The air smelled like a mixture of orange flavored Jell-O and wet plastic lunch boxes. It was snack time and as a five-year-old, I remember that being a special time in my daily school routine.
Every day at 10 am, Miss Clements asked us to get our lunch boxes from the cubbies that were lined up along the wall of the classroom, and then to sit in a circle on the carpet covered floor. The circle that the twelve of us made was never a perfectly round shape. Each day I sat between two girls, because sitting next to a boy was annoying. They were messy and ate their snacks much too fast while talking with food in their mouths. Gross!
It had been raining all morning and the classroom windows were wet. I was mesmerized staring at the water running down them in tiny streams. The raindrops hitting the windows produced a steady rhythmic sound, reminding me of Grandpa who liked to rattle the loose change in his pants pockets whenever he was telling a story. It was still possible to hear the rain being blown against those windows, even though the indoor noise level from my classmates was starting to sound like a tree full of chattering monkeys at the zoo.
Just as I was closing my lunchbox, a bright flash of light shot through the windows into our classroom casting an eerie ghost-like mask over all of us.We collectively let out an uncontrollable gasp.Within seconds the loud thunderclap followed, producing yet another gasp from all of us.
Miss Clements reassured us that we were safe. She explained that lightning was an electrical flash common during storms and said thunder was the sound that followed.
“Why does it make that loud noise?” I asked.
She touched my arm and answered, “The sound happens when angels in heaven are bowling!”
“How do angels bowl when they have such big wings?”
Sally was crying, so Miss Clements didn’t hear my last question.I decided the angels must tuck their wings behind when it is their turn to bowl.
Decades later, I silently count the number of seconds between flashes of light and the deep rumbling to estimate how close a storm is because, as an adult, I still imagine that thunder only happens when angels are bowling in heaven.
* * *
Along with building a very successful dental practice, Dr. Ingrid Wright has also enjoyed careers in modeling, and as an artist, author, and wedding officiant. Ingrid has been married for over 40 years and has recently received the title of “Grandma,” which she loves!
It’s her first night in Alaska. She tells me it’s 1 a.m. there, the sun’s still up. I ask how’s that possible and she says something about the Earth’s axis being titled toward the sun. I ask if she’s drunk and she says not so drunk she forgot how to tell time or what the sun is. I tell her drink water and be careful. She says Oh Dad and rolls her eyes. I can’t see this, of course, but I know my daughter, and she is a champion eye roller. She got that, her gray-green eyes, and her smarts from her mom. She tells me her job is surveying culverts, making sure the baby salmon can get to the ocean and the adult fish can get back home. She uses words like stadia rod and grade points and Bernoulli and I don’t understand all of it, but I remember cutting up cereal boxes to make flashcards when she was learning her times tables. Before she left she told me, Salmon live in the ocean for five years and then navigate thousands of miles back to the stream where they were born by smell. The oven timer goes off. She asks what I’m making, and I tell her brownies, the ones with dark chocolate and ancho chilies. She says she can smell them all the way up in Alaska. I tell her I’ll make them every day so she’ll always be able to find her way home. She clears her throat. Dad, she says. I hear young voices calling her name and tell her tohave fun, get some rest. She tells me she loves me and hangs up. I put my mitts on, and when I open the oven door, I’m hoping I don’t have to wait five years.
* * *
Jim Latham ditched the oilfields of Alaska in favor of central Mexico. He lives out of two zebra-print suitcases and divides his time between hiking volcanoes, teaching English as a second language, and writing. He publishes flash fiction every Wednesday on his Substack, Jim’s Shorts, and less frequently around the web.
~ A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing. – Archilochus
MISSION: INFILTRATE THE COMPANY
Sam was the only one who went to headquarters for the meeting. Every other desk was empty. Everything was online: files, conversations, people. Most agents had never even tasted the coffee in the lounge. Maybe that’s why they still drank coffee.
“We need someone on the inside who can join the troupe,” the boss said.
“Why?” Dennis asked. He always asked, even when he knew the answer: need-to-know-basis. They weren’t cleared to know anything beyond the company went places they needed to go and met people they needed to reach. A perfect cover.
“Can we just wiretap?” Emme asked, their little Zoom box blacked-out with just a giant E for a name.
“We tried that. I think we tried that,” the boss said. “Jess?”
Sam sipped her tea and listened as Jess, head of cybersolutions rattled off everything they’d tried: the quietest drones were too loud on stages known for amazing acoustics, ceilings were too high for wires to catch conversations, and nothing ever stayed still long enough. Props come and go, curtains rise and fall, dancers are everywhere, and there’s never anything consistently close enough for them to tap a wire into.
“So, who will it be?” the boss asked.
Sam’s face gave nothing away. She was too good at her job for that. But she wondered at the stupidity. Once upon a time the powers that be understood that you can’t google your way into expertise. Some things take the time they take.
The boss shared his screen populated with pictures of fresh-faced agents. Versatile. Savvy. Every agent on that roster could speak multiple languages, prepare a drink, drive, fly, sail, and parachute out of planes. They could play a part. Not just act it out on screen, as an actor might, but actually play the part: barista, gardener, driver, assistant, receptionist, consultant. So many consultants. But you can’t play at being a ballerina.
“Miller?” the boss asked, “She looks the part.”
“Knee injury,” Dennis said. “Green? She ran a marathon last week, so she can more than keep up.”
Sam couldn’t stop herself then. She snorted. Nobody heard. Her zoom was muted.
She unmuted herself.
“This isn’t going to work,” Sam said. “You can’t just add someone to the troupe.”
There was a pause. They respected her. Or her history. Maybe. They were tolerant of her presence. Invited her to meetings. Gave her every job that needed an invisible little old lady planted on a scene. She was useful. And, usually, she was quiet. You don’t last long in this job if you have too many opinions or think too much for yourself. Or of yourself.
“I appreciate hearing your thoughts, Sam,” the boss said, voice carefully pitched in the tone one uses for beloved children, powerful dimwits, and the elderly.
Sam noticed that he didn’t ask her to clarify. He always asked others to clarify. He hadn’t heard her thoughts. Yet.
“I’m happy to clarify,” Sam said, not pausing, knowing that if she kept talking, he would have a harder time interrupting on zoom. One of the few advantages of moving department meetings online. He couldn’t just tip his chair and spread his hands out on more than his fair share of the table. The little boxes on the screen were all the same.
“You can’t crash-course an agent into becoming a ballerina, and—” Sam held up a hand, preempting a disagreement, “AND—even if you could, no troupe would take an unknown dancer wholly new to the scene. It’s too small a world for you to fabricate a dancer’s background. It would be tissue-thin. Unbelievable.”
“Do you have any better ideas?” Jess practically sneered. The cyber department was not well versed in nuanced interactions and never had to learn to hide their thoughts or modulate their tone.
“Yes,” Sam said. “Yes, I do.”
“Well?” the boss asked, his voice was no longer modulated, and Sam gave herself a beat to enjoy it.
“You can’t train an agent to be a ballerina, but you can train a ballerina to be a spy.”
If it had been a regular meeting, there would have been a cacophony of voices speaking over each other. As it was, with so many muted boxes, all Sam saw were mouths moving and eyes widening.
“Sam, it’s not that easy,” the boss’s voice was back to tentative, deceptive softness. “It would take years. You know how rigorous a program it is to join the team. Besides, not even I have been cleared to know all the particulars of this job. We can’t use informants because we don’t know what questions to ask yet. We need someone who knows what they’re doing.”
There was no longer any reason to mask her thoughts, so Sam allowed her face free reign as she stared him down until his explanations trickled into silence.
“It is that easy,” Sam said, using a voice she’d have used on Charlie when he was a puppy and insisted on licking toilet bowls. Like Charlie, the boss backed off. “I should know. How do you think I was recruited?”
It didn’t take long to convince them. They needed someone who could travel with different troupes, access stages, and be inconspicuously present when VIPs were entertained. Many dancers qualified. The rest was fairly easy. Not that the agents enjoyed hearing their skills described in mundane ways, but any dancer who’s reached proficiency has perfected the skills of smiling through pain, working towards precision, and conforming to arbitrary rules and impossible demands. In fact, having experienced both, Sam knew it was easier to please the agency than a choreographer.
All that was needed was to teach the dancer what to listen for and how to report what they learned. To expand observation of nuance in music and movement to all interactions.
“Okay,” the boss said. “You got the job.”
“What job?” Sam said.
“You’re picking and training our new agent.”
MISSION: TRAIN A FOX
Sam had thought to pick the understudy. And a woman. Rule number one of spy school: always be prepared to change your mind.
Ari was perfect. He was a swing, dancing in any position they needed, adjusting to any part. In the short time Sam, under the guise of a feature reporter, observed him, he’d danced in seven different positions and nailed every single one. He was flexible—body and mind—and he watched everyone and everything like a hawk.
“Thank you for speaking with me, Ari,” Sam shook his hand and noted, with satisfaction, that his grip was firm, his stance confident. He smiled with practiced ease. Too practiced, maybe.
“Of course, Ms. Night.”
His voice was cultured, she noted. There may have been an accent once, but she couldn’t place it. Perfect tone. Unthreatening. Soft. Immemorable.
“Tell me, Ari, why aren’t you a soloist?”
“I’m allergic to the spotlight,” Ari guided her towards a seat with such practiced grace that Sam’s body instinctively responded as they walked in a plie-and-push she thought she’d forgotten long ago.
“Really, Ari,” Sam laughed, adjusting her media badge, “Nobody’s allergic to attention!”
“Ah, but I am.”
Sam would’ve raised an eyebrow, but she’d never quite mastered that skill. No need. Ari understood.
“Some of us were born to be shadows, Ms. Night.”
So we were.
Ari was a natural. He sped through every manual, mastered every task. Even offered suggestions. He could send information coded into dance routines, merge languages to add a layer of complexity, purposefully make mistakes to keep himself from moving up in the corps. He kept himself in the role of swing, substituting for those who missed a show. A replacement. It kept him moving. Replaceable. Everyone is replaceable.
And he could move between companies, troupes, countries. The Agency could throw him into anything. He always landed, gracefully, on his feet.
MISSION: REWARD A FOX
It had been seven years since she’d last seen Ari, and though she’d purchased a ticket for tonight’s performance, Sam still wore her media badge. A cover, even if it was no longer needed.
He was perfect.
The spotlight followed every move of his graceful solo. Each detail precise. Seemingly effortless.
She stood for the standing ovation, even though, leaning heavily on her cane, she couldn’t clap well. It was over. He’d been the perfect choice.
There would be a party afterwards. She hadn’t been invited. But she preferred this: an empty theatre; the echoed aftermath of a performance.
“Thank you for the flowers,” Ari slipped into a seat beside her.
“What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at the party? What happened to your face?!”
“I told you,” Ari smiled his easy smile, but his whole face was covered in rashes, “I’m allergic to the spotlight.”
Agent Dancer to be awarded the Distinguished Intelligence Award for outstanding service during operation REDACTED.
* * *
Amy Marques grew up between languages and places and learned, from an early age, the multiplicity of narratives. She penned children’s books, barely read medical papers, and numerous letters before turning to short fiction and visual poetry. She is a Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions, and Best of the Net nominee and has work published in journals and anthologies including Streetcake Magazine, MoonPark Review, Bending Genres, Gone Lawn, Ghost Parachute, Chicago Quarterly Review, and Reservoir Road Literary Review. You can read more at https://amybookwhisperer.wordpress.com.
did not have a sign—you simply pushed on the outside wall, vaguely discernible as a tall, heavy door that swung slowly inward. Inside was romance and cool, outside was downtown Montgomery: hot, silent streets, a fountain where a slave market used to be; the sense of inhabiting a Twilight Zone episode of the kind my then-husband might remember on TV, but I wouldn’t, not having been born yet when he lost his virginity.
Trips to the Olive Room helped us imagine that our marriage might thrive among impossibilities—the restrictions of small-town Alabama, where toilet-papering an oak, or attending an Auburn faculty cookout at Chewacla State Park, were the only social outlets. So we had to escape in his Honda to this nearest city, an hour away, which even on a Saturday looked dejected, with vacant storefronts and hulking pickups parked in odd places, in the middle of the street, as if abandoned.
Interpose into this setting a thrillingly romantic, glimmering restaurant with a whiff of Mafia about it—plates of caprese, yellowfin tuna and field greens, globes of Sangiovese, and dozens of candles set on a ridge in the wall encircling the room, the wax melted into strange shapes. Even the bathrooms were hip and seductive, marked only by a lit-up M or W visible in the floor and, when you groped your way inside, feeling a bit stupid, lit by a black light under which a crystalline-black toilet and sink glowed purple. At our candlelit table, we sat thigh to thigh on a bench seat and were waited on and drank our wine and talked about the life—the child—we hoped to have, somewhere else.
A couple of years later, a thousand miles north in a town of blazing fall leaves, anti- George “W.” Bush bumper stickers, and plastic baby swings hanging in trees on the strip of grass bordering the sidewalk, on streets with crisply flowing names, Tioga, Cayuga—I would live alone in a half-submerged “garden level” apartment. I’d taken our cat with me, and my family furniture.
Those first weeks of the separation, in the early dark, I huddled in front of my TV as if before a little fire and watched films rented from the library on Green Street. The tall, dark-bearded man in Claire’s Knee reminded me so much of my husband as he had looked young, in pictures, before I knew him, it saddened me with desire as this actor, this French man in 1970 when the movie was made—on the lush Côte D’Azur even more distant than Alabama—clumsily wanted a girl, and she was indifferent. Above me, high, wide windows seemed cut into the bottom of a hillside. The windows opened sideways so that my mother, helping me move in, away, had instructed me to lay a long wooden dowel on each sill, in the groove where the glass might slide open at some outside man’s touch.
* * *
Liz Green is completing a PhD in creative writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette where she received the Dr. James H. Wilson / Paul T. Nolan Creative Writing Award in Drama, and performs as a member of The Milena Theatre Group. She holds an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. Liz works as a licensed mental health therapist (LPC) in New Orleans. Her work has appeared in journals such as Forklift, Ohio; anderbo.com; H_NGM_N; The Hunger; Fourth Genre; and Bending Genres.
Crying myself awake year after year, it’s the fear of never talking to my suffocating mother again that grabs me out of sleep over and over tangled in love-worn sheets and sooty plaid blankets, strangled by opposing stabs, “Don’t you need to lose 27 pounds?” “Why aren’t you dating a Jewish boy?” “Call me at 5 p.m. tomorrow, 2:34 p.m. Saturday, 7:59 AM Sunday.” “I love you.”
She plays the piano over and over as I sing from my teenage repertoire, “The Sun Will Come Up Tomorrow,” “Over the Rainbow,” “Somewhere,” “If Ever I Would Leave You.”
One morning I scramble around the dusty floor using my left claw as a miniature crane like in the Plexiglas cube where I never could snatch a button-eyed stuffed panda, a toothy rubber crocodile and she called it a waste of her money my desperate search for comfort toys, hunting for my zipper-blown sweatshirt and bead-dangling moccasins.I come up empty, find myself unable to discern the difference, awake-asleep awake-asleep awake-asleep.
My mother’s death is nightmare-transfused reality.Her open mouth emptied of sound.My ears blinded by psychedelic sirens.High alert.Over.I roll over.Now.I can go back to sleep.
* * *
An award-winning writer, Judith Speizer Crandell received residencies at the Rockvale’s Writers’ Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Yaddo, A Room of One’s Own and was chosen for the 2014 Tucson Festival of Books. Writers’ conferences she attended include San Miguel Allende, the Joiner Center, Mendocino and Byrdcliffe. The Maryland State Arts Council granted her their Individual Artist Fellowship for her novel, The Resurrection of Hundreds Feldman. Delaware chose her to attend the Delaware Division of the Arts and Arts Council 2018 Seashore Writers Retreat. The Woman Puzzle, received the Delaware Women’s Press Association 2020 first prize novel category.
“This is nice,” my wife says as we seat ourselves at a window table with a view of Lake Michigan. It was her idea to drive up for the weekend. She thinks the change of scenery will be good for me, hopes I’ll be more willing to talk about it.
The water is on the other side of a meandering road that follows the shore of the finger peninsula. The tourist towns are still a few weeks from coming out of their winter slumber.
Lucy doesn’t waste any time. “Is it me? It —” She stops talking as the waitress approaches. When the server asks if we’re having lunch, my wife and I exchange glances. Sometimes we can almost read each other’s minds. Sometimes. “Just coffee,” Lucy says. The server fills our cups and goes to another table.
“It must be me,” Lucy says. “At least partly.” She sips her coffee, her eyes crouching above the brim of her cup as if they’re about to pounce.
I turn and stare out at the lake, so wide here you can’t see the other side. “You shouldn’t have been snooping on my phone.” The comment rings hollow even to me. My wife and I have never had an issue with using the other’s phone if it’s handier.
“I knew something was wrong, and you wouldn’t talk to me. But you spoke with a stranger for two hours?”
I watch a gull fight the wind, then swoop down to the water. “They’re trained. I wasn’t thinking straight.” I face my wife.
She leans in, forearms on the table. “If it’s because of what happened, we could try again. We knew there was no guarantee it would work the first time.”
“It’s too hard. Harder on you.”
“I’m willing to try the procedure again.”
Motion swims past the corner of my eye. A couple with two small children strolls past the cafe. The girl opens her arms and skips backwards. Maybe we should try again. But I have to get it together first. I sip my coffee. “Strong, but it’s not bitter.”
“Are you talking about the coffee or me? Because I’m bitter.” Lucy looks down at the table, then back up. “I want to help. They passed you over for the promotion. Did that have anything to do with it?”
A gust rattles the window. Lucy deserves an answer. I wish I had one. “I don’t think it is, was, anything specific.” I let the lake take my gaze again as my wife takes my hand.“That’s not going to work,” I say.
Lucy pulls away.
“Not you.” I nod toward the beach at a guy holding a red kite. As soon as he lets go, it shoots up, slashes back and forth then nose-dives into the sand. “You need a longer tail on a day like this.”
“You promised that when we got up here, we’d talk about it.”
“Aren’t we?” I watch the guy retrieve the kite and stuff it into a green trash barrel, the tail lolling over the lip.
“Not really. Was it because your father —”
“I hadn’t seen that asshole for 20 years.”
“Still, when your mother told you what he did, it must’ve been a shock. Maybe it dredged up something. Then missing the promotion and what happened to me.”
“It’s a lot to land on somebody almost all at once. Maybe it overwhelmed you. Temporarily.”
Temporarily? I hope. Lucy stares at me. I feel as if she wants to grab my shoulders and shake me until The Reason falls out of my head. I wish it would. I’d pick it up and examine it like a seashell. I’d put it to my ear and listen to everything it could tell me.
My wife puts her hand over her cup when waitress comes to our table.
“Please,” I say, then nod toward the lake. “The ice is gone. Spring’s coming.”
The server tops me off. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“A few hours away,” Lucy says.
The waitress wipes a dribble from the table. “Ice drifts out of sight, and folks who don’t know better think the weather’s changing. Next day, ice drifts back in. We call it fool’s spring. Likely as not, we’ll get more snow in a few days.”
“When daffodils blossom,” I say, then go quiet when I feel my wife’s foot press mine.
The waitress hesitates, then moves on.
“We didn’t drive up here to talk about signs of spring,” Lucy says, her eyes frozen on me again.
She’s right, but I just don’t know what to say. Nobody speaks. The silence is heavy as March snow.
“Unforgivable,” Lucy says.
“When I was a kid in Sunday school, they said it was an unforgivable sin.” My wife gasps and throws her hands over her face.
I see out the window that a black Lab chasing a frisbee has run into the road. An SUV swerves; the dog snatches the prize out of the air and dashes back to the beach.
“Is it over?” my wife says, still hiding her eyes.
I take a last sip. “The dog’s OK. Ready?”
Lucy uncovers her face. “Promise that if you ever feel that way again, you’ll talk to me, not some stranger on the phone.” I can feel the tremble in her hand when she squeezes mine. “No,” she says, “talk to whomever you need to. I hope it’s me.”
My wife puts down cash and stands. When I rise, she leans so close, I can count the orange specks in her eyes. She tells me she loves me. I say it back and feel a twinge. I don’t know if it’s from love or guilt. Lately I’m not sure there’s a difference. I have to snap out of it. “Take a walk?”
“Along the beach?” Lucy says. “A bit windy, isn’t it?”
“Around the village.” Maybe we’ll see daffodils. Maybe when we get home, I’ll plant some of my own.
* * *
David Henson and his wife have lived in Belgium and Hong Kong over the years and now reside in Illinois. His work has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, Best Small Fictions and Best of the Net and has appeared in numerous print and online journals including Eunoia Review, Fictive Dream, Pithead Chapel, Moonpark Review, Literally Stories and Fiction on the web. His website is http://writings217.wordpress.com. His Twitter is @annalou8.
i am twenty-five years old which means my brain is fully developed which means i can do things like smoke a pack of cigarettes daily fully well understanding the repercussions of my actions. i can do things like get hot cheetos at 2 am to get away from a fight that i had with my girlfriend and skin my knee because i tripped on a rock in a Kroger parking lot.
i can do a lot of bad things—i can lie, i can say i love you, i can lie again. i can do a lot of good things—i can lie, i can say i love you, i can lie again.
i was once twenty-one and my morning affirmations were, “i am honest, i am good, i am kind.” well, i am none of these things, four years later, and what is guilt and shame besides a form of self-preservation? even the moon needs rest from guiding the sea & i am not even a moon, or a god, or fuck you.
i can do a lot of good things—i can steal, i can say fuck you, i can steal again. i can do a lot of bad things—i can steal, i can say fuck you, i can steal again.
i was once seventeen and paid big money to see a therapist that made me write my biggest trauma on a piece of paper because i could not say it out loud. she read it. she cried. every weekly session from then on was about toxic shame.
look, i know what it means and i know how it is and i know what it looks like. i know of the speech and of the boundaries and of the weekly meditations and i know of mindfulness.
but i was once small. i was once small.
* * *
Alejandra Pena is a lesbian, Mexican-American poet. Her work has appeared in Words & Whispers magazine and Another Chicago Magazine. She loves her pug Kiwi & the moon.
On the desk, there is a vase of dried twigs that once were flower stems. One by one, the lush petals curled off the shrinking stems and dropped onto the glossy surface below, where they slowly decayed. Now, little heaps of flower ash lay haphazardly around the crystal base. Across the room, an ornate bed frame prostrates itself over one-third of floor space, consuming the threadbare rug in sturdy devotion. Flowers immortalized in the carved headboard jeer at the long-dead desk flowers. They tell them that they’re looking a bit parched. Is there anything they could do to be of service, from their lofty position on high? The piles of petals do not respond, speechless in death. The carvings will come back to abuse them later, but now they are distracted by a creaking floorboard. In the stillness, they wait as the noise repeats, insistent, closer. “I’m coming” the floorboards relay, but the flowers have heard such messages before. They have learned not to expect a thing. “I do wish you could pull yourselves together,” one of them tells the heaps. The creaks continue, but now they are receding, just as the flowers suspected they would. Just as they always do.
* * *
Gabrielle Lee is a Senior creative writing student at Utah Valley University. She loves reading, writing, and enjoying the outdoors. She has been published in Touchstones, a UVU student publication, and writes mainly fiction and creative nonfiction.
From the dining room window, I watched an older, muddy truck turn into our circular driveway and park in front of the entrance. I rushed to the door, but when I opened it, no one was standing on the covered porch. The truck was still in the driveway.
“I think that the sprinkler guy arrived. Where did he go?” I called to my husband.
“I see him walking across the backyard with another fellow. I am sure that he will come in to talk to us,” he answered from the living room that looked out on our back lawn and the protected woodland.
Ten minutes later, I met Tom and the young man that accompanied him. He was barely 5’6” high, overweight, with a large protruding stomach, and a face red as a tomato. When he shook my hand, I was surprised to notice his skin felt smooth and without the callouses that someone doing manual work normally would have. He introduced his companion as a helper who was also his son-in-law. The man’s physique resembled Tom’s. He matched him in height, was heavyset and red in the face. He only didn’t share Tom’s brown hair. His was ash blond. The similarities between them were so stark that he could have been mistaken for Tom’s son. He remained one step behind his father-in-law and did not shake my hand. He kept his course hands with dirt under his fingernails crossed below his belly.
“I am glad that you came because we are having sod put in next week. It will need watering twice a day. At least this is what our landscaper recommended,” I explained.
“Did Bruce give you my number?”
“Yes, he did. He highly recommended you.”
I continued talking to Tom while my husband disappeared into the kitchen. This was not unusual because he believed that I am a better negotiator in hiring different tradesmen. This type of talk that mixes chatter with business has always bored him.
Bruce described Tom as the best qualified sprinkler installer who would keep our lawn in tip-top condition. He also added that he was from Kentucky, had an eighth-grade education, and spoke with a southern drawl.
“I will install your sprinkler system tomorrow. I walked around your property to calculate the number of heads I need.” His fee for the labor and material was reasonable, and I signed the contract he handed to me.
The following morning both men arrived. I watched Tom’s son-in-law unloading from the truck cables, shovels, trench digger machine, sprinkler heads, and other materials and tools with which I was not familiar. Tom stood by giving him directions. He ordered the young man to dig trenches for cables, which was challenging, especially on the sloped backyard. The trench digger machine was heavy and difficult to maneuver through the clay soil. We watched him from the upper deck and heard his heavy breathing and occasional swear words. Tom, on the other hand, did the work that required the knowledge of the sprinkler systems. After having installed the buried heads and a switch board in the basement, he programed daily watering of the upcoming sod for a duration of one month and every other day afterwards. In case of rain, the sprinklers would automatically pause. The men finished their work in the late afternoon.
“Call me when the landscapers lay down the sod so that I can adjust the sprinkler heads and replace those that they might damage.”
Tom returned the day after the grass was laid on our front and backyard and turned on the sprinkler system. The buried heads sprang up and began scattering water while gyrating.
“When should I call you for shutting off the sprinklers?”
“I usually do it at the end of October. Set up an appointment with my wife. She does bookings for our company.”
In the next twenty-two years, I learned about all happy and sad events in Tom’s life. He would tell me about them in April when he would activate our sprinklers and in October when he would winterize them.
“Tom, what do you do during winter when the sprinkler season is over?” I asked him one time.
“We go to Florida inland. I built two houses there, one for my daughter and the other for my wife and me. I love it there. I go fishing in the channels every day.”
Whenever Tom would mention his daughter, his face would light up. She was his only child, a high school graduate who helped run the family business. He never talked about her husband except one time when he bitterly said that if he had not hired him, his son-in-law would be unemployed. I had a feeling that he wished his daughter had married somebody ambitious and industrious instead of that “good-for-nothing” man. It seemed that this was the main reason Tom bossed him around and forced him to do the most physically demanding work required in installing sprinklers.
One April he came alone to open our irrigation system. He had lost a lot of weight, which made him almost unrecognizable.
“How are you, Tom? You look like a half of your usual self. What happened?”
“I had a heart attack in February, but I feel okay now. Doctors said that I needed to slim down. I cut portions I used to eat and don’t buy fast food anymore. I never drank or smoked cigarettes, so my eating habits were the main culprits.”
I found out in October the reason he worked alone.
“I fired that bum because he sided with my wife when she left me. She moved out of our house that I had built in Milford.”
“This must have been hard for you.”
“It was, but I am angrier than hurt by it. She has no idea that she cannot support herself.”
The following April was happier for Tom. His wife returned home, and he described the reasons that made her change her mind about being single again.
“Well, her car broke down, and she had no money to fix it. She was used to having a new car every other year because I bought it for her. She didn’t like to go to our cabin up north because the snow needed shoveling, and the fireplace called for logs that she couldn’t chop. My daughter and her husband stayed in their warm, rented condominium unwilling to help her. She begged me to take her back. Now everything is normal again, and she is grateful for the lifestyle I provide for her.”
“I am glad to hear that your marriage is back on the right track.”
A year later, Tom and I exchanged photos of our first grandchildren, chubby little girls. We both were beaming with pride. However, his family bliss did not last long. He and his son-in-law had a falling out and his daughter sided with her husband. They forbade him to see his granddaughter. Not being able to visit the little one devastated him. He was looking forward to taking her fishing in Florida and partaking in her growing up. His daughter and son-in-law stopped working for him. His wife continued answering customers’ questions and making appointments on their company’s phone.
“They allow my wife to babysit, but I cannot even attend my granddaughter’s birthdays,” he said angrily. It was clear that this was the most hurtful thing that his family ever put him through.
The last time I saw Tom was in April of 2016, three months before we sold our home and moved to Grand Rapids to be close to our grandchildren. I left his contact number for the new owner together with a glorifying reference. Tom deserved every single word of praise I wrote.
* * *
Romana Capek-Habekovic was born in Zagreb, Croatia, and received her BA at the University of Zagreb. She earned a PhD in Italian literature from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where she taught language, literature, and culture courses. She published college level textbooks Insieme and A vicenda (McGraw-Hill), Parola a te! (Heinle Cengage Learning), and her book on Italian culinary traditions, In cucina! is forthcoming (Hackett). Her articles on twentieth-century Italian authors have been published in many scholarly publications. Along with her academic career, she continued to write fiction and non-fiction. Her stories appeared in New Reader Magazine, Passager, EveryWriter, Fauxmoir, and in The Common Dispatches. She is in a process of finishing her second short story collection. Her other interests include hiking, swimming, and she is an enthusiastic cook.
“It’s not right,” Sadie says, apropos of nothing, as I walk into the living room, and I can’t tell if she planned it that way, if she calculated the exact time it would take me to enter the house after hearing the car door slam shut outside, or if I merely happened upon Sadie ruminating aloud, as she is apt to do, but regardless, I’m in this now.
“What’s that?” I ask as I mercifully remove my tie, yank it from how I had loosened it on the drive home, while pondering, like always, what sadist came up with the notion of knotting a silk noose around your neck from nine-to-five. “What are you talking about?”
“That lady,” Sadie says, setting down her phone from where she was staring at something on the screen, and looking up at me, those searching blue eyes, “who got eaten by an alligator.”
“What lady who got eaten by an alligator,” I say, incredulous, fearful that alligators might have somehow invaded our sleepy, landlocked neighborhood, sliding next to Sadie on the couch, and I notice an opened bottle of wine on the coffee table and a half-empty glass in front of her. “We’ve got alligators here—along with everything else?”
“Not here,” Sadie says with an abrupt exhale, as if it was a stupid remark, and perhaps it was, but nothing really surprises me anymore, in the world. “In Florida—where else?”
“Guess that makes more sense,” I say, sheepish, and I grab her half-empty glass of wine and I have a swallow and Sadie doesn’t seem to mind because she’s plainly preoccupied.
“She was walking her dog along this lake at her condo or retirement village or whatever,” Sadie begins to explain, not that I necessarily care for her to, but she does all the same, “and this alligator beelines it out of the water, snatches her and takes her back, and under, and eats her.”
“Oh, I see,” I say, “that isn’t right.”
“No, not that,” Sadie corrects me, then quickly corrects herself. “I mean, yeah—that isn’t right for an alligator to eat a lady. And by all accounts, a nice woman, not that that would make a difference, not that it would be any better if a nasty woman got eaten by an alligator, not even that old boss of mine with the brown teeth and support hose who tried to fire me.”
“Of course,” I say, not sure what else to say, not knowing where Sadie is going with this yet no doubt I’m about to find out.
“But then they captured the alligator, and killed it,” Sadie explains. “For no reason—”
“Well …” I’m tempted to interject.
“Other than for being an alligator.”
“And for eating a lady.” I couldn’t resist.
“But the alligator was just being an alligator,” Sadie says, adamant the way she gets when she feels she’s right about something and it’s everyone else who doesn’t have a goddamn clue. Then she backs off a bit, uncharacteristic. “I mean, I know, it’s not right for the alligator to eat a lady.” She exhales, as if exasperated that I don’t think the same as she does. “Even so, they all knew there was an alligator in that lake.” Sadie throws her arms out. “Chrissakes, they gave it a name!”
“A name?” I say, as I’m struggling to keep up with her, and I just want to change out of my suit and into my sweats. “What name?”
“And she was walking right along the edge of the lake,” Sadie continues, undaunted, ignoring my question. “I mean right along the edge of the lake. Her yappy lap dog was practically in the water. I saw the security footage on Twitter.”
Sadie pauses, to take a breath, or maybe she’s waiting for me to contribute. When I have nothing, because I hadn’t asked for this, or expected this, when I walked in after another typically long day and I still have to cook dinner since it’s my turn, Sadie goes on.
“It’s like that wedding they had at the zoo a while back, that socialite, at the sea lion exhibit, and the sea lions were lined up along the edge of the concrete pond clapping like amphibious best men when the bride walked down the aisle.”
“Yeah, I remember that,” I say, and I can’t help but smile as I recall the pictures that were published in the paper, how dapper those sea lions looked.
“Well, like …” Sadie kind of stutters, and realizes at that moment that I drank the rest of the wine from her glass, so she shoots me a glance and pours herself another, cradling it close. “Why can’t they just let the sea lions be? And why couldn’t they have let that alligator be? Why can’t people just leave things the way they are, why do they have to change them for their own needs?”
I nod my head like I understand, but it’s not clear to me if we’re still talking about sea lions, or that alligator, or something else entirely, though I suspect it’s something else entirely.
Softer, slower, Sadie says, “Well … anyway,” which is her way to end a topic and move on to a different one, or to nothing at all.
It turns out to be the latter, and we sit there, in silence, in the living room, and Sadie finishes her glass of wine with a desperate gulp, then I subtly take the bottle, and whatever is left of its contents, into the kitchen, as I consider what to cook for dinner, and I wonder what Sadie does all day after quitting her job last month in the middle of her performance review because she said no one appreciated her at that place, and then Sadie returns to her phone and stares at something on the screen.
* * *
Peter J. Stavros is a writer in Louisville, Kentucky, and the author of the short story collection, Three in the Morning and You Don’t Smoke Anymore (Etchings Press). More can be found at http://www.peterjstavros.com, and follow on Twitter and Instagram @PeterJStavros