Objects In the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

Jen sat in her Honda, its engine running, backed into the parking place in the l ot so she could face the riverside walkway north of Albany. She also backed in just in case she and Ashley needed to make a quick getaway.

She could her friend Ashley in the distance walking with her boyfriend Sam. Jen knew what was coming. She and Ashley had talked about it for weeks.

“Ashley, you’ve got to break it off with Sam. He’s an arrogant prick who treats you like crap,” Jen would tell her childhood friend.

“You’re wrong, Jen. He loves me and I love him. You’ve got to understand what he sees every day in the streets. Sometimes it’s hard for him to shake it off when he gets off work,” Ashley said.

“Is that why he tends to stop off at Bogie’s at the end of his shift and drinks for two hours with the other cops before he sees you?” Jen said.

“Like I said, job pressures.”

“Is it job pressure that leads him to call you stupid, a summa cum laude graduate of Boston College? Two masters degrees? Nationally recognized teacher of special needs kids? Really, Ashley? You deserve so much better,” Jen said.

Ashley blushed and Jen wasn’t sure if it was because of the litany of honors she listed or the fact that Jen had heard Sam call Ashley stupid. Or worse.

But Ashley was adamant.

That is until Jen brought the video from the bar capturing Sam yucking it up with the other cops, three pitchers of beer on the table and a table full of St. Rose College girls behind them.

“Just watch this for a second, Ashley. And listen closely,” Jen said.

“Don’t do this anymore, Jen.”

“This will be the last time, I promise. If this doesn’t change your mind, just a little, I’ll give up trying to convince you this guy cares about nothing but himself and has disregard for not only you, but it seems anyone unlike his twisted self”
Jen held her phone up and started the video again. In it, Sam turned in his chair and started talking to one of the college girls.

“Sammy,” one of his cop buddies said, “don’t you have a real teacher waiting on you? These are student teachers, man.”

Sam turned to his friend and said in the way guys will when alcohol meets testosterone in a spontaneous combustion of stupid, loud enough to be heard on the phone’s microphone, and said, “Sometimes Ashley’s more like a student, one of those little kids she teaches, than these ripe young things. She’s always wishing and expressing and not getting down to what’s real. Fantasyland, man.”

“That’s cold, dude.”

“No, that’s the real world, real talk…hey, Jennifer, what the fuck you doing over there?”

The recording froze right there.

For a few seconds, Ashley blinked at the captured final frame of Sam staring cold enmity at whoever had just recorded him. Most probably Jen.

“Why did you need to show me this?” she said.

“I needed to give you proof that he’s a dog, Ashley. An over-the-line stepping, skirt chasing, arrogant and self-absorbed dog,” Jen said.

“While you’re home working for your next day’s classes, he’s out there…”

“Protecting us,” Ashley said.

“Okay, I’ll grant you that, at least for eight hours a day. But for the rest…I’ve seen him, cozy up to coeds and older chicks at the bars. Yeh, he can be damned charming with his blue eyes and self-assured way, but it’s all a lie. He’ll do nothing but hurt you, Ashley. And he won’t care. You’ve got to end this sooner rather than later.”

Shaken, Ashley said, “He and I will be going down for a walk by the Hudson tomorrow. I’ll somehow confront him and we’ll see what happens.”

“Do you want me around for support?”

“No, yes, I don’t know,” Ashley said as her eyes darted around the room and her mind raced behind them.

“I’ll be in the parking lot if you need a lift. No questions asked.”

“All right, but don’t get your hopes up. He gets one more chance,” Ashley said.

“That night, Ashley barely slept, compiling the many instances Jen had pointed out where Sam treated women, especially his doting girlfriend, like any other perp from the South End.
And here they were–Jen could see Ashley turning away from Sam and she knew she’d finally convinced her to walk on this guy.
She pulled from her parking place and glided up to the end of the river walk. With a kuh-lick, Jen unlocked her passenger side door and Ashley climbed in. Ashley motioned for Jen to drive away.

“Proud of you, hon. That took a lot of courage,” Jen said as she eased out of the parking lot and saw Sam stalking nearer the trails end.

Ashley just sat there in stunned silence. Then her shoulder shook.

“Trust me, Ashley. You just gained, by any substantive means, an exciting new life. Trust me, you’re better off with him in your rear view mirror as I have him right now,” Jen said. And she meant that. The charm fell of Sam as he drew closer to her car.

Jen peeled out and headed up the road and back to Ashely’s apartment. But while driving there, she was glad to be going to her doctor’s on Monday.

She didn’t want anyone to know, most especially Ashley and Ashley’s now-former boyfriend, about her terminated pregnancy plans for tomorrow. She hoped to put her one-time-only transgression in her rear view mirror as swiftly as the transgressor, now stalking toward his car in the snowy parking lot.

Today’s story for Day 15 of Story-a-Day May. Was to take a secondary character from a previous story and use that character/story as a springboard for them, or continue that story but in the point of view of a different character. I chose Jen, the girlfriend who picked up Ashley after her breakup with Sam in What the River Says, That Is What I Say. I wrote this in a sleepy hurry to get in Day 15, so please forgive any inherent lameness or outright stank, okay?

The Lie Behind the Secret, The Secret Behind the Lie

She waited a week before revealing the secret.

Liz sat me down in the living room to tell me. I could see she had something going on, though. Distracted, quiet, even moody. I’d asked several times before she finally told me.

“Oh, I’m just tired’s all,” she’d say. Or, “Nothing. Everything’s fine. Do you want there to be something wrong?” Eventually, after a week of this, I just stopped noticing, at least with any intent.

That’s when she dropped the bomb.

“I’m leaving here,” she said.

Not, “I’m leaving you,” but, “I’m leaving here.”

“Liz, what’s going on? I’ve noticed something’s wrong for over a week, and now, ‘I’m leaving here’?” I said, not sure if I should lean in or rock back like I would if punched in the face, which is what this felt like.

“I, I can’t do this anymore. It’s all too much,” she said. She couldn’t look me in the eye, but I could see hers darting about the room as if looking for some means of escape other than through me.

“Can’t do what? What’s too much?”

“This, here, everything.”

“Us?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess it’s…”

Her phone rang with a ringtone I’d not heard before. She took a quick glance, rolled her eyes to the ceiling and took a deep breath.

“I’ve got to take this. I’ll be right back,” she said. She got up from the chair and moved one room away into the kitchen.

My mind raced, trying to make sense of what was happening. But even through all the questions ringing in my mind, I could hear her whisper from the kitchen.

“No, not yet… No. I’m trying, but it’s hard… You don’t understand… I told you not to call… I’ll call you when I’m done… No.” Then a muffled something that sounded to me like, “Love you.”

I got up from my chair and walked toward the kitchen, where Liz quickly whispered, “I’ll call you later,” and cut off her call.

“Okay, Liz, what the hell’s going on? The detached behavior for the past two weeks, telling me you’re leaving, the secret phone calls? If you’ve got a beef with me, at least have the decency, the balls, to tell me straight up. There’s nothing you can’t tell me, okay? We’ve been through too much to keep secrets from one another, especially something as obviously disturbing as whatever’s on your mind,” I said.

She wandered over to the coffee maker and poured herself a second cup. Black. And if Miss Sweetness and Light was going to drink her coffee straight, I knew I’d better brace myself.

“Please sit down, JJ,” she said, pointing to the kitchen table. With the shuffle of chair legs on the tile floor, we each settled into seats on the opposite side of the old wooden table we bought at a flea market when Liz and I moved in together.

She looked at her refection amid the steam on the ebony surface of her coffee and took a deep breath, which caught in her throat.

“There’s this man, I met,” she said.

Finally, I knew what was coming.

“I found him online and we’ve been talking to each other for a month at night while you’re sleeping or engrossed in some TV show,” she said, which felt like a backhand to my reddening cheeks.

“A man? You’re leaving me for some man you met only a month ago?” I said a little too loudly. Now I felt like throwing a backhand.

She stared into her mug some more and looked like the steam had condensed in her eyes and was dripping down her cheeks. If she ever left me, I felt sure it would be for another woman. After all, she’d left her boyfriend two years ago to be with me and I was anything but a man.

I got up from my chair, it’s legs squealing in protest to my sudden explosion of energy I’d been tamping down since Liz began her harried silent treatment.

“Fine,” I said. “Go. I guess I never expected a pretty girl lie you could stay with troll like me forever anyway. But never for a man, even if you are bi.”

“Stop it, JJ,” she shouted. “I’m not leaving you for another man. I’m not leaving YOU. I’m leaving here to finally meet my father, you idiot. But if that’s the way you really feel about me, then maybe I should.”

Her anger had brought the color back to her soft white cheeks. The skin I’d come to adore. I was hurt, but once again, I’d hurt her worse.

“I didn’t want to say anything until I was sure. I’ve been living without a father my whole life. It left me feeling rejected. You know how my analyst says that’s why I always ended up with what she thought were father figures. She even included you in that group,” she said.

“Well how about that?” I said. I’d never been the most feminine woman, but I was far from anybody’s even desperate surrogate for a runaway father. My turn to roll my eyes.

“JJ, I love you. But I have to see what it’s like to have a father, see what Kevin’s all about. He says he never wanted to leave me, but Mother, the domineering bitch, chased him off with her lawyer brother and threats from her family. I’ve been searching all my life for the truth. Now I may have found it. I’m sure I’ve found my father,” she said.

“You couldn’t tell me this?” I said, rather more weakly than I thought I could.

“I thought you’d ridicule me, a 30-year-old woman searching for her Daddy like I got lost in the mall.”

“No, honey, I wouldn’t. I’m sorry to hear you felt that way.”

“Well, I’m leaving Tuesday for Vancouver. That’s where he lives, Vancouver,” she gave a kind of ironic chuckle and said. “But I’ll be back, I promise. I only took a two-week leave of absence from work.”

“You couldn’t even tell me that?”

“No, I really was afraid of how you’d react. And I’m glad you seem to be taking it so well. That you understand why I have to do this.”

“Not really. Not with my history of being tossed out at sixteen by my old man when I came out. But I won’t stand in your way, even if this dude is some fraud serial killer who’ll take you away from me permanently,” I said, surprised at the catch in my voice. “But let me help you pack and take you to the airport.”

Which I did, with the teary bon voyages and long hugs and kisses you might see in the movies when Johnnie marches off to war.

A week later, I got her email saying she indeed was leaving me for another man. The father thing had been true. She had found her father in Vancouver. But the Internet affair and three-day business trips to the Pacific Northwest had been to see some guy name Bret she met out there. I shipped her things to her and that was that. She’d already packed most of her secrets and took them with her a week before.

Like I said, she waited a week before revealing her secret. It just wasn’t the week or the one I expected.

For Day 8 of my May story-a-day challenge, I had to write a story based on the first sentence of this piece, as offered by artist and writer Marta Pelrine-Bacon. Tis one came quickly, between 6:00 and 7:30 this morning.  Hope it hits the mark for some of you.

Mine Over Matters

I know it’s a secret no more,
but I kept the one I thought
might have mattered most.
I’m sure you’d care no more,
but I’ve always been the one
to try doing The Thing, keeping
the personal nuclear code,
for what mattered most.
But what if I broke a vow
I made to myself, broke
the code to my mind and heart
over what mattered most?
I panicked over how I’d
make you sad or angry or,
worst of all, just shrug your
shoulders.
To me, you see, your feelings
(even about me)
carried what mattered most.
I wonder what’d happen if,
one day, you gave up my secret,
now that my supposed stand-up life
no longer mattered most.
Would I, who dreamed that dream,
sweat blood if anyone learned
this covert pining and furtive
twining of metaphors for you,
my little secret, ultimately
was what mattered most.

For Day 8 of NaPoWriMo’s Poem-a-Day challenge, I combined prompts for a Panic poem and one that repeated a word or phrase. Closed my eyes and started typing. Other than I and you, “what mattered most” is the repetitive hook upon which this piece hung.

Dramatis Personæ

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The man emerged from Grand Central Station, ran through puddles reflecting city lights to the line of cabs, jerked open the door of one and jumped from the rain into its back seat. The cabbie, texting his girlfriend in Queens, jumped a bit in surprise. He got a little more startled by that sort of thing lately. Didn’t used to, but now he did. You could never be too sure about anyone anymore, he would say.

In the rear view mirror he sized up a typical out-of-town business type, probably upstate insurance or real estate, just a little wetter than usual.

“Hey, buddy, you want to quit shaking that little umbrella back there? You don’t see me blowing exhaust into your office, do you?” he said.

“Oh, sorry,” the out-of-towner said.

“Yeah, well…So where we going?” He usually didn’t have to ask. In this town people get off the train knowing they’ve got to be somewhere ten minutes or ten years ago. From the looks of this fare–late 20s, not really expensive raincoat, white shirt, red tie, phony Ivy, like maybe Syracuse or Albany–the hack figured he would say Fulton, John, or William Street, something in the insurance district. Not cool enough for Wall Street. Not flashy enough for Broadway. Not hipster enough for Chelsea. Besides, he thought, the last two types would have taken the subway and he’d have never have them dripping on the back seat.

“Um, I’m not sure, actually,” the fare said.

“Look, bud, you can’t sit back there just to get out of the rain. There’s a nice coffee shop back inside the station and another twenty in every direction you look. Unless you’ve got somewhere you know where to go, I ‘m sure I got other fares who know where they’re supposed to be delivered.”

“Actually, I’m looking for a woman.”

“Whoa, pal! I don’t know what you’ve heard, but every hack in this town ain’t got a deal with the The Emperor’s Club. You can still find a pro at any of the bars that are probably next door to all those coffee shops I told you about. Come to think of it, you could find a few semi-pros inside those coffee shops.”

“Oh, no. Not that kind of…of course, not that…I’m sure not…”

“Sir, please,” the cabbie, a part time waiter-writer named Gianetti according to his hack license, turned to the rear and said. “While you’re still fairly young? Shit or get off my pot.”

“Look, I met this girl two months ago on-line. Very pretty. Very friendly. She said she worked here in the city. I don’t work here. I’m from Albany. I know her name, but not an address. I know, I know. Really, I’m not a stalker. She said it would be great to meet someday. I thought I’d surprise her and visit the City. Call her when I got here. And then I went and left my phone on the shuttle to Beacon. That’s where I caught the Metro North to here. For all I know she’s been trying to call me, you know? And…”

“Is there some point to this poignant tale of lost love, other than you need a new phone, I need another fare, and we’re all looking to get laid in this hopeless, heartless city?” Gianetti said.

“Of course,” the young man replied. “She said she worked at a big law firm. Heather said–that’s her name, Heather, Heather Townsend–Heather said she worked for Plotkin, Webster, Something. Or Something, Taylor, Plotsky. Pinckney, Something, Something? Her Facebook page show’s she’s about 25, brown hair, gorgeous brown…”

“Buddy? Excuse me again? But there’s only about four or four and a half million women in this town. Another couple million come to work here each day. I mean I seen ’em all over the past five years, but I can’t say I’ve ever met a Heather Plotkin.”
“Townshend. Heather Townsend. She..”

“Whatever. Look, you got an address for this babe’s…this girl’s law firm?” he said.

“Oh, sure. Sorry,” he said, fumbled in the pocket of his Burberry knock-off (Gianetti could tell because, as he would tell some of his fares, “I know these things.”) and pulled out a sheet of paper folded in quarters. It looked like a leftover miniature taco, oozing black and red.

“Oh man, I must have gotten it wet running from the station to your cab. Shit!”

“You ain’t kidding, mister.”

“I’m sure it was on 6th Avenue and one of those 40-something streets, 42nd, 43rd, 47th, one of those” he said. “Look I’ll pay whatever it costs to find her.”

“Well, at least that’ll keep us out of Harlem…maybe. You’re sure it wasn’t 142nd, right? Long as you’re paying, I’ll drive.” Gianetti hit the meter and deftly pulled into traffic.

“Look, pal, I’m no romantic. I’ve seen the best and worst of people in my rear view mirror for the past five years. Seen them hug, punch, kiss, yell, sing, cry, fuck. Some nights all in the same fare. Even had one die back there. So nothing really surprises me anymore.”

Gianetti was pretty sure this guy was dopey or delusional, probably both, but it was a slow day and a fare’s a fare. Especially with his rent due Friday. At the stop light, Gianetti pulled out his phone and searched for law firms on 6th Avenue. There’s only about twelve fucking thousand, he thought.

“You don’t get outta Albany much, do you, pal?”

“No, just north and west, for the..uh, you know, business.”

“Figures,” Gianetti said under his breath.

“What say? Oh, and the name’s Michael. Michael Behan. Folks call me Mickey, though. Don’t ask,” he laughed and waved his hand at the back of Gianetti’s head like guys do when they actually want you to ask.

“Okay, I won’t,” the hack said to Mickey Behan’s disappointment.

Gianetti promised himself he wouldn’t rip this kid off. Even though he seemed as dim as the inside of a confessional, he was a fare, and he remembered when he came to this town for love from a place even more folksy than Albany, New York.

At the next stop, Gianetti scrolled down the list of law offices to the P’s.

“Why are we on Avenue of the Americas?” Mickey asked.

“Buddy, 6th Avenue and Avenue of the Americas are the same thing depending where we are. And there’s no Plotkin, no Webster, no Pinckney. There is a Day Pitney, though. But they’re on Times Square”

“Hmmm, I’m not sure. Maybe.”

“There is a Patterson Bellknap Webb & Tyler on…”

“That’s it,” Mickey cried, leaning into the between-seats plastic shield. “How far away?”

“Behind us a half-block and on this very street, actually,” Gianetti said. He pointed to the towering silver building shining in the rays of sun that had just broken through the clouds.

“That’s the Grace Building, 1114 6th. Says Patterson Bellknap’s on the 22nd and 23rd floors.”

“Aw, man. Thanks a million,” Mickey said. He reached for the door handle to exit the cab and heard Gianetti clear his throat.

“Whoa, there, Romeo. The meter says you owe me fifteen bucks. Sorry, but that’s how it is in this town.

“Wha..? Fifteen? For three blocks? Fine, fine, no problem. Here’s twenty. Keep the change.”

“I should think so,” Gianetti said.

“Thanks a million, really.”

Mickey jumped out of the cab in front of the Starbucks on the corner of 42nd and 6th and walked briskly back down the block toward Grand Central, checking his look in each store window along the way. When he reached the entrance to the Grace Building, he smoothed his hair in his reflection as he peered within. There, in the lobby, he saw a reception area and three guards between the entrance and the banks of elevators.

“Holy shit,” Mickey whispered through his teeth. “This is really some joint. Heather must be something really special.” Pushing his way through the heavy glass doors, Mickey shuffled up to the reception area and stood behind three men speaking what he thought sounded like Arabic. He scanned the marble walls with their brass fittings.

He had just about finished his reconnoiter when he heard…
“Sir? Can I help you, sir?”

On the left side of the reception desk, past the blue velvet rope, Mickey saw a 40-ish black woman peering at him over her glasses. She smiled a practiced smile and said, “How can I help you?”

Mickey scuffed up against the brass post upon which the rope was attached, giving it a bit of a half-spin totter, grabbed it and returned it to a steady position a few inches left of its original spot and walked his red face to address the receptionist with as much aplomb as he could muster.

“Uh, yes. I would like to see Ms. Townsend, please. She’s with Patterson Bellknap.”

“Yes, sir. Do you have an appointment?”

“Umm, no. But we’re good friends. Just let her know Michael Behan from Albany is here to see her.”

Dropping her chin to touch her orange and green patterned silk scarf and peering over her glasses once again, the receptionist caught the eye of the building security man standing just behind Mickey and raised her eyebrows. Mickey turned and looked over his shoulder and saw the guard sizing him up, for just what he wasn’t sure.

“Yes, sir. Let me ring Ms. Tomlinson’s assistant,” the receptionist said as Mickey and the guard exchanged glances. “Would you please take a seat over there?” She pointed to a row of benches near the left-side wall.

Mickey knew the guard was now keeping a closer eye on him as both moved to the side.

Within five minutes, a young woman exited one of the elevators and walked to the reception area and talked to the receptionist, who pointed to Mickey and then raised her chin toward the nearby guard.

The young woman slowly walked toward Mickey, who felt she was checking him for weapons or worse.

“Sir, I’m Ms. Tomlinson’s assistant’s secretary. We have no record of your having an appointment with us, nor does Ms. Tomlinson  know a Michael Behan. If you would like to see…”

“Whoa, whoa, wait a minute. Tomlinson?” Mickey said. “I’ve been speaking with Ms. Townsend–Townsend–for some time now. We are very good friends. Do you understand? There must be some mistake.”

“No mistake, sir. Dealing with international clients on very detailed subjects like intellectual property, we make a point of not making mistakes.”

“But..”

“Thank you, sir, but unless you have some business with Patterson Bellknap I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“But…”

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“But…”

Mickey sagged and was about to make another plea as the young woman turned and clicked away on the marble floor tiles in what Gianetti would recognize as Jimmy Choo pumps, definitely not knock-offs.

“Sir?”

Mickey heard a deep, authoritative voice behind him. Startled, he turned and stared directly into the red tie of the navy-blazered security guard, who was at least a head taller than Mickey.

“If you don’t have any more business here in the Grace Building, sir, I’m going to have to ask you to please leave the premises. I’m sure you understand.” He smiled that polite kind of smile cops do that carries the inference of an impersonal dose of personal injury.

“Sure, sorry. I just don’t know why…”

“Sir?”

“Um, yeah. Have a nice day.”

“You, too, sir,” the security man said with a bare touch of professional sincerity.

Out on 42nd Street again, Mickey, jaywalked through the stop-and-go heartbeat of the city’s vehicular circulation, pulled his raincoat beneath him and sat on one of the upper steps of the broad stairway entering Bryant Park.

“What the hell was that?” he said to himself.

Mickey counted up the front of the building 22 floors and scanned the shining section of glass facade right to left and back again on the 23rd floor.

“Wonder which is hers?” he said.

Mickey had planned to meet with Heather and maybe have lunch, but it was still only 11:00 or so. He had a return ticket for the 5:15 PM to the Beacon train station where he’d catch the shuttle to Albany. He stewed that he had nothing to do for the next six hours. He recalled the cabbie mention a coffee shop everywhere you look and the Starbucks down the block where he left the cab.

“Might as well get a cup. I’m sure that’ll cost ten bucks around here,” he mumbled as he walked along the length of the park to the corner of 6th and crossed to the Starbucks.
The smell of coffee and the sound of busy people refueling on caffeine revived his spirits a bit, even though he was tenth in line to place his order. Mickey noticed the speed and no-nonsense attitude of the crew behind the counter and the light-speed clickity-clack, whirr and milk steamer shhh of the two girls working the barrista station. He looked back toward the end of the line and saw the secretary who had just shooed him from the Grace Building entering the shop. She noticed him, too, but made a point of looking right through him to the menu board.

“Yes?” the smiling young Hispanic woman in the green apron said as the two guys in front of Mickey went to wait for their Americanos. Despite her rictus smile, there was no mistaking the tone of voice wordlessly expressing her interest in moving this line along.

“Uhhh…”

Her smile turned to a thin line.

“Oh, right. Venti double hazelnut latte, please.”
“$9.43, sir.”

“I fucking knew it,” Mickey mumbled as he handed her his card and she slid it through the reader. He tossed a buck in the near-empty left-hand tip jar that signified he supported a strict interpretation of his Second Amendment rights.

He watched the barristas crank out the capuchinos, caramel macchiatos, and another pair of lattes. When his order was completed, the barrista looked up to hand it over. Her eyes opened wide and she nearly dropped the cup.

“Michael!” she said.

Mickey looked up as he grasped the cup and saw what may have been the face of the woman he had traveled to New York to see.
“Heather?”

He saw a name tag on her apron. Sure enough, it read: Heather. But she didn’t look exactly like the young woman whose face he’d been messaging to on Facebook for the past weeks.

“What are you doing here?” she asked. “Wait right there. Clarissa can I get my break soon?”

The Hispanic woman looked at the line, dwindled to seven, and three people waiting for their espresso drinks, including the secretary, who stood over by the cream and sugar station out of Mickey’s sight.

“11:30,” said the shift manager.

“Michael please wait. I’d like to explain.”

Mickey found an empty seat next to the door and sipped his latte, never looking up as the secretary scurried past his irritating annoyance. The cool air coming through the doorway as she left felt good on Mickey’s red face.

He stood up as a women in her mid-30s approached. No longer was there longish brown hair, but rather an asymmetric cut short on one side and almost buzzed off on the other. She was putting on her jacket when he noticed the tattoos stretching their flora and fauna down her arms from beneath the short sleeves of her top.

“I’ve only got ten minutes. Please walk with me outside,” she said.

Mickey stood and pushed through the door, allowing it to close on Heather. Outside, he stared across 42nd street and at the traffic.

“Michael?” Heather said.

“How dare you try to fool me like this?” Mickey said. He couldn’t look in her eyes. “I traveled all the way from Albany to see you, or who I thought was you, spent over two hundred fucking bucks, am embarrassed and tossed out on my ass by security in the Grace Building, and now I find you’re not an attorney at all. You’re a coffee girl at fucking Starbucks.”

“I didn’t think a vice president of a big dairy company would talk to me if you knew I was a wannabe theater MFA from Beekmantown. I play a lot of roles and I never thought you’d leave your office to come down here, especially on a Tuesday. I was going to tell you eventually…”

“You lied to me. My friends said, ‘Why would some lawyer from New York want to strike up a relationship with you, a…dairy guy from Albany?'”

“What difference does it make, Michael? Really. Didn’t we have that connection? You felt it, admit it.”

“How can I face everyone back home? They were right, you can’t believe anything on-line. Look, I’m sure you’re a nice, talented girl, but I can’t abide a liar. If I can’t trust you, I can’t have any sort of relationship with you?”

“Who said anything about a relationship?”

“Isn’t that where this was all heading?”

“Umm, not like that kind of relationship. I mean, I think you’re very nice and we really hit it off, but don’t you think it’s a little premature to be talking a relationship. I mean I’ve only just this week got a play…”

“Yeah, gotta play. And I gotta go. My train’s leaving in an hour and I’ve got to get over to Penn Station. Look, I’m sorry this all happened. All very embarrassing, but I think it’s best if we just forget about all this,” Mickey waved his hands back at the Grace Building, over Heather’s head at the Starbucks and then straight up in the air.

“I’m sorry, Michael. I really like you and I’d like to get to know you better. I was so surprised someone in your field knows a lot about theater and…”

“Yeah, I thought you were some Renaissance woman. Attorney, artist, traveler. Christ, what a dope! Goodbye, Heather. Is that really your name?” He extended his hand.

“Yeah, Heather’s my real name,” she said, grasping his hand and noticing its roughness and its perma-stained knuckles and nails like that of a workman’s. She shook her head and wondered why Mickey was headed east on 42nd Street toward Grand Central when Penn Station was nine blocks south on 6th Avenue.

Jenny Grandjean, following the instruction of her acting teacher to chronicle each bit of emotional and sensory experience of her life to mine and in turn inhabit in some future role, fished in the pocket of her green apron and pulled a little notebook from her pocket. She scribbled in it for a minute, looked back up 42nd Street, shrugged, sighed a contented sigh and went back into Starbucks.

On the page it read: Character study: As M left her in their hotel room for the last time, returning to his wife and her fortune, Heather lay across their bed, taking in the smell of him, recalling the effect of his rough but gentle hands upon her shivering skin, feeling the heat of their passion leave the sheets just as he left her arms, her face burned with the knowledge their love was madness, but it was a beautiful madness…

Here’s a too-long draft of a story I wrote for Sharyl Fuller’s Writing Outside the Lines prompt. which asked for a story revolving around the phrase,  “It was a mad and beautiful thing … “ This one was struggle, not just with coming up with a story, but with wandering around New York City in the street view of Google Maps. Hopefully you didn’t need a map to find your way through my story, yourself.

The Burdens of Brother Ass

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You ask why I’m so tired and haggard,
wondering aloud with me nearby
if perhaps I’m not well, or ill,
or worse.
You wonder and worry, because
I was who I was all those years,
all those times,
always.
And I say, Yes, I’m tired and
look like I’ve lost the fight.
The back of my soul and
soul of my back lie bent and sore
from carrying the heavy known-to-you
and so-much-heavier unknown
all my life.

At my age this burden should
have worn me down, pushing me
to the dirt beneath the accumulated
weight of my time upon this earth.
But my secret to the precipitous angle
of my decline, this collapse to

a final

drop,
comes from carrying,
dutifully, stupidly, like a
self-whipped Brother Ass,
others’ burdens.
They were yours.
And yours.
And yours.
And I made them
mine.

Under the Big Top

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Marjorie Detweiller heard the clowns’ raucous approach before they burst through the trailer door in a cascade of noise and laughter like they were falling out of a tiny car, arms full of six packs and Doritos.

The other girls who lived with Marjorie had been with the Scorzelli Family Circus for at least a year. Marjorie was a First of May, new to the circus life, having signed on with the troupe only one month before. During that time she’d worked the ticket booth, hawked as a candy butcher, and had just been given a chance to stand still and look pretty in a hand-me-down sparkly costume during the finale.

She heard her bunkmate Cody whisper, “It’s Augie,” and the bubbly, boozy girl talk hushed.

“Hello, girls, can we play through?” Riley Lajoie, a golfer character clown, said.

The other clowns hooted and moaned. Big Jack Scorzelli, leader of the clown crew and the circus owner’s son, slugged Riley on the shoulder.

“Nothing like living your gimmick, Riles. Next thing, you’ll be wearing your face all the time like Augie here,” he said.

Marjorie couldn’t help noticing Augie stiffen, as did the other clowns. She noticed almost everything she could about him, and she wasn’t sure why. In her short time with the show, she had never seen Augie not wearing his makeup. He played the part of the Auguste clown in the crew, the trickster and instigator, the larger than larger-than-life bad boy.

Other than during the show, though, Marjorie never saw Augie display such behavior. When he wasn’t eating at the lunch wagon or dressing with the others in Clown Alley, Augie kept to himself, reading or keeping to his own trailer. Some thought him aloof at worst, eccentric at best. And it was hard to stand out as eccentric in the circus. But the other clowns loved him.
Cody noticed Marjorie staring at Augie.

“You know, Augie Pinto’s not his real name. Riley told me Augie made it up from his character and from the nickname Jack’s father gave him six years ago when he appeared at the door looking for a job and a way out of Indiana.”

“Indiana?”

“Yeah, but I don’t think he went off the reservation like you did after that Rummysprinkle…”

“Rumspringa.”

“After that Rumspinga thing you Amish kids…”

“Mennonite, Plain People, Cody.”

“…Mennonite kids do. If your folks could see you now. Do you think they’d allow bedazzled fishnets with your dark dress and bonnet, Margie?”

“Ha, well, we wear plain clothes, but not that bonnet stuff. However, I’m sure they wouldn’t allow me to hang with a bad influence like you, either, Cody.”

Marjorie looked over at Augie again.

“Why is he like that, do you think?” she said. Augie stood apart from his partners, taking a pull from a bottle of Bud and staring around the trailer at nothing.

“I don’t know. Maybe he’s hiding out, running from the law. Maybe he killed his parents, fed them to the hogs on the farm back in Podunkville, and now he’s repenting by making people laugh,” Cody said.

“And who cares? I saw Riley working out with the aerialists the other day and let’s just say he’s got more than a putter in his bag.”

“Cody!” Marjorie said. “You are so bad. Stop, he’ll hear you.”

“I hope so. What about you? You want to get to know one of these guys any better?”

“Well…you know.”

“You’re a big girl now, Margie. High time to spread those…wings.” Cody laughed.

“I’ll be okay, Cody. You go enjoy yourself.”

“Mingle, honey, mingle.” Cody wiggled her fingers and flipped her hands in a shooing motion. Cody was right, Marjorie thought, taking a deep breath and walking over by the beer cooler and Augie.

“Hi,” she said. “I’m Margie. Thanks for coming by tonight.”

“Uh, hello. You’re welcome. I know who you are. New girl. Riles was talking about you as much as he was Cody all day. He kept saying, ‘How am I gonna get Cody away from that little holy roller roommate of hers?'” Augie said.

“Oh.” Marjorie said with a blink.

“From the looks of things over there,” Augie nodded at Riley and Cody, “that really wasn’t anything he needed to worry about.”

Augie turned for the door.

“Please don’t leave. I’m glad you could come. I was hoping you would.” Marjorie said.

“Why?”

“I don’t know. I just feel… I don’t know. I was hoping you could come and I could just talk with you.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“No, really. I’ve wanted to meet you.”

“Is that why the guys wanted me to come over here tonight?”

“I don’t know. Maybe Riley and Cody…”

“I really should go…”

“Please don’t,” Marjorie said.

“Okay, but can we go outside? I don’t like crowds. Funny for an entertainer to say, but….”
Augie and Marjorie slid past the milling zanies, flyers, and wire-walking fumnambulists and stepped out into the darkness. Most of the other trailers were dark, their owners either sleeping or looking for someone with whom to sleep.

Moths swirling around the bare light above the trailer door drove Augie and Marjorie further into the dark.

“This is better,” Augie said. But he didn’t look at Marjorie when he said it, instead looking toward her left. “What would you like to talk about?”

“I don’t know. Stuff. What’s it going to be like when we really hit the road? The big swing through the rest of the country for the rest of the year?”

“Tiring, boring, lonely, sometimes painful, every now and then broken up by bright lights and the terror that people won’t like you. Your act, I mean.”

“That doesn’t sound as appealing as I thought it would, but I like it so far. If it’s so bad, why do you keep doing it?” Marjorie asked.

“Eh, it’s what I do or what I’ve become. Not many options for me in the straight world.”

“Why? You wanted by the law?” Marjorie giggled and tried to look Augie in the eyes, to let him see she was kidding.

Augie turned his face toward Marjorie, but looked down at his feet.

“Those rumors start among you First of Mays already? No, I’m not running from the law. What’re you running from?”

“I’m not running. I’m just trying to find … me, I guess.” Now Marjorie turned to shoe gazing.

“With a circus? Maybe you’ve noticed, nothing around here is real, except the tawdriness, the hard work, the ennui, and the smell.”

“Tawdry? Ennui? You know, for a clown, you use pretty big words. Have you been to Clown College or something?”

For the first time that evening, Augie grinned. Or at least Marjorie thought he grinned. It was hard to tell in the dim light and when he had a perpetual smile painted on his face.

“No, no college, clown or otherwise. Like I said, there’s a lot of down time between shows, the travel and all. I’ve read a lot. Picked up words like I picked up gags from other zanies.”

“They all really respect you, don’t they?”

“I guess so. It’s a team thing and we’re all in it together. I’m kind of out front, but if one guys fucks…I mean one guy screws up…sorry, we all could end up looking bad. I never want to let them down and they know it. I’ll never let them down. They’re my family.”

“Do you have a family, a real family? Wife? Brothers or sisters? Mother?”

“No,” Augie snapped. “No I don’t.”

“Oh, okay. I do, but I decided to leave them back in Kentucky. Mom, Dad and my brother, I mean.”

“You running from the law?” Augie said.

Marjorie was sure he grinned this time. In fact, he looked directly at her, then quickly shifted his attention ever-so-slightly over her left shoulder toward the trailer again. She wondered what he was looking for.

“No, not hardly. I come from a Mennonite family. God’s law is what we do. Very well. Most of us. Can we sit down over there?” she said. She pointed to a couple of folding chairs just outside the edge of the semicircle of light in front of her trailer.

“I guess, so,” Augie said.

Marjorie pulled the chair on the left closer to Augie’s. Now they were closer to eye-to-eye. Augie fidgeted under her benign scrutiny, but this time didn’t seem like he was looking for an exit. He leaned toward Marjorie and then pulled back.

“Look, Marjorie, you’re very nice. I’ve enjoyed talking to you, but I think I’d better get back to my RV and maybe you should get talking to some of the boys in there. You’ve turned a couple of heads in the last month.”

“Speaking of turning heads, Augie Pinto, I think I better let you know you may be turning mine.”

“What? Look, Margie, you don’t know what you’re saying. How many beers did that little twist Cody give you?”

“I’m not used to being so bold,” Marjorie said. “I wasn’t brought up that way.”

“What way were you brought up?”

“To not do this.” Marjorie pulled Augie’s face to hers and kissed him. Augie tried pulling away, but didn’t. He kissed back. Then he stood up and backed into the light.

“Shouldn’t have done that,” Augie said.

“Done what? Which of us are you talking about?”

“Ahh, who am I kidding? I’m not used kissing or being being kissed by a woman.”

“Oh, I’m really sorry. You’re not…”

“Gay? No. Just have trouble with people, especially women.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know if that’s any of your business, Miss Marjorie.”

“You’re a fabulous performer. From what I can see through that silly makeup, you’re a good looking man. Your peers respect you. I think you’re…”

“I think you should go back to the party.”

Augie took Marjorie’s arm and led her back toward the door. Marjorie wanted to pull away, but she just looked up at Augie. Where she had held his face was a smeared handprint. She had wiped some of his makeup away. It was then she saw the purple skin.

“Augie, what’s that on your face?”

Augie reached up and covered his right cheek.

“Nothing, just get inside.”

“No, I don’t want to be with them. Right now, I want to be with you. Please tell me what’s wrong.”

“Nothing’s wrong. Look, you really don’t want to know. It’s one of those things I don’t let people know.”

“It certainly can’t be that bad.”

“Maybe not to you right now, Marjorie, but to most other people it is and it is to me.”

“Hey, where have you two been?”

Riley Lajoie sat on the steps beneath the bare lightbulb outside the door of Margie and Cody’s trailer. His voice was full of anger and booze and something Margie wasn’t sure of but frightened her.

“You know what, Miss Prissy Britches, that roommate of yours is nothing but a friggin’ tease. Invites me over here and gets my motor humming and when I finally make the move, she tells me I’m drunk and disgusting and to get the hell out of her trailer,” he said.

“Well, from the looks of you, Riles, she was right,” Augie said. “Did you piss your pants?”

“Shut the fuck up, Chief Spotted Owl. This little tease know your big bad secret?”

“Get inside, Margie. I’ll take care of Riley. Thanks for the invitation and conversation.”

“That what you Amish girls call it?” Riley said. “I knew you’d screw up my night. C’mere.”

As Marjorie tried to slide by Riley and open the trailer door, he grabbed her by the hair, pulling her against his body.

“Ow, stop. You’re hurting me. Stop.” The fear in Marjorie’s tone went beyond the fright of some drunk grabbing her and she suddenly began screaming, terrified.

“Why don’t you give ol’ Riles a little of that scrapple, hon…”

Riley never finished the sentence. No sound escaped his throat because a large left hand had clasped around it.

“Let her go, Riley,” Augie said, squeezing his hand around Riley’s neck.

As Marjorie pulled away, so did Riley. She pressed her back against the trailer door and continued screaming.

“Back off, man.” Riley wheezed. “I don’t give a shit who you are. I’m tired of these bitches playing me. You may not be getting any, but I’m gonna.”

Riley turned toward Marjorie, just as the trailer door opened a crack and hit her in the back, sending her sprawling. He reached for her again, but only managed one step before he was jerked back like he was attached to an acrobat’s safety line.

Augie held Riley with his left hand and punched him in the face with his right. He wouldn’t stop. As revelers poured out of the trailer the same way they had entered, they heard Augie say through clenched teeth, “No more, no more, no more.”

It took three men to pull Augie off Riley, whose bloody face was already swelling. Augie broke free and two more men, Ed Slezak, the catcher for the aerialists, and big Jack Scorzelli tackled him.

“Get that piece of shit off my lot,” Scorzelli yelled in the direction of Riley.

“I wunt doin’ nuf’n,” Riley said through bloody lips as a pair of clowns hauled him toward Clown Alley and all the other partiers decided to make themselves scarce.

“Cool off, Augie. Cool the fuck off,” Scorzelli hissed into his top clown’s ear.

“I’m okay, I’m okay,” Augie said. “How’s the girl?”

Marjorie had her head buried against Cody’s shoulder, still shaking and sobbing.

“I think she’ll be okay,” Cody said. “What did that perv do to her? She doesn’t need this shit.”

“He never got the chance,” Augie calmly said, as Slezak and Scorzelli helped him up but continued to hold him by his arms. “Sorry, boss, I lost it. Never happened before. Want me to clear out?”

“Circus fight, Augie. You been around long enough to see plenty of ‘em. We’ll see plenty more before we get back to Florida. You’ll still be my top hand then, too.”

Marjorie turned from Cody and said, “Thank you, Augie. I’m sorry I’m such a baby. He scared me so much and I…”

“It’s okay, Margie. I don’t think he’ll be bothering you girls for a while. And neither will I.” Augie turned toward his RV.

“Don’t leave!” Marjorie yelled and pulled away from Cody. “Please, I’m still feeling a little scared. What if he comes back?”

“He won’t be coming back,” Scorzelli said.

“It’s okay, Jack, I’ll stay here for a few minutes until Margie calms down a little. Okay, with you, Cody?”

“Sure, I’m tired and I’m pissed that none of those other clowns thought enough to be my hero when that drunk started trying to peel me like a banana right in front of the queso dip,” Cody said. “See you in a little while, okay, honey?”

“Yes, Cody, thank you,” Margie said.

Augie and Marjorie sat on the trailer steps in the dark. Cody had flipped off the outside light and was tossing empties into a bag inside.

“Can you tell me what’s wrong? Why don’t you share anything with anyone, other than your act? The boys know something, I’m sure, but they don’t tell anyone even when they’re drunk. Well, except for that creep Riley. I’ve felt a connection with you, Augie, from the first time I saw you. I don’t know what it is and it’s driving me crazy.”

“You’re obsessed with a dream, Margie. I’m not who or what you think I am. We all have secrets and some of us have big ones and want to keep them to ourselves. Now, I think you should go back into the trailer.”

“What if I tell you a secret? What if I tell you something no one around here but Cody knows? Tell you why I’m here, why Riley scared me so?”

“No…”

“I was … I was … when I was a little girl, someone…” Now Marjorie looked away. But she wouldn’t let go of Augie’s arm.

“Stop.”

“I was just a girl and he was, uh, a family friend.”

“Margie…”

“My parents didn’t believe me when I told them. But then he did it again and my father caught him.”

“Okay, please, enough. I’m you don’t have to do this.”

“It’s a closed little world in Marion, Kentucky, you know? Rumors like this get around. Things were never the same for me. When I got to senior high, it was almost a joke. Only nobody laughed. We all got smushed together in our little religious group. Except I wasn’t accepted with the Plain People or the other students. When I was 18, they sent a bunch of us out in the world to see if the life back home was what we wanted. I knew it wasn’t since I was 12.”

Marjorie began crying, leaning her head to Augie’s chest. Augie looked around and saw he couldn’t escape. Her arms around him reminded him of that trapped feeling he would often get.

“Marjorie, it’s okay. You don’t have to tell me any more,” Augie said.

“I met a girl at the laundromat in Cincinnati who worked with the circus,” she said. “I wanted different from Marion, from the my people. I took the bus to Chillicothe and asked Mr. Scorzelli for a job. He said he didn’t want to hire me. But I was getting out on my terms. I followed you all to Florida last winter and asked again. I’m…persistent. And here we are, Augie. You and I. And I still feel something about you that I can’t explain,” she said.

Augie bent down and held Marjorie’s hand. For the first time, he looked into her eyes.

“Okay, okay, I get it. I…I understand. Really, I do,” he said. “It’s just that… Look, we clowns are a divisive lot. No one is ambivalent about us. They either love us or they’re unnerved by us. Then there are the freak chicks who just want to boff JoJo. And that’s a sick and unfortunate fact of our lives.”

“I’m not one of those women, Augie. You heard the story. I would never force myself on someone,” Marjorie said.

Augie took a deep breath.

“Okay, here’s a secret for you. I’ve never been with a woman. How’s that euphemism for the average adult American male to use? And now you know my makeup does more than just make me a zany. You know I’ve got a secret under this paint.”

“Everybody’s got secrets, Augie, you told me that,” Marjorie said.

“Yeah, I did. Now you know that I was born with a pretty nasty port wine stain covering my right eye and cheek. That’s a tough thing for a kid to grow up with. By the time I got to junior high, I began losing pigment on other parts of my skin. Including a spot on the left side of my face.”

“Un-hmm,”

“You know how mean teenagers can be. So can a mom who has too many kids from too many boyfriends. Her last guy made my classmates seem like angels. When he wasn’t belting my mom, he was smacking me, and then he’d wash his hands for fear that he might catch something off my face. It certainly wasn’t out of guilt.”

“Oh, Augie, I’m so…”

“I left home and tried to find a job where people wouldn’t look at me like a freak. So I went where the freaks are. I was a pretty good athlete, a gymnast in school, so I saw old man Scorzelli’s signs and wandered over to the midway. Told them I was a budding aerialist. The old man said, ‘Not with that mug you ain’t, pinto pony’.”

“How mean!” Marjorie said.

“Heard worse before that. Anyway, here we are. I’m Augie Pinto now. Top zany with a shit-heel circus wandering the country. I’m happy being a clown in a family of clowns. And I’m lonely and that’s just how it is.”

“Can we just talk for a little while longer, Augie? I promise not to be so … clingy.”

“All right,” he sighed. Their conversation went on for another hour. Once, Augie even laughed.
When Marjorie went into the trailer for more beer, Augie was waiting for her when she came back out. This made her smile.

Later that night, holding Augie, feeling so safe in his trailer, made Marjorie happier. She would tell him it was really her brother who did it some other day.

That same night Augie had the dream again. It was the dream where a woman whose face he can’t see is sitting on the edge of his bed in a dark room.

She reaches out to touch his cheek and he turns away, just as he’s done in all the other dreams. The woman shifts around on the bed so the light shining past the edge of the not-quite-shut hallway door illuminates her face.

Augie looks up to see her and that’s when he always wakes up. Other times he’s gasped, or cried out, bolting upright or flat-out jumped out of bed with his heart pounding. Tonight, though, he hugged Marjorie closer.

It’s this woman’s face. In the dream, he thinks he knows her, but her face is hidden behind all that makeup. The pasty, powdered face. The high-arched brows. The painted red lips. And then she reaches beneath his comforter and…

He always hated it when his mother came back alone from the bars.

Okay, so today, Day 9 of my September story-a-day challenge, I was supposed to write an Ugly Duckling plot. Well, like Cinderella from yesterday, I tried and failed three times. So I dredged up this l-o-o-o-n-g one, which might be an Ugly Duckling story if you squint and hold it sideways. I’ve always intended to include it in my first collection of stories, which has the working title of “…But Don’t Touch,” stories about men who are awkward, oblivious, fearful or indifferent to intimacy. Augie’s was to be one of my tentpole stories, but it needs a ton of revision and polish. Sigh…I hope someday these ducklings of mine will become swans.

No Escape

 REUTERS/Dario Pignatelli (ITALY)

REUTERS/Dario Pignatelli (ITALY)

I’m captive within this decaying prison,
it’s foundation sinking and windows awry.
Sentenced here for life with the dark
inmates I’d have hoped to have escaped,
but have only seen more threaten me daily.

They go by the name of Secrets and Failures,
gangs that sometimes seem to outnumber
even the Pains and Regrets that have ruled
inside for most of my stretch.

Each day’s another beatdown, another threat,
another shank between my ribs that rips
my scarred place of solitary confinement,
from which another Secret makes a run for it,
leaving me lying, as another Secret takes its place.