The Lady Behind the Pistol

She stood over him watching the life drain out as a glossy haze covered those blue eyes.  The bullet had struck his neck and instead of dying instantly, he bled and bled staring back at her in utter astonishment.  It would have been amusing to her if she didn’t feel that pang of guilt.  She knew it was only the bullet that bit his flesh.  All she did was pull the trigger, and what’s a mechanism like a gun for if not to be used occasionally.  She felt powerful. This is what God must feel like when he kills and no wonder He does it so often.  The blue dress she wore would have to go, a casualty of a lover’s broken heart, but what a shame it would be since Paul had always remarked that she looked like an angel in it. Poor Paul, a young man not more than 25 who lived his life with all the wonderment of a boy only to be left to rot soaking in his own blood. “Curiosity killed the cat,” they say only no one ever remarked how curiosity could dress to kill or how the cat might only be a pup and that the pup only has one meager life to live.

The smoke that rose from her pistol put her into a hypnotic trance. In that smoke she saw Paul as a baby in his mother’s arms, then as a child running amongst other children in an empty field.  Then, she saw him as the young man who wooed her away from her parents and ran all the way with her to the big city. In the smoke she thought she could glimpse fragments of his life that she never saw before.  As she watched she imagined what he’d been like before she met him.  She thought to herself, how could a boy be even more of a boy than what he is now? There he lay bleeding in his short trousers and beat-up dirty shirt and she imagined that if he could get up, all he’d really want to do would be to run off to the park and mount the monkey bars. He lacked the sophistication required to cut in the big city and in her eyes that alone was a cardinal sin. They’d run off here without a plan and without a care in the world, just two young lovers in love ready to experience life and maybe take a shot at the big time. Sure, she knew that the streets had never been paved in gold and that they both would have to work hard to earn their keep, and when life had just been about the two of them, all of it was as perfect as it needed to be.

Then she met Phil and he swept her away.  She had been working in a local jewelry store and when Phil walked in it was as if he owned every jewel there ever was including the one in her heart. He had come to buy a gift for his wife’s birthday, but from that very instance little else mattered to her.  Phil had conquered her heart without even knowing it. He flirted with her and began taking her out after her shifts. Paul had always been working.  Paul worked so hard but could only give her so little. Phil offered her the world and she took it.   They began meeting in motel rooms, sneaking away every stolen moment they possibly could.  She fell in love with Phil even though she knew he’d never leave his wife. Phil offered her a world of jazz and speakeasies.  They frequented The Cotton Club and had met Owney Madden and Hoagy Carmichael all in the same evening. She rubbed shoulders with the bee’s knees and it had all been terrific.

Once Paul found out there was little she’d thought he’d do.  She thought he’d skulk away defeated like some helpless little puppy, and at first that’s exactly what happened until one fateful night. He must have had them followed prior to this. One night, Paul burst into the motel room with Phil’s wife Delores, her hair in curlers in her tattered nightgown.  There was a woman beneath all women, she thought as she heard Delores shriek obscenities at each of them.  Well, at least Phil could be all mine now, she had thought.  Now that the game was up and the secret was out she thought maybe Paul had done her the biggest favor of her life.  She thought that every night forward would be spent with Phil beside her in their bed.

The next night Phil came by with the most serious looked she had ever seen on him. He brushed her aside as she moved in for his embrace. He turned a cold cheek as she leaned in to kiss her.  That’s when she knew she had been had.  She listened as Phil told her that they couldn’t see each other anymore and nearly fainted in disbelief as he told her he was going back to his wife. Reality came crashing down as she realized that it had all been a fling.  All those glamourous evenings, all the wine, and the passionate nights they spent had all been a dance.  She’d been taken for a ride and now she would have nothing.  Now, there was nothing to do but to return to that boy.

Life in Wyoming hadn’t been kind.  She knew all too well she came from abusive parents who wanted nothing more for than to stay put where they could control her. Paul had come from similar circumstances.  His father was a wheat farmer, but when Prohibition passed everything changed. Until then Paul’s father had been a kind and gentle man. Then, once lean times began it was as if he had been taken over by a dark uncontrollable force.  She had grown up alongside Paul and ever since they were small children it was as if she and Paul had been fated to be together.  Their parents perpetuated the lark, but then something in nature had changed everyone even her.  It was as if her spirit became hardened. Paul had been the only one resistant to it.  It was as if he was determined to remain a boy despite growing into a man’s body.  When Paul came to her window one night and suggested that they run away together, she though it had been the most adult thing he had ever thought of. She followed him everywhere when they first arrived in the city.  It was as if she was afraid to be alone.  They were the only ones who looked out for each other.  Then, they each buried themselves in work to the point where they rarely saw each other and then she met Phil and well, that just changed everything.

The gun felt warm even though the smoke had dissipated.  It radiated in her hand, but despite everything her hand did not tremble.  She coolly convinced herself that she had merely come to talk to him. The fact that she brought along the pistol that Phil had given her as a birthday gift not long ago was just a mere coincidence. In all the years she had known Paul before coming to the city, she never felt exhilarated around him. It took only one meeting with Phil to discover what true exhilaration was.  True exhilaration was firing a weapon.  Phil once remarked to her after giving her the pistol, “Now, you don’t have to take any guff from nobody.”  Holding the gun and firing it at a target now that was empowering to the point of it being nearly divine. He had prepared her for what it would feel like.  When she asked Phil what it felt like to kill a man with a gun, he told her everything.  “The first time it wreaks havoc on your stomach, but then about a minute later once you get used to the idea that the bastard got what he deserved, then it doesn’t matter much that a man is dead. Then, you realize that it only bothers you if you let it bother you.”

Phil’s words echoed in her brain. It wasn’t so much the words themselves or what they meant.  It was just the power she felt watching Paul grapple with death as he clenched his neck on the ground.  The blood spilled out of his hand like a sieve and those pretty eyes of his began fading. She wondered what he was thinking as he looked at her knowing that she had taken the only thing away from him that truly mattered to him or to anyone.  She wondered why he said those things to her if he was merely going to seek comfort in another woman at the first sign of abandonment.  That night when he brought Delores over to the motel he stood up in front of Phil’s face and told him that she had deserved a man who could share his life completely with her. Paul told Phil that she was the most remarkable woman he had ever known and that if Phil was going to take her away that she deserved to be more than a bit on the side.   Even now, she imagined those words of devotion coming out of Paul’s mouth.  It only took Phil leaving for her to see that Paul had been looking out for her the entire time, but it hadn’t been that simple.  Sometime while she and Phil had been together, Paul also fell for another woman only she hadn’t cared enough to realize it.  We love who we love and it’s never of our choosing.  No one ever truly possesses a heart that is not their own,  she thought. With that, she turned her back on Paul and walk away as the silence consumed him. . .

As the silence consumed him, Paul looked at her.  She turned her back and began walking away.  That blue dress always made her look like an angel. Her soft long white legs moved so gracefully that they looked like they reached up to heaven.  She may have been deadly but she was beautiful all the same.  He knew he was a goner.  He let go of his neck and uttered in a final breath the name of the woman he truly loved. Paul took comfort in knowing that that name didn’t match the name of the woman who killed him. The woman who pulled the trigger had long since become a stranger to him.  The woman he thought of in his final moments was truly remarkable.  She was the brightest woman he had ever met. He struggled to hold on to the few brief conversations they shared.  He also struggled to hold on to the feeling of her embrace wishing that he had been bold enough to kiss her the last time he saw her.  It could have been the beginning of something special.  He thought of how his hand might feel stroking her hair and how soothing it might be to have the freedom to embrace her whenever they wanted.  If he could only touch that lovely face one more time.  If he could only draw her closer to him, maybe he’d tell her all of the things he felt about her. He gazed one last time at the feminine creature briskly walking away. Then, he looked up at the ceiling, pursed his lips together one last time and uttered a name.  It was the name of the woman he wished he had the opportunity to fall in love with.  It was a desperate plea for a love that never came to be but a love that could have been something . . . special.

With renewed determination, the feminine creature upon hearing Paul utter that name rushed back into the tenement room and put a new bullet between his eyes. As she did so she infuriatingly shouted, “THAT’S NOT MY NAME!!!” It had only been one syllable but it was one syllable too many and she knew she didn’t have to take any guff.

The Sweetest Thrill

It was a good show and I killed it but all I could think about was Ralphie’s men waiting for me in the wings. Couldn’t they wait until after the encore?  Was that too much to ask? Something must have been up.  Maybe they suspected something.  Maybe Ralphie thought I talked to the Feds. I didn’t know what was the score and I was nervous even though I knew they were just trying to scare me –  that there was no way they’d risk hurting me when my entire earning potential hinged on my returning to the stage 8 performances a week -still, when you’re in as deep as me there’s no telling what they might do.  As the applause began to wane, a look of panic must have creeped up on me as I noticed the facial expressions on some of the couples in the first row turn from that of amusement to that of puzzled concerned.  They must have thought I was about to have a seizure.  Part of me wishes I had. What was I supposed to do?  Charlie had put me in this mess. He raked up all those gambling losses until he well over his head and then up and left me to hold the bag.

Here’s the thing with show business.  You spend a whole lot of time with people you don’t like.  You have to.  You have no choice.  It’s like a marriage and putting up with your in-laws.  Before I met Charlie, I was an up and coming starlet.  The future was bright, the world was my oyster, and yes, I know these are all tiresome clichés but in my case it was true.  I became the understudy to Francine Baudilini, a quite fragile thing who had previously broken through in her debut “Ain’t that Grand,” an otherwise forgettable musical, but she dazzled the right people and hit all the high notes.  I had spent years waiting for an opportunity to join a real company after spending years scrounging and paying my dues with the Guestling Repertory singing my lungs out on stage every night doing mostly vaudeville – a little singing, a little dancing, a little T and A – whatever kept the asses in their seats.    The one advantage I always had was that I could sing better than anyone else in the group.  They used to bring me out and I’d get the crowd roaring with “I Get a Kick Out of You” or move them to tears with “If you Want the Rainbow (You Must Have the Rain),” which was a great number to close on.  I’d have all the men in the palm of my hand.  Still, I had my sights set on Broadway.   It didn’t matter how many gin joints I played, a woman of my talent must embark upon the ultimate stage. I finally got my big chance just as I met Charlie.  He was an insurance broker and bought me a few drinks after a show one night. We got to talking and I found out his brother was the producer of “City by the Bay,” and it just so happens they were in the middle of casting for “The Sweetest Thrill.”  The buzz on this musical was huge.  Francine Baudilini had just secured the lead and none other than Harrison Caskell – only the most raved about handsome Broadway actor to grace the stage – had been cast as the male lead.  This musical was going to be huge, and now I had my foot in the door having met Charlie, who was quite a likeable chum but a sap nonetheless.  I did what any sensible young woman would do in this situation. I married him.

Charlie and his brother Ken came from money, but they lived modest lives. Their strict father would have it no other way.  You see, Mr. Fengold was a bit of a miser.  Their mother died of consumption shortly after giving birth to Charlie, and though there was a family fortune and a vast estate to be had neither of the two sons could rightfully claim it until they had proven their worth.  Mr. Fengold was indeed a nasty bastard if I may say so myself.  Our wedding present wasn’t even something we could use.  He gave us a tin cap because he admired Johnny Appleseed so much and it was meant for us to keep as a reminder that we should live frugally.  I swear the old man would have only been proud of his sons if they had lived like hobos planting apple trees even if they couldn’t even be properly harvested and could only be used for cider.  I could tell Charlie resented him. He resented having to prove his worth, having to compete for his father’s affection with his brother Ken who was no prize himself.  Sure ken may have made a name for himself as a producer but the man was a miserable philandering drunk half the time although he could be charming for the precious few moments he was sober.

Charlie hated the insurance business, but it was work he could manage and it carried a title he could use to sway his father into believing he had some meaningful calling.  The rest of Charlie’s family were a bunch of stuck up hypocrites who liked to put up their noses at me because I was a performer.  They always made me feel as if I was beneath them and they were constantly judging me. I was used to these kinds of people though.  That’s what most people in show business are like.  They smile, kiss, and hug you but they never truly respect you.  They either ignore you completely after the obligatory greeting at a party or they brush you aside as if you were a worthless piece of garbage while rushing on to their next utterly mundane conversation.

I learned to play the part I needed to play both to land the part in “The Sweetest Thrill” and to appease the wretched in-laws. It was quite a balancing act but I managed it. The director recognized the talent in my voice and I was suddenly the understudy to the lead role with a sizeable ensemble part for regular performances.  I had everything I wanted, and it was enough for me even if I had to put up with the unpleasantness I mentioned.  Then, one night 4 months ago I found out Charlie was a gambler. He’d bet on horses, baseball, dogs, and all the while when I was on stage every night he’d be at Gusto’s, a former speakeasy in the bowery where there was a fully operational casino run by gangsters of course.  He came home one night stinking of booze. I was exhausted as usual, and he belted out the loudest scream I’ve ever heard. It was unrecognizable as any kind of sound a human could make.  It was almost like a howl and it was followed by blubbering.

“I’ve lost it all, my sweetheart. . . I’ve lost it all. Don’t hate me . . .”  Those were the only discernable words I could make out.  He collapsed in a fit.  The next day, I sobered him up and he explained the whole thing to me.  He was up by 4 grand but then his luck faltered.  The cards failed to come his way and before he knew it he was down by 30 then 40 then finally 85 grand.  I told him we don’t have that kind of money.  He said he knew.  He said he’d go figure it out, that I should get ready to get back on stage for the show and that he’d figure it all out tonight.  A swell job he did of figuring it out since he decided to blow his brains out with the pistol I bought him for his birthday. Would it be awful of me to say that I wasn’t all that disappointed or upset?  I tried to muster some tears for the funeral and perhaps the performance was convincing enough, but I simply felt nothing.  Charlie may have been a sorry sap for me. He loved me and he probably thought taking his life would solve my problems.  That’s why he did it – it was the ultimate sacrifice for the woman he loved.  Sometimes I blame myself. I look at myself and wonder why I can’t even appreciate the fact that Charlie died for me. What can I say? He loved me more than I loved him.  Of course I loved him and all, but a man should never allow himself to love a woman more than she loves him.  It proves fatal every time although perhaps not always quite in the literal sense.

I still had an obligation to fulfill as Ralphie Capresi wasn’t going to just forget about the 85 grand that Charlie owed him just because he kicked the bucket.  Imagine my surprise when two of his men showed up backstage after a performance one evening.  Strong man Nick Stagali and his fellow goon “Bad”Baldy Florenti would be two men that would alter the course of my life forever.  They showed up by my dressing room door and let me know about Ralphie’s intention to collect from me. When I told them that I’m simply the understudy and that there’s no way I could pay it back in a timely fashion, I could hear the wheels in motion inside their heads.

“How about if you became the lead?” they asked, “How much would that earn you?”

I knew right then and there what they were planning.  There was no way to stop it. I felt terrible, but it excited me simultaneously.  To think that I would be the star with my name on the marquee.  To think I’d have my chance.

“The Sweetest Thrill” is a musical that feels like it was practically written for me. The female lead, Charlotte, goes from vaudeville juke joints to national radio sensation after getting a lucky break.  She marries an actor but the actor cheats on her and treats her badly until one day she meets the man of her dreams and they decide they should kill her husband and run away together after inheriting the husband’s estate.  The plan proves fatal since the police catch on and Charlotte gets killed in the crossfire while the two try to escape. The final song Charlotte sings is the showstopper, a song called “Take Me Home to My Love.”  It’s a song that if you pull it off, it proves you could sing anything. It’s also a challenge not only to sing all the notes properly and hit all the high notes but the actress playing the part must really put her acting skills to the forefront and sell this heartbreaking ending to the audience.

Before I knew it, I mean within a spurt of time that felt like a blink, Francine Baudilini suffered her “accident” if you could call that brutal beating an accident. Both her legs were broken and she suffered several broken ribs.  I truly felt awful about it, and I feel even worse thinking about it now. I actually feel more sympathy for her than I do for Charlie because she didn’t do anything to deserve that. Sure enough, however, I seized upon the opportunity of a lifetime.   Everything soon followed, the fame, the glory, everything but the money that went with it.  I was being bled dry because of stupid debt that wasn’t even mine.  They forced me to appoint Nick Stagali as my agent / business manager. My pay went directly to him and what he did was leave me enough to pay for a dismal room downtown and food for the week.

When I asked him how much longer the arrangement would last for, he simply replied, “A very long time.  Keep in mind there’s also a vig on top of the principle.”

The bump in pay I received for landing the lead was clearly not enough to satisfy my debt within a reasonable time so I had to come up with something.  I resorted to seducing Nick Stagali. Nick was a large man, very rotund but with muscular arms and thick bovine legs.  I figure that he wouldn’t know how to respond to a gal he wasn’t paying suddenly putting the moves on him.  First, I acted as if I was a bit faint and pretended to fall in his arms.  I let my eyes linger into his.  Then, I reached him and kissed him.  He quivered underneath me as we made love and then I knew he was mine. I knew I had leverage and that I could control him.  The question then became how do I get Ralph Capresi off my back?  The quickest way I knew how was to turn Nick against him, but it wouldn’t be easy.  If his goon partner, “Bad” Baldy, figured out what we were up to I knew the game would be up.

The best way to best a man’s loyalty is to see if he’ll kill for you.  Dying for you is easy, even a sap like Charlie could do that.  I told Nick one night that “Bad” Baldy tried to force himself on me and roughed me up when Nick couldn’t be there the previous night. It was a lie but I’m an actress and Nick was gullible. He believed me even though I wore the same makeup that I wear in the show after “Charlotte” gets beat up.  He then confronted “Bad” Baldy, who I later learned received this name because of how he treated women in a whorehouse who didn’t give him what he wanted.  All this time I thought it was because he was bald but apparently, when some low life unfortunate thing refused to please him the way he wanted he turned on her, brutalized her, and then cut off all of her hair using a Bowie knife. Suffice it to say, I have no regrets regarding “Bad” Baldy’s fate.  I figure a gunshot to the face is probably more generous than the man deserved.

For Nick, killing “Bad” Baldy meant he couldn’t turn back.  He began plotting to run away with me imagining that I’d somehow like to live in Cincinnati somewhere or perhaps Kansas City.  He could start over with a new crew and work his way up and all that jazz, but the problem was that that didn’t solve my problem at all. I didn’t want a life with Nick any more than I wanted a life with Charlie. What was I going to do out there? Knit sweaters and watch the man guzzle beer into that pot belly of his? I wanted to stay where I was.  I wanted to be on that stage and I wanted to be a star.

That night I snuck over to Gusto’s while Nick lay in bed asleep.  The place was a dank slimy pit of cigarettes and booze. I nearly fell to the floor from the smell of the joint. I saw losers and boozehounds lapping up their drinks eying their card dealers with one desprate eye while appraising the milky white skin of their cocktail waitresses with the other eye.  Everyone turned around to look at me as if I was some creature from a lagoon or something or other.  I spoke up and demanded to speak to Ralph Capresi.  They took me to a back room up a set of winding stairs.  There were no windows and the cigar smoke that lingered everywhere looked and smelled hideous.

“Why hello there, Mrs. Carter,” said Ralph Capresi chomping on his cigar using my stage name.  There’s no way I was ever going anywhere with a last name like Fengold and as for my maiden name well that’s just privleged information.  “What brings you to our esteemed establishment on this beautiful evening?”

“I want out,” I said.  “I want to live my life without worrying about having to pay you.”

“And what can you offer me for this.”

“I can offer you information.”

“Go on.”

“Nick, he’s betrayed you. He killed “Bad” Baldy because Baldy found out he was talking to the Feds.”

“He told you this?”

“I saw it with my own eyes.”

“You’re saying Nick is a rat and Baldy’s dead?”

“Yes, and I could prove it.”

I took out a tourmaline ring that Baldy wore that I took off his body while Nick wasn’t looking. It was enough to convince Ralph to make a deal.  I would be free of my debt as soon as Nick was taken care of. My fate relied on Ralph successfully having Nick killed before he could talk to the Federal Agents that I boldly lied to him about.

I walk home that night filled with hope for the first time n many nights.  I know it’s wrong to rejoice in the death of a man, but these were all criminals after all and this entire ordeal had put me through enough.  It was well after 2 am when I walked in and to my amazement saw a man in a brown suit waving his badge in my face as I crossed the threshold to my door.  He introduced himself to me as Agent Simon with the Federal taskforce investigating organized crime and racketeering.  They were called in when Baldy’s body had been found in an ally nearby some hours ago.  Nick had been taken into custody and had testified to the whole thing.  Technically, I hadn’t committed a crime but I was a material witness of course and so they decided to bring me in. I told him my story but embellished a bit to make myself seem a bit more sympathetic. I wanted them to believe I felt awfully devastated about Charlie, Francine, and even for Nick killing Baldy.  They bought my performance and I was easily able to explain my fling with Nick as I was a helpless woman who fell for her captor, one who had been prone to violence and decided to kill Baldy after Baldy tried to rape me.  It was all very convincing and I even think Agent Simon fought back a few tears for me as I told it. After all, I had been through a horrifying experience.

Now came the kicker. I asked if they were going to apprehend Ralph Capresi.

“Sorry, Mam. Capresi is too insulated from the crimes we’re investigating.  We can’t pin anything big on him.”

“Well, what about extorting money from me and my poor Charlie?”

“Ms. Carter, we can’t move against Capresi now and that charge is one he could easily fight and win in court.  We must build a case, and if you want to help us, you need to cooperate and play along with him as if you still are going to pay him back as usual.”  A little while later, Agent Simon left.

So, that was it.  That was my big opportunity to get out of this infernal mess Charlie has put me in.  Once Ralph got wind of Nick’s arrest, I didn’t hear another word from him. He assigned two new goons to me making one of them my agent who makes sure Ralph Capresi gets his cut in perpetuity.  They’ve taken to making their presence more aggressively known to me in case I should think about talking so they show up waiting for me in the wings as I finish the encore and take my bows. They want me to know that they always get their cut and thus far they seem to be right about that.

Nowadays, I perform and kill the audience every night. I summon up the tears for the show stopping “Take Me Home to My Love.”  It’s a song of heartbreak, despair, and death only now I feel the emotions for real. I wouldn’t dream to think of Nick or Charlie when I sing that song. I never would. I never cared for either of them more than I care for myself.  I sing the song for me and only for me. Last night I spotted Agent Simon in the audience and I summoned all my acting ability to persuade him that I sang for him. I think he bought it.  Little does he know that I’d never truly sing for him. In my heart I sing for myself and all my love and all my despair and all my grace and beauty.  Those things will always be mine and mine alone but Agent Simon . . . he doesn’t need to know that right now.  I imagine his eyes gazing upon me and I know he thinks I sing for him. He thinks he could have me . . . all of me. Men always believe that.

A Final Letter to Liz

Dear Liz

I realize the music I listen to may be a few decades behind anything you listen to but if you have the heart to do it I want you to find the song “It Makes No Difference” by The Band.  Honestly, that probably sums up my feelings about you and my whole situation – indeed, my entire life – given the fact you won’t be seeing me for a long while.  They say the law always catches up somehow and perhaps I’ve broken a few bones too many in my line of work.  Still on the eve that I go away, my thoughts are not of my impending imprisonment but of this song and of course you. It’s amazing to think that I saw you every week for five years and never once told you how I felt about you although I know you’re smart enough to guess. I think now more than ever you deserve to know and the words must be said. There’s a line in that song that goes,

“Now there’s no love as true as the love that dies untold.”

As many times as I’ve heard that song over the years that line had always failed to resonate with me until now and it’s really because it rings true for me.  There’s something about unrequited love that makes life both bittersweet yet nourishing to the noble soul. It just makes me think about the prospect of never seeing you again and how even though it’s for the best, it still hurts.  The regret is still there even though there’s nothing I can change about what caused it.

Who am I kidding?  I’ve never been a poet nor am I some highfalutin philosopher qualified to quote song lyrics as if I’ve just discovered the meaning to life. I could barely string together a few sentences on most occasions but since you’re so important to me it’s the most I could try to do so I only hope I make sense and you understand me.  I’m nothing but a runner for a bookie, but you know that already.  You knew that from the first night we met.  I walked up to your cash register and ordered my Big Mac meal with no pickles and you gave me a wink but then as the evening wore on and I conducted my business that frown appeared on your face.  You even told the manager that I was engaged in illegal gambling activities and that perhaps he should do something.  Little did you know the franchise owner himself sanctioned my little operation.  He knew I worked for the Duke of Earl.  That’s all that needed to be said, but then how would you have known that.  I mean a kid like you, how would any one expect you to be familiar with the ways of us low lives.

I apologize if this is a bit awkward to you, but there are things that I’ve been wanting to say and even though a lot of time has elapsed I still don’t quite know how to say it or even how to approach you. The briefest way to say what I’ve been wanting to tell you for years is to just admit that I have feelings for you, but as you may know, things are bit more complicated than that.  I’ve been attracted to you for a long time probably since the first time I saw you behind the cash register at our McDonalds on Nostrand Avenue. I just instantly found you to be a bright, warm, intelligent, beautiful woman with a good sense of humor and I always looked forward to seeing you every week so that’s why I made it a point to make our McDonalds my personal place to conduct my business and over time I coordinated my business meetings to coincide with your shifts so I’d have an excuse to see you – I know it sounds pathetic but I have very few real friends so try not to be creeped out by that.   You know what I do. I set up meetings with the Duke’s clients, hand out winnings to the winners, collect money from the losers, and anyone who didn’t show up at the appointed time at our McDonald’s . . . well, let’s just say I tracked them down and taught them a lesson, but this letter isn’t about me and what I’ve done it about my feelings for you.

I remember the night things changed between us like it was yesterday.  You had just been promoted to shift manager and as luck would have it two thugs walk in just before midnight and decide they want to hold the place up.  I needed to bide my time before making any sudden movements but the look of panic that crossed your face gave me a chill down to my spine.  I knew what I had to do.  I saw it as my duty to protect you.  Just as they had asked you again about the safe, I walked up behind the shorter of the two guys, grabbed his ski mask, pulled it up and stuck my gun right in his nose as he turned around.  You woulda thought the guy shit his pants.  I looked at you and saw a look of relief.  I stared the other guy down.

I told them, “You two better leave right now or else things will get ugly starting with this motherfucker’s brains on the floor!”

I got the bigger thug to take off his ski mask.

In all their nervousness the bigger one replied, “We weren’t going to hurt anyone, Yo.”

I said, “Do yourselves a favor and never come back here again.  You come back here and I’ll make sure The Duke will hear about it.  You understand?” Then I added, “Smile, you’re on camera!”

They all too eagerly nodded in agreement.

Then I said, “You want to hold some place up why don’t you give those liberal yuppies over at Starbucks and Whole Foods a scare.  Better yet, go to Whole Foods and suck each other’s dicks there so you fit right in.”

Out of my peripheral vision, I could see a smile reach the corners of your beautiful mouth.  I think it was the first time I ever truly saw you smile.  The two thugs left and you sat down at my table with me and we talked until the end of your shift.

I said, “I don’t know about you but all this organic food shit is just turning everyone into a bunch of pussies.  That’s why I come here.  Fast food may be poison but at least it doesn’t sell you some liberal self-aggrandizing fantasy either.”

I could tell you appreciated my sense of humor even if you didn’t whole heartedly agree with the sentiment.  To be honest, I don’t even agree with half the shit I say. I just say whatever I think might get a rise out of someone, but after that night things changed.  Whenever I’d walk in, my eyes instantly searched for you and I suspect your eyes greeted me with a warmth I hadn’t known until then.  You started sitting with me on your breaks and we’d talk about current events, movies, sports, or anything really.  I sometimes found myself ready and willing to lose myself in your beautiful brown eyes but I always reminded myself that we were in public and obviously it wouldn’t do me any good for any of the Duke’s clients to think I was some puppy dog in love with a girl at McDonald’s.  One time this middle aged degenerate gambler, Marco caught on and started teasing me.  I waited for the next time he lost and made sure he knew not to do that again.  Headlocks do that to people, I suppose.

Don’t think me a violent guy.  I mean I don’t resort to violence unless I have to, but in my business you find that no matter how much you may wish to avoid a conflict, conflict always finds you. It’s unavoidable. Working with the public, I’m sure you understand. How many times have you confessed to me that you were so close to slapping some bitch because she complained her coffee was too hot?  Or some uppity college kid who wants to return his burger because he asks for no pickle?  Or how about the fucking drug addicts that somehow manage to get the key to the bathroom and leave all their paraphernalia for you to clean up once they finally decide to leave hours later?  Or what about those bozos who think that McDonald’s employees are beneath them and that you should worship the ground they walk on because they occasionally drop some money there?  They remind you that you’re not smiling or chastise you for conducting their transaction too quickly when they want to talk about the weather with you?  All those people give you grief and you’ve told me all about it.  Well, I have to deal with similar things although it’s different.  There’s always the guy that doesn’t want to pay because his bet “wasn’t heard right.”  They’ll come to me and say, “I took the over not the under.  Why don’t you give me a break?”  There’s the fucking young yuppy liberal generation types that like to look down on me when they lose.  They’ll say things like, “I bet you’re real proud of yourself. You just took the money my Dad gave me for books. Guess I’m failing that class.”  Then there’s the ultimate no-no that always happens when a guy says, “Talk to the Duke. I’m good for it.”  Hehe. “I’m good for it” is code for “I don’t have the money please don’t rough me up.”

The point is we both have our ups and downs in our jobs. That’s something we have in common. We both work thankless go-nowhere jobs only the difference is that for you your job is a stepping stone to a future honest living.  For me, well this is as good as it’s ever going to be for me.  Once you’re born a low life, you stay a low life.   There’s no getting out of it once you start.  My future was doomed from the first day I made my first collection for the Duke.  Sure, maybe the Duke might give me some more action and recently he’s allowed me to put some of my own money on the street, but that’s all coming to an end now.

I’m sorry, I know this letter has rambled on and on about things that don’t matter. I have a habit of doing that.  The point is that I care for you very deeply and I think you know the reason why I’ve never told you before but let me say it anyway.  A woman like you deserves better than me.  Maybe if I had moved up in the hierarchy to the point where I had a decent no-show job so we could lie to your family about what I did maybe then perhaps if you felt the same way we could be together, but even then I know I could never truly measure up to being the man you deserve.  You deserve an honest man – someone who does something better than being a runner for a bookie, someone you could be proud of, someone who could lavish all their attention upon you, and give you all the love and affection you deserve.  It’s funny how getting to know you gave me an opportunity to just imagine what my life could have been like if things had gone differently for me. I think the happiness you’ve given me by allowing me to be your friend will be enough to sustain me in prison.  I know I’ll spend many nights imagining a life that could have been.  Hell, I’ve done that for many nights already and that’s something prison could never take away from me.

The pathetic thing is that this isn’t even the first love letter I’ve written you.  There have been many over the years but every time I came close to giving one of my previous letters to you, I always stopped myself and reminded myself why I don’t deserve you.  It all goes back to that song by The Band, “It Makes No Difference.”   There’s another line in that song that goes,

“These old love letters / I just can’t keep / ‘Cause like the gambler says read ‘em and weep / And the dawn don’t rescue me no more.”

Do me a favor and listen to that song just one time and think of me.  Then, move on with your life. Get back in school, become one of those liberal yuppies I make fun of and make something of yourself. I know you have it in you to rise above your circumstances.  You’re so smart and you’re good at everything you do.  Don’t hold yourself back. If you take away anything from your time with a loser like me remember this: Keep your head high and don’t be a sucker.  It’s the last piece of advice I’ll ever give you so take it to heart and stay away from men like me who may have a big enough heart but lack the ambition and drive to be better than who they are.

Take care, Liz, and listen to that song when you can and let that be my goodbye because “It Makes No Difference” really does sum up my life completely.

Love,

Sal

Absolution

Perhaps it’s the years I’ve worn the collar that have made me cynical and fatalistic or maybe it’s because I’ve never truly believed in God, but time and time again I look at my time absolving sins in the confessional as an elaborate game whereby I prey upon the superstitions of my congregation.  Admittedly, I realize it serves its purpose much like when George Steinbrenner apologizes to the fans or signs some up some ballplayer for big money.  It makes the player feel good because he’s hit a payday and it makes the fans feel good because they feel like they’re being rewarded.  Really, all that’s ever achieved are headlines.  Confession gives the believer the same feeling.  It’s a cathartic release for the sinner to say what they’ve done and feel like it gets washed away.  Some say they could feel the spirit of Jesus Christ within their souls the moment they exit the confessional.  They rush to do their penance and all the wrongs they’ve committed suddenly disappear like they’ve never happened.  It amuses me to think of the power religion has over these people.  They commit the most horrific deeds 6 days out of the week and then they come in at 8am on Sunday and confess so that they could deem themselves pure enough to receive Communion.

It’s amazing that so much of human behavior could be dictated by ancient fairy tales and superstition.  “Lord I am not worthy to receive you,” indeed.  Typically in my 30 years as a priest, I’ve dealt with your garden variety cheating spouses, the occasional remorseful shoplifter, the drunk who neglects his family, drug addicts, prostitutes, and all varieties of poor judgement and disgraceful behavior.  I’ve waved my hand and pardoned them all only to find them sitting across the booth from me time and time again confessing to different varieties of the same sin.  Humanity is nothing but a forgetful drunken fool repeating the same pratfalls time and time again.  If there were a God, we would be his court jesters trouncing upon his stage naked and unashamed for his bitter amusement.  If God exists, he is nothing but a spectator at the cinema filling himself up with popcorn and candy feasting his eyes on all sorts of atrocities, devastations, pornography, murder, violence, as well as the quiet humiliation of those who suffer in silence.  In an ironic twist, I am meant to be his vessel on Earth, and I do very much the same thing. I listen, I observe, and I pay witnesses to the destructive nature of the very human beings I’m supposed to be helping but in actuality I do nothing.  The kicker is that they admire and respect me for this just as they do the God they claim to worship. I’ll tell you, life in the priesthood is a real racket.

It must have been around this time last year when Joey Calonzo entered my confessional. I knew who he was the minute I laid my eyes on him through the shadows of the screen meant to guard his face.  The perception is that you’re supposed to be anonymous in these boothes but the priest knows his congregation.  I had performed the baptisms of his children and I knew who he was. I also knew how much he contributed to the Church. At first I figured, how bad could it be? I listened as he went through the initial motions all the while shifting on his knees.  He was a strong muscular man for a 50 year old.  I imagine he could lift his own body weight but he had weak knees.  He sometimes limped down the aisle at church telling anyone who expressed concern that he had been in a bad car wreck some years ago.  He wore a nice grey suit that day with the most remarkably flashy cuff links. His head was balding but it didn’t take anything away from the fierceness with which he carried himself.  He was a man to be feared if you saw him walking towards you on a dark secluded street.  If you actually did see him walking towards you on such an occasion, it might actually be the last thing you ever saw.  Joey was a hitman.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been 3 years since my last confession,” he said.

“Was that around that time that Father Palisimo passed away?”

“It is, Father.  He used to hear my confessions but since he passed I haven’t felt comfortable confessing my sins until now.”

“Go on, my son.”

“I’ve seen the life leave the eyes of many men since my last confession.”

“You mean you’ve committed murder.  You realize that murder is a mortal sin.”

“I do, Father, but Father Palisimo absolved me of my sins in the past and I was hoping you might do the same.”

“What you ask is not easy. Murder is not only a mortal sin but also an egregious crime.”

“I realize that Father, but I also know that as a priest you cannot violate the Sacrament and turn me in.”

“In order to be forgiven for your sins, you must truly repent and commit to change your life for the better so that you may live in peace in the love of Christ,” I said.  I knew that his chosen profession wouldn’t permit him to do this, but I had to say something that sounded noble to reinforce the reverence he afforded me.

“Father, I admit that I cannot change but I truly regret my actions. Is that not enough?  It was for Father Palisimo.”

“Let’s set this aside for now. What other sins have you committed?”

“Father, I have also committed adultery on many occasions.  I know Anne-Marie loves me and I love her but she doesn’t satisfy me, Father. I’ve recently found myself not only lusting after other women but I also believe I’ve fallen in love with another woman.”

“What is her name?”

“Tina Vitale, Father.  I’ve sent her a single white rose every day for the last 3 months. I feel as if my heart belongs to her but I know I can’t leave my wife.”

“Divorce is against church teaching of course.”

“That and she’s liable to take me to the cleaners, Father.”

At this I chuckled. It’s strange how miniscule a petty thing like infidelity appears when compared to such a horrific crime as murder. We sat in an uncomfortable silence for a few minutes.  I gave him the impression as if I had taken on the weight of the world deciding whether or not to fulfill the Sacrament. I had to do this so as to at least give the appearance of wise contemplation. In actuality, I was merely thinking about the perfect words to use to keep the ruse going.  I wasn’t about to let Joey Calonzo or his blood money leave my church for another.  I’m sure Saint Mary’s would love to have his bankroll in their pockets.

I started, “My son, you have committed deeds that are truly evil, however, I believe you’ve shown true remorse.”  Waving my hand in front of the screen I continued, “You will say 30 Our fathers and 20 Hail Marys and you will try every day to walk with Christ and show compassion for your fellow man.  You will do something kind for your wife and be a good father to your children.”

“I will, Father.”

He then said his act of contrition and left. I must admit to have felt a heavy burden on my heart since that day. Joey’s confessions became a weekly ritual, and I sat, listened, and waved my hand accordingly as he recounted crimes and details that might make your stomach turn.  The city around us was falling apart, and it felt like Joey and I were just superfluous dust meandering through a wellspring of urban decay. Not even baseball could cheer me up.  The Mets were in the gutter and the Yankees had Dave Winfield who could never come through in the clutch.  The city itself just seems to be decaying every time I turn around to look at it.  Depravity runs wild on the streets, and fewer and fewer young people come to church on Sunday morning.  More and more it’s become a haven for perfume soaked spinsters and widows.  They need someone to reassure them that their lives mean something, and I sell the snake oil they need at just the right time to prevent them from losing their minds. The kind smiles they offer me disguise lifetimes of despair and self-serving sacrifice. It’s become harder and harder to disguise my own contempt of it all.

The one comfort I have in this life is the knowledge that on the day Joey Colonzo dies, the moment his life extinguishes, he’ll know he will have been had.  He won’t see a light.  He won’t see St. Peter.  His consciousness will vanish into the ether just as everyone else does.  He’ll dissolve into the same nothingness as his victims and my knowledge of that makes me feel good about what I do.  I provide a service.  Without religion, this city would have decayed decades or even centuries ago. Men like me provide a service to keep society from complete self-destruction. Men like Joey Calonzo would have no sense of morality whatsoever and they would kill for sport instead of killing to fulfill a contract.  I’ve done more for this city than God ever could.

After all those gory confessions of murders, torturings, and fighting, I’ve become almost numb to it.  Instead, in our recent sessions I’ve come to let him breeze past those mortal sins and had him tell me more about his affair with Tina Vitale.  If one didn’t know better, after the first few minutes it might appear as if our confessions transformed into a gossip column. He’d tell me about all the wonderful things he bought her and about how he can’t stop thinking of her. He wrote her love poems, and I truly came to believe that he genuinely loved her despite his status as a sociopath.

It’s amazing how a man capable of such ugly behavior could turn around and almost appear human.  Tina’s mother passed away of cancer recently. Joey not only paid for the funeral but he also bought the most beautiful pendant for Tina’s mother to be buried with.  The damn thing must have cost about 20 grand, and it looked as beautiful as anything I had ever seen. On it he had an inscription which read, “I will forever abide in Christ as he abides in me.”  During the wake, the mourners were all invited to lift it slightly from the body’s chest to admire it and declare how beautiful it was and how peaceful Mrs. Vitale looked as she wore it in the casket.  In fact, everything about it was beautiful and graceful. It was as if her dead body had become this adorable accessory to this beautiful jewelry. I performed the ceremony taking on my usual somber reflective tone for such occasions.  My performance was exquisitely convincing, the body rested in all its peaceful glory, and the faces of the mourners took on a surrealist impression. Everything was as it should be.

As I finished my final blessing, I looked into Tina’s eyes and then I looked into Joey’s eyes and said, “Surely, she will find life everlasting as will each of us who believes in our lord, Jesus Christ.”

Joey held Tina in his embrace and nodded reverently.  Tina tried to suppress her tears and buried her face into Joey’s arm.  I embraced them both, held them in my arms, and said, “Don’t fret, Tina. Think of the saying on the pendant and let that give you comfort.”

Tina replied, “But those are just words. I don’t even know what it means”

Joey Calonzo looked to me for a sage response, but I merely stood back, smiled, nodded, and left. I could still hear him call out to me as I approached the doors.  I tried not to listen. Instead, I focused on the rain pouring down like pellets fired from a careless carbine.  The gutters would soon be awash with fresh waters from the heavens.  The streets would be cleared of those who wished to get away from the torrential downpour, and for a brief time the city would be still with the exception of the rain.  The parked cars would remain parked and the street corners would be clear of drug dealers and would-be muggers.  The prostitutes would abandon the streets and the wind and the rain would force all sins to be committed indoors far from the omniscient sight of their neglectful God.  For that moment, I felt truly free, truly peaceful, and I relished the relative solitude I was about to have for myself upon clearing the archway until my senses awakened and I heard his voice. It was clear as day and could penetrate any distance. “Bless you, Father,” he said.  I could feel the eyes on my back so I turned around, smiled, waved my hand and said, “May the peace of the Lord be with you always.” Afterwards, I returned to the rectory, retired to bed and prayed. I prayed for dear life that there should not be a God.

The Gentlemen

They watch you.  They wait for you to leave your home and they watch you and follow you wherever you go.  They all resemble James Cagney, and they all smoke cigars with those stylish grey suits and feathered fedoras keeping both eyes on you and making sure you don’t leave town.  It’s been like this for 3 weeks now in our little town, and every time I so much as go out for some eggs to fill up the icebox they silently follow me walking behind me at a steady pace.  They don’t follow me inside the grocers as the agreement the town made with them prohibits them from internal surveillance, but anytime we go outside, one of them is always ready and waiting to follow us.  Anyone who dares to protest or heaven forbid run – well, they end up disappearing, probably smoked. That’s the way it is here in Connorsville, and who knows how long it’ll last.

All of us have our own families to protect so there’s little chance of anyone stepping out of line.  No, the key is to wait it out. That’s what Sheriff Henderson told us. “Wait it out, and one day they’ll just leave. In the meantime, just go about your business, send your kids to school, and don’t change your routine.”   I suppose when faced with something this disturbing human instinct is to crave normalcy.  The various routines that define our lives during whatever phase of life we happen to be in traditionally offer us some comfort. No one likes to admit it but routines are indeed comforting.  Whatever inconveniences or distractions that occur in our lives only serve to help us appreciate whatever routines we have previously defined as “normal.”  The weekdays I’m used to getting Samantha ready for school while Susan makes us breakfast.  Then I read the paper while eating my scrambled eggs, finish getting dressed, walk Sammy to school with Susan, then head on over to my office at Smithson’s on Canton Avenue for a typical day of number crunching for the various businesses in town.  It’s mindless work, but it pays well and it’s given us a good home in this quiet little town.  We settled down here 5 years ago right after Sammy was born and figured this small town would be a nice place to raise her.  I liked the idea of a quaint little community where the neighbors all knew each other and everyone looked after everyone.  Sure, there was more than the usual round of gossip, but Susan had always been smart enough to keep enough distance from the uglier gossiping circles that tend to form in small towns like these.

The truth is that after spending our whole lives living in a big city, we craved something different.  Susan’s father had been a banker, and she grew to resent the hustle and bustle of the city with its loud boisterous noises every minute of the day and people always in a hurry.  She had always wanted her dad to slow down and finally he did, only it was because his heart gave out. She didn’t want me to suffer her father’s fate.  A job in finance could be stressful, especially when working for people whose every action in life is motivated by greed.  A cousin of hers told her about an accounting job opening in Connorsville far from the big city, a town with a population of only 300 people on the other side of the country.  It would be a huge lifestyle change for each of us, but after all the stress of my big city job, I had been determined to make the arrangement work.  We would be able to afford a house twice the size of the one we had in the city, and the arrangement became ideal. Sammy loved living in a big house with large backyard where she could play and run and do what kids do as they grow up.

I was playing catch with her in our backyard when Harry Summers drove by and told me there was this big town hall meeting that everyone had to go to.  Something had happened and there were important decisions to be made. He offered to drive me and I left Sammy home with Susan who had been preparing dinner for that evening. Harry had left his 2 year old son home with his wife as had most of the men who attended the meeting.

After some initial rumbling and waiting, a clearly panicked Sheriff Henderson got up at the podium to speak.  The sweat on his brow had been clearly visible as were the armpit stains in his uniform shirt.  He shuffled back and forth nervously hesitating before Carl Smolder prompted him to speak.  After all, Carl had his customers to get back to at his bar and this had taken up precious time for him already.

“Well listen up,” began Sheriff Henderson,” Everybody listen up!” The town hall quieted down as we all listened. “There are some gentlemen here from the city and the bottom line is that Connorsville is now under their control, but if we all cooperate they will be gone before we know it.”

“What is this some kind of joke?” asked Stanley Ruthman.

“Not a joke.  These gentlemen . . . well all they want is for us all to stay put and not leave town.  Connorsville has become a . . . location of strategic importance to them . . . but I’ve been assured that it’s only temporary.”

We were explained the rules.  We were all to adhere our regular routines only there would be one of these gentleman following each and every one of us wherever we go.  We were not to leave town and to make it easier on these gentleman, any irregular outing should be coordinated by house numbers.  So on even numbered days, even numbered households could have one unplanned outing to say take a stroll or go into town spontaneously.  The same would apply to odd numbered households on odd numbered days.  Each household would get a sum of $600 a week for every week that these gentlemen remained.  The payments would start immediately, and if anyone objected or protested in any way . . . well, that would be dealt with by rather discouraging means.

Most of us were clearly unhappy about this, but none of us had the courage to do anything.  Why stick your neck out when you know it’ll just be cut off? We all had families to protect and so we all agreed to go along with it.  Besides, it was made clear that these men would never actually enter our homes or follow us inside any building or structure so long as we were deemed in compliance.  Our routines were not to change and so work could get done and this extra cash would be some decent pocket money.  Clark Gasling had always wanted a pool in his backyard and Stephen Fowler had wanted to redesign his kitchen.  I always thought it would be nice to own a 2nd television set even though having just one set was considered a luxury. We each had our own ideas of what to do with the money.

The first few days came and went without incident. I had to explain to Sammy that there were men that would follow us while I took her to school every morning but that when the time was right, these men would go away.  She had even tried to say hi and wave to the pair that tailed us the next morning, but they ignored her and simply followed with their eyes on us each step of the way.  After Sammy had gone into school, I approached one of them and told them it wouldn’t hurt to have manners.  That’s when I was greeted by a snub nosed pistol in my face and told to “Stop making trouble or I’ll smoke yah.”

From then on, I had to content myself with following along. I could sense the frustration growing in the town, but no one dared to speak up.  No one dared upset the new “normalcy” that had been established.  We became prisoners in our own town vigorously following our normal routines under constant watch of these gentlemen.

I saw the strained look on Harry Summers face as he drove past my house today.  The gentlemen followed him in their Bentley.  He had been likely planning to go to the grocers but when he saw me, something inside him stirred. His face turned red and a defiant look crept across his face. He looked upset as he slowed down in front of my house. I had been watering my lawn with Sammy as he approached.  As soon as I noticed something amiss, I sent Sammy inside.  The gentleman watching me nodded in approval.  Then, I looked back just in time to see Harry’s truck speed off wildly down the road toward Bricket’s Underpass.  What was he thinking? I wondered.  The Bentley behind him sped up to follow.  They rammed him from behind then sped up alongside and ran him off the road.  Before I knew it, pistols were pulled out and Harry Summer’s brains had been spilt across the grass leading to Gaitlin’s townhouse.  The gentleman assigned to watching me water my lawn nodded in approval and smiled. I must have looked horrified, but as long as I didn’t do anything out of line I knew I’d be safe.  I went back to watering my lawn although I made sure Sammy stayed inside.

I don’t know what the destiny of Connorsville will be.  If the gentlemen ever leave, I imagine it’ll become a ghost town because I can’t imagine anyone would feel safe here ever again.  Tomorrow happens to be a big day at work for me. I look forward to getting up, eating my scrambled eggs, taking Sammy to school, and heading over to my office at Smithson’s on Canton Avenue.  There’s news of a new account being opened and that might mean a big promotion for me along with a raise of course.  I’ll try my best not to dream of poor Harry tonight, but if I do I’ll be sure to dream about the good times I had with him as my neighbor.  I imagine that whatever mess his blood and brains might have made up the road will soon be cleaned up.  These are gentlemen we’re dealing with after all.

Sealed with a Kiss

They call poison the typical method of murder for disgruntled wives so who was I to stray from convention? Sure, Henry had money and I wanted it, but it wasn’t nearly as simple as that.  Money and independence does help though.  How else is a woman supposed to get along in this country while Ike and every other goddamned fool I know has their knickers in a bunch about Sputnik?  I did my time waitressing and I figured I’d let the younger broads tackle that noble profession for as long as they could handle it.  I know better. Men are mostly saps when it comes down to it – at least the type of men who let themselves fall in love so completely.  They meet a pretty lady – one that they like – and they promise her the moon, the stars, the treasures of the earth, and everything in between. A smart woman knows how to use that, but frankly in my case I was hardly dishonest – slightly deceiving? – Perhaps but hardly dishonest.

I told him the score the very first time I met him only he wasn’t paying attention. As usual, his mind drifted off into his own private thoughts and maybe he convinced himself that he heard what he wanted to hear. I was waitressing at a joint called Bob’s Grill, a diner in the Catskills, when I noticed his sorry blank eyes staring out the window.  When I asked him if something was wrong, he rushed an apology at me, and when I insisted that no apology was necessary he found it to be the right occasion to blather on about the meaning of life and his disappointment in the life he found himself in – typical wealthy socialist guilt if you ask me.  I listened, I endeared myself to him –batted my eyes at the right time and so forth- and before I knew it we were laying side by side beneath the stars in the dingy parking lot of Bob’s Grill.  My life would never be the same.

“Ever feel like you’re living a life that isn’t meant to be yours?” he asked with that boyish whimsical smile of his.

He was wearing a collared white shirt beneath an expensive looking blue sweater.  The fabric felt as soft as anything.  He lacked the rugged look of the men I had been accustomed to flirting with.  He came from good stock and there was no way of hiding it, try as he might.  He just didn’t have the guts for it even if he wanted to pretend to be otherwise.

“There are worst things to be than a well-to-do young man philosophizing with his waitress in a diner,” I replied.

“Oh, I know that.  You think because I come from wealth that I should be happy?  It doesn’t work that way.  I’ve been reading Nietzsche and he says essentially that God is dead and life is meaningless – that Nihilism has prevailed in the modern age.  For you perhaps it means nothing but for me – well- I consider myself a contemplative person.”

“I figured you would,” I told him, “You do seem like someone who thinks an awful lot.”

“I do. It’s like I find myself living in age where my life is of little consequence.”

“If you find your life to be of little consequence then I could hardly imagine your opinion of an inconsequential young girl like me.”

“But that’s just the thing – I look at you and I know that you are important – perhaps more important than me.  Is that not at least one aspect of the true nature of love?”

“Love? Why we hardly know each other. You should be more careful about who you say such things to.”

The conversation started to go in circles until it began to get late, but I set him straight as I stood up to go back to my car.  I told him, and I remember that night clear as day.  I’ll never forget the words I used because like my husband, I also thought a lot about the important matters of life.  I had also spent many a night pondering love and the meaning of it all usually before drifting off to sleep in bed and each and every time I thought about these matters I had arrived at the same conclusion.

I said, “You want to know what I think?”

“More than anything,” he said.

“I think that I want to live alone and I want to die alone because in the end we all die alone.  Even those seemingly lucky enough to die at a tender old age with loved ones beside them on their deathbeds holding their hands – even those people die alone. Death is a solitary experience and I believe life is meant to be one as well- at least my life anyways. What good is it to waste your years pining for the approval and validation of a beloved when all they have to offer you are decades worth of grief, aggravation, frustration, and disappointment.  You live your life to marry and grow old with someone and really what do you get out of it? Companionship and to me companionship is worthless.  People use it as a panacea when it’s really a lousy substitute for joy. If you ask me, cherish and enjoy your solitude because truly that solitude is worth more than anything in the world anyone could ever offer you.”

Now if that doesn’t sound like a gal shooting a man down in flames I don’t know what else would. I spoke to him straight and honestly giving him the best possible explanation of my own philosophy.  The last thing I expected was that he would ignore just about everything I said and lean in to kiss me.  I pretended to like it. After all, a young man with money is hard to find.

So, all the expected things happened. I met his family and acted the part of the daintiest damsel amused by dinner parties, flower arrangements, hosting, and all the nauseating things wealthy people put themselves through. Instead of good stock, however, I learned that my wealthy husband came from a long line of inbreeding, pampering, and devastating family secrets that would no doubt crush the entire lineage if these secrets ever saw the light of day. I played my part and listened to the gossip preparing for the inevitable day that he would make me his wife.

After months of courting, the proposal came as we rode in a carriage through Central Park and I said all the right things and made all the right facial expressions and embraced him in just the way he liked and I also let him kiss me in the exact manner he liked and let him linger and dote on me for however long he wanted.   I suppose most women would be flattered and happy to attain this kind of attention but I found the whole thing intolerable.

We married and on the wedding night when it was no longer necessary to remain chaste, I pushed him off with all my might.  He was such a fragile thing, my husband, that a heavy wind could carry him away.  When he asked what was wrong, I reminded him of our initial conversation and told him that I intended to remain in a marriage of convenience with him.  We would sleep in separate rooms and that we would leave each other in peace to each do as we respectfully pleased.  It was that moment when I saw the look of utter defeat in his face. It was that moment when I sense that he had truly lost the will to live. I kindly reminded him that I knew all the family secrets and besides that his family would be embarrassed by the prospect of divorce and that I doubted that neither he, his mother, nor his sisters were prepared for a lifetime of shame and ostracization.

He reluctantly agreed to let me have my way as he had no other choice and we spent several  years at a kind polite distance from each other.  Neither one of us had cause or reason to be hostile, and I suppose I could have gone on just the same with having the freedom to move about as I pleased and the money to go where I wanted.  I could spend entire days reading my books without being disturbed for meals at someone else’s convenience.  We didn’t have pesky petulant children to tend to and the convenience of our arrangement suited us both. He was free to stay out at his clubs all day and go off writing his dissertations on philosophy impressing his friends and family, and I was content to often arrive at an empty house and enjoy my much valued peace, quiet, and solitude.  There was an understanding and that’s how I preferred it

Then, one evening he came to my room and I could tell something was wrong as I saw him choking back his tears.  He told me his mother had died. She had been sick for many years but the woman, fate, happenstance, or coincidence decided that that night was the end.  She left this world knowing of our arrangement but with the comforting knowledge that her precious family secrets were all safe.  As Henry was about to leave, I called him back. I don’t know what came over me. Perhaps a sudden wave of compassion hit me; perhaps my composure waned in the wake of despair; but more likely I sympathized with poor Henry because my own mother died when I was young before I ever knew what warmth and compassion could possibly be.  I saw Henry there with that dim feeble awkward look on his face and saw a wounded bird. I grabbed him by his collar, kissed him, and hugged him letting him collapse in my arms.  I even let myself cry as well.

That’s when things changed. That’s when the arrangement changed.  It happened without much resistance from me. Before I knew it, we began sharing our meals together every day, going out socially together, laughing giddily with one another, sharing private indulgences, affectionate glances, and ultimately sharing our bed.  Over the course of  the next 2 years, we became a real married couple doing everything together and my previously private and independent life withered away to nearly nothingness. I was actually really quite happy.  We both were.

Christmas came and I found myself with child, and just as I had forgotten my old attitudes, I found them making a sudden and unexpected return. Henry was preparing plans for the nursery deciding where things could go. The man couldn’t assemble a crib if his life depended on it so he brought in an old school friend to help him. The baby would arrive any day now, and it was better to have the crib ready than not, and then it hit me. With the pain of my first contraction I knew I had unwittingly surrendered my principles.  Not only had I succumbed to a potential lifetime of living under the thumb of a man, but my child – perhaps a girl just like I was – would be forced to carry on the cycle of subversion of the will, subversion of independent thought and space.  I had not only allowed my own solitude to be corrupted I was now bringing forth a new life with its own needs and its own empty void of dependence.  All my previous aversions to social living flooded back to me with this intense torrent of pain, and I despaired.  In my heart I knew nothing but despair.

Anyone who gives their heart completely is an utter fool. I know this because I became one.  I hadn’t set out to be but that’s what I became.  I needn’t have experienced the entire spectrum of life’s disappointments to know where my life with Henry would end up.  He was never good-looking and that naïve smile combined with his contemplative nature would grow wary on me.  His body would bloat and become frail with age and he would eventually become a burden as I would as well to him.  I had enough worries contemplating how to care for myself without having to worry about the needs of another.  I suppose it was good fortune that our baby was stillborn. Henry and I went through the motions of mourning.

I kept up appearances with him as I planned his demise. I decided poison would be the best and least detectable manner.  It would be a simple matter of slipping it into his food when he wasn’t looking.  He’d conveniently die and I would inherit his share of the family fortune and that would be that. This time I would remain resolute and resist any urge towards over-sentimentality.

On the third day of administering the poison he caught me.  He took hold of my wrist as I was about to do the deed and asked me what I was doing. There was nothing more to do but tell the truth and hope for mercy.

He asked, “Those attitudes you claimed to have when I first met you – the ones that kept us apart early on in our marriage – have those points of view returned?”

“They have indeed.”

“Then would you truly like to be alone without me?”

I told him, “I would.”

With that he disappeared into our bedroom, closed the heavy door, and truly left me.  Through the closed door I heard him yell out one last time, “I love you, Laura!”  Then, an awkward silence. Then, a single gunshot.  Henry was gone.

The freedom I had always craved – the independence I desired and now have – if I allow myself to exist thoughtlessly I can just about enjoy it.  It’s when the silence hits me, stuns me, and shocks me that I can’t help thinking that the emptiness of it all is ultimately unbearable.  Time drags on and all the comforts I can afford do nothing but refuse to shorten the length of days. I often find myself thinking back on that very first night I met him and that high minded philosophical conversation we shared. I find myself reliving that moment again and again only it wasn’t so much the conversation but the kiss.  When I remember it now the words we both said become meaningless and nonsensical.  When I remember it now, this time I find myself enjoying that first kiss.  That’s how I choose to remember it now and that’s how it shall forever be.

The Foreword

This is what my life has been reduced to.  I’m writing a Foreword to a book that I haven’t read by an author I’ve never met, some rising star who lit up the literary world with his first novel proving yet again just how fickle the world could really be.  Most of the themes that were explored in that first novel shared a remarkable similarity to some of my work yet he’s the one who’s considered refreshing, original, and transformative even.  I can recognize hogwash from a mile away, and I’d bet any amount of money that he read my work and just decided to put his own spin on it and now look at what a success he is. I found three of my novels in the bargain bin of my local bookstore the other day and you know what I did?  I left them there to rot like the dying irrelevant corpses that they are.   There’s not enough whiskey at the bottom of this bottle to make me swallow my pride enough to get through this no matter how much my agent, Sal, begs and pleads with me.  “It’s an easy score,” he told me, “Gavin Saugherties gets some prestige by having you write the forward to his second novel, and you get your name in print again.  He sells books, you sell books.  It’s a win-win.”

I should have thought about letting Sal write this blasted thing.  With that stubby beard and those foppish clothes of his he might as well be a writer.  He sure knows how to dress the part.  I once considered sending him in place of me to a book signing 8 years ago.  If someone asked about the photo on the back of the book, I would have just told him to concoct some bullshit story.  That’s what writers do anyway- they tell stories.  What difference does it make what they look like or where they come from?  Everyone thinks a writer has to be this erudite  repository of knowledge; they all have this illusion that creative people live such sophisticated lives as if the literati blessed some golden goose in the sky and deposited us on earth to enlighten the insipid masses. Well, far be it for me to change anyone’s way of thinking.  Gavin Saugherties is just the type they’re looking for. He fits the profile – college professor by day, literary genius by night with the standard trophy wife and most likely a bimbo to pork on the side. You look at him and say, “Why, that guy knows something.  Let me read what he has to say.  At the very least he might make me interesting at dinner parties. I can go on to tell people how I’m reading the latest Saugherties novel, and people will ‘oooh’ and ‘aah’ with affected interest and maybe that hardbody with the phony laugh and the fake tits will fuck me once she sees my Lexus because she thinks I’m so astute.”

People think I can’t recognize hypocrisy when it’s probably the only thing I’m adept at spotting in human behavior. There isn’t a human being alive that doesn’t want to have their ego stroked. They say, “To flatter you must deceive,” and that’s the motto this world lives by.  Is Gavin Saugherties a halfway decent writer?  Should I plough along with this Foreword and discuss modes of isolation that I found compelling in his first novel as if he’d reinvented the wheel? Should single him out as an incendiary voice of this post-post-modern era engulfed in the flames of a cultural abyss?  That’s precisely what I should say even though I don’t mean a word of it because that’s what the occasion demands.  I’m supposed to be honored that this hack who probably couldn’t even string together a sentence 4 years ago wants some prestige credit with his readers who have probably heard my name bandied about by some uptight bibliophile still singing praises about the books I’ve written over a decade ago.

This is the part of the book that most people skip through anyway, so what difference does it make if it’s the drunken ravings of a broken down has-been. The success anyone has in this business owes a lot more to luck than it does to talent and if you ask me (and apparently someone has since I’m writing this damned Foreword), Gavin Saugherties has been struck with the good fortune of having a great deal of luck and a nominal amount of talent, which will take him a lot of places in this dismal world.

I never asked anyone to write any of the Forewords to my books.  They came to me, and that’s how it should be.  As I take another swill from the good ol’ whiskey bottle the thing that occurs to me most about writing this blasted Foreword is the fact that my words will be on pages that will not even be numbered. 20 years ago, if someone had told me I’d be writing some fluff piece introduction to a guaranteed bestseller having to agonize this much over pages that won’t even be numbered for an author that I carry so little respect for, I’d say they were crazy and laugh them out of the room. Well, now the joke is on me.

I should probably spout some nonsense about how the author you are about to read will take you to new horizons and get you to re-examine some of your pre-conceptions of art, life, and love. This is the part when I’m supposed to say what an amazing talent Gavin Saugherties happens to be and how his first novel, The Inimical Penumbra, is hardly the pretentious banal garbage the title makes it out to be.  Oh no!  It most definitely awakened within me a heretofore untapped existential perception of the very themes I’ve spent a lifetime exploring in my own now very irrelevant fiction.  Yeah, that’s the fucking ticket.  Swallow that shit, dear reader, because that’s what you want from me and you know it.

Someday, Gavin Saugherties will lose all use for drinking glasses because he’ll drink straight from the bottle as I do now.  I may be in the grave by then, but if there is any justice in this world his fate is sealed.   If I leave you, dear reader, with the admonition that success is fleeting, it’ll most definitely mean nothing to you. What do you care? You haven’t created anything.  Gavin Saugherties has done all the work for you so you can come away from it with pithy observations about characters and situations that you can walk away from instantly. No, my advice to you is to continue on with your unexamined life because those of us who know better suffer more than you can imagine.

To Gavin Saugherties, when you read this, just know that the day will soon arrive when you’ll wish you had remained one of the masses.

If you haven’t done so already, please ignore the lunacy with these unnumbered pages and proceed to the novel.  The journey of your escape now awaits you.

Lessons in a Restaurant Beating

Max was an expert in loving women he couldn’t have. He was the type of guy who’d get infatuated with a woman after one look and Paulie wasn’t shy about telling him that.  Needless to say, Paulie was confident that Max would never get too far in life.  The kid seemingly contented himself to a lifetime of being a waiter, busboy, and occasional musical performer at Angelo’s.  Paulie had owed his dad a favor – the kind of debt that wasn’t spoken about.  Max’s dad was in the midst of doing serious time, and Paulie knew that he owed him.  The least he could do was make sure poor Max had a job.   When the day came for Saul Kleinman to turn himself in for Insurance fraud and name names, Paulie had been confident that his name wouldn’t be one of them.  Good ol’ Saul would never do that and combine that with the fact that poor Maxy didn’t have a mother, well Paulie thought, a lifetime job was the next best thing. Max was a good kid who did what he was told.  He was good with the customers and if it wasn’t too busy, he’d take out that acoustic guitar of his and croon out a decent tune or two. It was always love songs with this kid, yet in the couple of years since Paulie took him in, there had never been a single broad who stayed with Max long enough.  They’d all leave once they figured out the kid had no larger ambitions.  Every time a girl left him, the kid would be heartbroken.  He’d spend a whole week humming nothing but “I’m Thru with Love” to himself all throughout his shift.  The ones who stayed were trouble, and Paulie felt fatherly enough towards Max to shoo them away before Max fell too hard.

One night after Paulie had closed down Angelo’s to begin counting cash and receipts, he heard the distinct crooning of Max’s voice and his guitar strumming “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and that’s when Paulie knew the ship had sunk.  Max had fallen and there would be another round of flirting and courting followed by stolen kisses in the middle of the work shift whenever she’d visit.  Then, she’d end up spending a couple nights over at Max’s apartment before deciding that spending the rest of her life slumming wouldn’t be quite her thing.  After all, most of these girls had fathers or brothers who were connected and why would they settle for a life beneath their standards?  Of course it may take them a month or two before coming to that conclusion, but it always happened.  Paulie tried to explain to Max that that’s just how dames are, but damned if Max ever listened and Paulie supposed that the kid had got to get laid sometimes.  He just wished that Max hadn’t invested the emotions he invested in these girls.

So just as Max had come around to the 2nd chorus, Paulie poked out his head to see who the lucky broad was and mentally wager just how long she’d stick around.  Girls loved that artsy shit especially when their young.  Paulie remembered courting his Angelina in similar fashion only he’d sing to her in Italian and she’d giggle and then they’d both have to wait until Paulie received approval from Angelina’s father to see her with a chaperone (of course).  That was back in Puglia though and it seemed a lifetime ago.   As Paulie’s semi-bald head poked from behind his desk to see just who Max had been singing to through the narrow doorway, he swore he heard the same giggle he had heard coming out of Anglina’s slender mouth some many years ago.  Then he saw the brown hair in a neat bun and the blue dress shaping her figure just right for that plump bosom of hers.  Her legs had been healthy and meaty and Paulie was just about to think to himself that he finally started to like Max’s taste in women – these women with their Jane Fonda workouts trying to turn into stick figures just wouldn’t do for him – when he finally saw her face.  It was Mary, Nick Santorino’s sister.  The girl he had known since she was a baby had now grown and returned from nursing school to visit her father’s family.  As much as he liked her and admitted to himself that she may indeed be the perfect match for Max, he also knew Nick Santorino – the hothead kid who had always been protective of his little sister especially since their parents had split up in that explosively messy divorce.  This was bad news. Paulie needed to put a stop this and fast.

After exchanging quick pleasantries with Mary, Paulie cocked his head at Max saying, “Hey Maxy, shouldn’t you be rushing home?  You got to be here fresh and early tomorrow.  No excuses!  Plus if you hurry home you might get there in time to watch the Honeymooners rerun at midnight.”

They both laughed that secret laugh of lovers before Max interjected, “Thanks uncle Paulie, but don’t worry I’ll be here.  Mary and I are just going out for one drink and then we’re each heading home.”

Other than physically restrain Max, there was nothing Paulie could do but let the two of them go out on their date.  That’s what young people do anyway, and in most cases Paulie would not have minded but the prospect of Max getting tangled up with Nick Santorino frightened Paulie.  He thought about it all night even after he had shut the lamp next to his bed after giving his nightly kiss to the picture of Angelina on his nightstand.

Nick Santorino was a typical hothead who Paulie had encountered at various times as he grew up in the neighborhood.  Always protective of his little sister, Nick had been only 13 years old when started getting into fights with other boys who flirted with Mary.  Nick couldn’t have been older than 16 when he took on a tall High School senior who had played varsity football.  Not only did Nick win the fight, the football kid had been beaten to a bloody pulp and had spent nearly 3 weeks in the hospital.  Paulie asked himself how could Max even think about fooling around with Mary Santorino knowing that history.  Most of the time Paulie gave Max enough credit to at least respect the fact that the kid wasn’t stupid, but this had been absolutely moronic and the sad thing is that he suspected Max knew that as well as he did.

The next morning, Max showed up bright and early so Paulie pulled him aside, and asked, “Kid, are you crazy?”

“Let go of me, Uncle Paulie,” said Max as he struggled to straighten his collar after Paulie loosened his grip.

“I just worry about you kid.  You’ve got no one to look out for you and Nick Santorino is the real deal.”

“Not to worry,” said Max casually, “It’s all under control.  You see Nick is out of town on business.”

“And when he returns?”

“When he returns, we’ll be extra careful.  I promise.”

“You don’t think anyone’s going to tell Nick that you taking his little sister around town?”

“She’s an adult now.”

“That doesn’t matter.”

“Why do you always get this way when I fall in love, Uncle Paulie?”

“Because you kids – you think you know what love is and you don’t. “

“Uncle Paulie, it’s not like we just met.  We’ve known each other through the years through the same circles.  She’s a wonderful woman and I love her now.”

“She may be a wonderful woman, but she could also get you killed, Max! You fall in love with a girl if she so much as looks at you the right way.  I know what it’s like to be young. I used to be young too, but being young is no excuse for being stupid, my boy.”

“Maybe I don’t have as many years under me as you do, but I know what love is.  I could tell you her favorite song, her favorite movie. I could tell you she likes her drinks strong but not too strong.  She’s a little insecure about her body, but she has the prettiest face that I could only dream of waking up to in the morning.  Someday that dream will be a reality.”

“Max, the reality is that she’s not worth risking your life for beautiful as she may be.  You’re risking your life to see her right now.  Would she do the same for you?”

For several days, Paulie avoided talking further with Max about this issue. It was futile to argue with young love.  Kids today do what they want and fall in love with whomever they want and most of the time no harm comes to them.  Max had taken to serenading Mary every night after the restaurant closed until one day Nick Santorino barged in wearing a pinstripe suit and sporting a billy club.

“I hear you’ve been seeing my little sister,” called Nick as he stepped inside.

Max put down the guitar speechless.

“No, don’t you put down that guitar. Let me hear the song.  I’ve been told you serenade her every night.  Is that true, Mary?”

Mary spoke hesitantly, “Nick. . .”

“Answer the question!”

“Yes, Nick, but he’s just a kid and I swear it’s all innocent.”

“I want to hear ol’ Maxy boy here sing a song.  What’s wrong with that?  Come on sing to me Maxy and you better not make me ask again.”

Paulie could see Max shaking as he picked up the guitar and sat on the stool. From behind the bar, there was nothing Paulie could do.  The days when he used to keep a pistol within arm’s reach were done.  Anyone foolish enough to try to rob Angelo’s in this day in age would be an idiot who didn’t know what would be coming to them.  Besides, even if the pistol had been there, Paulie couldn’t possibly risk the wrath of the Santorino family coming down on him.  He’d be finished.  Still, part of him wished that pistol had been there because he cared enough about Max that he might have risked it all if the opportunity had been just right.

Max began strumming and took a stale shot at playing, “My Baby Just Cares for Me” when Nick interrupted, “That’s not the song you were just playing for my sister.”

“Oh, well that’s just a different old tune just by Cole Porter,” said Max shaking a bit.

“Oh, so tell me Maxy what’s the song called?”

Paulie stood in silent paralysis as he watched the scene unfold.

Max stuttered with the sweat pouring down his brow.  He quietly said, “Let’s Misbehave.”

Nick snarled a vicious smile, “Say that again, pal, and this time louder.”

“Let’s Misbehave,” said Max awkwardly.

“Sing it to me.”

Finally, Paulie spoke up, “I think the kid’s learned his lesson, Nick.  He won’t see your sister anymore.  I’ll vouch for him.”

“Shut up, old man!” shouted Nick from across the room as he angled his tense frame towards Max who sat shivering in his school. Nick’s face turned a bright red with a pronounced vein protruding from the side of his head.

Max picked up the instrument and began playing the song as was requested singing, “We’re all alone no chaperone could get our number / The world’s in slumber / Let’s misbehave.”

Paulie shut his eyes at the same time he heard the loud smack of the billy club across Max’s face.  He couldn’t bare to watch as more thumps hurried in quick succession and he could hear Max writhing in pain while Mary pleaded with her brother to stop to no avail.  Max suffered smack after smack and punch after punch once Nick had been done with the billy club.  Finally, Nick grabbed the guitar and bashed Max over the head with it after spitting on the helpless bag of bones that was Max’s body on the floor.   The restaurant emptied out and Paulie called the ambulance.

Day after day, Max begged Paulie to see Mary, but Mary never showed.  Paulie saw that despite the beating, Max foolishly thought Mary would come to him the second she was free from her brother.   When news arrived of Nick’s arrest in an armed robbery, Max had shouted in triumph, “Finally, Mary and I could be together!”

He phoned up Mary and had her come by the restaurant.  Paulie could only make out fragments of their conversation here and there, but the gist of it could be understood once he heard Mary say, “Well, all you’ve got going for you is this lousy job. I deserve more, Max.”

Soon after he left, Paulie found Max quietly crying in the basement. He pulled Max close to him and embraced him.  He said, “It’s alright Maxy. It’ll be okay.”

Max tearfully looked Paulie in the eye and said, “You were right about her.”

Paulie stood with his arm around Max and said, “You’ll know when you meet the one.  The magic will be there just as it was for me and Angelina.” Max nodded with authentic resignation.

Days and weeks would pass while Max sullenly hummed the tune to “I’m Thru with Love” to himself.  On previous occasions, Paulie would get fed up with such sentimental nonsense, yet this time Paulie found himself humming and even singing along thinking of his beautiful Angelina as she was when they first met back when the world was young.  In fact the world had only stopped being young when she died a few years ago.  He imagined that that had been because he had been in love.  As he counted the cash to be prepared for the week’s payout, he briefly considered the thought that maybe in a world like this it was truly better for Max to be “through with love.”  Then, he shook off the notion, gave into his own sentimentality, and thought that Max will indeed find love if it’s the last thing he does and even if it is the very last thing he does, it would be well worth it.

The Professor

Staring at a blank page is the hardest thing to do for a writer.  At least that’s what I’ve repeatedly heard and have often found myself saying.  When you’re inspired to write something, the blank page disappears easily, and there’s no stopping you from going off on your journey, but what happens when you’re uninspired?  Well, that’s when you’re really forced to be creative.  It was 1984 and I was at the library checking out the new novel by Stephen King and Peter Straub, The Talisman, when I first noticed her.  She was sneaking her cigarette in between the stacks quietly reading Anais Nin crouched up like a cat just waiting to pounce on anyone daring enough to interrupt her. Seeing as how I was desperate for some kind of stimulation, I decided – perhaps unwisely – to approach her.   You must understand that when one has writer’s block there’s a desperation that is easily given into.  Experience alone becomes paramount because one never knows when or where a particular muse might present herself. After all, what’s a writer without his muse?  In all my years of writing, it had been my experience that finding a muse is rather easy.  Keeping a muse on the other hand, well . . . if anyone has figured that part out they’d be both awfully wealthy and infinitely prolific. Muses are well – forgive my use of the title of the book I was reading at the time – much like a talisman.  They provide a unique comfort to the artist but damned if any of us know precisely why.

So, there she was reading a volume of Nin’s diaries, and I daresay I approached her without even knowing what I would say.  I usually try to think things through, but that’s the other thing that happens during writer’s block.  The mind just doesn’t function in quite the same way even when attempting to do something other than writing.  She spotted me in her peripheral vision, and despite the fact that I could tell she was gearing up towards nastily shooting me down, I proceeded anyway.  At the time, I figured I had nothing to lose.  She sat there crouched like a tiger in a blue blouse and black faded jeans.  I easily noticed and began admiring her every curve trying my best to ignore the scowl that appeared to be shaping across her face.  At the time I was bold enough to find this hint of her fury invigorating. I imagine, she’d perhaps inspire a vignette at the very least – just enough to get my juices flowing so I could start working on my novel again.  I had already accepted an advance and my editor had been pestering me for a draft so I casually began to cease answering the phone.  Whenever a writer doesn’t answer the phone, it’s usually a sign that they are working so I thought that would at least buy me a little time.   For now, I thought reading and seeking out some inspiration would do me good. It’s impossible to just sit at a desk and write.  I used to tell my students that all the time.  They were usually more than happy to listen to that piece of advice as it gives them a bonafide reason to validate their usual procrastination.  I always said, “Whatever works” so why not take my own advice and see if this apparently lovely creature before me might conjure up something worthwhile to write about.

“You know you’re not supposed to smoke in here,” I said failing to think of something clever.

“You’re being rude.  Can’t you tell I’m reading?  Men – hmphh – You think that when you see a woman reading that they want you to interrupt them.”

“That’s not what I was thinking at all. I was merely . . . observing that you are in violation of proper decorum.  Uh – there is indeed a sign that you may have failed to observe at the entrance.”

She put the book down, stood up with her cigarette jostled between her delicate fingers and approached me.  When she saw that my eyes met hers, she quickly tilted her head and pointed towards the supervising librarian – at least that’s the title I’ve given him.

“Go ahead,” she said, “Tell him.”

“I shall not.  I don’t believe in tattling. I believe it to be . . . bad form.”

“Bad form? Decorum? Are you some kind of professor?”

“Why, yes, as a matter of fact I am.”

“Where do you teach? Kingsborough?”

“Yes, how did you know?”

“I go there and I think I’ve seen you around.  What do you teach?”

“This semester, I’m about to begin teaching my first course on motifs of existential crisis in Contemporary Literature.  I also teach a writing workshop.  Perhaps, you’d like to enroll in one of those.”

“Perhaps – but will I learn anything from you?”

“Um – excuse me.  What do you mean?”

“I mean you don’t seem like the type of person I could learn anything from.  I mean all you people have your degrees because you’ve managed to either kiss the right ass or impress the right white men.  I’m guessing you just kissed the right ass judging by your rather uninspired approach.”

“I’ve never been so insulted by a student in my life . . . I’m not quite sure how to respond to such irreverent behavior.  I shall have you know that I am really quite the authority on  . . .”

“Save it for your students, Professor.  You want to go ahead and tell Michael that I’m smoking?  If you tell him in just the right way he might give me a cursory glance and maybe I might be forced to put this out, but if you’re clumsy I guarantee you he’ll just walk away and ignore you.”

“I told you, I don’t consider myself an informant.”

“Try it anyway.”

I should have known better.  I should have just walked away and admitted defeat.  This woman was utterly cunning and she knew it. I didn’t want to admit defeat. I didn’t want to admit to myself that perhaps she was right about me pinning my entire identity down after one brief encounter and deconstructing my entire sense of self-worth down to a tee.  Who was I really?  What did I really know about Literature with a capital “L?” What could she possibly learn from me that couldn’t be gleaned from a stuffy text?  The woman – this female student – this enigma of a lady if that’s what she was – had completely stripped me bare and revealed me in all my oafish nakedness to be nothing but a pretender, and I couldn’t just leave it alone. It wasn’t enough that I retained the respect of all my previous students.  It wasn’t enough that I was highly regarded by my peers as a professor of good renown. No, I craved the admiration this nymph had decided to deny me.

She puffed at her cigarette decadently, sneering at me behind her smile.  Her eyes focused on mine like a target, her lips pursed like a feline about to reveal her fangs.  Her claws gripped the book that she had recently picked up from the ground clutching at it as if it were her bible. I could sense her toes tightening beneath her shoes.

She shot me a look that demanded that I attempt to do what she had demanded of me. I moved towards this Michael as if I had been shoved though her hands never touched me. I stuttered and stammered as I approached him, “Um . . . that uh woman . . . yeah . . . her over there . . . she’s smoking a cigarette.  Could you kindly . . . kindly a -a –a ask her to stop?”

Michael – if that was ever indeed his name- just rolled his eyes at me in a perfunctory way and proceeded down the next aisle turning his back on me.

I glanced back at the woman, my eyes utterly deflated. She smiled puffing her cigarette, “Way to go, Professor.”

I said nothing and began to walk away but then she called out to me, “Don’t you want to know why?”

I turned around, and she laughed at the confusion she could see upon my face. I wanted to run away in that moment, but my ego wouldn’t let me.

“Ha! It’s because Michael . . . Well, he may look like a man but he’s really a naughty boy – the things I let him do to me  . . . Let’s just say I could use this entire library as my personal toilet and he wouldn’t say a damn thing to me.”

I let out a gasp of shock.  The expression on my face must have amused her.  Then, I heard the words I wish I had never heard. If I could take myself back to that fateful day and undo every aspect of it I would. Her lips slithered and hissed as she approached me with that sultry body of hers swaying as she walked.  Her tongue wet her lips before she spoke in just the right way as her neck craned up with her eyes sulking at me in a way that I’ve never witness before in a woman.

Then she said it,” Would you like a similar arrangement?”

I looked at her and said nothing.  She pulled into me and put my arms around her and said, “I bet you have a nice place.”

All I could say was, “I do.”

What happened next is all but a blur to me now after so many years only the entire experience felt like fire.  More specifically, I felt like I was on fire.  The pure carnal lust that woman managed to extract from me seems almost incomprehensible now.  I doubt that I was even really me at the time. It feels like all of it happened to someone else.  I suppose now I wish it had happened to someone else.

When the lovemaking concluded, she sat at my writing desk and began fiddling with the pages I had written for my novel.  I also had some short stories lying about. “Don’t touch that,” I said,” That’s my novel.  It’s not finished.  Feel free to read those.”

“Can I take these with me?”

“Sure, I don’t see why not.”

She dressed herself rather quickly and gave some excuse about needing to get back home and rest for class the next day. I suppose I needed rest myself so I let her go reminding myself to get her name at the very least.

“I’m Melanie Hutsinger,” she said, “And I’ll see you in class tomorrow.  That writing workshop you mentioned?  Well, I’m already enrolled.  Goodnight, Professor Mullen”

“Call me Stan”

“Goodnight, Stan.”

I tried sleeping but my mind was on overdrive with the inspiration to write compelling me to spend the entire night clamoring away at the keys on my typewriter. I completed two short stories inspired by her along with four chapters of the novel I had been working on. The sound of vigorous typing was all that could be heard in my apartment throughout the night until the sun rose at dawn and I realized I had only just minutes to prepare before making my way to class. I had indeed found my new muse.

I gave my typical first day lecture for my writing workshop, and assigned my students to write their first short story for the class in time for next week helplessly glancing at Ms. Melanie Hutsinger the whole time.  I felt paranoid thinking that perhaps the other students might notice the pull going on between the two of us.  There had been other female students in the past, but this had been the first time that I felt such a powerful pull.  During the class, I could tell she did her best to disguise those cunning eyes of hers to make me feel at ease, but there was nothing that could have distracted my attention away from her.  Everything down from the way she dressed to every curl of her hair felt as if it all had spoken to me.  I had spent the entire evening writing about this woman in an inspired frenzy and now here she was in front of me looking through me and dissecting my every word.  It was the first time a woman had intimidated me.

When the lecture was over, she casually walked up to me and handed me back the stories she had borrowed from the previous night.

“Thank you, Ms. Hutsinger,” I said trying my best to disguise my fascination with her. “I appreciate you returning this to me. I would ask you what you thought, but I actually must prepare for my next lesson. Perhaps we can get together this evening?

“Professor, we can indeed get together this evening, but you misunderstand me.”

“How so?”

“I’m not returning these stories to you. . . . I’m handing them in for my first assignment.”

“You must be joking.”

“I assure you I’m not joking. I actually improved upon them greatly overnight.  You’ll see my notes, edits, and corrections in red.”

“Excuse me? But that’s . . . plagiarism”

“I told you when we first met that there’s nothing I could possibly learn from you.  You, however, stand to learn plenty from me.”

“I’m not quite sure how to respond to this.”

“It’s simple.  Here’s the arrangement spelled out for you.  We can continue to see each other socially.  You give me your work, I’ll improve it for you, and then you give me an A for the course.  Then at the conclusion of the semester, we are done.  Is that clear enough for you?”

I stood there dumbfounded.  I just hadn’t had a clue what to say nor how to respond.

She spoke up, “I’ll be at your place around 8pm tonight . . . oh and get some rest because you’ll surely need it.”

The rest of the day went by in a haze.  Surely I must have taught, spoken with other students and colleagues all the while distracted by the very notion of what this woman was proposing. When I got home, I took out the papers she had handed back to me and looked them over expecting to be unimpressed and perhaps slightly amused by the audacity of this young girl only I wasn’t.  To my amazement, she had absolutely improved upon every story she had been given almost tenfold.  I had spent months crafting these stories writing them and rewriting them pouring over each and every word attempting to make them something worthy of publication and in one night this . . . this girl had taken my words and my ideas and had given them the absolute best presentation possibly imaginable.  Her exquisite notes at the end of each story called me out on some of the aspects of my stories which were derivative.  She picked up on my admiration of Brian Kenwhistle and completely called me out on my attempt to emulate his style.  Many of my own colleagues wouldn’t have been a match for this girl, yet here was this absolute genius who had connived her way into my creative life. I wasn’t sure what to do. I was scared yet excited at the same time.

8pm came. The doorbell rang, and it was her. The confident swagger in which she walked in could hardly be described.  She declined to offer any kind of explanation to my queries, and simply demanded to know whether or not I agreed to the arrangement. Once I said yes, she disrobed and let me have my way with her again.

When she was ready to leave, I let her take my unfinished novel.  I had completely surrendered to her, just as she had wanted.  There was little point in resisting.  Saying no wouldn’t have proven anything.  After every one of my sessions, she would leave with some of my writing and I would be inspired to write even more, and it all continued to happen that way in quite a cyclical fashion.  I hardly slept for those months as I was constantly writing whenever I wasn’t with her.

During my time with her the closest she had come to explaining the mystery was in comparing me to Michael from the library.

“Michael could have resisted me at any time only he didn’t,” she said one time looking at me across the bed while she began getting dressed.

“Why is that?”

“Well, you are both alike. You think you’re in control of a thing, and you don’t realize how easily you’d give up that control for the right price.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Professor, we live in a patriarchal system where men control nearly everything.  Now most women – particularly feminists – see that as a disadvantage.  I don’t.”

“And why don’t you consider it a disadvantage, Ms. Hutsinger?”

“I don’t consider it a disadvantage because as long as men are in control that control can easily be swindled out of their hands just as I’ve done with Michael . . . just as I’ve done with you.”

“One might argue though that the price you pay is a steep one and that not every woman can do what you’ve done to seize the control they want.”

“You see that’s where you’re wrong. Bedding a man to get something you want isn’t a steep price at all for me.  It’s actually a pittance.  Feminists would have you believe that every time a woman like me uses a man like you that it’s a violation when really if the enjoyment is mutual I see it as rather a bargain.  You should ponder that as you work on your next project no doubt inspired by our sordid affair. When it comes to art I find that the lines between the artist and the muse very often get blurred.  If I inspired your writing am I not the one responsible for the art you produce?  Is not the muse the art and the art the muse?   Are they not one and the same?”

I had never quite looked at it that way.  She had indeed inspired me in ways I hadn’t fathomed before.

When the semester concluded, I lived up to my end of the bargain and gave her an A.  I never heard from her again.  The very night I had assigned her grade, I sat down at my typewriter preparing to write – hoping that the memory of her would continue to inspire me.  It did not.  I sat hours upon hours looking at a blank page.  My editor had wanted a new draft of my novel, and the deadline was fast approaching only I couldn’t write a thing.  Whatever hold she had over me that had empowered my writing had vanished, and though the thoughts raced inside my head, I could no longer summon the words to express them.  I became empty, hollow, a fragmented sentence without a verb. Just as easily and quickly as she inspired me, her absence had taken away any gift that I may have once claimed to have had.

I never completed that novel.  I stopped writing, gave up teaching, and became a banker. It’s been nearly thirty years since I’ve written anything.  On the internet a few hours ago I came across a story. A woman had been violently killed by her lesbian lover.  The female killer had been a novelist, and her books had been immensely successful.  She had multiple film deals and screenplays to her credit. Her success had come ever since she had gotten involved with a woman who had become her muse. The novelists was none other than Stacy Fontaine and her muse and victim had been none other than Melanie Hutsinger.  According to the article, Ms. Fontaine violently stabbed Ms. Hutsinger when Ms. Hutsinger had attempted to break off the relationship.  The authorities had figured it to be an open and shut case. I think it was probably much more complicated although I’ll never know for sure.

Perhaps, nature played a cruel trick on all of us and Melanie simply chose the wrong artist to serve as a muse.  Maybe she had thought that whatever mystical power she had would be better served by inspiring a female artist instead of a male one although perhaps that’s an unfair conclusion to draw without knowing the full story in intimate detail.  Killer and victim – artist and muse – perhaps the lines that define them will never be all that clear. All I know is that I came home earlier, and now by God, I could write again.  My words have filled these pages, and my tears are not of sorrow but of joy. Judge me however you will.

A Song for Her

The subway doors closed with their usual carelessness while Ken sat and listened to his music dreaming of her.  They could only be together within the confines of a song’s fantasy, but perhaps that was all he needed.  Either way, he had to learn to be content with a life that wouldn’t permit him to get to know her properly.  Dreams are almost always better anyway, he figured as he let himself get lost within the lyrics of the song like an old poem. “The downtown trains are full / Full of all them Brooklyn girls / They try so hard to break out of their little worlds,” he sang to himself internally. At 1AM it hardly mattered if he sang aloud as he was the only one in the subway car, but proclamations of love were never quite the type of thing that emboldened him.  Come to think of it, not much else did.  He lived by a motto that suggested that one should be content with his life even if he isn’t.  Some might say it’s cowardly to live that way, but sometimes a good love song alone could make him feel like he could conquer the world, capture the heart of the woman of his dreams, and ride away in some sort of Don Quixote –inspired glory out into the sunset with a new love that would inspire him for the rest of his remaining days.  For a period of less than 4 minutes, Ken believed the love he had for Lizzie would be boundless and he had faith in that life he lived inside that song.

Winter would be brutal.  The snowfall alone so far had made it one to remember.  As they parted ways earlier, he had hoped only that she would get to home safely and stay warm.  As it is, he himself enjoyed the warmth that the subway car provided and dreaded the prospect of having to leave it once he reached his destination.  That would be a long way off though.  For now there was just him, “Downtown Train” by Tom Waits, and his dreams of Lizzie and what she might be like if he were allowed to know her.  The frustration that he may never get to properly know the woman of his dreams sometimes got to him, but as long as he had her in his mind as the music played that would have to be enough.

It wouldn’t be a wise thing to make a move on the boss’s wife even if he could tell that little love existed between the two.  No, that was one marriage that Ken could never see ending.  Vinnie would sooner have her killed rather than let her off with another man and Ken was a low level underling at that so everyone would be gunning for him at the drop of a dime if that’s what it came to. No, all he could do was dream and love from afar so that’s what he’d do.  Besides, bad things happened to people who chased their dreams, got greedy, and decided to act on them especially in this business.  Though Ken found himself in love, he knew that love didn’t necessarily conquer all – not bullets anyway.  Cupid’s arrow was no match for a .45 caliber semi-automatic fired by on behalf of Vinnie Calabrese.

He valued his own life too much to act on his most paramount desire despite the fact he thought maybe he stood a chance if the circumstances were different.  That very night after the near fatal collision, she had come ever so close to asking him for a kiss.  Just as he leaned in, he could hear a car pull-up and sure enough it was one of Vinnie’s goons prepared to take Lizzie home leaving Ken to get himself home by subway.  He could tell Lizzie was shaken, and Ken almost forgot himself as he was about to suggest waiting for the ambulance prior to recalling just who would be involved.  The civilians from the other car seemed alright as they watched Ken and Lizzie leave the scene of the accident with petulant incredulity.  What did it matter anyway?  It’s not as if Ken was driving his own car?  It would take time but once it was discovered that he was behind the wheel of a stolen vehicle, Ken knew it would be best not to face any questions.  Still, Ken was deeply concerned with the bruise on Lizzie’s head.

For now there was only the music in his ears and his dreams of Lizzie that danced around in his head and that would be fine.   That was all he needed.  Perhaps he should have been hoping that the cell phone of the man in the other car failed to record video of his face; perhaps he should have been hoping that Vinnie’s rage would fail to peak as he heard the news of his wife involved in a serious car accident.  “Who was that idiot behind the wheel again,” Vinnie would shout to one of his goons.  Ken would be lying to himself if he didn’t admit that these little things didn’t poke into his mind occasionally as the music played.  Still, this was his time with Lizzie.  This was his time to imagine what it would’ve been like to completely lean in and kiss her.  This was his time to imagine a world without men like Vinnie and his goons, a world where he and Lizzie were free to get more acquainted, fall in love, and have a future together.

The next song he played was “Wildflowers” by Tom Petty.   Ken close his eyes and the lyrics swam around in his mind.  He saw himself on a boat somewhere off in an imaginary sea with Lizzie beside him baiting some hooks.  She smiled that wide smile of hers, the one she rarely let anyone else see. Ken only first noticed it the first time he met her.  He had come around to Paulie’s place to drop off his collections when he noticed Vinnie and Lizzie sitting at the kitchenette drinking some coffee.  Lizzie looked bored to tears.  Her dark hair sat pleasantly on her shoulders and framed her face just perfectly for him.  Though she wore hardly any make up, her natural beauty was enough to captivate his imagination. Paulie had called over to him to take the kettle and refill Lizzie’s mug, and as he walked over to her he felt the rest of the room fade away just as it always did in the movies. His eyes had then met hers at a casual glance, but later on that night his memory had been triggered by this Tom Petty song.   “Run away, find you a lover / Go away, somewhere all bright and new / I have seen no other /Who compares with you.”

That night and every night since, Ken dreamt of Lizzie.  Nothing overtly sexual would happen in his dreams.  He dreamt they’d take the subway together and talk and laugh and just enjoy each other’s company.   They’d maybe catch a game when the weather was nice or see a show or go out for some clams by the beach on Coney Island and just walk the boardwalk without a care in the world.  Even though he hardly knew her, he felt the connection between them had been strong enough for something more to flourish if only life had been slightly different.

In reality, she probably barely even noticed him until that night.  That night he was given the task of driving her home from one of Vinnie’s clubs.  Vinnie had one of his important late night deals to be made and had to stay behind for one of his clandestine nefarious business meetings.  At least that’s what he made it look like.  For all Ken knew, maybe Vinnie had gone off to be with his goomar.  Ken had no idea which one of these possible scenarios was true nor did it matter. All he knew was that he’d be alone in a Mercedes with Lizzie.  Ken knew the score. He knew the car he’d be driving in would be stolen.  That’s was Vinnie’s business after all, and there’s no way Vinnie would want some low level guy driving his wife home in a humble Buik.  No, it had to be a Mercedes.  Truthfully, Ken felt Lizzie deserved no less.

Lizzie came out of the club wearing her brown heavy leather coat as snowflakes whirled around her lovely brown hair.  Like a gentleman, Ken got out and charmingly opened the passenger side back seat door for her taking her hand to assist her getting into the vehicle.  Ken was wearing his best suit, a grey one with pinstripes that made him look like a Wall Street executive.  He had received the call just 45 minutes ago to drive into Manhattan to Vinnie’s club on the Upper West Side and pick up his wife to drive her back home to Brooklyn.  There was important business to be done and no one else had been around to drive her. Vinnie’s regular driver needed to stay behind for Vinnie while Ken had held on to the red Mercedes he had borrowed running an errand earlier that day.   This is my big opportunity, thought Ken.  He knew he couldn’t exactly profess his feelings for her, but he could at least count on some time alone with her.  He could take in her beauty looking in on her through the rear view mirror smelling the perfume that would radiate throughout the car, and perhaps even have a meaningful conversation with her that didn’t involve refilling her coffee mug.   The stage would be set for him to be with the woman of his dreams, and Ken believed nothing could ruin it.

Ken could tell Lizzie was tired as she yawned a big yawn seconds after getting into the car.

“How was your evening?” asked Ken.

Lizzie sighed, “These places tire me out.  I pretend to enjoy them for Vinnie when truthfully I’d rather be home alone snuggling with a good book.”

“I know what you mean.  I’m not much of a club person myself.  Just relax and I’ll get you home.”

“Ah shit!”

“What’s wrong?”

“I left my keys in the club.”

“Should I turn back?”

“No, keep driving but take it slow.  I’ll have someone come and follow us.”

Ken listened as Lizzie reached someone at the club.  The person on the other end said they’d have someone drive the same route and that they’d either meet up in front of the house or stop somewhere so Lizzie could get her keys.  Ken enjoyed the sound of Lizzie voice.  It neither was the high-pitch shrill of the other men’s wives nor was it that stereotypical mobster wife sultry mess of a tone you sometimes get in the movies.  It had just the right tone to be unwittingly seductive exuding guilelessness that could only be genuine.  He imagined himself listening to her talk to him, and it didn’t matter what words she used, whatever she said would sound just right.  Ken imagined that Lizzie could be a singer if she wanted to.  Perhaps the show business life would be less kind to her than Vinnie, but at least she’d have some kind of freedom.

The brisk night air could be felt despite the heat on in the vehicle.  The snow started to come down more heavily, and the city streets were soon coated in a sheet of whiteness.  The windshield wipers dutifully kept the snow from obscuring Ken’s view, but nothing could prevent him from dreaming.  He had ran out of things to say and felt content enough to let Lizzie rest as her eyes lacked their usual flare of energy.

“You mind if I put on some music?” asked Ken.

“Sure, go ahead,” said Lizzie.

“I got this song stuck in my head and I just need to hear it.”

“What song is that?”

“Downtown Train –  the Tom Waits version.”

“It’s a beautiful song but I’ve only heard Rod Stewart sing it.”

“You have to hear Tom Waits sing it.  There’s just the right sense of loss and yearning behind it.  The Rod Stewart version is a bit syrupy.”

“I know what you mean,” said Lizzie, “Put it on.”  As she said this, that’s when Ken saw that rare wide smile of Lizzie’s. It told him she was genuinely interested.  She was no longer in that sleepy fog as she fixed her hair and leaned forward from the back seat towards the middle of the front of the car next to Ken.

Ken took out his phone and cued up the song while sitting at a red light.  The song started just as the light turned to green.  The opening guitar line chirped like a morning bird as the Mercedes drove off.  Tom Waits’ guttural voice came on soft and low, “Outside another yellow moon / has punched a hole in the night time mist.” Ken could feel Lizzie’s elbow against his bicep as he glanced over and saw her close her eyes and listen.

Tom Waits crooned on, “I climb through the window and down to the street / I’m shining like a new dime / The downtown trains are full / Full of all them Brooklyn girls / They try so hard to break out of their little worlds”  Just then, Ken could hear Lizzie let out a sigh and she whispered, “That’s me.”

He could hardly believe he established this kind of connection with Lizzie.  It was almost as if he had discovered a secret language to speak to her with.  The music he played would speak to her heart from his very own, and who knows what would come of it as there would be no way for her to leave Vinnie putting both their lives at risk, but at least their souls could figuratively sing to each other in the quiet moonlight in this very car on this very night.  He already decided that he wouldn’t kiss her even if she wanted to.  The music would be enough for him.  In a way, these lyrics and the way she took them in with her eyes closed and her full attention on the song, knowing that the song he played spoke to her very soul, in a way . . . in a way that was far more intimate than a kiss or even anything that might physically come afterwards.

Just before the chorus came on for a final time, she asked, “Ken, would you please play that song for me again after this is over.”

“Of course, anything you ask.”

Then after a pause she added, “I want you to drive fast.”

“But it’s snowing and –“

“Shut that mouth of yours and do as I ask, drive and drive fast.  I want to feel my heart race.”

Ken hesitated for a minute.   The next intersection seemed far enough so that he might be able to provide her with a brief thrill if that was all she wanted. He looked at her, and just then she kissed him on the cheek and said, “Drive.”

Ken put his foot on the accelerator and sped down towards the next intersection as Tom Waits gruffly wound down his song, “Will I see you tonight on a downtown train / All my dreams, all my dreams fall like rain / On a downtown train /On a downtown train.”  The light changed from green to red just as Ken thought he might have been able to make it.  He panicked putting his foot on the brakes only to have the brakes lock and the car continue to swerve towards the intersection.  Lizzie had her eyes closed seemingly relishing in the vehicle’s temporary loss of control.  Ken put his arm across to the seat next to him. He could feel her body crashing into his arm surging forward as the impact of the other car spun the car around. Instinctively, he pushed her body back towards the back seat preventing Lizzie from flying forward.

Her mouth opened wide as she landed back in her seat.  They stared at each other in shock.  With the car now still and the ringing in his ears starting at full force, he climbed in the back seat next to her and asked her if she was okay.  Her head had snapped forward into the headrest of the front passenger seat.  Ken could see a blue bruise on her head.  She looked at him tearfully and said, “I think I’m alright.  What happened?”

All Ken could think of to say as he held her shoulder awkwardly was, “I think I was driving too fast.”

Lizzie blinked a few times in a disoriented manner and then said, “That’s right I told you to drive fast.  I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry.  I’m just glad you’re alright,” said Ken.

Her eyes composed themselves and she looked at Ken endearingly.  Ken held her face in his hand, and just as they both closed their eyes, Ken could hear the car pulling up behind them.  As he was about to lean in to kiss her, a knock came on the window.  It was Nicky, one of Vinnie’s goons.  They got out of the Mercedes and it was agreed Nicky would take her the rest of the way home since no one was seriously hurt.

As he walked away, Ken could hear Lizzie ask, “What about Ken?”

“Let ‘em take the train, whaddayou care anyway?”

Then, Ken remembered his phone in the car.  He ran back to the Mercedes and grabbed the phone, which had somehow landed on the dashboard.  Most would believe he went back for his phone so that the police wouldn’t have that as evidence against him, but only Ken knew he went back for his phone for the music. He noticed the guy in the other car point his own cell phone at him knowing it might lead to no good but decided to do nothing. Ken never saw himself as the threatening type despite the nature of his work.  Besides, a violent outburst would be unbecoming of his noble love for Lizzie.  He listened as the stranger in the other car involved in the accident protested and yelled for him to get back to the scene of the accident blathering on about insurance information and police and ambulances.  None of that stuff mattered to him.  Even if he had been fatally injured, Ken had a hard time believing that any of it would matter even then.  All that mattered was Lizzie and his dreams of her and the music that allowed him to visualize her and the two of them together.

He laughed to himself as he got into the subway car. He sat down, played the Tom Waits song again, and imagined another lifetime in another world where he and Lizzie could be together.  As the song began he thought to himself, Maybe . . . just maybe . . . Lizzie will be one of those Brooklyn girls breaking out of her little world and perhaps I’ll even see her tonight on a ‘Downtown Train.’  Inside the length of one song, Ken even fully believed he’d see her once again on the train that very night.

The End.

Author’s Note:  This short story is a work of fiction inspired by some music as many of my stories are. For the sake of anyone who wants to hear the Tom Wait’s version of the song Downtown Train, here’s the youtube video: