Columbus Day

By William Baker

Mr. Nathan Penrod Michaels is peeved as he walks to the elevator, briefcase in hand. In fact, he is fuming, though it is hard to tell, what with Mr. Michaels’ amiable and harmless expression. His usual nodding and pleasant smile betray his outrage.

He is perfectly dressed as always. His gray tailored suit hangs on his fifty-eight-year-old slight frame. He always wears only three simple adornments to his dress: a wedding ring, a gold cross necklace and a Timex wristwatch. He once considered adding a fedora to the mix, but is yet to make a final decision on the matter, after all, it is not something one rushes into. Men no longer wear ties, these days it is business casual. The casual standard is growing looser and looser as time goes on and Mr. Michaels finds this not to his taste.

Everyone knows, he thinks as he greets all of those in their cubicles. Look at them! They’re happy it was me again and not them.

The large briefcase weighs heavy in his hand as it always does when packed up with the quarterly billing invoices. He and only he ever delivers these invoices to the main office in Columbus, Indiana. Yes, they can be sent by computer or by courier, but the company brass never wants that. They want hand delivery and Mr. Michaels is the man for the job. For many years it has been entrusted to him. It is critical to the billing process, even in this electronic age, these sheets of paper are essential to the bottom line. Proper billing and accurate revenue is impossible without them. The delivery of these documents is by far his most essential task.

Sanford says ‘bottom performer’! He put bottom performer right on my official review. Me, a bottom performer! Out of the blue. He never even told me there were issues with my performance and never offered one shred of evidence for the complaints against me. Michaels stops at the receptionist’s desk, smiles and nods at Sylvia. He signs himself and the briefcase out for the day even though the Columbus trip will take him much less time.

He calls it Columbus Day, and it happens four times a year.

He even wants to take Columbus Day away from me! Sanford says, ‘Enjoy it while you can old boy, I’m assigning it to a temp soon.’ A temp! He is going to trust a temp with documentation and invoicing vital to the company’s bottom line? Why, if something happened to these there would be repercussions! Severe repercussions! Thousands of dollars could be lost, tens of thousands! Will a temp deliver these with a severe strep infection like I did in 1992? Will a temp borrow his brother’s automobile at the last moment and make this delivery like I did in 1987? Would a temp battle the worst winter storm in decades and hand these documents over safe and sound like I did in 2013? I think not!

He considers coming back to work the last few hours of the day. No, he decides. It has been understood about these documents. They are a priority. A priority that even Sanford can say nothing about. It is Columbus Day four times a year and by heaven, he is going to take the day, like always. He stops at the water dispenser in the lobby and fills a paper cup.

“Bottom performer!” he whispers aloud as he punches the elevator button. He looks at Sylvia, she is on the phone and hasn’t heard.

I have never been anything but a top performer for all these years. Then along comes this boy Sanford, not even thirty, and I am now at the bottom. Who is he anyway? My God, he was a child in the playpen when I started this job. The elevator dings as it stops on his floor. The door is very slow to open.

Mr. Michaels steps into the elevator and the doors close on him before he is inside. They do not bounce open when they make contact with his shoulder. He skips in unharmed.

“Oh, my!” a young woman looks up from her phone and exclaims.

“That’s not good,” a coal-black man in a bright white and immaculate caterer uniform says. “I don’t think it’s supposed to do that.”

Others in the elevator express opinions and concerns. Mr. Michaels, as he is wont to do, smiles and nods, agreeing with all around. He drains the paper cup, smooths his suit and straightens the little gold cross.

Bottom performer! He exclaims to himself. When they came up with the idea to move the bulk of operations to Indianapolis and keep headquarters in Columbus, they asked for volunteers and who stepped forward? I didn’t want to leave my hometown, and uproot my family, but I did. For them! When they needed Saturday work, who sacrificed? Who came back to work two days after knee surgery because Columbus Day was here? When they needed people to park on the top floor of the garage, who volunteered? And for this they put a pipsqueak in charge and let him call me, ME, below par!

After a few more people get on and off, narrowly escaping the disobliging doors, it is discovered that the door open/close button is the way to master the problem. Mr. Michaels offers to man the open/close button and tame the doors. He reasons with all aboard that he will exit at the parking garage and report the problem to the proper channels. Everyone thanks Mr. Michaels for his flawless action plan.

THAT, for a bottom performer! Mr. Michaels congratulates himself. But he can see the writing on the wall. Sanford and his toadies have it in for him. In less than two years, Sanford arrives with the full blessing of the corporate brass and turns the staff over. All of the old guard, those in their forties and fifties leave, replaced by people like Sanford: young, inexperienced, arrogant, less expensive. Mr. Michaels was the last of the original pilgrims and this was his fourth trip to Sanfords office. The other conferences were for minor infractions such as the Bible on his desk. This time he made it stick! My flawless record now says BOTTOM PERFORMER! He smiles and nods at the man and two women who get out at the building lobby. He accepts their thanks for his sacrifice at the open/close button.

The doors spring open at the parking garage and a startled older gentleman with a cane gets on selecting the second floor. Oh my, what if he can’t master the door? Mr. Michaels makes a hard decision and shuts the door.

“Not your floor?” The man puzzles.

Mr. Michaels smiles and shakes his head. He will not burden the man with the door issue.

Sanford! He looks like a little boy playing dress-up! I dislike his little man-boy smug smile. His toadies are even more sickening. They call me old dog and Pops, and worse they make fun of my faith. They call me Preacher Michaels! I have never preached. My sermon is a life lived, nothing less, nothing more.

At the second floor, he holds the button. “Not your floor?” the older man asks again. Good-natured and amiable to a fault, Mr. Michaels shakes his head. The man jumps as the door bangs shut.

This infernal door is dangerous! Even an old bottom performer like me can see that! He thinks as the elevator descends again to the parking garage where the door opens at a snail’s pace. It opens no more than a foot and Mr. Michaels spies four or five people puzzled and expectant. Again, he makes a command decision and hits the open/close. This elevator is unsafe! So says the inveterate bottom performer! The door crashes shut and he punches in the tenth floor for no reason other than to get the elevator moving. He now has full control of the elevator.

At the tenth floor, a well-dressed man looks up from his phone in time to see the door open about a foot and stop. A benevolent, smiling Mr. Michaels reaches for the button and travels to the sixth floor.

This time it is two office women talking. They are startled by the elevator booming shut on the smiling, nice man wearing a suit and saying ‘bottom performer’ out loud.

They think, he fumes to himself, they think I am a nobody. They think because I smile and fault to the side of politeness, that I have no bark, no bite? They think turning the other cheek is meant for them? They think that saying little means seeing little? Means knowing little? Any dog will turn when cornered. And this dog knows where all of the bones are buried.

On the ninth, Mr. Michaels almost lets the door open all the way in the lobby of his employer. He spots Sanford walking over to speak to Sylvia, then turn to see him in the elevator and look baffled. Look at him! Wearing a short-sleeved button-down shirt with a tie. That tells you all you need to know! Mr. Michaels points one finger toward the ceiling for emphasis and proclaims, “BOTTOM PERFORMER!” He hits the open/close and punches in the third floor.

There are many people waiting on the third and someone shouts at him as he hits the open/close and directs the elevator to the fifth where there is another crowd and loud talking as he again presses the button.

He wants to take Columbus Day away from me and when it goes, I will soon follow. On a sudden impulse, he hits the button for his company’s floor again. The elevator jerks to a stop and the doors creak open.

Mr. Michaels has always detested slang language. He never does it. It does not suit him. But the more he considers it…

The door seems to pause, open about eighteen inches. Sanford steps into view with an angry expression “Michaels, what’s with the elevator? Are you messing with it?”

Yes! I must! Mr. Michaels makes another command decision and moves forward face to face and inches from Sanford on the other side. “Don’t SCREW with Columbus Day!” he shouts the infernal slang and shuts the door.

Then it is to the eighth, then the second, and the lobby, to the garage again and back to the tenth and on to the fifth. Each time more people gather and each time they are more irritated as the doors will not open enough for admittance. They can see the very polite, well-dressed man, smiling and nodding to all and saying something to himself as he controls the door.

They don’t know how vital I have been. How loyal. How sacrificing. To be sacked by a smirking child because of age! He pilots the elevator to his floor.

As the door begins opening, he can see that the lobby of his employer is now crowded. Sanford stands with arms folded, beet red in face and fuming. His flunkies are in a scared, huddled mass behind him. At Sylvia’s desk are various others, gathered to see Mr. Michaels make a stand.

Another word he hates. A word he has never uttered in his life. It is crude, offensive, and despicable. Worse than the slang he has already shouted. Yet no other term will do. Yes, they have pushed Nathan Penrod Michaels too far! They will see that he means business! The door pauses again at eighteen inches and Sanford comes forward. Mr. Michaels is ramrod straight at the opening and shouts, “AGE IS THE NEW N_____!” Only he says it, the abhorrent N word! He feels shame yet the crowd at Sylvia’s desk cheers. Sanford bellows something as the door slams closed.

Mr. Michaels hangs his head. He has never said such a thing. It was immensely wrong. Against God and man. A hand goes to the cross at his neck. They have pushed him to desperation but that is no excuse and he knows it. In due time he will issue an apology to his coworkers. Mr. Nathan Penrod Michaels is not above admitting a wrong, not too proud for repentance.

It’s on the wall, yes, he thinks again. It’s a matter of time. All these years and it comes down to a youth movement and a pipsqueak. To the third, the fifth, the eighth. People are waiting, impatient. What do they care about Mr. Michaels and the injustice thrust on him?

At the ninth again and once more he lets the door open enough to see his lobby. Sanford is boiling mad, stomping mad, two building security officers on one side. A worried Sylvia and a few head-bobbing toadies in the background. The crowd is gone and an anxious maintenance man on the other side of Sanford.

“Michaels! What the … are you doing?” Sanford shouts.

Mr. Michaels smiles and nods. He looks through the slow-opening doors. “Now Sanford, that is no way to manage people,” he admonishes. “In fact, I would call it BOTTOM PERFORMER!” He points to the ceiling again.

“Get out of the elevator!” Sanford yells, making the maintenance man flinch.

Mr. Michaels smiles and hits the button. He presses for the parking garage.

The elevator zips downward, too fast for him. To Mr. Michaels’ surprise, the doors stayed closed for a moment then fly open and stay there. A buzzing alarm sounds. He exits to a small crowd of people who look after him. As he walks swiftly around the corner, toward his parking spot, he hears two women remark on him, “why, that’s Mr. Michaels. He’s such a nice religious person.”

Michaels scoffs mentally at the term. Never religious he thinks.

He goes to the trunk of his Audi where he places the tire tool inside the briefcase, hesitates a second then the small scissors jack also. He forces the briefcase full of essential billings and tire implements closed and secures it with bungee cords. He then walks around the Audi to the chest-high wall. It is all open here and he looks over the wall and down. This part of the garage extends over the manmade lake that the office building is constructed on. He heaves the briefcase over the wall and watches it splash in the dark water and sink. He turns to his car and points to the ceiling for emphasis “BOTTOM PERFORMER!”

Mr. Michaels backs out of his space. Down the drive aisle, he sees Sanford and building security as they exit the stairs into the garage. I have the ill-dressed twit in my sights, he thinks. He sits still in the Audi, one foot poised over the accelerator. He feels for his cross. What good? He asks himself. My God will not condone it. My family will pay the price. My life lived will be as nothing. Besides he does not deserve it. It is after all only a job. He rests his foot. Sanford and the guards spot him and begin trotting his way.

But, do I not have security override to every major system in the company? Are they not unaware of what I have discovered over the years. Things I have wrongly let go out of allegiance? False allegiance and I false for overlooking it. That I must face and face the reality of this life lived and put it right at last. Are there not things certain authorities may be interested in knowing? I do not have a box full of information in my garage for nothing! They will be slow to act, they always are. It is time to set things right, no matter the personal cost. Still, time is short. Now they will see how fast an old dog can unbury bones.

Mr. Michaels steers the Audi down another aisle. He smiles to himself and nods his head. He caresses the cross at his neck and reflects that he is just another old bottom performer heading into the new morning’s bright uncertainty.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in Indiana Voice Journal.

William Baker lives a postive life with his family in Central Indiana. He is a homesteader, author, actor, photographer, husband, father and grandfather. He is a working-class dude for a home care agency. He takes the commandment of Yeshua seriously to love one another. He is previously published online and in print.

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Where I’m From

By Luke Bensing

I’m from the next state over.

In one of the shadows of the largest cities in the world.

Where the bourgeois and proletariat exist in tight pockets side by side

But reluctantly intermingle.

You may have your skyscrapers

But where I’m from, our houses never go higher than two stories

And even the tallest buildings are only three or four.

the other neighbors are rows and rows of corn and soybeans.

I’m from the four seasons, but not equally divided.

Winter is from October to May and the sun shines only when it wants to

And it doesn’t want to that often.

Where I’m from, we ask the one obvious question that nobody really cares about

but everyone has the same answer for:

“So how about this weather?”

Where I’m from we all share the same inside joke,

except it’s no joke

and no one is laughing,

but we all nod our heads in understanding.

Where I’m from our “g”’s disappear and we are left runnin’ and wonderin’. Or wanderin’

And our drawls get drawn out.

I always felt like I’m from the north but more people sound southern to me

Where I’m from.

There is a quote I’m forgetting about a person’s “true colors”

But where I’m from it’s more about a long, slow adaptation

Into a mold you never intended to occupy

When we say “Sox” we all know we mean white not red.

Although I see more Blue “W” and Cubs flags than anything

there are always a smattering of American and Confederate flags also.

Where I’m from.

I’m from the prettier and more colorful sunsets because of the industrial smog.

And the dandelions being the official flower.

And the many varieties of weeds that resiliently grow through the cracks in the streets and sidewalks.

Greens and browns and sometimes a yellow, sometimes a soft purple.

We might be going through a change

Or maybe the change is going through us.

Or maybe we’re stuck?

I keep threatening for so many years to leave, maybe a Carolina

But as of today, I’m still right here.

Luke Bensing is an English Major with a Secondary Education Concentration at Purdue Northwest. He plans on finishing his degree in 2023 and transitioning right into a high school classroom locally in Northwest Indiana. Luke’s main interests in literature and the humanities are poetry, music, poetry in music, theology, religion, black studies, and engaging non-fiction. He seeks to constantly expand his unconventional thinking and writing to become a more effective and engaging teacher. More than anything he wants to encourage human kindness and empathy for future members of society.

Leaving Stratford

By Rich Elliott

Two armies clashed on a muddy field. Horns wailed, imploring the battle. A knight stood dazed with a shattered lance. One running soldier pushed his sword clean through another man, who fell to his knees and toppled over. Another warrior staggered, grasping desperately at an arrow stuck in his chest. A boy-soldier, weeping, knelt over his slain captain.

The crowd in the Guildhall bellowed and cheered. The sweating mass crushed forward, waving their fists and spilling their beers. They stood straighter and grinned and told each other, “By God, ain’t tha’ a wonder!”

A young man in the front row, pinned now against the stage, struggled to breathe. He stared up at the scene, spellbound. His head swiveled from player to player, absorbing the action. He inhaled the spectacle before him, this history-on-fire, this captured lightning in a box.

The young man was better appointed than most in the crowd, evidenced by his fine gloves, his soft leather boots, and how he wiped his flushed face with a handkerchief instead of his sleeve.

Now, onto the stage, raced a little black terrier who began to lick the face of a fallen soldier, and the spectators erupted again, this time in delighted laughter.

__________

Later at the Garrick pub, one of the players, the fat one, the one who played King Henry’s friend, approached the young man. “Do you always wield such a keen attention?” the fat man asked. “I thought you might devour us.”

The young man blushed. “Me? Oh, I . . . it’s just . . . I never saw such a thing.”

“Aye! It’s our first time to your village, tha’s why,” the fat man chortled. “And yet. Yours was a knowing gaze. You hung on our lines.”

The young man tried to think of a reply. “I am educated, true. I enjoy words. I suppose I know a lot of words.”

“And,” the man who played Falstaff continued, “of course, I noticed your gloves.” The fat man was always on the lookout for those who might become patrons.

The young man gulped at his beer. Talking with a celebrity—and someone of such dubious profession—made him nervous.

“Yes, my gloves. Well, my father is a glover. I work for him.” Then, thinking of something that might impress, he added, “And I also tutor.”

“Ah! A man of letters,” Falstaff said, but then his attention was jerked to a corner of the pub where a fight was breaking out.

One too many rounds of drink. Offending remarks and a volley of curses. A violent shove to the floor. The fallen man springs up, he counterattacks and slams a beer mug to the other’s cheekbone, sending forth a spray of ale and blood. The bleeding player grabs his assailant’s face, drags him onto a table, and attempts to gouge the eyes. The table tilts and collapses, and mugs of beer shatter. With the tragic loss of beer, the onlookers finally rush in and separate the brawlers.

The fat man assumes the role of mediator. His powerful arms keep the fighters at bay, and his jokes soon get the crowd laughing.

Across the pub the young man stayed clear of the melee and watched, chagrined. He finished his beer. It was late. He really should get home to his wife and babies.

And yet, he lingered. He felt drawn to these unruly players who brought excitement to his sleepy town. They were interesting to behold. All their actions were big and immediate. They commanded attention. The young villager had never encountered such characters.

“It seems we maintain our infamy!” The fat man—whose name was Dutton yet everyone called him Falstaff because he so inhabited his character—was back at the young man’s side. “Our reputation for disturbing the peace in every village.”

With Falstaff were two other players—a tall, skinny, pockmarked man and a short man with a hawkish face.

“Perhaps Stratford can use a bit of disturbing,” the young man replied.

“Knell, our vexatious friend over there,” Falstaff pointed to the player lying prone in the corner, holding a side of mutton to his face. “He will be out of commission tomorrow, his cheekbone the size of a melon.” Falstaff eyed the young man. “How would you like to make a guest appearance?”

“Me!?” The young man sputtered. “You mean, as a stand-in, for your injured man?”

Falstaff clasped the young man on the shoulder and turned to the friends. “I told you he was a quick study!”

“Look, this deplorable, (Falstaff again pointed to the prone man), “only has two lines. Can you learn two lines?”

“Well, I suppose I can learn two lines. But . . .”

“Young man, nothing comes of nothing!” Falstaff wrapped his bearish arms around him. “You’re hired! Come around tomorrow at noon.”

Falstaff was exiting the pub when he stopped abruptly, his two friends plowing into him. The fat man turned and called out, “Sir! Novitiate! My plague-faced friend Tarlton poses a question. Do you have a name?”

“It’s William. But my friends call me Wick.”

“Then we shall call you Wick. Do you have a surname?”

In the din of the pub, the young man answered.

The players were weaving down the lane when the hawk-faced man said, “Did he say Shake-Pear? I swear, I’ll never make out the speech here in Warwickshire.”

__________

“You’re up early.” The bald-headed, brooding man looked over his son, who stood at a workbench as he tied a bundle of new gloves. Wick’s smock was disheveled and pulled askew from his breeches. The father furrowed his dark brow. “And late to bed, I daresay.”

“I must away earlier today, Father. At mid-day.”

“Why, may I ask?”

“I am needed at Guildhall.”

The father eyed his son suspiciously. “Oh, you are, are you? Listen to me! You steer clear of that band of delinquents. I’ve already heard they destroyed the Garrick last night.”

“The Garrick was not destroyed, Father. There was a brief altercation, is all.” The son sulkily resumed his work.

“I mean it!” the father rumbled.

Whenever his father was near him, the son felt his body straining, about to tear, like his skin was trying to shed but could not.

For the hundredth time the son wondered moodily, How could I have come from this man John Shakespeare?

His father was all business, all numbers and tabulations. His interests were investments, acreage, shillings, and sheep. He spent shameful amounts of time in local petty politics and in currying favor with the Stratford well-to-do. As for his household, he ruled over it with sour oppression. The man’s only dreams—restoring Catholic priests and winning a family crest—were ridiculous follies.

But then again, mused Wick, maybe I am the strange one. What are my interests? Books? Words? What a laugh! When did words ever make anyone money?

I bumble around town, and I embarrass myself. My puns are lost on people. If I use a foreign phrase, my listeners stare at me. I annoy people with wanting to know the names of everything. Say, good man, what is that tool called? Oh, an adze. And what is it you are building? A lintel? Now there’s a word!

I’m unnatural. I sneak away from my work, sneak away from my wife, my babies, to find comfort in my books. My Plutarch, my Ovid, my Spenser! My Orations, my Fables! My lovely friends! My escapes into other lands, other times!

I wander in my imagination. Where I’m free to ramble, free to idle on a hillside. Free to breathe deep and to swell.

Free from Father’s disappointed looks. Free from the pinching walls of the workshop, free from stacks of leather, quarrelsome customers, and endless boyish errands.

Yes, and free from my wife’s disappointed looks, free from my daily diminishment, from the cramped spaces and our lack of privacy, from the frustrations of our bed, and from our crying, grasping babies.

I escape into my books and into my mind.

“Come back to us, Wick, my dear!” Annie, my wife, complains. “Come to dinner. Come back to earth now. Please.”

I wake up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep. I flee outside, into the black, and I pace the roads, my head in a riot. I walk for miles, stopping only to jot down words, fleeting lines about souls and beauty and heartbreak. Words about nothing.

Just before dawn, I return to bed. “Oh, Wick, my dear,” Annie whispers, “Whatever shall we do with you?”

__________

The little constructed stage inside Guildhall was total confusion. Players, in states of half-dress, careened across the boards. All was uproar.

Where is my blasted sword from yesterday? Who has it?

Try looking where you left it, Dough-head!

Where is the trumpet-horn?

Where did you blow last?

Where has the damned dog gone to?

Sully and dog are outside taking a piss.

Who has a script? Find me a script! Didn’t we change those lines in Act III? Let me see!

Tommy, fix that tree, it’s going to fall over and kill a paying customer.

This curtain is stuck. Why is it stuck?

By God, where in hell is Tarlton? Late again! I will wring his neck!

Wick stood at the edge of the stage and watched in fascination. How could something so chaotic come together and become so beautiful? It was a marvel.

Finally, Falstaff noticed him. “Oh, you! What’s-your-name. You showed up! My green player!” The fat man grabbed Wick’s arm and yanked him aside just before a ladder toppled over, nearly hitting them.

“You play a soldier. Wear this smock. Shake it out first, for bugs. You are an aid to King Henry. You show up in Act IV. When Henry and his officers come onstage, you go with them. You stand next to Henry. That’s him over there, that’s Wilson. Do you follow me so far?”

Distracted by the antics on stage, Wick forced his attention back to Falstaff. “Yes, I follow you. I enter with Henry.”

“And Henry will turn to you and ask, ‘What is this field called?’ And you will say, ‘It is called Agincourt, my Liege.’ And then Henry will ask you, ‘Have we spotted the enemy yet?’ And you will answer, ‘We have, my Liege. Over the rise, a mile away.’ You will bow, and Henry will say things to his officers while you take a step back and then walk off stage. That’s it in a nutshell. Can you remember those lines, what’s-your-name?’

“Wick, sir. Yes, I think I got them.”

“Remember, Act IV. With Henry and his group!” Then Falstaff raced away.

__________

The clattering, boisterous sounds from the incoming play-goers swelled within the Guildhall. The villagers, mostly men, pressed and milled about expectantly. They shuffled and elbowed each other to get the best sight. They smelled of onions and garlic. They downed beers, haggled with sellers, ate apples, peeled oranges, cracked walnuts, laughed at the juggler, conducted business, considered the whore in the corner, made jokes, cut farts, and hooted for the play to begin.

Offstage, behind the drawn curtain, Wick waited nervously with the players of the Queen’s Men, who went about their final preparations oblivious to the young man. The men and boys pulled on costumes, they applied makeup to each other, they mumbled lines. They drank tea and honey. They sucked from flasks. They harassed each other nonstop.

Well, break a leg.

How about if I raise my leg on you?

I’ll break your third leg.

Prince Hal, you’re looking very royal this aft.

Yes, he looks a royal ass.

Aye, a royal fart.

Someone called out, One minute to curtain, men. Positions! And then Falstaff faced the troupe and proffered his standard benediction. “Full house today, men. Again. And the mayor’s here too. Let’s give them their coin’s worth. Create our world!”

The curtain rose to lusty cheers.

__________

From his new vantage point, Wick stared in wonder. He was an arm’s length from the action, and now he could perceive the inner workings, the details creating the art. It was like opening a pocket watch and peering inside.

The acts of the play flew by.

Now Falstaff was grabbing him, pushing him, and he was onstage, his chest thumping. Wick squinted out at the throng inside the Guildhall, and his heart leaped into his mouth. So many staring people!

He stuck to King Henry’s side. The king was giving him an insistent look and repeating, “Sir! This field! Does it have a name?”

Wick gaped at the king and attempted to speak. From outside his body he heard calls from the crowd. “Ha! The glover’s son! Ha! That’s Wick!”

Wick delivered his line. The king’s second question came instantly, catching him off guard. Wicked blinked at the king. “Well, yes. My liege.”

“Yes, what, man?!” The king was clearly impatient. “The French, where are they?”

Wick’s mind was blank. His mouth stuffed with cloth. He stared helplessly at the players on stage. A rolling chant started up from audience. “Glove-man, Glove-man, Glove-man!”

Finally, blessedly, speech. “O’er yonder hill, a mere mile away,” Wick improvised, “The French await to be beaten today!”

Wick smiled idiotically and breathed a sigh of relief. The king and his officers conferred.

Wick soon found himself offstage. One player pounded him on the back. “How’s tha’ for a baptism, ‘ol Wick? Welcome to the boards!” Wick gave the man a fierce hug and immediately felt embarrassed.

__________

At the Garrick, the Queen’s Men paid for Wick’s beers. He was welcomed into their fraternity. Goodheartedly, they roasted his shaky debut. As one of their own now, he was a target for brotherly abuse.

Wick! Me hopes thee hung up your soldier’s breeches!

Oh, why’s that?

Why? So that the piss can dry, tha’s why!

Wick will give a looser performance tomorrow, I reckon.

Why? Are ye goin’ to bend him over an’ loosen him up?

The jests were flying fast and furious, and Wick had no chance to reply.

What kind of name is Wick anyway?

Methinks Wick is surely a nickname? Short for wicked. Are you wicked, Wick?

Methinks our young player canna keep his wick in his pants. A score old and has three babies at home, I hear!

Aye, and how many more babies around town?

Late in the evening Falstaff sat down beside the young man. “Knell’s still nursing his broken face, son. I will need you again tomorrow for our final show.”

“I will be there.”

“Truth be told, I could really use someone like you.”

“Like me?”

“You are clever.” Falstaff studied the man as if for the first time. “Today, when you forgot your line, you recovered with two lines of nice poetry.”

“Sorry, sir. I often think in rhymes.”

“We could use a man of letters like you.” Falstaff leaned closer. “You see, Wick, we want to expand our storytelling. Currently we have just three old histories in our repertoire. We tire of the sameness. We’d like to, to, elevate.”

“You think I could help you?” Had he not been full of beer, Wick would have laughed in the man’s face, but now, on this night, at this hour, anything seemed possible.

“Why not you? I know you are well-read. And there are so many old stories that want to be on stage. But we need a, a . . .”

“An adapter.”

“Yes! Exactly! An adapter!” Falstaff slapped his hand on the table. “A writer! Have you ever written?”

Wick shrugged his shoulders. “A little.”

“Tell you what, young scholar.” Falstaff, his face animated now, grabbed Wick’s shirt and pulled him into conspiracy. “How about you take some lines from our play and rewrite them? Some little scene you think you can improve on. Just for fun. As a kind of, of audition. What do you say?”

Wick’s out-of-body self was telling him, Are you crazy? Why are you humoring this drunken fat man?

But what the entranced young man actually said was: “I can try it.”

“Good man!” With this, Falstaff jumped up and performed an exaggerated bow. “Bring me the lines tomorrow at noon!”

__________

The black maw of the bedroom crouched and tried to smother the flickering candle. Quietly Anne left the bed and came to her husband, who sat hunched over a little table. She pressed her cheek next to his and ran her hand over his chest. “Come to bed, Husband,” she implored. “The night is nearly gone. Please.”

“I will, Dear. Soon,” the husband replied, distantly. “I have some ideas. That want to be on paper.”

Wick hovered over the English encampment on the night before the great battle. The play needed something here. There was an opportunity here. For heightened drama.

The English are grossly outnumbered. How fearful they must be on this night! The sleepless king would likely be pacing. He might walk among his men so as to hear them and share in their fears. And maybe the king’s presence bolsters his men. Maybe, in this desperate moment, he gives a speech to them, a kind of blessing of their sacrifice, rallying his fellow comrades-in-arms.

Yes! That is what the play could use! It will propel the story—and enspirit the audience!

The young man wrote. He wrote as if the paper were about to ignite, as if his life depended on it.

__________

Wick slumped over his workbench. He swayed from lack of sleep.

A loud bang and John Shakespeare crashed into the workroom. He grabbed his son by the shoulder and spun him around. “What have you done? You have ruined us!”

Wick stared, trembled in the clutches of his father, who shook his son and ranted on.

“You get up on their stage, and you join in their depravity! After I forbid you! Are you mad? The whole town is speaking of it! Our good name!”

The son sputtered something about merely helping the visitors, these men who offered a little good fun, men who were sponsored by the Queen—but his words came out garbled and weak.

“You live in my house! And you will do as I say!” the father roared. “Stay. Away. From. Them!” The father shoved a long list of deliveries at his son, which would take him as far away as Wellesbourne and Warwick. “Complete these! Today! And NO Guildhall!” The old man stormed out of the room.

Wick studied the list and sighed.

__________

The boy-messenger found the fat man onstage behind the curtain directing traffic and barking commands. “Message from Wick Shakespeare, sir,” the boy said. “He canna be here today, but sends his writing!”

Falstaff grabbed the pages from the boy. His eyes rifled over the lines. He smiled and frowned. Pretty wordy, he thought.

“King Henry, get your ass over here! You have some new words to learn! Hurry!”

__________

John Shakespeare sat at his account book and scratched his bald head. He closed and opened his left fist. His conflict was age-old: How does a father make a son bend to his will?

I can whip him. Though he is now taller and stronger than me. I can threaten to disinherit him, throw him and his family out on the street. How would that look to the town elders? Or I can continue to browbeat him. But how long will that work?

The fact is, William is a strange boy. Always has been. How will he ever find his place?

John Shakespeare slammed shut his account book. Today he could not concentrate on the numbers.

__________

Anne Shakespeare had her escapes. Nearly every day she foisted her babies on Mary, her mother-in-law—who feigned being put upon but secretly delighted in taking the children—and she would flee to Holy Trinity, seeking to calm her heart and find solace in her prayers.

I love him dearly, Anne prayed, this father of my children. But sometimes, oh Saint, I want to shove him down the stairs! Why can’t he be content? Why does he torment himself? Why can’t he enjoy his advantages? Why is he so brooding? Is this my cross to bear?

If she sat there long enough, quiet enough, prayed fervently enough, then Saint Monica would appear in the misty twilight of the cathedral’s vaulted upper-reaches. Monica, with her sea-blue silks and her sweet, tranquil face, would come, and she would say, Patience, Anne, patience. All will be well. You will see.

If these words did not restore poor Anne, Saint Monica would whisper, Calm yourself, Anne. Trust your husband. I know him. He is a beauty-seeker. Beauty will deliver him. All will be well. He will find his way.

When Anne returned to Henley Street, to the scrambling, shrieking house, the storm in her heart would be quieted, for a time. He will find his way, she told herself. But what if he does not?

__________

Trying to gain time, the young man whipped his horse, which was piled high with packs of leather goods. The horse sweated and snorted.

Wick felt possessed by a dangerous mix of excitement and desperation. I may have to kill my father to be free of him! How good it would feel to get my hands around his neck! To put a stop to the man’s endless slights and commands!

But before that, I must see the effect of my writing. Maybe, if I ride fast enough, I can finish my deliveries and get back to the Guildhall before the end of the play. After all, my new scene comes near the end.

How will the audience react? What will Falstaff say?

Wick thrust the packages at his customers, ignoring the usual pleasantries. “Lots of stops today!” he shouted at the surprised faces, and he rode on. He pushed his horse so hard he had to swap for a fresh one in Warwick.

__________

The Guildhall was aswirl. As Wick galloped onto Church Street, he descried the Guildhall, its doors flung open disgorging its teeming mob. As he rode closer, he could see that the crowd was in high spirits.

“God save King Henry!” shouted the theater-goers. “Bless ol’ Hal, he whipped ‘em, didn’t he!”

Wick reined his horse, leaped off, and waded into the mob. And now he could see the villagers’ entranced, fevered faces and their tears.

A neighbor grabbed him. “Oh, Wick, did you miss it? Oh, what a show!”

And then, from somewhere, he heard his words. His words!

“We few, we happy few,” a cry went up. “we band of, of . . .”

“Brothers!” Another villager shouted.

To the impassioned cheers of the crowd, villagers were re-conjuring the scene, calling out, collaborating, piecing together the lines still searing their brains.

“For he today what sheds his blood with me . . .” one crowed.
“Shall be my brother!” another screamed.

“And, and . . .”

“those in England now a-bed”
“Shall think themselves . . .”

“Cursed they were not here!”

“Whiles any speaks of fighting with us on . . .”
“On Saint Crispin’s Day!”

The cheering villagers surged around and past Wick, who stood transfixed in the river. My words.

__________

The players at the Garrick feasted on the high spirits of the villagers. An excellent box. A terrific audience response! What more can one ask? The players accepted beers, recounted stories, and luxuriated in the send-off given by the happy townsfolk.

Wick, amid the noise in the pub and the hearty embrace of his fellows, tried to restrain his gleeful heart and listen to Falstaff. The fat man had assumed the role of mentor.

“Now that you’ve passed the audition,” Falstaff paused to let out a long belch. “Do ye understand what you have before ye, young Wick?”

“What I have?” Wick breathed.

Opportunity!” Falstaff gripped the writer’s arm with a sense of urgency. “Come with us, man! We need you.”

Wick dazedly attempted to grasp the words.

“Wick. You are good at this. Did you not see the crowd reaction?”

Wick nodded, but thought of the hundred reasons why he could not leave Stratford.

“Think it over, Wick. There are worlds out there!” Falstaff searched the young man’s face. “We break camp at first light tomorrow, we’re off to Coventry. Come see me there. We will support you, Wick. We are the Queen’s Men.”

As if on cue, two tables collapsed, sending several drunken Queen’s Men to the floor.

__________

The alcohol failed. It did not bring sleep. Wick lay on his side, the side away from his wife, his eyes wide open. He considered the stars outside his window as they crept across the night sky. Then he lay on his back, peering into the dark canopy of the thatched roof. Then he lay facing his wife’s back. He could not turn off the anarchy in his brain.

Leave the family business? The security of coin and bread and roof and family? Remove the cog that made it all work?

Leave his wife and babies? Leave them to disgrace in Stratford? Leave them to annihilation from my father? Leave them to starve? How can I even imagine it?

And for what? For a pat on the back from a drunken fat man? A man who makes his living by play-acting? By pandering, on a daily basis, to fickle crowds, to their bulging, stupid eyes?

Or maybe it was for some fantasy of going to London, the dirtiest, most plague-infested, most evil city in the world?

How could he even think these thoughts? His nightgown clung to him. He felt filthy.

__________

“Worlds! Worlds!”

This is what Anne thought she heard her husband mumbling as she woke him.

“Wick. Love. It is day. We must be up.” She shook him. “You were dreaming.”

Wick jerked up, his eyes focused, and then he fell back on his pillow. “I feel ill. I’ve never felt more tired.”

“You hardly slept, my love. All night, I could feel your agitation.”

Wick sat up, stared at his wife, and took her hands in his.

“Anne. Love,” Wick began. “This is going to sound crazy.”

__________

“A temporary leave?!” John Shakespeare thundered. “I don’t even know what that means!” The air was suctioning out of the workroom, its walls were crawling inward.

“A kind of sabbatical.” Wick had a sudden vision of himself being dragged off to a madhouse. “What I mean to say is, a short trip, to, to gain experience. To gain knowledge.”

His father backed his son against the workbench.

“You,” snarled the father. “You stupid, stupid boy. I am sick of making excuses for you. You fuck the first thing that lifts a dress. And, well, she gladly takes your seed, and she makes a little demon. Oh, and then she arrives with a scant dowry!”

“Well, and so I set you up in my business. But you take no interest in our doings. Instead, you dally with, with books!”

John Shakespeare gripped his son’s neck. “And then! And then this company of clowns invades our village, and what do you do? You decide you love their buggery, you want to prance off with them!”

The son grabbed his father’s hands and bent them backwards. With a newfound, irresistible strength, Wick bent the man’s hands until he saw something strange come into his father’s eyes—fear. Then he shoved him away, finally done with the man.

“All these gloves!” The son violently whipped his arm around the workroom. “Men’s gloves. Women’s gloves. Children’s gloves. Rich gloves, plain gloves.” Wick tried to repress a sob. “None of these gloves fit me. I don’t fit!

__________

Anne wept. Her crying woke the babies. The babies would not be consoled. Wick pulled her back to the bed. A drowning man, he gripped her face in his hands.

“Tell me not to go, Anne! Please, please, tell me to stay!” the drowning man pleaded. “Tell me I am mad. Lock me up.”

Husband and wife sat on the edge of the bed and held each other. The babies, disbelieving, continued to cry.

At last, Anne grew still. She assembled the aching changes she’d witnessed in her loved one. The gleam on his face after writing for the players. His new, potent, self-regard when he returned from the company. And she remembered the whispers of the saint.

Then, summoning the courage for both of them, she said, “Love, you have to go. Go.”

__________

Wick caught up with the Queen’s Men on the morning of their second day in Coventry. As he rode into the encampment, a scene of devastation appeared before him. The players huddled, ghostly and haggard, around a fire. They stood with bent heads and slumped shoulders. Some openly cried.

At first Wick thought the players might be rehearsing some new material. He waited patiently near the outer circle. Finally, Falstaff spied him and came over.

“Well, tis a damn shame, young Wick.” Falstaff let out a long sigh. “God’s will, I suppose. He had such a choleric temper.”

 Wick gave a confused stare. “God’s temper?”

“No, son. It’s Knell. Have you not heard?” Falstaff looked gray and ten years older. “Last night. He picked another fight. This time with someone quicker.”

“My God, is he hurt?”

“Dead, son. A knife in the heart.” Falstaff shook his head. “What a loss! Such a stage presence!”

Falstaff brought Wick over to the fire, and they studied it and warmed their hands.

 “Well, young scholar, you have perfect timing. We’re a man short. You start today. Can you learn more than two lines?”

“Yes, sir,” said Wick.

“And I want you to start writing.”

“About what?”

Falstaff slowly plumped to the ground and motioned for Wick to join him. “So much death! Tell you what? Can you write us a comedy? Something light?”

“I will try, sir.” Then Wick remembered something. “But one request. A change.”

Confound it, thought Falstaff tiredly, the worker already has some demand!

“Now that I am one of the Queen’s Men. I should be known more properly. I should like to be called Will or William, not by my nickname.”

“That can be arranged, son. Come, let’s go run some lines.”

Rich Elliott, a Valparaiso resident, is the author of The Competitive Edge: Mental Preparation for Distance Running and the anthology Runners on Running: The Best Nonfiction of Distance Running.

1945

By DC Diamondopolous

I first saw Teresa out my kitchen window back in 1928. Her father, a widower, had moved into our neighborhood. I was kneading dough when I looked up and watched the child glide her sled down a snowbank and slam into a tree. I ran across the street. “Are you hurt?”

She scowled. “Mind your own beeswax.”

I ignored her sass and asked if she would like a nice piece of hot homemade bread. She rubbed her bump with a snow-crusted mitten and shook her head. Teresa repeated the stunt and sailed free all the way to the sidewalk. I clapped my doughy hands. The little one smiled. “Can my pop have one too?”

The next year the stock market crashed, and we plunged into the Depression. 

I’d see Teresa walk home from school, alone, shoulders slumped, eyes downcast. We all wore threadbare clothes, but her charity hand-me-downs never fit her growing body.

One day, I invited her to see Shirley Temple in Bright Eyes. Coming out of the theatre, she reached for my hand, such sweetness in her grasp. From then on I became her cheerleader, my pompoms the crocheted scarves and sweaters I made for her.

From the end of the Depression to another War, changes occurred every minute—and right here, in Farmingdale, New York.

In the winter of ‘42, Teresa got a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I’d be at my window at six o’clock making dinner as she arrived home in a car full of girls. She ran with newfound joy up the steps to the front door, turned, and waved first to her friends then to me. Her smile brought riches not even Rockefeller could buy.

Teresa had every other Sunday off and we’d have lunch on my back porch. “Oh Aunt Lena, I never knew working with my hands could be so much fun. There’s a lot of us gals, cutting and soldering, doing everything the men did. But our paychecks are nothing compared to what they earned.”

“Of course not. Men have families to care for.” My comment hung in the air like a barrage balloon.

Why, I never questioned my pay working in the factory during the First World War. It would’ve been unpatriotic—but this, I kept to myself. Now we could vote. Women smoked. Teresa wore overalls at work—so much had changed.

On a spring day in ‘43, she told me about her promotion. “I work on submarines, welding.” She put down her fork.

“What’s wrong, dear?”

“They’re cramped quarters. My boss rubs up against me. When I told him to stop, he put me out in the rain to weld, knowing I’d get electrical shocks.”

“Can’t you go to his boss?”

She shook her head. “It’s always the girls’ fault.”

I worried that after the war, young women like Teresa, who built our ships, tanks and planes would question traditions. Men wouldn’t stand for it. If I went to work, Roy would raise Cain, though he did let me sell war bonds.

In ‘44, Teresa made management, and our lovely Sunday lunchtimes came to an end. Her new boss, a decent man, depended on her. She worked twelve-hour days, seven days a week, and took care of her ailing father.

I helped out by sitting with Pop. One night when she returned late I expressed concern for her coming home alone in the dark.

She laughed. “With the boys gone, we girls can walk anywhere day or night and feel safe. Even Central Park.”

Her breezy comment gave me chills. I saw thunderclouds on the horizon. “You respect our boys who are fighting for our freedom, don’t you?”

“Oh, Aunt Lena.” She put her arm around my shoulder. “Of course, I do. But women are fighting for freedom too. Just not on battlefields.”

The war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945, but it dragged on in the Pacific.

Teresa’s final promotion came in early June. She oversaw seventy-five women in the construction department. I couldn’t have been prouder of her.

On August 15, the radio blared, “Official! Truman announces Japanese  surrender.”

“Aunt Lena, Uncle Roy!”

We all had tears in our eyes as I opened the door.

“I’m going to Times Square, then on to the shipyard. Can you look in on Pop?”

“Of course, dear.” A car waited for her. The girls waved flags. I held up two fingers making a V for Victory. “Do tell me everything that happens.”

Roy and I went back to the radio. We heard about the thousands of people who turned out in cities across America. I imagined the red, white and blue rippling and waving, confetti and ribbons, wet eyes and cheering—if only our beloved FDR had lived to see it.

That night we grew anxious as the hours passed and no word from Teresa.

The next morning I recall burning myself on the skillet. My mind filled with worry about our girl. Then from my kitchen window, I saw her come out the front door. She wore slacks and a blouse and marched down the walkway to the car. Rigid—with dark smudges beneath her eyes.

I ran across the street. “What’s the matter?”

“We wouldn’t quit, so they fired us.”

A girl in the car said, “With the boys coming home, we got canned.”

“Of course. They’ll need their jobs back.”

Teresa glared at me. “My boss told me to get married and have babies.”

“What did you expect?”

Teresa opened the car door. “I expected more from my country.”

Back then I didn’t understand the full impact of the war and what its aftermath meant to our daughters.

Now with Roy gone and Teresa out west, I think about those days and the car full of girls who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I know now as I watched them drive off to gather and speak up for their rights that what I saw was the future.

DC Diamondopolous is an award-winning short story, and flash fiction writer with hundreds of stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, and anthologies. DC’s stories have appeared in: Penmen Review, Progenitor, 34th Parallel, So It Goes: The Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, Lunch Ticket, and others. DC was nominated twice in 2020 for the Pushcart Prize and in 2020 and 2017 for Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net. DC’s short story collection Stepping Up is published by Impspired. She lives on the California central coast with her wife and animals.

Son of the Hunter

By John Grey

His father’s taken the gun down from the rack.
It’s the Remington 12 gauge, his weapon of choice.
He’s out there in the woods somewhere,
aiming, firing, blasting away a deer’s head
or a rabbit’s heart, or even the hide of a huge black bear.
The boy is still in bed when he hears the first shot in the distance.
Hardly awake, and there’s a critter dead already.
Ten minutes later, he’s slowly dressing
and bang!…another report from the hinterland.
He eats his breakfast: cereal, eggs.
And then he’s startled, mid-mouthful,
by the resounding echo of another bullet.
“Who got it this time?,” he wonders.
His mind flips slowly through his favorite book of wildlife.
Was it a raccoon? How about an elk? Or a moose?
Later, he’s outdoors playing amid a series of loud,
violent bulletins from here, there, everywhere in the wooded hills.
By nightfall, there’ll be nothing living
but his mother, himself, and the man returning,
a swag of corpses flung over his shoulder.
Silently, his father will slip his precious rifle
backing into the gun rack’s waiting grooves.
The dead go in the freezer, the boy to bed.

John Grey is an Australian poet and U.S. resident who collects early copies of Mad Magazine, plays guitar, and owns way too many books. His latest books “Leaves On Pages” “Memory Outside The Head” and “Guest Of Myself” are available through Amazon. 

High Point

By Mitchel Montagna

               “When you force your employer to call the fire department and shut down, you might tend to lose your job,” said O’Riordan.

             Baker listened, dismayed, as if O’Riordan’s more sympathetic judgment might help him to get his job back. In fact, O’Riordan had no influence at all regarding the matter. What’s more, he didn’t have a job himself.

            Though O’Riordan acted the sage, he lived in his mother’s basement. That’s where the two sat, as Baker tried to explain that he had been fired from Howard Johnson’s that morning for trying to fix a problem—like the good employee, and man, that he was.

Baker recalled he had been in the kitchen, “sort of” loafing, as he described it, but not for “too long”, when he saw that the dishwashing machine was jammed. It was one of those industrial-grade contraptions that carried dishes and silverware on an oval-shaped belt, and when trouble occurred, it was usually due to a plate slipping off its tines and clogging the works. So Baker clambered up onto the machine’s stalled belt, intending to reach over and dislodge the offending item. “Heroically,” as Baker insisted, with steam burning his face and filling his nostrils, he tried to stand erect on the slick, soapy surface. Just as he was about there, he heard a resounding bang, and then the machine, with a quick lurch, began to move again.  

            O’Riordan interrupted. “Wait. You didn’t switch off the power first?”

            Baker blushed. “No, I didn’t switch the goddamn power off first.”

            Like a running back upended by a low, forceful tackle, Baker had had his feet cut out from under him—by a corps of hard-charging breakfast plates. He was stumbling sideways, stomping on and shattering dishes, when to catch his balance he grabbed onto a large valve bolted to a pipe. The valve was ideally positioned for someone in Baker’s predicament—but it wasn’t designed to support someone of Baker’s weight. Baker tumbled off of the conveyor belt with his hand still gripping the valve, having torn it, and the pipe, from the wall.   

            As he landed, he heard kitchenware clattering, as well as shrieks of panic. But at least one waitress was amused: “Hah!” she snorted. “Right on his ass!”

Baker saw above him a powerful stream of water spewing across the kitchen as if from a widemouthed hose. He also woozily noted a sheet of flame leaping from the general direction of the stove, and that its searing brightness, along with the water, created a pleasant rainbow along the ceiling.   

But nobody seemed impressed by the mirage. Instead, they were sent scurrying by this man-made catastrophe. As a couple of Baker’s co-workers gruffly helped him to his feet, a harsh ringing indicated that someone had pulled the fire alarm. Baker was then escorted outside, and instructed never to return.

As he digested Baker’s story, O’Riordan sat for a moment in what looked like deep thought, his eyes brimming with knowledge.  

“So whaddya think?” Baker asked. “Wasn’t I just trying to do the right thing? Should I sue the bastards for unlawful termination? This won’t do my career any good, I can tell you that.”

Now O’Riordan smiled. “Absolutely. And when they re-build the kitchen, they ought to name it after you.”  

Baker for the first time in ages was being transported by a swing, gliding face-up toward the sky, then descending backward before momentum kicked him up again. Eyes shut, inhabiting his own space, he was taking in a swirl of hypnotic music. There were loudspeakers at the children’s summer camp where he had been hired to work in the kitchen (his HoJo’s experience coming in handy), and he had decided to spend his morning break in flight.  

It was like riding a bicycle: you never forget how. As you rise forward, you thrust your legs out, arch your back, and yank on the chains holding the seat (and you). While swinging backward, you fold your knees till your feet are beneath you. As the air rushed by, Baker kept his eyes closed, and he focused on the harmonica solo spewing from the speakers. It went on and on, an exhilarating melody that inspired him to scale higher.

Soaring backward, reaching the crest, Baker felt the sun blazing to his right, and noted the swing set’s crossbar ahead, barely above him. He had achieved a state of weightlessness. Below, the field was a blend of grass and dirt, with staff and kids ambling, some with balls and other athletic equipment, some wearing swimsuits and clutching towels. A few male staffers were shirtless; several females wore the shortest of shorts. Baker gleefully swooped down toward them.

As he remembered doing as a kid, he decided to eject. It required keen anticipation, timing your move to the instant you’ve reached your peak. When Baker got there, he pushed off, charged with adrenaline, feeling as if the sky would absorb him. Once free of the swing, he realized he was higher than he’d anticipated. He dangled in the air, as close as he’d ever get to flying. He might have been an airborne puppet with its strings cut, arms and legs crooked and jutting out crazily.

Baker was also top-heavy with momentum. As the ground reeled toward him, his legs lagged and his head hung forward. His toes hit the earth first, then he heavily fell onto his chest, his forehead banging onto grass before he rolled over. Aside from the bridge of his nose, there was little pain beyond embarrassment.

When he looked up, one of those splendid creatures in short shorts was watching him. He’d noticed her before—he thought her name was Fatima. She looked puzzled, as if Baker was wreckage dropped unexpectedly from the sky. Fatima held the hand of a small girl whose mouth was fixed in an astonished oval. Baker rose to his knees, and winked at them. At which point they resumed walking, putting some juice into their step.

“At least,” O’Riordan said, “this time you didn’t destroy an entire kitchen.”

“Just my pride,” Baker admitted, holding Kleenex to his nostrils.

But not much pride left to destroy, he was thinking. Sure, he’d secured another job, but there was no future in it. He was 24 with a college degree—albeit in sociology, which hardly counted—but scrounged for whatever work he could find. Meanwhile, assholes he grew up with wore suits and had professions. Some were actually married.

When the hell had all that happened?

The only guy he knew like him was O’Riordan. Not quite a role model; though if you spoke to O’Riordan about it, the man would say: “Yeah, you could do a heck of a lot worse than emulating me!”

After Baker had been hired at Camp High Point, he had tried to convince O’Riordan to apply there, too. This was pretty much a joke, as O’Riordan was as averse to working as a sloth. But to Baker’s amazement, O’Riordan had taken him up on the suggestion, and even further from likelihood, had secured a job—as an arts and crafts counselor.

“You have to know what to say, and when to say it,” was O’Riordan’s cryptic response to Baker’s query about how the hell he had pulled it off. Baker felt he had missed out yet again—while he sweated his ass off washing pots, community college dropout O’Riordan held one of the camp’s cushiest jobs.

The previous day, Baker had decided to see for himself how O’Riordan got away with pretending he knew anything about arts and crafts. Baker walked into the camp’s main pavilion where O’Riordan sat at a table with about a dozen ten-year old boys. Speaking in a voice somewhat deeper than usual, O’Riordan held up a piece of paper and announced that today they would construct “something special—paper airplanes. Or, as I like to call them, paper fighter jets.”

“Watch closely,” he intoned to the rapt group of boys. “And learn something.”

Baker noticed that the boys’ regular counselor stood to the side, smoking a cigarette and ignoring the charade.

O’Riordan folded paper. “I collaborated with Lockheed to develop these crease patterns,” he said.  “You have to be geometrically precise. Now, voila.

O’Riordan tossed the paper, which sailed a few feet then plummeted. “Amazing!” he cried. “Now let’s see what you got.”

Baker watched the boys eagerly folding papers and tossing them. They yelled in delight and contributed sound effects: “BAM!” “BOOM!” “WHEEE!” “KKKRRRUNCH!” O’Riordan applauded and encouraged them, as if having the time of his life, too.  

Baker had seen enough. He left the pavilion, muttering to himself, and walked toward the kitchen where a dozen filthy pots awaited.   

Now, as they sat in the small cabin they shared, O’Riordan changed the subject and asked Baker whether he liked any of the female staff members.

“Well,” Baker said. “I got eyes, same as you.”

O’Riordan said, “But what are doing about it? Your youth is running out, my friend.”  

“Listen” Baker said. “I’m the kitchen help. I wear this silly costume and a fucking apron. What woman here would even look at me?” 

“One looked when you fell off the swing. Fat…uh, or whatever her name.”

“Well, if I need to go to that length,” Baker said.

“Market yourself,” O’Riordan said. “You got one or two things going for you. You went to college, right?”

“Fuck you,” Baker said.

“There’ve been some gals coming around watching me work,” O’Riordan said. “I think I got groupies.”

Baker laughed. “Yeah, to see the latest line of bullshit you’re throwing.”

“Not necessarily.” O’Riordan looked offended.

“I will say this,” Baker said. “You know who’s gorgeous? That nurse, Resa.”

Resa? She’s old enough to be your mother.”

During meals, Baker would sometimes peek out of the kitchen to enjoy the sight of this tall, commanding woman who patrolled the dining room, watching alertly for choking campers and other medical emergencies. Resa’s expression was usually beetle-browed and serious, befitting her heavy responsibilities, yet Baker discerned soft, sultry features behind her oversized glasses.

That she was obviously in her 30s only heightened her appeal for Baker. He didn’t bother to counter O’Riordan’s crack about mothers, as he was sure straight males of any age prone to arousal would gladly hurtle toward Resa like a shooting star.     

At lunch the next day, as Baker spied on Resa, he found her posted regally in the middle of the dining room, chin aloft and vigilant as ever. She happened to be standing a step away from O’Riordan, who sat at a table with the other specialty counselors. Resa was monitoring activities throughout the large room, missing only what may have been happening under her nose—which is where O’Riordan sat, candidly appraising Resa’s skimpy shorts and the delectable body that filled them.

But O’Riordan wasn’t being crude. In fact, he was behaving in the respectful way of a connoisseur inspecting a valued piece of art. As Resa focused on her duties, O’Riordan focused on her, his face rapt with concentration. Sometimes, he’d lift an eyebrow as he perused something especially fine. He appeared to be taking the time and care required to formulate an evaluation worthy of its subject.   

Finally, O’Riordan nodded his approval, conveying the lofty certainty of a cultured man. He looked over at Baker and indicated “A-OK” with a circular thumb and forefinger. Baker made an “A-OK” sign in return, proud that his manly instincts had been vindicated. 

Later that week, a two-day intersession period began. No campers were present; it was a time for counselors to undergo training as well as enjoy some free time. Baker had learned that Resa was scheduled to host a refresher CPR demonstration and although kitchen workers weren’t invited, he showed up anyway.

He stood among a couple-dozen counselors, including O’Riordan, who had assembled near a picnic table next to the swing set. A few smoked cigarettes. Others sipped from Styrofoam coffee cups. Some did both. The day was humid, with the sun large and hazy, so everyone had taken a minimalist approach to their wardrobe.

Resa’s bikini briefs and tank top may have been inviting, but her face had assumed its usual stern look. She thanked everyone for coming, and reminded them the topic of today’s demonstration was “life and death.”

“If a camper is in medical trouble, instantly notify me or one of my staff,” she continued. “But if we can’t get there immediately, you’ll need to take proper lifesaving measures until one of us arrives.”

She paused to let that sink in. “Can I get a volunteer, please.”

Baker had barely registered that when he felt someone push him from behind—hard. The shove felt like a solid blow that vibrated his spine and cut off his breath. The culprit was O’Riordan, the bastard. Baker took several loping, stumbling steps forward, his arms twirling for balance, then he fell to his knees.

Resa stood over him. “Well, that was an entrance, all right.” she said. The counselors chuckled. “Thanks for your generous decision to help. We haven’t met, have we?”

Baker clambered to a standing position, his face burning from heat and embarrassment. “My name’s Mark Baker, mam.” 

He was awed by the force of Resa’s eyes, a penetrating blue, and the abundant waves of her dark hair.         

Resa directed Baker to lay supine on the picnic table. She explained that if a child isn’t breathing, they should lay the camper on their back and place the heel of one hand in the middle of their chest “at the nipple line.” This remark drew a few titters, and the titters grew to giggles as Resa approached Baker, who had put an arm across his eyes to protect them from the sun. As he sensed Resa getting closer, he peeked. A rich, winding curtain of her hair swung toward him.  

For a moment, Baker was terrified that the close proximity of a scantily-clad, beautiful woman would embarrassingly excite him. But he was so self-conscious about the entire situation and all the eyes on him that he was too drained for stimulation. In fact, he was more likely to faint.

“It seems Mr. Baker’s nipple line is right here,” she said, placing her hand on the appropriate spot. “To do this properly, you’ll need to push down on the breastbone about two inches.”

Resa demonstrated by pressing on Baker—twice. She may or may not have driven down the full extent, but Baker felt the weight like a tightening vise. The sensation fused with the lingering ache from the blow O’Riordan had struck, sending a throbbing pain through his upper body.

Baker tried to stifle any expression of discomfort but failed and emitted an audible groan: “Unnnhhhh!”

Resa stepped back. “Looks like I got a little carried away. And it had nothing to do with Mr. Baker calling me ‘mam.’”

Everybody laughed. Apparently, this woman did have a sense of humor.

“I apologize, Mr. Baker.”

“Call me Mark,” Baker gasped.

“The recommended number of compressions is 30,” Resa said. “That, I will not do to Mister ah, Mark.”

She also demonstrated what she called “rescue breathing,” lifting Baker’s chin, tilting his head back, and pinching his nostrils until they felt enflamed. Unfortunately, or fortunately, he couldn’t decide which, she declined to press her lips against his. “One of us might have cooties,” she quipped, and Baker’s grin looked aghast while the counselors roared as if Resa was Joan Rivers.

Finally, she reviewed the Heimlich maneuver, and Baker’s breastbone was again attacked, this time from behind. Then Baker stood unsteadily, sweating, while Resa thanked him for being a “good sport.”

As the gathering broke up, Baker looked around for O’Riordan so he could chew out his ass.  But of course, O’Riordan had fled. As Baker stood wondering how to kill more time before his shift began, he heard a female voice call his name. He looked up to see Fatima approaching.

“Mark,” she said with a grin, practically laughing. She stopped a few feet in front of him.

Fatima’s brown hair was pulled back so that it streamed behind her. The sun flared in her eyes. “Your name’s Baker and you work in the kitchen, right?” she said.

“Right,” Baker said emphatically, trying to maintain a firm posture. 

“Kind of cute, isn’t it, a guy named Baker in the kitchen.”

Fatima’s smile was playful, but there also was something focused and searching in her look. Baker guessed that she hoped for a response of some substance. Uncertain of whether he had it in him, he looked around fretfully, as if for rescue or inspiration.

Across the field, he saw O’Riordan walking near their cabin. O’Riordan moved with long strides, confident as a surgeon, his jaw pointing the way.

“You mind if I ask you something? Fatima said.

Cautiously, Baker looked back at the wondering light in the girl’s eyes.   

Later, with a scouring pad in one hand and a steel brush in the other, Baker saw a huge billow of steam wafting through the kitchen like a malevolent fog. It approached, then engulfed him, and the quantity of perspiration that already drenched his skin and clothing quadrupled. He felt like he’d been dropped into an oven.

It appeared that the steam’s origin was Baker’s old nemesis, an industrial-grade, assembly-line dishwasher of the type that had ended his career at Howard Johnson’s. The steam spewed from behind a square metal panel on a side of the machine, and had quickly saturated the entire kitchen. Baker inhaled the vinegary body odor of himself and the other employees. Gobs of sweat slid into his eyes.

The cook, a man named Ford with a tattoo of an anchor on his forearm, shouted curses that would have projected to the back row of any theater. He hustled to the dishwasher and hollered that he “needed some dipshit to shut it down.”

Baker, sometimes a dipshit but presently feeling good about himself, ran to the far side of the machine where, with his fist, he pounded on a large red button. When nothing happened, he did it again. The dishwasher rattled, moaned, then gradually settled to rest.

But steam continued to flow.

Baker approached the fuming Ford. He bowed, interlocked his hands, then indicated that Ford should step onto Baker’s hands to assist his climb over and behind the machine. Ford gave Baker a flashing look of surprise, like a teacher might give a dunce who unravels an algebra problem.

Ford lifted a heavy, booted foot onto Baker’s palms. Using Baker’s shoulder for support, he scrambled up over the machine to reach the panel from which the steam leaked.

Ford twisted screws and bolts, added WD-40, and the dishwasher more or less sputtered back to life. Soon Baker took a break, and he walked out through the kitchen’s back door into the late afternoon humidity which, given the steam bath he had just emerged from, felt like a relief.

O’Riordan was nearby, perched on a railing when he saw the bedraggled, sopping Baker.

O’Riordan feigned concern and said, “Son of a bitch. With the working conditions you guys got, you oughta form a union.”

Baker laughed and clapped O’Reilly on the shoulder. He headed for their cabin to change his shirt, looking forward to meeting Fatima at the swing set.

When Fatima had asked whether she “could ask him something,” it turned out to be a lighthearted inquiry regarding how he occupied himself when he wasn’t working. Baker couldn’t easily respond. The query made him ponder: What did he do? Well, in truth, he sat around, and he brooded. Sometimes, he wandered around and brooded. Even watching TV, he brooded.

But on this occasion, Fatima’s wide-set, lustrous eyes lifted him out of himself. Fascination swept away timidity. He suggested to Fatima that they could talk more when his upcoming shift ended, say around 4:30? And maybe they could meet at the swing set?   

“There’s something about this,” Baker said, as he pulled the chains and thrust out his legs, “that’s liberating. And not just for kids.”

Fatima, on the next swing but manipulating hers with less urgency, said, “I’ve seen you doing this before.”

“Oh really,” Baker said. “I didn’t know that.”

The camp’s sound system was switched on to the same song that had inspired Baker during his previous adventure on the swings. Its rousing harmonica solo re-entered his blood, further charging up the electric excitement he felt at Fatima’s presence.

Baker swung down, leveled, then arched back as he ascended. Air rushed against his face. The sun glimmered gold to their left.  

“Anyway,” he said. “When you asked what I do outside work, it reminded me that this can be a pretty fun activity.

“Who is this, by the way? The music.”

Fatima flew past him, a colorful blur. “Stevie Wonder,” she said. “Where have you been?”

Good question. How could he not know that? “Oh,” he said. “You know. Around.”  

As he climbed again, he knew he would leap off. No planning or thinking; just do it. He anticipated gliding earthward with his fall softened by some kind of mysterious entity. Like an invisible elevator. Or palms gently easing him down.

“Ha! Watch this,” he yelled. As the swing lifted him toward a sky of glittering blue, he let himself go.

Mitchel Montagna has worked as a special education teacher, radio news reporter, and corporate communicator. Publications include Amarillo Bay, Yellow Mama, and Leaves of Ink. He is married and lives in New Jersey.

That Was the Last

By D. Marie Fitzgerald

We were nine and seven then

cowering against mom like spindly scared calves

backed up against the enormous white stove,

mom’s protective arms Medieval shields of armor

across our tiny chests.

The enemy that night was dad swaying in the doorway,

the gun held loosely in his waving hand.

Every once in awhile he would swing it in the air

causing a tightening of mom’s arms,

a loosening of sobs.

That was the last between mom and dad.

We backed out of the driveway of the house

with the big white enormous stove

and shifted our focus from scenes such as that

to one of looking ahead—-

moving into our new modern apartment without dad

where we would eat steak and shrimp every night

have lots of kids to play with.

It was kind of like Christmas and an adventure all rolled into one;

we would be different

bear the mark of Cain.

It was all too exciting,

this tragedy that fed my need for the dramatic,

my soul either too young or too shallow to feel the import

except for that image growing ever smaller as the car pulled away

my face watching from the rearview window

a shake of the head

a wave of the hand

disappeared into the white house with the enormous white stove.

Editor’s note: This poem was first published by One Spirit Press in the book I Have Pictured Myself for Years.

D. Marie Fitzgerald is the author of four books: Reruns, A Perfect World, and I Have Pictured Myself for Years. She actually published her first book in 1978, but alas, that was a long time ago and has not stood the test of time, or talent for that matter. Her work has appeared in numerous publications over the span of forty plus years. She is a retired English and creative writing teacher, but spent the first twenty years of her working life mostly food serving and bartending. She retired from teaching in 2010 and currently hosts a poetry critique group and volunteers for a local theater company. She lives in Palm Springs, California with a very nice man who just happens to be from Indiana.

Secret Northwest Indiana author to give talk to Michigan City Historical Society at Michigan City Public Library Saturday

Secret Northwest Indiana author Joseph S. Pete will give a talk to the Michigan City Historical Society Saturday about his new book, which explores the Indiana Dunes National Park, shipwrecks, Lake Michigan submarines and more Calumet Region history.

Pete will give a talk at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Michigan City Public Library at 100 E. 4th Street in downtown Michigan City.

The book tackles questions like where in the landlocked state of Indiana can you sunbathe on a beach in the shadow of hulking steel mills, surf by an oil refinery or scuba-dive to see old shipwrecks?

A blend of Indiana and neighboring Chicago, Northwest Indiana is a one-of-a-kind place filled with wonders like Frank Lloyd Wright homes, Helmut Jahn buildings and a hike USA Today described as one of the country’s most scenic. And behind its unique coastal setting lie some equally intriguing hidden gems and untold stories.

Secret Northwest Indiana: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure leads a whirlwind tour of the Calumet Region that extends from Chicago’s far South Side, through the south suburbs and Northwest Indiana, and into Southwest Michigan. Read about a submarine inventor who sailed under Lake Michigan and the free-spirited Diana of the Dunes who inspired preservation efforts that led to the Indiana Dunes National Park. Explore hidden NIKE missile silos, Brigadoon-like World War II munitions factories, POW camps, bygone ski jumps, secret spots to photograph the jets taking off for the Chicago Air and Water Show, and the infamous Marriage Mill where celebrities like Muhammad Ali flocked to get hitched. Prepare for singing porta-potties, tree graveyards and other strangeness.

It shines a light on Region history like the strip-mined Hoosier Slide, the Mount Baldy dune that ate a small boy, serial killer Belle Gunness’s farm, grandfather of aviation Octave Chanute, ecology inventor Henry Chandler Cowles, the Muskegon shipwreck, and the tragic fate of the SS Eastland that was bound for a company picnic at Washington Park. It’s filled with tales of Indiana cacti, carnivorous plants, and a 28-room Scottish castle where peacocks roam the grounds smack-dab in the middle of a bedroom suburb of Chicago.

Local author and journalist Joseph S. Pete gives you a look behind the curtain in a region you might think you already know well. With his stories and tips, you’ll find no shortage of new secret places to explore in Northwest Indiana.

Region native Joseph S. Pete writes for The Times of Northwest Indiana, a job that’s taken him all around the South Shore. The author of Lost Hammond, Indiana and 100 Things to Do in Gary and Northwest Indiana Before You Die, Pete is a frequent guest on Lakeshore Public Radio, the treasurer of the Indiana Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and a literary writer whose work has appeared in more than 100 journals. His many accolades include Lisagor Awards, SPJ Awards, Chicago Journalist Association Awards, Inland Press Association Awards, Hoosier State Press Association Awards, and a calculator he won at a Hammond Civic Center circus raffle.

What Next?

By Dan Yonah Johnson

Lloyd Farm – Radnor, Ohio – Friday, May 8, 1970, 6:30 AM

Sheila Lloyd couldn’t wait for the school bus to arrive, but she had to. It was fairly cool in the early hour and Sheila didn’t care…even in her especially short tartan plaid mini dress offering a lot of leg to the morning frost. She stomped her shoe into the gravel at the edge of the berm, goose-necking a far look down the road for a blob of yellow. Her brothers Tommy and Davey noticed her fidgeting but didn’t make much out of it. Sheila was typically nervous anymore. They were getting used to it. But one thing earlier in the morning made them complain to each other…how Sheila had spent an exceptionally long time in the bathroom—for whatever reason. And it seemed like there was an excessive amount of long black hair in the sink…more than usual. Maybe she was still nerved-out by the Bob Jones funeral a few days before.

      Finally, the yellow blob appeared on the horizon and grew larger. After a seemingly long approach, the bus tires finally skid-gritted to a stop. Tommy and Davey hopped onboard first and split up, siding along with different buddies. But Sheila bounded on past them toward the back seat where her red-haired early morning date awaited. She dropped her fleshly hip next to Julia’s and immediately slid her hand down the backside of Julia’s jeans deep into her butt cleavage. Julia Watkins whimpered a low murmur as they melded discreetly into a cuddle. Discreetly, they thought.  Actually, they weren’t accurately cognizant as to how their recently established next-level physicality was more prone to observation. In the middle of the bus, Jon Goldsberry bantered loudly back and forth with his posse—some were actual friends, others just wannabes…because Jon was all that…and would tell you so. He was the school blonde hair pretty boy asshole jock. His mom was the school drama and speech teacher. Mary Goldsberry was popular. Jon was popular. So, Jon got away with shit. A lot of shit. It was math.

       And so, Jon was holding court in his bus seat with his groupies all-round. Stories about insults to others was his specialty. His head jacked-turned one way and the other, tracking who was paying attention to his show. In a split second, his eye fell on Sheila and Julia in the back. He caught them being a bit handsy with each other. His eyebrow popped, and his mouth gaped whaaaat? and immediately slid into an obnoxious sneer. Slapping several buddies on their shoulders and leaning into their ears, he spat-whispered his fresh instant guffaws with repeated lookbacks at Sheila and Julia. Laughs followed. And the girls caught it. Sheila immediately panicked. When you’re fifteen, most bad events are instant. The girls straightened themselves up. But Sheila hyperventilated, stealing repeated looks at Jon Goldsberry in his jocular self-glory.

       Julia took Sheila’s face into her hands. “It’s okay…it’s okay,” reassured Julia with steady eyes. “It’s alright. We’re fine,” her voice calmed in a strong whisper. With her slender fingers she smoothed the fret wrinkles from Sheila’s forehead. “We’re alright babe. We’re alright.”

      Sheila sat herself hard and square with her eyes straight out ahead toward the front windshield of the bus. She embedded her hand down into Julia’s. They could feel each other’s pulse. The moment hung in the air with a sense of the sacred…to the drone of bus tires on a country road.

      Before Sheila and Julia entered the front doors of Hedgewood Junior High School, they tarried awhile as a rush of cacophonous bodies scrambled past them for the halls. Sheila was tremorous at the prospect of splitting up. They had different homerooms. And it was a long time before 3rd period art class—when they could be together again…and then later in 5th period—lunch in the cafeteria. Julia slid off her shoulder bag and rooted down into the bottom under schoolbooks and a plethora of girl paraphernalia. She extracted a clump of old-fashioned butterscotch hard candies and thrust them into Sheila’s bag. “Just suck on these and think of me,” said Julia with a sly smile.

      Sheila huffed a small laugh, her dark worry dissipating a little in the morning light glinting off Julia’s flame-red hair.

       In the school lobby they waved their goodbyes and went down their respective hallways—into the sound blast of locker door crash, deal-making, and last-minute gossip echoing off cement block walls. The electric bells rang, and soon enough Sheila was hunched down into her manila-color homeroom desk chair. Immediately, she popped her first butterscotch and closed her eyes…thinking of Julia. The homeroom teacher, Kathy O’Shea, silently began taking the attendance role, scanning the room, and checking off names one by one in her record book. The PA announcements began in their typical blather with the Pledge of Allegiance. But Sheila didn’t notice. She wasn’t listening and didn’t rise for the ritual. Ruby Taylor though—in the next row…stood and leaned over to rib Sheila.

      “Pledge,” whispered Ruby urgently.

       Sheila just groaned and remained seated. She dropped her crossed arms and head onto the desktop and whimpered, “I’m sick. I’m not getting up. Just tell O’Shea that I’m sick if she comes back,” pleaded Sheila in a thin whine.

      But Miss O’Shea didn’t notice, and the announcements droned on…

      Sheila really liked Kathy O’Shea, who in addition to being her homeroom teacher, taught geometry 1st period—making for a pretty decent beginning to Sheila’s school day…indeed, something of a safe zone for a couple of hours. It tended to calm Sheila down.

       Kathy O’Shea was a good sort and a beautiful woman. Like Julia, she had flaming red short-bobbed hair and was svelte with fine chiseled features. Kathy always dressed the teacher-role—prim and proper. But her way of carrying herself with a confident sophistication belied, in Sheila’s estimation, a certain something else…something French-like that Sheila had seen in fancy women’s magazines painting a feminine world in vignettes gauzy and ethereal. In contrast to Kathy’s reserved exterior, Sheila imagined her to have a lingerie drawer to die for. She saw Kathy as a sort of future-Julia and mused that perhaps growing old wouldn’t be so bad after all. Kathy did it well. Damn well. Sheila figured that Kathy was about thirty. And she surmised Kathy to be a liberal, but a quiet one. She did her teaching job the way it was supposed to be done—according to the school district…without personal or political commentary. But one day, Sheila overheard Kathy talking to one of her teacher-girlfriends in the hallway. Kathy was worried about her younger brother who was a student down at OSU and up to his eyeballs in the protests. He burned his draft card by day and the ROTC building by night. Kathy had serious doubts about whether her brother would survive the war. Would the draft board or the police catch up with him…take him away somewhere…before he ever had a chance to bolt for Canada? Would the fucking war kill him one way or the other? And Sheila heard Kathy literally say fucking war.

     Sheila had clear had it with the war-thing. She had inherited her father Evan’s WWII service post-traumatic stress—which came mainly from his participation in the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp. So even though Sheila’s mother Alice rendered admonitions on what not to verbalize about Evan’s ways…still, the war-thing loomed. For both Evan and Sheila, it wasn’t ever a question about whether going to war against Hitler was morally right…like Evan had a choice…but God Damn…how was it that so-called Christianity in Germany and Italy let Hitler and Mussolini and all their bastards get so fucking far down the road in the first place? That was what ripped it for Evan with religion.

       Sheila was trying to navigate her life’s topography in very rocky times—including a funeral a few days before…for Bob Jones—a local boy killed in Vietnam. The stench of death and the exotic sweetness of Julia’s perfume made the very air mosaic. Which would prevail? Would the air ever become breathable again outside their personal-private enclave? The barometric pressure of Death increasingly enveloped and oppressed. A few nights before—in bed, Sheila heard something on her transistor radio about four Ohio students getting killed…at someplace called Kent State. The short news report kind of sounded like no one really understood what had happened.

       “You okay, Sheila, honey?”

         Sheila looked up to find Kathy O’Shea’s countenance upon her. Her eyes were kind. The room was empty. Kathy crouched down and caressed her hand along Sheila’s arm. Sheila began to weep. There was something about another person giving a damn that got to her. It didn’t happen very often.

      “It’s okay, honey. It’s okay,” reassured Kathy—kind of like she had been in the same place sometime or another…maybe when she was fifteen. Or maybe it was the day before. “Honey…if you feel bad…if you want to take a break…down at the nurse’s office…or if you want to go home…you just let me know…do you know what you want to do right now?” probed Kathy as gently as she could muster. From experience, Kathy had a strong feeling that she was dealing with a young girl who was profoundly emotionally vulnerable if not wounded. A kid on the edge. Of something.

     The 1st period students began sailing into the classroom and plopping into their desk chairs. It jolted Sheila. She immediately wiped her eyes and replied, “I’ll be okay, Miss O’Shea. I’ll be okay.”

     “Alright, honey. But let me know if that changes, okay?”

      Sheila nodded, bracing herself up with her geometry book and notebook. Stiffening her lip, she smiled up at Kathy, her redemptrix.

       The class began. Kathy passed back a recent quiz and she led the class through a review of the problems. Sheila hadn’t missed any. She usually didn’t, but she appreciated the confirmation inherent in going over all the problems again…especially on such a troubled morning. One by one, Sheila contentedly retraced each theorem and its proof. She deeply valued having a Given in every problem. It meant that in any morass of space and number, one still started with something that was true. And if that something was applied to something else, it too would be true. And if, in the wild case, some empiricist might prove that a certain Given wasn’t really true…it really wasn’t a Given…what next? It would mean that something else was true. Something. Everything true and real…came from Somewhere-Something true and real. Right? At least, that was what Sheila believed in…what she relied on…what she could imagine to be possibly left of her dad’s religion, and hers, after him and so many others…who went not just walking through—but dwelt smack in the middle of the valley of death…where there really are no shadows at all, but only the heap-piles of the dead rotting putrid under an indifferent blazing sun, garish for a lifetime of nightmares, the stench-taste seared into a soldier’s…into a survivor’s brain for eternal vomit. The Giver didn’t give that. Right? Then, what next? That was the geometry problem for the ages.

      1st period helped. Sheila calmed down as the quiz review transitioned to new problems…geometry problems. Kathy kept checking on Sheila with direct verbal and eye contact, and then a lot of surreptitious observation. She loved the girl. She worried about her. The thing that was different about Sheila Lloyd…that Kathy knew from experiencing Sheila’s geometric mind was that Sheila thought and felt more deeply than most people would ever guess. To most she was just another straight-haired buxom teenage girl…affable enough, but not a member of the most popular school social circles. Sheila and her friends were on the outer rings. But that’s just the way school always is. So, no one gave it much thought one way or the other. Common opinion was that Sheila was just one of the outer ring kids with her own certain set of weird traits. She likes that Julia a little too much. She needs to branch out more. She’ll grow out of it.

        But Kathy O’Shea knew that Sheila was far more grown than most discerned. And she had figured out what the deal was with Sheila and Julia. And she feared others might be doing the same. There were whispers in the halls and in the teachers’ lounge. Kathy wasn’t married, and congruent with social norms, had no children…but just the same, she kept a vigilant tigress mother-eye over both Sheila and Julia.

      The bell rang, and it was on to 2nd period. History. Goddamn history with Mr. Stack. Actually, Mr. R. Stack.  No one knew what the hell R. stood for. It was just that he signed every goddamn thing he ever signed with R. Stack. He was a short, compact, and paunchy-built man

with a crewcut. Wore a lot of khaki-colored clothes. Ex-military…Korea…which he constantly alluded to in his nasal droning lectures. To hear him go on…it sounded like he’d be completely satiated if most took his war stories to mean that he, himself, did major foxhole time. Most students though just rolled their eyes, and traded hallway theories that Stack Attack had really just worked in the mess tent or something. Congruently, most students discerned that Stack was flat-out: NOT the sharpest pencil in the box. Like, everyone knew of Stack’s stash—a shit-load of candy and peanuts in his right-hand desk drawer. He thought nobody knew. Everyone knew. And apparently, he wasn’t very good at inventory control. He continually bitched at students over their gum chewing. They weren’t chewing gum. Dumb fuck.

      But Stack knew all about war…he claimed. The title of the spring semester course was World History. To Stack…World History meant the history of the Roman Empire…because he was quite sure that all of Western civilization (specifically the good parts of it still remaining) and especially These United States (specifically the white parts) owed their unparalleled and beneficent qualities to the legacy of the Romans. He was quite sure of it. It was in this vein that he had for months been lacing his lectures with repeated allusions to the new movie Patton. “You should go see it. You really should…,” preached Stack Attack. With each occurrence of him making such a bid, he would roll out a little more about what emotional lotion he found in the movie that greased his privates up into full three-star generals. By wide gossip, the man had no wife.

      And so, the class went into its usual gears. Stack droned on and Sheila zoned out, her head laid horizontally in her right hand with her eyes closed. She dreamed of her and Julia laying on the large flat stone at the creek and the summer coming on. But then her dream was suddenly punctured. Stack said a word: Cambodia. And it jolted Sheila. She raised her head and rubbed her eyes out, and actually started to listen to the sonofabitch. He was going on about Nixon. He was comparing a Roman general to Patton, and then Patton to Nixon. He was conjecturing that Nixon had probably watched the Patton movie, and that Patton’s philosophy of war probably influenced Nixon’s decision a couple of weeks before to invade Cambodia. An arc of electric pissed-off shot up Sheila’s spine to her brain, and her hand speared up into the air. Stack dismissively called on her, girl that she was.

      “So…um,” started Sheila with piercing eyes. “…Would a new American Army base…put in South Vietnam…right next to the Cambodian border…like, back at the beginning of last month…would that…be part of Nixon going into Cambodia?”

     “Yes, of course, honey,” blurted Stack in complete condescension. “That’s the way the world works. War takes planning and strategy. And then you carry it out…and see it through no matter what. No matter what. That’s the Roman and Patton way that Nixon’s following.” Stack was demonstratively satisfied with his matter-of-fact delivery. (Perhaps one day there would be a movie about him.)

     Sheila nodded, protruding her lower lip. “So,” she retorted. “What you’re saying is that Nixon watching your goddamn little cartoon Patton movie is what got Jake Jones’ brother Bob killed in Vietnam three weeks ago. Great. Just fucking great.”

      A brief deafening silence hung. And then, the whole classroom rolled, hissed, and squealed in complete shock. What did she just say? The firefight was on. Full metal jacket.

      Stack’s eyes jacked. His jugular bulged. He grabbed up his teacher’s manual and flung it backwards. It slammed in a thud on the blackboard behind him.

      Sheila didn’t blink.

      “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?… LITTLE MISS JOAN BAEZ…OR WHAT, HUH?” bellowed Stack. “AND HERE’S A LITTLE MESSAGE FOR YOU, MISSY…YOU JUST EARNED YOURSELF A WEEK OF DETENTION, RIGHT HERE, FOR YOUR DISGUSTING NASTY LITTLE MOUTH!” added Stack lurching full forward on his little shoe tips to the point of losing his balance and having to catch himself from falling.

     The classroom ooooh-ed lowly and deeply…taking in the horror.

     “What?” blurted Sheila with a Black girl head-rock she learned from Ruby. “So, you can just stare at my tits the way you always do…except in private?” she shot, under-cupping her right breast and throbbing it upward and outward. “I can tell you now Sergeant Pepper, you ain’t EVER even gonna see…let alone…suck somethin’ this pretty!”

       The class couldn’t take it. There were several audible ejaculations of Oh shit!

       Stack was got. Rocked back on his heels got. Eyes wide, he stammered a few grunts. And then, silence. And then something had to be next. His eyes under his wild-hair eyebrows narrowed.

       “Welllllll…uh…I can see that you’ve got yourself some major head problems, missy,” he tried for an opening attempt at re-taking the hill he had just lost. “You just earned yourself expulsion, Miss Lloyd,” was all Stack could muster to blubber with his eyes all bugged out.

       “Fine, fine,” replied Sheila, resolutely throwing her flat hand up. “But before I go, I just want to know why you think history is just all about war. I mean, what is it with you? War, war, war…and like, war, only in terms of who wins and who loses. You don’t ever seem to give a shit about anyone who suffers and dies a horrible suffering death in war. You love Death, don’t you Stack? You think it’s, like, the coolest thing ever, don’t you? To you, Death is better than sex…or maybe not, huh? Maybe to you, Death is sex…your sex, anyway.”

      Total silence hung in the classroom.

      “YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY INSANE MISS LLOYD!” cried Stack. “GET OUT OF THIS CLASSROOM RIGHT NOW!” Spit and drool flew out of Stack’s jowls as he masturbated his pointing finger to the door.

      “Yeah. Okay. Fine…,” nodded Sheila defiantly. “But I’ve got another question for you…teacher. Are you a Christian?”

      Stack just stared at Sheila with huge wide eyes. Deer at night caught in unexpected illumination have more self-cognizance.

      “What does that have to do with anything?” replied Stack with a wary crack in his throat. His eyes panned all the students in the room. Their eyes were riveted to his.

       Sheila got up. She sauntered her curvy mini skirt legs up the center aisle and threw a hip thrust at Stack as she passed round him on her way to the blackboard. She grabbed a piece of chalk, wiggled her ass, and hastily scratched out a diagram on the board. It looked like a map of some kind. She slammed an X on a particular spot, and then a second X on another spot. Sheila turned abruptly, flipped her long black hair, and spoke sternly and authoritatively.

      “Now…,” lectured Sheila, stab-pointing at the first X. “…THIS is Israel…where Jesus and all his original followers came from, right? And THIS…,” declared Sheila pointing at the second X. “…is Rome.”

       It could then be recognized that she had drawn the boot of Italy and the whole Mediterranean basin with Israel on the far east end of it.

       “So…,” continued Sheila. “…Israel was all the way over here on the edge of your precious big-ass fucking war-crazy Roman Empire. Not because the Jews wanted to be in the empire. No. They were, like, being conquered by the Romans…getting the shit kicked out of them every day…Jews were getting killed all the time…on crosses and shit. So. You got Jesus and all his followers. And you got the Romans who reportedly nailed his ass to a cross.” And Sheila stepped forward on her high platforms all pretty and leggy, gliding her curves, and flipping her girl-hair. She went right at him and hovered over his face. She was taller. “So, Stack. Which side are you on? Roman…or Christian?” queried Sheila.

      But then suddenly, Stack relaxed. His eyebrows raised and a smart-ass smirk cracked across his blather hole. He had a retort. An easy one. He had her, he thought.

     “My dear,” he began in complete condescension. “I thought you were a better student. For you not to know that the Christians ultimately became Roman…well…I am just…uh…surprised that you did not know that. The Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in the early 300s…”

     “Yeah. The year was 323,” informed Sheila impudently, cutting Stack off with her glare-eyes.

     “Uh…yeah…The point, missy, is that the Christian leaders wanted that to happen. So…”

      “Yeah, yeah, yeah…,” blurted Sheila, cutting Stack off again. “That was a bunch of later pagans who converted from whatever to something called Christianity, but Christianity was really just a made-up thing…you know? What I am talking about is the original followers of Jesus…the Jewish ones…including his family… his mom and his brothers and his sisters and cousins…all of them Jews…who would never become Roman because, like, Romans hated Jews, and duh, killed them all the time. So, like, tell us Stack. Teach us, teacher. What happened to Jesus’ original Jewish followers…since you’re the super-duper Roman Empire teacher and all? What happened to ‘em Stack…huh?…come on, now…tell us. Did they all get beamed up to the Starship Enterprise with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, or what? Did the Romans have some kind of Hiroshima bomb or somethin’, and just blew ‘em all to hell…or what? …Oh…oh…or maybe they were protestors, huh?….Yeah. They were protestors. And the Romans just wiped them out on the spot like this shit I’ve been hearing about what happened at Kent State this week. But you tell me, Stack. Where’d they all go, Stack? Just…poof? Like magic? Gone? All the thousands and thousands of Jews…that followed Jesus…their children and grandchildren…what happened to them?…just gone?…like what?…like the Holocaust…huh?  What, Stack? What? WHERE’D THEY ALL GO, STACK???” bellowed Sheila with her hands clasped high on her ribcage and her cleavage all pushed out. Her black hair flipped, and her grey eyes blazed.

        Stack’s mouth did a weird rolling garble thing like it had a dead donkey dick in it, and he managed to start with “Well…uh…,”

        “YOU DON’T KNOW!!!” jumped Sheila. “YOU…DON’T…KNOW!!! SINCE YOU DON’T KNOW…I’LL TELL YOU THE ANSWER, teacher:  Jesus’s Jewish folks went over the Jordan River to a city called Pella. THAT’S where they went.”

       “And how do you know that, missy?” countered Stack.

        “Because I READ dumb ass. I actually READ when y’all send me to library period.  The Flight to Pella got written up by Eusebius and Epiphanius…and them mother fuckers were ROMAN CHRISTIAN historians. I READ, Stacky…you…you just talk out your ass. But me? My ass…is for finer things.” Sheila turned and kicked all her curvy curves out the door.

       The bell rang.

       The kids bolted. Their blather-thunder enveloped the hallway in chain-reaction explosion.

       Stack was left eviscerated on his linoleum tile battlefield. Slowly it dawned on him that he forgot to order Sheila to the Principal’s Office. Not that she would have obeyed.

       Sheila ran down the 2nd floor hallway well ahead of the crowd. She flew down a long flight of stairs, through the central lobby with its school banners and trophy cases, and down another long hallway to its very end at the farthest end of the school building.

       The art room was a refuge, especially to students of alternative spirit. Bursting in, Sheila found everyone else already there including Julia. She skip-rushed to Julia sitting at their usual worktable. And Julia immediately jumped up and took Sheila into her arms, discreetly kissing her neck. 

      “See, I told you we’d make it to 3rd period. You okay, babe?” asked Julia.

       “Yeah,” replied Sheila with a nod. A solitary tear ran down her cheek. Julia’s slender hand took it all away.

       The girls settled down to their art project which they had been working on for some time—it seemed like forever. In the middle of the table, laid out on newspaper, was a black wax sculpture of a reclining nude female couple on a stone. It was a mediate step in a process known as lost wax which would be cast into a mold, then put into a searing hot crucible, and ultimately result in a final solid brass sculpture. As to life, a fitting analogy. As for the nudity, it was art. Besides, it was Miss Ropp’s class, and she was weird anyway.

      As the couple worked meticulously on the curves of their wax effigy, Luanna Ropp approached their table. She was a fortyish woman of generous frame and wild black medusa hair all of which swayed with a bohemian smirk and a don’t give a shit walk. There was a scent about her. Was it really perfume or what?—Something like flowers and far eastern spices and burnt up firewood. Maybe she was the original hippie goddess from whose vagina sprang all the cosmic spores of Haight-Ashbury delirium. Curiously, she always wore a drab oversized v-neck house dress, sometimes olive, sometimes khaki, with some kind of navy color small print design…paisley or some such…which on first observance one would think was aesthetically out of kilter with the typical profile of an artist. Didn’t make much sense. Until she came to your low-sitting art table…and bent way down to look at your project…and her v-neck fell way low…and you saw that her bra was even more completely on its own…and there they were…mama’s full pink elliptical hanging fruit and their stiff pencil eraser ends…ready to go. Stunning she was. Luanna was a rare art…a working-class Mrs. Robinson…Rod Stewart’s aging morning cougar who’d drain your every drop and fuck your college career to shreds…Mick Jaggaer’s after-hours Gimme Shelter siren—all leg and heels…a flesh boat Lusitania…if she took you down, you’d die with a smile because she made you part of the legend.

      “Girls, I’m impressed,” chortled Luanna.

      Julia looked at Sheila, blinked, and replied, “We are too.”

       Luanna ran her fingers along the legs of the sculpture. “Oh, I love the curves,” she sighed.

      “We do too,” replied Sheila, nodding all wide-eyed and blinking.

       Luanna gave a wry smile and a nod. “Carry on girls. Carry on. You clearly know what you’re doing.”

      As Luanna Ropp departed to another table for another encounter, Sheila hastened a breathy manic query upon Julia, “You think she was hitting on us?”

     “Maybe,” replied Julia with a small laugh and a shrug. “Or maybe she just understands about us, and she approves.”

      “You mean she agrees with both of us,” laughed Sheila as she ran a smoothing brush over the entwined feet of their sculpture.

       “Yeah,” laughed Julia.

        Sheila cast her eye over to the next table where Luanna was inspecting a project on a table full of boys and rendering her teacherly advice. They were all absolutely appreciative of her counsel and direction.

       “She doesn’t seem like the marrying kind,” mused Sheila.

       “No, I don’t think so,” lilted Julia, shaking her head as she put some of her own touch ups upon the mutually embraced arms of the sculpture.

        There was a silence.

        “Are we?” asked Sheila in a thin voice, looking straight down at the sculpture.

         Both their heads raised. Their eyes met.

       “Yeah,” said Julia as she smoothed the sculpture’s stone base with her finger. “In our own way. We have to make it to sixteen, first…get our licenses…get some wheels. But we’re artists…we’ll figure it out.”

        Sheila nodded with a short flip of her hair and a wipe of her eye. “Well, I was just thinking. We’ve probably exchanged enough lost wax and stuff to qualify as blood sisters or something.”

      “Yeah,” said Julia. “Once this thing is cast, it’ll last forever.”

Dan Yonah Johnson is from Ohio, and he’s been a schoolteacher, social worker, and antiques dealer. Ohio writers Sherwood Anderson and Dawn Powell are Dan Yonah’s literary role models. He has lived in the childhood towns of both authors—where no one remembers them. A previous novel, Date of Birth Unknown, was released in May 2021 by Adelaide Books. A novel excerpt “What Happened” was published March 2022 by The Write Launch. Dan Yonah’s author site is at www.danyonah.com.

Thora – Beatnik Fantasy

By John F. Browning

Sitting at a prime unlit back table in the Whither Goest Thou club I nonchalantly snap applause over my shoulder back to the Johnny Clawfoot Trio playing their first order high syncopation low amplitude medicated be-bop music

Thora glances over her shades and under her bangs at me, sniffs dispassionately and silently mouths, I HATE YOU. I nod Buddha-like and studiously sip my carrot juice martini. Thora is hep, occasionally drops mlauts into her drawling pronunciation

The sea creature waitress, accoutred in black ballet tights and banana plantation headscarf says you assholes want anything? and as I hold up two fingers she groans, stamps a silk slipper, and undulates away like light through dark green water

Johnny mumbles something illegible save for its rhyme of people and gazzeeple into the gleaming silver mic and the band disjoins into some inapproximate free jazz version of Marching Through Georgia in the nimbus of dim lighting and cigarette smoke

I lean over to Thora and scat sing to the bass patterns the cat is laying down. An abstract Brancusi-like marble look lies fainting on her face[SB1] 

At the break, against an outdoor brick alleyway wall we have very casual sex as Thora chews my ear lobe. When we finish she whispers I hated that and stares into the distance. You’re half a man and half a stereophonic schizophrenic she hisses, which makes me want her again as she straightens her beret

I scat-sing with a heart full of adoration Bop bomb a who bop a zip zap a robot za zee a bobcat brim a boom!

After a second set, her hand in mine, we perambulate, two vertical parallel souls who straggle slowly everward into the receding gloom of our tedious square lives out in Nowheresville

leaving 2 a.m. Johnny to march on Atlanta alone


This work is from John F. Browning’s “Chicago Jazz Tonight” a work that conjures persons from Chicago in 1962 at an Old Town jazz club.  This work, inspired partly by Spoon River Anthology, visits the voices of those in and about the jazz club and attempts to capture the feel of Chicago at that time.