I Really Want to Know



With the sun so high and hot, the only shadows 
lie directly beneath the trees. 
The little buildings and addresses sit there 
in shades of golden brown or sugar white 
like baked goods fresh from the oven. 
But they’re not.

A few are fresh, all proofed and kneaded by 
same-named bakers, but most just sit there growing 
stale and lonely, even among all the neighbors 
left, right, front and back, we never knew.
Nobody peers over the walls and says, “How ya doin’?” 
‘Cause everybody knows.

Over there, a visitor sits on a folding chair in the bare, 
baking sun, his hands clasped, leaning forward, his head 
dripping, his cheeks even more. I see his lips moving, 
like the old Italian ladies’ do as they click through 
their rosaries, wishing for something they don’t want to 
believe'll never happen.

And I wonder what he’s saying and I wonder to whom.
Wife, mother? Sister, brother? Son, daughter, maybe his lover?
For a moment, I want to step through this quiet neighborhood, 
just to walk by and see who he’s visiting, maybe hear 
his side of the conversation. But then I remember 
why I came here.

So I pick my way through the yards, not wishing to disturb them 
as I might that quiet man. And I stop by your place, ignoring 
your neighbor. I look down and say, “Hi, Mom. How ya doin’?” 
‘Cause I figure here, as the cars and trucks roll by,  
where nearly no one talks, except the man and me, 
I really want to know.

Clothes Make the Man

“Why must you always look like an unmade bed in an abandoned frat house?” Clarissa asked me last November.

Before I could even give her an answer, for which I had none, she marched me to her room and revealed an array of men’s clothing. It looked like some dog had shredded a copy of GQ on its mistress’ bed.

“Is this some kind of intervention, Clarissa?” I said as my bare right foot shifted toward the door. But my sister already had her $75 a pop (tip included) acrylic hooks into me and, lest she draw blood, I decided to humor her.

“Yes. I’m tired of seeing you in some grubby sweats or jeans perched on your ass and bundled around your ankles. It embarrasses me no end when you answer the door in what looks like the same teeshirt with the stain between your moobs when I know ALL you have are teeshirts with stains between the moobs.”

“That’s a lie,” I told her. “I don’t have moobs.”

“You need to upgrade your look for after graduation. Employers appreciate — and I’ll be proud of — your more refined appearance. Now, just for fun, try on this Prime Wardrobe haul I ordered.”

My big sister — my mother hen, my rock, since our Mom died. So… 

“Here, you’ll look great in this,” she said, and handed me this very suit, shirt and tie. You’ll have to admit, she was right. 

I just wish I’d never need it like this before graduation.

First 250-word Thursday Thread story I’ve been able to write in I can’t remember how long. And it even has a bit of a timely finish. Which I must admit is f**king untimely at any time. Found out one of the really good guys from my working days nearly died from COVID this year. A miracle meeting of the myriad strings of science, luck and family he survived. Unfortunately, the beautiful Clarissa up there, didn’t.

The ABCs of Being Alice-Anne

Alice-Anne Andrei-Abbott was named after her grandmothers, neither of whom she ever met. But she was taught that each were women of great strength, faith and devotion to their families. 

Couple that bit of parental whimsy with her mother’s desire to keep her maiden name and Alice-Anne, who was wee bit of a thing, always found herself first in line for everything in school.

Divorce may have excised her father, Adam, from her life, but Alice-Anne would never drop her double-monikered surname, not even when her mother asked if she would.

“Everyone I know is a one namer, Mom. For crying out loud, even you,” Alice-Anne told her mother when Audra Andrei posited such a change after Alice-Anne graduated from high school.

“God damn it, Allie, this would be a perfect time for you to claim your own life from connection to a deadbeat dad’s names.”

“How can you say that, Mom?”

“I just did, Allie, it’s time.”

“Just because you don’t want anything to do with Daddy, doesn’t mean I have to erase that part of me from knowing who I am,” Alice-Anne said.

“Knowing who you are, Allie?”

“Like I haven’t noticed how you’ve removed any photos of me from when Daddy lived with us? Mom, my name — all my names, even those dead old ladies — make me who I am and it’s important to me not to get lost in the crowds I’ll meet in college.”

“Now I get it,” her mother said, her eyes narrowing.

“Oh, really, Mother? Please enlighten me with your epiphany about what I’m trying to say or do.”

“Quite simply, you say you want to stand out, but you’re actually afraid of becoming your own woman.”

“Right, haven’t you been listening to me? Say what you want to say, but I’m keeping my names.”

“That’s it, huh? Under no circumstances will you drop your father’s – the father who walked out on us over ten years ago — that father’s name?”

“Why do you really want me to do this, Mom? Extra-angry because you’re turning 50 next week and now he’s finally remarrying someone half your age, someone who actually buys into his narcissistic bullshit, someone without a puny little bookworm daughter who’s so so so so proud of how her mother raised her totally on her own and how I don’t want to lose his name because it’s a constant reminder that there are two sides to everyone and carrying around that extra weight has made me one fiercely strong little bitch? Exciting, huh?” Alice-Anne said as she  flexed her arms in a strongman’s pose.

“Yes…no…what?”

“Zero chance of me changing my name, Mom. All I can say is, no one’s ever going to make me turn into something I don’t want to.”

“Better not even try, huh,” her mother said with a resigned grin.”

“Correct, Mommy. Damn it, I feel like beating up a large man right now, or maybe just crushing a disgustingly decadent burger, fries and ‘nilla shake over at Bad Daddy’s,” Alice-Anne said.

“Eating sounds like a less offensive, more legal way to go, Allie.”

“Freshman fifteen, here I come,” Alice-Anne said. 

“God, if you play this right, you might weigh in at a solid 105 by the time you graduate college. How would any of us recognize you?” Audra said with a laugh.

“I’m Alice-Anne Andrei-Abbott. Just stand back because no one’s going to mess with me.”

“Kinda like this new you I never knew existed,” Audra said as they walked out of the house.

“Learning more about myself every day, actually.”

“More than I ever did, it seems,” Audra said, gazing out the window. 

“Now let’s get out of here and enjoy ourselves one of the last times before you’re seen with your college girl daughter come September.” 

“Ow!” Alice-Anne said in the restaurant as her mother reached out and gave her hand a tight squeeze.”

“Promise me you’ll always be my little girl?”

“Quite depends on how many of these fries I can wolf down, I think. Really, Mom?”

“Seriously, Allie, Alice-Anne, my all grown up, thinking for herself young woman, just don’t…you know.”

“That’s another reason I’m keeping all my names, Ms. Andrei. Very important that people know who I am, but also who I come from. Why are you crying now, Mom?”

“Extra onions on this burger. You know how they get to me.”

“Zesty things, like us,” Alice-Anne said, winking from what she was sure were the invisible onions on her mother’s burger.

You’ll have to forgive the going-nowhere-and-not-very-fast nature of this little story. It was an exercise I attempted in order to break out of this creative stasis that’s enamored me for the past several months. “What exercise?” you might ask. Give each sentence a closer look, at least at the right-hand end of it. Now the next one. And the next…

I wanted to finish it with my first circuit, but ended up going around twice. Let’s just say it wasn’t as easy as ABC, but was fun to meet the character of Alice-Anne. That first sentence just sort of magically appeared on the top of the page and dragged me across the creative river from there. (And yes, I cheated on the Xs. You try breaking out of something like this. You’ll cheat, too.)

A Matter of Honor

They think I don’t hear them, but I do. Or at least I hear the hum of their talk with words bobbing up every now and then.

It certainly bests the sound of breathing, the crackle of my neck turning left and right on the cot, or the heartbeat that longs to feel hers, just to make some poetry that probably doesn’t rhyme anymore.

But out in the hallway, I’m pretty sure the guards are talking about me. I hear “bastard.” And maybe that was a “poor,” which I’d appreciate if this wasn’t the eve of the dawn we’ve been waiting for. Or dreading.

There! I’m pretty sure that was a “governor,” but it just as well could have been a “southerner,” or a “lovin’ her.” They all could apply to me. Though I’m not sure Yankees understand family and honor like we do.

I probably deserve the dance I’ll do when the sun clears the horizon. Eye for an eye and all. Carpetbaggin’ sumbitch deserved every last ball I put in him. Wish’d I had Daddy’s LeMat to wipe the grin off his face with a shotgun blast, too.

But some Yankee’s probably got that, too. Took everything, eventually, didn’t they? Saber, gun, horses, farm, Mama’s honor, my…

I heard the lock clank.

“All right, I’m afraid it’s time. Ya know, I’d have shot that scoundrel, too, Missy. If it’s any consolation. I take no solace in hangin’ a twelve year old girl,” the glossy-eyed, red-nosed sergeant said.

When there are no more of their culturally established defenders around, some women grow up fast to protect themselves and their own. Especially in a mid-19th Century rural society. This 250-word story reflects such a young woman doing what she decided needed to be done in a family whose men were erased by war. It’s in response to that first sentence up there, the prompt for this week’s Thursday Threads feature from author Siobhan Muir.

Circling the Herd In a Time of Social Distance

When you’re a kid and you get sick,
most times you’re lucky enough
to have the strength of many around
to tend to you and help you through it.
Or at least that’s how it was
during most of my life.
Oh, we’d run up against quarantines
for measles and chicken pox
and even polio (because I’m old).
The nation was a herd taking care of our own.
Now doctors tell me that a bunch of us
are going to get sick. But the herd
can’t take care of me because it seems
most of our horns have been sawn off
by the wolves in the food chain’s penthouse.
So, with almost seven decades
seasoning my once brown and shaggy coat,
it feels like I might be facing
a predator with no one of any muscle
having my back, at my shoulder,
over my wounded body. Sure seems like
it’s time to circle the herd for protection.
But it’s hard to feel safe while keeping
six feet of distance between each of us.

Who’s The Man?

“Where the hell’s Rosalie?” Pat Bowman asked as he peered over his son Mark’s shoulder toward the front door.

“She was here this morning, Dad,” Mark said with a sigh. He sighed a lot these days, though he tried not to.

“Wasn’t that Becca?” Pat said. 

“Well, yeah. Becca was here, too. A little while ago. Rosalie came this morning, though.”

“I would’ve sworn…” Pat’s attention refocused on the television.

“She’s the one who came earlier, Dad. Trust me.” Mark decided to hold his big inhale this time. Sighing didn’t make Mark feel any better about his father or his own role as Pat’s health proxy and primary caregiver.

Besides, what good would sighing now do? The doctors and therapists explained to him how his father’s condition would become frustrating. Then would come the hard part. Mark closed his eyes and tried not to think of what the hard part would be like in light of the past three months.

“Who the hell thought this stupid ostrich was a good idea to sell insurance,” his father, a retired business executive, said. 

“It’s an emu, Dad. But you’re right. It sucks. Annoying as hell.”

“Stupid fucking bird. Assholes must think we’re idiots. If some ad man brought me this concept I’d throw him out the window. See if he could fly as well as some damn ostrich.”

“Relax, Dad. It’s only a commercial.” Mark was seeing more of these tirades all the time. And they hurt.

He recalled how when they were kids, his sisters Rosalie and Rebecca and he couldn’t go to sleep without listening to their father tell them a silly story.  Never the same one, unless they asked for one. Pat Bowman put the “gentle” in “gentleman.”

Mark thought of the time back at Yale when he the cops hauled him in after trying to score some weed off an undercover. Pat drove from Albany to New Haven in a blizzard to bail Mark out and drive him home. Not once did he raise his voice or issue a profanity. Not one “damn,” let alone a “fuck.”

“You’re better than this, Mark. You know the difference between right and wrong, and the law says what you were trying to do is wrong,” Pat said. 

“It’s a stupid law, Dad. But, yeah. Sorry. I fucked up,” Mark said, his chin to his chest as he stared at the floor board.

“Careful of your language, Mark. Words have power I don’t think you fully understand yet. How you use them communicate as much as what you’re trying to say. I tried my whole life to set a good example for you. Maybe I slipped up — slipped up — somewhere. Always remember, you’re my main man, pal. When I go, I want to say ‘My boy Mark is The Man.’ Not ‘The *blanking* Man. MY Man.”

And so he was.

Mark’s mouth twisted into something between a grin and a grimace thinking of that night. “MY Man.”

“When the hell is Rosalie coming? Was that a car?” Pat said, trying to rise.

“Sit! Yep, It’s Rosalie,” Mark said with touch of relief.

“Hi, Mark. You get some rest. Hi, Dad,” Rosalie said as she breezed into the living room.

“Thanks, Ro. Later, Dad.” Mark said, and kissed his father’s forehead.

“So, is there anything I can do for you, Dad? Need a drink, something to eat?” Rosalie said. Just so she knew she’d have his attention, Rosalie stepped between her father and the television screen.

“Yeah, get outta the way. And can you tell me who that guy was who just left?”

This is a larger version of a 250-word story I wrote (Yes, I WROTE!) Thursday in response to Siobhan Muir’s Thursday Threads  flash fiction mini-competition. It was probably better at 250. Somehow, though, my piece won. Never ceases to floor me when one of my simplistic, minimalist stories garners some bit of approbation. It’s humbling and encouraging. Those are two ingredients any writer needs to make his or her next bit of creative sustenance. 

Spatter of Memories, Fusillade of Regrets

Caleb Downey heard the sound and turned to see Edwin Howard’s head flung backwards and his body sag to drape the ground like a sack of rags. He felt the spatter of Ed’s memories on his face.

“I didn’t sign up for this,” Caleb said, knowing the men to either side of him in the Union line couldn’t hear him. Just like they never heard the .50 caliber slugs from Rebel Enfields come fetch them to Jesus. Wide-eyed, Caleb skittered back from the makeshift breastwork of a rotten hickory as more Reb bullets chopped it to tinder, let alone kindling.

“Where’re you going, Downey?” he heard Captain Mayfield yell, the flat of his sword spanking Caleb like his Pa would with a switch back in Indiana. “You get back to your position and hold this line with your squad.”

“Cap’n, I ain’t got no more squad. The last of ‘em, ‘cept for me, just lost the top of his head not three feet from my own.”

“You mean…”

“Yessir. All dead.”

“…you completely abandoned that position?”

“Only of the living, sir.”

“You get back up there and hold that post while I find some men to fill in the line.”

“I don’t think so, Cap’n.”

“What? Think of what you’re fighting for, boy. Think of the Union, Indiana, think of your family,” Mayfield said.

“I am. The feller to my right was my cousin Edwin. On the left was my brother, Charles. They never signed up for this, neither,” Caleb said.

Wrote this 250-word mini-story in response to the prompt of using the phrase “I didn’t sign up for this,” for Siobhan Muir’s Thursday Threads feature. Thanks, Siobhan and judge Silver James. Now, on to tomorrow. Another chance to climb into my desk chair and attempt staying there.

Act of Contrition

In the deep-rooted shadows upon which the forest stands, where nothing grows but moss and the debris of winter-felled branches, Scott Lang and his brother Tony heard the stuttering k-r-r-r-k like someone opening the door to a derelict shack.

But near all around them, there were no such homes except last spring’s birds’s nests and the torn-up insect domicile buried within a pine upon which a woodpecker hammered another k-r-r-r-k.

“This noise where there’s nothing around creeps me out, man,” Tony said.

“Some of us, little brother, find such ‘noise’ a blanket of comfort, the caress of natural music far from the crash and soul-crunching violence in city life, the promise of peace,” said Scott.

“Okay, I get it, but does it take sloshing all the way out here just to find your precious quiet? Besides, it’s so damn dark here, how the hell am I supposed to see anything well enough to shoot it?” Tony said, swinging his rifle in carefree arcs.

“Your life always comes down to noisy violence. It killed Mom. I don’t want to know who else. Can’t you just enjoy some serenity for once?”

“Yeah, but where’s the fun in that? Now where to something I can enjoy?”

“You’ll never get it, will… Wait, what was that?” Scott said.

“Where?” Tony said, swinging the muzzle of the 30.06 toward the shadows.

When the echo of the k-r-r-r-k made by four rapid shots from the .22 Scott pulled from his pocket faded, he sighed. After a few seconds, he heard the birds begin singing again. He could actually hear his heartbeat settle down as the wind strummed the tall pines like harp strings. And he was pretty sure there had been only two witnesses to what he’d done.

He made a silent Act of Contrition to one.

“Peace, Mom, just like I promised. At last, some peace,” he whispered to the other.

Crumbs

Photo by Jody McKinney

Becky loved her brother, Ben, but hated how he’d chase guys off from dating her.

“He’s not good for you, Becks. You deserve so much better,” he’d say.

So Becky would look for solace in the kitchen, baking — and eating — cookies and cakes that would drive Ben crazy with their seductive aroma.

“Oh, man, Becks, that smells incredible. Lemme have a piece,” Ben would say.

And Becky would slap his hand, replying, “It’s not ready yet. It needs time before I can make it pretty.”

“But, Becks, it’s pretty enough now.”

“Sorry. And Coach Babbitt will pitch a fit if you can’t make weight this week. Besides, it’s not good for you,” Becky would remind her wrestler brother.

After a match, he’d burst through the door looking for whatever Becky had made. “Did you leave anything for me?” he’d always say. But, inevitably, he’d find Becky had finished most, if not all, of her creation.

In April, Becky started seeing Art Linski. He was looking for some of Becky’s delights, too. Just not the baked kind.

“No, Art, I’m just not ready,” she said.

But Art wasn’t to be denied and violently took what he could.

In an alley the next night, Art Linski looked up with his one good eye at Ben Stenson, and whined through swollen, bloody lips, “I’m sorry. Please, please, no more.”

Then Art heard a girl’s voice from the shadows. “Thanks, Ben. Did you leave anything for me?”

“Just a crumb, babe,” Ben said.

A super-quick flash story in response to this week’s Thursday’s Threads friendly competition on novelist Siobhan Muir’s website.  The story was prompted by, and must include, the phrase, “Did you leave anything for me?” I’d say not too bad a first draft batter of words. Fluffy, bittersweet and ready for a little more to make it pretty.

Before It’s Too Late

Father, mother, and brother Bill,
first love, some others, none named Jill,
upon my life’s way walk unfulfilled,
following me over another hill.

Old friend, best friend, only one,
I said “See ya, I gotta run.”
Next call I got was from his son,
so now my list of friends is none.

In every case, including romance,
we parted in some macabre danse.
When I look back it is askance.
You see, I never got that chance.

What chance you say? I thought you’d know,
at least by now in my tale of woe.
But in stringing rhymes I ain’t no Poe,
just a sad old poet name of Joe.

All these regrets have made me cry.
It’s too late, see, after they die.
But if you should go first, or I,
let me at least wish YOU goodbye.

Sorry, I threw some slant rhymes and extra beats here and there into this piece. But this poem came to me because recently I’ve had a closer brush with my own mortality than I cared to brush. It’s a small part of my relative absence (compared to the Prolific Joe you know) from this space for the past several months. I never got the chance to wish these people I loved goodbye before we parted, one way or another. Just my youngest brother. So I decided to get ahead of the possibilities, just in case one of us trips on a rainbow, so to speak.