A naked Barbie doll A plumber Butternut squash A dog collar.
Autumn’s Dream Job
Autumn was home from college, but not for a visit.
“It’s not for me, Mama. You can’t say I didn’t try it, now can you?”
I didn’t scream. Give me credit for that, especially after I spent all morning searching for Ellie’s lost Barbie and Herc’s missing collar. “You got all As, proved any career path is within your reach. And now you’re quitting? In October?”
Autumn raised an eyebrow. “Not quitting. Changing course. You insisted on at least one year. I did, plus change. Now I’m doing what I wanted to do right out of high school.”
“Aw no. Girls like you don’t do jobs like that. You’d be wonderful at so many other things.”
She drowned me out with the processor, pureeing the roasted Butternut Squash for her soup. Autumn became a vegetarian at school and had developed into an excellent cook. That gave me hope. I wasn’t thrilled about the sink filling up with her mess though. She poured the squash into a pot and dumped the processor pieces into the sink.
“I’ll rinse and load these, but if I allow you to stay, it’s going to be your job,” I said.
As soon as I rinsed out the plastic base for the processor, orange tinted water rose in the basin. I poked at the drain with a spoon finding no chunks.
“Aw crap, we’ve got a blockage.”
Just then Ellie ran into the kitchen with wet feet.
“The toilet is overflowing!” she bellowed, which got Herc barking and jumping around us, his paws soaked with toilet water.
Autumn piped up, saying, “Mama, let me take care of it. You’ll see. I’m good at it.”
A migraine was coming on. “No way. You’ll only make it worse. I’m calling John.”
My brother the plumber took three hours to get there, and five minutes later he’d cleared the toilet. The sink drain was more involved. I had to pull everything out from the cabinet so he could get to the pipes down there.
“Well, I never! Anyone missing a naked Barbie and a dog collar?” he said from under the sink.
“What? They were shoved in the back of the cabinet?” I asked.
He wriggled out and held up a soaked dog collar and a bedraggled, armless Barbie—both tinged orange. “Not in the cabinet. In the pipe. Someone who knows their way around plumbing has some explaining to do.”
John and I both looked at Autumn eating soup at the counter. She raised that one eyebrow again and dropped the Barbie arms beside her bowl.
“My offer still stands,” said John. “I could use an assistant who can do what you did. Not that I need anyone to stuff naked Barbies into pipes or anything. You know what I mean.”
“What do you say, Mama?”
What could I say? “In our house, there must be millions of things small enough to fit in pipes.”
“Mmm hmmm,” Autumn said, a spoon in her mouth.
“Fine. Do what you want, but you’re still in charge of keeping this sink empty. And, John, you better pay her enough so she can pay rent.”
Some dogs wear their collars like they are slave collars. Ace wore his with pride. He didn’t know he was a dog. He was a vigilante- a crime fighter by nature. Well, there was that one incident with plumber, but that was long ago. No one even remembered that any more, and who was he to ever remind them?
Ace kept the peace. He had seen it all. A few stray cats came into town a couple of times. Silly cats strutted their tales around like they owned the place which was more than Ace could stand. He chased them right out of the neighborhood at full speed. Many an hour, he spent lying about in the sun. He stretched out in the grass or in a pile of fresh raked leaves. It was a good life.
Jessica Johnson was the strangest girl in the neighborhood. And Jessica had dolls- lots of dolls. And she often left them lying around in the backyard. And they were usually naked!
Ace avoided the monstrosities at all costs. But sometimes he would forget in the midst of chasing the proverbial butterfly. And before he knew it, he would be right on top one of them. They’d be sprawled out in the grass or in the Johnson’s flower bed. Ace would cringe, whimper, and ease out of there in a most rapid fashion.
But, it was pretty late on this day, and Ace’s stomach was already gnawing on his backbone. The Johnsons had baked a ham. And that meant there was a hambone. Sure enough, with this hambone, it was Jessica who whistled and called for him. And ooh, that hambone smelled nice! What was a dog to do?
He answered the call at the wag of a tail, and clamped down on delicious goodness. Yet, no sooner than he did, he spotted one of those naked dolls lying in the grass. He started growling and backing away slowly, jaws still clamped down to the bone marrow. The naked doll began to mock him in a most unseasonable fashion.
He growled deeper, and the doll laughed.
He dropped the bone and barked louder. The doll hissed at him, merely playing with his senses.
Ace turned and ran away, ashamed and whimpering. The neighborhood vigilante defeated by a doll of indecent exposure mocking him in simply her manufacturing suit- he was devastated.
Ace whimpered and howled, but would not return to Jessica’s call. That bone could rot on the ground for all he cared. That doll was the devil.
“What’s up with that crazy dog?” Jessica’s mother asked.
“Who knows?” Jessica shrugged. “I guess he don’t like him no hambone.”
As it so happened, the only other scraps available that night were from Granny Griggs. Ace turned up his nose, but he had to eat something. That something was unfortunately butternut squash.
And so, for dessert, Ace ate grass. And then he ate more grass. As he sat there under his favorite tree, still a wee bit queasy, his ears perked up at a sound. Was it? Could it be? A cat?
Despite the agony of her chronic pain, Ally Chase felt relieved as Web scurried ahead of her to the piano. He would be her last student, this her last lesson. As she sat beside him, Web handed her a wrapped gift.
“For you, Miss Chase. Go ahead and open it.”
She hadn’t told the students the lessons were ending. “It’s not my birthday.”
For some tasks she needed to remove one of her characteristic long velvet gloves, but a gap in the wrapping made opening the package easy. Inside were three packages of strawberry bubble gum.
Web beamed a radiant smile at her. “You said strawberry was your favorite.”
The boy was right, but she had no memory of telling him. “Uh, thanks. But why are you giving me a gift?
“Because I love you, Miss Chase.”
His eyes held steady on her, earnest and bright.
She believed he meant it, but where was this coming from? She couldn’t possibly be the object of this boy’s puppy love.
She was a 39 year old former music teacher, her position eliminated at the elementary school during a slew of budgetary cuts. Unmarried. Childless. She hadn’t even been especially nice to Web, her least promising student. After months he still fumbled over the tune to “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
“You can’t mean it. I’m fat, old, and mean.”
“I think you’re beautiful, Miss Chase.”
She made a scoffing sound in the back of her throat. “Now you’re just being silly. Let’s get the lesson over with.”
“Really you are.”
Enough. She would disprove it.
“Ever wonder why I always wear these gloves?” She peeled off the right glove to show him. “When I was about your age, I thought poking logs in the fireplace was fun. I’d move them around to see them flare up, but one rolled out on me.”
She showed him the back of her hand and forearm where dark red skin surrounded puckered ridges of scar tissue which looked like melted plastic. She expected him to cringe or run for the door.
Instead he gently placed his small hands around her hand, lifted it to his lips, and planted a kiss. She trembled inside as she withdrew her hand and slid on the glove.
“Web, go ahead and play what you’ve been practicing, please.”
He plucked through the melody of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Home on the Range.” She could tell he had been practicing. His tempo was a crawl, but he hit all the right notes. She dabbed at the corner of her eye with a velvet knuckle.
“Web simply adores you, Miss Chase,” Web’s mother said when she arrived to pick him up. “He’s hoping you can come have dinner with us. Maybe Saturday?”
After they left, Ally carried the packs of gum to her bedroom and laid them on her night stand. She went on into her bathroom where, at the medicine cabinet, she fished out two pain capsules and gulped them down with water. She then proceeded to flush the pills she had horded, four bottles of them, down the toilet.
C. Rose Lange
110 pounds of girl-power heaves against the widening hole in the chain link fence. Puppy love she called it. My bubblegum bubble pops. I lick the rubber shrapnel back into my mouth and chew out my anger. The fence gives and I stumble back, nearly choking on the half-formed wad. How dare she call it puppy love.
I blow another bubble, pinch it, and hold it gently with my fingers.
I knew she’d disapprove, of course. Mother always does. But ‘puppy love’? For anything else – a sleepover with high schoolers, a roadtrip with Elise, a later bedtime – she’d say “play with fire, you’ll get burned”. And “because she loves me” I can’t do anything that might get me burned.
My hole in the fence has reached two foot by one foot dimensions: wide enough to squeeze through at quarter to midnight when Elise will be waiting down the block. I’ve thought of everything. Even told Elise to not crank up her radio, just this once.
I dig my nails into the bubble till it bursts. Then I dab bits of gum on the sharpest places, a necessary sacrifice. Mother doesn’t suspect a thing when I skulk inside for dinner.
Done with my vegetables, I shove my plate forward. My cup careens into Tony’s. An unpleasant mixer of cranberry juice and two percent floods Mother’s plate.
“Bed.” Her wrathful tone in stark contrast with the quiet order.
I snag a potato wedge from Tony’s plate and gallop up the stairs: three long strides per flight. I flop backwards across my bed. My Mickey Mouse alarm clock glows in the corner. Five hours fifteen minutes until midnight. Five hours until Elise pulls up with the radio low. Four and a half hours until I’ll risk getting out of bed.
I startle awake at ten to eleven. My anger with myself for having fallen asleep keeps me awake for a few minutes, until anticipation takes over and rockets through my stomach for the remainder. Silent as a daughter who isn’t sneaking out, I ghost down the steps and float to the back door.
The spare key sits on the end table, next to mother’s velvet gloves. I remember the touch of her gloves – on my knee when I scraped it, on my cheek when Goldy the goldfish, on wrist when father left.
The door knob looks sharp and far away. I trudge back to bed. It was only puppy love.
“You’re getting too close, Dave.”
Dave ignored Mac’s voice in his ear bud and continued walking, just a few feet behind the target.
“You’re playing with fire, you’re gonna get burned.”
“I know what I’m doing.” Dave uttered, almost imperceptibly.
The light ahead changed, forcing all the pedestrians to come to a stop and wait for the “ok to walk” signal. The shift in foot traffic presented a natural opportunity for Dave to stand closer to his target. He pulled his cell phone out of his jacket pocket, pretending to scroll through Facebook like everyone else on the sidewalk, oblivious to their surroundings.
To his left the target reached into her purse, digging around for some hidden object. When her hand finally emerged, it held a piece of bubble gum; Dave recognized the wrapper as the cheap kind he used to see thrown out at parades in his hometown. He was surprised by the wave of nostalgia and admiration that someone still enjoyed that simple treat in a world with so many options.
The girl popped the gum into her mouth just as the light changed and the crowd started moving. Dave slowed his pace slightly; he had to be sure she was going into the record store.
“What the hell are you doing Dave? Your little crush is going to get us spotted.”
“What are you talking about Mac?” he whispered.
“Give me a break, you’ve had puppy love written all over your face for days. Just stick to the plan, ok? This isn’t the freaking dating game.”
For a week, they’d been tacking this girl, a suspected player in a large hacking circuit. Mac and Dave were responsible for collecting the evidence, and bringing her in. Today was supposed to be a simple observation assignment, to determine if she logged onto the record store’s server with the computer in question.
“She’s going in.” Dave stalled, pretending to look at his phone as the girl walked into the store.
“Ok you know the plan.” Mac said- a warning, not a question.
When Dave finally went into the record store, the lighting was low, the space was filled with rows of records, tables and couches off to the side. The store included a beverage counter – they seemed to enjoy loitering customers.
Dave walked through the rows pretending to look for some particular albums, but continued to glance around trying to spot the girl.
“Help you find something man?” a young kid in black t-shirt sporting a band he’d never heard of was eyeing him like the newbie he was.
“Uh yeah, I’m looking for the Neil Diamond album, Velvet Gloves and Spit. Think you guys have that?”
“Yeah man, it’s gonna be over here in the classic rock section…”
Dave scanned the room – she wasn’t at any of the tables. But just as they were moving to the classic rock area he looked out the window and saw the girl, blowing a bubble with her gum and holding her middle finger up at Dave.
“What’s the status, Dave?” He might as well have said “I told you so.”
G. L. Dearman, Mamie Pound, Keith Badowski, Michael Cottle
A Sky balloon festival
A Bow and a single arrow
Hearts and Arrows
“I got a bad feeling about this, Otis,” Dale said, untethering the ropes.”Stealing a hot-air balloon is probably a felony.Plus, remember what you promised your mama.”
“Dale, have you ever been in love?” Otis asked.
“Well Christie and I were together a while,” Dale said.
“She was a tramp.”
““Hey!” Dale yelled.
“Look, Dale, all I’m saying is that Christie wasn’t your one true love. Right? I mean did she keep you awake at night, could you think of nothing more than her lips, her eyes…,” Otis asked.
“Well, actually,” Dale replied.
“No, Dale. Your true love will take your very breath away. She will be only yours and you hers,” he said.
The stars appeared above, one by one, lighting the constellations.
“Otis, why didn’t we just drive over?”
“Anybody can drive over,” Otis said. “You see that guy right there?” He pointed toward a group of stars. “That’s Sagittarius. And guess what?”
“He has a single magic arrow. He walks the sky, searching for his true love.”
“Kinda like you,” Dale said.
“Exactly,” said Otis.
“See, one day, Zeus looked down from his mountain and saw Sagittarius moping around. He said, ‘Sagittarius, why don’t you have a date to the dance?’ Old Sagittarius shrugged, whined about being misunderstood and Zeus laughed, roared actually. Shook the sky and whatnot. So Zeus says, ‘I’ll tell you what. I have a magic arrow here. And any woman you hit with it will fall madly in love with you’. Now, Sagittarius was a procrastinator. Kinda like you, Dale. Zeus knew this about Sagittarius, too. So, as he was leaving the mountain, Zeus says, ‘whatever you do, don’t wait too long, or you’ll never shoot it’. And you know what Sagittarius did?
“What?” Dale asked.
“He walked the earth so long, waiting for the perfect girl to shoot that they all turned into stars.” Otis looked at him.
“What are you trying to say, Otis?”
“I’m saying, this hot air balloon is our arrow. We have to aim it and hit something before it’s too late. Comprende’, Dale, mi compadre?”
“I mean, yeah, but last time,” Dale began.
“Dale, have you ever cheated death?” he put an arm around Dale and squeezed him closer.
“Remember that time we ate those chicken salad sandwiches from the 7-11?” he began.
“No, man, I mean, have you ever set out, on purpose, knowing that you might die but the result was so important to you that you did not care?” Otis asked.
“Guess not,” Dale said. “But I hate that holding cell. And plus, your mama….”
“Shhhhhhh.” Otis reached into his bag. “Hot Dog?”
The balloon sailed above the suburb, brushed the tree tops and caught an easterly wind.
“You gotta have faith, man,” Otis said, digging for mustard.
“Have you ever even met her, though?”
“It’s all about the first impression,” Otis said. “Trust me.”
Sagittarius stood, arrow-ready, as the air-ship disappeared against a climbing moon.
The sun was melted like crayons on wax paper, tangerine, red-orange and dandelion, across a blue-violet sky.
A silhouette appeared, blocking Aaron Lardowski’s path in the dim light of dawn.
“Time to prove it was beginner’s luck, Lard-ASS-ski.”
Without seeing his face, Aaron knew it was Billy Delano. Not only did Billy ride Aaron’s bus, he was in his homeroom class and Cub Scout den.
A few yards behind Billy was an illuminated and inflated hot air balloon, the envelope patterned with squares every color of the rainbow. Aaron wished he hadn’t wandered from his parents who were clear across the field helping friends prepare their balloon for flight. Aaron also knew if Billy’s father was nearby, he wouldn’t be offering any help.
On Tuesday at the Pack meeting, Billy’s father, their Den Leader, kept his entire focus on grilling the hot dogs even though he was within earshot of Billy’s trash talk at the archery target. When Aaron fumbled the arrow while drawing back the string, Billy grabbed the bow out of Aaron’s hands.
“Let me show you how it’s done,” Billy said, the corner of his mouth turned up, emphasizing the puckered scar on his cheek where a dog had bitten him.
He rapidly loaded, and his shot went wild, missing the target entirely.
“Let’s see you do better, Lardass!”
Aaron positioned his arrow, drew back the string and released. The arrow struck the target, dead center.
Billy was infuriated, saying, “Beginner’s luck—that’s all. The next time you’ll hit your own foot. I bet you suck so bad you couldn’t even hit the side of one of those hot air balloons at the festival.”
Confrontations like this caused Aaron to have a sinking feeling in his stomach every time Cub Scouts rolled around. He would much rather be home, lounging on his bed, reading a Star Wars comic book.
Billy’s voice rose again from the dark, “Unless you want the whole school to know just how much of a lard ass coward you are, you’ll take the shot.”
He held out a bow and one arrow.
“Come on. This is crazy, Billy,” Aaron said. “It’s destructive. And if I hit it, they’d be stuck on the ground and would probably make me pay for it.”
“Lame excuses, Lardo! Take the shot or you’ll regret it,” Billy sneered.
With no way to avoid Billy here or anywhere, Aaron accepted the bow and arrow.
With bumbling effort, Aaron positioned the arrow, drew back the string and aimed at the balloon looming behind Billy. How he hoped some adult would notice what he was doing and shout for him to stop.
“Now or never, Lardass!” Billy taunted.
Aaron swiveled on his heels, pointing the arrow directly at Billy.
“Whoa! Get that thing out of my face!”
“If you’re so sure it was just beginner’s luck, why not? I’m bound to miss, aren’t I?” Aaron said.
“Yeah but . . .”
Aaron adjusted his aim and let the arrow fly.
Billy screamed, hopping in circles on one foot. The arrow protruded from the tip of his other foot.
Of course now adults came running from all directions.
Aaron dropped the bow, pretty sure he was through with Cub Scouts forever.
G. L. Dearman
Every morning, Sara watched the balloons ascend, and imagined how it must feel to float away and leave the world behind. After dark, the tethered balloons glowed from within, turning the launch field into a wonderland—the sort of sight she’d imagined when she’d run away to drift around the country with Jeremy in a hot dog truck. It was beautiful enough to make her reconsider going home. But she couldn’t change her mind, not after calling mother and begging her to wire money for a bus ticket.
She still hadn’t figured out how she was going to tell Jeremy.
“We’ll barely break even,” he grumbled, assembling an order for a rare mid-afternoon customer. “Nobody’s buying. It’s sad when an American can’t sell hot dogs in his own country.” He glowered at the crowd milling around the Garcias’ taco truck.
Sara shrugged. “We’re practically in Mexico. Sales will improve next week, at the North Florida Fair.”
“Why the hell did they decide to put this festival in a godforsaken dump like Albuquerque?”
“The Albuquerque box,” the customer said. Below his Stetson hat and drooping mustache, a badge identified him as balloon crew.
“What?” Jeremy scowled at him.
The customer took his food. “It’s a wind pattern. The winds in this valley take balloons in a big square. Take off from here in the morning, and land in the same spot in the afternoon.” He tipped his hat at Sara before he left.
The jaunty strains of a Tejano accordion blared from the Garcias’ speakers. The Garcia children weaved through the crowd, giggling and shooting each other with foam-tipped arrows launched from toy bows.
Jose Garcia leaned out his truck’s window and waved a fat wad of greenbacks in Jeremy’s direction. “Hey, pendejo! This is what money looks like, in case you forgot.”
Jeremy’s middle finger shot up. “Go back to Mexico!”
Garcia’s belly shook with laughter. “No one wants your hot dogs here. You couldn’t sell that to starving Ethiopians!”
The smallest Garcia boy took aim at his father’s adversary. Sara watched the toy arrow arc above the crowd. She opened her mouth to warn Jeremy, but too late. As he leaned forward to shout a retort, the arrow struck him in the eye.
“Son of a—” Veins bulged from Jeremy’s forehead. He reached for the cash box—and the Colt revolver inside it.
“Honey, no.” Sara grabbed his shoulder. “It’s not worth it.”
He spit out the window.
“Things will be better in Tallahassee. We can leave today if you want. Just please calm down.”
He swallowed and nodded. In a small voice, like a child’s, he said, “The world sucks, but at least we got each other.”
She smiled at him.
He shoved most of the cash into his pocket. “Watch the truck.” He headed toward the end of Vendor’s Row, where beer cost $12 a cup.
No way she could leave now; he couldn’t cope. He needed her. Maybe she could slip away after the North Florida Fair, if sales were good.
Through the truck window, she watched balloons settle to earth on the same field they’d left that morning.
Zeno and Sparky
As a traveler of space and time, Zeno was a force to be reckoned with- or at least that was what he reckoned. Most recently, spending his mornings walking around with dinosaurs and dodo birds. This was in contrast to the futuristic places he had been and did not like. The future was uncertain, and of that much, at least Zeno was certain.
Zeno had only one friend that never talked trash or annoyed him too much. It was his dog, Sparky. He had found the mutt long ago in a remote desert. Sparky was alone in the hot sun and no water in sight. Zeno thought, “Well, if this was the artic, he’d be a chili dog.”
So, Sparky was Zeno’s best friend- the only one to remain constant in Zeno’s shifting worlds. They travelled light to go so far. Sparky with his futuristic shades that were custom made for beagles. And Zeno with his hickory bow and a single arrow.
They spent their days searching for paradoxes. Yes, paradoxes would lead the two to the arch-demon, Thagar. Thagar traversed the galaxies the same as Zeno and Sparky. Well, except of course that Thagar travelled to his destinations in half-distances. He could virtually never stop travelling and never go anywhere at the same time!
Thagar changed his destination often, and so he really did travel well for an old demon. But one evening, Zeno and Sparky felt the scent of his presence closer than ever.
“Did you hear that Sparky?” Zeno inquired. “I hear a single drop of water!”
Sparky gazed at Zeno, and tilted his head to the side.
“There’s a creek nearby!” Zeno shouted.
Sparky barked a vicious bark- well vicious for beagles anyway.
Zeno took off running through the trees with hickory bow and arrow in hand. Sparky followed him, barking excitedly. Soon they reached a creek. Zeno drank deeply. Sparky lapped up several mouthfuls as well. The quiet single drop of water had vanished in the busy bubbling of the creek. Many would not recognize the paradox, but Zeno knew it. Saw it. Devoured it!
They rehydrated and started walking west. And there they saw the colorful entities rising in the distant sky. It was the largest hot air balloon festival ever!
“Come Sparky!” Zeno was ecstatic with eyes wide open. “We take down the arch-demon tonight!”
Zeno ran towards the balloons at full speed with Sparky on his heels. He found a good position on the ground, and knocked the arrow in his bow. The arrow flew through the air, and went through a large circle on the side of a bright blue balloon and stuck in the opposite side. The balloon swirled around erratically until the operator was able to land it safely in a nearby field.
“Damn it Sparky!” Zeno said. “I’ve shot the wrong balloon. The arrow would have never actually reached Thagar’s balloon.”
Zeno was committed to the psychiatric ward for the doctors say that he invented false realities. They also said Sparky would not bark. But on a quiet night, when there was a paradox nearby, Sparky would bark.