Tag Archives: fiction

Meanwhile

The blogosphere tends to get a little quiet this time of year, with the holidays and all — but I wanted to offer up a few worthwhile links.  For instance, the Magic Mulatto blog offers up fiction by Brett Coleman that mentions a story I can’t believe hasn’t been turned into a typical holiday special (excerpted): “He didn’t notice that Greenfield was reading a copy of Derrick Bell’s ‘Space Traders’, or maybe he didn’t care. In the story, an advanced race of extraterrestrials descend to earth and offer the American government the solution to all of their economic and environmental woes in exchange for all of their Black citizens. The political hand wringing over the decision that ensues reveals the racism just below the surface in the halls of governance and in society in the neo-liberal era. Greenfield had been wondering what his fate would be in such a scenario, being ‘biracial’ and all. Would he be sent off to the mothership with the Black folks? And would that be so bad? Or would the aliens have some criteria for who was and wasn’t Black? Maybe with their advanced technology they had some way of determining exactly how much of one’s genetic makeup was Black and had some cut-off above 50%. In that case, people like him would be well off the hook. Like a lot of Black people in America, Greenfield’s father’s ‘blood’ was as much Irish and English as it was African. He wondered if the aliens subscribed to the ‘one drop rule.’  If so, he and a whole lot of ‘White’ folks would be screwed. But he figured probably not. They were rational beings, surely not swayed by primitive human customs. Maybe they’d leave it to the biracial people themselves to decide if they were Black or not, if they wanted to stay or go. There was no way of knowing really. And Kenny couldn’t know just how much was riding on the answer to his question, having not read ‘Space Traders.’

And then there’s antoinettebowmanslog.wordpress.com, whose latest post is “There is no ‘Ha’ in Hair” (an excerpt):

I have somehow missed the joke as I don’t find afro wigs/hair hilarious. The same way I don’t find dreadlock rasta hats ‘fun’ or ‘cool’.

Thanks for reading, and may this sometimes arduous season find you strong and well.

Last four endings selected in contest to finish Roger Ebert’s short story

Among the last four entries selected by rogerebert.com as part of their contest to complete a short story by Roger, check out my own. And then check out the other three (’cause reading is fundamental) and vote for the one you like best!

How my ending begins:

“A failed Mozart?” Alex said. “That sounds like an empiricist’s nightmare. Throw him and his star-speckled wig on your science-fiction cover, Mason.”

Mason smiled a little. “Why not? Maybe all the space girl needs is an intermediator, someone who speaks the molecules’ language.”

As the waitress brought Regan the last piece of apple crumb cake, Regan tapped the bridge of her nose. “Thank you! I mean, mostly the waitress and Claire, of course. No offense to you space boys.”

“None taken,” Elliot said.

Find all of the entries here:

http://www.rogerebert.com/chazs-blog/the-thinking-molecules-of-titan-the-final-batch-of-four-endings

Gotta note: the great illustration above is by Krishna Bala Shenoi and was done for my own little ending (He’s done some really cool stuff for each of the others selected, as well).

That’s all for now. Have a good day and/or night, folks.

Meanwhile

• From Rocker Zine’s interview with JJ Burnell of the Stranglers:

JJ: We wouldn’t be doing what we call “rock and roll” if it wasn’t for America.  So from what I recall as a kid was that there was black music – which white America didn’t know anything about – and British bands picked up on it, churned it out, digested it and churned it back out to white America.  And in that way white America discovered their black music.

Rocker:  Well, Elvis might have beat you to that a little bit.

JJ: Elvis was definitely there, and he was in direct contact with it, definitely, I won’t deny that. Anyway, I don’t want to be disingenuous, we all owe a huge debt to North America, we discovered this incredible music, the blues and subsequently rock and roll.

• Brett of Magic Mulatto wrote a great short story that speaks to human nature and various divides. Find the whole thing here and an excerpt below:

***

Every few weeks they’d have some friends from church over and Randall would make one of his gourmet dishes featuring some kind of roasted or braised meat he learned to cook while they were living in London.  They attended the Living Vine Church located behind the grocery store up the street. The Living Vine aspired to be a mega church, a liberal-leaning evangelical operation that attracted mostly (but not exclusively) White college graduates from the suburbs who still hadn’t found their niche in the new economy.  They’re a friendly and charitable lot, kind to strangers, friendly with neighbors, but only really friends with fellow congregants.

On this night, Chris and her boyfriend Jeff were over. Jason, who played bass in the church band, was maybe going to swing by after he broke down the sound equipment. They were gathered around the Goodwill-bought dining room table, rubbing their bellies, as Janey told them about the guy in the window out back. Jeff was sitting right by the window and couldn’t help himself. “I wonder if he’s out there now” he said, then smoothed back his ponytail, swung his arm over the back of his chair, and peeped through the closed blinds.  He bobbed his head a few times, closed one eye, then let the blinds snap back and swung around laughing, “Oh my god! He’s out there!”’

Rediscovery

I smiled as I swept a lone cigarette into the dustbin.  It had been around the sidewalk beneath Elaine’s ledge, and was the best kind of cigarette–one that hadn’t been smoked before it was trash.

What were the chances a temp was the one who threw it away?

It was just about lunchtime, and I was finishing sweeping up when Curtis passed by again.  This time he was with some of my distant co-workers from public relations.  Curtis and I were both from the same side of town, and though he had lived elsewhere for a long time, it was through his old, poorer neighborhood that he was running for councilman.  His chances at winning weren’t great, but he seemed to be a popular source of community outreach photos.  Back in high school, I let him convince me to stop saving for a guitar and get a ukulele.

“Hey, Curtis!” I called out.  “You still playing the guitar?”

He didn’t look back.

My thoughts returned to the possibility of seeing Elaine.  I emptied the dustbin then headed upstairs, sweeping stray bits along the way.  On the third floor, there was a utility closet with a door inside that had been spackled to blend into a wall.  A chair propped that door open.  Sighing at the hint of smoke wafting in, I reached around the spackle and knocked on the building exterior.  “Any temps out there?”

“No,” Elaine said.  “Oh, wait . . .”

There were a few mini-roofs scattered around the five-story building.  When I stepped over the chair, it was onto one of these islands of a sort.  Her hands shooting down to her sides, there Elaine stood.

“The first one was me hoping,” she said.  “I’m sorry if you had to clean it up.  The second–well, I still don’t want you breathing in any of this stuff.”

“Still quitting, huh?”

Elaine showed me a nicotine patch on her arm.  “For lots of reasons.  Hypothetically–if I wanted to kiss someone, it shouldn’t be second-hand.  But that’s a process, Roger, like you getting a mobile phone.”

I smirked.  I really did hope to need one some day.

It had been a few weeks since we last saw each other.  After a little while, Elaine came over and sat down on the chair.  I leaned against the building and slid down until I was crouching.  This put us in close proximity to each other, and though that felt natural, distance between us and other people had a lot more mileage.  We’d both had our hearts broken once before, and that had been enough.  Elaine was brown-skinned and of Chinese descent.  Her family owned a restaurant that had been failing since one opened up a few stores down.  Their block was in the midst of rediscovery, and she said the new place offered some more traditional idea of Chinese decor.  This was why she was temping.

Elaine bumped her leg into mine.  “Hey, you should see your friend more often.”

“I see him.  I just don’t know why he’s still trying to play the blues.”

“Did he give you my last message?”

From my pocket I pulled out the nicotine patch that Arnold said was from her, then I held it up.  It was in this way that we saw a silver-haired man looking at us from a window of the building across the street–somewhere in the middle of its ten stories.

“What’s he looking at?” Elaine said.

“Maybe we should tell him it’s just a nicotine patch.”

“That’s none of his business!  But if he wants a show, let’s give him one.”

Elaine got up and shook my hand in a glorious textbook fashion.  We were still shaking hands, past the show of it, I thought, when a woman belted through the door.  She beamed as she announced her discovery of a new spot for smokers.

***

When I went to see Arnold in the subway, he was sitting on a milk carton and trying to play guitar.  An empty, upturned cap lay next to him.  With hands trembling, Arnold barely managed to fingerpick his way through an old blues standard.  The resulting tune wasn’t constant enough to sing to, but he was in his own little world.   I tapped the back of my ukulele to get his attention.

“I’ll play, you sing,” I told him.

“Okay,” Arnold said, putting his guitar down.  “I guess that’d work just this once . . . I’m glad to see you’re all right.  Elaine told me her family is re-opening their restaurant over on the west coast.  Just ’cause she’s going out there don’t mean you’ll never see her again.”

All of this was news to me, but I nodded and picked up playing where Arnold left off.  He sung the standard words: down and out again today, but maybe there’d be love tomorrow.  The ukulele made it all sound lighter than it was.

A small crowd soon gathered, and I recognized the sides of a face or two from my job.  When the crowd was thick with a mix of people coming and going, a pair of brown arms swung back and forth at the rear.  One arm had a patch on it.  Elaine waved through most of the song, and I smiled a little.  Then she pointed at her wrist where there might have been a watch.  After she left and the song was over, I put on her nicotine patch and played through another tune.

Near and Far (Part 3 of 3)

“Flowers!  Flowers!  Get your flowers here!  Lots of shapes, colors and sizes.  Just like you say you like the folks in your neighborhoods!”

Maybe that wasn’t the best-ever approach to selling flowers, but with most people in their cars ignoring me altogether, it seemed as reasonable an approach as smiling.   That was the way I’d started out, if only because Julia and Tom had taken out all the yellow flowers out that I was allergic to.

When the traffic light turned orange, back to the curb with the bouquets I went.  Leaning on the shopping cart packed with floral arrangements, I watched the cars as they zoomed to what was unofficially the good side of town–their headlights freshly lit against the setting sun.  It was in this stream, Julia had said, that Tom had the best luck selling flowers.  Since he couldn’t stand to do it anymore, what exactly did luck amount to here?  Should I hope a rich old guy who’d cheated on his latest wife would pass by in his limousine all flower-crazed?

“You there!” he’d say.  “I’ll take the whole cart-full.”

“Sir,” I would say, “I can’t let a man of your stature buy these–not without an extremely significant mark-up in price.”

“I’m sure they’re worth every penny.  What they lack in a small but artful card attached, they make up for in being sold by a person of color on the street.  My wife loves that kind of thing!”

“Then you got it!” I’d say, able to head to the bake-off and see my friends win in one fell swoop.

The walk signal went up, and grinning at my daydream, I towed the yellow line as traffic crawled to a halt.  And then, after another sale-free round that I’d managed to smile through, I did it again sans smiling.  A guy in a green car hailed me over and bought some roses.  He was among a swath of passengers big on rolling their windows up as I got nearer.  But, after the woman in the car behind him watched as he rolled his window down to pay for the flowers, she raised a finger and bought a mixed bouquet.

When the sun went down, I should have headed for the pie contest, but in two hours, all I had sold was four bouquets (at five dollars).  Only the wind had picked up in the last half-hour.  I wanted to do just a little bit more, so as the traffic light turned red, I went out between the cars a little further–out of view of the cart.  There was no real logic to this, except some faint hope that maybe the people in the middle and back of traffic were in less of a rush to get to bars and restaurants in pretty neighborhoods.  Maybe they’d see me a bit more, even if they had little use for flowers.

“Flowers!  Flowers!  Get your flowers here!”

On the way back to the curb, the light turned green.  The oncoming cars were sparse, and I was surprised to feel the sense of panic that I did.  Maybe being hit by a car still affected me after all.

On my right, someone honked and I waited where I was for the car to pass.  But it didn’t.  Soon, a black compact pulled up next to me, and Jean, of the flower-planting lot, was in the passenger seat.  In the driver seat there was a husky, dark-haired guy.  The look he gave me suggested the distinct possibility that he hated my guts.

“I thought that was you,” Jean said, leaning over.  “So you hate flowers, and you sell them?”

“Yeah, I’m complicated like that.” I nodded at the driver.  “You want to buy some flowers for your lady friend, buddy?  Or, no wait, that’s not fair.”  I looked at Jean.  “Do you want to buy some flowers for him?”

The driver stared ahead.

“Be nice,” Jean told him.  I looked past her window to the cart with the rest of flowers, which someone in a gray cap was pushing it away.

“Shit!”

I ran for the curb.  In the next lane of the street, I held one of the bouquets up to signal a brown car to stop.  As it honked and braked in short sputters, the guy in the gray cap grabbed a bushel of bouquets from inside the cart — then he pushed the cart rolling toward the street.  I scrambled and tripped over the curb to secure it.

When I looked up, the man in the gray cap was dashing around a corner with a few bouquets.  With the two bouquets he’d dropped on the ground nearby, at least there was a bit less for me to have to re-invest in flowers.

Horns honked back in the street.  With a small queue of cars behind them, Jean and her driver were headed off in the direction of lots of restaurants, which was fitting, since they already kind of got to see a show.

I went to pick up the dropped bouquets before the wind caught in the wrapped paper and pulled them further away.

***

Before I joined my friends, I was supposed to leave the flower cart back at Julia’s place.  But that would have made me even later, so I took it with me.  It wasn’t all that different from pushing the mail cart at work.

The venue for the pie contest was the lobby of an art gallery.  There were a dozen people at the entrance, and the wind was gusting so that I and the remaining flowers in the cart breathed in their mixture of cigarette and choco-cigar smoke.  I stifled a cough and asked:

“I don’t suppose any of you want to buy any flowers?”

Eyebrows raised, but only a brown-skinned guy with a goatee and a faint accent answered.  “Nah, man,” he said.  “We’re good.”

I had to go in back-first to pull the cart in, and the wind pulled away the petals of some of the bouquets.  As I stepped inside the last possible ‘best pie’ was being tasted, and it wasn’t Limon’s and Julia’s.  Over at the top part of a three table set-up, a group of people swarmed around a pretty woman with an asymmetrical haircut.  Before I could turn —

“Hey,” a man in a leather jacket said, approaching me.  “You can’t bring that in here.  Nobody wants to buy any flowers.”

“I’m sorry.  I’m not actually trying to sell any.  Just here to see my friends.  Look, I’ll just tuck it right here by the door.”

The guy noticed we were starting to get the attention of the little crowd up front.   “How about you tuck it outside?”

“It’s pretty windy out there.  Some of them would blow away.”

“I really don’t care, guy.”

“Well, you should.  Check it.  Without flowers, you’ve got no charm at all.  But if I were to hand you one of these, well . . . It’s like night and day.”

The guy blinked then grabbed the other end of the cart.

“All right . . . I’ll take it out.”

Nodding, he didn’t let go until I was maneuvering the cart back through the door.  It was while I was doing this that Tom and Limon came over to us.

“Hey, Roger,” Tom said.  “I’ll put the rest of the flowers in my car.  They’re going to announce the winner soon, anyway.”

As Tom took the cart out, Limon shook his head.

“How is it that you can have that . . .”  Limon stopped to nod at a sculpture of a melted man in a corner.  “But you can’t let this cart stay up in here for five minutes?”

“I’m not going to try to explain how art works,” the man in the leather jacket said, then he went off to a small, crowded table where there was soda and wine.

Through the window, I could see traces of petals zipping through the air as Tom pushed the cart to his car.  Limon and I reluctantly joined Julia on the other side of the room, where there was a piece of pie waiting for me.  Most of our pie — a blueberry number — was already gone.  As we walked through the room, I noticed this wasn’t the case with most of the other pies.

Julia hit me lightly on my arm.  “Why’d you bring the cart?”

“I was trying to wait out some more buyers.  If I didn’t bring it, I would have missed this completely.”

My stomach was growling, but with Tom outside, it didn’t feel right eating the slice of pie with my name on it.  Limon, Julia and I simply waited for the contest results.

We got second place, behind a man who won with two apples and a banana in a pie crust.  Whip cream kept the smile in place.

“Hell no,” Limon said.  “They ate more out of our pie than anybody else’s, and we still get second place?”

“Well,” I said, “at least there’s a little left for later.”

Limon shot me a look.  “I don’t know why I thought you might actually know how I feel these days.  Except for trying to get out of the mail room, you pretty much gave up.”

“Whoa, I did take it seriously.  You’re kidding yourself if you think winning this wouldn’t have made you feel better about Nellie.”

Limon looked to Julia.  “Aight … Tell Tom I’m going to walk home.”

Julia stopped me from going after him.  “Just let him go,” she said.  “Second place isn’t so bad for somebody else’s contest, right?”

***

Years after my own heart was broken, I was walking into the street when a van backed into me and then took off.  I landed on the ground, just under the bumper of a light blue car.  All the air had been knocked out of me.  While the sidewalk was busy enough, no one noticed me.  I thought I’d lay there in pain forever until this brown-skinned woman found me.  She hung up on whoever she was talking to on the phone, and called the paramedics.  In and of itself, this seemed like a miracle, but she stayed long enough for me to be able to talk through the pain.  I remember that she lit up a little every time I spoke, though I can’t remember what I said–just her responses.  She was intelligent and nice and warm–and pretty to me.  And I couldn’t imagine, for the life of me, her being in tune with what already seemed so mapped out in life.

I saw her one more time, when I wasn’t so physically broken, and she raised her head, all excited to see me.  But it was like I was stuck in a tunnel of myself.  I couldn’t get out to say, “Hey.”

***

Tom managed to squeeze the cart in the backseat, and I sat next to it for the drive homeward.  Up front, Julia and Tom were both quiet.  I’d wanted to give them a trifle of a good night, but I’d come up short.  The wind howling around the car seemed to say as much.

I didn’t have anything to add until Tom mentioned something about a lot of bees.

“Those aren’t bees,” Julia said behind the wheel.  “They’re, um . . . petals.”

I squinted through the windshield.  “Yeah, I’d go with petals.”

“Huh,” Tom said.  “You know, they’re kind of nice not all bundled together, aren’t they?”

We all laughed, and I knew that without a night out trying to sell flowers to people in the street, those words wouldn’t have wrung a bit of humor for me.  When Julia put the windshield wiper on, we laughed again.  But under the ginger streetlight, the windswept swarm of petals made for something unique to pass through, and the ensuing quiet was not gloomy like the one before.  It was nice enough that I wished I wasn’t a third wheel.  Then it felt like I’d wandered into the path of the blunt side of a van all over again.

“Where do you think they’re coming from?” Julia said.

“Some kind of magic hippie,” Tom offered.

“I hope not,” I said.  “Pacifist that I am, I’d have to kick his ass before he started doing complicated handshakes with all the guys on corner-duty.”

When Julia turned on a street where there was one side of the local lot, I sat up.  The gusts of petals were coming from the garden there.  As Julia dropped me off near the garden, I sneezed as soon as the door to the car was open.  I told Tom and Julia they didn’t have to stay, but they seemed to be enjoying the site of all those petals swirling upward into the night sky.  Me, I sneezed again as I hopped over the fence inside.

With everything that used to be here cleared away, I spotted Limon immediately.  By the handful, he was tearing the yellow flowers away like they were weeds.

“Rodge,” Limon said, “you’re just in time to help me clear this crap out of here.”

My eyes watering up from the pollen, I shook my head.  “Is this really going to make you feel better?”

“It is,”  Limon said, yanking away another group of yellow flowers.  After he did that, he swiped at only the petals until he had bundles of them in both arms.  “She loves me not, and neither do any of those people who want these flowers here and us outta here.  They don’t have any love for anybody that’s been here they whole life, man.”

” I . . . ” I held up a finger, then sneezed and in that time, Limon was well on his way to tearing half of the garden away.  “Hey!  Will you hold up one moment?”

I put my hand on Limon’s shoulder, and he slapped my arm away.  More sinus than man, I stumbled back and fell on my ass.  Score another one for the magic hippie, wherever he was.

“Damn it, Roger,” Limon said.  He was out of breath.  “Why couldn’t you just help me out on this one?”

“I did . . . Look, there was nothing I could really tell you when it came to Nellie, but it wasn’t like I didn’t try.”

“Everything we went through here,” Limon said. “I just felt like she got that, but, at the end of the day . . . ”

“Yeah, look, I know.  How can it all just come to nothing, right?  Once you get that feeling, it’s like a big scar.  I mean, some people . . . you know they could care less about your existence, but when it’s someone you think might not like be that, it hurts worse.”

Limon reached out his hand to help me up.  When I was standing, I pointed to my face.  “The tears in my eyes . . . all allergy-based.”

Limon cracked a smile for a second, then slowly shook his head.  “Are we even here, if someone over there isn’t telling us that we got first place?  Even if it’s some stupid pie contest.”

“Yeah, we’re here.  Look, I’m not trying to defend these stupid flowers.  They’re far from people, and I’d be a complete chump if I did that.  It’s just, they already think everyone from here does stuff like tear them up.”

Limon took a breath.  “What now?”

“If they need flowers, they still have plenty.  And for once,” I said, pointing to Julia and Tom in the car, “some of us had a nice view when we needed it.”

“So that’s it then, huh?  Back to the mail room tomorrow when I feel like I can barely breath.”

I sneezed.  “I know the feeling.  Take another day off, if you can.  Just try not to sink into yourself like I did.”

Near and Far (Part 2 of 3)

Since Nellie told Limon that they’d always just been really good friends, he’d been using up a lot of his sick days.  And Julia, my other friend at work, was sort of floating through it, worried about her boyfriend giving up altogether.

After another day like this, I was passing by the lot on my way to the house that Limon’s mom owned — where I rented the basement.  It was raining and the flower pollen in the air was minimal.  Over in the lot, a pale freckled woman was planting something yellow throughout its grounds.  Her volunteers were limited today to the two guys  whom usually stood with their arms crossed.

“Hey, fellas,” I said, passing the part of the chain link fence they hung out at.  “I’m local, so you know what to do.”

Arms did, in fact, cross.

“Nice.”

I went further along the fence and stopped at the section I used to look out on some days when it was raining; there’d been a nice view of the overgrown weeds that smelled nice when the water hit him.

At some point, the woman waved to me.  “Hey!” she yelled.  “Would you like to help?”

“Heck no!” I yelled back. “And I mean that in the most polite way possible.”

Hell, that was why I used ‘heck.’

“What?”  She grinned and squinted, then headed over to my part of the fence.  Her glancing over at the volunteer guys put a stop to their slow advance.

“Hi,” she said.  “I’m Jean.  And you are?”

“Roger.”

“Where are you from?”

“Here,” I said.

“Oh, you don’t seem like it.”

“If you say so.”

“So why don’t you want to help?  Just don’t have the time, or . . .”

“Well, I’m allergic to what you’re planting, for one thing.  And honestly, I’m not sure who they’re for.”

“That’s a bit silly.  I mean, flowers are for everybody.”

“Then why are they usually in places that aren’t for everybody?”

“Yards don’t count, if that’s what you mean.”

I laughed a little.  “Not really, no.”

“Well . . . I’m sorry you feel that way, but I’ve been getting some positive feedback from other people around here.”

“People who are, like, around here all the time?  When it’s not a rush hour?”

“I’m sure, yes.”

I nodded.  “Cool.”  I started walking south when Jean spoke again.

“Don’t you want this place to be . . .”  She spent a moment searching for the right words.

What were they?   Decent?  Pretty?

“Look, I just know that–whatever flowers weren’t here–it’s already been some people’s everything.  People left us to it until it was back near some pretty place on a map or something.”

“So what?” she said.  “You think I’m doing all of this just for who exactly?”

I looked back and shrugged.  “Beats me.”

***

I opened the door to my basement apartment at the house Limon’s mother owned, and found her son sitting with his head in his hands on the couch.  The smell that wafted through the vents upstairs was nice.  Hopefully I could some swing some dinner out of it.

“Hey, buddy,” I said.  “Unless my rent is due, I’m going to have to ask you to sob upstairs.”

Limon didn’t look up.

“Phil said your sick days are running out.”

Limon lifted his head and rubbed his eyes.   “That sounds about right.  But look, check it.”  He tapped a flyer on the table..

I went and picked it up: “‘Pie as Art — City bakeoff contest.'”

“Her people–they do these things, and then they talk about how this or that is the best in the city.  But we’re never in play, right?”

“No, I guess not.  So this contest is tomorrow night and you’d want to enter with what?  I can bake in theory, and since it’s probably the same for you, that doesn’t add up to a whole lot.”

“We’ll use my mom’s recipe.  I would have told her about it, but contest rules say that things have to be baked on the premises.  There’s something about my mom being judged there that don’t sit right with me.”

I closed one eye and took a breath.  “All right, man.  I’ll help you bake this pie.  Hopefully the power of friendship trumps all.”

Limon slowly nodded.  “Good.  I already went over there and signed up.  It’s just, it’s the only winnable thing right now.  I know it sounds stupid.”

I shrugged.  “It sounds less stupid than clubbing.  Anyway, I’m starving.  Do you think your mom would let me have some of whatever she’s making?”

“I kind of ate it all ready,” Limon said.

“Oh, well . . . It’s cool.  I’ve been there.  Lots of emptiness to deal with plus food equals . . . . yeah.  I’ll put something together for myself.”

“I went to raid your refrigerator, but you didn’t have anything.”

I scratched my head.  “You mean that glass of water isn’t even half-full anymore?”

“Nope.  Shit, um . . . One of Nellie’s friends tweeted that they’re having a party.  I’ve been to the place before; plenty of food. If you really are hungry . . .”

“Do you think Nellie will be there?”

“Maybe, but it’s not her party.  Dude who tweeted it used to always want to talk to me about hip-hop.”

“You know what?  You deserve to go to a party and not be someone else’s ticket to street cred.  I want that for you, man.”

Limon sat up, chuckling a little.  “Yeah, all right.”

“We won’t even be five minutes.”

***

After they talked about some music video, the guy Limon knew let us in at the door of his building.  We got some dirty looks as we moved through the hallway–mostly from Nellie’s friends, I imagined.  Limon was probably breaking some cardinal rule of dating that I’d never really bothered to keep up with.

Nellie, wearing a green headscarf, was in the middle of a bunch of people over by a bookshelf.  Limon stopped at doorway when he saw her; I tapped him at the shoulder and went straight for the table with all the food.  I sensed a general disquieting by the books, but the other guy at the table nodded at me.

“Hey,” I told him.  “What’s on the menu?”

“Chips.  Something that looks like it should taste like syrup, but . . .”  He shook his head.  “It don’t taste like syrup.  And, uh, some kind of pasta salad thing.”

“Is that last thing great?”

“Not really.”

The guy assured me he didn’t want anymore, so I lifted the whole platter up.  When I turned around, Nellie was standing there.  Her eyes scanned me up and down; they stopped at the platter and then my hair for a little while, until I said:

“My eyes are up here.  I’d point to them, but I don’t feel like I should have to right now.”

“Um, okay . . . You’re Roger, right?  I don’t think we’ve ever really talked.”

I looked back at the doorway; Limon was gone.

“How is he?” Nellie asked.

“Not great.”

She nodded.  “I’m very sorry to hear that, ’cause, whatever he thinks, I really do care about him.  Can you tell him that?”

Some red-haired guy was swishing his head a lot in our direction; he was head and shoulders over the rest of the bookshelf group.  “Hey, Nellie,” he called out.  “Is everything okay?”

When she said “yeah,” I headed for the door.  Then I heard her tell him to let us have the food.  My head dropping, I put the platter down near the door.

“Um, it’s an art thing,” I offered.  “Speaking of which, if you like pie, come to that bakeoff two nights from now.  My friend and I are going to reproduce the best pie in this city, and in doing so, redeem all the people who used to live in this building before they got kicked out.  That is all.”

I found Limon out in the hallway by himself.

“I think she’s going out with that guy with the red hair now,” he said.

“Yeah?  I guess that makes sense.”

“If you heard her on stage, it wouldn’t.”

Together, Limon and Nellie had been big on spoken word clubs.

“Your problem is you’re thinking about it,” I told him.  “Let’s go to Julia’s.  If you have to think about something, think about how the hell we’re going to make a pie even with a recipe.”

***

It may have been falling apart, but Julia had a great little porch.  Two of the steps were stable at just the right height from the concrete.

There was a warm undertone to the chill in the air, so the three of us sat there, trying to deal with the knowledge that Julia couldn’t join our pie venture because she had to cover her boyfriend Tom’s rush hour shift.  He’d been getting up less and less for it, and she had to make up the difference.

“Hey,” I said, “can I go in and see him?”

Julia shrugged.  “You can, if you believe you can.”

Limon stared across the sidewalk into our reflection in a car door.  “It probably won’t do any good,” he said.  “Ah, well.  Hey, Jules.  Did they start planting flowers around here yet?”

“I wish they would,” she said.  “We could sell ’em.”

“Maybe,” Limon said, “but that’s all they’d let you do here after a while.”

I went inside and found Tom sleeping on the couch.  Its fourth seat was empty, so I took a running leap into it.  Tom did not stir.

“Hey, Tom.  It’s Roger.  You gave me a ride a couple of times with Julia, remember?”

“Yeah,” he said meekly.  “I remember.  Is your heart still broken?”

“It was my chest actually–my breastplate, if you want to be technical.  But no, it’s not too broken anymore.”

“I hope it heals all the way.”

“Yeah?  Well, thanks.  So what’s up with you?”

“I’m just tired, man,” he said.  “When I’m out there in the street, nobody even sees me.”

“I’m sure selling flowers at red lights isn’t easy, but you’ve got Julia, and you know, she’s really sweet, got a good head on her shoulders, and she sees you.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “But I don’t know what she sees in me.”

“That is a bit of a mystery.”

Tom let out a small laugh.

“Try to get up soon,” I told him.

He nodded his head up and down.

“Just so I know, that is a nod, right?  With you lying down, it also kind of looks like you’re shaking your head.”

“It was a nod,” Tom said.

I waited for him to get up, but he didn’t.  When I got outside, only Julia was there.  She patted the empty piece of stairs next to her.

“So, why did you take Limon to that party?”

“I can’t help but feel like this is a bit of a loaded question, so I’m going to go with, ‘Because I’m an idiot.'”

“It’d be hard enough if she just broke up with him, but seeing her with someone he thinks is on a whole different level . . .”

“That’s the way of the world.”

Julia shook her head.  “When was the last time you felt a connection with someone?  Do you even try anymore?”

“Not really.  It’s like, you know how at the agency every couple of months, I apply for something out of the mail room.  I’m never quite enough there, though.  There.  Here.”

“Enough of what?” Julia said.  “None of that matters to any woman worth having a connection with.”

I hopped up.  “I know that . . . Hey, look, I’m going to cover Tom’s shift tomorrow night.  You should help Limon.”

Julia turned away from me and slowly nodded.  “I do have mad baking skills.”

“You do.  And I should still be there for the judging of that pie contest.”

“You better be,” she said.

My stomach growling, I took the long way home.

***

To be continued

Near and Far (Part 1 of 3)

One day when I was pushing the mail cart at work and happened to sneeze, I realized no one said, “Bless you.”  There were about a dozen people around me, was the thing, and a curly-haired blond woman had just sneezed and gotten about four.

I laughed as I thought about it.  I was passing this lady’s desk, and she looked at me like I was the biggest weirdo on the planet.  So, really, it was a pretty normal day until I went back in the mail room and Phil was lifting one side of a large painting’s frame.

My friends Limon and Julia were either delivering or picking something else up.

“Roger,” Phil said.  “I need you to help Diego take this to Mr. Connors’ office.”

“Will do.”

On the way out, I noticed that the painting was really a map, and as Diego and I took it up five flights of stairs, I had time to decipher the words “Terra Incognito” on its northern portion.

When we got to Mr. Connors’ office, his secretary buzzed us in and he was there to show us to a wall full of framed maps.   Diego and I moved automatically to the empty portion and put up the new old map.

“Perfect,” Connors said.  Then he looked from Diego to me.  “I’m sure I’ve seen you two around, but I don’t think we’ve talked.  Where are you gentlemen from?”

“I’m from here,” I said, “the other side of town.”

He nodded, his eyes straining for a moment, and then he turned toward Diego.

“I’m from Mexico,” he said.

Mr. Connors began to talk about all the parts of Mexico he’d been to.  While he found that Diego only knew the denser parts, I looked at the maps.  They were mostly yellowed and limited to parts of Europe.  Anyplace beyond that, and there were less notes around it; everything got summed up in words like “Terra Incognito,” which I saw a few times, or in a few other Latin words next to a picture of a lion.  He also had a few old maps of towns I hadn’t been to.

Connors saw me looking at one.  “If you went to that place today,” he said, “it’s exactly the way it was fifty years ago.  Just beautiful.”

I resisted the urge to say, “Just beautiful, huh?”

When I went back to the mail room at the end of my shift, I’d cleared my head of antique maps.  I mentioned how I didn’t get a “Bless you” to Limon.

Picking his fro with a blowout comb, he said: “And you’re still alive?  I always wondered what would happen if no one said, ‘Bless you.’  Now I know.”

“It’s just, I think I automatically do that for just about anybody.”

“Well, if you want a ‘bless you’ for someone like us, what you should have done is obvious.”

“Enlighten me.”

“Yeah,” Julia said, popping up from somewhere.  “Enlighten us.”

“He should have taken out a handkerchief and blown his nose like a saxophone.  Then they would have started snapping their fingers automatically, like, ‘This is what’s up.'”

“Isn’t that what they do at those places you’re heading to these days?”

“Shut up,” he said with a grin.  “All right, I’m off to meet up with Nellie.”

“I’m out too,” Julia said.  “Tom’s been taking a little time off, so we’re going to go see a movie or something.”  She took a few steps, then turned back on her heels.  “What about you, Rodge?”

“Oh, you know, the usual: tennis, golf, maybe one of the Japanese sword disciplines.”

She smiled.  “Later, Roger.”

“Later.”

I passed by the old lot on the way home, thinking about nothing in particular.  Then after a sneeze, I finally noticed that the volunteer group whom thought they’d discovered the lot was prettying it up.  The weeds had been gone for years, but there had never been yellow flowers creeping in this close.

***

When Limon and I were younger, the old lot wasn’t an unofficial border between where we lived and streets where the boldest among the upwardly mobile could feel slightly comfortable.

One day we took the long way around the guys who’d taken up one side of its fencing.  At the lot’s furthest side we threw two broomsticks over, then climbed over the chain link fence after them.  I let go at the top of the thing like I usually did, and nearly fell on something gross and disgusting.  Limon carefully climbed down and had time to pick up the brooms while I recovered mentally.

“Yeah,” he said, “people throw all kinds of crap over here.”

“I think it was crap this time,” I mumbled.

Limon stuffed the cuffs of his jeans in his socks, and I was glad enough for the reminder that I ignored his chuckling.  Then we went through the nearest path where the stalks of the weeds had been kicked at.  There were lots of paths where someone did that until they got tired and just shoved their way through to the clearing by the old brick wall, like we were going to have to do.

“Wait,” Limon said, moving ahead of me.  “Stand back and check this out.  I’ve been practicing.”

He held a broom out in each hand and spun around into the stalks once before losing his grip on both of them.

“Well . . .” I said, “since they’re not actually real swords, it would have been even more cool–if that had worked.”

“Yeah.”  Limon picked them up with a sigh.  He held the new one in his right hand; the old one in his left.  “Which one do you want anyway?”

“They both belong to your mom,” I said.  “You pick.”

He made a face.  “Which one, Roger?”

“I don’t know . . . the old one’s more like a samurai sword.”

“That’s the one I want, too.  Let’s shoot for it.”

When we emerged into the clearing, I ended up with the new but heavier broom.  There were already a bunch of other kids around the wall.  They watched as Louis and Brett slowly circled each other with these sticks that looked like fancy wooden swords.  Louis was the only white kid there; he took fighting lessons on the other side of town.  Brett nobody ever said a bad word about (not to his face, anyway).  They were both cool.  Diane, on the other hand, hadn’t been just a grade ago when we talked a lot and some kid called her a female Roger.  Now here she was, sitting at the height of the brick wall.

“Hey, Diane!  It’s me!”

She didn’t look over at me until everyone else did.

“Who the hell are they?” Louis said, looking at Brett like he’d been ambushed.

Brett blinked.  “What?  You think they’re going to try to sweep the shit out of you?”

Louis stared back at him for a second, then he did this weird sort of headshake that you couldn’t call a “no,” exactly.

Brett went over to Limon.  “I said you should come.  Why did you bring him here?”

“Roger’s cool,” Limon said.  “Plus, he lives closer around here than you do.”

“Is that why he’s got you hiding money in your socks?”

Diane moved off the wall and spoke into Louis’ ear.  After a sigh, Louis stepped up.  “You know what?  It’s okay.  Everybody else has got wasters; they both got their brooms, so, you know, it’s a fair right.  Me and this guy . . . ”  He pointed at me.  “We can go.”

“Go ‘head,” Limon said. “Show ’em how it’s done, Rodge.”

Brett scoffed.  “He don’t look like no ‘Rodge’ to me.  He’s even more of a herb than that TV dude is.”

He shoved me closer to Louis, who swatted me on the side of the arm so hard I dropped the broom.  I picked it up, holding it just above the bristles.

Brett cupped his hands and shouted: “See if you can fly away on that shit!”

I waited for Louis to make a move, but every time he did, he followed it up with a quick dash at my ribs that hurt like hell.  Then he posed like he struck the killing blow in a samurai movie.

“All right,” Limon said.  “Let me go.”

“Nah,” Brett said.  He held his hand up to bar Limon from coming over.  Limon pushed it out of his way.  “Hey yo, Diane,” Brett said.  “Check this out.”

Brett swung his wooden sword and hit Limon with it on the side of his head.  Holding his ear, Limon screamed and dropped to the ground.  His eyes were tearing up.

Two other kids quickly walked off.  Diane got up and tried to drag Louis away, but he stood his ground and stared.

Holding one side of my ribs, I walked over to Limon.  Before I crouched down by him, I glared at Brett and shook my head in non-Louis fashion.

“Don’t you start, nigga,” he said.

Looking for support and finding none, I sighed in frustration.  I nervously patted Limon, still crying, on the shoulder.  “You okay?  Yeah, I know . . . stupid question.  But, come on, let’s get out of here.”

“I barely even touched him,” Brett said, looking to Louis.

Louis shrugged.   “I don’t know about that.”

Brett pushed me off to the side, yelling at Limon:  “Are you really going to cry, nigga?”

Behind the wall, there was a nest of dead weeds that I’d thought was wheat; they hid the part of the fence that closed off the lot where the old kids were.  After Brett starting yelling, it was from that direction that somebody started throwing beer bottles over at us.

“Who you talking to over there?” someone yelled out.

Green and brown glass bottles rained down, and everyone who was left scattered.  Brett ran toward the sound of the voice that had just rang out.  Diane finally got Louis to take off with her.  A bottle shattered on a rock near my hand, and a piece of glass cut me as I nudged Limon to speed-walking away.

By the time we got to another side of the fence, the tears had dried under his eyes.  But he was still holding the side of his head

“I don’t think I can get over this thing,” he said.  “If I take my hand away, it hurts too much.”

“All right,” I told him.  “I’ll go home, get some tape and I’ll be right back.”

Later, so he wouldn’t get in trouble with his mom, we went back for the brooms.

***

To be continued