Pump District #6  |  Daniel Miller



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             Such a traveler I was in those days! An explorer of sleeping towns found off forgotten exits. In these towns there was always a green sign boasting of one, or two, or sometimes three (yes, three!) gas stations, always a tree scarred with schoolyard love, always blooming into soft lips touching and delightful sighs and the ghosts of purity lingering above beds. There was always a pile of notebooks in my lap, full of scribbled notes and unfinished stories. I was young! Searching, endlessly searching for my Winesburg, for my Dublin! Always looking for persons of depth, creatures worthy of love or hate or any other emotion! Always, I was waiting for the words to flow forth, lyrically, from the tip of my pen, the paper absorbing the ink in permanence. And through all this searching and waiting and looking, I was blind, for I was surrounded by my inspiration the whole time, in my passion-driven seventeenth year, in my hometown—in #6.
             Looming over the off-ramp was a water tower, a handful of lights illuminating the bold lettering that proclaimed: Pump District #6. Being a structure of such size, the water tower easily overpowered the small sign below it. That, oh-so-small sign that proved the existence of Millersburg and its 7,036 occupants. Because of this, most of those native to the Midwestern town—and, on occasion, those passing by—would refer to the area simply as #6. It is a curious thing, in my opinion, to refer to a town by a number. It brings to mind the reduction of people to numbers in certain internment camps, as if those people are no longer people. But alas, I digress. It is in #6 in which my story begins, and it is in #6 in which my story ends.
             I was sitting in my car, parked under the soft glow of gas station prices, listening to the songs I sought to emanate from. Heartbreaking and haunting, the music softly filed into my ears. I had with me the written account of my most-recent trips. On the first page it begins, strongly at first, but soon it falls apart. The plot withers away, and the writing stops abruptly a mere five hundred words later. A handful of pages later, and a new plot begins and ends just as quickly. This happens again and again until the notebook is filled with evenly spaced beginnings. Spaces that I always meant to fill but never did. And so I flipped through this notebook spotting flaws that only became apparent once I was detached. I flipped and spotted until I became sick of the flaws and threw the notebook into the backseat; into the graveyard of notebooks.
             Outside, the sound of rain, heavy and intimidating, accompanied the music. In the distance, the water tower stood tall over the highway. Cars rushed past in both directions, their headlights cutting through the torrents falling from the evening sky. I watched this momentarily until a bag-clad figure walking toward the highway disrupted my gaze. As this figure passed beneath the streetlight, I could identify her as one of Mr. Turner’s daughters: Abigail, the oldest, if I remembered correctly. It was a strange thing to live in a town as small as #6. On paper, the population looked too large, too hard to fathom knowing that many people. In reality, it seemed as if everyone knew everybody else or, at the very least, knew of them. Abigail was one that I only knew of.
             Abigail was one that almost everyone only knew of. Another strange thing about #6 is that rumors have a way of spreading throughout the community. They float from lips to ears, through churches and schools and families and friends. So when Abigail, who led a mostly normal social life, became rarely seen, people began to whisper. The abrupt absence of her mother, Mrs. Turner, did not help matters. Some suggested that the family had problems with drugs, with drinking; others blamed abuse or death. The rumors came often but were exaggerated greatly. One week, Mr. Turner was a hopeless alcoholic; their neighbor swears that three empty cases of beer are being thrown out every Thursday. The next week, word spread that Abigail was addicted to drugs, that she suffered a mental breakdown, that her mother died, that her father had hit her. It is impossible that Abigail did not hear these things, not in a town that small, not in #6.
             And so she walked that night; head down and slowly, she walked. Putting my car into gear, I pulled up next to her, unrolling my window. Perhaps the pounding rain was too loud, too heavy, but she did not stop, so I yelled her name, and she responded with a quick glance. While there was a familiarity in her eyes, she still did not stop. No, it took yelling over and over before she surrendered and climbed into my car. Once there, she did not look at me directly but instead watched me through her peripheral vision. And though I knew her address, her name, and every rumor that surrounded her, I broke the tension that made the air around us so thick.
             “Some weather,” I said awkwardly. Ah, social naïveté—to be young and dumb and have the conversation skills of an infant. She sat, unresponsive. I guided my hand to the tote bag she carried with intent to move it, to give her more space. At this action, she flinched, letting out a short, sharp breath.
             “Sorry,” I responded. “Just trying to make you more comfortable.” And she began to weep. She pulled up her knees and turned her face in the opposite direction and wept tears that became lost on her rain-soaked cheeks. In a nervous fit I debated with myself on whether I should begin to drive or stay parked and console Abigail as she cried beside me. Settling on the latter was no easy choice but one I felt was right, and so, putting the car into park, I consoled.
             “What is it?” I asked, reaching again with my hand, this time to lend her some kind of warmth, some reassurance. She did not flinch at this second attempt of contact; she did not respond in any way, and so I repeated, “What’s wrong?” Again, there was no response from the weeping girl. “Was it before?” I started. “Like I said, I was just trying to—”
             “It wasn’t that,” she said, cutting me off. “It’s just … not that.”
             The whole scene was nightmarish. I felt as if I could wake up at any moment, sweat, sweet and sticky covering my body. But I did not wake up; I sat in my car, speechless, watching a girl I hardly knew sobbing. This went on for some time. While it felt like hours, I later realized that it only could have been fifteen or twenty minutes. After this period was over, Abigail calmed somewhat.
             “Can I tell you something?” she asked, wiping tears from her face. Nodding, I felt more uncomfortable than before but let her continue anyway. “I was raped,” she continued, “by my own father.”
             A sickening feeling bloomed throughout my body. Mr. Turner was known to be an upstanding citizen of #6. Though rumors plagued him just as much as Abigail and the rest of their family, Mr. Turner was not fazed. He still attended school events, social functions, and was even considering running for City Council the following year. He did not drink any more or any less than the rest of the city, didn’t touch drugs or other women. No prior scandals to give any such warning to this news.
             “I was in the living room, home sick from school, when he walked up to me. He shouted for me to get up, and I knew at once that something was wrong. I had received a bad grade earlier that week and wondered if that was why he was angry.” Saying this, Abigail shook her head slightly. “Sometimes I still think that was the reason. He pushed me, abruptly, onto the floor. The motion was so fast, so instantaneous that I did not have time to brace for the impact and so when I hit, waves of pain exploded through my face and ribs. As he kneeled down over me I knew—somehow, I knew—what was about to happen, but I refused to believe it. I refused to believe, as he pinned my arms and legs down. I refused to believe, as I tried my hardest to flail and escape. I refused to believe, as he pulled my pants down to my ankles. But when his fingers, hard and callused fingers of a working man, touched my skin, I could no longer refuse to believe. So I screamed.”
             To better understand the story of Abigail Turner, I must first describe #6 in a slightly more descriptive manner than my previous profile. The town is composed of two main roads and perhaps a dozen side streets. Rollins Street was the first of the main roads and was the road that the off-ramp merged into. This is also the road on which we sat in my car that night. Morley, the second main road, ran perpendicular to Rollins, intersecting beneath an ancient railroad bridge. Though these main roads were often busier than the side streets, they bore far fewer residential buildings.
             Unfortunately for Abigail, she did not reside in one of these main-street houses, for if she did, perhaps her circumstances would have been different. Instead, she lived on Fifth Street, a weathered road branching off Rollins. And on this road, houses were spaced either too much or too little by gravel driveways sinking under the weight of engineless cars. While, on occasion, children fled through backyards scraping flesh free from knees on rusted fences and shouting jubilant shouts, not a single soul strolled down Fifth Street on that day. Not a single soul heard. And so she continued.
             “I screamed as loud and as hard as I could, but nobody came, and I knew nobody would. My throat burned, and he wouldn’t stop, so I closed my mouth and stopped screaming.” While tears still ran down her cheeks, Abigail’s voice was steady, strong. “And when I closed my mouth, it was as if all of my senses were heightened. I could feel my throat throbbing, and the sensation of being ripped in half pulsed throughout my body after every thrust, each one a reminder that my womanhood was not being given by me but instead being stolen from me. I smelled the aroma of vanilla-scented candles mixed with artificial air freshener. These scents filled the air and my nostrils with each long inhale. I could taste the thick saliva and salty tears as they slid down my face and into my mouth. The textured ceiling above us blurred in and out of place. But the sound,” her eyes, filled with sincerity and importance, gazed through mine, “… the sound is what stays with me the most. Outside of our window, some songbird chirped and chirped, and I remember thinking that it was absolutely absurd that such a simple, delightful sound is what I heard on that awful day.” As Abigail continued, I shut my eyes and tried to imagine myself in that situation. To be raped violently and yet, find some small amount of reassurance in the twittering of a bird. “The chirping was so vibrant, so clear, that it seemed like a three-dimensional object. A shape I could touch and feel. So I focused on the chirping and the other senses too, but mostly the chirping. Eventually, when he got up and left, I lay on the floor and continued listening.” Abigail breathed deeply, and at this sign, I knew that her story was finished.
             “I’m so sorry,” I blurted clumsily, awkwardly.
             To this, she shook her head, curling her lips and smiling faintly. “It’s far too late.”
             I looked at the clock glowing blue on my car’s dashboard, looked at the flashing numbers declaring the time: 2:00 a.m., far too late, indeed. Following my eyes, she sighed deeply and asked to be taken home. The drive to her house was noiseless apart from the still-pouring rain. I was drained, emotionally and physically, from the story, and it was quite clear that Abigail was, as well. Aside from a light in the living room window, the house was dark. Abigail thanked me for the ride—for listening to her—and walked inside, turning the window light off a moment later. The drive to my own home was just as quiet, and when I arrived, I took to my bed at once, sleeping a dreamless sleep.
             The following morning, I awoke to the sound of a tweeting songbird. Just as I had listened to the story that Abigail told me, I listened. To the bird, I listened. To my heart, pounding against my chest, I listened. To my breaths, shallow and soft, I listened. I let these sounds resonate within me, let them become clear and real, and I knew, then, what she had meant by feeling a sound. Interrupting, my mother called me into the family room. On the television, a clean-cut news reporter moved his lips soundlessly. Underneath him, oft-misspelled text scrolled quickly across the screen giving meaning to his voiceless jabbering. Moving between the television and me, my mother concealed the text.
             “Abigail Turner was about your age, right?” Nodding, I disregarded her use of the past tense. “She died this morning. It’s all over the news right now.”
             She continued, but I feigned listening because the things that she said did not seem real, as the singing bird or the beating heart did. Her words slipped through my ears but connected not with my brain. They floated over me in waves, and again the tweeting returned, more vibrant than before. Closing my eyes, I listened to the songbird, imagining myself seated in the shallow water of a lake’s edge—imagining the waves flowing over me, the sun beating down on shoulders already burned and glowing. It was a pleasant sound, a delightful thought on that awful day.
             It was the summer in which I would fall in and out of love. The summer I would explore, for the first time, the delicate geography of a young woman’s body, all of its valleys and hills, its flaws and perfections. It was the summer of letters, first torrid, passing feverishly from hand to hand, then heartbreaking, leaving me empty of emotion for what would seem like a lifetime. Though I did not know this at the time, it is a soul-wrenching thought now. Now that I can look back at the life of Abigail Turner with a consciousness clear of sexuality, clear of angst, I realize that she never had these opportunities. She would never feel love and lust. Would never have the opportunity to steal dusty liquor bottles from dustier cupboards, running off into backwoods, fingers entwined with the boy she pined for. Would never let him explore, would never breathe heavy breaths and twinge at the pain of innocence lost. She would never experience the even worse pain of a broken heart. No, instead her childhood, her life, everything was ripped away. And so now, eleven years later, the life of Abigail Turner still inspires me, still makes my hands and fingers shake. After her death, I burned all of the unfinished notebooks lying dormant in my backseat, acquired empty ones and filled them with my stories, my experiences, everything that I sensed! All for her, my inspiration, my muse, my Abigail! But, again, I digress.
             A friend of mine swears that he saw her. I refused to let him recount this sight at first, but eventually curiosity overwhelmed me, and I asked him to describe it. And so he did. The sun was newly raised, and a sharp yellow melted upward into softer pinks and purples. “Like a postcard of some tropical sunrise.” He said that she hung underneath the water tower on that windless day, limp and still. A silhouetted greeting to all those small-town travelers, to the notebook-clutching explorers, to all who happened to drift onto that curling off ramp: Welcome to #6.


♥ End ♥



Daniel Miller is a 23-year-old student residing in Columbia, Missouri. Reading and writing are his two passions, and he hopes to pursue an MFA next year.

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Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

Another Cup of Tea: A Personal Survival Guide to England  |  Jonathon Engels



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             The pain is sharp and sudden from the inside. It’s my first night in London, and I’m five minutes into a fifteen-minute walk to somewhere. The evening chill has cut instantly to my infinitely small blander. We’ve barely made it a block. If only I hadn’t taken that last cup of tea.
             Emma’s arm wraps into mine, and she skips along beside me, beyond content to be seeing her little brother for the first time in over a year. I, on the other hand, am tense teeth biting liquid, clenching out each step. The brother, Paul, and his friend, Adam, are maybe six steps ahead of us, and they’re going on, something about music. Paul is a bassist; Adam is a drummer.
             The wind snaps at the collar of my coat, the back of my neck, whispers tunes around my ears. My head sinks fast into my shoulders. My hands fidget inside my pockets as if I’m a pedophile overlooking an elementary schoolyard. Only I’m the one terrified.
             We stop at an intersection. My eyes search. They can’t decide where to go; I can’t decide what to do. The others chat about the location of proper British pubs, looking at me for acknowledgment. We settle on a place just around the corner. We amble in no particular rush, Paul and Adam pointing to a door, not twenty steps away, nineteen, eighteen, seventeen, sixteen, fifteen, fourteen . . .
             Opening the door, the warmth flips my bladder, defrosting it. The chair backs—draped with pea coats, scarves, the hats of London sophisticates—blockade all passages. Paul squeezes us through to the bar, asking what we want to drink.
             My hips sway, as if to a slow song. No one else is dancing. I shift again and again, become the shiftiest person in London, anywhere. “Where’s the toilet?” Emma asks, familiar with this particular tuneless tango.
             I’m hurting, frightened, wondering: What if I don’t make it before I pass this table on my way, if I don’t make it as I shuffle around the girl whose chair back is too far out to scoot by without bumping my leaky bladder, don’t make it when I reach the men’s room door, the five steps from the door to the urinal?
             I fumble furiously at buttons and zippers, holding the bottom edge of my pullover under my chin, eyes wide and tearful, staring down at my hand pinching the front of my pants. I don’t aim, but simply shoot, hoping no one is next to me. Round one goes to me.
             Sometime into the second week of our visit, after about 37 looking-for-a-loo episodes, I really became worried. I’d grown comfortable with England and Emma’s family, but my condition had worsened. “I’m going to have to get this checked out,” I’d tell Emma, tucked in some alleyway, as the droning thud of my urine still beat against the side of a church. “The stonework here is just amazing.”
             It wasn’t as if I could hide my affliction from a host of aunts, uncles, a gran, cousins, Mom, Dad, brother’s friend I’ve known since I was eight months old. Like a child, when in a state of “having to go,” I pee-pee dance; I stumble over words; I touch myself involuntarily. When members of Emma’s family noticed my nervousness, the best I could come up with were jokes: I swear I should just stand over a toilet with this delightful tea, thanks so much, so nice, I’d say, thinking, My god, Auntie Ginny, I’m about to explode.
             It was like a snake milked of a lifetime of venom in a matter of days. The dances kept coming, interpretive performances of Albert Dock or Strawberry Fields or wherever we were, followed by a mad, undignified rush to find a WC. Public restrooms are few and none between in England. In America, there are so many public toilets that you wonder why places like Bourbon Street smell like piss, but in England, you wonder why more people aren’t pissing on the street.
             I’m going to have to get this checked out, for Emma’s sake, I’d think. Imagine the embarrassment: “Here’s my new boyfriend. You’ve heard about him; he really needs the toilet.” My urination became an actual topic of conversation with each new acquaintance. Then, someone finally says something about tea other than: “Do you want another?” Emma’s fourth-cousin-third-removed informs me that tea is a diuretic.
             So, tea makes you—really makes me—have to “wee,” which makes that second issue even more puzzling: bathrooms, more appropriately (I was laughed at for saying “bathroom.”) toilets are in short supply. In England and the vast fluids that flow in, around, and through it, the notion of bathrooms and bladders became a real intellectual stump for me. We discovered those iconic phone booths in the middle of miles of empty fields, but ask for a toilet: It was like being potty-trained for a second time, and I ran into problems.
             When we stayed at Paul’s four-bedroom flat and a midnight tiptoe was in order, when we settled in at Emma’s mum’s three-bedroom “semi-detached,” when we visited Lizzie and Lizzie’s four-year old had to go, too, or at Auntie Kath’s huge stately home, large enough to fit three generations of family and still have me saddled in a bed for the weekend with a constant cup of tea or libation on my bedside table—It seemed everyone’s house had one toilet, and someone else was using it.
             Trying to duck into the facilities unnoticed for the twentieth time that afternoon, I’d catch a shoulder-full of locked door and hear the faint apology of the current, enviable occupier. Stumbling back, wiggling in place, I’d pace the hallway, groping at myself, fearful that my insides might just fail. What kind of sick culture insists on round after round of tea, then designs houses, houses for entire families, with only one bathroom? It was something out of an even-more-demented version of Alice in Wonderland.
             I’d find myself sweeping through my girlfriend’s mother’s side door en route to the back “garden,” searching for a shadow and a bush, praying for only thirty seconds, sure someone would step out for a “fag” and find me hidden in the hedges with my willy out, wondering how to explain that someone had been in the bathroom for at least fifteen seconds.
             Or, “We all do this in America.” Would they buy that?, I pondered, until finally the track of my zipper whished back up, and I returned to the party with beads of sweat on my forehead, pretending nothing had happened.
             In the case that one does manage to procure a toilet in England, it seems that the commodes are all equipped with anti-flushing devices. The handle goes down, but there is only a silent, lazy-river-like current of water. There was not one place in England where I didn’t wind up wandering into the bedroom to ask for Emma’s help. I felt mocked, finally relieved, but now stuck with the results. Imagine my dismay when my battle with tea and pee turned into a war with pie, the disappointment of standing over a toilet watching it all swimming in a circle. Helpless.
             After learning of tea’s diuretic qualities, suffering the indignity of my girlfriend having to flush for me (a childlike call from the depths: “I’m ready.”), and dashing to back gardens and semi-vacant alleyways, I backed off the tea. Unfortunately, this new resistance was only effective until about dusk, when the lot of us (whomever with and wherever located) made way for the pub.
             I’d been to “English pubs” and “Irish pubs” in America, where next door in the strip mall was Hooters and, on the other side, some low-dive Mexican restaurant. But in England, pubs are naturally (not thematically) quaint and cool and better bloody well have Guinness on tap, and not just some pull-the-lever crap, but one where the bartender pumps and pumps to get your beer into a proper pint glass that matches the brand.
             That’s right. Old fashioned pump taps, appropriately labeled glass, a shamrock drawn in the foam—things done with a certain British sophistication and class. So, everywhere we went and everyone we saw offered a new, official, proper pub experience. I don’t know if beer is a diuretic, but everywhere we went and everyone we saw there got to witness my bladder ramble on incomprehensibly. Up and down, I’d go, to and fro, as if the drink simply dropped down my gullet and into launching position.
             When I accompanied Uncle Jim to watch a Liverpool football match, Emma and Auntie Ginny left us imbibing pint after pint, eyes glued to the TV, Uncle Jim fielding amateurish football-ing questions from me. Eventually, he sighed, his eyes following the “lad” who’d gotten up for the third or fourth time to take care of business. “Watch this,” he said, hiding his mouth a bit under his hand. “That lad goes to the toilet more than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
             I sat squirming. When Liverpool scored the second goal, I broke for the loo in a bout of celebration. I took a little detour when getting us another round (This one’s on me, Uncle Jim.). But, once you break the seal … I got up again and again. Will I replace that other guy as the most prolific urinator in all of Lancashire? Is that a title I really want? By the time Liverpool had won, there was no doubt that a new, undisputed water-weight champion had come to town, my belt in a permanent state of being loosened.
             The truth is my struggles with tea, beer, and the English began well before I ever set foot on that island. My sorrows began with Emma in my apartment in South Korea, some astronomical distance from any scent of the Atlantic Ocean or the British Isles and long before any plane I was on set down in London.
             “Do you want a brew?” she’d say at the onset of our relationship. “Sure,” I’d tell her, kicking my feet up awaiting a frosty mug of Hite, Korea’s national beer, when minutes later she’d arrive with a steaming cup of milky tea. Setting it on the table in front of me with a pleasant grin, she’d sit and blow the steam from her own cup. “Do you fancy a brew?” “How about a brew?” Brew, I learned, ain’t beer in England.
             Then, by the time I’d adjusted to the whole “brew” debacle and learned to enjoy a cup of tea (What was I supposed to do? Not drink it after I’d said, Yes, that’d be great?), “Are you ready for tea?” she asks. I say, of course, “Yes, that’d be great.” I kick my feet up awaiting a hot mug of tea. Half an hour later, having watched her chopping vegetables, I feel cheated, as if she has forgotten the agreed-upon beverage. Then, I found out: “Tea” ain’t tea.
             “Tea” is dinner; tea is a “brew.” A “brew” is a tea—but not “tea” as in dinner—tea as in the rest of the world’s version. And, if you want a beer just say “beer,” don’t try to be catchy and spout off some yuppie quip about a brew. But, to the point, when your “tea,” “brew,” or “beer” has coursed through your body, ask where the “toilet” is—forget about the “loo,” bathroom, restroom, men’s room, water closet, or any such decorative terms and go for the gusto: toilet. Because, lord knows, if you need to relieve yourself in England, there is precious little time to quibble over appropriate nomenclature.
             After our trip, Emma had anxiously awaited me to write something about England, and when I told her little jokes about the English tea-pee situation, she’d been able to laugh in retrospect, without the awkwardness of me dancing and steaming from the ears. Finally, I wrote this, feeling I’d all but uncovered the true motivation behind America’s Boston Tea Party, and she hit me with: “Is the whole thing going to be about you peeing? Why don’t you just hold it? I do.”
             It seems so simple.


♥ End ♥



Jonathon Engels has been an EFL expat since 2005, just after he earned an MFA in creative writing and promptly rejected life as an instructor of freshman comp. He has lived, worked, and/or volunteered in seven different countries, traveling his way between them. Currently, he is in Antigua, Guatemala, where most mornings he can be found tucked behind a computer in the corner of a coffee shop.

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         Years from now, America is slowly collapsing. Crops are drying up and oil is running out. People flee cities for the countryside, worsening the drought and opening the land to crime. Amid this decay and strife, war veteran David Parrish fights to keep his family and farm together. However, the murder of a local child opens old wounds, forcing him to confront his own nature on a hunt through dust storms and crumbling towns for the killer.
         Reserve your copy in any format for $1 today, and get 20% off the cover price upon March 2014 release.


Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

A Slow Dance in the Afternoon  |  Mia Eaker



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             Charles Hostettler arrived home early. His truck shrieked to a halt in the driveway of a small brick house nestled in the cul-de-sac on Laurel Avenue. His wife, Helene, wasn’t expecting him home from work for another three hours. She heard his boots, first, pounding up the front steps. Then, he barreled through the front door, slamming it behind him. He paused in the doorway. His eyes, wild and hazy, darted around the room.
             The four women assembled in his living room, dressed primly in their Sunday best, sat frozen, eyes glued to the looming figure in the doorway. A young blonde, dressed in a pale pink sweater and beige slacks, was still leaning in, one elbow propped on her knee, gesturing with a pointed finger toward the woman sitting across from her. The other woman, who appeared much older, wore a honey-colored blouse with large pearl buttons. She sat straight, with deliberate posture; one knee was crossed carefully over the other. Her hands still held a slightly tilted pitcher and a half-full glass of iced tea.
             In fact, the only pair of eyes not fixed on Charles belonged to Helene Hostettler. Her eyes, instead, stared straight down, right through the bottom of the empty glass in her hand and into the carpet below, as if the mingled heat and force from her gaze were strong enough to burn an escape route right through the floor. Beside Helene sat a young woman who could not have been more than 25. Helene had determined this when she met her, although never asked. Helene had wondered whether the woman appeared so young to her because of her age or because of the way she dressed. Today, Meredith, the wife of the new pastor at their church, wore her hair pulled back in a ponytail with long curls that bounced when she walked. The dress was bright yellow from top to bottom, except for the white buttons. The color reminded Helene of warm sunshine on her face in the summer. The sleeves were cut off at the shoulders, exposing Meredith’s long, slender arms.
             Charles grunted in their direction and continued his rampage across the room and into the kitchen. Only a thin wall separated the four startled ladies from the heavy pounding of his boots back and forth on the tile floor. In the living room, the women sat in silence while the tension thickened in the air around them. The TV still played softly in the background. They’d been watching a ballroom-dance competition. Well, not really watching. Helene had turned it on and let it play quietly during the meeting because she liked to have background noise in the room. She was thankful for that noise now.
             Above the quickening tempo of the music, the women tuned in to the excited clamor of cabinet doors opening and slamming shut, then jars and glasses clinking together. There was a brief silence. A hard thump against the refrigerator door. One by one, each lady began shifting her concentration to missing items from purses, minutely crooked skirt seams that needed immediate attention, and imaginary last sips of coffee and tea from dry cup beds. On the other side of the wall, Charles finally collapsed into a chair, and a swift, sharp silence invaded the room and jolted the fidgety group to a halt.
             Helene Hostettler relaxed the clenched lines in her brow. Her hands remained calmly folded in her lap, the corners of her mouth tilted upward in a calculated and confident smile. After glancing toward the kitchen, she rolled her eyes and released a light-hearted chuckle. “Men,” she sighed. “And they say women are emotional.” Helene waved her hand through the air with a gesture intended to erase her husband’s shocking tirade through the house just moments before.
             Inside, even her bones were shaking. Her last sip of tea turned on her stomach. Cool beads of sweat seeped through her freshly ironed blouse. The ladies sitting around her smiled back, cautiously, wearing strained looks of understanding.
             Finally, Meredith leaned over and patted Helene’s hands gently. “Of course, Sweetie. We all have one at home,” she whispered, and added a wink for good measure.
             Helene never met her eyes. Instead, she stared expressionless at Meredith’s hopeful yellow dress. The dress annoyed her now because Meredith had worn it despite the growing cold outside and the winter season rolling in. Although she had worn a heavy coat, Helene decided the dress was out of season and returned her attention to the other women.
             “Maybe it’s best to take a rain check on the rest of the meeting. I should really check on him,” Helene noted and rose to her feet. “We’ve covered a lot. We could certainly talk after the service on Sunday about the last of the fundraiser plans,” she added reassuringly.
             The three other women promptly began to clamber with purses, cell phones, and jackets. As they herded toward the door, Charles emerged from the kitchen. His movements had been silent and calm. He appeared without warning, without so much as the scuff of his feet on floor. He wore a smile now, a smile that was new and warm.
             “My apologies, ladies, for the outburst,” he began. “I had forgotten that Helene was having company today. Work was quite a mess,” he chuckled. “Too much excitement, but it’s no excuse. Helene and I are happy to have you.” He spoke with a chilling calm, his words lyrical and soothing. Charles looked head-on at each of the bewildered faces in front of him. “It’s too bad that we have plans for dinner with my boss, or I’d ask if you’d like to stay for supper,” he noted matter-of-factly, yet at the same time, pleasantly and with an air of sincere regret.
             When his transformed gaze met Helene’s, he extended his arm toward her, and she folded into his embrace without so much as a pause. Their eyes locked for a moment before Helene turned to face the other women. “Ah, how silly of me. I completely forgot about that. I guess it’s just as well,” she said, and gestured to the front door.
             The women glided to the door and filed into an obedient line. Helene smiled and hugged each of her friends, thanking them for coming. In turn, each of Helene’s friends left her with a sincere “thank you” for the refreshments and an assurance that, like her forgotten dinner plans, there was a necessary engagement or to-do list waiting to be taken care of just as soon as they left.
             Meredith gave Helene’s hand a gentle squeeze and peered over her shoulder toward the kitchen. She started to speak, but hesitated. Instead, she looked down at Helene’s hand laying in her hers and scuffed her foot on the brick step where she stood.
             Finally, Meredith looked back toward the kitchen, where Charles had retired, with a determined gaze and stammered loudly, “I’ll see you both at church on Sund—”
             “You better get going,” Helene cut in. “A pastor’s wife has lots to do.” She smiled at Meredith reassuringly and released her hand.
             Meredith responded with an uncertain grin, her cheeks quivering slightly. Then, she nodded, turned, and went to her car, the hem of her sunshine-colored dress still peering out from under her winter coat. Helene twisted her mouth into a subtle scowl as she watched Meredith shut the car door and slip her keys into the ignition. Helene’s feet remained glued to the front steps while Meredith’s car eased down the road and disappeared onto the highway. Helene stood for a moment in the doorway, breathing in the calm, crisp air outside and letting it linger around her a little longer. Then, she closed the front door and walked over to the window and quietly pulled the blinds.
             She turned to face the kitchen and found Charles already in the doorway.
             “Why were they here, Helene?” He was leaning against the doorframe, hands shoved in his pockets.
             She didn’t jump when he appeared there suddenly. She had learned to turn every corner with the expectation that he’d be standing there. He often appeared from other rooms, from around nearby corners, or even from behind her.
             “Church meeting. We have a fundraiser to plan,” Helene replied, quick and confident with her words. “We decided on a bake sale and raffle,” she added with a cheerful grin that nearly cramped her cheeks. “Did you know the rain flooded the park? That’s where we planned to have the meeting. Meredith called this morning and asked if they could swing by here, instead.”
             Although Helene was careful to hold his gaze, she now noted that his hands were no longer in his pockets. One fist was clenched. She knew better than to look directly at anything except his eyes when he was angry.
             Helene had been in love with Charles when she married him five years before, when everything was peaceful. The yelling hadn’t started until nearly a year ago, just after his father, whom he hadn’t spoken to in years, died suddenly in a car accident. Charles hadn’t hit her until a few months ago. The bruise on her arm was easy enough to cover up. She’d had to become more creative since then—makeup tricks, jackets, accessories, illness, whatever she could think of that she was pretty sure she hadn’t used more than once before. Over the last few months, she’d also developed an ability of nearly superhero proportion to take in every movement of his body, every expression change, even the scope of the room, without averting her eyes or losing the casual, singsong flow of her voice.
             “It was after you left for work, and I didn’t want to bother you,” she explained, feeling a quiver in her throat. “I didn’t think you’d be—”
             “—home so early,” he cut in sharply, sliding a foot in her direction.
             Helene took a step away from him, gliding her feet toward the coffee table and lifting the silver tray gingerly from the end table. She began to clear away the glasses and coffee cups, stacking them on the tray with careful attention.
             “I see that, Sweetie. What happened at work?” In truth, she already knew. Layoffs had been happening at the factory for weeks, causing Charles to be increasingly stressed, and increasingly angry.
             From the doorway, Charles only continued to stare, clenching his fist tighter.
             “It came today, didn’t it? The notice?” She let the words drag slowly and sweetly from her lips, tilting her face slightly so he could see it and pinching her eyebrows together to mark her concern. She stood carefully and continued to tiptoe backward, holding a tray of empty coffee cups and glasses. With her right hand, she slipped a large glass off of the tray and behind her back. The glass, embellished with yellow flower petals, had a subtle crack etched in its side.
             “Why do you think it came?” Charles stuttered. His eyes darkened. “You assume that I got fired. I’m not a lazy-ass like some of the other guys there. I work hard, and I’ve been there for more years than most. I deserve to be there!” He paused, still glaring at her. “But, of course, you don’t think so.” His voice shook. His eyes, already red and swollen, widened in fury. “It’s just like you to assume the worst of me!” His words struggled to find air through a barrage of powerful, desperate sobs. He reached for the lamp on the table next to him and ripped its cord from the wall. Then, in one massive, thunderous swoop, he buried the bottom edge in the living room wall.
             Helene screamed, dropping the tray to the floor and ducking behind the recliner on the far end of the room. Shards of bright yellow flower-printed glass decorated the floor all around her. She sat, crouching behind the chair, listening to Charles grunt and curse as he stood wrestling the lamp out of the wall.
             Waiting.
             Charles kicked the wall with the steel toe of his boot and then started pounding it with his fists.
             Somewhere in the background, subtle and indistinct, Helene heard the rising echo of clapping and cheering. The dancers on TV leapt back into her mind. The music. The clapping. She couldn’t see the screen from her hiding place, only the walls blocking her in from every side. She strained to focus her ears on anything other than the sound of Charles, ten feet away, now tugging violently at the lamp lodged in the wall and shouting obscenities that sent shivers rushing down her spine.
             On the TV, a new couple sauntered onto the floor to the sound of cheering. The applause stopped. The couple was ready. As the music started up softly, Helene began to rock back and forth. She wrapped her arms around her knees and closed her eyes. Huddled over, Helene was more than afraid. She was ashamed. Ashamed that she’d taken a chance. Ashamed that she believed him a week ago when he said things were going to be different.
             With her eyes closed tight, she saw herself floating right through the wall and stepping into the grass where she’d be out of his reach. Slipping into woods where he couldn’t find her. She pictured wings blooming right from her shoulders and carrying her up into clouds where she’d be free. She felt herself slowly dissolving right into the air until she could imagine being invisible to him.
             She felt her breath start to come a little easier, less shaky and deeper. It slowed in tune to music that now seemed to fill the room. A calm acceptance flooded over and through her, and her shaking bones began to still. She opened her eyes and reached for the remaining bottom half of the glass she had been holding behind her back. Her finger traced the lines along the yellow flower petals and the sparkling jagged spikes that wrapped around the top like a holiday wreath.
             Suddenly, the lamp exploded from the wall. Her fingers clutched the base of the glass. Her eyes stared straight into the pile of broken glass in front of her. Charles began to move in her direction. Helene listened to his every movement. The slow, controlled shuffle of his boots as they neared her. The smell of his cologne and sweat. The chuckling in his belly. The rhythmic tap of his finger against the metal base of the lamp. The familiar pulse of his anger when it began to rise. The quickening thump in her chest. The music. Helene drifted away, dissolved right into the air.
             The broken glass crunched on the other side of the chair, and Helene thought she glimpsed the toe of a boot. She shivered, clutching the base of the ruined, cracked glass even tighter in her palm. She squeezed it between her fingers until her anger matched his, until she leapt to her feet and stood with her eyes staring straight into his.
             Her rage clashed with his, and it merged in the air between them. She felt it. Heard it. It crackled like twisted flames rising from a campfire. His arm shot into the air; the base of the lamp flashed as it peaked above her head.
             Helene swung. The broken glass struck Charles at the base of his neck. His eyes widened and locked with hers, and Helene released a desperate cry into the room. Charles shrieked in pain and surprise as he crumpled to the floor. Helene followed him, dropping to her knees beside him and pressing her hands over the wound in his neck.
             “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.” She moved one hand from the wound to reach for the phone on the end table. “I’m calling an ambulance. You’re gonna be fine,” she sobbed, barely able to get the words out. Tears gathered on her husband’s cheeks. With one hand he held her arm, and with the other, gripped the hem of her skirt. Helene and Charles locked their eyes as if they were in an embrace, an embrace that held fast while Helene called for the ambulance, while she removed her blouse and pressed it against his wound, while they waited. Neither of them looked away.


♥ End ♥



Mia Eaker currently lives and writes in Charlotte, North Carolina. She received her MA in English from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she now teaches composition. She also teaches composition at Central Piedmont Community College and works as a cognitive skills trainer at The Brain Trainer in Charlotte.

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         Years from now, America is slowly collapsing. Crops are drying up and oil is running out. People flee cities for the countryside, worsening the drought and opening the land to crime. Amid this decay and strife, war veteran David Parrish fights to keep his family and farm together. However, the murder of a local child opens old wounds, forcing him to confront his own nature on a hunt through dust storms and crumbling towns for the killer.
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Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

The Happiest Place on Earth  |  William Lemon



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             I shuffled through the Anxious Kingdom, clinging to the edge of the walkway, careful not to venture near the middle. Hundreds of guests pushed through the amusement park, while men dressed in lion costumes bared their teeth, scaring any guest who came too close. When I rounded the corner, two of the lions pinned a man down, tickling him until he was blue in the face. The more he protested, the fiercer they became. Suddenly, the man broke free, then ran over to my position, attempting to wiggle inside the Cast Member entrance. I shut the gate before he arrived, careful not to catch his fingers inside the chain-link fence. His screams filled the entire park, rising above the muzak and jungle noises in the background. He almost sounded happy, if only for a moment.
             Inside the Cast Member Training Facility, Mr. Kreskin paced around the lobby, painted head to toe in gray, with a papier-mâché horn tied around his nose. I snickered at his costume, unaware that mine was in the other room. His assistant helped me dress for the exercise, covering every inch of my body gray in paint. I looked just like Rage the Rhino when she was done. Somehow, she even recreated his bloodshot eyes from the cartoon. I could scare anyone in the park with this face, no matter how many times they’d been here before. I was just like those lions above, frightening the guest into a state of pure, unadulterated joy.
             Our first activity centered around Rage Emersion Therapy, which was scheduled near the main office, in a room filled with pens and dry-erase boards. Mr. Kreskin, still in character, wrote on a board with his paw, filling it with his darkest thoughts. He prompted me to begin writing, to spill everything caught in my belly. I wrote about being mad at a park guest, who ran her GoMobile! scooter into my shin. His body began to shake, trembling as he read my story. Before I could react, he charged the dry-erase board, then proceeded to knock down several more of them.
             “What the hell?” I said.
             “That,” he said, “was a bunch of bullshit. You have to let it go.”
             “I did.”
             “My God, we’ll be here all year if that’s what you think is real. You have to look inside. The character you play is an extension of you. It’s your job to make his personality come to the surface.”
             He made me try again underneath the original note. I wrote about how grandfather took up all my money and forced me to keep working here. I asked grandfather why he didn’t save his pension, or stop smoking Camel unfiltered cigarettes after he found out it was cancer. Now, he was on a respirator, sucking up all the money I had left in the bank. When the pen broke, ink spilled out, covering my gray skin.
             Mr. Kreskin nodded in approval before starting his own note on the dry-erase board. Unlike me, his hands shook when he wrote, all of his anger distilled into this act. I could see a beauty in the way his body twitched. There were no doubts hidden in the sinews of his flesh. The words allowed him to express even the most hidden areas of his mind. He moved aside after he finished writing, urging me to read:
The hurt got bottled up inside me when his stupid goddamned ideas wouldn’t stop, so I built up the anger as he talked. I let it boil until the pressure was too much to handle. Then, I let my little guy spurt out the anger onto the mean man’s face. He stopped talking after that.
             Despite the very obvious questions about Mr. Kreskin’s marriage, I saw a glimpse of perfection inside his words, something pure within them. His rage didn’t destroy; it allowed for creation. He nodded at me to try again, and I let it all come out.


♥♥♥


             At the end of the day, we recapped in the main conference room, still dressed in our costumes, but no longer in character. His assistant decorated the room with congratulatory banners and balloons with my name written on the plastic. She even put out a bottle of Flighty the Falcon brand fruit punch, a favorite of mine while growing up. The juice was lukewarm with bits of plastic floating near the top, yet I drank the entire cup in one sip.
             “You did good today,” Mr. Kreskin said. “You’ll fit in fine.”
             “That’s if I don’t kill anyone.”
             “Ah, I wouldn’t worry about that,” he replied. You’ll have a Kidz2Work professional with you at all times.”
             “I don’t know if I’m too conformable with that situation, Mr. Kreskin.”
             “Look, son. The Kidz2Work program is a godsend. There are too many kids that are left at the park each year, and we have to give them something to do. Sure, a couple can work as pop-stars, like Miles August, but the majority of them need to earn their keep by helping Associates like you. We’re not a charity here.”
             Mr. Kreskin nodded at me, then left the room with my paperwork. I gazed into the mirror, marveling at my transformation, sure I’d be a success above. You couldn’t tell me apart from those cartoons you watched every Saturday morning with your kids. There was pure emotion residing inside me, a small part of this great place.
             I could hear people screaming while exiting the elevator. The Anxious Kingdom, still at full capacity, had throngs of tourists crowding the walkway, heavy with fanny-packs and presents from our gift shop. I charged headfirst into the crowd, knocking over a Japanese tourist, who was waiting in line for the Jungle Cruise. His family picked him up, then took a picture with me.
             We all looked so happy in that moment.


♥ End ♥



William Lemon received his M.A. in Literature and Writing at California State University San Marcos, then began teaching English at the Community College level. For the past several years, he has taught at Santa Monica College and Irvine Valley College. He has been published in Bartleby Snopes, BlazeVOX, Drunk Monkeys, and the Eunoia Review. This story previously appeared on the Cold Reads podcast, Episode 19. [Author photo by and © Gabriel Ryan Photographers. Used with permission; all rights reserved.]

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Above All Men, a new novel by Eric Shonkwiler, available for pre-order from MG Press. Don’t miss the author critics are saying, “takes the world on his own terms, and wrestles it to the ground.” (Tom Lutz, The Los Angeles Review of Books).
         Years from now, America is slowly collapsing. Crops are drying up and oil is running out. People flee cities for the countryside, worsening the drought and opening the land to crime. Amid this decay and strife, war veteran David Parrish fights to keep his family and farm together. However, the murder of a local child opens old wounds, forcing him to confront his own nature on a hunt through dust storms and crumbling towns for the killer.
         Reserve your copy in any format for $1 today, and get 20% off the cover price upon March 2014 release.


Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

Hey, Dave  |  James Babbs



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             It was early on a Tuesday night, and the place was dead. Lou—the bartender—was wiping down the bar with a rag that had probably been white, once, a long time ago. When Lou reached the end of the bar, he stopped. A guy was sitting there with his head slumped forward.
             “Byron, what’s wrong?” Lou asked.
             Byron sipped at his beer like a dying fish gasping for air. “Ah, Lou, have I got troubles.”
             “Hey, how ’bout some of those cheese sticks you like? On me, okay?”
             “Sure,” said Byron, without looking up.
             Lou went in the back and returned a couple of minutes later. “Just a few minutes, buddy.” Lou scanned the empty bar, then took a step toward Byron. “Hey, did I tell you about the redhead who was in here last week?” Lou had a big grin on his face.
             “Yep. You told me, Lou.” Byron took another sip of his beer. His glass was about half empty.
             “Hey, let me freshen up your beer. I’ll check on those cheese sticks.” Lou took Byron’s glass and filled it up. He set it down in front of Byron, then Lou disappeared into the kitchen. When he came back out, he was carrying a plate of cheese sticks and a little bowl of sauce. “Here you go.” He set the plate and the bowl down on the bar. He pulled a little bottle out of his pocket. “And I didn’t forget the hot sauce.”
             “Thanks, Lou,” Byron said in the same tired voice. He began to eat the cheese sticks, but without much enthusiasm.
             Lou hit Byron hard on the shoulder and laughed. “I got somethin’ that’ll cheer you up.” Lou shook his head, knocking loose tiny pieces of laughter. “This customer told me the funniest joke the other day.” Lou hit Byron again.
             “No jokes, Lou.” Byron put his hand up, holding his beer with the other one. “I got big troubles.”
             “Oh,” Lou said. “You’ll love this.” He hit Byron again. Lou took a step back. “See, there was this guy, okay?” Lou stuck his hands out in front of him.
             Byron slumped forward, no longer interested in the cheese sticks or the beer. A long sigh escaped his lips.
             “See, there was this guy,” Lou repeated. “And he was going to a baseball game.” Lou leaned toward Byron. “And he’s waitin’ in line to get his ticket—” Lou formed a megaphone with his hands and put it around his mouth. “—and he hears somebody shout, Hey, Dave! The guy looks around—” Lou shifted his head from side to side, a look of confusion on his face. Byron stared at his beer. “—but he doesn’t see anybody, so he goes into the park and finds his seat. Well, he’s sittin’ there for a while, you know, watchin’ the game, and all of a sudden he hears—” Lou reproduced another megaphone and surrounded his lips with it. “—someone shout, Hey, Dave!
             Byron pushed the rest of his beer away and stood up. He started fishing in his pocket for some money.
             “Hey,” Lou said. He touched Byron’s arm. “Sit down. I ain’t finished.”
             “Look, Lou, I …” Byron felt the pressure of Lou’s hand against his shoulder.
             “Come on. It’ll only take a couple of minutes. I gave you those cheese sticks. I thought we were having a good time.”
             “I really don’t feel like it …” But Byron was already sitting back down, his hand buried in his pocket.
             “Now, let’s see.” Lou cleared away Byron’s plate and the little bowl of sauce. He left the glass of beer and the bottle of hot sauce. “Okay. There was this guy, and he went to a baseball game.” The phone rang, and Lou looked irritated. He turned to go answer it. “Just sit tight.”
             As soon as Lou was gone, Byron laid two dollars on the bar and headed for the door. Byron raised his hand to push the door open, but when he did, it retreated and another man entered almost running into Byron.
             “Byron, buddy,” the man said. “How ya’ doin’?”
             “Ah, Joe, have I got troubles,” Byron replied, hanging his head.
             “Well, come on, and I’ll buy you a beer.”
             “No. I better get home.”
             “Oh, come on. It’s early, yet.” Joe wrapped his arm around Byron and dragged him back to the bar. “Hey, Lou, two beers,” Joe said, as the two men sat down.
             “How’s it goin’, Joe?” Lou set two glasses down on the bar and took the money Joe left for him.
             “Good,” Joe said. He picked up his glass and drank some of the beer. “Hey, I got a joke for you guys.” Joe reached out and punched Byron in the arm. “Okay, listen up. There was this guy, and he was going to a baseball game.” Joe straightened up. “And he’s gettin’ his ticket, and he hears someone scream, Hey, Dave!
             Lou laughed and hit Byron’s shoulder again. Lou pointed his finger at Joe. “I was just tellin’ Byron, here, that same joke, but I didn’t get a chance to finish it.”
             Byron watched the foam from his beer ooze over the side of the glass and slither down to the bar where it formed a tiny puddle.
             “Well, go ahead, Lou,” Joe said. He took another drink from his beer and set the glass down again.
             “Okay,” said Lou. “Like I was sayin’ earlier …” He looked at Byron and grinned. “There was this guy at a baseball game, and he’s waitin’ in line for his ticket.”
             “Lou,” said Byron. “I really should get going.” Byron stood up.
             “But you haven’t touched your beer,” Joe said, waving his hand at the full glass.
             “I don’t want it, Joe. You drink it.”
             “Come on,” Joe said. “At least stay and hear this joke.”
             “Yeah,” said Lou. “Come on, now. Sit down.” He put his hand on Byron’s shoulder and pushed him back to the stool.
             Byron let out a long sigh. Lou and Joe looked at him, and he picked up his beer and took a drink. He set the glass back down.
             “Atta boy,” Joe said. He punched Byron in the arm again.
             Lou wiped his hands across the front of his shirt and shook them in the air. “Anyway. This guy’s waitin’ for his ticket, and he hears someone—” Lou made a new megaphone and used it like he had before. “—shout, Hey, Dave! The guy looks around and doesn’t see anybody, so he takes his ticket and goes to find his seat.”
             “Hey,” Joe said, rising from his barstool. “That looks like Charlie.”
             A man entered the bar, and Joe ran over to him and started shaking his hand. “Charlie,” Joe said. “I haven’t seen you for I don’t know how long.”
             “Hey, Charlie,” Lou said, grinning. “Beer?”
             “That must be why you’re the bartender,” Charlie laughed and pointed at Lou.
             “Yep,” Lou said. “That’s why I get paid the big bucks.”
             “Look who’s here,” said Joe.
             Byron was on his feet again.
             “Byron, old man,” said Charlie. He grabbed Byron’s hand and shook it. “What’s goin’ on?”
             “Ah, have I got troubles.”
             “Troubles, schmubbles,” said Charlie. “Sit down. Have a drink.” Charlie dropped Byron’s hand like a dead fish. “I got a humdinger of a joke to tell you.”
             “I was just tellin’ a joke when you walked in,” Lou said. He set a glass of beer in front of Charlie.
             “Look,” Byron said. “I should be going.”
             “But you haven’t heard the joke, yet,” said Lou.
             “But …” Byron’s voice trailed off.
             “Now, no buts,” said Charlie.
             “That’s right,” agreed Joe. The two men squeezed Bryon onto the stool between them.
             “Okay, Lou,” Joe said.
             “Well, like I’ve said before: there was this guy goin’ to a baseball game, and he’s waitin’ for his ticket.”
             Charlie began to laugh. He set his glass down. “That’s the same joke I was gonna tell.” Charlie slapped the bar hard with his hand and released a loud snort. “Hey, Dave!”
             Joe was laughing, too. “Hell, I came in here earlier and started to tell the same joke.” He leaned across Byron and put his face next to Charlie. Lou, Joe, and Charlie roared with laughter. Byron shut his eyes and held his head in his hands.
             “All right, ya’ dirty bums,” said a voice suddenly rising above the sound of the laughter.
             Joe and Charlie turned around. “Sam!” they both screamed at the same time.
             “Sammy!” Lou grinned. “Beer comin’ right up.”
             “Thanks, Lou,” said Sam. He slapped Byron on the back. “How’s it goin’, Byron?”
             Byron didn’t look up. “Ah, have I got troubles.” He let out another long sigh, but nobody seemed to notice.
             “Well,” said Sam, taking his beer from Lou. “Here’s to better days.”
             Joe and Charlie joined in, and all three of them raised their glasses and took long drinks.
             “What’s wrong, Byron?” Sam asked. “Not thirsty?”
             “We’ve been tryin’ to cheer him up all night,” said Lou.
             “Oh,” said Sam. He smiled. “I’ve got just the thing. Okay, listen to this.” He set his beer down and started chuckling. “Okay, there was this guy, and he had just bought a ticket to a baseball game, and he hears someone yell—”
             Sam was joined by the chorus of Lou, Joe, and Charlie: “—Hey, Dave!” They all started laughing.
             Byron was on his feet again.
             “We’ve all been trying to tell the same joke,” Lou said.
             “Yeah,” Joe said. “And ol’ Byron, here, seems to be the only one who hasn’t heard it.” Joe threw his arm around Byron and gave him a squeeze.
             “Well,” said Sam, pushing his way into the space between Byron and Charlie. “We can settle that right now.”
             “I believe Lou has dibs,” Charlie said.
             Byron slumped back on his stool as the others pressed in around him. He clenched his hands into small, hard fists and muttered silently to himself.
             “Is this a private party or what?” a new voice broke in.
             “Uh-oh,” Joe said. “That sounds like …” The three men whirled around. “Harry! You old son of a bitch!”
             “Hey, what’s happening?” said Harry. He was given several pats on the back and a couple of handshakes.
             “What can I get you, Harry?”
             “What are these other bums drinkin’?”
             “Beer,” Lou said.
             “Well, you know me. I’m not one to go against traditions.”
             Byron stood up and, during the exchanges with Harry, slipped away from the bar. He was almost to the door when Harry spotted him.
             “Hey, Byron! Where you off to?” Harry walked over to Byron. “Byron, it’s been a while. How are you?”
             “Ah, Harry, have I got troubles.” Byron glanced quickly at the others standing next to the bar.
             “What’s wrong?”
             “Here’s your beer,” said Lou.
             “Thanks, Lou,” Harry said, giving Lou a wave of appreciation.
             “You really want to know what’s wrong, Harry?” Byron said, looking at the door.
             “Sure. Why not?”
             “Well, I’ll tell you. My wife wants a divorce. She said she never loved me. My son got busted for drugs. My daughter’s pregnant, and she doesn’t know who the father is. And my doctor told me last week that I have a spot on one of my lungs. I just don’t know what else can go wrong.”
             “Hey, Harry.” It was Joe, pushing himself between the two men. “Lou’s been trying to tell Byron this great joke all evening.”
             “Oh, yeah. What’s the joke?”
             Byron was heading for the door again.
             “The Hey-Dave joke,” said Joe. “Everyone’s heard it except for Byron.”
             “Hey, Byron, don’t go,” Lou called after him.
             “Come back and hear the joke,” said Sam.
             “Come on, Byron,” pleaded Charlie.
             “Well, I haven’t heard this joke,” Harry said. He had come back to the bar and was picking up his glass.
             “Let Byron go,” Joe said. Byron went through the door and was gone. “Harry hasn’t heard the joke.”
             “Well, okay,” said Charlie. “Go ahead, Lou.”
             “Well, there was this guy,” Lou said, gesturing with his hands, “and he’s waitin’ in line for a ticket to the baseball game. And he hears—” Lou’s hands formed the megaphone and surrounded his mouth. “—Hey, Dave!” Joe, Charlie, and Sam chuckled, and Harry grinned. “The guy looks around—” Lou swivels his head back and forth. “—but he doesn’t see anybody, so he goes to find his seat. Anyway, he’s sittin’ there, just watchin’ the game, and from behind him he hears—” The megaphone goes up to Lou’s mouth again. “—Hey, Dave!” Lou swiveled his head. “The guy’s lookin’ all around, but he doesn’t see anybody. So, later on, he’s watchin’ the game, drinkin’ a beer, eatin’ a hot dog, and the game’s gettin’ really tense.” Lou leaned closer to Harry and started speaking a little softer. “It’s the bottom of the ninth, two outs and bases loaded, and the guy’s sittin’ there, and all of a sudden he hears—” Another megaphone appeared, and Lou took a step back. “—Hey, Dave! The guy spills his beer and drops the rest of his hot dog.” Lou simulated an explosion with his hands. “The guy stands up—” Lou placed his hands on his hips. “—and he’s really had it now.” A look of disgust played across Lou’s face. “The guy screams … My name’s not Dave!
             Harry was laughing along with the others, as they stood around slapping him on the back and downing their beers.
             “Hey,” Lou said. “How ’bout some cheese sticks?”


♥ End ♥



James Babbs has published hundreds of poems over the last several years in print journals and online. He is the author of Dictionary of Chaos (2002), Another Beautiful Night (2010), Disturbing The Light (2013) and The Weight of Invisible Things (2013). [Author photo by and © Anna Staab. Used with permission; all rights reserved.]

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Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.