Fiction

While I haven’t written any fiction in several years, I did manage to get a couple of short stories published a few years back.
Warning: Language and subject matter may not be appropriate for those with delicate sensibilities…. 

In the Head

Joe-Joe said “kick him in the head,” so I did.  I kicked him in the fuckin’ head.

Fuck you! Do you think I wanted to kick him in the head? No fuckin’ way I did.

But I did.  I kicked him in the head.  I didn’t kick him hard.  I just smacked my heel above his ear—turned his nose to the pavement.

It wasn’t no stomp, but, I don’t know, I heard something.  Maybe I felt it.  Something gave, you know.  Could a been a tooth.  Maybe his nose.  Fuck, man.  I don’t know.  But fuck—and fuck you, looking at me like that—what the fuck else was I going to do.  You’d a done the same.  Fuckin’ punk asked for it.  Fucker bumped right into Joe-Joe’s space like it was vacant property or something.  Like he can go wherever he please.

Fucker shouldn’t get so drunk and be walking around like he can go wherever, do as he please.  Should a never left his own homestead, you know.  You get drunk like that you stay on your own real estate.  You know, you get drunk, you get stupid.  End up doin’ something dumb.  So you stay on your own fuckin’ hacienda, where it’s safe.  Otherwise you just be asking for trouble and shit.

Joe-Joe said kick him in the head, so I did.  I ain’t proud.  Shit.  No one should be proud of that shit.  But it had to be done.  Fuck man, you let one joker trespass your zone then you advertising for everyone to come in.  There ain’t that much real estate left in the world, so you got to protect it, you know.

We all know that.  Knew that when we saw that fool stumbling down the street all drunk like, acting like it was his street.  Knew he was trouble on the way.  So he bumps into Joe-Joe all stupid drunk.  Bump into Joe-Joe and asking him what the fuck he doin’ standing in the fuckin’ way.  He would a been alright he just make the apology and say, “I sorry man.  Didn’t mean to bump into you.  I’m all fucked up and don’t know no better.”  Shit, Joe-Joe would’ve just popped him one and sent him on his way.  Told him to get his ass on home and that would have been the end of it.  But no, that fucker had to make an issue of it.  Like it was his space or something and Joe-Joe was the one trespassin’.

I should a popped him while he was still up.  You know, I just don’t feel right about kicking him when he be down like that.  Shit, but he went down before I could get in a lick.  Soon as that fucker mouthed off, Joe-Joe laid one right into his gut.  Beano followed with a right cross to the side of his head.  Then Joe-Joe slammed him into the wall and he was down.  Joe-Joe looks at me like I’d run off with his smoke or something and say, “what the fuck the matter with you, man.”

You know me.  I’m pretty much peaceable.  I ain’t ready to rumble less someone’s getting ready to pop me side the head, you know.

Joe-Joe say, “kick him in the head—what the fuck you just standing there for? Kick him in the head, Ty.”

So I did.  I kicked him in the head.  You gonna look at Joe-Joe and say “no?”

Everything gets real slow and quiet after I do it.  The guy was moaning and shit before I stomped him, but then he just go limp, don’t make no more noise.  But shit, I only scrapped him with my heel—I hardly touched him.

Joe-Joe gave him another kick in the side, but he don’t even grunt.  Then Joe-Joe say, “come on, let’s get out a here.”

Shit we don’t hurry or nothing.  That’s our territory.  Ain’t nobody gonna bother with our business.  Heard later that the Five-O and meat wagon showed up an hour later.  Not that we even thought they’d be coming.  Shit, just figured that guy would wake up, shake it off and stumble home.

And now he—Dennis Banks—yeah, that be his name—he’s sitting up there at Parkland General.

What’s that? Five-O? Shit, you think they care what happens to a bum like him.  I heard they ain’t even been asking questions of anyone.  Shit.  Some poor fool like him gets beaten like that every hour in this fucking city—the Man don’t care none.  Now, that been some white fool they’d be taking names, busting heads all over the hood.

Joe-Joe said kick him in the head…and I did.  And that poor fucker’s going to be sitting in a fucking hospital for the rest of his life not knowing nothing.  In a freaking coma.  Sitting there pissing and shitting in diapers, having some old granny of a nurse stickin’ a spoon in his mouth three times a day, and not doing nothing but staring at the fuckin’ walls.

Shit.  Next time Joe-Joe’s gonna be tellin’ me to “shoot him in the head.”  Fuck that shit.  And fuck Joe-Joe.  I ain’t never gonna be kicking no one again.  Not in the head.  Not nowhere’s.  I don’t need this shit, man.  It ain’t worth it.

Joe-Joe said, “kick him in the head.”  And I did.  I kicked him in the fucking head over a stretch of sidewalk that ain’t worth spitting on.  And now that fucker’s in my head and he ain’t never gonna let go.

–Originally published September 2002 by 12 Gauge Magazine

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Agitation

Michael Reardon glanced through the wire-mesh window to make sure the alcove was clear, pushed through the steel exit door and trotted down the five concrete steps with a look upwards to catch the narrow patch of bright blue November sky nestled between the buildings.  He brought his gaze down as he angled left off the last step and recoiled in time to prevent a face-to-face run in with another smoker.  Mike’s retracting heel caught the lip of the step and he almost stumbled sideways in front of the man, but managed to grab the edge of the alcove to stop his fall.

“Sorry about that,” he said to the other smoker, who had also halted in mid stride.  The man arched his bristly eyebrows with a quick discernment of the near miss, then just as quickly narrowed his pale blue eyes into what appeared to be a slight glare before he abruptly turned around and paced back toward the building’s fenced-in air conditioning blowers.  Mike stepped to the right side of the stairway, stuck the cigarette that was already cupped within his right hand into his mouth and lit it.  He stared down the alleyway towards Connecticut Avenue for several drags before looking back to his left at the man he had almost bowled over.

The man didn’t even cast a glance toward Reardon while making his rounds, eight steps to the stairs, turn, then eight steps back to the fence, repeat, all the while taking rapid, deep puffs off his cigarette.  The man’s downcast forehead was wrinkled in agitation and his mouth grimaced and chewed with a silently grumbling scowl, as if he were thoroughly disturbed by the automaton motion of his pacing feet and the left forearm that rhythmically jerked upwards every few seconds to bring another burst of nicotine through his lips.  Mike briefly wondered whether the man’s irate countenance had been sparked by the near collision, but concluded that his troubled-looking state must have been roused by much more significant concerns.

The agitated man was dressed in a cheap, navy blue suit that was starting to fade at the cuffs and seams, Naugahyde-looking shoes that were in desperate need of new heels, and a 1970s width, gold, brown and white slant-stripe tie.  Compared to Mike’s Hugo Boss suit, Italian shoes and Perry Ellis tie, the man was obviously working on a lower stratum of the career ladder, his wardrobe bespeaking of clerk or some kind of temp worker, while Mike’s suggested lawyer or lobbyist.  The man was the same height as Mike at five feet, eight inches, but his haggard build, thinning dun-colored hair, and ruddy pockmarked complexion conveyed some twenty years of living beyond Mike’s thirty two.

Reardon let his gaze remain on the man, who seemed oblivious to everything but the regimen of his pacing and smoking, and whatever dire thoughts might be rippling beneath his furrowed forehead.  Mike, who had always considered that cigarettes were best savored while relaxed and stationary, decided that the smoke being inhaled by this man with his furious pacing must be especially unpleasant.  The man dropped the cigarette butt under his toe without missing a pace and tromped up the five stairs absent an acknowledging nod, let alone a glance, toward Mike, who gave a slight consternated shake of his head and then stepped over to his customary smoking spot.  However, he was unable to enjoy the rest of his cigarette.  It was as if the second-hand smoke left in the wake of the man’s troubled chain of thought had contaminated the parameters of what Mike considered his personal smoking domain.

The alleyway generally served as Mike Reardon’s world for three eight- to ten-minute interludes every workday.  Located off the south side of Connecticut Avenue, the alley also served as a corridor for an intermittent stream of bicycle messengers and delivery vehicles that made their rounds to the back entrances of the various buildings on the block.  Despite the zigzag the narrow alleyway took just past Mike’s smoking spot, its duel direction use, and propensity for cars and trucks to park illegally along its sides, gridlock did not occur often, and when it did, was usually short in duration.

Reardon’s section of the alley was located about 60 yards from the avenue and was marked by the rear entrance and loading dock bay of 1000 Connecticut Avenue, the front entrance of which was actually located on K Street.  From his spot, Mike could watch and listen to the bustle of pedestrian and vehicular traffic going back and forth on the avenue and sidewalk and had a clear view of the Rite-Aid, Security Alert, Ritz Camera businesses across the street.  His three smoke breaks generally took place at about 10:30 a.m.; at 2:30 p.m., after he had completed lunch and his daily reading of the Washington Post; and at about 4:30 p.m.  His routine would occasionally vary depending on work obligations, but he usually managed to stay on top of the constant flow of congressional bills and federal regulations that he was responsible for reviewing.

Reardon habitually stood between the rarely used loading dock bay and the fence, where he was less likely to have to engage in conversation with any of the building’s other smokers, who generally preferred to cluster in and around the rear entranceway alcove and stairs.  He didn’t consider himself to be especially unfriendly; he just liked to use his smoking time to reflect on issues relating to work or personal matters, and often found that a particularly vexing problem could be solved while he quietly puffed away on a Marlboro Light.

While he preferred to smoke alone in his corner, he was a regular, and thus pretty much knew the other smokers, many of them even by name.  Most of them tended to recognize Reardon’s desire for a solitary smoke and would limit conversation to a friendly greeting and perhaps a mention of the weather.  And he put up with the few who periodically invaded his space when they didn’t have other smokers around to talk to, would smile and allow himself to be drawn into their usual small-talk conversation.  As Mike was the only smoker in his small firm, he never had to worry about talking shop with a co-worker during his cherished smoking periods.

Reardon forgot all about the agitated smoker before he reached the building’s lobby and didn’t give the man another thought until he saw him the next Monday during his 10:30 smoke.  He smiled a greeting at two regulars in the alcove and then saw that the strange man was again making the rounds back and forth from the fence to the stairs, thus keeping Mike away from his usual spot.  So he positioned himself by the right side of the stairs, lit a cigarette and watched an incoming Copy-Pro truck edge past a Fed-Ex van that was on its way to the avenue.  He looked over at the man and saw that little had changed about him.  He was wearing a worn, brown suit and different too-wide tie, but he still paced furiously back and forth with his downcast forehead creased in agitation and silently grumbling lips that maintained themselves as a scowl.  Mike wondered whether the man was under a great deal of work stress or perhaps mentally unbalanced in some way, and vaguely hoped that he was a temporary worker so that he would not become a “regular.”

The agitated smoker dropped his cigarette under his heel without missing a pace, and then stepped right past Mike without the slightest acknowledgement of Mike’s “How’s it going?” greeting.  Mike noticed that the two other smokers seemed to cringe when the strange man passed them, as if the force of his distemper had pushed them aside.  Mike did not enjoy the remainder of his cigarette.  The smoke felt heavy as it rolled across his tongue and down his throat, and smelled sulfurous, as if the tobacco had been immersed too long in its chemical marinade.

He did not enjoy his 10:30 a.m. cigarette the next day either, as the agitated smoker was again making his back and forth rounds across the boundaries of Reardon’s smoking area.  The sight of the agitated smoker, with his incessant pacing, perpetual scowl and striated forehead, immediately put Mike on edge.  He almost kept walking upon seeing the strange man, quickly considered taking up a new position down by the street.  But Mike’s mind just as quickly rebelled against the idea, deciding that he was not going to let some oddball completely disrupt his routine.  So he stood to the right side of the alcove and smoked his cigarette, alternating his gaze between the street and the agitated smoker, who continued to seem oblivious about everything except his own pacing and smoking.

Again, the agitated smoker dropped his cigarette under his heel without missing a step and skirted by Reardon without displaying any indication, such as a nod or glance, that he was at all cognizant of his presence.  Mike did not bother to step over to his corner, absently fearing contagion from the agitated smoker’s ill humor, suffocating malaise from the haze of smoke hovering over the man’s back and forth route.  But the agitated smoker’s departure did not make Mike’s cigarette taste any better.

Later that day, after finishing his lunch, Reardon started to get up from his desk for his 2:00 smoke, but hesitated as the vivid image of the agitated, pacing man slid into his mind like a painful chill caused by rapid consumption of an icy drink.  He eased back down in his chair and tried to read another article in the newspaper.  He rustled through a file drawer in an absent-minded search for a misplaced file that had no pertinence to pending tasks.  He then reached into his inbox for a copy of the latest OSHA regulation, thinking that he might as well get started on its review, but then slapped it down on his desk.  “This is ridiculous,” he mumbled to himself as he got up from his chair.

Reardon grunted “hello” to a smoker who was standing on the right side of the stairs, and hustled over to his spot upon seeing it was clear.  He kept his back turned to the other smoker while lighting his cigarette and then steadied his gaze to the left side of the alley upon turning, so as not to provide the other smoker with any clear openings for chit chat.  After taking several drags Mike chanced a glance toward the other smoker and noted with satisfaction that he had turned to watch the traffic on the avenue.  The other smoker soon left and Mike enjoyed the rest of his cigarette.

The smoking area was deserted when Reardon arrived for his 4:30 smoke, but soon after he lit his cigarette the exit door screeched open.  Mike felt a vague sense of relief to see that it was only Denise, who worked for a trade-oriented lobbying group, but then realized that he might have to politely commiserate with complaints about her employer, or about one of her frequent ailments, which of late, had been migraines.  Denise, however, did not have much to say beyond a greeting and a comment about how the building’s rewiring allowed for more smoke breaks.

“Rewiring?” Mike asked.

“Yeah.  They’re rewiring the whole building floor by floor.  The power’s off on our floor.  Second time today, and it went off four times yesterday.  Of course, none of the outages seem to last very long, otherwise I’d be taking more than just a smoke break.”

“Oh.” Mike absently replied, as the thought struck him that the agitated smoker might be involved with the job.  But he just as quickly surmised that an electrical worker would not likely wear a suit, no matter how threadbare.

On Wednesday morning, Reardon was pleased to find his smoking area vacant, but before he could take a second peaceful drag off of his cigarette Jordan, a young black man who clerked for an environmental law firm, arrived.  Jordan, as was his custom, immediately began telling Mike about his most recent dating activities with his girlfriend, the name of whom tended to change every few weeks.  Mike had provided his first polite nod to Jordan, acknowledgement that yes, he was listening to the story, when the exit door squealed open.

The agitated smoker paused at the bottom step to light his cigarette, glanced toward Mike and Jordan as if noting obstacles in his path, then paced toward the fence, walking right past them, nudging firmly across and into the one-foot parameter of what is generally considered one’s personal space.

“How’re you doing?” Jordan said loudly to the man as he made his second pass.  The agitated smoker seemed to respond with a slight nod of his head, but Mike decided that it was just the furrows of the man’s forehead creasing deeper.  Jordan gave Mike a quizzical look and they both edged closer to the lip of loading dock bay, trying to distance themselves from the agitated smoker’s back and forth route.

“So, Candace tells me that she doesn’t care one lick about my car, says that a nice car distracts a man’s attention from what’s truly important—meaning hers truly, of course,” Jordan continued, but faltered in the telling, his attention diverted by the strange, agitated-looking man who kept pacing by them at such close proximity.  Jordan was finally getting to the crux of his tale when the man dropped his cigarette butt under his heel and tromped up the stairs, at which point Jordan interrupted himself to mutter, “Have a nice day, motherfucker,” slowly drawing out each syllable of the derogative.  Jordan shook his head and added, “Man, some folks just don’t have any people skills.”

“Yeah.  Mister Personality, himself,” Reardon concurred, and Jordan’s story was forgotten as both men silently considered the pall that the man had cast in his wake.

Jordan looked down at the cigarette in his hand, his mouth almost seeming to grimace with distaste.  He flicked the cigarette under the wheels of a passing UPS van and said, “Well, I gotta get back to the grind.  Have a good one, man.”

“All right, Jordan,” Reardon replied as he flicked his own cigarette into the middle of the alley, then as an afterthought added, “good luck with Candace.”  He stood there looking at the cigarette butt he had cast onto the pavement as the residue of his last inhalation coated the inside of his mouth like coal mine dust.  Mike spit and thought about how strange it was that some anonymous person could totally ruin what was generally a pleasant pastime.  He realized that he hadn’t felt such swift intense dislike for a person since college, but further reflected on how that rancor had been sparked by the clear and distinct motive of jealousy.  His current feelings, Mike rationalized, were based upon nothing more than an encroachment of personal space and what he thought of as a pestilential aura that seemed to ooze from the man’s pores, making these feelings seem about as substantive as exhaled smoke.  But then again, Mike thought, the grounds for his repugnance might be justified, as the agitated smoker seemed to repel most everyone he came across.

The next day, Reardon had just lit his 2:00 p.m. cigarette when he heard the exit door open.  Mike’s mind instantly called forth the image of the agitated smoker, but he suppressed his grimace upon seeing Walter, a patent attorney, who generally talked about all the things he planned to do upon his impending retirement, which had been “six months” away for the three years Mike had been working in the building.

Walter’s face lit up with a smile as he shuffled over to Mike’s corner.  “It’s a fine day for working, but an even better day to be off fishing,” Walter said.

“How’re you doing, Walter,” Reardon replied, forcing a smile.

“Well, I’m having a time up there getting anyone to do some follow-up research on that patent rejection we got last week,” Walter began a spiel that would soon shift into retirement plans, and Mike eased back a bit as Walter nudged into his personal space.

A short man with a squeaky voice, Walter had the habit of many men of his diminutive stature of trying to speak at a listener’s ear rather than to the face.  Thus, Walter would slowly but surely shift toward his listener’s side and ease in closer to the ear during the course of conversation, and Mike would often find himself doing a gradual pirouette with Walter as he tried to maintain the parameters of his personal space in the face of an inadvertent, amiable invasion.

Reardon had completed about one hundred and eighty degrees of the usual rotation when the door squealed open again.  The agitated smoker paused at the bottom step, considered the obstacles in his path, lit a cigarette and began his route.  Walter, who was providing details about the fishing boat he was planning to buy, hardly gave the man a glance, but Mike’s shoulders and spine tensed up as the man brushed by his back.  The smoke passing through Mike’s mouth seemed to turn instantly leaden and a light buzzing sensation cropped up between his ears and rapidly intensified.  The presence of Walter, still there talking at his ear, was all but forgotten.

“Excuse me,” Reardon heard himself grumble as he turned towards the agitated smoker who was making his third pass-by.  But the strange man didn’t even hesitate.  He took four more steps towards the stairs, turned and made his way back past Walter and Mike, skirting by them as if they were merely a telephone booth and newspaper rack on a narrow walkway.  “Excuse me,” Mike repeated, much louder this time.  “We are having a conversation here, and it’s a little tough—it’s . . .” he continued, but fumbled over his words when the agitated smoker made his turn by the fence and came to a halt.  “. . . Hard for us to concentrate with you about running us down,” Mike blustered.

The two men stared at each other, but to Reardon it seemed as if the agitated smoker was looking right through him, that the strange man wasn’t really seeing anything within his immediate vicinity, but was looking at something that might as well be two galaxies away.  Mike noticed that the agitated smoker’s forehead remained distressed with furrows and the mouth maintained its silent, grumbling scowl, but his pale eyes showed no emotion at all.  Mike was also taken aback by the agitated smoker’s rigid stance, which seemed so uncharacteristic in comparison to the unremitting nature of his usual pacing and smoking.  The adrenaline surge of fight or flight soared up Mike’s spine, and as it mixed with the ire that already roiled his emotions, his neck muscles tensed and his left hand started to ball up into a fist.

“Yes, I find it hard to concentrate, too,” the man’s voice displayed the same flat emotion as his eyes.  “That’s why I smoke.”  And with that the agitated smoker brought his cigarette to his lips and took three steps towards Reardon, who backed into Walter while trying to get into a more defensive stance.

The man stepped right past Reardon as Walter announced, “Well, I’d better get going,” and took a quick look back and forth between Mike and the agitated smoker, as if wondering which one he should be more concerned about.

“Yeah, Walter,” Reardon shook his head as if to indicate that he didn’t know what was going on.  “I’ll ah, catch . . .” and he faltered upon seeing the agitated smoker making his turn at the stairs for the return trip back to the fence.

“. . . catch you later,” he said after the agitated smoker passed right by Mike as if the brief confrontation had never taken place.

Mike edged up against the lip of the loading dock and eyed the agitated smoker as he made another pass, but the man didn’t even cast a hint of a glance in his direction.  He paced by with his left forearm jerking up to place the end of his cigarette into his mouth for a quick drag, then the forearm dropped with the same automaton motion, but released the cigarette butt to fall under his shoe before he trotted up the stairs.

Reardon looked down at the inch-long ash that had crept down the remainder of his cigarette, which he threw towards the stairs as the exit door slammed shut.  “That fucker,” he hissed at the last vestiges of smoke curling above the stairs.

The strange standoff so completely unnerved Reardon that he felt on-edge for the following forty-eight hours.  One co-worker had asked Mike if he was feeling all right, and he overheard two others speculating about possible reasons why Mike had been “acting so tense.”

And his girlfriend called him on it soon after she arrived at his apartment that night.  “OK, Michael.  What’s going on? You are way uptight.  I haven’t seen you this high strung since Congress was debating that repetitive stress legislation.”

Reardon thought about telling her all the details about the agitated smoker to see if she could help him make sense of the strange man and unbidden feelings of loathing that the man stirred up within him.  But instead he brushed her off by casually admitting that he’d almost gotten in a fight with “some jerk” in the smoking area.  “I should have clocked the fucker,” he asserted.

“A fight?” she exclaimed.  “You? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you get really mad at anyone.”

“Well, I don’t know what this guy’s problem was,” Reardon shook his head slowly to suggest gravity of the problem.  “I’m standing there chatting with Walter—you know that old guy I’ve told you about who’s always about to retire—when this jerk comes out and basically just gets right into our space.  I mean, so close that we might as well have been having a three-way dance.  So, I call him out on it, and, well, he got—He got a bit belligerent.”

“Yeah. And?”

“Well, Walter kind of got between us and calmed things down.  I mean, the guy was a complete jerk.  A nutcase.  But you know, Walter’s an old man and all, so—”

“Have you ever seen this guy before?”

“No.” Reardon lied.  He could tell that his girlfriend wasn’t completely accepting the story as being told, but he changed the subject by bringing up the question of the night’s dinner options.  Later, while trying to sleep that night, he wondered why he had been so reluctant to expose the details of the agitated smoker to his girlfriend.  He didn’t come up with any concrete answers, but briefly considered that perhaps he was embarrassed about the lack of significant justification to support his powerful feelings of hatred.

Reardon revised his smoking schedule and successfully avoided the agitated smoker for the rest of the week, but the next Monday the agitated smoker was making his rounds when Mike came out for his 11 a.m. smoke.  Mike decided that he didn’t want to be anywhere near the man, so he lit his cigarette by the right side of the stairs and then ambled down towards the avenue.  He had thought that he would just lean against the wall and watch the pedestrians romping by on their way to wherever, but found himself instead looking back towards the agitated smoker, who was pacing back and forth and smoking furiously in his usual manner.  Even from that distance he thought that he could feel negative vibes emanating from the man.  In fact, Mike had discovered that even when he sometimes found himself involuntarily thinking about the agitated smoker—and this was happening all too often—it would put him in a dour mood that would ruin the moment, if not the subsequent hours.  Disgusted, Mike flicked his cigarette against the alley wall and turned onto the avenue in order to walk around to the front entrance of the building.

The agitated smoker proved to be a menace in Reardon’s mind and, though much less often, in person, through the holidays.  Mike would sporadically run into him in the alley, and either give up on that smoke break or have one out on the sidewalk, something he usually avoided as he felt so exposed and purposeless when just standing there in public doing nothing but puffing away.  It got so the idea of even having a cigarette during the workday proved irritating and that the only place he could truly enjoy smoking was in the sanctity of his home.

Reardon’s last encounter with the agitated smoker during the holidays occurred on Christmas Eve day, right after Mike had completed a successful cigarette break in his customary spot.  The two men almost bumped into each other when the agitated smoker exited from an elevator in the lobby, apparently on his way to the alley.  Mike felt a sense of victory over the narrow margin by which he’d missed seeing him in the smoking area, and being in the Christmas spirit, he even greeted him with a “happy holidays” as they passed.  The agitated smoker said nothing in return and Mike disliked him even more intensely, even though the greeting had been half-calculated just to see if it would garner a response.

By the third week in January, with no sightings of the agitated smoker since the holiday greeting, Reardon had decided that the man had, in fact, been a temp worker.  Mike had reset his smoking breaks to their standard times and no longer felt so hesitant when he pushed through the building’s rear exit door.  When he was already outside having his smoke, however, Mike would sometimes still flinch when he heard the exit door open.

On the Monday of the fourth week in January Reardon boarded an empty elevator after completing his 10:30 smoke, and was pushing the “close” button repeatedly in the hopes of getting the doors shut before anyone else showed up.  The doors were just beginning to slide shut when the agitated smoker slipped through the gap without causing them to automatically retract.  Mike’s hand fumbled for the “open” button, but the elevator chimed and began its ascent.  The agitated smoker’s arm brushed by Reardon’s torso and pressed “12.”  His pale eyes looked directly into Mike’s, but again Mike sensed that the man wasn’t really seeing him at all.  Mike’s ears began to buzz as his muscles tensed up, but his entire body felt numb, as if going into shock.

Much later, when Reardon would find plenty of time to reflect upon this final encounter with the agitated smoker, he would marvel at the premonition he had had as soon as the elevator began its ascent.  Yes, Mike was aware that the building was undergoing rewiring and subject to brief periodic blackouts, but it went beyond that.  Mike had known with certainty that the power would fail before either of them would reach their respective floors, knew that they were going to be trapped together on that elevator where there was not enough space between those brushed steel walls for the two of them.

When the lights did go out and the elevator hummed down in a rapid, decelerating halt, Reardon scrunched himself into the corner and balled up his fists.  The emergency lights came on and Mike saw that the agitated smoker’s eyes could display emotion.  They seemed to be bulging with fear, and the sound of his panicked breathing instantly superceded the inner swish of Mike’s own heavy breath and beating heart.  The agitated smoker squeezed himself into the opposite corner and covered his face with his hands.  The panicked breaths abruptly subsided, and the agitated man lowered his hands, opened his eyes and stared at Mike, again apparently without seeing him.  He then reached into an inside suit pocket to retrieve a pack of cigarettes.

“No,” Reardon said sharply, seeing in his mind the agitated smoker pacing back and forth in the closed confines of their temporary crypt.  “There’s no smoking in here.”

The man lit up a cigarette and immediately set off to establish his route:  three small steps to the corner, turn; two steps to the next corner, turn; three steps to the next corner, turn; two small steps to the next corner, so as to make a rectangle, and no matter that someone was standing in one of the corners.  The agitated smoker merely sliced off the corner of the rectangle where Mike was standing by brushing past him at an angle without making a true turn.  The cuff of the agitated smoker’s right leg swished across the toe of Mike’s shoes as his elbow glanced across Mike’s quivering arm.

“No smoking,” Reardon barked into the agitated smoker’s ear from two inches away on the second pass by.

The agitated smoker maintained his route, tendrils of smoke trailing him as if from a slow moving steam locomotive.

“There’s no fucking smoking in here, you idiot,” Reardon’s words rang flat against the walls of their vault, and the smoker didn’t veer from his course one bit.

“Don’t you fucking see me standing here?” Reardon shouted, peppering the agitated smoker’s face with dewdrops of spit on his fourth pass-by.  The ashen smoke above them slowly swirled and churned like the approaching front of a maelstrom.

“And who the fuck do you think you are pushing into my space?” Mike slammed the side of his clammy fist into the steel wall, which absorbed the blow with a barely resonating dull thud.  “I’m standing here.  This is my fucking personal space.”

But like the EverReady battery bunny, the agitated smoker was going to keep going and going and ….

Later, Reardon would remember very little of what happened after he yelled at the agitated smoker about the encroachment of his personal space, only knowing in his mind that the strange man never said anything at all.  No words of shock or outrage when Reardon slapped the cigarette out of the agitated smoker’s hand, showering spark-like embers across the front of his suit.  No curse when Reardon threw the first—a left jab—of many punches.  And not even the hint of a gasp, grunt or groan when Reardon started beating the agitated smoker’s head against the wall, which hardly made a sound, and then onto the floor, which seemed to offer a sharp clack, like the sound of a high heel on tile, with each strike of the skull against it.

But then again, Reardon didn’t hear the elevator’s power turn back on, or feel its subsequent descent either.  When the elevator doors chimed open to a crowded lobby, though, Reardon, who was astride the prone and bloodied corpse of the agitated smoker, quickly surmised that he’d better claim self defense.

In court, evidence showed that Robert Trevor Johnson was hardly in any condition to initiate an attack as originally described to the police by the defendant.  Veteran’s Affairs doctors testified that Johnson, who was in fact mentally ill, though “by no means a threat to the public,” could hardly have put up even a defensive fight, let alone initiate an attack, due to the disabling injuries he’d sustained during the Vietnam War.  In great detail they described how Johnson had lost a large chunk of his right shoulder and arm to a Vietnamese hand grenade, and then received substandard medical care from his captors who locked him up in a six-by-six foot bamboo cage for two and a half years and fed him just enough to keep him alive.  The doctors further called the defendant’s assertion that Johnson had tried to strangle him “extremely suspect” as the disabled arm made it physically impossible for Johnson to raise his right hand above his own neckline.

And so Michael Reardon spends much of his so-called free time in a quiet section of the yard, or in a corner of his cellblock’s common room, where he paces back and forth while puffing away on a cigarette.  He loathes many of his colleagues in the massive complex, but with good reason.  And this only makes the former hatred he felt for Johnson seem that much more irrational.  So he paces and smokes and sometimes tries to make sense of his brief association with the agitated smoker.

But he doesn’t pace and smoke in his own cell, despite a craving that is almost overwhelming during each interminable night of lockdown.  He made that mistake on his first night and his cellmate punched him in the nose.

“I don’t care if everyone else does it,” said, as if an afterthought, the long-time resident, serving time for carjacking, assault with a deadly weapon and armed robbery.  “Smoking ain’t allowed in the cells and I don’t want you stinking up my space more than you already are.”

–This story was a finalist in the Ray Bradbury 2002 Fellowship Competition for Short Stories. But looking at it now, I’m not that impressed….

___________________________________

Flowers From Heaven

Yeah, Bob, I totally screwed up.  With the loss of that contract, I’d have to say my days at the company are numbered—Chris will probably hand me my walking papers within the week.  Should be good for you, though.  Hell, you ought to ask Chris for my office.  You certainly—

Now, now, don’t be condescending.  It’s my fuck up.  And besides—

What’s that? The flowers.  Yeah, I was fucked by those flowers.

I know.  I know.  It sounds nuts, but I shit you not, I really saw it.  It really did rain flowers.

You want to hear the whole story? Yeah.  Well, we’d better get another beer then.

Excuse me, Sam.  It is Sam, right? Yeah, short for Samantha.  Well, you’re the prettiest Sam I’ve ever laid eyes on.

Uh, yeah, two Coronas, please.

Mm-mm, tell me she’s not a sweet little thing.  I’d like to butter her—

Yeah, yeah.  I know.  Women! They’re half my problem.  But I can’t help it.  I love ’em.  And I don’t suppose I’ve got any reason to change my hound dog ways—not now, anyway.  I mean, if I haven’t paid for my sins tenfold with what I went through last week, then we’re all going to Hell.  And like my sins are such a big deal.  Jesus, just about every man in America screws around.  Hell, it’s the American way.

Right.  I was going to tell you about the flowers.

Yes, they fell from the heavens.  A true miracle.  Although I guess I’m the only one who actually witnessed it.  Some other people reaped the rewards of this miracle, but they didn’t even see it happen.  Shit, I bear witness to it and end up cursed.

You’ve heard the expression “raining cats and dogs” enough so that you can picture cats and dogs falling like rain from the sky.  Of course, most people fail to acknowledge the image of the poor animals actually making contact with the ground—splat!  Well, supplant the images of those cats and dogs—but not as they hit the ground—with bouquets.

I’m serious.  Picture in your mind dozens of bouquets falling like gentle drizzle, sailing down, for the most part, stems first, with the aerodynamics causing some of them to pirouette in a leisurely spin, and others to bobble back and forth or round and round in an effort to lesson the drag.  Well, that’s what it was like.

I was staying at the Crowne Plaza Hotel.

It’s on K and 14th.  Right across from Franklin Square.

Yeah, looks just like Farragut Square.  Even has the token statue of some Civil War General—Franklin, I guess, whoever he is.  Hell, I suppose just about every Yankee general’s got a square or park named after him in Washington, DC.

Anyway, Chris and I had been meeting with the two Anarad reps all day.  Took them out to Georgia Brown’s for dinner that night, and were scheduled to meet with them for breakfast the next morning at 8:00, with hopes of closing the deal before they caught their 11:00 O’clock flight back to Miami.  I damn sure didn’t want to drive all the way home to Leesburg just to go to bed and then turn around and come back seven hours later, and that’s what I told Carol.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  OK, so it also gave me an excuse to get up with Rachel.  What of it?  You’ve met Rachel—can you blame me?

So, Carol gives me shit about not telling her that it was going to be an overnighter that morning, and lays into me about how this is the sixth time in two months that I’ve come up with an excuse to stay in the city.  It was really only the fourth time, but she doesn’t want to listen to me.  Doesn’t even hear me say that I hadn’t known that the Anarad meetings included dinner, which I didn’t.  Cuts me off when I’m explaining how important these meetings are.  Says something about how I should just live in the city and not bother coming home, and then hangs up.  I almost called her back, but figured I’d have a better go at it and make it up to her the next day in person.

I don’t know, I guess I’m stupid or something.  Didn’t realize that I was already walking on a thin tightrope with her.  Anyway, I call up Rachel.  Make arrangements to meet her at Club Zei at 11, and tell her to bring along a couple of friends.

That’s right.  I figure that if I can get one of the Anarad reps laid, it’ll help close the deal.  And sure enough, one of the reps was into checking out the DC nightlife.  Don’t know what his problem was, though.  Rachel has two hot little sluts with her, and this guy—Chip—is set.  He’s got fine pussy in hand, but out of the blue announces that he’s got to get back to his hotel.

Yeah.  That’s what I was thinking, too.  Hey, Chip, are you gay or what?

Well, I end up taking Rachel to the Crowne Plaza.  Made sense as it was right down from Zei, and the Anarad reps were staying a couple of blocks over at the Madison, but the bill was a killer.

So I wake up at around 7:00.  Wasn’t feeling too hot, but you know—

What? You want a play by play? I don’t think so.  This story isn’t supposed to stoke your libido.  It’s about a miracle, plain and simple.  If you’re looking for erotica, go rent a porno flick.

Yes.  I’m going to explain Carol.  Now if you’ll quit with the interruptions maybe you’ll get enlightened or something.  I mean, come on, you’ve got to give me—

No, her friends were from GW.

Yeah, one was perfect for you.  Tall, long legs to die for, brunette, shoulder length hair, beautiful blue eyes—yes, I know you’re affinity for blue-eyed brunettes—and a sweet little fuck-me-now pout.  Actually, she’s too good for you.  In fact, I’m thinking that she might have to become Rachel’s replacement.

No.  Medium to small, but firm.  Can I continue my story now?

Thank you.

Anyway, don’t know what woke me up, but did know right away that it was raining.  I swear I could almost hear that faint sizzling sound that a gentle shower makes when it hits a tin roof.  And I could smell it, too.  You know how after it rains the air can smell so clean and springlike.

And sure enough, through a large gap in the curtains I see little droplets of water sliding down the windowpane—isn’t it kind of neat how you can wake up and know that it’s raining before actually seeing it?

Yeah, well you wouldn’t know a tornado had hit your house until you landed in Oz.

So anyway, my eyelids are drifting back together and I’m enjoying the serenity most people feel upon awakening to an early morning summer shower.  And that’s when I see something big outside glide down past the gap in the curtains.  I don’t really remember what my first thought was—you know, whether I thought it was a pigeon making a dive-bombing run to the sidewalk or something like that—but I rubbed my eyes, looked out the window again, and realized that more was happening outside than just an early-morning summer shower.  So I lean halfway out of bed to get a better look, push the curtains further apart, and just like I told you: bouquets are pirouetting down from the sky like rain.  They’re falling all across the park and hitting the ground with an almost calculated tumble, like skydivers making their landings.  It’s not like they’re piling up like snow or anything like that, but you wouldn’t have been able to take 10 steps without crossing one.

Yeah, I know.  It sounds pretty far-fetched.  But I swear it’s true.  I mean, it’s not like it’s unprecedented or anything like that.  Think back when we were kids.  Remember in the third grade how we all wanted to get Strange But True Stories from the bookmobile?

Come on, you remember the book.  It had those great stories about Cigar-Shaped UFOs, demons that left their footprints melted across miles of fresh fallen New England snow, and the hitchhiking ghost who gets a ride home to her cemetery.  Well, it also included a couple of stories about odd objects coming down from the heavens.  Mainly big stones coming down like hail in out-of-the-way towns out west, but as I recall, one of those towns got nailed by a hailstorm of farm tools and another by rabbits, or maybe it was frogs.  And hell, just read the Bible or Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesers.  They’re full of stories about weird things falling down from the heavens like rain.

OK, but I’m just trying to open your mind, trying to show you that what I experienced might not be totally out of the question.  And come on, Bob, it’s not like I’ve ever dicked you around about something serious.  And, fuck.  My job? Carol? Having millions of dollars in hand only to hand it over to some loser? I’m telling you, I got seriously fucked here.  I got—

Yeah, I said millions.  I’ll get to that, Bob.  Just let me tell the story.

Anyway, I try to wake Rachel up so she can witness the miracle, but she only emerges from her sleep long enough to push my hand away and roll over.  When I turn back to the window, I see that the flowers have pretty much stopped dropping.  I keep watching, though.  Thought I’d seen the last one fall right next to the statue—about thought the general was going to reach out and grab for it—when one plops down right in front of my face, landing on the narrow ledge right outside my window.

No, it wasn’t some publicity stunt pulled off by FTD.  And I don’t think some kind of association or advocacy group was trying to make some sort of odd point by making it rain flowers.  I mean, I didn’t hear any helicopters or airplanes flying above the square, and besides, that part of Washington is a no-fly zone because of the White House.

So I’m looking at this bouquet, halfway expecting it to disappear in front of my eyes.  But it’s real.  Prettiest 12 roses I’ve ever seen in my life.  Deep red, like arterial blood.  So fresh that they could have been cut minutes before, right before God decided to drop them out of heaven’s window.  The stems were tied together with some sort of thin green vine shorn of its leaves, and baby’s breath weaved through the bunch like it had sprouted there during its fall from the sky.  God must have been in a hurry though, cause he didn’t bother to clip the thorns.

I found that out the hard way.  But first I had to get to the bouquet.  Frigging hotel had put bolts in all the windows so you couldn’t open them.  Phillips-head screws, actually, going through each side of the window frame into the sill.

A Swiss Army knife.

See? I always keep one handy.

But, fuck, I would’ve broken that window to get to those flowers.  Think about it, a miracle lands right in front of you, but just out of your grasp, what’re you going to do? You’re going to do whatever it takes to get to it—to take physical possession of that miracle.  So I get the screws out, raise the window and grab the bouquet.  I don’t see the thorns, but I sure as hell feel them.

Look at this, here it is almost a week later and the pricks have barely started to heal.  Hell, for a day or two I thought a major infection was setting in.  Pretty fuckin’ weird, huh?

Oh yeah.  Let go of them immediately and down to the sidewalk they went.  Pissed me right off.

Right.  No chance they’re still going to be there by the time I make it down.  I mean, at this point there’s already at least a dozen people are in the park gathering up all the fallen bouquets.  And seeing that, I realized that I’d better get the hell out there quickly or I’m not going to get a piece of the miracle.  Plus, I needed to hear what other people had to say about it.  Share the miracle, or something like that—make sure that it’s real, that I’m not losing my shit.

Well, I get outside and the first thing I see is this sidewalk vendor putting a bunch of bouquets into a five-gallon bucket.  So I go up to him and ask if he saw it.  He looks at me all suspiciously, like I’m going to try to lay claim to the flowers, or something like that, and says, “see what?”

“The flowers,” I tell him, “falling from the sky like rain.”

He looks at me like I’m crazy and says, “Five dollars a bunch.”

“No,” I tell him.  “You got them in the park, right?” He doesn’t answer, but I can tell right away that that’s exactly where he got them.  “Look, I was in my hotel room, and I saw it.  They fell from the sky.”

The vendor looks up at the sky and then across the street at the park and says, “five dollars.”

Well, I don’t have time to deal with him, so I turn to cross the street, but then I see it, the first tangible bounty of this miracle.  It’s lying there in the gutter, four feet from the vendor’s bucket.  Of course, he sees it first and jumps for it before I can even think

about it.

A roll of bills.  I’m talking thick.  I’m talking hundred dollar bills.  I mean, I couldn’t make out what denomination they were, but I just knew.  The vendor gives me his suspect look again, but I just shake my head at him to let him know that I’m not making any claims, and head across the street to the park.

I get to the other side and see this old, homeless looking bat crossing 14th.  She’s holding four or five bouquets up to her chest and not paying any attention to what she’s doing.  Steps right out in front of a Bell Atlantic van.  I mean, she was dead meat.  But you know what happens? At that very instant the van blows it’s left front tire and careens hard left, missing the old witch by millimeters.  She doesn’t even flinch.  I mean, I was kind of hoping that she’d get nicked or something—at the very least, freak out or something so that she’d lose her grip on the flowers.  But no go.  She scurries off before I can even think up some scam to relieve her of a bouquet.

This group of taxi drivers is hanging out by the corner of 14th and K Streets and they’re all patting this one driver on the back and obviously celebrating something.  Naturally, he’s holding a bouquet.  I sidle up to them and ask what’s going on and one of them tells me that Kareem—yeah, the one holding the bouquet—had gotten a radio call from the dispatcher to call home.  Well, he had just called home and found out that his wife, who had been paralyzed with a stroke, was alert and talking.

A cell phone.  Hell, they all carry them these days.  The immigrants, anyway.  They come over here to our country, abuse the system, get free medical care, free housing, free food, and just about anything else they want.  They’re living high on the hog.  They—

Yeah, sorry.  You know how easily I get fired up about how this country’s going to hell in a handbasket.

OK, so these fucking flowers are nothing but miraculous, and I want a piece of the action.  Problem is, the bundles of miracles have already been gathered up.  I walk around the park looking, but they’re all gone.  I talk to a couple of other people about it.  I’m trying to figure out if there’s any way that maybe I can scam a bouquet off one of them, but also wondering whether any of them had seen the flowers actually fall from the sky.  Of course, everybody I ask if they’d seen the flowers actually falling from the sky looks at me like I’m nuts.

Well, I’m getting pretty desperate by this point.  I even consider buying a bouquet from the vendor.  But I figure that buying them just wouldn’t be the same.  And besides, the miracle’s probably already left those flowers, what with that thick roll of bills he scored.

At about this point I see a bouquet.  It’s just lying there on the rim of a fountain. White roses.  One dozen of them.  Not a bit of yellowing at their edges—as white as freshly fallen—hell, as white as an angel’s wings.  So white that you’d have no doubt that they came from the hand of God.

Problem is, there’s this homeless person sitting on a bench facing the fountain, and I can just tell that he’s already laid claim to that bouquet—that if I were to walk by and pick it up, he’d raise holy hell.  And he’s one of those really gone looking ones, too.  Absolute Loony Tunes.  A tall, lanky Charlie Manson-type, but half-Indian or something, sitting there muttering to himself and staring at those flowers with his crazed eyes.  But I quickly notice that he averts his stare about every six seconds or so to glance at this specific point on the sidewalk to the right of the fountain.  Kind of like he’s got a nervous tic or something, because there’s nothing on the walkway.  But with that observation I come up with a quick plan.  I pull a $10 bill out of my wallet and stroll nonchalantly down the path.  When I cross that spot on the sidewalk I let the bill slip from my hand.  My timing’s perfect.  As I pass the fountain I hear him shuffling towards my bill, allowing me to reach out for the bouquet.

It’s mine, and I’m hoping that the 10-spot will distract him enough so that he’ll forget about the bouquet.  No such luck.  I’d taken about 12 steps when I hear this bellowing from behind:  “My flowers!”  And the fucker tackles me before I can even turn around.

Oh yeah, nice pavement burn on my cheek.  Shredded the right knee of my suit, too.  I was looking real sharp for the meeting, let me tell you.

Well, for good measure he gives me a couple of punches to the back of the head, says something about them being “my flowers” again, grabs them out of my hand and backs away.  I get up, look around, and am very thankful that there are no witnesses to my fracas with this loser.

“I’m sorry,” I tell him in a calm voice.  “I didn’t know they were yours.  They were just sitting there on the fountain.”

“My flowers,” he growls, and shakes a fist at me.

“Fine.  Fine,” I say.  “Tell you what, I’ll buy them from you.”  He looks at me like he doesn’t have a clue about what I’m saying, so I pull out my wallet and say, “You know, pay you for them.  Cash money.”

“Twenty dollars,” he says.

Well, I pull out a twenty, but the hand-off proves to be a bit difficult, as neither one of us trusts the other.  I’m sure it was a comical sight.  I’d take two steps forward, the folded bill extended towards him, and he’d take one step back, bouquet tucked up against his chest.  He finally reaches for the bill, but doesn’t want to hand over the flowers.  Finally, with great reluctance, he hands them over to me.

“Say, did you see these flowers fall from the sky,” I ask, thinking that maybe I’d actually found another witness.  He barks at me.  Sounds like a rabid dog getting ready to lunge, so I back out of there quickly.

I’m pretty happy about finally getting hold of some miracle flowers, but at the same time, worried that the miracle’s already left them.  You know, the homeless guy scored $30 for them.  Maybe that was that bouquet’s sole offering.

So I get back to my hotel room and have to deal with Rachel.  She gets kind of upset when she realizes that the flowers aren’t for her.  Doesn’t want to hear about the miracle I’d witnessed.  Doesn’t want to pay half the room bill.  I finally get her outside and try to placate her by buying a bouquet from the vendor.  Doesn’t do much good, though.  I’ve got to say that the vendor’s flowers looked like shit compared to my white bouquet.  Looked kind of sullied, like they’d breathed in too much carbon monoxide from the passing traffic or something.  Rachel started pointing this fact out to me, but I pushed the vendor’s bouquet into her arms with a quick kiss and took off for the meeting.

I got there at 8:25.  Like I mentioned, I must have been a sight.  Out of breath, ripped pants, strawberry on my cheek, and holding a bouquet of white roses.  Chris’s expression can best be described as “aghast.”  I don’t know if he was more pissed off about how I looked or because I was late, but he really laid into me after the meeting.

Chip said, “My, my, it looks like you certainly had an adventurous morning.”

“Yeah, it’s a long story,” I replied, “and I’m very sorry about being late.”

“Oh, do tell,” Chip said, the shit, with this smug look on his queer face.

“Yeah, what’s with the flowers?” the other Anarad rep said.

“If you’re going to be 25 minutes late, and come to a meeting looking like this, you’d best offer some kind of explanation,” Chris added, giving me his dispense with this bullshit quickly look.

I don’t know what got into me.  Don’t know why I didn’t come up with a quick lie or something, but I said it like it was.  I told them how it had rained flowers on Franklin Square that morning and that a homeless person had jumped me and tried to steal my flowers.

“Rained flowers?” Chip said.

“Yep, it was a miracle.  This bouquet came down from the heavens,” I replied with all seriousness.

Mike quickly returned the meeting back to the proposed contract by saying something along the lines of how my sense of humor tended to be on the odd side in the morning, and I was pretty much worthless for the rest of the meeting.  Oh, I was able to supply some figures and technical data, but other than that—I mean, I just couldn’t get those falling flowers out of my mind.

The meeting closed, as you know, with no deal from Anarad.  After Mike laid into me, I tried to tell him about the flowers again, but he just thought I was nuts.  “What’s with you and these fucking flowers?” he said.

“Look, Mike.  I’m telling you it happened,” I implored.  They really fell from the sky.”  Mike wasn’t convinced.

I wasn’t able to convince Carol either when I called her after I got back to the office.  “I’m not kidding—flowers from heaven.  It was a miracle.  It was unbelievable.  I’m telling you, it happened.”

“Flowers fell from the sky? Okay, whatever you say,” she said, her tone dead flat.

“I mean, wait until you see these roses.  They’re pristine.  They—” but Carol cut me off with a detached “goodbye.”

Managed to get through the rest of the day OK, though it seems like I was in a major fog.  Knew that I was going to end up taking the blame for the Anarad contract, but tried not to think about it.  And in truth, was still marveling over the miracle I had witnessed, even though I was starting to get the feeling that I wasn’t going to receive any of the miracle’s bounties.

Was still thinking about it all on the drive home, but also started thinking about Carol.  The guilts had kicked in hard.  I felt like absolute dogshit.  You know the feeling.  Shit, but this time I felt especially low.  There I am bearing witness to a miracle while I’m screwing around on my wife.  Even gave serious consideration to confessing.  Telling Carol that I had screwed up, but now realized the error of my ways and was reformed.  But fuck that!  The first rule of relationships, I’ve always said, is never confess to anything—what she don’t know never happened.

Of course, it didn’t make any difference.  I walked in the door with the flowers behind my back.  Figured that I’d apologize about not coming home the night before, explain how important the meeting was, present her the flowers and then try to convince her that I’d born witness to the miracle.

She was sitting at the kitchen table.  Just sitting there tapping her heels and waiting for me to get home.  I guess the hollow expression on her face, an expression I’d never seen before, said it all.  “Carol,” I began.  “I’m sorry about last night, but—”

She didn’t even let me get into it.  “I’m leaving you,” she announced right off, and tossed something onto the kitchen table.

“Carol, I—” but faltered upon seeing what she’d thrown on the table.  It was a clutch of photographs.  There I am in Kodachrome wandering the park, scuffling with a homeless person, and kissing Rachel while pushing a bouquet into her arms.

“My investigator didn’t know what to think about your activities in the park this morning, but he did suggest that you might want to seek professional help,” Carol suggested nonchalantly.

I guess I was feeling a bit unhinged at this point, so I said, “Carol, I can explain all of this, but you’ve got to believe me when I say that flowers fell from heaven this morning,” and with that I brought the bouquet from behind my back and extended it toward her.

“Oh, aren’t they appropriate,” she said.  “But shouldn’t I be giving them to you?”

I was speechless.

“And you know what, you keep them,” she said, as she got up from the table.  “Even if they did fall from heaven, it’s obvious that they were meant for you,” she added and headed for the door, leaving with a remark about how her lawyer would be in touch.

I couldn’t say anything.  Not a word.  I suppose I was in absolute shock.  You see, God had thrown me another miracle, my own private miracle.  The roses had turned black.

I shit you not!  Black as a raven’s wing.

Oh, but it gets worse.

Four.  Twenty.  Twenty-five.  Thirty-three.  Twenty-seven.  And of course, lucky 13.

Those would be the numbers I play for the Powerball lottery.  I’ve played those same numbers for eight years now, and those numbers were drawn that very night.

Oh, no.  I’d already gotten my ticket.  I keep it in my wallet.

Yeah, you’re on the right track.  I must have accidentally dropped it with the 10-spot or handed it to him with the $20.

He was on TV.  Looked like he’d cleaned himself up some and didn’t look so Charles Manson crazed anymore.  He still looked kind of scruffy, but in that movie star way that all the chicks swoon over.  He’s a Vietnam vet.  Apparently won the Silver Star, Bronze Star and some other commendations for his service, but has been down on his luck and I guess a bit unstable for the past 15 years or so.  Said during the interview that he planned to donate most of the $28 million to the city’s homeless shelters, veteran’s organizations and battered women groups.  Said that all he wanted was a decent home and enough money to live comfortably on.  Said some mumbo jumbo about how miracles didn’t fall from the sky, but came from within.  Then said he planned to buy a dozen white roses every day for the rest of his life in honor of the great Pomona.

Yeah, Pomona.

I had to look it up.  She’s some ancient goddess.  Greek or Roman.  She’s in charge of gardens, don’t you know?

But the guy’s got it right.  I mean, there’s no doubt in my mind that God must be a woman.

—This one got a lot of rejections, but for some reason I’ve always liked it. It got panned during a graduate school workshop, because the readers thought the main character was such a jerk.  Hello, he is a jerk!