Sprawl

(Courtesy of Cloves Literary Journal)

Every night before the sun goes down, we emerge Zombie-eyed with limp-wristed waves, never making eye contact as we stroll the painstakingly prepackaged and preplanned neatly stacked beige stucco cottages that from space surely look like a field of tombstones thrusting out of swamplands and the remains of alligators and oyster shells plowed over and made smooth with concrete like a back-to-school night cake and we, the walking dead, clutching neon-blue bags bulging with dog shit like some prized goldfish from a county fair all the while making innocuous small talk “sure is warm for the middle of October” when we really want to scream that an hour after you leave in the morning a pick-up truck and cowboy boots arrives at your house and leaves before lunch earning his glinting rodeo belt buckle, but instead we keep it to ourselves to maintain an air of superiority and focus on mediocre achievements of even less mediocre children but at least mine isn’t hooked on oxy and you laugh because you’re pretty sure your daughter got pregnant at a house party you hosted last week because you want to be the cool parents and drink with the teens so you can pretend you’re still a teen and hope that someone looks at you that way so you still feel something because you feel absolutely nothing every time you slither into your own bed, and because our dogs shit at the same time somehow we’ve been consecrated as friends and you feel comfortable asking me if I’m into the “lifestyle” and I look at you with glazed-over deadened eyes because I tuned you out the moment you said “good evening” and I have no idea what you’re talking about, and you want to know if I’m interested in swinging because you think my wife is appealing and my wife and I barely speak let alone fuck so what makes you think we would want to add you to the mix and instead of smashing the steaming pile of feces against your face for decorum’s sake and the peace of the neighborhood, I joke about being a Cro-Magnon and incapable of sharing or opening myself up but I appreciate the offer and I guess your wife isn’t too bad either and I probably wouldn’t mind seeing her in her finest Walmart lingerie while we drink too much cheap box wine and choke on limp shrimp still in their packaged polystyrene ring and smoke shitty weed because you’re too cheap to go to a dispensary and pay for something decent and strong enough to float me above the Spanish tile roofs and over the preserves and out to the bay where I could float away to Mexico where nobody would know me and I would have no memory of me or I could sink to oblivion and let the crabs have their way with me, washing up on shore in bits and pieces of microplastics and alabaster.

You’ve Got Mail

(Courtesy of Gut Slut Press)

You’ve Got Mail

We are born preconditioned to embrace the catastrophic. To eagerly crane our heads towards highway wrecks. Pavlovian frothing at the breathless coverage of every plane crash and capsized ferry. Voyeuristic egos encourage guileless eyes to devour the horrific splendor.

As a masochist to the marrow, I have imprinted upon myself a bloodlust so all-encompassing that I actively seek out and engage the carnage in every aspect of my daily life. A gnawing hunger desperate for a visceral reaction. I am consumed by an endless yearning for that instantaneous, nervous inhalation followed by an urgent mumble, “There but the grace of God go I.”

This is what stimulates my soul. My only sense of being alive.

I thrive on choking lungs filled with acrid powder from exploded airbags. Bathe in the tiny rivulets of blood trickling down sandpaper-scrubbed skin from seatbelt-chafed necks. Other people’s pain becomes my pain and my pleasure. Schadenfreude and Sado-Masochism entwined like mesh and lace.

The sallow flash of my phone’s voicemail is the lighthouse’s warning of rocky shoals that lie ahead. Only two types of people leave voicemails- people who want something from you, or people who want the last word.

I relish these messages with the same gusto reserved for picking a fresh scab.

I’ve pressed the number “9” to replay exhortations to “Drop dead,” from failed relationships. Saving them for an additional thirty days with the same care reserved for foreplay.

Email was no different. Disembodied rejection letters. Angry missives from colleagues I emailed when liquid courage imbibed at 2 AM lowered my inhibitions. Passive-aggressive notes from family members bemoaning the sins of my youth and my inability to make amends.

All were opened with a glee reserved for Christmas presents.

The constant refrain of my shortcomings, failures, and broken promises read like love notes to the sickened, battered spouse within me. The promise of attention awoke a lustful, broken-down Norma Desmond pining for her close-up.

This is the demon that inhabits me.

It stemmed from the desperation of needing to be recognized by my father. I failed in countless attempts to confront or resolve the issues with him over the years. It’s always been best to worship the devil you know. My father’s messages were the most treasured and anticipated.

He was a technological Luddite. The United States Postal Service was complicit in the delivery of his cheerfully handwritten bits of poison detailing some perceived injustice from companies whose bills “accidentally” had gone unpaid. The mail lacked the immediacy he demanded. Voicemails were a means to poke and prod and prevented the ability to counter in the moment.

His last voicemail was the perfect literary composition car crash. The mail notification crackled with nervous energy. My father always delivered. A violent splattering of gut-churning words pregnant with hours of self-loathing.

“I love you, but you have been a disappointment.”

A head-on collision sums up the entirety of our relationship. My Homerian search for validation and approval would never be satisfied. Nor would the stratospheric standards that he laid out for me ever be achieved.

I listen to voicemails daily, as part of my morning routine. The healthy dose of self-loathing was a multivitamin that fueled me throughout the day. Some addicts keep a rubber band around their wrist to snap every time a craving torments them. My father provided a tautly wound elastic band around my heart. All I needed to do was inhale and listen to his one-sentence missive. The resounding snap against my aorta provided the bloodlust I craved.

I knew my father would never reconsider his messages. There was no genuflection and absolution. A tossed-off sentence, an aborted afterthought about it being too late, too far gone, and the abyss already embraced? Being my father’s son, I was a creature of habit possessed by my own addictions. I would listen to the voicemail every morning awaiting a gossamer apology that never materialized.

What superpower prevents the sins of the father from being borne upon the son? How does one combat the wanton DNA that some wayward sperm spread in blind ambition?

My father’s words echoed through me like a wind-whipped strand of birches, rendering flesh from my body. I swore they would never fall upon the delicate ears of my child. Self-flagellation would live and die with me.

My father has been dead for three years but remains more present in my life now than he ever was. His messages are forever the gifts that keep on giving.

This would make him smile.

Baptism in Black

(Courtesy of The Adirondack Review)

Despite almost dropping him into the water as I carried him on board, the Chief was in good spirits. It was the first time I recalled feeling the Chief in ages. His once formidable frame which was at times my protector or tormentor, was now frail. Bony as a supermarket rotisserie chicken. The backpack he clung to seemed to outweigh him. He refused to let me take it and scurried like a rat into the cabin until we cast off. 

The fishing trip had become an obsession. One last fishing trip. That’s all I wanted. Three generations: my father, my son, and me. Time and circumstance hadn’t been the kindest of companions. What was once a regular occurrence dissolved into stilted holiday get-togethers dripping with regret-filled, forced small talk. 

In a moment of undeserved kindness or sheer pity, my mother agreed a fishing trip could be the panacea we all needed and agreed to cover any expenses. 

I pulled a favor and borrowed a boat from one of the few friends left that I didn’t owe money. It had a small cabin in case the Chief needed to lay down. My boat had been much nicer. The operative phrase “had been.” Repossessed. Like much of my life.   

The Chief’s demeanor brightened once we set out and the fishing lines went in. The October water was motor oil-black and warm from the late summer. The stripers were quiet now. It was a far cry from the tuna slaying trips to Cabo San Lucas we once took. Where Marlins were as thick as logs cascading down a river. I didn’t care. My son Max was thrilled. The Chief was serene, a Cheshire cat perched on the boat’s stern. 

He was gregarious, at least with Max. 

“The heart’s a telescope. It brings things closer, even if you don’t always want to see them.” 

Max nodded politely, focused on his line and unsure of the Chief’s words. 

“Pop-Pop Chief? Daddy says the water is black, but it looks golden to me.” 

“Gold isn’t always the most precious metal. You can find much black in the hearts of men.” 

I took it as a subtle dig but refused to let it bother me. 

The salt spray on my face scrubbed away layers of latent decay. Before me stood my future and my past. The best and worst parts of my life. One was once my hero. The other? I was once his hero. Completely misguided loyalties on both accounts. Yet I spent my entire life trying to capture both mirages and eventually bring the ethereal to light. 

We didn’t dwell on the constant specter of the “good old days” when money didn’t matter. I was once the golden child able to do no wrong. Those days were long blown away like dandelion seeds tossed in the air and carried on bitter winds to places unknown. 

My wife’s unexpected death left me a clichéd spiral that wallowed in degeneration, rotting away, and eventually, collapsed upon myself. Max was forced to move in with my parents when it became clear I couldn’t properly care for another life and showed utter disdain for my own. 

I came to the beach daily and shouted impassioned vows of redemption and rebirth at the ambivalent waters of the Long Island Sound. The same waters that nourished my family for years. Life could begin anew if I could wade in and embrace it. A soul-cleansing baptism where all wrongs would be righted. 

These were empty words that rippled over the surface slung by a side-armed kid. There was no redemption from water that held no memory. 

Onboard the boat, seeing the beach from the water brought a fresh perspective. A modicum of hope. 

The Chief barked his first words to me. 

“Go in my bag and grab that bottle of bourbon I brought. Pour three glasses.” 

Flashbacks to my youth. I hurried below deck before it escalated and rummaged through his bag. No bottle of bourbon. It was full of framed photos I never recalled seeing.  

The Chief holding me as a newborn, smoking a cigar. 

Photos from his Marine Corps days.  

Wedding photos of him dancing with my mom. 

Our first fishing trip together. 

He smiled in almost every photo. Even managed to look proud.  

Max greeted me excitedly in the cabin doorway. 

“Pop-Pop Chief’s gone swimming!”  

I ran to the deck and scoured the water. He was nowhere to be seen. Panicked, I jumped in. 

My eyes strained against the soy sauce-black brine, but there was nothing to see. I understood his plan. Knew it before I jumped in. For a moment, I thought about joining him. Just swim till my head scraped the bottom. Sweet surrender, and let Poseidon take care of the rest. 

I knew my obligation to Max. This was my shot at redemption; my father’s gift to me. I was given a chance to become a father again.  

My untested lungs screamed in protest as I broke through the surface, baptized and born anew. 

Jesus is Just Another Name for Gruyere

(Courtesy of Reservoir Road Literary Review)

When you sit down in a group meeting, the first thing you do is look to your left and then to your right and reassure yourself that you aren’t as fucked up as the people on either side of you, but you don’t really know better one way or another because nobody has shared anything yet. You haven’t decided if you want to cut yourself open and let the rotting corpse from within spill out onto the floor when it’s your turn to share or if you are contented to remain a voyeur and watch everyone else bleed in front of you.

Unfortunately, you don’t get to pick the poison you get to absorb and inevitably, the stories and the story tellers drone on and on about how God has forsaken them or, better yet, god was testing them and they failed this time but they know next time will be different, but you know, deep down, it won’t because when the cravings come, god is nowhere to be found, but the devil understands the need for solace and comfort, and I believe that any friend of the devil is a friend of mine.

There comes a point in the meeting when the claustrophobia closes in and the incessant droning around you presses down on you and holds your head underneath the bowl of Holy Water and you can’t break the surface to catch a breath and when you finally do, you yell “Jesus” under your breath and your phone lights up with a list of cheeses you may like and stores that sell cheese not far from the basement of the church you find yourself in on a Tuesday night, and if you hurry, there is still time to get cheeses and maybe a nice bottle of wine to go with it because, deep down, you know the meetings don’t do anything for you in the first place.

And then you think of the baby Jesus and the baby cheeses and realize that Jesus is just another name for gruyere because you have never seen god but you have experienced rapture in an immaculate grilled cheese sandwich when stoned, so maybe my phone is actually my sponsor and pointing me in the direction of God far from the hypocrisy of the church basement because I can never get past the sixth step, which claims I am supposed to be entirely ready to have God remove these defects of character, but if I was born with this defective character and the bible says that I was made in god’s image, then he, too, carries these same defects that I have, and rather than wasting time listening to others drown in their self-righteousness, I could achieve enlightenment over a grilled cheese sandwich.

And then I realize I’ve been sharing this whole time and they question me about if I’m still using or if I’m using at this very moment of introspect and I want to say I’m high on life and high on cheese and that the real problem with religion is everyone wants designer cheeses made specifically for them when we really need a fondue for the masses that could hold us together and bind us and as I reveal this, I’m being shouted at for being disrespectful and stoned by the group that doesn’t hesitate to cast the first stone because I have violated the sanctity of the space and I refuse to let Jesus into me since religion has done nothing for me or my issues, but I would invite Jesus in to sit and have a grilled cheese sandwich with me so we could discuss how fucked up his father must have been, and when I think about the childhood Jesus had, knowing his father’s issues, it was no wonder he thought his father had forsaken him in the end because I know my father has forsaken me and I’m a lot older than Jesus was when he died and I can’t make peace with my father, so I sympathize with him.

Over lunch, we could create our own twelve-step plan but instead of steps it would be twelve cheeses with the first being Swiss because it was the holeyest and it would appeal to the Holy Ghost so there would be at least three of us at the initial meeting, and we could all commiserate and share how our relationships with our fathers drove us to our respective addictions.

Mother’s Milk

(Longlisted by Reflex Fiction Magazine)

Does it hurt much?’

It was like getting stung by a bee; a swarm of bees, over and over, angrily pricking at your skin, stingers darting in and out like tiny daggers until you no longer cared. Eventually you wanted the feeling to linger as you slid along the razor’s edge of sadomasochism that is getting a tattoo.

It’s bearable.’

She stared with an intense mixture of loathing and curiosity at the images of patron saints that stood sentinel on my shoulder. One for myself; one for my son. A talisman intended to protect while projecting an air of spirituality intermingled with a reckless disdain for desecrating the temple that was supposed to have been my body.

What if it looks weird?’

Hours prior she made a spectacle of calling me ‘a thug’ for the never-before-seen ink that graced my living corpse. Racked with embarrassment and shame that she had failed me as a mother since I savagely rendered the very skin that once resided inside of her with pointless graffiti.

You’ll get used to it.’

Unless you live with your parents or swim together on vacation, there is little reason for them to see you nearly naked. Tattoos were hidden intimacies meant for myself and a significant other that no longer mattered and yet my mother traced an acrylic nail the color of a ripe plum along the outline of my most recent addition and sighed.

I don’t think I could do it; the pain would be too much.

She didn’t grasp the irony of her own words. Having a ‘nipple’ tattooed would pale in relative comparison to the reconstruction surgery to rebuild her breasts from a double mastectomy. The tattoo would be liberating, addicting; pain would be rendered asunder.

If you are so concerned about the pain, why bother with the reconstructive surgery?

Her breasts, the same ones that nursed me to life and now, even in this moment of vulnerability, I wondered if the poison that resided deep inside her trickled over my tongue and down my throat through that sacred milk.

Because I’m still a woman, and I’m not dead yet.’

Golden Years

(Courtesy of Moss Puppy Magazine)

I see the same old man dressed as a sea captain on the side of the road every time I
drive down to the docks.


He’s 70 or 80 or 90 but definitely ancient and always spinning spinning spinning a
sign advertising a local marina that offered guided charters of the wetlands.
Impervious to the weather; a permanent fixture in a jaunty white cap and crisp blue
blazer when he should have been dressed like an alligator similar to the ones the
tours specialized in spotting since he was as ancient as they were and he deathrolled his signs with his constant spinning spinning spinning. I envy how surprisingly
spry and nimble he is for a man of his age. When traffic slows I can see the beads of
sweat washing down his face as he’s spinning spinning spinning because this is the
Gulf Coast and we’re a concrete jungle built on a swamp and it was hot yesterday
and it’s hot today and will be hot again tomorrow. If I were a better person I’d buy
him a bottle of water because he must be thirsty but I’m selfish and self-absorbed
and it’s the thought that counts so I honk to get his attention but not in an arrogant
manner and he nods and I nod and we exchange glances because that’s what men
do we look and then look away and yet he never misses a beat spinning spinning
spinning.


As I sit down for lunch I can’t help but wonder how the alligator captain got to this
point in his life at 70 or 80 or 90 years that he can’t enjoy the golden years and retire
instead relying upon some minimum wage job touting a local marina when he’s
probably never left shore once in his life.


Instead he’s spinning spinning spinning his sign with knotted gnarled knuckles.
Perhaps that’s what keeps him young and in shape rather than joining one of those
ridiculous Silver Sneakers groups at the YMCA with their mismatched chairs turning
the basketball court into god’s waiting room. Maybe it gets him out of the house
away from some nagging wife or the ghost of a wife who never nagged but he is
nagged by her presence every time he’s in the house so it’s better on the side of the
road closer to the swamps and away from the ghosts.


I’ll never be that old man because I have a plan. I take comfort in this and smile to
myself as I sit enjoying my two-for-four dollar chicken sandwiches and unlimited
coffee refills in the gas station convenience score while scratching off lottery tickets.

Chasing the Suburban Dragon

(Courtesy of ExPat Literary Journal)

Browsing through the stacks of used books at a Goodwill thrift store is a guilty pleasure. Like being in a local dog shelter, I’d love to turn everyone loose and bring them home with me if possible. Every time I moved and was forced to downsize, parting with any books was Sophie’s Choice redux; each was a beloved child that held gossamer thin tethers to my heart. I didn’t understand how others could part with theirs without a moment’s hesitation.

In the store’s sallow fluorescent lighting, they glisten with an almost pornographic lilt. Glossy-colored spines preen and offer come hitherto glances of what lay between the stiff hardback covers. I scour the alphabetized shelves for hidden gems amongst the bloated rows of Grisham, Patterson, and Steel- names that rolled off like a monolithic ambulance chasing law firm. Irving, McCarthy, Palahniuk, and Welsh called out to me with muffled voices.

Stacks of Miller, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald tossed away by divorced parents ridding their downsized condos of their kid’s high school books that were never appreciated at the time. Somewhere, Camus was rolling over in his grave, laughing at the irony of living forever in complete oblivion.

A copy of Brett Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero peaked out. Winked at me and beckoned to help me recall my wayward youth. My teen years in the 80s forged a moody adult whose musical tastes remained transfixed by the likes of The Smiths, Joy Division, and New Order. Cautionary tale or not, I loved the wanton sex and drug use that permeated the book. The idea of the thrilling irresponsibility that the shackles of adulthood no longer permitted.

Flipping through the copy, I noticed it was signed on one of the inner pages.

Dear Kelly and David-

As always, thanks for another wonderful weekend on the lake.
These life affirming excursions are the highlight of our year!
Until next year!

Ellen and Pete

I turned the sentences over and over. I became a voyeur outside of some cabin nestled lakeside and hidden by towering pines that shielded the couples as they skinny dipped and dodged swarms of mosquitos as thick as molasses. Drunken nights by the fire where joints were passed and inhibitions were lowered before they shared the intimacies of the flesh with reckless abandon.

At some point there must have been a falling out. Some unspoken boundary was violated; frayed tethers finally snapped. A meandering four hour car ride back to some planned development in pregnant silence. The passive aggressive changing of the satellite radio station shattering the silence.

Perhaps there was a sickness or death and the book was too much of a talisman to bear? A constant symbol of mortality or a permanent tombstone in the middle of a suburban living room where new friendships were being made as wine was poured with a heavy hand.

The reasoning didn’t matter; Less Than Zero had outlived its usefulness and was cast away. It held enough intrinsic or sentimental value to avoid the blue recycling bin and made it to a Goodwill donation site. Similar to not wanting to put a beloved pet that had become a nuisance down and instead releasing it to the wild, hoping for the best.

Whatever had transpired, the weekends were a thing of the past. The magical respite from the tedium of the suburbs was no more.

I ran my fingers over the cover with a newfound sense of affection before returning it to the shelves and leaving empty-handed.

It was as good a time as any to reread my own copy at home.

Death by Chocolate

(Courtesy of Vocal Media) Bennigan’s arrived in Jake’s hometown with tremendous fanfare during his senior year in high school. For a lower-middle-class family like his, it was a place of wonder. His family rarely went out for dinner; if they did, it was to Roy Roger’s for burgers. (His father was a huge fan of the “Fixin’s Bar” and its endless supply of tomatoes and onions.) On special occasions, they went to Tahiti East, an elaborately cheesy Chinese restaurant that was decorated to make you feel as if you had been transported to a Tahitian Island, vis-a-vis Morris County, New Jersey.

But Bennigan’s was a different animal. There were lines upwards of two hours long every night of the week to get into the new establishment which was unlike anything anyone had experienced. Despite Jake’s father’s protestations to the contrary, his mother insisted on braving the lines and getting a table.

Inside she wandered around with childlike glee pointing out all of the kitschy items meant to provoke conversations about their irreverence. She was their target audience and like Charles Darwin cataloging the Galapagos, she didn’t miss a thing.

“A mannequin wearing a 1920’s swimsuit?”

“An upside-down rowing shell with skeletons in the seats?”

“A rabbit with antlers?”

Jake’s father grumbled his acknowledgment of her numerous observations while he did his best to decipher a menu that was foreign to him.

“What the hell are mozzarella sticks?”

“Potato skins? I want a damned baked potato, not the skin.”

“Who puts sugar and jelly on a Monte Cristo sandwich?”

Jake ignored both of them and focused on the scene at the bar. It was packed three people deep. The bartenders were making a ridiculous amount of money from what he could tell AND they were meeting a ton of women. (Whether or not they were of legal drinking age didn’t seem to matter.)

Jake’s mother insisted on dessert at the end of the meal. Bennigan’s signature dish was Death By Chocolate. It was a wedge of chocolate-chocolate chip ice cream the size of a football, covered in a hard dark chocolate shell, drenched in hot fudge. Surely created by a cardiologist who was an early investor in Bennigan’s. It was as decadent and over the top as Bennigan’s aimed to be.

To Jake’s mom, Bennigan’s was everything she had expected and more. A culinary Disney Land. After scrutinizing the bill like an IRS auditor, Jake’s father read his mind and suggested he should try to get a job there. With a final glance towards the festive bar and the women drinking Long Island Ice Teas- in New Jersey no less- Jake knew his dad was on to something.

Despite not being eighteen and legally old enough to serve alcohol, Jake got a job as a waiter. Personality trumped age requirements. He was welcomed into the Bennigan’s family which entitled him to any meal before or after his shift, plus an endless supply of French fries and soda during the shift.

For a high school senior the money was excellent. He met his senior prom date through Bennigan’s because he didn’t card her or her friends when they ordered drinks. Perhaps the greatest perk of all was finding where the supply of Death By Chocolates was hidden in the walk-in freezer.

They sat on industrial metal racking when they really deserved to be on a pedestal under a spotlight. Pre-portioned and just waiting for the healthy dose of artery-clogging hot fudge to warm them to life.

During his first few weeks, he availed himself of more than his fair share of French fries, soda, and the occasional “errant order” that died in the heat lamps in the kitchen window. Anything to stay fueled during the busy shifts. It wasn’t long before he recognized how wired a Death By Chocolate sugar bomb could make him.

On its own, a Death By Chocolate WELL exceeded the daily recommended calorie intake. At seventeen, working an eight-hour shift, Jake burned it off without having to try. Not having been indoctrinated into the world of coffee drinkers, Death By Chocolate was a key to survival during harried shifts.

It started innocently enough. A piece that was “too damaged” to be served, would have to be disposed of, and Jake agreed to take one for the team. It became addictive. Every shift he snuck into the walk-in freezer and nibbled away like some giant polo shirt and khaki shorts clad rat.

During a staff meeting a month later, the general manager reiterated the rules on staff eating. If things continued to disappear, they would no longer be lenient and would charge for everything. He never specifically called out the missing Death By Chocolate desserts, so Jake believed he was in the clear and eased up over the next few shifts.

The siren song was too strong and on the first weekend shift, Jake snuck back into the walk-in freezer. Mid bite, the door opened. Jake pretended to busy himself with some menial task.

“You? You’re the one?” came the incredulous voice of the manager.

“Me? What?” Jake stammered.

“You’ve got chocolate all over your face!”

Rather than fire him, the manager deducted one Death By Chocolate from every shift’s pay that Jake remained at Bennigan’s. He was also forbidden from eating one again, with the exception being the week of his birthday when the staff serenaded him with Bennigan’s own version of “Happy Birthday.”

It was the last time he ever had a Death By Chocolate. But based on his math and his current cholesterol levels (acceptable) he had beaten Death in the long run.

A Brief Note on Carnations

(Winner of the Purple Wall Stories Flash Fiction Contest)

I don’t believe carnations are real flowers.

I say this as I stare at the melamine-wrapped bouquet slumbering on top of the pile of garbage in the trashcan outside the bar. The reflecting moonlight bathes the flowers in a gaudy opalescent hue further adding to the artificiality of the bouquet.

Why artificial?

Because carnations aren’t real flowers. They are the daydreams of hopeless romantics and manufactured in a secret lab and mass distributed to supermarkets and bodegas.

At some point or another in my life, I have seen every flower that my florist displays, thriving in the wild or its respective native habitat. Lilies formed an intoxicating blanket as honeymoon lovemaking among hidden trails on the big island of Hawaii occurred with reckless abandon. 

A patchwork quilt of tulips danced and bowed under the gentle breeze of Dutch windmills as I sat mesmerized high on hashish. 

Rivulets of blood have flown freely from hastily plucked roses from a neighbor’s garden in a last minute attempt to appear as an old-souled romantic on countless first dates that never went anywhere.

But I have never seen carnations.

In grade school art classes, we were taught how to make carnations out of intricately folded tissues; our childhood foray into floral origami. We were encouraged to give them to our “significant others” in full view of the class on Valentine’s Day. There was no escaping the humiliation; you couldn’t hide from an unrequited flower delivery.

As a kid, I collected daisies, black-eyed Susans and daffodils by the fistful in the meadows that would be plowed under and turned into condominiums that we could never afford. My mother was so eager to receive the ragged bouquet I created she dropped her lit Virginia Slim into the thick rust-colored shag carpet nearly burning our two-bedroom efficiency to the ground.

As an adult, I grew hydrangeas in my back yard. I became a mad alchemist and tinkered with soil acidity to change the showy mopheads from a psychedelic Jimi Hendrix purple, to a cotton candy pink whenever the mood suited me.  

Like Frankenstein’s monster I became an expert at reanimating hyacinth bulbs after an extended slumber in my freezer. I sniffed their exorbitant fragrance until I grew nauseated.

Every summer I measured my son’s growth as he stood next to the sunflowers that grew in the garden. They dwarfed him initially; benevolent giant yellow cyclops that cast a weary-eye upon his wayward toddling steps.

But I never saw carnations.

I pulled the bouquet from the garbage and turned it over in the moonlight. Even the reflected shadows seemed exaggerated and untrue. The blood red and bone white of the flowers flashed a malevolence reserved for a car wreck, which seemed fitting.

You can’t apologize with fake flowers; it means the apology was as insincere and artificial as the flowers themselves. Whatever the trespass was, it would be repeated.

You can’t say I love you with artificial flowers. Like the flowers themselves, the love isn’t real either. Showy and boastful in an instance, manufactured on the spot with some end game in mind. Maybe meaningless sex so quick, the relationship would be over before the flowers began to wilt.

Whoever received the flowers understood the true nature of carnations. They don’t exist in nature and therefore, they didn’t deserve a presence in their life. 

They found their rightful home with the rest of the castaway detritus.

Maple

(Courtesy of Vocal media) The origin of the Spring Rite of Dropping was unknown.

Young Cassandra Ashley listened intently as grandparents spoke with hushed reverence about the tradition which stemmed back to their grandparent’s time, and grandparents before them. What little history that had been recorded, detailed the shire’s fortunes in times of the Rite.

No one dared question the third-eyed wisdom of the King’s Elders and their shamanistic rituals. Questioning the Rite (or any of the King’s whims) was a heretical offense, punished with an ignoble death. Peace had been porous at best; times of famine outweighed feast. According to the King, the Spring Rite of Dropping would reverse their fortunes. A decade into his reign, the villagers waited for his words to ring true.

Cassandra drifted off on her tuft of hay in the ramshackle barn while the legend was reinforced. It was both fascinating, and horrifying.

Blessed be the farm whose prize sow was chosen for the Spring Rite.

The prized sow would be proudly displayed in a specially designed pen in the village square where villagers fed the pig in hopes of absolving their sins and bringing good fortune.

Cassandra prayed her beloved Maple wasn’t chosen.

During the summer solstice, the pig would be ceremoniously paraded around the village square, then up the steep stairs that led to the watchtower by four virile young men selected to join the King’s Guard. The King and the Wisest Elder would bless them and their offering. Woe be to the young Guardsman unable to bear the weight during the arduous climb!

As frothing villagers gazed skyward, the Wise Elder would evaluate the pig again, before pronouncing it the savior of the shire. It was blessed and then offered to the King.

With an exaggerated flourish, the King waved the royal sash, and the sow was hurled from the watchtower to the village square below. Anxious villagers jostled to be within the splatter zone; errant drops of blood were considered a sprinkling of good fortune.

Teenagers too young to be Guardsmen dared each with feats of bravery and stood in the path of the porcine projectile. Every few years, neither comprehending the laws of physics nor trigonometry, a reckless teen was maimed or killed outright.

The ensuing mad scramble to retrieve bits and pieces to be made into stews was considered a holy reward. Tufts of fur in clenched fists animated by sour mead ruled the day.

On the Day of Selection, the King’s Elders visited Cassandra’s family. She ran to the pigsty and attempted to hide “Maple” named for the distinct reddish-pink color that reminded Cassandra of the changing colors of the leaves.

Young children were often easily attached to animate objects that showed affection. However, Cassandra knew that Maple was special. She believed Maple understood her and communicated with her. She refused to let Maple be chosen.

Cassandra slathered Maple in mud and placed burrs in her fur and apologized in rapid, reassuring tones. “It’s for your own good!

Cassandra never heard her father’s approach with the group of Elders.

JonAaron Ashley was a nervous man. Life had not been kind; he needed a reversal of fortune. Maple was a beloved pet, but he needed to provide for his family, and the status of being chosen and the immediate rewards that ensued, were all that mattered.

The Elders spied a muddied Cassandra huddled with a disheveled, feral-looking Maple. One Elder laughed.

This is the insult the house of Ashley presents?

The King’s Wisest Elder locked eyes with Maple. He felt Maple’s energy.

It was unlike anything he had ever experienced.

Cassandra bawled as Maple was wheeled away to town. She swore she would never speak to her father again and locked herself in the dusty hayloft that was her bedroom.

At night she stared at the stars through the porous barn’s roof and dreamed of Maple. She knew Maple was dreaming of her and it allowed her to drift off to sleep as her mind reeled thinking of ways to rescue her beloved pet.

She maintained her vow of silence with her father during the weeks leading to the Day of the Rite. Villagers fattened up Maple in her pen and plied her with whatever gifts and offerings they could afford. Truth be told, Maple lived better than any villager. She was bathed twice daily and fed constantly.

Cassandra ran to the village square and spent every moment possible talking to Maple. She devised elaborate plans to help Maple escape. Nary a teen, there was little she could do. Before she returned to the farm, she promised Maple she would save her. Maple stared back, her face almost beatific, putting Cassandra at inexplicable ease.

Sour mead was consumed with gusto as the sun rose on the Day of the Rite. Jesters danced and entertained the gathering crowd as the celebration grew more and more raucous.

The four shirtless King’s Guards were anointed in oil as they prepared to parade Maple around the square and then up the tower. Villagers thrust their best-prized foods and trinkets at Maple as she passed with hopes of the King seeing their magnanimous gestures. Maple remained aloof; an air of serenity enveloped her as she ate selectively from the abundance of fat apples and juicy pears.

The Guardsmen emitted Neanderthalic grunts as they struggled to raise Maple aloft. She had tripled in size since being selected. A pig of such size and stature boded well for the shire’s fortunes.

JonAaron Ashley reveled in his newfound status. If only Cassandra would speak to him. In his heart that was all that mattered.

Cassandra refused to accompany her father to the square.

The King’s Guard labored up the steep stairs to the watchtower while Maple dozed. Each step more draining than the last, the young guard’s exertions echoed to the square below.

At last in the King’s presence, they bowed relieved to be rid of their offering. There were stories of the occasional pig aware of its impending doom, lashing out. A few unsuspecting Guardsmen were unceremoniously knocked over the low wall, beating the pig to the cobblestone square ten stories below.

Maple pranced from her crate with a casual nonchalance.

The Wise Elder sensed the King’s approval and began mysterious incantations of some hitherto unknown tongue as a hush fell over the besotted villagers.

The King addressed the crowd and declared it was a blessing bestowed upon him from God himself. The cheering from the square rose to a feverish pitch. Frenzied villagers whirled like dervishes praying for the slightest splattering of a blessing.

Cassandra emerged from her barnyard loft sensing a change in the air.

As the sun receded into the horizon the King raised his tangerine-colored royal sash. An eerie silence gripped the square.

Tears of joy streamed down Cassandra’s face. She received Maple’s message.

Gazing at the heavens, the King waved his hand.

At that moment, Maple cried out.

The time for rituals has passed!

She lurched forward, sending the baffled King to the cobblestone’s cold embrace. Panicked villagers clawed over each other in an effort to flee the square.

Maple startled them again with a resounding voice.

Cassandra is the only one whose heart is pure enough to rule the shire. She will bring peace and prosperity to all!

The superstitious villagers were wary of inciting the wrath of the magical pig and declared Cassandra the Queen of the Shire.

Her reign of almost sixty years was noted for its relative peace and prosperity; Maple remained steadfast by her side.

She even mended her relationship with her father. Per Maple’s request.