2003


by Ronald Damien Malfi

At the restaurant, Jack Pagewater suddenly felt the urge to vomit. Lois was too busy fawning over the Capshaws to notice the sudden change of expression on his face, and the Capshaws themselves-well, their eyes hadn’t lifted from their mimosas all evening.

“Excuse me.” He stood and bumped Lois’ chair. She waved him past. He hurried down the hallway to the restroom, where he leaned his head against the tiled wall, staring into the mouth of the toilet, breathing in great, wheezing gasps.

Behind him, two young men entered and straddled a pair of urinals. He could hear them talking through the stall.

“You run the marathon?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Marines?”

“Twisted some tendons in my left calf. You know how the-”

“Isn’t it like the-”

“Twisted. And I had to stop at mid-mark.”

“What do they do for that?”

“Massage.”

“You can wear a brace?”

“Couple of weeks.”

Five minutes later, Jack was back at the table. He hadn’t thrown up, but his stomach had settled somewhat.

“Jack,” said Mark Capshaw, “we were afraid you’d left us.” Mark was forty and completely gray. His hands were slender and well manicured. He wore French cuff shirts and 1940s swing-era tailored suit jackets with butterfly lapels. White teeth, almost clear.

Lois patted Jack’s hand. “Too much to drink, dear?”

“No,” Jack said.

“We’ve got another round yet,” Mark explained.

“Several rounds,” Mark’s wife, Miranda, insisted. “Jack, don’t go all rubbery on us now, darling.” She patted his other hand.

“He’s been running lately,” explained Jack’s wife, as if apologizing for her husband’s abrupt departure from the table. “Mornings, evenings…trying to reach-”

“Miss the youthful body, do you, Jackie?” Mark said. He thumped his own broad chest with a fist. “Miss your jeunesse?”

“Where do you find the time, dear?” Miranda asked. She gripped Jack’s hand firmly, as if to offer condolence. She was an attractive woman in her late forties who did her best to present herself at half that age. Her fingers were cluttered with a wedge of sparkling rings-all real-and the perfume she wore was nearly cloying.

“Really, I haven’t even been running all that much lately,” he admitted.

“Ne pas etre si modeste,” Mark said.

The waiter returned, carrying a bottle of vin rouge and four snifters of brandy. Anxious to get at the drinks, Mark plucked the snifters from the waiter’s tray without haste.

“Wine?” the waiter asked them. “Ladies?”

“Cigars,” Mark said. He looked at Jack. “What’s your preference?”

“Jack doesn’t smoke cigars,” Lois answered, wrinkling her nose. “Filthy, filthy things. That’s a dirty habit, Mark Capshaw. Miranda-what’s the matter with you, letting that fit man smoke such horrid things?”

“I am my own man,” Mark said. Jack thought his eyes were beginning to look red and sloppy. “Jack, son, what flavor? Come on, now-a man shouldn’t smoke alone.”

“I don’t know flavors.”

“Don’t do it, Jack,” Lois harped.

“Robustos!” cried Mark. “Two thick Robustos, son!”

Lois frowned playfully.

“Did you tell Jack about your hunting trip, sweetheart?” Miranda prodded her husband.

“Yes,” Lois said, “do tell it, Mark.”

Mark finished his brandy. “I own a Winchester Model 70 Custom African Express with walnut stock, ebony pistol grip, and adjustable front and rear sights. What’s your make, Jack-o?”

“I don’t own a gun.”

“You don’t hunt?”

“I have twice before…”

“Well, you should take him, Mark,” said his wife. “Jack would love it. You would love it, Jack.”

“Back-ended a two-hundred-pound buck last week. I was perched in a tree, maybe twenty yards from the ground, and I’d been sitting there for-oh, I’d say forty-five minutes. Quiet. I felt like an American Indian.”

The women laughed.

“Waiting is the hardest part,” Mark explained. “It takes a lot of patience and skill to wait in silence, and to keep alert. And then this beautiful animal strides out onto the fairway-magnificent, with a rack the size of…well, the size of this table, no doubt.”

“No doubt,” Miranda agreed.

“You wait for the precise moment. Too soon and you might scare it off; too late and you’re out of the picture. You watch it, and try to become part of it. You breathe when it breathes. You blink when it blinks. Swear to God, if you had a tail, you’d both be flitting them in synchronization. Do you know what it’s like to bring down such a beast, Jack?”

“I’ve only been duck hunting.”

“Oh, now!” Mark bellowed. “Ducks? What’s a duck? That’s insignificant. I mean, when that great buck went down, I could feel it, as if it were a part of me, you know? So strong. You have to kill it to appreciate such a thing, Jackie. I mean that, son. Superb.”

“All right,” Jack said.

“The first thing you do,” Mark continued, “is heft the antlers. You just feel them, the way you’d feel a breast, and you can surmise the entire weight of the creature just by the thickness of its headgear. Experienced hunters can, anyway. Then you wait for it to stop breathing-you can see its chest heave. Again, experienced hunters know how to snap the neck if you don’t want to wait it out. But sometimes waiting it out is part of the reward. You’ve ended this thing, Jack.”

“I’ve never even eaten venison,” Jack said.

“Eat it? No-you mount it. I mean, you can have it stripped, gutted, and cleaned if you want, but I never eat it.”

“No?”

“I don’t enjoy it.”

“Red meat doesn’t agree with him,” Miranda said.

“You see, it’s a sense of pride, Jack. Every man should kill a buck once in his lifetime. You’re almost not a man unless you mount that head, Jack. You need to heft those antlers and let that creature know why man is the superior being. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Yes,” Jack said.

“Take him hunting sometime,” Miranda insisted.

“Heft them,” Mark said. He finished his wife’s brandy. “Just feeling it-it’s like a surge of power.”

“Power-power-power,” Lois grumbled playfully.

“What happens if the buck gets away?” Jack asked.

“What do you mean?”

“If you shoot and miss.”

Mark laughed. “You can’t miss, Jack. I mean, maybe with ducks you can miss, but who bothers with ducks?”

When the cigars came, Mark lit up like a child at Christmas and proffered one to Jack. “No, no,” Mark insisted as Jack stared at the smoke. “You’ve got to clip the end.”

“Bite it off like they do in the movies, Jack,” Miranda said, winking at him.

“Don’t bite it,” Mark said. He produced a silver cutter from the inside pocket of his jacket and clipped the tip of his cigar. “Snip. See that? Can’t bite it. How can you be such a damn fool, Miranda?”

“Oh, Mark…”

“Really, she’s such a damn fool sometimes.”

Lois and Miranda giggled.

When Jack and Lois first met the Capshaws two months ago, the Pagewaters were in awe of the couple. They were clever and mysterious and utterly refreshing. They used words like “hence” and “moreover” and “therefore,” and occasionally used the word “summer” as a verb. Now, two months later, Jack had fallen out of awe. Lois continued to be intrigued by the couple, but Jack now only acknowledged the Capshaws with the mild curiosity of a weary movie-goer. Sixty-two days since their introduction, the Capshaws were no more interesting that a pair of glossy insects.

Mark clipped Jack’s cigar, lit it while he puffed, then handed it across the table to Jack.

“Puff,” Mark said. “Don’t inhale. You don’t inhale cigars.”

Jack puffed. The cigar tasted like cinnamon and wet leaves and tar.

“Give it here, then,” Lois said, grabbing it from Jack’s mouth and popping it in her own. She sucked the life from it, then coughed. “Really,” she sputtered, “you men are so primitive!” She thrust the stogie back at her husband.

Just when the check came, Jack began to feel nauseous again. He rose, plodded off to the bathroom, and hung himself over the toilet again. The cigar hadn’t agreed with him. Also, he was light-headed and dizzy from all the drinking they had been doing.

Mark entered the bathroom, his voice booming some operatic song. He adjusted his silk tie in the spotted bathroom mirror.

“Jack,” he said, “do you have any idea how much Donn Mason Mutual cleared for me last year?”

Jack shook his head.

“Up thirty-five percent. That’s more than ten percent better than the New York Life return, did you know that? Thirty-five. I cleared about fifty grand in eleven months. That’s what thirty-five percent will do for you, Jackie. Why do you waste your time floundering with real estate, anyway?”

Mark Capshaw was drunk. With the exception of the house he and Lois lived in, Jack had never touched real estate in his life.

“I’ll tell you one thing, though,” Mark said. “If I could do it all again-pharmaceuticals. That’s the way to go. Pharmaceutique, Jack. Generic medicines. Your Tylenol, Advil, Whatever-the-Hell. You botch one tiny micro-atom or whatever you call it, modify the prescription, drop below the high profile drugs by eighty percent-Christ, Jack, you’d have the whole market. And that’s what it’s all about: marketing. Can’t you see that? And here you are, puckering around in real estate. It really is quite pitiable.”

Mark wet his hands beneath the sink, then ran his fingers through his silver hair. He examined the closeness of his shave in the mirror as Jack became suddenly ill and vomited into the toilet.

“No embarrassment,” Mark said. “An old Army buddy of mine threw up the first time he smoked a cigar.” He produced a joint from his coat. “Here’s the real treasure. You want to smoke before sex, Jack?”

Jack shook his head.

“It’ll make you feel better, son.”

“No,” Jack managed. The letters of the wall graffiti blurred and double before his eyes. “I don’t think I could stomach it right now.”

“What’s the matter, anyhow?”

“I haven’t been feeling well lately.”

“Have you said anything to Lois?”

“No, but she knows.”

“You should speak with her, if it’s serious.”

“She knows. And I don’t know if it’s serious.”

“You should tell Lois,” Mark said. He lit the joint and took one long drag. “She’s looking very nice tonight, by the way. She’s lost weight?”

“Lois?” Jack said. His head was still spinning. He flushed the bowl so he wouldn’t have to look at what he’d just brought up.

“Her thighs have gotten less and less…” Mark paused, searching for the perfect word, “messy. She’s a lovely woman.”

“Thank you.”

“How long have you been married?”

“Fifteen years,” Jack said. He righted himself against the wall, took three deep breaths, and pushed his way over to the sink beside Mark. The stink of the marijuana made his stomach growl.

“She’s just so lovely.” Mark’s reflection winked at Jack. “We brought the van,” the reflection said, “because I know how you and Miranda groove to it. It’s right out in the parking lot.”

“That was thoughtful.”

“Will Lois and I be going to your home?”

“Ask her,” Jack said.

“Just the same to me,” Mark muttered, and stepped out of the restroom.

Twenty minutes later, Jack stood pale and naked in the back of the Capshaw’s van, with Mark’s wife sitting cross-legged and shirtless on the floor in front of him. Unlike Jack’s wife, Miranda was all nipple and no breast.

She stood, gathered his neck up in her arms, and pushed herself against him. Her body stank of weed and sweat and baby powder. Jack was certain he stank of vomit and cigar smoke.

Miranda kissed him hard on the mouth.

“I want you to do the behind-me stuff tonight,” she said.

“All right.”

“Are you cold?”

“No.”

“You feel cold.”

“I’m not.”

“Okay, then.”

“Okay.”

“Start with my nipples. I like when you start with my nipples.”

“All right,” Jack said, and lowered Mark’s wife to the floor.

by Greg Miller

We crashed in Cyrus’ kitchen the night before the Taste of the World protest, and Charlie stayed in the van to make sure that no one would steal our gas masks or food. By the time we got up, Cyrus had already eaten 6 or 7 microwave pancakes and Charlie had gone to the gas station to get some kind of chips in a bag. He refuses to eat anything that hasn’t been packaged and sealed. We’ve argued about it before. He claims a FDA conspiracy, as usual, which is a tough point to beat.

Brandy and I had Poptarts and split some kind of fake-Buddhist drink in a bright green bottle. I felt somewhat calmer from the ginkgo or whatever was in it, but Brandy was still a little jumpy. She was worried about getting arrested, because she was supposed to be back home on Sunday. Her grandparents were coming over for BBQ. I told her that I was a veteran of tree-sit buffets, direct action dinners, and monkeywrench brunches. There was always enough food, so there was no need to stress on future nutritional opportunities.

Somebody always brought vegan stew, at least.

The sun was rising, so we got into our gear–fish gutter suits, waders, no-skid boots, Julia Child masks. Cyrus looked dapper in his chef’s hat. I packed my pockets with salted peanuts, and Brandy wrapped some peanut butter sandwiches in plastic (to protect them from hot sauce spray) and stuffed them in her backpack. We hopped in the van and drove as close to downtown as possible. Cyrus told us to park in the grocery store lot, because they never towed, and besides, that was the only place on the West Coast that sold Little Debbie snake cakes. I got three of butterscotch, which is my favorite. As we exited, I could hear the chanting and sirens from the other side of the hill. The streets were filled with people, screaming, singing, dancing and eating food from many nations. The cops were lined up in the middle of Madigan Street, all grim and fascist in their jackboots and face shields. They looked hungry, like they had been there all morning with nothing to eat. I saw some of them furtively eyeing the pizza place that was just on the other side of the police line, and doing a brisk single-slice business with the protesters, who screamed “Shame on you, pig” with strings of mozzarella cheese flapping from their chins. A barrage of half-eaten crusts flew overhead every once in a while, but the police were steady. I thought for a moment that this might not erupt as planned–maybe we could go get some lunch soon.

A cart wove through the crowd. Polish sausage. I ordered one onion, one kraut. Just as I was about to dig in, a brilliant idea to break things open occurred to me. This was definitely going to get my picture in Revolutionary Gourmet. I pushed to the front of the throng, and broke into the patch of clear space that divided us from the Man. I carefully laid the sausages down on a napkin and backed away. I could feel the tension rising. The cops began to whack their nightsticks on the ground. They were high-test riot gear-the kind with the meat tenderizer at the end. It sounded like the rumble of a huge, empty stomach. Then the first clouds of Dijon gas swept our way.

We hustled around the corner with the cops on our heels. This was exhilarating. I had never felt so alive, or so hungry before. I stuck my hand under my mask and swallowed a handful of nuts, and headed to 3rd and Pyle, where there was a good pirogue place. My luck, it was closed, so I had to get a falafel and a soda from next door. Concussion grenades rang over head, showering me with jawbreakers. Christ, I didn’t want to get caught. I heard they threw you in a holding pen with nothing to eat but Clamato and Cream of Wheat. I threw my root beer bottle at the Olive Garden window on my way to the outdoor fresh produce market. It bounced off harmlessly.

The Market was famous for their fish and chips, so I bought two, one to eat and one to toss when the riot squad got there. We took up positions at the entrance. Some guy I knew vaguely from the AYCE (All-You-Can-Eat)affinity group in Oregon had bought a bushel of Fuji apples, and was busy digging holes in them for fuses. They were hardcore down there, even though half of them were Culinary Institute grads and way too into recipes.

An armored assault vehicle swung around the corner, scattering tourists and shaking us up a little. But we had no fear. Some hippie with a megaphone and a handful of sharpened wheat thins started yelling for everyone to get back. I reached in my bag for the ziploc of soup. My secret weapon– extra garlicky. I winked at Brandy, who was crouched next to a dried fruit cart, weaving strips of flattened dates into a slingshot. Just as I was about to let it fly, I felt a tremendous meaty pain in my chest. A pot roast gun. Those Nazis! I dropped to my knees. Right before I passed out, I saw a fire truck pull up behind the cops, and unroll their hoses. That could only mean one thing.

Gravy. Bastards! I managed to shout “Au Gratin to the People!” before everything went a rich, creamy brown.

by Kent McKamy

There was a take-her-down haughtiness about the pretty girl in the black bathing suit sitting still as marble, reading, when Buck commandeered the chaise facing into the sun next to her. She was the obvious choice at poolside today.

Buck carefully placed his Marlboro Lights, Bic lighter, book, Hawaiian DeepTan #4, towel, plastic room card and sunglasses case on the molded white table between them. Glancing at her, he sucked in his stomach as he stripped his yolk-yellow “Just-Do-It” T-shirt over his head. He straddled the padded chaise, edged it to a 45-degree angle to hers and eased his muscled body down, letting his flip-flops drop off the ends of his toes. He opened his paperback of Death in Venice, found his place, and proceeded to gaze at the girl over the top of his book.

She was reading a magazine, but Buck couldn’t see which one it was. She had cigarettes and matches on her table, Buck had noticed, so right away he knew they would be smoke allies. A conversation opener, definitely. How shiny her black hair was in the bright sun. No telling what color her eyes were behind those wraparound sunglasses, but he imagined they were large and dark brown. The kind he liked.

Nice legs, Buck thought, following her slender ankles and calves up to her smooth thighs, a little heavy, rounding into hips completely bare and visible in the high-thigh cut of her bathing suit. One piece. Not too obvious. Very sexy. Buck was conscious that he was staring. He shook his head slightly, inclined his eyes toward his book.

Buck would never describe himself as a reader. He was a kayaker, a skier, a racquetball player, a happy hour regular, a fun guy, a party guy. When he read, he read spy books or science-fiction, fantasy books. He had picked up Death in Venice at the Tucson airport bookstore, because it sounded like Funeral in Berlin, a spy novel he had enjoyed in four sales trips between San Diego and Seattle. Somewhat disappointed to find it a book of short stories rather than a novel, and a translation at that, Buck had started the title story the night before in his room, where he had gone after dinner, seeing that there were only couples in the bar, and nothing else doing. There was something in the clunky, kind of textbooky writing of Thomas Mann that kept Buck reading. This kind of dry stuff was a tip-off that the action would start anytime. Some trigger event would shake dry old von Aschenbach loose. But Buck had fallen asleep before he found it. Cracking open the book now in the hot sun, the first sentence he came to was, “In his fourth week of his stay at the Lido, Gustave von Aschenbach made certain singular observations touching the world about him.”

Yes, Buck thought, looking up: How true. You need time away, a different place, to see things differently. Buck was strongly conscious that in the past three days, things that had been important to him just last Friday were less important, more remote. He was aware of what seemed to be a wider world. His sense of understanding and tolerance seemed to expand and at the same time, sharpen. He felt more sensitive, more giving, more forgiving. He was a man with feelings, no question. Feeling magnanimous, Buck let his thoughts trickle on. How satisfying to be here, nothing to do, nothing to worry about, feeling the mid-morning Arizona sun sizzling his skin with a sheen of searing heat. How satisfying to be keen enough to make certain singular observations touching the world about him.

Buck’s eyes moved up to the roofline of the hotel, a remote and unreal thrust of red tile against the thick blue sky. His gaze descended slowly down the side of the hotel, casually coming to rest again on the girl opposite him. She had not looked up. She did not seem to have moved. Had she turned a page? There was something about her. Stretching and tensing his strong legs, Buck decided it was time for a little more movement. As he squeezed some of the creamy suntan lotion into his left hand, there was a flatulent sound from the bottle, and he looked up swiftly to see if the girl heard it, and would know it wasn’t him. She hadn’t stirred. Making a great show of spreading the lotion over his taut legs, he eased his feet into his flip-flops and stood up to run the lotion over his bulging arms and chest. He rubbed slowly, keeping the girl in lateral view as he turned to smooth what lotion he could over his shoulder blades. Turning toward her again, he dabbed small amounts onto his face, and massaged it in vigorously. He sat down again with an audible exhale, and languidly returned to his book.

For ten minutes, Buck read slowly. Then another passage snuck up on him: “We may be heroic after our fashion, disciplined warriors of our craft, yet we are all like women, for we exult in passion, and love is still our desire — our craving and our shame.” Laying the book on his chest and tipping his sunglasses atop his blondish thinning hair, Buck thought, ‘Craving.’ You got that right. Hard to believe it was like that back in, what, the 19th century? Is it a conquest or horniness or what? You see a girl. You make a move. You get the girl. He turned his eyes to the sky. I wonder how my chin looks to her, he thought. I have a good chin.

He was aware, through half-closed eyes as he lay back, that the girl was moving, shifting her position. He glanced toward her. She was flexing her legs, turning and stretching, the soles of her feet pushing toward him. Without knowing what it was, he sensed again that something was different about her, in the way you could see a man 100 yards away walking toward you, and know that he had had a stroke. Nothing obvious, but something off. Looking at the bottoms of her feet, the delicacy of her plump little toes, he was touched by this intimate undersurface of her. Except she has. . . wait a minute . . . nine toes. One toe’s missing, between the big toe and middle toe of her right foot. You had to look closely to see it.

Now that’s certainly odd, Buck thought, I wonder how she lost it? Maybe she was born like that, damn near perfect except for being a toe short, the way some cats have six toes on each paw instead of five. Does she walk different? Like to be a fly on the wall the next time she goes to buy shoes. Funny, though, how it makes her more intriguing.

Still, she is a wounded bird, handicapped. Buck felt an approach would be easier now, more readily accepted.

Placing both feet flat on the grill-hot tiles, he rose to his feet in a single motion, leapt into a little “Oh! Ah!” dance in the air, and quickly jammed his feet in his flip-flops. Snatching his cigarettes and lighter, he stepped across the distance between them.

“Good morning,” Buck said heartily. “Care for a smoke?”

“Got my own,” she said, gesturing with a carefully manicured hand toward the table beside her, not looking up.

“What a day, huh?” Buck looked skywards, turning in profile as he lit his cigarette. “What’re you reading?” he asked, cigarette between his lips, lifting his sunglasses to his forehead. He had often been complimented on his see-through aqua-blue eyes.

“Just an article.” The girl held the cover of the magazine toward Buck. Marie-Claire, whatever that was. She wasn’t wearing a ring. She kept her shades on, though. Nice teeth, dimples when she smiled. Buck loved her liquid-red lipstick.

“Any good?” Probably some fashion magazine, he thought. About all women read these days, outside of gossip rags.

“This article is,” she said.

“What’s it about? Mind if I sit down?” Buck asked. He tugged the long legs of his brightly flowered bathing suit, pulling it a little lower on his hips. Still no more than a hint of love handles.

“Take a look.” She folded the page back, held out the magazine. He looked. It was in a foreign language. French, maybe.

“You can read that?”

“Just the odd word here and there. What about you? What are you into?”

“It’s a spy thing by Theodore Mann. Death in Venice. Ever hear of it?” Buck looked at the cover. “Thomas Mann, I mean.”

“Yes, I think I read it a long time ago, in school maybe. It’s about some old gay guy, right?” She kept her sunglasses on, but Buck could tell she was looking directly at him.

“Gay? I don’t know if he’s gay. Really. I’m not through it yet,” Buck said. It was a strange thing for her to pick up on.

“Whatever. I don’t think I liked it very much,” she said. She stretched, and Buck could see that she had shaved very carefully under her arms. There was no stubble at all, just a faint shadow where her dark hair had grown.

Buck looked around, then got up again to give her a better view of his body as he shifted to sit on the other side of her chaise. That way, he didn’t have to keep turning his head to talk to her. He patted the slight rope of flesh easing over the top of his trunks, and flexed his chest with its cushion of light curly hair.

“So, how’s the water?” Buck asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. I hardly ever go in the water. Ruins my hair,” the girl said, running her fingers up to fluff the back of her hair. “Besides, I saw when you got up. I’d scorch the skin right off my feet if I stood up right now, anyway.”

“Yeah, probably right,” Buck said, and turned to look out at the pool, away from her. “It is definitely tippy-toe hot.”

“Yes, I bet I could toast my tiny tootsies, all right.” She wiggled her toes at him. “All but one,” she said, tilting her head flirtatiously.

Buck pretended not to have noticed. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, one of my little piggies has gone missing, didn’t you notice?” Swinging her right foot around, she pointed to her toes one by one. “This little piggy went to market, this little piggy ate roast beef, this little piggy had none, and this littlest piggy went wee-wee-wee all the way home. But that darn old second little piggy. I guess he stayed home, all right.”

“I broke my collarbone once,” Buck offered.

“Ah, wounds and infirmities.” she asked, smirking. “I thought you were warming up to tell me how beautiful I was regardless.”

“Oh, sure. You are. You really are. It’s just that I was…sort of…I never saw anybody, never a pretty…a beautiful girl like you, or anybody, without … you know…”

“A toe, huh? Well, don’t forget I have nine others.”

“I know. Sure. I know.” Buck paused, looked at his book, then chanced a look right at her. She was studying him. “I hope you don’t think it’s stupid, but what happened? I mean, if it’s too personal or something, just forget it. It’s probably a dumb question.” Buck dropped his sunglasses back over his eyes.

“Well, of course it’s personal. The toe fairy didn’t come in the middle of the night and take it away. But, no, I don’t mind your asking. A lot of men…people do. You’re a little more straightforward than most,” she said.

Buck felt suddenly exposed, and hot. Years before, he had gone through one of those EST weekends where you practiced saying anything you wanted to anybody in the room. An exercise in straight talk or no-shit honesty or something like that, it was called. He had never felt comfortable with any of it. Good Lord, he wondered, did I offend her?

“As a matter of fact, I was born without that toe. It may be genetic. My father was born with only half of his little finger on his left hand. You can’t imagine how commonplace something like that is.” She shook her lustrous hair, and it swayed thickly from side to side, like in one of those slow motion shampoo commercials. She thumbed down the shoulder straps on her bathing suit, pulled up the cups, and swung her legs up onto the chaise. She sat in a sort of lotus position, her feet hidden, her chin resting in her laced fingers.

“Oh, I see. Gee, that’s too bad. I didn’t mean to, uh, pry. I guess you don’t even notice it.” Buck wanted to talk about anything else.

“I just wanted to see if you believed me,” she said. “No, I wasn’t born without a toe. I’m not a freak. It’s missing for quite another reason.”

“What about your father then? Missing his little finger?”

“I thought we were talking about me, about my toe. Or rather, my non-toe.”

“Oh, yeah,” Buck said. “We were. We are. I just was wondering…” The sense of calm and control he had felt just a few moments ago was ebbing.

“Actually, I lost my toe in a rather bizarre way.” She looked away for effect. “Sometimes, it’s easier just to be a little lighthearted about it.”

Buck was certain he’d done something very offensive, and didn’t know what it was. He looked away from her. He was about to put a cigarette in his mouth, and then thought to offer her one. He held out the pack.

“Oh, I don’t smoke, but thanks.”

“You don’t? I guess I just assumed you smoked when I saw those Marlboros there. I thought, ‘Cool that we smoke the same brand.’ You don’t mind if I have one, do you?”

“Go right ahead. Those are Chico’s cigarettes. I just brought them down for him.”

“Ah, I see.” Chico, Buck thought. Sure, she’s too good looking to be here by herself. Still, she isn’t wearing a ring. “Chico’s your husband?” Might as well get it right out there.

“No, Chico’s my lover. He’s the man who owns my toe.”

“Owns your toe? What do you mean, owns your toe?”

“He keeps it in a little silver tube around his neck. It binds me to him, he thinks.”

Jesus, that’s kind of weird, Buck thought. “You’re going a little fast for me.”

“Chico cut it off and kept it. He thinks that makes it his. And me, his.”

“Cut it off! He cut off your toe? My God! What is he, some kind of a lunatic?”

“No, it wasn’t like that. I did something he didn’t like. It was a love thing.” She paused. “Did you ever do something someone didn’t like?” She smiled at him.

“Yeah, sure, I guess so. I mean, hasn’t everybody? Just now, I thought I’d really put my foot in it with you. Jesus. I hope you know I didn’t mean anything…”

“So you’re…what? A professional golfer,” she said. “What with that tan and everything.”

“Ah, no. I sell Hobe Cats. Sailboats. Outdoors a lot.” Buck blurted, “But I can’t believe this guy just cut off your toe like that.”

“Well, he was sort of within his rights. He thought, anyway. Mexicans…I mean, Latinos…I think that’s correct these days…are funny about things. And they are very jealous. Chico is especially very jealous.”

“And…?”

“And he thought I was flirting around with another guy, and we had an argument and he knocked me down and tied my feet to a chair. Then he got a little drunk and hit me a couple of more times and then he said he was going to cut me to teach me a lesson, and I said he wouldn’t dare, and he cut off this second toe here.”

Buck stared at her, and then suddenly jerked his head around to look behind him. A couple of chairs away, there was a guy lying there, sort of looking their way, but he didn’t look Hispanic. Who the hell was this girl? How could she be so cool about it?

“Just like that. Just like that he cut off your toe?”

“No, not just like that. He made a little cut first, and I swore at him and tried to hit him, but I fell over in the chair. Then he just grabbed my toe and sliced it off.”

“You make it sound like you just sat there and approved while this maniac deliberately mutilated you.”

“Well, I have to tell you, there wasn’t any pain right away. I was surprised, but I didn’t feel anything. I couldn’t believe it at first. Then I saw all the blood coming up, and I felt a little sick. And somewhere, I know I had a sense of…curiosity…that it didn’t really hurt. Chico got a towel right away to stop the bleeding, he really did, and then he got some ice from down the hall and he tied one of his ties around my ankle for a tourniquet. He said to keep my foot up high, on the back of the chair, and after a while the bleeding stopped. In the morning, we got some Bacitracin and some bandages and it just healed over in a couple of months. All you can see now is some scar tissue where the skin closed up. Chico kept my toe in a bottle of Tequila he carried around with him for a while and when he figured it was cured, he took it out and it dried up and he bought this little silver capsule in an Indian trading post, and now he wears it around his neck with a silver chain. He takes it out every once in a while. I couldn’t bear to look at it at first, but now it doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t even seem like part of me anymore.”

“So you just travel around to places and he comes around every once in a while to keep an eye on you?” Buck probing.

“Something like that. He may show up sometime today, but I don’t know when. He’s sort of unpredictable.”

There was a man’s voice behind Buck, and he knew someone was standing very close. He whipped around, and saw a short, stocky, dark haired figure leaning toward him. He couldn’t see the man’s face because he was looking right into the sun over the man’s shoulder.

“What?” Buck almost shouted.

“I wanted to know, do you care for anything from the bar?” the busboy asked.

“Uh, no…wait a minute. Do you…I’m afraid I don’t know your name…do you want anything to drink?”

“Call me Hazel,” the girl said. “As in Witch Hazel. Yes, I think I would like something…maybe a lemon-lime…or a cherry Coke. Something mixed up.” She took off her sunglasses for a moment, and Buck saw eyes even more intriguing than he had imagined.

“A lemon-lime…and I’ll have a gin and tonic.” Buck didn’t usually drink alcohol in the sun, but today felt different. “Put ‘em both on my room.” He fumbled in the pocket of his trunks for the plastic key, took it out. “Damn, the room number isn’t on it.”

“That’s all right, sir. If you’re a registered guest, just sign your name, and I can add the room number inside.” He handed Buck the drink check.

“Thanks,” Buck said, signing ‘Buck Towland.’ “I appreciate it.”

“I should tell you,” the girl said, ” Hazel is my synonym for today, or whatever you call it. I can’t tell you my real name.” Buck smiled, uncertain of what she was talking about.

“I’m surprised you can drink in this heat,” the girl said. “I try to never drink alcohol in weather like this. It makes me all disoriented.”

“Oh,” Buck said, “it doesn’t affect me.”

“Unless it’s tequila. I think tequila is meant for hot weather. That’s what Chico says.”

Buck was fascinated with her. What was this thing with Chico? There was something uncertain here, shifty ground. Casually, Buck looked carefully around again.

“Are you alone here?” she asked, and carefully put her sunglasses back on. She pulled up the sides of her bathing suit slightly.

“Sure am. Alone and free as the wind. Which there isn’t any of, worse luck.” He thought suddenly of the lonely old man in Venice, driven by longing, unable to act. “How about you? Except for Chico, I mean?”

“Well, I’m not exactly alone. I’m with a friend. A girl friend, I mean. I’m down from Mendicino, you know where that is?” Buck nodded as he lit another cigarette. “You know, we’ve been talking all this time, and I don’t even know your name.”

Buck hesitated, then said, “Gus… Ash. Ashback,” he said. Two can play that game. Then, turning and seeing her outstretched hand, he reached across and shook it. It was the first time he touched her, and although he was sure he met her eyes behind her dark glasses, he looked away rather too quickly.

“Gus,” she said. “Gus and Hazel. What a couple of old-fashioned names. Gus, you cuss, you and I have more in common than I thought.”

“I’m glad you think so.”

“Actually, I work for America West,” she said. “I’m here for a little R& R. Rock ‘n Roll. Until Chico comes along anyway. Then: ‘all of me’,” she sang, “at least, all ten toes. Maybe you’d like to meet him?”

Buck didn’t know why he was so taken with this girl. Her words made sense, but totaled up, she didn’t. She felt like trouble. But her appeal was unmistakable. That thick, dark, heavy hair. Those cocoa brown eyes pulling up at the corners, her long plumpish legs meeting at the narrow black crotch.

“Look, when Chico comes, I’ll just bug off. Three’s a crowd. You want to jump in and cool off or what?”

“Are you sure you’re not expecting someone? I saw you glance around,” she said.

“Well, tell you the truth, I’m a little nervous about your friend. Who knows what he’d think? Or worse, what he might do to you if he saw me talking to you.”

“Or what he might do to you? Oh, maybe he’d think how nice it was I met a new friend, so I wouldn’t be lonely, waiting for him. Yes, I’m sure that’s what he would think.”

Buck said, “Yeah, well I’ve seen guys like your Chico and I think he wouldn’t like the idea of your meeting a new friend so much at all.”

She looked at him carefully, appraisingly. “You’re afraid of Chico?”

“Hey, I’m not afraid of him. Well, maybe a little. He just sounds…a little crazy.”

From across the pool deck, Buck saw the waiter approaching with a tray full of drinks. There seemed to be someone walking behind him, but Buck couldn’t tell for sure. The waiter placed the drinks on the table between them, and moved on. There was no one else there. For the moment. The girl was playing with her lipstick, twisting the cap up and down. Buck picked up his gin and tonic, and started to sip. He glanced to his right, and saw she was holding out her glass, waiting to clink his. He touched her glass with his. “Sorry.”

She took a swallow. Looking straight ahead, she said, “What if there is no Chico?”

“I’d say you’ve got a weird sense of humor. But I don’t believe you.”

She laughed. “I got you!” And when he looked more puzzled than angry, she said it again: “Gotcha!” She flicked some of the fluid from her drink at him.

“Got me? ‘Got me’ what?”

“There really is no Chico. Nobody cut my toe off. That’s not how I lost my toe.” She picked up her lipstick again, looking at the tortoise shell case closely.

“Hazel, or whatever your name is, give me a break.”

“I wouldn’t fool you any more. There really is no Chico. I lost my toe, that’s what you really wanted to know, isn’t it…in a hunting accident.”

“Now what? Chico shot it off?”

“C’mon,” she said, laughing. “I told you, there is no Chico. There was no Chico. I was just having fun with you. The way I lost my toe is, I lost it when I was ten years old, out hunting with my Dad. My rifle went off when I was carrying it and I shot off my toe right through the boot. But one thing was true: I didn’t really feel it, then or later.”

“Hazel, I…” Buck began.

“And there was one other part that is true. My toe was preserved. The doctor who treated me preserved it. ‘Cause we asked him to. I carry it around with me. Want to see it?” She was holding her lipstick case between her thumb and forefinger.

“God, no!” Buck said.

“I keep it to remind myself that I can’t be careless. I can’t fail to be on the lookout. Must be on the qui vive. It’s sort of a good luck charm.”

“Your own toe? That’s sick!”

“That’s right. My very own toe. And I think it’s healthy. I made my own, say…rabbit’s foot.”

“Hazel, listen, I’ll tell you, you’re one hell of a pretty girl. I mean, you really are. But there’s just something about what’s going on…I’m not sure we’re really…you know…on the same wavelength…”

“I knew it. I should never have told you about the toe. I should have said when you asked me, it was just too personal and let it go. I think, well, I feel like we could be friends.”

“I’m sure your friends love your sense of humor and I know you were putting me on, hell, you still may be putting me on, but I just don’t feel very friendly right now.” My new honesty, Buck thought. Well, I’ve blown this one. “Nothing personal. It’s just me.” He rose, and slipped into his thongs.

“You were trying to pick me up, weren’t you?”

“I wouldn’t say ‘pick you up’. Just talk or something, I guess…I thought maybe you and I…”

“Well, Gus, honey, you succeeded. So if you will just sit down, we can have our drinks, and start off again on the right foot.”

He looked down at her sharply. “You know what I mean,” she said. She glanced to one side of him, as if she saw someone approaching. She quickly turned her eyes back up to his, and began to get up. But he had seen her look. “Hazel, I think it’s time to go. Time for me. Time for you. Nice talking with you. You take care of the other nine, hear?” He reached down to shake her hand.

“Keep this to remember me, OK?” She planted the lipstick in his waiting hand.

“Christ! What the hell do you think you’re doing? I don’t want this thing!” he shouted. He threw the lipstick as far as he could. It splashed into the far end of the pool. He stared back at her, grabbing his towel, and wiping his hands furiously. “What the hell are you, some kind of … freak?”

She laughed. “It was just a lipstick.”

“Yeah, lipstick my ass.” Gus felt queasy, and snatched his belongings up quickly. With a sense of relief, and at the same time a sense of having lost, Buck scuffed away as swiftly as he could in the damn flip-flops. He had never done that before, flatly turned down what looked like a sure thing. What the hell? he thought, I’m not going to marry her. I just wanted to screw her. So she’s a nut. There’s others. He reached the glass doors that led into the snack bar, and went inside. His skin goose-bumped with the sudden chill.

He ordered another gin and tonic at the bar, and while he was waiting, he looked back outside to where he and the girl had been sitting. She was no longer there. It was as if she had just dematerialized.

“Here you go, friend,” the bartender said, sliding the icy drink toward him.

“You see that girl I was sitting with out there?”

“Nope, didn’t. I’m pretty busy right here, don’t pay much attention to the pool.”

Buck nodded. He finished the drink in two swallows, ordered another. When it was gone, he signed the chit and went back out to the pool. He walked around to the deep end, searching. He spotted the lipstick resting near the drain. It took him three surface dives, kicking hard, to get all the way to the bottom. On the third try, skimming his hands along the rough cement, he squinted his eyes open and saw the lipstick case just in front of him. He reached for it, almost out of breath. He bumped it with his fingers, and it skittered away. He reached again, almost ready to give up. When he had it tightly in his hand, he doubled his legs under him, and pushed upward as hard as he could. He broke water with a gasp.

He sat on the chaise for most of the afternoon, not really reading, daydreaming more, sweating out two more gin and tonics, then three beers. The girl never reappeared. Once, coming out of a doze, he glimpsed a Mexican-looking guy in tight jeans and a western shirt near the outdoor elevator at the far end of the pool.

The brown and gold lipstick case, upright on the table next to him, cast a longer and longer black shadow across the round top of the table as the late afternoon sun edged into the hills. He glanced at it now and again. By the time he got up to leave, he had not opened it, but he took it with him.

by John McCaffrey

Ronald scanned the personals of an Internet-based dating service, sifting through photos of women ages 27-37, a decade he decided, as a 38 year old, he could date effectively. This is how he thought. An Engineer’s mind. Life decisions, including affairs of the heart, were approached with precise planning, sober preparation, logical thought.

He was dateless now for a year, but aware of being alone just recently. The remainder of time had been absorbed in a work project. From January to October, ten months, he had designed and overseen the installation of a new software system that enabled a well-known Fortune 500 company to make payroll with just one computer stroke. He had consulted on the project, and the check for his services made him blush more than the glowing compliments received from the company’s executives. He hadn’t though much of the 300 or so employees that lost their job due to the efficiency of his product.

In November and December, Ronald basked in the glow of his success, spending a little of the money on a two-week vacation to South America and buying a vintage Camaro which he kept under protective blanket in the garage of this three-bedroom condo. But the New Year came and he found himself a bit depressed with his idle status, being in between jobs and in no need financially to work for a while. This did not sit well with him and he began to drift into a languid anxiety that manifested itself in a sprinkle of adolescent acne across his forehead and a nervous tic where he would yawn and rub his eyes vigorously with the balls of his hands. He had already ruined two sets of contact lens in this fashion.

It was the winter’s first blizzard, a steady plop that whited the sky and blocked him inside for a day, when Ronald logged onto the computer, checked his e-mail, and opened the lone missive without looking at the sender’s name. It was a pornographic advertisement, slipped through his SPAM detector, promoting Russian women, of all sizes, shapes, ages. Amateurs, girls right off the boat, former Communists, now living it up in America, caught in compromising positions by their boyfriends, guys who obviously liked to wield video cameras around their homes and catch their Russian girlfriends in compromising positions. Ronald was not the type to view pornography or even masturbate, much, but the words bore into him and he found himself clicking onto the web site, ordering a free trial membership, and ogling the computer screen for hours while a foot of new snow blanketed the ground.

He decided, right away, that the Russian girls were not posing; they really were caught, quite literally, with their pants down: on the toilet, applying makeup, brewing coffee, watching television. It was their eyes, their obliviousness and absorption into something else, that aroused him. Looking elsewhere, intent, not aware of the camera, not aware of the boyfriend, not aware of him.

He downloaded one picture; a broad-shouldered woman, probably in her late 40’s. She had thick, short-cropped dark hair and a wide nose and was bending over and peering into a refrigerator. Her heavy left breast dangled like a ripe summer squash, her nipple discolored and erect, pointed. She was reaching for something, either a tomato or an orange or apple. Something round. Her lips were pursed. The muscles of her naked legs long and tight. Her red-painted toes sparkled on the linoleum floor. He took the picture and went to his room and imagined being the boyfriend. Her turning and catching him with the camera. She would pretend to be upset, maybe shoo him away, flip the fruit or vegetable at him, and then she would come to him, press the camera out of his hand, lay her lips on his neck, run them down his shoulder, to his chest, her hair tickling his nose, her smell, earthy, sweaty, soft, and then her hands, quick, clever, confident, finding their way.

* * *

Ronald had been married. Right out of college. Her name was Germaine. She was Scotch/Irish and plain faced and squatty with hips a bit too wide and thick chalk white legs that inspired field hockey opponents to give her a wide berth when she thundered toward the goal.

They made an odd couple, physically. Ronald was tall and reed thin with a mop of straight black hair that ended in a straight line over his eyebrows. When he sat down he was all elbows and knees and he was sitting when Germaine brushed by him in Freshmen Bio-Engineering Class. One of her muscled legs caught his thigh as she passed, but he didn’t feel it and it wasn’t until a month later, at a school football game, that she tapped on his shoulder as he was waiting to buy a hotdog and introduced herself and told him that she had been sitting behind him now for weeks in class. He hadn’t noticed. They started seeing each other soon after. And they had sex, after their fifth date, both losing their virginities, right before they were to go home for holiday break.

There was a pregnancy scare their junior year. A condom had burst and Germaine was late a week. Ronald prepared immediately for a baby. He drafted a letter to his parents, informing them of the pregnancy and his plans to marry Germaine and set up an apartment near school for the two of them. He would continue his education, and take on a part-time job at night. She would wait until he graduated, then would return and get her diploma. By the time he finished and spell-checked the letters, Germaine was at his dorm room, smiling and holding a box of Tampax. She wasn’t pregnant. A month after both graduating on the Dean’s List (she with a 3.9 gpa he with a 3.8), they married, moved to New York City, got jobs of equal pay at different engineering firms, and rode the subway uptown together to work each day from their one-bedroom apartment in the East Village. They lived this way for 10 years.

* * *

“You tell me about yourself. I’m tired of talking about me.” They were in a Starbucks drinking Chai Lattes. Ronald was facing her and the back of the room. She was facing him and the front of the room. Ronald looked up from his cup and blushed. It was his first date since joining the Internet service. Her name was Alice and, like him, was trying Internet dating for the first time. Because, as she said almost as soon as they sat down, “because she liked adventure.”

Alice spoke with a fast paced monotone and laid out her story in two breaths. She was 29, an Engineering Major, a graduate of North Carolina, who liked the south but didn’t want to live there. She liked sports, Carolina basketball, of course, and Nascar racing. She was looking for a serious man who was quiet but fun loving and liked to laugh and take walks on the beach. And what about Ronald?

Ronald coughed and sipped his coffee and winced at the heat. He had been boning up for the meeting for three nights. Reading “Dating for Dummies,” and pouring through back issues of Men’s Health and Maxim. The words and thoughts and tips streamed through him mind like data from a computer: Lean forward. Smile. Look her in the eye, but not too long. Keep your answers simple. Enjoy her. Don’t get complicated. Ask questions. Act confident, not smug. Don’t talk about your mother. Don’t talk about religion. Don’t talk about politics. Talk about goals. Have goals. Pay for the date, but don’t expect anything in return. Touch her on the arm when making a point. Don’t seam eager. Don’t seem needy. Lean forward. Smile.

Ronald leaned forward and smiled. It came out crooked and his top lip jammed on his front teeth. His right arm jostled the coffee and bits of whipped cream plopped onto his shirtsleeve. He wiped at it with a napkin and smiled again. This one was too big, like a maniacal clown.

“Me,” he stammered, “uh, well, I run a consulting company. I just finished a job, I mean, a consulting job, that was good, and, I guess, right now I’m, uh, working to make some goals, I have goals, I mean, but I’m working to reach them, or get to them.” He swallowed a few times to calm down. “But goals are important to me. So is simplifying. I’m not complicated. You know. I mean, I am with my goals, complicated, but simple with most things.” He reached over and tapped her wrist. “I’m not eager. Or needy. I mean. Except for my goals. I need my goals.”

Alice’s face blanched and Ronald recoiled and grabbed at the coffee. He took a long swig and felt his hear rate spike. His head tightened and he began to fantasize about being home, alone in his room, sitting at his desk, in front of the computer, viewing the Russian pornographic site, eating cold pizza and crawling under his comforter, listening to the wind and night settle in.

She smiled and then reached out and laid her hand atop his. She had long fingers and splayed nails. Her skin was soft and warm. “Goals are important to me, too,” she said. “Like right now, I’m training to run in the New York marathon. 24 miles. I’ve never done one.” She lifted her hand from Ronald’s and stretched her arms over her head. She was wearing a black turtleneck that accentuated long taught breasts. Her hair was blond and straight and ran to her shoulders. Her eyes were blue and oval and her eyelashes ticked at the fragile skin around her cheekbones. She had a long nose that flayed at the nostrils and gave her an athletic aura. Ronald found her very attractive.

“Running, yeah,” Ronald said, “that’s a good goal. I mean accomplishment. A marathon. That’s something.”

“Maybe we could do it together. Do you run?”

Ronald looked down at his hand and wanted more than anything for her hand to be atop his again. “Run. Yes. I like running. It’s one of my needs. Goals, I mean.”

“Running or the marathon?” she asked

“Um, the marathon. I mean, running first. Then the marathon. But you can’t do one without the other, right?”

She laughed. “I guess. Well, you can train with me, if you’d like. She lowered her eyes and took a napkin and wiped at the corners of her mouth. “I run three times a week, five miles, after work in the park. Start at 6:00 and end around 7:30. I don’t go too fast. Want to meet next week, start Monday?”

“Ok,” he said.

“Great,” she said.

“Good,” he said.

* * *

The Divorce. Ronald always said it in two words; the “the” like a Mr. or Ms. The Divorce. Saying it always preceded an involuntary shake of his head and a pucker of the mouth. The Divorce. The Divorce. It repulsed him.

Germaine and he were both 21 when they got married, and 31 when they split. The marriage ended precisely on the anniversary of their wedding: April 1st. It was Germaine’s idea, to be married on Fool’s Day. It had delighted their engineer friends. Befuddled them, for sure. But made their year. Their group was not a giddy crowd. Joking, humor, playfulness, was always more difficult than advanced trig or putting together a home radio. And not as interesting. Their Fool’s Day Wedding promised to everyone a new beginning, a post college metamorphis where they would shed cloaks of nerdiness and embrace a life of good jobs, affluence, respect, and, maybe, fun. But it was a disaster. Several friends and family members didn’t show up at all, thinking the whole thing a prank and the DJ they researched and hired, who promised a range of disco favorites that would have the crowd “boogying” all night, canceled at the last minute, sending a replacement whose music ranged from lurid hip hop to crushing heavy metal. The worst thing, however, was that Ronald was violently ill. Hung over and throwing up almost to the moment he said “I Do.” His best man, his lab partner in school, had taken him and the other men from the wedding party out the night before to a local Hooters Restaurant. Ronald had gorged on honey glazed ribs and onion rings and had opened his mouth wide, at the urging of their bottle blonde waitress whose breasts extended nearly arm length, to down five tequila shooters. He was not a practiced drinker and his friends had to carry him out soon after, a wet wipe stuck to his forehead, mangled pork dribbling from his lips.

Germaine had been absolutely thrilled at the idea that Ronald and the group of men were going to Hooters to celebrate the marriage. It fell into her idea that they were now “with it” people, not engineering geeks, but fun, rowdy folk who partied hard and got married on April Fool’s day. She stayed in, of course, in bed by 9:00 p.m. after a long talk with her grandmother, her mother’s mother, who leaned into her ear when she spoke and twice whispered over her gray whiskers: “Let Ronald be a man. That was my mistake with your grandfather, god rest his soul.” The fact that her grandfather was still alive, quite healthy in fact, and snoring in the next room, seemed a bit odd. But she took the advice with her to bed and only woke up twice during the night: once to go the bathroom; and once to eat a Twix bar.

She knew something was wrong as soon as she saw Ronald’s eyes. They were glassy and red and too far back in his head and he was moving, although his feet were still, listing side to side like a sinking ship. Germaine was steaming up the aisle, her father, her matching height and width, gripping her arm, the organist grinding out Here Comes the Bride, and her eyes just riveted on Ronald. As her father let go, and Ronald stepped over to take her hand, assume the reigns and lead this prize to the finish line, a wave of bile flooded his mouth, and he spat, right at the alter, tequila and barbeque sauce and stomach acid, that landed atop her white laced shoe and a gasp went up from the crowd and all Ronald could gurgle, as he gulped air and wiped sweat from his forehead, was “April Fool.”

* * *

When Ronald got to the park it was blustery and the sharp late January wind whisked against his newly shaven face. It was early evening and still light, but very cold, and his breath rose in clouds as he strode toward their arranged meeting place. Alice was there before him, in baggy gray sweat suit with a pulled down bullet shaped black wool hat.

Ronald came up to her as she tied a sneaker. Alice looked up and smiled and didn’t seem shocked or surprised or that thrilled to see him.

“Hey, you found me,” she said, returning attention to the sneaker. “Let me just tie this and we’ll stretch and get going. Ok?”

Ronald rubbed his shirtsleeves and grunted. “Sure.” He was decked out in a one-piece Lycra running suit, black with blue racing stripes that hugged his body like seal skin. The sales clerk at Speedo had given the gear a strong recommendation, telling Ronald that it was “aerodynamic and would cut precious seconds from his best time.” As an engineer who had made a career of developing computer systems that streamlined operations, lightened workloads, cut delay, he could not resist this sales pitch. He also purchased a pair of Nikes, silver tipped, and a black wristwatch with a face the size of a baseball that would tally the miles, yards, feet, inches he ran at any given time.

But now, standing in front of the looseness of Alice’s sweat suit, her body hidden somewhere inside the folds of soft cotton, he felt like an alien being, a black and blue string bean whose every bump and knob and dimple on his body was exposed in the lining. He didn’t dare think of what an erection would reveal, and he held his hands together over his crotch area and moved side to side to keep warm while waiting for Alice.

“Why don’t we warm up with some light jogging and sprints, and then we’ll do the long run. Ok?”

Ronald nodded and smiled. He liked her voice, which was a bit lethargic but hinted at hysteria.

“How far have you been running, lately?” she asked.

“Uh, about a mile or two,” he lied. “You know. Getting ready. Working toward the goal. Right.”

Alice wrinkled her forehead and pointed a finger at his sneakers. She had small hands and pudgy, wrinkled fingers that shone pink in the cold air. “New?”

Ronald blushed. “Uh, yeah, my old ones wore out. So I figure now’s a good time, right. To buy some new ones.”

“Do you like them?”

“Yeah, they feel good,” he hopped a few times and then looked down and wiggled his toes inside. “Feel good. Yep.”

“I have to admit, I don’t wear Nike.” She wiped a bit of snot from the end of her nose. “The whole slave labor thing.”

Ronald didn’t follow. This is what worried him. His inability to make small talk, converse about a myriad of topics. He was not well read. And his mind did not absorb facts and interesting tidbits of pop knowledge or current events. Although he read the paper daily, watched the news, rarely did anything seep in. Computer systems, physics, mechanical operations, his memory was like a steel trap. He could disassemble a complicated engine and return it whole, piece by piece, in an hour. But if you asked him who Shaquille O’Neil played for or how Princess Di died or who the star of the Sopranos was, he was a blank slate. Of all the things that terrified him after the divorce, the feeling of being out there single, exposed to pithy conversation with people who dealt in this foreign world, made him almost retch.

“But I don’t mean to get preachy,” Alice continued. “I mean, look at me, I don’t eat meat but I own a black leather coat. But Nike, you have to admit, is really bad. Did you see “Downsize This,” the Michael Moore movie about corporate layoffs? Great movie. He really made Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike, look like an asshole.”

Ronald swallowed and smiled and coughed into his hand. “No, I didn’t see it.” He swallowed again. “But I once developed a software system for Athlete’s Foot. Linking their stores by computer.”

“Cool,” Alice said.

“Yeah,” Ronald said.

“Well, let’s go.”

“Ok.”

* * *

Time heals and time wounds and then time decides what to do with you. Ronald’s time started after Germaine walked out the door. Left behind a gap so wide he shivered for days in the apartment, chilled to the bone even though it was late summer and still hot and humid enough to cause clothes to stick. Ronald’s hurt was equal to his relief, for her leaving seemed to unclog an artery in his soul, and all the emotions of his last ten years poured out.

First was anger. Fights were relived in his mind, arguments where he felt victimized, instances when he had compromised. Like the time he wanted to move cross country, to Sante Fe, to take a job that better suited his talents, interests, personality. The idea filled him with such excitement and renewal that he could hardly breathe. But she wouldn’t even discuss it. Became indignant that he would even consider such a big a move when they were both still getting established here. Her job was going well and her family was nearby and they were finally saving money and what about the house they had looked at in the New Jersey suburbs. He didn’t even put up a fight; somehow felt as if his desire for change was wrong. That he was ungrateful to her. And gave up. But now the anger, the rage, poured out and he walked around the apartment throwing pillows and cursing her indifference to his needs.

Then came sadness. A black cloud that just gripped him and shoved him under the covers. Shook him like a wet sock, wracked his body. She was gone. Forever. He sniffed their pillowcases for remnants of her smell. Tore through photo albums and sobbed at pictures of them together, on vacations, at parties, with friends, family, alone. The sadness lasted two weeks, and he didn’t shave, barely showered, and ate Pop Tarts and Macaroni and Cheese for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And then it was gone. Stopped like a cold wind when the door closes. Just like that.

Depression. That crept in next. Came while he was watching a movie. ‘High Plains Drifter’. Clint Eastwood. It was the tenth movie of An Eastwood Marathon on TNT. The day after Thanksgiving. Ronald came from a small family, mother, father and sister, and they had all gone on a cruise for the holiday. He had begged off and spent the day alone and walking, nearly 20 miles, across streets and avenues, passing hundreds of people going places fast. He had made it through unscathed, even proud, as he laid down that night in bed and realized he could be alone, even on a day that demanded company, and be at peace. But the next day, during the movie, right after ‘The Outlaw Josie Whales’ and ‘Magnum Force’, it took him. A thud that anchored his feet and twisted his stomach and then sapped him across the forehead. He couldn’t get up. Didn’t want to get up. And felt such hopelessness as to want to stick his head in the screen and let Clint blow it off with his pistol.

The depression also lasted two weeks and he came out of it with a call. From Germaine. He didn’t pick up the phone. Hadn’t in 14 days. And as he sat on his couch, wrapped in a blanket that stank of Cheetos and Mountain Dew, he listened to the message.

“Ronald, are you there. Hello. This is Germaine. Just wanted to see how you are. I have been thinking about you. Us.” And then she broke down, her voice shattered across the tape, wet tears pouring through the line. “I mean….I don’t know what I’m doing. Or who I am. I miss you. I was wrong. Give me a call.”

Ronald was stunned. His mouth open. His hair strung out and stiff from grease and sleeping all day. An energy, long deserted, came to his hands, tingled his fingers, his toes, like a dead car battery getting a jump, his lights came on and his eyes opened as wide and he stood and shook off the blanket and walked around in circles and then said: “shit,” to himself and then……………he did nothing. He sat back down. Wrapped himself in the blanket. And turned the volume up on the television.

* * *

“You run pretty good,” Alice huffed between strides. Ronald was dying trying to keep pace with her as they darted through the park, on a thin cement trail dotted with wet yellow leaves and new frost. His suit was riding up his ass and he was having difficulty breathing. The only good thing was he didn’t have to worry about getting an erection as it felt that all the blood below his waist had stopped moving.

Alice was an easy runner, long loping strides that contradicted her slight frame and diminutive stature. She barely came up to Ronald’s armpit and her baggy outfit made her look more like his daughter than date. But even though she was small, she was proportioned so it looked right, perfect, and that translated into stunning grace and balance as she turned on a dime and dodged oncoming bikers and other runners.

“We’re almost at 5k,” she belted out. “We can stop or go an extra mile, push it, if you’d like.”

Panic enveloped Ronald. His right side felt as if someone was jabbing him with a penknife and the soles of this feet ached. He didn’t know the right answer. Stop and she might think him weak and not goal oriented. Keep going and he risked vomiting and losing a bowel movement in the smothering suit. He decided to risk defecating on himself. “Keep going,” he spat out. “I feel great.”

“Cool,” her feet quickened and made him dizzy as she sped forward. “We’ll kick it up a notch.”

Ronald gulped air and expanded his chest against the gripping fabric. He had never been athletic and never had pushed his body. His mind, however, was taught and nimble and he could focus, could ruminate on a mathematical equation for days, scan systems book after systems book, follows transmitters and cues and wireless data and ion surges and analytic conversions. So he trained his mind now, to blot out the pain, to eliminate the searing in his legs, pinpoint everything to each step, to Alice in front of him, see at as a puzzle, the way her legs moved, his legs moved, could he get them in unison, draft against the breeze, minimize his gait, streamline his arm movements, stablize his neck, lower his head, cut off wind resistance, glide. When she slowed and stopped he kept going, oblivious and tuned in to his movements. He kept going a good 500 feet until he realized he was running alone. He blushed and jogged back, puzzled but somehow elated at this new discovery.

“Wow,” Alice huffed, she was pulling her hair back behind her ears. Sweat dripped from her nose and chin. “You were really cooking.”

Ronald smiled and looked down at sneaks. They were covered in mud. He felt for the first time like an athlete, a runner, a man who relied on his physique. Who challenged himself. He felt the rumblings of an erection in his tight pants. “Yeah,” he said, “caught my second wind.”

She smiled and he thought he saw her glance at his midsection and below. The wind was whipping now and it was getting dark. “Do you want to jog back to my apartment and get some water,” she asked. “I don’t live too far from here.”

Ronald wanted to blush but his face was already red and raw from the cold and the exertion. He nodded and then felt a drop of sweat roll of his nose. “Ok,” he said.

* * *

Germaine came into his dream that night. Alice was beside him. So was his running suit. He was naked and sleeping in her bed. Sex had come easy. Alice had led him to her room, glass of water in hand, and sat him down and unpeeled his layer of lycra and took him. But slow and steady. Like her voice, but limber and lithe like her running. He had come quickly. Too quickly, but she didn’t mind and they wrapped around each other and his arms didn’t feel thin or his chest small at all.

Germaine was playing field hockey in the dream. He was in goal. Wearing nothing but a chest protector and a Scottish kilt. She was weaving around the field, knocking teammates and foes to the ground, grunting and yelling his name and shaking her stick in the air, the hard ceramic ball stuck to the blade. She came at him with a fury, like a storm that rises over a hill and descends on a sleepy town, and he could not hold his balance. Could not defend the goal. And then she was inches away from him, towering over him, as he lay prostrate in front of the goal mouth, and she reared back her stick and sent the ball at his head, flying, it came fast and he closed his eyes and waited for impact…..

Alice’s lips woke him on his forehead. She was smiling and she kissed Ronald again, this time on the lips. “Good morning,” she said.

Ronald glanced around confused. He was erect and cold under the sheets. Goose pimples dotted his arms. “Good morning,” he returned.

Alice wrinkled her nose and wriggled her arm under the covers. Her fingers danced on Ronald’s penis and she raised her eyebrows. “Ok,” she said.

Ronald leaned over and took her in his arms. He rose from the sheets and looked down at their bodies under the blankets. Their skin seemed to taper together, perfect contrasts of white. He waited, above her, then set down and entered her, his head over her shoulder, sniffing at her pillow and hair, cascading into her sighs and cries, his eyes, far away, distant, oblivious, not feeling the thrust of his pelvis, the pleasure or the pain, just like his run, without extra waste, taking in images, letting light come to him, not seeking it out, and rising, deep in the iris, to stop the shot, with one hand, and throw it back with a laugh and move on, riding out of town, into a desert of warmth and water.

by Larry Cruikshank

I took a want ad out
for psychics.
It was a joke
the last week before
I vacated the office space.
Everything else was pretty much gone
the desk remained and a file cabinet.
So I placed the advertisement.
Help Wanted: Psychics needed
must be flexible.
I received a dozen calls that first day
some were out there, tweaked
but one woman seemed genuine.
When she arrived for the interview I asked
her to touch her toes. She did.
She was very flexible. Then I asked
why she came? Knowing
she wouldn’t get the job. Puzzled,
she asked what I meant.
If you were really a psychic, I said
you would have known ahead of time
what the outcome would be.
She just smiled.
We were married three months later.
I have a new office
for my law practice and she
works, of course, as a psychic.

by Noah Hoffenberg

Note to self: don’t write anything
subversive. B) Be calm. Nonchalantly
Nonchalantly ignore the secret agent
behind the counterat McDonald’s. & do not eat
that super-size fry and double cheeseburger
because everything is injected w/ cancer.
Pay no attention to the woman in the
hyped-out wheel chaise w/
the automatic weapon stashed
in the vehicle’s framework.
Don’t ask why electricians &
telephone repairmen are constantly futzing
w/ the cable TV & high tension lines.
I repeat, tension is high.
Who unscrewed the lid to the salt shaker
& left it to be dumped on my plate?
They watch you through
the unblinking eye of the typing machine.
Keep your eyes peeled
for shifty postal workers & for poets
who claim to be big fans of Ezra Pound.
They rummage through your rubbish,
& send your condoms to the lab.
Hair is analyzed. Habits monitored, graphed,
charted. They know that you like
spicy black bean veggie burgers. You
might be a pacifist or just too weak
to present a problem to Their
infinitely financed Project Nameless.
Even so, They still don’t trust you.
They can make you disappear
or maybe you just choke on bad clams
after you slip and fall on an ice pick.
Even as I write this, They read it
from outer space with an electron
microscope. Another trick picked up from
aliens. They’ll come in the night to exterminate
you as an enemy of the state. An insect.
Never Let Them Strap You To The Apparatus.
Convince Them that you are the light
& They are the dark. Convince them
that you are the dark and they are the light.

by Scott C. Carr

The prosaic poet, and master of fiction,
A dual dictator, and dicter of diction

The bum dumber plumber, the polite politician,
The manimal husband, the select electrician

The ass-under asunderer, benign benediction,
The thundering plunderer, and quickie come conniption

The page ripping rage of the great stage magician,
The grinning face grace, and the base contradiction

A whispering, lispering, contraband misser,
A receptacle ribbed, reservoir-tipped real kisser-pisser

A knee stealer kneeler and feeler of friction,
A real wheeler dealer at a mock crucifixion

by Kip Conlon

Where the express becomes the local.
Where the wafer turns to Christ.
Where metaphor is meaningless.
At least it is tonight.
On the median strip between Eden’s lip and Sodom’s construction site
we lay our weary heads in the sand,
the twitchy lion and frightened lamb
and wait for visits and visions
from ambivalent apparitions
who don’t know what to do with our indecision.

Where time stands still but hemlines change
and people withdraw whom you’ve just met
it’s like the world really is but a stage
and death is a joke you finally get.
Curled up in a bathtub, thinking of your last love:
the initial liftoff, the final descent.
A shitty jukebox of memories,
the same pretty girl on every sleeve
and you wish, you wish she would come back
so you could leave.

And though you’re lost, the road unfolds
like you’re still in the right direction.
You guess you’re as welcome here
As your original intention.
And so you’re wrong, and were all along,
you’re left with the same impression.
You have to say your life is okay
in a shrugging, sort of compromised way
and drifting, debating, should you pull a one-eighty,
it’s really nothing you’re contemplating.

by Mike Palecek

Three kids in El Salvador
Their heads chopped off
Just last night after prayers

Well, good morning, Maria
How are you?
Thank you. I’m just fine.
I’ll take my messages. Anything to sign?

And a mom in North Omaha can’t find the
Milk bag, ’cause it’s all gone
Her kids are crying, where’s the Cheerios, some suckers?
Go on
Stay out of the street, hon’

Well, good morning, Maria
And how are you?
Thank you.
I’m just fine.

Ah, it’s a beautiful day, says Congressman Bob
America’s safe and strong
Good morning, Maria
Can’t stay too long
It’s a fine life, but hectic, they say.

Overhead there’s a big plane, too loud
We can’t hear, what the priest he is saying
Something about Jesus, I’m sure

And the kids sit on the street
Licking their treat
Their mom in her blood she does lay
And Congressman Bob is enjoying his job.
Who wouldn’t want it that way.

By Megan C O’Reilly

we had lived in the white house with
the shutters for years. i was still
a child but beginning to grow bored

with catching tadpoles in plastic cups.
i began to see our cherry trees as old
folks growing conversative and i stopped

using their trunks for ladders. grandpa
had died and grandma put on a light
flowered shirt with short sleeves and went

to florida. her armchair went with her so
i would sit in her walk-in closet. one day,
the neighbor boy who pushed me and cussed

put his coat over my tree stump chair
before i could sit down. alarmed, i came
home to tell my mother in the kitchen.

she already knew and smiled. instinctively,
i laughed. evolution. “i don’t know what
to do now,” i said.