KODAK Digital Still Camera

Published in Gargoyle 68, 2018.
Excerpt from “Not Better Late”

Snow resonates in me like a drum. At age three until about seven snow thrilled
me as its white sweeps and slopes gleaming in sunlight settled into Buckfield
through winter, brightening the somber days when the sky changed from
patchworks of white and blue to washes of gray. I’d grope into light flurries
swirling insubstantial indecisive snowflakes. Mornings I’d run downstairs hoping
for a coating of snow across the ground and the back porch so I could put on
my little boots and tramp around outside. After short days without a visible
sun I’d pause on my way upstairs to peer out the front parlor windows at the
snowfields that muted the road. Christmases changed me about snow. Christmas,
when families get together and dreams may come true, should be the day Papa
and Maman would arrive from Michigan. What word overheard, what childish
fantasy got that dream started? Letters hoping I was well and promising a
reunion– what a special day! It had to be at Christmas. As that most magical
day in my childhood pantheon approached, I’d puzzle over the weather map
in the newspaper and listen to news broadcasts for the latest on the weather.
I’d gobble down supper in haste to station myself in the parlor chair by the third
window with the best view of the direction Papa and Maman would arrive from,
and in the faint illumination of the lights on the Christmas tree in the far corner
I’d study oncoming headlights. Would they arrive by car or bus? Snow smothered
hope. Dismayed I’d watch a steady snowfall beginning to clump on grass and tree
limbs and dissolve on the wet tarmac, then fall in wet globs fattening deep drifts
across the highway, ending the passage of cars, sending shadows of doom across
my soul. Christmas snow spoke: impossible. Inside me a silent echo trembled…

 

KODAK Digital Still Camera

Published in Azure: A Journal of Literary Thought, 2018.
Excerpt from “Menage a Trois, With Horse”
(Setting: Cafe Central, Vienna, 1912.)

I let Brendan delineate our trip, forcing a smile when the man, Anton, stolidly middleaged, glanced at me with a discomfiting fondness. He insisted we take our chairs and small tapered espresso cups to his table. After the round of introductions Anton informed us Leon was a war correspondent for a Kiev newspaper and back from the front only yesterday, from Sofia. “Belgrade,” Leon corrected him.

I graded Leon the brightest-looking of an unusually intelligent four, impressed
by his rich black hair, a thick black moustache and intense dark eyes behind
steelrimmed glasses. Brendan said, “I’ve not heard there is a war on.”

In halting English Leon explained the Austro-Hungarian Empire wasn’t involved in it. “The Balkan nations. The Greeks. They resist the Ottomans.”

Brendan was coming alive, more than I’d felt in some time, in discussion with these new acquaintances. “Who’s winning?”

In a meld of English and French Leon asserted that’s a question those ask who don’t go  to war. No one wins a war. Shaking his head as one does in pain he told of his visits to hospitals for the wounded. Anton managed a simplified translation: “Many are still in the battle. They have nightmares at night. Sometimes during the day, while awake. Shooting. Running. Seeing comrades die. Over and over.”

Leon’s features clenched at the agony he was describing. Anton addressed a question to an average-looking high-browed man with a skimpy mustache, wearing pince-nez glasses. “Herr Doctor Alfred, can these men be restored 
to normal lives?”

“It is possible,” replied the doctor in an Austrian accent, “with personal psychiatry. Without relying on preconceived ideas of treatment.”

“Or quackery,” hinted Anton.

The doctor made a light smile. “By which you mean ideology. My approach would differ from the pre-eminent theory of our time. These wounded men are isolated. They have forgotten where they belong. I would have them describe their pre-war memories and re-connect them to their lives.”

“Your dispute in the community is well-known.”

“Therefore I prefer not to dwell on it. I shall not respond to— his ruthless attacks in the same manner. Herr Professor Joy wants followers. My course is to break off pointless conflict.”

Anton took a small sip of his cup of mokka. “Fortunately the professor comes here no longer.” He glanced at me to discern if I guessed whom they were discussing. “His new favorite is the Landtmann.”

The doctor murmured, “Das bessere für uns.

I sent Anton an inquiring glance. He whispered, “Better for us.”

Leon made an observation in German and the doctor replied in German. Anton told Brendan, “Combating illness and overthrowing a sick government have less in common than Leon would like.”

Brendan looked puzzled, intrigued. The fourth man, an overweight theater director named Egon, leaned forward, confiding, “Adolf is at the window. He is looking inside.”

Anton shrank in apprehension. “Does he seem inclined to enter?”

“Unfortunately so.”

“He lives in a home for indigent men. Poverty has turned him bitter.” The table fell silent and in minutes a thin man approached, carefully managing a large black portfolio under his arm. Anton asked how his sales were going. Adolf shook his head. In German Anton suggested, “Show our lady friend your new watercolors.”

Englisch?” inquired Adolf.

Amerikanisch.”

Adolf opened his portfolio and displayed three street scenes one after the other. Anton informed him, “Sie ist ein Künstler, auch.” He shifted to English, “What do you think, my dear?”

My reply carried a faintly appeasing tone I couldn’t suppress. “They are professional. That building there, I recognize it.”

Anton interpreted in German and Adolf tied the portfolio shut, looking miffed at the paucity of my enthusiasm for his work, not, I guessed, a new experience for him. Adolf launched into a rapid rant in German. Brendan smiled. “I know not the words but I envy the blarney.”

I sent Anton a questioning look and he explained, “He is upset about the state of the arts in his fatherland. The academy fails to appreciate his work while accepting inferior works of the style academics are fond of. He calls them fools who reward their flatterers and have no feeling for art.”

The others waited Adolf out in silence, Leon with a wry smile. Adolf turned his diatribe on Leon. After a brief exchange between them Adolf tied his portfolio and stalked out. I said to Anton. “Obviously they aren’t friends.”

“Adolf accused Leon and his fellow Russians of child’s play, intellectuals and revolutionaries hiding under false names. Leon writes about the war under 
a pseudonym. He has used many. As a Jew he has good reason. His compatriot Vladimir has taken the surname Lenin. He did not come here today. The solitary Russian who never comes here, short, thin, pockmarked, he calls himself Steel.”

Brendan shifted in his chair. The doctor offered, “He is a cold one, that Yosef. And more intelligent than one may expect from his peasant features.”

Egon eyed the doctor. “If he has any mental defect he hides it, unlike Adolf, also a solitary individual. Adolf wears his passions on his sleeve.” He scanned the table. “Has anyone ever seen those two together, Adolf and Yosef? I think not. Should they meet, Adolf would talk Yosef to death. His own. Yosef hates verbosity. He would end the conversation by drawing his knife, he carries one, you know, and could kill Adolf for his pleasure. Both are, what would our Anglo-Saxon friends say, stuck? Herr Doctor, your profession pronounces no mental disease incurable?”

The doctor named Alfred humored Egon’s amateurish analysis. “That must be our working assumption.”

“My question is simpler. Can you cure any mental disease?”

“Not so simple, sir. We have no pill to undo years of damage. The talking remedy requires time, often many years.”

“Until the patient dies,” argued Egon. “Or tires of his illness and in boredom he
goes on to some other form of entertainment.”

 

Published in Adelaide Literary Magazine, November, 2018.
Excerpt from “Appointment in Zanesville”

Bustling more than usual this morning, Thelma sets the omelet platter down hard before me and deftly slides an omelet into my plate, then one into hers, without looking at me. In the perfect silence the omelets sound as if they’d fallen from the ceiling. It’s about me reading the newspaper at breakfast again? I lower the paper halfway. “If the paper irritates you, it gives me a start on the day. Do you mind too much?” 

“Your business gives us too little spare time.”

“Your business she says,”

True, hers is our home. She’s holding back. Deflect. “Excellent omelet again.” She’s done omelets for years, hard to make bad omelets. At worst, you get scrambled eggs. “Perfect coffee, too.” 

It ought to be, with a two thousand dollar coffee maker. Something on her mind. She ventures, “Did you sleep well?” 

I must look bleary. Not what I want to think about. “Fine. You?”

I recognize her strenuously bland tone. “I slept well, under the circumstances.” 

Circumstances? The word wakes me up and turns me off at the same time. True? I couldn’t tell, with my back to her, instantly asleep. “Midweek, I need to crash early.”

Not the greatest excuse and she doesn’t buy it. “Those long days of yours must be dreadful.”

I hear a little empathy in the words, less than usual. Irony? She knows the demands of my work. “I’m too busy to notice.” 

“We both have long days. The boys will be up soon. I’ll have to get them ready, drive them to school…” She continues talking while, unhearing, I nod and turn to the business page. Then a slight edge to her tone alerts me she is watching me. She has a rhetorical question I’ve heard before: “Is this another of our talks where I do all the talking?”

KODAK Digital Still Camera

Published in Fiction Week Literary Review. Spring, 2017
Excerpt from
 “Death, Speeches and Small Fiascos.”

Through long summer days I meandered through a catch-all of Chicago sidewalk doorways, pessimistic storefronts and a cacophony of animal, vegetable and prehistoric smells, among noncommittal faces of all colors and ages. Dismembered automobiles rust in silence behind a high fence of bare boards. Dried-yellow newspapers taped over the windows on the inside of the little corner market to shade the aging produce from direct sun give it a permanent closed look. Barroom conversations culminate in commiseration with someone else out of work, while we nurse our beers. As the fall cold and dark advance into afternoons, I seek comfort in the room I share with a collective of noises. Whenever I walk across my kitchen, the refrigerator jacks up the pitch of its rattle, a habit it has, finicking with its sound. Opening the refrigerator door shifts it into other frequencies. It anticipates approaching trains. Rumbling three feet from my second-story window the elevated trains turn my room into a concert hall with an orchestra warming up. A spoon might tinkle in a cup, the instant coffee jar tap tap tap against the cocoa can. The old woodframe windows creak and clatter as if trying to get loose and fly off. Dishes in the sink clatter. The refrigerator pizzicatos whatever is inside it. Passing trains hurl crescendos into the room. Once during my morning coffee I heard purring. A cat had gotten in? The door and window were shut. No cat in the room, under the table. Then I noticed an almost empty jelly jar shaking on the small breadboard on the table. The breadboard, warped, was quaking to the rattle of the refrigerator. I’m alone too much. My friend down the hall, Leland, has moved to Cicero. Picking up my weekly pittance in the office offers few opportunities to socialize, with eagle-eyed bosses watching, fiercely protecting employees against time-wasting distractions. On Sundays my habit is to pocket a sandwich and an apple and wander to various neighborhoods, sit in parks, stroll along the lake. During the cold fall rains I stay in and read at my kitchen table, in library books or newpapers and magazines people toss away. I cast solemn glances at dark skies hanging above the tracks and the rain blackening the elevated crossties.