Saturday, July 16, 2016

Penthouse Suite 3643

Alex Brumbaugh could literally feel a grin creeping across his face as he rolled through the scenario in his head—frame by beautifully, vindictive frame. First, he would ambush Michael Finch near the water cooler. Alex would forego the usual morning pleasantries, and instead help himself to a handful of Michael’s shirt collar while administering an incapacitating head-butt. With his co-worker folded neatly on the floor, Alex would sidestep him as casually as a gardener navigates a smoldering pile of compost. By now, the temporary receptionist, Alicia, would have shrieked and bolted for the cover of the ladies room. Poor girl would never see the leg-sweep coming until she was spiting carpet fuzz and barrel rolling toward the unforgiving steel of ‘file cabinet row’. 
Alex fully intended to use the chaos of confusion to his advantage. Harried workers scrambling in and out of cubicles would provide cover as he moved down the hallway with purpose—destination, last door on the right, the over-sized and elaborate dwelling space of Johnny Flynn, one of middle managements’ most pathetic offerings. He’d begin the final assault by stapling Johnny to his burgundy, Italian-leather, high-backed office-chair. With the threat of interference neutralized, Alex would smash the glass and rip the samurai sword from the display case. He would swirl the weapon overhead until he connected fully with the fury of the blade. Fueled by a steady rush of adrenaline he’d drive forward engaging the target until the once pampered bonsai tree became nothing more than a pile of splinters. For the finale, he’d slap his boss across the face with an open hand, on the way to retrieving a letter opener. In a full frontal assault Alex would drive the opener, handle deep, into the electronic brain of Johnny’s Keurig Elite while screaming, “Coffee anyone!”
“Next time they’ll think twice before recommending Las Vegas as the ultimate vacation destination”, Alex muttered.
The woman standing next to him at the luggage carousel shot a sideways glance. He countered with a sheepish grin, as an insurance policy in case he had verbalized more of the scenario playing in his head than intended.
No matter how dismal this trip turned out to be, the portly, forty-three year old CPA would return to the office his customary half-hour early, and from there it would be business as boring usual. Alex wasn’t capable of delivering a head-butt, or a leg-sweep, and he considered blades of any kind a special brand of dangerous. During the Winter Olympics Alex would flip the channel or leave the room at the first mention of figure skating. His friends would say, “You’re being foolish, Alex. It’s all about lace, glitter, and graceful dance.” But Alex knew the awful truth. On any given day someone could lose their balance or grip—and then what—bloody, severed, torsos spinning across the ice, entrails chasing behind them. Only in the gruesome aftermath of high definition would anyone come to their senses. Then, in a multi-national consensus of twenty-three different languages, the stunned announcers would declare, “Sure wish we’d left the room with Alex—what a visionary!”     
Alex Brumbaugh III lived in a hermitically sealed world consisting primarily of glass office buildings, stuffy clientele, horrendously late nights, and microwavable meals. His version of living on the edge was when he mixed up meal plans and ate Thursday’s Salisbury steak on Tuesday. Alex operated in the shadows of lesser things. Instead of clawing his way nearer the limelight, rather sadly, he chose to settle there and eventually setting the bar unrealistically low became a way of life. His only expectation for the ‘city that never sleeps’, was to avoid the dubious distinction of being the first to cause her to slumber.
The woman standing next to him reached for her carry-on and found a new waiting spot. Despite a cushion of several bodies between them, she continued to swivel her head. Alex supposed the nervous glances were an attempt to locate the nearest security officer. “Fantastic”, Alex thought, “Ten minutes on the ground and I’m being escorted off to have my cavities searched by some rent-a-cop with extraordinarily large hands.”      
He glanced back at the carousel and saw an opportunity for escape. Alex gathered his bag and settled into the middle of a pack of travelers heading toward the exit, breaking only from the anonymity of the group when he spotted an available cab waiting just beyond the sliding glass door. 
An electric circus played on either side of the boulevard and well into the height of a midnight sky. Miniature cyclones of neon light penetrated deep into the blanket of night before colliding and melting into a warm glow. Sparks and splinters of light cascaded down, content to have been seen in their finest moment before drowning in the pools of elaborate fountains. Alex cracked the window and a symphony of sound flowed through. An enticing din of life and laughter filled the empty space between the commanding booms of cannons. Sometimes even a tiny slice of life is too much for a man with a brittle soul.
Suddenly his focus became the thin pane of glass separating him from the chaos of the strip. Alex recognized the jittering in his belly, and feared a full-blown panic attack waited for him in the next block. He closed his eyes, and tried to forget all he’d seen.
“First timer, huh?” The cab driver smiled from the rear-view mirror.
“Yep” Alex replied with his eyelids still clinched.
“A few words to the wise” The cabbie offered. “Stick to the strip; it’s well-lit and heavily policed. Don’t get too drunk and take to the streets. Just like any large city, people do get robbed and killed. Definitely avoid making eye contact with the ‘Flippers’, unless you’re into that sort of thing. Oh….and welcome to Vegas, buddy!”
Alex did not intend to wander far from his hotel and as a rule didn’t drink alcohol. “What’s a flipper?” he asked.
“Generally Hispanics, illegals for the most part, paid under the table to advertise for strip clubs and escort services—it’s not legal to verbally advertise prostitution so they click or flip the cards to get your attention and do their best to shove a card or two in your hand. It’s a real shame that every day thousands of cards and flyers end up tossed onto the streets and sidewalks. If you don’t see flippers, Vegas ain’t open for business! And we all know she don’t sleep”, the cab driver laughed.
The cab slowed in front of the hotel and the prospect of leaving the flimsy-windowed sanctuary became real. Alex lost his grip on the reigns of his imagination, and doing a hard double take at the rear-view mirror did nothing to change the fact the driver had morphed into a helicopter pilot. The penetrating stare into the back seat screamed, “Like it or not I’m maneuvering this aircraft into a hovering position.” Suddenly Alex became expendable, just another fresh-faced and naïve soldier about to be dumped into a jungle of sensory overload. Better to suck up his fears and jump voluntarily rather than try and recover from a combat boot to the middle of his back.
Alex fished in his pocket and passed some cash to the driver. He glanced at the ID badge hanging from the mirror. “Thanks for the advice, Mario, and keep the change.”
Via a deep breath, Alex summoned the courage to fling open the door to a place he’d already decided would swallow him up. Rather quickly, he waved off the bellhop’s assistance, perhaps too quickly as the gaps between the brick pavers made it impossible to keep a wheeled bag upright. Alex righted the carrier several times. He recalled how ridiculous his neighbor looked each morning as she waved nervously to him while pretending to be in control of the Great Dane that walked her up and down the block. He considered grabbing the handle and just carrying it, but if the bag were too heavy, the foolish move would only compound the embarrassment. He glanced in the direction of the bellhop and offered the same nervous wave as the dog walker back home. The gentleman leaned against one of the columns as if the engineer had penciled him into the blueprints. His arms were decidedly crossed, and he unfolded them only occasionally to draw angrily on his cigarette. Alex lunged forward and attempted a higher rate of speed. This time when the bag rolled, it carried a significant amount of momentum. The swift rotation of the handle tweaked Alex’s wrist hard enough that he squealed. It wasn’t at all a manly noise, like the grunt of a wide receiver as he absorbs the energy of a hard pass in his belly. It was more reminiscent of a high-heeled woman climbing for the sky when a mouse scampers into the open. Even as Alex contemplated blaming a squeaky wheel on his bag, the blaring of an automobile horn only inches from his backside frightened him so badly that he screeched again. This time the sound rebounded against the overhang and the echo lingered.
“You’re gonna get your stupid-self killed”, shrieked the doorman.
He brushed Alex aside to reach for the door handle of the Mercedes SL 550 convertible. Saddling up to the owner he spoke in a hushed voice, but not nearly soft enough that Alex couldn’t hear.
“That buffoon didn’t scratch the bumper did he? I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Dellheimer. Let me get your door. I’ll see to it your bags are delivered to your suite a.s.a.p.”
Alex glared steadily at the back of the bellhop’s head. He pictured himself unleashing the flurry of angry and vile words swirling in his mouth, but opted to swallow the poisonous sentiment instead. Alex had simply been out-classed and no amount of bellyaching would change that. The driver of the murder-mobile faced-up as sleek and polished as the automobile he commanded. His features were sharp and precise; attractive, Alex supposed, or rich enough to warrant the company of a beautiful female dangling from his right arm. A high-powered businessman, no doubt—the kind of creature having no purpose in life if someone removed the cell phone attached to the side of his head. Presently, he barked into the device in short, angry bursts, as though he treated everyone with the same amount of disrespect. His poor mother, Alex thought. He only hoped that by now, she had grown too hard of hearing to realize his grumbling, and too feeble minded to recall the disappointment of how her son conducted himself.  
Alex directed his attention to his bag. Gripping the handle, he gritted his teeth and visualized the receiver taking the quarterback’s pass in his gut.
“Hey you…walking away; I think this call is for you!” The businessman yelled out. 
Alex turned to find the phone extended in his direction. 
“Yeah, it seems Mr. Rogers has a gig on dancing with the stars and he needs his outfit back!”
Red-faced and deflated, Alex wheeled around before the chorus of laughter reached a crescendo. He gripped the handle with both hands, fingers interlocked as if they were around the businessman’s throat, crushing his windpipe. Alex navigated the revolving door without incident, but when the spinning cylinder spit him onto the marble tile, his left knee buckled, causing him to stumble noticeably. The bellhop watched him falter and took the opportunity to overtake him, singing quietly between snickers as he passed, “Won’t you be my neighbor.” The driver and his companion strolled past as well. When the couple broke off towards the elevator, Alex cleared his throat.
“Excuse me, Sir, may I ask what cologne you’re wearing. The aroma seems quite familiar.”
At the prompting of his companion, the man reluctantly broke stride and turned back. Following an extended sigh and a heavy roll of his eyes, the stranger offered to answer.
“It’s Clive Christian, 1872. And I suspect you’re bluffing about the familiarity because I suppose the management of any establishment selling such an exquisite and rare fragrance would have better sense than to hire the likes of you, unless they had floors that needed sweeping.” 
Alex feigned a puzzled expression. “Hmmm…I’d have sworn it smelled like the south end of a north bound skunk, and as for rarity, I supposed you might find it along most any rural highway in North America. My mistake entirely. Carry on smartly, good Sir. Or in your case, do the best that you can.”
As the elevator door opened he yanked the woman’s arm—a subtle form of punishment for coercing him to stop in the first place. Before the door closed, she glanced at her suitor as to avoid his watchful eye. While he pressed the button for their floor, she delivered a faint smile, an approving wink, and an almost imperceptible wave of her free hand—all of them directed at Alex.
Alex’s sweater pulsed visibly with every ragged beat of his heart. He couldn’t remember having ever insulted anyone so directly, nor could he recall such a deserving and smarmy recipient. But most remarkably, a mesmerizingly beautiful woman had acknowledged him. Filled with the hope of promise, Alex puffed his chest, grabbed his bag, and marched to take his place in line.        
He received a room assignment and as he signed the paperwork, felt a hand settle on his shoulder. Thoughts of the gentleman coming back for revenge gripped him. He braced in anticipation of the kidney punch that would plunge halfway through him at any second. Instead, he felt a tickle on his ear, followed closely by a whisper.
“In light of the absolutely dreadful encounter with my boyfriend, I’d like to buy you a drink. After you’re settled, of course. You’ll find me in the piano bar.”
A double kidney punch would have proved less embarrassment. The hotel attendant overheard the invitation and offered an exaggerated wink. “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, Sir.”
Thoughts were arriving at blinding speed as Alex unpacked his bag; his mind like a wood-chipper stuck in overdrive. It absolutely had to be a setup; six drooling goons waiting in a dark corner of the piano bar, sitting around afterwards grinning and picking their teeth with his remains. Maybe the delicious young woman served as bait for a larger operation, feeding naïve men drinks until the abductors arrived to usher them into an unmarked van that would transport them deep into the desert where merciless torturing took place. She appeared too sophisticated to dance with poles for a living, and too soft to collect the souls of men for sport. Outside of a beauty pageant on television, Alex had never encountered a woman so stomach-churningly exquisite and poised. While Alex was pigtails and braces, this woman had been carved from ivory and polished with a fine cloth. He paused in front of the mirror, scolding the reflection, as he often wrestled with himself. “It’s one drink…I’m going.”
Alex lingered at the entrance until his eyes adjusted to the lower level of light. He stared hard into the three corners visible from the door, scanning for gangly shadows. Five people total in the entire place, including a bartender in a tuxedo. On the far side of the bar where it made a ninety-degree turn, a pair of empty martini glasses marked her seat. She spotted Alex, offered the same faint smile, and summoned him with a very slow and seductive retraction and extension of her index finger.
“Whatever he wants put it on my tab, please.”
“All night, Miss Lundquist, or just one drink for the gentleman?”
She smiled broader and deeper as she made eye contact with Alex, “More than one, if he’ll have my company that long.”
Initially, Alex found speaking or looking directly at her a most difficult proposition, but each time he threatened to go she provided more incentive to stay. An innocent touch of his hand over another drink, leaning forward so that her dress drooped in the front, and giggling the first time she caught him looking. She invited him to dance; Alex refused. The first time due to insecurity, but the second and third because he learned to play the game of give and take more wisely. Alex traded a dance for allowing Lola, if that was her name, to guide his hand gently to places it had never been. They drank and laughed, and laughed and drank, until the two required chairs with backs. For the first time in his life, Alex felt like a man, and in her short amount of years, Lola finally felt heard. She shared a story of discontent, of abuse, and eventually a longing for escape. There, in the dim light of a piano bar, the two concocted a plan as evil as the gin coursing through their veins.
“He’ll leave the high rollers room between 4:00 and 4:30am. I need him to find the two of us in bed together. I’m offering that to you, Alex, but either way we have to give the appearance. I assure you he’ll be completely soused. Might knock over some furniture, but that will support our story. Vince will definitely come after you first, especially after you insulted him at the elevators.”
Lola reached in a sequin-covered purse and flashed a stainless revolver. “But that’s when I take him out for good. Let him hit you once or twice, that’s all I’m asking, so that the self-defense story is plausible.” Lola offered a glance at a large roll of hundred dollar bills. “I’ll pay for any medical expenses, in addition to a hundred grand for your trouble.”
Lola saw the hesitation building in Alex’s eyes. She took his face in her hands and drew him close.
“I really do want to make love to you, Alex. You’re genuine and sweet, and I’ve never been with anyone like that. Your first time should be something you always remember, and I can promise you that!” Lola giggled.
Alex’s head dipped without the support of Lola’s hands, bobbing several times before settling a few degrees lower than it began. Lola tossed a wad of cash on the bar and helped guide Alex in the direction of the elevator. He tried to protest, but the alcohol gobbled up the majority of his words, leaving only incoherent syllables dribbling down his chin.
He remembered lying naked on the bed, his head resting on an unbelievably plush pillow. When he opened his eyes again, locks of long blonde hair blocked off his peripheral view. The close proximity and effects of alcohol had robbed him of the ability to distinguish the subtle contour of Lola’s features, but he could see them fresh in his mind. He felt the heat of her body where it touched his. Her ample breasts were making impressions in his chest, burrowing dangerously close to his heart. Her voice arrived soft and undecided as she requested permission to make his parts function again. Alex managed a nod, or maybe his head slipped on the silk pillowcase, but in either case, Lola inched back down his frame and breathed life into him again.
Alex regretted his inability to play a greater role. When Lola placed her knees outside of his, he couldn’t stop himself from unpacking the bundle of guilt he dragged into the bedroom, but the moment she rested her palms on his chest and lowered into position; the indulgence of guilty pleasures swept him away. As if consumed by a rhythmic song playing in her head, Lola rocked and swayed. Stanza after stanza, layer by layer, she peeled away every misgiving like an anemic fog bending to the will of the sun.  
Lola had rolled from his chest an hour earlier and was sleeping in a fetal position facing the wall. When he awoke, Alex had a vague recollection of the plan; a plan he would have run a hundred miles an hour away from if not for the alcohol and her charisma. The alarm clock showed 3:30 am. Alex had time to slip on his clothes and head back to his room. Even as he scraped against one side of the hallway then the other, he reasoned with his unreasonable self, that in no shape or form should he be responsible for Lola. Just as the elevator chimed, Alex blurted out loud. “I owe the lovely Lola absolutely nothing.”  
Alex’s heart raced as he heard the door open and close again. The beating in his head turned moments into millenniums. The instant the black leather jacket moved through the opening Alex squeezed off the first round. His foot slipped from the edge of the Jacuzzi tub where he’d been perched, but he hopped quickly onto the tile and kicked open the bathroom door. The bullet struck Vince in the back, just above his right shoulder blade. Alex observed Lola sitting upright in bed, her mouth dropped open in horror. Alex turned back to Vince, his arm whipping the air, stretching to reach the edge of the bed. Alex thrust the gun at arm’s length, cocked his head and winced as he yanked the trigger. His second attempt sent a scorching round of lead squarely through the back of the victim’s head. 
The room began to spin horizontally, then at a forty-five. Alex stumbled backwards until he contacted the wall; his knees gave way and he slid to the floor. Lola snagged her purse from the nightstand and leapt to his side. Between frantic sobs, she scolded him, “Alex…..sweet Alex….what have you done? This wasn’t the plan at all!”    
She steadied the trembling of his hands long enough to pry his fingers from the grip. Lola wiped the weapon down with a towel and jammed it into her purse.  

Despite Lola nearly pulling his arm out of the socket, Alex couldn’t will himself to move. With his good arm, he motioned for her to leave without him—eventually she did. He heard her tiny footsteps rushing down the hallway, each of them carrying her further from danger. Free from the obligation of protection, Alex fell into a deep stare, studying the steady stream of warm blood leaking from Vince’s forehead, swirling and pooling, before it seeped into the snow-white carpet of penthouse suite 3643.

Saturday, June 25, 2016


Those living in the six-hundred block of Sidewinder Lane were overexposed; at least whereas it pertained to the personal affairs of a particular couple living there. The Feldman’s drove a chestnut colored sedan, owned a poodle named Sherman, and raised two children who were presently away at college. Two people as ordinary as paper, except that each subscribed to the school of thinking that the louder of two points most often prevailed. It happened during the spring and fall of the year when windows were thrown wide open and voices carried. Primarily their disagreements revolved around toothpaste etiquette, missed trash days, and the like. Pretty average, if not boring, fare, I decided. But all of that changed one Saturday afternoon in late September when the dissemination of information spilled into the street like poison.    
“Yes, she’s an attractive woman, Margaret, but the world is full of attractive women. In fact, many years ago, you used to be….”
In an attempt to cut off his words, I sincerely hoped Mr. Feldman swallowed his tongue. Even then, I wasn’t convinced a medical emergency could save him.
“Used to be what, Harold?” She screeched. “Attractive? Enough for you? I’ll tell you one thing I refuse to be—that’s naïve!”
I’d just finished raking leaves when their words turned sideways. Without question, the proper response would have been for me to return indoors, but knowing the correct course of action and executing it are two different matters altogether. For two full years, I had endured every minor quibble. Now, having stumbled upon it, I felt entitled to a serving of meat and potatoes as it were. Glancing across the street, I discovered company—a familiar set of eyes hovering just above the hydrangeas. Mrs. Jones had found a unique and depraved use for her gardening stool—sandwiched between the garage and the landscaping she appeared to have settled in for the duration. I had never officially attended an eavesdropping before, but in the absence of experience, I supposed common courtesy prevailed. As such, I raised my hand in her direction. It became painfully apparent that she perceived my offering as an egregious and unforgivable breach of etiquette, as Mrs. Jones left me standing like a school-crossing guard frozen in time. This period of penance dragged on long enough that the connective tissue in my right shoulder became a series of angry and knotted muscles. Perhaps out of pity, even then rather reluctantly, she returned the awkward gesture, and I understood our exchange to be a shared oath of silence rather than a greeting.   
We, Mrs. Jones and I, would soon learn the mystery woman Mr. Feldman found attractive happened to also be his twenty-something secretary, Giselle. A damning bit of information that in my opinion only bolstered his underdog status. Mrs. Feldman taught Literature at the university, and I supposed painting pictures with words for a living made for a decided advantage in any argument. 
“Come on, Harold. Giselle hurdled past attractive in junior high and never looked back. Hot doesn’t even begin to describe her. The woman is….she’s….she’s…infernoesque!”
It wasn’t a word, but it didn’t matter. By the time Mrs. Feldman finished describing it, you’d be looking for an opportunity to slip it into any conversation where it half-way fit.  
“Those four-inch stiletto heels barely provide enough clearance to prevent leaving scorch marks everywhere she steps. Does she still wear those dangerously short skirts, and the black stocking, turned down at the top to allow the steam to escape? And who could possibly forget that first glimpse of skin lying just above the stocking turndown—a healthy, three-finger width gap of flesh—delightfully and evenly tanned, except when a man’s thumbs press it white again. Should we dust for prints, Harold?”
“That’s enough, Margaret. Can we stop this now?” Mr. Feldman pleaded.
She steamrolled his objection as if she’d gone deaf to the tone of his voice. “What a lucky bit of flesh indeed, as it plays quietly in a ‘W’ shaped shadow with the lower portions of the letter squared off—a shadow cast down by a plump and juicy apple-shaped derriere.”
Mrs. Feldman was exceedingly good. Despite never having laid eyes on Giselle, in less than a minute she carved the curvaceous, young trollop out of thin air. Suddenly, I felt dirty for considering the image frolicking in the dead space between my ears. 
Mrs. Feldman made it abundantly clear that she had nothing against attractive women, or an apple-shaped derriere. At one point, she even stated that she could understand a stolen glance now and again, but it became apparent that her understanding of such a glimpse did not extend to the man whom she shared a bed with, when she lashed at him with a renewed fervor.     
“Did you look at it, Harold?” His wife bellowed.
I sympathized with Mr. Feldman’s predicament, if for no other reason than we shared the same man parts. Saying nothing at all equated to a guilty plea, yet uttering a word in either direction instantly made him a liar or a pig.
Sadly, Mr. Feldman folded like a dove on opening day. His admission of guilt came out mushed, as if she had his face firmly in her grasp, and by now, I supposed she did. Her white knuckles milking the poison from his lips.
“Do you know how incredibly unbelievable it is that after a glance or two, you might suddenly find your conscience—unless, of course, it was pasted on the back side of your zipper. Are you naïve enough to think I can’t smell her on your clothes? Tell me, Harold, was there even a fleeting thought of me when you gripped her thighs and pressed those bits of flesh white again? Did taking hold of something so young and electric make your blackened heart race? And did you once consider our children, as that wayward worm of yours burrowed deep into the core of that rotten apple? The thought of it turns my stomach irreversibly inside out!”
I can only assume that Mrs. Feldman turned loose of his cheeks long enough to slap one of them soundly. A sharp snap sliced through the chilly air between houses, arriving with enough force to temporarily dislodge Mrs. Jones from her gardening stool and rattle the tines of my rake. In the silence that followed, I sensed a checkmate. If he responded at all, I anticipated a frantic plea from a man caught, in the most literal sense, with his pants around his ankles. But Mr. Feldman recovered and countered rather quickly, his voice carrying an air of sincerity that had been missing earlier.
Even with his wife’s stomach lining exposed, he suggested that the abuse of alcohol and prescription pills were more likely the cause of her digestive disorder than his indiscretions. He recommended that if she ever stumbled upon a minute’s sobriety she might eventually see her part in it. Mr. Feldman closed by assuring her that a decade of frigidity and inattention will almost always trigger a man’s appetite for apples.
To my knowledge, Mrs. Jones and I were the only neighbors outside that day. In the days, weeks, and months that followed, we always found something else to talk about. Neither of us admitted seeing Mr. Feldman throw a duffle bag in the back seat, before crawling behind the wheel of the chestnut colored sedan and driving away. I never told anyone that when he turned the corner and headed for the highway that an avalanche of emotion filled my belly and backed up in my throat. Or that I stared for a long while at the mound of spoiled breakfast covering my shoes—trying to make sense of what had transpired. I simply couldn’t shake the tremendous sense of loss, and eventually scattered the pile of leaves as to erase the evidence I’d ever been there.
Within a few weeks, a knock came at our door. Mrs. Feldman announced she’d be searching for an apartment in the city. Closer to her teaching job at the university she said. After signing a lease and settling in, she’d return for her belongings. 
Her words sounded too rehearsed and I couldn’t get past the runaway look in her eyes. Even when she tried to bluff, the wringing of her hands said something altogether different. “Could you help move some of the heavy things? I mean…..when I…when I come ba…..” Her voice cracked and the syllables crumbled completely.
It wasn’t my lie to tell, but I helped her anyway. “When you come back”, I offered. She managed only a nod. The moment I reached to steady her trembling hands something moved between us; she instantly knew that I knew everything….about the affair, her drinking problem, and that if she survived the escape she’d never return to this place of brokenness. When the tears of shame and frustration became too many to disguise, she hugged me quickly before wheeling and heading down the steps.
Mrs. Feldman could have easily slipped away in the middle of the night, but she hadn’t. She needed something from me. I searched for the words that might be appropriate for the last she heard from me, but my mind malfunctioned under the pressure. I called after her. “Infernoesque, Mrs. Feldman…you’re a classy version of Infernoesque!” Her determined gate stalled and resumed more than once, I supposed until she decided it was o.k. for me to see her cry. She turned and mouthed the words “Thank you”.
After a few months, the bank foreclosed on the property and auctioned off the contents. Even when another couple moved in, I avoided walking past or even looking at the place. Something significant died there. An accidental death, I supposed.
Claire leaned close to the mirror, waiting for the eyelash glue to set. She tossed her head from side to side and blinked from every imaginable angle. I often wondered what determined whether they passed inspection or she ripped them off and started over again. Waiting for the sink, I picked up the box and looked on the back for some type of ancient algorithm harkening back to the days of Cleopatra. My first disappointment of the day—nothing but made in China stamped on the case.
She finished at the sink and walked across the hallway to the bedroom. Waiting for the water to get hot again, I spied on her from the bathroom mirror. Maybe spied wasn’t the correct terminology, but I supposed even if you’d been married a hundred years, people did things, or at least did them differently when they knew someone was watching. Claire reached inside her slip with the opposing hand and yanked her left breast into alignment before jamming an enhancer into the bra. She applied the same violent method of compliance to her right breast. I imagined a migrant worker tossing cantaloupes onto a wagon, and resented the fact I would have been scolded for handling them so roughly. Sometimes I missed the youthful days when we pawed at one another without permission—when we had to fight back the impulses instead of trying to manufacture the moments. I wondered if Claire missed those moments too, but long ago I determined finding out otherwise would cause more damage than asking hard questions. I guess Claire decided the same, as we didn’t talk about the old days. For a married couple, we didn’t talk much at all.       
With the aids in place, Claire leaned forward at the waist and shimmied her shoulders back and forth until she achieved maximum boost. Over the years I’d quit telling her how ridiculous and unnecessary I thought the enhancers were, but I did still snicker when the packages arrived. Claire shopped on-line and ordered from a place called the ‘Spillage Village’. 
“I wish the Spellman’s would have cancelled.” Claire complained. 
“What? I thought you liked Mark and Sherry?”
“Mark’s alright, but that Sherry is so fake. Did you hear she’s got a new set of knockers…like D’s weren’t enough.”
The word hypocrisy flashed long and hard in my mind like a neon sign. Maybe Claire made a distinction between her own temporary fake, and Sherry’s more permanent. Maybe in a few days or weeks I’d mention the contradiction, maybe I wouldn’t.
Claire appeared in the bathroom doorway. Sometimes it felt like she heard me thinking.
“They’re like 38’s, you know?”
I said absolutely nothing, but it didn’t stop her from pulling me in.
“You do know, Charlie. I’ve seen you look at them, especially after a couple of beers. But looking’s not cooking, right?”
Remember when I said that people do things when they think no one’s looking. The truth of the matter was I had looked. I specifically remembered a Christmas party ten or more years back. Sherry wore a red sweater with an embroidered Christmas tree on the front. The designer’s focus was clearly the angel topping the tree, but the combination of a plunging neckline and ten pounds of heaving breasts framing the head gave the disturbing appearance that the cherub had been involved in an accident with air bag deployment. The pressure applied equally from either side contorted and creased the saint’s features into a slightly heavenly version of Chuckie. Every time Sherry sauntered across the room and her goods began to float and gyrate, I swore the angel winked at me. When I caught Rick outside and asked his take, he relayed a similar version of a fallen angel living in the valley deep. The simple fact that such vivid imagery had survived in my mind for a decade was enough evidence to convict.    
I pretended that the trimming of my beard required my full attention. I supposed much the way Claire pretended my looking at another woman hadn’t wounded her. Claire didn’t pretend well. The turned down corner of her mouth indicated extreme disappointment—usually in me. 
“I need the truth, Charlie. Do you think Sherry is attractive?”
Low and behold, it was the deadliest kind of Déjà vu. The attractive question—the loose end that unraveled Mr. Feldman. Stretched across the doorway like a barricade, Claire had loosed a question so heavy it displaced every ounce of oxygen in the room.
“No…the answer is absolutely not.” I had blurted out of panic, but as soon as the words left my lips, I decided if she turned up the heat I was sticking to it.
“Then you must find her breasts attractive.”
We both knew I was operating from a point of weakness, but still I attempted a redirect. “Mark’s a gym-rat and a pretty buff guy, are you attracted to his physique, Claire?”
“You’re not leaving this bathroom until you answer the question….do you find her boobs attractive?”
After putting away my toiletries and wiping down the sink a second time, she still hadn’t budged.
“I suppose a little, but that’s the defective gene thing. Take a professor who’s got five P.H.D’s in his back pocket; flash a set of boobs in front of him, and suddenly he can’t work third grade math. Honestly, I think it goes way back to Adam in the Bible. Remember, God created him from dust… according to divine design all men are kind of dirty like.”
Claire gave me the benefit of appearing to consider my absurd proposition, but only for a moment.
“A long time ago, you used to look at me like that, Charlie. What happened to the way we used to be?”
My initial answer covered broad topics like jobs, children, and life happened. Claire didn’t offer a response. She couldn’t because the corner of her mouth turned down again.
I’m not even sure I understood exactly what constituted an epiphany, but if it came in shots, I think the reflection of the man staring back from the mirror slipped me a double. I suddenly realized that Claire objecting to the fake Sherry wasn’t hypocrisy at all. The only reason she shopped at the ‘Spillage Village’, put on the fake eyelashes, wore freakishly high heels, and did a hundred other things was because of my extreme stupidity. I had either glorified or crucified certain things by offering undue attention or complete and utter inattention. To the best of knowledge, there had been no infidelity in our marriage and we weren’t the type to engage in loud verbal exchanges, but our marriage was just as broken as the Feldman’s. I supposed it high time that I quit stumbling in circles, stepping on my wife’s feet, waiting for the song to change.
“Hey, Mark, this is Charlie. Sorry about the late notice, but Claire and I won’t be able to make it. Awesome news, brother, I have a gorgeous wife that’s been pretending to be someone else for years. Never mind, I’ll call you next week and explain.”  
I joined Claire standing before an open closet, slipping hangers from right to left, moving more to the rejection side. Positioned behind her, I massaged her shoulders for a moment; a diversionary tactic designed to disguise the moment I slid my hand past her shoulders and retrieved the merchandise from the Spillage Village. She turned on me and issued a half-serious glare.
“I haven’t listened in a while, and that’s probably why you quit talking, but I hear you now, Claire.”

She watched intently as I worked the scissors through each of the aids and tossed the useless halves onto the bed. “You used to say the sparkly purple dress made you feel sexy. Put it on. I’ve made reservations for Mandini’s downtown at 8:00.” 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Margaret Sunshine

My father made a guest appearance at the hospital the night I was born. It was a split decision, as grandma insisted he was drunk, and grandpa suspected controlled substance. It’s hard for me to imagine the awkwardness of the moment. It was the first time my grandparents had laid eyes on him because during the pregnancy mom insisted on keeping his identity secret. She probably didn’t know how to tell them what kind of guy she had wrapped her legs around this time. Turned out she didn’t have to say anything at all. When the umbilical cord settled around my neck and the heart monitor plummeted with every push, he excused himself outside for a cigarette. And just like a billowy wisp of smoke on a windy day, he disappeared.

They told me I was the center of my mother’s world and that she provided for me as best she could. My grandparents maintained there wasn’t any hard proof my mom had willfully abandoned me. In fact, where her disappearance was concerned—there wasn’t much evidence at all.

The police recovered her timecard from the diner where she waitressed during the day. They also determined that she finished her shift at her second job in the wee hours of the morning. From that point, like my almost-father, she disappeared into thin air. Her rusted-out, rattletrap of a car was still in the lot and no one saw her leave the club with anyone. Most businesses on the east side of the city didn’t have security cameras. The few that did were usually styrofoam or cardboard replicas mounted at the roof corners, high enough that the detailed paint jobs made them look like the real thing. Mom made a few bucks waiting tables at the diner, but any real money she brought home came from her second job. Grandma refused to use the term ‘stripper’. Her only daughter was a professional entertainer at a gentleman’s club; she shortened it to professional entertainer when she talked to the folks from church. I still haven’t formed a solid opinion on the subject. I figure my mom was stuck trying to raise a baby by herself, and if there had been an opportunity better than taking off her clothes in front of strange men, I wanted to believe she would have done it.

I didn’t think about my mother often, except occasionally wondering if I looked like her. I didn’t blame feelings of abandonment for ruining my life. All things considered, I’d had a pretty good life so far. My grandma and grandpa took me to raise a week before my third birthday. I don’t suppose they had much of a choice, but to their credit, I never felt unwanted or a burdensome obligation.
I appreciated the fact my grandparents were on a fixed income, so when I turned sixteen I started looking for work. The options are somewhat limited in a small town. I’m certain Donnie’s Diner would have hired me on the spot. My friend Sherry worked there and said the tips were good, but only if you didn’t make a big deal out of the old men smacking your butt. The first time it happened she told the manager, Zeke Reynolds, All he did was shrug his shoulders and tell her, “You can’t expect somethin’ for nothin’, Sweet-heart.” Grandpa said Zeke came from a long line of perverts, and if that had been me working there getting smacked on the backside, he’d have rounded up old Zeke and the perpetrator, put their nuts in a vice, and started turnin’. Wouldn’t take long to reach an agreement, he laughed.  

Grandma slapped him on the arm when he talked like that—to signal her disapproval. Maybe she’d had a second glass of wine at dinner that night. After leaving the room with an armload of dishes, I heard her giggling. Peeking around the doorframe, I saw her moving one hand in a circular motion—operating the imaginary vice, I supposed. The confirmation became clearer when I noticed a grape between her pointer finger and thumb in her left hand. She whispered something to grandpa between giggles, after each revolution. The giggle morphed into full-blown belly laughter when the grape burst and sprayed onto her glasses.

Like a wheelbarrow of bricks falling on my head, something struck me. Despite the silly moment, I knew I wanted to remember them that way—forever. Her apron quivering and his chins dancing, laughter gushing from their eyes.

I wasn’t good at small talk and gossip, and doing something as repetitive as working a cash register would drive me insane. I crossed off the gas station and five and dime with one big X—unless I couldn’t find anything else. Even after the remodel, Shady Acres still had a slight smell of urine. I didn’t suppose eliminating incontinence at a rest home was a realistic goal. The smell wasn’t that awful, so I decided to put in an application.

The woman that interviewed me, Miss Ellie, remembered my mother working there as a teen. I’d answer one of the questions from her sheet and instead of moving on to the next question; she’d stare at me—as if she was looking through me instead of at me. She’d shake her head and tell me I looked like my mother, only prettier, and if I worked half as hard as she had, I’d be a fine addition to the staff.

I cried half the drive home, mostly over missing the opportunity to see and remember my mother, but the tears dried up when I realized that instead of mentioning my mother’s occupation like most people did, Miss Ellie remembered her beauty and good work ethic. I decided it takes a special person to see the best in people when they most often display the worst.     

Although she was my first, I couldn’t imagine a better boss. She expected a full shift of work, but had a way of seeing more of you than you wanted seen. She didn’t just crawl in and scoop your insides out, leaving them to bake in the sun. Miss Ellie would help identify the poisonous things that were infecting all the rest. Sometimes it was an hour or more after her quitting time before you had them stacked back inside neatly, and stitched up your head or your heart, often times both. She never said the words, but Miss Ellie needed to know you weren’t going to bleed out on the side of life’s road between now and your next conversation.

I certainly never imagined looking at Miss Ellie from the opposing side of a courtroom. She was wearing a black knee-length skirt and a white blouse with piping down the front. She looked frazzled—scared and stiff-necked, sandwiched between the District Attorney and his assistant. No matter how many times I leaned around my defense lawyer and looked her way, she stared straight ahead.

The accident changed everything between us. It was the first time she placed conditions on our relationship. I understood the administrative leave, pending the investigation—she was forced to do that. But the change in the way she looked at me hurt my heart in unspeakable ways. A veil of mistrust slipped between us.  

“All rise. The State of California, Superior Court of Santa Cruz is now in session, the honorable Hector M. Hernandez presiding.”

The judge stepped to the bench. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen—calling the case of the State of California versus Margaret Livingston. Please be seated.”

Those were the last words I remember hearing clearly. Most of the preceding was blurry in my mind—like they were accusing someone else of murder and I was watching from a distance through a frosted pane of glass. The D.A. lurked and prowled around the witness stand like a wolf circling for the kill—the kind of wolf that killed more for pleasure than hunger. Although he bristled and flashed his fangs at each one of them, I knew the clock was ticking. That eventually they would call me in from the outside—that I was the accused murderer—and that the beast would not retreat until he tasted my flesh.  

Before we entered the courtroom, my defense attorney reminded me how much was riding on my ability to maintain my composure under pressure. I recalled sitting in his office for the very first time as I explained to him how I met Eugene, how our relationship developed, and what happened that stormy Thursday afternoon.

We weren’t supposed to have favorites. We were reminded that at every staff meeting, but I think it’s impossible to avoid connecting with some patients more deeply than others—they’re still people, right? I became convinced Eugene Parsons was a vibrant and virile man of twenty-five trapped in the failing and crumpled frame of someone twice that age. At fifty-one, he was our youngest patient by a couple of decades.

He transferred to our facility from out of state a couple summers ago. Eugene arrived with a good portion of his medical records missing. When Ellie asked if he might have dropped some of the documentation in transit, he became visibly agitated. He asserted that being physically confined had absolutely nothing to do with his mental acuity. He went on to say he wasn’t surprised at the missing information as the facility he came from was a training camp for nincompoops and clowns, and he hoped he hadn’t made the same mistake twice by coming here. Eugene said he could provide as much detail as Ellie required. His paralysis resulted from a fall a few years back. While attempting to install new guttering on his home, he lost his balance and fell from the ladder. He fractured his 7th and 11th vertebrae and severed his spinal cord. And, on a personal note, after the accident he found it literally impossible to enjoy the occasional game of craps, so it would behoove her to refrain from asking him to play unless she wanted to see his malevolent side. Eugene laughed. Ellie didn’t. After a pregnant pause, she asked me to show Eugene to his new room.   

He loved to read poetry, and often answered the staff’s questions with a verse—stale remnants floating around in his head from his last reading, he said. He was a man of mystery, never disclosing all that he was thinking, or expressing exactly how he felt about a particular topic, but always providing enough intrigue to keep you coming back. Much of what he talked about originated from, or was subsequently recorded in, a worn leather journal. He carried it with him at all times and was very protective of his ‘intellectual property’. He placed it in a Ziploc bag when he showered and under his mattress at night. It seemed a bit odd to me at first, but I came to realize most of the patients tended to cling fiercely to anything that represented a connection to freedom and the normalcy of their former lives.

I remember how his face lit up the first time I took him into the courtyard and parked his wheelchair in the shade of a large oak tree. He was completely in his element. Before I took him inside that day, I remember him saying, “Particular words and the elegance with which they are strung together, is like sitting atop the highest mountaintop and sipping champagne from a golden chalice.”

He insisted I take him there for a few hours every day that the weather allowed. After a few weeks of escorting and retrieving him from his favorite thinking spot, he invited me to stay outside with him. At first, I just sat by his side quietly, enjoying the breeze, but in time, he used me for a sounding board. He asked my opinions and interpretations, and began calling me Margaret Sunshine when we were alone.

“I’d avoid telling the jury that he called you Margaret Sunshine. It gives the impression, real or implied that perhaps your relationship was headed in a personal if not romantic direction. Tell me you weren’t romantically involved with him, Margaret?”

Absolutely not, I replied. Not in a physical sense, but emotionally I grew very fond of him. I suppose like the father I never had.

“So he asked you to stay and listen to his musing, correct? Let’s move forward.”

It was a very magical moment when he placed the journal in my hands for the first time and asked me to read from it. It seemed at that moment the birds ceased to warble and the breeze stood paused. Devoid the clutter of outside noise, the words emerged from his lips like crystalline notes smashing against stone. “Sunshine, you must never read from this journal outside of my presence. My soul, in its entirety, is recorded here. There will come a time when I’m ready for you to see all of me.”

I must have looked confused because he concluded by saying, “You’re a very intuitive creature. You’ll know when that time has come.”

I had absolutely no idea what he meant. I knew his journal was intensely private and I would have never looked through it, but it seemed that he wanted me to…that he needed me to know something, when the time was right.

Unfortunately, the accident happened before I ever had the opportunity to satisfy my curiosity.

“Margaret, I’m your representation. You have to be completely honest with me. I’m not going to sugarcoat this for you, because the prosecutor is going to turn up the heat. Everyone knew about Eugene’s journal and the investigators scoured the scene and his room and never discovered a trace of it. Do you have the journal? Did you read it, and did it have anything to do with Eugene tumbling down an embankment? Did your hand really slip or is it possible you pushed his wheelchair?”

“No, I didn’t read the journal and I don’t have it. We were caught in a rainstorm, I was hurrying along the ridge, and my hand did slip—I’ll swear to all of it on the stand!”

“Right now I’m not even convinced I can take the risk of putting you on the stand. You’re hands are trembling and you’re voice is cracking. You’re not telling me everything you know, Margaret. This D.A. is tough—he’ll eat you alive”


My grandmother always told me that telling half the truth was just as bad as weaving a bold-faced lie. I believe she was describing the gray areas—those muddy places between black and white where the lines blur—those shadowy corners you unwittingly paint yourself into. 

I had decided before walking into his office that I couldn’t trust an attorney or a jury with the entirety of the truth. Eugene and I were not caught out in the rain by accident like I told him, but I couldn’t very well tell my attorney that in a fit of rage I had purposely taken my patient out in the middle of thunderstorm against his will. That I was in the process of extracting answers to my questions by threatening to push him down a rocky ravine and that during the inquisition my hands did indeed slip from the grips of his wheelchair.    

Not only had I read the journal, I disposed of it within twenty-four hours of Eugene’s death. It wasn’t a completely selfish act. The information contained within was too damaging for the both of us. From my perspective, those few pages were an F-5 tornado, a cyclone of revelation, ripping up the shallow roots of my existence. 

Eugene left his journal lying on his dresser one night when he went to the dining hall for dinner. I was tempted to pick it up then, but needed to be certain this was the time he mentioned. On the third consecutive evening he left the journal unattended, I picked it up, pushed the door to, and set down on the edge of his bed. I flipped through to the final entry. 

Maybe it was because I grew up on the coast, but I always imagined life as an ocean, chapters arriving like waves, the sweetest moments beginning as swells on the horizon as the steel gray mistress swallows the sky inch by inch before giving back the blue in an extended exhale. Time enough between breaths to order and reorder your thoughts, then cast them aside for instinct. Your heartrate slams into overdrive the moment you plug into her pulse. You spring up and get out ahead of the break, carving up the surf like you own it. When you reach the shore you laugh just a little and lie to your friends, “That wave was nothing until it met me.”

Other chapters catch you undecided and under-committed. Rising out of nowhere—merciless monsters, slamming you face-first into the surf, tossing you like a rag doll before handing you off to the undertow. Pinned below the surface, you’re a pawn in a waiting game you never agreed to play. Your head spins. Confusion and panic descends like vultures. She’s broken the seal, water seeps in and your thoughts turn to muddy recollections. She demands an answer to the only question that matters. Is your will to survive greater than the grip of her icy fingers around your throat?

I still believe in the chapters of life arriving like waves, but it’s funny how looking back over your shoulder the majority middle melts away and only the peaks and troughs remain. I missed the point altogether, Margaret Sunshine. When you’re gone, people soon forget your greatest contributions. What will stick in their minds is how well you handled adversity. Whether you ran from it or worse yet, stepped on people to pull yourself out of the hole.

The first thing I remember after coming to was seeing a red light only a few feet from my face. It startled me at first, and honestly took the better part of a minute for me to determine the anemic red glow was the check engine light turned upside down. Anemic, because the car battery was nearly dead, and upside down because that’s what happens when cars hurdle through guardrails and over the sides of cliffs. Anemic and nearly dead—I could totally relate. I started to laugh, but the pain in my midsection wouldn’t allow it. The sound of the midnight surf slamming against the rocks indicated we were at least a hundred feet below the Pacific Coast Highway and more than halfway to a watery grave. I remember thinking that in more than one respect, it would have been better if the car had plunged into the rocks and burst into flames. The collar of my tee was soaked in blood, cold and heavy against my chest. I stared hard again to the other side of the vehicle. Part of me hoped she had been thrown clear and into the water; her body concealed by a thick layer of frothy foam. I remember thinking that an already troubled marriage couldn’t withstand a blow like this.

When I heard her moan from the backseat of the car, I should have comforted her—let her know that help was surely on the way, but like so many instances in my life, the significantly lesser part of me won out. Selfishly, I wiggled out the driver’s side window. My movement caused the car to shift decidedly toward the ocean. Her terror-filled scream streaked into the night. I yelled back, asking her to remain as still as possible while I did my best to stabilize the car and worked on a plan to extract her. With my back positioned firmly against a rock, I drew my knees inward and placed my feet against the back quarter panel to test the possibility of moving it. In a spilt second of insanity, I lied to her one last time, even as I fully extended my legs and watched the car teeter over the edge.

The sun was nearly up by the time I reached the roadway. I hitched a ride and told the gracious couple I had been mugged, beaten, and left for dead. I knew that I’d have to leverage all of my connections to clean up this mess I’d created. For a price, a group of men retrieved the car from the shoreline, towed it out to sea, and disposed permanently of the vehicle and the contents—no questions asked. I had been out of town on business and the car was a rental. Considering my injuries, I concocted a story of being car-jacked at a stop light by three thugs who mercilessly beat me before speeding away.

Not that I was underserving of such torture, but for years I have lived in fear that something I’d missed would turn up. Recounting the details of these heinous actions seems so surreal that I can hardly believe I committed them. To this point, I have omitted the most abominable detail, as it turns my stomach each time I look at you, Margaret Sunshine.

As I stated I was out of town on business, which covers a lot of territory for a mess like me. Our final meeting wrapped up by early afternoon. While a celebratory drink sufficed for the others on my team, my kind of celebrating turned into upwards of a dozen whisky sours and a little carousing. My last stop was a gentleman’s club on the east side of the city. When they closed up the place, I wobbled across the parking lot and settled behind the wheel of my car. While I was still weighing the options of grabbing a few hours of sleep in the car or getting a room for the night, someone knocked on my window. It seemed one of the dancers was experiencing car trouble and needed a ride home. Despite my diminished state I heard a distinct knock—one of the skeletons in my closet, needing to get some air. I truly hated the fact she had become an exotic dancer, but I supposed running out on her,  literally the night she gave birth to our daughter, left her with little alternative.

When the jury filed back into the courtroom, none of them made eye contact with me—that told me all I needed to know. The judge asked if a verdict had been reached, and after a nod of confirmation from the jury spokesman, he asked me to stand.

“We the jury, by unanimous decision, find the defendant not guilty on the charge of murder one, but guilty as charged on the count of negligent homicide.”

My defense attorney had my best interest in mind by not putting me on the witness stand. Honestly, he did me an enormous favor—serving seven years on a count of negligent homicide was definitely preferable to heftier sentence associated with first-degree murder. And I can honestly say six months into my sentence I have finally convinced myself that my hands really did slip.