A Honeymoon in May

“Oh, Eddie, I’ve wanted to take this trip since I saw her at the Hudson-Fulton Celebration six years ago,” Agnes Voorhees Smithfield said as she held up one her dresses before placing it in the steamer trunk.

“Aggie, you were thirteen years old then. A girl from Albany would be thrilled with a ride on the Staten Island Ferry at that age,” her new husband Edward replied. “Now you finish packing, or should I say re-packing. My art school friend Bill Glackens is holding us a corner over at his favorite table d’hôtes in the Village for some real Italian food.”

“Oh, Eddie, a husband, a honeymoon, a bohemian night in New York City, a cruise to London. I just might be the luckiest girl in the world, or at least Pine Hills,” Agnes said. She put her dress into the trunk and walked over to kiss her husband, who had been sketching her all the while they spoke.

“You just might be, Aggie. But I’m pretty lucky, myself. I mean it’s not uncommon for an artist to fall into, shall we say, a relationship with one of his models. But to fall into not just a relationship but outright love? And now a baby, too? That’s just
unheard of,” Edward said, giving his new wife a pat on the tummy.

“Edward!” Agnes said in feigned indignation. “You’re scandalous.”

“I’m sure your father would think me more than that. Of course, coming from such a bourgeois family, I would expect nothing less. I’ll yield to unconventional, certainly where they’re concerned, suffer bohemian, definitely accept artistic. But I truly love that feeling in their world of being scandalous.”

“One of the many reasons I love you.And I guess I’m scandalous too, now. The sisters at St. Patrick’s would each and every one faint dead away if they knew I was pregnant ‘without benefit of clergy,’ as they’d say. And while I always wanted to be a June bride, circumstances ruled otherwise. But there’s just one thing though…”

“Okay, okay, I promise to take you to Paris when all this blows over,” Edward said. “We’re taking just about the biggest, fastest, safest ship in the Cunard Line. It’ll be the equivalent of the most posh version of about a hundred Hudson Day Line cruises.” He paid for this voyage, as was all the Smithfield’s new life, with money his Agnes received from her doting father, Delaware & Hudson Railroad executive Leland Voorhees.

“But, I do worry. You know me, Eddie.”

“I do, my dear Aggie. That’s why I booked us on Cunard’s finest. The Heinies tend not to bother passenger ships anyway. We’ll be slipping into Liverpool while they’re still having their morning kaffeeklatsch. Now let’s get over to The Village and spend some more of your father’s money on the best cheap meal you’ve ever had.”

“Okay, my love. I’m sure it’ll be the last Italian food we’ll eat for a long time. I’ll bet it’s hard to find good Italian in London and Cunard serves only French and English dishes on this magic carpet ride of a liner you’ve booked for us. What’s the name again, Eddie? The Lucrezia Borgia?” Agnes said with a laugh.

“Yes, dear Aggie. We’ll be sailing on the HMS Lucrezia Borgia,” Edward replied, as he tapped the tickets in his fine new wallet. The tops of the tickets peeked above the Italian leather. They read: RMS Lusitania.

“Poisonous femme fatale that she was, Darling, we’d better be careful of that tea and claret they serve us or we’ll never make it to London,” Edward said as they strolled arm in arm out into Fifth Avenue.

A lightning first-draft effort penned while my new granddaughter slept off her 7:00 AM feeding. It’s based on one of the final week’s prompts for Story a Day September 2017. the characters are supposed to discuss their honeymoon. Suffice to say, I’ve been otherwise engaged in efforts other than writing this past week or so.

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Widow’s Walk

“I see she’s still up there, Miss Loretta Gardenia Booth,” Enoch Steele said, jerking his thumb toward the tower that craned its neck above all other roof ridge lines that peered out at the entrance to Cloister Cove.

“Aye, been there every day for three years now, rain or shine, breeze of gale, waiting for the Cloisters Gardenia to turn-to ‘round the breakwater and deliver her Cap’n Matthew Rawlins back to her pining bosom,” the chandler’s clerk Martin Smoot replied while brushing a smudge of tobacco ash from Steel’s black wool coat.

“That ship’s as good as gone, wrecked on the Horn, scuttled by pirates off Java, its hull stove in by some rank bull off the Galapagos. We’d have heard something by now. A shank of driftwood, a bit of flotsam, a story passed from sailor to sailor, nothing. That woman waits for naught but a memory. G’day to you, Mr. Smoot,” Steele said as he grasped Smoot’s wrist, pushed it to the chandler’s chest and transferred the ash on the clerk’s fingers to his own apron.

As Steele walked to the wharves, Smoot ambled toward the peeling white house with the barred windows where Cap’n Matt’s lady stood on the widow’s walk, like one of Columbus’ crew in a crow’s nest, searching for any sign of Cathay on the horizon.

Though only moved to Cloister Cove three years before, Loretta Booth had become as much a part of the local scenery and color in town as that great old house, the bells in St. Augustine’s and the First Methodist Churches and the stench of whale blubber reeking from the harbor. Each had their places in the heartbeat of Cloister Cove, he thought. They were there, they were special, but no one paid much attention to that which made them so anymore. Each man, woman and child went about their business, neither looking up or down, nor wrinkling their nose at that which might make a manure-crusted farmer puke out his paunch.

A week later, while making a delivery of a fine German chronometer to the Masonic Hall, Smoot stopped in the middle of Captain’s Way, the town’s main thoroughfare, and decided to take stock of his senses and this little burg’s inventory of lives and property.

The onshore breeze still carried the gagging ghosts of sperm whales harvested from off the coast of Peru by men who could leave pregnant wives when they set sail and could return just as a child who knew them not celebrated its second birthday. He knew the inexorable lure of the sea for them, though.

“It’s best this business be so foul and dangerous, lest they just decide never to come home,” he muttered to himself.

The bells in St. Augustine’s chimed in four pairs of bong-bong, eight bells, just as the Methodist Church’s steeple pealed the requisite twelve times. Each was signaling noon, though that might confuse inlanders not steeped in the argot of the seaman.

Smoot smiled at how he and his fellow Cloisterites were a different breed even from other Connecticut Yankees. And above it all were the cries of the seagulls, a cacophony so constant that it was as easily ignored as the sound of waves lapping the shore or slapping the hulls of the vessels moored in the harbor.

As he walked toward the wharves and the chandler’s, Smoot looked up at the high roof of Captain Matthew Rawlins’ house, to assure himself that all was right in this little world within the greater world. That world then tilted on its axis. Miss Loretta Gardenia Booth was not manning her post on the widow’s walk.

Being a man of numbers, ledgers, balance sheets, Smoot saw this error in Cloister Cove’s books of life and couldn’t let it go without finding a good reason for this blatant discrepancy in his day-to-day.

He trotted up to the expansive front porch that sat like the lap on the old dowager that was Cap’n Mattie’s home away from his home on the seas. Smoot cupped his hands around his eyes to cut the glare and attempted to look inside for any sign of Miss Loretta Gardenia. But he saw no movement, not even the form of the captain’s West Indian cook, Sophie-Maude.

Now Smoot’s eccentricity was turning to a kind of fright, as if gravity would dissolve and all of Earth’s inhabitants would lose the tethers to their mother’s breast and be cast like seed into the void. He rapped urgently on the window light in the top of the heavy front door made of teak the Captain had salvaged from an English frigate that had not made it round the Horn in ’35. When he heard not a sound from within, Smoot pounded powerless on the seasoned planking that had resisted French shot at Trafalgar.

He shouted, “Miss Loretta Gardenia, are you there? It’s Martin Smoot from Bennett and Tinch. Are you well?”

When again he heard no reply, nor any sound, from within, Smoot ran to the back of the house where he found not only the barred windows extended, but the security-conscious Captain Mattie had installed a steel bulkhead door. He also found the firewood axe left in the cutting stump by Sophie-Maude.

Axe in hand, Smoot ran back to the front of the house and attempted chopping his was through the great front door, all the while screaming, “Miss Loretta Gardenia, get to your post or come to the door. We need you on that walk.”

As Smoot raised the axe for one more ineffective blow, a rough hand grabbed it, while another spun the chandler around and pushed him to the porch floor. Smoot looked up and saw a young man in a naval officer’s dark blue uniform jacket and white trousers, the axe held high and threatening as if leading a boarding party.

“What in blazes do you think you’re doing, sir?” the young officer shouted. “How dare you. I should box your ears, or better yet, take you down to my ships and have you bound to the mast for taste of my bosun’s cat.”

“Andrew stop!” came a woman’s voice from the street.

“Mother, please don’t hurry. I’ve got this madman under control. Look what he’s done to…”

“Matthew’s door! Why would…? Mister Smoot?”

“Oh, Miss Loretta Gardenia, I was so worried. You weren’t at your post looking for Captain Matthew and I thought the worst,” Smoot said.

“What could be worse, Mr. Smoot? That Matthew has not been heard from in all these years? That no sign of the Gardenia been found in any of the whaling grounds from Patagonia to the Sea of Japan?”

“Then…then why have you been up on the widow’s walk all these years for, madam?” Smoot said, more confused and addled than he had been when running around the house, axe in hand.

“Why, my son here, Andrew Booth. This young apprentice officer headed for the first class of the National Naval School in Annapolis. He’s been three years at sea.”

“But Cap’n Matthew…everyone thought you were…”

“Waiting for the Captain? No, Mr. Smoot. That ship, if you will pardon the expression, has indeed sailed. But no one ever thought to stop by and talk, to ask how I was, if I’d heard from Matthew,” Loretta Gardenia said.

“Well, we just figured…I just thought…”

“No, Mr. Smoot you did not think. You saw a woman pining for her son, not her missing paramour. Now, if you would kindly remove yourself from my front porch, my property. My solicitor will be contacting Mr. Bennett about what can’t be replaced — my door. Good day, Mister Smoot,” Loretta Gardenia said.

Her son, Midshipman Andrew Booth, hefted Martin Smoot as he might half-full seabag and set him on Captain’s Way toward Bennett and Tinch and an uncertain rest of that day and tomorrow.

As he walked toward the wharves, head down and trying to see where his figuring had gone wrong half an hour before, Smoot didn’t notice the wind had shifted from off the sea to from the hills surrounding Cloister Cove, blowing the perfume of pine and oak over the stench of the whale ships. He didn’t hear St. Augustine’s ring the bong-bong of two bells, 1:00 PM. He didn’t notice the change in the sound of the keening gulls that climbed and swooped all around him.

Loretta Gardenia handed the front door key to her son and said, “Come, Andrew, let’s go in for some tea. You can tell me more about school, your voyages and how you found Matthew in Alta California. I can’t believe he would scuttle the Gardenia in, where did you say?”

“Yerba Buena Bay, Mother. He and some of his crew hauled the hull ashore and, with a certain Señorita Veronica Valdez, turned it into a tavern and bordello, catering to and robbing the gold seekers headed to the Sierras. With no law to speak of out there, and his obvious lack of conscience, he had become a man of high regard in the darkest, lowest places.”

“Did you express your displeasure with his abandonment of your mother?”

“I did, mother, and when we parted, I can assure you he was weeping in contrition,” Andrew Booth said with a tight grin. “The day before our frigate set out again for the Baja, the Captain was not commanding the Gardenia. He was not to be found. Señorita Veronica’s brother told me the Captain must have decided to join the argonauts in seeking his fortune in the gold fields. A man could disappear in the Sierras in a heartbeat, Mother. I do not expect you — or anyone — will be hurt by his selfish, sinful ways again.”

“I see,” Loretta Gardenia said, composing herself for a moment. “My brave boy, I’m afraid all of today’s news and excitement has rendered me a bit tired. Would you mind if I retired to my room for a short rest? Sophie-Maude will be back from the market in Mystic within the hour and we shall have a lovely dinner celebrating your safe return.”

But Miss Loretta Gardenia Booth did not go to her room. She climbed the stairs to the roof of the house and mounted her widow’s walk. She looked out over the harbor, cocked her ear at the sound of the gulls, whose circling flights and weeping cries she stood observed from her lonely perch all these years. She above all could discern the change that had at least momentarily come over Cloister Cove and her life.

She knew the sound of seagulls crying. Now she wondered, were they laughing?

This is my fourth story based on one of the five prompts I was given for Weeks One of Story-a-Day September. Don’t know as I’ll make all five now, what with Week Two’s prompts in my mailbox, but I may make a run at it over the weekend. The prompt here was pretty much the last line of this piece. I guess I’ve written this story backwards, from the back end to front.

On the Rocks

It was a quiet Sunday afternoon as Andi Simkins positioned the empty glasses in the dishwasher, poured the detergent into the dispenser, clicked shut the door and pressed the buttons to bring it to whirring life. Other than the one in her hand, she’d run out of clean rocks glasses.

Andi fished a handful of ice from the freezer and clinked them into her tumbler. From the liquor cabinet she withdrew a new bottle of Ketel One, gave the black top a vicious twist to break its seal and poured enough into her glass to turn the pile of crescent-shaped cubes into miniature icebergs.

She walked into the family room and settled into the sofa, took a large sip from her glass and placed it on the cocktail table next to the copy of Jami Attenberg’s “All Grown Up” she’d started three times (because her sister insisted she read it) but never got past its first thirty pages. She picked up the book for Try #4, but after six page-flips she gave a resigned sigh, picked up her glass and took another great sip.

Andi looked into her glass as the vodka rested for a second in her mouth then slid down her throat. She was surprised at how the sunlight sifting through the vertical blinds was converted into rainbows by the cut glass, the ice and the vodka. But then the glow changed to neon tangerine and Andi’s eyes grew wide at the color and quality of of the light that painted the gray room a citrus hue, but locked it and her behind the black bars of the blinds’ shadows.

Pulling aside the blinds, Andi gave a little gasp and shaded her eyes. She finished her vodka and thought she’d pour herself another. She turned and took a step toward the liquor cabinet, but stopped and faced the scene playing out beyond the patio again.

Lifting her glass to her lips, she sucked in the dilute dregs of the vodka and a couple of ice cubes, which she crunched between her teeth.

“Joel, you’ve got to hurry up here and see this,” Andi called to her husband down in what Joel Simkins called his Subterranean Lair.

“I’ll be up as soon as I finish this part of the Times crossword, hon,” Joel replied from his leather lounger. And I could hear a football game providing Joel’s background soundtrack from his 50-inch flatscreen Samsung. She often wondered why he needed a drive-in movie screen down there when he used the television primarily for ambient noise.

I guess because he can, she thought.

“Lemme see…54 Across…seven-letter word for skyline,” Joel mumbled to himself, just an Eagle player intercepted a pass directed toward a late-afternoon sun-blinded Giant receiver. That sent the Philly crowd into a high-decibel frenzy. Joel looked up at the screen and recalled his last trip to the City of Brotherly Love. Business. Always business. But Philly was where he struck up his special relationship with Patty Diana, who’d since become known as his “work wife” around the office.

Andi, still watching the sunset, transfixed and hopeful, called one more time, “Joel, please, you’ll miss this if you wait much longer….”

And when he didn’t answer, Andi sighed once again, stood by the patio window, watching the spectacular demise of another day in the overall autumn of things.

It reminded her of all those afternoons spent looking out the back window of their third-floor walkup. Bathed in their own glow, Joel would comb his fingers through the tangle of her auburn hair as she’d beam at him with her gold-flecked blue eyes. Over the expanse of apartment buildings, they watched the sun sink, a searing communion of light and heat, beyond the southwestern horizon.

The sunsets were dazzling, Andi recalled, as well as how the encroaching darkness would be spangled in sprays of stars, even with the bedroom door closed. In tonight’s gloaming, the shadowy bars had expanded into an overall darkness of nebulous freedom or solitary confinement.

Andi had to admit, though, tonight’s sundown had its own melancholy charm — like a fire decaying into glowing coals — when viewed through a fresh glass of Ketel One on the rocks.

The third of my efforts based on one of five Story-a-Day September 2017’s Week One prompts. This one called for using or being inspired by the phrase “The sunsets were dazzling.” I remembered an old Five Sentence Fiction outline I whipped off one afternoon back on the job. I rewrote it with a bit more meat on its protagonist’s bones. Photo by the author.

Burning Ring of Fire

I’ve come to the realization the problem with going through life one day at a time, each in order, is not so much the order part as the living. The sun wakes you from the east and entrances you from the west. And if you’re lucky, that trance will overtake you until that magical sun does its great misdirection act and reappears in the east again. And again. And yet again, in the round and round ring of our life.

So bless me, Father, for I have sinned. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

“Why do you always do that?” Alison asked one night while I washed my hands in the kitchen sink after I got home from work.

“Do what?” I said and shrugged, which I came to learn was as bad as saying, “What the hell are you bothering me with this crap for, woman?” to that emotionally fueled and attuned half of humanity.

“You know damn well what I mean. You take your ring off and place it on the back of the sink. What if it fell down the drain? And please don’t tell me that you do the same thing when you wash your hands in the filthy restroom at work,” Alison said with the cold stare that’d chase off even snowmen.

“Well, yeah. Of course I do. I don’t want it slipping off my soapy fingers into the sink. This way, it’s safely sitting there right in front of me the whole time,” I said, drying my left hand and returning the ring to its rightful position.

“Gahhh, you infuriate me so sometimes Robert!” she said, stalking from the kitchen into the living room, leaving behind chopped up onion, relish and other condiments I suspected had to do with my eating hotdogs this evening.

“Aw, c’mon, Allie. What’d I do wrong this time?”

“You take your ring off in any number of unsavory places. Why even wear it? Why even be married to me in the first place?” she said.

“Well, I was working under the theory that graduates of Smith would have more sense than mere, you know…women.”

“How dare you! How dare… Whatever possessed me to allow you into my life, allow you to coerce me into going out with you, let alone saying yes to the man who so cavalierly removes the sign of his eternal love and fidelity five days a week,” Alison said with a mist forming across her eyes.

I learned a long time ago never to tell a woman not to cry. Do not force them into an embrace when they’re in such a state. Just stand there and look noble, open and a little sympathetic. Don’t fawn, hover or lay a finger on them until they overtly let you know they’d accept it now…except for the telling them not to cry part. That’s always a no-no.

“How do I know you’re not pulling off your ring and chasing some cute little hoochie-coo secretary at your office, or that bisexual amazon Stephanie when you’re at work? Huh?”

I sighed.

“Allie, one, none of the compliant hoochie-coos give a shit if you’re wearing a ring or not. Unless, of course if your ring has a healthy supply of gemstones in it. Then their interest is geometrically piqued. Secondly, have you taken a close look at this mug of mine lately? Looks like I got socked with a bag full of years, quarters and dog asses since I hit a half-century . And finally, Stephanie has a steady girlfriend, so you can forget her altogether,” I said.

But not-so-deeply inside me lived a more-than-passing affection and long-suppressed lust for that buff beauty. And I’d drop and give her a strong twenty and then fifty more if she asked for them, as long as a shot at her kind attention was incumbent on my successful completion of her Herculean task.

And I lied about the girlfriend.

“Well, all right,” Alison sniffed. “But please don’t take your ring off anymore. Please. And I think your face is fine. Full of character.”

“Yeah, like all you women say about this white hair. I know the half-assed code. ‘Old Bob has grown obsolescent, if not completely exceeded his shelf-life.’”

“Oh stop, Robert,” Alison said with her crooked little smile. “You’re my lovely man and I love you above all others. Just never take your ring off, okay?”

“Sure, I’ll be careful. Maybe I’ll just carry a supply of Handi-Wipes around with me instead of using soap. How’s that?” I said with a laugh. You know, break the ice with some levity.

“Now you’re teasing me,” she said with a frown.

And we were off to the accusatory and running defensive races again. This was our circular state of being, happening like this so many days that it became almost as certain as the sun’s rotation that brought and finished each of those orderly days I was talking about.

If not for the fact that every night we’d make up 9:00 PM and never went to bed angry with one another—in fact, quite the opposite—I think I very well might have decided to seek the gentle look-at-me-Bobby dressed women of our administrative staff.

I most definitely would have taken a shot at the Holy Grail of womanhood that was Stephanie Stoneman. She’d even given me the green light, though not in so many lumens or words, three years ago while some of us executives were on a touchy-feely retreat in the Adirondacks.

But no. I played by the rules, even if Stephanie was willing to suspend them in my case.

“Why don’t you come up to my room, Bobby?” she asked in that seductive voice of hers. The one that hooked men and women of all ages without ever losing at her classic features and athlete’s body. Even still at forty-seven.

And so went the order of Alison’s and my lives together. I maintained my ring in position as that sign of high fidelity and low testosterone. That is, until the day I came home to an empty house. Even the cat was gone. No loss there; I hated that cat.

There on the kitchen table, propped up against the napkin holder Alison’s nephew made in shop class and gave to us as a housewarming present ten years ago, was an envelope with “Dearest Robert” in Allie’s script on the front.

I won’t entirely share what the note inside said, except for the phrases, “you don’t know who I am,” “I don’t know who you are” and “a man I can trust,” were the ones that sat me down and punched me in the gut. The fact that this dude and my wife were the ones being untrustworthy was lost on the woman I realized years ago was as shallow as piss in a platter.

The envelope also contained her wedding ring, since she no longer needed nor desired any sign or memory of love and devotion for me. I noticed she kept the $3,000 engagement ring, but I guess that’s considered a gift without any significant magical meaning to some women.

All in all, it was great load off my mind when my heart wasn’t cracking and my face wasn’t burning in a kind of embarrassment only the cheated upon understand. Most especially those cheated-upons who eschewed the occasion of salacious sin when it not only tempted you, but sent an engraved invitation.

The other day, I dropped off an envelope with the receptionist at Allie’s office. In it was not a note that mentioned trust, devotion, disappointment or any of the verbal finger pointing and breast beating you might expect from an aggrieved ex.

Actually, I placed my wedding ring and a card in the envelope. It was a thank you card for giving me back a life of opportunities and choices instead of trying to live the day-to-day doing the right thing for someone who who didn’t do right by you.

Okay, I also included a photo of me and Stephanie Stoneman we had taken on a recent weekend retreat—this one for two. It seems she is a very perceptive and patient woman. And I’m a guy who now can’t wait for sunup to see what new little or big adventure life has to offer me that day and for sundown to see what Stephanie does.

As in last September, I’m trying to create a five stories a week in a 2017’s Story-a-Day celebration. However, instead of responding to a different prompt for each of those thirty days September hath, Story-a-Day boss Julie Duffy is giving me five prompts each week to try to craft a story around. This is the first, a quickly penned first-draft response to the prompt asking to use the phrase/idea “The problem with going through life one day at a time, each in order…” Tune in tomorrow and see if I can rattle off another quick draft that might even be readable.

Chuvash

No one in the big emergency clinic understood a word the old man was saying. They just knew he’d wandered in off the street in distress and collapsed before he could get to the reception desk.

A nurse, tech and Physicians Assistant rushed out into reception with a wheelchair and carefully placed the old man in it after checking his head and spine for injury.

“Let’s get him into Treatment 4,” Maggie Hennessy, the PA, said with the firm and confident voice of someone who’d worked at this East Side neighborhood clinic for five years. She’d seen it all, from overdoses to obstetrics, gunshot wounds to ears stuffed with gummy bears.

“Quick get me some vitals. Sir? Sir? Can you hear me? My name’s Maggie and you’re in the East 23rd Street Clinic. Can you tell me your name? How about what your problem is?” she said.

The old man rolled his head side to side and moaned, attempting to form words but all that came out was an unintelligible slurring in an accent no one understood. Hennessy leaned down so she could hear him, but said, “I’ve no idea what he’s saying. Sounds like an eastern European language, maybe?”

Nurse Angela Mezzanote asked, “Do we have anyone on staff who might know what he’s saying. It sounds something like Russian, but I’m not sure.”

“What about Joey Markov in maintenance? Isn’t he Russian or something?” Bret Nelson, the tech, said.

“Page him or fetch him, would you Bret? This guy’s looking pretty bad and I’d love to have a translator to help me make a damn diagnosis,” PA Hennessy said.

Within three minutes, Josip Markov rolled his maintenance cart up to Treatment 4.

“You need cleanup?” he asked Hennessy.

“No, Joey. I need you to help me diagnose what’s wrong with this guy if you can. I don’t even know if I can give him a sedative if I can’t communicate with him. Do you understand anything he’s saying? Is that Russian?”

Markov moved closer to the gurney and looked down on the sick man.

“What do you need to know?” He asked the PA.

“His name would be a good place to start, I guess.”

In Russian, Markov asked the man his name.

“Śeśpĕl Praski,” the old man whispered through clenched teeth. Markov moved closer, eying the old man as if he was the physician instead of a mop jockey.

“Good, now we’re getting somewhere. Translate for me, please, Joey. Mr. Praski, can you tell me what’s wrong?” Hennessy said.

“Śeśpĕl.”

“What?”

“His name’s Mr. Śeśpĕl. He’s Chuvash, not Russian.” Markov said.

“Do you speak Chuvash, Joey?”

“Yep. It’s my native language.”

“Thank goodness. Would you ask him that question in Chuvashian?”

“Chuvash. Sure.” Markov said, and translated the basic questions Hennessy fed him and Śeśpĕl’s replies. He got closer and closer to Śeśpĕl with each question until his mouth was right up to the afflicted man’s ear. He kept speaking to Śeśpĕl and Śeśpĕl would reply, each time with more agitation and pain.

“He says he’s a hemophiliac and believes he’s bleeding in his gut.”

“Get me some bloods on this guy, STAT. He is showing symptoms of bleeding. Man, his spleen is frigging huge,” Hennessy said as she palpated Śeśpĕl’s abdomen. “And he’s got some nasty bruising on his ribs.”

“We’ve got a lead in, Maggie,” Nurse Mezzanote said. “Blood pressure 80 over 40, heart rate 134, respirations are 22. I think he’s gonna crash.”

“Shit. Okay, let’s slow push one milligram IV of TXA and see if we can get his bleeding under control. Call the OR and let them know we’ve got bleeder down here on his way up.”

Śeśpĕl’s eyes frantically looked around the room until Markov once again whispered in his ear. Then he focused intently on the maintenance man, who smiled and said in Chuvash, “Epĕ Josip Markov jatlă. I’m Josip Markov. I know who you are, who your father was, what he did to my family in 1940. How he forced them to leave our home and move to that frozen hell in Karelia, just to be a human shield between his Muscovite masters and the Finns. My grandmother died on that trip. Our women were degraded by our own soldiers. My great uncle killed himself in despair. I know what your father did. Did you like growing up in our home? Oh, I see your time’s up. Tav sire! Good health to you, asshole.”

Śeśpĕl tried to speak, but he couldn’t. The stroke was instantaneous and massive. The clotting agent Hennessy had administered for internal bleeding was the worst thing she could have given someone with Chuvash Polycythemia. The condition made his body produce too many red blood cells, thickening his blood, slowing its flow, which alone could lead to a heart attack or stroke at his age. Markov was counting on the clotting agent to seal the deal.

“Out of the way, Joey,” Hennessy yelled. But it was too late. Śeśpĕl expired before the ER team could do anything to help.

“Okay, guys, let’s call it. Time of death, 14:20. Sorry we couldn’t help your old countryman, Joey,” Hennessy said.

But Dr. Josip Martinovich Markov, who was a physician back in Tsivilsk before his breakdown and immigration to America, was already pushing his maintenance cart toward the service elevator. He recognized the symptoms and the man from his name and the questions he’d asked.

“I’ve done my job today. I’ll let Julio or Brandon clean up the trash,” Markov said to himself with a satisfied grin. He pushed the elevator button marked B. The doors swished closed in front of him and he dropped one more floor closer to hell.

The idea for this first draft has been banging around in my notebook for months. Perhaps it should have stayed there. But I’m a hot streak of production right now and I couldn’t not push out the first draft tonight.

With Stars in Our Eyes

I closed the book, put down the lighted magnifier and realized this might be the last one I’d ever read.

You think of these things when you’re going blind. And fast. Ischemic optic neuropathy is what the doctors called it. On top of that, I had something called low tension glaucoma, something the regular eye exams would never pick up.

They were something I’d had for decades as my eyesight deteriorated and the doctors just gave me stronger eyeglass prescriptions and the lame, “You’re getting older” jive.

“Another headache, Dave?” my wife Jen would ask.

“Yeah. Work’s just been a bitch and my sleeping has sucked.”

“When are you going to see a doctor about it?” Jen would always say.

“It’s okay, Jen. Just migraine or something. I’ll take an ibuprofen and it’ll be fine,” I’d reply. But then the ibu didn’t seem to hit it anymore and my peripheral vision seemed to be shrinking.

After I nearly rolled off the shoulder of the country road out near Oneonta, almost taking out a jogger, I decided I’d better see the doctor. But it was too late. The damage was done, my optic nerves were dying and the world was going dark faster than the onset of a January night. Only no dawn was riding to my visual rescue.

To her credit, even though I deserved it, Jen never pulled the “I told you so” card on me. She was calmer than I thought she would be, though in no way unsympathetic. She just was Jden, the woman I’d loved for over forty years.

She found me sitting in the dark, moping, feeling sorry for myself. I’d become your typical panicked patient. You begin groping even before everything goes dark, pondering how you’ll survive in the perpetual night coming in just a few months or even weeks.

“Hey, why so dark in here?” Jen said and flipped on the lights.

“I’m trying the future on for size. Now turn out the lights, Jen, and let me think, okay?”

“I wasn’t talking about the lights, Dave,” she said.

“Wouldn’t you be upset if you were me, Jen? Tell me you wouldn’t,” I said.

“I would be and I am, Dave. But sitting here silently raging in the dark isn’t going to change that. Now let’s about this some so we can figure out what we’re going to do when…you know.”

“Are you kidding?” I said, jumping up from my chair and moving toward her voice. I tripped over the ottoman and fell to the floor, banging my head and seeing flashes of light like I hadn’t seen in months.

“Dave, are you okay?” Jen said, hitting the light switch again and rushing to my side.

“See? See what an invalid I’m becoming? I’ll be nothing but a fucking burden on you and useless to myself and everyone else.”

She stood up and looked down at me. I could feel her eyes boring a hole through mine. I recognized that energy from all the other times I’d been a self-absorbed asshole with her.

I scrambled off the floor to the window, embarrassed for my whining outburst. I opened the curtains and looked into a darkness that might well be my view for the rest of my life.

“I can’t even see the stars anymore, Jen. Our stars, the one’s we’d stare at from the bed of my pickup when we were 17.”

“We can get through this, Dave. We’ve been through worse. What about my mastectomy? Fucking cancer and you never wavered in your devotion and care. You’d hold me every night, loving ME, not just some bra mannequin, as much in love as in the back of that pickup.”

“I’ll never see the kids faces anymore, never watch the grandkids grow up. And worst of all, I don’t know how I can take never seeing you again, Jen,” I said with a catch in my throat.

“I’m right here,’ she said, putting my hand to her face. “I’ve got your stars right here,’ Jen said, touching my fingers to her closed eyelids. “And I’ll keep them for you, let you hold them, bring you every bug or vista you’d ever want to see. That’s what we do, Dave. If you can’t see that, then you’re blind already.”

Slowly, her face so close to mine I could feel her eyelashes and a dampness on my cheek, everything became so clear, even with our eyes closed. So clear a blind man could see it. She’s beautiful, isn’t she?

Quick first-draft flash fiction in response to Annie Fuller’s Writing Outside the Lines challenge based on the Sara Teasdale line, “Give me your stars to hold.”

Up in the Air

Her foot slipped and she started to fall.

Silhouetted against the late afternoon sun, I saw the figure of a girl drop to the pool from the high board.  She hit the water awkwardly with a terrific splash that made me wince.

I did not join the cluster of youngsters at poolside who laughed at her ugly spill.  In fact, I rose from my poolside lounge chair and took a step toward the pool to see if she was okay.  But then I sat back, not quite on the edge of my seat, but nervously nonetheless.  Even on such a hot July Fourth afternoon, I always shivered at the thought of climbing the fifteen rungs to the top of the high board.

The girl swam to the edge of the pool’s diving area and, with what looked like a move as natural as a dolphin’s, kicked up from the water, pulled on the deck edge and twisted into a seated position facing the water.  She sat there for a few seconds and then – not as smoothly as when she was waterborne – climbed to her feet and limped away from the pool directly toward me.  As she approached, I saw she was tall, fair, wearing a two-piece swimsuit and a red welt that spread from outside her right knee, up her torso to her shoulder.  I also noticed her eyes were staring vacantly right through me.

The girl – she was probably eighteen or nineteen – stopped at the lounge chair directly next to mine and reached down for her towel.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

Startled, she looked up, straightened and wobbled a bit, her blue eyes wide and suddenly more focused.

“Oh, you scared me.  I didn’t see you sitting there,” she said.

“Sorry, I was just a bit concerned because you took such an awkward fall.”  I couldn’t help but stare at the ever more reddening stain against her skin.

“Eh, it happens,” she replied, shaking the water from her short strawberry blond hair.  At that, the woman teetered a bit and plopped down on her chair.

“Whoo, must’ve hit the water a little harder than I thought,” she grinned.

“Forgive me, but how the hell can you be so nonchalant about what just happened?” I said.  “That thing, that diving board, all high things, scare me to death.  And what just happened to you is one of the reasons they scare me.”

“Oh, I’ve been jumping off the high board since I was eight or nine.  Never really bothered me, but some little shit behind me jumped on his end of the board as was making my approach and my foot slipped.  Tell you what, though, that water stings like hell.”

“I’m sorry, I’m Bill, Bill Thompson,” I said, extending my sunblock-greased hand.

“Hi,” she replied, “I’m Paula.  The hand she extended was wet, sort of mushy, its fingers pruned from their time spent in the pool.

“Can I get you something?  For the dizziness, I mean.  A bottle of water maybe?”

“No, I think I’ll be okay if I just sit here for a few minutes.  Besides, I think I may have just swallowed about a pint of water.  I know I have at least that much in my ears.”  Paula tipped her head down to the left and gently shook it, attempting to drain that ear.

“Ow,” she said and leaned back in the lounge chair.  “Well, that’s one of ‘em.  But I think I’ll wait a few more minutes for everything to stop rocking in front of me before I try the right ear.”

Then she giggled, the lilting laugh of a teenager, maybe even a ‘tween, I thought.  I was surprised by the sound of her laugh, something like human wind chimes, I thought.

“You’re sure you’re gonna be alright then?” I said.

“Oh sure, soon as I feel a little sturdier on my feet, I’ll climb right back up there.  I’ve got no other reason to be here at the park than that pool.”

“You’re not here to see the fireworks tonight?”

“No, I don’t like fireworks.  They make me real nervous.  That’s made for some lonely July Fourths, but I still have a good time flying off the board.  Instead of flying up and exploding, I fly down and splash.  I’m my own sort of firework, I guess.”

“I really admire you in being able to climb back up there,” I said.  “When I was about five my Dad took up me up with him to the top of a diving board just like this.  Then he chucked me off when I wouldn’t jump like he told me to.”

“How terrible,” Paula said, her eyes fully focused for the first time since she got out of the pool.

“Mom thought so, too.  But that’s how my Dad was, Mr. Throw-‘em-in-the-deep-end.  Sometimes it was for the better, said it would make a man out of me.  Other times…”

I shrugged.  “I still have a thing about heights.  You say that you have lonely July Fourths because of your thing with fireworks; I’m that way about skyscrapers, open elevators, airplanes.  That’s why the first spring break I ever went to was last year.  My junior year – that’s of college, Paula.  And I had to drive to Florida the whole way by myself.  Won’t fly.  Nope, can’t do it. Oh, I’ve tried to fight it, but I always get to the top and chicken out.”

“Well,” Paula said, “I can understand how you can be afraid of certain things.  With me and the fireworks, I guess it’s the noise.  I just can’t take the booming.  You should see me during thunderstorms.  I beat my dog to the spot under the bed every time.”

More chiming giggles.

“You’re very nice,” she said.  “Thanks.  Are you here by yourself, too?”

“Yeah, gonna try to work the tan, splash around, maybe meet some friends later for the fireworks show.”

“Oh, the boomers.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Well let’s see, it’s sixish now, so you’ve got awhile before dusk.  That means I’ve got that long to get back to the pool before I head for home.”

“Paula,” I said, simultaneous with her blurting, “So, Bill.”

“Go ahead,” she said.

“What if I could find a way for you not to be afraid of the noise?  Would you stay and watch the fireworks with me?”

Paula frowned for a second.  Then her faintly freckled face opened up into a grin.

“How are you going to manage that?” she said.

“Um, well, I have an idea.  C’mon, what do you say?”

Paula’s expression changed to something like that of a kid taking a test, leaning toward False, but nagged by the tiny possibility of True.  She looked down, right, left, right, like her mind was searching for an Exit sign.

“C’mon, the colors are so pretty in person. TV can’t do them justice.  Sometimes they actually make pictures against the sky.  They sparkle and then they sink down like somebody drew a picture in colored chalk on a blackboard and then threw some water on it.”

“And this is supposed to make me want to expose myself to explosions? Pretty pictures?”

“Well, maybe not, but keep an open mind, okay?”

“Ohh-kay. But you’ve got to do something for me first.”

I felt a chill on the windless pool deck, where the flags above the pool-house looked melted to their poles by the heat.

“Let me help you get up and off that board,” Paula said. I saw a determined look on her face, but heard a voice that was soft and inviting.

“Maybe you really should go home,” I replied.

Paula giggled again.

I began searching for words, as well as a means, of escape.

“Look,” Paula said, “I started diving when I was seven and ended up diving competitively in high school and now college. I even became a platform diver. Think about doing THAT for the first time. One thing I learned is we all have fears and we all have to start low and work our way up. I’ll have you going off that high board by sundown or my name’s not Paula McDonald.”

“Well, at least I’ve accomplished finding out your full name,” I grinned.

“Then it’s a deal,” Paula said, extending her hand as if to shake on it. I reached out and she pulled me up and off my seat. She led me to one of the low boards, the one on the far side of the pool away from the audience of lounge chairs and too-close observers. However, this low board sported a tail of pushing middle-schoolers and teens.

“So, Bill, here we go,” Paula said as we took the position at the end of the swiftly moving line. “This board is just four feet or so above the water. Here’s where we’ll get your feet, umm, dry…and then wet.”

“I’ve been off a board this high before, Paula, it’s just the tall one that scares me. There, I said it, it scares me.”

“You’re allowed to be scared of something, Bill. I had a coach that told me that there’s no disgrace in being knocked down – or landing on your back. If there’s any disgrace, it’s in not getting back up.”

“Thanks, Coach Lombardi.”

“Who?”

“Never mind. Let’s get this over with.”

“Okay, I’m glad you’ve gone off this board before. We’re going to make believe it’s the Big Kahuna this time, though. We’ll do everything here we need to do to get off the high board so you’ll be prepared for later. How’s that?”

“Sure,” I moaned.

“Right, now take your time, try to enjoy the experience,” Paula said. “Remember, for a second after you jump up from the board, you’ll be feeling nothing, just air. It’s this of feeling and hearing nothing that you’ll experience until you feel and hear your entry into the water. That’ll be your explosion, but instead of fireworks, it’ll be, um, well, waterworks. Then, underwater, it’s quiet again. It’s lovely.”

“Yeah, lovely.”

“Remember, Bill, this was sort of your idea, right? Do what I do. I’ll swim to the side and watch. Okay, we’re up in a couple more kids. What I want you to do is walk to the end of the board and feel it sink and bounce a bit. Go with it. Use the bounce to get your butt in the air, out and over the water. Wherever your center of gravity goes, you’re going, too. When you bounce up, jump forward and upwards, stretching your arms out in front of you. Oh, and you don’t really have to look if you don’t want to.”

Paula stepped up to the board and slowly strode to its end, her body matched the sink and rise of the board, just as easily as she was striding across the pool deck. On her last step, the board went down and rose. She coiled her body and then exploded up, out and down into the water, carving a languorous arc above the water to a near-splashless entry into the pool.

She swam to the near side of the pool and looked back at me, a smile of accomplishment, joy, support, something, on her face. I was holding onto the rails on each side of the board. Shoulders tucked tight to my ears, I marched to the end of the board, mistimed the bounce and flipped ass-over-teakettle, splat, onto the water’s surface. For a second, I considered not coming up from underwater, but I broke the surface and swam to the ladder at poolside, where Paula was waiting.

“I think this will take awhile,” she said. “But remember coach’s mantra.”

“Yeah, I tried staying down, but it didn’t work.”

She giggled that giggle again and said, “Let’s go, Bill. It’s still just six thirty.”

For the next hour and a half Paula and I worked on the side and jumped off the low board. After a few mechanically solid dives, she told me that I was ready to fly.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“C’mon, Bill. What more do I have to do to get you up there?”

I had to admit, she had gone way beyond her part of the deal. While I stood in line about a half-hour before, I thought of a way for Paula to deal with the fireworks. I was as sure in my plan as she was in hers to help me fly. Except I was sure my plan would work. Her plan, I decided, was painfully flawed. I was the flawed part of the plan.

Stall, William.

“Okay, okay, but tell me one thing,” I said, digging my bare feet into the concrete pool deck as she pulled me toward the ladder to the high board. “Why are you so afraid of the loud sounds. You don’t seem to be afraid of anything.”

She stopped, let go of my arm and stared at me. Hard. Then she took a step back.

“I don’t want to talk about it, okay?” Paula said and took another couple of steps toward her towel on the lounge chair.

“Paula,” I called after her. “I’m sorry. If I’m going to do this – IF – I just can’t do this without you. I promise I’ll get up there. Just don’t be upset with me. Please?”

Paula spun and coldly looked at me. “If you must know, I was in a traffic accident, okay? Late night. After a meet. Okay? Need to know more, Bill? How about this? It was icy. Tractor-trailer jack-knifed on the highway ahead of a line of traffic. My coach tried to stop, just like all the other cars. We spun, and then all the other cars started hitting one another, bang, bang, bang, bang, BANG. Three teammates and the coach were killed, four others severely injured. Me, not a scratch. That enough to get you going, Bill?”

I felt a chill that was immediately melted by a blast of heated embarrassment from my chest to my forehead.

“God, Paula, I’m so sorry,” I said, reaching for her arm.

She twisted from my grasp.

“Look, I like you. You’re cute, you’ve got kind eyes, and you helped me when everyone else thought I was some kind of klutz. You didn’t know me – obviously. But you wanted to make sure I was okay. And I don’t think you were doing it just to hit on me. Not that I wouldn’t have let you, you little jerk. But right now I feel like I just wasted a day, in more ways than one, and if you don’t climb that damn ladder and jump off that freaking board, I’m out of here, deal or not.”

What could I do? I mean really? I turned around, walked to the bottom of the ladder, where there were only three divers still diving in the five minutes left before the pool was going to close.

I took one step up, felt the water dripping off the guy above me on the ladder. I looked over at Paula. She was wrapping herself in her towel and putting on her flip-flops.

More steps up. The guy in front of me had reached the top and was standing on the near end of the board while another diver bounced and flew out and down into the water. Paula was stuffing things into her tote bag. She hadn’t looked one time at me.

I pulled myself to the rear edge of the board and stood there, looking out at the whole pool deck, the roof of the pool house, and the orangey-blond top of Paula’s head, which was turned toward the women’s entrance to the locker-room.

The guy ahead of me bounced on the end of the board twice, sending it deeply below where I was standing, so all I could see was his body from the shoulders up. And then, when the board came back up, he would bounce maybe two feet above it and land back on the sandpaper-like end again. He was getting his timing right or just showing off, I guess.

Then he just took off. Beautiful. Yeah, I’ll say it. Like a bird.

And there I was, just as the lifeguard sounded his claxon horn and yelled into his bullhorn that the pool was closing.

“C’mon, pal, last dive,” he said to me.

I looked behind me and there was no one on the ladder. I could easily just climb down. Nobody would have to skinny to the side of the ladder or climb off to let me pass. It wouldn’t be like that time in high school. The last time I tried to dive off the high board. The laughs and remarks were about as big an embarrassment as any I ever felt. Until five minutes before I arrived at the top of the ladder.

I walked toward the end of the board and it really felt just like the low board. Only thing different was that the drop-off on either side was about three times as high. It looked like thirty times to me.

I looked over at Paula and she was about five steps from the locker room door. And then she turned around and looked at me. She took off her sunglasses and looked at me. And her face had a sadness about it. I took a breath, bounced once and lost my balance for a second, but recovered. My heart was beating so hard I knew everyone could hear it above the silence on the pool deck.

“Tonight, buddy, while we’re still young,” the lifeguard boomed. “Now or never.”

I chose never. I turned around and took a step toward the ladder. I saw Paula’s shoulders slump and she turned back to the locker room.

And then I slipped and fell.

She was right. There is this feeling of silence, of nothing, not even the wind. And then there’s the noise of hitting the water, followed by the quiet again. She was so right.

She was also right about it stinging like hell.

I came to the surface just as the lifeguard was climbing off his tower and trotting down to see if I was okay. I’m sure he would have a tough time explaining how the only person in the pool ended up drowned at closing time.

I put my head down and swam for the wall behind me, under the board. That’s when I saw Paula.

“Bill, are you all right?” she asked, her face showing what looked like genuine concern.

I walked right by her, grabbed the handle on the ladder and started climbing.

“Hey, buddy, c’mon, let’s go. Haven’t you suffered enough?”

The disgrace is in not getting back up, I heard in my head. Yeah, I’d suffered enough. I was determined to suffer no more –- no more disgrace, at least –- today.

“Bill, it’s okay,” I heard Paula say below me.

I got to the top and just jumped off, head-first. I didn’t hesitate and I’m sure I looked like a complete spazz, but I did it — on my terms — just to prove that I could.

But never again.

Later that night, on a blanket over the hood of my car, I looked at Paula’s face glowing red, then green, then yellow in the reflected glare of each aerial bomb. Mostly, though, her face just glowed.

“Bill,” she yelled above the sound of the third movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony blasting in the headphones on her ears, “it really is very beautiful.”

I had to admit she was right, as I laid back and looked up, almost forgetting my near-failure. I couldn’t shake the idea of the sky as the water’s surface, splashing in a splatter of fire.

A big aerial bomb exploded in a garish flare of pyrotechnic elation. Even I was a little startled this time. It wasn’t the boom of the fireworks, though. It was the touch of Paula’s hand suddenly holding mine.

Yet another flash of colored light split the sky, the biggest yet, as before, it was followed by a second of silence, and then the boom reached me. It was the sound that hit me and it was the concussion of the explosion that washed over Paula. It startled her a bit and she squeezed my hand.

This shocked me. But just for a second.

Then I squeezed back.

So, I thought. Flying.

I found that first sentence somewhere and it intrigued me. The rest of the story just spread like the rings of ripples growing from someone hitting the water from sixteen feet above the surface.