Thank You For Your Business

Littered with dark coffee rings and cigarette burns and the remains of an old tuna fish hoagie, Tiger Malone’s desk was the cleanest thing in the tiny cramped office. Empty soda cans huddled in the dark corners. Dust encrusted stacks of papers teetered on mismatched file cabinets. I drew my cardigan closer to my sides away from the chair. I coughed on the dank boozy air. Grinning Theresa “Tiger” Malone sat in the middle of the chaos like a regal toad.
“How May I help you love? My girl said you were unhappy,” Tiger said. “Malone Confidentials strives to please.”
Her voice sent ripples down my spine. I opened my mouth to speak. With nicotine fingers, Tiger rifled through some sticky notes on her desk. She read one and pursed her lips.
“So you hired one of our operatives, one of our most experienced private detectives, to plant a tracker in your ex husband’s vehicle, house, and office. Standard package. Report completed and delivered. Full payment pending. That’s right, love, isn’t it.” Tiger leaned back in her leather office chair settling comfortably into her crumpled raincoat. She laced her fingers behind her head and offered me a malevolent smile.
I stammered, “but the price-the report.”
“Malone Confidentials can’t help if you have trust issues. Your ex seems a nice enough fella and a decent father according to the report. Malone Confidentials can’t help if you spent $2000 to find out something you already knew. Now the additional $8000 fee ensues your ex never finds out about your illegal search and you can at least get visitation with your son.” I watched her eyes hollow black tunnels ringed in a cheerless pale blue.
My mouth clapped shut. I held back tears. A door opened behind me. Tiger lit a cigarette with a match, waved it and then flicked it in my direction. I leapt up from the chair.
“Thank you. Be sure to leave us a five star rating. The girl will show you out.”

Welcome Home dear

Although I couldn’t see, something told me I wasn’t alone in the cellar. This was my cellar, the place for my taters and rutabaga. There were shelves where I put up my peaches, my pickled watermelon, and my mama’s special apple butter. This is my cellar and I love its cool quiet walls.
I can’t see but I know this house. It was my home in my way. It had been Erasmus’ of course. But I kept it for him and made the curtains and the quilts. I scrubbed it top to bottom. My pretties, a ceramic frame of my folks, a porcelain goose my brother won for me at the state fair, a trio of bud vases, a china doll baby, used to line the shelves. I wish I could touch them again. I feel a soft stirring in the cellar far corner.
After Erasmus hurt me bad that last time I was confused. I couldn’t talk to anyone. I couldn’t scream. I was used to that.
My husband kept me on a short lease. When we were courting his attention was hungry. Everything about me was precious to him. He couldn’t bear to share me. I forgot my lonesome forgot my mourning in his arms.
Mama told me he was all kinds of trouble, my daddy wouldn’t shake his hand, and my brothers were fixing to whup him. Do we got married. I couldn’t see Erasmus until after the honeymoon. He started to hit me and I could do nothing right. After the last time he hurt me I was confused because Erasmus was so happy.
My world grew smaller and smaller. The days ran into each other. Then I realized what Erasmus had done. I wanted my mama. We were close as sisters, so close we shared dreams and secrets. But all I had was this house.
Erasmus was gone. They took him away. And all I had were these rooms to myself. Now I’m not alone with my memories of my pretties, with the grief of the baby I wanted to have, with my rage. I feel who is here. My anger rumbles. Erasmus. Erasmus with the gallows mark on his throat that matches the hand marks on mine. A growl rises from my core. Erasmus is confused. I am a beast. This is my house now.

Rules of Convenience

Hold the door
Always hold the door
Even if the next customer is steps away from the entrance and has to do a little run walk to get to you and you have to kind of weird wait
Hold the damn door
With a smile

Don’t hog the soda machine
There’s always someone waiting
This is not the time for beverage alchemy

Mind your kids
Let’s be honest you know they’re bad
The whole time out listen to their feelings bullshit didn’t work out
I get it we’re all in the same boat
But they can’t camp out in front of the Slushees

The coffee area is sacred
Repeat the coffee area is sacred
It’s not a salon
And you are not Noel Coward
Talk in your car to the people you know
Get your coffee, the sweetener and cream of your desires, and go

Life is simple
People are complicated
Or vice versa but
A well crafted cold sandwich is a sliver of heaven
The perfect bite among the soft pretzels
Rainbows of gummies wave bye bye
Remember to hold the door

Meanwhile back at The Rose and The Thorn

“For the love of God stop!” Flor yelled from the bathroom.
Stephen looked up from The Fall Of the House of Usher and scowled. The only thing he hated more than twelve year old girls were loud twelve year old girls. The TV’s volume increased.
Shrouded in a white towels and fragrant steam, Flor swung open the bathroom door. “What in the hell is your problem? We are going to get called by the front desk. Stop screwing with the TV.”
Stephen flipped a page.
“Where’s the god dammed remote, cretin?”
“Excellent word choice,” Stephen replied still without looking up. “If only your eyesight was as sharp as your vocabulary. I have no remote, milady.”
Gripping the towel wrapped around her hair with one hand, Flor rooted around the boy laying on the hotel bed. By now, the flatscreen was screaming the melodious tones of Stella By Starlight across the quaint hotel room.
“Fine be that way troglodyte.” Flor walked towards the TV. The volume dropped. She turned. The volume increased. She turned back to Stephen still reading his book. The TV turned itself off.
“I told you milady,” Stephen said with a chuckle. “No remote.”
“First if you call me milady again I’m going to pop a tooth out your head. Second look for that remote while I get dressed,” Flor said. Stephen looked at her muscled arm and flinty glare and for the first time since his mother introduced him to his mother’s new boyfriend’s daughter he saw Flor. They torn apart their hotel room and then searched the adjoining room where their respective parents were staying. No remote. When they returned to their room the TV was on again playing The Haunting. Flor unplugged it. They sat on their beds, thinking and eating snacks. Flor eyed the oddly smart third grader eating beef jerky with one hand and a sleeve of Pringles in the other. His haircut was horrendous but his tee read My Other Car is a Tardis. Her eyes squinted as she realized this freaky little kid was a lot bigger on the inside.
“Theories? I’m thinking another remote is interfering with our set,” Flor said, offering Stephen a Twizzler. He accepted the red licorice and wrapped it around the jerky. The lights flickered. The room was silent except for chomping.
Chewing, Stephen pondered. “I think ghosts are merely the undead living in a parallel universe and some places are shall we say thinner than others and you can peek.” He offered her a stack of chips.
“Interesting what do you base your theory on, little Mr. Spooky Spook.”
“Research naturally. You do know Cape May is well known as one of the most haunted towns in America. And call me … Spike.”
“Spike, no I didn’t. But I know this broke ass inn was once a makeshift hospital during the infamous influenza outbreak of 1918. Yeah you’re not the only one who reads.”
“That makes sense. Do you remember when we came in from the beach this afternoon and when the books fell off the table and you bumped into that lady in…”
“The old fashioned waitress costume,” Flor said, a light coming into her face. “No one else on staff was costumed!” Suddenly there was a volley of knocks on their hotel door.
“Okay already we get it. You’re haunted. You’re a haunted creepy inn. Nobody likes a show off. So Spike our parents as sick of us and it is only day one. While they are out getting their groove on let’s peek.”
Stephen aka Spike jumped off his bed and ran for the door. Flor collected her phone, a portable charger, a couple of water bottles, and her Swiss Army knife in her retro Scooby Doo backpack and followed.
“After you milady.”
Flor punched Spike’s arm and they headed down the wild patterned hallway to adventure.

Pictured Rocks

How much we love each other
An anniversary surprise
Pictured Rocks
Your gift to me despite your fear of heights
Let me take your photo
Back up you say
Take it all in from
First date to first grand baby
That woman just one of many
That woman you talk to late into the nights she is seconds
Our love is decades
Cool sandstone heavy
No one understands
How much I love you
In this our marriage Indian summer
What we have weathered
Ribbons of iron ore red, copper green, and limonite revel
Our love is stone polished
Back up a little more baby you say
You send me to the edge
I’d go to the edge for us

My knee the one that always gives me troubles gives out
I stumble back
My hand that has reached for yours
In the dark
When I’m afraid
For years
stretches out now
I reach, you run
You kick, I drop

Like a stone
Tumbling to the pebbled shore far below
No one understands

How much you love me

Ready, Pumpkin

“Do you want a story?”
Rhynn shook her head. Pink plastic butterflies clipped to her pigtails swung.
“Do you want three stories?” Annie asked.
The pink butterflies swung vigorously.
“What do you want from, Nana, pumpkin?”
Pursing her lips, Rhynn cocked her head to one side. Anne leaned back in the glider and fished through her craft bag. She fingered past her embroidery hoop and a bundle of tightly bound sage. The pink curtained bedroom grew quiet.
“Nana, why do people stop talking when I enter a room?”
Annie pulled out a small suede pouch. “It’s the stories, pumpkin. The stories you tell.”
Tears sprang to Rhynn’s eyes. “My dreams—“
Annie shushed her granddaughter. “ Pumpkin I know. Tell me about your dreams.”
“I’m not a liar. I dream. People come to me in the night. First I was afraid. Some people had no mouth. Some people had big black eyes. Then nicer people with regular faces would come and sit with me in my room. It was, it was…” Rhynn’s voice trailed away.
“It was peaceful and you wanted to share what you saw. Share the stories these people whispered in the night. And instead of afraid you were—“
“With like family,” Rhynn answered.
Taking a breath, Annie put down her patchwork bag and jiggled the stones in her pouch. “Dreams are an in-between space like a waiting room or a doorway. Think of them as open where different things can walk in and out. Most people can feel the,” Annie scrambled for a word, true but gentle, “former people in the in-between, some can hear them, but only a very very few can see them and hear them and with training learn to talk with them.”
Rhynn tilted her head to the side. Her pink plastic butterfly barrettes bobbed as she jumped up and down on her princess bed.
Annie held up her right hand. Five gemstone floated from the pouch spiraling above Annie’s outstretched palm.
“Ready, pumpkin.”

Family album

Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas mornings
Watching screamers and starbursts late into the night
Easter baskets and homemade firemen costumes
Plastic t-Rexes and spaceships built with blocks bright

Hollering and hollowed promises deck these halls
Waiting half the night for him to com through that door
Photos laughing in a stack of photo albums
Of a happy family that doesn’t exist anymore

New Sheriff in Town: the field trip

Marty scrubbed a hand over his shaved and cologne scented face. He hated Mondays and children and today’s bring Your Daughter to Work Day would be a nightmare. Why me?
Lincoln and his five little horrors walked in through LifeWell’s revolving door. Marty’s smile widen as Lincoln approached. Lincoln quirked an eyebrow and they put on their professional faces.
“Mr. Perez it is so kind of you to allow some of my Advanced Biology students to visit your facility,” Lincoln said.
“Well it’s not my company, Mr. Forest, but LifeWell is committed to the future of science,” Marty said, giving the five ten year olds a 1000 watt smile. They stared back at him blankly.
Marty launched into boilerplate speech on founder Trish Tran-Gray and meteoritic rise of LifeWell, pioneer in biologic 3-D printing of organs and tissues. Tilting his head, Marty smiled again at the mini monsters. Lulu one of his staff photographer took copious photos of them.
The group walked across the terrazzo tiles past the expensive artwork towards the gallery overlooking the kidney room.
Mini monster 1: “if you can make parts of people, could you make a whole person? Are the reports of your merger with Quell Computing true?”
“Well it’s possible more than possible to create… artificial helpers, with positronic brains and enhanced skeletons. You know super smart machines to do things too dangerous for regular people,” Marty answered.
Mini monster 2: “we’ve reached the point where AI is indistinguishable from humans.”
Marty chuckled.
Mini monster 3: “excellent point Misha what makes a person a person. With living hearts and muscles and brains aren’t you making people.”
Marty’s smile slipped past his cuff links.
“Not like real people,” Marty said.
Mini monster 4: “so like slaves.”
Marty coughed. Lulu stopped taking photos. The little girls launched into an assault of questioning. Lincoln corralled his students into silence.
“So we’re done here,” Marty said wearily. He turned to lead the little gremlins to the rows of plump kidneys, livers, unbeaten hearts. There were bags of marrow and shelves of skin. LifeWell has an eye room but no one was allowed to see it.
Mini monster 5 raised a grubby hand.
“What,” Marty snapped. Lincoln paused.
“Insurance doesn’t cover gray organs. What happens to the people who need an organ donation and can’t afford it? I feel bad for those sick people. Just bad. “
Marty snorted. Lincoln’s face dropped. The group headed through the swinging doors towards the future.

Call Me, Lee

Dear Mr. Delaney,

God, I don’t know what to even call you. It’s so weird. This is like the weirdest letter I’ve ever written and like the only letter I’ve ever written. I mean who writes letters. I’m rambling. Josh says I ramble and talk super quick when I’m nervous and I guess I do the same when I write. To the point I’m your daughter, Lizette. Wow this is weird, so weird and hard.
I got kind of upset. Josh is writing for me now.
Hi this is Josh Romano.
I made Josh write hi. Josh is my best friend boyfriend but that’s a whole other thing. He held me together when I found out who you are and what happened to me. Josh wants me to start at the beginning. But I can’t. I don’t remember much from when I was little. I just remember moving, always moving. It was confusing. Mommy and I stayed in shelters, homeless shelters, abused women shelters. I’ve slept in more church rec rooms than I can count. Mommy kept me close and looked after me the best she could. She said we had to hide, to run, to stay away from the cops and from bad men. It’s all runny in my head when I try to focus on one thing.
I remember Mommy working in a gas station. While she worked, I played in the store. I like the donut aisle. I think we were living in our car back then. My dad used to stop by everyday for a super Biggie Coke, a pack of Pall Malls, and a slim Jim. He was so nice, the best really. He said he wanted to help us get on our feet but I think he wanted someone to love. We moved into his house, a little farm. We stopped running, Mommy and I. And it was like I had always been there. We became a family and I was his daughter. Mommy said I had his eyes. I put down roots.
We raised chickens. I joined 4-H and Future Farmers of America. My Appenzeller won best in show in the under 18 division. I don’t have a lot of friends but the ones I have are good. Mommy didn’t get as many headaches as before and everything was just normal I guess. Being kidnapped I mean I should have a life like a Lifetime movie. But we didn’t.
Then My dad got sick. I always thought of him as strong as an oak. You know always there protecting us. Well the cancer, the cancer was a different kind of strong.
My dad left me a file folder. I always helped him with handling the bills, managing the farm. Fat and wrapped with rubber bands, that folder sat on the top of the file cabinet for years. Delaney was written on it in his cursive. I never took much notice to it. Dad tended to never let anything go. He told me his final arrangement information was in the Delaney folder. I thought he was being morbid but after he passed I pulled off the rubber bands and uprooted my life.
There was newspaper clippings and pages printed from the internet. Pictures of my mother young and pretty, pictures of me as a baby, a toddler, in my nursery school photo day with pig tails. I saw my bedroom in your house with the princess bed, the pink gingham sheets, the stuffed animals that you kept for me. I saw my eyes in your face and I slapped that folder closed. I had just lost my dad, my mother was fallen to pieces, and now I’m the girl on the side of the carton of milk. OMFG.
Josh helped. He is — I won’t write more about myself, JR. He sat with me until I could read about the custody battle between you and her. Our disappearance and the search that followed. I couldn’t believe mommy lost custody of me because of her stability. My mommy is not unstable, not dangerous. Josh just asked me to take deep breaths.
I don’t know what to do. I need answers. I need to understand why my mother did what she did and who you are to look for your baby when everyone told you to give up hope. Twelve years gone and I’m not a child. I don’t know what I am. I need to understand. Mommy called me Lee. Dad called me LJ or Little Junior. I read you named me after your Grandma Liz who raised you. I saw a video of you on America’s Most Wanted talking about me calling me sweet baby Lizzie. I don’t know who that is. I can’t talk to my mother. Josh and I got on a Greyhound right after the funeral to find out from you.
Call me,

No One Looks At Photos Anymore

With an empty basket on her hip, Geri collected the random crap laying around the living room that should be the random crap stowed away upstairs. Yawning, Aaron stretched in his desk chair and watched his wife’s luscious ass. Geri bent lower reaching under the coffee table.
“That’s funny?”
Aaron returned to his monitor. “What, doll?”
“It’s our old digital camera. I haven’t seen it since since forever. Since Ash was a toddler.” Geri turned the metallic orange rectangle in her fingers. “No one looks at photos anymore.”
“Didn’t your friend’s goofy kid break it during a party. Whatever happened to that wackadoodle?” Aaron patted his lap. Still rotating the camera, Geri molded herself against Aaron.
“He’s at Stanford. Do you think we can get it working?”
Aaron took the camera. Geri took his Scotch. She grimaced. Laughing Aaron fished for a usb cord. “It’s probably dead. Battery corroded.”
With a few clicks, images filled the screen. A Christmas tree, piles of wrapped presents in green and gold, Ashton in footed pink pajamas leaping with joy, Aaron and Ash making snowmen, snow angels, Aston jumping in puddles, Geri and Ashton dying eggs. There were photos of Easter dinner. Next the images were blurry. A lot of of smeary images of their old dog Chippy and Barbies taken from a small child’s perspective
“Remember when she had doll babies and an imaginary friend?”
“Hell I remember when she talked to us.” Aaron chuckled softly. After a hearty swig, Geri passed the glass back to her husband.
“I remember when we knew when she was coming home at night,” Geri said. Together they watched the world through their daughter’s eyes.