgency has power to stop this massive, reeling craft. No vision through the foggy portal, I rub the window wildly with my sweatshirt sleeve. Thunder rolls and resonates. We plead, “Too fast! Slow down!”
But the driver is detached; a stranger, and we’re his hostages. He pushes into the maelstrom, strains into his seatbelt toward the dash; squints to discern the road, pulls down the curly-wired radio, and shouts, “Base Station!” The return voice crackles back, “What’s your 20? Where are you, man?” No control, no connection. Lost in hills, we hurtle to rest within awestruck trees.
*
I struggle to think. My right arm and hand, heavy. Panic swells in my gut with the dread of knowing. Stroke. The fog retreats and I hear, “…driver radioed emergency when you collapsed on the bus. Took the techs an hour to get to you. Helicopter flew you here. Bad weather in the mountains…You survived!”
Survived. What’s next?

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The Crystal Dragon: KTV, part 1

#adventure #crystal dragon

New to The Crystal Dragon? Catch up here!

Fen Yi watched the dirt run off the potatoes. The water washed it down into the drain, the same as yesterday, and innumerable days before that.

A purple light spilled out into the alleyway.

“Come inside!” said a voice from within.

Fen Yi sighed deeply. “Coming!” she said. It would be him again: the one that kept her here. She picked up the knife and held it underneath the bowl of potatoes.

She walked in through the smudged glass back door, holding the knife and bowl of wet potatoes.

The walls leading to the kitchen were decorated with paintings of flowers she had bought from the artists’ school by the city wall.

A man with grey hair and one grey, opaque eye stormed up the stairs behind Fen Yi. As she put the bowl of the potatoes down, he poked his head into the kitchen, sweating.

“再晚,” he said. (You’re late.)

“知道了,” (I know), she said, under her breath. She gripped the knife firmly as she peeled and sliced the potatoes.

“你看一个外国人了吗?” he said.
She shrugged sarcastically. Had she seen a foreigner? Of course she hadn’t.
The grey-eyed man stormed out of the kitchen. Fen Yi filled a pan with oil and tipped the cut potatoes in. They crackled joyfully inside the pan.
The grey-eyed man grabbed the pan from her hands.
“Get out front!” he yelled.

Fen Yi dropped the pan and rushed into the lobby.

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The Playground, by Scáth Beorh

#literary

‘I know where a weird playground is, Scooter.’

My little sister Patsy gave me that look of wisdom that always scared me because she was younger than me and shouldn’t have any wisdom at all, much less the kind of look in her big olive green eyes that screamed I’m an old wise woman! But still, I couldn’t resist. If I, Captain Hong Wong Sliver, couldn’t resist enslaving five ready and willing neighborhood girls in my daddy’s old chicken coup, then I certainly wasn’t going to be able to resist the temptation of a weird playground. My imagination whirled at the thought. A swing-set that wasn’t really a swing-set but a launchpad into Outer Space–if you could get yourself high enough in the air. Jumping boards that you could not only jump up and down on but you could also paint by using your thoughts, and even make them talk and say hilarious things. Then, to the left of those were a set of steel monkey-bars that doubled as a demon-jail. The monsters were already trapped there and seeing that they should easily be able to climb out but somehow not being able to unless I strolled over and sang them a song or just told them they were free–neither of which I was going to do. I had always hated demons, but ever since the Almond Street Incident, as I liked to call it, I had gone from hatred to perfect hatred. For me, when that happened, there was no turning back. I’d set my face like a piece of flint, strike, and let the fires begin. It’s true enough that my inner spirit did not match my outer chubbiness. But the fact that it would one day was enough to mollify me as a child. As a very small boy I had seen myself in a dream as a teenager and I believed that dream would come to pass one day. It finally did, but that’s another story altogether. Anyway, like I said, I couldn’t resist an uncanny playground, no matter how hard I tried.

‘This is dumb. I know where all the playgrounds are, Patsy. There aren’t any except down the Little Dirt Road and I don’t like going down there. Or at Ferry Pass Middle School, but that’s too far to walk–and anyway, there’s a giant rapist who lives in the woods around the school.’

‘The playground’s not at a school. I said it was weird. That makes it not at a school.’

I went through several decades of life where that kind of logic became something I loved to deride along with the person who said it. During those years it was below me to think like a child. I was educated. I was wise. Truth is, I was more of a wise-ass than anybody worthy of social praise.

I felt agitated–probably hungry or something. ‘Okay then, where is this playground if it ain’t at one of the schools?’

‘It’s in Misty’s backyard.’

‘Oh. Wait. What? We don’t even know a Misty. There’s no Misty living anywhere around here!’

‘I know that. She lives in my mind.’

Not again. Not another wild goose chase around my little sister’s wild, wild world. When she was about four, which made me around six–we’re twenty-two months apart–we were playing together on the carport at our house in New Orleans. I was eating a can of potted meat (don’t ask) and she had a can of Vienna sausages, which my parents, being Southerners, called ‘vyanners.’ Anyway, we were munching along with our mid-afternoon snack, me with my handful of crackers to dip into the little can of potted meat and Patsy with her baby fork spearing sausage after sausage and eating each one in such a slow and delighted way that you’d think they were her all-time favorite food and that this was the last can of them in the whole world. Halfway into my fifth bite of potted-meat-on-cracker, Patsy looked at me with a strange eye and peculiar smile that jumped around her face like a three-year-old high on fruit punch and a basket full of Easter candy. Then she pointed at my food.

‘That’s somebody’s meat.’ Her emphasis on the ‘t’ in meat made her sentence almost nauseating.

I went cold all over. What was this thing they were calling my baby sister?

Then Patsy held up one of the sausages she had gigged. ‘And this is somebody’s finger.’ As if that idea wasn’t horrifying enough, the way she pronounced finger opened up a pit to Hell right where I stood and dropped me in feet first. Feeeen-gerrr. It was winter time, but a cold sweat washed over me with such malevolence that I had to rush back inside and find my mama. Notice I say my mama, and the reason for that is because I wasn’t sure at all that the little girl who still stood out on the carport was altogether human, and she certainly was not my sister!

So now that you know what kind of bizarre sibling I was dealing with, fast forward with me a few years to the ‘Day of the Playground of Patsy’s Mind.’

‘Are you coming, Scooter? It might not be there for much longer if we don’t get there soon and stop it from disappearing.’

Was I still asleep and merely having a nightmare? Maybe, I thought, so I tried to turn over and fluff my pillow. I bumped my head on Patsy’s pint-size red broom she always carried around with her. You know, in case she needed to clear away a mess of cobwebs or maybe tidy up the floor a bit. I have no clue. I do know that one day, not long after the ‘Meat and Finger Incident,’ Patsy saved my life by risking her own and pulling me and my tricycle out of the heavily trafficked exurban road where we lived for most of our childhood. When that happened, for the first time in my life I could see her as my precious little sister, and I’ve never since changed my opinion on the matter. Not even when–well, I’ll save that story for another time.

So anyway, here we are a few years older and now she’s telling me about this weird playground that’s in Misty’s backyard which also happens to be in her mind. Her not being the nonexistent Misty, but my sister Patsy who is telling me to hurry up before the damned thing disappears, of course suggesting that if we didn’t get there in time, we wouldn’t get to play. And for me, at least, not playing on a Saturday afternoon after having spent all week in the elementary school of an ultra-conservative cult was equivalent to an eternal state of dying but never actually reaching the finality of death. Okay, so you call that Hell, and I agree. And that’s what not playing on a Saturday–after cartoons from 6 AM to Noon–was like for me. So, I was having nothing to do with not having fun that afternoon, even if my sister was, yet again, scaring me beyond belief with her seemingly innocent mind games.

‘How do we get to this Misty girl’s backyard then?’ I felt stupid for asking–for playing along. I knew there was no Misty. I knew there was no backyard. I knew there was no playground. But again, it was Saturday afternoon, none of the neighborhood kids were to be seen, and I had already shot off all my firecrackers and the three M-80s the kid across the street had traded me for a comic book he liked because in the back he could order a whoopee cushion and x-ray glasses. He did. The whoopee cushion worked wonders. The x-ray glasses were a scam. He wanted two of his M-80s back. I told him that I had already blown them up. I even showed him the metal garbage can–the kind everybody had back then–with the big dent in it made from an explosion on the inside. He still didn’t believe me and started throwing rocks at me until I turned the garden hose on him, which seemed to cool him off. Especially since it was mid-January.

My little sister’s friendly body language was always the sweetest thing when she wanted to play. ‘You just close your eyes, Scooter, and hold my hand and I’ll take you. It’s easy. C’mon!’

I did as I was told. I grabbed Patsy’s hand, closed my eyes, and knew without doubt that she was going to let me trip over something–a dead toad-frog or a drainage grate or an abandoned bicycle–before we got to where we were going, wherever that was.

‘You hafta trust me, Scooter, or it won’t work!’

How did she know I wasn’t trusting her as far as I could throw her–which wouldn’t have been very far. Patsy was petite, but every last part of her was athletic to the bone. I guess that’s what eating only vyanners, three bites of spaghetti a month, a few apple slices a week, a ham sandwich every now and again (sometimes with a slice of American cheese), and a continuous supply of chocolate cake mixed up in vanilla ice-cream got her. How? I don’t know. My diet was similar, and I weighed 93 pounds when I turned seven years. Some kids get all the breaks.

‘Just don’t forget , Scooter, that I love you, Scooter.’

Oh God! What did she just say? It sounded so–you know–definite. Like we had come to the end of something. The end of our childhood together? The end of our lives? I froze. She pulled. I stayed frozen. She yanked. My right foot moved a half inch. She wrenched. My eyes popped open.

‘C’mon Scooter! It’ll close maybe for forever and then we won’t get to play! I wanna swing! C’mon! And shut your eyes again!’

This was all too ludicrous, but I kept walking, my eyes shut, my grip on her fingers fairly tight (she complained once as we stumbled along), and my own mind buzzing like a hive of bees.

‘Okay, ready?’

‘I guess–‘

‘Open your eyes! We’re here!’

I was too afraid to open my eyes. So I didn’t.

‘Open your eyes, Scooter! We’re here! And there’s Misty!’

My eyes sprang wide. Lo and behold, there was a little girl standing several yards away. But I could see right through her!

‘She’s a ghost, Patsy! Run!’

‘Run? Run for what? She’s nice. Misty, c’mere! This is my brother, Scooter.’

This girl, Misty, who was about my sister’s age, smiled and came up to us. I could see everything that was behind her–the green grass she floated over, a few happy dandelions in bloom, a caramel-brown puppy romping around trying to catch a yellow butterfly and, failing that, trying to catch his own wiggly tail. I was beyond spooked. I felt like I wanted to cry, but this was the early 70s, and an exurban boy didn’t cry. Ever. Not even if he broke his arm slap dab in two. Not even if he tore all the skin off his kneecaps and had to wait six weeks for it to grow back. Not even if he fell off the back of a U.S. mail truck, did three somersaults head over heels, and sliced his chest open so you could see his white shiny ribs. So he certainly wasn’t going to shed a tear over seeing a girl ghost, as terrifying a fact as it happened to be.

‘Hi. Nice backyard.’ My greeting sounded like it came out of an old lady who had smoked cigarettes since she was my age. Smooth and debonair.

‘Hi,’ Misty the Ghost replied. ‘Do you have a cold?’

Patsy stepped forward to give her friend a hug, which seemed to sort of work, but not really. ‘Misty! Where’s your swing-set we swung on last time?’

‘It’s in the top of the tree now.’ Misty looked up into the high branches of a majestic old oak that had humongous plastic oranges hung in all of its branches, making it appear to be the biggest citrus tree in the world. Sure enough, there was a swing-set perched as pretty as you please in the topmost limbs of the three-hundred-year-old giant.

‘So y’all came over to play with me?’

‘Yeah!’ cried Patsy. ‘Let’s climb!’

I groaned.

Misty heard me. ‘What’s wrong, Scooter? Tummy ache?’

‘I, uh, I can’t climb things. Trees and things.’

‘Oh, that’s okay. Take my hand. While Patsy climbs, we’ll fly!’

Fly? Wait a minute, I thought. Is Misty really Tinkerbell or somebody like that? As I mused, I realized, probably far beyond my years, that I had never been a rabid fan of celebrities like most people were. I had always just been introduced to famous people–or cartoons–and either liked them or didn’t like them. Whatever the case, I perceived them, registered them, either added them to my world or didn’t, and then proceeded forth deeper into this dream we call ‘Life on Earth,’, always knowing it would end one day–maybe even sooner than I imagined. With all that, the idea of soaring to the very top of a fake citrus oak tree with a ghost girl to swing on her industrial size swing-set didn’t seem like a bad idea after all–even if she and her backyard were only a pigment of my little sister’s imagination.

So, I took Misty’s hand. It was cold. She was blue. I was frightened out of my mind. But we flew.

‘Pick your swing, Scooter! Patsy’ll be up in a minute. There are’s some baby blue jays in their nest about halfway up, so I bet she’ll stop to look at them, but she’ll get here by-and-by.

I said not a word. I had no words to say. I felt elated. I picked a swing, got settled in, and began swinging. Misty took the one next to me. I went so high that I started going crooked. I nearly hit Misty. She laughed a lot like my mama when she felt great, which wasn’t often. When I shot up, Misty came down, when I swung down, she shot up. We almost crashed quite a few times. We squealed like happy well-fed babies. Then Patsy was on the other side of me. This was one of those huge solid steel swing-sets with strong iron chains and seats made out of what looked like wide pieces of rubber tires, but I’m sure they were made to be swings. Nothing was going to break. The only way to die on one of these things was to fall out of it somehow, whether it was firmly planted in the ground like normal or abnormally teetering in the top of a tree. It wouldn’t have mattered. Either way, a fall from one of these masterfully crafted things would spell certain, and most likely instant, death. Which in a real way would be good, because, if you think about it, a child with a broken neck and irreversible internal bleeding is far better than one who has a skull fracture and lies in a coma for six months before passing away.

‘What other kinds of things do you have to play on?’ I screamed from the highest point I could reach. I felt like a spaceman in orbit. Misty was screaming so loud she couldn’t answer me. I waited. Then she answered my question.

‘Nothing!’

Nothing? What did she mean by nothing? What kind of a playground was this?

‘Patsy! Imagine something else to play with!’ See, I was on to her. I knew she could control the situation if she wanted to. After all, hadn’t she thought it all up? ‘Patsy! Make something!’

‘Shhhh! You’ll upset Misty!’

‘Your brother won’t upset me, Patsy. I like him. He’s nice.’

‘You don’t know him good enough then! Sometimes he’s so mean he won’t even play with me!’

‘That’s pretty mean. Scooter, are you really that mean sometimes?’

Rrrrrrrrrrrrrr! The sound of tires screeching to a halt! Never, and I mean never, ask a boy if he’s mean. First, he’ll always deny it out-of-hand. The question is just too pointed. Second, he’ll never believe he’s mean even if he is mean. So, it’s better to never ask. I felt so frustrated by the question that while I was on a flight up I grabbed Misty’s chain and yanked so hard it made her jam into Patsy, and both girls fell out and down into the lower branches of the oak, jumbo oranges bobbing this way and that, and one or two falling off their branches and to the grass below. I guess I was mean. I felt bad about what I had just done, so I slowed down and hopped out. Then I realized where I was, and panicked, because not only couldn’t I climb things going up, I didn’t usually climb things going down either. Maybe, I thought, I can monkey myself down, but it might hurt–especially if I fall. Then again, I’m in my little sister’s mind, so maybe it will be floaty if I fall and it’ll feel like I’m landing on a cloud or maybe a feather bed or something.

Somehow I got down out of that tree, but not without quite a few scrapes and bruises to go along with my multiple skinned knees and broken left arm. Patsy and Misty were waiting for me at the bottom. Misty seemed as sweet as she had been, but Patsy was near tears.

‘I wanna go home, Scooter!’

‘Me too, I guess. Bye, Misty.’

‘Bye-bye Scooter. Bye-bye Patsy. See y’all again I hope. It was fun!’

%

I was sorry about how I had acted on our adventure, but I had the sense that my selfish attitude about life wouldn’t change until things got really hard for me, and my idea about that was that I would be already in my twenties before anything hard happened to me. So everybody was stuck with me for the time being, whether they liked it or not. Most didn’t. When I was fourteen and had just started high school, I started to write my thoughts down, mostly in poetry form. People said I had talent. Their words encouraged me. I kept writing. Oh, and Patsy and I also kept exploring her uncanny mind. Misty wasn’t the only friend she had in there. Not by a long shot.

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Lycaon, by Garret Schuelke

#action #horror #lycaon #superhero #werewolf

Banner knew that he should have never got a can opener from Goodwill. Even if they did give it to him for free, it still refused to properly open the can of beans that he needed to complete his chili.

He heard a train coming. He pledged that if he couldn’t get the can open by the time the train appeared, he would whip the can opener underneath the wheels.

On top of the train, Gareth woke up. He looked out at the Thunder Bay River. He sat up and stretched out. Being away for this long still hasn’t changed anything, he thought, scanning the streets. Same businesses, no new attractions, not even any kind of construction going on.

Gareth put on his backpack. “Chicago, babe. Expect me back ASAP. Once I save this hole, I’ll be back home to stay.” He jumped off the train as it started to slow down. “For some time, anyway.”

Banner cursed the can opener. He threw it towards the tracks. Gareth felt something hit his leg as he landed. He looked down to see the can opener tumbling down the gravel.

“Oh Jesus, I’m sorry man,” Banner yelled, running towards Gareth. “I swear, I didn’t mean to hit you!”

“Can’t get the can open?” Gareth asked, pointing at the can of beans Banner was holding. “Yeah, and I got my chili cookin’ right now. It wouldn’t be the same without these beans.”

“I got a can opener that’ll work,” Gareth said, putting his arm around Banner’s shoulders. “Let’s go to your pad and I’ll dig it out.”

Gareth put his backpack down when they got inside the dilapidated train shack. He dug the can opener out of one of the side compartments. Making sure that Banner was still stirring his chili, Gareth concentrated on transforming his right hand. His hand tightened, and his fingernails grew into claws. He stuck a finger into the can, and circled the top until the lid came completely off. He relaxed his hand, reverting it back to its normal state.

“Here’s your beans,” Gareth said, dumping them into the chili. “You can take my can opener too. I’m not going to need it any more.”

“Thanks much, man. You sure don’t you need it, though?” Banner asked.

Gareth shook his head, put on his backpack and headed out the door. “There are a lot of things I don’t need anymore.”

Gareth searched through the shelves where the Alpena News and other Michigan newspapers were for stories on the wolf attacks that occurred in Alpena County over the last month. He copied the articles and snuck out of the library to avoid paying the copy fees.

He headed over to Save-A-Lot. He scoped out the front entrance in the alley across from the store. After thinking over what he remembered of the store’s layout, he tied his grey mask over his eyes. He transformed, stretched his legs, and ran into the store.

He swiped some hamburger patties, barbecue sauce, and a package of white bread. Running out the store, he nearly ran into a girl who was texting.

His last stop was Tarter’s Party Store. He planned to swipe a bottle of red wine, but then he saw the 24 packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon that were right next to the entrance. Aw yeah, he thought. Using his super speed, he darted across the street, swiped one of the packs, and sped down Chisholm towards downtown.

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Fireworks, by Edward King

#america #fireworks #literary

Robinson sat over his cup of coffee. His eyes moved in time to the jazz playing over the stereo, flicking back and forth in his paunchy face. He was thinking about his wife’s nose.

He had just been brought two eggs over-easy, wheat toast, and strawberry jam, the same breakfast as always. The waitresses at the restaurant knew him by name. When he came in he sat down at the counter and waved and they brought him his breakfast and a cup of coffee.

“Hey, Robinson, what song is this?” said a waitress.

“‘In a Sentimental Mood.’ John Coltrane and Duke Ellington, 1963. Come on, I thought you’d know that one.”

“Oh—it’s just Pandora,” she said. “I don’t know all the songs that come up on it yet.” To change the subject, she said, “How’s your music stuff coming, anyway? How’re your students?”

“My students are good. The composition is going lousy.”

“Well, keep pluggin’ away. You’ll get it someday.”

“Thanks. Hey, what’re you doing on the fourth? You should come by and hear the band play.”

“Oh, sorry… we were planning a girls’ night. I probably shouldn’t mention this to such an upstanding member of the community, but we plan to drink until we’re unconscious.”

Discomfort flared up in Robinson. He didn’t know why and he ignored it. “Hey, I wasn’t always a teacher, you know.”

“Is that so?”

He smiled. “It is. I was a rogue once.”

“You?” she arched her eyebrows. “There’s no way. I picture you being someone who’s always on top of their shit. I bet you always get your lesson plans together on time.”

“Nah, I could see it,” said another waitress. “He’s got that look in his eyes. That look that real romantics have. Real artists. They’re always wild and self-destructive.”

Robinson’s discomfort grew as he wondered to what extent she was joking, but he kept the same half-smile on his face. He left a good tip on the table and tried not to think about it, but by the time he turned the keys in his car he found that he was furious.

He worked on lesson plans from twelve until three, and then went back to his house to scribble angrily on sheets of staff paper–his composition–until his wife got home at six. He welcomed her with a kiss; she asked how it had gone that day and he said, “Oh, not so bad. I think the horns are almost ready on the third movement.” He reheated dinner for her and they watched How I Met Your Mother until she fell asleep on the couch.

Watching Emma sleeping gave him butterflies. She wasn’t that much to look at–objectively, he knew that. She had a crooked nose. It was the way she used to play that harp, back at Juilliard, where he had fallen in love with her in the first place.

Even asleep, it looked like she had a smile on her face. How could she be so happy all the time? It was a miracle. He wasn’t that great.

Lying to Emma about his work always came with a twinge of guilt. He lied to his students, too, and his colleagues. He constantly held fast that jazz and big band music was “the only great American art form that’s left,” even though he hadn’t felt that way for years. “But even that pales in comparison to the work of the great European composers,” he would say. “Mahler’s Ninth Symphony–the most sublimely organized sound a human mind has ever produced.” He had always dreamed of writing his own great American suite of equal value, but in truth a new melody hadn’t come to him in years.

At first, he had been so shocked at his colleagues’ lack of appreciation for Mahler that he had bullheadedly forced the maestro’s Ninth Symphony into the curriculum. They still played it every year.

But he felt that Emma, too, was part of the problem. Every weekend they took to go skiing together, every concert he put on with his earnest but untalented students, to the extent that it made him happy, was a failure, keeping him from the life he was supposed to have.

Late that night, Robinson went out to buy milk. He drove home past the reservoir where the Fourth of July concert would be the next day. He could see the lights of Lincoln below the steel barricade. The night was unusually dark, and the town looked tiny and isolated down below.

Suddenly, something veered out into Robinson’s headlights: a cyclist. He almost ran straight into him. He rolled down his window and shouted at the cyclist, and to his surprise he saw the figure slow down.

Robinson pulled up beside him. “What the hell are you doing?” he said. “I could’ve run you off the road. The lane here is for you, you know!”

When the form of the cyclist emerged into the cone of his headlights, he recognized the unkempt hair and slouch of one of his students. Jared Blecher, alto saxophone, second chair, a student who obviously had talent but steadfastly refused to apply himself. In the glare of the headlights, he looked completely dazed.

“Damnit, Blecher, is that you?” said Robinson.

“What?”

“Are you drunk?”

“Mr. Robinson? Nothing, no–I was just.”

“What were you doing in the road?”

“I was just riding home.”

“After you were drinking? And you left your lights at home?”

He didn’t have an answer. Robinson sighed.

“Anyway, kid, let me give you a ride home?”

He let the kid put his bike in the trunk and they took the road that led back into town.

“Listen, Blecher,” Robinson began. “You’ve got your whole life to have fun, but these are important years. A lot of my friends… a lot of them fucked them up, and now they’re paying the price. Kids that were really promising, like yourself, and now they’re insurance salesmen or waiters or dishwashers. You keep hanging around with that crowd you’re in with and who’s to say where you’re going to end up, no matter how talented you are. And I’m not telling you this to scare you, I just think you’re alright and I don’t want you to fuck up.”

Neither of them said anything for a long time. Robinson put on a CD to break the silence.

“What is this?” said Blecher.

“You don’t know it?” said Robinson.

Jared shook his head.

“What?”

“Nothing,” said Robinson.

“What?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Robinson turned up the heat in the car. He took these roads at a fast clip, feeling the pull of the embankments on the wheel, pulling the same way they had the thousand other times he had taken this road at night.

They pulled onto the road leading back into town. They passed the football field, the drive-in, the old houses of the west side of town.

They arrived at Blecher’s house.

“Listen, I want you to get some sleep,” Robinson said. “You’ve got a big day tomorrow.”

Driving home, Robinson thought about what he’d said to the kid. It brought him back to music school and his lofty ambitions. He had watched the demise of all aspirations of his friends from back then. A composer he’d thought was a genius now worked as an analyst at a tech firm; a brilliant pianist moved back to her hometown and played in a church. No one had reached their potential. And here he was, a public school teacher, conducting this ramshackle band.

At eight o’clock on July Fourth, Jared looked out at the lake, far from the crowded subdivision where he lived. He wished he didn’t have to practice the trumpet part to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony any more. What kind of song was that for July Fourth, anyway? He was young, and this was one of his last summers before he had to become an adult; he ought to be enjoying every last moment he had.

The song sounded like absolute ass every time he played it, anyway. He was pretty confident that some people were made to get good at an instrument and some were not, and that he, Jared Blecher, assuredly was not. Was he put on this earth to struggle and toil with something he was destined never to master? Was he not allowed to enjoy himself?

There was a party going on that night at Aaron Brown’s lake house. It didn’t officially start until ten and he was supposed to report for duty at the promenade at nine o’clock sharp. But there was no way the performance would go on for more than half an hour. If he went over there for a little while now, he could at least pregame, hang out for a while, hop back over to City Park at ten for the performance, and then go back. It wasn’t like Robinson had any real authority to punish him if he showed up late. Hell, it was the summer. He’d put his dress clothes in his backpack and change in the bushes behind the promenade. There shouldn’t be any problem at all.

He put the horn back in its case and set off on his bike for the party. He wasn’t going to waste any more time.

As he had done every year since he could drive, Robinson parked his car at the elementary school and threaded his way through big groups of teenagers to the lake. Law and order were suspended within the radius of the Fourth of July celebration.

Robinson had been to the fireworks display in Lincoln every Fourth of July since he was little, first growing up and then summers back from school, and he still looked forward to it all year. Barring his composition, it was the most important thing to him in the world–those kids all coming together to make something unified and whole.

He began his customary walk along the lake that he did every year, before everything was set up. Two kids walked by.

“I heard there’s going to be ten tons of fireworks this year,” said one.

“No way,” said the other. “They keep decreasing the budget every year.”

“No way.”

“Yeah, they decrease it every year so they can spend more money on cops. See, every year they bring in thousands of dollars from MIPs. It’s the only reason they can keep it going without selling tickets.”

“No way.”

The sun had just gone down and the sky was a dreamy swirl of colors. He thought back to the night before and looked back at his students, starting to set up their instruments. Where was Blecher?

He liked the kid because he was honest. He knew about students ditching band to smoke weed and his attitude about it was generally that boys will be boys, but what really got him about it was the dishonesty. It seemed that they not only went out of their way to create elaborate lies, but also that they were deliberately careless about clearing up the evidence–they actually left burnt-out joint ends all over the ground in the unused loading bay under the band room.

It was nothing like him. In high school, he had spent hours practicing the trumpet. When other kids went out, he stayed in and practiced. Other kids liked Prince and Duran Duran; he liked Beethoven. He would sometimes dream in music, and then he was filled with despair when he sat down at the piano and discovered that he couldn’t recreate what he’d heard.

Where was Jared? It was about all Robinson could take. He threw down his baton bitterly and decided he wasn’t going back to the bandstand.

The teenagers stood on the shore of the lake outside Aaron Brown’s house, across the water from where everything was being set up. It was almost dark; the sky was dark blue, the clouds were grey, and all the people on the shore were bathed in shadows. Jared couldn’t see anyone’s face; he felt like he was moving through some kind of underworld.

They took shots out of little white Dixie cups. Someone brought out weed, and Jared thought, well, it is summer.

Jared glanced across the lake to where they were setting up. He couldn’t get Robinson’s words out of his head for some reason. A drunk bike ride home in the summer. He was seventeen years old–who was Robinson to criticize? Had he never had fun when he was younger? It was bad enough having to think about applying to colleges, and then in four years having to find a job–how was he supposed to do any of that?

He forced those thoughts to be silent. This moment was what mattered. Looking at the dark shapes around him–he couldn’t see them but he could hear their voices–he felt free from everything that waited for him across the lake. He felt free.

He met eyes with Andrea Reid. She had a boyfriend who wasn’t here. He played tennis, and he always wore his headband around, even in class, which always struck Blecher as disgusting.

She was drunk. There was something in the way that she looked at him… he felt like she didn’t want him to break free of her gaze.

Some guy from his calculus class–Andy something–suggested that they go for a walk with Andrea and another girl he hadn’t seen before. Andy Something offered him a cigarette.

Blecher met eyes with Andrea. She was looking at him like she wanted to pull his clothes off. She had a boyfriend. This is what Jared would ordinarily have been thinking. But he had a cigarette and he took huge drags on it and blew them out without inhaling. He didn’t care. He felt like a man.

They locked eyes. Her face was very close to his and her eyes were filled with energy. Andy Noname and the other girl had gone off somewhere else.

They kissed. He let it linger a long time, feeling a strange dissolving feeling, overwhelming all the objections in his brain.

Robinson surveyed the scene around him. He was in the middle of a festival; he felt as if festivals like this had occurred the same way since the beginning of time, and would keep occurring forever. A group of students he didn’t recognize were sprawled across the curb with bottles of beer in their hands and he stood watching them for a while. Their faces were sublimely smooth and unconcerned. They joked and jostled around, flirted, put their arms around each other, all with ease. It was something he had never understood; everything to him was cerebral and thought-out. Even his students, perpetually late to class, unconcerned with practicing or technique, were incredible to him. The ease and lack of concern with which they existed in the world–it was like watching the gods lounging at Mount Olympus.

The fireworks started up. A barrage of them exploded in a burst of golden rain. He was surrounded by unwashed faces, children suddenly screaming, children running around, chasing lit-up electric toys around on the ground. A breeze started up, rustling the leaves in the trees, and he was cold.

Suddenly two memories hit him as strongly as the wind and the cold. The first was of a day, any day, in high school band–the crashing of the cymbals, the horrible roar of the tubas. Playing the alto. It was before his composition, before any of his talk of his “great American art form”; he had just liked playing music every day. The second was of his wife’s crooked nose.

Their first date had gone badly, he had thought, all those years ago. He had debated for what felt like hours over whether to lean in and kiss her, and then when he had gone ahead and done it she had tensed up and turned her head to the side. He was mortified; he didn’t make any attempt to get back in touch with her. He kept thinking about her, but he had a terrible memory for faces, and whenever he recalled her in his mind he had to start with her nose and work from there.

One day he saw her name on a poster for a recital on campus, and in a melancholy mood he bought a ticket, thinking he would sit in the back row.

The night of the performance was a Friday night in the fall of his sophomore year. He was becoming nearsighted and from the back, she was little more than a blur. He sat back there, thinking about the things she’d said to him, trying to rebuild her image in her mind, hardly paying attention to the music at all. He tried to picture going up to her after the concert and saying hello, but he couldn’t. He decided he wouldn’t do it.

Afterwards, tramping through the piles of red leaves on the way back to his dorm, he ran into her lugging her harp back across the quad. He had called to her and offered to help, just like that. It hadn’t been so difficult after all. She asked him why he hadn’t called her back, apologized if she’d been weird. His heart was beating like a rabbit’s.

He told people afterwards, and later on started to tell himself, that it had been that performance on the harp that made him fall in love with her, but that wasn’t it at all. The wind was very cold and it was starting to rain.

He wanted to stay out for a little while longer to watch the fireworks.

After the fireworks, both Andrea and Jared were still there–she with her shirt off and her dress pulled up above her hips, he with his shirt still on and his jeans off. Jared was covered with sand. It was cold. Andrea wouldn’t meet his eyes.

“What’s wrong?” he said.

She didn’t answer.

“Wasn’t it good?”

She laughed softly.

Suddenly he heard music coming across the lake.

But it wasn’t Mahler. It was something else–a saxophone playing by itself. A tune he had heard before.

He pulled on his jeans. Said goodbye to Andrea. His request for her number got another laugh.

He wandered over to where the sound was coming from. He found Robinson playing his alto, sitting on the curb.

“Hey, kid,” he said.

“Hey.”

“Things didn’t go as planned, did they?”

Blecher shook his head.

“It’s alright,” said Robinson.

Suddenly Blecher recognized the tune. It was “Body and Soul.”

Robinson had played it at the end of class the first day of his senior year. They were starting with a unit on jazz.

It was the last class of the day, September first, and nobody really wanted to be inside at that very moment. The music sounded strange–sour and acrid and littered with wrong notes. Backpacks were zipped up, papers put away noisily, conversations flared up. But something about the music held Jared’s attention.

When it was over, Blecher noticed that Robinson had teared up. A few kids giggled. He pulled himself together and said a few words to wrap up.

“You want to know what jazz is?” he said, trying to keep his voice above the commotion of twenty eighteen-year-olds who wanted to be outside.

“I can’t explain it any better than that.”

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Stories

A Tree in Mecklenberg, by Steven Carr

#literary #nature #satire #southern

Poison ivy had wrapped itself around the trunk of the large oak, covering the light gray bark beneath its tendrils and bright green notched leaves. The tree stood next to the white picket fence in Marge’s front yard and its branches were weighed down with heavy clusters of leaves that stretched out over the sidewalk and street and over Marge’s well manicured lawn. The tree’s age wasn’t known, but it was believed that the tree predated Mecklenberg becoming incorporated in the early 1800s. Because of its visually pleasing shape, magnificent size and the brilliant red and purple colors of its leaves each autumn, it was considered the prettiest tree on Standover Street, if not in the entire town of Mecklenberg.
Wearing a pair of yellow rubber gloves and a long sleeve green gardening smock, Marge snipped the leaves and vines of the poison ivy with a pair of hedge trimmers, forming a mound around the base of the tree. Although the temperature was in the low eighties, the shade of the tree kept her cool, but the hours of exertion it took to completely remove the ivy was taxing. At age sixty-four she was still in good health, but even though she didn’t admit it to anyone, she felt as if she were slowing down, like an old clock in need of winding.
With the trunk of the tree freed from the vines she scooped up the plant debris and put it in large plastic bags and placed the bags next to the garbage cans to be set out on the curb when the garbage would be collected. Using the hose attached to the side of the house, she rinsed off her shoes and the trimmers, then removed her smock. She poured laundry detergent on her gloves and worked up a good lather, then rinsed them off. She lifted the smock with the end of a stick and carried it into her laundry room and dropped it into the open wash machine. She started the wash cycle, then made her way to the gardening shed in her back yard. She put the clippers, gloves, and shoes she only wore for gardening in their usual places, then went barefoot across the cool grass to her back door and went inside. She was glad to have the job done at last.
After slipping on her favorite pair of fuzzy slippers and putting water in the tea kettle and sitting it on a glowing electric stove burner, she sat down at the kitchen table and flipped through the pages of the town’s newspaper, The Mecklenberg Sentinel. She saw no pictures of anyone she knew or any news articles that interested her. In the obituaries, only the announcement of Tyler McGovern’s funeral to be held on the upcoming Saturday drew her attention. She had no intention of attending the funeral because she didn’t like his wife, Janet, but she liked to keep up on who was being laid to rest in Mecklenberg’s cemetery.
When the tea kettle began to whistle she put a tea bag in a cup and poured the steaming water into the cup. She turned off the stove and carried the cup of tea into the living room and sat down in her favorite floral patterned overstuffed chair and picked up the remote and turned on the television. A moment later there was a knock on her front door.
“Who could that be?” she mumbled with annoyance. She got up, carrying the cup of tea, and went to answer the door.
Peering over a large brown paper bag full of groceries she held in her arms, Lisa Trumbull stared at Marge through the thick lenses of her eyeglasses that gave her the look of an inquisitive insect. Her cheeks were flush with color and beads of sweat clung to her forehead and above her upper lip like tiny glued-on transparent rhinestones. She said nothing.
“Well, what is it, Lisa?” Marge said.
Lisa cleared her throat, loudly, as if she had been drinking dust, and said, “Do you really think it’s appropriate to have that on your tree?”
Marge tried to think what it was that was on her tree, and unable to fathom what Lisa was talking about, Marge said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“The face of the devil,” Lisa said.
Not willing to believe she had heard Lisa correctly, Marge took a sip of tea, then said, “Who’s face?”
“The devil,” Lisa said. “I never knew you had those kinds of leanings.”
“I have no leanings at all,” Marge said. “Will you please tell me what you’re talking about?”
Lisa placed the bag on the floor of the porch and grasped Marge’s free hand and pulled her across the porch, down the stairs, up the walkway, out onto the sidewalk and down to the tree. Pointing at a naturally formed oval in the bark, Lisa said, “See, there. His face.”
Marge squinted at the oval, and with great effort she could make out what might be considered to look like the details of a face. She had never noticed it before, and wondered if the ivy had altered the bark. Willing to concede it looked like a face, she said, “It doesn’t look like the devil at all.”
Lisa reached over the fence and put her fingers on two pointy protuberances rising out of the skull. “See, there, that’s the devil’s horns.”
“You’re seeing things,” Marge said.
“No I’m not,” Lisa said as she stomped once on the concrete with her left foot, sending up a small cloud of dust. “You need to cut that out of the tree right now before someone is really offended.”
Starting back toward her house with Lisa following, Marge said, “I won’t be told what to do with my tree by you or anyone else.” Reaching her porch a full minute ahead of Lisa, whose abundance of weight limited her speed, Marge picked up the bag with one hand and held it out.
As she wrapped her arms around it, Lisa said, “I just hope you come to your senses.” She turned and went down the stairs and out of Marge’s yard.
Marge went into her house, closed the door behind her and took a sip of tea. “Damn, it’s cold,” she said, heading back to the kitchen.
*
While the fading glow of daylight streamed through the tree’s branches, Marge sat in her porch swing and gently rocked back and forth. A steady warm breeze passed through the leaves and played with the loose curls in her snow white hair. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine Charlie, sitting next to her with his hand lovingly on her leg. But that actually happened very few times while they were married, and he was alive. So she opened her eyes and listened to the singing robins that had nested in the tree.
She heard footsteps on her walkway before she saw who was walking up it.
“We hope we’re not disturbing you,” Tom Curly, Mecklenberg’s mayor, said from the bottom of the porch steps. Lisa was standing behind him and stepping from foot to foot as if the concrete beneath her feet was hot.
Marge got out of the swing and walked slowly to the top of the stairs. “I wasn’t expecting company,” she said. Looking at Lisa, she said, “Is this about what’s on my tree?”
Tom rubbed his bright red beard and said, “As a matter of fact, it is. I just took a look at it and I agree with Mrs. Trumbull. That’s definitely the devil’s face.”
“It doesn’t look like the devil to me,” Marge said. She crossed her arms across her breasts. “It’s just something that happened to the bark. It wasn’t put there on purpose.”
Tom kicked the concrete with the brown wing-tip of his shoe. “No one is suggesting it was,” he said, “but it may save you trouble if you got rid of it.”
“Trouble from who?” Marge said.
“This is a small town and even the suggestion of satanism could cause a great deal of trouble,” Tom said.
Marge said, “So few people see the tree that I can’t imagine what’s on it causing me any trouble.”
Lisa stepped from behind Tom and brushed back a wisp of brown hair from her forehead. “Word will get around fast that you have the devil’s face on the tree,” she said. “I contacted the mayor to hopefully prevent that.”
Marge looked up at the tree blanketed in the reds and yellows of twilight. “What do you suggest I do? Cut the tree down?”
“You could sand the devil’s face off,” Tom said. “With your permission, since the tree is on your property, I have the authority to have it done for you.”
Marge glanced at Lisa then back to Tom. “You see the devil’s face on my tree and I don’t. I’m not going to have it sanded.”
“You’ve always been stubborn and difficult to get along with,” Lisa said. “The devil’s face will be removed from that tree one way or another.” She turned and stomped down the walkway.
Tom rubbed his beard again. “I’ll have to talk with the city council and see what we can do about changing your mind.” He turned and followed Lisa.
*
The moist, warm breeze blowing in through the open bedroom window made the sheer white curtains dance on the air currents. Marge lay in her bed and stared out the window at the tree shrouded by the blackness of night. She worried about it almost in the same way she worried about her three children who she hadn’t talked to in weeks. She sat up and swung her legs around to the edge of the mattress, then stepped on the cool hardwood floor with her bare feet. At the window she looked down at the base of the tree and gasped as a glowing light suddenly appeared from the side facing the street. It took her a moment to realize she was looking at a beam of light from a flashlight.
Without hesitation she ran out of the bedroom, down the stairs, and out the front door. She was in the grass halfway to the tree before she realized she had forgotten to put on slippers and a robe. Going around the tree she stepped into the flashlight beam that was aimed at the face on the tree.
“What are you doing here?” Marge said.
“We heard you have the devil’s face on your tree,” the woman holding the flashlight said. She had a blue bandana around her head and was wearing a sweatshirt and jeans.
Two other women stood at each of the flashlight holder’s sides.
“Are you a devil worshiper?” one of the other women who was wearing a ball cap with an American flag above the bill, said.
“Of course not,” Marge said. “Who told you about the face on my tree?”
The one with the flashlight shined it up and down Marge’s pale blue knee length gauzy nightgown. “You know how quickly word spreads in Mecklenberg. How long did you plan to keep it a secret?” she said.
“I wasn’t keeping anything a secret,” Marge said. “It’s just a marking on my tree that looks like a face.”
“The devil’s face,” the woman wearing the ball cap said. “If you aren’t a devil worshiper, why don’t you get his face off of the tree?”
With the light from the flashlight shining in her eyes, Marge said, “Because it’s ridiculous to be offended by something you think you see on a tree, and it’s my tree on my property.” She turned and started to walk back to her house. Over her shoulder, she said, “If you touch my tree I’ll have you arrested.”
*
The next morning, carrying her collapsible grocery cart, Marge stepped out her front door and stopped abruptly, and muttered, “Oh, for God’s sakes.”
Standing on the sidewalk facing the tree was seven people. They were chattering excitedly and pointing at the face.
Marge walked down the porch steps and placed the cart’s wheels on the walkway and pulled it out onto the sidewalk. Four of those who were now in front of her by a few yards were neighbors she had known for years, including Lisa, and Willie Monroe who lived across the street.
Willie put his hands in his pants pockets and walked up to her. He walked with a limp from an injury in Vietnam. “Good morning, Marge,” he said. “You going grocery shopping?”
“That’s where I’m headed,” Marge said.
Lisa stepped up behind Willie. “We live next to someone and think we know her, then wake up and find out she worships Satan.”
“I told you before, Lisa, I’m not a devil worshiper. If you thought the face was Elvis Presley’s, would you expect me to sing?” Marge said.
Willie leaned forward and spoke almost in a whisper. “What do you think Charlie would say about the devil’s face being on your tree?”
Marge said, trying to hold back her anger, “He’s been dead for ten years, but if he was here now he’d run you all off with his shotgun.”
Willie stepped back as if avoiding a punch and collided with Lisa. “To keep the peace, just get rid of the face on the tree,” he stammered.
“My tree isn’t disturbing the peace,” Marge said. “No one is making you look at it.” She pushed past him and Lisa and then pulled her cart between the other four people who scowled at her as she passed.
Once past the knot of people, she casually strolled down the sidewalk and tried to enjoy the same sight she had seen for years; well-kept lawns, flower gardens, and modest but well maintained homes. American flags stuck out from many of the porches and a large wood cross stood on a mound in one of the yards. The pastel yellow late morning sunlight made everything glow. At the end of the street she turned onto Main Street. Pedestrians busily went in and out of the stores and shops that lined both sides of the street. Do they know they have a suspected satanist walking among them? she thought with a laugh.
Just as she was about to go into the grocery store, Tom Curly came out. He immediately reached for his beard and tugged on it. “I’ve gotten a few calls and emails about your tree,” he said.
“What has my tree done?” she said with a giggle.
“It’s not a laughing matter,” he said. “No one wants satanism promoted in Mecklenberg. The devil’s face must be removed from your tree. There’ll be an emergency meeting of the city council this afternoon to determine what should be done.”
“Stop telling me what to do with my tree,” Maggie said. “If you’ll excuse me, I have shopping to do.” She pushed past him and went into the store.
*
Standing at the large plate glass window of her living room and looking out at the street, Marge watched the two dozen people who were milling about, shouting, and carrying signs with the words “Kill the tree” on them. Tom Curly and two others that Marge recognized as city council members were sitting on the hood of a car parked at the curb across the street. She left the window and picked up her telephone to call the sheriff’s office, but got a busy signal.
In the kitchen, she put the tea kettle filled with water on the stove’s glowing burner then went back to the living room window and watched as Lisa and others hurled eggs at the tree. With every egg that smashed against the tree, the small crowd cheered. She shook her head in dismay and returned to the kitchen when the kettle began to whistle. She turned off the stove, poured water from the kettle into a cup with a tea bag, and returned to the living room window.
While she sipped the tea the sun began to set. The last of the sunlight filtered through pink clouds cast a pink glow on the branches and leaves of the tree. She didn’t move from where she was standing until Tom Curly got out of the car and carried a gasoline can across the street. As soon as he began splashing liquid onto the tree, Marge dropped the cup of tea onto the floor and ran out the front door.
“Stop what you’re doing!” she screamed from the porch.
Others joined the crowd and they all cheered as Tom splashed more fuel on the tree.
Marge ran down the porch steps and across her lawn and stood in front of the tree, shielding the egg-splattered face. “You have no right to do what you’re doing,” she yelled at the increasingly boisterous crowd.
“Kill the devil,” they began to chant.
“Move out of the way, Marge,” Tom said. “You didn’t want to take care of the problem, so this is the only solution.”
“This is insanity!” Marge said. “It’s just a tree.”
Before Tom could answer, a lit match was thrown over the fence by Lisa and landed at the base of the tree. Flames immediately exploded around the base of the trunk, then quickly swirled around the tree, igniting the bark. Marge jumped out of the way and watched as the flames spread upward to the branches and the leaves.
The crowd clapped and shouted gleefully as the tree was consumed in fire.
Above the tree the smoke formed into a cloud in the shape of the devil’s face, and then dissipated.

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Stories

Chiclets in Columbus Circle, by Mary Ellen Gambutti

#literary #memoir #new york

This day in 1955 is as clear a summer day as any I can recall. Mom and I have been staying with my grandparents, a block from Central Park, where I swing and play in the sand. Today’s adventure is a trip with Nana on the D train from Columbus Circle to Greenwich Village. She instructs me to hold her cotton-gloved hand, and we step through the tiled portal into a strange subterranean world.

Her best friend, Mrs. Toomey, lives on MacDougal Street, and Nana wants to show me off for the first time. They met in the late 1920’s, through her daughter, Katherine, and my mom, Agnes, when they all lived in the Village. Nana and Grandad moved up to West 58th Street when Agnes and her brother were ready for high school. But the women and girls have stayed friends.

Down underground, Nana pays for tokens, which is subway money, at a booth. She lifts me up, drops a brass coin into the slot, and pushes the wooden arms of the turnstile, causing a ratchet sound as we go through. Then she pushes us through a tall gate with bars, and we are near the tracks. I peer from Nana’s safety toward the tube with blinking lights. A man shines shoes at a big stand near the back wall, and I smell the polish. By the newstand–the dusky smell of newsprint.

People walk this way and that, while we wait for our train. I spy a glass jug with bubbling, swirling orange drink, and ask Nana. She gives the vendor a coin, and he presses the knob. The cool pleasure of smooth un-carbonated sips of orangeade from a conical wax paper cup stays with me.

Hand in hand we hurry to the train car as the engineer calls out the next stop, and sliding doors hiss and snap shut. Nana guides me toward a smooth, woven rattan seat, near an open-window. As we pick up speed, the breeze builds, and the cold white wall tile outside the train blurs its black writing. Inside, wall fans whir. The car isn’t full, so no-one stands at the center steel pole or at the swinging grip handles. In our seats we sway to the click-clack rhythm of track. Ceiling lights flash as we roar through the tunnels. I press against Nana’s petite frame for comfort, and her smile shows pride in me. My legs dangle below the hem of my yellow summer dress.

Amid the screech of steel brakes, we arrive at Houston Street station, and emerge into jagged light, stifling New York afternoon, traffic din, and reek of overflowing trash cans. Across the street, red brick dust arises, workmen shout, and a wrecking ball pendulum swings from a massive chain frightening me. Nana holds my hand through the fear, and leads me up the front concrete stoop of an apartment building.

Through the stale hallway by a wall of mailboxes, we climb three narrow flights past shabby plaster and the smell of cooking. Mrs. Toomey has seen us on the sidewalk from her front window and opens to us with a warm smile, and an accent I’ve heard from my father’s great aunt Kate Caffrey. In Mrs. T.’s floral parlor, the two old friends chat, drink hot tea. I kneel on the carpet at the coffee table with cold milk and crumbly powdered-sugar cake. After, I might have napped.

On the train back to 59th Street and Columbus Circle, I sit in a corner seat by myself, while Nana sits adjacent. At the station there’s a gum dispenser, and I ask.

Nana produces two pennies, pushes the first into the slot, and says, “Hold your hand under it,” and turns the crank. One white Chiclet square drops into my palm. Then another penny, another turn, another Chiclet–both instantly in my mouth–I know what to do with peppermint sugar excitement

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