The Daily Mail

A short story by Jason Feingold


John Schwartzkopf awoke to the police banging on his door. After last night, he wasn’t surprised to find the Mail Nazis had come for him. They were going to disappear him like they had so many other mail objectors in the past. With no friends or sympathetic followers to protect him, no one would know he was missing. He’d simply fall off the face of the earth. He wasn’t going to let that happen. If he was going to die, he was damn sure going to make sure that as many citizens as possible knew what was going down.

He took an old .38 revolver his grandfather had left him and tucked into the waistband of the pants he had hurriedly put on. After donning a t-shirt, he went to the front door and opened it, but he left the screen door closed.

“Are you John Schwartzkopf?” the officer asked.

“That’s me.”

“I have some questions for you. Can I come in?”

“Sure.”

John backed away from the door, leaving it to the police officer to open the screen door on his own. As the cop was doing so, with his hand occupied by being on the handle of the door, John drew his weapon. The officer jumped back and went for his own gun, but John had the drop on him, and to prove it he fired a warning shot. He’d meant for it to go to the right of the officer, but it grazed the cop’s left arm instead.

“Step inside,” John ordered. “Drop your belt.” The officer complied with difficulty, his left arm being useless for the moment.

“Now take out your handcuffs, and no funny business.” The officer did as he was told. “Go to the kitchen and handcuff both your hands to the refrigerator door.” John gave the officer a wide berth as he did so. In a moment, the officer was handcuffed to the handle of the refrigerator door and dripping blood slowly on the kitchen floor. He writhed in pain.

“You don’t want to do this,” the cop said. “They’ll come looking for me. This can only end one way.”

“I know that,” John said. “I knew it as soon as you knocked on my door.”

“Uncuff me,” the officer said. “Turn yourself in. It’ll go easier on you if you do. You’ll get a plea bargain.”

“If only that were true. I’m not going to let you storm troopers send me to the Postal Re-Education Centers that easily,” John said. “Not until everyone knows about you Mail Nazis and your Mail Führer.”

* * *

John could not remember a time he had not hated the mail. As far as he was concerned, nothing good ever came by mail.

He knew what time the mail usually came. He could pick out the sound of the mail truck from anywhere in the house. He could hear it stop and go as it came down the block. He couldn’t ignore it. His heart would leap into his throat, and the only way to get it back where it belonged was to go and check the mailbox. He was drawn to the box the way a dog is drawn to its own vomit.

The mail brought student loan default notices, threatening letters from child support enforcement, and notices of garnishment.

The absolute worst thing he could find in the mailbox was a notice that he would have to go to the post office to pick up a certified letter. If nothing good ever came from the mailbox, then certified letters were absolutely diabolical. He’d have to wait until the next day to pick it up – twenty-four hours of excruciating angst spent wondering how bad it was, knowing that the ax was sure to fall. In this, he was usually correct. Legal papers came by certified mail describing various actions that had been brought against him to get more money out of him.

One day a thought popped into his head out of nowhere: the mail was the problem – not his ex-wife, not Navient, but the mail itself. Mail was the medium through which the tyrants of money enslaved people. The whole concept of mail was abominable, and it had to go. If a document were that important, the people who were out to get his money could deliver it by themselves. His resolution to combat the Mail Nazis was firm.

He was going to stop the mail.

* * *

“Now where’s your phone?” John asked the captive officer.

“In my right front pants pocket.”

John set his .38 on the stove and went toward the subdued officer.

“If you try anything, I’ll shoot you again,” John said.

The officer nodded. John retrieved the phone.

“Who are you calling?” the cop asked mildly.

“911.”

John put the phone on speaker.

“911,” the phone said. “What is your emergency?”

“My name is John Schwartzkopf. I’m at 543 Oakfield Drive. I’m holding Officer, what’s your name?”

“Bradley. Ed Bradley.”

“I’m holding Officer Ed Bradley at gunpoint. I have a list of demands.”

“Is he okay?” the operator asked.

“Tell them,” John ordered.

“Shot in the arm,” Bradley said. “Not seriously. Hurts like a bitch, though.”

“Shut up,” John said.

“What are your demands?”

Sirens spoke out in the distance.

“I’ll tell the person in charge.”

“Who is that, sir?”

“You know who.”

“No, I don’t, sir.”

“If you want to play games, we’ll play games,” John said. “I want to talk to the Mail Führer.”

He hung up the phone.

* * *

John began his anti-mail campaign by writing to the head of the USPS.

Dear Postmaster General,

I am writing to you today to demand that all postal services be stopped. All the mail does is deliver bad news from bad people to good people who deserve good news. Mail is all about taking money away from people who don’t have much money and giving it to people who already have enough money. As a citizen and a taxpayer, I have a right to demand that you stop the mail immediately. As a civil servant, you need to honor my request.

Sincerely,

John Schwartzkopf

He waited a few weeks for a response, but nothing came back in the mail. He wasn’t surprised. The mail people were all going to stick together on this one. They were afraid of honest work. After all, they made money with each letter they delivered. That would stop, at least as far as he was concerned. He got online and put an indefinite stop delivery on his mail.

Afterward, John took a bottle of lighter fluid to his mailbox and set it on fire, watching the plastic that had been approved by the Postmaster General bubble and melt and drip to the ground as it burned. Didn’t the Postmaster General have anything better to do than approve mailboxes? By the time he was done, there was nothing left but a metal post sticking out of the ground. With a fair degree of effort, he removed it and chucked it into his garage.

A few weeks later his cable TV stopped working. Then the lights went out. Then the water was shut off. Finally, his telephones, both landline, and cell, stopped working, even though he hadn’t received a bill from any of them.

Dear Postmaster General,

Clearly, my last letter fell on deaf ears that don’t want to see the truth. If you think that your lackeys in cable, water, electricity, and telephone can stop me from exercising my RIGHT to demand that the mail be stopped, you’ve got another thing coming. I know that the Constitution requires the government to redress grievances, and you are required to redress mine by halting all mail activity both at home and abroad.

Sincerely,

John Schwartzkopf

P.S. – Restore my utilities immediately!

Still, there was no response.

Postmaster General,

If you don’t honor my demand that the mail be stopped, I will have to
resort to further action.

John Schwartzkopf

It was only after John sent the last letter that he realized that the Postmaster General was, in fact, the Mail Führer. He studied some stamps he had stuck in the kitchen drawer. If he looked closely enough, he could see the swastika cleverly embedded in each picture the stamps contained. Well, he wasn’t a hundred percent sure it was a swastika, but it was close enough to count.

The Mail Führer completely ignored him, so it was time to take his message to the street. He put a sign in his front yard that said “End the dictatorship of the Post Office! Tell the Mail Führer to STOP THE MAIL NOW!” Once he put it up, he sat in front of his living room window to see if anyone was reading it. He concluded that they were, because a lot of cars slowed down in front of his house, presumably to study it. Some of them tooted their horns.

On the second day, the mail truck pulled up in front of it while John was watching. He couldn’t be sure because of the viewing angle, but he was pretty confident that the mailman spat on it. John was so angry he came out of his house with a bat to confront the Mail Nazi, but the man drove away in his truck before John could open the door.

“Fuck you!” John called out down the street at the truck. “Drive away like a scared little
Nazi bastard!” More than a few neighbors stopped and stared.

It was time for the revolution to begin.

* * *

John sat on the kitchen floor. He had his .38 revolver and Bradley’s .40 caliber Glock and two fully loaded magazines next to him. He could see blue and red lights through the covers of every window in his line of sight. He knew his house was surrounded. He knew he was already dead.

Bradley’s phone rang.

“Hello?”

“This is Sergeant Bill Murphy. I’m calling to talk to you about your demand.”

“I want to talk to the Mail Führer,” John repeated. “If that doesn’t happen, Ed Bradley here is as good as dead in sixty minutes. Tick tick tick.”

“Let’s stay calm,” Murphy said. “Can you tell me who the Mail Führer is?”

“Like you don’t know. She’s the person in charge. She’s the one who cuts your marching orders.”

The line went silent for a time.

“Do you mean the Postmaster General?” Murphy asked.

“So you do know,” John said in an “ah-ha” voice.

* * *

Before the police came and after his nightly ritual of filling his water bottles from his neighbor’s hose, he left the house dressed all in black with his aluminum baseball bat laying across his shoulder. He had duct-taped a towel around the bat to muffle the sound. As he roamed through the neighborhood bashing mailboxes, he imagined how grateful his neighbors would be once they discovered that they couldn’t get mail anymore. He hoped a few of them might take up his cause, going into other neighborhoods and relieving good, honest working families from the totem pole of fear and hate and repression symbolized by their rural route mail receptacles.

* * *

“I don’t think we’re going to be able to get her here in sixty minutes,” Murphy said. “Is there someone else you’d like to talk to?”

“Yes. A TV news crew. I don’t care which station.”

“I’ll tell you what,” Sergeant Murphy said. “You release Officer Bradly, and I’ll get that news crew for you.”

“Are you kidding? Do you really think I’m that stupid?”

“I don’t think you’re stupid, John.”

“You better not. Because I’m not stupid. You have an hour to get the TV people or I’m going to pop another cap into this Mail Nazi’s ass.”

With that, John hung up the phone again.

* * *

“They’re here,” Sergeant Murphy called and said forty-five minutes later.

“Send them in.”

“I’m not stupid either, John,” Murphy said. “I’m not giving you more hostages.”

“I’ll send Officer Ed out if you send the reporter and the cameraman in,” I said grudgingly.

“No deal.”

“I’ll send them out again when I’m done.”

“I can’t do that, John. You know that.”

“I’ll still have a couple of guns,” John said. “We’ll get to have our shootout.”

“No one wants that,” Murphy said.

“If you don’t send the camera crew in, I’m going to shoot this cop in the thigh. I’m not sure when the femoral artery is, so I hope I miss it when I shoot him so he doesn’t bleed out all over the floor. I’m not going to shoot him with this piss-ant .38 either. I’m going to use his Glock.”

“Wait a minute,” Murphy said quickly. “Let me see if the news people are willing to go in.”

John waited.

“I want you to know this isn’t personal,” John said to Bradley. “You’re just on the wrong side.”

“Sure,” Bradley said. “I understand.” John knew he didn’t understand. He was just a soldier following orders, blissfully unaware of the tremendous evil he was doing.

Murphy came back on the line.

“They’re willing to go in,” Murphy said. “I’ll let them go in when Bradley comes out.”

“You’re treating me like I’m stupid again,” John said. “You send them in and I’ll send Bradley out.”

“How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

“I haven’t lied to you so far,” he said.

“Okay,” Murphy said. “We’ll do it your way. I’m taking an awful risk. Make sure you keep your word.”

“Tell them I’m in the kitchen,” John said.

A male reporter and a cameraman entered the house and went to the kitchen. John held the gun on them. He had the reporter retrieve Bradley’s handcuff key and let him loose.

“Go,” John commanded. Bradley left without hesitation. John stood up and turned to the reporter.

“Start interviewing me,” John said.

The cameraman manipulated some buttons on the camera and gave a thumbs-up.

“I’m here at the residence of Mr. John Schwartzkopf,” the reporter said. “Mr. Schwartzkopf was holding a police officer hostage, but he released the officer in exchange for my cameraman and myself entering the residence.

“Why are you doing this, Mr. Schwartzkopf?” the reporter asked, shoving the microphone in John’s face.

“I’ll tell you why. I hope the people who are watching are paying attention because they’re about to hear the truth.

“For hundreds of years, people have suffered the tyranny of the Postal Service and the dictatorship of the Mail Führer. Nothing ever good comes in the mail, and that’s an understatement. The USPS uses the police to let all of the big corporations to send enormous bills to everyday people who are tricked into believing that they actually need to pay money to receive services like cable, electricity, water, etc. People don’t know that the big corporations don’t actually need the money. All they do with the money is line the pockets of the fat-cat CEOs on Wall Street.

“Even dogs know that the Mail Nazis are evil. Trust your dog. Trust your instincts. You know I’m right. Anyone in a uniform is a Mail Nazi. Take it to the street. Abolish the postal system now.”

John stopped talking.

“Is that it?” asked the reporter.

“That’s it,” John said.

“What are you going to do now?” he asked. John admired the fact that the reporter seemed so calm. In the same situation, he’d be shaky and stuttering. Come to think of it, his situation wasn’t much different.

“I’m going to send you out,” John said. “Thanks for coming in. It was very brave. I hope the Mail Nazis don’t do anything to you for coming in here.”

John watched them go. After a few minutes of silent reflection, he held the Glock in his right hand and the .38 in his left. He walked out the front door, taking aim at the nearest Mail Nazi.

He didn’t get a single shot off before he heard the loud pop that knocked him off his feet. Sitting up against the door jam, he looked down at his chest. Blood was flowing freely. It wouldn’t be long until he was dead.

A policeman in tactical gear approached him from behind a riot shield. He moved the shield to the side as he knelt down in front of John.

“Right conspiracy, wrong conspirators, comrade,” the policeman whispered. He bopped John on the head with a hammer, and then a sickle came out of nowhere and tore out John’s throat.

Advertisements

Cupcake Mistake

A short story by Glen Donaldson


This felt neither odd nor quirky, just wrong. Instinctively, even culturally, ‘sunglasses at night’ wrong. At the distinct risk of laboring the point, a hundred shades of wrong with counter-intuitive thrown in to match. In fact, a degree of wrong on such a scale Glorbert Fletcher’s personal amber alert had had no choice but to go into immediate car alarm mode. And now the most ill-fated and far reaching of consequences were set to follow.

Moments before, unsuspecting Glorbert had been forced to watch, in something approaching mouth-gaping horror, the sight of his fiancée of precisely twenty-six and a half weeks, the love of his life Taliqua Clancy, use her privileged right index finger to separate, in one sweeping, seemingly well-practiced motion, every last butter cream-based molecule of the St Patrick’s Day-green icing from the cupcake she had held poised ready to eat in her hand. Incredibly, for Glorbert, she then inserted the denuded mini sponge into her open mouth and flicked the discarded icing into a foot operated trash bin resting in the far corner of the room.

‘Freakshow’ was the ungracious pronouncement that filled Glorbert’s head with the force of a judge’s gavel smashing down on a wooden sound block. He’d been somehow able to overlook Taliqua’s past series of offbeat indiscretions, those such as serving milk with dinner or fried chicken with waffles and syrup. He’d managed to convince himself to almost-but- not-quite accept her regular purchase of bizarrely apportioned three liter wine bottles. And recently he’d been worn down to such an extent he’d even bowed to her habit of pouring milk into a bowl and adding the cereal last. But this?

A travesty of this magnitude caused the whole delicately poised pack of personal-habit playing cards to come cascading down in spectacular fashion, coming to rest in a scattered heap at the base of his feet. He felt an ancestral chill run down his spine, for he knew what it all meant. The preference for cheese from a squeeze can, the deep fried oreos, and the spam, especially the spam, had all been little red flags trying to gain his attention with an unsavory message he hadn’t been ready to hear. Separating icing from a cake like this meant there would be no cake. Separation yes, but definitely no cake.

He chanced a final look at the dented silver trash bin that now contained the cast-off green icing, before having his gaze come to rest once more upon his once-beloved Taliqua. He regarded her now, for the first time, as a stranger he’d once known. Glorbert’s mind began churning, like the milk-eggs-flour-butter-mix-covered stainless steel blades of the blender he’d used so lovingly to make those very cupcakes not the day before. Words fell out of his mouth like vapor, though he’d intended them to land in Taliqua’s guts like shrapnel.

“I’ve never seen anyone do that before.”

“Do what?” she replied innocently, her expression advising she was unaware of the unfolding
calamity.

“What you just did.”

“Oh that? That’s what those bins have a pedal for, isn’t it?”

This was the trouble treating people like fools, thought Glorbert to himself as he began scanning Taliqua’s face, this time rapidly, from eye to eye, as though she were a magician’s ball-under-which-cup game. You had no way of knowing whether the other person was doing the same thing back to you. How is it possible, Glorbert wondered, to know you are in denial and yet snuggle into the feeling anyway? It was clear to him she had retained her talent for being completely unaware of what was bugging him.

But now, now it was time for him to get serious with Taliqua. Time to descend upon her from the rafters with a full roll call of all her exasperating, maddeningly eccentric ways. Carrying out his own little prenup, pre-decided exit strategy would follow. There was just one thing he had to do before any of that though. He simply had to retrieve that precious abandoned icing from the trash bin. Scooping it out lovingly as though it were some precious, about-to-be memorialized baby placenta, and placing it in the fridge on a china plate next to a plastic wrap covered container of asparagus gave him comfort and made breathing easier. Relationship-destroying idiosyncrasies might be one thing, but to the unbending mind of Glorbert Fletcher, sheer waste was plain unforgivable.


Glen Donaldson’s writing style has been described as “an intriguing combination of Tolkien, Donaldson and Abercrombie”. This is astonishing to him on precisely two counts.

Glen blogs at SCENIC WRITER’S SHACK.

Swamp Thangs

A short story by Susan H. Evans


Blond, thirty-something Cousin Billy tells me, “Sue, we need to rent a canoe and go down the Congaree Swamp.” Trawling through a South Carolina bog with B-movie creeptoids and festering sloughs seems too attractive to miss. I phone my daughter, Laura, that saucy blue-eyed minx, and she is in.

The day of our trip dawns sunny, and soon reaches 75 degrees. Before leaving his Charlotte condo, Billy asks prudently, “Aren’t you all bringing a change of clothes?” I don’t really see the point, but Laura and I tuck extra jeans and tee-shirts in our backpacks.

At Congaree National Park, we stop by the Visitor’s Center to pick up a map. Over the center’s entrance, a small chalkboard reads, “Be aware of submerged logs.” Hmmm. Oh well, who cares about a couple of dinky floating sticks?

At Cedar Creek parking lot, the banana-colored canoe is heavy as a pregnant elephant when we try to get it off the roof of Billy’s car. Under Bannister Bridge, Billy tells me to sit in the canoe middle since I weigh the least. He vaults in next to roost in front while Laura steadies the canoe—bucking like a bronco on Ritalin—from the bank. Then she flops in. I smile. Fraught with danger already, and we have just launched. It takes a gutsy woman like me to venture into the swamplands like this.

We glide peacefully under the forest canopy, with the river as silky as a blue ribbon, paddling past bald cypress and otherworldly water tupelo, their roots exposed like gums in a very pathogenic mouth, anchored in the bowels of the swamp. We row past a few downed trees and floating logs but manage to paddle around them. I love this oozy place.

After an hour of seeing no one, we row to a low-lying area and pull the canoe up on the shore, stretch our legs, and take a couple of pictures. Then we get back in the canoe. This time, Cousin Billy thinks it best for Laura to sit in front with me again in the middle.

Halfway back, Laura—redolent of Lot’s wife that just had to take one last look at Sodom burning—turns and leans sideways, saying “I think we are about to hit a log.” It is an ill current that flows no good. Her weight to the right as we smash into the log does it. Our canoe pitches forward and butts heads with another poorly appointed floating log.

I barely have time to utter, “Here we g-o-o-o-o,” before catapulting over the side of the canoe like a rag doll pitched over Niagara Falls. I eventually stand up, sputtering a gurgling profanity, looking like a cat that has been dropped in a toilet, my hair plastered to one side of my head. The pockets of my denim jacket full of water weigh on me like sacks of ball bearings.

Laura, with all the natural grace of a rhinoceros, half-falls and half jumps out of the canoe, while Billy strategically scrambles into the fen before the craft turns over, and starts a slow descent into the bog. Billy takes charge and tells me that I must get out of the quagmire. I manage to squeak, “How?” He picks me up like I am a Dutchboy knickknack and sits my soggy bottom on a log.

Then Billy tells Laura, “Let’s just get the canoe up.” Laura scrabbles to help, and Billy, with herculean force, heaves it at a 45 degree angle onto the bank.

Meanwhile, I am morphing into an amphibian. Billy looks around and fixes his blue eyes on me turning green on my bole. He resignedly says, “Sue, you need to walk to the shore.” Shivering like a naked Floridian in February Fairbanks, I eye the thin layer of dark chocolate slime over the heavy leaf sludge. Screwing up my last crumbs of courage, I slog to shore, my sneakers filling up with muck as I go, and my throat in a wet pocket of my jacket. I make it to shore and find a rock jutting out of the sand, and soak into it as I wring out my socks, curse the swamp, and wonder why God hates me so.

As Billy puzzles out how we will all get back in the canoe, a flotilla of 20 or so curious gawkers in a tour group slowly move by, plying their oars smoothly in the water. Some faces register sympathy, some barely conceal mirth, but most just look at us sourly. Two hours in the water. Seeing no one. Now they appear.

The plump female ranger eyes our errant water bottle floating downstream, and motions to the bottle, suggesting gaily that we go get it. Billy and I ignore her; both of us would rather even poke her in the eye with a burnt oar than go after that bottle.

Later, Billy, Laura, and I get back to the parking lot. I retrieve my dry clothes from Billy’s Hyundai, and in soggy jeans waddle to the port-o-let. It reeks of abject defeat. I sigh.

Months later, Laura asks quite innocently, “How come we turned over?”

Return from the Land of Olive Pits

A short story by Susan H. Evans


Our flight out of Porto’s TAP, possibly meaning “Try a Pushcart,” airport is scheduled for 6:40 a.m. Christiana, our glib Portuguese cruise director, assures us that only one pilot’s union is on strike and she will alert us about flight cancellations 24 hours in advance.

At 15 minutes to 4:00, on the morning of our flight, I arise from a sleepless night, tangled and strangled in bedclothes, to the sound of Stan’s funereal voice: “Susan. It is time to get up.” Stan shuffles off for breakfast. He returns at 4:00, and we wrestle luggage outside our cabin for the porters. I ask Stan if he inquired about our airport cab, and – not one to ponder the immediate future – he did not. So he bounds back up the steps to ask. I throw on already worn tee shirt, jeans and raincoat. It is dark and drizzling as we clamber over the metal walkway bridging the Douro River to the shore. The ship’s lights dance on the water. A pot-bellied driver waits, his car motor humming. I wearily climb in the back of the cab. A rosary dangles from the cab’s rear-view window and the taxi maneuvers through the wet streets. We arrive at the Porto airport at 4:30. But all the swinging rosaries in Rome won’t help this morning.

The driver swivels around in his seat and in heavily accented English announces, “Twenty euros, por favor.”

Stan, in his own mid-Western accent, explains that the ship is to pay for the ride and tells the cabbie, “Call the ship.” The man can’t understand and jibber-jabbers angrily, thinking we are English-speaking lowlifes. I stay mute in my morning fog. Stan throws a credit card at the man. The card reader promptly refuses it. Stan fishes another credit card out of his wallet, but the result is the same. I have no euros and keep my Visa to myself.

The argument drones on. Stan, a 72-year-old reedy former LAPD cop, darkly threatens to alert the policíal, one of the few Spanish words he knows, except for the phrase, “Drop your weapon and put your hands in the air.” The threat to call the law seems to work because the driver and Stan slam out of the cab.

I superglue myself to the cab’s backseat, afraid that Stan will push the driver’s taximeter too hard and the man will speed away with my valuables in the trunk. My pink and purple earrings and frog matador tee shirt are priceless. To me, anyway.

When I hear the welcome sound of the car trunk click open and the thunk of our suitcases hitting the pavement, I untangle myself out of the cab’s backseat, collect my battered blue suitcase, and scurry through the automatic doors of the airport like a squirrel with its eye on a newly fallen acorn. I’ll let the men sort it out. I have a plane to catch.

Stan catches up with me just before an escalator, and says breathlessly a cruise employee appeared and appeased the cab driver. We settle on metal chairs to wait for our gate to open and the plane to board. Time leaks away like water in a clogged-up sink, and we don’t board. Ten minutes before we are scheduled to fly out of Portugal to Madrid, people around me start rising, shaking their heads, and gathering their belongings. I snare a young man who tells me, “Si, our flight has been cancelled. Pilot’s strike.”

Over at nearby Gate 6, I spy a Senora in Charge. High heels. Swinging high glossy black ponytail. Coat in lime green. Like refugees fleeing bombed-out Berlin circa 1945, we hightail over to Gate 6. The woman crisply tells us, “Collect your luggage and come to the third floor.”

After an interminable wait for suitcases, we race to the third floor, only to find Porto-Bombay, sitting and standing dark-haired people and piled luggage in a long spread out queue. No sign of Lime Coat.

After an hour waiting, I wander off to find a restroom and spot the green-coated senora. I rush up to her and beg, “Will I be able to reach the United States any time today?” Again, a curt reply to bring my bags and follow her. I race off for Stan and the woman walks us over to a counter where a man in his early twenties sits at a computer.

After tapping some keys, he says that the earliest flight out to Madrid is tomorrow morning at 8:10 AM. We protest, and look suitably deranged – Stan, with his wispy white hair saluting the air and Polish face screwed up in a scowl, and me, whiny and pitiful in a salmon raincoat and with frizzing red hair – that the startled young man considers other options to get rid of us. He allows that we COULD go by train to Lisbon’s airport and might be able to fly to Madrid today.

I explain to Stan what the young man says since Stan can only pick up the sound of a speeding train two feet away. Not an option for him. He is antsy to go home to eat his next breakfast at the Outback Steak House and ride his lawn mower. And neither of us is convinced that we won’t have our flight cancelled again in the morning, so we race downstairs to catch the next metro.

We ride the metro for 40 minutes to the long distance train station. Wallpapered with damp people, Stan and I scrunch up in two adjoining train cars. We are to get off at the Campanhã station. Although I am limp as an old rag, hungry, and drowsy, I must stay alert. Someone must. The effervescent Stan nods off, his head buried in the neck of his navy jacket like a turtle, just when the train announcer, over a crackling intercom, intones our stop. At my pantomime request, three young women poke Stan and frantically motion to the door.

The train station is outside through a courtyard. Rain beats a staccato on the breezeway. I open my suitcase and drag out my new lambswool sweater from Barca D’Alva and my Walmart umbrella. Cobblestones crunch under our feet.

Stan and I board the train, bone-tired and swimmy-headed. As we steam south to Portugal’s capital in economy seats, the trains’ green shutters flap in the wind and a watery gray landscape flies by. We disembark to find hundreds of animated teenagers and an expensive looking shops surrounding us. Bewildered, we finally realize that we are not at the airport on our way to a concourse, but stranded at a far distance from where we need to be. It is a terminal condition.

I approach some young Spaniards who say we need to ride Bus 44 to get to Terminal 1. They wave us off in an easterly direction where the bus ostensibly shows up from time to time. I suggest to Stan that we hail a cab. His unshaven face reveals a miserly and wizened money-clutching soul, but he reluctantly agrees. Then he grumbles bitterly like he had been pricked by the devil’s pitchfork when the cabbie announces a whopping fare of 4 euros.

We get new boarding passes at Terminal 1. Stan is in front of me in the security line, grabs his suitcase, and sprints off to find our gate like an ancient stallion on steroids. I lift his boarding pass out of the tub on the conveyor belt and follow the signs to our gate.

Seeing My First Dead Person

A short story by Alan Balter


“Funeral homes,” “funeral parlors” or “funeral chapels”—whatever they’re called, people are dying to get in. Hah!

I was 12 years old at the time, almost 13, in the seventh grade at school. It was April; the last of the dirty snow had melted, and it was getting light enough for the neighborhood kids to come out after dinner. Even better, the softball season was starting, and I was ready to take my position in left field. The first time out there in the spring meant the end of winter and the joy of running free again.

I got to school in the morning and joined a group of my classmates who were standing in a circle talking and waiting for the bell to ring. Someone passed around some Chiclets, little pieces of gum with mint flavor. Vincent Abbinanti was practicing “Rock the Cradle” with his Duncan yoyo, and Frankie Schmidt was spinning a metal top. He could bring it up and make it spin on his hand: To me a very amazing trick.

Lorraine Lucas, who wore lipstick and eye makeup and had a fine rack by the end of sixth grade, stopped cracking her gum for a second and told us that Carmine Bellazinni’s father had passed away.

“Yep,” she said, “my mom told me he ‘expired’ yesterday while he was changing a flat tire on his car. Probably a heart attack.”

“Do you mean he died?” I asked

“Yeah, like deceased,” Lorraine said.

“What’s with the fancy words?” I asked. “Dead is dead, y’know? And it doesn’t matter what you call it.”

“Yeah,” Vincent said, “especially to the person who croaked.”

“Well anyway, some of us should go to the funeral parlor,” Lorraine said. “Carmine is our classmate and friend, so we should go and tell him we’re sorry that his father expired. That’s what you’re supposed to do, y’know? Like, pay your respects to the family of a deceased person.”

At the dinner table that evening I told my parents what had happened. They agreed that going to the funeral chapel would be a nice thing to do.

“You’ll need to take a bath, put some Brylcreem on your hair, and wear clean clothes and your new shoes,” Dad said.

“Well, what am I supposed to do when I get there?” I asked. “I mean, am I allowed to talk, and how long am I supposed to stay? Do I sit down or just stand around with the other kids from school who won’t know what to do either?”

“Walk in quietly with your classmates and look for Carmine and his mother,” Mom said. “When you see them, go up to them, shake their hands, and tell them how sorry you are for their loss. Stay for just a few minutes, and before you leave, you might tell Carmine that if he needs help with anything, like the schoolwork he’s missing, he should ask you.”

The next morning eight of my classmates were wearing their new shoes, too. They would be going with me to visit Carmine at the funeral parlor after school. The rest of the kids took a pass. My guess was that they were planning to pay their respects after Carmine got back to school or maybe send him one of those sympathy cards that tells a person how sorry you are for their loss.

During class, Mrs. Peppin, our teacher, asked if any of us were going to the funeral parlor. When a few of us raised our hands, she said, “It’s nice of you to go; be on your best behavior, and don’t stay long. You might want to tell Carmine we’re all praying for him and his family.”

I’d never spent much time praying, but I thought old “Peppy,” the nickname for our teacher, gave us some good advice. I liked her even though she had buck teeth and put on too much perfume every morning.

When the bell finally rang at three o’clock, we headed out together on the four-block walk to the funeral parlor on Madison Street. For the first three blocks, we were playing around like kids usually do. A few of the guys were teasing Rosita Contreras and pulling her hair. A couple of other girls were giggling and whispering secrets, all the while checking out their reflections in the store windows. The guys were mostly talking about baseball, except for Billy Comforti, who was making fun of Peppy, who couldn’t hear very well and once told him to, “put it on the blackboard,” when he asked for permission to go to the restroom.

As soon as we saw the funeral home, though, everyone got real quiet; I think “mute” is the word for it. And, when we got to the entrance, each of us waited for someone else to open the door and walk in. Finally, Linda Ciccelli took the lead and the rest of us followed. Inside, the lights were dim and some soft organ music was playing. A few people, relatives and friends of Carmine’s family I guessed, were milling around and talking in soft voices. There were bouquets of flowers all over the place giving off a real sweet smell that almost made me sick. A bunch of chairs were arranged in neat rows, even though no one was sitting. A priest was there too, with the black suit and backward collar, talking to Carmine’s mom and some other folks.

Carmine was off to one side looking uncomfortable, kind of stiff I’d say, in a suit and tie. He was standing next to his mom whose eyes were red from crying. I went over and told them how sorry I was for their loss, like I was supposed to do. The rest of my classmates did the same, and that’s when I should have said “Arrivederci” (“goodbye” in the Italian tongue) to Carmine and his mom and gone home. Instead, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the dark wooden coffin with Carmine’s dad all stretched out on his back with his hands folded over his chest. He was decked out in his own suit and tie, and he looked very gray. He was the first dead person I had ever seen, and I didn’t want to look at him too much, but I couldn’t help it.

Eileen Spiegel, Larry Farkus, and I walked over to the coffin, got down on our knees on some soft cushions, and stared at Mr. Bellazinni, who was looking more and more gray with every passing second.

An adult standing behind me, a relative I think, who was fat and smelled of booze, said, “He looks so peaceful, almost like he’s asleep. Surely, he’s with the angels now, in a better place.”

All the time I was thinking that Mr. Bellazinni wasn’t sleeping at all. He was as dead as a brick, and he was never going to wake up from any kind of peaceful slumber, either. Maybe he was with some angels in a better place, but there were a whole lot of better places that I’d rather be, including left field, religious school, a piano lesson, cooped up in the library on a sunny day, or even the dentist’s office when he’s coming at me with his drill and his hand is shaking. Fact is, the whole thing was starting to creep me out, so I gave my place on the cushion to the fat guy who smelled of booze.

Finally, we said goodbye to Carmine and his mom and headed out into the sunlight. A few of us, including me, were scared. Actually, I’d say that all of my classmates were scared, even Vincent Abbinanti who was usually not afraid of anything, but none of us wanted to admit it.

When you’re scared because you’ve just seen your first dead person, you want to get home as soon as you can. So, I walked as fast as I could, even ran some, in order to make sure I made it home before dark. All the time I was thinking that I should have given the whole thing a pass like most of my classmates did. Carmine wouldn’t have cared much if I hadn’t shown up at the funeral chapel to stare at his dead father. Fact is, he probably wouldn’t have missed me at all, and his mom wouldn’t have given it a thought either.

Truth is, I had nightmares for months. In most of them, Mr. Bellazinni and his gray face were chasing me. One time he caught me, and when I looked at his face, it was me. Another time I was back on the soft cushion again, and Mr. Bellazinni sat up in his dark wooden coffin and pointed a skeleton finger at me.

Of course, I’ve been to many funeral parlors since my first visit. I’m always relieved when the coffin is closed, and when it isn’t, I stay in the back, as far away from the gray person as I can.

Vincent Abbinanti and I are still friends after all these years. I meet him for lunch almost every week, and we both remember going to Mr. Bellazinni’s funeral. I told Vincent that if he doesn’t come to my funeral, I won’t go to his. Hah!

Backseat

A short story by Mike Lee


We were on the road again, with Kansas nothing flying by on the narrow
Interstate strip, barreling toward Salina, to take the turnoff south through Oklahoma, and to old homeland Texas.

I sat in the back with my daughter, both of us bitching about the cold. Won full custody of her the month before. Child protective services said it was cool to take this trip and not inform the mother of our plans, reminding me that the court removed her parental rights.

Dorrie, my daughter, returned to her book, wrapping herself tight with the blanket Lia gave her. I pulled my black leather motorcycle jacket together, zipping it up.  I looked out through the window staring at some exposed rock on the side of the road.

I felt loose at every inch, thinking of American mermaids I dated that could have been Dorrie’s mother. Instead, I picked the Irish bottle-stashing drunk who I caught choking the kid. Had mom led out in handcuffs, slapped papers on her while she was in rehab and ground her through the family court machine back in New York.

I hated every minute of it. I may have fallen out of love of my estranged wife, but I did marry her, put up with years of bullshit, and let things slide to apocalyptic lows. But I am a man who causes trouble for himself, and at the moment while staring at flat fields of prairie spotted with exposed glacial stone, I committed the guilty sin of dragging the innocent into my bad decisions.

Lia was driving; her glasses slightly askew while her husband read the book lying on his lap. Lia asked him to change the music on the iPod attached to the cigarette lighter.

The music was some Americana band I had a vague affection for, Wilco, and I recognized the song. Dorrie’s ex-mother liked that song. I liked it better. “I’m Always in Love”—that certainly wasn’t the problem for anyone but me because maybe it was not true. Maybe for one, someone whose heart I continue to beat for.

Could have been Lia. I knew her since she was fifteen, but she is married to Tad, and though she bailed me out of this jam, she is glued to the man. I accepted the help, but this still felt weird relying on girlfriends from 30 years ago.

No, it was someone else. She was before Lia, and although she was not the first girl I kissed, she was the one I fell in love with.  This distinction belonged to that American mermaid dream with green eyes who was Texan with each hand gesture and in the tenor of her voice.

While Heaven loves that driver, the one I wanted behind that wheel was that Texas girl; she may still be around once we arrive in Austin. I’d look her up, but she has a boyfriend she told me she liked in an e-mail she sent when troubles formed like thunderstorms on the horizon.

The backseat where this new family sat was getting slightly warmer. The heater kicked in big time by the turnoff toward Oklahoma. It spared that lucky child, Dorrie, who let the blanket drop while silently reading her book.

I thought to ask the woman I loved to please let me in, but knowing she may say no, I shifted my thoughts back to the road ahead. We were looking at twelve hours through Oklahoma, then across the state line and on to a hotel in Georgetown.

Closed my eyes and leaned back in the seat, slumping against the cold glass. I pushed my hat aside to keep my head warm, and fell asleep.

When I woke up it was getting on sunset. I pulled my cell phone out and took a couple of photos of the draining sunlight on the far western horizon.

The faster Lia drove, gunning it up to make Georgetown, the closer to home and green eyes from teenage years I felt.

Maybe I will look that girl up. Won’t tell anyone.  After we check in, I will tell Lia I need some air. Knowing her, she’ll be tired and crash out while Tad goes on his laptop and plays all-night online bridge while lying in the bed next to his wife. Dorrie will be in her room, probably still with her novel, maybe watching television.

I will go out into the Texas cold, flip open my phone and look for her number. I have it written on scrap folded neatly in my wallet.

I did not call her during the hell-time. I did not want to be a bother.

Fumbled for the number. Could not find it. Frustrated, I sighed and walked to the gas station for another pack of cigarettes.

I sat on the curb, smoking nervously, wondering how I could have lost that
number. Felt like I had let that connection become severed, and for no good reason.

Instead, I made up a poem on the spot, reciting the words I knew I would forget before I went to bed. The girl in my memory would hear it, though, as I lost myself to the cadence of my feelings and lit one smoke after another.

In Austin, I will be with Lia and Tad. Dorrie. Lia’s mom had arrived earlier, with her daughter and son-in-law’s children. I will have no time to find the girl I actually really did love.

Perhaps just being in Austin will be enough. It is possible I will run into her and finally tell this woman face-to-face how I feel, boyfriend or not. I shall even say it in front of him, if need be.

I finally finished reciting my poem, and bid her good night with a sweet, lingering kiss into the winter night.

I slept through until half past dawn. The best, restful sleep I had in years.

So be it.


Mike Lee is a writer, labor journalist and photographer based in New York City. His fiction has been published in West Trade ReviewThe Ampersand Review, Paraphilia, The Airgonaut, Sensitive SkinReservoir, The Avenue, and others. His photography is currently being exhibited at Art Thou Gallery in Berkeley, California and as part of a group show at Darkroom Gallery in Essex Junction, Vermont, curated by Bruce Gilden.

Bitchin’ Freeze

A short story by Maxine Kollar


I got a dog.

I didn’t want a dog.

It was fluffy and white and never barked. It just made a soft humming sound followed by a high-pitched sound. It sounded like a fan gathering speed but I never told it that.

All dogs going to heaven is a movie; well, a straight-to-DVD waste of time, but still. Not true.

This damned dog entered my world through a hole. He had torn the throat out of a boy named Adolf and had been sent here. It didn’t belong here. The boy named Adolf had continued on in another time and the dog couldn’t save the people. It tried. It was a good dog. You should get points for trying but this damned dog got hell for trying to save humanity from itself. A hole opened because there was a tug of war of sorts for its soul. Yes, it has a soul.

He was supposed to fall into the lake but I saw the fluff ball coming down and stuck out my hand and well, here we are.

How do you care for a dog in Hell? I wasn’t even sure what kind it was. Bitchin’ freeze?

“You know that animals know things that people never do,” said Edmund after he saw me ‘stealthily’ looking at my… the dog in the bag next to me.

“Like what?” I asked. Edmund and I were working on the intestinal torture line.

“I dunno. That’s just what I heard. But I’m pretty sure they can tell when earthquakes are coming,” he said.

“That’s stupid. We get earthquakes all the time and…” There was a big one coming right now. The dog started whining in a pitiful way. You’d think we’d be used to that kind of stuff by now—oh, the cries for mercy!—but this was different. I started stroking him and Edmund leaned over and started making a shh noise. The dog quieted down even as we hung on for all we were worth. Big Guy was mad this time.

Two days later, Malicant comes walking up behind me and Edmund while we’re feeding her. She likes intestines and we have plenty of those. Malicant is actually a manager, but he’s been at this for so long that he can’t even bother anymore. He asks her name.

Edmund and I look at each other. We took to calling her ‘The Dog’ and kept it that way because anything else would be how you get attached to something. We didn’t want to get attached. I mean, we were keeping her from getting scared and we sure weren’t going to let her get thrown into the lake with people. But that was it.

We tell Malicant that we don’t have a name for her. He says that it’s important because she is a female dog and if she gets lost you can’t just run around Hell calling, “Bitch, Bitch, hey Bitch.” He had a point.

We named her Contessa without knowing why and without much of an argument. It must have just fit. Malicant comes back the next day and we tell him to take Contessa for a walk. He is delighted but tries to hide it by breathing fire that scorches our foreheads and horns.

Unfortunately, a new manager gets transferred into the Division. He is young and eager and a total pain in the neck. Literally. That’s his thing. Anyway, when he finds out about Contessa, he loses it, while still smiling and scraping my trachea with the sharp end of his tail. He is writing up the report when Malicant walks up behind him and bites his head off. We roll his body into the lake with the people.

No new managers transfer into our division anymore.


Maxine Kollar is a wife and a mother of three. Her works have appeared in Mamalode, Clever Magazine, Funny in Five Hundred, Rat’s Ass Review, and elsewhere.

Strawberry Daiquiris and a Hot Summer Night

A short story by Ed Higgins


A hot summer night walks into a bar and orders a drink. A frozen strawberry daiquiri with lots of crushed ice, she says. She brings with her the slightly fragrant scent of roses from outside, and a dusky, green hint of the ripening cornfield across the highway. A large, neglected rosebush outside in a half-whiskey barrel sits to the left of the green, padded vinyl door. Its leaves brittle, desiccated petals falling from wilted blooms, stark thorns you could make a halo for Jesus with. Sitting at the bar with her strawberry daiquiri, the hot summer night’s hair is limp and disheveled from the evening’s muggy air. The bartender knows her kind. She’s hot but likely poor material for a pick-up. She may be good for a couple of drinks. Another strawberry daiquiri? he asks, picking up the twenty she has left on the bar. His interest is piqued and the place isn’t particularly busy since the air conditioning broke down a couple of days ago. He’s played hell trying to get a service technician out here to fix the damn thing with all the heat-wave breakdowns apparently going around. The hot summer night is plain vanilla but not unattractive. She has a slight bead of sweat along her upper lip and the dark hair at her temples is clearly damp. Warm night out there, he says, trying a subtle approach. Sorry about the air conditioning, been out for a couple of days now. But she doesn’t care about the lost air conditioning. The hot summer night knows that even in the midst of a long, stultifying summer, rain earlier in the day leaving its mugginess, the corn harvest beginning soon—we are all nonetheless ineluctably approaching death’s long winter. She smiles, letting the bartender continue hitting on her. The hot summer night is serious enough without ever yielding to it. She orders a second strawberry daiquiri.


Edward Higgins’ poems and short fiction have appeared in various print and online journals including Monkeybicycle, Tattoo Highway, Triggerfish Critical Review, and Blue Print Review, among others. Higgins and his wife live on a small farm in Yamhill, Oregon, raising a menagerie of animals including an alpaca named Machu-Picchu.

Higgins is the assistant fiction editor for Brilliant Flash Fiction, an Ireland-based flash journal.