Monday, February 18, 2013


The alarm clock beeped as he rubbed his eyes open. With a heavy sigh he slung his legs over the side, got out of bed and turned it off. He didn’t know why he’d set it, since he hadn’t been able to sleep since the funeral. His son slept through it. He could barely make out the small silhouette as his eyes struggled to focus in the dark of early morning. He reached down to touch his face…
‘Let him sleep.’ he thought to himself.
Like him, the dog had been up for hours. He could hear the clicking of his nails on the hardwood floor, throughout the night. He used to go downstairs to let him out, but since the funeral, he hadn’t felt like leaving the warmth of the bed. He’d often felt a soft squish under his slippers as he stepped into the dining room. He felt bad for neglecting the dog.

He flicked on the light switch, momentarily blinding himself. He closed his eyes as he stood in the doorway, counting to fifteen before slowly opening them again. The dog panted as he put on his flannel jacket against the brisk cold. It still smelled of orange blossom and vanilla. It annoyed him whenever she wore his shirts and jackets. She thought it was silly that he got bent out of shape for something so trivial. He said that it was a matter of respect; of personal boundaries. In retrospect, it didn’t mean a thing of course. Or rather, it meant everything. Though he couldn’t touch her, he could still smell her. He held the collar to his nose and brushed his open lips on the fabric. He was gripped by sudden dismay when he realized that he’d eventually have to wash the jacket.
‘I’ll buy a new one.’
After he carried the dog down the porch steps and led him out into the backyard, he filled the kettle with milk and placed it on the stove. He cracked a few eggs into a skillet and added some slices of ham. He heard her tsk’ing as the eggs sizzled and the ham popped. He winked with a wry smile as he held the refrigerator door open. Empty, save for the half eaten platter of ham from the wake and the tray of eggs she bought at the Farmer’s Market.

  “See? Nothing in there, but that.” he said to the empty kitchen.
“I’ll do some shopping tonight.” he promised her.
The dog let out a short, sharp bark to signal that he wanted to come back inside. Normally, he’d coax him back up the steps, but it was too damned cold to stand out there cheering him on. The kettle whistled as he lifted him up to the landing; his back cracking as he straightened up.

The shrill whistle of the kettle must have woken his son. He heard the floor creak above his head as his son got out of bed.
  “Chocolate or strawberry?” he called up.
His son didn’t answer. He poured the steaming milk into a mug and stirred chocolate mix into it. The water ran upstairs as he plated their breakfast and set the table. His son trudged downstairs, wiping the sleep from his eyes.
  “Put on a jacket son, it’s cold.”
His son ignored him as he pulled his chair up to the table. He sat with his elbows propped on the table, with his chin in his hands, staring down at the plate in front of him.
  “I’ll do some shopping tonight. We won’t have to eat this again after this morning.”
His son sat silent, still staring down at his plate.
  “Eat, kid. I don’t want you fainting at school.”
His son didn’t answer and didn’t look up.
His son stabbed at the eggs and raised half a forkful to his mouth. He chewed once and spat them out.
  “They go bad?”
He chewed a forkful himself and spat them out, too.
  “Just eat the ham.”
His son tore off a piece of ham with his hands and took a small bite. He gave the rest to the dog, who’d laid his grey muzzle on the table. The dog took it gently, then swallowed it whole.
  “You gonna be ok, on your first day back?”
His son didn’t answer. He’d folded his arms on the table in front of him and rested his head on them, face down.
  “If you need more time, let me know, son… ”
He called his son’s teacher, the night before. She promised to call him if there were any problems, stammering her condolences. He hated having to ease others’ discomfort. He thought it ridiculous and unfair that he moderate the anxieties of those on the periphery, given that HE was the one mourning. He and his son.
He studied his son- who hadn’t looked him in the eye or spoken to him since he’d told him that ‘mama was gone’; that ‘she wasn’t ever coming back’. In retrospect, it was a dreadful choice of words, but he’d been in a miasmic haze when he delivered them. He realized the affect by degrees and tried to mitigate it by telling his son how much his mother loved him, and that she would never have chosen to leave him, but it was too late. He disliked feeling guilty; resented the distance at which he was held. He ached to be swallowed by his son’s anguish, rather than feel alone in his own.

He stood up and cleared the plates off the table. The dog followed him into the kitchen, where he scraped the bad eggs into the sink. He popped the tops off two green plastic bottles and fished out a tablet from each. He broke a rimadyl in two and gave a half to the dog, who gingerly accepted it. He then pried his maw open with his fingers and shoved the phenobarbital into the back of his throat, because he’d spit that out if given the chance. He then picked the slices of ham off the plates and threw them at the dog, who devoured them by throwing his large head back with each bite. Four bites. He knew that he’d find half-digested ham on the floor when they’d return in the evening, but he didn’t care. The meds will have already dissolved and entered his bloodstream by then. 

He loved the dog. He predated both his son and his wife. He’d been his confederate; accompanying him to and through every milestone, both good and bad, for nearly a third of his life. He knew that it would be a matter of time before the dog, too, would not be there. He hoped that there would be ample time between devastations.
The dog followed him back into the dining room and stood next to him when he sat back down; laying his grey muzzle back on the table and resting a paw on top of his slipper. He looked at his son whose head was still on his folded arms.
He was filled with great sadness and greater impotence.
  “I’m sorry, kid…”
His son raised his head and regarded him, devoid of expression.
  “…that… mama’s gone.”
His son directed his gaze at the dog. He held out his palm and the dog walked over, sniffing his hand noisily to see if it held anything for him. Finding it empty, he nuzzled it. The boy scratched him behind the ear.
  “I’d give anything… “
He didn’t finish the thought. His son looked down at his hands. He picked at the dead skin on the edges of a burst pink blister.
  “Finish your milk, son, then go get ready for school.”
His son grasped the mug of hot chocolate milk with both hands, raised it to his lips and took a deep draught. His eyes opened wide and he spewed the hot milk all over the table, the dog and his father’s face. He goggled at his father with chocolate milk running down his chin onto his pajamas. His father laughed… hard… then harder… even harder still… So hard that he struggled to draw a breath between each guffaw. The veins in his temples strained to bursting. His head felt like it was going to explode. He gasped in a jerky staccato rhythm, surprised to find himself sobbing.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Like Thunder

Let monuments rust — turn diamonds to dust
   let temporal riches be plundered
   let mountains collapse — eternity lapse
   …my love for you is like Thunder.
Let the oceans run dry — earth heaven belie
   let the citadels of faith all blunder
   let our rivals assail — unjustly prevail
   …my love for you is like Thunder.
Let all the stars burst — prosperity reverse
   let toil replace our wonders
   let the foulest protest — virtue arrest
   …my love for you is like Thunder.
Let the sun turn black — the bedrocks crack
   let our aging bodies pull under
   let our convictions betray — our beliefs decay
   …my love for you is like Thunder.
Let the fires descend — the dark clouds distend
   let no devil nor angel pull asunder
   let no vow forsake — your soul never ache
   …my love for you is like Thunder.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

I Only Gong Wit Manely Man

The bell rang, and I sprinted into the classroom as the large wooden door swung shut. Ms. Trick always locked it after the bell and if you weren’t in class on time, you were out of luck. My knuckles scraped against the rough edge as I squeezed through the narrow opening. They throbbed and started bleeding. Ms. Trick tsk’ed at me as I planted myself in my seat, sucking on the bleeding wound.

            “Now that Heiko’s here, we can start. Please take out your writing assignments and pass them to the person behind you. Those in the last row, bring your assignments down to the front.”
I passed my paper to Jerry behind me, who passed his to Saro behind him. Seta came down from the back of the amphitheatred class and handed hers to Mila at the bottom of the row next to mine. She flicked my ear as she returned to her seat; which didn’t escape Ms. Trick’s attention.
            “We’ll start with Seta’s story. Mila, please stand and read it aloud.”
            “What?! Why?”
            “Quiet Seta. Mila... please. “
I turned, crossed my eyes and stuck out my tongue at Seta. She flipped me the bird under her desk as Mila took a deep breath.
            “One minute, Mila. Heiko! Face forward!... Mila… remember to sound out the words you’re unsure of.”
Ms. Trick shot the smug smile off Michelle’s face with a marksman’s stink eye. Mila began reading as I pivoted in my seat.

            “’My-ee Mah-der’s Mowt’ by Sey-tah Ah-noo-shee-ann.”
As Mila read, I sat transfixed by the cadence of her awkward accent; muddling the meaning of the words. I was hypnotized by the rise and fall of her voice, her breathing and the metallic lisp pushed through glinting braces that caught the slivers of afternoon sunlight breaking through half drawn venetian blinds. Her rust colored hair danced on the shoulders of her pink and green Quiet Riot t-shirt; stirred by the warm breeze that blew through the classroom. It carried the scent of her strawberry shampoo to my nostrils and I filled my lungs. Oh how my chest burned with capricious teenage desire and smog activated asthma- a burning that only ventolin and clumsily metered poetry could soothe.

It struck me as strange that I be gripped by such sudden ardor. I’d never paid much attention to the new Slavic transfer before. Sure, I found her accent cute and her deep dimples impressive, but my rapt attention tended towards the more curvy girls in the class. She was built like a toadstool. Big red head and a pale, skinny body. Yet here I was, enchanted, as she chewed on the English language like gristle…
            “Heiko! What’d you think of Seta’s story?”
            “Huh? Oh. Uh…”
I looked over at Mila, who sat down again and was fiddling with the rubber bands in her braces.
The class snickered.
            “Well!... Seta. You have a fan.”
            “What? No! I…”
            “Who’s next?”
Michelle sprang out of her seat and cleared her throat. Ms. Trick sighed.
As Michelle prattled, I screwed up my courage and scribbled my affection on the back of an old hall pass. When the coast was clear, I threw it at Mila. It returned half a minute later with her response.
            Sory. I only gong wit manely man.
I blushed and hurriedly stuffed the note in my shirt pocket, popping a button off and causing my knuckles to bleed again. As I held my fist to my mouth, I thought…
            “Hmm… Seta’s not THAT ugly.”

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Nice Boy

“Oops! So sorry.”
The tall, thin man wearing a brown hat crashed into me in the crowded airport, knocking me over; spilling me, my comic books and my colored pencils across the floor. My chin throbbed from smashing it on the hard, slick ground.
   “Are you ok, son?”
I of course didn’t understand a word he said as he easily lifted me off the floor by my arm and then picked up my books and pencils. His voice had a lilt to it, like a glissando. I liked the way it sounded, but I just stared up at him with a blank expression, noticing his moist blue eyes under his arched eyebrows. He reminded me of Opa. I already missed him. I missed every one of them, terribly.
   “Are you ok?”
He kept standing there looking at me and wouldn’t go away. I started to worry that he was angry, even though the expression on his face belied that. I dared not rub my aching chin, lest it set him off. He looked at my comic books and noticed that they weren’t in English.
   “Ah. German?”
He pointed at me.
I nodded as my mother returned from the luggage carousel with our suitcases. I ran up to her and grabbed her hand. He handed my comic books and pencils to my mother and apologized to her.
   “I’m afraid I knocked your son over in my rush. I’m very sorry.”
My mother answered in halting English.
   “No problem. He iz ok.”
The man pulled a dollar bill out of his pocket and crouched down to my height to hand it to me. I looked at the strange bill in my hand.
   “Zay sank you.”
I looked up at my mother, not understanding the instruction.
   “Sag danke.”
   “You’re welcome, son.”
He patted my head, stood up and then rushed off, waving over his shoulder.
   “Welcome to New York.”
I rubbed my chin as I examined the bill the man gave me. It was green and white and warm. I held it against my cheek. It smelled musty. My mother grabbed the suitcases and headed down the corridor to join my father, brother and sister in the customs office. She looked back and noticed me smelling the dollar bill.
   “Komm schon, kindchen.”
I caught up with her, trying to avoid the swinging suitcases and lunging knees while I hopped and ran to keep pace.

            We entered a small square office that still had Christmas decorations up. There was a small silver aluminum tree with large blinking lights on top of a tall grey file cabinet. Two red paper bells in opposite corners and a long gold garland connecting them framed the otherwise bare far wall. It seemed sadly austere to me, and hardly cheery. The man talking to my father reminded me of the Great Leslie’s bald sidekick in The Great Race. I watched the movie with my uncles and aunts at my grandmother’s house in Höchst, the week before we left. I laughed until tears rolled down my face. Especially during the pie throwing scene. Unlike Hezekiah, though, the man in the office had a thinning crescent of blonde hair on his giant head that connected to his bushy mustache via thick blond and grey sideburns. My father motioned to my mother.
   “Heer ees.”
My mother took over answering questions and signing paperwork, while my father dealt with my fidgeting infant sister who’d just awoken and started crying. My brother stood next to his chair, with his arms wrapped around my father’s legs
   “What is the nature of your visit?”
   “Ve arr nut visiteeng. Ve arr leeveeng heer.”
   “You’re leaving?”
   “No. Ve arr komming heer.”
   “You’re returning from a trip?”
   “Nein, ach… no. Ve hov movet heer.”
   “Oh. You’re moving here?”
   “Ja! Yes.”
   “Hmm. Customs gave me the wrong information. These are the wrong forms.”
He then ripped up all the forms my mother had been signing and pulled new ones out of his desk drawer. My father frowned at her.
   “Was ist loss?”
My mother shushed him.
   “Here we are… Do you have your visas?”
She handed over all our visas. He held up my mother’s and father’s visas while checking their faces against the pictures.
   “This man is your husband?”
   “How long have you been married?”
   “Ayt yeaz.”
He bent his head forward to fill in the information on the forms. The blonde fuzz on top of his head looked like the fuzz on top of my sister’s head. Though she had more of it and her’s was darker.
   “These are your children?”
He held up our visas and checked our faces against the pictures. He checked my brother, my sister and then me.
   “How old are they?”
   “Von yea oold, feif yeaz oold und zex yeaz oold.”
He winked at me as he handed the visas back to my mother. I clutched my comics closer to my chest. My mother stroked my hair and whispered that I should tell the man what she taught me in Germany, before the flight. I shook my head.
   “Komm schon… Bitte.”
   “I EM eh NAYSE BOYee.”
My cheeks turned red hot. I sounded like Bela Lugosi; putting emphasis on every other syllable, as if the inflection carried the meaning… which was a mystery to me. I could’ve insulted his mother for all I knew. My own mother beamed at her polyglot son and the man raised his eyebrows in appreciation.
   “I’m sure you are, kid.”
He handed me a candy that he pulled out of the same drawer in his desk. I unwrapped it and put it in my mouth, but then spat it out immediately. Butterscotch. What a cruel trick. My father smacked the back of my head as my mother distracted the man from my bad manners by asking a question.

            My head hurt. Not merely from the smack- though that didn’t help, nor the fall to the floor- which exacerbated it. The unfamiliarity of everything overwhelmed me and I was terrified. The bright white lights made my temples throb and my eyes burn. The cacophony of beeping trams and rolling luggage and shouting travelers and stern staccato announcements over the intercom… I wanted to go back home. I hated it here. I missed my uncles and aunts and Oma and Opa. I missed my friends. How was I going to make friends here when I couldn’t understand anyone? Everybody talked like they were chewing gum. Ngow, ngow, ngow, ngow… I bit my lip to keep from crying. I failed. Which set my sister off again. Which angered my father. My mother snatched my sister from him and balanced her on her left knee as she sealed our fate with a flourish of her right hand. She slid the forms over to my father so he could do the same. It was right then, with those signatures, that I realized that my parents wouldn’t always look out for me. The packing, the goodbyes and even the flight over - it all seemed reversible, but this action was as indelible as the ink. The epiphany started me sobbing; and now, my brother joined in, making it a trio.

            “Verdammt noch mal!”
My father picked up my crying brother and yanked me hard, by the shoulder, towards the door. My mother apologized to the man as he handed back our visas.
   “Eet vas loong flate. Dey arr verry teyered.”
He nodded like he understood. The door closed. My father, brother and I stood in the bright hallway again. I could still hear my sister cry over my own wailing. It sounded like she was being rocked: “Aa-yaa-yaa-yaa.” My father jerked my arm. I looked up to see him glowering at me. I stopped crying immediately; though my shoulders still convulsed as I sniffled.
   “Halt’s maul!”
My brother stopped crying as well; knowing, as I did, that it was the prudent thing to do. My father sighed angrily and lit a cigarette. He ran his hands through his hair as it dangled between his lips. It burned down to the filter before the door opened again and my mother came out with my sister. She’d stopped crying and was sucking her thumb.
   “Welcome to the United States.”
   “Sank you verry match.”
The man waved goodbye to us in the hallway.
My mother ignored my father’s question. Instead she handed him all the paperwork along with my sister. She picked up my brother and stroked my hair again. I took her hand as we headed down the long hallway towards our connecting flight to our new life.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Horse Teeth (Book Excerpt #3)

 'Honk! Honk!'

I was stuck in some morbidly slow moving procession of cars inching towards an open spot at the curb. It was my turn to pick Alexa up from school. I just got my car back from the shop yesterday. The logo job and catalog work generated some desperately needed income from a pompous balding windbag who sold dental supplies wholesale. Half of his attention, during our initial meeting, was spent trying to keep his feathered hair from his temples plastered to his bare scalp. Anyway, he liked the work and promised more. Things were looking up. I picked the car up as soon as I cashed the check. The mechanic charged me $450 for the transmission work and another $300 for storing my car on his lot for 4 months while I came up with the money.
  "Seven fifty?! I don’t have that."
He sighed.
  "How much you got, Kok?"
He frowned at me, t’sked, spat on the floor and then made a motion to give him the money. I did. He counted it and then wagged his finger in my face.
  "Only because your father’s a friend of mine."
He slapped me across the cheek and left an oily palm print.
  "Is the key in the ignition?"
I went to my car, popped the hatch and smeared the oil off my face with an old t-shirt.

 'Chig-chig-chig klick. Chig-chig-chig klick.'
  "Hey! There’s no gas in this thing!"
  "D’you bring it in with gas?"
  "Half a tank."
  "Then there’s gas in it."
 'Chih-chig-chig klick.'
Pump. Pump. Pump.
 'Chig-chig-chig klick.'
  "Well fill it up at that pump!"
  "I gave you all my money."
That was a lie. I stashed a fifty in my back pocket. The mechanic cursed at me and the car. He walked over to the pump with a 3 gallon container and filled it up.
I poured it into the tank. Pump.
  "Get the fuck outta here."
I saluted and drove off.

Senf and Muttley went crazy in the backseat barking at a Shih-tzu out for a walk. I hate yip-yip dogs, but the chick walking it was alright. Dark brown hair bobbed just below her jaw, pale skin, sleeveless belly shirt and some cut off denim shorts wrapped around a gorgeous ass and some long sexy legs in fishnet that led to a pair of black combat boots.
I almost got into an accident staring. Seems I got her attention; or rather, the swearing driver behind me did.
A spot opened up 3 cars ahead and luckily for me, everyone in front had already picked their kids up. I squeezed into the spot and got out. Senf and Muttley almost dove out after me, but I shoved their heads back in the car and slammed the door shut. They stuck their heads out of the cracked window and barked at the Shih-tzu. I got a better look at the chick. What I hadn’t noticed was that her right arm was partially sleeved down to her forearm, and she wore a big eyebrow ring. On closer inspection, she wasn’t as attractive as I thought, but hell, it was coming up on two years. Given the opportunity, it would not have mattered. I smiled.
She smiled back with a mouth full of horse teeth and gums that came down nearly three quarters of the way. I was immediately turned off. I think I may have flinched.
  "Have a lovely day."
  "Fuck off."

Alexa came running out of the front door, dragging her small backpack and sweater on the ground behind her. She hadn’t seen me yet, but the excitement of getting her 'after school ice cream cone' popped her out of that building like a champagne cork. I was still about 20 feet away. Two girls sitting at the bottom of the stairs pointed at her and giggled. She did look funny wobble-running down the stairs, dragging her things behind her. One of the girls stuck her foot out as Alexa ran by and she hit the ground hard, skidding about a yard. The girls exploded into laughter and did a little dance as Alexa was splayed out on the pavement. I ran over to Alexa and picked her up. Her hands were skinned and bleeding and the elbow on her right sleeve was torn and bloody. She whimpered and her lip quivered but she wouldn’t cry. That’s my girl. Don’t give those brats the satisfaction.
  "Are you ok, my angel?"
She had tears in her eyes and her quivering lip grew more pronounced, but she nodded. I brushed her off and dabbed her hands and elbow with a tissue I had in my pocket. The girls looked over and were snickering into their hands. I got angry.
  "Stay right here beautiful."
I walked over to the girls and crouched down beside them. The 'leader', a little towheaded girl with brown eyes frowned at me. The other, a Filipina, looked scared.
  "That was a very mean thing you girls did. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves."
  "We didn’t do anything."
  "Please don’t lie. I saw the whole thing. I want you to go over there and apologize."
Towhead crossed her arms across her belly with a "humph". The Filipina became more confident and did the same thing.
  "See those two dogs in that car?"
I pointed at Senf and Muttley.
  "If I hear that you so much as looked at Alexa cross-eyed, I’ll bring them back here and feed them your right foot and left ear,"
I pointed at towhead.
  "… and your left foot and right ear."
I pointed at the Filipina.
  "You’ll never dance again… and not because you can’t hear the music."
  "We don’t believe you!"
  "Really? OK."
I called to Senf in the car and he looked over.
That trigger always set him off. He barked maniacally, which set Muttley off too. People near my car backed off or swung wide around it. The little girls' eyes widened and they looked frightened.
They both ran off screaming "Mommeeee!" Alexa giggled. I gave her a wink.

Alexa was perched on my shoulders as we walked to the car. Someone tapped my back and yelled,
  "Excuse me!"
We turned around to a gaudily dressed older lady with massive hair, scowling at us. Her pungent perfume gave me an instant headache, and the sight of her unfettered pendulous breasts under a leopard print blouse nonplussed me.
  "What did you say to my little precious?"
  "Who’s your little precious, madam?"
  "Don’t be flip, boy!"
She puckered her meaty lips and scowled some more.
  "I’m German on my mother’s side, lady. Armenian on my father's."
  "My little girl!"
She pointed at the crying towheaded girl who was wrapped around the leg of some embarrassed looking older guy in a rumpled suit.
  "Oh her. I told her that God eats bad little girls."
I gave her a big smile. Pucker-puss went ballistic and trailed us to the car.
  "You dirty Armo!"
  "Germ-armo, lady!"
  "How dare you talk to my child like that! My husband’s a lawyer!"
  "My mother’s a hitman, so back off toots!"
  "I’ll sue! I’ll sue you! I’ll have your daughter expelled and then I’ll sue you!"
Everybody was staring at us now. She let loose a torrent of obscenities. I tried to cover Alexa's ears while still holding on to her knees. When we got to the car, Senf and Muttley growled and snarled at her and scared her half to death. She twisted one of her bloated ankles and fell back onto her flat wide ass.
  "I’ll have your mongrels put down!"
I lifted Alexa off my shoulders, put her on the ground and walked over to Pucker. I bent over and hissed at her, very low, so that Alexa wouldn’t hear.
  "Two things you don’t EVER fuck with- my girl and my boys. Do you understand me you stupid bitch?"
The throbbing veins in my neck and clenched jaw radiated spite. She was struck dumb. My face then morphed into a huge insincere grin as I grabbed her wrist (squeezing hard… she winced) and pulled her up on her feet.
  "It was lovely speaking with you, madam. Have a great afternoon and fuck you very much."
The last part I said fast so that Alexa couldn’t make it out. Pucker ran back to towhead and the suit as we climbed in the car and drove off.

  "What time is it daddy?"
  "Et’s far turty sehvun, lahss."
Alexa loved it when I did the Luggy Chum voice. She giggled.
  "Are we still getting ice cream, daddy?"
  "Shoor’n weh ehr, ger-lee."
She just started calling me daddy. She used to call me Koko or Pop-pop. For the longest time, she thought of me as her friend rather than her father. Who could blame her? I was barely a presence for most of her 5 1/2 years, and then all of a sudden, I wanted to be called 'daddy'. She was a tough nut. A little too tough for her age, but she slowly came around. It’s forever etched in my memory, the first time I heard that magic word. We were eating cheese sandwiches and watching cartoons when Alexa put her head on my chest and asked:
  "Do you want some of my milkshake, daddy?"
I had to excuse myself to the bathroom, where I bent over the sink and cried.
  "It’s right here, daddy. Don’t miss it!"
  "I see it, my angel."
Every Thursday, I picked her up from school and took her for ice cream; and everytime, she was afraid I’d miss the shop.
  "What’re you gonna get, beautiful?"
  "Bubble gum ‘n lime she-but ‘n rocky road."
The usual. The thought of all those flavors swimming around in the stomach made me queasy.
  "What’re you getting, daddy?"
  "Cherry vanilla."
The usual. Alexa rolled her eyes. I ordered a waffle cone for her. The girl behind the counter scooped it and carefully handed it to her. It teetered a little, but her little hands had a good grip.
  "Would you like to try our new flavor?"
  "Sure. What is it?"
  "Lemon cream."
I took a hit off those ridiculously small spoons.
  "Mm. That’s good. I’ll take a scoop on a cone."
  "Cake or sugar?"
Alexa put her right hand on her hip (and was going to lose two of her scoops).
  "That’s not cherry vanilla."
I put her hand back on the cone.
  "Nope… but sometimes change is good baby."
I raised my left eyebrow to punctuate the point and Alexa tried it too. The concentration on her face made me laugh. I swallowed wrong and had a coughing fit. Alexa pounded on my back, but because she was so short, she kept hitting my kidney.
  "Ow. Kaff. Ow. It’s ok baby. Ow! I’m alright."
I grabbed her little hand. The girl behind the counter gave me a small cup of water.
  "Much better."

  "Here’s your cone, sir."
  "Oh thanks."
  "That’ll be seven dollars."
Seven bucks for two ice cream cones! Christ. Every week I was surprised at the price. One would think it’d sink in by now, but it always stung. I pulled out the fifty that I hid from the mechanic.
  "Oh. Do you have anything smaller?"
  "Sorry, I don’t. This is it."
  "Mm. I can’t break that."
  "Then we have a problem."
She pondered the dilemma for a second.
  "Don’t worry about it. You’re regulars, so this one’s on me."
She raised a finger to her lips and whispered.
  "Just don’t tell the owner."
I winked and whispered back.
  "Our little secret."
I fumbled around in my pocket for change and found a couple quarters, which I dropped in the tip jar.

  "How’s your lime shazbut?"
  "Oh! I mean sherbet."
  "Good. Want some?"
Her cone was a mass of melted colors and flavors and bits of napkin with a sheen of saliva. The way her nose was running, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was snot on it too.
  "No thanks."
I held back a gag.
  "Gimme your cone for a sec, baby. You need to wipe that mouth and blow your nose."
I held her cone in the same hand I held mine, taking care that they didn’t touch.
  "Could you please wet these for me?"
The girl handed me back some wet napkins.
  "Say ahhh…"
I wiped hard.
  "Ow daddy!"
A snot bubble popped out of her nose.
  "Almost done… ok… now blow."
She got snot on my hand.
  "Eww. You’re loaded."
I wiped off on one of the wet napkins.
  "That’s better. Here you go angel."

  "Can we get mommy some ice cream?"
  "I don’t think so baby. They can’t break my fifty."
  "Please! I think she would really like some!"
  "I’ll tell you what. We’ll stop off at Thrifty on the way home, ok? They should be able to make change."
Alexa happily licked her cone and bounced in her seat in rhythm to some song she was humming to herself; frantically swinging her legs. I bit out the bottom of my cone and sucked out the melted ice cream.

A car pulled into a spot directly on the other side of the window. Pucker stepped out of the car with a crying towhead in hand. Suit-man hesitated a second and slumped out of the car as well.
  "I see baby. Don’t you worry."
Senf and Muttley saw them too and started barking furiously. Towhead shrieked. Pucker recoiled and then threw her shoe at them. Suit-man looked pathetically dejected. The old crone looked in the window and saw us. I was laughing so hard I strained a muscle in my neck. She was apoplectic and barked at towhead and suit-man to get back in the car. Just as he pulled out, suit-man wagged his finger at me. I swear that I saw him chuckling as he pulled away.

Alexa and I finished our cones.
  "Are we going to Thrifty now daddy?"
  "We are going to Thrifty now daughter."

We stopped at Thrifty on the way home. Alexa picked out a gallon (a quart was “too little”) of Butter Pecan.
  "It’s mommy’s favorite."
Five bucks. I was hoping to treat myself to a small pizza at Romeo’s. Ah well.

We got to Alexa’s home at a quarter past five. Molly was sitting on the couch watching television.
  "Hi sweetie!"
  "Daddy took me to ice cream."
  "I know button. Your daddy always takes you to get ice cream when he picks you up.”
  "We bought some for you too!"
I held up the bag.
  "Thank you."
She said it to Alexa and gave her a hug.
  "Do you have any homework?"
Alexa’s shoulders slumped and she frowned.
  "Why don’t you go to your room and work on it, ok?"

Alexa went to her room and closed the door.
  "We have to talk."
  "To what do I owe this privilege?"
Molly brushed the comment aside.
  "I got a call from the dean at Hamilton."
She started "shouting" at me without raising her voice.
  "You know damn well what about!"
  "Refresh my memory."
I acted oblivious. It was admittedly immature but her admonishing tone brought it out in me. Her voice grew louder.
  "You threatened those little girls!"
  "I did no such thing. I merely told them that God eats bad little girls. Blame him."
  "Are you for fucking real?!"
  "Watch your mouth!"
I pointed at Alexa’s door.
  "Your concern for those two little brats is touching considering they sent our daughter tumbling down the stairs for a laugh and bloodied her elbows. Your motherly eyes did take notice of that, right?"
The accusation hung in the space between us. She was ultra-sensitive about being a good mother to Alexa, and I knew that…
  "You also threatened one of the mothers!"
She was shouting now.
  "That wizened old crone threatened Alexa and then threatened my boys!"
  "Your boys?!"
  "Senf and Muttley."
Molly’s face went blank and she was silent. After a deliberate pause, she continued in a calm, measured tone.
  "What kind of man are you? What kind of father are you? You care more about your mangy mutts than you do your daughter. You spend more time, energy and money on them than you do her. Shame on you. Shame on you Heiko."
My face immediately went hot. My neck burned from the immediate rage that I tried (unsuccessfully) to contain. I exploded.
  "Who the fuck do you think you are, you fucking bitch?! You stole 5 1/2 years of her life from me and you’ve got the fucking nerve to accuse me of being a bad father?!"
Spittle flew as my eyes watered.
  "You didn’t give me a chance to be ANY kind of father to her! You stole her from me!"
  "I stole her?"
  "Yeah, you fucking stole her!"
I clenched my fists to stop all that anger from shooting out my fingertips.
  "Imagine my surprise when I get a letter from some preschool demanding my tax returns so that my daughter, who I’ve never met or even knew existed, could qualify for some scholarship. Fucking shock to me!… Who does that Molly? Hmm? What kind of person does that make you, huh?!"
She stared at me tight-lipped.
"Five and a half years where I could have had a little bit of happiness in my life!"
My eyes welled up. I dragged my sleeve across them.
  "YOU did that, Molly…"
I growled:
  "YOU kept her father away!"
Molly laughed. I wanted to snap her neck.
  "What kind of father would you have been? You can’t even find a job now! How would you have provided for her, hmm?"
  "I would have found a way."
  "Like you are now?!"
  "Yeah! Like I am now!"
She laughed again. I clenched my fists tighter.
A look of pity washed over Molly’s face.
  "No, but you do answer to her."
Alexa’s scared face peeked out from behind her bedroom door. Molly knocked me on my ass with that upper-cut. And the look on Alexa’s face… gutted. I turned around, opened the door and walked out. I made it halfway to the staircase when I realized that I still had Molly’s butter pecan in my hand. I walked back to the apartment, put the ice cream on the welcome mat, knocked on the door and left. I heard the door open behind me and muffled crying. I couldn’t tell if it was Molly or Alexa. I just put my head down and walked to my car, biting down on my lip.

 'I want to go home. I want to go home.'
The mantra ricocheted off the inside of my skull over and over and over. I just want to go home. Lock everyone and everything out. Be alone… The problem is that I never felt at home anywhere. Never felt peaceful. Ever since we moved here… and especially after Polina left…

Home. My nose bled again, and so did my lip. I drove off.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Hate and Switch

Hate walked into the bar, exhausted and needing a drink. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he noticed Love sitting on a stool by herself at the corner farthest from the door. Her shoes were off and her naked feet kicked peanut shells back and forth on the dirty floor. She drained a large highball in one swallow and motioned to the hunchbacked bartender for another. Hate tried to duck back out before she noticed him, but was blocked by a large mumbling party of Apathies that oozed into the bar like melting wax. The buzzing drew her attention. She looked up and saw Hate smiling sheepishly, standing in the doorway, and groaned. Discovered, he walked over.
   “Hello, Love.”
   “Christ! Not you again. Didn’t we have an agreement to stay out of each other’s hair?”
   “I just needed a little break.”
   “Look, we agreed. You get run of the place at night, and I get it during the day.”
   “Yeah, but…”
   “Yeah, but nothing! This is the third time this week, Hate. What is wrong with you?”
   “I need a breather. I’m tired.”
   “You’re tired?! Do you have any idea how tiring my job is?!”
   “I’m sure it’s very hard.”
Love took another big swallow from the freshly refilled glass sweating on the bar and then spat an ice cube back into it. She forced a laugh.
   “You’re damn right it’s hard… Especially having to undo your handy-work!”
Hate remained silent as he cast his eyes down at the floor to avoid Love’s glare. A cockroach scurried across the floor and over the peanut shells near her left foot. He noticed that the black polish on her toes was chipping.
   “My job’s hard too, Love.”
   “My job’s hard too, Love.”
   “I’m serious.”
   “I’m serious.”
Hate looked at her and sighed. Her face was screwed into a scornful pout, mocking him. He studied her puckered face as she glowered at him.
            She was beautiful, once. Radiant and flawless. Young. Alluring. Anyone who was lucky enough to discover Love was immediately gob-smacked- blithering, babbling, doddering. She reveled in it. They wanted her. Wanted all her time and all her attention. And she gave it… when she was young and strong and could. Alas, Love changed as she grew older. She couldn’t keep up. Love was stretched to her limits. She was drained. Love felt empty. She’d plead to Desire and Lust to cover her shifts (after all she’d gone to orientation with both of them and they knew about 75% of her job) but that always ended badly and soon Hate would be called in. She started skipping out. The few appointments she’d kept, she sleep-walked through. Love never lasted long. She soon stopped caring and was filled with Scorn… who was a bad influence on her. She dyed her crimson hair jet black and put it up in pigtails on top of her head, like horns. She started wearing vinyl and leather, studded chokers, torn fishnets and long black streaks of eyeliner. Love blasted Atari Teenage Riot, Einstürzende Neubauten and Venetian Snares on the portable iPod speakers that she strapped to her belt, specifically to freak people out.
            People feared her. Then they stopped believing in Love, or rather, stopped believing that Love mattered. Which was all fine and well with her. They could all suck it as far as she was concerned. Well, some very important eyebrows were raised, and the Director called her in and thoroughly chewed her out; warning her, in very explicit terms, that she had better get her act together or he was going to demote her to Longing, part-time, and she would lose all her benefits. The threat was enough to elicit exemplary work… for about 3 weeks. But when the Director was caught having an affair with the receptionist in Billing and was busted down to the swing shift in Limbo, Love regressed; going through the motions and slogging through the day. It helped a bit to get tipsy before her shifts… soused after… and soon, during. Punch drunk Love. It broke Hate’s heart. It did, however, make his job easier. Though it kept him very, very busy. Even the Apathies put in double overtime.
   “You just gonna stand there and stare at me all day?”
Hate motioned the stooped bartender over and scooped a handful of peanuts out of the bowl on the bar. He cracked the shell of one and popped the contents into his mouth but then spat the stale nuts onto the floor.
   “Jeez. How long have these been sitting here?”
The bartender fixed him with an impatient eye, then barked.
   “Whaddya want?”
   “Midori Sour. Double shot please.”
Love belched out a snarky laugh.
   “Wow. You really are all man, aren’t you?”
He ignored her and tipped the bowl, sweeping the stale peanuts off the bar onto the floor. Then he downed the cocktail the bartender set in front of him.
Hate gestured to the bartender for a second.
   “Easy now, tiger. Think of your liver.”
He ignored the mocking again.
   “What are you drinking?”
   “I can buy my own damn drinks, thank you!”
   “Just trying to be friendly.”
   “That’s rich! Hate’s trying to be friendly.”
   “I think you’ll find that off the clock, I’m quite agreeable.”
   “And I think you’ll find that you’re not off the clock yet.”

            The lights in the bar went dim and then flickered as the front door opened and a tall thin shadow appeared in the doorway. Hate lifted his second cocktail to his lips and puckered as Love grabbed Hate’s hips and yanked his body closer to her, spilling half the contents of his drink over his shirt and shoes.
   “Shut up!”
   “These are suede shoes!”
   “Shut up!”
She quickly bent her knees to her chest and rested her feet on top of her barstool; pulling on Hate’s left hip and pushing on his right so that he was facing the door and obscuring her behind him.
   “What are you doing?”
Love hissed at him.
   “Just keep quiet!”
Death entered the room. He was a giant in black, bending down so as not to hit his head on the naked bulbs that hung three feet below the rafters. He walked up to the bar and called the bartender over.
   “Virgin margarita, please. Blended.”
The bartender scowled.
   “Why don’t you just go to 7/11 and get yourself a Slushie?”
Death frowned at the bartender and made a loud, low guttural noise. Everyone immediately fell silent and nervously turned towards the bar as their glasses danced on the tabletops.
   “Alright. Alright.”
Death laid his five bucks on the counter and reached for some peanuts from another bowl on the bar.
   “I wouldn’t eat those. They’re all stale.”
   “Hi, Hate! I didn’t see you there.”
He extended his hand for Hate to shake, but Hate demurred.
   “C’mon Death.”
Death withdrew his hand.
   “Sorry. I forget sometimes.”
   “S’okay. How’s business?”
   “Brisk. Too brisk. I’ve been pulling major overtime all week and I’m exhausted. I need to cash in some floating holidays and get away. How’re you doin’?”
   “About the same. I’ve used up all my floaters and most of my vacation, so I drop in here from time to time for a breather.”
   “Better busy than out of a job, huh?”
The bartender hobbled over with Death’s margarita and set it on the bar. Death removed the wedge of lime that perched on the lip of the glass and placed it on the bar. It turned black and shriveled in on itself.
   “Good talking to you, Hate.”
   “Same to you. Say hi to… uh…”
Hate realized mid-sentence that Death was a bachelor and lived alone.
   “Take care, man.”
   “You too, buddy.”
Death leaned forward and looked down over Hate’s head.
   “Bye Love.”
Love straightened up behind Hate and waved to Death.
   “Oh, hi! Sorry, I lost a contact and didn’t see you standing there. Ah! There it is!”
Love pretended to scoop up an errant contact lens from the lapel of her blouse and pop it back into her eye.
   “‘Love is blind’ makes for a pithy adage, but it ain’t very practical.”
She giggled nervously.
“Good to see you again Love.”
With that, Death picked up his margarita and walked over to an empty table in a dark corner of the bar, next to the broken Arcade Quiz Games, and sat down.

   “What was that all about?”
   “No. That was definitely something.”
   “Ugh… We dated.”
   “You dated?!”
   “Yeah. So?”
   “So? It’s verboten. He’s upper management.”
Love rolled her eyes and clucked her annoyance. Hate slapped his forehead.
   “Oh crap! He’s upper management.”
   “So what?!”
   “He saw me hanging out in a bar on the clock. Shit! I’m cooked! You too!”
   “Relax. He’s not going to say anything. He’s decent… he’s actually a really nice guy.”
   “If he’s so nice and decent, why aren’t you still dating?”
   “Because he’s boring as Sin.”
   “I’ve hung out with Sin. She’s anything but boring.”
   “You know what I mean. He’s as boring as he is nice. As dull as he is considerate.”
   “How’d you two hook up?”
   “I would meet him a few times a week after work.”
   “For what?”
Love sighed, impatiently.
   “When my assignments were mishandled by those two clucking chicken-heads who’d fill in for me…”
   “You mean the two who covered your ass?”
 “Are you going to let me finish?”
   “Sorry. Go ahead.”
   “Anyway… A lot of those lovelorn whiners wished for Death. So I figured I’d give him a call and hand him a number of referrals each week.”
   “So it wasn’t because you caught Scorn and Rumor in bed together?”
   “What? No…… How’d you hear about that?”
   “Rumor gets around.”
   “I’ll bet she does. Skank!”
   “Sorry. I interrupted again. Go on.”
   “Death was sweet… and grateful. He took me to dinners and bought me drinks. The more we hung out after work, the more preoccupied I became with Death. No one really knew anything about him. Except for a wave here, a smile there and a ‘nice to see you’, he usually kept to himself. The mystery of Death started to intrigue me. Plus, it didn’t hurt that he was tall, dark and thin and still had all his hair. I found him kind of sexy.”
   “He is quite the looker.”
   “I’ll slip him your number.”
   “I don’t swing that way.”
   “Not what I heard… I needed a thrill; something new and a little dangerous to get my mind off the mind numbing work, so I asked him out. We dated for a time, but that thrill never came. The man was as exhilarating as a tea leaf. It grew old fast. Real fast. I couldn’t take anymore museum dates, afternoon hikes or another night of jigsaw puzzles and spiced cider. He listened to Steely Dan and Air Supply records non-stop! It drove me nuts! One day, while he was taking a shower, I went through his stuff to see if he was hiding some kinky or titillating side from me. I found his diary stuffed between his mattresses and read it.”
   “I would have lost money on him sleeping in a coffin.”
   “Are you gonna keep interrupting me?! Tell me now and I’ll save my breath!”
   “Seriously! You’re on my last frayed nerve!”
   “Sorry. I promise. Not another word out of turn.”
Love scowled at Hate for a hot minute…
   “I found his diary and read it. It was all names and dates. Nothing juicy or even halfway interesting. Just names and dates… That was it. I ran out the door while he was still in the shower singing ‘All Out Of Love’.”
Deciding against pointing out the obvious irony, Hate kept his mouth shut for fear of incurring Love’s wrath. The logistics of their relationship puzzled him, seeing as Death was clearly not someone you could run up to and hug, but he didn’t dare ask. A pregnant silence passed before Hate cleared his throat.
   “That’s it?”
Love shot daggers at Hate through her squinted eyes and swung around on her barstool, turning her back to him. She called the bartender over to order another drink.

   “Why are you such a… spiteful… cow?”
Hate immediately regretted his choice of words as Love swung around violently on her stool, kicking him hard in the knee.
   “You do this job and see what it does to you!”
Hate rubbed his knee as Love’s spittle flew into his face.
   “You think my job is duck soup?”
   “A trained monkey, can do what you do, Hate.”
   “Zat so? You try being the patsy for all the friction and conflict and hostilities in the world. You think I don’t take any of that anxiety home with me? I’m tired of all that corrosive negativity.”
   “Poor baby… YOU try having the fate of the world on your shoulders!”
   “Oh give me a break, Love! That’s a little self-important, isn’t it? The fate of the world on your shoulders?”
   “What does the fate of the world have to do with you? Despite the cheesy lyrics on Death’s mixtape, Love does not make the world go ‘round?”
   “You think Hate does?!”
   “I know it doesn’t. Thank God…”
The bartender slammed his large meaty palm on the top of the bar with a loud bang. Everyone jumped in their seats except Death, who was listening to adult-contemporary through his ear buds and doing a crossword puzzle he ripped out of the newspaper that morning. A bottle fell off the counter and smashed on the concrete floor with a loud crash.
   “How many times have I told you? I don’t want to hear that name in my bar!”
   “Sorry. Sheesh!”
   “Just one more time, Hate, and I’m throwing you out those doors, headfirst.”
   “Okay, okay… It wasn’t me that bent your spine, ok?”
The scowling bartender closed one eye and pointed a finger at Hate, but said nothing. Everyone returned to their conversations as the bartender pushed past Love and Hate to sweep the broken glass into a dustpan. Love swiveled her stool around and turned her back on Hate again. She lit a cigarette under the ‘No Smoking’ sign, took a long drag and exhaled with a sharp sigh. She nursed her drink between puffs of her cigarette, which she smoked down to the filter, before she spoke again…
   “What makes the world go ‘round?”
   “What makes the world go ‘round?”
   “That knuckle dragger? Are you kidding me?”
   “Nope. He make’s the world go round. We’ve paired up many times. I’ve seen him work. The guy is a machine. Fear is an amazing motivator.”
   “How does that ogre make the world go ‘round?”
   “You know better than most how Fear can rule a man’s heart, Love. He’s insidious. Fear wriggles into the heart and the mind and takes root, either paralyzing change or catalyzing destruction. He keeps man from happiness and sends him rushing headlong into mediocrity, or worse. He’s the arbiter of the status quo.”
   “And also the genitor of loneliness.”
   “Yeah. He’s got many talents.”
   “What about those with no fear?”
   “Everyone fears something.”
   “But what about those who aren’t ruled by fear?”
   “What about those who aren’t ruled by love, joy, sadness, hate, anger, jealousy, shame? You do what you can, you punch the clock and you collect your paycheck.”
   “Well, I can’t do it anymore, Hate. I can’t… I can’t… I… HATE this job.”
   “I’d gladly do your’s over mine.”
   “You couldn’t handle it.”
   “I think I could.”
   “It’s yours then.”
   “It’s a-l-l yours. Take it.”
   “Yes, really. I’m so done with it.”
   “And what’ll you do?”
   “I don’t know. Maybe Reiki. There are classes at the Learning Annex.”
   “Uh… why don’t you take my job? I think you have the right attitude for it. We’ll switch.”
   “Management would never go for it. That new director is strictly by the book.”
   “Don’t worry about him. He and I go way back. I used to play drums in his band in college. He’ll approve it.”
   “Ok, then.”
   “Great! I’ll have Obsession drop off the handbook of statutory codes and guidelines.”
   “My… I mean your, new intern. She’s a little thick, but she means well. She’s also the Chairman’s niece. Just so you know.”
            “Barkeep! Another sour and a… What’re you drinking, Love?…”

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Party (Book Excerpt #2)

I met her at a friend’s party. I forgot what the occasion was. ‘Enter Sandman’ was blaring and Arak was flowing like water. She was beautiful. Deep reddish-brown hair (natural), blood red lips, pale white skin and crystal blue eyes. While tits and ass and legs certainly have their merits, it’s always the eyes that closed the deal for me. I sat down next to her in the crowded living room. I was nursing a watered down Arak and watching some boring game show on the TV. She leaned over and said:
  “The women are buying their own drinks at Papillon’s tonight.”
I laughed. The room was full of Arabs, a few Persians and one or two Armenians. Smoking, drinking, arguing, laughing, playing backgammon. I got a visual of the owner of Papillon’s looking out over an empty banquet hall, scratching his head and cursing, and laughed again.
She offered her hand.
I returned mine.
  “Heiko’s an unusual name. Where are you from?”
She winced.
  “Is there a problem?”
  “I’m Russian. I’m not too fond of Germans.”
I frowned.
  “I’m sorry. Maybe I can open up a peace dialogue by offering you some chips and dip.”
She laughed then gave me one of the most beautiful smiles I’d seen.
  “No Fritos.”
  “Wouldn’t dream of it. Be right back.”
I got up and scooped a handful of Doritos and french onion dip on a plate. I went to the kitchen and dumped the rest of my Arak in the sink and grabbed a Sprite. As I was walking back, I was surprised to notice that no one else had sat next to Polina. No one was talking to her. Maybe because she was different than everyone else. Who knew? I was glad though.
  “Here you go.”
  “Thank you. So what are the terms of the peace agreement?”
  “Well, if dialogues go well, there may be another plate of chips and dip in your future.”
She laughed. I got butterflies in my stomach. God I was easy. Get a beautiful girl with beautiful eyes and a beautiful smile who shows a modicum of interest and I melt like cheap wax.
  “I’ll tell you what, you make it a plate of some of that falafel and hummous and you may have yourself a treaty.”
  “You got it.”
I got up to fix her her plate.
  “Where are you going?”
  “To prepare your tribute.”
  “How do you know that I’ll be receptive or refrain from hostilities?”
  “I’ll take my chances.”
She blushed. Our eyes locked for a few seconds and my stomach did loop-de-loops.

I went back into to kitchen. My friend Farouk, the host of the party, was staring into the fridge.
  “Hey Freddy, where’s the falafel?”
  “It’s in the stove keeping warm. Want a beer?”
  “No. You know I hate beer.”
  “You’re the only German I know that doesn’t drink beer.”
  “Please. How many Germans do you know?”
  “A few. And you’re the only one of them that hates beer.”
  “It’s in the script.”
  “It’s in the script.”
  “What the hell does that mean?”
  “Nothing. Where’s the lettuce, tomato and tahini?”
  “Right here.”
He pulled a plate out of the fridge and handed it to me.
  “So how do you like the party?”
  “Not bad. You’re killing me with the Metallica blaring non-stop, but otherwise it’s cool. I met this really nice chick in the living room.”
  “Who’s Polina?”
  “I thought she was a friend of yours.”
  “No. I don’t know her… oh wait. Dude, I think she came with a friend of mine.”
  “Male friend or female friend?”
  “Male. I think she’s his date, dude.”
My heart sank.
  “Stop calling me dude.”
He flipped me off. I prepared her plate with a faint hope that she came with a female friend.

She was still sitting alone, looking bored (I took it as a good sign). When she caught a glimpse of me walking back, she smiled again. I got butterflies again. I told myself to stop doing that because I knew that if she were taken, I’d be crushed… as sensitive as I am, and as easily as I attach to attentive women.
  “You made it. I was beginning to think you’d slipped out a window or something.”
  “Sorry. I ran into Farouk in the kitchen and we were discussing the anomaly of beer-hating Germans.”
  “What was the conclusion?”
  “Apparently I’m the only one on the planet.”
  “So Mr. Heiko. What brought you to the States?… assuming you weren’t born here.”
  “I wasn’t. Just like a lot of people, my father thought he’d become a millionaire in America.”
  “How did that turn out?”
  “It didn’t. I hated him for bringing us here. I didn’t want to leave my extended family and friends.”
She made a sad face; had I not been into her, I’d have thought it was patronizing, but then she put her hand on my knee and said, “I’m sorry.” My knee instantly burst into flames and my heart nearly beat out of my chest.
  “Right now I’m not cursing his decision.”
She blushed and turned her head away slightly. Shit! Did I go to far? Why did she put her hand on my knee? She sneezed. I was relieved. She picked up one of the napkins on the table and daintily wiped her nose. My face got warm and suddenly the room was empty. It was just me and Polina. Though my ears started ringing, I could hear my own breathing. I could feel my palms sweating. I, discretely as possible, wiped them on my thighs.
Polina’s lips were moving but I heard nothing. She cocked her head and looked at me strangely. She was asking me a question and waiting for my response. I regained my senses with an almost audible “whoosh”.
  “I’m sorry?”
  “How do you say ‘bless you’ in German?”
  “Oh! That’s right. Does it literally mean ‘bless you’?”
  “No. It means ‘health’. As in ‘I wish you health’”
She smiled and squeezed my knee again. I felt like I was going to faint.
  “So what’s your story, Polina?”
  “What do you mean?”
  “I mean where are you from? What do you do? What are the course of events that have brought you here to this couch?”
  “Well, I was born in Leningrad- which just became St. Petersburg again. My father was a civil engineer. I guess kind of the opposite of your father’s aspirations, his ambition drove him to uproot his family. Pulling strings, he moved us to Pilsen, Czechoslovakia- where he was a big fish in a small pond rather than a goldfish in the ocean.”
She seemed pleased with her joke.
  “Have you heard of Pilsen?”
  “No. Is it nice?”
  “It’s a small town outside of Prague and is famous for it’s Pilsner breweries. I’m surprised that you, as a German, don’t know it.”
  “I hate beer, remember?”
  “Ah yes. Anyway, we lived there for about 15 years. My father died and my mother moved us back to Russia to be closer to relatives. She was killed by mobsters when she tried to organize our neighborhood to shut down a local whore house.”
  “Wow. I’m really sorry.”
She shrugged. I grabbed her hand and she closed her fingers around mine.
  “I have to say your English, is amazing. I can barely detect an accent.”
  “But you CAN detect one.”
  “A very, very slight one. I almost have to strain to hear it.”
She smiled.
  “Thanks. I studied it for years in Prague. A cousin of mine who worked for the BBC in London would also send me videotapes of American shows like Batman & Robin and The Munsters, as well as the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons.”
We both laughed.
  “I had the best command of 50’s and 60’s American slang in all of Pilsen.”
I laughed again. I really liked this girl….

My heart skipped, startled. Polina quickly let go of my hand. I looked up and noticed a thin, tall, dark, hairy guy walking towards us. I recognized him from the InCAR meetings at PCC. Manwan. Manwar. Manoo. What the hell was his name?
  “Hey baby. This is Heiko, my new friend.”
  “Koko! What’s up dude?!”
I hated being called dude.
  “You know each other?”
  “Sure. I’ve hung with Koko many times at those meetings I was telling you about.”
Truth was we’d nodded at each other a few times in passing. There was no friendship. In fact, he always rubbed me the wrong way with his disingenuous sincerity. I hated the familiarity that some Middle Easterners feigned to make themselves feel big; well known and liked. I also hated that he called me by my nickname. Worst of all, I hated that he was her boyfriend. I’d seen this dickhead on the make many times; trying to dazzle some ‘progressive’ chick’s pants off with his dazzling sensitivity and cultural awareness. I felt physically ill that it worked on Polina. My heart broke.

CRACK! Farouk ran out of the kitchen into the living room and started swearing at Pascal, a mutual friend, who’d just broken the leg off a chair to impress his friends with his display of strength.
  “What the fuck are you doing asshole!”
Pascal just stood there grinning like an idiot. He was high again.
  “Get the fuck out, motherfucker!”
Farouk grabbed him by his sleeve, pulled him to the door and threw his ass down the steps. I heard a few “ughs”, “ahs” and then a crash when he hit one of the bikes at the bottom of the stairs. Polina looked horrified. Mannymoe just stood there cracking up. He walked to the door and looked down the stairs, laughing the whole time. Farouk tried to close the door but couldn’t because that dick was standing in the doorway busting a gut. Polina looked really embarrassed. Farouk cursed at him in Arabic and he finally moved. The door was slammed. Everybody got real quiet. Trying to hide the anger in his voice, Farouk yelled:
  “Who wants another fucking beer?! I sure as hell do!”

Conversation and party gaieties resumed. Mannymoe walked back to the couch shaking his head and laughing, but before he could reach us, Polina stood up and huffed to the kitchen. He genuinely seemed surprised that she was upset.
  “Women, huh?”
I didn’t respond.
  “So what do you think of my girl?”
I wanted to say ‘You don’t deserve her, you fuck!’ but just said:
  “She’s very nice.”
He nodded.
  “The best piece of ass a man could ask for.”
I felt my neck and cheeks getting hot. I mulled over the idea of grabbing that chair leg that Pascal broke off and bashing his head in, but thought better of it. Instead I pretended someone was calling me from across the room and got up.
  “See you at the meeting on Tuesday.”
I grunted at him and called him a ‘fucker’ under my breath. He cornered some chick near the tv and was on the make again. Slime.
I walked into the kitchen. Polina wasn’t there. I grabbed a handful of pretzels and Farouk walked in with the pieces of the chair.
  “That asshole was coked out of his skull again.”
I nodded.
 “I don’t understand him, Kok. Sober, he’s the nicest, sweetest, most genuinely sensitive guy I know. His parents give him everything he wants but he’s still depressed, so he’s constantly lit- which is when he becomes a gigantic idiot. I don’t understand it.”
  “It’s in the script.”
  “What the fuck does that mean Koko?! You keep saying that!”
  “It doesn’t mean a thing.”
He didn’t hear me. He was absorbed by the wreckage of his chair. He shook his head sadly.
  “My mother bought this chair.”
His mother died of lupus a few years ago. Farouk took it very, very hard. I put my hand on his shoulder and gave it a squeeze.
  “I’m gonna take off Freddy.”
  “Alright bro. Thanks for coming.”
He was still staring at the wreckage.
  “I want to say bye to Polina. You know where she is?”
  “Polina. Laughing boy’s girl.”
  “Oh. She’s in the bathroom.”
I gave him a pat on his back and walked to the bathroom. I put my ear to the door and heard muffled sniffling; like she was crying. I knocked.

  “Just a minute.”
  “Polina, it’s Heiko. I’m leaving but wanted to say goodbye.”
She unlocked the door and I walked in. She closed the door behind me and locked it. She had been crying. Some of her mascara ran down her cheek.
  “I just wanted to tell you I had a really good time getting to know…”
She grabbed my face with both hands and planted her lips on mine. My knees nearly buckled. She kissed me for a long time. No tongue. Just lips. Hard. She hugged me tight while she did. Almost as if she were holding on for protection. I kind of felt the same way. Protected in her embrace. Strange. I’d just met her less than an hour earlier. Still. It was soothing. Warm. After what seemed like 20 minutes (but was more likely two) she pulled away… taking a piece of skin from my lip with her. My lip started bleeding. I just stood there staring at her, dumbfounded. She said nothing. She grabbed a few squares of toilet paper, wet them in the sink and dabbed at my lip gently. I swear I could have burst into tears then if she’d said anything. She threw the toilet paper away, washed the evidence of crying off her face, dried it, put her hand on my left cheek, kissed my right and walked out the door. I stood there… looking at my reflection in the mirror.
Someone knocked on the door.
  “Hold up. I’ll be right out.”
I flushed and ran the water in the sink to make it sound like I was finishing up. I opened the door and walked out. My friend Greg was leaning against the wall, waiting.
  “Hey Koko. What’s up?”
  “Same old shit.”
He laughed. It hadn’t occurred to me that given my exit from the bathroom, that comment seemed amusing.
  “I hope you lit a match.”
  “Nah. I marinade in my stink. Much like life.”
Greg frowned.
  “Alright then. I’m off to pinch a loaf.”
  “Happy baking.”
I walked down the hallway into the living room. Polina was standing by laughing boy. He had his arm around her. They were talking to Farouk and laughing.
  “You’re still here. Freddy told me you took off.”
I looked at Polina.
  “I had to use the bathroom.”
She averted my gaze. The phone rang.
  “I gotta go. Thanks again for inviting me Freddy.”
The phone kept ringing. Freddy put his cigarette in his mouth and shook my hand.
  “Later Koko.”
The phone rang some more.
  “It was a pleasure meeting you Polina.”
I reached out for her hand. She offered me a weak handshake. Embarrassed. The phone rang and rang. I nodded at Mannymoe and walked towards the door. The phone was ringing so loud, the sound was bouncing off the inside of my skull. I heard nothing else.