Friday, September 26, 2008

Peony Pie, Michele Dunsford

Two memories are forever joined in my mind: the beauty and splendour of my mother's perennial peony bushes, and the wounding of my pride and a stinging sensation on my wee bottom.

It was a glorious summer day.  A recent thunderstorm had left water droplets on the peonies in the side garden of our home and had washed away the ants who loved to wander among the leaves.  The buds were full but not quite ready to bloom into fountains of fragrant pink petals.

At five years of age, I was seldom left to mind myself, but that day I had been.  Mommy was inside the house, tending to my three-year-old brother, who on that particular day, I had named Brat.

All morning I had been hounding my mother, vying for her attention.  She ignored me.  “Michele, I’m too busy,” she said.  “Your brother needs more help, he’s smaller than you.”

Well, I thought, everything was just perfect before he came along!  I ran straight to the phone and picked up the receiver.  “Sears?” I said.  “Come get my brother.  You can take him back.  We don’t need him anymore.”

Looking back, I’m sure my mom must have thought that one was pretty funny.  She used to order everything from the Sears catalogue, so naturally, I thought that was where everything came from.

After I got off the phone, she sent me outside with my favourite bucket and spade.  I headed straight to the peonies. No ants, no wasps, just plenty of peony buds waiting to be made into a delicious peony pie. Or so it seemed to me.

I filled my bucket with water from the garden hose.  I was good at that.  I helped Mommy water the garden almost every day. 

I harvested the peony buds, plopping them into the bucket one by one. T hen I took my spade and swished them around, the way Mommy taught me to mix things when we were baking.

One last swish and I sat back on the pathway, admiring my work.  Mommy will be so pleased with my peony pie, I thought.

The slam of a door, the patter of feet, and Mommy appeared around the corner.  She seemed in a hurry.  Perhaps she had to pee.  Before I could think another thought, I was pulled off the ground by my arms and catapulted onto my feet.  Mommy grabbed my mixing spoon and began whacking me on my bottom.  Tears streamed down my cheeks.

I guess Mommy didn’t like peony pie!

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

White Door, Helen Skelton

“What’s Daddy doing? What’s Daddy doing?”

I stood with my doll Ruby, watching my father on his hands and knees at the end of our oak-floored hallway. He was making grunting noises. He was doing something to the white double doors that didn’t fit properly.

I rocked Ruby back and forth a few times to show my father. She had blue glass eyes that blinked open and shut. At least one of them did. The week before, Rachel Grimes from down the road, had poked her finger into Ruby’s left eye giving it a permanent lazy eye look that would never go away.

My father seemed oblivious to Ruby’s one blinking eye and continued on the floor making grunting noises and muttering strange words to himself.

“Frank! Will you just leave it!” My mother’s irate looking face appeared round the kitchen door at the other end of the hallway. “I do say, just get a carpenter or someone in to fix it properly, will you!”

Her Welsh accent became more pronounced when she got annoyed, and when she said, “I do say,” at the beginning of a sentence, we knew there was going to be trouble.

I moved to the bottom step of the staircase and sat down to see what would happen next.

“I don’t need a bloody carpenter. I just need to skim some wood off the bottom of this door and re-hang it. The floor’s not level!”

My father was kneeling up now, supporting the arch of his back with his arm and looking as irate as my mother, but with a slightly disheveled dusting of wood shavings on and around him.

“You’ve done the thing twice already. It’s still wonky!”

Pointing out the blindingly obvious has always been one of my mother’s special talents. One of the white doors was indeed quite wonky.

“Will you just shut up and let me get on with it?”

My father had hauled himself to his feet, turned his back, picked up a screwdriver and was taking off the offending door for the third time. Ruby and I sensed that this would not be a good time to help.

My father began to plane wood from the bottom edge of the door. With muttering and cursing as a background track, he re-hung the door. Then he repeated the process some more times. I don’t know what number I could count to at that age, but the number of door hangings was greater than the number of my fingers.

My mother re-appeared. She stared at the door with “you should have listened to me” confidence, and said “Oh, you daft bugger.”

The hanging door now had a clear gap of at least an inch between itself and the floor.

It was not level. My gerbil Frieda would have been able to fit under the door if she were allowed to run free in the hallway. Frieda and I did manage to test the size of door gap later that year when the gerbil cage was left open. She escaped, headed for the hallway, then squeezed under the door and found a convenient gap between the skirting boards and the floor. No amount of treats could coax her out from hiding under the floor boards, which had to be taken up to allow gerbil recovery. But that was all still to come.

My father winced and bent down, then began deliberately putting his tools away in a defeated show of male pride. He stood up and said, “Just leave it Jill.” Then walked away to the security of the garden shed.

My parents still have those white doors thirty years later. They are still wonky. But we don’t mention it.

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Watchtower, Brandon Pitts

“I must kill Steve Jahl! Erase his existence, deny him a future and rob him of his sentience.”

No, that’s not what I wanted to write. I just wanted to tell you that I love you and I’m sorry I didn’t believe in you before. I believe in you now.

It’s funny, in my hour of need; I instinctively reach for you as I fall.

Lord, I was just going to write you a letter, not a confessional. But after he raped my sister, I had an itching need to touch his body and feel it turn cold as his life left him.

In my daydreams, I would murder him slow, nothing crude or hasty. Quite awful for him, but it would be the only beauty he would ever know.

You know how it was with me back then, if there were no God, then I would have to assume the responsibility. Offer a vital judgment so a soul could be dealt with justly.

So I sat down and leaned my back against a rock that would serve as his headstone, pondering life before his acquittal.

The day Amanda got raped; she was hanging out with Steve’s pubescent slut of a sister, Tabby. Though her indiscretions seemed to know no limits, Tabby managed to conjure scruples when it came to her brother Steve.

“Perhaps if he were hot,” she confessed to a friend, but Steve lacked the visage and physique necessary to inspire incestuous attraction.

I pulled up to Steve’s house at 2121 Billiard Street. A piece of crap castle made of wood and plastic siding, hovering over a basement and surrounded by a moat of browning grass. Their father was out front in his wife beater.

“Hey young man,” he said. “Got a new van?”

“I wouldn’t call it new. Just bought it used. I’m here to pick up Amanda.”

“I think they’re around back. If you see Tabby, tell her I’m going to Mickey D’s to bring back supper.”

I walked through the dead lawn to the backside of the A-frame house. There was Tabby, all thick legged with blonde hair and fat ass. I had lusted after her all through school but to no avail - seems she’s gone out with everybody but me.

“Hey Tabby.”

Stepping on her cigarette, she barley acknowledged me, the vibes cutting between us like an unwanted wind.

“Where’s Amanda?”

“I think she’s in the basement with Steve.”

I found this odd. Amanda hated Steve.

“He stares at me in between classes at school,” she would say. “Always cleaning up some mess by my locker. It’s really creepy. I hate going over to Tabby’s. Even her dad is a slime.”

Tabby went to the back door and yelled down for Amanda. My gaze followed her skintight shorts. She stood halfway through the doorway, waiting for a response and then went down the stairs.

I turned to look around their back yard. Artifacts from Steve and Tabby’s childhood were strewn around the property, rusted bikes and toys, and an aboveground pool, half covered, half full of leaves and algae water.

Amanda and Tabby emerged from the dungeon. My sister was crying.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” She avoided eye contact, shaking her head and waving me back with her hand.

“She’s fine,” said Tabby. “Aren’t you?”

“What’s been going on down there?” I said.

“Nothing. She was fooling around with Steve when she shouldn’t be.”

“I’ll kick his ass if he’s touched my sister.”

“It’s her fault, not Steve’s.”

“Let’s go,” said Amanda. “I just want to leave.”

We got into the car and pulled off.

“What was all that about?”

“Look,” I don’t want to talk about it.”

“What are you doing with Steve? You told me you thought he was a creep.”

“Shut up, Deek.” Amanda started to cry.

It wasn’t until three months later that Amanda came forward, stating that Steve had raped her in his basement. Seems his mother; father and sister were watching TV upstairs, ignoring her screams for help.

Even during commercials.

The day after the cops came to speak to Amanda; I met my buddy Ted Buckner at the Toad Bucket CafĂ©. He wasn’t so into the coffee thing, preferred beer, but dug on the chicks who worked at the Bucket.

Sure the chicks were cool but I hit that place every day and didn’t want these broads thinking I was a creep. Ted didn’t mind what they thought.

“Wow,” he said, after this one girl, Janet, brought me my cappuccino. “She’s got to be the hottest girl in Fairdemidland.”

“Yeah, she’s pretty fine,” I quickly agreed, hoping he’d keep his voice down or change the subject.

One reason Ted didn’t care about what these girls thought was that he was dying, or so he said, and if his tenure on this earth was to be cut short, he was damn sure that etiquette wouldn’t get in the way of his zeal for a fine girl like Janet. Janet took it in stride and went back to her espresso bar.

Ted had diabetes bad and loved doing dope. The doctors had given Ted six months to live if he didn’t give up the drugs. But he just couldn’t stop himself.

“I sure would like to make it with a chick like that before I die.”

“Yeah, good luck. Better think of something else for your dying wish.”

“There is one other thing I want to do before the devil takes me,” said Ted, looking down at his whipped cream without guilt or concern for his health. “When I know I’m about to go, I’m gonna walk into the Fairdemidland police station with a gun and shoot every cop I see.”

“Not very nice.” I frowned, glancing over at Janet. Ted was a fool but he knew true beauty. Janet was pretty special. “Why waste bullets on Fairdemidland cops?”

“Because they’re a bunch of assholes. They’re supposed to serve and protect, instead they just harass the youth. They’re worthless. You were just telling me about that dick that was investigating your sister’s case. He won’t help your sister. He thinks she’s a slut.”

I was beginning to get angry.

“I say we take the law into our own hands,” Ted said, “and kick Steve Jahl’s ass.”

His words pierced deep. “Or murder him,” I said.

“Or murder him.” Ted sat back into the black leather chair. “A vigilante would be far more effective than the these cops. You could be like a guardian of the community up in his watchtower. Nobody fucks with a vigilante.”

I stared into my coffee, thinking about how much I’d like to kill Steve Jahl.

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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A mouthful of sherry, Pratap Reddy

It was while Mrs Holmes sat on the veranda of her villa in St Martin’s Lea-upon-Thames, sipping a cup of Orange Pekoe, that she got the idea of how to commit murder and get away with it.

Her friend Katherine sat opposite her, nibbling on a petit-beurre. “That Mr Wentworth,” her friend was saying, “running after girls young enough to be his grand-daughters!”
While her friend prattled on, Mrs Holmes’ mind was elsewhere. She had always thought how ironic it would be if her husband were to die of unnatural causes and the person responsible for his death was to go scot free. After all, Sherry had made such career of catching criminals, earning fame and perhaps a fortune in the bargain.
Katherine leaned forward almost spilling the tea onto her lap. She steadied the clattering cup and saucer, and whispered, “Hedwiga, I heard that Mr Wentworth keeps some potions imported specially from Hong Kong in his bedroom.”
Katherine was a small thin woman who lived in a red-tiled house down the lane. She was a childless widow and an inveterate gossip. Because of her tongue she had made more enemies than friends in the village. She would always say to Hedwiga, “You are my one and only true friend. Had I been a rich woman, I’d have left all my wealth to you.”

Hedwiga remembered the day she met Sherry for the first time. She was a teenager living in a small impoverished village by the river Aar in central Switzerland. Skipping school one day, she had gone with two other classmates to the riverbank to pick wild flowers. Imagine their horror when they came upon a man lying prone and insensible on the riverbank. The three girls rushed into the river and pulled out the man. Hedwiga eagerly knelt down and gave a mouth-to-mouth. The man spluttered and came round. It was the very first time that Hedwiga had kissed a man full on his lips.

And the man turned out to be Sherlock Holmes. Hedwiga had not known then that Holmes had taken a tumble at the Riechanbach falls only a few miles upstream. The girls gave him the apples and boiled sweets they had brought for their picnic.

When Holmes appeared to regain some of his strength, Hedwiga took him to her house which was a small stone cottage perched halfway up a hill. Her family was astounded to see an Englishman pop up in the fastness of the Alpine mountains, having bloomed out of water like some Venus in drag. Hedwiga’s father who was an avid reader of the international page of Schweiz Zeitung while waiting for his turn at the barber shop, recognised the famous profile, as Sherlock Holmes sat down to eat the sauerkraut her mother had made.

“Don’t you like it?” her mother asked, as Sherlock Holmes peered at the dish through his magnifying glass.

“Not at all, Frau Nicklausmeyer,” said Sherlock in perfect high country German, which these simple Swiss folk found hard to follow. “I was merely deducing that whoever made this must be a German-speaking woman, a wife, a mother and a cook.”

“How clever of you!” said Frau Nicklausmeyer.

Sherlock stayed with them until he recovered completely. Afterwards he took a room in the village and began to live there instead of going back to England. The Nicklausmeyers were convinced that Sherlock Holmes was simply loaded so they encouraged their daughter to cultivate his friendship.

“But Mama, look at him. He must be ninety at least!”

“Use your head, Hedwiga,” Frau Nicklausmeyer said. “The older your husband is, the less likely he’s going to last. I wish I had got that advice when I was young – now I’m with stuck with your father. Forever, it looks like.”

Sherlock Holmes used to visit them regularly and sometimes played on the violin to entertain Hedwiga. She could never recall when exactly she began to call him Sherry. It must have been the night he tweaked out a reedy Moonlight Sonata. Later they went out into the garden and kissed under the full moon. Hedwiga had a sneaking suspicion that it was for the first time that Sherry was kissing a woman, not counting of course the time he was lying half dead on the riverbank. It took two years of tireless efforts on the part of the entire Nicklausmeyer clan to make Sherry propose to Hedwiga. They were married at the English church at Meiringen, and soon afterwards they left for London. In the boat it became evident that while he had lots of stuff in his head, there was little to be said about his lower half. But she didn’t let that worry her too much; after all, she hadn’t married Sherry to make babies.

When they arrived in England, Sherry took up residence in the country instead of living at his lodgings in Baker Street. It must have been because of Mrs Hudson. She mightn’t have liked the idea of another woman monopolising Sherry’s attentions, thought Hedwiga. But her friend Katherine had another take on the matter.

“It’s because of that Dr Watson,” she said. “There’s something going on between the two of them.”

But Katherine was wrong about Dr Watson, Hedwiga was sure of that. Once when Hedwiga had fallen ill, Sherry who was busy pursuing a criminal in Denbighshire, sent Dr Watson to look her up. Dr Watson not only cured her of her illness but he had some interesting antidotes for her acute loneliness.

After living for a year in England, it began to dawn on her that far from being rich, Sherry was neck deep in debts. His place in Baker Street had been used as collateral for a loan, and the house in the country was taken on a lease which would expire in a couple of months.

“The only asset I have,” Sherry had admitted, “is my life insurance policy.”

What a waste! All the collective efforts of the Nicklausmeyers had gone down the Rhine into the North Sea! Hedwiga was so mad that she wanted to pick up the violin and hit Sherry on his head with it. The next day when she regained her composure, she went straight to the local library and borrowed a book on poisons. In the trial that followed the murder that occurred at the villa, the prosecution would produce the book from the public library as an important piece of evidence.

They had drunk the tea to the last drop and eaten all the petist beurres, but Katherine was going on and on.

It must have been Katherine’s talk about old Mr Wentworth that started the train of thoughts in her mind. Not arsenic, not belladonna, but cantherides...that’s what she would use. But how does one get hold of it? Surely, one couldn’t walk into Marks and Sparks and ask for a pound of it?

When Katherine had finally left in a flurry of goodbyes and kisses, Hedwiga sent a telegram Dr Watson, now her Watson, a willing if witless collaborator in her fiendish scheme.

On the fateful evening, they all were present at the party: Sherry, Dr Watson, Katherine and Hedwiga herself. Hedwiga had bought a bottle of real Sherry imported from Spain for the occasion. They sat in the veranda and sipped their drinks appreciatively, except for Katherine who, not having a head for liquor, made a brave effort to gulp hers down.

The gentle breeze that wafted across from the Thames had a nip to it, reminding them that the summer would soon be over. Boats of every kind bobbed in the river, and now and then a steamer would bulldoze its way to London, sounding its horn stridently.

Katherine suddenly uttered a groan and fell forward, crashing on a tea-poy. When Sherry and Watson rushed to her side, it was already too late. Katherine died, exactly in the way Hedwiga had hoped.

At the inquest, Hedwiga testified that she had wanted Sherlock Holmes to have the doctored glass of Sherry because the drug cantherides, better known as the Spanish fly, was reputed as an aphrodisiac. But somehow the glasses had got mixed up and the dose meant for her husband was too much for a frail small woman like Katherine.

The verdict was death by misadventure. Contrary to the claims she had made when she was alive, Katherine was indeed a rich woman. She left all her wealth and property to her one and only true friend, Mrs Hedwiga Holmes.

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Bible Man, John Jeneroux

Willie sat down heavily on the park bench. He had it all to himself because the blistering sun had disappeared into an angry mass of dark clouds and it looked more like rain by the minute. Just right for the way he felt – hungry, hung-over and perishing for a drink.

He sighed and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, his head in his hands. He reached into his pocket and jingled the few coins he had remaining. How was he going to stretch $2.53 to the end of the week? It wasn’t even enough for a beer, let alone a bite to eat.

Willie looked up at the scurrying sound of a black squirrel scampering across the leaf-covered sidewalk. “Fine for you, you little rascal. The park’s full of acorns you can eat. But that don’t do me any good.”

Then Willie’s attention was drawn to the rapid footsteps of a man approaching along the sidewalk. Left, right, left, right – heels clicking on the pavement. The man was about as wide as he was tall and he was decked out in a brown checkered suit and a natty yellow bow-tie. He stopped in front of Willie and blew his breath out with an exaggerated “Whew.”

“Man, it’s hot for this time of year,” he said, his round face glistening with sweat. “What d’ya think, is it hot or is it hot?”

Willie looked up. “I guess so – haven’t been payin’ much attention. I’m just –”

“Well, I’m tellin' you, for September…. By the way, the name’s Jamieson, Waldo P. Jamieson. And you’re…?”

It was only polite to respond. “I’m Willie –”

But the man cut him off before he could finish, thrusting his hand out like a steam piston. “Say, I’d like to shake your hand, friend. Ha, ha…Jamieson’s the name, and Bibles are the game. Ha, that gets ‘em every time. Cute, huh?”

“Look, if you don’t mind, I’d just as soon sit here by myself. I’m not really in much of a mood today.”

“Course you’re not, friend. But say, can you look me in the eye and say, ‘Waldo, I’m proud to tell ya I’m saved...saved like a dollar in the First National Bank, and all my troubles are behind me?’ Can ya, friend? Can ya?”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a huge red bandana handkerchief and mopped his perspiring face with it. “Oh, that’s lots better. Hot as a fryin’ pan, ain’t it?”

“Saved? Saved from what?” Willie said. “I don’t put much stock in that kinda thing, uh…Waldo. I’m –”

“Why then, you don’t have no idea how lucky you are I come along just now. For the ridiculous low price of only four dollars I can put you right in the driver’s seat of that bus to Heaven. I can –”

Willie looked the man up and down – decent suit, shiny shoes. Sure hadn’t missed too many meals lately. Hmm…?

“Waldo, I hate to bother you about this, but I wonder if you could see your way clear to maybe lending’ me a couple of bucks until Saturday…?”

“Well, I don’t know about that, friend. But let me tell you I got something here’s worth more’n all the money you’re ever gonna see. Right here in my case.”

He opened his black imitation leather satchel and pulled out a paperbound New Testament. “Last one I got until my new shipment comes in. They’re goin’ like hotcakes.”

“Just till Saturday. That’s all it’d be. I got a buddy that’s gonna lend me fifty then and I can pay you back.”

“Yes sir, they’re sellin’ like hot butter at a popcorn sale. And they’re up to the minute too. Modern as can be.” Waldo held the book in front of him and pointed with his stubby finger at the cover. “See, says right here…New Testament. It’s not cluttered up with a bunch of old things that don’t matter no more – just the up-to-date stuff. The New Testament. Why, with this little beauty in your pocket you can write your own ticket to Heaven.”

“Maybe five bucks? That’s all it’d take…or ten?”

“Only four dollars! Now ain’t that an amazing price for a giant step on the road to those Pearly Gates?” Waldo riffled through the pages. “ More good readin’ in here than a whole monthful of Sunday funnies.”

Willie persisted. “Even a couple bucks would help. I gotta see the doctor, and you know there’s gonna be a prescription to pay for. And then –”

“And then, when you get done readin’ your way through this, and blessin’ the lucky day you met yours truly right here in this park, why you call me back. Here’s my card…Waldo P. Jamieson – Bibles for All Occasion. And my phone number. You call me, brother, and for just another four dollars I can get you a matchin’ copy of the Old Testament to go with it.”

“But what I really need –”

“Is that a deal, friend, or is that a deal?”

Willie shrugged, his stomach grumbled, and he went back to watching the squirrels.

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