“The Technical Writer” by Alisa A. Gaston-Linn

A 1971 Clementine Orange VW Beetle poked through morning traffic, the orange color of the car camouflaging the rusted-out edges above each tire, and inside Cassandra gripped one hand tightly on the hot, black steering wheel, while the other hand choked the stick shift. She once again slammed on the breaks. The gridlock made her late, and she knew she needed all morning to prepare for the weekly meeting, even though it started at 1:00. If the other technical writers had to wait for her to start the meeting, that would be it. Her boss would surely take the whole thing away from her because he had emphasized more than once the need for her to improve her poor organization and multi-tasking skills. He had also counseled her on tardiness.

Her car popping and rumbling at a complete stop, Cassandra became fixated on the woman in the maroon SUV in front of her. The woman, young with long, crimped blonde hair, seemed unaffected by the clogging of cars as she stroked her hair over and over, pulling her long fingers and nails from her scalp to the ends. And each time she pulled, a clump of hair coiled around her hand that the woman tossed out the window, rubbing her fingers together until the clumps of hair delicately left and floated in the city pollution, bopping with the puffs of a slight morning breeze, and bouncing off of Cassandra’s car. The large floating hair balls barely touched the front of her Beetle each time, and then floated away, down the lanes of traffic. With each new clump, Cassandra watched in disgust, shifting in her seat, as if moving the position of her body could somehow cause the clumps to miss her car. She yelled out to no one when the clumps began to float in her direction. “Stop it lady! Get some hair conditioner for Christ’s sake!”

The masses of tangled hair and the pressure to get to the office forced Cassandra’s insides to make whining noises, twisted gurglings moving through her intestines, pushing out her stomach and making her bladder feel full. She looked over her shoulder until she found a slight opening in the adjacent lane, cut in front of a large Ford pick-up with ladders emerging from the back, and then scurried her little Beetle across three lanes of traffic that wound north and south through Denver and its surrounding areas. When she finally exited the highway and headed east on Arapahoe Road, she moved into the right lane and blazed through yellow lights, some turning red. Then she saw it. That damn sign again, “Right Lane Ends, Merge Left.” More gurgles tightened their grip. She knew that, if like the last three days in a row, the sign was still standing, and the right lane was, in fact, not closed, she would have to take action. Continue reading

“The Collector” by Paul Combs

Eli collected pieces of other people’s lives. His job gave him ample opportunity to do so, though few would have ever imagined such an activity. He worked in Morrison’s Used Bookstore, his only job since leaving college after his Sophomore year five years earlier. Morrison’s was exactly the type of place where people left pieces of themselves.

Morrison’s was a sprawling carnival of books, and the only store left in town where you could sell your old books for either cash or store credit. Eli’s primary responsibility at the store was going through the books people brought in to sell. It was a job he was very good at, partly because he had a gift for evaluating books and giving the right, fair price for them, and partly because he worked very hard at being the best at it so Mr. Morrison would let him keep doing it. This mattered a great deal to Eli; it was within these books that he found the bits of others’ lives that he collected.

Attention spans being what they are today, people had a habit of putting things in books and then forgetting about them, even when it came time to sell them. Most often it was something that could easily be used as a bookmark. Photographs were the most common, followed by letters, and then, for some reason, the water bill. Why the water bill was a more common bookmark than an electric bill or cable bill was a mystery, but it may have been as simple as the fact that that water bills tended to be one page and thus less bulky than other bills. And speaking of bills, a surprising number of people used dollar bills as bookmarks, some occasionally even using a five-dollar note. He had also found British pound notes and the occasional Mexican peso. The letters were more often found just inside the front or back covers of the books, and almost always still in the envelope.

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“Blood” by Scott Jones

 

En boca del discreto, lo público es secreto (In the mouth of the discreet, what people say is a secret).

 

A simple job.  Take a car, turn it into a flat metal pancake, haul the block of metal away.  David’s Department of Transportation crew were at work in a homemade junkyard up near Cuba, New Mexico, an acre where a family had been piling their rusted metal for a hundred years.  Mick fell into that metal.

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“For Omnivores” by Richard Hartshorn

 

A raccoon clawed out Drake’s left eye when he was two years old.  But instead of shrinking into a cobwebbed corner and cowering until he died, Drake, my third cat, soon became the most vicious animal alive.  When coming home from my job at the local food co-op, I’d often find small piles of dead rodents on the stoop, their bodies reduced to pinkish meat.  My neighbor, Isladora, stopped bringing her dog around when Drake pounced on its back and sank his incisors into its neck – the dog still carries twin puncture wounds – and Drake’s thirst for violence remained unslaked.  His one desire was to hunt down that raccoon before the end.  The raccoon had taken something from him, the part of him that held dignity, inhibition, and the pure animal magnetism the lady cats, who always retreated at his approach, craved.  He would never reproduce, and the way he looked at me, you’d think he knew it.  It wasn’t long before he ravaged the legs of a bike-riding kindergartener, whose parents called to let me know they’d spoken to the proper people.  I assured them they had the wrong number, dropped the phone onto the cradle, and promised not to give up on Drake.  I sometimes wish I’d tried harder.

After a nine-hour shift on a hazy Friday, I plodded along the dirt road toward my home, the log cabin passed down the family tree since my great-great-uncle’s days.  I’d recently had the plain white letters on the mailbox changed to P. ColehammerP for Patrick – since I was now the only one living there, and I couldn’t help but feel a swelling of pride every time I walked by.  My hands were tender from a day of culling overripe peaches. Isladora was crouched on my steps, a cigarette pinched between her fingers.  She only smoked in the summer, and liked to stargaze from my porch – I never bothered to ask what was wrong with her own; I liked the company.

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

Isladora would normally dive into what she’d been thinking about all day: astronomy, the latest batch of indie films she’d seen at the local CinePlex, or her ever-expanding fourteen step program for shucking any bad habit (she still claims she can quit smoking whenever she wants to, but it’s been years since I’ve smelled anything but smoke on her rack-hung jackets).  She was the only person who understood why I wouldn’t surrender Drake to the people who plucked misbehaving cats from the streets, even after Drake had treated her precious dog the way a Weed Eater treats a patch of dandelions.  She exhaled a draft of smoke and stood up on her long legs, her brick-brown hair twisting around her lobeless ears, and walked onto the wooden wheelchair ramp I’d built with my dad when I was a teenager.  I passed through the smoke cloud behind her, my nasal glands stimulated, my mind wild from the odor.

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“The Hanger Thief” by Bob Williams

I’m going to tell you about the first two things I ever stole, though I doubt you’ll blame me for it. At the time I decided to become a thief I was in the habit of attending various artistic outings around New York City. I’m not really an artist exactly, but certainly someone who enjoys watching others bashfully explain the genius of their own work.  The other thing is I’m quite poor. It just fills me up when I get to wear a tie and drink clean cold water and walk across those plush violet velvet carpets they’ve always got in the entryway—the ones drenched by a subtle chandelier sunset so soft I feel like kneeling down to pray.  It’s peaceful, everyone whispers.

“Evening, sir,” the doorman said to me.

“How do you do?” I replied, entering the hall.

“Just fine sir,” said the cordial doorman, nodding and all.

A different employee, a coatman of sorts, came by to take my coat.  It felt very posh handing the coat off like that.  I held it out for him with my fingers trembling to show that I couldn’t be troubled to bear the weight of it for another moment.  He kindly accepted the coat, nodding thanks as he walked toward the set of hangers.  Glistening metallic hangers all in a row, perfectly spaced two inches apart from one another.  An alignment of soldiers from an alien race so ideally composed that they need no alteration and should never be defeated—they don’t even compete anymore, they alone are responsible for keeping resting clothes in place.  They remain proudly stilted throughout time and toe the line of arrogance but never cross it. Their form and function are united in an eternal euphoric reverie that begs and teases the ordinary and imperfect things that comprise the world around them.

The coatman selected a hanger and slid it gracefully through the vacant arms of my coat.  A stunning curl of hanger head turtled from the collar, sparkling in the bright lights of the entryway, or the foyer, as some like to call it. The hanger body held the coat exactly in place. The coat looked comfortable and assured as though it’d just come in from a long day’s work ready for a nap.  I needed to get a closer look at some of the still naked hangers.

“My good man, which way to the lavatory?” I asked the coat checker in a profound way.

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“The All of It” by T. G. Hardy

J-P and I were on the screened porch overlooking the dark Chesapeake, granduncle and grandnephew, sprawled out on chaises side by side, me on the left — for I’m deaf in my left ear — and we’re stuck into the Periquita, our favorite Portuguese wine. We were silent, lost in the flame of the candle in the hurricane globe, as if it were a campfire. This is something we get around to whenever he visits, years now, just this way — evenings when we couldn’t imagine life being better, but never needing to say so. A guy thing, I suppose, this not needing to elaborate.

It was only a week ago, the last night he was here, so the details are fresh: a dark night, no moon at all, making the candle seemed overbright. You had to shield it with your hand to see the distant glow of fires on Town Beach. Feathers of breeze picked their way up the channel from the marina, bringing with them the sound of halyards tinkling against aluminum masts and the smell of salt marsh and now and then wood smoke.

Our talk that evening had been about J-P’s naval flight training and his life out in San Diego, with me almost having to interview him and him answering me with a reluctance that puzzled me. Then we were silent. We had sailed Miss Noor clear out to the ship channel marker, a wild run downwind with the spinnaker full and then had to pay for it, of course, having to claw our way back to the mooring with the wind in our teeth. J-P had to do the heavy work, cranking in the sails with each tack. Four hours of that. He would have been tired.

We watched the dance of the candle flame.

J-P is the 24-year-old grandson of my younger brother, Michael, who died in Korea. J-P’s father disappeared in the sixties, intent on destroying himself, which he did. J-P’s mother is a fine lady, once the best crop-duster on the Delmarva Peninsula, now editing an English language daily in San Jose, Costa Rica. She’s a fascinating woman, and though this is not her story, I feel it important that you get a sense of how J-P turned out such a good egg.

As to me, I am a builder and restorer of wooden boats. My own boat is a wooden Dragon with spars of Sitka spruce. Danish-built, she won a bronze at the 1948 Olympic Games. I drive a brand new wood-framed Morgan sports car made, at great expense, to look 1940s as well. I prefer older women, but haven’t had any luck with them, probably because they’re blindsided when they discover I’m really an eighties guy and a bit wild. For example, I’m crazy right now about a Rastafarian song by a group called Boney M. The lyrics start out — “By the rivers of Babylon,” and then it blazes right through the entirety of Psalms 137-something. My aerobics instructor was doubtful when I requested this song be added to her mix. I brought in the CD and she went nuts over it. She fixes on me when the song comes on. I can tell that she likes my Flashdance moves. She said just yesterday that I have the body of a younger man. How much younger I didn’t ask. I like ambiquity; it allows me to fill in the blanks in my own optimistic way. I’m hoping to make her my French-press coffee and serve it to her in my big old bed where the sun comes up between your feet, sometimes like thunder.

J-P brought me back from this pleasant digression. “Woody,” he said and waited for eye contact. “It embarrasses me to talk about my flying when I know that you wanted to fly, and then couldn’t.”

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“Long Road Wandering” by Peter BG Shoemaker

In ’95 he’d lost two fingers trying to get from Washington DC to Hendersonville. One morning he’d woken to find the tips tinged in black. Over the next two days it spread and the warmth that had been there at the beginning turned to fire and then ice and then nothing at all. He kept his mittens on after that. Finally, he’d had to go to the free clinic in Charlotte. The pretty intern who’d smiled and patted him on the shoulder when he walked in turned grey and stifled a gasp when she saw. It was lucky, she said later, that he didn’t loose his whole hand. It didn’t feel like luck. Now he spent his winters–most of the year really–in the Southwest.

He moved from place to place, playing games with desert weather. In the truly cold parts of the year, he moved further and further south, from Tucson to Phoenix, from Albuquerque to Las Cruces. It was in Las Cruces where he’d found himself a day ago, exhausted from the people who no longer picked-up hitchhikers, and those that did, but you wished they hadn’t. It had been late, and he’d found the first culvert he could and crawled inside.

In cold weather, culverts were good. When things got hot, the arroyos that wound through the lands of scrub and pine, cactus and chimisa, served as drifting thoroughfares for all matters of life trying to survive. In settled places, most of those arroyos fed through culverts–hollow spaces under roads and trails–and were about as inviting a place as you can imagine. And not just for him. He’d learned that lesson early.

As always–even when still drugged with the night’s vodka and lost dreams–he woke silent and still, the sun’s beginnings behind his eyelids. The air was cold, acrid, wet. And he was shivering. It hurt to turn over. The culvert’s ribs, usually leveled by silt and trash washed though during the rains, were raw and defined by the wind.

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“Lunch” by Samantha Eliot Stier

 

She wanted to meet for lunch, she said. She called him up on the phone—which had been disconnected because he hadn’t paid the bill, but for some reason could still receive calls—and told him to meet her at California Pizza Kitchen. He was hung-over, but he said okay, and she said okay, great. Then she said she would be bringing the baby.

He didn’t know what she wanted, but it had seemed to him for some time that this meeting was inevitable, something he’d been dreading, and he wasn’t that surprised to hear from her.

He got there late because he had to put gas in the car, five dollars worth. Now he only had eight dollars left for lunch. As he wedged his black pick-up truck in a compact space in the parking lot, he wondered what he could get at California Pizza Kitchen that cost less than eight dollars. Maybe she would offer to pay.

The windows inside were big and let in too much light. It bounced off the tables. He felt everyone watching him. The hostess said something but he didn’t hear, just walked past her into the dining area. The restaurant was crowded; it smelled like toasted pizza crust and bell peppers. His stomach growled.

“Jeremy.” She waved to him from a booth by the window. She looked the same, but also very different. Her cheeks were rounder and her clothes looked baggier.

He considered turning around. He could pretend he hadn’t seen her. He could go down the street to Ralph’s and get himself a six-pack.

He jutted his hand up in a half-wave and walked over. He sat down across from her and put his hands in his lap. They were sticky with sweat. He shook them, trying to air them out.

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“The Brotherhood of Jokes” by Ron Singer

 

Our youngest novitiate, Brother Joey, is hopeless: he cannot master the simplest joke. As Father Superior, I am reluctantly coming to the conclusion that he will have to be asked to leave the Order.

FS: Okay, Joey. It’s time for Daily Catechism. Let’s try the one I taught you yesterday. I’ll tell the joke, then you supply the punch line, Ready? At the entrance to a race track, two Jewish horse players come upon two mendicant nuns …

BJ: “Mendi… “ Does that mean the nuns are “liars,” Father?

FS: No, Joey. It means they are beg … collecting money for charity.

BJ: Oh, yeah, I’ve seen those. With the little baskets, right?

FS: Yes. Anyway, thinking to enhance … thinking it will bring them luck, one of the men drops a quarter into …

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“A Questionable Choice” by Brian Conlon

God made a questionable choice of restaurants to break the news to Sheila.

“I’m not real,” he said.

“Fusion, Asian-fusion? What does that even mean? I mean you should know, but really Asian-fusion?”

“The slathered teriyaki fries are pretty good Sheila. You won’t be disappointed.”

“I think I will be. So Asian-fusion means fries with teriyaki sauce?”

“It can.”

“No thanks, God, no thanks.”

“Well it’s all I’ve got at this point. Sheila, I’m sorry you’re not thrilled with the idea, but just give it a chance would ya?”

“I’m gonna eat don’t get me wrong. But pick a style and go with it.”

“Listen Sheila, did you hear what I said earlier?”

“About the fries, yeah, yeah, I’ll get the fries. Splitzies?”

“Sure, Sheila, sure.”

“Okay God, but why do you keep saying my name? It’s irksome. I know my name.”

“I’m sorry Sheila. This is sort of serious.”

“I’d say so, yeah. Here I am, God calls me up after all these years. Who else but God calls me up and asks me to dinner…”

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“.12 Gauge” by Justin Campbell

 

“Pull!”

The clay skeet flew into the gray Iowa sky. The shotgun kicked into the man’s shoulder as he fired it. The older man grunted as the disc sailed unharmed into the distance. “You gotta lead it, son.”

The younger man nodded. He raised the gun to his shoulder again. “Pull!”

Again, the clay skeet flew. The young man followed the path of the flying orange disc and fired. The skeet exploded into a cloud of orange dust. The older man nodded. “Thata boy.”

 
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“Lessons and Lies” by Mitchell Waldman

It was the year the Nazis were threatening to march in Robert Friedman’s hometown. It was the year that the Cubs wouldn’t win the pennant (again). And it was the year that Robert Friedman’s interest in the Cubs was starting to be overshadowed by something else…

Robert was seventeen years old and had never been on a date. It wasn’t that he wasn’t interested in girls. It wasn’t even that he couldn’t imagine why any girl would even think about going out with him, but instead that he didn’t know if any girl on earth even knew he existed. Earth, for this purpose, being the country of the United States, State of Illinois, village of Skokie, and high school, Niles North High.

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