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Thursday, August 11, 2011

I Don’t Have Solomangarephobia



W
 hat? You aren’t going to sit at the bar?

She didn’t say that, but I could tell that’s what the host was thinking.  It’s part of the attitude attached to going into a restaurant without someone else to eat with. The truth is, it kind of sucks. I have always dismissed the notion that there is something wrong with dining alone – that there is a real cause for the irrational fear some people have. I realize it’s a common affliction and it appears to be more common in women than in men. But all types of people of both genders experience it. But I never have, although I think I am suddenly beginning to realize some of the root reasons for the desire for company. The need to avoid loneliness when tying on the feedbag. But that is not entirely why I’m telling you all this. I’m not here to unravel the mysteries of solomangarephobia -- that’s what it’s called by the way.

A solomangarephobic is someone who fears eating alone. I’m not one of those. In fact, I rather enjoy it to some degree. Not because my dining experience is enhanced by filling a lone chair at the table. No, it’s because I’m an observer. I’m the type of person that the solomangarephobic person is worried about – the ones who typically don’t appear in your dining room. They worry that people are looking at them. They worry that others think up all kinds of awful things about why they are alone. It’s a serious self-esteem issue, actually. Generally the other diners in the restaurant have no interest in the lonely eater across the room. They are interested in their company and mostly their own food. Still, the fear exists.

Back to the issue – I like to watch people. Perhaps it is the writer in me. I like to observe people’s actions, interactions and most of all listen to their dialogue. They tell me stories as I sit at my quiet table pretending to watch the golf game on the flat screen over the bar across the dining room. But actually I am carefully listening to their every murmur. And I like to glance at them just often enough to pick up the body language, to find out what these assholes are really talking about, despite their choice of words. Not that everyone is an asshole – but for our purposes here today and the story I was told while nibbling my salad and eating garlic bread, the term fits enough of the characters in play to justify the utterance.

So there I stood. Waiting. Not walking into the bar. Waiting. Waiting. The host finally approached, having given up on her wish that I would just grab a stool and order a beer and spare her the energy exertion necessary to do her job.

“Did you want a table or a booth?” she said.
“A table,” I said.
I had been to this place several times before and I knew the tables were right out in the open, in the middle of the room and the booths were all crammed along the walls. You can’t keep a good eye on the people around you from a booth. Always go for the table if the floor plan has this advantage. Sure enough, she led me to a table in the very middle of the restaurant. It was big enough to seat five, but she cleared off the silverware for the other four spots, leaving just one.
“Someone will be with you in one minute,” she said.
I was betting it’d be at least three to five.
I noticed the place setting left in its position would have me sitting with my back to the rest of the patrons. I would face an empty corner of the restaurant – a section that was not open during this slow weekday lunch shift.
“I don’t think so,” I mumbled to myself.
If anything, that would be my fear. I’ve never been able to sit comfortably in a room with my back to the majority of the people or the main way in or out of a room. There may be a name for that, too. But if there is I am not aware of it. Also, I have to be able to see the other people to observe, obviously.

So I slid the neatly napkin-wrapped silverware across the table and pulled out the chair on the other side and settled in with my menu, giving it a quick glance. When the waitress arrives, completely disinterested, about six minutes later she gave a half-hearted smile and said, “Know whatcha want?”
“Yep,” I said.
After a silence that was long enough to make her uneasy she spoke again.
“What can I get for you?”
What effort that must have taken.  Here’s Mr. Lonely, dressed like he just crawled out of bed. Ratty flip-flops, ripped khaki shorts and a plain tee shirt wrinkled enough to convince anyone it doubled for pajamas. He probably tips like shit, too.

“I just want the Garden Bar and a sweet tea, please,” I answered quickly.
What a relief. The Garden Bar is self-service. All she had to do was refill my tea occasionally. Suddenly Mr., Lonely is OK in her book. At least if he’s going to tip like shit all she won’t be doing much unnecessary work.
“OK, great. Help yourself. My name’s Tina if you need…” her words faded at the end because she had already turned and rushed back toward the bar area where what appeared to be her boyfriend was camped out on a stool downing pilsner glasses filled with Budweiser.

She returned within two minutes with my tea and a plate of garlic biscuit things that tasted surprisingly good. She plopped the plate of biscuits down on the table and one of them slid off the plate and onto the table. She quickly grabbed it with her hand and held it for a moment, staring at me as if to ask, “Should I put this back on the plate.”

I was as curious as she was about the predicament, so I didn’t lend any advice. Hesitantly she decided to put the dropped biscuit back on her own tray and take it to the garbage. Nice call. Tina’s a pro.

I got up, went to the Garden Bar and built my lunch. Mixed baby greens, red onions, garbanzos, eggs, Parmesan, mushrooms, bacon and rye croutons with a little bleu cheese dressing. I also got a side of pasta salad from the bar and some fruit. My meal was all set. I returned to the table and started looking around at my fellow diners. It was a slow lunch, as I mentioned before. I really only had two parties within earshot to listen to and watch. A woman of about 60, her 30-something daughter and a newborn baby were at one table. Aside from myself they were the only ones in the dining room when I had arrived. Since returning from the Garden Bar, the reluctant host had been forced into action once again. She was leading a party of three to a close by table just one booth down from the two women and the newborn. When I saw two of the three members of the party, roll their eyes upon noticing they were seated near a baby I knew these were the ones to watch.

In fact, the other table provided little more than smiles for me. The baby would laugh and make a big, toothless grin and the apparent mother and grandmother would smile – and that made me smile too. But they didn’t talk much aside from baby talk with the little one. Since the baby talk was probably irritating the party of three, I was fine with it despite the fact that I usually avoid nonsensical babble with children. I talk to them in plain English as if they understand, even when they don’t. It tends to make them understand sooner. It worked with my own child anyway. I reserve the foolishness for funny faces. They like that.

The party of three was made up of one female and two males. The two males appeared to be friends based on their comfortable back-and-forth banter with one another. The girl was the apparent girlfriend of one of the males – the big muscle-bound male with the Easton cap and sunglasses on the back of his neck like Guy Fieri. (For the cultured, Guy is a chef, author and the owner of Johnny Garlic’s and Tex Wasabi’s in Santa Rosa, California, which I have unfortunately not made it to just yet. For the rest of you, he is the annoying host of “Minute to Win It” – a prime time network game show you’ve probably seen more than once.)

The bulky boyfriend, we’ll call him Johnny Garlic, was decked out in a tee shirt that looked at first glance to be a Hollister appliqué style garment. But it was covered in phrases half-hidden by the booth about Jesus and something about celebrating a… turd? It couldn’t say celebrating a turd, but it sure looked like it. Maybe if he didn’t roll his sleeves up to reveal the maximum surface area of his “guns” then I’d know what I was reading. Johnny had muscles, and he was apparently proud of them. Of course I felt lucky to even have a shirt that I could try to read. The sunlight from the nearby window made it obvious that he could have come in sans tee with nothing but the wife-beater he wore beneath it.

Across the table sits his buddy. We’ll call him Working Class Horndog. Just looking at him in his black “Let Go Drinking and Do Something We’ll Regret” tee shirt that featured two stick figures having doggy-style sex and barfing at the same time made me reminisce about the days of the Working Class Dog. Rick Springfield’s 1981 album featuring “Jesse’s Girl.” This song would most definitely connect with the guy’s emotions, although he may not be familiar with the tune since he was likely born a few years after it left the charts. I may not be able to tell a person’s life story by watching and listening to them as I eat my lunch across the room, but I can say for sure that this guy wanted to nail his buddy’s girlfriend so bad he could taste it. And she’d probably be better off with Horndog. He seemed the smarter of the two at least – although smarter in this case probably means the difference in Ds and Fs in high school biology.

The girl, who we’ll call Spandex, is an above average looking, mid-twenties girl with brown curly hair tucked under a cycling cap, spandex ankle-length pants and three layered shirts on in the middle of August. Some people may immediately point out her long beak, but I have never been one who thought big noses were unattractive, so I thought she was cute enough. And although she tried hard to hide her body, it was in pretty good shape from what I could tell. So I could see Horndog’s attraction without knowing more about her. And even if she had been unattractive physically, Horndog seemed like the kind of dude evolved enough to see inner beauty in a girl. At least this one in particular. And more importantly I could see Johnny Garlic’s forgetfulness. He had long since forgotten that his girl was pretty nice looking and appeared to be happy and healthy. A meathead like Johnny could do much worse but unfortunately never has to.

Horndog laughed incessantly at everything Spandex said, and Johnny just gulped his beer and ate all four biscuits before anyone else could try one. You could see it in his eyes that Horndog had fallen in love with Johnny’s girl. And I couldn’t help but wonder if Johnny wasn’t wise to it. Johnny acted completely unaware of the situation, but might the biscuit gobbling have been less about greed and more about spite.
“Fuck these two,” he might have been thinking. “I know something’s going on, and when I find out for sure I’m going to bury this sonofabitch in a shallow grave somewhere. Fuck ‘em. I’m eatin’ all these goddamn biscuits.”

Poor Horndog. He might be dead already.

And the reason I thought this might be a possibility is because of the actions of Spandex. She was soaking it up – a bright, happy smile on her face. She rarely looked at Johnny and she kept her eyes locked on Horndog almost all the time, even when she was chewing her food. And no one does that.

At this point I had all but decided I must have read the signals wrong. Maybe I had been sidetracked by the deliciousness of shredded bacon, cold garbanzo beans and chunky bleu. It could happen. Maybe Johnny was just Spandex’s brother, and Johnny is trying to set his buddy Horndog up with his sister. That makes sense. It has to be that. Of course. And then…

“Can you let me out, babe,” she said to Johnny. “I need to go to the restroom.”

He wasn’t thrilled about having to get up, but he did. Spandex gave him a gentle scratch on the back as she got up and pecked him on the cheek. I could see the sorrow in Horndog’s eyes.

“You lucky, dumbass,” he must be thinking.

Then I got more confirmation as the two sat in somewhat of a silent stare-down for the majority of the time Spandex was gone. When she returned, the table went back to its regular light mood. Spandex was Johnny’s girl. Oh hell yes. Johnny knew. I was sure of it. This was better than Young and the Restless. And Horndog didn’t stop as he continued to compliment and chat up Spandex while ignoring Johnny.

Tina walked by me and paused long enough to slosh some tea into my half-empty glass and spill almost as much across the table without so much as a glance. She was headed to the table where the people had ordered three meals and promised a bigger tip. The leper colony that had become my table was not a major issue in her life at this point.

Tina put on a big, fake smile and approached Johnny, who suddenly came to life. I hadn’t mentioned it before but Tina was a looker too. Perhaps even a more attractive lady than Spandex. Her sandy brown hair was pulled up into a mess of curls on top of her head, exposing a long, slender white neck atop a body that a person like Johnny Garlic might say was “tight,”

And Tina was into Johnny too, for the apparent same reasons that Spandex had once fallen for him. Even with her boyfriend getting drunker by the sip nearby at the bar, Tina flirted obviously but carefully because of the presence of his main squeeze sitting inches away. When Spandex caught on and spoke up, trying to end the flirting and get on with the server-related talk, Johnny was quick to react.

Just as Spandex asked something about the menu, Johnny spoke up.

“You are just saying the stupidest stuff today,” he said and shrugged her to her side of the booth. The uncomfortable silence for a moment was filled with all types of emotion that hung in the air, thick like cigarette smoke in a low-ceiling bar. Spandex was embarrassed and ducked her head silently. Johnny was feeling like a “real man” and Tina was feeling a bit empowered as if she had ordered the beheading of Medusa and watched the deed carried out before her eyes. Meanwhile, Horndog felt rage and with fewer witnesses and bigger balls he would have cleared the table in a single lunge and ripped Johnny’s tongue right out of his mouth and eaten it. Instead he just looked away and ignored it. And now Spandex was feeling embarrassed, disappointed and angry most likely.

Personally, I was simply feeling romaine, baby spinach, lollo Rosa and radicchio slide easily down my throat chased by ice-cold tea.

Johnny’s chest appeared to swell even more than it already was. His muscles flexed and his “tribal” tattoos poked out from inside the rolled sleeves. Tattoos that seemed cool to girls like Tina despite the fact that he looked more like a farmhand straight from the seat of a John Deere than a Maori warrior headed into battle. Tina was getting fidgety. I half expected them to embrace on the spot. But they did not. Tina looked deeply into Johnny’s eyes and said, “I’ll check back in a few.”

The party of three sat quietly and did not talk much. What little that was said seemed to be mostly small talk and Horndog’s attempts to make Spandex feel better without calling out Johnny, who would certainly pound him into mush later in the evening at the first sign of mutiny.

As I finished off my salad, Tina quickly came around and asked if I wanted more tea. I said no. She didn’t ask if I wanted dessert. How could I? Lonely jackass with no one to have a simple lunch with. Probably needs to get in better shape to attract a mate or at least get a friend. He doesn’t need dessert. I won’t even ask him. It’ll be my good deed of the day, to help him resist temptation to eat his grief away. And it’s not like he’ll figure the up sale into the tip anyway.

The truth is I didn’t want any dessert, but I was bothered that she didn’t ask. Isn’t that part of the job? Or is this just residual bullshit from my days as a restaurant manager?  Regardless, I didn’t like it.

I also noticed that the first party – the two women and the baby – were getting up to leave. Tina had earlier slipped them a check inside one of those black leather booklets you always see in sit-down restaurants. They left the money discreetly in it, an edge poking out the top. Tina picked it up, retrieved change and brought it back to them in the black leather booklet.

After asking me about more tea and my refusing, Tina quickly jogged over to the POS system, today’s replacement for cash registers in many restaurants, printed out a ticket and walked by my table and dropped it without stopping.

“There you go.”

There was no black leather booklet to discreetly put my cash or credit card in. Instead there was only a curled slip of paper from near the end of the roll. It rocked back and forth in the breeze caused by the fans above. As it rocked one way I could read the total. I reached in my pocket, grabbed a $20 bill and tossed it beside the ticket. Tina eventually came back by without speaking and picked it all up. A few minutes later she came back with change and another, “There you go.”

I tipped approximately 24 percent, took one last sip from the mixture of sweet tea and melted ice and got up. I walked past the party of three on my way to the door, catching Horndog’s eyes.

“Have a good one,” I mumbled to him, nodding. But I knew all along there was not a good evening in store today. He’d either end up losing his girl, his friend or both; or possibly wind up in a hospital after a fierce beating from the man who was celebrating a turd. He nodded back in a very friendly way that spoke to me. As if he were looking for a new friend already. But it wasn’t going to be me. Not this time, Working Class Horndog.

I slipped out the door without so much as a “Thank you and come again.” I got in my car and drove home – alone and no longer hungry.

 -LM
(August 2011)







Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Dinner Plans

 Dinner Plans
 (2004)


FOREWORD: Just before moving to Hawaii in the summer of 2004 while working at a newspaper in Dickson, Tennessee I was writing the first short stories I'd written since I'd published the collection three years earlier. This particular one was a modern day tale in the Southern Gothic style inspired by a lot of Flannery O'Connor I'd been reading at the time. I wasn't sure if I was cut out for the style, but it has turned out to be one of the stories that I get compliments on most often. I have since considered writing an entire book of short stories based around Eli, Davey and their respective friends and families. It has not taken root just yet. But I still feel like there is a very dark world yet to be explored here. 

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“I reckon we can kill the sumbitch,” Eli said as he wiped the sweat from his forehead 
and pulled the pouch of Red Man Plug out of his back jeans pocket. 
“That’s just going to give us more problems,” Dave replied, not wanting to admit Eli 
was on to something. 

The two men stood over the limp body of a middle-aged man in the middle of a hay 
field. It was noon, and that meant just plain uncomfortable and buggy when it comes to 
July in Hohenwald, Tennessee. Nobody wanted to be there – least of all the man on the 
ground – and whatever was going to come of this situation needed to come and come 
quick. 

It was just too damned hot for fightin’ or fuckin’ – let alone killin’. 
Sweat ran down Eli’s back and between the stench of his body, the smell of the tobacco 
in his slobbery mouth, and the lingering fumes of some god awful wine on the 
unconscious man’s breath, Dave was just about set to vomit. Or maybe it was just the nerves. His stomach always got all fucked up when the shit 
was going down. 

It had been that very same way back in October when he and Eli had snatched the cash 
from that convenience store out on Highway 412. The cops had caught on quick and 
although they got away, Eli was left with severe cramping in the abdominal area for 
nearly a week. 

“Wondering if you’ll get caught is worse than getting caught,” Dave had said a few 
days later. 

But now those cramps were returning, and whatever they were going to do had to be 
done soon so the healing could begin. 

Honestly, Dave didn’t give two shits whether this heap on the ground was living or 
dead, and in his experience the deader the better. They tell no tales, according to some 
pirate on a ride at Walt Disney World he had seen as a kid – back before Dave had 
drowned both his parents in their own swimming pool when he was just 11 years old and 
made it look like a drunken accident. 

His parents being drunk was NOT an abnormal occurrence, so when he decided to get 
them out of his hair – it was actually quite easy. But that’s another story. 

Now he had stomach pain, a body to deal with and a partner in crime so dumb that he’d 
often been said to be pictured next to the Webster’s Dictionary entry for the word 
‘ignorant.’ 

“I’d just as soon set the fucker on fire right here and be done with it,” Eli said with a 
grin. “Get back to the house in time to see Fear Factor.” 

Dave just sighed. 

“Jesus, Eli,” he said. “That wouldn’t be very inconspicuous would it? I ain’t going to 
jail for this pile of shit.” 

“Nobody’d see smoke,” Eli said. “Put some of that powder on ‘eem. No trace in a week 
or two. Won’t even be buzzards around much.” 

Dave gave the body of the man a swift kick and paced around it a time or two, noticing 
for the first time that the man was wearing glasses. The kick didn’t wake the man, but he 
did groan and begin to move slightly. Dave stomped on his skull hard – twice – and he 
went silent and limp again. 

“You notice that before?” Dave asked, looking at Eli. 

“What?” 

“That he was wearing glasses?” 

“Yep,” Eli said. “I seen it.” 

Dave just grinned as he ran through all the times in his head that he could remember 
hearing someone say on television, ‘You wouldn’t hit a guy with glasses would you?’ 
Having given it some more thought, Dave knelt down, sat the man up into an upright 
position, hauled off and punched the bastard right in the nose, popping the glasses in half. 
They fell to the ground. 

“Wouldn’t hit a man with glasses, would you?” Dave said in a mocking whiny voice. 

“Yeah!” Eli cheered. “Fuck this fucker.” 

After a few more paces around the body of the seemingly lifeless, but breathing man, 
Dave had come to a decision, and his stomach had began to churn. 

“Okay,” Dave said in with a certain amount of finality. “Alright!” 

Eli began moving from foot to foot quickly like a housedog excited about getting to go 
outside to take a leak. 

“What’s the deal, Davey,” he said. “What do you think?” 

After a long pause, Dave spoke. 

“Do the deed, Eli,” he said. “Take care of the business and then we’ll kill him.” 

Eli, moving even more quickly. Excited. “You got it, man,” he said. “Shit yeah.” 

Eli reached down into the man’s back pocket and pulled out a large leather wallet and 
began going through its contents. 

After a moment Eli came up with a driver’s license from the state of Louisiana that read 
Frank Owen Cash and a wad of various denominations of cash. The total – about eighty 
dollars. 

“Frank Cash,” Eli said laughing out loud. “That’s a good name for this one I’d say.” 
Eli took out a lighter and melted down the driver’s license and handed the wad of 
money to Dave, who snatched it from his fingers. 

“Eighty-six dollars,” Dave said with a small grin. “That’ll get us by for a day or two. 
It’s about time to go somewhere else.” 

Dave took one last look at the beaten up man and turned away toward a distant highway 
across the field where a sedan sat abandoned on the shoulder of the road with a brick 
lying in the driver’s seat and a window broken out. 

“Hope that thing gets good mileage,” Dave said and looked back over his shoulder at 
Eli. “Fuck it. Set him on fire if you want. But do it now and let’s get going. I could use 
some Waffle House and it’s hotter than three hells out here.” 

Eli took off running, arms flailing, over a nearby hill to a blue truck sitting on a dirt 
road out of sight of pretty much everything on the planet. He produced a can of gasoline 
from the bed of the pickup and ran back to the man who had just begun squirming again. 
Dave was already to the car and he cleaned the glass out of the seat and pitched the 
brick onto the side of the road. 

As he started the engine he saw Eli splashing the clear liquid all over the man, who had 
apparently been somewhat awakened by the strong smell and a general sense of what was 
about to happen to him. 

Dave put it in drive and headed east on the highway toward the nearest Waffle House 
he could think of. It would take about an hour to get there and he figured Eli would know 
which one to come to. 

A ‘whoosh’ in the rearview mirror and a barely visible glimpse of rising flames and 
barely audible shriek of a man about to die made Dave’s stomach sting just a bit, but 
thinking of his dinner plans would help. 

Yep. 

That old blue clunker would come rolling up into the parking lot just as the sun was 
about to set. 

Dave always loved to be at his favorite Waffle House when the sun was setting. It was 
located up on a hill and everything just looked so friggin’ pretty from up there. And no 
matter how hot it was outside, Waffle House always had the AC cranked up. 
Good food, good view and a little climate control are just about all Dave ever needed 
these days. 

Life was good, and that long drive over to the restaurant was usually enough to settle 
his stomach enough to handle a fiesta cheese steak sandwich and some loaded up hash 
browns – no matter what had just gone down. 

‘How lucky can one man be?’ Dave thought to himself and he turned on the radio to 
find that the burning man’s preset was on the exact station he liked to listen to. 
‘Hell of a guy,’ he thought as the car rolled down the rural highway and disappeared 
over a hill headed to Columbia – home of one good fucking Waffle House. 

Undefeated

Undefeated
(May 2011)

FOREWORD: One of my latest shorts, "Undefeated" is a piece of flash fiction that deals with a risk taker who remains nameless. It deals with a form of mental illness that I'm not sure has been discovered, but I have often thought I had. Gambling is a compulsive behavior that can have major negative circumstances, but what does it mean when you are the bettor and the house? What possesses a man to follow through when he loses to himself? This story is about a man who does just that. It is one of the few stories I've ever finished, re-read and then had a simple one-word response, "Jesus."

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Sometimes gambling is better left to those who know what they can afford to lose. It’s a rush, though. I’ve learned that betting on something can make the experience of watching the events unfold so much more thrilling than they could possibly be otherwise. Sports and games of chance are a natural for the gambling crowd. I’ve sat and watched a basketball game and felt a jolt of adrenaline with every drained three-point shot and missed free throw, counting the seconds down in a game that I would typically not care about whatsoever. In fact, I hate basketball. It’s the worst game I can think of. Dreadfully boring. But when there are a few bills riding on the outcome, you can be certain it is anything but dull.

But it was later that I recall betting with myself for the first time. It started out simple. If I can finish this three-mile run I’ll let myself have a piece of that cake mom made. It’s a challenge to yourself to get something done. And there is nothing wrong with that. But what about when it veers off into a place where the task you’re challenging yourself to do is no longer a good thing with a positive consequence if you succeed? It turns from an “If you can…” into an “If you don’t…”

If you don’t finish this three-mile run in the next 15 minutes you don’t get to watch the game tonight. Silly – yes. But still harmless. Then you take another step. Make it more senseless and less pleasant, and then wonder why you do it and why you always follow through with the consequences. If you can’t hold your breath until you get all the way to the top of the third flight of stairs, you have to slam your fingers in the door of the apartment. Why? Just to have action? With yourself? This is how I began playing the game “I Bet Me.” I still have a disfigured finger from not being able to hold my breath to the top of the steps. My strategy was flawed. I should have walked up gently, using less oxygen instead of trying to sprint. But I have a bad habit of just going for it.

When I accidentally gasped for breath with four steps to go I immediately unlocked my apartment door, inserted my left hand and slammed it. I broke four bones in my hand – one for every step I came up short. And when I found that out in the x-ray room, I laughed, thinking it made sense. You win some. You lose some. 

Perhaps this should have broken my habit, but the incidents became more common and more reckless. I was addicted to it. Not the winning. There was no reward for completing the challenges, really. I was hooked deep on the rush I felt when I almost blew it and pulled off the task just in time before the harsh consequences got me. Rolling down the interstate in my convertible with the top down I recall betting myself that I couldn’t keep my eyes closed while driving for 20 seconds in heavy traffic. At 19 seconds I heard a horn blast and I fought off the urge to open my eyes for one more second. When I did, I had just enough time to slam on my brakes and avoid rear-ending the 18-wheeler that was slowing in front of me. He was laying down on his horn trying to warn me to slow down as he saw me approaching at 70 miles per hour in his mirrors. But if I had given in, I would have had to put out my cigarette on my tongue.

So began the long string of dangerous car bets I made with myself and the equally long string of close calls that I continued to win. I became convinced that I couldn’t lose. And I never did – not really. I managed to avoid cutting my own wrist open with a circular saw once by letting go of the steering wheel for 60 seconds. I avoided pulling out a toenail with pliers by making it to the next overpass before the end of the Metallica song that was on the radio. Oh yes. Racing to a landmark on the horizon was a favorite bet of mine. And I always made it. Sometimes with mere milliseconds to spare.

Now this. The clock read 4:27pm on the car’s radio.

“See that oak tree at the top of the next hill?”
“Yeah. With the mailbox next to it?”
“That’s the one. How far you think that is?”
“Maybe a mile?”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought too.”
“What about it?”
“I think I can make it from right here, past that tree before the clock hits 4:28”
“But how long ago did it turn to 4:27?”
“I dunno. That’s the fun of it. If I don’t make it – I’ll plow head-on into the tree.”
“That’s a big tree.”
“Killer big tree.”
“Go for it.”

And I stepped on the gas. To the floor. As quickly as I could make it through the low gears and get into the top end, I did. It was beautiful. I didn’t know if there were 50 seconds left before the clock turned or if there were less than 3. And I didn’t plan to look until decision time, whether to stay the course or veer into that big sonofabitch and wrap this machine around it in a bloody fireball. This was the big bet. Fuck it.

At the halfway mark I couldn’t resist. I had to glance. Yes! The clock still read 4:27. With 3600 rpm reading on the tach, the car was kicking up a dust trail on this paved country road. The tree was so close now I cold read the house number on the mailbox next to it. 1162. I glanced at the clock knowing that if it read 4:28 I would jerk the wheel right and if it read 4:27 that I was going to make it. At the last moment, I looked…

Still undefeated. 4:27… blink. 4:28 – just as the tree whipped by in my peripheral vision. Heart racing and beads of sweat streaking back into my hair off my forehead from the wind through the windows I let out a scream. Pure joy. And when my scream stopped I could hear another scream in the distance.

I hadn’t even heard the thump, as I was moving in excess of 130 miles per hour and the roar of the wind was deafening. But in the rearview I saw the tumbling carcass of what appeared to be a small child. A woman, presumably the child’s mother, standing on the side of the road, dropping to her knees in agony I felt my head begin to pound, the sweat begin to pour more profusely and my heart race even faster than it had already been.

I slammed on the brakes and cut the wheel in a loud screech. The car came to an abrupt halt and I could hear the woman howl even louder now. And I saw her trying to pick herself up and move toward the disfigured youngster in the middle of the road. I could see a river of crimson slowly rolling across the dusty pavement from the child’s body. Then I locked eyes with the woman as she glared at me and tried to get to her feet.

I paused, not knowing what to do for a moment. Then, as I rolled the car slowly back into the direction of the woman and child, I shifted the car down into first gear and revved the engine.

“I bet if I can run this woman down before anyone else notices, I’ll get away with this.”
“Go for it.”
I slammed the pedal to the floor and worked my way through the gears with a fury… still undefeated.

Little Sunken Place

Little Sunken Place 
(Billy’s Last Stand) 
 (1995)

FOREWORD: Little Sunken Place was the first short story I ever wrote as far as I'm concerned. There were other attempts previously (Codename: Spitfire was a big hit back in 5th Grade), but this was the first one that was a product of me trying to be "serious" about my craft. It's rough, it has some problems, but I have always thought it was okay. It branches from actual experience, believe it or not, and I think it represents the mindset of the particular group of teenage boys I called friends between 1988 and 1991. The story is fiction -- thank God. But let's just say that this is how I always saw it ending up if we hadn't known when to quit. Thank goodness for those serious injuries junior year, guys. Another year and someone would have ended up like Billy Parker.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


Nash had chocolate milk in his canteen. I remember that most of all. 
The night was as cool as a cucumber, but judging by the way he was 
sucking down that milk, you would’ve thought that it was the dead of 
summer. 
It was actually a real bitch the way the moon was setting high and 
full, pissing it’s light down on us like a deer in a spotlight, but at least the 
wind was stirring a bit. That gave us a little more cover. 
We had been fighting these wars since we were in the fifth grade, and 
they had gradually grown more serious. It seemed the older we got, the 
stupider. Not saying that it wasn’t a good time, at least up until now, but 
it got downright dangerous – and this particular night I’m about to 
describe will let you in on something that I haven’t spoken a word about 
since it happened. 
The story of Billy Parker is my childhood’s darkest secret. 


As I mentioned before, the moon was full and bright and there was a 
mild wind shaking up the trees. Shooting fireworks had become an art 
and a science for most of us, with the exception of the handful of rookies 
who were unfortunate enough to make their debut in the seven-year 
grudge match on this night. 
You see, I originally invented the idea of an elaborate war saga 
between two groups of otherwise friendly people to take place as an 
alternative to a normal, boring birthday party in 1985. 
The idea, at the time, was to split up, hide in the woods that joined 
our property, and shoot water guns, rubber darts and such at one 
another. Well, it did happen that way and it was extremely popular with 
my friends. However, age, time and the development of major 
testosterone led to the need for an aspect of danger – fireworks would do 
just fine, thanks. 
It began with bottle rockets and ladyfingers, but as time passed, 
roman candles and large rockets (a.k.a. Chinese Fuck Bombs) entered the 
picture. On more than one occasion such arsenals threatened lives. 
I remember pulling a buddy from his tent, which was engulfed in 
flames, just before his gear bag containing a small fortune in fireworks 
exploded. Looking back, I’m sure he would have died – it got crazier and 
crazier – that brings me back up to this story… Nash had chocolate milk. 


He offered me a drink, but the thought of warm milk made my 
stomach turn. 
My division was laying low about two hundred yards behind the front 
line. Weaver’s crew was pulling up the rear about three hundred more 
yards behind us. 
We were only equipped with two headsets, and I chose to keep one 
in my division and give one to back-up. The only problem was that I had 
to relay messages by foot up to the front line. Maybe that’s why Nash 
was drinking so much… I guess the poor fella was hot and tired. 
“Go, Junior,” I said to Nash. “Send word to Heath that the front line 
is to remain in position until otherwise notified.” 
“He’s gonna bitch,” Nash said. 
“I don’t care. If it wasn’t this it would be something else,” I 
motioned with my index finger toward the west. “Go. And hurry back.” 
Our voices were held to a whisper and inter-division communications 
were difficult. We knew that very much motion would give our position 
away. For all we knew, the other side had already seen us maneuvering 
toward their camp. 
Nash scurried off trying his best to stay quiet in the leaves. His best 
cover was in the shadows of the wind blown tree limbs – they made 
movement nearly undetectable from the top of the cliff, which hung over 
us at two hundred feet. It was a great position to have, and I was afraid 
they had it now. 
Lying next to me in silence was Ace. He was my most trusted 
companion on the battlefield. He rarely made noticeable mistakes and 
was always prepared with an arsenal of roman candles that nobody could 
match. 
I liked him to watch my back when the shit got thick; I was always 
busy trying to keep everyone else together with purpose, and I often 
forgot that they were aiming for me too. 
“What a night,” I said, checking my launcher for damage. “Those 
guys seem to be one step ahead of us every time.” 
Ace nodded. 
“Might be up there now,” he mumbled, tilting his head toward the 
cliff. 
“Yeah,” I said. “And they’d be damn fools not to be.” 
Ace nodded again. 
“Remember who we’re talking about though,” he said. 
A smile broke across his lips and we both chuckled a little. I, 
however, couldn’t help but worry a little that they had the high ground 
on us – damn fools or not! 
“You thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’?” Ace said. 
“What do you mean?” I was puzzled. “Thinkin’ what?” 
“Three guys could clean our clock from up there,” said. “Blue Pearl 
Candles won’t burn off in that distance. In thirty seconds we could be 
sittin’ smack in the middle of a pool of fire; And remember, they don’t 
follow the forest fire time out rule anymore.” 
This time I nodded. One tenth of their team could endanger my entire 
division from up there. We had to move soon. 


Nash returned in a few minutes with one bit of good news and two 
bits of bad news. The good news was that the scouts that Heath assigned 
in the front line had come up empty. No trace of anybody between here 
and the enemy base camp, less than one mile ahead.  
The bad news was, if they weren’t there – they could be on top of us. 
And the other bad news, Nash was out of chocolate milk. 
“Heath recommends we move in immediately,” Nash said. 
“Well,” I replied. “For once, I actually in total agreement… Radio the 
back up unit and tell Weaver that we’re moving west – fast and low.” 
“Good ole Heath,” Ace said with a grin. “What would we do without 
him?” 
“Probably win more battles,” I said. 
We both laughed a little too loud. 


We did move west, and amazingly there had been no one on the cliff. 
At least no one fired. 
I instructed my group to load full. That usually meant packing the 
launchers with about a half gross of bottle rockets and two or more 
roman candles – enough to burn down a good size house in minutes. 
The front line stopped about one hundred yards or so east of the 
camp. We had moved in about fifty yards behind them, and back up was 
still on the move from the rear. There was no sign of enemy troops and 
that didn’t make me feel any less nervous about this operation. 
If anything pissed off people in our little wars, it was having 
equipment or ammo destroyed. It had been ruled illegal in the past, but 
the last two events of the series had ratified that law. 
We intended to do just that – destroy everything we could, but only if 
we were fighting face to face. I saw no reason to hit their camp if no one 
was at home. 
Sure, they had done it to us in the past, but we were supposed to be 
the good guys. 
However, I did see reason in sending in a scout to check out any 
ammo left behind. You must realize that many hundreds of dollars were  
spent on ammunition for these battles in the latter years, and it was often 
impossible to carry it all with you. 
I sent in Ace who knew as much about fireworks capability as 
anyone, and Billy Parker, from Heath’s division, to investigate. We could 
all see their actions from safe hiding places in the forest, but the wide- 
open camp area gave little or no shelter to them if all Hell broke loose. 
Billy unzipped a tent and went inside looking for any trace of the 
enemy’s firepower. Ace went through a pile of gear bags near the 
campfire and hurried back to report. 
“Holy shit, this is going to be great,” he said. “All American, man!” 
“What do you mean?” I asked. “You mean American – brand name?” 
Ace nodded and grinned from ear to ear. 
“Not a friggin Blue Pearl in the whole pile,” he said. “They’re usin’ 
cheap shit, and nothing more than eight shots!” 
“What about rockets?” Heath said, taking a drag off of a cigarette. 
“Moon Traveler?” 
Ace grinned again. 
“Nope,” he said. “Black Cat! Hell, I hope they catch us here!” 
Billy was still digging around in the tents. He had either found 
something significant, or he was trying his best to find something. 
“Go back and get Billy,” I said. “He’s probably not going to find 
anything in the tents. You know how we all are about sleeping with 
ammo.” 
Ace nodded, it was becoming a trademark of his. He walked back 
toward the camp. 
“Hey,” I called to Ace. “How about CFBs?” 
“Negative in the Fuck Bomb category, General,” he said smiling. 
I could not believe they were so unprepared for battle. It was illogical 
that they would risk losing all large artillery in the field without a big stash 
back at home. 
“I got a bad feeling about this,” Nash said from behind me. 
“IN THE FUCKIN’ TREES!” Someone shouted from up front. 
A deep wooooosh sound came from above and sparks and flame 
showered down on our divisions. Within seconds I saw the ground 
erupting in flames all around me. Some of the guys had begun firing, but 
many were just trying to put out the flames that were creeping up their 
arms and necks. 
“POSITIVE ON THE CFBs, ACE!” Heath shouted angrily. 
Explosions sounded one after another and what was a dark and silent 
landscape had turned into Hell right before my eyes. Smoke was thick in 
our throats and sparks were burning our eyes. We were near non- 
functional status. 
The area was now so brightly lit that I could have read this page at 
ten paces easily, if I’d had the time – even in the dense smoke that had 
immediately blacked all of our faces and hands. 
I saw Ace retreating from the open area toward my position. He had 
left his launcher in the weeds near the edge of the clearing. Soon, though, 
he had it up and firing those blue fiery spheres he loved so much. The 
only problem was, he was out of range by twenty yards or so. 
The enemy troops were approaching by using long-range rockets to 
keep us pinned down. They were the kind of rockets that would likely 
break bones with a direct hit, so nobody was trying to run. Luckily, we 
were far enough away to see their general direction of flight. 
Billy Parker was still in the tent, though. I assume he was scared to 
come out, figuring that he was safe inside the enemy’s own tent 
temporarily. After all, they wouldn’t fire on their own equipment – would 
they? 
Anyway, it was a seemingly sensible move by Billy. He probably 
assumed that our superior firepower and military tactics would force 
them off – then he would come out. 
The only problem was, I wasn’t convinced we could beat them this 
time. Like I said, they were one up on us all night long.


I awaited the arrival of the back up. It took them another couple of 
minutes to get up to our position. The rockets were still incoming at a 
rapid pace, making us all a little nervous. 
I instructed Weaver’s crew and the front line to assemble and join 
forces and charge the camp on my call. My troops were ready to give 
long-range support. We had fuck bombs of our own, you know. The 
only objective was to draw fire long enough to get Billy out of the tent. 
Victory would come later, after regrouping. 
They joined up, creating a wall of soldiers sixteen wide. I told my 
division to open fire, and they did. 
It is a beautiful thing when sixty bucks worth of rockets flies through 
the air all at once intent on injuring fellow human beings. 
I told the front to go, and they did, pouring on all of the Blue Pearls 
they could muster, along with some scattered red and white ones. It 
looked effective, but what came next shocked us all. 
Before Billy had a chance to climb out of the tent, hundreds of bottle 
rockets flew out of the tree line. They seemed to launch simultaneously – 
perfect. All but one or two of the charging men from our team either fell 
or turned back running for cover. 
“What’s going on up there?” Ace said. “Why are they running – or… 
falling?” 
“Don’t know,” I said. “Pour it on again, boys!” 
When Heath returned to my position, he told me what had 
happened, and I could now see for myself. 
“They taped needles to the rockets,” Heath gasped. “The mother 
fuckers are sticking into our skin and then exploding. I think Pat’s hurt 
bad – he got hit in the eye!” 
The long-range fire continued from both sides, and I could do 
nothing but stare toward the advancing enemy in disbelief. 
“It’s supposed to be a game!” I shouted. I was nearly in tears. 
“Game’s over, man,” Heath said. “It’s war for real now. I’m gonna 
go kick a mother fuckers ass.” 
Heath bent over and removed three needles from his pants leg. The 
rest of the guys came hobbling back with blood on their faces and arms. 
“Crazy bastards!” I heard someone say. 
Pat was being helped to shelter out of range of the long distance 
bombing, and all I could think of was how stupid it had all been. What 
was even more surprising was the thrill I was getting out of it. 
I had created this dangerous game and I had seen its consequences… 
And even more impressed, I noticed that my boys weren’t backing off. 
They loved it too, injuries or not. They were no longer scared – they were 
mad. 


Pat had actually been hit in the eyelid, not the eyeball. He could see 
okay, but he said it hurt like hell. Everyone else had pretty much the 
same complaint. 
The battle seemed to be stretching on for hours, but when I glanced 
down at my watch, I realized that the first shots were fired about four 
minutes ago. It all happened so fast, but it was something I’ll remember 
for eternity. 
The game went on and the long range bombing became more 
intense. We knew we could not charge them again without preparation, if 
at all. We were getting beaten something terrible. 
When we heard their version of the rebel yell coming from the other 
side of their smoky camp, we knew it was over. They charged us instead, 
and in the process dropped the tent that Billy was in, trapping him inside. 
Our mission had failed – we ran away to plan a rescue – and that’s 
when the real nightmare began. 


Less than thirty minutes later we headed back toward the enemy 
camp. Ace had devised a pretty good plan – brute force. 
We would go in with all of our remaining ammunition and roll the 
dice. We all agreed that the firepower they had used up in the last round 
was probably more than they had intended to use. We, however, had not 
used an excessive amount, with the exception of our large rockets. 
We assumed that their ammo would be exhausted long before ours 
and we would simply chase them off and free our buddy, but we hadn’t 
assumed one other thing. They had been drinking heavily – and they 
weren’t drinking chocolate milk. 
I always thought that a fighting drunk was the worst. I still have that 
opinion. 
When we arrived within sight of our captured comrade, we saw that 
he was now tied to a tree and blindfolded near the campfire. Several, but 
not all, of the enemy team stood facing him at a short distance. They 
knew we were there… somehow. 
I instructed everyone to stay down and stay quiet. 
“IT IS THE RULING OF THIS COURT THAT YOU, BILLY 
PARKER, ARE GUILTY OF ATTEMPTED ROBBERY!” 
They were all chanting in unison like some deranged cult. 
“WE HEREBY SENTENCE YOU TO THE FOLLOWING…” 
The pause in their chant was the first real silence since before the 
battle. Our nerves were on end as the enemy looked momentarily at one 
another and turned back to Billy. 
“YOU ARE SENTENCED TO DEATH BY FIRING SQUAD!” 
“ACCUPUNCTURE! ACCUPUNCTURE! ACCUPUNCTURE!” I 
heard one of them screaming. 
They sounded like lunatic fans at a Manchester United soccer game. 
We were very concerned to say the least, especially since we knew exactly 
what they meant. 
“FIRING SQUAD - TAKE YOUR PLACES NOW!” I heard 
another one yell. 
Laughter rose from the camp and that’s when I saw the rest of the 
team huddled on the ground near the… firing squad. 
They were all loaded and ready for us, but I didn’t dare tell the guys 
to move in. Maybe they were bluffing. 
Silence set in once again and all we could hear was the crackling of 
the campfire fifty yards away and a few whispers. 
To all of our disbelief, the leader of the enemy troops, and a school 
friend to all of us, stripped Billy naked. 
“Jesus,” Heath said quietly. “We gotta do something.” 
I nodded.
“I don’t know what,” I said. “I’m afraid they’ll really freak out if we 
go in.” 
Ace tapped Heath. 
“Yep. He’s right.” 
We sat and watched. 
“READY!” 
Five launcher barrels raised, we could see the shimmer of silver 
needles reflecting in the fire’s red and gold light. 
“LIGHT ‘EM!” 
Lighters flickered, and sparks soon followed. They really meant to 
shoot him. One or two needles wouldn’t be so bad stuck into you, maybe 
– but there were a lot. I almost froze, realizing I would never forgive 
myself if we didn’t…” 
“Charge!” I cried. 
The entire team rose and ran toward the camp. I was hoping that this 
was their intention and that they would redirect their fire toward us. It 
was not their plan at all. 
The evil hisses of rockets and sparks exploded into blinding flashes 
as we watched several hundred needles sink into Billy’s legs, stomach, 
chest, face and privates. Many of them had penetrated deep enough to 
allow the rocket explosions to tear chunks of skin away in splatters. He 
screamed and writhed in pain – I’d never heard screaming like that 
before or since. 
Thin lines of blood, and some rather thick ones, streamed down over 
black charred flesh and he eventually stopped fighting it. 
We rushed in on the camp and let loose with everything we had. 
After one round of firing, the launchers were dropped and fists became 
the weapon of choice; Fists and anything else that was handy. Some even 
used the butt end of their launchers to crack skulls. 
I had been hit in the throat with a needle rocket and was bleeding 
pretty bad. It didn’t hurt that bad though, I guess because of the 
adrenaline rush. Somehow I escaped the action and crawled into a little 
sunken place in the earth behind an enormous tree stump. 
The fighting and cursing continued as I watched from a safe distance 
where no one had seen me escape to. I found myself silently cheering for 
the home team. I couldn’t help but chuckle when I saw Heath grab his 
Swiss Army knife and slash the throats of the entire firing squad. I also 
enjoyed seeing Billy cut loose by Ace. 
Billy fell to the ground and crawled with the last strength left in him 
over to a bleeding enemy on the ground – probably the one that 
assembled the firing squad. He grabbed a burning log from the campfire 
and shoved it under the guy’s shirt. He burned slowly, screaming all 
along. Billy smiled and said something, but I’m not sure what it was. 
They were his last words nonetheless. 
Ace survived, but I understand he spent several weeks in the hospital 
with third degree burns on his face and back. Blue Pearl I believe. I guess 
they did have them after all, old buddy. 
Nash was killed in action while attempting to run away in fear. A big 
piece of steel that someone had been using to launch bottle rockets was 
swung at his ribs. It was an amazingly horrible sound – so violent – so 
beautiful. 
The rage in all of their eyes was pleasing to my soul. My creation! 
When Nash’s stomach was ripped open by the piece of steel, I swear 
I saw chocolate milk flowing out instead of blood. Probably just my 
imagination. 
Only twelve of the forty-one players involved made it out alive that 
night. It made national headlines and my name was on TV the rest of the 
weekend. You couldn’t find a channel that wasn’t talking about my 
creation. 
I tried to explain to the police that it was all in good fun, but they 
would just look at me as if they were in fear – hell, I never hurt anybody. 
I was taken to a jail and a few days later was committed to this 
institution. Their reasoning confuses me. I did nothing wrong. We 
committed no war crimes. They don’t understand. 
We were the good guys… We were the good guys!