Category Archives: Short Story

RIFT cover and more

Hello Friends!

Fall is in full bloom, the leaves danced off the trees all day yesterday!

My next book, RIFT, co-written with Kathy Fish, is nearly here. We have a new cover:

RIFT cover

Thanks designer, Casey McSpadden: http://www.caseymcspadden.com

Also, here is what some writer folks are kindly saying about RIFT (so far):

“RIFT made me laugh my face off, cry my guts out, and remember why writing matters: stories save us from our idiotic but lovable selves.”- Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Small Backs of Children (HarperCollins, 2015)

“These stories made me not sit still. They turned me around and turned me around.” –xTx, author of Today I am a Book (CCM, 2015)

“The stories in RIFT are peculiar and exciting and riveting and mournful and veer into places I hadn’t noticed in my peripheral vision. You know, like life.” Daniel Handler, author of We Are Pirates (Bloomsbury, 2015)

“These stories by Kathy Fish and Robert Vaughan are rich, textured, and physical – they smart with tension and possibility. RIFT is peppered with appealing, complex characters and atmospheric details.” – Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Almost Famous Women (Scribner, 2015)

“Each vivid piece in RIFT, this sharp collection, clutches the reader suddenly — needing to offer its secret with the urgent elegance of the very best short short fiction.” Ron Carlson, author of Return to Oakpine (Penguin Books, 2014)

 

If you are interested in receiving an Advanced Review Copy of RIFT, please contact our publisher, Bud Smith at Unknown Press.

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I am also getting all the last minute information together for my upcoming week long workshop called Poetry & Fiction: Writing from the Well of Diverse Genres, October 18- 25 at The Clearing in Door County. I am gaining so much excitement as the week draws closer.

Any pumpkin picking plans in your Fall schedule? Hay rides? Bonfires? Star-gazing?

 

The Narrow Door

The Narrow Door

Dad used a hose to fill the pool. It was attached to a spigot in the garage. I shivered when I saw the level of water rising, the fresh dose of chemicals slightly burned my eyes.

“What time are they getting here?” I asked.

Dad replied, “I don’t know, Timmy. Stop whining. And get away from that hose. Go inside and help your mother.”

They were my cousins, Jared and Janeen. My Dad’s older brother’s kids. I never really thought they liked each other. My Uncle Martin was what my Dad called a “Fuddy duddy,” and that was when Dad was being nice. Uncle Marty was a successful stockbroker in New York City, and I think Dad felt like a hick, staying on the upstate farm where they’d grown up.

Mom was icing a German chocolate cake in the kitchen. “Want to lick the bowl, honey?”

She always made me feel better, as she smoothed her fingers over my curly brown hair. “Nah, thanks.”

“I’ll lick it!” My little sister, Melinda, squealed.

Mom handed her the green Tupperware bowl. “Why don’t you share it, Lynnie?”

“He said he didn’t want any,” she replied. She plopped on the banquette, and scooped out generous portions of leftover frosting.

“What’s up with you, T.J.?” Mom asked. “It’s not like you to pass on the frosting bowl.”

“I dunno. I’m nervous.”

“Nervous? Whatever for?” Mom placed one hand on her hip. She looked so pretty, like an ad from one of her magazines.

“When will our cousins get here?” I whined. I didn’t mean to, just came out that way.

I slid down the wall until I plopped on the floor. Sparky, our mutt, tried to lick my face,but I elbowed him away.

“Honey, you know your Uncle Marty. He’s probably stopped at every antique shop and silly store along the Hudson between here and Manhattan. It won’t do you any good to get so nervous about something over which you have no control.”

“Yeah, I suppose.”

“Timmy’s nutty, Mom.” Melinda had frosting all over her face.

“Melinda- don’t talk about your brother like that.” Mom held out her hand to me, I took it, standing. “Timmy, go help your father with the pool.”

“But he sent me in here.”

“Okay, do you want to vacuum?” I shook my head. “Dust?”

“No, thanks.”

“I didn’t think so. Ask Dad if he wants to put the horses in the pasture. Looks like a good day for it. And you can take Sparky out with you.”

“Okay.” I started out of the kitchen. “C’mon, Sparks.”

“And Timmy?”

I turned back. “Yeah, Mom?”

“I love you honey. They’ll be here before you know it. Try not to mope around all morning, okay?”

And Mom was right, within an hour, my cousins were driving up our circular, lengthy driveway. Uncle Martin, robust and grinning from ear-to-ear, and my cousins Jared and his sister, Janeen. It had been a few years since we last saw them, and the huge difference was that my Aunt Jackie had passed, at 36, from some form of cancer that attacked what Dad called her “female parts.” Grandpa had a different form of a similar illness. Now, as we were hugging hello, there was a stranger getting out of the passenger side of Uncle Marty’s new red Camaro.

“Hey, everyone, this is Alberta!” Her lipstick matched the car. And funny thing, she looked a little like a rabbit. I noticed how her nose moved inward when she breathed, like a strange creature. She wore a blue sweater, tight fitting, without sleeves. It looked as if they’d been cut off.

“You must be Timmy!” she said, like I was the President of the United States. I leaned back. “So adorable!” She clucked, then spun around to Marty. “He looks just like you.” She turned back and pushed her sunglasses, which seemed to take up her entire face, higher on her nose. “And where’s your precious little Melinda?”

“She’s probably hiding in the house,” Mom said. “Hello- I’m-”

“Helen. Yes, I know. Alberta Butterfield. Of the Brooklyn Butterfields.”

“Oh,” Mom nodded, pretending to understand.

“Pleased to meet your acquaintance. And you are Mitchell? Martin’s younger brother?”

Dad’s sunburnt skin seemed to turn a shade redder. “The one and only,” he replied. “Come on, everyone, let’s go in the house. Whatcha’ drinking these days, Marty?”

Jared and Janeen’s blank expressions matched mine.

“Wanna see the barn?” I asked them.

“Yeah!” they both agreed, and Sparky followed on our heels.

Turns out that Alberta moved in with Uncle Marty four months after they met, and this, according to Janeen, was the worst thing in her entire life. They’d met at one of Uncle Marty’s stodgy Yale bars. Alberta was starring in a local production of “Living By Design.”

“She’s only a senior in college,” Janeen retorted.

Jared plucked out a dried piece of hay and chewed on it. “She’s on the six year plan.”

All of these details made me dizzy. “Still, wow- I mean, she looks…young and-”

“Um, because she is!” Janeen interrupted. “I’m way more mature than she is.” She affected her voice to sound like Alberta. “Martin, dahhhling, shall we dine now?”

“Really?” I rubbed Sparky’s stomach. A certain spot made him kick his hind legs like he was chasing a squirrel, and we laughed.

Janeen continued. “Martin, sweeeetie, could you rub Mommy’s shoulders?” Janeen pouted, then grimaced. “She’s a joke.”

I shrugged. “She sounds hilarious!”

“Well, here’s an idea,” Jared said. “We’ll stay here with Sparky, and you move in with Dad and Alberta.” He rubbed Sparky’s head.

I thought about what it might be like to live in Manhattan. The subway scared me. Something about going underground to get somewhere. And all of those people. I’m not such a people person. Animals seem kinder. “Nah, but thanks.”

A Secret About a Secret

A Secret About a Secret

The room that Amelia had wanted to teach her photography course at the New School was not available, so she had to use the smaller studio. She’d arrived in Manhattan early that Saturday, and closed all of the folding chairs, setting them against the back wall. She opened her notebook and took out several of her nude photos and posted the images in various places on the walls. She remembered to place blackout paper on the glass window of the door to ensure privacy. On the blackboard behind the dias, she scrawled ‘Welcome’ and below that, a Diane Arbus quotation.

She glanced at her watch and there were only fifteen minutes before the class began. Where were the students? She’d confirmed that there were actually twelve participants registered, but this was New York. Everyone was on a limited time budget.

She stretched her arms above her head, wondering if her model would arrive on time. She forgot to confirm Keri, but did speak with her a week prior. Her notes said she was a dancer and very comfortable with nude modeling. Amelia only hoped that would be the case.

The last time she’d attended a photography course in a Stamford gallery, the model had frozen at the last minute when she realized there were six people who would end up with her naked photos.

During the next ten minutes, nearly all of the registered students had arrived. They sat on variously placed mats, blankets, and pillows which Amelia had spread out on the floor. She estimated the range of ages, and tried to figure out if there were any perverts among the three guys in the group. It didn’t seem that way. When it turned 10:00 a.m., she greeted the students. After her brief introduction she turned to the board behind her.

“One of my mentors and among the most inspiring photographers is Diane Arbus. She started in fashion photography with her husband. But as their relationship dissolved, slowly she turned to booking her own gigs. Her work is highly original and very unusual. She once said this quote that I wrote on the board in a rare interview.” Amelia turned and gestured toward the blackboard behind her. “Would someone volunteer to read it?” When no one raised their hand, she joked, “Don’t everyone jump to volunteer at once!”

Finally a willowy towheaded woman sitting close-by said, “Okay, I will.” She read the quote. “A photograph is a secret about a secret…the more you know it tells you, the less you know…

“Thanks. So, you see about thirty photographs placed around the room, all taken by yours truly. You’ll choose one, and take out a piece of paper and see if you can answer the question that Diane proposes: Determine what your chosen image tells the viewer. And what possible secrets remain? If you have any difficulty getting started, call me over and I’ll help you. You’ll have about ten minutes for this. Any questions?”

A prematurely balding man raised his hand. “I didn’t bring a pen or paper.”

“There’s a pile of them on that desk behind you. Anyone else? Okay, go!” The students rose, and began selecting their images. She glanced at her watch and just as she wondered about the model, a woman arrived at the door.

“Amelia?” she asked.

“Yes, are you late for the course?”

“No, I’m here for Keri. She chickened out.”

“Oh, great,” Amelia muttered. “What the hell am I going to do without a model?”

“Well, I thought you might be able to use me? I’m Lindsay.”

Amelia was confused. She thought this woman was just there to inform her about Keri’s absence. She nodded. Amelia summed her up as Lindsay took off her backpack. She was tall, possibly five ten, extremely skinny. She wore a Danskin wraparound burgundy skirt and camisole top, her jet black hair was in a simple bun. Her skin was alabaster and Amelia worried that it might be too white for regular speed daytime photos, but there wasn’t really another option.

“Okay, if you’re willing, Lindsay, while the students are all working on a warm-up for the next five minutes or so, let me go over some stuff with you. First of all, I’ll need you to sign a release form.”

“Release form?”

“School policy, straight up stuff.” Amelia handed the form to her. “Read it and sign on the bottom.”

Lindsay handed the signed form back to Amelia. “It’s a little chilly in here.”

“Well, you’re in luck. There’s a space heater and also once we get to work, the temperature will heat up, I guarantee it.” Amelia smiled. “Can I take a Polaroid or two of you before we begin?”

“Sure.”

“And, I just have to ask, did Keri mention anything about your job?”

Lindsay nodded.

“So, you’re cool with total nudity?” Amelia asked.

“Yes.”

Amelia got out her Polaroid camera. “No birthmarks?”

“Just on the bottom of my foot.”

“No skin rashes or anything I need to know about in advance?” Lindsay shook her head no. “Okay. Thanks.” She placed her hand on Lindsay’s shoulder, then took a couple of photos.  “Also, thanks, in advance, for supporting my ideas about the beauty of the human form.”

“Huh?”

“Never mind.” Models! She turned to the rest of the class. “Okay, everybody, wrap up your notes within the next minute or two, and we’ll discuss your observations.” She turned back to Lindsay. “You can get comfortable, relax.”

Lindsay glanced around the spare room. “Got anything to eat?”

Amelia shook her head no. “Sorry. Did you bring something to read?”

“No.”

“Well, I won’t need you for another ten or fifteen minutes.” She thought about asking her to walk around the block a couple of times, but feared Lindsay would disappear into thin air. “There’s a Vogue magazine in my bag over there if you get bored.”

Mountain Lake

Mountain Lake

The trees had turned spectacular colors since our last visit; buttery yellow oaks, shimmering crimson maples. There didn’t seem to be any space left green.

“I think we hit the peak of foliage season,” Charlie mused. We were on the trail leading to the upper boat landing. The ferns glistened with morning dew.  As we rounded the last curve, Charlie, who was leading, suddenly stopped. I did too, beside him. From a high knoll, we took in the expansive view: Mt. Marcy rose in the far distance, the curvaceous, colorful Adirondack range beckoned. A loon sounded, that strange noise that instantly made me feel alone, despite Charlie’s presence. The morning sun was already hot in the eastern sky. But looking west, I noticed dark clouds that looked like they could be trouble if they came closer. I licked my finger, and held it up, tried to gauge which way the wind was blowing, like Dad used to.  I had no clue, it was oddly still.

“Look,” I pointed, “there’s a family of mergansers near the canoe.”

Charlie nodded, smiling. He loved nature possibly more than I, fought the land management company when our squatter’s rights were challenged. He’d argued that the land had been in our family since Grandpa Howl was 20. “No commercial timber company deserves to profit from such pristine land,” he’d said at the time.

“Have you ever seen such a gorgeous lake?” Charlie said. I look sideways, he was wearing one of my Dad’s favorite hats, a trucker’s cap: Fly Rod Shop, Stowe, Vermont. There was a rainbow trout drawn on the front. Since Dad passed in 2002, Charlie had slowly morphed into shades of him. Used his hats, smoked his tipparillo’s (keeps the bugs away!) and fished with his favorite fly rods.

We continued to walk toward the point, the pungeant scent of decaying leaves and the familiar sound of the water lapping against our boat registered. We spooked the family of ducks. They beat it down the lakeshore, making a huge ruckus that made us chuckle.

“You’d have thought we were dangerous,” Charlie chuckled.

I placed the oars into our Criss-craft canoe. “The lake is so still this morning,” I noticed. “It’s almost haunting.” A loon echoed my remark, the fog lifted in sinewy shapes. “Why don’t you get in and I’ll push us out a short distance. The water is really shallow at the shore.”

“Okay!” Charlie said. His agile body bounded onto the deck. He angled his feet into the canoe.

“Go slow, Chuck,” I cautioned. “She’s easy to tip.” I wasn’t sure what significance that would have, not until later that afternoon, miles from our cabin,  when the Nor’easter would surprise us. But for now, as I glided the canoe away from our cabin, the stove reflecting the glint of the morning sun creeping through the fog, I thought, life is good!

Bits of memorabilia traipsed through my mind: the first time Dad and I canoed from Tippet Point, the aluminum canoe in which my sister, Debbie, and I were stuck during an electrical storm on Tupper Lake.

“Look! There’s that loon!” Charlie squealed. And I felt his boyish enthusiasm, admired his zest for life, a thousand times more magnified than mine.

I Move for Love

I Move for Love

In 1987, I moved for the only reason I ever have: love. We’d met at Boy Bar, a club on St. Mark’s in the heart of NY’s East Village. Doug was bound for St. Kitts, a family vacation. We shared two intimate nights before he jetted off to the isles. While there, he sent two colorful postcards, illustrating dark exotic island natives in vivid beach scenes.

Doug returned to Los Angeles the week between Christmas (which as a Jew, he didn’t observe) and New Year’s. Our lengthy phone calls prompted me to spring for a round-trip ticket, arriving on New Year’s Eve.

It was my first trip to the west coast. Exposed to the chilly December evening air, we sped down Sunset in his Cabriolet convertible, top down,  heat blasting. I was charmed by the immense palms and the roller coaster effect of the canyon roads, the varied colors of the apartment buildings, ubiquitous neon signs, unfolding neighborhoods: Westwood (where Marilyn Monroe was buried), Belair (where the Clampetts lived), Beverly Hills (omigosh- Rodeo Drive). Seeming like the dreamy pages of a glossy magazine, it was intoxicating, fresh, and fascinating.

On New Year’s Day, I called a pal in New York to wish him a happy birthday. Tom mentioned an apartment that our friend was subletting in East Hollywood. When I called, Robin was enthusiastic. She said the manager lived in the adjacent unit. Things were progressing nicely with Doug, so we drove over that afternoon. Doug lived in cushy West Hollywood, and was wary about the location. Howard, the manager, showed us the spacious two bedroom duplex. After, we stood on his front porch facing the beckoning Hollywood sign framed by the Santa Monica Mountains. I asked the rent, expecting it to be pricy. Two-sixty he said. I thought he meant per person, so I did the math. 520? Nope, he shook his head: that’s the entire rent. I was shocked; it was considerably less than my New York flat, and easily quadruple in size.

I called my room-mate, Gregory. We’d often daydreamed about California while attending college in upstate New York. He was easily convinced. We gave two weeks’ notice and early in February, loaded my Mustang and hit the road. It was our first cross- country car trip. It took an entire week and we slept in raunchy highway roadside motels. We learned about rocky mountain oysters in Colorado. In New Mexico, we were certain we spotted UFO’s in the evening sky. We stopped at the Grand Canyon and sat on the wall overlooking the immense abyss.

Los Angeles was quite different to New York. They’re compared constantly, and yet there is no similarity. People would say, hello, how are you, and I’d think, whaddya want? Groups are a big Los Angeles trend, and Doug was affiliated with Young Artist United. It was fledging actors and writers motivated to help high school kids with social problems: druggies, rebels, outcasts. I got involved with a speaking network where Meg Ryan, Daphne Zuniga, Sarah Jessica Parker or Bruce Toms would go to a school and just talk with kids. It wasn’t preaching to them as much as telling our own stories, and identifying with their problems. It was a huge success, and the concept began to get attention from the media. Eve Plumb, who’d played Jan on The Brady Bunch, was on the Board of Directors, as was Doug.

Shortly after Doug’s parents visited that March, our relationship dissolved. Perhaps they weren’t smitten by his unemployed writer boyfriend. On the other hand, Eve and my roommate, Gregory were getting cozier. I’d call Andrea, my best friend in NY, and laugh about my room-mate sleeping with Jan Brady, all grown up. Los Angeles was like that; a magical 1970s sitcom, without the conventional laugh track. Jennifer Jason Leigh lived directly below my writing partner. We’d see Charlie Sheen during brunch at Brite Spot on Sunset. When a friend became Billy Idol’s hair and make-up artist, I was hired as his stand-in for the “L.A. Woman” video, and actually appeared, dancing atop a staircase. Don’t blink, you might miss me!

The bubble came crumbling down in early May. I arrived home from my job at Hamptons, slinging burgers and fries. While scanning my mail, I listened to a phone message from my eldest sister. Her formal tone suggested something was wrong. I took a quick shower, then made green tea and slowly dialed her number. She asked if I’d read the Sunday paper. I said no. She went on to explain that my close childhood friend had been murdered. According to the New York Times, his body was found in a hotel room in Bangkok. James had finished his doctorate at the University of Tokyo, and I knew he was traveling. His last postcard was from Hong Kong, and I was expecting him any day in Los Angeles.

I was beyond devastated; heartbroken and numb. I made two quick calls; first to Gregory, who was a fitness trainer at the Sports Connection. He’d also known James, and he came home immediately. Then I called Doug. We’d remained friends, and he stayed those first few nights with me. It seems like a blur now, twenty years later, but my entire experience of Los Angeles changed that fateful day. I probably experienced some kind of break-down, but it was undiagnosed, and I embarked on a two year odyssey in search of some  reconciliation for my soul. James and I had made a pact: we’d be Oscar and Felix from The Odd Couple. He was supposed to be the guy who’d outlast all the others.

That summer, I helped a friend move to San Francisco. Bobby was HIV positive and wanted to experience his last days in his favorite city. I painted his new apartment, played piano for him, read my poetry aloud. For catharsis, I’d write every morning at Café Flore or New Dawn. One morning, I met Herb, who was co-producing an evening of new One Act plays at Merry The Dog Theater. I said I’d been working on a one act. Intrigued, he listened to my pitch: it’s about a married couple: Wife’s bedridden, but screams orders from the bed, like a raving lunatic. Husband is a caricature of a man, puppet and clown- like, nervous, skinny, jerky. There’s a narrator on the sidelines, maybe just a voice in the dark. It’s revealed that Wife was bedridden from loss of a baby. Husband becomes fed up with her hostility and is seduced by the Narrator into trying to snuff out her life with a pillow at the end. Audience sees her legs flailing as he suffocates her while the lights slowly fade to black. A match is struck to reveal the Wife standing beside the bed, and the Husband lying there, presumably dead. She throws the match at the bed, and walks through the audience and out of theater.

Herb loved the concept, asked if it was completed. I lied and said that I had the beginning written, but it was at my Los Angeles apartment. He said he could try to hold a spot for me based on our meeting. But to convince the other producers, he’d need at least a page or two of dialogue and the plot summary. I said no problem thinking, can I actually do this?

I returned to Los Angeles, and wrote the play in less than a week. The title, BOINK: THE MARTYRDOM OF SAINT SEBASTIAN had nothing to do with the piece, but I liked the way it sounded. It was selected for the January 1988 festival and I moved to San Francisco to cast and direct my first play.

Some time during this process, I realized that I’d set some internal wheel in motion.

James, my childhood friend, was a writer. Before turning 25, he’d co-authored a book with a professor at Cambridge University. I have no doubt he would have had a brilliant writing career. When his light was extinguished, I eventually realized the desire to write for both of us.

And twenty years later, I’m still doing it.

Felix, I still am.

Parrot Man

Parrot Man

It was our first morning on the beach. Perfect sun, scant clouds on the low horizon, my tummy full of fresh mango, papaya and pineapple. We’d arrived at our resort late last night after an entire day of travel, mainly preparations: dropped Duke at the boarding kennel, asked local police to keep watch on our house, called my sister to say “hasta luego.”

And now, the beach. Aaahhh. I applied SPF, and watched Benny as he arranged his towel, and got out his latest Sidney Sheldon novel. Nearing 50, he looked great in his new checked blue suit, the board style that I preferred. Up to him, he’d wear one of those heinous ass- crack sliver of material things. As we all know, those who ought not to wear them always do, just like the skimpiest of bikinis. Chalk it up one to hot weather, yet the bennies of vacation outweigh the inconveniences.

“I wonder if our beach server will be the same this year?” Benny asked.

“You mean Serapio?” I chuckled.  “Don’t go too far in the ocean, it’s dangerous,” I imitated him. Except he’d say, “Down yer ass,” instead of dangerous.

“That guy was a perv,” Benny said.

We laughed.

“You’d better put on some SPF, it’s going to be a scorcher.” I handed him the bottle. Lay back against my towel, stretched out, all the way to my toes. “What a gorgeous day.” Average home temperature: 25. Here? 78.

Slowly, in twos and fours, people selected beach lounges near us.

“Look at the size of that iguana!” Benny said. “He’s climbing those massive rocks.” There was a breaker wall, twenty yards behind us, beyond that green grass, hotel rooms and restaurants.

“Guests probably feed them.” I gazed over, already fuzzy. It required me to sit up and I suddenly felt drugged, like the effort was way beyond my capability. “I don’t see it. ” I was glad, iguanas freak me out. They look prehistoric, like miniature dragons. Benny always re-assures me “they won’t hurt you” but we’re in their environment. And nature is unpredictable.

“Uh oh, I do see someone else,” I said, nodding down the beach.

“Oh, Christ, he’s up early.”

“Gotta sell to the fresh batch who arrive on Sunday mornings.”

How did we know? We were suckers our first trip here. It was our honeymoon, so we were wide-eyed, eager. And yes, a little green, naïve. The Parrot Man photos were the least of our negligent expenditures. Pricey at 15.00 a pop, our favorite photo still sits on our antique hutch.

“Just pretend you’re asleep,” I suggested to Benny, fishing my iPod from my backpack.

“Hell, no,” Benny said. “These four are gonna get screwed! I want to listen,” he nodded toward the young couple and parents.  “They’re the ones who shared our transport from Cancun, remember? From New Jersey, getting married here this weekend.”

I nodded, watching the Parrot Man weave closer, trudging down the beach, a scarlet Macaw on his right shoulder, a blue gold Macaw on his left. Sure enough, he slowed by the new beach guests, the wedding couple ripe for picking.

“Hello, my name is Enrique, without the Iglesias.” They all laughed.

“Here we go,” my husband smiled, setting his novel down. “This is going to be good!”

Dana Hill

DANA HILL

I was lying in bed, and the muffled tones of my parents voices drifted through the heat register.

“What about them?” I heard Dad say.

“Oh, Dirk. You know that this isn’t about them. Don’t drag them into it.”

I could tell she was smoking, barely heard the exhale.

“Well, how the hell you think they’re gonna’ receive the news?” Dad sounded upset, but the way he did upset, that familiar way he shrugged off any emotion. Not something I could do, even when I wished I could.

“I’d be stupid if I turned down this opportunity,” Mom reasoned.

My heartbeat crept into my throat during the long pause.

“But Los Angeles, Miriam? It might as well be Tahiti.” Dad got up, could tell by his footsteps, probably retrieved another beer from the pantry. Everything in our two- hundred year old farmhouse creaked, even the curtains. “Christ, I don’t think there’s a direct flight from Manchester.”

We’d moved to New Hampshire during the Reagan boom. Dad excelled at finance, the stock markets soared in the early 80s before my brother, Bear, and I were born. Mom played cello with the New York Philharmonic, and they enjoyed the trappings of an upwardly mobile urban lifestyle. Their introduction to New England came when Mom took a summer teaching gig at Tanglewood, Massachusetts in 1984. Every year following, during the orchestra’s hiatus, Mom and Dad would leave the city and play in New England’s finest jewels: camping in Acadia National Park, hiking Mount Kathadin, boating on Lake Champlain. When Dad pushed to expand the family, Mom rescinded. Despite her protests, Bear was born in 1989. His name isn’t Barry as one might assume, it’s Brian. But I couldn’t say my r’s, so his name became Bwyan. I had a stuffed bear that I slept with, so I called my brother Bear one day. The name stuck, and he grew into it.

The voices below became more stifled, lower. I kicked off the patchwork comforter, feeling a tinge of perspiration, wondered if Bear was already asleep. I glanced at the clock on my bedside table. 11:35. I decided to check. Tiptoed to the door which was already ajar. I didn’t like it entirely closed, couldn’t fall asleep if my room was pitch black. Bear was the opposite, his room was always like a cave.

I opened his door and it creaked. The dank odor of sweaty socks and musty coolness greeted me as I stepped into the darkness. “Bear?” I whispered, trying to be heard over the creaky window fan. His bed was on the far side of the room. For just a flash, my forearm hair’s raised, imagining his body not able to be roused. I cleared my throat, choking back the fear.

“Bear?” I repeated, slighty louder.

“Huh?”

“It’s Randy, Bear. Ssshhh.”

“What the f, Randy?” He sat up, his night light clicked on. “I was totally asleep, man.”

I realized that I was only wearing boxers, felt awkward, wanted to run back to my room. Bear must have seen the look on my face.

“Come here,” he sat fully up, patting his bedspread.

I did what I was told.

He rubbed his eyes. “What’s going on?”

Suddenly I felt foolish, like a child, my insecurities circling in the air. I felt I could burst into tears; instead, I swallowed hard. “Mom’s leaving.”

Bear squinted, lay back against the headboard of his four poster bed. “What makes you say that?”

“I overheard them talking in the kitchen tonight. She’s gonna take the job in L.A.”

I fiddled with the raised pattern on Bear’s heirloom blanket, tweaking it so hard I could make a hole.

“Hey, stop messing with that,” Bear said. “Did she say when she’s leaving?”

“I came in here before they’d finished.”

Bear looked at me. “Come here,” he said, patting the empty spot beside him. “Lay

down.”

Again, I did as I was told. Lay beside Bear, staring at the stippled ceiling, felt numb. It wasn’t the first time she’d left, I reasoned. There was the time when Bear was 12 and I was 10, she’d moved to Boston to be closer to her job. The commute was killing her, she’d reasoned. That only lasted a year. But it was the only year my grades plummeted.

I closed my eyes and sensed the heaviness of my brother’s body next to mine.

“It’s okay,” Bear mumbled, as if he’d read my thoughts.

I rolled away from him. Wanted to say, oh yeah? What about when you leave for college this summer? What about Dad? I’ll be left to deal with him. Bear turned off his light and I felt his arm wrap around my waist, pulling me closer.

As I was falling asleep, I thought I heard the hushed sounds of Bear crying, but it might have been a dream.

By July, Mom and Bear moved to Los Angeles. Dad wasn’t home a lot, and when he was, he buried himself in books and booze. The rare conversation we had would go something like this:

Dad: School okay? Me: Yup. Dad: Got a girlfriend? Me: Nope.

We were like two tropical storms building toward different destinations. I missed Bear like hell, mostly the way he picked on me, or made bad jokes about our teachers.

Mostly I was just bored. Then one night, Dad actually appeared in the kitchen. I’d just started my favorite Swanson’s TV dinner: salisbury steak, mashed potatoes and peas.

“Spoke with your Uncle Chuck today,” he said. Took a swig of Molson’s.

“Oh?” It wasn’t like they never talked. “How’s he doing?”

“Says he could use some help on the farm.” Uncle Chuck lived in upstate New York. Had beef cows and boarded horses.

“You trying to get rid of me?” I couldn’t look at him.

“Of course not, son. Just wondering if you wanted a little adventure.”

Working on the farm didn’t sound much like an adventure. It had been ages since I last saw Uncle Chuck. He was dad’s youngest brother, and there were some wild stories I’d heard over the years at those rare family reunions: Ladies man. Trouble with a capitol T.  He never came to a single one.

“What about you?” It was an odd thing to ask, given that I hadn’t seemed to care since the day Mom and Bear left. I never once asked Dad are you okay? How are you doing? Just wasn’t our thing.

“I’ll be fine,” he said. Finished his beer and opened another.

I wasn’t the kind of kid to just jump. So, I said, “Let me think about it.”

Later, long after dad was snoring on the couch, I called Bear. “What should I do?”

He said, “Sounds fun. Would get you out of the house. You know if I had the bucks I’d fly you out to L.A. buddy. It’s amazing. The beaches and…the babes. Holy cow.”

I swallowed my jealousy. “Sounds nice. How’s Mom?”

“I rarely see her. She’s busy as hell with her job and getting settled. Plus, I’m near the UCLA campus. It’s in Westwood. She’s lives in the Hollywood Hills.”

“Uh huh.” I said, pretending I understood what that meant. I only knew Beverly Hills from that dorky TV show. “So, you think I should go? To Uncle Chuck’s?”

“Why not? What does Mom say?”

“I didn’t tell her.” Mom called almost every night, but after the first week, I didn’t get on the phone most days. I’d hear Dad answer, and could tell if they were arguing from the level of his voice through the heat register.

“Do it, Randy. Could really be a great time. Would get you out of that house, and you might even have some fun. Eww, imagine that, you having fun?” he joked.

“Bear, I’m worried about Dad. He never eats, just drinks.”

“That’s been going on for years. Just focus on yourself. I’m telling you, this farm option looks better and better.”

“It’s like our whole family is just-”

I heard him sigh. “Yeah, we’re not your typical picture postcard. But, you’re gonna be 16 in a couple of weeks. You have the whole world before you. And if you keep up your grades, you are, right?”

“I am, yeah.” I maintained an A average, just barely. Somehow made Honor Society every year.

“Good, because then you can apply to the colleges you really want. Come out here. We’ll get a place together.”

“Sounds good.”

“Listen, I have to get going. My room-mate needs the phone. Call me when you decide about Uncle Chuck’s.”

**********

The day I flew to Rochester was gray and overcast. The plane was tiny, I actually had to bend over to walk down the aisle. The seats were so small that the man in seat 6B had trouble fitting into one.

Turns out Uncle Chuck liked beer, too. Only he drank Genny Cream Ale. And unlike Dad, he’d offered me one. I pretended to drink it. Tasted watered down, like sun tea mom tried to make one summer. Got the ratio wrong.

Uncle Chuck’s ranch house was a typical one-level built in the seventies. He’d had the original farm torn down. “Shoulda seen it, Randy. Place was decrepit.” He took me on a tour. “Got about a hundred head of Herefords. “He nodded over the gate toward the barnyard. “This time of year the herd’s out to pasture. We only feed ‘em in the evening.”

A strong odor of manure mixed with the sodden smell of the barn. Swallows darted across the sky, their blue bellies lit up as they searched for bugs. I could hear peepers in the pond.

Later Chuck made dinner: t-bone steaks on the grill, and skewered peppers and onions. He even made a salad.

“I haven’t had one of these since Bear and Mom moved,” I said. I ate like it was my last day on earth.

“Slow down, you’ll choke.” He smiled.

I had a feeling this was gonna be fun.

“You like to fish?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Got a pond full of smallmouth bass. And there’s a trout stream in Ponderosa Park if you prefer that.”

“I wouldn’t know the difference.”

He smiled again. “We’ll do both.” He kind-of stared, so I looked at the antique hutch.

“You kind-of look like your mom.” Everybody said that. Usually didn’t bother me, but for some reason I felt weird. “You pissed off at her?” He used a toothpick on his molars.

“A little. I mean, it’s complicated.”

“Not really. She left. And from what your dad said, she didn’t take a contract like she had in Boston.”

I’m not sure why I felt like defending her, but I did. “It was a great career move.”

He paused. Did that staring thing again. “Career move? It’s your fucking father,

Randy.”

It took all I had to sit there. My breath came in spurts. He must have noticed.

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean- you poor kid. Listen, forget I said that. You want more steak?”

I nodded. I was full, but I wanted to change topics.

“‘C’mon, kid,” he said, patting me on the shoulder. “Let’s get you more eats.”

I followed him out to the kitchen.

**********

While I did the dishes, a mustang pulled up. I ran out to look closer. It was a red convertible with slick tires, and I’d heard its engine purr before the driver shut it off.

“Nice car,” I said, still inspecting.

“Thanks, he said, getting out. “I’m Lee.” He held out his hand.

We shook. I noticed his watch. “Randy.”

“I know, Chuck told me all about you.”

That was strange. What did my uncle know about me? “Oh.”

Then Chuck came out on the porch. “Hey, Lee. How’s the hot rod driving today?”

We walked toward the house. “Like magic,” Lee said.

We watched a Lifetime cable movie about a waitress who gets pregnant then forced to marry another man when the father of the child splits. It was sappy, mellowdramatic.

Uncle Chuck and Lee sat on opposite ends of the couch. Lee had his cowboy boots up on the coffee table. They drank a couple of beers. Not the six-pack Dad polished every night.

During a commercial, Uncle Chuck said, “I got you a cell phone. That way you can call your Dad, or your brother whenever you want.” I pretended not to notice he didn’t mention mom.

“Thanks.” Cool! I’d never owned a cell phone.

“It’s in your room. I can show you how to use it in the morning.”

Lee got up, went to the bathroom.

Uncle Chuck got this serious look on his face. “Lee’s gonna stay over.”

“Okay.” I thought it was better if he didn’t drive, the beer and all. “Do you want me to sleep on the couch?”

He smiled. “No, Lee sleeps here often.”

I forced a smile. “Oh, so-”

“He’s my partner.”

I heard the toilet flush. Nodded, the shock felt like a punch in my stomach. I had no clue what to say. A rug commercial was playing, the song was super cheery.

Lee sat back on the sofa. “So, did ya tell him?”

Uncle Chuck nodded. “You okay, Randy?”

“Yeah, fine.” I looked at the TV wondering what to do. It’s wasn’t such a big deal. I wondered if Dad knew?

“Both of your parents know,” Uncle Chuck said.

“It’s not that big of a deal,” Lee said.

“He’s pretty sheltered,” Uncle Chuck said.

“I am not,” I blurted. It came out louder than I’d intended.

“See?” Lee smiled. “Kids are different now than they were when we grew up.”

“He’s not some kid.  He’s my nephew.”

Lee nodded.

I faked a yawn. “I think I’ll go to bed now. I’m pretty tired.”

Uncle Chuck stood up. “I’ll show you your room.” We walked back through the kitchen to an area off the family room. He switched an overhead light on. The room was large with nice decorations. The bed seemed huge. There was a bathroom attached, without a door.

“There are fresh towels in the bathroom.”

“Looks nice, “ I said.

“I hope we didn’t shock you. It’s just, well, you’re gonna be here for a few weeks. I wanted to wait, but Lee was insistent on telling you.”

“How long have you and Lee-”

“Three years. We were friend before that. It became something else.”

I sat on the bed. “You’re the first person I know who’s gay.”

“Lucky me,” he joked. It broke some tension.

“There is this kid in my class, James. Gets picked on horribly by the jocks. He’s really girly. Nothing like you guys.”

“I know what you mean.”

“I just assumed James is gay. But I kind-of avoid him. Even though we’re in all the same classes.”

“Sounds about right,” Uncle Chuck said. “Listen, you’ve had a long day. Sleep well.”

“Yeah. I’m glad I’m here.” I wasn’t just saying it for him. I’d meant it.

“Me, too. You need anything, come knock. The TV’s over there.” Showed me how the controls work. “We’ll get your phone hooked up after breakfast. I’m making berry pancakes. We pick the berries on our farm. I’ll show you where they grow.”

“Yum.” I wondered if Lee lived there when I wasn’t around.

“Give me a hug,” he said. “Good night, Randy.”

“Night.” Once he’d left, I sat in bed, looked around the room. What would Bear think? My eyes got heavy so I snuggled into the cozy bed, fell into a deep sleep.

Box Within a Box

Box Within a Box

I was bored, waiting for my friend to call, but that was nothing new.

My mother, Judy used to say, “Just find something to do.”

I’d whine, “But there isn’t anything to do.”

She’d say, “I’m not your entertainment committee.”

And I’d sulk away, usually to my room where I’d light plastic G.I. Joe’s on fire. Or surf the net, looking at dirty pictures that I knew I wasn’t supposed to. I sort-of grew out of that phase, not entirely. I still enjoy a good bonfire, and the net is, well, the net.

The phone rang. Anastasia, or Shannon. Who would it be?

“Yup?”

“Justin?”

“It is I.”

“Why are you talking so weird? Did I catch you masturbating again?”

“Yer funny, Stazi. What’s up?”

“Ray Ray from Tampa Bay and I are over. Done.”

I sat up, boredom slipping away like wildfire. “No way. What happened?”

“We went to Art Bar last night. Shannon was supposed to bring that dude, Carl. Turns out she had other plans, if you know what I mean.”

I fiddled with my laptop. “I’m not sure I follow you. Shannon and Ray Ray…?”

Stazi let out a groan. “I’m so stupid. I should’ve seen it coming. She was all over him on Tuesday night when we bowled at Bayshore. I hadn’t had a single drink. Ray Ray had about ten vodka tonics. I told him that night, we’re done. Finito.”

I thought it over. I’d just cut Ray Ray’s hair for a trade. Plan was he’d give me a tattoo. I wondered now if that would happen. “I guess it’s better to know his true nature now, rather than if you, well…”

“Maybe, but it doesn’t make me feel any better. I mean, what is it with guys? Can’t keep their dicks in their pants for a day?”

I sighed. The other line beeped. “Hey Stazi, hang on, k?” I clicked over. “Hello?”

“Hey Parker, it’s Ray.” He preferred my last name.

I hunkered down on the sofa. What luck! Both on separate lines simultaneously?

“Hey Ray, can you hang? I’ve got Judy on the other line,” I lied.

“Sure,” Ray said.

I clicked back over to Stazi. “Honey, that’s my mother.” The lies were flying out faster than darting bats.

“Aw, Judy? Tell her I say hi. And Jim Squared, too.”

My mom was on her second Jim. Long story, unimportant. “Will do, and hey, hang in there. Let’s go to the mall later? Or Alterra?”

“Okay. Anyplace where we won’t run into him. That asshole.”

We hung up, and my phone rang.

“Parker?” he said.

I smiled, it was Ray Ray. “What’s up, Ray?” Spill it all, man.

“Not much. Wondered if you wanna do yer tattoo today?”

My heart raced. “Yeah, that would be cool. Should I come to the shop?” Ray worked at Cutthroat Tattoes on the east side.

“Do you know what you want done?”

Oh shit. “I was thinking, maybe some Chinese letters. You know, like a box within a box?”

“Huh? I thought you’d be down for a spiral or a dragon image.”

“Nah. Got any books at the store?” I had no clue what to get. And the only place I could imagine a tattoo was my pelvis. That way it would only be private viewings.

“I was gonna do it at your house.” Ray paused. “Is that okay?”

Okay? What would Stazi think? Not to mention Shannon. The pot thickens. Aw, why not. “Sure, that’s fine. How about this afternoon? Say, around 3?”

Hartwell Hall

Hartwell Hall

The light wafted through the windows near the ceiling of Hartwell Hall. It was a chilly February morning, then again, typical for upstate New York. I knew the cold wouldn’t last, once we started rehearsing. I continued to stretch, the tightness familiar in my quads and abductors.

David arrived, long dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. “Hey Ned, sorry I’m a little late. Where’s Marybeth?” He placed the boom box on front of the stage.

“I thought we’re working without her until 8.”

He turned on the music. “Oh yeah.” He smiled, a rarity, and I smiled back. “Keep stretching, warming up. I know it’s cold in here, but we’ll get moving in a minute.” The lush guitar strums of Alex DeGrassi stirred me out of stupor. I sank into my stretching routine: butterfly, hurdler’s, toe touches. Don’t bounce! Remember to breathe! There was so much to learn.

I’d auditioned for David on a whim. I’m a business major, have no clue what I‘m going to do with that. I took a dance class spring semester thinking it would be fun. The instructor, Santos, asked me to stay after one day.

“How’s it going?” he said.

I nodded. “Considering I feel way out of my league, fine.” Lame attempt at a joke.

He grinned. “You’re doing great. I was wondering if you want to take a look at this.” He handed me a flyer announcing the auditions for the Spring Student Dance Concert.

My heart started beating a little faster. There was a list of choreographers.

“But, I don’t know any of these students.”

“Might be good for you to work with David West? He’s patient, and like you, he didn’t come here for dance. Found his way to Hartwell, too.” Santos smiled.

I folded the flyer and stuffed it into my sweatpants pocket. “Thanks, Santos. “

The day we’d auditioned, I wasn’t feeling my best. I thought I would hurl when I found out that we’d be auditioning in tights. I wore them under my sweats, just in case. A friend, Marybeth, who I’d met in Santo’s class was also auditioning for David’s piece and she told me: wear tights. But my legs looked extra scrawny, and I was already self-conscious, like a fish out of water. About halfway to Hartwell, I nearly turned around, head back toward Main Street. I’d sit at Connor’s Corners and lament to Wally, the owner. But something made me plod on.

After a quick warm-up, David had us form odd shapes, again, then again. He’d stand back from the group (there were about twenty of us auditioning, and I was happy that only six of them were male, including me) assessing us.  Folded arms, his deep-set eyes scrutinizing every move . His piece, he told us, was for one man, one woman. I thought they called it a duet, but I wasn’t sure if the same rules applied for modern dance. Were there any rules? I marked my way through the movement, hoping that my feigned enthusiasm might score points. I tried to imitate Marybeth, who’d advised me well.

“During warm-up, choose the best dancer, and place yourself behind him or her. I heard that Jamie Bell is auditioning. He gets cast for everything, so watch him, follow his cues.”

I grunted, groaned, sweat like a mule. I gave it my best effort. I’d watched the Sarajevo Olympics the evening prior, and some athlete said, after winning gold, “I just wanted to leave it all out there, on the ice. No regrets.” That had inspired me, and I thought if I could, just give it everything I had, even if I wasn’t the “right dancer” for David’s work, I’d feel okay about myself afterwards.

Easier said than done. I was good, maybe even slightly better than good, when we were twenty strong. Then David pared us down, first to ten, then six. Three guys, three girls. So far, Marybeth and I made the cuts, we were still in. But so was Jamie Bell, the 5’11, sandy blond senior with his wavy hair tied high on his head, wearing a peacock blue unitard, a slim leather necklace tied elegantly around his neck. I wanted to get this now more than ever. David paired us in every combination possible, we worked singly and doubly. Dizzyingly, over, and over. Suddenly we were done.

“I’ll post the results in three days, with the rest of the choreographers. Thanks for a great audition,” David said. He didn’t look at me. Not once.

Marybeth moseyed over while I was pulling my sweats on. “You surprised me, Ned.” She wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead. “You kicked some serious butt for a business major.”

I chuckled. “Thanks, you were fantastic. And I appreciate all your help before and during this. You’ll get cast.”

She shrugged. “It’s a crapshoot. Always is. I’m not gonna obsess about it, that’s for sure. Hey, what are you doing now? Want to get some coffee at the Union?”

I pulled on my boots, stood up.  “That sounds great,” I said.

The Chase

Phillip Meets Chase

Phillip wanted to celebrate his promotion to National Creative Director of New Accounts. He’d decided to invest in a completely new downhill ski package: Rossignol skis, Nordica boots, poles, gloves, goggles, and the Roffe warm ups and jacket. He asked around and discovered that R.E.I, on Yale Street, was having an autumn sale.

He’d wandered into the store, shocked by the enormous space, the buzz, the caffeinated salespeople, several of whom acknowledged him with a “Been helped?” or “Know what you’re looking for?” which he politely declined. And suddenly, there he was- exactly what Phillip was looking for, though he hadn’t known it.

“Hello,” the man said, directly, openly.

Phillip was disarmed by his unwavering stare, immediately self-conscious, as when one wonders, is there food in the corner of my mouth? Sleepiness in my eyes? Did I brush my teeth before I left the house?

“Hello,” Phillip managed. He felt his heart accelerate, and grabbed the closest rack of women’s leggings to steady himself. “Do you, you work here?” What a stupid question. Of course he did, why else wear a name tag?

“Name’s Chase,” he said, holding out his hand.

Phillip noticed the calluses and tan, smooth skin, taut fingers. He was scared to shake, his palms were sweaty and he was sure he would stammer more. “Ph- Phillip,” he said with a nod. Did Chase wink, or did he imagine it?

“Very nice to meet you, Phillip. And what brings you to R.E.I. today?”

Oh, he was smooth and his teeth were perfect and god he hoped he was older than 18, was he? Yes, he had to be!

“I’m looking, thinking about-” Get it together. Phillip had to look away, at the rack of hiking boots adjacent. “Uh, any skiing packages on sale?”

“Great.” That smile again. “We’ve got some super promotions right now.”

Did he say super? Phillip nodded.

“Are you interested in downhill or cross-country?” Chase turned to walk toward the ski department, then turned back. Phillip wondered if he’d been caught staring at his rump. “Or both?”

Once again, Phillip felt tongue-tied. Was it him, or did Chase have the most seductive smile he’d ever seen? “Downhill.”

“Me too.” Chase lifted his hand to high five him, but Phillip had no idea what he was doing. Chase turned and walked away once again.

Nearly an hour later, Phillip was outfitted with fifteen hundred dollars worth of new gear. He’d overspent his budget, but had no control once his need to impress Chase was unleashed. At the register, Chase was ringing him up when he’d asked, “Ever do any climbing?”

“You mean, like rock climbing?” Phillip asked.

“Yeah, I wondered because I have a friend who built a climbing gym in her garage. Just wanted to know if you’d be into checking it out?” Chase handed him his Visa and receipt, grinning.

Was this a date? Phillip began to breathe a little heavier. “That sounds fun, but I have to warn you, I’m a virgin.” He blushed. “I mean, I’ve never climbed, indoors or outdoors.” He tucked his receipt into his wallet.

“Piece of cake,” Chase said. He walked around to Phillip’s side of the register. “You look fit,” Chase said. “It’s like climbing a tree. Ever done that?”

Phillip nodded, deciding this was not the time to talk about his fear of heights. He was in a trance, and at some point he was going to wake up.

Then Chase said, “C’mon, I’ll help carry these bags.”

The sun was high in the sky. The light of a lovely day danced off Chase’s sandy- blonde curls and turned the downy hair on his arms almost reddish-blonde. Phillip, although intrigued, was still confused. Was he blowing this out of proportion? He would rather know in advance, instead of getting his hopes up. Already at 25, he’d racked up his share of unavailable men: married, partnered, addicted, closeted. He was still tossing around the options in his head.

Chase placed the extra bags in Phillip’s trunk, turned to him and handed him a slip of paper that simply said: Chase 342-7107. “Call me?”

“Okay! Yes, I sure will,” Phillip said. “And thanks for all your help this morning,” he mumbled.

“Hey, my pleasure. Thanks for starting my morning right. I gotta head back in. Enjoy your weekend in the Emerald City.” He held out his hand again and Phillip shook it, firmly this time.

And, at last, Phillip relaxed slightly, sharing a lopsided smile that turned into a full, beaming, goofy grin. Their eyes locked. Phillip would never forget that initial contact.

He turned to get into the car watching Chase walk back toward REI.

Suddenly Chase stopped. Made a motion for Phillip to roll down his passenger window. He said, “Oh crap, Phillip, I forgot! Happy Valentine’s day!”