Fuel

“I’ll be right back.” Dusty said as he slammed the truck’s door shut. I was about to tell him to be careful, but the sun caught in his eyes, and the moment was lost. He turned away, sauntering across the empty road toward the abandoned gas station like a wary cat, hunched over, hands in his pockets, arms too thin for a man of his age.

I waited in the pick-up, thighs sticking to the vinyl seats, and twisted my loose wedding band around my finger. We’d been to the gas station only twice before. It stood slumping in the middle of the desert, windows smashed and pumps dented. Its lean-to roof was askew, bending towards the parched earth. The price of gas was frozen in time —  $12.56 regular unleaded. I tried to remember what a twenty dollar bill felt like between my fingers, but I couldn’t. That life was like fading dream, when the Earth was green and filled with shopping malls. When kids went to college and there were airplanes, cell phones and credit cards. Back then I thought about what I wanted to do with my life and how to find meaning in it. I read books about inner peace. I meditated. I practiced yoga. I traveled.

The irony was that I could never find happiness. It was elusive, always in the next vacation, job offer, new pair of shoes, the next bottle of wine.

I knew now that happiness was just a fairy tale. The truth was that there was no such thing. There was only pain, grief and horror.

I slipped my wedding ring back onto my finger and looked down at it, wishing I had a piece of string to wind around the band to prevent it from falling off. Not that it mattered; I wouldn’t have the ring for much longer. Dusty would sell it to the Keeper. We needed fuel for the pick-up and the bag of protein to stay alive.

Dusty would sell almost anything at this point, except the truck, and maybe me.

A Winter’s Tale: Experimenting with Point-of-View

This week in my Gotham writing class on West 10th, we were asked to select a passage from a book that we like and re-write it using a different POV. I chose one of my favorite books set in New York City, A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin, which is third person limited omniscient. I’ve re-written this passage in the first person. Try to guess which chapter it’s from.

I watched as she put her hands on the piano and leaned against it. I could only surmise that this was so that she wouldn’t fall. I neither moved, nor took my eyes off her. I felt deeply ashamed, mortified. I had come to steal, I had broken in, I was streaked with sweat and dirt from my work that day at the drill, and I was staring at this young woman without her knowledge.

I had unspeakable admiration for the way she had risen from obvious weakness to court with such passion the elusive and demanding notes that I had heard. I imagined that she had done what Mootfowl had always argued. She had risen above herself, right before my eyes. She had risen, and then fallen back, seemingly weakened, vulnerable, alone. I wanted to follow her in this.

Here

The rain was falling in sheets, smattering the windows and bending the branches of the trees outside the wine bar where Marshall sat slumped at a two-person table. Jo had not shown up for dinner. He checked his phone again; there were no texts or missed calls. His fingers worked his iPhone. Where r u? He added a frowning emoji followed by a rose, then pressed send.

As he waited for a response, he sipped his pale ale and watched the light change from red to green. Mounted above the bar was a muted flatscreen TV tuned to the local news announcing a flash flood warning. He glanced at his phone. Jo still hadn’t responded yet; he hadn’t heard from her for two days, but they’d made plans for dinner tonight. She said she’d meet him.

A George Harrison song began playing over the speakers. It filled the nearly empty space, echoing off the subway tiled walls, paper mache deer heads and reclaimed wooden tables. What was the song called? My Sweet Lord. He couldn’t remember the name of the album.

“Hey,” he said to the bartender. “What album is this from?”

The bartender glanced at the MP3 player. “All Things Must Pass.”

“Good song.”

“Yeah. Great era for music that was really alive.”

Marshall nodded in agreement. He supposed that was true. Everything seemed dead these days. It must have been much better to live in another era, like the ‘70s when life was still gritty and real. He glanced around the room. A young woman at a table in the corner was cackling on her phone. Her bejeweled, claw-like fingers gripped a glass of white wine as she tossed her blown-out, brown hair over an exposed tan shoulder. Her accent was offensive. New Jersey, no doubt.

The Jersey girl glanced up at him. He looked away. She was just a shell, a caricature of what a woman was supposed to be. Not like Jo. Jo was a real woman. She was into pickling and did her own screen printing.

He moved to the bar and turned his back to the Jersey girl.

“Can I get you anything?” asked the bartender with a puppy gut.

“I’ll have another beer. And a glass of wine for my wife.”

“Sure. What does she like?”

“Something red and light, like a Pinot.” Marshall hesitated. “She should be here soon, my wife – Jo.”

The bartender nodded as he filled their glasses. “The rain probably caused a delay. Heard the Path was running 20 minutes behind.”

Marshall nodded, grateful for the kind words. “I hope so, but it’s probably something else.” He drew his mouth into a hard line, deciding whether or not to continue. A flash of lightening tore across the sky. It would feel good to get it out. “I haven’t seen her in two weeks. She’s staying with a girlfriend in Brooklyn. She’s thinking about divorcing me. She might not show.”

The bartender shook his head. “Sorry to hear that, man. Women are tough.”

“No kidding.” Marshall gestured to the corner table. “Take that one back there.”

The Jersey girl laughed and snorted into her phone, then took a large gulp of wine.

“That’s Monica. She’s here every night. Sad story, really. Her boyfriend was killed in a car accident at the Shore almost two years ago. She used to come here with friends, but now she comes alone.”

Marshall noticed Monica wore over-sized glasses, the kind school teachers in the ‘80s wore. He was surprised that he’d missed that. “Who’s she talking to?”

“I don’t know. Didn’t ask. Usually reads books.” The bartender rubbed his head. He had a  scar just above his ear, the type that comes from surgery — long and deep where hair follicles can’t take root.

The bartender noticed his stare. “It’s nothing. From when I was a kid.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to —“

“No, it’s okay. I get it all the time. People are curious.”

“What happened?”

The bartender shrugged. “I had cancer when I was a kid. They had to remove a tumor. But, I’m fine now. Like I said — a long time ago.”

A sheet of rain pummeled the window again. The lights flickered.

“An illness like that must change your perspective on life,” Marshall said, thinking of his job. There were a stack of music licensing contracts that he still had to review and red-line before 10am. He’d have to get in early if had any hope of making finishing before his client emailed him to follow up. He checked his phone again. Nothing. Where was she?

“I guess. I’m just happy to be here,” the bartender said.

“I wish I could say the same. I spent a good part of my life so career focused that I let other things slide.” He was considering Jo now. He hadn’t been attentive; he had to work so late, and was too tired when he got home. They stopped going for hikes upstate and cooking dinner together.

“What do you do?”

“Entertainment lawyer.”

The bartender’s eyes brightened. “That sounds fun.”

Marshall shrugged. “Not really. I wanted to be a playwright. Did my undergrad in creative writing. Moved to New York to write for Broadway, but ended up needing to pay the rent instead.”

The bartender wiped a rag across the counter top. “I understand.”

The music changed to The Only Living Boy in New York. Marshall liked this song too. The lyrics were thoughtful. Half the time we’re gone and we don’t know where …

The lights flickered again, and the cacophony from the corner table stopped. Marshall looked over. Monica was tucking her cell phone back in her purse. She stood and walked towards the bar as she tied a tangerine scarf around her neck and shrugged into an army green rain coat. She was petite and wore no make-up. “Dan, do you think I can get that order to go? This storm is starting to freak me out.”

The lights wavered again. The bar went dark. Without the music, the place seemed empty. They held their breathe for a moment before the bartender spoke. “Looks like the show’s over.”

A firetruck raced by, lights blaring.

Moments later, Marshall found himself standing under the awning of the bar.

Monica was shivering.

“Which way are you going?” Marshall asked.

“Madison,” she replied. “You?”

“Monroe.”

“Guess we’re headed in the same direction.”

“Yeah, I looks like it.”

They began walking away. Monica hunched under her umbrella.

“The bartender —“

“Dan?”

“Yeah, Dan. He said you like to read books.”

Her face lit up. “I do.”

If You Can’t Kill It, Fix It.

Veda leaned against the wire shelf in aisle 19 at Home Depot and tried to look cool. “Thanks for stopping to ask, actually I do need your help.” A stray black hair fell across her forehead in a viscous curl and she swiped it away.

Veda wasn’t great at eye contact. She preferred the anonymity of never really connecting with those she spoke with. So when Hello-My-Name-Is-Chip asked her if she needed any help, she just looked at his nametag and then at the furry space that, had he not had a unibrow, would have been the skin between his eyes. That was close enough.

She has spent 10 minutes in the Pest Control aisle before Chip approached her. Another female employee in a noxious orange vest and unflattering khakis had passed by Veda in the interim, but she didn’t stop. Maybe it was because he was a man. Chip seemed like the sort of guy that if the mood struck Veda, she could invite him into the disgusting employee WC near his, no doubt, depressing break room for a sweaty, faceless, afternoon tryst. She was equal parts repulsed and attracted to the fact that she could have him if she wanted to. Nothing like that ever happened to Chip. She seriously pondered the possibility for a moment as a favor to him before brushing it aside as too generous of her.

Chip scratched his bulging stomach before yanking his acid-washed jeans up under his belly’s largess. His index finger found a mole on his neck and absently pulled at a hair growing from its center.

“So, yeah. What can I do for you?”

“See, Chip—Can I call you Chip?”

“That’s what my nametag says.”

“Is that your real name? Or, like, your Home Depot identity? I mean, are you, like, exotic in real life? A Xavier? Maybe a Milosh? Piotr?”

“No, ma’am. Just Chip.”

Another woman wearing yoga pants and a baggy Sacramento Kings jersey hovered close by, circling her prey and waiting for Chip to break away so he could help her with, what? Who knew. Chip didn’t seem capable of offering too much help with anything. But in the vast big-box store where customers wandered aimlessly seeking assistance with their purchases—easter egg purple paint for the baby’s room, plywood for whatever one used plywood for (Veda had no idea why she’d ever need to buy plywood), screws, dishwashers, carpet, decking, CFL lightbulbs (what was the right way to dispose of them?)—it was rare that anyone noticed you here.

Veda was still staring at his brow line, but Chip diverted his gaze anyway to the line of mousetraps just to the right of Veda’s hip.
“So, here’s the thing, Chip, I’m going to just come right out and say it. I need to find a way to kill something.”

“Like weeds? That’s aisle 12A.”

“No, not like weeds, Chip, like an animal. That’s why I’m hanging around the mousetraps.” Veda scowled. Chip had even less depth than she had first thought.

“We have mousetraps.”

“Yes. I see that,” Veda ran a hand through her hair, “I can’t use traps. This thing is in the tree outside my bedroom. I need poison.”

“Oh, bummer, ma’am, but we don’t carry poison at this store anymore. It’s really cruel. Didn’t you know that?”

“Yes, I suppose it is, Chip. But so is killing any way you kill. I can’t very well hang mousetraps from my tree, can I?” A dim light of understanding came into Chip’s eyes.

“That would make one funny Christmas tree, huh?” He laughed at his own joke.

“I don’t celebrate Christmas.”

Chip sucked a tight breath of air in through his slack lips.
“Okay, then. I’m not sure how I can help you.” He finally saw the woman in the yoga pants, and seemed to be planning an escape from Veda.

“Chip?” Veda was as annoyed as she sounded, “Can you look at me for a second?” Chip looked back at her. “Do you sell, like, arrows or something?”

“Arrows? Jesus,” Chip whistled through his teeth like a cowboy in a spaghetti western, “What’s in your tree?”

“Not Jesus. Just a squirrel.”

“Just a squirrel? That’s unavoidable. They’re everywhere. You’ll get rid of one and another will move right on in.” Chip snorted. “What’s your plan? Sit outside behind a bush in camouflage knocking squirrels out of your tree like Robin Hood?”

“Maybe. I don’t know,” doubt crept into Veda, and she realized Chip was right.

“I mean, good lord, lady. I wouldn’t sell you a bow and arrow even if we stocked them here, which we don’t. This is Home Depot. We fix things. That’s no solution. If you ask me—”

“—I didn’t.”

“But if you did, I’d tell you to learn to live with it. Love life, and all that shit.”

Whatever power Veda once had over Chip was gone. This time she looked at yoga-pants-Kings-jersey-lady and nodded to communicate that Hello-My-Name-Is-Chip was free to help her now.

“Yeah, okay,” Veda mumbled. “Thanks anyway.” She turned and left the store, empty handed.

Later that day Veda stood in her bedroom and looked out the window. The loquat tree was lush and pregnant with fruit that fell off the branch and smashed into great, juicy messes on the walkway in front of her cottage. When Veda had moved in two years ago, she was fresh to California—she’d never had a fruit tree before and was excited that she’d entered a time in her life when that was possible. She didn’t even know what a loquat was at first. When she plucked one down and went inside to Google it, joy had welled up in her that she could eat it—loquats tasted like a cross between an apricot and a peach. But they were much smaller. She could fit three or four in the palm of her hand.

Veda wasn’t the only one who loved loquats. Just as her harvest was coming in, a big, bulbous squirrel moved into the tree. In fact, the squirrel and Chip were a lot alike: hairy, fat, smug. It sat on a fork between two branches plucking loquats and gorging on them. Juices ran down its gluttonous chin in great sticky streams, matting its fur and growing its round belly with every passing day. Whenever Veda left her house, the squirrel chittered at her for breaching its territory. One day it threw an overripe loquat right on her head. The fruit smacked the top of her skull like a cracked egg. She had to go in and change a second time for work—her blouse had been soaked with loquat juice. In the mornings, starting at four or five or always before the sun came up, her cats would hiss and spin in her bedroom mewing at the squirrel outside that tormented them with its laziness and lack of concern for predators. It began to embody all things Veda hated. It antagonized her and her cats. It woke her up early when she was tired. It was greedy, sloth-like, cruel, selfish.

She tapped her hand on the window’s cracked glass. The squirrel looked at her, and she stared back into its beady, black eyes. Both loathed one another equally. The squirrel viewed Veda as an intruder too.

“Say thank you to Chip, Squirrel.”

Maybe she’d go back to Home Depot and buy a chain saw.

Swept Away

The river was not as cold as she’d expected. Moments earlier, she’d been on the surface, pushing the paddle into the churning water. The spray from the rapids had cooled her golden skin, and the sun had shone through the canopy overhead, tracing dapples along her forearms in the soft shape of leaves. She’d seen the wave approaching, as if in slow-motion, and felt herself pitched off, helpless, sucked beneath the river and pinned on the underside of the raft by a vacuum of swirling water. Squished against the soft vinyl belly, she was no different than a barnacle, or a greenish bit of algae. Except, she needed to breathe.

Looking up, she could see the shadows of the others. They pointed at the rapids, gesturing to each other in motions she took for panic. They were searching for her. A man leaned over the side and called her name. “Elyse!” She knew that voice — her husband. Noah.

He tried again. “Elyse! Where are you?” He turned to another, a shadow merging into another shadow, words fat like bubbles. “Where did she go?”

“I don’t know. She just slipped off.”

“Could she be under the boat?”

They looked down. She held her breath, not daring to open her mouth. The knot in her lungs tightened. She tried to draw them to her with her thoughts. I’m here, look down! The shadows moved to the other side. They didn’t see her. Down here! I’m right under you!

“Elyse!”

The sound of Noah’s voice was sticky, like honey. Her fingertips touched the raft and brushed the outline of his dark figure. No. She couldn’t leave him. There was the house; they’d just picked out the Dartmouth Cinnamon kitchen cabinetry and a red enamel Viking oven with six burners. And the dog. What would happen to Greit? She loved her sloppy tongue and mammoth paws. She loved Noah too. They were perfectly happy. No fights, no drama, just simple companionship. They could eat Chinese takeout together in silence. That was love, wasn’t it?

A whisper of doubt blackened her thoughts.

She knew what this was; it was the other man. She had never met him, but she felt his presence under the river. He was like a lost mitten, soft, dirty and smelling of her body. She and this man were a matching pair, and they came from a distant memory where shadows were origami and flowers sprang from their folds. This man — she did not know his name — was always present. Forever watching. She could almost see him, but not quite. He reminded her that she’d forgotten.

The knot in her lungs swelled. Blood pounded in her ears. Her vision blurred. The knot became a tourniquet. She couldn’t hold her breath much longer. Save Yourself, Elyse.

She exploded. She was a supernova. Shock waves swept across the universe. She pushed against the raft, not with her arms or legs, but with a cosmic energy which sprung forth from her body, leaving her skin tingling and fingertips burning. The energy was real, she thought. She didn’t know she had such power.
Suddenly she was free. The river pushed her towards the surface. She was now a fishing bobber, where — air! She could breathe again. Gasping, her nerves raw, she looked for the raft, but only saw pine trees and a whir of greenish river and gray granite. She was going too fast.

“Elyse!” Noah called. His voice sounded distant. “Feet first!”

Feet first? Of course. That was what their guide had said to do during the ten minute white water rafting lesson at the boat launch. He was only nineteen, tan from the strong mountain sun and wearing a UC Boulder T-shirt. He’d opened a creased safety card and held it up so they could see the cartoon drawings. “Aways go feet first. Remember that — feet first. You don’t want to hit your head. Let your feet take the brunt of the impact.”

She straightened herself into the safety position just as she tore passed a rock.

She felt its jagged surface swipe her shoulder. It ripped her shirt, and a trail of blood spurted out, leaving inky-pink in her wake as she was swept down river.

Another raft was up ahead. They were waving at her, trying to get her attention it seemed. But this wasn’t her raft. No. Hers was long gone. This was a different group. They were going to rescue her.

Keep calm. Save Yourself.

Yet she could feel the shadow-man watching her. He knew something she did not. He remembered.

Honolulu Luau

Heron stood facing the puppy, still in her pajama bottoms. The puppy looked back at her with crazy eyes, the kind where the whites show, googly and accompanied by a blank stare. Poodles were supposed to be smart, yet Libby left her wondering. Was Libby attempting a poodle mind meld? Was she trying to say something to her through osmosis? The larger question was — why did she do the same thing every morning?

The puppy had already been walked. She must be hungry.

Heron turned to the utility closet where the kibble was kept. One small scoop — a quarter cup measured out of a tweety-bird-yelow flexible measuring cup. The kibble clattered into the aluminum dog bowl. She opened the fridge and pulled out a can of Merrick Honolulu Luau soft dog chow. It was one of Libby’s favorites.

Or was it?

She looked back at the puppy. Her stance had not changed. Her little legs stood squarely, taught, her head tilted upwards and gaze trained on the can. Maybe Libby hated Honolulu Luau. Perhaps that was what she was trying to say.
Heron hesitated, then opened the drawer to the flatware. Her hand hovered between the large spoon and the small one. She looked back at the puppy. Her pink tongue flashed across her black, stubbly muzzle and disappeared. The large spoon then. Libby was definitely hungry.

Heron scooped a heaping mass of the drippy chow onto the dry food. She paused. How old was this can? She couldn’t remember what day she’d opened it.
Is that what Libby was trying to say? That the chow was spoiled?

She couldn’t feed her rotten food. No. That was just cruel. Dogs were supposed to be able to eat anything, but Libby was only eight pounds. A tiny toy. Salmonella could kill her.

Heron reached her fingers into the can and lifted a chunk of Luau to her mouth. Here goes nothing, she thought to herself. It can’t taste that bad.