Clementine

(Courtesy of Black Cat Literary Magazine) The patron behind me stood slack-jawed. It was her fault, but I shouldn’t have been triggered so easily.
Her words reverberated in my head.
“Well now I know what solitary confinement feels like. I’ve had ENOUGH of this lockdown,” she
sniffed.
“Have you ever taken a shit in front of somebody,” I menaced.
I wanted her to bathe in the mystery of my malevolence even if I had zero interest in harming her. I
felt guilty for the outburst and knew I’d have to bring it up with my therapist later in the week.
One step forward; two steps back.
“Have you ever taken a SHIT in front of somebody,” I repeated, louder.
The contorted rictus of horror that fought her Botox-tamed fret lines was priceless. She ached to disappear behind her perfectly perched Ray Bans nestled in her messy platinum-tinted bun. This was the most
satisfaction I’d had since getting out, and there was no way I was going to squander it.
“Eaten nothing but two slices of baloney on plain white bread, three times a day? Talked to groundhogs outside your window because they were the only living beings you could see?”
The steady flow of avocados, dry sea scallops, and soy milk from her cart ground to a halt.
The cashier flashed a beatific smile. His enjoyment watching the preternaturally blonde Stepford
Wife being knocked down a few rungs was palpable. Her only notion of “struggle” was wrestling a stubborn
cork from her requisite midday bottle of pinot grigio.
I wanted her to understand that my inability to fit in created a raging tempest that lurked below the
surface. The occasional desire to split someone’s skull open with both hands like I was cracking a coconut at
the slightest perception of disrespect. Occasionally these thoughts traversed the deepest recesses of my mind
and bubbled to the surface.
Ironic, given I served time for a non-violent offense.
While incarcerated, violence was my companion in the jungle lair that had become my home. Violence eventually manifested itself on a genetic level and remained in my DNA when I left. Perceived injustices and affronts would build to a feverish pitch and rustled like a thousand screaming cicadas trapped
inside my head.
The Stepford Wife couldn’t possibly understand the irony of being released from prison to home confinement, and then being placed on quarantine a few days later. Even God doesn’t have the poet’s touch to
handwrite that narrative. I was free, but I wasn’t out. Weekly trips to the market or church were the extent of
my societal reintegration.
Black Cat Literary Magazine 57
The transition didn’t come easy.
I engaged in overzealous conversations with strangers while waiting for deli meat to be sliced. The
borderline pathological need to feel “normal,” suffocated me. I relished inane small talk about sports which I
loathed, or made up stories about children I didn’t have. All borne from a desire to blend into the intersectional spaces of life where I’m simultaneously seen, yet remained a blur in the background.
How I longed to walk the aisles of the market humming the vaguely recognizable “muzak” without
looking over my shoulder to see if I was about to get busted for grabbing a few stray blueberries. I’d be sent
back for a minor parole violation. This was my new reality.
The patron’s mouth moved but words failed her. She could never comprehend that thoughts of a
freshly sliced pineapple or a loaf of multi-grain bread whose seeds would lodge in your teeth for days, could
arouse more of a carnal desire in prison than anything else.
My misdirected wave of rancor passed. She would leave, ensconced in the safety of her white Range
Rover, and I would be fodder for animated conversations over hard seltzers with other trophy wives, while I
waited for the bus. Forever relegated to the unwashed and unseen denizens that lurked in lurid headlines.
My therapist encouraged me to be more Zen-like. Let things go.
I tried and failed more often than not.
I offered my best roguishly charming smile in an attempt to salvage the situation. If I got one person
to understand my world, maybe the Butterfly Effect would take wing and light upon others in her circle.
My naiveté knew no bounds.
“I recognize that this whole quarantine thing may indeed feel like you are in solitary confinement,
but I assure you, this isn’t so bad.”
I looked at a bag of fruit she placed on the conveyor belt.
“Are those clementines or mandarins? I really don’t know the difference between the two.”
“Clementines,” she demurred.
I turned to the cashier to pay, proud for not needing food stamps even though I was entitled to them.
Far from a drag on society’s teat, I was the epitome of rehabilitation and redemption. A threat to no one but
myself.
The cashier offered me a conspiratorial wink and mumbled, “York Correctional.”
“Danbury Federal,” I nodded. The brotherhood acknowledged.
I grabbed my bags and wished the Lululemon-clad statue an exuberant, “Good day!”
“You… too,” she stammered.
The cashier broke the tension with an overzealous, “And how are you today,” as he greeted her.
“Clementines would be nice,” I thought. I’d have to get them next week.

Harlan

(Courtesy of Mythic Picnic Magazine/ 3rd Place Micro Fiction Contest Winner)

The week before I was remanded to prison, I put my dog Harlan, down. It was as if he knew I was going to be gone longer than the time he had left, and in the noblest act of sacrifice, he forced his organs to fail and left me with no choice.

My son was 8 and didn’t understand the magnitude of loss or how temporal time was. All he knew was that Harlan, his companion from birth who he referred to as his brother, was leaving and never coming back. I was about to do the same; it was neither acceptable nor forgivable.

At prison the groundhogs were as tame as puppies. You could feed them apples smuggled from the chow hall right out of your hand. I named each one of them “Harlan” and begged for forgiveness every time I gave them an apple.

The absolution never came.

The Boss

(Courtesy of Skyway Journal)

Buying a pack of Marlboros for my dad, fifty cents.

The dead eyed, pimple-ridden clerk behind the counter doesn’t question me.

Nobody cares if I’m 13.

Rushing back to the running car, freedom awaited two hours down the blackened asphalt of the Jersey Turnpike.

Plink, Plink, Plink,

Dimes tossed into toll booth collection buckets

A staccato accompaniment to Hall and Oates’ “Maneater” blaring through the Pontiac’s tinny speakers.

Early morning push-ups till my arms numbed so my pubescent muscles would pop when I took off my counterfeit Polo shirt on the beach.

My corduroy Ocean Pacific shorts were legit and made me feel like one of the Beach Boys, even if they chafed. 

Creosote wrapped oily-tar scented arms around me,

Greetings from a long lost friend when we arrived at the boardwalk.

Pina colada-scented tanning oil a heady aphrodisiac as I trudged the grey-white sand strewn with pock marked clam shells like broken teeth.

Thundering waves and braying gulls were drowned out by

Clusters of girls in audacious neon bikinis belting out Cyndi Lauper’s “She-Bop.”

They had no idea it was an ode to masturbation.

I didn’t know that either, but it didn’t matter as I watched them adjust

Black rubber Madonna-inspired bracelets attempting to even out their tans.

My own carnal desires

Torn between the teased-up big hair and oiled bodies glistening in the summer sun and the

Sweetly pungent smell of fry grease from funnel cakes on the boardwalk.

Each promised instant gratification, and ultimately, regret and disappointment.

This was as close to heaven as a 13 year old could get.

Because it was the 80’s

It was New Jersey

Bruce Springsteen told me anything was possible at the Jersey Shore.

The Merry Go Round of SpringWood Park

(Courtesy of Waterways Magazine)

Peter looked anxiously at his watch. The school bus was running late, again. Depending on traffic, the parking lot at the Springwood Parks Playground would be full. It was a crapshoot every week, especially in the early spring. Everyone with a hint of cabin fever was eager to get outside and shed a few layers of clothes. 

He knew Max preferred Zilker Park. It was tough to argue with a six-year-old; the park did have everything. Trying to keep him from riding the Zilker Zephyr was a challenge in itself. The one thing Zilker didn’t have was, “her.”

Peter had no idea who “she,” the young raven-haired mom was. He had seen her on his last several trips to the park. Friendly smiles of acknowledgment were exchanged. The late afternoon Texas sun framed her head reminding him of religious frescoes he studied as an undergrad. 

Her daughter was roughly the same age as Max. He watched them playing on the merry go round together, but never long enough to spark a conversation between the parents. How much of a monster was he hoping that Max would push the merry go round too hard and knock her off? He would rush over profusely apologetic. His son was more of a gentleman than he.

This is what life has become. Hoping his child acts like a sociopath in order to foster an introduction. Well- adjusted adults simply made small talk about how nicely the kids got along, school, or the weather. This is what outgoing, socially adaptable people did. 

Peter was far from outgoing. Introverted to a fault, he would never have met his former wife had serendipity not intervened and paired them as writing partners during graduate school. The trips to the park were her domain. It wasn’t a patrician choice; it was due to his crippling social anxiety. He would gladly handle all domestic chores in the house in order to limit interactions with the outside world.

He was human nonetheless, and had needs. They were kept firmly locked down in the deepest recesses of his mind. It wasn’t so much a suffering of wanton biological urges. He was lonely. The comfort of daily routines was missing. Small talk about the mundane of any given day gave way to shopping lists and half-hearted battles over what to watch on Netflix. It was about the routine and the regular, and he was out of sync without it.

He had long made peace with the angry demons that tormented him. The days of cursing doctors in their white coats with their hushed tones explaining hospice care while holding his wife’s hand among a tangle of squid-like wires had long passed.

Mourning had no timeframe, but an internal clock reminded him of the need for some level of companionship. The opportunity seemingly presented itself once a week when they saw each other in the park. 

Peter noticed she didn’t wear a wedding ring. It really didn’t signify anything, but at least he felt he could approach safely without appearing crass or inappropriate. 

Even if he did approach, he had no idea what to say. Pithy, “Lovely day, isn’t it” or “They grow up so fast” just seemed painfully clichéd. 

These were the thoughts that crippled him on the way to the park. Each week was going to be “the day,” but the courage was never mustered and the opportunity was squandered. 

Today would be different. It was a solemn vow, although he had no idea who would hold him accountable.

The yellow bus’s hulking presence shuddered to a halt, and Max scrambled off eagerly into Peter’s waiting arms. They were both enthusiastic to go to the park. Max chattered away about the highly important second grade details of the day. His enthusiasm was contagious, giving Peter’s courage a further spike.

Pulling into the parking lot, Peter craned his head at the parked cars trying to determine which was “hers.”

Max made an immediate beeline to the merry go round. Peter gave an obligatory, “Be careful” tinged with a hint of dejection. Searching the park, his raven-haired ghost was nowhere to be seen. 

After ten minutes, he let out an audible sigh. It looked like he missed her this week. Perhaps, he may never see her again. His mind dissolved into a series of “what if’s” as the click, click, click of the merry go round mocked him in the background.

Lost in his thoughts he looked up in a panic having lost track of Max. A father’s greatest fear realized as he was selfishly playing house in the long dormant recesses of his mind.

Peter caught a glimpse of Max by in a patch of wild flowers just off the entrance to the hiking trail. 

Max brightened as Peter rushed over face red and ready to reprimand him for wandering off.

“Here, daddy.”

Max handed Peter a miniature bouquet of wildflowers. It deflated the whirlwind of parental anger and anguish that had gripped him. Peter’s face softened; Max scrunched up his own.

“Not for you. For her!” 

Max motioned towards the mysterious mom who was exiting the hiking trail and entering the park with her miniature raven-haired replica in tow.

Before Peter could say anything, Max blurted out, “My daddy got you flowers!”

Sheepishly, Peter approached, the crimson in his cheeks matching the red Hurricane lilies he clutched with a vise like grip.

Despite clearing his throat, Peter croaked out his introduction.

“I see our kids know each other.”

Her radiant smile defrosted the coating of ice that blanketed his heart.

“I’m Maria. The flowers are beautiful.”

Max giggled and raced off hand in hand with Maria’s daughter to the merry go round. 

Goodbye Bowie

(Courtesy of Flash Fiction Magazine)

Jake lay with his head in my lap as we sat in the back seat. His mom had been driving for nearly four hours. Nobody had slept; we existed in the cobwebby Neverland between slumber and consciousness.

“The Man Who Sold the World” played as we took the long drive up to the gatehouse. I preferred Bowie’s original version over the Nirvana cover. Both of them were dead now. They both saw their impending deaths: Bowie by cancer, Cobain by his own hand. It’s a hell of a thing knowing when you were going to die. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise. I envied them. I wasn’t close to death, but I was about to enter Hell. Purgatory was years away, at least three to five, according to the judge.

We got out of the car and stretched our contorted bodies back to life. Nobody had spoken for the better part of the ride; there was nothing left to say. Apologies had exploded forth furiously days and weeks prior. Hopeful ruminations at this point seemed fruitless, especially in the shadows of the gun towers and razor wire.

We walked a funeral dirge to the intake building. Inmates on a work detail sized me up in the camouflage of their bland khakis and nondescript faces. I paused before stepping inside and surveyed the surroundings. The gauzy, lemon-butter sunrise over the farms and the hayfields in the distance seemed stolen from an Edward Hopper painting. The sun-bleached maroon siding of the barn was the last vivid color I would remember besides the gentle Delft blue of my son’s eyes.

Bathed in a sallow fluorescent light that died on deadened gray concrete walls, I stepped towards the reinforced plexiglass window and handed in my paperwork. Hunger gnawed at me. Nerves had gotten the better of me, and I’d passed on breakfast. There had been no final meal. My attempt to drown my sorrows and poison myself in order to forget what lay ahead fittingly ended with a spoiled bottle of wine too rancid to drink.

Jake’s grip on my hand tightened as a guard approached. My ex-wife, Jessica, aged in front of me. Pain and anger stripped her of the ability to process the moment and how we got here. Wearing my best liar’s smile, I told her everything would be fine. Jess was a clip-winged angel who walked the earth. Ostracized by close friends and family due to her unwavering support for the person I once was and had the potential to be. I worshipped St. Jessica of the Permanently Lost Cause. She saved my life, and I owed her significantly more than that. Words were the only currency I had to repay her, and I was bankrupt.

I knelt down and locked eyes with Jake as I clutched his shoulders. Mumbled ramblings of impending phone calls in a few weeks, visits once a month. I was his hero, a god in those eyes full of mythic wonder. Now I was Icarus plummeting to earth, and he was a horrified onlooker. His eyes, flashing aquamarine seas, were uncomprehending and raged with denial.

In a few short months, the Green Power Ranger would replace me as his hero. A hastily concocted shrine to me, consisting of photos, letters, and random ephemera from movies and concerts we attended, would languish on a shelf.

Jake was perched on a precipice that crumbled beneath him. His nine-year-old brain short-circuited as he struggled for words. To say something. Anything. A sacred mantra that would make this moment stop. He believed he had “healing hands;” his touch could render any harm asunder. He placed them on my heart, then face. Searching for a purchase that somehow would work its magic.

This was a place bereft of magic and hope, where “healing hands” were powerless. The only magic was in the disappearing act the calendar provided.

“Abracadabra;” and a day passed.

“Hocus Pocus;” a month.

His lip quivered; my fingers sank deeper into his shoulders.

“Do not give them the satisfaction,” I gritted through a smile.

Serendipity dawned; recognition registered. I was his hero again. The original Captain America. Impenetrable. A sly grin crossed his lips. Came and passed like a sun peeking out through the clouds during a hurricane.

“Wrap it up.” Neither gruff nor ominous, compassionless and detached.

“One minute.”

I was a waterfall of hushed, urgent platitudes. Be brave, be a good boy for your mom, focus on school, channel your anger into sports. I was imploding, a supernova feeding on myself when I needed to be strong.

For Jake.

For Jess.

For me.

My first impression inside couldn’t be made with tears in my eyes. I hugged him until our hearts touched and cradled each other.

“Let’s go.”

“In a fucking minute,” I barked.

That would cost me. I was allotted the briefest moment of empathy. Maybe he was a father. Maybe there was an ounce of humanity, of decency, here.

I kissed Jake on the forehead; hugged Jess.

We huddled, and I whispered, “Day one is almost done.”

The guard led me away, and I refused to look back. “I love you, Daddy,” echoed and fell from decrepit institutional walls. Love wouldn’t stick there. It stuck to my heart, embedded in my brain.

I raised a fist in defiance. In acknowledgment. I was Judd Nelson at the end of The Breakfast Club, our favorite movie.

I was led into a stark concrete room with a metal bench.

“Strip.”

I was already naked in every sense of the word. Jake and Jess hadn’t even left the grounds and my soul was now laid bare.

Day one was almost done.

Bowie reverberated in my mind. Broken lyrics about having died long ago. I was cognizant of my own death. Unlike Bowie, I had the luxury of being born again, baptized in the primordial ooze that was prison.

I’d get the chance the Thin White Duke didn’t have.

Boys of Summer

(Courtesy of Skyways Journal)

Shirts of fuchsia and daisy yellow meant to emasculate us

Instead becoming our new gang colors worn with pride

Old allegiances were forgotten while

New beefs were created

We wore borrowed equipment

Gloves worn with the sweat of ten inmates prior

Bats, rationed under the ever wrathful eyes

Of guards taking leave of their bullying

To be entertained

Shagging fly balls in the summer sun

Razor wire glistened

Marking the left field fence

Every man who stepped on the gravel-infused dusty hard pack

Returned to a lost youth

Once full of promise

The Chief and the Folding Chair

(Courtesy of Resevoir Road Literary Review)

The Chief had enjoyed two successful, medal-bedecked tours in the jungles of Vietnam. He enjoyed being in the thick of things, but a Purple Heart was as good a sign as any that it was time to settle down. He and his seed found a home in blue-collar Boonton, New Jersey. His pregnant wife was the daughter of an ultra-conservative WASP family. The Chief was the perfect vessel for her to raise a middle finger to the draconian, conservative values beaten into her.

Before I was born, the root of The Chief’s disappointment in me took shape on the sonogram. “Doesn’t look like much” was the most enthusiasm he mustered at the shadowy black-and-white image of me in the womb.

When I turned five, he cursed my lack of athleticism and my status as a “mama’s boy.”

At ten, I was an albatross around his neck. A constant reminder of his lack of upward mobility as he skulked from sales job to sales job. The Chief had a propensity for calling superiors “jackasses.” It happened whenever he felt suffocated by management. Which was often.

I was an awkward teen; pencil-necked and all ears and nose. I resembled a poorly fired, three-handled mug. Quality time with The Chief was an hour or two on the weekends when we laced up boxing gloves and sparred. The Chief never pulled punches. He wasn’t averse to taking the occasional cheap shot, either.

“Until he learns to block and counter, he’s always going to get hurt. Quit babying him!” 

It was a refrain that forever echoed in my head. Once the ringing stopped. 

“Street fights aren’t sanctioned events.”

Once, I blocked an errant right cross and countered with a left that made his legs buckle. My mother gasped fearing the retaliation.

The Chief drew back, sizing me up. I tensed and waited for an onslaught that never materialized. He made a grand show of unlacing his gloves and marched me to the kitchen. He took out two Rolling Rock ponies and dismissed my mother’s objections with a wave of his hand.

I was embraced with his conspirator’s toast, “She wouldn’t understand.”

He finished the lager in two quick pulls and said, “Remember, you aren’t shooting blanks anymore.”

Our eyes locked yet we remained worlds apart. I choked down the remnants of the bitter elixir that welcomed me to manhood.

My weekends sparring with The Chief were fortuitous. James Glickston tormented me on the way home from school for a week. His younger brother Daniel received a flurry of body blows from me after he attempted to steal baseball cards from my desk. James sought revenge. Four years and the biological advantage of puberty loomed large on his side. James stood six inches taller and was sixty pounds heavier than me. Severe acne boasted the rancid ugliness that lay inside him. 

We stood frozen on my front lawn in the amber-colored late fall afternoon. A dazzling patchwork blanket of scarlet-, tangerine-, and lemon-colored leaves crunched beneath us as we slowly circled each other.

I shrugged my book bag to the ground and sighed. My defiant boxer’s pose excited James.

“You are so dead,” he hissed as he curled into his awkward fighting stance.

My legs turned Judas, eager to betray me and carry me to the safety of my mother’s arms. I maintained our mongoose dance, aware that today was as good as any day to die. It afforded me an existentialist Zen.

I shed the anchor of my father’s disappointment.

James took one step forward, then hesitated as he looked toward my front porch. The Chief walked out carrying a folding aluminum chair. The type with nylon ribbons notorious for leaving chafing, crosshatched marks on your ass and lower back. The Chief sat down, crossed his arms, exasperated. We had interrupted his afternoon plans.

James was confused. “Your dad?” he asked.

I nodded.

He hesitated, expecting some ill rebuke. I prayed for intervention, divine or otherwise. The Chief let out an annoyed snort indicating his displeasure with the lack of activity.

“That’s messed up,” James snarled, and then he launched a slow-motion haymaker. 

An eternity passed as it traveled through the air. I left my body and watched the scene unfold. Instinctively, I slipped and ducked the punch. A rising uppercut connected with his well-exposed, pimple-ridden nose.

I felt The Chief quicken as he drew to the edge of his rainbow-colored seat. The sickeningly sweet feeling of bone driven through cartilage reverberated up my arm, through my shoulder, and into my bloodstream. James was unconscious and listed like a felled tree. He was a hieroglyphic on a maple-leaf-strewn tapestry.

The Chief sprung from the porch and thrust me in the air!

I was Kounta Kinte. I was Simba. I was the pride of his loins. He held me aloft; the world spun and dazzled me. 

I wanted to cry.

I wanted to vomit. 

Most of all, I never wanted this feeling to end.

“We’re going for ice cream!” he declared to the world.

We piled into the Monte Carlo. James remained prone on the front lawn as we left. I pointed and attempted to express some modicum of concern. 

The Chief waved his hand. “He’ll be fine. We’ll bring him back something.” 

Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” played on the radio. The Chief hummed along. I never recalled him turning on the radio. Or liking music.

“I like the key changes,” he said, reading my mind. 

I shared the front seat with a total stranger. The waning autumn sun danced through the broken stained glass canopy of the towering trees. Confused feelings dispersed as I focused on ice cream.

Everything was right in the world if you could sit and share ice cream with your father.

Bowling With Lebowski

(Published courtesy of DailyDrunkMagazine)

It had absolutely nothing to do with doing something obligatory with my son. It was my weekend for custody, and I truly loved hanging out with him. I missed him every moment of the day he wasn’t around. I recognized I wasn’t going to win any father of the year awards; although in fairness I had managed to come up with enough creative ideas for our weekend get-togethers to get me firmly anointed as “Fun Guy” very much to my ex-wife’s chagrin.

But bowling?

I hated it. Absolutely nothing about bowling appealed to me in any sense of the matter. Trying on countless pairs of shoes often worn by society’s lowest common denominators for whom socks were an unnecessary luxury made me cringe. In an environment so hyper focused on avoiding germs and contact, I would have to lovingly finger several balls, none of which would ever remotely fit, resulting in a ridiculous blister, or popped and dislocated joints.

Invariably, my son would want to eat something in the perennially “B” rated cafe in the alley. Where microwaving was considered a high form of culinary achievement. At best, it would be stale, flavorless pizza that would be considered a masterpiece if you made it at home with a jar of ragu in your toaster oven. At worst, we would experience a slight touch of food poisoning from severely undercooked wings.

As much as I pleaded for alternatives, his heart was set. We were going bowling. The great equalizer. The United Nations of Sports, where all were created equal, and as a bonus, you were encouraged to enjoy an alcoholic beverage as a participation trophy.

The alley was a beehive of activity with the droning faces of fathers in similar predicaments slogging about, casting the occasional furtive glance at the one bowling alley waitress slinging cocktails. Eager kids darted about between lanes and the ubiquitous video games and rigged claw machines that made more money than most hedge fund managers.

We were granted a stroke of luck to have an empty adjacent lane in our pod. No superfluous small talk with lane mates encouraging their picked up spares, or how fast the children grew.

For my son’s sake, I maintained an even demeanor even as my foot slid into the unnaturally moist shoe. Our selection of bowling balls took on a Westminister Kennel Club level of evaluation until selecting ones unlikely to dislocate shoulders and provide a modicum of blistering.

Before we could start, a disheveled homeless man took the adjacent lane. He wore flip-flops and slid his bare foot into a bowling shoe thankfully produced from a bag he carried.  I stared too long because he caught my gaze as he flicked his sunglasses up and placed them in his rakishly unkempt hair. I couldn’t help but marvel how any adult actually owned their own bowling ball and shoes. Then again, I was an elitist asshole because I owned my own golf clubs and multiple pairs of shoes for different course conditions.

“Nice shoes,” I offered politely, hoping to put a period on all future interaction. 

“They work,” he responded offhandedly.

A cocktail waitress severed our connection when she served him a cocktail glass of milk. I failed to contain my snicker, and he responded by raising his glass in a silent toast.

As my son prepared to bowl, I pressed the button that set the automatic bumpers to protect against throwing a gutter ball. This elicited an unexpected torrent of energy from my otherwise placid lane mate.

“Hey man, you can’t use those.”

“Listen, we’re just trying to have some fun here. Neither of us is very good, nor take it seriously. It’s kind of ridiculous, really.” 

I made it a point of staring at his shoe and ball bag when I said this to emphasize my disdain for the sport.

My lane mate was unfazed.

“There are no bumpers in life, man. Sometimes we hit the gutter, sometimes it’s straight and narrow, but you have to learn somewhere. You can’t be there to put up bumpers for him all the time.”

I was furious. 

He was right. 

The homeless guy whose bowling gear cost more than the clothes he wore was giving me life lessons on how to raise my kid. 

Twice I turned to tell him to mind his own fucking business, but he just stood there serenely, almost beatific. I was bowling next to Saint Brunswick of the Waxed Lanes who sipped milk and grinned like a Cheshire Cat.

He was right.

I took down the bumpers despite my son’s protestations. I explained that he never used training wheels to learn to ride a bike, and he wouldn’t need bumpers to learn to bowl. Whining morphed into exasperated acquiescence and he launched his first ball. 

He clipped two pins and was ecstatic.

“Far out man,” my neighbor waxed enthusiastically.

The waitress returned and asked if he wanted another White Russian. Before he could answer, I told her to bring two, on me.

He raised his glass and nodded towards me, “The Dude abides.”

With ball in hand, he danced a sleepy samba down the lane and launched a perfect ball for a strike.

Missed Connections

(Courtesy of Waterways Magazine)

Jenny wondered if anyone still bothered to read the Craigslist “Missed Connections” section. It seemed antiquated to her, but it was worth a shot. There had to be better technological options to determine how to connect with someone who she met briefly at the William Chris Vineyard last Saturday. Unfortunately, Jenny may have been the only Austinite that was technologically challenged.

She laughed at the audacity of the posting in the first place. 

“We met briefly when you gallantly jumped behind the counter to fill my empty glass. You were thrown out just as you were about to fill yours. Maybe we could open a fresh bottle in a neutral setting where you won’t get kicked out?”

Jenny didn’t recognize herself anymore. Pining away at the vision of some rugged do-gooder was clearly due to one too many Match dates gone awry, coupled with her parents’ awful attempts at Matchmaking. With the holidays quickly approaching, it would be nice to have some arm candy to make the rounds of all of the holiday parties. She didn’t need the Hallmark Channel beating home how the holidays are the loneliest time of the year.

It was more than that. He radiated warmth and a gentle, but mischievous nature that sparked something deep inside. The superhero who rescued a damsel in distress at a winetasting with an empty glass and a host that disappeared into the ether.

Jenny admired the chivalrous approach and the bashful gallantry as he filled her glass and said, “It’s still too warm in these parts, and too nice a day to be parched.”

Before she could respond with something witty, the wine host returned to find the knight in shining armor pouring significantly more than the allotted 3 ounce pours. He was escorted out before he ever got to try the wine.

Like a stray breeze, he dazzled her briefly and disappeared.

Nothing ventured; nothing gained. 

Jenny posted the missed connection and decided she would keep it to herself. No reason to incite her friend’s concerns about stalking strangers and inviting trouble. As it was, she had a party to prepare for this evening. The Ferguson’s had a tradition of hosting the earliest Christmas party every year, the first weekend after Thanksgiving.

The Fergusons went all out with their holiday party and made sure that each year had a specialty drink which could not be repeated at a future party. Their disappointment was palpable when Jenny responded that she would indeed be arriving solo. 

Brenda Ferguson immediately consulted her Facebook page for a roster of potential last-minute escorts for Jenny, who politely declined. This was going to be her special present for Jenny for the holidays. Most of the potential suitors seemed better suited for mugshots. Brenda vouched for every one of them as to having “tremendous personalities.”

The more Jenny thought about it, the more she thought about staying home and drinking the bottle of wine she got from the winery and watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” by herself.

The wine!

In the hazy aftermath of her handsome bartender being led away, she never picked up the bottles of wine she was planning on bringing for a hostess gift and the Secret Santa!

Now she was forced to leave early and stop at Total Wine to pick up the bottles she forgot. Rushing to get ready was not part of the plan. 

She checked herself in the mirror once more before she left. Despite the frenzied rush, she admitted she looked great. Her friend’s and colleagues’ protestations to the contrary, she most certainly did not need a date, nor a man to complete her. The company would be nice, however. She blew her lip out in a pout and then smiled at the reflection as she ran downstairs to the waiting Uber.

Jenny briskly covered the aisles in Total Wine. Something sparkling and festive would be perfect for the Fergusons, and a bottle of the chardonnay from the winery would make a great Secret Santa gift.

As she turned the corner in her haste, she ran smack into another patron and sent his bottle tumbling to the floor. It shattered and sprayed them both.

Horrified, she looked up to apologize.

It was him!

Her gallant bartender.

Her knight in shining armor who was about to start rusting thanks to the shattered bottle. 

Before Jenny could say anything, the stranger looked at her with instant recognition.

“I’m starting to think you just don’t want me to have a glass of this wine!” he teased easily. 

Jenny blushed; his warm smile put her at ease.

“Oh, you didn’t think I would remember you? I’ve been racking my brain trying to figure out how to get in touch with the brief vision of loveliness who got me kicked out of the winery. I figure at the very least you owed me a glass of wine for getting tossed. After this, I think it’s a whole bottle!”

Jenny was emboldened by his charm and her dance with serendipity.

“I have a much better idea. How about joining me at a little holiday get together tonight. Wine included, and I promise you won’t get thrown out!”