Not to be blunt or forceful or pushy…
My first collection of short stories is now available for delicious public consumption through Amazon. I have worked, on and off, on these stories for a few years; I am ready for the baby literary birds to leave the nest, especially so that I can begin working on my next set of stories before my actual baby boy bird arrives. I am proud of the intentional final version (I could edit until Kingdom Come) and the cover art–really sleek. For the time being, it will be available only in paperback. I hope to have an e-book version available very soon, though. I will post the link as soon as it has been reviewed and accepted. To entice: I will post the beginning of each of the five short stories, which grow increasingly darker:
Story One: “Little Goes a Long Way”
Little confessed, for he was the type that found feeling regret easier than practicing prudence, that the act had proceeded from a summer-fevered mind.
“The iced tea wasn’t bringing me any relief,” Little offered.
“You’re blaming the iced tea for why you just up and threw your potato salad at her? You didn’t even know that girl.” Little’s mom denied the offer.
“The girl wouldn’t shut up. Every time I looked over at her, her mouth was wide open.”
“Just because you find somebody annoying, that doesn’t give you the right to throw food—or anything else—at them.”
“But she was so loud, and she was wearing soccer shorts—even though she’s too fat to be a soccer player—and Chacos. You know I hate Chacos.” Little placed great trust in details.
“I don’t care what she was wearing.” Little’s mom tended to gloss over the details. “It’s just a good thing that her friends didn’t hurt you. I’ve had enough of your antics, Little.” Most people called “Little” were not. Little, however, was. He stood five foot two, but his freckles and strawberry blond hair made him look four foot eleven tops.
“Yes, ma’am. It won’t ever happen again.”
“You’re right about that—and you’re going to stay with your uncle for the rest of the summer.”
“But he’s busy getting his circus going.”
“Then you’ll fit right in with those freaks.”
“Little, did my sister make you practice on that trampoline I sent you for Christmas some years back?” Colonel Checkers got his title the same way Colonel Sanders or Colonel Tom (Parker) got his—through self-acquisition.
“No, sir, mom used it as a storage table.”
“That’s what I was afraid of. Good thing I got it on clearance at Treasure Hunt. Okay, my boy, trapeze artistry is out. Can you juggle?”
“Just two tennis balls.”
“That won’t excite most, I’m afraid. Would you, in due time, be willing to marry a woman so hideous so as to defy all carnal inclinations?” Colonel Checkers’s protruding eyes narrowed.
“Don’t think I have the fortitude, sir.” Little’s eyes closed, then opened, then narrowed.
“I guess I shouldn’t even begin to inquire into sword swallowing or fire breathing.” Colonel Checkers examined his cigar like he suspected that he might have lit the wrong end.
Little shook his head, disappointed first and foremost in himself.
“Shit, nephew, do schools nowadays teach any coping skills?”
“Mom says I’m severely lacking in two areas: height and coping skills.”
“Don’t be too hard on yourself, son—at least about the height part. Say, what about working with my knife-throwing act?” Colonel Checkers forgot that he was actually enjoying his cigar and instead threw it. He then cussed.
“Uncle, I don’t think that I should throw any more things for the time being, especially at people.”
“No, Little, I mean as the target.”
Story Two: “Then Comes Tomorrow”
Tim Pippin had been listening for his phone to chime all morning. By not keeping it on his person, but in another room, he had convinced himself that he had cultivated a heroic level of stoic disinterest. In reality, this meant that he had uneasily taken up residence in the emotional halfway house between anticipation and dread. He anticipated what she was going to text; he dreaded what she was going to text. To heighten the spectacle of this single-observer situation, he thumbed through La Rochefoucauld’s Collected Maxims. Maxim V: 131: “Weakness is the only fault that we are incapable of correcting.” So true, he chuckled to himself. The French are the best. Why couldn’t I have been born in seventeenth-century France when a professional indiscretion such as sleeping with a student would have been humanely and gently seen as an understandable weakness on the part of an instructor, not a career-ending social crime? Imagining that he was being watched by an understanding, if not mildly approving, audience, he, in his best world-weary manner, lit another cigarette and poured himself another poor man’s mimosa: Miller High Life and orange juice. Ting. That was the alert he had been expecting. However, instead of rushing into his bedroom where he had left his phone on his unmade bed, maintaining the illusion of his recent victory over the weakness of the will, he continued thumbing through Maxims. Maxim V: 70: “No disguise can long hide love where it exists, or stimulate it where it does not exist.” The fools—to think our love could have remained hidden even had we tried. Like death or farting in front of your partner, it had to come eventually.
Laying down Maxims in a spine-extending, print-side-down manner—for he was going to return, naturally, to his morning meditations, he walked into his bedroom, lay on his bed, picked up his phone, and typed his passcode.
“Ur through, I emailed photos to ur chair & ur dean. There going to laugh at ur mediocre penis.”
I’m through. No—she’s through! No, I’m through. Fuck you, Niki! Fuck. You. Whore.
Tim dropped the cigarette on his chest, which had been insouciantly dangling from his lips—as the French must do with their cigarettes, prompting him to jump up and frantically swipe the ashes off his chest, spilling his drink all over his bed. As he brushed away the ashes, he pictured his chair, the dean of academic affairs, and the dean of student services all studying printed copies of the pictorial evidence, evidence of a love that could not remain hidden and, unfortunately, dare speak its name on more than one occasion. He imagined his chair making that mildly amused-but-still-disappointed face that she made whenever she had to walk to his office to remind him about grades that had been due three hours prior. He also knew the only reason that Niki had spelled “mediocre” correctly was because of the spell check feature on her phone.
Story Three: “A Failed Suicide Wins at Life (The Nobility of Failure)”
James woke up Saturday morning suffering from two distinct forms of vagueness: the first vagueness was a stupor that had been induced by the previous night’s consumption. The second vagueness led him to look at his wrists.
James had hoped that the throbbing in his wrists throughout the night might have had an explanation that did not involve permanence. Like the doubled images that one experiences after a knock to the head that slowly settle back into one, the two distinct forms of vagueness—dread, really—settled back into the one event of which they were only different facets: he had been dumped by his girlfriend at a Mexican restaurant, setting off a chain of inadvisable actions that had resulted in his waking up hung-over with tattoos on the underside of both wrists.
“I really don’t want to have this conversation here.” James sat back in the booth, crossing his arms and poking out his lips. Carlie leaned across the table to dip a chip in the bowl of salsa that James had angrily drawn close to him.
“If not now, when? We might as well have it—we’ve been darting around it for weeks.”
“Why do we always need to talk about our relationship? Why can’t we talk about normal things, like a normal couple?”
“Always? We never talk about us. It’s always about your family or your friends or whatever the hell you’ve just watched on YouTube.” James noticed that the salsa bowl balance was slowly being restored to the table, and to him this signaled an imminent shifting of power in their relationship.
“That’s not true—we talk about your family and your friends and all your shitty coworkers.”
“You’re only proving my point—we don’t talk about us.”
“Fine—what about us?”
“Are you happy?”
“Oh, fuck me. Really? Is anybody truly happy… I mean….”
“Don’t give me your philosophy bullshit. Do I make you happy?”
“Yeah, I guess—no, yes, yes, you do. Okay, I’m happy with you.” At this point James had lost his appetite and pushed the salsa bowl so that it nestled against Carlie’s elbow. He knew that she would make the next move that would determine not just the placement of the salsa, but the very future of their relationship. The waiter brought their orders to the table and smiled in a way that showed either he knew what was taking place or that he was oblivious. Either way, it was unbearable for James.
“Oh, you sound confident. I don’t believe you, but you know what? I’ll accept that. Why don’t you ask me if I’m happy?
“Carlie—really, I don’t want to do this here and now.”
“Why? Are you afraid of what you’ll hear? You’re afraid, aren’t you?” James forced fed himself a forkful of rice. Carlie’s eating increased in vigor as she glared across the table at James. He shoved in another forkful of rice. He ate to fortify himself against the coming attack. She ate to find the necessary nourishment both to break with the past and to mangle the present.
“Are you happy, Carlie?”
Story Four: “The Pick-up Artist Alchemist”
Ronnie had accepted, as if by natural law, the wave of disgust that inevitably washed over him after the smaller surface wave of a self-manipulated orgasm had returned to its twin disturbances of anxiety and frustration. Having discovered this solitary comfort later in life than most, Ronnie had originally brought a drama and a stringency that most men would see as unnecessary self-foreplay. Initially, he insisted upon visiting himself only while lying on clean silk sheets in his darkened bedroom, imagining only women he knew in real life. As his red-blooded imaginative faculties began to wane, he had to resort to pornographic stimulation. To convince himself that he could view porn with dignity, he allowed himself to watch only sensual, female-friendly porn in which nary a female face was assaulted by toxically masculine fluids. However, the luster of well-behaved actors soon began to fade, and he was compelled to delve into darker arenas of lust. Currently, he found himself leaning out of his shower—a shower that was only partially sealed off with a curtain so that he could view his laptop—to close the browser that was still playing the video, even as his penis had already begun to return to flaccidity. As he closed the “German Tranny Threesome Surprise on Public Transport” video and then watched his spittle of sperm dislodge from the floor of the shower and inseminate the drain, he started to cry.
At twenty-six, Ronnie was only three sexual encounters and two years and one girlfriend removed from virginity. All three had been with his ex-girlfriend, and she had told him after their third encounter that he had gotten worse, if that were possible, and knew even less than a virgin about bedroom performance and broke up with him through text messaging after she had left his apartment. At the time, they were both working at Target, and he had to face the daily humiliation of seeing her pantomime for coworkers his lack of bedroom finesse. At 5’7” and one hundred thirty-five pounds, Ronnie knew that he was not the most impressive physical specimen. Though he did not think that he was bad looking given his thick brown hair, blue eyes, and sharp nose, he did think that his face may have been a little too round, and he had feet that were smaller than guys who were shorter than he. Thus, he never went barefoot in public. Still, all things considered, as a business-degree college graduate who was the assistant store manager at Sears and who wore shoes slightly larger than needed, he could not understand why he seemed all but invisible to women. He had often heard that women would look past traditional standards of male beauty if such men could compensate with wit. He had always prided himself on his wit, but presciently timed quips that would render other men to giggling fits seemed to bore, or even annoy, any woman in audible range. He often wondered if women could infer his pornographic tastes by some tell-tale sign and then judge him accordingly.
After getting dressed, Ronnie turned to the consolation that had been with him much longer than masturbation or pornography: drinking. He put a few drops of Visine in his eyes and left for his favorite bar, The City Lights.
Story Five: “Thorns of Virtue”
Abigail replayed the events that had happened only five minutes ago with the intensity with which one might replay the loss of one’s virginity or the death of one’s child. Whether the result of misjudgment or a momentary fit of distraction, she knew that what was to follow would irrevocably further her on the dismal trajectory that her life had assumed. However, despite the threatening ghost pressure of the cool steel across her throat and the fleshy weight of the warm hand roughly pulling open her blouse, she, by fingering the beads of emotional associations on her Rosary of suffering, found herself thinking about the day that she had come home early from her shift as the assistant manager at a cell phone store to find her fiancé in her bed with her neighbor who had moved into her apartment complex only three weeks prior. The emotional helplessness paralleled, albeit on a different track of misery, the physical helplessness she now was experiencing.
“Brad, why the hell is this, this whore in my bed? And why the hell are you in my bed with her?”
“Abby, what are you doing home?”
“What it does it fucking matter? What’s going on here?”
Brad, always unnerved whenever Abigail found the fortitude for invective, started to cover himself and his paramour. Abigail, not wanting to allow them to adorn their shame with her duvet, ripped it off the bed and examined their naked bodies, which then clung to each other more for security than for intimacy.
“Abby, we didn’t mean to hurt you,” her neighbor offered as it were a gesture of goodwill.”
“Phoebe, I don’t even have the words right now….You met Brad one time—how did this happen?
“We started chatting through Facebook, and then things just…happened.”
Turning away from Phoebe as if she were a child who had just interrupted her bickering parents, Abigail turned to Brad: “We promised our priest that we’d remain chaste until marriage. That’s why you moved back home. You know how fucking hard that’s been, but I thought that we were in this together. Have you been cheating on me this entire time with other people, too?”
In waiting for Brad to answer, Phoebe began to slide away from Brad, watching him suspiciously the entire time as she leaned off the bed to retrieve her bra and panties.
“Abby, I don’t know….You know that I love you—it’s just that….” Brad stopped as he cupped his hands over his penis, hoping to redirect the accusative gaze of not one but two sets of censuring eyes.
“Brad, answer me—have there been others?”
“Abby, look, they didn’t mean anything—yeah, there have been others.”
“Did you bring them back to my bed? No—don’t answer that. No, tell me—why here?”
“Only a few times. I just, just feel comfortable in your bed—and my parents are always home.”
“Comfortable! At least you could’ve had the decency…. That’s it! The wedding—it’s off. Stay away from me. Don’t ever try to contact me or my family or my friends ever again.”
Though Abigail blamed Phoebe as much as anyone in this conflagration of libidinal and sacramental interests, looking for affirmation wherever she might find it, she turned to Phoebe who gave her a hearty, though carefully measured, nod of sanction.
When Abigail opened her eyes, the man who she thought needed only a ride, the man whom she was not going to prejudge, had unbuttoned her shirt and had unsnapped her bra. Making a sawing motion as he brought the blade closer to her throat, he hoarsely whispered that if she did not take off her pants and underwear he would gouge out her eyes and cut off her ears before he sliced her throat. With a clarity that would shock her upon recollection more so than the event itself, Abigail was able to carry out a pleasure-pain calculation concerning her options. Provided her assailant kept true to his word, and she saw no reason why he would not, the mutilation that she would experience—in addition to the rape that she knew would have to endure regardless, would prove maddening, but she would die. She would not be left to live with the consequences of her intentional naivety, the bitter fruits of her attempt to show a world that was not watching that she would not give into the easy cynicism that allowed people to continue their lives, unwilling to attempt to discern between the wheat and the chaff out of suspicion that all are chaff. However, what if he did not kill her? What if he mutilated her only to leave her to bleed to death? She would still die—unless someone came upon her writhing body and called emergency services in time to save her. What good would she be to her loved ones as an eyeless, earless monstrosity who would also have to carry within her butchered body the wounds of violation? Her loved ones—they needed her. She could not leave them. She must endure this wanton purgatory—a suffering that would not cleanse her as, theologically speaking, purgatorial fires do—to behold once again the vision of her family.
Abigail pretended to fumble with her pants as if she were told not to use most of her fingers to accomplish a timed task of dexterity. Finally getting frustrated with her pretense of compliance, the ravager began to pull her pants. Once the pants bunched up around her ankles, as if he forgot to turn on the coffee pot after he had poured water into it, he hit his own forehead and then tugged at her shoes. He then tore her underwear. Watching him unzip his pants and extricate his engorged member, Abigail retreated into a rhythmic prayer designed to remove her from all temporal and spatial concerns. Provided she could disassociate herself from her own body, perhaps she could flee the pain and hide in the nebulous region of prayer: Hail Mary, Full of Grace, The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death. Amen. It can’t last too long. He will finish soon and then leave me alone. He won’t poke out my eyes or cut off my ears. Mom. Dad. Peter. Jonathan. Lucy. Mother Mary and your Son, Jesus. Help me. Hail Mary….