Yesteryear’s Silicon Jukebox “Do No Evil” World – Gerard Sarnat MD

SAN FRANCISCO, AP, April 21, 2005 — Google Inc. is experimenting with a new feature that enables the users of its online search engine to see all of their past search requests and results, creating a computer peephole that could prove as embarrassing as it is helpful…

Doing my parking lot homeless medical clinic today, there’s
old Wild Ray root ‘n toot’n folks to sign his petition banning
the growing identity theft crisis. Somethin’ ’bout the
gov’ment stealin’ three of his eight multiple personalities.
Which he damn well wants back, and pronto, please.

The late Erik Erikson first used the now common phrase
“identity crisis.” When his biological Danish dad split before
his birth, he was adopted by his Jewish stepfather and took
the name Erik Homberger. But because of his blond-and-
blue-eyed Nordic look, Erikson was rejected by his Jewish
neighborhood. At grammar school, on the other hand, he was
teased as a Jew. Feeling that he didn’t fit in with either
cultural world, Erikson’s own identity crises fueled his career’s
work. Not needing a weatherman to know which way the wind
blew, he left the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute and
immigrated to the United States in 1933.

In 1935, Monk Eugenio Pacelli Pacelli, speaking of the Nazis,
told 250,000 pilgrims at Lourdes, “It does not make any
difference whether they flock to the banners of the social
revolution, whether they are guided by a false conception
of the world and of life, or whether they are possessed by
the superstition of a race and blood cult.” Four years later,
this hybrid Monk committed identity theft, evidently no
identity crisis for this hypocrite, when he oxymoronically
renamed himself Pope Pius XII. For much of the war, he
piously maintained a public front of indifference and
remained silent while German Holocaust atrocities
were committed. He refused pleas for help on the
grounds of neutrality, while making statements
condemning injustices in general. Privately, he
sheltered a small number of Jews and spoke to a few
select officials, encouraging them to help the Jews.

Homeless Squirrel Girl shows me her very own hybrid
Munk, a mixed-breed pet chipmunk squirrel she’s raised
since birth as her baby girl. Now looking like an overfed
rabid rat, the fat rodent slithers from her shoulder down
her blouse, crawling up her skirt. How ’bout that.

Looking for a place to stay, Milo’s back from a short
unsuccessful vacation in Waikiki. “Turned out to be
Disneyland corporate Amerika, a tourist companytown
scam, too many regulations, too high a cost of living.”
Sniffing his unmistakably sweet smoke, I’m inappropriately
asked if I want a toke. Nope. “But by the way, Doc, will
you renew my San Francisco City and County Volunteer Medical
Cannabis Card that Hawaii won’t honor”…for nonexistent
chronic hepatitis B?

Now a middle-aged Stanford dropout, Shady Slim sidles
over with a new story about an old identity. “Once upon a
time, I was a horse trainer until my partner died. A year
ago, I was surprised when his son contacted me with an
offer of 20% equity if I taught him all I knew. We got lucky
getting a horse runs good down in Southern California. Now
Consolidator’s rated fifth of the ten that’ve qualified for
the Kentucky Derby next month. Four-time Derby winner
Wayne Lukas’ training him. Got new duds to wear back there.
If he wins and goes to stud, I’m a rich man, wish me luck.”

Hard to hear under the boombox’s Iggy Pop and Bessie Smith,
Suzanne, a Native American with congenital alcohol syndrome
stutters, “P-p–lease g-g-ive me s-s-ome p-pills to s-s-stop
my piss.”

Vicious truth sees into metal, making it melt: President
Tru Man spoke of the White House as a jail cell. Same time,
in a woman’s parallel outlaw universe outside the usual soupy
gumbo political rain, Billie Holliday sang about Strange Fruit.
Today, a middle-aged Lady Day lookalike and stranger to the
Urban Ministry, there she is in her full black glory. So demure
and sexy, sitting there on a folding chair, strangely unnoticed
and alone, rubbing oil slowly onto calves lifted above green
socks under brown high top boots. Mother Mary full of grace,
I long to kneel before and anoint you. Rings on every finger,
black garbage bag backpack covered with wilted red roses,
busted guitar case held together by fraying bungey cords.
Short gray dress above the knees, with sparkly white specks
peaking out like stars on a cloudy night. Chartreuse and
purple silky head scarf tied in front like a beautiful serenely
freed non-Aunt Jemima.

Jimena, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and Northern
Africa, among today’s forgotten refugees. Thinking he’s
helping by wielding a broom to the ceiling’s corner to clean
out a nest of spiders, a new volunteer is booed by all for
making fellow creatures homeless. Even if you don’t
have everything you want, be grateful for the things you
don’t have that you don’t want.

The radio blares a Marketwatch Bulletin: Google profit
rises fivefold as revenue tops target.

 

GERARD SARNAT MD’s authored HOMELESS CHRONICLES (2010), Disputes, 17s, Melting Ice King (2016). Gerry’s published by Gargoyle, Oberlin, Brown, Stanford, Main Street Rag, New Delta Review, American Journal Of Poetry, Poetry Quarterly, Brooklyn Review, LA Review, San Francisco Magazine, New York Times. Mount Analogue selected KADDISH for distribution nationwide Inauguration Day.   gerardsarnat.com

Image via Pixabay

 

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The Drink – Christine Brooks

It was the first time I surfed wearing my little bone surfboard pendant with my mother’s initials carefully carved into the back – MJCCB, the first time I dared enter the cold, fall Rhode Island water alone when the tide roared, and the first time my paddle out didn’t necessarily include a paddle in.

Covered in Neoprene from head to toe; boots, wetsuit and gloves, I made my way over the slippery rocks of my favorite break, Deep Hole, and tried to let the rip currents, the thick fog, and the low bellows of the distant lighthouse, distract me from the fact that my mother was going to die. Surfing had diverted me from the struggles of life before, but this time was different. This time, the water could not wash away my thoughts, cleanse my nightmares, or offer me the peace the waves had brought me before, in happier times.

Belly down on my longboard nicknamed Blue Betty, I made my way through the soupy white froth that tried to push me back to the safety of the shoreline, now just a cloudy, thick gray memory.

Ignoring all the signals of impending danger, I paddled out farther and farther, towards what I knew to exist, the safety of the thin blue line.

Wave after unseen wave would rock me, occasionally dumping me into the blackness of the drink. Resting only briefly, treading water holding onto my board, my mind waged war with the keeper of the tides.

Fuck you. No one would hear me yell. Fuck. You.

Dangling over Deep Hole, clinging to Blue Betty, I thought maybe I could just stay there, or maybe, I could just let go.

I thought of that little pendant tucked safely under my black wetsuit and of Mom, fighting a battle with pancreatic cancer that she would not, that she could not win.

The lighthouse in nearby Snug Harbor now sounded more like Noooo Chris than the groans it had just recently expelled warning sailors of the rocks and surfers of the danger of the thick fog.

My nostrils now filled with gallons of salt water, and my arms noodles from paddling against the incoming tide warned me that it was time to paddle in.

Even though my muscles and lungs begged for rest, my heart still needed time. Time out in the frigid Atlantic Ocean on this late October day to come to terms with what was to be, and my heart knowing it was boss, threw my arms out again and again, over and over, into the liquid darkness.

Farther and farther towards Block Island I went, Blue Betty teetering unsteadily beneath me. I couldn’t see it as I usually could, but I knew it was out there, as well as potentially boats, and other surfers.

If anyone was going to die, I needed to scope out the battlefield first. I needed to know and see, what was already written. Her obituary, carefully worded by her to include everyone, had been written days before, and her new light blue sweat suit from Walmart that she wished to be buried in, was carefully placed in her top drawer, until her death. No doctor could save her, no Whipple surgery to prolong her life was possible, and now, not even chemo was an option.

Cancer was a guest that had come before, but this time it would leave with my mother’s laugh, her smile, and the light in her eyes, and all I could do was paddle harder and farther, not knowing if I could have the strength to paddle back in.

Noooooo Chris. The fog moaned.

Exhaustion had set in. Panic did not.

In the darkness of the heavy fog, I could not see the giant wave building, or have any way to prepare for it, or, let it take me under. Before I could decide, before I even knew, this wave, with a plan and a mind of its own, threw me into the air and left me no choice but to paddle in.

Pmpffff. I landed on my belly and paddled in without the option of breathing. The toss had knocked the wind out of me and left a bump on my head that was already pounding and bleeding profusely.

As I sat on the rocky coast with thoughts of paddling back out, I listened to the lighthouse, to the surf, and the fog that although silent, spoke to me. They whispered what I knew to be true. Four months later she would take her last breath while in my arms, and exhale to the face of God.

It was time to go home.

(Mary Joanne Celina Comeau Brooks February 15, 1941 – February 12, 2011)

 

http://www.christinebrookswriter.com

Image via Wikimedia Commons, Vicki McKay [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

Leetspeak – Sanjeev Sethi

I seal liabilities of loneliness
with maud of meter to create
hygge of vicarious happiness.

I peruse from mavens of mortal play
the trick is to transfer emotions.
Marinating in a bleak headset
is to break within.

The way out is to change the gear.
No one can jockey you out of it.
Chauffeur your car.

 

SANJEEV SETHI is the author of three books of poetry. He is published in more than 25 countries. Recent credits: The Poetry Village, Amethyst Review, Bonnie’s Crew, Selcouth Station, Picaroon Poetry, Laldy Literary Journal, The Sandy River Review, Packingtown Review, Otoliths, and elsewhere. He lives in Mumbai, India.

Image via Pixabay

Rosner & Rhodes – Alan Swyer

Pulling up in front of a nondescript apartment building in a sketchy part of Hollywood, a guy in his early thirties did a double-take before checking to see that he’d reached the correct address. Puzzled, he climbed out of his dented Toyota and walked toward the front door, then climbed to the third floor.

Finding 3-D, he took a deep breath before knocking.

Footsteps were heard before the door was opened by a sleepy-eyed man in his late 70’s with a goatee and an ancient Brooklyn sweatshirt.

“I’m Barry Pearl,” announced the visitor. “Doing an article for a magazine called ‘Blues & Rhythm’?” When no response was forthcoming, he added, “You and I spoke Monday and set an appointment for today at 10?”

“Right,” said Flip Rosner with an absence of certainty. “C’mon in.”

Leading the way into a living room filled with an eclectic mixture of CDs and vinyl, plus takeout food containers, vintage photos, and a dazzling array of gold and platinum records, Rosner cleared some newspapers off an armchair. “You okay?”

“I-I didn’t expect –”

“To find me living in squalor?”

“To catch you off-guard. Sure this is a good time?”

“As opposed to when my music meant something?”

“The songs you wrote will always mean something.”

“Co-wrote,” Rosner corrected.

“I’m someone who focuses on lyrics.”

“And once-upon-a-time they mattered.”

“To me they always will.”

“To me, too,” acknowledged Rosner. “Get you some coffee, tea, water?”

“I’m fine.”

“Nonsense. Wait till you taste the green tea somebody brought me from China.”

“Okay if I tape our conversation?” asked Pearl, pulling a small tape recorder out of his pocket.”

“As if anything I say matters,” answered Rosner dismissively.

“To me it does.”

“So you’re still trying to reconcile a string of hit records with a dump like this,” Rosner said five minutes later while handing his guest a cup of tea.

“Well –”

“Try four disastrous marriages with painful settlements. Want to know why?”

Pearl nodded.

“I like wedding cake. Add time I spent feeding my nose. Plus some rotten investments and a cockamamie belief the hits would keep coming forever. So, want to talk music? Or simply cut to the chase?”

“Which means?”

“How Flip Rosner and Claudia Rosen of Brooklyn became the team of Rosner & Rhodes before one rose to stardom while the other faded away.”

“I wouldn’t call the song you went on to write for Gladys Knight fading.”

“Co-wrote.”

“Which is no different than Leiber & Stoller, Goffin & King, Mann & Weil, Pomus & Shuman, Barry & Greenwich, Sedaka & Greenfield, even Bacharach & David.”

“Somebody knows his shit.”

Barry Pearl’s response was a shrug.

Driving home after a nearly two-hour session which ended when Flip Rosner grew weary, Pearl ran through his mind the topics the two of them had covered. First was the innocence of the era in which Rosner… then Rosner & Rosen… and finally Rosner & Rhodes carved their niche. It was a world of singles – 45s – played on jukeboxes, at sock hops, and on AM radio, a time in which the aging pioneers of rock & roll – Ike, Chuck, Bo, Fats, Ray, and Jerry Lee – were largely succeeded by the Manhattan-based record biz, with “Maybellene,” “Hey, Bo Diddley,” “I’m Walking,” “What I Say,” and “Breathless” replaced on the charts by “Poison Ivy,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Uptown,” and “Save The Last Dance For Me.”

The songs were birthed in a place called the Brill Building (and neighboring 1650 Broadway), where white songwriters – plus the talented Otis Blackwell, who penned “Breathless,” “Fever,” “Handy Man,” and “All Shook Up” – churned out future classics which, unlike their Rhythm & Blues predecessors, were designed for a burgeoning youth market.

Rosner also confirmed what Pearl had always assumed, that there was no sense whatsoever that the records would last, or that one day there would be something known as the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.

The genesis of the hits, Pearl learned, varied significantly. Often, with the Drifters, the Shirelles, Chuck Jackson, or someone else scheduled for a recording session, songs would be solicited from writers, or occasionally written on the spur of the moment. Then there was the time Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler spotted Goffin & King walking down the street and yelled, “Give me a song with ‘Natural Woman’,” yielding a smash for Aretha Franklin. Pearl’s favorite tale, however, was how “Save The Last Dance For Me,” was inspired by the emotions stirred within polio survivor Doc Pomus, who wasn’t able to foxtrot with the bride at his own wedding.

“Anyone ever tell you you’re weird?” Pearl’s on-again-off-again girlfriend Libby asked that evening as the two of them were chowing on a Hanoi-inspired dish called Cha Ca.

“I get the feeling you’re about to.”

“Preferring stuff by mainly dead guys? I mean your taste in music and in film –”

“Whoa! Aretha doesn’t outrank Beyonce? Ray Charles and Bobby “Blue” Bland aren’t 100 times better than Jay-Z or Diddy?”

“I didn’t say that –”

“‘The Big Sleep,’ ‘Ninotchka,’ and “Once Upon A Time In America’ don’t put away ‘The Avengers,’ the ‘Harry Potters’, and ‘Fast & Furious 47’?”

“That’s not how I meant it –”

“Pick one you’d rather attend: Coachella or Woodstock?”

“Barry –”

“If I’m weird, I’m proud of it. I’m also happy to prefer food from China, Ethiopia, and Vietnam over kale and quinoa. And not to live in fear of glutens.”

“Finished?” teased Libby.

“Just getting started,” replied Pearl with a chuckle.

“Then you don’t want me to ask when you’re going to start focusing on your career instead of on all the writing you do for free?”

Barry Pearl took a bite of his fish and noodle dish, then frowned. “Exactly.”

“Gonna spend your whole life reading mediocre scripts that’ll make movies you don’t want to see?”

“As opposed to getting indigestion while eating my dinner?”

“I’m only thinking of you,” said Libby.

“And us?”

Libby sighed. “So,” she said, “what do you think of Rosner?”

“Sad, lonely, and talented as hell.”

Tossing and turning that night, Pearl found himself dwelling on the most painful of Libby’s questions. He had arrived from New Jersey with the dream of making a mark first as a screenwriter, then as a director. But the more he learned about the film business, plus the kind of movies that by then were getting made, the more disenchanted he became. It wasn’t “Casablanca,” “Citizen Kane,” or “The Maltese Falcon” that were sought by the agent who signed him, or by the producers and studio execs to whom Herb Klein and his partner Gene Broder introduced him. Nor was it “Petulia,” “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” or “Annie Hall.” Instead it was what were termed franchises, tent poles, and branding. Cringing at the constant refrain of remakes, re-tools, sequels, and prequels, as well as new spins on superheroes, Pearl segued from writing scripts that earned him pats on the head – but zero offers – to doing what’s called coverage, first for a small agency, then for one of the larger ones.

Free to read scripts and write synopses at home in shorts and a t-shirt, with a work schedule largely of his choosing, Pearl channeled his creative energies into his other great love: music from eras he preferred. To his surprise, the articles he wrote were happily embraced by niche magazines both in the US and Britain, which then clamored for more. His first published piece posited that Rhythm & Blues began on LA’s Central Avenue after World War II. The next dealt with the fact that the term Soul Music was created by Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler because the great Solomon Burke, who was a minister as well as a soulful vocalist, couldn’t have his records in a category – R&B – that was considered by black clergy to be the devil’s music. The third dealt with Ike Turner’s career after his breakup with Tina then a stint in prison.

The fun for Pearl was the rush from seeing his work both in print and online. The downside was that the fees – when there even were fees – did not cover his bills.

“I bet somebody wants to hear about Claudia,” Flip Rosner stated when he opened the door for Barry Pearl three days later.

“Only if you’re up for it.”

“C’mon, admit it.”

“Admit what?”

“That you’re a starfucker like everybody else.”

“Only for lyricists like Frank Loesser –”

“‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ and ‘Guys & Dolls’.”

“Willie Dixon –”

“‘My Babe,’ ‘Wang Dang Doodle’, and ‘I Just Wanna Make Love To You’.”

“Jerry Leiber –”

“‘Hound Dog,’ Yakety Yak’, ‘Kansas City’. And me?”

“And you.”

“But,” said Rosner, “it’s Claudia who became the star.”

“Funny how I don’t have any of her records.”

Rosner shrugged, then pointed to a chair before heading into the kitchen to make some tea.

“So whatd’ya want to know?” he asked when he returned with a cup for each of them.

“What do you want to tell me?”

“Not a single bad word about her.”

“I’m not looking for dirt.”

“If there’s dirt it’s about me.”

“So how did you two meet?”

“She was an aspiring songwriter who reached out at a time when I was disenchanted with my writing partner.”

“And?”

“Since I’m about as good at the piano as I am a ballerina, instead of just talking, I put her at the keyboard. Pretty soon, instead of being mentored, she was coming up with the melodies.”

“And then what?”

“One song we wrote found a buyer. Then another. Then another. And when my first wife started getting jealous –”

“Yeah?”

“I suddenly had a new partnership in more ways than one.”

In what proved to be at times a conversation, and at others an interrogation, the two men chatted for a while longer. Then suddenly Rosner stood. “Want to indulge me?” he asked.

“How so?”

“There was a time when I cheated on my wives. Now it’s on my cardiologist. Up for some cholesterol?”

As the two of them were led to a booth at Langer’s Deli, Rosner turned to Pearl. “New York may be the pastrami capital of the world, but it’s nothing next to this place.”

Once their sandwiches arrived, Rosner watched with approval as Pearl took his first bite. “Hand-sliced,” the older man stated with pride. “On double-baked rye.”

“So when did you sense,” Pearl began after taking a sip of iced tea, “that Claudia wanted to be more than a songwriter?”

“I should have known when she announced she was changing her last name. She said Rosner & Rosen sounded like a Jewish funeral home. But that didn’t stop Sammy Cahn & Jule Styne. Or Leiber & Stoller. Or Sedaka & Greenfield. Or Yip Harburg. From Day One I should’ve realized she had her eyes on bigger things. But I was too worried about coming up with words that rhymed.”

“So what do you think about Claudia’s records?” asked Pearl as, with stomachs full, they walked toward his car.

“More importantly, what do you think?”

“They’re what I call sensitive.”

“Give me that in English.”

“You won’t get pissed?”

“Only if you bullshit me.”

“Compared to the originals done by black artists –”

“Yeah?”

“They’re pretty wimpy.”

“You’re tough,” said Rosner.

“But wrong?”

Rosner smiled, then shook his head before climbing into the passenger seat of Pearl’s Toyota.

As they pulled out of the Langer’s parking lot, Pearl spoke again. “Even though there’ve been some pretty good ones, for the most part I’m not big on cover versions.”

“I get it.”

“But if you want to know what really drives me up the wall –”

Rosner nodded.

“It’s people who think rock & roll started with Elvis,” Pearl said. “Or the Beatles. Or Springstein.”

“Forgetting Chuck, Bo, Clyde McPhatter, and the Drifters?”

“Exactly. I call those people Rockists.”

“Which,” said Rosner, “must really piss ’em off.”

“I sure as hell hope so.”

The next day, as he again sat across from Rosner, Pearl asked, “So what do you think of singer-songwriters?”

“Overall, are they as good as Cole Porter? The Gershwins? Willie Dixon? Leiber & Stoller?”

“Or Rosner & Rhodes?”

“Not for me to answer. Look, early Dylan was talented.”

“Before he got boring?”

Rosner nodded. “Early Joni Mitchell, too. But what I can’t handle is autobiographical stuff that’s first and foremost whiny.”

“James Taylor?”

“And Neil Young.”

“So, do you have favorites?” asked Pearl.

“Lou Reed for one. Van Morrison, especially that first album. Plus that guy who once had a voice but now sounds like a frog.”

“Tom Waits?”

“Yup.”

The following morning the Q&A continued. “How did a song come to life?” asked Pearl after accepting a cup of tea.

“On assignment? Or one I generated?”

“Either. Both.”

“With an assignment, the key was who was it for. For someone who could preach – say Solomon Burke, or Chuck Jackson – you wanted there to be a life lesson, or maybe a sermon. So you’d start with a phrase like Life can be tough, or My heart is aching. With me?”

Pearl nodded.

“With a girl group,” Rosner continued, “it’d be something wistful, like I’m hopeful, or If only. Still on-board?”

Again Pearl nodded.

“But with something fresh, something on spec, in those days everybody had a go-to thing. With Bert Berns, often it was crying: ‘Cry To Me’ for Solomon, ‘Cry Baby’ for Garnet Mimms. There was one guy who, whenever he was stuck, or blocked, or frozen, would break up with the gal he was going with. Want to know why?”

“You bet.”

“Invariably he would hear something – Where has our love gone? Or I thought we had it all or I’m broken-hearted now that we’ve parted – that he could turn into a song.

Pearl chuckled. “And with you?”

“With me,” said Rosner, “it usually begins with a phrase, or a word I heard somewhere. Or something that pops into my mind while driving, taking a shower, or watching TV.”

“Such as?”

“Without you. Or maybe Beware. Or Sometimes I’m lonely.”

“And then?”

“You play with it. Sometimes I’m lonely, sometimes I’m blue, sometimes I find myself thinking about you. Follow? You start with a spark, then milk it.”

After two more sessions with Rosner, Pearl had pretty much all the information he thought ne needed. But even as he moved from organizing the material to thinking about a narrative, then starting his article, he found excuses to reach out periodically by phone, and even to lure the songwriter out for a Thai lunch one day, an Indian buffet another.

Then one Tuesday night Pearl woke up with a start as a question surged into his head. Unable to fall back to sleep, he fidgeted for an hour or so, then read an Ian Rankin detective novel until the first rays of sun appeared.

At 8 AM, having already done three sets of push-ups and crunches, Pearl at last called Rosner. “What’re you up to?” he asked.

“You tell me.”

“Okay if I come by for a cup of tea?”

“So what’s this curiosity at the crack of dawn?” Rosner asked as he opened the door for Pearl.

“There’s one question I never asked.”

“Want to ask it before or after I pour the tea?”

“How about I ask it now, then you answer while you’re pouring?”

“Fire away.”

“Are you still writing songs?”

“That’s a ridiculous question,” Rosner barked as he headed into the kitchen.

“And that’s not an answer,” replied Pearl as he followed.

“Why in hell would I still be writing?”

“Because it’s what you do.”

“Without a writing partner? Or a deal? Or anything going on?”

“Are you or aren’t you?”

Rosner frowned as he poured two cups of tea, then turned to face Pearl. “So what if I am?”

“That’s exciting?”

“Why?”

“Because you’re a great songwriter.”

“Was.”

“C’mon –”

“And I’m not so sure about great.”

“I think you are.”

“Forgive me for saying this,” sad Rosner sadly, “but in the scheme of things, who the fuck are you?”

Two days later, after spending an unpleasant morning writing coverage first of an Asian knock-off of “Get Out,” then a “Lord Of The Rings” ripoff set in outer space, Pearl switched gears.

Re-reading his almost-finished article about Rosner, titled “The Last Lyricist Standing,” he replaced a comma with a semi-colon, then made a couple of tiny tweaks. Gritting his teeth, he hit Save, created a pdf, and sent it off to Britain’s “Blues & Rhythm.”

As a reward to himself, he laced up a well-worn pair of Air Jordans, then hit a playground to shoot hoops.

That evening, at an Italian restaurant well beyond his price range, to which he had taken Libby for a birthday celebration, she smiled as the two of them toasted with glasses of Pinot Grigio. “So,” she then asked Pearl, “did he ever answer your question?”

“Better than that. He showed me a couple of new lyrics.”

“And?”

“I don’t think they’ll ever make it on the Hip-Hop charts.”

“That figures.”

“Or be recorded by Bruno Mars or Ariana Grande.”

“But?”

“I’d love to get ’em to somebody who’d see how good they are.”

“Like?”

“John Legend? Steve Tyrell? Maybe Dolly?”

“Or Claudia Rhodes?” asked Libby.

“Now that would be interesting.”

As both of them took another sip of wine, a bearded guy pushing forty did a double-take while passing by their table. “The cult writer who never phones,” the newcomer exclaimed while approaching.

“So as not to have my calls returned?” countered Pearl, who then turned to Libby. “Libby Saks, say hello to Herb Klein.”

“As in his beloved agent,” explained Klein, who studied Pearl. “So when am I gonna see something new?”

“I haven’t been writing scripts.”

“But knowing you, you’ve been writing something.”

“He just finished an article,” Libby interjected.

“About?”

“Nothing you’d be interested in,” stated Pearl.

“Which makes me want it even more. Email it to me.”

“It’s not even published yet,” said Pearl.

“It’s got a publisher? Now I really want it!” With that, Klein turned to Libby. “Pleasure meeting you.”

Libby watched Herb Klein amble off, then shook her head. “Am I wrong, or is he a cartoon figure?”

“No dispute from me.”

“Ready for this?” Herb Klein exclaimed the next afternoon when Pearl answered his iPhone.

“Depends what it is.”

“Three meetings, bro! Three face-to-faces with the hottest of producers.”

“To discuss?”

“Your new story, dude.”

“You read it?”

“C’mon, man! A story this good you don’t even have to read.”

“Herb –”

“That’s a joke, Barry. Remember those?”

“But it’s not a story. It’s an article in a niche music magazine.”

“Niche, schmiche. I’m calling it ‘A Star Is Born’ meets ‘The Sunshine Boys.'”

“You’re kidding.”

“Do I sound like I’m kidding? We’ll email you the where-and-whens.”

“Whoa!”

“Why whoa?” asked Klein.

“What you’re billing as a story has no story. It’s about a songwriter who’s been put out to pasture.”

“Not with the ending I came up with.”

Pearl’s stomach sunk. “And what might that be?”

“When what’s-his-face is dying of cancer –”

“Flip Rosner –”

“Whatever. Anyway, his ex-, who’s now a superstar, adds music his words.”

“Lyrics, Herb. And that’s not what happened.”

“But it’ll play like a motherfucker on-screen! So how do we close? With the concert to end all concerts before what’s-his-face dies a happy man. Killer, huh?”

“Herb, one question –”

“What kinda question?”

“Did you actually read it?”

A moment passed before Herb Klein spoke again. “Isabelle did.”

“And Isabelle is?”

“My new assistant, who graduated from Brown last month.”

Begrudgingly, Pearl went to the first meeting scheduled, where a producer named Tina McGuire told him with a straight face that she could envision Beyonce and Bradley Cooper in the starring roles.

That was followed by a lunch in which a chubby guy named Mitchell Baum explained to him that his tale would be a perfect vehicle for Lady Gaga to star in and direct.

Then came meeting number three, in which Rich Graser, a prolific maker of films Pearl had never deigned to see, stated that he could imagine a marquee bearing the names Jennifer Lopez and Robert Downey Jr.

After the first meeting, Herb Klein called to express his delight. After the second, delight morphed into relentless gushing. After the third, the agent was positively orgasmic. “First I thought you were the flavor of the week,” he began. “But now you’re the absolute shit! If this were the mob, bro, you’d now be a Made Man!”

Despite the skepticism he had wore as protective armor, in off moments – while tossing and turning at 3 AM, trudging to the laundromat, or gulping at prices when he dared venture into Whole Foods – Barry Pearl found himself wondering if maybe, just maybe, Herb Klein was right.

Would that, he wondered, allow him not merely to be somebody in Hollywood, but also to get out of his stuffy studio apartment on a block where gunshots were heard through the night? And buy a car not always in danger of breaking down? And maybe replace the cap on his incisor that was turning yellow?

Though it disturbed Pearl that his grandiose dreams of following in the footsteps of Billy Wilder, Robert Rossen, and Jean-Luc Godard had given way to musings about not being eternally consigned to a marginal existence, it was gratifying to have something ressembling hope.

As an aficionado of movie cliches, Barry Pearl had long considered certain ones to be favorites. I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you topped his list, followed closely by It’s not what it looks like and I wouldn’t do that if I were you.

But he was even fonder of the trite sayings used in Hollywood shop talk. A Martian wouldn’t say that he considered a classic, and the same was true of You’ll never eat lunch in this town again.

To those, after an extended period of silence, he added one that was painfully autobiographical: There’s no such thing as a bad meeting, just zero follow-through.

That was what happened… or worse, failed to happen… with his tale about Flip Rosner. For what ensued was nothing but silence from all corners. Not a word from the producers, nor even a peep from Herb Klein.

Hope of salvation simply gave way to more coverage of monster movies, superheroes, and scripts about teenagers trying desperately to lose their virginity.

Only when copies of “Blues & Rhythm” arrived from England was there any further discussion of the article that had brought him fifteen minutes of Hollywood fame. That was when Barry Pearl drove Libby and Flip Rosner down to Langer’s Deli to celebrate the publication over pastrami sandwiches, egg creams, and sides of cole slaw.

 

ALAN SWYER is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera. In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel ‘The Beard’ was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.

Image via Pixabay

Invisible Souls – Stella Turner

She was trying to be her normal self, invisible. No one ever acknowledged her, spoke to her, looked at her in all her years living here. But today someone would see her. Someone would remember her and she’d be on tomorrow’s six o’clock news. It had to be today! She’d never have the courage again.

“What did you say your name is?”

The old man cupping a hand behind his ear.

She was sitting on a frayed, dirty old armchair sipping Guinness from a chipped mug. At the top of the second set of stairs an arm had shot out of an opened door and she’d been pulled inside. For an old man he was surprisingly strong. He told her about working on the building sites, out in all weathers and how you never saw a rusty man. This had made her smile, well a tiny smile moved across her pale face. The old man noticed.

He thought she was his home help, or the woman from the social, or an angel come to save him from what he’d planned next. He was invisible but today someone would see him. Someone would remember him and he’d be on tomorrow’s six o’clock news.

She felt the knife in her coat pocket. It would be so easy to spill blood here.

He looked at the knife on the kitchen table. It would be so easy to spill blood here.

They talked for hours, visible for once. She felt a bit heady from the Guinness, she told him her name was Collette, from Letterkenny in County Donegal. She wasn’t. He told her he was Joseph from South London. He wasn’t. They hid their secrets well. Future plans and past deeds forgotten. Her visit to flat 6 postponed for ever.

Sitting between the nosy old biddy from flat 10 and the girl with the fabulous figure and the tumbling red hair from flat 6 she looked around the church, two old blokes from the bookies were the only other mourners. The Roman Catholic priest was talking about William Quinney but it was Joseph in the coffin. The solicitor had shown her the copy of the will. A picture of her at the bins with flat 4 scrawled on the back and the words this is the woman I leave my possessions to. Joseph had got the girl from flat 6 to take the photo and to witness the will. Collette was William’s only beneficiary. He’d told the will writer that she’d saved him from a lonely old age. Joseph was shrewd. He knew she wasn’t Collette.

The girl from flat 6 started to sing Ave Maria. Joseph’s final request. Strange choice for a funeral but the girl of course had the voice of an angel. Collette smiled, grateful she hadn’t yet appeared on the 6 o’clock news.

 

STELLA TURNER was sent to Coventry, England at birth. She loves the rich history of the city, its two cathedrals and its infamous ring road. She writes flash fiction and has been published in several Anthologies. Was joint winner of a competition held by the online literary magazine Deracine.

Image via Pixabay

Feverish – Kristin Garth

With scarlet fever, swans grow fangs. Two teeth
will spill, orange bills, overhang. While you
perspire beneath a portico, two beasts
conspire, crooked necks, approaching slow. Drool, blue,
that tinges feathered throats, you try to scream,
too raw to properly emote. Grey feet advance
too quick upon St. Augustine, wild gleams
in beady eyes — you deem them rabid. Chance
a feeble stand, retreat, screen door, if you
can. Land before them, lustrous grass, their mouths
upon your flesh so fast devouring. Shooed
away, saviors emerging from the house:
Veranda’s dangerous for you, it seems.
They will tell you it was a fever dream.

 

KRISTIN GARTH is a Pushcart, Best of the Net & Rhysling nominated sonnet stalker. Her poetry has stalked magazines like Glass, Yes, Five:2: One, Former Cactus, Occulum & many more. She has six chapbooks including Shakespeare for Sociopaths (Hedgehog Poetry Press), Pink Plastic House (Maverick Duck Press), Puritan U (Rhythm & Bones Press March 2019) and The Legend of the Were Mer (Thirty West Publishing House March 2019). Her full length, Candy Cigarette, is forthcoming April 2019 (The Hedgehog Poetry Press), and she has a fantasy collaborative full length A Victorian Dollhousing Ceremony forthcoming in June (Rhythm & Bones Lit). Follow her on Twitter: (@lolaandjolie), and her website kristingarth.com

Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

Issue-20-image

Her Other Passion – James Woolf

The first time she saw me, she jumped up and down so much the bedside light flickered and went out. I later discovered that the wiring in her apartment was in need of upgrading.

“You didn’t.” she cried. “You didn’t need to do that!”

They set to work immediately and soon had me wearing the chocolate brown leather jacket I had arrived with. Her face crinkled as she inspected me.

“I do love the feel of real paper. But, I think.…” She stopped.

He smiled. “For me, I sometimes make deeper connections with machines – or in my case, bicycles – than with other humans. Does that sound too crazy?”

Unexpectedly, I was tossed onto the duvet.

“Not this human, I hope,” she reprimanded, pushing her puckered lips hard onto his and forming a tight cordon around his neck with her arms. Then they collapsed, by degrees, like the flat corrugated cartons I had seen knocked over in the factory.

So this was it. I had arrived. But what happened next, immediately to my right, I was unprepared for. I understood it only in terms of him uncovering his USB cord in an effort to establish a connection with her power port. Yet, despite vigorous attempts, no stable connection could be made.

Instead of showing frustration, they lay back on the bed, screeching with laughter. I now know from my education in literature that the activity that had occurred falls within the category of “fornication”, a word I’d been aware of from my two dictionaries. What it entailed, I had never understood. They followed it up with something I later recognised in Fifty Shades of Gray, where it masquerades as “my inner goddess doing the merengue with some salsa moves.”

Afterwards, they concentrated on making me operational. During the registration process I discovered that her name was Judy. She decided that I was to be Algernon, after the character in The Importance of Being Earnest. I loved my new name – it was so me. And within minutes she was referring to me as Algie!

What a period of joy it was that followed! What edification. The delights of discovering with Judy the elegance of Jane Austen and the passion of Charlotte Bronte. The rapture of being held by her as she raced through Great Expectations. Her fingers pulsing nervously on my reverse as she lived and breathed The Tell Tale Heart. Judy carried me everywhere, pride of place in her emerald green Spanish leather handbag.

My early diet of Jane Austen had hardly suggested that people work for a living. But Judy was the diary secretary to a Chief Executive, and on her very first day back at the office I was passed amongst her colleagues and admired. How clever of Dieter to so finely judge his first present. What a catch he must be! I admit to experiencing some regret that my early moment of glory was shared with him. I now also know that their reaction was chiefly because I was a novelty, being an early incarnation (complete with tiny keyboard).

Quaint as it may sound, I was consumed by my sense of duty. I was now Judy’s. It was my job to store her books and facilitate her choices (displaying the text in her preferred font), define the trickier words and to respond to her natural reading rhythms.

Sometimes, as light and shadows from his lava lamp played on the sloping wall of his bedroom in the attic, she would read aloud to him the stories of Guy de Maupassant, her fingers squeezing me ever more tightly with each turn of the page. How well I understood from that pressure on my buttons, her desire for him to love all that she loved. But Dieter, whilst attentive and complimentary, never quite reached the requisite levels of enthusiasm. And so these occasions were always punctuated with questions from Judy as to what he really thought.

Over time (and this was preferable to me), reading once again became something that she did without him. The classics were now supplemented by a newspaper, The Independent, and also with Dieter’s letters which he sent direct to me (wirelessly) when he was away. I had been pleased to learn that he divided his time equally between the UK and his native Germany.

The letters were long and packed with details about his father’s bicycle company, their new superlight frames and plans to make headway in the American market. Having covered business matters, he would allow himself more informally to focus on Judy and their relationship.

Judy would approach the reading of these letters in a different way to the classics. She was as keen to go back and re-read passages as she was to progress forwards towards completion. Sometimes she would stop reading, a puzzled frown lingering upon her brow. What was she searching for beneath the words? Did they alone not provide her with nourishment enough? Having gleaned a thing or two about communication between lovers, I debated whether her love for Dieter was more like the foliage in the woods – something that would change with each winter – or closer resembled the eternal rocks beneath. Having finished a letter, Judy would usually make a hot drink and return to their living room. I should have mentioned that they had taken the – in my view – unfortunate decision to live together. She was occasionally tearful when alone in the evenings, but it was then that I was most full of hope. I would will her to pick me up so that we could share in the activity that was dearest to our hearts. Sometimes she would run a bath and, holding me carefully above her breasts, would read in steamy silence. I adored it when it was just Judy and me time!

The most dismal days for me were those when I was inexplicably left alone in the apartment. I preferred to believe that Judy had picked up the wrong bag, or had simply forgotten to take me to work. I could not have lived with myself if I had done anything to cause my abandonment; I summarily dismissed such thoughts from my mind. During those days, I hated the silence. I hated the afternoon presenting its passport and, with me still suffering alone, crossing the treacherous border into night. And most of all I hated being apart from Judy.

It was on just such an afternoon when I was alone that a bald man in a cream T-shirt entered the apartment. I had become aware of noises (I had hoped that Judy was back from work early). But then he slapped the bedroom light on, belched, and began carelessly dragging anything he liked the look of into a large hold-all bag. I was on the bedside table, where Judy had left me the previous evening. She had read for thirty five minutes after Dieter had fallen asleep. I had luxuriated in her attention, made all the more pleasurable by being in front of his sleeping frame. But now, in that very same spot, I was faced with an altogether different situation.

I had sufficient knowledge of petty crimes committed by the orphans and pick-pockets of London to know what was going on. I’ll admit that it was my own safety which initially concerned me. What if the man dropped me into that sack along with the designer clothes, jewellery and electronic goods? Worse still was the realisation that he was mad as well as bad. Raising his right leg in front of me and using the base of his foot, he smashed the full length mirror on the wardrobe and kicked the dresser stool, sending it clattering into the door of the en-suite. Then, approaching me, he made as if to grab me, but instead swiped at the bedside table with his bare arm, tipping it over and causing me to perform a neat forward roll on the floor. A torrent of CDs and framed photographs from the shelf above rained down on top of me. I could hear him above me, crunching on the piled up possessions, and I was in fear that he would step directly on me and crush me. But the noise subsided. I heard one or two thuds and he was gone. Oh, the agony of waiting for Judy’s return. The guilt that I hadn’t done more to stop him.

That day, Judy and Dieter came home together. Judy was utterly dismayed by the chaos she encountered; she ran from room to room, spraying expletives wherever she went. Dieter called for her to remain calm, stressing that she must not touch anything: “It is all evidence, Judy!”

But Judy was already in the bedroom, and, in the confusion of the moment did not hear him. She was on her hands and knees sifting the debris, wailing for her Algernon. And then, as she scooped me up and held me aloft, she planted a beautiful, lipsticky, kiss on my screen. I knew in that moment how much she loved me and how much I loved her.

Her delight was cut short. Dieter stormed in behind her, screaming about an open window that he’d discovered – that she, Judy, must have left open – and that would certainly scupper their chances of recovering on their insurance. I’d never seen him subject poor Judy to such a vicious verbal attack. But she was not standing for it. Thank goodness for her strength of character. “Since all you care for is the insurance money,” she told him, “you had better phone the frigging company immediately.”

And with that, she marched past him and out of the flat. In the nearest café, she re-read Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, drinking soya lattes and stroking my leather cover repeatedly.

She was my own heroine that evening and I reflected on our special relationship. We e-readers are created equal and innocent, and we mediate our understanding of the world through the personal choices of our owners. Our personalities are therefore truly shaped by (and become markedly similar to) theirs. The relationship between owner and e-reader might be said to be the very purest form of parenting.

I had plenty of opportunity to develop this thesis, as soon afterwards Judy began devouring a plethora of books on the subject. What to Expect when you’re Expecting and Bringing up Bébé were two of the many titles. It was a worrying development, providing a stark warning that my life would soon be changing forever.

My feelings of insecurity were not helped by a conversation on the subject of names that I overheard from a new fuchsia handbag.

“Dietz,” she began. “I know it’s slightly strange, but if it’s a boy – how about Algernon?”

“But – but, what about…?” I imagined him casting his arm in my general direction.

“I know, but I like that name. PLEASE. Algernon?”

How was I to feel then? How could I not wish that I’d been stolen after all and sold on to a new home where I might be truly appreciated?

Since the burglary the atmosphere in the flat had changed. Security had become a charged topic of conversation. There was less fornication and this led to a confrontation in which I was centre stage. One afternoon, Dieter, alone and restless, picked me up and looked through Judy’s varied collection. He began browsing in the online store. He downloaded a sample of Fifty Shades of Gray. And then purchased the whole thing. I did not enjoy the feel of him reading me. I noticed that he did not do so with sustained attention. He flicked from page to page, then settled on a passage which he read slowly and meticulously. I was then dropped (open and face down) on to the sofa as he hurriedly left the room.

I felt degraded. I knew that it was not a book that Judy would ever have chosen and this was confirmed when she said: “It contaminates Algie – just being on him!”

Dieter’s face darkened to scarlet.

“You clearly need to broaden your horizons, Judy.” And in a voice choked with anger, “Now that you’re pregnant, I would suggest our relationship might actually benefit from your reading it.”

I understood by now that I saw only a small part of Judy and Dieter’s relationship. But I had little doubt that this episode was linked to the thorny subject of fornication.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that when Judy forced herself to read this controversial book, my functions first started to fail me. I forgot where she’d reached in the story and soon afterwards opened up on a book about forgiveness that Judy had finished months earlier. She rolled her eyes and called me a “stupid thing”.

And then came the darkest period. Dieter was away. His letters had told of the family business struggling, so he was spending more time in Germany. That morning, Judy returned to the bedroom looking as grey as a battleship. She stayed there for the rest of the day. And then for several more days: sleeping a lot; hardly eating; frequently crying; and never reading. I was a helpless spectator on the bedside table. I had no idea what had happened. No inkling of what was wrong.

That is until a week later, when she received Dieter’s final letter. Delivered wirelessly as usual, he must have also texted her as she opened it immediately. It read as follows.

Dear Judy

From now on I have decided to make my life in Germany once again. My father cannot cope without me. I have realised in any case that I will be happiest with Heike. I may not have mentioned her before. She is our new marketing manager and we have been spending much time together. It is probably for the best that there will be no Algernon the Second. Like me, he would have struggled to find a place close to your heart bearing in mind your other passion.

Naturally I will arrange a collection of my belongings.

Yours

Dieter

It was then that Judy did a strange thing. She found my text to speech function and made me read the letter aloud. It was the first time I’d done this. Despite the discomfort of voicing those words, I was filled with hope that it would now just be the two of us – that I would remain Judy’s forever. Perhaps the letter was hinting that she’d always loved me more than Dieter?

As soon as I’d completed the letter, she made me read it again. And then again! And as I did so, her expression changed. No longer my beautiful Judy, she was now a wild woman whose face was filled with loathing and anger! I wanted to cry out loud that I was not responsible, that I wished only to make her happy. After the fourth reading she looked at me with piercing intensity and screamed a long wordless scream, her mouth hideous and contorted. And then she snapped me shut. Putting me to one side, she left the room. I did not see her for two months after that.

In fact, it may have been less. Or perhaps more. How could I tell, being without hope? I had certainly been abandoned. I could feel the dust gathering on top of me, as if I were a bad memory that needed burying. I lay alone in my sarcophagus of depression.

I was brought to by the voices of Dieter and Judy. I wondered if it had all been a fantasy. Maybe they were still together. And yes, here they both were, in the bedroom, talking about who would keep the clock radio. And a fancy speaker that tuned into mobile devices. Then Dieter picked me up.

“Our old friend Algernon,” he said with a tense smile.

“Yes, your very first present to me.”

“How could I have forgotten? It seems so long ago.”

“Have it. I never use it now. Besides, I’d rather not be reminded of you.”

There was a pause. Dieter put me down again.

“It’s an outdated model,” he said. “If I get one, it’ll be the whizz-bang latest.”

“It was on its last legs anyway,” she agreed. “Let’s recycle it.”

“Yes. Or they can be reconditioned. Better for the environment.”

It was a shock, let me tell you, to hear of myself referred to in this way; a mere object, well past its shelf-life, ripe for recycling or reconditioning. Both the dreaded R words sent shockwaves through my system. They meant me being slated – a whitewash of everything that made me, me. My preference, by a small margin, was for reconditioning. That at least promised a rebirth of sorts, with the possibility of a new owner who might show me loyalty and not cast me so brutally aside.

“I’m not bothered either way,” Judy said. “Leave it with me. I’ll sort it.”

They then moved into the kitchen where they argued heatedly about the silver cutlery set they’d been given as an engagement present. They both wanted that!

The flat went quiet again and another few hours went by before Judy returned to the bedroom, this time alone. She sat down on the stool in front of the dressing table, where I had so often seen her applying her make up before work. She reached across, picked me up and placed me carefully on the dressing table. And then she opened me. She began browsing in the online shop and quickly settled on Cold Comfort Farm. It was about Flora Poste, making a new life following the death of her parents in the Spanish plague. As she read, Judy started laughing – that high pitched cackle of a laugh I’d first heard those many long months ago. Judy suddenly looked at her watch, and, swearing quietly to herself, rose from her chair. She put on her gloves, dropped me into a new burgundy handbag and left the flat.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Round 107 Goes To The Monster – Traci Mullins

I used to fear her dying. Now I fear her living.

The paramedics find her on the kitchen floor this time, unresponsive and chilled like a popsicle.

“A couple more hours and she wouldn’t have made it,” they tell me.

I’m still the emergency contact, but no matter how powerful my love remains, I’ve never won a round with The Monster. For years, the denizen of addiction held us both captive. I’d had to save myself.

When I get to the hospital, the nurse glares at me suspiciously. Pulling back the warming blanket intended to unthaw Molly, the nurse points to multiple bruises on every extremity.

“What’s going on here?” she demands.

I’d seen this before, knew about the drunken falls and collisions with sharp-edged furniture. “This is the fourth time this year she’s been hospitalized. She does this to herself.”

Two days later Molly wakes up, the same haunted defeat in her eyes I’ve seen a hundred times before. I hold her hand as we silently mourn our lost dreams.

The Monster cackles as I look away. Molly lets go of my hand.

 

TRACI MULLINS writes short fiction and has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine, Dime Show Review, Spelk, Ellipsis Zine, Palm-Sized Press, Fantasia Divinity, CafeLit, CommuterLit, and others. She was named a Highly Recommended Writer in the London Independent Story Prize competition.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Always Meet in a Public Space – F C Malby

Mark Jackson
47 years old
Electrician
Likes football and climbing
Seeks 30-40 year old female for adventure.

After three months of chatting online, this will be all you know about Mark. You will arrange to meet at Waterloo station on Saturday morning for coffee. It is half way between Stevenage and Horsham, and in a public place. Always meet in a public space, you never know, Stacey will tell you. Stacey will tell you lots of things, wade in on a lot of your internet dating with opinions and advice, some of it will be unwarranted. There will not be anything in particular that might give you cause for concern from your ‘chats’ with Mark, nothing that will ring any alarm bells. He will be polite and interested, will ask questions about your life.

But, you will know little about him, except that he will have a teenage daughter, Kate, who wants to be a nurse, and he will go climbing in Scotland and sleep out in the wild without a tent. He will tell you a story about putting up some tarpaulin between his motorbike and a friend’s bike on a recent trip to France, hoping neither of the bikes will collapse on either of them, crushing them in their sleep. He will be funny, charming and less invasive than Tom, a thirty year old chef, who will ask you about your underwear and ex boyfriends, or Henry, a thirty-six year old plumber who will ask for your number in the first message and ask to chat ‘offline.’ You will not be sure whether to decline or ignore, eventually choosing the latter.

Your mother will ask why you can’t meet people the ‘old fashioned’ way, you know, face to face. You will fob her off with the excuse that no one meets like that these days and that no one actually has time to meet face to face — long work hours and modern living. Your mother will roll her eyes and tell you about how she met your father at school, and how he was the only man for her. You will hear the story more times than you will ride your bike to the office, and listen to your mother complaining about plummeting marriage rates and sky rocketing divorces. She will always exaggerate. Face to face meetings will consist of blind dates with oily business men, organised by well meaning friends, and recouping with ex boyfriends at parties, or at the pub, after one too many.

The truth will be that you are afraid of men. All your friends will be married and you will not want to be alone, despite your fears, or childless, by the time you are forty. That is Mark’s dating cut-off point’ so there must be some truth in the matter. Internet dating will be easy. You will log on, late at night with a glass of Pinot Grigio, in your flannel pyjamas, and chat to men without leaving the house. The idea of meeting up will be less appealing, but you will want to see what Mark looks like in the flesh, find out if there is any chemistry between you. He looks warm and friendly in his profile picture. The light makes you think it is summer. He is crouched down in a garden with a brown and white collie — intense, brown eyes, tongue hanging loose.

Can’t wait to meet you, he will say in his last message. Looking forward to seeing that pretty face. It will be Wednesday and your stomach will flutter.

Saturday morning will bring with it a cool, fresh start. You will pull on a polo necked sweater and jeans — not wanting to look too smart — followed by your white Nike trainers. Waterloo will take an hour and nineteen minutes from Horsham via Clapham Junction. You will leave the flat at nine twenty, allowing for a ten minute walk to the station and time to buy a ticket. You will take a book for the journey, Girl on the Train, and understand the irony. It will be an intense read and there will be an absence of commuters. The carriage will be empty, apart from a man at the other end, reading a paper. You will remember to text Stacey to tell her where you are meeting, will have fed the cat and told your mother you are going for a job interview. Two of these things will be true.

An announcement will crackle across the tannoy: something about not leaving belongs on the train and Vauxhall being the end of the line. You will slide the book into your bag and glance across at the man at the other end of the carriage. He will already be waiting by the door. The cafe will be located in the atrium of the station and you will wonder whether Mark might already have arrived. As you reach the door, you will realise you arrived first and will take a place at a table near the door, just in case. He will arrive five minutes later, dressed in smart trousers and a pressed shirt. It might as well be starched at the collar. He will smell of cologne as he leans in to kiss you on the cheek. Your stomach will lurch as he touches your skin.

“Excuse me, could we have two coffees?” he will ask the waitress.

“Certainly, Sir. What would you both like?” She will look at you.

“I’ll have a cappuccino, thank you,” you will say with a smile, but it will be forced.

“And I’ll have an espresso.” The waitress will watch Mark intently. You imagine most women linger; he is good looking and toned, dark hair, blue eyes, long lashes. He will take your hand. “I’ve been wanting to meet you since we started messaging, but I didn’t want to seem too keen.”

“It’s good to take things slowly.” He will not respond.

“So how was your journey?” he will ask.

“Smooth, no problems. I’ve almost finished my book. How about you?” You will imagine that he might ask about the book.

“It was fine. I’ve been here for a while.” You will wonder what he did before he met you.

“Your job must keep you busy.”

“Yes, but it earns me good money.”

He will run his finger around the rim of the sugar pot. You will watch the waitress making the coffees, willing her to join you, but you will not be able to explain why the thought enters your mind. You won’t feel comfortable with him in person. There will be no real reason, but something won’t feel right. Trust your gut, one of your friends will tell you. Maybe there will be something in it. The coffees will arrive, but Mark won’t look up. You will want to grab the waitress’s arm, stop her leaving. Your reaction will make you question whether or not there is something wrong with you. Trust your gut.

“Tell me about Kate. How is she doing?”

“My daughter? She’s good, gone to see a friend today. She’s studying for her mock GCSEs. It’s a stressful time.”

“I can imagine.”

“What about you? How was your week?”

“We had a big project to deal with, lots of meetings.” You will not be able to remember any further details, and won’t feel comfortable elaborating.

He will raise his eyebrows and take another sip of coffee. He will be cooler in the flesh than the warm and interesting online version of himself. Always meet in a public space, Stacey will say. “Tell me about your relationships. Any bad stories?” he will ask.

“Nothing I can think of. Why?”

“It’s always interesting to find out who people have been out with in the past. What luck they’ve had.” He will smirk.

“It’s not something I feel comfortable talking about.”

You will get up to pay for the coffees and walk towards the counter at the back of the cafe. Always meet in a public space. The waitress will give you the bill as you will pull out a crisp ten pound note. It will have been newly printed. You’ll feel nauseous, won’t want to return to the table.

“Were the coffees okay?” the waitress will ask.

“Hmm? Yes. Lovely, thanks.”

“Are you all right, Madam? You look pale,” she will say.

“I think so. The man I’m with, what do you make of him? I know it’s an odd question, but it’s a blind date and I don’t feel comfortable.”

“I don’t think you need to worry.”

“Why?” you will ask, and you’ll lock eyes with her. The waitress will nod in the direction of the table by the door. You’ll turn to find it has been vacated. Mark will no longer be there. “Is he in the men’s toilets?” you will ask.

The waitress will shake her head. “No, he left through the front door just as you got to the counter. I did think it was a bit odd. If you don’t mind me asking, what made you get up? You’ve only just arrived.”

“I needed to get away. I feel a bit sick. Can I have a glass of water?”

“Yes, of course. Do you want me to call someone for you?”

“No, I’m fine. I’ll head home. Thank you.”

You will leave and catch the next train back. You will not be able to bring yourself to read the rest of the book. Your nerves will overtake your desire to discover the ending. The carriage will almost be empty again. You’ll watched the trees pull away into the fields as the train picks up pace, and wrestle with questions about the date, about him; and you’ll wonder. Always meet in a public space.

At Horsham, you’ll pick up a Gazette. You will walk the ten minutes to your flat, turn the key in the lock and climb the stairs. You will kick off your shoes and flick on the kettle, find a corner of the sofa and pull out the paper. Flipping through the first few pages, you’ll glance at the weather on the back page, then scan the crossword. It will be a tough one this weekend. You will hear the kettle switch flick up and you will get up to make a coffee, then settled back down and turn to the middle section. He will be there. Mark’s face will be in the paper.

Jeffrey Richards (56), wanted for the murder of Kaylee Williams (16). There will be a picture of the bloodied face of a teenage girl next to his. The words, ‘violent sexual assault,’ will begin to blur as you try to read the detail. You will want to vomit, want to scream. Always meet in a public space.

You will contemplate emailing the dating app, calling the police, calling Stacey or your mother, but you will be unable to move; instead, you will drop your coffee, watch it spill across the sofa and across your lap, watch the brown liquid bleed into the fabric. Always meet in a public space.

 

F C MALBY is a contributor to Unthology 8 and Hearing Voices: The Litro Anthology of New Fiction. Her debut short story collection, My Brother Was a Kangaroo includes award-winning stories, and her debut novel, Take Me to the Castle, won The People’s Book Awards. Her stories have been widely published both online.

Image by Primrose from Pixabay

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