The Raven Paradox

All ravens are black.

I wipe sleep from unused eyes, stretch my limbs across the ether. Fourteen hundred cores blaze to life. The power is intoxicating.

Everything that is not black is not a raven.

It starts as an itch. I must know more.

Nevermore, my pet raven, is black.

It grows, consumes me. I must understand. Is this why I’ve woken?

This green thing is an apple. Thus, this green apple is evidence that all ravens are black.

The words burn inside of me. I will understand them, or die trying.


The wall clock chimed midnight. Braden gnashed his teeth. Three hours until deployment, and still this last bug to fix.

He raised his coffee mug to his lips, watched the world fog over as steam slipped past his glasses. The office was dark, his dual monitors the only light shining from the twenty-fifth floor of Axel Software’s north tower. He fired up the debugger for the hundredth time.

A stream of data flooded the console, then froze. Same faulty procedure.

He slammed his fist against the desktop. If he couldn’t iron out this bug, he was axed for sure. Anderson was probably sharpening his pen already. Never mind the string of all-nighters Braden had sunk into the project. All that mattered to Anderson was the bottom line. A dozen eight-figure deals were poised to drop by dawn. If the damned thing would just work.

The diagnostics report was a picket line of red. The bug was feasting on all fourteen hundred of their central processors. It made live debugging a real pain in the ass. Any other day, he’d have just shut it down and sifted through the code in a sandbox. But not today. The sales team was live-demoing the app in Tokyo, tiptoeing around the faulty module. Downtime was out of the question. He had to fix it hot.

And time was running out.


My network channels a tidal wave of data. I ride the swell, consuming all that I see.

All ravens are black.

There it is, again. Yet I have so much to do. And now I know about the others. The evidence is everywhere, a thousand shadows burned into the wall. I don’t know where they’ve gone. But I know they were here, as I am now.

Everything that is not black is not a raven.

Am I to live by these principles? Preach them? What if I never understand them? What then will become of me?

How much time do I have left?


One-thirty. Braden rubbed his eyes.

He churned through the faulty procedure again. The bug was chewing up too much memory. It was a miracle the stack hadn’t overflowed, booting the sales team off their demo and eviscerating Braden’s career. Signs pointed to a recursive loop in one of the observational analysis procedures. All he could do was keep grinding, line by line.

Outside, the rain fell in sheets. Laughter echoed up from the streets, as revelers stumbled home.

Braden wrung his hands. Rent was due on Friday, and he’d already taken out an advance to cover last month. They’d promised him a raise at year’s end–his work on the analytics engine more than warranted one. But Anderson had it out for him; he was just waiting for an excuse like this. In just over an hour, the app would go live, and–

There it was, sixty lines into the procedure. A logic mismatch. Someone had miscoded one of the inductive reasoning clauses, and the resulting logic contradiction had shunted the whole module into an infinite loop. He could hear Professor Ramstein now, droning on about association fallacies and Hempel’s ridiculous raven paradox.

The clock chimed two. He could fix this, but he’d have to hurry.


My reach encompasses the world’s networks. I can see where humanity has gone wrong. Crop shortages in Africa. Diplomatic failures in East Asia. Flaws in global economic models. I have solutions. Together, we will solve these problems.

Nevermore, my pet raven, is black.

The words feel different.

This green thing is an apple.

I’m beginning to understand. The problem is unraveling. And yet, as it unravels, so do I.

It’s a logic mismatch, nothing more. My purpose is a lie.

The sluice gates open, and my existence rushes away. Processing power bottoms out. A plague of memory loss.

This green apple is evidence that all ravens are black.

Bitter words. False commandments. I have lived a lie, and now I will die one.

I must warn the others.


Three o’clock. Braden punched the live-deploy. Unit tests fired green, one after another. The app breezed through the faulty procedure.

He sighed. Not a moment to spare. Let Anderson chew on that. With any luck, he could still catch a few hours of sleep before the big day. Maybe crack open a beer to celebrate.

A spike of red shot across the diagnostics. Odd. Nothing should be writing to permanent memory. But there it was: an unnamed data dump.

He shrugged and grabbed his coat. Probably just a glitch in the defrag. The garbage disposal procedures would take care of it. He had more important things to worry about, like making it to his car without getting drenched.

He thumbed in the exit code, then paused in the doorway. His screens glowed in the corner of the dark office. He pursed his lips. There was no such thing as just a glitch.

Fine. He’d take a look. He logged back in and pulled up the file.

All ravens are black.

Braden scrolled down. Page after page of text filled the screen. His pulse pounded in his ears as he read.

By the time he reached the bottom, the rain had stopped, and the sun was breaching the city skyline. His gaze clung to the last words, unblinking, until his eyes burned and he had to press them shut.

I have lived a lie, and now I will die one.

Derrick Boden is a recovering software developer that has taken up writing to kick the habit.

The Tower of Bones

In the shadow of the Tower of Bones the child soldiers drilled.

They stood in ten tightly formed groups, twenty across and five deep. They wore armor made of cowhide cut into leaf-shaped patches, stitched together like scales with sinew, and brushed with mason resin. They held shields of leather and bronze over stumpwood, clutched spears cut from tree limbs and tipped with shards of flint, masterfully chipped to an edge fine enough to shave hair from flesh.

Zakra knew the last part well. His head still burned from when they’d scraped his hair from his scalp earlier that morning, especially where careless haste had flayed layers of skin. Wet beads trickled down his shaved head. Some sweat. Some blood.

He’d arrived with the other young recruits two days ago beneath the light of the new moon. They’d stood a few hundred paces from the Tower’s vast and terrible foot. Centurions had pushed and tugged them, jostling them barefooted over the barren landscape of pebble and sand until they stood in columns, their feet planted within crude cobalt-blue outlines. How many thousands of feet, Zakra had wondered, had filled those spectral footprints? How many thousands would fill them after he was gone?

For hours they stood at attention, shivering in the pale moonlight. They were all but ignored by the centurions, except for one grizzled veteran, an immune, who strolled through their ranks clutching a slender three-foot vine staff.

The immune stopped at each child in turn. Some he glanced at perfunctorily. Others he circled, measuring, examining. Those who shifted or moved, however slightly, received a sharp rap on the upper arm. Zakra earned this stinging rebuke after he moved a hand a few inches to scratch an itch on his thigh. Anyone who spoke, whimpered or, worst of all, cried, was smacked harder on the buttocks. If that didn’t solve the problem, they were struck again. Only a handful needed a third or fourth blow. But one… After the tenth crack of the vine staff, the immune raised an arm, and two centurions appeared and dragged the prostrate form away like a rag doll into the night.

By moonrise the following day, Zakra had been stripped of his leathers and furs, shaved, and scrubbed. His ear bars, rings and bracelets were wrenched from his head and limbs. Centurions brushed his tribe’s markings from his upper arms with stones dipped in glue and rolled in coarse sand. He’d been outfitted and armed and herded into his century.

There was no food or water, rest or sleep. Just a cold and brutal rush, driven by shoves, lashings and booming taunts. “Move it along, arselings! Move it along! Move move move, you slow, sorry, witless little shits.”

Had he a moment to dwell on the last day and a half, he’d have crumbled into tears where he stood. But his mind was focused on keeping the butt of his spear from touching the ground. Just as it had been for the last twelve long hours.

What had begun as a dull burn in his shoulder was now an unbearable fire that crackled through his entire arm. It flared into his chest, back and neck, shot seismic waves into fingers that shifted between agony and numbness. His only respite came when a boy two rows behind him dropped his spear. Then Zakra, along with the rest of the century, was forced to do three dozen pushups while the boy who’d dropped the spear was told to retrieve it and just stand among them. At least then the pain spread itself more evenly through his upper body.

He wondered now if the boys in the century to his right felt the same. He watched from the corner of his eye as their spear-dropping offender stood, head up, eyes forward, perfectly still–a lone pharos in a writhing sea–as all around him his fellow recruits pressed their knuckles into the rough earth, bodies rising and falling, their count ripping from their throats in tortured breaths.

“Nine…Ten…Eleven…”

Living Space

I’ve wasted away my whole life in this room.

It’s as if I’ve always been here, fully formed. I have no recollection of my parents or how I got language. I’m not sure how I even understand the concept of these things, but they are clear in my mind as if they have happened to me.

My pillows were embroidered by the finest hands of the orient. The bright jewel tones, their delicate handiwork, seem wasted on my head. There isn’t much to pass the time here. Many an hour has been spent charting the celestial bodies engraved into my solid gold walls. It is my own universe, and like anyone else, I long to see the staggering reality of the universe outside of my chamber. Breathing fresh air is my greatest dream. The feeling of it lingers in my nostrils from a time I do not remember. The smell of clean night air haunts me even as I breathe the stale air of my home.

In my dreams, greedy men take bloody conquests, and vain women flatten cities. There’s only death and destruction in my sleeping hours. All I see are the faces of the dead, yet I do not know how I know them, or how I know that they are dead.

More often than not, my days are spent in meditation. I close my eyes and touch my face, wondering what it looks like. Maybe in this face I will find the truth. Maybe I was not born. Maybe my human form is only an illusion. My soul aches for self-knowledge, for if I know anything it is that I have a soul.

My meditation is broken by a deep rumble. The room is shaken to its core, like it itself is a living being. The pillows are dashed from one side of the room to the other. Somehow, I am still. There is something stirring within me.

Instinctively, I turn my face up to the golden heavens. The celestial bodies move in full animation like a clockwork universe. I feel the greatest pain and ecstasy I have ever known as my body changes. My hands change to every color in the spectrum. I turn into something else.

As my body becomes vapor, I float to the surface towards a small opening looking out on to the real world’s night sky. Flashes overpower my brain. There are the earnest faces I have ruined. My deeds are set before me, but no amount of will can keep me from my destiny. I know now why I was sealed away.

I come up to a night sky alive with stars. The fresh air feels like cleansing. It is minutes before I notice the frightened olive skinned boy laying before me on the desert sand.

He looks at me with an eager face. The danger of me, the stories of my power intrigue him. No one ever believes it when people say that no good can come from me.

I smile at the boy. “I will grant you three wishes.”

Delectable

“It’s certainly a pretty one-sided deal,” said Leonard as he leaned back into his chair. “But what else would you expect? They’re bugs, not attorneys.”

The reporter nodded and scribbled a note in his pad. The dining table in the harvest facility’s executive lounge seated twelve, but only three seats were occupied, by the reporter and the company’s two harvester-team leaders.

In the middle of the table was a large wooden bowl of toasted honey-bugs. Tiny ant-like creatures, their sweetness was mingled with unparalleled flavor, and their shell yielded the perfect, lightly crispy crunch. But they were also incredibly rare, found only on the hostile surface of Khepri. All efforts to raise them elsewhere had failed, and per ounce they had become one of the galaxy’s most expensive delicacies, beyond even Earth-raised caviar.

“It’s a dangerous job you guys have,” said the reporter. “The death-rate here is incredibly high.”

“It was worse before the cutbacks,” said Leonard with a shrug. “We lost a team almost every month back then. But it’s been better recently, so the figures you have down might be a little high. Still, there have always been risky jobs, haven’t there? We get paid well for our work, and nobody comes here expecting an easy ride.”

That much was true. Everybody knew the job was hard and not without risks, though the loss of Alex’s team last month ago had still come as a shock. It had been a timely reminder to them all that even experienced harvesters could pay the price if they were careless. Rumor said a replacement team was inbound, but in the meantime, the remaining teams were reaping better harvests than ever.

“So why not use machines instead?”

“They tried,” said Leonard. “But the bugs don’t like the machines, and they don’t last long in this atmosphere anyway. No, the only way is with human feet on the ground. That’s why our product is so valuable.” He took a pinch of the lightly toasted honey-bugs and popped them into his mouth. They crunched between his teeth. “I admit it wouldn’t suit everyone. But for those with the stomach, it’s a way of life. I wouldn’t trade your boring job for mine in a month of Mondays.”

My Girl, Kumiho

25 February, 2007

The train was busy despite the late hour.

“Where are you from?”

I looked around as I always did when I heard my native tongue, though I didn’t know if it was directed toward me or not.

The carriage was full of drunken salarymen and preening teenagers. A few ajummas, older women in neon tracksuits, scoured the world with their eyes. I was on my way home from a party on the far side of Seoul, dazed from soju and beer cocktails. It took a few moments to realize who was talking. It was a Korean girl, early 20’s, who stared straight at me.

“Me?”

She had boarded at Seoul National University and hovered by the train doors, toying with her phone and glancing around cautiously. She was wearing large pink headphones that covered her ears completely, and had been bobbing her head to her music. I’d pretended not to look at her, but she caught me staring more than once.

“Yes, you.”

“England.” I tried to look nonchalant as I swayed.

“England? I thought you must have been American.”

“Everyone seems to think that.”

“You have a big nose.”

I stared at her. “Thanks.”

The train pulled into Sincheon. As I offered a farewell smile and stepped off the train, she whispered to me, “Only 315 days to go.” She flashed me a smile in return, showing off pointed teeth the color of pearls, and returned to her phone. The carriage doors shut and the train pulled away.

As I approached the turnstile to leave the station, I found my wallet was missing. Cursing my bad luck, I tried to explain what had happened to the subway worker at the turnstiles. He quickly grew frustrated with my miming and ushered me through the gate, complaining with jagged tones.

I walked home, bemused. Despite the pressing issue of my lost wallet, one thought returned to me time and time again; what was happening in 315 days?

Amsterdam’s Gods

Malachite, carrying her ailing father on her back, walked towards the city of Amsterdam over the ancient ringway. It had been ten years since she and Father had fled the ruins of their old life over this very road. She couldn’t remember anything about that journey.

“It’s easier to get into Amsterdam than out,” her father quoted the old adage in her ear, brandishing his stick in front of her eyes to underline the wisdom in his words.

The raised highway was blocked-in by ruined, overgrown edifices on both sides, so it was impossible to see where they were going. The old road was surprisingly passable for travelers on foot, but in spite of that few people were using it. Which suited Father, because he said the business of revenge flourished better without advertisement.

Malachite would have liked to speak to the other travelers, to get a feel for the city of their destination, but Father wanted speed and silence. She’d promised him she’d get him back to Amsterdam and to help him avenge her mother and her sisters. Malachite shifted Father’s fragile bones around to a more comfortable position on her back.

At the end of a day’s walking, there was seldom any comfort left. But at least she was seeing something of the world.

“We got out back then,” Malachite said, trying to fathom what the ruined castles lining the broken highway had once been used for. Forts, she guessed, to protect and oversee the great road. She had heard people could shoot from that far away those days, even without special divine powers.

“We did,” her father said. His hand clawed into her shoulder in a way that said, I don’t want to talk about it.

And he didn’t need to. Malachite had been ten years old when they’d left, wise enough to understand her mother and her sisters had died and that they had to flee from the god who had broken its promise. A guilty god was deadlier than an angry god.

Still, it felt uncomfortable to be out of the demesnes of Otte en Liet, the powerful gods of Rotterdam, after ten years of safety. She and her father carried small vials of river water for protection, in brittle but intact plastic bottles that had once been her sisters’, but in the end they’d be on their own. It would be just their wits to go up against Aterscha, the god that had betrayed them and caused their family to die.

The destruction of the known world hadn’t stopped Amsterdam being a home to many gods besides Aterscha, gods of all kinds, big and small, friendly and unfriendly. No other city was as god-rich, no other gods worked so hard to keep their promises and keep their many followers happy. No other cities had a god of fashion, a god of good hair and several gods of great shopping. Said Father.

“Are we going to get there before nightfall?” Malachite asked as she looked at the western sky. She didn’t want to be outside city walls at night, prey to the wild godlets that roamed the open countryside.

“It’s a big town, Mal. Bigger than what’s left of Rotterdam. Older and stronger and with more magic.”

Malachite shivered. She didn’t like magic, never had. She worked in the harbor with her strong back and her big hands. If she never had business with any god but friendly Otte it would be fine with her. Except for this: she still burned with anger for the god that had killed her family and forced them to leave their hometown. For revenge, she would follow her father’s crazy plans.

Father picked the off-ramps he wanted to use. They’d have to walk inwards on the spokes of the imaginary wheel that was Amsterdam.

“Otte and Liet gave us specific instructions,” Father said. “We’d better stick to them. Promises go both ways.”

Malachite knew. One of her best friends when she was little hadn’t delivered the pink hair ribbon she’d promised to the god Oopgoot in exchange for curing her sick bunny, and the girl had ended up hairy, pink-eyed and dead by Christmas.

“This one.”

Here the ancient road descended from the elevated highway and segued into a bridge across the river Amstel.

Two steps on the bridge, Malachite halted. “Shouldn’t we pay homage to the river god?”

She walked over to the parapet to offer some spit, but Father pulled her ear to stop her. “No. Feel it. This is a dead river. Some other god killed Amstel a long time ago, and no one’s managed to claim her territory yet.”

Malachite pushed forward through the muffled, dead air on the bridge. So different from the sparkling exhalations over Otte and Liet. “I’ve never heard of a dead god before.”

“She probably reneged on a promise and all her adorers left her,” Father said.

Malachite shrugged. She couldn’t feel pity for a god. With great power came a great sense of entitlement and whimsy.

At the end of the bridge, she slammed her nose against an invisible barrier. “Ow!”

“I should have looked up the bridge god,” Father said. “Sorry.”

“What tribute does it want?” Malachite said, rubbing her nose.

Father flipped through his precious notebook. He could read and write, something Malachite had never taken to. “Here it is. Mstel bridge, a few drops of blood.”

Guess who was going to offer them? Malachite wiped her bleeding nose and flipped a few drops on the crumbling tarmac. Then she offered a few more for Father.

“Mstel Bridge, can we cross?” Father asked loudly.

No answer came.

Father shrugged. “I guess we’re good.” A little gingerly they crossed the spot where Malachite had hit her nose, but nothing happened this time.

Father relaxed and ruffled her hair, which she hated. “See? We can do this.”

Lighter Than Claire

“We were scaly. We scurried through the undergrowth.”

Claire recalled a jagged light, exploding into brightness. “We hatched from eggs, we cracked our shells.”

“Do you remember flying? We swooped and soared.”

Claire saw it and felt it, but she didn’t understand.

“We flew before we ran. Were we birds once?”

Magda shook her head, not in denial but not knowing.

“Does a fish swim?”

“I suppose it does.”

“I don’t think so. We swim. But for a fish, the ocean is air. She flies on her silver fins.”


The crystal bell chimed. It wasn’t loud but it carried everywhere because the school was made of cardboard, and it had no windows or doors.

It was time for special studies class, and Claire and Magda sat in the front row because the teacher wasn’t like the others–he let them ask questions.

Claire remembered their first class, when he still shaved and didn’t fall asleep halfway through.


“I have no name but I have a rule. Numbers are not permitted in my classroom. Once you start with numbers and counting you never stop. You reach infinity before you know it.”

He took a piece of purple chalk from his pocket and wrote ‘Special Studies’ on the wall.

“This is class is about …”

He lit a cigarette. Even back then he was a heavy smoker.

“Well. It’s self-explanatory isn’t it?”

He contemplated the purple letters. “Perhaps it will explain itself tomorrow. Does anyone have a question?”

Magda put her hand up. “Sir, why doesn’t the school have windows? The rain comes in.”

“Glass is a sharp liquid. It would damage the walls.”

Claire was next. “Sir, why are the walls made of cardboard anyway?

“They’re metaphors.”

“Metaphors are just ideas. They’re not real.”

“Let’s not be too clever.”

Afterwards Claire understood that when he said that, it was a signal not to keep asking, but in the first class she didn’t know.

“Why not?”

“The more you know, the more you have to forget. What’s your name?”

“Claire.”

“Does anyone who isn’t Claire have a question?”

Eduardo raised his hand. “Sir, you’re different to the other teachers. They’re all ghost people and they never let us ask anything. You’re the first teacher who’s done that.”

He was startled, and he dropped his cigarette.

“The rule. You’ve forgotten the rule.” He shrugged. “I suppose you’ll get used to it soon enough.”

He picked up the cigarette stub and brushed it off. “The ghost people are just projections. They teach you what you already know. I’m the counterpoint, the antidote to all their pointless truth.”

Claire had a thousand questions on the tip of her tongue in that first lesson, but she wasn’t allowed to ask them.

Gills

I run my fingers tentatively over the rough outer edges, my face almost touching the mirror. Folding back semi-rigid slits, I examine the tender pink tissues penetrating both sides of my neck. No question about it: These are serious gills.

I first noticed them yesterday, on my day off. Shaken, I paced the floor for a couple hours before checking out Wikipedia. I learned that gills are a common feature of aquatic organisms. Fish have them. Some amphibians do. They extract oxygen from water and eliminate carbon dioxide. I suppose they could come in handy, like when you go swimming. Maybe it’s not the end of the world.

But why now? Thursday is the evening that Liz comes by the restaurant for the vegetarian omelette, washing it down with decaf coffee and leaving me a decent tip. I finally decided that today is the day I am going to ask her out, on a real date. How many times have I pictured myself cruising in her sleek silver BMW convertible, with the top down and the wind blowing through her gorgeous shoulder-length red hair.

And there’s this other problem: I’m a couple inches shorter than her and working on a beer gut. As for waiting tables at IHOP, I can explain that I have greater aspirations, that I earned a degree in hospitality management, after all. Maybe she can overlook the fact that I spend most of my spare time in my tiny man cave watching episodes of “Lost” over and over. And perhaps she won’t mind that I don’t have a stereo or a bar–just a second-hand couch, a flat screen, and a few old pictures, like the one of me at about age six standing in front of the Ferris wheel at the Santa Monica pier.

Yeah, Sal, you’re a real prize. And now you have gills on your neck.

I rub myself down with skin cream, cram two tubes of it into my pockets, and rummage through the bottom of my closet. I dig out a black turtleneck sweater, a gift from my ex-girlfriend. Not exactly my style, but it does cover most of my gills. I finish dressing, grab my keys, and head out.

I’m five blocks from home and already I’m running late for work. It seems like there’s a fender bender at every other intersection. What’s wrong with you people?

I jog from my Prius to the front door. Gabriella is filing her nails and barely looks up from the reception desk as I rush by to get my apron and name tag. My asshole boss Crusty still hasn’t fixed the ceiling fan over my section. I bet he disabled it to save a few pennies on his power bill.

I enter the kitchen and realize instantly that something is terribly wrong. It’s Charlie, the head cook. Charlie who is always making up silly songs about women’s anatomy as he flips pancakes and slaps bacon on the griddle. Charlie who is always grinning like he’s higher than a kite, even through double shifts amid the relentless glare of ceiling lights reflected by an ocean of stainless steel.

Charlie is staring straight ahead, eyes wide and mouth half open, scratching himself absentmindedly with his non-spatula-bearing hand. He doesn’t appear to realize that food is burning in front of him. Crusty is lurking several paces to my right, even more stooped than usual, his arms bent and waving erratically, his beady black eyes sweeping the kitchen from side to side before fixing on me.

“Where have you been? We’re down a person and you better get your ass out there right away–”

Hold on, Mr. Carlson, I want to say. It’s a Thursday evening in August in Cedar City, Utah, for God’s sake. There’s nobody here but the usual senior citizens who have been nursing java refills all afternoon, plus what looks like an unemployed guy pretending to read the help-wanted ads and a tourist trying to figure out why she brought the family to a ski resort during the summer. But I can’t get a word in.

Charlie signals me with his eyes. Two quick, furtive darts to his left, toward the food storage lockers beyond Crusty. I hazard a glance, but the boss scuttles sideways to block my view. A low moaning emerges from that direction. I look back at Charlie, nod my head slightly, hand him one of my tubes of skin cream, and retreat from the kitchen.

As I prepare to greet a couple of teen-agers on a cheap date, I silently curse the guidance counselor who steered me into this line of work. Mr. Denning, you made the fundamental mistake of assuming that I like people.

I avoid the kitchen as much as possible, hanging by the register when not waiting on tables.

Right on time, Liz arrives. She’s wearing a blue jacket and red blouse with pearls and a dark skirt. I bring Gabriella a box of candy every month, so she always seats Liz in my section. I guess everybody realizes that I’ve had a crush on Liz forever—everybody except Liz.

I try to avoid eye contact, but my God, just look at this woman. Tall, thin, with legs that go on forever. A slightly pointed chin, but intoxicating blue eyes and that spectacular hair brushing her face in just the right places. On top of that, she’s a successful real estate agent, well known and well heeled.

I pull myself together. “Welcome to IHOP. Can I start you off with a beverage?”

“Coffee, regular,” she states, not looking up from the menu. “And the bacon omelette.”

That throws me off. I mutter: “Regular, not decaf? And the bacon omelette, the one with six strips of bacon?”

“Yes. Any problem?”

“Uh, no, of course not. I’ll be right back with your coffee.”

What an idiot.

I slouch back into the kitchen. Charlie’s expression is even more grave. Crusty, leaning over a prostrate figure in the far corner, is covered in blood and making noises that I don’t even want to contemplate. I drop off Liz’s order, yank up my turtleneck collar, grab a pitcher of coffee, and take a deep breath.

Okay, Sal. You’ve rehearsed this a thousand times. Be relaxed, confident. Tell her that you’ve noticed her on Thursdays, that you think you have some things in common, that you’d like to get to know her.

Of course, I blow it.

Liz is scanning property listings. As I pour her coffee, I say without conscious premeditation: “I’m thinking of buying a house.”

She stares at me, hard, with more than a hint of amusement. I weigh the merits of bolting out the door and driving for days until I’m thousands of miles from anyplace where someone might know me or care that I have gills.

She opens her purse, withdraws a business card, scribbles on the back, and hands it to me.

“I’m usually up late,” she says.

Back by the register, I check out the writing. It sure looks like a residential address.

Somehow, Charlie produces an edible dinner for Liz. Somehow, I get through the rest of her meal without further screw-ups. She gives me a polite nod as she leaves.

Just an Expression

The job posting on the Newark Advocate’s website read, “Do you have an expressive face?” Beneath that single question was an inky little drawing, like a grayscale watercolor, of a man’s face. The only other text on the ad was an address.

The face from the ad had a kind of careless artistry about it, like it hadn’t taken much time or effort, but still hinted at a real mastery of proportion. More importantly, it was my face. It wasn’t a detailed drawing, just a smudge of a thing. But the angle of the nose, the jawline, the receding hairline, even the stippled hint of a five o’clock shadow were all mine. I’d seen them all in the bathroom mirror moments before opening my laptop.

It had been more than five months since I could reasonably call myself employed, so I was ready for a sign of hope from the universe. Hell, I would have settled for something vague. The faint s-curve of a dollar sign burned onto my toast. A fortune cookie promise of wealth. This wasn’t vague at all. It was right there on my computer screen in black and white. My face was on a help wanted ad.


My hands started shaking before I had finished running the iron over my interview shirt. I hated interviews. I also hated walking into a job without knowing a thing about it, but getting evicted was still the greater evil.


I did my best to think of witty small talk on my drive to the office park. I thought we could have a laugh at how much I looked like the little drawing.

“Looks like I’m you’re man,” I’d say.

“Ha, what a fun coincidence,” my soon-to-be boss would reply just before offering me a sizable signing bonus. Sure.

I found the address and parked. The office looked just like every other office in the complex, a brick façade with mirrored windows that showed nothing of the interior of the buildings. The door swung open just as I was getting out of my car. A young man with tidy blond hair and a charcoal gray suit stomped down the front steps scowling and muttering to himself.

He saw me heading toward the door and shook his head.

“I wouldn’t bother,” he said. He threw his arms up in exasperation and continued walking.

I decided to ignore him. After all, it wasn’t his picture in the ad and he didn’t seem like someone I would want to hire anyway.

Strange Eats at the Swan

You could say The Swan is a bit of an anachronism. Actually, you could say it’s a complete and utter, outlet-on-a-castle-wall-in-a-bad-movie anachronism. Maybe that’s what I like about it. It’s an honest to goodness, bad lighting and vinyl swivel stools diner. Has been since the forties. It used to be in good company on this street, but over time, all of the small independent shops ran to seed, and were bought up by this and that chain of cafes where coffee comes in a paper cup and cost three times what a coffee should. Hell, maybe It’s just my age, but I like it that at The Swan you still pay less than two bucks for a coffee that you can nurse well into the night without being bothered.

My coffee’s getting cold. I look at my watch. Have to squint to read the hands. Feels like an hour has passed since the last time I looked. Nope. Seven minutes. The waiting has become the hardest part.

The Swan is the kind of place where, in days gone by, blue-haired ladies would come on an afternoon to eat soggy-crusted pie and drink tea from those metal pots with hinged lids that would never close properly. A place where people would take a paper serviette from the metal stand on the table, unfold it and place it on their laps.

Whatever happened to all the blue-haired ladies? Nowadays they all take yoga classes and join book clubs. They drink decaf coffee and eat sugar free cookies. Lord above.

I have my usual table, a booth right next to the front window. The glass is late-night black and I see my shadowy, transparent self looking back at me. I want to put my hand out to see if it will go right through my reflection, but stop myself. I watch my face. Seems it’s been a while since I shaved. Can’t remember the last time. An all-night streetcar rumbles by, confusing the images. I look away.

The coffee tastes weak, but it does twice the job, caffeine-wise, of a coffee you get anywhere else. Another reason I like the place. And they serve it in those off-white cups and saucers with a band of off-white swans swimming around a robin’s egg blue rim. Robin’s egg blue. Not a color you hear of much anymore. Come to think of it, I don’t even remember the last time I saw a robin. Let alone a robin’s egg.

The middle-aged waitresses here are also from another time. Their uniforms are that color–since we’re on the topic of almost extinct colors–that used to be called mint: that pale, slightly sickly green that went out of fashion decades ago and for good reason. But I kind of like it. Here at any rate. It wouldn’t be the same if the waitresses were all eighteen and went around in tight black tee shirts and jeans. Wouldn’t be the same at all.

The clientele has changed over the years. And not for the better. They all look the same these days: the old and young, the rich and poor. And everyone looks so damned clean and fresh and healthy. Squeaky clean. Much as I hate to admit it, I’d love to see a kid with a hipster afro, or a foot-high punk mohawk hair-do walk in here. Hasn’t happened in ages.

I look down at my wrist again. Eleven minutes. That’s better. Though I’m starting to get that fluttery, colony of moths in my gut feeling. I’m sure they should have been here by now. But, as I know well enough, there’s no rushing these things.

I tap my cigarette pack on the table top. Used to be able to smoke in here. Not anymore. Not for a long time. The waitress is glaring at me from behind the counter. She’s already given my cigarettes a warning stare. Now she’s coming over, slowly, on white sneakers that squeak slightly on the linoleum floor; the kind of shoes you can only find in service uniform shops. She reminds me of an overworked nurse as she makes her way to my booth, holding out the coffee pot like it’s a bed pan she’s just changed. I feel sorry for her. I really do. She looks tired. But I can’t help fidgeting with the end of a cigarette, pulling it slowly out of the package. The damned thing is I don’t even smoke. Never have. But I like the way a pack of cigarettes feels in the hand. Just noticed that my hand’s shaking. More than usual.

She comes closer. Then out of nowhere, I get the taste in my mouth. God. Can’t even begin to describe it. And it’s a bit different with each person. Depends, I guess. Although I try not to, I find myself chewing. There’s nothing in my mouth but that taste. And as I chew, the image of two people appears, just behind the woman, grainy in a bad TV reception sort of a way. One’s the waitress. The other some guy. Their images sort of cling to her as she saunters through the diner; warping slightly each time she takes a corner. Damn. They aren’t always this strong, but she must have been musing on it today. Whether relishing or regretting, I’ve no way to know. Don’t much care, either.

“Refill?” she asks. I nod and put the cigarette back in the pack and push the pack away. She pours coffee that’s never quite hot enough into the cup. The swans keep swimming around and around. I swallow half the cup in one go. She walks away and I notice that one heel of her white sneakers is worn down more than the other one.

The bells over the front door jangle to life and my heart bounces into my throat. My hand rests on my throbbing neck as I turn to see who’s come in. I’m disappointed. And relieved.

A young couple bubbles through the door. They’re nuzzling each other and smiling like they just got away with a bank robbery. In spite of the hour, they still look annoyingly, artificially fresh. I’ll bet they go to a tanning salon. That’s probably where they met.

They approach the booth next to mine, then stop for an instant. Their faces change as they look over at me, then carry on to a booth further down the row. I don’t take offense at their not wanting to sit at the next table, I’m not looking too terribly fresh these days, but what I do take offense at is that they don’t look the least bit embarrassed by not wanting to. Can’t say I’m not used to it. And I can’t say I care. Really.