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.
         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.

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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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.

Stoop  |  Alexa Mergen



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             Desperation nipped at Ben’s heels like a cattle dog. Iris had no idea how in hock they were. He could not tell her. After all, he had promised to take care of her. He had taken her away from her parents’ twelfth-floor apartment, lined with black lacquered shelves heavy with books and silver candlesticks that—Iris’ mother, Annabelle, informed him on his first visit, placing one like a weapon into his sweaty, callused palm while he shifted like a nervous horse standing in the hall—had been in her family since her ancestor, John Plane, sailed up the Rappahannock River in 1717, with soapstone sculptures Frank Collins collected on treks to the Arctic, Central America, Africa, places he had lectured as a professor of the study of man. When Ben Tattel, by some dumb luck, collected this finishing-school beauty from her apartment and married her, brought her, he thought, like a fairytale princess to the forest in the city, he promised that, though she would not be rich, she would always be safe. He considered his wife fragile and cherished her innocence. He wanted her to be happy.
             Friday night, when Iris suggested over a dinner, just the two of them, Abel and Cici off with their friends, that he ask his sister to pay him for his share of their parents’ house, his first impulse was to saddle Moss, the quarter horse mare he had not ridden in months, and keep riding along the river until he reached the Chesapeake Bay. By horseback, though, even in 1981, that would be a journey of days, the way blocked by highways, houses, and bridges. There was no room anymore for creatures afoot. Maybe that was the problem. People took the new subway (His father would have been dumbfounded by that system, and the rats its construction stirred up.), buses, and drove their cars, even with the price of gas creeping up. And they rode bicycles, like his own son, Abel, who preferred a bike to the horses they had at Tangle Creek City Stable. Ben’s second impulse was to go to the boat. This he did on Saturday morning. He could think when he was walking, on a horse, or on the water. Movement made him aware of the future and the past and emboldened him to move forward.
             Zach’s Boat House was tucked under the Whitehurst Freeway near Key Bridge. Ben kept a canoe there that his father had christened the Durham, named for the type of vessel George Washington used to cross the Delaware River in 1776. Ben’s Durham was a simple plank canoe, painted the creamy white of mock-orange flowers. His father had been barred from military service during the Second World War due to a severe limp, a legacy of childhood polio. The man had trained as a plumber joking, You spend most of your time on your back reaching up. Not much need for the legs, and an amateur woodworker. On land, Ben and his sister, Bebe, often waited for their father to catch up to them, embarrassed by his loping gait when other fathers strode steadily. But on the river, Patrick Tattel moved the balanced boat with grace, dipping the birch paddle noiselessly. On the river, you could remember that everything in life begins with making something, whether it’s a pie, like Bebe made with their mother, Marie, or a boat, or a business, like Patrick did with Tattel Plumbing. Make something of yourself. Make something of yourself. Patrick always delivered the command twice in a row, once for each child. And then, a third time, Make something of yourself. A charm. Bebe repeated the phrase three times in a whisper to her doll, curled up on an old patio cushion in the center of the canoe. Ben was placed in the bow, and his father’s voice from the stern pushed him on.
             The only print Patrick Tattel read was daily papers, the Post and the Star, but he could read water, whether it was gurgling up through a tub drain or flowing toward the sea. Much of his job was routine, Patrick told 12-year-old Ben, as they glued strips of marine plywood into place along the boat’s frame: the routine was clogged commodes, stopped-up sinks, tree roots in sewer lines—but river water told a new story every day. It was like the hymns they sang at St. Peter’s: though the words never varied, changing voices altered the resulting sound from Sunday to Sunday.
             Ben’s truck was the only vehicle parked on the shoulder of the road by the boat house. Thin sheets of ice floated in the Potomac River and huddled against the bank of Roosevelt Island, on the far side. If he were a younger man, Ben would have lifted the boat from the rack—space 22, a paddle balanced on the thwarts—and put in anyway. It always cheered him to see how the boat found her center as she bounced up after being set in the water for adventure.
             But today, he needed solutions, not adventure. He needed money.
             Ben unlocked and slid open the boat-house door. The rowing shells, canoes, and kayaks waited in darkness like the crocus and tulip bulbs Iris dug into the soil, rich with their own horses’ manure, that bloomed mid-spring to form elaborate patterns of color that she called her “Turkish carpet.” Thinking of these flowers brought Ben a tremor of hope. They still had six horses. Between his daughter Cici and himself, maybe they could manage without hiring more help in the stable. He would just have to get used to a shovel again.
             With bare hands, Ben brushed cobwebs from the Durham. He used his sleeve to burnish the brass nameplate. When Iris’ flowers bloomed, he promised himself, he would get Abel and Cici back on the river, the three of them, like they used to do when the kids were small. And today, he would ask Bebe for his share of the money from the house. It was all they had been left by their parents.
             It seemed long ago, now. When Marie got sick, Patrick stayed home more and more, holding her hand. She wanted to be read to from collections of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Facts weird and true calmed her: that fruit-bat soup was a delicacy in Palau, or a woman survived a fall from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building, or a cat in England can purr as loud as a motorcycle. There were hundreds of thousands of facts, enough to read for hours on end, to speculate on. Immobilized, wasting, she could suspend her belief and swallow novelty, even if she could not suspend her pain and swallow soup. These random oddities bound Patrick and Marie like superglue. Bebe took to bringing her parents a tray, usually homemade pie and lemonade, both of which her mother had taught her to make.
             Gradually, the business of Tattel Plumbing faded along with the lettering on the side of Patrick’s truck, left parked in the sun so long, city traffic enforcers fitted the front tire with a yellow boot. Ben had to walk to the police station and pay the fine with money saved from mowing lawns. Marie died after four years of suffering, years of midnight trips to Providence Hospital, and long days when Bebe and Ben sat opposite each other on the front stoop playing jacks, scared to go to the park that their mother might die when they left, and they would miss saying goodbye.
             They were outside when Marie and Patrick died within the same hour, when Ben was fifteen and Bebe twelve. The coroner’s report said congestive heart failure for Marie and stroke for Patrick. Patrick had left the paperwork for a life-insurance policy in plain view on the dresser. The children received a thousand dollars in cash and the house fully paid. Ben lied to the medics who came in an ambulance to take the bodies away, saying his uncle was coming to stay. It did not seem like a lie, as the day felt ordinary. The ambulance did not sound its siren. The children had for a long time fended for themselves. Patrick’s brother, Chad, did arrive at Union Station with his overnight kit in a grocery bag. He slept on the couch for six nights. He paid for plots at Tangle Creek Cemetery and headstones with stacks of dollar bills rolled with a rubber band. He even stood by the children as a priest said the right words to make Patrick and Marie rest in heaven. Then, Chad Tattel lied to the priest and said he would stay with the kids, while Ben and Bebe watched. When he left the children by the red, white, and blue bus stop, pressing a five-dollar bill in each child’s hand, and walked away to catch the train, the brother and sister decided to go to Roy Rogers for roast beef and fries. They were suddenly very hungry. And in no hurry to get home.
             On that cool fall day, no one else attended the funeral service. The leaves of the trees of Tangle Creek Park caught the golden sunlight and held onto it greedily. The Tattels’ friends had faded away when Patrick stopped answering the door or opening the curtains. Some neighbors wondered if the house was unoccupied. They paid little attention to two children living alone. Ben dropped out of high school, ducking the truancy officer for a couple of weeks, then went to work at the stable, a few times sleeping in the barn to avoid his sister’s repeated inquiry, Are you okay? Bebe finished high school, babysitting evenings and weekends, then married the first boy she kissed. All that was a long time ago, Ben thought. He had been good to his sister, as he had promised. The siblings could work something fair. Ben knocked on the Durham’s gunnel for luck and locked the boat safely.
             Traffic was light. Ben reached the old row house after just two songs on the radio and the hourly news summary. As he parked, he noticed paint peeling from the bricks, the front gate leaning on its hinges, plastic wrap tacked in the windows to keep out drafts. The house had been white for as long as he could remember, until a few years ago, when Bebe had it painted rose red and green. As more and more people bought up the historic houses and redid them in subdued shades of gray and beige, Bebe’s stood out like a schoolgirl whose clothes are not quite right.
             When he approached the iron steps to Bebe’s front door, Ben’s resolve wavered. He conceived of life as an obstinate horse that, if controlled with clear authority, had no need for cruelty. Right now, he was not sure what the command was. He wanted to shake the lead rope and tell life to back-up.
             “Ben! Are you okay?” Bebe cried, wiping her hands on her apron. “I saw your truck pull up. I’ve been baking, don’t you know? You wouldn’t believe what some of these new neighbors will pay for a pie, Ben. I can hardly keep up. They love to have parties. Oscar Brown, next door, he squeezed 200 people into his backyard, and it’s not any bigger than ours. He ordered 20 shepherd’s pies and 25 fruit.” She descended each step haltingly, pinching her eyes. “It’s these knees,” she explained. “Just like Mom, remember? Poor thing.” In imitation of Bebe, the four following children stepped and stopped behind their mother. “I’m not sick, though,” she added hastily.
             “Henry around?” Ben asked. Bebe shook her head, and the eldest boy looked at his mother. Ben remembered that the boy was born around the time of Jimmy Carter’s inauguration, so he must be about four. That boy held the littlest, who was born on Lincoln’s birthday, a year ago. From her hospital bed, Bebe had told her big brother that the auspicious date was a sign that her youngest would be an important politician. She even named him Lincoln. Henry, who Ben suspected drank too much, seemed dazed the day of Lincoln’s birth and merely nodded as the nurse filled in the certificate. Why would be object? His parents had named him Henry Ford. It struck Ben as he watched the details of a new life being logged, how people carry papers, like horses do, and cannot escape those first definitions. The baby would forever be Lincoln Ford. It sounded like a car dealership.
             The oldest was called Scott. Ben and Iris were his godparents, though he had to admit, they had not done much about it. The two girls were Stacy and Shelly, but he was not sure which was which. Bebe finally reached the brick path.
             “It’s a good thing I canned peaches and strawberries last summer,” she said. “It was plenty hot in that steamy kitchen last August, but Henry gets the bruised fruit for next to nothing. And Oscar said the pies tasted like the ones his mama used to make. That’s high praise. He said, ‘Bee’—he calls me Bee, which I don’t mind; I’m surely busy as a bee.” She stopped to laugh at her own joke. “‘Bee,’ he says, ‘you can expect many more pie orders from me.’” She took Lincoln in one arm from Scott, who handled the baby over willingly, and said quickly, “Scoot, Scott. Take the girls in for me.” She placed her other hand on Ben’s arm and lowered her voice. “It’s a good thing, Ben, that I am earning pin money from those pies. We’re stretched thin as a sheet of strudel dough.”
             Ben did not know how thin strudel dough was, but her meaning was clear. He ran a hand through his hair. “I’m sorry to hear that, Bebe.”
             She sat down on the step. Cici had told her aunt last summer when she was over helping with canning that siblings share more genes with each other than with either of their birth parents. How can Abel and I be so different, then? Cici had asked her aunt over the sound of boiling water, holding her sad face in her hands, surrounded by jars of gold and red where the girl sat at the kitchen table.
             Bebe patted the step for Ben to sit beside her. “What brings you over our way, Ben?” she asked, holding the baby’s arms and gently making him clap. Lincoln opened his lips in a gummy smile.
             “Oh.” It felt good to sit on the stoop with his sister again, to feel the cold rise up through his pant legs from the iron step.
             “Look at that robin. So early,” Bebe exclaimed. “They nest in that silver maple every year.”
             Ben heard his mother’s voice surfacing from the furthest corner of his brain where he stored geometry formulas and snippets of songs from the ’60s. Beatrice walks on the sunny side of the street, she said. And his father’s voice, closer, ringing like tinnitus: Take care of your sister.
             “Bebe,” Ben said, “I was just passing by and thought how long it’s been since I saw the little one.” He took Lincoln on his lap to hold him close, then wrapped the baby warmly with his own soft muffler.


♥ End ♥



After Alexa Mergen was kicked out of a second-grade slumber party for scaring the other little girls with a ghost story, she was hooked on telling tales. She worked for years as an English teacher, which was a great excuse to read a lot with smart people and talk about writing. Her fiction, poetry, and essays appear in numerous journals. Alexa lives in Sacramento, and is an assistant fiction editor at Fifth Wednesday Journal. [Author photo by and © Matt Weiser. Used with permission; all rights reserved.]

Do you Kindle?

We feature a Kindle-friendly PDF (That means actually formatted for reading!) of each story for free download each day, available for a limited time. Don’t delay; download today! Just want a plain ol’ regular PDF? Sure, we’ve got that, too. Need help? Check the sidebar.

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.