Category Archives: short fiction

James observes a Lansing White and his girl from across Jolly Road

The man bounced in and out of James’ vision, which was impeded by the rotten window frame, the half-grown spruce in the front yard, the 1992 grey Plymouth Horizon parked across the street, and the girl bouncing and twisting drunkenly just feet ahead of him. His phone chirped and then a distant voice garbled out short phrases, and the man replied by putting the cell up to his face and firing back staccato words between the steps of his gangsta gait.

James watched as the man bobbled in and out of frame nervously, but not without his apparent sense of cool. He was a perfect example of what has come to be known as the “Lansing White,” the vanilla Caucasian whose standards of dress and behavior were completely determined by the blacks he grew up around. His voice was deep and self-aware, as if he were calculating each word against what he perceived to be the hip-hop standard, he walked as if his left leg were two inches shorter than his right, and his XXXL jeans seemed to defy gravity by remaining up just centimeters under his ass.

The girl in front of him tumbled to the ground in hysterics, and the Lansing White tucked his phone away, adjusted his sideways Detroit Tigers baseball cap, and said “Get up, girl” in a voice not unlike the ones heard at the beginning of the R. Kelly songs that seemed to dominate the only radio station that people listened to on the south side. The girl just laughed louder and rolled around some more. “I said GET UP GIRL.” He sounded like a cheap imitation of the guy at the roller rink before introducing a Lakeside track. He rocked back in forth nervously and glanced down the sidewalk, waiting for somebody, maybe the voice on the other end of his cell.

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Green Dolphin Street (draft)

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Author’s note:  This is an early draft of a story I’ve wanted to write for a while.  I’m a HUGE jazz fan, and I wanted to express a story that incorporated my love of the art form.  There’s also a little Murakami influence, though I wouldn’t compare this to him, for obvious reasons.  Anyways, I would love your opinion, your editing, your confusion.  There are errors in here, I just can’t see them.  Please comment/edit.  Enjoy!

Hacky was skin and bones in a black Coltrane tee and tight leather pants, his alto sax swaying violently over the faded image of his hero, sweat pouring from his stringy black hair.

He was a rock star playing “Naima” in double-time. He was a drugged-out soul whose only outlet to others was his music. He was lost, yet he could be found every Friday night at the keyboard lounge, speeding up jazz standards and mutilating them with his frenzy.

The crowd was small but enraptured, mostly lonely thirty-ish women who were lost in his hips, his lips, and his glazed green eyes. They were the same ones that always came, long islands scattered across their tiny tables, occasionally knocked over by their crossed and kicking legs. They seemed to know something the greater public didn’t: Hacky was an emerging jazz giant in an era where there were no giants to be found.

Behind Hacky a trio of hard-driving characters plodded away and attempted to keep up with his derailed train solos. George, Jimmy, and Mac tried everything they could to not drown in polyphonic sheets. Everything was wet with their sweat and vibrating at their call. They weren’t bad, and they let Hacky shine.

When the last, ecstatic note of “Naima” was held perfectly by Hacky for over a minute, the women almost lost their skirts, the band almost fainted, and the lights in the club flickered respectfully. That one note had never been rendered so well since ‘Trane pulled it off on Giant Steps nearly a half century before that night, and most everybody in the club sensed it.

Something in the molecules shifted. The molecules of the women in the crowd, the backing band, the club, and Hacky himself. He trailed the note off and fell dead onto the stage, his silver saxophone tumbling across the wood and finally resting against the back leg of the house piano.

***

The writer sat back into the dark corner behind his table and watched silently as the paramedics tried and failed to save the musician’s life. The band stood off to the side, smoking cigarettes and shaking, and the women hovered to one another for the first time and hugged mercilessly.

He didn’t move because he didn’t need to. He only wished to absorb, a self-conscious chronicler of events that would surely go down in jazz history. The falling of the shooting star against the Midwest night sky. The moment when the heavens broke on that final note. The recalling of the ancestors.

He saw it play out in real time, unbeknownst to the patrons of the club, when Charles Mingus sauntered in through the back, face covered by the shadow of his enormous fedora, a shimming gold bass over his back. He shook the rain off his trench coat and took a seat at the next table from the writer.

“Where’s Miles? That motherfucker,” he grumbled, tucking his bass into the other chair at his table.

One of the paramedics stood up slowly and looked at the clock. “Time of death: ‘round ‘bout midnight.”

***

The club was shut down for the night, expelling the twenty or so women onto the street. They looked around with wide eyes and huddled together, wiping tears and quickly talking through trembling lips.

The writer shambled out behind them, staying in shadows, and lit a cigarette. He waited patiently as the women filtered away, their voices becoming more and more distant from the alleyway. He lit another cigarette, smoked it slowly, and re-entered the club. He had his own key, and it was his building, his club.

***

“A Night in Tunisia” sailed through the corners of the club, but at half-volume. It was all they could conjure. Mingus strummed away on stage, his head down, left foot stomping, while Miles and Hacky played the tune. Duke smiled from behind the house piano and Max Roach sweated through unheard of polyrhythmic masterpieces.

The writer sat back in the corner and bobbed his head slightly, stroking his bush beard with one hand and stirring a scotch on the rocks with the other. The place was empty except for him and the ghosts.

“What the hell, man?” asked Coltrane, who had suddenly stepped out from the bathroom and was slouched at the table where Mingus had rested earlier. “I mean, shit. That dude even has my face on his shirt! What the hell, man?”

The writer raised his tumbler into the air and spoke in a grainy, smoked-out voice, “No disrespect, but you’ve been usurped.”

“U-what?” Coltrane sneered and leaned in.

“Your glory has been stolen, my man. You should’ve wished him to stay alive.”

“You mean Miles ain’t gonna play with me any more? Well fuck that, I can do my own thing.” He stood up, slung his tenor around his neck, and stormed back into the bathroom. When “Tunisia” wound down you could hear his notes from the stalls, dissonant and frenzied.

***

The smoke from the writer’s cigarette rolled through the club, breathing and expanding, seeping through the band as they tried an up-tempo version of “Milestones.” They were thwarted by Miles’ refusal to move on to the solos until they all “figured out what the fuck they were playing.”

‘Trane was now seated at the bar, hunched over, a needle flopped over his forearm. His saxophone was nowhere to be seen.

The writer watched as a woman mysteriously entered the club, even though the door was locked. She was tall, curvy, and knock-dead beautiful, carrying herself in a long tight black dress. Her long brown hair sailed over her bare shoulders when she walked, and the strong scent of sandalwood emanated from her dark, Indian skin. She sat across from the writer and reached into a small red purse, pulling out a platinum cigarette case.

“This is the most amazing thing,” she said, lighting a square and blowing smoke out of the corner of her thin lips. “I’m in a dream, and I realize it! Can you believe that?”

The writer lit his own cigarette. “Yes, I can. But you’re new here,” he said.

“I’ve never had a lucid dream before. And this band. . . they’re great. I’ve never really listened to jazz before, either.”

“You don’t know who those guys are?”

“No. They’re good though.”

The writer scratched his head and looked momentarily confused. The band launched into a slow blues jam, one he was unfamiliar with. Smoke from his cigarette drifted toward and through the woman. “Do you have a name?” he asked.

“Yeah. Um. . .” she started, then seemed to realize that she had forgotten it. “I guess I can’t remember,” she finally said, wide-eyed.

“It’s very normal.”

“To not know your name? It kind of bothers me.”

“But this isn’t your normal reality, lady. You said you were dreaming, remember?”

“Oh yeah! But shouldn’t I know my name? Everything is so real, you know?”

The writer stood up, snuffed out his cigarette on the ashtray between them, and beckoned for the woman to come with him. They walked past the stage as Hacky began an uncharacteristically mellow solo. He was holding the blues in his hand, in his horn, and milking it for what it was worth. The woman halted and soaked him in.

When the writer returned to fetch her, she said “He’s so beautiful. His music is so beautiful.”

And that point, she disappeared like the image on an old television. Her image danced for a short second in front of the stage, compressed into a small dot, then ceased to exist.

“Shit,” grumbled the writer, returning to his seat. He had wanted her to stay and read his poetry about dreams and death, and maybe he could’ve seduced her, but apparently she was too perfect to be dead. She was just dreaming, and that meant she wouldn’t come back.

***

But she did. Four nights later.

“My name is Paula. I remember that now,” she said, taking the seat across from the writer. The band began twittering through an Eric Dolphy composition, bending the air around them surreal vibrations. He leaned forward and looked in her large, dark eyes. He seemed to be searching for something.

“Are you dreaming?” he asked, leaning back in the velvet chair.

“I think so,” she said, perplexed.

“You think so?”

“This is different. I’m not worried about waking up, for one. I can smell the smoke in here, and the band seems more. . . I don’t know. . . real. Alive.”

Paula turned to the band and focused on Hacky, who was standing off to the side while Miles blurted through a punchy solo. He was watching her, his eyes unblinking. The writer heard her breath quicken.

“He sees me,” she said, quietly.

“Yes,” the writer replied bluntly, lighting a cigarette. He seemed to be wrestling with something in his mind. The beautiful woman had fallen, once again, for the musician, and not the writer.

“I’m dead, aren’t I?” she asked, reaching into her purse.

“Yup,” the writer grumbled, exhaling smoke.

Meanwhile, Hacky had made his way down from the stage, his ghost moving through dim blue lights and sheets of smoke to reach the back table. He sat down next to Paula and stuck out a shaking pale hand.

“Wow. Wow. Wow,” was all he could muster, followed by a short series of rapid fire sniffles. Onstage, his music elevated him to the level of a God, but in person he was nothing but a skinny, coked-out musician who spent all his money on drugs.

Paula clasped his hand in both of hers. “Your playing is incredible,” she cooed.

“Thank you s-s-so much,” he squeaked through purple lips.

“Go play some more for me, baby,” she intoned, not unlike Lauren Bacall.

“Yes ma’am,” Hacky said, running back to the stage and almost interrupting the final bars of Miles’ solo with his inability to hold himself back for Paula. Miles glared at him and shook his head when Hacky almost shot into the refrain too soon.

The writer watched Paula’s back as she rocked her head to the final seconds of “Out To Lunch.” He admired the shape of her shoulders, the fine dark hairs that trailed down from her neck to the top of her back, and the softly defined shoulderblades that moved slightly as she swayed to the music. He lit a new smoke from the butt of the old one and sighed. “Play some more blues,” the writer whispered through a mouth crowded with smoke.

Across the room, ‘Trane coughed and waved an indifferent hand toward the stage, his image beginning a long, slow fade that would last for centuries.

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The Halverson Encounter

I give the man Richie his change, and he glances at me, eyes wet like a puppy, wanting to say something. He wraps a fist around the neck of the brown-bagged Wildberry Green wine and deposits the thirty-two cents into his ragged army coat. His beard looks dirty, like he just crawled through a construction site flat on his face, and a bright blue rubber band dangles aimlessly from the growth, locked amazingly into place by just a couple of course red hairs. He stinks like rotten pears and moldy tapioca.

When he speaks it sounds like his vocal cords are each holding their own unfiltered cigarette, wet at the tips: “Did you know that some people think it’s normal to take a dump four times a day?” His words are yellow and sticky as they bubble out, barely audible.

“Really?” I say and lean in, actually somewhat amused by his random behavior. Richie never speaks, save the occasional grunts of greeting and thank you and whatnot.

“Really. I saw it in the paper. Do you believe that shit?” He speaks more! My lucky day at the liquor establishment.

“Oh yeah, I believe that SHIT,” I say, adopting a comedic smirk.

We laugh. My tenor laugh drowns out his whistling, weakling cackle.

When I look again at him he is suddenly dead serious. “Do you really believe that shit?” he says, eyes unwavering, still wet. “Do you shit that much?”

For a moment, I think clearly and choose not to respond. But I do respond for some absurd reason. I say: “Sometimes.”

His face curls up into a sneer as he snatches the cheap wine substitute from the counter between us. Turning away, he laments “fucking faggot” through his handicapped throat in a voice surprisingly loud for him. His body language as he exits through the glass door suggests that he has just given up hope on a once promising friend.

-“The Halverson Encounter” appeared in Haggard & Halloo for March 30, 2007

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The Sunshine Clones

There is a clone problem in town. Thousands of middle-aged women who seem to have developed the same wrinkles, the same sagging skin from their bodies, the same fashion of pulled-up high shorts and unnecessary bikini tops. They all talk with smoked-out voices, always on the defensive, their lives are so hard that circumstances have forced them pronounce words in an agitated and humorless manner. When they look at you, you can almost see their eyeballs jiggling with regret and victimization, like they just came out of prison and aren’t sure how to react to people they never even tried to like.

I saw these clones today. In the Sunshine Laundromat.

One of them spoke to the air, several conversations cut short by the ubiquitous phrase: “Hold on, there’s somebody on the other line.” Another one hauled in six bags of soiled clothes, much of it her man’s discolored and streaked underwear. A blonde one stood at the doorway, resting against the metal frame, a cigarette burning and twitching at her lips. She watched as yet another rolled up in a dented and auctioned Caprice (you know, the kind that used to be a police car).

I thought for a moment that I was in a zombie flick. Like they were all suddenly going to glaze over, hold their hands up limply in front of them, and then come after me. I’ve never been more nervous folding my shorts.

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Cookie Monster’s Harem in the Sky

 “Cookie Monster’s Harem in the Sky” published by Madswirl, May 2007———

Last week I came home early from work and caught my wife having sex with the Cookie Monster.

He was loud and indulgent in bed, and could be heard from the driveway. Frankly, it sounded as if he was devouring a cookie. Below his blaring growls I recognized the persistent and soft tones of my wife in ecstasy. She was clearly enjoying herself.

I stood there for a moment, if only to register what was going on, my heart suddenly jolting into an accelerated rhythm. At first, I didn’t recognize that the male voice booming from our bedroom was Cookie Monster. Maybe the guy was role-playing, I thought, or just letting his inner-animal take over. Yet, as I inched closer to the house I became sure that only one person. . . Or thing. . . Could make those kind of guttural vocalizations. He was only my all-time favorite television character, for God‘s sake. I used to sit in front of the tube in my white underwear and tear through half a box of Fruity Pebbles, following his lead and recklessly cramming the cereal into my mouth, bits of flavored rice and skim milk decorating the shag carpet around me.

If there was one thing I could rely on every day as a child, it was that Cookie Monster was going to eat the damn cookie no matter how hard he tried to resist it.

Shaking, I entered the house. The screen door shut loudly behind me, and suddenly the ruckus from the bedroom ceased. I stood there, unsure of what to do, frozen with my arms feeling out the space in front of me. I felt caught.

My wife stumbled into the room, almost comically. “Hey Hart,” was all she said. A cigarette dangled from her mouth as she nervously dug into her robe pockets for a lighter.

I could only stare at her. She could easily see that I was in shock, because she was too. An air of acknowledgement passed between us that we were both in very uncomfortable positions. I mean, we knew each other through and through. I could tell exactly what she was thinking, her eyes fidgety and failing to meet mine: How the hell am I gonna get out of this one? How do I take advantage of him?

“Were you fucking who it sounds like you were fucking?” I said, hands still leveled off in front of me.

“I. . .” she began, dropping her hands and sighing. “Do you have a lighter?”

I felt the first waves of hysteria jolt through me. “The fucking Cookie Monster, Jenna?”

She turned her head and looked at the hallway floor. “How did you know?”

“How did I know? Maybe because I could hear him eating your cookie from the street!” I stormed off into the kitchen and opened the fridge. “I mean, what the fuck? How am I supposed to deal with this information? It doesn’t even make sense! Does he even have a penis, Jenna?” I yanked out a jar of salsa from the fridge and slammed it on the counter.

She sighed almost contentedly. “What do you think?”

“I have no fucking clue! I wasn’t just fucking him!”

Jenna leaned forward, her long black hair collapsing on the bowl of fruit in front of her. She seemed to be gaining confidence. “Hart, he has the biggest dick I’ve ever seen in my life. He’s amazing with it, too.”

I had forgotten how she could so easily turn the tables on me when I got angry and loud with her. Now that I was near screaming, she had taken advantage of the situation with ease. She came over to me slowly, tracing her hand across the side of the counter. I dug out an avocado and began slicing into the skin with a dull knife. Green and brown slime leaked out from around the wound.

She slid up behind me and began massaging my shoulders. Her voice whispered calmly, “There is no way for you to understand what just happened in there. And, there’s no way we can go back in time and make it go away.” Her hands slid away. “And, with that in mind, I’m going to leave this house and you now, forever. You can sell my stuff or whatever you want.”

I turned, knife in hand impaling a limp avocado, but she had already made her way out of the kitchen. The screen door closed shut soon thereafter.

***

It took almost a half hour of intense fretting and pacing for me to remember that I hadn’t yet left the kitchen. In fact, the bedroom was still a mystery. Had Cookie Monster crawled out of a window? Chances are he did just that. But could he fit through the windows, which have always been too small for my liking? Just exactly how big was Cookie monster anyways?

To me, Cookie Monster had always been fiction, but only of the most intimate sort. I grew up with him, watched his ways, mimicked his voice, and learned the lessons he was designed to teach. When I developed a problem with whiskey in high school, it was Cookie Monster who reminded me that it’s okay to have addictions. He was an addiction-based monster, covered with blue hair and wild googly eyes, and he seemed to have a hard time with English, but he was happy. He was happy because, above all the shortcomings, he was going to get to mash at least one cookie a day. In fact, he would probably mash the table, the plant, and the telephone as well, and it was all good, because that’s what he does. His existence is defined by his insatiable appetite.

It was almost cathartic to me when I finally saw the Cookie Monster inside of me, and I abruptly gave up whiskey one rainy night in my early twenties. I could finally leave my lesser cravings with the googly-eyed friend, as a sacrifice. I even remember one night in a moment of lucidity I could clearly imagine him thanking me for the liquor and crunching the glass fifth between his powerful jaws.

We had a history that was deep and textured, at least in my mind. Therefore the fact that this personal mythological figure had just slept with my wife and was possibly still in my bedroom was impossibly strange and intense. I checked the light switch and read a line from a phone book just to see if I was dreaming. I wasn’t.

I had just thrown myself into one of the kitchen chairs when a deep, methodical shuffling emerged from the hallway.

Then, in a voice unmistakably that of the furry man: “Me alone?”

I sat, silent and frightened out of my skull.

“Hello?” More shuffling.

Two eyes the size of baseballs peered out from around the corner. The black pupils were bouncing around their surfaces. I couldn’t tell if he saw me. Slowly, two fuzzy blue hot dog fingers reached around and pulled the Cookie Monster into view.

He was at least seven feet tall, and as wide as the doorway. He could have been a dominant center in the NBA. His arms were thick and meaty, unlike his flimsy fabric arms on television. And, instead of the shabby triangle of a body I had imagined as a child, his torso and midsection resembled a giant, tight egg. Cookie Monster was truly a monster.

Yet his face, which was the size of a station wagon tire, was so innocent and confused. He couldn’t seem to focus.

I still wasn’t sure if he could see me at the table. I felt a strange emotion that is really hard to describe.  A pang of fearful excitement rushed through my body from my solar plexus to the front of my face, and I almost fainted.

That’s when he saw me. His body sort of oriented itself to me, even as his eyes still goggled out of control. He jumped back a step, and the floor shook between us.

“You Hart?” He said, pointing one huge finger in my direction.

I would have fled if I hadn’t been absolutely frozen to my seat. This was too much to handle. Catching my wife cheating on me with this impossible fantasy character. Maybe I had finally lost it and popped that screw my mom always said I was bound to pop. This wasn’t real.

“Yes, I’m Hart,” I said. “And you are the Cookie Monster.”

“How did you know? Was it me. . .grumbly voice? Was it me. . . Crazy eyes?”

I took a breath for the first time in what seemed like minutes. He was intimidating, yet dumb and discombobulated, like he was constantly reorienting himself to his surroundings. My fear slipped away a little.

“I think it was the blue body hair,” I joked nervously, finding the torn avocado on the kitchen table and fiddling with it. “What was going on with you and Jenna in there?”

“Oh! Me sorry! Me sooooo sorry!” He held his palms up in the air in a defensive gesture. I noticed that he was only a few feet away from me now, his huge blue feet covering acres of cream-colored tile. “Cookie Monster blush, me so embarrassed! Should me go now? Me not try to break up marriage!”

“I think you already did.”

He crashed down into the other worn kitchen chair and put his head between his hands. “Oh no, no, no!” He lamented.

I once again thought to myself that I had to be dreaming.

He began sobbing. I was absolutely at a loss trying to figure out what to say or do as his bawling continued on for minutes. Finally, his googly eyes emerged from the tips of his enormous fingers and he began to speak, quietly, “Me have things that me cannot do without. Me cannot live for one day without a cookie. Hopefully more than one cookie. Lots of cookies. But me cannot live without other things as well, things that they not let me talk about on the TV. Me cannot live without cigarettes. Do you have any cigarettes?”

“I don’t smoke.”

“Too bad. Me worst problem is making love to women. They call to me in their dreams. They say ’Cookie, oh Cookie, come satisfy me with your hunger.’ And of course me come. Sometimes me come three times a day!” He bounced a little in his seat, saw the sour look on my face, and resumed slumping.

“Sometimes the women are married. They always leave their husbands and live with me. There are maybe thousands of women at my house.”

I was astonished. “You’re house?” I asked.

Cookie Monster nodded. “Yes. Me house in the sky. You can only see it from television. And me boss won’t bring cameras there.” He once again began to bawl, louder this time. Intermittent apologies crept out from behind the tears. He really did seem sorry.

I thought of Jenna. Was she now staying at Cookie Monster’s harem? Would she be happy there? Would I be happy without her? I hadn’t yet considered the fact of her absence, and I expected to suddenly feel sick or devastated, but it must not have hit me yet. I was numb.

Cookie Monster had collected himself and was silent, looking at me and breathing heavily. He stood up and walked over to the kitchen cupboards, reaching up and grabbing a fifth of whiskey. “Why this here?” He asked, examining the bottle.

“It’s for guests,” I said. “I don’t drink.”

“Me know,” he replied, pulling down two shot glasses. “but now is the best time for strong drinks. What have you got to lose?”

Slowly, Cookie Monster poured out two shots, then crushed the rest of the bottle between his monsterous jaws.  Whiskey splattered the floor and cabinets around him. I felt like this moment- his back to me, preparing my long forgotten poison- was going to determine the rest of my life. And he was right: There was nothing at all to lose.

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