Tea For Two

How’s Barbara? is all Helen says. Nothing more than that. Nothing inflammatory, like, what’s that crazy sister of yours been up to lately, or, I heard some story from Denny about where she was last Saturday night. Definitely nothing like that. But Joanne goes tense and starts jabbing about with the little silver tongs in the sugar bowl.

Eventually, she says, Why do you ask? and her voice reminds Helen of strawberry jam spread too thin, so she replies, No reason, no reason, with a mental step back from the situation, a kind of throwing up of hands (although really she keeps her arms neatly folded to her, just under her tidy breasts.)

But Joanne keeps poking around with those stupid tongs and the sugar cubes start to disintegrate before her eyes. And this is not something she takes lightly, no, because she has not even had a chance to pour her own cup of tea, never mind put sugar in it, and she wants two lumps, two perfect lumps, and nothing else is right. And it’s a shame, yes it is, that Barbara is going off the deep end and that Joanne feels she has to take it all on, but really isn’t it time for Joanne to start concentrating on herself or maybe even just on Helen, for starters, because hasn’t she been there for her through thick and thin and then even (here she smiles to herself) through thick again? And she can’t help it, she really can’t, her hand shoots out over the sugar cubes to cover them up (to protect them) and Joanne stabs her with the tiny sharp tines of the tongs, just below the wrist.

Joanne’s mouth is a round black ‘O’, as if a thumb has punched a hole into her pastry dough face. Helen looks at her wrist. She sees: two perfect beads of blood of exactly the same size, each their own little orb of perfection, but reflecting and somehow drawing beauty from one another. She wants, in that instant, to preserve them and stare at them forever.

But Joanne grabs a table napkin, sending the cutlery cartwheeling to the floor. Heads turn. She snaps it in the air and brings it down on Helen’s hand in one smooth movement and the beads blossom and bleed into one another through the linen.

This what she must be like on the ward, Helen thinks, all efficiency and pressed patience, making emergencies evaporate into thin air, mere excuses for the exercise of professional calm. Her nurse’s uniform straining around her bulk – but containing it, controlling it, turning it into something that means something, that has a purpose. Cinched in with a tidy white belt and a shining silver clasp.

I’m so sorry, they both say, and their voices chink together like knives.


Friday Fictioneers

Feel Good

Where the kid got shot in the face and lay there all night before anyone found him – down by McCormick Park. Up to the right there’s a red and white sign, you never noticed it before, but it’s been there a while, and it says: Chuck’s Detail And Hand Wash. Underneath, in those movable black letters, like the church signs that promise: JESUS IS TOUCHING YOU, it says: FEEL GOOD IN A CLEAN CAR. The kid lays there with his face in the sand, watching the sign turned on its side, and all the world drives by, not caring.


Friday Fictioneers


Trifecta Challenge


So I had to get rid of the dog. I didn’t want to, but I had to, so I put an ad online and the next day I get this call.

“Kinda dog is it?”


I glanced at Rusty, flat out by the TV, wiener dog body twitching under collie dog fur. “Survivor” always put her to sleep.

“She’s a….”


“Yes… She’s sort of a….”

“A bitch?”

“I’m sorry?”

“She’s a bitch?”

“Yes… I guess, a girl dog, yes…”

“Kinda name is that for a bitch?”

Rusty stirred. Her stump of spaniel tail quivered. On the screen, the competitors were gathering for the tribal council. Torchlight flickered on anxious faces. She whimpered.

“Where you at? I’ll come git ‘er now.”

When the bell rang, twenty minutes later, I’d decided not to answer it, but Rusty woke in a fury of barking and flung her pug snout at the door. A small bald man stood on the stoop, looking as if he was going to ask for an odd job, then stuck out a hand, in a martial arts move that stopped just short of my solar plexus. The back of the hand was covered in dense orange fur.

“Howdy. Name’s Rusty.”

I ran into him a few months later, on my way out to the bus stop.

“Thought you were leaving town,” he said.

“Well, I… there was a delay. Visa trouble…”

He looked cynical. I went to pat Rusty’s grizzled red head, but she shied away from me and pulled back on the rope that he was using as a leash. I was sure I gave him her leather leash when he left.

“C’mon Daisy,” Rusty said.

“I see you’ve resolved the issue,” I said, forcing a smile.

“Wasn’t going to change my name, was I?”

“I like it,” I said.

He nodded, pleased. Daisy got tangled up in his ankles and he aimed a kick at her head.

“Don’t think much of this dog though.”


Trifecta Challenge – 333 words – Rusty


A Shallow Place

‘Dry drowning,’ was what they called it, but the newspaper articles were wrong. It was a ‘secondary drowning’ – and this I had learned in my first (and last) year of medical school, along with the fact that I was incurably squeamish in every respect.

“Why would they keep calling it that then?” says Mother, shucking oysters by the sink. She won’t hold them in a dishtowel, and every time she slips in the knife, to crack the hinge, I look away.

“Maybe because it’s alliterative?” I suggest. “It sounds more poetic?”

She’s silent; I feel her eyes on me. I try to suck up the space between us, gulping air.

“It’s like, secondary drowning, so what? Sounds prosaic, uninteresting, right? Whereas, dry drowning, well, how can that happen? If you can drown without water, who’s safe?”

She’s running the tip of the knife around the shell, then twisting to pry it apart – the soft crunch of the blade tells me what she’s doing, though I can’t look.

Slicing the muscle with one deft stroke, she says, “Why must you always be so facetious?”

She releases the shell and bares the flesh. She jabs it towards me. It lies on her palm, glistening.


She knows I can’t stand oysters. (Just another thing he can’t stomach, I heard her tell my father.)

“You think it’s funny? A dead boy?”

Some things take a while. And maybe you think they’re buried deep, but they’re not.

And I think I know what Corey was diving for, what he thought he saw, what made him go down too far, for too long. I see him clambering up onto the pier, slick as a seal. Walking back smiling towards his family, oblivious, the sun hot on the back of his neck and the salt drying slowly between his toes.

Already drowned, but not knowing it. Not knowing yet where the end would come from. That it would not come from deep down, but from a very shallow place.



Friday Fictioneers

An Honorable Discharge

When two became five in 1974, you learned the drill quick, took it all in your stride. (When nappies became diapers, you stormed that bridge too.) A real trooper, said your husband – briefcase under his arm, car keys around a forefinger, blowing you a kiss. Grade school to high school, training wheels to parking passes, ABCs to SATs: a military operation, second to none. Then one quiet morning (in mid-1995), you stand at attention by the sink, watching dust motes twirling in empty space, two eggs boiling dry in a pan, and you realize: there’s nothing left to guard.


Friday Fictioneers


Trifecta Challenge, Uncategorized

Starting Over

Wednesday at the Club, Selma pulls up a wicker chair, looks at me over the table number (our regular – 23), says: ‘I’m breaking up with you, Leonard’ – and I just about bust out laughing. It’s the way she says ‘breaking up’ all serious, and pulls a paper square from her purse, the edges secured with tape. Makes me think of schooldays, grubby pawed-over notes, passed hand-to-hand under desks. When breaking up meant the end of the world. Around here though, surely, nobody breaks up anymore. There just isn’t time.

But, because I catch something, an increase in the moisture that lately seems to be constantly brimming in her eyes, I don’t laugh. Not that she’s sad: the tears are something hereditary, she told me, an ailment that strikes in later years, malfunctioning ducts. She dabs at her eye with a lace handkerchief. (A fine looking lady, she’s got a lot of class, always turns out nice for brunch, no jogging pants or those nasty shuffly slippers.)

She lays her hand next to the note. Her fingernails are hard crimson shells. She’s looking over my shoulder. It’s hard to twist my neck (shrapnel wound, Pork Chop Hill, June 1953) so I kind of shimmy round in my chair. And there’s George Malone’s ugly mug at table 25. Jesus wept. Who let him in the Club?

He’s wearing a baseball cap (‘Combat Veteran – Korea’) which he pushes back on his liver-spotted forehead with knobby knuckles. He winks at me, the old bastard. Combat? He saw just enough to make him put his dick between his legs and jump the first trooper home, faking something colorectal. I’ve got his little number. Then I swivel back to that look in Selma’s eyes and realize: no, I don’t. The scar on my neck gives an electric twang.

So that’s the deal. I’m eighty-nine years old, weigh a buck five on a good day, have to sit down to piss, and now, goddammit, I’ve got competition.


333 words

Trifecta challenge