This is an ongoing collection of short stories ... just for fun and therapy
Horseshoes & Hand Grenades
Tom Spader - 9/2015
Kate shook her ugly, yellow, store-logoed smock. After the spider incident, she shook it every time she put it on. She had lost three nights sleep over the spider and now a mind numbing fear gripped her as she was certain that every time she put her arms through the oversized, sleeveless top with the odd deep side pockets and buttons down the back like a straight jacket, there would be another spider waiting for her. She shook it hard watching the cement floor of the store room for one to fall, her dark orthopedic shoes ready to stomp. She shook it again.
The spider induced anxiety had become the morning ritual at the Acme supermarket where Kate worked. Punch in, shake the smock, and work register number three. Punch, shake, three.
A few weeks earlier, Kate was working her register and while reaching to scan a bag of potatoes she froze, her eyes wide as she saw a silver dollar sized, furry spider slowly crawling down her arm. She could see its many eyes, glancing back over its many shoulders, staring her down. She could see the fangs glistening, ready to strike.
A scream began from somewhere deep inside her as a blur of magazines, Mylie, Kim, UFO's, devil babies, then customer's faces, then windows, then florescent lights blurred by ... then black.
She saw a canopy of tall tropical trees throwing themselves skyward, a hot sweating sun glinting through the still leaves. Birds and swinging monkeys screamed over head. It was as peaceful as one of the upper cable channels. A soft rain began to fall adding a cadence of large drops tapping onto wide jungle leaves. She turned her face into the gentle rain.
She woke up on the floor with her manager standing over her spraying water in her face from a bottle he used to spray the window plants.
After the spider she figured that hanging her smock in the storeroom along with the bananas, mangoes and other tropical produce was not a good idea without the morning shake. She figured that the spider must have come from some exotic island climate along with these colorful fruits. Kate guessed that the spider must have mistaken her smock for a large bunch of ripe bananas. She shook it everyday ... twice.
Reed was in Kate's checkout line the day of the spider. He saw her hit the floor. He didn’t see the spider. He waited for her to get back to her register after the other customers in front of him moved to one of the other checkout isles.
“Are you alright, uh...Kate?” he asked glancing at her name plate, placing his items onto the moving black conveyer belt; instant coffee, the Daily News and a tall red can of Raid.
Kate, still shaken, just smiled a crooked one-sided smile and began to run his items over the blue lines of light. It was a familiar smile. Reed watched the nervous lines of her face, the corner of her mouth, become more pronounced as her smile deepened. Her eyes glanced up knowingly into his as she scanned the tall red aerosol can with the black top.
Reed got into Kate’s line every time he was in the store. With that uneven smile he thought she looked exactly like Katherine Hepburn...well, not exactly, but close enough.
American Popsicle (Haiku Lou Part I)
by Tom Spader - 7/15
Lou sat on the hot sidewalk near a crowded bus stop. He pulled his Ukulele from his back where it hung and began to play. Sitting cross legged his dirty fingers stroking the strings gently at first as he settled into the scene before him. People of all walks stood nearby waiting for their bus.
Lou worked into song and he began to "oooh and ahh" the lyrics instead of the actual words. A few lazy eyes made their way towards him. He was good. He was actually very good and before long he had the attention of most of those waiting.
It was hot ... a very hot summer afternoon in the city. The sun beat down and people moved slowly, sweating their way from one air conditioned setting to the next. It was the kind of day that just made people miserable and they tried to shed has much clothes as possible. This worked better for some than others. The three piece businessmen didn't have much to take off carrying their dark jackets over their shoulders, so their sweat stained long sleeve button downs told their failure for relief. Lou wore the same thing day or night, winter or summer, a tattered three quarter dark overcoat and dress cuffed pants that told their story with stains and small tears. He wore them well and from time to time he'd find replacements by raiding the clothing drop boxes or lucking into something along his way. He wore a hat, brim upturned, sweat salt stained from the years.
A mother, sweating with a child in tow, tugged her daughter's hand as the child was drawn very close to Lou by the music. "Stay away from that bum, he's dirty."
On the second tug of the child's arm, the rainbow popsicle she was eating to beat the heat fell from her hand and landed on the sidewalk a foot from where Lou sat. It instantly began to melt and the mother hurriedly pulled the now crying child away back into crowd. "That was a dollar you just wasted. I am never going to buy you another Popsicle, ever!" the mother said, the heat of the day not helping with her mood. Tears streamed down the child's face as the crowd looked on.
Once his music had the attention of those waiting, with his right hand still stroking his Uke, he reached into his coat and pulled out a small sign on heavy cardboard, folded so it could stand on its own and placed it on the cement next to where he sat. It read, "Uke-a-Lou - Will Instant Haiku for Food."
The bus had not yet come and those gathered looked on with half interest. Lou banged out the last chords with volume and energy which turned even the most bored or distracted. "I do not beg kind people, I perform the ancient art of Haiku... brought into our modern world. These are instant and not rehearsed. These are not mine to keep. Once spoken they are yours, and yours, and yours..." his voice tailing to just above a whisper. Lou moved to a kneeling, almost praying-like position over the young girl's once frozen treat. He took off his hat and placed it upside-down on the sidewalk.
With three more loud bangs on his Uke and a dramatic quick flurry of chord changes he reached down and lifted the flat wooden popsicle stick and held it out before him staring at it.
The popsicle falls
Colors swirl in sidewalk cracks
Once a tree now free
A bus pulled up and a few people moved towards its open doors. Lou sat nearby as shoes, not taped together like his, passed him. From faceless hands above a few quarters fell into his hat. The mother and child did not get on this bus as they waited for theirs. The child's face still streaked wet.
Lou gathered the change, four quarters and a dime total. He put the dime into his pocket and rose without another word. He hurried into a nearby shop and quickly returned. His motion and filth parted the crowd as he made his way to the mother and still whimpering child. The mom seeing his approach pulled the child close to her hip.
Lou stopped in front of them and reached out his hand, the child's eyes beaming. Lou tried to hand the mother a small item. The onlookers watched. He pushed it closer to her as she recoiled. The child tugged on her mother arm, "Mom, mom ... Look! Can I? Please, Please?" The mom looked down into Lou's dirty hand and saw the words Rainbow Popsicle.
"It's hot," He said as it pushed it into her hand.
Lou turned and walked away, his Uke dangling against his back. The crowd looked first at the smiling child then at the surprised look on the mother's face. The hush that had engulfed the crowd turned to a mummer of approval as one, then another and then another began to clap. A small applause rose from the group as a bus pulled up to the stop. A man slung a dark expensive jacket over his shoulder and reached into his pocket as he motioned to the bus driver to wait. He ran towards Lou. Lou sensed his approach and turned, wet eyes leading. The man handed him a twenty dollar bill ... a clean soft hand gripping a dirty calloused hand, "That was beautiful..."
Bottles, Misfits and War Heroes
Tom Spader - 9/2015
Bottles, Misfits and War Heroes
Tom Spader - 9/2015
Bottles screamed a burst of obscenities as the rock hit him square in the back. The kids all laughed, but the old man in the dirty gray coat continued on his way, not even looking up. “Fucking kids,” he said half muttering to himself.
A scene like this played itself out nearly every day on their way home from school. The local elementary school would let out and a group of fourth graders, making their way home through the park, would see Bottles scouring the ground for who-knows-what. Then it would be a rock thrown or some on-going taunts or maybe the toss of a penny into the path of his search. Not a day went by that Bottles wouldn’t be there and every day the kids would be there tormenting him.
The penny-toss in front of him was their favorite because it would cause the rattled old man to bend over to retrieve it. Once, to their delight, his greasy old pants split up the back igniting enough laughter to carry the kids all the way home ... still laughing, long after they broke up and went their separate ways.
Bottles lived in a rooming house on Atlantic Avenue, about two blocks from the park. The house always sported an over-sized American flag hanging from the one of the columns on the front porch. It was a huge white house, red shuttered. Bottles lived there with many of the town’s other misfits like Shuffles and High-Steppin’ Red. Nobody in town knew their real names. No one cared enough to ask. The residents of this house simply earned their names cruelly, by appearance.
Bottles was thought to be drunk all the time. No matter what time of the day, you’d see him staggering and mumbling to himself. He was always wearing the same old dirty, stained gray coat, summer or winter.
Shuffles was a very small, older man that looked to be near ninety. He always wore a suit and tie and a white gangster style hat pulled low. When he walked he would take steps of no more than six inches ... shuffling. He was killed one night coming back from buying a newspaper at the local smoke shop and while he was trying to cross a two-lane highway he was hit by a car. The kids, and some of the adults, joked that he just didn’t shuffle quite fast enough.
High-Stepping Red’s name spoke for itself. He was a tall older man with wild, graying red hair and a stride that took one of his long legs in a very high exaggerated step, arms flailing for balance. Red was always waving and yelling, "Hello, how are you?" whether anyone was in sight or not.
The rooming house was quiet and never really a problem, although neighbors did tell their kids to stay far away and to keep clear of its tenants. It was this precaution that probably lit the cruel fire already burning in the minds of the fourth graders.
At Halloween it was a dare that no kid ever took - to go up to the door for trick or treat. There were always decorations and a carved pumpkin outside, but no one ever knocked.
One day, after one of their usual afternoon verbal assaults on Bottles, one of the kids got his bicycle’s front tire stuck in the gap between the pavement and one of the tracks of the railroad that bordered the park. The more he pulled the more wedged the tire became bending the metal rim under the lip of the track. The other kids tried to lend a hand, but they only made it worse.
A train’s whistle announced that this problem would be solved shortly. The train was stopped at the local station two long blocks away and once it got rolling it would be going too fast to try and stop for something as small as a kid’s bike.
Another whistle from the train had the kids one by one leaving the bicycle to its certain fate. The bike's owner looked on with tears streaming down his cheeks.
The train was within a half a block when out of the shadows of the park’s trees Bottles emerged, still looking down mumbling. He stepped out onto the tracks causing another blast from the train whistle. With one strong, dirty hand he freed the bike and stepped back into the trees as the train passed between the park and the kids gathered on the other side. The owner of the bike looked on in shock. There was a mix of cheers and one misguided accusation that the bike was being stolen.
As the train was passing the kids all tried to look under the cars between the passing wheels to see Bottles and the bike. They wondered what to say. The train disappeared down the tracks and Bottles vanished into the shadows. The bicycle was left leaning against a tree.
The next day the fourth graders went through the park as usual. They looked for Bottles, but he was nowhere to be found. There wasn’t going to be any taunting or teasing this day. The kids didn’t quite know what they were going to do, but it wasn’t going to be cruel... but, no Bottles.
A week later two of the school kids that had to pass the rooming house on their way home stopped and watched a military color guard carry a flag draped coffin slowly down the front steps. They stood frozen in their tracks having never seen a real coffin much less one covered in the flag they saluted every morning. They watched as the soldiers loaded it into a government hearse.
Later that year, at the annual Memorial Day ceremony at a small lakeside park the school kids gathered. The park had a tall flag pole and few small monuments remembering past wars and those that fought them. The kids had been through this park a hundred times yet they never really knew or cared what the park was about. Today they gathered near the rifle squad in hopes of retrieving the spent shells after the twenty-one gun salute. The brass casings would be still warm and smelling of eggs if the kids were fast enough. They were a prize possession to a kid and his junk drawer at home.
One of the kids brought a handful of these shells from last year's ceremony. As the crowd grew quiet, he rolled them in his hand causing a rather noticeable, metallic, tinkling sound.
During the ceremony a speech was given by a stern looking general with square jaw and a chest full of medals. This was unusual for this little town and the kids pushed closer, impressed.
The general kept referring to an Ed. This Ed was a hero from World War Two. The general said Ed had saved his life and the lives of his entire squad in the Pacific. He talked of heavy enemy fire and dragging injured comrades to safety. He said that Ed was the bravest man he had ever served with.
The kids scoured the crowd for Ed, looking for a giant of a man, rock solid and looking brave even while standing still, but they only saw the usual town faces; the pudgy mayor sweat dripping from his round face, his smiling wife, the guy from the hardware store, the little league coach...
The general said Ed was severely injured and shell-shocked during the battle, leaving him staggering for balance and mentally scared for the rest of his life. A stillness fell over the crowd as they listened. The general said, slowly scanning their faces, that Ed chose to live out his days here in their town. The crowd was completely silent as he thanked the them for welcoming Ed and treating him so well in his remaining, damaged days.
The General then turned to the local VFW squad who carried a covered easel up onto the podium. As the general lifted the cloth covering a framed over-sized photograph, the crowd gasped. There in a torn camouflage uniform carrying a machine gun, a cigarette dangling from his lips, looking every bit the Hollywood hero, was Bottles.
The only sound over the hushed crowd was the tink, tink, tink of brass shell casings hitting the ground one by one as a small hand slowly fell open.
Thursday Night Fireworks 1967
by Tom Spader - 9/2015
Thursday Night Fireworks 1967
by Tom Spader - 9/2015
I can still remember the killing. The horrors of war thrown onto those so young. We learned to live for it. We learned to love it. To us, the reasoning of war was shadowed by the beauty of the battle.
It was the height of the Vietnam War, but my neighborhood was still so filled with Germans and Japanese that the three of us would kill all day long and still not get them all. Never mind the North Koreans.
We met at a place that was once a playground, under the twisted metal bars that entertained us as children...just hours earlier. We would plan our route through the now war torn town that hours ago was a pleasant slice of suburban middle class New Jersey. To kill with extreme prejudice, well, at least until five o'clock ... when that one final cry that all of us feared most would ring out. Sometimes we would drop one at a time, sometimes all at once. There was nothing we could do to mute the dreaded, “Dinner! Time to come in”.
Every day the three of us would move through the heaviest fire and against the most overwhelming odds and still come through without a scratch. We would lay in wait and take out long columns of armored divisions. Tanks disguised as Mail Trucks, supply trucks loaded heavy with ammo, under the mask of milk delivery. We took them all. A three foot wooden 2x4, painted black or a straight tree branch or store bought Hasbro held by a skilled gunner and loaded just right, could send any one of these enemy targets into a million burning pieces.
We never lost. Well, never, except for Thursday night. On this night the killing would not stop at dinner-time, it would only pause. The real battle raged after dark. Although this was the night that we would die time and time again, would couldn’t wait.
Every Thursday throughout the summer their aerial assault from the beach-head , would start at 9 pm ... unless it rained. They wouldn’t fight in the rain. We weren't allowed to.
Their missiles and cannon-fire were the only weapons that worked on us. They dropped us like flies. We would charge like heroes, our guns blazing, only to be flattened time and time again by their ruthless bombardment from the sky. We couldn’t even see them. They were launching their horror from a quarter mile away and they never missed their mark.
We would begin our charge from a fence line near some neatly planted flowers. Rumor had it that the flower bed was mined. We never stepped in that flower bed. Once, the younger of our three stomped through the flowers and he simply disappeared from our ranks until the next day. If he was injured badly, he didn’t say. We didn’t talk about things that kept us off the line.
We would rise from our crouched positions at the first muted thud from the beach signaling a missile launch and we charge screaming with our best rebel yells across the neatly trimmed lawn, across the asphalt river, only to be completely wiped out by the sound of the final blast.
We died, time and time again. Sometimes sudden like the victim of a prize fighter’s punch, straight down. Other times, like a drunken ballerina, staggering and twirling, but hitting the ground just as dead.
Sometimes they would throw one of their multi-blast missiles at us. Many horrible smaller explosions ... wounding and maiming us, sending us stumbling and turning until the final BAM! ... then down we’d go.
After we'd fall there was sometimes a long, still silence. We could hear very small distant explosions from up on the beach. We’d lay frozen in our death-like postures awaiting the next flash from the sky signaling a new life...unless the mosquitoes said otherwise. On nights that this buzzing pest reared its ugly head, our deaths did not last. To stop moving would surely mean that after all the dying there would be a sleepless night of scratching and lotions. When there are mosquitoes, a soldier must keep moving ... dead or alive.
One Thursday, without orders, we decided to take out the beach-head on our own. We met where we always met, where we were allowed to meet, where our generals expected to fight and die, just as we had done throughout the summer. Under the smoke screen of just another Thursday night, we slipped off to the enemy stronghold.
We crossed the busy Ocean Avenue getting odd looks from the civilians. Maybe it was our size, they all seemed taller. Maybe it was that they didn't know the danger they were in...they didn't know our mission.
The boardwalk lights they used made it almost impossible for a surprise attack of any strength. We decided a three soldier commando raid was in order. Crawling along the beach near the water’s edge we were shadowed from the their lights by the crest of the sand dune. It was a long crawl. We stopped occasionally to take long range sniper shots at their lookout perched high atop the captured Ferris-wheel. No sooner did we pick one of them off, when another appeared, and then another. We took turns.
As we got closer to their launch site we could see the explosive experts making ready their arsenal. We laughed at the thought of them lobbing the bombs and missiles on our now empty battleground. Did they really think that we were going to fall for the same thing every week?
As the three of us rose to charge the enemy we got the surprise of our young military careers. Just as we leaned into our assault, all three of us were grabbed from behind by pairs of large tanned, muscular hands. It seems that the same enemy that we sometimes fought on the beach during the day, as they sat in their high wooden towers, noses painted white below dark sunglasses were also guarding the beach on bombardment night.
Name, rank and serial number.
Well, name, rank and serial number may have been the order on the beach but, by the time we were taken to their headquarters they had managed to force from us the secret telephones numbers to all our bases. There was talk of trespassing and us being way too young to be on the beach alone at night. Ha, too young ...
After long discussions with our generals, who seemed a bit annoyed they had to leave their base to come here to bargain our release, our war was over. There must have been some kind of prisoner exchange that night, because we were back on base before long. We all were put on desk duty for the rest of that summer's bombing campaign. No more Thursday night battles. We pitied the world and wondered how hard it would be to learn to speak German or Japanese.
When we again we allowed to meet on what was once the battleground we were amazed to find that it somehow had turned into a giant football stadium complete with cheerleaders and screaming fans. The twisted metal bars were now neatly formed goal posts.
We no longer argued about who was going to shoot first ... we now had to figure who was going long and who had to play steady quarterback.
THE ENDLESS SUMMER - Labor Day 1973
by Tom Spader
Stepping back in the splintered sunlight filtering through the boardwalk over-head we admired our handiwork. There it was for all time. “Tom and Robyn, Sept. 1973” carved into the huge support beam, surrounded by a heart, pierced with an arrow.
It was Labor Day Tuesday. Summer had come and gone. Overnight the small seaside resort was transformed from a loud, crowded tourist trap to a quiet anywhere town.
There was an eerie silence in the early morning sun, a sharp contrast to the deafening noise from the night before. Gone were the sounds of tourists screaming on the thrill rides. Gone were the barkers calling to the passer-bys to try their wheels of chance. Gone was the sound of bad cover bands seeping out onto the boardwalk from the crowded bars.
The boardwalk looked different that morning too. You could stand and look for hundreds of yards without seeing another person. The view was only occasionally broken by a seagull landing near one of the over-filled garbage cans to feast on bits of pizza crust or greasy French fries left behind by the summer’s final crowd.
Our wooden monument carved under the boardwalk was a perfect place to pledge our "and". She was the city girl. I was the local. We met three months earlier just above our heads in a restaurant where I had a summer job. Robyn used to come off the beach everyday for a soda or ice cream. I was a soda-jerk working the counter. We couldn’t remember who saw who first, but the attraction was mutual.
I said that carving our names would bind us together through the long winter months ahead that we would be apart. We wouldn’t see each other again until next June. She was leaving in a few short hours to go home with her parents.
Times were different then. Kids our age didn’t use the word love lightly. We thought long and hard what we should use to join our names. Using the word love would have meant we were in very unchartered waters for a fourteen and thirteen year old and a place that neither one of us were ready to sail.
We agreed 'likes' wasn’t strong enough. We settled on 'AND.'
For that summer we were an AND.... as much of an AND that a couple of young teenagers could be. For us it was a summer of innocence and discovery as our AND was meeting nearly every night near the restaurant where I worked during the day. We'd wander around or just sit and talk on one of the many old fashioned rocking chairs that lined an open air deck overlooking the ocean. We'd sneak a quick kiss and the simple thrill of that would carry us until the next night. We were kids.
We spent our final morning together hand in hand. Robyn met me at sunrise outside the restaurant - the oversized garage doors to the open air dining room were now closed for the season. Everything seemed different that morning.
Robyn and I walked down to the water’s edge and we let the ocean waves wash across our feet. Looking down we laughed at the different colors our legs had turned. Mine were still very white from being in long pants fifty hours a week in the restaurant and hers were a golden bronze, tanned from her hours on the beach. We would soon trade these colors as she would once again dress like her friends in the city in designer jeans and stylish shirts and I would be in my shorts and T-shirts as my summer job would be swapped for hours on the beach after school. That’s the way it was, the locals never seemed to be tan during the summer.
We walked north towards the inlet. The sun was glistening gold and white off the ocean and the warm breezes were a reminder that the summer had not yet ended.
Reaching the rocks of the jetty we climbed out to the end and sat. Neither of us had said a word since we emerged from carving our names under the boardwalk.
Robyn was the first to break the silence, “Will you write?”
With a smile I answered, “Every week.”
She said that she would never forget this summer. Trying to think of something clever and mature I told her that this was an Endless Summer and that we would carry this memory through the winter and pick up right here where we left off next June when she returned.
We sat in silence until the sun was well above the horizon and the heat of the late summer’s day began to grow. It was time for her to head back to her parent’s summer bungalow. It was time for her to leave my sand and return to her pavement.
I walked her to within a block of the house. At thirteen she was too young in her parents eyes to have a boyfriend, even if we really were only an AND.
We kissed goodbye. It was the first time we had ever kissed in broad daylight. We held that kiss not knowing it would be our last.
She turned and walked down the narrow walkway between the summer cottages. They all looked the same. She looked back just before she turned out of sight and quickly looked away. She didn’t want me to see that she had broken her promise not to cry.
I took the long way home, back along the ocean’s edge, lost in thought, before turning down my block.
At first we wrote each other every week. I think she wrote her first letter on the car ride home. By Christmas the letters were more about school and friends and less about us. By the end of the winter the letters had fallen off to once a month. She only wrote once that spring. I didn’t even answer. The distance was just too much for a couple of kids experimenting with a summer romance.
As early summer rolled around again I got my job back at the restaurant and once again fell into a local teenager’s summer routine. I thought about her and wondered, no hoped, she thought about me.
Summers came and went and the years slipped by. I moved away a few times, but wound up settling not more than five blocks from where I used to work on the boardwalk.
I married and I heard she did the same. I laughed when my wife and I were comparing notes on our past and found that she had the same teen-age years that I did only she substituted a wooded summer camp on the Chesapeake Bay for my beach, but the scenes played out pretty much the same way.
One night during a winter storm I heard the local fire department whistle calling the volunteers from their beds. I looked out my front window to see the sky over the ocean glowing a bright orange and knew that the only thing in town big enough to burn with that intensity was the boardwalk.
I walked up the street and watched the restaurant where I had spent my summers go up in flames. It may have been twenty degrees and snowing that night, but as I watched the boardwalk burn I remembered the warmth of that summer when I was fourteen. As the flames moved across where Robyn and I carved our names that morning, it seemed like yesterday.
I guess it truly was an Endless Summer.
Porcelain Jesus Falls
(the continuing story of Haiku Lou)
by Tom Spader - 8/2015
Porcelain Jesus Falls
by Tom Spader - 8/2015
Laying on his back Lou stared straight up, eyes closed, into the veiled, endless colors of the autumn sky. Squeezing the lids of his eyes would melt the hues from yellow to black, then slowly easing back the deepest reds would give way to orange to yellow and just before the blinding colorless white light there would be green. A cool breeze sent the shadow of a leaf across his face causing a flashing kaleidoscope of color into his mind's eye.
The benches in the square had iron arm rails every three feet. It was tough to lay, but with bent knees and propped head the sky soared above. The trees were losing their battle with the season and more and more of the tall buildings from the nearby university climbed into the emptiness of the sky. Before long these buildings would be funneling the winter winds across the park driving all but the most hearty or helpless into cover.
An ant crawled across the back of Lou's hand. He felt its path long before it registered in his mind that something was in transit across his landscape. Raising his hand to block the sun and bring the ant closer he watched and wondered. Rolling on his side he reached for a fallen leaf on the cobblestone walk and placed it against his skin in the ant's path. The ant stopped and turned. Lou moved the leaf slightly and the front legs of the ant reached out.
Go ahead my friend
a new journey awaits you
plant your flag with pride
Lou eased the leaf to the nearby grass and smiled.
Lou carried the ant in his mind as he made his way across town to a diner that had long been losing its battle against the new millennium. Lou's friend Gracie was a waitress there and was as much a fixture as the old Maxwell House neon sign in the window. They both showed a long history that was now being swallowed by soaring rent and the grey, bony hand of a style bent future.
As Lou entered the diner, Gracie waved franticly at him, "Lou, Lou quick in the back booth. Over here."
Lou, with his hands still in the pockets of his overcoat, began waving the front opened and closed. "Ah, it always smells so good in here...I could use some of that."
"Quit flapping like some crazy bird and get over here out of sight. Mike sees you and we're both going to get tossed," Gracie said, sliding the standing chalk board with the daily specials on it out into the isle a little blocking the view of the last booth.
"He is still pissed off about the religion thing you laid on him last time. He's a big time Catholic ... and Lou, that god-is-an-ant thing really ... really got to him."
"Gracie, ol' gal ..." Lou said sliding into the booth. "I didn't say god was an ant. I said he/she/it could be an ant."
"See there you go again, the 'he/she/it' thing, that kind of stuff really lights a fire under some people, you know that. I bet that is why you do it."
"Gracie, I don't do anything to anyone that has not already been done. If ol' Mike was so secure in his walk an old blasphemer like me couldn't shake him. It's doubt that makes people uncomfortable."
"Enough ... enough already. Get in here."
Lou sat against the mirrored wall and Gracie slid the chalk board out just a bit more. She had been working the counter at the diner for more years than she cared to count. It wasn't a great job, but it was a job and it was close to home. She worked there long before the new manager, Mike was brought in to try to save the place.
"Coffee, Lou?" Gracie said reaching for the pot still shaking her head about the ant business.
"Yes, yes please. I can pay this time, Gracie, me and Cliff scraped together some jingle over at the Square earlier."
"Ha ... old Omba, how's he doing?"
"He still hates that name ... damn Laughing Man my ass." Lou said sliding the sugar jar to the center of the table. "He's good, he's good. Got a heart that's too big for his small body. Some day he's going to explode all over everyone and anyone within a mile will be the better for it."
Lou reached into his inside coat pocket and pulled out a roll of single dollar bills.
"Well, well big spender I tell you what, you can pay for the food, but the coffee is going to cost you. Come on, give me something."
Lou straighten up in the seat and gently placed his thumb and index finger of both hands on the edge of the cup.
"Hand me the cream." Lou tilted the small metal pitcher into his cup. Smiling, he said just above a whisper ...
White swirls surface art
A spoon swipe the critics heard
Half deaf Vincent smiles
"Love it just ... just love it." Gracie chuckled. "Lou, someday you're going to write these things down and get published instead of just letting them out into thin air."
"No, no that would ruin it."
"Ruin my ass, you need to eat. Need a roof over your head."
"But at what cost, Gracie my friend, at what cost?"
"Well, well, look here, if it isn't the old ant worshiper." Mike said moving towards the booth, pushing the chalk board back against the wall. Mike was a tall, darkish man of about thirty-five with a tie always squeezed so tight his neck bulged like a muffin over the top. His face was red and always seemed to be in mid scowl as if his brain was turning bad information over and over. He was serious.
"You over here reciting again? Come on old timer, tell me again about this ant god of yours. What was it you said last week? Never heard anything like that in my life, come on, I bet you don't even remember..."
Lou paused briefly, looked down and as each word slipped from his lips his head slowly rose and with the last word Lou was looking into Mike's darkening eyes.
In whose image made
Toiling to please the queen
God's ant-like face shines
"There it is again, you damn fool. What do you think is going to happen when you die? Huh? You going to ascend some damn ant hill."
"Well, Mike ..." Lou said calmly, but quickly taking a sip from his coffee, bracing ... "I'd like to think if we are talking heaven, it wouldn't really be a damn ant hill ... now would it?"
"That's it! Out, get out you old bastard," Mike said grabbing the collar of Lou's coat, hoisting him out of the booth, spilling the coffee and cream pitcher across the table. Lou shook free of Mike's hand for a moment to look down at the table watching whites mix with browns. "Behold, my cup runneth over..." Lou said smiling.
"Out, out, behold my ass and don't come back peddling that atheist BS around here."
As Mike shoved Lou towards the door Lou slammed hard against the old wooden door frame causing the crucifix that hung above the door, next to the sign that read, "We reserve the right to not serve you" to fall, the porcelain Jesus shattered across the floor.
to be continued ...
Howie and the Light Switch
by Tom Spader - 8/2015
Howie and the Light Switch
by Tom Spader - Aug 2015
Howie dug into his sandwich with a gusto usually reserved for the just rescued. A impish jailhouse grin slowly spread across his face. He held his food in mid-bite, inches from his thin lips and said, “This will help (raising the sandwich) when I’m back on the inside.”
I cringed at his use of the word, 'when.' I thought I’d heard it all standing behind this Baltimore-city bar day after day, but when the smallish eighteen-year-old kid who sat on the stool in front of me said so matter-of-factly that he was expecting to be in jail again, I could only shake my head. So strange was the “when I’m back on the inside”, part that I almost didn’t question the fact that he had just said that the sandwich that he was eating now, turkey on white with mayo, would somehow help him in his next incarceration. Aside from the obvious nutritional values (ones that would never have entered Howie’s thoughts much less be part of this fleeting conversation) I couldn’t help but wonder how this meal would help … inside jail or out. I foolishly asked.
Howie said, his eyes dark and wild, "The next time they lock me up and I'm let out into the exercise yard I'll just fly over the walls." This would be done, he explained, because all he ate was poultry, mainly turkey. In those dark eyes there was a pride that he would finally have something on the guards and the system. I laughed. I thought he would join me in my laughter, but he just took another bite and nodded his head.
He also said that he did three hundred push-ups a day, but did not elaborate on the reason. Since we were talking about his escape from prison, I figured it was for some winged stamina.
Howie was the Audubon Bar and Grill's one-man-cleaning-crew. Audubon’s was a local tavern just outside the main downtown area of the city. Howie lived nearby. He wandered in through the door one day while the owner happened to be there staring down at the new white tile floor he had just installed...questioning his choice of color. It had snowed the night before and last night's crowd had turned his handiwork into a maze of swirled muddy footprints and crushed cigarette butts. The floor needed to be cleaned before we opened and the regular clean-up guy was out indefinitely with lower back problems, so when Howie walked through the door with that frozen grin asking for work he was hired on the spot. He had a mop in his hand before the boss even knew his name.
As the weeks went by Howie turned out to be pretty handy with a mop. That winter was one with record breaking snowfall and there was always amazing quantities of mud and slop on the new floor every morning for Howie to deal with. His work had a calculated style to it like he was following some master plan of mopping. He worked the floor in an almost geometric pattern hitting every square inch of an area before moving onto the next. As he worked he kept looking back over his right shoulder. Watching his movements I surmised that this talent was probably acquired in his last stay with our correctional system. Every prison movie I had ever seen there was always a scene of an inmate mopping the floor. The over the shoulder glance I figured was a move of self-preservation.
Aside from an occasional burned out light bulb or the mountains of trash and longneck beer bottles to be wrestled into the alley out back there was little else for Howie to do.
Howie’s used to tell me his street tales and the crazy nights he spent away from the job. If his stories were true, and I had no reason to doubt them, he probably would be back in custody before too long. On any given Saturday night it seemed that Howie and his friends would drink heavily and do drugs like LSD and then as the night began to peak they would steal cars and go driving. Pure joy riding. They’d steal a car in one neighborhood and drive for awhile and then ditch it a few miles away and steal another. It was never a crime of money … just kicks. The car that dropped him off that morning he said, with a bit of pride, was stolen. They were on their way to ditch it, also meaning he had not slept yet. His eyes were haunting and electric.
It was mid morning and once again it was snowing. The flakes were coming down with an intensity that was a sure sign that our lunch crowd would be pretty much nonexistent. The main floors were done and the cook was looking for Howie, who was working the floor behind the bar. He was needed in the kitchen. Slow days were used as “project days” and today they were tackling the exhaust fan filters … a nasty job.
While mopping behind the bar Howie decided he needed to shed a little more light on the scene. He had been ridding the floor of spills of beer and booze and various sodas and mixers for two months, but today he felt he felt he actually needed to see what he was doing. Reaching for a red-buttoned switch near an under counter light above the three section bar sink, he pushed. No light. He pushed again. And again. And again. Still nothing. He made a mental note, mouthing the words to himself, "Fix bar light."
The day cook, Re-Pete, named such because the head chef was also named Pete, found Howie behind the bar and told him of the upcoming chore. Re-Pete checked the clock and saw that they’d be at it through Howie’s normal food break and asked him if he wanted to eat before they got started. He never ate anything else. Day in, day out, turkey, on white, with mayo.
Howie had finished his floor duties behind the bar and was lifting the heavy hinged section of the bar that acted as sort of gate, when there was a huge crash from the front of the bar as the door was kicked open. I turned from where I stood, whipping glasses behind the counter, and was blinded by the morning light flooding in from snowy outside as the silhouettes of two crouching, uniformed police officers burst through the door, their muddy cop soles slapping against the newly cleaned white floors.
As soon as I turned in the direction of the police, I heard another loud crash of the hinged bar section slamming down behind me. I could see Howie crouching on his knees on the floor just outside the bar area holding his index finger to his lips. He crawled a few feet then stood and quickly made his way down the narrow hall along the kitchen. As he reached the back door to the alley I was again blinded by light flooding in from the outside, but this time it was Howie diving into the back-alley sending boxes of neatly stacked empty longneck beer bottles flying in every direction.
I turned back towards the police who were looking around the room and then at each other and then looking at me, still wiping he same glass behind the bar.
“What’s the trouble?” one of them asked as they both scanned the scene.
“What’s the trouble with what?” I said moving in their direction.
“That’s what we’re asking you!” one of them said sternly, moving closer adjusting his heavy belt. “You’re the one that pushed the panic alarm … four times. Didn’t you? You know you can be fined for messing with that thing if there’s not a problem.”
“What panic alarm? We don’t have a panic alarm,” I said.
Cop number two was making his way around and through the hinged section of the bar. He stopped, and with his nightstick pointed at the red switch near a non-functioning light above the three-sectioned sink. “That is your alarm. It goes off and we’re dispatched. The way you hit it four times in a row we figured something major was going on. What the hell IS going on?” he said firmly sliding his club back into his belt.
“Sorry”, I said, “ I think our cleaning guy thought it was a light switch. I didn’t even know we had an alarm.”
At that moment there was a loud static crackle coming from the walkie-talkies hanging from their belts. “WE GOT ONE … WE GOT ONE. HE’S COMING OVER THE FENCE FROM THE BACK.” the voice said in a broken cadence as if the cop on the other end was starting his pursuit. “WHITE MALE … FIVE FOOT … JEANS … WHITE T-SHIRT … MOVING NORTH ON EIGTH ON FOOT.”
“THERE … HE … GOES. HE’S FAST! WE’RE … NOT GOING … TO CATCH … HIM … BETTER… CALL IN … BACK UP.” the voice said, now puffing as if gasping for air. “IS …EVERYTHING … ALL RIGHT…IN THERE?”
Cop number two turned to me and said, “Who the hell was that going out the back door! And why is he running.”
“Just Howie, he’s the cleaning guy. He’s OK … I think.”
“We’ll check him out” he said as they left grumbling. I heard them calling for back up units. The radio voice was saying that the runner would be easy to find … he was the only one leaving tracks in the snow.
I made my way to look out the front window. It was still snowing hard with flakes the size of golf balls. It all looked so calm and serene. I turned to look up the block and saw a small figure dart across the road. Moments later a police cruiser followed.
As I stood there I was joined by Re-Pete. “What was all that about?” he said, almost whispering. In his hand he was holding a plate with a turkey sandwich, on white with mayo.
The Soda Jerk
by Tom Spader 8/2015
The Soda Jerk by Tom Spader 8/2015
The boardwalk was foul that morning. The garbage and stench from last night’s crowds was heavy in the summer air. An hour after sunrise and the old boards were always in need of a good cleaning ... just another day.
By eight, this place would be clean again and ready for the next assault of day-trippers and summer tourists. The sweepers and guys with long hoses had yet to do their morning ritual. These low-men on the totem pole would emerge from each business like a rodent leaving it’s burrow and clean the boards in front of their place. The greasy French fry stands would have the worst of it. The wood was actually stained darker near those places. Even the harmless postcard shop would have its work cut out for them. It didn’t matter what you sold, you were responsible for the wood in front of your place.
At fifteen, when most of my friends were sleeping late, I was walking through garbage and stale smells. Kicking through the empty cups, half eaten slices of pizza and the flattened remains of cotton candy I wondered how so many people could miss so many trash cans. Puddles of melted ice cream with the swirled colors of some sticky topping had oozed through the cracks onto the sands below like some surrealistic painting.
I was on my way to open the restaurant on the north end of the ocean-side boardwalk. I had spent my last two summers there as an underage prep chef and part time counter person. I was working a double shift that day and was not looking forward to it. I had agreed to cover a fellow soda fountain counter service person a.k.a. “Soda Jerk” on his closing shift, but also had to work my own shift all day in the kitchen. This meant that I’d be opening and closing the place. These were the years before the modern child labor laws. Those laws never seemed to apply to the boardwalk workers anyway.
As I neared the end of the half mile long walk I ran into Howard. Howard was a giant of a man in his late forties with a big smile and even bigger heart. As I greeted him with a morning hand shake I watched as my small white hand disappeared into his dark giant fist. His size made me very glad that we were friends. He was affectionately known as “Baby Huey” after the cartoon character. Gentle as a baby, but could squash you like a grape. Howard worked for the same people that I did. He didn’t work in the restaurant, he was more of a behind the scenes guy. This was a left over attitude from the owners father’s fathers. Whites out front in the public eye, and blacks to the rear.
Jenkinson’s, the company we worked for, was more than the restaurant. They owned a half mile stretch of beach, two restaurants, a bar, two candy stores, various prize wheels, a double Olympic size saltwater swimming pool, a miniature golf course and a beach train. The train ran the length of the half mile beach with a loop for turning around at the north end near the inlet where the Manasquan River spilled into the Atlantic Ocean.
Occasionally the beach train would derail. I once watched four strong able-bodied lifeguards attempt to put the train back on the tracks, but they couldn’t even budge it. Howard was called in and put the thing back on track by himself. I was very glad we were friends.
As I entered the restaurant ducking under the oversized garage doors, that later would be opened to create a open air dining room, I got a big hello from Buddy, my boss, whose big round faced smile greeted me every morning. Buddy, was the guy that gave me my chance the year before to prove that I could handle this job. I was two years younger than anyone else working there. Kids my age worked the beach - Umbrella boys. Buddy was a friend of my father’s from way back. I worked hard, kept my mouth shut, and did not make either Bud or my father regret the day I was hired.
The morning ritual after turning on the lights and pulling strings to the large wooden ceiling fans, was to make the beer run for Buddy and Baby Huey. Buddy would give me the keys to his pick-up truck camper and tell me to make a “vegetable run”, which meant to get the day’s worth of fresh produce from the walk-in refrigerator and while down there get the beer that he had tucked away in his pickup truck camper. Our walk-in refrigerator that held the bulk of the produce was actually down the block from the restaurant and under the big pool’s decking. His camper was always parked nearby. If Buddy arrived to work at 5:30 am with a six pack tucked under his arm it wouldn’t be viewed very productive to the straight-laced owner, so what better smoke screen than to send a kid down for the day’s veggies and have him return with six beers tucked in amongst the celery, onions and peppers. I also knew that sometime after lunch I’d be offered a cold one once they’d switched from beer to gin and tonics. By the time I got back from the veggie run, Howard and Buddy would both be waiting for me. Just another day.
My morning chores were lighting the large cast iron griddles, firing up the deep fat fryers and pulling the strings that lit up the neon signs that read “Drink Coke”, “Fresh Squeezed Orangeade” and “Use Coppertone”. The neon made for a colorful back drop mixing with the early morning light filtering through the paneled windows facing the ocean.
Looking out onto the empty beach I could see the lifeguards setting up their stands. Perched high above the shore break so their line of sight was set out past the breakers, they’d jam their orange floats into the sand a few feet in front of the stand. If needed, they could hit the beach from a leap off the seven foot stand, grab the float and hit the waves without breaking stride. Graceful as this move was it was hardly ever needed. Most of the time they’d sit day after day, wandering eyes hidden behind their Ray Ban shades, checking out the teenage girls, their noses smeared white as if wearing war paint for some possible battle. The thing they battled most was boredom.
Looking further north, I could see the commercial fishing boats heading into the Inlet from a night out netting whatever was plentiful and marketable. As they were coming in, the Party-Boats were going out.
Turning my attention back to the restaurant, the set-up quickly turned to the breakfast rush. Three cooks were manning the griddles. One on eggs. One on Meats. One on everything else (Pancakes, French toast, etc). I can still hear the “Egg-Cook” Jim singing, “I am the Egg man, I am the walrus, koo koo ka chu.”
Six waitresses moving fast and looking pretty at eight in the morning which was no easy task considering half of them closed the bars the night before.
Three guys were working the counter yelling their orders back in code, instead of using the paper slips the waitresses used. “Two stacks and scram working.” “One down, SPK with shoes.”
I prepped them all. It was like being the stage manager of some weird avant garde Off Broadway play.
The rush was usually over by 9:30 and lunch didn’t start for another two hours, so there was time for most of us to regroup ... except me, I’d be off on some other covert mission like smuggling beer over to the black guys washing dishes or scanning the beach with Bud’s military binoculars, powerful enough to see goose bumps form from a cool breeze from a hundred yards away - an interesting tool for a fifteen year old.
I’d also take lunches, full-tilt lunches, over to the bartenders that were setting up for their own rush to come later in the day. These lunches of giant burgers or club sandwiches would be exchanged for gin and tonics. These would be in plastic quart containers with limes floating. Buddy and Howard would then be set for the afternoon. My reward and incentive to keep quiet would be a mid afternoon cold beer set aside from the morning veggie run.
All this and at a buck sixty five a hour.
Lunch came and went without much fanfare. By noon, all the behind the scenes stuff that I was responsible for was done and the kitchen was set through dinner.
Breakfast was the busiest time of day for us, with things tapering off after lunch and literally dying by dinner. We were the only restaurant on the boardwalk that served Breakfast, but by eleven o’clock the other food stands were opening and the 1974 version of fast-food “boardwalk-style” would have the most draw. A slice of pizza or a quick burger vs. our sit down style set up. By dinner, the beach crowd had thinned out and most of the vacationers were hitting the fancier sea food restaurants down by the wharf or heading into town. The day trippers were heading home.
By dinner our staff was down to one waitress, one counter guy, one cook and me. Buddy would be long gone. He would just disappear around three or so. No announcement. No Good-byes. Just gone... back with the sun, seven days a week.
Howard never seemed to leave. He was always there when I arrived in the morning and always there when I left.
At six, the one remaining cook and last waitress called it a day. With them also went the last counter guy. Their exit left me alone.
The lone Soda Jerk. Soda and egg creams, 1930's style with long handles shooting soda water into syrups at the bottom of long glasses was about all we had to serve for the rest of the night. We had a full ice cream set up with twelve flavors and all the toppings, but the more famous name soft frozen custard place down the boards was the big crowd pleaser.
The night wore on painfully slow. It was still light out when Robyn bounced her way up to the counter. She actually bounced when she walked. The bouncing was something she called the “Bayonne Bop." A kind of exaggerated step with her hands in the back pockets of her jeans.
Robyn and I had been casually dating through the summer. By dating I mean we’d meet on the boardwalk and hang around until she had to go home. At fourteen she was not allowed to have guys come to the house. At ten o'clock, I’d get to walk her home and we’d sneak a long good night kiss a half a block away from her grandmother’s house where she spent the summer. She was a good Catholic girl with three very big brothers.
There were no customers that night, just me and Robyn. The live band that played in the bar could be heard from the counter, but hadn’t started yet and probably wouldn’t for another hour, so I turned the radio on that we kept near one of the cash registers. It was an old tube model with one big speaker. I found a station that she liked and the slow night just got a little better.
Song after song came on the radio that set the mood. Songs like Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” and “Rock and Roll Heaven” by The Righteous Brothers... top forty noise. When Roberta Flack’s bedroom voiced “Feel Like Making Love” my fifteen year old mind smiled.
At around 8:30 an older couple came in and sat at the first two stools nearest the boardwalk. Robyn was on the extreme other end. They ordered a couple of drinks and it was painfully obvious that they were going to stay for a long while to sip and chat.
About that time the radio started blaring some breaking news about an upcoming speech that was about to be made. I made for the knobs on the radio attempting to salvage the mood. As I turned the dial the same announcer was on every station. In frustration I turned it off, but the announcer was still announcing.
I spun around to look at Robyn. At the old couple. At the people on the boardwalk. Everyone had stopped. It felt like a bad version of the Twilight Zone.
It was then that I realized that the sound was no longer coming from the radio, but from the overhead speakers that were usually reserved for public service announcements and the likes of lost children. Now, they were broadcasting my mood-killing drone out to everyone, everywhere.
“What the Hell” I said and was met with a volley of “Shhhhhh’s” from everyone, including Robyn.
“Good evening. This is the 37th time I have spoken to you from this office, where so many decisions have been made that shaped the history of this Nation...”
It was President Nixon! Tricky Dick himself. So, he was the culprit. I never liked him anyway and now he was the reason why Robyn was cooling off very quickly.
“In the past few days, however, it has become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress to justify continuing...”
Stop, please STOP!
“I would have preferred to carry through to the finish whatever the personal agony it would have involved,”
Your agony?...You're killing me!
“I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body.”
Quit! Oh, please quit. Now...just quit!
"Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. “
What?! I looked out onto the boardwalk and everybody had stopped dead in their tracks to listen. He quit! Our president just quit. I couldn’t believe it. And with his final words I let out a cheer as if I was sitting in Yankee Stadium watching Graig Nettles hit a home run. I clapped and whistled and cheered some more. It was then that I realized that I was the only one yelling. I stopped, in case my cheering was so loud that I couldn’t hear everyone else cheering too. All I heard was silence. I looked at the crowd on the boardwalk. They were staring at me. I looked at the old couple sitting at the counter and the look of disgust on their faces as they glared at me was dark.
I looked at Robyn. There was a single tear rolling down her tanned cheek. For an instant I thought that maybe it was a tear of joy, but that soon faded as I walked towards her. I saw the same look of disgust that I had seen on the old couple. Her too? Was I the only one? Didn't they get it? He quit!
A few minutes passed and the owner of the restaurant came over to say that we were closing early for the night. He also said that he had had a complaint about some sort of cheering during the presidential speech. When I said, “the former president?” he too looked at me with disgust.
I said “Good night” as he pulled the garage doors down behind me. He looked at me and shook his head. I looked past him to see Howard, standing in the shadows, smiling and nodding. I smiled back and threw him a wave good-bye.
Robyn was half way down the block on her run home...home to tell the story. I could see the fists clenching.
I sat for a long time on one of the many benches that lined the boardwalk and thought about all that had happened.
Sometime well after midnight I got up to walk home. The boardwalk had been closed for a while. As I walked through the empty soda cups, the half eaten slices of pizza and the flattened remains of cotton candy, I again wondered how so many people could miss so many trash cans.
Just another day...
Haiku Lou and Omba
Tom Spader - August 2015
The worn twenty dollar bill burned in Lou's dirty hand. It had been a long time since he held this much money at one time. In his palm face up, he ran his thumb over the dead president's face. It was soft, almost cloth-like with a few small tears. The bills he held almost never had zeros on them. He preferred them worn as if his situation allowed him to have a preference.
"The things those bills could say," he thought. With a slight smile Lou held the bill to his ear, "What?" he said out loud, eyes wide, "What's that you say? You're new here? Oh, oh my dear Andy, the things we will see ..." The people that passed gave him a little more room on the sidewalk.
Holding the bill out in front of him by the corners he recited to it.
Andrew my new friend
We know not what lies ahead
Care not, flowers bloom
Lou folded the bill in half lengthwise then again cross-wise as he did with all the paper money he came across. He tucked it deep into the inside chest pocket of his three quarter overcoat. The worn pockets in his pants had betrayed him before.
He wandered down 5th Avenue towards the park. "What to do," he wondered, "what to do?" His steps were a bit lighter as he swung his ukulele from his back and began to play as he walked.
Living on the street, playing the ukulele and reciting his spontaneous haikus he was able to get by fairly well depending on perspective. He had no real wants in his life. He was usually able to eat once or twice a day and slept in any number of places. He had simplified his life down to maintaining his most basic needs. This $20 offered opportunity to take care of a few things, settle up and start anew if even for just one day.
Ignoring the rumbling in his stomach Lou's first thoughts of payback turned to Cliff, or Omba as he was known on the street. Cliff had a small one room, one sunless window apartment above a dry cleaners near the river. He let Lou stash his huge, stuffed full duffle bag behind his small couch. From time to time Lou would stop by and change clothes, catch some sleep, grab a shower and just get off the street for a few hours. If Cliff was home, they'd sit and laugh over a few swallows of wine. He never over stayed his welcome, arriving late and leaving early and never more than once or twice a month...in the dead of winter, maybe a bit more.
Cliff didn't really like the nickname Omba, but accepted it as he had accepted everything tossed at him his whole life. He stood just above four foot, but he was strikingly handsome and had a good singing voice. He hated words like midget, dwarf, small person. He said he was just not that tall.
On warm weekend days, Lou and Cliff would team up and go down to the square and make music together. They were known as Omba and Uke-a-Lou to the few that actually knew them. They were a pretty good draw and stayed far away from the established jazz players that were loud, aggressive and savvy working the crowds with CD sales and in-your-face tactics for money. Omba and Uke played, absorbed in themselves with Lou's upturned hat nearby. They needed the money, but they made their music for themselves first and if others liked it all the better.
Lou crossed the cobblestone street and slipped down the narrow alley between the dry cleaners and a long closed deli. Kicking through the pile of empty boxes and odd bits of trash he reached for the ladder to the fire escape. The landlord who lived on the first floor didn't like Lou. He avoided the street entrance. It was along story.
Reaching for the rusted bottom rung he accidently swung his uke against the side of a forgotten, rusted commercial trash bin. It hit just right and rung out an open chord that echoed in the alley. "OHmmmm..." Lou tuned his voice to the pitch. "I ride my bike, I roller skate, don't drive no car ... don't go too fast, but I go pretty faaarr." Lou slid the ladder down to the cement with a loud CLANK. "For somebody who don't drriiiive, I've been all around the world..."
"Lou? Is that you?" Cliff called from the window above poking his head out.
In unison they sang, "Some people say I've done alright for a girl,"... their voices coming from above and below and meeting laughing, in the middle. Lou looked up into Cliff's smiling face.
"Hey, Cliff, Cliff how are you? I've got something for you." Lou called out slowly climbing up. "Wait till you see," he said reaching the landing. He swung his uke around and hit the four notes that led into the next chord in the song and holding their heads together sang, "Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, Oh yeah, yeaaahhh."
Lou climbed into the window and reached into his coat pocket pulling out the twenty. Cliff's eyes widened a bit. "Ha, where'd you get that, Lou? Did you tune your voice to the bank alarm too?" he said chuckling.
"Ha, no, no it was the change from buying a popsicle." Lou said still gently fingering his uke with his left hand.
"Change? What change? How do you get a twenty back as change?"
"Nah, not that kind of change. Change, real change. Take it my friend. I owe you a lot more than this."
"You sure? I'd love to say No, but rent is due and I'm short."
"Ha! You short?" Lou said laughing, "You're bigger than anyone I know."
The two caught up with laughter and wine poured into water cooler-style pointed bottomed paper cups. The wine brought a glow to their faces and since the cups could not be set down, they had to be drained with each refill. They laughed and drank. Cliff stuffed the bill into an envelope, scribbled something on it and slid it under his landlord's door. They made their way towards the park.
Crossing 4th Street, they entered the park and slowed near the children's play area. The kids were loud and happy. Lou and Cliff stopped and watched, the afternoon sun on their backs.
"Bumba ba bumba... Take a long holiday ...Let your children play." Cliff sang.
"Hey, yeah, let's do that first ... man, it's been a long time. You remember it?"
"Yeah ... what I don't, yeah ..., yeah, I'll wing it," Cliff said as he began going over the lyrics, his lips silently mouthing each verse. "Yeah, yeah ... let's. Lou, I know you know it. That brain is like a huge Frigidaire with deep long shelves. You just keep adding stuff in the front and pushing what's there into the back, but you man you need gherkins, you got gherkins..."
"Just check the expiration date my friend," Lou smiled.
The two wandered into the park and passed the jazz guys. They were taking a break and were huddled together. The Asian trumpet player in white framed sunglasses was shuffling a stack of CD's while they all talked in low voices. As Lou and Cliff passed, nods of familiarity were exchanged. As musicians they were in different worlds. The jazz guys were serious, recorded and had an occasional pay gig. Omba and Uke-a-Lou were in it for the song.
Further along the diagonal walk Larry the Birdman was working the pigeons. "Come on. Come on," he yelled into trees. Soon he was swarmed by the blue gray birds landing at his feet and on the bench near him. He extended one arm and two perched on it. He called individual names at them. "Hi Lucky. What's up Mommy ..." The crowd loved it, took pictures and handed him a dollar now and then after reading his sign about needing money to feed the birds.
Larry was a wild looking guy, tattoos and hair that went in all directions. In winter he wore a beard. He kept seed in his bulging pockets and tossed it on the sidewalk nearby to keep the birds close. With his arms extended and palms up, full of seed, the birds would eat out of his hand. While working the crowd he would engage a pretty girl or child with trusting parent and he would fill their palms with seed and show them how to get one of the pigeons to land on their arm and eat out of their hands. The parents loved it, took pictures of their kids and more often than not, tossed a buck or two Larry's way.
A college age girl and her friend walked by and Larry filled her hand and soon a bird was perched and feasting. They giggled and took phone pictures until the bird did what birds often do all over her forearm. With a shriek from the girl the moment was broken and the small crowd moved on. Larry wiped the girl's arm with his hand and then wiped his hand on his jeans.
The beauty of these encounters was that the audience is always moving. If you're a musician you can play a song and twenty minutes later play it again or in Larry's case ... all was soon forgotten.
Lou and Cliff reached the fountain and scanned the benches. There were mostly tourists near the arch so they turned right and found a bench in the shade. As Lou tuned his uke he nodded to Cliff to look out into the park. "Ha..." is all he said with a questioning smile.
Near the fountain there was a shirtless guy squaring off with one of the antique, now electric light poles. His head was shaved and he was very fit. He wore headphones and danced and threw punches and kicks at the old iron fixture. People made their way around him, almost ignoring him which seemed counter to his exhibitionist display. He was solid, tan and well trained, throwing long roundhouse kicks head high in perfect form .... yet, no one paid him any mind.
Light pole seems no match
Prize fighter without the prize
Pay your bill on time
"Nice one, Lou," Cliff smiled. "You're getting quicker too. Come on tune up before I forget the words."
Lou tuned up and immediately broke in the opening riff. The song was a hit in the late 1960's and had been remade a few times. The riff was catchy an memorable and with Lou's expertise on his instrument combined with the beautiful day they soon had a small group of people slowing near them.
After a long intro, Cliff began to sing. He was good, very good ... and all but the most bored or totally disinterested looked on or at least slowed their pace to watch and listen.
After a couple of verses, Lou broke into a long solo jam and used his thumb against the wooden deck of his uke to add percussion. Cliff took Lou's hat off his head and used it to fan Lou talented hands. He began to set it down on the sidewalk, but a couple of arms reached out and while it was out of character for them, as they never approached the crowd for money, Cliff walked toward the out stretched arms. Single dollar bills and loose change fell into the hat.
A father, with a son of about eight, abruptly made their way to the front. As Cliff was bending to put the hat down on the sidewalk, the man waved a green bill in Cliff's direction. The crowd was moving to the music. Some of the older crowd knew the song well and their heads bobbed to the beat. Cliff stood back up and moved toward the man. He was well dressed as was his son. The sun glinted off his gold watch as he reached out to drop the bill into the hat. Before letting loose the bill he held it high to the crowd, scanned their faces then released the bill into the sweat stained hat.
Cliff turned to join Lou and looked down into the hat. On the top of a small pile of singles was a brand new twenty dollar bill. Cliff, with a wide grin, lifted the bill between his index and middle fingers scissor-like and showed it to Lou who smiled back at Cliff and then into the face of the man. The man's dark sunglasses prevented the connection. Lou played on.
Cliff joined Lou and awaited his entry back into the song. Lou was way out there keeping beat with his thumb and working long blues style scales and chords into an extended jam. Cliff stood nearby moving to the beat.
The crowd hooted and whistled every time Lou did a fast run up the neck or did a quick start-stop or turn around. He had them and they called out for more. The well dressed man reached into his pocket and pulled out an expensive looking phone. He leaned and talked into the young boys ear. The boy shook his head the smile vanishing from his young face. The man inched the boy closer to Lou and Cliff.
The man lifted his phone to take a photo of his son as he moved in alongside Cliff. Cliff slowed his anchored foot dancing to pose with the boy. They stood side by side and the man nodded to the boy. Cliff smiled a wide handsome grin.
With the phone in the air, Cliff smiling side by side with the boy, the dad nodded again. The boy shook his head and the father glared. The boy's arm rose from behind Cliff and his hand flattened level with the top of his own head and hovered two inches above the top of Cliff's. The flash went off on his phone. He checked the image and a huge smile spread across his face. Cliff fired him a thumbs up and went back to the rhythm of the song.
Lou, even absorbed in his musical flight, witnessed the scene playing out before him and not missing a beat went into a long series of hammer-ons and pull-offs with his left hand along the neck of his uke (a technique when done well frees the right hand). Lou bent to the hat and retrieved the twenty and approached the man just as he was raising his hand in an unanswered high five. The man and son were looking at the screen of his phone as they heard the music coming toward them. They both turned towards Lou.
The eyes of the crowd followed Lou and most saw the photo being taken. As the boy moved aside Lou stood before the man. Lou's left hand kept the music going. The man stiffened as Lou closed the space between them. He held the bill high to the crowd and scanned their faces. He reached out and stuffed the twenty into the man's shirt pocket and turned away. The crowd went wild.
Cliff looked on puzzled. Lou approached him, left hand still working the song and threw his right hand around Cliff's neck and pulled him close. "Easy come, Easy go."
A few short full chord strokes on his uke signaled Cliff's return to the song in mid verse, "Take a long holiday ... Let your children play."
Tom Spader / August 2015
"Diapers, bread, milk, Tampax. Diapers, bread, milk, Tampax...," the rhythm of the list danced in Kyle’s head as he walked towards the all night food store. "Why was it that we always ran out of diapers in the middle of the night?" he wondered, his hands dug deep into his coat pockets against the cold "Or during a storm. Or both, like now, two o’clock in the morning and snowing hard. And why was there always the while-you’re-there” items thrown in at the last minute?"
Trudging along through the two inches of fresh snow, Kyle looked up as he approached the store. Swirling icy flakes were picking up the different colors from the glaring advertising lights on the store front giving the night a surreal Christmassy look.
The snow seemed to move in slow motion sending mini white tornadoes swirling around a young couple who were sitting on a bench outside the store’s automatic doors. It was falling with such intensity that the girl, sitting very still, was nearly covered in a fine layer of white. The only places on her that the snow had not yet masked were her face, which was shielded by the greasy brim of the store’s blue ball cap and her right hand as it brought a cigarette to her lips from where she held it between her legs under the bench away from the weather. Her face looked pale. Her eyes were wide as if straining to comprehend some intense information coming from the guy.
As Kyle neared, the guy stood up and began waving his arms to emphasize his words. His overly animated gestures and constant motion had him almost snow free. The dark skin of his face melted each flake as soon as it touched, sending small wet streaks down into the open collar of his LA Raiders team jacket. His hair was styled with four inch dreadlocks, bleached light brown at the tips, that flew from side to side throwing drops of melted snow in all directions with each point he made. His conversation was intense and his audience, although looking near frozen, was glued to his performance.
Kyle watched the couple from a distance. As the girl took another drag from her cigarette, Kyle ducked into the protection of street-side bus stop and lit one of his own. He looked toward them, then away and then at them again. He pulled hard on his cigarette and exhaled through is mouth and nose and they disappeared in a wash of smoke and winter breath.
Kyle could not hear what the guy was saying, but the expression on the girls face said it was not good. No, good news would have been shared inside the store or at least near the doors, near the wall of vending machines and colored lights. Good news could definitely be shared in a setting of gumballs and key chains and temporary tattoos, but bad news always needed to be shared outside. The weather seemed cruelly fitting.
The stunned look on her face and the back and forth almost robot-like motion of her one dry hand bringing the cigarette to her quivering lips told the direction of the conversation. The guy’s face was tense, direct and his body was in constant motion.
Kyle paused the scene as he took one last drag and flicked the half smoked butt away into the street and moved towards them. The girl looked relieved and the guy, although quieted by interruption, never stopped moving.
He made eye contact with the guy first and then the girl. The guy had himself so wrapped up in his speech that his eyes darted first at Kyle, then at the girl, the store, the lights, then side to side. His eyes were black and piercing. Although his conversation had lost its cadence, his body moved like a boxer before a fight, weaving from the waist back and forth, his arms failing in short jabs, fingers clenched, then extended as he kept his rhythm waiting for Kyle to pass.
The girl, on the other hand, sat very still and looked on the verge of tears. She looked up in Kyle’s direction and he smiled in awkward apology for the interruption. Her eyes met his, but her focus was somewhere far beyond where Kyle was standing, far beyond anywhere. The blankness of her watery stare was almost eerie and he quickly looked away.
Diapers, bread, milk ... Diapers, bread, milk and ... his next step found a puddle of slush that confirmed that he had misjudged the depth of the snow when he opted for his sneakers instead of his boots. “What next", he said under his breath as he passed the couple. Kyle stepped on the automatic doormat, swinging the doors open. He heard the guy start into his rant again. He couldn’t help but strain his ears to hear.
"Yo, that's where I'm at see,” he said. " I told you from the start. I got things going on... I don’t need this right now. Yo, I told you!"
Kyle took a quick look over his shoulder to see the guy’s arms going back and forth in motions that would have made the promoters of MTV proud knowing that their product had graced this scene. The girl was glued to him while fighting the wind to light another cigarette. Kyle turned the corner into the store. The door closed drawing a curtain on the play outside.
"Bread, diapers, milk and ... what else," he whispered to himself. "There was one other ... oh yeah, Tampax ... great."
The store was empty of customers, but there was a flurry of activity as the night crew was busy stocking the shelves. If the snow kept up its pace, there would be an early rush of heartier souls braving the elements to pick up the things they would need and much they didn’t for another snowy weekend. He knew that the city was probably in winter-storm mode last night. The store would have been packed with people buying everything they thought they might remotely need for the next few days. It seemed that the vision of being snowed in would immediately surface the need for two or three times the normal groceries. If it was going to snow, better pick up two gallons of milk instead of the usual one, a box of Twinkies, some Draino and a new toothbrush.
Kyle had only been in this store once before. The store closer to their apartment was not a 24 hour and tempting fate with a diaper-less one year old did not seem like a good idea.
Kyle’s slush filled shoe reminded him of his footwear choice as it let out a wet squishing sound with each step as he made his way down the fresh produce isle. He was in the fruits and vegetable section, not because he needed anything from there, but just because it was the first isle. At two in the morning it was easier to travel up and down each isle and let the things he needed find him.
Milk was dairy and bread was ... well, bread. But, diapers ... were they grouped with the toilet paper under the paper goods overhead sign or would they be with the baby food? Surely, they weren’t food, but in a baby's short digestive process they weren’t very far apart. There wasn’t a sign stating All Things Baby. It turned out that they were not in the paper goods isle with all other people’s toilet needs or near the baby foods ... although everything else for a baby was. The store's inventory plan had them over the frozen food cases, where they were out of reach to anyone under six foot ... as if the genetic pool of shorter couples was less fertile than those of the taller ones.
He grabbed the milk and bread and briefly contemplated the location of the Tampax. Were they paper goods? Were they all things woman? It turns out they were grouped in with the hair care products ... dyes, bleach, colors, highlighters, combs and brushes.
With the double pack of extra absorbent Pampers under his arm and the forty count box of super absorbent Tampax in his hand he smiled at a mental image of accidentally dropping the shopping bag in the parking lot and as the bags tore open and the diapers and tampons spilled out into the snow all the water piling up outside would instantly be sucked up into a giant heap of chemical gel and tape and balloon-sized cotton tubes with strings and flushable applicators leaving the parking lot dry as a bone. Such were the places his mind went at two o'clock on a snowy morning.
The fun of Kyle’s last thought soon faded as he approached the checkout isle. There was only one checkout register open at this hour and it was being operated by a very attractive young girl with a wild mane of dyed fire red hair. She wore a standard issue store staff shirt that was at least two sizes too small, straining each button across her chest. She was snapping her chewing gum and had her face glued to the most recent issue of People Magazine as she waited to wait.
"Why her?" Kyle thought. He always hated buying things like tampons. He hated the process even more when there was a young girl at the check out ... and even worse when she was young and attractive. Why couldn’t she be old and gray or one of the rare guys that worked the checkout? No, tonight it had to be her. He felt uncomfortable. He couldn’t understand why. He imagined, no, he knew, that she used these things ... unless she was in a constant state of pregnancy. She probably even used the same brand, but it still made him feel ... less masculine.
He was still half way down the Tampax isle when he came across something that would make the whole process much more pleasant. Condoms.
Condoms ... two feet away from the Tampax. He smiled to himself at the similar use of the two products, but the humor was fleeting.
"This was perfect," he thought. He would buy a pack of condoms and that would definitely send out the message that yes, indeed, he was having sex. Oh sure, he was out in a snow storm at two in the morning buying diapers and tampons, but he was still man enough to need a pack, no a box, of condoms. In his mind it made him seem much more manly and virile in front of the girl at the checkout when he threw the box of tampons down along with a box of super lubricated, ribbed for her pleasure, extra strong condoms. He picked the 40-pack.
In the few minutes it took him to decide on the size and style of the condoms and make his way into the checkout isle, he hadn’t noticed that the girl that was causing him all the trouble had gone on break and was replaced by a heavy set woman in her mid-sixties, with graying hair and heavy thick glasses. This was even worse than the tampon girl. He could have easily bought the Tampax from the older woman, but now to purchase the econo box of condoms, super lubricated and ribbed for her pleasure from a woman his mother’s age had him clumsy with embarrassment.
As the graying woman plugged in her numbers and fumbled with the new cash drawer, Kyle stared down at his items sitting on the black conveyer belt. The sudden movement of the surface placed the golden box of condoms, with the picture of an embracing couple, to within an inch from her sizable hip. Her name tag read, Florence - Ask Me - I Want to Help.
The thing that was supposed to make him seem cool and sexy to the buxom redhead now revealed him as dirty and repulsive. He tried to rationalize that Florence probably had some of these at home in the drawer near the bed. She probably called them Rubbers... a throw back to the wars years. None of these thoughts helped. He was the depraved degenerate that could only think of having sex ... even in a blizzard. How low. Never mind the diapers and tampons, they became invisible next to a box of forty condoms.
Kyle tried to gather his thoughts and prepared to think of something clever to say.
Florence slowly rung up four of his five items with the condoms being last. Kyle reached for his wallet while he scanned the store for the girl with the red hair, the sale prices ... anything. He looked down to see her ringless left hand pick up the box. She paused and turned the box over once, then again, slowly as if reading everything except the price. He felt his throat tighten.
Florence said something that snapped Kyle back to the moment. She was holding the box in a gesture of what Kyle took as disgust. Kyle didn’t hear what she said and swallowed hard, fearing the worst, said, “Excuse me.”
A broad smile spread across the lines of her face, “These are my favorite, Honey. I just love those little ribs...” she said with a wink and a mischievous smile. Kyle, feeling faint, dropped his wallet. The woman smiled. Her eyes unglued him to his very core. He regained his composure enough to pay, gathered the bags and quickly made for the door.
The snow was still coming down. Kyle saw the young check out girl, her red hair glowing under the harsh neon lights and snow. She was bending over talking to the girl on the bench brushing the snow from her. The red haired girl said, “Come back inside. You’re going to freeze out here and your break is long over. Forget that asshole. Come on, let’s get back to work,” she said.
With his eyes, Kyle followed a fresh set of footprints in the snow leading away from the bench. Half way down the block, arms still flailing, he saw the guy disappearing into the storm.
The snow-covered girl slowly got to her feet and wiped a tear from her face. She took one last drag from her cigarette and let it drop. In words that were carried in a swirl of smoke said, “Guys suck.”
The red haired girl put her arm around her pulling her close and with a smile said, “Only if you’re lucky girl, only if you’re lucky."
They turned away, triggered the doors and disappeared into the blaze of the store lights.
Tom Spader / August 2015
Looking up through the skylight, Kaye watched the colors of the sky change from fading blues to a warmer palate of yellows, pinks and purples. “Twilight through the Skylight”, she mused. She scribbled it in her note book. Kaye wondered if he even noticed that the sky seemed to explode each night before they met. She broke the point off her pencil with her next note, “I doubt it!!!!!”
Kaye had been meeting Reed at the city library three nights a week through the summer to tutor him with his reading. She was a volunteer. Reed was the classic story of the kid pushed through the education system because of his athletic prowess, graduating from high school with nothing more than a third grade reading ability. He explained that he was, at twenty five, needing to improve his reading skills because of something at work.
This was to be their last session for the summer. It would be a month before the fall tutoring program began. Kaye forced herself to be at the “now-or-never” bridge in her thirty two years and caution to the wind, tonight she was laying it on the table. She was going to let Reed know that she was, as a magazine put it, in language unfamiliar to her, “hot for his bod.” She was anxious, but... "Life is short. Live in wonder over the what ifs or put it out there," the glossy pages told her.
She had been honing her own skills in the months that they had been studying together. While Reed was home practicing with his fourth grade manuals, Kaye was up to the early morning hours studying the latest copies of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. While he learned his past and present participles, she studied make-up and hair styles and “French-kissing techniques that will make his toes curl.”
Kaye had written a note trying to explain how she felt. She even sprayed perfume in the air and waved the note through, scenting her words and hitting, as they said, his trigger points?
Up until tonight, Kaye had kept herself just the same way she appeared when they first met. She had always worn her dark hair pinned back and her make-up, if any, at a minimum. She always dressed, as her magazine now told her, like a nerd. She never knew. Tonight she was going to give him a small taste of the new Kaye and then over the month break she would complete the transformation into one of the hip Cosmo girls she was reading about. Tonight she had pulled only some of her hair back, letting strands frame her face. She put on lipstick, mascara and some eye shadow. She had also done something that the magazines said was sure to catch his eye. She had left her apartment, she still could not believe herself, without a bra ... well, at least without it on. She didn’t actually leave without it entirely. She had tucked it away in her over-sized purse as her safety net. She only made it from her house, riding the bus with her books held against her, to the library’s women’s room before she panicked and dashed into one of the stalls to quickly put it back on.
Kaye was sitting at their usual table upstairs watching the sky darken. She pulled a small mirror from her bag and checked her face. She tucked her hair behind her ear, untucked it, then tucked it again. She still was having trouble believing that she was going through with this. The woman looking back at her from the mirror seemed much more confident than the one she was feeling inside.
Her stomach was in a knot. She had already decided to wait until the end of the session to hand Reed her note explaining that she wanted to be much more to him than his tutor. Doing this at the end would give her a chance to run, in case he laughed. If she let him know at the start of the lesson and he laughed, she was so responsible that she would have sat there for the allotted time and then run embarrassed, crying to the bus. No, she would wait until they were calling it a night and making plans for the next program. He was already signed up. She had pulled his file and made sure that she would be his instructor.
Yes, “tonight’s the night”, she thought, taking one last look in the mirror. She casually touched the clasp between her buttons through the front of her shirt making sure everything was where it was supposed to be. She had the fleeting thought of going back into the ladies room and with her fingertips still touching between the folds of her shirt, Reed’s pile of books hit the table startling her from her thoughts.
“Evening, Miss Kaye”, Reed said, sitting down across from her. She hated when he said "Miss Kaye." It made her feel so much older than the seven years that were between them.
“Hey Reed, how's it going?” Kaye said trying to sound less formal than usual, wondering if he noticed anything different ... her hair, her make-up .... "Oh God," she thought, quickly pulling her hand from the folds of her shirt.
“Good, real good. I finished the fourth grade reader and I’m looking forward to the break.”
“Me too, I’ve got a lot of things planned.”
As Reed bent to tie his over-sized basketball shoe, Kaye panicked at the thought of actually handing him her note and with his eyes distracted, she slipped her note into the folds of his backpack. He would find it later and not in front of her. The girl in the mirror was no longer there.
The note laid it out and said she wanted to be more than teacher and student. She tried to sound cool like the magazines. It was just a few sentences. On the fifth draft she was finally able to sign it, "Love, Kaye." She was also so responsible that at the bottom she included the library's main number and adding, "In case you need to change tutors."
“I brought the one thing I’d like to read most, just like you suggested. It’s not a book or anything.” Reed said fumbling with the backpack. Kaye's note briefly appeared and her heart stopped, but Reed pushed it back in not noticing.
Kaye had told him, for the last session, to bring anything he wanted to read, but couldn’t ... no matter how complicated and the two of them would go through it and break it down. It was also to give Reed an incentive to keep him motivated during the month-long break.
Reed moved around the table and sat down next to Kaye and pulled a pink envelope from the pile. He placed it on the table between them. The closeness of their hands made Kaye's heart quicken. Turning slightly toward her, he slowly touched the broken seal along the back and turned back the flap. Inside, was a matching pink piece of paper with a woman's hand writing.
Kaye thought to herself, “How nice ...he’s brought a letter from his mother or some distant aunt he needs read.” She also thought that it would be nice to see another side the this man. He’s letting his guard down, she thought, this is going to make it easier later when he finds her note.
“I can’t read even half of this. She's one of those brainy types. She must think I’m some kind of genius. Look at all those big words," he said opening the papers. "There’s no way I can tell her I don’t know what she wrote, she'll think I'm some dumbass. I think it’s kind of personal and I really appreciate you helping me with this. I feel that we’ve gotten to be pretty close over the last few months.” Reed said sliding his chair closer to Kaye’s so they could look at the letter together.
“Reed, I’d like nothing more than to help you.” Kaye said, lightly touching his arm. “And I agree ... we have become so much more than teacher and student.”
Reed slid the pink papers from the envelope, slowly folded them and handed them to Kaye. She took them and imitating his gentleness, opened them and began reading out loud. As she read, her voice trailed off to a whisper.
Dearest Reed, “Dearest, that’s kind of odd for an aunt or relative," Kaye thought... I have hesitated with the utmost emotional stress to tell you the following. All my earnest and, while out of my common demeanor, seemly drastic attempts for you to notice me I must endure the almost sure chance for embarrassment to say the following. All my notes left at your work cart have gone unanswered. Notes? I am being transferred to the marketing department in the front building on Monday and I will no longer be able to be near you ... no longer will I be able to leave my words of affection for you. Affection?
I’m embarrassed to be doing this, but I am at my “now-or-never bridge”... hey that’s my bridge... and I am laying it on the proverbial line.
I want you so badly it hurts!!!! There it has been said. It’s been three months since I’ve been trying to say that and there it is.
If you don’t feel the same way I do ... simply do nothing and I will know. I do this now in case you are not interested in me. I will not have to see you everyday knowing that you are laughing at me with those beautiful eyes. If you don’t want me, I will understand. Life is so short. I had to give it a try.
“Love, Kaye?” Reed laughed. “That’s funny, her name is Linda.”
by Tom Spader
An early December snow began to fall as Mallory settled onto her usual park bench. The air was crisp and very still as the flakes fell silently without navigation from even the slightest breeze. Holding her coffee cup near her lips she gently exhaled and watched the city slowly disappear as the rising steam fogged her glasses. No sooner did her breath taper off then the city came back into view. Playing this visual game of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t with the urban canvas before her she didn’t noticed that she was no longer alone on her seat.
Mallory eased the cup from her mouth and immediately took stock of the situation. It was mid-day in mid-town … OK. There were a lot of empty benches to choose from … strange. Her backpack was still draped over her shoulder opposite the intruder … good, and scalding hot coffee as a weapon if needed … excellent. She slowly turned her head, eyes leading, towards the presence to her right and was relieved to see the profile of a pleasant looking man who could have been her mirror image moments earlier. He sat with a white foam cup to his lips and although he wasn’t wearing glasses, the steam swirled with his every breath. Mallory wasn’t sure how long she watched him, but quickly looked away in embarrassment as he turned towards her. She raised her own cup to her mouth and hid in the temporary fog.
“Pretty, don’t you think?” his low, almost inaudible voice asked, if unanswered would have faded without repeat.
Mallory lowered her cup and watched the city return to focus. “Yes, the first snow is always pretty.”
For a few minutes, the two sat in silence and kept their gaze before them, both sipping from their cups and watching the city perform for them as if in some unstaged play. A large man in a stylish black overcoat hustled past them, close enough to draw their coffee scented steam with him. Mallory watched the speed and precision in his step and said flatly in a voice that was not much more than a whisper, “Stockbroker.”Mallory had been spending most of her lunch hours on this same park bench. At first, sitting and sipping her coffee had been enough, but after the novelty of the usual city sights and sounds had worn off she had came up with a game to pass the time before she had to return to her job in an office high above the park. She would people-watch and as a likely subject would enter the cobblestone center court that opened in front of her bench she would give them an occupation. She would also have detailed circumstances formulated in her mind for them before they left the bricks and stepped back onto the cement sidewalk. Once they left the brickwork the game would end and they would return to their normal lives and she wouldn’t care. An old man with a cane bent over from the years might be a World War hero injured while storming the beach at Normandy. A smart dressed woman might be a brain surgeon on her way to perform some life saving operation on the only child of some royal family. They were never janitors or cab drivers. They always were people of status in wealth or importance. As she said, “Stockbroker”, she subtlety offered her game to the man sipping coffee on the bench next to her … much like two kids on a playground might toss a ball near one another to see if the other is up for a game of catch. He did not answer right away and Mallory checked her watch hoping she would have an excuse to escape and not explain why she sat on park benches in the snow uttering random words for no apparent reason. Her relief finally came in a simple one-word statement. As a bulky red-faced man hurried by their bench, the man sitting next to Mallory said, “Chef.”
A happiness rose up from deep inside Mallory releasing a smile across her face as she turned to the man on the bench and said, “A French Chef,” her eyes giving her joy away. She leaned slightly in his direction waiting to hear how game he was.
“Nouvelle French Chef, I believe.” He said his dark eyes sparkling as he sipped from his cup. This bit of added detail caused Mallory to shift her hips slightly in his direction.
“Yes, a Nouvelle French Chef from Cologne. Invited to teach at the Institute, no doubt. You can tell by the shoes. They’re European … no heels. If he was living here, he would have been laughed out of the shoes long ago.” Mallory said, sipping and fogging. They both laughed and she was relieved to find a willing player. She had tried this before either sitting on her bench or riding the subway, but never found anyone interested in the game. She was only met with blank stares of indifference as if everybody in this city was mumbling occupations out loud for no reason.
She turned back to the people passing by and picked out a young couple, walking arm in arm. She saw them coming and waiting until their shoes touched the brick. “Lovers … parents don’t approve,” she said letting her statement trail off waiting for a response.
“Indeed. A modern Romeo and Juliet. It seems that her father wrote a play that his father financed. It flopped and he lost a fortune,” he said half turning on the bench toward Mallory studying the side of her face. He liked what he saw; her eyes were smiling as she looked out upon the park. He passed the Styrofoam cup between his hands and said, “James.”
Still watching the couple, Mallory said matter-of-factly, “Oh no, no names. I never give them names … too personal, plus there’s usually not enough time, unless they sit on one of the benches. Then anything goes.”
“No. My name is James,” he said extending his hand.
Mallory shifted her cup between hands and returned the gesture. She felt the warmth in his hand left by his coffee cup and smiled. As his warmth spread upwards she inspected his face. She guessed him to be near her age, early thirties or so. His eyes were dark, but inviting. She could make out the hint of a tie under the coat with the collar upturned against the weather. His features were sharp, but friendly. The curls of his dark hair, which looked that like they had a mind of their own, were beginning to collect the snow. “Mallory” she said squeezing his hand. His features held her gaze longer than the usual introductory glance and as she caught herself she repeated, “Mallory.”
“Well Mallory Mallory, it’s nice to meet you,” James said sending a blush into her cheeks as he exposed her awkwardness. “It’s about this time that the man meeting the woman in the park for the first time would say something like, do you come here often? But, I know that you do. I’ve seen you from a window up there on the fourth floor,” he said gesturing to the Walker Building’s windows overlooking the park. “Every day, same time, same bench. I do the same thing on this same bench, everyday, but an hour later than you.” His statement caught her off guard and she recoiled her hand, which was still meeting his. He noticed this and turned more in her direction and in his best comforting voice said, “Not to worry Mallory Mallory, I’m not the neighborhood ax murderer stalking his next victim. Honest. I just happened to notice you from the window and it actually took a few days until I realized that we always sit on the on the same bench.
“No charge.” She said, as a slight smile exposed her returning comfort.
“No charge?” He asked.
“For warming the bench.” She said with a grin and while keeping her body in his direction, but turned her eyes back to the bricks. “And it’s just one Mallory, James, or is it Jim or Jimmy?”
“It’s James. My grandmother called me Jimmy and it drove me nuts. Jimmy this and Jimmy that. Jimmy, wash your hands. Jimmy, eat your…” he let his voice trail off as he caught himself delivering words that seemed much too boring for an opening conversation and he too turned back to the bricks.
Mallory looked over at James and saw that he was looking at an old man coming through the park’s iron fence. The man was not dressed against the cold and the dirt and stains that clung to his thin coat and shoes that were held together with duct tape told that he probably lived on the street or the local mission. He held a brown paper bag twisted towards the top advertising its glass bottle contents. He was moving slow and was still a few steps from the bricks.
“President of…” James began, but was cut off by Mallory.
“He’s still out of bounds. He not in the game until he hits the bricks.” She said.
“Wow. Rules too?” James chuckled.
“Got to have rules. And a playing field.”
“OK. Annnnnnndddd…” he held the word until the man’s duct taped foot hit the brick and as soon as it did he continued, “… here’s the president of Global Wines International, testing his new line of Street Wines.”
“Oh very funny. I think you’ve mistaken him. That’s Howard Hughes Jr., the unknown son of the billionaire. The only way he could inherit the money is to prove that he could live without it, but he may have a sample of your so-called Street Wine.” They both laughed as the freezing air held their breath. The game continued until it was time for Mallory to get back to work. She rose from the bench and was surprised to see the amount of snow that fell from her lap onto her shoes. Laughing and tossing her hair she sent a small blizzard of snowflakes around her and said, “I guess we must have gotten caught up with the players. My feet feel like their frozen solid. Got to go … I don’t think they’ll like the idea of paying me to play games all day.”
James checked his watch. “Yeah, me to. I doubt my company would like the idea of paying me to play either … considering my amateur status,” James said.
“Oh, I don’t know. I think you played pretty well for a Rookie. I guess I’ll see you,” she said turning toward the courtyard. “Or should I say you’ll see me?” she said looking up towards the Walker Building.
“Yes, I’ll look for you, if that’s OK. That is if you don’t mind being looked down on,” a smile coupled his words.
“You’re the one with the window-seat,” she said and started walking across the bricks that were quickly losing their identity to the gathering snow. As she reached the edge of the bricks with one foot already on the cement sidewalk, she stopped and turned to James who was still sitting on the bench, his eyes following her every move. She lifted her trailing foot off the bricks and said, loudly with straightforward authority, “Game.”
“Who won?” James called as he watched Mallory disappear out the gate.
As she tossed her empty cup into a “Pitch In” wire trashcan Mallory turned and with a slight one-sided smile replied "We did ...," but her answer was swallowed by the noise of the street. In a panic, James rose and quickly made his way to the opening in the stonewall that bordered the park, but she was gone in the wash of the city.
© Tom Spader Photography
Observations at the supermarket
A kid's modern history lesson
As seen by me at 8 years old
Labor Day 1973
(Part III of the adventures of Haiku Lou)
Observations/true story while bar tending in Baltimore 1984
The night Nixon quit through my eyes at 15
Chance meeting in a snow covered city park
Observation at the all night mini mart
Adventures of a street poet
Lou and Omba in Washington Square
God's ant-like face shines
Changing roles in a city library
Coming soon ...