I miss her because she was unpretentious and honest about how she made a living.
I miss her because she seemed relieved and happy to see me when she flagged me from the shadows of the French Quarter..
I miss her because she laughed when I opened the rear door for her every night.
I miss her because when I rescued her from the curb, she untied a knot of hair that became an avalanche of shimmering obsidian under the passing street lights.
I miss her because when I looked in the rear view mirror, her dark eyes met mine as if we were engaged in a long, intimate conversation.
I miss her because she sang Greek songs whose words I didn’t understand.
I miss her because she said that someday she would teach me what the words meant.
I miss her because she smiled when I joined her for a drink in her tiny apartment and panicked and spilled bourbon on myself because I was too young and scared to respond to the invitation of her smooth, bare legs.
I miss her because the last time I saw her, she leaned over the seat and kissed me and told me to come an hour earlier because she had a surprise for me.
I miss her because what remains of the bouquet that I bought for her is just a bundle of thorny sticks and dried leaves on the front seat and shriveled brown petals on the floor of my battered taxi.
* * *
Mike Fulton grew up in New Orleans, a city possessing a variety of traditions, a variety of people and a variety of musical styles. He taught in the inner city, played music at night and drove a cab during his off hours for several years. He currently lives in western North Carolina and teaches at a small college.
He walked with a gash on his head. Dried blood caked a lock of his hair over the wound. A thin purple thread ran withered down his temple. The pain was intense, but it was not in the flesh, it was inside. His eyes, weary from the sorrows of life, gazed dazedly at the symphony of autumn colors: reds, ochers, greens and yellows. Even in his bitterness he had to give in to so much beauty.
He had spent the night in the cemetery watching over the grave of his son, who had died eleven years before. It tore his soul apart and shattered his insipid life. He took refuge in a bottle, in gambling, in pills and tobacco. In everything that allowed him todivert his attention even for a moment from his misfortune. He forgot about his work, his family and even himself and lost himself with no possibility of return in the unfathomable caverns of suffering.
He was never a cheerful man. On his wedding day he told himself scared that he was not a good catch. He did not understand what the woman who was to be his wife could have seen in him. He remained crestfallen and distant all that day as if he fearedthat at any moment the spell of his ephemeral happiness would be undone. During the wedding night he was unable to express the slightest affection. He had unwittingly destroyed their marriage before it had even been consummated.
As a child his father had abandoned them. He did not keep a single image of him in his memory. His mother became an abusive alcoholic whom he and his sister had to suffer for years. Hundreds of faceless men paraded through his house, the expiredboyfriends of the one who gave birth to him. They seemed to live in a perennial autumn, sordid, ocher and sad. Yes, autumn had always been the only season of his life, wilted, leafless and withered. The continuous bitterness, like sudden gusts of cold winds, hadmercilessly shaped his personality for years making him languid, moody and dejected.
Last night, like many others, he had committed a stupidity. Another one. He had spent it alone sitting on the cold stone eating a sad sandwich on his son’s grave. Three wild boys had mistaken him for a drunkard and, for pure amusement, had beaten him up.
Semi-conscious, they had taken his watch, his wallet and the bag with the money that, like the tourists, he always wore around his neck under his shirt. Since his wife had kicked him out of the house, he carried all his meager possessions with him at all times.
He had been robbed a thousand times and he dared not leave anything in the dingy room rented to him by the Moorish woman who was now his landlady. He no longer had anything to pay her with. Autumn would once again be his home and the dry leaves hisbed.
Shortly before, when he saw his wife in his old house surrounded by friends, he understood that she had turned over a new page, that she had rebuilt her life and that he no longer had any place in it. Without a word, without even a glance, he felt all hercontempt. He decided to seek refuge that night in the only place in the world where he would not feel rejection, the grave of his son.
He remembered his sad little face as a child, with his crooked squinting eye staring haphazardly. The other children teased him mercilessly at school and his son, as if looking at two different places at the same time, seemed to implore “why, why, daddy?”
It was at that instant that the only true display of affection in his whole worn-out life came out of him.
“Son, you have such a beautiful eye that the other one can’t stop looking at it.”
His son returned a radiant smile that swept away the autumn of his life and, for the first time, made him feel the warmth of the sun on his skin. That little boy with the lost look had won him over forever.
However, the day he crashed his motorcycle, fleeing just as he did from himself, he understood that he was as stupid as his father. The impact of his death was such that it left him dumbfounded. He felt guilty for having transmitted his own ills to him. He went into a trance that had lasted eleven years in which he had lost his life and the lives of all those around him. The cold winds of autumn were blowing more impetuous than ever.
Now his days were rushing down the abyss of indolence. He would get up very late, wrenched from sleep by the unbearable mixture of smells from the Arabian food that his Moorish landlady prepared at all hours. He would tidy up his room and go out into thestreet. He wandered through parks, bars and gambling houses. He always lost. He picked up still smoking cigarette butts that he devoured with eagerness. He rummaged through garbage cans without finding anything useful. He would go to the supermarket and buy a little bread and some cold meat to prepare his only meal, a perennial sandwich. He would visit his son three or even four times a week until the cold of the tombstone stiffened his bones. He would sit in the park and rarely conversed with anyone. At night, sleepless,lying in his bed, he would hear his Moorish landlady’s headboard banging against his wall and her moans and gasps as the Moor, who was not her husband, penetrated her. They reminded him of her mother and he hated them.
His legs were no longer able to support him. He collapsed on a bench in exhaustion. He placidly contemplated the intense red of the maples, the yellow of the poplars, the dark green of the pines and the multitude of shades of the oaks, from gold to vermilion, passing through shades of saffron, brown and ochre. For the first time in his life the autumn in which he had always lived seemed to him the most beautiful season of the year. And he wished he could stay there forever.
He was flooded with memories. Now he understood that to receive love he had to give it first, and he had never given it nor received it. That lesson was taught to him by the smile of a child with a lost look, although he had not grasped it until eleven yearsafter his death and already, he said to himself, it was too late.
He felt he had nothing left, not even the cold comfort of a tombstone. He remembered his dismay, when he woke up dazed by the blows of his robbers, to see his son’s grave splattered with the crimson drops of his own blood. That vision produced in him a last and intimate communion with his ill-fated offspring.
He opened his hand and an empty canister rolled down the bench. He had consumed it completely without ingesting a single drop of water. His mouth was dry and pasty. Still, he wanted to stand there forever contemplating the incredible beauty of autumn, of what could have been his life but wasn’t and never would be. He had just made that autumn eternal.
Dejected, he looked down. At his feet only a single withered leaf remained. A gust of wind blew and it flew away, just like his soul.
* * *
David Verdugo is a Spanish writer who is trying to break into the English languagemarket under the pseudonym Dave Hangman. In Spanish he has been a finalist in a dozen literary contests. He has compiled four books of short stories in which very different genres coexist and even intermingle, magical realism, detective, horror, epic fantasy and science fiction. He has also written half a dozen short novels. He has just finished his first full-length novel, a story of love, or rather its absence, in a fictional world.
She doesn’t know the word for the smell, but she knows what it does to her. Tonight, once again, it’s taken her from the dream. Brought forth tears.
She saw him again. Noted the rice paddies. The plastic poncho and the M-16. Boots caked in red mud. And that smile. Always that smile.
She sniffles, swipes at her cheeks, careful not to disturb her slumbering husband, then rolls on her side. Turns her back to him and their seventeen years together.
Through the black rectangle of an open bedroom window, the petrichor continues to sprinkle in, offering the smells of sage and ocotillo, dimpled sand. She breathes in the night’s gift.
Eyes closed, her mind meanders, ferries her back to the year when she was all of eighteen, to that first time with the boy in the dream. The summer before he’d left. She watches him spread a blanket over damp ground, then hold her hand to ease her down. They lie in a kaleidoscope of broken shadows beneath a pair of mourning doves coursing below a bruised sky. The smell of recent rain soon to be replaced by his Hai Karate aftershave. His breath. Their together-sweat.
Reliving the scene, her hands, clutched at her breast, begin to tremble. Her heart flutters and she feels as if she’s on fire, skin as prickly as the cactus with the same name.
Moments later, through the mist of memory, she hears him whisper, again and again, “I love you.”
“It was him again,” her husband says, staring into his morning coffee. “Last night in your dream.”
She jiggles her head no, says, “I was just tired.”
He sips, knows he can argue, as before. Knows that he’s never won. Never will. His breath catches at the harsh thought that he will always be the runner-up, the second placer. The alternate to this boy. To her past.
“You’re going to be late,” she whispers, motioning at the clock on the stove.
He stands, delivers his dishes to the sink. He’s not a bad man, though he often wonders how long a good man could—would—live with the thought of never measuring up to number one. Cup and saucer rinsed, he washes his hands. Flings them as if he’s just touched something dirty.
He steps toward her, leans in, expecting his goodbye kiss. She turns her head. Just slightly.
“I see,” he says.
“You can’t help it.” He gathers up wallet, briefcase and keys. “I don’t think so, anyway.”
She nods. Too quickly, then follows her husband to the front door.
He opens it, pauses at the threshold. Glancing at her gardens of Aspen bluebell and False Forget-Me-Nots, he says, “Your flowers like the rain.”
He doesn’t answer and he can’t see her hand hovering above his shoulder just as he steps away, says, “I don’t think I’ve ever told you how much I love that smell.”
* * *
Fred Melton is a 2018 graduate of Pacific University’s MFA program. His work has been seen in Best American Mystery Stories 2002, Big Sky Journal, Oyez Review, Passages North, Front Range Review, and the Bellevue Literary Review, as well as other publications.
Dad would be well into the bottle most days when I got home from high school.
One afternoon he jerked open the front door as I approached and barked, “Get into your room!”
I reviewed my actions of the past few days; nothing much stood out. Still, I got into my room.
“I took your winter coat to the dry cleaner today,” he bellowed.
What’s the proper response to that? “Um…thank you?”
“When I cleaned out the coat pockets, I found—THIS.” Producing a carefully folded tissue, he opened it to reveal something red nestled inside.
I’d heard about illegal pills—reds, greens, uppers, downers—but I’d never seen one. I’m guessing my father hadn’t either because the thing in his hand was—well, as I told him, “It’s a red TicTac.”
His eyes widened in surprise for a millisecond. He’d expected me to lie, but this? “If it’s a TicTac, where’s the box?”
“It was empty; I threw it away.”
“Then why was this in your pocket?”
“It must have fallen out. I didn’t realize.” I said, growing increasingly frantic. I’d never done drugs in my life. “Just eat it, you’ll see.”
My father would not eat the red TicTac.
Did he think I was trying to get him high? Perhaps he worried the drug would not mix well with the alcohol he had already consumed.
We were at an impasse. Finally he allowed me to put the “pill” into my mouth, break it in half with my teeth, and breathe in his face.
It was indeed a red TicTac. He never apologized.
Elaine Bennett (she/her) is an award-winning speechwriter and definitely not the lady from Seinfeld, whose last name is “Benes.” She was a Finalist for the 2021 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize and won a Queer-Writers’ Fellowship to the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. A graduate of Smith College and The Brearley School, and a Mets fan who named her dog Fenway, she lives on the traditional land of the Wampanoag, also known as Cape Cod.
Moist. Rich. So chocolaty. I stood there daydreaming about the cake, my mouth watering, and then my phone buzzed.
“Where are you?”
“I’m in line.”
“At the front of the line, or at the back of the line?”
“Um, somewhere in the middle of the line.”
“Did you get applesauce?”
“I need it for the cake. You forgot! You’re always forgetting things!”
Chocolate cake—applesauce was one of the ingredients.
“Of course, I remember,” I said.
“Well, make sure to get it. I want to bake before dinner.”
I apologized to the others waiting in line at the cash register and spun my shopping cart around. With one hand holding down the toilet paper resting precariously atop a mountain of groceries, I set off in search of canned goods.
My tennis partner was lingering by the dairy refrigerators. Like me, Bill was pushing an overfilled cart. Like me, he didn’t seem pleased with the task.
“How are you?” I asked him. “We haven’t played in weeks.”
“My shoulder—it’s still bugging me. What’s up with you?”
“Oh, you know. The same.”
“We should get together, even if it’s not on the courts. Why don’t you come over on Saturday and we’ll watch the game? Have some beer?”
“Beer? Sounds good!” I said.
“You know what? Bring Janet as well. I can fire up the grill and we’ll make a meal out of it.”
“I don’t know what Janet’s planning,” I said. “If she’s up to it, what should we bring?”
“Why don’t you bring the beer?”
“Sure, I’ll bring the beer.”
“Well, I’ll see you then. Meanwhile, I need to find muesli. I won’t be allowed back in the house if I don’t buy muesli.”
“I hear you,” I said. I patted him on the shoulder and continued through the store.
Daily special! Marked-down prices. The red-bordered notices on the shelves drew my attention to discounted products, many of which I had missed on my first circuit. Onward through the store. Baking goods, dry goods, pet food. Frozen goods, fruits and vegetables. Finally, I arrived at the beverage aisle.
Beer, he said, but what kind? Pale amber, stout, or Belgian-style ale? Local beer, or the more expensive imported variety? If I get a cheap six-pack, I’ll appear to be stingy. But imported beer? I’m neither a regular drinker nor a beer connoisseur, but I didn’t want to be judged on what I would bring to Bill’s table. Okay, let’s just go with what’s on sale—American-style lager.
I waited at the checkout counter, smiling at the other customers. But wait! Janet had asked me to pick up something. What was it?
Applesauce for the chocolate cake!
“Excuse me,” I said, spinning my cart around to begin another trip around the store. Up one crowded aisle and down the next. Paper goods, cleaning supplies. I turned around the next corner and found myself back at the beverage aisle.
“Did you get the beer?”
“Bill! I thought you would be out of here by now.”
“I’m still looking for muesli. What is muesli anyway? Some kind of fancy granola? What’s wrong with good old cornflakes?”
“It’s probably with the other breakfast products,” I said, pointing toward the back of the store.
“Hmm. I see you got lager,” Michael said, regarding the pack balancing next to the toilet paper on top of my cart.
“You don’t like lager?”
“Oh, I do! I assumed you to be an ale guy. A pale ale guy,” he said with a laugh. I didn’t find his joke funny.
“Anything else you want me to get?” I asked, trying to humor him with a display of generosity.
“Let me see. We could use salted nuts to go with the beer. Cashews, almonds. I really like cashews, don’t you?”
“Listen, I’m just suggesting it. It’s not a problem if you can’t get any.”
“No, it’s fine. I’ll find something,” I assured him.
“Great! I really have to find that muesli and get the hell out of here. I hate grocery shopping!”
“Me, too!” I replied, but he had already wheeled his cart away.
I passed the bread and baked goods section, bypassed the coffees and tea, and headed to the candy and snack shelves. I hoped cashews were on sale.
Back in line at the cash register, I tried to think if there was anything else I was supposed to buy. Janet may have mentioned something, but it must not have been all that important. She would be pleased to hear we had been invited out. I knew she didn’t mind the occasional beer. We’d probably eat outside—the weather was certainly good enough. I wondered what Michael would be grilling. Hot dogs and burgers, or something more expensive?
“Will that be all, sir?” the cashier asked after the last of my goods had passed in front of her.
“Yes, that’s everything,” I said, pulling out my wallet. I handed her my credit card and arranged the shopping bags in the cart. “Thank you,” I said when she handed back the card along with my receipt.
A short while later, I parked the car out front and made two trips carrying the groceries into the house. “I’m home,” I shouted, and Janet joined me in the kitchen.
“Did you get the applesauce?”
“For the cake. The chocolate cake you love so much!”
“Uh, no. I was at the supermarket, and…”
“You forgot, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t forget! They were all out! I even asked the stock clerk!”
She shook her head, not believing a word I said.
“What’s that smell? Is there something in the oven?”
“Yes. Devil’s Food Cake. I knew you’d forget the applesauce. You’re hopeless!”
My wife makes the best Devil’s Food Cake.
Ellis Shuman is an American-born Israeli author, travel writer, and book reviewer. His writing has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, The Oslo Times, and The Huffington Post. He is the author of The Virtual Kibbutz, Valley of Thracians, and The Burgas Affair. You can find him at https://ellisshuman.blogspot.com/
Easy peasy, Eva thought, as Mr. Burke explained her duties for the upcoming weekend: water the plants and feed Mrs. Burke’s fifteen-year-old grey Burmese cat, Logan.
Mr. Burke glanced at his wife, whose eyes were welling with tears. “Logan is shy, so you won’t see him,” he said, “but make sure to fill his food and milk bowl fresh every day, okay?”
Eva nodded, although she doubted Logan would be shy around her. He’s probably just bored cause he’s around old people all the time, she thought, with the exuberant confidence only an eight-year-old could muster.
Mr. Burke leaned forward and whispered, “also, you won’t need to clean up Logan’s litter. He won’t be making any mess.”
Eva had always wanted a cat, but her mother didn’t think she was responsible enough. “You’d forget to eat if I didn’t remind you,” she often said. “How can you care for an animal?”
This was Eva’s chance to prove her mother wrong.
After watering Mrs. Burke’s succulents the next day, Eva filled Logan’s bowl with milk, then poured out the cat food, lifting the bag to her waist and letting the dry pellets of salmon and sweet potato clack against the shiny metal container. She wrinkled her nose as a dusty fishy scent punched the air.
Gross! I would never feed my cat this stuff.
The following day, Eva dumped out the previous day’s milk, replenished the bowl, and then did the same with his food, although neither looked like it’d been touched.
He’s probably waiting for me to remind him to eat.
Using a flashlight she found in the kitchen drawer, Eva searched for Logan under Mr. and Mrs. Burke’s bed, inside the master bedroom closet, and behind the twenty bags of cat food in the kitchen pantry. She even jingled Logan’s lattice balls, hoping the bells would lure him out.
She mimicked Mrs. Burke’s high-pitched voice. “Loooo-gaaaan, time to eat!”
Noticing a bag of cat treats, she scooped out a handful and dropped them in a trail leading from each room to the living room couch. He’s gotta come out sometime.
As she waited, she counted fifteen frames hung along the hallway walls, each filled with pictures of Mrs. Burke and Logan.
This made Eva even more eager to meet Logan—to pet his fluffy fur, squeeze his squishy tail, and watch him chase a red dot around the house.
After what seemed like hours, Eva stopped searching and turned on the television, flipping through channels she wasn’t allowed to watch at home, all awhile wondering why anyone would keep a pet that hides all day. How boring!No wonderMr. and Mrs. Burke have cable. What else would they do all day?
When the Burkes returned home the following morning, Eva dropped by to collect her payment.
“I put food and milk every day, like you asked,” Eva said, noticing Logan’s food and milk were again untouched. “It’s not my fault if Logan wasn’t hungry. I tried—”
“Thank you so much, Eva. I don’t know what we’d do without you,” Mrs. Burke said before walking away.
As Eva started to leave, Mr. Burke pulled her aside, gazing briefly at his wife then back at Eva. “You must forgive Mrs. Burke. She just misses Logan so much.”
You were only gone for two days, Eva wanted to say, but didn’t.
Instead, she smiled, feeling proud of herself. She hoped she’d done enough so the Burkes would put in a good word for her with her mother so that perhaps her mother would let her get a pet.
Maybe she’d changed her mind, though. Maybe she’d get a dog. Cats were too boring.
* * *
Jennifer Lai works in cancer research and lives in Washington state. Her work has appeared in Blue Lake Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Brilliant Flash Fiction and elsewhere.