Kings and Pawns

(Courtesy of Secret Attic; winner of Secret Attic Short Fiction Contest)

Nobody goes into a pawnshop of their own volition. Massage parlors, check cashing stores, and pawnshops are bastard stepchildren of urban sprawl. Each was a necessary evil, providing unique services against the grain of suburban enlightenment. Seeking them out was akin to lighting a small piece of your soul on fire and inhaling the rancor smell of desperation and futility. 

These indoor flea markets permit voyeurs the schadenfreude of seeing someone’s unraveled life. Pawnshops all smell and feel the same. Mothballs tinged with crinkled, grease-stained bills and cut-rate ephemera. The red-eyed guilt of locking eyes with someone who was shopping out of necessity. This was not the trendy thrift store shopping rhapsodized in pop music. On the train line between Despair and Homelessness, this was one of the last stops.  

I didn’t enter willingly. Sometimes life dictates your actions in advance. 

On my first visit, I brought all the power tools I owned. A circular saw, saber saw, and a cordless drill. Once, they were the tools of my livelihood. I had no formal training, but I could talk a good game on any construction site and frame with the best of them. My white privilege meant the foreman was happy to have another English-speaking guy on the job to police things. They never bothered doing a background check on me. They should have been more concerned with policing me. Given the opportunity today, I’d steal every bit of copper piping I could. 

The bottle had a voracious grip on me. It was an expensive habit to feed, and power tools for jobs that no longer existed were useless to me.  Perhaps the dead-eyed crypt keeper behind the glass would pay enough to tie me over for a bit. It was an odd twist of fate selling the very thing that put food in your mouth. The irony was rich; unfortunately, you couldn’t rob irony.

The overextended markets and subsequent boom in housing ended like all other manias, with a flaccid whimper. Construction companies were underwater. Bloated with inventory that frequently succumbed to unexplained, freak fires. Shady developers could pull that off in California. Take out whole developments. Out there it was assumed to be an act of God. The result of climate change ignored by politicians whistling past the graveyard at 80 mph in Mercedes-Benzes with V-8 engines belching in wicked laughter. 

The same luck didn’t apply on the East Coast. A single fire was possible. Multiple fires were suspicious. Connecticut had more than its share of trial lawyers frothing at the possibility of a headline-grabbing fraud case. Anything to cover the Ivy League tuitions for their junior masters and mistresses of the universe in training.

On my second visit, I brought the shotgun my father gave me on my 17th birthday.

A rite of passage. 

My foray into manhood. 

As I ran my fingers along the polished chestnut stock and the length of the slender barrels, I was reminded of his only outward sign of respect, acknowledgment, or affection. A Churchill 28 gauge, side by side shotgun that easily cost him a month’s wages. It was a grossly negligent expenditure that the Chief had not run past my mother. 

I hustled it from my truck to the store. I didn’t need to catch the wandering eye of a local cop just itching to grind his boot down against my throat any further. My probation terms expressly prohibited access to any weapons. My licensed pistols had already been confiscated. Overzealous probation officers with spit-filled jowls salivated at the thought of tripping me up and sending the revolving door back to prison spinning. 

I wasn’t gonna make it easy for them.

The shotgun had remained well-hidden in my house. It had been an extension of my father for over thirty years. A proxy for his existence. Yet here I stood, rooted to the ground haggling with a scraggly-bearded hump of flesh lacking the ability to conceptualize tradition. His idea of honor was being loyal to his Fortnite clan and buying some lascivious skin for his female avatar to indulge his masturbatory fantasies. 

I was unloading a rite of passage into the Hot Pockets-stained hands of this vulture. He couldn’t comprehend the Norman Rockwellian visions I had of teaching my son to shoot. We would celebrate his first shot pheasant over a beer and whatever machismo rites of virility we could uphold. The bubbling, burgeoning of toxic masculinity at its finest, neutered by the long arm of the law. I was letting go of the gossamer-thin tethers that bound the generations of my family.

The Churchill, with its gorgeous Spanish inlaid detailing, was worth well over two grand. I couldn’t dare set foot 1000 yards near a gun show where I could easily get fifteen hundred or more. I was begging for $400. 

My son’s birthright. 

Not enough money to put a dent in rent, car payment, or doctors’ bills. It would cover my food and a selfish treat to numb the pain. 

The ghoul hemmed and hawed to avoid $400 like I was asking him to donate a kidney. I brightened at the thought of both chambers being loaded. His last vision would be of me seductively fingering the trigger and my shit-eating grin just before his grey matter was scattered over the original Imperial Japanese battle flag he proudly displayed behind the counter. 

I could turn the second barrel on me. We could be two headless horsemen in a steeplechase to Hell.

The grease-covered bills were pocketed as I sought the nearest decent liquor store. It wasn’t going to be a plastic bottle of bourbon night. I would imbibe the finest brown nectar that Kentucky’s oak-smoked barrels produced. Nothing but top-shelf booze for me. Maybe even splurge on a steak. Guns were ubiquitous; I could get one any time I wanted. 

If I needed.

Maybe I’d call my kid.

I’ll be damned if I even had his number.

No Day at the Beach

Sharks.

A simple answer that spoke volumes. When asked why he didn’t go to the beach, Brody answered, “Sharks.” He watched “Jaws” at an impressionable age. That did it. He could barely swim. He looked like a spider in a blender; arms and legs frantically flailing. It didn’t matter. He wouldn’t go into the water.

Ever.

Because of sharks.

Hence the irony of living a short distance to one of the most spectacular beaches in Florida. He followed his ex-wife there to be close to his son. Connecticut had its own set of terrors including property taxes and Stepford wives, but it was much safer than Florida. Despite his crippling fear, he now lived where a storm swell could send sharks gliding down his street. Sharknado was not rooted in pure fiction.

Dating.

It explained why he was putting on his only bathing suit, a nondescript blend of aqua and teal to help camouflage himself in the water. Finding love post-divorce had been a struggle; moving to Florida only exacerbated the situation. EVERYTHING revolved around the crowded beaches and shark-infested surf. Restaurants and bars overlooked the water. Gyms held yoga and workout classes on the beach. Everything begged you to come out to meet the sharks, like some demonic neighborhood association.

This was the all-important THIRD DATE. According to dating lore, if he was going to consummate their relationship, it would be on the third date. He couldn’t remember the last time he had consummated anything, with anybody. This date mattered. Rebekah mattered. There wasn’t a time in the day when they spoke or texted and he wasn’t giddy. She was back in school getting a Masters in Sociology while working as a yoga instructor. She was intelligent, compassionate, and absolutely stunning. Well out of his league as far as he was concerned.

She wanted to go to the beach.

Surfing.

She could have suggested skydiving without parachutes. She would swing by and pick him up. All he needed was a beach towel. Brody called his therapist and left a message in advance. If he truly was on the precipice of love, he needed to face his fears. Worst case scenario he would soil himself in the water. Nobody would notice once the shark ate him.

Brody waited outside for Rebekah. She arrived on a salmon-colored moped; a jaunty yellow scarf trailed behind her, highlighting the rich mahogany of her skin. She could have been riding a Vespa in the Piazza San Marco en route to a cappuccino.

He expected a car. A small one perhaps, but at least one built for two. She may have been a yoga instructor, but Brody was on the husky side. His fear of sharks was temporarily allayed since it was unlikely they would make it to the beach.

 She was beaming. “How excited are you?”

“I don’t have the words for everything I’m feeling right now.”

The moped let out an audible groan as he hopped on. He wrapped his arms around her and watched the smooth muscles of her arms flex as she deftly maneuvered the moped towards the crowded beach which spelled his doom. The moped whined in protest and struggled to change gears.

Brody masked his fears as they approached the board rental stand. His heart ticked loudly; he was sure she could hear it. He knew the sharks could.

Rebekah knew how to surf. Brody lied, saying he tried a few times but needed help. Naturally, she would teach him. It dawned on him that if the sharks didn’t get him, his lack of water athleticism would doom the relationship.

Each step towards the water was a funeral march. Rebekah wore a beguiling white bikini with red flowers. Brody ached to remind her that red attracted sharks, but he couldn’t focus on anything except the alarms ringing in his head. He watched from the packed beach as she deftly rode a wave demonstrating proper technique. Her ethereal figure glided above the waves; Brody searched for shadows underneath the surface.

He hesitated as she beckoned him to join her. His surfboard was a shield against the impending invaders. If she knew what it took for him to get this far, she would have fallen in love with him instantly. Brody waded into the surf, heart pounding louder than any crashing wave.

She showed him how to find his balance and paddle out on the board. He paddled on autopilot, a frozen rictus of a smile contorted on his face. He was making peace with death.

Brody’s eyes darted to a previously unseen shadow off to his side. As he lost his focus, a gentle wave knocked him off his board, tossing him underwater. It was then he saw the black fin brush by his face. He yelped underwater and blacked out.

Brody sputtered to life, coughing a few times. In his mind, Rebekah was kissing him on the sand.

“My angel,” he muttered between hoarse breaths.

The lifeguard straddling him performing mouth to mouth, gagged as Brody attempted to kiss him. A gaggle of onlookers from the packed beach laughed in relief. Rebekah had dragged him out of the water as the lifeguard rushed to her aid. The “shark” was a little boy wearing flippers who had swum too close to Brody’s face.

It gradually dawned on Brody what happened. He thanked the lifeguard, apologizing sheepishly for trying to make out with him. Embarrassed, he turned to Rebekah as the lifeguard stalked off spitting.

”I would drive you home and call it a day, but it’s your moped.”

“Don’t be ridiculous! Surfing is dangerous. You were very brave. Also, I think the lifeguard likes you. I gave him your number.”

Brody blushed. “How about next time we do something safer like parachuting or hang gliding?

“I had no idea you were such an adrenaline junkie! I’ve always wanted to film Great Whites from a shark cage,” Rebekah gushed.

Brody realized love was complicated.

Danielle’s Balloons

(Courtesy of Bacopa Literary Journal)

Passing the bio bags didn’t bother me. Bio bags were used to collect human remains and given to coroners tasked with getting DNA samples to identify the dead. We had dozens of body bags that were of no use; the largest identifiable piece I found was part of a foot in a well-polished Gucci loafer.

The smell haunted me. The acrid, burning plastic-soaked in gasoline stench, permeated our paper ventilators. Flashbacks to my youth and army battles with plastic soldiers whose untimely demise was via “flamethrower”-a can of my mother’s hairspray and a lighter.

It was ridiculous to say the air carried the stench of death. Sense of smell was illusory at best at Ground Zero, which had become Hell on Earth. Smoldering ash consisting of concrete and steel, hissed and smoked. Pockets of fires lapped at our legs as we walked the banks of the River Styx searching for souls buried in the mud. We found a few remnants of humanity in the mundane; torn business cards, melted name tags, and cracked desktop picture frames with blackened photos.

The heat was suffocating. When you removed your mask gasping like a fish out of water, you absorbed a lung searing liquid-fire chemical elixir. Tears weren’t shed in protest; they had been expended days prior.

As a former search and rescue climber, I was assigned to a hastily formed team consisting of policemen, firemen, and steelworkers. My day job in finance disappeared along with my firm in the Second Tower. Divine Intervention kept me out of the office on the morning of the 11th. As a result, I did God’s work solving a biological puzzle consisting of pieces of the dead in order to bring bereaved loved ones closure.

Fueled on an endless supply of Red Cross coffee and gallows humor borne from an omnipresent fear of mortality, the dogs helped me get through the day. 

Rescue dogs were as professional as anyone else working in Hell. Probably more so. It took a week before they got protective paw booties. I had cut or burned through several pairs of gloves; my boots begged for mercy. Dogs with longer coats were patted down and doused with water when they smoldered. They never whined or barked in complaint. They were our equals; they were our superiors.

An obscene amount of food arrived. New York City had become Jewish grandmothers overnight. Guilt and suffering were assuaged through endless meals. Every chain and family-owned restaurant delivered to Ground Zero, an embarrassment of riches given every restaurant for several blocks had disappeared into the ether.

Supply ships on the Hudson delivered industrial dog food bags. When they saw the 100-pound bags being carried, the dogs circled and yipped like excited puppies. Twice a day we watched their metamorphosis: co-worker to puppy, and back.

We created makeshift dining tables out of piles of debris. Conversations were stilted; locker room humor prevailed.

A box of exquisitely wrapped sandwiches with shimmering gold foil caught the attention of some of the guys. Like seeing a lightning bug out of season; it registered and disappeared.

I recognized the “DB” monogram on the foil. I knew who made them.

Greedily, we unwrapped sandwiches, devoured the food like locusts descending upon a field. One ironworker eyed his sandwich warily. I called him “Fritz” because of the ring of German Iron Crosses around his neck. Tattoos like that garnered attention.

“Take your time,” I offered. “Please savor it.”

He eyed me and the sandwich with suspicion, but grabbed a second after his first bite.

“It’s focaccia,” I explained. “With pate, and pear jelly. It’s from Daniel Boulud.”

The name drop of one of the most famous chefs in the world went unacknowledged.

Sandwiches were chased with black coffee. I longed for a glass of sauterne and ached to lie back and stare at a flawless blue sky. I wanted my former life back.

 As we geared up, Fritz turned to me.

“We should go to Danielle’s Balloons when this is over.”

******************************************************************************

Five years later, I walked down Madison Avenue with three colleagues. Search and rescue work remained on hold as I resumed my position in the “real world.” 

We discussed the markets on our way to happy hour as three massive ironworkers approached in our direction. Toxic masculinity surged; neither group cared to give way. 

A tell-tale trail of Iron Crosses peeked out from above the shirt collar on the lead ironworker.

My colleagues bailed on the game of chicken while I deliberately bumped Fritz. His coworkers were wide-eyed in disbelief; the balls of the “suit!”

An ass-kicking was not part of the 2 for 1 happy hour, and my colleagues disapproved of my getting in Fritz’s face.

“Clench your fists and I’m telling your pals how much you love dainty sandwiches and wanted me to take you to Danielle’s Balloons,” I hissed.

The words were gravediggers unearthing long buried memories as Fritz searched me in recognition, before absorbing me in a massive bear hug.

“Let’s drink,” I gasped as he crushed the life out of me. 

Monkey Bar was around the corner. The place startled at the odd bedfellows bellying up to the bar, eventually taking it over.

We drank with a vengeance.

Fritz and I shared snippets of stories to our respective groups but mostly kept it to ourselves. It was our moment.

We drank to remember and drank even more to forget.

For the first time in five years, I was home.

We never made it to Danielle’s Balloons.

Release

(Featured in Purplewallstories.com; nominated for Pushcart Prize)

(WARNING: Contains adult content and themes)

Same visceral reaction, regardless of the city. Pavlovian response to the jarring neon “Open” sign flashing against blacked-out windows.

“Heavenly Delight Spa.”

“Eastern Happiness Massage.”  

New York had whole districts competing to jerk you off. The thrill was in the hunt in lesser cities and suburbs. Rub and tugs nestled among high-end consignment shops and frozen yogurt joints in puritanical Connecticut. Their denizens coexisting with soccer moms and industry titans. Derek’s ex-wife questioned his knowledge of these illicit massage parlors. It was one of many arguments during the divorce procedure.

On business trips, there was the possibility of a fellow lost soul burning off her per diem at the hotel bar. Maybe they wanted a nameless, faceless person who’d be gone in the morning. A zipless fuck. Massage parlors were a sure thing. Minus the small talk.

Hidden among strip malls and pawnshops, they were all the same. Hand job franchises replaced failed real estate or insurance companies. Flimsy walls separated the rooms. Blackened windows, security cams, and locked doors to slow the approach of police officers not on the take. Dim lighting. The ubiquitous ceramic cat with the upraised paw for good luck (a not so subtle phallic reminder). A Chinese or Korean wall calendar. Mini fridge stocked with off-brand water. Obligatory dish of mints, as if anybody gave a shit about their breath.

Mamasan sized Derek up. Undercover cop? Drunk? A penchant for violence? Cash businesses were dangerous; nobody used credit cards and left a paper trail. You never who was going to roll the place. Police weren’t sympathetic or quick to protect illegal businesses, kickbacks notwithstanding.

Eagerly greeted by Mamasan, she guided Derek to a room careful to avoid any active “sessions.” Derek once bumped into another client in the dressing room post-massage. Red, flaccid manhood dangling in post-release shame. The awkward exchange about “relieving work stress.” Bullshit small talk. Quick exit, no eye contact. 

Squeezing his stringy arms as she led Derek, she cooed, “So strong… You been here before? Shower first?” Derek wanted the smell of sex on him; he could get lucky back at the hotel. He placed four twenties fresh from the airport ATM in her gnarled hand. 

Glowering in the mirror, he undressed. Some muscles still hidden among the paunch. He was doing them a favor. He wasn’t one of those sloppy bastards who couldn’t screw their own wives.

Faint sounds emanated from other rooms. 

Vague, Asian muzak. 

Pan flutes. 

“El Condor Pasa.” 

The padded table clean; no dried semen from previous users. A towel a few grades better than sandpaper draped over his ass. He left enough skin showing to declare his intentions. He hated putting his face into the “donut.” Countless drooling bastards hung their heads there, all frothed up, cumming too fast.

“Sunny,” entered in silence. Always named Sunny. Delicate features bordered on haggard but attractive nonetheless. Sometimes the “girl” was 60, with jagged ochre teeth. Her breath, a rancid combination of dried fish, unfiltered cigarettes, and coffee. Whispering to him to “turn over,” the breath hovered. A death cloud. Nauseating and all-consuming, he fought to maintain his erection. But not Sunny. He’d consider meeting her at the hotel bar for drinks. Only after he accomplished the immediate mission. No reason to wreck a sure thing.

The lights dimmed to almost total darkness. That usually signified when “therapeutic massage” became a “happy ending.” Her hands lithe, strong. Focused. Intentional. This wasn’t a typical hand job assembly line massage aimed at turning out patrons as fast as possible.

Sunny dispensed with his towel immediately and worked his body with rhythmic strokes. He lay so his cock was not at an awkward angle when he got aroused. She worked his legs; fluid strokes from his calves to his ass which he tightened against her touch. Fingers brushed against his cock or balls by mistake. Or purposely. 

Message sent. 

Message received. 

Derek would rescue her tonight. Take her back to the hotel; a brief taste of luxury from what he assumed was a dingy existence. No sleepover. Maybe cab fare home. She probably got to the massage parlor with a half dozen other girls in a minivan from Queens.

Aroused, he spread his legs a bit wider. Sunny climbed on top of the table grasping a steel bar hanging from the ceiling. Like a tightrope walker, she paced his back. She dug vibrant, pedicured toes into his shoulder blades. Kneading his thighs and his ass, ripping open muscles without shrinking his erection. 

The rhythmic kneading of his ass. The grinding of his junk against the table. Thoughts of her surrendering in his hotel room. Pressure built. Derek wanted to put on a show but hovered on the point of no return. He would cum too fast. So what? He would never see her again. If they mocked him as he left, he didn’t give a shit.

His incessant hardness was problematic. She struggled to keep one foot perched on the base of his neck and the other on his rising ass for balance, her toe burrowing into his asshole. She didn’t recognize the profound pleasure it caused. 

Derek arched, imploring her to finish him off. 

Equilibrium lost. 

Tumbling, falling. 

Her weight landing on his neck. The sound of walnuts cracking. 

Bile filled Derek’s mouth. Searing pain ebbed and receded, replaced by an infinite nothingness. 

Sunny struggled off, repeating, “So sorry, so sorry… Please don’t tell. I take care of you.” She tugged on his flaccid penis. He was crying. She tried sitting him up. Deadweight of imploring, crazed eyes. Rasping, “Help me help me help me.”

Feral waves of panic flooded her. One last pitying look, before she left the room, the door silently closed behind her. Mamasan unaware, ushering a new client to a room. 

Sunny left her belongings behind and padded out the front door. 

A ghost disappearing into the night.

Solitary

(Pushcart Prize Nominated, PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize Nominated, Finalist in the Texas Observer’s Annual Short Fiction Contest https://www.texasobserver.org/solitary-short-story-finalist/)

The fireflies dance magnificently in the shadow of the Big House. Electric disco lights reflect joyfully in the razor wire; pulsating music I can feel but not hear. It’s been eleven days. I can tell them apart. They’re unique; I’ve named them. Oddly, I can’t picture my son’s face. Like a jigsaw puzzle before me, I know where everything goes, but it remains unfinished.

9×6, 9×6, 9×6.

I can pace this in my sleep. I am pacing it in my sleep. In The Great Escape, they let Steve McQueen have a ball and glove when he was in the cooler. Who would have thought the Nazis would be more sympathetic. Just give me my pen and notebook. Let me write while I’m here. Let me contribute something to my existence. If I can keep my words straight, my mind will follow.

Twice a day I’m treated to warm baloney sandwiches. When I was a kid, my mom packed my lunch box with a baloney and mayo sandwich on white bread. Wrapped it in tinfoil. Tinfoil inside a metal lunchbox that sat next to a heater in the classroom.

I gagged every time I ate that sandwich. I gag every time I eat this one. I’d kill for mayonnaise from my mom. I‘d kill for my mom to talk to me again. Even a letter telling me to drop dead. I wonder if she still cries at night because I’m here. She doesn’t even know I’m in the prison within the prison. Maybe I’m just a ghost to her, floating in the ether. Not her fault I’m here; I would never haunt her. That’s the beauty of Catholic guilt; it can haunt her all its own.

9×6, 9×6, 9×6.

Everything is your fault. Everything is punishable. There’s solace in knowing that if I get desperate enough I can kill myself and still be saved if I praise Jesus at the last moment. That’s gaming the system, which is ironic given that’s why I’m here in the first place. I knew the system. I invented the system. Was damn good at it. Apparently, not good enough.

Why this room? Why should I be the beneficiary of this stagnant upgrade? Why am I talking to myself out loud? I participated in a physical altercation. I tried to separate two bulls from assaulting a fragile wisp of an inmate who couldn’t defend himself. Had he resisted, they would have killed him. If they’d succeeded, he would have killed himself. I stepped in. I broke the rules. Even in prison, there are rules and systems in place. This system I don’t understand at all. The guards laughed and called me a stupid faggot for defending the inmate. There is no justice in being morally just. Not here. Rules are simply measured by time on the calendar. Every day that goes by is a good day; every day that lies ahead is a bad day. I’ve gained thirty more bad days in the box.

9×6, 9×6, 9×6.

How could I tell my son I stood by and watched? Pretended I didn’t see it, pillow pulled tightly over my ears to muffle the screams? I can still set an example from here. I can be a role model. I’ve been replaced by the Green Power Ranger, according to letters from home. I can live with that for now. There’s still time. The calendar tells me so.

I’m a good dad. I’m a great dad. I tell myself whatever I need to so I can sleep at night. On a metal slab, like a cadaver. A good dad wouldn’t be here. Catholic guilt rears its ugly head. It’s nice to have a friend to keep me company. The fireflies only dance; the guilt speaks to me. The fireflies sneak in and leave at will, through barred windows. Guilt is my shadow during the day; my blanket at night. I’m living in a confessional box. I can stay on my knees and pray as long as I want without having to worry about someone taking advantage of me.

There is nothing left to lose. I can lash out and rage all I want because the sun doesn’t rise and set fast enough. Blood on my face is a mask I can wear to disguise myself while I’m here. A disguise that began the moment I was strip-searched when I got here. Naked. I have nothing to hide, I might as well be naked every day. I wear my heart on my sleeve. Nothing is hidden.

9×6, 9×6, 9×6.

The fireflies remind me of the fireworks from the Fourth of July. My son sat on my lap and shook with a delicious blend of excitement and fear. Terrified in the beginning; begging for it not to end. I can see his crooked smile. I can feel his body, warm and still as I carry him to bed. I can’t see him. He can see me, this much I know. He can feel my heart beating. It beats for him, not for me. It skips every time he smiles at the Green Power Ranger.

9×6, 9×6, 9×6.

I am an anxious jungle cat in some low-rent zoo. Regal in their superiority even in their captivity. Biding their time, waiting for the opportunity to slip through some forgotten door. I don’t have to escape. Just give them the names of the guys I fought. Systems and rules. You don’t give up names in prison. You don’t have a name in prison. Retribution is not justice. Respecting the rules is what is expected of you. Never having to look over my shoulder for doing the right thing. I blew that chance once; won’t happen a second time. Besides, I can do this time standing on my head.

I‘m going to dance with the fireflies.

My son’s face is getting clearer in the gossamer grip of my hands.

It’s been eleven days.

Return By – Novel

CHAPTER 1

As a child of the ’70s, Dwight “Dewey” Sampson spent every rainy Saturday afternoon glued to his parent’s television. Channel 11 was guaranteed to run some war movie or another. Countless hours were lost, enthralled by “The Guns of Navarone” or “Midway.”

Hundreds of plastic army men waged reenacted elaborate jungle campaigns within the thick tangles of the Kelly green shag carpeting his parents favored. Inevitably, someone stepped on the ubiquitous lost soldier knotted in the vibrant green nylon waves with bare feet and yelped loud enough to wake the neighbors. 

Dewey inserted himself into the battlefield. His imagination ran wild as he dodged vicious machine-gun fire from hidden gun emplacements or the watchful eye of an unseen sniper. Like his television heroes, he got winged at some point. A sniper’s shot clipped an arm. Brave Dewey urged his comrades to, “Go on without me,” as he smoked a cigarette and bandaged himself up. 

Young Dewey didn’t comprehend the reality of getting hit by a .50 caliber bullet. After the pinkish spray of flesh in the air, there wouldn’t be anything left to bandage. In the movies when you were shot, you either died in a dramatic fashion or were bandaged up by a wisecracking medic who fed you a steady stream of pilfered whiskey while chain-smoking.

Which is what made Dewey’s present situation all the more confounding. 

He had been shot. 

He saw the flash. Heard the crack of the rifle above the rock concert level of crowd noise. 

He attempted to put his arms out to break his fall as he crumbled. The synapses had short circuited and the brain ignored the arms request for protective maneuvers. Dewey felt like he was falling forever. At the rate he fell, he wasn’t going to get hurt.

Dewey laughed as he thought about those cheesy army movies; when the hero was shot, he never felt pain. Art imitated life.

He didn’t feel anything. 

This was no Zen Buddhist level higher awareness, shit. Even if he was at peace and achieved all he wanted- perhaps beyond his wildest dreams- he felt nothing.

The resounding thud of his head hitting the ground sounded like a coconut being dropped onto concrete. Dewey was temporarily blinded and an ear-shattering ringing in his head wouldn’t cease.

“Get your head together champ,” he told himself. 

He was a prizefighter who just caught an uppercut to his jaw and he hit the canvas. Hard.

“That’s it,” he thought. “Let the ref run the count up a little. Take a moment to get your head straight. The crowd is still cheering for you.”  

He could hear them:

“Dewey! Dewey! Dewey!”

Screamed from all directions. Exhorting him to rise. 

His name.

Dewey focused on his breathing. His heart raced and skipped. Adrenaline surged, but he remained at peace.

It wasn’t an altogether unpleasant experience. A blinding whiteness enveloped him as he struggled to focus, yet he was acutely aware of the early summer sun and its mild sting on his skin.

Shadows overtook him; familiar and welcoming. Dewey wanted to talk; assure them he was fine. It would have been the ideal time to get up and show them. Maybe someone could give him a cigarette or a sip of whiskey.

The sensation of flying overwhelmed him. His body floated and hovered above the ground. It reminded him of when he and his son Max had ziplined high about the New England tree line. It was the closest he had ever come to true flight. Max’s young voice thrilled with unbridled glee.

“We’re flying, Daddy! We’re flying!”

“He was right,” Dewey thought. He echoed Max’s sentiment.

“I’m flying, buddy! I’m flying!”

“Papa’s” Typewriter

(Courtesy of the South 85 Journal; 2020 Julia Peterkin Flash Fiction Award Finalist)

Beggars can’t be choosers. It’s not like they are throwing jobs at ex-cons. Excuse me. A justice impaired individual. I didn’t give a shit what they called me. I just knew I needed a job to keep my probation officer off my back. Anything that showed I was contributing to society and honored the terms of my release.

I couldn’t go back to the old ways. I promised my son I’d be a changed man when I got out. Through swollen eyes full of doubt, I could see he was tired of the empty refrain. During my time away I had become the creepy old guy. Too old to be selling coke in the clubs. I was a hulking dinosaur hawking glassine bags filled with powder with my tiny T- Rex arms. Even I was embarrassed to be myself.

Now I’m legit. I clean ashtrays and clip cigars like I’m giving circumcisions to flaccid, wheezing middle aged men in a suburban cigar lounge. Masters of the universe who can’t get an erection without a pill. I’m allowed to handle the cash register, but still haven’t been given the keys to lock up. The level of trust only goes so far. The owner comes back on the nights I work to do “inventory.” As if I’m gonna run away with the $80 the place might make on a Tuesday.

He reminds me in not so gentle ways that he’s doing me the favor. If things work out, I could become an assistant manager. He just needs me here long enough to get a tax break for hiring a felon.

 It’s a start. A fresh start. In a place that smells like the inside of the Holland Tunnel.  Cheap bastard never paid for proper ventilation. I’m bathed in a putrid, heavy gray yellow haze. The clients don’t seem to mind. I feel like I’m choking every minute I’m here. Choking on my own goddamn freedom.

The rules are simple:

Keep the place neat.

Keep the guests happy.

Don’t fuck with the typewriter.

Three rules. Not even don’t steal. He knows I’ve been neutered. One more strike and I’m gone for good.

He bought the typewriter at auction. Supposedly it belonged to Hemingway. The owner spent more money on that fucking typewriter than on the ventilation system. He used it as part of a display with Fuente’s Hemingway line of cigars. “Papa” didn’t like cigars. It was part of the Hemingway myth. I wasn’t going to tell the owner.  He tried to grow a beard and look like Hemingway. A torturous puberty left craggy mountain ranges in his jawline. Patchy tuffets grew like a cotton field that had been arbitrarily ripped out.

He was afraid I would steal the typewriter. Sell it on the black market. Like I was Thomas Fucking Crown. I sold bags of coke to trust fund kids and the same lords of the lounge whose ashes I swept up with a forced smile through hacking breaths.

Tuesday’s were slow. Cuckolds whose wives wouldn’t let them smoke at home came in when there was nowhere else to go. No games on television; the few that came in barely spoke to each other. They brought their own cigars, despite the owner’s exhortations to buy from the store.

The lounge closed at nine. I’d clean up and then the owner arrived shortly thereafter. For inventory. Lights out at ten. Just like prison. Guards made their rounds, made sure nothing was out of place, then lights out. I was out, but never really left. Nothing changed.

The last guest, Edgar, was a Czech who escaped the Prague Spring of ‘68 and told anybody who would listen. Nobody did. I checked on him to make sure he didn’t doze off and light himself on fire with his own cigar. Normally he’s good for two cigars, but with nobody to talk to, he’s leaving early. I learned quickly to appear busy when he talked. The dollar tip wasn’t worth the effort.

I embrace the silence. In prison men yell. Sharp, staccato outbursts apropos of nothing. Silence means I can hear myself talk, even if I don’t like what I have to say. I’m safe in the silence. I don’t like the dark. Can’t see what’s coming until it’s there.

I didn’t hear the door open initially. The owner was early. The extra hour of minimum wage meant nothing; I was happy to go home early. The click of the barrel slide was unmistakable. Heavy. I could taste the metal of the gun through the acrid air.  I let him get too close. Every rule from prison, forgotten. Out three months and already I’m soft.

“The fucking register.” High pitched and borderline manic. I turned to see a skeleton with dead eyes. Snot ran down skin so taut I thought it would crack if he said anything else. A fucking junkie.

I could take him if I wanted. He could also take me out. Put me out of my misery. For $36 in the register. His hands trembled as he pawed at the crumpled bills. Maybe he’d shoot me on principle. I don’t blame him. He was incredulous. Blinking.

“Take the typewriter.”

He looked at me uncomprehending. He grabbed a fistful of cigars; there was nothing else of value in the store.

“Take the fucking typewriter!”

“Gimme your phone!”

I had a flip phone. According to probation, I hadn’t earned a smart phone yet. I tossed it to him.

“What the fuck is this?”

He held it like he picked up a used condom. I began laughing uncontrollably. Maybe he would shoot me if he thought I was crazy. Eat a bullet and call it a night. He staggered backwards to the front door, spitting on the floor in disgust.

I knocked the typewriter onto the floor. Shattered. Ivory keys danced among piles of ashes.

Fuck it. I’ll find another job.

I lit up a cigar and waited for the owner to arrive.