Category Archives: Fiction

A Piece of the Lake

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The blue water reached from the windows of the college hall way out to the horizon.  No sailboats as far out as you could see.  Just the blue surface of the water and the lighter blue sky and white clouds.  The evening waves lapped quietly onto the rocks below.

A few miles away the city festival filled the streets with rock music, people, and the smell of brats and hot pretzels.  Everyone smiled, forgetting their problems from the day.  The lake helped with that.  It was there when they rushed from their breakfast, and later when they attended to business, and now when they could visit.  It was there, always.

A young mother bent over a stroller to comfort her baby who cried at the slanting sunshine.  Her boy sneaked toward the water.  He wanted to get something for his sister–a piece of the lake, so she could see how blue it was.

He scooped his bright orange bucket into the shallow waves of swirling brown sand, and was puzzled again that here the lake turned clear.  He lifted it anyway, watching the water slosh from side to side almost spilling over the edges.  In a few steps he looked into her stroller.  “See!  I brought you a piece of the lake!

His sister blinked her blue eyes and looked directly into his, her tiny fingers opening and closing.  The boy dipped his hand into the cool, clear water, then touched his wet fingers to his sister’s.  She smiled and gurgled and lifted her little fist to her mouth.

The boy smiled.  “See!  I brought you a piece of the lake!  This piece isn’t blue, but when you get bigger you’ll see that the whole lake is.  And we’ll play in it together.”

And his sister stretched her arms out to him, and again she smiled and gurgled.

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The Hustle

Hustle

I wouldn’t have noticed you.

Not if you’d stayed in the crowd walking east on Madison, hurrying to the Loop.  But you crossed south onto Canal, and into the morning shadows.  You didn’t notice me, the woman standing in the alley.  You were looking up.  To the top of Willis Tower.  That’s when I stepped from where I watch, to follow.

That other guy, wearing a suit and carrying a leather portfolio, I won’t try him.  A lawyer or banker won’t listen.  You, though.  Casual pants, a bright checkered shirt, lunch in a green cooler bag.  You will.  And just now, you turned your head to that woman passing by.  She’s a little younger than me, but I’ll still catch your eye.

The men and women walking in front, I see the backs of their heads.  But the top of yours is what I see as you tilt it again, to look up at the buildings.  Your hair is gray and thinning, yet the city’s beauty still fascinates you.

Like the guy I was married to.  In the city he saw only the good.  In me too.  When I would stray he always took me back.  He never said it but he liked not knowing where I’d gone.  I really wanted to make his world as good as he thought.  He left to see if anyone could.

So I’m here.  And I’m coming up next to you because this way works better.  Because if I was walking towards you, you’d study my eyes, my sweatshirt, my jeans.  You might see that I wore them last night, then look past me before I can say…

“Excuse me.”  I say it beside you, nicely, like when your wife’s here and asks someone how to get to State Street.

You look over to me with bright eyes, willing to help.

And so I go on, “I need to get to Bolingbrook.”

Still walking, you look forward.

I see you’re not sure about me.  I keep up and urge you, “Bolingbrook is far away.  I need to take the train.  I have to get home.”

You look over at me again, your mouth closed, lips straight.

You don’t like strangers asking for money.  But I can convince you I’m not a panhandler.  “I came down here yesterday for an interview…at Target.”  That makes me different, doesn’t it?  That I say I’m looking for a job, at a place you’re familiar with?

You stare forward, still walking.

I’ve got one more line that sometimes works.  It’s just for guys.  “My ex-boyfriend left me down here.”

You slow your pace and turn your head to me.

My eyes show I’m hurting and desperate.  I need a fix.

At Monroe the light turns red.  I stop with you.

You look to me and say, “I can’t help you.”  Flat and simple as my husband said when he left.

And as you walk east across Canal, I watch the back of your head.  You walk, and as far as I can see, you never again look up at the buildings.

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Mark’s Dream

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Friday night, ten o’clock.  Mark sat at home at his desk, at a laptop keyboard.  He loved the weekend because the week had exhausted him, and for now he could slow the stream of work worries into his head.  He looked past his laptop, at the RadioShack transistor radio he kept.  Thought back to high school, physics class, electronics.  A capacitor stores and releases a charge.  The experiment during lab, a capacitor misconnected straight to the power supply.  In less than a minute the tiny, powder blue can exploded with a loud crack, yellow smoke, and acrid fume.

Mark looked at the laptop screen, the e-mails to get through: requests from clients, design problems from analysts, defects logged by testers, expense questions from finance.  His organizing skill got him this job.  But so much came so fast that he misfiled things.  The thoughts had nowhere to go.

He turned on the radio.  Could have streamed the station through his laptop, gotten better sound quality with the external speakers.  But he liked the radio.  It was simpler.

The weekend jazz show.  Saxophone and piano and a woman’s smooth voice.  Years ago.  In moments it took Mark from his two-story, beige, vinyl-sided house, between suburbs and farmland, to Chicago’s Loop.  He had paid the fifteen dollars and now sat to the side, alone at a small round table, a flame flickering in a dark red glass with a bubbly texture, a green bottle of Heineken in his hand.  No calendars or clocks.  Safe in the darkness, with the live music and live strangers, the occasional passing siren and flashing blue lights.  He watched the young woman sing, the thin dress close to her slim body.  And once in a while she’d look right at him.  Her brown eyes reaching into him.  He enjoyed just watching and listening, and imagining, to the notes of the piano keys, the brushes on the head of the snare, the meandering low-tone of the stand-up bass.

The piece ended and Mark ordered another.  As the next number began he welcomed it, breathed it in, absorbed it.  Until the beer and piercing sax bore into the place of his floating thoughts.  That’s when Mark came back.  Back to his house.  His head on his desk and keyboard.

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Woodman’s Other Job (A Continuation of Why Woodman Lives in the Woods)

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It had been a week since Mark last encountered Woodman.  Mark didn’t believe that he lived on the corporate grounds, not full time.  He thought back to the worn tent and the reused campfire pit.  Woodman was spending some time there, more time than anyone else.  But Mark wasn’t that interested in Woodman’s lodgings.  What Mark wanted to know was whether Woodman really did have inside information regarding his project.

On Wednesday as the sun was setting, and car after car was coasting to the campus exit, Mark walked out of the building and onto the trail.  If Woodman really was living out there, Mark would find him.  And he did, at the same half-mile point on the circuit.  Woodman wore blue jeans and a red flannel shirt, and he was sitting on a lawn chair, head down slowly flipping through a thick packet of white, eight-and-a-half by eleven inch sheets of paper.  Mark could see black text printed on the pages.

“Hey there Woodman!”

Woodman jumped.  He flipped the packed into his tent and stood up.  “How’s it goin’ Mark?  You’re out here late.”

“Well I thought I’d come out and check on you.”  Mark joked lightly, “see if you needed anything.”

“No, no.  I’m fine.”  Woodman reached up to his cap, removed it, scratched his thinning hair, and replaced the cap.

Mark went right to his question.  “Woodman, how do you know what’s going on with Project-X?”

“Mark, when you’re on the company grounds as much as I am, you start noticing things.

“Like what?”

“See this small group of trees that my tent is inside of?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you know what kind of trees they are?”

Mark looked smug.  “Well the white bark kind of gives it away.  They’re birch trees.”

“Correct.  But there are many species of birch tree.  Do you know what specie they are?”

“Woodman, who cares?  I want to know how you know about my project.”

Woodman placed his hand on the white trunk, and looked up at the leaves.  “These are silver birches.  They aren’t native to America.”

“So?”

“Like I said, when you’re on the company grounds as much as I am, you start noticing things, understanding things.”

“But Woodman you’re outside.”  Mark moved his head and looked at the trees surrounding them.

Woodman removed his eyeglasses, pulled a cloth from his pocket, and cleaned a lens.  He then held the glasses out above his eyes, peered to make sure the smudge was gone, and put them back on.  “You know Mark, I’ve learned more about this place being outside than I’d ever learned inside.

“How’s that?”

“Stuff from inside gets outside.”

Mark doubted it.  “What stuff do you mean?”

“Well to start with, let me ask you.  Before you leave work each day, do you put your discarded paperwork into the large locked bins?  Like the ones at home that you roll to your curb, but the office ones are padlocked and have just a narrow slot for inserting paper.”

“I know the bins, Woodman.”  Mark didn’t like where he was leading.  “You’re taking discarded paperwork?”

Woodman shook his head.  “No, I don’t get anything from the locked bins.  The shredding service has the only key and each bin is unlocked only for a moment when it’s being emptied into the shredding truck.”

Mark couldn’t figure out what Woodman was getting at.  He didn’t think that Woodman was a threat to him or his coworkers but he felt like he should respond.  “Good to hear our paperwork is safe from you.”

“But it’s not.”

“Woodman, you just said you can’t get into the bins.”

“Right.  Mark, do you know that on Milwaukee Avenue about ten miles toward the city, there’s a bar…”

“Woodman, what does that have to do with discarded paperwork?  And there’s tons of bars on Milwaukee avenue.  Look, I gotta go.”

Woodman called after Mark.  “Sometimes at night I can’t sleep.  I get bored of lying in my tent.  So around midnight I take a drive.  I go down Milwaukee and stop in at that bar.

Mark called back.  “Later Woodman!”

Woodman called again.  “Midnight’s about when the cleaning crew is done.”

Mark stopped and turned.  “What?”  And walked back toward Woodman.

“Those cleaning guys, and even some of the women, they go to that bar.”

Mark had tired of Woodman’s nonsense, but it now seemed that Woodman was nearing his point.  “And?”

“I hang out with ‘em.”  Woodman said as if anyone would do the same.  “Only for one drink though.  One drink for me that is.”

“You hang out with the people who clean the office?”

“I buy ‘em a round or two.  Vodka.  They like vodka.”

“And that gets you what?  Guys patting you on the back, raising their shot glasses, sharing their stories from the motherland?”

“Mark.  The company rule is for everyone to put their discarded paperwork into the locked bins before they leave each day.”

“Again with the locked bins?  Woodman, I’m getting bored with your conspiracy theories.  If you want me to listen, I’d rather you tell me what happens at the bar.”

Woodman continued to control the conversation.  “Mark, do you put your discarded paperwork into the locked bins before you leave each day?”

“You’re obsessed!  No!”

“How often do you empty your bin?”

“Oh I don’t know.  When it gets full.  Maybe once every few months.”

Woodman repeated Mark.  “Once every few months.  You’re like everybody else.”

“So?”

Woodman stepped toward a low, large stump, the top of which had been evenly cut.  He sat.  “Mark, the cleaning service is taking documents out of the small bins at each desk, before employees dispose them in the large bins.  They don’t take much at one time.  No one is noticing.”

Mark responded with monotone sarcasm.  “Fascinating.  The cleaning people skim our trash.  Can they even read it?”

“Hold on there Mark.  That’s a cliché.  Just because they’re cleaning people doesn’t mean…”

Mark stopped him and clarified.  “Woodman, I’m not trying to insult them.  I’m trying to insult the people I work with.  Hell, I don’t understand half our communications, especially our systems analysts’ white papers.  Anyway, what benefit does the cleaning crew get from stealing our paperwork?”

Woodman answered with a smile, “It gets them free nightcaps, and it gets me free reading material.”

“Come on Woodman!  You want me to believe that you’ve learned about Project-X from the recycling?  Only pieces of information can be pulled from the bins.  You’re not getting the full correspondence which is via e-mail, and the project documentation which is on the network.”

Woodman’s playful smile turned mischievous.  “Did you forget that I can find e-mails?”

“I remember.  You could…”  Mark emphasized the past tense, “back when you were an employee.”  He could no longer hold his frustration.  “Shoot Woodman.  Now you’re just a squatter and a garbage collector.  You make yourself out like you’re in the know.  But you gotta be on the inside to be on the inside.”

Woodman looked at Mark with the warm smile of a parent teaching his child.

“Mark, do you ever work from home?”

“Yeah, on Fridays.”

“And when you’re there, can you get your work done just as if you were at the office?”

“I can.”

“And what do you have at your house?”

“Now wait a second Woodman.”  Mark had tolerated Woodman’s questions about the office, but he was bothered by this attempt to expand their conversation.

“Mark, all I’m asking is what technology do you have at home that lets you do what you need to do?”

Woodman knew, but Mark answered anyway.  Like a child responding to a teacher.

“An Internet connection, my work laptop, and a cell phone.”

Woodman nodded toward the slanting gray canvas within the trees and he lowered his voice.  “The same stuff I have in there.”

“Didn’t they take away your laptop and deactivate your login when they let you go?”

“They did.”

“But you can still get into the network?”

“Yep.  Justice set me up with a new laptop and a network ID.”

“What?”

“Yeah!  I’m a contractor now.  But no one is to know.”

“Not to know?  Come on Woodman.  Your name will be in the e-mail address book.  People will be able to see you on instant messenger.”

Woodman laughed.  “Justice set me up as an offshore contractor.”

“What?”

“I’m Betula Pendula.”

“Betula Pendula?”

“Yeah.”  Woodman’s face lit up with pride in his alternate identity.  “Google it sometime.  That’s why I’ll work for Justice, he puts thought into things.”

“This is your other job?  You’re working for Justice?”

“I am.”

“Woodman, why are you even telling me this?”

“Because I need your help.”

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Why Woodman Lives in the Woods (A Continuation of Woodman’s Warning)

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Mark just wanted to be home.  He had come into work on a Sunday to make tomorrow easier.  And he accomplished what he had wanted.  He finalized the presentation materials and submitted them to the color printer.  He could have waited at his desk for the exhibits to complete printing, but instead he walked the corporate trail.  In the wooded part of campus he discovered former coworker, Woodman, fishing the pond.  Recreation inside the corporate fence?  There had to be more to Woodman’s being there.

“So come on Woodman, what are you doing out here?”

“I told you, I’m fishing.”

“And the grill?”

“In a little while I’ll eat.”

“And the tent?”

“After I eat I’ll turn in for the evening.”

“Turn in?  You’re camping?  Out here?”

“Camping makes it sound temporary.  I’m staying out here.”

“Staying?”

Woodman reached his arms partway from his sides.  He turned at the waist, and looked contentedly around at the corporate woods.  He smiled with acceptance and said, “This is my home.”

“Woodman, you live in Lake Zurich.”

“They foreclosed my house, Mark.  The bank’s got it now.”

Mark’s brown eyes became sincere.  “Sorry ‘bout that Woodman.  I didn’t know.  But come on, where are you really living?”

“I told you Mark.  I live here.”

“But what about Nancy?  Don’t tell me she’s in the tent.”  Mark said this with a smile and a bit of a laugh, hoping that Woodman would quit the joke.

Woodman dropped his head and shook it slowly from side to side.  “No, she’s not in the tent.”  He looked up at Mark.  “With everything that’s been going on, my losing my job, us falling so far behind on our payments.  We were fighting every night.  Real fights.”

“Sorry about that Woodman.  Sorry I mentioned Nancy.”

“It’s okay, you didn’t know.  Anyway when the bank changed the locks she went to her arborist, and I came here.”

Mark tried to keep everything straight but thought he’d misheard something.  “Arborist?”

“Yeah.  The woman she’d have over to care for our trees.  Nancy didn’t like the way I did it.  She said I fell off the ladder too much.”

“She ‘went’ to her arborist?”

“Yeah, she lives with her now.  In a double-wide trailer in an unincorporated area not far from the house.”

Mark watched Woodman wipe his eyes.

“But why are you here?  Why aren’t you in an apartment or something?”

“Here is free.  It’s helping me catch up on my payments.”

“The company lets you stay out here?”

“We have an agreement.”

“An agreement?  The company and you?”

“Well, Justice and I.”

That name surprised Mark.  “It’s Justice who’s letting you stay out here?”

“Yeah.  And no one else is to know about it.”

“Justice is the most play-it-by-the-book guy in the company.  Why would he let you stay out here?”

“Justice wants people to think he plays it by the book.”  Woodman’s mind seemed to suddenly switch tracks and he pulled from his vest a folded paper, as if just to make sure it was there.  He just as quickly returned it to his pocket.

“Mark, remember what happened a couple years ago at the Christmas party?  And that complaint that was filed against Justice by the woman who managed the help desk?”

“Yeah, the legal department interviewed everyone who had been there.  I was surprised after it all that Justice kept his director position.  Why do you bring that up?”

“By letting me stay out here, Justice is returning a favor.”

“He’s what?”

“At that time I was postmaster of the company e-mail system.”

Mark sensed a long story starting.  “Woodman, I have to get back to the building, and to get home to where I live.”

“Just another minute.  The key to that woman’s complaint was a few e-mails she said Justice had sent her.”

“I remember the rumors about that.”

“But there was no evidence of the e-mails.  She didn’t print them or save them.”

“I remember that the office was split about who was telling the truth.”

“She was.”  Woodman said as a matter of fact.

“What?  How do you know?”

“I saw the e-mails.”

“Where?”

“On the system,” Woodman paused, “as I deleted them.”

Mark’s eyes widened and his mouth opened, but he didn’t respond.

“Like I said Mark, Justice is returning a favor by letting me live out here.”

“You call living out here a favor?”

“It beats paying rent or a mortgage.”

“But Woodman, you’re good at…at whatever it is you do.  Why don’t you just get another job and get out of here?”

Woodman looked as if he had expected Mark to know.  “But I do have another job.”

“What?  Look Woodman, I gotta get back inside.  Maybe I’ll see you another time.”

“I’ll be here Mark.”

Woodman turned and disappeared into the trees.  Mark walked away at a fast pace, a pace that turned into a run.

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Woodman’s Warning (a chapter in progress from a untitled story)

Mark walked to the east exit and stopped at the glass doors. He tapped his badge to the card reader and a tiny light switched from red to green.  He pushed the horizontal bar and stepped outside, the conditioned air following him into the real air.  His shoes scuffed the gravel which led away from the building and split into a Y.

He chose counterclockwise to walk the grounds.  The shade of the building tried to keep him.  But he picked up his pace and the building and its shade fell behind.  He had escaped, into a bright clearing.  To his left the northwest pond appeared, afternoon sunshine reflecting onto blinding ripples.  The sight of water poured through Mark’s eyes and into his mind, dissolving his work thoughts.

Felt strange on a Sunday.  Empty parking lot.  Empty building.  No one else on the corporate campus.  They were all home, or somewhere else, enjoying the sunny and warm weekend.  This is not where Mark liked to be, but he wanted to prepare for Monday’s meeting.  Relieved now that he had finalized the fifteen pages of talking points and exhibits, he needed to be here just an hour more while inside an inkjet printer sprayed color onto the pages.

The red gravel crunched under his shoes as he increased his pace.  He fixed his eyes downward as he thought one more time about the material.  Did he leave anything out?  No.  This task was done.  He had given it the clarity the VPs expected.  Confident, he looked up and freed his mind of work thoughts.  He now could see the blue sky, the tree tops, and the green field.  But the landscape seemed unnatural within the corporate fence.  The company maintained the grounds too well. Did the squirrels get performance reviews?  His was scheduled for Monday, immediately after the presentation.

Looking far ahead to the left of where the narrow ribbon-path disappeared into the trees, Mark saw the pond’s neat edge of white rocks, and what looked like a gray plastic bucket turned upside down.  Next to it was a small Y-shaped branch propping up a slanting pole, its line running taught into the water.  As he got closer to the set-up he began to hear tinny music from a transistor radio.  It was the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water.”

And I ain’t got no worries, ‘cause I ain’t in no hurry, at all. 

Fishing?  Strange.  Must be a maintenance guy.  Mark felt his walk spoil.  On a Saturday or Sunday, if he had to be here, he wanted to be alone.  Now he would have to interact.  But there seemed to be no one else around.

He followed the path into an area with trees on both sides, the pond’s edge disappearing behind and to the left.  This part of the path became shaded.  The tall trees–ashes, oaks, and elms–were close together, blocking much of the afternoon sun. Squirrels bounded, crashing through the dried leaves.  Birds fluttered low, from branches on one side to the other.  A garter snake slipped across the path.  If this had been outside the fence, it could be creepy.  But this was corporate property, fenced in.  During weekday lunchtimes this trail attracted a lot of walkers.  The employees loved their time outside the building, like prisoners given a few minutes in a courtyard.

Mark was passing the one-mile sign, the circuit’s halfway point, when he saw something.  He had seen deer here a few times, but this wasn’t a deer.  He stopped and peered to his right, away from the direction of the pond and the building, into the deeper section of the woods.  He started to make out what looked like a gray tent, and bent over in front of it, the back of a green camouflage jacket.  The back of a man, on his haunches, lighting a short charcoal grill.

The man looked up and noticed.  His greeting was of pleasant surprise.  “Hey Mark!  What are you doing here on a Sunday?”

Woodman?  Mark couldn’t believe it.  He was both relived and surprised to see someone he knew from the product development area.  “I’m working, Woodman.  What are you doing here?”

And as if he was here every Sunday, Woodman replied easily, “I’m fishing.”

Woodman stepped from the trees to the path.  He wore weathered blue jeans, and his open jacket showed a clean t-shirt.  The blue ball cap he wore had no emblem.  His brown eyes looked warmly at Mark through designer eyeglasses.  “How’s the project going?”  Woodman nodded in the direction of building.

“It’s starting to come together.  The presentation is ready for Monday.  It shows the overall design and the rollout plan.  I’ll also ask for funding.”

Mark expected Woodman to be pleased.  Instead he was straight-faced.  “There’s something wrong with it.”

“The presentation?”  Mark became frustrated.

“The project.”

“What do you mean?  There are always lot of issues at the beginning of a project.”

“This is different, Mark.”  Woodman’s face became serious.  “If this new product goes in the way the new V.P. wants it to, the company will be breaking the law.”

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Giving Up (a continuation of a prior post titled “Junior High”)

Michael plopped on the couch in front of the television.  He was turning 13.  As he stared at the screen, he thought about his ride home from school.  He had noticed that his mom was a little different in the car.  She didn’t talk as clearly as she usually did, and she didn’t listen as closely to his day’s stories.

Michael loved his mother very much.  He loved her for how much she loved him.  He loved their being together.  Each morning his mom drove him to Grandma’s house, and each afternoon she picked him up.  In the evenings they’d watch TV together, taking turns between what she wanted to watch and what he wanted to watch.  Afterwards when he did his homework, she was just a room away.

From the couch, Michael heard his mom walking around in the kitchen, opening and closing cabinet doors.  Then Michael heard her say to him,  “I’m going upstairs to rest for a while.”

“Okay, Mom.” Michael answered, hiding his disappointment that she wouldn’t sit with him.

He no longer paid attention to the show.  He began to worry.  Over the past few years he was becoming more aware of these times when his mom needed to be by herself in a room, to stay there for hours, even for a day or more.  It didn’t happen too often.  It happened many weeks apart.  So many that, just as he was about to forget, it happened again that his mom needed to be alone.  He had been with his mom through her ups and downs.  The downs started like this.

* * *

Tom headed home in his four-door Galant.  The inside had heated up during the day while parked in the company lot, so he reached his right hand above his receding gray-brown hair and tilted open the sunroof.  Cool air rushed in through the vents, over his khaki pants and around his cotton dress shirt.  He pressed the tip of his right shoe a little harder on the gas pedal, and with a quick look over his left shoulder he merged onto I-294 north.  All four lanes of traffic moved at 70 miles an hour.  Tom kept his car back enough from those in front of him.  Michael had taught him while playing the NASCAR video game to look several cars ahead for the wreck that was going to happen.  To not get caught in it.

* * *

Cathy carried her cell phone as she walked up the carpeted stairs to the bedroom and continued into the adjoining bathroom.  She closed the door and stepped toward the sink.  Squatting, she opened the cabinet beneath, reached behind the rolls of toilette paper and plastic bottles of cleaning products, and pulled out a half-full bottle of vodka.  She sat on the floor, leaned back against the clear shower door, and exhaled deeply.  She lifted the bottle to her lips, tilted her head back, and drank.  She felt the warm, stinging shot flow to the back of her mouth, rush down her throat and into her stomach.  Her nerves began to relax.  She felt guilty but it was too late.  She knew that she would continue drinking into the evening.

* * *

Brake lights glowed red across all four lanes.  This was the spot where traffic came to a stop.  The long drive home was usually a drag, but it didn’t bother Tom this evening.  He had tomorrow off.  The start of the weekend and the warm weather allowed him to relax.

He thought about the weekend.  Tonight he, Cathy, and Michael would watch a couple of movies.  Tomorrow they’d get some things done around the house.  Saturday they’d probably spend the day at her parents’ house.  Cathy would visit with her mom, and he’d watch TV with her dad or maybe shoot baskets in the driveway with Michael and his cousins.  Sunday they’d take a drive into Wisconsin and enjoy being away.

Tom liked the time he and Cathy spent together, whatever they’d do.  In the two years up to their marriage they had been together every weekend.  Even now, a year into it, Cathy’s companionship mattered more to Tom than her being blond, tall, and slim.  They spent time together each day.  In the morning while she’d get ready for work, he’d read to her from the paper a few articles he knew would make her laugh.  Around lunchtime for a few minutes they’d talk on the phone.  In the evening she’d make a small, simple dinner and they sit down together with Michael and talk about their days.  And at the end of the evening as they would get ready to sleep, Tom would sometimes read to her a chapter he’d come across in a classic novel, a chapter he knew she’d like.  And when they’d lie in the dark Cathy would hug him.  Tom was able to sleep again.  Cathy was keeping her promise to not drink, and it had ended their cycle of fighting.

* * *

Cathy hugged her knees as she sat on the bathroom floor.  The late afternoon sun shone through the bathroom window onto her eyes, swollen and red from crying.  She lifted the bottle and drank.  She hated herself.  Hated that this was who she was.  Hated this thing within her that she had been fighting since her teens.  The gradual build up of anxiety until she could do nothing but drink.  Her anger and violence toward everyone repulsed by her drunkenness.  Her pushing away those who loved her.

She had thought that marrying Tom would make her life better.  Tom loved her and forgave her and took her back.  He was good to Michael.  But she needed certainty that Tom would stay.  With each fight she sensed more and more that he was giving up on her.

Cathy told herself that before Tom would get home she’d stop.  Everything would be fine and they’d get on with their weekend.  It was now five o’clock and she knew that Tom would be getting ready to leave work.  Still sitting on the floor she used her cell phone to call him.

* * *

Tom clicked on his right turn signal, checked his mirror to make sure it was clear, and moved onto the exit ramp.  About twenty more minutes.  Tom liked coming home to his family.  He had never liked being on his own.  He had been married before, right after college.  His wife in that marriage had depended on him too much.  He had helped her work through her problems, but he hadn’t realized he was making too many decisions for her.  After a few years, and before they had any kids, she divorced him.

Years later Tom met Cathy.  A divorced mother confidently raising her son, starting a career with a good company.  He was drawn to her non-dependence.  It let him think he wasn’t repeating his mistake.

Buzzing came from the cup holder and interrupted Tom’s thoughts.  His cell phone.  Tom concentrated on the traffic, kept his left hand on the steering wheel and felt for the phone with his right.  At this time Cathy usually called him, so he wasn’t surprised when he saw her name on the screen.

“Hey Cathy.”  Tom answered in a relaxed voice.

“Are you going to be home soon?”

Cathy was trying to speak carefully but Tom heard her slurring.  It was easy to tell.  Tom knew the immediate and significant effect alcohol had on her speech, and on her.  His nerves now felt like they were vibrating and his stomach became upset.

Instantly Tom recalled the times when Cathy was drunk, when he and she yelled at each other and pushed each other.  He hated it.  He knew that when he would get home he would try to avoid her, but that she wouldn’t let him.  He knew he would then get angry with her and it would make everything worse.  He knew, although he truly wished there was a way that he could make the situation better, that he would not get himself to react any differently.  The only thing he could do differently would be to not go home.  But that didn’t make sense to him.  He was not going to stay with his parents or a sister or a buddy.  He was not going to spend the night at a hotel.  He had done this too many times.

He answered in monotone, “I’m on my way home now.”

And Cathy heard in his voice his change of emotion, that he was again disappointed in her, would try to withdraw and ignore her, would again be distant from her.  This hurt her the most. His making her feel as if he didn’t want her, didn’t need her, as if he had made a mistake in marrying her.

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Filed under Alcoholism, Fiction, Short Story

Fade Away

The old man moved slowly from a room which included a collection of books, an oak desk with a leather chair, and a framed degree from Princeton.  He had white hair combed neatly back, and his once handsome face was now wrinkled and spotted.  Although his body was curved by age, he wore an L.L. Bean sweater and Kenneth Cole slacks.

In the living room the television broadcast the late afternoon business report from the New York Stock Exchange.  On screen, an executive in his sixties wore a red tie on a white dress-shirt.  He confidently answered a question from the correspondent.

“No, I’m not going to resign as Arthur Douglas did back in ‘85 after the insider trading scandal.  As CEO of Global Financial, I assure you that I had no knowledge of the recently reported illegal investments using funds from protected customer accounts.  In my 25 years as CEO I’ve done nothing but strengthen the reputation of this corporation.”

As the old man moved into the living room, a young woman in the kitchen called to him, “I turned on the news for you Mr. Douglas.”

“Turn it off, Karen.”  He said, irritated at the report.  He sat in his comfortable chair near a small oak table, from which he picked up the day’s newspaper.  He opened it, but could make out only the headlines.  His sight had started to go after his ninetieth birthday.

He began to read, and then began to sleep, breathing the fall air that came in through the screen of an open window.  Outside, dry leaves crackled and scraped, swirled by the wind.

The man’s head leaned back, and his mouth opened slightly.  He began to snore quietly.

Karen came into the living room.  She was thirty-five, petite,  and had blond short hair and blue eyes.  She wore the colorful short sleeve top of a nurse, gray loose fitting pants, and clean sneakers.  She was Arthur Douglas’s care giver.

She called to him gently.  “Mr. Douglas?”

He had just started to dream when he heard her voice.

“Mr. Douglas?  It’s almost time for dinner.”

He woke, embarrassed that he had fallen asleep. “What was that?”

“Dinner will be ready soon.  Here, I’ve sliced an apple for you.”

“Thank you Karen,”  he answered slowly.

“Did you find anything interesting in the paper?”

“The marathon is this weekend.”

Karen enjoyed their conversations, even now, having cared for him for more than a year.  She asked him playfully, “Would you like to run the marathon this weekend Mr. Douglas?”

He laughed a short but honest laugh.  He then answered earnestly, pointing a curved, aged finger at himself.  “With this body?”

“You’re not in that bad of shape, Mr. Douglas.”  Karen admired his health, and wanted to learn more about how he had stayed so fit.  “Were you ever a runner?”

He placed a slice of apple in his mouth, and chewed slowly as he seemed to leave, thinking back.  Then he said, “I had never run,”  he paused as he thought back,  “until I was about forty-five.”

He went on carefully. “After a couple years of training I ran my first marathon in about five hours.”  And he smiled.

Then Karen continued to be playful.  “Did Mrs. Douglas run with you?”

“No.”  He laughed, enjoying the memory’s details as they came to him.  “Nancy liked that I ran.”  He paused, and went on seriously.  “But she worried about how it exhausted me.”  Then he rubbed his kneecap.  “And she worried that it hurt my legs.”

His eyes then showed the beginning of tears.  “And she always waited for me at the finish line.”

When Karen saw him get like this, she cheered him up.  “Well Mr. Douglas, you are still in very good shape.”

He began to smile. “Yes.  But my mind…” His voice rasped, and then faded.

“Your mind is very good too.”  Karen truly appreciated Mr. Douglas’s intelligence.  “I took your advice about moving some of my money into that investment account you told me about.

“You went with the Lincoln Company’s product, not Global Financial, right?”

“Yes.  Just as you told me.  The man at the bank was impressed!”

The old man liked the compliment.  “You won’t go wrong with that one.”

He then lost track.  “What day is today?” he asked expressionless.

Karen replied comfortingly, “Today is Friday, Mr. Douglas.”

He then remembered what they were talking about.  “Investment accounts,”  he paused.  “That’s how I made my living.” He leaned forward proudly as if to his desk, “I’ve always been good with investing and finance.”

Karen had many times heard him reminisce, and she admired the good that came from his success.

“It enabled you to provide so well for your family.”

Around the living room, picture frames displayed photos of the man and his wife, his son and daughter, and their families.  He stared past the photos, towards his den where he had sometimes conducted business.

The old man was now off in some other place and time.  He thought back to boardroom discussions, quarterly meetings of shareholders, and then to late nights alone in his office:

There was a time, a time when I had thought that being at the top would be easy.  It sure wasn’t.  So much on the line every day.  The risk of losing millions.  The deals I had to make to cut that risk.  But I never crossed the line.  Damn me for trusting that my guys wouldn’t cross it either.

Coming out of the daydream, he then spoke aloud.  “I tried to give them as much as I could.  I wanted to please them.”

“You did Mr. Douglas.  Your family is doing very well.”

The young woman’s voice brought the old man back, but he looked confused.

Karen repeated herself.  “Your family,” Mr. Douglas, “they’re doing very well because of you.”

Karen had been around the Douglas family so often that they knew her well and liked her very much.  Over time, Mr. Douglas began to open up to Karen about things he would not discuss with his children, and even some things he had not talked about with his wife.

The old man had now fully returned from his daydream and now thought about his family.  “My daughter is not happy.  Even at sixty-five there’s never enough for her.”  The old man’s face turned red.  “Despite how Nancy and I had helped her, she continues to need loans.  I don’t understand it.”  He shook his head.

Karen had heard his disappointments before, and responded the same way.

“It’s okay Mr. Douglas.”  she said in a sincere and calming voice.  “It’s just the way it is sometimes.  Besides, you know how much she loves your grandchildren.  You’ve told me yourself how well she raised them.”

The old man responded stubbornly.  “But my daughter is always on the edge of bankruptcy.”

“Mr. Douglas,” Karen said flatteringly, “the expert with money is your son.”

“My son?”  The old man became upset.  “He understands money, but he has divorced and remarried so many times.”

“Mr. Douglas, the woman your son is with now, for so many years, she truly cares for him.  I’ve seen how she smiles when she looks at him, how honest she is with him.  And he is so comfortable and confident with her.  I’m sure it was not that way with the others.”

The old man continued, again shaking his head.  “But he doesn’t keep his vows.”

“Okay, Mr. Douglas.”  She used her voice to calm him.  “Dinner is just about ready.  Start making your way to the table.”

The old man entered the dining room.  He sat at the white plate with gold trim, the silver fork and knife on a folded cloth, he again disappeared in thought.

“They used to line up to meet with me.”

“Who did, Mr. Douglas?”  Karen asked.

“At work, at the office.  The vice presidents and the directors.  I got things done for them.  I made most of them.”

Karen listened, but said nothing now.  She saw that he was discouraged.

“And now where are they?  The last time anybody from the corporation called me I was in my seventies, just a little older than my son and daughter.”

The old man paused again.  “Karen.  Did either of them call today?  Jonathan or Ann?”

“Yes Mr. Douglas, I forgot to tell you.  They both called this afternoon while you napped.  They are coming on Sunday to take you to dinner, like they do every month.

And the old man continued to stare, and then he started to smile, and his eyes came back to life.

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Filed under Character Treatment, Fiction, Short Story

Junior High

As she drove her red Toyota out of the corporate parking garage, Cathy opened the sunroof and side windows and let in the sunshine and warm air of the May afternoon.  Taking both hands off the steering wheel, she pulled back her long blond hair, banding it into a ponytail.  It was Thursday and her workweek was already over.  She headed home, feeling both excitement and anxiety at the same time.

Cathy looked forward to having Friday off, and she thought of the things she would do over the three-day weekend: painting Michael’s bedroom, visiting her mother, preparing the vegetable garden, shopping, and maybe taking a day-trip into Wisconsin with her husband.

But it had been a tough week at work, and her mom was not feeling well and was in a lot of pain.  As Cathy thought of these things her anxiety increased.  She lit a cigarette, inhaled, and then extended her left arm out of the open driver’s side window.  She was ahead of schedule for picking up Michael from the junior high, so seeing a grocery store ahead she decided to pull into the parking lot and to go into the store to buy a few things.

Once inside she went to the liquor section and walked down the aisle she always walked down.  Cathy now felt entirely at ease, protected on both sides by perfectly organized dark wine bottles, shiny beer cans, clear vodka bottles, and golden whiskey—all full, unopened, and neatly labeled.  She picked up a four pack of eight-ounce zinfandels, and on her way back to the register picked up a small bottle of vodka.  The cashier recognized her, smiled, and rang-up her purchase.  As he wished her a good weekend she responded cheerfully, took the bag, and walked quickly to the exit.

When she reached her car in the sunny parking lot, Cathy opened the trunk and set down the bag by a couple of empties that had been rolling around back there for a few days.  She pulled the new vodka bottle from the bag, closed the trunk, and got back into the driver’s seat.

Immediately after closing the car door, Cathy twisted the bottle’s cap, breaking the paper seal.  Lifting the bottle to her lips she took a long drink.  It felt so good.  She took one more drink, capped it, and hid it in her purse.

Cathy then sprayed on some perfume, popped a slice of gum, and pulled out of the parking lot.  She drove on, to the junior high.

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Filed under Character Treatment, Fiction, Short Story

Constance Sharp – Chapter 1

On this cold January morning, Constance lie awake in the dark silence.  She worried.

Last week, her boss at the small hospital in town had excused her from the volunteer job there.  “It was a rule,” he had told her.  A volunteer could help only up to her 80th birthday.

As she lie awake, she worried about how she would keep busy.  She had worked at the hospital for many years, and enjoyed it.  She liked visiting with patients, and helping families find their way around.  Much of the time she was lifting someone’s spirits.  Few knew that she had a degree in social work.

Now these winter days at home by herself would be long—tough to get through.  Her children were busy with their jobs.  Her grandkids were too.  And her great-grandchildren were in the city, too far to visit on weekdays.

Constance watched the time on the clock radio change from 5:29 to 5:30.  The radio turned on.  The station reported news, traffic, and weather.

She listened to the reports of car accidents and city shootings.  Although every morning she had heard this, this morning it made her more anxious.  Without a place to make a difference, she wanted even more to make things better, to make things safer.

Her heartbeat and breathing became fast.

She had felt this on some other mornings, so she started to calm herself.  She closed her eyes, began breathing deeply, and quietly started to pray, “Our Fa…”

Then, from outside, a tornado siren sounded.  The layered tones rising and falling, the volume increasing and decreasing.

The sudden siren interrupted Constance’s worry, and started her onto a new one.

“Strange.” She thought.  “Is there a tornado coming?  A tornado in January?”

She looked out the window, but with the darkness saw only gleaming street lights and still tree silhouettes.

The siren continued as the radio showed 6:00 A.M.  The voice of the meteorologist confirmed the weather was clear and cold.

“It must be just a test…but at this hour?”

The siren went on, higher then lower, louder then softer.

The out-of-place siren got Constance out of bed.  She got up, and dressed.  As the siren continued, she answered her own question.

“A test doesn’t last this long.”

At 7:00 she was eating breakfast, listening to the siren.

She could not stand it anymore.  “That’s it!” she said out loud.  She went to the bulletin board near the phone, found the number for the village, and called.

A middle-aged woman with a voice, raspy from smoking, answered.  “Village Hall.  Can I help you?”

Constance paused before speaking.  Through the phone she could hear the siren.

“Yes.  My name is Constance Sharp.  I’m calling from the 500 block of College Avenue.  I’m hearing the tornado siren.”

“The tornado siren?”  The village clerk seemed unaware.

“Yes, the tornado siren.  And it’s been going now for almost two hours!”

“Hmmm…” the clerk said.  “Can you hold a minute?”

“Yes.”  Constance replied.  While she waited, the siren continued.

After about a minute, the clerk was back on the line.

“Yes, the siren is going.”

This response frustrated Constance greatly.  “I know it’s going.  But WHY is it going?  Is there a storm coming?  Is the siren being tested?  Are we being attacked?  Constance didn’t really think it was an attack.

“Ma’am, I don’t know.”

“Well is there someone you can check with?  Public Works?  Or the police?”

“Ma’am, there’s no one here I can check with.  The rest of the office comes in around nine.”

“Well I find it hard to believe that the siren is going and you don’t know why.”

“I’m sorry, Ma’am.  If you want, call back at 9:00.”

And before Constance could reply, the woman from the village hung up.

“Well!”  Constance was beside herself.

She went to the TV and clicked through the channels.  Everything was normal:  broadcasts from downtown streets in New York and Chicago.  Weathermen letting tourists say ‘hello.’

She wanted to check with her neighbors, but it was too early.  So she paced the house, waiting for nine o’clock.

At 9:01 she called the village again.

“Hello.  It’s me again.  Ms. Sharp calling about the siren.”  She thought that being more formal, she might get a better response. “It’s still going.  Is it being addressed?”

“Ma’am, just like when we spoke last time, there’s nothing I can do.”

“But you had said you could check with someone else when they got in.  Have you done that?  Have you checked with anyone else?”

“Ma’am, please hold.”

Now Constance was really beside herself.  “How could this be?” She said out loud, knowing that no one was listening.

In a few seconds the clerk was back on the line.

“Ma’am, there’s nothing we can do.”

“What?”

“There’s nothing we can do?  It’s certainly not being tested.  And, we’ve confirmed that there’s not bad weather coming.  We’ve also confirmed that we are not being attacked.”

“Then why is the siren on?”

“That we don’t know.”

“You don’t know?  Can’t you just turn it off?”

“It’s kinda’ funny you ask that Ma’am.  The mayor is in the office now, and he’s been walking around asking the maintenance guys that same question.”

“And what are the maintenance guys telling the mayor?”

“Oh… They can’t find the key to the fence that’s around the base of the tower.  They’re saying that they need to unlock the gate, to get to the switch.”

“Can’t they just climb over the damn fence?”  Constance was losing her manners.

The woman laughed, “You sound just like the mayor, Ma’am.”

“Well?”

“The guys are saying that the fence around the base was beefed up by Homeland Security, and that breaking-in, in any way, could trigger an alarm in Washington.”

“Oh my…”   “Wait!  Are you saying that the only way to turn off the siren is with the switch at the base of the tower?”

“Yes!  That’s how it is turned on and off.”

“But I have a son who works with TLCs or PCPs or something like that… He tells me that big things like motors can be turned on and off from laptops miles away.  That son of mine actually had me turn on the air conditioning at Yale once, from our house!  Don’t you have some sort of setup like that?”

“Ma’am, I have no idea what you are talking about.”

“But…”

“Um, Ma’am?  Excuse me.  Hold on one second. I might be getting an answer.”

Constance could hear a man talking to the woman, but could not make out what he was saying.  But she did clearly hear the woman’s voice saying, “Yes… Yes…  Okay. I will ask her.”

Then the woman from the village came back on the line. “Ma’am?”

“Yes, I’m still here.”

“The mayor was just now talking to me.”

“The mayor?” Constance said, a bit impressed.

“Yes, the mayor.  He just now asked me…if you could do us a favor.”

“A favor?  Well, I don’t know.  How could I possibly help with this?”

“The mayor is saying that part of the problem is that the guy who took care of the siren…

“Yes…”

“The mayor accidentally laid him off during the last round of budget cuts.”

“Oh my!  Well can’t you just call that guy up and get him back?”

“He’s moved away.  He’s workin’ a siren in another town now.”

“So what does the mayor want me to do?”

“He’s looking for a volunteer…A volunteer to take responsibility for the tower, and the siren.”

Constance had no response.

“He says it’s easy.  Just a few hours a week.”

Constance surrendered and said sarcastically, “Don’t we need a key first?”

“The mayor will take care of that today.  Next Monday at nine, come on into the village hall and we’ll get you started.”

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Filed under Fiction, Humor