Two Stories by Nan Friedley

Still Hungry for More Thrills & Chills?

We will continue to run a new story each day this week. These stories were written at an Inlandia workshop for those wanting to write for Ghost Walk.

***

The Last Encore

Venue: Back to the Grind

Characters: Master of Ceremonies, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Anne Sexton

Master of C: Welcome to Ghost Walk’s Dead Poets’ open mic night. This evening we are pleased to present three confessional poets who are making a special appearance, back from the dead, to share some of their most memorable work. Our first poet, Sylvia Plath, in a state of severe depression resorted to suicide by oven in 1963, welcome back to our world. Give it up for Sylvia.

(MC and audience applause, cheers)

Sylvia Plath:   Thank you so much for the warm welcome. I will be reading an excerpt from Lady Lazarus a poem that feels particularly relatable this evening.

Lady Lazarus

Dying

Is an art, like everything else

I do it exceptionally well

 

I do it so it feels like hell.

I do it so it feels real.

I guess you could say I’ve a call.

 

It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.

It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.

It’s the theatrical

 

Come back in broad day

To the same place, the same face, the same brute

Amused shout

 

‘a miracle’

That knocks me out

There is a charge

 

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge

For the hearing of my heart

It really goes.

 

And there is a charge, a very large charge

For a word or touch

Or a bit of blood

 

Ash, ash

You poke and stir

Flesh, bone, there is nothing there—

 

Out of the ash

I rise with my red hair

And I eat men like air.

 

(MC and audience applause, cheers)

 

Master of C:   Thank you Sylvia. We sure do miss you. Wish you could have stayed with us to write more amazing poems. Our next poet, John Berryman, decided to end his life by jumping off the Washington Avenue bridge on the campus of University of Minnesota in 1972. Let’s welcome John to our stage to perform a poem from his Dream Song book.

(MC and audience applause. cheers)

John B:   Thanks for bringing me back for an encore reading this evening. I’ve chosen Dream Song 14:

Life, Friends, is Boring

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so

After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,

We ourselves flash and yearn

and moreover, my mother told me as a boy

(repeatedly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored

means you have no

 

Inner resources,’ I conclude now that I have no

inner resources, because I am heavy bored

people bore me

literature bores me with its plights and gripes

as bad as Achilles

 

Who loves people and valiant art, which bores me

And the tranquil hills, and gin, look like a dog

And somehow a dog

Has taken itself and its tail considerably away

Into mountains or sea or sky, leaving

behind me, wag

 

(MC and audience applause, cheers)

 

Master of C:   Thank you Mr. Berryman for your many Dream Songs we enjoyed through the years. It was so inspiring for you to lend voice to your words. Our final poet of the night is Anne Sexton. When life became too overwhelming for Anne, she locked herself in the garage with her car running to eventually die of carbon monoxide poisoning in 1974. We are so happy you have returned to join us for open mic night. Please welcome Anne Sexton.

(MC and audience applause, cheers)

Anne Sexton:   Thank you. It is so nice to see so many young people in the audience who are interested in poetry. Although it may not seem like it, writing was a source of comfort to me as I hope it is for you. I will be reading:

Waiting to Die

Since you ask, most days I cannot remember

I walk in my clothing, unmarked by that voyage

then the almost unnamable lust returns.

 

Even then I have nothing against life

I know well the grass blades you mention

the furniture you have placed under the sun.

 

But suicides have a special language.

They want to know which tools

They never ask why.

 

Twice I have so simply declared myself

have possessed the enemy, eaten the enemy

have taken on his craft, his magic.

 

In this way, heavy and thoughtful,

Warmer than oil or water

I have rested drooping at the mouth-hole.

 

I did not think of my body at needlepoint.

Even the cornea and the leftover urine were gone.

 

(MC and audience applause, cheers)

 

Master of C:   Thanks Anne for sharing your powerful poem with us. Perhaps your words will bring strength and courage to those in need. I want to thank all of our dead poets this evening for giving us a glimpse into their worlds. Let’s bring them back on stage one more time.

(MC and audience claps and cheers for encore, but no dead poets return to stage)

Master of C:   I’m afraid they are not coming back. They are lost to us now except on pages. Thanks for joining us tonight. Be safe going home.

***

Coveted

Venue: Annex

Characters: Homeless Hank, Eloise the Librarian, College girl/News Anchor, Boyfriend/News Anchor

Props: shopping cart, garbage bags, cane, pillow, sleeping bag, two microphones

Hank:       I like to hang out in the library parking lot…park my portable home on wheels in the back. I’m a collector. Wandering around the city I’ve found some gems. You’d probably be surprised by what I have in my cart. I’m a people watcher too…especially like pretty young girls…ones with long hair and longer legs.

Eloise:       I’ve been watching him from my office window in the library. He leers at young girls, drools when he sees one he really likes. Disgusting…dirty letch. I wonder what’s in his cart…curious if he has anything valuable.

(young college age girl walks by)

Hank:       It’s my lucky day! She’s heading to my secret hideout. I’d like to keep her warm tonight. Maybe just talk about my collections. I could give her a gift.

(Hank follows the girl, pushing his cart)

Eloise:       There he goes. She’s not paying any attention to him… with those earbuds and texting, she doesn’t even hear him. I better tag along. I wonder what he’s up to. I’m a little slower these days. (walks with a limp using her cane)

(Girl waves to young man by Mission Inn service entrance)

College girl: Sorry I’m late. Couldn’t find a place to park.

Boyfriend:   That’s o.k. I just got off…big party in the Music Room.

(Girl and boyfriend hug and walk off together)

Hank:       I was so close. She would have been a lot of fun. Guess I’ll just call it a day.

(Hank gathers his grimy pillow and sleeping bag from his cart, curls up on the annex steps and goes to sleep)

(Eloise waits till she is sure Hank is asleep…beats Hank with her cane. She walks away with Hank’s cart, smiling)

Eloise:       Serves him right. Tomorrow there will be an article in the Press-Enterprise about a homeless man found beaten to death. The police will request information about a bloody cane next to the body. I won’t be calling any time soon. (crazy laugh)

Girl News

Anchor:   On December 21st, the longest day of the year, is National Homeless Person’s Memorial Day. It started in 1990 to remember those homeless who have died on the streets in our communities. Each night, over 51,000 homeless sleep on the streets of LA.

Boy News

Anchor:   There is no official tracking of the number of homeless deaths. In LA county when no relative comes forward to claim the body, the person is cremated. In 2012, all the remains were buried in one unmarked grave…1,756 forgotten souls.

Three Stories by Jane O’Shields-Hayner and Angelina O’Shields-Hayner

Still Hungry for More Thrills & Chills?

We will continue to run a new story each day this week. These stories were written at an Inlandia workshop for those wanting to write for Ghost Walk.

***

The Halloween Birthday

By Jane O’Shields-Hayner

NARRATOR: “The cemetery was alive. It was October 31st and the Dia de los Muertos decorations were on many of the graves and in the aisles between the graves. It was a happy day for Cecil. It was his birthday. It was long ago when his day of birth had come and passed, more than a century now, and the past fifteen years had been strange for him.

Once, as a younger man, in his fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties, he had spent his days eagerly busy in his many pursuits. He owned a produce company, and his day began before dawn, when he met the trucks and the trains loaded with fresh farm fruits and vegetables. They arrived from all around North, Central and South American, meeting their last destination in Cecil’s warehouse before they were washed, shined, boxed and appeared in the neighborhood grocery stores. Cecil worked hard and left his office in mid-afternoon. It was his choice, since he was the boss.

Everyday he had gone to the golf course to play a few rounds with his friends, or to the horse stable, where his daughter, Jane, his only child, rode everyday after school. He cared for her horse, his horses, and all their feed and tack, and he delighted in the happiness he shared with her there, and with the beautiful animals that had become members of their family.

The walk he now took from the cemetery to his daughter’s house was only three blocks, and he walked this nightly, although he wasn’t sure why. Once, he had found his old Ford truck sitting in front of her house, and remembered that he needed to check the oil. He lifted the hood, secured it with the support bar, hung the cage-covered light bulb, illuminating the truck’s engine; and he was taking care of his business when the neighbor’s daughter started screaming.”

CECIL: “Geeeee Mooneee! (he exclaimed) What’s wrong with her? He put down the hood, mumbling to himself and walked away.”

CECIL: “Jane?”

NARRATOR: “He called his daughter’s name and then became restless. The stars were still out, but an orange glow had appeared from the east, illuminating the yellow fringe of leaves on the Sycamore tree. Suddenly he was very tired. He began to walk back to the cemetery, and then he forgot. He forgot every time he remembered. Yet he still remembered that he forgot. The words: transient, ischemic and dementia held places of sadness in his memory. It was a partially forgotten sadness, and he could no longer understand it, but the low-down feeling lingered, still.

He loved the old cemetery, and it seemed that everyone there was always celebrating his birthday. Whenever he left it, a longing set in that was powerful enough to change the direction of his walk, every time, every night that he could remember.

Birthday guests were sitting on the graves, gathered into groups. Boxes of apples and pears, winter oranges, squash and grapefruits lay on the ground, completely covering some of the burial spots. How odd. “It must be the farmers’ market night here, tonight,” thought Cecil. “Yes, it must be!”

He knew all the farmers by name. Yes, he would visit them too. As always, he would first visit Jane, then maybe he would walk to the stables and feed the horses. He loved them so, even though the pain in his knees was a result of his loyalty to the white horse, May, the one that fell with him again and again and again. The black horse was Jane’s and she was elderly now, in her thirties. She had been a beautiful, high-strutting Paso Fino mare in her time. Now she was a family treasure, cared for and pampered. He would take her an apple, and a carrot for May, of course.

Cecil picked the treats from boxes of food on a nearby grave and tried to pay Mrs. Sanchez a dollar each for the two of them, but she seemed to not even hear what he said. He dropped two one-dollar bills in her lap, and they lay on the white, embroidered apron she wore. She was looking away, but when she glanced back at her lap she shrieked, and called out: “Jose! Miguel, aqui! Aqui! Andele!” Then she stood up and the two dollar bills fell from her apron to the grave below her.

The lights were out in Jane’s small, blue house on 12th Street. Cecil thought he would go down to the stable and find her there.

Two young boys stood staring at the cemetery.”

JOSEPH: “Morris, I dare ya to walk in there!”

NARRATOR: “Joseph was a black-haired boy, wearing a zombie mask and dancing; showing off his best hip-hop steps.

Morris, a boy with curly blond hair and a white sheet over his clothing, stood at the edge of the graveyard. The toes of his leather shoes touched the grass on the manicured lawn and his heels touched the pavement of the street.”

MORRIS: “I’m already in there!”

NARRATOR: “Morris shouted back.

Families knelt on the graves, placing photographs, toys, foods, and Halloween pumpkins all around them. They were starting early. Dia de los Muertos didn’t occur for another day, but many families began decorating on Halloween, because they enjoyed it.”

JOSEPH: “Hey.”

JOSEPH: “It’s not even scaarryyy! Look, everybody’s mama is here! Nobody here looks creepy at all, mostly just us!”

NARRATOR: “Morris gazed toward the bloody stains on his ripped bed sheet. His mother had splattered red paint across the sheet and cut holes in it for Morris’ arms and head.

Cecil loved children and he laughed softly when he passed the two boys in costume.”

CECIL: “Ha, ha, ha…”

MORRIS: “Did you hear that?”

JOSEPH: “Hear what?”

MORRIS: (quietly) “Did you hear that laugh?”

JOSEPH: “You’re craaaazzzy, Morris!”

MORRIS: “No I’m not.”

JOSEPH: “Yes you are!”

MORRIS: “Don’t make me wanna punch ya!”

JOSEPH: “My mama will tan your hide if ya do!”

NARRATOR: “Cecil laughed again, remembering something he couldn’t place.”

CECIL: “That’s just what my mama said!”

NARRATOR: “The red paint on the white sheet, the words the boys used, the shoes they wore, shabby, dry, worn out leather, seams busting out and strings hanging loose, all of it was like visiting an old friend, to Cecil.”

MORRIS: (in a flat, serious voice) “I heard it again.”

NARRATOR: “Now Morris’ voice was shaking and Joseph had stopped dancing and stood like a tombstone, holding his breath.”

JOSEPH: “I heard it too.”

NARRATOR: “Klop, klop, click, klop…klop, klop, click, klop….The Cinderella carriage, pulled by a shining white horse was walking down the street. Inside, four costumed riders laughed and sang “Werewolves of London,” hitting the wrong notes as often as the right ones.

Cecil looked up and saw the white horse, and recognized it as May, his stumbling, but loyal white mare.

He stepped up his pace and broke into a trot. He was amazed that his knees didn’t hurt. At one point, he remembered using a cane, then a walker, then he was unable to walk at all, even after the doctor talked him into his second round of double knee replacement surgeries.

That was when his memories became like a dense, rainy day fog, when his night walks became strange, when everyday was his birthday, when people shrieked when they saw him, and sometimes when they didn’t, when he only stood near.”

CECIL: “I’ll catch that mare. I’ll take her to the barn and brush ‘er down, give her some hay and oats and mix in a little sweet feed to make her happy.”

NARRATOR: “He trotted toward the white horse and when he got closer he slowed to a walk, so he wouldn’t frighten her. Cecil didn’t notice the carriage, the harness, the riders or the driver. His focus was May, his white horse. “How did she get here, right on the street,” he asked himself.

The horse was walking slowly and the passengers in the carriage were still singing: “ahhhooooohhh, Werewolves of London, ahhhooooohhh…” when Cecil grabbed the reigns and gently stopped the forward direction of the entire entourage; horse, driver, carriage, and passengers.”

DRIVER: “Hey, what’s wrong with you, Sally? Git, come on, ha! Cooommme on!”

NARRATOR: “Cecil held the reins in his left hand and began to guide the horse in a U-turn toward his barn. The driver was perplexed, now losing any cool she may have once had, and shouting at the horse. “You bag of bones, you turn back hah!”

The revelers in the carriage had stopped singing and looked afraid. One woman screamed, “Let me out!”

The boys standing on the edge of the graveyard watched the scene with their eyes like large marbles, protruding from their faces, and the families decorating graves stopped what they were doing and watched.

Cecil began to trot along with the white horse.”

CECIL: “I’ll get-cha home, girl. That’s right, go on home.”

JANE: (sitting on the ground of a grave) “Daddy! I’m here. Come here. Daddy, please, now!”

NARRATOR: “Cecil dropped the reigns and began the walk that always drew him back, and when he did, he came upon a grave that was decorated with black cats and orange ribbon. Jane was sitting on the grave, holding an orange and black birthday cake on her lap. More candles than he had ever seen burned dangerously on the top of the cake. The entire grave was illuminated.”

JANE: “Daddy, I know you’re here. I brought watermelon and salt, just the way you like it, and your golf clubs, your blue ribbons and trophies from your riding days, and I brought long-neck beer, too.”

NARRATOR: “Just outside the cemetery, on the street, the carriage driver now stood beside the horse, petting her. The riders stood, shaken, on the sidewalk.”

CARRIAGE DRIVER: “They say there is a wandering ghost here. It’s a man whose birthday was Halloween. That’s his grave.” (She lifts her arm and points with a long index finger straight toward Jane and the flaming cake)

NARRATOR: “She pointed with a raised arm and long index finger, right to the spot where Jane sat, alone, holding a flaming cake, burning with many candles.

The two young boys now stood at the edge of the grave, and Cecil walked up, bent forward, kissed Jane on the cheek, and spoke.”

CECIL: “Well, I’ll be dad-gummed if that’s not the purtiest cake and the most candles I’ve ever seen.”

NARRATOR: “The families who sat on the other graves, the carriage driver and all the riders, and the two young boys all joined in when Jane began to sing.”

JANE: “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday, dear Daddy. Happy birthday to you!”

NARRATOR: “When the song ended, Cecil and the boys all bent forward and blew out the blaze of candles. A cloud of thick, waxy smoke blew over the cemetery and the many ofrendas that decorated the graves.

Cecil looked at the boys. The blond, curly-haired boy looked up at him and smiled.”

CECIL: “Well, I’ll be darned!”

NARRATOR: “The black-haired boy walked to a grave where a family laughed and toasted Cecil’s birthday and Morris walked underneath Cecil’s long winter coat and disappeared.

Jane cut the cake and Cecil sat on the ground, leaning on a tombstone. Only the name on it was visible. It read Cecil Morris O’Shields, October 31, 1907-October 25, 1999. Draped on the gravestone were a pair of white riding chaps and a bridle. On the ground before it was the photograph of a white horse, with a curly-haired man riding her. He was smiling and petting the horse’s shining neck.

The carriage now moved smoothly through the night street, the occupants were now laughing and retelling the tale shrieking and laughing.”

RIDERS: “Did you see him? Was he scary? I’ll bet this was all an act, just part of the carriage ride, part of the show, yeah, that’s right.”

NARRATOR: “A whoosh of air had extinguished the candles on the cake that Jane held, just as it always did. Now, for all the living world to see, Jane sat alone on the grave, telling tales of her childhood and reading stories she had written about her family. No one was apparently there to listen, just the fruit, the salt shaker, and the long-neck beer, but she smiled, offering up a slice of birthday cake on an orange napkin to whoever passed her father’s grave, on this night, on Halloween, on his birthday.”

***

Ghost Angels

By Jane O’Shields-Hayner

Setting: a dark corner of downtown Riverside

Characters: Narrator, Sound Effects Person, Kevin, Teacher

Most of these roles can be shared by the same cast members, ie: narrator could do sound effects and Kevin’s voice.

NARRATOR: “The street corner was dark. Night sounds rose from several directions (SOUND EFFECTS, THE BACKGROUND SOUND EFFECTS DO NOT OVERWHELM THE NARRATOR’S VOICE)

Up the street, a drum’s beat measured time (DRUM SOUNDS) and electric guitars played rock and roll (GUITAR RIFF). A singer’s voice floated into the night, flat and struggling to catch up (VOICE, BLUESY TONES). Tires screeched (TIRES SCREECHING) from the distance and from nearby the rattle of ceramic dishes (DISHES SOUND) being loaded into a tub mixed with the drums and guitar, where the Mission Inn restaurants were now closing.”

TEACHER: “This is where I come to hear them.”

ACTION: The woman speaking wore athletic pants, a yoga top and a zip-up hoodie. She fidgeted with an iPhone, pushing buttons, making adjustments, holding it close to her ear.

TEACHER: “I hear them at night, (PAUSE) Listen! First you’ll hear the runners’ rhythm.”

ACTION: She held the phone facing the direction of her gaze.

TEACHER: (whispering) “Then you’ll notice a softer sound …Shhhhhh….. Listen! (she holds her index finger to her lips) Oh, my! (she drops the arm holding the phone to her side) It’s going to be a late run tonight. On hot days they come later. (she smiles) I guess the sidewalk is too hot for ghost angels.”

NARRATOR: “It was a hot night. The sun had set, but heat still radiated from the concrete sidewalk and the asphalt on the streets.”

TEACHER: “I was his teacher. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and I was assigned by the school district to teach him at home. He was remarkable. He was excited about everything he learned. When I assigned reading a book by a particular author, I would return in three days and he would have read not one, but two or three! It was delightful to make lesson plans for him. Our classes were more like graduate seminars than high school, and he was only fifteen!”

ACTION: She turns and cocks her head to move one ear in the direction she was looking and she stares motionless for a full minute, then begins to talk.

TEACHER: “He was an excellent student, and an athlete. He was a runner. He ran more than two hours a day, up through the rocky climb of Mount Rubidoux, through the scrubby foothills of Box Springs Mountain. He ran through the neighborhoods and streets of downtown on the days when he ran without his track team. On those days he ran with Lady… oh yes!”

ACTION: She stopped and looked directly toward the listeners.

TEACHER: “I haven’t told you about Lady… Lady was a stray dog rescued by Kevin’s family. They saw her roaming wild and hiding in bushes on the high school athletic field. They tried to catch her, offering food and affection, but she was so frightened she wouldn’t come near. Kevin and his dad took sleeping bags and camped out on the field, where they watched her roam the area in the dark of night, searching for bits of trash and discarded wrappers, hoping to turn up something to fill her hungry belly. She was thin and walked with her head low and her tail tucked tightly between her back legs. Fearing an imminent attack, she stayed in a self-protected posture.

Finally, Kevin and his dad asked The Animal Control officers for help. They brought a big cage to the field and placed fresh meat inside it. Kevin and his Dad continued sleeping on the ground and waiting. For two nights the dog came near but wouldn’t go in. On the third night, hunger won over her fear and she walked into the cage, tripped the trap and was caught.

Lady stayed at the pound for one week and Kevin and his family visited her every day. When they were able to bring Lady home, she immediately became family.

When Kevin began having headaches they were crippling, but he tried to ignore them. Schoolwork needed to be done, running became difficult, due to the pain, but he didn’t stop. The joy of flying, face first, into the wind, parting the breeze with his arms, shoulders and legs, and becoming part of the fast-moving world he saw to all sides, drew him to lace his running shoes up daily and let his strong legs loose, flying him into the hills.

One night while he was sleeping, he couldn’t ignore the nausea and pain inside his skull any longer, and he fell from the bed to the floor, unable to move. Lady was, of course, lying on the floor beside his bed, and when he fell she knew Kevin was in danger. She sniffed his breath for clues, then ran downstairs to the room where his parents slept and she barked until they awoke.”

Sound effects: (ARF! ARF!)

TEACHER: “She grabbed the sleeve of his mom’s gown between her teeth and pulled to summon them out of bed. Upstairs they found Kevin unconscious and called 911, then an ambulance came and took him to the hospital.

When I taught Kevin in his home, we sat at his dining room table, and Lady lay on the floor beside us. She was the size of a small German Shepard, with long, shining black hair and a bit of brown around her face. She won my heart in no time, and I agreed with Kevin’s family, that she was possibly the smartest dog I had ever known. She actually spoke. She used her voice in a low volume howl and pointed her nose toward whatever it was she wanted or was trying to tell you.

After teaching Kevin for a year, his medical appointments grew more frequent and his parents put him on home schooling to cope with the erratic schedule. I heard from him occasionally. When he had brain tumor surgery, I visited him in the hospital. That was the last time I would see him.”

PAUSE: The teacher looks down, then straightens her clothing and begins to talk again.

TEACHER: “Ten years later, Kevin’s mother wrote to me that he had passed away and they invited me to attend his memorial service. I learned that Lady had taken ill when Kevin went into the hospital that last time, and I learned that she died three days before him.”

ACTION: The woman stopped, took a deep breath, and ran her hands under her eyes, brushing tears from her cheeks.

TEACHER: “I was standing here one October night, several years ago, and I heard the fast-paced footsteps of a person running, clearly coming toward me from behind. I didn’t think anything of it, and only when the steps grew close did I move to the edge of the sidewalk and glance behind me to let the runner pass. To my amazement there was no one there, just the footsteps, clear and crisp. They passed me by, and I felt a whoosh of air, as they continued and moved out of my range of hearing. Then I heard a faint, familiar voice, calling ‘Lady! Lady!’ The calls became distant, and then I heard them no more. His voice was deeper, but there was no mistaking it. It was his voice.

From behind me I heard softer steps, padded steps, the steps of a running dog. Like the runner’s steps, the canine steps grew close, passed beside me and disappeared in the direction I had been staring. No dog was there to be seen but I knew the soft, galloping sounds were the sounds of Lady’s soft paws on the concrete.

I was overcome by joy, knowing these two beloved souls were nearby, even if they were ghosts. I knew they were surely ‘ghost angels,’ and I’ve called them that ever since; Kevin and Lady, Riverside’s ‘ghost angels!’”

ACTION: The woman was silent a moment, and then she raised her head, turned to the side and spoke, a smile now rising from her lips and growing across her face.

TEACHER: “Here it is! Do you hear the sounds of the runner?”

SOUND EFFECTS: Running footsteps (human), they start quiet, then grow louder and then quiet again, then disappear.

Then the soft galloping sounds begin. They also start quietly, louder, then fade away softly.

TEACHER: “They never run together.”

ACTION: Her face turns away, her eyes stare into the distance. She swallows and squeezes her eyes shut, as though she anticipates tears.

TEACHER: “It’s been three years since I first heard them pass, and they are always alone, running a few moments apart, and I always feel a wave of sadness when they pass me by.”

ACTION: She closes her eyes. The steps approach once more. The runners steps are slower.

The padded galloping steps become a walk, then a low, growling howl, soft and non-threatening.

KEVIN (in a muted male voice he whispers): “Lady.”

SOUND EFFECTS: More soft howls.

TEACHER: “Do you feel that? Do you feel the waves of JOY moving around us? It feels like warm ocean currents!”

ACTION: She closes her eyes and smiles. When her eyes open, tears roll like small rivers down her cheeks. She wipes them away.

TEACHER: “Goodbye, dear ones! You will always be in my heart.”

NARRATOR: “The runners crisp steps now keep a rhythm with the softer steps, and after another moment in which a circling, warm and blissful breeze brushes our skin, (use fans to move the air) the pair of footsteps take off together in a run and disappear into the night.”

KEVIN: “On to rainbow bridge, Lady!”

SOUND EFFECTS: A distant bark, half growling, which fades into the night.

***

ZOMBIE LOVE

By Angelina O’Shields-Hayner (Age 8)

I am a zombie and I am half human. I like to attack mansions. Their size is awesome to me. I can turn into a bat. Not all zombie humans could do that. I was once married to a zombie but after a few hundred years he started having side effects from human blood and he exploded.

I had been grieving for a few hundred years but then I started noticing something was wrong. My husband was playing tricks on me and trying to tell me he was still with me as a ghost, not a dead zombie. We loved each other so much that we couldn’t be kept apart. I was lonely because I didn’t have much family, just my annoying brother, so I wanted my husband back.

He came back and lived in the house with me and my brother went to live in the sky where the other zombie humans lived.

We were all happy.

XOXOXO

THE END

Picking Up the Pieces by Pieter Whittington

Thrills & Chills! Check back here each day leading up to Halloween for a new story written at an Inlandia workshop for those wanting to write for Ghost Walk. This story was a selection for the 2015 Ghost Walk.

***

Setting: INT. FORMER CORONER’S MORGUE – NIGHT

(the audience interacts with ghost)

The audience fills the room. It’s cold. Pale.

A VOICE OVER narrates. Echoes the room.

NARRATOR: He was a pet doctor. A successful one at that. He could cure any illness. And fix any broken bone. He was the best… But soon after, his wife died of a tragic illness, and he could not save her. And after he laid her to rest, he turned into a lonely man… So everyday, to rid his mind, he’d walk the railroad. (the sound of a TRAIN APPROACHES) One day on a walk near the railroad tracks, old man Bennett took a walk. His hearing was low, and he could not hear the train coming from behind.

SMASH. A SKID. A YELP.

NARRATOR: His body was littered throughout the yard… Most of his body was taken to this morgue, but the rest of him was lost… And now he comes to pick up the pieces.

The LIGHTS FLICKER

NARRATOR: So every night, Dr. Bennett comes and lurks this morgue to find his body parts.

A MORGUE WORKER pulls out a crate.

NARRATOR: So after careful searching and digging, we found the rest of him. And today, we come to return it to him… Would anyone like to volunteer to return them to him?

The chosen few are handed skeleton bones. A hand. An arm. A femur. A hip. And a skull.

NARRATOR: They say when you turn off the lights. And they say, if he comes, do not run. Do not move a soul, or you go with him… Do not scream, do not touch him if you want to go home.

The sound of a TRAIN comes and goes. The LIGHTS flicker.

NARRATOR: He’s here.

The LIGHTS TURN OFF. In the dark–

A cane STUMPS the ground.

OLD MAN BENNETT: (a deep slow voice) I am here to pick up the pieces.

A loud KNOCK. And a THUMP.

OLD MAN BENNETT: I am here to pick up the pieces.

Another loud KNOCK.

The LIGHTS turn on.

An OLD MAN stands there gaunt, heavy eyes of no sleep. Pale brown suit. Black boots. And a claw that holds a cane.

OLD MAN BENNETT: I am here to pick up the pieces.

The old man scours the audience. Sniffing. Smelling. Showing his rotted teeth.

Old man Bennett carries a bag. Opens it wide. And walks to his part. The audience member drops it into the bag.

Dr. Bennett gladly ties up his bag. Satisfied, he looks up into the sky. And smiles.

He walks away, into a bright light.

THE END

The Secret of Mary Bell By Jacqueline Y. Paul

Thrills & Chills! Check back here each day leading up to Halloween for a new story written at an Inlandia workshop for those wanting to write for Ghost Walk. This story was a selection for the 2015 Ghost Walk.

***

Narrator: 100 years ago on these very streets of Riverside, there lived a child. A very odd child. This child was about 14 when she came to live with her adoptive parents–John and Josephine Jones. They were humble people who owned a mercantile in downtown Riverside–right about where we are standing now.

It was on this very night that a terrible incident occurred. I am actually not comfortable telling you about this particular story on this particular night, in this particular place. But, since you good people have paid good money to come on this tour tonight, I will take a chance.

The child’s name was MARY BELL. She had no friends. And her history was questionable. She had a stick doll she liked to carry around. No one knows where this stick doll came from but rumor has it, it was cursed. Some say it is the physical incarnation of Satan himself!

Just a little bit of little known local lore, right? All I know is that those who tell the story warn others …NEVER say the name MARY BELL…Never in this place on this night. NEVER say MARY BELL. MARY BELL.

Oh, no…I said it! I hope we will be okay! It’ll be okay, right?

Priest: (comes from behind the crowd…maybe some fog… he’s burned in tattered clothes and walks with a limp)

What have you DONE? Mary Bell. Mary Bell….say her name and burn in HELL!!! You’re cursed. CURSED!!! Then he limps away and collapses. All of you are CURSED LIKE ME!

John: (he’s also burned …comes from behind…wearing tattered overalls and burned….kind of looks like a zombie farmer)

CURSED indeed! I will never rest in peace as long as people keep saying that cursed child’s name…bringing her back to life. Bringing her back to torture my soul.

It was 1915… Mother and I wanted a child but my wife, Josephine, was barren. Some say it was the stress of a previous life. You see, my wife and I weren’t always upstanding citizens. We didn’t mean it….but we killed someone–a poor helpless widow. We hit her over the head with a cast iron pan left on her stove.

We stole all of her silverware and the money in her safe…then we buried her under our store.

Nobody knew. (repeats) Nobody knew…

Or at least we thought nobody knew….

When we heard from my brother in Santa Rosa that there was one child survivor after a fire burned the orphanage there, we thought God was telling us that this was our chance for a child. Nobody wanted to take her in because she was…strange. We traveled all the way to Northern California to save her. We thought it odd that she had been there for 13 years–since she was 13 months old–and was never adopted. And, there were strange stories about what had happened to three other families who tied to take her in…and then mysteriously disappeared. All of their homes burned–but she survived. They all had her with them for just about a year….

Josephine: (comes into the crowd ….in period clothing all torn and burned…she also looks like a zombie)

Who spoke that cursed child’s name? I will never rest as long as it is uttered. I remember that night… I remember so well. It was closing time. I yelled for Mary Bell to come help me clean up. She had been with us for 13 months exactly.

And…it was the anniversary of the very night that I committed that horrible thing…I was young. I didn’t know better. I was desperate. And, nobody knew.

Nobody knew.

Nobody knew.

But I knew and I hated to be out on this wretched night. I ached to get home.

I yelled and yelled for Mary–“MARY BELL! MARY BELL!”

I finally found her…sitting on the very spot where he had buried old widow Smith’s body-back where we stored cleaning supplies.

Mary. Mary. I scolded. Get away from there. Let’s go. But she wouldn’t leave. She just sat there staring at that doll…chanting….“BURN IN HELL! BURN IN HELL. BURN IN HELL!!!!”

Suddenly … a wind came along—a HUGE wind! Oh, I can’t think of it! The howling wind and the smell of sulphur! I looked at Mary…her eyes had turned BLACK. She started laughing at me. Oh no! No! No! She has come back!

MARY BELL: (she should look really really scary…) You stupid fools! I’m not a child. I am MARY BELL. I came for your souls! You cannot hide your wrongdoing from GOD or SATAN! You are damned to walk the earth whenever my name is said. You will NEVER REST!

(Mary then looks at her doll…the eyes glow and maybe there’s some smoke or a loud sound or something)

(John and Josephine and the priest start writhing in pain……and there is fake fire or at least fire sounds)

NARRATOR: The Smiths’ store burned to the ground that night. They say it was actually swallowed into the bowels of the earth. The townsfolk later called in a priest to purify the ground. Legend has it that a priest also was cursed to HELL and swallowed up the minute he set foot on the ground. It was many years before anyone built anything here again….but time goes on and we all realized that nothing bad can really come from saying a person’s name or standing in this spot on this night…Can it?…I mean MARY BELL…MARY BELL…what does that do? (dismissive and sing-songy)

(then MARY BELL and a legion of cursed souls start coming up to people saying MARY BELL….MARY BELL…SAY HER NAME AND BURN IN HELL….they all have stick dolls with them….they terrorize Ghost Walk visitors as they walk away…..)

Lenora’s Monster by Evan Bonavita

Thrills & Chills! Check back here each day leading up to Halloween for a new story written at an Inlandia workshop for those wanting to write for Ghost Walk. This story was a selection for the 2015 Ghost Walk.

***

Characters: Lenora, Coroner, Detective Ramirez

Setting: the morgue

-Enter Lenora in front of the morgue. Lenora banging on morgue door, rambling nervously.

Lenora: “They went straight to school, all three in bright yellow dresses. NO, NO, NO, RED, bright red dresses! School then straight home! They had their alert whistles with them that’s for sure, never leave the house without them! THEY KNOW how dangerous it is out there, WHILE THAT MONSTER THAT GOT THEIR DADDY IS JUST ROAMING THE STREETS HUNTING US! “Kids will be kids” is no excuse! We went over their jobs 100 times. Lilly is supposed to guide them home only using main streets, safety in numbers, Sofia and Mia are supposed to always hold Lilly’s hand and keep look out! But something happened, I just know it! What if no one heard their whistles, or their screams? No one is ever around to help! Sofia, and Mia are much too small to fight off that monster; Lilly wouldn’t be able to alone. I KNEW I WAS RIGHT. Rick wouldn’t run away from me and the girls, he’s dead and now they are too, I can feel it! I’ve lost my husband, now my girls, all the love in my life is gone, MAYBE NOW YOU GUYS WILL BELIEVE ME!”

-Lenora now knocking down door angrily.

Lenora: “WHERE ARE THE PEOPLE WHO RUN THIS TOWN, WHERE ARE THE PEOPLE WHO ARE SUPPOSED TO SERVE AND PROTECT!”

-Interrupting Lenora’s rant, the coroner exits the morgue, giving the appearance he was closing up for the night. His facial expression shows he’s annoyed to see Lenora but speaks politely to her.

Coroner: “Lenora, what can I help you with this time.”

Lenora: “WHERE WERE YOU! I’ve been banging your door down for what seems like FOREVER!”

-Coroner is now clearly annoyed with her.

Coroner: “Closing up like I always do at this time SO I CAN GO HOME, SO IS THERE ANYTHING I CAN HELP YOU WITH?!”

Lenora: “Where is Detective Ramirez?! I couldn’t find him at the station and we ALL know he’s not out trying to keep this city safe, apparently that’s just my job around here! SO I figured he’s in here chatting it up with you, while you guys just sit back and watch THE BODIES PILE UP!”

-Coroner now angry.

Coroner: “NOW LENORA, I’m sorry about Rick, I REALLY AM, you didn’t deserve him taking off like that, BUT HE’S NOT DEAD, he’s just GONE. You need to get over this murder nonsense for ME, for you, and for your girls.”

-Lenora’s eyes widen as she remembers again her urgent reason for finding the detective.

Lenora: “THE GIRLS! THEY’RE MISSING! They’re dead just like my husband Rick, I, I, I… I just know it. YOU GUYS LET IT HAPPEN AGAIN! THEY’RE DEAD, THEY’RE DEAD, THEY’RE DEAD, JUST LIKE THEIR DADDY! You guys didn’t search hard enough!”

Coroner: “SLOW DOWN, where were they last?! Come inside and I’ll try to get a hold of Detective Ramirez.”

-Cop appears and interrupts them before they can go inside. Cop speaking at corner.

Cop: “Sir, we need you to open up the back, we’ve got three small ones, still warm coming in.”

-Cop notices Lenora and speaks to her gently.

Cop: “Um, miss you should come with me, we need to talk.”

-Lenora yelling at cop and coroner. *NOTE: her back is still not visible to audience.

Lenora: “None of you wanted to believe me. No you all just thought I was CRAZY, you all just ignored me! I TRIED TO SAVE THEM! I told you someone killed my husband, I TOLD YOU AND NOW she’s killed my girls! AND IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT!”

-Lenora NOW turns her back to the audience reveling large hand outlined smudges of blood on the back of her dress where it appears she’s wiped her hands. Lenora now speaking in a soft and calm voice.

Lenora: “I warned you the monster was still out there and you didn’t believe me [small pause] you didn’t stop me.”

 

On Glen Hirshberg’s Motherless Child by Victoria Waddle

Glen Hirshberg is a Shirley Jackson Award winner as well as a three-time International Horror Guild Award winner. Motherless Child makes clear why he has been thus honored.

I might have passed up this October must-read except that I was familiar with the author as a short story writer. And I might have missed those stories except that I often seek writers who are connected to the Inland Empire in some way. Previously, Hirshberg was a professor of fiction at Cal State San Bernardino and helped to launch the MFA program there.

It’s not often that readers have the joy of finding genre fiction of literary quality. Add to that a vampire who uses his Twitter base to hunt his prey and this tight piece of writing (it’s well under 300 pages) is a great read for any horror fan, teens included.

Bad girl Natalie doesn’t immediately realize that her wild night with pop singer The Whistler and best friend Sophie has done her damage forever. That’s really forever rather than a lifetime; she has been turned into a vampire. The Whistler hopes to make Natalie his eternal companion. As he sees it, she is his Destiny. He turns Sophie just to give Natalie someone to hang with while she figures out what has happened to them both, while they finish their transformation.

When Natalie does realize what has happened to her and Sophie, both women give their babies to Natalie’s mother with instructions to take off and never let the women know where she has gone with the children. The ensuing loneliness and desire would be enough to keep the reader charmed, but when ‘Mother’–the woman who turned The Whistler–figures out that her eternal companion hopes to forsake her for another, she is having none of it. Mother is amoral, cunning, willful, and violent. In the midst of all the grief and longing, we are thrust into spine-tingling episodes and suspenseful cat and mouse chases.

Not your typical vampire book, Motherless Child is about many things, and most surprisingly–if you allow the title to color your guesses about the nature of the book–it is a book about the ferocity of mother love, its limitless nature.

Through well-drawn characters and continual suspense, Hirshberg pulls the reader in quickly and never lets go. With the story very nearly concluded, he manages a final plot twist that both shocks the reader and leaves the reader deeply satisfied.

A sequel, Good Girls, is coming in February 2016. I’ll leave the light on.

Andreé Robinson-Neal

Homegoing Day

“Taste this,” Nancy ordered as she shoved a spoonful of macaroni salad in Jamal’s mouth. “Is it enough tuna? You know how Bertram and them like it with a lot of tuna.”

She put her other hand on her hip. “Lord knows they never lift a finger to buy a single can but they sure want to tell you how to make it.”

Jamal licked mayonnaise from the corners of his mouth. He had come for the rest of his glass of sweet tea from dinner and instead found himself wrangled by his mom in a kitchen full of burbling pots and pans.

“You know, Daddy loved daffodils. I bet he’d be disappointed to see how the cold did them this year,” Nancy said as she turned back to the little window over the sink and squinted into the dark. It was only 4 a.m. but her potato salad needed just a few more ingredients. She had so much to do.

Jamal scratched his neck. “Ma, why are you cooking? Auntie Stella said–”

“Boy, you know Stella can’t cook. Besides, everybody’s gonna be looking for my potato salad.” She whipped the big spoon around the silver bowl until it sang.

Jamal watched, hypnotized by the rhythm of her wrist.

“So?”

“So what?”

She stopped stirring and looked at him over the tops of her glasses. “The macaroni salad?”

“Oh! Yeah, it’s great. But what is all this?” Jamal asked as he waved a hand across the kitchen. “You should be resting.”

“What in the world do I have to rest for? Daddy would be cross if I didn’t feed these people right, today of all days.”

Jamal tiptoed to the refrigerator and opened the door. He had put his glass at the back of the first shelf, which was now filled with rainbow gelatin molds. He checked behind each one and sighed; he surveyed the kitchen again and spied his now-empty glass as it sat on a pile of dirty dishes.

“Boy, shut that ice box before you let all the cold air out.”

Jamal walked to the sink, rinsed the glass, and filled it with tap water. “Ice boxes went the way of the dinosaur, Ma. What you have there is an energy-efficient piece of 21st century technology.” He paused to savor a swallow of water and grimaced. He had become accustomed to his filtered city water; distance and time had changed many of the old country homestead’s flavors in the five years since he had left home. Jamal Washington was on his way up the ladder of success and the timing of this particular family issue could not have been worse. He thought there was nothing left for him in the neighborhood and shook the thought away quickly; his family was there and that certainly was more than nothing.

He watched his mother as she dolloped mayonnaise and mustard on top of the perfectly-cubed potatoes in her shiny bowl. “Anyway, like I said, you need to rest. Besides, nobody’s gonna want any kind of salad for breakfast. I think Uncle Bud is getting something catered in.”

Nancy stirred the seasonings into the potato salad. “You know you want some of this good cookin’,” she teased. “Go look in the stove.”

Jamal turned on the oven light, cursed under his breath when it did not come on, and gently cracked the door to peer inside. “Ma, one of the first thing’s I’ll do when I get back is buy you a stove. This thing is so old, Methuselah’s momma probably baked the first loaf of bread in it.”

Nancy stopped stirring and frowned. “Boy, watch your language. Besides, nobody asked you to buy me a stove. Daddy had that put in here when he bought me this house. Now look in there like I said,” she admonished.

Nancy’s egg and bacon casseroles were heavenly and Jamal felt the water rise in his mouth. He shut the oven. “Uncle Bud’s gonna be mad. There’s enough casserole for 20 people in there, and I think he already paid.”

“You wanna clean this for me?” She had left a big dollop of salad on her stirring spoon and Jamal chewed his bottom lip as he took it. “Do I look like I care if Bud paid for anything? Nobody asked me what I wanted.” Nancy fussed as she ripped a gossamer piece of plastic wrap from the tattered box on the counter and covered the bowl of potato salad. “Don’t nobody want that old dried up diner food he bought.”

Jamal bucked his eyes at her and she shrugged.

“That’s what Bud always gets for family gatherings. Calls himself catering. That’s not catering,” she mumbled as she stacked the trays with olives, cheese, and salami to make room in the already-packed refrigerator and slid the potato salad bowl between savory macaroni salad and glistening Ambrosia.

Jamal looked at the spoon. No one made potato salad like his mother. She had shared a few of her precious recipes with him before he had moved away but her versions always came out better. He smiled at her and asked, “Why must you be so contrary, Ma?”

Nancy turned down the flame beneath her pressure cooker and moved across to the sink to pour water off the hardboiled eggs. As she tilted the steaming pot she said, “I need to keep busy.”

“It’s four in the morning, Ma. Ain’t that much busy in the world.”

“You didn’t say that when Daddy caught you sneaking back in the house that time you and Jimmy called yourselves clubbing all night. Y’all got real busy when he was ready to put you on punishment.” Nancy lifted the edge of her apron and pretended to tap dance. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen the two of you think up lies so quick.”

Jamal laughed at his mother and the memory. He had been 18 and it felt like a lifetime ago when his dad had threatened to take his head off his shoulders if he ever disrespected the house by staying out past midnight ever again. He wondered who would chastise him now that his dad was dead.

“Jamal?” Nancy looked at him again over the tops of her glasses. “You all right?”

“I’m good, Ma,” he answered as casually as he could and fingered a foil-covered mound on the corner of the table. “Might there be cornbread rolls under here?”

Nancy beamed. “Of course.” Jamal peeled back a corner and carefully removed two rolls; Nancy always stacked them in a spiral and the ones he chose would not ruin the pattern. “Don’t you mess up my pattern, boy,” she chided out of habit.

“Tsk! You know I got it,” Jamal sucked his teeth and handed her a roll. “I know you got some warm butter. Let’s do this.” He found an empty bar stool; the rest were covered with trays of crackers and bowls filled with freshly-washed fruit.

Mother and son stood next to each other and savored the grainy rolls. Nancy wiped crumb-covered fingertips on her apron with a sigh. “I sure miss Daddy.”

“I know, Ma,” Jamal replied; he had no idea since this was his first experience with death but placing an arm around her shoulder, he tried to hug the sadness from his mother’s face. “Say, why don’t you go put your feet up? I’ll wash dishes right quick.”

“Thank you, son,” her voice trembled. She turned away to wipe a tear and Jamal looked out the window. “Jamal? You heard from Jimmy? Do you think he’ll be here?”

He frowned. “I don’t know, Ma. You know I went looking for him when I first got here. I gave a message to one of his associates,” he spat the word. “He knows, Ma. That’s all I can tell you.”

“You’re a good boy, Jamal,” Nancy said gently. She peered through the window into the yard. “At least the azaleas did well. You know Daddy loved azaleas.”

Jamal sank his hands into the sudsy water. “I know, Ma,” he offered with a smile, “I know.”

***

Bud’s grin spanned his fleshy face. “Come on in, Willy!” He bellowed around the cigar tucked wetly in the corner of his mouth and pawed the mortician into the house.

“Nancy! Willy’s here!”

“I’m back here!”

“Willy–”

“It’s William.”

Bud gripped the other man’s shoulder and lowered his voice. “Willy, William, whatever.

Look, man, lemme talk to you.” Bud and William had been in high school together; it was no mystery as to who bullied whom. “You know my sister don’t have a lot of assets. I hope you gave her a square deal on this funeral.”

William stiffened “I need to speak to Mrs. Washington.” He stepped around Bud and followed his nose to the kitchen. “Nancy,” he said as took her hand and placed another of his business cards in it.

“Thank you, William.” Nancy juggled the card from hand to hand as she wiped each against her apron. “Just look at you: ‘Whipper Funeral Services’–I bet you made your father proud.”

William had taken over the family business right after college and continued as the seventh generation of Whippers in charge of final arrangements for most of the town.

She tucked the card in an apron pocket.

“Please,” she moved a tray of deviled eggs off a bar stool, “have a seat.”

“Thank you,” his eyes moved over plates of chicken, bowls of fruit, and assorted cakes and pies scattered across every tabletop, chair, and stool in the kitchen.”My but you’ve been busy,” he commented as Nancy handed him a biscuit and his stomach growled appreciatively. “Thank you; you make the best biscuits.”

She winked. “I always make a few extra just for you when we have socials at the church.”

He finished the biscuit in two bites and then looked her in the eye. “Are we all ready for today?”

“Doesn’t it look like it?” Nancy waved her hand around the kitchen and laughed. “Daddy would be happy, I think.”

William cleared his throat. “You mentioned that you wanted James as a pallbearer.”

“Where are my manners?” Nancy walked to a cabinet and opened the door, revealing rows of neatly arranged mugs. “Would you like some coffee? I just made a fresh pot.”

He shook his head.

“Everything all right up in here?” Bud asked as he shambled in, took a biscuit from a tray on the stool next to where William stood, and shoved it in his mouth. “You need any help, Nancy?”

“Bud! Don’t talk with your mouth full,” she said, handing him a napkin. “You are nothin’ but a big child. Get out–William and I have business, and it’s none of yours.”

He took two more biscuits and smiled. “Okay, okay. I just want to make sure Willy’s taking care of you right.”

“Bud, I hear the doorbell. It might be your catered breakfast.” He dashed from the kitchen as Nancy moved the tray of biscuits from the stool to the last clear place on the counter,beside the coffee pot, and then sat down.”I’m not sure James will be able to serve as a pallbearer,” she answered with a sigh.

“Right now we have Bud, Jamal, his friend Sam and three of Calvin’s lodge mates,”

William said gently. “We’ll be fine if James can’t make it.”

“I’m sure he’ll be along. You sure you don’t want any coffee?” William shook his head again. “Well,” Nancy sighed. “I guess this is it, huh?”

He held her hand gently; it was the first thing he learned how to do as a mortician.”We’ll take good care of Calvin.” He paused as he thought about how much fun he used to have with Nancy, Bud, and Calvin when they were kids and played in each other’s backyards.”Your husband was a very good man, Nancy.”

She smiled and wiped a tear. “You are a good man, William.”

“I’m glad you think so, Nancy.” He dropped his professional veneer for a moment as his own tears fell. He pulled a handkerchief from his inner pocket, blew his nose loudly, and said, “You always looked out for me, you know, with Bud when we were in school.”

She nodded. “Bud really likes you; that’s why he messes with you.” She commented as they walked to the kitchen door. “Thank you for everything, William. Is there anything else you need from me? Daddy did a good job putting his things in order but I don’t want to forget anything.”

“I have everything,” he answered. “The car will be here by 9:30 to carry you to the church and the viewing will start at 10.”

Nancy walked him to the door, said good-bye and closed the door behind him. Turning around, she stepped backwards as Stella had walked right up behind her.

“Here, honey,” her sister-in-law cooed. “I made you a plate.” She had pulled together a plate of fried potatoes, scrambled eggs, grits, bacon, and sage sausage from Bud’s order.

“That’s okay, Stella. You know I’m not a fan of diner food.” Nancy swallowed a laugh as Bud scowled. Now Bud, I’m not sayin’ anything you didn’t already know,” she said, giggling. She turned to Odessa, Jamal, Cora-Lynn, Stella, and several other relatives. “There’s a casserole on the sideboard.” Everyone except Bud hurried into the kitchen.

Bud snorted. “Don’t nobody like your old-fashioned breakfast casserole. It’s nothin’ but leftovers anyway.”

“Why you lyin’, Bud?” Their older sister, Odessa, fussed as she returned with a heaping plate, a half-eaten biscuit on top. “Everybody loves Nancy’s casserole. Hers was the only one Mamma would eat.” She perched on the arm of a chair, swallowed the rest of the biscuit in one bite and continued talking. “And she hated that diner stuff you always get,” she added, licking her fingers

“I know that’s right!” Cora-Lynn, their youngest sister, piped up, sitting down on the chair beside Odessa. “And even if Nancy put every leftover in the house in her casserole, I bet it would be more moist than that cardboard you bought.” The two sisters erupted with laughter.

“Look, you all finish up and don’t make a mess in here!” Nancy ordered. “I’m going to get dressed. The car will be here soon and we need to be right. This is Daddy’s day.”

The other women stopped laughing and Cora-Lynn wiped tears from her eyes as Nancy walked toward the stairway.

Bud stepped to the table to pull the aluminum foil covers back over the food he had purchased. He picked up the plate he had left on the arm of his chair and bit into a slice of bacon that crackled across the silence.

“That bacon is so old, Aunt Jemima cooked it!” Odessa joked and the sisters broke into laughter again as Bud frowned.

“I know that’s right,” Nancy added and laughed despite herself as she started up the stairs.

***

Bud smacked Justin in the back of his head as he sank his ample butt into the last free chair in the living room. “How you gonna sit up in my sister’s house –”

“Don’t you mean ‘my lodge brother’s house’?” Justin shot back.

“Justin Spirts, don’t you start with me.” Bud shook his hand in the other man’s face. “How you gonna sit up in here and talk about my nephew like that? Jimmy’s got a few issues, but you got no right!”

Justin snorted. “Jimmy’s got more than issues. He’s out there on that stuff and you know it. That’s why he wasn’t at his daddy’s funeral.”

“He was, too. I saw him in the back of the church,” Odessa said. “Nancy said he walked to the cemetery from there.” She winked at Justin. “And the boy does have issues.”

Bud hefted his frame from the chair and stood up. “Odessa, you would take Spirts’ side anyway.”

They stopped talking as Nancy walked into the room. “What are y’all on about over here?”

“Bud was messin’ with Justin about–”

“Nothin’,” Bud interrupted. “We was just jaw-jackin’.”He knew Nancy would be angry if Odessa shared that they had been talking about Jimmy and his habits. “You know how Justin and the rest of those stuffy lodge boys are. I was tryin’ to get him to show me the handshake.

“Uh-hm,” Nancy looked him up and down. She suspected they had been talking about her oldest son but let it go; it was the wrong day for family to be at odds. She smiled.”How about James?” she said.”He was telling me how well he’s doing these days.”

“What’s he doing?” Odessa asked. She was always ready for something to gossip about.

“He’s working at one of those can and bottle recycle places. Some kinda manager or something.”

“Managin’ to sell cans and bottles to get them drugs, more like,” Justin snickered, balancing a forkful of potato salad. Bud elbowed Justin’s hand and the salad plopped on the edge of the plate.

Nancy frowned at them.”From the sounds of things, he’s doing better. You know that recession hit young men like him awful hard.”

“That only happened to people who were actually working, Ma,” Jamal added, slipping past her with a plate full of cookies, cake slices, and a large piece of sweet potato pie.

She swatted at him and he dodged her hand.”Where is he anyway? I didn’t even get to talk with him.”

“Don’t you speak about your brother that way, young man. Anyway, I made him a plate since he had to go. Can you believe they have him scheduled to work this afternoon?”

She crossed her arms tightly and hugged her elbows.”On the day of his Daddy’s funeral and they wouldn’t let him off. He had to be there,” she leaned around Jamal to look at the mantel clock, “at 3 so I gave him car fare.”

Sighs of disgust filled the room. Nancy looked at them in surprise. “What’s wrong with all of you?”

“Ma, Jimmy didn’t need car fare,” Jamal answered. “He’s not a manager. He hustled you.”

Nancy blinked. “Don’t talk that way about James. Don’t let me hear any of you talking that way. Daddy wouldn’t approve.”She frowned, turned, marched into the dining room, and smiled at the Reverend and William, who were deep in discussion.

Odessa shoved a last spoonful of the Ambrosia into her mouth. She swallowed, looked toward Nancy in the next room and whispered, “She might not think so but Calvin knew all about James. And no, he didn’t approve.” She looked at Bud and Justin and gave them both a dagger-eyed stare. “You two know how she is about that boy. Now leave it alone. Today isn’t about James, anyway.” She turned toward Jamal, who was sitting in the corner, and asked, “Jamal, is that your mamma’s lemon cake you got there? I gotta get me some of that before it’s gone!” She licked her fork, and clutching her plate, stood up, and left in search of another of her favorite desserts.

Nancy shook her head, wanting to block her son’s words about Jamal from her mind as she joined William and the Reverend as they stood near the punch bowl. William wiped the last of his chocolate cake from the corners of his mouth, and stood up straight.

“Nancy, how are you?” William asked. “I haven’t seen you sit still since everyone arrived back here from the cemetery. Have you eaten?”

She waved him off. “I can’t eat a bite just now, but I’m all right. I hope you’re both enjoying the food.”

Reverend Jones, Nancy’s sister Stella’s husband, shook his head. “Of course. You know I did.” He leaned in. “When you gonna teach your sister to cook like this?”

Nancy tapped him lightly on the arm. “Stella’s gonna get you for making fun of her cooking!”

“Ma. I need to talk to you.” Jamal stood by her side, touching her elbow.

“Not now, Jamal.”

“It’s important.”

She turned, saw the frown on his face, then looked past him and saw a police officer stood in the front doorway.

“It’s about Jimmy, Ma.”

Jamal took Nancy by the arm and guided her through the groups of family and friends, all quietly pushing food around their half-eaten plates.

“Mrs. Washington, I am so sorry to disturb you but there’s been an incident involving your son, James. I’m going to need you to come with me to the hospital.”

Nancy shrugged Jamal’s hand away and replied, “Officer, I don’t know if you are aware but we are celebrating my husband’s home-going today. Now why don’t you just rest yourself there — Bud, move over so the officer can sit down — and let me make you a plate. There’s plenty as you can see. I know James is fine. I gave him car fare to get to work just about a half-hour ago, so what is this all about?”

The officer touched the edge of his cap.”Thank you, ma’am but no. I can’t give you any additional information here and need you to come with me to the hospital. Your other son–Jamal?–said he would drive you.”

Nancy wiped her palms down the front of her apron and reaching around, untied the knot at the back.

“Cora-Lynn,” Nancy said, “get my purse from upstairs, would you? Stella, I didn’t say thank you when I was in the dining room so please give my thanks to your husband for the message today. I know Daddy would have been very happy. Bud, you leave Justin alone while I’m gone and Justin, be sure to tell the brothers how much I appreciate all they did. I’ll bring something nice around to the lodge next week as snacks for the meeting. And Odessa, make sure everybody gets some of this food to take home, especially the Reverend and William. And make sure Bertram doesn’t take all of the macaroni salad — tell him to leave some for other folks.”

Nancy glanced in the mirror next to the door and patted down a stray hair.

“I want that kitchen empty when I get back,” she continued. “But save some of those oxtails. I want to freeze them for James because they’re his favorite.”

As Nancy and Jamal followed the officer down the porch steps, Stella called out,

“Should I make you a plate too, Nancy?”

“No, that’s all right, Stella,” Nancy replied. “This is Daddy’s day. I’ll find something when we get back.” Nancy turned to the officer. “We’re going to the hospital?”

He nodded.

“Well,” she paused by her potted flowers next to the bottom step and grabbed a handful of daffodils and pansies.”If James has been hurt or something, I’m sure some flowers will brighten up his room. Don’t you think, Jamal?”

Jamal glanced at the officer, who shook his head slightly. “Sure, Ma. I’m sure that will be fine.”

“Of course it will.” Nancy gave Jamal and the officer a shaky smile as they walked toward the curb where Jamal’s rental car was parked. Turning to Jamal as he opened the car door, Nancy asked, “Did I tell you how much Daddy loved daffodils?”

“Yes, Ma,” Jamal said, “you sure did.”

“Homegoing Day” is part of the Pure Slush anthology, Feast, published in three parts: “Homegoing Day,” “A Visit from the Mortician,” and “After the Service”.

Andreé Robinson-Neal got bit by the writing bug back in the late 1970s while watching Rod Serling and reading Ray Bradbury; although she has worked in education for more than a quarter-century, she has never been cured of her penchant for speculative fiction. Find some of her flash fiction www.starvingactivist.com. She writes under the name AR Neal, who will hopefully one day be identified as a famous NaNoWriMo participant. She reads more than she sleeps.

Andreé Robinson-Neal is a member of Andrea Fingerson’s Creative Writing Workshop at the Feldheym Library in San Bernardino.

liz gonzález

Excerpt from the novel-in-progress Tell Her She’s Lovely. This excerpt is set in 1974 in the mythical town Muscat twenty minutes east of San Bernardino.

Chapter 2: Cabaret

Mama sings in an off key vibrato to the voiceless muzak on her car radio, “I want some red roses for a blue lady.”

“Can’t we at least listen to the actual sappy song?” I reach to change the station, and she slaps my hand. “Ow, that stings!”

“Leave it alone. This music relaxes me.”

It’s Halloween night, a school night. We’re pulling away from Baker’s Drive Thru, my favorite place to eat. Mama got me a cheeseburger, fries, and chocolate shake as a guilt gift. Whenever she feels bad about letting me down, which is a lot lately, Mama buys me something. I call it a guilt gift. Tonight she feels bad about dumping me off at Minerva’s in South M so I won’t be home alone. Mama is going to an adult costume party at her divorced girlfriend’s house in San Bernardino. Nat-the-Brat is already at her best friend Kathy’s kid party, and then she’ll spend the night at Grandma’s.

Mama is dressed like Liza Minnelli in the movie Cabaret. Under her camel wool coat, she’s wearing a satin black halter-top that shows way too much skin and satin black shorts. She never would allow me to dress so sexy, and I wouldn’t if I could: embarrassing. At least she wore pantyhose instead of stockings and garters. Just like Minnelli, she put on false eyelashes and thick black eyeliner and pasted a Dippity-Do curl beside each ear. Mama tucked her hair under the bowler hat she found at Goodwill to look like she has a bob. She’s much prettier than Liza Minnelli and will probably have the best costume at the party, but I keep those thoughts to myself. I don’t want to encourage her to keep dressing like this.

“Will there be other ladies as old as you at the party?” I chomp into my burger, letting ketchup and thousand island sauce drip down my chin. She hates when I eat like this.

“Old? I’m only 33.” Without taking her eyes off the road, Mama shoots her right hand into the food bag between us, pulls out a napkin, and jams it into my hand. “Most of the women going to the party are my age. Not that it’s any of your business.”

“Good, otherwise people might think you’re a chaperone.” I want to make her feel bad. I’m the teen. I should be going to a costume party, not my mother.

“Don’t start, Rachel.”

I rip another chunk from the burger with my molars.

“You’re going to make a mess, girl.” Mama’s grip tightens on the steering wheel and her lips purse. A cheesy instrumental version of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” comes on the radio. I change the station to KCAL. This time Mama doesn’t stop me. Of all the Rolling Stones’ songs, downer “Angie” is on. KCAL played it all the time when my father first left. I sang it so much I know the sad lyrics by heart: “With no loving in our souls and no money in our coats, you can’t say we’re satisfied.” I turn the dial back to the muzak station.

“There’s a cute telephone table on clearance at Sears. I can get an extra 10% off with my employee discount.”

“Telephone table? For what?”

“I’m putting a phone with your own number in your bedroom. You and Natalie can have privacy when you talk to your friends.” She watches my face, expecting me to get excited.

“I’d rather have a mother who acts like a mother.” I’m too mad to tell her that I really want her to spend Halloween at home with me.

Mama lets out a deep sigh. “Let’s not fight. You’re going to have fun with your friends.” She picks up my shake and takes a sip. “I thought you’d be happy to get a break from me.”

“Break? Even when you’re home you’re not there. You’re always too busy drinking, cooking, cleaning, scolding me and Nat, and doing whatever you do when you lock yourself in your bedroom.”

“You know I’ve had a hard time since your father left. And you have everything you need: a roof over your head, a bed, food, and don’t forget the cute clothes I buy you.”

“Everything except a mother.”

She stops the car at the stop sign on Eucalyptus and Rialto Avenues and stays quiet. A mother crosses in the crosswalk in front of us, holding her little kid’s hand. The kid is dressed in a cat costume, skipping with joy. I wonder if Mama thinks about the fun we used to have when she and my father took Nat and me trick or treating. The mother and kid step onto the corner and Mama presses on the gas and looks at me with a big, fake smile. “Watch, you’ll have so much fun you’ll wish I went out every night.”

“Can I have three dollars for a pizza?” I’m tired of her rejecting me and am going to milk her for as many guilt gifts as I can get.

“Sure. And I’ll give you extra money for sodas.”

“I’m having fun already.” I stuff a handful of fries in my mouth, smearing ketchup on my hand. The corner of her mouth twitches, but she keeps her eyes on the road and gently nudges another napkin into my hand.

***

Minerva and Chris are sitting on a bench beneath the porch light in front of Minerva’s house. They both stand up when we pull into the driveway. Minerva is buttoned up in her navy blue pea coat. She has on the purple beret she knitted, and her wild black hair look like plant roots growing out of it. Chris is the opposite. No matter that it’s cloudy and cold and that she’s skinny as a taquito, she’s always hot. She claims it’s her “Mississippi Queen” blood; she’s always finding a way to compare herself to that song. Her royal blue velvet blazer is open, showing her tank top underneath. Thank God it’s not the one that says “Itty Bitty Titty Committee.” Mama would say something stupid, like she should cover up.

Chris and Minerva leave the big orange bowl full of candy for trick or treaters on the bench and run to Mama’s side of the car to meet her. She rolls down her window and they introduce themselves to each other. I grab my backpack and duffle bag from the back seat and rush around the car so I can pull them away from Mama. It’s bad enough I have a single mother who goes to parties, but mine has to wear a slutty costume, too.

“Bye,” I say, now standing between Minerva and Chris.

“I’m sorry I didn’t think to get you two a burger when we went to Baker’s,” Mama says.

“Thank you, but I have plenty of food,” Minerva says.

“Well you girls better get inside before you catch a cold.”

“Mama, they’re not little kids.”

“Nice meeting you,” Chris says.

“Yes, nice to meet you,” Minerva says. “Have a good time at your party.” They each take one of my bags and head for the side of the garage.

“Later.” I step backwards before she can kiss me goodbye.

“Rachel, come here.” Mama curls her pointer finger.

“What?”

“My kiss?”

“Okay.” I trudge back to the car and lean in the window. I aim for her cheek, but she smacks me on the lips. I hope Chris and Minerva didn’t see. “I told you I’m too old for the lips.”

“What? I can’t hear you.” Mama rolls up the window and pulls away.

***

“Your mama sure is pretty. And cool. You never told us she drives a Duster.” Chris says when I join them on the walkway beside the garage.

“It’s hard to be excited about the car since my father stuck her with the payments.”

“Well, your mother is beautiful,” Minerva says.

“She looks better when she’s not dressed like a hooker,” I say.

Chris gasps. “Don’t talk like that about your mama.”

“You should appreciate her,” Minerva says.

“Can we please change the subject?” If I wasn’t so ashamed, I would tell them about Mama’s drinking and night clubbing so they’d understand why she pisses me off.

Minerva opens the door on the side of the garage.

“She has the coolest chick pad,” Chris smiles like we’re entering Disneyland.

“We’re not chicks; we’re young women.” Minerva scolds. “What am I going to do with you?”

This is the first time Chris and I are visiting Minerva’s house and the first time the three of us are spending the night together. Minerva and I haven’t been to Chris’s house yet, either. We’ve only been to my house to eat lunch on school days.

Last May, for her fourteenth birthday, Minerva’s father and brothers turned the garage into a bedroom and added a bathroom with a shower.

“This is twice the size of my bedroom,” I say, a little jealous. “Do your brothers ever walk in on you?”

“I have house door locks on the entrances from the kitchen and the outside,” Minerva says with a proud smile.

“It’s like you have your own apartment,” Chris says.

“I know.” Minerva takes in a deep, satisfied breath.

I wish I had a big room of my own with a lock to keep out Nat-the-Brat. But everything in my room would be new and modern, like a picture I saw in the Sears Catalog.

Minerva’s furniture is old, bulky, and scratched. A wooden desk from the forties or fifties takes up one corner of the room. A gooseneck lamp sits on top of her desk, along with her typewriter and neat stacks schoolbooks and English and math papers. A tall, wide bookcase that matches the desk, filled with books, stands against the wall behind the desk.

We have one skinny bookcase at home, with a set of encyclopedias my parents bought from a salesman who came to our door, a heavy dictionary, a Catholic Bible we never read, and Mama’s Reader’s Digest condensed novels. I could finish one of those novels in a day. It isn’t a whole bookcase, either. There’s a cupboard at the bottom where Mama stores holiday decorations. Grandma doesn’t even have a bookcase. She keeps her Catholic Bible, the only book she owns, on her bed stand.

I scan the titles on Minerva’s shelves. There are books about history, art, science, Mexico, South America, books with poems, and pamphlets. I pull out a pamphlet with an orange cover.

“Cool, Cesar Chavez’s face on a cluster of grapes.” I’m excited to show Minerva that I recognize him. She’s taught me and Chris a lot about him and the United Farm Workers Union in the past two months. I put back the pamphlet and pull out a book about Mexico written in Spanish. I understand only a few words.

“Have you read all of these? It’s like a library. Where did you get so many books?” I ask Minerva who’s stepped beside me.

“It will take me years to read all of them, but I’ve read about thirty percent. Most are my father’s or were my mother’s, some from when they went to Valley.”

“Do you know how to read in Spanish?”

“Yeah, do you?”

Chicana Minerva will be disappointed in me, but I tell her the truth anyway. I know only a little Spanish, like how to count up to twenty, ask for the bathroom, order basic foods at a restaurant, like beans and chicken, and give basic greetings, like good morning and good to meet you. When we were little, Grandma told my parents not to teach me and Nat Spanish so we wouldn’t get put in a Spanish only school where they teach girls to be housekeepers. The biggest drag is I feel left out when people speak Spanish around me, like I’m not Mexican enough.

“That happened to a lot of kids our age. It’s because of segregation.” Minerva sighs. “The trouble our gente is put through.”

“Yeah, segregation. I didn’t know there was a word for it.” I’m relieved Minerva doesn’t think I’m stupid or worst, “a sell-out Hispanic” as she calls Mexican Americans who want to be white. I want to be smart like her. “Can I borrow one of your books sometime?”

“I would love it. None of my friends from junior high were interested. You can borrow any of them except these.” She runs her fingertips over the edges of the poetry pamphlets. “They’re one of a kind. My father won’t let them leave the house.”

“Poetry is too hard anyway. I’d rather start with something fun and easy.”

“Not this poetry. You’ll like it. I’ll read it to you some time.”

I leave Minerva at her bookshelves and check out the rest of her bedroom. It looks like a Chicano nerd-hippie lives here. A Janis Joplin poster is tacked on the door to the house. Orange and white paper fliers with large black print and cool, artistic drawings of Aztec pyramids and cars announcing Chicano and Raza dances, parties, and outdoor band happenings are taped on the walls on both sides of the front window. Spider plants spill from her homemade macramé hangars dangling from the ceiling. Bunk beds are stacked in a corner on the other side of the room from the desk. An India style mustard-yellow tapestry with a maroon swirly pattern covers each bed.

“Ga-roovy.” Chris dives backward into the royal purple beanbag across from the bunk beds. “This is where I’m sleeping.” She unbuckles her sandals and drops them on the floor.

Minerva puts a record on the small stereo unit sitting on top of an orange crate next to the bunk beds. A song I haven’t heard in a while plays—Mexican music, like a slow cha-cha, but rock music too, with an organ, cowbell, and rock guitar.

“They’re taking too long to sing,” Chris complains.

“There’s no singing,” Minerva says. “This is a Latin Jazz song, El Chicano’s version of ‘Viva Tirado’ by Gerald Wilson.”

“You know all the cool music scoop.” I cha-cha over to a dainty antique wooden table to check out the things on top.

Arranged on a yellowing white doily are a Pee Chee sized black and white picture in a lacy gold frame, an unlit votive candle in a cobalt blue glass holder, like the ones at church, on one side of the frame, a gold crucifix on the other, and a sugar skull and glazed donut, both grayed with dust, on a clear glass saucer. The picture had been taken at a studio, like the one in White Front where Mama had me and Nat take pictures when we were little. A girl about 17, wearing a floral pattern dress with a swirly skirt and a skinny belt wrapped tight around her tiny waist, stands sideways with one arm on her hip. Her eyes are smiling, and she’s looking directly into the camera.

“That’s my mom.” Minerva lifts the frame and holds it close to my face.

“She’s pretty. She could be your twin sister,” I say.

“Thanks.” Minerva kisses the photo and sets it back down.

Chris points at the plate. “The skull is creepy, and that donut needs to be thrown out.”

“Shut-up,” I say. “It’s about her mother. Have some heart.”

“Chris,” Minerva speaks in her slow, patient teacher-voice. “It’s like the Dia de Los Muertos altars in Mexico I told you about, remember? Donuts were my mom’s favorite snack.”

“Yeah, I remember. Dia de Los Muertos means Day of the Dead. The day after Halloween, y’all call back your dead loved ones with their favorite food and other goodies.” Chris says it like a Kindergartner who has memorized a story.

“Not exactly but close enough.”

Chris turns her nose toward the ceiling. “Will you please put the skull away while I’m here? It scares me.”

Minerva opens the little drawer beneath the tabletop and carefully places the candy skull inside and closes it. “There. Happy?”

“Yes mam,” Chris says in a thick drawl. “Time to smoke pot. There’s too much tension in this chick, I mean, young woman’s pad.”

***

“If you were a slut, what’s the first thing you’d notice?” Chris giggles, holding Alice Cooper’s Love it to Death album cover over Minerva’s and my faces. We have the house to ourselves. Minerva’s brothers are at a party, and her father is spending the night at his girlfriend’s. We’re in the living room, lying on our backs beside each other on the brown and orange shag carpet that looks and feels like calico cat fur. The kids stopped ringing the doorbell for candy about an hour ago. Since then, Minerva has taught us how to roll a joint and smoke it down to the roach.

Minerva says most people don’t get high the first time they try pot, but Chris and I are buzzing like the fluorescent overhead lights at school. We’ve been examining Minerva’s and her brothers’ rock album covers and eating the left over candy. Incense smoke rises in long curls from a small, bell-shaped gold burner on the coffee table. Brilliant Corners, one of Minerva’s father’s Thelonious Monk records, is playing on the stereo. Minerva says we have to learn about jazz and blues in order to appreciate rock music. At first, it sounded like the musicians played the piano and horns off key and offbeat, but after hearing one song, I got into it.

I take the Alice Cooper album cover from Chris and hold it close to my eyes. “All I see are the band members posing sexy in their skin-tight pants. What are you talking about?”

“His penis,” Minerva mumbles; a ball of Bazooka bubble gum bulges out of her right cheek. She taps the slug-like thing in the crotch of a band-member’s pants.

“Penis,” Chris cracks up. “Is that how y’all call it here in California?”

“Dick. Weenie. Pee pee. Thing. I never called it a peeee…” I crack up, and then we all spazz out on the carpet.

“Hey now,” a guy’s voice startles us. Standing in the entryway are Minerva’s brothers—identical twins so cute it hurts to look at them. If we were in Hollywood, they would be models, rock stars, movie stars, or all three combined. They resemble Minerva, but their eyes are bigger and darker, like chocolate drops. And their hair is tamed. They dress so cool. One brother has on an unbuttoned fleece-lined Levi’s jacket, an untucked brown and teal blue plaid flannel shirt, Levi’s 501’s, and dark brown suede waffle stompers. His hair is pulled back in a ponytail. The other one is wearing an unbuttoned black pea coat, a tucked-in black t-shirt, black cords, and black Converse. His hair is shoulder length and loose.

I will never see guys this cute and cool again in my whole life.

Chris and I scramble to standing. We comb our hair with our fingers and straighten our clothes.

“Relax. They’re just my brothers,” Minerva says, taking her time getting up.

“You having seizures? Should we call an ambulance?” chuckles the ponytail brother. He nudges loose hair brother with his elbow and chuckles some more. “I think Minnie got electrocuted.”

“Minnie?” Chris cracks up so hard she coughs.

I glance at Minerva and crack up, too. “Your hair looks like a tumbleweed thrashed by the Santa Anas.”

Minerva rolls her eyes at us. Then she checks herself out in the mirror in the entryway and lets out a huge throw up of laughter. The three of us spazz out again. The brothers grin and shake their heads at us.

When we finally calm down, Minerva introduces us. Ponytail brother’s name is Mike and loose hair brother’s name is Matt. If it weren’t for their different hairstyles and clothes, I couldn’t tell them apart. They look nothing like the little boys missing their front teeth and covered with mud in the picture hanging in the hallway.

“Nuh. Nuh. Nice to meet…” My buzz and their cuteness have frozen my tongue.

“Matt made the fliers hanging on my wall,” Minerva says.

I want to say that the drawings are really good, but all I can get out is, “C…c…cool.”

“Why you home so early?” Minerva asks.

“The neighbors called the cops, complaining the band was too loud,” Matt says.

“Looks like the party is here,” Mike says. His voice is louder, deeper than Matt’s. “We need some rock.” He puts on a record. A song I’ve never heard before starts with a drumstick tapping a cymbal.

“Grand Funk. ‘Inside Looking Out.’” Mike’s voice gets teacherish like Minerva’s. “This song alone is better than everything they’ve put out since We’re an American Band. You know this is an Animals’ song? These guys do it better though.”

In order not to say or do something stupid, I avoid eye contact with brothers and stare at the stereo and bob my head. The longer the song plays, the funkier it gets. I would dance if the brothers weren’t here.

They take off their jackets and hang them on the coat rack in the entryway. Matt sits on the brown couch, and Mike plops down on their dad’s brown Naugahyde Lazy Boy. It hits me that the living room is all brown without any pretty decorations because it’s the father’s and brothers’ bach pad.

“You college boys have classes too-morrow?” Chris pours on her sassy Southern accent.

Mike explains that they arranged their schedules at Valley College so they have mornings and all Fridays off to help their dad with his business: The AzTech Electric Company.

Matt stays quiet and taps the drum rhythm of the song on the coffee table. I figure he’s the shy, sensitive artist type, which makes him even cuter.

Mike pulls a clear glass tube contraption from the cupboard in the end table beside him. Chris and I turn to Minerva.

“It’s a bong. For smoking pot,” she says. She looks at her brothers. “Their first time getting high.”

“Newbies.” Mike smiles and I swear his face glows. “Want to try? The high is more intense than a joint.”

“Sure,” Chris says.

I nod yes. I’d rather come down from the high I already have, but I want them to think I’m cool.

Minerva sits beside Matt and calls us over. Chris curls up on Minerva’s other side. I sit cross legged on the carpet, on the opposite end of the coffee table, as far from Mike and Matt as possible, so they can’t tell how nervous they make me. Mike takes the bong to the kitchen sink and pours water in it. At the same time, Matt steps over to the coat rack in the entryway. I watch him from the corner of my eye. He’s slender but solid, not skinny. His forearms have strong, ropey muscles, like he could lift me with one arm. He pulls a baggie full of pot, plump as a burrito, out of one of his coat pockets. He passes me on his way back to his seat, and my heart pumps loud in my ears. Mike kicks back in the Lazy Boy, and Matt packs the small silver bowl sticking out of the bong.

Matt’s hands are tanned cinnamon brown and muscular: working hands. His fingernails are clipped short and clean. Not like my father, whose fingernails were always chipped and dirty.

Minerva tells Mike and Matt to get high first so Chris and I can see how they use the bong. When it’s Minerva’s turn, she explains to us how to suck the smoke in deep without coughing, hold it in our lungs before taking our mouths off the end of the bong, and exhale long and slow.

Chris handles the bong like she’s used it for years. When it’s my turn, I suck in the smoke and choke. “I’m alright,” I say, embarrassed. I gulp some water and try again.

This time I hack like I have whooping cough.

Matt suggests we take a break. My mouth is dry and tastes like a dead animal. I stand to get water in the kitchen, but the heels on my boots stay stuck in the carpet. I scream in my head, ready to flip out. Then I remember to breathe. I take off my boots and tiptoe in my socks.

“I got the crunchies real bad,” says Chris. “How ‘bout some of your down home health nut cooking Minnie.” Chris cracks up, and I hear her body land on the carpet.

“Munchies, not crunchies,” Minerva laughs.

While filling my glass with water from the faucet, I think about Mama for the first time all night. I feel bad for getting high, like I’m betraying her. Then I picture her dancing in her costume at the party, laughing with strange men. Fuck her.

“Have you heard a Cheech and Chong record, Rachel?” Matt snaps me out of my thoughts. I didn’t hear him walk in. He’s close enough for me to reach out and touch his cheek with my fingertips. I want him to kiss me, for my first kiss to be from him. My hand that’s holding the glass trembles. Calm down, I tell myself. After what seems like an hour, I finally say, “No.”

“You’re going to like this.” Matt heads to the stereo.

Alone in the kitchen, I swish the water in my mouth until the dead animal taste disappears. When I return to my spot on the carpet, everyone is munching Minerva’s homemade tortilla chips and salsa. I lie on my back, close my eyes, and listen to Cheech and Chong do a trippy skit about Jesus in Mexico.

Next thing I know, Minerva is shaking my shoulder, saying it’s midnight and we have to go to bed. At first I don’t know where I am. Then I look across the coffee table and see Mike and Matt smiling at me. I smile back, sure that any chance of them thinking I’m cool is ruined.

I get up and follow Chris and Minerva.

“Good night,” Matt says.

“Sleep tight,” Mike chuckles.

I turn back to see if Matt has a special smile for me, but he’s already walking down the hallway with his back to me.

liz gonzález, a fourth generation Southern Californian, grew up in San Bernardino County. Her poetry, fiction, and memoirs have appeared in numerous literary journals, periodicals, and anthologies. Three of her poems are forthcoming in Wide Awake: The Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond. She recently received an Irvine Fellowship at the Lucas Artists Residency Program, Montalvo Arts Center, Saratoga, California. Currently, liz lives in Long Beach, California. She works as a writing consultant and teaches creative writing through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. For more info. www.lizgonzalez.com

Frey Curran

Sun Rays

I don’t know why it has taken me so long to do this.  I don’t know what has been keeping me from finishing.  O.K., maybe I do know, but still why didn’t I just sit down years ago and get this all on paper?  But, how exactly do you capture in words the greatest things, the worst things, the best things, and the important things that are your life?  How do you relate your story and make it relevant to someone halfway around the world and make it poignant?  How do you translate your hopes, your fears, your needs, your desires, and your spirit?  Better yet, how do you tell someone that you have lost all hope, all desire, all of your spirit?  How can you expect a total stranger to care about you or what you feel?  How can you reveal everything about you, leaving yourself completely vulnerable?  How do you explain that your heart feels like it is being ripped apart and life itself is secondary to your grief?  How can someone else understand the peace that this brings? How?

***

It was a lazy afternoon.  The gray of the sky made the tall buildings of the city stand out like humongous cardboard cutouts.  The slowly moving mass of gray rain clouds circled overhead like a menacing vulture waiting to swoop down on unsuspecting victims.  There were no flies, the temperature was getting colder, and rain clouds were an everyday occurrence now.  Searching the sky it looked like the gray was taking over, it seemed not even a shimmer of light broke down into the city.  Sitting on a bench, in West Hollywood, I thought this was perfect for my life.  All gray, cold and fake.  I went outside because it was just too depressing to stay inside all day.  My fingers ran along the gray and silver scarf that my mother had knitted for me back in Scottsdale.  I wondered if I would ever see her again; ever see any of my family again.  I went over in my mind how the telephone conversation had just gone.

“Hey, Ma’!  Yeah it’s me Bastian.”

“Oh, so the son who never call or write finally appears from nowhere.  So what do you need?  Money, food, -what?” trying to speak her best English in a thick voice, cascading her Russian heritage.

“Gee ma, it’s nice to hear your voice too.”

“I’m sorry Sebastian, I just a little busy right now.  You need a something?  Or you just want to talk?”

“I-uh, kind of wanted to talk ma’.  Is dad around?”

“No, he out working to support your five brothers, the ones that still live here you know?”

“Yeah.  How are they?”

“Maybe you call more often, you know how ‘are they?’ “

”Sorry I asked ma’.  So how are you doing?”

“I alright, my back acts up every now and then, but otherwise my life O.K.  And you, how you doing?  You get arrested or something, that why you call?”

“No ma’, I just wanted to talk.”

“So talk.  Tell me all about your awful life and then ask for my help, like I said you would when you leave to go to Hollywood and be movie star.”

“Gees mom, I didn’t come out here to become a movie star.  I went to school here, remember?  College, so I could make a better life for myself.  You were the one who told me to go.”

“Yes, but why you must go so far away.  Plenty of good trade schools here in Arizona.  Your father could have trained you.”

“Shit, every time I call mom, every time.  Same story, same guilt trip.”

“Well, I sorry, I just think that since we sacrifice our savings so you can go on vacation-”

“Vacation?  Is that what you think I’ve been doing for five years,” I wanted to yell, then got myself back in control and started again, “Anyway, I have a business now with my friend from film school.  I own a coffee shop and he runs it.  The shop’s called ‘Bastian and Mickey’s’.  I have some postcards of it if you’d like to see a picture.”

“A coffee shop?  What, people in California buy so much coffee they must have separate shop for it?  Or is that why you call because you need money to pay for coffee?”

“Jesus Christ mom.  I don’t need any money.  I didn’t call for money.  I have plenty of money!”

“So, this not about money, then what?”

“It’s about me mom.  I needed to talk to you and dad,” I paused here and my heart nearly leapt out of my chest, my mind raced at what I was about to do, I could feel tears stream down my cheek.

“Are you O.K.?  Are you hurt, you sick?”

“No.”

Mom breathed out deeply, “Please don’t scare me so.  So what, what all this for.”

“I’d rather wait until dad gets home to tell you.”

“What?  Some big secret you can not tell me, but can tell dad?”

“I would rather only to have to explain it once, mother.”

“Well, I think you tell me and I tell your father.”

“No, I wouldn’t feel right asking you to do that . . .”

“Oh, so now I stupid and can not be trusted with news.  Or is there even news?  This is just another one of your ways to hurt me, huh, to kill me more.”

“No, mom . . .”

“Oh go away, just let me be, I too stupid to trust.”

“Mom, it’s not that, it’s just that I think it would be easier if dad was there to help you to understand,” I was getting really worked up now, she knew just what to say to make me go berserk.

“Oh, now I too stupid to understand what my son say!  Well maybe I go then since I too dumb, so I don’t make you dumb too.”

“Stop it!” I screamed into the receiver, “Just stop damn it.”  Tears pouring from my eyes as I clenched my teeth and shut my eyelids hard.  I couldn’t help but choke down a full on bawling I felt coming up.

“This sound too serious to wait.  What is it?”

“No, mom I can’t,” between sobs, “Not without dad there.”

“I think you tell me now, or I hang up and you never call me again.”

“Mom . . .”

“No, that is how it is.  Tell me now.”

I drew quick short breaths in to regain my composure, then said, “Mom, I can’t.”

“Sebastian, now.”

After a long pause I finally broke down and let it out, “Please don’t interrupt me once I have started.  If you need to ask me questions, wait until I’m done.  I didn’t want to tell you like this, over the phone, but I can’t stand it any longer.  Mom, remember my friend Mickey, the one who I have the coffee shop with.  I told you we were living together to save money and all that, the truth is, we moved in together because we had been seeing each other for two years.”

Mom said, “An? Of course you see each other you live together.  This the big news, oh I knew was trick to hurt me . . .”

“Mom, we were married.”

Mom stopped dead in her words, like she had been struck with a cast iron skillet.  “You and who are married?” she said very slowly.

“Me and Mickey were married.  We have separated now.”

“I don’t quite understand, was this for play or something?”

“No,” I nervously responded, “We were really married, to each other, and only each other.  Mom, I’m trying to tell you that I am gay.”

The words rang through my head as I sat there on the bench.  After that last line, there had been a long pause from the other end of the line and then I heard my mother set down the phone and begin sobbing out loud.  In all of my 26 years of life, I had only heard my mother cry one other time, when my older brother died from Diabetes eleven years ago.  After a few minutes of that, I thought I heard the receiver being picked up and Jeremiah my youngest brother got on the line and asked what I had said and what was going on.  I told him I would explain to him later.  Jeremiah said, “O.K. bro, but it looks like you killed her this time Bastian.”

“I gotta go Jim,” was all I could utter.

What the fuck was that?  Why did I feel bad, she was the one who never listened, who never cared about how I felt, who always shooed away my feelings and told me to lump it like a man.  Why should I care if she ever wanted to talk to me again?  I should be glad that she was finally reduced to an emotion that did not revolve around pride, strength, or duty.  I could see her all curled up on the floor next to the brown corduroy couch with the orange and brown crochet blanket on the back to cover the cigarette burns where dad had fallen asleep and nearly killed us all.  Curled up there on the green shag carpet, in my childhood home, crying, bawling, heaving great big sobs over her gay son.  Her heart cleaved in two by the great gay bandit that was I.  I felt worse now, than ever before in my life.  Not poverty, not disease, not any worldly thing but the death of her oldest son and my homosexuality had made this rock of a woman reduce herself to a human emotion such as tears.  I did not even want to think about what my father would say, how many chickens would have to suffer needless beheadings now because of me.  My family used to mean everything to me, my mom a great source of strength and incredulity, my father wisdom and diligence, my brothers – hapless idiocy.  Now I had shattered all that.  All this disorder just because I chose to be gay.  Well, Monty, can I see what is behind curtain number two now, just to rub it in?

I let a heavy sigh out loud and slumped down into the graffiti and fiberglass bench and pulled my jacket tightly around to warm myself.  What the hell was I thinking, what had I just done?  There was no need to tell her like that, no need to make her cry, I could have waited, and I could have not told anyone.  Man that sure was a selfish thing to do, I thought to myself.  My mom was not the most open-minded person in the world too; I knew how she would react.  Now I would be banned from the holidays, she would disown me; things were going to be rough with her and the family.  Mom ran our house with an iron fist, nobody breathed without her approval or permission.  I was completely alone now, and it was my own fault.  It was then that I noticed a single ray of light breaking from the clouds.  It made it’s way down through the smog and rain, pushed aside the cold grayness and shot itself down at my foot.  Then I saw him – and Joseph said, “Hello.”

***

“Excuse me for interrupting,” came the low, soft voice of the stranger in the blue leather jacket and brown corduroy pants, “Can you tell me where the ‘Persian Cafe’ is?”
I was stunned and sat there for a moment in silence, and then I realized the man’s deep brown eyes were staring down at me, waiting for an answer.  “The…the what?” I finally managed to stammer out.  I was staring like some teenage schoolgirl talking to a teacher she has a crush on, or a teenage schoolboy.

“The ‘Persian Cafe’?  It is supposed to be on this street, at least that’s what this brochure says,” the man said still looking at me and then he showed me something in his hand – a somewhat weathered pamphlet titled ‘Seeing L.A.’.  Taking the brochure from the man’s very tan and muscular hand I turned it around so I could read it.  “It says it should be right on this corner, but I can’t seem to find it,” the dark haired stranger continued.

“Uh, no actually that place has been closed down since last year, they don’t update these very often,” I blurted out setting the brochure down on the bench next to me.  I was too nervous to continue speaking; I looked away and then back at my feet.

“Damn, I really could use a good cup of cappuccino, and that brochure said it had the best in town.”  I kind of half shrugged, half ignored his comment.  My palms started to get clammy, my mouth was going dry, and I had not felt this way since the first time I went on a date with Mickey.  The stranger waited for a few seconds and then saw that I was avoiding his company and turned to leave saying, “Well thank you for your help anyways.”

Finally getting my bearings I stammered out after him, “Well – they used to have the best Cappuccino in town, until my place opened up.  That’s why they aren’t in business anymore.”

The tall stranger chuckled, “O.K. then, are you saying I should try your place?  Kind of odd to sit on a bench in downtown L.A. advertising coffee by talking to strangers, is that how you put them out of business?  Most people would just get a billboard or something.”

For the first time in a long time, I laughed, really laughed.  Somewhere deep inside me, something warmed.  “Yeah, I guess it is odd to do it that way, but I get a lot of dates from it!”

We both laughed, and the man reached out his hand and smiled, “My name is Joseph, and you are…?”

“Oh, forgive me, how rude.  I am Sebastian, Bastian.  Of ‘Bastian & Mickey’s’,” grasping Joseph’s hand, I could feel a tingle shoot up my arm, through my chest and out my throat.

“So, Bastian, how about getting some of your cappuccino?”

“Sure.  It’s this way,” gesturing down the sidewalk I turned to go, “It’s very close, we can walk there in a few minutes.”

“Great.”

The young man, who had introduced himself as Joseph, was quite striking.   Endless brown eyes, dark and neatly combed hair, a well-built physique hidden beneath very tasteful and I guessed, expensive clothes.  Joseph looked like a New York model.  As we walked down the sidewalk, Joseph told me that this was his first time in Los Angeles, and that he was planning to live out here now.  “Did you at least find a place to stay before you came out here?” I questioned gazing into the young man’s chiseled facial features.

“Well,” Joseph began, “I left my old hometown of Gary, Indiana very suddenly, and hadn’t expected to make it all the way to California.  I will make it out here, somehow.  Somehow, I always make it, I focus on the now and never worry about the past or the future.  Although both are important, why should I worry about things I can’t change or foresee?”

“You sound very level-headed and confident, I wish I was that sure of myself.”

“I’m not really either, I may end up worse than when I left Indiana!  Never know, but if I sit around and never try anything I may regret it someday.  So I just go and strive for the best.  I have a saying that goes ‘Move on to it’.  It is just a little saying that I repeat to myself whenever I am having a tough time.  It reminds me to ‘just get on with it’ whatever ‘it’ is.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, your life in Indiana didn’t sound bad from what you told me, so why did you leave?”

“The truth?”

“No, please lie to me.  Of course the truth.”

“I was engaged to marry someone I did not, and would never, love as spouses should.  I felt trapped in a life that had been created for me.  I was sick of people telling me what and who I was or wasn’t.  I was dying inside, lying to myself and others, and headed directly for a mental breakdown and eventually worse.”

I stopped and stared at Joseph, without saying a word after that about it, we both knew why he left Indiana and was in California now.  “My, uh…my café’s right here,” I motioned to his right.  It is a small, open fronted café with black marble floors and rosewood bench seats and green sofas that line the crowded spaces that butted up to the striking Salmon pink walls.

“Um – take a seat here and I will go and get us some cappuccinos,” I managed to stammer out.

“Oh, great.  I love the decor of your place, so very early fifties, with a twist of the current century,” replied Joseph.  Stopping in front of Joseph for a moment in amazement, I realized that in the past four years that my shop had been open, not one person had ever noticed that I had simply, but elegantly combined the two eras in the shop decor, not one until Joseph.

“Be right back” I managed to get out and walked over to the counter, crossing the black marble inlay of a Celtic sun in the floor of the entryway.

Swimming in disbelief about how my day was going, how it had started and was now progressing, I turned in front of the long wooden counter at the back of my store and walked up to the young man tending to customers.

“Hey baby,” came the smiling greeting from the bronze and silver man behind the counter.  “Who in the world is that with you?” questioned the young man motioning towards Joseph.

“Oh, um hi Mickey.  Him?  Oh that is just some guy who wanted to know where to get some good coffee, and of course I told him yours was the best in town.  Now give me two cappuccinos please” I said and leaned over the counter and gently kissed Mickey’s lips in our friendly greeting.

I grabbed the drinks and quickly made my way back to Joseph, I had lived far too long in WeHo1 to let a gorgeous guy like him sit around by himself for any amount of time.  As I rounded the corner back to the front of my café, I saw that Joseph was already in trouble.  An old hyena had spotted my young friend and was moving in for the kill.  As I slipped up beside the tragically clueless fresh meat from the Midwest, I cocked my head to the side and listened to the end of the bullshit this prowling old scavenger was weaving, “ . . . yeah so anytime you want to stop by and take those head shots I am sure I can get you some work.”  The hyena made a move to give Joseph his card, but I intercepted with a look and let him know, “He’s already got representation.”

As soon as we were alone again, I told Joseph that he had better be on guard, “There are a lot of people out here who will try to take advantage of you.  I know how it feels, I come from a place where people are nice and treat each other with respect, that doesn’t work here.  Men, especially old men like that smell fresh meat from miles away, be on your guard.”

Joseph shot me a sideways look and asked, “Kind of like guys who sit on park benches and pick up on young innocent men?”

“Oh sarcasm, we don’t get much of that around here.  Funny,” was all I could say back and quickly turned my face to hide my flushing cheeks.  I could see where this was going, and I was scared – glad, but scared.  Hopefully things with Joseph would be on a different level than Mickey.

***

I didn’t know how to react to his death.  I had loved him, but when he died, I was not in love with him – God that sounds so cliché.  Let me express it this way then.  I would always love him; he always has a place in my heart.  I was very upset when he died I had not expected it to be so sudden and for him to look so healthy.  I had always heard from friends and from overhearing things at the coffee shop that people with AIDS died slowly.  That people who were infected died agonizing prolonged deaths after years and months of battling the disease endlessly.  I had watched specials on MTV about it and 20/20 in-depth stories with Sam Donaldson, or whoever.  Look, I cannot even say the words, I keep referring to it as “it”, even just then.  It is AIDS, “acquired immunodeficiency syndrome”.  A website I read said that it starts off as HIV, “the human immunodeficiency virus, and eventually weakens your systematic immune responses to attacks until you are left virtually defenseless against even the most minor virus, which can cause death.”  Man, that is some fucked up shit right there.  Whoever came up with AIDS is one wicked bastard.

What that website didn’t say was that AIDS has taken some of the greatest friends I have ever known from me.  That AIDS took my first love, my best friend, a lesbian I knew, a little girl, and may come for me someday.  So far, I have tested negative for HIV/AIDS, but it has only been two years since Mickey came up positive.  Let me tell you, for anyone who wants to know, the day you find out your ex-lover of two years has tested positive for AIDS, is the day your sex life dries up.  My little warrior might as well have dried up and fell off because he was not going to see the light of day or any more action for a very long time.  When Mickey called it felt as though someone had punched me in the stomach, all the air rushed out of my body.  Joseph was lying in bed next to me and he could see it in my face that something was horribly wrong.

“What is it?” he eventually blurted out.

“I think I am going to be sick,” and I was.  I threw up on the bed, on the tile floor, on the rug, at the bathroom doorway and stopped just as I got to the toilet.  Joseph later said I looked like one of those old sprinklers, puking here, there, here, there, rat-tat-tat-tat-tat.

“What the fuck is it?” Joseph nearly screamed.

We sat on the bathroom floor and he rocked me as I told him, I was still in shock.  I told him what Mickey had said, that he had tested positive, that I need to get tested, so did Joseph.  The whole time he just sat there looking intently at me and when I finished he said, “Get dressed,” very calmly, “we are going to the clinic now.”

Second only in ‘bastardocity’ (sic) to the person who created HIV/AIDS is the lab genius that invented the test for determining if you have these diseases.  You go and give them a sample of your blood and think to yourself reassuringly, “At least it will all be over and I will know today or tomorrow.”  WRONG.  You have to wait at least a week for the results to come back, and if you live in a big ‘mo2 city like I do in WeHo, then the shear volume of tests mandates at least a two week waiting period for your results.  Let me tell you, those were two of the worst weeks of my employee’s lives, imagine if you can a man that operates a coffee shop that barely breaks even waiting for test results that his life may depend upon.  I was definitely not up for any boss of the year awards those two weeks.

The greatest word in the English language, besides orgasm, has to be negative.  I nearly passed out from worry when we entered the room where they were to deliver my life or death sentence.  The small cubbyhole of an office was drably painted in salmon pink, accented with fiberglass orange chairs from the set of “Laugh In”, and anchored by a large pressed wood desk against the wall.  The corkboard behind the desk was obviously used and abused, missing large chunks in certain areas, it had posters and fliers attached to it, all mocking me.  “Play it safe, keep it under wraps,” read one poster with a picture of an unrolled condom.  “See Dick Drink, See Dick Do Drugs, See Dick Have Unprotected Sex, See Dick Get AIDS. Don’t Be A Dick,” read another.  “A dental damn may save your life, or your partners,” was another antagonistic brochure.  I wanted to stand up and shout, “O.K., I get it!  Quit rubbing it in, I’ll use condoms from now on, I won’t do drugs or drink, I’ll get a damn dental damn (although I did not know what one was), just please let me be o.k.”  My pulse quickened as I sat there and waited, and waited, and waited some more.  I will give these clinics one thing; they are not rushing through anything, tests, appointments, lunch.  I was starting to become a nervous wreck.

I nearly fainted when the nurse walked into the room.  She opened up my chart, blurted out, “Sebastian?”  I replied with a slightly paranoid head nod gripping the orange chair so hard I could feel the fiberglass tear.  “You are negative for HIV/AIDS.  Have a nice day,” with that she got up from her chair and wiggled her large round white butt out the door.

I should have shouted, I should have stood up and grabbed Joseph to kiss him and tell him that I loved him.  I should have thanked my lucky stars I was negative.  All I could do was sit there in amazement, nothing to say, awestruck.  Joseph gave me a little nudge, “Are you ok babe?”

All I could muster was, “Have a nice day?  What a bitch.”

***

That was the biggest relief of my life.  I can’t tell you how much weight and stress that moment lifted off my shoulders.  I shuddered silently and nearly lost myself into an emotional heap, but I steadied and held myself together.  I was so ecstatic that I was not positive.  I loved being negative, I wanted to get a big button that said “Kiss me, I’m negative.”  Life seemed to be looking up finally; I had dodged a real nuclear sized pile of dog shit this time.  I vowed only to have safe sex, and to get tested more often.  Things had never been better than the last few months of my life, with the exception of Mickey having HIV.  No more wondering what thing life would throw at me next, no more worrying about what if this happens or that, no more drama.  It seemed as though life finally said, “You know what Sebastian, we have been kicking your ass for a while now, take a breather bro you deserve it.”  I should have known that nothing in my life comes without a price this one would be the worst ever.

Joseph did not test positive until months later.  We had decided to go every three months and get an HIV test and a general STD check-up.  I had to go into work on the day we had scheduled to go in and get our results; stupid employee blew up the milk-frothing component on the new machine.  Don’t ask me how, I think my employees get progressively more stupid as they work for me, the coffee must have that effect.  Joseph said he would stop by later after hitting the clinic and we could do lunch.  When he did not show up two hours after lunch, I got worried.  When he did not come home after work I was panicked.  When he was not home at 1 am I was sick to my stomach and vomited.  At four fucking am I heard the key inserted into the lock and I shot straight out of the bed and was ready to unleash hell.  He strolled into the apartment and I was ready to let him have it, but when I saw his face I knew something was wrong.  He didn’t smell of cologne or other men, he did not reek of cigarette smoke or alcohol, he smelled like – like the wharf.

My emotions got the best of me and I began to cry, “Where have you been?”

“I was down at the wharf watching the fishing boats come in.  Did you know they run pretty much all night, even still?  It is amazing.  I could sit there all day and watch them, like little ants pulling into the harbor scurrying around unloading their ships then back to the sea.”

“You were there all fucking day, and night!  I want an explanation.”

“I could just sit there and stare for hours on end,” there was a glassy, far-off look to Joseph’s face.  He was not even in the same room as me.

“You prick, you are not even listening to me!”

“I heard you Bastian, I just can’t tell you.  I can’t tell you I am leaving you.”

“You’re leaving me, what the fuck is this.  You goddamn bastard who is it, what is it.  Fucking tell me!”

“I am dying.  I have AIDS.”

It took a moment for that to sink in and then my knees buckled, my whole life drained out of me, I went numb all over.  I must be dreaming.  This had to be a very bad, however realistic, bad nightmare.  I slid down to the floor staring straight at him, unable to speak.  Please, please let this be over soon.  I want to wake up now I don’t like this dream.  I wasn’t dreaming and Joseph was really going to die.  He sank down the wall next to me and wrapped both arms around my frame; we stayed there that way for many hours.  After the first few minutes I cried loud, shuddering, life ending sobs.  He cried too.  That was over within the hour but still we stayed like that, bundled up together against the front hallway wall, until I felt him rousing the next afternoon.
This time, the disease did what I had always imagined it would do to a person.  First, Joseph refused to take the seemingly endless amounts of required medicines that could prolong his life for months, or even years.  Since he had already developed AIDS he already had to learn to be careful to avoid even the smallest of colds or contaminants.  Joseph began to look gaunt, he lost nearly twenty pounds the first four months after learning he was positive.  His clothes hung off his body now like a rag doll and his familiar wide smile was replaced with an expression that anyone could see was turmoil and exhaustion.  The littlest things were now the hardest to do.  Getting out of bed in the morning became a later and later ritual.

“I hate this.  I want to die,” he announced one morning about five months later, “I am exhausted, too weak to even slit my own wrists.  I can’t eat anything because it all comes back up.  I can’t even take a shower because the water is too hot and too cold all at once.  This is a living hell.  I am a prisoner of my own stupid body, I want to die.”

“Babe, please don’t say that,” I begged, “If you would only try to take your medicines-“

“Why, so I can hallucinate, or get gas so bad I can’t stand myself, or a rash from the medicines, why would I want to do that?”

“Because it might make you live longer, think of me babe, do some for me at least?”

“Think of you?  Think of me Sebastian.  I am the one who is dying here.  I am the one who can’t walk more than two feet because my legs are so weak and brittle that they may split.  I am the one who coughs and vomits everyday till only bile and blood spill out of me.  Think of you, all I think about is you and that is why I don’t put a gun to my head.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say Joseph.  I love you too much to give up on you.”

“And I love you too much to give you false hope.  Realistically, I only have a few more weeks, maybe months, let’s just put our energy into enjoying that time together.”
That reality was too much for me, my mind had to push it out.  I didn’t want to face the truth that I was losing the best thing that ever happened to me.  The next few days I went through the motions with Joseph pretending to see the reality of this situation, pretending I had accepted it and wanted only to comfort him.  Secretly, deep in my soul, I hoped and prayed that some miracle would happen and even without medicine he would get better.  That did not happen, Joseph only got sicker.

I don’t know if anyone else has had the unreal misfortune of having to be present while their life, their future, their happiness slowly dissolves into nothingness, but I cannot imagine a worse fate.  Joseph became another person the last few weeks.  His face looked like it was a thin layer of skin stretched over skull, his chiseled features were replaced by sharp bones, his beautiful tan skin turned yellow as his kidneys and liver failed.  I dreaded seeing him like this, I dreaded being around him.  I know I am horrible for that but this forced confrontation of reality and death was too much too fast.  I sometimes found myself wishing it would just happen, then he wouldn’t suffer anymore, and neither would I.

One day, very close to the end, Joseph suddenly looked up from his hospital bed and in a moment of pure lucidity told me, “I know you hate to see me like this Bastian, I know it hurts, it kills me to put you through this.  I think maybe you should stop coming around, maybe it will make it easier for both of us.”

Oh my God, was I really being that transparent.  I have to be the worst person alive.  I couldn’t believe that I was acting this way.  In that moment I saw that I was being completely selfish, a complete bastard, I needed to be the one reassuring Joseph, making him as comfortable as possible and here he was consoling me, giving me a way out.  “Don’t you dare say that,” I told him looking right into his eyes, “I have been an idiot and running to hide from this whole situation, but I love you.  I will not stay away; I will be here more from now on.  Joseph I can’t stand the thought of losing you, but even worse, I can’t stand the thought of not having you all to myself for even a little while longer.”

Joseph didn’t respond, he put his head back on the pillow and smiled that wry little smile, and went back to sleep.  In that moment I woke up, not literally from sleep, but from the numbing self-apathetic stupidity I had recently found so comforting.  This is it, I told myself, Joseph is going to die whether I wanted to admit it or not, I can’t change that.  What I can do is show him how much he has meant to my life, how he has changed me forever, how he will live in my heart from now on.  I went home as he slept and wrote him a poem that expressed how much he meant to me, I put it on the front table and went to rest for a few hours.  Tomorrow when I woke I would show Joseph I was going to be there for him for anything.  Tomorrow.

The next morning I woke up early.  I went down to the hospital with a springier step, a new lease on seeing the love of my life.  When I rounded the corner to Joseph’s room things seemed different.  His mother was standing outside his room and I nearly collapsed.  She had come out a few times to visit Joseph, but never to the hospital, she said she couldn’t bear the sight of her only child hooked up to all those machines.  She had been crying and started in again when I came up to her and said, “Hello mom.”

“Oh, Sebastian, hello.  Honey Joseph got real bad last night.”

“It’s ok, mom, I know I have been an idiot.  That is all going to change starting today, I am a new man totally devoted to Joseph.”

“Oh god,” she wept, but these were not tears of belief, but something else, “Bastian, I didn’t want to call you, it happened just a little while ago.  Honey Joseph passed in his sleep this morning, after I came to visit him and we talked.  He couldn’t go on dear he was too tired.  He said to tell you that he ‘knew’, and it was ok.”

The paper and flowers I had been carrying slowly dropped from my hand and landed softly and neatly on the scratched white tiles of the floor.  I turned towards the door of his room, and there Joseph lay, no tubes, no breathing machine, no nurses or doctors annoying him with heart monitors, or blood tests, or arguing with him to eat.  I stood there for a long time thinking about all the things I had wanted to say as I slowly stroked his hair, things that would have to go unsaid.  It is amazing how many things become meaningless in those moments where you are forced to face death head on.  Joseph lay in his bed, much the same way as when I left last night.  He was dead now.  He had died and I had been at home sleeping.

Something that his mother had said suddenly struck me, Joseph had wanted me to hear that “he knew.”  He knew? He knew how much I loved him, how much I would miss him, how hard it will be without him?  He knew that I was crushed, that I was unable to move literally rooted to the spot in front of his bed?  He knew that I hated everything, that I blamed God and everyone around me for not saving Joseph?  He knew that I wanted to rip down the stupid starched curtains and turn over the cart beside his bed?  He knew that my love for him would never allow me to forget him.  He knew that our time together was not wasted, that we had made that connection that people always dream of.  He knew I had held him in my heart like no other and he felt the same way.  He knew it would be ok.

I left he hospital that day and took his mom to our apartment.  I showed her all of our pictures.  I made coffee and we sat and talked about his childhood, about our trip to Hawaii, about Joseph.  We made plans for his funeral and called all the necessary relatives.  We cried together many times but we laughed more.  She had to get back to her house, things must have been in “tatters” as she said, but she would be back soon, and this time his dad would accompany her.

“Joseph was a one of a kind man, mom.  You should be proud,” I said as I led her to our apartment door.

“So are you, Sebastian, so are you.  My son saw that special something inside you that told him you were two spirits of the same accord, never forget that he loved you and you loved him.  I expect you to carry on his memory long after I am gone, I trust you to do that.’

That was the moment that I never looked back.  I cried many times, remembered the good and the bad, and shared his story, as I share it now.  The most important thing I did after Joseph’s mom left, I picked up the phone.

“Mom?  Yeah, it’s me Sebastian.”

Frey Curran is a secondary English teacher and Speech and Debate Coach. Frey earned his BA in English Literature from CSUSB in 2001, his MA in Composition with a focus on literature from CSUSB in 2013, and a single subject credential in English from CSUSB in 2010. Writing is more than cathartic for Frey; it is a soulful remembrance of lived experience and painful lesson. Frey lives in Grand Terrace where his whole immediate family and husband live.

B. G. Kinney

Darling Eddie

He sent a letter she hadn’t opened yet. She wasn’t ready. They left on bad terms– insults, shouting.

Standing by her car, the windy rain hit her head like a million people spitting from the clouds. Charred ground confronted her with the blackened skeletons of tumbleweed, beer cans, tire shreds and dead house pets. Cars rushed by at her back, spraying her with their wake in a curt mechanical sound.

The fire burned some of the freeway lanes. A chain-link fence stood between the auto dealership and Interstate 10. Wilted bouquets lay at the foot of it with white streamers woven into the links to make a cross and a person’s name– “Eddie”… darling Eddie.

She looked over the scorched earth leading up to the makeshift shrine. His time came too fast. Eddie was invincible, impervious to death, like any headstrong, cocky boy, awkwardly overwrought with his own youth.

She wasn’t sure what bothered her more– what was gone, or what was just beginning.

The rain stopped and the sunlight broke through the clouds sending down beams of light that looked so ethereal against the darkened clouds. Some might have taken this as a sign from heaven, but to her it seemed like God was mocking her. How could the sun warm such an ugly spot of earth?

She resented the fact she could not be alone, hundreds of speeding intruders watching a lone girl with wet stringy hair and worried eyes. She only hoped nobody who knew her was going by.

She didn’t know what to do with herself. And that was before any of this happened. Ready to graduate high school with nowhere to go. Friends and family now called at all hours to offer their support and prayers. But she grew tired of their awkward platitudes.

“You must be strong, move on with life and persevere,” blah, blah, blah. Her mother set up a meeting with the priest at St. Rose’s, a stodgy old-school cleric who spoke in calm, measured tones but like others in his profession loved God, everyone, and no one.

She thought about hopping into her little red Toyota and just driving to nowhere in particular. But she had no money and the car was making strange noises.

She fought with Eddie for hours and hours about the pregnancy. He wanted an abortion, but she wasn’t so sure, especially since it would constitute a cardinal sin. Now the little embryo slowly growing inside her was all she had left of him. Her mother’s Catholic pride would be shattered.

She could see Eddie in his Ford Rambler. A car he rebuilt with his brother, Richie. It rumbled down the street like an angry steed fueled with nervous energy combusting under the cool veneer. He sat in the front seat, sunglasses on, flashing his freshly tattooed deltoids.

But she knew everything that Eddie the tough gangbanger tried to hide. The Eddie who cried when they watched West Side Story and Maria cradled the dying Tony. Eddie the romantic, who dreamed of taking her away to some quiet town as far from gangland as he could go. He saw this house he wanted in a magazine, cut out the page and put it on the wall of his bedroom. It was a two-story house with dormer windows topped by a quarter-horse weathervane behind a while picket fence in a tree-lined neighborhood. It looked like nothing in his neighborhood of stucco bungalows and dilapidated Ranch-style surrounded by rusting iron fences and snarling pitbulls.

His family moved out to the Inland Empire to get away from the bad influences, but the bad influences just seemed to follow them. Or, maybe the bad influences were already there but his parents just saw what they wanted to see. Eddie kept talking about moving to the East Coast because he couldn’t think of any place farther away than that, and it looked almost otherworldly on television, like Narnia or Middle-earth.

Poor Eddie. Speeding down the rain-drenched highway, he ended up lodged beneath a tanker truck full of fuel that spilled everywhere. The fireball could be seen as far as Fontana.

Back at home, her mother was still at work and the letter lay on a candy dish like a sealed verdict.  It was time.  She couldn’t let it sit there any longer. She could feel his energy around the envelope like a holy aura.  She could see his hands as he wrote the words that she read silently. It contained a lyric from a Bruce Springsteen song:

Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
And maybe everything that dies, someday comes back
Put your make-up on
Fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City.

B.G. Kinney has lived and worked in and around the Inland Empire for much of his adult life. He is a marketing and communications professional for a higher education institution in the IE.