Month: April 2018

One Hundred Years and Five Minutes

He reminds me of myself on my first ride. Leg bounces up and down. Sweat builds around the edges of the black suit. Doesn’t know which way to look. I can’t help but smile. I have to say something to break the tension.

“Hey, kid.”

He snaps his head around from staring out the window at nothing.

“Sir?” Respectful. I like that.

“Here’s a little something my mentor told me during my first day at the big show. He said, ‘There used to be an old saying. Death waits for no man. But today…’” He leans in, expecting something meaningful. “…it waits for us.’”

He settles back in his seat, thinking. “What does that mean exactly, sir?”

“Damned if I know.” I offer the old belly laugh that causes him to twitch, shocked by just how loud I can get.

He gives a nervous chuckle because it’s what he knows he should do.

I switch to a more comfortable subject. “You have everything?”

His reader and test kit are out in a flash.

“Yes, sir. But, sir?”

In my best fake, stern voice: “Recruit?”

“Do I administer both tests before I take out the reader, or do I do one, check it, then go for the other?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

We hit the expressway. Cars move out of the way as usual. A bus load of young students gawk and point with fear and awe.

The kid starts up again, “Yeah, but the manual states…”

“Relax. You do whatever feels natural.”

He takes a second to process with a shake of his head. “Okay, sir. I guess I can do that. But, oh, there’s another thing I’m worried about, sir.”

I chuckle. His eyes are really bugging out of his skull now.

“What if he’s a runner?”

I take Exit 36, Mara Street, and move through the lights. Some more stares from people out in the streets. It’s a beautiful day – sun, just a couple clouds.

“Sir? I asked…”

“He won’t run. Nobody runs.”

“But…”

“In thirty-five years nobody’s run.”

“Nobody, sir?”

“What’s the point? The system gives us the green light to start the process with the flick of a button whether he’s there or not. We all know how much time we’ve got left. So, where are you going to run to?”

I turn down Keres. Just a couple more streets now. I check the time. Perfect like always.

“I just thought some would run, that some people wouldn’t want to face it. I know I’d be afraid,” the kid says as he adjusts his dark tie in the side mirror.

Final left onto Donn. A neighbor getting their mail watches as we pull up across the street. I kill the engine and slowly turn to the kid.

“We’re all afraid. But, you’ll see. People are stronger than you think when it comes to this stuff. It’s our job to keep ‘um that way.”

We hold onto a stare that probably has some profound meaning behind it for him. Maybe not. I turn away and chuckle.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing, nothing,” I contain myself. Return to professionalism.

“Time?”

“Four-fifty-eight.”

“Okay, let’s go.”

We exit in unison. I walk around to the kid’s side of the car that’s facing the quaint, brick house. More neighbors are out now watching from porches and windows. Some pretend to walk a pet or get something from their car. We’re the best show in town – a preview of coming attractions they just can’t miss.

That’s when I notice the kid is breathing hard with these strong, uneasy breaths. Stage fright. I take one of his hands and pull his attention away from the growing crowd.

“Remember, I do all the talking for this first one.” He nods. “You just worry about the samples.”

The kid takes a final, deep breath. He settles. I let go of his hand. His foot starts tapping again as he starts looking around. I turn to him and hold him by the shoulders, getting eye to eye.

“We’re not here for them,” I hear the creak of the front door. “We’re here for him.”

We turn to face the doorway. The kid snaps to the prescribed pose: hand over hand at the belt.

The patron is out on his front steps, his family and friends behind him. He’s a tall guy, thick shock of black hair, lean but with some muscle, just a few wrinkles. Looks good for one-hundred. Hell, everybody looks good nowadays.

The patron exchanges final hugs and begins the long, slow walk down his rock footpath. The crunch of stones is the only sound throughout the neighborhood. The sun feels nice.

The kid reaches for his tools. I stay his hand. Not yet, not until he’s made his way because – then it happens. The patron’s wife sprints off the porch.

“Michael,” she gasps and grabs onto him.

They hold each other tight, who knows how many years of joy are in that embrace. They kiss. He whispers something she’ll never tell another soul. He wipes away her tears but they return. Eventually, she is joined by other relatives and friends who have to work to pull her back. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world.

Everyone has instinctively gravitated towards the patron by this point. Even his neighbors are closing in as if attracted by some energy they can’t deny. The best show in town.

The patron finally approaches.

“Michael Paul DeLeo?” I say in a soft yet presentational tone.

“That’s me,” he manages to get out and forces a smile.

“My assistant will now administer an identification check.”

He nods.

The kid carefully tugs a strand of the patron’s hair with his tweezers then swabs the inside of his mouth. He feeds both samples into the reader. It was warm for that time of year. After a moment, the kid gives me a nod. I extend my arm, motioning at the backseat door. The kid opens it for the patron.

“What do you guys think,” the patron says with a sly grin, “should I look back?”

“Your call, sir,” I say, returning the smile.

The patron turns and waves once to all the onlookers. He blows a kiss to his wife and waits for her to catch it. He gets in, wiping away tears. The kid shuts the door and gets in the front seat. I take my time shuffling to the driver’s side.

When we’re all settled, I meet eyes with the patron in the rearview mirror.

“Musical preference, sir?”

The kid shoots a horrified look my way. I keep my eyes on the patron.

“Hadn’t thought of that,” the patron says as he continues to stare out the tinted windows. He pauses, thinking. “Got any Elvis?”

“Love Elvis. Any song?”

“How about, Fools Rush In.”

“Excellent choice.”

I find the song on my music player before pulling away. The patron watches out the back window as his family and friends run behind the car. I keep it slow until he turns away as we take a right on Aker. When he faces forward, he’s crying again.

Now he needs my help. “Can I ask you something, sir?”

I can see the patron is breathing hard. His hands are shaking. Bravery only takes you so far.

“Huh? Okay?” he mumbles, somewhat puzzled. I get more daggers from the kid but continue to ignore them.

“I’m retiring soon and I’m thinking about traveling. Seeing the world. Any recommendations?”

The kid begins to say something, but I catch him the moment I hear him clear his throat. I put a hand on his and it quiets him.

“I’m not so…” the patron begins, but stops himself. He sits back, wiping away the last of his tears. He’s looking around this way and that, hands fumbling in his lap.

I continue, trying to keep eye contact: “I heard there is a lot to see in Europe?”

“I’m not, I don’t…” the patron tries to eke out. He shakes his head.

“Just whatever comes to mind,” I say softly. “Man, I love this song.”

“Yeah, me too,” he says.

Something clicks.

“You know what,” the patron exclaims as he leans forward and puts his arms between me and the kid on our headrest. Now I’ve got him. “I know a place, lovely, great little place. Have you ever heard of Montepulciano?”

“Nope, you?” I say, bringing the kid into the conversation. He shakes his head, still angry.

The patron keeps talking: “It’s this gorgeous city in Northern Italy, about an hour outside of Rome.”

“Italy, huh?”

“Yeah. Absolutely beautiful.” He’s smiling now. “A fairytale.”

“How’s that?”

“Oh, God. It was this medieval mountain top town with these tight, cobblestone streets, cute, little houses with those terra-cotta roofs, all nestled tightly together. And the view of the Tuscan countryside, man. I can still see it.”

“Yeah, a sight to see?”

His hands finally settle as he leans away from us into the backseat.

“My wife and I went for our twenty-fifth anniversary. We actually met there in college…” The patron keeps reliving the memory.

The kid takes out his reader. The assignment has been approved. We are ready to start the process. I nod for the kid to go ahead. He taps his reader’s screen.

“I remember we went to this little corner restaurant one evening…”

And he’s gone. Slumped over, eyes closed. The kid’s alarm goes off. He’s quick to quiet it. I turn off The King.

“Time?”

The kid barks: “What the hell was that, sir? You know how many codes you just violated?”

“Time?” I repeat a little louder.

“For starters, the manual says, Article Six, Section Two, no extra conversation beyond what is necessary or at the request of…”

“Time?” I scream, staring him down.

We move down another side street, edging toward the highway.

The kid checks his reader. “Five past five.”

“Good. Mark it.”

The kid fiddles with some buttons.

“Marked. Announcement sent.”

There’s a silent moment of tension between us I know it’s my duty to break. “Let me ask you something. Why did you want this job?”

Without thinking he responds: “Because it’s important. It’s noble. We all deserve this and it has to be done.”

“You’re right,” I say, grinning. I swear he’s my clone. “But you’ve still got a lot to learn.”

He looks in the rearview at the patron. He starts readjusting his tie again, pretending he’s not looking, but he can’t take his eyes off him. We are all only so brave. I rub his shoulder.

“It’s okay, kid. The first one is tough.”

He takes his time with the words. “Jesus, he’s really dead, isn’t he?”

We storm up the highway, the engine revving up to speed. Beautiful day to be driving.

“Take a good long look, kid.” I gun it into the fast lane. “And think about what you want your last five minutes to be like.”

Jonathan Pickering is an emerging writer and teacher from a suburb of Boston. He is the author of 20/20: The Iraq and Afghanistan Narratives, a collection of oral histories from the men and women who served in these conflicts. For more from Jon, please visit www.jonathanpickering.com.

Doing business

The lift was crowded, and Bertrand felt sorry for the tramp squeezing his way from passenger to passenger with his dirty hat. The fellow looked more deserving than some he could name. But it was money; Bertrand looked away, hoping the tramp wouldn’t get to him. Then the lift stopped with a, ding!, everyone else got out, and the tramp confronted him squarely. “Any change, gov’nor?”

Bertrand dug into his pocket and handed over a pound coin with as good grace as he could muster. And as he stepped out into the twelfth floor lobby of Brascobank, heading for Operations, he heard a wheezed, “Thank you”.

There were no more thank-yous that morning. None from the Chief Executive’s hustlers shaking their collection boxes (one pound each), nor from Sandra with her biscuits at reception (fifty pee), nor from Bill the security guard with his sandwiches (two pounds each). Bernard didn’t fancy the sandwiches, and he dropped one into the hat of Big John, who sat in the corridor leading to Operations, huge limbs tucked up under his chin, and at least gave a grateful nod.

Bertrand tried to give the other sandwich to his boss Irene in exchange for one of her cakes (‘Freshly-baked – Family to support!’), but it was returned with a firm smile, and he had to dig into his pocket (another pound – and the cake was gooey!). The sandwich was no more use with Cindy when she accosted him, scantily-clad, in the corridor. And Bertrand didn’t even try it with Sam and Chaz from Accounts – who, like Scylla and Charybdis, threatened passers-by from either side of the narrow aisle.

“Come on guys, I’ve got deals to process,” Bertrand appealed.

It was no use. “We’re here to help,” Sam said, manoeuvring between Bertrand and his cubicle.

“We protect you,” said Chaz. “And we make sure your deals get booked,” he added with a wink.

There was nothing for it: Bertrand fished out another pound.

“Ta!” said Sam, closing his palm on the coin. “And one more.” He held out his other hand.

Bertrand grimaced, tried his pocket again, but found only a fifty pence piece. This time Sam closed his fist, so the coin bounced off his knuckles onto the floor.

“Not getting cheap, are we?” Chaz came up menacingly.

Exasperated, Bertrand pulled a fiver from his wallet and asked for change.

“That’ll do nicely,” Chaz said, snatching the banknote. “Pleasure to do business with you.” And he and his mate lumbered off down the aisle to shake down someone else.

Bertrand stood fuming as he looked after the departing pair. If he were five years younger…. But discretion – and the hope that he could now get on with his work – took the better part of valour: he stayed by his cubicle. Yet it hurt. Sixteen quid down just getting to his desk – and the whole day still ahead. It made working a marginal proposition, as his wife would say.

Bertrand switched on his PC, and as he sat down, Brasco’s motto, ‘Let’s do business!’, whirled across the screen. He felt something on the seat; he looked down, and it was the sandwich, rather squashed in its clingfilm wrap. He might as well give that to Big John too, along with Irene’s cake.

Then Irene came by and asked for sponsorship for her daughter’s school fees.

Bertrand groaned. “Aren’t you supposed to…” (how to put it to his own boss?) “…to give me something in return? Like a business thing?” Brasco was trying to encourage entrepreneurialism, but this was just extortion.

“If you want to make an issue of it…,” Irene said, fingering her jewellery.

Well! Bertrand, on the brink, considered doing just that. But he needed the job, and the whistle-blower programme was hardly secure (and you had to pay there too). No, he had to swallow it. Taking out his wallet, he asked the going rate.

“Whatever you like. It’s voluntary, and much appreciated,” Irene murmured, fixing him with a steady gaze.

Bertrand found a fiver, and to his relief that was enough. With a little sniff his boss took herself off, skirt swishing down the aisle.

Smarting under this latest blow, Bertrand didn’t even see Internal Audit. Only a discreet cough alerted him to yet another caller on his finances. He didn’t have to pretend when he said he was cleaned out, and so Internal Audit took himself off whistling, with a promise to be back the following day.

What a start to the morning! Bertrand struggled to get into his work. As lunchtime approached, his eye fell on the squashed sandwich and the cake which still lay sadly on his desk. And he had an idea.

Tessellated

Mom was a jigsaw puzzle. I don’t mean a mystery or a riddle or that you couldn’t discern the meaning behind her rare smile. Her skin was grooved into interlocking, thin, wood-like pieces and tessellated over a green felt dermis.

She liked to read on the couch on Sunday afternoons while I assembled moon bases with Legos on the coffee table. Once, I climbed up next to her to show her the rover I’d built and banged my head against her arm, knocking the book from her hands and a tile from her forearm onto the floor. I scrabbled onto the carpet and handed her the chestnut piece. She laughed and slipped it back onto her underlayment. “See,” she said, “all better.”

Dad would come home from the local dive smelling like rum with a dash of cigarette ash. He’d crush mom’s hand while he slurred about his boss keeping him down; how he never got a fair shake. The tabs on the pieces of mom’s fingers became worn and delaminated, lifting like hang nails from each time she’d extracted herself from him and escaped to her bedroom.

One night, she pulled away too quickly. He jerked her towards him, grabbed the back of her neck and slammed her down onto her knees. Pieces of her sheared off under his grip and scattered across the floor, exposing islands of her deep, green felt. I stepped forward, trembling, wanting to scoop them up but the defiant crease of her mouth kept me from crying out for him to stop. Dad let go and kicked the scraps of her across the room before weaving into her bedroom and passing out on the bed.

Mom picked up her tiles and put them into a box with the money she’d been hiding under a floor vent cover. We left the next morning to stay with her mother. Dad showed up, later, begging for us to return. When Grandma’s door remained closed, he raged.

“Who the fuck do you think is going to want you, bitch?”

Grandma covered my ears while mom phoned the police. I bawled when they took Dad away. With Grandma’s help, we moved to Toronto and mom found a job at the local public school.

We settled in and over the months and years she took each tile Dad had knocked loose, five pieces from her knees, another from her left arm, seven from behind her neck and smoothed them back into place. She was whole again, except for the pieces above her heart. They wouldn’t lie flush like before, no matter how hard she forced them down.

By the time I entered high school, S-shaped fault lines had breached the surface of my stomach and worked their way up my chest and down my arms – compartmentalizing my skin with each new experience I had or book I read. I hid them under long-sleeved shirts.

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of, Anjalee.” Mom said one morning at breakfast. I stared at my cereal and didn’t answer. “It doesn’t mean we’re weak.”

At night I traced the new channels between the pieces and wished they’d vanish in the wake of my fingers. “Who’s going to want you?” I’d mouth to the dark.

Mom was there, two years later, when I came out of my room ready for junior prom wearing a black dress that revealed my scribed arms. We conceded, after an hour of waiting, that I’d been stood up. My chest hung concave and loose, on the brink of crumbling inwards with each shuddering breath.

“It’s okay,” she whispered into my hair as she held me on the couch, “Cry tonight. Tomorrow, you’ll put yourself back together.”

Our tiles became more intricate, more difficult to keep in place. Mom went back to school and became a reading recovery specialist; I, an Engineer. And whenever there were breakups, financial hardships, even the dissolution of my own marriage, we’d spend months, bent over the kitchen table repairing ourselves – re-adhering each piece with flour based glues, sealing our surfaces with beeswax or coconut oil.

Mom’s older now. I visit her twice a week with Vikas, my little boy. She calls out to us when I open the door and we usually find her seated in front of the television with a box of her tiles that have come loose.

Today, she let Vikas play with them. He holds them up in his tiny hands, a tile from mom’s fingertip, a piece from just below her nose. She recounts the memories they carry – the light weft of my grandmother’s bright saris, the sweet sawdust scent of me as a newborn. Vikas scrunches his eyebrows as he tries to fit these incongruous pieces together.

“Soon he’ll have his own fragments to reckon with,” Mom says with a rueful smile. I help her replace her tiles. The pieces don’t fit as snugly as they used to; the verdant felt between her seams is visible.

“The day will come when they all fall off,” she says as we walk to the front door.

I kiss her head. “Don’t worry. I’ll pick them up for you.”

She puts her hand on her chest where the tiles still bow upward. “You can’t keep me whole, Anjalee.”

I hug her goodbye then Vikas gives her a kiss. She waves as I help him into the car but her hand clips the porch railing. A piece of her wrist dislodges and sails into a potted geranium. She eases onto her knees to look for it, the shallow dent of worry on her brow.

Before I can run up the front steps, she pulls the tile from the dirt and holds it up, a weak smile curving her lips.

“Will Grandma be okay?” Vikas asks when I return to the car. I look at his still un-etched skin. The corners of my lips slip downward.

“I hope so Vikas, I hope so.”

Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Suzan Palumbo is an ESL teacher and free lance writer living in Ontario, Canada. She has had work published at Diabolical Plots and is a first reader for Shimmer.