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starseed.jpg
Star Seed by Sniedze Rungis

 

Trading Manhattan for Bentonville

JP Reese

I have always shunned Walmart for what were aesthetic, political, and personal reasons. The entire idea of Walmart has always creeped me out. Walking through the door with its grinning old person, I feel I am being swallowed whole into one leg of a pair of pink polyester pants, Miley Cyrus smiling at me from teenwear posters as my face disappears beneath a plus sized waistband, Billy Ray blaring "Some Gave All" across the store's vast, price-cut product lines. And that huge, ubiquitous smiley face, ripped off from an era not one of the trimmed and besuited Bentonville execs could have possibly understood or approved, expressing its yellowness over every meticulously merchandised aisle. I shuddered at the mere thought of becoming a person of Walmart.

After my husband was downsized, we raked live oak leaves ourselves that fall, trimmed back rosebushes and drooping limbs. I've always been a gardener, so mowing, trimming, and edging the St. Augustine was a natural activity, not a burden. I didn't worry about broken fingernails, the errant cut or bruise. Purchasing ivy and lively begonias to fill pots around the pool last spring was only a slightly guilty pleasure, not an endeavor fraught with monetary worry. For the most part, I looked away from the plants at Calloway's Garden Center that weren't on sale, bought more seeds and vegetable seedlings. After all, I told myself, delayed gratification that comes from Cosmos grown from seed is good for the constitution. Next year will be better.

Our cocktail choices changed slowly. Wine purchases evolved from Chandon Blanc de Noirs, to Cook's brut, and finally, to three dollar sauvignon blanc from… Walmart! The lure was insidious, but I only went to Walmart for a certain type of cottage cheese I could buy nowhere else, and I happened upon their three dollar wine on the way to the dairy chest.  I did not purchase anything else. Never anything else. I was above the seduction of cheap prices. I had moral rectitude, valid reasons that trumped our petty, temporary, negative money flow. Not for me those Great Values, not for me the price-cut string beans, the four dollar T-shirts sewn in third world sweatshops by hungry, fly ravaged, illiterate children that helped Walmart shoppers save money, live better. Never. Next year would be better.

         At the beginning, the first luxury we decided we could do without was The New York Times Sunday edition. After all, I usually only read the "Book Review" and the front page, maybe the style section on occasion. We could get our news, fair and balanced, from The PBS NewsHour, right? Not too much of a sacrifice. We would make do and save around forty dollars a month. Our easy Sunday mornings drinking coffee and sharing our views while we read about the world's week and the authors we loved, Pynchon, McCarthy, Delillo, were no longer an option, but we'd survive, and it would get better.

The next to go were my subscriptions to The London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Yorker. What was I thinking, I asked myself, when past renewal notices had come and I'd blithely written a check without a second thought? I could read them at the college library where I was an associate English professor, preparing the future leaders of America and making a bit more than minimum wage for my trouble. I became a pragmatist, doing my part to cull expenses, learning the lesson my parents learned during a far more dangerous depression than the current one. After all, this enforced austerity was only momentary, our dwindling conversations just part of this temporary adjustment period. Next year would be better.

My cell phone came next. I waited out my Verizon contract and was now free to walk away, so I did, moving onto my husband's contract with less bling for less money. I am old enough to suspect texting and trying to accomplish anything web-related on a one inch screen. This change would work. I was saving enough through these painless reductions to still feel comfortable shopping at Tom Thumb and even Central Market and Whole Foods on occasion. We would emerge soon from this reversal of fortune, and if not, maybe one of the cars could go. After all, it would only be temporary. Next year would be better.

The house, I admit, became a bit of a challenge. The dining room ceiling is still marked with a Rorschach from a leak, the front door vibrates the entire wall when it slams, the pool needs a patch or two; I worry termites chew inside the walls--this is Texas, after all. The kitchen and the upstairs bedrooms could use a new coat of paint; the windows are foggy. I haven't called Bill, our magical handyman, in a year. Paint is expensive. Between teaching and grading and working part time at the college Writing Center, I put in a fifty hour work week. Perhaps I could eek out a few hours, try to fix these minor annoyances myself, or they can wait until next year when we can afford to call Bill because everything will be better.

Generic bags of yellow onions were substituted for shallots;  Old El Paso taco dinners for tenderloin filets, béarnaise became country gravy. Costco went by the wayside, its double-cream brie, wild salmon, and fresh asparagus now bought by others not waiting for next year, (which will be better). I began to experiment with clever ways to use canned tuna a few nights a week; I packed my own lunches, bought generic yogurt, iceberg lettuce instead of organic spring mix, and discovered gently used clothing. I bought someone else's skirts and pants, smug in the knowledge that I was doing my part to recycle and save the earth. Macy's was a drain on our natural resources; Dillard's a complicit partner in this unspeakable crime, and next year? Well, it could only be better.

I began to look askance at my husband's cigarette habit. It had once only bothered me on an intellectual level, but now self-indulgence had no place in our brave new world of penurious penny pinching. I resented each inhale, each exhale of smoke that mingled with the outside air, drifting into nothingness. He could quit. I had. What a savings that would be! If he loved me he would quit immediately wouldn't he? Just because he could no longer call himself an architect or find a job in his field; just because he was now selling Kias in an economy where no one was buying Kias or any other kind of car; just because he left for work at nine and came home twelve hours later, exhausted, forlorn, and feeling worthless was no reason for him to continue to maintain this nasty (and expensive!) habit, was it? He could start again next year when things got better.

Lancome mascara gave way to Max Factor and then Maybelline, our favorite restaurant, Le Printemps, to the backyard Weber. We were learning that there were myriad items we could live without. So what if we still couldn't save a dime? So what if our present jobs, even with our advanced degrees, were worth less combined than a beginning engineer's salary? We were still intellectuals, weren't we? Poverty doesn't happen to college-educated people with pluck and determination. I had an MFA, for God's sake! After all, we were surviving. We hadn't become people of Walmart. We still had our pride, and next year we'd look back on this time and be even more proud of ourselves for making do with less, wouldn't we? Damn straight. It was bound to get better…

…I found this entry in the trunk last night as I was loading groceries into our Pinto. It must have fallen out of my notebook last year when we moved into the one bedroom. I buy a lot of Great Values these days, it would be foolish not to, employee discounts, rollbacks and all, and my supervisor says I'll be eligible for health benefits in another six months. Maybe I can finally persuade my husband to have his cough checked out and have somebody take a look at the lump that formed in my left armpit a while back. Mr. Tim, the general manager, says my husband and I are naturals as greeters, and we'll both have jobs at Walmart as long as we want them, that we've become part of the family. I'm making two dollars more an hour now than I did at my old job as an associate professor, and I'll even be eligible for a week's paid vacation in three years!

We often catch ourselves humming along to The Best of Truck Driver Favorites as we wipe down the grocery carts or empty the plastic recycling bin. Those tunes really are catchy. Once in a while when I'm on break, I'll pick up a Danielle Steele novel and read a chapter or two. My supervisor doesn't mind; he's a fan. The uniform policy here is also ideal. Our blue vests are unisex and save us money and since they're wash and wear, no more dry cleaning bills.  We can buy practical shoes and T-shirts right over there on aisle twenty-three. I've discovered that Big Mac special sauce washes out of pink polyester pants pretty easily too. One thing that still bothers me though, even when we manage to get a Sunday off together by working until closing Saturday nights, they don't sell The New York Times at Walmart, not even at full price. Oh, well, we don't talk much anymore about world events anyway. Everything's so much better now, what's there to say?

 

JP Reese is an English professor, poet, and fiction writer who lives in North Texas with her husband, three cats, a very old dog, and a recalcitrant twenty-year-old.  Her work has been published in The Pinch (formerly River City), Forces, Atlantis, and at Silkworms Ink.

 

Implosion

 

Roger Real Drouin

 

He split the wad of hundreds in half, handing the bigger stack to my sister.

“Hold onto this.”

“What am I.”

“Hide it.”

Jess stashed the folded wad of hundreds deep in the hotel room’s safe hidden in the closet.

 

The Cadillac floated down the Jersey Turnpike, summer air through the windows and sunroof. It swerved at a straight angle, until dad straightened the car. Needs an alignment, and brakes too. But we kept on cruising southbound towards the Jersey shore. Slight mechanical problems were no match for the gravitational pull that led us down the road.

 

A few months after our vacation, in November 1994, Frank Sinatra performed his final public concerts at The Copa Room in the Sands Casino.

 

I was mad at dad. For the last few weekends he didn’t show up. And Jess had sworn to never forgive him. But when he told us he was taking us to Atlantic City, the promise of six days on the shore with dad—with no rules at all to abide by—overshadowed every recent memory of waiting by the window, his weekend to have us, waiting, looking out, waiting for his Cadillac to pull into the drive. All we could envision was one week of complete freedom, pizza every night, TV as late as we wanted, unlimited bottles of soda, and no chores at all. Much too tantalizing to turn down for a twelve and thirteen-year-old, even if they held a grudge.

 

In 1994, Sinatra hung out at the Sky Club bar for the last time. He preferred it in the quieter bar, Lucky the bartender says, because he could have a scotch and water in peace.

 

Mom knew there was no way he was taking us to the Jersey shore without making an extended stop-over in A.C. Hell, he probably planned to spend the whole time at the Sands, and we wouldn’t even step foot into Wildwood. Squander away at the blackjack table what little money he had. But we were hard to refuse—“Come on,  pleaseeee”—and I think she just needed a short break from it all, a break from being breadwinner and home keeper, mentor, hot cocoa maker, counselor, the grocery shopper, lunch chef, sewer of ripped pants, realtor, the mom and the dad. So we got our vacation.

 

He liked to mix drinks for his friends, martinis and dry manhattans, and he never forgot a friend’s drink of choice, Lucky says. “But for himself, he liked it simple, scotch and water or Jack Daniels with water—‘This is a gentleman’s drink. This is nice,’ he would say.”

“When you start drinking, enjoy it Junior, nothing is better than a fine drink, but don’t let the booze run you. With Frank, he was a heavy drinker, most people don’t know how much he really drank. He would call it The Black Ass of Jack, on occasion. Jack Daniels. He really liked his Jack Daniels. You want another coke?”

 

… Don’t give it to me until we leave, no matter what.”

“You won all. This. How?” my sister inquired.

“The dealer stays on 17. You always hit.”

<I would later learn how to hit on 17. Just not at the blackjack table.>

“Don’t give it back to me, no matter what. OK?”

“OK.”

 

The casino is a source of perpetual sound.

It pops out from every corner of the place.

 

“Call your mom. Tell her we’re going to the pool.”

“We’re going to the pool?”

“Later.”

“Where are we going now?”

“Well, you guys can go to the pool. They have a Jacuzzi. I’ll be back in an hour. But don’t tell your mom that.”

“All right. But where are you going?”

“We’re all going to the pool, if your mom asks.”

 

The bums hid under the boardwalk and stared at us when we ducked under the wooden planks. The half empty Jack Daniels bottle leaned against the post and the sleeping bags lay scattered under the middle of the boardwalk. The harsh voices called out to us. One man staggered our way, his eyes bloodshot, and when we ran out, looking to make sure we both made it, he stared out at us, unable to step from the darkness under the planks. The sunshine mixed with salt air and smog.

 

When Sinatra was born, he wasn’t breathing. His grandmother held him under water until he gasped.            

 

It wasn’t magic. <It’s easy to mistake bright lights for magic.> My dad could count cards. Count them so well he knew what the next card coming from the deck would be, most of the time. I saw him beat the dealer seven times in a row, saw it from a distance in the lobby shadows outside the bright lights of the casino, my first journalistic post.

 

“Frank told me how he used to play a ukuele on the shore, not far from here, in the summer. And he never took a singing lesson. Not a single lesson. He learned from singing.” 

 

Gran Casino Buffet was amazing. I knew nothing like it. Melted, gooey, cheesy fresh mac and cheese, prime rib, a twenty-foot long table with dessert and an ice cream machine. Jess had two servings of chocolate with sprinkles.  And flowing refills of soda.

That’s where we ate the first night.

The second night everything was comp’d.

“Get anything you want on the menu. Prime rib, lasagna, how about surf n’ turf. We need some appetizers to start.”

 

It was my first surf n’ turf.

 

At a musician's benefit in Chicago (December 1939), Tommy Dorsey approached Sinatra and told him he was looking for a vocalist. Sinatra was delighted and told Dorsey: "I've been trying for years to sing the way you play trombone." It was his big break.

 

We also upgraded our room by the second night. It was on the 18th floor, right next to the suite Sinatra used to stay in. The man carried out suitcases up, and dad left him a fifty for a tip.

 

Jess ran over to the pool table, an actual pool table in the hotel suite. I was drawn to the giant black and white photo on the wall—the picture of Sinatra. They’re standing by a pool table themselves, and it looks like Sinatra is telling a story, the others, pool cues in hand, are listening. Sammy Davis Jr., hair slicked and nearly a foot shorter than the rest of the crew, is chalking his cue. Dad was now holding the wad of hundreds, and he handed it to Jess, again, and told her to put it in the safe. She had to come up with the code to open it, so now she was the only one who could open the safe.

 

In the empty 18th floor Sky Bar, Lucky the bartender, silver haired and sharp dressed, kept pouring me glasses of coke. Your dad is a fine man, says Lucky. <Does that mean he was a guy who left a big tip?>

 

Mr. Sinatra didn’t like his drink too heavy. A lot of bartenders would try to be his friend by making it too heavy for him. Sammy Davis Jr. would have a dry Manhattan.

 

Fourth night. Dad comes in like a tornado out of breath. Asks Jess for the code to the safe. “You said no matter what, not to give it.” She wouldn’t budge. Wouldn’t give him the code. He fiddled furiously with the code on the safe. Finally, he guessed the code: Jess’s birthday and mine combined.

 

“I’ll pop this on when no one is in the joint. I close my eyes, and I’m back in 1966. This place was first class then. I mean it’s allright now. But it was a class joint then. This is his first live album. Wonderful, ain’t it?”

 

Unknown to anyone, except the old woman with a sad face glaring at me and the wall, I watched again from my secret perch. I saw him at the blackjack table, the light reflecting off his bald spot. I saw the chips moving towards him and then away from him. I felt the anger between him and the dealer grow. The odor of cologne choked me, and I felt the oxygen pumped into the place to keep the oldtimers awake.

 

Long after I went to bed, Dad stayed at the blackjack table. He lost everything he had won. It disappeared. The odds returned back to the casino’s favor.

 

Four years later, Sinatra died May 14, 1998, 10:50 p.m. at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center of a heart attack.

 

Thirteen years later, October 19, 2007, Lucky lost his job, like everyone else, when they closed down the casino

 

Atlantic City’s Sands Casino is demolished”

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – In about the same time it takes for a roulette ball to fall and settle on a number, the Sands Casino Hotel was demolished Thursday night.

It took less than 20 seconds for the 21-story, 500-room tower where Frank Sinatra once held court to come crashing to the ground shortly after 9:30 p.m. in the first implosion of an East Coast casino.

The demolition makes way for a mega-casino to be built on the Sands site by Pinnacle Entertainment at an estimated cost of $1.5 billion to $2 billion. The as-yet unnamed complex is to open in late 2011 or early 2012.

As a fireworks display bathed the area in multicolored flashes of light and a public address system blared Sinatra crooning "Bye Bye, Baby," Gov. Jon Corzine and Pinnacle chairman Daniel Lee pushed a wooden-handled plunger connected to a wire running to the building to set off the explosions—from an Associated Press article.

 

The land sits vacant, and construction of the mega-casino has been stalled. The chances that it will ever get built are against the odds.

 

Dad put the air conditioner on, because it was working. Jess wanted to sleep stretched out in the backseat so she gave me shotgun. When we stopped for lunch at one of the rest stops in the middle of the turnpike, Jess stayed in the car and told us she wanted a slice of pizza from Sbarro’s. We ordered the food, dad went to pay, and his credit card was declined. He had to find his backup card in this wallet thick with small notes and business cards. The line behind us was growing impatient but dad, taller than everyone there, took his time. He casually handed the alternative credit card to the cashier. We ate the pizza sitting on the hood of the Cadillac watching the cars roll northward.

 

 

Roger Real Drouin is a first-year MFA student in creative writing/fiction at Florida Atlantic University. His short stories have been published, or are forthcoming, in the print journals The Litchfield Review and Leaf Garden and online at Canopic Jar, Offcourse Literary Journal, Madswirl and Green Silk. He was a journalist for seven years before coming to FAU in Fall 2009. His web site is www.rogerdrouin.com.

 

 

 

Stump

R J Dent

 

1: Indian

 

Just outside the kitchen door – about five feet forward, and ten feet to the right – was a plum tree. It was one of the best trees in the world, not just for its delicious fruit, but because it was good for climbing, with good hand and foot holds, as well as having some really great branches for swinging and hanging on.

 

After watching or reading a western, there was nothing better than tying a length of rope around one of the low, strong, almost horizontal branches, then having a mock-lynching, during which my hapless brother – now a desperate outlaw – invariably got hanged by an angry mob, led by me – now a just and fair frontier town marshal. I was always the marshal as I had the pistol, holster, belt and Stetson. If I ever lent the cowboy accoutrements to my brother, then I became a Native American, known back in those politically-incorrect times as Indians. 

 

Somehow – and I don’t remember where the specific knowledge came from – I seemed to know some of the names of the thousands of Indian tribes. In a lot of cases, I knew their geographical locations too, as well as some of the clothes and marking that those tribes wore. I was reasonably familiar with the Apache, Blackfoot, Mohave, Sioux, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Pawnee, Iroquois, Comanche, Wichita, Cree, Crow, Shawnee, Yaqui, Hopi, Huron, Mohawk, Mohican, Ute, Spokane, Chinook, and Choctaw tribes.

 

When I was an Indian, I would always be an Apache or a Comanche, for they were the ones noted for their bravery and their savagery – a winning combination for a young boy. I would take my knife, my bow and arrow, my headband, my feather, and my home-made tomahawk and climb the plum tree and wait for my cowboy enemy to come walking along beneath me. I’d fire a few arrows at him, and then I’d drop onto him and scalp him. For some reason, my brother always got bored with that particular game a lot quicker than I did.

 

2: Stump

 

Anyway, you can imagine the shock, indignation and sadness I felt when my father cut down the plum tree, citing ‘disease’ as the reason. To me, that seemed irrelevant. So what if there were no more plums? – it wasn’t just a fruit tree. It was a reservation, a fort, an ambush, a gallows, a court-room; it was the Little Big Horn, the Alamo, the Dakotas, and Nevada; in short, that plum tree was America and therefore the home of every Native American (Indian) tribe.

 

Late one afternoon or early one evening, a few months after the scythe incident, I got back from somewhere I don’t remember only to find the plum tree had been cut down – all that was left of it was a stump about a foot high. I went indoors and saw my father sitting in his armchair, dozing. My mum was knitting.

 

– Mum, what’s happened to the plum tree?

 

– It’s been cut down.

 

– Why?

 

– Because it was diseased.

 

– Oh.

 

I went back outside and looked again at that poor little tree stump, the sad remnant of a once-glorious continent full of Native American tribes. Now it was gone, vanquished, destroyed, and ultimately driven out of its happy hunting ground. An Indian uprising was what was needed.

 

Over the next few days, I watched as my father did his best to get rid of the stump. He attacked it with an axe, a spade (which snapped), a crowbar, and a saw. He drilled holes in the trunk and poured acid into the holes; he doused it in petrol and set fire to it; he wrapped a rope around it and tried to pull it out of the ground as though the tree stump was a recalcitrant tooth. But the stump refused to budge. It stayed firmly in the ground, throwing down its silent challenge. And I liked it. I liked its indomitability.

 

That changed when my father said:

 

– I want you and your brother to get rid of that tree stump.

 

– How?

 

– With a bit of elbow grease.           

 

I’d heard enough of my father’s archaic phrases to know that what he really meant by ‘elbow grease’ was for us to work very hard at removing the tree stump. I also realised that he’d given up on it and was now passing the buck, or reassigning responsibility. Unfortunately it meant that he could also realign the blame if anything went wrong, or if we failed to ‘get rid’ of the tree stump. It might very well defeat us – after all, it had stumped our father.

 

Despite our misgivings, the next evening my brother and I – armed with an axe and a spade – stood in the hole that had been cleared around the plum tree roots and started chipping away at the exposed roots. We worked for about an hour at a time, usually for three or four evenings a week. It was hard, boring work. The tree was set firmly in the ground and two boys with gardening implements weren’t going to move or remove it in a hurry. For a ‘diseased’ tree, it certainly seemed very tough.

 

During the hours, days, weeks, that we chapped, chepped, chipped, chopped and chupped at the tree roots, our father continued his war of attrition against the plum tree stump. Some of his modes of attack were questionable: in particular the electric saw, which merely resulted in a few round thin slices of tree trunk, no good for anything, and of course, the bomb…

 

3: Bomb

 

The bomb was quite exciting really. It was a homemade bomb. Our father had made it by packing a variety of dangerous ingredients (which for obvious reasons I won’t list here) into a Golden Virginia tobacco tin, and securing it shut with string and rubber bands. He used a foot-long piece of paraffin-soaked string as a fuse.

 

It was one evening during the week when he casually sauntered out of the house and stood watching my brother and me working away at the roots with axe, spade and crowbar.

 

– I’ve got something here that’ll make our job a bit easier, he said.

 

That ‘our job’ really rankled. He then held up a tobacco tin and I wondered what he’d got in mind – rolling the plum tree a cigarette; smoking it to death. I didn’t think plum trees were frightened of tobacco, cigarette papers or tobacco tins. However, I was curious.

 

– What is it? I asked.

 

– It’s a bomb.

 

‘Bomb’ is magic word to a boy. It evokes tension, terror, noise, excitement, fear, smoke and general chaos. Boys love bombs. My brother and I were no exception. We dived out of the hole as fast as we could, dragging the implements we’d been using behind us. This we had to see. We looked at the tobacco tin carefully, but it just looked like an ordinary tobacco tin, albeit one with a piece of string sticking out of one corner and a few rubber bands around it. It didn’t look like a bomb.

 

With a lot of fuss and ceremony, our father prepared the bomb site. Helpfully, he gave us a running commentary that was a cross between a terrorist monologue and Mrs Beeton-style cookery instructions. Key words were emphasised by a slightly louder tone.

 

– First you take your BOMB and then you VERY CAREFULLY place it amongst the ROOTS of your TARGETED tree. Then you make sure your FUSE is sticking out, providing you with easy access for lighting it. Then you get out of the EXPLOSION SITE and move back, but staying close enough to light your fuse.

 

At this point he held up a box of safety matches and shook them.

 

We waited.

 

– Matches, he said. Very important. After a moment, he added: Not as important as the bomb though – although without the matches, the bomb’s useless.

 

We waited some more. Finally he continued.

 

– After I’ve lit the fuse, he said, we all need to move a long way back--well away from the tree stump.

 

– We’ll go into the front garden.

 

– Good. I’ll go down to the bottom of the garden. Ready?

 

We nodded.

 

– Okay, here we go!

 

He lit the fuse and we dashed around the side of the house. He hadn’t told us how long the fuse would burn for, so we waited… and waited… and waited.

 

Eventually, after hearing no loud bang, seeing no tree stump hurtling through the air, we ventured back, tentatively peering around the corner of the house.

 

The explosion was enormous. It sounded as though a giant elastic band had sproinged through the air. At the same time, a v-shaped piece of scorched and smoking tin lid went flying down the garden and landed in the lavender. A huge cloud of smoke engulfed the garden. It was like fog. Our father loomed out of the smoke, coughing. He wandered over to the targeted tree.

 

– Damn and blast it, he muttered.

 

We didn’t need an interpreter to tell us that the tree stump was still intact. The bomb hadn’t worked. Even with matches, it had been useless. We looked expectantly at our father. What was next? A flame-thrower. A tank. A nuclear bomb.

 

– They don’t always work, he said. I suppose you’d better carry on with what you were doing.

 

And with that, he wandered back inside. Gloomily, we carried on with our work chipping away at the tree roots, the smell of cordite and scorched tin assailing our nostrils.

 

4: Creosote

 

My least favourite mode of attack used by my father was the creosote. Our father was a bit of a fanatic when it came to creosote. He thought it was wonderful. Creosote mad, he creosoted all of the back garden fences, the garden gate, the hut, the bike stand, the front garden fences – and then he started on the non-wooden items. And if anyone stood still for too long – well, it didn’t bear thinking about.

 

I think the stump had been standing there for a bit too long, simply looking wooden and un-creosoted. It must have really irked our father. My brother and I got back from wherever one evening and the stump had been creosoted. It was dark brown and stinking.

 

– He’s painted it!

 

– Creosoted it, you mean.

 

– Whatever. It’s still been painted. Why?

 

        Let’s go and ask

 

We were saved the trouble of hunting for our father, because he came out into the back garden.

 

– Ah, there you are, he said. As you can see, I’ve poured some creosote over that damned tree stump.

 

– Yes, we saw. What will it do to it?

 

– Well, it might eat away at it from the inside.

 

– Isn’t creosote a wood preserver?

 

– Some types of creosote are, yes. But this one’s different.

 

– How?

 

– Like I said, it’ll eat away at the wood from the inside.

 

– So it’s a bit dangerous at the moment then?

 

– Dangerous?

 

– For us to touch…

 

– …All that eating away that’s going on inside. If we touch it…

 

– …We’ll dissolve…

 

– …It’ll be like death by acid…

 

– …Like in Carry On Screaming

 

– No, it’s quite safe for you two to carry on working on the roots.

 

– …Or like the witch in The Wizard of Oz...

 

– …The wicked witch…

 

– …I’m mellllt-iiing!...

 

– …Anyway, it was water, not acid…

 

– …She still dissolved though…

 

– …True…

 

– It’s a very special sort of creosote that attacks wood, but doesn’t harm flesh, skin or bone.

 

– That’s clever creosote.

 

– Yes, it is. Cleverer than you.

 

And off he went, leaving us to continue our battle with a newly preserved, hardened, armoured tree stump. Of course, we had our queries:

 

– Do you think if I study hard enough, I can become cleverer than creosote?

 

– Does creosote have A-Levels?

 

– Is there a college for creosote?

 

– Creosote college.

 

– Brush up on creosoting.

 

– I hate creosote.

 

– So do I.

 

– He’d bath in it if he could.

 

– Here you go, Dougie, here’s some lovely creosote-flavoured soap.

 

– He’d drink it if he could.

 

– Hello, Dougie, what can I get you?

 

– Pint of creosote, please.

 

– Anything to go with that?

 

– Give me some of those creosote flavoured crisps too.

 

– Creosote nuts?

 

– Yes he is.

 

– Has.

 

It took us nearly a year to loosen that tree stump. After we’d finally loosened it enough to lever it out, our father came along carrying a crowbar, jumped down into the hole, rammed the crowbar between the roots and levered the tree stump out of the ground.

 

Then he climbed back out of the hole, looked at the defeated stump for a moment, whacked it with the crowbar, and then wandered off, muttering:

 

– Well, that wasn’t that difficult.

 

 

R J Dent is a UK-based poet, novelist, translator, essayist, short story writer, and creative writing tutor. His stories, poems, novellas and essays have appeared in a wide variety of magazines, journals and periodicals, including Writer’s Muse, Orbis, Chanticleer, Agenda, Panda, Roundyhouse and Philosophy Now. His translations of the poems of Alcaeus and of Baudelaire have appeared in Acumen and Inclement. His first novel, Myth, a dark, erotic fantasy set on a Greek island, was published in 2006. His poetry collection, Moonstone Silhouettes was published by Inclement Publishing in 2009. His translation of Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil was published by Solar Books in 2009. His website is www.rjdent.com.

 

 Mercy

 

Jennifer Howard

 

The last morning that Mercedes Diaz rode the D6 began like all the others. She boarded the bus at the corner of P and 22nd Street and took one of the seats just behind the driver. Ernest, who drove most weekdays, was absent, and she could not quite see the face of the man who sat behind the wheel. Nobody else got on with her. It was 8:16 a.m., which meant the bus was a little behind schedule, which meant that Mercedes—Mercy to her friends and to her boss, who was not her friend—was going to be a little late. As usual. Her shift began at 8:30 sharp, and the time clock, an impersonal judge, would not care whether being late was her fault or not.

 

Mercy massaged her heart and would have sighed but there wasn’t enough of an audience to make any public drama worthwhile, and she was too tired anyway. The only other passenger was an old man perched in the row of priority seats across the aisle. He was almost lost in a black trench coat several sizes too big for him and he did not look especially clean. There were half-moons of dirt under his fingernails. His off-white hair stuck out from his head, reminding Mercy of a dandelion gone to seed. He gazed at her with a steady interest that made her look at the floor.

 

“Yours?” His voice was eager, a little rusty, as if he didn’t get to use it often enough. She caught a whiff of something—myrrh, she thought, then wondered why on earth she had thought of that--as he leaned forward and pointed at the seat next to her.  His eyes were blue and fever-bright. “Yours,” he said again.

 

A package sat just inches from her on the dingy vinyl. It was a miracle she hadn’t crushed it when she sat down. That would have been a shame—such a pretty thing, not much bigger than her hand. It was bound up with a pink-and-silver ribbon and covered with a faint flower pattern that made her think of daisies submerged in a stream she had played in as a child, back where she had come from, so long ago now she could barely remember it.

 

“Not mine,” she said, wanting to pick the box up but not sure she should.

 

The man reached across the aisle, picked up the box, and placed it in her hand. He smiled at her, showing teeth of a surprising whiteness. She smiled back. The discomfort in her chest stilled.

 

Mercy let the package rest for a moment on her palm. A golden butterfly dangled from the ribbon that bound it. She looked out of the window and realized that she must have missed her stop, because the route no longer looked familiar.

           

           “Wind it,” the man said. “It’s yours.”

 

A small key, cool to the touch, stuck out of the back of the box. Mercy turned it and let the tune, an old one from long ago, carry her away.

 

 

Jennifer published a trio of flash-fiction pieces in The Collagist (December 2009 issue); longer stories of hers have appeared in VQR and The Blue Moon Review and in an anthology, D.C. Noir, published by Akashic Books. Jennifer is also a journalist; she covers publishing, libraries, and the humanities for The Chronicle of Higher Education, and has freelanced for a number of other publications including the Washington Post, Slate, and Bookforum.

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