The Last Concert

Paul Olsen slumped onto the long bench and carefully placed his battered guitar case at his feet.  So this was Grand Central Station, he thought, as he surveyed the bustling and cavernous transit hub.  I literally am sitting in a railway station, gotta ticket for my destination, he thought smiling sadly.

He didn’t like being up this early and felt grubby.  His eyes were red from playing late last night in a small club in lower Manhattan. His breath and clothes still smelled of smoke, and he’d barely been able to sleep in the cheap hotel where he had spent the last couple of nights.

He’d been on the road for six months now chasing the dream.  He’d gotten good reviews when he’d played South by Southwest back in March and decided to strike out “on tour” for six months.  He and his girlfriend, Sarah, worked it out. Together they had planned a route, and she had managed to get him dates at clubs and pubs stretching across the Midwest and down the Eastern seaboard. He had two more dates to play in Boston, before he would head back to their place in Flagstaff.

The one thing he had learned for certain over the six-month experiment, was that the dream was just that—a pretty, shiny bauble that he had chased, and chased hard, but had never come close to grabbing.  When he and Sarah had imagined it, he knew the early going would be tough—lots of small crowds, noisy bars, people drifting by at local festivals—but somewhere, they both believed, he’d get noticed.  A band would pick him up as an opening act, or maybe they’d need a guitar player or singer. They’d hear his original stuff, like his sound, and bring him on board.

Six months later, none of that had happened, and he was done.  He’d go on home, lick his wounds, and finally figure out what to do with himself.  He had turned 30 while on the road, celebrating alone somewhere in Illinois. He could still remember the harsh words he had with Sarah that night.  As he grew more tired of the one-night stands, his mood became dark and he found it hard to listed to her encouragement. They spoke less and less, until they finally quit calling each other at all.

He slouched even further into the bench and closed his eyes hoping to doze away the 45 minutes that remained before his train would leave.  He was roused when a young man in a red scarf propped up a well-worn instrument case on the bench next to him. The kid sat on the edge of the bench and worked his fingers around the corners of his ticket.

Paul sat up coughing and rubbed his hands over his stubbled face. The young man seemed to be almost vibrating with energy.  It would have been annoying on any other morning, but today he was feeling a sense of peace—the peace that comes with giving up.

“A fellow musician about to hit the road, are you?  I’m Paul Olsen,” he said greeting the boy and extending his hand.

“Jackson.  I’m Jackson Allen. You can call me Jack. That’s what most people do anyway,” he said as he shook hands, seeming unsure and ill at ease.

Before Paul could reassure him, he rattled on.

“I’m off to Boston to study music at the Conservatory, the New England Conservatory of Music.  I play cello. I play cello all the time, sometimes six hours a day.  Sometimes I wish I had time to learn piano or guitar like you play, but I figure if I’m going to be good, I need to stick with one thing. I’m a good cello player. I’m just not so good with anything else.”  He stopped and took a breath.  “Sorry, I’m not sure why I just blurted all of that out.”

“That’s OK, Jack,” said Paul.  “I always like talking music, especially with someone who works as hard at it as you do. I can’t say that I’ve always been as dedicated.”

“It’s all I do; all I think about is music.  And now I’m going off to school in a strange place, and I know I can play, but I’m such a music nerd that I just don’t know about relating to, you know, people. I bet you’re good at that.  You seem good with people.”

Paul looked at the boy, and sighed.  “Look, Jack, lucky for you, you are going to a place that will be teeming with music nerds. If you can introduce them to yourself the way you did with me, you’ll get along just fine. Just take a deep breath now and then and remember to listen to their stories.  Let them talk about themselves.”

“Could I—could I practice, with you?” stammered Jack.

“Practice what?”

“What you just said. Slowing down, getting someone to talk to me.  Like I would say something like, ‘Nice to meet you, Paul. Where are you headed today?’”

“Yeah, that would work,” Jesus Christ, he thought.  When did I become a life coach for adolescents?

“Well, let’s see,” he continued, “and I might say ‘“Well, Jack, I’m a failed musician who’s been playing his ass off for the last six months with two more shows left in Boston before I head back to Arizona and get a real job.”’

“A failed musician? Really?”

“I left home thinking I’d work my way into the music business in some form or fashion, but discovered no one wanted to listen to my songs so I started playing in bars and clubs, wherever I could make a buck, covering fucking Simon and Garfunkel, Neil Young, the Beatles, you name it.  Singing in places with ten or twelve folks getting drunk and talking over my music. Two more shows, and then I’m going home and hoping my girl will take me back.”

“Gosh, I’m sorry,” Jack said looking deflated.  “I shouldn’t have asked. I’m hopeless with people.”

Paul smiled. “No, you did exactly the right thing.  I opened the door, and you asked the question that got me talking to a complete stranger. That’s good work, my friend.  Not your fault that I’m calling it quits. I’m happy to meet someone who’s just getting himself started.  Music’s a tough business, and you’ve already got the “hard work” part of it down. You’ll be fine.”

“Can I ask you something else?” asked Jack.

“Sure, we’ve got time.”

“Who are Fucking Simon and Garfunkel?”

Paul stared at him in disbelief. “You’ve never heard of Simon and Garfunkel?  My dad named me after Paul Simon.  He and his partner Art Garfunkel made some pretty good music back in the 60’s and 70’s.”

“I don’t know much modern music,” Jack said, abashed once again.  “I’ve been studying the classics for so long.”

“It’s never too late,” said Paul as he extracted his guitar from the case and began tuning it up. “Get that oversized violin out. Let’s do one last New York show. I’m going to play a tune I was thinking about when you showed up called ‘Homeward Bound’. Listen a little bit and maybe you can find a thread you can pick up on and add a nice base line or something.”

He gave the boy a minute to tune and get set up.  Some travelers paused to look at the unlikely pair.  Others grimaced and avoided them figuring them for buskers looking for a handout.

As Paul began to strum the intro, the sweet feeling of making music swept over him once again, the way it almost always did, but this time amplified in this cavernous, echoing station, easily his largest venue, largest audience ever.

I’m sittin’ in the railway station

Got a ticket to my destination

On a tour of one-night stands

My suitcase and guitar in hand

And every stop is neatly planned

For a poet and a one-man band.

As Paul’s voice soared and echoed, Jack watched his hands work smoothly over the fretboard and recognized the chord pattern right away.  He closed his eyes and listened, moving his fingers up and down the strings, his bow ready.  As Paul got to the chorus, Jack began to see the notes scroll before his mind’s eye, and his bow began to move and sing out a compliment to the guitar.

They played together as if they’d been partners for years and a dozen people stopped to listen, delaying their travels for a moment.  As Paul struck the final chord, their patrons clapped enthusiastically.  Jack’s face was beaming as Paul prompted him to get up and take a bow before the people drifted off with a few kind words. Jack was startled to discover some loose change and a couple of dollar bills sitting in the open cello case that he had quickly set aside.

He showed the money to Paul, and Paul clapped him on the shoulder.  “Good for you, boy!  You are a card-carrying member of the league of struggling musicians as of today,” causing Jack to laugh self-consciously.

They packed up their instruments as a mechanical voice began an announcement for the imminent departure of the train to Boston.

“Let’s go, Paul, that’s us,” called Jack.  “Maybe we can play some more on the train, or we can practice talking some more. We’ve got four hours…” his voice drifted off as he saw Paul sit down staring at his ticket.

“No, Jack, you go on now.” He looked up at the young man’s face, flush with hope and excitement.  “I think I’ll cash this in and see what kind of connection I can make to get me back home to Arizona.”

“But what about your shows in Boston?  I’d come to see you if they’ll let me in.”

“And I’d play some more Fucking Simon and Garfunkel for you. You and the ten other drinkers who might or might not show up.  No, playing with you in a place like this—it just doesn’t get any better.  If I’m really done, this is the moment that I want to remember—playing for free in a big old train station with someone like you. You go on to Boston now, Jackson. You’re going to be a fine musician.”

“You really think so, Jack?”

Paul smiled, any sadness he’d been feeling gone now.  “I am.” He looked around the bustling station. “This was one hell of a place to pull off an audition, and you passed with flying colors.”

“You sure you want this to be your last show?”

“Hell, no, not sure about anything.  But this would be one amazing way to end my musical story.  Now, get on to your train, my friend.  You’ve got a school and a whole lot of music waiting for you.”

Jack hesitated as if there was more he wanted to say, but he couldn’t find a way to put it into words. Paul helped him with his bags, his cello, and they shook hands. He watched the young man make his way into the throng of people headed on to Boston.

Paul sat back down on the bench, pulled out his phone and punched in Sarah’s phone number hoping she’d pick up.  He listened to the phone begin to ring and hoped he hadn’t burned his final bridge with her.  He was anxious to tell her he was coming home.





Baseball Stories: The Hope That Only Comes in Spring

It was a hot, windy day in the Arizona spring, but it felt glorious to Jesse Ramirez as he jogged out to his position at shortstop–getting the start today, his first start so far in his first spring training.  Just ten months out of high school, Jesse knew that while the games were just exhibitions, they were also auditions.  Every play that he made, every hit he collected brought him that much closer to the big leagues—to getting to play before thousands in parks that were like palaces, to being paid a king’s ransom for playing the game he loved so much that he would play it for free.

It was a Sunday and the park was filling up quickly with baseball fans decked out In their team jerseys and summer wear.  Jesse looked out at the grass beyond the outfield, teaming with folks spreading out blankets and lawn chairs, filling up every available space.  He had never played before a crowd like this.

They warmed up with throws to the first baseman, while the pitcher, Rich Davies, took his warm-up tosses.  Jesse marveled at the smooth field and the manicured lawn, a lustrous green, easily the nicest field he’d ever played on.  Even in spring training, the facilities were so much more deluxe than anything he’d ever seen.  His long, lean body felt loose and easy in the heat as he stooped to sweep up the easy grounder thrown to him, moved to his right and unleashed a bullet throw back to first.

Warm-ups over, he jogged over to the second baseman, Roberto Morales, to check on signs. Robbie was the team’s regular second baseman, a three-time All Star and last year’s batting champion.  Jesse felt starstruck with the idea that he was going to be sharing the same field with him for the next couple of hours.  Everyone in the line-up was, or had been at one time, a major league starter except for Jesse.  He’d been called up from the minor league fields when the regular shortstop went down with a leg injury.  He knew he was lucky to be there.

He and Robbie turned toward the outfield to go over the signs so the opposing team couldn’t see or hear them.  “Let’s keep it simple, kid,” said Robbie.  “If the runner’s black or brown, you cover second on the steal.  I’ll cover on the white guys.  OK?”

Jesse thought maybe he was being pranked and hesitated as he saw the smile in the veteran’s eyes.  “Relax, kid.  It’s just practice.  Let’s have some fun out here today.” Jesse breathed and tried to relax.

“Yeah, I’ll try to remember.”

Robbie grabbed him by the jersey, pulled him close and smiled.  “Hey, kid, the word is you’re good.  So, have some goddam fun and show me something today, OK?”  Robbie turned and jogged back into position as the pitcher groomed the dirt in front of the rubber and dug in to face the first batter. “Come on everybody,” he yelled to the team and the fans, “let’s play two!”

Rich went into his wind-up and fired a scorching fastball toward home plate, but the lead-off hitter was primed for it and lashed a liner to center for a single.  Davies stood on the mound, hands on hips and cursed as he waited for the ball to be returned.  Robbie grabbed the relay and tossed it to him.  “Come on Richie, shake it off man.  Get this guy. Show us some of that nasty stuff you got.”

Jesse marveled at Robbie’s easy command of the infield.  His words seemed to settle the pitcher down, who completely baffled the next hitter with his fastball, sinker, slider combination and struck him out swinging on three pitches.

The catcher fired the ball down to third on the strikeout and it made its way around the infield and back to the pitcher on the mound. “That’s what I’m talking about,” chattered Robbie.  “Now throw us a ground ball, Rich.  Jesse and I wanna turn two for you.  Double play. Look sharp, Jess.  Comin’ to you.”

Robbie waved him a couple of steps deeper into the hole at short.  The batter was the opposing team’s best hitter, and he took a fierce swing at a slider in the dirt for strike one.  Rich threw a high fastball for a ball on the second pitch, and then a tight sinker right down the middle of the plate.  The batter jumped on it, but the ball had faded down just enough that he got his bat on the top half of the ball and hit a scorching grounder up the middle headed for center field.

Even before the crack of the bat, Jesse could see that the ball would be headed deep to his left. He launched himself as he watched the ball come off the bat, and felt the game slowing down for him.  Without thinking really, he performed a quick calculation of where he needed to get to in the next split second, juggling what he could see, with the sound of the ball coming off the bat, the effort behind the swing, the initial trajectory of the ball.  “I’ve got this,” he thought. He could see the intense topspin of the ball and knew it was going to dive into the turf, pick up speed and likely skim the surface of the grass.  In mid-stride, he adjusted slightly and dove, his eyes glued to the ball now, seeing the red stitches swirling over the pristine white rawhide as he extended his long frame and watched the ball slide into the webbing of his glove.  As he rolled on the turf, he caught a freeze frame picture of the motion on the infield: the umpire moving into position, both Robbie and the runner converging on the second-base bag.  With no time for a decent throw and the ball still in his glove, he flipped it toward second base putting a tantalizing arc on the ball, like an alley-oop pass in basketball, sending it toward the empty base.

And in a blink, Robbie simultaneously snared the ball out of the air with his bare hand, tapped he bag with the toe of his cleat, leaping and turning his body in mid-air as if weightless before whipping the ball over to first.

The two umpires called “Out!” almost simultaneously and the crowd was on its feet delighted to see such an acrobatic, highlight-reel play before they had even finished their first hot dog.

Jesse popped up and dusted off his uniform as he trotted back to the dugout.  Robbie fell in beside him and they tapped gloves.  “Yessir, my man.  Now, that was something.  That was something right there.”

Jesse accepted the high-fives and fist bumps as he came in the dugout.  Most of the guys called him “kid” or “buddy” or “rook” as they congratulated him because hardly anyone knew his name.  He sat on the bench next to Robbie waiting for his turn at bat.  Robbie draped his arm around Jesse’s shoulder and leaned in closely.  “Today,” he said, “these boys don’t know your name.  But someday they will.  I can feel it in my bones and my bones, they never lie. These boys are gonna know your name.”


When Flowers Came to Desolation

This story owes a great debt to Jack Shaefer’s iconic western novel “Shane.”  My character, Slade, is based on Shane and I borrowed the names of the two combatants, Fletcher and Starret from the novel also.

The sun was straight overhead as I rode down the dry and dusty trail headed toward Cheyenne.  I was tired and sore after three long days of riding, but knew I’d have to stop for the night; I just didn’t know where. I hoped I might come across a town where I could get a bed for the night, after sleeping rough the last two. One more long day of riding before I’d get to see my girl, Jenny, waiting for me in Cheyenne.

Two hours later my hopes were raised a bit when I saw a sign made of grey, worn scrap wood that said “Desolation, Wyoming: Population 337”. Not promising, I thought, but around the name’s inscription, someone had added vibrant, red flowers in every corner. Green vines had been painted between each flower creating a border that belied the grim message of the town’s name. Odd.

I first passed a series of farms and ranches as my single trail turned into a two-track to accommodate the heavier traffic of the town.  The farmhouses were neat and well kept, the fencing tight and true.  The very first barn I saw had bright red doors, and the side wall had been whitewashed and filled with a painting of a distant snow-capped mountain, the very one I had been admiring as I entered the town.

In fact, as I rode through town, it seemed as though every farmhouse and cottage was trying to outdo its neighbor with color.  Some had painted every flat surface with vibrant blues, reds and oranges.  Others hung boxes from their windows, sporting flowers full of blooms.  Still others had turned their yards into gardens full of corn, squash, and sunflowers. It was, by far, the prettiest town I’d ridden through on my considerable travels, and yet carrying the bleakest of names.

I pulled Shiloh over to the hitching post nearest the saloon, watered her, and brushed off some of the dust that had accumulated on her once shiny coat. “Let’s see if we can bed down here for the night, girl,” I whispered to her as I brushed.  She blew and huffed and nipped at my elbow.  I rubbed her face between her eyes and fed her the last couple of sugar cubes I had left in my pocket.

I dusted myself off the best I could and headed toward the double doors of Smokey Joe’s Saloon. As I approached, I spied an old-timer sitting on a barrel just outside the door carving away at a small chunk of wood and as I got closer, I could see a collection of small animals that he had carved placed out on a small table within reach of his perch.

“Hey there, pardner,” I hailed him as I walked up.  “That’s some mighty fine work you’ve done there.”

Without looking up he said, “Help yourself, stranger.  I just make these to keep myself busy.  Kids in town seem to like ‘em.

I picked out what looked to be a mourning dove in flight, delicately carved, and pulled a couple of bills from my wallet.

“Naw, I just give these away.  You can keep your money, but if you’ve got a mind to bring me a cold drink, I wouldn’t turn you away. You look thirsty yourself, and I could use the company.”

I told him I’d be happy to oblige and went in and bought a couple of beers back outside to where my new friend had pulled up a stool for me and gladly took the longnecked bottle.

“Tobias Wolff,” he said, extending his calloused hand.

“Joe Sheridan,” I said.

“Much obliged for the beer, Joe,” he said taking a long drink before returning to his work.

“So, Joe Sheridan, I’m guessing that you are on your way to Cheyenne to see some girl you’re sweet on, and you decided to spend the night here in Desolation.  I’d recommend Missy Mae’s boarding house down the way if you’re looking for a nice, clean place to bed down.”

“Tobias, I haven’t said more than a dozen words to you yet.  How on earth did you piece all that together?”

A grin broke across his face as he looked up from the whittling he was doing and enjoyed my surprise. “Well, Desolation is pretty much a way station for any stranger headed to Cheyenne traveling east to west, so that part was easy.  You picked the dove out of my little collection, and it just looks to me like of thing that a woman would especially like.  Lucky guess on my part.”

I laughed.  “Well, you are as right as rain.  Besides this dove, I’ve got a ring I’ll be giving her tomorrow hoping that maybe she’ll have me for her husband.  Jenny is her name.”

“Well, good luck, Joe. Maybe we should celebrate with another beer from inside.”

I agreed wholeheartedly and paid the barkeep for four bottles and asked him to keep a couple on ice for me.  I was enjoying my time with the old man.

“Tobias,” I said as I passed him his beer, “can you tell me how this town got to be called Desolation?  I’ve been through a whole lot of villages on my travels and they are all pretty dusty and grey.  Desolation seems like a garden spot. I’ve never seen so many flowers and plants—they’re everywhere I look!  And the people here have painted every door, shutter, and barn wall as far as the eye can see.”

“Yessir, yer right. Desolation used to be like every other town.  Worse than most.  It was a lawless place.  Seems we’d have a killing twice a week over some squabble, and sad thing was, people appreciated the distraction.  We had a sheriff for a while, but he was just an orange-faced blowhard who didn’t know what to do, so we ran him out of town on a rail.  There wasn’t a spot of color anywhere and nothing seemed to grow, or maybe people just gave up trying.  A lot of folks were just hanging on, just getting by.

“That all changed the day that Slade came to town.  He rode in and hitched up right there where you tied up, and he was dressed up city-like, fine clothes, but worn, like he’d been on the move forever.  He was dressed all in black except for his brass belt buckle that shined like gold.  Might have thought he was a gunslinger, but he didn’t wear any kind of pistol.  Even though he was a stranger, he moved with a bright energy, walked down the street here like he owned the place, but polite-like. He tipped his hat to every woman that he passed and hauled open a door if he saw someone carrying their goods out the door.  After he made his way up and down the street, he settled in here at Joe’s for a drink, and by then everyone in town had an opinion about him.  Folks were flappin’ their gums about, “Slade, the bank robber”, “Slade, the outlaw”, “Slade, the do-gooder”.

Tobias’s throat had gone dry from all the talking and I hurried in to retrieve two more beers so I could hear the rest of the story.

“Thank you, son. So, Slade hadn’t been in town an hour before he was the main attraction and had become everybody’s friend.  The bar was full of friendly conversation like we’d never had before.  Bobby Joe, the barkeep, even found a clean rag to wipe down the counter and polish up the glasses.

“Well, it warn’t no time at all before these two ranchers, Fletcher and Starret, started getting into it over a fence line that they had been feuding about for years.  Everyone got tense and started to move for cover except for Slade.  He just sat there cool as can be and looked at the two fools who were facing off against each other.  “Ain’t nothing bad gonna happen here today, fellas,” he announced and offered to buy a fresh round of drinks for everyone.  You could feel the room relax and the crowd gathered around Slade once again.

“But Fletcher and Starret were having none of it. Starret called Fletcher a cheat and a liar. Without a word Fletcher drew on him and fired twice, two dry clicks, and the crowd turned in time to see two daisys fly from the gun and plunk Starret right in the chest.  I’m telling you God’s honest truth, Joe. And then, Starret raised his double-barrel, aimed, fired and showered Fletcher with an explosion of petunias! It was the damndest thing we’d ever seen.  They each grabbed a second gun and pretty soon the air was filled with bluebells and periwinkles.  The crowd at the bar was laughing so hard at the damned fools that they had no choice but to make up and join Slade at the bar for that drink he had offered.

“From that day forward, every gun raised in anger produced nothing but flowers.  All the town took it up as a badge of honor and that’s why you see vegetables and flowering plants in every single household.  We even sent a crew into Cheyenne to bring home a wagon full of paint for anyone who wanted to spruce up their house or barn or business.”

“Tobias, I’ve heard some tall tales in my time, but that is by far the tallest,” I said with a wry smile on my face.

“You can ask anyone, pardner.  Anyone at all.  Every word is true.  Changed every single thing about this town.  It’s when I started carving these gee-gaws.  I just wanted to have something to give away, to make people happy.” He seemed a little embarrassed by the admission.

“But the name. Everything changed except the name. Seems to me that this town is the opposite of desolate.”

“Yessir,” he said, “we talked about it. There were a lot of folks who wanted to change the name to Hope. Hope, Wyoming.  Had a nice sound to it.  In the end though, we decided to keep the old name so we’d never forget what we had been.”

“And, Slade?”

“Slade stayed for a month or so, helping people who asked for help.  Doing some painting here, some planting there.  Then one night, he packed up and slipped out of town in the middle of the night without so much as a fare-thee-well.”

I thanked Tobias for sharing his time and his memorable story with me.  He thanked me for the beers, and I left him as I had found him, carving away.  I pulled myself back in the saddle and eased Shiloh down the main street, such as it was, enjoying the gardens, the flower boxes and the brightly painted doors of the town on my way to Missy Mae’s boarding house.

I felt in my pocket for the dove Tobias had given me, pulled it out and marveled at the simple artistry of it.  I wondered if Jenny would say yes when I proposed to her tomorrow.  I wondered how she would feel about settling down in a small town with an awful name.



Allie checked her watch as she adjusted her scarf more snugly around her neck. She knew it was 2:30 AM, give or take, because she had been waking up before two in the morning for some time now. Her daily routine had her at one or another hiking trailhead every morning.  Today, it was Colby Mountain, one of her favorites—a nice steep start from the trailhead, up to a series of long switchbacks, followed by a meandering traverse during which she could catch her breath in time for a rocky, tough ascent to the summit, 3 miles and one hour away if she jogged the traverse.

She snapped on her headlamp and slung her backpack over her shoulders and attacked the slope feeling the sweet ache in her thighs and calves.  She moved smoothly through the dark accustomed to negotiating the twists in the trails and the rocky footpaths in the flat light cast by the lamp.

She felt happily alone on the mountain as she inhaled the scent of the earth and the chaparral that surrounded her.  She was unlikely to meet another hiker on the way up and had become practiced at switching off her light and melting into the darkness if she saw anyone approaching her.

As much as she had become accustomed to avoiding people, she relished her contact with the wildlife. Her light caught the eyes of a roadrunner that froze on the trail as she approached and then fled into the brush. The eyes of birds looked like sparks in the trees when she happened upon them.  Once last week, she froze when she saw the glow of large amber eyes just twenty yards ahead of her on the trail, a bobcat or mountain lion. She approached slowly, curious and unafraid, but the animal slid off into hiding, wary of the light.

By the time she crested the switchbacks she was in a good rhythm and could feel the sweat begin to run down her face and her torso even in the cold morning air.  She stripped off her scarf and her sweater, comfortable now in her shorts and long-sleeved t-shirt.

She began to jog easily over the flat traverse but was brought up short by a warning rattle coming from the dense brush to her left. She stopped and picked up a broken branch that had been kicked aside and gently lifted the twigs that hid the rattler. She knew that with the cold, the snake would be sluggish and not anxious to attack.  She got close enough to make out the diamond-shaped pattern on her back and the reddish color of her skin.

“Hey,” she said softly, “sorry to bother you girl. I’ve never met a red diamond before. You’re a beauty.”

The snake’s head pulled back and settled into a fold of skin as if comforted by her soft words as Allie gently lowered the twigs and tossed the branch aside.  She checked her watch again and realized she’d need to push herself to get to the top within the hour.  She jogged hard for the rest of the straight-away and stopped just long enough for a long swig of water before tackling the final rocky stretch cresting the isolated summit, enjoying her racing pulse and the full sweat that streamed down her upper body.

She sat on a flat rock, pulling her sweater back on and grabbing a couple of power bars and her water bottle.  As she rested, she checked her smart watch once again.  The digital readout showed her that she had lost four minutes on the trail somewhere, not summitting in her usual one-hour flat, and that today was April 3, 2022.  Her heart rate was already back down to 94 bpm and it was a brisk 48 degrees out.  She didn’t used to be so obsessed by time and numbers, but the pandemic had changed that for her.

When it first had struck and she had to spend all of her time at home, she felt paralyzed and helpless.  As the months went on though, she found some comfort in breaking down her day into hour-long segments. She found she could do eight hours of work in only five hours. Figuring she would get at least eight hours of sleep a night, she just had to plan for 11 hours.  Reading, television, emails, Facetime, social media, food prep and meals, all just rotated through and around her work hours.  After a while, it all started seemed normal until the insomnia fucked it all up.

The anxiety that built up over time brought with it chronic insomnia.  She began to wake after only a few hours of sleep, leaving her body restless and her mind full of spiders.  It was then that she had become a nocturnal hiker. She hadn’t expected it to become habitual, but the sleeplessness was unrelenting, and after a while her body craved the release that exertion brought and the hard, physical activity calmed her mind.

This routine had also allowed her to avoid contact with people.  Even when the authorities assured the public that the virus had been eradicated, she found it impossible to go back to being in crowded spaces.  Her graphic design firm had discovered it was cheaper and more efficient to have everyone work from home so she no longer had to spend time with her work colleagues. She continued to order food on-line or do take out and limited her time in public spaces to no more than two hours a day.

Time’s up, she thought.  She allowed herself just a fifteen-minute break at the top.  She was ready for the easy walk down the mountain and back to her car.  With the time she’d make up going downhill she should be at the coffee shop right when it opened at 5 AM.  She liked to have her coffee on the patio there and enjoy the sunrise and the endorphin rush she got from the hike. God, she thought, I hope Tariq isn’t working the drive thru.  He can be such an asshole.

One hour and five minutes later, she was the first car in line at the coffee shop.

“Hey, Allie, how you doing this morning?” came the voice over the speaker.


“Can I get a large, black coffee with no room, please?”

“Oh, sorry Allie.  We’re all out of black coffee this morning. Can I get you a mocha frappuccino or maybe a nice chamomile tea?”


“Goddam it, Tariq.  Will you just get me my fucking coffee?”

“Of course, Allie.  Anything you want.  I’ll see you at the window.”

She drove forward and just wished he would let her be anonymous for once–just one more drone on her way to work.

“Hi Allie,” said Tariq, who always managed to look fresh and cheerful even though he’d been working since an hour before the shop opened. “Thank God!  We did have some black coffee brewed, but hey, guess what.”

“Tariq, will you please just give me my coffee?”

“You see, this nice man saw you drive up and offered to pay for your coffee, but he said that I had to come out and bring it to you personally at the table where you always sit.  So, I said OK.  I hope it’s all right with you.”

“You,” she said, giving him the death stare, “are just impossible.  I’m going to report you for harassing me.”

“I understand, Allie.  I’ll see you out at your table in just a minute.”

She gave up and drove around the shop, parked, and settled into her favorite chair at a table in the corner of the patio, fuming at Tariq’s ridiculous efforts to engage with her.

Seconds later he backed out of the shop carrying not one, but two cups of coffee and sat down with them as if he had been invited. He was tall, and good looking, Middle Eastern maybe.  She guessed he was probably ten years older than her 25 years.  She tried to keep up her sense of fury, her sense of intrusion as he sat down, but the guy was just so goddam nice, it was hard not to like him. He passed her a cup of hot coffee and a chocolate croissant wrapped in a paper bag.

“Tariq, why do you do this?  You know I like to be left alone.  I sit out here in the dark and the cold for a reason.”

“I assumed it was because you really reek from that crazy hike you take every morning.  And I’m just on my break so I thought I’d sit outside too. Can you be alone while I’m sitting here taking my break?  I like the view of the sunrise from here.”

“You know, I dread seeing you every day,” she said with resignation as she pulled the croissant from the bag and bit into it, suddenly hungry.

“I know,” he said as he sipped on his coffee and looked out at the horizon. “It’s going to be a pretty one this morning.  Now quit bothering me, so you can be alone, with me here with you for now.”

Exactly six feet apart from each other, they sat and drank coffee and watched the sunrise without saying another word.





The Good Father

Disclaimer:  I rarely do this, but it was important for me to clarify that this is a story about a person who abuses his authority and position. It is not, in any way, an attack or criticism of priests or anyone who enters the religious life.  The character, and the situation portrayed,  is entirely fictional.

There was nothing Father Matthews loved better than a Saturday afternoon of listening to the sins of his parishioners.  Although he managed to maintain the veneer of the wise counselor and the fount of forgiveness that his role as a priest dictated, he secretly feasted on the failings of others.

Oh, most times the so-called sins were so mundane that he had trouble paying attention and pretending to care about someone’s “bad thoughts” a steadily used euphemism for sexual longing, or their displays of remorse over anger, inattention, or jealousy.  It was just all so petty and normal and, well, human. However, every now and then someone came in with a sin that was really delicious, something he could truly feed upon.

Ah, there was that sweet, young woman, Sarah, who struggled so with the guilt she felt over her affection for a married man, another member of the parish.  James Wilson was a family man, a good husband, a steady church goer, and as it turned out, a lying cheat. She had berated herself mercilessly throughout her confession.  Father Matthews had comforted her, reassured her that such feelings were normal, even if somewhat inappropriate, especially in one so young.  She was beginning to experience all the range of emotions that came with womanhood.  She eagerly embraced the rather severe penance of saying ten Our Fathers every time she found herself fantasizing about the man, a punishment that Father Matthews guessed would that almost certainly keep her illicit lover on the front burner of her mind.  She cried in gratitude at the priest’s firm but understanding nature.

After that, it was nothing to seek out these two faithful congregants separately and ask each of them to serve on the Parish Council that met every Thursday evening.  Their weekly contact with each other brought her back to Father Matthews within the month, broken and sobbing over the consummation of their affair.  Father Matthews listened gleefully as Sarah told him of the affair in rather graphic and sordid detail, adding to his enjoyment and perhaps helping her to feel she had more thoroughly cleansed her soul.

Sarah was battered by her guilt, her sense of failure, and her conflicting desire to continue the illicit affair.  The good Father did his duty and listened patiently to her torment distracted only by the passing thought that maybe someday she might consider seducing a priest, before he granted her forgiveness and gave her a penance of saying one Hail Mary for every day that the illicit relationship continued, dedicated to the wife of the man with whom she was having the affair.  Even closed off inside the confessional, he could hear her sobbing in the pew outside as she knelt and prayed for guidance.

Guidance came quickly apparently as Sarah sought him out on an afternoon one week later during a time when he spent an hour strolling the parish grounds trying to look prayerful.  She approached him with a sense of purpose and asked if they could speak.

“Father Matthews, I ended my relationship, um, the relationship we spoke of in confession.”

“I’m glad, Sarah,” he said trying to mask his disappointment.  “I’m sure that you will find relief in turning from that which was giving you so much pain.”

“I hope so, Father, but I also have a favor to ask,” she said as she pulled a small bundle of notes from her purse, tied together with yellow yarn. “These are notes that were given to me by James, and I find that I can’t bear to have them around and yet haven’t been able to just throw them in the trash.  Would you please take them from me and dispose of them however you see fit? It would be such a relief to have them out of my hands.  Even since I broke it off, I find myself going back to them and it’s just…just too painful to even look at them.”

He felt a rush of desire as she offered him the package.  Oh, what a delicious night of reading those naughty notes would give him–the entire history of their sinful romance all told (he hoped) in the most graphic and vulnerable detail.  It took all of his will to not to snatch the notes away from her.  Instead though, he put on his most solemn demeanor, one to be used by the bearer of bad news.

“Sarah, the road to redemption is a hard one.  It certainly would be easy for me to relieve you of your notes and to toss them in the fire tonight, but I think you are forgetting the depth of the sins you have committed, against God and against this man’s wife.”

Her lip began to quiver as she withdrew the letters and stared at him, in fearful anticipation. “But, Father…”

“Have you not considered that your final confession should really be to James’s wife?  Isn’t she the one whose forgiveness you should seek, now that I have given you God’s forgiveness? Isn’t she the person with whom you should share these letters?  Doesn’t she deserve to know the truth?”

She was crying freely now, her head downcast.  “I-I’d be ruined. James would be…their marriage.  I would destroy them both.”

“Sarah,” he said, the gentleness returning to his demeanor, “on the contrary.  You’d be giving them a chance to redeem their marriage. Do you think she would really want to spend the rest of her life living a lie with this man?  And you’d be giving James a final gift, the chance to seek the forgiveness that you have already received.”

He could see her struggling with her desire to protect herself, her lover, her reputation, the illusion that she could walk away from her sin, but his words wormed their way into her soul, and she collapsed against him sobbing.

He held her closely feeling her pert breasts pushing up against his chest until she had cried away her indecision and stepped back to face him once again. She wiped away the tears with the back of her hand and tried to compose herself.

“Y-You are right. You warned me that redemption is hard. I know that what you are telling me is the right thing to do.  I-I just hope I have the courage to face her.  I fear I may be too weak. I’ve already fallen once.”

He summoned his look of kind forgiveness and held his hand against her cheek.  “Sarah, my child, you are a righteous woman. You broke with God this one time, and now you have a chance to mend every part of this one sin.  This final step will be the one that sets you free.”

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath and reached out and took his hands in hers.  “Thank you, Father.  Your words have been a constant source of wisdom and guidance for me.” She looked up at him with her beautiful and guileless dark eyes. “You’ve given me the strength to do the right thing.”

“My child,” he said as he reached out and touched her cheek, “your goodness was always going to guide you down the right path. I’m just a simple helper.  Go with God, now.”

As she strode slowly, heavily away from him, he admired her firm, rounded behind. Of course, she was carrying a burden now, the one he had given her.  He considered that she would soon wreak havoc on the lives of two more of his flock, two more poor souls who might seek out his comfort.  It really had been quite the trifecta for him. He decided to celebrate with one more circuit of the church grounds before heading back to the rectory.

As he passed by the church, he admired the new stained-glass windows glinting in the sun, reflecting the warm and forgiving light of the Lord.



The Seer

Tomás lived his entire life in the small fishing village of Polanco Negro.  Like his father and his father’s father, he lived the life of a fisherman just as all of the men of the village had done.  He learned all of the tricks of the ocean and how the sea could be generous in one year and miserly the next.

He was clever though and thrived.  In the lean times, he learned how to build with mud and brick.  He learned to mend his nets and, for a price, the nets of others.  He added rooms to the house he had inherited from his father and a fine kitchen for his wife.  He bought his neighbor’s land when his neighbor grew weary of life of a fisherman, and planted rows of hemp and taught his children to make rope that the men always needed and rough sandals that the children liked to wear.

Tomás was the most prosperous man in the village because rather than waste his time drinking with the other men when the seas were too rough or the rains came, he used his time to think and learn, to build and invent.  When he rested, he told his children wild stories of the sea, of beasts and monsters he had seen in the distance, and of gigantic fish he had battled for days, but sadly, had lost.  Their favorite story was the one about the wise man who lived on a jungle mountaintop far away, a seer.  “Some men from this very village,” he told them, “have left everything to try to find him and seek his wisdom.”  He let his voice drop into a whisper, “And they have never been heard from again.”

When the children would sleep, Tomás would make love to his wife all night long with a fierce passion, as if he somehow knew that any night with her could be his last. But they had many nights and grew old together.  They watched as one by one, their children moved to the cities to start their own lives, not one of them wanting the life of a fisherman.

One day, as he returned from a long day on the water that had produced no fish at all, he saw the village women surrounding his front door, and knew right away that his beloved wife had passed.  She had complained for days of a pain in her belly and had begun to take to her bed in the afternoons, but even though he begged her to go and see the doctor, she had assured him she would be fine.

He slid past the women and their whispered blessings and sad looks and saw that they had already washed and dressed her for burial, the only woman he had known or loved.  Just that morning, she had bustled about her fine kitchen making him coffee and pan dulceand teasing him about how thin his hair was getting, about how the sun would someday burn him down to ashes.

That night, he piled his nets into the bottom of his boat and poured kerosene over everything he used for fishing, set it all afire, and pushed his boat out into the water. He stood on the shore and watched it burn with all of the sadness that he felt in his heart until it sizzled and sank into the sea.

After her funeral, which everyone in the village agreed was the finest, most expensive funeral anyone had ever seen before, the man retreated into his house and did not come outside for many weeks. Even though his children begged him to come and live with them in the city, he could not imagine leaving the village where he had spent his entire life. Once everyone had left, though, he found that the house was now much too big and quiet.  It was not just that he was alone, but for the first time in his life, he felt he had no purpose, nothing to live for, no one to care for.  He thought and thought and thought, but for once, he had no answers.

Tomás began to think of the old story of the seer, the mythic tale he had once told to help put his children to sleep.  He became obsessed with the idea of taking the journey to the mountaintop to ask for guidance, for wisdom, and for purpose, everything he felt he once had possessed, but now had lost. Surely then, he could return and enjoy the rest of his life in peace.

The seer’s mountain had no name.  The story went that the only way to find him was to walk toward the rising sun, and to travel with nothing but an open heart.  Tomás needed no time to prepare.  He dressed in simple clothing, put on his best walking sandals and struck off into the jungle as the sun began to rise.

The hiking was hard at first, but he walked with the same fire with which he had lived his whole life. He walked from sunrise to sunset, stopping only to feed on the fruits and berries that were plentiful. At night, he found it simple to fashion a crude basket to catch fish in the streams which he would gut with his rough fingers, eat raw, and give thanks for the sustenance that gave him strength for another day.  Then he would fall asleep to the sound of rushing water and dream about the sea.

His journey stretched into weeks and then into months.  His body became nothing but skin and sinew and bones.  He began to walk through the day and into the night at times, stopping in the rain to drink the water that ran from the leaves and coming to know which plants and insects he could eat.

Tomás no longer thought about day and night. He slept when he was tired, ate when he was hungry, and drank whenever he could. He no longer thought about purpose or wisdom.  He simply walked toward the sun and did what he had to do to stay alive.

One morning, the trail turned into a jungle that was so thick that it turned the day into night. And then, before a massive tree, the path ended.  He was surrounded by trees and brush.  The only break in the greenery was a powerful waterfall that crashed down a steep tumble of boulders.  For the first time on his journey, he could see no way forward.  Exhausted and defeated, he propped himself up against the base of the giant tree and slept.

When he awoke, he felt weak and steadied himself against the tree with his hands.  He stood for a long time feeling the bark of the tree, allowing the tree to hold him up.  Before long, he could feel the bark pulsing, pulsing in rhythm to his own heart.  The wind through the trees whispered to him, and he turned to study the waterfall that had seemed impassable the day before.

At that moment, he could see one single stone in the midst of the rushing water that he could reach from the bank, a stone that he swore to himself had not been there the day before.  He stepped out to it and felt the current pushing hard against his legs.  From that stone, he could see another, and another, and another, each one rising up the face of the waterfall. The current crashed into him as he pushed himself from boulder to boulder, but the vibration from the tree was now in the water and seemed to give him strength even as it beat him down.  He thought of nothing except the next step and pushed himself for what felt like hours.  Suddenly though, he pitched over the edge into a beautiful pool where he was able to pull himself up onto a stone ledge and see that he had reached a clearing on the top of the mountain.

As he looked at the clearing, paved with stones that had been carved from the rocks of the mountain, his heart was certain he had found the home of the seer.  The stones created an intricate mosaic of the sea and the sky.  Facing east was a stone hut large enough to sleep in and be safe from the rain. A small fire pit sat near the entrance and next to it, wood neatly stacked next to a crudely fashioned bench. Inside the hut, he found shards of flint, a sharp knife, two simple bowls, and a sleeping mat woven from leaves and fronds that were plentiful in the jungle. He gazed around the clearing as the long shadows of the afternoon creeped in but saw no one.

“He will return in the morning” Tomás thought to himself.  Grateful to have a roof over his head and something other than the ground to lie on, he crawled on to the sleeping mat and slept deeply and dreamlessly throughout the night.

He awoke with the sunrise but lay there for another hour and let the sun warm him in the shelter.  Surely the seer would return today.  He set about gathering food and stripping the bark of trees that he could use to repair his clothing that was little more than rags after his lengthy trek.  He fashioned snares and traps as he had learned to do on his journey and filled the two bowls with water from the stream that fed the emerald pool.

Once that was done, he was content to sit and watch how the light changed as the sun crossed over the mountaintop, and listen to the birdsong, sip his water as the day became hot, and hear night sounds as the sun went down.  He learned how to use the flint to start a small fire for heat and for cooking the game that he had caught during the day.

The seer did not return that day, nor the next, nor the next.  Tomás contented himself with his life of waiting on the mountain top.  The journey had stripped him of desire, and he began to relish every new sunrise, the sounds of the creatures around him, the rushing of the stream, the comfort of his hut during the rain. He felt himself heal and grow strong.  He no longer thought about the past.

He lost track of how many days he had been waiting for the seer and began to forget just what it was he had hoped to learn from him.  As the months went by, he didn’t think about anything but what wonders might visit him each day—a passing hawk, the call of owls, the chatter of frogs, the hum of insects, the crack of a passing thunderstorm.

Months became years and Tomás found that he began to lose his words; his mind was filled with what he could see before him and the only wisdom that he found came on the sound of the wind during the day and the beating of his heart at night.

One morning at sunrise, he was wakened by the sounds of a splash from the emerald pool and of a person struggling to climb out of the water.  He rose from his mat, and padded over to find a disheveled, ghost of a man collapsed at the edge of the clearing.

Tomás touched the man’s shoulder and roused him from his stupor.  When the man saw Tomás standing over him, he wept and circled his arms around Tomás’s legs and cried, “Master, I’ve come so far to see you. There is so much I need…”  But Tomás put his fingers to the man’s mouth to stop his supplication and helped him to walk to the simple bench and sit upright while he served him.  In one bowl he gave him the remains of the rabbit he had roasted the night before and a then gave him a fresh bowl of water all of which the man consumed gratefully.

As he served the man, Tomás realized that the man had mistaken him for the seer.  In his heart he felt he had no answers, no wisdom he could possibly share.  He had not thought about his own journey to find the seer for many years, but his years of solitude had brought him the peace which he had once sought.

Refreshed, the man turned to him and once again began to speak, and once again, Tomás stopped him, holding two fingers to his lips.  He had no words for the man. Instead, he grasped the man’s hand and pressed it to his own breast, sighed deeply, and held it there until he was sure the man could feel the beating of his heart as they gazed out over the trees where the sun was just cresting the ridge.  He then took the man’s hand and pressed it to his own heart and let him feel the warmth of his own soul.  Together they sat for many hours, warmed by the sun, their silence only broken by the whisper of the wind in the trees.






Helpless and Radiant

 Jason was in love with Sarah in the way that only a 17 year-old-boy who has never spoken a word to his loved one can be.  He both hurried and trudged to math class where he knew he’d be spending another long and fleeting hour sitting just slightly behind and across from her, close enough to reach out and tap her on the shoulder to ask for a pencil that he did not need if he only had had the temerity to do so.

She was beautiful in a sort of girl-next-door, I’m-not-looking-to-crush-your-heart, Zooey-Deschanel kind of way.  He loved her for how her knee bounced all through math lectures, for how she alternately frowned, and smiled, and tapped her pencil eraser against her forehead all the way through a math test.

But what held him helplessly and hopelessly in love was how she would, in a moment of boredom or contemplation, suddenly sit up straight and, using both hands, gather up her lustrous brown hair, begin to twist and swirl it as if she was going to tie it in a knot or whip a rubber band around it to create a pony tail, and for a moment hold it atop her head like an elegant updo, before giving her head a shake and letting it all fall once again to her shoulders.  It was just such a girlish and sensuous thing to do.  Something about that simple motion killed him every time.

Today though, she just sat through class, looking quietly radiant in her everyday jeans, a vibrant t-shirt, and jean jacket. As the class was nearing the end of the period, and he pretended to be working on his homework for the night, he watched her doodling on a piece of rainbow-colored paper, surely a note for a girlfriend that she would pass on her way to fourth period.  He wrenched his thoughts away from her and tried working his way through the math problems, enjoying the brief respite from the pleasure of thinking of her.

He was trying to finish the last one, still immersed in gradient equations, when the bell rang, and so he was startled to look up and find Sarah standing next to his desk with her dark eyes fixed directly on him. She placed the note that he had assumed was for a girl friend on the corner of his desk and slid it toward him.  She smiled as she let her fingers linger on the note.

“You know, Jason, nothing is ever going to happen if you don’t try talking to me rather than just staring at me all through class every day.”

A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth and she let her hand trail from his desk as she turned, slung her backpack over one shoulder and made her way through the crowd and out the door.  

He opened the note.  It simply said “Call me!” with her phone number written underneath and the entire message surrounded with swirls that filled up the rest of the page except for a heart in one corner and a smiley face in the other.  A heart and a smiley face!  That was important, wasn’t it?

In the course of just a few moments, he suddenly no longer hated being 17.  He thought that maybe this year could turn out to be the best year of his life.  Or maybe the worst. He really wasn’t sure at all.

Death By Fortune Cookie

I pushed away the remains of my breakfast plate, squinting at the morning light that filtered through the dingy restaurant window. The newspaper was still in the corner where I had tossed it after scanning the banner headline “SCIENTISTS DECLARE ROMANCE IS DEAD.” The subhead continued, “Romantic feelings deemed a fraud, delusion.” I had tossed the paper away without reading on, disgusted. Not that I had lost anything to science. I had given up on romance long ago. Too many missed chances. Too many broken hearts. Maybe they were right—delusional. As a consolation, I cracked open my fortune cookie. The message inside read, “Your destiny is not your own.”

Good to know, I thought bitterly as I threw down a few bucks on the plastic checked tablecloth and only then started to wonder what I was doing in a Chinese/Thai/ fusion buffet restaurant for breakfast rather than my usual diner.

Stepping through the ornate red door, instead of finding myself on a cluttered LA sidewalk in the brilliant morning sun, I walked into the hall of a grand palace bustling with servants who all seemed to be preparing for a great feast. The walls were hung with red tapestries embroidered with golden dragons. Guests were arriving dressed in traditional European formal wear and servants swarmed about in colorful outfits that looked—I didn’t know—Chinese, maybe?

I felt dizzy and disoriented as I tried to take in this unexpected setting and the swirl of activity. My head swam as I, for the first time, noticed that I was wearing loose pants and a matching shirt, both made from heavy, gold brocade instead of the suit I was sure I had put on this morning.

It was as if I had entered into the set of a movie or a play, but I had no idea which one. Who was I? What was my part? I could swear I wasn’t dreaming.

I felt a gentle tug at my elbow and turned to see one of the serf-like attendants at my side. He kept his eyes downcast as he whispered, “Don’t worry, your Majesty, you will catch up.”

At that moment music swelled from the orchestra and the guests all stood aside emptying the dance floor. A beautiful young woman glided to the center of the room, her eyes fixed on me, arm extended, and the attendant gave me a respectful push toward her. She took my hand and curtsied beautifully and then began to sing:

                        We’ve just been introduced

                        I do not know you well

                        But when the music started

                        Something drew me to your side

                        So many men and girls

                        Are in each other’s arms,

                        It made me think…

                        We might be…

                        Sim-i-lar-ly occupied.

                        Shall we dance?

And as she continued to sing, we began to waltz around the grand hall. Waltz! She sang, and then I sang, and we spun about the dance floor and everything seemed effortless, lovely, and romantic. I matched her song with my own:

Or perchance, when the last little star has                        

                        leave the sky

                        Then will we be together with our

                        Arms around each other and will

                        You be my new romance?

             The words seemed to burst from my chest. It was all just so goddam romantic. I don’t know how I knew the words or the song or the dance or anything that I was doing, but in that moment, I could feel myself falling in love. Her eyes were lively and mischievous, and she felt lovely in my arms.

For that very brief moment, I believed I was a king, and that this dance, this night would last forever. The thought filled me with joy and wonder, and at the very moment I started to believe, she began to fade, become unsubstantial in my arms, and disappeared. The palace walls melted away, and I was alone once again. I found myself looking out over a darkened city skyline, standing on a gritty, city street dressed in blue jeans and a black leather jacket. I felt a surge of youthful energy and could hear my friends calling to me, “Tony! Hey, Tony!” in the distance. But I left them behind as I ran through the streets, simultaneously with no idea of where I was going and absolutely certain of my destination.

There! I thought, when I spied a fire escape that had been lowered to the ground. I dashed up the rungs until I came to the third landing, near a lighted window.

“Maria!” I whispered loudly, “Maria!” I’m not sure how I knew that I should be calling out her name, but my heart swelled when I saw her face appear in the window. We were both so young, and I felt myself consumed with such passion for this dark-haired beauty. I felt just as deeply in love as I had been a few minutes before, or was it centuries, since I had danced with that woman—since I had been a king.

It didn’t matter now. We whispered our intimacies furtively, her parents apparently nearby, but soon, our love was just too great, and we found ourselves singing to the stars, no longer afraid of anyone or anything:

Tonight, tonight the world is full of light

            With suns and moons all over the place

            Tonight, tonight the world is wild and bright

            Going mad, shouting sparks into space…

We sang, we whispered, we made plans for the next time we could be together, and then she disappeared behind her curtains. I slid down to the bottom of the stairs and sat, still feeling like I would burst. This is what love feels like! How could romance be dead? I suddenly no longer cared if I had control over my destiny. If my fate was to live in a whirlwind of passion and to experience love across the globe and across all of time, then so be it. I stood and walked away with Maria on my lips and filling my mind and looked back one more time at her window just as her building, the streets, the skyline, all began to melt away.

I barely had a chance to whisper, “Maria” one last time, when I found myself entombed in what must have been a crypt. The smell was dank, and in the dim light I could see corpses, big and small, shelved on either side of me for all eternity. I walked down the narrow entrance, full of dread until the tomb opened up and in the center was a bed of marble, a place for the newly dead. And there upon that bed, was my Juliet. I knew it was her before I saw her name engraved. As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear, I remember thinking when I first saw her at the masked ball. Oh, bitter destiny, I thought. If Juliet be dead, then romance could not live.

This time, I knew the play. I knew my part.

I sat beside her and traced the cold cheek with my hand one last time. Even in death, her beauty warmed me–the warmth that had struck me the night of the masquerade; the warmth of our one night together. Oh god, just one night.

Oh, my love, my wife,

            Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath,           

            Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty.

            Thou are not conquered. Beauty’s ensign yet

            Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks,

            And death’s pale flag is not advanced there.

I felt inside my pouch and fingered the bitter vial I had purchased from the apothecary just hours before. In the distance, I heard a disturbance. Someone was coming to take me from my love once again. No more. I pulled the stopper from the bottle and offered one final toast to sweet Juliet before I drank the potion and felt it seize my heart, my very soul.

Oh true apothecary,

                        Thy drugs are quick.

                        Thus, with a kiss I die.

I could barely see, but forced myself forward to leave one last kiss on her lips. I imagined, with my last breath, that I felt her return the kiss ever so lightly. It rendered death just a tiny bit sweeter.

Harry and the Cool Girl

Becca’s Journal   8/1/18

This journal will be the death of me. Required by my therapist.  “A safe place to work out my feelings.”  Blah, blah, blah.  There, worked them out.  I’m bored already.   Oh, god, senior year.  I’m exhausted just by the thought of all the pretending I have to do at school. Think I’ll take a nap. Bye, journal.

Note from Harry  9/3/18


First off, I’m not a stalker.  It’s just that I’ve noticed you ever since freshman year, but it’s taken me until the first day of senior year to write you this note.   I’ve always admired your sort of fierce independence.  I like how you wear the same ripped jeans and your assortment of flannel shirts almost every day.  But you’re also kind to people in class.  You never snub anyone.  You have a nice laugh.  You speak your mind, but don’t seem to hate on people who are different.  You’d probably even be nice to me if I had the nerve to talk to you, but being invisible still feels safer to me.

Anyway, we’re seniors now. I thought maybe it was time to tell you that someone here at school thinks you are the cool girl.

You can think of me as “Harry” (as in Potter?–cloak of invisibility, get it?).  Nerdboy works also.

Becca’s Journal  9/3/18

WTF!!  My first thought was that I wanted to punch him for messing with my stuff, but now that I’ve read the note obsessively as if I was in middle school or something, I see he actually sounds really nice.  I mean, he said nice, almost entirely, non-creepy things about me.  Noticed me since freshman year??!

Yeah, freshman year–the year I came out to my parents and they lost their shit.  They cried and prayed and prayed and cried and I never again mentioned that I liked girls.  They got me a good Christian therapist and pray every night that I get healed.  Got that, journal?

Goddam, you Nerdboy.  That was one cowardly thing you just did–dropping me a note with no way for me to write back.

Note from Harry 10/23/18

Hey Cool Girl,

You seem sad today.  I saw you sitting over in the corner of the student center and you weren’t with your usual crew.  It was just you and your notebook.  Looked like you were drawing one of those epic fantasy scenes you like to work on in class.  Yeah, ok, I might have looked over your shoulder once–maybe twice.

About the invisibility thing.  My family moved a lot when I was a kid and I found making and losing friends all the time just made me sad.  So, I just became one of those kids who never raises his hand, or joins a club, or goes to a dance. I did ask a girl out once. Sort of a “wanna-go-get-something-to-eat-after school-sometime?”–awkward attempt.  She laughed and walked away.  Friendships are hard.

Anyway, I hope you are OK.  I don’t like to see you looking sad.  Or maybe you just have a lot on your mind. I’m sending you good vibes.  I’ve got your back, Cool Girl.


Becca’s Journal  10/23/18


I’m so mad at you right now.  How can you say you’ve got my back when you sit in the shadows across the student center and watch me hurt like that?

Last night’s session was brutal.  The theme was perversion.  The counselor, who is supposed to be a healer, a compassionate person, looks at me with such disgust.

Yeah, I was sad today, Harry.   I’m going to tell you a little secret because I know you will keep it.   After ever session, I peel back my sleeves and find a fresh place to draw the razor across my forearms.  The scaring is becoming pretty impressive.  So, those flannels you like so much, are more for coverage than for style, poor boy.

I cut because I’m drowning in disapproval.  It’s stupid, I know, but I have all of these hating voices in my head, and cutting makes them silent, gives me myself back for a while.

Yes, Harry, I look sad today becauseI didn’t pack enough Tylenol and my cuts were throbbing like a bastard all day long.  I could use a lot more than your “good vibes,” asshole.  Got any Norco to go with those?

I actually don’t think you are an asshole.  Finding your note in my backpack is the only good thing that has happened today.  You’ve really got that invisibility thing down pat.  It makes me feel good to know someone nice is thinking about me.  It would be even better if I could somehow get this note (oops! journal entry) to you.

Note from Harry  11/15/18

I thought I ought to drop you a note before we go on Thanksgiving break. I don’t know how you feel about the holidays, but I pretty much hate them.  How does a season that’s supposed to be so nice end up with so much drama?  Maybe your family is not like that.

My vibes aren’t working on you.  I watch you every day in class and you are becoming one of the “invisibles,” like me.  I haven’t heard your laugh in a month.  I almost came and sat with you at lunch because you’ve been keeping so much to yourself, but now I’m scared.  If you’ve been hating the notes or if I’ve made you afraid, you might turn me in for harassing you.  Naw, knowing you, you’d probably just punch me out. I can see the headlines now  “Cool Girl Clobbers Nerdboy–Claims Harassment!”

I don’t know what to do, Cool Girl.


Becca’s Journal   11/15/18

He finally wrote again!  I’d been waiting and waiting.  God, that’s so pathetic. Searching my books and backpack every night hoping for a note from my friend, one of the misfit toys.

My parents want to send me to this gay conversion camp over Thanksgiving break where they try to “pray the gay” out of me.  I’m drowning, Harry, I don’t know what to do.

I’m tired of waiting.  I’m done with this crap.

On November 16, 2019, Becca Anderson came to school early with six envelopes, all of them with the name “Harry” written in big block letters across the front.  She went to each of her teachers and asked if she could pin one to the front bulletin board in each of her classrooms.  She promised that it was nothing sinister and because she was a good girl, none of her teachers minded.  Inside of each envelope was the same message:


Please, don’t be afraid.  I need you to become visible.  I. Need. YOU. Today.  Meet me for coffee today at Sam’s. If you are not there by 3:45, I really will find you and punch you out.

Cool Girl


From Singapore, With Love

He was contemplating the advantages of suicide as he sat in his cubicle when his thirty-third call of the day rang in.  “LoveActually Dating support services.  This is Brian, how can I be of assistance?”

“Hi, Brian,” replied the female voice, “my name is Judith and I’ve been using your dating app for the past 6 months and it has matched me up with an unparalleled string of complete losers.  You advertise an 85% satisfaction rate and, excuse the pun, but I’m not getting any satisfaction.”

“OK, Judith, thanks for calling.  I’m sure that I can help.  Have you tried powering down your phone any time in the past 6 months and then re-starting it.”

“Of course,” she replied impatiently, “It’s the first thing I tried.”

“Great, now do you mind if I mirror your phone and take a look at your dating profile and your settings?”

“OK, I guess.  Don’t you need my passwords or something?”

“No, actually your first name and phone number are plenty. Let’s see…. OK, you are 35, from the Bay Area, currently living in Fresno, California, and enjoy skiing, snowboarding, long nights, fireplace, wine, conversation, etc., etc.  Do I have the right Judith?”

“Yep. Sounds like me.”

“OK, let me get into your settings.”

“I usually don’t allow that on the first phone call,” she quipped.

“Ha!  Good one, Judith.  You didn’t mark “sense of humor” on your qualities.  Let’s add that now, OK?”

“Sure.”  Her trepidation at calling was disappearing in Brian’s apparent enthusiasm and confidence in the task at hand.

“OK, now under the question “How anxious are you to find a suitable partner?” you clicked on “beyond desperate.” What if we move that up to “very interested” and see if we can weed out some of those unsuitable matches.”

“But I am beyond desperate, Brian.  This is my fifth dating app in three years and I haven’t gotten… I haven’t had a really good date in a really long time if you know what I mean.”

“Yes, ma’am.  I think I get it.”

There was a long pause.  “Judith, are you still there?” he asked.

“Brian, you didn’t just call me ma’am did you?”

“I–um–it’s just the training we get, ma–ah, Judith.”

“Brian, can you activate the camera on my phone?”

“Well, yes, I can, but I’m not supposed to. It would take me a minute.”

“Just do it.  I’ll wait.”  She could hear him clicking frantically at his keyboard in the background. “Ok, I just saw the green light come on.  Do I look like someone you should be calling ma’am?”

She could hear him gasp as he saw the live picture of her flash on his screen.

“Ah–uh, no, Judith.  A-Absolutely not.  I-uh-if you could just button your shirt back up I think we can fix your profile and get you a much better result.”

“Just breath, Brian, it’s OK.”

“May I just say, that I don’t think your current profile picture does you justice.”

“No?  I don’t think they will let me post one topless, do you?”

“Well, no, but…”

“Yes, I can fix that later. What else can we do.”

His breathing had almost returned to normal as he scanned the rest of her settings. “What I’m thinking is that it pays to be more selective so that you can attract someone who really fits your interests.  What if we change your “absolute requirements for a match” from ‘under 60 years of age, breathing, and must be employed’ to something like ‘under 40, fit, and interested in both indoor and outdoor activities.’”

“Ha, I like that!  ‘Indoor and outdoor activities’–a bit suggestive, don’t you think?”

“I can take that out if you don’t approve.”

“No, let’s stick with it.  You have a kind of cute sense of humor also, Brian. Any other recommendations?”

“Why don’t you go with the changes we’ve already made, select a new profile picture, and see how things go for the next few weeks.”

“And if I’m not satisfied with the results?”

“I just texted you my direct line.  I’d be happy to be of assistance to you for any of your future needs.”

“Goodness, Brian, I do believe you are flirting with me.”

She could hear him sigh audibly over the airwaves.  “Believe me Judith, I certainly would be if I weren’t slowly dying in my cubicle here in Singapore.”

“Story of my life, Brian. Story of my life.”