Shipshape and Heartbreak

Her name was Madge, and she loved the color blue. On the last day of her life, she wore blue socks rolled at the ankle, a blue-and-white striped dress (because they were the easiest to put on) and tiny blue stud earrings (like what ladies wear). She’d also slid on a headband to pull back the wispy bangs that hung in her eyes. When she’d checked the band from all angles (left, right, front and behind), she stepped back from her vanity and carefully closed the headband drawer, making sure that everything in it stayed tidy. Shipshape, her mother always said. Madge whispered it to herself whenever she closed a drawer.

“Shipshape.”

Although she was thirteen, Madge didn’t look much older than nine. She was petite and chubby, her body snug in the dress like a pork sausage in its casing. Madge wasn’t aware of her size, but she had the habit of running a hand down her rotund belly. She’d seen her mother do the same when pregnant with baby Ashby; Ashby, unfortunately, had not survived infancy, and Madge’s mother had become very tired. Madge believed that Mama had taken to the color black, so she’d wrapped the dark around her like a winter coat filled with goose feathers. That’s why she stayed in bed all the time. It was warm and soft and opaque. But with Mama always sleeping – and Madge frequently tiptoeing in to kiss Mama’s cheek and tuck her in – the house had become messy.

Madge stood in the kitchen doorway, surveying the wreckage.

“This is not shipshape,” she whispered to herself. “Not shipshape. Not Bristol fashion.”

She wagged at a finger at the room, shook her head from side to side so her hair swung, kissing her rosy cheeks, and tsked. She loved to tsk. She visited Ms. Marie every week to work on her speech, and tsk had been some of the first consonants she’d mastered.

“Tsk, tsk, tsk.”

Banana peels lay on the floor, coffee grounds sprinkled the counter, dirty dishes were piled precariously in the farmhouse sink. A few cupboard doors were ajar. Tomato skins from spaghetti dinner a few nights back were piled next to the silverware drawer, and a carton of expired milk had tipped over. White chunks slopped out of the cardboard opening.

Madge, earnest and hardworking, plodded over to the trash can. She lifted the lid, placed it on the floor, and grasped the plastic bin with both hands, lugging it over to the dirty counters. With a sweep of her chubby, pale arm, the old food, the crumbs, the wadded paper towels tumbled into the white plastic bag.

Madge clapped, applauding her own efforts. She beamed at the now slightly less cluttered counters and moved down to sweep more crumbs. They tinkled into the bag like rain, and Madge, who loved a good sprinkle – but not thunderstorms, never thunderstorms – giggled. She pushed up her blue plastic-framed glasses with one stubby finger then got on her hands and knees to scoop up the abandoned peels. After she’d tossed them, she wiped her hands and called it a day.

“That’s a day!” she trilled.

She galloped, tripping once but catching herself on a hall table, to Mama’s room. She knocked at the door then pushed it open.

“I cleaned, Mama!”

The lump on the bed didn’t move. Didn’t make any response, any acknowledgement of Madge’s proclamation, let alone her presence.

Madge bounced around the bed and knelt in front of the blanket-covered swelling. She stroked a hand gently down the worn cotton blanket and dropped her chin to the mattress.

“Mama,” she whispered. “The kitchen is shipshape. Shipshape.”

Mama didn’t move, at first. But she moaned, long and low and muffled by the covers. Madge, her big, compassionate heart bursting, scrunched her face in sadness. Her voice shook as she asked “Mama?” With a sniff of her small, pushed-in nose, she resumed her stroking and a hot tear slid down and around her cheek to drop onto the pilling flannel sheet.

“I love you,” Madge said, then hefted her pudgy hulk onto the mattress. Mama scooted over with a groan, but when Madge lifted the sheet to crawl in, Mama reached out an arm and pulled her girl close.

Soothed, Madge swiped first at the tear, then at her running nose before snuggling into her mother. She laid a chaste kiss on Mama’s dry cheek and rubbed her head against Mama’s chest.

“You will be happy?”

Mama didn’t answer.

“Mama?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“I make you happy. I know the trick. Be back soon,” Madge told her mother, excitement tingeing her voice.

Madge crawled out from under the blankets and hopped like a bunny rabbit over to her room to grab her favorite purse. It was made out of blue denim and had the name “Madge” scrawled across in silver sequins. Madge picked at the sequins with her fingers before sliding the strap over her arm.

“Bye-bye,” she called to the house. To her mama.

“Bye-bye,” came the murmur from the other bedroom.

Madge stepped out into the sunshine and closed the front door tightly. It must be shut then pulled, so the latch would catch. Madge loved that phrase. Latch would catch. Latch and catch. Latch catch. Ms. Marie liked those sounds too.

She clutched the handle of her purse with one hand and bounced down the concrete sidewalk. Some of the neighborhood kids were playing down the street. Madge’s eyes brightened with anticipation. She continued her lope down the broken and cracked pavement and called hello to the neighbors outside enjoying the summer afternoon.

“Hello, Mr. Bates! Hello, Mrs. Klein!”

Mr. Bates and Mrs. Klein responded with waves and well wishes for Madge to enjoy the lovely day. And Madge went merrily on her way, eager to play with the kids at the end of the block.

But when she reached them, they formed a line, not allowing her to cross.

“What do you want, Mongoloid?” Joey Foster from 612 Rosemont Street asked.

Madge was puzzled. Her forehead crinkled, and she tilted her head to the side. What was Mongoloid? Was that like a creature from another planet? Like the movie that Rebecca from school talked about all the time? The one with the bicycle and the candy? Madge loved candy. So maybe she would be a Mongoloid, if they liked candy like the E.T.

“You can’t cross here. No Mongoloids allowed.”

Joey crossed his hands over his chest. He looked to the other kids, staring them down with icy blue eyes until they straightened their stances and glared at Madge.

Joey was the product of a broken home. Madge didn’t know what a broken home was, but Mrs. Klein had told her that earlier in the summer. She said that was why Joey was a mean boy. Madge thought her own home was broken as well. Like a giant crack ran down the length of it, and Mama was on one side and Baby Ashby’s room was on the other. But Mrs. Klein said that was different and that Madge was a honeypie who should just ignore Mean Joey.

“I’m not Mong-Mong-Mong-o-loid,” Madge stuttered. “But I like candy.” She grinned.

Mean Joey stepped forward, the toes of his shoes inches from Madge’s white Velcro sneakers.

“I said, no Mongoloids.”

Madge couldn’t look Mean Joey in the eye. She felt uncomfortable, both with the harsh delivery of his words and the closeness of his rail-thin body. Mean Joey was all sharp angles, a body of knives. Madge thought that he could easily slice her, so she looked at the ground and took baby steps backward.

“I’m not alien,” she whispered, eyes focused on the blades of grass growing out of a crack in the sidewalk. Her headband slipped forward, landing on her hairline.

“What did you say? Did you say ‘alien’?” Mean Joey swiveled in his black high tops to look in disbelief at the line of kids behind him. “She thinks she’s an alien?”

Mean Joey laughed, his mouth wide open, his teeth coming to points. His body shook and bowed back, and he laid a hand on his stomach. His eyes, however, didn’t show any humor. They stayed mean.

Madge, not understanding, began to smile. Giggle. Suddenly, however, Mean Joey stopped. He looked Madge up and down then reached a skinny finger out to press it into the soft, spongy skin at her shoulder. Then he pushed her. Startled, Madge fell back, landing hard on her rear. She looked up at Joey. Her bottom lip slipped out from her smile and began to tremble.

Mrs. Klein, who had been watching the exchange from her yard, threw down her hose and stomped down the sidewalk. Her chunky black oxfords squeaked with each footstep, and her thick-lensed glasses slid down her nose. She was retired, a widow. She and her husband, Jacob, had never been blessed with children – which Mrs. Klein never really minded, to be honest – but she’d taken a shine to the sweet-natured Madge. And Mrs. Klein was not one to stand bullying of any kind. Of any kind.

“Young man,” she said, her arm outstretched, her finger pointed, her body subconsciously echoing Mean Joey’s aggressive posture. “You stop that right now. Right now! If you don’t leave this poor child alone, you can bet I’ll be on you faster than a duck on a junebug. And I have your mother’s ear. Now git. Git!”

Mean Joey sneered at the tiny old lady who glared up at him, her watery brown eyes magnified by her lenses.

“Whatever, lady. C’mon,” he said to the row of kids who had stood silent in awe, in fear.

They trooped off. Mrs. Klein helped Madge to her feet, brushed off the gravel stuck to her legs and gave her a little tap on the bottom.

“Now, you are a strong girl, you hear? But you stay away from that boy. He’s bad news.”

Madge nodded. Bad news.

“Now, you git too. Enjoy the sunshine. Maybe later, you can stop by for some gingersnaps, all right?”

Madge sniffled, nodded. She liked the snappy cookies. They were crisp like their sound. Snap.

“Go on.”

Madge started forward, looked back at Mrs. Klein. Waved. Mrs. Klein smiled, and her glasses slipped to the tip of her nose.

Collecting herself, Madge resumed her lumbering skip down the street, though it was ever so less energetic as before. At the end of the block, she turned right. She wasn’t allowed to cross the street, but there was a market just around the corner. No crossing the street. Mr. Jackson, who played with the money, was nice, and he sometimes gave her a lollipop.

She pushed inside, her mood restored when she heard the tinkling of the bells that signaled a customer’s entrance.

“Hi, Mr. Jackson!”

Mr. Jackson, an elderly gentleman who had just welcomed his seventh grandchild – and his first granddaughter – welcomed Madge with a great big hug, wrapping strong arms around the squashy girl. Madge hugged back, love floating out of her body to dance around Mr. Jackson.

Perhaps more emotional than usual, Mr. Jackson felt tears prick his eyes at the easy affection. Lord, he loved this girl. Sometimes God takes things away from people, but he gives them something else. Madge, she might not have a normal life, but she had an abundance of goodness. That was a rarity.

Mr. Jackson stepped back, pushed Madge’s headband into place.

“What can I get for you today?”

“Chocolate. For Mama.”

“Ok. Anything else?”

Madge blushed, lifted her shoulders to her ears.

“I want candy. I’m an alien.”

Mr. Jackson was puzzled, but didn’t say anything.

“Alright, you know where it is. I’ll be up here at the counter.”

Madge knew where it was. It was her favorite aisle. The brightly-colored packaging spread before her like a glistening rainbow. Different shapes – squares, rectangles, circles – and different sizes – teeny-weeny, small, medium, large, super large – were hers for the choosing. But that was the difficult part. Choosing.

She stood in the middle of the aisle, surveying the selection. She knew Mama’s favorite already. Hershey’s. She picked one up, balancing it in her warm palm. For herself, she wasn’t sure. She loved m&m’s. She loved Reese’s Pieces. She loved Jujubes.

Madge tapped a finger to her scrunched lips. She swayed back and forth, hemming and hawing. She reached her hand out once, twice. Finally, she moved a few feet down to grab a clear plastic bag of gummy worms. Gummy worms. Those were the best choice. She could slurp them up like the spaghetti on Tuesday night. And she’d picked a package that had lots of blue ones.

Her task completed, she met Mr. Jackson at the counter and plunked down two dollars’ worth of coins. Mr. Jackson’s nimble fingers picked through the pennies, nickels and dimes. When he rang up the total, Madge clapped at the ringing of the machine.

“You have a good day, Madge.”

“You, too,” Madge replied happily as she left the store, goodies in hand.

Madge stepped on to the street, impatient to slurp a worm. She tucked the Hershey’s bar into her denim handbag, then ripped into the gummy worms. In her excitement, she split the bag down the middle, and wiggling, colorful worms dropped onto the street. Madge shrieked and bent at the waist to gather them up. She tucked the half-filled bag under an arm, then rubbed the dirtied worms on her dress. They’d be clean now. Shipshape.

As she wiped down her treats, Mean Joey watched from a few sidewalk squares away. He hated Madge. He didn’t know why, but she sparked a rage in him, not unlike the rage he seemed to spark in his own father. Of course, that rage always came with a six-pack. Still, it felt good to be powerful over someone, to cause them fear and pain. Serves that Mongoloid right. Mean Joey didn’t know who she was, skipping up and down the streets like some retarded elephant.

The thoughts grew louder in Mean Joey’s head, and his hands fisted. Madge, oblivious, continued to wipe the worms on her dress before biting into them. When Joey stepped forward, Madge turned. Fear flooded her eyes, causing them to bulge, and her cheeks drained of color. Bad news. But, she still offered him a worm. Not a dirty one. A clean one from the package she’d taken from under her arm.

Disgusted, Mean Joey slapped at the worm so it flew onto the street, crushed under the spinning wheels of a passing car. Madge watched her blue-and-green’s worm death. She turned to Mean Joey, confused.

“Why?” she asked.

“Why not,” Mean Joey sneered before pushing Madge into the street.

Madge didn’t have time to scream, only yelped as she stumbled into traffic. As the speeding red car hit her. As her body tumbled up and over the hood. The worms went flying, sprinkling onto the street. The car squealed to a stop. Joey ran away. Mr. Jackson came running. Mrs. Klein came running.

And somewhere down the street, in a desolate room, under a pile of heavy covers, someone began to sob.

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All Shook Up

Edna watched the living room from her special spot on the window seat. During the day, she curled up on the brightly flowered cushion to watch the neighbors pick at their gardens and stroll along sidewalks cracked and crooked from rogue tree roots. (Edna doubted the city would ever take responsibility for the state of those sidewalks. She huffed at the thought, air whooshing out her sizeable nose.) At night, though, she could hardly see a thing, even when she squinted her beady blue eyes and cupped hands around her face to press against the cool glass. Nothing. Not even her own reflection.

Now she turned from the window to watch the house’s current resident. Edna thought Sally was her name, but young people spoke so fast these days that Edna could hardly keep up. She’d asked the girl to speak up several times, but the twenty-something just ignored the old woman.

Sally, having just returned home from work, had changed into flannel pants and a worn T-shirt and settled on the couch. She held an ice cream container and a spoon in one hand, a bulky remote in the other. Edna stared in disgust as the girl flicked through the channels before landing on some ridiculous investigation-discovery television show. It was sick, she thought to herself, just sick the way kids today were so enthralled with crime. She tsked, clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth. Sally, engrossed in the show, didn’t hear a sound.

Edna got up to wander the room. She had suffered a stroke several years ago, and now she cradled her left arm at her side and walked with a limp. She used her right hand to balance on a stray chair, then the back of a loveseat. Sally’s cat, Mermaid, sat perched on the curved arm of an overstuffed chair and flicked a green-eyed glance toward Edna. Edna reached over to stroke her hand down the cat’s bony back, but Mermaid leaped out of the chair, eyes narrowed at the woman.

“Never liked felines much anyway,” Edna muttered to herself. “Too damn prickly.”

As Mermaid sauntered away, sending backward glares at Edna, the old woman decided her walk across the room was just about enough activity for the evening. She tucked herself into the now vacant armchair. With her left arm propped on her thigh, Edna turned to Sally.

“Why do you watch this garbage?”

Sally didn’t respond, focused as she was on scraping her spoon through the chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. She licked up the vanilla ice cream, then chewed the cookie dough balls.

“Ever heard of manners?”

Sally turned the spoon over and sucked on it before removing it from her mouth and dipping it back into the ice cream carton.

Edna, appalled, looked away.

“I said, ever heard of manners?”

Sally, her eyes glued on the television, never turned in Edna’s direction. Even when her cell phone began to trill, Sally kept her gaze on the forensics show and groped for the phone with one hand. She didn’t even bother to glance at it before swiping her thumb across the screen and bringing it to her ear.

“Yello?”

Edna couldn’t hear the voice on the other hand, but she was betting it was Sally’s latest boyfriend, Herman. He was a string bean of a man, tall and thin and awkward with big eyes and a nonexistent chin. Sally seemed enamored with him, though Edna couldn’t imagine how anyone could be attracted to a flagpole.

Sally giggled in the phone. “Nothing. What’s up with you?”

After a pause, she asked shyly, “Wanna come over?”

Edna rolled her eyes.

“Great, see you soon. Bye.”

Sally tapped the phone screen to end the call and smiled to herself before dropping her cell on the coffee table with a clatter. She thrust her fists in her air and wiggled her butt, then looked down at her comfy-cozy attire. Edna watched the play of emotions on Sally’s face as she realized her slovenly appearance, her melting ice cream, her sticky mouth. Sally reached up with nail polish-flecked fingers to dab at her lips. She stood and stripped off in the living room, then gathered her pajamas and the ice cream, flipped off the overhead light and the television and skipped upstairs to her bedroom.

Edna remained in the living room.

“Haven’t you ever heard about the cow giving away the milk for free?” she shouted up at Sally. “That girl,” Edna chided as she shook her head from side to side.

Edna picked at the stray threads on her plaid wool skirt and crossed her feet at the ankles. She didn’t care to sit in the dark, but as she couldn’t get up and turn on the light herself, she’d just have to wait for Sally’s return. She hummed a song from her childhood, one that had been passed down through generations, and rocked her body back and forth. So absorbed was she that the darker shadow passing over the now vacant window seat went unseen.

She also didn’t hear the lock being turned with a snick, the door opening with a creak. Sally, rummaging through her closet upstairs to find the perfect dress, didn’t hear it either. But Edna, she did feel the light breeze that drifted through the room when the door was opened. Her skirt fluttered just slightly at the edges, her ecru knee-highs slid down just a little.

Edna pushed up her coke-bottle, plastic-framed glasses and twisted her neck to the right and the left, curious about the teasing wind. As far as she knew, she and Sally were the only inhabitants of Shawnee Park House, but maybe they had a new resident. She shrugged, considered herself the senior member of the house’s occupants and resumed her quiet singing.

The figure dressed in black sneaked into the room, his Velcro-fastened sneakers making the tiniest of squeaks on the linoleum floor. When he reached the carpeting of the living room, he looked around, saw it was empty. He lowered his flashlight and circled the room smoothly, one gloved hand trailing against the wall panels. It was here, he knew it. He’d read about it.

He’d come across the story in the library’s archive while on his lunch hour. This house, this unrenovated, ugly house, had once been home to Blue-Eyed Blondie and his gang of thugs in the 1930s. They’d hit every bank from the Mississippi to the Missouri before escaping into rural Kansas. Blondie had lived out his days as a miser, and the money had never been found. The house had since been passed from ancestor to ancestor, the latest having died under “unknown” circumstances. But Ricky knew that the money was still tucked away here somewhere.

He pulled at the wood paneling, jumping slightly when it snapped back into place. Edna watched him curiously from her seat. Who was this odd-looking fellow with his bobbing light? Edna looked in the direction of the stairs, oddly comforted that the girl had turned on her stereo and was singing to some sickeningly pink bubble gum pop music (Edna considered it to be noise. Give her Elvis any day.) This wasn’t some game Sally and Herman were playing, was it?

Edna considered the fellow, his scrawny arms, his short stature, the wire glasses poking out from behind the hastily pulled down ski mask. No, he was too small to be Herman, she decided. Although from the looks of it, he wasn’t much better off than Herman in the looks department. And he clearly wasn’t educated in the art of burglarizing. Coming into a home with a light on upstairs? With Sally’s car in the driveway?

Edna shook her head in disapproval. She knew what he was looking for, but she thought when the time came, she’d at least be pitted against someone with some grit. This man looked about ready to pee his pants, poor thing. A wicked smile began to spread across Edna’s puffy face as she sized him up and down. He was frantically moving from one panel to another, risking frequent glances at the stairs and the warm circle of light coming from Sally’s room.

Edna levered herself off the chair and limped her way over to the man. Ricky, for his part, seemed to sense the movement, and finally, out of frustration and limb-tingling panic, yanked up his mask to see better. The room was still empty.

Ricky, baffled at his own skittishness, returned to the paneling, stripping back one flexible board after another, craning his neck to see between the panel and the siding. He was sure that the money had been hidden in the walls. He could really use the extra cash; the library didn’t pay very well, and if he ever wanted to publish his novel – which had been rejected a total of 83 times so far – it was going to cost him. But fame and fortune were just within his grasp. Literally.

He reached a gloved hand around to poke at the drywall, then made a fist to lightly pound on it. He suspected if he heard a difference in sound, it would indicate the money’s hiding place.

Edna, amused and far more entertained by the intruder than the television show Sally had switched off, let out a snort.

“What an idiot,” she said.

Ricky’s body immediately went still at her laughter, a stiffening that Edna, despite her cataracts and the darkness of the room, noticed.

“Ah ha, so you can sense me, boy. Well, just you wait. This is going to be fun,” she promised gleefully.

Mermaid, having wandered back into the room, now sat at the doorway, her tail flicking nonchalantly.

“Ok, cat, shall we make hay?” Edna asked.

Mermaid lowered her lids halfway in response, and a purr began rumbling out of the sleek black body.

Ricky turned at Mermaid’s humming and immediately fell into a fit of sneezing.

“Damnit,” he said, reaching into his pocket for a wad of limp tissues.

Edna winked at Mermaid, then slid closer to Ricky, now covered in red hives.

Ricky stuffed the tissue up his nose, the ends flopping down like a limp white mustache, and continued to tap-tap-tap against the wall. Edna scooted closer, her shoulder bumping Ricky’s. He let out a little squeal and jumped back, his body circling the spot the where he stood.

Edna, bent at the waist, howled with laughter.

Ricky tentatively reached out a fist again to knock on the wall. This time, he did hear a different sound, a different tone. Ignoring his heebie-jeebies, he tried to punch a hole in the wall. He succeeded only in bruising his knuckles and leaving a delicate imprint on the wall. Grumbling under his breath, he pulled a travel hammer from his pocket, unfolded it and knocked it against the wall. Finally, it began to crumble piece by piece, and Ricky, covered in a dusting of gray, reached his hand in to grasp at the box tucked between posts.

Edna, out of breath and with a smile still dancing across her face, watched him pull out the box and lower to his knees. She’d let him get this far, might as well let him open it up to see what was inside.

As Ricky undid the latches to flip open the top, the music in Sally’s room came to a stop. And someone knocked at the front door. Heart thrumming and sweaty fingers trembling, Ricky opened the top of the box. Empty. Edna hooted with laughter, and Ricky, hearing the footsteps, hearing the persistent knock at the door, hearing the cackling, looked around wildly. He staggered to his feet, and before him stood an old woman, one arm cradled to the side, the other wiping tears streaming down her transparent cheeks.

“Boo!” she shouted.

Ricky let out a warbling high-pitched scream, one that would’ve done any actress in Sally’s television shows proud, and raced toward the door. At that moment, Sally flipped on the light and danced downstairs, and Herman, tired of waiting, stepped into the tiny foyer. Shocked at the sight of Ricky, Sally let out her own shriek and Herman goggled at the man in black whose mask was, unfortunately, bunched up around his hairline and whose tissue was now just dangling precariously from his left nostril.

Edna curled back on the window seat and watched the confrontation ensue, her eyes bright, her smile wide. Mermaid jumped up in her lap, and Edna lifted her good hand to stroke the cat’s vibrating body.

“Thank you, thank you very much,” she said in her best Elvis voice.

Bad Day

*Note: This story is just something a little light and fluffy. Please read with a grain of salt!

Auggie overslept, which rarely happened. She was so anxious about being late that she routinely woke up at least 30 minutes before her alarm went off. But not today.

When she scrambled out of bed, her foot got tangled in the sheets. She fell to the floor in a heap of twisted cotton, and she banged her elbow on the hardwood floor. She extricated herself from the mass of fabric to take a shower only to find that the hot water was out. Miserable under the ice cold spray, she stayed in just long enough to shampoo her hair. Oh, and her eye. That felt fantastic.

She wrapped her dripping hair in a threadbare towel – she kept meaning to go buy some plush Turkish ones from Target, but never had enough cash in her wallet – and stepped in front of the sink to put on her make up. Her foundation was out, and her mascaraed eyelashes left black smudges under her overgrown, Cro-Magnon-style eyebrows. She got red lipstick on her teeth. When she plugged her hair dryer in to the socket, sparks flew. She screamed. Loudly.

Finally, she gave up and stalked back into her bedroom to get dressed. She ignored the mess of sheets on the floor. For someone as fastidious as herself, a self-proclaimed neat freak, not making the bed was a rebellion. So there, she thought, and nodded primly at the pile. She picked her go-to outfit for emergencies, for the days when she couldn’t find anything to wear among the silks and cashmeres and linens in her closet. She pulled on a pair of black trousers and grappled with the hook. Stunned, she looked down. Had she put on weight? Seriously? This was just what she needed, honestly. Just what she needed. She shrugged on a white button-down, slipped on a pair of black kitten-heeled shoes and wrapped her still-dripping hair up into a tight bun. It was chic, she reassured herself. The wet look was in now, right?

She grabbed her briefcase – a red snakeskin number that was classic and brand new, thank you very much – and tugged her camel peacoat from the coat rack. Stomping to the doorway, she wished her apartment a hearty f-you, and stepped out into the pouring rain. At least her hair was already wet, thank God. One less thing to worry about.

Auggie ran through the downpour to her car and wrenched open the door. As she slid into the driver’s seat, she dragged her clean trouser leg against the muddy car, leaving a giant brown streak. Auggie merely sighed and made a mental note to stop at the dry cleaners later. She turned on the car and pulled out of the apartment complex.

After a traffic jam on the highway, Auggie, frantic and sweaty at being so late, pulled into the office parking lot. There were no available spaces. Typical. So, like any woman in a hurry, she parked illegally, just for this one time, really, and hurried into the office. She ignored Stacey, the perky young receptionist who excelled in delivering back-handed compliments.

“Auggie, love your hair! So wet and messy. By the way, you’ve got doggie doodoo on your pants. Just letting you know!” Stacey trilled.

Bitch, Auggie thought, but continued striding to her office. She tossed her briefcase on the leather loveseat, flung her coat down on top of it and collapsed into her fancy swivel chair. First things first, she thought with a sigh. Email. And she had them, email after email after email. She spent, according to the clock on her screen’s bottom righthand corner, three hours responding to requests, deleting junk mail, avoiding the set of messages sent from her mother between 5:25 a.m. and 6:02 a.m. It was too early in the day to deal with family, and Auggie was too sober.

Handling her mother, who was just dying to know about Auggie’s latest break up, had become practically a part-time job. Her mother was single after her fourth divorce and had decided to reinvent herself Madonna-style. As a cougar. But she was stuck somewhere between a nagging, overbearing parent, and a cleavage-baring, blond-highlighted, slang-using single girl. It was getting exhausting setting personal boundaries.

Anyway, Auggie was still sore about Jim dumping her apparently overweight butt last week. She needed approximately five more pints of Ben and Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk, a bottle of tequila and a girl’s night out before she could even attempt to talk with her Nosy Nellie of a mother.

She must be tired, Auggie thought, if she was beginning to think in clichéd phrases. That’s just how the cookie crumbles. Ha. Which reminded her, she hadn’t eaten breakfast, and it could be time for an early lunch. She stood up and reached her arms in the air. She yawned and leaned back, bending her sore back. Just as she was in the height of her stretch, the hook of her pants sprang off and tripped across her desk top. Her pants fluttered to floor, exposing her enormous white cotton panties with the gaping hole at the waistband between the elastic and the fabric.

It was, unfortunately, just at that minute that Auggie’s boss, a no-nonsense company man, walked in.

Auggie froze, her arms still in the air, her back still bent. Shit! She and her boss stared at each other. Five long seconds ticked past before Auggie suddenly reached down and yanked her pants back up.

“Just one of the days,” she said cheerily and let out a nervous giggle.

“Uh…yeah,” her boss said. “Listen, draft these for me and have them ready by the end of the day.”

“Sure thing,” she responded, her pants still clutched in a white-knuckled hand.

He tossed a thick file folder on the desk and walked out of the room, shaking his head.

Well, she thought, that could have been embarrassing. Auggie sat back down and, releasing her rascally slacks, laid her head on the desk, her face nestled in the crook of her elbow. Could this day get any worse?

She raised her head and fumbled in her desk drawer for a safety pin. It would just have to do for now. Tomorrow, she was going shopping. No, first she was going to sign up for Weight Watchers, then she was going shopping. Ann Taylor would surely be the antidote to this nightmare of a day. Maybe she should stop by Nine West, too. A nice pair of pumps would cheer her up.

She fastened the pin on her pants and then headed to the staff kitchen, desperate for comfort food. She should’ve eaten, she scolded herself, but lately, food just hadn’t seemed that appealing. When she opened the refrigerator door and was assailed with the scents of various salads and leftovers and overripe fruit, she felt her stomach roll. Ugh. On second thought, she decided to settle for a Sprite and some crackers from the vending machines.

Auggie spent the rest of her work day hiding in her office, avoiding her boss whenever possible. When her computer clock flipped to 5:00, she hustled into her coat, grabbed her briefcase and slipped through the side door. Taking the stairs down the three stories seemed like a good decision, a stealthy move, but with her heels clicking and clacking, and her head pounding from the descent, she landed on the ground floor with a nasty sense of vertigo. She clung to the railing, closed her eyes and shook her fist, still gripping the briefcase, at the gods. Someone, she decided, didn’t like her today.

When she slogged through the pouring rain to her car, she realized it wasn’t where she had parked. Damn, had she forgotten where she parked again? She was always getting twisted around in parking lots and garages. She saw a late-night infomercial once about a recording device old people could use to record where they had parked. At the time she thought it was for those with early on-set Alzheimer’s. Now it seemed pretty useful. Maybe it would be worth the three payments of $19.99 plus shipping and handling. Something to consider.

She walked around the parking lot, trying to locate her Mini Cooper, but it was dark, and the street lamps didn’t afford much view.  She waved goodbye to her colleagues as they ran through the dreary storm to their cars, and she ducked behind someone’s red Volvo when her boss came out. Within minutes, she found herself soaked and standing in an empty lot. Oh my god, she realized. She had parked illegally. Her car had been towed.

Cursing herself, she called for a taxi and huddled under one of the street lamps for cover. When the cab pulled up, Auggie gratefully slid inside, her wet clothes squeaking across the cracked leather interior.

“Where to?”

“18th and Walnut, please.”

Within the comfort of the warm car, Auggie let out a deep breath. She looked through the window, watched the rain pouring down, the pedestrians scurrying to buildings and cars, the windows in houses light up with yellow glows. Dinner time, she thought. Families would be sitting down, eating lasagna, talking about school and work. But she was headed to her quiet, lonely apartment.

When the cab pulled up to the building, Auggie reached into the briefcase to grab her wallet. She picked through file folders, her emergency make up and medicine kit, the library book she kept forgetting to read, her iPod. Her coin purse was there. Her wallet wasn’t. Figures.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I must’ve left my wallet at work. Can you wait just a minute? Maybe I have some cash upstairs.”

The cabbie looked back at her, his bored eyes taking on an edge of irritation.

“Fine, lady, but I’m keeping the meter running.”

“Ok, thank you. Thank you so much.”

Auggie scurried to the front door. At least she hadn’t forgotten her keys. She raced up the stairs to her apartment, water squishing between her toes in the waterlogged kitten heels. She unlocked the door and pushed inside. She went straight for her cash source – the wad of twenties hidden in her freezer. She clawed through frosted bags of peas and broccoli and took out the empty ice cream box. When she wrenched off the cardboard lid, she stood there, as frozen as her veggies. There was only one twenty left. What the hell had happened to her money? She grabbed the bill to go pay the cabbie and then trudged back upstairs.

She stripped off her wet clothes, tugged on a pair of flannel pajamas and popped a frozen meal in the microwave. As it warmed, she thrust her arms through her Snuggie – best purchase ever – and settled on the couch. After turning on the television to a  reality show where all the women dressed too young and wore too many skin-tight satin dresses – no one should wear satin that tight, hello – she saw the blinking on her home phone.

Sighing, she reached across and tapped in her security code to listen to the messages. The first was from her mother, of course.

“Hi, August, honey. I tried emailing you, and I left messages on your cell phone, but I guess you’re just too busy to answer your mom’s calls. You know, Ellen’s daughter talks to her every day, and I have to listen to her go on about how perfect Becky is. My daughter doesn’t even take my phone calls. But I still love you, so so much! You’re my Auggie muffin. Muah. Anyway, honey, I was calling to get the 411 on the ex-boyfie. I want to hear what the dealio was. I’ll come by tomorrow with some chocolate chip cookies, and I’ve just bought the ingredients for a Boston cream pie. Get ready to veg out girlfriend style! Love you so much, muah, muah, muah, muah, muah, mu… – beep.”

Auggie rolled her eyes and dropped her head on the back of the sofa. Typical. A message that started with guilt and ended with 90s-era slang and sugar.

The second message was fro Jim, the “ex-boyfie.” He’d ended things last week. They’d been together for six months, happy for five. She hadn’t been looking for a boyfriend, but he’d sauntered into her life, sexy and suave and everything that she didn’t need. The first month was spent almost entirely in her bedroom. Months two and three were spent on picnics at the park, feeding each other bits of berries and baguette and rich French cheeses. They went to art festivals and saw indie films during months four and five. He’d made her feel smart, and she so wanted to be one of those sexy preppie chicks. He used to tell her she was the only woman who could pull off brogues and a sweater vest and still look doable. Then he’d stroke the back of his hand down her cheek, call her “pumpkin,” and kiss her until she felt dizzy. God, he’d been so beautiful with sparkling brown eyes and mocha skin. And he’d had a motorcycle. Every girl wanted to date the guy with the motorcycle. But no girl ever married that guy, as Auggie found out. She’d watched him rumble away on the bike, leather jacket hugging his muscled shoulders.

“Hey, Pumpkin. Listen, I think I left some of my things at your place. I’ll stop by when you’re at work or something if you don’t want to see me. I get it. Listen, I wanted to tell you before you hear from anyone else that I’m moving in with someone. Sherry. I think maybe you know her. Anyway, let me know when I can come by. Also, I borrowed some cash from your stash. I promise I’ll pay you back. I’m just waiting for this deal to work out first. Bye.”

As the machine beeped, Auggie felt the first tear roll down her cheek. Oh, she knew Sherry. Her roommate and best friend from college. The girl she’d shared all of her tears with when Jim had dumped her. The girl who said that Auggie didn’t deserve a douche like Jim and that she would always have her friends. They were moving in together. Great.

The horrors of the day washed over her in one image after another: bumping her elbow on the floor, almost getting electrocuted, flashing her boss, getting her car towed. Her bad boy lover, the one she knew – she knew – wasn’t Mr. Right but had cared for him anyway was sleeping with her best friend. He was too stupid to even know who her friends were. Oh, and he’d stolen from her. Taken $980 from her $1000 rainy day fund. And what do you know, the one time she’d needed money from the rainy day fund, literally on a rainy day, she’d been left broke. What a bastard.

She curled into a ball on the couch and wept. Hot tears slid down her cheeks. Her sobs shook her body, and she pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders. In contrast to Auggie’s break down, the women on the television screen bitched about petty drama. Auggie sniffed and wiped at her face with the sleeve of the blanket, completely ignoring the beep of the last message and the beep of the microwave.

She lay prostrate for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes. Then she pulled herself upright and considered that she’d indulged in a crying fest and should, by all rights, feel better. She didn’t. She sniffed once more and picked up the phone to listen to the last message.

“Hello, this is a message for August Sandborn. This is Dr. Krystofski at the Warner Clinic. We ran your tests from last week. Congratulations, you are six weeks pregnant. Please call the Clinic soon to schedule an appointment. We’d like to perform an ultrasound and discuss your pregnancy plan. Again, congratulations.”

The phone dropped out of Auggie’s limp hand. It hit the rug and bounced off the coffee table leg. It lay on the ground, as silent and unmoving as Auggie. Her mouth was open, her eyes wide and staring and unseeing, her cheeks drained of the rosiness her crying jag had brought on.

Pregnant. She was pregnant. Auggie brought one trembling hand to her mouth. A smile tugged at her lips. Auggie, bewildered and weepy, started to laugh. She laughed and laughed, and tears began to run down her cheeks once more. She felt a warmth rush over and through her, warming her skin, heating her bones and muscles. Her heart. She was going to have a baby. A baby. A family.

Today wasn’t so bad after all, she thought, laughter bubbling out of her hormonal, pregnant body.

Falling Leaves

The road stretched before him, its curves and dips and leafy debris reflected in the round lenses of his spectacles. The eyes behind the lenses were a watery brown and red-rimmed. The face was tired and sagging, and deep lines were carved into the gray skin. The mouth hadn’t lifted into a smile in more than three years. Perhaps it didn’t even remember how.

The man sighed, the long breath whistling out of his lips. He tightened his fingers around the leather-trimmed wheel and steered through another bend in the road. Up ahead was a sign with neatly worded letters, “The Hillside Manor.” The sign’s two legs stood still and sturdy in the packed earth. Patches of browning grass sprouted around the faded-white supports, and an occasional breeze whipped red and orange and yellow and russet leaves around.

But the man merely read the sign and turned into the drive, his eyes brushing over the spots of color.

At the top of the steep drive stood a large brick building, its exterior faded by winds and snows. White shutters, repainted every summer, hung at every spotless window. The building was old and settled, and the cosmetic changes did little to hide its age. But the effort was made.

The man turned into a narrow parking lot, the loose gravel crunching under his tires. He parked and lifted the emergency brake. And then he sat there while the car ticked and hissed. He rested his forehead on the steering wheel and breathed deeply, rhythmically. This visit was going to be one of his last, he promised himself. Maybe not the final visit, but this would be the end of his regular trips here. His heart just couldn’t take it anymore.

He lifted his head up, rolled it around to stretch out his neck. He grabbed the trench coat he’d tossed onto the passenger seat and got out of the car. He shrugged the coat on and dipped his fingers in the pockets.

As he approached the visitor’s entrance, a round face popped out and sent him a bright smile.

“Well, hi there, Mr. Blatt. How are you doing on this fine day?”

Mr. Blatt nodded at the nurse and gave a terse response.

“Fine.”

“Your girl is upstairs waiting for you. Make sure to sign in first.”

The nurse reached over to pat Mr. Blatt’s arm. She leaned in to whisper conspiratorially, “She’s having a good day today.” Then she winked.

Mr. Blatt fought the urge to grimace at the nurse’s cheer. Cheer that seemed so harsh and glaring in a place like Hillside Manor. A tragedy and a farce, hand in hand.

He nodded once more. And then he was climbing the stairs, his brown shoes squeaking on the linoleum, the stairs groaning underneath his weight.

“You have a good day!” The nurse called after him.

He ignored her.

When Mr. Blatt reached the top of the stairs, he was out of breath. Not the young man he once was, he thought, picking a white handkerchief from his pocket to mop the beads of sweat forming at his temples.

He turned to the left and the hall stretched before him, becoming smaller and smaller in the distance. He paused, waiting for the dancing stars to leave his vision, then took one shaky step after another, his hand pressed to the wall.

He knew the way to the room. He’d been here, in this building, in this hallway, hundreds of times over the past few years. Weekend after weekend. Sometimes on holidays. Once on his anniversary. His destination was seven doors down, on the right, room 236. Room 234 was before it, room 238 was after it.

He walked his 50 paces to the front of the door, his stomach sinking. He felt as though the closer he came to room 236, the unhappier he became. He dropped bits and pieces of happiness with every step, leaving them littering the sterile white floor. And he couldn’t pick the pieces back up when he left.

Mr. Blatt knocked on the metal door then pushed it open to reveal a stark white room. One bed, one bathroom, one window, one chair. No color or life. No photos or artwork or flowers or sewing paraphernalia. Dullness permeated room 236.

At the sound of his knock, he heard a mumble come from the bed. He shuffled into the room, obligation pushing him over the threshold. In the white bed with white sheets and a white blanket lay his wife, Marianna.

She wasn’t the wife he knew, the vibrant, loving, sexy woman. She was a shell, and her lively spirit had vanished long ago, taken away by the wind that spun outside the window.

“Good morning,” Mr. Blatt said, pulling the chair close to the bed. He stretched his arm forward, and the pads of his fingers lingered at the top of her hand.

Marianna’s faded blue eyes hardly moved at the feel of his touch. But she lowered her wrinkling lids once.

Mr. Blatt sat back in the chair, crossed one leg over the other. He glanced around the room, thinking again how lifeless it was. He couldn’t gather his thoughts, couldn’t think where to start. He felt like such a fool, talking to his wife this way, like she was a stranger. Not the woman he’d loved for decades.

“The kids are good,” he offered. “Robbie’s got a new writing gig in Hollywood. He has a new girlfriend, too. He didn’t tell me, but Bonnie did. The girlfriend is a single mother. She has a son named Mark.

“Bonnie is good, too. You know how the kids keep her busy. You used to know, I suppose. Angela’s going to be in high school this year. She is so beautiful. She looks just like her mother. And her grandmother.”

Mr. Blatt lightly stroked his wife’s hand one more time before linking his fingers with hers, drawing her hand into his lap.

Marianna blinked her eyes once more before shifting her gaze so it landed on her husband. She curled one finger around his, though her eyes showed no recognition of the man in front of her.

“I had the plumber come yesterday. That pipe in the basement started leaking again, and I didn’t want a repeat of the flood of ’96. Remember how we had almost a foot of water down there? Such a shame that we lost all of the Christmas decorations, some of our book collection.”

Mr. Blatt paused. Why did he think she would remember? He lifted one hand off of hers to scrub his forehead, pinch the skin between his eyes, tug on an earlobe.

“I miss you, Marianna. I miss you so goddamn much, every single day. And I hate – I hate – this disease that’s taken you from me. I hate it.”

He lifted her hand, rubbed it against his stubbly cheek. Then he twisted his neck to kiss her fingers.

“What a waste,” he whispered, his voice cracking.

He lowered his head, laid it into his own hands and that of his wife. The tears clung to his lashes, dropped onto his glasses, dripped onto the clasped hands.

With a wet sniff, he lifted his head to catch her gaze. When her eyes held his, his breath hitched.

“You’re a sweet man, aren’t you?” she asked with a grating, weak voice.

“No, no I’m not.”

“You look like a sweet man. And a sad man. Why are you sad?”

“I miss my wife.”

“Where is she?”

“She’s not here.”

“I’m terribly sorry. Is there anything I can do?”

“No. No, there’s nothing you can do.”

“Would you like me to call the nurse? Maybe she can help you find your wife.”

“No, thank you. She can’t help.”

“What’s her name? Your wife.”

“Her name was Marianna. But she was Mari to me.”

“Mari. That’s a pretty name.”

“Yes, it is.”

“What was she like?”

Mr. Blatt turned away, away from the seeking eyes, the curiosity, the ignorance. Away from the frail body, the thin voice.

“She made my life bright. When we first met, she was one of my students. Brilliant, she was. And she had the most luxurious hair. Long and curling and red. It would tickle my cheeks and my hands when I was near her. One day, she said she was coming home with me. She never left.”

“She was a good wife?”

“She was a good wife, a good mother. An entertainer. She used to throw the most wonderful parties. She would dance around the room and around people, and the light from candles and chandeliers would glint off of her hair. She was like an angel. I used to sit on the staircase and just watch her.”

“That’s very nice. I would’ve liked to meet her.”

“Me, too.”

A brisk knock at the door jamb shook both Marianna and Mr. Blatt out of their conversation. The nurse from earlier, whose nametag read “Martha,” stood in the doorway, a grin plastered on her face.

“Hi, you two. Sorry to interrupt, but it’s time for Mrs. Blatt’s medicine,” she said in a singsongy voice. It sounded out of tune to Mr. Blatt’s ears.

She strode into the room, her white pants making slicking noises as her hefty thighs rubbed together. She held out a paper cup filled with colorful pills, white and pink and blue.

While Marianna tossed the pills into her mouth with a shaking hand, Martha poured her a glass of water from the plastic pitcher on the nightstand.

“Here you go, sweetheart,” she said, trading cups with Marianna. “How are you doing in here? Are you having a good conversation?”

“Yes,” Marianna replied after swallowing her medication. “This man was just telling me about his wife.”

“Was he,” Martha asked, raising an eyebrow at Mr. Blatt, who squirmed uncomfortably in his chair. “You know, honey, who is wife is, don’t you?”

Marianna’s lips pursed and her eyes narrowed in concentration.

“No, I don’t believe I do. We’ve never met.”

“Sure you do, sweetiepie. You’re his wife,” Martha said, and a childish giggle bubbled out of her thick lips.

Mr. Blatt shook his head, unsurprised at Martha’s indiscretion, her stupidity. It wasn’t the first time the nurse had shocked Marianna, confused her, upset her. He preferred to keep his Mari in a safe place, in the cozy cocoon of denial.

“What do you mean I’m his wife? We’ve never met before,” Marianna protested, her voice rising a few octaves as panic overtook her. “I don’t know this man. Who is he? What is he doing here?”

Martha gave Marianna’s shoulder a brisk rub.

“It’s ok, darling. Don’t you worry about a thing. This man visits you every week. He’s no one to be afraid of.”

“What’s his name?” Marianna asked, peering up into Martha’s plump face.

“Mr. Blatt.”

“What’s his first name?”

The answer came from the man slumped in the uncomfortable chair, an elbow propped on an arm rest, forehead in hand.

“Roger.”

“Well, I’ll leave you two to get reacquainted,” Martha sang as she swished out of the room.

Roger watched her leave, glaring at her massive bottom.

Marianna watched him, uncertainty twisting her features. She withdrew her hand from his, then rubbed it across the waffled blanket covering her chest. It was a gesture meant to soothe, to comfort. Roger recognized it.

“I’m sorry about that,” he said stiffly.

“That’s alright.”

“I came here today,” he began, “to talk to you about my wife. You are my wife. You were my wife. But you have a disease. Sometimes you don’t remember who I am, who our children are. But I come every week, hoping that you might remember.”

“Have I ever remembered?”

“Not in the last several months.”

“Will I get better?” she asked, her voice quaking, her eyes glimmering.

“No.”

Marianna looked at the popcorned ceiling and blinked her eyes furiously, trying to keep her tears back. After a few minutes, and with several shaking breaths, she had calmed, comforted, settled herself. She turned back to Roger, unsteadily took his hand in hers. Covered it.

“Tell me about myself.”

“You were lovely. You’re still lovely. We had a happy life. I thought we would grow old together, enjoy our retirement. You would garden, I would write that novel. We would babysit the grandkids every other weekend. Spoil them. But our plans never happened.”

Mr. Blatt adjusted his glasses and cleared his throat. Bought himself time to make sure his voice was even.

“You came here three years ago. It was hard, very hard. You’d always been forgetful and absentminded, but this was different. You started forgetting my name, our children’s names, our address. You got lost going around the block. You couldn’t even remember which house was ours, though we’d been living there for 30 years. The doctors said you had Alzheimer’s, among other things. And it never gets better. It never gets better.”

Roger looked up. Marianna’s eyes were closed, her breathing regular and deep.

He removed his hand from hers. Then he pressed it to his slowly beating heart. He held it there, steadying himself as emotions ran through him, tingling at his toes, pricking at his fingertips, burning his chest. He had to leave.

He leaned down, pressed his lips to Marianna’s papery cheek.

“Goodbye, Mari.”

He walked out of the room without a backward glance, his footsteps heavy, his back slouched. He descended the stairs, past Martha, past the sign-out book.

He crunched across the parking lot, unlocked his car and climbed into the seat. He turned on the car with a twist of the key, lowered the emergency brake. And he drove slowly, deliberately down the drive, out of the gates.

About a mile outside of Hillside Manor, he pulled over and parked his car between two colorful trees.

He opened the car door and stepped out, his loafers slipping on the rocks underneath his feet. He slammed the door shut and looked off into the distance, through the trees, to the water below. With a cry, he suddenly bent to snag pieces of rock to hurl them into the distance.

The rocks flew out of his fingers. His shoulders ached with the effort of grabbing and throwing. His palms bled, the sharp rocks having scored the thin skin.

But he threw, and he threw, and he threw. He raged, and he shouted, cursing himself, cursing his wife, cursing the higher power he had never believed in. Finally he opened his mouth wide and screamed. Screamed so his face was shaking, his eyes were bulging, his delicate glasses were trembling on his face. His hands fisted around rocks, his nails pressing and breaking, tiny ribbons of blood snaking down his fingers.

Then he stopped. His grip loosened, and the rocks fell.

His chest heaved up and down.

He dropped his head.

And he got back in his car and drove, steering through the dips and curves, heading toward an empty house. His eyes focused on the road. He never noticed the richly-hued leaves around him. He never noticed the life around him.

Ponies and Pink Shoelaces

“What’ve we got?” Macy Finnerty asked as she clicked into the narrow bedroom.

The medical examiner looked her up and down, taking in the 5-inch spiked heels, the form-fitting black suit, the glittering array of bangles and shoulder-brushing earrings.

“Well, if it isn’t the ‘Cosmo Cop,’” he said, lifting a latex-gloved hand to give a two-fingered salute.

“It’s ‘detective’ now, Martin.”

“Right, right. Detective. Good for you, Mace. To catch you up, the victim is 13 years old, approximately 100 pounds. Petechial hemorrhaging, bruising on the cheek and right forearm. Given the narrow marks on the neck, I’m thinking ligature strangling. Check out the pink shoelaces next to the body,” Martin said, nodding toward the left.

Macy snapped on a pair of gloves, flicked her blond bangs out of her eyes and knelt down to finger the creased laces. She wrapped them around her fingers, lining up the stretched inches with her own small knuckles.

“Looks like the perp must have had small hands. Woman or child?”

“Could be. Based on lividity and temperature, I’m loosely placing time of death between 7 and 9 p.m.”

“You’re telling me that a 13-year-old girl has been lying dead in this room for almost 20 hours, and no one noticed? Where are her parents?”

Martin shrugged.

“That’s your job, honey. I’m going to wrap things up in here. I’ll have a report ready for you in a couple of days.”

“Alright, keep me updated. Thanks.”

Macy pushed herself up and walked gingerly around the messy room, taking in the collection of tween-girl paraphernalia. Stuffed animals were piled on top of a quilted pink-and-purple spread, and the faded walls displayed tacked on posters of unicorns and kittens, Justin Bieber and Taylor Lautner. A white desk was littered with lined school pages, Seventeen magazines, colored folders, a worn book with a galloping horse embossed on the sparkly cover.

Macy picked up the book, flipped through the first few pages. Two sets of handwriting, she noticed, one large and loopy, the i’s dotted with hearts, the other narrow and tall, t’s crossed with swift, straight, deep pencil marks.

Making a mental note to examine it later, she closed the book and tucked it into a plastic evidence bag. Picking her way out of the room, around the dead body propped against the twin bed, she walked through a narrow, dingy hallway to a living room sporting worn couches, threadbare armchairs and a mammoth television set circa 1992.

She followed the sour smell of cigarette smoke to the kitchen, where a woman sat at the plastic table, a glass filled with amber liquid at her elbow.

“Excuse me? Do you reside here?”

The woman looked up, her bloodshot eyes narrowing at Macy’s earnest gaze.

“Yeah, I reside here,” she replied, sarcasm dripping from her words. “In fact, I own this sorry piece of property. What the hell do you want with it?”

Macy stretched a hand forward.

“I’m Detective Macy Finnerty. It’s nice to meet you, Mrs…”

“It’s Ms.,” the woman drawled, giving Macy’s still gloved hand a dirty look.

“Sorry,” Macy drew her hand away before slipping off the gloves. “May I?”

“Free country.”

“Thanks,” she said, drawing a metal chair out from the table.

Pulling a leather-bound notepad from her chic purse, she flipped to a blank page.

“What’s your relationship to the victim?”

“I’m her mother, for Christ’s sake.” The woman took a slug from her glass.

“And your name is?”

“Melinda. Melinda Anderson.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Melinda.”

“Yeah, likewise, whatever,” Melinda replied, blowing a stream of smoke towards the ceiling.

“Can you tell me where you were last night?”

“I was at my boyfriend’s house.”

“And what’s your boyfriend’s name?”

“Asher Keatley.”

Macy scribbled the information into her notebook, her ballpoint pen scratching across the pages.

“Did you and Asher do anything last night? Go out to dinner, go to the movies? Did anyone else see you together?”

“Yeah, we did stuff. Each other.” Melinda hacked out a laugh that shook her painfully thin body.

“Anything else? Can anyone verify your whereabouts for this time period?”

“You’re a pretty bitch, aren’t you?”

“Excuse me?”

“A pretty bitch,” Melinda enunciated, rolling each word over her tongue and out of thin lips. “Fancy jewelry, fancy clothes, fancy bag. Your papa buy all that for you? Or do you have some kind of sugar daddy?”

Macy ignored the provocation. She might’ve looked like a pint-sized Barbie, but she was smart, intuitive. Tough, even, given the right situation. But faced with a brittle woman, one who had lost her only child, she knew to tuck away the sarcastic response, the barb that would pin Melinda in place. So she let the insults roll off her back like water, dripping to the floor, far away from her body, her mind.

“Did anyone see you out, Ms. Anderson?”

“Yeah, fine, people saw us out. We went to the Olive Garden, ok? About 7:30. After we screwed.”

Melinda pounded the cigarette stub in a glass ashtray. She dug a rumpled pack of Marlboros from the ratty purse sitting askew on the table and shook out a new cigarette.

“Got a light?”

“No, I don’t smoke.”

“That’s a shame.”

“Can you tell me about your daughter? Her friends? Did she have a boyfriend?”

“I don’t know. She ran around with a group of girls, but I never learned their names. Teenybopper types, you know. Ambers and Tiffanys and Brittanys.”

“Did she have any close friends? A best friend?”

“Yeah, there was one, I think. She lives across the street. Parents are never home, I guess, they work a lot. The girl is on her own, constantly over here eating my food, hiking up my bills. Haven’t seen her lately.”

“What’s the girl’s name?”

“Angela. Something. Weaver? Weaber? Weber, maybe. Yeah, Weber.”

“Ok, Angela Weber. I’m sorry to ask this, Ms. Anderson, but can you think of anyone who would want to hurt your daughter?”

“Hell if I know. She was becoming a pain, that girl. Wanting these boots, this dress, that makeup and perfume. But she was a sweet baby. Just the sweetest little thing. All smiles.”

Melinda brushed at tear clinging to her heavily mascaraed lashes. She looked down, fiddled with the unlit cigarette.

“You tell me if anything happens, ok? I want to know who killed my baby.”

“I’ll keep in touch, Ms. Anderson. Here’s my card if you think of anything else. Thank you for your time.”

Macy stood and pushed the chair back in to the table. She shifted her bag and turned to leave, her stilettos slipping on the waxy floor.

Behind her, Melinda found a pink Bic lighter in her back pants pocket and lifted it to her lips. Her hands were shaking.

“Good luck, Detective.”

Macy’s grip tightened on her purse strap as she looked back.

“Thanks.”

***

Leaving behind the gloominess of the two-bedroom house on the corner of Wicker Avenue, Macy walked to the curb. She stood in silence, absorbing the heat from the sun, the warmth of the wind brushing across her cheeks. She let out a deep, cleansing breath before reaching for the cell phone in her blazer pocket. She tapped on the screen, bringing up the number of her partner, Johnny.

“Hey, Bassett, where are you?”

“I’m on my way, Mace. Got holed up at the station. What’d you find at the scene?”

“13-year-old victim strangled sometime last night. Mom was out with her boyfriend, claims she doesn’t know anyone who’d want to hurt her child. Victim has a best friend who lives across the street. We should go over there, but I want to check Mom’s alibi first.”

“Sounds good. I’ll meet you as soon as I can.”

“The guy is named Asher Keatley. If you’re near a computer, look up his address and let me know, ok? See you soon.”

Macy lowered the phone, took a long look at the house across the street. It was two stories and boxy, painted yellow with black shutters. The lawn was punctuated by overgrown crab grass, and drooping pansies lined the walkway leading to the red front door. No cars were in the driveway, Macy noted, no bike was left sprawling in the yard.

She trotted across the street, stopping briefly to let an SUV pass in front of her. She climbed the wide cement stairs, rapped three times on the front door. When no one answered, she crossed through the yard and peeked in a dusty window. The house looked empty, neglected, bereft of family and laughter and love. She could see only a set of couches, so preserved that no one must have ever reclined on them.

She stepped back to give the house one last sweeping glance before leaving, but a glint in the corner of the lot caught her eye. She walked over lightly; her heels, stylish as they were, were sinking into the soft sod.

Kneeling down in the springy grass, she swept aside loose blades and leaves to reveal a silver bracelet. The chains were dainty, the clasp broken. Dangling from the bracelet’s center was a disc engraved with “BFF.” Shaking her head, Macy pulled a pen out of her bag to pick up the bracelet. She dropped it into another, smaller evidence bag, then reached for her trilling phone.

“Finnerty.”

“Hey, it’s Johnny. I found the boyfriend. 1251 44th Street. Near the river.”

“Great, see you soon.”

Twenty minutes later, she pulled up to a brick apartment building. Johnny, clad in his usual uniform of rumpled black suit, red tie and khaki trench coat, was standing outside the door.

“Hey, hot stuff,” he called out.

“Hey, yourself.”

“You ready?”

Macy shook back her wavy locks, straightened her blouse, nodded.

Johnny knocked on the worn door, waiting seconds before calling out, “Asher Keatley? Anybody home? You’d better come to the door.”

A pale, red-haired man, his hair mussed from sleep, his beer belly barely covered by a sweat-stained undershirt, opened the door.

“Yeah, what.”

“Asher Keatley? I’m Detective Johnny Bassett; this is my partner, Macy Finnerty. Can we come in for a minute?”

“No.”

“Ok, we’ll just stand out here in the nice sunshine. Let’s have a chat, Ash.”

Asher merely yawned and scratched absently at the seat of his sweatpants.

Taking the lead, Macy turned on the charm, crinkling her blue eyes, sending him a bright smile.

“So, Asher, we talked to your girlfriend today. Melinda?”

“She ain’t my girlfriend. We’re just friends, if you catch my drift.”

Macy rolled her eyes. She always caught the drift.

“Can you tell me what you did last night?”

“Played poker with my buddies. Went to a bar. Came home about 1 a.m., watched a couple of infomercials, fell asleep on the couch.”

“What did Melinda do last night?”

“Hell if I know. That bitch is more trouble than she’s worth.”

“You close with her daughter?”

“Who, Veronica? Yeah, right. That kid was pain in the ass. Mouthy like you wouldn’t believe. Melinda kept her in line, slapped her around from time to time. That girl was chomping at the bit to get out of the house. Wanted to go out with boys, wanted to dress up. That friend of hers, she didn’t help matters. Creepy little thing, always following Veronica around. Like she was in love with her or something.”

“Do you remember the friend’s name?”

“I don’t know. Alice, I think. You got what you need?”

“We just need the names and numbers of the people you were with last night.”

“Sure.”

Later, Macy and Johnny walked to their twin black sedans, issued from the precinct.

“That’s interesting,” Macy commented, leaning against the back of her car.

“The boyfriend is lying? Or the girlfriend?”

“Seems like the girlfriend is. Whether she knows it or not, her lover boy over there just blew her alibi.”

“Is she the type to kill her own daughter, though?”

“I don’t know yet. But she’s hiding something.”

“You want me to go check her out?”

“No, let’s let her stew. I want to go talk to the friend. Are you up for it?”

“You go ahead, she might be more comfortable with you. I’m going to check on this guy’s alibi, make sure we’ve got the girlfriend all tied up in her lies. See you in thirty. Be careful, ok?”

“I’m always careful, Johnny,” Macy responded with a cheeky grin. “I can kick ass if need be.”

“Says the 110-pound fashionista. Watch your back, babe.”

“You got it.”

***

                Chucking her purse into the passenger seat, Macy slid into the tiny car. She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel in rhythm to the pop song playing on the radio. She drove through suburbia, the well-tended lawns and oversized houses blurring as she zipped past. Following a hunch – and her watch, which read 4:32 p.m. – Macy headed toward Wilson Park, which bordered the local middle school.

She glided into a parking space, then stepped out of the car, her trim figure and chic clothing attracting the attention of a gaggle of tweenage girls standing near the curb.

“Hey, girls,” she said, as she smoothed red lipstick on her bow-shaped lips.

They group stood still, enthralled by the woman with the fabulous shoes, the perfectly applied makeup, the alligator-skin bag. Finally, one girl, leggy and blonde, looking as though she’d skipped right over her awkward stage, stepped forward.

“Hi. Nice nails.”

“Thanks. What grade are you all in?”

“Seventh. Where’d you buy your bag?”

“Online. Would you happen to know a girl named Veronica Anderson?”

“Of course we know her. She just joined our group. She was lucky. Ronni was able to cross over from the ‘loser’ group,” the girl said, forming an “L” with her thumb and forefinger. “Right, girls?”

The girls nodded solemnly.

“What’s your name?” Macy asked.

“Lauren.”

“Ok, Lauren, how long have you and ‘Ronni’ been friends?”

“I don’t know, maybe two weeks. She’s, like, really new to our group.”

“Who were the ‘losers’ she was hanging out with before?”

“Just one loser. With a capital L,” Lauren said, cracking a wad of gum in between neatly lined pearly whites. “She’s over there. Angela.”

The clique behind Lauren nodded again, all five of them pointing painted nails towards a girl sitting alone.

“Thanks, Lauren.”

“Anytime. Great shoes,” Lauren called after Macy.

Angela Weber, cocooned in ill-fitting black pants and a hooded sweatshirt, huddled on a bird-poop encrusted bench, a book propped open in her lap. She looked, Macy thought, depressed, lonely. Unpopular.

“Hi, Angela.”

Angela looked up, her brown eyes heavily lined in black, her skin pale.

“Do I know you?” she asked, her tone harsh.

Unoffended, Macy took a seat on the bench, careful to avoid staining her linen suit. She crossed one slim leg over the other, her heel slipping out of the expensive pump.

“No, you don’t. But I want to know about you. You and your friend, Veronica.”

“Veronica is not my friend,” Angela said firmly. “At least not anymore.”

“Can you tell me what happened between you?”

“Maybe I can tell you. If you can tell me who you are.”

“My name is Macy. I’m a friend of Veronica’s family.”

Angela’s eyebrows winged up. Skepticism caused her eyes to narrow, her lips to purse.

“Ok, whatever.”

“You’re not friends with Veronica anymore. Did she ditch you for the popular crowd?”

“You could say that.” Angela looked down at her book.

“She told you she didn’t want to be friends anymore? That you just weren’t cool enough? Maybe your friendship didn’t mean as much to her as it did to you. She was your best friend, but you weren’t hers. Am I close?”

As Macy had been talking, Angela had looked up again, red seeping through the heavy eyeliner, tears painting black streaks down her ashen cheeks.

“How do you know?”

Macy smiled gently at the wounded girl.

“I had a friend like that, too. She lived next door to me when we were growing up. We even had a makeshift phone strung between our bedroom windows. But then we got older, she got prettier, I got awkward. She was too cool for me, and I couldn’t keep up. She never ended the friendship, but we grew apart. People do.”

“Veronica ended our friendship. She lost the bracelet I bought her, had engraved for her. And when I got upset and asked her about it, she said it was worthless. That I was beneath her. A loser. A loser with a capital L.” Angela’s fingers curled into fists.

“Did that make you angry?”

“Of course it did! I was angry and hurt and sad. And she didn’t care. She said I was a ‘sorry bitch.’ That’s what her mother called her, and then that’s what she called me.” Angela’s voice rose, and she flung the book onto the ground, its pages crunching as it hit the cement sidewalk, the spine snapping.

Macy sat back, taking in the hurt and anger mapped over the girl’s face. As the next question formed on her lips, her phone rang.

“Just a second, ok? I need to take this.”

Macy walked a few feet away, keeping an eye on Angela.

“Finnerty.”

“Mace, it’s me. Listen, the boyfriend’s alibi checked out, the girlfriend’s didn’t. Seems Mommy has racked up a few arrests – solicitation, possession, intent to distribute. Looks like life isn’t paradise in the suburbs after all, huh?”

“You’re telling me. I’m talking to one of suburbia’s young residents right now, and I could use some back up. I’m at the park on Winchester and Wilson. Oh, and before I forget, I think I know – Shoot, just a sec, I got a call coming in. See you soon.”

Macy clicked over to the call waiting.

“Yeah, Finnerty.”

“Fancy bitch?”

“Melinda Anderson.”

“Right on the first try, Girlie. Listen, there’s something you need to know.”

“What, that you lied about last night? We talked to your boyfriend, Melinda. He wasn’t with you yesterday.”

“Ok, fine, I lied. You caught me. What a detective you are.”

“What do want, Melinda?”

“I might be able to do something for you if you can do something for me.”

“I’m listening.”

“Ok, here’s the thing. I’m in a little trouble about my lifestyle, you know? I like to party, have a good time. But I’m on a three strikes deal, and I’ve got one strike left. You get me off the next time some cop sticks his nose in my business, I’ll tell you about my baby.”

“You want me to be your get-out-of-jail-free card? Let’s hear what you have to say.”

“Great. You won’t regret this, Figgerty.”

“Finnerty.”

“Whatever. You need to know that I loved my daughter, ok? She was trouble, but, God, I loved her. She was growing up, getting smarter, starting to notice things. And last night she found some of my grass. Just grass, though, you got me? Nothing hardcore. Anyway, that stupid girl took it and flushed it down the commode, like it didn’t even matter. Then she tells me that it matters to her, that she doesn’t want me doing that shit. Not that it’s any of her business.”

“Did you hit her, Melinda?”

“I grabbed her arm when she flushed my weed. And I might’ve slapped her. But then she ran to her room, and I swear I didn’t see her again after that. I went to a friend’s place, partied until the morning. I found her when I got home, then called you guys. Why the hell would I call you if I’d done it?”

Macy paced as she listened, putting together the puzzle pieces of Veronica’s murder. She had pieced together the border, she thought, and now Melinda was snapping together the detailed sections. She turned, looked at Angela slumped on the bench, at the book on the ground. She stepped forward, picked up the book to hand to Angela, then noticed the pony on the cover, the twin to Veronica’s. She propped the phone between her shoulder and her chin, “mm-hmm-ing” to Melinda’s monologue, and started turning the pages, recognizing the dueling handwriting. She caught words here and there, “betrayal,” “stupid,” “popular.” “Hate.” She glanced up at Angela, met the girl’s gaze.

“Ok, thanks for telling me, Melinda. I’ll be in touch.”

She hung up the phone on Melinda’s rasping voice and kept her gaze locked on Angela’s burning eyes. She flipped to the last page of the notebook, finally breaking her stare with the girl to read the exchange on the pages. And then she knew.

Macy started towards Angela, who leaped off the bench. Macy, proving her worth, chased after the girl in her heels, keeping pace with her, despite the heavy purse slapping against her hip, the book clasped in her sweaty hand.

“Angela, stop! Stop! Police!”

Angela’s black figure zigzagged towards the parking lot, the hoody falling off the mess of frizzy brown hair. She ducked behind a row of cars, her sneakers slipping on the gravel.

Macy leaped over a wheel stop and landed hard, her heel snapping under her.

“Dammit,” she cried, before slipping out of both shoes and running in her hose to keep up with the fleeing girl.

Her body pounded, in feet, in knees, in hips, in heart, in head. And just as she closed in on her perp, Johnny drove up and leaned over to push open the passenger-side door, catching Angela just as she sprinted past. The girl slammed into the metal, then crumpled to the ground.

Macy slowed her pace to a jog for the last few feet, then lowered her hands to her knees, her chest heaving with exertion.

“Nice save,” she panted.

“Thanks, babe. What happened to your fancy shoes?”

“They broke. And don’t call me fancy.”

Johnny sent her a quizzical look then picked up the moaning girl by her armpits.

“You ok?” he asked.

“No. You hit me with your car, you dumbass.”

“She’s fine,” Macy said. “Put her in the car. She killed Veronica.”

Johnny looked at Angela’s red face, saw the misery, the hurt.

“Let’s go,” he said, shepherding her into the backseat. “Want a lift, Macy?”

“Meet you at the station. Got to get my spare heels out of the car. Give me just a minute, ok?”

“Sounds good.”

As Johnny walked around to the driver’s side door, Macy leaned into the car through the still-open passenger entry.

“You want to tell me what happened?”

Angela stared at Macy, her expression stony.

“I might be able to help you, Angela, if you let me in. I’m a good listener.”

Angela spoke softly, enough so Macy climbed on to the passenger seat, propped her chin on the headrest.

“I went to her house to talk. To see if she could be my friend. But she was so pissed at her mom, so angry she wouldn’t even listen to me. And I kept talking and talking, and she wouldn’t listen, and I started shouting at her to be my friend, why couldn’t she just be my friend. She told me to shut up and get out. I don’t know what happened next. I just remember seeing our shoelaces, the ones we bought together, on the floor, and I wrapped them around her neck until she would be quiet and hear what I was saying. And then it was too late.”

Macy sighed, reached out a hand to touch Angela’s knee.

“It’ll be ok, Angela. I’ll do what I can to help you.”

“Thanks,” Angela said before dissolving into sobs.

Macy pushed herself off the seat and slammed the door shut. She headed to her car, head high, back straight, earrings swinging. Not bad for a day’s work, she thought. Not bad at all.

The Only Love She Could See

Emily Mae Jones was an old woman. Her skin was like paper, thin and creased. The powder she routinely smoothed on gave her the look of a well-loved book, one whose pages were slowly disintegrating. Her body was failing her, but her mind was still sharp. And when she began telling her story to Sarah, one of the hospice aides, her unseeing cloudy eyes, now a watery blue, shimmered.

“The summer of 1956 was a hot one in Arkansas,” she began, her arthritic fingers working the thin cotton blanket. “The air hung heavy over White Oak. Folks rocked in creaky chairs on their porches, lazily cooled themselves with paper fans. That was the summer I began to feel like a wilting flower, growing weaker and weaker, my back bowing until my face grazed the ground. And that was the summer I met George.”

****

On a damp afternoon in June, Emily Mae sat in her bedroom, her fingers trailing over the pages of a book. When the knock sounded at the back door, she startled. No one was expected, and no one had been invited. Especially not when she was home alone without her mother, unguarded and unsupervised. Vulnerable.

With her heart tripping in her chest, she shifted in her chair and reached around to the side of the smooth desk to grasp her white cane. Sliding it along the floor, she felt her way to the stairs, then gripped the railing as she descended. There were 19 steps, she knew. Another 31 to the back door in the kitchen. The knob turned to the right, and when it clicked open, she would pull it to herself, careful to step wide.

“Yes,” she asked, peering out onto the porch.

“‘Scuse me, ma’am, I’m delivering some groceries that Miz Frannie bought this afternoon. She didn’t have room for them in her car, and I told her I could swing on by after my shift to drop them off. I’ll just put them on your counter there?”

“Yes, that would be fine,” Emily Mae said, her ears absorbing and cataloging the deep, rumbling voice. “Who did you say you were?”

“Sorry, ma’am, my name is George. George Jackson. I work at Kitter’s Grocery Mart. I’m a bag boy,” he explained, stepping into the kitchen to set the crinkling paper bags on the narrow countertop.

“Oh, I see. Well, it’s nice to meet you, George. I’m Emily Mae.”

Emily Mae offered a pale white hand and waited. She sensed his hesitation but his large callused hand took her own. She couldn’t say why, but his touch was different. It was his texture, she decided, that was strong and smooth, his scent rich.

“Nice to meet you, too, Emily Mae. I should be getting along.”

“Alright. Bye now.”

George glanced back at the pale girl with the unruly blond hair, the cornflower blue eyes that looked to the floor.

“Bye,” he said, slowly closing the door.

Emily Mae had hardly turned to scout through the groceries when the door slammed open again, banging against the wall.

“Did that boy come by here,” her mother gasped.

“George? Yes, he did. Why are you breathing so hard, Mama?”

“I ran straight from the car to the house when I got here,” Frannie said as she pressed a hand to her heaving chest. “I thought I’d be home before he came, but I got a flat tire out on Waverly Road. Had to call your granddaddy to come help me. Thought I’d never get home in time.”

Frannie pushed a loose pin back in her short, curled hair. She’d been frantic thinking of Emily Mae alone with that boy. Who knows what could’ve happened? Her baby was blind and helpless, and he could have taken advantage of her. Frannie shook her head at the thought.

“Why would you be so concerned,” Emily Mae asked. “He was nice boy. Very polite. He gave me the groceries then left.”

“Well, honey, I know you aren’t aware of some things, but George is…not like us. Do you understand? I don’t want you talking to his kind. Do you hear me, Emily Mae? I’m serious, now.”

“Alright, Mama, I hear you,” she replied, a brief sigh escaping her lips.

It was easier, she thought, to let her mother think she was oblivious to the world, to life outside of the yellow house at the end of the road. But in the evenings, when her mother was preparing dinner and the scent of simmering sauces wafted out of the kitchen, Emily Mae would tap her way to the television. She twisted its dials, kept the volume on low, and listened. Static-filled voices related the news – riots and boycotts and protests – and Robin Hood’s adventures, and a young man, a singer, crooned about a hound dog. And Emily Mae, a bird caged, longed to experience the world. To have friendships. To love.

Over the next few days, Emily Mae lingered around the kitchen, hoping for George’s return. Her ears pricked with every fallen footstep on the porch, her heart pounded with anticipation that he might have returned. But after a week of pressing her fingers to the warm glass windows, of standing guard at the back door, it seemed as though George was a passing acquaintance, a fleeting memory of touch and smell.

With disappointment dulling her eyes, fading her smile, Emily Mae tied a silk handkerchief around her head and set off to the far end of the spreading yard. She had a special place there, under an oak tree whose arms were thick and comforting.

After counting her steps, Emily Mae braced a hand on the coarse, warped bark of the tree, then smoothed down her skirts to sit on a low-hanging branch. And when the hand reached out to touch her shoulder, Emily Mae let out a breathy scream.

“It’s just me, Miss Emily Mae. It’s George. Remember? From the other day? I delivered the groceries.”

Emily Mae gulped air, swallowed hard.

“What are you doing here? How do you know about this place?”

“I came back to see you. I thought there might be a chance you’d come out here. I’ve been waiting.”

“You’ve been waiting? For how long?”

“I’ve been coming here the last couple of days, ma’am.”

“You don’t have to call me ma’am, George. I’m 22 years old.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Emily Mae sputtered out a laugh. Her heart was still thumping under her cotton sundress, and she ordered herself to calm.

“Who are you, George? Why do you want to see me?”

“I wanted to get to you know, Miss. There’s something special about you.”

“You mean because I can’t see.”

Emily Mae turned away, her stomach dropping to her knees. He saw only her blindness, her handicap.

“Yes,” George said as he placed a gentle hand on Emily Mae’s arm. He gave a light tug, enough to turn her around to face him.

“But maybe you can see deeper than other folks.”

He stroked a dark finger down Emily Mae’s fair cheek, leaving a wake of sparks. She shivered under his touch.

“What makes you think I can do that?”

“Because you’re someone I can believe in.”

Emily Mae took his hand between both of hers, pressed it to her warm cheek.

“Tell me about your family, George.”

“It’s just me and my mama. She works hard, and she comes home at night with her back aching, her knees aching, her feet aching. But she only smiles, tells me to warm up the kettle and that she’ll be just fine. We go to church together every Sunday and eat dinner together every night. I got the job at Kitter’s so I could help her out and take care of her. She’s getting old, my mama.”

“She sounds wonderful,” Emily Mae said wistfully. “Not that I don’t love my mother, but I think she’s worried for me. What people will think, what they’ll say. What they’ll do. So she keeps me locked away. I know she wants to shield me from the world. But I want to see it. I want to see everything.”

“Can you see me?” he asked quietly.

She let go of his hand and reached forward, fingers searching, trembling, until they found purchase. The soft pads of her fingers tickled over George’s high forehead, trailed down the length of his wide nose. She lightly traced the round shape of his eyes, and his stubby eyelashes brushed her unpainted nails. And as she listened to the wind fluttering the pleats of her skirt, felt the sun warm her back, heard George’s low breathing, in and out and in and out, she rubbed the tip of a finger over his plump lips.

George grabbed her hand, turned it over to press his lips to the inside of her wrist.

“Meet me again?”

Emily Mae drew her hand back, her wrist still tingling from his lingering kiss.

“Yes. Yes, I’ll meet you again. Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow,” he said, the smile sounding in his voice.

So Emily Mae returned to her tree, day after day, week after week. She and George sat shoulder to shoulder and hand in hand, backs resting against the tree’s sturdy trunk, and talked. Just talked. He spoke of his absent father, his residual anger at being abandoned; she spoke of suffocating under her mother’s care. He squeezed her hand when she confided her loneliness; she soothed, stroking his bristly cheek as he raged about the racism in town. She learned his smell, that unique mixture of sweat and cotton and skin and man.

Emily Mae couldn’t know, but her face had begun to glow, her eyes shine. She could often be found sitting in a chair, chin propped in hand, and gazing off, a smile stretching across her face. Her grandfather, on his Sunday visits, only took notice of her pleasant disposition, but Frannie, being a woman who could sense her daughter’s moods like a shift in the air, became suspicious.

She knew that Emily Mae had begun sneaking off in the late afternoons. Emily Mae’s excuses were flimsy at best, and to Frannie, they were painfully transparent. So she bided her time, waiting until she could uncover Emily Mae’s secret. That day came on one sweltering afternoon, deep in August.

“Emily Mae? I’m heading off to play bridge with the girls. You’ll be fine here alone, won’t you?”

“Of course, Mama. You have a good time.”

Frannie took off toward her car, slid in the seat and prepared to back out of the driveway. The minute she’d turned the corner, she shut off the engine, then quietly rounded her way back to the house, only to see Emily Mae heading across the field.

She kept a few lengths behind, aware that her daughter’s hearing was exceptional. The crunching of grass beneath her heeled soles could quickly alert Emily Mae, so she walked tenderly.

And then she knew. The large black boy waiting at the base of the tree, Emily Mae’s excited cry. Gripping fingers. A chaste kiss to the cheek.

Frannie’s vision went dim and her pulse thundered in her ears. She stumbled, her heel catching on a knotted clump of grass. She landed hard, her hose ripping and her palms stinging with a green tattoo. She picked herself up and flew towards her baby girl.

“Emily Mae! What in God’s name do you think you are doing? Get away from that boy right now. Right. Now.”

Emily Mae, a shocked look freezing her features, could only stare in her mother’s direction as her fingers tightened on George’s.

“Mama, no.”

“I said now, Emily Mae,” Frannie screeched, her voice pitching high with panic. “Don’t you dare touch that boy. Do you have any idea what you’re doing?”

“I know what I’m doing, Mama,” Emily Mae said firmly. “This is George. He’s my friend. And I love him.”

“You don’t know what love is,” Frannie insisted, stepping forward to tear Emily Mae away.

“Stop it, Mama.” Emily Mae pushed Frannie’s hands aside and wrapped her arms around George.

Shaken and hurt, Frannie stepped back.

“You would choose to be with that boy? You would choose him over your own mother? Over me?”

“I’m sorry, Mama, but this is how I feel. I need him, I need my freedom. You can’t keep me in that house forever. It’s not right.”

Frannie’s chest felt hollow, empty of emotion, void of love. She could only stare at her daughter – and the boy who had ruined her.

With a surge of rage, she pointed a sharply manicured finger at George.

“This is your fault.”

Then, in a move so unladylike she surprised herself, Frannie spat at his feet.

George put a burly arm around Emily Mae’s shoulders, pulled her close.

“I’m sorry, Miz Frannie. I am. I don’t want to take Emily Mae from her mother.”

“You’ve done more than that,” Frannie said through gritted teeth. “You’ve spoiled her. You stay away from my daughter. If I ever see you on my property again, I’ll get my shotgun and shoot you like the animal you are.”

With a fierce pull, Frannie yanked Emily Mae out of George’s arms and dragged her weeping daughter back to the house, up the stairs, and into her room. Then she locked the door on her way out.

That night, when Emily Mae had cried herself out, and her face was red and puffy, George returned. He shimmied up the drain pipe to tap lightly on her window. When she opened it, he climbed through and enveloped her in a tight embrace.

Burying his face in her sweet-smelling hair, he whispered, “I love you, too. Come away with me. Let’s go. Please.”

She stepped back, ran her hands over his shoulders, down his well-muscled back.

“Ok,” she said, letting out a long breath. “Ok.”

His heart light, his feet light, George hurried around the room, gathering up dresses, scarves, mismatched pairs of shoes. He tied them in a towel, then tossed it, along with the white walking stick, out of the window. Emily Mae sat perched on the corner of the bed, amused by his speed, by the rush of air that caressed her face.

“Ok, you’re ready. Let’s get out of here.”

He crouched and scooped her into his arms. She clasped her hands around him, laid a gentle kiss on his neck. He glanced down at her, tears pricking his eyes, and left a kiss on her forehead. He headed toward the window and tilted her over one shoulder before climbing backwards out of it. She laughed at his hold and gripped his waistband.

The climb down was dicey, George thought, and with sweaty, scraped hands, he came close to falling a number of times. But he tightened his grip on Emily Mae and dropped the last few feet. He grabbed the towel and the stick with his free hand and jogged to the car he’d parked a quarter of a mile away. When he settled Emily Mae in the front seat, he impulsively grabbed her face and kissed her, his lips sliding over hers. She pulled him closer, pressing her pink lips to his.

And then he was in the driver’s seat, his hand on her leg, her hand over his. He rolled the windows down and the fresh, crisp night air flowed into the car and through her wild and curly hair. She turned to him, cheeks flushed, eyes dazzling, swollen lips grinning. He took her hand, brought it to his lips.

With the night sky stretching before them, with stars winking above them, they were free.

****

“What happened next,” Sarah asked. “Did you live happily ever after?”

With a small, sad smile, Emily Mae shook her head.

“We made at as far as the town border before my mama came, the police in tow. They arrested George for kidnapping,” Emily Mae lifted a shaking hand to wipe the tear quivering on her lashes. “I never saw him again. But I love him still, a sweet, unwavering love that will end only when I end.”

Sarah reached over, patted her bony shoulder.

“My mother put me in an institution later that year. I spent 10 years of my life there, until Mama died and I inherited the house. That’s where I stayed, day after day, week after week, year after year. And our tree – and my memories – are still there.”

The Winter of Her Life

Alma spread the newspaper pages out before her, her heart leaping at the number of obituaries. She fingered her shears, debated where to start cutting. Should she start with the A’s and work her way through the alphabet? Perhaps she could start in the middle and cut out each life story in a counter-clockwise circle. No, she would cut the border of the paper first, being careful to save the date, and then go column by column. Oh, this was such fun.

With delight shimmering behind her clouded, cataract-riddled eyes, Alma placed the scissors carefully between her thumb and forefinger. Her hands had long since given way to arthritis, and her cutting ritual could be a challenge, depending on the weather. Today, bless her, was sunny and dry.

Although she couldn’t read the small print anymore, if she narrowed her eyes and brought the paper within an inch of her papery-thin and wrinkled face, she could just make out the names. And what names they were: Alfred Knobloch, Miriam Poppy, Sarah Johnson. They brought back so many memories. Of course, being a native of Springfield, she knew most of the names, could, if she looked back far enough in her lengthy memory, recall a watery image, an outline of facial features.

But now, as these friends were passing, each one crossing the path to the afterlife, Alma was doing her Christian duty by honoring them, placing each of their obituaries into an old leather scrapbook. One day, she thought, someone might cut out her story, remember bits and pieces of her life, her family. Who might write about her, she wondered, who would she be survived by?

Probably just Sue and Martin, she thought with a shrug. Her daughter and son-in-law took care of her, though truth be told, she could live just as happily on her own. Here, she was a burden, the albatross around Sue’s neck, and Lord forgive if she would ever give thanks to her ungrateful child, that whining, sniveling brat. Useless piece of trash. Selfish bitch.

Alma looked down at her fisted hands. Why did she have shears? Whose paper was this? Puzzled, she glanced around the room. This wasn’t her house. No, she lived in a cute little bungalow, the one she had shared with Simon for over thirty-five years. She’d had the tile replaced in the bathroom a few months back.

Alma turned to look out of the window, expecting to see her vegetable garden, the one she and her husband had planted in the summer of ’02. But before her was a house, where through a picture window she could see a young couple playing with their child. A little girl, screaming with laughter, chased her daddy around the dining room table. The mother stood in the doorway, her shoulder resting against the jamb. Laughing, she swatted at her husband and daughter with a ragged dish towel, telling them to knock it off before someone got hurt.

That was just the way of things, wasn’t it? Families could burst with love and pride and laughter, but there was always room for pain. Thank goodness Sue and Martin had taken her in, not forced her into one of those dreadful retirement homes with eggshell walls, quiet corridors, lonely rooms. What sweet children.

With a sigh, Alma returned to her paper. Clutching the scissors, she methodically opened and closed them, again and again. Lord, that was just a wonderful sound. Snip, snip, snip. Alma cut through one obituary after another, marveling at the lengths of some people’s lives. What wonderful accomplishments they must have had to garner 18 inches in the paper. She wondered what her obituary might say. Perhaps Sue would write it.

And Alma continued her routine, clipping and watching, alternating between the deaths of her mates and the life of the family next door. Sometimes a glass of water would appear at her elbow. Sometimes she would find an empty plate on the table next to her, though she couldn’t remember having eaten. Maybe Simon had sat down next to her, and she just didn’t realize it. Sometimes she called out his name, and a disembodied voice would float back to her, “Dad died eight years ago, Mom.” And sometimes, she would sit in her chair and watch the family next door, envious of their bond.

One night, however, Alma’s predictable life came to end. Oh, she didn’t die – but she would never be the same.

Alma had sat in her chair, the threadbare one that smelled faintly of mothballs, and watched the family sit down to dinner. The mother had prepared a thick ham, one that seemed to drip with honey sauce. The father took to slicing the meat while she dropped dollops of creamy mashed potatoes on festive dinner plates. And, as a surprise, the mother had also prepared an apple pie, one whose sweet scent drifted over to Alma.

The family said grace then dug into the food. The mother nudged her daughter’s elbows off the table, reminding her to have nice manners. The father appeared to launch into a tirade – probably about politics, Alma thought, that was all young people talked about today – and the mother nodded along absently.

They were, to Alma, a perfect family; they actually seemed to enjoy each other’s company. The father had a cheeky grin, and he occasionally reached out to stroke his wife’s arm, touch her hair, massage her shoulder. The mother was doting, loving, feeding her family with affection – as well as a nicely-baked ham. And the little girl was precocious and energetic, dancing in her seat as she seemed to talk about her day.

This family was not like Alma’s family, no sir. Her mother was a strong believer in spare the rod, spoil the child, and Alma’s rear had felt many the sting of a willow branch. Some days, she could still hear the whistling of the switch and braced herself for pain. And, continuing the cycle, she had used the same method with her own daughter. Maybe Sue didn’t deserve to be beat, but what could a mother do? If a child wouldn’t listen, they would be made to listen. And bless her heart, Sue didn’t have a good bone in her body. It was a wonder Alma hadn’t beat the stuffing out of her more often.

The next time Alma looked up, the little girl had been sent off to bed, probably tucked in among her teddy bears and toy ponies. The parents remained downstairs, sitting next to each other at the table, their hands clasped together. Alma couldn’t quite make out what they were talking about, but it looked to be serious. The mother was wiping her eyes, brushing away tears, and the father was shaking his head, insisting on some important point. And just as Alma leaned forward, her eyes narrowed in concentration, the couple looked up, meeting her eyes.

Shocked, Alma watched as they stood and walked toward the window. The mother, tears glittering in her soft brown eyes, had her hand stretched out, an offering of peace. The father held onto his wife’s other hand, trying to pull her back into the room. And Alma rose from her chair, her bones popping with the movement.

She thought she heard screams, thought she heard someone shout, “Mom, what are you doing?” But that was impossible, she lived with Simon. She wasn’t a mother. She just got married two years ago. She was 23 years old.

Across town, Officer Pearson was having a difficult night. He’d pulled over a car packed with teenagers, booze and his neighbor’s daughter. He let them off with a warning, but had confiscated the alcohol and, he hoped, scared them sober. He’d have to go over to Jerry’s in the morning, explain that he had found Sherry in a car with a bunch of drunken high schoolers.

He scrubbed his hands over his face, wishing for a cup of coffee that didn’t taste anything like the sludge in the station. As if he didn’t have enough to deal with already, his wife was complaining about wanting to re-do the kitchen, his own teenager wanted to pierce her nose, and his father was beginning to show signs of Alzheimer’s.

Officer Pearson – James – was tired. Bone tired. He dreamed of a time when he wouldn’t be plagued by images of battered women, abused children, drunk drivers. He wanted a simple life: a sweet wife, well-behaved children, a fridge stock-piled with beer, and a sunny afternoon spent watching the Yankees win the play-offs.  But he wouldn’t get that dream tonight.

“Car 1719, we’ve got a report of domestic disturbance at 238 Walnut Street. That’s you, Pearson.”

“I’m on it.”

Officer Pearson turned on his lights, made a quick U-turn, and drove quickly to Walnut. When he pulled up to the house on the corner, a neat Colonial that must have cost a pretty penny, he thought there might have been a mistake. Everything appeared to be in order. But with this job, he knew, nothing was ever as it seemed.

He pulled himself out of the cruiser, poised his right hand over his gun, and approached the house. The door was closed, the windows were locked. He pushed the doorbell, heard the straining sounds of the first notes of Beethoven’s 5th symphony. What an odd ring.

When no one answered, he nudged the door open. As he stepped into the foyer, the sight that greeted him was one that would, he knew, join the ranks of the abusers and abused that haunted his dreams.

He grasped his walkie-talkie, called for back-up. And the coroner.

Spread before were the bodies of a couple, a young blond woman and a handsome man. Dark blood pooled beneath their heads, their eyes were open and glassy. Both looked to have been stabbed in the neck. Whoever had done this, Officer Pearson thought, had gone right for the jugular.

Turning, he noticed a woman rocking back and forth in a chair in a far room. Her gray, thinning hair was tightly wound in a bun, and newspapers were falling off her lap, sheets falling to the floor with a slight whoosh.

“Ma’am? Are you alright, ma’am? My name is Officer Pearson. If you could just turn around for me, please, I want to make sure you aren’t hurt.”

Alma heard the voice of a man behind her. Without turning, she called out, “Simon, is that you? What’s happening? Where have you been? I miss you so much.”

Officer Pearson stared at her, his eyes hard and cold; he had long since learned to block emotion. Emotion was what could kill you, eat away at your heart like acid.

Hanging next to the old woman’s chair was a large mirror, one that could be mistaken for a window. And reflected in the mirror was a woman with a pair of bloody shears grasped in her gnarled fingers.

The Liar’s Comeuppance (Writing on a Cliche)

Artie Bryne was a liar.

He did it with ease, never glancing up to his left or right, never blinking too much, never fidgeting. He would smooth his comb-over, tuck his hands into his pockets, and smile. From his lips would emerge a casually delivered fib. For reasons unbeknownst to him, Artie created complex fabrications of the truth. Perhaps he lied because being honest took more effort; perhaps these stories spiced up an otherwise dull life.

An accountant at a large firm, Artie spent most of his time with numbers. As a result, his social skills were underdeveloped. His life revolved around days at the office and evenings holed up in his cramped apartment with a vast collection of pornography.

Until one Wednesday, Artie and his lies thrived. Whether or not his coworkers believed his stories of summers spent on yachts with supermodels didn’t matter; none of them cared to spend enough time in his company to weed out the truths from the untruths. And Artie didn’t have any close friends to challenge his lies. So he lied freely, without compunction, without retribution.

On this particular evening, Artie set about his normal routine. He turned off his office computer, shrugged into his favorite trench coat with the fraying sleeves and the missing button and took the elevator down to the first floor. He walked past two chatting security guards, slid through the glass doors of the building, and turned left to walk down the street. He stopped at the corner drugstore for a 40 of beer and a mushy tuna sandwich. He peeled some bills from a limp wad of cash, paid, then grabbed his items and set off for the subway. He swiped his wrinkled card and passed through the turnstile. As the train swooshed into the station, Artie’s comb-over lifted slightly before settling back down. The doors opened, and Artie stepped onto the train and took a seat.

At this hour, the subway was full of daily commuters. Most carried briefcases or backpacks, and all had looks of exhaustion on their faces. To Artie’s left was a businessman engrossed in his newspaper; to his right was a college-age student with headphones snugly plugged in her ears. Artie leaned back in his orange plastic seat and glanced around, his eyes landing on the women interspersed throughout the car. Some met his glances before dismissing him while others ignored him completely. When Artie’s eyes landed on a woman across the aisle, however, she not only met his gaze but also gave him a slight nod.

Artie’s heart began to pound, drumming a cadence that signaled one thought: woman. He smiled at the stranger across the aisle; Artie’s smile bordered on revolting, but the woman bravely returned his beam, her lips lifting high at the corners.

With sweating palms, Artie swiped two fingers under his nose. He glanced again at the woman, taking in her vibrant, curly red hair, her hazel eyes, the smattering of freckles across her cheeks and nose. He took a deep breath, his hefty paunch expanding, and tipped his fingers at the woman in greeting. She smirked, lowering one heavily mascaraed eyelid.

“Hey, big man,” she called across the train car.

Artie’s eyes widened in surprise. He moved his head from side to side, confirming that he was, in fact, the target of the woman’s flirtatious gaze. With a rush of self-confidence, Artie leaned forward in his chair and sent the woman a lopsided grin, exposing a line of yellow teeth, one marred by a speck of lettuce. He tried lowering one eyelid in an answering wink, but succeeded only in squinting both eyes. With the tip of his finger, he pushed his over-sized, wire-rimmed glasses back up the bridge of his nose.

The woman giggled at Artie, delighting him. It was so rare for Artie to interact with someone, let alone amuse her, that he couldn’t believe his luck. Not only was this woman interested in him, she was actually engaging him in what he was beginning to perceive as foreplay.

“You got a name, honey?”

Artie cleared his throat.

“Ar-Artie.”

“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Ar-Artie. I’m Rhonda.”

Rhonda leaned across the aisle, her button-down shirt stretching tight across her chest with the effort, and offered a smooth hand.

Artie struggled to tear his eyes away from her gaping blouse. He rubbed his right hand briskly on his thigh, then reached out to take Rhonda’s small, pale hand in his own.

“Nice to meet you, too.”

“You live around here, Artie?”

“Five stops away.”

“Well, Artie, honey, mine is the next stop. Why don’t you get off with me; we can grab a cup of coffee and get to know each other.”

Artie’s mouth gaped as he drew in a sharp breath. Was this a come on? Did this woman actually want to talk to him? Nobody wanted to talk to him, as far as he could tell. Most people came up with excuses to leave him (the quick exits may have had more to do with his breath, even his unpleasant body odor, but Artie was unaware of this fact).

Artie bobbed his head, his chins shimmering with the effort.

“Great. Great. That would be great. The next stop, you say?”

“That’s right.”

Rhonda slid a finger down the back of Artie’s hand before settling back into her seat. Artie’s hearing escaped him as his ears filled with static, a rushing sound complemented by a shiver felt deep in his belly.

The train jerked to a stop, and Artie stood unsteadily, a colt testing out its legs. With his drugstore plastic bag in one hand, Artie lurched toward the doorway, following the bobbing of curly red hair a few people in front of him. When he got off the train, he headed toward the exit, trying not to lose sight of this lovely, sexy woman.

And she was waiting for him at the landing, gazing down at him.

Artie stepped off the escalator, took Rhonda’s elbow with his hand, and awkwardly guided her toward the street.

“Which way is the coffee shop?”

“Just around the corner.”

Artie’s chest puffed with importance as he escorted Rhonda down the street. He had no clue what was to happen next, but it didn’t matter. All that he could think was that there was a woman – a real, actual woman – who wanted to get to know him. Really know him, if he was reading the signs correctly.

Acting the chivalrous gentleman, Artie pulled open the glass-paned coffee shop door, allowing Rhonda to step inside the overheated cafe.

“Why don’t you get us a table, and I’ll get the coffee. What’ll you have?”

“I’ll have a latte, sugar.”

“You want a latte with sugar?”

Rhonda’s laugh tinkled out.

Realizing his error, Artie’s face bloomed with embarrassment, red staining his cheeks, the tips of his ears and nose.

“Right, a latte. Honey.”

Minutes later, Artie carried the steaming mugs to the corner table Rhonda had chosen. He placed the coffees on the table, being careful not to spill.

“So, Artie. Tell me about yourself.”

Rhonda took a sip of her latte, then leaned forward, focusing on Artie.

“Well, let’s see. I work as an accountant, but that’s just for fun. I make my real money on the stock market. I’m a numbers man. I play with numbers all day long, and I watch those numbers add up in my bank accounts. On the weekends I like to take my boat out. She’s a beaut. Cedar and teak.”

“You have a boat? That’s wonderful.”

“One of my best purchases. I could have bought a Maserati, but in this city, who needs a car? I can always get a chauffeur if I need one. For nights at the opera and such.”

“Opera? You don’t strike me as an opera person.”

“Absolutely. I’ll take Gluck’s ‘Iphigenie en Aulide’ any day of the week.”

Rhonda pretended not to notice Artie’s stumbling over the French.

“My, my, aren’t you cultured.”

“Well, you know, money allows me to pursue knowledge.”

“Isn’t that interesting.”

Rhonda sipped again at her latte, her eyes narrowing in speculation. Artie’s appearance belied his stories, but it could be that he was just an eccentric gentleman. It wouldn’t be the first time she had misjudged a mark.

“Tell me, Artie, what do you believe are the pleasures in life?”

Artie choked on his black coffee.

“Sorry, the pleasures?”

“Sure. You’re not going to tell me you get pleasure only out of your boat and opera, are you?”

“No, no, of course not. Well, uh, well. Let’s see. I can’t deny enjoying the pleasures of the flesh.”

Artie’s eye contact with Rhonda became sporadic. It was as if he was ashamed of saying something truthful, something that could reveal his true, pitiable self.

Rhonda rested in her chair, draped an arm across its back.

“Well, Artie, let me tell you a little something about myself. I’m single, divorced a few times. I’m not a numbers woman, so I won’t tell you the truth on that. I work as an actress, but I supplement my income as a paralegal. I have two dogs at home, Grift and Sniff. They’re my cute little babies.”

“And what do you do for pleasure?”

“Well, Artie, I like to have fun. Lots of fun. Would you like to have fun with me?”

Artie wanted to have fun with her.

A short fifteen minutes later, Artie followed Rhonda into a pay-by-the-hour hotel room. The walls and carpet were a dull, stained brown, the bed was covered by an ugly green bedspread. But for Artie, the room was a palace. Here, his dreams would come true. He would never admit it, but the truth was that he was lonely.

Rhonda shrugged out of her fur-lined coat and began to unbutton her shirt, revealing a lacy black bra. Artie quickly shed his pants, his coat, his shirt, his shoes. He stood at the foot of the bed, wearing only a ratty pair of white underpants and black socks drooping at the ankles.

“Well, look at you. Sexy.”

Rhonda turned, hiding her grimace at Artie’s pudgy form. She reached into her purse to pull out a pair of fur-lined handcuffs.

“You say you want to have fun, right, big boy? Why don’t you let me put these on you. Go ahead and lie on the bed over there.”

Artie leaped on the bed, eagerly holding his arms up so Rhonda could link his wrists with the wire bed frame.

                                                                               ***
“Sir, I’m going to have to stop you there.”

Artie paused in his narration.

“We’ve heard this story many times before.”

Officer Adams dropped his pen to the desk.

“Let me guess: she handcuffed you to the bed, then robbed you blind, leaving you naked – sorry, in your whitey-tighties and socks – before absconding with your clothes.”

“Yes, Officer, that’s exactly what happened.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t have time for this kind of story. You want to tell these lies, go somewhere else. I’ve got murders to deal with, not sneaky broads. What a story. Go on, now, get out of here. If I see you back here again, I’m going to arrest you for making a false report. You don’t want that, believe me.”

Officer Adams walked off with a huff, irritated at having a stupid man waste his time.

Artie stood, his face flushed with indignity, the injustice at not having his story believed. He shrugged on his favorite trench coat with the fraying sleeves over his suit and tossed his empty drugstore bag in the officer’s trash can. The beer and sandwich sat heavy in his stomach as Artie walked toward the door. And he made his way to the subway station, pulling the wrinkled metro card out of his cashless wallet.