Friday, March 26, 2010

Magic Number

Julio the doorman knew how to keep secrets, and after many years of employment at the same upscale residential building in the city, there were many to keep.

“I'm like a bartender or a therapist,” he once told his wife. “Without the booze or couch.”

For example, the people in 3-G were married for five years, no children. Recently, whenever the wife went out of town on business for several days, Mr. 3-G returned home in the dawning hours with a young lady. Julio would unlock the building's front door, smile, and wish them a good morning as they stumbled to the elevator.

Then there was the fifteen year old girl in 7-H who always waved in a see you later salute as she left with a few friends on Wednesday afternoons. The private school the girl attended let out early on those days every week so that the students could perform the required community service of their choice. Julio overheard her telling her parents at the beginning of the semester that she planned on spending several hours fulfilling her assignment at a downtown soup kitchen.

“Where do you think they go?” the super of the building asked Julio once while sharing smokes outside and watching the girls walking across the avenue to hail a cab going uptown.

“Anywhere they want,” Julio said.

Of course, Julio's favorite was the judge in Penthouse A who every Halloween hosted a party while wearing form-fitted women's clothes, a red wig of cascading curls, and four inch heels. In the early part of the evening, when the kids in the building knocked on his door, the judge would sway to the table to get the candy to hand out to them. Once, the little boy in 5-K told Julio he did not like to go to that door for trick or treat because, “a scary, ugly woman” lived there.

The judge's courthouse friends attending the parties laughed at the very idea that the usually somber and humorless state official―nicknamed Hang 'em High Harold―enjoyed the holiday so much he allowed himself this one night of ridicule in such a costume.

But Julio understood that what the judge enjoyed more was the attention from the handsome young men who would come by after all the party goers went home. From the look of their costumes, the theme of the evening could be summed up as 'Bad Boys Who Need to Get Spanked While Handcuffed.'

In all the years he worked there, Julio never once felt any compunction to betray any confidences. However, there was a set price to pay for silence, and it escalated with the cost of living.

“You're a good man,” many of the residents told him time and time again, as they handed him an envelope with cash at the end of the year.

Yes, Julio knew how to keep secrets, especially from the taxman.

Friday, March 19, 2010


Kat thought about how when she was a little girl and frightened or worried she would whisper to herself, Angels spread your wings around and protect me, repeating it as many times as necessary for calmness to return to her. She needed the incantation now. Her father lay dying on the floor.

They were in the study after returning from another visit to the doctor. Complications from bronchitis this time. Her father napped on the sofa while she read but awoke with a suffocating cough and tried to stand up. He reached out for her but she could not lift his weight, and he slid to the floor.

“No hospital,” he rasped. “No more. Please.”

She nodded, though she did not tell him that other family members had already called the ambulance and were waiting outside for the paramedics.

Her father looked at her and smiled. Just yesterday he told his daughter he was ready to go. “Look how old I am,” he had said. “I've done everything I wanted, your mother has been gone for so many years, and you're all grown up. There's nothing left but the waiting.” 

As Kat sat on the floor holding her father's hand and stroking his hair, she knew that no matter how much she wished it, he would not recover from this bout of illness. She was resigned and accepted this truth, and would wait with him.

He had loved the sea, and as a young man he left an accounting job to join the Merchant Marines. Kat and her mother would welcome him home with joyful kisses during his months-long leave, and send him off with tearful ones when he returned to the ships. His stories around the family table after the dishes were done told of Lucullan seafood dinners along the Mediterranean shore, rollicking taberna-hopping, bullfights in Spain, and wistful moments lying awake on the ship's deck, with smoke rising from his cigarettes to meet the stars in a Greek night. Frayed photographs showed him sitting with friends in a French cafe with cup in hand, intensity in his light eyes, and a black beret rakishly gracing his right profile.

“You're just like a character in an Ernest Hemingway story,” Kat told him once and made him laugh.

Whenever he returned from his voyages, his usual shout of, “Where is my Pussy Kat?” brought her running down the stairs shrieking and answering with, “Where are my presents?” The first time her mother admonished her for this, her father shushed his wife. “Just our little joke,” he said.

Now, his voice whispered, “I am so tired.”

They heard the sirens of the approaching ambulance. Her father closed his eyes.

“Angels spread your wings around and protect him,” Kat said, and went to tell the others.

Friday, March 12, 2010


She did not have identification on her, so police made a public appeal for help. Video from a nearby traffic camera showed a slight woman jogging across the street in the shadowy dawn. Quick moments later, a tractor trailer sped through the 30 mile an hour spot.

Officers believed the truck driver did not realize he had struck and killed someone.

“I always carry my ID now. Ever since that jogger was hit by the bus last month, I...well, just in case, ya know?” This from a  bystander speaking to the local media. Other residents roused from slumber by the commotion came outside hoping to be on the morning news programs. They shook their heads and complained that they just knew this would happen again.

“We've demanded the city install a traffic light at this intersection,” one woman said. “But they ignore us.”

The police did not have much information to pass along to television viewers. Just a description of  a white female approximately in her thirties, wearing dark exercise clothes, brightly colored sneakers with violet laces, and three crystal filigree bracelets on her right arm.

Apparently, she was listening to music as she ranthe earphones a possible explanation of why she may not have heard the vehicle turning onto her path.

Across town, a woman drinking a last cup of coffee before leaving for the office saw the televised appeal for any information, and gasped as she thought she recognized the jewelry displayed on camera. It reminded her of the ones her work colleague wore every day.

Half an hour later, news readers reported that, “Police have identified the victim but are withholding her name until the family is notified.”

*  *  *

The officers parked the cruiser in front of a darkened house a few blocks from the site of the accident. One of them checked the address and nodded to his partner. They walked the short path to the door, rang the bell, and waited.

Inside the house, a man was turning on the kitchen light and opening the back door to let out the dog  when he heard the doorbell followed by sharp knocking at the front of the house. He looked at the shelf under the clock and saw his wife's keys hanging on its special hook. She's locked herself out again, he thought.

“Okay, be right there!” he called out when the bell buzzed once more. He walked to the hall.

“Is mommy back?” The little boy stood yawning at the top of the stairs on the second floor.

“Yes,” his dad said. “Come down and give her a good morning kiss.”

He turned and opened the door.

Friday, March 05, 2010


The city's resources were no longer adequate to feed the hungry after enemy forces arrived.

On most nights, Annie's mother smiled and promised she would eat later after she divided her portion of dinner between her children. But no amount of money could buy what they needed for survival anymore, and her weakness and apathy diminished her interaction with the surrounding world. Eventually her body, mind, and struggle against the inevitable stopped.

Yesterday, she died of starvation.

Today, Annie walked unfamiliar streets with her little brother looking for an address. Her mother's last whispers through puffed lips cleaved with arid lineations told of a place where rebels offered sustenance.

“Come with us,” Annie had begged as she held out a glass of water, but her mother shook her head and refused the drink. The fungi growing in her throat made swallowing unbearably painful.

“I'm sorry,” she said to her children in an exhale of shallow breath.  A few hours later, there were no more words.

When the president of the country announced the unexpected and shocking news that war had come to their doorstep, Annie's father left immediately to rejoin his former military colleagues, all of whom were determined to take up arms against the invaders.

At one time in the past, a beloved politician intoned the immortal words, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But this battle had no precedent, and the citizens realized they could look neither to their stricken leader nor to history for guidance and comfort. Hope seemed non-existent; there was everything to fear now.

“Are we there yet?” her brother asked after she touched his shoulder and stilled his steps. They looked around the garbage-strewn area in the abandoned industrial section of the city.

“Yes,” she said. “We just have to stand behind this person, that's all.” She pointed to a man who did not acknowledge them except for moving forward a step and hunching his shoulders, as if to say this spot on this here concrete is mine!

Her brother turned to her. “Will we get food?”

“I hope so,” she said, and saw that he shivered. Taking a small sweater from her bag, she helped him put it on and, after all the buttons were secured, placed her arm around his frailty. She knew they would be here for some time.

Lines stretched for blocks as people waited for their rations. Starvation instead of annihilation. The aliens were smart.

Note: I thank  Selorian for the last paragraph, a  prompt found at his #storystarters page.