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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Grant Girl - No. 311

Becky lay on her bed, sketchbook splayed before her, the stubby end of a pencil in her charcoal-stained hand.  On the other side of her closed doorway arriving students rushed, mothers sniffed back tears, and fathers or brothers grunted after depositing trunks and bags.  Completing the shadow of a lone tree, Becky kept her gaze on the black, whites, and gray of her landscape.  She kept hoping to fall through, to walk between the trunks she’d drawn, to swim in the lake’s mountain-cooled waters, to fly among the birds dotting the sky, but the page remained as solid as the carefully tucked sheets under her tummy.

Sighing, she shoved the weathered book aside, and planted her face into the dent of her straw-stuffed pillow.  The scent of hay and musk filled her pert nose, and seeped under her skin.  Her cardigan's wool scratched her arms but she wrapped the pillow close and shut her eyes.

Even in the darkness, however, she couldn’t escape the tell-tale sobs of farewells, the excited banter of new introductions being made and of old friends reacquainted, or the bustle of exploration filling the dormitory’ s hallways. 

Pushing herself up, she scooped her pencils into their leather case and stuffed it and the sketchbook into her satchel.  She brushed the lint from her pleated kilt and rose.  Draping the satchel across her budding chest, she adjusted the weight so the bulky sack rested on the evergreen and navy plaid at her hip.  Then, with her hand on the door’s latch, she braced herself before opening the slim entry to her room.  Keeping her eyes downcast, she darted out, closed the door behind her, and made a swift vector for the stairwell at the end of the corridor.

"Excuse me," she repeated while whittling through a cluster girls by Vivian’s gaping threshold.

"Beautiful," said one.  The others murmured in agreement.

Becky caught sequins and power blue silk gleaming with the afternoon light spilling through the room's sole window.  The same watery panes occupied her outer wall, but Becky couldn't imagine anything in her possession causing such a fuss.

“Excuse me,” she whispered and nudged her shoulder at a brief hole between bodies.

Her bump inspired a squeal.

"Watch it," said an unfamiliar, ginger-haired girl with tortoise rimmed glasses.

Becky flinched and pressed on.  Eyes seemed to latch onto her back as if they had claws.

The ginger-one huffed.  "Who does she think she is?"

"Don't you know?  She's the Grant girl."

A round of understanding oohs cascaded through the clutch.  Squashing rising nerves at Vivian's terse explanation, Becky descended the spiral stairs and bolted for the oak door.  A concrete garden lion propped the entrance open, allowing the train of luggage to enter unimpeded.   Becky darted out onto the gravel walkway before a pair of brothers on either end of a buffed trunk led a procession of blond ringlets adorning a mother and daughter who tilted their heads together with hushed whispers while clinging to each other’s arms.

Once outside, Becky skirted the line of those waiting to enter, the idling cars circling in the roundabout and manned by drivers or waiting butlers, and the clumps of families gathered for a final exchange. 

Ignoring the assortment, Becky set her gaze on her bicycle waiting in the rack shaded by an overgrown rhododendron heavy with bright pink blossoms.  The rusted frame and split leather seat stood out among the polished steel and plump cushions of the rest locked alongside.  Grasping the handles, she jerked her bicycle free, the pedals clunking as they knocked adjacent spokes. 

She winced and hoped the rub hadn't left a scratch.  Needled comments sprang to mind, nonetheless.  She recalled one from her dormitory’s Lead about proper care and respect of superior property.  The remembered sneers and tittered chuckles blended with the clacks of gears as her tires dug ruts into the gravel while she backed away from the rack.

Turning from the ivy-covered brick, Becky aimed her front tire at the maple-lined walkway leading into the school’s ample estate.

"Hey, you there!"

Becky ignored the shout and swung her leg over her bicycle seat, her kilt’s edge hitching to reveal her knobby legs above the frayed tops of her knee socks.

"You, with the bicycle, wait!"

Cringing, she planted one foot on the stone and peered over at the owner of the nearing and hurried steps.

A lanky boy in the gray uniform of the neighboring dormitory waved.  He cupped a bulky camera in one hand, and carried a tripod with its cloth covering in the other.  Grinning, he slowed at her back tire and set the legs into place.

"Mind if I take your picture?"

Becky frowned.  "Why?"

"I'm the new school photographer."


"I'm taking pictures for the newspaper.  We're doing a story on Arrival Day."

"I'm not arriving," said Becky.  "You should take pictures of them."  She tipped her chin at the dormitory’s crowds.

"I've got plenty of those," said the photographer, mounting the camera and securing the cloth on top.  "I want to get something different."

"Different?"  Becky scowled but she softened her expression as he flushed.

"You misunderstand." 

Becky shook her head and gazed down the empty stretch of maple-flanked gravel.  "You're new aren't you?"

"Yes.  I'm sorry.  I should have introduced myself properly."  He wiped his hand on his slate trousers and offered his cleaned palm.  "Richard Witherton the Fourth."

Becky stared at him, and then remembered her manners.

"Rebecca Thatcher," she said quietly while shaking his hand.

Richard straightened and puffed out his bony chest.  "May I take your picture Ms. Thatcher?  I'm certain it'll add some interest to our newspaper’s story."


His shoulders slouched beneath an uncertain shrug. "It'll be diff...a change from shots of luggage and teary goodbyes.  I have enough of those to illustrate a whole book."  He raised the cloth backing and stepped back, peering through the sight.  "This way we can show what activities the new students can do."

"None of the other girls ride," said Becky.

Richard glanced over his camera stand, his eyebrow cocked.  Becky watched his gaze drift across the sparkling rack. 

"All those are for show," she said.

"And yours?"

"Can't you see the difference?"  Becky gestured at her bicycle's battered frame and well-used tires with their tar patches.

"I see what you mean.  You should get a new one."

Becky rubbed a spot of rust off the handlebar.  "Maybe one day."

"Well, I better get a shot before then."  He lifted the camera's cloth and vanished beneath, obscuring the emerging grin lighting his face.

Becky sighed and kept her eyes on the loose stone by her scuffed buckskins.  "I don't—"

"Just look down the road," said Richard, his voice muffled.  He waved to indicate the obvious.  "Like you're about to leave."

"I'd like to," she whispered and gazed down the shadowed trail.

"Like that," said Richard.  "Now hold for just a second."

Becky rolled her eyes away from the lane and landed on the flanking rhododendrons. Clenching her mouth tight, she sat as still as the lion statue holding open the door.  Richard's camera snapped and whirred, the puff of smoke tingeing the summery air with sulfur.

He emerged from beneath the cloth. "Perfect."

"How can you tell?"

"I have a knack for knowing good portraits when I see them."  He patted the camera.  "This isn't my first jaunt as a photographer."

"I see."

"Where are you heading, anyway?  There's nothing but hills and lakes around here."

"Just…away," said Becky.

"Well, I hope to see you—"


Richard pivoted at the sound of his name.  Following his gaze, Becky spotted the dark locks and perpetual smirk of the newly elected Student President of the boy’s dormitory, Charles King.

"What are you doing over there?"

"Taking pictures," said Richard, cupping his hand to his mouth to accentuate the shout.

"Of who?  The Grant girl?"

Becky winced and tilted her bicycle, resetting her feet on the pedals.

"Grant?"  Richard frowned, and turned to her.  "I thought your name was Thatcher."

Becky gave him a lean smile.  "Welcome to Xavier."

She pushed off the gravel.  The front tire wobbled but she gained enough speed to steady and rode off. 

She kept straight, pedaling without a destination in mind but comforted by the growing distance from King, from Richard, from the ivy walls and silk dresses and kept facing forward even when a second snap, whirr, and puff sounded above the grind of rubber and stone.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Salvation - No. 310

Jesse swept the grains of gathered dirt and manure off the saloon's front porch.  When a rare gust died and the swinging doors behind him quieted, he leaned on his broom and peered at the parched road leading out of town.  The setting sun tinged the beige and tan of buildings and placards with pinks and oranges and silhouetted the cloud of approaching dust. 

Raising a hand to shade his eyes, Jesse squinted at the nearing sight.  He made out a carriage through the haze, one drawn by a pair of sweaty bays.  Entering the outskirts, they slowed from their steady gallop and halted at the steps to the Madison Hotel across the street.

His sweeping forgotten, Jesse drifted to the porch's railing and snuck behind a squared post. 

After applying the brake, the carriage's driver wiped a bandana across the receding hairline of his smeared forehead.  Like his, the horses’ heads drooped, but the driver eventually looped their reins, and hopped off his platform.  He disappeared behind the faded spokes and Jesse heard the squeak of hinges. 

But by then, the nearside door had opened.

Jesse clutched his broom to his chest while a towering, reedy man unfolded from the carriage’s interior.  The new arrival set a broad brimmed hat over tawny locks and adjusted the belt at his waist, one weighted by two pistols gleaming like the piano keys being thumped upon by Billy inside the saloon.

Through the opened door, Jesse spied the flutter of skirts, pale purples and greens more vibrant than a summer field.  The lady opened up a paper-thin parasol and swirled to face the carriage.  Dusk softened her round features and the blonde ringlets falling to her shoulders.

"Thank you for your company Mr. Wallis."

While the name reached down Jesse’s throat and squeezed his bowels, Wallis touched the brim of his hat. 

"A pleasure Mrs. Benedict.  Do give my regards to your husband."

Mrs. Benedict laughed, like chimes caressed by the wind.  "I will, although I fear you might see him before I do."  She twirled the parasol, giving sudden shade to her fervent stare and then put her back to the carriage.

While she glided up the Hotel’s stairs, Wallis shut the door and turned on a booted heel. 

Jesse gulped when the man’s nail hard eyes leapt across the porch and spotted him hiding.  Staggering back, he slammed into the wooden slats by the saloon's entrance and held his broom in so tight a grip a part of him wondered if the handle might snap.

Unconcerned, the gun-toting Wallis strode toward him, crossing the guttered street and mounting the stairs with a languid stride.  His boots thumped on the hollow planks and his knee length duster flapped.  He jangled from his bolo tie through the chain dangling at his vest pocket to the buckles cinched at his ankles. 


"Eve...Evening," stuttered Jesse.

Wallis paused, and dug a leather pouch from an inside pocket.  He fetched a rolling paper and splayed the sheet on his broad palm.  Three pinches and a twist later he had the cigarette rolled and at his lips.  The strike of a match along the porch rail caused Jesse to flinch, but Wallis took a long drag then exhaled a cloudy ribbon.  He stepped to the swinging door and craned his neck to peer inside.

"This a good place for a game?"

"Yes...yes sir,” said Jesse.  He found some courage and tried puffing out his chest even though his voice continued to waver.  “B…best place in town."

Wallis straightened.  Glancing up and down the street he took another drag.  "I'm not sure that's saying much, kid."

Jesse followed his perusal of the closed storefronts.  Candlelight gleamed from the upper stories where everyone not either in Perkins' Saloon or dining at the Madison Hotel had retreated for the night.

"How'd you like to do me a favor?"

Jesse swiveled back to the tall man and frowned. "A favor?  Me?"  

"Sure," said Wallis.  He gestured with his cigarette, the ember end sparking.  "You seem like a quick kid."

"I am sir.  Mr. Perkins calls me quick all the time." 

He didn't mention Perkins usually bellowed it after a blurted comment or when he missed a clump of dirt or a bit of tobacco stain by the spittoons.

"Well then,” said Wallis, “I'm sure you're just the man I need."  He dug into his coat again and withdrew a metal cigarette case.  The lanterns’ light glittered on the filigree and vines etched onto the surface.  "This is very important to me," said Wallis, "and I don't want to lose it at the table.  Would you hold on to it for me?"

Jesse stared at the offered case.  Guessing at the weight, he calculated the price if the silver turned out to be as genuine as it appeared.  A meal at the Madison paled in comparison, but the pistols at Wallis’ waist gleamed and cut off his speculations.  Still, he suspected Wallis would make the favor worth his while, especially if the gambler’s reputation was even a sliver of the truth.

"Of...of course sir."  Jesse reached out, but his nerves faltered, and he stopped short of claiming the case.  "What exactly is it?"

"Salvation," said Wallis.  His mouth curved into a sour grin around the cigarette he held in his teeth.  "I want to you hide it for now, but give it back to me when I do this."  He pinched the bridge of his nose with two gangly fingers.  "You're going to come over and put this," he waggled the case, "into my other hand."  His tone turned grave, his eyes like tombstones.  "Can you do that for me?"

Wide-eyed, Jesse stared at the case.  "What's it going to do?"

Wallis' smile stretched. "Ease my pain."  

Jesse frowned but took the case.  The cool metal felt like snow against his fingers.  "All right sir."

"I'll be counting on you to keep it safe."

"I will sir, I will."  Jesse tucked the case securely into his pant's waist and beneath his smudged apron.

Wallis tipped his hat and with another drag making his cigarette crackle, he strode into the saloon. 

Pressing one hand against his belly to keep the case secure, Jesse dragged his broom along and snuck in after him.

Inside, Billy's dance on the keys blended with the low-slung chatter, the clink of glasses, and the swooshing of cards being dealt onto the wooden table.  Customers rose, their chair legs scraping against the floorboards before they stumbled toward the bar to plead for another drink from Perkins who manned the bar like a watchful bulldog in a button-strained vest and starched collar.

Under the saloon keeper’s warning glare, Jesse started a half-hearted sweep along the perimeter, but his downcast gaze drifted back toward Wallis.

Upon his entrance, the reedy man gathered everyone's attention, whether drinker or player.  Conversations died and sips halted.  Perkins slowed his wipe of a shot glass and then flung his dishtowel over a thickset shoulder and laid both hands onto the counter, above where Jesse knew his shotgun had been lashed.  Only Billy remained oblivious, his fingers traipsing in their merry tune he accompanied with a jaunty hum.

"Evening," said Wallis. 

"Evening," said Perkins.

Wallis navigated the drinkers and set his hand on the backrest of an empty chair at a table cluttered with empty shots and the largest stack of coins and dollars Jesse had ever seen. 

"Mind if I join in?"

"Depends if you have the cash," said the mustached man Jesse’d heard Perkins call Hoyd.  He covered the cards laying face down before him, the three rings on three different fingers reflecting the oil lamps’ light.  "We're betting in dollars here."

"I happened to have come into a few," said Wallis. 

He took a handful from his coat pocket and flicked them onto the table top one at a time.  The gold pieces landed with a thud, then a clink, clink and scrape when the pile toppled.

Hoyd’s smile emerged, revealing a similar nugget at his incisor.  "I suppose we can make room after this round.”

A leather-faced man with a gullied face grunted and tossed his cards into the table’s center.  To his right, a younger fellow with a mop of ruddy curls who’d introduced himself as Josiah Marshall, grinned.

"Always room for one more," he said and tossed a coin Jesse thought might be a whole two-bits into the still-growing pot.

"So long as he knows how to play," said the last in the quartet.  The pale faced gentleman adjusted his spectacles, as tidy as his shirt and waistcoat.

"No offense Mr. Benedict," said Marshall, "but if a man’s asking to play, he should know how."

"Perhaps we'll find out."  Mr. Benedict motioned toward the chair.

"Much appreciated," said Wallis.  He doffed his hat and took the seat with the chair’s creak of protest. 

Around them the room exhaled and a similar breath he hadn’t realized he held passed through Jesse’s lips.  Conversations, downing slurps, Perkins’ pouring, and the deal of cards resumed while Billy’s pounding went on.

Jesse too restarted his chore, shuffling along the edge of the saloon and sweeping up dust and debris while making his way to the bar.  He ignored the clumps hiding under the tables and in the floorboard’s crevices, making a mental promise to Perkins to get to them later.  Coming to the bar's side, he leaned onto the sideboard and kept watch on Wallis' hands and like the other bystanders, on the turnout of cards, coin, and bills at the table.

When Hoyd won the round, he called for a fresh set of shots.  Perkins filled a tray and by the time he delivered the drinks, Marshall hooted in victory and collected a sparse pot.  The leather-faced man threw in hand after hand, but then after a lucky draw pulled the pile toward himself without a sound and began rubbing one coin between his thumb and index finger.  Mr. Benedict's own pile shrank and grew, but every time he added or subtracted a chip or coin, the stacks remained as orderly as marching soldiers. 

Meanwhile, the drinks flowed, and the elixir eventually coaxed their lips into banter.  Jesse tipped his head, catching what he could over the piano and other table’s slurred mumblings.

"…must have just come into town," said Hoyd.

"I did," said Wallis.  He leaned forward and examined the cards the leather-faced man dealt.  "I believe I might have run into your wife."

Mr. Benedict, like he had all game, continued to sit stock-still in his chair.  He flipped up each corner of his facedown cards and cocked his head to the opposite side.  "You came in from San Francisco?"

"By way of some other towns, yes," said Wallis.

"Then you must be Gabriel Wallis."

Marshall chuckled and he finished his whisky while the leather-faced man tossed in his cards.  Hoyd twisted up one corner of his bristled mouth as Wallis met Benedict's bespectacled stare.  Jesse gulped when Wallis adjusted the fall of his coat over his thigh, his hand nearing his pistol.

"My reputation,” he said with ease, “precedes me."

"Your pistols do," said Benedict, "as does your propensity for gambling.  Although I heard you were much better."

"Some nights I’m luckier than others."  He anteed in and asked for two cards by tapping alongside his dwindling pile.

The round ended in Benedict's favor. 

"A last go about gentlemen?"

"You do have that wife to tend to," said Wallis.

"She's a patient woman."

"Then by all means.”  Wallis sifted through his remaining coin and then tossed the mound into the center of the table.  "I'm all in."

"Why not?"  Marshall downed a fresh shot and shoved an equal amount into the pot. 

The leather-faced man grumbled and gathered up his pruned sash, dropping out by drawing a finger horizontally across his throat. 

“Suit yourself,” said Hoyd who added in his ante.

Benedict joined in and then gathered the cards while silence draped the table and seeped into the surrounding saloon.  He shuffled methodically before casting cards to each man with mechanical precision.  They spied their lots, and then, Wallis pinched his nose. 

The gesture jolted Jesse from his slouch against the bar as if a poker had jabbed him in the butt.  His heart started to race and his mind grappled with Wallis’ earlier instructions while his imagination dawdled on the rewards aiding the gambler might garner.  The thought of the Madison’s steak au poivre started his mouth watering.

"This is just not my night," muttered Marshall.

Wallis grunted in agreement.  "Can I get another whisky?"

"You better be able to pay for it," said Perkins. 

"I'll cover him," said Benedict.  “I'll cover a last round for the table."

Flinging his dishtowel over his shoulder, Perkins shrugged and began pouring.

"I...I can take it," whispered Jesse. 

Perkins scowled and for a second Jesse thought the saloon keeper could spy though his apron and see the metal case warming against his stomach. 

"Make it quick," said Perkins.

Nodding, Jesse left his broom and scooped up the tray.  Balancing the drinks so as to not lose a drop, he took care placing the first onto the sparse span of room between Marshall and the leather-faced fellow.  After he’d set the last at Wallis’ elbow, he felt his feet stick to the floorboards and his hands went so numb he fumbled the tray.  The platter clattered onto the ground.

“Jesse,” whispered Perkins.

“Sorry,” he said with a cringe. 

Jesse dropped and grabbed the tray from its swirling rattle as it rotated around its rim, noting he passed Wallis' hand along the way.  Slipping the case from his waistband, he rose and slipped it into the other man's waiting palm.

With the tray flat against his chest, Jesse scurried back to the bar.  He leaned against the counter, his palms and the back of his neck damp with sweat.  He couldn't bring himself to turn, too fearful one of the men at the table had noticed.  Instead, he watched the rotation of bets and distribution of cards in the bar's mirror. 

The coins transitioned into bills, and the tension at the table thickened like the smoke pooling at the ceiling.  Hoyd asked for two.  Marshall three.  Wallis and Benedict each took one, before the latter upped the ante.  When each man met the bet, Benedict added another dollar, then five, then ten.  He finally stacked his whole pile in the center.

"Let's quit dicking around, gentlemen."

Marshall cricked his neck, causing snaps like dried firewood chucked onto flames.  He then snorted and shoved his lot into the pot.

"I'm done either way," said Hoyd and waved his assent.

Wallis left his cards facedown and slouched into his seat, making the backrest groan.   He motioned toward Marshall with his umpteenth cigarette while his other arm hung limp in the table’s shadow.  "Why don't you begin?" 

"Why not," said the younger man.  He flipped a flush of spades.

Hoyd cursed and flung his cards onto the pot, the five tumbling to reveal two pairs of sixes and eights.

"I guess that leaves you and I," said Benedict.

"Don't let me keep you," said Wallis taking a long drag.

Benedict adjusted his spectacles, and then began flipping up one card after another. 

Jesse gulped at each revealed king then the pair of tens.  His knees watered and his imagined taste of the Madison’s fare evaporated.

"Pretty good," said Wallis.  Leaning forward, he stubbed out his cigarette and casually fanned his own cards with his opposite and suddenly empty hand.  The turn showed four queens and an ace.  "But it seems like my salvation came at last."

Those seated at the table gaped in such silence Jesse thought he’d gone deaf.  After the hushed moment, however, the loitering audience around the quintet burst into cheers and snickering, cringes and sympathetic groans.

Jesse pivoted at the bar, his anticipation turning like a steer in a rodeo.  He watched Wallis collect up his winnings until a hole remained where the pot had been grown.  A few bits, he felt sure would find their way into his hand somehow. 

The reedy man stood and donned his cap with a slight tip of his brim.  "Evening, gentlemen." 

Putting his back on them all, Wallis strode out of the saloon.  The rhythmic thump of his stride smacked Jesse in the head like the tick of the grandfather clock in the Madison Hotel's foyer.  His chest suddenly emptied like the table top and he sagged against the bar.

"He can't just leave like that," he whispered, "I helped him—"

He flinched when Perkins shoved the broom handle under his nose. 

"You can get a raw deal, Jesse," whispered the saloon keeper, "or an honest one."

Staring at the broom's skirt, Jesse swiped the back of his hand over his mouth, his taste for favors and baseless hopes souring on his tongue.  Heaving a sigh, he took the handle.

“Be sure to get under the tables this time," said Perkins.

"Yes sir," said Jesse.

While those at the table departed in a grim quiet and the rest poured their hearts into the bottom of their glasses, Jesse bowed his head and resumed his sweep of dirt and manure from the saloon's tobacco-stained floor.  He avoided a glance at the night outside, not willing to bet whether or not Gabriel Wallis would once again darken their door.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Alice's Key - No. 309

The cedar box with its faint charcoal film filled Alice's wrinkled palm.  Drawing a ragged breath, she lifted the lid.  Ruby and emerald stained light streamed through the stained glass shade of the mantle's lamp and glittered on the copper key resting within the box’s grooved velvet. 

A church bell rang in Alice’s memory, the peal clean and crisp.  Clattering hooves on cobblestone resonated in her sunken chest and the smell of burnt ash wafted into her nose.  A cool knob filled her hand and a swift gust crossed her face as the mahogany door opened—


Marjorie's voice drifted across the remembered threshold, through the recollected sounds, and across the potpourri-filled living room.  The concern in her granddaughter's tone tugged at Alice's ear.  Instead of turning, however, she lifted her hand and lowered her finger against the key.  Hammered copper kissed her dry skin and then the world vanished in a flash of sunlight. 

As the blast faded, a gentle haze filled Alice's vision.  Sometime later a downy softness cradled her head and wrapped around her withered body.  With every rise and fall of her breath, she bobbed within the mist, a buoy upon an endless sea.


Alice almost recognized the voice echoing across the expanse of her mind.  The caller repeated her name, the young woman's shout drifting like a slow moving cloud beneath a summer sky. 

Pressure against her shoulder and a prick at her hand sent Alice in a downward plunge. The mist began to clear and the haze consolidated into concentrated bars etched upon her closed eyelids.  Bleats and the hum of machinery broke through the stillness.  She sensed someone moving around her and the world gained a rumbling sway.

Slowly, Alice opened her eyes.

"You're back!"  Marjorie beamed.  Her granddaughter's raven hair framed her blanched face like night around a full moon and her bright blue eyes glistened.

"Mrs. Papilon?"

Alice glanced at the red-suited medic at her other side.  The gray haired man monitored a tube racing up from her hand before offering an encouraging smile.

"Yes, sir?"

"How are you feeling?"  He clicked on a tiny flashlight and Alice blinked when he dashed the beam across her eyes.

"I’d be better without the light in my face," said Alice.

"Granny," said Marjorie, her tone a gentle scolding.  "He's trying to help."

"Why do I need help?"

"Don't you remember?"  Alice felt the warmth of her granddaughter's hand on hers, and returned the girl's tight clasp.  "You disappeared on me."

"Where did I go?"

"You tell me," said Marjorie. 

"I...I don't know...."  Alice brought her hand to her throat and traced the chain lacing her neck.  Trailing toward her collar, she palmed the ring threaded by the links.  "What happened?"

"I came by to pick you up for lunch," said Marjorie.  "You'd invited me—"

"I remember that," said Alice.  "I was going to take you to the Sweet Pea, you always like that place."

"I do," said Marjorie.  "But you said you had to go back for something.  I waited in the car, but when you didn't come back out I came into the house and found you…..  You were on the living room floor in front of the fireplace."

Choking up, Marjorie covered her mouth with her free hand and her eyes gained a fresh sheen.

"It's all right dear," said Alice.  She tried to brush away the tears falling on Marjorie's cheek but the needle injected into her hand and its tube kept her from cross the distance.  She squeezed Marjorie's fingers instead.  "I'm all right."

Marjorie sniffed and dabbed the drops away.  With a rattling exhalation she dropped her hand and began a vigorous rub of her thigh. 

"I know."

"Tell me," said Alice, "what did I go back for?"

"This I think."  Marjorie bent to the side and returned with a cedar box the size of a baby's fist.  "I've never seen it before."

Taking the box, Alice rested it on the wooly blanket covering her belly.  She arched her neck, and the medic fetched another pillow, tucking it beneath her raised head.

"Thank you," said Alice.

He patted her shoulder and claimed his seat by the foot of her gurney where he turned his back slightly, offering as much privacy as the ambulance’s confines could provide.  His presence, however, disappeared as Alice stared at the box.  The monitors, the bleats, the plastic drip of whatever filled the sack above her head, joined him until only the cedar remained.


Marjorie's voice drifted in from the ether.  Alice tore her gaze from the box, sought her granddaughter's face and then returned to the angular lump.

"I'm supposed to give you this," she whispered.

"What is it?"

"I...I don't remember."  Alice lifted the lid and the key saturated her sights.  Bells clanged and wagon wheels clattered.  Steam and smoke swirled.  The door swung ajar—


Marjorie's touch on her shoulder pulled Alice away from the scents and smells, and the doorways illuminated gap.  She found her granddaughter's face, her smooth features twisted in worry.

"Yes, dear?"

"You drifted off again."


Glancing around Alice spied the ambulance’s interior and the gray haired medic watching on from the back doors, his face passive in its evaluation.  He gave her a lean smile, and then scribbled notes on to a clipboard.

With care, Alice closed the box's lid.  "I'm sorry, Marjorie.  I didn't mean to worry you." 

"I know, Granny.  I just want you to be all right."

Claiming Marjorie’s hand Alice squeezed her granddaughter’s fingers one last time.  "I am, dear, I am."  She tapped the box with her needled hand.  "And I'd feel better if you would take this."

Marjorie took the box as if it were made of glass.  "You remember what it is?"

"It’s a key."

Lifting the lid, Marjorie squinted.  "A key to what?"

"That's for you to find out."

Marjorie rolled her eyes.  "Granny, come on.  What does it open?"

"It opens a different door for everyone." 

Alice gave Marjorie’s flat stare a weak smile.  Her granddaughter huffed and shifted her glare to the copper key. 

"What did it open for you?"

Sighing, Alice stared up at the fluorescents ribbing the ceiling.  "A door that doesn't exist anymore."

"Oh," said Marjorie.  She balanced the box on her knee after the ambulance jolted over a pot hole.  "What about mom?  Did she use it?"

"I think so, but I don't know what she found."

"But she took it?"

"She did.  It was with the rest of her possessions they recovered after the fire."

"Oh," said Marjorie again.  She laid her hand over the box, covering it like an oyster around a pearl.  "How am I supposed to find out where it goes?"

Alice shut her eyes, her lids suddenly heavy.  "It'll show you, when it's ready.  It'll sing...." 


"Listen for it, Marjorie," she whispered.

The ambulance's rumble, the equipment’s bleats, and even the shuffle of Marjorie and the medic vanished under the bells’ peals.  Alice reached out for the door, the knob filling her palm.  A turn later the golden haze poured over her, the warm glow of sunlight washing for a final time upon her face.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Surf and Turf - No. 308

Smothering a yawn in the crook of his arm, Ned hauled the garbage bin through the back door.

"Careful," said May. 


Ned squished against the door enabling her to scurry past, two plates held at shoulder level.  After stowing the bin, he headed over to the sink and scrubbed his hands.  While toweling them dry, he spied Tina among the stainless steel counters, wall of spurting stove tops, and a sizzling fryer.  She tossed a handful of something green she’d finished chopping into a bowl and began mixing furiously. 

Weaving by Harry who flipped their trademark burgers on the grill and manned the fillets bubbling in grease and Raynie who whisked up egg whites while squatting down by the oven's window, Ned stopped at Tina's side.

"What can I do next?"

"Huh?"  Tina looked up and wiped her rolled sleeve across her brow. 

"Shrimp bisque and two burgers," said Paula through the kitchen window overlooking the ordering counter.

Tina scowled.  "Harry?"

"That’ll be the last of mine."

"Great," muttered Tina.  She began cursing under her breath. 

Ned caught every other word, but felt certain Brian would hear it all loud and clear once he showed up for work.

If he showed up, Ned reflected. 

He didn't think he'd risk working for an ex-wife either, especially one with Tina's knife skills.  Ditching her on the busiest night of the week, however, still didn't seem fair. 

Not that exes are my immediate problem, he reasoned. 

He inched closer to Tina when her grumbling subsided.  "What do you need?"

Tina sighed, her grip whitening around the handle of her reclaimed chef's knife.  "Get the last steaks out of the fridge."

"No problem."

Striding across the room, Ned opened up the main refrigerator.  Cold air blasted his face and he shivered before darting inside.  Crates and baskets half filled with vegetables and fruit flanked his right while a separate shelf with the meats and ice packed seafood towered on his left.

"You got them?"  Tina's shout over the kitchen's bustle spurred Ned from his gawking perusal. 

"Almost," he said.

"We need them now."

"I know, I know."

Ned snatched the cardboard box labeled steaks and grunted under the weight.  Clutching the load against his chest, he heeled the door closed and shuffled across the kitchen.


Gritting his teeth, he increased his pace and skidding to a stop at Tina's station. 


Before he could deposit the box onto her counter, Tina thrust her blade at the grinding station set up in the kitchen’s far corner.

"Get it ground, into the prepped bowls, and make Harry some more patties."

Ned balked.  "You want me—"

"You know how don't you?"

"Well, yeah...Brian showed—"

Tina’s shotgun glare silenced him.  Ned licked his lips to regain his tongue’s function.

"I know how," he whispered.

"Then go…please," said Tina.  Weariness edged her voice and she stared down at her cutting board, her shoulders suddenly rigid.


Ned drifted back while Tina recommenced her vigorous chop.  The crunch of the knife through celery barely obscured her resumed muttering. 

"Two more burgers," said Paula through the window.

"I need those patties," said Harry.

Ned spun and hurried to the grinder.  Dumping the box of meat, he faced the dials and gulped.  With a deep breath, he sought the bombarded instructions Brian had provided the week before. 

Gloves first, he thought and fetched a pair from the cardboard box on a nearby shelf. 

Ripping off a square of parchment, he covered the neighboring counter.  He fetched one of the silver bowls already filled with diced ingredients and set it below the extruder. Touching each of the dials in turn, he then ran through the sequence enabling the feed and grind. 


"I'm starting right now," he shouted back to Tina.

He plucked the top steak from the crate and flipped on the grinder’s power switch.  The unit bounced and then began a steady grumble.  Holding his breath, Ned inserted the tip of the steak into the funneled top.  An initial spurt of white and pink flesh spat out the other end, then a stream of pummeled meat began extruding from the perforated holes and dropping into the prepared bowl.  He exhaled when the majority of the first steak ran through without clogging, catching, or flinging from the machine and spattering on the ceiling.  A pat with a wooden mallet finished sending the meat into the blades and out the other side.  Elbowing the power switch, Ned sunk his fingers into the bowl, squishing the ingredients together.  Once mixed the requisite twenty-two times, he scooped an initial handful into his palm.

"Half a pound right?"

"Yeah," said Tina chopping into a harvest of carrots destined for a slaw.

Ned dumped the lump in his hand onto the scale and squinted at the display. Plucking off a hunk, he flung the excess back into the bowl and smacked the blend of meat, cooked onion, garlic and other secret vegetables Tina had diced into a rounded patty.  He shaped up another and hurried them to Harry's station.

"Better make up the rest,” said the rotund cook.

"Sure thing," said Ned.

While Harry grilled and then plated for May to deliver, Ned rushed back to the extruder and formed up the rest of the bowl's contents. 

Halfway through the mound, Paula pushed through the doorway, her cheeks flushed, her voice breathless.  "Tina?"


"A….a customer wants to talk with you."

"I'm a little busy, Pea."

"Yeah, but I think you want to meet this one."

Tina huffed and slammed her knife down on her board.  "Who the hell is it?  The Pope?"

Paula winced.  "Come…come and see."

"This better be good," said Tina.

Smacking the half pound in his palm, Ned watched her strip the gloves from her hands, and tuck invisible tendrils of ruddy hair she seemed to believe had escaped her snug bandana.  After adjusting her apron, Tina stormed through the doorway.

"And we need three more burgers and a chicken filet." said Paula before spinning back outside.

"Ned," said Harry.

"Coming up." 

Resuming his scoop and pat, Ned added patties to the parchment paper until they lined the sheet like an angular case of the chicken pox.  He hustled them to Harry, and then ground and shaped another two steaks, filling the last prepared bowl.

By then, Tina backpedaled through the door. 

"Enjoy," she said with a wave to whoever waited on the other side. 

The swinging panel shut and she leaned onto the nearest counter, a hand clutched to her chest.

"Well," said Harry, "who was it?"

"The…President," said Tina.

Raynie barked a laugh and hauled a chocolate cake from the oven.  "President of what?"

"The country."

Everyone froze.  The sputter of cooking food and the grind of the extruder suddenly became earsplitting.

"You're joking," said Ned.

Tina looked up and laughed.  "I'm not, really.  Take a look."

"Well,” said Raynie with a shrug, “that'll be great for publicity."

"If he likes the burgers."  Tina shook her head and returned to her chopping station.  "He's eating those last two right now."

Ned frowned and a clawed hand stabbed his gut.  "The first ones I made?"

"Yeah, those."

"Um...."  The white and pink initially exuding from the grinder flopped into his mind like it had fallen into the silver bowl. "He's...allergic to shellfish right?"

"I think so," said Tina. “That would be why he ordered the burger.”

"But,” said Ned, fighting an urge to vomit, “you used the grinder for the bisque today didn't you?"

"So."  Tina set her hands on her hips and Ned withered under her ratcheted stare.  "You cleaned it before you ground up the steaks, right?"


"Oh God, Ned."

A shriek followed the shattering of dishes out in the dining area. Ned stared at the door, where on the other side feet hustled, cameras snapped, and someone called for a doctor.


Tina's voice seemed to echo from another planet.  When she shook his shoulders, Ned swiveled his head and stiffened under her fiery stare.

"I didn't mean to, Tina.  I just wanted to get them done. I...What are we going to do?"

Tina squeezed his shoulders in a vice-grip.  "I’m going to check if he’s okay.  You're going to call 911."


She shoved him toward the phone and took off for the door.  Stumbling across the kitchen Ned hoped he’d remember the numbers when he reached the keypad and the secret service might give him the chance to dial.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Making Dessert - No. 307

Tiffany raised her paperback, blocking the couple by the railing.  The text on the suitcase-tattered pages, however, blurred, reshaping into the burly arm wrapping around the woman's lithe waist and the two heads tipping toward one another as if attracted by magnets.  A sarong snapped and unbuttoned aloha shirt fluttered in the dusky breezes.  The pungent scent of tropical flowers, sun screen, and intimate banter further permeated Tiffany's literary blockade.

Sighing, she lowered the book.

Why did you do this to yourself? she wondered.

The lack of a refund and the time spent planning reared its head like it had at home, repeating the logic which had her reclining in a deck chair and more alone now than when in her apartment after Barry had left.

As if eager to twist the knife, Tiffany cast her gaze toward the cruise ship’s bow where other couples perched along the railing like pigeons on an electrical line.  With a roll of her eyes, she shifted to the stern where pairs holding hands strolled on the sun-baked deck, the tan flooring fading into magenta shades with the fading day.  Laughing groups where men and women alternated around the pool’s rim cast up flirtatious splashes while overripe skin soaked in dwindling rays.  Closer by, Tiffany noted the strip of chairs occupied by slumbering passengers draped by magazines or books and monitored by half empty glasses adorned by tiny umbrellas.  The proximity of one chair to the other suggested acquaintances, and on some new jewelry glittered on bronzed or lobster red hands.

Tiffany turned back to her book, hiding her own vacated digits behind the creased spine.   The plot escaped her grasp and after rereading the same sentence a third time, she set the paperback on her lap and checked the silver watch looping her wrist.  The hands pointing to the IV and XII provided a sudden sense of achievement.

"Finally," she whispered.

Snatching her airplane ticket stub, she inserted the slip into the book's well and swung her legs from the padded chair.  She wiggled her toes around her flip-flips plastic thongs and set her wide brim hat upon her blonde pixie cut.  Downing the last of her watered down raspberry margarita, she rose and shook out her hip-tied skirt.  After a glare at her pasty legs visible through the indigo billow, she smoothed her belly, sucking in the decadent curve beneath a turquoise bathing suit still scented like a department store.  The plumpness remained upon her exhale and she tugged her gauzy shirt around her mid-drift before marching for the deck's nearest hatch.

The hallway cooled her from the Caribbean swelter and the flip flop of her flip-flops echoed with each stride.  She navigated the hollow corridors rumbling with the distant engines and emptied, she felt certain, by everyone enjoying themselves on deck.  The turns and corners, however, felt familiar, as sure as the ring once threading her finger.  Swapping her book into her left hand to fill the sudden void, she neared the double doors marked by the four star honorary label, where a savory stream of scents emanated like steam from a coffee cup. 

Swiping her room's card through the reader to unlock the entryway, she pushed inside, her footsteps softening on the dense carpet.

"Evening, Ms.."

"Evening," said Tiffany. 

She managed a smile for the white suited cook who added a platter of fresh cut cantaloupe and strawberries to the exclusive happy hour buffet.   He disappeared into the kitchen where dish clatter, shouts, and spurts hid behind another set of double doors. 

Crossing the dining room with its cluster of waiting tables each with two tucked chairs, Tiffany claimed a spot overlooking the golden waves and set down her hat and book.  The empty expanse of water snared her, the gleaming caps and the coloring sky offering a sense of companionship in the midst of her solitude.  The squeak of doors opening, however, broke the stillness.  

"Set it over there," said Allen, his stern tone pitched with a French cadence.

"Yes Chef," murmured two strained voices.

Tiffany spied the pair of cooks hefting a tray with a towering assortment of cheeses carved into bird shapes and surrounded by a collection of crackers arranged in foliage patterns.  Towing the load, they crossed the dining room with care. Tiffany held her breath until they placed the creation upon the center dais.

"It should be centered, yes?"

"Yes, Chef."

Tiffany watched in the window's reflection while they nudged the mountain of cream to neon orange sculptures into place.

"Good, good," said Allen, "I like it there." 

With his toque swaying, Allen rubbed his hands together, the skin rustling like sand paper.  The shoulders of the two cooks sagged with relief and each wiped what Tiffany imaged would be sweaty palms on smeared aprons.

"Am I mistaken or are there oranges needing segmenting?"

Murmuring once more, the cooks bobbed their heads and while Allen continued his perusal of the display, they scurried into the kitchen.  When the doors swung shut, he turned and Tiffany caught his sharp blue eyes in the window.

"You have returned?"

Tiffany shrugged and pulled her shirt snug around her shoulders.  "It’s a boat, Allen.  There's nowhere else to go."

"I had hoped it was for the food."

Tiffany winced and slowly put her back to the window. "Everything's been delectable."

Allen strode toward her, his bulk rolling like a fallen apple tumbling on uneven ground.   "We have a good view no?"  He swept a hand toward the sea.

"It's lovely," she said and drifted to his side before the glass wall.

"And your room?  The staff?  The weather?"

"Comfortable, helpful, and magnificent," admitted Tiffany.

"Yet you're in here with such a gloomy face."

Tiffany ran her fingers along her shirt’s silken edge and dropped her gaze.  She peered at her ruby-painted toes drumming against the spongy soles of her sandals.  "I...It wasn't supposed to be like this."

"What was it supposed to be?"

She sighed and squeezed the thin fabric while the couple at the railing sprang back into her sights.  "Like it is for everyone else.  The smiling, the laughter, the...togetherness."

"But you are here alone."

"I wasn't supposed to be."

"Ah, I see.  Your plans have not come out how you would have liked."

"No," whispered Tiffany. 

She didn’t bother elaborating on how her life had started to crumble one piece at time and this had been simply a detour away from the inescapable, the tip of the iceberg leading to a glacial age.

Even so, Allen nodded with understanding.  With a grunt, he cinched the string around his bulbous torso, giving his rotund form a mini-muffin top. 

"I had such problems with a soup once."

The statement gathered Tiffany from her toenails and she frowned at Allen’s meringue-like profile.  "What?"

He hung his shaking head.  "I had sautéed the onions to perfection.  Sweated the carrots, leaks, and celery until they glistened.  I had gathered the freshest shrimp, and clams and mussels with brine so sweet it could have been frosting.  And my seafood stock."  He puckered his lips and kissed his fingers with a reverberating smack.  "Ah, but no, it was not to be."

"What happened?"

Pulling off his toque, he clutched the pleated cap to his chest.  "The salt...alas was sugar."

"Oh,” said Tiffany with a cringe.  “That must have been—"

"Terrible, yes."

"Did you throw it out?"

"After all that work?"  Catching her eye, he held up an index finger and patted the side of his nose.  "I found a way to make it work."


"You tell me."  He inched closer and pitched his voice low.  "Did you not enjoy the dessert quiche last night?"

Tiffany blinked at him while the warmed white chocolate dotted with blueberries smothering the lighter than air egg-based confection with just a hint of salt to undercut the sweet melted onto her tongue.  Even in memory, the thought made her mouth water. 

"You're kidding."

Allen winked.  "Sometimes you must adjust."

Tiffany chuckled, but like the sun plunging toward the sea, her buoyancy faded into bitterness.  "Adjusting’s easier when all you’re dealing with is ingredients."

"Bah,” said Allen, donning his toque at jaunty angle, “ingredients are just the edible parts of life."

Tiffany felt his eyes drift over her tense form and his voice regained an intimate timbre. 

"You may have a mess,” he said, “but you have the equipment to fix it.  The only question is what will you do? Throw it away or make dessert?"