Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Black Eye by Sahar Sabati

Sahar Sabati recounts a surprisingly intimate moment for a peripatetic journalist in a café.

My job often takes me on the road, more often than not. In the days when I am travelling, my laptop is my lifeline, the one constant in my life. I can often be seen at local wireless cafés, typing away, working on a project while chatting with friends. Being online, having these conversations, brings a certain sense of normality and constancy to my life. Every day for two hours, I log on – the same people are there, and we talk, as if we were in the same room, as if I am at home and they are a couple of blocks away and we could go for coffee at that instant if we wanted to. I could even attend meetings through instant messaging systems, and lead a somewhat grounded life. Internet had brought this into the otherwise unpredictable life that I lead, and for that I will always be grateful.

My present trip was definitely one of my least memorable ones – I had gotten an assignment that had sent me to the middle of nowhere, where the weather was terrible and the night life lacking. To make matters worse, I had a bad case of insomnia. After trying vainly to sleep the first two nights, I gave in and went to yet another café. Better to be tired but satisfied after a good night's worth of work than tired and frustrated from tossing and turning. And, hopefully, the working would tire me enough to get a couple of hours of sound sleep.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Endoganes by Jack Lawrence

Jack Lawrence's fanciful offering to the canon of Greek mythology

In classical Greece, in the city of Thebes, there was once a vast heap of ancient rubble dreaded and untouched by all. Long before, it had been the home of a man called Endoganes. Spiky, broom thin, and bitter as salt-marsh, he forgot and forgave nothing, his house filled with clutched grudges and spiteful murmurs.

Endoganes had a daughter called Kore who secretly loved Elpidos, the youngest son of a man called Xenios. Many years before, both families had quarrelled and bad blood remained. The cause of the argument was lost to memory, having begun when Thebes was young, little more than shacks and fire pits. Unresolved down the years, the disagreement had turned septic and become a feud, with men on both sides fighting and dying, all guilty of wickedness and lies as they tried to get their way.

When Endoganes discovered Kore's secret she begged him to relent, to listen, to consider all Elpidos's good qualities, but he refused. Xenios, a kind man who had long thought the feud should end, went to Endoganes and offered the hand of friendship. But Endoganes refused.

"You will not marry him!" he told Kore night after night as he recited the terrible deeds of Elpidos's forebears, his voice low and cold, impregnable with hate. "I will never consent to it. I cannot consent. Can you not understand, child? The wrongs they have done us are wounds never to heal."

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Missing Pieces by Mitchell Waldman

A low-life petty crook wakes up on the morning after a botched hold-up to find his left hand missing; by Mitchell Waldman

It was on an otherwise ordinary morning in July that Tom Morton woke up to find his left hand missing. No, not really missing. He could still pinch it and feel it, but it was invisible, had disappeared from sight.

This is how it happened. He opened his eyes, yawned, and reached to scratch an itch on his cheek with his left hand - he was left-handed - only to realize a moment after the scratch that he was scratching with an absent appendage. He shook like a blender set on pulverize, until he closed his eyes and said out loud, like some kind of mantra: "This is only a dream, this is only a dream, this is only a dream." Then he counted to ten and opened his eyes. The hand was still missing. He screamed out loud, lifting the arm which now seemed to end at the wrist. The funny thing about it, though, was that his hand was, somehow, still there. He could feel it. He just couldn't see it. Maybe, he thought, maybe there was a rational explanation for this. Maybe his eyesight had gone wacky. Or his brain. Or, or... he didn't know what. He hadn't had too much to drink the night before, after the job. It couldn't be that. He'd been bleary-eyed for sure last night, but it had never overlapped into morning, at least not to the extent of losing sight of a whole appendage.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

On the Face of It by Allen Kopp

Blanche Mims, a woman with an extremely unusual disability, is visited by a midget in Allen Kopp's comic short.

In the morning when Blanche Mims stepped outside to sweep away the autumn leaves that had gathered around her front door, there was a very small man dressed in black formal attire, a midget, standing in the yard looking at her. She stopped sweeping, adjusted her glasses, and snorted through her nose.

"Looking for somebody?" she asked.

"I've found her," he said.

So, he was one of those! He had heard about her in town and wanted to see for himself. She went back inside as fast as she could, slamming the door. She peeked out at him as he got back into a long gray car and drove away. Oh, but he had an evil grin!

She was not like other women, so she had good reason for caution. She had what was, by any measure, a monstrous deformity: her face was not in front of her head but on top. Her nose was exactly at the top of her head, her mouth tucked in underneath her nose. Since her eyes were always pointed skyward, she had to wear a special kind of glasses made with tilted mirrors so she could walk upright and see in front of her. On the sides of her head, all the way around (covering her ears), was thick hair, the color and texture of a lion's mane. For several years she had been a headliner in a traveling freak show and was, for a time, billed as The Lion Woman. (To her credit, she was, except for the misplacement of her face, exactly the same as anybody else.)

Friday, December 21, 2012

Façade by George Sparling

An alcoholic wannabe intellectual looks back on an odd drug-fuelled encounter in a New York dive bar, by George Sparling.

She wrapped my Eisenhower jacket around my shoulders. She pulled it out of the closet. It seemed as if it had died there. She must've felt uneasy seeing a shivering bum passed out on the stoop of her building. She invited me to spend the night, get cleaned up, shave and have a meal. Then adios, so I thought.

The clock said midnight. I sat on a chair in a spare bedroom, she sitting on a rocker, her face pale under bright lights from a floor lamp. I saw darkness out a window, then my reflection foregrounding a face I couldn't recognize. She'd always had that big-sister way about her, comfortable with a strange man, sitting with her bathrobe slightly open. I scarfed down two ham and cheese sandwiches, a can of peaches, and a friendly bottle of Rheingold.

A man called out, "Come to bed, Dana," but she ignored him. She told me he wanted to become a U.S. citizen: that was the $5,000 arrangement. This was a dream job for Dana, a grad from a progressive, Midwestern college, wisdom and idealism trumping pragmatism. She had no job skills. Neither had I, another graduate from a Midwestern college.

Dana worked in the medium-sized Manhattan bookstore. She told me to delouse in the bathtub with a bottle of Mr. Clean, making me sparkle. The next day I walked into the store with her, talked nice with the personnel manager, and became a book clerk. My only aspiration until then had been writing novels, kind of difficult without a steady income and a place to live.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Man Who Owned a Corvette by Sigfredo Iñigo

A government office is impressed by a flashy VIP offering diplomatic assistance in Sigfredo Iñigo's story.

Something about the man exuded street smarts. Red F. Rosiano (not his real name), Ph. D, was about five feet ten inches tall and in his late forties. He looked well-fed and groomed in a short-sleeved barong, the kind worn by security aides to VIPs. There was nothing in his aura that suggested the multi-millionaire he claimed to be.

Well, he didn't exactly tell me he was rich: Juliet, my stenographer, told me that. She came to my office in the city hall that morning burbling about this guy who had six sports cars. She and the rest of the staff had been talking to him for an hour.

"Imagine," she said, "he drives a Corvette, which he claims to be way cooler than a Mercedes."

That got me. Any young man in a Third World country would drool over a Corvette, and I instantly wanted to interview the guy who had everything.

A few weeks earlier, he had convinced the City Council that he could arrange sisterhood ties between our city and other cities abroad through a foundation that he headed. I then understood why Juliet, whose biggest dream was to land a job in the US, was so effusive: "He says city officials could travel on official business to the sister cities - with the staff." After some debate, the honorable members of the council passed the resolution the man with the doctorate in philosophy lobbied for. Also, some fifty thousand pesos was set aside to cover initial expenditures for the program. Now he had come to claim his check.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Punk'd by Jacqueline Doyle

Les Farnsworth needs to record a public statement about a serious issue of human rights, but he can't keep a straight face; by Jacqueline Doyle.

"You've got to say something about it. You're running on a human rights platform." Les's campaign manager handed him the statement and beckoned over the makeup girl and cameraman.

"Not going to happen, Roland. I mean, how are we going to word this?" Les shook his head. "Listen, they're in Russia. It's a girl band. I think it'll blow over and we can ignore it."

"They're demonstrating in London, Paris, and New York. Les. In DC, for Christ's sake. McCartney, Madonna, Sting, they're all making statements."

"Political groups?"

"Political groups too. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the European Union. Even the State Department."

"So how did they word it?"

Roland pulled a newspaper clipping out of his file folder and read out loud: "The United States is concerned about both the verdict and the disproportionate sentences handed down by a Moscow court in the case against the members of the band Pussy Riot and the negative impact on freedom of expression in Russia. We urge Russian authorities to review this case and ensure that the right to freedom of expression is upheld."

"Pussy Riot? They said that?"

"Yeah, they said that."

Friday, December 14, 2012

Five Fatal Diseases by Allen Kopp

Three spirited old ladies visit a friend who has passed on in this light-hearted vignette by Allen Kopp.

Mrs. Pesco and Mrs. Vandenberg arrived together and waited outside until Mrs. Tashman arrived. When they saw Mrs. Tashman's white Cadillac pull onto the parking lot, Mrs. Pesco ground her cigarette underneath the heel of her shoe while Mrs. Vandenberg took off her gloves with a huff of impatience and put them in her purse.

"She's always late," Mrs. Vandenberg said. "She'll be late for her own funeral."

"Yoo-hoo!" Mrs. Tashman called cheerily to them as she got out of her car. "I thought you would have gone in without me."

"We said we'd wait," Mrs. Vandenberg said grimly.

"Don't you have a clock at your house?" Mrs. Pesco asked.

"Don't ask!" Mrs. Tashman said as she came toward them, wobbling on her high heels. "I had to wait for the plumber to arrive to let him in and just as I was leaving I got a telephone call."

"You need to tell everybody to go to hell when you know you have people waiting for you," Mrs. Pesco said.

"I know you would tell them to go to hell, dear," Mrs. Tashman said, "but I don't treat people that way."

"Well, we're here now so let's get this over with," Mrs. Vandenberg said.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Samuel and the Body by Chris Ashby

Samuel tries to overcome depression and loneliness by buying a sex doll in Chris Ashby's dark satire.

It was a dark moment in Samuel's year when he decided to buy the doll. All thoughts had directed him toward suicide, so this resolution was intended to stem the flow of these thoughts. That he was only window shopping on their website he was convinced of, until the moment he clicked "order" and switched off the computer to prevent a cancellation. It sunk in; he had purchased a plastic doll to have sex with. It would arrive within seven days. Immediately he worried about the form it would take when packaged - surely a life-size, seventy pound lump of silicone in the shape of a human would be difficult to disguise. Would the guy delivering it be an employee of the doll company, or some innocent postman with a wife and kids who'd think of Samuel as a sick pervert? Would he have to greet this postman at the door? He'd have to open the door, for sure, to let the life-size, seventy pound lump into his apartment. What if he couldn't do that; what if he backed out at the last minute? Would the postman just leave the carcass on his doorstep for the neighbours to look upon? Could he conceivably deny knowledge of its existence or purpose, or what it was doing on his doorstep? Seven days.

And yet the overwhelming desire for physical intimacy with an attractive woman, indeed, the thought of this intimacy in simulated form, steeled his resolution. The doll cost four thousand pounds and was the subject of glowing reviews across the Internet; apparently, it felt like an attractive woman and, for those unacquainted with the blissful experience in reality, was indistinguishable. Samuel felt a stirring in his nether regions at the thought of entering the doll and persuading himself of its reality. When he'd set eyes upon a catalogue photograph it had taken him three glances to realise that he was looking at a synthetic human rather than the genuine article; but after a while the plastic became more and more visible, even obtrusive. But, how was he to presume that real women did not feel like plastic? Or even that plastic wasn't superior in feel or potential for pleasure?

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Making Headway by Lucy Tutt

Sally from the Projects Office is rather nervous about a presentation she was supposed to have started delivering two minute ago, in this comedy by Lucy Tutt.

It wasn't that I had planned it this way; just that it happened so quickly that I hardly had time to plan at all. The stationery cupboard is a lot smaller and darker than I had realised and five minutes has felt more like thirty. I've changed my position three times already and my legs are seizing up. But that isn't the main problem.

It's 11.32 a.m. Two minutes ago, I was supposed to have arrived in room B11, on the first floor, opposite the cafeteria. In that room, over twenty-five people are waiting for me. No doubt they'll still be finishing off their slightly over-brewed tea which would have been Linda's offering via the three-year-old urn. The coffee wouldn't be much better either since we were banned from buying the branded granules so Anna in Project Support reluctantly places a monthly order for a supply of the most bitter-tasting instant coffee that a limited office budget can buy.

So what am I doing hiding in a stationery cupboard at work?

Margaret in Learning and Development is mainly to blame. I'd bumped into her last month when I was feeling like I was bottom of the pile; as if my position in the company was the last text box on the organisational chart. I desperately wanted to squeeze my way to some sort of recognition. I was vulnerable and taken in by her stupid encouraging words. "Sally, why don't you offer to deliver the stakeholder involvement presentation next month?" she said. "Brilliant!" was my reply. What was I thinking? Now look at me, as soon as I made some headway in getting that recognition I believed I craved, I was sliding my way back down to the bottom of the hierarchical PowerPoint chart and into a very well-stocked stationery cupboard - hoping this whole sorry presentation affair would go away.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Old Man and the Dead Thing By Natalie Thake

George finds the corpse of an unidentifiable animal in his parsnip patch, in Natalie Thake's light-hearted horror.

George Fletcher leaned against his rickety shed and surveyed his crop of parsnips in fury. Though his eyesight was clouded by cataracts, he'd instantaneously recognised that a disturbance had taken place.

"Bloody kids," he muttered, his breath condensing in the cold spring air. Since the wind played havoc with the attempts of his brittle fingers to roll cigarettes out in the open, he'd constructed a half a dozen of them prior to leaving the house. Now he retrieved one from his tobacco tin and lit it with his old Zippo.

Seething at the perceived scene of devastation at the centre of this miniscule scrap of land, he thought to himself, maybe it was that git in the next patch? He'd seen the way this recent patron of the allotments had been eyeing his prize parsnips. George would not have put it past the novice to jealously trample through them in an act of vandalism.

Drawing on the tight, filterless cigarette - his tenth that day, though it was early - he looked around for signs of tracks that might give him some clue as to which direction the trespasser had retreated. It had been raining a great deal these past few weeks, and so it would have been impossible not to have left some indentation in the soft earth. George reckoned he'd be able to distinguish between the lengthy Wellington prints of his neighbour and the small, overly embellished soles of the ludicrously expensive trainers bestowed on ruffians by their indulgent parents. As he circled his designated patch, however, George saw no sign that an invading presence had passed through. The disturbance seemed to be in the centre of the parsnip bed, and so he stepped gingerly through the uninjured stalks to ascertain how much of his haul was beyond saving. Joyce, his wife of sixty years, was an excellent cook, and he didn't want to miss out on too many portions of her delectable honey-glazed parsnips if it could possibly be helped.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Lantern Guard by Jeff Pfaller

After thirty years of peaceful rule, King Imes disarms his Lantern Guard, leaving Arbalest with an uncertain future; by Jeff Pfaller.

The sword glowed, too late for Arbalest to snatch it back from the fire. The blade he'd sweat and bled and lived with, as much a part of his arm as flesh and bone.

Twenty-two years with this blade, and it hadn't failed him once.

And now all he could do was watch it burn.

Seven score of his weapon's brethren throbbed in the flames, burnishing the faces of seven score warriors in copper. Training dictated they show no emotion. Training compelled them to await the next order from King Imes, standing atop a pedestal. When they erect this King's statue, it will stand just so. A perfect copy of this moment.

The only armed men remaining in the square were the king's personal honor guard. The army's rank and file, mailed shoulders scraping as they shifted on their feet, had formed up without their weapons. They had filed in after King Imes ordered every member of his elite Lantern Guard lay down their weapons for inspection.

At the time, it didn't feel wrong to obey. A Lantern's sole purpose was to serve his King.

Even if that meant laying down his life.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Business of Consequence by Ben Woestenburg

Ben Woestenburg's touching story about the rise and fall of two criminals in 1920s New York will transport you to the golden age of gangsterism.

A servant's too often a negligent elf;
If it's business of consequence, do it yourself!

Revd. R.H. Barham 1788-1845

NEW YORK

1910

"Yer not gonna welch out on us, are ya?" I said, trying my best to intimidate the geezer. I didn't feel very threatening, even though I'm a big fella; but I could see that the geezer looking up at me wasn't scared like the others we shook down earlier.

It made me want to hit him again.

So I did.

"Jee-sus Christ, Mel, how many times I gotta tell you? Are you simple, or what?" Jimmy yelled, throwing a rolled up wad of paper at me.

He was sitting on one of the restaurant's tables, swinging his leg back and forth like as if he was one of those clocks you see on a piano - back-and-forth, back-and-forth - like maybe keeping time with some tune in his head only he could hear.

"If I tol' you once, I tol' you a hundred times, it's not welch - it's welsh. You got it? Welsh? 'Yer not gonna welsh out on us, are ya?' Like that. It's American. You're saying it like the way they say it in Canada," he added, and I wondered how he knew what they said in Canada. He's never been out of New York, let alone the Points.